Under the Microscope

Under the Microscope is a historical fiction novel set in Northern California in the early 1920s. Recently graduating from college and desperate for funds to help her father, Lavinia Parker accepts a teaching position at a school for abandoned girls. At the school, she wrestles with a long-time desire to enter the sciences despite the many obstacles, while also adjusting to her new teaching role and hiding her psychic abilities. She rescues an orphan named Beth, the first Black woman to attend the school, but Beth also arrives with a mysterious past. She and Lavinia unravel their challenging present circumstances and previously unknown connection. When the school staff helps Beth get needed medical care, the authorities are alerted, and Beth, Lavinia, and the school itself are put in jeopardy. In the aftermath, the two women’s shocking past connection comes to light.

June 1921

Deep down, I will always be the pastor’s daughter. While Inspector Corrick has come to Keystone School as a private investigator, my roiling stomach imagines he is a messenger from God, a toad-like minion in the army of St. Peter. Is he here to decide whether there has been a crime committed, and if so, my part in it, or to ascertain whether there has been a moral failure? Will he report me to some authority who guards unwanted children? Or a medical board? My father would warn me of a higher authority, my soul at peril.

The inspector smells of a mix of cigarette smoke and something ripe, perhaps the onions he consumed at lunch. He slurps his coffee, brought to the parlor for him by our cook. Mrs. O’s cheeks were red with consternation as she had plunked down the tray, then slammed the door behind her. She suffers no fools, certainly not Mr. Corrick.

He crosses his arms on his hard and high belly. “Were you aware of any discrepancies in the young woman’s paperwork?” he asks. “When she was admitted?”

My mind leaps to the day I picked up the “young woman” in question. I remember no papers, but surely there must have been some? My pulse races at the ways I may be complicit in this subterfuge. Perhaps I was involved in collecting this student due not to my cleverness, as I had hoped at the time, but because of my gullibility.

“I don’t remember any, no.”

“You don’t remember any discrepancies, or any paperwork?”

I rest my gaze on the plain glass window, the burning afternoon light outside makes the courtyard look almost white. Pure.

 “I don’t remember there being any paperwork. I simply fetched her from San Francisco and brought her home on the train.”

The inspector rearranges his pants for the third time since he sat down. I cringe, mildly disgusted as he wipes his bulbous nose with a ratty handkerchief.

“Did you suspect your headmaster of sloppy record keeping before, or was this unusual?”

“I didn’t say I suspected him of anything. I was only an escort. There could have been documents sent before I picked up the student, or later. We aren’t a typical boarding school.”

I have an urge to stand up and demand he leave, taking his stale aroma with him. His presence bodes an end to something very special, the spoiling of our innocence. But perhaps that has long passed.

“It’s obvious you’re not a typical school, Miss Parker. But it’s still a school, or a home —whatever you choose to call it. The girls come from somewhere, and I should hope you would know from where. What if a relative was searching for them? Are they not registered at the local church? With the hospitals?”

I know he’s correct. What if, indeed?

“I have lists of students, of course, in my class. But of course Andrew has much more complete files on each girl.”

“Andrew? You are on a first name basis with the director?”

I flush. “Mr. Kaplan and I work closely. There are only a handful of staff and fifty students, so of course we are all quite familiar. Also, he believes in an egalitarian work environment. So, yes, a first name basis.”

“Is he a revolutionary?”

“No, of course not. He's very patriotic. A veteran.”

The inspector considers this. “I would like to speak to him more about this odd accusation, but as you know, he can't be found.”

My hands clench together, determined not to show this man how unnerved I am.

“He'll be back shortly,” I say with more confidence than I feel. “He needed to fetch some things in town.”

I have no idea if this is true. I am lying to this inspector. A new sin to add to the list. Have I betrayed my values for these girls and for this school? Or for a man?

Chapter One
One year earlier, June 1920

The last few days at Mills College I found myself awake early, but I did not rise. I stayed wrapped in my sheets, opening the window to the scents of late—honeysuckle and fresh grass. My final papers handed in, I read novels languorously, as there was not an enormous list of tasks to conclude before leaving. These were to be my last few days of freedom, the suffocation of returning to my father’s house looming like a storm, and I wanted to spend them reading.

 The day before graduation, a rapid knock on my door was followed by Abigail Gardner bouncing into my room, rather like the college dean’s young Labrador retriever. Abigail and I had little in common other than being motherless and apparently poor at courting, since no one ever asked either of us out twice. But the seed of our friendship had been planted firmly in freshman year, when we shared a dorm room, and it had grown into a strong and solid tree. The thought of leaving her was one of the reasons I was hiding in a book.

“Haven’t you packed?” Abigail examined my room with a bemused look. I reluctantly put down my book.

“Your hair is erupting again. You look as if you’ve been battling a March wind.”

“There’s not even a breeze, unfortunately. It’s sweltering already.”

She perched on my bed, her back to me, so I could fix it.

I pulled the pins out of her curly mass of hair.

“Who’s going to tidy you up, once we leave?”

“My sisters, I suppose. Vinnie, you should be getting things ready. Everyone else is practically done packing up while you’re still in bed. Also, we’re burning our chemistry notes after breakfast, if you want to come.”

I finished her bun and sank back onto my pillows, softened from four years of this position. “You forget that I loved chemistry.”

“So you said. But I never believed you. Do you want help packing?”

“No. I told you they’ll have to drag me back to Carson City.”

Abby began to stack my scattered books on the desk. “ ‘Dragging her back to Carson City’ sounds like one of my Zane Gray books. What’s that one you’re reading now?”

I flipped over the book to show her the cover. “Edith Wharton. It’s Eleanor’s, so I need to finish it and give it back to her tonight. It’s very dark. I prefer Jane Austen. Abby, put my clothes back on the floor where they belong.”

She laughed. “Vinnie, come on. You worked so hard to finish. It’s illogical not to be excited to graduate. Very unlike you.”

My resistance was perfectly logical. After my mother passed, I’d had ten long and lonely years under my father’s constricting rules and scrutinizing gaze. He had questioned me nightly about my days’ activities, my studies and my faith. He monitored my reading list, my chores and my health, which was robust despite all his fears. He was not unkind, he simply couldn’t bear to lose the one other person he loved.

“You know my father. If I go home, I’ll have to explain where I’m going every time I leave the house. And even if I get out of the house, there’s nowhere to go.”

Abby dragged my trunk from the corner into the center of the room. “It is startling that the minister let you come to college at all, actually.”

“He wasn’t pleased about it.” My mother’s parents had provided for me in their will, with the expectation I would follow my mother’s footsteps to Smith College. My father, however, would not permit me to take the “perilous” journey from California to the East. In the end, we had compromised on Mills College in Oakland, California. For four years, I had been blessedly free to pursue my own path, whether it was to pour over Darwin’s drawings in the library or take a long walk by Lake Merrit with Abby on Sundays. But that would all change. “He tried to convince me not to come to college, and he did manage to keep me in California.”

Abby put my winter coat on the bottom of the trunk. “For which I am quite grateful.”

“Abby, stop. I’m not an invalid.”

“Alright. I did tell Eleanor I’d meet her at the Commons. Will we see you down there? It’s our second to last breakfast. And you have to eat.”

“God, you’re relentless.”

“Bring your chemistry notes.” She winked before she left.

I dragged myself up, taking my lightest dress from the closet despite the unfashionable length and frayed hems. I couldn't afford new dresses every time the styles changed, but I wished I had something simpler. It would be a long, sticky day. I threw water on my face and braided my hair as I made my way down the steps. Outside, the campus buzzed like a beehive. The younger students were rushing to hand things in and moving their belongings from one dorm to another, while a group of seniors strung lanterns in the courtyard for senior dinner.

An air of excitement swept through the dining hall, enthusiastic gossip bouncing around each table—predominantly who would be getting engaged or married this summer. The concept of marriage made me queasy, and clearly there was no suitor waiting for me. Yet I’d reached the end of college without another clear alternative.

No alternative, that is, until a perplexing letter had arrived the day before. The contents had nudged some hope into my heart, like light slipping under dark curtains. But those thoughts were quickly followed by a dose of reality, in the form of my father’s raised brows. I needed counsel, but as I glanced around the table at my fellow graduates-to-be, I saw the unlikelihood of finding wisdom there. Abigail listened patiently while two classmates argued over the ideal place setting at a wedding luncheon. Eleanor, our third musketeer, was comparing a list of the boys she preferred not to kiss again with the girl next to her. But while Eleanor enjoyed the attention of many college boys, she was most devoted to her father and was off to travel abroad with him for the summer. We came from different worlds—she couldn’t possibly understand my limitations.

I slipped away and made my way across campus to the person who might have answers. The shade of the Eucalyptus trees on Bryant path offered a brief and aromatic respite from the day, and I didn’t rush past them, but savored the sense of expectation. This might, after all, be my last visit with my mentor. Professor Stein had sought me out in the first weeks of freshman year, explaining she was an old friend of my mother’s. She was delighted that I had chosen to come to Mills. Since then, I’d spent many hours helping in her office, having tea with her in the late afternoons, and devouring her instruction in science classes.

 I wondered if I would learn another science fact once I left Mills. Was my hard work here for naught? Why were women given such a keen intellect, if it was to be used for the arrangement of flowers? My nerves grew tight before I opened the heavy door into Stein’s dusty, book-filled lair, where I found her ensconced deep in her leather armchair. A large telescope was positioned at the window, and there were pictures of constellations on the walls, as well as a series of snake skins, and drawings of mushrooms.

“Lavinia,” she looked up, slightly distracted, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Lines gathered at the corners of her sharp blue eyes, evidence of past laughter or worry. As always, she managed to look both comfortable and elegant in a pale blue linen dress.

“I’m sorry to bother you.” I stepped over piles of papers and books. “I just needed to talk to you. About this.”

I thrust the envelope towards her. After removing the letter and reading it over, she pointed to a second chair. “Sit down, Lavinia. You’re making me nervous.”

I removed a heavy textbook and rested on the edge, impatient for her thoughts.

“What do you think?” I asked, “Should I go?”

“What are your options?” She answered my question with another question, as she had done so many times in class.

 “My father is expecting me to move back home.”

“And then?”

“Marry, presumably.” My lungs tightened, as if the oxygen had left the room.

A line crumpled on her forehead. “As you know, I had hoped you would consider graduate studies. Our program is truly launching this year.”

“Yes. I wish I could continue.”

My passion for the sciences had emerged in the second year of my college career, when I took a class in botany. I discovered an affinity for studying the inner workings of plants, hearty roots of old vines, the intricate lace of the pinna, the sweet curl of the fiddleheads.  In successive classes, I found a similar fascination with human anatomy, chemical formulas and even the solar system.

“My father would never allow me to continue my studies. He certainly wouldn’t pay for it. You know I can only attend here because of my mother’s inheritance. And that is gone.”

She held up the letter. “Will he allow you to do this instead?”

Would my aging, conservative father allow me to take a job? I doubted it. But the offer was a mysterious one.

“Did you recommend me to them?”

She hesitated, then gave a slight nod of her head.

“The Stones, the founders of the school, are old friends. When the head teacher wrote to me about this position, I thought of you.” She took a minute and then added, “But Lavinia, this choice is absolutely yours. You mustn’t be swayed by my influence.”

Too late for that. I stared at the professor’s hands, folded in her lap, slightly rough and stained with ink. I wished I could put my head there and find some solace, or clarity, in her touch. Her clock chimed and I startled, realizing the time.

“My father’s train will be coming, I need to go. I’ll have to see what he thinks about this. Thank you, Professor, for recommending me.”

My skirt dragged as I ran across the grass and into town. I hiked it up and hurried to get to the station before my father did, only to find out the train from San Francisco was delayed. I caught my breath on the passenger platform and wiped the sweat from my lip. He wouldn’t approve of my being sweaty, gloveless, and without a firm future plan.

I had not seen my father since the Christmas holiday, and an inevitable awkwardness and tension would arrive with him. Whenever reunited, I noticed again how I’d grown, while he had not. Nor did he seem to recognize the changes in me. I had avoided going home during the summers by always having a small job waiting for me as a nanny or a professor’s assistant. My father could not argue with my financial need—I earned all my own spending money, and there was little work to be found in Carson City. Thus, he had permitted me to stay away. I paced the station, mentally pleading my case. By the time the train arrived, I was ready to fight my battle for freedom.

What I wasn’t ready for was the old man who stepped off the train. He walked slowly and with a bit of a tremor, his dark pants hanging off of his skeletal frame. I nearly gasped in surprise. My father had moved more slowly than usual at Christmas, but the man coming off the train now was nearly unrecognizable. I caught myself before I said so, placing a kiss on his cool cheek. He examined me carefully, his hazel eyes missing their usual spark.

“It is so good to see you,” he said, his hand resting on my shoulder.

I agreed. I often forgot, in the conversations and arguments that I had with my father in my mind, how much I loved him. And that it was his love for me that made him so intractable.

“You look lovely in that blue,” he added. And then, as if caught off guard by it, “You have your mother’s eyes.”

I knew I did. I had her large dark eyes and her soft smile, although somehow not her beauty. I remembered her as graceful and elegant, while I was clumsy, often tripping on stairs or bumping into strangers. I was also cursed with freckles on my cheeks and my father’s long nose. The blooming patterns of Bamboo flowers—they can take decades to bloom—gave me some hope that my beauty might appear later.

“Father, let’s get you out of this heat.”

I arranged a porter to get my father’s things to the hotel, and then I walked with him, slowly. Even his elbow seemed smaller, like a bird’s wing jutting from his body.

“Shall I have coffee or tea with you, or do you prefer to go to the hotel and rest?”

I heard the formality in my tone. Our conversations were never easy at first, as if we both needed to hack through heavy foliage to find a clearing where we could communicate.

He exhaled. “Tea sounds perfect.”

In a street side cafe, a waitress brought tea and pastries. I prepared my father’s tea with his two slices of lemon and no sugar, without consulting him. I had carried his cup to him each afternoon as a girl, tea spilling over the sides. My father took a small bite of his pastry and then placed it aside, as if he had no appetite.

“Father, aren’t you well?”

The minister offered me a slight smile as he placed his cup back onto the saucer, shaking. “No, my dear, I don’t seem to be.”

I had a flash of my mother’s face, pale and drawn in those last months before she went away to die at the sanatorium.

“What is it?” My voice sounded desperate. Please not tuberculosis, not again.

“The doctors aren’t sure of the exact diagnosis. But it is a type of cancer.”

My ears rushed with blood, dulling the room around me. I thought of when I would go swimming in the lake as a girl. I would dive deep under the water, barely able to hear my parents on the shore. Everything was muted.

My father tapped my hand. “I’m sorry, Lavinia.”

“But is it – will you – get better?”

His eyes were damp. “I wish I could tell you yes. I hate to ruin this special day for you. But as you can see, I have lost quite a bit of weight, as well as my appetite and stamina.”

“But we have wonderful doctors in San Francisco—they can help. I’ll take you. We’ll go the day after tomorrow. I’ll call for an appointment.”

He held up his hand, an old gesture he used when I was an overly energetic child and would speak too rapidly.

 “I’ll go see the doctors here. I had already planned on it. But my own doctor is not encouraging.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

His lips slipped into a frown. “There was nothing for you to do. And you’re so happy here. I didn’t want to spoil that.”

Afterwards, I left my father at his hotel to rest. As I passed under the stone arch at the entrance to campus, my throat was tight with unshed tears. How could I not have even sensed he was ill? Was I a terrible, unfeeling daughter?

When I reached into my pocket for my room key, I found instead the letter from Keystone Academy. I had forgotten to talk to my father about it. I shoved it back in my pocket. It was probably irrelevant. I needed to take care of him.

But once I was in my room I opened it again, rereading the lines now committed to memory. Keystone Academy would like to invite you to come to a personal interview… I will be in San Francisco on June 12th… I should explain that Keystone is not a typical environment… I look forward to your response, Miss Parker.

Somehow, even in the face of today’s disclosures, I couldn’t bring myself to throw this chance away.

About the Author

Joanell Serra

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and elsewhere. Her books include The Vines We Planted (Wido, 2018) and (Her)oics (Pact Press 2021).

Read more work by Joanell Serra.