The tour guide is an orphan child
who leads a handful of sightseers and lookers-on
through the slanting stacks and wild piles of everything imaginable.
Like a bee to a favored flower,
she flits to one exhibit, then the next.
First she hovers over a lost portrait
by da Vinci and halfway through her history of the piece,
the painting disappears behind her back—
the staid subject’s face fading first, then the background
and finally, the heavy frame,
first the gilding gone, then the cracking poplar beneath.
With a wave of her hand
she explains that this should be expected: Not everything is lost forever.
As if to prove her point, a rediscovered Rolex
worms its way out of a slumping pile of wristwatches
as a handful of forgotten hand-me-downs scatters across the top.
The next exhibit is no different—a wall full of fishing lures glints in the distance,
and as the group approaches, a perch with three treble hooks twists free
and wings away. It was snagged ten feet up a tree, found by a fisherman in Missouri,
she says, as she leads them to the next room, full of boats,
diesel-powered trawlers next to Greek galleys
and long-sunk German submarines with great gashes in the hulls.
Then a room full of the fishermen and
sailors themselves, lobstermen and whalers
next to pirates still showing signs of scurvy.
While the tour guides wend from one spot to the next,
the curators try to retain order. They scurry from room to room,
replacing placards, dusting displays, scratching out the old signage,
while workers paint new lettering,
but there’s no way to remove all of the promotions
for the Pompeii exhibit, which were carved into stone
and no hiding the impression
the Titanic’s hull left on the courtyard floor,
or the 900 feet of nothing
where she once stood.
When the great ship disappeared,
the curators dashed around
like doctors after an epidemic,
speaking with the visitors
perhaps only to break the silence
and to account
for all the suddenly empty rooms.
Front page image by Anna Kucherova.