The Elusive Element by Jean Coco

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abstract shot of mercury (in its liquid element) drop


“Choose one,” said Miss Daisy, the dental assistant, holding out a tray of cheap metal rings studded with purple, pink, and ruby gemstones. “This one’s pretty,” she said, tapping a ruby ring with a glossy red fingernail. I glanced up at her cheeky-lipstick smile, her poufy orangeish hair that hardly moved. I’d chosen a ring at the dentist’s office enough times to know that the copper-tinted, size-it-yourself band would break or turn green in a few days, that the plastic stone would fall out if a prong snagged on a chunk of bark when I climbed a tree.

I wanted what my older brothers got after the dentist filled their cavities: mercury. Dr. Roy gave Clay and Stuart samples that they kept in a clear medicine vial on the highest shelf of their bookcase.

Shocking to consider, but in the 1960s, before we knew about the element’s toxicity, dentists filled cavities with a mercury-infused amalgam. Some, like mine, offered quicksilver to kids as a reward for good behavior. But Dr. Roy never offered mercury to me, nor to my two older sisters, which explains why, at eight, I considered the element out of reach, off limits, like the other kinetic objects my brothers possessed—BB guns, pocket knives, tape recorders, and a chemistry set equipped with test tubes, assorted crystals, and a Bunsen burner.

Back then no one talked about gendered toys. Consequently, I accepted the circumstance as the norm, never thought to tell Miss Daisy that mercury was far more fascinating than those cheap rings, and could I please have a sample? But I did beg Clay and Stuart to let me hold their vial, only to be told, “You’re too little. You’ll spill it. It’s not for girls.”

After they left for Boy Scout sleep-away camp, I lugged the fattest World Book from the den into their bedroom, plopped the encyclopedia on the wooden desk chair, and reached past the middle shelf of Hardy Boys books to snatch the vial.

Planted cross-legged on the pine plank floor, I popped off the white plastic lid and poured a quarter-sized dollop in my palm. I mashed the cushiony disc with my index finger, and a lustrous white-silver arc puffed up around my fingernail. As I tilted my hand this way and that, the slippery spot slithered across the fleshy furrows of my cupped palm, and nestled into the deepest crease near my thumb. Cradling the silky blob, I felt the thrill and the power of possessing something forbidden, something supposedly beyond my reach.

A malleable mirror, the mercury felt alive, exhibited properties I couldn’t name: liquid yet heavier than water, a pliable metal that wouldn’t tarnish or snap in two. Gazing at the elongated slip of silver, I wondered: What shape will it turn into next? I found out when the mercury slid from my hand onto the wood floor between the crud-coated cracks, morphing into a sliver that looked like a sun-lit stream photographed from the sky.

What now? How do I hide it? There was no getting the slippery stuff back in the vial. My wonder darkened into worry. Once Clay and Stuart came home, would they notice some was gone? Would they know it was me who had messed with it? I scrambled onto the chair, set the vial back on the top shelf, then dashed into my parents’ bedroom to grab a safety-pin from Mom’s sewing cabinet.

Desperate to hide the mercury, I chopped the quicksilver into pieces so tiny they resembled miniature ball bearings in a pinball machine, cued up for me to inch across the floor with the clasp end of the safety-pin. Flattening my chest against the pine planks, I nudged, nudged, nudged the pliant bits toward Clay’s bed, one by one, over the gunk embedded in the cracks. Pushed them again and again until they wobbled into the darkness beneath the bed slats, finally resting against the baseboard along the sidewall.

Hidden from my brothers, the mercury finally became mine. Whenever they left the house, I would crawl under the bed with a flashlight to poke at the supple orbs with a bobby pin, shoving them away from then back toward the baseboard. But poking at the trapped bits didn’t hold the same intensity as cradling a satiny dollop in my palm. And I was afraid to reach for the vial again. Before long, mercury slipped from my mind, lost its allure, which was just as well. There’s futility in trying to hang onto elusive things. Maybe remembering a feeling is enough.

Meet the Contributor
Jean Coco’s essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Stone Canoe, New Delta Review, and elsewhere. She’s working on a hybrid memoir about her family’s cross-country moves. Connect with her on Twitter @JeanLCoco or on Instagram @ Queenpelican.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Luca Savettiere

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