Museum of Vanished Things
The boy is on fire. The boy is aggrieved. The boy is dead.
We do not know what aggrieved means, Ms. Clara, but we like how you write it on the board with a stub of white chalk. How the word rolls past your lips.
The boy does not like cake. The boy sometimes likes endings. The boy does not want the world to end.
We imagine the boy Ms. Clara writes about on the board as small and slight and everything our school’s posters told us not to be. This boy likely refuses to eat green beans, freeze-dried strawberries, gummy vitamins. During recess, he likely sneaks into the alcove and tears apart at the berried trees, suckling on its lingering sweet. He probably ran off into the trees and returned to us freckled and red. Poisoned, Ms. Clara clarifies after we share our theories with her, the boy is poisoned. To demonstrate, Ms. Clara reaches for her neck and gags and convulses and sinks down into her desk chair. We laugh, laugh harder than we realized our small bodies could, laugh until we bring ourselves to cry. Our mouths are filled with hunger and want when we test the word against our tongues: dead, dead, dead.
We love Ms. Clara. We love how she tucks clips in her crimped black hair and how she wears false lashes that fall from her lids when she blinks too fast and how she holds our hands until we repeat the words correctly back to her. We love how she pinches our ears when we pronounce them incorrectly — not because it doesn’t hurt, but because we like how Ms. Clara’s fingers feel warm like melted butter against our skin. We love how she sometimes tells us about her husband the ghost, the sometimes-soldier, the deserter. We love how she cries like a tornado because there is no slow beginning with Ms. Clara’s tears, there only is, and to listen to Ms. Clara cry reminds us of torrents of rain pounding against the school roof like fists. We even liked how during the second week of school she did exactly that: prop herself against her desk littered with the apples we gifted her and cry against the mahogany finish. She told us the best story during story time that day, too. The tale of the baby that was inside her and suddenly wasn’t. About the husband who had been there, left, only to come back to get his vintage Parisian wine, and then leave again. This is how we grow to love Ms. Clara more: by watching how she crunches on our apples. How she digs her red nails into its seeded center as if she were still looking for something.
Only Ms. Clara’s old dictionaries contain the words apocalypse, darkness, dead, past. Ms. Clara still likes to talk to them because she says we have to. We must. She tells us how before the floods people were buried, clothed in their finest silks, scrubbed clean with gravediggers’ hands and eased into the earth showered in rose petals. Dead, Ms. Clara explains. There’s something about how she says it, about how her whole body trembles to pull the word free from herself that makes the word feel daring, perilous, rebellious. During recess, we sing about decayed bodies thrown in pits; we rejoice in the promise of mortality. Later, Ms. Clara pinches our ears, shushes us, tells us this is our little secret. “Dead people no longer exist, my little ducks,” she whispers. “Now there are only ghosts.”
We watch as she fills a bucket with water. We watch as she tilts it, as the water spills onto the linoleum tile floor, as the puddles stretch and lap underneath our Mary Janes, as our classroom becomes an unfiltered fish tank. When she looks up to our young, round faces, she frowns. Apparently we still don’t understand.
For our first field trip, Ms. Clara takes us to the Museum of Vanished Things. In truth, Ms. Clara explains during the bus ride there, it should have been called the Museum of Dead Things, but vanished sounded better than dead. Welcoming even.
In the museum, there were stuffed foxes and bears. There were replicas of extinct plants and clay figurines of human organs. We touched them all, dug our fingers into their makeshift flesh, fit our hands around their smooth shapes. “It’s history,” Ms. Clara tells us. “Our history.”
Our hands brush against the glass figurine meant to commemorate a boy who “vanished” in the first wave of floods. Staring into his unblinking glass eyes, we feel something deflate within us. We stare at the small statue of a boy whose body is meant to serve as a metaphor for something larger, and Ms. Clara wants us to kiss the statue’s forehead, to slip our hands into his cold, unfeeling ones, to remember everything, my little ducks. But we can’t bring ourselves to.
Instead, we cry for our mothers, our fathers, our toys. Our small bodies drown within ourselves and flood with want. Throngs of school children accompanied by their teachers stop and marvel at us as if we, too, have become part of the exhibit.
Embarrassed, Ms. Clara arranges for us to leave prematurely, and during the bus ride home we think about what awaits us: Ms. Clara who will pinch our ears so tightly our heads will throb with pain; our mothers and fathers who will yell at her; our lovely Ms. Clara who will be fired or placed on administrative leave.
Because we can’t stand what future awaits at school, we exchange folded notes written in glittering blue ink addressed to no one on the bus.
Notes that said things like, Cindy + Joey 4eva!
I kissed three boys and I stubbed my toe and I liked when it was all over.
I am aggrieved to see my Nana in a hospital.
Finally, I think I know how all those ghosts must feel.
Brianna McNish’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Moon City Review, Okay Donkey, Pidgeonholes, Jellyfish Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. She studies American literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut.