The shop only appears at midnight, when the curfew begins and the day ends. The streets are empty, save for the imperial soldiers. None of them approach the shop. Anyone in uniform gets turned away. Not by the shopkeeper, for it has none. That’s right. The shop has no keeper. As if by itself, every night it appears.
In the daylight, the place where the shopfront should be is nothing but a solid brick wall. Nobody can see it when it changes back, since no civilian can come out before the sunrise. No one in a uniform can ever see the shop. What they can’t see, they can’t put a stop to, can they? To them, the shopfront, even after midnight, stays a brick wall.
How do people know of it? Why, the neighbors, of course! Soft lights and gentle music waft out of the shop, like the scent of freshly baked bread out of a bakery. Soldiers walk by without a glance. One night, two neighbors, two law-abiding citizens of the capital, call the soldiers to inspect the shop. They see nothing. So, the neighbors bring out their cameras and take photographs. Lo and behold, the shop is visible on the prints. In the morning, they show the soldiers the proof. Now, they believe them. At night, the soldiers touch the brick wall. Solid and uneven as any ordinary brick wall. They jab at it with their rifles. They even kick it. Nothing happens. The shop stays.
The people in the neighborhood begin to gather on their balconies every midnight after the curfew begins. Some bring out chairs to sit on and tables to lay the food on. They chew their snacks and sip on hot coffee. Their eyes never leave the shop. They use binoculars and telescopes to pick out the details. The glass front displays magnificent items: musical boxes, barrel organs, cuckoo clocks, gramophones, musical clocks, player pianos, longcase clocks, singing bird boxes, singing chandeliers, circus calliopes, orchestrions, photoplayers, and more. Each instrument shines as if brand new. Polished pipes and keyboards. Even the clocks work properly, as if regularly wound and maintained. They chime every time an hour ends and the next begins.
More people begin to crowd the neighborhood flats. The tenants start to earn extra coins by allowing curious visitors to witness what the newspapers call “an extraordinary event!” Every night, soldiers passing by only see a brick wall. Meanwhile, any civilian will be charmed by the magnificent shop. Every night, its contents regale its spectators. One night, a musical box springs open by itself and wafts sweet, soft music. It isn’t too loud, just enough to grace the neighborhood. The music is so mesmerizing, the spectators always, always fall asleep. By the time they wake up, the night is over. So is the music. Up in the sky, the sun has appeared. Down on the street, the shop has disappeared.
People begin to flock there from all over the capital, then from all over the empire. It becomes a hit among the locals, a hotspot to the tourists, and an invisible thorn in the emperor’s side. He’s confused, irritated, and furious. Music was banned from the empire long ago. Not all music; only the songs forbidden by the state, which is almost all the music from the pre-empire eras. They speak of dangerous themes. Terrible ones that can cause the great, mighty empire to collapse in a day. No, the emperor must wrest control of this shop. He must put an end to it.
He decides to demolish the building. It’s a historical site once visited by the empire’s founder, whose epic speech planted its seed. Now, the same place hosts a gaudy music shop. Or is it a clock shop? An organ shop? Nobody can tell. All he knows is that it is spreading familiar tunes among the people. Tunes the empire long ago banned and buried. They cannot resurface. People have forgotten them. They only exist in hushed whispers and ancient tomes—also banned.
Yes, he must demolish the shop.
But first, he must face his enemy. A shop that’s invisible to all but the plain-clothed civilians. He can’t risk going out at midnight. His appearance after the curfew will spark boldness among the civilians.
No, It’ll have to be someone else. Someone who’s also invisible to most people. Someone disposable.
The emperor summons one of the many refugees in the capital, from a far-flung colony of the empire. A scullery maid in a tavern. She is nothing like him. Not physically. Not her language. Certainly not in her savage ways. Yes, she’ll do. She’s replaceable. A widow with no spouse or children.
He sends the maid with some soldiers. They escort her to the shop after midnight. She’s a small woman. Dark brown skin, long black hair, and a bony body. Even the most lecherous soldiers feel disgust, not desire. They take her to the brick wall only they see. She gasps when she sees the shopfront. She says something in her tongue. Reverence drips from her tone. They ask her to describe the place. She presses her nose against the glass and describes it.
A medium sized shop. It resembles an antique store. She can see so many beautiful things from her spot. Golden and silver and copper and brass. So many, many things lost in time, banned in society, and hidden from sight.
They tell her to go inside. If the shop allows a civilian to enter. Nobody has tried before. The shop began to appear after the curfew was enforced. And the curfew was put in place after the revolt in the refugee quarter and the riot in the shanty town. So much blood spilled that day. Thankfully, none belonged to anyone from the imperial household. Not one soldier. Only refugees and immigrants. Blood of some nobodies that reddened the streets, snaked between the cobblestones, and turned the golden paved roads red for days. The street cleaners earned bonuses to clean up the mess. Since then, nobody has stayed out after midnight. Hence, nobody has ever entered the shop. They’ve only viewed it from the upstairs balconies, windows, and rooftops.
She’ll be the first ever customer. The first person to grace the interiors. She’s thrilled. But in the next moment, terror of the unknown shrouds her joy. What if she never comes back? What is inside? She can see the instruments, but what if they’re not real? What if they’re sending her to the belly of a monster they fear themselves?
The soldiers shove her forward. With shaky, sweaty hands, she opens the door. The audience upstairs watches with bated breath. Somehow, the riot that failed to rouse sympathy for the refugees suddenly is eclipsed now that a refugee woman is entering a shop that nobody has entered before. They whisper their fears and wonder aloud the outcome. Will she come out? If not, what will the emperor do? If she does, what next? Will she come back to the shop? Will she unearth the mystery? How?
At last, the woman disappears inside. The door closes behind her with a chime. A doorbell. The chirp of a bluebird. She looks at the soldiers outside. They’ve aimed their rifles at the shop, at her inside. But they can’t see her, can they? What if they shoot? Will it shatter the glass and pierce her? Or is it actually a brick wall as those soldiers see them to be?
Suddenly, a box to her right springs open. She screams. They intensify when she hears the rain of bullets on the glass front. Yet, none of them shatter the glass, let alone reach her. She watches in mute amazement as the bullets ricochet off the glass front. As if it were a brick wall indeed. Tentatively, she touches the glass. She feels the cool surface. Nothing else.
The box behind her continues to chime. She inspects it. The motifs and carvings are familiar. She’s seen them long ago, in her grandmother’s attic. Buried at the bottom of a rusty trunk. A gift from her grandfather. They’re banned now, for the music and the motifs etched upon the boxes. They tell the empire’s violent history that its people mostly forgot or were never told. Only the colonies know. The people there pass their history orally. A grandmother tells her grandchildren. The grandchildren later become grandparents and pass their history to their own grandchildren. Thus, their history lives through their tongue, as bedtime stories and lullabies, as folksongs and nursery rhymes. The new emperor has banned these too.
The music ends too soon. She misses it already. She closes the lid. She opens it again. The music returns and she’s all smiles.
She brings out a notebook and a pen from her apron pocket. Her duty tonight is to jot down what she’s seen here. She does so dutifully. She inspects every single item. Nothing is crammed inside. Rather, they’re arranged like the displays in a museum. This too is a museum, she realizes.
A museum of erased history.
She finds more banned items. They remind her of many extinct languages and their ethnically cleansed speakers. They speak the tongue of the dead and the dreaded. Yes, the empire dreads the power these people’s tongues and tunes possess. Why else ban the music of the puny and the weak? Is the ant so powerful its one bite can bring down the elephant?
At last, she finds her most favorite item; another musical box, gilded and filigreed. When she opens it, another familiar tune envelops her. This one isn’t from as far back as her childhood. This one is recent. A tune her grief keeps resurfacing. She’s tried her best to forget her husband, now long gone. But she can’t. This box has reopened her wounds. She wants to stop the music. It blissfully ends when it’s over. Yet she shuts the lid and opens it again.
She listens all night. She watches the couple dance in the box. The man eerily resembles her husband. Tall and stoutly built. So resilient that six bullets couldn’t bring him down. It had to be a bomb. She didn’t see it explode, mercifully.
Now, she sees him in the doll, as if the doll man is a mirror image of her beloved. She glances at the stately woman beside him. The bony scullery maid doesn’t resemble the doll at all. No matter. She reaches out and caresses the male doll. She sighs and closes her eyes.
She lets the music carry her away.
The sun rises. The soldiers have waited for hours. The civilians join them after they’ve woken up. A large crowd waits outside the shop, now a brick wall to everyone present. The maid from last night hasn’t returned. Their fear is justified. The shop has taken her away.
The soldiers and the spectators return at midnight. The woman does not come back. One of the soldiers takes off his uniform. The shop still doesn’t appear to him. The next night, they bring a retired soldier clothed in a civilian’s outfit. He still can’t see the shop.
A theory is formed: anyone who’s ever served in the military can’t see the shop. Their relatives can, if they’ve never served. But to the shop, once a soldier, always a soldier.
At last, the imperial officials begin to crowd the shop at midnight. They too can’t see it. The previous theory is expanded. Anyone of noble blood or who served the emperor directly can’t see it. Only the middle and the working class can.
A week passes by. The emperor decides to send a new person. This time, a capital citizen. He hails from another colony. His complexion is lighter than his predecessor. He’s an innkeeper. He decides to keep the door of the shop open, in case anything suspicious happens. He, too, brings a notebook and a pen. He inspects every item. He opens and closes the musical boxes. They regale him and the spectators outside with charming, banned music.
At last, he opens the musical box his predecessor opened. Inside, he finds a couple. A tall, large man with a dark complexion, and a small, bony woman with almost the same skin color. They’re happy. The small smiles on their small lips carry immense joy. They’re happy as if they were in heaven, the joy of a couple together at last.
The innkeeper shuts the box. He turns back to the shop. Something pulls him to a corner. His resistance fails. He stands before a cuckoo clock. An ornate thing, dark brown. The top is shaped like the head of a stag. He caresses the clock. He notices it’s one minute till one in the morning. He waits to see the cuckoo emerge. He’s always been fascinated by this deceiving bird that sings sweetly, yet ruins the crow chicks’ childhood, just to ensure their own brood is raised well. He should know. His skin was light enough for his foster parents to steal him from his birth ones and pass him as their own. He was too young to remember. His late mother, bless her soul, confessed on her deathbed. How she and her husband branded his birth parents as incompetent and took away their only child, born after years of prayers. The innkeeper forgave his mother. He had to. That’s what he should do, everyone said. His parents took him away from the neglectful birth parents who couldn’t afford to raise a child. He should be grateful. And he is. Why shouldn’t he be?
The cuckoo emerges. Its voice is melodic, soothing. It instantly calms down the tempest inside his heart. He listens to the bird and the bird keeps chirping. Unlike a typical cuckoo clock, the doll doesn’t go back inside. It sings and sings. So mesmerizing are its songs that the innkeeper reaches out and pats its head. The bird trills happily. It takes the innkeeper back to memories long buried, happy moments with his birth parents, happiness that money can’t buy.
The sun arrives. The innkeeper doesn’t. That’s two people gone. The emperor decides.
In two days, the building will be demolished. He doesn’t listen to the historians. Not even the imperial ones. They bring up the value of the historic site. But their words don’t move the emperor. The nostalgia of the past, to him, won’t taint the precious present.
People protest the decision. They form a ring of protection before the shop. But the soldiers are relentless. They beat and kick and shoot and shove like they did at the refugee quarter. The ends justify the means, after all.
The building is demolished. The emperor smiles like a cat with a can of cream. With his advisors, he cheers when the historic building is nothing but a pile of rubble. The soldiers clean up the mess. They do not find any remains of the shop. No cuckoo clock, no musical box, no barrel organs, nothing.
A month later …
The shop appears at midnight. When the curfew begins and the day ends. This time, the site is the building where the previous emperor was born.
Maria Hossain (she/her) is a queer Muslim writer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With a voracious appetite for most fiction genres, she has a penchant for historical and literary fiction.
2 thoughts on “The Museum of Erased History, by Maria Hossain”
A fascinating and moving tale. Very thought-provoking. Thank you.
I love this story. I love its imagery, the people (characters) in it, how they are touched by what they see and remember. I can feel it on a deeply personal level. Never give up the past so that we never lose a sense of who we really are. Thank you Maria for such a beautiful story …