A rough sketch of the doctor is hard to impress upon a reader. I’m not a writer. I’m a scientist. My descriptive skills are rudimentary at best, so I leave all the details to the man himself. He draws, in my opinion, a better picture than I ever could.
It should be noted that during each extended interview a young unnamed woman attended to Dr. Luors, bringing food and drink, and retrieving items or books he needed during our conversations. No introductions were made, but she was polite and discrete and handled him with latex gloves. All three interviews took place in his lavish personal library—recessed shelves, curio cabinets, and the faint tang of moldy paper and urine. His hospital bed sat close to a wall of windows presenting a contemplative view of the ravine below.
A: Ah, they’ll be asking that often, won’t they? [Teratology] started with Bimmy Phlogiston. There is no other beginning. She may also be the end. The Alpha and Omega, as it were. No other branch of science that I know of has one specific object of study, one single specimen. Except, I believe, teratology. And no other scientific study has been threatened to extinction by its subject. Though she held all of that inside of her. Little did I know.
—Felix Gifford, PhD, Editor, University of Eastern Indiana
Q: How did this all begin?
—Felix Gifford, PhD, Editor, University of Eastern Indiana
Q: How did this all begin?
Bimmy’s presence was brought to my attention by a research assistant, Dinesh Goas. I was a visiting professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. Dinesh was sampling groups of children throughout Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, collecting DNA that would shed light on the malformation of brain development among the inhabitants of river cities settled near the second wave of nuclear power plants. After the collapse of Savannah, Georgia, the rush was to understand the effects, you see.
Dinesh called from New Albion, Indiana, saying he had first-hand evidence of extraordinary mutations within a few families there. These consisted of extremely rare deformities: nascent wings, claws, chitinous patches. One young girl of about twelve, a foster child, displayed none of these effects. This was Bimmy. What he did find was that on both of Bimmy’s hands, the pollex was as long as her index finger. Also, on four out of ten of her fingers, her distal and intermediate phalanges were calcified together. Both, apparently, congenital conditions.
After spending two nights observing the foster family, Dinesh developed a headache and sharp pain in his right hand. By the third morning, what became his second fully functioning pollex was complete. I told Dinesh to scrap the DNA collection and to bring Bimmy back to Chicago. The foster family had no qualms about giving her up. And to no one’s surprise, we had a difficult time tracking down her biological parents. Over the years, I came to assume they’d died. It’s hard to imagine the mother surviving her pregnancy.
Q: So she wasn’t naturally or artificially radioactive?
A: No, she wasn’t. Scrutiny disposed of that theory. Her sievert levels were nonexistent.
She showed no residual radioactivity, which is found in all humans born after above-ground atomic weapons testing. [Assistant arrives with coffee and cleans crust off his eyes with a moist cotton swab.] CT scans and MRIs ended with insignificant read-outs and impossible smudges. Any fallout from the Savannah Fire was absent, as was anything from the Wabash River Valley Plant by New Albion.
She was pristine.
Q: How did the first assessments occur?
A: [Laughs quietly.] Dinesh begged off immediately, claiming anxiety at what more study held for him. A third thumb was enough. He was a young man, and I understood his concerns. I let him go. Since then, I have been the sole researcher in this field.
I brought her to my house. To my home. Just me and my wife, Janine. Janine brewed Oolong tea and put out mint cookies for us. Always striving to create a comfortable environment and social harmony. Bimmy appreciated that, I could tell. She was demure, even then, self-deprecating and prone to bouts of silence. She’d pull softly on her earlobe during breakfast as a way to relax. Though Janine took it as her wanting pierced ears.
I think Janine saw a bit of herself in Bimmy. They both had this mole immediately under their right nostril, on the cusp of the philtrum. Many months in with us, whenever Bimmy headed to bed, she’d give Janine a quick kiss on that divot, then turn on her heel and tiptoe up to bed as if the slightest creak could ruin it all. Like her, Janine grew up in a rural farming community. A small hamlet outside Columbia, Missouri. And I don’t know if you know this, but Janine had one hand. She lost her right one in her father’s hay baler. She was nine. He never forgave himself. But she adapted. I thought that’s why she spent so much time trying to create a homeostatic presence. She reviled asymmetry or any freakish behavior. Bimmy sensed this, too, I felt.
Later, when it was just her and me, Bimmy frequently would mention how she missed Janine. I never responded to these comments. Their sentiments were unfounded. I say this because Janine took to Bimmy. They spent the days and evenings together in Naperville, reading Alcott or the Brontë sisters, while I traveled into the city and tried to figure out which tack to take with her.
Days when she came on the train into Chicago with me were great. We toured the Art Institute and the Field Museum. Her favorite place to visit was the Shedd Aquarium. Sharks enthralled her. We probably spent close to three hours on any given day at the shark tank. I did have to stop taking her when I read that three of the blacktip reef sharks developed cancer simultaneously. While I’m not positive of the source, I did feel it was now a growing responsibility of mine to mitigate her effects. So I kept the research to my home. I transformed my two-car garage into a fledgling laboratory. Everything was moved to Naperville. Bimmy eased into a proper family life. Janine and I began to see her as our child. We even discussed options for home-schooling or enrolling her in the public system. But I always knew the result of those discussions beforehand. It wasn’t ethical. At this point, still early in my research, Janine didn’t yet grasp the depth of Bimmy’s situation. They napped together on the couch in the afternoon then rode bikes till supper. More than once, Janine confessed to feeling like she’d won a lottery she hadn’t entered.
Bliss changes you fundamentally. Chemically. You don’t want to wreck that in a person, not for anything. I’m not saying we weren’t happy. Our life during that period was quiet, low to the ground. Nearly undetectable. To each other. And here was this young girl. A possibility for family. Anyway …
After a year, my wisdom teeth came back. I was forty years old. Three weeks later, Janine began having phantom pains. She hadn’t had these in over ten years. They got stronger and worse until her nub began to bleed in the shower as she washed it. A scab formed. Within a month, her hand grew back. Janine was horrified. I documented everything. I photographed the hand’s growth and had her write up small journal entries. She resisted status as a mere scientific subject. It was before her fingernails had solidified that she owned up to herself and admitted that it was due to Bimmy.
All this time, Bimmy stayed in her room and didn’t eat much—spinach leaves or a scrambled egg. It got so her clavicle and sternum became especially prominent. As a teenager, she was long-limbed and clumsy, self-conscious of her figure. Anxious for breasts. When a brief case of acne broke out on her cheeks between freshman and sophomore year, Janine refused to drive her to the dermatologist. Because of this Bimmy once said she felt like a Picasso. She took to cutting small bits of her hair—such beautiful hair for a girl, always hanging down around her shoulders. The color of carbon. Really. She’d sneak into the bathroom and burn the hair in the sink. The smell was horrendous. We had to hunt for all the matches and lighters and throw them away. Scissors, too.
They didn’t talk much once Janine’s hand was back. I encouraged Janine to welcome it. She obsessed over how to explain the hand to her family and co-workers. She called off work again and again until she eventually quit. She shut herself in. Saw no one. Desperate for company, she drank white wine with ice cubes and played gin rummy with Bimmy at the kitchen table through all hours of the night. Then, her hand expanded past normal size. This was when her patience collapsed.
I was in bed one night. Janine screamed from the driveway. I jumped up and found her slamming her right hand in the car door, attempting a self-amputation. I rushed her to the hospital. Her hand was a mess. Hanging by tendons. The doctors said they could reattach it, but Janine coolly accepted her fate and said she didn’t want it. The doctors pleaded with her, but she was adamant. After that, Janine and Bimmy had calm, yet tense conversations in passing, rarely sharing a mutual joke or laugh.
But in the scheme of things, Janine’s was an uneventful example. More awe-inspiring was Alan Beaman, a neighbor boy who cultivated a bittersweet friendship with Bimmy. Two years younger, he was melancholic and aloof. In the backyard, Bimmy let Alan hold her hands and inspect her thumbs. Came to pass that, occasionally, he complained of seeing shapes he couldn’t discern and suffered intense migraines. I offered to examine him. In short order, I found the boy was tricorneal. Also, he had three times more rods and cones than I’d ever seen. He groped to share a development of colors he couldn’t describe. Triple the amount of rods and cones. Imagine. The colors had depth, he said. We interact with our senses on such a narrow plane, Felix.
But then, they glassified. His eyes. He had to undergo double enucleation. Never once did the boy complain. Amazing. He now works as a consultant to the Indiana School of the Blind.
Q: Were you ever afraid of Bimmy at any point?
A: My fascination and awe of her outstripped any fear I felt. Her intellect and wit took you over. Don’t forget, few besides myself, Dinesh, and Janine knew of her. Once you got past the morphology, she was a normal girl. Prone to outbursts and jealousy and infatuation. If I ate her leftovers in the fridge, there was a humorous way she’d proclaim me an infidel. The way the gap in her front teeth, the diastema, made a whistling noise when she said certain words: sugar, salt, sappy. She exhibited a mimicry stage where she attempted to copy laughs, particularly those of actresses. Astronomy was my favorite stage, though. I let her paint her room black and paste paper galaxies cut to scale, then according to ascension and declination. She ate astronomy up … I tell you now: she was the single most important person to live or still be alive—
Q: What’s the best conclusion you came up with?
A: She was—or is—a mutagen herself. A living gene that grafted onto anyone she came in contact with.
Her interruptions changed our codes on a nucleic level. She somehow manipulated the strong-force that binds the cell structure. That was my best assumption. Persistent analysis of her DNA showed no abnormal deviations. No chimeric composition. No Moebius linkage. Although, I did find a separate helix that had the function of being a dummy or hollow chain. It has no use at all from what I could tell. There were many false flags in her DNA sequence. Feints, if you will. Her eyes had a feline quality in their pupils, oblong rather than purely circular. I did a study on two or three others that had similar pupils, but none were like her.
I’m involved in a few cases from Papua New Guinea. They’re calling them miracles … but …
Q: What is the evolutionary advantage then? Why throw a wrench in the works?
A: My best guess at the time was that this was the future of genetics. Who was I to question evolution, life? We were slowly moving into a constantly morphing species, evolving day to day, not megayear by megayear. Nature had usurped humans and beat us to the punch. Nanotechnology was still a spark then, not like the burgeoning business it is today.
Can I just say here that I don’t think anyone foresaw the CERN Riots of 2010. The fanatical pseudoscientific flare-up that followed? The Hadron Cults. The Hawking and Dyson Churches … Or, for that matter, the subsequent discovery of the Queeron. I’m not crazy about the name they came up with, but, in a way, it fits. The unveiling of such an interchangeable particle was a swift kick in the head for all of us in the sciences, no matter what discipline you slaved in.
On the other hand, I think the Queeron could have a significant role in Bimmy’s make-up. I’m still working on that. As you can see, I’m a bit constricted. John Donne said no man is an island, but I’m—excuse me—pretty fucking stranded here.
Pardon my French.
Q: Speaking of names … did you … how did Bimmy acquire her surname?
A: I gave her the name because it suited her. The idea that combustible bodies held within them this substance, this phlogiston … it was a seventeenth-century notion. Wrong, but creative. Poetic, even. In a way, I saw Bimmy holding a new form of phlogiston in her. And my predilection toward the Greeks swayed my decision, as well. The girl would’ve been just as happy with no last name at all.
The day we went to the courthouse to have it changed, there was to be a football game that night. Naperville was humming with high school students. They clogged the streets, chanting, waving giant flags with their school colors, and pushing each other. I enjoyed it. All the excitement and noise. Bimmy was baffled. She didn’t understand that kind of social entanglement and demanded we stay and watch, but from a distance. She sat on the steps, hunched over—a bad habit—with her head on her knees, hands gripping her toes. Shoes: she hated shoes. Sandals were the most I could get her to wear.
It was here that I wondered how far she understood herself. What did she know about her condition? I had never sat her down and elucidated all the facts. Personal self-reflection is a sliding scale. And Bimmy and I refrained from delving into personal matters, if ever. For example: she never menstruated, so I dodged that bullet.
Later that night, I heard her upstairs in her room repeating the football chants from earlier with a curious lilt … like … like she couldn’t fully grasp what they were for …
Q: Can you discuss your dismissal from U of Chicago and your subsequent funding?
A: [Sighs.] There’s nothing more boring than talking about money, is there? There’s been many a screed written about this subject. I suppose the best way to approach this is to say that U of C and I had a falling out. But that’s too quaint, isn’t it? [Smiles.] Well, Basil Feinster, formerly of Oxford, was the guillotine for me. He spearheaded the collapse of teratology, supporting Pinon and Myaskov.
They all took turns writing those splatter pieces in Nature and the usual journals, dragging me through the rival mud. Larry Yates, the head of the department at the time, was a pushover and acceded to the pressure and let me go. He wrote my dismissal on a Post-It note. That slow bastard.1
What’s so humorous is how Feinster, Myaskov, and Pinon were all behind me in the beginning. When I first announced my findings. They were my supporters. But that’s how it always is, isn’t it? It was only a year before the rumblings began. Mutiny ensued. They rode my coattails and fled with their own research that contradicted me. You know the rest? They claimed that my results pointed not to genetic mutations but rather to the faulty nuclear plants throughout the Midwest and beyond. That the monstrous effects were more a combined product of unfortunate nuclear fallout from the Krasnoyarsk Disarming Accident.
Who would’ve thought we’d bring about the exact end we’d always tried to avoid? We’ve gotten good at clean-ups.
Oh, but the money. I’m not legally allowed to divulge the name of my current benefactor. Everyone knows it by now anyway. What can I say? He’s a generous man.
[Waves hand around, indicating the house.]
He has high hopes and has communicated instructions to me sub rosa. He wants to undergo gene therapy. To be ever closer to attaining this “phlogiston.”
I think he owns half of Uruguay.
Q: This all brings up an interesting point, Dr. Luors. What do you say to those who claim Bimmy never existed or that you’ve extended teratology past your understanding? That you’re a charlatan and a dissembler.
A: I resent that last one. Felix, you know this better than anyone. People are always going to find faults in my research. Let them.
I’m not a liar. I have pictures in these cabinets and all throughout the house. You’ve seen them.2 Bimmy eating oatmeal. Bimmy riding her bike. Bimmy listening to headphones in her room. Her portraits. The cant of her forehead, the bulb end of her nose. Then her thirteenth birthday party—her—her—her—her fourteenth … her seventeenth …
[Dr. Luors begins to hyperventilate. The assistant rushes in and holds his hand as she apologizes to me in English. She whispers to him in French. The assistant turns on a small machine behind the hospital bed. It whirrs then sucks in fluid. A gurgling comes from Dr. Luors’s chest. His breathing clears. Fifteen minutes pass until he can speak again.]
Q: Would you mind talking about your appearance?
A: [Points to left earlobe.] This is a bifurcation of the earlobe. The second one grew in after a month of initial study. Bimmy apologized, sensing fault, but I felt blessed in a way. Touched somehow. By that point, she was my daughter.
What else? My legs are absolutely worthless. Withered. I have a scale-like build-up on my spinal cord and my digestive gases are becoming pure methane in slow increments.
[Pause. Writes down something on a notepad.]
Our time spent was spontaneous and erratic. Unlike some people, Bimmy always accepted my appearance and my love: something Janine could never do.
I think I know when my marriage fizzled, Felix. When I suggested we change our last name to Phlogiston to help Bimmy’s transition. Janine had had enough, then, boy. She left me by year’s end. I haven’t heard from her since. Bimmy sent her homemade Christmas cards for a while.
Since then, this side of my face has sunk in. And my assistant recently found I’m diphallic. Much below the waist is numb to me.
Q: Do you feel much pain?
A: Of course. But there’s nothing I can do. For a while they had me on these lollipops coated with Exparyl, the pain-killer that was formulated in the years before cancer was devolved. They tasted fine, but the analgesic qualities were nil.
The pain has become another system in my body. I joke that if the pain disappeared, I’d go into shock and die. I’m a Buddhist’s nightmare.
Q: Do you believe in a god?
A: I’m a naturalist. That’s all I’ll say. Though Bimmy skirted the spirituality issue. Weeks before our Michigan trip, she confided in me that only a sentient god could create a disruption of nature like her. I didn’t know if she was serious or merely parroting what she heard on television and radio.
A local church in Aurora was eager to have her join their congregation. They offered to buy her time. I was too tired for arguments or ontological discussions with anyone.
Q: Can you speak more on the Michigan trip?
A: The last time I saw her was in Michigan. She was craving a view of a large body of water. She’d seen all of Chicago and wanted to visit the other great lakes. We found a Victorian port city up the Third Coast. There was an old hotel and decaying store fronts. Lots of flies in the summer. We sat on the beach and ate fresh fish. She took pictures of abandoned lighthouses and piles of cigarette butts. It was our only official family outing beyond Illinois. That summer she had a deep tan that highlighted a spray of freckles on her shoulders and up her nape.
At the end of the third day, she wanted to watch the dusk from the pier. Per her request, I walked to the end for a picture. I faced out. I waited. The sun set. She was gone. She wanted it that way, I could tell. No touching or recognition. No nothing.
I was sad, yet resigned. She was in her rights to leave whenever she wanted, monster or no. I returned to the hotel and wrote a letter to Janine as a warning, in case Bimmy decided to surprise her.
Nine months later I received a postcard in the mail via Florence, Italy. She’d made friends with a cult that revered her very essence. I fell into despair thinking of how exploited Bimmy was, but there was her handwriting, claiming to have found a place in the world. Why denigrate that? It was the last I heard from her.
Q: Have you ever contemplated suicide?
A: No. Never. I’m too interested in my condition to annihilate myself. I want to see how this all plays out. If I may employ a metaphor? I’ve always seen teratology as a mutation of the phoenix: unsteady and liable to burst into flame at any moment, but never emerging from its own ashes. Better that way, really.
Bimmy talked on and on about suicide as she reached her late teens. The only time I hit her was when she threatened to open her veins over dinner one night soon after Janine left. She’d been watching some French New Wave crap and thought it was fashionable.
“That was the 1960s!” I said. “Get a hold of yourself. You’re just a child, for God’s sake.”
She raised her steak knife, and I slapped it out of her hand, cutting my arm. She ate dinner with a spoon. We never dealt with the issue again.
Q: And what do you foresee for Bimmy Phlogiston? Does she have a place in life?
A: I think it should be noted that I didn’t coin the term teratology. It had been around for ages, but after my first paper “Interstitial Mutations in Rural Wabash River Valley Adolescents” in La génétique humaine (Marseilles, 2010), that damn Pierre Pinon wrote an email disclaiming my discovery and research as “an inquiry into the genetic sequence of a monster.” He said I was creating a “positive teratology.” The ass. He thought she was a walking Chernobyl. She was an atomic explosion without the terrifyingly beautiful part. She was just the terrifying aftermath. The liquefied organs, the saggy skin. Gamma burns.
[Pauses to touch jaw.]
You know what’s the funniest thing? This new set of wisdom teeth ache something awful.
[Assistant arrives to put Dr. Luors to bed.]
Addendum: June 2024
Dr. Luors died two years after our final meeting. His teeth fused together in the last year, making communication impossible. He was fed through a stomach tube till the end. It’s been said he died hysterically laughing. I was baffled at this last, sudden change.
His house in Pennsylvania was sold in a private auction. It’s tied up with the state in back taxes and is rotting. His belongings were put into a secure storage, official whereabouts unknown. I heard an Uruguayan attaché catalogued what was left. The body was cremated, but no one seems to know who possesses the urn. I say head to Montevideo.
The University of Chicago refused to comment on anything.
I’ve moved on from teratology, feeling a profound lack of substance in my work. I’m now in a genealogy library in northeastern Ohio.
Dinesh Goas moved to India many years back, and Janine Luors married an elementary school principal and died in a scuba accident off Puget Sound just months ago.
In a last ditch effort for more information, Dr. Luors’s French assistant couldn’t be reached. In fact, by my numbers, it’s as if she never existed at all.