Undiscovered Country

Undiscovered Country

Outside the Carnegie Institute of Bionic Research I crush a leaf from a grapevine twining up unbidden between stalks of hydrangea. The leaf is red and shiny, it is May, and everything is growing too fast. The pads in my fingertips, little gray whorls of silicon, register the molecules, and my brain translates this into a sour grassiness, neither toxic nor possessing any known medicinal value. A thorny weed twines around a silver maple and I am drawn to it like a moth to light. I press my right thumb into a thorn, feel a stab shoot up my arm and watch as a drop of blood wells. I try the same thing on the left, press a thorn into the pad deeper and deeper. The thorn registers with a bitter tang, but I am disappointed; all I want is to feel.

Rain begins to fall in soft, fat drops and I turn Hank palm up to catch the water. Hank is what I’ve named my arm. I named it after my brother, Henry, who we never called Hank, not once in his life.

A raindrop lands squarely on the tip of my finger. The water soaks through the membrane, and I am surprised to learn there are all kinds of toxic shit in that drop. Well, not really surprised, given the state of things, but I am surprised by a trace organic signature. Not enough to pin down, but definitely there. A virus, probably.

A few weeks after Henry was diagnosed, this was a year ago, he showed me an article he’d found on the internet about rain clouds filled with viruses, viruses from asteroids and comets and even deeper in space, and the article said these viruses were raining down on us all the time, possibly even seeding life on Earth. Henry’s eyes got bright and he said, “Maybe the cure for cancer is in raindrops!”

“Or weed,” I said. “We’ll be rich.”

“Say cannabis,” Henry reminded me, “we’re in business now.”

We were both in denial back then.

David expects me back in Baltimore today. He called this morning, told me all the plants had budded and I’d better get my ass back and start working on selection. He didn’t want to hear anything about Hank, even though he paid for all the upgrades. “I don’t give a fuck if you’ve got a superpower bionic arm, if you fail to perform the one task I’m paying you to do. If these things bolt I’m out a million dollars, you shitty little bitch.”

He does not call my arm by its name or acknowledge that Hank is named after my brother. David and I went to school together, ever since fifth grade when his dad won a seat in Congress and his family moved to my hometown in the DC suburbs. But David was always Henry’s friend, and it pisses me off how he stays focused on business and my poor timing with respect to bionic enhancements instead of honoring Henry’s memory. Who’s the real shitty bitch, I think, and go to the Andy Warhol Museum before hitting the road.

In the 1970s Warhol started saving everything he touched. At the end of each day it all went into a box: food, clothing, letters, magazines, toys, tickets–whatever crossed his desk. When he died there were over six hundred boxes, and every month or so the museum opens another one and puts the contents on display in a special room. The museum has recently opened a new one, probably around the time I was getting Hank tattooed up at Carnegie Mellon.

There is a wig–not one of Warhol’s–that has become a mat of brown curls grown brittle with age. There is a photograph of a penis, seven faded raffle tickets, a coaster for St. Pauli Girl beer, a typed letter from California, and a slice of pepperoni pizza. An article cut from a magazine has tiny purple teardrops drawn in the margins. Did Warhol draw these? I begin reading the article and realize they are not tears but baby octopuses, possibly embryonic octopuses. A scientific article, it presents the theory that octopodes (it uses the archaic plural form) came from outer space millions of years ago. In the upper right-hand corner of the page floats a tiny, purple flying saucer.

The drive from Pittsburgh to Baltimore is four hours and I practice my grip at 10 and 2 on the wheel. Hank is a very good driver, very deft. I haven’t decided if Hank is part of me, or part of my brother, or neither of these things. I’m still figuring it out. The world outside is wet and green and drenched in honeysuckle. There is a tree along the margins, some scrap tree that no one ever plants in their garden, and it is in bloom. This is the most heavenly flower I know: those long throats, those sticky purple flutes, that candy apple scent. I want to pull over and crush one between my fingers, see if this flower will yield a cure for depression or schizophrenia or AIDS, but I know it won’t; cures for cancer and other tragedies don’t grow on trees, and I’d rather entertain myself with the memory of how Henry would weave the purple flowers onto a vine of honeysuckle, place the crown on my head and say, “You’re a princess now, Sarah. A summer princess.”

He was that kind of brother, the sort who would do that kind of thing; weave a crown of flowers for his sister.

When he died he was in a hospital bed at Johns Hopkins. He was bald and emaciated the way people get, but what no one ever said was how the veins in the body would grow and change, super-charged with the mission of carrying blood to tumors. A blue delta of blood vessels built to feed a necrotic liver coursed across my brother’s abdomen. I stared at those veins, hating them, marveling, and Henry said, “I love you, I love you.” His last words to me.

I woke up in a chair and Mom was crying, Dad was holding her hand and all the machines were quiet. They hadn’t woken me. They let me sleep while Henry died and I ran out of the room and overturned every cart I found. I ran down one hall after another, slamming through double doors screaming my head off and no one could stop me. I ran outside and started breaking storefronts–CVS, Mama Mia’s, 7-11.  I ended up in front of a Starbucks, pounding on the window with both fists, waiting for it to break. On the other side a man raised his hands and pressed them to the glass. His face was expressionless and calm, so compassionate, as if he had known my pain his entire life.

In time maybe this would have worked. I might have calmed down or I might have broke through and fallen into his arms, but I had been raging in public for several minutes now, and there were sirens and people watching and they say the cop called to me, told me to stop what I was doing, lie down on the ground, but I don’t remember that. What I remember is someone grabbed me from behind and spun me around. He held my forearm and twisted it behind my back. The pain was so intense, so exactly what I wanted in the hour after my brother’s death, that I wanted to thank the cop who did it. He was a big guy, and when I turned to look at him it was like looking up at a giant. I had a thank you already on my lips when I saw his eyes go from horror to hate and he shouted at the people around us, “Put your goddamn phones away unless you want to go for a ride!”

I guess he really was a giant, the kind that doesn’t know his own strength, because he tore every tendon in my shoulder, yanked the head of the humerus from its socket like a little tree torn up by its roots. The police offered me a bionic arm in exchange for a no-fault filing, and they were quick to do it, like this was the sort of deal they made all the time. David was in a state because we had just planted out first crop, 1200 genetic individuals. The pheno-hunt was thirty days away, and here I was with my arm torn off getting sent up to Carnegie Melon and Henry was dead. I talked him down, told him about the sensors I could get, if he was willing to pay for the upgrades, how our pheno-hunt would be a miracle of precision. By the end of summer, I told him, we’d be growing the best weed–cannabis–on the East Coast.

There were a few weeks before I could be admitted. My stump needed to stop bleeding and the bionics team needed to build my arm to spec. We made a time capsule of sorts for Henry–not one meant to last, but one meant to go with him. We wrapped things in a muslin cloth and planted them with his ashes under a tulip poplar seedling. Dad put in an old Meat Puppets shirt. It was faded and full of holes, it had been his when he was in college, and when Henry was twelve and discovered music he stole it. Dad loved his Meat Puppets shirt, but he loved it more when his ‘tweener son took it from him. Before putting it in the ground Dad wore it around his neck all day and it smelled like both of them when he finally let it go.

Mom put in a bereavement card–Jesus on one side, Henry’s high school picture on the other. The sight of his mullet and his smile was hard to take at first, but I’ve got a fistful of these bereavement cards, like baseball cards but all the same, and I look at Henry’s picture all the time now, and while it isn’t exactly healing, the experience is getting closer to that every day.

I put two things in Henry’s capsule. One was his favorite pipe, given to him by a man in North Carolina that looked like Willie Nelson. The other was my left index finger. Dad fought me about it, like his sweaty tee-shirt was a cleaner way to grieve, but Mom took my finger and wrapped it in cloth and hummed some Catholic hymn I never learned. We planted the poplar in parents’ backyard, right where the lawn meets the woods.


It is early evening when I pull up to the greenhouse. There is a certain way the light is when it has been raining for days in late May and then at last the clouds break. They are still there, the clouds, the air is still damp, but this light is soft, soft, and it is on my private list of precious things. Tyrell is in the booth beside the gate and he grins when I pull up, Hank hanging out the window looking cool as fuck.

“Nice sleeve, man,” he says. Tyrell is dressed all in black and his sleeve—greeny-black and barely darker than his skin–is a collage of Maori design. Weirdly the curved blades of his tattoo seem to pick up where the gun leaves off, as if his arm is an extension of the gun rather than the other way around.

“How’s things?” I say.

Tyrell knows weed, I trust his judgment, and if he weren’t so happy with his hours in the security booth, hours he spends studying for the GRE, I’d bring him over to the grow room, get his input on the pheno-hunt. Hank will be doing most of the work, but with over a thousand plants I’ll need to narrow it down to under a hundred before I put the hand to work. Tyrell could weed out the weaker plants with his eyes closed, but one look at my warped image in his Ray Bans and I know he wants to be thinking about math or biology or something serious, not David Marriot’s plan to get rich quick with THC.

“Buds are tight,” he says. He nods toward Hank. “You using that thing?”

“That’s why I got it.” I flip Hank over, stretch my fingers and show him my palm. The skin grows taught, shimmers, and the data from the crushed grape leaf appears.

Tyrell slides his fingers along my forearm and I almost feel his touch. “Police never would have given me no arm if I had done what you did.”

His fingers are at the base of my palm and I wrap my hand around his. “I know,” I tell him.

Tyrell leans forward and opens my fingers to read my palm. I notice the book in his lap is human anatomy; he is reading up on female reproduction. Blooming on the page is the strange flower of womanhood: the womb, the fallopian tubes, those intergalactic pods that are the ovaries. The genitals float on the page like a sea creature, reminding me of the purple rain of octapodes I’d read about hours ago in the museum.

“I’ll leave you to your book,” I say. “I don’t want to waste the light.” This isn’t entirely true; I won’t start culling this evening. But I do want to be alone in the grow room for a few hours. Henry really wanted to see this project through, but he didn’t make it, so I will be looking at it for him.

Inside, the plants are taller than me, bending under the weight of their buds. My boots echo on the concrete, sound carrying twenty feet to the greenhouse ceiling and bouncing there in the hazy light. The sky changes behind the glass, clouds pulling in, as if stitching up the seam that only recently tore open. Hank touches a red, hairy bud, big as maize, and I roll it gently between thumb and forefinger until a tingle tells me an adequate sample has been drawn. It will be a minute before Hank finishes reading the plant, and I close my eyes and fantasize–what if this is the one? What if this is the plant, the exact chemical signature, that could have saved Henry, could save a person like Henry? Acres of weed surround me, all these potential miracles, like sand in an hourglass, and I am god here, determined to pick one, just one, to seed what comes next.

The read comes through, and while this plant is loaded with THC, there is no miracle here, no cure for cancer or anxiety, no answer to global warming or nuclear proliferation or genocide. Above me, a soft patter strikes the glass–raindrops. Soft and hesitant, they spread across the panes like single cell organisms, and I wonder if this rain is filled with life, if any of the microbes floating there would know what to do with my agony. Even if Hank could touch every raindrop, every grain of sand on the beach and read the secret history of the universe there, it wouldn’t change the past.


About the Author

Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins MA Writing Program. Her work has appeared in JMWW, Phoebe, the Bellevue Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere.  Her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Association short fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. She is currently hard at work on a looming science fiction project, among other things. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches middle school math and pursues her interests. Links to several of her short stories can be found at her website: https://jenniferlee.ink/index.html

Photo, "honeysuckle," by Charles Haynes on Flickr. No changes made to photo.