Extract from the writings of
CAROLYN FORCHE


Among the darkened poplars, fireflies disappear-the winged lanterns of cemeteries- flaring and dying. Tonight I found a matchbook from the Hotel Intercontinental Zagreb among my things. I have no idea how it got here, as I've never been to Zagreb. I've decided to put it in the "Hypothetical Museum," along with the little paving stone from the courtyard of the Louvre, a film tin of holy mud from the Virgin Mother's curative well at the Sanctuario Chimayo in New Mexico, and a pressed bluet from Federico García Lorca's grave near La Fuente Grande. The museum is modeled after one created by a British painter in Paris, Ashley Ashford-Brown, who modeled his after a collection of objects, assembled by his ancestor, Edwin Ashford of Moorlands, 1838-1893. All I know about Edwin was that he had wanted to practice medicine, but had been somehow prevented, and so spent his life travelling, filling a steamer trunk with "specimens of world": stones from buildings falling apart, bottles of rain, breath, and lieder.

Ashley lived two floors above us in Paris, behind a door marked "Atelier de Repos pour Artiste Fatigué." His loft was "the magic world," for my son-spacious and tall windowed, one entire wall displaying the journey of French clouds across the sky, its rafters filled with puppets, rolls of canvas, provisional paintings and raw materials of all kinds. A backroom held a trove of obsolete machines, dead telephones and radios, clockworks, salvaged lumber, jars of screws, hinges and light. On the shelves were books Ashley had further transformed into works of art: papyrus scrolls roped together, a padlocked book about prison, with a barred window cut into its front board.

Ashley's Musée occupied a vestibule, lined with display shelves and showcases. He had built his own mounting blocks, with small prongs for holding his exhibits: a shovel from the Battle of Verdun, sand from the Sahara, bottled Gaulois smoke, a fragment of the Hotel Lutecia, a small rock from the Grand Canyon, a brick from the wall of the harem of Emir de Boukhara, a fragment from the Imperial city of Hue, a fragment from the Eiffel Tower obtained during its restoration, a glove used in renovating the Louvre, a glove used in painting the Eiffel Tower, a pebble from the Great Wall of China, powdered stone from Notre Dame, a chip of the Berlin Wall, bottled rainwater with an apple leaf, fountain water from St. Ediltrude in Brittany, a Roman sword dug from an English garden. To preserve a human being, one needed only a lock of hair, nail parings, saliva, urine, or bit of clothing

As a boy, Ashley had become drawn to the mysteries of Britain, and so took the chalk roads by moonlight through ellipses of ancient stones, circles and dolmens, quoits and cromlechs, cairns and earth mounds, and had made studies of ancient runes, the earliest Teutonic alphabet, said to have magical powers. He lowered himself into burial chambers: vaults, tombs and caves, copied the scripts, and studied gematria, the ancient science richly developed by Kabbalists, in which each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding number in the cosmos, forming a link between mathematics and literature. In his later years in Paris, he began painting on unprimed linen with cobalt, burnt sienna, raw umber and red oxide, creating first an expanse of moonlit stone, and then hoisting into place a vertical slab- paint, yes, but something else one could barely lift with one's gaze.

We visited in the afternoons, and were given tea and biscuits or glasses of Bordeaux. My son raced about the magic world, finding coins, shells, hardware, and lengths of celluloid that had landed on Ashley's cutting floor during his work hours editing films. Biscuit crumbs were scattered across the table, and I began to show my son how to scoop them up and carry them to the waste bin. Of course, Sean didn't want to do this.

"Never mind, then," Ashley said, "no one likes to clean up a mess. We should have a little machine to do it for us!"

He brought the child to his work table, and for the next hour they assembled such a machine, out of wood block and wheel, heavy rubber band and paintbrush, a little crank imbedded in a wine cork, and the whole of it, within the hour, capable of brushing up crumbs.

"Just the thing to do the job," Ashley said. "One can always invent something." "Would you mind if I created my own musée?"

"Why not? It wasn't my idea; after all, it was Edwin's. And he would love to know that his museums were spreading across the world. Here, for your start, a little bit of the Louvre." He put a small stone in my hand. "Don't worry. I simply gathered the pieces. All the buildings are falling apart."

To this, I have added fragments of the Berlin Wall, sleigh bells rung in Prague when Vaclav Havel was borne on the shoulders of his compatriots toward Hradnacy Castle on the night of the Velvet revolution's triumph, a vial of water from the Dead Sea, rose petals from Simone de Beauvoir's grave. My husband has donated the bullet that shattered his camera lens in El Salvador, its casing peeled back like husked corn, and a campesino's wounded enamel supper bowl from the massacre at Morazon. Unlike Ashley, I have not, or not yet, catalogued these things. They are strewn about, in a litter of expired visas, punched tram tickets and worthless money. Over the years, they have joined an earlier collection of miniaturas: clay market women selling mangoes, "Day of the Dead" skeletons shooting pool and sewing clothes, skeleton mariachi bands, tiny villages where life miraculously goes on, a pila for slapping clothes clean at a communal well, a miniatura wedding party and several tiny cathedrals. There is even a matchbook synagogue from the Jewish quarter of Prague, and a grouping of tiny Japanese scholars sculpted to converse in groves of bonsai, alongside Russian lacquer boxes where, under a magnifying glass, one could observe your St. George, Ilya, slaying his dragon, and the intricate palaces your country is busy restoring while its people scavenge-an ossuary of world. "So Edwin of Moorlands could carry the world with him in a steamer trunk!" "With him, yes. Small things can always be carried. These miniaturas are the newer ones. By the time you visit again, I'll show you what happened to the others. I have a box packed away somewhere. Miniaturas like these, but broken into many pieces." They were from the war years, and I had always planned to repair them, but for that I would need patience and time, a magnifying light, the tiniest of tools, and whatever glue would hold together pieces of unfired clay. My sight is not what it once was, nor my memory. It would require days of sorting: a pile of limbs, hats, water jugs, market baskets, another of shoes, severed heads and roofless huts. I have kept the pieces, so it wouldn't be impossible, just as certain thoughts have kept their broken moments in my forgetfulness: the abandoned road, the still smoking crib of blackened corn, the blue smoke rising from the ruined fields. War and war and not one rag to hide deep in our things and forget.