I Never Knew the History She Remembered
“From what God’s grace have you fallen into this dark night?” I asked her once, for it hadn’t occurred to me that she could have always been there. She never did answer me.
She was already broken when she came to me, only I didn’t see it then. Or maybe I did see her sorrow and her broken self just as plainly then, and that was what drew me to her. She was a small woman, but she was so proud and fierce and tantalizing that you wouldn’t notice her stature until she was right in front of you. She was too proud to let her misery take her over, but also too proud to take care of it, to let herself be fixed. There were all sorts of unspoken codes of silence with her, places where she wouldn’t look, and out of some courtesy or sympathy I didn’t look either. Sometimes, though, after doing too much Majie, all her defenses would come down, and her eyes would change from dark and distant and cool to child-like and desperate, like those doomed and pitied orphans in third world countries, and all this sorrow and history would come pouring out of her like someone squeezing a sponge. The first time I witnessed that it scared me so bad that I didn’t speak to her for the next two weeks.
The first time I met her I was trying to figure out the city, as it was the strangest, most twisting place I’d ever seen. I asked for directions to a hostel in a restaurant and she was the woman behind the counter.
“Have you ever been here before?” she asks me in her smooth whisper voice, a hint of a pitying smile floats at the edges of her wide mouth.
“Never,” I say with a little shake of my head, “I’ve heard some things though.” And I had, but I didn’t really believe what I heard.
“Then you should know it might be a little hard for me to give you directions. The best I can give you is to head for the edges of the city and find someplace there. It’ll be easier to find again tomorrow.”
“So it’s true then, about this city?” I say with matching degrees of curiosity and skepticism. I lock my gaze with hers and can’t look away. There’s something in the look of her that is familiar and foreign all at once that keeps me studying her carefully for too long, but she doesn’t even acknowledge it.
She shrugs, but there isn’t an ounce of uncertainty in her countenance. “Depends on who you talk to.”
I smile at her slyly, “And if I was talking to you? Is the city really magic, unstable, haunted… whatever?” maybe I try to sound casual, but mostly I just want to know the answer. I need to what I’m up against here, in this city, with this woman, in this reality, I’m not sure what knowledge I wanted, but I wanted it all the same.
“This place is alive. And if you’re smart, you’ll not skip wearing a ward or a homing beacon for the sake of fashion.” Her face is unreadable, I can’t tell if she’s joking or not.
“Noted,” I tell her, “And I’d obey, if I knew what those things were.”
“A ward is a charm or a sachet that protects you from the darker elements, or it does if it’s made well.” She puts her hand to a circular pendant and small green pouch on a cord around her neck, holding them out for me to see. “I made mine, but they’re sold almost everywhere.”
“You do magic?” I ask her, fascinated, but she ignores me.
“A homing beacon is exactly what it sounds like. You make,” she looks at me skeptically, “or buy two twin talismans, wear one, and keep the other one where you want to return to. They’re attuned to each other so they will always find each other.” She says it in a calm tone, it is obviously a concept so familiar to her that she doesn’t see the romanticism of it. Two halves that are so in tune with one another that they will find each other without fail, just as soul mates ought. Such a beautiful concept, I think, but do not point it out to her. I don’t even know her name.
“Okay,” I say, processing, “That sounds logical enough. Where do they sell, wards and homing beacons?” I silently ask if I’ve got the terms right, and she gives a small nod.
“Almost everywhere,” she says again, then studies me for a long moment, a serious and scrutinizing look in her face, indigo eyes distant. She deliberates for a short time then smiles in this small gentle way that I’m not sure doesn’t include pity and longing. I don’t know what she’s longing for, but I know it’s something that left long ago. She lifts the necklace with its charms off her neck and over her head and hands it out to me. “You should just take these instead.” She says it almost gruffly, and she’s averting her eyes. She takes a steadying breath. “You can’t trust the ones in stores or venders,” she adds in a rush, rationalizing, seeing the hesitation in my face, “You can’t afford to get ripped off when it’s your health.”
“I’m just some stranger,” I tell her, “I can’t –“ I gestured to the necklace.
“No, take them. It’s not like they’re fancy or anything, but I can guarantee they work.” She holds the cord of the necklace with the pouch and the charm dangling just above the counter top, she pushes it towards me and the pendants swing, the charm brushes the counter but the soft sound of metal and Formica is lost to the mid-range background noise of restaurants.
“What will you have for protection, though, if I take those?” I ask her in a sincerely concerned tone.
She doesn’t say another word, but she has this fierce look on her face willing me to accept her, challenging me to turn her down. It was as though she was trying to prove herself, prove that she could push past the walls of her fortress-reserve and offer kindness to a stranger. She stood so straight, chin up, shoulders back. She’s proud, not that fierce but cute proud that most people are that you can just laugh away, no she is glorious and proud. So glorious it was always easy to get swept away by her, all caught up in her brightness and her darkness and her emotion, even when she kept me at arm’s length. I never was able to deny her. So I take the necklace, slip the cord around my neck, the weight of the enchanted pendants rests against my chest in their heavy buzzing way. I straighten up a little, pushing my chest out, wearing the wards like a badge of honour or pride.
“Thank you,” I say sincerely, but I can’t force enough gratitude through one small phrase. “Let me repay you,” I add.
“No money,” she says sternly, steely eyed.
“No money, then,” I agree placidly, because I wouldn’t have paid her that way anyway. It isn’t as though I have funds to spare, and it would have been too impersonal a payment for her hand made gift. Never mind that she didn’t make those charms for me.
At the time I thought she’d made them for herself, that it was a generous gift, but not astoundingly so. It wasn’t until a much later night, while hardened and softened by majie and too many years of torturous life, that she revealed to me that she had made those charms for another man who was several years gone, who’s body had been returned to the earth, but whom she still loved as if he was right beside her. I think sometimes she could almost see him, while in the grips of her altered states, and maybe that was why she kept going back. It was hard to love a woman who kept pouring half her love and all her soul into a man who no longer was, who was a ghost of memory and so cold. She’d made these wards for him, and he’d worn them ‘til he died, then she’d worn them ever since, and now they’re mine, and I’m proud to wear them, even if he was wearing them when he died so maybe they don’t work at all. I can’t think of anything that would be an appropriate payment for those beautiful protection wards now that I know their past, but then I seemed to think I knew.
“Dinner then, I’ll take you out to dinner when you get off work. Or treat you at least, you’d probably have to pick the place,” I suggest hopefully, the meal is offered in payment, but honestly I’d like to get to know her, this strange proud woman, get inside her head or her heart, or maybe just her body, it doesn’t matter to me much at this moment. I’m lonely from years and years of living unpinned to the earth in any particular way. There’s been no one and no place to call home in a long time, and I’ve been fine with it, but lately I’m dissatisfied. I’ve seen so many horizons and so many gray skies, and gray cities that they’ve all begun to blur in one monochromatic watercolor with nothing standing out to focus on. This city has energy, it has promise, and this figure before me is tantalizing with her magic and her slender body.
She shakes her head at that too, and I’m disappointed. “You’re a nomad aren’t you,” she says, and it’s not a question.
I raise my eyebrows in questioning and surprise but I nod, “Yeah, have been for a while now.”
“By choice?” she asks me, and I wonder what she means. I don’t think that anyone would keep traveling as long as I have it they didn’t want to. When I think back later I realize she could have been asking if I was on the run.
“Yeah,” I say as though it was obvious, but not exaggeratedly so.
“You must have many stories,” she says, and I begin to see where she’s leading. Her eyes are alight with anticipation.
“A few,” I tell her modestly.
“If you tell me a few of your favorites, over coffee say, I would consider that ample payment.” And she flashes this radiant mischievous grin that lights up her whole face but fades quickly and in its absence I get the first glimpse of the shadow that hangs over her.
“Sure,” I say, agreeing quickly and ineloquently, hoping to secure the deal before she can retract it. I don’t know how I’m going to tell her my stories, though, the thought of doing that much talking, forming that many words and coherent thoughts aloud is nearly frightening. My experiences, my thoughts, dreams and aches are all put so far inside myself from such a long time of having no one to tell them to and an even longer time of not wanting to tell anyone, that I know they’ll be hard to extract. There was this big old maple that stood in the backyard of my home growing up with a chain wrapped around it’s trunk that had been there so long that the tree had half swallowed it with its yearly growth. No matter how hard I yanked I couldn’t manage to pull it out. I pictured my memories like that, imbedded solidly. But if it gets me more time with this woman I don’t care if it’s hard, I just want to be near her. And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad it she knew me, if I told her all the things I’d never said out loud before, not even to myself. There’s something about the shadow in her eyes that makes me think she’ll understand my thoughts.
“Good,” She says with a sharp nod of her head. “My shift’s over in twenty if you want to stick around ‘til then. Or you could wander a little, but if you’re planning on coming back here, don’t go too far, the blocks tend to shift around.” She sounded so grounded and practical, but the thought of whole city blocks shifting around still seemed ridiculous.
“Okay, I’ll wait here. Maybe I’ll get something to eat.”
I take a seat in a booth in the back, order a sandwich when a waitress comes over, and wait for Her. I realize I don’t know her name yet, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I try to decide which stories of my life I should tell. I realize that I want to make her smile, grin with real happiness, but I don’t want to tell her anecdotes about mishaps that anyone could have. I would tell her something profound, even if I have to cut it out of me. I tried so hard for so long to erase that shadow around her, to make her smile in a way that could last, but I never could.
Finally she sat down across from me