By Joy Manné
In the largest and most famous Natural History Museum in the world, a guard entered through the staff entrance, changed into his uniform, and took up his post. He’d turned sixty-five, retirement age, and it was the last day of his service. He’d come as a youth, his first job, marvelling at the hundreds and thousands of precisely-labelled cabinets and cases.
Museums are precise places. Precision rubbed off on him.
He sorrowed as the bored gum-chewing school kids chattered and joked instead of learning. Later he scraped their squabs off the marble floor with tissues soaked in cleaning spirit that he provided because the Museum wouldn’t pay.
His first post was the entrance hall, where he learned to recognise which visitors were touchers and which were bumpers, and how to direct them away from harming precious objects. Next he was partnered with Tom, the colleague whose funeral he had attended the previous week. They were entrusted with connecting galleries: rainbows of butterflies, pierced and mounted in cases and cabinets; emeralds of grasshoppers, pierced and pinned in neat shimmering rows; glistening beetles arranged from small to large—the guard had seen butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles in parks; cabinets and cases of bird eggs. His wife kept a canary.
The guard was a city kid. He’d never seen a nest with eggs in it. Now he had galleries of eggs—his own nest…
Bird eggs? People collected bird eggs even during the wars when others were starving?
‘Disgusting’ and ‘murderous’ became words that battered his mind as he did his rounds through all those unhatched chicks.
So much wasted life.
Why not humans?
His imagination filled with visions of the wicked and evil of his time spiked by shiny steel nails into symmetrical rows on Styrofoam sheets suspended from the museum’s three-story high walls.
Imagination doesn’t change the world.
The guard removed a rare butterfly and sold it. It was easy as pie. He removed an extinct cricket, a glistening beetle, and sold these, too, always donating the money to ‘Feed The Homeless.’ He took pride in avenging all those wasted creatures.
In the space where he’d removed a specimen, the guard left a label, written in royal blue ink with his fountain pen in his best handwriting: ‘NAME should be stuck here.’ The names he filled in were of politicians, billionaires, shamed religious leaders. They were the obvious ones, but he also made a label for his grandson’s teacher who’d pulled the boy by the hair when he was only being spirited, and when his wife died, he made a label for her doctor.
The guard removed each specimen so that if anyone looked into the cases or cabinets, its absence would be blatant.
He aspired to remove one object from each display, but there were thousands of them. It would have taken longer than his whole life to accomplish that goal.
Back at the staff entrance, the guard changed out of his uniform for the last time. He would have worked until death took him, too, but he was obliged to retire.