He soon came to the realization that he was no longer able to hear his own voice. Not that It frightened him, of course, he was a boy of few words anyway, and the loss of it did not make much of a difference. But something else did. He could no longer hear his thoughts his own familiar mental voice – a process he had taken so much for granted that the silence was foreign and empty, a palpable presence. With no thoughts of his own, the din of the outside world came crashing in: the chirping of the crickets, the rustle of the tablecloth, the sound of footsteps on the parquet floor. Each of these sounds became unbelievably loud and incredibly deafening; he felt naked and vulnerable without the protective shield of his musings.
Certainly, this had not come as a complete surprise. All these reflections occurred to him as half-formed ideas, grey misshapen ghosts floating in his mind, refusing and repelling the confines of the square boundaries of words.
He knew how it had all begun. He had been sitting on the polished marble steps of the front porch one summer morning when the very notion crept into his conscious. Why should we have to be trapped within our individual selves? Look at all the people out there, hundreds, thousands, millions of them – all looking at the world only through their own eyes. Incredibly selfish. All of them seeing nothing but themselves, hearing only their own thoughts, immune to their neighbours’ feelings. Tremendously boring. Why shouldn’t we get to be someone else, even for the briefest of moments? The kid down the street, the mayor of New York. The most acclaimed actress, if you like… And the fantasy had begun.
He had run to the breakfast table, preoccupied with the conception of this immense, revolutionary, monstrous idea. Yes, why not? It would be fun.
“Such a queer little boy. I wish he would eat more. Doesn’t he have any friends to play with?”
He had started, his heart clenching itself into a dreadful little knot. It was Grandaunt Dorothy’s distinct throaty voice – too deep for that of a woman. But no one around the table had spoken, and the room was silent, save for the awkward slight clearing of throats and scraping of cutlery against porcelain plates.
“How could I have forgotten the iced tea?” He had remembered Mom’s voice, with its usual tinge of worry, coming from across the table. But no one replied her, and as he glanced frantically at the guests seated around, it was evident that he was the only one tuned in to their thoughts.
A sharp pang of guilt passed through him – it was as if he was eavesdropping.
“I hope Tommy remembered his coat; it’s such a cold day.”
“She talks way too much, it’s a wonder how her husband ever tolerates her.”
The voices were distinct at first, fragments of conversations belonging to the guests quietly eating breakfast. But more unfamiliar voices slipped in as well, light chatter above a whimsical tune drawn out by a violin; faint traffic noises; harsh words uttered during a heated argument.
“Stop, stop!” He cried out aloud, the noises had not ceased, everyone turned to look at the slight, bespectacled boy with floppy hair.
It was then that it had dawned on him. He had not heard the thoughts of the guests and relatives in the drawing room.
He had picked up all their forgotten memories.
He had lain in bed with a raging fever a few days after. His eyes burned and his lips were parched and his mother understood that even her cool hand on his forehead brought him pain.
She did not really understand. Her presence was accompanied by a multitude of overlapping, jarring sounds – small talk with the town’s grocer, whispers exchanged with his father, even conversations with himself. He had tossed and turned fitfully until she left the room, and he was left alone to his delirious dreams.
Then the fever had subsided, and he remained in bed for a week, tracing strange shapes on the blotched patterns of his cupboards with his eyes, deliberating over this newfound ability. By some freak of nature, he had been granted his wish, his absurd prayer on the front porch that summer morning. He would be able to see – or hear, rather – into the lives of complete strangers. Memories, the faces of people, and scraps of conversations they had not held to tightly enough would be snatched up by him, lost from them forever.
He had come to the conclusion that he was a receptacle – wherever forgotten ideas and lost memories went when they slipped away, it must have been to him.
He shuddered suddenly, terrified by the prospect of going out into the streets, of the sweaty crowd closing in upon him. And yet, he forced himself to agree, how much he would gain from what they lost! He would never have to rely on his own miserable ideas and conceptions; there was a world of abandoned dreams and thoughts and hopes and fears and all he would have to do was to glean the fruit of the world’s labour. It was a brilliant proposal. Yes, why not? It would be fun.
It was mid-autumn before he was well enough to leave the house on his own.
The first time he walked out, he was accosted by a sudden fear that everyone’s worries would surge upon him, swamping over him like a tidal wave. But the pavements were empty, the world was still asleep, and the slanting sunlight cast long disproportionate shadows on the cobbled stones. Only a beggar limped ahead in the distance, surveying the streets for the best position with the most human traffic. Two adults hurried by, and he braced himself for the burst of discordant voices. But it never came – and he began to doubt himself. Perhaps, that morning had only been a figment of his imagination, conjured up by the ravaging illness.
He widened his strides, closing in quickly on the beggar, when he noticed a shiny silver penny on the floor. It was followed by a trail of others left behind by the homeless man.
“Hey, you dropped this-“ he called out, his weak voice faltering as he looked up to see the beggar scurrying away, his face contorted with an expression of terror. He picked up the coin –
“You lazy good-for-nothing scum!”
“Here, have a dollar. You look like you could use a cup of hot coffee.”
“Mommy, why is he sleeping at that bus stop?”
And another penny – the sound of scuffling feet, the pinkle-pinkle of raindrops hitting metal.
These weren’t coins; they were memories.
He gathered the pennies by the handfuls, shoved them into his deep pockets and ran all the way home to examine his newfound treasure.
Then came the loss of his thoughts. They had been preceded by many days like the first, loitering in the streets, amassing his trinkets by the handfuls off the sidewalk. The most fruitful days came from waiting outside the schools on examination week, where hordes of students came out in noisy throngs, leaving behind dull grey threads of Calculus, yellow crumbs of Quantum Mechanics, sparkly red glitter of Geography. There was so much to be gathered, his pockets bulged – there was once half a tune of such a beautifully sung opera it brought tears to his eyes (he wondered who it might have belonged to), a stanza of a poem by E. E. Cummings and an extraordinarily difficult cadenza of one of Chopin’s Etudes (he hoped the person no longer needed it).
Doctors, in their starched white shirts and cool confident gait, left more memories behind than anyone else did. Scatterings of tiny yellow tablets and pink-and-white capsules – each of them narrated a different account of a separate patient. Perhaps, they tried to forget. It was a burden too, to be bearing the memories of each person lying dead on the operating table after all had been done in vain. Little wonder then, that the tossing of these thoughts seemed deliberate.
Firemen, bookstore assistants, ex-convicts… He trailed them all. And each night as he pondered over his gems, he was someone else, looking at the world through a different set of eyes. He no longer had to think – in a manner limited by his twelve-year-old brain. He was free to put his ideas into thoughts surmised by a lawyer, or a headmaster, or an engineer of some sorts.
He was all of them – all of the people he had trailed – in one person. The loss of his own thoughts left him defenseless against the surroundings; but in return, he had been rewarded with the work of others, their thoughts, their memories, their personalities. He engulfed their shattered dreams – and saw that elementary school teacher who wanted to be a ballet dancer, that financial broker who used to nurse hopes of marrying a particular high school sweetheart, his own mother who had given up the high expectations she had held of him.
But she was weak, she did not understand at all, she could not see the pocketfuls of jewels he gleaned off the streets every day.
“Won’t you ever leave me alone?” The harsh shrill voice of a teenage girl floated into his mind, someone he had encountered earlier, as means of replacing his thoughts now that he had no voice of his own.
His mother looked at him with infinite sadness pooled in her stormy blue eyes and as she left, he gently picked up a pale blue button she had let slip to the floor.
It was all her plans for his future that she had harboured, for him, her only son… He broke down and wept.
He was following her, keeping a safe distance behind, as was his usual custom. Ordinary people never really noticed him, a knobby knee-d skinny boy picking up his invisibly treasures (they just assumed he was ‘special’) but she was different. Every so often, she glanced over her shoulder, eyeing him with a look of apparent distrust and annoyance, and it quite unnerved him.
Still, he could not stop following her. He was drawn to her, attracted, fascinated. No, it was not for her looks: in fact, she was plain, and simply clothed in a light cotton sundress. It was the trails of pink rosebuds she had dropped behind, each one so dainty and fragile he feared it would disintegrate between his clumsy fingers.
“I haven’t forgotten you, Lucille… It’s just… We haven’t… Ten years. I have never stopped thinking about you, you’re my daughter. No, please… Your mother… Will you forgive me? I just want a chance to get to know you. I can… explain everything. A chance. Just one.” Broken fragments of a broken man’s hoarse pleading voice. Each rosebud was exactly like that, always disjointed sentences, never the full picture.
He followed her up the bus toward the hills in the suburban county, cupping the rosebuds in the warm nest of his palm, scarcely daring to clench his fist. They were poignant, emotional memories – and for the first time, he felt ashamed of himself. He began picking them up, no longer for himself, but in order to return them to her.
He lagged just a few steps behind her, gingerly scooping each tender rosebud out of the dirt she threw them into, and tried to catch up as she nimbly navigated the slippery slopes of the hill.
“I can’t do this any longer.” The sound of a door slamming and heavy stomping footsteps fading away. A pause – and a thin voice, that of a woman’s, weeping bitterly.
“Mom? Are you alright?”
The sound of a slap, and staggering steps.
He stopped, unable to catch his breath and unable to continue. He was invading her privacy with each successive rose bud – for the first time, his resolve came back; his thoughts, previously dark mists clouding his mind, assembled themselves into concrete words once more.
“Wait! Wait – “ he called out, amazed at hearing his own voice. It came out more like a husky croak, unlike what he would have imagined. “I know why you are here.”
She hesitated for the briefest of moments, but did not turn, and continued steadily ahead.
“You came here to forget.” He shouted again, to no avail.
They trekked upward in contemplative silence, each of his breaths coming out in discontinuous wheezing gasps.
“Who are you?” Her voice was familiar – of course, he had heard it from her memories. She had tired eyes, eyes that first alighted on him, then turned to take in the view from the top of the hill. Rows of neatly fenced in cottages, green pastures blemished only by white specks of sheep, ripples of sunlight dancing on tree tops.
“I – I’m the collector of forgotten memories…” He stammered.
“No. You’re a thief,” she turned to face him, but there was no reproach in her voice that gave her away.
“I – I came to return these to you,” he started to defend himself, holding out the dirt-smudged rosebuds, forgetting she could not see them. “They’re important to you, aren’t they?”
“Not now. You’ve tainted them.”
He let them fall to the ground.
“I know who you are. I’ve heard of you. They say you are mad, but they’re wrong. You’re incredibly clever, gathering forgotten memories and earning wisdom for yourself. But you haven’t really lived. You think you have a world of experience – in loving another person, in making scientific discoveries, in raising children. You’re wrong. People never really completely forget, you know? They may forget the names, but they never forget the faces. They may forget the details, but they’ll never forget the emotions seared onto their hearts. They may try to forget someone they once loved, but a part of them never really leaves. And that’s something you’ll never understand.”
She turned to make her way down the hill, but he did not pursue her this time.
He reached once more into his coat pockets, and drew out his handfuls of treasures – and saw that they had lost their sparkle. Buttons, pills and capsules, bunched-up wool, pennies – they were unmistakeably coated with grime, grime from his hands. Frustrated, he hurled them off the hill, watching them ricochet off the rocks at the bottom.
For the first time, he took a slow, long look at his hands. He had always been so preoccupied with the things he held that he had never taken a second look at them. They were long, thin and bony, with spider webs of wrinkles bunched up over his palms, covered with ugly liver spots and freckles. The hands of an old man.
Everything the girl had said made absolute sense to him, now.
And from afar, a girl watched a stooped old man stumble slowly down the hill.
Ada Ngo has always dreamed of being a writer, but has chosen a greatly different path in life for practical reasons. Still, she takes the time to jot down short stories whenever inspiration knocks. Her hobbies include reading, playing the piano and daydreaming about nearly impossible situations.
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