The cyanide came in the mail. Don’t eat it, my dad said, That stuff is poison. The jar had heft. I held it in my hand, gripping the cap, looking at the label. POTASSIUM FERRICYANIDE. Not the same thing as what spies kept in secret capsules in their fake molars or the pure, deadly form that had been showing up in Tylenol pills around Chicago a few weeks earlier, just before Halloween, but it was part cyanide nonetheless and therefore the most intriguing thing I’d found in the mailbox in some time. We had ordered it for my soon-to-be-growing realm of crystal wonder, a science fair project with great promise. I had named it Cyanidium since my dad promised that grown crystals look like little cities. The powder seemed harmless enough; the fine lemon yellow grains shifted little inside the dark, thick brown glass. To see it better, I held it up to the light.
You don’t really need cyanide to grow crystals. Sugar or salt will work, right off the kitchen table. With a jar and a saucer, a string and some fire you can have a little colony of infant crystals developing on the windowsill within a few days. Alum is good too; like salt, it forms nice, simple cubes. Then you can move up the scale of verbal and chemical complexity, by using copper sulphate, sodium nitrate, monoamonium nitrate, or even calcium copper acetate hexahydrate, which has the distinction of making blue tetragonal-informed structures that look like well-cut sapphires. “Try experimenting with different compounds,” said a handbook I found, The Beauty of Excess: Crystal Growing Made Easy, by Sangstrom & Halder. “Ask your chemist for advice” was its only advice, as though we could just stop in on the local pharmacist as he grinds out his powders with a mortar and pestle and get a few pointers. We chose Potassium Ferricyanide largely because my dad had made crystals out of it himself as a kid. Those days, he said, an ordinary chemistry set came with all kinds of nasty stuff. Real serious materials. You could send away for whatever you wanted and screw around with it your basement. By this time, however, chemicals like that had to be ordered through specialty supply places, and since my dad knew how to do so that’s what we did.
There was a section in our school’s dim little library whose books were full with ready-made ideas for kids needing science projects. But these were gone quickly. Science Fair Success with Rodents had been listed as missing for years (for obvious reasons), and the rest were checked out by the end of the day our fair was announced. It had looked promising in the card catalog; I liked the simplicity of Electricity and the sinister promise of Dr. Maurice VanHorn’s Insects & Spiders, but Science Project Ideas About the Moon was the one I really wanted. Everyone loves the moon! I thought, imagining it contained instructions for projects that I now realize are physically impossible. The only one actually left on the shelf, Science and the Ways of Knowing was missing most of it’s pages, and what remained was unintelligible to me, as its lofty rhetoric and frontispiece epigraph by Francis Bacon was aimed at High School students (my school was K–12) or even higher. Plus, right next to Bacon’s enduring wisdom someone had scribbled CARY MOLAIRY, HIS DICK IS SO HAIRY and provided an accompanying diagram — an uncomfortable image on its own, but even more so for me since Cary Molairy was on my bus route, and he was a senior, an adult by my standards, a serious Hesher with long, long hair and dark, dark prominent eyebrows, and this book’s informal inscription for some reason made me imagine Cary, sitting in the back of the bus with a giant, weird penis-face, surrounded by his appropriately hairy cascade of rocker locks.
This is all to say that growing crystals was Plan B for me, but it was a good Plan B, since no one else would have thought of it, and the merciless destiny of so many science fair participants is that they all show with the same stupid plants growing under different colored gels, or listening alternately to Dokken and Beethoven or whatever. My project was both attractive and potentially dangerous — like rubies Indiana Jones might have to pry out of a demon statue’s eye. I, like so many of my contemporaries, loved playing with fire, and I probably would have considered doing that as a legitimate project, just setting some things on fire, but this crystal thing was even better, since it involved cyanide, after all, harmful if ingested, inhaled or touched, and on top of that there was the double extra hazard that if you put anything acidic (like a harmless lemon) near this compound the whole operation turns into a toxic and perhaps lethal gas. Moreover, this was a unisex idea for seventh grade scientific research: dudes were sold on the process, and girls liked the end product since crystals were big right then, with the renaissance fair and unicorns and all that being around. I recall specifically that Kathy, a homeroom neighbor and an early crush, had been very excited when I mentioned crystals, and so I fully admit that nascent libido played some role in my choice.
Growing crystals is not hard, but really handsome results take practice. The first step is making a super-saturated solution: heat water; introduce the solute (the chosen chemical) into the water; stir it well; cover it; and put it away. My dad explained the idea behind this with coffee. The solubility of liquids rises with temperature, he said and added, That’s why you can make hot coffee sweeter than iced coffee — because you dissolve more sugar into it. This means that if you heat a solution, saturate it, and let it cool it will have more solute than it knows what to do with, and that extra it will precipitate, or “fall out” as chemists like to say, as crystals. To farm the crystals, as it were, a string hanging in the solution will provide a nucleation site for the eager molecules. Even fancier is to take some of the solution out at the start and leave it in a saucer for a few days to get some seed crystals, which can then be bound with the string to hang in the solution as it cools and evaporates, attracting molecular friends like ionic (or covalent) bait.
This we did with our potassium ferricyanide. After a couple weeks, the big mason jars we had filled with saturated solution looked like a fruitful vineyard, their strings set full of berries. Nice, irregular bursts of red cyanide jewels hung heavily from the lids in clusters. Did I mention that potassium ferricyanide has a nickname? The “Red Prussiate of Potash” they call it. The molecular formula of potassium ferricyanide is K4Fe(CN)6, and it’s that Fe in the middle that puts the ferri- on the front of cyanide, and gives the crystals their regal title and color. This is because Fe is an abbreviation for ferrum, the Latin name for Iron, an element whose reddish tint was prominent enough that in alchemy it was represented by sign for the red planet, Mars. Potassium ferricyanide is also a photographic compound. Experienced darkroom technicians can use it to highlight prints, and it was once the essence of blueprinting: when mixed with ferric ammonium citrate and exposed to light, potassium ferricyanide creates that deep, even, and insoluble Prussian blue, and that’s how paper was sensitized to receive negative images of architectural drawings.
Besides the brilliant hue, some nice shapes developed, although the crystals didn’t really come out like cityscapes. The busy variations gathered up and down the string, with so many faces that the light shone off several at any given time. Crystals, as Sangstrom & Halder explained, come in many different forms, from simple (again, like salt) to very complex. As they grow, the structures extend outward in 3-dimensions, and therein lies the manifold possibilities of the crystalline universe. Equal growth rates along three mutually perpendicular axes gives you a cube. A crystal with very fast growth on one axis and slow growth on the others looks like a thin plate, and the iterations go on from there, also taking into account that the axes themselves are often not perpendicular. Why does any of this happen in the first place? Molecules like to arrange themselves, my dad explained. They’re floating around in there, getting kicked out of the solution, and they see the seed crystal and say, ‘A-ha! A regular lattice — I’ll park myself here!’ And they just fit themselves together according to their natural internal properties and symmetries. It’s a cooperative phenomenon; they do their tasks together. A lot of nature works like this. We had laid our specimens of cooperative phenomena, the completed works of our molecular team, out on napkins to dry, and as I watched them, they really did look edible, sweet even, like red rock candy. I couldn’t stop thinking about eating them.
RED PRUSSIATE OF POTASH YIELDS MONOCLINIC RESULTS announced the left section of my 3-panel display on the day of the science fair. THERE ARE DIFFERENT LENGTHS AND TWO ARE AT RIGHT ANGLES TO EACH OTHER. THE THIRD AXIS IS INCLIDED. TYPICAL CRYSTAL SHAPES ARE BASAL PINACOIDS AND PRISMS WITH INCLIDED END FACES. OTHER EXAMPLES: EPIDOTE, SPODUMEDE, AND GYPSUM. I don’t understand what this means. And I certainly didn’t then, having copied it from one of the handbooks. Moreover, I had deleted a few words from this little transcription, since, as we all knew, nice looking diagrams and such were half the battle in the campaign for science fair triumph, which meant these words fit inside this one red box I had drawn — a decision that probably rendered the whole thing either meaningless or erroneous. Yet the exhibit, panels, crystal and all, looked good, and that attracted attention at the fair. Some examples were small and dense; others were bigger, better defined, clearly articulated. These were the ones people liked, again, I think, because they were somewhere between gems and candy. Joey McCord, whose opinion in our class mattered quite a lot, said they were pretty rad, on par with his own home-built short wave radio setup.
Later, Kathy came down the aisle and stopped at my booth. She wanted to touch one. Sure, I said. (No one else had been allowed.) Her finger on one of the wider faces, I tried to explain, from what I had gleaned from my “research” and my dad’s primers for grad students, a half-baked spiel about how the crystals are made and they are one big molecule really and something about how light has all colors but some molecules only let certain light through which is why these things are red but others would be green or whatever. She asked if she could have one. OK, I said, Later. On the bus. Just after 3 P.M., with Woodbury’s carob trees speeding past the windows and Cary Molairy three rows behind us, I opened a carefully folded paper towel to reveal a smooth faceted, inch-wide crystal, the best of the bunch, which I handed over to Kathy. I got a thanks — and a kiss, a very tiny kiss, out of it. But it was a kiss nonetheless. A cooperative phenomenon. A brief covalent bond. A result not in my stated hypothesis, but a welcome epiphenomenon. Don’t eat it, I said as she got off the bus a few moments later. It’s poison.