By Rafe Martin
Late at night in the Museum of Natural History the dust drifts and settles slowly. It falls through captured ages, where nothing living stirs. Not a muscle shifts in any of the dioramas and displays. The head of the sperm whale remains forever wrapped in the tentacles of the giant squid. The grin of the icthyosoaur, remains immutably locked in its slab of grey stone these 80,000,000 years. The tyrannosaur’s huge brown bones remain firmly wired together. The African elephants are always poised in mid-step. The indigenous Amazonian has raised a blowpipe that he will never lower. The cougars are at ease, relaxed as they peer down from their rocky ledge in the Grand Canyon to the river below. The jaguar looks across the red, sunset-lit Sonoran desert. The mountain gorilla, fists on its massive chest, stands upright among dark green, glossy leaves. The antelope alertly stare, always on the edge of springing away, but never do. Two bull moose strain massively, antlers locked, deep in ancient conflict, froth dripping yet never falling from their muzzles.
Nothing changes, except the viewers. They stream past first as children with parents, then alone with boyfriends, girlfriends, then with wives, husbands, and then, more often with their own children. Then at last, they come alone again, a few times, but white-haired now. And, then, they come no more.
But in the unflow of the museum, time stops. Animal, human, prehistoric or current time, each is caught like a snowflake on velvet. Room by room, time by time, each permanently preserved, static, unique. As a child I loved those elusive captured moments of animal stealth or passion, fury or grace, of eerie, glass-eyed curiosity and stiffened calm.
One of the last photos I took of my parents is of them standing beside the skeleton of triceratops in the museum’s Jurassic hall. I had no flash but, though the light was dim, I had held the camera steady enough so that everything is too clear. His face is resigned, calm, the eyes flecked with sorrow and some anger. He is big-boned, not tall, with fine wrists and feet, but solid, and wished he was bigger, then, able to hold off what must come. She was in the midst of her chemotherapy, already painfully thin. She’d cut her long hair short. Her face is brave, the cheekbones high, unyielding, a face that offers light. They are old lovers standing before fossilized bones, ancient ribs and thighs dark as wet earth.
A year after my mother’s death, two years after that photo was taken, my father and I went back to the museum together. Through the kindness of a storyteller friend, I’d been invited to tell stories at midnight in the Museum’s magnificent Hall of Ocean Life to members and their children who would be sleeping there in a museum member’s special event.
You know that hall? It’s wide-open, huge as a great cathedral. A long-tentacled giant squid hangs over the entrance, where immense spider-like king crabs guard the narrow way. You walk in beneath them and the great hall opens before you, so huge it takes your breath away. Sharks swim along the walls around the great rotunda. A life-size blue whale glides before you, immense, arched in a shallow diving curve from the high ceiling vault.
You go down the stairs on either side, lower and lower until the whale, large as a transoceanic airliner and long, it seems, as a city block, hangs suspended high above your head. Dioramas encircle you, bright-lit except for one. Walk over to it. It looks empty it’s so dark inside it. There seems to be nothing behind the glass. You’re about to say “They should put up an ‘out of order’ sign on this one,” when you suddenly grasp what you are seeing. You are in ocean’s blackness, far below all light and, in that eternal dark, the blunt head of a sperm whale and the round eye and sinuous tentacles of a giant squid are wonderfully entwined. It’s a brilliant and subtle display, after all. Turn around. Orcas spyhop, seals rise up onto ice floes, penguins run and dive, dolphins leap, elephant seals rear, walrus’ stare, but all without any movement, any sound or smell. You’re in the center of a great, bright, frozen tableau, a carefully molded three dimensional, lifelike, glistening skin and plastic frieze. In those dioramas the sea flows on, silently, revealing its creatures and worlds beneath its surface.
This was a dream come true. I had always wanted to walk in a museum at night, in the quiet and aloneness. As we were early, and no one was yet gathered in the Hall of Ocean life for the performance, I felt we had enough time to visit a dark, sacred place – the North West Coast Hall. Long, rectangular, and dark, that hall is filled with massive carved totem poles, great wooden house beams, and somber murals of indigenous peoples. There are astonishingly beautiful and complex masks there of octopus, raven, bear, orca, wolf and splendidly woven capes that open out into thunderbirds.
For my father being in there was pretty strange. As we walked from glass case to glass case, carved pole to pole, I talked with him about our old times. I asked if he remembered bringing me here when I was young. Those had been important events for me, forming a connection to something I’d felt, but had no language for.
“Did I bring you here?” he responded hesitatingly. “Really? In here?”
“Yes,” I said. “They didn’t feel separate. See? Under this raven’s face mask there’s a human face. In the octopus mask, look—see it? – a woman’s tiny head. They felt it all as part of their own bodies.”
Outside lay the city, night, and cool rain falling. Inside, all around us was forest and sea. My father sat down on a bench, his plaid wool scarf draped over his neck, his suede jacket draped over his arm, smelling of pipe tobacco, just as he had when I had first walked with him into this room so many years before.
I left him there and walked further on into the quiet, semi-lit hall heading towards the far end, looking as I went into glass cases and up at the murals and the huge, carved standing poles. At one point I thought I heard footsteps, and thought, too, that I felt the presence of someone nearby. I looked up to say, “Look at this . . . ” thinking it was him. Only he was still sitting on the bench, down at the other end of the dimly lit hall.
I looked again. Beside one of the huge, dark, carved wooden beams I saw – or thought I saw—a woman running across the polished floor. When she passed beneath one of the dimmed spotlights, its light yellow, old as a dying flame, I may have cried out. She was . . . covered with fur that made a soft halo around her as it caught the light. I grabbed the edge of the display case and watched as she disappeared down an unlit corridor. I took a breath, like a diver before a leap, and went after. When I peered into the corridor I didn’t see a thing. But I thought I heard faint breathing and soft footfalls. I caught the scent of a musk, too, like that of a wild forest with its dry leaves, and a cool stream flowing beneath stars. Did an owl hoot softly? Did trees cast shadows on those walls? My body felt transparent. Everything that moved in the mind, in the forests, mountains or seas, moved as if within my body. Nothing had distance from the center of whatever I was, was me. Time was fluid, permeable, carrying whispers in images that flowed back and forth like bubbles in a tide. Hands out, feeling my way in darkness along the wall, heart pounding, I groped down the darkened corridor. And came to a locked door. I felt the metal handle and seemed to find faint traces of warmth left by a touch, the smooth residue of a body’s oil.
Had I seen this woman before? Where? Years back when my wife and I built a shelter of driftwood and tarp and lived for a few weeks on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The tides surged in through corridors of rock, where thousands of red and purple starfish pulsed. In the wiry forest that backed up to the cliffs, beach, and sea as I walked one evening at twilight I thought I saw something dark and upright. Deer? Bear? Sasquatch? I pushed recklessly into the undergrowth, got scratched by the scaly branches and twigs, hearing the ocean tide running in, beating on the rocks.
In the semidarkness I thought I caught a glimpse of a woman like this one now, naked and veiled in fur. For a moment she stood illuminated, half-turned in the fading light. Then she was gone, lost among the trees. In the salt tang I caught a faint musk like the one I sensed now in the bare museum corridor. Or, perhaps it had all been a dream. Perhaps I was mixing things up, losing memories to stories: Bear Woman skirts the village, rises on her hind legs, sniffs the air. Is there a human husband here?
I stumbled, heavy with a sudden heat, back out of the narrow, empty hallway into the great dim hall. My father had risen from the bench and was walking around, peering into glass cases and up at the darkened murals and beams. He looked like a traveler, a man on a journey whose directions might be unclear and he’s anxious about that, but is still determined to go.
As a young man with an engineering background and the imperfect vision which kept him from becoming a pilot, he had served as a navigator in World War II, flying the Himalayas, the dreaded Hump, on search and rescue missions, going into jungles, saving downed fliers, trading opium with Naga headhunters to encourage them to protect Americans flyers. Always precise and clear and careful with his maps, he lay in the plexi-glass nose of a B-25, and flew over peaks and jungles. In C-47s he threaded his way though what was said to be the most treacherous flying of the war, where heavily loaded planes hit their ceiling before those peaks were passed, and the winds were so fierce that forward motion ground to zero, making the planes hang suspended, like insects in amber.
He looked up and saw me and walked over, his brow lined, creased and furrowed like a map that had been folded and reused and refolded too many times.
“We should go,” he said anxiously, looking at his watch. “Won’t they be looking for you?”
“What? No. We’re okay for a few minutes yet. But Dad, uh, did you see anyone, a woman, maybe, in here?”
He turned his big head towards me, the dark brows heavy, the eyes sunk in shadow. “She comes to me. We sit at the table while I plead with her to return. She drinks coffee like when she was alive, smiles, and says, no, she’s not coming back, not ever, at least not to stay.” He pauses, gathering strength. The head winds are strong. But he pushes on, refusing to give ground. “The Man Upstairs,’ . . .” he said, pointing up toward the ceiling, “he’s not right in the head. He takes good people like your mother—who did she ever hurt? — He takes them, and twists and breaks them with pain, while monsters, like that that Mengele; that Nazi they found in Brazil, He lets live long, healthy lives! It’s been a year and still I wake feeling her still there beside me. But when I open my eyes she’s gone. She’s part of me. Where could she go?”
I said, “Grandma Minnie told me that Grandpa Abe would come to her after he died and they would talk. She said I shouldn’t tell you or Mom. You’d think she was crazy.”
“I didn’t know that,” he says. “I never knew.”
“So, did you see anything . . . strange in here, in this room?”
“Strange?” he answered looking at me. “You’re still so young. How can you know how strange life really is?”∎