The Museum

Poet and translator, W. S. MERWINwas born in New York City in 1927, graduated from Princeton, and Worked as a tutor in Prance, Portugal. and Majorca from 1999 to 1951. His first book of poems, A MASK FOR JANUS, was published in 1952; his most recent volume, THE MOVING TARGET, appeared last autumn.

A Story by W. S. Merwin

I HAD had a wicker trunk made to hold all that I was keeping, because T did not expect to be coming back. When it was packed, a neighbor and I loaded it onto his cart, and we took it down to the valley to the station and shipped it to the frontier, where I intended to pick it up on my way out of the country. Then I went to the capital to make some final arrangements and say good-live to friends there. A few days later, when these things had been done, I took the train to the frontier myself.

It is a full day’s trip. I was traveling during a warm spell in late September. The completed summer was silent. One morning very soon it would suddenly be autumn, with the light appearing to come through shallow water, and overnight half of the gray dust would have disappeared from the tiny leaves of the mimosas. On the day I left, there was a fragrance like that of the mimosas in winter. In spite of the dust and heat, it hung in the air like a remembered chill, and it was there all the way from the capital, down on the plain, in the morning, to the frontier, on the high plateau, late in the afternoon. But there was no breeze except what was raised by the passage of the train, and I spent most of the day hanging out the windows of the nearly empty car, watching the flat country with its canals and meadows give way to farmed hills, vineyards, woods, and the first mountains, and the stations become smaller and closer to silence.

When T got to the frontier station, the trunk was not there. There was a long pause scheduled in any case before the other train, the night train, was to pull out and continue into the other country: time for the passengers to descend, go through customs, board the night train with their baggage, and wait until they wondered whether something had gone wrong. And time for things to go wrong. And obviously the officials were used to losses and delays, and the matter was passed from hand to hand like a photograph of a stranger which somebody had found on a beach. It seemed to belong to nobody, including me. It evoked indifference, irrelevant suspicion, and discourses on complexity mumbled around stained ends of dead cigarettes and delivered in low, impersonal voices to the upper corners of one small crammed dusty office alter another.

The rest of the passengers had already vanished onto the night train by the time the pertinent documents had produced an old official who had never been surprised by anything. He began telephoning the freight handlers at all the junctions between the frontier and the village from which the trunk had been sent, and he located it at last, but he informed me that it would be another day before the trunk could reach the frontier. The handlers had sworn that it would be on the next day’s train, and nothing could be done to make it come any faster. The train on which I had come was about to start back, and the night train with which it connected was ready to cross the frontier. If I wanted to see the trunk again I had no choice but to spend the night there and hope that it would arrive and that I could continue with it on the following evening. I could spend the night at the station itself, they told me. There were rooms upstairs, and they assured me that the food was very good.

I told them that I would stay, and immediately one of the uniformed officials turned into a guide and with an air of genuine pleasure and hospitality picked up my bag and led me down the hall and through the empty customs shed with its long trestles — an actor leading me through his dark auditorium. We made our way through a storeroom piled with crates and sealed tubs, some of which must have been there for months, and came to a door which led down into a great tiled kitchen. There he introduced me to a fat woman, who beamed up at me, drying her hands on her colorless apron, and announced that I would be so well taken care of that I would never want to go on. She turned and called to somebody, and my guide put the bag down, nudged me, told me I’d be fine, and left.

I heard bare feet on the tiles behind me. A girl or young woman had come in, red hands and feet, head in a kerchief. Chickens were running in and out the door behind her. She led me up a boxedin flight of dusty stairs to a wide hall. A window at the end, hung with coarse lace, looked out onto the hills I had come through. There were four doors, two on each side. She showed me into a dark room where the shutters had not been opened for weeks, and she folded them back, revealing more of the same lace, and then the same bright, yellowish hills. I opened all the windows. It was a large room containing one immense bed covered with an ageless, darned spread of the same lace as the curtains, a washstand and a chair, and nothing else. The walls were whitewashed plaster, chipped here and there, and the board floors were bare and dusty. She told me that I had the whole floor to myself and might use the great round unpainted table that was the only piece of furniture out in the hall. I asked her why the rooms were so large and whether the building had originally been built for some other purpose and whether the huge bed had come from somewhere else, but she did not know. As she was turning back the bed I heard the train on which I had arrived pulling out of the station. I asked her when the night train would leave, and she said she thought it had already gone, probably while we were down in the kitchen.

I went downstairs and out onto the platform. It was as though the trains had never been there. I could hear the rust forming on the rails and the grass beginning to grow up among them. The light had begun to go out of the hills, but as the first coolness returned to the day I was aware that the smell of mimosas was gone. I could see a long way into the hills in every direction. There were few trees, no villages in sight. Somewhere in the bony uplands to the east, where range after range of dry shadows were beginning to grow, was the frontier. A long way off, through an opening in the hills, I saw a squat castle: half of a thumb with its shadow bleeding out of it. Everything was the same bleached straw color; even the station, which was made of brick that had once been red, was now nearly indistinguishable from the dust.

It had become a different building. The officials had vanished, and there were no sounds except from the hens at the kitchen door. The cook fanning her charcoal stove told me that the meal would have been better if she had known I was going to be there. When I asked her about the castle she said it was a long way off. It would take most of a day to get there even with a donkey cart. She seemed not to know much more about it. She shrugged and bent down to peer under the pots, and then she asked whether I’d seen the museum. She said I should certainly see the museum while 1 was there. It was the most interesting thing around, she informed me, and I’d have plenty of time. It was no distance. She pointed through the narrow window at the empty road.

I FOLLOWED her suggestion the next afternoon. There was no one else on the dust road until I got to the first bend. Then a long, straight stretch appeared in front of me, and at the end of it, as though the road were leading straight up to it, stood a large symmetrical stone house surrounded by evergreens and eucalyptus trees and a high parched wall. Even from a considerable distance it was plain that the house was closed. The double stone steps led up one flight to blank shutters, and all the windows were sealed in the same way. In that part of the world shutters were normally of wood and were inside the windows. These were on the outside and appeared to be made of metal. They had been painted green and had faded to a grayish olive; they added to the foreign look of the place, as did the slate roof in a country where normally the roofs were tiled. There was an oxcart ahead of me, almost at the house, with an old man walking in front of it. When I had gone a few steps along the straight stretch it seemed as though the road were sealed off at both ends and there were nothing else. Heat, dust, silence, and the road at the bottom of all of them, and all motion an illusion. Then I came to a dead snake lying across the road. It had just been killed, and the cart had run over it. As I looked up, the old man and the cart turned a corner that I could not yet see, and disappeared.

I knocked at the front gate, but nobody came. As I turned to follow the road along the wall the same old man emerged from a smaller gate and asked me whether I wanted something. His hearing was undependable, and it was a moment before I managed to convey to him that I would like to see the place. Then he began explaining to me that the owners were away. I supposed that an entrance fee was customary and offered him one which he took with a resigned air, barely interrupting his explanation. He led me in through the little gate and turned and said that obviously he would only be able to admit me to the grounds: he could not let me into the house in the owners’ absence. By then, of course, I had to follow him as he led me around the quite ordinary, rather overgrown little park, among frayed topiary figures, with a long pause at the empty artificial spring while he explained to me how it worked and where the original, from which it had been copied, was to be found.

The owners, he told me, were in the capital. Whenever they came they brought at least a dozen house servants with them. At one time even when they were away there had been a staff to look after the house and the stables and the grounds. Now there was only he, and it had been a long time since they had been there. It was because of the daughter, he said, as though that explained everything. Eventually I understood that she was either dying or had just died, but he would say no more about her. And how long had it been, I asked, since the museum had actually been open. His face changed when he understood my question. This, he informed me, was not the museum. He led me back to the gate and pointed further along the road to a cluster of buildings.

“There,” he said. “Ask the barber.”

I WENT on to the group of whitewashed houses: a little hamlet built on an abrupt outcrop of reddish stone. The entrances, at the top of short dirt ramps, stood open and empty, as though there were no doors. The most prosperous building had a low brick wall around it. A tail man was standing in front of the doorway watching me approach. He was wearing the usual high leather boots and a long canvas coat that reached to his knees. He greeted me; we discussed the fact that it was Sunday. He said, with a laugh and some measure of irony, that it made no difference to him, but he did not explain. There was a pile of hair on the doorsill.

He was affable, but he was watching for an opening. He said it was a pity the station wasn’t nearer because he’d have more customers. People came and went, he explained, and never even knew he was there. He asked me whether I had any idea why the station had been built so far away, and when I declared that I knew nothing about the matter, he said he would tell me. Very deliberately he turned and pointed back toward the house where I had just been. It was their doing, he said. The owners. He had found out the details himself. They had not wanted the station to be built too near their house, and they had used their influence, and their money.

“They must be very old,” I said. “The station seems to have been built some time ago.”

“The family, the family.” he said impatiently, evoking an image of a presence in which individuals and generations came and went without changing its essentially malign nature.

“You don’t know them?” he asked, dropping the question from a certain height but at the same time anxious to make sure. Perhaps he had seen me emerging from the little gate in the company of the old caretaker. I told him how I had gone up to the house thinking it was the museum, and he smiled and nodded, savoring some familiar bitterness in the situation.

“But it’s the museum you want to see,” he repeated, and paused to make sure that the significance of his sentence had been taken in by some invisible audience.

“I can show you the museum,” he said.

The first room he led me into was the barbershop. The paneless window by the doorway was reflected dimly in a tarnished oval mirror fixed to one of the walls, and on the gray board floor between the window and the mirror stood an old armchair with a straw seat and more hair drifting around its legs. There was a murky shelf of bottles with a dozen yellowish postcards nailed above it. On another wall, in a place of pride above a row of Straight-backed chairs, was a rough rack containing two guns. I saw it all in a cloud, after the glare of the sun on the whitewashed walls outside, and before I could make out anything clearly he announced to someone that I had come to see the museum.

“Get out new candles.” he said.

In the arch that led into the next room someone stirred. A woman in a dress as colorless as the walls turned from where she must have been watching us, and behind her I could make out another person, much older, in black, slumped in a chair against a wall. He led me through the arch and explained to me that the first woman was his sister and the older one was his mother. We were standing in the kitchen, which I imagined was the main room of the house. Half of the floor was covered with a platform of the same gray boards I had seen in the barbershop. Then there was a step down, and the rest of the floor was stone or beaten earth, on which the fire was built in the corner. Some pots stood in the ashes. There was no chimney. The blackened walls and the sooty tiles in the roof showed where the smoke found its way out. The place smelled of beans burnt in oil and of grape mash. The barber was explaining to me that all the houses were built on the same rock and that the ancients had known what they were doing when they came there in the first place.

“Before history,” he kept saying. “But they knew just the same.”

It was the holes in the rock, he said. The cellars. The defenders above. The dead below, where it was hidden. They were wonderful cellars, he told me. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. And no one would suspect they were there, he said. I wouldn’t have suspected from outside, would I? I assured him that I would never have suspected anything, and it was with a gesture of great satisfaction that he took a new candle from his sister and lighted it with a cigarette lighter.

“Now,” he said, and he turned and led me to a far corner of the room and lifted up a sloping cellar door. He leaned it back against the wall and raised the candle. I supposed that he was already lighting my way to what I had come to see, and I took a step forward, but as I did so he breathed deeply, half closed his eyes, and began to recite to me, in a monotonous tenor quite different from the voice he had been using. The text was evidently of his own composition, and it had to do with the Obliterated Ages.

Even in that unspeakably long-ago time, he explained, the inhabitants had understood the rock and what it was for, and in it they had buried their dead — not all of the dead, of course, but the bodies of those on whom they had wished to confer immortality. Their kings and their great ones; their hunters. Their religion was not the same as the one now, but it was their own affair, and no one nowadays had ever mastered it entirely. Their heads were different from ours, as could be seen from the remains. Then they had been forgotten, and wine had been set to age in the rock, and it was not known that they were there. He took one step down the stairs, then he turned and said:

“It remained for my father to find them.”

When the bones had drifted down through the dirt between the wine casks, he said, other people had declared that they were pig bones. And, indeed, was it not true that you could find chicken bones, dog bones, sheep bones in most people’s cellars if you dug? It was reasonable. But his father had not been deceived. He had not come from those parts, the barber explained, but had moved there when he had married. The house had belonged to his wife who was an only daughter. When he had found the bones, he had not listened to the people from around there. He had dug behind the casks and uncovered the bodies at last. They had been lying with their heads all pointing the same way, and the wrappings around the bones in some places had turned to stone. Skins of stone with stone bones inside them. In other places you would be groping along a body and find that it had crumbled to nothing, bones and all. But once they had found the first bodies they had discovered others everywhere. They could not understand how they had been able to be unaware of the bodies all that time when they had been so near. They were in the rock on all sides and at all different levels. Some of them were scarcely covered, inside their tombs. The barber descended another step and held the candle to the face of the stone from which the irregular stairs had been hollowed. He showed me that it was full of holes, like an anthill, some much larger than others, and he explained that down below they were all much larger, though some of them were filled with earth. He struck the smooth stone with the palm of his hand, and a faint but long-drawn-out echo came back.

“You see?” he said.

Of course, he continued, as soon as the bodies had been discovered, there had been no lack of old people from those parts, in this village and others, who had declared that they had always known that the things were buried there but that they had had better ways to occupy their time than in attending to old bodies that belonged to nobody’s family. The barber shrugged and climbed down another step and invited me to follow him.

THE stairs were steep and nowhere straight. He stood with his candle on the earth floor at the bottom, waiting for me beside a half dozen large wine barrels, several vats, piles of rags, beams, presses, pieces of wheels, broken tools, all covered with dust and cobwebs. Little points like eyes reflected the candle here and there in the darkness beyond.

“Here is where the first one was found,” he said, leading me around a vat. The stone ceiling was too low for me to stand straight. Beyond him his candle had lit up a wide niche in the stone, extending to left and right into the shadows. In the middle of the niche, on a little table made of stone, a stuffed wolf stood staring through glass eyes over our shoulders into the darkness.

“Where is the body?” I said.

“That one I got myself,” he said after a moment. “On the north side of the mountain we call the Roof. You know the Roof?”

“Did your father take out the body when he found it?” I asked.

He turned to me and laughed. “No,” he said, “my father never moved it.”

“What did he do when he found them?”


He turned another corner and held his candle in front of the next niche. It was empty, as the first had been, except that it too was arranged like a chapel with a small stone platform on which a dead civet cat was standing in an unnatural posture.

“That one too I got,” he said. “Near the frontier.”

He led me from opening to opening in the natural catacombs. Some of them were high up in the wall, some at knee level; in many of them the darkness led on past the dimensions of a tomb and beyond the reach of the candlelight. In every tomb that he showed me, a stuffed animal was standing looking toward the entrance with eyes that must have been brought to it from some city and buttoned into its emptied sockets. In one of the graves an eagle, nearly black, waited with ill-folded wings.

“Some of them my sons got,” the barber admitted as he started back toward the stairs. “I have two sons. One of them is a guard at the frontier.” He laughed. “He gets things sometimes.”

He paused and looked me over carefully. “My other son comes and goes. He’s been everywhere. He gets things. All the time.”

And from the way he said it I could imagine his other son as well as I could the border guard. A contrabandist, perpetually in overshoes and dirty gabardine, acquainted with the least fortunate quarters of a dozen towns along the frontier, and no doubt of a number of larger cities.

“But the bodies,” I said again. “Where are they?”

He opened a rotting cupboard and brought out a candied-fruit box full of photographs. Most of them were very old and appeared to have been underexposed to start with, but with the aid of his fingernail I could make out the bodies lying in the holes, mummified and shrunken: narrow foreheads, large teeth. Even in the blackened snapshots they looked like stone. In some of the pictures, as he explained to me, he himself, rather younger, was standing pointing into the holes, smiling. One of these photographs had been made into a postcard. There was a bundle of these, and he told me the price and said they could be obtained nowhere else.

“And where are the bodies now? That’s what you want to know, of course,” he said. And a ring of anger, as long-practiced as his opening spiel about the ancients, came into his voice.

“A man like me,” he said, “is not allowed to have rare things and things of value.”

The bodies had come to no harm, he pointed out, for centuries and centuries in their places when nobody knew about them. They had come to no harm even after his father had found them. Nobody had paid much attention to them.

“It was I who brought their value to them,” the barber announced, and he told how he had met a man at the station years before, a traveler, a man of learning from the capital, and how he had told this gentleman about the bones and ended by showing them to him. The man of learning had understood all about them and had explained about them to the barber. He had taken photographs and had even written about the bodies later, and his opinions were on record in a library. He was an exceptionally fine gentleman, and his goodwill was not to be doubted. But he had been very old and he had died.

The barber had realized that the bodies were of public interest, and he had had a sign printed and had had a photograph of himself pointing into a tomb put on the sign and had hung it in the station. His museum had become famous and had been put in the guidebooks, and people had come long distances simply to sec the bodies. He had charged admission. He had sold postcards. But the living arc full of envy.

Even, he said, when his wife turned out to be incurably sick, he had had enough money to buy medicine. He opened a drawer in the same cupboard and showed me the needle and the empty phials carefully lined up in rows.

“It was the owners,” he said. “It was the owners who took the bodies away from me.” He was referring to the owners of the empty house which I had seen on the way, but the phrase as he used it seemed to embrace a whole order of existence. The owners, he explained, wanted to have everything.

I could see that it had been some time since he had had a visitor and that his rancor against his powerful neighbors had not grown calmer as the golden days of his museum had receded from him, and it was plain that I would not have to prompt him in order to hear the story.

He told me that when the museum had been at its most successful, the owners had used their influence, and the government had requisitioned the bodies for the public good. They had been taken away to a museum in the capital, where, it had been claimed, they would be better cared for. Every bone had been removed; they had not missed one. What could he do to stop them? They had produced papers declaring that the earth more than so many meters below the surface was the property of the state, and other papers announcing over and over again in different ways that the state had the power to requisition objects of extreme antiquity or objects of unique historical importance, and finally they had produced papers showing that he was running, publicly proclaiming, and profiting from a museum without a license, and could be prosecuted. They had paid him nothing for the bodies because they had declared that the objects did not belong to him. They had paid him nothing for using his house to pass through because they said they were acting on orders and in the public interest. At the end they had even warned him that if any more bodies were uncovered in his cellar they would automatically become the property of the state. Some time after everything had been taken, someone who had visited the museum in former days had sent him some postcards showing how everything was displayed now in the capital. And a pamphlet about the bones in which the “owners” were honored for “indicating” them to the authorities. They had been found, it said, near the “owners’ ” country estate, and it had named the village. He himself had not even been mentioned, nor his father either.

And his obscurity had returned, and his wife had died. But none of it had done the “owners” any good, the barber insisted. Some people said they had done it in order to prove their power to the people who lived around there. Some said they had done it to gain distinction and to be received by the nobility — for three generations they had been trying to obtain an invitation to the castle which could be seen over near the frontier, but they had never succeeded. Some said they did it out of simple jealousy or even simple malevolence. But they had gained no respect in the country, the barber assured me. and no invitation had come from the castle. And nobody knew the name of the disease with which their daughter, an only child, had fallen sick, and of which she would surely die.

They had not managed to rob him of his distinction, either. The tombs themselves were still there, after all. And he had thought to honor them with new bones, as he told me. People could come and see them if they were interested. He did not need a license since he put up no sign and made no claims and charged no admission. He could stuff the dead animals himself. His second son, he explained, could always get him materials.

“Oh, yes,” he said, passing the candle around for a last glance before he held it to light me up the stairs, “it will be a long time before this is forgotten.”

At the top of the stairs he winked and opened a cupboard. The woman he had introduced as his sister set two glasses on the table as he drew out a bottle and set it down, and then he reached in his hand again and brought out a battered tin box, which he unfastened and held out smiling. It was full of glass eyes tied together with little bows.