The Things I Swore I'd Never Forget
All the things you made me swear I'd never forget had been rattling around like disembodied bones against the empty and scratched areas of my mind. They shrieked and howled, calling random bits of reel into focus behind my eyes. Frost-fogged mountain lakes. Crying loons. Snappy naked larches in a late winter tempest. But they refuse to organize themselves; to fall into order. There is no face, but once a figure stretched out beside me, again and again the rough pad of a man's thumb against the back of my hand. That is all there is. I can see it all as clear as day. But there is no face. No continuity. No identifying marker to indicate the author of these things. Only my own voice skipping like a record as I promise that I will remember them. And I don't even know what it is I should have remembered. This cipher of broken scenes has never made sense, regardless of the months that pass.
Spring is a lie. It promises so much, and we are blind children encouraged to drink all its hope for the coming year from it. And every damn April I give in to that hype all over again. And every time it delivers so little. Except mud. And lambs with pneumonia and hens that wont set clutches because the eggs froze while they were sleeping. I hate spring, I wary of it, like the trees that seem a little more reluctant each year to mount the struggle of heaving leaves from the veins within their branches- knowing they'll only be forced to shed them for naught a short while later.
I pray for strength just to survive it. I breathe in the bitter wet, I breathe out my will to push through. I wish for summer and I am troubled to remember anything tangible about it.
That is spring.
Yet in August there is such a press of heat and blast of dust that I could almost forget spring entirely. Great hump-shouldered bulls rake against the dirt and snort bitter plumes of it from inside their pens. Announcers call names and numbers. Horses sweat and froth. Calves stare dumbly at the leather fringed athletes they will compete against in moments. There is time only for relishing the electric flex of the mare's will beneath me. She flies around barrels when I ask. Never tires. Never balks. She never wins. She is a cart pony, but doesn't know any better. Rodeo passes a short season in the North East and I almost forget. For a blessed number of weeks I almost forget. I don't think. I only move. Motions carried out only because I have done them a thousand times before. Mindless. Forgetful. Except that someone calls my name, drawing me; insisting.
“My dear, you look so well.” He says, leaning hard on a cane, looking up past the inquisitive horse below me.
“I didn't expect to see you here. We miss you.” She says, hanging heavy on his arm not leaning hard on a cane.
Their searching faces makes mine recoil. Can they see you? Through my face, like a fleshy window, can they see the ghostly you that I can't? They search, taunt smiles meant to disengage. Of course they don't see... No one sees.
In the blissful bake of summer I decompose. I think I've reached the place of almost forgetting entirely, and for great swaths of time I actually do. I just sweat. I itch with chaff and the uneasy stink of off-road diesel. My time is metered out by sweet scented windrows of hay and the rhythm of the baler. And I very nearly forget. The bitter cold of the spring-fed creek aches my naked toes and ankles, drawing the haying heat from my core. The final summer sun is so heavy on my shoulders and hair that I could spread myself flat as an adder on the slick rocks in an attempt to lessen it.
Days slick by, pushing a deceptive distance between themselves and the very concept of winter. Making me think cold might not ever happen again. Though I know it stalks the valley closely. First there is only a thought of cold. Then, as warmth grows lax in its daytime duties the icy evidence of winter's intent is hastily left behind in the low lying areas of the meadow under a weakened, unblinking, morning sun.
I tread through upward bleeds of fog. Gauzy spires of the dampness. They swill and swirl. On my left. On my right. Like Rorschach images. Sheep bleat at me, they ask, they demand things in the chilly air.
“What does this make you think of?” One asks.
“This?” Asks another.
“Remember now?” They want to know.
I do not. I tell them. Get in the barn. I insist.
In town little has changed except that I am not there anymore. Old man Will, that oak of a man, he is crestfallen as a wounded horse. He is now blind in one eye, having shed a retina, and less certain of his purpose these days. Slower. The impish grin that aided him well in youth has faded entirely and a worried tightness shapes his mouth to look like fear. Or dread. I couldn't decide which, last I saw him. Probably both. I hardly know him now. We wave from ever greater distances like strangers.
The state tore up the old gas station to replace the questionable fuel tanks. The date of its completion has been the topic of all town conversation since March. There is a pool going among the early morning coffee drinkers at the general store. Henry Hersh expects to win with September the fourteenth. He is also on the town planning committee and half the participants cry foul on this point. The other half shake their heads and mumble low of Todd Jinken's ex wife who died in a messy car accident recently, the neighbor's father in law found her. It was her drunk boyfriend who was driving. He fled the scene. He wasn't from here anyway. Good for nothing, they assure themselves. All things I hear in passing and at great intervals because I am not there. I quit working. It dulled the memories. Distracted from everything. I couldn't even make change for a five on a Molsen tallboy by the time I left. So I quit working.
I quit working in town, anyway. I buy sandwiches like everyone else and stay on the farm full time. I almost remembered on that day.
“Turkey, mayonnaise, garlic, lettuce.” The man before me ordered and was handed a sandwich. In a flash your voice almost had tone. It found one in mine. “Extra onions.” I said to myself, finishing his sentence because it felt neglected, “No damn pepper.”
He didn't hear me. I mouthed it at the back of his head. Unkempt hair. Graying, fraying, beard sticking out like a neck halo. Stinking of sawdust and oil and I almost remembered... something.
I have this idea that if I could just put a voice, or a face... even just the shade of an eye... to the blips of memories, maybe then my life would coalesce into something recognizable. I thought if I got quiet enough. Still enough. If I were patient...
But I am not patient. And while I can be as quiet as the grouse in autumn grass I cannot be still. I cannot stagnate. I am either going forward or I am slowly going backward, but I am never still. The very idea that a person could be so still makes me curl my fingers. It flies in the face of nature. Of physics. Of my tolerance. Little difference it makes. I could just as well command the earth to stop spinning as I seem able to conjure you with silence. I wish I could be so indifferent as that.
A curious thing happened at the grocery last week. It's not as if I don't already feel I am under the unwavering scrutiny of everyone within eyesight of me. I can't ever tell anymore who is grazing faces idly as one does throughout the course of the day and who is genuinely recognizing me with great measures of disapproval.
There I stood in the checkout lane. I had considered the candy rack, something I felt good about as the collection on the conveyor belt consisted of one leek, two marrow bones, a bag of large carrots, and an uncommonly large red onion. I bought rice as well. Long grain. Brown. White rice looks like maggots. I thought of that a few months ago as I raised a forkful to my mouth. And it's not that I had never thought of that before, it was that I remembered knowing that I disliked white rice because it looked like maggots. But then the memory of that memory slipped away just like that and I was left trying to decide if I had ever truly had that thought before, or if I had dreamed it. Had I even eaten white rice a couple months ago? Or did this memory belong to someone else. Something else...
It makes no difference. That is how it transpired, but that wasn't even the curious thing that happened. The woman rang me out and as she did she said,
“Hannah. How good it is to see you out and about in town, now.”
With such an odd look on her face, like a very intelligent fish. A knowing, maybe? It wasn't resentment. Yet it was something a bit more than judgment. She knew...something. Something I was supposed to know she knew. But all I knew was that I could imagine her at the hair dresser's later that week telling her story of what was just then transpiring over the rush of blow driers. You'll never guess who I saw! She would hiss. Who? They would ask, scooting to the edges of their seats. Hannah. They would cover their mouths, she would nod at them smartly, and she would tell them what I said. But only after she waited for them to ask.What did she say?
She would open her mouth to speak, her eyebrows raised haughtily, her mouth poised in an ugly 'O' shape as she prepared to tell them. Her voice caught in a breath...
...What did I say?
I stared at her trying to decide. She passed the marrow bones across the scanner, smiling at me like an autotron. Like wires and circuitry moved her thoughts and motions and she was no more there in the moment than the fish in the seafood display case were present for what their eyes were seeing. The carrots passed with an official beep. We looked at each other still. An uncommonly large red onion shed its paper as it passed and landed with a soft plunk in the paper bag. She picked up the rice and I remembered all at once that I didn't shop in town.
And I most definitely did not like white rice because it reminded me of maggots when its cooked. So that's what I told her. That's what “she” finally decided to say.
“I prefer the brown rice. White rice looks like maggots when its cooked.”
We both looked at the plastic sack of grain in her hands. I might have told her just then that Jimmy Hoffa was buried in my back yard. Her response would have been the same. She nodded and smiled and I could tangibly feel her excitement as she counted herself lucky for the fantastic story she'd have for the hair dressers later that week. She handed me my bag with a sideways glance. She had already started ringing the next customer and the peculiar fate of my reputation was already sealed. So I went home. I put the items in the medium stock pot from the shelf beside the door on the back porch. Except the brown rice. And it simmered on the stove until dinner while I sorted the ewes from that spring's wethers.
That night there was a terrible wind. I wasn't aware of it. It didn't wake me. Instead I awoke to the stark call of a loon, so close, so piercing that I was certain I had been staring into its fierce crimson eyes as it did so. Only the wind spoke though and my eyes struggled to focus on what was at first the great unblinking expanse of a mountain lake with the thinnest hatching of ice across it. It cleared slowly into little more than the tattered blue quilt across my body, though for a great while the long dresser in the corner masqueraded as a white-chinked water's edge cabin.
Not for fear of seeing things that aren't really there. Not from confusion, though it is a terribly confusing thing. But for the utter hopeless frustration that I remember knowing more than I can remember now. It is something akin to leaving for a long journey and battling the niggling certainty that you are forgetting something you told yourself you would be sure to bring. That vital, necessary...whatever it is. And the sinking knowledge that you will only remember it when it's just a few miles too late to turn around and do anything about it. Akin, yet far more sinister.
Of all the things I waste time wishing for, the longing for summer is the greatest. Yet here it is a paltry forty-six degrees and low, fast flying, clouds flog the bare trees with great pelts of freezing rain. I should be mending the fence crushed by violently amputated trees. I should be setting up birth pens in the loafing shed with the panels I built all last spring. Lambing season has a way of waiting for only the worst winter weather and little else. Instead there is a yellow slip in the mail box that has captured my thoughts. It begs me to come to the post office. It promises the reward of a package too great to fit in the roadside box if I will face the elements between here and there. Except it is not the elements I dread. It's not the elements that know me. They aren't the ones with thoughts and opinions.
I almost turn right out of my driveway, in a thoughtless reflex of habit that isn't easily accounted for. I am forced to reverse the truck, slink back down into the drive, and try again, this time turning left. In an unexpected flash I see the cabin again, without invitation, and with such electric shock that I nearly gasp. Windswept, low and dark, layered like stale frozen devil's food cake. Dark, with thin lines of white. A steep pitched roof of the same dark log. Except it is not the cabin, it is not any cabin. It is not set against a lake, nor is it holding its breath in the freezing fog. It is a garbage truck. And it is loud, and flashing red, and it lurches sideways from me.
With a bang it dumps the contents of my big blue garbage can into itself.
Bang. Wet snow swirls around the mirage of a lake between us.
Bang. The driver touches the brim of his ball cap and nods at me.
Bang. The brakes disengage and whine low at first, then higher, lonely... loony.
I begin to question which reality I am living in. Which side of their collision is really mine. Town is between holidays. Porches are festooned with bunches of crispy corn stalks and freeze-rotted pumpkins. A few overly eager village members are stringing Christmas lights from their eves. Terry the town worker is climbing the telephone pole outside the post office to affix the Christmas banners that have seen far too many seasons from their lofty positions. One fat hand flicks at me in recognition as I slip from my truck.
Dianne the postmaster hands me an envelope. I've wasted days in indecisive worry for nothing. No package. No box. No bulk item. I do not sign for it. It is a failure of the carrier that I am making up for. There is no reason to be here to get it. Here is full of a crowd of six people. Their heads swivel like bobbles when I turn from the clerk, and I am pulled tidally through the invisible barrier between rationale and anxiety. They part like the red sea before Moses as I open the legal size envelope and stare, transfixed, at the cover of an operation manual for my tractor. It thanks me for requesting it.
Mike Peters steps out of line from his uniform neighbors. Mike Peters is always out of line, he is now in my line. I am slipping on the slope of coherency and his impetuous voice threatens to tip the balance.
“I didn't see your sheep in the fall pasture.” There is no undertone of question. There is no suggestion of concern. There is a statement. Poignant. Direct. Cutting.
“Fall pasture.” I am asking. Not him, me, I ask me. Looking at my belly button, as though the core of me should know. I am concerned by both the unfamiliarity of those words, but mostly by the shimmer of shadow of a memory they illuminate.
Faces swim, someone makes a disapproving sound in their throat that I cannot determine is meant for me or him, but I cannot escape it either way. They expect something. They shift and glance and wait for something. But I have no memory of a fall pasture and the door swims farther away behind my questioner.
“Fall. Pasture.” Mike is too short to matter in groups of his peers. He had black hair. Now he has gray hair and black hair. He has blue eyes that are too blue and make you question if they see anything at all except the gray haze of his own iris. But they can see. I know they see too much of me. They know.
“...fall...” Anxiety coils around my windpipe until the word squeaks. I feel like I am falling. I feel like things are falling on me, everything is falling inward. As if I am the point of a cosmic vacuum.
“Mike.” The postmaster says in a hush, “Enough.”
“Yeah, fall pasture, Hannah. Up to the stand.”
“No one took your place from you. You lost it yourself.” Dianne lobs words into the room that mean nothing to me except to add to the maddening barrage. Someone gasps and storms out. Old man Will steps through the door, catching it mid-swing. He towers dumbly for a moment, taking in the scene with one scowled eye. I would crawl under the counter beside me if I could move. But I am crushed by words. Mike's words know me as I struggle to recognize anything in them. I eye the space beneath the nearby counter and its curtain of dangling chained pens.
Words echo off my skull, 'I cannot reach.'
“Michael.” Someone hisses.
“Disgusting.” Another mutters, blowing past in a stumbling rub of shoulders. “You should have stayed in the damn forest.”
“Damn coddling fools. I'm just saying what no one else will, Dianne! No one says anything!” He seems to throw himself towards the clerk's counter suddenly, as words spew from him. He blunders on a bad knee and catches himself a little too hard. Curled hands grope the counter as the room looks on.
“Hell! Sorry.” Old Will mutters, jerking Mike back up straight, setting him on his feet carelessly as he passes me, “I didn't see you, little fella.”
Mike stammers through shades of red. Someone chuckles.
In the fray I disappear. I dissolve. I just am no more. There is such a rush of swirling everything inside my mind that it eats up all my other senses. It is nothing, in the way that a tornado picks apart the colorful architecture of entire lives and mixes it back together in a confusion of empty useless grays. The vortex growls with a cacophony of shrieking loons. Their wails become more urgent, more clamored, greater in number. Blips of snow covered mountainside and silent cabins skip through the scene like images in a too-slow zoetrope. On the angry wind is a quiet whispering in the tone of my own voice. I cannot reach. In the spin of noise and shadow there is suddenly blackness. A void. A void where I should be and the awareness that I am not in it. I am nowhere. I am nothing.
I come to myself in the front seat of my truck. Time has left me. It passed somewhere else, apart from me, indifferent to me. I was and then I wasn't and now I am again. I am staring at my boots perched on the edge of the open truck door. Mud has caked to the double-stitched leather seams. Thread frays around the hem of my pants cuff. I am breathing in. I am breathing out. I am not feeling my fingers, my lips, or one side of my face.
I am hearing a voice.
“Suck it up, woman.” Old Will is saying. One arm steadies his lanky over-sized self against the frame of my truck as his image boils before me, “It's over.”
His blind eye sees nothing in me. His face is softly indifferent. Traffic slides by intermittently behind him, on my own road far from Main Street. His ancient truck idles noisily at the end of my drive and he watches me without emotion.
“Do you remember?” It is a breath. It is nearly a telepathic thought from my mind to his.
“You remember.” He states firmly. At length he throws himself away from my truck, the momentum driving him towards his own, “Stop pretending you don't, damnit.” His voice has no opinion as it slips over his shoulder.
The day melts, drawn thin, thinner, thinnest. Like wool spun into fine thread. I am in the driveway wondering how my truck brought me home on its own. I am in the barn holding a hose to fill the water trough for bleating, swelling, pregnant sheep. I am walking through the meadow with the bay mare who doesn't know she is just a cart pony. I am sitting at the desk staring at order forms in a folder where my handwriting reads “fall market lambs”.
“I promise I will remember.”
My own voice creeps, disembodied, from the foyer down the hall, it crawls into my ear. It is sudden; startling. It draws my very soul to attention in a wave of goose-pimples as the folder and its contents drift to the floor.
From some distance greater than my own I hear you. The command pulls me to my feet, possesses my attention, my very heartbeat.
“...promise.” Rasping, urgently leaving my presence.
I open my mouth to answer, to swear my unwavering commitment... to demand a position... but there is nothing. There is nothing inside of me that I can press into sound, there is no reply I can utter.
“I promise I will.” My voice has fled ahead of me, apart from me. It moves without me, crawling now out the front door. Eager. Submitting.
My feet give chase.
“...promise you will remember.” A great howl of pain draws your voice on a breeze down the road.
“I promise...” My voice flows after it, into the dooryard, down the driveway, turning right up the road.
Out the truck window now I hear the voices. They are begging. They are reassuring each other. Under the ancient eye of a full moon trees pass. Eddies of wind rake my hair and sleeves. Voices still pulling, still tugging, add weight to the accelerator. The valley slips into fog and shadow somewhere behind me as the voices race on, chasing the shimmering fabric of moon-glow farther up the mountains. They overlap. They tangle. Mine soft and uncertain. Yours pressing and needy. Pebbles like buckshot blast the outside of the floorboard. Ruts open and close in the narrowest of dirt roads beneath me. The ribbon of dusty brown slices through forest trees as dense as prairie grasses. Wait for me. I think. But they do not wait. Your voice. My voice. They disappear on the wind, over a rise and through gray-brown trees.
The truck labors around corners, vibrating and rumbling. The engine wines as it sucks in cold air. I drive past views I feel I have never seen. Views I have always seen. Rocks like braille. Tree trunks like Morse code. Hypnotic stories of everything and nothing. Night presses hard against the windshield and windows. It knows I am utterly alone in the cab. It plots to ingest me in a final gulp as I flee the confusion all around. All at once forest gives way to bright alpine meadow. The moon, once silver and full of sleepy life, casts a sudden gashed clearing in too much orange light. The cyclopes orb doubles itself in a vast lake to see me more clearly as I creep from the safety of my truck in search of my voice. Of myself. Of you. It introduces itself through the gaping open mouth of a white-chink cabin in the far distance.
It is the face winter.
The ground reaches up and frustrates my path. Tangles of white nylon webbing, electric sheep fence, befuddle my feet and I fall with a crash onto frosty white ground. With an enormous heavy thud. The ground shudders in a great wave, sailing me to the corpse of an ancient white pine some distance to my right. It is abandoned, prostrated on the ground in a circle of onlooking naked larches.
“Promise.” You say from somewhere beneath it.
A tiny green tractor strains and bucks at the length of a chain tethered to the broken tree. The image of myself is frantic upon it. In a final leap it breaks the chain and rolls backward. Higher. Slower. Rearing, turning, like an ungodly monster it spills over the shrinking image of myself until I am swallowed into an empty grass-covered wallow beside the massive tree trunk.
“Promise.” Your naked voice softly moans. Unwavering. So repetitious there is almost no end of the word before it starts again.
I crawl closer until I come into focus somewhere within myself. An arm snakes out from the darkness beneath the tree. It strikes, searing cold, clutching hard against my hand. It ignites a flash in the moonlight. The clap of it voices no thunder, only the long, low, mournful wail of a loon somewhere on the distant lake.
“...promise you will remember.” A demand now, hanging on the air.
My body heaves itself upward, tumbling away from the scene as the tree rights itself, mending the frayed wound that unintentionally fell it only a moment before, an internal weakness no logger could see. The green tractor, as if worked by a cable, draws itself to the lake's edge. The image of myself flies with it, sucking the breath from my lungs. A scene plays out in the dark. A scene that belongs under the scrutiny of a full sun and seems sickly demented in the darkness.
Like a skyscraper the righted white pine towers above, lumbering, tottering in a growing wind. You, a strange orange-eared bug scale the trunk in a trapeze of spikes and ropes and tackle. The roar of my tractor and I watch, transfixed, as lake water flows through a hose to a long trough where thirsty sheep waited.
A flicker of memory warms a dying portion of my brain. A pulse of remembering. We are neighbors. We are indifferent. We are crossed orbits in a community system eager to salvage purpose in potential loss. I get grazing rights. You get the logs. The state adds the cabin to the surrounding park in lieu of unpaid taxes. You are a boy ahead of me at school, unremarkable, reliable, present. You are a green-eyed filthy face in a line of hungry men at the store. You are the product of this valley, as unmovable from it as the mountains. You are steady, unchanging while I am flighty and ambitious and transplanted from a foreign place that frustrates you from any distance.
The spark of memory ignites the air, drawing me back through myself to the body of a fallen tree, your icy grip on my hand again reaches out from somewhere under it. I feel the crush of metal against my back. Sawdust presses into the skin of my cheek. Off road diesel stinks in the belly of my tractor above.
I feel myself speak finally. My voice no longer a sentient thing apart from me. It pours from me.
“I couldn't get it to move.” I breathe, “My tractor is too small.”
“It's not your fault.” You assure me, slowly, resigning.
“I can't reach you.” I'm crying, clawing with my one free hand. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.”
“It's okay. It's not your fault.” Your words puddle in your mouth, your thumb moving steady against the back of my hand, stilling it from flying around the space near you.
“I can't move.” I wail, “If I could move, maybe I could... I can't...”
“It's not your fault Hannah.”
“I'm so sorry... I can't... Breathe... I can't....” Desperation explodes my insides like confetti and I drown in this failure.
“It's not your fault. Promise you'll remember.” Your body grows heavy alongside mine, somewhere beneath the scraping brown of bark.
Time is moving fast and slow. Fast and slow. Fast. Slow.
“I can't breathe...” The wind spits freezing rain against the onlooking larches.
“Promise.” You exhale, labor, “It's not your fault, you tried. There's nothing you can do. It's not your fault. Promise you wont...forget...that.”
“I promise.” I whisper into the demanding, growing, darkness. Through tears and gasps I bleed words and tears and finally consciousness.
I do remember.