Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Second Floor: a cheerful little sewing table with a pink floral motif. Rectangular, roughly three feet tall, an immaculate work surface, with one long, narrow drawer and a set of cabinet doors beneath. A low headboard, possibly decorative, possibly intended to keep straight pins and spools from rolling off the back of the tabletop. Centered on the headboard, drawer, and each cabinet door are the anonymous flowers, light and dark pink, some fanciful amalgam of a begonia, a morning glory and a primrose.
Inscribed inside, on the frame:
Bernard Orth from Badendorf on the Rhein Germane via. Prussia between Coblenz and Cologne fixed this table 25 Jan. 1859 for present of my wife and she is a good wife. It is a difficult time, because there is work again after a period of 2 years.
Grannet Rapids, 25 January 59
Honored Reader. Be happy with your life and use your gifts because when you grow old, it is too late to be joyful.
All is vanity. Farewell, World.
I must depart. Goodbye.
This inscription isn't actually visible, as it is inside the piece, and so the Public Museum of Grand Rapids has reproduced the text on a placard mounted in front of the table; thus the above is sic. to the placard, which one hopes is sic. to the writing on the furniture. The placard seems entirely oblivious to the desperate cry for help in the text, and is simply vaguely excited that the handwriting would seem to demonstrate that furniture was being made by hand by European immigrants in Grand Rapids (rendered "Grannet Rapids" in the above) as early as 1859.
I have a student who cuts herself, her hands. This morning I came in and saw two red scrapes on her face, one down each cheek, like the scorched tracks of tears. She writes poetry about hurt, about wanting an end, on the back of our portable blackboard. I gave her a hug on the day before Thanksgiving, because I didn't know what else to do. Don't still.
I wonder if Bernard's wife (and she is a good wife) saw the inscription in her little table. Did she look up with sad Rheinish eyes and sigh, "Oh Bernard"? Did she say, "There will be work if God wills it, Bernard. Do not worry"? Did she hold him and rock him and sing him a lullaby?
Or did Bernard drag the honed arris of his mortise chisel down the inside of his arm before even leaving his shop, the cheerful little sewing table mute witness to it all?
Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Third Floor: In the back corner of the Egypt room there is a tall case, a linen wrapped dummy, surmounted by a severed, desiccated Egyptian head, eyelids tight black leather in year-burnished sockets, snaggle-toothed grin, linens still clinging to the skull, snug around the pate like the dew rags of the teenaged Detroit boys giving my wife lip in her high school class room. A card pasted to the inside of the glass of the case quotes the Grand Rapids Press of May 9, 1904, quoting the donor of the discorporate head, David W. Kendall. Kendall, a Michigan native, was on vacation in Egypt, and happened to be witness to a German archeological expedition cracking open a crypt. These early archeological teams (who were always German— archeology was an idiosyncratically German fascination in its infancy) were very interested in the artifacts in these tombs, and profoundly uninterested in the bodies— many were destroyed during removal, in the excitement to see the sarcophagi clearly. In removing this body to get a better such view, the head was broken off accidentally. Kendall voiced some idle curiosity about the head, going so far as to pick it up and examine it. One of the Arab diggers, seeing Kendall's interest, picked the head up after Kendall had discarded it and
. . . he followed me all the rest of the day trying to sell it to me. He wanted five English pounds . . . I didn't want the thing at all, but the fellow hung on and followed us. We got back to the city at night and the Arab . . . got right in front of me, and after a last demand for five pounds agreed to take . . . two shillings. I really had to take it then, and gave him twenty-five cents for the head of what was probably once an Egyptian king or celebrity . . . So, some man who lived about 3,000 years before Christ, was bought for the price of three cigars and carried several thousand miles to a country he never heard about, and will now be placed in a museum to be looked at by people he never dreamed of.
I'm no Egyptologist, but a cursory skim through the Internet indicates that Kendall's estimate of the age of the severed head is probably way off. He'd have the head be older than the pyramids at Giza— in fact, he'd have it being an artifact from the First Dynasty, and vying for the oldest such persevered corpse known to man.
This head is not; it's, at best, a curiosity.
In fact, in the very same room there is displayed a complete mummified corpse which we know a great deal more about, the Mistress of the House Nakhte-Bastet-Iru. These remains have a clear provenance, are known to be from the 22nd Dynasty (around 800 B.C.E.), and are a great deal less well preserved.
"Ancient Egypt" comprises some 3000 years of a culture whose written language remained largely unchanged for the entirety, whose religious observances and beliefs apparently persisted, which crouched around the Nile, dependant upon irrigation, the consistency of flood seasons. A hydraulic empire, a slow culture, somehow changeless enough over 3000 years that we can think of 500 B.C.E. and 3000 B.C.E. as being as interchangeable as this Wednesday and last Tuesday. Imagine not being able to keep straight which happened first: Washington crossing the Delaware or Romulus founding Rome.
Stretching just a little, up to my tip toes, I could look the severed, dried head in the face, and in the glass of his case see my glasses circling his shriveled, black leathery eyelids, see his teeth grin out from between my beard and mustache.
placed in a museum to be looked at by people he never dreamed of
This one, he'd dreamed of men like me; I'm a Reformed Jew.
We had toiled at his feet. We built his pyramid.
I'd paid seven dollars to come see him, and each dollar had a pyramid inscribed on its back.
He saw men like me in his dreams.
That morning, before the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, before the suicide note in the sewing table, before the three cigar Egyptian king, I awoke at seven o'clock, needing to pee. I was at my in-laws in Holland, Michigan. It was the Saturday following Thanksgiving. I went upstairs, to the bathroom, and came back down. The sounds awoke our little poodle, who was whining to come out of his cage. He needed to pee, too.
I unlatched the door, and he danced out of his cage, prancing and hoping about me, vaulting up off of my knees, vaulting off the closed bedroom door, anxious to see my wife (He loves my wife more than any single thing in the Universe. It is a feeling we share, making us brothers-in-creed, like two rabbis from distant and diverse sects crossing paths somewhere on a grassy steppe in Eastern Europe, sharing no primary language, but able to speak fluently in the secondary, guttural language of our Faith, the pidgin of Adoration and Love and Devotion.) Not overjoyed to be free at last, free at last, just overjoyed to be alive, again, another morning, another day, another timeless, eternal doggy moment in the warm, beating heart of Love.
We went to the sliding glass door of my in-laws' walk-out basement, I struggled with the latch, yanked on the door, finally removed the thick wooden rod that lies on the track, securing the door, and the dog scrambled out into the lawn, where he lifted his leg, and then commenced sniffing.
It was cold, and I wore only my pants, arms crossed over my chest to shield off the near-sleety rain. I was bare foot. The dog sniffed his way along the periphery of the house, and then slipped around the corner.
I called him to come, and he did not.
I whistled and called him again.
And he did not.
I whistled and clapped. I shouted. I ordered. He did not come.
Time passed. He did not come.
I began to worry, and quickly stepped back to the bedroom, ears peeled for the raucous rattle of his tags as he might run in, glancing out several windows to see if he had sniffed his way back. Nothing. I grabbed the whistle we use to call his attention when he's set to wander. Back at the door I gave the whistle a sharp, loud blast and called, "Lunchbox! Come!"
And he came running down from the upstairs, overjoyed at the prospect of another eternal doggy day in the double-beating heart of Joy.
I assumed the dog had scratched at another door and one of my in-laws had let him in, went up to apologize for getting them up.
No one was awake. None of the doors were open, and when they awoke, each denied having let him in.
I swear he did not come back in the door he left.
A ghost, a sudden and improbably synchronized quantum dissolution of matter showing macroscopic phenomena. A freak incident. A miracle.
I've seen inexplicable things, and I've determined neither to explain them (ghosts! angels! god!) or explain them away (ball lightning! swamp gas! infra-sound!), but to hold them in storage, as inviolate and sequestered as possible, until I have enough pieces from this scattered jig-saw puzzle to begin to guess at what the picture might finally be.
This is what rational people do.
But, I must allow, as a sceptical and logical man, the simple observation: Somewhere, near the middle, a piece is missing in the process. Somehow, that dog came back a different way than he left. Sometimes the human things— the humming of a song, the moving of a paper or book, the opening of a door— continue happening even when the human is gone.
I took the dog with me and went back to bed.
This is what rational people do.
(with apologies to William Shakespeare)
. . . To die —to sleep— . . . and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to . . . to sleep— . . . perchance to dream: Ay! There's the rub; for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil [?] . . . Who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong . . . the pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay . . . when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns . . . [?]
Somewhere out there Bernard Orth carves the table, joins it, carefully pencils his note inside, sets the chisel to his forearm. His wife sighs. A girl puts a knife to her face, posts to her blog; a boy in Australia reads and worries, instant-messages a mutual friend in Michigan, who intervenes by e-mailing the girl's grandmother— kind concern is a stutter of light flashing through 25,000 miles of fiber optic cable. A Jew looks into a glass case, into the sleeping face of the bondage the Lord brought him up out of, and an Egyptian king stares back, his dreams unfolding like a lotus forever blooming, Time flooding its banks. A door opens, unaided. A dog comes home, oblivious, overjoyed that he is mounted on the ring of Love, like the jewel on an engagement ring.
Hundreds of times a year the Melancholy Dane treads the boards, contemplating suicide again and again and again.
Immortal. Bernard is immortal: 150 years later I still worry about how it turned out for him, like the Australian and friend and grandma and the teacher worry for the girl who even now might be putting a chisel to her forearm, as I pity the discorporate, shriveled head, as I burn in a crematory oven, as my ashes are sprinkled, sereptitiously, in the ducts of museums throughout America by friends, my dearly departed. A door opens, as though aided by some occult hand, gone but not gone, for so many years. The Dane is immortal, the Bard is immortal, the girl is immortal, the German is immortal, the King is immortal, the hand is immortal, I am immortal— still worrying and worried for, still acting in the thousand tiny ways that the living make themselves known to the Universe.
There is no death, no change, just the extrusion of Time in Space, the displacement of the observer through that Space-Time. We don't think that the thirteenth floor is drawn into being by us humping it up that next flight of stairs; why should Time be any different? Thick, gooey Time, seeping out from the scarred bark of Everything, and we all caught like bugs in amber, slowly rolling Further.
What dreams may come? These dreams, today, here, now. Undiscovered country? Remember: when you cross the River Styx, you land on the banks of the River Styx. Everything is a return song.
There is a life beyond death, inescapable, and it is this life.
In the Afterlife, even, you still have to get up early and let the dog in.
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