Susan Frith is working on a novel set in Philadelphia during the 19th century (though she prefers living in the 21st). Her short fiction has appeared in Sycamore Review, Phoebe, The Quotable, Raleigh Review, and Potomac Review. A native of Virginia, she currently writes from Orlando, FL.
The mastodon’s skeleton soars toward the ceiling. It dwarfs everything in the museum, even Stephen. He tells Rebecca to sit on the bench by the penguin cabinet in case the shock is too great.
“I’ve seen bones before,” she says. Still, Rebecca sits and waits for her fiancé to make his sketches. It’s so hot she imagines undressing, draping her shift and stays over the mastodon’s tusks. Would Stephen still stare at his notebook?
In the far corner of the museum, a dark man folds creamy paper into quarters. He sets up the physiognotrace, gently wiping its brass gears with a cloth. HOLLOW-CUT PROFILES reads the sign. FOUR FOR 25 CENTS.
Rebecca has touched bones. When she was 12, the gardener’s son gave her a present — a cat’s skeleton his father had dug up in her yard. Rebecca answered him with rotten chestnuts. Then they crouched together in the dirt, weaving ivy in and out of the animal’s ribcage.
Even in his top hat, Stephen could fit neatly under the ribs of the mastodon. He circles the specimen, recording observations in the book he brings everywhere, even to the counting house where he works. Stephen swivels his calf to compare its length and girth with the hulking bones on display. He chews his lip as he concentrates, just like he did when she met him in the woods that separated the girls’ academy from the boys’. She was taking exercise with two classmates; he was alone, not waiting for her exactly (she can see this now), but for something. Sometimes, when Rebecca is wavering, she recalls that first afternoon, how he hunched over a sycamore stump, copying every ring.
“I’d like my profile,” she tells him now. She says it louder so he hears.
“Fine. I’ll study the two-headed pig.”
The pig is on display in a room of curiosities, past portraits of a red-eyed albiness and a dark brown girl spotted white like a cow. Rebecca sees them, notices Stephen’s far-off stare, and says,
“I might like to see the pig as well.”
“Then I won’t look for long.”
To satisfy Stephen she reaches in her purse and pulls out a small silver box, never used.
For a penny, the gardener’s son let Rebecca rub the smooth place where the tip of his pinky had been cut off by accident. “I’ve been pruned,” he joked. Sometimes he brought her cherry blossoms from the other grounds his father tended. She left him sweet rolls in the hollow of the maple. They played hide-and-seek among the trees until Rebecca’s mother called her in for needlework.
The day before she went away to school, the gardener’s son found her sulking behind the gooseberry bushes. He knelt and gave Rebecca a packet of shiny leaves. One by one, she unfolded them until a bright green caterpillar tickled her palm. He kissed her then. An impossible softness, like moth’s wings, fluttered on the corner of her lips. A rap at the kitchen window and he dashed away.
At the museum, a velvet curtain shields delicate visitors from the pig. Stephen wants to sketch it, but he has left his pen in the front room. “I’ll be fine,” Rebecca says. “Truly.”
While he’s gone she conducts her own observation: Two spongy snouts jut out in opposite directions, giving the pig a look of indecision even as one glass eye gazes steadily at Rebecca from the middle of its forehead. Its mouths hang open like twin caves waiting to be explored. Rebecca leans down and pokes her finger into one.
Stephen is suddenly back, with a hand on her wrist. “What’s wrong with you?” His eyes, studying her, are the sharpest of blues.
The boys’ and girls’ academies shared an instructor of natural philosophy. He gave the boys dead squirrels to dissect, while the girls memorized names of mounted moths. Rebecca described the caterpillar she’d felt in her hand to her teacher. Did he know which one it could have been? Cecropia he told her, with a curious look. It was probably Cecropia.
“Rebecca, do you hear me?” Stephen waits for her to say something. She has his attention now. When she can’t find the words, she makes herself wobble, pretends faintness. She opens the lid of her silver box, bracing for the stench of hartshorn that will soften Stephen’s eyes, soften Stephen.
He steadies her. “Some things,” he says, “are unfit for you.” He takes her back to the main room and pays the profile cutter, reminding Rebecca to hold still.
Rebecca sits for the man. She lets him guide her cheek into the curve of a wooden plate. He eases a thin bar toward her until the tip just touches Rebecca’s forehead. Turning a knob, he traces her, swoops around a ringlet of hair, slides over her nose to the moist dip above her lips, and finally pulls away at her neck. He cuts her out with long-tipped scissors. There are now four Rebeccas — or places where Rebecca once was. The man glues the hollows on her choice of paper. She selects blue to match her dress.
“It’s a good likeness,” says Stephen. “Are you happy, darling?”
“Of course,” she says.
Stephen smiles and squeezes her hand. He walks between her and the mastodon on their way out.