by Judith Shantz
1952 words

Josiah Disparais Walker fancied himself a polymath, a renaissance man. That might be a bit grandiose. Perhaps jack-of-all-trades would be more realistic.

But truth be told, Josiah was, indeed, very clever and definitely a self-made man. His only limiting factor was that he was far too easily distracted to ever stick with one project for any length of time.

Oh, I certainly had a thing for him, right from when I was first a twinkle in his eye. He was so imaginative, so big-hearted and big-mustachioed. I like men like that. Burly. Assertive. Plenty of facial hair. Like that new man, Teddy. Reminds me a bit of Mr. Roosevelt. I certainly felt a spark for that Teddy in my day.

I was broken-hearted when Mr. Walker locked my doors and went away. I had wanted to provide him a home, to watch little Josiahs and Josephines running up and down my grand staircase.

But in due time, he did return. With that woman on his arm. The Lady Lydia. Of course, she wasn’t a real lady, this being the United States and all. He just called her that to charm her. I admit she was as pretty as a china doll and he paid plenty to keep her dressed like one. Layers of hand tucked petticoats and velvet ribbons woven into her sleeves. She could act demure, she could smile and blush, but when no one was watching, her eyes shifted shrewdly looking for some advantage. Not at all attractive in a real lady.

Josiah brought masons and woodworkers and carvers. He threw open the doors and proceeded with the work of finishing his prized building project. But the Lady Lydia was having none of it and, putting her pretty, kidskin boot down firmly, demanded a home in the country on acres of land—something a little more like the plantation she thought she deserved.

***

Josiah had been an optimistic, curious teenager when he left home to join the Union army. He was not a stranger to a musket and believed he could hold his own against those seditionists. On his second reconnaissance he was lucky enough to take a ball to the shoulder—lucky because he was quickly pulled back behind the lines, lucky because that probably saved his life.  By the time the wound had healed he had made a reputation for himself as a young man who could fix, invent, or jury-rig anything. “Get me Walker” was a frequent call from an officer’s tent. He drilled and pounded and wired broken pistols and Gartling guns into something serviceable again and even fashioned a workable leg for some poor lad who had lost his own. In short, he had made himself indispensible in camp.

In 1866, he mustered out with pay and decided to follow his middle name down some new highways and by-ways—he would “disparais” into the vast open lands of the west. By the time he reached the Pacific Ocean he had become a new man—competent, well-informed, optimistic and a great admirer of the native peoples he had met along the way.

The rest of his tale is in the archives. He had made quite a bit of money buying and selling timber, then grew restless and journeyed to Seattle to ply his trade there. However, finding that market nasty and cut-throat, he started over. He took passage on a steamer heading up the northern straits to Alaska and he spent a year living among the Haida on Queen Charlotte Island. It was there that he met the wood carvers whom he would later bring to work on his home.

For a few years it appeared as though he had conquered his restlessness and found domestic tranquility. He appeared in town regularly to supervise the building work or to escort his lovely wife to the theater. Lydia did her wifely duty and produced a son.

And that began three more generations of Josiahs. All were serious men with serious careers and each inherited characteristics of the patriarch. They read widely and worked hard and loved generously. They were gentle men who were easily overcome by a pretty face. In matters of the heart they all chose unwisely.

***

The Lady Lydia, pretty, petty, and manipulative, one day simply disappeared. Her child was still a toddler and her husband was overwrought. Volunteer search parties combed the county for weeks. Every lawman west of the Cascades showed up at one time or another. Some suspected foul play. Some even suspected Josiah himself but he was so stricken with grief, and looked so ragged, and everyone knew that he had adored her.

For a while he lost himself in building. He created all the dioramas. Then he started the finishing work on the second floor, occasionally doing some of the wood work himself but more often devising various hinges and locks. He seldom seemed to eat and the flesh melted from his strong frame.

“Well, ‘ave ya seen it now, Billy?”

“No – what ?”

“He’s got some new gimcrackery thing he wants to use. We haveta build some kinda fake walls up where those dumb balconies are.”

“What for?”

“Hells if I know.”

The carvers sat apart, pretending they didn’t understand English. They had their own suspicions. But Mr. Josiah had been good to them. Silence was their specialty.

Then, after about a year, Josiah snapped out of it—just like that. “About time” said the townspeople. I have to admit I wondered. It was true that Lydia wasn’t any good for him but—not a clue? There must have been something else. I always thought he knew more than he let on and I confess I lost some trust in him.

***

So far, Catherine was the end of that line, a shy woman wondering what part she could play in the great family saga.

She set out the sign reading: “Welcome. Please note that school tours are currently in session.” She doubted that she need bother. So far there had never been anyone from the general public show up on a Wednesday morning during school tours, especially a sleety November morning. Never, until now that is, when Pete Masters trudged up the steps, pulled open the huge oak door and went looking for his wife. He had heard that she was often at the museum. But doing school tours? Not very likely, he thought sourly. He headed to the office looking for the director.

Catherine had divided the children into two groups. A teacher and two parents would take a group to one of the adjacent wings and conduct a hands-on workshop. Catherine would lead the other group to the second floor.

She always saved this part of the tour for herself. It was her favorite. She gathered her thirty students at the bottom of the grand staircase. She invited them to put their hands on the newel posts to feel how smooth they were. Almost as if they were machined metal. She showed them a plane and a chisel and explained how those were the only tools the woodworkers had in those days. She mentioned that they would see a demonstration later of how the tools were used.

The children were starting to fidget and Catherine knew she would need to move them on quickly. She invited them to follow her up the stairs and she was gratified to see that a few of them ran their hands along the banisters, admiring their sleek beauty.

At the top of the stairs, Catherine turned and had the children spill out into the grand ballroom. This was where she would build anticipation.

“This is the second floor where we keep all the creatures, from dinosaur skeletons to wolves and birds and even little field mice. They are set in glass cases in settings that show where they lived when they were alive”.

Somewhere behind her there was a soft oomph—a sigh or an audible sound of disgust. She paid it no attention. She was used to this being a living, breathing building.

“This room is the grand ballroom. All along its walls and down the halls you will see decorative wood panels, carved by members of the Haida and Tlingit tribes. Mr. Walker, who built this museum, was very friendly with the tribes of the Coast Salish people and invited their artisans to do work on the building many years ago.”

A hand shot up from a little girl. “What’s an artisan?”

“It’s someone who does art, Dummy,” stage-whispered a boy beside her before Catherine could answer the question.

“That’s right,” said Catherine, “but it can be many different kinds of art, not just drawing and painting. In this case it was wood-carving. Try to see how many different animals, birds and fish you can identify in the carvings.”

.

The boy pushed past Catherine to get closer to the panel on the wall behind her. “I see an orca and a salmon.”

Another child rushed up to see. “And a pelican!”

Catherine was losing control of this group and partly because she could no longer ignore the noises she could hear above the children’s chattering.

What were these noises? What were the faint rumblings? Was there a fault line running underneath the museum?  Something seemed on the move.

A little girl had reached another panel and her fingers were working the smooth, intricate lines of a pod of orcas. “Look, Ms Walker. Look at the way they seem to be chasing each other.” She cupped her small hand around the leading whale in the carving as though she was inviting it to turn another way.

And it did.

At first there were the audible gasps emanating from the dioramas down both corridors. Then the metallic sound of a tumbler falling into place. A pause. Then the screech of sprung mechanisms all through the grand ballroom and clicking sounds from down the halls on either side.

The children seemed more excited than nervous but Catherine was terrified. A flight of seabirds actually appeared to become airborne as a panel lifted up to reveal a set of drawers behind. A huge groaning, splintering sound filled the air from above. Catherine pulled on some reserve of inner calm and started ushering the children back toward the stairs—only to see Lindsay running up the stairs toward her, accompanied by a man she had never seen before.

Pete, Lindsay, and Catherine spent the next minutes rushing the children to safety, carrying the ones who were frozen in fear. Plaster dust rained down the stairwell. Anxious parents and teachers with clipboards, checking off names, tried not to show their own anxiety.

Once the noise had quieted down, a couple of the students started shouting, “Cool. Way cool.” The adults laughed a bit nervously but every one of them had different words ringing in their ears—‘potential lawsuits’. Lindsay stepped aside and introduced Pete to Catherine as matter-of-factly as she could, as though this was the way people normally made new acquaintances.

Catherine smiled shyly at Pete.

“Pete is Antonia’s husband – you know – Toni from the Board.”

Pete shook her hand, then held it for a second. What a shame, she thought. She couldn’t quite imagine this nice man as married to that rapacious woman.

Both Lindsay and Catherine had become aware of the soft, querulous sounds starting up around them, from the children, from the walls, from deep within the dome. But Lindsay’s larger worry at the moment was the media. She was sure they would be bursting through the doors at any moment.

“This is either going to be our doom or our salvation.”

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