Dioramas by William Auten

Out of the butterfly room, they wander, turning the corner until the curator stops them in front of the animals. A mother clicks her stroller’s brakes. Across from her, a man arrives last, floats near the back, and continues glancing at the butterflies. He wears a small sticker stamped with the American flag; the woman at the ticket office peeled it from a roll after telling him about discounted admission for military. Before meeting his tour group, he wandered the first floor and held the sticker like something delicate had landed on his fingertip, but after a man, sporting the same sticker and wearing a dark blue hat with oranges, reds, and yellows, like small wings, under the word VETERAN, shook hands and nodded, Ross smoothed the sticker across his chest when he stood alone and the group inched forward through the doors and, before circling the main display, crossed the threshold together.
In the taxidermy room, the window screens block the morning sun, yet the bison’s polished eyes gleam. With one hoof forward, the stance remembers him as though he grazes by a stream and an invisible wind cuts across him and the square of manicured land beneath him; his coat shines under the lights; bits of plastic grass dangle from his chin. This one figure is frozen among the waxen horse, the eagle and sparrows circling on strings from the ceiling, the deer perpetually huddling in a three-walled room painted with trees, tall grasses, and wildflowers. The past never emerges from where it hides until a space has been cleared for it.
The mother coos to the stroller until her baby’s fussing subsides, but he cries again, and Carol fishes in her purse for the bag of snacks and places on his tray a few grapes that, sliced narrowly, resemble samples taken from a green sea. Simon oozes with joy and saliva slickens his cheeks as the grapes gush in his hands and mouth. Carol pretends to take away a grape, and Simon giggles and hums as his legs buck and his arms pump on his tray. The clanging echoes in the room; the crowd and Ross smile; the curator continues talking. Carol takes one grape from the bag and chews it and quickly another one—but one that she missed slicing. Her hands rattle the stroller, and Simon cries louder, face redder, his tiny head swiveling as his mother chokes. Dropping to her knees, her gray skirt spreading on the tile like feathers, she grasps her throat with its sound of wind chasing itself through a pipe.
The crowd divides; Ross pushes his way through. He has been here before but near Kabul when an IED denotated during curfew patrol and the shrapnel sliced open the throat and face of Kevin, his brother-in-arms who planned on marrying his high-school sweetheart, starting a family, and irritating his dad by not inheriting his sod business and, instead, enrolling in photography classes once he returned to Virginia, which, Ross, when the moon illuminated mountaintop snow, shadows shifted between buildings and on the streets, and they needed a chuckle, whispered to him, “Say it again. Come on, Kev. Just one more time,” which it was that final night as Ross comforted Kevin suffocating in his arms, and Kevin, snickering, wiping dust off his nose before pinching tobacco between his bottom lip and gums, always answered, “Nah-fuk. Nah-fuk,” embellishing his accent, and they would cry laughing at how much the second syllable of Kevin’s hometown sounded like the profane verb that followed them everywhere and every day over there.
Around Carol’s waist Ross wraps his arms and pulses his fists under her sternum until the grape pops out. The curator offers to call an ambulance, but tearful, gasping, kissing her baby, Carol waves them off, repeatedly thanks the man with the sticker, and quickly departs. Under a shade tree, she texts her husband and then calls him. “Did you get his name? We should do something for him.” “No,” she sobs. Her eyes follow the museums’ steps and wait at the top by the two large doors.
Less than thirty minutes later, after Carol and Simon have left, Ross exits and boards the subway. Before reaching the cemetery, he pulls into a pub, orders whiskey and a pint, and wrestles with the guilt of breaking Lent, but today has curled back to other days much further from this day, like trails of dominoes fallen in a place that has become spectral and an afterthought. The stout arrives in its frosted glass adorned with a pirate ship near a cove, the skull-and-crossbones raised high.
As a child, when he hiked the woods with his older siblings, he once stopped in front of a cave nowhere near buried treasure, a beach, the ocean, or gunfire. A metal gate and a giant padlock sealed the cave’s mouth. Locals sent the terminally ill and incurably crippled there to die—the small historical marker bolted in the rocks saying as much. Behind the hot summer air, a darkness gripped his face and chest like several cold fingers.
The Kindness of Strangers – Man Saves Choking Mother and Then Vanishes blinks the TV news. The waitress returns, offers a menu, suggests the surf-and-turf special. Ross declines and stalls paying his tab. Wanting to return to the butterfly room overwhelms other guilts. Shortly before the group reached the dioramas, he stood among the rainbow-like wings pinned to a clear background. The curator encouraged the visitors to look closer at the pieces that spoke to them. A mother and her stroller glided past the doorway. The spectrum of small things hovered in light on hidden supports and cast delicate shadows going nowhere. One pair of wings resembled sand soaking up blood. The cemetery is a long walk down the road and will be there tomorrow, when he’ll be anonymous again.
William Auten is the author of the novels In Another Sun (2020, Tortoise Books) and Pepper’s Ghost (2016). Recent work has appeared in Barely South Review as the recipient of the 2019 Norton Girault Literary Prize in Fiction, McNeese Review, and Permafrost and is forthcoming in the Dead Mule School of Literature and Valparaiso Fiction Review.