Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Girl with the Crooked Spine

Her skin is like leather. What remains of her reddish blond hair sits in a tuft beside her mummified head. She has no arms or legs, though both her feet and right hand lay alongside her torso. The eyes deteriorated almost two thousand years ago, long before her well-preserved body was dug out of the peat in the village of Yde in Bourtangermoor, Netherlands, and placed in this traveling exhibit. She was sixteen years old the day she died, and her spine, not unlike Patrick’s, was horribly twisted by scoliosis.

Archaeologists call her Yde Girl. Patrick calls her Edie.

Propped up next to the body’s display case is a reconstruction photo, a wax head that depicts what the teen might have looked like in life. Here she has long, wavy, reddish blonde hair, an oddly high forehead, and what some might consider an intelligent yet sad countenance.

Other attractions in the Bog Bodies of Europe exhibit include Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and the Girl of the Uchter Moor, among others, each fragmented body displayed in small, personalized exhibit rooms adjoined by dim corridors.

* * *

It is a late Sunday afternoon in January. Snow accumulates outside the Field Museum in Chicago, long drifts rising across the steps of the main entrance. In the distance, Snowy Owls, on winter leave from Canada, sit on elongated water breaks, their sleepy, golden eyes scanning for ducks on the gray surface of Lake Michigan. Few cars populate the streets, and despite the storm, Patrick has come to see Edie. It’s his fourth visit.

Patrick wiggles out of his backpack, letting it slide down his left shoulder, the side of him that is slightly higher than his right. Hiding behind red bangs, he glances at Edie’s reconstruction photo, the version of her he prefers (though he does address the fragmented body now and then, so as to not seem disrespectful). He unzips his backpack, retrieves a spiral notebook.

“How are you today?” Patrick asks her shyly. “Man, there’s a really n-nasty storm out there. We almost didn’t come, but I told my mom I had to take notes for a research paper on bog bodies, and that it’s due tomorrow.” He laughs. “She has no idea I made the whole thing up! Anyway, we came here on the bus today and walked around a bit. She’s over in the gift shop now.”

Though Edie’s hardships had undoubtedly been more profound than his own, Patrick did identify with how he imagined she must have felt. Surely she had been stared at, pointed at, laughed at—all by ignorant and superstitious people that did not, or would not, understand her deformity. This deformity had probably led to her death, as it was theorized she had been brutally beaten, choked, and stabbed in a sacrifice to the gods.

Now the ancient girl’s naked remains lay exposed in wizened, leathery fragments atop a sterile white slab—a static, lonely darkness curling tightly about her glass display case. Worst of all is the frayed rope, an instrument of her death, still wrapped loosely about her neck.

“You should’ve seen it, Edie,” Patrick says, shuffling closer to the photo. “There’s this gorgeous Cecropia Moth in the entomology exhibit. It’s huge!” He shifts his torso to the right in an attempt to gain comfort in his back brace. “You know, it’s the largest saturniid—I-I mean, giant silk moth—in North America. At night, in summer, you can find them by artificial lights.”

Realizing she may not understand “artificial lights,” Patrick gestures to the track lighting over her display case.

“Most people aren’t even aware those types of moths exist. It’s kinda sad, actually.” He drops his eyes, follows a swirl in the floor pattern, then quietly adds, “Before my dad died, he used to show me all the best places to find them. That’s when I really got interested in science and stuff.”

Frowning, he bites his lower lip. “I keep trying to get my mom to go find them with me, but besides butterflies, she pretty much hates insects. She thinks they’re all going to bite her. My friend Andrew, though, he used to help me catch them all the time. He even had his own net. That was awhile ago though, before he got hooked on video games n’ stuff. So . . . I usually just go out by myself now. Kinda lame, huh?”

Edie lays silent in her display case. All is quiet but for the subdued howling of the wind over the museum.

With growing acceptance, Patrick has imagined that Edie’s presence now lingers inside the tight space of the exhibit. The presence grows stronger, more feminine—more intimate it seems—with each of his visits. And today, perhaps because the museum is virtually empty, he welcomes the feeling that she has leaned up against his crooked body and under his arm for comfort, the snowstorm blowing forcefully across the high roof. In such an atmosphere, mixed with the quietude of the museum’s closing hour, Patrick thinks he can hear her breathing within the persistent drone of the heating vents, occasionally feeling a slight flinch from her asymmetrical shoulders when a far-off door slams or a noisy child disturbs the tranquility. Her hair gives off the scent of heather, or so he imagines, and this makes him feel as if they are together in a lush, boundless moor.

“I wrote you something,” Patrick confesses, opening his notebook. “It’s nothing special, just—”

He flips to the desired page, freckled face turning a light shade of red. “Well, it’s . . . it’s sort of a poem.”

He begins to read quietly, so as to not be heard outside the thin, temporary walls of the exhibit. He struggles a bit with the title: “To a Girl from Bourt-a-an-ger-moor.”

The track lighting flickers, its low, electric hum filling the boxed-in exhibit space. Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo stares across the room as Patrick begins to read.

“For Edie, from Patrick.”

Shadows pulsate across the off-white walls, stretch and retract as the display lights continue to flicker. Patrick twists his torso, presses a free hand over his back brace. His voice grows soft.

“I am here, as a friend
a kindred soul from tomorrow
to offer my heart and mind
to a girl who knows much sorrow”

The storm howls and whips across the sky. And though the massive building seems impenetrable, a rogue wind finds its way in and wanders sharply down the marmoreal, columned halls. Floor by floor it brushes against glass cases and interpretive signs of myriad exhibits, past the Charles Knight murals, in and out of gift shop and café, through the angry skeleton of Sue the T. rex.

“Oh my gawd, Brian, this one is really gross!” A woman in her early twenties, holding hands with a guy who looks visibly exhausted by the museum, comes bounding into Yde Girl’s exhibit from the corridor. Patrick back steps into the darkness. The woman snaps a few quick, thoughtless pictures of the bog body with her cell phone and the couple giggles their way out.

Patrick sighs, shakes his head as he eases back into the weak light of the display case. “I’m so sick of people like that. Stupid, self-centered idiots—I hate them!”

For several minutes he stares into a corner, lost in thought. He turns back to Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo, admires her through the curtain of his dangling hair then says, “I’m sorry, Edie. I just get so mad sometimes. I don’t get why people have to act like that. It’s beyond rude!” He regards Edie’s fragmented remains. “And you know what else? I wouldn’t care if I never saw another human being again for as long as I live. I’m serious. There isn’t anyone else besides you that I—” He turns away, blushing. “Never mind. I’m sure you’re sick of me by now, anyway. I’ll just . . . I’ll just finish reading this stupid thing and go.”

He lifts the notebook, angles it into the light. Dust falls from the edge of the display case as a large mote floats into the darkness. He finds his place in the poem.

“I give you these words
that arose from our meeting
to help end the loneliness
that the both of us are feeling

An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, indicating that the museum will be closing in ten minutes.

“Patrick, the museum’s going to close in ten minutes.” It’s Patrick’s mother. She’s sticking her head into the exhibit.

“I know, mom. Everyone hears that announcement. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Just letting you know. We need to get going or we’ll miss the next bus.”

Her head retreats into the corridor and Patrick follows her footsteps as they move along the walls of the exhibit, going a short distance until they reach a nearby bench. He hears her sit down and rummage through her purse.

Patrick rolls his eyes. “Parents,” he says in a low voice. In the photo, Yde Girl stares off to Patrick’s left. The eye sockets of her partially collapsed head are set directly on him.

A bit unsteady on his feet, and grimacing in pain from having stood too long in one spot, Patrick supports the bulk of his weight against the display case as he recites the final lines of the poem.

“Let’s break the barrier
let’s walk hand in hand
across the moors of time & space
to a city of our own land”

A security guard approaches the exhibit as he goes about his route.

“My son’s in there,” Patrick’s mother says, pointing with one hand and snapping shut her compact with the other. “He’s taking notes for a school paper. He’ll be out in just a minute.” She smiles at the man, who responds with a lazy yawn. Outside, the blizzard presses up against the museum.

And then—pop!

Shards of broken glass crackle to the floor and echo across the museum.

The guard spins on his heel, tears a flashlight from his belt, scrambles into the exhibit. Patrick’s mother follows, slams into the man as they dead stop at the other end of the corridor. A low, rolling fog drifts past their legs. The odor of rotten peat permeates the air.

The fog, having floated out of Yde Girl’s demolished display case, starts to dissipate. Now visible on the white slab, and wobbling to a stop, is Patrick’s back brace, the rope from the bog body underneath it. Neither the boy nor Yde Girl are anywhere in sight.

Patrick’s mother screams. The security guard throws a meaty arm across her lunging body as he yells into his radio. She falls back, shouts her son’s name from the wall. The guard steps forward cautiously, shines his flashlight into each corner of the room.

Nothing.

Worried about the broken glass, and troubled by the realization that the display case blew apart from the inside out, he grabs the woman by the arm and pulls her out of the exhibit. No further trace of Patrick or Yde Girl was ever found.
 
 
THE END
 
 
First published in Volume 9, Issue 2 of Electric Spec.
 

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