By Claire Bateman
Most people find a trip to the pillow museum so exhausting that afterward they need a long nap to recover from experiencing all the dreams the display items have absorbed from their original sleepers.
Theoretically, anyone could navigate the museum according to taste, steering clear of, for instance, the homicide pillow, the fetish pillow, and the arson pillow, as well as the pillows of Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Manson, and all those dental hygienists and IRS attorneys. Theoretically, one could choose only the pillows of the confectioner, the Olympic surfer, the dolphin-whisperer, and so on, but nobody does this, since it’s common knowledge that every shunned pillow takes offense, vengefully suctioning out a single breath from the visitor’s lifespan as they pass it by on the micro-sleep tour—a tiny, insignificant portion until you start adding up all the individual penalties over the years.
Nevertheless, not only does everyone return frequently, especially when hosting out-of-town guests (the museum is our only tourist attraction), but most of us are employed here as well, sanitizing, repairing, plumping, positioning, and working as docents or gravity-adjusters—there are also the soothers, wakers-and-shakers of visitors, members of the custodial, managerial, and administrative staffs, and the guards who protect the pillows from theft, vandalism, and all possible forms of dishonor.
I’ve spent my entire working life at the museum, beginning in my teens as a lowly turner, then moving up to plumping and gravity-work, and proceeding through the ranks until at the august age of fifty, I became Acquisitions Chief, which necessitates much travel as I follow the leads sent in by our field operatives all over the world. Though I’ve had to familiarize myself with many languages and cultures, most arduous of all to acquire are the pillows’ own dialects, consisting of layer upon delicate layer of sighs, exhalations, and silences. And because so many of the most obvious acquisitions had already been obtained before my tenure, this work is more demanding for me than it was for my predecessors who brought in the myriad of homespun pillows where George Washington laid his head, the astronaut pillows of Apollo 11, and so on.
It’s fallen to me to track down esoteric, out-of-the-way treasures—the very first pillow, made of Mesopotamian stone, whose purpose was solely to raise the head above ground level, keeping insects from creeping into the eyes, ears, and nose of the sleeper; a pair of ancient and costly Chinese jade matrimonial pillows; the crude straw pillow that cradled Marie Antoinette’s pre-severed head in her loathsome prison; and my most recent procurement, Mata Hari’s collapsible jet-black mulberry-silk pillow which she kept in her reticule—inside it still nestles the rare Kolibri pistol, antique even then, affectionately known as “the hummingbird” due to its diminutive size, effective only at the most intimate of ranges.
Each potential candidate must be evaluated in its original habitat, though a pillow thus disturbed is likely to prove surly and taciturn at first, refusing to reveal the dreams it harbors. Some pillows even turn violent, but with my prowess in advanced pillow-wrangling, I’ve never met one I couldn’t eventually examine and subdue for transport. Strapped into an airplane seat, even the most recalcitrant captive settles and cools as it subtly preens itself, practically purring, since being in the air makes any pillow feel at peace in its own essence, flight undoubtedly reminding it of the suspension of sleep.
I myself live entirely pillowless at home, a job requirement; I’ve assimilated so much of the pillows’ inner lives (spending weeks with each of them at their origin sites rather than undergoing the mere three-minute sleeps allotted to museum visitors), it would be abusive to subject any pillow to the contents of my brain. Over time, I’ve grown used to my perpetual migraines and stiff neck, the long, uncushioned cramp as I torment myself with this question: if the museum were to go up in flames, and I had time to grab only one pillow, which would I rescue? Is there some objective scale by which to measure the worth of each?
It’s only recently I’ve realized that the ultimate pillow is one we don’t possess and can’t acquire since it doesn’t yet exist, though I’ve glimpsed it during moments of half-sleep. It is The Pillow of the Future, that universal treasure no Acquisitions Chief will have to wander the world seeking, since it’ll be present everywhere, swathing each head as a luminous, porous, transparent bubble, not manufactured by hand but spun from consciousness itself—in fact, it will be visible even in fetal ultrasounds, a flexible, floating penumbra that contracts around the skull for passage through the birth canal, then blossoms outward with the first breath. Perhaps this immersive pillow will hold whatever meta-mind humanity grows into, or perhaps it will be made of time or the music of the spheres—I can only speculate.
Then the Pillow Museum, if it still stands, will serve as a relic of our benighted era where thoughts are still trapped inside their heads. Schoolchildren will wander through the exhibit halls between rows and rows of permanently somnolent, empty pillows as their teachers say, Think of it . . . all those sleepers dreaming alone together!
Claire Bateman is the author of eight collections of poetry/prose poetry/flash fiction, most recently, Scape, and with another collection, Wonders of the World, forthcoming from 42 Miles. Bateman has received two Pushcart Prizes and an NEA grant, and is the Poetry Editor of Weekly Hubris. Bateman is also a visual artist—some of her work can be seen at instagram.com/clairejbateman.