Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand

Entrance

There’s a ticket booth on my tongue.

Don’t look in my eyes, don’t plead curiosity, you won’t get anywhere with that. Try it and you’ll see your reflection in my sea-green gaze: your shadow sprinting through the heavy glass doors. You’ll smell a whiff of brine, perhaps something more volatile. You’ll be caught and held, while your likeness departs. You don’t want that.

No one wants to be pinned between an entrance and an exit, unless you’re part of the show.

Here’s what you do instead: drop your dime on the rose carpet, just there. Don’t pick it up. The carpet’s sticky. Don’t ask why. Stare at my lips, my hands clasped over my velvet skirts, what rests below that, and wait.

If you’re worthy, I’ll say the word. Your dime gets you a look and a souvenir. Your hands are beautiful, did you know that?

 

Welcome

Three steps backwards: follow me. See the boiserie panels, carved with nymphs and satyrs and stained just so? See the seam between the boards? Push on that, right there, until it parts. You can see the hinges now in the shadows between the nymphs. Hold the door open and let me pass through. The wood feels warm to the touch, your fingers brush a leg, a horn.

Wait there. Let me light the way before you. Phosphorous hisses against air, kisses the kerosene lamp wick. We’ve had electric since the collection began, but most of us feel gas is easier on the eyes. It was our first disagreement with the curator.

A shadow ducks low, then high. You hear soft breathing, a giggle. Curious?

You’re too big to fit through that small hatch. Most guests are. You’ll have to crouch, chest to knees, head down so you can feel your lungs press your spine.

Now duck-walk, your fingertips dragging on the rose carpet, until red lint clings to your cuticles. Move beyond the nymphs, into the wood, the wall.

You think you’ll be able to straighten once you’re through the door, but the ceiling’s too low. Keep your stoop. Bend your knees and wish, only for a moment, that you were smaller. Notice the mirrors, set high in the walls, like eyes.

Don’t worry, I’ll stay right behind you.

 

A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed

Observe: here are several obvious groupings: fishhooks (seventy, mostly steel, a few bone), one hundred fifteen clambroth marbles. Glass cases of them, lining the walls. Pencil nubs, matches, rows upon rows of teeth. Don’t touch the glass just yet.

Yes, those are butterflies. Someone always tries to eat a butterfly. It tastes like dust.

There are three hundred fifty worms there, the longer ones rolled up in apothecary jars along the wall. Here are the instruments used for removal. Notes on the amount of time each extraction took. The state of the patient before and after, clearly lettered with a mostly steady hand.

Don’t miss the cases, their drawers of pins and needles, thimbles too, as if we could sew ourselves back together from the inside. The jacks and rubber balls, the charms, for good luck. That last drawer contains beetles. They are a particular delicacy, especially the large ones. They taste like solder and licorice, but don’t eat the claws.

Come this way, the ceilings grow higher in the next room. You won’t have to stoop much longer.

 

A Radium Room

Stop there, your feet within the box marked with black tape. Stay very still. The X-ray device hums as it warms up, but don’t let it worry you. The technology is very safe. Hold still. Let me slide a film in and I’ll take an image of your soul. Hold Still.

Your cellulose shade and shadow came out beautifully. You may move now. A few streaks of still-pure hope run the film’s darkness. Unless that’s bone? I can cut that out if you like.

No, you can’t keep the image. It goes in our collection with the others. Careful of your fingers, we don’t want prints. Neatly write your name on the tape at the corner. The date too. These details are important.

Silly, you thought that was your souvenir?

We spread the souls on the floor sometimes, during staff breaks. Look at them, debate their merits.

Keep moving. Through that doorway. Watch your head.

 

A Room of Objects That Are Really People

Here, straighten up now. Hurts, doesn’t it, all the tiny bones settling back into place? We have pins, if you like, to help hold you together.

Maybe take this chair. I’ll push you around. The wheels squeak on the wood floor, and the chair is really more of a bin. Don’t mind the parts in there with you, the arms bent at angles, some screws missing; the legs, still braced, the leather straps, the metal bits and the plastic… remember, plastic’s newer and we don’t really respect anyone who’s turned on by that. Comfy?

I wish you could see yourself. Slouching! You’re becoming a mess. Mouth wide open. And that stare. At the glass cases, at me. Surely you’ve seen us before, on the street? In a shop? Surely you haven’t gaped quite so much. Is it the ceiling? Impressive, with all the mirrors?

Perspective. The angle you choose, how you observe us, makes everything change. You’re nearly lying down now, which is fine. Relax. I’ll push you along.

You see, I can walk just as quickly as you, despite what the posters say. You’re wondering how. You’re imagining what’s beneath my skirts. You think you can guess at me. You think you hear scales scuffing the old wood floor.

You might. But see here, the cabinets here are so nicely illuminated. They’re walnut, you know. Brass fittings. Take a moment to stare at them. You paid your money, you might as well have a look.

Don’t be shy, the cabinets are here for your comfort. It’s like looking at dolls, as the posters say. That’s why you came. For the strange dolls in the grotesquerie. The Oddities.

We’re keeping the lights low. Any brighter hurts our eyes, bounces off the mirrors. You can still see the finer details, if you lean really close. We’ve left the glass off the fronts, just for you. Touch the sutures, the pins, if you like. Try to push aside the velvet skirting to see the workings below. We’re all like dolls here, with some spare parts. Interchangeable. May I take your hand?

That’s right. Good.

Let me catalog our alphabet of differences for you. Here are the heads, the horns, the holes where they tried to let out headaches. Here are the spines, curved like serpents. Here, the jars of jellies with heads too big to be human. A pair of burly palms like beetle’s claws, skin tight over bone.

Here are the doubles and triples, the cephalics, their two legs supporting so much thought. The twins, wrapped around one another like trees. Here is the stone baby, we found him in the trash. See his marble skin, worn away where someone had been touching him too much? We’ve been teaching him his letters.

 

Our Curator’s Special Collection

Through here, the lights are brighter. I can’t fit your bin past the door, but that is the curator’s desk, his chair. His coat, hung neatly, his stethoscope, the rubber gone a bit rot. He always kept very good notes. Paid well, too.

He’d seen the Royal Collection in Denmark, the walls crowded, the glass containers and the formalin. He’d once wondered aloud what such a display might cost. But he wasn’t cruel. He wanted to fix us. Or, at least pin us still so he could study us, like you’re studying the articulated skeleton in the corner. It was for posterity. Never confuse good intentions for malice. A friend told me that once. He’s not here now, not really.

Am I holding your hand too tight? No? You can barely feel it? Good. We’ll keep moving, then. More to see.

 

A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp

Lie still, this is what you paid for. I can’t push any faster. Heavy bins are difficult to pivot around corners, as are tails. You could be more considerate.

You might recognize these cases. Medical tools, some very old. Many rusty hinges. Of course that’s rust. Ancient. You all love the tools so much. The spreaders, the extractors, the mechanical leeches.

Open the drawers of Items We’ve Let Touch Us Because Someone Just Like You Said It Would Make Us Well. The hooks and saws, the foul tastes and that stuff that made us gag and didn’t make us any better. You all wrote neat words down about each experiment anyway and that made you better. Details matter, like on the X-ray. Angles, perspective. Lie back. Hold my hand again. You see the mirrors? They’re too high for us to see ourselves in, always. But we can see you with them, no matter where we are.

We can see you, and you can see us as we really are.

Remember the way we turned to bone and stone when you looked at us on the street? Froze, waiting to see what you’d say? Imagine the pain of it, the hardening of each joint when you thought that word, the non-scientific one, the one that rhymes with eek. You feel it, don’t you. That chill down your spine, the hardening? Yeah, we know. That’s why you pay your dime.

So we’ll stay quiet and let you look.

 

The Hall of Criminals and Saints

One more room. Through this arch. Don’t worry about my skin, it flakes now, when I’m too long out of water. The scales fall from me like coins and people swallow them.

Here are my last loves. I’m always one for the bad boys, the good ones too. The first name’s blurred, damp, but you can see he was strong. Broad brow, firm jaw. He wasn’t really a criminal, but his skull matched the phrenologist’s map. They locked him up behind glass, just to be safe. This one was a criminal, but they didn’t catch him. He came here on his own, looking for us. See how similar his skull is to my love’s? To yours?

Here is my best friend, her black and gold wings tacked to the wall with seventeen #7 steel mounting pins, her gilt-flecked glass eyes, so like marbles, focused on the ceiling. Wore out her blue eyes, she did, trying to find differences among our guests. You are all so alike. We used the best marbles. Don’t look at her eyes. You haven’t earned that yet.

You’ve earned admission. A catalog. A touch of seams, of beetle’s claw. A place on the floor, no more. Not our eyes.

Look here, my children, bone and dust. You didn’t think I could have those? Neither did we. They were a surprise, the small fish, their mouths so beautiful before they were hooked.

Stay quiet, it will be over soon—

 

This Way to the Exit

Stay quiet. The lights dazzle your eyes too now. We’d never tell you that you all look odd to us. That would be rude. We’d never stare. But the truth isn’t kind: you’re all kind of boring, really. Identical eyes and matching limbs, smooth faces and parts all in the same order every time you come through. The curator was boring too, once we looked close enough.

But you’re changed now, at least a bit. A touch of chitin, those beetle hands. They look good on you. They match your soul: Luminous and opaque.

Would you like to stop at the gift shop? No? Would you like a pill, a potion? There’s a taste on my tongue, like brine. Something volatile. Here is a kiss to remind you. Here is a story to take home. A parting gift. A souvenir.

Your kind always leaves so terribly, gaze darting from seam to seam, then to sticky carpet, to my sharp eyes, my tongue, then, finally, the exit. You crawl and stumble: building up speed, tapping your ineffectual hands beautifully against the glass.

(Editors’ Note: “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” is read by Amal El-Mohtar and Fran Wilde is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 18A.)

Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo, and include her Andre Norton- and Compton-Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

Steven Gould

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