by Marie Sheppard Williams
I was sitting with my friend Maeve in a booth in the Cafe di Napoli in Minneapolis—a place where they have, or at least had at that time, good service and the best vodka martinis in town. On a couple of the latter, we were discussing life, death, and ourselves.
Maeve said—“The thing I always remember that somehow characterizes you best in my mind is that time in New Ulm at the parade when the flag came by, and Margaret fell flat on her face, and you cracked up.”
I said—“I don’t remember that.”
She—“Oh surely you do—it was in New Ulm, when you all lived in New Ulm.”
Me—“No, god Maeve I absolutely don’t remember that.”
She—“I do. The thing about it that was so great was that it was such a perfect thing to do, her falling flat on her face when the flag came by, so perfectly comic, and you were the only one who saw it....”
Me—“But I absolutely don’t remember...I don’t remember one thing about it...my god what else don’t I remember?”
I was really freaked out on this. You can see the problems: If I don’t remember, did it happen? If Maeve remembers, does she have a piece of my life that I don’t have? What is my life? Is it what happened, or what I remember? Jesus. I mean, the whole incident was small, god knows, but it was significant. I mean, it was Maeve, my best friend, the person who understands me best in the world, and she said it was to her the most important thing she knew about me, and I didn’t remember.
I could see the humor in the recalled incident, but I could also see the other side of it: what happened to Margaret?
“Listen,” I said, “maybe if you could tell me some more about it.”
She did; she told me that it was a Fourth of July parade in New Ulm, Margaret was about three or four; and Margaret, hyper as always, was running around and jumping up and down, and just as the flag came past us she tripped on the curb and fell flat in front of the flag, in uncalculated obeisance, involuntary and innocent worship. All the people around us were concerned for Margaret, picked her up, tried to find out if she was hurt, etc., etc., and I, this child’s mother, was off in a corner of this memory somewhere, laughing because a child falling down was funny to me.
I mean, can you get into this with me? In a situation which I don’t even remember, I behaved like a perfect monster, in my opinion. And Maeve, who remembers it, thinks it is hilarious, in fact the most distinguishing thing she remembers about me, a paradigm for my character.
I should be arrested, for god’s sake. And here is my good and dear friend, sitting across from me, and she is smiling in profound approval at this really awful thing I did, thirty years ago or so.
But, you know, it was funny. The more I thought of it, the funnier it hit me. It just crept in on me, seeped in more and more, and finally it took over my whole mind. I sat in the di Napoli and roared with amusement. And Maeve laughed with me. We just got into it, choked, whooped, wept, had a marvelous time appreciating the terrible humor of something I did that I don’t even remember. The conclusion is plain: I am still a monster.
“Christ, Maeve,” I gasped, when I could. “Do you do this very often?”
Well, yes, she said, she did. She often remembered things that other people didn’t remember. In fact, she said, it sometimes seemed to her that she remembered almost everything that has ever happened to her and to everyone else she had ever known and everything that had ever been told to her.
“The Rememberer,” I said. “God. Christ.”
Maeve smiled, a secret, knowing smile that I see very often on her face.
“It should be a story,” I said. “I could write a story about it.”
“I think you should,” she said.
“You know what would have to happen at the end of the story, don’t you?” I asked.
“She would have to be crucified,” said Maeve.
“Yes,” I said. “She would have to be crucified.”
In a small town upriver, one of the residents was in a way a sort of magician. This magician was a woman, and people came to her to consult on various things. She was, apart from being a magician, quite an ordinary sort of person. She grew a wonderful garden, a wild garden—anything at all would grow for her, and she spent many hours planting, transplanting, arranging effects which to her were beautiful.
There was a rough, handmade clay jar with a cover on it hidden among the roots of a great tree. No one knew what kind of a tree it was. It had died many years before and all the branches had been cut off; it towered in its essence, a giant, naked trunk. The jar was called a Bad Thoughts Jar—you could take the cover off and put your bad thought in and then put the cover on again and leave the bad thought there in the jar. People laughed at the silliness, innocence, of this notion until they tried it; once they found out that it worked, they stopped laughing.
There was a sand-cast owl caught in macraméd ropes nailed to the tree.
The woman was alone a great deal of the time. Her friends considered her an artist, though she had no particular art form that she followed. But things around her became beautiful. People came to feel more beautiful, became more interesting to themselves, when they knew her—because she perceived them as interesting and beautiful. She came to understand that her life and her perceptions of people were her art—she became, as she grew older, confident in her art. She was happy when she was alone and she was happy when she was not alone. She did not, as far as anyone knew, pray to any god; but there was about her a quality of prayer that was present in everything she did, every hour she spent.
She had a talent, a trick of memory, that would come out unexpectedly with the people she trusted. She could remember things about them that they couldn’t remember. “I remember,” she would say, out of nowhere, “the time long ago when you came and planted azaleas in my garden...” And the other person would not remember, and would go away feeling very subtly strange and changed and wondering. And somehow, sometimes, angry—feeling robbed of something.
She did not do this deliberately, it simply happened that she revealed her memories as it happened that she became able to remember. In the beginning I suppose it felt very safe to her.
But gradually she remembered other things and told them too; perhaps it was at this point a little out of her control.
Eventually it became somewhat ritualized. People came to her more or less on an appointment basis and said, What do you remember about me? and she would tell them.
At first the memories were rather commonplace but then they became strange and impossible.
“What do you remember about me?”
She would laugh. Her laughter would be gentle, apologetic. “Well, I remember the time you threw a stone at a blind child; you were drunk, of course, so it hardly counts....” The person did not remember this, and became very upset. But the artist-woman-magician stuck to it, and would not unremember; she had a great flaw, she had a kind of integrity. People knew she did not lie; indeed, hardly knew how to lie. So somewhere in themselves they had to believe they had done these things that she remembered.
Things went from bad enough to much worse.
“What do you remember about me?” someone said one day. (You would have thought they’d have had enough of it by then; you would have thought they would leave it alone; but it was as though they couldn’t; apparently the curiosity of people to find out about themselves is insatiable when the opportunity presents itself.) The magician’s eyes grew luminous and her voice was like an embrace—”I remember that you were at Ravensbruck, and that as I walked toward the gas chamber, you pushed me on my way....”
“What do you remember about me?” a woman said. The artist-woman-magician’s eyes filled with love, and her voice became warm, accepting. She laughed again, and her laughter was like pure spring water, bubbling with amusement. “You?” she said. “I remember that you drove a nail into my hand when they hung me on a cross. Of course, it was a long time ago, heavens, don’t worry about it, I did the same to you....” She held her arms out to embrace the woman, who fled from her in understanding and horror.
So of course they crucified her. One night, at midnight, at a crossroads. Upside down. When she was dead they buried her by the crossroads. Buried her good, this time; they drove a stake through her heart as she lay in her deep grave—they all had a hand at driving it in. And they filled the grave, covered her, with iron horseshoes; they were taking absolutely no chances this time. If they had thought of a silver bullet, they would have sent it through her dead skull.
They recorded it in their minds as a suicide, which in a way of course it was. And after a while they forgot her.
But another Rememberer came. There is always one, somewhere. You?
Be careful. Be careful.