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THE MUSEUM OF DR. MOSES
by Joyce Carol Oates
The things flew at me out of the sky. I thought they were darning needles stabbing my face. Some were in my hair, and some had gotten inside the pink ruffled sundress Mommy had sewed for me. I was trying to shield my eyes. I was four years old, I knew nothing of self-defense, yet instinctively I knew to shield my eyes. A stabbing, stinging, angry buzzing against my face, my cheeks, my tender exposed ears! I screamed, "Mommy! Mommy!" And there came Mommy to rescue me, only just happening to worry about where I might be, having wandered off behind my grandfather's hay barn; only just happening, as she would say afterward, to tilt her head to listen attentively for the cry of a little girl that might easily have been confused with the sharp cries of birds or cicadas or the half-feral tomcats that lived in the barn.
She heard. She didn't hesitate for a moment. She ran swift and unerring as a young girl, though she was thirty-two years old and had not fully recovered from a miscarriage the previous spring, and was not in any case a woman accustomed to running. She heard my desperate cries and was herself panicked and yet had enough presence of mind to tear a bath towel off my grandmother's clothesline with which to wrap me, roughly, efficiently, as if putting out flames. Mommy shielded me from the wasps with both the towel and her bare, vulnerable flesh. She was being stung herself, a dozen times, yet tried to comfort me as I screamed in pain and terror"It's all right, Ella! Mommy's got you." She half-carried me, half-ran with me out of the orchard, away from the pear tree disfigured by black knot and by a gigantic wasps' papery gray nest attached like a goiter to the tree trunk overhead at a height of about nine feet; away from the crazed cloud of wasps that had erupted out of nowhere.
Long afterward my mother would say with her breathy, nervous laugh that she hadn't felt much pain herself, at the time. Not until later. For nothing had mattered except rescuing me.
"My mother saved my life, when I was four years old."
This was a statement I would make often, to new friends, or to people who, for one reason or another, I hoped to impress. I was so loved once. I was a very lucky child.
"My mother gave me life, and my mother saved my life. When I was four years old."
Is this true? I wonder: could a child die of multiple wasp stings? I think probably, yes. I think a child could die of the shock of the stings, the trauma of the assault as well as the wasps' venom. Perhaps an adult woman could die of such an assault, too.
2. THE SUMMONS
Twenty-two years later, driving north to see Mother, from whom I'd been estranged for the past decade and to whom I hadn't spoken for several years, I was thinking of these things. Driving north to the town of my birth, Strykersville, New York, and beyond Strykersville into the abandoned farmland and foothills of Eden County, I told myself, as if to comfort myself, the familiar story: four-year-old Ella exploring Grandpa's pear orchard, wandering far from the adults seated on the veranda of the old farmhouse, attacked suddenly by wasps that seemed to fly at her out of the sky; screaming, "Mommy!"and Mommy running desperately to save her. It was a fairy tale with a happy ending.
(But where in this story was Daddy? He had not yet left us. He must have been there, somewhere. Or had he, too, wandered off from the adults on the veranda, in another direction? Maybe he'd even gotten into the car and driven away, into Strykersville, restless for a change of scene. An hour's diversion in a local tavern. There was no Daddy in my story, and had never been.)
Like all beloved family stories, this story had been enhanced over the years. It had been enlarged to include a description of Ella's pretty pink sundress with the ruffled bodice which she'd worn for the first time that day, and Ella's blond-gold hair prettily braided, by Mommy, into two shoulder-length plaits entwined with pink satin ribbons. It had been enlarged to include an acknowledgment of my mother's physical condition, which hadn't been robust. Yet Ginny never hesitated. How that woman ran! And none of us had even heard Ella crying.
Snapshots of those lost years show my older brother Walter and me smiling and seemingly happy, and Mommy more somber, though attempting her usual earnest smile; a youngish woman with an oddly wide, sensual mouth; her dark hair parted on the left side of her head in the overly prim style of the Fifties. In a typical picture Mommy would be crouching between Walter and me, her arms tightly around us to steady us, or to prevent us from squirming; face blurred, eyes averted shyly from the camera (which had probably been held by Daddy, who'd liked mechanical things, and had not liked his picture taken, at least with his young family).
Poor Ginny. She hadn't been well.... Because, it was vaguely said, of the miscarriage; because she'd never gotten over giving birth to the little girl, a thirty-hour labor; because of certain "female weaknesses." (Meaning what? In that era in which breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer as well as more ordinary menstrual problems were mysteriously alluded to as "women's shame," it was difficult to guess what this ominous term meant.) And because, just possibly, though this was never uttered in my hearing, she had a husband with a quick temper and quick fists who'd tired of loving her during her first pregnancy. But Ginny is so devoted. So forgiving.
Forgiving! That was the primary reason I'd become estranged from my mother. Not just Mother had endured my father's crude, often dangerous behavior when Walter and I were growing up, but, after her divorce, when I was in high school, she fell into the same pattern with Walter. He'd dropped out of school and never kept a job for more than a few weeks; he was a "charming" boy but a chronic drinker while still in his teens. Mother pleaded with me to be more understanding. "Ella, you're too hard on your brother. Ella, he's your brother." And I would secretly think, embittered as only a good dutiful daughter can be, confronted with her mother's weak, hapless love for one who didn't deserve it, No. He isn't my brother, he's your son.
After my grandparents died, Mother inherited their farm. It was only eleven acres, yet a fairly large property by Eden County standards. This she'd sold piecemeal, year by year; she worked at various jobs in Strykersville, to support her family (receptionist for our family dentist, saleslady at Strykersville's department store, substitute junior high school teachera nightmare job she'd dreaded), and I'd taken part-time jobs while still in high school; but Walter drained our meager savings, my damned brother was always the issue, and when Mother paid a $2500 fine for him after an accident he'd had driving while intoxicated, an accident in which the other driver was seriously injured, I stopped speaking to Mother. You've chosen between us. Good! I was disgusted with family life and with small-town life. I left Strykersville at the age of seventeen, attended the State Teachers' College at Oneida on a scholarship, worked at part-time jobs to support myself for four years, and was proud of my independence. I associated Strykersville with the past and I had no nostalgic yearning for the past, I'm not a sentimental person. For what is sentiment but weakness, and usually female weakness. I am not one of you.
I lived now outside Philadelphia. I had a good, if demanding, teaching job in a private school. I told myself that I didn't miss my mother, and I certainly didn't miss my brother, who'd disappeared into America sometime in the mid-Seventies. I had friends, and I had loversto a degree. (No one has ever gotten too close to me. Except for my mother, which is the reason I don't entirely trust anyone.) If the subject of family came up, I explained that I was "estranged" from mine. That had a dignified 19th-century sound. But one evening, with an older woman friend, I began talking of my mother who'd "saved" my life, and I became emotional. I began telling my friend of the knitting, embroidering, sewing my mother had done, so many beautiful things, over the years; she asked if I had any of these things and I said yes, I'd taken a few articles of clothing when I'd left home, a knitted cashmere coat-sweater, a long-sleeved silk blouse, a wool jersey vest with mother-of-pearl buttons. My friend examined these items, and marveled over them"Your mother is a wonderful seamstress. And she's never sewn for money?" I shrugged indifferently. Possibly I had not wanted to feel emotion. "I don't really wear this kind of clothing," I said. "It isn't my style." My friend was peering at the inside of the silk blouse, holding it to the light. "See this fine stitching? This is the Fortuny stitch. And this exquisite lace hem. What an interesting woman your mother must be!" I looked, and saw, yes, the stitching was fine, and intricate, but what was the point of it? And the lace hem: Why had my mother gone to so much trouble, to hem a blouse in lace, on the underside of the material where no one would ever see?
Driving north to Strykersville, a distance of several hundred miles from my home, I thought of these things as a way of not thinking of the present.
Driving north to Strykersville in the oppressive heat of August, after so many years, I thought of my mother as she'd been, as a way of not thinking of the woman she might be now.
She was fifty-four years old. To me, at twenty-six, old.
She was "Mrs. Moses Hammacher" now, she'd remarried abruptly, the previous March.
Wife of Dr. Moses!
After almost twenty years of being a divorced woman in a small town where divorce was rare, yet a divorced woman whose husband was known to have been an abusive alcoholic, so that sympathy was entirely with my mother, and no one would have dreamt of criticizing her, my mother had suddenly, without warning, remarried: a locally known retired physician and Eden County coroner named Moses Hammacher, familiarly called "Dr. Moses."
Dr. Moses! He'd been an old man, gaunt and white-haired, or so it had seemed to me, when I was in junior high.
Mother, how could you.
I had tried to call her. Finally, I'd written a brief letter to her, sending it in care of relatives to be forwarded. I had to assume the letter had been received by my mother thoughof courseMother hadn't answered it. Since then I had not slept well. My sleep was thin like mist or spray, disturbed by strange echoing voices and muffled laughter. And my mother's voice sudden, pleadingElla? Come to me! Help me.
In Strykersville, I drove across the familiar jarring railroad tracks and it was as if I'd never left. Though I had been imagining my hometown as unpopulated, for some reason, a ghost town, yet of course there was traffic on the streets, there were people on the sidewalks downtown, and probably I would recognize some of these people if I lingered. I did take note of the number of FOR RENT FOR LEASE FOR SALE signs; I saw abandoned, boarded-up houses. I drove past our old church, the First Presbyterian, to which Mother had taken Walter and me, before we were old enough to rebel; I drove past my old high school, which had been renovated and enlarged; I felt my heartbeat quicken in apprehension and dread. Why am I here? She doesn't want me. If she wanted me ...
Mother had not invited me to her wedding, of course. She had not even informed me she'd remarried, I had learned from relatives.
The shock of it! The shame. Learning that your mother has remarried, from relatives. And that she was now the wife of "Dr. Moses."
I'd instructed myself before I began my trip that I would not do this, yet here I was driving around Strykersville, staring with rapt, lovesick eyes. Did I miss my past, truly? Did I miss this? I'd thought myself very shrewdand very luckyto have escaped this economically depressed region of upstate New York as I'd escaped the confinements of my former life, and it seemed to me a risky matter, a sign of my own recklessness, that I'd been drawn back into it, like a moth blindly flying into a gigantic cobweb.
"Mother! God damn you."
For there I was driving slowly past our old brown-shingled house on Iroquois Street, with the flower beds Mother had worked so hard to keep in bloom, and the flowering Russian olive tree she'd kept watered through summer droughts, my eyes misting over with tears. The house now belonged to strangers of course. I wondered what price Mother had gotten for the property, and where the money had gone: for according to my cousin Brenda, who'd been the one to give me information about Mother, she'd sold everything very quickly, including most of her long-cherished furniture, and even her car, after her "private" wedding to Dr. Moses Hammacher, and had gone to live with her new husband in his stone house in the Oriskany hills nine miles northeast of Strykersville. The doctor had had an office in Strykersville, in fact he'd had two offices, as a G.P. and as Eden County coroner; but he'd long since retired. My cousin Brenda believed that Dr. Moses, or Dr. Hammacher, still saw some of his elderly patients; and that he'd turned part of his house into a kind of museum. "Museum?" I asked incredulously, and Brenda explained it was probably just an old man's hobby"To give him something to do, you know, in his retirement." "But is this an actual museum? Open to the public?" Brenda said, "After the Fowler House was taken over by the County Historical Society, and all those old antiques, weaving looms, dressmakers' dummies, washboards and butter churns and whatever were put on display, Dr. Moses demanded money from the Society to start a museum of his own. A history of medical arts in Eden County which means, I suppose, a history of Dr. Moses! So the Society gave him a small grant, to humor him, but he wanted more, and broke off relations with the Society, and I guess he has this museum out in Oriskany, such as it is. Medical school things like skeletons and `cadavers' made of plaster, old instruments, office equipment, things floating in formaldehyde ... A few people went to see it out of curiosity when it opened about five years ago, but I never went." Brenda paused. She was conscious of speaking in an amused voice, and had suddenly to realize that she was talking about my new stepfather. "Ella, I'm sorry. I'm sure ... your mother is happy with Dr. Moses." But she sounded doubtful.
I said, miserably, "Why on earth would Mother marry Dr. Moses? He's old enough to be her father." And my grandfather. But I don't want another grandfather.
Brenda said sympathetically, "I can imagine you're upset, Ella. We all were, at first. I mean ... your mother is so sweet. So trusting. And Dr. Moses is, well ... a kind of strong-willed man, I guess. He must be in his mid-eighties, yet he doesn't seem terribly old when you see him. Certainly his mind is sharp as always. Razor-sharp. Maybe your mother needs someone strong-willed to take care of her." Was this a reproach? Quickly Brenda amended, "Ella, your mother told me, when I happened to run into her downtown a few days before the wedding, that she was `embarking upon a new life'she was `very happy'she and Dr. Moses were driving to Mexico, where she'd never been, on their honeymoon. She said she had been `very lonely'but that was over now. I'm sure that she married Dr. Moses voluntarily; I mean, I don't think he coerced her in any way. You know what your mother is like, Ella!"
Did I? Even when I'd lived with my mother, had I known her?
As if hoping to console me, now that she'd upset me, Brenda went on to say that Dr. Moses was still an individual of some reputation in the county. He still drove his fancy British car, a twenty-year-old silver-green Bentley, which was like no other car in the county; he'd also acquired a Land Cruiser, a combination van and trailer of the kind popular with retired people. Still he cut a gentlemanly, dapper figure in Strykersville with his dignified derby hats in cool weather and festive straw hats in warm weather. He wore his trademark pinstriped suits, white starched cotton shirts with monogrammed gold cuff links, striped neckties. People respected him, though they tended to joke nervously about him as they'd always done. (I recalled how, years ago, my high school girlfriends made a show of shuddering and shivering as Dr. Moses passed by us on the sidewalk, tipping his hat and smiling his white-toothed smile, "Good day, girls!" His gaze, mildly defracted by bifocal lenses, lingered on us. We had to wonder who would wish to be county coroner and examine dead, sometimes badly disfigured and mangled bodies extracted from wrecks? And for virtually no salary.) This tall white-haired gentleman had been both "Dr. Hammacher," a well-to-do physician with a general practice, and "Dr. Moses," the cheery county official who was invited into public schools in the district to give talks and slide presentations with such titles as "You and Your Anatomy" and "The Miracle of Eyesight." As Dr. Moses he exuded an air of civic responsibility like those fanatically active businessmen who ran the Strykersville Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Royal Order of Moose, and other service organizations. I'd thought him older than my grandfather back in the mid-Sixties when he came to our junior high assembly to speak on "The Miracle of Eyesight."
For this, an energetic talk that left the more sensitive among us queasy, Dr. Moses used a large plaster-of-paris eyeball as a prop; it swung hideously open in sections to reveal the veiny interior of the eye, uncomfortably suggesting a dissection. I felt lightheaded, and resistant. Yet Dr. Moses must have made a strong impression on me since I remembered long afterward certain parts of the eye: the "pupil"the "cornea"the "lens"the "iris"the "retina"the "sclera"the "aqueous humor"the "vitreous humor"the "optic nerve"the "blind spot." Dr. Moses concluded his presentation by appealing to us, "So you see, boys and girls, the miraculous anatomy of the human eye alone teaches us that `evolution'the blind chance of natural selection, survival of the fittestis simply not feasible. No organ so complex as the human eye could have `evolved' in a hit-or-miss fashion as the Darwinists say. Nor could it have evolved out of some primal protoplasm. It would have to have been, like our souls, created." Dr. Moses squinted at us through his shiny bifocals. "By a creator." How dramatically the man spoke! In our naiveté some of us may have confused white-haired Dr. Moses in his gray pinstripe suit with creator. "Are there any questions, boys and girls?" Our mouths wanted to smile, to grimace and giggle, but could not.
And now, as in a malevolent fairy tale, Dr. Moses had married my mother.
Dr. Moses was my stepfather.
Dazed, I heard Brenda's cautious voice. She was asking, "Ella? You aren't crying, are you?" and I said quickly, incensed, "Of course I'm not crying! I'm laughing."
3. IN ORISKANY
Strange to be driving here alone.
I stopped in Strykersville only briefly, and continued out into the country toward Oriskany As I ascended into the hills I felt as if I were driving, under a strange half-pleasurable compulsion, into the past: there were farmhouses, barns, granaries I vaguely recalled, though a number of these were for sale or abandoned; there was the old Starlite Drive-In on the Oriskany Pike, a morose, funereal ruin jutting up above overgrown fields. About three miles north of Strykersville I crossed the high, humpbacked rusted-iron bridge above the Eden Creek which I vaguely recalled as one of the nightmare bridges of my childhood: below, the creek was diminished and mud-colored, its gnarled banks exposed in the languid heat of August. Descending the steep bridge ramp I saw, nailed to an oak tree by the side of the road, a small, darkly weathered sign:
Excerpted from THE MUSEUM OF HORRORS by . Copyright © 2001 by The Horror Writers Association, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.