Fiction from Cayce Osborne

A cut head of red cabbage

Photo: Natalie Runnerstrom

The Scientist’s Daughter

Stage I: Gestation
When the scientist learns she is pregnant, she tells no one. Her body begins to change. When the pregnancy becomes obvious, colleagues avoid her and do not offer congratulations. For a working scientist, a baby is a liability. She is proving true every unkind thought they’ve had about women being allowed in the lab.

The scientist does not read the usual books; she favors the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology over What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She does not consult a chart telling her what size her fetus is in relation to various fruits and vegetables, or participate in online forums filled with the frantic posts of other first-time mothers. The scientist has an ultrasound at the earliest possible date. She orders all the tests performed, even those not required by her doctor and therefore not covered by insurance. She likes knowing things. She is the designer, operator, subject, analyst, and reporter of this self-experiment.

Stage II: Birth
When the doctors predict a difficult delivery, the scientist schedules a cesarean for one week before her projected due date and turns to her medical journals for advice on recovery. She makes a birth plan for her OB-GYN and requests a face-to-face with the anesthesiologist. She downloads a medical app that takes her step-by-step through the surgery. She watches it every day on the train home from her lab. The length of the animated reenactment matches the duration of her ride home; the final staple closes over the anime-mother’s pelvic incision as the scientist unlocks the door of her one-room apartment. This symmetry brings her a comfort nothing else will.

The scientist’s daughter emerges on schedule and pinkly perfect, like the baby dolls the scientist’s mother insisted on buying her when she was young. The scientist did not dress them up or take them on outings or play pretend. She cut their hair and scribbled them purple and pulled their limbs off one by one to see what would happen. To see what was inside, to see if they could be reattached, to see how it felt. She recorded her findings in a small book with My Diary written on the front in glittery script. She’d blacked out Diary and replaced it with Discoveries.

The scientist is impatient to leave the hospital, citing journal studies that say the risk of infection to her and the baby rises the longer they stay. The nurses, their saintly patience developed from years of dealing with know-it-all doctors, nod and remind her to hold the baby against her bare skin. The scientist picks up the child and pulls her gown off her shoulders. She has read many journal articles about the benefits of skin-to-skin contact.

The baby smells yeasty, like the Saccharomyces cerevisiae her lab-mates use as a model organism in their biological research. At this moment, she does not think, My baby is a miracle. Instead, and not for the first time, she thinks: Science is not something confined to the lab, it surrounds us, always, everywhere. It is in us and of us.

On the morning of the third day, the scientist takes her daughter home. They begin their cohabitation.

She does not ask friends or colleagues for advice on her newborn. She does not have friends, too busy to maintain relationships. Her colleagues are all men. Some of them are fathers. But to ask these men about the domestic domain would be akin to admitting a weakness. A deficiency in the skills she is expected to possess. This, she cannot do. She has already shown her vulnerability by becoming a mother.

Stage III: Early Adolescence
They now share a new, bigger home outside the city. The scientist’s daughter brims with raw emotion, a constant source of loud noises and rash decisions. The scientist studies her, turns to journals for advice on how to deal with such unbridled life, this tornado she has invited indoors. For this, the journals have no answers.

The scientist and her daughter possess opposite dispositions. The scientist keeps a journal, akin to her lab notebook but for the experimentation that takes place outside the lab, with her daughter. One day, she sketches a Venn diagram of notable characteristics, her own on the left and her daughter’s on the right:


Curiosity is what led the scientist to her career. It is also what drives her daughter’s life: the need to touch, to taste, to see, to feel, to grow, to learn. This overlap forges a delicate balance between woman and girl. An umbilical tether, nourishing both equally.

The scientist’s daughter grows. She learns to speak, to walk. She learns how to be impatient. She seeks answers but is disappointed when they do not come quickly. She asks the usual questions—

why is the sky blue
what’s it like in outer space
why can’t I breathe underwater

—and the scientist considers them. She leaves her daughter with the question still on her tongue, to search her shelves for a scientific journal with a relevant paper. She reads the paper aloud. If the scientist’s daughter is lucky, there will be a diagram or a figure to liven up the rows of tiny lines printed onto thin, yellowed paper. If the scientist’s daughter is very lucky, a demonstration will follow—see Ex. 1.

Ex. 1 The occasion on which the scientist’s daughter made herself sick drinking Jolt cola.

Subject was age 12. She drank 48 oz. of Jolt Cola (150g sugar, 450mg caffeine) in one afternoon, while sitting on the sofa watching reruns of the American television program The Office. She then entered her mother’s study, complaining of stomach discomfort. After an interrogation, the Jolt binge was discovered.

After verbally summarizing a recent study on the dangers of sugar consumption, the mother retrieved a bottle of antacid tablets from the medicine cabinet. She invited the subject into the kitchen and gathered additional items from the pantry:

distilled water
four clear drinking glasses
a spoon
a pasta strainer
one head of red cabbage
a bottle of vinegar
a small carton of baking soda
a bottle of ammonia
one bottle of Jolt cola

The subject remained silent except for sighs and groans, which the mother judged to be consistent with a pre-teen suffering stomach discomfort.

The mother chopped the cabbage and placed it into a kitchen blender along with 250mL distilled water. The resulting purple liquid, strained of particulate and poured into a series of four glasses, changed color depending on what substance was stirred into them. Ammonia and baking soda resulted in one set of colors (green, blue) while vinegar and cola produced different results (pink, violet).

The subject vocalized regret, and compared her stomach contents to “a crazy purple volcano.” The subject belched but the symptoms continued.

Only when the lesson had concluded, and the subject could repeat the relevant pieces of the experiment and recite its findings, did the mother remember to offer her the antacid to relieve her symptoms.

Stage IV: Late Adolescence
The scientist’s daughter is whining. This is not unusual at this stage. Her high school classmates travel with their families—79 percent of the families in this sample consist of a mother and father and at least two children—for spring break. The most popular destinations are Florida, the Bahamas, and Cancun. The scientist is taking her daughter to see the sequoias, to the only national park the two have yet to visit. The scientist’s daughter is not in favor of this trip. She wants an excuse to buy a new bikini, to show off her tan lines at school upon her return. She wants a tropical vacation like she sees in the movies. But the scientist does not take vacations, only expeditions and explorations, tours and treks. They did go to Mexico once, but to Teotihuacán, to explore the Aztec ruins. They did not spend any time at the beach.

Throughout her teenage years, the scientist’s daughter asked difficult questions—

why are other girls so mean
when is the right time to have sex
why can’t life just be easy for once

—but the scientist cannot give the answers. She admits, I don’t know.

For the scientist, I don’t know is a beginning: of knowledge to be uncovered, of a trail to follow. The outset of a journey. She tries to find the answers for her daughter, but does not always succeed.

In school, I don’t know earns the scientist’s daughter small frowns (at best), stern looks (most often), or extra homework (at worst). Noticing this contradiction, the scientist’s daughter comes to two important realizations, both of which are important steps toward adulthood.

    1. Her mother does not know everything.
      a. And that is OK.
      b. Learning is a lifelong endeavor.
    2. The hardest questions don’t have definitive answers.
      a. People can be mean for many different reasons.
      b. Sex, both in understanding and in practice, is different for everyone.
      c. If life is easy, you are not challenging yourself.

When it is time to choose a college, the scientist’s daughter is only willing to apply to schools near the ocean. The scientist suggests Caltech, though with her daughter’s unremarkable grades, acceptance is unlikely. Her daughter chooses the University of Miami. The day her letter arrives—ripped open, the happy news received with a squeal—the daughter borrows the car to drive to the mall. She buys an orange bikini.

The scientist finds the letter later, left on the hallway table in a joyful crumple. She has lost this final adolescent battle, but accepts defeat with her usual pragmatism. It is futile to quell a tide, especially one rising as swiftly as her daughter.

Stage V: Adulthood
The scientist and her daughter live thousands of miles apart. It is the same amount of distance that has always lived between them, the emotional now made geographical. Their umbilical connection has thinned over time, become brittle with exposure to the elements. It has been replaced by ever-fickle cell phone connections—rarely used and subject to the daughter’s willingness to answer her telephone.

Of the answered calls:

95 percent took place on birthdays and holidays.
4 percent took place on a whim.
1 percent was a misdial the scientist’s daughter pretended was intentional.

These calls eventually devolved into text messages. And then, the communication stopped altogether.

The scientist’s daughter has worked at many different jobs, unable to stay anywhere for more than a year. She craves change, wants to be challenged, is drawn to the unusual and the artistic. She is running from her rigid upbringing, always.

A dancer on a cruise ship.

A face-painter at a Renaissance Faire.

A hawker of CBD oil.

She is lucky to have never lost the wild hunger of childhood—the hunger to seek, hunger to taste, hunger to live.

Stage VI: Parenthood
The scientist’s daughter will soon be a mother herself. The discovery of the baby stills her wanderlust. She was a drifting balloon and her baby, the tree branch that finally caught and held her still.

He is the size of an avocado today, she tells her coworkers at the acupuncture center, when she is 16 weeks along.

Her son’s newborn head smells yeasty, like the rising bread in the bakery where she now works behind the counter. To her, he is a miracle. Because of him, she will never be alone.

When he gets older, he begins to ask questions—

how do they make these Legos blue
why did we send a monkey to space
what makes ocean water salty

The scientist’s daughter remembers her own childhood questions, and pauses to consider the scientist for the first time in years.[1]

She recalls how her mother would have responded to her son’s questions, the endless journal articles with their lengthy footnotes and unfriendly jargon; the home science demonstrations, undertaken to illustrate a key point; the answers, withheld until the very last.

I don’t know, she tells her son. But this admission comes without shame. She has held on to her curiosity, the need to be satisfied, the tiny bit of her mother she still carries within. She is not ashamed of not knowing. Let’s see if we can figure it out together.

And they do.

One rainy afternoon when all her son can do is mope and moan—I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored, as if saying it three times will manifest a solution, as if life were a fairy tale—she goes to the kitchen in desperation, searching for a way to pass the day. She opens the junk drawer (twist ties, coupons, spent batteries), stares into the pantry (cereal, rice, apple cider vinegar), rummages through the fridge (skim milk, leftover lasagna, a red cabbage).

She smiles at the cabbage, and walks down the hall to knock on her son’s bedroom door.

Hey buddy, c’mere. Wanna see something cool?

Ten minutes later, cabbage liquid and half-filled glasses are arrayed on the kitchen counter in front of them. They watch the purple liquid turn into a rainbow of colors, warring scents from vinegar and ammonia making their eyes water. This provides convenient camouflage for the nostalgic fall of tears the scientist’s daughter cannot hold back.

Why are the colors different, mama?

She holds up a finger and goes to her purse. She retrieves her cell phone.

The scientist’s grandson kicks the scuffed toe of his sneaker against the kitchen cabinet as he waits to see what his mother will do.

Patience, the scientist’s daughter says to him. She listens as the phone begins to ring and smiles at her son. If we are lucky, grandma will answer.

[1] But how, you might be thinking, could she misplace her mother for so long?
The answer is this: Early parenthood is like a tsunami, pulling the new parent so far underwater that finding the surface feels impossible. But when it subsides, parenting also raises inevitable comparisons to one’s own childhood.

Cayce Osborne is a writer and graphic designer from Madison, WI. Her writing has been published in Exposition Review, Typehouse Magazine, Defenestration, Write Ahead the Future Looms, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is included in several story anthologies, including: Pizza Parties and Poltergeists from 18th Wall Productions, Triangulation: Habitats by Parsec Ink, and Monsters Monsters Monsters Monsters from Hellbound Books. Cayce’s first mystery novel, I Know What You Did, will be published by Crooked Lane Books in summer 2023. When not writing, Cayce spends time hanging out with her husband and two sons, reading library books, walking her dog, and subscribing to way too many streaming services. You can visit her online at

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