speculative prose

Collections, by E.L. Chen

Jack finds the little god huddled in the antechamber outside the archives, a shivering oilslick shadow slumped against the door. Jack’s breathing quickens, not because a god has wiggled their way into the Dixon Museum, but because of their stark contrast with the calm white walls.

“Please,” the god whimpers from between things that are not quite teeth, not quite tentacles. The god is about the size and build of a child and Jack can’t count the number of appendages because they keep moving too fast, like a bodhisattva’s arms. Jack hasn’t seen any bodhisattvas for years. The Three-Faced God has eaten them all. 

Jack swivels from the god toward the soothing blankness of a wall, hoping he isn’t offending them. “What do you want?”

“Sanctuary,” the god says.


It’s winter now in New Toronto, but in the Dixon’s archives the seasons never change. The lights are on, or the lights are off. Those are Jack’s seasons. He never goes outside. Outside is too noisy, too many bright lights and voices. It’s bad enough having to scuttle through the museum on a busy day. He has a hard time knowing what to look at, which is ironic considering his mother’s collection is meant to be looked at.

He leads the little god through the museum, after hours. It’s easier to walk through it when the visitors and employees have gone home. “Where are your people?” he asks, although he already knows the answer.

“Gone,” the little god says in a small, child-like voice that makes them seem even more pitiful. “All gone.”

“I’m sorry. Do you have a name?”

“Not anymore.”

The god trails behind him like a wounded puppy. Jack leads them through each room one by one: the High Renaissance Room, the Ancient Egyptian Room, the Atlantean Room, all of them. He even takes the god by the dinosaur skeletons, just in case.

The whole time Jack fights the urge to ask the god Where are you from? He gets enough of that from museum staff when they see his vaguely Asian face, although they stop asking when they learn he’s Isabella Chau Dixon’s son. (No one ever dares to ask his mother where she’s from, least of all himself.)

“Is there anything in here that was yours? Anything familiar?” There must be something his mother saved from this god’s city. Maybe there’s a marble bust, a frieze, a scarab, a manuscript. The black sarcophagus in the Sunless Room is missing an occupant; every time Jack walks past it, he feels that emptiness tug at his soul.

The god blinks beady black eyes (nostrils?). “No.”

“I think we’ve gone through it all. It’s hard to say. The museum changes a bit every time we move cities.” Jack glances over the edge of the gallery at the Futalognkosaurus skeleton in the vacant atrium. The dinosaur’s long, outstretched neck points toward a corner where three different walls meet. There are no right angles on anything. In some places, brick and stone cornices jut out of the drywall as if an older museum lurks under the modern façade, ready to burst out like a snake splitting its skin. 

“This time it looks like it got impaled by a glass schooner. Or so the docents tell me. Mom and I never go outside. Not that I want to. And Mom can’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s been so long, I can’t remember.” Jack cuts himself off. He knows he’s prone to babbling. Or maybe it’s just something about gods that makes you want to confess everything.

The god says nothing, only dragging themself after him, keeping up with the long strides that have measured the museum’s floors since he was a child.

Jack sighs. “I guess we better go back to the archives. Maybe there’s something there. We don’t put every artifact on display.”

“Jack?” a woman’s voice calls out.

Isabella Chau Dixon strides down the gallery on the opposite side, the heels of her boots striking like a hammer. Jack motions to the little god to hide themself, but the god has already slipped behind a taxidermied bear. He’s not sure how his mother will react to a stray god. Saving a relic is one thing; a real live god is another. 

“Were you talking to someone?” she says. Her black hair is piled on top of her head as usual, black dress swirling around old-fashioned ankle boots. Scarlet lipstick even though it’s only the two of them. He doesn’t remember ever seeing her dressed any other way. Like the museum exhibits, she’s a snapshot of an era. He wonders if this was how she was dressed when his father left.

“Just to myself.”

“All right. Good night, sweetheart,” she calls back and continues on her way. If he were still little she would’ve kissed and cuddled him, and put him to bed in the room next to hers on the top floor of the museum. But he’s seventeen now and sleeps in the archives, where the space is designed to keep both him and the artifacts safe and comfortable. 

He returns to the east wing and opens the door to the antechamber. He uses his key fob to open the interior door and holds it open for the little god, taking care not to look too closely as the dark shimmer shuffles by.

Jack flicks on the lights and takes a deep breath. The air is cooler, cleaner, and the ceilings higher. It smells like paper and ink, not the thrall of bodies as visitors press through the museum’s corridors. The exhibits are his mother’s domain; the archives are his. His mother likes organized chaos; he likes organization, period, because it allows him to look at things without setting off his body’s alarm bells. He pads by aisle after aisle of identical wire shelving units, all laden with uniform white boxes, feeling calmer already. The little god’s limbs (tendrils?) stutter along the ground behind him.

“I’m afraid it’s late,” Jack says. “I need to sleep. I’ve got a room back here. You’re welcome to stay. There’s a sofa and—” Did gods crash on sofas? “Um, rest on whatever you find comfortable.”

 “John Henry Dixon,” the little god whispers.

Jack halts at the mention of his full name. No one uses it, not even his mother. His father had named him, she’d said.

“John Henry Dixon,” the god says. “Archivist. Thank you.”

Jack glances back then and is drawn into the spiral patterns in their eyes (mouths?). He struggles to pull away. Maybe he should’ve told his mother about them. What if the god is dangerous? They’d have to be clever to have avoided the Three-Faced God for so long.

But the god is so small and pathetic, their oilslick skin throbbing weakly, their flaccid appendages blurring half-heartedly.

“What were you a god of?” Jack manages to spit out.

“Secrets,” the little god says, sadly.


When Jack wakes, the god stands hunched at the foot of his bed. Morning sun peeks out from behind his blackout curtains. The god shimmers faintly under the sliver of light.

“What is this?” the god says.

Jack can’t tell what they’re looking at as he still hasn’t figured out where the god’s eyes are. He guesses they mean the bookcases that line the walls of his room. Each shelf is laden with two or three rows of glass jars, all lidded. Short jars, tall jars, raided from the museum restaurant’s kitchens or brought to him by docents. All with the labels scrubbed off, and each one containing a single innocuous object. A key. A candy wrapper. A pencil stub. A pebble. A marker cap. A paperclip.

Jack sits up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. And because he’s been asked by a god, and because he’s incapable of lying anyway, he tells the truth. “It’s my collection.”

This is the real museum. At least to Jack. His mother might run the Dixon Museum, collect and curate its many treasures, but here Jack stashes his own collection of records. This is the John Henry Dixon Wing.

The god picks up a fat mason jar. The jar disappears into the blur of limbs and Jack can only just make out the sheen of glass sinking beneath the god’s surface.

“That’s from last month,” Jack says. “I was feeling happy. I finished cataloguing all the Atlantean sea glass. I found that quarter outside the Red Hyacinth Room when I went to tell Mom.” He doesn’t have to see it to know what it looks like: a standard New Toronto quarter with a caribou on one side and the Three-Faced God’s trefoil profile on the other. His heart lifts at the thought of its cool, gentle weight between his fingertips.

He’s always found it interesting how collection and recollection are almost the same word. From the Latin he picked up that time in ancient Rome, he knows that collection originates from colligere, to gather together. Recollection comes from recolligere, to gather again. For him memories are no less collectible or hard to preserve than the icons in the Byzantine Room.

The god makes a murmuring noise and the jar is replaced with a plink on the shelf. They scuttle along the wall and pick up the first jar on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, a squat baby food jar that disappears into the god’s squirming fist (mouth?). A marble rattles inside.

“That was the day my dad left,” Jack says, and he tastes the sadness and confusion the rattle triggers in his throat. He doesn’t remember his father’s face, only the sound of the marble skittering across the floor the day his father didn’t come home. It’s the only thing he has of him, so to speak. His mother has no record of him. So many artifacts, but nothing of Fraser Dixon. No photos or belongings, only the name she shares with Jack and the museum. He suspects she has her own personal system of recollection, like his jars.

“And this?” The god replaces the baby food jar and picks up a jar on a top shelf. The glass sinks beneath their surface, making no sound.

“That’s empty. I haven’t filled it yet. There’s a bunch of them like that. Just empty and waiting. You never know when you’re going to need it.” For good memories, and bad, and those in between. Working in the Dixon Museum’s archives has taught him there is no difference. Sometimes all you can do is give something a number and file it away and hope you’ll understand it later.

A sharp knock sounds on the door. “Jack? Are you there?” his mother calls out. She rarely visits his rooms. She never even enters the archives unless he lets her in. Jack throws back his sheets, ready to hide the god in the closet, under the bed, anywhere if he can just think fast enough—

The doorknob twists. “Is everything okay?” she says, flinging open the door. “Mandeep says the side door in the east wing was open this morning. The alarm never went off—”

The colour drains from his mother’s face, leaving only the slash of red lipstick and her coal-black eyes.

“Isabella Chau Dixon,” the god says from behind their tentacle-teeth. “Curator.”

Her knuckles whiten as she clutches the doorknob. Fear seizes her face. Jack has never seen her afraid, even the first time the museum was uprooted. They’d tumbled through a shifting reality—or maybe reality had tumbled around them—and they’d realized they would probably never see Fraser Dixon again. His mother hadn’t looked scared then, only relieved.

She turns her terror-wide eyes to Jack. “He’ll be looking for them,” she hisses, and by he Jack knows she means the Three-Faced God. She never says His name.

“They need help,” Jack says.

“They all do.”

“I couldn’t turn them away,” he protests. “Would you have sent them back out there?”

She looks a little less afraid, but her fingers tighten around the doorknob. “I don’t know.”

“Isabella Chau Dixon,” the little god says in their small-child’s voice. “I wish to stop running.”

Her lips disappear into a thin red line. “Don’t we all.”

“I was going to take them through the archives. There must be something that was theirs,” Jack says.

“And then?”

“I will rest. The Hungry One will not find me,” the god says.

“I don’t like it,” his mother says. “We’ve been safe so far, keeping our heads down.”

“I also wish to be safe,” the god says. “I can trade. One secret for your help.”

“I don’t bargain with gods.”

The little god shuffles closer to his mother, and their limbs seem to slow their frantic orbit. “I know where your husband is, Isabella Chau Dixon.”

To Jack’s surprise, she barely blinks at this revelation. “That makes two of us.”

“Mom?” he says.

His mother glances at him as if she suddenly notices he’s there. Her jaw tightens. “Fine. They can stay for now. But if you can’t find anything in the archives, they have to leave right away.”

Just as abruptly as she entered, she leaves the room, skirt swirling about her ankles. To Jack, she is also a god of secrets.

“Can you tell me where my father is?” Jack asks the god.

“He is everywhere. He is nowhere. He is in you.”

Jack sighs. “That’s exactly the answer I’d expect from a god. Come on.”

He hops out of bed, smooths the sheets over his pillow, and lopes out of the room. The god follows him into the archives. With his mother gone, the archives have returned to their usual silence. He can hear the god’s appendages brushing together. They make a sound like a broom sweeping across a dry floor.

“I suppose,” Jack says, placing his hands on his hips and surveying the sprawl of shelves and drawers, “we had better start with lot number A0001.”


Jack pulls on a pair of cotton gloves and brings the boxes to his desk, one at a time. He’d offer the god a pair of gloves too but he doesn’t know if they have five-fingered hands let alone how many they might need.

His desk stands smack in the middle of the archives, shelving units rising around it in long, neat rows. He pulls out a stool for the god but they choose to stand, or maybe they’re too nebulous to fold themselves onto the upholstered seat. A small black-and-white security monitor perches in the corner of the workstation, showing a view of the empty antechamber.

Anyone else might find this arduous, but Jack enjoys the methodical process of lugging each box to the desk, opening it, extracting its contents, and then carefully re-packing everything and putting the box back. It’s comforting to know what comes next, which is a rare feeling when your home is tethered to a wandering god.

“No,” the little god says sadly, arching over Jack’s shoulder. Someone standing far away would’ve mistaken them for a shadow cast against the desk. “No. No.” Nothing of Ys or Shambhala or Babylon or New York. Nothing from Jerusalem, the first time the walls fell, or Kitezh or Pompeii. 

“So many cities,” the god says. Their sigh is swallowed by the archives’ soundproofing before it can ricochet between the white walls. “The Hungry One demands devotion.”

Jack slides a lid back over a box of amphorae. “In Latin, devotion is derived from devovere, to consecrate. Devour comes from devorare, or swallow. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the two words are almost the same.”

Jack isn’t sure what New Toronto was like before they arrived. He only knows it’s now a patchwork of cultures and neighbourhoods, crumbs from the cities the Three-Faced God has already consumed. It’s a motley of slouching rowhouses and crumbling brick factories and thrusting concrete monoliths and shining glass towers. Construction cranes poise like sentries along the waterfront, ready to protect the city from stagnation. “A city grows, takes on a life of its own, and then the Three-Faced God conquers it and moves on. And the Dixon Museum moves on with Him. I don’t know why. Mom won’t tell me. But she tries to save what she can.” The museum is the pilot fish to the Three-Faced God’s shark, picking up scraps. “I’m sorry she didn’t seem keen on saving you, though.”

The god ripples in what must be a shrug. “I am here. It is enough.”

Jack opens another box, revealing a tomb’s worth of canopic jars. The faces on the lids’ heads have worn away and Jack thinks the little god must suffer the same fate, their face eroded with time and neglect. He feels sorry for them. They have no home, and although he and his mother unwillingly roam the world, he at least can call the museum home, and the archives his.

“Every relic is a prayer, isn’t it,” Jack says as he pries out each jar. “A way to reach out to a higher power. Even if it’s only a philosophical ideal. Or an artistic muse. I think about that a lot, when I’m here. In a way I’m doing the same thing when I catalogue everything. I’m reaching out to the past every time I touch an artifact. Trying to talk to it, get it to give up its secrets.” At least artifacts volunteer answers, unlike his mother.

The god shudders at the sudden peal of a doorbell, their limbs blurring faster. Jack glances at the security monitor.

The last city they were in, the east wing’s security guard’s name was Adrianus. In New Toronto, he’s a middle-aged man named Mandeep. Jack wonders what happened to Adrianus, and Haru before him, and Anatole and all the others whose names he’s forgotten. Every time he thinks to write them down, the museum picks up again, trailing through time and space after the Three-Faced God like a child’s pull-toy.

Mandeep peers up at the security camera and shifts his weight from foot to foot, mimicking the little god’s nervous swaying. Something about his restlessness makes Jack hesitate to buzz him in. “Stay there,” he tells the god. “Feel free to look through canopic jars.”

Jack hurries to the door to the antechamber. Mandeep is knocking now, although the sound is swallowed by the soundproofed walls. Still, Jack can hear the urgency in the rhythm. He takes a deep breath and reminds himself to look Mandeep in the eye. Like most New Torontonians, Mandeep wears the Three-Faced God’s trefoil medallion around his neck. The gold chain always pulls Jack’s gaze downward until he finds himself scrutinizing every scratch, every nick, every ridge and valley in the dime-sized disk until every detail screams a question his brain begs to answer. A good quality in an archivist, but an awkward one in a teenaged boy. 

He opens the door. “Jack,” Mandeep says, fingers drumming against his thigh.

Look him in the eye, and blink once in a while. Jack takes another deep breath. Mandeep’s eyes seem a little wider and darker than usual. Something about them reminds Jack of the little god’s oilslick surface, like he’s staring at something that wasn’t meant for humans to see.

The Three-Faced God’s medallion glows, outshining the archives’ soft fluorescent lights. Mandeep grunts. His back arches, and when his head lowers again he rasps, “I’m…sorry…” He hasn’t blinked once. Jack finds himself falling into galaxy-specked pupils that make him feel like his skin is too tight for his body. “Had…no…choice—”


Mandeep’s jaw moves up and down in time with the words, but the voice—or rather, voices—comes from everywhere, reverberating throughout the archives despite the soundproofing. Jack wonders if the voices belong to the God’s three faces, or if it’s the voices of all the gods He’s eaten.

“Who?” Jack croaks, fighting the wave of sensory input. His pulse pounds faster and his chest tightens and his fists screw up and he thinks No, not now, I can’t— 

Mandeep stalks forward, forcing Jack backward toward the centre of the archives. The door shuts behind him.


“The god?”






“Then why are you here?” Jack asks as Mandeep forces him closer to his desk.







Mandeep raises his arms and a gust of wind whips around them, snatching up any loose items on the desk. Pottery smashes, jade skitters across the floor, paper tags rip themselves free and circle Jack’s head.

“Not the archives—” Jack gasps.




Jack feels the sudden urge to run into Mandeep’s fatherly outstretched arms and let go of everything. It would be nice to not have to think, to feel so much anymore, to struggle to hold it together when his surroundings overwhelm him.


The sound of shattering pottery jolts him to his senses. The little god huddles beside the desk, their blurred limbs brushing aside shards of canopic jars.




Jack moves to put himself between Mandeep and the little god. Mandeep shudders forward, legs stiff and knees locked, one deliberate step at a time like a puppet. He is a puppet, Jack reminds himself.

“What can I do?” Jack chokes out, more to himself than to anyone else. He’s frozen, his heart hammering like a rabbit’s. For the first time in a long time he curses his sensory sensitivities. If he were like everyone else, he’d know what to do. If he were like everyone else, he’d be able to run, throw a chair at Mandeep, save himself and the little god.

“John Henry Dixon,” the little god says, the name whistling from between the tentacle-teeth. “Collector. Archivist.”

Jack tears himself away from the starry whorls that are Mandeep’s eyes and glances back at the little god. He catches the gleam of something shiny. Glass.

“Collect. Archive,” the little god says as the empty jar from Jack’s room sprouts from their shifting skin.

Jack seizes the jar, ignoring the electric hum that buzzes down his spine as his fingers collide with the little god’s whirring limbs. He unscrews the lid. Collect and archive. That is what he does.

He yanks the medallion from Mandeep’s neck. The chain breaks easily and he drops it into the jar and screws the lid tight. The medallion rattles against the glass, its glow fading, until it is still.

Mandeep continues to advance, his eyes churning with darkness and stars and Jack nearly gets lost in the patterns again.



“Collect. Archive,” the little god says again.

“I tried!” Jack says.

“Me,” the little god says. “Collect me. Then one person will remember.” 

“Are you sure?”

The little god’s eyes (mouths?) ripple closed. “It is enough.”

Jack unscrews the jar lid and tosses out the medallion with a flick of his wrist. He realizes it doesn’t matter if the Three-Faced God destroys the archives, or even destroys the museum. It’s too late. Visitors have already seen the exhibits. They may be trinkets doomed to rot and dust, but they’ve been committed to memory. Even if the memory is as fleeting and fragile as the ephemera Jack picks up in the halls to commemorate special days.

See me,” the little god says. “Remember me.”

Jack looks at them. Really looks at them, letting himself plummet into the whirring appendages and oilslick miasma of their skin. The little god flares into a shimmering sunburst, and just as quickly winks into nothing. 

Something pings on the ground. Jack picks it up. It’s a key, just a mundane little key that might have fallen from Mandeep’s belt. 

Jack drops it into the jar and screws on the lid.

The Three-Faced God howls with rage, sending Mandeep arching back in an impossible angle—

And then Mandeep—and all the swirling paper tags—crumples to the floor, his eyes rolling back into his head, but at least Jack can see the whites. The darkness is gone.

Jack collapses against the desk onto a carpet of broken pottery. He’ll deal with it later. The Three-Faced God’s storm may be gone but it rages on under his skin, in the rapid beat of his heart.

Under the roar in his ears, the antechamber door buzzes, admitting a visitor.


His mother rushes in, sees him rocking on the floor with his arms around himself, squeezing like he’s trying to stop his body from squirming out of its skin. She crouches and puts her arms around him, adding to the pressure.

“What happened?” she asks.

When his breathing slows a little he says, “He came.”

She doesn’t have to ask who he is. The colour drains out of her face. She notices Mandeep then, lying unconscious on the ground, his chest rising faintly. The trefoil medallion sprawls beside him, the Three-Faced God’s profile blackened.

“He didn’t touch you? He didn’t try to take you away?”

“No. He came for the god.” He motions toward the jar on his desk, the only one not broken.

Although her arms are steady around him, he can feel her breathing is as rapid as his. “Mom,” he adds, hoping to catch her while her guard is down, “where’s my dad?”

She releases him. Smooths down the front of her dress, lifts her chin.

“Gone,” she says, like she always does. She stands up. “It’s better that way. I better find someone to help with Mandeep. He’s going to wake up with a hell of a headache.”

She doesn’t ask if he needs help cleaning up the archives. She knows he’ll want to do it his way. With the clicking of her heels, she disappears as quickly as the little god did.


When the losses have been assessed, the tags replaced and the inventory updated, and the broken pottery has been swept to one side, his mother returns. 

“I figured now would be a good time to add one more thing to the archives.” She hands him a photograph. It’s hard to tell when it was taken. The corners are rounded, the colours warm and nearly as blurred as the little god had been. It’s a party, judging from people standing crowded together holding wine glasses, and every head has turned to look at the only visible face.

The man is tall, lanky, his hair sandy and his eyes clear and blue as Atlantean sea glass. It’s a face Jack instantly recognizes because it’s his own.

Fraser Dixon, his father.

“You’re not in this picture,” he says. “Did you take it?”

“No. Someone else did. Before we met,” she adds, and he knows she must have destroyed every photo taken afterward. Not that she needs a photo to remember her husband. She would see him in the shape of Jack’s ears and nose, his build, his gait. 

He’s another artifact his mother has collected and stored in the museum. Or maybe he and his mother are actually artifacts of Fraser Dixon’s life, souvenirs rattling around the museum like a marble in a baby food jar, and one day he’ll return to revisit them.

So many ways to remember. Jack regrets not asking the little god how they held on to all their secrets, but he supposes that knowledge was the last of the secrets they held before they went into the jar. The jar sits on his desk, overlooking his notes. The god is only a key now, cold and hard between Jack’s fingertips, but if he squeezes a little hard the ridges will bite into his skin and it’ll evoke their swirling shape, their small, sad voice, the shuddering tendrils and teeth and the dark eye-mouths.

His mother lets out a deep breath and glances down at the photo. “Your father would walk into a room and it was like all the air got sucked out of it.”

Jack thinks of Mandeep, the temporary mouthpiece of the Three-Faced God, marching into the archives. He thinks of how the Three-Faced God called him child and how his mother had been terrified He’d come for him. He remembers how the Three-Faced God had offered enduring love and he’d almost taken it.

He brushes the observations aside for later, when there will be time to examine all the details and piece together the bigger picture. Sometimes all you can do is give something a number and file it away and hope you’ll understand it later.

“Do I remind you of him?” Am I another relic of a past life, another institution that crumbled?

“No,” she says. “You remind me of you.”

And although he’s too old to be cuddled and kissed, he’s not too old to be hugged by his mother. She applies just the right amount of pressure, not too hard, not too soft.

“Don’t forget to eat. The restaurant closes in fifteen minutes.” She kisses the side of his head and leaves. Jack slides open the top drawer in the nearest pedestal. It’s empty. He’s been saving this drawer for years. He places the photo inside and closes it.

He leaves the archives and scuttles past visitors to get a sandwich from the restaurant, and to ask if they have more empty jars. Today was not a good or bad day, but one to remember. To pack away and take out later to analyze.

If anyone sees a young man pick up a discarded candy wrapper, they’d think he was conscientiously picking up litter. No one notices him stash it in his pocket.


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Issue 22 (Fall 2020)

Story copyright © 2020 by E.L. Chen

Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver

E. L. Chen’s YA fantasy novel Summerwood/Winterwood was longlisted for the Sunburst Award this past year. She lives with her son in Toronto, where she is currently working on a novel set in the world of “Collections”.

Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writeand a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.



This entry was posted on June 7, 2021 by in Stories.
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