Memorabilia

By Timaeus Bloom

From CHM #45 March 2024

Do you like museums?  I do.

I find them fascinating, sure enough.  While I am undoubtedly sure that my interest in history has much to do with it, I think there’s something else, too. Maybe it has much to do with the remains of what once was. Artistic pieces crafted by those long before us. Standing or hanging to be judged by us in our “modern” period.  Antiquated tools, simple or ingenious, used ages ago to get jobs done that today can be finished in minutes—seconds sometimes.

It’s possible that’s not it, either.

I think there is something more nefarious, complicated even, about the harboring of stuff, the “claiming” of old things. Certainly, this concept is not new. If one is simply to bring up the idea of a hotly debated topic such as colonialism, arguments ever persist about just why someone should own the labors and fruits of another, that they should be given back. Or better yet, what of those things that should be destroyed? Statues that symbolize harmful things. In the city square of Hillside, there is a statue of one noted Doctor: Alexander Lemuel. If you don’t know the man, you know the drama. The council put a big, ugly plywood box around the statue. A camera weaves up and down, too, I’ve heard. Gotta keep the riff raff out. Alex was a friend of mine once upon a time; the man was fascinated in all sorts of innovations and scientific mumbo-jumbos.

* * *

The hesitant soul walks into the large plantation house with his friend. Alone at Christmas, he’d apprehensively agreed to spend the holidays with another family. The beams of the chalky white house are covered in yuletide vines and wreaths; “Jingle Bell Rock” plays through hidden speakers. They knock on the door and are given a warm welcome.

* * *

Like I was saying, you’re likely not to hear much about his work these days—unless you sit among the plush chairs of the genteel and downhome sophistos. He brought Hillside tonics, cures of all sorts of whimsy. But it’s the way old Alex made his discoveries that makes the weaker citizenry of today’s age a bit antsy. Why’s that, you ask? Well, the good doctor experimented on slaves. Those chained fieldhands and dung cleaners who were given the worst hand at the poker table. I never watched him do his work, mind you, but I often saw the leftovers: poor young negros with one eye and an unblinking pupil the shape of a twirling lizard; a cook with no hands and way too many feet.  Though half of her tongue had been removed, she sang like nobody’s business.

When she belted out an absolutely harmonic “Oh My Darling, Clementine ‘” her mangled feet would stomp the ground to the beat. Blood from scarred and coal-walking toes would drip and drip and drip into the doctor’s unturned soil.  From the crimson gold would sprout crying trees that bloomed docile little pygmies that would coo in the middle of the night. Those rowdy imps would be given to all the fun-loving children of the city. They’d bash ‘em against rocks and twist their necks. When the sun reared its blistering head, though, those chubby cherubs had turned into clay little sculptures. Put ‘em to your ear and guess what you’d hear? Yessir, old Clementine.

But that was then, and we’re all about the now. Sit a spell, my friend. You’re an interesting one, aren’t ya? I was talking to my nephew here about you a bit before you guys drove up. How do you like that Georgia air, by the way? Papa always said you could just smell the peaches. Oh, where are my manners? Merry Christmas, buddy. I understand you’ve broken up with your little lady? Sad that, sad that. But I’m happy you decided to spend a bit of time with the family. Snacks and little finger thingies are over there. We’ll eat a bit later, around 6:00 or 6:30, I reckon? Oh, you like the house? Thank you. We’ve had it for a few generations. Mama’s finally moved into the place. She’s had more than a handful of knee replacements. Getting up and down the stairs has been an issue. Did you know you could get an elevator installed? Yeh, I’ve got some of those smarty types coming in to measure and take a look-see. Don’t know where we’ll put the damn thing, though. Maybe out on the porch?

Did Rooster tell you about the little tour I had planned for ya?  Look at him looking away. Doesn’t like his city friends to know down here we call him Rooster! Used to cluck like one every morning when he was a kid. You like history too, don’t you? That’s what I heard! A fellow enthusiast of the old and dusty.  Also heard you want to be a college professor? Well, look at you. The world needs more people like you teaching, I think. Show ‘em that you’re not all on the lam or out doing God knows what. Honest business, teaching. It’s because I know you’re a student of history that I’ve allowed you to see my little room. Rooster’s right again. It’s been closed for about two years. With all the statue business and the flag controversy and the boisterous youngins saying what shouldn’t be, I’ve closed it. Damn near want to erase us all, don’t they?

But first, I’d like to show you the library. Just you and me, sport. Watch out for Mama, there. She’s not moved much today. What’s that? You’ve got a bit of a headache? Probably because you’ve been too close to Trevor. I know you’re bleeding from your ears a little bit. Don’t mind that. When he snores, he kind of leaves, goes elsewhere. He’s said all manner of things. Talks about fishing on a sea of sludge where human frogs jump on lily pads made of stretched skin. The fish are always bitin’, though. But you gotta have good bait. Trevor says they like memories. Give ‘em a bad one, and you’ll pull up buzzards with melting faces that whistle hymns.  Give ‘em a good one? You’ll get little trinkets: rocks in the shape of toadstools that leak buttermilk or maybe a rubber ducky coated in human teeth.  Oh, shit. Poor bastard’s crying. Must not have given them anything good. I think he’s all out of good memories, the few he had. All he can give them now are nightmares. They don’t like nightmares. They go down nasty. Poor thing.

Tell ya what, son. An esteemed man such as yourself with your degrees and love of learnin’, I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of libraries. Now Rooster speaks the truth, it’s a nice library with many books, all kinds. But those are just books, little squares of leather and paper that don’t amount to much when it comes to the real truth of things. As somethin’ of an amateur historian m’self, you and I both know it’s all bullshit. Facts and suppositions and biases. Lemme show you something a bit more interesting—stuff straight from out of the good ol’ days. When men were men, and they fought for what they believed in. And before we make another step, you stop with that “Mister” stuff. I’m Rooster’s Uncle Lebaux, and I’m yours too. I welcomed you into my house, didn’t I? Follow me.

* * *

As they make their way through the antiquated house, immaculately clean and clashing in a struggle with modernity, the guest seems interested, if not completely comfortable, being here. He looks up, noticing a portrait that his guide seems to pay very little attention to. It is a beautifully drawn, but undeniably saccharine, portrait of Jesus as he is classically depicted: long hair, face of beard, white robes, and a purple sash. He has a plaintive air about him as he nestles a baby lamb in his arms, as black as a welcoming void. The lamb turns its adorable head to look at the tourist. Jesus remains still.

* * *

Put your phone right in the bowl there. Let it be. That’s what’s wrong with all of your generation, I reckon. Glued to your devices. Yeah, yeah. I sound like an old timer. I trust you, but I don’t trust the phone. With their blue teeth and wireless bubbles. I took a little course with my friend’s nephew on geocaching. Don’t really know what it was, and I think it was about as much of a waste as a trailer with a glass hitch, but I did find something out. No pictures in here, bucko. People can trace photos, see where they were taken. Digital footprints and all that. Now I’m an open man—used to call us Yellow dog Democrats before the whole thing got all topsy-turvy. But like I said a’fore: if people, even my neighbors, like Brad and Redge, the two men with the Oriental twins, got a whiff of my collection they may not take too much of a shine to me anymore.

They love Uncle Lebaux, you see. Even made me some cookies for the holidays. I chomped and grinned when I got ‘em, but they were TOUGH.  I gave them to Trigger, though. That old boy loves ‘em.  Take a look at that dumb mutt over there–can’t tell his head for his ass. Redge came by the other day and said one of their little tikes was missing. Said their daughter saw Trigger three nights back opening his jaw wider and wider and then a bit more wide, said his jaw extended over the entire window, tongue lapping all over it and green saliva spreading over the glass. Saw handprints pressed against the muck. Then Trigger shut his jaw tight. Where his tongue was instead stood a dry field dotted with gray outhouses that floated above the famished grass, wood splintered. The outhouses shook and rattled, and pale hands opened the doors. The kids are crying now, loud and deafening. And then Trigger swallowed and one kid came back, and one didn’t.

But those are just stories. You know how babies are. I’m sure he’ll turn up. Now right this way. Your phone won’t miss you for a few minutes. Let me take out the key here. Where did I put it? Hah. Here it is. I swallowed it for safekeeping. Little trick I learned back in my wild youth. Carnies. Disgusting people, but funnier than a motherlover. Especially the freaks. Don’t give me that look now. I can show you, too, if you want. Naw? Maybe later. I’ve swallowed a whole mess of stuff.

Well, here it is. It’s small, and dingy. There’s a lot to take in, I know. But I’ll walk you through. Take you through the whole little shebang. I’m something of a Civil War Buff, as they call it. If memories can be history, then you might say I have a whole archive. It’s quaint but watch your step.  Don’t wanna knock any of the cannonballs over–you’ll blow us straight back to Antietam.

Of course, you made your way straight to the pile of books here. They’re old and ratty but look at these. Bonafide slave narratives. Here, look at the dates here: 1874, 1863, ‘65. Flip through the pages but be careful. Stare at the words, read a little bit. Do you feel that? The journey, the determination? The struggle to survive. Look at the picture here of the poor man with all those lashes on his back. What’s that? You’ve never seen scars like those? No, I’m not sure they look like sigils or words. Just look like marks of the lash to me. Woah, buddy. Did you cut yourself on something? You’ve got marks spreading on your arm. Carved–or whipped–lines that are riding up your skin. Hmm. That’s never happened to any, er, of my kind I’ve given my little tour before.  Yeh, I’ll get you something to wrap it with, but after the fun. You’re not even bleeding. These scars look old, blistered. Many of those before you beat the odds to hand you those scars. Wear ‘em proudly.

Come on over here now. You see this? This is what they call a “war log.” I found this from a guy selling it on some website or another. I’m not too good at that stuff, so I had Rooster poke around for one. Yeh, he has his uncle’s hunger for the old. On the surface it’s just a big stump with a bunch of bullets lodged in it. My understanding is that soldiers, be they Yankies or Rebs, would dive behind trees to escape fire. Then the opposing militia would just shoot and shoot, mowing those suckers down. And man, is it heavy. Ah, dammit all. I never know what to do with the thing. When the guy handed me that certificate of authenticity, he didn’t say just how “authentic” it was.  If you mess with it too much it starts bleeding. There it is. I don’t know why I bother. It’s such a mess. Watch your toes there. From all of those puncture wounds what I can imagine could only be blood leaks out of it, pools around the stump. You want to experience something wild? Dip your finger in it. It’s sweet as candy. Not interested? Where’s that spirit of adventure, buddy? Well, don’t mind if I do. It’s so savory.

I think the tree doesn’t like being here. It messes with the order of things, I believe.  I think the tree has what you or I might call a phantom limb, missing the full sum of its parts. Do you think it longs for better days? When it could feel the wind rustling its leaves, the bliss of a whip-poor-will nesting in its crevices?   It suffers eternal pain, to be united to the earth from which it stood, was torn and ripped away from. Its roots were yanked and twisted, left useless with nothing to nourish. Nature is as selfish as we are.  It cries for itself. Instead of sap, we get the red stuff, all syrupy. Used a bit of it in my flapjacks once. Delicious, but overpowering. Too much for little ol’ me. Here’s the certificate here, I’ll read it aloud for you, you seem a bit out of sorts:

“This section of tree was taken from the Battle of Oaken Plain. Twas here that opposing forces met in the spring of 1864. Soldiers who survived this battle recall nothing of the conflict itself, but those on both sides speak of seeing an identical general of unidentified insignia who had the head of a boar. The soldiers, too, recall this general moving through the battlefield and laying its hands on stupefied soldiers, skipping some and touching others as if playing its own game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Those chosen as Geese, too, became Boar Men and fled the field, mauling as they made their way. Those who survived laid their bodies upon the battlefield and squealed, unable to be interrupted, for three nights. They spoke of this as ecstasy. Some bred children who had upturned tusks. They ate those children.  Those who were able to return home continuously searched for their missing general. Those who found him, continued for the rest of their days to wish they had not.”

Boars blood, huh? Maybe that’s why it sizzles so well.

We better move swiftly. I can smell ham. They’ll be wanting us to head for the table soon.  Now I have plenty of shells and cannonballs here and rifles and that sort of thing just to make the place look a bit more “historical,” but I don’t care much about those. They all go boom and then bodies fall. Yes, that’s well and good, but I don’t find those especially interestin’, but I got a few things here on the shelf. You see this bugle here? Looks like a simple, standard instrument, right? A rooty-toot-toot and all the boys line up in formation? Weird thing is it won’t blow. I’ve had it checked out, inspected, cleaned myself. By all signs, it should be able to let out a nice, bright tune. But it doesn’t. Check this out here. Hear that? It’s more of a groan, isn’t it? Maybe a wail? You can feel it reverberating in your chest. Trev loves this thing. He’d play it all day and night if he could—well, except when he’s dream-fishin’. I can’t recall where I got it from, however. It took me far too long to realize that the old thing did work. Just that its purpose wasn’t so much to proclaim or gather, so much as it was to mourn and remember.  The cries of the mother seeing her son off to be the hero, the weeping of a once bountiful farmstead razed in fire and baptized in ash. The hoarded possessions of a kooky old man with a lust for collecting. Let’s move along.

Now this mantle is filled with a fair assortment of things, yup.  See these bayonets?   The blades were forged in the pits of hell–I’m just teasing! I have a couple uniforms in the closet there. And, oh you caught that? Beautifully drawn, isn’t it?  You see, and I don’t think I’m sharing any forbidden knowledge here. But there were less back-breaking ways to keep your property in line. Yes, there was the whip, and separation, all kinds of torture. But the best of ‘em—us, I will uncomfortably admit—realized that the brain is a rather fascinating little thing. Funny, too. Mess with that and you can keep the subjugated in line. Hell, how do you think the pharaohs built them pyramids? You can call it aliens or other such hogwash, but Khufu had it right. Create the fear. Listen here: got a wiry cotton-picker that might up and sprint? Make him afraid of the outside. You ever heard of Old Crying Agnes? It may be tough up here, but out there? My god, boy! Agnes has been missing her head for many a year and she’ll kill and kill until she finds a suitable noggin. Lives right out there by the lake. A lot of ‘em will stay put.

But there’s a double-edged sword to all of that, o’course. Fear is strong, a power even. There came a time when honest white folk started seeing a woman’s body, naked as a jaybird, walking around through the vines and mud. Said she was missing a head, too. Gnats and all kinds of crawlers scuttling in and out of her open neck in wild frenzies. We don’t talk about it much, but there were more than a few of us who got an old “haircut” under very odd and unforeseen circumstances. We had to start placating Agnes. Started leading a few slaves here and there to the forest, closed our eyes and headed back home.

Speaking of, this is a slave tag. All framed and pretty like. Have you ever seen one of these? They were mainly used in South Carolina, I believe. Charleston to be exact. We hear a lot about slaves who worked on the green, but there was a wide assortment of city slaves who left the property, able bodies utilized to push this great country into the industrial age. Incredibly functional. You won’t see a name or anything like that on ‘em, just a number and your job.  Here, see, I’ll take it out for just a little fun. Take it. No, no it’s alright. Don’t freak out on me now. Slavery is long and gone, ain’t it? Honest Abe saw to that. And then Johnny Wilkes saw to him.  Just take it. Come on. Grab it. Good lad. It’s surprisingly heavy, isn’t it? I think it’s probably iron. Warm to the touch, eh? Stings a little. Damn, those arms of yours have taken a fair beating today. You smell that? Is that you? Sizzlin’ and bubblin’.

Shit. I figured this might happen. I don’t think I’ll be able to get that badge back. It’s embedded into your flesh, melting its way through. Your skin is forming around it, being squeezed apart as the tag finds its home. Sears history into you, scorches you with obedience, and discipline, and a concern for integrity. It never did like nesting in that case, huh?

That must be awfully painful. It’s given you a number too, eh? 1333: “Dock Worker.”  Well, we don’t have much in the way of ship passage around the estate. But we’ll see about that.

That’ll be the dinner bell. Why don’t you start by helping us serve the little family? Mama was worried about where you might sit at the table, but it looks like you won’t be sitting at all will ya?

* * *

The lamb gazes outside of the painting, watching closely as the guest-turned-tenant walks  outside of the museum. Uncle picks up the discarded cell phone that the ebony-skinned man will never use again. Trevor rustles, still trying to hook a big one. The lamb raises its front legs. At the end of those extremities of lanolin are a small set of peach-colored human hands. The nails are filled, and the palms are soft to the touch. The man looks towards the painting, sees the lamb beaming with curiosity.

The lamb’s eyes rest on him, too. Its eyes are green.  The babe feels what may be sorrow, though overwhelmed by anthropological interest. It looks towards the television. It plays old black and white films that show falling snow and high-pitched carolers. It pulls itself up from Jesus’ lap and rests its hands on the inside of the portrait like a child leaning against the window of a candy shop. It salivates in delight, red and sticky. The blood of the lamb.

End.

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Timaeus Bloom is a black author of speculative fiction from Alabama. A fan of the strange and fantastical, he spends his free time laboring over just what to do with his free time. You can find his words in Howls from the Wreckage, and upcoming in Nightlight Podcast and Beyond the Bounds of Infinity. He is also the co-editor of the upcoming Howls from the Scene of the Crime: an Anthology of Crime Horror in 2024. 

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