State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Ann Patchett
All right reserved.
The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.
"What?" she said finally.
He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, "It's snowing."
"I heard on the radio it was going to." The window in the lab where she worked faced out into the hall and so she never saw the weather until lunchtime. She waited for a minute for Mr. Fox to say what he had come to say. She didn't think he had come all the way from his office in the snow, a good ten buildings away, to give her a weather report, but he only stood there in the frame of the open door, unable either to enter the room or step out of it. "Are you all right?"
"Eckman's dead," he managed to say before his voice broke, and then with no more explanation he gave her the letter to show just how little about this awful fact he knew.
There were more than thirty buildings on the Vogel campus, labs and office buildings of various sizes and functions. There were labs with stations for twenty technicians and scientists to work at the same time. Others had walls and walls of mice or monkeys or dogs. This particular lab Marina had shared for seven years with Dr. Eckman. It was small enough that all Mr. Fox had to do was reach a hand towards her, and when he did she took the letter from him and sat down slowly in the gray plastic chair beside the separator. At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles. Anders Eckman, tall in his white lab coat, his hair a thick graying blond. Anders bringing her a cup of coffee because he'd picked one up for himself. Anders giving her the files she'd asked for, half sitting down on the edge of her desk while he went over her data on proteins. Anders father of three. Anders not yet fifty. Her eyes went to the dates—March 15th on the letter, March 18th on the postmark, and today was April 1st. Not only was he dead, he was two weeks dead. They had accepted the fact that they wouldn't hear from him often and now she realized he had been gone so long that at times he would slip from her mind for most of a day. The obscurity of the Amazonian tributary where Dr. Swenson did her research had been repeatedly underscored to the folks back in Minnesota (Tomorrow this letter will be handed over to a child floating downriver in a dugout log, Anders had written her. I cannot call it a canoe. There never were statistics written to cover the probability of its arrival.), but still, it was in a country, it was in the world. Surely someone down there had an Internet connection. Had they never bothered to find it? "Wouldn't she call you? There has to be some sort of global satellite—"
"She won't use the phone, or she says it doesn't work there." As close as they were in this quiet room she could scarcely hear his voice."But for this—" She stopped herself. He didn't know. "Where is he now?" Marina asked. She could not bring herself to say his body. Anders was not a body. Vogel was full of doctors, doctors working, doctors in their offices drinking coffee. The cabinets and storage rooms and desk drawers were full of drugs, pills of every conceivable stripe. They were a pharmaceutical company; what they didn't have they figured out how to make. Surely if they knew where he was they could find something to do for him, and with that thought her desire for the impossible eclipsed every piece of science she had ever known. The dead were dead were dead were dead and still Marina Singh did not have to shut her eyes to see Anders Eckman eating an egg salad sandwich in the employee cafeteria as he had done with great enthusiasm every day she had known him.
"Don't you read the reports on cholesterol?" she would ask, always willing to play the straight man.
"I write the reports on cholesterol," Anders said, running his finger around the edge of his plate.
Mr. Fox lifted his glasses, pressed his folded handkerchief against the corners of his eyes. "Read the letter," he said.
She did not read it aloud.
The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results.
But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman's mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.
Marina started over at the top. When she had read it through again she still could not imagine what to say. "Is she calling Anders a setback?"
She held the letter by its slightest edges as if it were a document still to be submitted into evidence. Clearly the paper had been wet at some point and then dried again. She could tell by the way it was puckered in places, it had been carried out in the rain. Dr. Swenson knew all about the relationship of paper and ink and rain and so she cut in her letters with a pencil of hard, dark lead, while on the other side of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Karen Eckman sat in a two-story brick colonial thinking her husband was in Brazil and would be coming home as soon as he could make Dr. Swenson listen to reason.Marina looked at the clock. They should go soon, before it was time for Karen to pick the children up from school. Every now and then, if Anders happened to look at his watch at two-thirty, he would say to himself in a quiet voice, School's out. Three little Eckmans, three boys, who, like their mother, did not know enough to picture their father dead. For all that loss Dr. Swenson had managed to use just over half the sheet of paper, and in the half a sheet she used she had twice thought to mention the weather. The rest of it simply sat there, a great blue sea of emptiness. How much could have been said in those remaining inches, how much explained, was beyond scientific measure.
Mr. Fox closed the door and came to stand beside Marina's chair.
He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed, and because the blinds on the windows that faced the hall were down she dropped her cheek against the top of his hand and for a while they stayed like this, washed over in the palest blue fluorescent light. It was a comfort to them both. Mr. Fox and Marina had never discussed how they would conduct their relationship at work. They had no relationship at work, or not one that was different from anyone else's. Mr. Fox was the CEO of Vogel. Marina was a doctor who worked in statin development. They had met, really met, for the first time late the summer before at a company softball game, doctors vs. administration. Mr. Fox came over to compliment her pitching, and that compliment led to a discussion of their mutual fondness for baseball. Mr. Fox was not a doctor. He had been the first CEO to come from the manufacturing side. When she spoke of him to other people she spoke of Mr. Fox. When she spoke to him in front of other people she addressed him as Mr. Fox. The problem was calling him Jim when they were alone. That, it turned out, was a much more difficult habit to adopt.
"I shouldn't have sent him," Mr. Fox said.
She raised her head then and took his hand in her hands. Mr. Fox had no reason to wear a lab coat. Today he wore a dark gray suit and striped navy tie, and while it was a dignified uniform for a man of sixty, he looked out of place whenever he strayed from the administrative offices. Today it occurred to Marina that he looked like he was on his way to a funeral. "You didn't make him go."
"I asked him to go. I suppose he could have turned me down but it wasn't very likely."
"But you never thought something like this would happen. You didn't send him someplace dangerous." Marina wondered if she knew this to be true. Of course there were poisonous snakes and razor-toothed fish but she pictured them safely away from the places where doctors conducted scientific research. Anyway, the letter had said he died of a fever, not a snake bite. There were plenty of fevers to be had right here in Minnesota. "Dr. Swenson's been down there for five years now. Nothing's happened to her."
"It wouldn't happen to her," Mr. Fox said without kindness in his voice.
Anders had wanted to go to the Amazon. That was the truth. What are the chances a doctor who worked in statin development would be asked to go to Brazil just as winter was becoming unendurable? He was a serious birder. Every summer he put the boys in a canoe and paddled them through the Boundary Waters with binoculars and notepads looking for ruddy ducks and pileated woodpeckers. The first thing he did when he got word about the trip was order field guides to the rain forest, and when they came he abandoned all pretense of work. He put the blood samples back in the refrigerator and pored over the slick, heavy pages of the guides. He showed Marina the birds he hoped to see, wattled jacanas with toes as long as his hand, guira cuckoos with downy scrub brushes attached to the tops of their heads. A person could wash out the inside of a pickle jar with such a bird. He bought a new camera with a lens that could zoom straight into a nest from fifty feet away. It was not the kind of luxury Anders would have afforded himself under normal circumstances.
"But these are not normal circumstances," he said, and took a picture of his coworker at her desk.
At the bright burst of the flash, Marina raised her head from a black-necked red cotinga, a bird the size of a thumb who lived in a cone-shaped daub of mud attached to the tip of a leaf. "It's an ambitious lot of birds." She studied every picture carefully, marveling at the splendors of biodiversity. When she saw the hyacinth macaws she experienced one split second of regret that she wasn't the one Mr. Fox had tapped for the job. It was a singularly ridiculous thought. "You'll be too busy with birds to ever find the time to talk to Dr. Swenson."
"I imagine I'll find a lot of birds before I find Dr. Swenson, and when I do find her I doubt she'll pack up on the first day and rush back to Johns Hopkins. These things take finesse. Mr. Fox said that himself. That leaves me with a lot of daylight hours."
Finding Dr. Swenson was an issue. There was an address in Manaus but apparently it was nowhere near the station where she did her field research; that location, she believed, needed to be protected with the highest level of secrecy in order to preserve both the unspoiled nature of her subjects and the value of the drug she was developing. She had made the case so convincingly that not even Mr. Fox knew where she was exactly, other than somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro.
How far away from Manaus that tributary might begin and in which direction it ran no one could say. Worse than that was the sense that finding her was going to be the easy part. Marina looked at Anders straight on and again he raised his camera. "Stop that," she said, and turned her palm to the lens. "What if you can't get her to come back at all?"
"Of course I can," Anders said. "She likes me. Why do you think I'm the one Mr. Fox decided to send?"
It was possible that Dr. Swenson had liked him on the one day she spent at Vogel seven years ago, when she had sat at a conference table with Anders and four other doctors and five executives who made up the Probability Assessment Group to discuss the preliminary budget for the development of a program in Brazil. Marina could have told him Dr. Swenson had no idea who he was, but why would she have said that? Surely he knew.
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