Sunday, 17 October 2021 16:20

The Memory Book of Grace Merchant by Jordan Davidson

The Memory Book of Grace Merchant by Jordan DavidsonYou’re required by law to read to the end of this. Writing in a memory book is already illegal, so really I could have made this however long I wanted with no extra consequence. To the Wall Guard, I’m dead anyway. So I could start with being born, or with primary school, or with meeting Lula. I think it’s more relevant, though, to start with when I learned Lula was gone.

They told me Lula died. Was executed, really. I didn't believe it then, or maybe I did. I didn’t really know because it was all so confusing and horrible and mixed up, so much that my brother threatened to turn me into the Wall Guard if I didn’t stop crying, so I shaped up quickly after that. I can do the thing where I just turn off tears like a switch. You learn it or you go to the Wall Guard. So I did it. And there the water went. Poof. Just like Lula. Gone.

After I checked my face with my brother, I marched to the funeral along with the rest of the citizens. Joined everyone else tearing pages out of Lula’s memory book. Lavender flames licked them up with hundreds of hungry mouths. All the while, my brother stared at me to make sure that I was doing it all right. I must have passed his test because the Wall Guard didn’t rip me from my bed that night.

Still, I didn’t want to take the chance that he’d press his ear to my door and hear me tossing and turning and thinking about Lula. There was only one thing to do. Before my ma was disappeared, she left me a forbidden box of forbidden things.

She told me that someone like me would need them; she’d needed them, after all, and while imagination wasn’t necessarily passed down hereditarily, it couldn’t hurt for me to have them in case I needed them, which I did.

I took time sitting in front of the hole in my concrete wall where I kept the box. Was it really worth the risk of having my brother find the box? Which would get the Wall Guards sent faster? Creaking bed springs? Or bracelets? I could hide bracelets. People weren’t supposed to show skin anyway.

My decision made, I hollowed out the dusty concrete hole with silent fingers. My whole room was made of different kinds of concrete, some patches dark, some patches sticky, some patches scratched by rust and metal. This meant that my dusty concrete hole could be looked at as a defect. Since I wasn’t supposed to point out defects, the fact that I didn’t want to fill the hole just meant that I was a good citizen.

The box stayed hidden. I opened it. Wound the bracelets and their stones around my hand the way Ma showed me, one finger over the other, then right under my pulse. Better for capturing imagination that way, Ma told me. Only if you needed to capture your imagination, you shouldn’t be living anyway. Your mind was too weak to keep living.

And the Wall Guards could see the stone charms if I didn’t wear gloves. Sleeping in gloves made my hands sweaty, but the Wall Guards wouldn’t rip me out of my bed for sweaty hands; they’d do it for dreaming about Lula, which I didn’t do with the jewelry in—for the rest of the night, I just lay there still, eyes on the ceiling, numb.

In the morning, the sun got me up before my brother. And good thing too. I put on my day clothes and went out to the kitchen where the last of that week’s rations sat on the counter for everyone to see. I’d forgotten to put them away before bed. Forgetting things like that got you sent to the Wall Guard.

I put it all in the one cabinet we had, ordering the boxes by color. Food wasn’t marked with words, only memory books were. Orange, yellow, green, we didn’t have any bread left, purple. I kept checking the sundial mounted on the table next to me. A couple inches past halfway. My brother’d be up soon, once the shadow from the single window squared into our house reached three quarters. Until then, I sat like I was supposed to at the single chair at the single table. My gloved hands folded in my lap and my ankles crossed under my skirt.

He got up at half a shadow line late. “The Wall Guards want the citizens to meet a traitor at the Wall today. One of us will sentence it.”

“When?”

With the sundial checked, he said, “in half a shadow.”

“We should go then.” I gathered my skirts in my hand.

“We should.” He folded his cuffs. 

Together, we walked out onto the concrete road past other concrete houses under a haze of concrete powder and concrete-colored shadows all coming from the wall. I wasn’t thinking about Lula. I wasn’t. She didn’t used to live two houses towards the wall from me. She didn’t leave dusty, bare footprints in the grey when she walked. She didn’t walk at all.

As always, we took the shortest way possible that could be done in straight lines, starting at the corner of one house and ending at another. The Wall got closer and closer. My steps got shorter and shorter. I kept time by breathing. Other citizens had started to get out of their houses too, which made me wonder how bad this traitor was and which of us would sentence it. The golden bracelets put a stop to the wondering, sucking my question back into their stones.

I walked with my mind flat all the way to the Wall. I did it behind my brother. This ensured that I followed proper Wall Guard regulations—my brother knew the new ones better than I did. And for this particular day, the Wall Guard had left a new packet of color-coded instructions with him. We were to stop after forty steps from the last house on the row. We were to be there before the seventh half shadow. When we arrived there, we had to stand in rows based on age and height. We had to assemble those rows by analyzing the colored pins attached to the front of shirts and dresses. If we saw anything out of the ordinary, we were to write it down in our memory books for that person, which would be submitted to that person’s collective memory book after the sentencing.

If all of this was completed before the head of the Wall Guard came out to address us, we were just supposed to wait for him.

I did complete it all successfully. Despite the hot sun. A u shape burned on the back of my neck, just above where the black collar of my dress stopped. Generally, my whole body felt pressed with the heat, the sky squeezing me. That would have been such a pretty personification, but the stones never let me think it.

When all the waiting had been completed, The Head Guard walked to the stage in front of us. He was a tall man, nearly twice as broad as my brother. Like us, he kept his eyes firmly in front of him and kept his hands pinned stiffly to the sides of his uniform. Unlike us, he wore white instead of black. And he carried a thick chain in his right hand, which led to a little hut by the side of the stage made entirely of white wood. No, hut wasn’t the right word. It looked more like a cage, only each of the wood plates disappeared into another, so from the outside, I couldn’t see in.

The Head Guard grabbed the microphone. The stones kept me slack-jawed and staring through the squeal of feedback. I didn’t need to look at my brother for his approval; I knew what his eyes felt like.

“Good citizens,” The Head Guard began. “Traitors must be punished.”

In synchrony, we nodded. We knew this. Oh, how we knew this. Traitors. The stones swallowed the name Lula.

“We have sacred traditions here, inside the wall,” he continued, his eyes narrower. The gaps between his teeth filled with saliva. “Here, we’ve made a safe haven against the poison of extraneous information, and when someone is caught spreading it...even thinking about it...”

We shook our heads with him to the collective beat, all of us poised, silent. And if I could think, I would have thought: Lula, Lula, where are you now? You would have held my hand after this because you knew I cried after watching someone die even if I wasn’t supposed to, but that’s why you’re dead now because you held people while they cried, and emotion is too much unwanted transmission of information, so you broke the rules.

But the stones took it. I focused on The Head Guard.

“Now we have a very specific tradition here, one that’s been passed down through centuries,” he jerked his chin at one of the other guards, who produced a ceramic bowl from the white wood cage. “One of you will serve as the judge, jury, and executioner of this traitor. What better models of behavior do we have than you fine citizens?”

“No one, no one,” we droned.

“Each one of you will get your turn.” He had a lever in his hand; when he let the lever go, the ocean would choose one of us. “After the prisoner is presented, we will assign the honor and responsibility. But for now, let us abhor it!”

All at once, the guards around the white cage pulled strings on its edges. Those edges fanned back, and a figure uncurled from it: a skeletal, haunting figure, wrapped in the red traitor’s clothes, a still dripping cut flinging blood from one side of her collarbone to the other.

She raised her head to us, not bowed or hunched, but proud.

The stones did their best.

But still.

They couldn’t take it all.

She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Not because of how she looked. But because of the way she looked. Like her dark eyes would swallow us and reprint us on her skin, and that skin wasn’t pale or unbroken, it was tattooed with black lines that crisscrossed every inch of her.

Lines of words.

And she looked right at me.

Everything went dry. My mouth. My palms. My eyes.

It all got even drier as The Head Guard pulled the lever. Groan by groan, the metal plating on the side of the wall unfurled, and I hoped the waters wouldn’t pick me, but as they cascaded from the opening, spilling salt in their wake, the water took a crisscrossing pattern at the shoes of the assembled, and the deepest pool landed at my feet. The Wall Guards called me forward. Grace Merchant. There was nothing I could do about it.

The sun beat down hot. My sweat dripped down cold. The eyes hung heavy. I had to walk. I had to walk, or the Wall Guard would see that I wasn’t perfect. One foot had to go in front of the other, and it had to be straight—I couldn’t trip, I couldn’t wander, I couldn’t look at my brother who would correct my face, I couldn’t hold the stones or the Wall Guard would know the stones were there.

I made it to the stage. From there, the sun just glanced off the top of the wall, separating the waiting citizens into rows of shadow and not shadow. I kept my eyes on them, counting how many stayed in one position and how many swayed to the other, everything to keep from looking at the girl. If I did, the stones wouldn’t be able to hold it, and the Wall Guard would know, and I’d be dead.

The Head Guard finished his instructions. “This is the sentencing of the creature that used to be Salem Anderson,” he said. “Its crimes include, but are not limited to: spreading information, reading inappropriate books, having books at all besides memory books, refusing to burn memory book pages, displaying words for the public eye,” at this, the guards jerked her red clothing further up her shoulders to hide the offending lines, “displaying emotion, causing emotion, worshipping false idols, practicing false magic, practicing magic at all, and finally, failure to comply.” The Head Guard released the bowl and let it smash at his feet, the signal that he’d said all he needed to.

The crowd chanted together, in one voice. I could just pick my brother out, his face a wall. I froze my face into one too, and I kept it that way all the way through the house buildings and to the government center, where the Wall Guards led me to a quiet, white room and told me to stay there until the prisoner was released into it.

At least I knew there would be no cameras there, no microphones, no mirrors, no scrying stones. That was how our justice worked. Just me. The white tables. The white walls.

And a gun.

A black gun.

That the Wall Guard set in the middle of the table.

If I found her guilty, I would press it up against her forehead, and I would pull the trigger. They didn’t say anything to me about what would happen if I found her innocent. The presumption was that I wouldn’t.

I knew the logic of this place. If she overpowered me, I’d be weak. Not worth the food to keep me living. If she turned me, the same. They had all the power when they left me alone in the vestibule, although she didn’t come out for a while.

And she was there, still wrapped in her red traitor clothes. She sat down in the chair across from me. For a moment, I couldn’t do anything but stare at her. She had a sort of intensity in her eyes that I hadn’t seen even with Lula or Ma. I wondered how the Wall Guard had let her live for so long, and then I remembered that I had to be the one to interrogate and kill her, and nausea twisted around my ribs. But the stones flicked it away, and more kept coming, until I felt like I was trapped in a tube, the sides of it squeezing everything and nothing from me at the same time.

“Take off the stones.” Her voice melted into the air.

“What?” I sounded jarring, cubular compared to her.

“The stones.” She rolled up one of her sleeves, showing me several parallel lines of tiny, interlocking circles pressed against more words. “I know you’re wearing them, and I know what that feels like. Did your mother give you a set like mine did?”

It all burned white hot under my gloves: the gold chain, the leather fastener, the stones—burning that the stones didn’t suck away. I wondered why, but I lost that. “How do you know?” I had to ask her.

“Your face.” Her red sleeves rode up as she set her elbows on the table. “I kept a mirror too. I know you aren’t supposed to, but in my area of the city, people liked their tiny rebellions. So take them off.”

I wanted to, and maybe I didn’t, and I didn’t know because all I could focus on was this girl’s eyes swaying back and forth, and all I wanted to focus on was mourning Lula and feeling her memory book go up in flames in the town square, but I had this girl in front of me instead, this girl who knew about the stones and would tell the Wall Guard, and I’d be dead.

Only she wouldn’t.

She couldn’t.

The Wall Guards didn’t listen to traitors.

They had citizens listen to traitors instead.

Once I had the stones on, I had to keep them on.

But...

Her fingers felt cold against my gloves as they worked the black fabric off. Since this morning, the stones had settled into my skin—Ma had warned me they would. As long as I kept them on, the stones could take away the pain just like they could take away emotion, information, and imagination.

“No.” I jerked my hands back. I was going to get it done quickly. Like my brother would. And then I’d go and do what I was supposed to.

Like grab the gun.

I grabbed the gun.

She went quiet.

“Where’s your memory book?” Every traitor had one because traitors were caught by their memory books: enough other people writing lines in yours—lines of all the things you did wrong—and you were sent to the Wall Guard. She had been sent to the Wall Guard, so she had to have a memory book. Somewhere.

“I’m sorry.”

“What?”

She let out a long, slow exhale. “I figured that...Lula said...well, I shouldn’t have touched your hands without your permission. I wouldn’t want anyone touching mine.”

Lula. She knew my Lula. Even the stones couldn’t keep down the shock, and it must have twitched my face. She looked at me with pity, even more than pity, and I wondered how much she knew, even if I shouldn’t have. There could have been tears in her eyes. I didn’t know. “Your memory book, please,” I said.

She took a breath.

Then the world tilted.

The words on her skin unfurled, flickering down her body like hundreds of butterfly wings caught beneath her skin until they broke the surface and took to the air together, dancing around one another, legs intertwined, wings together. Each one caught the light resting in the dull fixture and turned it a thousand colors, repeating in patterns I couldn’t read, so they swarmed, fluttered, fell together, until a book rested on the table between us, bound in rose petals that bled a traitorous red. I tasted magic, forbidden magic, memory magic: lilacs and breeze battling the concrete dust, a cry—we are here, and we have always been here.

How...

Something sang inside me, and I didn’t know what it was, I only knew that it was stronger than when Lula and I had—

She let the breath go.

A title stitched itself to the outside of the book: The Memory Book of Salem Anderson.

Her skin was impeccably clear now. “You’re thinking about Lula.”

“How do you know?” I meant it to sound like an accusation, but it came out defensive.

“I do.”

Petals on the book fluttered and breathed with us. What if I touched it, and it shorted out the stones? What if I didn’t touch it, and the Wall Guard figured out that I hadn’t touched it? What if I touched it, and it really was incriminating? Could I shoot the gun? Would the stones make me? Could I live with myself if I let the stones make me?

I had to. I had to pick up the book and so I did, trying not to notice how soft the petals were or that they stained my fingers red or that all of it had come from her skin and forbidden memory magic, although if I thought about it, I should be killed for forbidden memory magic too because that’s what the stones were, and I opened the book to the first page, and I saw Lula’s handwriting and Lula’s name.

Like all memory books, this one was a collection of incriminating lines written by other people. But between all of those stretched these long passages in thin, spidery handwriting, the same handwriting that the tattoos had been in. Maybe this girl’s handwriting. Maybe Salem’s.

No one should write in their own memory book. I read it anyway.

Once upon a time, said the page, there was a girl who flew instead of fell.

I felt my mouth open. “What is this?” 

Salem looked at me with those brown, brown eyes. “Keep reading. You’ll recognize it.”

My fingers moved further down the line. The book whispered to me: And people feared this girl because she was both uniquely like them and unlike them. They feared how when she smiled, the flowers smiled with her. They feared how when she walked by the sea, the sea sighed. They feared how when she walked by them, their hearts sang with an unknowable song, one they couldn’t pinpoint or sing, one that stretched both inside them and above them and between them and between her.

Lula had taken me to the sea once. I didn’t remember how we got there, only that she stretched out her fingers and told me to hold the wind and feel it in every crook of my body.

The word played again and again in my head, even though my brother would have told me to execute her then and there, and the stones told me the same thing, and the memory ghost of Ma in my head cried don’t do it, don’t. I imagined Lula next to the sea. I kept reading.

But what frightened people the most about this girl was how she knew things, the book explained. She knew forgotten stories by heart and how to read ancient histories out of their books in other languages. She knew how to do magic that turned caterpillars into words and words into butterflies. She knew when it would rain and when the earth would bake heavy with dryness. She knew when you were sad and how to both fix you and cry with you and which one to use when. And around her, people began to wonder just how much she really knew about them. Everyone has secrets and things they wish to keep private, and all of them worried that she knew all of those things. She didn’t, of course, but fear is a powerful and corrosive tool, one that these people used to their very best advantage.

Salem caught my eye and I looked up. I understood what the book meant about being afraid; Salem saw me and saw through me and knew when I was thinking about Lula and when I wasn’t, and that almost made me want to take off the stones, but it also just made me want to hide. Lula had been the same way. After Ma was disappeared, Lula held my hand, not my brother. We sat together somewhere I couldn’t remember while she held my hand and asked me my favorite memory of Ma, but wearing the stones, I couldn’t think of one. I should have been able to think of one.

And the book said: first, the people took away the flowers so the girl would smile on nothing. Then, when the sea still sighed and sighed all the more powerfully because it felt sad that the flowers had gone, they locked the girl away from the sea. The girl took this all in stride: as long as she had her people (even when they were horribly cruel she cared about them) she would be alright.

Lula and I. Lula and I by the sea. Lula with her hand on mine and I couldn’t remember what she was saying with the stones around my wrist; they burnt, burnt, burnt, just like the Wall Guard wanted me to burn Salem—

What use was the Wall Guard if there was no wall? The stones took the name Lula since I couldn’t be trusted with it; why did I want to claw at the walls when the girl in front of me said the name Lula?

The book told me: Only the people couldn’t suffer what they thought the girl knew, so the people built a wall to cut her off from the wind. They thought that if they stopped the wind, then they would stop the song within them. Soon, they realized the wind wasn’t really wind at all; it was memories. The common memories that sang when killing the wind didn’t work either. They went through, and they burned the books, disassembling language at its core. They replaced it with colors, but still, the butterflies died, and their frail wings cluttered the new concrete streets.

The heartbeat of the room washed over me. Salem’s breathing pounded a pulse in my ears; without looking at her I knew she would be crying—I was crying, only the feelings of why I was crying had been locked away from me so the scream scream scream built built inside me, the pages of the book left unfinished but never fading as the book’s lines seemed to continue with their funeral song:

            And eventually, they killed the girl. But once their work was done, they looked at one another and realized that they had become the people they feared this girl would know them to be. They saw themselves in each other. They saw others like the girl. So they lived on, never knowing who to trust, always hiding their faces and thoughts, only reading and writing in memory books so when they felt scared themselves, they could take all their rage and pain out on each other in white rooms.

I recognized it, and I wasn’t supposed to and there Salem was in front of me, looking at me in the way that made her so so beautiful, her hands inching towards me—all I wanted was to remember remember my ma and why the name Lula meant so much to me—

“TAKE OFF THE STONES,” screamed the girl in front of me—all so mixed up and my head split open so wide stars rained down from the ceiling, sparks fusing my wrists to the table as the stones heated and heated and Salem’s screaming crescendoed louder and louder and louder and louder until—

The stones gave way.

The room faded.

Salem and I stood in front of where the waves met the shore, wind throwing our hair back and salt clinging to our lashes. I tasted seawater and wind, smelled coconuts and palms.

She stepped away from me, arms outstretched.

This felt familiar and unfamiliar. I asked her where we were.

“The sea just outside the wall. This must be the place that calls to us both with the most strength.” The red rippled around her. She seemed so much less beautiful now that I could remember Lula.

I spun out, still holding Salem’s hand. Instinct told me it was the right thing to do. The sand shook underneath me, watered by the salt and my tears—not much difference between the two. I knew why I was crying then.

With her feet tucked in the earth, Salem sat down next to me. Instead of reprimanding me or comforting me, she said, “Lula and I enchanted the book so that it wasn’t just our memories or people’s memories of us. It’s supposed to call you, to bring us both to whatever place connects us. So that I could reach you.”

“You reached me.” I looked around. There, behind the dune corner, there was the palm tree stump where Lula and I sat after Lula found a way under the wall. She had wrapped her hands around my hair there. We’d kissed each other for the first time, nervous and excited with the thrill of the forbidden, but underneath so sure that what we were doing was right. I told Salem. Once I started, there wasn’t any stopping. The floodgates had been open, and I let myself be borne along the current. 

Salem closed her eyes and cried with me. “I’m sorry.”

I finished the last bit staring at the ocean. “I saw Lula for the last time here too. She read her memory book; she knew what would happen in the morning. And she spent the time comforting me. Me. Instead of running into the sea.” 

“They moved Lula to my city sector for trial. I was her executioner.” Salem rested her head in her arms.

Almost afraid to ask, I played with sand throughout the question, letting the grains run down my fingers. “And did you? Pull the trigger?”

With her eyes glazed over with glass tears, Salem shook her head. “She gave me the story I gave you. We went to a forest together, not the beach.”

“So this isn’t real?” I didn’t try to hide the lurch that shattered the middle of the sentence and dwindled it to nothing.

Salem let go of my hand.

Abruptly, we were back in the interrogation room that reeked of plastic and smoke.

“No,” Salem said. “Just memory magic, tied to the book.”

I reached out to touch the rose petals one more time; my elbow hit the gun and sent it clattering to the floor.

We both stared at it, for a while.

“Are you going to use it?” Salem asked.

“No.” There on the floor, it seemed more dangerous than ever; I picked it up, turning the weight over and over in my hand. “What can I do? I don’t want to go home.” Only it wasn’t home, not anymore.

“Cover me.” A sad smile arched over Salem’s face. “Maybe I make it out, maybe I don’t. But whatever happens, give the book to the next person.”

Again, instinct told me what to do. I placed my hand on the cover of the book, fingers arched just like Salem’s. All around us, flower petals burst into butterfly wings then condensed to caterpillars, each one taking its spindly legs and setting itself into my skin.          

For the first time, a sense of wholeness filled the spaces running between my ribs. I had the book in me.

Salem stood; we both understood that even as I trained the gun on the door and blew the lock, we’d never see each other again.

I’ll never see you again after this, no matter what you choose.

You’ve read the same words in my memory book that Salem had in hers, and Lula had in hers, and someone else had in theirs.

You have everything you need here to convict me.

You have everything you need here to let me go.

Like I said, the choice is yours to make.

Take your stones off.

Please.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Jordan Davidson is a student at Yale University who spends more time writing than studying for her tests. So far, it’s worked out just fine: she’s not failing calculus, and she’s been published in Corvid Queen and Ice Lolly Review and has upcoming work in The Common Tongue.