The Headless Vase
(Part 1)

Headless self portrait

The Accident occurred on the precise day of the autumn equinox, a detail I might never have noticed back then but which matters a great deal to me now. It fell on the type of day when nature looks its most artificial. Bold prismatic trees of crimson and orange lined the highway. Gathered beneath their bright canopy, blackbirds hopped from bough to bough, cawing excitedly, planning violence.

A vivid recurring dream, set in my childhood bedroom, prompted me to return to my former home seeking clues to its meaning and origin. The house was a short hour's drive from the downtown motel room I had begun renting. Several months of driving aimlessly had almost exhausted my savings and widened the distance between me and reality.

My secret homecoming marked the humiliating fact that my first attempt at adult independence had failed. Mistaking defiance for principle and urgency for direction, I had left my family home on short notice a few months earlier. My only compass was a vague wish to find myself, and I quickly lost my way. I worked in a bookstore, a few restaurants, failed at fleeting friendships, and eventually retreated into motel television and insobriety.

No surprise then, when the dream first summoned me, how I followed its prompts intently. I received it like the gift of prophecy, an envoy from the beyond, a clever riddle for me to solve. Offering me a chance to ignore my loneliness and the emptiness of my real life, I surrendered to its mystery immediately.

But the dream was stubborn. Maybe even a bit boring. Each night it followed the same storyline, and each retelling seemed to further drain its magic. Like a broken television, I longed for a channel change. The narrative, so stiff and poorly rehearsed, led me to conclude that, for the dream at least, the intricacies of plot were beside the point. The dream invested far more creative energy in the extraordinary staging of the house, which was exactingly accurate in the little details and wildly off with imaginary hallways and hidden cabinets.

The opening starts off blurry — I'm rushing through the dark with a single thought in my mind. I am a living message, explosive with consequence, traveling at high speed in a strict, straight, and narrow line towards my destination.

Someone opens the window. I'm in my childhood bedroom. The message I carried escapes when I step inside, and it flees into the corner like a runaway shadow. The message is so black it erases the surface of whatever it touches, opening a dark, bottomless seam that lingers a moment before sealing itself up again.

The rising full moon shines brilliantly through the windows, larger than expected and surprisingly textural, a powder gray landform hovering only a few miles away. Searching everywhere to recover the message-turned-shadow, I open my bedside table. It contains an old box holding a ceramic puzzle set. I'm trying to assemble the scattered pieces of the puzzle in the moonlight. Others are helping or watching over my shoulder; I can't be sure. It feels gravely important to finish the puzzle sometime soon, but I know it's already too late.

After fifty unbroken screenings of this sequence, night after night, two essential details stood out. First, I've been working on this puzzle for a long time, perhaps for years, and its completion will mark the accomplishment of a significant undertaking. Second, I can never remember the slightest hint of the puzzle image. While assembling the puzzle in my dream, I can perfectly see the completed picture in my mind, even though it's nowhere near finished on the table. But as soon as I'm awake, that vision of the completed puzzle never crosses the transom into my waking life. It's obliterated from conscious memory like some sort of fail-safe security system that prevents me from recognizing the dream's focal point.

After several thankless weeks of trying to recover the puzzle image, trying useless techniques that supposedly improve lucid dreaming, I felt compelled to return home for a clue. I thought that being on location and entering the dream's stage set might jog something loose.

Before cornering the driveway, I cased the house for a few hours to ensure my parents were away. I was not looking for a hero's welcome. From my vantage, atop a hillside, I watched a storm system rapidly pass through, triggering a series of lightning strikes in neighboring towns before clear skies returned.

The key lay in the same hiding place, behind a loose stone in the wall. I paused to listen for anyone inside. Silence except for the warm birdsong of a beautiful fall morning. Passing through the warm, sun-filled kitchen, I noticed a large, handsome bird watching me sideways from a perch just outside the window. Smaller than a blackbird but longer tailed, it had a tapered bill and stared at me intently. Its feathers were an intriguing, iridescent bluish-black,

Entering the family room, the sunshine abruptly disappeared. Curtains drawn tightly across every window made the house as dark as midnight, except for a mysterious glow from the nearby living room.

Carefully taking a few steps towards the hidden light, I left myself enough scope to turn and run if necessary. There in the dark gloom, like a patient upon the table under a narrow overhead lamp, lay the Headless Vase completely shattered to pieces.

That's what I called it. The vase had stood about four feet high and depicted the final hours of a religious saint, legendary for the sermon he delivered while traveling from hilltop to nearby town, following his execution, all while carrying his freshly decapitated head. It's the sort of allegory that often recurs through various histories of martyrdom. A story that so captures the imagination, it's bound to be repeated over time.

The artist had painstakingly lacquer painted a sequence of bloody scenes from the martyr's beheading in a naive, pastoral style. The scenes wound downwards around the vase like a storyboard ribbon. Past modest country farms, never touching the ground, a glowing and headless man hovers above the bucolic setting like a mutilated angel. His wounds are lovingly detailed in crimson red. Spellbound peasants marvel at his floating form and freshly unattached, brightly haloed head, which he carries against his hip under one arm. At the edges of each scene, woven into elaborately decorated borders of clover and wildflower, robed clergy and forest animals whisper secrets to one another. Birds pull aerial ribbons that narrate the scene, written in an old French I never understood. Enormous, animate trees of birch and poplar stand watch over everything.

Now the vase lay shattered into a thousand pieces, spread flat like a mosaic across the tabletop; each shard broken into virtually the same size and shape and meticulously placed next to its proper neighbor. At its center, I immediately recognized the precise dream image I could never smuggle back into conscious memory: A decapitated body chasing its bouncing, bloody head down the stairs.

 The vase itself was an heirloom from a distant relative, Nixon Cygne, the original founder of moth research, whose experiments and accomplishments had brought him and the town of Downside national recognition in the late 19th century. The vase's imagery was so terrifying that I suspect no one else wanted it.

As a very young child, my parents forbid me from going near it, fearing I might knock it over. But one evening after dark, another theory came to me. I was heading up to bed alone, as I did each night, saying goodnight through the uprights of the staircase banister to my parents. Their faces glowed light blue from the television as they distractedly blew me kisses, watching a television program too grownup for me to see.

Behind them, I noticed a movement in the living room, behind the couch, near the vase. A shift in the darkness. It could easily have been a television flicker—a trick of shadows. But later, alone in bed, the significance of that movement unfolded in my imagination. I abruptly wondered if that strange vase in the far corner, a few inches taller than me and covered with bizarre imagery, might possess a spirit. Not a protective spirit. A dark and angry energy, seething with a frozen hatred. Maybe it was simply waiting for the right moment to strike.

Each evening, I polished my theory to make it feel more plausible. The fear gained emotional and sensual depth. Simultaneously I began to forget that it sprang from my imagination, as one often does with childhood fables. Soon enough, my intuition of the vase's evil intent became its own form of proof, and I effectively created my own bogeyman.

For those impressionable years, I stayed a safe distance away. Even the slightest stolen glimpse of that headless man walking alone in the forest inspired terrifying nightmares, which deepened my suspicions about its hidden powers.

I also believed that a silent tacit understanding bound our family to never acknowledge the horrible object that quietly held us all captive. Although cursed by its presence, we appeased it by pretending it wasn't there. This led to many unintentionally meaningful looks passing between my parents and me, imagining their pride in my precocious ability to keep things bottled up.

As I got older, the nightmares trailed off. I contained my fear through force of will and always assumed I had outgrown the fear. But as I stood in front of the shattered Headless Vase now, I realized that its spirit had waited in vigil for decades, standing serenely in the hidden passages of my imagination, trembling with a deep, lifelong hatred towards me. My enemy, whom my dreams had cleverly resuscitated, had returned.

I sensed a flicker from the corner of my eye and looked around to ensure I wasn't being watched. Under the lamp's narrow cone of light, subtle energy emanated from the shattered vase. A heat shimmer, a thin undulating emptiness of air, slowly and delicately hovered just above it. Testing the illusion with my hand, I felt a cold sensation pass into my fingertips.

Pulling back, I shook out the cold feeling and rubbed my fingers, but the chill had entered me. Whether ghost or runaway fear, I felt it travel through me, cinching a tightness across my chest and an unpleasant tingling near my heart.

I downplayed my rising fear and focused instead on the facts. How did the vase break, and what sort of strange, obsessive behavior led my parents to orient the entire room around its reassembly? I avoided my suspicions and decided to just visit the bedroom to tie up loose ends and leave. In my dream, after all, I had entered through the window.

So I crept upstairs, avoiding the creaky spots out of habit. I wondered whether my parents had kept my room as I left it — a mess — or arranged it for me. Past their door and further down the hall, I entered my bedroom to discover that every trace of my old life had disappeared.

They had emptied and completely redecorated my room. Bitterly looking over the new furnishings, I wondered where everything had gone. My childhood museum of memories, full of posters, records, old toys, bookshelves, and hidden secrets, had disappeared. I sat dejectedly on one of the twin beds and looked outside. Another dark blue bird — or maybe the same —perched on the edge of the roof gutter and stared at me defiantly.

It suddenly jumped onto the windowsill and inquiringly looked inside, adjusting its head in rapid, irregular gestures. Something about its reflection must have attracted it to the window glass. Confirming my theory, the bird pecked lightly at the window, knocking thrice upon it.

Pulling on the cord of the curtains finally frightened the bird away. My parents had even replaced my bedroom curtains, which now bathed the room in a somber, sepia-toned light to reveal an enormous, oversized antique moon map in vivid topographic detail. Curious how the dream had foreseen not merely the broken vase but also the curtain pattern.

My parents had every right to remodel the room. We parted on bad terms, and I rarely called them anymore. When I left, I believed that a certain coldness towards them established my emotional independence. I had hoped that parting ways would somehow surface a deeper sense of purpose within me.

Instead, I quickly learned how unprepared I was for living alone. An empty feeling pooled inside me, a torn bladder of forgotten loneliness. The kind of gloom where hours in front of a motel television screen, or hundreds of highway miles, passed outside my notice. The mothdust habit didn't help matters. By the time I returned to my hometown, utterly defeated by loneliness, nothing I had hoped to summon from my independence had materialized. I felt instead completely isolated and much worse off than when I began.

The dream had allowed me to stave off the depression for almost two months, raising the hope of leading me towards inspiration. But now, facing the burnt bridge of my own making, my complete estrangement from my parents, the gloom came back twice as hard. It left me feeling once more like a guest in my own mind.

Things get a little harder to describe at this point in the narrative. For example, when the thought occurred to me that I had become a "guest in my own mind," a new presence woke up inside me. A type of echo. It came on like an uninvited stranger joining a private telephone conversation, except it happened silently inside my head.

This new presence didn't speak to me directly or even utter specific words. Instead, it somehow steered my inner dialogue in particular directions by adding an accompaniment of low-octave intonations and emphasis to my stream of thoughts. With this odd sort of "mmhmm" commentary of tones, the voice could shift the point of what I was thinking. It effectively hijacked my thinking by raising implied doubts, uninvited associations, or hidden undertones whenever it wanted.

The voice hinted that I had missed something important about the room, prompting me to notice the only remaining piece of furniture left from my old room. In my dreams, the bedside drawer held the ceramic puzzle, the shattered Headless Vase.

Few places better documented the archeology of my childhood than what lay inside this old drawer, an ancient site of candy wrappers, loose coins, pencils, lighters, doodles, projective verse, adult magazines, and cassette tapes. But instead of finding anything safe or familiar inside the drawer, I found a gleaming black handgun.

I looked down at the weapon, which rested in my hand, although I didn't remember picking it up, and studied its features and form. The polished black steel had bluish undertones like the bird's feathers. Balancing it in my palm, trying to weigh how much harm it contained, the gun looked odd. In my grip, someone else held the pistol and not me. The cold, tingling sensation I felt downstairs had crawled further up my arm, and my heart was beating irregularly.

The voice steered me back towards the feeling that needled me most over my recent months away from home: That when you're alone with your thoughts for too long, or when you constantly appraise yourself from a critical distance, or when you cultivate a clinical detachment from your emotions — that as these habits settle in, you start to recognize how many of the things that you do seem to happen independently of the inner dialogue you maintain in your head. As if you lead two different lives at once.

Maybe, the voice implied, we're all just made up of automatisms and cruise-control habits, and that the whole time that we think we're busy living, the real you is always somewhere else, detached from it all, standing two steps back from everything. Maybe the cognitive glue that keeps our thoughts and actions, heart and mind in harmony is just a convenient sleight of hand that keeps us from noticing a darker truth, I volunteered.

The voice quietly endorsed all these fairly depressing thoughts. It prompted me to consider more pointedly if perhaps what I'd always understood as me had conducted its existence independently of the life that I appeared to occupy. I had basically failed to inhabit my own life, it implied. That I was just a passenger, locked inside a moving vehicle.

To cheer me up, however, the voice proposed that the most essential part of me, the one in this conversation right now, would always endure, no matter what happened. I noticed that it carefully avoided implying words like spirit or soul.

We both agreed that such truths are hard to seriously consider, especially when the stakes are so high if the wager is wrong. The loss of life is commonly held to be a tragedy. A silence settled between us.

Though if it's done swiftly and without hesitation, the voice gently pressed its case further, a transcendental moment might occur. You submit to the impulse, and the thinking of the thought never hits you. One simply acts, and everything works in concert. As this coaxing rhythm of arguments continued, a gentle buzzing began inside the base of my neck. It had a pleasant, almost narcotic effect that made me feel further disconnected from myself than usual.

In this relaxed and dissociative state, I lucidly perceived one part of me leading the other. I stood up from the bed and looked directly into the mirror against the far wall. I didn't smile or mimic the expressions that I often practiced, my public gaze, because I could not quite recognize my own face. I looked past my reflection into a vanishing point behind my skull. Then we lifted the gun to my temple and fired.

Everything slowed down after the shot, and a shockingly large field of time opened inside me. The leisurely sensation hit me that I had just woken up from an extraordinarily long and vivid dream and finally stepped back into the real world. Gone so long, I had forgotten that time tended to warp and bend like sunlight through water. I had forgotten that it flowed like a transparent, viscous, contemplative jelly that allowed one to freely consider all sorts of odd connections between moments while permitting only the most hypnotically slow physical movements.

This lucid hallucination lasted for an interval of perhaps one hour, giving me plenty of time to study its properties. I quickly adapted to the new pace as if it were home. I didn't think much; I just observed. All too soon, however, the drowsy languor of time took a sharp rollercoaster nosedive. The descent began with the slow rumbling sound of thunder from a faraway storm. A lightning strike, perhaps, or the first report of the gun's discharge approaching from a distance.

Within ten minutes, a deafening explosion descended upon me. The auditory attack, so loud and vicious, so overwhelmingly intense, directly entered my skull and invaded my thoughts. I found myself on the floor with a horrible vertigo spinning sensation. Next, smoke-alarm ringing sounds began shrieking around me from different ranges and rooms. As I tried to get up, the room kept rotating floor to ceiling like a crazy Hollywood dance number. Out of the corner of my eye, as I hobbled to right myself, I saw a shadow crawling feebly away.

Regaining my balance and looking in the mirror confirmed, to my horror, that my entire head was indeed gone, missing entirely.

A terrible, terrible Accident. An enormous empty space rose above my neck and shoulders, but far less mess than I expected. Miraculously, like a phantom limb, the open space my head once occupied could still see and hear. Colors looked oversaturated like an old home movie, with luminescent lens flare wisps dancing at the edges. The smoke alarm sounds had withdrawn, revealing new layers of radio voices crowded together across competing stations. Through all the chaos, however, one clear sensation rose above the others, the strangest of all: Even without a head, I felt very much alive and aware.

I tried to collect my thoughts, but they couldn't compete against the distant shouting, small talk, and radio mumbling. The loss of my head had unmuffled the voices behind my everyday thinking. Although competing against each other, they sounded somehow rhythmically organized, as if an intelligence worked behind the cacophony. I also heard other weirdly amplified, industrial sounds from below: intensely loud drips of water, the rumbling bass of heavy machinery working through the floorboards, and a wheezy bellows sound of forced air pumping.

Impossible to decide which sounds were real or imaginary. I worried my parents might return to discover my damaged state, so I hurried to clean up any evidence of the Accident. The air smelled strongly of gun smoke. A broad streak of blood ran across the windowsill where the wounded shadow, my head, had apparently crawled away. I leaned out the window, and the trail of blood continued across the roof shingles.

"It's gone, you know," a single voice rose above the others. I spun towards the door. It was the same voice as before. But now, free of the head, it could articulate specific words instead of just hinting at them.

"It's gone," the voice repeated, once more from behind my back, in a needling way that demanded acknowledgment, "…your head."

I didn't bother to turn around this time — clearly another hallucination. But its presence felt real, an invisible gaze hovering behind me, observing my reactions and reading my thoughts from the inside. Somehow the "mmhmm" voice that goaded me into this mess was shadowing me.

I could feel the voice reading my thoughts. To better keep my own counsel, I tried to arrest my thinking. The gun lay on the floor beneath the bed. Considering only what came next, I wiped surfaces down with my shirttail, replaced the gun back into the bedside table drawer, and closed it.

Heading downstairs. Reviewing immediate options. Simple sentences like this. It felt urgently important to give away as little as possible to the voice, knowing that it had probably just compelled me to shoot myself.

I could pick up its mood, but not its thoughts, a slight advantage. Annoyingly exhilarated with its newfound speaking powers, the voice clearly believed that it had gained the upper hand without my head attached. Having lost arguably the most critical organ of my body, I couldn't really disagree.

In terms of charisma, the shift from subvocal to spoken was not a kind transition for the voice. Its former mystical authority became smarmy and wheedling. It sounded petty as it listed all the reasons that things would be very complicated for me over the next few days, smugly considering all the disadvantages stacked against me out loud.

"For example, to get any type of medical or psychological care," the voice intoned, "will require proof of person—an utter impossibility in your condition. Credentials will be very important. To start building a chain of evidence that connects you back to the head. That's probably job one."

"A birth certificate," I thought to myself. The voice brightened at the thought, but with an irony that I couldn't quite explain.

I moved quickly through the house, still trying to lock down open thoughts while retracing my steps through the kitchen and into the study, where my parents kept all the vital paperwork and computer systems.

With blinds drawn, the study looked as dark as the rest of the downstairs, but digital hardware blinked brightly under the desk. I immediately picked up a distinct sound that reminded me of summer insects. It comes from all directions at once, almost extra-dimensional as it rises and fades like a buzzing from another planet. It turns out that when you've lost your head, digital systems make this type of modified cricket sound all the time, vibrating through the body in waves.

Walking over to adjust the window blinds and let in more sunshine, I noticed for a third time what must have been the same dark blue bird that had followed me around the house. It stood on a nearby tree branch, bobbing its head to see past the window glare and inspect my headless body.

We stared at each other for a moment. The bird calmly observed the irreparable damage to my head, cocking its head one way and the other, taking mental notes. I stood frozen, staring back, surprised to detect such a curiously alert, unafraid, and sentient creature in front of me. A curious recognition passed between us, and it subtly nodded approval. I bowed my shoulders forward with prayer hands, not sure what else to do, feeling silly. The bird took a step backward, disturbed by the gesture, and continued gazing upon me with a funny, superior attitude. I took some small hope from thinking we made a connection. The voice chuckled, smirking invisibly, eavesdropping over my shoulder.

Turning back to the file cabinet, annoyed by the voice's omnipresence, I began thumbing through the paperwork, looking for my birth certificate. I passed from section to section with mounting panic. The area in the cabinet devoted to my personal information was missing. My parents had always kept everything: Report cards, swim meet ribbons, kindergarten drawings, team pictures, immunization charts, and school portraits. But now, all my records were gone, cleaned out like my room.

I desperately pulled all the files from the cabinet and stacked them in clumsy piles across the floor. Outside, the bluish-black bird jumped from its branch and fluttered into a reverse stance to watch me from its other eye.

Lost, I slowly loaded the files back into the drawer. I began to think more broadly about my prospects. Should I stay and discuss it with my parents? Given my injury, I had very few options, especially without a birth certificate. The voice slyly agreed.

Ruminating on my debacle, I suddenly noticed a small piece of paper lying at the bottom of the cabinet, almost invisible in the darkness among the forgotten piles of dust and hair. By lying down on the floor, squeezing my hand under the drawer, and using the small pink tip of a pencil eraser, I reached just far enough inside to extract the newspaper clipping from its cloister.

The voice stiffened when I sat up and held the clipping to the light. Going by the date on the upper left corner of the page, it looked like a newspaper photo of me at nine years old. The caption said I had won third place in the school math fair.

Oddly, I couldn't really place the moment. A science fair prize and photo in the local newspaper is normally a big deal that kids remember, but I didn't even recognize the venue. The closer I tried to read the photographic details of the background, the more they dissolved in newspaper halftones.

Face-wise, it was definitely me, but the picture had such an anonymous quality, and the event looked so entirely different from anything I remembered as a kid, that the clipping felt fake. I worried that its discovery, the only surviving document from an otherwise flawless erasure, only appeared accidental. A bizarre and growing orchestration of events seemed to be unfolding around me, from my dream to the Accident and now this potentially forged clipping.

Meanwhile, the voice had grown intensely quiet and distant. It began to confer in a murmur with someone else through an interior channel that I could not hear. It had gloated at my predicament only a moment ago, but now the newspaper clipping had spooked it. It paced in the background, arguing in a loud whisper, protesting a decision. Then suddenly, as mysteriously as it appeared, the voice was gone, somehow dispatched to another location.

The clipping had spooked it. This delicate document felt so extraordinarily light in my hands that it pulled at my fingertips to float away. It appeared authentic, browned and brittle with age, far too timeworn to fake. But without a memory to anchor it, something felt wrong.

I looked for clues in my childhood expression, some emotional cues to trigger a feeling, and feelings to map with a memory. But nothing looked familiar. In fact, the photo looked strangely ethereal. A spectral glow of sunshine streamed from an arched window and reverently backlit a set of glowing crystalline forms over my head.

With the voice disappeared, I felt safe to consider my situation in broader terms. The loss of my head was unrepairable, but I could function without it. And while the voice clearly played a role, I suspected the vase lurked behind everything. When it broke, that unleashed a plot to erase me. 

I considered all these ideas at once, looking outside and staring once more at the dark blue bird, which calmly returned my gaze. Through its calm but twitchy attitude, the bird conveyed a note of hope for the containment of the rapidly expanding damage crashing down upon me. The newspaper clipping keeps darker forces at bay, it seemed to say. Even if it's fake and something much more significant is conspiring against you, it said, play along.

The bird was right, I decided, even if I had outright invented its advice. As much as I doubted the clipping's authenticity and provenance, it had created an unexpected but significant advantage in my situation. Forgery or not, the clipping slowed my disappearance, anchoring me back in the real world and signifying that the voice had somehow lost its edge. Here was the start of a chain of evidence that I actually exist.

I found an empty envelope in the study, into which I carefully slipped the document. As I folded down the envelope's flap, a small flake of paper, a tiny brittle edge of the fragile clipping, broke away from the sheet and began to float weightlessly on a soft current of air, revolving upwards like a spinning maple seed in reverse.

Suddenly the dark blue bird outside the window jumped off its branch and flew straight into the window, knocking its beak loudly against the glass with a sharp crack. It flapped wildly backward, fluttering and agitated, then charged against the glass again, aiming directly for the tiny spinning fragment as it floated towards the window, recklessly trying to crash through the glass to catch the hovering piece of paper.

As this happened, the natural physics of time began to gently warp around me again, slowing both sight and sound into a longer and longer frozen instant. The bird's midair frenzy decelerated. It pulled back from the window, extending its wings to expose its ten-thousand fingertip plumage and each feather's iridescent shadings of blue and black. Beneath its wings, a subtle, hidden pattern of grey, black, and white played across its breast. For a long, drawn-out moment, I stared in rapt amazement at the pointillist beauty of the wing's overlapping patterns unfolding in slow rotary motion like a delicate supernal hand fan.

As its wings widened to full span, the bird calmly rose in the air, eerily carried aloft by an impossible cushion of wind. Floating in magically suspended flight, its full wingspan launched wide and head-trained majestically sideways, the bird became the living revelation of a mighty and pervasive force that somehow worked through its body, the space around it, and the unfolding of time across both.

I observed in mute paralysis, frozen to the spot. The dark blue bird turned its gaze upon me and proceeded with a piercing black eye, a point that reflected no light, to direct a thought into my mind. The idea entered me with a shudder of spine-tingling energy and perfectly registered its point. But because my head was missing, the most critical details trailed away like smoke, like the memory of a dream upon waking.

Still, the message was delivered with such conviction and backed so lucidly by its display of power, that a portion of the truth lingered in my body. And the single surviving phrase that the bird conveyed went something like this: "You have been terribly deceived.