The Memoirs of Edwin Chester, Who Would Have Discovered the Origin of Species Had His Place on HMS Beagle Not Been Taken By Charles Darwin


1. The sting was not only in the thoughtless brevity of Captain FitzRoy’s note, but in the careless scrawl of the penmanship itself, which expressed his disdain for me and all like me—those who sail at the whim of others.

2. These were bats, unaware of my distress.

3. The letter went unanswered.

4. A recent visit revealed that the storage shed on the quay no longer exists, though at the time, its window afforded an excellent view of the Beagle’s departure. I remember also the fragrance of burlap and dust and unpainted wood, and the odd feeling that I was both there, with my face to the window, watching the ship set sail without me, and simultaneously in bed in my parents’ house, dreaming the event.

5. I should add that my recent visit had a most unsettled and melancholy flavor, not only because of the many changes to the harbor, but because I met there an old man who insisted that no such shed had ever existed on the quay.

6. By which I mean the common mollusk.

7. See FitzRoy, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, Vol. IV.

8. On one such nocturnal walk, I began to imagine that I had in fact died in that shed, and simply did not know it yet. That would have explained the great distance between me and my fellow pedestrians, growing paradoxically larger as I drew closer, and the way in which they seemed to be unaware of my presence, though I stood right before them. Speaking out might have broken the spell—or might have confirmed that my voice no longer reached the living, and so I walked on in silence.

9. Frankly, I cannot be sure the letter was ever mailed.

10. Nettles cost nothing, and can be boiled into a soup.

11. I had told Mr. Potts that no task was too humble. Accordingly, my first assignment was to check the catalogue raisonné against the objects in the collection, starting with the aardvark mounted in the front hall, and moving through four rooms of amphorae, a specimen of the North American beaver, a glass case of Egyptian scarabs, a wall of British heterocera, and so on, through 104 rooms, the cellar, and the attic. The catalogue ran to thirty-two volumes, in quarto, and I went from entry to entry without pause, aware of the passage of time only because of the changing light from the windows, and the periodic chiming from the clock room.

12. Emotions much like that of a shipwrecked man for the piece of timber he rides.

13. Three pewter spoons, a porcelain bowl with a chip, and a small bellows.

14. Her breathing seemed to come not from her chest but from someplace deep inside the world itself.

15. The box contained a sandalwood comb and a piece of jade.

16. It seemed impossible that we separated so completely during sleep, each cocooning back into dreams invisible to the other.

17. On that very afternoon, as I ran for Mrs. Wilkes, the midwife, Darwin waded through the shallow surf onto Chatham Island, in the Galápagos, where he would find his most vivid example of the transmutation of living creatures under pressure of need: the finch.

18. To wit, that the human being develops an obsession for the same reason that a given species of finch develops its particular kind of beak.

19. My outburst had little to do with the events of the morning, the missing button, or the handkerchief. Simply put, there is something maddening in the recognition that after so much careful deliberation one decides nothing, that one is shaped by life as water is shaped by a vase.

20. I should point out that on the day the Beagle docked in Falmouth, I was occupied with the porcelain figurines that Mr. Potts had ordered up from the cellar. I cleaned them with a cloth, and then arranged them on shelves: small, delicate, exquisitely detailed creatures that smiled and cried and held out their hands in a perfect mimicry of feeling. Indeed, their faces and bodies were so wonderfully expressive that they seemed actually to be feeling.

21. The fish would glide around the pond in a wonderfully ceremonious back-and-forth, like thoughts in a philosopher’s head. One had spots like a leopard, and another would habitually raise its snout out of the water, like a dog. My children knelt at the edge, arms in the water up to the elbows, hoping to touch the creatures as they passed, and with each round of the fish, I wondered what it meant that such beings exist: animals that do not breathe air, that think no thoughts, that have no word for water, that never sleep or dream.

22. We stood together before the table of figurines, marveling at the motion hidden in their stillness—the lovers just about to kiss, the clown about to cry—when the clocks started to chime at the other end of the building. I looked down at my children and saw the first traces of their future selves, the adult bones now visible in their faces. My love for them would not hold me safe in the present. I would continue to slip from one moment to the next, farther and farther into the future, till I would finally lose them.

23. As I turned the pages, dutifully reading of finch beaks and seeds, I thought of FitzRoy’s note—Sudden change in plans—and of the cold fragrant damp of the storage shed (that exists nowhere now but in memory), and of the ship gliding out into the harbor, framed in that small grimy window (the ship now also gone). I thought of Darwin’s sober devotion to evidence and argument, and I came to see that we end up knowing nothing of the world but our own thoughts about it.

24. Mr. Potts’s role in the fire that destroyed the collection remains uncertain, as does his true name and ultimate fate.

25. The news of FitzRoy’s suicide propelled me out into the garden, where I spent the day weeding.

26. Of course, no reply was ever expected.

27. To finally meet Darwin would be impossible now that he was dead. I dressed and went out, but the crowds were simply too daunting for an old man, and so I sat on a bench in the park, listening to the bells of Westminster as the body was buried. Of course, the storyteller in me considered that this might be the natural place to end—my life, in essence, a footnote to his. But all good stories resist their conclusions, and that night, in bed, I was seized with a rage so electric I felt as if there were endlessness inside me.