It was a noble, notable facility, lined with gleaming lobby cases full of accolades. Nearly every month the janitor had to pry open the glass doors to place another trophy or golden plaque on the shelves. The Men and Women of Science within were changing the trajectory of life itself, altering genetic codes, influencing the changing of the tides, bringing back species from the brink of extinction.
And then there was the ashen-hair scientist, hidden away in her mere closet of a lab, tucked back at the end of a hallway on the fourth floor next to a broken vending machine that used to serve burnt coffee. Much like the other talents shooting through those glass halls, our scholar was also inflamed with the heady pleasures of scientific passion and potential. However, she, uniquely, was not swayed by medical breakthroughs or flashy new methods of production or industry. She simply loved dirt.
Of course, the scientist had done her due diligence. She had written volumes of analysis and observations. She had added the appropriate initials to her name, attended stultifying lectures on the chemical influence of terroir on wine production and participated in heated debates about the molecular integrity of silt. While her colleagues may have suspected something slightly odd regarding the intensity of her love, she still managed to control it when others were near. She put on her Scientist coat and her Scientist face and spoke in her most Scientist voice.
She could not let them know the extent to which her life’s work was fueled by fantasy – a fantasy so real to her that one naturally questions the line between it and reality. That brought with it a haze of grey unknown, had no belonging in that world of science and of numbers, and yet, and yet, and yet. And yet there she was every morning, looking up at her specimens, heart pounding with choice and possibility.
As the scientist held a fistful of peaty loam to her face, she could feel the salted air tickle her lungs with each breath, the distant smells of smoke and stone seeping into the room. When she drew away her fingers, she would swear she could see the faint rusted stain of blood spilled upon that handful of land by generations of clansmen, of mothers laboring in birth, of defeated armies and of the slaughtered horses that had carried them. The old earth had absorbed those stories, even as it was cultivated, divided, and spread over centuries until only this crumbling mound was left. The memory had turned to carbon, bone, and flint. And it was now hers alone.
She had rows of dirt lining the walls of her laboratory, paradoxically tidy in their sealed uniform jars. It was not until she twisted them open, spilling the contents across her examining table that her sanitized reality broke and the worlds within came alive. White clay whispered ancient tales to her of sea monsters trolling the darkest unseen, wet crevasses of the earth. Chestnut brown soil glinted with minerals and the stories of ambitious, merciless men who had died trying to find them.
When the other scientists asked how she could devote her life to something so ordinary as dirt, she brought them to the microscope. Here, a simple dusting of sand was transformed. Once invited into that molecular world, a person could see whole kingdoms of crystalline structures and spiraling shapes. It was elemental, majestic. How could they not see that and know magic? She had been careful though, and calculating. She remembered to limit her speech, hold back her enthusiasm, filter her competing, incompatible realities. Mostly.
In recent years, these well-intentioned filters seem to have worn thin. Perhaps the dirt itself had begun to fuse with her, having escaped that clarified, antiseptic air until it settled in a fine layer of grime on her person, her mind, her being, and her knowing. She found herself slipping.
At a meeting about tilling and irrigation methods, she casually mentioned her long chat with the Cheyenne tribesman, whose arrowheads had been ground down by time until they’d finally revealed themselves to her in a sample of Montana farmland. He spoke to the scientist in a language she hadn’t known she could understand. He told her of a forbidden love for a young herdsman from a neighboring tribe. The boy had eyes the color of burnt corn and would pause his dance to the gods in the sky to look across at the tribesman, scraping at the man’s belly and ribs and thought. The other scientists in the meeting just stared at her, perplexed.
Later, while discussing an upcoming grant opportunity with her supervisor, she couldn’t hold back her tears and desperation as she begged to return to Tuscany. She had spent the previous summer there gathering samples. One little jar had lain bare a saga, the chronicle of a long, historic march by three hundred Roman soldiers. Amongst them, a single woman hid, her chest bound and body hardened by exercise to help sustain her disguise.
That dirt was scented lavender but tasted like iron. The story it told had stopped before it ended and the scientist was longing to trace those ancient steps, drawing samples until one finally told her of the secret soldier’s fate. Her supervisor asked her if she needed a vacation, perhaps some time away from work.
She had even wasted a sample, unable to let go of it at the end of a particularly long week. That dirt sung to her when she let her fingers sink into it. The song was just a simple lullaby from a mother to her child but it was true. The dirt itself was light, almost dust-like, and the scientist couldn’t stop herself from placing it on her tongue, one spoonful at a time, until it was gone. But then the song was gone too, and she cried for it.
Years passed and, while her colleagues’ scientific discoveries got even larger and more ambitious, bypassing philosophy and natural order, the scientist’s world got smaller and smaller. Soon, it was merely what was captured beneath her fingernails, or in the soot brushed against her windowsill. She retreated within her little lab, comforted by her stories.
And so, passing years became passing decades. Space was conquered. Mankind rebranded itself. Science surpassed boundaries and defined new ones. The facility had received ever more accolades, but its once grand façade had faded, unable to keep up with the rapid pace of progress. Finally, with the promise of greater, brighter, glittering new labs and the most cutting-edge technology, the men and women of science packed up their equipment, said good-bye to the building, and moved on.
As the sounds of machines began to roar and vibrate against the walls, still the scientist held on to her jars. From one to the next she went, breaking their seals, running her hands down into the dirt, hearing, listening, feeling, remembering – living everything, except what actually surrounded her.
When iron and steel came crashing through her little lab, leveling it to nothingness, she had one perfect moment of extreme joy. The air around her exploded into white clouds and her lungs filled with so many stories.
Anna Weber is a writer, editor, and art department coordinator currently working in the film and television industry. Originally from Kansas City, MO, she spent years working in Chicago theatre before moving to NYC, where she now resides. Anna received her MA from Northwestern University and BA from Truman State University.