by Carol McMillan
1676 Words

Lindsay’s mattress felt hard and unyielding. Pushing herself up on one elbow, she punched her pillow a few times, then resettled back onto it, hoping some adjustments might lure sleep to her. Thoughts chased around her brain like a roomful of puppies, each one grabbing the tail of another.

That pole! The image was unsettling. It was decidedly ugly and certainly didn’t evoke a sense of graceful beauty like much of the Northwestern Native art she admired. She might not like it as a piece of art, but Lindsay knew it could be useful in restoring public interest in the museum.

A shame pole, wasn’t that what Archibald called it? Lindsay mentally reviewed his story about Seward’s pole, imagining a descriptive placard placed at the entrance to the carving’s room. Everyone would have to enter via the elevator, but how many visitors could that old elevator accommodate per hour? Was that room handicapped accessible? Did it meet ADA standards? Maybe the carving would have to be moved. But it certainly was striking being the only artifact in its own huge gallery. Hopefully they could leave it there. But maybe not.

Ted! He liked to point out how pitiful many of the exhibits were. Well, just wait till he sees this one! And Andrew—what was he mentioning at dinner? Interactive exhibits? Yes, most museums now have interactive exhibits. But could visitors interact with a carving? Oh, the hat! The man on the pole was wearing a potlatch hat. Maybe the tribes could teach visitors to weave cedar hats? No, too hard. But maybe they’d demonstrate making a hat? Maybe have visitors weave something small. Little cedar mats, perhaps. How could the museum get the cedar for weaving? But, then again, why would the tribes want to help? No one from the reservation had ever gotten back to her when she’d asked for help with the exhibits before…

Lindsay shoved herself up again, suddenly wide-eyed. What if they knew! What if the local Tribes knew about the pole? Maybe they didn’t want to have anything to do with the museum because they had known all along there was a shame pole inside? Was it wrong for the museum to have it?

Sighing, she lowered herself slowly back down, pulling the covers up over her shoulders. Closing her eyes, Lindsay breathed in to a slow count of four, held it, then breathed out to the same count. I need to think about this tomorrow. She concentrated on the slow breaths until her mind calmed enough that she finally drifted off.

***

Across town, Catherine’s eyes sprang open just as Lindsay’s were finally closing. Another strange dream. What was it? She’d almost lost it, but now she remembered. Someone or something had taken her hand. They were in the museum, and it was leading her up the Grand Staircase. Reaching the top, Catherine could smell the musty air of the old building. Her guide stopped in front of Josiah’s portrait. Catherine studied it; she felt there was something important she was meant to notice. Her mind scanned the familiar visage of the old man. The tie wrapped around his neck and tied in a bow, and…mutton chops. Where else had she just seen those funny, overwide, extended sideburns?

That’s when Catherine’s eyes had sprung open. The carving! The carving had mutton chops. Native men generally didn’t have sufficient facial hair to grow mutton chops. Archibald had talked about Seward’s pole; he’d said the museum’s shame pole must also be for a white guy. So, it wasn’t just the white paint that gave him the clue, but also the mutton chops. But who was the caricature pole of?

Realizing sleep would elude her for a while, Catherine grabbed her fleece robe from the hook on the back of her bedroom door, and padded downstairs in the dark, waiting to switch on a light till she entered the kitchen. As the light clicked on, she startled to see her mother seated in one of the oak kitchen chairs. Marilyn’s long grey hair reached down the chair’s ladder-back.

“Mom! What are you doing sitting in the dark?”

“He ate my sandwich.”

“Huh? Who ate your sandwich?”

“Your dad!”

Catherine walked to the table and looked down to see breadcrumbs scattered on the blue-patterned salad plate in front of her mom. “Oh, Mom. I’m sure you ate it. You’ve just forgotten.”

“No! Turkey! I’d made it with mayonnaise and mustard and lettuce—just the way I like it. Then he ambled in, leaned on the table, didn’t even say a word, but picked it up and started eating.”

Catherine had lost patience with her mother’s strange stories. “Mom, dad’s been gone for years now. Ghosts can’t eat sandwiches. Think about it; once he bit into it, it would just fall right through him onto the floor.” She recognized the futility of her weak logic even as the words came out of her mouth.

“You never believe anything I tell you. You don’t care if I live or die!”

Catherine went to the fridge and took out the turkey carcass and condiments. “I’ll make you another sandwich, Mom.”

Laying out four pieces of bread, she decided she might as well make herself one too.

Her mom made no comment, but at least the offer stemmed the wave of complaint that had been about to flood the kitchen.

“Mom, you spoke to Lindsay, my boss, on the phone yesterday. Do you remember?”

“That woman who called?”

“Yes, I’m sure it was her.”

“What did she want? She didn’t even want to talk to me. She just wanted you.”

“Well, she does want to talk with you. She was wondering if she could come by to meet you. She’d love to chat.”

“With me? I suppose so. Do I have to wear a dress? I don’t like to wear dresses.”

“You can wear whatever you want, Mom. How about your Seahawks’ hoodie. Don’t you love that?” Marilyn nodded, accepting the sandwich Catherine handed to her.

“OK, I’ll see when she’d like to come.”

They ate their sandwiches in silence. Catherine wondered what thoughts made their way through her mother’s deteriorating mind.

***

Lindsay’s unwieldy museum key was just opening the front door when Catherine came panting up to her side.

“Lindsay, I hoped I could catch you,” she gasped for air from her short sprint. “We have to go look at the pole. I think I figured something out!”

Removing her key from the opened door, Lindsay pointed to the small brass one dangling beside it. “I have the elevator key right here. Yes, I suppose we can go down right now.” She knew Toni had mentioned something about bringing special visitors to the museum that day, but she didn’t know when, and she wasn’t certain her presence would be needed.

The elevator creaked on its way down past the basement. The two women inside rode silently. A temporary light had been wired into the room the night before. Lindsay pulled the chain and was greeted by the four-faced carving with its pop eyes and creepily blood-red nostrils and ears.

Catherine leapt forward. “Yes, mutton chops. Look. See, it has curly mutton chops. What Native man do you know has that much facial hair? That’s why Andrew was so certain that it was made to mock a white man.”            

Lindsay nodded, catching her drift. “You mean, like Seward’s pole. Andrew did say this one is a white man too.”

“Yes, and…oh my god! Yes! Look! It has a bow on its neck. Just like Josiah’s! In his portrait. He’d wrap his tie around and make a bow in front!” Catherine had reasoned that the carving might be a caricature of Josiah, but she wasn’t positive until she saw the bow tie.

“You think this pole is a shame pole for your great great grandfather?”

“Yes, yes. It must be!” Catherine could scarcely contain her excitement. “Do you suppose my mom knows? Is it part of the hidden rooms she mentioned? Oh, gosh, I forgot to tell you. She agreed to meet you for an interview.”

“Goodness. I don’t know what to think! That’s excellent news. But about the pole. Such an interesting thought. Thank you for all this, Catherine. I need to go to my office and try to digest what you’re suggesting.”

***

Lindsay rode the elevator to the main floor, and left Catherine to continue up to her room below the tower. In her office, Lindsay hurried to her computer to Google the Seward pole. She wanted to check on the information Archibald had given them.

Yes, there it was. Seward went to Alaska and met with the Tlingit Chief in 1869. He sailed there on the steamship ‘Active’. 1869. The museum was built in 1850 as Josiah’s home. Did they know each other? Had Seward’s ship stopped here on its way? In fact, was it possible that Josiah had accompanied Seward to Sitka? Lindsay’s mind had new material to spin through its always active cycles. She heated a cup of day-old coffee in her microwave and sat to sip and cogitate.

***

An hour later the museum’s heavy front door creaked open again. Toni led in two men dressed in neat, expensive suits. The taller one carried a briefcase with the logo for Seaview Properties, Inc. embossed in the leather. Toni made no attempt to contact Lindsay, in fact, she subtly hurried the men into one of the corridors where she hoped their presence wouldn’t be discovered.

“I can’t guarantee anything, but I think the owners would be more than interested in selling, if the right offer were made. You will see that on the west side of the building most rooms have excellent views of the water.”

Even as Toni spoke, the walls of the museum gave a shudder. The crack over the Grand Staircase opened wider. A few chunks of plaster disintegrated into powder as they dropped onto the marble floor.

To read the story in its entirety, click here.

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