from PHRENOLOGY // an attempt
Let’s face it, no one ever believed I was going to be scientist: I lacked focus and drive, but still my mother bought me the Gabriel Tri-Lab-Pak for Christmas, 1983. She would not allow any of the red-capped chemical bottles to be opened after reading the warnings on them. I cracked open the sulfur bottle, from time to time, having never smelled a rotten egg, but I left the rest closed. Instead, I dutifully performed identification streak tests on the non-volatile ceramic tile, and scratched pennies with the mineral specimens—to rate their hardness against the copper. The glossy silver hematite scratched a surprising rusty line; the quartz gouged the penny like a surprising root into the thin membrane of a shin. Suddenly the world seemed full of shifts, full of things that were more than they appeared to be, harder than they seemed.
The Tri-Lab-Pak came with a microscope. I peeled scabs off my knees and scales of dead skin from the bottom of my summer feet and examined the pieces in the light of the lens’ mirror. A wart that fell off my left big toe looked just like regular skin, which was disappointing. I wanted to understand something larger from the seeing. Once, I cracked a plate from over-tightening the dial, trying to get closer, to get inside the cells.
He said you mustn’t drop the tarantula, that if you did, its belly would burst open like a tiny watermelon. We all pictured the tragedy of that ghastly undoing, then waited our turns. The man with the spider placed it carefully on my stiff, upturned palm. He was all nerves, explaining to the rest of the class the importance of moving slowly, of being serious, of being calm.
It felt ungentle, unlike a hamster or woolly bear caterpillar in every way. I concentrated on the rhythm of one leg—bristled like a pipe cleaner then tapering to a point—lifting then stepping, as the weight of its fragile abdomen shifted with each step. I was too focused on not dropping it to be afraid.
Later that year, someone came into the first grade classroom and squeezed all of the monarch butterfly cocoons that were hanging in a row above the art table. It had to be an older kid, because we couldn’t reach them. What came out of their onion-skinned green shells looked neither like what went in or what was supposed to emerge. They were still blended, a mix of land and air, when they were split open like grapes.
Most kids wouldn’t hold the fire-belly salamanders after the herpetologist explained that their brightly colored skin contained poisonous alkaloids, which tasted bad to predators. All I saw was that hysterical orange stomach, and I greedily stretched out my cupped hands to take the squirming wetness.
I rested my thumb on its back, to still it in my hand; I watched its toothless mouth open and its lashless eyes blink. Later, in the darkened classroom, as the class watched a film on wetlands, I scratched deep grooves in my thighs. The hives were palm-shaped with raw fingerstripes, where my hands had rested as the film began. The best part, I remember, was how my hands didn’t itch, only the skin they touched—like I was the poisonous one, now.
I am looking for a way to get at the experience of a thing, the memory of it, to better understand the meaning of it. I am expecting the process to be messy.
Chelsea Biondolillo‘s work has appeared in Orion, Sonora Review, Passages North, Brevity, River Teeth, Hayden’s Ferry Review and others. Her chapbook, Ologies, features “Phrenology,” a notable selection in Best American Essays 2014 and “How to Skin a Bird,” which won Shenandoah‘s Carter Prize for the Essay. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and is currently at work on a book about vultures.
A recipient of a 2015 NEA Fellowship for poetry, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Staci R. Schoenfeld’s poems appear in or are forthcoming from Washington Square, Mid-American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Muzzle, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. She is a PhD student at the University of South Dakota.