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The Classification of Living Things

By Michelle Ross From Issue No. 8

The girls in Irene’s 1st period biology class have formed husks. Or is the proper term rind or bark or hull? In their entombed state, the girls don’t speak, so there’s no getting answers from them. From within those milky, glassy threads, only the girls’ eyes move. This could be looking or it could be a kind of REM.

Irene’s attention is on the dry erase board when the transformation happens. Despite the boys’ gasps and curses, when Irene turns, she thinks she’s hallucinating. Lately, when she’s in her apartment, she’ll think she sees her cat Smoky out of the corner of her eye, but when she looks, nothing. Or she’ll think she hears Smoky, but when she listens closely, there’s only the hum of the refrigerator. Smoky has been dead two weeks. The murderer cut into the screen on Irene’s porch, where Smoky spent his days watching birds flutter in the trees, his nights watching bats swoop upon mosquitos.

The boys transition quickly to curiosity. They say, “How did this happen? What does it mean?” They say, “What is the most logical conclusion?” They retrieve notebooks from backpacks and record their observations. They poke the girls’ husks first with the erasered ends of pencils, then the graphite tips, then latex fingers.

They are practicing inquiry just as Irene taught them—asking questions, investigating, trying to understand.

She wants them to stop.

But she stands frozen before the dry-erase board where before class she’d written out the currently recognized domains of living things: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukaryota. Above that she’d written out the previously recognized top of the taxa, consisting of six kingdoms; and above that the five kingdoms she’d learned as a child. She’d wanted her students to understand how dizzyingly fast the classification of things can change as new data accrues.

Like the man in the apartment above hers after she declined his offers to change her car’s oil, help unload her groceries, cook her dinner. He said to her after that last refusal, “I know you don’t have a man. I know you live alone.” This was at the door to her apartment. He looked not at her, but past her at the small dining table where her dinner, a maki roll, sat in its black-bottomed tray. Sometimes he didn’t wait until she got into her apartment and had unloaded her things; he approached her in the parking lot as she got out of her car. For weeks, she’d made excuses for him. A bit overeager, a bit desperate, but harmless, she’d told herself. But when he said what he said about knowing she lived alone, she realized she’d been too generous. “Are you threatening me?” she said, her hand tightening on her doorknob. His eyes glinted when he said, “I’m just saying you didn’t even give me a chance.”

Not long after that, he called her a bitch. Then, two days before she found Smoky dead, he called her a witch. She thought witch was a slip of the tongue, that his mouth made the wrong consonant. But then he went on about all the shitty luck he’d been having—flat tire on the way to work, biting into a bitter cardamom pod, slicing his index finger on a manila folder.

A boy named Ty manages to pry a thread from a girl named Sasha’s husk. Not so terrible really seeing Sasha suited up like this, Irene thinks, because always Sasha had seemed like a creature post-molt—too soft, too vulnerable. In truth, all the girls seemed too vulnerable to Irene, but some of them were better at mitigating it. Sasha, on the other hand, routinely sat hunched over her desk so that her arms shielded her breasts and her hair fell over her eyes. The effect conjured an image in one of Irene’s nephew’s picture books—of a cow trying to hide behind the stem of a daisy.

Irene identifies. Alone in her apartment, she feels her upstairs neighbor leering at her through his floor, the soles of his feet bearing down into her ceiling, yearning to stomp her out like a discarded cigarette butt.

If Irene were a witch, she wouldn’t waste time or energy on flat tires.

Ty examines the thread under a microscope at one of the lab benches, announces that it is composed of stretched-out cells like those of muscle tissue. Then he pulls at the ends of the thread, and says, “That’s why it stretches,” and every other boy crowds around to look.

All this poking and prodding of that thread—is it soluble? Is it conductive?—feels like misdirection. It feels too busy.

Yesterday when the restroom in the teachers’ lounge was occupied by a plumber and Irene had to use the girls’ restroom opposite her classroom, she thought she heard crying coming from one of the other stalls. A non-Smoky hallucination? The sound was so tiny, almost imperceptible, even though the one-minute warning bell had already rung—the hallways quieting down as students took seats in classrooms. Irene had felt afraid. Of being caught witnessing something she ought not? Of having to respond? That the situation might be more than she bargained for? That it might all be her head? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And so she made as much noise as possible as she unrolled toilet paper, flushed, and stomped to the sink to wash her hands.

She’d felt guilty ever since. Couldn’t sleep last night wondering what had happened to the girl she was now sure had been in that stall crying, the girl she pictured as Sasha with her long, acorn-colored hair shading her eyes. Irene could think of a thousand terrible things that could have happened to Sasha.

If Irene were a witch, she wouldn’t waste time or energy on cardamom pods.

The boys talk of variables. They talk of cause and effect. “There’s a logical explanation for this,” Ty says. “We just have to figure out what it is.”

Irene misses the girls’ voices—how they protested when they learned that in a lion pride the females do the hunting but it’s the males who eat first; how they said during the lesson on asexual versus sexual reproduction that binary fission is so much more egalitarian—every individual for her or himself.

The girls, if they could speak, would say something witty about the boys and their hacked-up-and-divvied-up thread segments, each boy’s piece no more than an inch long. The girls would have something to say about the boys’ focused concentration on the same damn thing, the way they look up in unison when Ty announces some new discovery, the way they quickly abandon their own investigations to repeat what their peer has already done.

The girls would have something to say about Irene’s upstairs neighbor, how he thinks the universe owes him his due of various goods and fortunes—green traffic lights, tires and fingers impermeable to sharp edges, a woman. How not getting what he wants is justification for revenge.

The male police officers barely questioned her neighbor. No fingerprints. No witnesses. Nothing to corroborate her suspicion.

She shouldn’t be surprised. Even when there was physical evidence and witnesses, men like her neighbor often went unpunished.

The girls are much savvier than Irene was at their age. Perhaps they’re savvier than she is now. But for all their fire and wit, the girls still put up with so much they shouldn’t have to. Irene worries about the excuses they, too, make and will continue to make for men and boys.

If Irene were a witch, she wouldn’t waste time or energy on paper cuts.

While the boys experiment with their bits of thread, Irene sits at the empty desk next to Sasha. She looks at the girls in their translucent husks. Chrysalises, she thinks now. The girls are metamorphosizing. Why not? Caterpillars and tadpoles do it.

If Irene were a witch, she wouldn’t use her magic to punish men like her neighbor. She’d make it so that they didn’t stand a chance against women and girls. Let the girls emerge with thick horns, sharp teeth. Let them emerge with poison-shooting eyes, hearing so keen that they can perceive a predator approaching from a mile away. Let them be fiercer than anything this world has ever seen.

About Michelle Ross More From Issue No. 8