The Exhibit

Written by Branden Boyer-White

Published at Anthropoid

 

A restoration was underway at the Hall of Exhibits. I did not know what this meant when I took the position, only that the Grand Reopening would take place in four weeks and that the restoration was in its final intense stage. New exhibits were being installed, given finishing touches, catalogued. I was to be part of this work. I was part of it, until tonight.

 

I had not been to the Hall since I was a little girl. I remembered it only in that disjointed, unfocused way you do a dream, as an endless parade of art galleries, artifact and zoological displays. The building was surrounded by gardens. The animals I remember most clearly. A tropical aquarium and the aviary of birds. A room of tanks of reptiles, the air wet, odorous, ticking with cricket sounds. A pavilion of tree-lined paths where species of butterflies trembled overhead. The butterflies fell onto your shoulders like living snow. Signs asked that you watch where you step.

When I arrived again four weeks ago I saw that the grounds around the immense building of the Hall were well-kept but empty. No gardens, no giant tent for the aviary.

The lobby was a formidable space, elegant and chilly, pillars of veined marble. The chandeliers the size of small boats were necessary—for all its expansive height the lobby was windowless. I would come to learn that the whole of the Hall was windowless.

People wearing identical dark green jackets hurried past pushing dollies or showing each other clipboards, and then I saw a man striding toward me. Mr. Percy, smiling widely.

“My dear!” he said, shaking my hand with both of his. “Welcome to our marvelous institution!” His green jacket had tails like a magician’s. Across the breast his title embroidered in gold. Director of Exhibits.

We said a few greeting things and then I asked if I could see my studio. I am not good with small talk.

“Eager to get to work, are we?” Mr. Percy said. His speckled gray moustache flapped on his lip. His hair was black as shoe polish. “You will fit in quite well. This way!” And he led us into the Hall.

I am a metalsmith. I was hired by the Hall of Exhibits to do finishing work on the installations and make repairs before the Grand Reopening. Mine was a temporary position but it had been suggested that a more permanent one might open. I was not sure upon what conditions but I was sure I could fulfill them. I can do anything: the heavy work of blacksmithing, the delicate processes of small and precious metalwork. I can make a bowie knife from scratch and inscribe a love poem on a silver locket. I’ve been told that I might specialize to make myself a niche. I point out that if you fit nowhere you can fit anywhere. I’ve been told that it seems at odds to be a smith and a woman. I point out that I only chose to be one but would change neither.

I told Mr. Percy this during our telephone interview. What I don’t know how to do, I said, I figure out.

He had answered, “Marvelous.”

Eventually the corridors of the inner Hall would become familiar to me as my own veins,   but that first day I felt as though I was being spun in circles as Mr. Percy led us through. All the corridors were identical—swampy with shadow, lit by wall sconces emitting a glow barely brighter than candlelight. On both sides the walls opened again and again into exhibit rooms. From within them light and color, shapes and detail, leapt out. We hurried past. We were on business.

Mr. Percy pushed through a closed door marked with a small plaque, brass, well-shined, that read “Private.” We were in a new hallway then, lit brighter and lined with closed doors.

“One of our technician’s wings,” he explained, producing from his pocket an impressive ring of keys.

The doors were marked only by numbers over their frames. We had stopped at Three Hundred Sixteen. “Are these all studios?”

“Our private workrooms, yes,” Mr. Percy said. He unlocked and threw open the door. “And here is yours!”

The room was lined with racks of hammers and pliers. Shelves held full jars of patina and pickle solutions. Brand new anvils and vices, not a mark on them. Drill bits and punches of every size and buffing wheels for polishing anything I might make. Torches and tanks of gas waiting to burn, sheets of virgin metal stacked a foot tall, coils of wire longing to be cut.

My hands began to itch. I said, “This will do.”

Mr. Percy smiled. “Marvelous.”

 

As I worked each day, the Hall revealed itself. Sometimes the work order I received gave me an idea of what I would see: “The fixture holding the skeleton aloft would look better in a golden metal than the current silver.” But when the task was more generic—“Dent in aluminum frame of display case”—I had to wait until I found the room. There was no way to guess.

The dented case had held eggs, exact natural replicas in blown glass, some with models of infant birds inside illuminated through the shells. I buffed a scratch off the curving hindquarters of a bronze man in exhibit Thirty, a room of sculptures like a forest of human figures crouching and stretching. I added decorative engraving to display bases in Ninety-Nine, a gallery of miniature trees like bonsais except this exhibit boasted unusual specimens—a maple with crimson leaves the size of quarters and others bearing tiny fruit.

“Is it edible?” I asked a woman fussing with the little apples. The embroidery on her green jacket read, “Botanics Technician.”

She looked sideways at me. “They aren’t for eating,” she said, and turned to a foot-tall date palm.

What was any of it for?

One day I stopped to investigate a room full of butterflies. They rested, iridescent wings spread, on stands and pots of arranged branches. Dozens more floated above empty spaces marked off by velvet rope. It was like standing at the center of a galaxy, bits of light poised all around, for under the lamps the butterflies’ colors shifted as if they fluttered. But they didn’t. In exhibit Forty-Three the butterflies only seemed to be alive.

A technician fussed with the wire suspending a great lime green moth. He had greeted me when I walked in.

“How did they kill them without breaking them?” I asked, thinking of the paper-fine wings.

He winked. “We freeze them. It’s gentle and preserves the beauty of the specimens.”

And this seemed to be the lone intention that held the Hall of Exhibits together. Everything within its walls was beautiful.

 

 

A week had passed. My work was going well. I had command of an endless supply of materials and tools. There were stock plates of eighteen-karat gold in the cabinet behind my studio door. Working at the Hall I could have anything I needed, or wanted.

But I had not received a green jacket. Though no one told me there was a test in place for the permanent position, I knew. Whatever it would be I would not fail.

Then Mr. Percy summoned me, and that is how everything changed.

 

I found him at exhibit Twenty-Six as requested, a room of lavish fur pieces. Rugs with roaring heads and hides re-formed into human shapes—coats-like-torsos and caps the size of skulls. I didn’t have time to inspect. “Dearest!” Mr. Percy cried when he saw me. He pulled a watch on a chain from his pocket. “Always more to do! Come with me.”

He explained as we walked. “I have an assignment for you. Of high priority.” There were four weeks until the Grand Reopening. He produced a box from beneath his jacket and handed it to me. Smooth stained wood with an ornate latch. Silver, a weak metal for a closure. I flicked it open. Pinned to the silk lining of the box’s interior was a necklace.

I lifted it out. The scrolling links were white gold but stained with yellow from wear. The clasp broken, a part of the mechanism snapped off. By the length it would fit like a collar. A series of blood-colored stones were set along its span.

“Garnet?” I asked.

“Yes! It has the perfect look, but as you can see—could you repair it?”

The necklace suffered from design flaws. I saw joints and limbs in the curving structure that weren’t there, but might be. My mind began to trace the lines of the sketch I would make. “I could improve it, actually. Keep the basic design but enhance it. If you would like that.”

He clapped. “Splendid!” Then he regarded me. “You are making yourself quite invaluable.”

I intended to.

We had stopped at an entranceway. Exhibit One Eighty-Eight. We stepped in.

The exhibit room was an empty space. Dark. Technicians crowded within, the air throbbing with their voices and the clicking of tools. I could not see what work they did. I couldn’t see anything else, for three of the walls were just walls but one was inlaid with an enormous pane of glass—a window, revealing a little room raised a yard higher than the floor we stood on. And in the little room behind the glass was a woman.

Her hair was the color of fresh copper. Long, softly tangled as if she had stepped out of a breeze. Her face fair with the neat lines of a sculpture—straight nose, clear eyes in an open brow, precise peaks of lip. Her chin lightly dimpled as though the careful fingers that had worked the mouth left one final mark: a touch, there.

But she was not sculpted. She blinked, her head turned, her chest rose and fell.

She wore a simple dress, the fabric almost white and moving softly around the shapes of her. I think the dress would be called a shift but I am not sure. I have never been good with clothes unless they involve buckles and studs.

“Is that the exhibit?” I asked.

“It is one of them,” Mr. Percy said, and then leaning in, “It is my favorite. Our most innovative by far.”

Behind the glass she leaned on the bed post—for there was a bed in the room with her. Against the back wall stood an armoire and next to it, a folding dressing screen. Opposite the bed and tilted outward, toward us, sat a vanity with a large mirror, its tabletop strewn with brushes and bottles. A stool for sitting. The walls covered in paneling and patterned paper. A colorful rug over the floor.

The scene sat trapped in the wall like a painting, a still life of a lady’s bedroom. Only the painting was not still.

Her feet were bare.

The box in my hands suddenly weighed more. “Is the necklace for her?”

“Why yes,” Mr. Percy said. “One of the finishing touches!” He sighed as if he had bitten into something delicious.

The technicians milled about. In the little room the woman ignored everyone on our side of the glass. She moved to the vanity and sat on the stool. Leaned on her elbows and fingered a lock of hair, watching herself in the mirror. I thought there might be a freckle on her left cheek, just under the eye.

I wondered how she described her part in the exhibit. How she explained herself. What her voice sounded like. “How long does she stay in there each day?”

He said, “All day, of course.”

On the bed the pillows and sheets twisted. A glass sat on the side table, an inch or so of water at its bottom. A faint buzzing began in my head. I scanned the walls for a door. Near the ceiling two long vents leered silently. For air. Other than this there were no openings into the little room. I turned to Mr. Percy. “But when does she leave?”

He blinked as if I had given him a riddle. “Why would she leave?” Then he smiled.

A technician approached and Mr. Percy turned to him, his hands and voice animated. That’s when she looked at me. Her eyes flicked suddenly up in the mirror and darted over and past everything else to mine. Our eyes on each other’s.

I left. I found my way out of the Hall. That night I had a dream that I was small enough to swim through a human vein and could not, in that curious way of dreams, tell how I had come to be there, tangled in all that red.

 

The next day, working, I still wondered. Does she get orders like mine for how she is to do her work for the day? Requests to braid her hair or wear it loose, for where she is to sit, what expression she is to keep on her face? Has her work begun even, or is this all just rehearsal? What will she do when the Hall finally opens?

I wanted to ask.

So that night I went back, late, when everyone else had to be gone. If I faced a night guard or technician I would say that I feared I had left a torch open in my studio—gas, too dangerous to let go until morning.

The front doors of the Hall stretched tall in the dark. I knew it was not likely but I tried my studio key in the front door. Brass, a serious knob. The key slipped in but would not turn.

A thing about smiths: we make keys because the rest if the world needs them, not because we do.

I picked the lock.

Inside the Hall was silent as a held breath. I crossed paths with no one.

When she saw me she jumped off her bed and came to the glass. The lamp at her bedside was the only light still burning. I approached the glass, stood close as I could without touching anything.

She was raised on the platform and so she knelt—that way we were face to face. We hesitated in the circle of lamplight together.

She did have a freckle on her right cheek, under her eye, on the bone.

“Why are you in there?” I asked. Perhaps I should have started with something more polite. Her name or how she was feeling. But I am not indirect.

She didn’t answer. She leaned toward the glass. I had no way of knowing how thick it was. I am not an expert in windows.

I tried again, raising my voice as loud as I dared in the utter hush of the Hall. “Can you hear me?”

She took a breath, her lips parting, but I heard nothing. Her eyes were the color of amber.

I stayed an hour. To be quiet with her. When I left I carefully re-locked the front door so I would not leave a trace of my visit. So I could keep everything precious within the Hall safe.

 

In the day I worked. I fixed a knife whose blade had snapped at the tip—whether it was an exhibit or some technician’s tool, I did not know. I plated light fixtures in a room that held, among other objects, a hive of bees petrified mid-action and bisected for display, no doubt frozen in the same manner as the butterflies, pollen still clinging to the legs of the bees. One morning in a dark corridor I heard an uncanny shrieking, and the day after spotted its source—a fantastic blood-red parrot being wheeled in a great cage across the lobby. Soon after, I received an order to fashion eight decorative perches. I broke in my studio’s forge for the ironwork.

At night I went to her. I looked and looked at her like swallowing water, and she looked back. Because that is all we could do. Look.

We made an elaborate task of looking. The craft of her fascinated me. The bevel edges of the lids that held her eyes. The movable joints of wrist in arm and shoulder in back. I found a spot on her throat where I could see her pulse. I became an expert on the filigree curve of her lip.

She had a way of staring at me as if she were saying a million things in a rush, or else the one most important thing very carefully. I felt pulled in and knocked back by her look like trying to stand in the sea. Sometimes it was overwhelming. Sometimes I brought her other things to look at that weren’t me. I tore pictures from papers and welded tiny sculptures of scrap and held them to the glass to make her smile.

 

One afternoon I met a crew of technicians pushing wheeled carts stocked with containers. I stepped against the wall to let them pass. The containers held an impressive variety of reptiles. The creatures watched me, blinking their sticky lids over black orb eyes. Frogs popped futilely at the glass sides. The final cart bore one large container holding a massive boa constrictor. It flicked its tongue at me.

That night I watched her differently. I wondered what she did all day. She had lotions to put on. She changed her shifts and some nights wore socks. But she had no diversions. She had to get food in some way.

The bed, the ever-refilling glass of water on the nightstand—only the most basic of her physical needs had been met, an entire contained world of that which was necessary to her.

I was not looking at a live painting. The window in the wall of exhibit One Eighty-Eight looked in on something else entirely.

I murmured the word aloud. “Habitat.”

She put both her hands to the glass. Her veins branched blue through her palms. I reached a finger out. Her eyes were bright and pulled and pushed me. She watched my hand move toward hers. The glass beneath my fingertip was cold and smooth.

 

It takes a certain kind of patience to work metals. The material has its own desires. As you bend and hammer it, it hardens and you have to heat it just enough to persuade it to move under your hands again. If you quench it too soon after heating it will shatter like glass upon the surface of the water. So you wait. You improvise.

I worked on the necklace whenever I had a chance. I was more intensely precise than usual and I am usually precise. Every link and joint I wanted to be perfect. I wanted Mr. Percy to be impressed, to know I was devoted to the Hall. I wanted her to know I was devoted.

I had to take the garnets out of the necklace so I could solder the new pieces to it and not damage the stones with the torch. I would re-set them later. As I fired it I watched the metal light and bloom red, for it would tell me when it was a moment away from melting. Under fire, metal comes to life. It moves. When you apply a flame to solder it will flow wherever there is an opening, even coursing upward against gravity. You call this capillary action—like blood, like the beating of your heart.

 

 

We touched the glass. I feared the telltale smudges but she would put her palms to the window and I couldn’t stop myself from laying mine over them. Our hands were the same size.

I used my sleeves on the glass, rubbed away the traces of my hands. When I worked with other technicians or passed them in the corridors they only smiled and nodded and we commented on the progress of the restoration, and that was all. I had not seen Mr. Percy again. So it seemed she and I were safe.

 

There were back ways into other exhibit rooms. I had been through them. So each day as I moved around the Hall I tried new, closed doors as discreetly as possible. Most did not open and I did not dare take the time to pick the lock. A few knobs did yield and I faced technicians looking up dazedly from their stitching or typesetting or line of glue. I would apologize, say, “Wrong door.” Not a total lie.

None opened into a way to her.

I wasn’t altogether sure what I wanted with a door. All I knew of her was through the glass and when I tried to picture more than that, I could not. As much as I wanted an answer, maybe I also trusted things the way they were.

 

We played a game. We held the glass between our hands and it would warm with the heat of our two touches. We would break away. She would lean down and breathe on the spot and if we had warmed the glass enough it wouldn’t fog. That was how we won.

Then one night she laid her cheek against the glass instead and I held that. Then she turned and used one shoulder, barely covered by the thin strap of her shift. I put my palm over her there, too. In the nights after that we used her arms, the flats of her feet, the plains of the sides of her thighs. I had no idea what she felt like but I knew how my hand looked against the backdrop of so much of her body.

My position at the Hall would end. I wanted to ask her what happened next. I wanted her to speak, to tell me that whatever else would change she would always be where I could find her.

But she couldn’t, or didn’t. She gathered her hair and laid the smooth back of her neck to the glass and I held it, warm.

 

Ten days before the Grand Reopening a work order, handwritten in refined curls, appeared at my studio.

Could you please have the necklace for exhibit One-Eight-Eight finished in two days’ time? It is of dire importance. Thank you so much.

It was signed by Mr. Percy.

Twice that day I hammered my own thumb, and sliced into my hand with the tiny teeth of my jeweler’s saw. Was he displeased with me? Had I failed?

I worked all through the next day and so late into the night that by the time I got to her she had fallen asleep on the floor at the glass, looking like a flower someone had dropped. But I had finished the necklace, a day earlier than Mr. Percy had asked.

Then I gave the necklace to him and everything changed again.

 

 

When I handed it to him Mr. Percy gathered the necklace from its box and held it to the light. The metal flared, the links slipping like liquid over his fingers.

“Magnificent!” he exclaimed. “You are genius. It will be unsurpassable!”

“When will she get it?” I asked. I hoped he would tell me what I truly wanted to know. Who would give it to her, and how? Was there was a way to get in to where she was? Or had I been tricked deeply, and she came out?

Mr. Percy snapped closed the lid of the box and it disappeared into his jacket over his heart. “Tomorrow. The technicians will finish the exhibit then.”

“Finish?”

He had yanked the watch from his pocket and made his sound of surprise at the time. “Yes! Most exciting. Do come see it for yourself. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

He began to hurry away but turned back. “And my dear,” he smiled. “Your efforts have not gone unnoticed. Thank you for serving us so well.”

When I returned to my studio at the end of day, a bundle of tissue paper sat on my workbench. Folded neatly into the paper was a contract extending my position indefinitely and a green jacket in my size. The embroidery read: “Metals Technician.”

 

That night she put her hand to the glass. I traced the veins in her palm. She offered her arm and I traced it, too.

She sat up. That strange element lit her eyes and she grabbed the bottom of her shift. There were bees in my chest, my breath was honey and I couldn’t push it in or out of my lungs. She pulled upward and out she came like being born from her own cotton collar. Her bare body flared behind the glass. She lay herself against it. I pressed my hands to her, trying to lay them everywhere.

We kissed goodbye. I left the smudge of my lips on her window and did not polish it away.

 

The next day I went straight to exhibit One Eighty-Eight.

The room hummed with activity, technicians swarming about in the dark. She was behind the glass, of course, and in her little room, with her, were two other people.

All that time there was a door, there was a door, hidden by the illusions of her habitat, nothing between us but a knob or hinge whose feeble mechanisms I could have crafted myself.

She stood on a small stool between the two technicians, their fingers busy on her. Her hair had been combed smooth and pulled half up so her forehead, eyes, ears and every angle of bone beneath her skin were on full display. Her dress was still simple but tighter, longer, a blue that set her hair on fire, a trick of the light.

And around her neck was the necklace I had prepared, the metal surely warming on her skin, the stones glistening in her throat like a fresh bite.

A hand struck my back. Mr. Percy. He smiled, his face alight with the glow of her lamps through the window. “Dearest! Here you are! What do you think of your work?”

“What’s happening?”

“We’re finishing the exhibit. Most exciting.”

He could not tell me anything I needed to know because I could not ask. I was afraid of losing any possible way to her. My mind raced. I made plans in my head, sketched a route to what I needed to know.

His favorite, Mr. Percy had said, weeks before. Innovative. That was it.

“What are the other exhibits, like this?” I asked. Held my voice steady.

“Like this? Nothing compares! But there are the woodland animals, and the reptiles—”

I remembered the creatures on their parade through the corridors, the way they stared at me through the glass.

I moved precisely, a certain kind of patience. “Which exhibit are the reptiles? I’ve been wanting to see them.”

“Oh, they are exquisite. Exhibit number seventy-six. No! Ninety-six.”

I nodded. “I should return to my work. Always more to do, yes?”

“And only a week left!” he cried. “Do come back and see the finished exhibit here. It will be wonderful.”

I smiled at Mr. Percy, wide. “Thank you,” I said. “I will be back.”

 

I waited in my studio. The Hall went quiet for the night and still I waited. I filed a whole length of copper wire down to powder just to pass the time. To keep steady.

Finally I walked into the familiar, still dark of the empty Hall. I found exhibit Ninety-Six.

Tanks gleamed in the otherworldly darkness favored by the Hall, set into the walls and rising from the floor like islands. In the privacy of the nighttime the creatures had come out to lounge in the heat of their lamps, skin glittering. Across the room in a tall tank the boa constrictor looped over a branch, watching me come in.

Not even a cricket sang. I peered into the tanks for a clue.

A sleek salamander posed on a stone in one tank, and from the next, a toad big as a fist regarded me with calm eyes. I moved closer. The toad was beautiful, squatting in its perfect toad’s pose. It stared at me as I stared at it. The toad didn’t blink. Its throat did not bubble and then flatten out the way a toad’s throat does when it breathes.

Tiny icy fingers danced up my back. The toad was not alive.

The salamander was not alive. The boa constrictor was only a massive, still muscle. Every animal in the room was dead but kept. Like the butterflies. Like the parrots whose cries I had never again heard. They were beautiful and always would be. The Hall had seen to that.

I went to her, running, losing my way in corridor after winding corridor. Finally, I knew the route. As I got closer to room One Eighty-Eight I could hear the walls humming strangely.

I should not have waited so long.

Behind the glass the vents near the ceiling of her little room were pulled open, exhaling insistently. A tide of frost crawled over the window from the edges inward; I would not have enough blood in all of my touch to warm it back up. The air in her habitat was being frozen.

And there, the way a trapped bird struggles against a window toward the sky, she pressed to the glass. There was no one else in her little room, or in the exhibit room. She was all alone.

I went to her. I put both hands to the glass. It burned cold. My skin stuck and I had to tug it free. She looked at me but the light in her eyes had gone out.

Already I could see the transformation beginning. Her skin had snowed impossibly white, creating the cleanest canvas for her spill of copper hair, the flecks of her long eyelashes, the sparkle of the necklace clutching at her throat. Her dress took the curving shapes of her body as she wilted into lines effortless as a breath.

Mr. Percy was right, I realized. The Hall in its vision was right. She was perfect. She was better than her original and suspended there. It was unsurpassable beauty, that moment of capture and preservation. I hungered to see her finished and ideal. To keep her. To keep.

It was too much. I turned my back. I didn’t think about her face, how she must have stared as she watched me leave.

 

I ran. I slid on the marble floors whenever I turned a corner. Made up time when I hit carpet. The rooms blurred into one long, flickering shadow as I passed.

It was only when I got into my studio that I stopped—I had to think for a moment. But that is all. I grabbed a hammer and the punch with the smallest tip.

By the time I returned she had fallen still. I positioned myself just close enough to the glass and just far enough away. The handle of the hammer was sure in my grip, its iron head solid at my side. I touched the punch to the glass, held it firm, and swung the hammer back.

I have good aim.

Upon the strike the glass exploded outward around the punch’s tip. The frozen air hit me like a solid thing. I dropped the tools just in time to catch her as she fell forward. The shock of her icy body bit into my hands and arms. We tumbled back.

A mechanical scream wailed—an alarm. Then human voices shouting. Of course someone had been supervising the process from somewhere, in one of the many rooms within the rooms of the Hall.

I tried to sit up. A pain in my wrist, a piece of glass stuck in. I tugged it out as I turned.

She lay beside me, half in my arms and half on the ground. Her hair fallen loose and her dress torn at the waist. Cuts marked her shoulders. A delicate line of blood dripped over the freckle on her cheek. The necklace was gone, lost to the mess of glass.

Her eyes opened, quick as razors on mine. I don’t know who followed and who led as we ran from the room.

 

The night is full of the sounds of dogs. I do not know if they are The Hall’s and if they are, where they have been slumbering all this time, waiting to chase. The human voices also followed as we fled and flashlight beams struck the dark like snakes. But we have run far, into the nature that surrounds the building of the Hall. Everything is black: the grass under our feet, the arms of the trees we hurry into.

We stop only when we are under cover, thicket tall around us and rustling softly in the wind. Finally I can turn back. The lights of The Hall of Exhibits are tiny and appear minor now, as much a threat as the stars overhead.

I hear her beside me. I look.

She looks back at me. Her hair soaks up the darkness around her leaving only the white of her forehead flaming like moonlight. It is our only illumination. The wind pushes on my back like insistent hands, there is somewhere it wants me to go. I do not usually tremble but in the light of her face I am trembling.

The truth is, now that she is beside me I don’t know what to do about her. I wish she was back behind glass where I am safe. Her skin and bones are so very white—she is more human than I had counted on. When she breathes I feel it pull on me, me out of myself. We are alone in the dark together. This is a dangerous night.

I do the only thing I can and slip one of my fingers around one of hers. Her skin is so soft against mine it hurts. I can feel it: heat. Already, she is warming herself back to life through processes I can only begin to imagine, happening deeply inside of the mystery of her.

Her lips part and she draws a breath. She is about to speak.