illustration by Luke Ramsey
by Shelly Drummond
At age six, his brother told him roaches crawled over his eyelids at night, eating the crust of sleep that collected along his lashes. The idea of flat bugs skittering up his fingers and onto his face terrorized him. He refused to sleep on the floor. No backyard camping, no sleepovers in Star Wars sleeping bags. The fear of flicking antennae brushing his lips as he lay helpless and unknowing, affected him even at the age of twenty. He told her the story late one Saturday night over breakfast in a too well-lit Waffle House somewhere on I-95. He laughed about it, his arm swung confidently over the back of the pea green booth; but she saw an almost imperceptible shiver pass over his face. He hid a well-tempered twitch just to the left of his nose. She laughed
with him and tried to break an uncomfortable silence with witticisms.
She had known him for exactly four days. Five if you counted the day of the funeral. Both friends of a friend who volunteered to drive the two hours to the service, they met that morning as they piled into a Chevy Nova. The funeral was one of the devastating kind, filled with murder and the violence of strangers. They spent the ride there waxing poetic on tragedy and death. They were all dressed in black and during the service they tolerated the religious answers that didn’t reconcile the loss.
Afterwards they all stopped for lunch, trying to fill the void, and slowly the mood changed.
Not because of any sense of closure or peace, but rather the resilience of youth. They rode back with windows down and the oldies radio station blaring. They sang an affirmation of their lives and shared the laughter of bitter youth while Death in red cowboy boots nodded to Elvis in the backseat.
The funeral had been on a Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon he came by her house after work and they sat on the porch steps flicking ants and talking. The smell of a neighbor’s pot roast lay heavy in the air and wrapped around tired jokes about priests and leprechauns. Somewhere in-between the gravy and reluctant laughs, he mentioned the Walter Reed Pathological Museum.
“What?” She was not sure she heard him right.
“It’s a museum in D.C., they’ve got all kinds of stuff there, six-legged lambs in a jar, a mummy from a cave in Kentucky…We should go. What are you doing Saturday?”
The funeral is significant here because that red-booted specter had followed her home and it was his shadow on the porch that compelled her to accept the date. She was afraid not going would be equivalent to slow rotting with carrots and potatoes. So, Saturday morning found them in her green Karmann Ghia en route to a mythical museum he had visited ten years ago, a museum that may not even exist anymore.
That morning, in the confines of the car, fleeting images of feathers and fur entwined with the steam rising from Styrofoam coffee cups. Bone figurines were etched into the windshield as it fogged over the car filled with memories of fantastic creatures pecked out in stone pillars. Their conversation moved through museums like the small steps of grade school children echoing in marble halls. They recalled a whale suspended from the ceiling, mouth open to reveal a huge fibrous filter designed to catch plankton. She talked about seeing the pinched faces of Egyptian mummies in an exhibit in Richmond. It was on a school field trip and the docent had filed the kids pass the mummies quickly. Mesmerized, she had tried to stop and get a better look, but her teacher took her hand to speed her up.
“I almost forgot about that trip,” she told him. “In fact, the mummies are the only thing I remember.”
“I was always fascinated by the giant African elephant at the Smithsonian, “ he said. “And the telephones with the boring commentary that you didn’t really listen to. I knew it was just some man talking, but I would go around the elephant picking up each one, hoping to hear a roar, hoping maybe he would move.”
In the car they talked about the novelty of the taxidermy elephant. The sheer size of it was awe-inspiring. His trunk lifted to tell you he used to be alive, but he remained silent, posing in the rotunda. They talked about how you had to see it just to be sure you were there. At the time, they thought it was because of the pictures. Growing up, you’d see so many pictures of the elephant you had to see it in person just to acknowledge you had actually been there. She was not so sure about that anymore. She thought the pictures came later, overshadowing the memory of that first time. Unlike the mummies in Richmond.
There were no pictures of the mummies and now they were removed, hidden somewhere in a drawer. All she had left was the memory of their unseeing eyes and dried skin the color of tea. Fifteen years later she finds she usually thinks about them at night, the mummies and the roaches.
It is almost a ritual now, in her three a.m. kitchen, she turns on the light and sees the flash of movement that she knows too well. She has sprayed, laid out borax and poison, but they are still there. She cannot afford expensive extermination services. Sipping her tea at the table, she imagines she can see the antennae of roaches, patiently waiting in dark corners. They lie confident in the shadows.
It was on the way home that they had stopped at the Waffle House. It was on the way back from the museum that he had told the tale about the roaches, the story which haunted her now. Forever it would be the roaches and the mummification, taxidermy, or formaldehyde versus slow nibbling. It was a dusty piece of the past, hidden in a closet that opened late at night like a museum with off-hours.
The Walter Reed Pathological Museum was real. He remembered the name, and the general neighborhood. It took them an hour to find it, and then the museum itself was hidden in a military medical complex, no signs, no school buses. They just kept asking people until a medic pointed to a low brick building. It was not like a museum at all, the architecture and the interior seemed to deny its existence. Even as they walked past the guard sitting at a desk they felt they were not supposed to be there. It didn’t help that they were the only ones there.
The exhibits were housed in one large room and high fluorescent lighting created a green cast over all of it. The room was broken up into cubicles like an office building with each installation contained in its own cubicle. There were dried brown samples of blood sealed on yellowing slides and laid out classroom style along the wall. The bird shell fragments of President Lincoln’s skull were delicately displayed in a black case and accompanied by a dramatic version of the assassination and its subsequent impact on American history.
Like a morbid scavenger hunt, they toured the museum in a systematic search for the mummy. They began on their immediate left at a display dedicated to early accomplishments in wartime surgery. Bullet fragments in a red lined case were interspersed among historic photos of wounded soldiers and text that described the development of humane warfare. There were statistics of estimated amputations as a result of infection and bone shattering lead bullets. These injuries were compared to modern bullets that could be plucked out seemingly with tweezers. Included were faded pictures of a Civil War hospital with a basket of limbs outside a window. Under the glare of Plexiglas was a series of deteriorating photos showing a man who had lost his lower jaw to a cannonball in the Civil War. You could barely make out the scars of grafted flesh stretching over his reconstructed jaw. The accompanying text said it was one of the earliest successful examples of major cosmetic surgery.
They wandered past a heartworm display designed around a plastic heart filled with long worms that resembled spaghetti. It didn’t help that the heart looked like an Easter Egg. At one point, she realized she was by herself but she kept going through the exhibits. There were six-legged lambs preserved in jars of formaldehyde. She found syphilitic skulls and other bones showing scars of healing and telltale evidence of painful diseases.
In the middle of it all was a large case protecting a cave scene with reconstructed plants and rocks.
Tucked into the entrance was the mummy from Kentucky. She was small, about 5 feet long with a few strands of reddish yellow hair. She was clothed in the remains of a thin cotton dress that may or may not have been original. The label said she was found in a cave and had probably died there around the time of the Civil War.
The text reminded her that it was the salts and minerals in the cave that preserved the girl. It did not need to mention that she had died alone, not wanted even by the worms. Her age stained skin, like leather, clung to her bones. The mummy looked accidental; accidental in the dying and accidental in the mummification. In fact, the only thing purposeful about the mummy was the display.
For the first time it occurred to her that some deaths are a slow transformation. Brushing her elbow, he interrupted the vacuous eternity of the mummy.
“I found the mummy,” she said. It was all she could say. The red booted devil snickered.
The Kentucky mummy was not put into deep storage. She was not a source of embarrassment tucked into a drawer like the Egyptian mummies in the Virginia Museum. They were part of an embarrassing history and it was inappropriate to put them on display. It reaffirmed the desolation of the Kentucky mummy. She was the only one left. Forgotten, there was no one left to claim her. No one left to be offended.
“What did I tell you?“ He laughed. The red-booted specter loved that one as well. In fact he kept on laughing, even after the joke was very much over. Finding the mummy had been an excuse. Not a good one, but at least they had one. Now they were left with something else, something that felt more definite, something that sounded like chuckling. They exited the museum as quietly as they had entered it, only a little bit faster.
On the way home, they stopped at the Waffle House. He shared the roach story to lighten up the mood. She retold it with laughter for years until someone told her it was true. Roaches do eat the dead flakes of sloughed-off skin. The reason roaches love glue so much is because it is made of hooves. Even after being told the truth, she didn’t really believe it. Then one day she looked it up and quit laughing.
When the insomnia first started, she would just lie awake at night thinking she had heard something, a scratching or a shuffle. Then it got worse. There were nightmares and she quit sleeping to avoid them. Tonight, she got up and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of hot tea. Images from her dreams blended with reality in her kitchen. She is a poorly preserved mummy contorted in the throes of death. Someone is chasing her. With one arm stretched before her, her cheek scraps the stone and she claws her way forward. A bit of her wrist flakes off, and through the powdery tear, bone is revealed.
The ding of the microwave jolts her back to the kitchen.
She removes the cup, and that devil hands her a teabag with a knowing grin. They are good friends these days. Sitting at the kitchen table, the darkness suffers under a reading light and aromatic spiced tea. But in the corner, along the molding, there are signs, recognizable tiny black specks, the delicate remains of roaches.
Shelly Drummond is a writer and professional folklorist currently living under the shadow of sago palms in Florida, United States. She was an editor for CAUTION!, a zine published in Richmond, Virginia in the early 90s with the tag line, ‘Art and Literature like a Frog in a Blender’. Her short stories have been published in CAUTION! and Blood and Aphorisms.