Tipping Point: a short story

“You have a visitor.”

Deane jerks his head for me to put my hands through the bars. Once I’m cuffed, he shoves me along with a hand in my back. He never tires of parading his authority over me. I understand why: it isn’t often that he gets to play the bully with a wealthy and world-famous – now notorious – academic. Looking at him, with his grizzled ginger buzz cut and prehensile arms, I think, men such as you prove my point. We humans haven’t come so very far.

I’m expecting to greet my lawyer, but when I step into the visitors’ room, a woman I’ve never seen before in my life stands up to greet me. She looks at me with the curiosity that has become predictable by now, but there’s something else, a kind of covert eagerness. Her discreet suit, the colourless bobbed hair, the well-kept, fat-blurred features – all of these tell me that she is a career bureaucrat.

Once Deane has left us alone (having shackled me officiously to the chair), she leans forward, rose-scented soap and supermarket deodorant drifting across. It’s better than the smell of disinfectant and faeces.

“Mr Ho, I work for the United States Government.”  I notice that she doesn’t say for which agency she works. “I understand that you find yourself in a very difficult predicament.”

“I’m going to be electrocuted, you mean? I suppose you could call that…difficult.” My lawyer is appealing for the sentence to be commuted to life in prison; that is the best I can hope for, apparently. But she isn’t holding out much hope.

The woman smiles and steeples her hands, in the manner universally adopted by people who think themselves in a superior position. “I suppose you think it’s very unfair. After all, you were doing cutting-edge research – literally. Another five years and you might have discovered the Holy Grail.”

I keep my face straight. “Yes. And your point is?”

“We would like to be of assistance to you.”

I knew that there would be a ‘we’ involved somewhere along the line. “Good to hear. I’ve always dreamt of retiring to a chalet in Switzerland – do you think that could be arranged?”

The woman laughs indulgently. “For a child murderer like you, Mr Ho, I think a chalet in Switzerland is out of the question. But a secure facility in California – now that could be arranged.  I’m speaking of a facility where you could, perhaps, continue elements of your research – not those resulting in death, of course – in relative privacy and comfort. You would serve out your sentence, but not in a Federal prison. I understand that your stay here has been a little awkward. And, of course, you’d avoid the death penalty. ”

I touch the long, fresh scar that ran the length of my face. I am almost as unpopular in here as a paedophile. They all still want to know the grisly details, though. The human propensity for gossip is often supposed to have been the first use of language. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

“That’s very kind of you…?”

“Smith. Cordelia Smith. You can call me Cordelia.”

“Well, Cordelia, as I said, that’s very kind of you. And whoever you represent. Certainly you can consider me…open to the idea.”  There is no point in beating about the bush. I fear electrocution, yes. But when I imagine life in this place…I would almost prefer the chair. If my appeal is successful, I can expect up to fifty years of confinement.  Fifty years among cretins who take my very existence as an insult. Fifty years of Deane and men like him exercising their petty authority over a mind a hundred times more brilliant than their own. Fifty years of confining my intellectual endeavours to the contents of the prison library. On reflection, I should have known the US Government couldn’t allow a man of my stature to languish in a place like this, much less to die. I picture Deane receiving the news. He’ll be so disappointed…

“I am very pleased to hear that you’re so willing to cooperate with us, Mr Ho. There are a few…minor details. Certainly we’d like you to continue your research, as I said… but we do have one condition. We are going to need you to reveal the location of Subject Zero, as I believe you designate her, in your notes. Once we take custody of Subject Zero,  I’m sure that we can come to a mutually satisfactory agreement.”

“Subject Zero is dead, I’m afraid. I…killed her.  I may be the most brilliant scientific mind of my generation, but I’m no Jesus Christ, to bring back Lazarus.”

She leans forward again, her eyes narrowed. Her body language is subtle but unmistakable; if I refuse to perform a miracle, she will reciprocate. Really, for most people, everything that needs to be said can be said without words. It is only for men such as myself that the higher cognitive capacity enabled by language is truly necessary.

I understand her very well already, but of course, she can’t leave it there. “Let me be clear. I don’t believe you. If you can’t give me this child, there’s no deal. You can die in the chair, or rot here, frankly I don’t care which. Take it or leave it. I’ll give you a day to think it over.”

________________________________________________

When your child is born, of course you fall in love with her. Sometimes, later, you wish you could take that love back. But what is given is given.

The first emotion I felt, when I learned that Lily, then three years old, was autistic, was despair. I had already mapped out her life in my mind; the virtuoso pianist, the academic high achiever following in the footsteps of her famous father, the beautiful, poised, elegant symbol of a family that had made it. I felt furious, also – with my wife Changying for presenting me with such an offspring; it must have been her defective genes that led to this outcome – my daughter the idiot.

But one evening, as I was gloomily surveying my child, listening to the inarticulate sounds she made as she played with our Shi Tzu, Hua, I had an epiphany.

There she sat, an expression of complete absorption on her little face, producing these strange wails and growls. It was as if she was in conversation with the dog, and the dog, for its part, looked back at her with earnest attention, as if it understood what was being said to it. My daughter seemed to be much happier communicating with the dog than with any other human, including her father and even her mother. Was there, I wondered, really any difference between them?

As a linguist, it was a puzzle that had interested me for a long time – how did language originate, and are we human without it? Is a man who cannot speak capable of complex thought? If one cannot say ‘I think therefore I am’, can one, in fact, even think it?

I’d done some work on the subject before – but here, in my own house, lived a child who couldn’t speak, and yet was – we assumed – essentially human. But was she? Did she perhaps represent those at the borderline of human evolution, not quite primate and yet not quite Homo Sapiens either? Perhaps here was the opportunity I had been seeking all my life, to study the very origins of language and through this, the origins and nature of humanity!

If I could identify that moment, that biological tipping point, when mankind ceased to be an animal like other animals, and became fully human – a species apart from and above all others – then my name would be ranged alongside Charles Darwin in the annals of Science.  Undoubtedly, that moment occurred when the first human animal became capable of complex conceptual thought – able to remember the past, envision the future and weave them both together in the most intricate tapestry of mind that the world had ever seen. But did language precede that miracle – or did it arise from it?

The suggestion had been made to us more than once that we place Lily in an institution, but neither Changying nor I had liked the idea. But – it suddenly occurred to me as I watched her – an institution that cared for autistic children would be full of subjects just like Lily, a perfect laboratory for me to study the question of what is sometimes called ‘the missing link’.

The Precious Blossom Home for Disabled Children immediately sprang to mind, since it was this Home that had been proposed for Lily. As it happened, it was surprisingly easy for me to gain access to the institution. I offered my services as a doctor and linguist, promising that I would help educate the children towards language acquisition, an area in which I had considerable expertise. The matron gratefully accepted. I don’t think the home had heard of such a thing as an ethics committee. Matron O’Grady was one of those women who speak through teeth bared in a permanent smile: I think she was impressed by the fact that a renowned academic such as myself would stoop to enter the premises.

Believe me, the first child who died was purely an accident. I was in the habit of restraining my subjects from time to time in order to attach electrodes to their heads and to keep them in one place, a challenge you would agree for the very young. While the children were thus restrained, I would examine and record the electrical signals occurring within the brain while I performed various tests and stimuli. Afterwards I would give them a treat, and although it couldn’t be said that they enjoyed the experience, they went back to the wards without complaint.

I had this child, Martin, hooked up neatly and was about to begin my observations, when he began to struggle and to make those indistinct howls children with his condition often do. I waved a jar of jellybeans in front of him, but by this time he was hysterical. I put my hand over his mouth to quieten him, in case his howls drew the attention of some passing member of staff – and he bit me. At that moment, I lost my temper and slapped him. Either I slapped too hard, or his thin little neck could not stand the strain. However that may be, it snapped back and lolled, like a broken flower on its stalk. I think, at that moment, I was never more frightened in my life. I thought my career was over, and worse.

I found the Matron in her office. I closed the door and stood penitently before her.

“There’s been an accident – I’m afraid a boy, Martin Schneider, is dead. I didn’t intend to harm him… it was entirely accidental. However, you will need to call the police and his parents. I will wait here in in your office until they arrive.”

The Matron, who had been regarding me with one of her yearning sympathetic smiles, became grave.

“Martin Schneider is dead? How did it happen?”

I explained. There was not much to say. I could offer little justification. She looked at me with her moist brown eyes and said, “Martin’s parents haven’t seen him since he was six months old. They’ve forgotten that he ever existed. I am afraid that you will find many of the children here are in the same situation. But I don’t blame the parents – these children are little more than animals, after all. They have no capacity for love, and so no one loves them. It is sad, but true.”

“Yes – but we need to inform the police.”

“I don’t see any need for that.” She let the silence lengthen.

“Are you saying,” I said slowly but not quite ready to understand her, “that no one will miss this child? But surely…”

She grimaced sweetly. “Not necessarily, my dear Professor. Let me explain something to you. You see, we receive very little funding with which to care for all the unfortunate children who are placed within these walls. It is very difficult to make ends meet – to care for them properly – within our existing budget. Yes, I could inform the police – but what would be the good of that?”

I blinked. I was no saint, you understand – but the cold calculation in her eyes, all the while with that sickly grin – it took me aback.

“Wouldn’t it benefit the children more,” she continued, “if instead of sacrificing your career to no purpose, you made a donation which could be used to purchase more modern equipment, better food? What is the point of sending a brilliant man like you to prison – when you can help these children so much more by remaining with us?”

My gut had long whispered to me that the matron’s motherly exterior covered a callous soul, but I’d never guessed the extent of that callousness.

“How much would you like me to donate?” I asked softly, hardly able to believe my luck.

Baldly, she laid out the figure. For form’s sake, I tried to look shocked, but the truth was, I was a rich man and I could afford it. I agreed.

“Of course, I expect you to exercise due care and diligence in your work,” she said, drawing her thin brows together as if it pained her to say it, “but just in case something does go wrong, I’m going to provide you with some information that might be useful to you.”

She bent down, and from a drawer in her desk, withdrew a printed list of names.

“These are the children whose parents have abandoned them. Perhaps you had better restrict your experiments to the children on this list, for safety’s sake.”

“You mean…?”

“Precious Blossom is always very happy to support scientific research – especially if we are properly reimbursed for our participation…”

I had no idea that she was such a monster. That list – she had it prepared. Why?

I was no murderer, you understand – not then. But gradually, under Matron’s complaisant regime, I began to take my experiments further. I began by conducting an autopsy on Martin, and an examination of his brain supported a number of hypotheses I’d made about the biological characteristics of his condition. It was research I could not have done if he were alive.

But to continue my investigations, I needed more data –from scans, samples, behavioural and other experiments. Occasionally, I admit, I resorted to vivisection, under anaesthetic of course. It was nothing that would not have been permitted a hundred and fifty years ago; we have grown squeamish since then.

Some of my subjects died. They died of shock, they died of surgical complications. A few died of what one might call stress, or emotional deprivation – they wasted away, refused to eat, self-harmed.  The matron made no objections: I suppose her view was that the fewer children she had to care for, the more the money allocated to them could be used for…other things.

I grew careless – never in my research methods – but in relation to the lives of my subjects. When a technician uses white mice to find a cure for some human disease, does it break his heart when his creatures die maimed and riddled with disease? No – he thinks only of the replacement cost, perhaps.

Not only did I work with the children, but I kept also a small menagerie of animal subjects for comparison; a selection of primates and one or two species of bird. I kept these in the large room adjoining my office: the Matron, as usual, did not object. Did you know that ravens are almost as intelligent as humans? Sometimes I think that if ravens had opposable thumbs then we would be in cages and they in white coats.

I learned an immense amount through my research. But try as I might, I could not find that point, that vital point at which animal becomes human. I removed this and that section of the brain, I meddled with wiring, I placed the subjects under different conditions and examined them both living and dead. I pored over data through long days and longer nights. And, needless to say, I neglected my family.

Meanwhile, Lily grew. At eight years of age, she still didn’t speak a word, but her communication with the dog seemed almost like a secret language that both of them understood. It was also true that her mother understood her gestures and moans much better than I. After all, I spent most of my time now at the Institute, while she spent hers with Lily, our beloved wordless child.

“They’re both animals, really,” I said as we ate our dinner, and Lily threw fistfuls of noodles down to the dog who waited at her feet. “Look at her. She’d be perfectly happy if we kept her in a kennel with Hua, and fed her from a dish on the ground.”

Chingyang stared at me. I became aware, through the steady glare of her gaze, that she hated me.

“You don’t know anything about her,” she said fiercely. “So don’t talk about what you don’t know!”

At this accusation I, too, felt furious. Lily was my daughter too. But then I realised that Chingyang was right – in the last four years I had spent virtually no time with Lily. I had never really paid attention to her, in the way that I had paid attention to those children from the home. I had fathered her, but I had not studied her. But why not? Perhaps I could help her – in a way that I had failed to help any of the others. But then, I had not set out to help them.

The next day I took Lily to work with me. Chingyang made no objection – I had convinced her that it was for Lily’s good. I was not lying. I had every intention of bringing her home this evening and every evening. I was a murderer, but I would not murder or even incarcerate my own child

The first day at the Home went quickly. I spent time with Lily testing her cognition in various ways and recording the results. She responded happily, and I realised with a lurch of emotion that she’d missed me, her father.

Then I introduced her to the animals in the laboratory; her delight in them warmed my heart. She ran as close to the cages as I would permit, gazed into the curious faces, squealed and squeaked and laughed and made funny little gestures with her hands. I had seldom seen her so animated. For an hour or two towards the end of the visit, she sat in my office with me, while I entered my results in the computer and she drew pictures on scrap paper.

The next day, I brought Lily in again – and the next. By the third day, I was beginning to realise that my daughter’s intelligence was remarkable – she was a better problem-solver than even my raven, Caw. But, of course, neither of them could form words. Did it matter?

On the fourth day, things did not go so well. Lily and I visited the cages, as before, but in the intervening time our chimp, Lucy, had undergone an experimental procedure and was bandaged about the head. I unlocked her cage so that I could put in a dish of chopped fruit – a kind of recompense for her ordeal – and Lucy swung forward to pick from it, dainty as a lady at a tea party.

While the chimp ate, Lily began to make her customary noises, but then she noticed the bandage. Her eyes widened, she pointed to her own head, her face questioning and distressed. In return Lucy wailed and beat her breast, making a series of short howls and chirrups. Lily replied with chirrups of her own. I was fascinated, and would have watched the scene for longer – but then the chimp came so close, peering intensely into my child’s eyes, that I was worried for Lily’s safety and shut the door, locking it securely. I brought Lily back to my office, out of sight of the cages. Still she looked back, kneading her hands together obsessively and trembling. I had no idea that a bandage would frighten her so.

As if that weren’t enough, Matron O’ Brady chose that moment to enter, her smile sliding towards my child like a snake towards prey. I didn’t like the way she looked at Lily – as if she were just another bargaining chip – so I gave Lily some lego and ushered the Matron outside. There was some item of business she wanted to raise with me – concerning money, as always. I dealt with her quickly then went back in to my daughter. I noticed she hadn’t touched the lego: she was still staring forlornly into space.

In the evening she was still upset, and refused to look at me, orienting her head to avoid any place where I was. I tried to play with her a little, but the glance she gave me was so stark and frightened, I could see she was in too much distress for any interaction. With some regret, I decided that I could not take her to work with me until she had settled down. I also decided that the animals from now on would be out of bounds.

The next morning, I left her with her mother, and drove off towards the Home. As I turned my car into the parking lot, I could hear sirens, the babble of voices, and shouted commands. I ran towards the building, feeling sick. The Matron, together with the few employees she trusted to assist her in the operation of the Home, were gathered outside. Three police cars were drawn up nearby, and uniformed men walked grimly about, their thumbs in their belts. There was no sign of the children.

“What’s happening, Officer?”  A tremor of adrenalin ran through me: my body was already telling me to flee. But why should I? This was probably nothing – a minor incident.

The police officer to whom I spoke gave me a queer look.

“There’s been a disturbance – it seems that the children set fire to part of the building, and there are wild animals running loose in the grounds. Do you work here, Sir?”

The way that he said this made me tremble. I controlled myself and nodded.

“Right. Then would you mind providing your details to Officer Rooney over there, if you don’t mind, Sir. And you too, Ma’am,” he said, beckoning the matron. She hesitated, her eyes darting around. There was none of that forced warmth that was her usual public face; she looked as if she had momentarily forgotten how to move her jaw.

“But the children – what’s happened to them? Are they alright?” I regret to say that at this point, I hoped that they weren’t. They couldn’t speak – but numbers could.

“They’ve been taken to the childrens’ hospital, as a temporary arrangement. They’ll be fine.”

“I need to go in. I need to check – important papers, equipment…”

The officer turned to me, his eyes hard. “I’m afraid it’s a crime scene now, sir.”

A crime scene? Then they had found more than a fire…

“The best thing you can do for now is go home. Oh – and don’t leave the area, will you? We may need to contact you.”

I knew then that my career had ended.

I drove home, and sat in the living room in a trance, my head in my hands. Chingwang moved quietly about, saying nothing. Lily sat cross-legged on the floor, gazing me as if I was an anomaly, as if she couldn’t quite understand how I came to be. Her direct stare made me uncomfortable, even angry.

“Go and play with Hua!” I said, in an annoyed tone.

And then, in a clear, precise voice she said, “Why did you do it? They were just children like me. ”

I looked back at her, aghast. This moment should have been one of joy – a daughter speaking for the first time, calling me daddy. But instead I felt terror.

I went to her, and crouched down. “Lily, what do you mean?”

“They told me.”

“Who told you?”

I noticed for the first time how penetrating her look was. My daughter was no idiot.

“The animals. They told me what you do.”

The laboratory animals? Of course, they would have seen what went on, from time to time.  But by very definition, they could not communicate what they saw. The idea was ridiculous.

“Animals,” I explain carefully, “can’t talk.” I could have added that I hadn’t ‘done’ anything – but that would be to lend credence to her nonsense.

“They told me.” She began to gesticulate, making those strange little noises in her throat that meant she was upset and about to become hysterical.

Could it be possible? That she had actually communicated with my laboratory animals, and that they had told her…anything at all? Surely not.  A stupid, illogical idea came into my head, and forced itself out of my lips before I had a chance to stop it.

“The fire last night,” I said, holding her bony little shoulders. “Did you have anything to do with it, Lily?”

How could she have?

“Lucy did it.” She threw herself on the floor, and began drumming her heels on the ground, almost screaming. “Lucy did it, Lucy did it, Lucy did…”

I could have almost picked her up and thrown her against the wall, to stop her screeching. But I didn’t.

Was my daughter telling me that she had learned of my activities from the laboratory animals, and that Lucy, the chimpanzee, had then somehow organised a mass breakout which included the children at the Home.  And a fire.  No animal can make fire – that is solely a human prerogative. Unless…even an animal can learn.

It was nonsense, as ridiculous as Adam and Eve. And yet…I remembered her horrified expression as she communed with the bandaged chimp, her refusal to even look at me since then. I recalled that last day – Lily watching as I locked the cage, looking back as we went through to the office. Could she have gone back and unlocked the cage – in that brief few minutes when I spoke to Matron outside the room? I suppose it was possible, technically.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt sure that Lily was telling the truth.  She and Lucy had ‘talked’, she’d obviously been traumatised – and then she’d gone and unlocked the chimp’s cage. From then on, it must have been Lucy – or perhaps the other animals, too – who fled throughout the Home, rousing the children from their dormitories. Who had set the fire? There was no way of knowing. But it had the effect of bringing the police to the Home, a place forgotten by the authorities until now…Someone had thought it through.

Was it Lily? Surely there hadn’t been time. Then was it the chimp – or all of them? Perhaps  I would have to reassess my analysis of the relationship between humans and animals. It seems that words were not necessary for advanced thought, that there were other, older, deeper forms of communication than mere language. Perhaps the difference that I had sought all along did not exist.

My daughter had gone quiet now. Hua sat rhythmically licking her head; one small hand came up to caress him. My little girl made small noises of pleasure. The dog whined back.

I knew then how wrong I had got it. Humans had not evolved since they developed the spoken word  – they had de-evolved.  In the process of becoming something more than animal, they had become something less. And yet, my daughter was more human than any of us.  She was also, as far as I knew, unique.

As the night wore on, I began to wonder. What if – when the police technical staff trawled through my data, as they inevitably would – someone understood the true significance of my research? What if the cause of the disturbance was traced back to its origin? What if someone realised that Lily, my beautiful, precocious Lily, could bridge the gap between human and animal communication? And finally, what if that someone was as cruel, as ambitious, as mercilessly devoted to scientific progress as I was myself?

That night, I told Changying to pack immediately for herself and Lily. She began immediately: she didn’t waste time on words. She didn’t need to, I knew how she felt. If looks could have killed me, there would have no need for the judge to pronounce the death penalty.

“Take her far away, out of the country would be best if you can, but the more remote the better,” I told her. “Don’t tell me where you’re going, it’s better if I don’t know. Hide her, you understand?”

Changying nodded. As they went out to the car, neither my daughter nor my wife looked back.

_______________________________________________

When Cordelia Smith returns, I tell Deane that I don’t wish to see her. For once, he looks puzzled. “She’s an important Lady – you sure about this, Ho?”

I’m sure.