Mademoiselle de la Faim closes the heavy iron door behind the final stragglers and begins her well-rehearsed tour speech. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to welcome you to the Gallery of Extraordinary Oddities. No doubt your feet feel tired and your purses light from your long day’s visit to our fair city. You distinguish yourselves as seekers after knowledge and curiosity, where others are mere sightseers. You are drawn to mystery and wonder and, if I may, a certain danger, yes? Then you can have made no better choice, for secrets and wisdom are yours for the learning.”
From a long bag slung about her hip, Mademoiselle de la Faim draws an electric taper. She circles the stone chamber of First Gallery, lighting the wall sconces. They gutter and smoke, giving off an oily orange light, throwing nervous shadows across her customers’ faces. They are typical of their ilk – eyes constantly flickering with an uncritical greed for novelty, clothes chosen for comfort over elegance, and well-fed faces. Mademoiselle de la Faim, who is lean, cynical and dresses in precise accordance to her business-gothic aesthetic, cannot hate these people, but she surely does not admire them either. They allow themselves to be deceived, and were she not their deceiver, someone else would take the role.
Though they are caught on her every word, none of them spares her a glance. They are all captivated by the exhibit.
“This statue depicts the angel Herael, who conceived the Architecture of Heaven and presented it as a gift to God. When God in turn built upon the idea and brought about Creation, Herael became dismayed and fled to Earth, in what is undoubtedly the first intellectual property dispute.”
She returns their nervous chuckles at this casual blasphemy with a polite smile. The statue, mounted on a small marble plinth, is a shade over ten feet tall, and nearly touches the worked-stone dome ceiling. Cast in a green metal of bronze or some lesser-known alloy, it depicts an androgynous and undoubtedly powerful being wearing a belted robe. This time none of them think to ask aloud how this massive construction was brought into the centuries-old chamber with its two human-sized doors.
Mademoiselle de la Faim waits for them to take their photographs. She helps with their phones to ensure they have a single perfect shot with Herael. She is patient, answering all their questions about this unknown apocrypha with bland assurance, reciting information on the artist, his model and his influences.
All falsehoods. This is no statue, but the real Herael, whose long-ago bargain to remain hidden from the eyes of God has been upheld by generations of Mademoiselle de la Faim’s predecessors. It has been an equitable arrangement thus far; one she has no plans to jeopardise. Her clients will not, of course, recall Herael’s name upon their departure.
They move down an uncomfortably narrow corridor to the second chamber. “This is the bell rung by Claude Menon and Valerie Jardin, the teachers of the town of Bienvenue, with which they called to arms all those who had ever been their students. On the morning of twelfth of August 102, almost every man, woman and child of Bienvenue under the age of thirty seven years, lay down their tools and took up a weapon. They stormed the home of a wealthy landowner named Georges D’Est. They dragged him and his family outside and set the building aflame. They tethered D’Est to a stake in the wheat fields and made his family watch as he was consumed in a frenzy by his own prized pack of manticores. Both teachers took their own lives with nightshade while the grisly spectacle took place, and none now know the nature of their dispute with Georges D’Est.”
Her clients whistle appreciatively and murmur to one another; speculating, questioning and arguing. She allows it to continue, feeding both curiosity and scepticism with equal generosity. When she judges their appetites have been almost satisfied, she moves the tour along.
In the next chamber, the mummified cats of an obscure Egyptian noblewoman, flawlessly preserved. In the next, an illuminated manuscript depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes of a monastery in the Italian Alps. In the next, a bubbling fountain fed by a groundwater spring said to confer good fortune and healthy teeth (“It contains trace solutes of fluoride and electrum,” says Mademoiselle de la Faim with a secretive smirk, “but it is perfectly safe to drink.”) In the next, the claws, teeth and eyebrows of the great dragon An Ji (the generous donation of one of the Gallery’s oldest sponsors).
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, our tour is almost at an end, but not before the final exhibit. Let us take a moment to contemplate these astounding artefacts. Let us take succour that the world should contain such wonders and let our imaginations soar in delight at what greater mysteries may yet be unearthed. Finally, let us demonstrate our appreciation not just with grateful words but also the generous flow of Euros.”
Mademoiselle de la Faim allows ample time for her clients to push banknotes into this penultimate room’s sole furnishing, a strongbox. She notes a few mild grumbles but judges them not yet truly aggrieved. Then she shows them through to the final exhibit.
“This simple box is the handiwork of the master craftsman Jacob Kirth. It is said to contain the secret of Perfect Happiness, which Kirth and his lover distilled after a lifetime of study. One glance is all that is required to know the secret. Does anyone here have the courage to-”
Someone opens the box. Someone always does. They learn the secret of Perfect Happiness. Mademoiselle de la Faim alone declines to look and so remembers the last two hours.
She leads them out. She sips water while she waits for their eyes to clear of fog. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she begins again, “I am glad to welcome you to the Gallery of Extraordinary Oddities.”
This is the second of my stories inspired by my recent trip to Europe, and specifically the ridiculous number of wonderful museums in Paris. For the record, I wish to assure my French readers – of whom there are, I believe, absolutely none – that in reality none of the guides I met were in any way sinister and all the exhibits I saw were above-ground and well lit.
Some of them were almost certainly magical, however.