A neglected museum gradually succumbs to the elements. A music box rusts beneath a bell of glass. Fragmented texts are pieced together which tell the history of a lost love, the destruction of a civilization, and the origin of the museum.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
I wander the hallways of the museum. I must know the truth. Past the snarling gargoyles and mummified vampires, past the lizards adrift in jars of formaldehyde, the fossils of ancient nautili, silver insects entombed in amber. To the attics, where seas of parchment seem to whirl in my madness, cracked dusty words, trunks smelling of cedar and oak. Words in languages only the dead understand, pages only to be read by the light of certain fireflies, known only to explorers of forgotten continents, tangled, shadowy scripts. The words have begun to reveal themselves to me; my ambition knows no bounds. In time I will know your history. Your secrets spread out like specimens upon the dissection table.
It is winter in the city. Snow dusts the rooftops with a glistening silver, disguises the identity of certain streets, buries children on their way home. The naked statues of pale maidens are clothed now in dresses of frosty white. In the attic it is cold. Like the rats, I build a nest of papers, ancient texts, parchment and papyri, scrolls and palimpsests. I crumple them and stuff them beneath my coat, but still I shiver. I remember how warm your body was, as if for a heart, you had a tiny sun. We were planets, the two of us, orbiting in darkness.
I will always remember the museum as you first showed it to me. Cheap wine and cheap dreams, a confetti of an evening. Demented teenagers, with eyes like savants. I chased you through winding streets, cobbles and rooftops, taverns filled with smoke. We joined in the drunken revelries of strangers. You, twirling your hips, letting your sparkling dress fly in their faces. I tried to hold on to you, wobbling desperately. We wandered in and out of fogs and streetlamps, clouds of smoke, down rainspouts. Sliding. We jimmied a window in the skeleton wing. You said, “This is where I like to go sometimes.” I was in awe of your carelessness, of your perplexing smile.
The museum was at its peak then; the glass cases were not cracked or smeared with greasy hands as they are now; dust had not yet settled on the vertebrae of the Allosaurus, nor had the jaw of the Planicoxa been stolen. You took me by the hand and led me through those secret halls; in the half-light the monsters seemed to dance. We gaped at the massive jaws of the Nothosaurus and watched as the electric crocodiles swam in their lustrous tank. At the diorama of gilded ammonites, you stopped and pulled me close. “There is something I want to show you.” We passed through rooms of improbable furniture, heavy and stained the color of dark ales, through chambers of ornamented silver, rooms of ancient timepieces and scrolls of painted papyrus which tell the history of the world.
In a tiny room—if one did not know it was there, they would hardly notice it; perhaps they would think it a coat closet or a boiler room—on a pedestal is a single artifact, housed beneath a bell of glass. It sparkles faintly in the glow of gaslight. A faded label reads: “Music Box: Perthominthian Dynasty, circa 600.” It is made of azurite, a lustrous blue which fades to green where plumes of malachite erupt from its surface like tentacles of algae. It is carved with mermaids, ocean waves which become jaguars, and forests of bipedal fungi which seem frozen in the midst of a dance.
I thought you were going to kiss me; what an arrogant fool I was. Instead you said, “Would you like to hear a story?” What could I say? Everything about the night intrigued me. Everything was a puzzle, a maze. You were the only one who knew the way. You were the only one I could follow.
“We know little of the Perthominthians, not even their real name. Some say it is Als Seti; others that they called themselves Sthii-Eeth-Sethe, which means “the people of broken stones.” But these are improbable conjectures. Another scholar claims that their name cannot be written in our orthography, or that of any other system which is known to us. He says that the sound of their name is like the sound the wind makes as it rustles the dried blooms of once-sweet flowers. We know only that their eyes were the color of the moon. That their temples were built so that when it rained they became living sculptures, kinetic gardens of water, which dripped and sang with purposeful rhythms, melodies of watery architecture.
“Their temples were carved with feathered dolphins, which seemed to swim and frolic in the waves. Creatures—half-jaguar, half-men—did battle with colossal gods. Orchids wound around the temples’ pillars.
“We know that their highest and most honored science was that of dreaming, and that they invented many elixirs and mechanical instruments to aid in their pursuit of these arts. We know that their written language consisted of stones encased in pouches of velvet, their shape, color, and texture, we surmise, corresponding to elements of phonology and grammar. Some travelers claim that the Perthominthians made love on the backs of tigers, or in nests during thunderstorms, but this is unlikely.
“For lovers it was traditional to exchange music boxes carved by hand.
“We know nothing else about them, except how they were destroyed. Oh, how many accounts have been written of the campaigns of Prince Artemia, of how his army descended in their chariots of iron. How he burned their cities and ground their statues to dust. How his alchemists brewed poisons, which he pumped into the air through giant bellows. How his enemies went mad. How their insides began to boil. Their fields were sown with salt. Their temples razed. Their libraries ransacked. The stones that made up their language scattered, traded away, until—lonely, lacking order or pattern—they lost their meaning as well, and became merely stones. The feathered dolphins which swam in their rivers were caught one by one, or else died when the rivers dried up. The jaguar men were hunted or fled to the hills; even their gods were murdered. It is said that in that region it no longer rains.
“All that is left is this music box, but it has no key. It cannot be wound. We shall never hear it play. Sometimes I imagine I have found the key, that it creaks as I wind it, dislodging flakes of rust. What melodies of longing might I hear, what songs of joy?”
You baffled me then as you do now. “I will find you the key,” I said; it was all I had to say. You laughed, an elegant, birdlike guffaw. I tried to laugh, but I vomited instead—thick and yellow. The rest of that night mixes with other nights, mad capers, foolish acts and rooftop trysts, broken locks and drunken regret. Other nights are layered on top of these. Nights in which I wandered alone, through the empty hallways of the museum, listening for ghosts.
I have found your diary, a little book with a leather cover. It was under a rusted set of carving knives near the chimney. Of course, the authenticity of the text cannot be certain, as I have in my collection several dozen works which purport to be your most intimate of journals. Still, it is the duty of the scholar to persevere, to wade through the morass, to determine what is gold and what is lead.
When you were young, when I was young, you courted me. I hovered on the banisters of spiral staircases, my expression puzzling, impassive. My face like a sculpture of polished obsidian. Proud, unchanging. Perhaps there were flickers, reflections of laughter in the vastness of my ruby eyes? Was that what attracted you to me?
You began by folding creatures of paper, so lifelike they seemed to hop or fly, to slither or swim. I would find them: a snail on my windowsill, a lion at my door. An owl on my bed stand, a fox in my dressing chamber. At first I ignored them; I had my maids throw them away. I had many suitors, you must understand. But soon they began to haunt me—I would dream of their writhing bodies, pinned beneath a giant hand, their paper wetted by the rain, beginning to tear. In waking visions I would see them at the bottom of dustbins, twitching, crying out in pain, in soft papery voices.
One morning I awoke to find a seahorse caught in my hair. Your creations grew more elaborate: ten-masted paper ships which could sail all by themselves; a paper ornithopter which ran on paper springs and intricate gears of paper. It flew around my head three times and then flew into the sky. A paper nightingale which could really sing; its voice sounded like the pages of a book being turned.
One day I called you to my chambers, I ordered my handmaids to remove your clothes, and bade you sit on my couch of polished coral, while I played for you on a harp which is made from a living tree. I played the sonnets of Silith Aayrn and the lays of Beth Athul. A cantata of secret longing, a nocturne of quiet desire. I played for you, only for you. Like an eel, I slithered from my dress and left it like a deflated cloud upon the floor. You did not move. With my tongue, I mapped each contour of your skin, each delicate plane, each curve and clime. I might have filled a thousand atlases with all those secrets. We tried to forget ourselves, to bend, to break. I writhed above you, I tore, I scraped, our skin like sandpaper, like obsidian and jade. I ground you to a powder and watched your silver dust blown in swirling storms to the corners of the room. Your body was frail, like a washed-up tree; every movement seemed to surprise you, to give you pleasure and to cause you pain. That night I dreamed of a river, arcing across the vastness of the sky, unaware that in our world they are bound irrevocably to the earth.
In an old cigar box, on an ivory bookcase, which has been shoved behind a moth-eaten divan, I discover a map. It is the record of a journey you once took. When I open it there is the distinctive aroma of almonds, this stirs other memories, the creak of a wooden floor in a certain café, in a city by the sea. Sometimes you are there, sometimes I am alone. The blue of the ocean is sewn like a ribbon through the cloth of memory. But what city?
The map is old; one edge is singed by fire, the other eaten by mold. Ink seems to vibrate across it, a frantic tracery of lines. Island and fjords, inlets and bays, river mouths which open like dragons, spitting fiery deltas into the vastness of the sea. Crisscrossing lines cover everything, like the fishermen’s tangled nets. They tell of old trade routes and prevailing winds, currents and gyres, channels between wreck-strewn reefs, the migrations of singing squid. Beneath all this I follow your journey. The map gives no mention of your vessel, so I do not know how to imagine you: the captain of a felluca or dhow, oarsman of a trireme, helmsman of a junk? What were you seeking, as you sailed north, through the Bay of Kes, into the Morlian Sea? Was it treasure? A chest of gold beneath coral sand? Revenge, perhaps? The map is silent, too, on your motives, as you thread the Thevrian Channel, as you round the Cape of Bitter Morns and set your course, north by northwest, into the vastness of the Nameless Ocean. Why do you spin in circles? Are you searching for some hidden isle not inked on any map? Some ancient beast or vast leviathan? A wise and pendulous jellyfish, whose answer you seek to some perplexing riddle? Or did a storm, clenching you in its fist of rain and wind, hurl you so far off course? Did you descend into madness, led astray by a glimmering mirage, a host of angels with green-gold scales which swim beneath your bow? Or was there mutiny? Silent, stupid map! You hint at everything yet tell me nothing. You are not smooth like her skin, nor do you curl round me, enclosing me in whispering softness, sealing me from the world’s wind.
Did I tell you that they are finally closing the museum? This old place went to ruin long ago; people hardly come to this part of the city anymore. Occasionally, on a rainy Sunday, a curious stranger might wander in to ponder the sleeping statues, or to stare bemusedly at the fossils of erratic bivalves. Do you remember kissing behind the diorama which showed the habitat of the Tourmelian hippo? The smell of glue. Your lips like butterflies, you held my hips as if to stop yourself from floating away.
The navigator becomes negligent; your voyage fades into stains the color of tea. In another corner of the map, you seem to enter a port in Cavaldo. In a tiny hand, which I know to be yours, there is a note: Took on cargo, pepper and dried figs, lost three seamen to whores and drink. Will not be missed.
You loved me once, did you not? That awkward boy, that dashing young man? Was it all some kind of game? Delusion? Perhaps I missed some fatal clue? Do you remember, on the fourth floor of the museum, how we slipped past the velvet ropes, into the burial chamber of Tulth Etha? Do you remember the flickering of torchlight, the mummified bodies of arm-length worms laid beside him, the leeches of glass which had been placed in his eyes? His sarcophagus was fashioned from an oyster’s shell, several meters long.
The world seemed to blink. We seemed so alone, in the darkness of the museum. The scent of ancient incense still hung in the air. On the walls there were tapestries of rivers, gods with the tails of scorpions and the heads of tigers. Carvings of ghosts. In the torchlight, you removed your clothes, turning to the wall and gripping the heavy cloth of tapestry in the minutiae of your hands. I held you by the waist. You were slender, like a waterfall of shadows. With my hand I traced your back’s familiar hieroglyphs: soft wrinkles, misshapen freckles like quarter moons, fragile scars. Awkwardly we came together, our skin scraping like horsehair on untuned strings, extinguishing each other, rocking gently, now sharply. I dropped the torch and the flame flickered, rose and fell with our desire, and swallowed us in darkness.
We fell asleep on the floor, in a tangle of blankets and dust. When I awoke you had gone. That was the last time I saw you. I stared for a while into the half-rotted face of Tulth Etha, a king, a priest, a prince, perhaps. There was something knowing in his skeletal smile, but he gave me no answers.
It is a slow death, the death of a museum. Funds run out. Coal-fired furnaces cease to run. Pipes freeze and break. Rivers run along the floor. Mold blooms on ancient tapestries. The children in the neighborhood have taken to breaking the panes of the windows, one by one. They practice their aim, hurling stones from homemade slingshots. They have a whole system of betting worked out, based on the window’s size and distance from the ground. I hear them laughing, egging each other on. The museum is open to the elements now. The spring brings rain and the seeds of dandelions, which begin to grow amidst the artificial fauna of the Mesozoic. Some wrens have built a nest in the skull of the Stegosaurus. A family of mice have already begun to hollow out a home in the sawdust stuffing of the unicorn—once the pride of the museum’s collection. It is hard to be a witness to all this, but harder still to feel the fragile architecture of my memory begin to crumble. Your face is no longer clear to me. There are no fixed bearings. Your features are like water. Of our life together, I have only vague notions of cafés, the layouts of their tables, the layouts of certain streets, fences, a hill that beckons one toward the sky. Elegant dining rooms with tables of glass, chandeliers built like cities, waiters in black togs, and aperitifs served in glasses of silver. What else is there? Is there anything more? A room where it is always cold; a notion of sharing something.
Today I have discovered another text, blanket to a family of infant rats who nest inside a broken clock. They have begun to gnaw at its edges. The handwriting is unmistakably your own.
I wandered—what else is there to do? I saw cities built of glass; they seemed to float above the earth, echo chambers for the sun. I saw cities built of coral, cities built of sand, cities dug beneath the earth. I fell in love, with a river, with the sea, with a dancer. His movements were like that of the planets, so sure, yet his orbits were unpredictable, unchained to any center. His hair was like the ferns of the deep forest. When we made love, he seemed awkward; he lost all his grace, like a brittle branch. We kissed by mountain streams and whispered the warmth of secrets in rat-infested rooms.
Things which were clear become foggy, become tarnished, rust. Had I been here before? This road looks familiar: the way my horse kicks up the dust; the way the trees bend over, blocking out the sun; the way the mist curls. Have I fought in this battle, pierced you with this sword? Did I know you once?
I have drunken too many liquors, delirious potions, cordials of incandescent fruit, wines of celestial vintage—still, time is the most corrupting of substances. I sought some method to counteract its effects. To order my past, to find my way. When I turned my back to the city of Baith, the memories of its spiral cathedrals fading, like the autumn petals of the Cearien tree, I did not want to forget the winter I had spent waking to the bells of Cesith Murn, our limbs tangled together, maps of intricate frost etched on the panes of our windows. I took a necklace you had worn, a single pearl on a silken cord, and put it to my mouth. It was cold going down my throat; now I could feel it inside me, safe, an irrevocable artifact of memory—proof of a past.
I swallowed everything I felt I might forget. A guitar a child played on a street in Belacla, notes winging like pigeons amongst the chimney tops; a fish which flickered, in the algal green waters of an abandoned fountain, where we had sat and watched the play of shadows. I swallowed a river in Alboria, whose waters, a nightmare blue, foamed above the ruins of colossal statues. A sunset which inflamed the palace of Sel Amri, long enough for a kiss to burn between our lips, to spark and die away.
I grew vast, as large as a house, a palace, a cathedral. My skin already as thick as hide, as mud, became like stone—became walls. Do you not remember when I swallowed you? It was not enough to eat up each place we lived, the sheets, the slant of light, the steam from each cup of tea we drank together. I needed you too. I did not wish to forget you. I am your museum. These are the twisted remnants of our love. But one cannot be human, and also be a building made of stone. Know that I long for you, as much as you long for me.
I examine the mummified bodies of thermetic bats beneath my glass. Halfheartedly I sweep the pigeon droppings from the statue of the Sorrowful Maiden and the Dancing Crab. I can no longer control the blooms of purple algae, which plague the tanks of fluorescent hippocampi. In a fit of anger, I crush the fluted shell of the aeronautic periwinkle; it was the only known specimen of its kind. I remember how you would stare at it for hours, contemplating its translucent architecture, its shell of sky-blue glass. I return to the attics. Beneath scattered vials, which contain the larval stages of the Sythic worm, formaldehyde leaking onto the blueprints of dirigibles, beneath a trunk of spore samples collected on an expedition to a forgotten isle, catalogued according to the movement of distant planets, alphabets learned in dreams—in a tiny journal no bigger than my hand, I find another text. This brings me no joy. I long instead for your touch, the solid weight of your body. I read on anyway. Half the pages have been burnt.
On the day they took my mother away, she told me a secret. “Buried in the corner of our hut, beneath the shards of clay, the scattered seed and grain, there is a music box your father gave to me, so long ago. I used to play it for you, as you rocked in a cradle of bark. Do you remember? As you slipped away to sleep. When your father was still alive, before the sickness, before the reign of Prince Artemia.”
“Yes,” I told her, “the music sounded like rain, like it was raining inside me.”
My mother had been gone for seven days when I was told I would be taken, far to the north, to be a servant in a great house. That night I dug in the corner of our hut, scraping the earth with a stick. I tore at the layers of sediment, my fingernails thick with mud. The music box was wrapped in a piece of burlap. I unfurled it in the half-light.
It was as I remembered it, blue azurite which mixes with brilliant green where plumes of malachite erupt from its surface. It was carved with mermaids, waves which become jaguars, creatures half-fungi and half-men, which look as though they are dancing, performing some ancient rite.
The key was missing. I picked through dirt and rock, scraped deeper, combed the earth. But I saw no glint of silver. I could not find the key. The box would never be wound. The music would never play. I had no time; the men were coming soon. If they found the music box, they would destroy it, just as they had destroyed our temples, ground our gods to dust. Just as they had poisoned our rivers; they were thick now with bloated fish, their bellies scarred with pustules, weeping a yellow fluid. The poison was everywhere. The beet fields stank of rot; the worms etched mazes in the fruit of the Ebel tree; the leaves of the Sillel grape began to blacken and die; even the rain tasted of death.
Would I forget the days I had wandered, through thicket and through field, gathering the plants my mother needed for her dyes? Alder, lichen, and lilac; dandelion, bloodroot, and birch. The nights my father had brought home silver mackerel from the weir, brine glistening in his beard.
I could not leave it behind; I could not take it with me. I sat by the burnt-out fire, thoughts circling like crows. I could hear their boots outside. I was desperate. I do not know why I did what I did, why I lay on the mud floor. Head tilted back. Easing the music box into my mouth, pushing it down my throat. I gagged, vomited hot acid, but it slipped down, cold metal and stone. It tasted of the sea, of rich forest humus, of brittle gills and meadow caps, of autumn chanterelles.
Now my home was inside me. Now it could never be taken away.
They bound my hands and brought me to one of their machines, a giant insect of iron. It rattled with ash and cloud. It hummed with rust and blood. Inside the machine there was a large chamber, already crowded with children. The journey to the north was the longest I remember.
I find the tiny room you showed me so long ago. I examine the music box beneath its bell of glass. Cobwebs cling to the upper corner. Mites parade about its surface like tiny conquerors. They scurry in and out of the holes in its rusted cylinder. How foolish I was, to think I could have found the key, which you sought on every continent, at the bottom of every sea, to think I could have erased the loneliness which consumes you, as it consumes me. What an idiot, what a fool I was. To think I could have wound the springs of memory, flaked rust from gears, brought forth forgotten songs.
My memories of you begin to fade. The rooms we shared, our bed like a tropical continent on an arctic sea, blankets like layers of the atmosphere, our bodies twisting in and out amongst them like clouds. A hothouse of jungle foliage, entwining each other in the arms of ancient vines. Sometimes a flight of birds, fluttering against me.
I no longer remember anything of our love. In the butterfly wing, the ceiling has begun to cave; bits of plaster litter the floor. Some skeleton winged moths have gotten inside the butterfly cases and have begun to spin their cocoons. It is strange to see the living and the dead reside so amicably together. Some wild dogs have somehow gotten into the first floor; they have daily growling matches with the stuffed hyenas. The electric crocodiles have escaped, and have begun to breed in the basement’s warmth.
“The Museum and the Music Box” copyright © 2015 by Noah Keller
Art copyright © 2015 by Victo Ngai