Natural Wonders

By Angela Woodward

April 2016



Jonathan has some beautiful drawings of diatoms here, plus a terse note to me: remember to take my black shoes in today, as the day before and the day before that, I had forgotten to stop by the resoling shop for him. It's a wonder that he kept that, a mark of my rebellion and neglect, because I had stopped wanting to do those little favors for him long before he stopped wanting to do them for me. "What a sweet, good nature you have," he told me continually, as if this assertion could keep away the decay that had set in only months after our hasty wedding. After our initial clinching together, we cooled off quite a bit. One morning as I left for work, he leaned in to kiss my cheek, and I swerved sideways. As we both righted ourselves, our cheeks passed by each other, only a few inches apart, so that my refused intimacy nevertheless took me through the field of his heat, the smell of his scalp and shaving cream. Earlier, I might have inhaled with something like pleasure, or at least with nostalgia for the first moments of our love affair. Now it was a relief to be just outside his orbit.

Professor Williams gave me another call to see how I was getting on. "I type 72 words a minute," I told him. "Wonderful," he said. "Amazing." I let him imagine a neat white stack of Corrasable bond growing at my elbow. In the depths of Jonathan's binder I found something about a train fire, the drivers getting down and playing cards by the tracks while the engine burst out wands of orange flame; pages of a review of something that began with praise and descended into scathing denunciation: "like a rope ladder with missing rungs, Preston's latest work sends the reader on a perilous journey towards an unlikely and unsatisfying destination," ending with conciliation—"the prose is sound though workmanlike"—and noting errors of punctuation, translation, and dates. One of his students, I assume, left him a scribble in a spiky, European-looking hand: "If you don't raise my grade by seven points, my government will not renew my scholarship, and I will be returned to my uncle's business, as I told you when I came to your office last week."

The entire geophysical story, Jonathan wrote elsewhere, amid other notations—gas gauge broken? / Send card to dad / ask Jeremy for indecipherable—has been one of plasticity and change, with endless probing, venturing and testing of . . . indecipherable. Benjy, he said. You know the one I mean. Yes. Raise your hands, now, if you know what this is.

The students keep their hands in their laps, or cover their mouths with them, or doodle assiduously, not even glancing at the screen. He probably liked that best, their keeping quiet, stunned by mystery or simply uncomprehending. He shows them the putative singular continent Gondwana, all the earth's land focused over the unforgiving South Pole. The Sahara sprouted streams and lakes, while humid India offered snack shops and ski lifts, humble Alpine resorts, dry, cool, refreshing.

The paths of the glaciers, he said, in many instances showed ice flowing uphill, out of the sea and onto the land, a most unlikely configuration. Milankovitch's brother-in-law Wegener posited an explanation, that the continents had unpegged themselves from the turtles' backs they balanced on and roved across the oceans, at one point cramming together in a massive, single island. Under the groaning outpress of the ice, the land had stretched like taffy, then broke itself screaming into individual parts. The mountainous coasts are no more than heaps of scar tissue. What's more, the scars along South America can be matched to the weeping flesh along the edge of Africa, where they notch together exactly, a former unity now torn apart. Look a little closer, and she, South America, nestles her head on the shoulder of he, heroic Africa. They breathed thus together, no need to speak. 'I'll take care of you.' 'I know you will.' But now deep ocean separates them, and she fumes at him: 'He's gone down the street to live with that hussy, but he still has the nerve to drop his laundry off for me to do. Just wanted to see the kids, he says. Has he once asked me how I am?'

When Wegener was no more than fourteen, his mother's friend used to visit them at their summer place. Usually as soon as she came in the house, she made her way to his mother's room, where they sat behind the curtained doors, talking for hours. The high-pitched voices twittered through the afternoon like silver wire sawing through the boy's boredom. His father and brothers came up at the weekend and shot ducks, but most of the time he moped alone, the mildewed scent of the antique books another key ingredient to the overwhelming lassitude of the long vacation. One afternoon she, Julie, walked over through a terrific storm. His mother was in bed with a cold. "Julie, you can dry your things by the fire!" she called. "Have Alfie put the screen up." Wegener dragged the two Chinese screens together in front of the fireplace and beckoned his mother's friend, wondering as he did this why he was so biddable in this instance. When she asked him to pick up his socks or throw away the plum pits he'd left scattered all over the floor, he wouldn't do it. But he set the furniture right for Miss Beckman, who stepped behind. The prints of her wet bare feet glared from the dark floorboards. In a moment, a pair of arms emerged over the top of the screen, laying the dripping dress over. With a swishing sound, two white stockings slithered alongside the dress. Water fell from their toes, and a puddle spread at the base of the screen.

"Is the fire hot enough?" his mother called. "Are you drying off?"

"Brrrr . . . I'll be fine in a minute," she said.

Wegener stood to go, slightly nauseous, gripping his book in his hand. But his mother called him to her room, to bring a bathrobe to her friend.

He took the thin plaid flannel, again wondering why he was being such a good boy. He should have cleared off.

"Miss Beckman," he said. "Here's something dry to put on."

Rather than reaching over the top, her hand appeared between the two screens. She had pushed them slightly apart. "Thank you, Alfred," she said, looking at him levelly through the little gap. Without lowering his eyes, he could see her breasts rounding up against the slinky material of her slip, the damp cloth clinging to her stomach and legs. She raised one arm and ran her fingers through her hair, lifting it away from her face. Then she turned away from him, and he scuttled off to his room upstairs.

Though Wegener had done much to publicize and laud Milankovitch's astronomical theory, his own theory of continental drift could not be rescued from ridicule. "One can see clearly," Wegener wrote in Geophysical Annals, "the way our present continents fit together like so many puzzle pieces." But though it was clear, his drawings mysteriously compelling, all it meant was that here was more debasement, fall from an initial unity, as the land masses swept unmoored, little more than fragile rafts on the tumultuous ocean.

"Poor Julie," his mother said later. "You know she was raped by soldiers during the war. She's terrified of men." Wegener continued to eat his bread. When his father came up, she might ignore her youngest, but with no one else to chatter to, he couldn't avoid her confidences.

He biked to Julie's house and knocked on the back gate. "Oh, it's you," she said, "and I was just napping." He followed her into the bedroom, where they rolled around, he fully clothed, she in a loose dress that unbuttoned itself. Her breasts and belly smashed against him, her roundness so in contrast to his thin, sharp neediness. "Your face," she said, laughing, "relax." He had been set in a mask of fury, as if taking a math exam. She smoothed his eyebrows, releasing a pure, happy calm, a feeling almost unknown to him. Seeing him smile, she cried out, then wriggled higher so that her nipple found his mouth. The vastness of his pleasure was unimaginable, a quandary—if this could be, then how could the rest of life be endured?