A faint noise creeps into the silence of the frozen world. Femina does not listen believing that it was only the ice adjusting itself. But it becomes more frequent and has different tones, and there is a trace of movement, faint and light-footed, it prompts her to take notice after all. She feels the ice cracking and fissuring as if it was going to let go of its tight grip.
Femina does not react, she waits. After all, she is in the waiting-room. Waiting is all you do there. So she listens, to the creaking, and groaning, and crepitation, and she follows the appearing wounds as they spread and fragment the ice.
Slowly she realizes that these changes are not initiated by the ice itself. They are only answers to something that comes out of the still and lightless ocean below. But the ocean is not dead, the waters are only cold, and in its unfathomable and unknown depths it has life with wells of fire and warmth. Flowing continuously and unrelenting, searching through the cold and under immense pressure, the hot currents lose strength and are broken into tiniest of bubbles that rise up one after the other, sometimes in fine long pearly strings, then again cut off and cut up and with gaps in between but never stopping for long. The journey ends when they reach the icy ceiling, where they join forces to tunnel and dig their way through the frozen barrier, which in its thickness and solid nature gave the illusion of being impenetrable.
Femina does not like that at all, being pushed back into her own life! She would rather hold out, frozen in ice and squeezed out of breath. She does not want the ice to let go of her. She no longer wants warmth, nor does she want light or life. The only thing she wants is to die, now, not later. But no matter what she wants, there is no pity. Father Death does not know compassion. He spits her out as if he had taken a bite of an unripe fruit he does not like.
Other noises appear but they come from the room. So she opens her eyes and finds the opposite wall is no longer a wall but a movie-screen. Pictures are already coming up, gaining in sharpness as if somebody was adjusting the focus. It is a film from a conservatory showing wonderful pictures of all kinds of plants. The camera roams through the generous and extensive layout of various departments and areas. From the simple potato to the exotic flower, it seems, all plants have got a place. There are even laboratories with the horticultural specialists busy at work.
Femina finds it somewhat familiar, but she was in many such green-houses and botanical gardens being fond of plants. Of course she preferred to visit facilities with flowers and exotic flora to simple glasshouses that grew vegetables. As unfair as that may be, but the beauty of an orchid wins over the most beautiful cabbage any time. That probably stems from the difference of one being sweet nectar for the soul, the other being just food for the body.
She becomes more and more certain that she knows the place. It was one of the most memorable excursions, thanks to the specialist guiding her through the facility. Dr. Philip Marsh! Yes, that was his name, she remembers. He knew so much and he liked talking but he was an expert who loved his work and his plants. He was able to open up his world to her as she had never seen it before. Finding something special in everything, he showed her the magical world of flora. She would never see the life of plants any other way. His enthusiasm was contagious and she really liked him.
Two people appear on the screen. One is Philip Marsh, the other is she herself. They are looking at a plant that seemed to languish. Femina recalls that it was the moment where the conversation and the visit itself took an altogether different direction. Indeed! This film is a recording of an experience she had a time long ago. Buried under the layers of forgotten years like a fossil in a bed of sediment, events imprinted in stone come to life again though they happened in another era. Yes, she remembers her visit in this hot-house, and him, Philip Marsh, who had impressed her and who as it turned out came from the same nation she belonged to. He was on an assignment and contracted to work on a special project run by the research center, being a well renowned expert in that field. It was sure a reason to celebrate, and so they did, for some time, but that was a long time ago, and she sure has no reason to celebrate now.
So far the film had run without sound, but now she can hear their voices talking about the limp plant. Bitter disappointment wells up in her. She had hoped for something useful, something new that could help her, or at least something that would let her forget why she was in this room in the first place. An old film? How can that be of help! Even the lost memory she had been so keen to recover has become irrelevant in view of death staring at her. Death means being dead, there is nothing to be needed any longer. The dead have no needs.
Even though she is not dead yet, her life as she knows it, has already ended. Scornfully though! Because after all her struggles she had begun to embrace it; and particularly now, since blissful duality freeing her from her ambivalence did let her experience happiness; now, that she was able to overlook the fact that she was still a prisoner, in a house, that pretended to have an exit door but would not let her exit and was continuously playing games with her mind. Not only because it alluded her to a chance of freedom when there really was none but because everything to do with the house was deceptive and uncertain, and still is. After all, she has no guarantee that she would be able to leave her illness behind if she was able to escape the house. Considering this uncertainty, it really did not matter where she was. With a sick body her life is not worth living, neither here nor there. Only death offers a solution. So! She sure needs no memory, neither recall nor reminiscence………
But!…….. Maybe it is indeed only the house that makes her sick and she would be well again as soon as she left it……..? So, here we go again! The games continue, - nothing is certain, nothing is sure! How useful then can an old film be!?
Femina hears Phil’s voice: “The plant is dying. I have to bring it to our laboratories. After all, we are a center of research, - though that won’t do this plant any good. I suspect it is the victim of one of the diseases that suddenly occur without any warning or cause, at least that we know of and we certainly have not found any means how to eradicate it.”
He inspects some of the leaves carefully. Then, turning to her he finds her looking somewhat lost, so he continues explaining: “If you are interested, you can come with me. My specialty is the research of disease and its management, with a particular emphasis on prevention. Sadly, this poor plant here is for me at this point rather a philosophical problem than a practical, because I know, we will find a cure some when. When I say philosophical -, I wonder how it is possible that illness can occur when care was taken to provide the best conditions to the best knowledge available, in order to prevent disease, and to ensure optimal growth, and a healthy life. This plant had also no genetic signs nor a flawed seed that would indicate problems later on. I personally have taken care of all the necessities to give the plant the best chances. So, how come that it still got sick!?”
He takes the pot, ready to leave, he looks at her. Femina hears her saying how interested she was to join him but, she herself is not, turning away from the screen.
Well, now she is the sick plant, a biological and philosophical problem! Of course she has no idea if she has a genetic loading of some kind. She never was looking into that at all being hardly ever sick. But, she does not even know where she comes from, she could well have faulty genes. However, the illness that has befallen her, is not known to be a hereditary disease. It is known to be an auto-immune disease, meaning her immune system is too eager, even attacking the cells of her own body, self-mutilating and destructive. In view of this, she is more than just a philosophical problem, she is, so to speak, a biological, philosophical and psychiatric problem.
Femina puts a stop to her thoughts that want to go round and round and round all over again, like merry go rounds, passing by the questions without ever finding the answer: Why me, why now, why at all? Is it the house that makes her sick? Or what else is to blame? She must concede, the house cannot be the only reason. After all, it is her body, not all is therefore ruled by the house. To escape the merry go round she turns her attention back to the screen.
They are passing through a laboratory full of various appliances, instruments, microscopes, chattels and vessels, glasses and bottles, big and small. On one side tucked away in a niche she notices a shelved wall with many pots containing strange even deformed looking plants. She has never seen anything alike, not anywhere in her life. She does not know what to make of it, but Phil, noticing her bewilderment explains: “Experiments! Trials to find new solutions. It is not my field of expertise, and being honest, I am not enthused, but I am not the head of this team, another colleague is.”
“Does that mean, you don’t know what he does? Do you agree with, I mean morally, what he does? Some of these things look awful, if not horrific!”
She must have touched a sore spot because his voice is cool as he answers: “There is no moral question when you do research. After all, the result is the goal. You can always find a moral justification. In fact, science or research is amoral at best of times. Moral is a question of good and bad. The scientist is always outside moral establishment. Moral judgement applies to existing values, but the scientist questions existing rules. His research results may bring about change, which of course, may not always to the liking of everyone. But even when his research does not bring the results he is looking for, it cannot be judged morally. It only means the chosen pathway was not successful, so he must look for another that might. No, no! Morality has nothing to do with science and research!”
She did not agree with that at all and she hears her voicing her disapproval and how horrible she actually found some of the results, considering the disfigured plants, and that she thought he was ‘for life’, not against it. Did he really think that everything that science and research did was justifiable?
“It is a dilemma I cannot deny and cannot eliminate,” he admits. “It is however a very personal question, for one’s own conscience, what it will permit you to do. Because, even having ethical guidelines for that matter, not every scientist will want to adhere to or follow them. Besides, there is also always the public opinion and societal or political obligation what science is allowed or expected or even ordered to do.” Pointing at the limp plant, he continues: “It makes me as sad as any of the disfigured plants. I have to keep in mind that it may well be thanks to them that I find the answers I need to help mine.”
Femina loses interest. The pro and contra of moral is not the reason why she sits in this room. She lets them carry on with their arguments. Now and then she can hear words and phrases about good and bad and the irresponsible, or something like saving humanity and be in the interest of all; - the discussion was obviously far reaching and inclusive. However! She has to admit, she would be grateful if science had found a cure for her illness. And she would not ask how it came about! Obviously, she has no higher morals than Phil, or any scientist who may disregard ethical boundaries; and she is not a better person only because she leaves the ‘dirty work’ to others but at the same time profiteering from it just the same. It is true, the Now has evolved out of the immoral of Yesterday and the morals of today have no significance tomorrow. Indeed! She must admit, the discussion about morality deserves her attention, even if it was only for one reason, - to come clean with her own conscience before death will have her.
Another person appears on the screen, a co-worker of Phil. He is entrusted with the plant and delegated to observe it and start the necessary investigations. Any detail, all and everything, as unimportant as it may appear, all needs to be noted, registered and compiled, and compared with all the existing data in case there is something new, a hint or clue or something unexpected. Just adding the new to the old data is of enough value to set the research engine into motion because seemingly insignificant findings are in the overall entirety important.
Femina feels the hard back rest digging into her back. Yes, it is an uncomfortable bench but her mind is even more unyielding. It makes her aware that her once held opinion about scientific research does no longer apply. How often did she ridicule certain projects, dismiss them and even get angry. How often did she argue that spending money for humanitarian purpose was far more important than supporting unnecessary research, in pursuit of dubious scientific ideas and in particular, gruesome experiments on animals! By all means, she still wants to be humane, but her perspective has been changed, and worse, she must face the moral dilemma just the same as Phil who could not distance himself from it, he as a man of science, and she as the ill. Unfathomable sadness creeps up in her. She is not sure for whom she is crying. But in her tears lies boundless compassion and the deepest gratitude to all life that lost their own for the sake of hers.
She moves uneasily to and fro, the bench not getting more comfortable all the same. The tears roll down, they cannot stop, there are too many in her. As they flow on, she turns her attention back to the screen.
They pass through the germination and seedlings section of the department where Phil works. It is full of pots and planter-baskets and containers, on the floors, on shelves, hanging from walls and beams, filling the spaces between neatly organized garden beds. Fresh young plants of all sizes are everywhere. It is like diving into a green ocean, even the light and the air are of green color. And Femina can smell the rich earth and the juices of young life as if she were there. He takes her to an offside room serving as his office, but it also is full of all kinds of glass bottles, trays and containers, though everything is placed in an order and neatly numbered or titled. So is the rest in the room, orderly, the books, the journals, the folders and office papers, documents and literature, all alike. He will be able to find whatever he is after anytime, with or without light. The question is still open if his personality was shaped by the work he did or if only someone orderly like him could do the job. Though, a chaotic could well own a hothouse he was unlikely to succeed as the gardener. She really liked Phil’s thoroughness and that he was not uselessly pedantic, nor a ‘loony professor’, or a narrow minded one who really did not love anyone or anything but himself.
Femina hears her asking Phil, if he was selecting the seeds he planted.
“No,” says he, “I look at them of course, genes and all, and I document every detail, but I do not select which one to grow or not. My opinion is that there are no good or bad seeds, only good or bad conditions to grow them. Naturally, if there is a genetic defect, the outcome may not be great, but even then the prospects are not hopeless. We found that hereditary factors do not predict the outcome in itself. Neither are size, perfect appearance and structure of the seed a guarantee for later quality. That applies the other way round as well. I have grown less perfect seeds, not expecting much with astounding success. Well, and then you get the big disappointments, where everything seems to be perfect and it isn’t, like our withering plant. It definitely raises the questions, why and what went wrong. Genes, environment? Both seemed optimal!”
Into the following silence she hears herself saying: “But don’t you believe it is illness that has befallen the plant? That is after all outside your control, anyone’s control really.”
He shakes disapprovingly and emphatically his head: “That is exactly what I don’t believe! I just have to put up with it. Though I have no substantial proof to offer, I am convinced that illness only exists because we do not know its cause. As soon as you know that, you can do something about it. You may be able to prevent it, or at least you may be able to treat it, manage its course, as you will also find a remedy. It means you can eradicate illness for good. Of course, it may need more than just one thing to facilitate it, most likely it will require a combination of actions, but to state that illness will always exist, because it always did, is nonsense.”
Femina remembers that at the time she felt rather pity for him than she could agree. She thought he was walking a narrow ridge to express such an opinion. Without evidence he was easy prey for the bloodhounds who sniff out idealists like him to tear them apart as soon as they got hold of them. At best, society may call him a crazy fool, and his peers may just settle for mocking him as a harmless dreamer. He probably only survived because he was too good in his field of work.
A colleague appears with a little tray in his hand carrying a couple of thin strips of glass. He goes to the microscope and puts one of them in. “Have a look,” he says to Phil. The two men bend over it in turns and discuss whatever they see. Finally Phil invites Femina to have a look.
While she does, he says: “It is exactly as I thought. Take note of the uneven cell membranes. Instead of smooth walls you see little bits missing. It disables the cell’s nutrients exchange and after a while it will lead to its death. I will put in another sample of a healthy structure, so you can compare.”
After looking at that one she can only nod in agreement. He shakes his head, resigned, and frustrated he exclaims: “How come, that my plant got this disease?! And don’t say, fate!” His voice suddenly having a sharp edge.
Her screen persona is obviously startled: “I did not even consider! But as you mention it, you have to agree, it is a valid argument. I guess, you have been offered this response more often than not, isn’t it?”
He nods saying: “Indeed! But if I accepted that as an answer, I would be a priest or whatever, not a scientist!”
He pulls over one of the more comfortable chairs for her to sit down and asks his colleague to make some tea while he gets biscuits out of the cupboard. The colleague brings the tea and cups and sits down with them obviously happy to join them for a little break from his work.
Initially they sit quietly but it is her who breaks the silence: “I think there will always be the sick and diseases, no matter how good conditions may be. You, I, and others may not believe it is due to fate, but for me, illness is an expression, a statement of a situation. It may concern a single organism, or many. It includes human society in its entirety. For example, illness can be an expression of an epoch or era and its people. However, in any case it is always caused by flawed conditions, like the plague in the Middle Ages, or tuberculosis which became a major cause of death at the time of the industrial revolution when the increasing population flocked to the cities where they were forced to live in unheated and damp quarters, and over-crowded conditions. Even our own modern time has its signature illnesses characterized by systemic failures, such as diseases of the heart, cancer and life-style disorders. Too much stress, too little love; plight of body and ravaged planet; gluttony expressed in obese bodies where insulin and health care systems cannot cope with the overload. Disease does not only happen to bodies but also to societies and is in any case a warning sign that the harmony of the system is disturbed and needs to be restored. That’s why we have pain, isn’t it, the next step in signaling the urgency. It is the siren of nature’s warning system that something is seriously wrong and action is warranted sooner than later. Someone in pain is literally forced to address the problem. I certainly agree with you Phil, that illness does not occur under ideal conditions, but when is that really ever the case? For me there are three areas that can be responsible for causing a disease, but they are interconnected and therefore all may become ill as a consequence. I see the external world or the environment as one area, the other is the internal world that is the complex individual, and the third is the buffer zone, where the two meet, where the exchange of inside and outside takes place. However, the weakest link in that concept is for me man himself. How often was I taken by surprise that an individual’s will to recover succeeded against all odds and then, others succumbing despite favorable conditions!” She stops for a moment hesitating, then continues: “Well, talking about humans…….., I really do not know how that could be applicable to plants. I can’t imagine that a plant does or might make itself sick!”
Femina turns her head away from the screen. How different would this discussion be if she had it today! Theory and practice! Worlds lie in between, - packed full with sorrow and despair. How easy it is to talk about something when it does not concern you personally!
But she is sure glad that this old film pointed out something valuable. It makes sense: She must investigate her own external and internal worlds and look at the possible “border conflicts”. There might be fighting and gunfire battles because the two cultures clash instead of living peacefully in co-existence.
T H A T i s the reason why she sits in this room. It is her waiting-room after all, not her dying chamber. And fuck the house! Let it play its games as much as it wants! Nothing is important anymore or any longer! Only the Now and the Here counts! Now she sits here to reflect. And, should death be indeed the best solution, though being certain anyway, she may well be the enforcer.