Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán rewrites the history of the X-ray in this short story that zeroes in on the domestic cost of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s journey toward discovery.
Listen to Zsófia Bán read "Frau Röntgen's Hand" in the original Hungarian:
Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Oh God. The woman has vaporized. So thought Wilhelm bitterly. She does not obey the laws of physics. And the laws of physics, c’est moi. Ich.
The laws of physics obey me.
But Anna Bertha refuses to obey. When I look at her, her image slowly fades, then disappears. If I take hold of her, the flesh, the bone, all slip from my hands and evaporate. Whoosh. Anna Bertha—now you see her, now you don’t.
That would be my wife, my better half—fifty percent of me, in other words. I have no idea what fifty percent of me does for most of the day, or even where to find it. Is this not negligence? Am I not irresponsible? It eludes my attention like a slippery-scaled fish. Anna Bertha’s body is not slippery. Anna Bertha’s body is . . . well, let’s see. What, exactly? Anna Bertha’s body exists independently of me, lives its own life, observes, touches, holds, reads, eats, and licks the corner of its mouth, though the tongue darts out for a mere instant, like a lizard sucking in a bug, then vanishes back into that soft, moist, dark mouth that manages so to stick to a non-negligible area of my body (let’s say 98.9%) that it refutes all the laws of physics, and then my body knows no gravity, and in fact ceases to be altogether. Then I find myself floating in the universe without any boundaries at all, as if suspended in some thin liquid, all of me suddenly fluid, mingling without regard to contours or borders. Then this unified cosmic suspension suddenly yields to some primal seismic undulation, a slow, building, approaching swell, hurling down a vast mass whose substance, scope, and size I cannot fathom. Once its Herculean mass towers over me like a monstrous flood and shakes my every fiber, a big bang splitting me into my constituent elements and—still defying the laws of physics—I split apart and off into space, yet all the while, there is someone nearby, still in one piece, witness to it all. It is akin to experiencing my own death, a thing otherwise granted to no one, the sole experience that is ours alone, yet not part of our lives, ours though we cannot possess it, ours though always the property of someone else, the one who observes it, knows it, tells it, writes it down, who registers it, files it away.
Despite the sense of annihilation that Anna Bertha imparts with her soft, slick mouth and sticky, burning fingers something that is mine, so deeply mine, indeed mine beyond all measure, I must be on guard lest she suck me in and digest me into nothingness, which would be the end of any thinking on my part—now my every sinew is focused on when this something will all happen again, and again, and again, until the end of time, because next to this all else is nothing but a cooled, petrified, sooty lava flow that kills and buries all living things—and that is the end of science, nay, the end of all worldly knowledge, and Wilhelm, I said one morning to myself, since after, oh, I don’t know, hours of contemplation, I managed to somehow gather up and reconstitute all of my parts, now scattered all over the room, Wilhelm, you can’t afford to do that because you have taken an oath to science that no oath to any woman can annul.
It was on that cool October morning that I decided—without retracting the oath I had made to my woman—to do everything in my power to keep that feeling at bay in the future, but at that same moment I also realized that this would mean keeping Anna Bertha away, that we would be living together, yes, yet still somehow apart, in separate worlds, and if this meant that I would never have an heir, then so be it, because if I allowed this overwhelming radiation emanating from her to sweep me off, then I would be the master neither of myself nor of my wife, and would be expelled by the scientific community, left to scratch at the gate then slammed shut with a thud, like some dog tossed out on the street, forever bearing the stigma of the disparaging gaze of Professor Zehnder and his posse, meaning I would have no way to support my family, my wife, and myself, and must die sick and alone, nameless, penniless, without ever discovering the secret of this mysterious emission that moves from one body to the next before any touch, the secret nature of this penetrating, permeating force, or gaze rather, before which I stand like one whose flesh has been flayed from his body, my skeleton laid bare, shifting from one leg to another in the chill. This is it, this not-knowing is what truly rends me asunder, humiliating and destroying me, because wherever this radiation shows its power there must be some physical explanation for it that I have, alas, been thus far unable to divine, though we have been married twenty-two years and I have kept my distance (in the hope of an uncluttered perspective) for at least fifteen of those, but all the same it saddens me to say that any explanation of this radiation, or of its nature, has remained an X to me, that is, an unknown.
Now I must speak to her at once, conjure her up, even from below ground if necessary because—and I say this with great hesitation—our shared project of separation may finally have borne fruit: I have lately become aware of something in the laboratory, a sort of fluorescent presence appearing at the emission of cathode rays, leaving its image on a piece of cardboard, and then once, when I tried to capture it with any number of materials, to cage the rays as it were—O here do not forsake me, sweet Lord!—I think I recognized my own glowing skeleton in the projected image, though for the time being I shall keep mum about it, since if it proves to be nothing but my imagination playing tricks on me, my scientific reputation will surely be destroyed, together with the general assumption that I am sound of mind. Given that the origin or nature of this ray, or radiation, is yet unknown to me, I have simply marked it in my notebook with an X. The instant I jotted down this X, my legs gave out under me, the blood drained from my head, and I daresay I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I had discovered something that I can never describe in any scientific journal, indeed never so much as put on paper or discuss, without losing whatever remaining professional status I yet enjoy, given that the source of this X, this unknown radiation, is likely Anna Bertha herself, who over the years and by dint of assiduous effort has worked her way through the walls of the countless rooms of which our residence, hardly to be considered modest, consists, from the bedroom to the bath, from there to the salon, the guest rooms, the library, the music room, the kitchen, the laundry, the servants’ quarters, and then to the pantry, finally penetrating the furthest corner of the building, where I had set up my home laboratory and where, when I first became aware of this unknown ray in the earliest days of November of this year 1895, I shut myself up for weeks, and where Anna Bertha, as expected, eventually found me.
She must have sniffed out my trail, if she had had any use for her nose, since it seems that she used this radiation (X), from which I had spent the earliest years of our marriage seeking refuge, and the thought of which gave me not a single day or night of peace, left with no choice but to wonder when it would happen again, when the event I simultaneously desired and feared because it was not of this world, or at least of the world marked out for me, where it makes my flesh decay and drop from my body leaving nothing but a clanking tumulus of bones, so it was this fatal radiation, beyond the merest doubt, that found me in the laboratory, which if I had wished to be faithful to reality I would have named the Anna Bertha Ray, but for this, anyone even tangentially part of the scientific community would have expected a great belly-laugh at me, and my name to be permanently expunged from the Great Ledger of Science. And so it continued to bear the name of X in my notebooks (since at least the capital letter would make it resemble a name), but I still knew that I must get to the bottom of this matter, at least for my own sake, and there was no other way to do this than to investigate the supposed source, and by this I mean Anna Bertha, and for this I really must be quick, as Christmas is here in two days, and I am not allowed to work over the holidays, so let us make haste, the holidays are upon us like a real, final death.
By now Wilhelm knew what he must do. He knew that if he were to irradiate some part of Anna Bertha’s body, getting a look into his wife, such crafty subterfuge might allow him to seize that unknown something that had held him captive for five years, incapacitating him from all work, the something that now, suddenly, seemed on the verge of crowning his scientific career, assuming he would ever dare to publish his findings. Anna Bertha!, cried Wilhelm.
Willi isn’t here. This was Anna Bertha’s thought upon waking on the unusually cold morning of December 22, 1895. This was not so much a thought as a feeling she got from the cool vapor leaving her skin, the barren patch of empty space at her side, and the stark bewilderment that had slipped through the sheets’ pores. It was this same feeling that had repeated itself practically every morning for the past fifteen years. And each morning, to somehow rouse her cool body to life, to gather, from somewhere, the strength to rise from her bed and begin another seemingly endless day among countless others like it, overfull with errands to be done in the real world, yet still ultimately empty beyond measure, and now, summoning all of her imaginative power to focus on the moment when Willi’s body last intertwined with hers, when they last awoke like a fresh-baked loaf of braided bread, like two snails stuck together or fatefully fused twins, when they had taken possession of each other’s body like one walking the grounds of his leafy woodland estate, where every last bud and blade comes to life under the other’s gaze, at the other’s touch the juices begin to flow, where the other’s breath conjures up oxygen and warmth, the steam of morning and the afternoon’s buzz, and where all this was once conjured up by the sheer force of her imagination, now her hand that had always worn—even at night—her engagement ring from Willi and her wedding ring, reached for her lap, and then, with a slow, circling motion on that spot, that world of the past that had perhaps never been, but which must have existed because otherwise she would have been long dead, as this contained the invisible seed of her reality, kept her alive, indeed you could say this was her life itself, and when the first waves of her solitary pleasure came as she recalled their shared delight, she cried out his name, first quietly, then ever louder, that he should return, for her life was nothing but a fluorescing presence that quickly flickered out, and then she felt a kind of force, magnetic you could say, radiating from within herself, which she was certain would sooner or later find its mark. And for precisely this reason, as well as to get herself out of bed, she repeated this every morning, and every morning absolutely nothing happened, and by the time Anna Bertha had made her way to the kitchen, the servants were scurrying about with eyes lowered, having heard Anna Bertha’s cries, and the only one not to hear them was Willi, for whom they were intended.
But then one day, as time passed, on the morning of December 22, 1895, two days before Christmas, as Anna Bertha’s final scream still resonated in the air, her attention was caught by a voice, first far off, then closer, louder, and once it was only a few rooms off, she seemed to recognize the voice as Willi’s, calling out Anna Bertha’s name, and then the very figure of Willi himself burst into the room and breathlessly requested Anna Bertha to dress and come with him to the laboratory, the place that had always been off limits to Anna Bertha, and then Anna Bertha realized that this radiation had indeed found its mark, had brought her what she wanted: drawn Willi to her, and now it was Willi who was about to lead her into a secret corner of his life never seen by her, and while Anna Bertha, her heart pounding, scurried into her clothes, she knew now that this Christmas would be very different from the others, and somehow even felt, though at a loss to explain it, this Christmas would be memorable, not just for her and Willi, but for the entire world, and so as they reached the laboratory, where Willi hurriedly directed her in and shut the door behind him, with a solemn expression, Anna Bertha was as animated as if Jesus himself were preparing to be reborn that Christmas, right there in their house in Würzburg, and certainly there was something of the incomparable sense of rebirth when Willy took Anna Bertha’s ringed hand saying, in a quavering voice, May I have your hand, which Anna Bertha took to mean in marriage and thus explained why he was squeezing it, adorned with the rings she had received from him, and then Willi placed her hand on some kind of plate, then messed about with his instruments, and then, pale as death itself, informed her that it was done. The picture was done.
What kind of picture, asked Anna Bertha, at which Willi showed Anna Bertha the first image created with X-Rays (actually Anna Bertha Rays), showing the skeletal outline of Anna Bertha’s hand, stripped of its flesh, but all the more highlighting the engagement and wedding rings that tied them, Willi and Anna Bertha, together.
Seeing the picture Anna Bertha cried out, I have seen my own death!, but even this did not concern her at the moment since Willy, his joy infinite, threw his arms about her, and his hot tobacco breath filled Anna Bertha with such happiness that she wouldn’t have minded if she had truly collapsed dead on the cold floor of the laboratory. Then Willi, sensing the familiar, suffocating effects of the Anna Bertha Ray, but before it had weakened him beyond all help, quickly grabbed a pen and in his flowing, spiral cursive, wrote across the top margin of the picture: Hand mit Ringen, 1895.
The rest is X.
"Frau Röntgen keze" © Zsófia Bán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.