A Marmalade Tale

In a state of wretched wretchedness, I slipped down in my seat, turning inwards, the professor’s voice reduced to a mere hum in the background while the equations of Quantum Electrodynamics washed over me unchanged. Physics had no advice for the broken hearted leaving me to spend the entire class obsessively reliving every second spent with Tom, trying desperately to understand what I had done wrong. Maybe, if I had a different sort of mother, maybe she would have advice and comfort; maybe such a mother would laugh at my silliness and in that laugh would I find solace.

Home again. Looking around for something to make me feel better. Not even a hint of chocolate and none of that miraculous Oregon ale to assuage the sting of despair. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were sitting mutely on the shelf: They didn’t want to get involved. Goethe tried to get my attention; I ignored him since his recommendations usually tend towards suicide. In the end I fell upon my shikibuton without bothering to undress, my roiling thoughts finally coming to rest upon the tale of Schrödinger’s Cat as promulgated in its many isotopes by my father.

In 1940, Dr. Erwin Schrödinger moved to Clontarf, Dublin to become the Director of the School for Theoretical Physics. This is where he met the temptress: Urica. She was ambling through his garden in sensational splendor, the sun glinting off her marmalade coat in richest oranges and golds. Urica was a free spirit. She owned her domain, but her domain did not own her. Her best friend in the world was the little boy next door. I’m almost positive his name was Tom which certainly goes a long way towards explaining how my thoughts ended up there. I’ll call him Thomas to avoid confusion.

Thomas was about six years old. Everyday, the cat would show up at his door for a round of goodies: a bowl of warm milk was always appreciated; better still, a nice bit of trout or fowl or Irish stew left over from dinner. Afterwards, the two would lounge around in the proper manner of the cat. Time was their ally, since there seemed to be an infinite quantity of it.

Dr. Schrödinger, conversely, did not have time. He did not have time to be worrying about the next sapsucker, or bunting, or jay that was going to end up on his doorstep: murdered. This was insupportable, so one day, Erwin awakened upon the perfect solution: to enlist Urica’s aid in a physics experiment. As it so happened, Thomas was hanging around that fateful morning because he and Erwin were also buddies, for he loved hearing all the physics words that formed the content of the physicist’s developing thoughts on reality. Already by employing rapid fire questioning, Thomas had come to some kind of understanding of such concepts as atoms and half life and isotopes.

“What’s the box for,” he asked.

“Well, Master Thomas, I am today performing an experiment in the superposition of states. Do you know what is superposition of states?”

Thomas shook his head.

“This is what we are trying to understand. What does it mean to be in more than one state at the same time? For example: Is it possible to be both alive and dead?”

“Zombies can,” Thomas replied candidly. “Why is there food in the box?”

“The food is for my assistant.”

Assistant was the exact word that Dr. Schrödinger had many times applied to Thomas, so, looking uncomfortable, the boy swept the lab with a hopeful eye, and seeing no sign of any other assistant than himself came to a dreadful conclusion: “That box is too little for me,” he informed the scientist stolidly.

“Do not worry, I have another deputy, much smaller.”

“What’s that other stuff?”

“This is a Geiger counter with a tiny quantity of astatine.” At this point in the story, my father would stop off for a science lesson.

“Do you know what the atomic number of astatine is, China?”

I glanced surreptitiously at the Periodic Table of the Elements that had usurped an entire wall of my room: “85.”

“Very good reading, but you’re supposed to memorize them. I had them all down by the time I was 5, and here you are almost 7.”

“But Daddy,” I reminded him; “When you were 5, there were hardly any elements at all. I have to learn 109 of them.”

My father could have pointed out that there were already 102 by the time he was 5; instead he grinned proudly, replying: “You caught me,” before continuing: “One thing you should remember about astatine is that it’s so unstable that no one has seen any with the naked eye because a piece large enough to be viewed would essentially evaporate itself with the heat of its radioactivity. Astatine is one of the rarest things on our planet. The word comes from Greek meaning: unstable. Sometimes, I think it should have been called Truth instead, because truth is the most precious element in the universe, both as fragile as the wings of a butterfly and as hard as a diamond.”

“I always tell the truth, Daddy.”

“I know you do,” he smiled filling me with a warm glow.

“If a single atom of astatine decays emitting a positron, Herr Geiger counter will tell the little hammer to break this bottle releasing poison into our box.”

At first, Thomas thought this was a perfectly reasonable state of affairs until the physicist asked: “Where is Urica today?”

In an instant, understanding flushed the boy’s face: “Urica won’t like being in a box.”

“The trout will make it all worth her while,” Erwin replied.

“But what if the Geiger decides to kill Urika?”

Dr. Schrödinger stepped lightly around this question explaining: “The half life of our astatine is approximately 8 hours. If we had a large quantity, then Urica would be for sure dead after 8 hours, but this is an experiment in randomness not predictability. Herr Geiger is only holding 1 atom of astatine. The decay of 1 atom is a random event. It might never take place, not in the whole history of the universe. As long as the box remains closed; as long as we cannot test Urica’s state with our senses, she will be neither dead nor alive. Only when the box is opened will our cat fall into a discreet state. Gut?”

“No! I won’t let you turn my friend into a zombie. Zombies eat people!”

Meanwhile Urica, whiffing the banquet awaiting her, spontaneously leapt into the black, metal box and set hungrily upon her stipend.

“Observe, she has already agreed to take part in this great adventure. No one can tell Urica what to do.”

Thomas was somewhat mollified, but when the lid slammed down, he totally lost it and screamed so loud that he could be heard for miles around. Fortunately, Alsie the cook showed up before anyone could summon the Gardaí. Casting a disapproving look at Erwin, Alsie dragged the poor young lad away, kicking and screaming though he was.

During the night, Thomas lay awake worrying about his friend and congealing a plan for rescuing Urica from superposition of states. Catlike, he snuck out into the dark and story night, pressed through dense shrubbery right into Dr. Schrödinger’s garden and entered the lab by means of a fortunately unlocked door.

By the next morning, Dr. Schrödinger was racked with guilt and opened the box prematurely to find it empty. Feeling slightly pissy to have his plans interrupted by a six-year-old, he awaited the appearance of Thomas. When the boy arrived, Erwin’s voice was stern: “You let Urica out, did you not, Thomas? Come now, you must tell the truth.”

“No sir, Urica was in a superstition of all the states.” Thomas donned his squinty eyed, memory retrieval face before continuing: “New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, Dublin, New York, Berkeley, the inside the box state, the outside the box state and all the other states my dad made me memorize; she was in all the states exactly at the same time. When Urica saw me, she decided she liked being in the outside the box state best.”

“Where is she now,” the physicist inquired.

The boy shrugged: “I guess she’s in all the states again since we can’t see her. Isn’t that what you said?”

“Thomas’s father is a lot like my father,” I said, giggling.

“Very observant; in fact, he could be your half brother, since his father is also from New Jersey like me, but his mother is Irish.”

“Oh, does Thomas have hair like yours, Daddy? Strawberry blond is my favorite. And freckles too?”


“Can I come live with you and Thomas in Ireland?”

“Of course you can so long as you don’t mind superposition of states.”

“Do I have to live in a little box?”

“Not little; this box is as large as your imagination.”

From that day of the first telling, I spent many an hour playing with Thomas and lounging with Urika. Daddy was there sometimes as well. We all especially enjoyed visiting Dr. Schrödinger and rerunning the superposition experiment, loading Herr Geiger counter with a different element each time. If the particular element was not radioactive, I was expected to mention this stability issue. Often, Thomas would jump in when my mind was flailing about.

I lay awake the entire night long reliving those halcyon days. Come morning the truth was obvious: I was Schrödinger’s cat, stuck in a box with the universe casting lots to determine my survival. Waiting, waiting, waiting, desperately in need of someone to remove the lid, because it’s better to be alive or dead; not somewhere in between.


Marcia Letaw

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