A Natural History
by Natasha Rao
It began brightly, 4.5 billion years ago. Every day since has been growing brighter.
THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
Modern human beings emerged from a lineage of upright-walking apes. It was an elegant progression. This part of our history is not something that you can easily remember, but it is possible, sometimes, to experience a fleeting recollection. (Much in the same way my mother says the redblack we see when we close our eyes is a memory of the womb.) Perhaps for a moment you are reminded of where you came from when standing in a dense area of trees, while light is falling softly, and you take a deep breath that smells like worms and ancient history. Or when you look up at the sky changing colors and the earth feels round and full, and suddenly you get the sense that you have been part of it all since the very beginning. Our past can be felt in the joy of sweat, of milk, of hair, in this deep-seated warmth that we still remember in our bones.
In my veins I see a map.
When tracing a phylogenetic tree, one arrives at a question: Why do these two branches meet? I don’t mean because habilis led to erectus led to sapiens neanderthalensis led to sapiens sapiens. I mean how did any of us end up here at this very moment? How did I?
Lines in a family tree are lines of a story. Look closely and you can see these tales in fading ink; the dash between my great grandmother and my great grandfather is not a dash at all.
Leela walked-into-a-paper-shop-saw-a-man-with-white-pulp-under-his-fingernails-thought-this-will-be-the-man-that-I-marry Raj
Between my grandmother and grandfather is a railroad line.
Savitri Bombay-Dadar-Kurla-Thane-Diva-Kalyan-Kasara-Manmad-Jalgaon-Bhusawal-Akola-Wardha-Nagpur Henry
“May I sit here?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What are you writing?”
Then red earth in blurs outside the window, boiled milk poured from a thermos and shared, an easiness of conversation that neither had imagined. Wet heat clung to their bodies and he told her about the cold of his country, fat white flakes of snow in winter, the way breath spills out of mouths like teacup steam. She told him of her father the paper-maker, the way he let her press loops and patterns onto envelopes. Not long after, they sent out handmade wedding invitations.
Nina and-the-boy-from-geography-class-got-lunch-got-movie-tickets-got-dinner-got-married Ravi
Follow other branches and you will find similar stories, of nighttime walks and late evening swims, of daiquiris in summer and Vespa rides and jacaranda flowers. Where the two nodes join is a red burst of wedding and song.
In Blue Manakins, two males cooperatively dance with each other to induce a female to mate. They cannot display on their own, and they must have a partner. Imagine a two-person show. Afterwards, only one will mate with the female. My grandfather’s brother went to a ball once with his best friend, simply to keep him company. When he was introduced to the best friend’s fiancée, something inside him stirred and all night he danced as he never had before, his legs and his arms slick with moonlight, making him appear to be underwater. One week later the best friend’s wedding was called off, and my grandfather’s brother was married to his muse in a month.
Desertion can occur if there is a likely chance for a parent to gain another mate. In some birds, the female is larger and more brightly colored than the male and thus leaves the family to compete for another mate. Little is known about my father’s sister, other than the rumors. They called her Red, though nobody can remember why.
“It’s because her soul was set on fire, as though she spent her life swallowing matchsticks.”
“Red for its loudness. Its explosiveness.”
“No, it’s because I think we all realized that, as much as we disliked her or didn’t understand her, she was the only one out of all of us who was truly alive. Red like blood.”
She drank gin in the afternoons and grew flushed in the face until she would begin to sing and play the piano, at which she was immensely talented. She went everywhere barefoot and wore a thin string of bells around her ankle. She was married to a soft-spoken man who seemed to be her complete opposite, and with him she had three children. And then one day she was gone, without a word to anyone she kissed her three sleeping children on their foreheads and disappeared into the world, leaving my family several shades duller.
Years ago, my mother gave me a pair of leather shoes—the shoes that she wore when she moved to America, seeing the country for the first time. Her name is etched onto the bottom sole, Nina in thin cursive.
“Were you scared when you came?”
“No. Birds and insects just feel it inside when it’s time to leave. It was like that for me.”
That was all my mother ever said about moving.
There is a circular scar on her thigh from an injection she got when she was young, a pale little planet my finger used to orbit around. “I hated getting shots, rosebud,” she told me, pulling me up onto her lap. I picture her at five years old hiding behind yellow curtains in a hot dusty country, and I want to hug that girl and tell her that it’s going to be okay. I once found a photograph of her in a teal dress eating a sandwich on the beach as a teenager. She looks so happy. I think about the way she squeezes oranges one by one for Robin and me in the morning and I wonder if she ever imagined this life.
In Ground Squirrels, some individuals warn others about predators through a shrill alarm call. In doing so, they alert the others of danger but draw attention to themselves, and increase their own probability of being the one that is taken by the predator.
As I grew up I became almost embarrassed of how thoughtful my mother and father were, and how selfish I was in comparison. It seemed like every day they were thinking of sacrifices they could make for me.
My mother spent two hundred dollars on ice skates that sleep under a blanket of dust. Also, a violin. Also, a saddle. I complained about the heat at the Colosseum. Also, at the Taj Mahal. I had pink eye at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and frowned in all of the photos, wearing my brother’s sunglasses.
A letter to my future child, written in advance:
I am sorry for giving you trembling hands and a crooked spine, sorry that your sneeze is loud and that too much sugar makes you dizzy.
Female finches prefer males who sing like their fathers. (Big beaks sing slowly, small beaks sing quickly).
I only ever have one recurring dream. It starts like that scene in the Titanic where the violinists are playing Nearer, My God to Thee until the ship sinks. In the dream, the apocalypse comes and somehow I find myself humming the song my father sings most often, Simon and Garfunkel’s American Tune. Amidst the fire/dust/rubble, I think of him. (My father, in his pajamas, singing with his low voice and staring at his laptop while I looked over from across the kitchen table. My father, tapping out the rhythm onto the steering wheel with his capable hands, driving us through the dark.) I suppose it must have meant something to him—when you play a song over and over, it’s for a reason. What does he feel, I wonder, when he sings it? And how would he feel knowing that, dream or not, I would choose to echo him if everything came to an end?
The night before Robin left for boarding school, I knocked on his door once we had said goodnight to everyone else. He shifted over to the right side of the bed, making room for me.
We lay there for 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 seconds, one for every year he’s been alive.
Then, quietly, “Rosie—you’re just the best person. Really, you’re the person I like the most.”
I wanted to cry. I did, a little.
“Me too,” I said. “I mean, I feel that way about you too.”
I thought about our family tree and the way Rosie and Robin were connected by the thickest line of them all, that sister brother no-one-else-in-the-world-with-whom-I-can-be-this-comfortable.
We lay there for almost an hour, no sound or movement except for the updown of our breathing stomachs.
I knew from movies and books and friends that I, as a teenage girl, was supposed to want so many other things—parties and rum and cokes and car rides—but really the only thing I wanted was for it to be Robin and me next to each other, like this, always.
My skin always begins to peel around this time of year, from days battling the wind. Still, year after year, I molt into the same sad girl.
I went to school with boys and girls who all looked alike until in fourth grade, Ash moved into my neighborhood.
“We look like twins!” she said on the bus.
“No, we don’t.”
“What’s your name?”
“I told you, it’s Rosie.”
“No I mean your real name? Like how my real name is Aishwarya.”
“Rosie,” I said, letting the word hang in the air like a trophy. “My real name is Rosie and I was born here and we are not twins.”
Her parents soon traded in traditional clothing for jeans and sweatshirts, and her accent faded away. It took me years to stop straightening my hair, to learn to love my natural history, and theirs, to realize how cruel I had been, how this world had turned such colorful people into gray, had turned the dazzling flame that was Aishwarya into ash.
There is a certain kind of happy that I can only feel when I hear my grandfather’s voice. I feel bad, because my grandmother knows this.
Sometimes you think a memory has left you forever, then suddenly it appears in your palm as you are cracking the shells of pistachios.
A girlhood ago My mother kissing my scraped knee Dirt clinging to her
lips like breadcrumbs.
And sitting across the table from my friend who is wearing dark lipstick, our waitress asks hihowareyou then whatcanigetyou then howiseverything then teacoffeedessert? At the table next to us is a family of three celebrating the daughter’s eighth birthday. I search the parents’ faces. Are they thinking about how this will all have to end? Have they felt the throbbing countdown? All of a sudden I am excusing myself to go to the bathroom because I can’t breathe, because suddenly it is 2002 and I am blowing out my candles and my mother is kissing my cheek and I am rolling my eyes and laughing as she says “please stop getting older so fast, I love you, I love you—”
If there is a physical connection between host and associate, the relationship is called symbiosis. When we aren’t together, I carry Robin’s laughter like a phantom limb.
You go to a place and become the place. Ten days in a foreign town and my skin smells like coriander leaves. Twenty-three mosquito bites. A jasmine flower in my hair. I stand barefoot on the terrace and absorb the loudness, brightness, color of this country.
“This is where we rode around on your father’s motorcycle.”
“This is the restaurant where we used to come on our lunch breaks.” “No—it’s down the road.”
“Have you ever seen the way that paper is made?”
“The coconut tree is still here! And look at all these new branches.”
I let out a laugh, and it sounds like brass bells.
More than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct.
How many stories have been lost?
There are museums dedicated to natural history—bones and fossils behind glass, velvet ropes with signs that say Do Not Go Beyond This Point, groups of students chewing gum and making notes, families taking pictures.
But it all deserves to be preserved. Raj’s silkscreen. Savitri’s ring. Savitri’s poetry book. All history should be dried and pressed between pages. Disappearing is one thing, but is there anything worse than forgetting?
This story, like all stories, began 4 and a half billion years ago. It traveled through mud and rain. It rode on the delicate wing of an insect, ate in a forest, purchased a train ticket. It lit cigarettes, danced in a backyard, dreamt in someone’s arms. It started softly and became louder, larger, intersecting with all kinds of other stories until at last it led here to this very moment.
It stares at me from across the page, then blinks once. This warm and breathing history.
Natasha Rao is a Brown graduate who loves words and trees. She is the recipient of the 2015 Feldman Prize for Fiction and the 2016 Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in Poetry.