The Opening By Johanna Skibsrud

The OpeningOne day – long after the end of this world and into the beginning of the next – the director unlocked the gates to the first museum that had existed in nearly four thousand years, and the people streamed in.

It was a much better turnout than even she could have hoped – and she had been obliged from the start to be optimistic about the whole thing. Even when she had doubted the project, or her own involvement in it, she had done her best to hide it from everyone; including, whenever she reasonably could, from herself. One could not sink two marriages, all of one’s time and energy, and a good deal of one’s personal dignity into a single venture, and not hope fervently it would come to something in the end. The night before the opening she had been particularly anxious, in large part due to the brief address she had been invited to deliver to the collection of archivists, historians, scholars and local enthusiasts who had gathered in the museum foyer to help celebrate the occasion. She had sweated over the exact wording of her short speech for several weeks, rehearsing its “improvised” opening lines so many times and in so many various ways she began to suspect that when at last she opened her mouth she would be unable to utter anything at all. When the time came, however, and her name rang strangely in the sudden silence, which had just then fallen over the assembled crowd, she had no choice but to smile through clenched teeth and bravely raise her glass.

This, she began—this (here she gestured both with a practiced, sweeping gaze and her still raised glass around the vast, and mostly empty hall) is what we’ve been waiting for. For the past thirty-seven centuries, she had said. For seven major civilizations to rise and fall. Waiting, she had said, consciously or unconsciously during all of that time for the eventual establishment of … this very museum.

A small laugh rippled through the audience; glasses, as well as a few appreciative voices were raised. The director relaxed somewhat, drank, and allowed herself a brief, self-congratulatory smile. Then, bowing her head modestly, she continued from her notes.

Because archival techniques have improved so dramatically, especially over the past several centuries, the director read, there is – as many of you have already observed – a distinct contrast between the quality of some of the oldest artifacts in the museum, and those that were able to benefit from more advanced methods of preservation. This should not (here, the director looked up sharply from her notes) be understood as a shortcoming of the museum’s collection, but just the opposite. I believe, she said, that certain variations in the quality of the museum’s artifacts will prove, in fact, to have valuable pedagogical applications, many of which we are not yet able to imagine. Not only will our visitors be able to consult a written record describing the approximate age and original location of each artifact, they will gain a tangible appreciation for the layers of time by immediately apprehending them. Where, that is – the director continued – more recent acquisitions might well be indiscernible in terms of their physical quality and condition from the familiar objects with which we surround ourselves daily, the older objects will appear … Well (the director looked up once more, and shrugged. She hoped desperately that, with her next word, she would hit the right note), old.

She did. Once more, the audience laughed appreciatively. Relieved, the director continued, her voice – in proportion to her increased confidence – gaining energy and speed.

It was nothing, she said, quite honestly, that we would have consciously dreamed up – in fact, every one of our efforts over the past four thousand years was to reduce, even eliminate from the artifacts we recovered any trace whatsoever of the passage of time. It seems to me, now, however, rather opportune that our methods should have advanced at such a pace that we can now offer to our public a history not only of the objects themselves … but of their preservation.

The audience applauded the director’s address, and everyone agreed that –regardless of the turnout the next day, or any other, which was far from assured – the director and the museum could feel frankly proud.

This is not the kind of thing, said one attendee, for example, a few moments after the director had – raising her glass once more – concluded her remarks, that is usually met with any sort of precisely measurable success – or, for that matter, failure. It’s more of a … what would you call it? She gave a brief laugh. I’d almost want, she said, removing a tooth-picked meatball from a passing tray, to use the word, faith.

Yes, isn’t it ironic, a young archivist said, that our job – of recording and preserving, so meticulously, the victories and failures of others – can, in itself, in no way be recorded or preserved? That we are left with nothing at all material in the end!

What’s this? Asked a linguist, standing nearby. Nothing material? Look around, my dear boy! A general lull in conversation allowed the linguist’s words to echo loudly through the museum hall. It had been kept largely empty with the aim of offering the visitor, upon exit and entry, some – much needed – space for reflection. Only a few choice artifacts stood along the back walls at thoughtfully spaced intervals, gesturing in a general way to the rise and fall of at least several long-expired civilizations. Now, there was a brief pause as everyone, heeding the linguist’s advice, looked around. After a few moments, their gazes had travelled (just as the museum’s architect had hoped, and done his best to arrange) through the wide front windows toward the museum gates: two large – overwhelmingly material – towers in a state of semi-collapse, each having been carefully reconstructed in order to evoke its “original” state of demolition.

Someone laughed. Well, quite right, she said, proffering her glass to a passing waiter who obediently filled it. If it is not as obvious to our visitors tomorrow as it is to us tonight, then—. She took a swallow of wine.

Blast it all! Someone else said, raising his own glass in the air.

 Yes, blast it all! One or two others said, and everyone drank to that.

By the time the doors actually opened on the following day, the line had snaked its way down the street and turned the first corner – a distance (as one of the ticket collector’s noted) of nearly a quarter mile.

The director could disguise neither her surprise nor excitement. Now, this! She exclaimed, as she paced back and forth between the ticket counters and the museum office where – in fifteen minute intervals – she recorded the increase in museum ticket sales, this is what we were waiting for!

The people poured in. From nine o’clock sharp, when the director ceremoniously turned the key, there was a steady flow of visitors through the museum gates. They turned in circles in the great hall – abstractedly folding the corners of their museum maps – before gradually turning their attentions to the thoughtfully spaced objects, which lined the back wall of the room. Finally, they drifted off into the adjacent hall, where glass cases displayed the souvenirs of forgotten civilizations, their items organized not according to either age or origin, but to “utility” and “theme.” In one case, for example, they observed every writing implement that had been used over the past thirty-seven centuries; in another, every small, personal weapon. Examples of the visual and plastic arts from various epochs were presented in a series of long corridors connecting the main “cabinet” rooms to the great hall, and adjacent to these was a theatre where examples of film and television from several key periods in the history of cinema played on a single, continuous reel. On the second level, a reproduction shopping mall had been designed –each section reflecting a different consumer trend, beginning in the nineteenth and following through to the end of the twenty-sixth century. On the third level, there were more “cabinet” rooms, and an interactive display on various stages in the development of telecommunications.

It was not long before the visitors became weary. Where, at first, they had read the long and detailed descriptions that accompanied each “cabinet,” they were, as the hours passed, no longer able to distinguish between the various epochs, or the “themes” according to which each carefully curated item had been – by the director, her well-intentioned staff, and stream of devoted interns – meticulously arranged.

This confusion had been foreseen, even invited, by the director and her staff. After all – as the director had often remarked – it was only natural, and not at all counter to the museum’s overall aim, that in looking back over the course of thirty-seven centuries the line should begin to blur slightly between them; that visitors should begin to feel the bewildering sensation of several civilizations rising and falling together – of all of history occurring at once.

If this was indeed the aim of the museum, its opening was a great success. Before long, the visitors began to wander the halls as though through a dream. They no longer read the carefully worded descriptions posted beside each object, but began instead (just as the director had hoped) to “sense” the difference between the objects that surrounded them, to feel time in layers. They found the newer items, for example, disconcertingly familiar. The older items appeared, and “felt” – by contrast – old. After awhile, they lost touch with even these differences, and all of the artifacts, regardless of their stated or apparent age, began to look more or less the same – as though they had been used at the same time in history, and for the same purpose. They began to find themselves in rooms they had already travelled through and not recognize the artifacts there, or, equally, they would stumble into a completely new wing of the museum they hadn’t known existed and believe they were merely retracing their steps.

It was in precisely this sort of bewildered state that three young visitors, a man and a woman somewhere between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, and a boy who could have been no older than seventeen, stumbled upon an unmarked door in the museum’s upper west wing. The door opened off the back of a hollowed metal shell – or seemed to. When the young man approached and turned the door’s handle it seemed loose, as though there was nothing internal for it to catch upon. The shell itself had been classified variously over the years. It had been suggested by several experts, for instance, that it had once served as the interior dome of a cathedral, whereas others insisted it had been a fiberglass swimming pool mold, and still others maintained it was a fragment from a twenty-first century nuclear bomb. This was all recorded on a posted sign outside the entrance to the shell – ignored equally by all three young visitors as they entered, making their way to the opposite wall.

Once again, the young man jiggled the door’s handle, and once again there seemed nothing for it to catch upon inside. Bored, he gave it one last shake, turned and was just about to go … when something clicked. He glanced back at his companions, surprised. Then, acting as if on instinct, he leaned his weight against the heavy door. Beneath him, he felt something shift. Ever so slightly. It was clear that if the door had ever been opened, it had not been for a very long time.

Now, the young woman and the boy approached, and leaned their weights against the door as well. All three pushed as hard as they could. Until the door’s edge was framed with silver light and, at last, it swung open.

They stood together, then, blinking against a sudden brightness.

At first they were unsure what they were looking at – or if they were looking at anything at all.

But then …

Sky, the young woman thought to herself as she took a step toward the light. She did not know where the word had come from. She could not remember ever having learned it, or even having heard it spoken. Perhaps she had, though. In some long forgotten “History of Science” class, or on one of the museum signs, before she had given up reading them several hours before. She just, suddenly, knew. And, propelled by this knowledge – or memory, or desire, or whatever it was – rather than any conscious decision, she took another step forward. As she crossed the threshold, however, she stopped – choking suddenly on a sharp blast of unfiltered air. She looked back and saw that her companions had followed. That they, too, had stopped and were now bent double, choking and gasping on the harsh air.

Was this, she wondered – a flood of panic sweeping over her in a wave – the last room in the museum … or was it … was it possible?

Just then, something flickered overhead. She looked up. A pale, nearly colourless shape drifted across what otherwise seemed a limitless stretch of open sky; below, the same shape appeared in the negative, sweeping its way, in a dark swathe, across the earth.

She had never seen a shadow before in her life. Her parents had never seen a shadow. Perhaps her grandparents had. Perhaps something like a shadow still flickered in the sound of their voices when they spoke of the past … but she herself had never once seen a shadow. And yet, here it was, and somehow … she knew. Recognized the flickering patterns of light and shade, the way that one moment everything appeared bright and clear and the next moment was plunged in sudden darkness.

As first her eyes adjusted to the light, and then, more slowly, her lungs adjusted to the unfiltered air, she was able to observe things more closely. To notice and recognize what had so far escaped her.

Grass. Water. Flowers. Trees.

And, still, she did not know how she knew the names of the things she saw, or if what, in that moment, was awakening within her was a deep memory or a longing for something she had not yet known. Still, she did not know if she had stumbled into the last – best – room of the museum, or if somehow she had managed to exit the museum entirely, and with it the known world.

But if the museum director could have seen her and her companions then – if she had not, that is, been kept so busy running back and forth between the main foyer and the museum office in order to record, in fifteen minute intervals, the steady increase in museum ticket sales – she would have been very pleased indeed, to see her visitors as they turned in circles and looked and gaped and wondered at what they saw, and were unable, in their vast confusion, to detect the difference any longer between the last century of the old world, and the first century of the next.

***

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