Infection: 1882

By Geoffrey Ursell, MA PhD

“It is blood vessels, the system of nerves, of changes
in temperature: these help the body fight off infection,”
the other doctors all say.

But here he is, having left
the University of Odessa for Messina months ago,
his living room now his laboratory, his family gone
to town to see performing apes at a circus, and here
he is watching the cells of living starfish larvae
swirl through the microscope lens.

These larvae,
he knows, have no blood vessels, no nervous systems,
no ability to regulate their temperature. How is it then
that they defend themselves against infection?

The cells
of the starfish drift through his vision, drift… and he leaps up,
knocks back his chair, lets it lie as he paces up and down
the room where the chesterfield and other chairs
line the wall like a row of cells.

Suddenly he rushes out,
almost running, down to where the wintry sea slowly
heaves itself against the shores of Sicily, and there
he stands completely still, staring at dark green waves
that curl and drop and die at his feet — Yes! the other doctors
are wrong! Yes! — and back he races to their garden, to the
tangerine hung with garlands that turn it into a
Christmas tree for the children, to pluck small thorns.

In the living-room lab he pushes thorns carefully
under the skin of larvae transparent as water,
just as his children tumble in laughing and hooting
like monkeys and his wife puts them to bed
and he leads her into their room and, naked,
“Élie, oh Élie!” Olga cries out
and he moans in a spasm of joy and
all the night long
cannot sleep.

Until with the rise of the sun, before
anyone else is awake, he places the larvae
under the lens and sees by a pale but gathering light
that cells have surrounded the thorns
all around, walling them off.

And now, Élie Metchnikoff knows, now
that is how bodies fight off infection.

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