by Rob Magnuson Smith
Inside the museum display case, a bamboo trumpet stood on a pedestal, surrounded by human skulls. Notches had been carved along the shaft, as if someone had been keeping score. Jessica stopped abruptly in front of the case, her eyes darkening into points. Her husband Graham almost ran into her. Their daughter Lucy, aged five, sat slumped forward on his shoulders, asleep.
“I’ll catch up with you down in the lobby,” Jessica said.
Graham didn’t move. He was looking at the skulls. Jessica swiveled in her jeans and white tank top, her nut-brown skin dimpling from a sudden chill. She switched to the voice she reserved for emergencies. “I need to be alone for a minute,” she said. “Please.”
Graham’s hand squeezed her shoulder and was gone. He baked sourdough bread for a co-operative bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District. For years, Jessica had dated more dangerous types, all of whom had started out as clients at her hair salon—investment bankers and attorneys who regularly hit a ten on the asshole scale. Eventually she’d married Graham, who rarely exceeded a two.
Alone in the Oceania wing, Jessica felt free to study the trumpet more closely. She bent forward with equal parts excitement and dread. The trumpet looked exactly like the one on their mantle at home.
The lost ghosts of the dead go to Adiri, her mother used to say, the desolate domain in the West otherwise known as the outer edge of the world. There the ghosts must live for eternity without fire, away from the houses and gardens of their loved ones. Jessica’s mother repeated this warning on the day of her death. “Under my bed lies my father’s trumpet,” she said. “It will save you from becoming a lost ghost. Pass it down to your children, as he did to me.”
Jessica had brought the trumpet back to their apartment. She put it on the mantle between framed photographs of her daughter and her mother, and she looked at it whenever she thought of her mother’s last words. Her mother had been born outside Papua. Adopted by Methodists as a child, she’d been taken to America and sent to school in Fresno. Eventually she’d married Jessica’s dad, a white soybean farmer from California. Up on the mantle, the trumpet stretched over four feet. It was made of black bamboo like the one in the display case, with similar notches on the shaft. Once in a while Jessica took the trumpet down. She placed her hands along the finger marks where the bamboo had been rubbed shiny by use, and she blew it in the apartment to test out the sound. The powerful bass notes made the dog whine and the dinner plates rattle.
Beside the museum’s display case, a map showed the tribal regions of New Guinea. There was also an information placard.
Headhunter’s Trumpet. Papua, early 20th Century. Played to instill fear in the enemy before a raid and to celebrate a successful capture. Trumpets were owned by the most ferocious member of a tribe. Each notch, traditionally carved with the tooth of a male rat, represents ten captured skulls.
Jessica giggled—a short, strangled sound that came from nerves. She’d always imagined her grandfather playing his trumpet for birthdays or weddings. In the display case, a photograph showed a man with a bone in his nose, pointing to a row of skulls hanging from the rafters of a house. Another photo showed a group of children in a canoe, playing with the skulls like seashells.
As a child Jessica would sit in her mother’s lap and lean back against her chest. It was her favorite thing to do—kick out her legs and feel her mother’s hands around her head, brushing back her hair with her long fingers. Jessica held her daughter Lucy in her lap each day, and she ran her fingers through her own daughter’s hair. At work it was also her favorite thing to do, cut a client’s hair to see the shape take form underneath. Everyone’s skull was different. She loved the click and snip of her scissors as she removed precisely what she wanted.
Jessica searched the New Guinea children’s faces in the canoe. Her mother had grown up with cannibals. Had she forgotten eating human flesh as a young girl? Or had she remembered, and just not talked about it? Jessica looked up and flinched.
A businessman had entered Oceania. In his khakis and graying hair he came breezing through the New Guinea exhibits as if searching for a better wing. Jessica pressed her back to the display case holding the trumpet. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t want him to look at it. She took a tissue from her purse and pretended to blow her nose as the man passed. He glanced so casually at all the exhibits of the skulls, you’d think he’d evolved from pacifists. Or maybe he’d come to Earth on the back of a giant, benevolent goose. It was the kind of tale she’d been telling her daughter, after all. Lucy wouldn’t care about the trumpet’s description on the placard. She’d just stare at the skulls with her eyes and mouth wide open, and she’d ask the only question that preoccupied her these days, “When people die, do they go to heaven?”
What would the Methodists have said about her grandfather’s chances? She tried to imagine him sneaking up on a family in the dark and snapping their skulls from their vertebrae.
A group of tourists entered the wing. They wore neon-colored eyeglasses and fanny packs, and they had enormous, white, horse-like heads. Jessica drifted over to an exhibit of imitation natives in grass skirts, bending over earthenware jars. They had narrow foreheads, arched noses, and dark curly hair, like hers. Their breasts were decorated with tattoos. When a man captured his first head, the placard said, women marked the occasion by branding their breasts with hot irons.
Jessica peered across the room. The tourists moved through Oceania in a herd, their heads thrown forward. Their faces betrayed no emotions. Jessica wished the museum could have told her family’s story. Her mother had been adopted at the age of six by the missionaries. She’d been given clothes and told to learn English. For years she’d considered herself a slave, even after moving to the United States. Jessica’s mother had spoken rarely of her childhood, beyond a few details like these. It was as if the past held little interest, compared to the future—and this was how Jessica felt now, uncomfortable lingering at this juncture between the cultures, as if some lost ghost might catch her and pull her back.
In no time, the tourists finished the wing. They consumed centuries of art with the efficiency of threshing machines. Their guide pointed them to the next wing, then stayed behind in Oceania. She was young and attractive with auburn hair that reached the middle of her back. Her head looked so perfectly round, Jessica thought, it could have been made into a soup bowl. The young woman stepped into a nearby exhibit to straighten a heap of bones. The arrangement was meant to accompany a stuffed pig and a mock campfire.
“Don’t worry,” the guide said, tossing a stray bone onto the pile. “These aren’t real—they’re only Styrofoam.” The guide adjusted her bra strap. Her name tag read, Chloe.
“That last group didn’t stay long,” Jessica said. She still felt frozen between the living and the dead. At home, the trumpet would be waiting on the mantle, inviting everyone who saw it to count the notches, to think of all the heads.
“I’m reading about these people in college,” Chloe said. “Cannibals!”
Jessica giggled—it was her nerves again. “So why did they do it? I mean, eat each other.”
Chloe flipped her hair behind her shoulders. “They didn’t need to, not for food. Apparently they liked the taste. The men raided other tribes. They killed their victims and brought bodies home for the village to eat. The wives singed the hair off the decapitated heads and roasted the cheeks over the fire so the flesh swelled up for finger food.” She snorted as she laughed. “I know. It’s gross.”
“You learn so much in museums,” Jessica said. She came nearer Chloe’s exhibit. “I wonder if any other cultures practiced cannibalism.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.” Frowning, Chloe glanced down at the Styrofoam bones.
“You’ve got beautiful hair,” Jessica said. “I mean—I’m a stylist. I notice these things.”
Chloe brushed the bangs from her forehead. “I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it, to tell you the truth.”
“You mind if I take a closer look? Get a sense of your neck line?”
Chloe stood up straight. “Really? Okay.”
Stepping over the stuffed pig, Jessica entered the exhibit. Keeping that trumpet on the mantle would be good for Lucy, she thought. It would cultivate strength, maybe even ferocity. She stood behind the bones, behind Chloe’s back and shoulders, and she gathered up the guide’s hair in her hands.
Chloe twitched, then relaxed. Her hair was thick and smelled of lemons. With her thumbs Jessica traced the vertebrae bumping along the back of the neck. “You’re lucky, having such a nice shape to your jaw,” she said. “You could keep your hair this length. Or you could cut it short for a change.” Her heart racing, she leaned in, as far as she dared. “What would you do if you had your wish?”
“Chop it off.”
Chloe turned. Her face kept twitching, and she raised her hand to her mouth. It would have been something, Jessica thought, to hear her grandfather play his trumpet.
About the Author
Rob Magnuson Smith is a novelist, short story writer, and investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Gravedigger, was published in 2010 after winning the William Faulkner Award. Smith’s second novel, Scorper, is forthcoming in 2015 from Granta Books. Smith’s work has most recently appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, The Literarian, The Istanbul Review, The Greensboro Review, Inkwell, and The Reader. He is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Exeter University in the UK.