December 9, 2023

The Dusky Maiden’s Lair


Not thirty minutes after he returned from church services in Sedona where the singing of Amazing Grace helped him and his fellow congregates celebrate what successful wretches they were, James Whitsell, our long-time neighbor and friend, did the most wretched thing of his life: he died.

Now, given the assumed advantage of popping off when one is primed with repentance, it might be considered fortunate in most circles to expire upon one’s return from church, or, as in James’ case, shortly after. And we Islanders are not such hardened souls as to deny a man improving his chances any chance he gets; although in Jim’s case, the love and respect of fellow Islanders might have been all the recommendation needed.

Our concern was not so much for the man himself as his legacy, a lifetime collection of National Geographic magazines for which he had left no disposition instructions. Stored helter skelter, these magazines continued in unabated profusion throughout the attic, basement, and living areas of Jim’s house. Nor was it that the men of Doodlebug Island felt an aversion to the cleanup. No, it was more closely tied to a certain amount of guilty nostalgia which militated against discarding those things which had contributed so largely to our early education. For as boys, we had made use of the collection. Indeed, much of our youth was misspent there. The latter is entirely accurate, for though we learned a great deal about the geography of the world, its astonishing variety of cultures, its natural resources, and scenic wonders, we learned even more from the pictures of semi-nude African women whose casual attitude regarding dress taught us much about the female anatomy–an interest which had formed earlier when we thumbed through the lingerie sections of the Sears catalogs at our parents’ houses.

Actually, each was reference to the other because the nude women in the Geographic were mostly long limbed and dark skinned, while Sears models were more plump and fair. Still, equipped with imagination and with ample time, we had little difficulty in transposing one to the other. Thus armed with two-dimensional knowledge of the human anatomy–at least the female anatomy–we advanced into adolescence and to the next challenge: trying to infer information regarding girls’ periods from Kotex commercials.

The fuzziness of that thinking helped us misinform each other in wholesale fashion regarding the intricacies of sex and the complexities of those wondrous creatures with whose affections we looked forward to dallying. That is, if the word “affections” is broad enough to cover all the things we had in mind.

Oh, we knew guilt! The first concerned that “forbidden fruit” thing so deliciously tempting as to risk hell many times over. The second involved betraying Jim’s trust. For he believed us virtuous, and it gave him pleasure to share his collection. He would pour over maps of exotic places with us, or help us find information for school projects, or try his best to interest us in sociological events. Our feigned interest in such things masked our real purpose which always ran to the more lurid, the prurient, the lascivious.

Could our wickedness be the less for confessing it, we felt guilty playing such a trick. Still, we managed so successfully to blunt the effects of that and other guilt we could suffer the Reverend Ryerson’s Sunday sermons without so much as blinking. We were certain he didn’t mean to, but the Reverend spoke of wickedness as if he had personal knowledge of the thing and could help us find more of it if he were of a mind.

Fortunately, our mothers remained ignorant of our activities, for in truth there wasn’t one of us could have withstood the kind of prescient interrogation to be found in that quarter. We grew to become men; Jim became old. Neither he nor we lost interest in those things that had brought us together. Jim went on sharing his collection with subsequent generations; we found living embodiments of those female forms we had so much admired; and nature seemed satisfied.

Well, after thoughtful consideration we sold Jim’s place and used the funds to endow the James M. Whitsell room at Doodlebug University to house the collection and a librarian position to order and catalog it. We think Jim would be pleased. Visitors are usually pleased, as well–and they’e always welcome.

Just ask any Islander directions to the “Dusky Maiden” room.

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