by Hephaestion Christopoulos
Good morning, baby boy. Did you sleep well? No bad dreams, I hope.
They say dreams are the things we did in our life and regret. Or the things we never did. I don’t remember.
Here; you’ve got a smudge on your cheek. Let me get that for you. You shouldn’t sleep with all your crayons sprawled on the bed. Let’s be a little tidy, shall we?
It’s your birthday today. You know it, don’t you? You turn five.
Well, not exactly your birthday. It’s five years since I brought you home. I don’t know when your birthday is.
Only five years? Feels like a lifetime. How could I live without you, baby boy? How could such a world exist? I don’t know. I can’t tell.
But then, I really don’t know.
Sure, you’d like to throw a party for your friends, have them come over, but we can’t, baby boy. Not in this house. Yes, I know money’s a stupid invention, but that’s the way it is. Nothing we can do to change it.
But we could go get some ice cream in the afternoon. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Just you and me.
Well, just you. But I’ll be there.
Come here. Give us a hug. I don’t know how I could go on if anything happened to you.
You’re not afraid of me, are you, baby boy? For what we did to you.
Of course not. You don’t remember. You were too young then.
I don’t remember either.
Safu looks like a little gentleman, walking beside her in his tattered yellow shirt. She turns and gazes at him; takes him in. With his prominent brow and his wide nose, he looks much older than he is. I suppose that’s the way with Nibis, she thinks. Well, I wouldn’t know. I never was that close to them before, to watch a child grow up.
Or so I think.
She sometimes wonders if it would really be better, however painful, if they could remember. Of course she knows what happened — everyone does — but without memories, it’s like a story you read on the news. She does feel a little bad about it — and tries hard to feel even worse — but, truth is it’s all too distant like the wars they tell you about at school, the massive quantities of the dead no living person feels anything for any more. The uncried for, as old Bacha calls them.
She drops Safu off at the kindergarten. She stands and watches him walk towards the gate with his bouncy step, the gigantic rucksack on his back like a turtle shell. I should buy him some new clothes, she thinks. I’ve promised.
She strolls around for a while before getting back home. Nothing much to do anyway. When will you get a proper job? she asks herself. When Safu is old enough to provide for himself?
She walks amongst half-wrecked buildings jutting out of the ground like the broken bones of the earth. For maybe the millionth time, she wonders what might have happened to each of them. How we all ended up walking around like ghosts in the ruins.
But you’ve got Safu now, she thinks. You shouldn’t be so ungrateful. And maybe it really is all for the best. Some things are not to be remembered. Too much hate, too much blood. Too much shame. Better pretend they never happened. Everyone needs a clean slate if they’ve done wrong, don’t they?
When she gets home, there’s a little stained envelope under the door. She picks it up, runs her fingers over it — the angled letters, handwritten, she notices, the initials on the upper left corner that mean nothing to her. It’s probably one of Brother Equaliser’s inspirational notes, she decides. It’s not money, for one thing. Nothing she’s never read before. There’s no state seal, sure, but who else could be sending her a letter? She leaves it on the desk, unopened.
It’s not that she doesn’t sympathize with Brother Equaliser; she tears each time she hears him speak. She has read his book at least four times, but she really wishes he did something for people like her other than send notes with his sayings.
She really could use a drink, but the cupboard is empty, so she turns on her computer to keep herself busy until it’s time to pick Safu up.
The clock ticks. Time is slow.
They say, baby boy, when our people met a long long time ago, it was all joy and smiles. You were there first, but you welcomed us. And we were pleased to know you. We were not so different, after all.
Those were hard times then. Cold, icy. As if the earth had decided to get rid of all the tiny specks of life that mottled her face.
Well, she didn’t make it. We’re still here.
So they taught each other. How to stay warm and how to hunt in the snow and what to do when the ice came. Humans are weak, you know that. The animals had it better with their warm fur and thick skins and whatnot. Humans only had their brains. And love. Maybe love was all they really had.
I don’t know what happened.
I’m sorry, baby boy.
She has watched the video maybe a hundred times. Still it makes her cry. Maybe it’s because it is one of the few remnants of the time forgotten or maybe it’s because it is a reminder that a single fool can change the world — still Brother Equaliser’s words retain the force to move the universe. And maybe this is the sole reason they decided to keep it: Brother Equaliser was laughing stock back then. And look how it all played out.
He stands in the middle of what looks like a pub. The air is thick with smoke and angry voices, but Brother Equaliser’s own voice rises above everything else. Not paying attention to the jeers and the bottles thrown at him, he stands there with his trademark mustache and his fedora hat, forming the equal sign with his fingers. She knows his words by heart, but that’s not what she’s paying attention to; maybe more important than his words are the drop of sweat glistening on his forehead, the breaking of his voice, the slight trembling of his eyelids. And the fact that as he speaks, it seems to her he’s getting taller and taller, his head threatening to pierce the ceiling, and his voice drowns out all the laughter and the wrath of the crowd.
But then, that’s the way anything worth remembering starts.
She flicks her gaze to the envelope on the desk. She’s not sure it is what she thought it was any more — there’s no watermark, no equal sign seal. And the video will be over soon, and she’ll still have to find a way to pass the time. Maybe there’s something to keep her busy there.
So she opens it. Reads through. And she doesn’t know how to feel.
Old Bacha has always looked to her as if he’s from another age. What age exactly, she’s not sure. He’s quite tall for a Nibi, sturdily built, still red-haired despite his age, and he’s got that look in his deep-set eyes that whispers of a full life and untold secrets. What those secrets might be, she can’t tell either.
Safu is always happy to see him, and he always takes the boy on his knees and tells him stories in the Nibi tongue. She doesn’t know what they are about, and Safu can’t understand the language either, but he seems to like the sound of it — the rolling r’s and the cadence that always reminds her of campfire singing.
“I want you to teach him how to speak Nibi,” she says. “I want him to know of his heritage.”
Bacha pats the boy on the head and lets him slide from his lap.
“How can he know when no one can tell him what happened? Who will explain to him how he ended up with a mum that looks nothing like him and doesn’t speak a word of his language?”
“I’ve been… I’ve been talking to him about that. There’s not much I can tell him, of course, but he has the right to know.”
Old Bacha huffs. “When he grows up, he’ll want to find out what happened to his parents. And there will be nothing to find out. I think he’d be better off knowing as little as possible.”
He does let them look at his paintings, though. She suspects the old man doesn’t really mean any of that; he just feels it’s the proper thing to say.
She sometimes wonders whether those paintings are suitable for a child to look at, but Safu seems to like them. Maybe it’s merely because he’s a boy, and boys do get a little excited at violence. She has seen him play war with his friends at school, after all.
I wonder what games they’d play if we remembered.
I guess children would have no games to play then. Maybe the reason all this is happening is to salvage their innocence. And ours.
Despite his claiming otherwise, she knows Bacha’s paintings are his own way of remembering. He doesn’t exhibit them in public any more — he probably wouldn’t be allowed to anyway — but they are his way of saying, “Nobody’s going to make me forget,” a sort of motto of his. They are quite simple, really. Naive, even. His art has passed through many stages, realist and cubist and whatnot — she’s really not good at this — but now he has adopted a style reminiscent of cave painting. His canvases are always a yellow-grey color and his themes are always hunting scenes. They look quite innocent; it’s just that if you look a bit closer, you’ll see that this mammoth’s face is a little too human, and could that hoof actually be a shoe? She’s not sure if Safu actually notices this and what he makes of it, but she decides it’s good that he looks at them anyway.
“I got a letter today,” she says after a while.
Bacha looks at her. “A letter?”
“There’s some money to it, and I really could use it. But it doesn’t sound exactly legal.”
Where do memories go when we forget, baby boy? Have you ever wondered? It’s all there, I think, in our heads. Maybe we just choose to let go of some things when they’re too much to bear. But there must be a way to open the box; I just don’t know if we should.
There’s a tale an old man told me once. A tale of a one-sided war and of millions of dead no one cries for any more. I wonder, baby boy, if there’s no one left to remember you, no one to mourn you, does this mean you never existed? Was your passing from this world all in vain?
I don’t think so, little one. Because some day, in the gleam of a raindrop, in the trill of a songbird, in the froth of a wave, someone will see the glistening of a familiar eye or hear a note from a familiar tune, and this will mean you’re still here. You just had to stay hidden for a while.
We wouldn’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night otherwise, would we, baby boy? If all that never existed.
And, besides, you’re here. It’s someone’s blood that flows in you, those are someone’s eyes looking at me.
You deserve the truth, baby boy. We all do. I’m just not sure if I’ll ever be able to give it to you.
But you’re strong. You’re clever. You’ll find a way.
It does cross her mind that it might be some kind of trap, and she does wonder why they took the risk of sending the letter to someone like her. On the other hand, that’s what they were probably looking for. Her kind of people. Desperate people but with a reason to go on living.
The building is an old mansion in the outskirts of town. It’s almost intact, which is surprising. The guard opens the gate for her and asks to see her invitation. She hands him the letter, and only then does she notice the holster in his belt.
He then asks her something, but she’s not listening. She can’t tell — well, of course she can’t — how long it’s been since she last saw a garden like that. The flowers are a little wilted, sure, and the trees stoop like tired old women, but the air is cool and a little moist and thick with a smell that somehow reminds her of herself in Safu’s age — could it really be? Have we all been children once? — and of the freshness of summer rain and of first kisses and of other things, now distant and forgotten. Honeysuckle, she thinks. That’s what ma called it.
Ma. I’m your ma now, baby. Whoever thought we’d come this far.
“You can come through,” the guard is telling her. “They’re expecting you.”
You can’t turn back now, she thinks as she walks up the gravel path. Just make it worth the risk.
The door opens, and there’s a smiling woman behind it, waiting for her. She gestures her to a sofa and then sits cross-legged opposite her.
“We’re very happy that you decided to come,” the woman says. “You don’t have to be afraid. Tomorrow morning you’ll be home, and nothing will have changed.” She leans closer, takes out a cigarette, lights it, and blows the smoke to the ceiling. “Do you understand what we’re doing here?”
All this time she has been sitting with her back upright, her hands clasped on her knees. “I’m not sure,” she says.
“Just a little bit of historical research. This is all there is to it.” The woman pauses, looks at her with a pair of shining eyes like a child who’s just been given a new toy. But I’m not a toy, she thinks. Don’t look at me like that. “We can proceed whenever you feel ready.”
“What will we be doing?”
“You’ll just fall asleep. And dream for us.”
She opens her mouth.
“Don’t worry,” the woman says. “You’ll get your money first thing in the morning.”
They lead her to a bedroom — there’s pictures of seascapes and dense forests on the walls, and a big screen showing Brother Equalizer speak. She wonders a bit at this — after all, what they are doing here is against his law — but they see the way she stares and smile.
“We have the utmost respect for him and his governance,” they tell her. “But everyone can make a mistake. We’re doing all this in the name of science.”
She’s surrounded by three people in hospital gowns — the woman she saw earlier and two young men. They ask her to lie on the bed, they attach something to her head and sit down on the armchairs around her.
“We have to be here,” they say. “Just try to forget about us. We’ll be quiet.”
So she turns on her side, cradles the pillow under her arm and closes her eyes. Eventually I’ll sleep, she thinks.
Sometimes, when I look at you, baby boy, something swells up in me, a terrible thing — but then I think of your smile and the way you purse your nose whenever the sun’s in your eyes, and it all goes away. It’s not that I don’t love you — don’t you ever think of anything like that, my little one. It’s just that I’d like to know a little more about who you are and what happened to you.
The first thing I remember is when I brought you home. You weren’t much older than six months, but you were such a little devil! I fell in love with you right away. I just wonder what brought you to my hands.
Your parents? I don’t suppose they are alive. I’m sure they are not. I’m sorry.
It’s just that this is my first memory — my first happy memory, it’s true — and everything else I remember is a lifetime away. There’s sixteen years of my life that seem to have merely crumbled to dust, blown away by the wind. You somehow remind me of them. And I wish I could have them back.
But all this is none of your fault. You probably are the sole innocent person around here.
I suppose all this happened to protect us. To protect you. They say people did terrible things back then. Maybe this is the way to not repeat them. But who wouldn’t like to know?
We are curious creatures, baby. Maybe too curious for our own good.
Just sleep now. Don’t listen to the ramblings of your old ma.
I’m still your ma, aren’t I?
She stirs. Or not. She’s not stirring. Someone’s gently shaking her awake. She opens her eyes and blinks. It’s still dark.
“Are you with me? Good. I’m going to ask you a few questions now.”
She hears a switch flip, and then there’s a faint light at the other end of the room. She sits up.
“Just give me a minute.”
She blinks again. The faces around her start to clear. But something is wrong.
She holds her hand in front of her face, examines it as if she’s not sure it’s hers. It looks as it looked like the night before — the broken thumbnail, the dry skin — but she feels like this hand, her whole body is bent in different ways as if someone has reset her bones and adjusted her eyes, and her brain itself is like it’s not exactly the same as a few hours back, and there’s something thick and heavy in her chest struggling to get out, and then she remembers.
And it seems so true.
She sits there for a few moments, trying to make sure it’s really her, trying to discern dream from reality. Maybe it’s just the tatters of sleep, she thinks, nightmares and repressed guilt.
But it’s all vivid and clear as a childhood sunrise, and she’s sure now she remembers.
Oh, God, she remembers.
And, remembering, she decides she can’t afford to lose it all again, however painful it might be. And, remembering, she knows what to do.
She does feel her muscles a little rusty and all those years of hardship and deprivation have taken a toll on her, but the body never forgets. She knows that too well now.
She waits for the first young man to come closer. He’s holding a little notepad and saying, “We’ll make it all go away as soon as we’re through, I promise.”
The man leans to adjust the device on her head. She holds her breath. She feels something rushing through her, and she knows it’s more than adrenaline and the screams of memories huddling in her head. It’s excitement, an excitement so wild it almost feels like ecstasy. She hates the fact that she’s feeling it, but she tries to hold on to it. It’s the only way she can do what she has to do.
She grabs the man’s head and sticks her fingers in his eye sockets till she feels the squelching and then she breaks his nose on her knee. She absentmindedly wonders how many times she’s done this before, but she knows she can actually count them if she likes, so she stops. The woman manages to scream for the guards before she breaks her teeth and the second man flees, but it doesn’t really matter because now she remembers, and there’s nothing they can do to stop her. She was just hoping she’d keep the damage to a minimum.
She walks to the door. Takes a deep breath. The memories keep coming. She tries to keep it all down. Now’s not the time, she mumbles. Now’s not the time. She exits the room. They are already here.
Let them come. I remember. And I can do what I have to as easily as writing my name.
She hasn’t taken Safu with her to Bacha’s this time. She will tell him. But not now. She hates to say it, but this is grown-ups’ talk.
As if being a grown-up means you can be trusted. Means you can be trusted with a life.
“Do you believe in me, Bacha?” she says. “Do you believe that I’d never lie to you, never do anything to harm you?”
“Sure I do.”
That’s good. Because I don’t. Not any more.
“But you’ll have to calm down and tell me,” he says. “I can’t do what you’re asking me to if I don’t know.”
“I want to know you’re certain. It’s a huge risk I’m asking you to take. Who knows what will happen if they find us out.”
Old Bacha lights up his pipe and looks at her with his tired wise eyes; that gaze which always seems to suggest that he knows more than he says.
“I can’t be certain if you don’t tell me.” He pauses, puffing. “Don’t worry, though,” he says. “I’m kind of sure I know what you have to say. I’ve been suspecting it for a long time now.”
I don’t mean to scare you, baby boy. No matter what you hear, never forget I love you.
But… well. Tomorrow, I’ll try to find a chain. Tie myself up at night. I can’t trust myself any more. I’ll give you the key.
You should be afraid of me, baby boy. I am afraid of myself. And of just how easy it is for man to turn monster.
Your parents? Yes, they are dead, indeed. I know that too well now.
I killed them.
But that’s not the worst part, is it? If someone just told me, I would feel terrible, of course, but, believe me, hearing about it is one thing; knowing — remembering — is something totally different.
What’s worse is that I am that same person, little one. Yes, I forgot. Yes, I listened to Brother Equaliser and maybe this changed me a bit. But the problem is I can’t be sure who I really am. The one you’ve known all this time, your loving ma, or that other person — the one who did all those things?
I do want to believe that I’m your ma and that other one is dead forever, but, I told you, that one is me again.
And there were others, too.
As far as I can remember my old life, well, maybe I wasn’t what you’d call a nice person, but I didn’t really know what hate was. Anger, yes, despair, resentment, all that. But this thing?
Where did we go so wrong, baby boy?
Maybe one day I’ll be able to, if we’re still here, but right now I can’t tell you how many I — we — killed and how and — even worse — why.
Nibis. How many Nibis? I should remind myself of that.
Nor will I tell you what I thought about when doing it. It’s just too terrible. Maybe this is the worst of all.
We all knew, you’ll say. All this time, we knew what happened.
Yes. But we all secretly believed it was something the others had done. Everyone but ourselves.
And, besides, once you see and hear that stuff in your mind, well, nothing will ever be the same again.
I understand now why they made us forget. I also understand why they shouldn’t have.
Because once the dust settles, we’ll do it all over again. The hate is here. Hidden, but here. And we won’t even know what we’re doing because it will be the first time. A little guilt is not enough. A clean slate is not a second chance.
Somehow, somewhen, the seed was sown. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t pretend it won’t sprout again when the time comes.
So fear me, baby boy. But never forget I love you. And now I can love you truly because I know what I have done.
Sleep now. Please, don’t dream.
“Nobody’s going to make me forget,” old Bacha says as he puts the last brushstroke on the wall. The mural is a tiny thing, really — he couldn’t make it much bigger if he was not to be seen — and it’s the fourth he draws tonight. It’s a diptych. On the left side there’s two women. One of them is a Nibi. They’re dressed in pelts, and the mammoths in the white background and the dead tree in the distance suggest the Ice Years. The other woman is holding an infant — a Nibi infant — breastfeeding it. She doesn’t know how he’s done it, maybe it’s merely the heat of the fire reflecting off their faces, but there’s a heart-warming tone of serenity and comradeliness in the picture.
The right side is simpler. No background, no soothing fire. It’s the same women, dressed in modern clothes, and the baby is still suckling; it’s just that, this time, the Nibi is lying dead with her guts spilt out, and the other woman is holding the child with bloodstained hands. Below the picture is written “Remember before you forget,” in both tongues.
They stand back to appreciate the work.
“It’s really good, Bacha,” she says.
The old man doesn’t answer. He just lights his pipe, packs his brushes, and turns to leave.
“Best I could do,” he says. “But don’t keep your hopes too high.”
The afternoon next, she passes by the first wall. She knows she had better stay as far away as possible, but there’s this scene playing in her mind of a small crowd standing in front of the murals, of a quiet worried murmur, and even of a few tears shed. Stupid, mortally stupid, she knows. But she has to see.
When she reaches the place, there’s no one around. You should be expecting that, she tells herself. The world doesn’t change from one day to the next. She just turns her head to steal a look at the picture, trying to draw some courage, to reassure herself they’re doing the right thing.
But there’s nothing there. Just a stenciled fedora hat and an equal sign where the painting used to be and a stray dog lifting its hind leg to pee on the plaster.
Listen to me, baby boy, and listen hard: Never let anyone tell you things are what they are, and there’s nothing you can do to change them. You are stronger than you might think; you just have to have a cause and a way.
I do sometimes think about it now since everything changed: that I might end up a crazy woman muttering to herself and shouting to the passersby about blood and guilt and hate and things they will never be able to understand or feel because there’s simply nothing for them to understand. But I’m okay with that. Let it come. I have a cause. No one can say I didn’t try. I just have to make sure I have a way.
I’m just worried what might happen if they find us out. I’m not worried about me; I just don’t ever want to leave you. But should anything happen to me, baby boy, remember — funny word, isn’t it? — that I’ll always be your ma. Your hateful, murderous ma, but the one who loves you more than her own life. I’d never give up on you, you know that. If anything happens, please don’t think poorly of me; I had no choice. It’s you I’m doing this for.
Well, let’s be honest; I’m doing this for myself and for the whole world, but my mind is on you. I wouldn’t even think about it if I wasn’t your mother.
But don’t worry. Nothing bad is going to happen. We’ll make it through. I’ll be careful. And you won’t mind if you end up with a crazy old woman for a ma, will you?
Well, I don’t think it’ll come to this. I’ll keep my wits about me. The rest of the world might go crazy when they find out. But a little insanity sometimes helps you move forward and do things the sane would never do.
She wakes up at noon. They were out all night, old Bacha going as fast as he could. His work has gone a bit clumsier, his lines a bit hasty, but they decided they should fill as many walls as they could throughout the city. He made eleven murals last night; eight the night before that.
They have been doing it for quite some time now. At first, they would paint everything over the very next day, but, lately, it seems they have started giving up, and last night’s paintings have all survived. She doesn’t know what to think about that; whether she should be more hopeful, or if she should start worrying.
She went out yesterday, took a walk through the city to see how people would react. She stood by the wall for about an hour, watching the crowd. Two or three passersby stopped and gazed at the mural. They blinked, scratched their heads and went their way. She looked at them closely, trying to catch a glint of remembrance in their eye. Maybe they’ll just pretend they go on their way and will tell others about it when they get home, she thought. Maybe they’re too scared to show they understand.
But deep inside, she knew they’d never say anything; not because they were afraid, but because, when she looked at them, she saw nothing there.
She takes Safu by the hand and gets out. “Let’s go for a walk,” she tells him. You idiot, she thinks, dragging the kid with you, but she can’t stop herself; they must feel something, they have to, and, if they see her there, a mother with a child that looks nothing like her, they might make the connection.
Because she rattles her chains at night, and she is afraid she could easily break free if she decided to, and the memories have not faded at all; they ripple through her as if someone’s thrown a huge boulder in her mind, and the waves, instead of retreating, swell higher and higher by the minute, and she can’t be alone in# this. They must feel something; someone must remember; someone must burst out screaming; someone must cry so that at least she won’t be alone in this.
Poor Safu doesn’t complain even if she keeps him standing there at high noon, and he strives to stay in the wall’s narrow strip of shade. But people just keep coming and going as if nothing has happened, as if the world as we knew it didn’t end a few years back and as if it wasn’t us who ended it — or who were slaughtered so that the end would come. (Only about one in ten people is a Nibi, she notices. It seems we were all good at our jobs back then.)
She starts trying to attract attention, coughing loudly when someone looks at the picture or holding Safu by the shoulders, gently stroking his hair. But all she gets in response is icy gazes of — what? Indifference? Ignorance? Fear? Or maybe none of the three.
A well-dressed young man comes round the corner, with an old Nibi woman shuffling her feet in his wake. He sports a mustache and a fedora hat and he’s swinging a cane; a true believer, it seems, a genuine Brother Equalizer acolyte. This one must understand; if this one notices, then everyone will, eventually.
“Hey,” she shouts when he passes in front of her. “Hey!” she says and waves her hands. “Don’t you see?” She stands by the mural, wraps her arms around Safu and looks him in the eye.
The man stops and flicks his gaze towards her, then to the painting she’s showing him. He stands there, confused for a moment, and then smiles. “Very nice,” he says and tosses her a coin.
She reflexively catches it and looks at it as if trying to figure out what its purpose is. When she lifts her eyes, the old Nibi is standing there, a compassionate smile on her wrinkled face.
“Go home, dear,” she says. “Take care of your kid. He’ll get sunburns in this heat. Go home and give him a bath and cook him his favorite food. He looks like he needs it.” She pauses and smiles again. There’s no accusation in her voice, no mockery; just melancholy and compassion and maybe — just maybe — a hint of resignation.
She opens her mouth. She wants to explain to her, to tell her everything, but it’s like there’s a curtain of silence and half-spoken words and whispered truths between them, one only this Nibi can breach.
“Don’t you see that they don’t want to know?” the old woman says. She turns to follow the young man. “Everyone prefers their conscience clear. The way is of no importance.”
She watches the odd couple recede in the distance, her arms wrapped around Safu, and suddenly the noon sun is merely a frost flake, and the world is getting cold, very cold, thousands of years old.
Hephaestion Christopoulos is confused: part engineer, part translator, part aspiring linguist and part hopeless bassist. He also writes. He has published two short story collections in Greek and has participated in several anthologies. His latest book The Whales on the Moon mixes realism with speculative elements and has received positive reviews. His novella A Precambrian Discourse on Filipassianism is forthcoming in 2023 from Raven Canticle Press. He lives in Athens with five women, only three of which are furry. You can find him on Twitter @CompsonsCurse.