Authors: Jeffrey Thomas
Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Thomas
All rights reserved.
was originally published as a limited edition hardcover (2006) and trade paperback (2008) by Delirium Books.
Cover photo by the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
“These Are The Exhibits” was originally published as a signed, limited edition of 100 “chapettes” by Camelot Books and Gifts, 2003.
“American Cchinnamasta” first appeared in the e-book
Of Flesh and Hunger
, Double Dragon Publishing, 2003.
All other work is original to this collection.
1. These Are The Exhibits
2. Titles of Poems Not Written
3. Close Enough
4. Sympathetic Identity Disorder
5. American Cchinnamasta
6. Six Hundred and Sixty-Six Women
8. October 32
9. The Mask Play of Hahoe Byeolsin Exorcism
10. Scared Shirtless
(a t-shirt design)
11. The Burning House
12. On Making Clam Chowder
13. Door 7
These Are The Exhibits
The contrast between the glare of winter without and the grotto-like darkness of the museum’s small foyer caused Clara to pause several steps within until her eyes could acclimate. In addition, the wind outside had been so assaultive that, as Clara had walked against it, tears had streamed horizontally from her eyes. She felt slightly disoriented and half blind, until her surroundings found their focus.
The room was circular, with several doorways branching off from it, one apparently leading into a gift shop, and with murky oils of unfamiliar personages bolted into the spaces between them. In a recessed area like a display herself, a woman sat at a wooden counter, her face under-lit as she read from a magazine. Not until Clara stood directly before her did she look up.
“Welcome to the Stewart Museum,” the woman said. A price of admission was given, and paid. During the exchange the woman asked, “Have you been here before?” When Clara said she hadn’t, the woman indicated several receptacles in the front of the desk. “There is a map to the various floors, and a guide to the displays.”
Clara thanked her, but did not take either the map sheet or guidebook. She had never found herself referring to such materials on her visits to other museums. Instead, she walked toward the door that faced opposite the main entrance, guided only by a placard with an arrow and the one word: EXHIBITS.
She found herself in a long, wide gallery with a high ceiling. The balconies of several upper levels ringed it. The overall lighting was muted, with spotlights illuminating the various displays. As she had stepped into the great hall, Clara had immediately been drawn to a large glass showcase only several paces away, in which was mounted the mummified remains of perhaps an antelope, with graceful spiraled horns.
Standing more directly in front of the showcase with its aquarium-like glow, she looked about the sides and bottom for a plaque that might describe the creature. There was none. She realized it would have been wise to have accepted one of the laminated guidebooks after all.
Clara turned her head to watch a young man in a striking red jacket stroll toward her, smiling. She hadn’t noticed him peripherally until he was only a short distance away.
“Is this your first visit to the Stewart Museum?” he asked pleasantly.
“Yes,” Clara told him. “I’m in the city on a business trip.”
“Ahh.” Standing beside her, he turned to face into the showcase, its light heightening the color of his jacket, glowing on his face and reflecting brightly in his eyes. “This animal was a gift from Gardner Stewart to his fiancé Isabella Reyes in 1886. He shot it himself while on a hunting trip to the country of
Bonsu. The technique used to preserve it was experimental for the times, and as you can see it hasn’t fared well over the years. This is a male of the species. The female, somewhat smaller, has wings rather like those of a vulture in appearance.”
“Really? How interesting.”
“Stewart wrote home to Isabella, describing the sight of those delicate animals flapping across the tropical sunsets. He once saw another hunter shoot one of them down, described how it kicked and spasmed in its final throes. He told Isabella that it was one of the most tragic things he had ever witnessed.”
“But did the lack of wings make this specimen’s death any less horrible?” she asked.
The man smiled at her. “Mr. Stewart was a man of contrasts and complexity. The owner of a highly successful firearms manufacturing plant, who collected books of poetry. A man of varied and exotic tastes. This museum was created in his final decade, primarily as a tribute to his wife Isabella. Its contents, grouped in no particular order, consist of the gifts he sent her from around the world in his many travels.”
The red-jacketed man began to drift onwards slowly, and Clara found herself drifting along beside him. He was already pointing out another display case to her, and they took their position before it.
“Isabella had a passionate interest in nature, and that accounts for the great number of botanical and especially biological specimens in the collection.” There was an plaster cast of a woman’s head and upper chest in a case imbedded in the wall, the eyes white and unseeing. Around its slender throat it wore a string of round beads or stones, black with a silvery metallic sheen. “These are the pearls Isabella wore for her wedding, in 1888. Stewart gathered them himself along the coral reef of Santo Oscuro, where local youths taught him to dive. The pearls are formed when the female dentata oyster – twice as large as the male – consumes him utterly after they mate. The nutrients are absorbed from his shell and the flesh within it, and the remains are compressed into this beautiful black sphere.”
“My,” said Clara.
“When the pearl has been extracted, the female oyster is thrown back into the water, so that she might mate again.” The man led her a little further on.
“Did Mrs. Stewart go to, ah, Santo
Oscuro with him?”
“No; Stewart’s business matters called upon him to spend much time away from home.”
“Ah. I know what that’s like,” Clara said, with an exaggerated weary shake of her head.
The man stopped. “Yes, it must be hard for you at times.”
“It was hard for my own fiancé, as well. Former fiancé.” Meeting the young man’s brightly intent gaze, Clara thought better of her candor. “Ah, what are those insects, there?”
Ranked along a shelf, back-lit, were a row of glass jars filled with a fluid the pale green of absinthe. Preserved, or drowned, in each was a large centipede or millipede, some of them of shocking size, and coiled in order to fit. The man in the ruby-bright jacket tapped one of the jars, containing a centipede about three inches in length, with striped bands around its hair-like fringe of legs.
“This creature lived in abundance in a town not far inland from Santo Oscuro. They were imported as a predator to control the many roaches infesting that town, but became far worse of a plague in themselves. Eventually, the centipedes covered almost every horizontal surface in seething hordes, a thick living carpet; they say the hissing and rustling of their bodies sounded like a constant downpour of rain. The townspeople could no longer walk the floors of their houses or streets of their town for fear of being bitten; though an individual’s sting was not serious, a great many stings could be dangerous. Gradually, the townspeople took to creating hammocks to sleep in, up off the floors. This reaction evolved over the course of a few years, until finally heavy wire cables were rigged throughout each house, with the help of men dressed in full rubber suits, who transported huge spools of cable on wagons, their mules wearing high rubber boots smeared with pesticide. These cables were attached from wall to wall, from room to room, so that the occupants could pull themselves along them above the floor, wearing harnesses attached to pulleys. Their bodies were positioned horizontally, so that they would appear to swim along these networks of wire...”
“They were forced to work, sleep, to eat, to pass their wastes while in this web of cables. The elderly, infants in baskets, all were forced to live above the centipedes which thickly covered the floor of every room. These systems of cables existed out of doors, as well. Children would pull themselves along them to their schools, men to their places of employment. When one needed to switch from one line to another, they simply unclipped themselves from one and then clipped themselves to the next. People are adaptable, and this became their normal way of life.”
“They couldn’t kill the things?”
“The dead were quickly replaced by more of the same. The creatures never run out of a food source because of their cannibalistic tendencies. In any case, Stewart spent a few weeks in the town, and while there, rumor has it he visited a brothel where he observed how the employees and their patrons had devised aerial methods to overcome the situation imposed upon them.” The man looked humorously embarrassed as he concluded, “Further rumor has it that he devised a system of cables within his own bedroom back home, as a result of his experiences, but that Isabella had him remove the web not long after.”
They had arrived at an entrance to a short hallway where a flight of stairs ascended to the next level. The man spread his arm invitingly. “There are wonderful displays on the second floor, if you’d like me to show them.”
“Certainly.” Clara nodded at the gentleman, and proceeded him. Where she might otherwise have considered a tour guide’s attentions intrusive, she actually found this young man to be informative and charming.
Greeting them on the landing, sitting in an embroidered arm chair inside a glass cabinet, one leg crossed over the other, was a human skeleton with a pipe in one hand and a book open in its lap. Clara put a hand to her breast in half-mock surprise. The guide chuckled. “These are the remains of Gardner Stewart’s twin brother, Randolph. Randolph ran Gardner’s affairs for him when the other was abroad. There is an odd but unfounded rumor about this skeleton.”
“During Stewart’s frequent absences from home, some claimed that Isabella took on a series of lovers. One of these lovers was said to be Randolph. Some would have us believe that it was not Randolph who died from stomach cancer in 1894, but Gardner who died by poisoning so that Randolph could take on his identity. It seems highly unlikely, because Randolph was hardly much good with business and yet the Stewart Firearms Company continued to prosper...but some still choose to believe that we are looking upon the remains of Gardner Stewart himself.”
“Do you believe this is him?”
“No, I don’t. But there is no denying that during the time of Randolph’s demise, Isabella was seeing other men
whenever her husband was away.” The guide led her out onto the balcony that encircled the central hall and looked down upon its polished floor. Against the walls of the balcony were more exhibits. Their footsteps and voices echoed dimly off the high ceiling. There were no other visitors to be seen, perhaps put off by the harsh conditions outside.
“Ah,” said the man, halting them in front of a huge sphere of amber on a pedestal which lit it from below. There was just one tiny prehistoric fly imbedded inside it, toward the top as if it had almost swum itself free of the sap before it hardened. “In 1896, Gardner and Isabella had a child, Julia. In 1900, the poor child succumbed to an illness contracted from the bite of a fly that had gotten trapped inside one of the packages Stewart sent home in his travels. Distraught, the Stewarts became interested in spiritualism, turned to a variety of people and methods in their attempts to contact their lost daughter. This globe represents one of the means they tried.”
“Like a crystal ball?”
“In a sense, yes. A medium would pore over the sphere, in order to summon an image of Julia Stewart inside it. On one occasion, Stewart claimed to have seen his own face gazing out at him, the mouth moving soundlessly in anguish, but later he wondered if perhaps it was his dead brother he had seen. On another occasion, Isabella alone said she saw a fetus curled within the ball, as if it floated in amniotic fluid. She wondered if this represented Julia, though a year later she miscarried her only other child, and came to believe that the image in the amber sphere had predicted that pregnancy and its loss.”
“How sad,” Clara muttered. Realizing she was resting one hand against her own abdomen, she withdrew it.
The guide appeared not to have noticed as they floated
further along. He did catch her stealing a glance at her wristwatch, however. “Pressed for time?”
“I’m afraid so. I need to be somewhere soon, unfortunately. I got a bit lost looking for this place. This has really been interesting; thank you for your help. I neglected to take a guidebook at the front.”
“It’s just as well. They tend to be very dry. I’ll show you a final highlight of the collection on the third floor if you have a few minutes more.”
“Please do.” She accompanied him to another stairwell, and they ascended to the uppermost level.
“The death of Julia broadened the gulf between the Stewarts, unfortunately. Whether Isabella blamed him, or even herself because of her love of nature that inspired these exotic trophies, we don’t know...but in correspondence, we see that Stewart squarely laid the blame at his own feet. He also confessed to friends that he should have sent Randolph abroad in his stead, for most of his far ventures, because of the difficulties that had arisen between himself and his wife as a result of these long excursions.”