The Life's Work of a Botanist

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt


Friendship People of Color Fiction

There was nothing more unsettling than a quiet room, so the only logical way to solve that would be to blast sea shanties through the speakers of the greenhouse. That’s at least what Yolani thought as she swung her hips to the beat, writing quickly on her clipboard. Her newest pet project had just grown an identical twin out of its stem and they were now not only growing in tandem, they seemed to be locked in a competition. Whenever one would grow an inch, the other would grow two. When one began to sprout a new leaf, the other would change colors. It was fascinating, and it almost seemed comical as she wrote her findings.

She’d been told hundreds of times that her chicken scratch was illegible by her multiple interns, but since she had 2 PhD’s and each of them were undergraduates in college she paid them no mind. She hummed along to the song as she noticed that at the pace she wrote, they would complain even more. She was a scientist, not a calligraphy artist. They could deal with trying to interpret her version of cursive and chaos.

Yolani whisked the report off her clipboard as the song reached its climax, and she thumped the large packet down on the table in front of her, right on top of the stack that almost reached her waist. An intern would be coming in later to file her research by project, date, and urgency so she would leave that up to them. If she remembered right, the schedule named Sasha as her latest victim, and her smile grew when she thought of the loudest complainant seeing her mess. Test tubes of dirt were scattered everywhere, labeled only with her “chicken scratch”, reports were stacked in various piles, leaves were pinned to the cork board with sticky notes and strings crossing in every direction, and several abandoned coffee cups were laying around leaving rings on the metal tables.

With a grimace, Yolani tried to pick up a half empty coffee cup only to discover it was stuck to the table. “What the hell?” She yanked as hard as she dared, watchful of the milky brown liquid sloshing in the cup.

She would throw the cup across the room if any of her reports were damaged. But it only took one yank for the cup to pry free, strings of sap falling between it and the table’s surface. Rolling her eyes, the botanist twirled the thin lines of sap around her finger before they fell on her papers and walked across her workspace to the sink. The mug landed with a clink, next to all of the other abandoned dishes she had yet to clean. Another wince, as she realized she may have been too caught up in her research to realize just how many days she had spent locked up in this greenhouse.

The creaking door went unheard as Yolani continued cleaning her work space of junk. The next sea shanty up on the list was even louder than the previous one, shouting something about ale and dancing until the sailors threw up. In fact it was so loud, that the tap on her shoulder caused her to jump so bad she dropped the cup in her hands. The contents went spilling all over the floor, pale brown liquid and the shards of whatever mug she had been holding crashed to her feet as she spun around. “Jesus Christ! Are you trying to kill me?”

The culprit stood about a food away from the jumpy woman with their hands up in a defensive position. “No! But if your music weren’t so loud you woulda heard me!”

Yolani ripped her phone from her pocket and paused the song, before leaning against the nearest table with a hand over her heart. “I swear to God Olive, you ever do that again and I am taking your key.”

“But if you take my key, how am I ever going to bring you lunch when you overwork?” Her friend smiled, holding up a brown paper sack.

Yolani looked at them flatly, “I’ll DoorDash.” She took the food anyway, but still left the scowl.

Olive stuck their tongue out at her before wandering around Yolani’s so-called lab. It was really just a work space set up in the corner of an already full greenhouse that was fit to burst. “Remind me again how that grant is coming for an expansion?” They asked as they took a bag of carrots out of their pocket and began crunching.

“How do you think it’s going?” Yolani growled as she aggressively bit into her veggie wrap.

A snort sounded as Olive bent to inspect the botanist’s latest mutation, “I thought so. You haven’t talked about it much, so I had a few ideas in motion. One, you’re too stressed, plain and simple. Two, you don’t think it’s ready, which you never do since you’re annoying like that and constantly think you need a hundred trials to prove whatever it is you’re doing. Three, you didn’t actually have anything for the expo tomorrow, which also doesn’t sound like you because you have a million and one experiments going at any given time. And finally four, I did something to piss you off so you didn’t want to talk to me about your research, which is the most unlikely because I’m a peach and you love me too much.”

As smart as she believed herself to be, Yolani’s head was spinning. “Uh, I think I’d pick one, two, and four?”

This time a gasp, “what! How did I piss you off?”

“You ate my last slice of pecan pie I was saving as my victory dessert tonight.”

“How was I supposed to know you were saving it!” They huffed and crossed their arms petulantly.

Yolani rolled her eyes, “Maybe the sticky note I left on it?” She griped around a mouthful of lettuce and shredded cheese.

Olive waved their hand dismissively, “it fell off.”

The scientist swallowed the last of her lunch, folded the bag, and placed it in a tray of its twins. Whenever Olive brought her lunch, the bags would be saved, brought back to their apartment, and reused the next time. “Right like the last hundred sticky notes that I’ve placed on food I specifically wanted to eat myself. I think I should just start eating shrimp cocktails for my treats.”

“Are you trying to kill me?” The unimpressed tone gave away that Yolani had made this threat before.

She shrugged, “you’re the one taking my food. I might as well use your allergy to my advantage.”

“You do that and your whole greenhouse will be magically set on fire.”

It was now Yolani’s turn to gasp as Olive smugly leaned against the counter. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Another shrug, “try me. I get a mysterious rash and 35 years of work goes down the drain. Or I guess the better phrase would be up in flames?”

Yolani picked up a plant sitting on the table and cradled the pot to her chest, “leave my babies out of this.”

“And you leave the shrimp in the store.”

“You know I’d never poison you.”

“And you know I’d never ruin your career.”

Yolani didn’t hesitate to fire back, “you’re a pyromaniac I know you wouldn’t hesitate if it meant a pretty fire.”

She was referring to when they were in high school and Olive spent hours in the science lab sticking wooden splints in different chemicals and watching the colors that would burn. They were now a pyrotechnician at the local stadium, one of the best in the field, but Yolani never missed a chance to stab her friend’s obsession with fire. “Funny how a professional arsonist and a tree-hugger became best friends.” Olive commented absently as perched on the edge of the sink.

Yolani bent to pick up the ceramic pieces that had been forgotten. The coffee had already mixed with the water constantly running across the greenhouse floor so she didn’t have to worry about mopping the mess. “I believe you needed help in science and an agriculture elective and I was the only tutor that didn’t run away screaming when you played with your mom’s lighter.”

“It helped me focus!”

The pieces fell in the trash can with a crash, “it almost set off the fire alarm too.”

Olive shoved off the sink and moved toward the door, “you know, it’s been a few days since you’ve been out.” They talked as if Yolani couldn’t tell that she was in bad need of sleep and a shower.

“Yes, I am hyper aware that I smell as if I’m trying to grow a new strain of bacteria. But I can’t help that I was trying to get a breakthrough before I have to talk to the people that are dangling my current job in my face. They’d love nothing more than to get rid of me and hire some new upstart with a pretty face. Or better yet, a man. I have no time to slack off, especially with the expo tomorrow.”

“You have like 15 interns at your beck and call! Just have one of them keep track of all this!”

Yolani bent to examine her brain-child, the vines curling around each other and the color a brighter magenta than it had appeared yesterday. She didn’t know if she was tired and everything seemed too bright or if the pigment had actually changed again. Olive had a point, like they usually did. She hadn’t been home in a few days and she couldn’t tell anymore if the smell was the fertilizer or her. Her glasses were filthy and her bangs were stringy with sweat and neglect. She hung her head and scrubbed her face with a dirty hand, “fine, if I call Sasha in early and go home will you get off my back?”

Olive grinned, “absolutely.”

She regretted her career choice. As Yolani stood in the wings of the exhibition stage she believed she had made a huge mistake. Her palms were sweating profusely, her head was spinning, and her stomach was revolting against the avocado toast she had forced down her throat for breakfast. Somewhere in the audience, Olive was waiting to support her, and probably a few of their other friends, but she could only think about the panel of judges waiting to hear about her recent breakthrough, and if she deserved more funding to continue her research. She knew she did, Olive knew she did, and all of her interns were banking on the fact that she did, otherwise they’d be out of a job. 

“You look a little nervous, Adabooboo. Think you’ll lose your funding?”

Yolani grit her teeth and spun around, Dr. Grant stood behind her looking like the cat that got the canary, or in their case, the botanist to get the funding. “It’s Abadun, and I’m surprised you can actually conduct any botanical research if you can’t even remember a colleague’s name.”

His mouth turns up in a sneer, “I wouldn’t call you a colleague. More like an undeserving illegal immigrant who had been relying on her gender to get her through her career, only to realize that as she’s aged she’s lost her only edge.”

All his insult warranted was a raised eyebrow, and maybe a quick retort. “My class rank was higher than yours, Grant. So was my GPA, and I graduated with very little debt due to my published research and royalties I earned. I don’t see how you can use that argument when really you’re the one coasting on your father’s money.”

The sneer wavered as he tried to recover, “you’re going to regret that Abudabi.”

Applause from the direction of the stage signaled the previous presenter’s end. Yolani was next, and surprisingly this conversation eased her anxiety. “I highly doubt it, since my research will earn more funding while you fall deeper and deeper into the hole of academic embarrassment.”

Dr. Grant’s reply was cut short when the exhibition director flew into the wing. “Abadun, you ready?”

She nodded, and without another glance at Grant, she stalked onto the stage while her interns wheeled in all of her models and experiments. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Dr. Yolani Abadun. I am the Lead Researcher for Cornell University’s Scientific Botanical center and I have made a massive breakthrough in the field of genetically modified plants. Before now, it was unimaginable to take a plant’s DNA, and change it to breed a whole new species. But this breakthrough will lead into the world of human DNA modification, planet regrowth, and tropical rainforest regeneration. Humans have struggled for years to unlock the ability to genetically modify the genetic makeup of a fetus before in vitro. With my experiments, we are one step closer to eliminating debilitating hereditary diseases and mutations before a fetus has even reached the mother’s womb. But what else could something like this achieve?

“At this moment, the planet is losing rainforest vegetation at an alarming rate. Already we have lost half of our global rainforests in a century and the rate has increased, but with my genetically enhanced strain of tropical trees, their growth time has been sliced in half. Their carbon dioxide intake has tripled and their oxygen output has followed. This has revolutionized the battle against deforestation, and in turn, climate change. Imagine a world where climate change is no longer the issue at the forefront of our society. Imagine students focusing less on the end of the world and more on the research that could change the lives of millions. That is what my research is leading to, and that is why funding from this institution will put Cornell in every scientific and political journal on the planet as the university that produced such an ingenious experiment.”

The applause after her final world was deafening. But Yolani didn’t let that get to her head. She did a quick bow before slowly making her way off the stage with her interns and her research. She hadn’t even made it off the stage before Olive barreled into her, smelling faintly of a summer night campfire. “THAT WAS THE BEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD! YOU DID THAT?” 

Yolani pried her roommate off of her, “yes, yes this is what my years of research and experimentation has culminated to.”


They were shushed by at least 7 other scientists waiting in the wings for their own presentations. But all of them looked significantly more nervous now that Yolani’s research had been revealed. She hoped it was enough. “I’m starving, you wanna get outta here and get something to eat?”

Olive nodded enthusiastically, their many earrings jangling noisily. 

The following day, Yolani opened her mail to reveal a foreboding letter from Cornell’s financial department. You impressed us, make this count. With a check for one million dollars to be used however her research required it. Yolani almost passed out.

March 17, 2022 18:13

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David Hampton
18:28 Mar 24, 2022

Hi Madelyn, I was asked to comment on your story by the Critique Circle. Please don't take offense, but frankly, I thought it was pretty rambling and could have been strategically edited to about half its length toward the goal of making the story more interesting. One of the important objectives in writing is to create a protagonist that is likable, or at least interesting. I don't believe that was accomplished here. Probably most concerning was the flagrant grammatical misuse of pronouns. When you first referred to Olive as them, I tho...


Madelyn Tomson
14:30 Mar 28, 2022

Hi David, I don't take offense at all to your critique about the length of my writing. I have a lot of trouble shortening my writing and I tend to add too much detail, this was my first submission to a writing contest, and I was mostly trying to simply get my feet wet and get over my nerves of submitting my work for the first time. That being said, I wasn't trying to be politically correct, I simply thought adding a non-binary character would be a nice addition since I haven't seen many writing pieces featuring non-binary characters. Yes, I ...


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Syd Johnson
15:11 Mar 28, 2022

Hi David. If you didn't know, when the gender of a character is left unknown (or a person) they/them is used. For example, someone has lost their phone. Being a concerned person, one might say, "Who's phone is this? I hope *they* find it." Olive's gender identity is hidden in this story, where they/them pronouns are necessary. Best regards, you nincompoop, imbecile, son of a bitch, monkey brain. -Sydney


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