Natural Displays of Grief Hank brings me to the natural history museum to take my mind off things. He tells me nothing compares to disappearing in a maze of exhibits. He holds his arms out wide and points in every direction. “Look how far we’ve come,” he says. We are standing in a room filled with wooden tools. The walls and backdrops are dark, the carpet speckled and blue. Track lights hang from the ceiling, spotlighting each plexiglass case. I’m reminded of junior high field trips, the hushed conversations, circling enclosed relics that bear no connection to my life. He pulls me into the next dim room. “There’s so much to see.” This is my third date with Hank, and my interest is waning. It doesn’t help that he smirks at anything phallic. He was probably the kid at the museum who kept getting in trouble for ducking ropes and touching the displays. But we met in a grief group, and he understands my moods. I stop beside a green pendant, a stone creature with giant opal eyes. It reminds me of E.T., something alien or reptilian. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hank says. I squint, wondering why anyone would wear something so grotesque. “They bring luck.” He points at the description and winks. I read how these pendants were passed down generation to generation, linking past, present, and future. It feels as if a giant vacuum is sucking the air out of the room. It’s too hot in here. Or too dark. I turn around, searching for exits. In the next exhibit, I find case after case of beadwork and basketry. I find ceremonial costumes. I pause over one designated for mourners. It includes multiple layers, each scratchy or heavy: a spiky headpiece, a shell breastplate, a sack-dress decorated with geometric shapes carved from coconuts. There is a cloak made of twisted brown feathers that hang like dried leaves. It reminds me of a kid’s homemade costume, a feathery Chewbacca. If I had my own mourning cloak, maybe strangers would be kinder or ask fewer questions. If I walked through the grocery store—the park, my son’s school—in a feathered cape, maybe everyone would give me a few feet of space. Maybe the cashier wouldn’t ask me to remove items from the belt when I came up short. Maybe the neighbors would stop scowling at my unkempt lawn. Maybe Misty would shut up about attending the church potluck. Hank places his hands on my shoulders. “You know, you’re not supposed to touch the glass.” I step back, covering both cheeks with my palms. Did I really just press my nose against the case? “The anniversaries will always be hardest,” he says. Hank is right. I want to duck every rope, touch all the glass, climb inside each case. I want to hold every artifact carved and revered by the ancient dead. I want to uncover a yawning hole deep enough to swallow my grief. I continue staring at the feathers, the way they hang and droop. I imagine peeling back the glass and running my fingers down the length of the cloak, absorbing its weight, its texture, breathing into its folds. At some point, these mourners stripped off their costumes, pushed their sorrow aside. And now, here it is, on display. Visible, but out of reach. Preserved, yet contained. I scan the exhibit, looking for an opening I might slip through. “Let’s disappear,” I say. I grab Hank’s hand, and we glide into the next room, where we travel farther back in time.
-- Abbie Barker is a creative writing instructor living with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her fiction has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Cutbank, Berkeley Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, Best Microfiction 2022, and other publications. Abbie’s stories have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions.