This Is How We Remember
by Jaime Lee Moyer

 


Falling. Falling in slow motion, rippling white wings cupped above and behind me, screams carried away and lost on the wind. I never found the bottom of the blue before blackness folded around me.

Lurching awake released me. Shaking hands made it difficult to pull my boots on, but I managed. Staying inside wasn’t an option.

The tent flap was as heavy as the air, moisture soaked canvas sticky under my fingers. Humidity clung to everything, fogged the face of my watch and stuck the pages of my notebooks together. After the first week here I’d decided my clothing would never dry and neither would my skin. If I was lucky, a breeze would stir the trees that ringed the village. The cooling was an illusion, but it made me feel better.

Six months in the mountains, recording oral history and mythology of the Myri people, was a great opportunity for a grad student. Their government planned to relocate them and log the forests, ending their relative isolation. Truth was relocation would shatter their culture and it would vanish within a generation. 

So I fought for the chance to go, relishing the challenge and more than a little desperate for new surroundings. Well meaning people tiptoeing around my grief threatened to drown me in coddling and sympathy. Words wouldn’t fill the hole in my life. I wanted to move on.

But the picture of mountains in my head—cool, windswept forest and meadows—wasn’t the reality I found. The area around the Myri village was a rainforest, broad-leafed trees and vines a dense curtain of unrelenting green.  Even when nightmares didn’t wake me, sleep was difficult, the air too still, closing in and suffocating.  Lying on my cot was pure misery.

“Some intrepid adventurer you turned out to be, Eleanor Todd,” I muttered. The camp chair creaked as I settled into it, loud as a funhouse door. “You spend half your time trying to prove how tough you are and the other half pining for air-conditioning. Get a grip.”

Dawn was hours away. Stars littered the sky in clumps and drifts like the aftermath of a kindergarten art project. At this time of night the rainforest was oddly silent. Darkness held the sounds of day in suspended animation, the constant shrill screech of birds and monkeys replaced by soft trills of tree frogs and the monotone buzz of crickets. Even the village dogs slept at this hour, curled up on woven mats in front of each house.

I had two dogs of my own sleeping in front of the tent, a gift from the village elders. The dogs were a four-legged early warning system if something nasty slunk out of the jungle, one I relied on as much as if I’d been born here. If the dogs slept, I could watch the stars without worrying. If the dogs slept, I was as safe outside the tent as inside.

Lingering terror from the nightmare was still there, taunting me with half-remembered, confused flashes that made my heart pound. I slumped down in the chair and tried to forget, losing myself in finding patterns hidden in the unfamiliar stars. Dragons, mermaids and unicorns, creatures from every childhood story I’d loved took shape if I squinted just right. Calm edged out fear a little more with each one I imagined looking down at me.

Peace never lasted long. Movement off to one side alerted me my shadow was back. The old woman resembled a ghost in the moonlight, her arms full of flowers the color of spider silk and all the bright colors in her dress washed out to pale grey. She moved like a ghost too. The dogs didn’t lift their heads until she was next to me.

The villagers called her Anoi-mah, which loosely translated to either oldest mother or mother of us all, depending on the inflection. Some of the elders used another inflection that meant mother of desire. I didn’t know what to make of that one.

She’d haunted me from the day I arrived, always there, always watching over my shoulder, appearing suddenly when I wanted to be alone to ask me questions. At first I thought she didn’t trust my motives for being there. Now I had no doubts that she understood I’d only come to record the Myri’s history, not to offer them any harm. She still shadowed my every move. That confused me.

“You’re awake again, Ellie-shar. Do you never sleep?” Anoi-mah touched my face and I tried not to flinch. Being touched by an elder was a sign of favor. Letting her see how much I disliked it would be an insult. “What are you running from, child?”

I sat up straight, moving enough it was natural she’d remove her hand. How this culture viewed dreams, especially dreams that left me shaking, was still an open question. They might see them as messages from the Gods or attempts by a demon to steal my soul. Telling her about my nightmares was risky.

Besides, this was my private life, my personal trauma to overcome. I didn’t feel a need to share it with Anoi-mah.

“I’m not running from anything, elder. I came outside because it’s cooler.” Not a lie, not completely, but I squirmed inside under her bright-eyed gaze.

“I’ve wondered why you insist on sleeping in a cloth box without windows to let in air and moonlight. It is probably as you say, child. A box can trap so many things.” She tipped her head to one side, studying me the way a hawk watches a snake before snatching it up and beating it on the ground. “Tomorrow the men will move your things to my house. People can tell their stories to you there.”

“Anoi-mah . . .” I stood, groping for a graceful way to turn down her offer. She was senior here, her good will key to access to the rest of the village. “It’s a very generous and kind offer. I’m honored, but I can’t accept.”

She smiled, discarding my feeble protest without acknowledging I’d spoken. “It’s settled. You will stay with me, child. The honor is mine. I’ll send the men just after sunrise.” Anoi-mah offered one of the pale flowers in her arms. “I have a story to share with you. Would you like to hear it?”

“Hearing your stories is the reason I came, Anoi-mah,” I said.

“Then I should tell it,” she said. “Our ancestor’s tales say that long ago there lived a Myri maiden so fair she caught the eye of Moon. Moon came to love the maiden, lighting her path each night with silver moonbeams and showering her with fallen stars to wear in her hair. He hoped to win her heart and convince her to live with him in the sky.”

I fingered the flower petals, smooth as bits of glass polished by the ocean. Other than the obvious reason, I wondered why she picked the middle of the night to tell me this story.

“The maiden came to love Moon as well. When the sky grew dark again, Moon lowered a ladder woven of moon-glow for her to climb. But the way was long, too long for the maiden to reach the heavens in one short night. Sun began to rise in the sky, eager to reclaim his place. Moon’s pleas to wait until the girl was safe were ignored. The ladder of moon-glow disappeared with the first rays of dawn.” Anoi-mah buried her face in the mass of flowers for an instant, inhaling deeply. “When night came, Moon wept for the Myri girl that fell from heaven. The stories say that where Moon’s tears touched earth, a moonflower blooms in the darkness. Moon did not want to spend endless nights gazing down on the world without a reminder of the maiden’s beauty.”

“And these are moonflowers?” Echoes of an imagined scream, of watching someone fall from heaven tore through me. I ducked my head and breathed in the sweet scent of the flower, trying to hide my reaction. Hide how my hand shook. “Do you gather them often?”

“Not often, Ellie-shar. Only when there is need.”  The old woman took the flower back. “Rest now until dawn. There are still many stories for you to learn.”

The dogs lifted their heads long enough to watch her walk across the clearing to her house. I thought about dragging the cot out of the tent, but settled for tying the flap open.

Stars glimmered in the section of sky visible through the open tent door. I imagined each one as a tear shed by a grief-stricken Moon, each one a seed for something beautiful. Pain was only transformed that way in myth and folklore.

I began to count them, the unnumbered tears of the Moon. Sleep claimed me before I reached a hundred.

*     *     * 

Built of peeled logs, Anoi-mah’s house was the biggest in the village, with a large room in front for speaking to visitors and taking meals, and a smaller, partitioned space in one corner where she slept. A cooking hearth sat a few steps away outside the door, roofed over with a canopy of leaves, layered in a way that shed the rain. The center of the main room was taken up with a low table, her only real piece of furniture. Reed mats covered the floor and fabric cushions as bright as the skirts Anoi-mah wore were heaped in piles for visitors.

The room she gave me was in the back of the house, shaded by trees and with windows in both outside walls. I thought it might have been a storeroom at some point, but it was empty now. Woven mats on the floor looked newly laid, pale reeds unmarked by footprints. My cot, small camp table and what supplies I’d brought fit with space to spare.

Moonlight and air did find their way inside. Setting my cot up under one of the windows gave me a clear view of the sky. I fell asleep each night counting stars.

And I did sleep, nightmares held at bay for the first time in months. I accepted the dreamless nights as a gift, a reprieve that wasn’t likely to last.

Living in Anoi-mah’s house raised my status with the entire village. People were less wary. Those who avoided me before went out of their way to visit, spending hours sitting in my quiet room telling me the stories they knew.

The one person I saw less of was Anoi-mah. Once I settled into her house, she let me work in peace. She sat with me in the evening while I ate the food she brought, sometimes asking me to tell her a fairytale or stories of the town I grew up in. As the days went by she treated me more like a grand-daughter and less like a visitor. I grew easier in her company.

Most of what I heard from the villagers was core myth, the kind of tales known in every culture around the world. While unique to the Myri, these were the stories I expected to hear. 

Recording a rich and varied oral history that went back generations was an added treasure. Women told me stories of births and marriage feasts, stories of broken-hearted lovers and of mourning children lost generations before. Hunters told tales of seasons when the rains didn’t come and famine stalked at their heels, of wars fought with invaders from the flatlands.

No two people told the same story. Within a day I was convinced these were tales of real people, stories that recorded daily life of the Myri for generations. The more I went over my notes, the less sure I became about how to categorize it.

Oil lamps glowed softly in the corners of the room when my last visitor left. I sat on my cot, resting my arms on the window edge to watch twilight darken into full night. One of my borrowed dogs rose up on his hind legs against the outside wall to lick my fingers, letting me know they were still there, guarding me so I could stargaze. I scratched his massive head, black and fawn mottled fur soft as duckling down. He curled up under the window with his mate to sleep.

The moon was a day away from full and dominated the sky, a silvery-grey face shadowed with darker crater rims. I couldn’t look at the moon without thinking of Anoi-mah’s story. Gone was the jolly figure of childhood stories and nursery rhymes. The man in the moon was a sad figure, hollow with loss.

“Ellie-shar?” Anoi-mah stepped into the room, a wooden platter heaped with flat bread and fruit balanced on one hand. Bright colored fabric, a dress I thought, draped over the other arm. “Your visitors are gone for the night. You should eat.”

I stood and took the platter from her. Pushing notebooks to one side, I set it on the camp table. “Thank you, elder. I got busy and forgot.” I broke off a piece of bread and held it out to her, hospitality and custom among the Myri. “I’d be honored if you’d sit with me and share.”

“Old women don’t forget to eat, child. But I will sit and talk.” She perched on the edge of my cot, laying out the dress next to her and smoothing the fabric over the tan cotton sheet. “There will be a celebration and dancing tomorrow night. You will be an honored guest and the reason we celebrate, Ellie-shar. I didn’t know if you had clothing suitable for a celebration or dancing, so I brought you a gift.”

A piece of fruit slid out of my fingers. The pale pink crescent grinned up at me from the black metal table. “This is for me? I don’t know what to say.”

“Yes, for you.” She laughed. “Has no one given you a gift before? Take it, child.”

I wiped my hands on my jeans, ridding them of fruit juice and crumbs before I picked up the dress. Soft cotton draped over my arm, dyed in bright yellows, blues and deep greens. Like all the Myri women’s dresses, it was sewn from diagonal pieces of fabric, narrow at the neckline, growing ever wider until they reached the hem.  Black lines splashed in spirals and zigzags across the full skirts. There was a belt of the same fabric to pull it in tight at the waist.

“It’s beautiful. I find myself in your debt again, elder.” Falling back on formality gave me distance, something I’d lost while living in her house and letting her care for me. Now she’d bulldozed over me again, leaving me no choice but to take what she offered. “But I’m an outsider here. Help me understand why this celebration is in my honor.”

She tipped her head and peered up at me, brown eyes throwing back my refection in the light of the oil lamps. I was suddenly grateful for the lack of mirrors in her house. Still too thin, hair pinned on the top of my hair in a haphazard way, wearing one of the ragged tee-shirts I tended to favor. My earlier thought about the moon came back to me.

“Why wouldn’t we honor you? When you remember the stores we tell, you keep our memories safe. That is something to celebrate. When the Myri are gone from the mountains our lives won’t be forgotten. No life should be forgotten.” She stood and brushed her fingers across the skirt of the dress. “Come dance with us. Let us honor you and give you something in return. There are other stories to share, Ellie-shar.”

I clutched the beautiful dress to my chest. The scent of moonflowers clung to the fabric. “The Myri are not my people. I don’t know your dances, elder.”

Anoi-mah touched my cheek. This time I didn’t flinch. “We will teach you. What matters is that you remember. Eat something and then sleep.”

She blew out the oil lamps and left. I draped the dress over my chair. It would do for tonight. 

Eating didn’t take long. I got ready for bed and flopped onto my cot, bunching the pillow under my head. Clouds, tattered as old lace curtains, veiled the moon, hiding his grief. Mist filled the space between stars. At some point I closed my eyes and dreamed for the first time in days. Dreams of leaping shadows stretching across the ground, of drums and flames reaching for the sky.

Dreams of flying and falling forever, and never finding the ground.

*     *     *

Anoi-mah came for me just after sunset. I’d braided my fresh-washed hair, coiling the plaits on top of my head and pinning them in place. She smiled and nodded approval. “You look very pretty, child. The men will quarrel over who gets to dance with you. But come, the women have food ready and you must eat first.”

A bonfire blazed in the center of the clearing. I followed Anoi-mah, my dogs trotting behind us. The dress caressed my ankles, soft cotton skirts swirling and swaying with each step. After weeks of living in jeans or cut-off shorts it was a strange sensation.

Some of the children ran out to greet us; the older girls took my hands and tugged me to where the women waited. Platters heaped with meat, sweet potatoes and steamed tubers, sweet rice rolled in leaves and wooden bowls overflowing with fruit covered a dozen crude tables. Two other tables held cups and casks of the Myri honey wine.

People called out my name, all of them smiling and laughing. The older women urged me to sit on one of the cloths spread on the ground and pressed a platter full of food into my hands. I’d just gotten it balanced on my lap, surprised and a little confused by all the attention, when one of the younger hunters offered a cup of wine. It smelled of honey and moonflowers and I knew it would make my head spin.

“No.” I smiled at him, but shook my head. “Thank you.” 

“Take it, Ellie-shar. Celebrate with us.” Anoi-mah joined me, balancing her own plate of food. “One cup before we dance, to honor the winemaker and the memories. What harm could it do?”

I buckled. The young hunter grinned when I took the cup from him, cradling the smooth wood in my hands as carefully as fine crystal. I breathed the fragrance in before taking a small sip.

It did make my head spin.

“I’m not used to drinking,” I said. My cheeks burned hot. I was grateful firelight and shadows hid the sudden flush.

“Drink, child.” Anoi-mah put her hands over mine, lifting the cup to my lips, reflections of flame all I could see in her brown eyes. “I promise not to let you fall.”

A cheer went up when I drained the cup. I gulped in air for a few seconds, feeling the wine burn through me until even my fingertips tingled. Anoi-mah handed the cup back to one of the women and patted my knee. “Eat now, before the dancing starts. Food will give you strength.”

The crowd around me moved away, gathering food and lining up for their own cups of honey wine. Voices swirled over my head, happy talk and laughter. I let them carry me with them, smiling while I ate bites of fruit and sticky rice, joining in the chatter of the children who came to sit with me.

People finished eating and gathered near the fire. Older men pulled drums into the circle of light. Small ones to beat with their hands and bigger ones that reminded me of Japanese taiko drums, two-sided, set in a frame and made to be beat with sticks. A whoop went up when the men began to play, young men and women swaying in place for a moment before starting to dance. They moved slowly at first, feet stomping in time with the drums, picking up speed as more people joined the circle around the fire.

Anoi-mah and one of the older women grabbed my hands, tugging me to my feet. “Come dance with us, Ellie-shar.”

Fear rooted me to the spot. It was silly and I didn’t understand it, but it was real. Reluctance to join the leaping shadows so like my dream blossomed into heart pounding panic. Each beat of the drums resonated inside me, fed the certainty that I couldn’t do this. I wanted to run, to hide.

I wanted to forget. “No. I changed my mind. I’m going back to my room.”

“Child, you came here to collect memories. We all have stories to tell, lives that shouldn’t be forgotten.” Anoi-mah cupped my face in her hands. “This is how we remember.” 

She smiled and my protests crumbled to dust. The rhythm bludgeoned my senses, sweeping away will like a tsunami and taking fear with it. Anoi-mah pulled me toward the circle, toward the fire that leapt in time with the drums. 

We plunged into the midst of the dancers. She handed me off to a young hunter, the same one that gifted me with the wine. He pulled me into the dance without missing a step, holding my hand and slowing his pace until my feet found the rhythm. Skirts slid around my ankles, each step making them swirl and float, each step a little faster than the one before. He grinned, eyes shining in the fire-glow, and I grinned back, letting him pull me round faster.

Three times around the circle and breath became a priority, laughter stealing it as surely as exertion. Hunters with sun-browned skin and honey on their tongues stole kisses before I swirled away, never missing a step. I surrendered to the patterns woven by the drums, mirror-ball flashes of firelight and leaping shadows filling my eyes.

Anoi-mah led us all, swift as memory taking flight. She lifted her feet and skirts high and sang a song without words. Her voice wove a pattern of its own around the drumbeats, notes shining like moonflowers under the trees. Other women echoed her, blending voices like raindrops on the roof or wind sighing through the trees into the melody. Low and sweet, the song of the Myri took shape under the full moon, wrapping me in rhythm until there was nothing but the dance.

Nine times round the circle and dancing became a waking dream. That’s what I told myself; it must be a dream.

Sunlight dappled the path I walk in bare-feet, a basket propped on one hip full of sweet potatoes still dusty from the field. My dress stretches tight across a belly swollen with child and I smile as he kicks and turns. The older women laugh at me, but I know it is a son, a boy to grow strong and handsome as his father. A son to lead the hunt and keep the people fed, just as Matahi did now.

The men gather outside our hut, cluster in front of the door. I imagine they talk about the hunt as always, reliving the skill used by the stalkers to flush the prey at the right instant or the moment that Matahi’s arrows bring down the biggest buck in the herd. I don’t see him, but there are many things to do after a hunt and dressing the kills are his responsibility.

I call greeting to the hunters. The men step back silently and I see Matahi’s body on the mat before our door, still and quiet in a way he never is, even in sleep. Bloody slashes on his chest and neck tell the story of a jungle cat, large and stronger than even the most mighty of hunters.

A part of me knows this is not my life, that this is a time I’ve never seen. That doesn’t stop grief for a man lost from pulsing through my veins, grief so strong I think the weight will stop my heart as well.

I stumbled, wailing a name I didn’t know. Anoi-mah caught my arm on one side, the young hunter on the other. I shook and sobbed, terrified to keep dancing. “I don’t understand. Let me go back. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t!”

“Memories of those we’ve lost is a gift, Ellie-shar.” She wiped tears from my face and brushed my hair back. “Come, child, don’t give up now. You’re stronger than you know. There are other stories to remember.”

Anoi-mah and the tall young hunter whose name I didn’t know drew me back into the dance, flinging me back into a river of lives. The rhythm was a current that grabbed me, pulled me into memories that were never mine. I lived a hundred times, a hundred stories of pain and joy, love and sorrow I’d never forget.

An extra beat of the drums and the waking dream became my life.

I was back in the jump plane with Sean. He checked my harness and clipped me to the static line. “Okay, Ellie, all set to go. You don’t have to worry about pulling the cord, the line will do that for you. All you have to do is hold on and enjoy the ride.” He kissed me and pulled the goggles down over my eyes. “Remember to bend your knees and roll when you land. I’ll be right behind you.”

Freefall was a roar of wind in my ears and controlled terror coiled in my belly, spreading my arms wide to feel the rush of air tugging at my sleeves. The jerk of the shoot deploying and yanking me upright rattled my teeth. Some of the terror subsided and I looked for Sean.

He was far below me, knees tucked to his chest and spinning. I counted, waiting for him to stop playing and pull the cord, relieved when he came out of the crouch and reached for the handle. He yanked the handle once, twice, a third time.

Nothing happened.

This was my nightmare; falling endlessly and screaming Sean’s name, watching his tumble from heaven come to an end while I hung in the sky. The part I blocked out was landing, remembering to bend my knees and roll, pulling the release on the harness and running across the field. My mind shied away from the memory of him crumbled and broken, or how the jump school instructor pinned me to the ground to keep me from going to him so the EMTs could work.

Trauma induced amnesia the doctors called it, the funeral and the days after vanishing in the same haze of grief. Soon most of my time with Sean was something that happened to someone else; but I remembered now, all of it.

The drums stopped. I swayed on my feet for a few seconds, gasping for breath, numb, and dropped to my knees. Memories settled into place, mine as well as those of people I’d never known, claiming a part of me they’d never relinquish. Pain settled in as well, sharp and raw and fresh.

Sean’s life was a part of the Myri now as well. The young hunter who’d danced with me cupped my face in his hands, tears swimming in his eyes, and kissed my forehead. Older women touched my cheek on their way past, murmuring words of sympathy. Every member of the village let me know with a touch or a word they shared my grief and treasured the gift of memories I’d given them. Sean’s story would be remembered and shared as long as the Myri existed.

Anoi-mah was the last. She smiled and cradled my face in her hands. “You did well. We were right to trust you.”

“Is it always this hard?” Asking why she hadn’t warned me was a foolish question. I wouldn’t have believed her.

The light from the fire dimmed, flames struggling to hold on in ember and ash while shadow gained the upper hand. I still saw her smile.

“Sometimes.” She helped me to my feet. “But grief is not all there is of your memories, Ellie-shar. Moon chose to remember his maiden’s beauty, not the tears he cried when she fell. It will be easier when pain is not all you remember.”

*     *     *

For a long time I lay awake on my cot stargazing. The full moon filled the sky, hollow shadows banished by silvery bright moonglow. I could imagine the man in the moon smiling now, each moonflower blooming in the darkness a reminder of a maiden’s beauty.

I closed my eyes and pictured Sean’s smile. It was a good place to start remembering.

 

 

  

About the Author:

Jaime abandoned California to live next to a river in the wilds of Ohio. She writes books and poetry as well as stories and in her spare time she is the Poetry Editor for Ideomancer Speculative Fiction.

She is a three time Rhysling nominee and her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Illumen, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Lone Star Stories, Flashquake, and the special edition chapbook, On Our Way to Battle: Poetry From the Trenches.

This is her first published short story. The plan is that it won't be the last.





 

 


Story © 2008 Jaime Lee Moyer.