Natural Histories

Part 1.

The third week of every month was dedicated to discussions around money. Of course there were the basics: how many memberships had been purchased, how many high ticket items sold in auction etc. Timbuk, the Chief Financial Officer of Natural History, was an outgoing and shrewd figure whose knack for bureaucratic checks and balances was only outshined by her love of actual checks.  

“Would you consider our galas to be a success?”

They’d been discussing the most recent exhibit ‘Reclaimed Romance: A Tour of Pre-Flood Living Habits.’ To premier the show, the board had decided on holding a benefit party aimed at raising money for a number of small art based institutions affected by resettlement. These galas were a gamble between the exorbitant amount of money spent on them versus the amount of money which could potentially be raised through the donations of wealthy patrons. Octavia said as much to Timbuk, and was met with a pause and a slight smile.  

“All important places were birthed by water.” Octavia remembered reading once. As flooding continued to destroy many of those ‘important places,’ there was a rush to save and salvage whatever was in danger of being damaged or lost. The items made their way through the usual channels of appraisal before reaching her desk. Surprisingly, no monetary value was assigned to the growing inventory of artefacts. Mostly, those lending or donating items merely wanted their family names to be displayed prominently alongside the object, just as wealthy philanthropists had used the guise of great public works to preserve their family names during the nation’s first gilded age. With society in the final swirls of a slow flush, the artefact had become a conspicuous vehicle for the sake of one’s potential posterity. 

Timbuk continued, “I agree, as does the board. We will need to make certain that this gala features items far beyond the usual fare for this exhibit’s opening auction.” Timbuk added, almost off-handedly, that Octavia had been asked by the board to travel beyond the campus and into the waterlands to observe some recent archeological discoveries. This sort of direct fieldwork was almost unheard of for someone of her lot. The plan struck her as curious that she, of all the various campuses’ Head Curators, should be the one to risk her health for an expedition into the past. She knew arguing would, at best, be useless, and, at worst, dangerous. Much depended on the success of this gala, and the donations would largely be going to the resettled art institutions, which meant that the Natural Histories department needed to procure a record earning amount of artefacts from the waterlands to auction off for funding of their own future endeavours. Octavia sat there nodding and smiling, occasionally repeating phrases to demonstrate her rapt attention. Finally, Timbuk stood up, shook her hand and was off. The meeting had been less than five minutes. ‘Efficient,’ Octavia stood there thinking.    

Part 2.  

The office had never been hers. Following the meeting with Timbuk, between sips of hot green tea, made lukewarm by an impulsive splash of vodka, Octavia sat at the large desk in her small office and came to this grey realisation. None of this belonged to her: The carefully framed, matted posters listing the names and dates of long past exhibitions. Vines falling drunkenly from ceramic planters that rested in frayed macrame hangers. Various columns of dusty books stacked along the walls. Used tea mugs collected along shelves rotting from humidity. The office had never been hers. Instead, this forgotten room, whose location she often strained to remember, had become the amalgamation of every campus office she’d entered over her storied career. It looked as if some highly skilled interior decorator with a focus in ‘depressed natural history curator’ had come in late one night and painstakingly put it all together. They had art directed this scene just as she would an exhibit centrepiece revealing how familiar the home life of a lost tribe actually was to that of the museum goer’s own. 

One of the framed posters had a bold red diagonal font reading ‘TAURUS TREE!’ underneath which was the event’s long past date. Named for the lowland lying tree which had continued to live submerged in ocean water following the third Great Flooding. The Taurus Tree exhibit had been covertly funded by the Arbour Society as propaganda meant to showcase the endurance of life in the face of overwhelming odds. Having spent most of her life tirelessly working for the government in one covert capacity or another, it didn’t feel particularly strange that the first show of her legitimate career should be one heralding its flimsy promise of trust and resilience. That such a message was laughable was also of no concern, considering that this office and her position were all she could confidently point to, after a lifetime of service, the sort she was unable to discuss, even now, as tangible. 

She’d called this campus home for nearly a decade. The initial three months, of what was once intended to be a year-long intelligence gathering mission, had been uneventful. Leading up to the assignment, she’d read all she could on the history of artefact collection. Her own experiences, personality quirks, strengths and weaknesses were filtered through her cursory understanding of natural history and moulded into a character that with time would become Octavia. The sort of person that’s knowledgeable of the uncontroversial, trustworthy, and ultimately, conveniently, forgettable.

In the beginning, the deception was straightforward. Her assignment was to root out any political radicals, and report back. She found spying on the academic set to be easy. These scientists and doctors weren’t as self-involved and closed off as she’d worried, they were too trusting.  There were shallow attempts at workplace friendship and quick romance, made by curious colleagues. She let the odd one play out, so as to not seem standoffish or, worse, suspicious. Gently probing her subjects for information, sharing banal or false facts about herself, and then letting each dalliance run its natural course when what mattered was gained or found lacking. The government had assigned her the cover, a custodian of the natural arts. After a year there was no valuable information left to mine from her colleagues. Years passed, and her government handlers had yet to respond to her message asking when the assignment would complete. She wondered if they had forgotten about her. With the thought too painful to entertain, she dove further into her cover, needing something to feel real.     

Part 3.

A day after her meeting with Timbuk, Octavia took an airboat across the campus floodwaters to a drone pad. From there, a model DR-17 piloted her two and a half hours over the mountains into the waterlands. The area had once contained a moderate sized city surrounded by a vast bottomland hardwood forest. Both were gone now of course. Salt rich ocean water had long since invaded the nearby wetlands, easily making its way to the low lying forest’s soil. As it does a person lost at sea and desperate for something to drink, the saltwater dehydrated the trees, inevitably killing them and turning the land into what became known as Ghost Forest.

Long before Octavia’s birth, scientists had unsuccessfully tried a series of methods to extract the salt from the wetland waters and stave off the loss of both flora and fauna. These vain attempts had the unintended effect of preserving the land’s many eventual skeletons of wood and bone. The chemicals meant to decrease the saline levels as well as the salt itself, worked together to cut off oxygen from the water so that bacteria was unable to cause quick rot and degradation. This made the Ghost Forest of the waterlands region an archeologist hotspot of decently kept artefacts.  

Part 4.

Service had been one of the more discussed topics at the many lively dinner parties her mother often threw. Many passionate disagreements loudly ensued. The consensus always seemed to be that genius was not a gift bestowed to be squandered on art or other masturbatory forms of aesthetic self expression, but a privilege to be explored in the most nontraditional ways. 

Octavia’s mother was a product of a respected matriarchal West African coastal city and had been required to learn the burden of trust from a young age. After spending the better part of a conflict-heavy decade in a series of West and East African boarding schools, she’d learned six dialects, along with an infinite amount of ways to say ‘no’ which unsurprisingly, often involved saying nothing at all. 

It didn’t matter if she was denying the will of a well meaning nun or a petulant warlord, her mother eventually understood enough about survival to recognize when it was time to go it alone. Coming to the conclusion that anyone facing so much chaos must come out the other end with an outwardly offensive but ultimately respectful nickname. 

“The Roach” had actually been an inside joke between mother and daughter. Something beginning from an inside joke amongst classmates of Octavia. Classmate One had seen a roach resist death in her house. ‘‘Oh she’s a feisty roach,’’ the classmate’s mother had commented. Classmate One relayed the story to Classmate Two who began using the expression “feisty roach” to describe anything lasting an inordinate amount of time, anything from blatant rudeness to any person unable to properly assess a social situation they were making awkward. Eventually Octavia brought the phrase home. Her mother quickly picked it up the way attentive immigrant parents are eager to pick up and share in cultural signifiers with the rapidly adapting language of their children. 

The Roach was as much a title as it was a warning. Some, such as the social worker who’d show up unannounced to “check in on everything” but chose to inspect dust levels above the kitchen shelves instead of interacting with Octavia, quickly learned. Everyone, to some extent, had feisty roach qualities, but none could match her mother’s artful penchant for truly telling someone about themselves. She could do so without even raising her voice.

Having grown up hearing stories about how her mother had been born into one of the more privileged tribes of her region, waited on by servants, educated in the western tradition, dressed in the finest clothing, known well amongst both the greedy elite and the tightfisted fishmongers, it was near impossible for her to reconcile this with the very casual racist depictions of Africa that pervaded popular western culture and everyday life. 

Part 5. 

An urgent message flashed across her line of sight, projected to look as if it were only a few feet away. Fat blue cartoon raindrops with unhappy faces danced and splattered around white text outlined in blue icicles reading: “STAY in, STORM likely!” Water continued to drip into the tent from more than a few unseen places. Inexplicably, she recalled a gravestone stashed away in the temperature controlled storage space of her museum’s archives, carefully awaiting the purpose of some future purveyor’s curiosity. 

It read: “The point is now, or nothing. 

So many gravestones offered something graspable of the deceased. Occupation, cause of death, family, life’s mission. Gravestones could simply state occupation, cause of death, role in family. Others attempted to do the heavy lifting of displaying meaning and reason. This headstone had decided to shrug. Choosing to avoid posterity through the ritual of myth making. Obviously, nothing remained. She didn’t see it as a carpe diem statement, but rather the equivalent of inscribing the word corpse and a downward arrow towards the fresh mound of dirt.

Poking her head outside of the flap, which refused to completely shut, Octavia was surprised to see lights on in a few of the site’s other tents. Domes of various synthetic fabric colours glowing like beached jellyfish. For a few moments she trusted the institution, chastised herself for conflating lingering disappointments with her current reality, and hoped beyond a sense of good fortune, that things were simpler than they’d appeared. She settled into her sleeping bag, considering the various ways to approach the sort of interaction parts of her desperately needed. Night rain, the desire it created to be indoors and warm, always made her consider physical intimacy with the same urgency that made others compulsively crave getting out of bed to use the restroom. The echo of the tent’s zipper flapping in the wind like that of a pant’s fly while fingering herself, and the steady yet persistent trickle of piss hitting porcelain, were the last auditory hallucinations of her mind before falling asleep. 

Go it alone. That was the greatest takeaway. How else would The Roach know she could rest easy, without knowing her daughter could handle the messiness of contemporary life, alone? When she was approached by a charismatic recruiter, she assumed he was a government bureaucrat attempting to compliment her into bed. Back at her small basement flat, she poured two glasses of wine from a large aluminium lined bag. The recruiter thanked her before setting it down on the ground near his well polished wingtip. After twenty minutes of casual conversation, and her guest not touching the spot cleaned glass, Octavia finally asked what was going on. She felt bold and spoke as she felt. “I’m not gonna get drunk so you can feel good about yourself for saying no.’’ 

Unphased, the recruiter smiled and said “It’s time I speak frankly.” This moment existed so long ago that many details were lost. Blaming lapses in her memory had itself become a sort of subterfuge, though. Likely, it was the adrenaline laced reaction of immediate curiosity and loud fear which made Octavia unable to actively retain details while listening to the recruiter’s practised pitch. That, along with the following weeks of brutal physical and psychological training made that initial conversation all the more imperceivable against the grand scheme of what was to come. 

Just as the appreciation of technological progress comes from revisiting the antiquated product being replaced, so too do dated concerns when viewed from the safe distance of maturity. The idea of once heralded innovations made useless by new innovations caused her to think of the widely appreciated exhibit Dead Tech, in which viewers were confronted by the incongruities between devices meant to save the world of past and present. Octavia imagined walking through a wing of the Retrospective of a Woman’s Choices museum. How nice it would be to find a place dedicated to the emotions felt during the pivotal points of her life. Her decisions displayed with the thoughtful beauty in which she experienced them, carefully curated in all the radiant colours of regretful nostalgia. 

Octavia had seen more than enough. Sadly, and unsurprisingly when considering the state of things, lived experience accounted for very little anymore. Was it not enough that she slept in a rain soaked tent at the rotting edges of the waterlands, flaunting a lack of better judgement? Saying no was not an option for an escapee such as herself. Unlike other war heroes, she was inclined by the order of bureaucracy to shut the fuck up and be agreeable. Asking questions was questioning the concept of judgement itself and was the mark of difficult to manage behaviour. Difficulty was uselessness, an inability to function. Anti-functional behaviour meant a poor performance review, then position reevaluation, and inevitably some more horrible reassignment with the caveat of working her way back up to the previously undesirable position. All knew, Octavia more than most, that reassignment was another dead end. Deader than where she currently was. Deader than where she’d likely be. 

Eventually, another assignment – well below her abilities, would arise. She’d say yes and go nowhere, no matter how inconvenient and uncomfortable. Because, what was comfort in this world—besides hanging on to the devil you knew? Mud halfway up her boots, Octavia watched the worn tent sitting on its muddy mound. Her feet could use a cleaning. She’d once, as a girl, had dozens of little fish eat the dead skin off her toes, feet and legs. Sitting in a recliner chair, the type one would see in pictures of pre flood living rooms, she stuck her legs into a beautiful glass basin of water up to her knees and watched the hundred or so little creatures swim around her lower half, lazily plucking unseeable dead formations of skin cells. She imagined herself a gift, a godlike offering to these simple beings, too inconsequential to truly understand the manna from which they partook. ‘Come,’ she’d wanted to say, ‘my body, my flesh is yours to make energy.’ Instead, she’d giggled and squirmed while receiving a couple stern looks from adults presumably hoping to ignore the ridiculousness of it all while secretly partaking in the same childish fantasy of being a god to some much lesser thing.


Photo by Sadiq Nafee on Unsplash

Guy Melvin
Guy Melvin was born in North Philadelphia, and lives in Brooklyn. He has work in Sundog Lit, Fahmidan Journal, All My Relations Vol. 2, Cypress Press’ Red House Anthology, and Cerasus Magazine. He can be reached at