A Memory Without Name
I moderate a group called The Story of Nature on the writers’ website Scribophile. Six weeks ago our group decided to host a Where Story Meets Nature contest. This was the brief:
“We’re looking for spellbinding poems, fiction or creative non-fiction stories, and non-fiction essays or articles, that in one way or another make us see nature from a unique perspective. Your perspective.
Anything goes: animal magic, nature journaling, the gift of connecting with nature, climate change fiction, nature heroes, wildlife encounters, childhood memories, nature places, nature phobias, nature therapy, hope for nature, reflections on our place in nature, etc. Remember, your piece doesn’t necessarily have to be in praise of nature. We all know nature can be brutal and ugly. Just make us think, laugh, cry. Startle us.”
We received no fewer than 58 qualifying entries and were delighted by the variety, from poems to flash fiction to articles, from romance to fantasy to horror. Lots of really creative approaches to the theme, which is exactly what we hoped for and which made the contest a highly enjoyable one for my two co-judges and me.
The story below, by W.R. Smith, placed 3rd in the contest. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here, for your pleasure. It is a well-crafted, heart-warming tale of the healing power of solitude in the natural world.
But why not judge for yourself? I’d love to hear what you think!
A Memory Without Name
by W.R. Smith
The Chapter Hall seemed to grow warmer by the minute. As Regent of the fund raiser, Peter circulated among the guests. He greeted all with a welcoming handshake and a ready smile but felt more akin to a balloon going slack on the string. Trying to keep up his end at conversation, his thoughts became muddled, his speech slurred. All heads turned at the drop of a wine glass. Peter stood perplexed at finding his right arm dangling useless by his side. He wobbled. Hands went out, guiding him to a chair and someone cried for an ambulance.
The neurologist leaned back. His chair squeaked and a pencil twitched between a thumb and forefinger.
"Peter, please understand, what's most interesting about your case is that long term memory loss isn't usually associated with a mini-stroke."
The room color, pacifying navy blue, did little to counter the effect of the twitching pencil upon Peter's nerves.
"We might expect some short term memory loss following a TIA but . . ."
"TIA. What is a TIA?" said Peter.
"A Transient Ischemic Attack; a mini-stroke. As I was saying, your prominent loss of recalling names of friends and family is a case worthy of study. Please reconsider."
Peter took a deep breath. "I've got my work to get back to. All the tests indicate I'm healthy. That's what I am told."
"True . . . even at forty-eight years . . ."
"Even at forty-seven years, there's no appreciable blockage of your arteries. Whatever happened is past. But, we won't know the full extent of your memory loss for some time. You said you're divorced now for three years?"
"Three and a half."
"And no children. Pity. Is there anyone you can turn to? Someone, during recovery, who can be around and help out?"
Peter stood. "Look doctor, I can drive a car. I can still balance a checkbook. I really don't think I need a babysitter."
"I didn't say that."
"I believe you are saying that."
"As you wish. I'm just trying to lay out possible options."
"Well, forgive me if I'm feeling a little cornered here. Please, you must excuse me now." Peter turned to the door. Opening it, he paused. "Doctor, if you were me, after a scare like that, would you go home to be a burden on someone you love, or, short of that pleasant option, become the subject of brain research?" He rapped his skull. "I may not be completely all right up there but I bet I can still fake it."
Peter needed time to think over his last remark. At home and leaving the phone off the ringer, a few days passed before he mustered the courage to make a call. He needed somewhere he could go - to fake it all for a while. He put his drink down on the nightstand, plugged the phone back in, and flipped through his contacts until he found a name that felt right.
The flight from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska, was short. The drive was longer. But, the further west into open country he went, the fewer wrong turns there were to make. Late in the afternoon, Peter unloaded two suitcases from his rental car. At the end of a curving flagstone walk stood a sod-house. Its profile was squat, with grass upon the roof, a fitting extension of the green rolling hills stretching beyond.
Inside, it was cool and dark. A physically trim woman in her late thirties with a pleasantly angular jaw leant over a table, drawing curtains from the window. Peter set his cases down. Alison passed quietly by him. She took hold of the curtain at the south window, inviting more daylight into the room.
"I am grateful," he said.
"The place was empty," she said.
"Can I ask how you've been?"
"Oh, fair to partly cloudy," Alison said, turning. "There's a full tank of propane connected to the stove. Matches are in the drawer. The water from the well is sweet, but you'll have to haul what you need - bucket's in the kitchen." She moved through the old pioneer house, waving in general directions. "For coyotes there's a shotgun behind the door. Don't hurt yourself. Over here's a single side-band radio. Batteries are full. At dad's house, my radio is on the same channel. I suggest you leave it on or I'll be forced to drive twelve miles round trip, just to see how you're doing."
Peter couldn't help but smile wryly at her curt, business-like manner. He glanced about. "The man who built this place must have been a tough old gizzard."
"That would be my great-granddaddy."
"Your family goes that far back in this country? I had no idea."
"Well, you've got some healing to do yet. It may be rough around here but trust me, since it's been fixed up you've got it easier here by quite a margin." She swept a straying lock of dark hair from her face. "Dad understands your need to be alone a bit, and as I said: the place was empty. As luck would have it, you might be of some help. Come on, I'll introduce you to the sheep."
Thirty yards away, a shed stood. Its tin roof extended over a section of pen. As Peter and Alison approached the fence, six sheep nudged each other to the farther side. Flipping ears in a huddle, each gaze seemed to Peter identical, their expressions blank.
Alison pointed among them. "The way they were harassed tells of feral dogs in these parts. Coyotes don't mess around. They go for the throat." She led the way to the shed. Just inside the door, she broke a bale of hay with a pair of cutters. "Their wounds are superficial but keeping 'em penned, out of earshot of the flock, is less stressful." She dumped the hay into an overhead bin and returned to get more. "Care is easy. The water fills from the cistern, automatic."
Alison clapped the dust from her hands and called out. The sheep hesitated until the bravest ventured forward. "You need to stand back. It'll be a little while before they get used to you." She rested a boot on a fence rail and, grasping the topmost, watched the sheep tugging at hay. "In the morning you give 'em half a bucket of grain. The same amount of hay in the evening. I'll be around, now and then, to check in on them. If you see a coyote just fire a shot of buck in the air--that's usually enough. Questions?"
Like a whirlwind kicking up dust, her truck rumbled down the road stitching over the low green hills. A breath of wind tossed Peter's hair. Behind, the windmill churned out a rusty complaint and the tall grass hushed it.
In the house, he unhooked an old kerosene lamp from the wall and brought it out in the waning daylight. There, he analyzed its mechanism. Satisfied he could light it when needed, Peter carried it back inside. The pantry was fully stocked. He pulled a quart jar from the golden row above, remembering a love for fresh canned apples.
After a few days’ initiation, the sheep bleated in expectation of his voice or the rattle of a feed bucket. As a daily treat, Peter cut fresh grass and forbs. But, when he ventured into the pen, the tutoring began. He eventually learned to first scratch around the neck and chin before moving to ears and head. They learned to read his ways in the process. If one of the sheep became a little pushy, Peter would growl low and show displeasure in his face. Seeing, they adjusted.
Upon the Great Plains of Nebraska, something of the inland sea from the Cretaceous period remains. Birds swim gusty air currents, once the corridor of finned aquatics. One hundred-fifty million years later, in the blink of an eye, the place ripples with tall prairie grass, waving shades of purple, reds and green.
Ungulates graze, pausing with every step. Glires - rabbits, hares and prairie dogs - inhabit the fringes of root soil. The legacy of striking hard and fast for their meat has been handed down to the snake, the coyote, and hawk. And here, the bright steel plow of Man might easily turn over a stone tool, uncovering 10,000 years of ancestry. There's truly no fathoming the breadth of time, or what it holds.
Six weeks later, a fiery peach pit cooled just above the horizon. North of the windmill stood a solitary oak atop a hill. The hill itself was like a surfacing bubble of some subterranean memory ages in the recall. And, upon this hill, under the tree, was spread a picnic blanket.
Peter passed Alison a napkin. "Do you know if domestic rabbits were once freed in the country around here?"
"Wouldn't last long if they were, I imagine," said Alison.
"I've met one, I think, oddly intelligent."
"Oh, doing his math?"
"One plus one is two." said Peter. "It's a kind of math to show a little friendliness and earn a carrot. Maybe, in the Lapine tongue, they just don't call it math."
"Can't argue with the idea. They certainly know how to multiply, anyway."
Peter took a thoughtful bite from his sandwich. "I looked up one day and, standing in the open doorway, is a cottontail, watching me. He hopped off when I got out my chair to offer him a carrot. That was the end of it, I thought. But, no, the next day he returned. Every day for an hour or so this went on. I dubbed him Mr. Perkins."
Peter paused. The windmill creaked, crickets burred upon the breeze. The first star of evening winked into existence and the sheep were quiet.
"One day, I thought I would follow him. Surprisingly, he led the way, stopping now and then to chew a little grass. I'd talk to him about stuff. Then off he'd go again. Eventually he led me to his burrow. And guess what? Mr. Perkins was a Missus, with three little ones."
"That's really strange, she trusted you so much," said Alison.
"Yes, it's true and strange to tell. It makes me wonder if a relationship, once forged between species, might be passed down the generations, even after a long absence. Maybe I'm a man, vaguely familiar, from blood memory."
"Or rabbit lore," said Alison.
"Sounds silly, huh."
"Not at all."
"You know," she said. "The sheep are looking good and the new lamb is old enough. I told my dad they look ready to go back to the fold."
"Harold can certainly do with getting out a bit. They all could."
"Which one is Harold?"
"He's the one most often standing next to Eliza."
"Don't tell me you've named the sheep?" she said. “Peter, they all look the same.”
"I've been their primary caretaker now for a month and a half. I think I should know. Harold has a different way of blinking. He does it whenever you approach, a quick double blink. While Eliza has a blemish under her left eye. Tom has a trademark lift to his left foot. You see it in his stance. Amanda . . . heck, they all have something unique going on. Tomorrow I can show you.
"Tell me something, Peter." Alison placed her hand in his. "Do you think maybe your memory is healed yet?
"No." His thumb moved upon the back of her hand. "Not completely, anyway. But I think it's getting better."