Musings

Winter Fiction:
Selenium Valley by Thomas Leveritt

Our wintertime foray into fiction is an elemental tale by Thomas Leveritt, author of the novel The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money (Simon & Schuster). In addition to words, the half-American, half-British artist works in paint, film, and video.

Look at it this way: remaining life expectancy, or “youth,” always wins, and you have more of it than them. Yes, the undertaking is daunting. First thing in the morning, Maria still asleep, up with the bleary sun and fresh percolations of mountain air slipping through leaves, it’s easy to doubt it, to let what’s been discovered in the mine stay in the mine. There’s something about Business that puts a knot in your guts: feels like a class thing, similar to the Fear of Formal Dining. On one level you recognize this as one of the many internalized oppressions of any hexed system. Nevertheless on a deeper level, like a hangover, you can’t defeat it, only endure it, and the business world makes you jumpier even than the old styles of combat used to. In this at least you are grateful to have the hilarious American for a boss, with his airy disregard for personal safety. Your old colonel had the same quality, though he actually knew what he was up against.

Temporary confidence can be found in plant extracts. By the afternoons you’ll need deeper sustenance. Sometimes it’s your compadres’ enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s the sheer giddy balls of the thing. But sometimes everything is apprehensive, nervous as this thin, xeric soil that scatters from your feet. Useful for these times are pep talks from a sort of pantheon of lesser saints, dead luminaries, role models, and various other shinto presences that do, for a time, help you keep your shit together.

Jöns Jakob Berzelius, for instance, Swedish discoverer of selenium. One of many distinguished chemists of the nineteenth century; you’d argue the greatest. Berzelius really pulled it all together, more than Davy, Lavoisier, Klaproth. When Berzelius was born, oxygen was a new and not undisputed phenomenon; by the time he died, synthesis of organic polymers was commonplace. In the intervening years Berzelius had been a kiddish blur of energy, all clamps and blowpipes, nearly lost his sight once trying to reclaim gold from the fulminate, peeling back the layers of what were still God’s, rather than Nature’s, mysteries. By his death—apart from his massive and to-this-day accurate work on atomic weights (which incidentally gave Mendeleev the periodic table on a plate) Berzelius had proved six elements, established the makeup of countless ores, coined the ideas of catalysts, isomers, proteins . . . he discovered the electrolysis of salts in 1803. Only for it to be rediscovered by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1805. Well, the English only paid attention to developments on the Continent when they threatened actually to land in Kent.

And despite several lifetimes’ worth of labwork, Berzelius still found time for a bunch of wacky side hustles. In the 1810s he went into a joint venture with his former professor at Uppsala, Johann Gahn, discoverer of manganese, and industrialist Carl Palmstedt to manufacture sulfuric acid, vinegar, soap, white lead. This was not purely, or even mainly, a money-making exercise: chemistry in those days was an ad hoc affair, hardly a discipline at all, certainly not recognized as such by the University, and chemicals more sophisticated than potash or caustic soda were hard to come by—varying between “extremely scarce” and “does not exist,” depending on the wars that had ebbed and flowed through Europe, including Sweden, ever since Gustav III intentionally let them in. Berzelius was nine when the first Russian attack was faked, to justify a quick, successful little war.

In that respect, J.J. kept his head down. He stuck to the workbench, working alternately on “animal” chemistry, as organic was called in those days, and atomic weights, with occasional holidays into ore analysis whenever a meteorite punched a hole in some rural bondgaard. So he became the Meteorite Guy, and was soon doing more of that than he could handle. The alien mixtures of those space ores must have piqued J.J.’s summer-holiday curiosity about what mysteries lay under his own earth . . .

“Helvete, J.J.,” muttering to himself, “this country is infested with mining pits, you have arms and a shovel, what’s stopping you?” By the time of the great Congress at Vienna and what promised to be, this time, the absolutely final defeat of Napoleon, Berzelius was 36, halfway through the atomic weights, and had become the foremost expert at preparing chemicals from ore outside France, and probably inside it as well.

The Gahn-Palmstedt venture wasn’t the craziest, anyway, and it was undertaken from a position of fairly raw need: soon after graduating, Berzelius got a job preparing flavors of mineral water at his inept friend Werner’s spa. With a generosity so blithe it touched insanity, he had personally guaranteed bumbling Werner’s entire project. On cue, it failed spectacularly. Berzelius was living in lodged accommodation, which also belonged to Werner, somehow, and scraping by on the miserable government salary due to Paupers’ Doctor, Stockholm East. Werner’s creditors informed genial J.J. that he owed 1,000 Riksdalers. Berzelius swallowed hard but didn’t blink.

Over the next few years he collected other responsibilities, posts, and their accompanying salaries, and soon become at least as distinguished as his new business partner, Gahn, after whom he had, again very generously, named a new element—before “gahnium” turned out to be already well-known to the world as zinc oxide, and Berzelius was revealed as the clown of all Europe.

He bounced back from that, too. It took him ten years to pay the Werner debt off. But, madre de dios, he fucking did it. The point being: financial death is survivable, even for you, even down here among the maquiladoras.

And, more germanely: it was in that very factory that Berzelius’s attention was drawn to the strange golden-brown sediment that was collecting at the bottom of the lead chamber used for the manufacture of sulfuric acid. This sediment had not been observed in sulfur chambers elsewhere, which meant it was, presumably, some kind of impurity peculiar to the Berzelius-Gahn-Palmstedt process—or more likely, to the mine at Falun from which came the pyrites. Berzelius rolled up his sleeves and went to work on the sludge, and showed, in 1817, that this golden-brown deposit was in fact the compound of a new element, which should be classed with sulfur and tellurium, as a chalcogen of period IV.

More cautious this time, and having consulted with the old sage Berthollet, Berzelius decided to call this element selenium, from the Greek Σεληνη, moon. The German chemist Klaproth―under whom Gahn had, in his turn, studied―had named tellurium after the Greek for Earth, and since they shared so many characteristics, horrific smell for one, Bezelius completed the symmetry.

It’s symmetries like this, and the bumptious mischievous face of dear kindly old J.J. himself―you have a color print-out of an oil portrait of him, hanging behind the door, podgy as Churchill but with a head of crazified sandy hair, golden salt-and-pepper eyebrows that badly require trimming—it is thoughts like this, the gruff approval of Berzelius flowing down through all this space and time, that keep you resolved. You don’t need to defeat the American conglomerates—for that is impossible—all you need is to not die.

Any evening, in these calm buttercup hopes of the new century, a peace will reign over mountains and seething valleys. Chicleros in curled straw cowboy hats and tired army shirts will climb out of the pick-up, slap each other goodbye on shoulders and palms, and scrape their leather sandals in various directions home. Hellions scurry down the hill on fat feet to bury faces in papa’s stomach. “Esé,” running hands through thick kid-hair. Maybe, if the zapote trees have bled gum well, a piggyback’s in order. At home, minor paradises are waiting in earthenware pots, cooked up by the women, like alchemists’ gold, from fractions of earth.

Thick stone walls with wide barn doors give into dark cellar-cool rooms. There are no lights lit, apart from the several cigarette embers: Maria has friends over. But you can’t see yet and it takes a while for your eyes to acclimatize. Leaning a hand against the mottled, peeling walls, finding your way along BANG oh fuck those goddamn pails, one clattering like a tram across the tiles . . . laughter from the women, some sarcastic remarks, blood seeping round your toenail, ay se va? But you can feel the warm glow from Maria’s eyes, somewhere in that coven, finding dignity in your clumsiness.

Her family’s threadbare rugs hang from your roofbeams. Bridles from pegs by the door. A framed picture of Emerald in her First Communion dress, on the east wall, above the prayer table. On the prayer table, two picture-frames, hinged like a book, carry unlikely brothers: Simón Bolivar on the left, King Max of Mexico on the right. A Pepsi calendar on the west wall. And also: the framed print-out of Berzelius. After the long monopoly, your pantheon is broadening out again. Brass candlesticks, unlit, as tall as the boy, stand on either side of your bedroom door.

Your father-in-law is sat in his nylon folding chair and will reach out to shake your hand, the skin tight across his mummy’s face breaking into a wordless, toothless smile. He will shake your hand every evening he has left. As both of his liverspotted old grabbers close round yours, you can feel the strength flowing from you to him. It is one of his last pleasures, feeling the size and scale of your youth.

You will sit and talk and brush away the rumors the women try to spin around you, flimsy as cobwebs. Some say a zanjorín, a shaman, profound and discreet. They continue to spin when you are away, one day their rumors may weave into something bigger, a legend even, traditional in conception but sharper and with sunnier colors. They will be as surprised as everyone else at the pattern they have created. That’s okay. It’s been a long time since they have been allowed myths.

Before long the coven will have dissipated, gone shepherding their young back along the low boulder wall lining the caserio road, past champas with palm-frond roofs, the water pump, three-legged stools left in the street for general use—and bowing into their own adobes, in the brewing dusk, under a gathering of stars, to dinner with their men, the barking of dogs, quiet laughter from lit windows. Within an hour you will have mopped up the last of the sauce, had another cigarette, become a little drunk, and grown unable to see Maria as anything other than the seventeen-year-old tease you met a decade ago, fooling with the church bells in a village two hundred miles away . . .

Berzlius died in 1848. That was the year of the populist spasms all across Europe, even up in placid Scandinavia, the “inert” or “noble” countries. It was also the year the United States bought from Mexico the territories of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California, for $15 million, a stupendous bargain, though the presence of General Winfield Scott’s army in Mexico City may have helped secure advantageous terms. That was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and it marked the end of serious possibilities for Mexico.

Until now.

Explore another chapter in The Stories:
Beyond Mere Function: The Carl Auböck Workshop

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