The first thing you have to understand is that my apartment is way too big, and I’m kind of a clutterbug, so I lose stuff constantly. I’ve got three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and it’s just me living here. I don’t know what I was thinking when I moved in. Half the rooms I don’t even use; they’re just full of random junk and collectibles: old furniture, clothes, knickknacks and gewgaws. I like to rummage through antique stores and pawn shops and garage sales. My motto is: you never know when you might need something. For instance, I live in a land-locked city, but I have an inflatable raft under my bed. King-size, because I like to stretch out. I’ve got a baby swing, a crib, and a bundle of infant clothes all stacked up in a corner behind the dining room table; I’m sure as hell not using those any time soon, unless I learn how to reproduce asexually, but I have them (just in case). There’s an old plow yoke that lives in the coat closet, behind the two coats I actually use. I think I was planning on doing a rustic decoration theme at some point? Hard to remember, but when I do, I’ll be prepared.
The main point is that it’s not unusual for me to misplace things or find something I can’t remember obtaining in the first place.
I like the crowded, slapdash arrangement I have, the amusing surprises and helpful coincidences, and normally I’m pretty blasé about losing things (I’ve got fifteen of everything I’d ever need—and the fun is in the finding and the getting, not the having), but the other day, I was having the worst sense of… deja vu, I guess? Some kind of obsessive disorder, maybe.
I had a vision in my head of a jar, a very particular jar. Light blue ceramic, a couple of handles on the sides, and a little lid on top that I knew would open with a pop, because it had a cork stopper. Almost like an urn. Nothing special, really. I had no idea where I would have gotten it or why, and I really wasn’t sure why I wanted to find it so badly, but I became convinced that it was somewhere in my apartment, and I couldn’t rest until I found it.
I tore apart the kitchen, two of the bedrooms, and most of the living room, opening drawers and dumping out old spectacles, silver state-crest spoons, costume jewelry, an old set of manacles. I found a stash of old mezzotints in frames and a really nice top hat, a big brass doorknob with matching key, a cashmere scarf, and a set of My Little Pony toys from the eighties. I even found a folder of schoolwork, elementary school stuff (not mine; no idea where that even would have come from). But I didn’t find that jar.
Finally, I sat on the floor amid a haphazard sprawl of vinyl records and cassettes, stewing over my failure. I wanted the jar so badly I could taste it (dusty and dry, like the ghost of mildew). And then I realized how absurd I looked, pouting in the middle of the mess I’d made of my toys like an overgrown toddler, and I started laughing. I thought about calling out for a pizza, but I was feeling a little claustrophobic. I decided to go out.
Later, as I was walking home full of kebabs and a couple of beers, I spotted a junk shop I didn’t recognize. This, you might imagine, is a pretty rare experience for someone of my inclinations.
The inside of the shop was startlingly brightly lit. You think of those places as having a couple of thirty-watts flickering in dusty shades at best, but this one was as well-lit as a big box store, harsh light that threw tiny, ink-black circles of shadow on the floor under every object. The man behind the counter caught my eye as I entered and smiled, big and wide. It was like he recognized me, but not as a friend. More like a dealer seeing his number one pillhead rolling up on payday.
“Welcome back,” he said. “You look like a man with a burden upon his life.”
I’d never seen him before. He had the kind of face your eyes slide off of, could be anywhere between twenty-five and fifty, a middling skin tone that could have come from anyplace on three continents, a precise but empty accent that revealed exactly nothing. The stuff in the shop looked pretty standard—musty books here, vintage radios there, old clothes in the middle, and some spindly chairs in the back. I was losing my beer buzz and starting to feel disappointed.
That’s when I saw it behind the counter. Pale blue, like a robin’s egg. Two small handles. Round stoppered lid. The jar, the one in my head. Here, in this random rubbish-filled store that I’d never heard of.
I came up to the counter, but my mouth was too dry. I licked my lips and pointed, wide-eyed, at the jar.
“Ah, you hear it calling?” The shopkeep smiled. “But that is a lie, as it is a lie.”
“How much?” I managed. “For the jar?”
He laughed. “The Innocent Jar? It is worthless. But for what is inside, I think, for you, a bargain can be made.”
I blinked. It was hard not to look at the jar. “What do you mean? What’s inside it?”
He looked side to side as though checking for spies, then leaned in and gestured me closer. “Nothing!” he whispered gleefully, and laughed again. More of a cackle.
“How much?” I snapped.
“It does not matter,” he said, shrugging with one shoulder. “Let us say… fifty dollars.”
I already had my wallet out and slapped a fifty onto the counter. He caught my hand like a gecko snapping a cricket and held it down. “I think this will be the last time I tell you this,” he said, “but it must be done. It must be done correctly. Innocent, from nocere, meaning to harm, and in-, meaning without. Nocere from the older root, nek.” He stared at me and his eyes were clear like glass. “Nek is death. In-nek. Deathless. Eternity.” He glanced to the side, and I saw the jar had moved to the countertop when I wasn’t looking. “The vessel is empty, do you understand? It has always been empty and it always will be empty. No matter what you put in, there will never be anything there, and you will never receive anything back. Nothing comes out of the jar,” he tightened his grip and I tried to pull away, “because there is nothing inside the jar.”
He released my hand so abruptly that I stumbled backwards. The next coherent memory I have is of walking down the street to the subway station, feeling the chill of the autumn night and the even colder lump of the Innocent Jar cradled in my left arm. My hand still stung where the shopkeep’s fingernails had dug in.
He’d called me a man with a burden on my life. What the hell did that even mean? I pushed open the door to my apartment building and started up the stairs. Burdens, though. I used to have friends. College friends, work friends. Everyone has friends. But then… people drift. Everyone couples up and settles down, has children and mortgages and career paths and two weeks of vacation (if they’re lucky). No more time. But I’m free. Free and easy.
By the time I got home, I felt like I’d swallowed a rock. Kebab meat must have been off. I went to sit down, but the couch was covered with half-tumbled boxes. I groaned and leaned over, placing the blue jar gently onto the cushions before I rested my hands on the couch’s arm and back and breathed through my nose. I smelled dust and dry wood and old paper, normally some of my favorite things, but they just made things worse. I sat onto the floor with a grunt. The jar tipped to the side and I gasped in horror, scrabbling to catch it before it fell, before she fell and hurt herself.
The chill of the hardened clay in my hands reminded me that I hadn’t opened the jar yet. He’d said it was empty.
The lid resisted at first, but after a gentle twist, it slid out like it had been greased. I couldn’t see inside the jar. I turned it to face the light from the window. Still nothing. Dark as the bottom of the sea. I pulled the lampshade off of… it must have been a lamp, on the side table. The blackness inside didn’t move or react even as I moved the… the light source closer to it.
But the lamp is gone. It went into the jar, but the jar is empty, and I can’t remember what I had been holding. It was… not. It had never been. I only know it was a lamp because the shade is still here. I can’t remember what it looked like, let alone where I found it or how long I’d had it or what its story had been.
I set the jar down very, very carefully and put the lid on top like I was deactivating a landmine. I had most of a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen, so I proceeded to get extremely drunk while I tried to absorb the idea that I had some kind of portable black hole in a cheery, baby-blue jug. A memory hole. An oubliette. (French word. Means “forgotten.” It’s a type of dungeon, like a well. A deep pit with a door at the top. You throw people in and they never come out.)
Around about two a.m., the whiskey ran out. I sat in the dark without a lamp and cradled the jar on my lap like a child, like my little girl. I looked at the mess I still hadn’t cleaned up and suddenly I was angry. I had all the time in the world to myself, nothing to do and nowhere to go, and all I’d done was collect all this stuff. This junk, this garbage, this fucking clutter. My burden. That’s what he’d meant. I was wasting my time on all these things that I didn’t even want.
I started slow. Rolled up clothes and poked them in, probably tossed the hangers in after, left empty closets. I know there used to be books on these shelves, there must have been, so those had gone in. At some point, I must have experimented with its capacity for size, because parts of the couch are missing, things far too big to have ever fit through the jar’s tiny mouth, let alone inside it. But there is nothing in the jar, and there never will be, and nothing is infinite. Nothing is eternal. After this I’d be free as a bird, naked and flying forever.
Things… got a little crazy. The two bedrooms I mentioned before? I didn’t bring up the third, because it’s completely empty, and I have no idea what used to be in it. Well, no, that’s a lie, ha-ha, I know exactly what was in it; nothing, because whatever was there, I put in the jar, and—there is nothing in the jar.
It’s early morning now and I stopped because I found something in the empty room, and it stopped me. I haven’t put it in the jar. Not yet.
It’s a photograph. A pretty new one, in a frame and everything, but the glass is cracked, so it must have been under something. It shows a man and a woman, a little girl who looks about eight and another child about two or three, laughing and smiling for the camera. They’re on a beach. There’s a boat in the background. I don’t recognize any of the people in it.
No, that’s a lie too. The man has my face. He has my face and his arm around this woman and he’s smiling too, but I don’t recognize him at all, except for one thing. His eyes. His eyes look like my eyes, now, in the mirror in the hall bathroom, with the Innocent Jar sitting on the toilet bowl beside me. He looks tired. He looks frustrated and chained. He looks like he is lying. He looks like he’s got a burden on his life.
The man at the store, he’d said “welcome back.” He said this would be the last time. What did I do? What did I put in the jar, the other time I had it? Or was it times? Did they go one by one, or all at once? Did they fight? Did they even know it was happening, that it had happened before? How much of their lives had I poured into that endless, infinite dark before I stopped being able to remember or imagine why I had a crib, a folder of schoolwork, a woman’s cashmere scarf?
Oubliette has the same root as oblivion. Innocent can mean unknowing. I am sitting here with half of my life missing and I don’t know how much more, and the jar is beside me. It’s cold. It’s always cold on the outside of the jar. Will it be as cold inside, in the dark? I don’t think so. I think it will be warm, like a nice bath at the end of a hard day. How much of me will go in before that stops mattering? To me? To anyone?
I don’t know if this will survive. I don’t know if you will believe it. It was written by no one, after all.
Because there is nothing inside the jar. Nothing at all.