Time goes wrong in the Museum.
If you stay on the right side of the line, your experience will remain ordered. History will progress as you’ve been told it should, from the landing of the first Arks to the burning of the last University.
But if you step across that line, (as I have done,)
if you walk down the left-hand wall of the gallery and push your way through the blank doors that guard the anteroom —
Your experience cannot be guaranteed.
The Curators only come out at night. Nobody knows what they look like, though there are tales.
The first exhibit you will see is the Angel of History.
(This is if you are still on the right side of the line. If time is still moving linearly.)
The Angel appears differently to each visitor, but always, it is flightless. To some it appears bound in golden chains. To others it is naked, its blind eyes fixed on the stumps of the severed wings. The wings may lie a few feet away or may be arranged on the wall in terrible patterns.
Always it will turn to you as you enter. Always it will raise its bloody, nailless hands in a mute plea for freedom. Sometimes it appears to be screaming.
Nobody ever frees the Angel. There is no rule against doing so, and yet, as far as we know, no one has ever tried.
They say there is a war going on in the Museum. Between Order and Disorder; between Time and Space; between the Curators and something long forgotten.
But this is hearsay. Many will tell you that there is no war.
Then again, some will say there is no Museum.
In the Hall of History you will be overwhelmed with the number of artifacts arranged before you. As your eyes adjust, you will realize the Hall is vaster than you imagined. Old paintings form its walls. Its columns are made of cannons and printing presses. Its vaulted ceiling is formed of jewelled skulls and fossils, each one with a plaque, each one carefully described.
You cannot possibly see everything. I recommend you pick one artifact. It could be a momentous work of art, or a scene from your childhood, or an ordinary object, like a safety pin.
Whatever you pick, study it carefully. It will be important later.
In the Gallery of Accidents time is stuck in a continuous present. To reach the end of the Gallery you must sacrifice something. Most people bring minor objects — extra buttons, old keys, postcards — things that have a veneer of importance but which the owner is secretly content to part with.
Sometimes these minor sacrifices are accepted. Sometimes something more drastic is required: memories, limbs, children.
Nobody complains. Without donations, there could be no Museum.
In the Hall of Glass you will be given a choice of many doors. This is the point at which your party, if you entered with one, will separate.
There is no resisting this moment. People try: They make plans; they hold hands; they rope themselves together and enter heads high, their arms around each others’ shoulders.
But the Hall of Glass lives up to its name. It is piled high with fantastic shapes and colours that bear down on the eyes. Glass flowers climb towards the heavens, glass organs boom from the walls, glass oceans rise to devour you with jagged teeth.
Glass is everything. It is breath incarnate. Faced with the enormity of glass, people who have never before feared its terrible transparency will lurch for a door. They scramble over the wild shapes, splintering sculpture underfoot, scratching bloody lines on their faces.
When it is over — when you have thrown open your door and escaped into some new corridor — you will realize you are alone.
People get lost in the Museum. Sometimes they are found again, blinking in the strange light of the gift shop. Sometimes they emerge years later, staggering into a world in which friends and family have aged without them. Sometimes they are never seen again.
(Once, when I was a child, I saw an elderly woman vanish as she stepped to avoid a puddle of water in front of an Exhibit. There was a broken carnation lying in the water, trampled by the crowd. When I looked back, the old woman had disappeared. So had the water. The carnation remained.)
Was the carnation part of the Exhibit? Did the woman, by stepping to avoid the water, violate the rules of the Museum? Or was she following them?
Did the Museum reward her by taking her up? Did it introduce her to new corridors in time?
Did it convert her into something else? A Curator? An Exhibit?
(It is questions like these that compel me to return to the Museum, when many others are contented with only one visit.)
(It is questions like these that have transformed me, inexorably, from the Museum’s visitor into its Detective.)
Page 2: Marginalia
Things can get lost in the Museum. But until today, nothing has been stolen.
The Curators left an ominous Black Letter pinned to the Museum’s front door. They did not say what had been taken, only that a theft had occurred and “Normal Museum operations will be suspended until further notice.” This last line disturbs us all.
I got the call at 5 a.m. The pass was waiting for me, swinging from a doorknob. Its identity photograph showed my ten-year-old self on the steps of the Museum, clutching a balloon-owl, staring suspiciously at the camera.
(I’d forgotten this photograph existed. I’d forgotten I’d given it up.)
As I entered the atrium, a crowd of faces turned towards me. Are you the Detective? They asked. Are you the Detective now?
I looked down at the occupation on my pass and nodded. It appeared I was.
How does the Museum know so much about us? In calling myself its Detective, I’d thought I was making a private joke. But the Museum knows more than I’d realized.
I had thought myself one of the charmed ones, who has visited the Museum and left intact. Of this, I am no longer sure.
The Museum’s Policemen led us through the Exhibits, searching for what had been stolen. The Angel of History stretched its bloody hands to us as we passed. The Dream Aquarium thrashed with horrors. In the Hidden Gallery the Journalist thought one of the creeping statues was missing, but this turned out to be a false alarm.
After surveying each room, the others would turn to me for guidance. Do you see anything, Inspector? Is there something else we should do?
Someone had handed me a roll of crime scene tape, but after hours of wandering we still had no scene to rope off. At the Hall of Glass we tried to tie ourselves together with it, but to no avail.
Separated, we wandered the lost ways of the Museum, reading the descriptions of random paintings for clues.
In the Hall of History I picked up this pamphlet. I studied it carefully. The descriptions of the various galleries were familiar to me, as was the map of the museum on the back. But vast portions of the West Annex were dissolving before my eyes.
We found new galleries of distorted light, staircases climbing to nowhere, bathrooms we didn’t know existed.
We ran into each other on strange corners — the Museum’s Journalist, the Museum’s Confused Witness, the Museum’s Benefactress — and compared notes. We convened and separated. We heard each others’ footsteps in the next room.
We found many things, but never the absence we sought.
Alone in the shadow of a reconstructed temple, I consulted the pamphlet’s map again. The remaining rooms had shifted. The Museum, as far as I could tell, no longer had an exit.
Why has the Museum brought us here? What crime are we supposed to solve? Why have I been chosen to lead this investigation? Is success even possible?
My feet ached from walking. It would be tempting to relax here, beside the fountain, and watch the clockwork mice spin their frantic tapestries while time ebbed low.
But I was the Museum’s Detective. I rose. Steadied myself against the pillar. Went looking for a solution.
Wading through a room piled with dried flowers, a new question occurred to me: What did the Museum consider a theft?
We had been looking for a missing object, but the Museum, from what we could tell, contained all the objects one could think of. It demanded all things; it collected all things. There was no escaping from the Museum.
Question: What kind of person can steal from the Museum?
I looked down at my pass, at the photograph of the child with the balloon-owl. At the occupation listed under my name.
Why had the Museum had named me its detective? Because I had thought on it every night since my first visit, pacing down its labyrinthine corridors in feverish dreams? Because I knew it best?
Question: What separates the detective from the criminal?
It was hard to move amid the press of dried carnations and the smell — of old earth, of fresh rain, of gunpowder — was overwhelming.
I thought back to the dime store novels I knew so well. That point in the plot when you realize how little difference lies between the detective and the one he hunts.
Fact: Time goes wrong in the Museum.
Joy inflated me. I had found my suspect.
Now I needed something to steal.
I studied the memory bottles lining the Gallery of Lost Art and the maps in the Halls of Forgetting. I found objects small enough to carry, and some that were unprotected by glass, but still I hesitated.
For my future theft to have succeeded I needed to find the right object and remove it from the Museum. But how? The Museum loomed over our lives. It would not be easily fooled.
I thought of the Angel of History. But the Museum had collected the Angel once. A true theft required something undocumented, something the Curators would find hard to trace.
(Time is speeding up. I take this as a sign that I am on the right track.)
I think I will retrace my steps and seek out the Angel of History. I think I will slip into its collar the words that I am now writing – something created inside the Museum, not yet entered into its collections.
And then I will set us free.
Page 3. Lines on the Map, Visible only in a Mirror
It seems to me that I have already stepped into the Angel’s shadow, and turned the ice-cold key in that great lock. I think I have already slipped this pamphlet under its collar, already seen the Angel lurch towards the Atrium, already heard the Museum’s alarm system shrill. I can almost remember the Angel bursting free, the pink shards shattering on tile, the tiny shape of the pamphlet fluttering down to the Museum steps.
Question: What happens next?
I consider the possibilities:
1. Time resets itself.
I am always summoned to deal with a theft at the Museum. I always write these words. I always ask that the balloon-man make me an owl, and squint as my photograph is taken on the steps of the Museum.
2. This story ends.
The Angel’s regrown wings blot out the world. The Museum’s walls crumble. Darkness falls.
And yet there are tales of worlds without the Museum, when time merely runs forwards and history is an old, dead thing. If I release the Angel, might such a world be born?
The child in the photograph squints into the light. My pen moves across the page.
Somewhere, in a different universe, another version of me sees a pamphlet on the steps of a museum.
Stoops to pick it up.
Begins to read.
Siobhan Carroll‘s fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story, “Remains,” was published in AE #3.