Science is continuously busy with the complete description of something, with ultimately the complete description of anything with ultimately the complete description of everything.
Getting out of the boat she perched and swung there, balanced on a wave while her classmates watched which way the hinge would swing: up in the air, light as a tern, or down to the sea. A fracturing of light and cold and wet held close to the skin by petticoats, a breaking of camaraderie as the men tried not to laugh, tried to hoist her from the shallow divot in the rocks, where she sometime might have liked to stay among the anemone mussels and crabs, filled and emptied twice a day at the moon’s insistence like her hopes for what she’d see in the viewfinder: microscopic streamers, embryos smothered under glass, or just a lot of cloudy nothing, which only looks like nothing until a twist of knob crystallized all the unnamed swimmery spinners that occupy a vacant space.
Inside the lab is where things unbend and show off. At first she thought she knew the story of birth, now she realizes how much more there is than blood and cry and doubling. There’s the whole before and after — before the be leaps into being, the quiet, energetic egg; translucent limbs in flux, fluttering ghosts of gestures they’ll perform on land. In this place where they are at the start of taking the start so seriously, she hadn’t expected to be telling a new story each day about life and death, about sense and understanding. She wanted to slow down and think more about keratin, limestone, calcium, break it all down piece by piece like a moonsnail drilling a hole in the shell of a smaller snail and flooding its caustic juices before slurping it all out. She would like to do that to the world around her. Liquefy until it bleeds together.
She walks the path of the nautilus exploring its shell, through winding streets to the boarding house, always stopping off at the beach. She marvels at the shell. The three by three by three of it. The perfectly stacked whorls one on top of the other like china plates on a sideboard. She wants to be inside of its geometry, part of its perfect equation. She can’t get inside the embryo, sandwiched between strips of glass, but maybe if she thinks hard enough she can shrink her thoughts to fit, concentrate them like little cubes of bouillon, condensed so more potent. She would keep them that way all the time to have something sharp about her even when she leaves the shell, something to resist digestion.
Morning. Creak of boarders, women, all around her. Most waiting for beloveds out at sea or visiting their scientist fiancés. Lying in bed, she waits till they’ve all left. She does not enjoy small talk about husbands’ grand discoveries, which she knows are nothing more than routine experiments made gigantic by man-talk. Men magnified everything. Certain women ate it up. She rose, put up her hair and dressed, smiled to find a breakfast warm and wrapped for her by the landlady, whom she rarely saw but they understood one another. Salt did that to a woman, she thought, it’s doing it to me. She looked forward to being slowly desiccated by the sea. Take me down to salt cod, she thought, make me a thin crust of mineral on the rocks, tenacious, bitter, but necessary for life.
She found herself using the lab’s way of looking on other things. Light. Silverware. The drape of a dress, falling down barns. A poet makes science out of everything the scientist ignores. She tried opening her viewfinder wider. Found she could make a study of the folds of fabric in a skirt. The slatted fences, the slots left open. The kettle’s curves. She grasped the space between the words of fisherman speech. The rocking boats. How frightening, at first, the amount she could miss. Once in awhile she’d be waiting her turn at the nets or on the beach alone and everything would stick, slow down to freezing, and then come unglued. So easy to separate things from what made them separate, from what made separate-thingness desirable.
These were not thoughts she shared then. She wrote reports, dry language about what fit inside the microscope’s dark circle, and it was a relief to set it all down in distinctly labeled sections. To ignore the voice inside that said ‘but you forgot the flickering of the oil lamps when you stayed late, you forgot eyes burning, you forgot…’ Did her feelings not influence the development of the cold beating heart on glass? Were the embryos insulated from her caring? Did the not-yet-fish listen to the phonograph as she did? Did they quicken when her heart quickened? Day after day, pipetting their little bodies onto slides, keeping them moist to remember, she felt responsible for them, slotting them back in their wooden boxes like cribs, describing every part of them like kin, the ones she liked.
The man at dinner spoke casually of moving rivers. Of dikes and channeling, flood and rush. He laughed when she said she’d like to try to move one too, said she’d be better off with her fish eggs, let men of industry worry about which way the rivers go. The other women took little notice of what she said any more. But she would, she would see many such rivers forking this way and pooling that, falling where the dynamite blasted and drying up where men drained them until she found a final bank on which to rest that hadn’t moved since she’d said stay.
But for now the water haunted her. It all seemed to belong to men. Men on the shore, in the boats, men fishing off the banks, men waiting for the catch on docks, covering the loosened boards with spit. She despised and admired them, wanted to be one of them, or among them free of her separateness. Wanted to liquefy them, too.
One day she and the other women who spent their time looking through microscopes and writing down what they saw all moved in a boat together. She didn’t know them well, knew the men better, but then it was nice for a few minutes just to sit among them, remarking to the quiet oarsman on the shape of the waves and the cormorant’s stance and not have it met with boasts of swimming unmanageable distances. He smiled, rowed rowed, agreeing with a sharp intake of air. They spoke of the landing site, a pocket beach remote and wheeling with seabirds, where they would spend the afternoon collecting specimens, putting thin white wrists into bone-ache water, pulling out slime and junk and cold life. She felt a bit whole for a sliver of time.
They came round the point to where they could see the men grinning, each with a boutonniere in his lapel. There were blankets spread on the sand, one for each woman. Roses in vases sunk in sand. Champagne uncorked and cooling in a tide pool. The men carried them through the shallows so skirts would not be wet. Gertrude waved them off. Got wet. Got salty. Got to the shore and was chagrined at how eager the women in the boat were for chivalry on a deserted island. Nets lay abandoned to the side, all collection forfeit to restore this shameful order. If she hadn’t thought of herself much before as Gertrude, but more as she, now she knew she wasn’t she but Gertrude, something made separate not by the peculiarities of herself but by the others’ separateness from her, their strange habits. She was more like the lonesome embryo than them, the sharp stab of sunlight through the shallows to slatey gray pebbles than them, and the pity was that the roses were pretty but she couldn’t enjoy them because she was more like the moonsnail than them.
After this day was the Great Dissolving. She let her stomach out, let her juices flow and flow and flow until she had consumed the world around her, whole.
Callum Angus is a trans and queer writer with stories and essays in Nat. Brut, The Common, The Offing, LA Review of Books, Catapult, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from Lambda Literary and Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts, and was a 2018 Writer-in-Residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in central Oregon. He holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has taught writing at UMass Amherst, Smith College, and Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.