Colours flashed on the TV, expelling the gloom like gunfire. Blue—green—red, each masking our face like a second skin. The air was thick with clacking buttons and hissed commands.
“Left, left, LEFT,” I shouted, sending Conrad through a labyrinth of shadowy tunnels, the last alien hot on his heels.
“Okay, Hen!” He chirped. “I won’t let you down! You’re finally going to complete this game and then—”
“Focus! Lead the alien back to me so I can blow him up!”
“Oh,” he said, thunderstruck. “Well, isn’t that quite violent?”
“We’ve been over this.” I glanced sideways at him—I could tell by his in-game location that I had ten or so seconds until he returned to me with the final boss in pursuit. “You don’t have to do any of the actual killing.”
“There’s no killing in Giraffe Madness.”
“You know, Giraffe Madness! We still haven’t beat the twelfth puzzle.”
In-game, Conrad bolted out of the last passage, into the chamber where I was poised to detonate a stack of plasma-explosives. It was at this pivotal moment when Mother opened our bedroom door and released a yellow glare from the hall. By the time she sat on Conrad’s bed and my vision settled, the alien had knocked me down with its tail and was stalking towards its next victim.
“Ooh, don’t let the monster get Conrad!” Mother said with convincing investment.
But it was already too late; the final boss spit blue acid over both of us, and the flesh peeled from our skeletons in an instant.
“It’s an alien.” I tossed my controller down. She raised her hands in mock shame.
“Is it bedtime, Momma?” Conrad’s lips trembled as he battled the yawn trying to escape them. “Because I promise we’re not even tired yet.”
“Is that so?” She said with a knowing smile, lifting him into bed. She, too, was wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, and although I knew her skin had greyed and her cheeks had sunken slightly, the glow from the TV (or more specifically, the pool of acid left from the alien’s final attack) washed over her face, and the illusionary effect this had was such that she didn’t appear to be sick at all. That’s one of the reasons I never expected anything to come of her illness, I suppose. During Mother’s last winter, we often saw her in our bedroom, where the darkness blurred the signs of mortality, hid the severity of her condition. It was impossible to look at her without seeing what we always had.
She tucked the blankets around Conrad’s tiny body, and he giggled because she tickled his sides ‘by accident’. “Well, Mr. Wide-Awake. For fun, let’s lay you down and see what happens.”
“Are you gonna tell us a story?” Then as if she already agreed, he said to me, “Isn’t that great, Hen?”
I supposed he was right; it was nice that Mother seemed well enough to do the night-time routine again (it wasn’t quite the same when I did it). As for her stories, I hadn’t really needed them since I stopped being scared of the dark and could fall asleep on my own. Yet they were so ingrained in our world that, for me, the satisfaction didn’t come from the stories, but simply from Mother continuing to tell them.
“A story, huh?” She poked Conrad in his sides and made him rasp with laughter again. “Maybe I do have something up my sleeve.”
She withdrew a rock from the folds of her blanket. It was brown, craggy, and shaped like an arrowhead. The blue glow from the TV highlighted its edges as she held it in the palm of her hand for Conrad to behold. Other than its slightly peculiar shape, it was entirely unremarkable in every way to me. Yet Mother held it out to Conrad as though it were some kind of mystical relic found in an ancient temple. She held it steady and kept her eyes trained on it, like one wrong move might awaken a dormant power within.
Of course, Conrad was utterly transfixed. “Wow.” He reached to pluck the rock from Mother’s hand. But he hesitated and waited for her approval.
“It’s yours.” She placed it into his palm. I was never quite sure if Mother put on a good show for Conrad or if she genuinely believed the things she told him. Either way, she handed Conrad nothing more special than a rock, one she might’ve plucked from the garden simply because of its odd shape. Yet he accepted it with eyes so wide, you would think she had bestowed to him a truly magnificent gift.
“Wow,” he said again, caging his fingers around the rock so that it didn’t tumble away. “What does it do, Momma?”
“It’s a memory stone.”
“Please save me,” I said, the frigid air turning the words to mist. Mother glanced at me and shook her head ever so slightly, a pleading look in her eyes. I didn’t know how to interpret this at the time, because often she would tell Conrad stories about things that took a certain imagination to believe, and having much more pragmatic views, I wasn’t always able to disguise my scepticism. But not once did she ever discourage me. Not until that moment. Though I didn’t quite understand why, I was certain I needed to be very quiet after that.
“What’s a memory stone, Momma?” Conrad said.
Mother stroked his blond curls away from his forehead. “Close your eyes.” Once he did, the stone clutched firmly in his hand, she eased into her story.
“I’m going to tell you about a young girl who once lived in a farmhouse beside a vast forest. She didn’t know the forest very well, and it’s because of that, the memory stone came to be. The story starts with the day her mother decided she was old enough to take on more responsibility, and sent her into the woods to find something.”
“The memory stone?” Conrad asked, his voice already slurred.
“Not the stone, no. Her mother was after something else—yuzu, I believe, to flavour a dish she was preparing that day. She sent her daughter into the forest to search for this fruit.”
“Did she find it, Momma?”
“Oh, yes. She strolled very far into the forest, further than she had ever been allowed to go before. And eventually, she came across a patch of ancient land that was used to cultivate yuzu, among other things. She hurriedly plucked one of the yellow fruits so she could rush home to show her mother her accomplishment. However, it was a rather cold day—”
“Just like today. A terrible mist rose from the grass and fogged the forest to the point where every direction looked very much the same, and the girl became completely and utterly lost. She wandered and wandered and wandered, and just when she thought she might wander forever, just when she lost all hope of ever returning to her mother, a glowing figure emerged from the mist. It wore white robes with many flowing layers, and spoke from behind a painted mask with a very, very soft voice. It said, ‘You are here because you are lost and I am here because you are lost. It seems we share the same purpose, in that you are lost and we are both here.’
“Of course, the girl had never seen such a thing before, and may have forgotten her manners by asking, ‘What are you?’
“‘Oho!’ It said. ‘Why, I am a spirit referred to as a Jibakurei, by those without the faintest clue what I am. I protect this area of land, and since you have now stumbled onto it, I shall protect you as well.’
“The girl was relieved to hear this, and her fear of never reuniting with her mother blew swiftly out of her mind. She told the Jibakurei, ‘Please, show me the way back to my mother, if you can.’
“‘If I can, indeed,’ the Jibakurei said. ‘What you require is a stone.’
“The girl thought she must have misheard. ‘A stone? I said I need help finding my mother.’
“‘And I said you require a stone,’ the spirit said. ‘I understood your meaning quite well.’
“The spirit bowed its masked head, suggesting that the girl should also look down. And when she did, she noticed for the first time that her toes were resting on top of a rock. Or rather, the memory stone.”
Conrad let out a gentle whimper, and it was clear that he was asleep. Since the story had fulfilled its purpose, I expected Mother to shut off the TV and say good night. But she didn’t. The blue continued to pour over her face, and I realised that she wasn’t even looking at Conrad anymore. Her eyes were locked onto mine, and she continued the story without hesitation.
“The girl plucked the stone from the dirt and looked to the spirit for further instruction.
“‘What you hold in your hands is called a memory stone,’ the Jibakurei said. ‘I’m sure you can guess what you must do next.’
“The girl shook her head and waited once more for the spirit to continue.
“‘Oho! It’s called a memory stone. Of course, you must remember a memory!’
“And so the girl clutched the stone to her chest and thought of her mother waiting back at the farmhouse. She recalled the songs her mother would sing, and how they would often sit in a secluded meadow and decorate each other’s hair with lotus flowers. And as she remembered these wonderful memories, she felt something shift within herself, and her heart seemed to automatically point, much like the dial of a compass, towards her mother. Immediately the girl felt very safe, even though she was a great distance away. Because while her fingers continued to grasp the stone, she could feel her mother’s presence surrounding her, guiding her home.”
The end of the story rolled into heavy silence. Mother kissed Conrad, then came to me and pecked my forehead as well. She shut off the TV, throwing us into near-perfect darkness, hovered in the yellow glow of the hallway, and glanced back at me with an expression I can’t quite remember. Then she shut the door and completed the gloom.
Sleep did not come quickly to me that night. I felt as though something significant had just happened, like there was a message buried within the story that Mother wanted me to understand, and I thought that maybe if I heard it again and paid proper attention, I would. Though, she did the night-time routine so infrequently at that point—I doubted she would again so soon, and doubted even more that she would remember the story enough to retell it.
But she did. She came back the next night, and the next, and the next. Mother told us that story every night until she died in spring. Conrad would often drift to sleep somewhere in the middle, and Mother would turn and tell the rest to me. Always, I wondered: why? At some point, Conrad must’ve stayed awake long enough to hear how it ended, because he was never separate from the memory stone, especially after he knew how it worked. So why did Mother always make sure she reached the end of the story, even when it was only me listening, even though she knew I couldn’t possibly believe a word of it?
After she passed, the answer fluttered into my head one day, like a bird settling into its nest. It was clear; Mother must have known all along what I was too blind to see—that her days were numbered. She knew a day would come when she could no longer tell Conrad the story, and it would then be up to me to make sure he doesn’t forget it.