by Cathy Haustein
When she got the message, she was surprised. Celeste, a maiden lady, a scientist, who lived with and supported her elderly parents in the midsized town of Cedar Rapids, had forgotten all about the prize, a meeting with Isaac Newton–brought back to life by HiGenTek. Her mother had died that spring and the speed at which the undertaker whisked away the still warm body in a zippered bag woke her to the possibility that she was running out of time.
After the mortician took the body to be cremated her father turned to her and said, “Now that it’s all over I’ll have a hot fudge sundae with cashews. Go fix it for me. I’ve got some laundry piling up as well.” She understood why her mother hadn’t fought death, just commented that it didn’t hurt much and felt kind of creepy. Celeste however, wasn’t her mother. And the thing about your mother dying is this: you’ll never be more alone or more free. She would be free now, come what may.
Following the funeral, her brother Acer took most of the family furniture and the funeral flowers back to Forth Worth, a distance of 869 miles. Trying to find a spark of beauty on an overcast April day, Celeste bought a pot of blue pansies and put them on a yellow tablecloth in the kitchen– the table and three chairs had been left. Her father said, “Those flowers look dry. Could you get me a beer? Can’t you match your clothes better? You look damn homeless.” When you’re a working chemist there are two things you don’t do no matter how tempting: make illegal drugs and poison someone. She’d texted her brother to and come get Dad. He didn’t.
Celeste was the analytical chemistry department head at HiChemTek, a company that made breakfast cereals and pet foods. Because she liked her job, she didn’t poison her father or sedate him beyond annoyance. She moved from the house she’d shared with her parents to an apartment. For a while the morning sun in her own kitchen was enough to tell her she’d made progress. The mirror had different ideas however and in time revealed the enlightenment notion of always moving forward, building on the past, standing on the shoulders of giants, to be flawed. A wyvern, the totem animal of Entropy, had walked all over her. She looked like hell. So much for progress and dreams of children. For solace Celeste turned to what she’d tried to leave behind as foolish, the fine art of alchemy. She called upon Venus by lighting a red candle with the wick pressed down in the wax.
The prize—a day with an alchemist, was a welcome diversion and hinted that life still had unexpected delights to offer. Now here he was—Newton—looking a bit lost around the eyes and resembling Kurt Vonnegut but shorter and plumper with a smaller head. Escorted by Mr. Altotus and accompanied by a film crew consisting of well-coiffed women on teetering heels, he’d come to her laboratory at HiChemTek. Newton was glum, little more than a trick pony in the stables of HiGenTek along with Paracelsus, Miriam sister of Moses, and Gerber. Resurrection hadn’t been cheap and the company marketed the alchemists and exploited them for profit. A scientist might do something out of curiosity but why would a company do anything but make money? HiGenTek wasn’t a person after all. It could expand and progress like something not alive. The family who owned it, the Cochtons, meant to live forever or close to it. Resurrecting the alchemists was just a trial run. Such ambition wasn’t cheap.
To be honest, Celeste had hoped for Gerber, the Arabian who put chemistry in its cradle. They could talk about distillation or sublimation. Or Paracelsus–they could discuss measuring and Primun Ens Melissa—similar extracts were in the pet food and cereals. But the marketers didn’t understand the difference between chemistry and physics and had matched the lottery selected winners with their alchemists according to personality types. It was a publicity stunt for HiUTek, a company perfecting personality analysis tests for employers. The public was eager to see who was as devotedly divine as Miriam, as flamingly fun as Paracelsus, as clever and good with gadgets as Gerber, or as unfriendly and hostile as Newton. At least Celeste knew now why she hadn’t married and had rarely dated since college, when looks mattered more than personality.
A nicely dressed older fellow straight out of 1705, the year he was knighted, Newton stood in her lab looking more like the guy who prosecuted coin clippers than the genius who’d penned Principia. No surprise that he looked fatigued and a bit crazy. He’d been overworked. She’d seen him in advertisements for anything associated with force or gravity, products ranging from cologne to mufflers. The poor man’s eyes drooped and so did his mouth as if he had a neural lesion. His hair still looked good though, lush thick and snowy, and he had that cute dimple on his chin. Celeste handed him a pair of safety glasses. He didn’t take them so she put them on him, her hand brushing the soft thin skin of his face. He smelled like old books. He tilted his head to stare at the ceiling and then the floor.
“Optics,” he said. “How I love to see through a glass. Warm thanks to you from your humble servant, Isaac Newton.” He bowed stiffly and wobbled in a way she found charming. Celeste came up with another way to delight this innocent father of science. She fished some diffraction grating glasses from a drawer of science novelties she kept for student tours.
“Try these,” she said, replacing the safety goggles with this party trick that made white light into rainbows. The film crew tittered as he wagged his head and examined the fluorescents overhead.
“Wondrously lit,” he said as he gazed about and clapped his hands like a child.
Here’s a problem with modern science and the employment of scientists, she thought wonder is expected, demanded, paid for. We’re expected to roll out wonder as if it was a product and to hand it to the marketers to whisk away and make even more magnificent but in a false way. The film crew was giggling as if he was a buffoon.
“You may keep them,” she said. “But they aren’t safe for the lab. Here, change them out for now.” She put them in the pocket of his waistcoat and with her hand so close to the groin of a great man, she felt a surge of new life within.
“That which is above,” she said with the force of an eruption but quietly to him alone.
“Is as that which is below,” he replied to her alone.
The film crew zeroed in on his brightening countenance. Altotus poked her. “Unnecessary display of alchemical secrets. No passwords in front of the common people.” Altotus was a slight man with crooked teeth. He was either old or old before his time. He was correct. They’d exchanged the sacred words of alchemy. Celeste took Isaac’s hand and led him through her laboratory with Altotus scurrying behind.
The tour of the lab cheered Isaac, particularly the monochromator display where light was dispersed through a grating and fell upon a black metal plate in a perfectly separated rainbow. Isaac liked all things spectroscopic, which was fine with Celeste. She’d done phosphorescence in graduate school. He bounced on his buckled shoes as they walked through the halls. Replications of art from the 1800s West covered the walls. The founders of HiChemTek, the Cochtons, saw themselves as cowboys and patriots—the true owners of the land and everything on it and of the secrets their scientists uncovered too.
Shortly after they visited the animal lab, in which Isaac showed great interest, while Celeste was explaining an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) gun, an alarm went off and the building was evacuated. The production crew, Isaac, and Altotus were lost in the chaos. So many people outside the lab drew a crowd and within that crowd would be the pickpockets and identity thieves who made up the lose band of robbers and unemployed craftsmen known as Counter Force. Celeste was sympathetic to the Counter Force and their refusal to buy from, sell to, or work for the Cochtons but who could live without technology in the rural outskirts as they did? They were just asking for their idealistic hearts to be crushed and their children to starve. Crops grew best on rooftops and required fertilizer and filtered water.
Celeste was still holding the XRF gun. Nobody would know it shot x-rays and was meant for metal analysis and not bullets. She swung it about and tried to look dangerous although she was on the small side. Celeste spotted Isaac in the parking lot watching the swirling police lights through his diffraction glasses. She took his arm and led him to her car.
“It’s not safe out here. Too many people.” She unlocked the passenger door.
“A fine chariot.” He bowed.
“Get in. And hurry.”
Isaac’s jacket was bulging and moving. The black face of a hooded rat peeped out of a flapped pocket followed by an albino rat with twitching whiskers.
“Did you steal those?” she said.
“Yes, I’ve sinned.” He pointed to the XRF gun under her arm.
“You pilfered a piece. We’re co-conspirators.”
Celeste put the gun on the dashboard. “Where’s Altotus?”
“He left with one of the ladies, saying I was where I needed to be. He likes the ladies.”
Not sure what to do with Isaac and with emergency vehicles surrounding, she drove to her apartment. No doubt he could tell by her sparse furnishings that she’d moved there in haste.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, putting her lab coat on the back of her chair. She was wearing Capri pants and, like him, a ruffled blouse.
“Yes. Is it teatime?” He was trembling. Could he still have mercury poisoning after all these years? It isn’t as if the element would go anywhere. She put two mugs in the microwave. Celeste wasn’t sure what to say. Surely he would be bored with hero worship.
“Here we are,” she said with a smile, handing him a mug.
“Yes. Kind of a surprise. You’re making it pleasant. I feel more kindly than I did before. As if I finally had a good night’s sleep.”
“How did they do it?” she asked. “Did they just yank you from the grave?”
“Yes. I was peacefully at rest. Preserved in the method of the alchemists. I’d given instructions to my niece, Catherine. She was both dutiful and beautiful. This new time is filled with wonders but I didn’t know that death would bring such rest and that rest would be so pleasant. I was happy not making progress. I expected to be resurrected by other alchemists. Who are these heathens who did this to me?”
“They’re rich. The noble Lords of our day.”
“The rich have been charitable to me, but I found better friends with the Whigs,” he said watching steam rise from the mugs. They stood together at the counter and dipped tea bags in the hot water.
“Water is one of my favorite elements. This steam could be harnessed for energy,” he said.
“Over two hundred years ago. And water isn’t an element. It has two parts, hydrogen and oxygen.”
“You’re teaching me something and opening my heart. Only my dear professor did this for me. The rest just took.”
“How about some pasta?” She put her hand on his to stop the tremors. He still had his cognitive functions. It couldn’t be mercury.
“I don’t know what that is but it sounds enjoyable.”
She retrieved a pack of crackers from the cupboard, put a pot of water on to boil, and they sat across from each other at the cheap table watching the rats eat crackers and drink from a saucer.
“I love learning. It’s all I had,” he said. “I lived for knowledge
“My mother abandoned me as a child. My father was dead and she wed another. I was born misunderstood.”
“You must forgive her. It’s hard to be a woman.”
“Are you a woman? Your love of science and manner of dress and hair confuses me.”
“Yes, of course. Do I resemble a man to you?”
“A bit. Not that it bothers me. I’ve avoided women as I have avoided being shot through the knee with an arrow but I find you affable.”
“The same for you.” His irascibility was legendary but she was seeing none of it. “What happens to you after today?”
“Paraded around like a spectacle, I imagine. Here, Diamond.” The white rat crawled up his arm. “She’s friendly.”
The door rattled and opened. Two police officers with drawn guns approached Celeste.
She held up her wrist and the fat officer scanned it.
“We’re taking you in. You got the cuffs, Barnabus?”
“Don’t take her! I came willingly,” Newton said. “It’s not a kidnapping.”
“Calm down, Hair Boy. It’s not about you. It’s elder abuse,” the thin one said. He looked at Celeste. “Your father was found abandoned and covered in feces. He’s been taken to a facility. Your bank account will be tapped to cover the costs. Once you sign the papers and pay the fine, you’ll be released.”
“Way to tell her, Ace,” said Barnabus. He pointed his gun at Diamond. “Is that a rat?”
The pot of water boiled over and splashed on the stove. The noise distracted them and in that second Celeste grabbed the boiling water and tossed it on the officers. Newton fell upon them as they writhed on the floor and he beat them unconscious. Celeste took his hand and pulled him through the apartment hallway and into her car in the garage below. They drove to her parents’ house. She still had the key. The place had an earthy stink and dirty dishes were everywhere. Rummaging through her mother’s closet, Celeste tossed a flowered dress at Isaac.
“Change into this. We mustn’t be recognized. It will look good with your white stockings.”
He did as she instructed. He had a nice physique for an older man, well, a bit of a fat belly, but agreeable to her and strangely marked near the navel with what looked like a blue four—the sign of Jupiter and the element tin. Celeste stripped to her bra and unisex briefs. Newton had been right about how ambivalent she’d always been about womanhood.
Newton put his hand on the tattoo on her belly—light through a prism and on the prism the sign of Venus, the looking glass. It hadn’t suited her but that was her element, copper, the metal of Venus. She’d drawn a copper strip from the bag at the ceremony long ago.
Their bodies brushed together as she pulled up his hair and covered it with one of her Mom’s chemo wigs, something with red spikes. She put on the one that was black and curly. They each selected a large purse, suitable for the XRF gun, rats, crackers and diffraction glasses. Celeste slipped on a black dress and low-heeled pumps.
They took her father’s car this time. Night was creeping up on them. Isaac fed the rats bits of cracker and watched the lights through his diffraction glasses.
“We shouldn’t have done that. I just hate to be messed with,” Celeste said. Her heart beat in her mouth. She’d been stupid.
“I agree. I had a man hung, drawn and quartered for less. But we’ve mucked things up now. Where are we going?” He adjusted his glasses.
Celeste said, “Out of town. Watch the lamps on the chariots. If you see lines of violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow and red, lots of red, tell me and we’ll turn off on a side road. It’s the constables. They have special headlights with strontium. The Cochtons have friends who own strontium mines.”
“An element. Just keep your eyes peeled.”
“Wouldn’t I have to take off these optics to do that?”
“Observe. Can you do that?”
“Of course. It’s part of my profession.” He looked into the night at the spectra of the headlamps.
Celeste drove to the suburbs and parked in a Cochmart lot in a bad neighborhood. She set the keys and her phone next to a man sleeping on the sidewalk. She didn’t want to be traced. Isaac went into the store and came back with candy.
“At times like this, I turn to mathematics and sweets,” Isaac said, offering her some chocolate.
“Me too, you always know what you’re getting with mathematics. Did you steal this?”
“Yes. I have sinned.”
No one came from the store to confront them. This happens when wages are low.
“Hold out that purse now,” she said.
“But Diamond and Bronze are in it.”
“They won’t be hurt. I’m surrendering to Counter Force. This will be faster than searching for them. Hold it out and when someone comes to steal it, we’ll grab him. Good chocolate.” Celeste receded into a shadow.
“And then we’ll be stolen?”
“Yes. You’re a smart man.”
Isaac stood dangling his purse and gazing through the spectral glasses. Holiday lights flickered in the window of the bar across the street. It was May, hot with storms rising. Moisture collected on their faces. Celeste was used to filtered air and a controlled environment. It kept her equipment functioning at top capacity.
Newton wiped his forehead. “The world is so warm now. Best to not be fat these days. I sweated much before I died that last time. It was painful. Tell me again why we are out in the night like this. Is it the constables? I’m sure they can be bribed. Most men can be.”
“We’re on the wrong side of the law and my life savings are going to the upkeep of my father. I’m leaving society. Certainly there’s use for science everywhere, perhaps it could even be used for the good of the people.”
“I honestly believe that bribes are the better option. Of course, I haven’t any money. It all went to my heirs.”
“You don’t have to come with me. You’re valuable property. Take the car. The keys are still right there on the curb. Go back to those who resurrected you. They’ll live forever soon and perhaps so will you.” His mouth drooped but it might have been a lesion.
“You are telling me that these Lords look for science without benefice?”
“Will you embrace me once before you go?” he said. He looked like an abandoned scarecrow with his red wig, shaky limbs, and blowing dress.
Celeste wrapped her arms around him. He was warm, so warm, and yielding, and alive. She put her lips to his. They were chocolaty, hard, and dry. It was a terrible kiss but her heart leapt into it.
“We might need to work on that,” she said stepping back. He’d asked for just one embrace and she was precise.
He said, “Gravity is a weak force, unlike loneliness. That last life I had—I squandered part of it. I have things to learn.”
“Matter draws itself together. You said this yourself.”
He put one hand on his chest, “There are places where the mass is thin. In my previous life, my affection was tossed to the fire.”
Celeste put her hand on his heart. “Work. Love. It all takes time. Time is a finite dimension. You said that yourself. We’ve spent time on important things, forsaking love. Our sacrifice was not in vain. Natural philosophy, science, was a freeing force once. I still believe that it will set us free. But all must own it together, not just these few. And we must open ourselves to the possibility of magic. Not all can be explained.”
“A man might imagine things that are false but he can only understand things that are true.” He put his hand over hers. “I’ll allow becoming embroiled. This escapade makes me feel as giddy as the day I took over the Royal Society.” He smiled. He was missing a tooth.
Celeste straightened his wig. “Are there more than balls in your cradle?”
“Perhaps. Newton men have been historically fertile.”
Celeste leaned on the window of the store. “That’s what I need. When the time comes, don’t fight it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’ll see. Be aware that things have changed. I won’t be waiting on you and there are no servants where we’re going.”
“I also have progressed and I have always wished for the love of an equal.”
In time, a person came to steal the purse. The look of a madman upon him, Isaac grabbed the thief and Celeste held the XRF gun to his neck.
“Take us to your leader least we be laid by the heels,” said Isaac, swinging the squeaking purse.
“Asylum,” said Celeste.
For a time, HiGenTek looked for Isaac. The surveillance cameras showed nothing of his departure from HiChemTek and the film crew swore Isaac had never made it to the facility. Ace and Barnabus remembered slipping on a wet floor in an empty apartment. It was assumed that Celeste had finally run off with a man. At least that part was true.
Counter Force was skeptical until Isaac built rat powered generators and a windmill to demonstrate his utility to them. With the aid of her XRF, Celeste sorted scrap metal and melted it into tools and ploughshares for the gardens. Isaac learned to love tomatoes and their little house had an East facing window where Celeste could greet the sun.
Eventually the other alchemists, repelled by greed, joined them. For, as everybody knows, science is an attempt to touch the divine and greed drives divinity away. Gerber set up a distillery. Paracelsus formulated medicines. Miriam’s burning bushes kept all intruders away and one swipe with a rock from her pocket erased Celeste’s identification chip.
Yes, the time came when Celeste and Isaac had children–just three but all were handy with tools and figures. On clear nights you could see them out together, their hands filled with gadgets, their eyes filled with stars, their hearts with the optimism that conceived them. With science as with alchemy there is always hope, nothing is impossible, and what is possible is still filled with wonder.
Cathy Haustein has an MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in chemistry from The University of Iowa.
This story was written after she joined the INTJ Women’s Facebook page. Allegedly only 0.5% of the population is an INTJ (scientist/mastermind) female. She thought it would be fun to have an INTJ protagonist in a romantic situation with that most famous of INTJ men, Isaac Newton.