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Natural History
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
 

In the thin dark of the lecture room I am left, effectively, alone with my thoughts. The film plays on, and I am engrossed in it, forgetting and forgotten by the other fifty-five students in the gradated plastic seats.

I am almost there, in the green-blue water that swarms with soft and hard-bodied plankton. I am almost able to sink beyond the hard plastic chairs, through the cloth screen, into an ocean dimly lit by divers' water-proofed bulbs. I do not know nor, at this moment, care, how, if at all, my Oceanography classmates are affected by this thirty-minute film. I know only that I ache to be among the divers who move before me on the cloth screen.

In the film there is a manta ray, female, huge, a glorious black and white sea goddess deigning to keep company with the divers. She is not shy, nor is she aggressive, but holds a self-possessed grace and evident intelligence that seems to awe the persons surrounding her winged form. I know it awes me.

This sea animal, not human, somehow infinitely more beautiful than human, returns each year when she knows the divers will be present, and dances for them. She feeds unconcernedly in a circle of men, taking obvious pleasure in their admiration, employing all of a ray's abilities simply so they can watch. This year, our professor says, the manta ray brought a young male to feed and dance with her. He would not approach as closely as his mate, but showed interest in the divers nonetheless.

The rays are not fed by the humans. They eat plankton naturally occurring in the area. They simply visit the humans. And I watch this display, and see the gentle yet proud demeanor of the sea creature, and I very nearly cry.

The film ends, of course, much too abruptly, and as the lights come on I feel unfocused and lost. Then someone next to me picks up her books to leave, and I make myself hurry out of the way. In these narrow lecture-hall aisles it can quickly get chaotic when an individual fails to move on cue.

Out the tan, laminated door and on to Biology.


This is the only conceivable major for me to take. The oceans have been my passion ever since I was so small that, when I stood, I was face-to-face with the characters on my father's television screen. I used to sit in the dark, fearfully watching nature programs, huddled in my faded pink-flowered nightie as I fervently wished to be one of the fishes or other strange creatures who lived in the sea.

Daddy wouldn't find me if I sank down low, I believed... If I could live where the bioluminescent (I learned that word, "bioluminescent", early in life and equated it with the magic of the natural world I wondered at on public television), pressure-immune jellyfish and anglers dwelled... Down, miles down where even the greatest divers and filmmakers of all time had not yet explored... If even my heroes, the oceanographers who braved sharks and poison snails and rough water to bring us closer to the sea life, if even they could not find me, then I would be safe.

Under all that water my soul could never escape my body and I would stay, peaceful, feeding on plankton and letting all others be. I never chose a form in these dreams, just a place. A darkness.

I sang with John Denver's tribute to my hero, one of the few times my voice was ever raised in any kind of joy. I never had a bedtime, and when my father was not around I made peanut-butter toast for myself and spoke softly to the whales and fishes and cried when the nature shows were over.

The only thing I ever recall asking my father for was a ride on a boat. What followed was one of the nights I don't remember.

I frequently wished that Jacques Cousteau could be my father.


This hall, Stark Hall, was built three years ago, well before I registered this fall, but it seems never to have aired out enough to rid the place of those blasted new-building chemical scents. I avoid spending time in the groups of students who congregate between classes. The classrooms themselves don't have such a strong aftertaste of construction, so I get to mine as quickly as possible and stay there.

The science departments here at Hayden Heath are fine, quality-wise, but given any kind of choice I would have gone to a university near a coastline. My scholarship here lasts four years... I don't know whether in that amount of time I can acquire enough credentials, especially without any real, hands-on marine experience, to get an internship with an ocean exploration group. But I'd do any job I could get, if it meant I could just be near the water.

I avoid telling most people this, but I have never been near the ocean.

The closest I've come to actually contacting marine life has been wistfully staring at the tropical fishes in pet stores. They are all remarkably beautiful. I have not acquired any for myself because whenever the university goes on break I have to go to the charity housing I have generously been granted through a school program... I stay with six other students in a house north of here. If I lived with any pets, the poor things would either have to stay here or travel with me. They are so fragile they could easily die. But I wish...

At any rate, I have finally garnered enough wages from my post as one of the night watchpersons for our dorm that I am going to do something which makes me a bit overwhelmed to imagine.

I am going to visit an aquarium.

An honest-to-God, state-of-the-art, specimens-of-creatures-never-before-seen-in-captivity AQUARIUM. It's some seventy-eighty miles or so from Hayden Heath, and I've known about it since registering, of course, since the Bio. and Oceanography professors have glossy little brochures describing the experience. The classes only work up a trip every few years. There's a lot of expense involved with that kind of thing and we don't have a club for our major yet, so, as last year was a trip year, I figured to myself I'd have to wait.

But then I had a rare flash of something new to me. A flash that said, Hell, girl, you're in college now, you're on your own (the fact that the school pays for everything but your Goodwill clothes notwithstanding), and if you save a little of that part-time pay you can just as well go see the ocean displays by yourself.

And I thought, hey. Why not.

I've never been anywhere by myself before, unless you count lurking in the living room all during...

Well, anyhow, I'm going to an Aquarium.

I haven't told my acquaintances because they'd probably wonder what all the excitement is about. Sometimes, when I've avoided spending a bit here and there, I've been tempted to say something, but then they might think I'm trying to get money out of them or something. I don't want anyone to think I'm not grateful for what I have.


I huddled in my nightie in the dark but whenever he wanted me he found me. Funny how kids and baby animals always think that if they're frozen in place the bad things, whatever they might be, won't get them. I just sat there, and went sort of limp when he picked me up. I never cried during. I never asked him to stop. Never asked him for anything except a ride in a boat. Some nights come back to me and some don't but I know tears soaked my chin and chest even before he got me to the bedroom, the time he turned off a show on narwhals before it was over.

"Daddy loves his little Laurie-mouse. Laurie-mouse is so pretty."

Laurie is a little girl who wishes she was a fish, but whatever, Dad. I always thought Jacques Cousteau would never have called me a mouse. It didn't occur to me that other fathers might also refrain from inflicting torture on their daughters' little bodies.

When I became too heavy to lift, although I have never been big for my age, he would just call to me.

And I would slowly snap off the light that came from the TV set, and go to him.


I'll be taking a bus to the Aquarium. That's the expensive part, really. Admission shouldn't cost too much.

I can let my mind wander because the Biology discussion is really just a review of an earlier Oceanography lesson. I half-listen to the discussion of ocean trenches and half-daydream about the reality of gars and groupers and moray eels watching me from behind the glass of a miniature sea, each in its own perfect world, glowing and glossy as any brochure photos but real.

Trenches. The experts can only guess at how deep they are. Weather patterns over the entire globe are better understood than an undersea canyon off the coast of California. I imagine that I might explain it all someday. Detail all the answers of the trenches beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Oh, I know, it's highly unlikely that someone like me will accomplish what generations of my own heroes have debated for years. Can I stop the debates and make a name for myself in the textbooks? It's a silly question. Probably, to most people, not worth speculating about. But I have always lived comfortably, or at least as comfortably as I can be said to have lived, with my fantasies.

I'm not usually one to get giddy with anticipation, but between being here at Hayden Heath, free for the most part to do as I please, and the thought of taking one more step towards my dreams, I am rather-- well, very-- excited.

A freshman in college and never seen an Aquarium.

I didn't even know, until I came here, that it may actually be common practice for parents to indulge their children's' interests.

All through high school I kept my mouth shut. When I got the scholarship I did not tell my father. It was offered to me in the fall of my senior year, so I could make a decision. I was so overcome by the idea of living away from home, of being in a houseful of girls, that I almost did not accept. My father was just my Daddy. We did not share, we did not discuss, and I did not leave him. But then came the night that left me no choice.

Sometimes we can be glad of tragedy.


My father was not home when I grew sick. This was not uncommon. I had been alone and ill many times. I shook, my teeth chattered, I wrapped all the blankets I could find (three, counting an old rag) around myself.

It never occurred to me to call the hospital. My Daddy was the only one I had and he never seemed to trust those places. I took over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, hoping one would work, and called myself in sick to school.

I felt too hot, uncovered myself, fell asleep and had nightmares of banshees screaming and eating my flesh. I awoke freezing cold, shook uncontrollably as I wrapped myself up again, could not gain enough strength to rise and clean up the reeking vomit that had materialized on the floor. I seemed to have all the deadly symptoms I had ever heard about and I believe I fainted from sheer terror.

I gained a sort of consciousness several times, but the room kept changing color and I thought I heard sounds of animals in pain. The house was so empty and I was so hungry that I thought I should eat myself, then everything would go away.

The high school tried to call, but no one answered. Worried, the secretary in the office sent a janitor to check on things at my home.

Three days after I was hospitalized, my father returned from wherever he had been and came to visit his daughter.


"Laurie-mouse is as pretty as she ever was."

I had not known before that I had always hated the way he smelled. The odor was familiar, yes. But never welcome. I began to wonder whether we were related. But I knew we were. We looked alike. Or at least, we had before I had gotten sick.

I said nothing and tried to focus on his face. He was stroking the area between my rounded ears. His hands were rough but his touch light. For now. In the hospital. Maybe if I freeze, I thought. Play dead. Maybe then they'll keep me here.

But I got better.

To some extent.

And having me around all those people, within easy access of them, made my father nervous. So he took me home.


"Well, Laurie, you've had a hard time, haven't you Darling. But Daddy's had a long and tiring trip, and he has a hard time too. You know how it is, Laurie-mouse. Daddy goes through so much for his little girl."

His little eighteen-year-old.

"Why don't you turn off the TV and come in here."

Pause. Just a bit of one. I don't know where it came from. Maybe it was the slight difficulty of motion with a changed, though still humanoid, body. But whatever the reason, there was a pause before, as always, I did as he said.

"You are still the apple of my eye. No head or body is going to change that. I'd better look at all of you, first, to make sure you can still help me. Drop your clothes, Honey, and turn around. Be a good little mouse. That's my pretty girl."

Not a mouse, Dad. A slow-moving, steel-jawed, weird-voiced, butt-ugly devil. You're sick.

I have read, since that night, a passage in a book on Australian and other marsupials that said something like: "No one will ever accuse a Tasmanian devil of being beautiful."

And when I read that, I cried for nearly an hour.

"Well, well, you're a lucky little mouse. Still Daddy's girl, I see."

You're sick. The thoughts came from nowhere I had ever been before. I realized that a lot of the scars and evidence from before were probably gone. Gone. Different now. Not the same girl. Not... his daughter.

Still the pattern repeated itself and as I allowed the lifelong ritual to go on I even then instinctively believed that if I was gentle, and let him be, then he would let me go, I would hide in the dark and he would never come for me again.


I was difficult to see in the dark and sometimes he did not even know if I was in the living room unless he spoke to me. One night I did not answer him.

I was half-curled in the corner, away from the television set, reminiscing about Calypso and gnawing on a ham sandwich. When his voice reached me, my ears flicked, but I growled low in my throat and surreptitiously continued my gnawing. I swallowed the sandwich and he still had not seen me. I covered the band of white fur that was visible below my neck and crouched, silent.

"Laurie?"

Dad snapped on the light and I blinked indignantly. That feeling came back... The alienness of my father. Mine, but not mine. I am not your daughter.

I won't move unless you make me.

So he grabbed the nape of my neck and yanked me to my feet.

"You may look like an animal, Darling, but that is no excuse for behaving like one. Let's go."

And he prodded me ahead of him into the bedroom. "I just don't know about you sometimes, Laurie-mouse. Don't you care about your Daddy?"

I looked back over my shoulder and hissed at him. He slapped me.

I cowered.

The pattern repeats.

Except...

It HURT. It had always hurt. Always. But the brain, my brain, snapped, changed, boiled and denatured... The devil remembered this smell, this man, this thing and it was not good.

No, Laurie-from-before agreed. It was never good.

It hurts! Stop! You're holding me let me go!

I'm warning you...

I warned him. I heard the growl, the hissing, still hear it and know I warned him. I was so afraid I urinated and soaked him and myself.

He held me around the neck and shoulder even as I twisted to get away, and when I felt a blow from the other hand, against my face, my terror grew to a frenzy of need, to escape, to survive. I knew he could kill me.

He would have, too. Devils are small things, normally. No match for a man like my father. But I was a young woman, not strong, no, but designed differently since the disease.

And with no path left open to me I began to chew.

Through the arm, kicking, scratching as I went, aware of the blows but knowing only one way to escape.

I let loose a hideous sound as I ripped at the limb, thinking still to frighten the opponent away. If you have heard the growl of an angry cat you can begin to imagine. But you can only just begin.

My furred face was wet with spurts of Daddy's blood. I felt no pain but deepest fear. Then, with a wrench and a twist, I opened my jaws and was free.

To hide under the bed.

Liquid from my father's arm kept dripping to the floor where most of the limb already lay. I tried not to pant, not to call attention to myself. I tried, somewhere within my mind, to sink all the way from my father's house to the ocean... Seawater, I knew, could cure me if I reached it. I would dive in and the ache of my father's attacks would wash away. He would never find me. My wounds would heal and I would swim, maybe to a place where other devils lived.

Or maybe other devils like me lived only in Hell.

Maybe halfway to Tasmania I would sink, past the warm surface, past the sea snakes, then the flying fish and the whale sharks, down past squid and sperm whales and even the head-and-tail-lights and the bioluminescent jellyfish.

Maybe I would sink forever. The dark could close over me and in the depths of all depths, below even the ocean of my childhood fantasies, no light could ever be shed on Laurie's body.

Hell, I thought, would be a very cold and comforting place right now.


They put me in a cage.

I spent the rest of the night alone under the bed, feeling my throat strain to make a sound and hearing a wail that went on and on, yet never in my mind connecting the two until much, much later.

When they couldn't coax me out they dragged me out by the tail, which hurt, but I would not emerge voluntarily into an area reeking of Daddy.

I was placed in a cage at the police station, but just when I thought this must be where all of my kind stay, the school secretary and the janitor, along with several of my teachers, vouched for my character and got me released. They do not know the whole story, but I am eternally grateful, now that I can think straight, for their insight.

I was taken to the hospital again for treatment of my wounds, and allowed to stay at the school secretary's house until graduation. We can be glad of tragedies sometimes. I know I am one who has said that. But I was quiet, would not speak nor ask for anything, except in conjunction with homework, and spent most of my time keening under my breath with the television playing softly.

My father did not survive.


I am, as I have said, eternally grateful to the high school staff who saw me to graduation and then, with much well-wishing and helpful advice, shipped me off to Hayden Heath. I would never have been released from police custody or, if I had, I would almost certainly have been placed in a home for questionably sane SCABS victims. Treated, well, treated as I had behaved. That night. As an animal. Shudder.

I will try to pay them back someday. Maybe I can make a big discovery, about the trenches or something even more romantic, and then credit them in my article. It's a warming thought.

But, first things first.

I hop off the bus and look at my brochure. The Aquarium is only about fourteen blocks from the station. I sigh with repressed anticipation and begin to walk.

I'm here on a weekday, having taken some time off especially for the purpose, but even so there are a few other patrons in line at the desk at the same time as myself. I get my wallet and money ready.

"I'd like admission for one adult for one day, please," I say, noting as I do so that the trio in line behind me consists of a young father and two preschool-age children. I smile at the kids as best I can and then turn back to the receptionist, waiting.

She says, "Where is your escort, Miss?"

It is said so politely that I do not even comprehend the meaning for a minute. "Sorry?"

She sighs. I can't tell whether that means she is impatient with me or apologetic. She smells ambiguous. "The Aquarium includes many displays which are open to the visitors. We're sorry, but in the interests of safety to the animals and to yourself, we have had to adopt a strict policy of not allowing any predatory SCABS morphs into the facility without a normal escort. You may not enter the Aquarium alone."

I can sense the impatience of the children and their father waiting behind me. Still, I have to make one attempt.

"I'm trustworthy, really I am, Ma'am. Is there no way to make an exception? I came from Hayden Heath for personal research... I came all the way here to..." I have never felt quite this humiliated. I can't believe I'm grovelling like this. I turn to go. And the family steps forward in line.

I tell myself not to make it worse by crying. I even tell myself that there will be other times, that I can go next time my department arranges a trip and we'll all have escorts. I find myself wishing for my Oceanography professor, not just because he's normal and could get me into the Aquarium, but because he has shown me so much already. In some way I am desperately lonely for a father.

And at that, and at the thought of my first all-by-myself-really-out-on-my-own plans down some bigot's drain, the tears come.

I can't show them. I have to hide them. I have to hide me.

There's a circular outdoor table near where I am walking. I dive under it and stay there.

More than one person approaching or exiting the Aquarium notices me, and begins to ask if I am all right, but when I lift my head and gape my jaws at them a scent of fear wafts over and they quickly leave me be.

The afternoon wears on.

People come and go.

I weep. Then I stop. I feel better, almost ready to go on, then remember that I can't, that they won't let me in, and I sink into myself again and wait for night to come.

But before it does, another passerby, this one heading in to the Aquarium, notices an oddly-shaped lump under the outdoor table and cautiously bends down for a better look.

I hiss and grumble, thinking he'll get the message, but he doesn't. At least not the message I'm currently trying to convey.

"Hello? Miss? Are you all right?"

Grumble mutter.

"Has someone hurt you?"

That's a new one. I open my black, slanted eyes and allow one curious glance in his direction. He's tall, sandy-haired, not too remarkable but so friendly-smelling. I venture to speak. "I came under here by myself."

The man hunches down to my level, concern evident in his expression and scent. "Well, even if that's true, is there anything you need? Something I can help you with?"

I start to say no. I mean, I don't know this man in the least, he's certainly got better things to do, and... and...

He's smiling, encouraging me.

The only other time in my life I ever asked for anything was when I asked my father... for a boat ride... one of the nights I don't remember...

I sense nothing of my father here. I am the only person here, anywhere, related to my father, anymore. There has been a change. Well, many changes. I begin again to convince myself that I should stay the way I was, hold onto something. But the allure of the dream-Aquarium is too strong. I straighten my posture a little bit and the sandy-haired man nods, waits for my words. I am afraid of what I say but my voice goes on without me, as if my subconscious is the wiser of my two minds and has decided to simply let me catch up later.

"Well, Sir," I say, "I was going to go to the Aquarium, and there's a rule..."

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