It was Tuesday again, Museum day. Ori had passed the last few Tuesdays warming her hands on a mug of tea and staring out the open window of her apartment at little clouds that hid in the corners of the sky, but today she had a reason to go again to the Museum.
Looking up at the Museum's building from the stairs far below, Ori wondered if the great brass doors had been made so very large to accommodate an exodus of the Museum's extensive animal collection; a Noah's Ark in reverse. As she climbed, she conjured the image of a flood of animals streaming towards her from the open doors --- bounding down the cold marble steps, heating them with sparking hooves. At last --- she imagined, the flood of the smaller animals would subside, and the great tall doors would finally be put to their full use --- at last. Woolly Mammoths, skeletal Dinosaurs, and yes, the majestic Whales would check out of their marmoreal suites and leave the Museum through those colossal portals. Ori liked it when every once in a while, things were able to live up to their potential.
She pressed her small weight against the doors and entered, walking quickly past the crowds looking at the flashy new dinosaur exhibit. Throngs of school children writhed around her thighs, each seeming ruder than the last. Pleading for a trip to the gift shop, their sticky hands grasped at those of their chaperons: the hands of parents, teachers, minions, and sycophants of all sorts who had come to unleash their diminutive tribes upon the Museum. Ori moved nimbly past them, ignoring the bright signage and interactive displays, past all the sounds and voices further into the Museum. She imagined the creaking bones of Diplodocus might forget their long past as an herbivore, and munch on a visitor or two with flat dead teeth.
Already the crowds were dying away, as she slipped between their cooling bodies and down the narrow halls that led where she wanted to go --- past cases of arrowheads, cycad fossils, coelacanths, geodes, conch shells, cave paintings, treasure maps, and petrified forests. Down and through as the lighting grew dimmer, she closed her eyes. Ori knew her way; it was Tuesday, Museum day.
She came at last to the first dim room of her part of the Museum --- a large forgotten room cast from a tincture of plaster and shadows, an heirloom room with many doorways. Its buckskin colored walls were flanked by large glass vitrines, over sized jeweler's cases. Each of the cases was embalmed in its own pool of yellowing light. They rested like corpses in the dust along the path to a watering hole; displaying animals culled and categorized by Westerners during their crusade to collect the world.
A single guard tapped his fingers against his leg as he moved through the room, earnestly peering into each dark brown corner, as if dust bunnies were making warrens and perhaps even having picnics there. He husked a muffled "good evening" with his wide face still turned to the ground, and Ori wasn't sure if he was addressing her or the dust bunny troops assembled for his inspection. She also wondered if he knew that it was in fact not evening, but only early afternoon. She reasoned that he had perhaps once been able to say "good morning" or "good day," but after so many years, had finally given up the ghost to the perpetual twilight of the Museum's back rooms. Ori regarded him kindly, but thought he must be quite a dull conversationalist. She wished he would leave. He kept her from beginning.
Ori sat down on the room's one bench and waited for the guard to move on. She unfastened the latch of the small wicker valise that she had brought with her. The valise had once contained the dyed woolen yarns of her mother, the girl, but was no longer needed by her mother, the doctor --- and so was passed on to Ori as a picnic case of sorts. Unwrapping the dishcloth she had placed there this morning, she withdrew a blushing apricot. It was still warm from the sun of her kitchen window, and its skin felt like baby mice. She bit into it with her small sharp teeth and sucked its flesh, all the time watching the guard through fallen wisps of wheat-colored hair. By the time she was tonguing the last veins of fruit from the rough pit, the guard was gone.
Ori knew she would now be alone, as one is always alone in the oldest darkest parts of the Museum --- the places where tour groups and families never go. They would rather see the new exhibits, the ones with televisions and ad campaigns --- so that they could get their money's worth. But in fact, they were hesitant to be in the Museum's dark strange recesses and halls that were filled with the flinty smell of death. It made the families uncomfortable to smell that smell, and reminded the mothers and fathers of things that they felt were better left unthought.
Ori walked up to the nearest vitrine, which belonged to the Oryx --- one of those slender interlopers of the veldt possessed of sharp effortless horns. She could imagine them - fleets of them, hurling themselves across the plains of Africa. And she saw her own body there in the herds' fractured wake, trampled by a million tiny black hooves --- all caking bittersweet redness and ruptured dust.
Ori wished she could smell that dead place, in there with the Oryx, but the it was sealed inside the airtight glass box, like a spider trapped in an upended brandy snifter. The case bore a worn brass plaque was incised with elegantly blocked Victorian letters, specifically chosen by high-minded people to lend an air of unquestionable authority.
Oryx dammah - Scimitar Oryx
The Scimitar Oryx is known to be extinct in the wild. When seen from the side, Oryx appear to have only one single horn, which leads to speculation that it is the animal that originated the Unicorn myth. These horns are quite dangerous, and the Oryx has been known to use them to kill full-grown Lions.
Scimitar Oryx were one of her favorites. She loved them because of their Latin name: oryx, her namesake --- a word both singular and plural --- and dammah a word that reminded her of blood. The animal stood rigid in death, with close creamy fur that was really more like hair, brittle from age. At the Oryx's neck, the lovely shade turned darker and redder. This Oryx was a desert dweller and when it was alive, it had to find ways to cool its sun-heated blood. Its eyes were dark and glassy, and its lids hovered with heavy lashes, as if waiting to blink. Ori crept very close to the glass until her breath marked the barrier with a cool moist circle. She tapped with one neat finger. "Wake Up," she whispered.
Life stirred on the painted savannah.
The Oryx looked up at her, shaking her dainty head and stamping her small feet, shaped like shards of coal. Her cloven hooves kicked up tiny puffs of dust, which had been placed in the animals' habitats to counterfeit realism. Ori smiled, and spoke low words under her breath. The Oryx brayed softly, shook herself and relaxed, the dust settling at her feet.
She approached the case of the old Ostrich, strange avian descendant of the dinosaurs. He was a fine specimen no doubt taken down by an enormously self-satisfied Colonialist, who had long since rotted away in the warm earth. The Ostrich however was still alive and beautiful, his large eyes shining and his black and cream feathers flecked with gold, or perhaps sawdust.
Struthio camelus - Ostrich
From the Greek "Sparrow Camel." The majestic Ostrich is the only members of its family Struthionidae. Its diet consists of seeds and other plant matter. The Ostrich's small vestigial wings are used by males in somewhat foolish looking mating displays. Its eyes are the largest of all land animals, exceeded only in the sea by the mighty Whale.
"Why you're not majestic at all", laughed Ori, not really meaning to be cruel. ----- But the Ostrich appeared deeply hurt and his large lashed eyes welled with glowing tears. He turned his bald head away from her and stuck it in a rather poorly made artificial bush.
The Museum's dimness had wrapped itself around her now. Ori looked out at the many creatures gathered together in the room. Other than the sensitive ostrich, most of the awakened animals nervously paced their glass cages --- tense and watchful. She moved from case to case looking for the reason for their agitation, their alertness. She knew their moods, and the quadrupeds at least, were clearly spooked. Springbok, Gemsbok, Oryx and Ibex, Water Buffalo, and even the baby Giraffe, who usually greeted her by begging mutely behind his glass for an impossible head scratch, were looking off into the distance --- their breaths stirring the stiff hairs near their blackened nostrils. Through the doorway to the next room, she could see the impressive Monkey-Eating Eagle and his cellmate the Golden Eagle, tilting their heads and shifting their restless clawed feet on their perch. Further on, the diligent bright-eyed Meerkats stretched to the fullest of their tiny heights hoping to sense what was coming. Even the albino Cheetah looked away from her at something she could not see, away across his painted world. Perplexed, she came over to him, as she often did, the oldest of the animals of the Museum.
Acinonyx jubatus - Albino Cheetah
The Cheetah is an atypical member of the cat family (Felidae) that hunts by speed rather than by stealth or pack tactics. It is the fastest of all terrestrial animals and can reach speeds of up to 70 mph (110km/h). This particular Cheetah carries the mutation for albinism, first reported by the Moghul Emperor of India, Jahangir, who recorded having a white cheetah presented to him as a gift in 1608. He kept it on a golden chain in his favorite bedroom as his favorite object of fancy, but later regretted this folly deeply, when it killed and partially ate his favorite concubine. He is said to have immediately chartered a ship to Africa to return the Cheetah, out of respect. The Museum's albino Cheetah is the only know specimen in the world.
The Cheetah's spine was caved-in and sagging over pining for his day of discharge from this smudged crystal prison --- and also, Ori thought, perhaps from loneliness. He was after all the only one of his kind, and the carnivores never took their imprisonment well. His fur, brittle and almost clear, became many kinds of hoarfrost as he breathed --- waiting.
She passed from room to room, and in case after case, only the jocund little fennec foxes seemed unconcerned. Their big ears bobbed peacefully as they slept with tiny faces and trimmed claws. They were of the nocturnal persuasion, and not particularly concerned with the banal activities of the creatures of the day.
When the first of the animals, a little Bongo Antelope, burst into flames, she was unsurprised. Yes, she remembered --- in my dream. Ori had dreamed all night last night, tossing in a tangled sea of sweaty sheets; a new cocoon. She had been enveloped in a frothing white flood that carried away all her words, and as the waters had subsided she was washed onto a clear shore that was also a long corridor. She crouched on its edge, waiting...bits of seafoam still colonizing her hair. When she had entered the shadowy indistinct hallway, there along the walls had stood tall strangers who spoke to each other in a language she couldn't understand. From the windows of the hall, she could see a garden, in which a stone antelope stood, burning with a pale iridescent flame. She put her fingers in her ears and hummed to herself to drown out the strangers mumblings. In this way she was able to keep herself, and at the end of the hall she found a mercury stone that fit in the palm of her hand. It was an icicle compass, a raindrop mirror, and in it her face was smiling.
In a thrall and a bit dizzy from the dancing iridescent light, she placed her wicker case on the carpet and sat down upon it. As they went up in flames around her, each in turn: the Red Wolf, the Black Bear, the majestic Ostrich, and the baby Giraffe, the pair of Ocelots, and both of the Eagles, still shaking their feathers --- she remembered what she was here to do; why she left her tea and her wide-open window to come to the Museum today. Yes, she remembered --- in my dream. She turned quickly and ran back to the room where the Cheetah was waiting. Her hands pressed against the glass barrier, already hot. The words of her question spilled from her, quenching her parched throat.
The Cheetah turned and looked at her for a long sad moment, and then he too caught and burned like tinder in a drought. He was after all filled with sawdust.
As his beautiful pellucid fur curled and blackened like plastic icicles in a christmas-tree fire, a form, whiter still, emerged from the licking kissing tongues of flame. The albino Cheetah's ghost melted through walls of his crystal prison, and padded softly to the ground, chest narrow and high. His big cat feet were content as they took him away, across the room. In the doorway, he turned to look back at Ori, and she moved to walk after him, following his silence but unable to emulate his feline footsteps, which fell a few inches above the beige carpeted floor. He wove his way deeper into the Museum, past the smoking remains of friends, and paused in the shadowed doorway to the back-most room. She thought she saw him lick his lips, ghostly whiskers flicking. The room, she knew, was for the naming and archiving of the skeletons of small birds, each perched jauntily behind glass; mouths open, singing a bone song. Here, the Cheetah melted and burned for the second time --- this time into the air, his loosed haunches looking like the white sails of a clipper ship as he faded away.
The room was hung with silence, draped heavily across its dark corners in velvet curtains. And there in the furthest corner of the room was a child, curled up and animal in the dusty dark brown Museum shadows --- indistinct. Her vaporous guide now dissipated, Ori moved closer, having taken on the feline vector. The cat's icy inhalation was her own, and a feeling like regret had gotten inside her through that breath, and now clung to her spine. She felt the walls of a crystal glacier grown up around her, separating her from everyone else. Ori thought that if she so much as whispered to the child that the frozen air from her mouth would mirror over the little girl's bland round face with frost, and she would be left with only her blurred and thawing reflection.
The child was small and tidy, and reminded her of nothing so much as a smooth river stone. She was dressed in a neat woolen coat and a smocked dress, and as Ori approached her, she reached out a hand dusted with fine golden hairs. Ori heard the voices of the animals fading away far behind her, but into that muteness came a new small voice and the sorry fearful thing on her spine released. Ori hesitated, but then wrapped the proffered extremity, which seemed so slight, with her own small hand.
She led the child out of the room of bones. Bird skulls on blood flushed velvet cushions sang to them without tongues as they slipped by. Making their way out of the Museum, they passed a solitary uncharred animal, estranged within her glassy coffer. A Crocodile resting on a fabricated muddy bank guarded her counterfeit nest --- a mucky mess of assembled reeds, sticks and silicone caulking. "The Alligator's sad." said the child. It was true that great dark tears brimmed and spilled down the reptile's scaly cheeks, but Ori corrected her. "No", she said, shaking her head gently. Then she showed the child how to tell Alligators and Crocodiles apart by looking at their sharp yellow teeth.
She took the child home, and they ate their supper at the small flaked-paint table next to Ori's kitchen window, which had been shut against the coming of night. The child's eyes were like two round candle flames reflected in the glass, the eyes of a forest animal found-out by a roving flashlight. Ori took the child up the stairs into her bedroom, and placed her in the bed where she slept night after night. Why do we always sleep at night, she wondered, and never during the day? She liked the daytime and her wide-open window, but after the earth has turned its face away from the sun, there were the cries of night birds to be heard and animal eyes to be seen glowing from the darkness. In the bedroom there was bed, a table, a dresser. The dresser's top was scattered with arrowheads, geodes, conch shells, and treasure maps. She was sure that the petrified forests were there too, most likely in the closet. Ori kissed the child's small bland forehead goodnight. It was high and rounded, and the little girls eyes were deep and filled with leaves.
Ori dreamed again that she was in the hall of strangers. The walls were tall hedges of ash and rowan. Their leaves, their thickness, blocked the sky and made the forest one of twilight, always, always. She no longer saw the strange people or heard their incomprehensible words as she walked deeper into her dream. Beasts whispered from the thickets, and called out to her to follow, but she was searching for something. She was trying to find again the alcove where she placed her palm-sized frosted glass, her mirrored lodestone, but there was no longer a path.
Ori moved in her sleep and it woke the little girl. The child looked over at her wheat-colored hair and her sleeping forehead, high and rounded, inviting her touch. She reached over the sea tumbled sheets and with one neat finger tapped twice. "Wake up."