In a futuristic, fascistic Rome, a brilliant, unstable scientist proves that she can transcend the human body’s limitations. The test subject? Her own daughter. A mother-daughter mad scientist story, “The Destroyer” asks how far we’ll go to secure our own legacies — and how far we’ll run to escape them.
Long before my mother destroyed the world, her experiments were quieter, more contained. They did not obliterate continents. They did not rack up the dead.
She began as a domestic researcher in the household of an Umbrian merchant, engineering fish with mirrored scales. She told me how he loved to see his own face reflected, one and then a thousand and then another hundred times; how he filled the fountains with so many that there was no room to breathe or swim; how she woke up one morning to find that they had devoured one another, and left the fountains overflowing with blood.
He did not recognize her genius. For him she was only a carnival magician: a maker of flower stems that shattered like glass, and three-headed dogs, and the many-faced prisms that years later gave me nightmares of mirrors that did not end. Women’s work, he said. Not science.
So she moved on. She spent five years in Friuli, making nuclear lamps that waxed and waned with the moon, and another three in Milan, where she throttled sunflowers until they bore fruit. She sold the formula to a senator’s wife, and in six months’ time the whole Republic stank of them: of that peculiar mixture of honey and raw meat that I associate with her even now.
“All idiots,” she told me once. “They’d have slurped slop from a trough if they thought I’d invented it.”
She worked for provincial governors, for senators; she sold drugs to generals that lured soldiers into the fata morganas of the sands; she provided one of Caesar’s chief ministers with a device that would allow him to press his ear against a cube made of glass, and through it listen to his enemies’ dreams.
“They didn’t understand,” she used to tell me as she tightened the bolts in my shoulder. “They patted me on the head, slipped me some money. They thanked me and went on their way—and didn’t even think to tell Caesar what I’d done. But I showed them, didn’t I?”
In me she found an outlet for her genius. Into me she’d poured all her knowledge, molten with need; she had taken cells from her ribs and fiddled with them under a microscope; five months later, gelatinous and gasping for breath, I was. It made the papers—I was the first parthenogenesis, the daughter without a father, the flesh of my mother’s flesh. I was proof of her greatness.
From the beginning, I was taller than she was.
For the first six months there were papal picketers outside our laboratory, demanding that I be drowned, and old women in the marketplace swore that when my mother passed them by, they developed boils on the soles of their feet.
“Of course, they all wanted to know how I’d done it,” my mother said to me. “But I never told them. You’re mine—and only mine. Nobody else knows how to make you.” She used to cradle me against her breasts; it calmed me long enough for her to clean the copper at my wrist.
Within three months she had been offered a state position in one of Caesar’s laboratories on the outskirts of the city.
“It took us five years,” she said. “But he noticed me at last. You see what you’ve done?” She kissed me on the forehead. “You are my greatness. And I love you for it.”
So she loved me. On Saturdays she took me to the Hippodrome; she sat in the umbrella shade and watched me as I chased eagles and got mud on my shoelaces. Her suit was blue and her hair was long and light behind her, and when her gaze enveloped me, I knew there was no other woman in the world.
My eyes were her eyes. My lips were her lips and my shoulders, too, were hers, and so the world was geometrically composed, and everything I ever was or would become was threaded in me already, and manifest in her.
One day she took me to lunch at the senatorial haunt on the Capitoline, where the names of Caesar’s chief scientists were inscribed upon the ministry gates. We sat together in silence, staring at our unfilled plates, and watched the servants scurry as they ferried platters into the back room.
“Caesar’s in there, I suppose,” my mother said. “They’re always so nervy when he’s around.” She fingered the rose the waiters had left on the table for us, divesting it of thorns.
“They want to impress me,” she said to me. “They must know who I am.” She considered it. “They think they can impress me with this?” Her laugh was hollow and cruel. “It doesn’t interest me. Just think if each petal were a different color—how much better it would be, then. One lime colored, one magenta, one orange, one black.” She tore them off and pressed them into my hands, and my fingers grew sticky and sickly with the smell. “Get these out of my sight.”
That night I crept out of my bedroom and made my way to the garden of our courtyard, and there I uprooted every stem and set them all on fire before the statues of the household gods. My mother found me in the morning, smeared in ash; she said nothing but made us breakfast and spooned extra honey onto my plate.
On Sundays we went to the Forum. We sat together on the pillars; she spread cheese on bread and commanded me to play. I clambered over the columns, tripping in the enormity of the spaces between them. We played hide-and-seek around the arches of the Colosseum; she always found me, and there gathered me in her arms.
The tourists did not disturb us; Caesar’s guards did not disturb us. Nobody existed there but the two of us, who were really one. In our happiness everything outside us, everything alien to our secrets, was blotted out—or else I do not remember it.
When I was thirteen my mother developed an artificial arm. It was opal-pale and gleamed; it could bend without breaking. It could lift four or five hundred kilograms without effort; knives slashed forth from a slit in the palms on command.
“For protection,” my mother said. She took my hand in hers and pressed the palm to her lips. “I was never so strong, you know,” she said. “My arms were never beautiful. They were freckled.” She turned my hand over, feeling her way through my knuckles. “Yours will be too, in this heat. You’ll have to wear sleeves like mine.” I let her run her fingers through my hair. “You’re so lovely,” she said. “When I was fourteen, maybe I was so lovely too. I don’t remember. It was a long time ago, and I try not to think about it much. But there’s so much I want to give you. If you wanted. Only if you wanted.”
I could see no fault in her, nor any ugliness, though I stood naked all night in front of the mirror, looking at my arm from every angle, pressing it up against my ribs to spread the fat like soft cheese across my side. I kneaded the flesh and picked at the skin and in the morning I asked her to give me the arm she had made.
She kissed me. “I knew you would understand,” she said.
The operation went quickly. I felt nothing, but through the haze I remember that I heard her singing, a song in the vulgar tongue that was spoken only in the provinces, which she must have known as a girl.
Fa la ninna, fa la nanna
nella braccia della mamma
Fa la ninna bel bambin
nella braccia della mamma
When I woke, she was holding a hand that now belonged to me—though I did not feel it—and stroking my forehead with the back of her hand.
“You’re so lovely,” she said, and took me in her arms.
She taught me how to use it: how to hoist myself up single-handed on bars of steel, how to throw javelins made of osmium and catch discs weighted down with lead. She watched as I grew coltish and strong, as I shook out my hair and my cheeks flushed pink with intoxicating strength; she watched me and took photographs, measurements, and hung these on her laboratory walls.
She sent Caesar a diagram of the arm. Two weeks later he replied—on official letterhead, with the eagle on the seal—to congratulate her.
“You see what we’ve accomplished?” She framed it on the wall.
When I was fifteen, she created an artificial leg.
“You’re so intelligent,” she said. “And I’m so proud of you. There’s so much you could do, if you only cared a little more about yourself. If you were only willing to put in the time.”
I came to her that night and asked her to build me one. It was long and slim, turned up at the heel and impervious to pain.
It proved too long—the false foot dragged a few millimeters behind the real one—and so we amputated the other. I grew two inches overnight and found I was taller than she was.
My mother supervised my rehabilitation. She took me daily to the Forum, where now I could leap and somersault over the ruins, and challenged me to run faster, to climb to the top of Trajan’s Column, to jump from the three-story Triumphal Arch without wincing in pain.
My mother filmed it all and sent the footage to Caesar.
This time his answer was handwritten. He thanked my mother for her service and invited us both to a reception on the Capitoline the following Kalends.
My mother put her hands on the sides of my face; she tightened at my screws until I yelped; she checked the circuits at my shoulder and polished the metal eagle branded into my forearm.
“Don’t fidget.” She slapped my left wrist, which was the only one capable of feeling pain. She considered my neck, my breasts, my waist. “It’s only . . .” She passed her fingers over my eyelids. “They’re brown, like mine. You could fix them, you know. If you wanted to.”
I told her I didn’t want to. My eyes were her eyes; for her sake I loved them.
“But you can barely see!” She pulled them open with her fingertips. “You could see perfectly, more than that—we could put a camera in, another lens or two, so you could see things up close . . .”
There was nothing noble about my refusal. I was afraid of the pain.
“Whatever you want,” she said. “It’s none of my business. But when Caesar sees you, don’t blame me if he isn’t impressed with us. He doesn’t invite just anybody to these things, you know.”
It wasn’t easy to get an invitation. Caesar didn’t ask people twice. She’d worked so hard—she’d been so proud of me, of my strength, of my speed, of the swannish way I could dance, balancing my whole weight upon a single metallic toe. She only wanted Caesar to see, in his majesty, what she saw already, and what I refused to see.
She gave me two blue eyes to replace the ones she had taken out.
That night I danced with Caesar. He slid his hand up the side of my thigh; I did not feel it. I let him take me to one of the back chambers, and there I let him open the various panels on my legs, on my forearm, in my back. I showed him where my mother had fused wires together, and where they snaked into veins. He asked me to show him my strength.
The next day a member of the senatorial science council was found poisoned, and Caesar offered my mother his place. The following month she improved upon my spine.
There was only one part of me my mother refused to operate upon. She would not risk my ability to bear children. “It is the greatest thing I have ever done,” she said to me. “It is the only way I know I am truly alive, knowing that I will live on in you. It means that I will never die.”
In the end it didn’t matter. When I was sixteen, one of her refurbishments resulted in infection, and to save my life it became necessary to remove my womb.
“Never mind,” my mother said then. “I’ll build you a better one tomorrow.”
When I was seventeen Caesar’s chief scientist died; my mother replaced him. We moved to the official residence: a glass-fronted monolith just outside the city walls. From the top floor we could make out the old city in the distance—the Colosseum, the Triumphal Arch, Trajan’s Column—swarming with tramcars. With my new eyes I could even make out the stray cats.
“It’s happened at last,” my mother said. “This is what we’ve been working toward. They know now what we can do.” She considered me. “You’ve gotten so beautiful, you know.”
I was not beautiful; nevertheless, I commanded attention. Men stared at my legs in the street, marveling at their symmetry, sometimes suspecting. There were rumors among the political classes—whispers of senator’s wives with false hands or bionic ankles, minor modifications among the Praetorian Guard—but the totality of my replacements was unheard of, even here. My appearance in the marketplace prompted whispers, dark looks, greengrocers crossing themselves and lighting candles to the saints. By now my mother had replaced every part of me, with the exception of my left arm.
This, I had informed her, would remain precisely as it was.
My mother and I still took our walks around the Capitoline, where men bowed to us when we passed them by. My mother’s name was inscribed upon the ministry walls, now, for services rendered to Caesar; she liked to go there each morning at breakfast time, to make sure that it was still there.
“All fools,” she said. “The whole lot of them.”
“I’ve done so much, now. I’ve been cleverer than they were. The others: they made toys, children’s games. I made things for men. And, you see? Now they know. It was the least they could do for me, given all that I do for him.”
She wrapped her arms around me and kissed my forehead, and in the warmth of her, nothing else existed. There was only that double strand of our being, our arms twining into one another. There was only her face in my face, her voice in my voice, and so she did not realize that I was lying to her.
It was a lie of omission. I had taken to wearing a shawl, as peasant women did, to cover the falsity of my face, and in that anonymity I had begun to wander the insalubrious alleyways of the city, like the palm readers and chicken sellers, uniformly made of flesh. There I walked for hours, in the fruitless hope of blistering my feet, of starting to smell. Alone I went across the river into Trastevere, and there I wandered anonymous in the back alleys of the marketplace.
One day I went, head covered, to the fishmonger on the riverbank; he pressed live squid into my hands and commanded me to feel their freshness; I squelched the tentacles between my fingers and marveled at how easily I crushed them.
I took my left hand out of its glove and carried it bare-handed to the bridge; there I tore at it with my teeth; there I swallowed it raw. I spit the ink out into the river and thrilled at my transgression.
I had even taken to going to church. I wasn’t sure if I believed, but my mother set no store by it, and so I took perverse pleasure in listening to the old rites, in the incense that clung to my clothes. I never took a cushion for my knees when I knelt to pray—I did not need one—but the old women of the congregation took this for penance, and thought me the most pious of them all.
I lit candles for my mother, and left them burning. I took communion, and sanctified whatever parts of me could still be sanctified—five of my fingers, the wrist of my left arm. In those moments, I used to imagine that I was transfigured and that my body was neither mechanical nor flesh, but something ethereal and else, some yet-undiscovered material that my mother had not learned the secret of creating. Those parts of myself, incense doused and made whole, were all that did not belong to her.
My mother sensed this. She caught me on the stairs, twenty paces ahead of my bodyguard, and knew where I had been; she sniffed the incense that had settled on my hair.
“What must people think of you?” She stood with her arms crossed and laughed. “What must Caesar think? The senators? They probably think you’re mad—or doing something political.”
“Nobody goes to church.”
At last she forbade me to go. It wasn’t right for me to be seen there, she said—anyone who knew anything at all knew the story of her parthenogenesis; my existence routed all faith. Hadn’t she done herself—simply and without any trouble—what was prophesied? In any case, Caesar would think us no better than peasants.
She asked me why I wanted to go out into the dirt, into the soot, why I wanted to smell of sweat and fruit and onions, of the filth of the world.
“It’ll get into the wiring,” she said, and began to scrub at my ankles with steel wool. “I’ll have to spend hours fixing it for you, and then where will we be?” Her laugh was long and high-pitched and hollow. “I don’t know why you insist on going out among them,” she said. “It’s only the unloved that need to go to those places, and you’re the best-loved girl in Rome.” She began tinkering with the panels on my back. “Don’t you think?”
I had grown used to nodding. The panels at the nape of my neck often triggered it a half step ahead of my own thoughts.
I went anyway, sneaking out at strange, orange-lit hours, lingering in the marketplace. Sometimes I bought prayer cards from the women who sold reliquaries on the church steps and took them home, just to annoy her.
“You just don’t try,” my mother said when I returned.
My mother returned to her experiments. In my absence she filled her laboratory once more with objects both slithering and mechanical. She engineered griffins to guard the compound; she made pills that obviated the need for water, for grain, for meat.
She stopped sleeping. She locked herself in the laboratory, and at night I could hear the whirring of machinery: computer fans and bone saws. She did not speak to me, but her eyes were bloodshot, and even in repose her fingers scratched and picked at one another because she could not bear to sit still.
She built a robot with my face and tasked it with the domestic chores. She said nothing to me, but one day I came home to find my bed made and the dishes washed, and a girl with my old brown eyes staring at me across the kitchen table.
I pretended not to notice.
For Caesar she worked harder than ever. She worked on weapons, on bombs and spores. She no longer admired him. He too had failed her. He was weak in private—easily ruffled. She was too clever for him. She explained her formulas to him and he did not understand them; he only nodded—like an owl, she said—and sent her on her way.
Rome was not enough for her. She had come to hate it. She hated the obsequious waiters and the motorcycle oil that pooled up between the cobblestones. She hated the marketplace sounds: the squawking of chickens, the hawking of squid.
“They don’t realize how much better I could do,” she said. She had stopped speaking to me; instead, she had taken up the habit of addressing the robot to whom she had given my eyes, inevitably in my overhearing. “You understand that, don’t you? I could give them something worthwhile.”
Nothing was worthwhile. She stood at our window and pressed her palms against the glass; at times she muttered curses at the passersby below. They did not understand her; nobody could understand her. Did they not know that the medicine in their drinking water, the fortifications in their joints, the serenity of their sleep—all this they owed to her?
I watched her from the doorway, tapping my feet upon the threshold, and relished her unhappiness. I was one of them, after all, with my still-beating heart, my left arm still fashioned of flesh. Like them I had the power to disappoint her.
One night she came into my room, woke me two hours before dawn to tell me she had discovered it—that through which all things would be purified. She had molted, melted, melded; she had alchemized and vaporized and at last she held in a ball no bigger than a thimble the secret to the beginning and the end, the proof of her greatness, the seal of her wisdom, the stamp of herself.
She would not let me sleep. She flung open the curtains; she stomped dust from the carpets; she dragged me into her laboratory and there, humming with joy, she revealed to me a small and spinning black sphere, the size of my rosary beads.
“You see?” she said. “I’ve done it. I’ll show them, now.”
“What does it do?”
Her laughter echoed from machine to machine. “Everything.” It realigned asymmetries; it gathered viscera into geometrical shapes. It took cells and rearranged them in her image. It could cure congenital deformities, she said, from the inside out.
“Is it safe?”
“What do you take me for?”
She told Caesar she wanted to test it. She asked for five hundred men. The response came swiftly, on printed letterhead. It was too dangerous, he said. Perhaps she would be content with rats?
All night long she raged, throwing beakers and jars against the wall. The maid with my face scuttled behind her, sweeping up the mess.
“You see how they’ve treated me?” she said. “They’ve made me a laughingstock—and it’s because of you! You think they don’t see you walking out alone, by yourself? You think they don’t wonder what kind of influence I am, letting you go out among the plebs? You think it’s not your fault?”
I had no answer for her.
She grabbed me by the shoulders, fixed her gaze on mine.
My eyes were made of electric sparks, and they gave nothing away.
The next morning my mother took me on our customary walk to the Capitoline, to see where her name had been inscribed upon the wall.
“It’s a wonder they’ve got the balls to leave it up,” she said, “if this is how they’re going to treat us.” She took my hand. “Come. We’ll go to the Forum. We’ll have a picnic.”
We sat once more on the pillars; she spread cheese on bread—a rarity, now; she almost never ate food. Together we turned our faces to the sun. She pressed my cheek against her breast and ran her fingers through my hair. The crimson light of the dusk had settled upon her cheeks, and in that light she was beautiful. I leaned against her; her body was warm on mine, and I do not know if I have ever loved her more.
“It’s only that I wanted to give you the world,” she whispered to me. “It’s only that I love you, and that nobody else really can.”
She began to hum—quietly at first, and then loudly enough for passersby to stop and stare—hum until every panel and every wire and every metal bolt within me began to vibrate with the beauty of it.
Fa la ninna, fa la nanna
nella braccia della mamma
Fa la ninna bel bambin
nella braccia della mamma
It was only when she stopped singing that I realized what she was about to do.
There was a flash, and then there was no more world.
We can never go back. From time to time I don the necessary helmet and walk alone along the ramparts of the old city.
The men at the border press their foreheads to the floor. They retreat into their elevators and then I walk alone past the Colosseum, past the legless statues, the bones of stray cats. Now all seven hills are dust and shadows, and so alone I go to Pompey’s Theatre, to the stultifying emptiness of the Hippodrome where even the eagles are dead, and alone I venture into hollowed-out tramcars; the upturned Pantheon; the parks on the Janiculum, where the vines reach all the way to the river, which has not flowed for twenty years.
I walk until nightfall, and there is no sound but my footsteps, which is like no natural sound and which sickens me still. I go alone to what’s left of the basilica, to pray, and when my knees fall to the earth the clang echoes in my ears and it is the only sound left in the world.
Sometimes, briefly, I forget, and I think that I am home.
There is a caesura between all that was and all that is, between the city I loved and the city that I know now, between my mother’s city and my own.
My left arm is gone now; it was the only part of me that could not withstand the blast. I screamed from the gurney for them to let it be: it was withered and misshapen; it was all that was left of her. But in those days nobody knew what was happening, or how long the effects would last, and there was a fear the spores might spread. They cut off the arm and burned it; two hours later they placed Rome under quarantine.
Caesar died instantly. In the wild and wrecked months that followed, in those frantic and fevered weeks of dead burying and barricading ourselves indoors, we went on without him. Those of us who survived were those with false arms, false legs, false eyes, bearing, all of us, my mother’s seal.
If the others suspected what she had done, we never spoke of it. To condemn her was to condemn her works; we could not afford to lose her genius now.
I was her keeper, in the end. I was the one with keys to her laboratory; I was the one who knew what she had built, who knew how it all worked. I was the one who taught the others how to secure buildings, far from the seven hills, how to keep the spores out.
I was the one without flesh, and so I was the one who could walk in the old city, unharmed. They sent me to count the dead, to take names and photographs, to remember them. I was the one who reported to them that my mother had died with the rest. I lied.
Her face is withered; her skin is green. She rasps when she speaks, and it is only because I know her so well that I am able to understand her. She lives on the Capitoline, in an empty tramcar, waited upon by the sightless servant who bears my face. She inhales poisoned air and engineers her own temporary remedies. I bring her pills, in as many different flavors as I can invent, and she insists that I am lying to her.
“That’s not how it happened at all,” she says. “There was nothing wrong with it. I checked it—twenty times. I made no mistakes.” Her story changes. Sometimes she insists that it was Caesar’s conspiracy, that he altered the formula behind her back, that he was jealous of her power. Sometimes she insists that I must have tampered with it in the laboratory, that I must have turned a dial too far in the wrong direction and forgotten about it, and so this is why the world has been destroyed. Sometimes, the worst times, she tells me that we are better off now, that this is only a temporary setback, a necessary ellipsis between the world in which I was born and the world she knows that I deserve.
She asks me about the laboratory, about my research. Sometimes, when I reach an impasse in my experiments, she is the one who tells me what to do next. She slips me formulas, chiseled into slate, and reminds me to polish her inscription at the gates. I carry the weight of her on my back when I go.
“You’re alive,” she says. “And that’s what matters. You’re alive, and they know us now. By our works, they will know us, and you will lead them into tomorrow.”
They made me Caesar. I never told her. It was the only way I could think of to punish her.
Last night I told the Senate that I have found the cure, that I have made perfect my mother’s research. I told them I have engineered a device that will destroy all the spores and purify the air once more.
There is only one problem, I said. We will have to destroy it first. We can’t risk a cell, a speck, a single gangrenous dot remaining. We will atomize the ruins, the colonnades, the vines; we will level the seven hills, and then—when everything is ash—we can rebuild.
They murmured “hail,” and licensed me to do as I see fit.
Tomorrow, I will put my seal on the decree, and then men in gas masks will tear down the ramparts of my childhood places; tomorrow I will erase my mother’s footprints and the sound of her voice from the face of the earth, and in the smoke of the earth I will bury her. I will walk out into the world she has left for me, and then with two sticks and a match I will build her up again.
“The Destroyer” copyright © 2016 by Tara Isabella Burton
Art copyright © 2016 by Ashley Mackenzie