by Victoria Doerper
1730 words

Margaret the Great Auk found the window’s placement ironic. Just outside her diorama. West wall. Windowsill a feather or two higher than her head. Spectacular view of the rocky shore and sea, so she’d been told. As close as she would ever get to the sight of anything resembling her former habitat. And she couldn’t see it. If she fell down and rolled to stillness at just the right angle below the window, she could catch a glimpse of clouds gliding by, though, almost feel the rhythm and lap of waves against her feathery sides, the excitement of dives into the thrilling watery depths, the sight of her mate paddling toward her. But then she’d startle back to reality and realize where she was, on an unforgiving hard floor. She’d need help getting up. When she’d been a Living One, she’d spent most of her time at sea. On land, she teetered and wobbled on her webbed feet. Her stubby little wings took her rocketing through water, but they were useless for liftoff from either sea or land. Even then, land had felt almost alien, but not nearly as alien as this place.

Margaret had always known where her bodily presence belonged, alive or dead. She’d been dead for over a century. By now her body should have disassociated and transformed. Maybe into seawater, ebbing and flowing. She could have felt the sun again as she swirled, crested, and foamed over the rocks of Iceland’s shores. Or perhaps a bit of her would have become a scattering of bright algae, riding the waves, eating the light. But here she was, stuck in this phony environment. Kept intact by stitches and glue. Lately the Living Ones had failed to reattach feathers that had loosened and dropped to the floor. What were they thinking? But then, Margaret’s experience led her to believe that human Living Ones rarely thought about the consequences of what they did, or did not, do.

Margaret and her mate had been killed over a hundred and fifty years ago by two fishermen. After that, they’d sold her body to a dry, soulless collector of rare specimens. He’d sent her to a taxidermist to be stuffed. Humiliating. And then she’d been bought, sold, and traded, as if, in life or death, she’d never been more than feathers, beak, and bones. As if she and her species had never had any other role to play in the great, grand pattern of planet Earth except as a benefit to the humans. Of course it was right that she not live forever. Each individual would die. When they died they gave space to others who would come after them, a gift to the future. Each one received and each one gave back. But the human Living Ones had taken and taken and taken, without guilt or shame, and never given back.

And now here she was, on the floor next to this crummy diorama. Eye to the sky. With nothing to do but ponder the past until someone wandered in and returned her to her place, right behind the placard labeled “Great Auk. Extinct.” Some debts can be repaid, thought Margaret. For others, there is only punishment or atonement. One way or another, balance would be restored. She was sure of that.

***

Toni noticed the building shudder. It wasn’t the first time. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but sometimes this old building gave her the creeps. She pushed aside the feeling and quickened her pace, heading for the Grand Staircase.

“Did you feel that?” Paul asked. “Was that an earthquake?”

“I didn’t feel a thing,” Toni replied with a smile. She did not need Paul to start thinking about earthquakes and structural integrity. “I think a new furnace is being installed in the basement,” she continued. Not quite a lie since she didn’t say she knew for sure. “It could be the rumble and commotion down there.”

Paul nodded, then whispered to Gerald, who scribbled something into a small notebook. Toni moved them along. A firm believer in the dazzle-factor, an aficionado of the dramatic pause, she shepherded clients from highlight to highlight, steered them away from flaws, and did her best to keep them from lingering in one spot for long. Lingering meant a client might discover an imperfection. If they were interested, clients would eventually find a property’s problems, but on the first visit she wanted to create an impression of beauty and possibility. Even seasoned developers like Paul were not entirely immune to this approach.

At the foot of the staircase Toni paused for effect, striking an “alluring-woman-displaying-expensive-car” pose. “Isn’t this staircase glorious?” She walked over to the thick carved newel post and gracefully rested her slender hand on its smooth top, blood red nails gleaming incongruously next to the ancient wood. “This is, of course, original. I believe Josiah Walker brought the post back from one of his many trips. A gift from someone he’d visited.” Well, she did believe that was true but wasn’t sure of the details.

“I’m sure we can investigate its provenance if it comes to that,” Paul said. “This is clearly a valuable piece. Beautiful carving created by a skilled artist.” He bent down to further examine the carved images. “Orcas. I don’t know a lot about tribal motifs, but I do know that killer whales are auspicious.”

Gerald, his assistant, perked up. Darlene, a woman he’d been dating off and on, was obsessed with Northwest Indian art and he’d tagged along with her to a couple of lectures. He hadn’t paid much attention to the speakers, though, distracted as he was by the press of Darlene’s thigh against his. But he always made a point of remembering a few facts. He was surprised to find an opportunity to use one of them now.

“I’m pretty sure the orcas symbolize family and harmony.”

Paul looked at him in surprise. Gerald and his non-descript suits, average brown hair, forgettable face, subservient manner. He rarely contributed to a conversation. Maybe Paul had underestimated him.

“The orcas were protectors too,” Gerald continued, “kept people safe when they traveled, guided them back home.”

Well, Toni thought, the orcas were guiding this part of the tour in the wrong direction. Too much lingering. “Let’s move on to the second floor,” she urged, clicking up the stairs, Paul and Gerald in her wake. She hoped Paul would notice the scarlet soles of her stratospherically expensive Louboutin shoes. She’d closed multi-million dollar deals in these very heels. But failing that, she was sure she could capture his gaze with the provocative sway of her trim hips as she sashayed up the stairs. With any luck, he wouldn’t notice the crack in the dome above them.

***

Ted watched Sunburst at the espresso machine, her movements deft and sure. Purple and green dreads bobbed as she measured, tamped, pulled, steamed, and poured. She had told him early evening was usually a slow time, but a group of women, probably about his mother’s age, bustled in right after him, placed their orders, and settled down at a far table. Ted noticed that each woman carried the same book. Flowers on the cover. “The Keeper of Lost Things.” Must be a book club. His own mother was probably a member of a club like this.

In a few minutes, Sunburst had completed her latte masterpieces and delivered them to the table. She joined him at the counter.

“What will you have? Espresso? Americano? Macchiato? Some incredibly complicated version of a latte?”

“Thanks. A decaf Americano, one shot, would be great.”

“Heavy duty.” She gave him a smile that went on for miles. A smile so intimate that he felt his face flush. Or maybe he was just wishing that her smile had been a special one. Probably her regular customer-friendly smile. Oh well.

“Any room for cream?” she asked.

Before he could answer, his phone buzzed to life on the counter.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I need to see who this is. No cream.” He smiled back at Sunburst, then glanced at the phone, shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, I have to take this.” Sunburst ambled away toward the other end of the counter and began to conjure up his Americano.

“Hi Mom,” he said. “This isn’t a very good time. I’m a little busy right now.”

“This won’t take long, honey. I need to give you a message.”

“I’m in the middle of interviewing someone for a project at the museum. Can I call you back?”

“Is the name of this person you’re talking to Catherine?”

“What? Who is Catherine? I’m meeting with a woman named Sunburst.”

“The-o-dore, Sunburst is not a real name, and you know it. You’re just trying to put me off.”

“No, mom, I’m not trying to put you off. I’ll call you back in awhile. And, yes, Sunburst is a real name. And a real person. I’ve been talking with her.”

“Well, wrap up your conversation then. You need to talk to Catherine.”

“Mother, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Have you been drinking?”

“I have not, Theodore. You know I quit drinking years ago. I’m with Jasmine. She told me it was extremely important for you to get in touch with Catherine.”

“Who the heck is Jasmine?” If it hadn’t been his mother, he would have used a much stronger word than “heck.”

“Jasmine is my astrologer. Remember, I told you a few months ago.”

“Mom,” Ted continued in his most patient voice. “Is this the same astrologer who told you someone stole my bike?”

“Yes! And don’t you dare criticize her for that. Your friend borrowed the bike. How was Jasmine to know? Anyway, she was right that you didn’t have your bike.”

“Right.” Ted sighed. “Who is Catherine?”

“Jasmine went into something like a trance a few minutes ago. When she came out of it, she told me I had to let you know immediately that you must call Catherine. It’s very important! So I’m giving you the message right now. I’m calling from Jasmine’s office. Would you like to talk to her?”

“NO Mother! OK, I’m going to have to hang up now. I need to finish up this interview. Thanks for calling.”

“Talk to Catherine,” he could hear his mother shouting as he disconnected.

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