For the Kingdom of Heaven
The title could be from any of several verses in the Bible, but I had in mind Matthew 19:12: "there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" -- a Hank's-eye view of what it means to take the cure for religious reasons.
by C. Elisa
Date: May 22, 2006
Summary: Dr. Hank McCoy observes the cure.
Not a very inspiring summary. Most of mine aren't. This was an especially hard story to summarize, though.
When I was writing it, I kept thinking of it as my story about mutant rage. In the whole story, Hank's never not angry. Partly that's because of the hormonal mood problems that he's canonically been having, but mostly, he's just absorbed so many insults and disappointments that he's not quite sure where the strength to take the next one is going to come from. It's anger that fills out the sails of his voice and pulls him along from sentence to sentence -- that's central to how I came up with the Hank voice in this story.
Hank might seem like a strange choice for that theme, but it would be much harder for me to write about the anger of a character like movie Mystique, who would react to anger by trying to kill someone. I'm not sure why -- I just find it much easier to deal with complexity than with simple emotions expressed in a straightforward way. (It's a real problem when I try to write porn). Hank's anger is directed all over the place, at least half of it is turned inward, most of the rest is hidden, and what he does express tends to come out as polysyllabic snark: that, I can handle.
Author’s Note: Astonishing-based gen. This was begun some time ago and is vaguely Jossed by House of M.
Disclaimer: I don't own the X-Men, and am making no money from this.
Four paragraphs of commentary and I haven't even gotten to the first line yet. You might want to get yourself a beverage; this is going to take a while.
I’m sleeping with the enemy.
There's no actual sex in this story, but there are lots of uses of sex as a metaphor, starting with the title.
That’s what Logan would say, if he knew I was here. Those of us who were in X-Factor ought to understand uneasy moral compromises, but I don’t think even Scott would have much sympathy for what I’m trying to do. I’ve agreed to observe as Dr. Kavita Rao attempts the first cure—her words—of a drastic physical mutation.
Hank takes four sentences to get to the point because he really doesn't want to admit what he's doing.
When she approached me about this, I imagined holding the hand of some frightened child who, as he went through his terrifying transformation, might like to see another mutant’s face. That self-flattering image was quickly erased when I learned that the patient was Victor Gonzalez.
Victor has no name in canon. I originally gave him some terribly dumpy-sounding first name -- I can't think what it was now -- and then I thought, no, no, he's the hero of his own story; he should have a name that's positive and resolute. I didn't even mean it to be ironic, though I suppose it is.
I know him from the school: a difficult person to like, a child who no sooner learned English than he used it to inform us that we were all going to hell.
Vaguely suggested by Caliban's line from The Tempest: "You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."
Since I have in fact met a mutant before, I can guess that his shrillness concealed a deep-seated anxiety about his body and his place in the world, but it concealed it extremely well.
There was a time when a child who came to Xavier’s burdened with a masochistic relationship with his religion might have been gently guided to a broader view.
So, in other words, Victor's beliefs could have been cured -- never mind that he doesn't think they're a disease. I don't disagree with Hank, but there's still a large helping of irony here that he's failing to notice.
But the school is much larger now. If you find a particular child too annoying to bear, there is always another in just as much need.
Victor spent his time at Xavier’s being hated by the other students, given the minimum acceptable amount of attention by the staff, and labelled “that dreadful crab boy” by Emma Frost, who has never forgotten a name in her life.
That's canon, though it's "that dreadful Guatemalan crab boy." Victor's seen in exactly one panel, sitting in front of the Benetech building, apparently asleep, with a sign that says "Repent" clutched in his claw.
Little wonder he wound up on television telling Bill O’Reilly that the cure is mutants’ only chance to avoid hellfire.
I feel we owe him something, though I am perhaps the worst person to discharge the debt. For one thing, I’m fairly sure he thinks I’m gay, thanks to certain regrettable statements I made to the press a few years ago. I really must learn to ignore the part of my brain that sees reporters as mice to be played with.
But there he lies, behind the one-way glass—a specimen in an aquarium. It is too late to dissuade him from this path. All I can do is try to ease it.
“Not quite what I might have hoped for in a facility,” Dr. Rao says, “but I think you’ll find everything in accord with the Geneva convention.”
Rao is, on the one hand, both pissed off and guilty about being made complicit in the medical torture of Colossus without her knowldge, and on the other, proactively touchy about any suggestion that she was to blame. Trying to joke about this is a really bad idea...
“Move the bed,” I tell her.
... which partially explains why Hank is being an asshole here. I love Hank to death, and his anger toward Rao is totally understandable, but he does tend to take his own guilt out on her.
She's not saying "What do you mean?" so much as "Would you like to rephrase that as a suggestion rather than an order?"
“The bed. You’ve put him facing the one-way mirror so he can spend the next two months staring at himself. Can’t you see he doesn’t like it? He doesn’t need a crick in the neck added to his other problems.”
There've been times in Hank's life when he wouldn't have liked it much either.
“Oh.” She glances back into the room, or maybe she’s looking at my reflection. “We can do that.”
I give Rao credit for looking past the emotional subtext of this conversation to realize that he's right.
She thinks she’s buying me off, I know. She thinks that if she lets me watch over this process I will keep the X-Men from trying to stop it. She thinks if she dangles the hope of a cure, I will defend her, even if it’s against my own conscience.
The truth is I am sick to death of politics. I am sick of the false piety that says we must all be glad of whatever biology may make of us. If you find yourself at odds with your own body’s gender then it is perfectly acceptable to seek out some relief, but if a wayward gene makes you into a one-meter sphere of uniform density, you had better be a happy sphere or you’re a traitor to mutantkind.
There's a science joke about trying to model the complexities of the real world: "Consider a spherical cow of uniform density...."
I think we ought to have a choice, although I fear that the choice will be used for the wrong reasons more than the right ones.
I find it hard to disagree with Hank here. The prospect of mutant teenagers taking the Cure to placate their parents, or in a moment of despair that would have passed, is so horrifying that I want to say, no, this shouldn't be possible, please put the genie back in the bottle. But there seem to be mutants in the Marvel Universe who are severely disabled with few or no compensating benefits, and it's hard to say "no cure for you, because someone else might decide to do something stupid."
I would like to believe that Rao’s cure is that choice. So far I have not let belief take hold of me.
This is the first of Hank's many allusions to Hamlet. In Act I, scene 1, Marcellus says Horatio "will not let belief take hold of him / Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us," i.e., the ghost. The ghost is of course terrifyingly real, and at this moment Hank both hopes and fears that the cure might be, too.
Gene therapy has an inconvenient habit of working better in simulation than in real life, and for all Rao’s claims, I fear this cure will be a very incomplete one.
The Marvel Universe seems to have really good simulations of the human body. In Amazing Adventures #11 -- the issue in which Hank gets his fur -- he knows exactly what his invention will do, and how long it can be safely used for, apparently after just running it all through a big computer. On the other hand, in Astonishing he's only able to say that the cure "probably" works. In this story, I'm assuming simulations are far better than in the real world, so that Rao isn't crazy to put so much faith in them, but they still have their quirks and aren't perfect.
I think there are a lot of interesting stories to be told about a cure that just works perfectly, presenting mutants with a clear-cut choice: do you want to be "normal," or do you want to stay as you are? At the same time, I can't help thinking that the real world is more recalcitrant than that. The first "cures" would more likely be partial, or have side effects -- so that instead of a clear-cut choice, which is painful enough in itself, you have something much messier. I was thinking in particular of the way that cochlear implants don't "cure" deafness: they provide some auditory sensation but it's not like normal hearing.
A nurse knocks and opens the door. It is time. “Well,” Dr. Rao says, “we’ll give him the injection, and then if you have any questions....”
It’s a dismissal. She expects me to wait here and watch what happens only from behind the one-way glass. I could remind her that she said full access, that she said no secrets. Instead I catch the door before it closes, slip out, and follow her. I am wearing my uniform boots with my lab coat, and they are nearly as silent as my bare feet. As she turns to enter Victor’s room she sees me, but, as I anticipated, prefers not to argue in front of the child.
Hello Victor, meet your dysfunctional family.
“Hello, Victor,” she says warmly—and then, with strained patience: “I think you know Dr. McCoy.”
I smile and wave. He is briefly surprised at my presence, but his eyes are only for her. For his savior.
In the first draft Hank snarkily wondered whether Victor knew Rao was an atheist, but on reflection that seemed like cheap irony that wasn't doing anything for the story.
The TV is tuned to a documentary about the Savage Land on public television, either because it’s less wicked than the usual fare of daytime soaps and Law and Order reruns or because he can’t work the remote with his claws.
The latter. Victor's mutation leaves him with very limited dexterity, and he doesn't have any cool or useful powers to offset that. One of the reasons Hank's willing to go along with this experiment is that he knows Victor has good reasons for wanting a cure that have nothing to do with social acceptance or with his religious beliefs.
He will be spending a great deal of time in this bed. I try to think what I might do or bring to help him pass the time—or, if I’m honest, that would help endear me to him. I have made dozens of customized video game controllers for young mutants who cannot use standard ones, but by the time I could perfect one for his shelled claws, they might have moulted.
I missed an opportunity here: Hank could have said that his paws make it hard to do that kind of fine work (which is canon, from Morrison's run). It would have been good to mention the fact that Hank's current shape, like Victor's, has some disabling side effects.
In my office at the mansion is a stack of copies of Stories from the Eddas, autographed for me by its most famous living subject, but I suppose that memorabilia of a pagan god would not be quite the thing. He is too old for the Cookie Monster impersonation. Perhaps I will bring him the Narnia books—good propaganda for my leonine form. I would speak to him now if I only had some courage.
Hank realizes that he just accidentally sort of compared himself to Christ, so he turns around and compares himself to the Cowardly Lion instead.
The nurse has begun. “I suppose this is the first time anyone’s started an IV with a bone drill,” Dr. Rao says brightly, as if somehow this shop talk might put the patient at his ease. I don’t bother to tell her that I’ve done it five, no, six times, and once resorted to a diamond-tipped drill bit intended for limestone. I have yet to use explosives in a medical procedure, but I live in hope.
Hank's *such* a geek. And behind all the angst and politics, he thinks mutant diversity is really cool.
Before me a fourteen-year-old boy is about to sacrifice his body and his birthright for the hope of something called a cure, but don’t mind me; I’ll just stand here winking happy thoughts into a tiddle cup.
From Lolita. Humbert Humbert recites some justifications for "being moved to distraction by girl-children," and concludes "I daresay you see me already frothing at the mouth in a fit; but no, I am not; I am just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup." Hank's been taking refuge in pleasantly geeky thoughts while this terrible thing is happening to Victor, so he reproaches himself with a comparison to Humbert, who does terrible things to children and is indifferent to others' tragedies. (He has a very twisty mind.)
It takes a second drilling for the nurse to find a vein that she can visualize without a tourniquet, and three sticks to get the needle in, but finally the blood flashes back into the chamber. She fills a syringe and pushes the drug: a short, sharp shock.
"A short, sharp shock" is from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, where it refers to an execution.
I always seem to be drawn toward stories in which people face facts of nature that they can only adapt to, not do anything about. There's a real sense in which this injection is the last action anyone takes in the story that makes any difference. Hank can make a connection with Victor or fail to do so, he can fight with Rao or make peace with her, he can forgive himself or not, and those things all matter very much to him, but none of it is going to keep the story from winding up in the same place. Victor's immune system will keep grinding away toward the same outcome, and "whether or not we find what we are seeking / Is idle, biologically speaking."
The boy had raised his head to watch her, but now he sinks back, his expression peaceful, as if he’d received some benediction. Pterosaurs mate on the screen.
I first had the idea of a TV documentary on pterosaurs while writing What is Kept. Rogue was going to compare a heron flying overhead to a pterosaur, and I thought "wait, has she been to the Savage Land yet?" and then "Oh, well, she probably saw it on the Discovery Channel." Then I got caught up in trying to figure out whether there was a Discovery Channel yet, because that story was based on comics published in 1984, and yet it's clear that there aren't twenty years between those events and now, and OH GOD MARVEL TIME HEAD HURTS MAKE IT STOP. A conversation about cable TV wouldn't have fit the tone of that story anyway. But I like the idea of being able to turn on the TV in the Marvel Universe and see video of real-life prehistoric animals, so I recycled it here.
The child’s bed vibrates. It’s a disturbing sight, suggestive of cheap motels and sordid assignations—an impression contradicted by the smell of disinfectant.
Again Hank compares the moral compromises he's making to some kind of sexual indiscretion.
As I understand it, the device very nearly is a Magic Fingers, with two differences: one, it is tuned to a frequency thought to promote bone growth; two, it cost a trifle more than twenty thousand dollars. Charles’s capital gains tax at work.
Hank's very interested in what everything costs. If the cure works, but requires all kinds of supportive care for a good outcome, who's going to pay for all that stuff? That kind of speculation is common in science fiction, but not so much in superhero comics. (It's also possible that Hank's been hanging out with an accountant.)
The fact that she's provided this bone-mass therapy goes to show that while Rao may believe her simulations a bit too much, she's not stupid and she's not reckless with Victor's health. She wants to make sure Victor has as much bone mass as possible, even though that may mean she won't know whether that additional therapy was necessary.
With the blanket pulled up to his chin, Victor could be baseline human: two eyes, a nose, the usual sort of thing. From the neck down, however, he is covered in a hard integument closely resembling a lobster’s. This exoskeleton does not hold his body up all on its own—which goes to show that the laws of physics have not been suspended for Victor Gonzalez.
One of the reasons there aren't bugs the size of Buicks is the square-cube law, which... okay, consider a spherical crab of uniform density. As the size of the sphere increases, its volume increases faster than its surface area, so that a larger crab has proportionally more mass with less shell to hold it up. Eventually, the crab can't support its own weight at all, unless its shell becomes thick enough to make life impossible. Victor needs bones in addition to an exoskeleton to avoid this problem.
(No doubt, unlike Warren Worthington, he couldn’t afford the bribes.)
The square cube law also applies to flight: the lift a wing can generate is proportional to its surface area, which doesn't increase as fast as mass as the animal is scaled up. A flying animal that's really large, like Quetzalcoatlus, needs disproportationately huge wings to keep its mass airborne. Warren is way short on wingspan.
The word osteopenia will scarcely stretch to cover the condition of his bones, but at least there is something there to be built up.
Let us now recite our Fox News understanding of the “cure.”
These two paragraphs about the cure were the first part of the story I wrote. They have the air of a set piece, and whether or not he's given this speech to anyone yet, I'm sure he's been working on it in his head for a while now.
A tailored virus splices an inactivated version of the X-gene into the subject’s DNA.
This much is probably accurate. Viruses are designed to insert their own DNA into a host's cells, and there's been a lot of work done on using them for gene therapy.
Upon receipt of this good news, the cell thinks very hard about its own role in abetting the mutant menace and intelligently works to reverse its former actions.
Good news being a literal translation of "gospel."
When this happens, any mutant organs are immediately shed or reabsorbed. Slitted pupils become round, beaks are transmuted into lips, and all those excess pounds and heads just melt away. If all goes well, the subject votes Republican. Any leftover blue fur can be retained as a conversation piece or donated to make retro-kitsch refurbished basements for the poor.
So have I heard, and do in part believe it.
Also from Hamlet I:i. Marcellus notes that the ghost disappeared upon the crowing of a cock, and says
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
Like those Fox News pundits, he imagines an end to fear, a banishment of all the things that go bump in the night. Hank echoes Horatio's skeptical response to this fantasy.
But all that is another illustration of how Hank's mind works, not really something I'm hoping to convey. It's much easier to construct an allusion that specific by picking out favorite lines than to remember the context of a random line that happens to be someone else's favorite. In general, I think allusions should degrade gracefully: they should make sense even if you can't place the source, and if at all possible they should still function as allusions if you only vaguely recognize the source -- "I think that's from Hamlet, but I don't remember who says it or where." In this case I'm mostly hoping that all the Hamlet quotations will have a cumulative effect, opening up a connection to Hamlet that will make some kind of emotional sense. Or failing that, at least they'll help establish Hank's intelligence.
But what all these would-be experts fail to realize is that Tildie Soames was the easiest possible case. Her power, like telekinesis and most of the more spectacular mental gifts, was what we call a high-draw mutation. It won’t run on any such humble fuel as adenosine triphosphate, adequate to me and thee; it must rely on batteries of specialized mutant cells for all its power. I do not know how this energy is made, and anyone who claims to is a liar or a fool, but what we do know is that the process can be disrupted. It can be blocked in the isolated cell by cyanide, hypoxia, or heavy water; in the body, a sufficiently long fast will do it, or a few other methods I would still like to believe are secret. The cure has only to prevent these cells from pouring out their eldritch energies, and the child’s power disappears as if it had never been. The structures in the brain that once controlled that power may still be there, but they no longer work. Dr. Kavita Rao has pulled the plug.
Some mutant abilities seem to require more power than the human body could provide. So, okay, maybe they have their own source of power. And if I can't make up a good explanation for what it is, I'll just describe an experiment designed to gather data on how it works. (Hank's paraphrasing the abstract of one of his own papers.) This detail is pretending to be part of a whole science of mutant abilities, which I couldn't make up, and probably couldn't recite with a straight face if I did make it up.
The account of the experiment itself is a bit sketchy. Cyanide works by blocking the production of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, which I just got finished saying that this power source was not. So what Hank's experiment probably shows is just that these power-producing cells are still human cells, and need ATP in order to make whatever magic mutant juice they make. That's not likely to be exactly how the cure works. The point is that these types of mutations will be neutralized if the power-generating cells simply stop working; the parts of the brain that control the power don't even have to be reabsorbed, let alone rebuilt. Bringing about gross anatomical changes is a different story.
For those of us whose differences are mostly physical—who, if you will, have the spoiler and the oversized tailpipe, but only a factory engine under the hood—the matter is not so simple.
Hank compares himself to a rice burner modified to look as if it's more powerful than other cars, although it's not.
There are no do-overs in embryogenesis. The genes that fused Victor’s fingers into claws only had meaning when he was being knit together in his mother’s womb; stop them now, and nothing much may happen.
"Knit together in his mother's womb" is an allusion to Psalm 139, although I see now that it's not the King James Version. Hank would know that; I didn't. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh has "For Thou hast made my reins; Thou hast knit me together in my mother's womb," so maybe Hank's read that.
One day, perhaps, he’ll moult his shell and find no new one under it, his skin cells having lost the family recipe of calcium carbonate and sugar.
It's typical of Hank's voice to make the science sound more poetic by saying sugar instead of polysaccharide, which is what chitin is. And again I'm throwing random details around to make it look like Hank knows a bunch of stuff I don't know myself.
His hands, I fear, will be much the same. Dr. Rao has promised him that if his hands do not magically reform into a human shape, she will find an orthopedic surgeon to make them look more normal, though no surgery is likely to give him five functional fingers. I would like to know just who is going to pay for such cosmetic touch-ups when there is no longer a need for poster children to promote the cure. It’s not fused fingers they’re afraid of.
What people mostly fear is mutant power; the good reasons for seeking a cure involve disability, which is less scary to others. It's all too easy to imagine a scenario in which the cure goes to exactly those who need it least, or in which the cure itself is inexpensive but only the well-off can afford the treatments necessary to make it anything more than a depowering.
That’s one reason I’ve come. I want to make sure the whole truth is told about what happens here.
Dr. Rao would accuse me of being unimaginative. She would remind me that the effects of the X-gene are more various, more endlessly surprising, one might almost say more magical, than those of any other gene. She tells me she has simulations in which somatic mutations are indeed reversed. Well, we shall see. The cards have been laid out, the yarrow stalks cast, the tortoise shell placed in the fire. We will read our answers in the body of one young and very isolated mutant boy.
The cards would be Tarot cards. Yarrow stalks are used to cast the I Ching. Plastromancy is an even older form of divination from ancient China, in which the undershell of a turtle was heated until it cracked, and the cracks interpreted. In a sense, that's what they're doing to Victor.
I have found Victor less abrasive here than at the school. Perhaps now that he thinks he’s erasing his own sins, he no longer feels quite such a need to point out others’. Perhaps, as the reality of his situation sets in, he is lonely and does not want to drive me away.
I felt that if I portrayed Victor as the obnoxious bigot that Emma Frost thinks he is, I'd kill everyone's sympathy for him, including my own. In my experience, any religious belief that allows you to condemn other people tends to sit very badly on boys Victor's age. And yet the story would lose a lot of complexity if Victor were completely unsympathetic. This was part of the solution.
He did ask me, the first time we were alone together, “Are you going to take the cure next? If it works on me?”
“No,” I said. “I promised a friend that I wouldn’t.”
“He’s not a real friend, if he made you promise that.”
“He has saved my life any number of times.”
“So you just do whatever he says?”
In the first draft, Victor had very few lines, because I couldn't figure out how to let him talk without making him unlikable. Finally I hit on the idea of having him break out an anti-drug script to talk about mutation, which is obnoxious, yet so preposterous that I can't take it very seriously.
“I do take orders from him on occasion.” Sorry, Scott.
Hank doesn't engage with Victor at all, just parries his questions. I can't blame him, but notice how even after pointing out that no one at Xavier's wanted to talk to Victor, he's still doing the same thing.
“Does he try to get you to use your powers?”
My body is my power. I use it every time I move. But: “You could say that.”
“Then what kind of friend is he?”
I found myself entirely at a loss to explain.
"It's a superhero thing. You wouldn't understand."
“The promise doesn’t last forever,” I said. “Perhaps someday.”
“But you could die tomorrow.”
“In my line of work, it’s a distinct possibility.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being judged?”
Victor doesn't use the word Hell because he's not sure whether Hank believes in Hell. Annoying as this whole interrogation is, he's making a genuine effort to engage with someone with a very different set of religious beliefs, and Hank's not reciprocating.
“Yes,” I said truthfully. “Very much so.”
That seemed to satisfy him. I didn’t tell him that what I fear is being asked the question: “Did you use your life to help people or hurt them?” And when the conversation comes around to what I’m doing in this place—well, I can only hope that the Creator keeps some knick-knacks on His desk that I can toy with while avoiding eye contact. Surely a merciful God would provide that.
I had suggested that I simply break into the laboratory every time I wanted to observe proceedings, but Dr. Rao persuaded me that people would eventually begin to notice. So I walk up to the guard at the front desk and am issued a visitor’s pass, which I pin to the lab coat that I wear to show I intend to be taken as human. I smile to the guard. She is friendly and smiles back. She is a superhero buff, and asked me once if I could get her the Hulk’s autograph.
Well, she's not so much a superhero buff as someone who read once that the Hulk's autograph was very valuable, and doesn't realize that's because Hulk could only sign his name during the Peter A. David "Merged Hulk" days. She seemed to know a lot about Hank the second time she met him because she Googled him the first time. But let's leave Hank his illusions.
I told her the Hulk didn’t know how to write, and that in any case we weren’t in touch. She seemed to take it well. I do not trust her discretion, and daily expect to see some cellphone photograph of me with Dr. Rao leaked to the tabloids, but so far it has not happened.
They let me wander to Victor’s room by myself, though I assume I am closely watched through the security cameras in the halls. I assume, too, that all data is backed up off-site and anything that they may have to hide is stored elsewhere. As a gesture of trust, giving me the run of this place is like Wolverine baring his throat: impressive, to be sure, but they’re exposing nothing that will not grow back.
True, and yet there's one thing he *could* do: sabotage the experiment by manufacturing harmful side effects. Of course he would never poison a child or falsify scientific research, but it's interesting that Dr. Rao trusts him not to do those things. Rao is completely committed to seeing mutation as a disease, but it doesn't affect her respect for Hank as a scientist; canonically, the first thing she says when offered a project involving mutation is that Hank would be a better choice.
I find Victor restless and on edge. He wants something to happen right now, but so far the cure has done nothing except give him an itch under his shell that he can’t scratch. I express sympathy but I can give him no promises. There is no schedule for this transformation—none, at least, that I am willing to believe.
There is a chair in the corner where a visitor might sit, although he has no visitors but me, his parents having signed the paperwork and then declined to be involved. Since my day has been a long one, I repair to it to read over his chart.
Suspended ceiling. Hence no suspended Hank.
No sooner have I done so than the door opens, nearly hitting me in the elbow. Dr. Rao walks in with two lab-coated strangers, a man and a woman. They do not notice me. What peaceful lives these people lead, to walk into a room without checking the corners. I wonder if I can slip away while their attention is distracted, and avoid the complication of two more people knowing that I’m here. Silently, I rise.
They are discussing the case. Dr. Rao makes some effort to include Victor in the conversation, but the others address questions only to her: and the claws don’t require the shell to function?
If the muscles that work the claw attached to the shell instead of the bone, losing his shell could leave Victor unable to use his hands at all. Rao -- again being cautious despite her hopes -- investigated this before accepting him as a subject.
They are discussing the details of his anatomy in front of him, and I am filled with a quixotic impulse to draw their attention, to substitute my wrong body for his.
Some intersexuals have talked about being in the hospital as children and having their genitals examined, not just by their own doctors, but by the entire staff dropping by alone and in small groups to see an interesting case. For Victor, this is a similarly horrible experience. And they don't get it. They're not deliberately being cruel, it just doesn't occur to them. Hank may not *like* Victor but he *identifies* with him, and he can't stand this.
Of all the moments in this story when I'm doing my best to break your heart, Hank saying "my wrong body" is the one that really gets to me. He's so beautiful, and I love him so much, and he should never have to feel that way.
The child is wilting. He glances at me, and I hallucinate that it’s a plea for help. At the same time Dr. Rao notices the absence of the chart. She stiffens and does not follow the direction of his glance; impressive; but I know that my position has become untenable. I step around the door and knock on it as if I were just coming in, holding up the chart as if I had stopped by to return it. Regrettably, this puts me very close to the two newcomers, especially the woman, who lets out a small scream as she turns around.
Other than the question about the claw, neither of these visiting scientists get any lines. They don't need to speak for themeslves; the great Hank McCoy is going to tell us what they think. He's a bit too angry right now to be bothered to reflect that if someone sneaks up on you like that -- especially a *large* someone -- most people would at least jump. He's probably right that his subspecies is a factor; it's just hard to be sure. But Hank McCoy is not a plaster saint, and it's wearing to keep giving people the benefit of the doubt all the time.
Then she takes in my lab coat and my nametag, and I watch the threat assessment change from mutant to Avenger in her eyes.
She doesn't just think "oh, okay, he's not a threat," but "oh, it's Hank McCoy! He's a rock star!" (This may have something to do with his scientific genius or frequent appearances on TV, as well as his association with the Avengers, but Hank's on a roll now.) For Hank, that just adds insult to injury. This is what it's like to be Hank in the world: almost everyone he meets is having some kind of extraordinary experience, whether positive or negative. It's enough to make you join a superhero team just to be around people who will treat you as just a normal guy (who keeps eating all their goddamn Twinkies).
Rao, for all her faults, never treats Hank as a monster or a superstar.
Well, that’s my cue. I smile and become genial and verbose. I joke with her, and I invoke the playful consonance of stars and garters.
"Oh my stars and garters," by the way, is not original to Hank. It's a nineteenth-century expression meaning something like "oh my medals and awards" -- garters being a reference to the Order of the Garter. There's no way Hank doesn't know that. As lightly as he uses that phrase most of the time, it still means something like "oh my honors and awards -- you know, the ones I DON'T HAVE because they DON'T GIVE THEM TO MUTANTS." Hank cured the Legacy Virus -- where's his Nobel Prize? He doesn't like to show it, but I know he feels this. Somewhere or other there's a scene where he's knocked unconscious and wakes up mumbling his thanks to the Nobel Committee.
Oh, God, your only jig-maker.
Now we're up to Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet. Hamlet is making anatomical jokes while they wait for the play to begin. Ophelia describes him as "merry," and he says "O God, your only jig-maker" -- yeah, sure, I'm the happiest guy in the world. Like Hamlet, Hank is hiding his rage behind humor, and he quotes this line in anger and despair.
Unfortunately, "your only jig-maker" doesn't degrade very gracefully -- it's a confusing phrase without a footnote to explain it. I thought about cutting it, but I felt very strongly that was just what Hank would think at that moment and hoped that context would make it clear enough.
I know how to show I can velvet my paws—to convince the timidest of bigots that such an urbane monster could not possibly want to split them open with a sweep of one clawed thumb.
Vaguely suggested by The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: "'Terrible paws,' thought Lucy, 'if he didn't know how to velvet them!'" (This comes right after Aslan claps his paws together, which I still can't picture a quadruped doing with any dignity, but never mind.)
I am well schooled in the art of being a credit to my species.
And the hell with your school and your dream, too, Charles Xavier. Hank is angry enough now to lash out at everything.
None of it, however, seems to have much effect on the man—Dr. Clark, I see from his nametag—who is now favoring me with a skeptical stare. I politely inquire after his home institution. Harvard Medical School. I applied for a research position there once, but was turned down because some of the faculty had signed a petition saying that a mutant on staff would be injurious to their reputation. Seventy-three men and women who had devoted their lives to scientific inquiry—two of them specialists in bioethics—were willing to put their names down on a document saying No, we are sorry, but our lab coats simply do not go with blue. I wonder if he was one.
This happened in X-Factor #1.
I would like to walk into a room without checking the corners. I would like to repair to the nearest pub for a collegial beer with that appalling man when we are finished here.
If Hank weren't a mutant, Dr. Clark would still be just as bad as he is, but maybe Hank wouldn't have to know that. He'd be a white kid from Illinois who went straight from high school to Harvard and spent the rest of his life in a bubble of privilege. He might not see, or even if he did, at least he wouldn't feel it so deeply. He knows this is reality, but at the moment he'd just like to go back and take the blue pill.
I would like to feel that I had more in common with these learned men and women than with the small-minded and willfully ignorant child on that bed.
Hank's being unfair to Victor, but he's having a *really* bad day.
I shake his hand before I go. It is the only revenge I can think of.
There was a child known as “that dreadful crab boy,” and he almost deserved it.
First line of C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
This story is in part a response to Lewis, but it's a response to my own idiosyncratic reading of him. What struck me about Dawn Treader when I first read it -- and I don't even know how old I was, maybe ten or twelve or something -- was the moment when Edmund says to de-dragoned Eustace "You were only an ass, but I was a traitor." I remember thinking, wait, that's true -- Edmund was much worse. So why don't I feel like he was worse? Why is conspiring with evil so much easier to forgive than just being a bit of a snot? That's what informs Hank's comments about Victor at the school: a group of people who regularly take in reformed supervillains (even though some of them come unreformed) neglect Victor because they can't stand being around him.
As an adult, I can see the portrayal of Eustace as a hatchet job on ideas Lewis didn't like. We know that these ideas are bad and false because they turned a young boy into an annoying little brat (something that never happens otherwise). Luckily, he can be cured through religious conversion. This is more or less how Hank sees Victor at the beginning of the story.
I dropped off the Narnia books the other day. I had decanted them from their cardboard case, knowing he would have trouble getting them out of it. I even arranged them in the proper order—none of this chronological revisionism.
I've heard that reading the stories in chronological rather than publication order makes the religious allegory seem stronger. I've always read them starting with Wardrobe, so I wouldn't know. Mostly, Hank just prefers the order in which he read them first.
I put them down on his bed table and attempted to explain what they were about.
That doesn't quite manage to be a Hank sentence.
“I’ve heard of them,” he said, peering at the covers with what seemed like interest. Then he looked back at the television. When I came back the next day, they were untouched. What in the world can he have against Narnia? I am glad that I did not pay for the expedited shipping.
Today I show up with a stack of board games, in part out of sheer bloodymindedness: this is becoming a challenge. He has never played Clue and seems interested, but no sooner have I wrested it open—it is some silly deluxe edition that comes in a tin and adds poison—than he changes his mind and wants to play backgammon.
Victor has, in a sense, been poisoned. (Hamlet, too, has poison as a murder weapon.)
He has trouble controlling the hard, smooth pieces, however; they keep squirting out of his grip, and I amuse him by catching them out of the air.
“You could be a goalkeeper.”
“Catlike reflexes.” Honed in the Danger Room to fight those who would do to you what you’re doing to yourself, I don’t add.
Since we have no stakes to play for—not even a supply of toothpicks to stand in for chips—there is little point in using the doubling cube. I do anyway, and try to turn it into a lesson about the powers of two, but Victor instantly loses interest.
“This isn’t math class,” he complains.
Dr. Peacock, in the laboratory, with the nearest blunt object. But very well. I put the cube down and subside.
He rolls a five and two, and pushes himself up on one hand to move a man off bar. As he does there is a loud snap, and I think first of his fragile bones before realizing that the shell over his hand has split open.
He works his other claw into the crack and pries the shell open with such violence that I’m sure he’s going to hurt himself. The halves fall away and he catches his breath. New skin, as smooth as a baby’s. Excited, he rocks back and forth on the bed, cracking his shell all along one side.
This isn't how crustacean moulting works, and I'm mostly unrepentant about that. Victor looks like a crab, but he's not one.
“Wait,” I tell him.
“It’s okay,” he says, pulling at the edge of shell around his neck like a small boy trying to remove his own tie after church. “I always do it myself.”
“You’ve always had another shell underneath it until now. You don’t want to cut yourself.”
That stops him. “You know how to do it?”
“I’ve helped with a moulting or two before.” Also, I have dined at seafood restaurants, which may be more directly relevant experience.
It's a grisly comparison, but hard not to think of.
“Okay,” he says warily.
My claws are perfect for working into the cracks and levering them open, but I must be careful not to let them pierce too deep. I break the shell that sheaths his forearm, put the pieces on the bed table, and run a finger over the exposed skin to assure myself it is as perfect as it seems. He winces.
“Is that tender?”
I suspect him of lying until I realize that it’s my fur he doesn’t care for. My mutant hand is not the one he wants to be the first to touch his skin.
You're also reputedly gay, Hank.
“Would you like me to call Dr. Rao instead?”
“No,” he says. “Just do it fast.”
“As fast as is compatible with keeping your new skin in one piece,” I agree.
I husk his arms and legs, peel his left hand like a clove of garlic, and finally, with a crack so loud it must be audible at the security station, sunder his chestplate in two.
In Dawn Treader, Eustace is turned into a dragon and Aslan cures him by tearing off the thick, scaly skin with his claws. It's an incredible image -- this very rough and physical stripping away of sin -- and it's also an example of one of the things I hate most in fiction. Eustace's viewpoint is given no sympathy and allowed no integrity; it exists only as a disease to be cured. I never, ever, ever want to treat a character like that.
Hank breaking Victor's shell repeats that image from Lewis -- the peeling of the body -- but Hank, despite his many reservations, is helping Victor along his own path.
For a moment before he scrabbles at the sheet to pull it over him, he is laid bare. I had not quite believed just how close to Homo sapiens sapiens his habitus was until I saw it. But for his hands and his spatulate feet, he could be baseline human.
Watch me palm a card here: it's not *impossible* that Victor's genitals could be baseline human male, but it's unlikely. I really didn't want to go there, in part because too many metaphors would become literal.
He will be able to feel with his hands now; he will be able to feel touch on his body. I should try to share his happiness. But all I can think of is how much I fear for him, with his clawlike hands and brittle bones, going armorless into the world.