My father used to take me to the Natural History and Science Museum, downtown, when I was six. That was where I first saw her.
I remember thinking what a pretty name for someone that was, the “Lemon Blossom Girl.” I have never been able to forget the time I laid eyes on the Lemon Blossom Girl, imprisoned in the tall glass case smudged with the fingerprints of all the other children who had come to stare at her. But she could not stare back.
She lay on the floor of a papier mache cave, curled around herself, her smooth head cradled and face hidden by tattered, crossed arms. I watched her for a long time, with my dad standing there, reading to me from the placard that described the way she became mummified.
Although I wasn’t able to put it to words at that age, I must have been asking myself why anyone would name her “the Lemon Blossom Girl.” This was a name for someone who skipped in fields of flowers in spring, laughing and playing; not this awful, trapped, parchment-skinned thing. The word I would have wanted at the time was “irony.”
I had the first nightmare a few days after our visit.
I was there in my bed, in the dark, when my eyes opened, somehow outside of my control. I couldn’t move anything except my eyes, but I couldn’t shut them. And I knew, with that knowledge one is given only in dreams, that she was here, in our house somewhere.
The Lemon Blossom Girl. She was no longer lying on her misshapen side in the museum behind glass. Or perhaps that’s how she was in the house, in that same position, curled up beneath the kitchen sink. I couldn’t see her in the dream, but I felt her presence. I knew that she was on the other side of the house, waiting for something, thinking bad thoughts with that smooth, yellowing head of hers. Thinking of me.
I woke up screaming. My mother came running in and comforted me, and my father must have been scolded for taking me to the part of the museum full of old, dead things. I had the same nightmare several times in the weeks to follow, but like all things, it eventually stopped and I was free to worry about whatever it is that six-year-olds worry about.
When I was twelve, my family moved to the East Coast, to Boston. My father had been transferred to a new position and given a raise, and since my mother wasn’t working at the time, moving was the sensible thing to do. I said a few awkward goodbyes to my friends; at that age, it doesn’t really dawn on you that you won’t be seeing them next summer, and chances are you won’t see them ever again.
But I made new friends easily enough. The grade school I went to in Boston was much more reputable than my old school, but I didn’t really notice, other than how we took a lot more field trips. Field trips were never about learning; they were about leaving the classroom and being able to talk to your friends in an environment where your teacher didn’t notice as easily. That’s exactly what happened when Mrs. Hafner took us to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
I paid absolutely no attention to the droning tour guide, and continued to pay none until I heard a phrase I hadn’t heard in what for a boy of twelve was an eternity.
“Lemon Blossom Girl.”
My stomach sank. That name, that sickly-sweet name that belonged to that monstrous thing.
I snapped to attention and realized that the guide was talking about mummies now, as the class approached the “Human History” room. My eyes darted among the cases — she was here. It was here. Somewhere. I glanced at the other mummies, with their long and awkward Egyptian names, ending in Amun, Hotep, Tiri. They sounded exotic, impressive. Regal. The sarcophagi were gold, with bright expressive faces painted in blue and black on the heavy lid. These did not bother me, nor did the X-rays of what they looked like beneath the bandages. Their eyes were closed, their arms crossed on their chest, at rest. These were kings at peace.
Not like the Lemon Blossom Girl — whose glass I now stood in front of. She was no longer on the floor of that papier mache cave, now laying starkly upon a plain, gallery-white platform. Somehow, I saw more this time than I did, or remembered I did, when I was six — the room was brighter, and I was taller, almost tall enough to peer between her crossed, gnarled limbs and see dead eyes. How weird, I thought, that I would move to Boston only to see her again? Was there more than one? No, they must have moved her as part of some program.
I learned more about her that day, listening to the guide. I learned that she was named for the area the archaeologists found her in — that it used to be a bog somewhere in South America, and that her odd, contorted position probably resulted from the way she died: struggling as she drowned. A diagram on the wall showed how she had been X-rayed in the 1960s, and how scientists discovered an almost fully-developed infant still inside her. She died pregnant.
This added a new dimension to my nightmares, which returned that night. I awoke, back in my old room, as I had so long ago — in the dark, paralyzed, knowing that she was in our house somewhere. But now I knew she wasn’t curled up in a ball. She was walking, shambling slowly, carrying her infant in her arms, its skin a cross between leather and paper, stretched tightly across blackened bones.
I knew these things, was made to know these things by the dream, but again never laid eyes on her. But she was in that dark house, in my mind, somewhere. The nightmare ended and I sat upright in my bed, throwing and kicking my arms and legs to make sure I could indeed move them. I didn’t cry to my parents; I must have decided I was too old for that. But I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
Again, the nightmares subsided after a few dreadful weeks, but not before I failed a morning exam or two for lack of sleep. School came to an end in Boston, junior high was a blur, with high school even more unremarkable. I was an average student; I sent applications to several large colleges in the area, only to receive letters of condolence in return. On a whim I sent an application to Maple Grove University, a small school in West Virginia, just to see what would happen. Lo and behold, they accepted me, and even offered a partial scholarship.
I’m not sure why I decided on West Virginia, but I did. I suppose I wanted to be out of my parents’ house, on my own, taking full responsibility for myself. I don’t think the scholarship hurt, either. Freshman year, my parents helped me move my things into Poulsen Hall, one of the two undergraduate dorms, and said a tearful goodbye. But I was free now. I felt like an adult.
Friends were harder to come by in college for some reason. Maybe it had to do with me being a child of two coasts, and West Virginia being close to neither. The first several months I spent largely alone.
Our Communications 15 study group broke early one Saturday night at about 5:30, and I suppose I didn’t feel much like heading back to my dorm room and dealing with my suitemate and his filthy socks. So I wandered a little. Near my dorm on the hill were a few buildings, administrative and such. There was something called the Harold Ferris Cultural Center, a great ugly green building with a pigiron modern art globe in front. It was next to my dorm; I thought it might have general information about the area, the town, and maybe somewhere I could go on a Saturday night.
When I got there, I discovered the information booth only had pamphlets about cultural studies and outreach programs. That and a little old lady. She said the center closed at 6:00, but since I was the only one here, I could stay a while after and look at the exhibits.
Something about that word always bothered me. An exhibit was something on display for others to stare at, to watch. The plural of the word was worse, as it implied a cold room with dim lighting cast on ancient, quiet things. The exhibits.
She pointed me at the room, but it wasn’t until I was in the archway that I realized what I was looking at. It was a cold, cold room, with dim yellow lights in the ceiling, focused on pots, arrowheads, and other historical trinkets. And one large display in the center of the room.
Lemon Blossom Girl.
I stumbled backwards. She was here.
For the third time in my life, in a town I considered the middle of nowhere. I can only imagine the expression on my face as I edged forward into the room. “South American Relics, 1200-1500 AD,” the sign said. Lemon Blossom Girl. And now I was thinking that it was peculiar, very peculiar that this exhibit, of all things, would be here. Here, of all places — the Harold Ferris Cultural Center at Maple Grove University.
I felt as though I were six again, seeing her for the first time. She looked smaller than I remembered, but somehow that made her more pitiful, more terrifying than before, more like the desiccated, curling thing she guarded in her womb.
I began to doubt it could have ever been human; what cruel processes of nature would allow such a thing to continue to exist? I did not picture the Lemon Blossom Girl as a woman with child who became trapped in some swamp in South America, while Europe suffered through the Dark Ages. She had always been like this, somewhere or other, dried and dead and paling under electric lamps since the beginning of time, carrying a smaller mockery of herself inside her, twisted and splitting and curling in her own womb of glass. No, no, this thing had never been a human being.
She was Lemon Blossom Girl, forever staring out with empty sockets through crossed arms and legs, trapped in a place where children can watch her. But she could not watch back.
There was a square, dimly-lit button on her display case, and beneath it, a grid of holes indicating a loudspeaker within the base. The button stated in loud, block letters: “START.” Though I knew, when pressed, it would blare a dull, scratchy narration explaining mummification, my heart dropped as I backed away from the case. There was something very, very wrong about having a “START” button near that thing. All I could think was START MOVING. START BREATHING. START SCRATCHING AT THE GLASS.
“Time to close up,” an old voice called from the front desk, and I uttered a startled noise, halfway between the letter U and a gasp. The sound echoed in corners of the hall that the dim lights didn’t reach.
That night I wasn’t in my dorm room. I was at home, in my old bedroom. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t move. But it was different this time; this time, I didn’t know if she was in the house with me. I didn’t know, until I heard a sound like splintered wood sliding against burlap, and wet paper. I smelled something thick and ancient, like parchment and, faintly, cloves. A sickening, thick, spicy sweetness.
She was here. In the dark, I watched, unable to even shiver, perhaps held in place by the same abominable forces that would allow a corpse to be preserved, to stay whole, to persist for 800 years.
And now from the black doorway the Lemon Blossom Girl shuffled in, her thin, reedy breath amplified by the dead quiet of night. She lurched forward, slowly and unsteadily on bone-splinter legs, stopped in the middle of my room and turned. Now she was watching me.
She held something close, something I did not want to see. Something I was beginning to make out in the moonlight.
That was six days ago. Six days ago, and she hasn’t stopped since. I know she is down there, my Lemon Blossom Girl, behind glass, closer than she has ever been. She can follow me as far as a museum display, but she needs my dreams to come closer, to watch, to hold her young. I know she is down there, thinking bad thoughts in that dead, dry head of hers. Thinking about me.
This morning I went to the gas station, and returned with one gallon of gasoline and a box of hurricane matches.
Tonight I think I will pay her one last visit.