When I was much younger, going to the Natural History Museum was a magnificent thing. I remember the rooms full of sepia-colored bones – antediluvian and towering – that flattered a child’s desire for dragons: the monsters that predated books and maps.
I remember the gemstone hall, bristling with chunks of earth encrusted with minerals that grew like a brutal, crystalline forest. The raw colors gleamed in the dark room – prisms born out of the hidden contractions that convulsed the continents, while the dragons, swathed in steam, trampled the visible lands above.
There were the marble walls that chilled the rooms in a geological frost. The inanimate circulation of alloys and sediment ran through the high arches in a colorful map – the cartography of ancient stone.
In the lobby was a concrete tank. Lying in it was a rooster fish: a ribbon with fins and gills; its small mouth open to protest its isolation. It was a pelagic ghost; its colors left behind in the ocean that had tossed it onto the Catalina shore over three decades ago. Floating in a viscous pool of ethanol, its reptilian silhouette was a reminder of sailors’ terrors and broken ships in medieval seas.
And there were dioramas. The dark corridors reached into mountains, trees, plains and oceans holding displays for the window shoppers who stood in front of the glass, willing the animals to live again. I was always among them, wishing that the painted hooves would stir, the cloth muscles twitch, the throats scraped empty to be full of voice once more.
I listened for the lapping of arctic waves:
for sand dunes collapsing in the wind, or for the cold, distant bark of foxes: the clarion call of a barbaric harvest.
I remember liking in particular a group of deer: I wanted to walk through the glass, a 20th centuryAlice, and join their quiet family. I would rest on the pine needles, soft and broken, the green and fragrant oils released. I would listen to the breeze circulate through the trees like the sea. I would look beyond the forest into the painted background, into the mists floating from the sky like an astral benediction.
I revisited these silent panoramas recently. Besides the visitors who watched and waited, I noticed another group. Setting up tables and chairs, lighting fixtures, cloths and carpets, they weren’t conscious of the quiet groupings. It seemed that someone had thought it would be an engaging idea to hold an event in these corridors, and these movers had work to do.
What would that party be like? It would be bright and brash: the gleam of faces, dresses and wine would reflect in the animals’ glass eyes like a garish frieze. It would be loud: the crash of laughter, music, silverware and mingling footsteps making a brutal sound in those old and holy landscapes.
It would be out of place.
And later, when the lights and voices were silenced, there would be a pause – a collective intake of breaths, a nervous exultation running between each glass-held display: a joyous exchange of plans long denied. There would be a shivering of branches, a commotion of leaves…scrapings on ice and earth. And then, should anyone peer into those cages, that curious person would find them empty, as each animal vanished into the ether and vapors beyond the paint to continue their disrupted lives.