A SIGN IN A MUSEUM exhibit on Charles Darwin repeats the old canard about Marx proposing to dedicate a volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, who politely declines. I ask to see the curator and begin to explain the error to him. He suggests that we take the discussion to his office. Once the two of us are there, however, he lunges and attempts to strangle me. We thrash about and he pins me to a desk. My desperate hand finds within reach a fossil, perhaps the ancient jawbone of an ass, and strikes him in the head with it, killing him instantly. Blood seeps out of his occipital wound in terrific quantities and quickly makes its way under the office door. It snakes down the hall before I can think what to do, but fortunately the museum’s visitors accept the blood as part of this innovative exhibit.
I am a hand aboard the HMS Beagle, from whose foredeck the naturalist Charles Darwin has just been snatched and eaten by a terrible sea monster. Apparently satiated, the creature sinks to the depths from which it came. It suddenly strikes me that the obligation to reveal to the world the full magisterial theory of evolution falls is now mine alone. The weight of this responsibility so presses me down that I am taken to the ship’s medic. His face and voice are those of my high school biology teacher, his manner all disapproval.
A parish has invited me to give a short lecture on their church’s architecture, a subject on which I am an acknowledged authority. As I mount the pulpit, I notice that the not inconsiderable audience is entirely composed of hairy Neanderthals. Though their gaze might not be intentionally hostile, their low brows and prognathous, toothy smiles present a threatening appearance, despite their modern clothing. There seem to be a few nods while I outline the history of the transept, but as time goes on the fear grows that little if anything I am saying is met with any comprehension at all. I endeavour to explain by emphatic uses of analogy and gesture, and sense that my listeners grow restless, though their fierce looks remain unchanged.
I am a tour guide in a museum of civilization, the real agenda of which I have gradually come to realize is to justify the ways of neoliberalism. One of the visitors in my tour group is Karl Marx, the author of Das Kapital, but no one but myself has penetrated his disguise. He must be here doing secret research, and I am uncertain as how best to help him. At the same time, I cannot entirely shake off a sense of duty to my employers, dubious in quality as they may be, and so I am wary of his causing a scene. I therefore contrive to communicate with him surreptitiously, by means of winks, nods, and coughs peppered throughout my well-rehearsed narration of the Bronze Age, but remain unsure exactly what message it is that I am trying to communicate, and in any event he is resiliently oblivious to these overtures. Another visitor in the group pesters me with questions about blood rites. Exasperation overtakes me at the advent of cuneiform script.
A subdued, perhaps funereal collection of people has gathered for tea and cake in a poorly lit parlour. Guests come and go from a low door to what may be glimpsed to be a small kitchen. The oppressive daintiness of the wallpaper, furniture, and finery suggest a museum of Victorian living. A susurration of talk, the clinking of cups against saucers, but not a sound from my grandmother, who sits with perfect posture and a smile, whether of amusement or gratification I cannot tell. I remember that my grandmother is dead, and am on the verge of making some statement about this, when it occurs to me that I ought not to, that it would be a wrong and indelicate subject to mention, and so I uneasily hold my peace. My grandmother seems gradually to move further away from me, but then I perceive that it is I who am moving, for I am seated atop a giant tortoise.
Charles Darwin has his hand up my skirt, and though he is clearly no expert at his task, still he has a pleasant smell that I cannot quite identify. We are in a darkened room in the museum, which is now closed for the night, my back against a full-scale model of a guillotine. I can just barely read the larger signs on the wall giving the background of the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror, but something seems wrong in the account, and I try to communicate this to Darwin, who is breathing too heavily to hear my whispers. Flashlight circles begin to dance around the room as museum guards enter and Darwin halts his fumbling and we freeze together there against the guillotine for what seems an eternity. When at last the guards leave, we do not move because we cannot: we have become a permanent part of the exhibit.
Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012). His latest book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (2015).