Embryology
BARRETT BOWLIN


There was Charles Goodyear, who first stumbled onto the process of vulcanization by dropping sulfur-infused rubber on a hot stove. There was Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin after he left his bacteria plates open to spores while he went on vacation. And then there was Vicki Clive, who made a Gummi Bear dance only after her sister called in late December to tell her that she was a billowing eight weeks’ pregnant. Victoria—‘Vicki’ to her sister, her parents, her longer-term boyfriends—had seen twitches in the bend of the gelatin and the carnauba wax bears in her university lab, but at first there hadn’t been so much life instilled in the candy as there had been the slow kick of neurons between citrus-flavored axons and dendrites. She wanted and waited for their little corn-syrup mouths to speak, and the ones she felt move, even slightly, she froze in the Cell & Molecular Biology department’s ample supply of liquid nitrogen. The ones that were left in the wholesale bags she ate; she needed the sugar late at night. Vicki consumed dozens of contingent little vessels for life, sucked them down to build energy in herself so that she could attempt to make their mouths move on their own, whether it was to sing or scream.

And, ultimately, there was Kevin, the moving and dancing candy bear, but first there was the lab phone to answer.

“It’s already a fetus, you know?” said Elizabeth, her sister, squeaking over the phone and speaking of her own growing experiment.

"Since the start of your ninth week, yes," Vicki told her. "That's the gestation cutoff in humans."

“Mom’s thrilled, of course. It'll be weeks before the next ultrasound, but she’s already purchased us a Diaper Genie.”

Vicki murmured on the other end of the line, below the quiet, shining fluorescents within the university. “That’s the contraption that twists the dirty diapers into a cone," she said.

“And dad’s asked for a copy of the ultrasound photos. Isn’t that sweet?” asked Liz. “Mom has started calling him ‘grandpa’ already.” And Elizabeth would giggle; at 26, she still giggled like she did in the room they once shared.

“Where will you keep it?" Vicki asked. "The Diaper Genie, I mean. Won’t it smell?”

This was where the conversations would usually end, with Vicki in the university lab, in among the NMR spectrometers and PCR banks, and with Elizabeth thinking of the future. Elizabeth’s husband, Hal, would call her from the kitchen to inquire about whether or not she could eat onions while pregnant, or mussels, or linguine with basil. Elizabeth would say her goodbyes, and Vicki would put down the lab phone and make coffee. She would tap the glass of the agar tubes in which little red, green, and orange bears floated in colloid solutions. She would whisper to them while ground beans percolated in the corner, would worry in the meantime if Elizabeth would call again the next day, giddy and breathless and growing.

* * *

Born three years after her sister, little Victoria had burned the family's Persian on top a heated Weber grill the same year Elizabeth was finishing Kindergarten. It was cold outside, she told her parents, and the cat looked chilly and hungry right before the family's dinner of roasted corn and ribs, so she dropped it onto the still-hot metal of the grill once she could pull the patio chair close enough. The burns were bad enough that the family had taken the cat to the vet for euthanasia, and then they buried it in the front yard instead of the back, calling it an accident despite the best of intentions. While her sister read the entire Nancy Drew series between the ages of nine and twelve, Vicki skipped the better portion of first grade for more advanced classes without nap time mats and warm cinnamon rolls served with milk.

She learned about decimal remainders and long division while boys her same age, the ones who pulled at her pigtails, learned about the vast complexities of multiplying single digits. As Elizabeth began to realize the superiority of OB’s bullet-shaped and applicator-less tampons, the budding Vicki was knee-deep in nitrate studies and the verdant soil in which her tomato vines grew with fervor. When Elizabeth left her undergrad days at Boston College with a bachelor's in Sociology and a vicious case of trichomoniasis, her younger sibling was a year ahead of her in Cambridge, finishing her Master’s in Biochemistry, a dual bachelor's in Microbiology and Biochemistry under her belt already, all tassels and medals and summa cum laude.

“The burning and itching is normal,” said Vicki that graduation weekend. “Ask the health center physician for Metronidazole while you’ve still got the cheap insurance.”

“Are you driving home this weekend?” Elizabeth asked. “I’m making Cherries Jubilee.”

“I can’t,” Vicki muttered from a well-funded tower on the edge of campus. “I’ve got an interview in Baltimore.” There was a pause and some shuffling in the background. “Oh, and the discharge from the bacteria you caught is pretty potent. It can eat a hole in cotton underwear,” Vicki offered, thinking of the men who had come to her sister's dorm rooms and apartments over the four years she'd spent at school.

Back in October, when Elizabeth told her sister that she and her husband were trying to conceive, Vicki got drunk that same night on curaçao and purchased the bag of Gummi Bears, less for the purpose of making new life and more for the sugar rush. On the phone the next morning, when Elizabeth mentioned that she felt hungrier and more sexually rambunctious since she had stopped taking OrthoTricyclen, Vicki, still inebriated from the night before, pulled out her thick manuals and her passwords to PubMed to search for information on the totipotency of stem cells. Her mind and heart felt as primed as her sister’s womb.

And on New Year's, after enough time had passed to call it a sure thing, Elizabeth and her husband celebrated a bubbling collection of cells by not sipping champagne but by toasting each other's virility with sparkling white grape juice. Elizabeth called to tell her sister about the white stick with the plus sign she had urinated on that very morning, and Vicki, her teeth beheading another artificially colored animal near the waters of the chilly Charles River, mixed drinks again from the laboratory's hidden collection of almost-empty bottles.

In mid-January, many days and bottles of blue curaçao later, there was the flicker of a head jiggle from GB019, the mylar-bag brother of eighteen stoic, little bears before him. Vicki remembered that she had treated herself to pizza afterwards. She wondered, though, and just for a moment, what kind of alleles the delivery boy had been carrying around in his scrotum, if he would ever consider throwing a frisbee with or hosting a tea party for a Kindergartener to be essential bonding activities, if he would steal the low-thread count sheets from her side of the bed on cold evenings. His name tag read ‘Kevin,’ and Vicki believed the name was noble enough for her own sweet and chewy child, were she to conceive.

"How old was your maternal grandfather when he died?" she'd asked, inviting the grinning junior in to share the sliced sections of his labor—pepperoni, mozzarella, banana peppers—feeling for muscle at the shoulders of his red-and-white checked shirt. "Do you know if he suffered from coronary heart disease?"

* * *

In the cold weeks of that winter, while restocking her supplies of gelatin, paper clips, and soy milk, Vicki encountered Elizabeth's husband at a Whole Foods near Beacon Hill. She found Hal perched next to the deep rows of pureed baby food, the sleeve of his sport coat brushing up against the small glass tubs of pulverized peas & ham.

"Hey, Vic," he ejected, grunting for some reason in his search. "Do you see the carrots here? I can't find the goddamn carrots."

Clutching the bag of candy in her hands, Victoria Clive began to rationalize how her sister could have agreed to marry Hal, could have engaged in heavy petting with him on numerous occasions. Whether he looked like a hominid or not, the man certainly did have sex appeal: a widow's peak that touched his ghost of a sagittal crest, trapezius muscles that gave rise to a mountainous neck, hulking hands that could carry so many sacks of groceries.

They discussed Elizabeth and baby formula in the express line.

"Wait,” Vicki asked. “Why are you buying baby food?"

"Liz wants us to sample them. I had to drive over for a client lunch." He looked down at the bag in her hands. "Do these things have expiration dates?" He held aloft a glass cylinder of whipped beets. One of his great hands cradled a can of soda and a small bag of peanuts; the other splayed out to reveal five servings of Gerber in a variety of colors. Vicki's eyes flitted from the orange glow of the mango puree to the deep purple of the roasted beets.

"Yeah, so like I said, Liz wants to taste them," said Hal, not waiting for Vicki to look back up at him. "She wants to know if we should buy a food processor and make the stuff ourselves." He paused, sniffed at the man in front of them in line.

"I shave my body hair away regularly," he added, spilling this to her as though she were a different, later model of his wife. "I ask the guy at the liquor store now a lot about erotic, non-alcoholic wines. I buy a lot of candles to set the mood, you know? Second trimester?" Vicki watched Hal's eyes slip down from her face to her chest. "I've brought home literature on the Reverse Cowgirl position and how it will affect our kid's reading habits. I spend a lot of time alone in the bathroom.” The cashier began to bag items from Hal's basket. “Do you know she's been talking with your mom about all this?"

"Mom didn't mention anything." She watched Hal slide a credit card out of his wallet. "Really? Reverse Cowgirl?"

"Tell me about it," said Hal, pausing here, looking now directly back into Vicki's pooled eyes. "Did you know they make lubricants that heat up when exposed to skin? You're smart; care to tell me what's the chemistry there?"

*   *   *

The lab freezers were filled with histology samples of so many mice, so many catalogued lots of small white rodents and their chunked-up vascular systems, their tiny hearts, their skin cells and their brains. These were the departmental favorites: the brains and the bits of the nervous system the grad students had been forced to scrape out and save in deep freeze. Slides of frontal cortex cross-sections, intact medullae, stem cells from the top of spinal columns, bits of what looked like either a period from a page of notes or the most miniscule hippocampi: they were all there and could be found in the metal boxes of the oversized fridge.

And so this was where Vicki spent the night after receiving Elizabeth's first phone call, the one where she learned her sister was pregnant. That cold January, she bent over the lip of the freezer and found the cast-offs of her colleagues' research: the bits and pieces of what might be useful later, what shouldn't go to waste after they had spent so long getting the Institutional Review Board to approve the informative deaths of so many mice.

"Never science while you're drunk," she told herself, prepping the tiny patches of smooth muscle cells and bone and brain in between sips from the blue bottle, a bag of Gummi Bears next to her on the desk. "Never, never, never."

Later, Vicki reclaimed her experiment from the incubator and safely concluded that, despite failure, both the packaging center of Jools Confectionary, Inc. and the surface of her own latex-gloved hands were relatively clean. No musculoskeletal systems had grown, no nervous systems, and, simultaneously, there was no mutant, mobile Gummi Bear strolling about her work table.

Research grants were given for conclusions less than this, she told herself, and then that was the end of 'GB001,' the first of many victims. She packed up his sugary body and dropped it into a small tub of formalin, preserving him in her purse and waiting until she could leave for home for a proper burial.

Before then, she read on the bag, was the little candy figurine's obituary: corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, citric acid, yellow 5, blue 1, red 40, carnauba wax, natural and artificial flavors.

Run a spectroscopy on 'natural and artificial flavors, she told herself.

Between the final touches on her thesis, typed up during the day when she was expected to put in face time in front of her colleagues and the rest of the faculty, there were the other failures, the ones that happened sometime in the night when she was there and ready for them. There was the new approach with GB002, who was stabbed with a load of E. coli and was left to float in its own broth. The orangey crash dummy became infested by the end of the first day in its humid environment. There was GB003, as well, a victim of similar circumstances, drowning in a moss of S. aureus. GB004 was split open by the sores the C. botulinum colonies produced on its wee person, as was GB005 by the friendly L. acidophilus beasties.

Vicki failed and then dreamed these nights of hulking quadriceps, of sinewy forearms tufted with hair that held aloft bottles of baby food.

Over a lukewarm cup of tea and bourbon one afternoon, she reasoned on paper that candy originally produced in a hot oven might play a rather nice host to some hefty heat-resistant microbes. GB006 imploded from the spreading force of S. thermophilus; its sugary brother, GB007, was reduced to a greenish gel by its own swarm of bacteria.

The department has asked me about my extraction techniques on the S. thermophilus collections, wrote the scientist. I have concluded that absolutely no one looks at the requisition forms. 

Is Hal circumcised? she penciled.

But Elizabeth would call her sister in these late winter and early spring days, complaining of her vicious need for pickles, watermelon, and funnel cakes.

“It’s called ‘pica’,” Vicki said. “Are you taking those iron supplements your doctor prescribed?”

“They make me constipated,” the booming Elizabeth replied. “I had to take a laxative that made my intestines punch up. I kept farting.” And there was a pause between the loud bursts. Vicki imagined her brother-in-law's pinched face. “I’ve never really enjoyed pork chops, but now I can’t get enough of them,” the mother-to-be relayed. “Remind me: you ate paste in grade school, right?”

While cells cleaved within Elizabeth’s womb, the younger Victoria would drift off at night to thoughts of plasmid replication, of microscopic bacteria dividing and growing exponentially. Entire populations, she imagined, were born and were killed in a single day. She began to wonder if maybe a viral strain would be more effective in making the Gummi Bears dance. She dreamed of electric stimulation, of stem cells and those histology samples she'd stolen when she was alone in the labs each night. She questioned if she should work her way up from Gummi Worms first (simple cell structure, asexual reproduction) before she attempted to understand the mechanics of gelatinous mammals. Vicki began on these mornings to pat her own tummy while standing in front of the bedroom mirror. At nights, she rubbed herself to sleep with two fingers, rocking her legs above her hips afterward because it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Marbles fall out of my belly button these days,” Elizabeth explained. “I’m not all that poochy or anything, but—”

“Marbles?” Vicki asked. Sleep came every few days this semester.

“We’re thinking of keeping the umbilical cord afterwards,” Elizabeth mumbled. She was chewing something. “Out of sheer curiosity, how do you preserve it?”

Vicki pondered the mysteries of artificial and natural flavors. The Charles flowed outside her window, and snow collected on its bridges.

“Or at least some of the placenta,” Elizabeth concluded. “Vicki?”

* * *

As Vicki watched for the budding of blastocysts in the candy, or what she hoped were blastocysts, she would leave the lab only for cold sushi take-out and to search for gifts for the fetus in her sister’s womb. She sent soft crib blankets and thick washcloths in the mail because the drive up I-93 took more time than she was willing to donate. She boxed and shipped off plush frogs and rabbits that were light like fur in her hands. She called and critiqued suggestions for names.

“I’m not such a fan of Lionel,” she said.

“Frederick?” Elizabeth asked. “Marilyn? Pauline? Dwight?”

These received hems and haws.

“Francis?” proffered her sister. “Francis would work as a boy’s or a girl’s name.”

In her laboratory, when Vicki was not pondering names and possible facial shapes of her niece or nephew, her heart pulsed back and forth as she watched the impossible occur. The broth of a functional organism produced in GB014 made, to Vicki’s delight and horror, a repetition of torso shifts in the agar tube as she sat at her station late at night. The Gummi Bear would bend against the weight of the gel around it. The plump and sugary body would jerk to the left each time it moved, a small locomotion that never got him closer to a view of the lab's third-story window. She sat and watched him like onlookers gaze at natural phenomena: sunrises, storms, Mount Aetna burning.

"Can you see me?" Vicki would whisper long after her colleagues had departed at night. "Do your legs work?"

Can you feel heat and light? she would wonder. So she placed a lamp a foot away from his tube. She splayed her hand under its rays, gauging whether it was too hot or not warm enough. When the sway of the candy in the tube felt mechanical to her, as if they would move on their own, she unfurled onto the couch in the corner of the lab, her head next to the automatic kettle. She slept.

The shifting had stopped by the time she awoke three hours later. Cut short in the suspending gelatin agar, the floating bear would no longer move. Vicki tapped on the glass. With long tweezers, she lifted the confectionary out of his prison onto a sterile plate. She brushed the remnant bits off of his body, but nothing kicked or twisted. Using a magnifying lens under the lamp, she looked to find thin pathways that stemmed from the bear’s belly to its peripheries. Were these colonies? Were these hydraulics? One small black dot was connected to another one more miniature than itself, simple organelles perhaps; both branched around the tiny body to the holes of its eyes, its nubby hands and feet, its pricked ears. And Vicki apologized to the body. She studied it, turned it over in her hand, put its green corpse close to her ear to listen for a heartbeat, however gaunt. She didn’t hear a thing. She breathed—she whispered, “I’m sorry.” With formalin in short supply, she dipped the corpse into a bath of liquid nitrogen, placing the frozen shell into a plastic-lined slide case. She cleared a small and reverent space for her poor victim at the bottom of the lowest shelf in the freezer, sniffled because of the stillness of its body before leaving the lab for the night.

* * *

But little GB019 danced! Little Kevin danced and moved with an even grace. Where his dead forebears exhibited a rough locomotion, if any, all of them stuck in the slow movement of their tubes, Kevin swung in circles and smooth planes. He shook. He tumbled. The curve of a grin carved into his face or not, he smiled always.

Days ago, after the cold suffering of four other little candies, Vicki had watched carefully for signs of struggle in the new tube. Kevin rested at an incline to the left in the agar gel, cocked just slightly. She stared and sought wiggles of an arm or foot. First, then, there was the spasm of the head, the shaking and the innate need for broad movement in the bear's sticky cell. There was repeated movement and results, and this was a cause for celebration.

So Vicki swelled. She rescued the small bear with padded tweezers and cleaned his face with a swab of distilled water on cotton. There was forever the smile.

She called for pizza again after weeks of the delivery boy's absence. She tugged at the first Kevin's deliberate mandible as he grunted on the lab couch, naked from the waist down. Later, she wrote while the other Kevin sat on a soft bed of cellophane. His namesake gone back and down into the traffic of Boston again, the little candy now seemed content to roll around in the clear plastic sheets. Vicki scribbled furiously.

I have named GB019 'Kevin', after the pizza boy, she wrote. Does he respire? If so, how? Is there a GI tract? How does he void? While the sugary bear ramped up and down the clear plastic at her  workstation, Vicki could not help but think of sign language, of Koko the knowledgeable gorilla and the primate's small gray kittens.

It was close to dawn now. Vicki yawned frequently. Taking a small Erlenmeyer flask from the corner of her desk, Vicki filled the beaker with stuffed slips of cellophane. She padded the sheets down, crossed her fingers and hoped the bedstead was soft, dropping Kevin from her careful fingers into the flask below. She left the lid off and carried the little bear in her hands to the lab couch, set her alarm, pulled his glass close to her. She napped while Kevin slept, tired like a puppy from a few hours' worth of life already. She hoped he would dance again when she awoke and would be able to remember how she had animated him.

* * *

But there was the lab phone to answer.

"Hal?" she asked into the receiver.

Cradled in her hands was the flask, Kevin's sticky paws touching the glass wall, still alive and shimmying. The pinpricks of eyes cut into his head by the Jools Confectionary machines beamed up at his creator. He wiggled and, she believed, he loved her. She carried him with her to the chirping telephone in the corner.

"Hello?" she mumbled. Vicki looked at the time and the date, somewhere close to 9 a.m. on a Saturday and counting. There was a sobbing now. Someone cried and hurt painfully on the other end of the line. Was it April yet on campus?

"The baby," Elizabeth blurted. "Its bones."

After a muffled, staccato explanation, Victoria Clive wept with the trembling voice she tried to soothe.

"Oh, babe," she whispered. "It's not your fault." And Kevin shook. He radiated love. "This could have been any number of things." She stretched out her words like gauze, pulled and wrapped them like a bandage. A red dollop of love sambaed in her hands.

"I'm so sorry," she blubbered. And the Gummi Bear waltzed.

"I'm so sorry," she moaned.

On her fingers, she felt the quick weight of gooey footsteps as they touched the glass bottom, busy now in a shuffle of turns and swoops.

In her lap, Kevin moved. Perhaps he felt the need to show off his lack of a skeletal frame and his invisibly functioning muscles to the woman who coaxed them both into production. Perhaps he had energy to burn. There was the Red 40 blood he was thankful for, and the sugar-spun neural connections.

He danced with the slit smile on his face and his ears to the sky.

In her sister's womb, Vicki's niece or nephew rolled as well. Elizabeth's fetus slept and, when it awoke, kicked. Unlike Kevin in his flask, the child had a skeleton, the spine of which, though, as Vicki learned, was not covered by skin. In the blue and gray images of the child on the ultrasound's display she imagined her sister had seen, Vicki began to trace vertebrae that rippled visibly down the tiny child's back, and how, so oddly, it continued this way down the side of its visible left leg. She could see the soft fetal bone that would lay jagged against the side of the nebulous body. Victoria imagined that Elizabeth's physician had touched her arm, murmured words next to her hurt mind like 'surgery' and 'abnormalities.'

In a laboratory close to the cold Atlantic, Victoria Clive rubbed her wet, slick eyes with her fingertips. She touched the plump skin of the sugary little bear on her table, and she looked for signs of spina bifida on her own sweet son.

"It's still inside of me," her sister whimpered into the phone. Vicki let little Kevin march onto the palm of her hand.

"Liz," Vicki cooed. "Liz." She could imagine the contingencies. 'Spina bifida:' the phrase quivered in her thoughts like Kevin on the lines of her hand. Her niece or nephew's malformed skeleton would require extensive surgery. Even if the surgery was possible, there was no guarantee the child would survive past massive infection, or physical or mental retardation, or both. Lifting the sweet and dancing bear to her eyes, Vicki looked for organs and structures in her own child.

Over the Charles River and a telephone line, eyes and muscles and a heart and bones kicked in a suspension of amniotic fluid. Where there was just enough space for a femur and the bowing arcs of a tibia and a fibula, a jagged line of misplaced spinal mountains erupted from the skin. In her labs, Vicki could smell how the citric-acid scent of her child blended with carnauba wax. She believed she could trace the outline of filament bone in the wiggling gelatin.

And in the throbs of the heart that Vicki listened for in her sister's breathing, she heard only a voice.

"What do I do?" she heard. So much hurt in her tone, so much pity and pain together.

In blustery New England, quietly as she could, Victoria Clive licked the writhing back of the Gummi Bear, still moving, still in love with her touch. Her lips kissed the agar-tube child unconditionally, and, across telephone wires, Victoria made every effort to muffle the sound of her teeth.

"You start over, sweetheart," Vicki murmured, still chewing, still moving the bones of her jaw.

"You begin again.”









BARRETT BOWLIN teaches Writing at Ithaca College, where he moonlights as a contributing editor at Memorious: a Journal of New Verse and Fiction. Recently published prose of his can be found in places like The Rumpus, Salt Hill, PANK, Meridian, Camera Obscura, and the Minnesota Review, among others.
The Adirondack Review
WINTER 2014
finalist for the Fulton Prize