On Saturday the long-closed Olina Museum and Distillery re-opened to much fanfare in the Printer’s Quarter. How the Museum came to be closed is a matter for another time; depending upon who you talk to the conflagration that reduced the building to ashes was either part of a massive conspiracy (and really, in this city, what isn’t?), the work of a few directors on a board that had descended into chaos and paranoia over a supposed haunting in the folklore wing, or something like, but not precisely the same as, spontaneous combustion (although really the only people who appear to support that hypothesis are the surviving members of what was then the Museum’s board). But whatever the cause of the closure, the Olina is open again, so I dutifully dusted off my NBTC badge and talked my way into the opening day festivities. In addition to a few widely-publicized exhibits, the opening promised a few surprises. This post is about one of them.
The new buildings of the Olina Museum are special. In order to be able to meet the budget for the rebuilding, the new board crafted a unique (but somehow, to this correspondent, who has now spent enough time in Nagspeake to be shocked at nothing, entirely unsurprising) strategy: they bought up a collection of old and abandoned buildings around the city about to be demolished, moved them to the Printer’s Quarter, and assembled them into a brand-new Olina Museum. Now, if you are wondering whether a board whose predecessors may or may not have burned the Museum down years ago over a supposed haunting had any qualms about tempting the ghosts of the ages by forcibly moving a bunch of ancient and crumbling buildings into unfamiliar territory and asking them to work together, the answer is, of course not. They recognized the absurdity of their predecessors. This was a board for a more modern time. Logical, realistic. Don’t be silly. They did hold off on announcing a few of the exhibits, those aforementioned “surprises,” but that was just practicality. After all, those exhibits were housed in the leaning Victorian B&B that now stood on the ground where in years past, the supposedly-haunted wing stood. But no grisly deaths took place before the 15th, so yesterday I found myself in what was once the kitchen of that old B&B, touring the new Olina Toy Room. And, no surprise, it’s freaky. Yes, I took pictures, and yes, they’re here, but even the creepy toys aren’t the source of the freak factor. In order to understand the organism that is the Olina Toy Room, in order to get the creepiness, you have to know a little about two things, both of them long-standing Oddball Nagspeake Institutions: the scavengers, and the murder-poet, Owen Ilford.
First of all, the scavengers, or, to properly name them, the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres. If you meet one on the street, no, you don’t have to address him or her by her full title (Sir or Lady Whoever, Chevalier Escauwager). That would just be silly. But you’re best if you never, ever, actually use the word scavenger. In Brookyn, where I spend most of my year, throw out the word scavenger and it calls to mind the folks with grocery carts roving up and down the sidewalks the night before trash day looking for recyclables or anything that might be salable at a flea market. In Nagspeake, however, the city rag-pickers, like the word scavenger itself, descend from customs-collectors. And if you stop one on the sidewalk, any Nagspeake escauwager will park his or her grocery cart full of Rescued and Useful Crapp and give you the full etymology and the full history. There are stories in these parts of underground warrens, caves full of curiosities, even (perish the thought) hidden archives that have survived the civic burnings since the days of the Yankee Peddlers. The Escauwagieres even supposedly had a critical partnership with the city’s most recent hero, the modern smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell. And, according to the press-packet handed out Saturday at the Olina, late last summer they sent a delegation to the Museum’s board offering to donate every toy they’d ever rescued from the gutters if the new Olina would include a permanent exhibit to display them. The board agreed. The Toy Room was born.
Like I said, it’s a weird room. (For one thing, it’s in a flipping kitchen.) The exhibit, such as it is, progresses along a nominally historical timeline, but then there’s the random display of Star Wars tontons in the diorama next to the collection of assorted cowboys and Indians. There are lots of trains, but then there’s the gorilla randomly stuck on the train track (which I still don’t find half as weird as the giant grasshopper overseeing the carnage in the faux Wild West). It doesn’t appear to have been curated so much as shoved into the space by whatever means sort of made sense. One wonders why the board even bothered taking the collection if they planned to treat it so haphazardly. Have a look at the pictures, and ruminate on them while we move on to Weird Factor Number Two.
Owen Ilford. Where to start and how to keep it brief, both for your patience and my long-term safety? Owen Ilford was the Nagspeake Poet Laureate at some point way back when (as with much of Nagspeake history, just when is tough to pin down). He wrote a number of historical poems and a number of poems about murder. There is even some question of whether or not he even existed. Most importantly, there is an incredible shortage of scholarship about Ilford because Ilford scholars tend to suffer violent deaths or just disappear. Since I don’t care to do either, we’re going to focus on just one of his poems and lay off any speculation about his life and identity. The poem in question is called The Scavengers (I know, shocking), and this is how it goes.
A nameless narrator forced to flee the city takes leave of his or her children, promising that this is for everyone’s safety, and that someday he/she will return. In the meantime, he tells the children, there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/and I will send word with the scavengers/and you will know I am all right. Throughout the rest of Ilford’s perverse little lullaby, through the good offices of the scavengers (who, in the world of the poem, constitute a confraternity that stretches beyond the borders of the city) the refugee parent sends little toys, reminders of happy family moments, to the boy and girl left behind, one for every year of his absence. Each time he asks the messenger to repeat his parting words and deliver a promise: there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/one day I will make it back home to you/I miss you, but I am all right. The scavengers, in turn, bring back tales of the happily growing children. At long last the exile returns, only to find an overgrown ruin where the family home once stood. Of the children there is no sign. He searches the city and finally learns the horrible truth: the day after his escape, the unknown powers that forced his flight destroyed his home and murdered his family. Walking the streets in a daze, he finds himself at last in the graveyard, where after some searching he finds the all-but hidden graves of his children. They are unmarked by headstones, but unmistakable: atop each one is a small pile of the toys sent with the scavengers over the years.
Nobody knows which, if any, of Ilford’s murder poems refer to actual events. Ilford scholars generally assume many, if not most, do, and they love to speculate on who and what these poems refer to. Oddly, however, they tend to dismiss The Scavengers as nothing more than a cautionary fable intended to freak out parents and give them nightmares. But it’s pretty hard to imagine they won’t change their tunes now. The plaque on the kitchen door leading to the Toy Room bears the following inscription.
The Toy Room
Gift of the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres, in memoriam
Sleep and Trust The Night.
There are far too many pieces in the exhibit for all of them to have been failed messages from that long-ago exile to the children lying in their unmarked graves, and many are far too modern. But what if? What if they’re here, those failed messages to the dead, hidden among the bits of shining tin and molded plastic?
Here’s one more thing I noticed at the opening. Among the guests was a very old man. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t wear a name tag. I never saw him speak to anyone, and I never saw him drink from the glass he carried from room to room. I think I began following him more to amuse myself than out of any particular suspicions (my nominal supervisor at the NBTC was at the opening, and I am an ace at finding random things to get me out of a room she’s in). It was while following this man that I found myself in the Toy Room. It was only while writing this post today that I remembered that when I lost interest in following him, it was because he had stopped his wandering to stare for a very long time at something in a glass-fronted case. I wish now that I’d bothered to speak to him, or at least to take note of what he was staring at, but I didn’t.