Gustav Stands in Front of the Display Case

Nathaniel Livermore Stebbins
Museum of the American Indian – Heye Foundation (MAI), 1916-1989
Created December, 1921

* * * * *

quare shoulders, feet an arm’s length apart, hands flat on those fleshy, sagging thighs, knees slightly bent, as if leaning into a squat, but not quite squatting.

Chin up, jut forward a fraction of a degree, until he feels the first two vertebrae click into place, and the long-suffering bow of his spine curve like a pliant willow tree from the anchor of his coccyx.

The next motion is critical, the precise insertion point of a worn-out key into a cranky old lock: he eases back on his haunches ever so slightly so the grand, shining balloon of his heavy breasts and swollen gut deflate, settle like a lowered cape on the shelf of his groin, encasing him in fold after fold of skin.

Gustav stops and opens his eyes.

His reflection is frozen in the smoky glass of the display case.   The display room behind him is captured in muted hues.

He looks at his body in the glass.  It is grotesque, suspended in a partial crouch, his white skin unnatural in the grey shadows, his penis a notion, incomplete, his testicles surrounded by a halo of whispy hair.

Gustav didn’t dare move.  It was in his stillness that the mystery would play out.

The first time he had discovered the life that teemed on his body he had been a 12-year old boy rooting around in his father’s study, looking for the letter he knew his father must have left behind, just forgotten to put out where it could be found, even though he’d been thoughtful enough to run the rope over the willow tree under the big window that looked down to the river, and had taken care to put an iron garden chair on the occasional bench so that he’d fall enough distance to snap the noose tight around his neck.  At the back of a bottom drawer was a sharp spike of stone with a flaked edge; Gustav felt a prick and then a strange tickling when he jammed against it.  He held his finger up and saw an impossibly small but precise Indian high-stepping in the fatty roll of skin around his knuckle.  His blood dropped to the desk and was absorbed into the old blotter.  The Indian danced and danced tirelessly, intensely, endlessly, and Gustav could barely breath from joy.

The museum was quiet.  A drop of sweat formed on his brow.  He looked through the glass at the artifacts.  A collection of stone arrowheads; wilted, tired headdresses; round pots with impossibly narrow foundations, wide-shouldered brims.  Clay.  Pigment.  Grass.  The earth.

The movement began like a muted dawn rain.  Gustav watched his reflection.  They appeared from his bouyant crevices.  Their weight didn’t turn the clear down covering his flesh.  They wore ceremonial costumes; their bodies glistened with sweat; they looked out to the invisible horizon and began to chant, the vibrations of their silent keening thrumming Gustav’s heart.

He could barely contain himself.  He wanted to crash into the glass and gather the artifacts into his arms.  He wanted to feel the minatures rise around him and crush his chest under their weight.

He stood still.

This is where the spirit world has come to rest, Gustav thought.  Hidden in my corpulence, protected by my gluttony, unencumbered by my emptiness.  This is my purpose.

This is where Gustav stood in the morning when the old half-breed who watched the building at night shambled through the halls.  The Indian stood in front of the naked man and looked at his shrunken penis.

Gustav was barely breathing.

“Come on down now, Mr. Hey, and let’s get something warm on you,” the Indian said.  “Nothing here is going anyways.  You got it all.”

“Are they gone, Billy?  Look close. ” Gustav whispered.

The old man stroked his jaw and crouched down.  When he stood, he wet his lips with his tongue and put them close to Gustav’s ear.

“They’s all gone.  Every one of them.  You can move now.”

Gustav sighed.

“You did good, Mr. Hey.  You did real good.”  The old man took the young man by the hand and walked him along a side corridor.  Their shapes followed in the amber glass of the display cases, receding into the shadows with every step, their faint stamp on time slipping into the stale air.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

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