My Mother Believes in Chemicals by Callan Preece

My mother always told me that you’ve got to thank your chemicals. We’d sit together and I’d be on her knee and she’d tell all about them, about these hidden reactions, vibrations controlling and guiding you as you travel through a day, the movement of these things (imperceptible little things) that weren’t there but were and controlled everything. And it seemed like magic and she told it as magic. And she’d speak with that reverence kept only for sacred things. She’d tell me so often and I’d remember her by those talks, the ways that molecules danced through her words, and then when I was older and could know more she’d tell me the bigger things—how our thoughts were only thoughts; how they were colourless and clear and meant nothing; how it was only our chemicals that gave them depth. How it was chemicals that turned the world wicked or sweet or beautiful or wrong. How it was chemicals that made you miserable when you skimmed your knee or how it was chemicals that filled your heart when you saw the right people. It was chemicals that meshed and held the world together and meant everything, and when she’d talk about them you could tell even then that she was afraid. All the bonds that bind. And when my father died and there was all that crying and the way tears make us look old, I remember my mother told me then to thank my chemicals: because otherwise it would have meant nothing: because otherwise there was just a hole in the ground with a thing in it that once was and now wasn’t. Chemicals, she said, chemicals are everything. 

She was fascinated by the science of it all. 

 After whenever I visited home from university she’d want to read my textbooks; she’d scour through them and ask about the symbols hieroglyphing the pages, the long strings of letters and numbers with unpronounceable names that signified amino acids or β-pleated sheets or polypeptide chains. 

She’d look and she’d say, See here are all the chemicals. 

 She never graduated high school and she didn’t understand most of it, and she blamed that on the chemicals too. She’d say that I was lucky to have all my father’s chemicals, that my chemicals had arranged themselves so nicely and cleanly within me. We’d sit with a textbook between us and she’d marvel and wonder and all that time it was hard to imagine all those reactions leading her to her words, and then it was always back to the chemicals, and then her telling me to thank my chemicals. All the things that come from chemicals. All the bonds that bind. 

 She was so hopeful of me, she contained so many thoughts; when I failed some classes and dropped the master’s program she was so disappointed seeing how I couldn’t live up to that approximation, that ideal that existed inside her. I remember she didn’t say much of anything for a long time and then came the day of the phone call and all the crying—the way her voice travelled through space upon waves, the tears and crying and how she was so sorry that she’d given me her chemicals, how her chemicals had ruined everything and if she wasn’t there then maybe things could have been different. 

I told her, Some things just happen. 

And she said, If only your father. If only your father. 

Because everything seemed to trace back to him, all memories and emotions caught inside his name. She cried on the phone talking about him and the bad chemicals that made me, and I listened but by then I didn’t remember my father and I couldn’t understand her. But she kept talking about him until any memory at all became soft and malleable, reshaped to suit interests and ideas, and she spoke and you could feel her chemicals—their subtler function that rewrites and misremembers all the bad things until you can become almost nostalgic for the bad. The words and words and words through the phone and the way my mother remembered my father. Words, and then she was in and talking as she did about his work and all the important things he could have done if only he’d lived a little longer. And of course I never knew what he would have done if he had. By then it seemed stupid to ask. 

After the failed master’s I went and became a teacher, which I think disappointed her too but she never talked about it. Then I was busy and visited less and our lives seemed to diverge slightly with time, and maybe that’s why I didn’t at first notice how she’d started doodling these little chemical symbols— the α-helixes or molecular balances or long chains of interlacing acids. I’d come home and she’d sit there silent and draw. And more and more would appear around the house each time I visited. And they’d appear on the walls and the fridge, unframed like a child’s drawing. All these chemicals. I didn’t notice and then I did and then they were everywhere. She’d look them up on the internet and sketch them and she didn’t understand them. She understood them in the way cavemen understood a solar eclipse—as something ineffable and large and all power and somehow wrong. And she’d ask me about the symbols. We’d be in the kitchen and I’d be making tea and she’d hand me a sketch and say, What is it? What does it mean? And I wouldn’t know or couldn’t remember and that would disappoint her and you could feel the distant forming between us and I’d wonder at how lives diverge with time. Because my father would have known the symbol. He would have known and maybe that would have meant something. 

And there was the escalation of chemical sketches. 

Every time more and more and every time more complex and concrete, moving from simple shapes to giant and sprawling pictures that spanned pages and pages of A4 all across the living room; designs she’d copy; designs repeated again and again. Chemicals upon chemicals upon chemicals. Chemicals everywhere, big and small and everywhere. 

 I remember I stayed a week at Christmas and all that time she sat copying sections of the Human Genome from her phone, colouring the A’s and C’s and G’s and T’s in random bursts, forming a kaleidoscopic thing that stretched all down the hallway and past our bedrooms towards the bathroom. I’d wake up in the morning and she’d be there, prostrated and hunched and scribbling. Sometimes I’d say something and she wouldn’t hear and that would frighten me. Sometimes I wouldn’t say anything at all. 

 I made the food that week. I’d bring her a coffee and she’d tell me to thank my chemicals for being such a good daughter. She’d thank her chemicals for appreciating me so much. 

 On that Christmas morning we opened our stockings in the living room upon a mural of organic chemistry. All these bonds below filled with energy; life and sound and the small reactions that make up a world. We sat together with nothing much to say, a few presents around, and we drank prosecco. I remember how I kept filling her glass, again and again, seeing the bubbles rising and erupting, the fizzing substances, sometimes sneaking more while she wasn’t looking. That year she brought me plastic molecules for my classroom and I brought the wine, and I kept filling her glass and I hoped that maybe I could fog the world awhile, let her forget about the chemicals that swarmed inside her and inside me and existed as these small and giant things all around us. Those frothing particles. I remember finding the day almost easy in the haze, and how I forgot then about the scratchings and the symbols, how my mother seemed to forget and how forgetting seemed to a blessed and sacred thing. It was good; we were happy. I thanked my chemicals for that and my mother seemed so complete in the morning light. We laughed and drank and she asked me to open my molecules. They were arranged in a tight box: yellow and white and red and green balls with flexible grey rods to connect them. We laid them along the floor and my mother asked me to construct a world. I showed her methane and hydrochloride and oxides and I found it so funny that after all this time she still didn’t know their names. Shining plastics that I showed and taught her to build and she watched and she asked what the different molecules could do. She asked which could be found within us and which changed and controlled us and which were, in essence, the ones most deserving of worship. 

She seemed so present there, on the floor amongst these assembled things. 

 She was smiling and everything seemed so slow and clean and I tried to remember her like that—crystallise her as this smiling and listening thing. We sat on the floor of hydrocarbons for most of the day, eating our lunch and dinner there. We existed there and it was good and when she tried to talk about my father I skirted past the subject as best I could. When she tried to show me some more sketches I did the same. And we did laugh and talk and I kept filling her glass and my glass, colouring all the world prettier than it is, forming and moulding, letting the tints of the day run sweet, and I hoped all that time that she didn’t notice how I led things. We were with our chemicals, the secret vibrations and reactions that constitute our lives. The sounds of a good day and the haze of alcohol, and some time through that I asked if she’d see anyone after I’d gone. She said she wouldn’t. It felt almost mean to ask. And then it was like that different sort of magic, the breaking of a moment, and it was hard then not to imagine her here alone—not as a part of me but as this independent creature that existed here, in these walls, a thing constituted by its world, and there was something sad about it. The way her hands still hovered near her sketches. Strange considering how certain lives must be. And with the broken spell things were growing quiet, we talked less and less, all the sound in the world spoke less and less, and there was all this silence, and maybe you could imagine then hearing the little molecular movements racing around us. I thought it funny how quickly you can change a moment, and then how often moments can’t be remembered in particulars but only as the general feeling, just as a reaction can’t be thought of as its mere individual molecules. She asked when I’d visit again and I said I didn’t know. Her hands hovered over sketches. All the bonds that bind. I said I was tired then and made my way up the stairs, weaved through chemical charts and the genome that littered and dominated the hallway, the garish colours, the links between things, and I heard the rustling from below, the pens, and I knew that she was drawing. She was drawing the molecules we had made. 

I left the next morning before the world was awake. She was already doing her sketches when I brought her her coffee. We said our goodbyes but she barely turned her head and I didn’t much want her to anyway and I was ready to be gone. I said I’d miss her and that was mostly true and then I drove, felt the rumble and the road and travelled. And I thought that it was terribly unfair what our chemicals sometimes make us do. 


Callan Preece started writing short stories when he was 20, mostly telling small stories about small people that he finds interesting, occasionally veering off into things of a more historic nature. He has publications in Piker Press and New World Writing and hopes to be published elsewhere soon. Callan is currently training to be a math teacher though he expects that won’t last too long, economies being what they are. Mostly he’s just grateful for anyone taking the time to read his stories. 

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