I do not presume to be king of this kingdom. I do not presume a kingdom. I am the shepherd, the groundskeeper, the headmistress of a silent school. That is what curator means. One who has the care of something.
My museum is small, rocky, cold and coastal. Presided over by Oregon pines, wind-whipped and heavy with salt. Presided over by the white little lighthouse on the rocks. Presided over by me.
I am very good at my job. My objects are pristine, the glass of my cases clean, bugs and mice stuck quiet and dry and dead in their little traps. The dehumidifier the hum that accompanies my every day. White gloves for everyone who passes through. Kind words for the woman who wants to donate her late late husband’s collection of receipts. Patience for the angry man thrusting the molding taxidermied rabbit across my desk. His father shot it, his father.
There are the people I have buried, bones and hair and too many pieces of so many loved ones to be repatriated, to be given back. The worst of it done by my predecessor, the real ache of thievery, the guilt laid bare for me less so now, though always there, thrumming underneath all.
I have always loved the white gloves, cotton so clean it squeaks. I hold a rusted metal trap from 1826 with both hands, supported like a baby I hold at arms length, and walk slow. I hold a lantern from 1930 cradled in its box, its crib. I hold a tray with a single stone knife, thousands of years old. The more ancient the object the more space it gets, so small and sharp it sits alone.
Children ask me, why the care. I give them an answer meant to inspire. But my true answer is the human touch corrodes like acid. And yes, I think sometimes humans themselves are acid. Dissolving the world bit by bit, eating it up (blood and dirt and green and meat).
All this to say, I do my small part to remember. I do my small part to preserve.
All this to say, I am good at my job. I am careful. I am kind. I am clean. I am knowledgeable.
On the counter in the white white walled clean desk backroom of the collections sit the new objects, just unboxed, waiting for their revival, for their labels and their sorting or for their exhibit next month.
They came to us, to me, from a shipwreck. Downed in the 1850s. Here we live rimmed by the Graveyard of the Pacific. Bodies are taken fast, so these are our buried.
Winches and silverware, bottles and lanterns, doorknobs and carvings, a broken teapot and a pewter dish. An entire porthole, it’s glass fogged and green.
And a small metal flask with crude curls of decoration, perhaps initials, carved into its face.
Something about it caught me.
The first few days, when I passed by, I would just adjust it. It was a little too close to the bottle beside it, so I nudged it gently over. It looked a little unstable on its cotton batting so I turned it the other way, slowly so slowly. This was fine, normal. I barely noticed I was doing it.
But after that, I found I would touch one gloved fingertip to it. Just when I happened to be near. That’s all. Like a mezuzah on the doorframe. Like a photo of a loved one. Just a tap, as I walked past.
It wasn’t enough. And then there was the strange pinprick of joy I felt one day when I passed by, tapped it and felt, like a needle tip, a blessing of cold metal. A single hole in the fingertip seam of my glove, miniscule. I tried not to think about it all afternoon, and still at five when I drove home past the blinking light off the shore. I did though. I thought it about it all night, inspecting my fingertip in the glow of my bedside lamp. Pressing it to my lips, to my teeth, then my tongue, in that order, in layers. Imagining I could taste the metal like it was a vitamin my body desperately craved.
Last night, Friday before the weekend I have off, I was the last one in the museum. Locking up, white gloves off, coat on. I walked past the items on my way out. Before I could stop myself, I closed my bare hand around the strange dented smoothness of that flask. Electricity at direct contact. I kept moving, past the table and there was the singing of the metal as I slipped it straight into the wool of my pocket. The singing of metal and a soft, soft slosh of liquid. My feet never stopped. I kept walking out, alarm set, heavy door banging shut and locked behind me.
The flask burned like it was fresh and molten metal on the drive home. I could feel it against my skin, through my clothes. All I could think of was this and the sound it made as I lifted it.
I stared at it on my bare kitchen table. I loved this table when I saw it for it’s plainness. The color of wood, unstained. The lines of the surface straight and clear, the legs unadorned. It fit in my house, with its safe white walls, its wood floor just the same as the table, as if the table could have grown from it. The few friends I’d had visit over the years always thought it was strange. A collector with no collections. No object without a daily function. No adornment. They suspected a curator to be an accumulator. But I like that my house is empty of objects, empty of memories. How else would I sleep? I come home full and let myself go empty.
When I was little I was so scared I would forget things. Memories of normal days, what movie we went to see, the sweet thing my mother said before I went to sleep, the name of a park, the good food I ate. If I forgot, they were gone. If I forgot, it all meant nothing. So from the age of eight until I was into my thirties I kept a journal every day. I recorded it all. I recorded every day in my college town, all my journals always kept with me in a little suitcase. I recorded until the day my mother called to tell me our house had been flooded, the town had been downed by water, that everything was gone including dad.
The journals sit now — dozens of them, going from colorful and small to plain and black and thick — in a chest of drawers in the bedroom. Contained and safe. I never open them. But I always know they are there.
In the delicately organized claustrophobia of the museum collections I always play music. It fits in the cracks of a room already crowded. But here in my house I keep it silent. The beams of the ceiling feel wide and far away, spacious. I can hear the waves always. I listen to them now. I sit with the flask for a long moment and listen.
After a while, I lift it. Gently turn it back and forth so the little liquid inside beats in time with the waves. It must be barely a third full. The cap is tightly screwed and rusted completely shut.
The liquid inside could be original. Wine or water or whiskey. A sailor’s companion.
Before I can think any longer I go ahead and pour a basin of distilled water. Gently wash, gently try to shift the cap. I try at this longer than I can say but it does nothing. Next step is vinegar. Patch test first, just to make sure it won’t discolor the metal. Then, bit by bit, I clean with cotton swabs and pads. The vinegar begins to sting my fingertips, the smell of it coats my tongue, my throat. But I’m making progress.
I mean to only work on it until dinner. But I look up and it’s pitch black out, it’s the middle of the night and I’m starving. It’s been so long my legs are cramped when I uncross them. My back aches when I straighten up. The table is littered with rust stained cotton pads.
The room is thick with vinegar and metal, a smell like blood. I open the deck doors wide, letting the waves grow louder, letting the air in. I stand at the fridge to eat rolls of smoked turkey from the package. I circle the flask on the table. Smoke and rust and vinegar and meat and blood.
I know there is a can of WD40 under the sink. I crouch, stare at it. Not yet. Not yet. Instead I take the pliers and dig up a square of blue felt from my craft drawer. Felt over the cap, then the pliers.
It grinds, just a little, then stops. But just that little bit of give is enough to send my heart racing. The WD40 is already in my hands, the red straw under the lip of the cap. Just a little.
I try again. It turns. Quick I wipe off the excess, hands shaking, I don’t want to spill it, I can’t. I set it on the table and try to breathe as I turn and turn and turn.
The cap releases, an unholy sound, a scream. With it, the smell of vinegar and blood is gone. I lean close to peer into the darkness of the vessel, as if I can see inside the cave of it and the smell holds me still. It enters every part of me. It smells like clean wet rocks. It smells like earth.
I hold the flask close, unable to let it out of my sight, rushing but trying to hold steady as I grab a crystal glass from the shelf.
I pour just a little. The liquid is dark, almost black, thick, not water, not water at all. When I hold it up to the light, the colors inside it shift. Old blood, dead wine, blue-bruised whiskey. The light can barely penetrate.
I sit back at my table, flask and glass before me. I soak a little liquid into a q-tip. Maybe I’ll get it tested, send it to a lab, good girl, good find job done. I look at myself from the outside for a moment. Hair frizzed, hands shaking, shirt stained with rust. Stolen artifact on my table. What am I doing?
I pour the liquid back into the flask, so careful, clean it up, the cap, screw it closed again, making sure it opens back easily. I set the flask in the center of my table, clean and bare again. My madness is over, I tell myself. I’ll return it tomorrow night, when no one is around. No one will miss it until Monday anyway.
I take the empty glass to the sink, ringed with residue. I stand with it for a moment. Bring it back to my nose so I can smell it again and the rim just touches my lips. Leaving some wetness, just a hint of the liquid.
I lick it.
The taste sends me writhing. Bitter and bad and sweet. My teeth clench so hard it hurts, my tongue pinched in my molars, my throat spasming. I go to spit in the sink, I’ve gone insane, this could kill me. But I can’t. I can’t do it, can’t open my mouth, it’s mine now. I swallow.
I’m dizzy and sick, my abdomen, my womb, cramps hard. I grip the porcelain and breathe. I’m imagining this. I’m fine. I’m fine. I breathe. I am fine. So ridiculous, all of this.
I drink deep from the faucet. I’m fine. I rinse the glass, fill it with soap, leave it to soak. Back away, back away from all of it.
I drink glass after glass of water, take another to my bed. I bring the flask too, set it on my bedside table, close by my face on the pillow. It’s three a.m. and suddenly I need to sleep, I’m so heavy, so tired. I can hear the ocean roaring loud, I forgot to close the deck doors. I’m too tired to get up though, I can’t do it, I’m already falling asleep. I’m flooded inside, my own inner sea. It rocks me away.
I don’t know if I sleep but when I open my eyes I’m standing outside, on my deck, looking out at the dark of the sea. The flask is in my hand, open, cap gone. The night is soft and green and blue around me. It’s a dark night, the almost-gone moon behind thick clouds. I’m walking down the steps as I think this. I’m walking across the grass, finding the wooden rail, taking the long stairs down to the sand. I’m standing on the sand. I’m looking at the sea. The flask, metal warm in my hand, sings a little in the wind off the water. Closer, closer. The tide’s rolling in.
The waves touch my feet and I sit right in the cold wet sand. I hold the flask in both hands but don’t look at it, stare out instead into the wildly undulating darkness. I let my eyes go unfocused and fuzzy as I look, all of it like the dark behind my eyelids when I close my eyes but fresher and wilder and ready to sweep me out.
I bring the flask to my lips and drink deep. The liquid floods into me, burning and heavy, rotten sweet and harsh. I swallow and swallow and swallow. Until it is all mine. Until it is empty. The wave washes up on me and it’s warm, inside I’m cold, so cold, like the bottom of the sea. The cold is filling me, every point in my body and it feels so good. Like the sleep I was in is gone forever and I won’t miss it.
I hold the flask to my chest as a wave rolls full over me and I laugh. Salt in my mouth mingling with the red rot. Beautiful, a kiss.
I can’t feel my face, my knees, my chest.
As I open my stinging eyes again I see a man in the waves in front of me. His hair is long and black and wet, he wears a coat that too is long and black and wet. He comes close, watching me, water eddying around him. Around his neck is a heavy tangle of necklaces, thick as my arm. Silver and gold and tarnished chain, thin and twisted together in a mass of metal. Charms stick out at different angles. A gold locket, a rose, a pentagram, a ballerina slipper. He puts out a hand, wet slick and he helps me up.
I’m in the car and the radio is playing the sound of the waves. My clothes are damp and crusted with salt, sand. It’s still dark though it should be morning. The flask is in my lap, the cap screwed on now. I’m taking it back to the museum. Of course, of course. I’m twisting though the trees, I’m nearly there. I’ll make this right again, everything put in it’s place again. Only a watcher again.
I’m in the exhibit in the dark. The display with a stack of old TVs plays static, plays the sound of the waves.
I am drawn to the darkness of the curled metal in the corner, the evidence of the flood that brought the town to its knees. I don’t go over there often but now I do. It should be hateful to me, the force of water. I think of the sailor this flask belonged to before the sea took them both. I wonder if he hated it as he died. I don’t think he did. I think he knew. I think he and the sea both knew.
I look at the twisted artifacts, broken and scratched and worn, in their glass case. Broken toys and garden tools and stop signs and picture frames. I imagine opening the case. I imagine cramming them all into my mouth one by one and swallowing.
I reach the table in the collections, the shipwreck laid out itemized and clean. I hope when people walk into our exhibits, see the way we play the objects out for them, that they see it. The sweep, overwhelming, the intensity of the reality of it. The little world we’ve tried to place it in. The place we’ve tried to place you. Not just an object in a case. Never.
I lean over the porthole to peer into the glass. Hoping to see something. Me or another. Instead all I see is dark green. All I see is sea.
I place the flask among the objects. It has not lost its shine for me now that it empty, no. Now it feels less like a terror I need and more like something beloved, more like the stuffed raven I always had in my bed as a kid. Another thing lost to the flood.
My house rolls, the wide wood ceiling beams groan and the floor creaks up and down as I stumble across it. The waves around me loud, sand and salt grit beneath my shoes. We are a ship, I say to no one.
I reach the chest of drawers and the handles answer easily. I begin to pull my journals out. I stack them on the floor. It is labor and love as I drag them, armful by armful, down to the beach. As I grab them, pages flash past, my handwriting going from undulating large and unruly pencil letters to confined black pen. And away again, taking up two lines, messy and unwary. It takes a long time but at last I am standing with them all on the beach.
The sailor’s drink rises up in me. It drips from my nose down my lips, red red red, it feels a little like anger in my gut.
I begin to toss the journals in. Pages like birds, drowning as the waves take them. It feels like terror, sheer terror, losing all over again. I toss them, red and water and salt running down my face, until they are all in the waves around me. Until some are growing waterlogged, going down, until some are pulled out to sea. Until some float around me and I am wincing with every touch. They bump and rub and wear away at me, in and out. In and out. They bowl me over and I stand again, find my footing again as the water retreats. Bruises blooming on my cheek and my stomach and my hips. And they roll back in again. Take me down again.
The fear of it is so much bigger than I thought, the waves at my knees helping pull me down, trying to pull me under. But I don’t go under.
Because, like a blooming, I realize. I still remember. The memories. Cake and blood in the sink, sun on blue walls and Sunday afternoon dread. My father in the kitchen, the threadbare couch he refused to get rid of, his papers piled on his desk, margarita salt and mac n’cheese. So many tears they carved our faces and silence at the kitchen table and coffee every afternoon. Orange scented floor cleaner and laughing so hard we coughed and coughed.
I will flood again. I will die again. I will let my house fill with things again, and I’ll lose them. On walks and in fires and to others and to time. But I will keep in my body everything, my body will be worn down by it in the best ways, like driftwood, like a worry stone. All of it washing back to me.