Winter 2007 Volume One Issue One
The Renascence of Memory - by Amy Sterling Casil
She sang to herself. If wishes were fishes, then coffins could swim.
Eyes shut tight, Carol Meyers remembered her husband's silver coffin sliding into the grave just like a salmon into a trawler's hold.
Fish you will swim no more.
Why was she singing and thinking of the funeral? She hadn't been dreaming of it. Had she?
"David," she said. Her husband's name. When she spoke, her tongue moved thickly. Stale, sticky, horrible breath. How long had it been since she'd brushed her teeth? Putting it off, just like her son had always done.
Peter brush your teeth. Singing up the stairs.
Her son, Peter. In her mind, she still saw the hearse and the silver coffin, but it was Peter's voice she heard now. Plaintive and so sad.
Carol Meyers, wife without a husband and mother without a son.
Her son Peter had died before his father.
Such things should never happen.
She tried to open her eyes.
Both of them dead. Husband and son, and where was she?
How old was she? She believed that once, she had been happy. Grief lacerated her throat and her eyes burned beneath their closed lids.
Long ago yesterday, David had cremated their son Peter and taken the cheapest urn, because he had refused to pay for a regular burial.
Perhaps that was why she had remembered his coffin. Slippery, silvery, sliding like a fish.
Then came the bitter memory: Carol had allowed David to bury their son that way. Shamed, she remembered how easy it had been to acquiesce, rather than fight. How weak she had been.
But hadn't she won, in the end? Outlasted David. Outlived him.
God where was she?
Still alive, but blind. Dreaming? No--truly awake. She struggled again to open her eyes.
Glued tight. Sewn shut.
But her heart was raw and open. It felt like both of them had died just--
"Yesterday?" a quiet, measured male voice asked.
"Yes," she said. Then, after a moment: "Terday." And all at once there were half a dozen voices around her. Words, all mixed together and crazy. Maybe the voices were familiar, and maybe they weren't.
"I'm Ned," the quiet voice said. "I'm your friend." Ned? He was inside her head. Far inside, like a ringing in her ears. She touched her right ear because it itched and she found a tiny bulb like a snail shell. She knew it immediately: hearing aid. But who had put it there? She certainly hadn't.
She was deaf. That was why the voices were so mixed-up and made no sense. Hearing aids did that sometimes. But when had she gone deaf? She'd always had fine hearing. Sometimes she thought that she heard too much.
"Don't be afraid," Ned, the voice, said.
She didn't know if she would see him, or the others who spoke, but she had to see. At last, grunting with the effort, Carol forced her eyes open.
Her lids split with a velcro-like tear. Eyelashes scattered downward on her chest. A semicircle of young, pinkish, scrubbed faces surrounded her.
They wore tall, striped hats of many colors. And they were grinning like fools. Like the Mad Hatter's tea party.
One of young people leaned close and took Carol's hand. But it couldn't possibly be her hand! It was the claw of a crone, age-spotted and thin-skinned, peeling here and there, with enormous gnarled knuckles, nails yellow and cracked.
"Yes, it is your hand," Ned told her.
"Shut up," she replied.
"Oh, my," the young woman said. She had curly black hair and hazel eyes. Rather pretty and vaguely familiar. Perhaps she had been one of Carol's students. "You've just woken up. Don't tell us to shut up now!"
"My husband is dead," Carol told her, feeling as though she had to repeat what had just come into her mind.
"Yes, he is," the young woman said. "Quite a few years ago. Don't be upset. Do you remember me? I'm Judy."
"Judy." The name meant nothing. Carol didn't know what to think of the patronizing tone in the young woman's voice. As if Carol was a toddler. Or a hamster.
"She's one of the nurses," Ned said. "She--"
One of the nurses. Carol turned away from the scrubbed young face.
Oh, yes, now she remembered. She had been happy. Like a toddler. Or a hamster.
She remembered a blue paper sheet with plastic on the underside. Remembered it being slid under her thin, withered buttocks. She had not understood, until that moment, that buttocks could so wither. She remembered showers, sitting in a chair, and the horrible feeling of lukewarm water slapping against her flaccid body. And Carol could not look this girl in the face again. The shame and weakness was unbearable.
Now she realized that her eyes had been so hard to open because they were pasted shut with rheum. The sort of sticky yellow rheum that came with old age and the clogging of every orifice with dead tissue.
"Why didn't I die?" Carol asked.
"Oh, no," the voice in her head replied. Ned. "You can't die. You're too important to me."
"Who the hell are you?" Carol demanded.
But the others answered instead of Ned.
"We're your nurses," Judy said. "That's right," said two of the others at once. They all began to jabber.
We love you, Mrs. Meyers. You're going to be better now. You're a very lucky person, Mrs. Meyers. You've got that big memory chip! And the nanos are fixing your body! Don't you feel better already? We're so happy for you. You'll be going to the recovery center soon, you'll have so much fun. You'll be jogging around the block in no time. I gave you your medicine in the applesauce. What do you remember, Mrs. Meyers? Do you recognize me? You like chocolate pudding! Don't you remember when I used to brush your hair? We used to watch football together. I took you on walks. You have such a pretty smile, Mrs. Meyers. I cut up your meat for you.
Carol's chest trembled. How her stomach ached. "Who is the voice in my head? I do know who all of you are."
She did, too. She remembered all of it in that moment. Villa Vista "Retirement" Home, where she had existed for the past six years. She was eighty-six years old. David had been dead twenty years. Peter had gone...oh, Lord...had she given up so long before? Yes, she had. Peter had died by his own hand ten years before she'd buried David, when the man who had been his lover had left him. And Peter had tried to call her, but she had been on the phone.
Carol Meyers, unavailable, on the phone with a graduate student who had been interviewing her for Nineteenth Century Studies, yammering on for the better part of an hour about her theory of Tolstoy and not understanding a word she'd said. But he'd told her she was a very great scholar. Hadn't he?
It meant less than nothing.
Why had they forced her to remember?
At that moment, she recalled Peter's suicide note as clearly as if she held in her withered claw of a hand.
Mother, I tried to call, but the line was busy. Wasn't that always the way? Your students came first. I'm sorry you never listened to me. I suppose that you just never had the time.
"No time," Carol whispered.
"Oh, you've got all the time in the world," the young nurse Judy said, stroking Carol's cheek. "You're getting your new teeth put in tomorrow, and I'll pack your things for the recovery center."
There were tears in the young woman's hazel eyes. Carol looked up at her, wondering at all the water. Why was the silly girl crying? Was it possible that they knew how she felt?
"We're going to miss you, Mrs. Meyers," Judy said. "But you won't be lonely. You've got Ned."
Ned. She wanted to claw him out of her head. How could these young people miss her withered carcass? As blank as a concrete brick, only less substantial. For six years, she had done nothing but eat, sleep, moan and shit, lost in the haze of Alzheimer's.
Shameful as it had been, she thought, at least she had forgotten the pain. And she thought that she had been...happy. It was better that way. Better to have forgotten.
"Where are you sending me?" Carol asked, suddenly afraid. Recovery center? What did that mean?
Finally, Ned spoke again. "You're going to have another chance at life," he said. "You'll learn how to take care of yourself again. Why, you might even teach again, if you like."
"I don't know where my home is," Carol said. And it was not the mad, confused speech of Alzheimer's, but the truth. She had no idea where she would live or go. With David gone; and Peter...and they were only the first...oh, the funerals she'd attended...so many...God, they were all gone. Everyone she'd known and loved. And she did not want to teach again. And then the thought came to her. How had this happened? What had they done to her? And why?
She had been a vegetable, her brain plaqued up with Alzheimer's, her body slowly withering into total paralysis. It was a crime, she thought, to wake someone this way. People were meant to forget. You got to the end of your life and you died. There were reasons for forgetting. Powerful ones. She twisted her mouth angrily and realized with horror that there was not a tooth left in it.
Ned spoke again. "You signed the donor form, remember? You gave permission for any medical experimentation which might help others. You and several thousand others have now received the implants."
"Jesus," Carol said. She had signed the form. She remembered it well. But what she'd meant was that they could use her corneas, or her liver, or whatever parts they could scavenge from her miserable wreck of a body. After she was gone. Not before! Good Lord, never before. Nothing like this.
"Your niece agreed, when you were selected for the Renascence Project," Ned said.
"Like 'Renaissance.' Rebirth."
"I know what it means, you damn fool. I taught comparative literature for thirty years."
Ned continued in a mild tone. "It's been successful so far. The only pitfalls are emotional. But your basic personality is stable, Carol," he said. "That's why you were selected."
As she and Ned spoke, the nurses began chattering again, their striped Mad Hatter hats bobbing up and down. God, they had a cake. Celebrating her awakening, she supposed. "Welcome Back Carol!" was written on it in purple frosting script.
"Your niece Ludmilla has power of attorney," Ned told her.
"Yes, I remember," Carol said. Ludmilla. A dour young woman with lank dark brown hair and a pimply nose. Ludmilla was a marriage, family and child counselor. She didn't recall Ludmilla ever visiting her in the convalescent home. And it had been six years!
It made no sense that Ludmilla could make such decisions. Then, Carol realized that she'd become a vegetable, and she didn't suppose that carrots or peas had much to say about what happened to them. Vegetables were marked to be eaten by the person who'd planted them, she realized. As she'd marked herself to be used, by signing that donor form. She was a canned pea, as far as everyone else was concerned. And someone had just prized off the lid and opened the can.
"Let me explain," Ned went on. "It's very important that this all goes well. I'm in your right temporal lobe. I've been matched to the architecture of what was left of your brain."
He paused a moment. "I hope that my way of saying this doesn't hurt you."
"Not as badly as other things," Carol whispered.
"I'm a neural enhancement device," Ned said. "Get it?"
"NED," Carol replied. "You do think I'm stupid."
Ned said nothing, which was infinitely worse than anything he could have possibly said.
"Was there some type of payment made for this?" Carol asked him, thinking of her savings, knowing that the University insurance would never have covered an experimental treatment like that, especially not for the old retired carcass she'd become.
Ned's reply was unexpected. "No, no--we're paying for all of this. Your niece received two hundred fifty thousand dollars. For your future care, of course." Then, he told Carol that, after six years in Villa Vista, she had not a cent left to her name. After the recovery center, she would go to live with Ludmilla and her husband Janos, a man Carol had never met. They would care for her, report back to the doctors. A trust fund had been set up. Carol shouldn't worry: she would be perfectly safe. Eventually, she might even work again.
"I can't even walk," Carol told Ned.
"Yes, you can," Ned said.
"No, I can't."
And in her mind, Ned sighed. "Trust me," he said. "We'll be friends for a while, you and I. Each time something triggers a memory, I'll help you find it. I navigate the plaques and find healthy new paths between your synapses. Little by little, your mind's going to rebuild itself. Then at some point, I'll be reabsorbed. When you don't need me any longer."
Carol shook her head. Need Ned any longer? She wanted him out. The young nurses had begun to fork cake into her mouth. It was soft and horribly sweet. Carol supposed that she didn't need teeth to eat the cake. And she was right. She didn't.
But part of her wanted to make them happy. Make them think that she was happy.
God, shouldn't she be? A whole new life.
Dark crumbs and white bits of frosting scattered over her chest and she masticated the bits into a chocolately pudding in her sticky mouth, then swallowed.
"I'm a part of you," Ned said. "In a certain sense, I am you."
"I don't believe that I ever trusted myself," Carol whispered, as she watched the young nurses exchange their ludicrous hats, and cringed as they began to sing infantile songs for her entertainment.
And she remembered another thing. She'd felt dead for years before the Alzheimer's. Felt like nothing ever since Peter had--
"Stop," Ned told her. "Just stop. Enough for one day. Just remember--you're not alone. You'll have me as long as you need me."
Carol did not want him.
Nor did she want to remember.
The young nurse Judy spoke again, wiping Carol's mouth clean of cake. "Tomorrow you'll go to the recovery center," she said, grinning. "But first, we've got to get your new teeth."
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