This story, from a fourteen-story collection called The Secrets of a Fire King (which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), is about the world of Marie Curie – the Polish-born French physicist, famous for her work on radioactivity – and is set in France at the start of the twentieth century. It is told from the deathbed perspective of a curious cleaner, Madame Bonvin, who worked in the two-time Nobel Laureate’s laboratory. At that time, Madame Bonvin was an uneducated French woman who has no understanding of the scientific advances being made by Curie, but possesses knowledge that the scientist doesn’t: “Long before she was famous in the world for her mind, Madame was famous in the market for her shopping […] The things any ordinary housewife knew, she did not understand…” It transpires that the cleaner idolises the scientist, and wanders around the lab at night, marvelling at what is taking place in the jars around her. From her deathbed, she reflects back on an image of “those jars, glowing a soft blue on the rough wooden tables, like a treasure in the back of my mind”, and she goes on to equate them to a human soul. Curie’s scientific advances, that the cleaner so admires, later leads to the development of X-rays, but also (unintentionally) to much more terrible things: the atom bomb: “There is terror now, yes, but truly the beginning was magnificent to behold.” Madame Bonvin continues: “Her work exploded with the violence of a thousand suns, but I must tell her it was not her fault, the way they twisted her creation, tampered with her dreams.” A Gleaming in the Darkness is about grief, persistence and sacrifice, the bittersweet nature of memory, and the terrible cost of what makes us human.
First published in The Secrets of a Fire King, Norton, 1997