The following excerpt is from Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel, The Museum of Human History. Combining elements of speculative fiction, fables, and magical realism, the novel follows a wide cast of characters who find themselves drawn to Maeve Wilhelm, a young girl who has fallen into a strange comatose state that halts her aging. Described by author Kate Bernheimer as “a documentary retold as a dream retold as a mystery novel,” The Museum of Human History is both wide in its scope and deep in its understanding about our connections with others amid the daily pains we may feel.
Rebekah Bergman’s fiction has been published in Joyland, Tin House, The Masters Review anthology, and other journals. She lives in Rhode Island with her family.
The bloom was all anyone in Jacob’s Circle could talk about that summer. That and the weather. The heat wave, which kept climbing, unbroken, and then the ocean at the beach club, topped with an unappealing film of algae.
The bloom had begun the previous summer, a neighbor learned, but it had been limited to Marks Island proper. This year it had spread and grown worse. It had been triggered by something new introduced to the waters, probably. It wasn’t toxic, this neighbor said. But to be safe, the beach at Jacob’s Circle was closed.
The algae was red and leafy and it twinkled at night. The grown-ups had never seen anything like it. No other local beaches were experiencing it. The way the current flowed, it was all being washed up directly from Grace Beach on Marks Island to them on their quiet cul-de-sac.
Lucky us, the grown-ups said, rolling their eyes at one another.
Through the crest of the heat wave, there was the look of the algae bloom out there; curdling and unrelenting, a sludge.
The neighbors of Jacob’s Circle had to content themselves on Saturdays and Sundays with stretching out not on the sand but at the pool.
Families left their pails and shovels in the garage. They purchased pool toys and got used to the scent of chlorine in their hair and in their laundry hampers.
The kids pushed their inflatable armbands up to their biceps so that the pointy corners pinched into their armpits. The grown-ups hated the noise this made, the terrible squeak of plastic on skin. Like balloons rubbing together. Why did festive things give them the chills?
Each family came with a cooler filled with ice packs, juice boxes, string cheese, sliced carrots or apples, and three or four fish sandwiches. There was universal dislike of crusts among the children, so crusts were done away with. Bodies were painted with sunscreen not fully rubbed in. And the heat and the bloom. It was a nightmarish combination.
If it rained, they would remain poolside. If it thundered, they would pack up and leave. They decided this once and never had to return to the decision. It did not thunder. It did not rain. Nonetheless, they became a poolside community in that moment, for they had made decisions about rules together.
The grown-ups took turns carrying kids on their shoulders while swimming, holding babies in the baby pool, dipping their feet before lifting them high.
At their private beach, the algae kept blooming. In the sky, the clouds kept not raining. At the pool, the grown-ups gave each other nicknames that did not fit them. KelKel, Mimi, Bob- O, Skip.
Skip was the third nickname they had tried on the man. The first names they came up with for him hadn’t stuck.
“Could he be Nell?” someone asked. No, he could not be. That was a woman’s name. “How about just one letter: L?” This didn’t work either, too slight. Someone said, “Lion?” and everyone laughed. At last, the name Skip was suggested. They were all grateful for that even though Skip bore no relation to his real name. He just maybe looked a bit like that old musician.
“You know,” Skip said thoughtlessly, “no one has called me Skip before.”
Actually, someone had called him Skip. She had said it only once, long ago. He remembered this later, lying out on a pool chair, the memory nagging at the base of his skull—why had she called him that? He stood and immersed his feet in the water, and when the memory slipped away again, it was forgotten completely. This time, perhaps for good.
Skip was a widower. His wife had died at the start of the previous summer. Everyone remembered, but danced around mentioning her. He was an entomologist, they learned, and he owned all kinds of rare bugs. They asked him what he thought of the algae bloom.
“I’m just a bug guy,” he said, unhelpfully. “Not a fun-gi.” He laughed at himself. Then he added, “I’m kidding. Algae is not a fungus.”
“Oh?” they said, not listening.
And that got him going. His late wife might have known, he said. She had studied the ancient Marks Island ecosystem and even published some breakthrough research about it. She might have understood the cause of this algae out there.
They’d walked right into that, unwittingly. The late wife.
But yes, he went on, he was a bug guy, and they should all bring their kids to his museum and soon because his larvae had pupated.
“We will,” they told him. But they would not.
His daughters, the twins, they seemed normal. But they acted odd. Or one did. She had begun shadowing her sister, following her and mimicking everything that she did. The other girl never noticed or pretended not to. She didn’t acknowledge this identical person who took an identical towel and wrapped it around herself in the identical way. It was an uncanny scene to behold. Like she had an imaginary friend everybody could see. And it was only one of them who followed the other, right? Or did they sometimes take turns?
When the sun set, a grown-up would appear with a box of popsicles from the snack bar. The kids who came first could pick their colors. Sadly, there were never enough blues.
“Don’t run!” the grown-ups said. “Slow!”
After that, there was no more swimming. The children dripped sugar water onto the pool deck, and the grown-ups talked about summers past when the children were younger and when the babies were no one at all. If there were any sandwiches left, they were divided. The children’s lips and tongues were painted green and orange and red and the coveted blue.
The pool chairs were typical pool chairs. They had adjustable backs and three-inch-wide slats of plastic running horizontally across them. The children played with these slats as they licked their popsicles. They twisted them around and leaned into them to impress marks on their bodies. They traced the imprints of those strips on one another and came to know the feeling of each other’s fingers in the marks on their skin.
There were many children. Almost a classroom full. And so near in age they had to measure it in quarter years to tell who was really the oldest. There was a clear tallest. She was the tallest by several inches. And the shortest—was there something wrong with him? Why was he so small?
The adults could lose track of the children for an entire half hour, guessing they were just in the back of the beach club or else on the grassy patch that they called “the park.” Nobody noticed that they went down to the ocean, which was supposed to be closed now. Nobody saw the games the children played with that red seaweed that had begun washing up everywhere. They chased each other around with it. They wrapped it over their wrists as bracelets or around each other’s necks. They pretended to eat it. “Pretended” being the operative word—except they may have tricked one of the twins into eating it. They never told her it was a joke so they could keep playing the same prank on her. She ate so much of it.
They all ran back to the pool when the popsicles arrived and they were yelled at for running, but nothing else. The seaweed games were a shared secret that summer.
Every day at the beach club ended this same way.
The hot air, heavy and humid, the pool still and empty, the frozen water on sticks bleeding drop by drop onto the grateful ants below. One hundred feet away the waves came in with the algae and the waves rolled out, but the algae remained.
Excerpted from The Museum of Human History by Rebekah Bergman. Published with permission of Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Rebekah Bergman.
The Museum of Human History
By Rebekah Bergman
Tin House Books
Published August 1, 2023
Rebekah Bergman's debut novel, The Museum of Human History, is forthcoming from Tin House in August. Read more: rebekahbergman.com