5 min #Calgary Story #Family #macabre

The Emporium of Dead and Broken Things

Erin Emily Ann Vance

It was my mother's idea to buy the little museum, tucked away in a small grove of trees behind the barbershop and the bakery. My father gave her enough money to find something to occupy her time with since my brothers had moved out and all three of my aunts had died. A month after she signed the deed, I graduated with a degree in museum and heritage studies with no more university funding and no job prospects, so I moved home. My mother told me that she’d fix up the back room and the storeroom so that I could live there, and that I could run the little museum until a paying job manifested. I agreed. I didn’t mind being back in my sleepy hometown, and liked the idea of having some space to myself.


My mother liked to sit in the store room, however, which was to be my bedroom, smoking, and looking out at the patrons through a dirty little window. The museum became a strange apartment for her to escape to, and I retreated to my childhood bedroom with its magnolia and pony wallpaper and single bed. While I would walk home after closing and tidying, most nights, and watch reruns of The Twilight Zone with my father, my mother would read V.C. Andrews books and chain smoke. The walls of my would-be bedroom were turning brown.


I was the little museum’s caretaker. It was like a baby, sometimes, an orphan that didn't have a name, let alone a sign declaring that it was, in fact, a museum. Other times it was a dying old woman, simply known as a place with dust and old things and where you could go to find old newspapers and documents. Our town doesn’t have a library, so the museum's attic was full of old moth-eaten couches, books, and what little archives we had in cardboard boxes, stacked to the ceiling where it declined into the acute darkness. I was tasked with greeting the few people that came into the museum and rattling off a script about the town's history while my mother smoked and peered through the hole in the back. She paid me enough that I felt guilty for hating it my job. I dusted the artifacts and books thrice a week and mopped and swept the floors daily. I washed the warped old windows. It was summer when I started working, and I planted flowers out front and made hibiscus lemonade and bite sized cottage pies for visitors.


A month into my tenure at the museum, I proposed that we give it a name and begin cataloguing the artefacts. I wanted to put my knowledge to use and was afraid of spending the rest of her life as my mother's maid. Mother suggested we call it "The Emporium Dead and Broken Things," but we settled on the "Western Canadian Museum of Prairie Life." There weren't many magical or mysterious things in the museum as far as we could tell. My mother agreed to let me properly catalogue the items, and she bought a television and a small futon to put in the backroom. I spent hours culling the collection while she watched Lifetime movies and read magazines. I urged her to fulfill our original plan of turning the backroom into a bedroom for me. I even began piling things in the room, decorating a little bit, but I found my print of The Unicorn in Captivity in the recycle bin. My mother denied putting it there. We barely spoke after that, and I threw myself into the work, marking down my hours in an old receipt book we found under the cash register.


I started with what we had on display (we had not changed it since taking over the museum):


A full-size taxidermic moose whose antlers had been completely covered with a thick purple glitter that made them look like they were covered in psychedelic moss.


A collection of love letters from the first mayor of the town to his eleven-year-old niece, found unsent and hidden in a shoebox in his office after his resignation.


A photo of the queen of England wearing the town school's mascot costume; a bumble-beaver, in front of the newly built town hall.


Margaret Atwood's left pinky nail, preserved and placed upright in a large bell jar. The nail is painted arsenic green.


A doctor’s bag from the thirties, elegantly displayed alongside its bloody contents in a shadow box.


A local “fiji mermaid:” a rainbow trout’s tail sewn crudely to the upper body of a hare. This specimen fascinated me. It stood upright in a cloche and beside it was a scrapbook where local people had asserted that the thing had been real.


The museum looked sparse, so I set about gathering things from the basement to put on display and attract visitors.


I found three antique Tiffany windows stacked against the wall of a circular room in the basement. They had a curious pattern on them. Fish scales dotted the clouded glass. A yellowed tag was attached to one with a piece of wire: “Windows from the unrealised mansion of Violet Payne, 1899.”


I brought first two windows upstairs. I had never heard the name Violet Payne. When I shifted the third window, I noticed a large jar behind it, the kind that my grandma brewed sun tea in on her porch every July. It was coated so thick with dust that I could not see inside. I wiped at it with my sleeve, decades of dust curling like worms into the wool of my sweater. I couldn't see anything but my reflection in the window I'd rubbed into the glass, so I brought it upstairs to the sink. With a damp cloth I scrubbed away the dust until the entire jar was free of grime. The murky liquid inside was a near-black burgundy. I had completely forgotten about the windows and their owner. When I held the jar to the light, I could see that something bobbed in the murk.


“What on earth is THAT?” I started and the jar crashed to the ground, the shrill voice of my mother unfamiliar and disturbing after days of not speaking.


“Jesus Christ, Nettie. Look what you’ve done!” The jar had broken open and the ruddy liquid spread over the wooden floor of the museum’s small kitchen. Among the broken glass lay a creature. The creature was curled into itself, as foetal as a thing with long, fawn-like legs and heavy hooves can be. Its eyelids were translucent and thought it was more than twenty centimeters in diameter, it seemed small, unborn. I picked it up. My mother gasped. The creature’s face was soft with a tuft of yellow hair on the chin. Otherwise, it was nearly naked. I thought it was a goat, stillborn maybe. My mother stepped forward. She reached out and touched it between the eyes. A sharp, thin horn protruded from its head. It was almost like several long, thick needles wrapped around one another. Mother bent down and picked up the thick base of the jar, which had a label stuck to the bottom. “Bequeathed to the museum by Violet Payne, 1897, with the caveat that if her house was ever finished, the specimen is to be returned. Unfortunately, Ms. Payne’s home was consumed by a fire before it was ever finished. Its cry is a deep bellow.”


“It’s beautiful,” my mother whispered, carefully gathering bits of broken glass into her hand. I stood, mesmerized by the creature as she mopped up the liquid and swept the shards into the bin. She scooped the creature out of my arms like it was a newborn, supporting its limbs, and placing it on a tea towel on the table. We sat and stared at it. My mother stroked its horn and rearranged its limbs so that it looked like it was sleeping.


“I suppose we should find another jar and more of whatever liquid it was in.”


“Yes, I’ll go look it up. You should go up to the attic and figure out who this Violet Payne is.”


We renamed the museum, and it drew more visitors each year. My mother and I turned the living rooms into our own curiosity cabinet, locked away from everyone else. The creature, whom we named Violet, slept proudly in the centre of the living room on a marble pedestal. We replaced the formalin each year so we could see her clearly as we sat in our twin armchairs, reading V.C. Andrews and drinking wine together after a long day at the emporium.


Image of Erin Emily Ann Vance

Erin Emily Ann Vance

Erin Emily Ann Vance is the author of Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers (Stonehouse Publishing, 2019). She holds an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Calgary. She studies folklore at University College Dublin. Find her work in The Literary Review of Canada, filling station, Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain Magazine, and EVENT. www.erinvance.ca

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