Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:
All right, this one is a bit different from much of what I’ve written. And I’m preceding it with a very long introduction; feel free to skip this part of the note and scroll down to just start reading, if you prefer.
Museum of the Innocents is a dark story within what I call perceptive fantasy – that is, the characters perceive a world where things may or may not happen in a supernatural way, and it may be a question as to what is fabled and what is real.
It’s also a love story and a story of the conflicts within families, the living mythologies of people, and all set against the backdrop of Paris and Mexico City in a particularly interesting crossroads of time and place.
Originally, this was published under the title “The Innocents at the Museum of Antiquities” – as a much shorter piece, a novella. I never felt it was “there,” after it was first published as a brief serial over three editions of Cemetery Dance magazine some years ago. And I wanted to change it and get to know these people and this world more and expand it into a richer more powerful tale.
I still like the title, The Innocents at the Museum of Antiquities, but a friend (novelist M.J. Rose, after reading an early draft some years back) suggested a variation on the current title – Museum of the Innocents – and this is, perhaps, a more palatable title that also raises a solid question and suggests an idea.
My other title for this is Museo, which is of course the Spanish word for Museum but also has more of an emphasis on the root of the word – “Muse” – although the English “Museum,” conjures both the muse and the final syllables of “mausoleum,” which I also find appropriate in this case.
This novel is relatively long – I’m presenting about a third of it here at close to 50,000 words – and there’s another 40,000 done that I’ll hold back, and beyond that I have roughly a quarter of the novel to finish.
Much of what you’ll read here was written during the years 2010-2014. The glacial pace is explained, perhaps, by upheavals in various parts of my family (although not my immediate family — my husband and I) and also just the time I took pulling back from publishing after my books Isis and Neverland came out from Perseus’s Vanguard Press imprint. I needed a long sabbatical from business, frankly, and entered a creative but fairly private time in life.
I consider this my “time in the woods,” although I lived at the beach and only more recently at the edge of some woods. But everyone needs “time in the woods” now and then.
I’m glad I took that time, although it was weird to not have new novels coming out for the first time since 1989. And I’m glad I was able to get my backlist of 35+ books up in ebook over the past six years, too, while I wrote and worked on several novels and novellas in private, away from the need to show them (yet.) But soon. Soon.
Museum of the Innocents is a dark historical with an edge of fantasy to it.
I hope you enjoy the rather lengthy partial of it I’m putting on display here. Thank you for reading.
All material from Museum of the Innocents is copyright 2009-2016 © Douglas Clegg. Used here with permission, all rights reserved. You do not have permission to post this or any other fiction presented at DouglasClegg.com on any other website or use it in any way, shape or form without permission from Douglas Clegg (DClegg@DouglasClegg.com)
MUSEUM OF THE INNOCENTS
by Douglas Clegg
“ ‘To find the Palace of Memory,’ the floating elephant said, “you must first cross through the dangerous forest of those spiders who disguise themselves as ordinary people – people you may know, people you may trust. They spin webs of the silken long-ago, not as it was, but as islands of dreams and rivers of wishes and great seas filled entirely with monstrous might-have-beens and the bitter and salty never-will-be.’
‘You’ve been to this forest?’ Aureliano asked, looking up at the enormous creature hovering just a few feet above the ground.
‘Yes,’ the elephant said. ‘And I am still there. What you see of me – an elephant – is not who I am. It is what I’ve become. Who I am is still caught there, in that forest. I am a man, a prince, naturally, but when the first sticky threads touched my face, I dreamed. And now, I’ve become imprisoned by my own dream.’
‘You dreamed of becoming an elephant?’ Octavio said.
‘I dreamed of power and majesty,’ the elephant said. ‘I dreamed of greatness and a thick hide so I would not be hurt by love or my enemies. I wished to be above all others, to look down upon the world of men and even tower over the great emperors.
‘And now, you see, I’m a floating elephant. And what was me –a poor prince – is still asleep, dreaming of this soaring greatness, wrapped in a cocoon of elegant silk within a dark, damp forest prison, waiting to become a meal for spiders.’”
– from the book El Palacio de Memoria, or The Palace of Memory , published in 1827.
Mexico City, 1867, the Convent of San Lázaro
“We keep dangerous ones in the tower – away from the others.” The nun spoke in low, soothing tones as she escorted the old doctor down the cramped aisles of a long, cheerless dormitory. Her summer-white habit surrounded a pleasant face slightly marred by small, ferret eyes and a faint scar along her upper lip that Dr. Chavarria guessed was a remnant from some childhood punishment.
“The things I could tell you,” she said. “No one outside these walls would believe people like this exist. Where I come from, these people would have been shot.”
She launched into brief tales of murderers and sodomites and the ones who went mad and barked like dogs or the ruined girl who wailed through the night, and the wealthy patrons “like you, doctor,” who were such help. Such, such help, she added again, all of this under her breath as other nuns passed by.
“But these soldiers, some not even sixteen, look, they seem old, all of them.” She led him through the maze of beds, mentioning any scandal she could dredge in a matter of seconds. Walking just ahead, she glanced back, as if afraid he might not be able to keep up.
A memory shot within the old doctor of his mentor taking him down another such dreaded hallway when he was barely older than these wounded boys. His mentor whispered, “Remember joy, even in the shadow of death.”
From the open windows, spaced several feet apart, jagged sunlight cut through the corridor’s haze.
He paused in the light, taking a few deep breaths.
Birds warbled among the branches of the untended orchard, just outside the open window.
The doctor had become familiar with the smell of such a ward, yet he had never gotten used to it.
It was the terrible perfume of dying.
He passed curtained silhouettes of boys and men spread across shrouded cots, surrounded by white-robed women. Threadbare cloth hangings created walls between the wounded soldiers.
“Doctor,” the nun whispered, raising her hand toward a bed set apart from all the others.
Dr. Chavarria followed her to a patient who lay behind a gauzy curtain, under a narrow window.
Behind the hanging sheet, a gray figure breathed with wheezing effort.
Dr. Chavarria drew the curtain and its veil aside. He let it fall back in place after glimpsing the patient. He glanced at the sister who raised her eyebrow as if asking a question. He shook his head.
At the corridor’s end, the nun held the door open for him.
Diffuse light spilled into the gloom.
She guided him outside along a breezeway older than the convent hospital. She mentioned various expensive repairs, unfortunate nighttime surprises from patients, the strange behavior of a nun who “might end up in the tower someday,” and thieves who absconded with the statue of San Lazaro himself – “not six nights ago,” – from out among the graves.
They walked within a shaded colonnade of Moorish arches. Red trumpet flower vines tangled down cracked columns where sunlight interrupted shadow.
Looking across the lawn, past a cemetery gate, the doctor noticed a funeral cart drawn by two horses. Several people stood at an open grave shaded by a wide jacaranda tree.
Beyond it all, a long wall set the boundary between the convent and the rest of the world.
Just above the wall, the rooftop of a mansion glinted in the afternoon light.
“There it is,” he gasped, astonished that it was so clearly visible from the convent itself.
The nun shaded her eyes as she scanned the cemetery.
“The museum,” she said, without warmth. “They should burn it.”
She remained curiously silent on the subject of this house. He wondered if she were frightened, even now, with what she’d heard of the recent terrible events.
He tried not to remember the inside of the mansion, the stairs, the gates, the rooms and galleries that led, inevitably, to the one room he could not wipe from his memory.
The nun led him further along, toward the gated doorway.
Within the asylum tower, insulated by heavy stone, the temperature cooled. The air smelled of vinegar, lime and sage. The lamps along the wall cast a wavering of light and shadow across the faces of two small nuns as they went cell to cell, checking locks.
Passing the rooms, Dr. Chavarria peered through the hand-sized squares of unlatched window set into each door.
“Poor wretch,” his guide whispered at his ear. “Her children drowned. In their bath. Imagine. But look at her. She does the same thing, every day. Again and again.”
Through this small window, a woman in a grimy shift stood at a table near her bed, pouring out the last of a pitcher of water into her hand.
She turned to look at him. Her face seemed empty of feature, hidden by long, straggly hair.
In another room, a man huddled in a corner, groaning. His legs, shackled. He held his hand, palm out, toward the door.
“You’d never know, would you?” the nun said. “Look at him. Son of an Austrian Duke. I shouldn’t tell this, but you’re a doctor, you’ll understand. He fell in love with his horse. Imagine such a thing. He killed another man who took it out for a ride. That’s what I was told. If he’d been poor, he’d have been hanged, but money keeps him here. His family – they’re richer than most kings. He’ll never leave. They say his mother had a disease when he was born, and it cursed him.”
Taking a tentative first step on the winding stair, the nun turned toward the doctor. “I’m afraid it’s a climb.”
At a stairwell window, halfway up, the view of the grounds below showed two lines of nuns in perfect formation – a flock of white geese – heading toward the chapel.
Dr. Chavarria could just make out coaches and trams in the distant thoroughfares. A gray wash of rain cut a mottled path through the mountains beyond the city.
The nun waited a few steps above.
Reaching the top floor, the doctor stopped to catch his breath. His guide hurried to unlock one of the doors along the wall.
A sour-faced woman dressed in black sat in a chair near the second door. She turned pages of a small prayer book while rubbing rosary beads between her fingers. On her shoulder perched a green-winged parrot sporting two long blue tail feathers. As its mistress whispered her rosary, the bird repeated it, nearly word-for-word.
The nun lightly touched the doctor’s elbow, and the doctor turned. “She was born in this tower to a murderess. Lived her whole life here. The bird’s been with her nearly as long. Always, she says her prayers and the parrot squawks them back at her like an echo. She believes this bird is her soul.”
The parrot prayed ever-louder.
“Here we are.” The nun drew open the fourth door along the wall. “Be careful, doctor. These people are broken, all of them. But even broken, I see him.”
“Who do you see?”
She whispered, as if it were the gravest of secrets, “The Devil.”
The doctor peered into the room.
Above the narrow bed, a small window with a criss-cross of bars.
The patient stood at the window, back toward him.
On the table by the window, a little book lay upside down with its pages open against the table top as if the patient had just stopped reading a moment before the door had been unlocked.
Dr. Chavarria crossed the threshold.
Instinctively, he put his hand to his chest, against cloth, near his heart, pressing down lightly as if to soothe his fear.
Something caught his eye: a moth crawled along a crack in the wall, just above the bed.
It looked as if someone – this patient, perhaps – had found the crack when it was just a tiny slit, and worried it with fingers until it spread and widened and became nearly a crevice.
A memory, washed up: the quivering, untorn chrysalis in his warm, young hand, raised into sunlight.
Dr. Chavarria’s mouth went dry. He felt every year of his long life tugging at the back of his neck and shoulders, a pressing weight against his spine, a soreness along his knees.
The door shut behind him. He heard the key turn in the lock.
Was this a mistake? He wondered. Was this the edge of the world itself – this room, the locked door, the crevice in the wall, the overturned book on the table?
He thought of the card game and the boy in the white suit from just a few days before, that Saturday, a beautiful afternoon, a card game.
And, of course, he could not forget the murders.
BOY WITH A GUN
That Saturday in July 1867
Baltazar Mosquera, nearly eighteen, stole one of his father’s pistols, rode to Mexico City and sold his horse. He tried to sell the gold watch, as well, but found he could not part with it.
Early on that summer evening in 1867, not long after the execution of the Emperor Maximilian and before a triumphant Benito Juárez would return in a black coach down the boulevards of the capital, Baltazar kept a discreet distance as he followed the American.
The American sat down with three other old men at the lower edge of the Zócalo at a table by the fountain, overshadowed by trees.
They played cards. The white-bearded one made some joke while his companions laughed. Occasionally one of them called out to the girl who carried pitchers among the tables.
Baltazar pressed through the swelling crowd, purpose driving him forward. He felt as if he’d never known sleep or hunger.
As if someone held a gun to the back of his head.
He knew only why he had been created: for this day, this one day.
City dwellers emerged along the Plaza in the shadowed hour, bees scattering from the hive with the last of the sun: soldiers, couples, young families, children running ahead of their abuelas, old men at the tables, rough boys in red shirts hawking broadsides, women draped in mantillas at the cathedral’s enormous doorway, rumbles and shouts from the market stalls, equestrians in the Paseo, short women leaning against mule carts heavy with bright-hued fruits and flowers, duennas guarding veiled girls, the distant brass commotion of a band playing near the palace, cafes and cantinas overflowing with raucous arrivals, flights of chattering birds, boys kicking a leather ball – the vigorous life of twilight.
Baltazar took the footpath between stone-edged gardens, brushing past soldiers, and found an empty bench not far from the old men’s table.
The scent of frying meat drifted on a cool breeze from the food stalls at La Merced, making his mouth water.
He wiped sweat from the back of his neck.
Baltazar looked up through the leafy overhang of ash trees, the sun far to the west.
A want like no other overcame him, threatening to take his breath away, obliterating the soreness at his shoulders that ran along his forearms and wrists.
Drawing the brim of his hat down, Baltazar listened to the nearby conversation.
Old Men Sing Songs of Youth
“No, over there. The bench.” The American glanced at the others at the table. “See him? Near the fountain.”
“There must be thirty people over there.”
“This side of it. Look. The bench. He’s eight feet away, if that. Just there. But don’t look. Not yet. All right. Now. Look.”
All at once, three of the men glanced over at the boy on the bench, and then away again.
Hector Diaz squinted, cigar in mouth. “All I see is a skinny vaquero in a dirty white suit. Want me to shoot him?”
“I wish someone would.”
Eduardo Rosas stopped humming and twisted his head around to get a better look, resting one arm over the back of his chair. “Maybe you owe him money.”
“Looks harmless,” Dr. Chavarria said without looking up from his cards.
“He’s a gun about to go off,” the American said in such an intense way that they all looked over again at the boy. “I knew I should’ve listened to Molina.”
“Why not talk a little louder so the filthy vaquero can hear every word?” Hector said.
“I thought I lost him,” the American said. “Then, when I went to meet Colonel Molina, this kid shows up waving a pocket watch around – looking for buyers. It’s gold. There’s a family crest on the back. I asked him where he got it. White Suit over there flew into a rage. Took off like a shot.”
The American paused, sipping from his cup. “I offered that little thief a good price, too.”
He turned to Eduardo. “What’s that annoying tune? The one you keep humming? Every time we play cards, you go into it.”
Eduardo frowned. “Who knows what it’s called. I heard it when I was a boy. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. My wife would know the name, but she’s not talking to me these days.”
“Watch out, that song’s contagious,” Hector said. “He hums it when we meet at the café – over there – for morning coffee. He hummed it when we practiced law. He hummed it the night he married – during Mass –- and when his first child was born and at his wife’s funeral. It was a distraction then. I barely notice it anymore, it’s in my head so much.”
“Well, stop it.”
“It’s the hum of life, I think.” Hector patted Eduardo on the shoulder. “Hum, Eduardo, hum proudly.”
Hector leaned toward the American and Dr. Chavarria, elbow precariously close to the American’s drink, one move, one shift, and the cup would rattle off the table. “When he stops humming, watch: the entire world will unravel. The sky, the sun, the trees, the cathedral, and even our flesh, it’ll all break apart.”
“Old men sing songs of youth,” the old doctor said, quoting from an obscure poem that he himself had once written.
A sparrow of a girl flitted among them taking up the empty pitcher while setting down another. She grasped two brown bottles in one hand as she leaned over the table.
“What’s the game, viejos?” She set her tray down, wiping a spill with a damp cloth.
“La Viuda,” Dr. Chavarria said as he paid her.
“Lose at cards, win at love,” she said, squeezing his shoulder lightly.
“Maya!” Soldiers called out from several tables away, waving money in the air. “Maya!”
“Drunks,” the girl muttered as she swept her hair back, glaring at the young men. “Maya, Maya, all day long.”
She raised her tray and darted between tables, gathering up empty cups and pitchers, ignoring the young men who kept crying out, “Maya!”
“She hates being called that,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Almost as much as I hate being called San Francisco,” the American said.
“Should we call you ‘Maya’?” Eduardo said. “San Francisco – it’s you. It’s a wonderful name. A Spanish name.”
“A sainted name,” Hector said. “Besides, your real name’s impossible to say without laughing.”
Dr. Chavarria made a noise in the back of his throat. “That boy just looked over again. You should go talk to him.”
“We should invite him over for a drink, San Francisco.” Eduardo finished shuffling the deck and dealt a new game. “Then, you can tell him off without having to grow a set of balls.”
The American frowned as he peered down at his hand. “I met with Colonel Molina for supper at four – at La Sirena. The rain had just started. The boy thought he was invisible – standing right across the street, under an awning, pouring rain all around. Molina recognized him. He’s General Mosquera’s son.”
“Mosquera the Scourge?” Hector Diaz made a slight clucking noise. “Why would a rich hacendado’s son need to sell a watch?”
“He’s on the run. Molina told me not to get involved – he’s getting word out to the father. The boy’s hunting Gabriac’s daughters.”
“Hunting?” Dr. Chavarria asked.
“Gabriac?” Eduardo Rosas looked at the boy. “Wasn’t their mother…”
“Yes. The unfortunate comtesse.” The American lowered his voice. “She leapt from Chapultepec last week. It’s been kept quiet. She had friends in high places.”
“Too high, from the sound of it,” Hector said.
“You’d think a woman like that would land on her feet – like a cat.” Eduardo Rosas shook his head.
The others looked over at him.
“You knew her?” the American said.
“I knew of her. Didn’t everyone?” Eduardo said. “None of you ever get out at night?”
“Not these days.” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Gabriac’s woman was hard to miss,” Eduardo said. “I saw her – from a distance – several times. Always on the arm of one officer or another. At the the opera, mostly.”
“Beer must be cheap at operas these days,” Hector said.
“You know my niece – she’s drags me out. And what do I have to do these long evenings? Can’t spend every damn night whining about little aches and pains like you.” Eduardo said, and then his mood darkened. “I’m sorry to hear such a beautiful woman jumped off a rooftop.”
“Jumped – or was pushed,” the American said. “That boy’s too interested in her. White Suit claims he saw me once or twice with Madame Gabriac. Well, of course I’d run into her – you know how small these diplomatic circles are. Her home – just down the street from mine. I probably spoke three words to her. But there’s more.”
Dropping his voice to a whisper, the American said, “Someone’s out to kill Gabriac’s daughters. Perhaps this boy. Molina told me they’re keeping them in the San Lázaro district – for protection.”
“It may be the best place,” Hector said. “Who in his right mind would look there – for anyone?”
“The only good way to visit San Lázaro is in a casket – if you’re lucky.” Eduardo Rosas lit up a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “Nothing out that way but whores, nuns and stray dogs. And you’d have a hard time telling one from the other.”
“Those girls – they must be in the convent.”
“No, it’s some old museum,” the American said.
The men played, and the game was lost and won. Eduardo collected his winnings, jingling the coins in his hand.
“You’ve won too much, Eduardo,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Never too much.”
Eduardo shuffled the deck and began humming again.
A ball bounced off a table nearby. A little boy came running up to retrieve it just as it rolled toward the American.
The American picked up the ball. The boy held his hands out to catch it.
“Here! Throw it here, viejo!” two other boys called out. They were slightly older and taller and ran between tables to catch up to the first. “Don’t give it to Attilio!”
“Please,” Attilio said.
The American tossed him the leather ball.
The older boys chased after Attilio, who ran between tables clutching the ball as if it meant everything.
“Remember being them?” Eduardo said. “Little dust storms racing through the center of town, knocking over chairs, upsetting old ladies, sending pigeons into a frenzy.”
“The freedom of being young,” Dr. Chavarria said. “The imagination. That’s not just a ball, it’s a golden sphere that gives boys the ability to fly.”
“Ever the mad poet,” Hector said.
“For all we know, those boys are going to beat the little one up to get the ball back,” the American said.
“Always doom with you,” the old doctor said.
“San Francisco’s right,” Hector said. “Look – Attilio’s about to get clobbered.”
“I can’t look,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“No, he’s fine,” Hector reported. “He threw the ball in the fountain. The heroic and clever Attilio took off like a shot.”
Eduardo Rosas dealt and hummed. The men looked at their hands. The American groaned when he saw his cards.
“It’s Blanco’s Museum of Antiquities.” Dr. Chavarria said, as if he’d just woken from a sound sleep.
The others looked at him.
“The what?” the American asked.
(“Our bearded friend lives in two worlds these days,” Hector said, in a confidential tone. “The one here, at the table, and the fantastical one in his head. They rarely match up.”)
“It’s where they’re keeping the girls,” the doctor said. “The Gabriacs.”
“That’s it,” the American slapped the table, nearly upsetting his drink. “A museum in San Lazaro.”
“It sounds like one of your stories,” Eduardo said. “Why have I never heard of this place before? I thought I knew every inch of the city.”
“It’s been shut for years.”
“Strange to keep them at a museum,” the American said.
“It makes some sense. Locked gates. Bars on the windows. It would be hard to get out of it. Hard to get into it, too.”
“What the hell kind of museum’s out that way?”
“A strange one,” the doctor said. “The man who built it died – horribly – and quite a singular death.”
“Wait,” Hector said. “You mean to tell us that there’s a morbid medical tale you haven’t yet mentioned – in all the years we’ve known each other?”
Dr. Chavarria took a sip of water. His eyes became clouded. The little vein at his forehead twitched.
“I’ve kept many secrets. And this is the one tale of my life I have never before told,” Dr. Chavarria said, looking down at his hands. “It drove me to a dark madness. And to scribbling poetry, as well.”
“I own two volumes of your work,” the American said. “And that little novel.”
“I’ve never been a reader, but my boy loved that book of yours,” Hector said.
The doctor smiled. “Thank you. Those writings were an escape for me. This is the one incident that made me question everything about my life and what good any of it was – including medicine.”
“But you went back to it.”
“Of course. Writing didn’t pay bills well enough, nor did my dabblings in more spiritual matters. I spent too many days in bed for hours at a time, staring at the walls, unable to sleep, unable to eat.
“It all began during my wild days. I was in my twenties when I first heard of the museum – and the rare condition of its owner. I had not yet found my way as a doctor – I hadn’t grown up, even at that age.”
“I didn’t grow up until I turned sixty,” Eduardo said.
“Not even then,” Hector added, slapping him on the shoulder.
The doctor smiled, remembering. “I was still cloistered at university – a very hedonistic place. You remember, I’m sure. Student days. We haven’t yet decided the course of our lives yet. You can’t have that pressure of study – at that age – and not let off steam. But then one afternoon, a professor – a mentor of mine, more than a father – had been notified of a peculiar case at a house beyond the edge of the city. This case fit my interests – venoms, poisons, and their various uses as cures.”
“All those glass cases in your study – tarantulas and butterflies,” the American said.
“Are there poisonous butterflies?” Hector asked.
“What is poison to one man may be cure for another, as you’ll understand when I tell you about this museum.” Dr. Chavarria glanced around the table. “It was so long ago, but still very clear in my head. My mentor told me what to expect. A woman’s husband had fallen ill. She would not let him leave his home, in this case, a museum. The ailment was caused by an insect bite. The case intrigued me, also, because of the museum itself. But, as I said, this case in particular nearly destroyed me.”
As the doctor spoke, he almost forgot the young stranger nearby, nor did he notice how the boy in the white suit leaned forward, sliding to the end of the bench, closer to the table.
The Singular Death of Alfonso Blanco
“His name was Alfonso Blanco,” Dr. Chavarria said. “He was rich, once, and went to excess creating the museum. An impressive – and disturbing – place.”
“Hard to describe it.” Dr. Chavarria set his cup down and glanced at his companions. “I suppose it was overwhelming. Nearly every room packed. Statues, paintings, relics. Elaborate fountains in the courtyard. He had an eye for unusual beauty – from his collections to his wife.”
The old doctor rubbed the bridge of his nose, just beneath his spectacles. “I was surprised he had such a young bride. Barely more than a girl.”
“You steal a wife out from under her husband?” Hector said.
“If you’d seen her, you’d have been tempted,” Dr. Chavarria said. “It was forty-two years ago. But I remember her face as if I saw it just this morning.”
“She must have been something special,” Eduardo said. “I barely remember the woman I saw two weeks ago.”
“That’s ‘cause she doesn’t exist,” Hector said.
“Morella Blanco was a rustic angel,” Dr. Chavarria said, ignoring the chatter. “A frightened little mouse, too, in some ways. She was superstitious. She believed demons had come to her home. When I first met her, the museum itself terrified her. She felt uneasy about living near the cemetery, too. Doctors, in particular, meant instant death in the village where she’d been born. But after what happened to her husband…Well, no one would be the same.”
“The poison you mentioned? Or some disease?” Eduardo Rosas asked.
“I’d guess rabies – or the clap,” Hector said. “Given the neighborhood.”
“A sting,” the doctor said. “Several stings, actually.”
“Nothing so ordinary. He had the misfortune of encountering some rare insects in what might be called a position of love. Now, these aren’t the kind of bugs you’d ever run into – unless you traveled deep underground. They arrived hidden in a delivery of artifacts.”
“I hate bugs more than anything,” Eduardo said.
“Alfonso was ignorant of the little stowaways,” Dr. Chavarria said. “Indians called the insect cihauteotl— ‘lady of darkness’ I believe is the translation. An apt name. They stung him right in that one place on the body that no man alive wants to feel pain.”
“Good lord,” the American said, reverting to English as he let out a curse. “While he made love to his wife?”
The doctor curled three fingers into claws.
“A three-pronged stinger pierces the skin, tearing away from its body, quivering as the venom releases. Right into that most tender part of flesh,” Dr. Chavarria said. “His wife thought the noises he made were all part of the act of love itself. It was only afterward – when his screams began — that she knew to send for a doctor.”
“Horrible,” Hector said.
“Oh, it was grisly,” Dr. Chavarria shook his head, his eyes widening. “Fascinating, too, for a young student of medicine. The venom of this small insect – the damage it might do to a man. His body twisted and curled in bone-breaking contortions and seizures. The skin of his face became like the thinnest paper. His jaw locked and then, later, dislocated entirely. Bones break, muscles wither – and it doesn’t stop there.”
“My god,” Hector muttered, under his breath.
“This particular toxin, you see, begins to digest organs, liquefying them – eventually. The man suffering feels every torment the human body can endure,” Dr. Chavarria said. “The mind goes mad but returns to sanity, knowing the worst is yet to come. Blanco couldn’t cry out in pain but you could see it in his eyes. He began to resemble some grotesque sculpture in his own museum.”
Eduardo Rosas covered his face with his hands. “I need to get good and drunk tonight to blot this out.”
“I may join you,” Hector said.
“You can imagine how much care must be taken with someone in that condition,” the doctor said. “No matter how much I pleaded with his wife, she refused to allow anyone to take him away. I spent many afternoons doing my best to ease the worst of it for the poor man.”
“You could’ve put him out of his misery,” Hector said.
“Perhaps. At the time, I hoped he’d recover. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. But finally the morning came when the venom finished its horrible work. His throat closed up entirely, a membrane grew like a fleshy vine within it. And in the last moments…I dread saying it. You will have nightmares from it.”
“Yes, stop now,” Hector said. “I feel as if my own throat is closing, imagining it.”
“Oh go on, it’s unfair to keep us in suspense,” the American said.
The doctor leaned forward.
“The outer flesh hardens like stone. You’ve heard of the effects of cholera? Well, my friends, this is a thousand times worse.”
The American leaned back in his chair and lit up a cigarette. Beside him, Hector shook his head, muttering an obscenity. Eduardo Rosas gave a low whistle through the gap in his teeth.
“These bugs – they didn’t sting the wife?” the American asked.
The doctor shrugged. “They did. But some people are naturally immune. In one of those presumably rare coincidences – of which I saw many in my career – these insects were from the depths of ancient cenotes within the jungle, close to where Morella had been raised and where her own ancestors may have named them. The venom – in certain doses – can even be used as medicine to heal wounds. Mixed into a cream, rubbed on the skin, the same medicine may help scars and lesions fade and vanish, if it’s tolerated. Why, it’s still being studied by world-famous chemists, even as I tell you this. Yet, injected, in the dose of several insects, it becomes a slow terrible death. Why does a bee sting kill one man and cure another? But thank God the venom had no effect on her. He needed her during those three long years.”
“Three years! My god!” Hector cried out. “I thought you meant days – or weeks.”
“If it were me, I’d want a bullet in the head,” Eduardo Rosas said.
“It took its toll on his wife,” Dr. Chavarria said. “She began drinking, daily, before his death. I tried to get her out into sunlight, out among people, but she might as well have been buried alive. Within that house – that museum – she changed. She became a different person. We – she – she had an effect on me.”
The men at the table were silent for the longest minute.
“I traveled to that district a few more times after his funeral,” Dr. Chavarria said. “I’d see her at the front window – just standing there. She refused to see anyone. I didn’t hear about the museum again until – well, until today. It’s strange, though, about the dreams.”
“Dreams?” Eduardo asked.
“I don’t have them often. When I’m anxious or troubled,” the old doctor said. “In the dreams, I’m wandering through that mansion – statue to statue, room to room.”
“Bad dreams,” Hector said.
“Not so bad.”
With the tragic tale finished, Eduardo Rosas had enough of the game and bid farewell to his friends.
“I never know whether your stories are entirely true,” Eduardo said to the doctor. “But that one, it was too much. I couldn’t have been a doctor, no, not with the sorts of things you’d have to see.”
As he walked off, they heard the last of his hum blend in with the shouts of boys by the fountain.
Hector got up, pushed his chair in, and bowed as he often did when leaving friends. The story of Alfonso Blanco, he told them, brought on an intense headache.
“You must join me later, Rafael,” Hector said, calling the doctor by his first name. “I’m meeting my sons – and their wives – at The Byzantine. You don’t need these memories mudding up your brain.”
“You know me and late nights,” Dr. Chavarria said, waving him on. “I go to sleep when the sun shuts her eyes. Until the next game? May we both beat Eduardo.”
“I see you’ve found an effective method for ending a card game.” The American patted the doctor on the shoulder. “Good thing, too. I was losing.”
The boy in the white linen suit came forward and drew out a chair.
The Mosquera Boy
“May I?” The Mosquera boy sat down before either man could object.
His face was brushed copper from the sun; his suit, ragged and threadbare at the edges, smudged with sweat and dust.
The American nearly growled, but Dr. Chavarria held out his hand as he introduced himself.
“I feel as if you’ve been a guest here already.”
“Baltazar Mosquera,” the boy said, a slight nod to the American.
Baltazar shook the doctor’s hand. The doctor held on a moment too long, turning his grip slightly, a look of concern on his face.
The boy quickly tugged his hand loose, and sat back in the chair.
“You certainly took your time,” the American said. “As if you haven’t been spying on me all day.”
“Here,” the doctor said, pouring water into a cup. “You look like you could use this – or something stronger.”
The boy shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Drink.” Dr. Chavarria pressed the cup into the boy’s hand.
When Baltazar finished the first cup, he poured another, all the while watching two soldiers pass near the table.
The American crossed his arms over his chest as he squinted at the boy. “What do you want, Mosquera?”
Baltazar wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. He looked down at the cup.
“I told you when we first met today,” the boy said after a few seconds.
“The Gabriacs are gone.”
“Eight days ago, they were in a house.” Baltazar pointed toward the south. “Three blocks from here. Their home. This morning, it was swarming with soldiers.”
“A lot can happen in a week.”
Baltazar offered a harsh look. “You’ve heard about the Bédards? Gunned down. In cold blood.”
The American glanced over at Dr. Chavarria: caution, old friend.
“A terrible act of brutality,” the doctor said. “Unforgivable.”
“Three women. Six children. French.”
“What’s all that got to do with you?” the American asked.
The boy’s face went deep red, a snarl formed at his lip.
“San Francisco,” Dr. Chavarria said, glancing between the boy and his old friend. He put his hand on the American’s shoulder, and leaned close to his ear, whispering, “Remember your heart. You’re no longer twenty.”
“That was out near Querétaro, wasn’t it?” the American said, ignoring the doctor’s advice.
“So?” Baltazar said.
“Good God, boy, it’s nowhere near us. You go that far out, you run into all kinds of riff-raff – even on a good day.”
Baltazar hunched forward, his attention on the old doctor.
“I want to know about this museum. And the woman – Morella Blanco.”
“You little spy,” the American muttered. “I knew you were eavesdropping. Get a good earful?”
The old doctor reached across the table, placing his hand over the back of the boy’s, and then withdrew it.
“I understand these girls are important to you,” Dr. Chavarria said. “Would you mind telling me why?”
“It’s private,” the boy said.
“We are done here,” the American said. “Listen, hot-head. Go home. Leave the Gabriacs alone.”
Baltazar looked from one man to the other, settling on the doctor. “I’m sorry for my temper. It’s a fever in me, ever since…”
The boy cast a brief glance at the American. “Since I heard the news about Madame Gabriac.”
“You’re not getting anything more from us.”
Baltazar reached across the table to clasp the doctor’s hand. “Every hour – every minute – vital.”
After the doctor gave him directions—despite protests from the American—Baltazar Mosquera left the table and crossed the street.
“Everything about that boy is a lie,” the American said.
Dr. Chavarria’s took off his spectacles and set them on the table.
“You may have just signed the death sentence for those girls,” the American muttered.
“You’re worked up. Take care of yourself, San Francisco. Your blood pressure, your heart – stay calm. Forget the boy. Even though he’s all up in arms, he seems honorable enough.”
“There’s no honor these days – not among those kind of people.”
“The rich. The powerful.”
“You’re rich,” Dr. Chavarria said.
“Ha. I’m a beggar compared to his family. They’re bad, those Mosqueras. And that boy has a cruel streak.”
“He seems like any boy I’ve ever known,” the doctor said. “Probably like you at that age. The flame of desire burning him up.”
Dr. Chavarria looked over his shoulder for a last glimpse of the boy just as he disappeared among the market stalls.
“That Mosquera boy’s in love.”
“He’s a rattlesnake,” the American said. “I didn’t believe a word he said.”
“One thing I’ve learned in life. Only one true thing. And that is, we become who we are because of those we love. It reinvents us. And he’s become something other than General Mosquera’s son,” Dr. Chavarria said. ““I believe him. It was in his grip – a living, breathing intensity.”
“Even boys in love have been known to murder – with intensity,” the American said.
Baltazar jostled among the crush of people. Soldiers on horseback cut a wide swath through the market crowd.
He kept his head down, hat pulled low, as he stood in line for the tram. A quarter of an hour later beneath a dimming sky, he boarded one of the horse cars.
It was a green, second-class tram, old and rickety, with loose benches that rocked each time the wheels hit bumps in the road. The driver was a sharp-eyed scalawag who packed in as many fares as he could – to the point that even the horses groaned with their first pull across the uneven track.
Baltazar glanced around. A jumble of old and young, mothers with children, laborers, sat knee-to-knee upon two long benches.
He felt for the pistol in his jacket’s inner pocket, then further down into the lining, for the thick money clip.
He drew a gold watch from the fob pocket of his trousers.
Baltazar opened the case.
A small dried petal lay crushed against the watch-face.
Shutting his eyes, he remembered the ride to his father’s house.
The Dream-Memory of Baltazar Mosquera
Because his memory of the previous week’s journey became a dream, the colors grew bright and every detail magnified.
What was clay red became rich blood red, what was blue became sparkling lapis, and what was merely white became a blinding, searing whiteness as only lightning could produce.
The people in his dream were clothed in shimmering coronas of light, angelic beings. His horse – an ordinary one, brown, not particularly fast, nor easy to guide – seemed to have sprouted wings as it flew across the land.
Baltazar avoided the main highways. He fed and watered his horse at small villages. He slept along a dry riverbed beneath a narrow bridge.
On the second day, he reached the beginning of Mosquera land.
As the shadows grew long, he passed the first stables and called out to vaqueros by name as they rode in from the fields.
On a brown hillside, the giant white cross came into view, near his grandfather’s grave. On he went, passing acres of blue maguey that grew heavy and tall. A blur of granaries and barns swept past, followed by a broad yellow emptiness leading out to distant pastures.
A blur of movement to the left became the men working the fields, a handful of them sitting along the front stoop of the store; rising up beyond this, the homes of vaqueros and others who managed the farm.
At the arched garita, the big guard called Arabio waved his rifle and called out, “Baltys! Baltazito!” from his perch along the high gate wall.
Baltazar dismounted and opened the gate, walking his horse to the other side.
Arabio shouted about his grandmother’s health, the good crop and how he was missed and how was the city and his studies and what about the Liberales and the heroes. “And the bandits!” he said. “Dangerous times, Baltazito, you shouldn’t be riding alone, not with all the kidnappings! There were six thugs, and only me and Ramon on watch, but we shot two of ‘em dead. I got one in the ass, too, and I could hear him howling in pain while the pack of ‘em scattered! You wouldn’t believe it. But I’m glad to see you! Your ‘lita will be so happy she’ll cry! Next time you ride out, I’ll go with you. You never know what can happen out there.”
The guard shot his rifle three times into the air. “Baltazito’s home!”
The sound frightened the horse. Baltazar had to calm the animal and adjust his blanket and saddle before mounting again.
As Baltazar approached the high walls surrounding the great house, the road rose up between two placid lakes filled with swans.
The sky seemed a wide vault of darkening blue above the distant towers.
Baltazar trotted his horse along a sandy path by formal gardens. Leaving his horse at the livery, Baltazar took the shaded passage between servant quarters.
Reaching sunlight again, he saw cousins and aunts among sunken gardens where colorful birds chirped in hanging cages.
His grandmother in graying grandeur sat at a square tea table fanning herself beneath the silvery dusk of a thick-trunked olive tree. Her nurse scolded young cousins that raced and leapt through the gardens, chasing butterflies and hummingbirds.
Baltazar walked the broad arcade with its twenty columns, passing fountains and empty carriages; heard the hum of bees from hives; dogs ran up to leap and play; one of the old cooks nodded slightly as he plucked chickens that, even dead, did not lie still.
Baltazar approached the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe within a scalloped alcove. He washed his hands and face at the small fountain beside her. The water renewed him.
He whispered a prayer.
Pushing the heavy wooden doors wide, Baltazar walked across the red-tiled floor of the inner courtyard, wide and full of flowers and mournful trees, overshadowed by the house’s upper terraces.
Baltazar took a deep breath.
His father stepped out to the terrace, looking down. He still wore his uniform and looked as if he’d been about to leave on official business.
In Baltazar’s memory, the doors boomed like cannon-fire as they slammed shut behind him.
And that’s when he saw it.
Set out in the courtyard, beneath the terrace.
At first, he didn’t know what it was, for it stood in half-shadow, a glint of sunlight along its edge.
He recognized its face, and it made him catch his breath.
Of course, because this was a dream, it seemed a radiant figure.
And in the dream, this creature spoke.
The Jaguar Who Lost His Way
Baltazar opened his eyes, shaken abruptly back to the city.
The tram hit several rocks along the track. The wheels lurched, the bench jostled. The horses announced their displeasure with snorts and whinnies. The driver cursed.
The pocket watch was still in Baltazar’s hand.
The dried flower petal had fallen to his knee. He lifted it delicately – as he would the quivering wing of a moth – and set it back in the case.
He closed the case and slipped the watch in its pocket.
A woman said, “You were sleeping.”
The tram was nearly empty – only this woman on the bench a few feet from him. Short iron curls framed a face rough and mottled as a desert pear.
She clutched a wide basket, covered with red cloth.
“A restless dream, from the sound of it.”
Baltazar checked his pockets: pistol, money.
He looked out the windows. They had already gone beyond the city gate. Few people were out, and the streetlamps hadn’t yet been lit. A lower suburb, not so beautiful as the city that he knew – the evidence of neglect in the crumbling of adobe, half-finished construction, in the overgrowth and tangle of untended gardens.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“What’s your stop?”
“You haven’t missed it,” she said. “You look hungry.”
She reached into the basket and brought out folded tortillas. “I made them for my boy but I think he can spare one or two.”
Baltazar hesitated taking them, but the woman slid down the bench, angling her knees toward him. She leaned forward, stretching her arm as far as she could.
“It would make me happy,” she said. “I always make extra.”
He took the two tortillas. They felt warm.
“Thank you, Senora.”
She introduced herself. “Senora Canas.”
“Antonio. Antonio de la Paz.” Baltazar said. “Senora Canas, any son would be lucky to have a mother like you.”
“Thank you. Luis Enrique – he’s a soldier,” she said as she watched him eat. “I’m bringing him a good home-cooked meal. Tamales, roast chicken, a few treats. A little beer. Not too much.”
A minute or so passed in silence as he finished the tortillas.
“If you’re still hungry…” She lifted the red cloth and looked down into the basket.
Baltazar raised his hand, slightly. “Thank you, senora, but I’d feel terrible for Luis Enrique if I stole his entire meal.”
“He wouldn’t mind. But the army – it isn’t good, what they feed him. He’s gotten so skinny.”
Baltazar looked at his hands. Thin criss-cross scars showed at his wrist. He drew his sleeve down to cover them.
“I only see him once a week. Usually Fridays,” the woman said. “He stays with his regiment. I sleep at my cousin’s when I come up. I’ll make him a little something tomorrow morning before I leave, too. Those officers, they have those boys running around all over.”
After another few seconds, she said, “It’s exciting, isn’t it? We have our city again. Our boys are home. Did you fight, Antonio?”
Baltazar leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“I wanted to. My father wouldn’t let me. Both my older brothers went.”
“Well, you’re young. I don’t blame your father. Two sons is enough, I think.”
After a minute, she said, “I wonder if my Luis Enrique knows your brothers.”
“Probably not. They’re out in the countryside.”
“Maybe they fought together. What are their names?”
Baltazar looked at the woman, and then out the window.
“Octavio and Aureliano.”
He opened his mouth to say more, but then stopped.
“Octavio and Aureliano.” She said the names as if conjuring some deep memory.
Senora Canas put one hand to her chin and tilted her head back, looking up.
A moment later, she broke into a light laugh. Her eyes came alive, and she raised her hand, her finger in the air as an idea formed in her mind. “I know where I’ve heard those names.”
Baltazar took a deep breath.
She clapped her hands trying to remember. “What is it? I know it. There was a story – a book. I used to read it to my girls. What was it called?”
Baltazar did not look at her face, but down at the basket with the red cloth. “The Palace of Memory.”
“Your brothers were named for the boys in it? Octavio and Aureliano?”
“Yes. They were.”
“It’s all coming back now. My girls loved that book. I read it to them every night before they went to bed – when they were nine and eleven. There was the thief’s daughter who coughed up sapphires. She could never tell the truth, entirely, but her lies were never false.”
“That was Mentira.” Baltazar nodded. “She rode on the back of the sweet-breathed jaguar who could never find his way home.”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “And then there was that elephant – remember? – it floated in the air like a balloon, and those awful spiders! Oh, I remember the look on my girls’ faces when I read aloud to them. I must have read it to them a thousand times. What wonderful names for your brothers. Octavio. Aureliano.” She spoke the names as if they were delicious to hold in her mouth.
“My father felt they should have memorable names.”
“Well, I’ll ask my boy about them. He may be good friends with your brothers for all we know. Wouldn’t that make it a small world? Octavio and Aureliano.”
“De la Paz,” he said.
Baltazar sensed that she smiled at him once or twice more, as if a question had begun forming in her mind that she could not quite bring herself to ask.
Minutes later, the tram slowed several blocks from Baltazar’s destination. When it stopped, two men got on, both in uniform.
Baltazar avoided looking at them.
His back ached and the pain along his shoulders returned as he stood up.
“Tell Luis Enrique thank you – on my behalf – for sacrificing some of his dinner,” he said. “I feel I owe him.”
Senora Canas laughed and waved to him. She had already begun introducing herself to the new passengers. Her son’s name – Luis Enrique – floated in the air.
Baltazar stepped off the tram and walked the lower streets to reach the Calle de San Lázaro.
Just behind the high-walled cemetery of the Convent of San Lazaro, the museum took up the space of three houses. Its façade of pink and white marble faintly gleamed in the swiftly dying light.
Convent bells sounded the hour.
A faded brass plate, set into the wall to the left of its highest step, marked the house.
With a bit of squinting and imagination, Baltazar could make out the name “Blanco.”
Baltazar glanced past the elaborate gates with their system of heavy locks to the arched windows above, which were shuttered behind a filigree of wrought-iron.
He looked up and down the street but saw no one. The street lamps were lit. Somewhere, beyond the rooftops, the moon rose but only a slight haze from it touched down in this street.
He began to work on the locks at the gate, but soon discovered that he would not be able to break them all.
Baltazar grasped one of the curling, iron bars, formed in the shapes of astrological symbols, and began climbing up the tall gate, across the waves of Aquarius and the tail of Capricorn, using the curves and angles of the design for his footing.
The Old Doctor in Bed
Across the city, to the south, Dr. Chavarria – who went to bed with the sun – awoke within an hour of closing his eyes.
A gentle breeze whispered through the window that opened onto the garden.
Sitting up, he drew out his pipe, lighting it.
Inhaling the smoke, he conjured Morella Blanco from the dungeon of memory.
She stood at the front window of the museum house, nearly hidden by heavy curtains, the dark veil of widowhood across her face, staring out onto the street as if waiting for an uninvited guest, unaware that a young doctor stood below, just outside the gate, gazing up at her.
The smoke dissipated as Dr. Chavarria stared out the window by his bed.
He thought of the Mosquera boy from the afternoon.
The cuts on the boy’s wrists.
He went to get his diaries, not the ones of recent vintage in fine leather volumes that he’d filled with ink scratches of the daily routines since he ended his medical career – the appointments, the morning’s rituals, the afternoon card games and snippets of half-remembered jokes, recording the books he’d read with brief quips about them, the pertinent or remarkable news of the day, the recounting of lonely hours, the odd run-in, the strange weather, the moment of seeing beauty.
By candlelight, he went in search of the older diaries, the ones buried beneath heaps of the past, kept in a room in his home.
With some annoyance, he navigated a slim path through piles of books and papers.
The room was filled with glass cases and bell jars spotted with pinioned butterflies and shiny beetles and the carefully arranged skeletons of snakes and bats. There was one round table at the center, covered with microscopes and beakers, evoking alchemists and apothecaries, and all those inky scratches on long gray butcher sheets of the minutiae of bug and lizard, the research he’d brought home from his studies, a lifelong quest for cures and miracles.
Beneath the table, unattached pine drawers overflowed with papers, bound, tied up – some that he’d written, and some of it of a medical or scientific nature.
The diary that he hunted existed on scraps of paper, unsent letters, poetry that could not be published, and –in particular – his many scribblings about the museum itself.
He’d bound these pages and notes by hand into a kind of book, sewn with a needle and thread, a pin-sized nail driven through at the edge to help hold them, and then a quick brush of paste at the spine to secure it. He had – when young, in the worst of his mad poet period – taken it to a bindery and stood by as a vellum casing was made for it, strap sewn, glued again, binding the pages in an amateurish but permanent way.
This particular diary, the one marked “1825-1826,” had a black cloth wrapped around it in a knot. The cloth was made from silk lace, and had shredded with time and whatever unseen parasites might eat away at such things.
As he sat there, opening the pages of the diary from his 27th year – at a time of night when he should have been snoring so loud that the neighbors might complain of earthquakes – Dr. Chavarria wondered if perhaps he did the wrong thing in sending the boy out to that museum to find Gabriac’s daughters.
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