“How does it work?”
“It is not too complicated, Miss Dankwa, I assure you.”
“Yes, but I would still like to know. At least, broadly speaking…”
“Okay, if we are talking about broadly speaking…” Dr. Lekstewart fidgeted with his collar and put his pen and notepad on his desk. Ellen was holding her fiancé, Charles’ hand, and leaned toward the doctor, waiting for his explanation.
“It really is all about the expression of genes, DNA. There is a certain stage at which the embryo develops and some base characteristics are formed. That is when we make our intervention. Humans share a marvelously diverse pool of traits and features that we can tap into and make some features expressed more than others. Depending on what you want, we fine-tune the embryo to lean towards those features…”
Ellen felt Charles shift in his seat during the doctor’s explanation. His grip on her hand tightened. She wished Charles would ease up and tried to tug it free.
“That sounds great! So, it is all very straightforward then. No wahala?” Ellen asked, ready to breathe a big sigh of relief.
“You mean, no wahala?”
Ellen screwed her face and then waited for the doctor to explain further, but his eyes were drawn to his feet, and his gloved hands clasped into themselves.
“As much as the technology has advanced, there is still some ‘uncertainty’ involved in the process,” the doctor said, making air quotes when he mentioned “uncertainty” and then re-establishing eye contact with the couple.
“Will her health be at risk?” Charles demanded, leaning forward and putting an unnecessary amount of boom in his voice.
“No, not at all,” Dr. Lekstewart almost laughed. “In the end, the more we need to intervene, the likelier a mishap can occur. Not a miscarriage. No, no, no, no. A — let us call it — misinterpretation.”
“Why would there be a need for more intervention than usual?” Charles asked, his grip had tightened by a notch. The boom down an octave too.
“The closer we are to the specifications you request,” the doctor looked purposefully at Ellen, “the easier it is for us to ensure a high-quality intervention. A clear interpretation, let us say,” the doctor said plainly. He removed his glasses and pinched the arch of his nose before putting them on again, affording his guests the time to digest what he had said.
“I don’t necessarily get you…” Charles broke the silence with a croak. Ellen, however, was putting it together. She had been the one to engage the doctor online and had answered his preliminary survey. The doctor knew what she wanted and she was confident he could deliver.
She turned herself slightly and observed Charles. Not in the way she had done before on many occasions. In bed, his heaving body on top of hers. Or, before he went out on his runs, muscles stretching the natural limits of the elastic. When he returned, the fine sweat and heat emanating from his body. A delicious man. Now, her eyes were seeing him differently. His thick hair. His dark eyes. His black skin.
Charles must have felt Ellen’s eyes on him as he turned to look at her. She smiled at him. A loose smile. A half one. It was one she had trained and crafted over her lifetime when words could not and would not suffice in the ever more straining and tedious task of communication with one’s partner. Or anyone, for that matter. Mother, father, siblings. A smile would be enough. At least for Ellen. And then maybe a message on IG.
Charles nodded, and his grip on her hand loosened.
-6 months later-
“Ah, Miss Dankwa. Nice to meet you again. How are you and Mr…” Dr. Lekstewart fumbled as he entered his office.
“Daniel, my fiancé,” Ellen jumped in. Her arm wrapped around a man who was not Charles. Her face, a ball of happiness. The man was shorter and less built than her previous lover. He had a fair complexion and one could say ‘fluffier’ hair, though thinning rapidly.
Dr. Lekstewart sat down across from the couple and was about to get into what had become his regular spiel when Ellen cut in.
“We are familiar with it all and have kept track of some of your patient references. What Daniel was asking for us to do today was to see some of the babies… if possible,” she said in a single breath. All the while, her eyes were seeking something from the doctor. Was it approval?
“I believe you have signed our NDA and other contracts, sent in your deposit… All of those steps?” Dr. Lekstewart fidgeted with his collar, remembering the so-called references.
“Yes, yes,” Ellen replied, glancing at her fiancé who nodded at her.
Dr. Lekstewart had just taken out his notepad from his breast pocket but then put it back.
“Then that is no problem at all,” he clapped. “Please follow me,” he said, beckoning the couple out of his office.
Ellen smiled at Daniel, and the couple got up and followed the doctor to the hallway outside his office and down to the far end, where there was a sealed door with an ‘only staff allowed’ sign on it.
“It’s not usually allowed, but you have made a deposit,” the doctor winked. He wasn’t a salesman but had had to use its dark arts to coerce people into buying into his innovations. Maybe ‘coerce’ was the wrong word. More like, assure. The human mind is always in need of assurances. At least that is what the doctor had thought, but quickly found out that in this part of town, when it came to the special services he performed, assurances seemed not to be so much a factor. Or rather, not the assurances he assumed.
The camera on the side of the door scanned his face and the door lock clicked open, allowing Dr. Lekstewart to push through.
Nurses were busy marching up and down the open space that met them. Wide fluorescent lights beamed from above, casting the space in an almost blindingly white sheen. Dr. Leksetwart noticed Ellen use her free hand to shield her eyes from the glare.
He continued along to the main desk where the receptionist, Annabelle was seated. Her eyes were on her tablet but seemed to acknowledge the doctor’s presence.
“Annabelle, please, the couple have made a deposit and want to see the references,” the doctor leaned over the counter to say.
Annabelle did not remove her eyes from her pad.
“I have allowed the guests temporary access. You can go now, Doctor.”
He walked to the lefthand side of the open oval space and then pushed the doors open. On the left and right were two large glass panes that looked into replica baby-blue and baby-pink painted rooms hosting about a dozen or so cradles each. Some were attached to long tubes connected to vents above, and others concealed with a bubble-like wrap. In some of those cradles were babies. And some of those babies wiggled and wormed and burped and farted and cried and wore the most outrageously blond of hairs with the smoothest of brown-caramel skins. The doctor smiled proudly to himself as Ellen dropped her husband’s arm and plastered herself on the glass, awing at the little ones.
He reminded himself of the grey wallpaper he had previously opted for, but after the feedback from his nurses, (‘It’s not nice, Doctor!’ Annabelle had said, dismayed) he was advised to gender the rooms with colors. Blue for boys, pink for girls. So mundane.
“Why are they here and not with their mothers, Doctor?” Daniel asked, shuffling over and breaking the doctor from his meandering thoughts.
“Just final tests to ensure everything is okay and running smoothly.”
“You make it sound like they are machines,“ Daniel continued.
‘Well, it’s just the lingo we doctors in the field like to use, I’m afraid.”
“Are there many of you in the space?”
“In Ghana, not so much. I am a bit of a special breed. However, in Lagos, they are a bit more ‘open’ to these interventions,” Dr. Lekstewart added.
“Is what you do legal?” Daniel leaned in to whisper.
Dr. Lekstewart leaned back to take in Daniel again. The balding patch was certainly going to be an issue for Ellen’s baby, he thought. Daniel must have noticed the flick of his gaze to the crown of his head and consciously made to ruffle the fluff on it.
“It is quite legal. Or should I say, we are not yet regulated by any institution. We follow the global code. So there’s a sort of association of us worldwide. Practicing, that is. And these are the people I refer to as my peers responsible for my lingo. Sorry for that, again,” the doctor smiled.
“Excused,” Daniel said. Seemingly satisfied, he returned his gaze to Ellen, who was now pointing and cooing at a baby.
“Can we make sure the hair… you know…” Daniel looked up to mean his hair. “Ellen has been very ‘someway’ about how I am balding. She doesn’t like it too much. She wants the baby’s hair to be soft and smooth but strong.”
“History of balding in your family?“ Dr. Lekstewart drew out his pad and scratched a couple of words to remind himself.
“Yes, my dad was as bald as a goat. My uncles too.”
“A goat?” But Dr. Lekstewart couldn’t question what on earth would compel someone to compare the likeness of a balding human to a goat as Ellen had pulled herself from the glass pane and seemed to have her questions ready to fire.
“I am quite satisfied with what I have seen. And I want mine to be like that one,“ she pointed at the one she had been goo-gooing at earlier. “Is it possible with Daniel?”
“Possible is never the matter, it’s probable that raises concerns,” Dr. Lekstewart said as he approached the glass pane to find the exact baby Ellen was referring to. “Ah, yes! M0012… I mean, Baffuor’s son,” he corrected, eyeing Daniel.
Dr. Lekstewart turned fully and considered Daniel again, this time from over the top of his spectacles.
“Do we need to take any tests beforehand to make a hundred percent sure?” Ellen persisted.
“Let us go back to my office. Do you remember I had asked for a family tree? Do you by any chance have that with you?”
“And you have their pictures from young to old?”
“As much as we could gather for both sides of our family.”
“Good-good. Let’s go have a look at your gene-tree then!”
Later that day, eating into the latter hours of the night, Dr. Lekstewart sat in his office, leaning on his chair as he released a slow, snaky whizz of smoke from his pipe into the still air. The windows were closed, and the door locked. He liked to cloud himself in this fashion. He imagined it to be some sort of immersion. A closing off from the world around him and submerging into his own. Away from the basic human minds he was forced to interact with. His nurses. His clients. Patients. Whatever you’d want to call them. His brain needed to go to some other plane of reality and this self-made fog allowed him to get there. To dig deep into his thoughts, into the cave where versions of himself sat around a crackling fire, pondering, arguing, questioning, hurrahing even, when a breakthrough was made. And as the smoke increasingly gathered, he would sit among these selves and join in their debate. Not all the time. There would be times when he would just sit and listen. Topics for discussion ranged from the happenings of the day that he could ill afford to unpick in those moments. But here, it was skewered and slowly roasted over the fire in the cave of his mind.
This night, he happened to catch his selves deliberating over an old debate. An argument, more of.
‘You see!? You see what we had warned?! It has come to be!‘ Dr. Morality exclaimed.
‘They are free to make their own decisions. If it wasn’t us, some other person would be offering the same gene-altering services to people’s offspring,’ Dr. Pragmatic waved off.
‘No. You know very well that you, Doctor, are the only one in Accra and possibly all of West Africa who can do this!’
‘Not true. The Yoruba lady, Dr. Bidemi…’
‘They are not as advanced as you are. She is not on your level! By giving people the option, we are turning them away from their humanness. We have put a price on our next of kin. Who they will be and how they are. And people are paying for it. We will project onto them even more severely our traumas, our perceptions. And this is all being fed by constructs layered in logics of self-hate, racism, and history!’
‘Humanness? What do you mean by this “humanness”? Or natural? If we humans are recreating ourselves and are part of nature, then what we produce must also be of nature. Or, if not, are we out of nature? Humanness is always being redefined, our brains having molded so rapidly in the last few decades, creating pathways to new sensitivities. If someone will be happy with a child that looks a certain way, so be it. Who are we to say what is right or wrong? Don’t let sentiment get in the way, Doctor.’
“Maame Opoku,” Dr. Lekstewart whispered. The two selves turned to stare at him. “Maame Opoku…”
‘Doctor! Don’t do this to yourself again…’ Dr. Pragmatic got off his log near the fire and slunk his way to Dr. Lekstewart’s side. ‘For science to advance, there must be some casualties of progression… she knew very well the risks involved in such an intervention… at her age…’
‘That was the woman you loved,’ Dr. Morality said flatly. ‘How many more people would you want to lure into the light only to be burnt?’
‘It was our first intervention. She knew the risks. And look at the progress we have made today. The smiles we have put on people’s faces,’ Dr. Pragmatic continued. ‘Tell me, since then, have there been any ill-fated souls? No. Only satisfied customers. And remember, these are just the beginnings of what we plan to do next. Practice for the future we are going to open up. The Immortal human. A world changed by your genius. Your bravery!’
“Yes. Yes,“ Dr. Lekstewart’s eyes were twinkling with the fire in them.
‘The greater work is still to come, Doctor. Ease your mind and let the crackling fire dance and mesmerize your consciousness… it is not for I that we embark on this work, but because it is His work. For are we not built in the image of God? Are we not to seek purity and divinity through his likeness?’
Dr. Lekstewart bowed his head, his gloved hand gripping the cross pressed on his chest buried deep underneath his lab coat.
-4 years later-
“Yes, Annabelle! What is it?”
“There is someone here to see you.”
“I told you to only call my ‘Yam’ line if it’s important. Is this something important?”
“Yes, Doc. I wouldn’t risk…”
“It’s okay! Don’t say anything. One hour,” the doctor hung up and then hung his head, sighing for the world to hear. His gloved hand rubbed the crease of his forehead, pulling back at his frantically greying bush for a hair that frayed and flopped on top of his head.
What was the point of investing in a separate lab for himself if he was always being summoned to the clinic to cater to prickly patients’ petty petulances? What was the point of seclusion and secrecy if he was always out and about in the public domain?
In a huff, he dressed down to his usual ‘forlorn taxi driver’ disguise, beaten jeans, loose and faded polo shirt, and his trusted cloth for wiping the car’s windscreen. Chewing stick in mouth, he started the car and made his way to his clinic. Yes, the taxi driver disguise was the best cloak to avoid attention. Though a few of them still circled in and out of neighborhoods, no enforcement official ever stopped them. They had been a tribe of their own before, not anymore. In some sense, the embarrassment of letting them fall through the cracks of development had given them, at the least, an allowance to go about their dying business, unbothered.
Dr. Lekstewart, now dressed in his more appropriate attire, found himself in front of a bald, fair-skinned man who once, it seemed a lifetime ago, was tied to the arm of one Ellen Dankwa, a patient he had intervened on so many years ago. Sitting on his lap was a beautiful toddler boy with Scandinavian turquoise eyes and wavy blond hair. What his appearance made up for in lushness, his demeanor took away in lackluster.
“Four years…” Daniel replied to the doctor’s earlier question of how long. “Four solid years, Doctor,” he repeated, shaking his head with a sardonic laugh.
Dr. Lekstewart settled himself at the desk which had replaced his dark mahogany-wooded one. This less prestigiously wooded desk was for Dr. Frimpong, his stand-in, or as some more conspiratory-types would say, lightning rod. Lekstewart had asked Frimpong to leave him so he could attend to Daniel in private.
“Where is Ellen?”
“She left us,” Daniel yelped, rubbing his son’s tiny arm, sparking a slight twitch in the child’s gloomy disposition. Dr. Lekstewart could only stomach the odd look at the child and chose to focus his gaze on the troubled father. “And our son, Fancy, has just been…” he cupped his son’s ears “dull…” he mouthed.
“What was that?”
“Oh-no! Nothing. How long has he been ‘dull’?” Dr. Lekstewart asked and reprimanded himself for saying his thoughts out loud. The doctor leaned forward for Daniel to bring the child closer, which he did. He winced as he got closer to the pale blue eyes, but pushed through to hold his hand and touch his forehead.
“Since we left here… we didn’t know what to do. We first thought he was the most peaceful baby. Quiet. Sweet. So beautiful. And everything was so good. But he was just peaceful. At least cry or shout. Something, abaa! Anything to show some spirit. And, of course, Ellen was going mad. ‘See your child, he is just there doing nothing… ehhh, that your child, see how he is… the doctor has 4–1–9 us …. straight…’ But I kept pointing to the clauses stated in the contract. That post-natal care was our responsibility and that after-birth treatment or assessment would not be allowed after a year. Your contract was clear, and we signed it. She left one day without a word… I … I haven’t heard from her since,” Daniel’s head dipped, and his chin almost sunk to his chest.
“But indeed, the child could just be a quiet child. There’s nothing wrong with that. I was once a quiet child myself. Even if spankings were distributed like amens… So it could be just a phase.”
“Did she request the suppression of any heritable harmful traits?” Daniel butted in.
“No, I am afraid she did not.”
The two men sat in silence for a while. Dr. Lekstewart’s eyes were drawn to his feet. His gloved hands clasped. He was fighting it. Pulling on himself to not look at the child again. This blue-eyed, fair-skinned baby boy.
There he was. And he was looking back at him.
The color was so striking, his eyes. Daniel did mention some Danish heritage somewhere far along his ancestry. The Danes’ time on the then Gold Coast was filled with loneliness and deep sadness (those were probably in the minority given the stature the Danes commanded at the time). Could it be by unlocking some of those far-gone traits he had also exposed the child to some emotional ailments?
‘No ill-fated soul since,’ he remembered someone saying to him. Or was it himself?
You turn a blind eye long enough and who knows what you’ll convince yourself of.
Dr. Lekstewart sat up. Daniel was holding Fancy close to his chest, his eyes lost in a daze.
“I am to conclude that you would like me to run some tests on dear Fancy, right?” he asked Daniel.
Daniel’s eyes sprang onto the doctor’s.
“I am not sure what I want you to do, Doctor.”
“Then let me take the child…”
“I — I …” Daniel looked down at Fancy and stroked his dull but beautiful face. The boy just stared back at him.
“I feel terrible about all of this. Let me make it up to you,” Dr. Lekstewart caressed then prodded.
“But how long do you plan to have him?” Daniel asked, looking down at his son, his eyebrows furrowing, creasing his forehead to the top of his bald head.
“Just a few days…”
“A few days? I don’t know. I came here with my head all over the place — I wanted to rant and let off some steam, not to let my son go,” he said to himself.
The doctor did not say anything. The quiet had a way of working in your favor, Lekstewart thought. Let the quiet eat into his doubts. Let the doctor’s words pave the way through the fog of uncertainty. Yes, Daniel, you will concede to the Doctor’s wishes.
Daniel got up from his chair with Fancy still clutching his chest. He looked into the boy’s eyes until water began to collect on the tip of his eyelids. He held the boy for a long time like this, ruffling his blond wavy hair and pressing him even more tightly to his chest.
After a moment, Daniel placed Fancy on his recently vacated chair and was making his way out the door, but just before he swung out of the room, he turned to the doctor.
“Let me ask you something, Doctor.”
The doctor raised his eyebrows and Daniel continued.
“Are you a moral man?”
Dr. Lekstewart found himself leaning backward on his chair but quickly adjusted his position so that he was sitting upright to address the question.
“I am a moral man… I do not believe there is any human who is immoral but rather subject to a set of morals different from what larger society deems to be moral and therefore can be adjudged as being — as you are asking — without morals.”
Daniel lingered in the doorway for a moment, his eyebrows furrowed, his eyes descending on his son on the chair opposite the doctor.
“When it was clear that things between Ellen and I were ending, I saw her flirting with others in my presence. Muscular men — I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t understand how the woman who had committed herself to me, and our family, was doing this to us. But maybe… maybe it was all for show….” Daniel looked up at the doctor. The corners of his eyes shivering. “You know when we did that exercise of looking at our family history, the family tree, it brought so much out that had not been mentioned before by my parents or anyone for that matter in my family. My father’s side of my family has had many cases of depression it appears. In some cases admitted to Pantang. But it was never made known to me… It’s not their fault. Mental health was not something you talked about back then. You know?” His eyes had gradually shifted down to his son again. “So all that was wrong with Fancy was now because of my family? For Ellen, it had to be. There was no other reason. The evidence was there. What could I say? Every time, any little thing, ‘see your family!’ ‘This your son!’ I couldn’t believe this was the Ellen I had fallen in love with. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it. I felt like nothing…” Daniel’s eyes were drawn to an empty space. But as if realizing himself in front of the doctor gathered himself quickly with a breath and his eyes back on the doctor’s. “Your position on morals does not ease me at all…” He glanced down at his son again and before the doctor could respond Daniel had left the room.
Dr. Lekstewart went to shut the door and lock it. He then walked over and crouched so he and Fancy were at the same eye level. That violent urge to deny this eye contact with the boy was still boiling inside of him. But he needed to tame it.
“I am your father just as much as he is… With these hands,” he said, raising his gloved hands. “With this mind,” he fingered his temple. “I made you. And I will continue to make you…”
He looked into those awfully blue eyes and made a gesture of embrace toward Fancy. The boy took a moment to consider the doctor’s gesture. The doctor’s frantic grey hair. His gloved hands now open as if to say, ‘Come, come into my world — for you were never outside of it — but always a part of it — this is home — your home.’
The boy reached for the doctor’s embrace.