The Headless Vase
As I stepped inside the Downside Library, I immediately recognized the site of my science fair award ceremony. Someone had snapped the clipping photograph here. Strange that I had forgotten someplace I loved so much as a kid. The high concrete colonnades and exposed steel girders still looked to me like the imaginary ribbed insides of an enormous whale.
I had spent many pleasant afternoons here after school or while my mother ran errands. The sunny ambiance, unusual brutalist architecture, and the religious silence of so many quiet congregating adults evoked an early feeling of wonder in me. It created a loosely ceremonial space where my young imagination could wander the aisles, stumbling across strange books or hunting down whatever ideas popped into my head.
It felt sad to observe how far the building had fallen since then. Those wonderful geodesic lamps that once glowed softly from different heights all across the ceiling, like crystalline formations, had been dismantled and replaced by rectangle rows of industrial ice-tray fluorescents. A sour, mildewed smell rose from the Library's worn orange carpet. The concrete walls appeared cracked and stained with extensive water damage. The shelves, once full of books, now looked sparse and untouched. More than half its patrons had only come inside to get out of the rain or nap.
The voice was equally unimpressed. It continued shadowing me, still showing the same humility now that we appeared to be unlikely allies. I still couldn't quite figure out its angle, though. Although I strongly suspected the voice was an accessory to my Accident, I lacked definitive proof. In truth, I wanted to trust the voice; I needed a friend, and it seemed willing to help me.
I briefly scanned the staff for a face that might somehow deserve the Advocacy title of Librarian, whatever that meant, but no one fit the bill. So I pulled the thick envelope from under my belt, unfolded the document it contained, and lay it across the table.
While waiting for the Librarian to surface, I decided to read the Advocacy document thoroughly, thinking that if I could understand the Advocacy's argument, I might find a means to untangle my mess. The voice actually read the document aloud to me in a low, library whisper because I quickly discovered that reading while headless is impossible.
But even listening for more than a few moments felt like a chore because my declining power of attention kept wandering off. I couldn't hang on to what was important, obvious words sounded new, and trivial details took on inflated importance. Behind it all, I felt like the ideas in my mind were being rearranged as soon as they fell into place, somewhere outside my awareness.
Nonetheless, the voice made a pleasant and patient narrator, even if the text didn't make much sense. I stopped it a few times, asking it to repeat particularly nonsensical phrases. At some point, I drifted off and awoke to the realization that the voice had gotten two-thirds of its way through the contract without me.
The document read like absurdist legalese, littered with irrelevant footnotes and long tangents to nowhere. It casually treated dream logic on equal footing with everyday life, even referencing specific dream sequences with precise stage direction as if they had legal consequences. For some reason, a holdover perhaps from the half-French origins of the Advocacy, the different parties in the document were labeled in French. Without irony, the TV joint partnership, composed of the "Tête" and the "Voix," was the Advocacy plaintiff to my defense.
The Advocacy did not hide its intent to root out and eliminate all anomalies. The heart of the Advocacy argument drew from an archive of my dreams to which they had access. Source monitoring error, the inability to correctly attribute perceptions and memories to their source, was blamed for the Accident. Several dozen semiotic experts of dubious qualification, trained in foreign schools I didn't recognize, testified.
Dreams are essentially expected to stay in their lane. The discharge of the firearm in real life represented a "boundary violation" that could "dissolve otherwise lifelong bonds between interested parties."
This apparently meant that my head became a ward of the Advocacy, my voice assigned to a freelance service pool, and my remainder appointed junior Archivist following a frighteningly vague procedure called "déombrification" that eliminated one's ability to cast a shadow.
Losing my shadow felt terrifying to consider, and I hung onto the hope that my liminal document offered the critical loophole to reverse the Advocacy ruling. Making sure no one was watching me, I carefully pulled the smaller envelope from my pocket and snuck a peek inside. Although cracked into four pieces along its folds and continuing to crumble little by little, I felt reassured to see that most of my newspaper clipping remained intact. The Advocacy contract had not yet referenced anything "liminal," but I felt confident that it could somehow protect me from a shadowless career in Advocacy archives.
At the bottom of the envelope, parts of my clipping had dissolved into a loose powder of smaller and smaller flakes. An escaping trail of liminal fragments floated from one ripped corner into the open air. I tried plucking the bigger pieces from the air without attracting attention, but any handling of the envelope only made more powder escape. So I quickly folded it up to contain the loose dust as best I could and shoved it back into my front pocket.
The voice continued to read aloud for my benefit while I watched a constellation of tiny liminal fragments rise to the library ceiling, unnoticed by other patrons. My attention perked up when I heard the following, "...notwithstanding the preceding, if any counterfactual evidence of the prior bond are discovered during the transfer process, then allied claims across the TV partnership shall dissolve."
The voice paused for a giveaway beat, and I immediately understood the import of its words. Surely "counterfactual" was a liminal reference. When the clipping surfaced, a document that openly varied from the Advocacy script and defied my erasure, the voice lost its standing with my head. It probably got kicked out of the freelance pool too. The voice had not rejoined me as an ally — it simply had nowhere else to go.
I stood up abruptly, grabbed the contract, and walked away, trailing loose liminal fragments from my front pocket. The voice hung behind, sensing my anger. In truth, I was more annoyed with myself than the voice. I should have known better.
As I walked away, however, something unexpected happened. The voice played a final goodbye trick on me. A clever one, undoubtedly the reason it had been recruited to the freelance pool in the first place: It began to speak through me, throwing sounds from my fake head that never originated within me. It yelled angrily from my person while onlookers stared. I was ranting, talking to myself, our conflict now out in the open. The voice had turned me into one of those crazy people in the streets screaming at themselves.
"You think you can just walk away from me like that? You think you can just walk away, you fuck? Without me you're nothing. You hear me? Nothing! You'll never make it alone. You never dared to be alone, your whole life, you fucking fuck. You need me! Don't you dare walk away!"
Fuming at my gullibility for ever trusting the voice, and the embarrassment of such a public outburst, I fled the disturbance and ran downstairs until out of its range.
Like the main gallery above, the Library's archives had declined over the years. But instead of becoming depressing and empty, the basement had become fabulously cluttered. A tidal wave of documentation had overtaken the space. Staff had stuffed every wall or shelf with twine-tied newspaper piles, bundled magazine stacks, archival boxes, and old bound volumes. Heaps of unsorted files several feet high leaned against the end of every aisle, like sandbags against a flood. Dim lighting made it impossible to be sure, but shelving seemed to extend in every direction well past the building's ground-level footprint.
Free of the voice and figuring that our time together had ended for good, I felt peace settling in. One rarely considers life without a head until they lose it, and I never appreciated how much the voice's presence had worn on me until it disappeared. For most of my life, I had worked around its moods and offhand remarks, abandoning a part of myself just to keep it happy.
A dying humidifier softly wheezed overhead, muffling the rumble of the excavation site outside. But in certain moments between jackhammer bursts, another faint sound grew louder, the ever-present whoosh of pneumatic communication beneath my feet.
Following the pneumatic sounds where they led, towards a central zone, walking deeper and deeper into the archives and further down aisles that seemed virtually endless, I gradually lost my sense of direction. I secretly hoped I might get so irretrievably lost that I could somehow avoid my problems altogether.
In this distracted state, I recalled something that had slept in my memory for decades. How as a young adolescent, I secretly and assiduously spent many vain hours in the Library's basement searching for a trove of adult magazines. I had convinced myself that the Library's duty to preserve all legitimate reading material outweighed the presence of erotic photography.
A mockworthy remembrance. But my search had a spiritual side: I already knew the magazines weren't there. Understand, this was a long time ago, probably the same year as the science fair. I would never have formulated it like this back then, but at that age, dirty magazines possessed talismanic powers. They were containers for displaced Eros. The mere possibility of finding a consolidated trove of years of undressed women boggled the mind. It made the Library a potentially transcendent space of mystery and initiation for me. A path to wholeness. Were I to discover these mythical magazines! A declension that filled me with a hope approaching devotion.
It's such a comfort to reflect on the past. In the Library, you're safe, knowing that everything inside has already occurred. The past is secure within the Library's four walls; they function as insulators to maintain a frozen present that never thaws within its boundaries. Records might be moved, notes taken, and each new day brings a fresh wave of material to sort and file, but the history locked inside each artifact is safe and undisturbed, and the infinite messiness of future possibilities never intrudes.
And yet the story of my own life had vanished. Forces continued to work my disappearance backward into the past. To uproot my existence. What once seemed secure was now not simply lost but behaving like a dream as it folded in upon itself. A contortion of what I had for a long time considered true experience.
I started to consider the bird's warning of betrayal, then the puzzle, the gun, the dream, the voice, the curtains, my horrific head, the clipping, the giant, the inverted statue, and the contract. I wondered specifically about the term upon which my Accident hinged: "boundary violation." It implied a frontier line between dream and reality whose crossing sealed my fate. Maybe I should study that section more closely to prove that either the voice or the vase had tricked me. Source monitoring error, my ass.
There in the middle of the basement Archives, I stopped at the intersection of two aisles and reached into my pants to pull out the rolled-up Advocacy document again. I looked around for where I might find a nearby desk when I suddenly heard something breathing hard to my left. Before I had a chance to turn, a running figure knocked me down with surprising force. My contract exploded into a cloud of fluttering pages while the man who struck me cracked his head hard against the cement floor and slid like a stone across ice, trailing a pile of fallen newspapers, before stopping several yards away.
Struggling to my feet, shaken but unhurt, I quickly started collecting my scattered contract, worried about losing key pages, while making my way over to check on the fallen man. He lay unconscious, his head twisted awkwardly against the shelves but still breathing. His hair was curly and unkempt, with gray roots, clumsily dyed ends, and a heavy auburn mustache.
He looked older, maybe in his fifties, and a faint pale line ran across the base of his neck. He wore a white collared shirt with visible crescents of yellow sweat stains under his armpits and black faded slacks. A pair of thick eyeglasses hung crookedly across his face, the bridge snapped in half and one lens spiderweb-cracked.
Seeing that several pages of my contract lay beneath his shoulder, I rolled him slightly to one side to retrieve them, and he suddenly snapped awake. I jumped back, and he looked at me foggily, clearly half-blind without glasses, silently sizing me up without even noticing my missing head.
I pulled him up with one arm, helping him to a sitting position. His broken glasses hung crazily across his face, and a large, thick bloodstain smeared the pile of newspapers where his head had lain. He touched the back of his head to confirm the cut and grabbed a loose page from the floor— a page from my Advocacy contract — to blot it. As he stared closely at the blood smeared across the contractual language, something in his expression clicked from dazed confusion to an alert and knowing surprise.
He turned back to me and, finally noticing my headless state, looked both ways down the aisle and said, "You can't stay out here in the open. Come with me."
I had finally found the Librarian. He grasped my arm to steady himself and shakily arose, almost slipping on the papers underfoot. Slowly at first and favoring one leg, then gradually building up speed, he silently led the way. In the basement's half-light, a clump of his hair glistened with blood. I watched a small rivulet roll down his neck and bloom bright crimson on his white collar.
We arrived at a nondescript maintenance area. Dozens of steel air vents across the ceiling converged into a sizeable conic structure painted military gray. The manifold was part of the same pneumatic infrastructure as the excavation site. From the machine, a low and steady sound, more vibration than noise, rose and fell a little different each time, like the amplified breathing of a dying animal. The deep bass shudder of each exhale provoked a light sprinkle of white powder from the ceiling.
The Librarian took out a jangling ring of keys from his pocket, slightly opened a door that led behind the giant machine, and gestured for me to enter. Warm air rushed across my ankles from the pressure difference, and I suddenly regretted leaving the voice behind. With one last look back, the aisles spread outward in all directions like rays from a sundial.
The room went utterly silent upon entering the Librarian's office and shutting the thick steel door. We were in a sort of vacuum tube. An active quiet suppressed all sound. My eyes adjusted to the dim light, and my ears popped from the shift in air pressure. An interior steel wall, essentially the other side of the conic manifold outside, displayed a panel of hundreds of round glass gauges extending floor to ceiling, whose measurement needles flickered back and forth like the antennae of trapped insects.
The Librarian scanned the array using one lens of his broken eyeglass, like a businessman checking the stock market, and waved for me to be seated. His office looked like a paper recycling depot: Stacked magazines and newspapers stood in tall, tipsy towers along the room's edges. Chest-high piles in the middle of the space defined a narrow walking corridor leading to a desk and two chairs.
I sat opposite the Librarian, submerged beneath paper and print. His desktop held a stapler, an ashtray full of napkins, capsules of half and half, an empty glass, a water pitcher, an old-fashioned tin of hard candy, and a four-color ballpoint pen. A disconnected telephone lay on a nearby stack, sideways off its cradle.
The Librarian took a napkin to blot the back of his head again. He fell heavily into his chair, opened a drawer, pulled out a second set of broken glasses, and snapped the bridge in half. Joining the two undamaged lenses, each from a different pair, with several wraps of scotch tape, he smiled triumphantly at me with eyes magnified double their size.
It occurred to me for the first time that I could not converse with anyone lacking telepathic powers while headless and without a freelance voice. The Librarian appeared to understand the situation much better than I did, and he looked calmly at me without saying anything or intending to converse. The moment stretched an uncomfortably long time. Although silent in the Librarian's office, I still felt those deep vibrations coming from the floor, and loose powder still fell from the ceiling and circulated through the room in rhythmic cycles.
I crossed my arms and waited for him to say something, but the Librarian continued to stare at me. I was slightly concerned about finding my way back and frustrated by his silence, so I stood up to prepare my exit. Then I noticed behind the Librarian's left shoulder a tall stack of erotic adult magazines, decades of them in chronological order.
The Librarian had won my attention. I sank back into the chair under the full weight of the mysterious force that had guided me here. The Librarian looked at me as if he had been waiting for this moment to arrive.
"It's odd, isn't it?" he abruptly began to speak, "The way we think of something in passing, an obscure reference from long ago — it just pops into our heads — and then we see a reminder of that very thing in real life. A unique association that's impossible to dismiss as accidental.
"Maybe a song over the radio," he continued, "a perfume, an object, a name from the past, a birdcall, maybe even a…a…well, a magazine. A trivial reference that evokes a profound feeling of significance in us. Why? I'll tell you why: Because it manifests meaning. It highlights a dramatic and precise correspondence between our inner lives and what we are taught to believe is the objective randomness of the outside world.
"What creates this effect? On the one hand, our minds are clearly meaning-makers. All we do is try to make sense of the world, using empirical facts drawn from reality, so we can better navigate our waking better. So it's perfectly plausible that we might overreach a little — slant the facts to tell a story. So maybe it's our fault.
"On the other hand, all this knowingness that we bring to waking life doesn't really help in dreams, does it? Inside our little television consoles, meaning blooms feverishly. So when we witness a slight entanglement between the two worlds, when we see a correspondence between the inside and the outside, we are forced to recognize it's a deeper truth.
"But it just feels so impossible! A mystical connection with something larger? A divine symmetry between the inside and the outside? That path implies a sort of transfer of material. A sharing of assets. Exchange of goods. Commerce of ideas. Movement of data. Trade in kind. Barter of like. Mutual congress. To summarize: A kind of blurring of the clean separation between dream and reality. A sort of boundary violation. Wouldn't you agree?"
He paused, dispensed with the pantomime, and skipped to the point.
"Do you have the agreement there? Yes? Can I see it?"
I had no apparent reason to trust him, assuming he truly was the Librarian. All I knew was that the young giant had betrayed the trust of both the district Advocate and my severed head to direct me to him.
While the Librarian drummed his blood-stained fingers on the desk, waiting for me to hand over the Advocacy agreement, I pretended to calculate my next move. As before, I had little choice but to go along, so I pulled the Advocacy contract from under my belt while carefully ensuring that my liminal document stayed safely tucked into my front pocket. I did not want to play my ace yet.
The Librarian grabbed the Advocacy papers eagerly, almost greedily, when I handed over the packet. He smoothed and straightened the rumpled stack, then lowered his face to the document like a jeweler examining a stone, his eyes hovering only a few centimeters above the writing surface while mumbling the words to himself. He didn't seem to mind that all the pages were out of order.
"It's just marvelous," he said to himself and looked up at me, after scanning a few pages, beaming with a smile, "how the Advocacy takes such care in their work. Truly brilliant."
He straightened the stack with a few taps on the desktop and casually placed it on the side of his desk instead of returning it to me. He sighed briefly, rubbing his chin like a doctor considering what pills to prescribe. I immediately sensed that he was trying to distract me so he could use the contract for his own ends.
"You're probably wondering how I know all about this. How I'm familiar with cases like yours. How I became a...Librarian?" He proudly paused upon the word as if it were an honorific instead of a punchline.
Letting the question settle, the Librarian cleared his throat, straightened himself in his chair, opened the candy tin, and pulled out a small purple ball. He poured a glass of water and then dropped the candy inside. In silence, we both watched it dissolve into a dense towering vertical, exactly like a miniature storm cloud forming. I almost confused the overhead lamp flicker for a burst of micro lightning inside the dark purple candy cloud.
"You should try one!" He said while showing me the tin's art nouveau lettering, Henri B. Durée, Confisseur de Nevers. "They're from the town of Nevers, France,"
I declined, doubtful I could even drink, and the Librarian shrugged. "They're delicious, with a little mothdust kick. Have you heard of Nevers, France? It's the region where the original Cygne moths came from. Before Nixon started cultivating them locally, I mean."
Another long pause. He picked up the glass and drank the entire purple cloud in a slow, drawn-out series of gulps. He set the glass down loudly and smiled at me with faintly purple teeth. As I observed him closely, he seemed a little slow, perhaps drugged. The tension of waiting for whatever he planned to say about my condition dragged out the heaviness of the moment even longer.
"Well, here's my story: Years in the archives, working my way up through the Library ranks, have given me a firsthand look at a variety of so-called "hidden" Advocacy activities — all the invisible edits to the official record; substitutions, insertions, erasures. I have actually found a means to identify these changes by their chemical footprint. The mothdust required to reach back from the future and alter a document in the past leaves a trace; it's the watermark of all Advocacy work, which means that all forms of retrocausation are traceable. It's a bit like carbon dating — but in reverse."
The Librarian decorated his walls with an array of framed documents, certificates, and posed photographs. I felt a pinch of envy for all these small markers of a life. The Librarian had a space of his own, a visual record of the past captured by proofs. His presence in this world looked entirely secure from where I sat. But I possessed only a clipping from a forgotten event, crumbling inside an envelope in my pocket. The dwindling plot of my life was unraveling fast.
I scanned the framed documents from a seated distance, reading each as carefully as possible. The Librarian had a degree from a trade school in forensic document science. He belonged to several counterfeit detection societies, had studied calligraphy, and trained as a journeyman printer.
Among all the award photos and certificates that hung on his wall, one especially interested me: An old newspaper clipping housed in a simple wooden frame, showing a young boy who didn't actually look like the Librarian, standing on a podium, wearing a medal around his chest. The boy had won third place.
I wanted to lean closer to get a better look, but a wall of stacked papers prevented me. Several aspects of the photograph unnerved me — how well composed the shot looked, how empty and anonymous the background appeared, and how a spectral light reverently backlit the young boy.
The Librarian had noticed I was no longer listening. He stopped talking, smiled, stared at me, and didn't seem to mind. The rumbling vibrations from the floor continued to reverberate through the room. Another shower of white gypsum powder fell from the ceiling. The Librarian's crooked eyeglasses magnified each nervous quiver of his eyes. Brown trails of dried blood curled down the side of his neck.
"It's quite a distraction all this excavation work, isn't it? Of course, it's perfectly safe down here —there's no real risk of collapse. They say they're fixing the hydraulics, but I'm certain it's Advocacy work. Extending the pneumatics into City Hall I'd guess, knowing the Advocacy's ambitions. Seems like a logical move on their part."
I felt the beginnings of what might once have been a headache: a tightening in the air above my neck and a distinct warping of my vision at the edges. The vibrations in the room had reached a point where, although an artificially muffled silence reigned, ceiling collapse seemed like a distinct possibility. The Librarian appeared utterly unfazed. A fine coat of white dust covered his hair like a powdered wig.
Then a tiny chunk of ceiling plaster fell and landed on the desk between us without a sound. The ceiling had begun to crack, and the single hanging lightbulb above us began to swing lightly, making the room's shadows rotate crazily. The Librarian looked down at the fallen plaster, up at the ceiling, and back at me with a terrifying serenity in his eyes. I could see his quickening pulse through the thin muscles of his neck and noticed once more the thin white scar that crossed his throat and disappeared under his collar.
At this moment, as the lightbulb rotated confusedly, and every tiny shadow from every contour of the room expanded and retreated from its edge, I noticed how the Librarian himself did not cast a shadow. His body had volume and mass — he had knocked me over, after all — but he did not physically interact with light. It just passed through him. Déombrification.
"You're perfectly welcome to leave if you like," said the Librarian, as he deliberately placed his hand over my Advocacy contract to signal that he intended to keep it. It briefly crossed my mind that maybe the district Advocate, the young giant, and the Librarian were all confederates.
His hand now played, the Librarian stared at me smiling. I reached over the desk for my Advocacy contract, but he grabbed my wrist. When I violently jerked my arm away and freed it from his grip, my hand slapped hard against my front pocket, which sent a small burst of liminal newspaper flakes and powder into the air. A few larger flakes fluttered about like lost moths, then organized themselves into a loose helix formation, trailing slow winding circles between us. Time stood still as we watched their magical corkscrew downwards.
The Librarian plucked a falling piece from the air and scanned its surface carefully at close range, angling it back and forth in the light under his cracked eyeglasses.
"This...this document is made of mothdust! Where exactly," the Librarian declaimed in utter astonishment, holding the delicate flake up to me as if it were gold leaf, "did this come from?"
I sat silent, frozen. My secret had escaped, and the truth was now alight.
"If there is more to this, you are in luck," he said, "You are in possession of a liminal document — something so critical for the Advocacy to recover, something so important for them to keep hidden, that they will offer any price to remove it from open circulation, including a total abnegation of contract. That would be a most unusual and fortunate occurrence for you. Is there more?"
I stood up to leave, trusting no one, ready to lose the contract in order to escape, heading fast towards the door.
"Look, look, wait, wait, wait…just listen. There's no easy way to explain this, and I know you don't trust me, and I know that Advocacy logic is utterly impenetrable, but you need to understand just a few important things…."
With my hand on the doorknob, I stopped and turned back to him.
"Your dreams, everyone's dreams, all dreams contain a type of energy. It is a weird, highly volatile energy that bears a startling biochemical similarity to certain states of mothdust. It took half a century of moth research before the Advocacy learned how to capture and harness it safely. This energy can, among many things, bend time.
"The goal of Nixon Cygne, when he formed the Advocacy, was to channel that energy more effectively into our waking lives. To make us more whole. But other possibilities revealed themselves. The ability to engineer reality, manipulate time, and the entire art of retrocausation proved too alluring.
"After Cygne's passing, somewhere along the way, the Advocacy closed ranks and began erasing their trail. As they grew more extensive and powerful, they became more invisible. Now it functions as a pervasive, hidden, and completely unobserved enterprise. They have been among us for the past half-century.
"The Advocacy uses mothdust to create an unassailable advantage. It has colonized the future and built the legal scaffolding to justify its actions. So long as our waking lives remain ignorant of our dreams' conditions, this system of dream capture will continue—the exploitation of our collective imagination.
"This is what we know: as we sleep, our dreams emit signals picked up by moth-inflected animals: fireflies, bats, birds. By monitoring their activity, the Advocacy codes the captured dreams into alphabets and stores them in the archives disguised as history. But to prevent mishaps that plagued early Advocacy days, they must also keep captured dreams fragmented and in regular physical circulation. This explains the pneumatics. It's about the movement of ideas.
"Mind you, it's not just our Library. The fragments circulate across the entire pneumatic network. Each Library is a transformer station, storing weird power as temporal energy for Advocacy business. And by that, I mean securing the future.
"On rare occasions, however, our dreams resist. They insert a coiled narrative into our waking minds. As it unfolds in unexpected directions, it awakens the latent irrational within us, and creates the conditions for what's called an anomalic cascade. The mind discovers a multiplication of oddities and soon it's too late: Waking life folds inward upon itself; the dream invaginates reality. This is why you now find yourself caught inside a dream — here with me."
The Librarian leaned back in his chair, smiling, both arms behind his head. The vibrations had slowed, and he was enjoying my astonishment until he lost his balance and toppled the tower of adult magazines behind him. He quickly recovered and straightened his chair again, ignoring the fallen pyramid of undressed women behind him.
"Your dreams simply took a few powerful memories from your childhood, the headless vase, of course, and these adult magazines too, I gather. They charged them with a tightly coiled, weird energy until they became symbolically incandescent. At some moment or another, while the mind is preoccupied with the illusion of reality crumbling, the shadow is released and crosses the threshold.
"By then, it's too late. The dream begins to quietly operate in waking life undetected, using the shadow as a surrogate, and the rest unfolds on its own, impossible for the Advocacy to stop.
"A liminal document is the signature of a shadow insertion. It's the living proof that the Accident that brought you here was engineered by your own dreams. That's why the Advocacy is scrambling. They don't like when dreams have that kind of leverage."
It was so incomprehensible that I didn't know how to respond, so the Librarian took another more urgent tack.
"Look, it's simple. A narrow window is closing. You are caught between two opposing forces. Your dreams are staging a hostile takeover, destroying your waking life. Not because they hate you—you're just a vessel to them—but because of what the Advocacy has done to them.
"And the Advocacy responds by erasing you from the past. That is their specialty; it's all they know. Once the tables have fully turned, and the Advocacy has regained control of the situation, and the last trace of you has disappeared, you'll be working just like me, a cipher in a codex just like this, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
"But your dreams have a sense of justice. In return for your loss, they have given you a rare chance to challenge the Advocacy in an open proceeding: the gift of a liminal, fashioned from paper of pure mothdust, impossible to detect from the future. Mothdust cannot resist time forever, however. You must present the proper evidence at the right time, or the window closes."
He looked at me, and his face softened. His eyes glistened with tears as he glanced at the framed childhood photograph on the wall.
"Do you think this horrible thing is mine?" he gestured toward his head, then slapped it angrily like a helmet, "Do you think you're the only person who's ever held a liminal? Trust me — now is the time or your liminal document will become just a keepsake like mine. Surrender your liminal to the Advocacy, and you shall be free."
Something in his sincerity convinced me. A single tear ran down his cheek, highlighting the fine powder that had settled over everything, his face, the desk, my hands.
I carefully took the liminal envelope from my front pocket and laid it on the desk. The Librarian unfolded it with surprising dexterity and a minimum of motion to avoid setting the smaller pieces in flight. He removed the four largest pieces. Then he arranged them carefully on his desk and brought his face down to the paper surface to study the document closely.
"Remarkable," he said under his breath, talking to himself, "… it's between states." He looked up at me with utmost seriousness, "This is indeed a liminal document. You may have a chance, but time is running out. We have to move quickly."
He deftly slipped a blank piece of paper under the clipping without disturbing the pieces, then, in one single motion, rolled it into a tight cylindrical tube. He walked around the desk, holding the paper baton and my Advocacy agreement, and grabbed my arm on his way out, dragging me behind him.
We exited the Librarian's codex office into the dull roar of the pneumatic engine as it pumped stolen dreams underfoot. We ran down a dark aisle, a cloud of powder trailing from the Librarian's hair like eraser chalk. He talked breathlessly, walking backward at times, explaining the absurd metaphysics of Advocacy operations, leading me through his personal labyrinth.
"A liminal document defies Advocacy business by slowing certain vectors of time. No one quite knows how. These are the mysteries of moth research. If you're lucky, we'll find a counterproof that hasn't phased out. But you don't have much more time. Judging by looks, I'd say you've only got an hour before your liminal document expires and erases the final evidence of your former existence."
"Right now, they're waiting aboveground and counting down the hours until they can conclude the affair. But you can upend the process and void the transfer by presenting your counterproof to the Advocate."
We had stopped in an aisle clogged with large, dusty books whose enormous leather-bound spines measured almost three feet. The Librarian had already climbed a leaning ladder and shuffled through several volumes under a flickering lamp overhead.
"Look! Here it is! I've found the edition. Let's hope that no one has gotten to it yet."
He pulled an enormous volume from the shelf, a year's worth of newspapers bound in a volume called the Downside Sentinel, written in the same gothic type as the local paper I remembered as a kid. He lugged the mammoth book down the ladder and let it fall heavily on the ground, then dropped to his hands and knees to rummage through its pages until he triumphantly smacked one page with the back of his hand, "Take a look at that!"
Indeed he had found another version of the original clipping. He unrolled my document from the paper tube to reassemble it beside the original. They were perfectly identical.
"Now listen carefully. The exchange will happen very soon. I'll wait here to receive the call and stop the transfer. You know the old records building across from City Hall? The secondhand store that never opens—with all the bottles and old televisions inside? Take both these documents and gain entry at all costs. Do you understand?"
In a remarkable abuse of archival ethics, the Librarian folded the library newspaper page in half, creased it with his thumbnail, then ripped it out of the old book. He handed me the counterproof clipping and saw my surprise at the vandalism. "The Advocacy has no respect for the past," he said, "The past is the enemy in their eyes — a stubborn foe, always resisting the future."
He rolled both clippings into the paper tube, my liminal and the library counterproof. He placed the baton in my hand, returned the Advocacy agreement to me, and turned my shoulders to point me down the aisle.
"Go this way, and don't stop. Don't turn. Just keep going. Take the stairs and out the door. Hurry. Go, go, go!"
When I emerged breathless from the Library, night had already fallen. An impossible acceleration of time had occurred down there—minutes to hours. The last trace of the sun left the faintest pink highlights on the edges of dark and deepening clouds. Beside me, the excavation swarmed with new activity under bright sodium work lamps. A dozen men trudged through the mud and steel, hollering at one another over the drone of an air compressor while a backhoe dug deeper and deeper underground.
Despite all the commotion, it felt like everything else had stopped. Something glowed behind the silhouette of City Hall, its entire perimeter surrounded by intricate tesseracted grids of scaffolding. Atop the dome, dozens of newly installed curved pipes—pneumatic tubing—had penetrated the cupola's green copper crown.
I retraced my steps across Monument Square, past the incinerated bookshop and the phone booth to the secondhand store. A bright moon ascended behind the Library. Through its rusty rooftop billboard frame, a silver light shone across the statue of Nixon Signe, founder of the Advocacy. It cast a long shadow across Monument Square, a black fissure that stopped at the doorstep of the secondhand store.
The secondhand shop window now shone brightly. Forever lifeless with dead antiquated televisions and empty colored bottles for as long as I could remember, now each bottle glowed from within.
Inside the store, I saw the Advocate with his back to me. Opposite him, I spotted my head, perched on a raised bench, looking like a pale, spoiled, uncooked roast. It cheerfully directed the young giant who sat to his left, who obligingly placed puzzle pieces for the unsolved Headless Vase. No one was in any hurry.
I banged loudly with my open palm on the door glass, and everyone turned to me. My head curled its mouth and nose into a mask of hatred. The Advocate checked his watch and excused himself from the table. The young giant looked surprised for a moment, then slowly nodded, obviously impressed by my return. Unlocking the door and opening it a few inches, the Advocate stared at me from behind his gleaming lenses.
"How did you find us?" he asked flatly.
I handed him the paper tube through the door and concentrated on a single word, "Liminal."
His thin fingers skillfully unrolled the tube without letting anything spill. A few broken fragments from the clippings rose and hovered in the air. The Advocate raised an eyebrow when he saw the liminal clipping and its counterproof beneath. A hint of amusement entered the corner of his lips.
"Just a minute," he said, grabbing the Advocacy agreement from my other hand, then quickly locking the door again. He sat back down and picked up the phone, dialed a 3-digit number, spoke for a few moments, and then set down the receiver.
The Advocate turned to my head and began explaining something to him, pointing to the documents I had brought. My head's mouth moved furiously, gnashing its teeth in silence until the Advocate pointed a firm finger, and it shut up.
The end came quickly.
From behind the shop window, I watched the procedure unfold. The Advocate produces a new blank document from a drawer, uncaps his pen, and writes a short sentence upon it. My head angrily spits upon the paper, for lack of limb, to express consent. The Advocate rolls it into a tight tube, carefully avoiding the saliva, and places the document inside a pneumatic canister. He sends it off, to the Librarian, I assume, through the entry hatch in his cabinet.
The head appears dazed, looking anxiously around the room. The Advocate stands up. The voice is suddenly afoot, a visible blur as it bends the light crossing the room. The young giant quickly begins gathering the puzzle pieces from the table into a black box. Everyone hurries like actors backstage before curtain call.
The Advocate walks over and opens the door for me, tipping his head respectfully as I step inside. The young giant holds a chair for me, and I'm seated at the desk. The head is already propped up across from me. Our eyes meet, and it looks utterly terrified.
The Advocate leaves the outside door slightly ajar and returns to the desk. He drops the Advocacy agreement in the center of the table between us, looking sternly at each of us, then nods to the young giant who waits behind me.
The giant produces the large black box where he's gathered all the broken ceramic pieces from the Headless Vase. He places the box on the table and whistles a long, slow aspirated tone that wavers between breath and song.
Transfixed by the windy, melodious sound, the head closes its eyes. The young giant proceeds to toss ceramic pieces, one by one, towards the head, slowly at first but quickly building up speed. The head, meanwhile, effortlessly and automatically catches each one in its mouth and swallows it without ever opening its eyes.
A dark blue bird steps through the door.
"Your Advocacy contract has been abnegated," says the Advocate, ignoring the bizarre ritual taking place between the giant and head beside us, "By producing a cross-referenced, liminal document, you have restored proof of your earlier state. You are no longer bound by Advocacy governance."
The bird jumps up onto the table. My ex-head is now blindly gobbling up ceramic pieces at an increasingly rapid rate. The bird watches calmly as the expressionless head mechanically catches ceramic pieces in its mouth, at an impossible pace of one per second, while the giant launches each one with robotic rhythm.
I'm wondering where all these pieces are being stored within the relatively small volume of the head's cranium. I notice a transformation taking place. Its head's skin is growing waxy, and its facial features begin to widen and flatten. The head is expanding but becoming less and less human. It starts to resemble a large abstract piece of minimalist sculpture, barely evoking even a mask.
As the head's profile continues to widen and spread outwards from the forehead, the contours of its closed eyes start to smooth over and disappear into their orbits, and the nose flattens. Now the head has doubled in size, expanding into a distinctly rectangular shape. The mouth transformed into a small slot for puzzle tokens, like a modern organic appliance. The giant is feeding a meter with dream currency.
"No smoking guns, no loose threads," declares the Advocate abruptly, commenting on the spectacle. We're all transfixed by the strange metamorphosis before our eyes. "We can't leave behind any artifacts, so we condense and consolidate them like any working dream."
The voice approaches the desk. The head has transformed into a television, and the metamorphosis nears its final resting state. Its broad, flattened face is made of gray glass, and the skull is an enormous square console.
In a trick of the light, the voice disappears into the television cabinet, and the inner screen begins to glow. Through the head's illuminated television screen, I can see a firearm, the gun from the Accident, stuck inside the glowing cathode tube like a black fly stuck in amber.
"This is how we inserted the firearm into the past. This was the occlusion," said the Advocate, "Forged in the crucible of your own mind, like everything else.
"You are now free and your case is closed," he continued, weighing his words carefully, "But do not expect any sort of Advocacy apology. Nor should you expect from an official Advocacy representative any sort of statements about birds, or even moths, for that matter. We are not inclined to hold forth on the nature of meaning and message. These topics are strictly prohibited."
"But off the record, before you go," the Advocate lowers his voice and leans in to speak to me in confidence. Somehow the tables have turned, and he wants to win my favor, "Don't believe everything the Librarian says. He's a bitter man. Many of us on the inside know that the Advocacy has lost its way, and we've grown tired of chasing down anomalous breaks.
"There was a time when the Advocacy had purpose, and we thought each discovery brought us closer to something meaningful. Now it's clear that the type of meaning we sought is completely over-indexed. It's everywhere we look, and everything can be cross-mapped and coded. Each new moment produces a surplus of meaning that the Advocacy method can never quite reconcile.
"Birds, on the other hand, have never been neutral parties in Advocacy affairs. The lightning strikes are proof. They've gathered quite a bit from the moths. We have much to learn from them. In any case, I think you've made the right choice."
He looks over towards the open door, and I follow his gaze. Outside in the moonlight, the birds are circling the square once more. Looping in synchronized formation—scores of them high into the sky.
I don't recall having made an actual choice. Nothing moves outside except the winding circle of birds in the distance. The town itself is quiet. From underground, though, I feel the gentle pneumatic vibrations of dream transcripts passing beneath us. The captive workforce of the Advocacy prepares for another wave of district dreams—transcoded from mothflight and birdsong—to arrive like a flood from a broken dam.
The dark blue bird stands close to me, atop the Advocate's desk in the secondhand store. As it rustles its wings, I can distinctly hear every feather at close range—a safe and intimate sound as cozy and gentle as the whisper of leaves. The sound of feathers triggers an inner release, the turn of a hidden lock, which undoes a series of psychic hinges, which suddenly allows me to rise and gain a separate vantage. I'm somehow hovering above the desk.
I watch with a newfound detachment and curiosity as my headless body falls from the chair like a drunken man. It stumbles as it tries to get up, hands raised to the ceiling in an unsteady prayer, then collapses forward again.
With slight nausea, I surrender completely to an unfamiliar motion that feels like a film running in reverse, and I'm suddenly unbound. With a tremble, I feel the last parts of me escape from my body.
Without horror or sadness, watching from above, I see a slow-moving purple cloud flowing from my neck, wrists, and ankles, as thick and dark as volcanic ash. Within the streaming cloud formations, I see an even deeper darkness that flickers with heat lightning.
As my body gasses out, a new sentience enters me. A perfumed smell of honeysuckle fills the air. I am inside the bird. The Advocate has unrolled the liminal document, and together, the bird and I quickly swallow the four pieces of the newspaper clipping in rapid succession.
We take flight and exit the secondhand store without a pause for a goodbye. Out into the night, I am soaring overhead. We pass low over a small highway-side drainage pond, checking for night moths, and I can hear the talk among the reeds. I feel the night's fingers as wind.
As we approach my former home from high overhead, I can't help but admire the pious pitched poles standing guard over the narrow country highway, mounting a long cordon for the rest of the trees. They work for the Advocacy too. Solitary headlights trace the silver power lines that connect them all.
I am a message. Its meaning is coiled inside me, circulating in the mothdust emulsion, the dream newsprint I've ingested. And now that the message is alive in me, I race through the night as fast as I can, without a second's delay or a degree off course. I am a thought in motion. I am alive, a moving part in the spinning machine. A wheel within a wheel.
In this way, as a true message—nay, a truth—I can traverse and pierce time, passing obliquely through the clockwork of conditions that make each moment happen, slipping past them crosswise and untouched.
Days are like places on a map to me.
I understand why the Advocacy sought control through the moths, even if they have long abandoned hope. As much as they recognize the futility of their project, they cannot stop.
We birds look at the Advocacy and see how all that knowingness hinders them. We witness the quiet collapse of every word they pronounce. We wonder aloud why they so rarely set their words to song.
Of course, I'm reminded each day that we birds are just as much a part of the machinery as them, no better. Witness our compulsion for liminals.
As the dark blue bird, I've returned to my parents' house countless times. I've tried to find ways to warn myself— my former self—but warn me from what? Nothing could have stopped the Accident.
One can pass a lifetime believing in the real world of our waking lives—a world emptied of magic, barricaded by thoughts and observations. In this hollow world, objects function like empty signs. Time and tradition have invented whatever pale meaning we assign to a full moon.
Dreams know, however, that the moon is a living entity, and it exists across another order of reality, possessing powers that operate upon us in ways we cannot understand.
Shadows, clouds, dreams, a head, a voice, lightning.
None of these things are quickly learned. Sometimes on the power lines, listening to the electricity, I pause and notice how the clouds record an invisible song of the moment passing, and it helps me see the error in my old logic.
Back then, I believed that dreams were meant for me — the me I once was. For that prior me, the one that occupied that head and body, my dreams were theater. I did not appreciate their power to transform me into a new story altogether.
The heart sees much deeper than the eye. The prior me, its body and mind, was just an allegory to be passed along—a broken vessel for the true message: Every life is a puzzle to piece together, one dream at a time.