The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 22

Alison Christy 22 March 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

There are people who think that science should be devoted to the correction of disease, and who are skeptical of her work in yeast genetics

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 22

Genetic Underpinnings of Sexual Dimorphism: An Exploratory Analysis

The candle on the table is swimming in its own wax by the time Frank splashes the last of the wine into Anna’s glass and Anna asks Frank about Marina. He tells her that they dated, years before, when he first came to Moscow.

He shrugs, as casual as ever, as though nothing could be that big a deal; a strange counterpoint to Marina’s tears and declaration of love at the Academy of Sciences Café back in Moscow. “It’s a different culture here,” Frank says lightly. “There’s a greater
difference between what’s expected from women and what’s expected from men.”

In biology, Anna tells him, this phenomenon is called sexual dimorphism: as when the male cardinal is bright red and the female is small and brown.

“Exactly,” Frank says. “Russians are very sexually dimorphic. For instance, I bet Sasha held the door for you, and he didn’t let you pay for anything.”

“True,” Anna says. “Although he did let me pay him back for the bribe.” Laughing, she tells him the whole story: the baby-faced officers, her missing passport, her hotel key. “He was very nice about it,” she says.

Frank laughs too. He tells her that Sasha probably took a cut for himself when she paid him back – a payment for protecting her from the militsia. “It’s one thing to steal from an American girl, and another thing to let her pay for her own taxi,” he says. He reaches across the table and pats her hand. “Still think you’re not that naïve?”

“Shut up,” she says, but she laughs too, as the candle on the table finally drowns in its own wax and elides into the air in a thin stream of smoke.

They leave the dim restaurant and walk out into the eerily bright midnight sun, and because it feels like late afternoon they decide to take a short walk through the streets of Tomsk. They are not alone; other couples are out, walking down Lenin Prospect, down the sidewalk by the river Tom.

There are people who think that science should be devoted to the correction of disease, Anna explains, and who are skeptical of her work in yeast genetics. And some people are even more direct, asking her what anyone had done clinically in the last fifty years with the discovery of the system of DNA replication, asking her who benefited at all from all the time and money invested in basic science. Sometimes she agrees with them.

But Anna compares her research to that of the early anatomists: Hippocrates, Galen, Vesalius; the great physicians who spent centuries cutting into human bodies and figuring out where things went. Their knowledge, with the possible exception of a few minor surgeries, didn’t save anyone’s life at the time. But the anatomists kept on searching, disputing each other’s work, despite the putrid smell of unpreserved corpse, despite laws forbidding cadaver dissection, despite religious objections, despite the frustrating tiny variations in each body.

And without this original mapping, this breaking down of the human body, no one could have even started to study the function of each piece and the complex systems of physiology. If you didn’t know the heart was connected to the lungs, how could you deduce that the lungs were responsible for oxygenating the blood that was pumped through the body by the heart? Modern medicine as we know it could not exist without hundreds and hundreds of years of simple, seemingly pointless, exploratory cutting.

So that’s what she does: she explores the world of genetic material. The treatments and cures will follow, far down the road, she thinks, after the basic understanding of the mechanisms of genetic expression – from DNA replication to epigenetics to RNA silencing – has become so understood as to be commonplace and boring, something you learn straight from a textbook and never question.

They stop and sit on a concrete bench, looking out at the weirdly pale sky over the wide river Tom. There are times, Anna says, when she really loves what she does. Every now and then.

It is not a huge coincidence that Frank and Anna are both staying in the Hotel Sibir, conveniently located right on Lenin Prospect. And it makes sense for Anna to stop by his hotel room for a drink before bed. After all, he has promised to help her figure out how to get to Kolpashevo and then on to Krolosk.

Frank apparently went shopping for groceries as soon as he got to Tomsk; a plastic bag on the thin particle-board desk holds bread and beer and chocolate. His guitar is out of its case and propped against the wall, just as it was in his Moscow apartment, and there is even a small stack of books on the floor. He opens a beer for himself and one for Anna and picks up the guitar as he sits down.

It is strange how much the hotel room resembles Frank’s Moscow apartment: the wardrobe in Frank’s hotel room, like the one in Anna’s, is made of the same shiny brown particle-board, and the twin bed is covered with a shiny orange coverlet stitched to fit the corners and would coordinate perfectly with Frank’s curtains. The frosted glass sconces that give the room its yellow light trail their electrical cords down the walls, and the shiny wallpaper is creased and peeling in the same way. It is like the country decided, sometime in the seventies, that they could not build communism without a concentrated effort at national color-coordination, and they bought all of their furniture together in certain shades of brown, green, orange and blue and kept it that way for the next thirty years.

Anna sits on the floor, silently sipping beer from her gold-labeled bottle of Baltika Vosmyorka as Frank tunes his guitar from the chair. She knows from Michael Perch that the Baltika beer has nothing to do with her Baltic homeland: the factory opened in 1990 and the owners named their new pseudo-European brew after the Baltic region they had just lost to independence. Still, it feels like a sign: a bright, yeasty beer named after her homeland, here in the middle of Siberia.

Frank strums lightly and starts to sing:

When the world was white and empty
We huddled in the cold
And the wind blew from the north so cold and raw;
When the ice cracked like a shot
And the pale green leaves unrolled
In the dawning of the morning of the thaw.

And the world is ripe with promise
And the ancient hatreds mend
And the foals can walk on legs as thin as straw
So we open all our windows
Because everyone’s your friend
In the dawning of the morning of the thaw.

And now the sun is shining
On the thin ice on the lake
And young boys race their friends cross the taiga;
And when they reach the lakeside
They'll all strap on their skates
In the dawning of the morning of the thaw.

It is a song about spring, and it makes Anna think of the song she used to play on the kokle: Soon the bees will all be buzzing, new calves trembling in the field. The farmer watches out his window, waiting for the snow to thaw.

The instrument she used to play was beautiful, more beautiful than she realized at the time: that light, wooden wing-shaped box with strings fanning like rays over the delicately patterned sounding board. She held it on her lap back then, carefully silencing strings with her left hand as she strummed chords with her right, and she sang ancient songs, swelling with the sense that opening her mouth to the music would open her soul to her history and to her ancestors.

She didn’t know how young she was back then; how delicate, how easily lost, like the kokle itself. And she has a sudden longing for the kokle she used to play; she wishes she’d found a way to keep it after she stopping attending the Latvian school, and she wonders where it might be and whose hands are playing it now. She watches Frank’s hands moving on the guitar and wants to take it from him and put it on her lap and strum it like a kokle.

“Can you play,” she says, “something like... D minor, E, A minor?”

He does, quickly, but it doesn’t sound right: the rhythm is all wrong. She shakes her head.

Frank pulls the guitar strap off his neck. “Here,” he says. “You do it.”

He sits beside her on the floor and puts the bulky guitar in her arms. He takes her hand and guides her fingers to the rough metal strings on the neck of the guitar: D minor, E, A minor. It is hard for her to press down hard enough and hard for her to switch chords; her fingers seem to be stiffer than his, and they get in the way of each other. Slowly, pausing as she maneuvers her fingers into each chord, she sings:

Tall as a tree is my new cow,
Fat as a mountain.
It gives more milk than the waters of the sea,
More butter than the stars in the sky.

“Very nice,” Frank says. “Here, let me try.” He takes the guitar back from her and sings:

Tall as a tree is my friend Anna,
Fat as a mountain.
She likes to study the genetics of yeast,
And sing lots of Latvian songs.

Anna protests, laughing, that she isn’t tall or fat, but Frank explains that she simply doesn’t understand the narrative voice of the song: the singer is clearly a tiny yeast cell, to whom she would appear enormous – even godlike. He sings:

Oh Anna Forsch, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the yeast, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my scientist to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art.

Anna laughs and reaches out to take the guitar back but Frank playfully holds on to it, pretending he doesn’t want to give it up yet, pulling her toward him, and his motion sends her off balance, and it seems for a moment inevitable that she will collapse into him and their lips will touch, setting off a fission-like chain reaction that will irreversibly change all future events.

But Anna, resistant to the whims of fate and physics, quickly drops the guitar and sits back on her heels, because there are so many reasons not to choose that path: starting with the fact that she doesn’t know if she can trust Frank, and she doesn’t know about his ties to Marina, and she doesn’t know why he has followed her to Tomsk, and she is far away from home, in a dangerous place and she needs to be safe, and think rationally, and not fall into things she would certainly regret later. And he is not her type, anyway, which is something she should remember.

“Here,” Frank says, pushing the guitar back toward her.

But Anna shakes her head, moving away from it. “I should get back to my room,” she says. “It’s late.”

{Continued next week}