His gifts to her were theory, patience,
equilibrium, and a pile of dirt—
industrial waste. He loved to watch his wife
aglow with determination, pursuing
discovery of a hidden element, past uranium,
by the light of her hunger. “I should
like it to have a beautiful color,” he said.
He would buy her boots to wipe at the Sorbonne.
Heated, she leaned over a boiling vat,
stirring her dirt reduction, hour on hour.
She looked like any skinny hausfrau
bent to her bubbling sauerkraut.
She looked like the first woman who would be
awarded a Nobel Prize, as well as
the first to fall to her knees before
a hill of brown dust shot through with pine needles
and press her filled hands to her face.
She boiled her tons of pitchblende down
to a scraping of radium nearly the size
of their baby’s smallest fingernail—just the white.
Proof of its existence, and hers.
It permeated their clothes, their papers,
peeled their fingers,
entered their marrow and slowly burned.
He mildly alluded to rheumatism.
He stroked her radioactive hair
with a radioactive hand.
Colorless, shining radium darkened
in contact with air. Chemically
much like calcium, it could stream
like calcium through her brain cells
in her later years alone
and make memories glow in the dark:
illegal schooling, unheated rooms,
subsistence on tea and chocolate. Lying
with her husband for a few hours’ sleep,
cracked hands and weakened legs entwined,
united gaze resting on the vial
of radium salts they kept beside them every night
for the lovely light it shed.
Copyright © 2013 Sarah Lindsay
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.