Authors: Stacy Carlson
Copyright: © 2011 Stacy Carlson
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to:
Steerforth Press L.L.C.
45 Lyme Road, Suite 208, Hanover, NH 03755
Earlier versions of chapter seven and eight
were previously published in
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Among the wonderful : a novel / Stacy Carlson. – 1st ed.
1. Barnum’s American Museum–Fiction. 2. Barnum, P. T.
(Phineas Taylor), 1810-1891–Fiction. 3. Curiosities and
wonders–Fiction. 4. New York (N.Y.)–History–1775-1865–
Fiction. I. Title.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
For Jason and Djuna
The water below did not surge or recoil. It neither splashed — not from where I could see — nor frothed. No current swept it along the coast and no moon pulled it to tides. I watched the slow rolling of this gray syrup while the steamer
pushed thickly on, seeming to labor more than water should demand.
“Shh. Look!” The deckside breeze carried an exaggerated female whisper directly to my ear. “Right there. I
I did not look. I clenched the railing, aware that I could rip it free of its stanchions and hurl it toward this noise, this intrusion. Were my hours, days, years of being gazed upon not enough to earn me a moment’s privacy? Rage flooded back, filling the contours gouged last night by Mr. Ramsay (I will never say his Christian name again) shouting after me as I left Toronto once and for all. But I would not wheel around and claw the air. I would not throw the benches arranged so tidily on the steamer’s top deck. I would not give that whispered voice the satisfaction. Instead I peered into the water.
No delicate creatures inhabited these depths. The only fish alive down there scooted blindly above a muddy carpet, skin flaking, jaws filtering stagnant water in search of wormy food. I ignored the brightness of the sky and the mindless tumble of gulls. I perceived the eyes of the two women boring through my back. I was sure they discussed their strange luck that I should be here for them to behold.
I imagined the water sucking me down to a place untroubled by any pulse. Gravity, that appalling master of the body, loosened its grip for once. My preposterous heft sloughed away and I drifted, deliciously weightless. In one swift motion I could be there. I willed Lake Ontario to yield more of this perverse solace even as my mind clamped tight around it: Drowning, indeed. What a ridiculous notion.
“Look! Look!” the women cried again, their bleats barely distinguishable from the gulls.
I turned, then, and there I was, reflected in their small, astonished faces and their delicate gasps. I straightened to my full height and cooled the rage with your words, with what you’d told me, Mother, time after time:
You are a mirror held up in front of other people, Ana, which reflects their truest selves
. But if that is so, then truly all humanity is an abomination.
“Look! There it is!” And then I saw that they were pointing past me. “America.”
She was right: It was there on the horizon — a drowsy leviathan drawing closer every moment, casting its hungry eyes across the waters.
They had discarded the egret. And strangely, the lynx. As he approached the building Guillaudeu observed that someone had draped a burlap sack around the wild cat and left it on the sidewalk. But the covering had half fallen away, exposing taut feline shoulders poised for attack. Inside the museum the lynx had inspired awe among the visitors. But against this new backdrop of street refuse, and in the bold morning light, the specimen had the look of a bleached housecat enchanted by a ball of dust.
Until very recently, the changes had all been to the exterior of the building. The brick façade had disappeared under layers of whitewash and teams of men had painted oval portraits across the face of the structure, depicting everything from elephants to the Annunciation. They had even rebuilt the balcony, and judging from the crowds that now filled it, this narrow promenade over Broadway was as entertaining as the museum’s contents, if not more so.
Guillaudeu did not appreciate the new owner’s gaudy taste. He averted his eyes from the huge transparency at the museum entrance that bore the smiling, bare-breasted image of the museum’s most recent acquisition: a mermaid. In his irritated mind, he shuffled through the myriad upsets in routine that had occurred since that scoundrel had taken ownership of the museum: the new exhibits, the theater, the rooftop restaurant, and on each floor an army of concessionaires. The whole place was a roiling mess.
He watched three men leave the building. One carried the white-faced ibis by the neck. The others struggled at each end of a reindeer. He did not betray even a hint of displeasure, though he felt an urgent desire to snatch back the ibis.
The first visitors of the day formed a line outside the ticket window, and a vendor was selling them hot corn and coffee. Guillaudeu continued into the entrance hall, pushing through the inner door just behind a man and his young daughter.
“A Chinaman pulled her up in a net!” the girl sang out as she skipped ahead of her father. “She’s got hair mixed with seaweed and a necklace of pearls!”
The man hurried as the girl bounded up the first steps of the great marble stairway that led to the exhibits. She had holes in her stockings, and her father moved stiffly in a worn oilcloth coat.
Guillaudeu walked past the door to his own office; like the patrons, he had business on the second floor before the day’s true work began.
“Here, Margaret. This way!” the father called.
“I can almost
her.” The girl’s voice was frantic as she approached the exhibit.
Guillaudeu heard a shriek but he did not stop. He was already well aware that the desiccated horror the girl now beheld was nothing like the siren depicted on the transparency hanging outside the museum, and it was certainly nothing like the image she had coveted in her mind. When he glanced toward them, the father was making the sign of the Cross. Guillaudeu hurried around the corner without meeting his eye.
His footsteps echoed as he walked across the portrait gallery where the blank faces of monarchs and presidents added their gazes to the empty air. At the far end he turned left into Gallery Three. He found the sloth in its handsome pergola, sleeping high in the crook of a dead tree trunk. It squatted with its long arms folded around its legs and sunlight from the gallery’s high windows warming its back.
Guillaudeu had hoped that by now a proper naturalist
would have been hired; he resented the amount of his time that had been wasted worrying over the museum’s newest inhabitants.
“You’re an odd sort of fellow,” said Guillaudeu to the lump of gray-brown fur that acted as if sleeping in a museum were the thing one was born to do. With one hand Guillaudeu clutched a small parcel wrapped in newspaper and with the other he twisted the end of his mustache, which, though his hair was white, remained the color of cinnamon. The creature was in precisely the same place as when Guillaudeu had visited the pergola the previous afternoon.
In an absurdly languorous movement the sloth raised its head. It lifted its arm and soundlessly scratched its armpit. Then the animal directed its attention toward the ceiling.
“How can an animal never come down to the ground?” Guillaudeu was unaccustomed to analyzing animal behavior, never having had to account for it during his thirty-eight years as a taxidermist. “Who wants a sloth in a museum anyway?”
He located the key to the pergola in his waistcoat pocket. He unlocked it and unwrapped his parcel, which contained half a cabbage. He pulled apart the outer leaves and placed the vegetable in the sloth’s tin bowl, which still held the two uneaten carrots and several brown lettuce leaves of yesterday’s meal. The creature now appeared to be gazing out the window, where the diffuse light of a March morning brightened.