Tara Isabella Burton reminds us that every unhappy family is uniquely unhappy–though some people may find some resonance with this mother and daughter in an alternate Rome.
Long before my mother destroyed the world, her experiments were quieter, more contained. They did not obliterate continents. They did not rack up the dead.
She began as a domestic researcher in the household of an Umbrian merchant, engineering fish with mirrored scales. She told me how he loved to see his own face reflected, one and then a thousand and then another hundred times; how he filled the fountains with so many that there was no room to breathe or swim; how she woke up one morning to find that they had devoured one another, and left the fountains overflowing with blood.
He did not recognize her genius. For him she was only a carnival magician: a maker of flower stems that shattered like glass, and three-headed dogs, and the many-faced prisms that years later gave me nightmares of mirrors that did not end. Women’s work, he said. Not science.
So she moved on. She spent five years in Friuli, making nuclear lamps that waxed and waned with the moon, and another three in Milan, where she throttled sunflowers until they bore fruit. She sold the formula to a senator’s wife, and in six months’ time the whole Republic stank of them: of that peculiar mixture of honey and raw meat that I associate with her even now.
“All idiots,” she told me once. “They’d have slurped slop from a trough if they thought I’d invented it.”
She worked for provincial governors, for senators; she sold drugs to generals that lured soldiers into the fata morganas of the sands; she provided one of Caesar’s chief ministers with a device that would allow him to press his ear against a cube made of glass, and through it listen to his enemies’ dreams.
“They didn’t understand,” she used to tell me as she tightened the bolts in my shoulder. “They patted me on the head, slipped me some money. They thanked me and went on their way—and didn’t even think to tell Caesar what I’d done. But I showed them, didn’t I?”
In me she found an outlet for her genius. Into me she’d poured all her knowledge, molten with need; she had taken cells from her ribs and fiddled with them under a microscope; five months later, gelatinous and gasping for breath, I was. It made the papers—I was the first parthenogenesis, the daughter without a father, the flesh of my mother’s flesh. I was proof of her greatness.
From the beginning, I was taller than she was.
For the first six months there were papal picketers outside our laboratory, demanding that I be drowned, and old women in the marketplace swore that when my mother passed them by, they developed boils on the soles of their feet.
“Of course, they all wanted to know how I’d done it,” my mother said to me. “But I never told them. You’re mine—and only mine. Nobody else knows how to make you.” She used to cradle me against her breasts; it calmed me long enough for her to clean the copper at my wrist.
Within three months she had been offered a state position in one of Caesar’s laboratories on the outskirts of the city.
“It took us five years,” she said. “But he noticed me at last. You see what you’ve done?” She kissed me on the forehead. “You are my greatness. And I love you for it.”
So she loved me. On Saturdays she took me to the Hippodrome; she sat in the umbrella shade and watched me as I chased eagles and got mud on my shoelaces. Her suit was blue and her hair was long and light behind her, and when her gaze enveloped me, I knew there was no other woman in the world.
My eyes were her eyes. My lips were her lips and my shoulders, too, were hers, and so the world was geometrically composed, and everything I ever was or would become was threaded in me already, and manifest in her.