James Thackara
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Ahab's Daughter

America's Children
First Edition, 1984, Chatto and Windus, London
Republished by Overlook Press, 2001


In a time when men were born free, and Cyclon was the word for a sudden whirlwind, two brothers called Oppenheimer had a horse ranch in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos.

From the Rocky Mountains, the great divide, the Rio Grande runs straight south, like marrow through the bone-harsh country of the pueblo Indians, before it bends to make the long border with Mexico and empty itself in the Gulf. It is a fossil-red desert scarcely less virgin or cruel than when the explorer de Vaca first saw it, elevated by his ordeal as a slave of the Indians to a shaman among them. Or when Coronado toiled over this petrified sea in his dream of the mythical Seven Cities, and first saw the earth-shaped fortress mesa of Acoma. It was always a place where people came to start again, a land where people could imagine they had left a great deal behind. A wasteland which navigators remembered and forgot again, while nothing changed for the Indians of the pueblos: of the double mud-and-straw pueblo of Taos under a sacred mountain, with its roof ladders and protruding beams; of Walpi perched on the desert wind on a one-way crag; of Zuni on the Colorado, and lofty Acoma, and the cave-cities of Mesa Verde.

For ten years Robert had heard people at radical gatherings talk of justice and revolution. But sitting next to this simple man Robert felt justice, revolt and mankind very close. Close as these labourers, this hot dry wind, and the food in their basket. Nelson was a fellow he would not mind being influenced by.

Under the windy coupe roof they exchanged excited grins. This was important, and they all felt it.

‘I’ve left so much of it behind. Haven’t I, Steve?’ Kitty had suddenly looked around.

Steve was gazing ahead up into the mountains, chin on thick freckled arms. The two men sat close to her because of the wind.

‘That’s okay, Katie,’ Nelson called softly. ‘You put in your time back in Youngstown with the best of us. Bob, I remember Katie in Paris, after Joe. If I hadn’t stopped her, she’d have gone straight to Barcelona. Lost cause or no. You’d have laid your life on the line.’

‘Would I?’ Kitty threw them an uncertain look, and saw Steve’s quick nodding grin of admiration. Robert was listening. With a little frown, she stared ahead over the wheel. A deep flush mounted to the roots of her hair. ‘Well,’ she said indistinctly, ‘I guess nothing’s that clear to me any more.’

In the most innocent possible way General Leslie Groves had always wanted to go to Washington. But Groves had already detected and was refining another power the scientists paid no attention to, the power that linked their work to ordinary people. Alone at night, trying to hold his moist bulk still in the blackened pullman berth while his khaki uniform relaxed on a hanger, Groves was aware that he was still not able to remember what Urey, Fermi and Compton of the Uranium Committee told him for more than a few hours after they said it. While they were explaining, it all seemed perfectly clear. Then, in the relief of being on his own again, Groves would be left with a pleasant sensation of Olympian clarity that lifted him far above the pathetically ignorant people of the trains and towns. But quickly the Olympian clarity would vanish from Groves’ mind, just like invisible ink, and he would find himself back among ordinary people feeling ordinary emotions and unable to remember the differences between electrons, solids, mass and time, or between fission or fusion, where they all the same thing. Groves was much too sure of his own heroic qualities to accuse himself of stupidity. And he certainly had no trouble remembering the mysterious superiority that lingered after the meetings. So Groves elevated his ignorance to a mystery and called that mystery Secrecy.

The last hours in San Francisco of charm and friendship had dispersed the unnatural hold of the mind-god back in New Mexico, blown away the poison of Lawrence’s pursuit of the elements. Now all the fine heady friendship of the evening felt just a sham. Robert had put it over on Haakon with the security rules. He felt a panicky guilt for both of them toward poor General Groves. Groves had nothing creative to give the fission project but this security system he was so proud of, and which he and Haakon had just broken. Robert felt the emotion of someone caught spreading evil gossip about a close friend.

‘You know George Eltonton?’

‘The English fellow at Shell Oil?’ Robert frowned, tugging his ear. Hearing his friend’s formal tone Haakon turned pale.

‘Many...most of them. Your brother knows.’

‘Steven Nelson?’ Robert’s murmur sounded in his ears like rumbling of boxcars.

Haakon nodded. ‘ But it is the Kremlin,” Haakon said, ‘the International that requires this, the information.’

‘Haakon think what you are saying!’ Robert heard himself mutter. He repeated it. ‘That is high treason.”

But at the word ‘Kremlin’, Robert’s concentration finally broke tether from the dense affections of the evening. It flew out in desolate loneliness across the face of the sloping world. In the refrigerated breeze in front of the icebox, staring into his old friend’s too-handsome face under the wicker light, the flesh of Robert’s illusion fell from his mind. The bones stood clear. He was Dr Oppenheimer, head of the US Atom Bomb Project; answerable to the President in Washington, but with a moral commitment to the poor and helpless of the camps, the world revolution - like being a tiny clapper, tethered inside heavy vibrating walls of some huge ideological gong. A small figure on a great open plain between two silent waiting hosts.

A horn blew, somewhere back toward base quarters. In his mind the Director saw Frank, Isidor and the rest throw themselves face down, soles toward Point Zero, in their sunglasses and sunburn cream. Mortal men averting their eyes from the magnificence to come. With his hat off under the low concrete, Robert imagined all the hidden cameras and instruments, whirring, tuned for miles around. And he was shaken by a blinding exaltation so intense he thought he would faint. He scarcely noticed strange face glancing around at him in the instrument glow. Or some young man’s face chattering insanely about shutting the whole thing down.


And he could feel it now, moving near on the Tornado’s great silent loneliness.


Standing in the door frame, shrunken wasted and pure, Doctor Oppenheimer felt it coming: unity of all things. And in his heart a tender welcoming cry rose up.

‘...one!...zero!...minus one!...’

Allison’s voice was consumed in a rending, thundering double shock that bumped the air. Robert lurched hard against the post. Then drew back his hand and looked.

And backwards out the bunker door, glowing south in the night as far as you could see, was a strange new light. Brighter, whiter, and younger than any day. Lighting the cactus, mesquite and far away San Andreas slopes, with a black-and-whiteness beyond pigment. With the thunder now rolling in his ears and hearing shouts and cries behind him, hands hitting and tugging him, Robert thought in a dream: But no one saw, no one saw.

Now a month after Chairman Gray and Morgan had overruled Ward Evans’s favourable vote and handed down their decision, Robert went out of Olden Manor through the kitchen door. He shuffled vaguely down toward Princeton village. A half hour later, Robert was turning into Nassau Street when he caught sight of a familiar head of woolly white hair coming his way. With a sudden shame he started the other way.

‘Doctor Oppenheimer! The very man I want to see.’

‘Thank you.’ Robert frowned apologetically. ‘Sometimes that is easier for others. How I have missed pure work.’

The scholar sat beside him on the wooden bench and answered the confession with a little blowing sound. He waggled his head humorously.

‘You do not need such ornaments.’

Robert had turned sideways on the bench. He drew one knee up.

‘I would be interested to hear...how is gravity coming along?’

‘Ah-ha! The Grand Unifying Theory!’ the German whispered.

'But you know, I have been thinking. Please light that pipe. I have thought. Ach! What a weapon gravity would make.’

'Yes,’ Robert agreed, feeling the laughter come. ‘We could reverse it to get rid of the evil ones.’

‘And lighten it for the good!’ Einstein burst out.

On the shady bench between the chestnut trunks, the two rumpled professors could not stop their tragic laughter for a half minute. Then they sat still in deep understanding.

‘You never did any war work?’ Robert finally said.

‘Oh yes,’ Einstein nodded pensively. ‘A neat little guidance system for torpedoes...I could not resist.’

‘But listen...’ The old scientist hesitated. He leaned closer. ‘My dear boy, if I could have imagined that it would lead to ziss. I would happily have remained a clock-maker! A clock-maker who listens to Bach Passions in the chapels of the Oberland.’

There was an emotion between the colleagues; a special moment, the kind of moment which must not be interrupted by intrusions from the sidewalk.

‘Come, let me buy you a milkshake, Oppenheimer’ The old man was bustling to his feet. ‘Ziss American invention is so cooling to inflamed tonsils, like mine last month. I will never lose my gratitude for milkshakes.’

Robert smiled. ‘Do you think they will work on consciences?’

‘Oh no, never!’ Einstein stopped him with a polite anxiety. ‘Our consciences must remain inflamed!’

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