The Diorama

by Curtis John Smith

A mother and her son paused before the polar bear diorama. Inside, a cub huddled against its mother. A seal carcass lay before them, blood on the snow. The boy stood close. None of it was real, the mother said, a statement neither truth nor lie. The scene radiated its eerie beauty, and in the glass, her son's reflection. Perhaps taxidermy was an art form, but so was opera, and she didn't care for that either.

They passed the mountain lions, the zebras, the hyenas. Light spilled from each scene, checkerboard splashes in the dim hallway. The mother sat on a bench in the hallway's center. Her boy toured the room. He was curious but not overwhelmed. He paused before the grazing impala. The mother wondered how the impala had died, whether it had been shot or poisoned—its hide harvested for this incomplete resurrection. Her son studied the leopard that had latched onto a wildebeest's humped shoulder. His mother watched him, a shadow drifting through a frozen sea.

As a girl, she'd come here with her father. Certain elements struck her with unanticipated clarity, the leopard's bared fangs, the parallel and bloody wounds clawed into the wildebeest's hide. Two years ago, her father had died, and now the woman was saddened that his image had turned so slippery. She closed her eyes—searching, searching—until she recalled how small her hand had felt in his. Until she heard the click of his shoes as she struggled to keep pace. Until she smelled the rain and cigarettes on his coat.

The mother rose and walked to her son. He'd stopped before a display closed for renovations. A curtain hung behind the glass. The boy positioned himself at the glass's edge and peered through an unguarded sliver. His mother knelt beside him. Inside a man sat on a stool, his back to them. The man worked a threaded needle through a tiger's neck. The boy glanced up and smiled. "Pretty cool, huh?" the mother whispered, as if they were trespassers, thieves of a treasure no vault or king could hold.

My story collections include two from Press 53 (The Species Crown and Bad Monkey) and two from March St. Press (Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light). Last year, Casperian Books released my second novel—this spring, they'll put out my next. Also in 2010, Sunnyoutside Press will publish my essay collection.