The Museum of Extraordinary Things Page 1

Author: Alice Hoffman

Genres: Historical

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I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end.

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

ONE

THE WORLD IN A GLOBE

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YOU WOULD THINK it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exist, for beneath the water there are beasts as huge as elephants with hundreds of legs, and in the skies, rocks thrown alit from the heavens burn through the bright air and fall to earth. There are men with such odd characteristics they must hide their faces in order to pass through the streets unmolested, and women who have such peculiar features they live in rooms without mirrors. My father kept me away from such anomalies when I was young, though I lived above the exhibition that he owned in Coney Island, the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Our house was divided into two distinct sections; half we lived in, the other half housed the exhibitions. In this way, my father never had to leave what he loved best in the world. He had added on to the original house, built in 1862, the year the Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad began the first horse-drawn carriage line to our city. My father created the large hall in which to display the living wonders he employed, all of whom performed unusual acts or were born with curious attributes that made others willing to pay to see them.

My father was both a scientist and a magician, but he declared that it was in literature wherein we discovered our truest natures. When I was only a child he gave me the poet Whitman to read, along with the plays of Shakespeare. In such great works I found enlightenment and came to understand that everything God creates is a miracle, individually and unto itself. A rose is the pinnacle of beauty, but no more so than the exhibits in my father’s museum, each artfully arranged in a wash of formaldehyde inside a large glass container. The displays my father presented were unique in all the world: the preserved body of a perfectly formed infant without eyes, unborn monkey twins holding hands, a tiny snow-white alligator with enormous jaws. I often sat upon the stairs and strained to catch a glimpse of such marvels through the dark. I believed that each remarkable creature had been touched by God’s hand, and that anything singular was an amazement to humankind, a hymn to our maker.

When I needed to go through the museum to the small wood-paneled room where my father kept his library, so that he might read to me, he would blindfold me so I wouldn’t be shocked by the shelves of curiosities that brought throngs of customers through the doors, especially in the summertime, when the beaches and the grander parks were filled with crowds from Manhattan, who came by carriage and ferry, day-trip steamship or streetcar. But the blindfold my father used was made of thin muslin, and I could see through the fabric if I kept my eyes wide. There before me were the many treasures my father had collected over the years: the hand with eight fingers, the human skull with horns, the preserved remains of a scarlet-colored long-legged bird called a spoonbill, rocks veined with luminous markings that glowed yellow in the dark, as if stars themselves had been trapped inside stone. I was fascinated by all that was strange: the jaw of an ancient elephant called a mastodon and the shoes of a giant found in the mountains of Switzerland. Though these exhibits made my skin prickle with fear, I felt at home among such things. Yet I knew that a life spent inside a museum is not a life like any other. Sometimes I had dreams in which the jars broke and the floor was awash with a murky green mixture of water and salt and formaldehyde. When I woke from such nightmares, the hem of my nightgown would be soaking wet. It made me wonder how far the waking world was from the world of dreams.

My mother died of influenza when I was only an infant, and although I never knew her, whenever I dreamed of terrible, monstrous creatures and awoke shivering and crying in my bed, I wished I had a mother who loved me. I always hoped my father would sing me to sleep, and treat me as if I were a treasure, as valued as the museum exhibits he often paid huge sums to buy, but he was too busy and preoccupied, and I understood his life’s work was what mattered most. I was a dutiful daughter, at least until I reached a certain age. I was not allowed to play with other children, who would not have understood where I lived or how I’d been raised, nor could I go upon the streets of Brooklyn on my own, where there were men who were waiting to molest innocent girls like me.

Long ago what the Indians called Narrioch was a deserted land, used in winter for grazing cattle and horses and oxen. The Dutch referred to it as Konijn Eylandt, Rabbit Island, and had little interest in its sandy shores. Now there were those who said Coney Island had become a vile place, much like Sodom, where people thought only of pleasure. Some communities, like Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach, where the millionaires built their estates, had their own trains with paid conductors to keep out the riffraff. Trains for the masses left from the Brooklyn Bridge Terminal and took little more than half an hour to reach the beachfront communities. The subway was being built, to begin running beneath the East River in 1908, so that more and more throngs would be able to leave the brutal heat of Manhattan in the summertime. The island was a place of contradiction, stretching from the wicked areas where men were alternately entertained and cheated in houses of ill repute and saloons, to the iron pavilions and piers where the great John Philip Sousa had brought his orchestra to play beneath the stars in the year I was born. Coney Island was, above all else, a place of dreams, with amusements like no others, rides that defied the rules of gravity, concerts and games of chance, ballrooms with so many electric lights they glowed as if on fire. It was here that there had once been a hotel in the shape of an elephant, which proudly stood 162 feet high until it burned to the ground, here the world’s first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, gave birth to more and more elaborate and wilder rides.

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