Woolly

Fiction by Brittney Corrigan

For the past three months, I’ve been in charge of the petri dishes in which we’re growing mammoth hair. Jasmine is in charge of the blood cells, and Pete from Omaha handles the fat. I labored head down like a workhorse to get into this particular grad school—even though I’m not an East Coast, Ivy League kind of person—just so I could be in this lab with Dr. Chapelle and his team. What I’m learning here is important, beyond resurrecting the woolly mammoth. It’s about reversing extinction. Staring death in the face and backing it down. I’m here to help save my sister.

She and I are identical twins, and our parents thought it would be delightful to give their daughters palindromic names: Hannah and Elle. To go with our last name, which is Renner. We make it a game to ask people to guess what’s in the middle. We became the Palindrome Twins from day one. Hannah and I are the mirror image of each other. I’m right-handed, but Hannah is a southpaw. The whorls of our hair and fingerprints curl in opposite directions. Standing eye to eye with my sister is like looking at my reflection in the stillness of a lake.

I’ve always been the scientist. First dinosaurs, then chemistry sets, and then I convinced my parents to pay for taxidermy lessons. A disgruntled-looking squirrel is still perched on my bookshelf back home in Oregon, posed mid-forage with an acorn in his witchy paws. Eventually, I moved on to microscopes. Hannah willingly donated specimens—hair from her brush, blood from her finger that we pricked with a pin from our mother’s sewing kit—and I’d magnify them under the lenses next to samples of my own, trying to see if I could tell us apart. 

Hannah is the athlete. At least she was until the diagnosis a couple of years ago. She was training to be an Olympic swimmer, in college on a full scholarship. But then the cancer came, taking her down with the stealth of a sleeper shark. It snuck up on her, vicious and strong, and has been tearing at her little by little ever since. She moved back home with my parents while the doctors threw everything they had at her body. But nothing sticks for long. Now she’s preparing for a bone marrow transplant next month—my healthy, matching stem cells flowing into her bloodstream—hoping it might stop the cancer from circling back. Until then, I’m here in this lab, with its promise of something miraculous. Something that could annihilate her cancer from the inside out. 

It sounds like science fiction, but de-extinction is a very real thing. And not just to prove that we can do it—be the species to reincarnate beasts that lived on Earth long before we did or to try to fix our mistakes, like the passenger pigeon or the black rhino. No, bringing back large grazing animals to the tundra might help save the permafrost. The animals that used to stamp around snuffling for grass in the snow helped the cold penetrate the ground to keep it frozen. But they’re all gone now, and the long-insulated layers are starting to warm and melt, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

When Hannah and I were kids, our parents would take us hiking in the Cascades, up past the timberline to where everything opens up. Expansive meadows of wildflowers and the sky going on forever. Even in the summer, the air was crisp and cool, the wind tangling our opposite-curling hair as we scanned the rocks for quick movements of pika and marmots. Despite the chill, we’d shuck our sweatshirts, run into the fields of flowers, and spin ourselves dizzy until we collapsed in the grass. We’d pretend we were alpine animals, unbothered by the altitude or temperature, living our lives amid the snowy peaks. Those memories are tainted with sadness now, like a heavy beast pressing its feet down on my chest. The chemo means Hannah’s always cold these days, right down to her bones.

Jasmine and Pete from Omaha help keep my spirits up. Jasmine draws me little pictures on our lab notes—whimsical critters with thought bubbles drifting above their foreheads, somehow knowing just what to say. Jasmine is quiet, and slight, her dark hair artistically arranged in bundles atop her head—a new configuration each day. If she were an animal on the tundra, she’d be an arctic hare, everything about her cautious and hushed. Jasmine holds her pipettes carefully, as if they are creatures whose trust she’s trying to gain. Beside her slender wrists, the ruby dishes of blood cells look beautiful and bright. 

I have trouble sleeping, sometimes drag myself into the lab like I’ve walked across a vast distance to get here. Have some coffee, Pete from Omaha will say cheerily, handing me a steaming cup. Everyone calls him Pete from Omaha, never just Pete, because that’s what he calls himself. Hi, I’m Pete from Omaha, nice to meet you. Under his lab coat, Pete from Omaha sports wildly colorful shirts with bold patterns. He exudes energy and humor, even though he’s very serious about the work. Pete from Omaha would stand out on the tundra like a tropical bird, clearly in the wrong climate altogether.

I’m not sure what kind of animal Hannah is now. She used to be some kind of seal, fast and happy in the water. She could lap the pool fast as any sea creature, over and over. At her high school meets, buzzed on the smell of chlorine and the blurry echo of pool noise, I’d watch her dive and vanish into the water, swimming away from me. I’d hold my breath with her, waiting for her to surface and make her first stroke. She’d spin and flip turn at the end of the pool, doubling back to me again. Now I’m starting to think of her in the same way I do the woolly mammoth. Something that used to be. Something I’m trying to bring back.

Before I left, I’d sit with Hannah during treatments, and we’d do the research together, looking for the most promising new developments in the field. Her cancer is acute myeloid leukemia. It mutates her blood cells—dividing and dividing and dividing until her blood forgets how to be her own, how to be like mine. When we came across a news story about the Chapelle Lab, it seemed like a magical thing, right out of one of our childhood storybooks. A place where a sorceress might conjure a creature from nothing but bones and a few strands of hair. 

Even though it meant me leaving her while she’s sick, Hannah insisted that I come out here to study, assured me she’d be fine until I got back. Whenever I had doubts about going, she’d put her arm around my waist and lean my head into her shoulder. As if she were propping me up instead of the other way around. You’ve got to do this, Elle, she told me. I know this is going to help people like me. Hannah’s always been determined like that, so sure and confident that it seems she can make anything happen. She manifested a win for every swimming race. Even though her body’s struggling right now, I have to believe she’ll beat the cancer, too. Otherwise, how could I be here on the other side of the country monitoring stem cells, waiting for them to sprout hair?

What we’re doing in the lab is editing genes. It turns out the Asian elephant is 99.96% woolly mammoth, which sounds like a lot, but it’s a difference of about 1.4 million mutations. We’re finding the differences and then putting mammoth DNA into elephant cells, trying to get them to change. Mammoth blood, hair, and fat could help elephants cope with cold temperatures. I love picturing woolly Asian elephants roaming around Siberia, where scientists are working to recreate the Pleistocene mammoth steppe, hoping to protect the permafrost and all the rest of us along with it. We’re creating a chimera to defend against the damage we’ve done.

But I’m really here to learn the technique: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. A family of DNA sequences found in the genomes of bacteria that help them fight viruses and which has taught us how to modify the DNA of other cells. The same technique that tricks elephant cells into developing like mammoth cells could one day teach immune cells to attack cancer cells in humans. When Hannah and I first heard about CRISPR, with its surprise of repeated DNA sequences—just like our names—we knew it was what I was meant to do. A palindromic cure for one of the Palindrome Twins.

Every morning, Jasmine and Pete from Omaha and I are in the lab, checking on the cells. Now that it’s late autumn, the mornings are dark and chilly, and the peacefulness is like a salve. Campus still tucked in and sleeping, not even the birds awake yet. Sometimes there’s an overnight frost, and the ground crunches a little as I walk to the lab, that marvelous squeaky sound that’s part crumpling tissue paper and part branches rubbing window glass. My breath making little ghosts. Mornings like that, I imagine I’m a caribou making my way across the Arctic steppe. I can almost feel the antlers sprouting from my skull, their weight bending my weary head toward the ground.

When I text Hannah now, she’ll only write to me in palindromes. We used to do this as kids. We’d spend hours after school coming up with elaborate palindromic communications, a code to keep secrets from our parents. We devised every possible sequence of words, became experts at deciphering each other’s messages. I don’t know if she’s gone back to our cryptic language to let me know we’re still connected through the thousands of miles, or because she’s in so much pain, or so tired, she can only manage a handful of words. Elle. Drawn onward, Elle, she writes, to let me know she’s still fighting. In words drown I, meaning, it’s too hard to talk right now. Live evil. Yeah. As if I didn’t know that’s what this is.

When I’m tending to the cells in the lab, I think about how Hannah’s blood is like my blood. Her hair is like my hair. All those years staring through microscopes, small offerings of our girl bodies laid out end to end on slide after slide. We are more similar than elephants and mammoths. We are 100%. Twin caribou navigating the ice. But then a polar bear comes, and it only mauls one of us. Why did it choose her instead of me?

Borrow or rob? Hannah asks when I text her. How much time does she have left? Not a tub, but a ton. The bath is not the same. She misses swimming. Doom mood. This is a chemo week. I prefer pi, I message her. The digits of pi go on infinitely. I would do anything, anything. Hang on. I’ll decipher the puzzle. I’m working as fast as I can.

And I am. I stay late at the lab every evening, peering through the microscope as if I could watch the cells morph from elephant to mammoth before my eyes. I pore over textbooks and journal articles until my eyes are too sore to take in more. Somewhere in all of this data is the answer to why Hannah’s body is sick. What I can learn to make her better. The recipe for turning her immune cells into that mythical chimera, coursing through her veins and hunting down the leukemic blasts. Goring their purple bodies until they shrivel, until no cancer remains.

The week of Thanksgiving, Jasmine and Pete from Omaha and I figure out a plan for the cells. My labmates both have places to go. Families with circumstances. Same as me, except I can’t afford to go home. Hannah’s treatments are expensive—intense chemo to prepare her body for the transplant—and we’re saving everything for when I come home in December for the procedure. When I left for grad school at the end of the summer, Hannah and I knew I wouldn’t be back until winter break, wouldn’t be able to be with her after treatments or comfort her when she lost the last of her hair. But I can feel her here with me, willing me to win this race. Her blood is my blood. And part of my heart beats all the way across the country to her. Boom, boom, boom. I send it out over all the landscapes in between.

When I think about donating my marrow, I imagine what it would feel like to be swimming inside her veins, restoring her blood to match mine. I imagine the delirium of waking up from the anesthesia, Hannah’s hand on my arm, feeling like we are one again—sisters, twins. Before we divided. Before we were mirror images, right-handed and left-handed and making our opposite ways in the world. 

In the lab, Jasmine shows me her routine with the blood cells, her hair assembled with metal knitting needles choreographed in perfect angles around a messy bun. I force myself not to nod off as I watch her hands move hypnotically around the petri dishes, meticulously preparing microscope slides. Pete from Omaha has typed out instructions for the fat cells. A flourish of fonts and bullet points on fluorescent pink paper is taped to the lab’s refrigerator door. Thanksgiving morning, it will just be me, quietly tending to the cultures. Just me and the fibroblasts as I try to remind myself what I have to be thankful for.

I call Hannah on Thanksgiving eve, to tell her for the millionth time how sorry I am not to be there. She sounds broken down, too weak to talk. She wants to text instead. Bird rib, she writes. I’m not sure if she means the turkey or how delicate her body feels. So I just write, Decaf and DNA faced. I’m taking care of myself. I’m doing the work for her. Do geese see God? she asks. This doesn’t sound like Hannah and her usual optimism. I’m not sure how to respond. I want to believe that for every animal, there is something to come home to. The ghosts of the mammoths lumber around me, making me shake in my chair. Please, I think, let’s not talk about the after. Let’s talk about the more.

Thanksgiving morning, before sunrise, the deserted campus is so quiet I think maybe I really am in Siberia, nothing but stillness as far as I can see through the chilly fog. I’ve hardly slept, and through my bleary eyes the shifting predawn shadows are arctic foxes. They pop their heads up out of the snow and then sprint away, vanishing completely, even when I squint after them to see where they’ve gone. The campus buildings rise out of the mist, behemoth-like, and I fold myself between them, navigating my way by routine familiarity alone.

Emerging from the darkness as I approach it each morning, the science building always seems to have dozens of eyes—row upon row of yellow-lit, modern windows stacked up into a giant’s staircase, a pathway from lawn to sky. Once I’m inside, the deserted hallway comes at me with a fluorescent hum that feels almost alive. The vacancy is tangible—itself a presence in the absence of my labmates. I pull the heavy doors closed behind me, listen as the building reverberates with the sound of the lock scraping back into place. It’s soothing rather than frightening. Like I’m inside the belly of something sure and strong. 

As I make my way toward our lab, I can hear movement behind the door, a sound like something shifting weight. I figure Dr. Chapelle has come in to check on something. I call out his name, my voice echoing through the building like a sonar ping. I open the door a crack. The light is off, and even the shadows are so thick as to be invisible. There’s a shuffling. An unmistakable animal huff. 

There are plenty of animals in the building, but none that would be near our lab. Mostly rats and mice—nothing large, or dangerous. But I can tell that whatever’s in there has a heft to it. And an odor that reminds me simultaneously of a stable and freshly fallen snow. Though it feels utterly deserted, there must be other people somewhere in the building, tending to animals and projects just like I’m tending to the cells. I try to listen more carefully, the way Hannah and I used to do as kids, whispering late into the night, then hurriedly quieting as our parents headed for our bedroom door. I strain to hear beyond the lab. Hello?

Another huff and a deep lowing sound come out of the darkness. Then the sharp, clean smell of chlorine tendrils past. Like someone installed a swimming pool overnight. I’d know that smell anywhere—the smell of Hannah’s swim meets—and the memories smack me in a sudden wave, make me feel like I’m starting to drown. But I steady myself, reach in and feel for the light switch. Click it on. Then open the door slightly wider so I can see in. Standing wedged between the refrigerator and the emergency wash station is a woolly mammoth, eight feet tall with thick, tawny hair and tusks twisting precariously over the counters of beakers and flasks. Pete from Omaha’s bright pink instructions are a rumpled casualty on the floor.

The mammoth and I blink at each other. My heart is beating triple time, so I know I’m not dreaming. I’m going over all the sci-fi movies Hannah and I have watched together, instantly cross-referencing them with every class I’ve taken, every textbook I’ve read. But it all ceases to matter rather rapidly, as I watch the mammoth’s tusks list closer to where the samples are housed. I have to get it out before it destroys the lab.

Mammoth? I whisper, my voice shaky and small beside the creature’s woolly bulk. But it seems gentle, and scared. I hold out my hand like I would to a dog, venture a couple of steps closer. Inexplicably, it still smells like chlorine, and stable and snow, but also like my childhood bedroom. The wooden bunk beds Hannah and I shared. Summer sneakers and strawberry lip gloss and library books. Something about that smell makes me brave. I curl one hand around the tip of a tusk. The mammoth lowers its head, leans into my hand, as if it knows I’m trying to help. Okay, mammoth, I say. Here we go.

I back up slowly, maneuvering the curvature of its tusks around the delicate instruments of the lab. It’s a wonder that it hasn’t broken anything yet. How long had it been waiting here? Did it step out of a petri dish fully formed? The mammoth follows me willingly, placing one fuzzy foot in front of the other so quietly it seems to be floating. Its trunk sways gently, and it sighs softly, completely at ease. Its eyes are huge and intent, as if it has something to say. Those eyes are exactly the same color as my own.

Though it seems we won’t fit, we wedge safely through the lab door, like our bodies are made of clouds or sand, and we pause in the hallway. Dr. Chapelle isn’t here, there are no other scientists, and clearly no one else in the labs. The building is eerily silent, except for the nearly animate fluorescent hum. I’m still holding on to the mammoth’s tusk as I formulate a plan. The university is at the edge of the city’s big public park, and it’s only about a mile through the greenbelt to the zoo. There must be someone there feeding the animals. Maybe they’ll know what to do with a creature 99.96% elephant. 

In a daze, I start walking, steer the mammoth out through the building’s big double entry doors. We don’t see a soul. The world is impossibly peaceful and uninhabited, like the hush of a snowy morning, but there’s no snow. There’s just the crunch of my shoes against the frosted grass, the mammoth’s animal breathing. When we get to the park’s little manmade lake, barely starting to ice over, the mammoth stops short, won’t move another step. Mammoth? I coax. It’s okay. It’s just a little further. But the mammoth just looks out over the lake. Then it swings its trunk to the side and wraps it around my waist. Just the way Hannah does with her arm when we’re together, a gesture that always makes me feel like we are one being standing in the enormity of the world. My head on her shoulder. Two halves of one whole.

My breath catches, and I stand perfectly still. The mammoth is warm, and comforting, like it knows something about me. Like my sadness is palpable. It leans its bulk into me just a little, the coarse tendrils of its coat against my cheek, the jumbled smell of chlorine and lip gloss and beast overwhelming. Then it uncoils its trunk, pulls its tusk out of my hand, and starts to run toward the lake. I reach out to stop it, but the mammoth is remarkably fast, and strong. Determined. All I’m left with is a handful of wiry hair.

It’s then I feel the cleaving. Like I’m being split in two. The mammoth is swimming now, out to the center of the lake through the floating ice, smooth and easy as if it’s done this all its life. Its trunk is raised above the water, and it turns back to me for a moment, almost waving, and closes its eyes, those perfect reflections of my own. I feel as if I’m breaking open. I buckle to my knees on the frost-brittle grass, both hands over my heart, trying to keep it from falling out of my chest. And then the mammoth disappears, breaking up like fogged breath over the surface of the lake.

And I know it. My sister is gone. I think of all those petri dishes in the lab, waiting for me to come and take care of them. How there’s still work to be done, though I’m struggling to remember what it’s for. I think of Jasmine and Pete from Omaha, probably just waking up among their families, beginning the holiday preparations in their kitchens. I’m dizzy, and the cold from the ground is starting to work its way up through me. I wish like anything that I were home.

My phone sounds an unearthly alarm in the quiet of the sun coming up over the lake. But I let it ring and ring, knowing it’s my parents, dreading the news. It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. We were sure she had more time. Mammoth! I call out, sending my voice out like a bugling elk, listening to it dissipate through the frost-handed trees. Hannah! Then, just a whisper, You buoy. A little life raft of a palindrome. It’s all I can manage, trying to hold on to the other half of myself, looking for a way to stay afloat. 

I open my fist, but the last of the mammoth’s hairs are already starting to disintegrate in my palm. I stare hard at them, trying to magnify them back into being. But then the wind picks up, and I watch as the withering hairs curl and lift from my hand. I try to reclasp them, but I’m too late. I feel it in my blood, my bones, right through to my marrow. I’m too late. I can’t see my reflection in the lake, can’t see anything through my overflowing eyes. What remains of the little hairs drifts across the water like a wisp of smoke, vanishing as it moves away from me. Nothing doubles back in return.