The metamorphosis of an unusual love
By Edith Pearlman
November 30, 2011
Because Martin Bush was provost as well as professor, the task of introducing visiting speakers fell to him. That is, they fell to him, splat!—literary lions with psoriatic scalps, has-been composers, failed diplomats. They’d appear at his house in the late afternoon, sour and thirsty. Martin would produce only a half bottle of inferior Spanish wine—the college audience resented inebriated lecturers. He would give the guest a pre-dinner snort in an embossed silver cup (one of a priceless pair that had once belonged to Doe), and pour another tot at dinner in his dining room, with the little college’s president and dean and heads of relevant departments all present, all didactically drinking water. After that preliminary meal and the walk to the hall and Martin’s thoughtful introduction and finally the speech, the guest was then free to drench his liver and force-feed his arteries at an abundant reception. And then, back at the house, he could drink Martin’s excellent Scotch until it was time to be helped upstairs to bed and have his shoes gently removed. Many a guest retained a memory of Martin’s forgiving face bending over his own while covering him with down-filled silk, creating an anti-emetic cocoon.
Martin had inherited the house from his mother, and had lived there all his life. For part of that life Dorothy Diderot lived opposite. She was born when he was 21. He was 56 when he saw the last of her.
He thinks of her frequently—fluttery thoughts that land briefly on his eyelids. But tonight he’d been thinking of her continually. The visiting speaker was, for a change, a scholar not on his way down but on his way up. Tall, reddish-haired, articulate. An evolutionary biologist, he was full of information, and he kindled excitement in the audience—academics, students, citizens of the college town; Joe Hughes, the maintenance man who came to all the public lectures; Jeannette Camphor, the cellist who attended most of them; Gulliver Bloom, head of Ancient History, Martin’s own department. The scientist talked mainly about koinophilia. This term, he explained, refers to the general sexual preference for mates without peculiar or deviant features. “Among mammals, insects, and birds, suitors displaying unusual features are avoided, even if this means avoiding also the occasional beneficial mutation. So koinophilia, though not perfect or infallible in distinguishing fit from unfit mates, remains on the average a good Darwinian strategy.”
“But couldn’t that preference lead to loss, not profit?” said Gulliver during the question period. “A whole branch may not exist that might have existed.”
“Dogs with fingers, what he means,” said Joe.
Inventive of Joe, Martin thought.
“You’re absolutely right,” said the speaker. “We’ll never know if some interesting mutation in the animal kingdom is being spurned right now, depriving us eventually of canine needlepoint. That’s the thing about evolutionary science. It gets more and more clever at tracing the past. As for predicting the future, it’s as blind as a bat.” He grinned widely, and the freckles on his face seemed to dance. Freckles usually accompany red hair, Martin knew: partners on the genome.
Jeanette Camphor stood up. Her purple caftan failed to conceal her bulk—emphasized it, perhaps. “Could it be that humans who choose not to marry have overdeveloped koinophilia?” She was unmarried herself.
The visitor thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said.
Brave of Jeanette, Martin thought.
Doe, he thought. Doe. Golden skin, golden hair, bronze eyes glittering as if faceted. Born to an unlikely pair—two squat people working quietly and productively in the leather business, suddenly blessed with a child long after anybody expected them to become parents. “They must have found her under a leaf,” people joked. The Diderots themselves felt like caretakers of a royal infant. Prosperity enabled them to buy the Greek revival across the street from Martin and his mother. His mother objected of course—manufacturers to her were a low species, related to mailmen—but there was nothing she could do; her friend at the bank told her that the Diderots had an excellent credit rating.
And so Martin had the mild pleasure of watching Dorothy Diderot grow into a child with widely spaced eyes, and blond hair of a greenish metallic cast, and very skinny limbs. Her entire body was skinny, for that matter; her shoulder blades stuck out from beneath her T-shirts. She was terrific at calisthenics. She had a small curved nose with deeply incised volutes. When she was concentrating on something, her tongue protruded slightly. Nonetheless, in her iridescent pseudo-frailty, she was beautiful.
By the time Doe was 13, Martin had become her pal. He looked older than his years, probably because of the grooves in his long face and his limp, overcooked hair—it wasn’t gray but could have been taken for gray. The uncultivated Diderots knew enough to appreciate the friendship—it was as if the erudite Martin had attached himself to the family as tutor to their scion. They knew too, with humble acuity, that their daughter, despite her odd attractiveness, despite her financial expectations, was unlikely to marry. She was too inward, too content with her own company or the celibate Martin’s. She ignored children of any age. This courteous bachelor would outlive them, thought Doe’s parents; he’d keep a fond eye on their peculiar child.
Doe, like her peers, if she could be said to have had peers, went to the local high school, where she excelled at everything. “She’ll do something new,” said one of her teachers, enviously. Doe went to Martin’s college, where she then excelled in biology, becoming the object of desire of a number of young men, but returning the affection of none. All this Martin learned during his frequent walks with her, walks that anyone could see were blameless, anyone except his mother, who considered that his spending time with a queer-looking girl half his age and of questionable lineage was blameworthy in the extreme. But he had stopped listening to his mother; listening to Doe was more entertaining. She could discuss books—she liked particularly the heroic adventures of Shackleton and Scott. She could recite poetry, even some French verse; no Latin or Greek, though. She confided to Martin that she was indifferent to sex, that her habit of attracting young men, teasing them, keeping them guessing, and rejecting them at last was merely a hobby, or perhaps a compulsion.
“I should be ashamed,” she unashamedly said.
Should she? Rejected men develop strong characters, he promised her. Many of her contemporaries were getting married. Many went to work instead or also. Women’s Lib was half off the ground, struggling like a just-born lamb. But though ambition had been left out of Doe’s nature, Martin liked to think she had a destiny.
She shrugged those narrow shoulders that seemed to invite protection. “Destiny? You are a romantic. Anyway, I don’t have any future in mind. All I care about is insects … and about you, Martin,” she quickly added, looking up at his kindly colorless eyes. “With my suitors I drop my lashes, and then slowly raise them”—and she demonstrated. “I’m told the gesture is irresistible. I’d never do that trick with you.”
“Well, thanks. Why insects, do you think.”
She didn’t answer for a while. Then she did answer, very fast. “Queens. Tribes. Altruism, but without kindly feelings … ”
“Feelings? Well …”
“… and flight, in some cases. The most rudimentary heart, shaped like a tube. Beautiful faces.”
He was silent. His homely face was still. His heart, shaped like a valentine, was still, too.
“And such short lives,” she wound up, with one of her rare smiles. “Blessedly short.”
After college she found a job at a local lab. There she dissected insects and then described them for an encyclopedia. She told Martin that many of the creatures she worked on seemed to lack evolutionary purpose. They were not crucial parts of a food chain. They were idle predators and lazy pollinators. They were pretty to look at, and that was all—the dragonfly, the Japanese beetle. Still, they had to be studied, for scientific thoroughness.
Butterflies became her specialty, their genitalia her specialty within a specialty. Martin found her reports on her subjects dizzying. For instance:
Male, species unknown, Genus Satyrium. In this specimen the furca is very small, but efficiently holds the aedeagus. The valve curves like a trunk. The aedeagus has only a single sclerotized apical rod in the membrane. An evolutionary process may have robbed it of its other rod. There is an enlarged, rounded sclerotized lobe on each side of the genitalia (projecting from the tegumen). There is no juxta.
After reading several of these descriptions, Martin made a few entries in his notebook:
falx: clasping instrument of the hypophallus
furca: forked process
tegumen: pair of curved bristles
juxta: organ that supports aedeagus
Doe worked, she read. She preserved her strange beauty without apparent effort. She dressed well if severely, purchasing suits from a catalog, suits in all shades of brown. She continued to attract men and then send them packing. They went away disappointed but possibly, as Martin had suggested, improved. Only one expressed anger—a medical student. After a particular evening that struck him as promising, she did not deign to invite him into the house where, already orphaned, she lived alone; merely looked up at him under her lashes with the deceptively inviting expression she had shown to Martin, her blind fingers deftly locating the key ring in her pouch of a bag … when she went through that practiced routine, he raised his elbow and struck her with the back of his much-washed hand. “You’re a fake, Dorothy. Merely a mimic,” he said. “Sedutrix faux,” he said, breaking several rules of Linnaean nomenclature. He stomped down the three rounded steps between the front columns, not noticing that his unexpected blow had knocked her to her knees. In a reverent position she kneeled, listening to his irritated departure.
“He named me,” she reported to Martin with quiet pride.
Through the years Doe retained her fascination with the innards of dead Lepidoptera, but eventually she suggested to Martin that they create, in her spacious back yard, an environment for live ones. He was eager to follow her moods. He was in his 50s now, Doe in her 30s. His mother too was dead. No one cared what they were up to in that back yard. They planted enticing trees and flowers, and their winged guests arrived. At first Martin and Doe left them alone. After a while they examined the insects briefly trapped in their nets. Each became adept at extending a forefinger until a guest landed on the friendly digit. Sometimes even without net or finger they watched a single butterfly feasting on the nectar of a flower and then resting from its indulgence on a leaf. They occasionally found a pair in copulation, looking like a chimera, one head above, the other below, four pairs of wings.
When a butterfly was at rest, they examined its head—its compound eyes, its antennae, its proboscis visible during feeding and at other times curled up under the head like a tight blanket. They marveled at the wings’ scales, which were themselves transparent, containing no melanin but providing the creatures’ extraordinary colors simply by refracting light. In some species scales were absent from large areas of the wing, revealing unadorned membranes underneath. Martin was touched by this nakedness. He was touched too by the tiny white eggs, laid near the plant that the emerging larvae would feed on. He felt matter-of-fact about the five instars of the pupa: molt, molt, molt, molt, molt. But he appreciated the knowledge that the final instar would become the silken chrysalis, within which the caterpillar would turn to mush and then liquefy, abandoning its physiology. The chrysalis, filled only with fluid, took no nourishment.
“It fasts,” he remarked.
“It practices autolysis. Self-digestion.”
The chrysalis and its growth became their special interest. They planted a young hackberry tree, favored by final instars. The chrysalises, hanging there, lovingly observed, got bigger than normal. The animals formed within them emerged large too, though they would grow no bigger once freed from their cocoons.
One morning after a lecture on Pliny, Gulliver Bloom took Martin aside. The older man reminded the younger that he hadn’t published recently. “The department’s reputation is enlarged by its members’ scholarship, well you know that. Butterflies are a fine hobby, but …”
“Oh, I’m only helping Doe with her … interest.”
“No, we’re just friends,” said Martin, willfully misinterpreting. He didn’t misinterpret the old man’s directive, though. He wrote a scholarly elegy to two lost manuscripts, Sophocles’s Tereus and Ovid’s Medea. He reflected on the similarity between lost works of art and those never created, the first murdered and the second aborted, both dead and the world the poorer. He wondered in print whether Ovid had indeed burned some of the Metamorphoses, as he had claimed, or had merely failed to write those sections.
Martin’s interest in Ovid reawakened. He selected for his next paper’s topic the poet’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae. He went to Yale for a weekend and discovered in its history of medicine collection that Ovid had omitted a few compounds from the poem’s list of cosmetics and facial treatments—the paste made from roasted ants, and the highly toxic red mercuric sulfide. It made a good footnote.
Both papers were accepted by respected journals. Martin found himself pleased to widen his life with scholarship. But Doe, he noticed, was narrowing her own life. She had left her job at the lab. Her hair was not always clean. She rejected suitors as soon as they appeared, didn’t bother with flirtation. In the garden she and Martin wore identical baggy pants and ragged sweatshirts. She began to look like him and he like her, in the way of long-married couples. They were attuned to each other physically—rose at the same time, retired at the same time, needed to use the bathroom at the same time, one politely waiting for the other.
He was happier than he had ever been.
She was waiting for something. She had discarded the cool self she’d always presented to the world. Now—a last instar, as it were—she seemed reduced to the essential Doe.
“You’ve changed,” he ventured.
She shook her slightly thickened neck. “I’m what I always was.” He took her hand. She allowed her shuddering fingers to lie in his palm. Their tips felt like soft brushes.
He too was waiting for something. It was as if he had spent the past 30 years—a human generation—preparing himself. He grew happier still. But she withdrew her hand.
Not yet, then.
Sometimes he took her out to dinner. She dressed up for the event, always in the same short white dress left over from her semi-seduction days. It was a column of horizontal ruffles. Neither of them ate much. They walked home under oak trees made lacy by an infestation of skeletonizers.
One night he woke up sharply at three, and sensed that she too was awake—their nervous systems were entwined, he marveled: they were like Ovid’s loving snakes Cadmus and Harmonia. Through Doe’s brightly lit bedroom window he saw her putting on the white dress. She lifted a knee and slipped a pump onto a foot, then the other knee and the other foot. She picked up a weapon—no, a flashlight.
Soon she appeared in the garden, a gray form against other gray forms, but his eyesight was still excellent. Still wearing pajamas, he left his house and crossed the street and, at a distance, padded soundlessly after her.
Without using the flashlight she found her sure way to the hackberry tree. She laid the flashlight on the earth. She pulled her dress up to the middle of her thighs and squatted. A trusting sac, their biggest, almost ready to disgorge its contents, hung from the underside of a leaf. She turned on her flashlight and pointed the beam at the cocoon. It darkened and shuddered. It would think its time had come. Its time was due anyway, Martin knew; Doe was merely hastening the process of birth. She was anticipating the helpful sun. The green case now became shiny. Martin moved closer. Over Doe’s shoulder he discerned the features of the butterfly through the pupal shell: spots on the wings, antennae, great round eyes about to look on the wonders of the world. And then, at last, the case burst and out sprang long folded legs like carpenters’ rulers. Then the antennae. The necessary proboscis. All fathered forth. The wings, the wings—those wings would never fly! They were crumpled and wet and tiny. They were like the damp lingerie draped on his mother’s bathroom rack so long ago. The insect clung to the now gray and empty case drooping on the leaf. Its wings waved gently, waved vigorously, they sucked fluid from its swollen abdomen into their veins. They expanded.
The butterfly stretched its tongue and curled it between its furry palpi. A sizable drop of red liquid emerged from the tip of its abdomen—wastes collected during the pupal period. As if that evacuation were a signal, Doe stood, bowing.
Young Martin stirred in old Martin. He too had a falx, a vesica, an aedeagus. He too could probably relieve himself in her presence … The butterfly, with the same languid motions it had displayed during its birth, stretched and lengthened and lengthened again, ignoring developmental protocol. At the same time Doe, folding her arms on her chest, bent double as if with cramps. Her shoulder blades, always prominent, enlarged as she diminished. These blades distorted the segmented dress, stretched it, burst out of it at last: elementary wings. Elementary—but he saw even in the half-light that they were patterned in bright colors. He saw too that she had bypassed the chrysalis stage, like a woman turning down an unflattering cape. She was creating a new ontogeny. She stood up now, and raised her face to her companion’s. He stretched once more, and then he clasped her. Up, up they soared on their four pairs of wings. One of Doe’s reduced but still human calves kicked joyfully backward. Its pump fell off. Martin bent to pick it up and stood again. The pair had vanished … to endure a pitiably brief honeymoon, he supposed; to found a dynasty. What power has love over such an imperative? Shoe in hand, he fell face forward onto the ground.
He awoke to find himself still lying there. It had rained. He was drenched. He dragged himself across the butterfly garden and through its gate and across the street and into his own house. He threw Doe’s shoe into his closet and fell onto his bed.
When his daily housekeeper found him the next morning, he was naked and delirious. He had removed his soaking pajamas during the night and was shivering with fever. She called emergency.
He endured double pneumonia for eight days. By the time he left the hospital, leaning on the housekeeper’s arm, Doe’s disappearance, the housekeeper said, had lost its first air of scandal. Her cupboards and closets were undisturbed. There were no appointments in the datebook she had abandoned. There were no signs of foul play. There was a will, leaving Martin those silver cups. The rest of her fortune, except for a legacy to the housekeeper and a Watteau drawing of a coy maiden designated for a Manhattan pathologist, went to the Entomology Department at Harvard, a gift that disappointed Martin’s college and infuriated some hungry cousins who had buzzed around Doe. “They madden me,” she’d told Martin. It was her turn to madden them.
Of course the bank hired a detective, and the lawyer another detective, and the cousins a third. None could produce a trace of her. The police questioned the New York pathologist. He thought he remembered Ms. Diderot: a pretty tease he’d taken to dinner once or twice. The police questioned Martin, the only friend she was known to have. “No, she was not depressed,” he told them. “No, she told me nothing of her plans. She was remarkably independent—she seemed to belong to some future generation. She was the opposite of an atavist—you might call her a preversion.”
“She was a prevert, Professor?”
“No, no, no,” sighed Martin.
All the beneficiaries—Harvard, the housekeeper, the pathologist, Martin himself—had to wait seven years to take possession of their gifts, had to wait until Doe’s disappearance could be declared death by unknown misadventure.
Whatever had happened under the hackberry tree Martin kept to himself. It might have been a delusion marking the onset of pneumonia. And if not a delusion, if an enactment of biology as it was to become—even if that, he was reluctant to mention that he’d been rejected in favor of a bug. His character did not seem strengthened by the experience.
“More Scotch?” said Martin.
Martin filled the guest’s silver cup and refilled his own glass tumbler. “Your talk fascinated everyone. Professors, students, locals. Joe—that fellow who stood. Jeanette Camphor, the large woman … ”
“She looked only at you,” said the guest in a sleepy drawl.
Martin ignored that foolishness. “Mutations that don’t make it—do they leave relics?’
“Oh, yes—fossil castings show strange animals, probably weak and infertile.”
“And inter-generic liaisons?”
“Inter-special, you mean. Only members of the same species can interbreed.”
“Inter-generic was what I meant.”
The fellow yawned. “Can’t happen.”
“I suppose you want to go to bed,” said Martin.
“Let me help you.” But it was the guest who had to support Martin up the stairs and then watch him stagger to his four-poster and fall upon the chenille spread. He buried his face in the pillow, belching liquidly. Leathery books were piled on one night table, the scientist noted. On the other was a woman’s shoe apparently used as a planter, for it held earth, and a few sad violets.
Edith Pearlman is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award and the author of four short-story collections: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How to Fall, and Binocular Vision, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2011. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.