Bill Capossere

The Museum of Tears

Kolonnade by Gabriel Engels

Hard, at the tour’s start, not to recall similar rides long ago. The lightly bobbing crafts, the tunnel mouth just ahead, the ticket in your hand as you follow the young guide to the swan-shaped boat that will carry you through the museum, all dredge up an ancient adolescent past. Hard, cramped seats. A sudden jerk into darkness. The whisper of lips and skin and cloth interrupted by an occasional bump or giggle. The quick press of flesh before a disheveled, rough-and-tumble exit, all too soon into dazzling sun and a lesser kind of heat. “Tunnel of Love,” they called them. Though had they been more honest, you admit to yourself, stepping gingerly into the boat and sitting, that blinding light should have come at the beginning and not the end. 

But who knew then in their youth the glaring dishonesty of such rides, could see through their blinking titles and faithless progress to a more accurate future truth? That love rather than brightening dims and closes in. That its demons don’t leap from an outer dark but rise from within, and what stops the heart isn’t sudden hot fear but the day to day drip of tedium, pooling like snowmelt in the folds of your skin. That love’s endings aren’t rough but so smooth they’re gone before you even notice they went. Who would have believed it back then, during those stolen moments when darkness itself was so kindled with possibility, alight with the glittering ache of adolescent whim? 

Not you. Nor any of the girls whose names you can’t recall. Certainly not this young girl now bending over you as she recites instructions. Little of which you hear, distracted by the tickle of her hair against your nose, the soft flutter of her hands darting about your waist, buckling and tugging until satisfied she hands you a map and, pointing to the speaker set into the swan’s sloping neck, steps away to push a long lever rising from the floor. A slight bump from the swan behind you and then you begin to move smoothly toward the opening ahead, while she kneels and reaches out over the water to steady the empty boat bobbing in your vacated place, her hair dropping like a veil over the promise of her face.

 Inside the tunnel it is dim and somewhat chill, the only illumination coming from the opening receding behind you and when that fades you’re left gliding in total darkness, listening to random slaps of water, the occasional scrape of your small boat against the walls, and the constant shadowing cry that has since you entered hovered at the edge of your ears like a grieving child, coiled and unquiet at the top of the stairs. And it is this sound that harrows you as you move throughout the museum.

Past the Hall of Creation, where tears flow from the eyes of gods, watering the earth or their lovers’ pale cheeks with generative drops:  past Anat raising Ba’al, Marduk Tammuz and Ishtar Gilgamesh; past the statue of Izanagi slick with weeping, Sun and Moon slipping perpetually down his celestial cheeks; past the circling face of Ra, set on a rail high in the ceiling from where he seeds the ground with pregnant tears, each deified bead moist with potential. 

The current carries you past Dante’s Chamber of Justice, where your breath silvers the grim air and ice lies to either side. Where cold fog hovers low and hides the sinners’ bitter cries and chattering teeth, the crystalline tracks on their frozen cheeks. Where you keep hands and feet inside the boat at all times and duck your head as you pass below the three-headed hologram frothing tears and foam.

Past Ovid’s Garden, with its stifling heat and unexpected scents—the boat floating between sloped banks covered in trees and flowers while the swan’s speaker whispers of Phaethon’s sisters turned to poplars, their tears become amber. Of Adonis and the anemone, Apollo and hyacinth. Of myrrh and mistletoe and the dry eyes of Loki, that remained, despite all the gods, a pair of deserts in his trickster’s face. And above it all the child’s cry rolls over and through you as you drift beneath branches bowed in grief, your skin grown damp from air humid with a transforming sadness and the moist botany of sorrow.

Past the Reflective Cavern with its tiny flares of light from what you will later tell your wife must have been thousands of small recesses honeycombing the walls, in each a small crystal vial—tiny lachrymatories containing a single glinting tear. Names spill from the speaker, a soft susurration of loss:  Orpheus, Jeremiah, Metatron, Hecuba. Mary, Niobe, St. Francis, Horatio.

So much watery sorrow bottled and stoppered that you feel your own cheeks wet in response and lacking a vessel to catch them in let them fall freely into the water, where they flow with you a while before dissolving, mingling with the tears of all who had gone before you while you continue, riding the rising tide that carries all boats, the unmoored and alone, flotsam and jetsam scattered and spinning on an ocean of woe.

Past rooms of contrition, sorrow, gladness, and grace. Past where gods’ tears turned stone are polished and encased—amber, amethyst and peridot.  Past even, yes, a Tunnel of Love, whose waters rise so high you fear for the top of the swan’s prow and feel yourself the need to bow, thinking head held down this time they got it right and so remain bent-backed and drifting ever farther from the last light, while the omnipresent keen hovers just below hearing, the whole structure vibrating with it at its deepest level, as if in the basement great banks of threnodial engines thrum and whirr an incessant subterranean dirge while you are borne along by the slow dark current of Cocytus, River of Lamentation, warm to the touch of your trailing fingers and salty on the tongue.


About the writer:
Bill Capossere’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in multiple anthologies and journals, including Man in the Moon, Short Takes, In Short, Colorado Review and AQR. His work has garnered several Pushcart Prize nominations and been listed in the Notable Essays sections of Best American Essays. Previous stories in this Museum cycle have appeared in Rosebud, Cezanne’s Carrot, Chautaqua, and the anthology Short Takes.Capossere currently live in Rochester, New York.

Image: Colonnade by Gabriel Engels (1592-1654). Oil on canvas. 86.5 x 94.4 cm. By 1654. Public domain.