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Tension, Resistance

by: Ethan Madarieta

Elaine clutched the wooden leg of Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna and quickly put it in her duffle bag. She had gone with her friend Reed to the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield to see the prosthesis. It had been used comically and as an invocation of nationalism, or it had been forgotten completely, hidden away in a minor museum in Illinois. The leg was the real subject of history, and the ligneous fetish of a contrived memory.

Santa Anna’s biological leg was hit with grapeshot1 in the French “Pastry War” of 18382, and was terribly butchered in the process of amputation. Santa Anna had refused to leave the battlefield for more professional and sanitary conditions, preferring to stay with his army, to lead them to either victory or defeat. For the remainder of the battle he wore a wooden peg, crudely carved from a limb of the Jacaranda. He had the peg leg interred with full military honors, along with his severed leg, directly following his army’s bitter defeat. His subsequent prosthesis was stolen nine years later in the Mexican American War by Second Lieutenant W.A. Tinney of the Fourth Illinois volunteer brigade, and was decades later sent to the Military Museum by an unintentionally anonymous donor.

It became the centerpiece of the museum, placed purposefully in a spare, but precisely signifying, diorama. The trophy leg had been in a carriage, leaning against its wooden bench-seat. Two men from the Illinois Fourth Infantry volunteers, mannequins, on either side of the carriage door, stood guard, a plastic roasted chicken with peripheral nibblings and a wooden strong box full of plastic gold coins at their feet. Seeing the glorification of this historical atrocity troubled Elaine beyond consolation and she planned to liberate the prosthesis, to return to Mexico.

Elaine had pulled from her pocket the “Record of the Services of Illinois Soldiers in the Black Hawk War and Mexican War” she had printed off the Internet. She had been reading it with the goal of creating an intentional reconstruction of history. It was a practice in historiography and hermeneutics, a new way of seeing the past and of constructing the future. She had mailed José Escandón, in Mexico, her statement of purpose from which the first line read, I want to deconstruct the historical discourse on “disability” and conjure the voice of the “physical minority.” The physical minority has been too long denied participation in the ideological work of constructing historical and cultural narratives. Elaine received no response as to what Escandón thought of this opening line.

The audio from the “History of the State Military Museum” video was murmuring from the second floor foyer. The walls and ceiling were draped with camouflage netting. Glass display cases dappled with children’s fingerprints stood on plaster pedestals. The video’s narrator had just finished describing the contents of the museum, glorifying Santa Anna’s prosthesis as “the museum’s most popular object.” Beethoven’s “Yorckscher March for Military Music”3 played softly while a slide show of mortars, rifles, and a splintered piece of wood shot by House Representative Abraham Lincoln, filled the screen.

Elaine stood before the diorama and read from her version of the archive:

During a brief respite from the battle of Cerro Gordo, April 23, 1847, His ”Most Serene Highness” Antonio López de Santa Anna was enjoying a whole roasted chicken and counting his booty, which he had won from war and cock fighting.

Beneath the bench that held both Santa Anna and his prosthetic wooden leg were drawings, paintings, letters, a pen and fragments of clothing said to have been owned by The Emperor Napoleon Himself. It is true that Santa Anna had his boots, including the one strapped permanently to his wooden leg, fashioned after Napoleon’s, though his were not the backless “Napoleon Boots.” A quick comparison of the two pairs of leather footwear would reveal that fact, even to the apprentice cordwainer. The soles of each shoe were originally made of chicle from the Manikara chicle tree, but were later replaced by a thick layer of leather after Santa Anna noticed his soldiers taking large pinches from the sole of his prosthesis during long marches, presumably for the pleasures of chewing.

Before Santa Anna had the time to consume one leg of his chicken, two American regiments stormed the Mexican military camp, and a captain in Santa Anna’s army—a known thief and murderer—knocked on his carriage door and called him into battle. Charged with spirit and success, Santa Anna flew one-legged (only half aware of relief from the sharp pain the prosthesis continuously caused) from his carriage onto his horse and headed into the storm of his war.

According to a report made by Maj. Gen. Patterson of the volunteer division dated April 23, 1847:

On the afternoon of the 17th, a rapid and continuous fire of artillery and infantry, announcing that the Second division of regulars was closely engaged with the left of the enemy’s lines. […] Before the brigade reached position of that division, the action had ceased for the day; the night was, however, occupied in establishing several pieces of artillery upon a height adjacent to Cerro Gordo. […] Gen. Shields, whilst gallantly leading his command, and forming it for the attack of the enemy, posted in force in his front, fell severely wounded, and was carried from the field. Col. Baker, Fourth Illinois regiment, having assumed the command, the enemy’s lines were charged with spirit and success by the Third and Fourth Illinois…

It was amongst this “rapid and continuous fire” that Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg was stolen.

The men of the Third and Fourth volunteer armies were discharged just over a month after that battle, from the 23rd to the 25th day of May 1847. It has been said that it was not Second Lieutenant W.A. Tinney who actually captured Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, but Colonel Baker himself. Tinney is thought to have stolen the leg from the Colonel’s tent the night he shipped out up river. Upon his return to Illinois, Tinney took the leg on tour, displaying it at County Fairs for ten cents a peek.

Years after Tinney’s death, his letters and the leg were, with unintentional anonymity, donated to the Illinois Military Museum. One of the letters written by Second Lieutenant W.A. Tinney of the Fourth Illinois volunteer brigade, to the Military Museum in Springfield, Illinois, dated February 5, 1882, read:

“We stormed their fort and put the enemy to flight, taking about six thousand prisoners, and we captured Gen. Santa Anna’s carriage, also his wooden leg, which I have in my possession.”

These items were accompanied by a note, undated, which read:

“Despite his desire to be buried with this leg and wearing its leather shoe, I believe it to be of historical import and must therefore see to it that it be held in the protection of the museum in this fair state of Illinois. Mr. Tinney loved shoes dearly and (illegible text) and thank you for your service.”

The letter was signed “Sincerely, E. (illegible text).”

Elaine heard Reed’s laugh over the murmur of the “March” and figured it was a signal to come down. He was downstairs distracting the deskman. She lifted the duffel bag to her shoulder, rubbed her legs with both hands as if to make sure she was still whole, and walked into the open elevator.

The man at the front desk must have been from southern Illinois.

“They want it back,” referring to Mexico and the leg, “but they ain’t gon’ get it,” he said.

He rested his hands, fingers laced together as tightly as their girth would allow, on the large protuberance of his belly, and looked at Reed directly. Reed could talk to anyone, especially conservative and crotchety old men.

As if obliged by Reed’s attention, the deskman spoke:

“I do reenactments of the Alamo ‘bout once a year. Usually there’s a group, but I can play both sides, if necessary, in here,” he pointed to his temple, after having some difficulty unlacing his fingers.

He spoke at length about the battles of what he called the Mexican War, and spiced each phrase with words like glory, freedom, and America.

Reed was truly interested. He was looking at the glass case full of merchandise, listening to the old man while he fingered the postcards and pamphlets, all of which displayed pictures of the museum’s prized leg. Elaine clung to the straps of her duffle bag.

Reed stepped toward the deskman with a large and determined step, “I have to say, my interest did not spread beyond the simple delight I knew I would get from laying my humble eyes upon that leg up there, but hearing you speak—I must say, sir—downright passionately, about that war, well, I’m a changed man.”

The deskman re-laced his fingers, unblinking, and smiled self-satisfied. Reed shook his head, amazed at his performance, and folded a few souvenir Civil War banknotes into his pocket. Elaine, nearly overcome with trepidation, stood beside the deskman, just outside of his peripheral vision.

Her knees quaked while she sought out any indicator of knowing in the deskman’s face. She looked at Reed to see if he’d told with his eyes, and felt slight relief when her mind was diverted to wondering how much of that speech was bullshit and how much was Reed. The deskman looked pleased.

“Y’know son, I’m headed down, Alamo bound, in two days’ time, and I wouldn’t mind company, if you’d be interested in bein’ part of a company, in the dust,” he inhaled deeply, “beneath that savage Texan sun.”

Elaine nearly broke the silence, wondering if her interjection might save Reed from making a rash decision, but hesitated too long. Reed wiped a real tear from his eye and, chin resting on his chest, extended his hand toward the deskman, humbly assuming his corpulent fingers would unlace and requite.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then. I’ll figure you’ll make your own arrangements. You,” he said, pointing at Reed, “will play Sanna Anna, so come prepared.”

He made a gesture toward Reed’s foot and jutted his chin toward his hip.

“It all began on February 23, 1836, Presidio San Antonio de Bexar. Betcha didn’t know that. Well, we’ll begin day after the day after tomorra’, July 23, 2013, San-an-tone, Texas. I don’t suppose you’re interested,” he nodded in Elaine’s direction.

She nodded.

She had already planned a trip to visit Escandón in México the following week and Reed seemed excited to play in the deskman’s game, so fortuity became fortune.

It was the hottest summer in 17 years. That mattered in Texas. Reed stood on one leg, leaning his shoulder against the frame of a stucco doorway, acting like there was no shade anywhere else for miles. His face was beaded with sweat, his eyebrows like damp wheat. In 1836 the Alamo was a walled Texan desert in the vast desert of northern México, and now it is a façade surrounded by a vast American city. It appeared as out of place as Santa Anna’s prosthetic did, flanked by two anatomically incorrect mannequins.

Elaine wondered at the deskman’s energy as he prepared for the reenactment. He told the two of them to watch closely so they could learn their parts. It looked like demonic possession. He was riding an invisible horse, and the swaying of his heft was like the undulating of a horse’s withers. Sweat soaked through his shirt and made a stripe on his back as wide as the Rio Grande. He galloped back and forth firing his gun into the air and shouting, alternating between lines in English like, “The troops were charged with spirit and success,” and an unintelligible mix of an affected Spanish. “Sounds like a Cacaxtle dialect to me,” Reed offered.

Elaine adjusted the straps of the duffle bag she had carried all the way from Illinois. The weight of the leg was heavy on her back and she was worried that her sweat might damage the soft Cordovan leather of the boot. Reed noticed Elaine’s discomfort and cocked his head in her direction, offering to carry the contraband for a while, but she declined, savored the feeling of its heat and weight like a penance for its displacement. Until it was returned to Mexico, Elaine preferred to carry the burden.

Reed left the unsatisfying shade of the doorway and began to gallop in the well-worn path devised for him by the deskman. The deskman had conferred upon Reed the honor of not only playing Santa Anna, but also the David Crockett. Elaine shifted her weight to one side and pulled the printed archive she was carrying from her back pocket.

“Corroboration of disparate sources identifies David Crockett as a ‘has been’ a ‘man looking to make history after many successive failures.’”

This detail, conceived in the brains of historians and academics, was of no import to the deskman, who, pointing at Reed, led the charge in his direction. The deskman threw a sweat-moistened Bowie knife handle first toward Elaine. It fell into the dust just short of her feet, and he yelled out,

“You play James!”

She picked the knife up, cut two inches of the seam from the lip of the duffle, and slid it into the tunnel of fabric. Elaine was disgusted by the saturated handle of the knife and the smell of wet leather, by the deskman’s caricatured performance. She could see her disquiet reflected on Reed’s face. He was rubbing his leg, ankle duct-taped to thigh, and leaning out of the doorway. Reed pumped his air rifle, steadied the deskman’s horse with his mind, and missed a few shots aimed at the deskman, who was now galloping from view, aimlessly into the city.

The steaks at Morton’s, just off East Crockett Street, were an unfortunate end to a heavy day of reenactment. Reed ordered Maine lobster, but quickly amended his order to a porterhouse under the deskman’s scrutinizing gaze. Elaine held the duffle on her lap with one hand, her steak knife in the other. Her ribeye effused. The steak waded in a tepid pool, the surface tension pressed against its edges. It was the cohesive force among liquid molecules that caused this tension; it was responsible. Elaine focused on the steak. She knew tomorrow they would be crossing the border. The surface displayed a contractive tendency that disallowed submersion.

She exhaled, slightly relieved. The steak itself was like a thrombus being pushed from a wound, or perhaps like a plug, keeping what was inside from coming out. An impulse to pierce the steak with the tip of her knife rose and then fell. She inhaled and loosened the grip she had on the wooden-handled steak knife. It fell with a thud to the table. The sound was heavy and mute like a block of wood falling into dust. Reed didn’t notice, appeared to be in a constant state of pain, and rubbed his hip as if to empathize with his welted skin. Reed made eye contact with the deskman, which obliged him to speak.

“Now that y’know yer places, we’ll be better tomorra’,” the deskman paused momentarily to swallow a half-chewed bite of steak, “so eat up and get some rest, ‘cause we’ll be startin’ ‘round sun-up.”

Reed and Elaine glanced at one another and continued eating their meals. While the deskman spoke, they silently revisited their tentative plans for the coming morning. They realized they would have to leave well before sun-up.

Elaine had arranged to meet José de Escandón X at the Nuehistoricismo Museo Episteme in Nuevo Laredo, 160 miles south of the Alamo. He was a prolific writer for the Tempesta Nuevo Laredo, and the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of the city’s Spaniard founder. The story Elaine read on the Consulate General of the United States Nuevo Laredo, Mexico website added validity to the purpose of their mission.

On May 30, 1848 José Escandón IV represented Mexico in the summit with the United States, who arbitrarily, according to custom and tradition, devised a new border alternatively dividing the cities of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo. This new division, which, according to custom and tradition, favored the United States, put the house of José Escandón IV firmly in U.S. territory. This fact was never officially registered, recognized or noted, and José continued to live and raise his family, “siempre con la patria,”6 on the now-nebulous swath of land that, like a transitory isthmus, connected his home to the city of Nuevo Laredo, and Mexico.

They passed Pearsall at sunrise and didn’t stop until they hit Dilley. Reed drove. Elaine was in the back seat, spooning Santa Anna’s prosthesis; not having eaten but a few bites of blood-pinked potato the night before, she felt a faint levity similar to the preliminary effects of anesthesia. She was thinking about what she would say about the leg if they searched the vehicle at the border crossing. She was planning her responses and their responses to her responses. They wondered what the deskman was thinking, what he was doing at that very moment. Although neither spoke a word about it, they silently agreed that the deskman was galloping across the desert, charged with spirit and success.

Reed rolled his window down as they approached the gated wall that stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction, supported by evenly-dispersed panoptic towers. This signified the border. A tiny, dichromatic plaque signaled the dividing line between the United States of America and Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. It wasn’t hard to see the maquiladoras for the trees.

Elaine had been sleeping, her head resting on the duffled leg; tears had darkened the fabric beneath her face. She sat up, wiped her cheek on her forearm, and pushed the duffled leg to the side. She had only been to the border once before and felt like the line of cars should have been longer. She felt anxious, thought that they should have stopped at customs, but realized they had nothing they could claim. Reed was slowing to the border check. He made eye contact with the pale man leaning into the Reed’s window, speaking unaccented English.

“Destination?”

“Well, sir, we’re here. I mean we have arrived where we intended to go and now we are in that place.”

The pale man held out his hand and Reed held his out over the console. Elaine placed her passport in Reed’s hand and the exchange was made.

“Tourism or business?”

He didn’t look long at each navy blue booklet, just held them near his face as if he were attempting to hide his mouth.

“Both I suppose, but perhaps neither, really. There is the business of being and the business of doing, inasmuch as we are in the state of being busy, as in occupied, though employed is not accurate—gainfully or otherwise—nor do we have any intention to bolt.”

The pale man didn’t seem to notice Reed’s etymological rant. He handed back the passports.

“Have a good trip.”

The pale man smiled and stepped away from the car. Reed looked straight ahead and slowly drove away, laughing.

The Nuehistoricismo Museo Episteme wasn’t far from the border. It was on the first floor behind the steel awning of La Zapatería Jaca, signless and with access only through the shoe store. A tentative man approached as soon as they walked in, but stopped suddenly and observed the two from a distance. Elaine sat on a bench with angled mirrors on either side, her face slightly red and swollen, and grabbed the pair of shoes that were nearest her. She turned them slowly in her hands, examined her surroundings, and wondered if they’d be willing to sell just one shoe.

Reed rubbed the heel of a stiletto between his thumb and forefinger as he walked, and attempted to read the signs and make small talk with the few customers trying on shoes.

Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg sat duffeled on the bench beside Elaine. She was half-hoping she would find a boot like the one on the prosthesis. The hazel-colored patent leather pump she tried on didn’t fit. The tentative man approached her.

“Te gustaría encontrar un tamaño diferente?”

“No, gracias. Tengo una bota que quiero replicar. Puedes verla en la luz afuera?”

He nodded sincerely, knowingly. Elaine followed him through the store and outside into a small dirt enclosure.

It was noon. The sun was directly overhead and the ground reflected white. Elaine squinted, her aperture too wide. The two stood for a moment, still as monoliths. She handed him the leg, the duffle bag draped loosely around its knee like an oversized stocking. His smile was big and genuine. He grabbed the duffle bag and held it by its opening, searched its contents with gradually narrowing eyes. Elaine sensed disappointment. He dropped the bag into the dust and looked up at her. The sound was heavy and mute like a block of wood falling into dust.

“Qué’s esto?”

“Es la pierna prostética del Generalísimo Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón.”

“Pues, quién es?”

Inside, Reed was talking to José de Escandón X. José had come downstairs when he heard Reed laughing and speaking English. They hadn’t noticed that Elaine was gone. Escandón was reading about the contents of his museum:

“Besides a copy of the Record of Services, the one you say you have in your possession, we also have the Mexican Record of Services: collected army logs, journals and diaries, poems and letters, and official ‘histories’ of the battles of Cerro Gordo, the Alamo, and la Guerra con los Estados Unidos. We also have the rifle of Davey Crockett, which he called Betsy, and has been depicted swinging like a club. We are told that a military museum in Monterrey has his coonskin cap.”

Reed was nodding enthusiastically, thinking of a comparable response.

“Fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Well, I was told by the deskman that a museum in Decatur, Illinois has Santa Anna’s peg leg, but I cannot corroborate. I am more concerned with the iconography of power, visual and written constructions of history, the diachronic nature of memory and what Schwartz and Cook call, ‘the making of modern memory.’

Reed was now on a roll, had likely been mulling all this over on their journey from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo.

“If I may be permitted to quote,” Reed paused. José nodded. Reed continued, “Archives—as records—wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies. .”

Elaine walked toward the men, followed by the tentative man. Her duffle bag was three-quarters covered by a fine white dust. The prosthesis felt light, lighter now than it had since she had initially placed it in the duffel bag two weeks prior. José—averting his attention from Reed, who continued to speak, only now to young boy in new Nike SBs—leaned in close to the tentative man. They whispered.

“Come with me,” José was speaking directly to Elaine.

She followed him upstairs, only briefly glancing back at Reed who was now being shown shoes by the SB boy and the tentative man.

“Mexico doesn’t want the leg, but I do.”

Elaine didn’t speak. She’d heard this before from the deskman.

“What is written about the past and what happened in the past are two different things, as I’m sure you know.”

Elaine was disturbed. She opened her mouth and closed it. José stared at her with the intensity of a dentist extracting a molar. It was a moment of stasis for both of them. Elaine saw only history in the eyes of Escandón. No future. The moment broke and he let his face relax, even showed a few handsomely crooked teeth. Elaine pulled the leg out of the duffle bag and laid it over her lap.

“Santa Anna wasn’t president when he was selling chicle in Staten Island7. He wasn’t president when he sold la Mesilla. Between the years of 1833 and 1855 he was president 11 times, mostly of his own accord. He was taken prisoner in the battle of San Jacinto, and after that he wasn’t a friend to Mexico or the United States. He declared himself emperor for life, was then exiled, and for good measure so were the Catholic Church and the military. He lived the life of Napoleon, the support and the disappointment.”

He went on, at length, about why he wanted the leg and why Mexico, as a nation, didn’t; why he stayed on the land isthmus that was his home, and how he would care for the leg: he would mount it in a glass case above his mantle like a family heirloom. He would keep it at his home until his land was returned to Mexico.

Elaine did not give Escandón the leg. She moved her hand over its entire length, imagining it as a bridge, imagining Santa Anna forgetting about it as he walked, the wood connecting his leg to the ground. But he could never forget; the two inches of bone the surgeons left exposed, cupped by the compacted cork of the prosthesis, caused him incessant pain. The wooden leg, just weeks before lying forgotten and unnoticed, was now causing both Elaine and Escandón pain. The deskman had surely by now noticed its absence and would be combing the surveillance tapes.

She stood to go, and shook Escandón’s hand. Before she turned away she saw the tension of his face release, like a physical sigh.

Elaine descended the stairs holding the prosthesis in her arms like a child. She had left the bag upstairs in Escandón’s museum. Reed wanted to know why she didn’t just burn the leg, destroy the only extant artifact in the megalomaniac General’s history. He stared at Elaine, silently asking her the question. Elaine felt absurd.

They stopped at an old rusted-out train on the tracks that ran parallel to the road out of town, and Reed painted his face with coal from the scuttle. He said: “Remember, to deconstruct is to intervene.” Elaine laid the prosthesis in the scuttle and Reed handed her his lighter. She stood so close to the flames her shirt blackened with smoke.

As they drove back to the border, Elaine pulled the Bowie knife from the duffle and cut the left leg of her pants off four inches above the knee. Reed had his eyes on the road and turned the volume up, then down, successively, nervously. Elaine closed her eyes and breathed deeply and consistently until her heart slowed and her lips tingled. She pressed the knife the deskman had given her firmly onto her thigh with the intention of reaching her femur. She did not let up on the force with which she pressed it into her flesh, and once through the skin she began to silently saw through the muscle and tendon. The smell was subtle.

Reed remembered taking swimming lessons as a child, waking up at five a.m. so his mom could drive the hour-and-a-half to the facility nearest his home that taught swimming at such an hour, before she had to be to work. His little sister was a better swimmer than he. His mother had been a lifeguard in her youth. He was an ingot.

Elaine had successfully filleted her thigh, through the vastus intermedius, medialis, and lateralis, and had subsequently lost consciousness. By the time Reed noticed her actions she was nearly dead from loss of blood, and he sped back to Nuevo Laredo looking for a hospital, laughing.

ENDNOTES

1. The grapeshot, a cluster of small iron balls shot from a cannon, that struck Santa Anna’s leg also killed his horse.

2. Contrary to popular belief, the Pastry War did exist and was not fought with éclairs, but with guns, cannons and cavalry. The war was started over the looting of a French pastry shop by Mexican soldiers a decade prior. The shop’s owner and pastry chef, Remontel’s appeal to King Louis-Philippe of France turned into embargo and war, which ended when compensation for damages to Remontel’s pastry shop were paid.

3. A favorite of the German Wachbataillon.

4. James Bowie, born in Kentucky, moved to Texas and became a Mexican citizen in 1830. He fought against Santa Anna’s troops at the Alamo in 1836. He was known as an all-around reprobate, a slave trader and smuggler, who had a fondness for knives. The Bowie knife was named after him.

5. José Escandón I was an “Indian-fighter,” and was granted by the King of Spain what was at the time called Nuevo Santander. Capitan Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera was the actual founder, granted the right to settle through petition of Escandón. The coat of arms was flanked by two, loin-clothed and amply bearded, men holding sheaves of wheat. It has been said they are representations of Sánchez and Escandón.

6. The motto of Nuevo Laredo.

7. Santa Anna made a land deal with the U.S. for what was once Mexican Texas, southern Arizona and New Mexico, then returns to Mexico and reneges on the deal, loses the battles to regain the land, is exiled by Mexico to Jamaica then Cuba, then lives in Staten Island, New York—there, he claims the name Shaolin Killa Eagle—sells a few tons of imported chicle to the entrepreneur who invents Chiclets chewing gum, and is allowed to return to Mexico City, deaf and nearly blind, just in time to die, repatriated.

8. Escandón X was a Texican, invested in the land he was promised by his forefathers, the land promised them by the empresario Stephen F. Austin, son of Moses Austin, and sold to him by the Mexican Government. The deal was made with the illegitimate authority of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who, after signing the land treaty with the United States, pocketed the cash and headed back to Mexico to usurp real power and usurp the land. Escandón X ended up on the isthmus of Mexico that extended like an invisible phallus into the ordure of Texas. His history settled like the dust in his home, and he found himself in exile. The house, the land, and the museum, all reminded him of displacement and the impossibility of home.

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