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Fiction

The Dream Curator

It is the business of the Dream Curator to choose, and at the moment he is doing so. On his left, an uninspiring rococo fantasia on a childhood humiliation; on his right, a fractured symbolist nightmare of mollusks and walls of televisions. Neither is permanent-gallery material, but both tempt him to reshuffle the rotating exhibit space near the front of the museum. He samples them again, and makes the correct decision. Too much beauty in a museum, he thinks to himself, is not necessarily a good thing. And the mollusks will look good in the newspapers.

Instructing his assistant to catalog the dream and prepare it for installation, the Dream Curator goes to the window and counts slowly backward from 181, using only prime numbers. He admires prime numbers for their resolute indivisibility, and this is his way of preparing for the ordeal of interacting with the Nine Benefactors, one of whom is on his way to the Dream Curator’s office at this moment. He looks with longing at the door behind his desk; temptation is strong. To fight it, he tells his secretary that he will meet the Benefactor out in the galleries, and he walks. In recent years, the Nine Benefactors have grown infatuated with the work of an architect devoted to the proposition that all buildings are bodies, and the newer galleries are curved, oblong, organic. The Dream Curator is indifferent to architecture but scrupulously disdainful of trends. With every addition and renovation, he shuffles different collections into different rooms. Circulating, he thinks wryly—and recalls a dream of William Harvey’s, squirreled away somewhere in the archives. Something about embryology and Charles I. Dreams of science, utopian visions, erotic apparitions, a specialized collection he calls False Families, in which the dreamer puts a stranger in the place of a family member. Another thematic collection, this one concentrating on lovers’ melancholy. Nightmares of every sort—the single most popular gallery, more popular even than the small and very exclusive exhibit of celebrity pornography—dreams of the insane, dreams of artists in which their canvases can be seen aborning. But the Dream Curator’s favorite wing—or perhaps he should say organ—is the Gallery of Writers. Here visitors find the great ideas lost in the wrenching moment between sleeping revelation and waking anguish. This, to the Dream Curator’s mind, is the prize of the museum’s holdings, and most emblematic of the traumatic daily rebirth into physical life. He has worked hard to expand this gallery. In this room, he sees the dream’s reach exceeding the mind’s grasp, and knows that his own quotidian shortcomings are reflected and magnified on a more elevated plane, and in this way validated. Here, the unwritten Canterbury Tale that broke Chaucer’s resolve, faint traces of which can be read in the exhausted supplication of the poet’s Retraction; the novel Virginia Woolf carried with her down into the River Ouse; the vision whose loss squeezed the trigger of Hemingway’s shotgun. And an alcove known as the Room of Shakespeare’s Sister, ablaze with the mordant and unfettered flights of women doomed to silence in the waking world.

In a kidney-shaped newer wing, the children’s exhibit. Dreams here are sacrificed, reshaped, polished, and elided to survive the depredations of the young and gently develop their oneiric sensitivity. Scuffed, pinched, scribbled on, damp with tears saliva grape jelly, these dreams are no longer fit for general exhibition, if they ever were. The Dream Curator tries to choose them carefully, so they will instruct and delight, but also so that their inevitable loss will not compromise the institution’s holdings. He has never stolen one of them. The Dream Curator believes in nurturing and protecting the young. What he does not believe in is catering to the bovine whim of the mass of visitors to the museum, which is why he is at this moment bickering with one of the Nine Benefactors, a misshapen hulk of idle wealth who in the Dream Curator’s imagined Body of the Museum plays a role akin to that of a gland that secretes a foul but indispensable fluid. The crux of the dispute is the Dream Curator’s exhibition choices, but experience has inured him to the complaint that a particular dream is pedestrian or transparent or boring. De gustibus, et cetera, and he is the one hired to make those decisions and take the complaints with good grace and the proper admixture of hauteur.

“Dreams of generals, statesmen,” the Gland is insisting as the Dream Curator flees from him through the children’s wing, scattering a group of ten-year-olds mauling a once-charming vision of Noah’s Ark. Somehow the briny smell of the dream clings to their clothes, and as he passes among them, the smell follows the Dream Curator into the Historical Wing. Forever after this, he will associate the Gland with the smell of Old Testament catastrophe. “Mathematicians, musicians.” Seeing that the Dream Curator is not listening, the Gland grips his upper arm with a hand smelling of the urine of Leviathan. “Dreams of Billie Holliday,” the Gland says through gritted teeth.

“Which were divine, for as long as they lasted.” The Dream Curator is losing his temper. Desire for the Blue Quiet is fraying his well-rehearsed professional bonhomie. “But you know as well as I that none of Holliday’s dreams can survive exhibition. It’s the same with De Quincey, or Poe, or Cobain. The drugs erode the substance of the dream, so all I have left is visitors expecting the collection to reflect the brochures that you distribute at your fund-raisers. And who handles their complaints? None of you nine.”

The Gland, in his fury, grows mottled and begins to hiss. “At the next board meeting, I will certainly address your feelings.”

“Please do,” the Dream Curator says, and leaves the Gland emitting his briny smell amid the dreams of philosophers and kings. A body, he thinks, with all the derision of which he is capable. Shouldn’t it be a mind? Ah, but he can already hear what the Nine Benefactors would say to that, and the supercilious tones of their voices. Do you, Curator, know the contours of a mind? In the game of derision, they outclass him effortlessly.

His flight continues, carrying him into the MAW, the Maladies and Afflictions Wing—known as “Ma” to some of the more flippant staffers due to the number of deformed manifestations of motherhood therein. This is a holdover from the Dream Curator’s predecessor, and one of his near-term ambitions is to purge this disturbing emphasis in favor of a more eclectic presentation. Surrounded by the tortured imaginings of paranoids and lunatics, the Dream Curator undergoes a moment of acute self-questioning. He is failing in the area of administrative politicking, and it is because of the Blue Quiet. Yes, he thinks. This is true. Only a fool would argue against this proposition.

And then his steps are echoing through the MAW as he turns toward his office, and behind it his refuge, the sequestered and surreptitious collection he calls the Blue Quiet.

• • • •

Fragment 22. Water fades to infinity below and behind her. Before her, an endless wall of ice. The water is warm, and she breathes. The ice undulates under her fingertips as she sinks. She arrests her progress and hangs suspended in the Blue Quiet, peeling back the layers of her mind in search of something she can call a thought. An orca rises from below, and she takes its fin the way she assents to the touch of a lover. With a twitch of its flukes, it takes her down and away.

• • • •

The Dream Curator calms his breathing. A loamy taste in his mouth alerts him that he has forgotten to eat, and he rises from his chair and makes his way to the cafeteria. The food’s only merit is that it can be metabolized. Around him, the museum is shutting its doors, purging itself of visitors. The staff avoid him. It is winter, dark already; with the taste of forgotten food in his mouth, he blunders back to his office, through the rear door and into his poor secondhand love.

• • • •

Fragment 7. The mirror magnifies all that she hates and despises about herself. Makeup helps a little. Someone is waiting for her; a thousand men are waiting for her. But one of them she wants, and alone with the mirror she fears that he will not recognize her, that he will pass her by. She looks, and looks, and loathes.

• • • •

In the dying light of winter, the Dream Curator aches. You, he thinks. I will find you. I will not pass you by. You you you. The sun has set on his rumination, and there is nothing to do but go home. He dreams of her, uselessly because he knows her only through the Blue Quiet, but he nurtures a sustaining illusion that perhaps she receives the message he tries so valiantly to transmit. This runs counter to prevailing oneirological theory, which scoffs at notions of dream transmission, but the Dream Curator is not interested in theory. His great and tenacious hope is that one day he will find one of her dreams, and find himself in it. He awakens heartsick and afraid, wanting a name, but what he has is fragments. He will piece them together if it is the last thing he does, and when he has, he will know her name. This is madness, he knows that, but because it springs from madness, the bond has the strength of betrothal.

He has also dreamed of being an insect, as he often does, and during his walk to the museum, his hands steal under his coat, absentmindedly feeling his flanks for spiracles.

• • • •

Fragment 2. She’s holding a bird in her hands. Maybe she’s a girl. The life between her palms fills her with knowledge of all that she is missing, and with a sigh she lifts her arms and watches it fly into the sun.

• • • •

There are twenty-seven fragments, numbered in the order of their acquisition. The Dream Curator is convinced that his revelation will come when the number of fragments in the Blue Quiet reaches twenty-nine. Partially this is because of his love for prime numbers, partially because in Fragment 9 the date October 29 is circled on a calendar. The mysticism inherent in this belief is of course inappropriate to a man in the Dream Curator’s position, and he keeps it to himself. But privately he thinks that he has been rational for quite long enough, thank you very much, and if he had to misappropriate museum funds to collect the first few pieces of the Blue Quiet, well, the Nine Benefactors spend as much breakfasting each week.

Fragment 1 appeared a year ago, in a miscellaneous lot tagged onto the end of an auction that the Dream Curator attended only at the Gland’s insistence. Until the moment when he bid on that lot, the Dream Curator had been the very model of an arts administrator; after, he was transformed. He lied on the manifest, he miscataloged the nine pieces in the lot, he squirreled Fragment 1 away in the rooms behind his office—rooms that had once served as his predecessor’s living quarters—and he surrendered himself to a plainly doomed and quixotic quest for something, or someone, who very probably did not exist. For Fragment 1, like a few of the others that came later, was not her dream but a dream of her, and like a great many other eroticized dreams, it might well have been an ideation of the dreamer’s matrix of desires. Marvelous, the Dream Curator thought at the time. I must have her. The thought shocked him because he had no experience with passion, but he quickly gained it, and went on to discover the unique and terrifying pleasure of giving himself over to obsession. The seed was planted with Fragment 1, but it was Fragment 2 that collapsed the Dream Curator’s understanding of his desire for her, and each acquisition since has rebuilt it along more and more fantastic lines.

The bird, he thinks now. He has never held a bird in his hands. Except he has, because she has.

• • • •

Fragment 14. Lightning from a clear blue sky, that’s this first moment when she catches his eye from across the room. Time bunches up and elongates again; they’re laughing at a joke she’s made about inchworms, his face drawing candlelight. He doesn’t close his eyes.

• • • •

The Dream Curator opens his, and without enthusiasm begins his day. He has been reading entomology because of his dreams, and the word holometabolous will not leave his head. Inchworms are holometabolous. He bathes, and dresses, and directs his thoughts elsewhere, but the press of loneliness is upon him, and questions arise that do not bear close examination.

How many mornings can you wake up in a silent house?

How many mornings can you shave in front of a mirror that has never reflected any face but your own?

• • • •

Fragment 9. Photographs taped to the wall. Looking at them makes her happy. A warm rush of anticipation flows through her when she sees the date circled on the calendar.

• • • •

The Dream Curator has traveled quite some distance to await an auction in this airless room under the desiccated glow of fluorescent tubes through dusty and flyspecked ceiling panels. The catalog is poorly assembled, and after a moment’s flipping through it, he sets it on the seat next to his. Almost immediately, one of his colleagues—the Dream Curator considers anyone at this auction a colleague, and he despises them equally—requests the seat. She is posed and cordial, attractive in an antiseptic way that the Dream Curator is surprised to find himself responding to. One of those women—and men as well, he supposes, thinking of particular fragments of the Blue Quiet with an inward blush—who is perfectly unremarkable in every individual respect but whose complete presence captivates. He has thought in almost these exact terms about dreams before, or at least the ones he prefers. Not for the first time he wonders how many of his colleagues have come to the profession because they are composed according to the principles of the collections they oversee. We are all dreams, he thinks, and we are all bored to the point of suicide by the idea that we are all dreams. When the auctioneer appears, his colleague is expressing her opinion on the latest developments in authentication standards, and the Dream Curator is wishing he had an exoskeleton.

Three hours later, he is packing for the trip home, having acquired a series of startling vampire nightmares and a childhood picnic reminiscence, suffused with light and ocean air but seen at a distance of forty or more years, as a result of which the ants on the picnic table periodically quote revelatory passages from the dreamer’s dissertation. The vampires are a crass attempt to boost flagging attendance, and also the Dream Curator is already taking a curdled joy in the response they will provoke from the Nine Benefactors—curdled because despite the assurances of a broker who has never before misled him, the piece he came to see was not of the Blue Quiet, not at all.

• • • •

Fragment 17. Wanting him consumes her. Her body grows transparent, her bones are peeling like birch bark. He isn’t coming back. She will never find all the little pieces of herself.

• • • •

At the board meeting, the Nine Benefactors are predictably disapproving of the vampires. This is not the sort of thing we would wish to represent this institution, is the refrain. The Dream Curator’s response, by now a mantra, is: Make up your minds. Do you want popular dreams, or do you want the kind of dreams calibrated to win the approbation of critics and the largesse of donors? The overlap between the two categories is very small. His response is dismissed with the smugness of the idle rich who know that their opinions are more important than the truth. One of them—cadaverous, female, newly seated on the board—opines that an infamous orgiastic fantasia on tensor calculus known as The Debauch of Indices should be acquired for the science wing; the Dream Curator mentally dubs her the Vein as the meeting degenerates into its standard circular firing squad of competing agendas. The Dream Curator leaves without asking. They do not notice.

• • • •

Fragment 12. The dogs howl even though the train has passed. Something is wrong with the stars, they swirl counterclockwise and drain away into her heart.

• • • •

Snow is falling outside his window as the Dream Curator composes a fund-raising letter and begins the scheduling of the next series of lectures. The office is cold, and he works quickly, feeling good at least for the moment. Only so much of a day can be spent indulging despondent tendencies. The schedule falls into place, and he is informed that a prominent professor of oneirological semiosis will indeed be available on the desired date. What peacock-feathering, the Dream Curator thinks, but he also knows that the professor’s visit will bring an injection of cachet, which in turn will bring in donations, which in turn will allow him to quietly siphon off bits here and there for the Blue Quiet. If he has to genuflect before the altar of academic specialty, it’s a small price to pay.

• • • •

Fragment 3. She lies on her side, somnolent but aware of him moving in the house. His smell is in her hair. Clank of something dropped in the sink, and she sits up and realizes she’s dreamed it all, that the only breath in the house is her own.

• • • •

With the smell of cinnamon in his nose, the Dream Curator wakes up. He can prepare for his work. In the light of a solitary dawn, that is what he can do. He walks through the cold city morning to the museum. His shoes fit poorly and he is finding it difficult to keep his balance. At midday, the Vein suggests they have lunch together. There’s a sense among the Nine that you’re getting to close to your work, she tells him. They’re at a bistro a block from the museum, sitting in chairs that are too high around a table that is too small eating sandwiches that are too expensive.

The Dream Curator realizes that this is true. He is too close to the work, or at any rate so close to part of it that he’s much too far away from the rest. He thanks the Vein for taking him into her confidence. She brushes away his gratitude and leaves him with a kindly spoken warning: They don’t want real oversight, you know. With real oversight comes real responsibility. They want to complain, and you need to learn how to manage their complaints so that you are more useful to them as a vessel for their discontent and their paternalism than you would be as a scapegoat. Vessels stay on the shelf, and are reused; scapegoats are driven into the desert.

For the rest of the day, the Dream Curator curls and evades, nods with minimal politeness at staff and takes the day’s correspondence from his secretary without a glance. Neither a vessel nor a scapegoat, at least not yet, he remains a holometabolous insect, the museum his cocoon. His office smells of leather and the musk of pieces lost through aggressive handling or too much attention. Conservation efforts are shoddy, for too long he has delegated them to his assistant, who is unqualified. This must be addressed. There are auctions to attend, donations to examine, meetings to schedule. He locks the door and retreats into the Blue Quiet.

• • • •

Fragment 5. You can’t stay, can you?—and no, they part, each into the gleaming dawn, winter light the color of ending. Even music doesn’t help. On the street everything slows and moves in concert, an adagio of heartbreak and bruised hope.

• • • •

He forces himself weeping through the door and leans on his desk. Once, when he was new at the museum, the Dream Curator acquired a self-congratulatory allegory of a religious zealot who in the dream owned property along a river just above a hidden waterfall. Seeing in this situation a perfect instantiation of a common proverb, the zealot erected a large sign bearing the word PRIDE on the riverbank, and reasoned that every time a canoeist or fisherman did not interpret the message, he had rid the world of a sinner. The dream of the sign’s construction was—is, since it is now on loan to a university collection of religious materials—unremarkable, even banal, save for the peculiar subconscious texture of disgust that underlay every stroke of the hammer. At the time, the Dream Curator was unacquainted with this feeling, and was fascinated with the way disgust recomplicates itself and turns inward. Now he is too familiar with the sensation. He is sick of himself, has had all of his thoughts a thousand times and no longer believes himself capable of new ones—except in those first exalted moments of a new addition to the Blue Quiet. Then he is alive, then he is not just curator but curate. The rest is existence, sheer animal existence tolerable only as long as he doesn’t let himself think about it.

She is out there, he thinks.

And makes the mistake of confiding in his assistant one morning, after a night of uneasy sleep that should have been punctuated by unsettling dreams but was not. The conversation begins unexpectedly, with a pun dropped during the course of planning a new series of seminars on conservation and archiving. I am not just curator but curate, he jokes, not realizing the truth of it until the words have left his mouth. For a kaleidoscopic moment, he is on the edge of revealing the existence of the Blue Quiet, for if he is curate, then it is the sacred relic beating at the heart of the profane public display that is the rest of the museum’s holdings. Yes, he thinks. Yes—but manages not to tell her everything. In the flush of pleasure that follows this unexpected private discovery, however, the Dream Curator unburdens himself, feels an uncharacteristic and liberating impulse to speak of his heterodox views on dream transmission and oneiric exchange, even uses the words destiny and love and presses her for some ratification of his emotional state. Already during the conversation he regrets it, but he could have done nothing else, and afterward he feels better—purged, uplifted, perhaps sanctified—by his candor.

She resigns the next morning, under the impression that he has made an advance, and the Dream Curator finds himself the target of disapproving glances. Conversations terminate when he rounds corners in the museum’s offices. He considers defending himself, and realizes that at some crossroads on his long search for the Blue Quiet, he has left behind the ideal of reputation and career that once propelled him out of bed each morning. The Nine Benefactors let it be known that his status will be discussed at their next meeting—but in the interim, he finds himself in the vexed position of having to interview successors. He puts it off by answering his correspondence, knowing that soon these same requests for loans, queries about bequests, reminders of financial difficulties will be addressed to someone else. He has ruined himself.

And then a small package from an address he knows well. The Dream Curator shivers, and takes a moment to glory in the tingle of anticipation. Written on the package is a personal note from the broker—a prize, this one, a real prize; you just wait!—and he’s breathing high in his chest as he divides tape from paper with the reverence of a man defusing a bomb.

• • • •

Fragment 28. She is walking the halls of a museum . . .

• • • •

Someone is knocking at his door. His voice is hoarse, and he has to answer twice before he is heard. From the other side of the door comes notification that the Nine Benefactors will be meeting in a half-hour, and his presence is requested thirty minutes after that. Footsteps recede.

Not twenty-nine, he thinks. Of course not. Prime numbers are solitary. Never has he been so happy to be wrong. Exploding desire fills him, to live a life punctuated by such ecstatic mistakes. He uses his allotted hour to gather his things, then walks to the boardroom, smiling along the way at the thought of not having to hear the professor’s lecture. Wings still wet, antennae unfurling, the Dream Curator faces the Nine Benefactors. When they have finished with him, he asks them: Have you ever held a bird in your hands?

Alex Irvine

Born in Ann Arbor, raised mostly in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with stops in Colorado and Texas and Tennessee. Graduate of the universities of Michigan, Maine, and Denver. Lives in a 160-year-old house in Maine where there is not a level floor to be found. Three kids. Two dogs, one bird, one snake. Devotee of soccer, baseball, and hockey. Also books, comics, games, and movies.