My uncle had always been strange, even by Catania standards. Early in my childhood he had retreated from public life and I had seen him less and less. My mother was still living, and I wondered now why her brother hadn’t left whatever exhibits he had cobbled together over the years to her. She adored animals, especially when they were on the other side of her hunting rifle. The smell of hide was what we lived with back in those days, and I was sure she would have felt right at home among her brother’s peculiar hobby.
But she was in a nursing home, I reminded myself, and he’d left the museum to me, although technically he’d left the museum to a woman who no longer was. My Catania family refused to use my name, making my uncle’s posthumous delivery to a niece he knew no longer existed even more unsettling. But although I don’t resemble her in name, face, demeanor, or voice, anything bequeathed to her was still legally mine. Whatever small fortune my parents had acquired with no other children to drain their bank accounts was being quickly diminished by my mother’s care, and it wouldn’t have been left to me anyway. I assumed he left the museum to me as the youngest member of our small family, and the only one with the potential to live another fifty years. I figured I could at least throw the exhibits on Craigslist for a couple hundred bucks, which after airfare, was scarcely enough to make the trip break even.
But I was curious to see what Catania had become without me. My life was a monotony of odd jobs, demanding lovers, and an increasing level of anxiety each time I ventured through the skyscrapers downtown to complete even the most minor task. So I flew across the country a brand spanking new curator.
Catania does not have an airport. The fastest way to get there involves flying into Ottawa and driving straight down the 416 to the border, after which it’s a scant twenty-minute drive to my childhood home. In Chicago, my plane sat on the tarmac for three hours before the pilot came on the intercom and said a piece of our engine was broken and we’d be switching planes, resulting in a further delay. When I finally arrived, there was no sign of Tim, who was supposed to pick me up. I called him.
“I was there but I left.”
“Well, come back. I’m here now.”
It was dark by the time Tim returned, but he carried coffee and chocolate-chip muffins. I hugged him and he felt skinnier than I remembered. Tim and I had dated our last two years of high school, and although we had barely spoken since then save for a handful of happy birthdays hastily typed, I’d seen enough of his photos flash by on the screen to know he was now married to a woman who’d gone to school with us and they had two girls.My uncle had always been strange, even by Catania standards.
“So, what’s the occasion?” Tim drove slowly, which I knew meant he was high. I didn’t care. I’d been in the car enough times with Tim to know he was a better driver when he was fucked up. We’d shared a lot of joints during night drives, pulling over in the elementary school parking lot so he could finger me in the passenger seat. Sometimes he’d forget what he was doing and start driving again with his hand still half inside me. It was very hot.
“My uncle died. I’m taking care of a few things.”
“I heard. I’m sorry.”
I nodded. I didn’t necessarily want to go around advertising that my uncle had left me his museum, since I didn’t know the state it was in, or even how big it was—for all I knew it extended no further than his kitchen or a corner under the stove. But Tim took care of that for me.
“What are you gonna do with the museum?”
I looked at him. “You know about it?”
Tim shrugged. “We haven’t been in there for a couple years now, but back when it first opened it was a big deal. Not much to do around here, if you remember.”
“I didn’t even know it existed until I read the will. What’s in it?”
“Your standard stuff. A two-headed calf, some spruce grouse, a gnarly looking buck.”
Looking back, I wonder if there was more Tim wanted to tell me that night in the car, the muddy banks of the river whipping by. But Tim changed the subject to his daughters. He seemed to genuinely enjoy their existence, was perhaps even a little sad that he had missed their bedtime, which he said had recently moved from 8 to 9 p.m. for the youngest, giving them more time to play Xbox together when he got home from work.
We crossed the border easily, driving slowly past a van being disemboweled, all four doors thrown open, belongings strewn along the pavement and a small group, family or workers, I couldn’t tell, looking frightened and alone as they sat defeated on the curb. We continued on. All the lights were green that time of night. We passed the Price Chopper and its dim cleaver slicing through the thick summer night, and then finally we were on the back road Tim liked to take, a county route that shot past the Amish farms cut off from the grid like dark and lonely planets, and trailer parks lit up with constellations of blue flickers in the windows. Twice a white-tailed deer made moves to throw itself in front of us, but shied away after a hesitant step onto the blacktop.
Tim parked at the motel in what counted as downtown Catania. What it lacked in proximity (my uncle’s museum was several miles outside of town), it made up for in fond memories: the motel had a bar in the basement where I got drunk for the first time on strawberry daiquiris.
“If it gets too weird here you know you can stay with us. We’ve got a pullout couch,” Tim said.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, grabbing my bag from the back seat. But I was unconvinced. I knew no one who’d ever stayed in this motel, which served mostly construction crews and those in town for livestock auctions, but the thought of crashing at Tim’s with his family was far more unappealing.
“I’ll see you,” he said, before driving off. I watched his tail lights grow smaller as he made his way through town, over the two bridges that divided east from west, past the sub shop and the movie theater and the church thrift store that used to be a bowling alley and before that a sawmill. I had to ring the bell for several minutes before a bleary-eyed clerk appeared to check me in. I took my key and my belongings to my room farthest from the front desk. It had no neighbor on its far side save for the branches of a box elder that scraped against the siding. I brushed my teeth and fell asleep listening to its scratching.
Catania is best observed under summer conditions. In July, with all the trees leafed out and bushy, the sky electric blue, air laced with the pungent scent of liquid manure and freshly laid asphalt, it could feel like a rich place. The pickup trucks gleamed and sported full sets of testicles, the hay bales multiplied throughout the season, plump white caterpillars strung along the fields.
I had come in November, when everything was dry and dead and waiting for a cover of snow to hide the decay. I woke in my room to a gray sky, punctuated by the dry copper rustling of the tree outside my window. The coffee provided in a little plastic tub was undrinkable, so I walked across the bridge, past the bulky modern sculptures in the park, the unlit marquee above the movie theater where wedding announcements were trumpeted on a weekly basis, and where the unpolished concrete floors unintentionally preserved a cinema verité feel. Tim had said a café had sprung up in what used to be the video rental. The coffee was good, but I missed the rental clerks. They’d sent a card to my grandfather when he moved to a nursing home (the same one my mother was in now, I reminded myself) and could no longer pick up his films in person.
The museum was halfway between Catania and the next town over, along the county highway, according to the address listed in my uncle’s will, which seemed odd. My plan was to stop at my mother’s house and use her car to get around, if it would start. The only obstacle was my father. He was an infrequently violent man, although never directly to me; his blows and silent treatment fell on my mother, who absorbed them and kept on living like nothing was wrong, and I sometimes wondered if this forced forgetting early on had hastened the decline of her mind. Now he lived by himself in the house in which I hadn’t set foot for fifteen years. His threat had diminished. I was happy my mother didn’t have to be around him anymore, that possibly she might not even have to remember that, legally, she was still married to him.
The spare key was where I remembered, wired to the inside of her gas cap. It smelled like an old person’s car, an unfamiliar one. I backed out of the driveway without even looking in the windows and was soon on the highway.
Estrangement is odd. Taken literally, it means “not belonging to the family”—the Linnaean one. I hadn’t seen my parents since leaving Catania, and yet, my mother had dutifully called me almost every week in the intervening years. I had no reason to believe my father knew anything about her phone calls; she never sounded hushed or hurried, but she also never passed the receiver over to him. I assumed she simply called while he was at a job, laying cement or jackhammering up concrete to place a new layer down. I did not belong to that family anymore, but she’d kept me close in her own way.
It was surprisingly easy to find the museum address. What was more difficult was believing that it was a Valero gas station on a busy Route 11 intersection. I parked out front and looked around. There was nothing for me to do but go inside and ask the woman behind the counter, who was exceedingly polite, what was up. Her blue button-up uniform shirt was neatly tucked into pleated black trousers, and her silver scrunchy held back a mass of brown curls.In July, with all the trees leafed out and bushy, the sky electric blue, air laced with the pungent scent of liquid manure and freshly laid asphalt, it could feel like a rich place.
“I’m looking for … well, not a gas station … but I guess a museum? It doesn’t seem to be here, though, so thank you.” I started to back away from the counter, but her face lit up.
“Oh, sure. Wayne’s museum! Wow, it’s been a while since anyone’s come here looking for it, but I can show you where it is.”
“Is it in here?” I looked around. I imagined a circle of exhibits in the break room, the coffee urn cradled tenderly in the desiccated paws of a raccoon. But the woman grabbed a set of keys from a drawer and walked outside. I followed her to where the parking lot ended in a row of dumpsters on the edge of a vast swamp not yet frozen, out of which loomed several dead trees on darkened, water-logged roots.
“Here we are.” She stopped in front of two faded yellow trailers on blocks. I hadn’t noticed them before, dwarfed as they were between the dumpsters and the swamp and the cars circling the pumps. A sign nailed to the closest door read: CATANIA NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, and beneath that, BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
The sign must have triggered some sense of responsibility in Becky, whose name tag waggled on its magnet fastener as she turned to me, uncertain. “We were sorry to hear about Wayne,” she said. She let a few seconds of silence elapse. I wasn’t sure if she meant her gas station colleagues or possibly another North Country family my uncle had been friendly with. I nodded and observed her solemnity, then I gestured to the papers I’d brought with me from the car.
“I’m his nephew.” I had never spoken those words aloud before, and they sounded strange, another male title that didn’t fit me right. In those moments, I’m certain the person I’m with will hear the awkwardness of the letters in my mouth and call me out, but Becky just nodded and held the keys out to me. She walked off before I could ask her if she knew how Wayne had died.
Consider the picture I made standing on the doorstep of that trailer, not having yet a clear idea of its contents. The only museum I knew was the one inside my head, partitioned off into all the things I thought I’d find, things I’d seen in museums before that made up these imaginary exhibits: bones and gems and pressed flowers, all of which seemed too delicate and arcane for my uncle to have concerned himself with, but then again I didn’t know him well enough to say for sure.
It was very dark with all the windows covered by blinds. Dangling from the ceiling was the string to an empty socket. Slowly, my eyes adjusted enough to make out two banks of shelving that lined the cramped space on both sides, antiseptic in its sleek lines and shiny metal locks. But the specimens, the collections—where were they? Mouse droppings and insect carcasses littered the floor, a random, untidy exhibit of leavings that my uncle, a meticulous introvert, would have either Lysoled or catalogued, I couldn’t say which. It looked as if the museum had been forgotten long before Wayne’s death.
I opened one long rectangular drawer after some trial and error with the keys, which is where I saw the first of them: a dozen forms pinned to acid-free backing and vacuum sealed beneath the glass, in graduated sizes, from the diameter of my open palm down to a silver dollar. In the gloom, I could only make out their basic shapes. Curved in some places, and then jutting out abruptly in others, some specimens had what might have been a tuft of fur or something resembling a snout; on others, swirls of hair gave way to smooth stretches dotted with pores. One was encircled by gnarls of root. There were no legs or means of movement, and no clear openings where a mouth would go or waste would emerge from. I couldn’t tell if they were, or had been, alive.
I found the same in other drawers. There were no labels, no anatomical diagrams, and I tried but couldn’t bust open the containers that kept them secure and undisturbed. They made me uneasy, but I was still curious. I thought they might be some sort of incredibly well-preserved fossils my uncle had unearthed, and if that was true, then I’d vastly underestimated his significance to the scientific community, which probably didn’t even know he existed.
I walked out the opposite side of the trailer and made sure the door was locked behind me before unlocking the next one. This time my eyes were already adjusted to the lack of light. I faced a fleet of jars, some as tall as me, filled to the brim with formaldehyde, in which new forms floated. These, however, had soulful eyes with long lashes and expressive brows arced in perpetual surprise. Some looked vaguely human, some bovine, others owlish, and still others serpentine and lidless and completely alien, but all recognizably eyelike with pupils and irises and skinny underlashes ready to weep. The number of eyes per form seemed random; some had four or twelve, and one large one was covered in eyes like tightly packed polka dots.
I ran out the door and down the steps only to remember that I really needed to lock the door, which I went back and did, and then sprang away from the trailer again. If anyone saw me while pumping gas, they didn’t call out to ask what was wrong.
Excerpted from A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus. Excerpted with the permission of Metonymy Press. Copyright © 2021 by Callum Angus.