Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Nobody ever believes me when I tell them my uncle Earl owns a museum.
They start to come around when I explain that it’s a little tiny museum in a storefront in Hog Chapel, North Carolina, although there’s so much stuff jumbled together that it looks bigger than it is. Then I tell them the name and they stop believing me again.
It makes for a good icebreaker at parties, anyway.
My uncle runs the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy.
Most of it is complete junk, of course. There are things in the cases that undoubtedly have (MADE IN CHINA stamped on the underside. I threw out the shrunken heads when I was fifteen and found identical ones for sale at the Halloween store. But the wall of Thimbles of the World is real or, at least, contains real thimbles, and all the Barong masks are really from Bali, and if the Clovis points were chipped out in the seventies instead of thousands of years ago, they were at least still made by a human with a rock. The jar of MYSTERY PODS?! on the counter are the cones from a Banksia plant, but they’re a mystery to most people, so I guess that counts.
And the taxidermy is real, insomuch as it is genuine taxidermy. That part of the museum has eleven stuffed deer heads, six stuffed boar heads, one giraffe skull, forty-six stuffed birds of various species, three stuffed albino raccoons, a Genuine Feejee Mermaid—which I keep trying to get him to rename because I think it’s probably racist, or at least he could put a sign up explaining the context—two jackalopes, an entire case of dried scorpions, a moth-eaten grizzly bear, five stuffed prairie dogs, two fur-bearing trout, one truly amazing Amazonian river otter, and a pickled cobra in a bottle.
There’s a lot of other stuff, too. That’s just the ones on the first floor. I’m leaving out the things in boxes, and some things are hard to count. How do I classify the statue of St. Francis of Assisi with the carefully stuffed and mounted sparrows perched on his arms? And I’m not really sure whether the scene of tiny taxidermy mice in armor riding cane toads counts as one thing or as six mice and two toads. They’re in the case with the armadillo purse (and do I count that as clothing or as taxidermy?) and a mug that may have been used by Elvis Presley. The mug has an American flag on it. Uncle Earl put an album sleeve behind it and a large sign proclaiming that Elvis came to the Lord before he died. I’m not sure if that’s true, but Uncle Earl firmly believes that every celebrity he likes came to the Lord before they died. I think this is so that he can picture them partying with angels instead of being hellbound.
Uncle Earl believes strongly in Jesus, Moses, the healing power of crystals, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, that aliens landed at Roswell but the government is suppressing it, secret histories, faith-healing, snake-handling, that there is an invention that will replace gasoline but the oil companies are suppressing it, chemtrails, demon-possession, the astonishing powers of Vicks VapoRub, and that there’s proof that aliens contacted the Mayans and the Aztecs and probably the Egyptians, but the scientists are suppressing it. He believes in Skunk Ape, Chupacabras, and he positively adores Mothman. He is not Catholic, but he believes in the miracle of Fatima, visions of Mary appearing on toast, and he is nearly positive that the end times are upon us, but seems to be okay with this, provided it does not interfere with museum hours.
Uncle Earl also likes nearly everyone he’s ever met, even the ones who believe in none of these things. If you made a Venn diagram of the saved and the damned, the damned would all be outside Uncle Earl’s personal circle. He doesn’t like to think of people he knows being in hell.
I tried pointing out once that the nice tourist couple he’d just talked to for forty-five minutes were Muslim.
He said that was fine. “There’s a lot of Muslims in the world, Carrot.” (My name is Kara, but he’s called me Carrot since I was two years old.) “God wouldn’t send all those good people to hell.”
“A lot of people would disagree with you.”
“That’s fine, too.”
It’s hard to argue with Uncle Earl. He can believe in too many things at the same time, without any apparent contradiction.
“Dr. Williams at the coffee shop says the earth is billions of years old.”
“Could be,” said Uncle Earl. “Could be. Creation took seven days, but I don’t know how long a day is for God.”
“But you’ve got a sign in the case with the prairie dogs that says the earth is four thousand years old.”
“It’s a quote from the Reverend James Smiley. It’s attributed down at the bottom. If it’s wrong, it’s on him. I’m not here to judge. The visitors can decide for themselves what they want to believe.”
“What if they decide wrong, though?”
“God forgives a lot,” said Uncle Earl. “He has to. We all do a lot that needs forgiving.”
I gave up.
When I was a kid, my classmates asked if I thought the museum was creepy. Some of the taxidermy was old and kind of battered, and you turn around the wrong corner and there’d be glass eyes staring at you. One of the albino raccoons had a particularly unpleasant grin. But, no, I never found it creepy. I grew up in it. I was sitting behind the counter taking people’s donations when I was so young that I needed to sit on a phone book to reach the cash register.
(Years later I realized that I could probably have won instant fame from my classmates if I’d made up a story about the museum being haunted by the ghosts of the stuffed animals, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. Oh, well. Opportunities lost.)
The sign out front of the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy mostly has small print, but the word WONDERS is large, so most people call it the Wonder Museum. There are a lot of jokes—“I wonder what Earl was thinking,” “I wonder where he gets this stuff.” They stopped being funny a long time ago, but we all smile politely anyway, in case the person saying it has money.
To answer the second question, Uncle Earl gets the stuff at flea markets or estate sales or on the internet or he makes them himself. He dabbled in taxidermy for a long time and he has lots of friends on the internet. People like Uncle Earl.
To answer the first question, I don’t always know what he’s thinking either.
There was a time, when I was sixteen and working at the Wonder Museum for a summer job, that I tried to argue with him. I was angry at everything because this is the natural state of sixteen-year-olds.
“You believe in evolution,” I told him. “You just don’t know it.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Doesn’t seem right, us coming from monkeys.”
“Look, you believe that babies take after their parents, right?”
“Of course. That’s just genetics, Carrot. For example, your momma always liked to argue, and look at you now.”
I favored this with a snort and plunged onward. “And you believe in survival of the fittest, right? That fast antelope live long enough to have babies and slow antelope get eaten?”
“That’s evolution, right there. That. Those two things together.”
Uncle Earl shook his head sadly. “Doesn’t seem right,” he repeated, “us coming from monkeys.”
I threw my hands in the air and stomped into the back to rearrange the armored mice.
A few weeks later, shortly before I was done with summer break, he informed me that he had come around on evolution.
“Thinking you must have been right, Carrot.” He nodded. “Seems like we must have evolved.” He waved a finger at me. “Only thing that explains Bigfoot, isn’t it?”
I stared at him. I did not even know where to begin.
“Yep,” he said, taking my silence for agreement. “Bigfoot’s the missing link, all right, so you figure we gotta have a chain in order to have a link missing. I’m gonna update the sign in the prairie dog case.”
He smiled at me beatifically and I went and got him the sign from the prairie dog case so that he could remove the words of the Reverend Smiley. Even at sixteen, I was learning that you had to pick your battles.
Eighteen years to the day after Uncle Earl accepted Bigfoot into his life, my marriage ended.
It would be a better story if I had walked in to find my husband, Mark, in bed with my best friend and dramatically told him to never darken my door again. But it was just two people who got married too early and had a long, slow slide into comfortable misery. I can’t even say that it was my idea. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that I could leave him or that he could leave me, and it was rather surprising to find out how wrong I was.
I felt a lot of panic because I had no idea how I was going to support myself—he had the better job, with health insurance—but the rest of the emotional stuff got a lot easier.
He offered me the house, which I couldn’t have afforded to keep. I declined.
Which is how I found myself, at thirty-four, staring down the barrel of moving back in with my parents.
I love my mother. I cannot live with her. We are too much alike. If you have ever seen those photos of two deer who get their antlers locked together during a fight, dragging each other around until they both starve to death, you have a pretty good idea of how my mother and I get along.
Our optimal living distance is about two hundred miles. This is close enough that, in an emergency, I can drop everything and get out to see her, but limits random visiting. Since we are both aware of the whole locked-antlers problem, we can manage short bouts of family togetherness, then retire back to our respective corners to recover.
Moving back in with her was a more upsetting prospect than the divorce. Freelance graphic design just doesn’t pay a lot, though, and it was going to take me months to save up a deposit on an apartment. I actually contemplated lying and saying I was living with a friend and moving into a room at the YMCA, but it turned out that even the Y had a waiting list.
So I packed. I had a pretty good system: pack for an hour, cry for five minutes, pack for another hour, rinse, repeat. I was grimly throwing my books into boxes—I was taking the Pratchett, dammit, and he could buy his own—when the phone rang.
It was Uncle Earl.
That in itself was unusual. Uncle Earl liked the internet a lot, but he wasn’t great on the phone. He called on my birthday every year, but that wasn’t for months yet.
“Hi, Uncle Earl. What’s up?”
“Hi, Carrot. It’s your uncle Earl.”
“Yes, I…” I closed my eyes and leaned against the bookcase. Pick your battles. “How are you doing, Uncle Earl?”
“Me? Oh, I can’t complain. The gout came back last month, but the doctor’s a real nice lady. Museum’s doing well.”
I realized that I’d derailed him and waited.
“Heard you were having a rough patch, Carrot.”
“Well, these things happen.” I had an immediate urge to downplay the divorce, even though I had been sobbing furiously about an hour earlier. “I’ll manage.”
“I know you will, hon. You were always tough as an old boot.”
From Uncle Earl, this was highly complimentary. I laughed. The tears were still a bit too close, so it came out strangled, but it was a laugh.
He hemmed and hawed for a minute, then said, “I’m sure you’ve got plans already, but I wanted you to know, I cleaned out the spare room at the museum last year.”
“The spare room in back,” he said patiently. “Next to my workshop. I know your mom’s probably real excited to have you back home”—this was a profound lie, and we both knew it—“but you know, with the gout, I don’t get around as easy as I used to right now, and if you wanted to stay here for a bit, I thought I’d offer.”
“Uncle Earl.” I could feel the tears starting up again and pinched the bridge of my nose.
“It’s no trouble,” he assured me.
“I would love to stay there,” I said, all in a gasp. My mother lived sixty miles from Hog Chapel. My ex-husband had visited the Wonder Museum once and told me the place was “kinda freaky,” so all my memories of the Wonder Museum were good ones, without him in it. I could wander around the dusty cases and pet the stuffed grizzly and make the armored mice reenact the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Hell, I could actually catalog the damn collection and earn my keep.
“Great!” I think he might have been as surprised as I was. “Then I’ll get some new sheets for the bed. Just let me know when you’re headed down.”
I thanked him a few more times and hung up, and then I cried on the bookcase for a while.
When I finally stopped, I wiped my eyes, then I took all the Lovecraft and the Bear and left Mark with the Philip K. Dick because I never liked androids anyway.