What We Know About Roots


This is what Principia knew about centipedes—

class: Chilopoda; order: myriapoda;

from the Latin prefix centi-, “hundred”, and pedis, “foot”

they used to live in her basement

Principia discovered the centipedes one autumn afternoon when she walked down to the cellar. The sun was still warm and cast a burnt glow through the leaves while the wind bit through her light cardigan. She sat on a white wicker chair on the veranda and wrote a fairy story about overgrown hedges and bicycles and turrets made of red brick and gingerbread lattice-work.

When the wind became too cold, she took her papers, her pen and a flashlight and trotted inside, down the rickety staircase to the basement, where her father kept anything that he didn’t think was worth saving, but he had not—or could not—put in the garbage. It smelled wet and dirty, like a cave. A single fluorescent light hung from a wooden rafter in the center of the room, but the metal chain that powered it off and on had long since disappeared. She turned on the flashlight and spun the light around. Dust particles floated in the cone-shaped beam. Principia focused on the cardboard boxes and bookshelves tucked in the farthest corner from where she stood. A folding chair leaned against the wall. The boxes and shelves in the corner were constructed into a fort. The shelves formed a wall on two sides; the boxes a third; and the crumbling cement of house’s foundation the fourth. Principia pulled the folding chair into the center and sat down next to a small house lamp that she’d salvaged from another part of the basement—a garish porcelain thing sculpted into bright pink flowers, green leaves and blue birds with an oversized cream lamp shade—and ran an extension cord to the outlet in the wall near the staircase.

This was where Principia preferred to imagine her stories. She found everything in these shelves that she needed for inspiration: old magazines from her dead mother’s college days and her father’s high school yearbooks—he wore a football jersey in some photographs; a suit jacket and tie in other. In one he hugged a girl who did not look like her mother.

Principia did not attend school. Her father had received permission from the state to homeschool her, and so he had. She learned to read when she was four years old, and by the time she was six she breezed through Austen, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky and wrote informed research reports on each. Her father kept the course outlines in the study and let her access the computer to submit her assignments. Principia was an agile student and finished the state curriculum months before; now, her father curated his own.  Still, she finished her work with hours to spare. It was those hours that she spent exploring her parents’ past. She was fascinated by the photographs in the yearbooks. In one of her mother’s, the girls wore gowns with sashes and bows and their hair was curled and sprayed like Jackie Kennedy’s.

It was there where Principia discovered the first centipede. It was not very big—smaller than her pinky finger and skinny. It was orange and seemed to scream as it ran across the white page and black text while Principia followed its trail with her flashlight. She did not drop the book in shock, only shivered a bit before she clamped the pages shut.

The book was old, like everything in the house, even the house itself. It was built in colonial times. Principia’s maternal ancestors bought the house on auction from a Tory who returned to England after his losses in the war. By the time her mother and father were married, the house had been passed down through her mother’s family for generations. Her mother’s parents were killed in a car crash, and so the house and everything in it then went to their daughter. After Principia’s mother died, her father continued to live there because no one told him not to.

At some point, the small, cramped rooms had been remodeled. The first floor rooms had cathedral ceilings and the walls proclaimed themselves in a bright yellow. In the entrance, Principia’s father placed a display case with the first fossil that her mother had dug up while on expedition to Canada. That was before she married Principia’s father.

“What kind of scientist was she?” asked Principia, at the time. “I thought they worked in laboratories.”

Her father had ruminated on the major theories of biological anthropology, but Principia tuned out his voice.

Principia cracked open the yearbook. The insect lay flat and unmoving in between the pages. She put the volume back on the shelf and pulled out a familiar old notebook. Principia traced her mother’s name on the inside cover, underneath which was written: “Private thoughts, do not read.” Principia thumbed through the yellowed pages.

7 Oct

Feast day. Sr. Mary St. Joseph gave me detention, have to research my patron saint.

There were other entries like that one, and Principia tucked herself into the folding chair. She sat for some time before a movement in the corner of her left eye distracted her from the page. A centipede, much larger than the last, scurried across the cement floor. This one was as long as her hand, and its body was thick, like a permanent marker, with alternating stripes of black and red. She nearly screamed, that time—she hadn’t realized they could grow so large. Its antennae floated ahead of its many-legged body, testing the hard surface, much like she’d seen a blind man do once with his cane on the sidewalk.

Principia took the stairs two at a time to the first floor, where she ran into the study. The computer was at her father’s desk, but he wouldn’t be home for hours. She booted up the machine and typed “centipede” in the Internet search engine. Photos appeared on the screen—the subject looked similar in size and coloring to the creature in the yearbook, and in her mother’s notebook. The encyclopedia entry informed her that the species was widely considered a household pest, though they ate spiders and smaller bugs.

Principia shuddered. She clicked through the entry, studied the names and classifications. Centipede fossils dated to over four hundred million years ago and shared a common ancestor with one of the oldest known land animals. The light filtered through the heavy drapes in the study—it changed with the hour, though Principia did not notice.

Principia’s mother had been a prominent scientist and her father was a prominent drunk who masqueraded as a mathematician. Her mother wanted to name her Marie—after Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, the first female to win the Nobel Prize because of her research with radioactivity. Her father—who brought a bottle of Irish whiskey into the hospital and finished it in the lobby during the thirteen and a half hours his wife was in labor—bellowed at the nurse as she began to fill out the name card. Later, her father explained to her that she was named for the Principia Mathematica, which, he told her, was quite profound.

Principia did not remember her mother and her father did not speak of her now that she had been dead for so many years. The small town where they lived depended on the reputation of the university, where her father taught advanced mathematics.

When she first discovered her mother’s notebook in the basement, Principia was puzzled by the term “patron saint.” Her father was not religious and had never taken his daughter to church. As she did with the centipedes, Principia turned to the computer in her father’s study, where she devoured theological websites and the names of the Catholic saints that her mother must have memorized when she was a girl.

When she returned to the basement, Principia fingered the moldy spines on the bookshelves until she found a biography of Marie Curie wedged between The Catcher in the Rye and the Oresteia. She skimmed through the introduction to the first chapters, which summarized briefly the physicist’s formative years in Warsaw. Principia opened an old atlas and paged through until she found “Poland”—the country looked much larger than she had previously thought. She referred back to the biography, which explained that at the time of Marie’s birth, Poland had been a kingdom ruled by Russia, and its shape probably looked much different than the map she used. She found a map of the European continent and traced a line from Warsaw to Paris, where Marie met her husband Pierre and formed the theory of radioactivity that earned her a Nobel Prize.

Principia settled down with the two books and used her pen and paper to make notes.

Marie Curie was born in Poland.

She fell in love in Paris.

She is my patron saint.

Afterwards, she wrote her own report, and kept it tucked in a box in the basement with her mother’s things:

Marie Curie first learned physics and mathematics from her father. Her father and grandfather and others on her family tree had been unsuccessful Polish freedom fighters. Each time Poland lost the struggle to be independent from whomever owned her—most recently, Russia—the family lost more of its fortune, so that by the time Marie was born, her family was quite poor.

They were good students. Marie’s father was a teacher in Warsaw and kept a laboratory until the Russians banned it from school. Afterwards, he brought the equipment home and instructed all five of his children, including Marie, in the scientific method. The Russians would not leave him alone—they fired him from his teaching post, which forced him to take on work that did not pay enough to feed the family.

When Marie was twelve, her mother died.

 Her father was an atheist.

Marie wasn’t allowed to go to university because she was a girl, so she studied at home and worked as a governess until she had learned enough and earned enough to move somewhere that would allow her to study what she wanted. She studied with a secret university in Poland—it taught students about Polish culture and had to be kept a secret from the Russian police. Marie’s first love was the son of the family who she was a governess for—a mathematician. He loved her until his parents said that she was too poor to marry. Marie left the house and found work with another family, though her heart was broken.

Then, she went to France, where she became a great physicist and met Pierre Curie.

Marie Curie made many notable discoveries in her life, especially that of the theory of radioactivity. She also discovered two elements—polonium named for her native country, Poland, and radium—and developed a technique for isolating radioactive isotopes.

She died due to a lifetime of exposure to radioactivity, but she didn’t know that then.

Principia never asked her father if her mother attended church when she became a scientist. She did not think that he would wholly approve of the idea of a patron saint, unless it was a derivation of a mathematical truth.

Some days later, the weather became too crisp to sit outdoors. To combat the frigid temperatures below the house, she commandeered the space heater from beneath her father’s desk in the study. It now shared an outlet with the repurposed lamp. Her hand cramped. She put down the pencil and rubbed her eyes. It was difficult to read in her basement corner for long periods of time. The light bulb flickered a dull orange color, which meant it would die soon. Principia did not know where her father kept the spares.

She did not write a story today; instead, she had taken a blank notebook from the hall closet and began to keep a journal. Principia did not think that she had anything of particular interest to write, but she kept open her mother’s diary to the date while she wrote. It gave her a tingling feeling to realize that her mother had lived and wrote on the same day many years before.

Principia flipped the page to her mother’s notebook and screamed. A centipede stretched its body horizontally from the right side of the page to the left—parallel to her name—and its legs moved like an accordion as it rushed across the paper on to Principia’s hand.

She dropped the book and flapped her hand, but the centipede crawled up her arm, beneath the loose cotton sleeve of her shirt. The legs and antennae tickled her skin. She shivered and screamed and flapped her hand and made such a racket that her father upstairs opened the door and yelled: “Principia?”

Principia ran up the stairs to where he stood. “Get it off!”

Her father saw the centipede on Principia’s throat, and stared.

“Get it off!”

Father and daughter performed an odd dance of waving arms and jumping jacks while the centipede got tangled in the dark web of Principia’s long hair. He grabbed a feather duster from the hall closet and brushed it against Principia’s scalp, while Principia scratched her head with both hands. She flipped her head upside down and shook her skull back and forth—all the while she squealed and screeched and squawked.

The bizarre two-step continued until the centipede tumbled, at last, from Principia’s head. Her father stomped on it with his shoe and ground its body into the polished hardwood floor. Principia felt her lungs balloon in her chest. She gulped air and struggled to breathe.

“What happened?” he asked.

Principia stared at the carcass on the floor.

“Answer me,” he said.

Principia knew that tone of voice—it slurred a bit, with anger and whiskey.

“Damn it. What the hell happened here?”

Principia bit her lip and felt the tears pile up behind her eyes.

Her father ran down the basement stairs. His bathrobe flapped behind him like a pair of black wings.

Principia rubbed her arm. She heard the cardboard collapse and shred and ceramic shatter against the cement floor.

“I’m calling a goddamn exterminator in the morning,” said her father. “Get these goddamn bugs out of my house.”

Principia clutched her arms around her chest and counted the steps—one, two, three, twelve, fifteen, twenty-one, bedroom door, lift the comforter, wrap it around, safe in a cocoon.

The moon drifted in through a crack in the curtains. Its gray light illuminated the dust while the thumps from the basement vibrated through the foundation and rattled the beams of the floor. Principia’s eyes would not close, so she watched the dust dance in the air and tried to count—but there were too many.

The following Tuesday, an exterminator was scheduled to come to the house. Principia had been instructed to stay out of his way. To make sure that she followed through with her promise, her father took her to campus with him.

They did not speak in the kitchen, as Principia poured herself a bowl of cereal and her father buttered the toast. Nor did they speak in the car, during the eleven minutes that it took to back the Taurus down the driveway, through town, and into his faculty parking spot. When the elevator reached the third floor of the mathematics building, her father went into his office.  Principia took a seat on the low-hung couch in the department lobby and went to sleep.

Thus passed the whole of the day—father and daughter on frigid terms, while the administrative assistant tried to ask Principia if she had a boyfriend.

They repeated the morning’s routine after her father’s final class. He drove through a fast-food restaurant and ordered two hamburgers for himself, then waited for Principia.

“I’ll have a milkshake,” she said. “And French fries.”

When they arrived home, Principia went into the basement. She had decided to revise her report on Marie Curie to include more information about her time in Paris. Her father watched her open the basement door, then he walked into the study. Principia grabbed the flashlight and made her way down the unstable staircase. She flipped the switch as she maneuvered her way, balancing herself with one hand against the crumbling wall of concrete. She panned the light toward the fort, but the place where she’d arranged the bookshelves was gone. The chair, the lamp, all of the boxes of books—everything was missing. Principia walked over to where it should have been, but there was no trace that there had ever been anything in that corner—even the space heater was gone. She ran up the steps, two at a time, to the study, where her father sat at his desk, grading papers.

“Where are they?” she asked.

He looked up and pushed his glasses down his nose. He held her gaze for a few moments before he answered. “Gone.”


“It was trash,” he said.

“Those were treasures.”

“King Tut’s tomb is a treasure,” he said. “The Rosetta Stone is a treasure. The stone heads on Easter Island are treasures.” He sipped from the mug that he held in his hand. “The stuff in the basement was junk that I kept for too long.”

Principia wanted to say that those things didn’t belong to him, that they weren’t his to throw away, that her mother belonged to her too, but she didn’t. She marched up to his desk and snatched the paper he held from his hand. “I’m going to tear this up,” she said. “If you don’t tell me what you did with everything.”

He removed his glasses from his face and placed the mug on the desk. Principia realized, for the first time, that he appeared older than he ever had before. His black hair was frosted with gray and the firm skin that was so admired by his female colleagues was wrinkled. There were dark lines beneath his eyes, as though he had not been sleeping.

“Sit down,” he said.

Principia tightened her jaw and didn’t blink. “No.”

“You are going to place that paper back into my hands and you are going to sit down.”

“Over my dead body,” she said.

He stood up. For one tense moment, Principia thought that he might meet her challenge. He put one hand on the desk and leaned over so that so that she could smell the hamburger he’d eaten in the car. She tore one small, single corner before his hand soared through the hair and cracked against the wood.

This is what Principia would remember about after—

the light in the foyer where the museum case housed her mother’s fossil, how it collected like pools in the spaces between the bones; the weight as she wrapped her arms around the sides—it was much heavier than she expected, and she wiggled it inch-by-inch from the table into her hands, which were damp—her right hand slipped and the case slid down her torso before she lifted her knee to prop it up (“Principia,” said her father, before he emerged in the doorway to see the ripe red face of his daughter.)

the taste of salt on her lips that dripped from the thin, damp path on her cheek and the strain that ripped through her biceps, triceps, deltoids, like a broken shard of glass; she panted and shuddered with the superhuman effort to lift the hundred-pound glass case above her head

the suspended silence, as though in a space vacuum, as father and daughter watched the Hesperonychus (class: Reptilia; order: Saurischia) surrender to the laws of gravity and collide like a meteor to the floor


Mary E. Coyle writes, reads, and lives in suburban Philadelphia, Pa. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing—Fiction from Arcadia University and a B.A. in Journalism and Spanish from Temple University. “What We Know About Roots” is her first published story.

Mary E. Coyle
Mary E. Coyle writes, reads, and lives in suburban Philadelphia, Pa. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing—Fiction from Arcadia University and a B.A. in Journalism and Spanish from Temple University. "What We Know About Roots" is her first published story.