by Marian Exall
2313 words

Dorothy was excited about attending the museum’s costume gala fundraiser. She so rarely went out with Jeff these days. Poor man, he worked so hard, often not returning home until late at night. He didn’t look well either, the after-effects of that nasty fall at the museum. What had he been thinking of, wandering around in the basement in the dark? He’d been reluctant to agree to go to the gala, but Dorothy had insisted: it would take him out of himself. The invitation read: Come as a character from the Walker Museum’s rich and storied past. Jeff, of course, would go as his great-grandfather, First National Bank’s founder and Josiah’s financial backer. She would dress as Mrs. Jefferson Hansen the First, a redoubtable frontier matron. Behind every great man…!

By the time she had persuaded Jeff into the stiff collar and black frock coat of his nineteenth century banker costume, they were late arriving. At least half a dozen Josiah Walkers were sipping champagne and gawping up at the newly revealed gold dome. Perhaps as many Good Time Girls from the building’s time as a bordello were sashaying around in revealing flapper dresses and too much make-up. Many present had never visited the museum before; they were pulled in by rumors of strange happenings after dark, and even in broad daylight.

Jeff disappeared into the crowd, leaving Dorothy to make awkward conversation with Ted, the Town Socialist, garbed in prison stripes with shackles fashioned out of a bicycle chain-lock. Dorothy had forgotten, if she ever knew, that the museum had once housed criminals. Ted had selected his outfit for ease: he already had white painter’s overalls, and adding the black stripe was easy. The shackles had the added advantage of dissuading anyone from asking him to dance, if there was music.

He separated from the banker’s wife, and made for the Grand Staircase. Catherine, attired as Lydia, was standing at the top bathed in golden light. She wore a sky-blue satin ball gown, her hair in an elaborate up-do. She had liberated the family jewels from the safe deposit box in which they had hidden for decades; now they twinkled across a décolletage newly exposed after a similar length of time.

“Catherine, you look radiant,” Ted blushed. He was unaccustomed to paying complements.

“Thank you,” Catherine responded, also blushing; she was unaccustomed to receiving them. “Isn’t this fun? I’m so looking forward to moving into town. You might have heard I’m selling the place in the County. Now Mother’s moved into the memory care home, it’s much too big for me. She’s made lots of friends already; they love her stories.” She stopped suddenly, aware that this was more than she had ever spoken to Ted before. He smiled at her. At least, she thought he meant it as a smile—his face muscles were so set in a glower it was hard to flex them. “Well, I must go check on the silent auction. Do excuse me.”

She swished away to the Victorian dolls’ exhibit. Auctioning them off had been Lindsay’s idea, and Catherine had wholeheartedly agreed. She always found their snide expressions a little repellant. Maybe adopted into loving homes, they would become charming. Clearly bidders thought so: each auction sheet showed bids well over the $300 reserve price. The proceeds of this evening would all go to refurbishing the museum, including a new gallery for the collection of Cubist art discovered in the walled-up speakeasy. The Shame Pole would take pride of place. The entire second floor would be transformed into a state-of-the-art audio-visual display of the history that gave rise to its creation. Of course, the major part of the funds for these and other improvements would come from the horde of gold coins discovered in the stuffed wolf, and the Carson City quarters found with Lydia’s skeleton. Pete’s pledge of a five million dollar interest-free loan was their backstop.

“Catherine, can you round up the other Board members? It’s time for speeches.” Lindsay, hoping to spur interest in the silent auction, looked unbearably cute as a Victorian doll with white pantaloons peeping out from under a plaid pinafore dress, and her hair braided and coiled over her ears like giant earphones. The matte white make-up with vivid pink cheeks and cupid’s bow lips could not hide her inner glow of happiness. The museum’s future seemed assured, and as for her personal life—she and Catherine had toured a lovely condo with a view over the Bay, that was five minutes from the Satori Spirit House and Memory Care Center where Marilyn now resided. Of course, managing the Board—even the new members—was still like herding cats. Jeff was sulking because the structural engineer’s report had found it would be impossible to peel the gold from the dome without the entire building collapsing. Over the years the gold had so fused with the infrastructure that it was central to the museum’s integrity. Jeff, banker to his core, had dreamed of melting the gold into ingots and storing them in First National’s vault where he could run his hands over their buttery splendor whenever he wanted. Lindsay suspected he was also feeling raw from Carmen dumping him. In addition, Archie had been mysteriously missing from last Board meeting, although he had turned up tonight, dressed for some reason as a judge.

Lindsay wheeled the podium to the center of the landing at the top of the Grand Staircase, and tested the sound system by tapping on the microphone. Gradually the crowd quieted.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! First, I want to acknowledge that we are here on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples.” Lindsay continued speaking without notes about the wonderful future ahead for the new Walker Museum, encouraged guests to tour the current exhibits while imagining what was to come, and thanked “all those who made this future possible.” Some of the names she listed—Margaret, Charles, Avery, Billy Bob—were unfamiliar to the listening guests. She finished by thanking the Board President, Professor Archibald McNair, and inviting him—with some trepidation—to say a few words.

Archie stood, hands gripping the podium, and acknowledged the applause. “My friends, museum patrons, fellow historians, colleagues, amateur and professional, welcome! I planned to give a short talk on the Seward Alaska Purchase and Josiah Walker’s time in the territory—” some in the crowd, primed by champagne, groaned— “but instead I thought I’d share some good news I’ve just received. Well, good and bad. I’m afraid I am resigning as President of the Board of the Walker Museum with immediate effect.” He looked around the room for a reaction, but saw only puzzled faces: was this the good news or the bad? He continued, “I have been summoned out of retirement to my alma mater, Southwestern New Mexico A & M, to lead an important project, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” He smiled with satisfaction. There was a sprinkle of clapping led enthusiastically by Carmen. She knew the details of Archie’s new assignment: her #metoo statement had been one of many alleging harassment at SWNMA&M. The new university president was creating the Commission to bring past mistreatment of women and minorities to light, and Carmen had suggested that Professor Emeritus McNair, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of shame poles in native culture, would be the ideal man to lead this effort.

The professor continued. “I am very pleased to announce that my erstwhile colleague Carmen Jones, who knows nearly as much about shame poles as I do, will be joining the museum’s board.” More applause that grew deafening as Carmen stepped forward and shimmied seductively in her Good Time Gal get-up.

Lindsay reclaimed the mic. “We are very lucky to have Carmen and her cousin Andrew, a recent addition to the Board who brings the cutting-edge technology skills that the museum needs as it moves forward.” Andrew leaned in and whispered something to Lindsay. “Andrew is reminding me that he will be assisted in this effort by another new board member, Sunburst Fawn Flower. Sunny not only has the technology chops, she brings much-needed diversity to our governing body.” Cheers for Andrew and Sunny, as they locked lips.

“Before introducing the other Board members, I’d like us to take a moment of silence to remember the late Toni Masters.” Lindsay bowed her head. Five seconds should be enough, she thought. “Her husband Pete has agreed not only to take over Toni’s spot on Board, but has made a significant financial pledge that ensures our future plans will be successful!” This earned an ovation.

Before she could introduce Ted and—most important—Catherine, Lindsay was distracted by some whispering at the back of the crowd. Was that drumming in the distance? The guests looked at one another and then up at Lindsay, expecting her to explain, thinking that this was part of the planned event. But she was as mystified as anyone. The deep reverberation was coming closer, and now chanting voices could be heard complementing the rhythm. Those nearest to the entrance opened the heavy oak doors to the outside. All whispering died away as the imposing figure of a Coast Salish elder appeared in the doorway. He wore a cedar hat and cape, his status evidenced by the swirling black and red designs painted on them. He stood still for a moment, eyes heavenwards as he beat his drum. The crowd parted like the Red Sea before Moses when he moved forward. Behind him, a half dozen young men marched, strong voices rising and falling in song. In spite of the winter chill, they wore sleeveless beaded vests, oiled biceps gleaming in the lights. Then came women and children dancing, lifting their feet high and bringing them down in unison with the drumbeat, the feathers hanging from their tunics swaying. The procession moved across the floor and up the Grand Staircase. In silence, the crowd followed with their eyes, as the Indians turned left at the top of the stairs into the Native American Gallery. There, they spread out to collect dusty artifacts from shelves and display tables; they unhooked ancient sepia photographs of potlatches from the walls, and stripped threadbare regalia from a tailor’s dummy. Everything was piled into a magnificent war canoe, the centerpiece of the collection.

One man strode away from the rest of the group to find the natural history diorama. He stopped in front the taxidermized she-wolf. Ron Wolfrunner’s spirit animal was the wolf—not this desiccated relic with a clumsily mended rip across its abdomen, but the wild, free animal that still howled sometimes in the Cascadian night. He stared at the stuffed figure, thinking of his conversation with Sunburst Fawn Flower the day before. She had been sent by the museum director to ask him to serve as President of the Walker Museum Board in Archie’s place as they plotted its future centered on the Shame Pole exhibit and a truthful depiction of the misdeeds that led to its creation. Ron had put off responding, but now he thought perhaps he would accept the position. In the half-light of the quiet room, he thought he saw the she-wolf’s eyes close and open again in a lazy blink. Of approval? Ron smiled to himself, cast a last look at the decaying diorama, then returned to join his companions as they hefted the canoe onto their shoulders and followed the elder with the drum down the stairs and out into the night.

The crowd exhaled its collective breath; Ted let out a whoop of joy. Everyone applauded, turning to a neighbor to voice amazed delight at the spectacle they had witnessed.

Catherine clasped Lindsay’s hand, both had tears on their cheeks. What better way to declare a new beginning for the museum, clearing out the old, hurtful past to make room for a more honest, kinder future?

Later, as the crowd dwindled, some board members gathered for a debrief and to congratulate each other on the success of the evening. Jeff had already left, in spite of Dorothy’s protests, and Archie too had headed home to his bed.

“There’s one thing still bothers me,” said Ted, shuffling his shackled feet. “What are we going to do with the natural history exhibit? It doesn’t really fit with what we have in mind for the museum.”

“Hmm. And we’re going to need all that space for the Shame Pole display,” Andrew chimed in.

“But we can’t just dump them in the basement,” protested Catherine. “They’re our friends!” She reddened as she looked around the group, but nobody laughed, not even Ted, still suspicious of what he called “that woo woo shit.”

***

So it was, on the next full moon, the group gathered at an isolated beach several miles outside town. The place was sacred to the local tribes. From here, each summer, they launched canoes to paddle to the annual gathering of all the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest: Tlingit, Haida, Bella Coola, Chinook, Makah, Tillamook and the rest.

In silence, Ron, Lindsay, Catherine, Andrew, Carmen, Sunny and Ted arranged their burdens along the tideline, then stepped back. Margaret rested against Charles, Avery and Billy Bob propped each other up, the wolf’s glass eyes shone in the moonlight, and dinosaur bones rattled against the pebbles. Ron sang a song of farewell in a language older than the rocks they stood on.

They all waited, watching the advancing tide. When the water began to lap against the manatee’s belly, a cloud obscured the moon. In the sudden darkness, the humans heard the swish of wings and a splash. The cloud passed on, and the tide turned. Moonlight returned to show an empty beach. As the humans turned to leave, they heard a wolf howl somewhere in the distance.

To read the story in its entirety, click here.

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