[community profile] daily_prompt: #908, "Display Case"

Apr. 21st, 2013 11:01 pm
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Title: The Collector
Author: Wang Xi-feng
Challenge: [community profile] daily_prompt. Original.
Warnings: Non-graphic mention of dead bodies and congenital disabilities.
Summary: 1909. What thoughts is Stepan Harlov putting in his children's heads?

Stepan Harlov the elder was a collector. The bounds of the house in Staraja Jarosna were not sufficient to contain his enthusiasm, and soon, the country manor, too, was taken over by stuffed specimens of bats and sloths from far away, mammoth bones and teeth from Siberia, and jars holding various specimens incompatible with life. As children, Anna and Stepka were delighted, and spent hours crawling around in the sun room examining the labels on the specimen jars and petting the sloths, much to the dismay of their mother.

"That jar has a two-headed baby in it," Alzbeta, Princess Harlova, complained. "That is unspeakably morbid. What kind of thoughts are you putting in their heads, Stevie?" The fashion that year was for English names.

"What kind of mother would let someone pickle her baby?" Aunt Iljana said, stepping back in horror when Anna came bounding delightedly up to her to show off the latest prize.

"Why don't I have two heads?" Stepka asked from under the divan.

"We could grow one on you," Anna said, examining him critically. Her eyes were bad, and she had to get quite close to do it – almost like an animal, Alzbeta thought. "I think we would have to graft it, though."

"An eight-year-old girl!" Alzbeta shouted at her estranged husband's retreating backside. "She already knows what grafting is. This is your doing!" Turning to the scene in the sun room, she said, "Anna, as your mother I forbid you to graft another head on your brother."

"Oh, all right," Anna said sulkily, before setting down the two-headed baby only to pick up the infant Cyclops.

Later that summer, the workmen brought another crate, much to the children's delight and Alzbeta's despair. "Stevie! We can hardly afford that!"

"Oh, do stop your grousing," Stepan said. "It scarcely cost me anything at all. – No, mind the children, my good man. Try not to step on them. Anna can't see well." The workman growled something in response.

"I can see just fine," Anna shouted, tearing off at a run after the workmen and smacking into a table leg. "Ow."

"Once you're up out of that," her father said, "you might come in here and help us move some of the display cases. This is too big to fit."

"Sweet Jesus," Alzbeta snapped, pouring herself another drink. "Eight years old and you want her to help rearrange your collection of ridiculous crap that nobody in their right mind gives a good goddamn about. You promised me we'd have the fucking sun room clear when Emja learned to walk. When is it going to be clear again?"

"Patience, my heart," Stepan said, his words trailing off in a murmur as he raised crowbar and hammer to undo the crate.

"One of these days I'm going to run straight out of your goddamn patience!" Alzbeta said, slamming the door as she left.

The contents were much smaller than the crate, drowned in excelsior, and for a long time, Anna and Stepka held their breaths as they looked in, watching their father throw out massive nests of the stuff. At the bottom, there lay the rack, and the first glimpse of tiny bones; Stepan pulled the rack upright, rattling it gently, and dusted off his finding.

"It's just an ordinary skeleton," Anna said, kicking the crate. "It's not interesting at all."

"No," Stepka said, grabbing his sister's hand. "Look." He pointed upwards. "Its head."

"Oh!" Anna said, squinting her eyes to slits and climbing up her father's leg to get a better view, hands already out to touch it. Anna saw everything as a large blur, unless it was very close to her face. "Look, its head!" Her small hands glided along the head, the skull split open to God like a pair of wings. "What is it?"

"A hydroencephalic child," Stepan Harlov said, dusting a few pieces of excelsior from the ribcage. "There are new techniques now, but this one couldn't be saved." He frowned, and then reached down to pat his own children's heads, oblivious to his wife's shouting about morbid imaginations in the next room.

"Look, Stepka," Anna said, running her hands along the smooth bone of the skull again. "All the knowledge burst his brain. It wasn't the water at all." Stepka gazed up at his sister, smiling: she knew everything. "I hope I die like that."
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