Mama took Little Lola to the Field Museum weekly. Two girls getting out, she said. We don’t need Papa. So Little Lola spent hours in the diorama hall drifting alongside arranged landscapes. Each nature display attracted her like a department store window, teeming with detail, leggy reeds and mud-bottomed pools, veldt and dens and drupes. And the animals—real animals, untamed and huge but petrified, stood mere inches from her face.
At least that’s how it seemed. Looking closer, Little Lola noticed paint cracks spidering through the background murals, sewing on the pelts, dust in the cougar’s eyes. Even the trees had plaster bones. Still, she couldn’t shake that diorama awe. Perched atop a boulder, in a predator’s cathexis, the puma glared down on the five-year-old. Mama called the Mule Deer (forever moments from death) elegant spirits and kept adjusting her hat. Verisimilitude became an emotion.
One visit Little Lola lost Mama in the museum and wandered aimlessly until closing time. Illegally, impossibly, something moved in one of the dioramas. She gawped at the man poking through the silent scene as he rearranged leaf litter with a pole. He whistled to himself like he belonged there. Even worse, wiped the shiny eye of a grizzly bear with a Q-tip, combed its snout, sprayed a mysterious mist into the air from a bottle. Little Lola believed in this moment that the mist cast a spell on the animals, that without it they could wake up, break free. She must have screamed, because the man waved at her through the pane, like Papa did before he left, wiggly-fingered. It would be Little Lola’s last visit.
Interlude: “When facing loss, people may fixate on the banal. Though this often upsets others, like laughing in a funeral, it is a natural reaction to anxiety. For instance: if a mother began bringing her child on weekly trips to the doctor’s and losing her hair in great heaps, the child might merely recall the museum visits on the way home…”
In college I learned about a well-described anxiety experienced when observing a large diorama. I feel it now, in the doorway of this bedroom.This place has been carefully curated to mimic life. It communicates a complex culture as if by accident, frozen in faraway space and time…and yes, here sits an artfully constructed set of dolls, plastic knickknacks and taped posters. One girl getting in. Still don’t need Papa. I haven’t stepped foot in this room for ten years.
Dioramas stand still, but with the tension of movement, dead and alive. They arouse the feeling of being watched, maybe a product of one’s own gloaming reflection in the glass. Maybe it’s something about insufficient texture, like a story, like a moonscape. I recognize these qualities in the bedroom as I lift the tucked sheets. The made bed implies a parent, just like the limp dolls imply a happy little girl. Wrong, wrong again. The little girl and her Mama are no longer alive. The sheet retains its shape when removed, stiff with disuse.
See, this bed is not Lola’s—it doesn’t know men, wine splashes, tears from missing Mama—it is Little Lola’s. I slide a picture book from the shelf, leaving a black grin of removed dust. Inside the cabinet drawer a set of rubber dinosaurs, wolves, and mammoths stand at attention, waiting where I left them, trinkets of the Field Museum gift shop. Mama picked them out on my fifth birthday, my final birthday with her. Back then, I could imagine the wolves’ fur rippling in the breeze, the triceratops’ trumpet, the mastodon’s drooping trunk filching from the dirt. Tears come unhinged, looking at this room filled with Mama. This place has no magic mist. Nowadays I know exactly who is dead.
James Cato writes with a pen he stole in kindergarten and his novel, Litter of the Waste, is in orbit. He has previous publications in The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, Litro, Atticus Review, Every Day Fiction, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com.