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Oh, will you look at his hair!

Like a funny kind of helmet – like mine, only smaller. And the ears – my very own jug handles.

His feet, of course, are yours. No doubt about that. And he definitely has your nose.

‘Half you,’ I whisper, stepping over the straw to your side of the crib, ‘half me.’

‘No,’ you say quietly, but firmly, which is disappointing, because this has been going on for a long time now, and leaves me wishing that instead of mutely shifting my weight from one dusty sandaled foot to the other, I could explain to you about alleles: that they are  a variant form of a given gene – a version, if you like, of a particular characteristic, such as hairline shape, or earlobe configuration – and that for every characteristic, a child inherits one allele from its mother, and one from its father.

I would explain to you then, if I could, the theory that in the case of hairline shape, there are two possible variants or alleles: straight, or widow’s peak. I would explain that some alleles, such as the allele for a straight hairline, are recessive, and others, such as the allele for a widow’s peak, are dominant, and that if a dominant allele is in the mix, it will almost always dominate, which is what’s happened here – why his hairline is like mine; why it looks like a sort of pointed helmet, or a dark bird, flying.

The ears, meanwhile – I would explain if I could – are a little more complicated,  because according to the theory, the allele for attached ears, like mine, where the entire ear is stuck like a jug handle to the side of the head, is the recessive one, and the allele for non-attached ears, like yours, where the ear-lobe dangles separately and free, is the dominant one. However (I would say), remember that for every characteristic, all of us have two alleles. Thus, just as our son has inherited two alleles for every characteristic in his DNA from his parents – one from you and one from me – so have we: one from each of our parents. Which explains what’s happened with his ears. Even though you must have one dominant allele in your chromosomal make-up to account for your non-attached ears, you must also have inherited a recessive allele for attached ears, and it is this recessive one, rather than the other dominant one, which you’ve passed on, and which has paired up with one of my alleles for attached ears.

Do you follow? I would probably ask at this point, because it is undoubtedly complicated, though not, I should stress, as complicated as researchers will eventually discover. Still, it is complicated, and at this point I think I would pause for a moment.

I would pause, and take a breath or two, and try to express myself slightly differently – more clearly and more simply. With the starlight falling over us through the broken rafters of our lowly surroundings, I would explain that without my two recessive alleles for attached ears, it seems highly unlikely, to me, that our son would have ended up with ears like mine.

But unfortunately I can’t explain any of it.

All I can do is survey the expensive presents and stand next to you, and stoop a little, the way I do in all the paintings, and wish that you, and the shepherds, the sheep, the ox, the camels, and the three strange men would stop looking at me in that special way, because I know what you’re doing.

It’s that thing.

That thing when a person or a group keeps repeating the same story, over and over – when they engage in a form of covert psychological manipulation, using contradiction, denial, and misinformation to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual; when they destabilise him and delegitimise his beliefs, making him question his own memory, perception, and judgement; his whole reality.

One day, perhaps, there’ll be a word for it, and it will be considered a common phenomenon in marriages, the workplace, and political propaganda, and widely recognised as a remarkably effective technique.


Artwork © Caravaggio, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609



The Mission House is the second novel by award-winning writer Carys Davies, available now.

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