Memories of an Elephant

They called her ‘The Elephant’. It was almost a nonsensical name, because she didn’t actually have a very good memory. In fact, if she hadn’t been able to keep memories in jars she’d probably never have remembered anything at all. She never showed more than a glimpse of recognition, of familiarity. She just stayed as she was. She always sat at one end of the bar, cradling a glass of something or other, and her jar perched neatly on the corner. People would go up to her every once in a while. They knew where to find her, because she was always in the same place. Sometimes they would give her a memory, and a couple of dollars. She’d tuck the memory into the bar, screw the top back on, and then use the money they just gave her to get another drink. Sometimes, they’d take a memory. She’d wrench the lid off of the jar, pluck out the memory and hand it over wriggling like a little pink larva, and then use the money they just gave her to buy herself another drink.

Things went on like this for a long time. People came and went, and they stored their most important memories with the Elephant. Often they’d give her memories they never wanted back, and those would curl into the bottom of the jar and stay there. Some people had a tradition of coming back for a memory regularly, on the anniversary of a birth or a death. They’d hold the things in their palms right there in the bar, the love and pain and glory seeping into their skin, and then they’d hand them back. The Elephant shoved the memories back into the jar with no expression, and the poor little things would press against the glass. She never flickered with anything when she passed memories back and forth – not despair or hope, not disgust or joy. For all that she grabbed and dropped memories, not an iota of their power seemed to touch her.

This all continued for years until a strange man came through town. That wasn’t uncommon, as it was a small town. He came just for the Elephant, though. He’d heard of her, and he went straight to the bar in the late afternoon. The man walked to the Elephant where she sat at her barstool, and he handed her a wad of cash. Her eyebrows lifted, but she just looked at him. That was the closest to surprise (or anything else) that had ever lit her face for anyone to see who remembered. The strange man said, “I want the jar.” The Elephant looked at him for a long time.

She said, in a voice that was scraping her dusty throat, “Why? I don’t know you. You’re not from here. I don’t remember people real well, but I don’t know your face at all. What do you want with my memories?”

The strange man smiled. “I just do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a circus performer, or a sociopath. A writer, perhaps. A storyteller. That would make sense. I’m an insurance salesman and an astronaut and a government official. It doesn’t matter. Tell yourself something. I want the jar. Please”

The Elephant stared at the man, and his smile did not waver. The bartender poured himself a measure of scotch. The Elephant blinked. A man at a table in the corner coughed. Finally, she pulled the jar over to her and twisted off the top. Her eyes were fixed on the man before her. She drew out one slim memory and curled her fingers around it. She handed the jar to the man, and he screwed the lid on. The Elephant’s face crumpled, just slightly, in what might have been sorrow. The man nodded to her, and murmured something. She nodded back. With that, the stranger walked out of the bar with half the town’s memories in his hand, and he never returned. The Elephant stood up and left, abandoning her half-empty drink. The door swung shut behind her, bringing a thrill of cold wind into the musty bitter air of the bar.

They say that the Elephant died, not too long after. She certainly didn’t show up at the bar anymore. Perhaps her neighbors stopped seeing her light flare on at night, and the post office piled high with catalogs and bills that had overflowed her mailbox. It’s more likely that people stopped seeing her, with her ever-present jar, and so they assumed she had gone. It might as well be true, because they wouldn’t even know if she were among them. Nobody remembers what she looked like.

Advertisements

Breath

He had missed the lilt of her eyelashes when she looked up at him. Sam missed her intoxicating smile and the comfort, the cool sheer relief, of seeing the wisps of hair curl away from her face the way they always did. All was quiet in the room, though he was breathing a bit too loudly, from the nerves. She was patient, fingers pleating and smoothing the fabric of her blouse. He could almost smell her perfume, faint and sweet.

“I miss you,” Sam said, and she nodded. He took a deep breath, filled himself with air, and launched into speech. “I missed you for a long time and I still kind of miss you. I can see you right there in front of me and it’s like you’re not really there, and I miss you still. You look at me like you’re looking over a long distance and you barely recognize me, like you don’t care, like you don’t want me. What’s wrong with me that you’d leave me? What’s wrong with me that you don’t want me? I’m sorry, love, I am. I love you anyway, but I don’t understand. Why don’t you love me anyway? Why don’t you love me still?” He paused to catch his breath, and his gulp for air snagged in the silence after his words.

She didn’t move. She sat folded in the armchair, her legs under her. She didn’t make a sound. She just looked at Sam with her dark eyes welling with tears, but he didn’t know why. It could have been sadness or anger or fear. Or he could be imagining it. He was choking on his disappointment and his pain. The bemusement in the twist of her mouth was clogging his throat, like sawdust he’d swallowed. It tasted bitter in his mouth. The words he wanted to say were crammed in his chest until his ribs ached with them. They crowded until they burst out again, all tripping through his mouth.

“I just can’t, I don’t know what else to say, but why are you so far away? Why, I mean, what happened to make it like this? I want to be able to go back, you know? I want to make it like it was. Or at least, I don’t know, I want to be able to have what we did, but better. I know it’s not like that and I know that everything happened like it did, but my god, I don’t know.” He stopped talking for a moment. The sunlight from the window had turned yellow and bright in the last gasp of day. She moved in her seat, and the light shifted and trickled down her face and shoulder like gold. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I didn’t think that would really be the end. I didn’t really think about it, I mean, I didn’t let it sink into me that you were just going to be gone like this. It still is hard to think it, like it’s not real, that it’s never going to be like that again. How can that even be? That it’s just gone and there’s no getting it back? That seems like it can’t really happen. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. That I’ll never get a chance to have you again, to be yours again, to make it right and make it real? How could I let that be true?” Sam rocked back against his chair, as though the words had given him a parting kick on their way out.

She looked at him with crinkled brows and a different twist to her mouth now. It might have been pity. His words were still repeating through his head, a skipping song lyric stuck and playing over again. She shrugged, and faded, and then she was gone. The armchair she’d been sitting on was smooth and undisturbed, without a dent or wrinkle. Sam slumped, his shoulders loose and his head lolling back. He was still grasping at the air with lungs full of dust. The room was just starting to empty of light, the shadows stretching from one wall nearly to the next. The lamp hanging from the ceiling seemed brighter now, bravely bursting with light in the oncoming dark. Sam sighed, his breath soughing over the heavy knot in his throat, and glared at the empty room.

After the Yellow Moon (Painting Futures)

Later, Mason thought that perhaps his paintings showed all sorts of moments. He recognized the coffee cup in Starbucks that he picked up by mistake and the brush of someone’s fingers against his hand. He saw his painting spread across the street when he walked to work, cramming a bagel into his mouth and leaning on the ache in his shins like any morning. Then, of course, he burned himself on his coffee and sighed with the pain and the stain spreading. He tripped over the sore stiffness in his legs and hit someone’s face with his elbow. The hospital bills and the apologies spilled out after. He began with an ordinary moment, but the painting didn’t show him the hurt that colored it.

When Mason was working, and his brush dabbed and smudged the world together, he couldn’t feel it at all. There had been no heartbreak in the oily light of the yellow moon. When he squinted his eyes to watch the coffee cup take shape, he didn’t have any sense of the spill, of the heat searing his flesh, of the warmth in his cheeks as all thirty people crammed into Starbucks turned to watch him curl in pain and swear like a stained sailor. That only happened in the moment. All he could do was watch it turn into something he hadn’t expected, hadn’t meant to draw and paint and smudge into being.

He kept painting at least once a week, for a while. For months, even. Mason painted the next man, and the one after that, and when he met them he recognized the strokes of their faces from the lines his hand made with the long straight handle of the brush. Afterwards their paintings stayed in his closet, facing the wall. They were easier, hidden away.

He painted getting “let go” at work and the stumbling stutters of three job interviews all in a row after that. He painted a night so steeped in whiskey that the canvas nearly oozed its acrid stink. He only assumed, later, that the shapes on that canvas had happened to him at all. He didn’t recognize the faces or the street. He barely remembered that night at all, except that he’d painted it, so it must have happened.

Author: Vinegartom Image created using Adobe P...

When his paintings came to pass, it was always in a way he didn’t expect. He’d thought, in a vague hopeful way, that perhaps he was getting a promotion. When he finally got a new job, he had never painted that congratulatory call. He smiled at a new coworker, but his brush never traced the answering grin. His canvases stretched from one tragedy to the next, big and small. There was one canvas that ended up with Alan’s face on it. Mason hoped, with a painful twist in his breath just to think it, that it meant they would see each other again. He realized, eventually, that it must have been his tragedy that happened without him.

After a long while painting, he recognized the pattern. His dreams started bring him to his studio and to tell him to paint a car crash, his mother in a doctor’s office, Alan’s death. Mason put his canvases away. Now he waits to see what the future looks like. He doesn’t paint anymore.

The Life of a Storyteller

A story is a living thing. People sometimes don’t understand that. They don’t understand the way stories are born, that they grow up and grow old and die slowly or all at once. They have never been to my homeland and could never have seen stories breeding and multiplying. We watch this happen as if we could see destinies woven into strands of DNA, little cells that twist and twine into something new.

I was twelve years old when I got my first story. It was born during sentencing season when ideas are blooming and the stories are suddenly something from nothing. I named it – I can’t tell you the name now though – and I took it home with me. I fed it from a little bottle and I wrapped it in a blanket. I slept curled around it for weeks until it was too big to fit in my bed. It grew quickly, my story. It was from a common and vigorous breed, but I loved it as if it was new and like nothing told before.

Hardcover book gutter and pages

Most stories are old stories. Old breeds, rather. The strains of story have gone back generations, millennia. We recognize the shapes of their bodies. The curves and shines of their faces are familiar to us. We tell them again and again, in new forms. Some of these stories are old and tired, breeds that perhaps should have died out long ago. Most of them are well-loved, for all that.

My first story was one of these. Of course my parents would never have trusted twelve-year-old me with a rare breed. I didn’t care, though. I’d grown up in a family of tellers, and I told my story as if it were special. Children are often the best storytellers for that reason. That is, they love stories for themselves, however overtold they are. Children haven’t learned yet to scoff at the faded strains of story.

Stories are something like pets. They find tellers they like, and they hang around wagging their tales or brushing against legs until they are stroked into complaisance. Some people sort of collect stories, amassing all sorts of different kinds. Some people just tell the same story over and over again, or they trail a pack of stories that all look alike. I guess they find comfort in uniformity. Sometimes, if you look closely enough, you can see that stories have little notches or curves that make them distinct, despite their similar shapes. Sometimes, though, you look at a story bedecked and embellished to find that under all that it’s the same as the one next to it.

I guess the point is that you never really know. I raised my first story and told it out into the world, whispering it into an ear, sending it on its own to find its way. I’ve had countless stories since then. I’m a decent teller. It’s a lovely thing to watch, a story that gets to where it’s meant to be. They fill the world, like shadows, even when you can’t see them in the dark. They know when they’ve gotten to the right place. I like see them scamper or slink or swagger away from my window, where I sit with a couple of new tales and, perhaps, a book.

The Stranger’s Tale (part two)

“In any case, nobody agrees on who that stranger may happen to be. If some say it is a fragment of a shattered past, some too think that the stranger is a messenger from the future. A ghost of what is not yet living rather than a ghost of the dead. A whole different kind of eerie. Some think that it’s nothing of the sort and rather a person born of dream and chaos. I think I’ve said that one already. The stranger appears, and tells her story, and disappears again. It’s as simple as that. A stranger in a wood, after all, can be almost anyone at all, and too a storyteller is both anyone at all and everyone at once.” The woman gave Ella a wink and a smile.

Chatyr-Dag Night Forest

“Of course, the story comes in many different shapes. In many -” the strange woman leaned toward Ella across the clearing, as though telling a secret, and her voice dropped to a tone that was soft and low, “the story is a truth, a terrible and beautiful truth that can never be untold, and is only given to those who seek it. It’s a warning, an omen, or a fact, I suppose. A telling of what is more true than any other, what’s true about people and the universe, what’s real in the dreams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and Ella’s heart burned and twisted in her. The black of the night seemed to advance, shadows curling like cats in their laps.

“Of course -” and now the woman’s voice resumed its conversational cadence, “that’s utter nonsense according to others. Then again, those others are often the ones who think that the story is something horrid, twisted and fearful.” Ella thought she heard voices around them. She looked from the corners of her eyes, trying to listen to the cries and groans that were almost too faint to hear. The strange woman continued talking as Ella’s ears strained for the voices in pain that swirled and spun in the darkness, but they faded away and she couldn’t hear anything. The voices may not have been there at all. Perhaps she was imagining it. She was simply getting spooked by the story, that was it.

The woman was saying, “and there are some people who think that the story is naught but a dream misremembered, nothing but a bad night’s sleep with only bits of anxiousness and terror grumbling in your stomach. It could be that, I suppose. No more than the hidden misgivings that appear and speak to you in the gloom. It could also be the wish of the past or the fleeting sight of the future. Nobody knows, do you see?”

The moonlight flickered on the strange woman’s face, and the two of them sat cloaked in quiet. Around them the forest was still. Nothing moved except a shiver crawling up Ella’s spine. When her shoulders trembled the stranger began to speak again. “My dear, it’s but a story, or rather bits of a story that don’t quite make sense. Nobody knows what it means, a story from a strange person in the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. If you don’t think it does. If you get a chance, though, sweetheart – do try to tell it again. It’s a story that’s meant to be told, for all that it’s made of wishes and fancies, hollow ones at that. Anyway, Ella, think on it some. Dream about it a little. Don’t forget.”

Ella looked at the woman, sitting serenely and looking straight at her. She watched the shifting glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes, and wondered at herself for being so calm, for accepting this bizarre thing that was happening to her. She didn’t want to forget, and against the words ringing in her head and the woman sitting against a tree whose story was finished, she closed her eyes. She told herself the words she had just heard, the ragged patched-together story made of dreams and retellings. The words pirouetted and dipped in her head, dancing fast to the beat of her heart.

She told herself the story against the dark behind her eyes until the words blurred and ran in her mind. When she opened her eyes again, she was alone in the forest under a lightening sky. She hauled herself to her feet and looked for the sun, and the shadows that would point her way home.

Becoming God

Luke was a follower of his very own school of religious thought. It was somewhere in between Method acting and, perhaps, that vague soppy brand of spirituality that tells you to believe in something, anything, so hard you nearly strain your faith muscle. So rather like a lot of religion, actually. Luke was just the first to really put it into practice in this way, and he knew this. Knowing it, he reckoned himself just about a god. So he thought of the Judeo-Christian god that had scowled down on him from the stormy heavens all his life, and he imagined himself that god.

He closed his eyes, and he focused really hard, and he did this on the linoleum floor of his ratty apartment. Luke stayed there, too, for two days. He drank a bit of flat soda that was in the cup he’d cleverly reminded himself to put there, and he got very hungry but eventually stopped noticing. Then, all at once, it clicked and shifted into place and sunk into him and then he was God.

He could peer down on all the world and zoom in to see what people were doing and twist toward people’s thoughts and examine their ideas and somehow he could do all of this at once. It was fascinating and confusing and beautiful and bewildering and very very ugly at times. He swapped views from a woman reading poetry to a child holding its sick mother’s hand to a bird lazily circling the top of a mountain where two hikers were slowly running out of food. He looked at lovers fighting and children squabbling and criminals shooting at each other in desperate spurts. He saw babies crying and people kissing and the long sad sigh of a man who had almost thought that today he wouldn’t be alone again. He saw all of this and more, spinning from one head to another and reading one person’s “fuck that, I don’t like him anyway” and another’s “my God, though, what will I do?” He descended into the gritty details of people’s lives, and the mind-numbing boredom of sitting in the waiting room or standing uncomfortably in line or typing for another long afternoon in the confines of a cubicle. He sat in on courtrooms and classrooms and bedrooms. He watched people until he became them, winding himself into bones and sinews until he saw through their eyes. All of their eyes, every godforsaken orb among them.

Somewhere, distant, Luke was aware that he couldn’t feel his own body anymore. He was too entwined in everyone else’s, and his muscles weren’t aching with the strain of it. His soul was tired. His mind was sore. He concentrated again, pushed away the people and stamped on the pain. With a shove and a wrench he was free of the burden of the world and he opened his own eyes in his own familiar ratty apartment. He lay on the floor for a long while, blinking slowly, and then he got up.

A Halfway Draft of an Ice Cream Scene

“Inside someone’s mind?” Devon was folded in the corner between the bed and the bookshelf, his arms wrapped around his knees and his neck craned upward to look at Isaac. The man offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet and away, and he blinked onto a long flat road. The sky reeled for a moment and he tipped over, landing sprawled on the gritty road. The air bumped out of him and he sucked in a gasp to say, “I’m so buggering mad this keeps happening.” Isaac let his hand go and began to walk, his head bent toward the dusty shapes clustered in the horizon. Just a few steps closer, it cleared into a bumbling house.

Devon scrambled to his feet and tripped toward Isaac, steadying into a lagging walk a step behind him. Isaac half-turned his face, giving Devon a glimpse of his profile, and said, “It gets weird. You okay with that then?” Devon snorted, and the sound echoed against the bare sky.

“Right,” said Devon. “Because only now it’s getting strange. Right.”

Isaac shot him a flat look, eyebrows raised. “Yeah, well then. When it goes all upside-down, don’t look at me.”

Devon gave Isaac his best wry expression back, and nodded. They walked on for a while, the only punctuation to the silence the thumps of their footsteps and the occasional shriek wheeling through the distance that made both of them jump.

When they got to the house at the horizon, it was tall and rickety. The outside was painted a rich deep reddish brown, and the windows stretched crossed and crooked up the walls. Isaac walked right up to the blue front door and into the house. Devon hung back, and when Isaac leaned to call him in he said, “Isaac, though, isn’t it, I don’t know. Isn’t it sort of rude to just walk into somebody’s mind like that?”

Isaac grinned at him, his face creasing and his eyes twinkling. “Nah, kid, this’s fine. No problems. Listen, anyway, haven’t you seen the subconscious we’ve been walking through? Nary a thing here except what’s hidden away. Outside the house you have to go exploring to find stuff, most often. The inside’s the only interesting bit for them as have not so much time in the area. It’s sort of the guided tour version of the brain.”

Devon rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, well, that’s not really what I was asking.” But he walked into the house, to be struck with a faint but distinct odor of eggs. His mouth dry, he followed Isaac through the first room – a quite respectable-looking foyer – and into the next. It looked as though perhaps it had started out as a kitchen until things had started growing from the walls, the counters, and the chairs. Still, it was nothing so strange as what they’d seen in just the last couple of weeks.

In the next room, there was a room of fluttering wings. Some even had birds attached, who flapped over to the men cawing for breadcrumbs before they gave up and raced in quick windy paths through the air. Isaac said, “Cripes, look at that,” and Devon said nothing. The next room was piled high with clothes, some of which seemed to move suspiciously. Isaac didn’t let him poke them with a foot. They went through a room with fish swimming through the air, and one books with flapping pages. There was a room full of blank-faced people who looked to be made of wood, and a room full of hands clambering about like awkward fleshy spiders. Isaac kept up a cheerful commentary as they walked – “Oh, haven’t you had dreams like this?” and “Bugger if this isn’t a funny mind. Suppose it’s about as funny as the rest though.”

Devon stayed quiet. His mind was troubled. He was thinking about brains, and minds, and thoughts and things. Specifically, he was wondering if all minds were very different. He didn’t think there were rooms of faceless dolls in his head – not that he minded that, but there probably weren’t less disturbing things there either. Perhaps his mind was a neat orderly house with maybe a library and a wraparound porch. What if it wasn’t nearly this interesting?

When they were walking up the spiral staircase that drifted in all directions, very slowly, he voiced the question. “What if my mind doesn’t look like this? Can I find out what it does look like?” Isaac turned to look at him.

“No,” Isaac said. He was already shaking his head. “You can’t never go in your own mind, kid. Messes you up, your own mind does.”

Devon sat and thought about that a while, watching a phoenix spinning and flashing before him. After a while turning and nudging the words in his head, he gave up and left them in an empty corner.