Excerpt from “Strange Museum”

Excerpt from “Strange Museum” by Julie Hensley

“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”

–Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin


Her mother could sense things weren’t well. She always could. “Are you truly happy there?” Four months into Jim’s appointment, she still asked that question.

“Of course.” Margaret would pull her hair across her shoulder and shift the receiver, hoping to lose the lie in the shuffling. She wasn’t about to let on.

“Isn’t it a little provincial?”

Margaret could hear the derision in her mother’s voice, even over the phone. “That’s what I like best about it.”

That last bit wasn’t a lie. She did find this part of the country beautiful, especially now that spring had arrived. She could spread a blanket on the campus mall and just sit, watching the pale, green maple seeds flutter down onto Wren’s hair and shoulders. Sunday afternoons, they drove. She and Jim took the Beetle over the back roads where there was always the chance of spotting a line of black Mennonite buggies heading home from church. Margaret liked the curved rows of corn sprouting up in the narrow fields, the solid mountains framing the horizon. The rumble of the gravel beneath the tires set Wren to sleep, and all Margaret had to do was rest her forearm on the open window and drink in the green canopy overhead, the pale splash of the dogwoods.

One Sunday, they found themselves at the base of the mountains, off Laurel Mill Road, idling in front of a farm lane. The house sat back from the road, sheltered by enormous maples.

“Come on,” Margaret coaxed, pointing to the For Sale signs nailed to the fence. “Is there anything wrong with dreaming a little?”

So Jim pulled in. Weeds, grown up in the center, ticked at the Volkswagon’s undercarriage. When he cut the engine, they sat for a minute in the blossoming silence. The only sound was the soft exhalation of Wren, still napping. When Margaret swung open the car door and stepped into the humid sunlight, the baby nestled back into the crook of her neck. They made their way up steps flanked by purple irises, startling a robin. The bird dove from a nest under the porch eaves and rose into the treetops. They crossed the wide front porch, cupped their hands to peer through the windows into the darkened interior. The leaded glass distorted the images, but when she shifted the baby and leaned in close, Margaret could make out beautiful woodwork, a fireplace in good condition.

Wren woke as they made their way back down the steps, and Margaret set her cooing and toddling through the long grass. Her daughter never woke up happy back at the apartment. Margaret always had to wheedle her with juice in a plastic sippy. But here, as the three of them rounded the corner of the farmhouse, the baby was laughing, reaching toward a row of blazing azaleas.

Margaret allowed herself to wonder if these months trapped in the apartment had been but some kind of penance. After all, she had somehow fashioned love out of need. She did love her husband now, she was sure of it. And what’s more, she understood that she hadn’t loved him before, not during Wren’s ill-timed conception, not even during those months spent alone at the cottage, getting to know each other just as they prepared to bring another life into the world. It was fiercer and more frustrating, this thing that now drew them together.

“Pretty flower,” she said, plucking a damp blossom from one of the bushes, and showing it to her daughter. “Red.”

Margaret had heard of postpartum depression, had even been warned about it by the old woman who came by boat in the first few weeks to check on her and the baby. “The dark thoughts,” Nettie had called it, as she handed Margaret a cup of her special womb tea. But in those quiet hours on the front porch, as Wren’s tiny mouth worked at her breast and her own foot skimmed smooth cement in time with the glider’s slide along its gentle track, Margaret couldn’t conceive of such a thing. She had shaken her head at mere suggestion and sighed, nestling her baby closer, enjoying the green-glass shine of the cove. Now, she wondered if the old woman had sensed something in her back then, a dusk-light shadow secretly casting its dim shape up from the corner of the porch.

The sadness that had since settled into her brain, clinging like a pit to stone fruit: might that hard-knotted emotion simply be the result of the earlier joy, the mother-love which had come so easily and been undeserved? And if that were the case, hadn’t she been unhappy enough, all these months since Jim had taken the faculty position, to earn more of the joy she’d known before? Suddenly, walking through the tall grass, trailing her hand along the azalea’s damp, bright blossoms, she could see her depression in simpler terms. It was something she could pull away like the tendrils of ivy and Virginia creeper which needed to be yanked from the mortar of this old foundation. She could be happy again somewhere like this. She said as much to Jim. She touched his hand and put those words out there with everything else between them. He gave her a lopsided smile, a smirk really, and she could imagine what he was thinking: If only it were that easy.

Out back, around the tattered outline of a long-neglected garden, they found a cluster of buildings. Dips in the lawn held onto the moisture, reminding her of the heavy dew which would coat the lawn back at the lake—the sheen of an early autum morning. From the dock, she could look back up the hill and see the line of her dark footsteps. Here was an old outhouse, a root cellar built into the sloping hillside, a barn that rose up from the weeds, solid as a fortress. Jim threw open the heavy doors, and they stepped into the stable. Beneath their footfall, dust motes rose and swirled in the narrow seams of light. Somehow, the air inside still held the sweet tang of animals.

“Look at that,” Jim said, pointing toward the roof, “beamed in chestnut. This barn will probably outlive the house. Nice and dry. We could rent out the loft to someone who needs to store hay. Hell, we could lease the pasture, let someone graze their herd.”

Standing beneath that cathedral of solid wood, Margaret could feel him turning, as he always did, toward her own desire. Like the arrow on the compass he liked to pull out of his pack and demonstrate during their hikes, eventually, he swung and vibrated in her direction.

“Put in a big enough garden,” he mused, “and this place might pay for itself.”

She was never sure whether to feel grateful or guilty.

“I never imagined anything so perfect,” she said, fingering the wiry black hairs caught in the splintered wood of a stall door. “Do you think we could find a way?” Even as she asked it, she knew the answer, knew what it would take. She plucked a few of the hairs and held them out to Wren, wondering where that horse was now.

Back outside, they squatted in the sunlit barnyard and palmed the previous season’s walnuts, still fragrant, weighing them silently. It was up to her, Margaret knew. Jim didn’t feel the strings tighten the way she did behind her parents’ unremitting offers. She stood and screened her eyes from the midday sun, looking beyond the sloping pasture. Something seemed to wink, just past the copse of hardwoods.

She placed her hand on Jim’s shoulder and pointed. “What’s that?” she asked, “Is that water way down there?”

Jim stood up, cocked his head and nodded. “Boone Run, maybe. Or some other creek. There’s one in every little hollow around here, and they all run into the Cumberland eventually.”

Lighting a cigarette and staring at what was now unmistakably the thread of a creek, Margaret could see a trail through the pasture, a jagged line where someone’s footfall had long held the grass at bay, snaking through the fields and veering into the woods at the bottom of the hill.


Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then traveled west, earning a MFA at Arizona State University. Now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. She is a core faculty member of the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the low-residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. Hensley’s stories and poems have appeared in dozens of journals, most recently The Southern Review, New Madrid, and Blackbird. She is the author of two books: Viable, a poetry collection (Five Oaks Press), and Landfall: A Ring of Stories, winner the 2015 Non/Fiction Collection Prize (available from The Ohio State University Press in May 2016). “Strange Museum” is an excerpt from Hensley’s most recent project, a novel with the working title The Recklessness of Water.