A Mastery of German34 min read


Marian Denise Moore
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Originally published in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (Aurelia Leo, 2020)

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city except for the occasional Category 5 hurricane. He has a sixth-grade education but has always held some type of paying job. However, if you ask him a question in German, he will answer you without hesitation in an accent reminiscent of the region around Heidelberg. I still remember watching one of our Belgium-born board member’s eyes widen in shock as Victor—that’s his name—responded to a question in German. The executive immediately asked Victor where he had served in the army. No, he did not serve in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter, for as I said, he had rarely left the city and has never actually left the state. 

Victor Johnston was sixty-five then and secure in his position as an elder, so he laughed in the manager’s face. If asked, Victor could have also told the manager what it felt like to be an eleven-year-old girl and how it felt to have your period start thirty minutes before you left for school. But the executive did not ask those questions. Their conversation was brief, so the manager didn’t notice that Victor’s vocabulary was stuck at the level of an eighteen-year-old girl, my age when my family returned to the U.S. after my father’s third tour of duty. He turned to our second trial subject and missed the problem and the promise of Engram’s newest spotlight project. That was exactly what I planned.

“We need a win, Candace,” Lloyd said. He pulled his hand through his sandy hair, got up from his desk and checked the door to his office which I had already snicked closed. The move disguised his need to pace. I had struggled when describing him to my father. He was tall, but with too much nervous energy to be a golfer. I had decided on a retired track star who had graduated to the coaching ranks.  He stood beside the desk now, too high-strung to sit down.  Despite the chill of the room, his jacket was slung over the back of his chair.

We need a win. Translation: “I need a win.” No difference. Lloyd was my supervisor. If he won, I won.  

“I thought you wanted me to hang back and shadow Helene?” I said.  

“Yes, well. About that,” Lloyd sat on the edge of his desk. “I need you to take over one of Helene’s projects. She’s taking leave early.”

“Before June? Before the bonuses are calculated? Isn’t one of her projects on the spotlight list?”

I watched the flicker of annoyance cross Lloyd’s face. Poor Lloyd. Saddled with two women to mentor—even if one of them did bring him plenty of reflected glory. I was willing to become a second star in his constellation. I had moved to New Orleans because of the opportunities presented by a new and hungry company. 

“Doctor’s orders,” Lloyd said. “Nevertheless, she says that she will be checking in occasionally. That should be enough to keep her from losing out on a bonus because her baby decided to raise her blood pressure.” He took another nervous pace to the door and back.  

“I want you to take the Engram project,” he said. “It’s not on the company bonus timeline. But I need you to either kill it or bring it to some sort of conclusion. The technical lead is giving Helene the run-around.”

“I’ve never heard of an R&D project named Engram,” I said uncertainly.

“Because it is more research than development, I suspect,” Lloyd said, frowning. “You need to talk to the lead. I think that he told Helene that he’d gotten approval on human trials.”

Lloyd hailed his computer and directed it to send me the project plan. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate as the new task jostled itself into my short list of responsibilities. ‘Kill it or bring it to conclusion’ sounded like an execution order.

I should tell you what type of company Engram was at that time. For one thing, Engram wasn’t the name. The name of the company was QND, named after Quinton Nathanael Delahousse, a MacArthur-recognized geneticist from LSU. QND was renamed Engram when it became the most successful product. When Lloyd handed me the Engram project, QND was five years old and still a startup as far as the tax laws of Louisiana were concerned. Some of the founding staff wagged that QND stood for “quick and dirty” because most of the projects were out the door faster than any other pharmaceutical company. During the first five years, most of our products were generics of existing drugs. None of them were the fame-making formulations that the Delahousse name seemed to promise. The spotlight projects were the high-risk, high-yield portfolios that QND hoped would support them after the state tax credits expired. Helene’s spotlight had been underway since the company’s founding and was finally coming to a close.

I weaved my way through the alleys of cubicles on my way back to my desk. Pausing, I poked my head around one of the seven foot walls of textured fabric. Helene looked as busy as I anticipated.  She was on the phone, firmly rehearsing the steps of some procedure or another. Her voice was level but I could see the lines around her mouth deepen as she became more annoyed. The desk was full of folders, no doubt one for me. Helene was famous for killing trees. She’d had one presentation crash and burn because of a hard drive failure one day before an implementation review.  

Glancing up at me, Helene nodded and tapped a cream folder on the top of the stack. “Yours,” she mouthed. 

I took the folder and retreated to my own austere desk. I dropped Helene’s folder into an almost empty desk drawer where it could rattle around with the one pencil and a cheap ad pen. I promised myself to check it for notes in Helene’s handwriting before I shredded it.

I tapped the keyboard embedded in my desk and brought up the project timeline that Lloyd had already sent me. Within ten minutes, I kicked my chair away and stood over the wavering image of the project plan. Pages of bullet points were followed by empty spaces. Months of deadlines blinked in red because the dates had passed with no input. Pushing the display back into the desk surface, I leaned over it and silently cursed Lloyd, Helene, and the entire board structure of QND.

I was still standing when a triple rap came on the metal frame of my cubicle wall. I looked up from my angry notes to see Helene. She pulled my rolling armchair toward her and lowered herself into the padded seat. Helene was ‘all baby’ as my elderly aunts would say. Her arms and legs were toned and model thin from years of yoga—she was always inviting me—and her face was the polished nectarine of a southern aristocrat framed by frosted blonde hair. The baby had concentrated all of its gravitas to her middle and she sat solidly in my desk chair with one hand perched protectively on the beach ball protrusion above her lap. Do I sound jealous? Maybe I was. It didn’t matter that it had taken four years for her to become the yardstick by which I was now judging myself.  

 “What do you think?” she asked, pointing through me to the display on the desk. “I suggested that Lloyd give you this project,” she added before I could answer.

“There are a lot of empty spaces in this plan,” I said carefully.  

“Yes, I know.” Helene’s eyes seared the surface of my desk pointedly. “There’s more in the folder that I gave you. Desmond’s not fond of filling out status reports. I have to drag information out of him every week. Maybe he will respond better to you.”

I felt my back tense, but I retained my casual posture. And why would he respond better to me?

“When is your last day?” I asked instead. “Lloyd said that you will brief me on the project. Why is it so open-ended? That isn’t QND’s standard procedure.”

Helene flipped her wrist over and examined her watch. “My schedule won’t allow that,” she said. “Desmond is in the downtown office today. You should introduce yourself. Ask him to brief you.” She flipped an errant strand of blonde hair away from her face and I saw the sheen of sweat.

Leaning over, I thumbed down the heated fan that sat beneath my desk. Immediately, the chill of the air conditioning rushed into my cozy enclave. When I checked the caged thermostat that morning, someone had managed to set the temperature to sixty-five degrees. I wasn’t the only one on the floor wearing a sweater, but Helene was not one of us.

“Tell me about the team lead then,” I said. “You said that his name was Desmond?” I wanted to sit down, but I didn’t want to sit in the lower visitor chair. “The team lead isn’t a geneticist?”

Helene looked at her watch again. “Desmond is Dr. Desmond Walker,” she said. “I’ve known him since—” she shrugged. “Before QND. He and my brother were at Jesuit together. Delahousse was impressed with his research work at Hebei University in Shijiazhuag.” Her tongue stumbled over the Chinese names. “I believe his medical degree came from MeHarry in Tennessee. Have you heard of MeHarry?”

Only one of the best medical schools in the HBCU universe, I thought, but I only nodded.

“I had never heard of it,” Helene said. “Dr. Delahousse was very effusive. I say this only so you understand—Desmond is a favorite. He has had results; I’ve seen the animal trials. Give me your phone?”

Helene fiddled with the calendar function and announced finally. “Desmond has an opening in two hours. I will add you to his schedule and you can get your questions answered. This should be easy. Let Desmond continue his research while you fill in the paperwork to appease Lloyd. I would have done more, but—” she patted her burgeoning belly “—this afternoon I have to review the press conference release. And then, there’s the review of the drug insert that we negotiated with the FDA.” She began to rise.

“You’ll come with me for the initial meeting,” I said quickly.

“You can do this,” she said frowning. “All you have to do—”

“I would rather if he doesn’t know that I’m his new PM immediately,” I said. “You didn’t include that in the meeting invitation, I hope?”

“You should not ambush Dr. Walker.”

Oh, he’s Dr. Walker now, I thought. “I don’t plan to,” I said. “I want him to explain the project without the expectation that I know anything. I’ll read your notes.” I pulled the slim folder from the desk drawer and slid it over the recessed keyboard. “But I don’t want the type of canned rosy explanation that is created for a new boss. I want to really understand.”

Helene sighed, but I knew that she was conceding. “We’ll both be working through lunch in that case,” she said. “Pass by my office in two hours and I’ll take you down and introduce you.”

Desmond Walker’s office was a surprising modern emulation of Victorian clutter. Almost every surface was covered with personal effects. An electronic frame displayed a selection of cruise photos of his wife and two young sons at some Caribbean-looking location. There was one tall bookshelf on which some books were neatly arranged and others lay on their sides, titles obscured and edges stained from use. Framed awards lined the walls, their lettering too small to read from my chair. Instead of focusing on them, I kept my hands in my lap as Helene ran through a brief introduction. Keeping her promise, she informed Dr. Walker that I was being introduced to all of the technical leads in Lloyd’s division.

And why had that never actually happened? I wondered as I watched Desmond Walker’s gaze shift from Helene to me with some wariness. He was tall, barrel-chested, and—as I had surmised from his choice of college—black. He was darker than I expected and probably in his late forties; but I was constantly fighting my expectation that all elite Black New Orleanians—the ones who could afford private schools like Jesuit—were Creole and the expectation that all Creoles were light-skinned. His hair was cropped as short as my father’s, even though he had grown up in an era when dreadlocks were the cultural standard. But one could hardly carry dreadlocks into one’s forties, I told myself.

“You’ve been here six months,” Dr. Walker said slowly. “Have you worked in biotech before?”

Meaning, I thought, ‘You’re young to be in management. What experience do you have?’

“No,” I said. “I worked four years at BASF in Germany—two years at Exelon in Chicago and two years at Tenet in Dallas. When I interned at BASF, I realized that I was more interested in the process of seeing a project to completion. I found the political juggling for resources exciting; most people find it infuriating.” I gazed firmly into his eyes, silently willing him to be impressed.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Helene frowning at her buzzing wrist. Oh really, I thought. Did you arrange for a phone call just to get out of this meeting? Then my phone rang.  

“Sorry,” I said and turned the sound off without checking the screen.

Five minutes later, one of the framed paintings on Dr. Walker’s wall faded to grey and lights began to chase around the frame’s edge. Dr. Walker glanced at Helene and tapped the answer button on his desk.

“Walker!” Lloyd’s voice barked from the pewter surface. “Is Helene there? Her intern thought she was meeting with you. I haven’t been able to catch up with her.”

“It’s on speaker,” Dr. Walker said sotto voce and nodded to Helene.

“I’m here,” Helene called out. “Sorry, Lloyd. I was introducing Candace—”

“Have you seen outside?” Lloyd said. “Walker, turn your screen on. I’m sending you a feed.”

The leaden display changed to a confused video of figures clad in jeans and pullovers shouting at men and women in business suits. The targets wore lanyards; each was zigzagging around the protesters, badging the lock quickly, and slipping through the office doors. Occasionally a member of the office staff had to throw up an arm to deter some demonstrators from following.  

“That’s right outside,” I blurted.

“What is this?” Helene asked.  

“They say that they’re here for your press conference,” Lloyd said.  

“The press conference isn’t scheduled until the end of the week,” Helene said. Knowing her habits, I was certain that the notes for the event were probably printed and filed at her desk. “I haven’t even announced it yet.”

“And yet, there they are. To oppose the Nil-facim project, I suppose.”

“Who the hell protests a cure for malaria?” Helene grumbled, her voice roiling off the walls of Dr. Walker’s office.

The video feed did not include sound. I watched the protesters organize themselves into a chorale that shouted at the glass doors of our office. I assumed that there must be a news team outside of the view of the cameras. Curious tourists were pausing, folding their arms and listening to the newly organized demonstration.

“Obviously, some people find it fun to protest a cure for malaria,” Lloyd said, his voice tight. “Do you have someone to send down to them?”

I felt Helene’s gaze land on me for a minute, but I didn’t turn to meet her face. I kept my eyes on Dr Walker and the camera feed.  

“No,” Helene said finally. “I’ll go down.”

“You don’t need that type of stress now,” I interjected without turning. “You might … you might invite some of them up to the office. One of the protesters and one of the newsmen, preferably one with a science background. A meteorologist?”

Walker snorted behind his desk, but I saw Helene’s initial smirk morph into something more thoughtful.  

“It might be useful to separate the leaders from the followers,” Helen said, rising. “You should stay, Candace. Desmond, could you run through your project parameters with her? It would be better if she got it directly from you. Is Lloyd still on the line?”

Dr. Walker looked at the indicator on his desk and shook his head. “He must have dropped off after you said that you’d go down.”

With a curt goodbye, she was gone. Desmond Walker looked at the organized chaos displayed outside for a moment longer and then returned the screen to an indefinite southern landscape of oak trees dressed in Spanish moss.

He hummed thoughtfully, leaned back in his chair and asked, “What do you want to know about Engram?”

“All I know is that it is some type of research on memory enhancement or memory retrieval. I looked online but the closest that I could find were some studies done around 2010. Some researchers taught rats how to run a maze and then found that their descendants were able to run the same maze without training.”

“Did you find anything else?”

I grimaced. “Five years later, some researchers were saying that the experience of American slavery was passed on to the descendants of the enslaved via the same process.”

“Yes,” Dr. Walker said. “That’s one of the few follow-ups to the research at Emory University.”  

He swung his chair around, pulled a book off the shelf and thumbed through it. “There hasn’t been much research on that angle since 2015.”

“Does your research indicate that the effects of slavery can be edited out?”

“The people downstairs are protesting our plan to edit one mosquito genus to remove its ability to carry malaria,” Dr. Walker said wryly. “What do you think they would say if I proposed to edit human genes to remove anything, let alone edit African-American genes? Tuskegee is always at the back of everyone’s mind.”  

He tossed the book back on the shelf and stood, stretching. “At any rate, QND is willing to do diverse hiring, but they are not looking to solve problems unique to African-Americans.”

“I’m not a diverse hire,” I said.

“I didn’t say that you were.” He considered me silently for a moment. “You have memories and talents that are unique, no doubt. Your time in Germany, for example. You speak German?”

“Of course.”

“Suppose I had a client who needed to transfer to Germany in a month. No time to study the language. Your knowledge would be priceless.”

“A knowledge of anything? What if I needed to know how to waltz for a Mardi Gras ball?” I countered.

“No. Dancing is mainly a physical ability. A waltz or a foxtrot has defined steps; physical coordination is critical. Language is a better fit, though I think that it would be difficult to transfer the knowledge of a language like Xhosa to someone accustomed to a romance language like Spanish.” He frowned as if the thought had brought up an avenue for consideration which he had overlooked. Leaning over the desk, he tapped notes into his desk surface.

“How are you going to get my knowledge of German into someone else’s head?” I asked. “Write it on a chip?”

“Injecting silicone into people has an atrocious history,” Dr. Walker said. “No, I am looking at a biological emulation of a human neural network.” He glanced down at me from his six-foot height. “Despite what I said about editing human genes, I am proposing editing in, not editing out. I would be giving you explicit access to memories you have already inherited.”

“I could give German to my children, but not to anyone else?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Was that a sufficient explanation of Engram?”

“Yes.” I looked at my phone and pretended to find something on my schedule. “And I do have another tech lead to meet, even if Helene isn’t around to make formal introductions. Thank you.”  

Dr. Walker nodded, tapping on his desk again. He had already half-forgotten me. I edged out of the office. Get a resolution or kill it, Lloyd had said. Engram with its limited application certainly seemed ripe for killing.

“Hey, baby girl!” a gravelly male voice bugled from my phone. I quickly squelched the phone to private mode.

I had the project plan and a spreadsheet open on my desk trying to find any pathway for Engram to be profitable. I was working on the scantiest of input from either Helene or Dr. Walker. Sooner or later, I would have to contact Walker.

“Hi, Dad. You know I’m at work, don’t you?”

“Yeah—but I was wondering if you wanted to do dinner tonight?”

“Are you in town?” I asked. “You come to New Orleans and didn’t tell me?”

My computer was insisting that I needed to take a break. I locked the machine and headed for the staircase. I was ten floors from the lobby. The staircase was private and a good way to burn off some of my aggravation.  

“Nah,” my father said. “I’m in San Antonio. I have this wall sized screen in my hotel room. I figured that I’d order in. You order in at home. We share a table virtually.” I could hear the humor in his voice. “You can invite Brad-slash-Juan-slash-Phillipe-slash-Tryone to the meal if you like. Introduce me to your latest beau.”

“You’re crazy,” I said.

One floor down, a door opened and someone pushed past me in a hurry to reach the next floor. I moved closer to the cinderblock wall to give the rushing worker room. “Are you still working off Mom’s script?” My mother had died two years earlier after a long illness. I inherited my organization abilities from her, according to my father.

“Yeah,” he said, “I still have the script with a few changes. Should I ask about a girlfriend? Want to invite Zawadi instead?”

“Not gay either, Dad.”

“Not married, either,” he retorted. “We left you all of those great genes, when are you going to spread them?”

“That was actually on her list?”

“Yes. First: ask her about work,” he recited. “So, how is work?”

“Challenging,” I said as I reached the next landing. “They haven’t figured out what to do with me.”

“Neither have I,” he said. “Second: ask her about her relationship status,” he continued. “And you said none. Surprising. Troubling. But I’ve checked that off. Third: are you happy?”

“I don’t remember that question,” I said.  

“I usually let you vent about work,” he responded. “That could go on for hours, especially while you were in Chicago. I’m glad you got out of there.”

“So am I,” I said.

“So, dinner? You can tell me if you’re happy over dinner.”

“I have piles of data to read, Dad. And a decision to make.”

“That sounds ominous.” His voice was a pleasant baritone saxophone.

“As they say, that’s why they pay me the big bucks.”

“So—no dinner? You’re not taking a break at all?”

“Dad, why are you in San Antonio? What are you chasing in Texas?”

“Your great, great,” I imagined him counting out relations on his fingers, “great, great, grandfather. The census says he was a stonemason.”

“In San Antonio?” I paused on another landing. “Do we have people there?”

“No,” he said. “Wouldn’t that have been something? I was stationed here for years after we got back to the States. It would have been nice to have family here to show us the ropes.”

“Dad—why this sudden interest in history? You always taught me that it’s easier to run forward than backward.”

“Dinner,” he said. “That’s a dinner discussion.”

I sighed.

“Make your decision tomorrow,” he continued. “Does it need to be today?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Good, we’re in the same time zone for once. So, eight o’clock. Please don’t bring pizza again. I expect to see a real meal on the table in front of you.”

He broke the connection and I trudged back up to the tenth floor. There was little sense in putting off the revelatory call to Desmond Walker any longer.

“Dr. Walker?”

There was a burble of voices on the other side of the line. Like most people at QND, Dr. Walker had disabled the built-in camera of his computer—which is why Lloyd had had to ask whether Helene was present earlier. It’s a team meeting, I realized. Of course, there’s an Engram team. If I closed down the project, I would have to consider what to do with the team. QND employees would have to be reassigned. If there were contractors, their agreements might require re-negotiation.

“Ms. Toil?” I heard Walker’s baritone voice ring over the cacophony. “Did you have additional questions from this afternoon?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I see you’re in a meeting. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow I will be in the lab. In fact, I’m leaving for the lab shortly. If there is something quick …”

“This will take some time. I’m going over Helene’s notes and the project plan. I am trying to reconcile the numbers for Lloyd.”

“You should talk to Helene,” he interjected.

“I will. However, you know that she’s taking an early leave, don’t you?”

“For the baby, yes, of course,” Dr. Walker said in a level voice. “But she will be back. There is no need for you to worry over the details of this project. I know you want to understand everything—”

“Dr. Walker, Lloyd has asked me to take over management of the Engram project.” I could hear the chatter die on the other side of the line. “I am the new project manager,” I said, realizing that I was emphasizing the news for an unseen group. I needed to be as clear as possible. “I want to start going over the project plan when you’re available.”

The line was silent. “Dr. Walker?”

“You should come to the lab tonight,” he said finally.

“Actually, I have a dinner engagement tonight.”

“The lab is on the Westbank—on the other side of the river. I am messaging you the address now.” I heard a murmur over the phone line. “I’ll be certain to update the system so that it’ll let you in.” The connection broke.

Well, shit, I thought. I should just let him sit there and wait for me. But on the other hand, I was considering shutting down the man’s team. I should give him the chance to make his case. If I got there early, maybe I could still pick up a decent meal somewhere and be home by eight for dinner with my dad.

QND’s lab was an odd pair of buildings on the west bank of the Mississippi River, still within New Orleans city limits. I parked, carded myself in and paused to wonder in which of the two buildings was Desmond Walker’s office. He had sent 201 as his office number, but both buildings had a second floor. I paused in front of the elevator in the first building, punched a button and listened as the antique mechanism inside woke up.

The first floor was dark, but I could hear voices. I soon spied a pair of figures, one pushing a mop bucket, both deep in conversation. The lights of the hallway connecting the diatomic buildings activated, flickering on and off, creating a virtual spotlight as the two walked. The elevator car arrived at the same time they did. Both men were vaguely Hispanic. The first nodded to me; the other ignored me, ranting instead about some local sports figure.

“I’m looking for Dr. Desmond Walker,” I said. “He’s supposed to be in room 201 but he didn’t mention that there were two buildings.”

“You’re in the right place,” the darker man said. He was the one who had acknowledged my presence earlier. “No one’s in building two.”

The two men trailed me into the elevator and punched the button above my second floor selection.

“I’m sorry if I’m keeping you here late,” I remarked, noting the skipped floor.

“Dr. Walker always works late,” the second man said. “Him, he has his own man to clean that floor.”

I noted the severe look that passed from the first man to the second. The second fell silent and stared at the elevator console.

“You not the reason we’re still here,” the first man countered. “It’s a big office—two buildings and all.” The elevator shuddered to a stop.

“201’s at the end of the hall,” the second janitor continued. “Ignore the other doors. It’s all one big room, but Professor Walker will be closer to the last door.”

“Thank you,” I said, stepping out. Both men avoided my face as the door clanged shut and I turned to the brightly lit hall. Despite the ’60’s exterior, the interior had obviously been gutted and redesigned. I was met with a gleaning hallway of glossy white tile, banded by polished steel and glass. As the janitor had mentioned, there were doors on my left leading into the work room; the only door that was open lay at the end of the hall. I could hear the muffled sound of jazz music from the local favorite station, WWOZ, echo off the hard ceramic walls.

Desmond Walker had altered his office attire slightly to match his current environment. A white coat replaced the suit jacket that hung on a nearby clothes tree. The tie had been loosened. He didn’t rise to meet me, but twisted around from his perch on a lab stool to watch me enter. Unlike his work office, this workspace was spare, the stark image of efficiency. The worktables held only computer interfaces and electronic equipment that I assumed were microscopes.

“Maybe you want to start by telling me why you didn’t mention that you were the new PM this afternoon,” he said.

“I’ve worked on projects where every morning the PL sent a smiley face to the PM as a status report,” I said, ignoring his lecturing tone. “That’s not what I wanted.” I pulled a nearby stool closer to me and gritted my teeth at the grinding sound of its metal legs on the tile floor. “Was there anything you would’ve preferred to say?”

“I might have given you more time,” Dr. Walker said.

“Lloyd gave me the project two hours before I spoke to you. I tried to read what I could before our meeting so that I could ask semi-intelligent questions, but …” I shrugged. “The project plan was skimpy to say the least. Helene’s notes don’t mention epigenetics at all.” I looked across at his stern face. “Did Helene never ask? Or did she not care?” I didn’t voice my more unwelcome fear—that he had spent QND money on his own dream project without consulting anyone.

Maybe my fear showed in my voice because he leaned over the worktable, thumbed a virtual keyboard to life and began pounding the keys with in fury.

“I am forwarding you the research papers I’ve published,” he said. “They go back to 2020.”

“Wait—QND has only been in existence since 2037,” I said.

“My research is why Delahousse brought me in,” Dr. Walker said tartly. “Didn’t Helene tell you that?”

“No—wait—yes—maybe. In her own way.” I peered over the images of papers on the embedded screen. “I will need someone to explain this to me. My degree was in chemical engineering, not biology and certainly not genetics.”

“Why should I waste the time of one of my team to explain genetics to you?”

“Because Helene may have been indulgent, but she reports to Lloyd just like I do,” I answered. “His directive was to bring this project to conclusion or kill it. Neither of which means that you get to run a pure research project that has no commercial application.”

He started to protest but I raised a hand. “Yes, I know—I could pass my knowledge of German down to my kids. There are cheaper ways to accomplish the same thing. I can’t see QND continuing to pay for this unless you have something more.” I paused. “Not unless you tell me that you have Delahousse on speed dial and can bring him in. Everyone gives me the impression that he started QND and then disappeared except for the annual board meeting.”

Dr Walker was shaking his head.

“No? There’s a story there, I’m sure. Listen, I’m willing to go to bat for you with Lloyd, but you have to give me something!”

Dr Walker was silent for moment and then brought up another file. “Sit down, I’m going to give you a genetics lesson.”

I groaned. “I don’t have time. I have dinner tonight with my father.” I was immediately angry at myself for being so specific. Walker didn’t need to know anything about my personal life. I needn’t have worried, for he ignored my outburst and continued talking.

“Do you know what a haplogroup is?” he asked. I shook my head.

“No?” he continued. “You’ve never taken a DNA test?”

“That’s my father’s thing,” I said. “I think that he had me do one of those cotton swab tests. He has the results.”

“Well, a haplogroup is just a name of the group of genes that you inherited from your parents. Your father can show you your results. Over dinner.” So he had heard after all. “Since the 2000s most people do DNA tests to find out where their family originated.” He displayed a chart. “You know that Homo Sapiens originated in Africa. Therefore, every human on Earth descended from one woman in Africa.”

The chart was shaped like a tree with a trunk labeled L0-Eve.

“If she’s Eve,” I interjected, “why is she L0? Not A0? Or even B0? Is it L0 because of Lucy?”

“Lucy was not in the homo sapiens species,” he said. “The labels were assigned in the order that the homo sapiens gene groups were discovered.” He clicked on the trunk of the displayed tree and highlighted two branches.

“Then let me guess. They started in Europe. And then, oops! Discovered that L0 was actually the oldest.”

I think he chuckled even though he hid it well. “No, but it doesn’t matter. L is a letter as good as any other. As my last paper indicates, I can give the memories of anyone on this line, say the L1b mutation to another person with that same mutation.”

“Helene said that you were ready for human trials,” I said.

“That paper was written two years ago,” he said. “Those trials have been done.”

I sat back down on a nearby stool and stared at him. “So when you said that you could give my knowledge of German to my kids, you meant now. Not, maybe after additional study.”

“Yes, now.”

“Then what are you working on now?”

There was a clatter in one of the darkened areas of the lab. I watched lights spring to life at the far end. Dr. Walker waved briefly. “That would be Victor. He cleans this floor.”

“One of the janitors said that you had your own man for this floor,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he paused. “It’s better when the team is deep in development that they aren’t disturbed by the cleaning staff.” He looked back at the screen. “You asked what I was working on now.”

I nodded even as I noted his odd sidestep about requesting one particular person to clean his floor.

“You’re African-American. Your primary haplogroup is probably one of the first branches of the L0 group.” He expanded one of the tree branches on the display. “If it were L1b, I could certainly give your memory to another one with that haplogroup. Right now, the team is verifying that it is true for every mutation down the line: L1b1a, L1b1a1’4, L1b1a4 and so on.”


“Excuse me?”

“Why is that important?”

“Because you’re right. Passing your knowledge of German down to your descendants is not commercial. But everyone on Earth is a descendent of L0. If I could give your knowledge of German to anyone that would be commercial.”

I felt cold and suddenly sick. “Does QND have a company ethicist?”


“Ever since Henrietta Lacks, I thought that every pharmaceutical company had some type of ethicist or lawyer or someone to vet their work.”

“QND was not set up like a normal pharmaceutical company, but I’m certain that we have lawyers. However, I don’t see the problem.”

“Shit.” I rubbed my temples, remembered my makeup belatedly, stared at the traces of mahogany foundation on my fingers, then looked up at him.

“Can you separate my memory of learning to drive, or German, or walking into this building this evening from anything else I know?”

“Not as yet,” he said cautiously.

“I didn’t think so. And if I agreed to sell you my German, how much are you going to pay for the other stuff? Learning to drive, the memory of my mother’s death, my first sexual experience? Because I sure as hell am not going to give you those for free!” I kept my voice low, aware of the figure moving around at the other end of the long room. “My memories are me after all. You’re proposing to sell me.”

Desmond Walker’s jaw was tight as he turned and closed down the screen display. “So you will close down the project,” he said.

“No.” I shook my head. “I’m going home to have dinner with my dad over a video screen.” I stood up. “I’ll even ask him my haplogroup as you suggested. I need to think what to do.”

“… and all of that history was sand. Easy to sweep away and ignore by the next generation.”

“What?” I looked up from my plate where, deep in thought, I had been pushing a meatball around the swirls of red sauce.

“Oh, so you are still with me?” my father said. “I wondered if you had rigged up a video loop like one of those crime capers that your mother loved.”

I stared up at him. Thanks to my new video screen, it looked as if I had punched a hole in the kitchen wall into a neighbor’s opulent bedroom. My father was centered in the window, but behind him hung a tapestry of an improbable frieze of two women in flamenco outfits standing in a plaza surrounded by market vegetables. It had taken two years but he could finally mention my mother without his normally rich voice wavering like a mourning blues melody. He stood out from his lavish surrounding, a slim dark man with grey hair cut as short as it had been during his army days. He was dressed in a black polo shirt and khakis.

“Are you still mulling over that decision that you needed to make at work?” he asked.

Smiling, I touched two fingers over my mouth.

“Yes, I know you can’t talk about work. But I saw something about your company on the news this evening. QND is GMO-ing mosquitoes. That isn’t your project, I hope?”

“No, but—” I decided to give into my curiosity. “What did they say?”

“Depends on who you listen to. Some say QND is releasing a genetic menace; some say that the company is a social justice warrior promoting a project that benefits Africans more than Americans.”

I shook my head as I pushed my plate away. “There will be a formal press conference later; but no, that’s not my project. I did hear most of what you said earlier. You found Josiah Toil. You talked about the buildings that he probably worked on. You said that you had reached a dead end. What does that have to do with history written on sand?”

A smile split his face and he laughed. “My multi-tasking daughter!”

Joining his smile, I got up and tossed the remains of my take-out dinner. The meal had been a little too good. I would have to hit the gym the next day. “Well?” I asked.

“Josiah had three daughters and two sons. The oldest son died in a Jim Crow prison.” My father frowned. “The girls just disappeared after adulthood. Do me a favor and don’t change your name when you get married.” I ignored the prompt and he continued. “You women are hard to find after marriage. I wish that Elene had insisted that we hyphenate our surnames. She had no brothers. So as far as I know, you’re the last of the Tolliver line.”

“Is that why you asked me to do the DNA test?” I leaned against the granite counter and poured myself a shot of sparkling water.

“Part of the reason. The gene company tries to find matches for you. The Toil genes passed to you from me and the Tolliver genes passed to you along the matriarchal line.”

“And all the way back to Eve,” I mused aloud.

Dad raised an eyebrow that the video caught perfectly and I grinned.

“One of my coworkers tried to give me a genetics lesson today. He said that some genes go back to the first human woman, Eve.” I bowed elaborately. “Where do the Tollivers hail from? My coworker said that DNA tests tell you what country you originate from.”

“Oh, you are old, Candace,” my father said. Reaching behind himself, he pulled a laptop from beneath papers and flyers stacked on the bed. “Haplogroup L1c”

My hands tightened on the glass. I had not expected to get my question answered so easily.

“From central Africa around Chad, the Congo, or Rwanda. Home of the original humans.” He looked up. “Sorry, that’s still a wide area. That’s where your shortness comes from. You were right to blame your mother’s genes for that. I can send you the results if you want.”

“Send it on.” My own laptop was still in my briefcase. “And the sands of history?”

“Candace, I was just trying to wake you out of your funk,” he protested. I watched him pour a sliver of bourbon into a shot glass. I insisted on an answer.

He looked away, sipped his drink once, twice, and then looked back at me. “I hit a wall; this always happens. Josiah Toil was just a Black laborer so his work wasn’t recorded. Every generation,” he paused, “like Black Wall Street, like all of the Black towns after the Civil War, like the Black miners at Matewan.”

“We know all of that,” I said quietly.

“No, we rediscovered all of that. It gets wiped away and then two generations later people say ‘we were kings and queens in Africa.’ Well, sure. But we were city planners, architects, engineers, bricklayers, and professors here in America.”

“And Army officers,” I said.

He chuckled. I was glad to hear real laughter after his bitter tirade.

“You can help me with a puzzle at work,” I added. “Why would someone insist on his own cleaning staff for a lab? He says he’s afraid the normal staff would disturb his team.”

“And you don’t think that that’s enough? Is he afraid that his work would be stolen?”

“The guys that I met worship the ground he walks on.”

“Does QND have a policy against hiring relatives?”

“Sort of. They don’t want spouses or relatives to have to do performance reviews on each other. But I think the cleaning staff are contractors.”

“You can ask, you know.”

“I doubt the guy who runs the lab—”

“No, the janitor. I doubt that your guy thought to swear his janitor to secrecy. He’s probably proud of the job. Ask him.”

Lifting my glass, I toasted my father.

“What’s a parian?” I asked, tossing myself into a chair in Desmond Walker’s office two days later. Not for the first time I wondered why a project leader had an office with a door that closed while I had a cubicle. Open door policy, Lloyd had said.

Desmond Walker made an elaborate point of putting his keyboard to bed and turned to me. “I think you know that it means godfather. Victor called me after you talked to him. He was worried that he’d done something wrong.”

“Did you ask the contract company to hire him?” I asked.

“He works for QND,” Walker said simply. “Contract companies lay their staff off whenever there’s a downturn.”

As I sat back in the visitor chair, I considered how to approach the real reason I had come down to Walker’s office.

“You’re not going to tell me that that is an infraction. Victor isn’t related to me,” he protested.

“No, Victor Johnston was only a puzzle that I wanted to solve. However,” I leaned forward, “I’m willing to bet that you know his haplogroup.” Walker stiffened and I smiled. “Humor me, Doctor Walker.”

“L1c,” he said and I felt relief spread through me like a wave. “Why does it matter? You gave me the impression that you were going to close the project.”

“I really don’t want to. Lloyd needs a dog and pony show. We,” I emphasized the pronoun, “need to give him a reason to continue your funding.” I sat back. “I’m still going to insist on an ethicist to help us draw up conditions of use. I’d like to see families have access to their memories before they are exported and sold to others.” Especially Black families, I thought, and shivered at the thought of accessing the memory of Josiah Toil seeing his son vanish into a prison that reproduced the slavery that he himself had escaped from.

“You are the one who pointed out that the ability to share a memory along one haplogroup was not commercial.”

“I’m certain that every haplogroup would pay for their ancestral memories,” I said. “Everybody imagines themselves the descendants of kings and queens. Every magnate wants to pass his genius directly on to his children.”

I stood up full of nervous energy. Suddenly aware that I was patterning myself on Lloyd, I stopped and gripped the back of the visitor chair. “I’m not asking you to stop your research. Eventually, it will occur to them that if you could share across one close genetic group, you should be able to do so with others more distantly related. They will remember that we are one human family.” I took a breath. “When that happens, I want standards in place for such sharing. And remuneration for the memory donor.”

“It sounds like you have a donor in mind.”

“I considered asking you. Or Victor. But your memories belong to your children. I’m proposing that you give my memory—my ability to speak German—to Victor. He would be the more dramatic demo for Lloyd.”

I saw a wave of anger mixed with—what? guilt?—cross Desmond Walker’s face. “You’re asking me to experiment on my family?”

“Victor and I are in the same haplogroup: L1c,” I said. Releasing my grip on the chair, I seated myself again. “You said that your human trials have been done. I suggested Mr. Johnston because he’s such a strong character. He would charm the board with his stories in English; he would certainly do so in German. But, if you have another subject I will accept that. Mind you, I want to meet the person that you propose to give my memories to before you do that. There are other options.” I paused and ticked them off for him.

“Second: if you tell me that you are ready now or even next week to transfer a L1c haplogroup memory to an IJ haplogroup subject, I would jump at that.” I saw his surprise at my naming one of the European haplogroups. Yes, Doctor Walker, I did my homework, I told him silently. “Third: if you want me to go to Lloyd and tell him to give us two years and we will have that same demo for him, I’ll do that.”

“You don’t think that he’d wait,” Dr Walker said.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“When do you want a decision?”

“By the end of the week,” I said. “That will give me time to float the idea with a lawyer and discuss what type of protection we can offer the initial subject.” I saw the word ‘protection’ enter Walker’s consciousness and wondered what machinations had been needed to have QND hire Victor Johnston directly.

I didn’t ask. Four weeks later, I watched with others in the lab building as Victor Johnston regaled that board member with his memories second-lining with his krewe on Mardi Gras morning. His German was as colloquial as a native teenager. Standing in the back of the meeting room, I clutched the legal documents that would guarantee Victor a position until he retired and a pension afterwards. As the memory donor, I had only insisted that the memories attached to my genes be given to no other person. I have frozen that moment in my mind: Victor regaling the board members after the formal test was completed, Lloyd smiling and nodding his head at my success, and Desmond Walker carefully defining the current commercial opportunities of his work and emphasizing the future possibilities.

I don’t know where Victor Johnston is now. Eventually, he tired of being a guinea pig; he tired of having that ‘bougie Black girl’, as he called me, in his head. No use explaining that I could not be extracted. He disappeared and Dr. Walker would not tell me where his godfather had moved. I could have queried human resources and found out where his checks were directed but I respected his wishes. I moved on; I listened to my father and started to date again. The Toil and Toliver family chart is waiting for another entry. I may be the last generation to pass down my story the old-fashioned way.

  • Marian Denise Moore

    Marian Denise Moore grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and works in the city of New Orleans. An early reader, her parents encouraged a love of both science and literature. She’s been a member of two writing workshops: one led by activist and writer Kalamu ya Salaam and one led by author George Alec Effinger. Her fiction has been published in the anthology Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic, the online journal Rigorous, and the anthology Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora.

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