by Cami Ostman
The museum breathed in the taste of victory as the ambulance came to collect Toni’s remains. Now there would be no need to press back against a potential sale. As if She could be sold, like an object! As the matriarch and host of stories both victorious and dark, she was ready to bring everyone together and unfold her mysteries and to guide her family, all of them—the Living Ones and the children in the collections—to justice, truth, and reconciliation. But she would need them all present. Each and every player. And it had better be after dark, when the children inside her safe-keeping could animate and move about as needed. She would open the maw of her heart and draw them to her. Board members. Community. And ghosts.
With the Walker Pearls in hand, Lindsay and Catherine entered the museum somberly. They’d agreed they would file the Pearls immediately in the cabinet in Lindsay’s office, and so after they’d rested, they drove back into town together. They also concurred that Lydia’s skeleton should not be left in the secret room off of the Speakeasy and had decided that as unpleasant a job as it might be, they would not let her bones rest one more night alone. Catherine kept thinking about Madeleine Albright’s quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Neither Lindsay nor Catherine wanted to be in that hell, but in getting Jeff out of that room and into the ambulance, the bones had been left unattended. The two women would put Lydia in the doll’s encasement for the night.
Lindsay believed…hoped…that Marilyn had given her a gift of great wisdom with the Pearls, but she genuinely didn’t understand why these phrases, written as titles across the six pages of yellowing paper, could be significant. And Marilyn could say no more when questioned. The mini-strokes she’d had, resulting in her seeing odd shapes and disconnected images, may have given her the second sight into realms beyond, but they’d also scrambled her language center.
Lindsay had immediately shown the Pearls to Catherine, who had only shrugged. “Something passed down from the Walker side of the family for sure. I can see the watermark of Josiah’s initials when I hold the pages to the light. See here?” Catherine had held up a page in the direction of the light coming from the window of her room. “But I can’t see, other than these containing advice to live by, why my mother might have saved these.”
Inside the museum now, the entryway was dark. “I’d forgotten the electricity was out,” Lindsay said. “I have a few candles in my desk. I know we aren’t supposed to have an open flame inside this building, but sometimes when I’m here at night by myself, I light one on my desk to keep me company. I’ll get them.”
“And I will get the flashlights out of the first aid kits in the closet off of the dinosaur room.”
As the women were ready to part, cell phone flashlights in hand to guide their ways, there was a low rumble in the air from above them. The dome? Would they be rained on again by plaster? But the sound was rather more like a deep voice. Catherine knew what it was instantly, for she had heard it many times, but she observed that Lindsay appeared frightened—eyes opened wide and ears attentive. It had been such a strange few days. Catherine herself was tired, but she could see Lindsay was bone weary too. What strangeness now would require them both to rally?
The rumble was at first muffled, and then the words began to emerge more clearly. Catherine looked up at the painting of Josiah. She watched his eyes. He was staring into her. Serious. Repeating a series of names:
Lydia, Andrew, Carmen, Jasmine, Jeff, Archibald, Sunburst, Ted. And again: Lydia, Andrew, Carmen, Jasmine, Jeff, Archibald, Sunburst, Ted.
The names repeated, with Josiah’s voice becoming clearer and clearer with each repetition until it was obvious he was giving a list of names. Finally, Lindsay spoke in a whisper, “Catherine, am I hearing things or are you hearing that painting of your great-great grandfather speaking to us too?”
Catherine, though, was typing quickly into the notes function on her cell phone. She ignored Lindsay’s question and read back into the sky, “Do I have them all, Josiah? Lydia, Andrew, Carmen, Jasmine, Jeff, Archibald, Sunburst, Ted?”
Silence. But then. The Wolves, the Manatee, the Great Auk. All those who have been wronged.
“What does he want from us?” Lindsay asked. She was trembling in the darkness of this strange living building.
Catherine kept her eyes on the painting. “I’m not sure.” Then she spoke up toward Josiah’s visage. “What do you want us to do? Why are you giving us these lists?”
But all that came back was another list: Totem, gold, coins, Pearls. Totem, gold, coins, Pearls.
Lindsay was visibly upset now. “Catherine, let’s get out of here. We can bring Lydia up tomorrow. Maybe have someone help us. This is a mind fuck. I am hearing things and you’re obviously doing the same.”
Catherine assessed Lindsay for a moment, but then rose to her full height. This shy woman who’d had to really stretch herself to give tours to children not so long ago suddenly felt a conviction so strong she had to hold on to the stairway’s railing to steady herself. “No, Lindsay. The time of reckoning has come. I believe the Museum…Josiah…maybe both of them are ready for their reckoning.”
“What are you talking about,” Lindsay pulled her coat more tightly around her.
“A meeting. Josiah is calling a meeting. And he’s telling us who—or what—needs to be there.” He’s telling us who holds all of the pieces. Or, maybe he’s telling us what the pieces are.” Catherine could feel in her bones this was exactly what Josiah was doing.
“The pieces to what? To how to save the Museum?”
“Maybe,” Catherine replied, “Or maybe how to save ourselves from the shame of this place.”
With that, a brisk wind blew through the building. And She groaned. Yessssss….
Inside of an hour, Catherine and Lindsay had had gathered flashlights and candles and situated them, along with several chairs, the stuffed creatures Josiah had asked for, the bag of coins, the Walker Pearls, and Lydia’s bones in the sub-basement around the shame totem. And then they called together Andrew, Carmen, Jasmine, Jeff, Archibald, Sunburst, and Ted, trusting that each of these people would somehow know why they were being invited to this strange meeting.
Lindsay waited at the entrance of the museum for the others to arrive, and when they were all assembled in the dark foyer, she used her key to shuttle them down into the “totem room.”
“Ah shit,” Ted said when the doors opened into the candle-lit chamber. “Are we having a goddamn séance?”
Jasmine, his mother’s long-time astrologer, laid a hand on his shoulder from behind and said, “Not a séance, Ted, but certainly some kind of sacred space has been created here.”
He shrugged her hand away. “Why are you even here? You’re not a bored member.”
She studied him for a moment. “Do you know that moment you had not long ago where you decided you might walk away from ambition and trade it in for joy?”
“How do you know about that?” he looked astounded.
“I know because some things are known outside of the realm of the five senses, my dear. To answer your question, I don’t know why I’m here, exactly, but I suspect it’s because whatever is going to happen here tonight, it was written in the stars. Just as it has been written in the stars that your life here on planet Earth is meant for joy and not for ambition. Anyhow, I’m guessing my services may be needed. We will wait and see.”
When everyone had arrived, Catherine asked everyone to find a chair. She stood at the edge of the circle and said, “Thank you everyone for coming. And so late at night and with such a cryptic description of why you’re here.”
Carmen, turned to the professor now and whispered, “I think we know why we’re here, don’t we?” Archibald McNair nodded gravely.
“Well,” Catherine went on, “here’s the thing. As you know, we’ve been talking for many months about how to save this museum. And then lately, some very strange things have been happening. For example, we found the dome above the staircase is covered in gold.”
Several people gasped. “What the…?” away Andrew said. Andrew, who didn’t have a clue what all of this was about. He’d joined the board to put his skills to good use, and he’d taken a slight fancy to Lindsay—though it was clear her interests lay elsewhere—but he was sure he’d resign after this dramatic stunt. Still, gold in the ceiling? That was interesting, right?
“So tonight when Lindsay and I came into the foyer, we…” she faltered here knowing what she was about to say would seem ridiculous. “We heard the painting of Josiah Walker speak your names. We believe this building holds the shame of oppression as surely as it holds the pride of my family. And we think Josiah wants us both to save this building AND to pay for his shame.”
There was a murmur in the small group. “What are you talking about?” Jeff asked.
“I’m talking about this shame totem,” Catherine said. “I think if we pool our knowledge, we’ll understand what is to be done with it. And with the gold in the ceiling and the coins we found in the secret room off of this room earlier today.”
“Okay,” Jeff rubbed his head. He’d only been released from the hospital an hour earlier and had had a hard time getting Dorothy to let him come out again. “But what’s with the stuffed animals and my creepy girlfriend being here with us?” he asked, indicating Lydia’s skeleton.
Before Catherine could answer, the Museum breathed. Everyone felt it. A deep, heavy breath in, almost as if the walls expanded and rounded outward. The flames of the candles flicked just a little. And with the building’s exhale, the room grew warm.
A voice, disembodied and rumbling, spoke low…barely audible, but understood by all. Hold the Pearl’s up to the candle-light. Look for the message beyond the message.
Everyone held their breath collectively. And then Sunburst, MIT graduate turned MFA student, the subversive expert on all things Walker stepped forward, picked up the papers from the floor in the center of the circle where they were sitting, and held up one of the papers to the candle-light.
Several people leaned forward. “Well,” said Dr. Archibald McNair, “will you look at that.”
Mouths were agape as the words appeared is if by magic in the dim light: Display your shame. With compassion, look into your own eyes and, without judgment speak what is true.
“Well, what the hell does that mean?” Ted said.
To read the story in its entirety, click here.