Mr. Little, our teacher, was fond of quotes. “‘Some insects,’” he read to us, “‘are generated spontaneously out of dew falling on leaves. Others grow in decaying mud or dung, some in the flesh of animals.’”
He paused, his gaze moving from desk to desk as if he was trying to make out which of us wanted to laugh and which wanted to say “Amen.”
“That, class, is an observation by the famous Aristotle. He wrote something called The History of Animals and fancied himself a creation expert. We’re about to make a fool of him.”
Nearly sixteen, I thought I knew all about creation foolishness. I had a grandmother who told me how, near Galesville, Illinois, it was possible to discover where the Garden of Eden rose and fell, borders from which everybody’s parents had been banished. “According to Reverend D.O. VanSlyke,” she said. “Can you imagine? He thought God started right there with the Garden. And he was still preaching about it when I was born.”
While Mr. Little rambled on about Aristotle’s mud, I thought about the soft bog behind the lot where a neighbor’s house stood a few doors down, a patch of wetlands that looked like something that would digest me if I tried to walk from one side to the other. I half-expected hands upraised or at least a riot of worms to emerge. Our neighbor’s nervous dog skittered as if she anticipated births. That quagmire, by late winter, always showed an early sign of spring. “That fellow down there,” my father said, “he should keep an eye out to see if that swamp is spreading. And here we are downhill from his place.”
Some nights I half-expected the gurgling of new voices thick with slime. In spite of Mr. Little’s assurances, they would slip under my door, bubble and multiply and rise, like ancestors, toward my ceiling.
Listen, Mr. Little said, here is a recipe people once followed for how to make mice:
“Place sweaty underwear into a barrel and cover carefully with husks of wheat. Wait three weeks. Be patient. It takes time for sweat to penetrate those husks, but one morning, when you investigate, mice will emerge from the wheat.”
He added another flourish of silence. “Remember that class, the mice are only created if the sweat is intimate.”
Becky Flynn was my lab partner. Earlier in the year we’d stared through a microscope at paramecium and scrapings from the inside of our mouths. We’d examined worms, slicing them lengthwise and pinning back their skin. Her uncle, a fisherman, raised them, she said, creating the proper soil for them to thrive in. “If he knew who Aristotle was,” she said, “he’d believe every word.”
“Sure he would,” I said, eager to agree with her, thankful her last name followed mine in the class roster because I thought she was the prettiest girl in the room.
That February, an extended thaw teemed the south face of my grandmother’s yard with birth. That March, deep snow fell while her body seemed to thicken, making the stairs a site for labored breathing. From the third floor of my grandmother’s house you could see the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio where they met. My grandmother said that Pittsburgh had more chance of being the site for the Garden than any place in Illinois. The triangle where its three rivers converged would remind anybody, she said, of the Bible’s description of Paradise. “Wouldn’t that beat all?” she said. “But nowadays you have to imagine what Paradise would look like down that way because they long since made a hell out of it with all those mills.” She paused as if talking caused her to be out of breath, before she added, “But don’t you forget there’s only one Garden of Eden where God began us from mud and bone.”
To prepare us for the lab experiment that demonstrated the foolishness of believing in spontaneous generation, Mr. Little lectured:
“Through two thousand years, despite close observation and the microscope’s invention, the belief in spontaneous generation stayed firm. There was a menagerie in the soil. The earth was filled with the unborn. And so was dung, and cheese, and bread. The dew itself seethed with miracles, each morning giving birth to insects.”
His manner of speaking still echoes, but I have to look up the long-forgotten names I know he mentioned:
Francesco Redi. John Needham. Spallanzani. Swammerdam. Mr. Little seemed nearly sad when he summed them up. “Unfortunately, all of their experiments included at least one small flaw that kept them from a perfect proof.”
Finally, Mr. Little mentioned the name we all recognized—Pasteur. “You know why he’s remembered?” he said. “He conducted his experiment correctly, that’s why. Now anyone could see what was true. But before you feel too smart, remember that was just one hundred years ago, just one century of truth.”
That week my friend and I made a stew of leftover cafeteria food, bits of bread and fruit, filling a condiment cup and sliding it into the hollow of a spill-stained table leg. This was biology, we said, both of us laughing at our recipe for the spontaneous generation of anything at all. We decided to wait a week for something to be born, able to eat lunch above that brew each day without disturbing the fussy demands of science.
Mr. Little read us one more old-time recipe before we moved to our lab stations:
“Lead a young bull into a carefully-dug pit .When you are sure the depth is suited to his size, kill the bull and fill that hole until only its horns protrude from the ground. Wait a month before opening. A swarm of bees will fly from the corpse.”
“You had to sacrifice something very valuable to generate bees,” Mr. Little said. “That should tell you how important bees must have been to anybody who put stock in the recipe.”
During lab, along the classroom’s smooth black counter, we arranged our flasks like Pasteur, openings straight up or s-curved, some covered, some sealed. We boiled broth and poured. We watched for days until that broth clouded and stunk or stayed clear, refuting the presence of what Mr. Little said people called “life-force” in air. So simple, that test, all of us succeeded, though Ron Eck told me his father was going to demand equal time for talking about how God’s hands had guided our beginnings and Becky Flynn said her father would say we were selling our souls for As.
Below our street, along a seldom-traveled Fall Run Road, there was only one house. One night that spring, after I’d cut through that distant neighbor’s yard to save a few seconds walking home from school after I’d missed the bus because Becky Flynn seemed interested in talking to me, I’d nearly walked through the soft ground where his cesspool drained. What had warned me was the brilliant green of the grass that surrounded where it was buried.
“That’s nothing to mess with,” my father said when I described the landscape at dinner. “You could pick up anything there if you’re not careful.” And though I understood that the “anything” he meant was the invisible of bacteria, the extraordinary shade of green seemed to signal someone like Becky’s uncle would be right to believe the saturated earth was capable of giving birth.
On the seventh day, my friend and I bolted our sandwiches and milk before we raised that table while our small desserts stayed sealed. When I used my shoe to nudge that tiny womb into the light so we could observe the fine hair of mold and whatever else our recipe had grown with darkness, time, and heat, a flurry of fruit flies lifted from that soggy cup as if we’d fathered them with leftovers. They rose and dispersed, sons and daughters disappearing among three hundred third-shift lunch-hour students before we unwrapped our cakes and stood, giddy, hurrying into the hall like missionaries carrying gifts.
At the late-spring sophomore party, I danced with Becky Flynn for the first time. We were dressed the way we imagined ourselves looking if we were in high school in the Roaring 20s. She was a flapper in a dress she said she’d found at a thrift store. I wore my grandfather’s silk vest and watch chain. The music was early 1960s. There was no Charleston to make a fool of me, and I managed a passable Bristol Stomp. Finally, though, the music slowed, and we shuffled to late doo-wop hits like “My True Story” and “Daddy’s Home.”
“I hate biology,” she said during the pause between records, but she stayed pressed against me. “Mr. Little talks like the Bible is a book of fairy tales.”
“Sometimes,” I said, as my favorite slow song “Lover’s Island” began, and I wrapped both arms around her, dancing with her the way couples going steady did.
That summer, finished with Mr. Little and biology, I was called from Sunday school because my grandmother had died suddenly while she dressed for church. There was a flurry of phrases like “crossing over” and “God’s will.” For three days, I listened to my relatives and friends of our family provide variations on the certainty of paradise.
Ron Eck, at the viewing, told me his father was working on compiling a book of begats through every century in the six thousand years since we’d sprung from dust, all of us cousins descended from a pair of parents. He said there were two thousand generations, and his father had a hundred exactly spread across rolls of butcher paper, working his way back to the Bible’s recorded begats, preparing to fit them to that roll call like two ends of a pipe meeting each other after circling the earth. Like how, instead of finishing geometry homework one weekend, I’d calculated Pi to one hundred places on paper taped together for a panorama of diminishing numbers, using up so many hours on proving or disproving the infinite that I had a headache for three days from pounding my head against the mathematics of chance.
The night before my grandmother’s funeral, Becky Flynn, a few months older than I was, had a driver’s license and her father’s car. She flicked the headlights on, then off, sending some signal into the game lands where she’d parked, creating, before I opened her blouse, the evening and the morning of the first day, telling me we were alone as Adam and Eve, reciting the passages about births from clay and rib, God’s recipes so simple, yet perfect, flicking the lights again as if she wanted God’s finger pointing at us as I found her breasts in the dark, secretive as our newly created parents. I was so in love with the knowledge of her body, I said “yes” to whatever she believed about dirt and bones
After the funeral, searching through my grandmother’s house, I could barely hear her voice over the nearby construction, a water line’s network of underground pipes being dug up for repair. Nobody followed me upstairs where I opened drawers and examined the decades-old lingerie and negligees. Where I sat on her bed and imagined her and my grandfather, half a century before, lying down together after returning from a weekend’s honeymoon. And then I told myself that if only the work crew would leave, if only there was no traffic, if only the relatives downstairs would shut up and sit and hold their breath, I might hear her distant voice confirm the location of the extraordinary soil of Eden.
Gary Fincke has published twenty-five books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, including The Proper Words for Sin (stories, 2013), The History of Permanence (poems, 2011), The Canals of Mars (memoir, 2010), and Amp’d: A Father’s Backstage Pass, (2004). Twice awarded Pushcart Prizes, Fincke has also been recognized by both the Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited twelve times in the past fourteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. In 2003, he won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his story collection, Sorry I Worried You. His work has appeared in such publications as Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and Ploughshares. Fincke is currently the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.
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