He tried to take her life. Not her living body life; the breath, skin and bones. He needed these intact. It was more life as she lived it. The mechanisms making her tick. He wanted all of it. Wanted the blueprint, the parts, every scrap and every shred.
On the surface he did not seem capable of this type of theft. He did not seem to possess the skill, the finesse required. But underneath she detected an unfortunate genius; something with the ability to cause harm in a way she could only imagine. This was her initial impression when she saw him first, poised stiffly on the edge of a lounge chair in the parking lot of her building, arguing with the building manager.
She discovered that he lived in a soulless attic which served as the spacious crown of a Victorian house. Once a funeral home, now gathering place for artists and anarchists. The many floors and rooms formed a montage of the past; jagged reminders of the dead and the grieving and the visceral job of stitching the two.
She bumped into him occasionally. They would talk briefly. He came across as angry or annoyed. At times he was fascinating. He was articulate and smart. He taught piano to underprivileged kids and wrote clever current affairs articles for a local paper. He always referred to the urban strand of midtown as an island.
“I am the only way off the island,” he would say. Which was strange to her and little bit creepy. She called him The Boatman. The rational part of her knew not to get involved. However, this part could not exist on its own. The others needed to work relative to each other; like a functional machine. But her inner workings were made up of elements that had broken long ago; dark passageways in abandoned factories. Gears and linkages and sensors on the shop floor.
She lived on the top floor of a Queen Anne style house converted into studios. There she made small collages out of whatever she could find and tried not to think about the past. She had moved around leaving a lifetime behind, material and otherwise. Wood dust and paintbrushes, a vase made of sand. Rain through the windshield looking out onto a bleak, northern ocean. Objects and remnants once part of her, scattered like trash thrown from the window of a moving car.
Her workstation was an old door propped up on either end with wooden crates. Long, pale curtains hung thinly from the window at the back. She kept these closed except for one corner and sometimes while she worked she would peer down onto the soothing emptiness of the parking lot below.
Some days she layered the finished pieces into a cardboard shoe box and took it to the nearby copy shop. Another boy worked there. Someone who understood that because she had no camera, she wanted to photocopy her work.
He would carefully lay the pieces onto the smooth glass of the copier. Then he would pull the flap closed. The lights of the machine moved beneath the flap in bright stunning waves; the methodical, repetitive sound dulled her overworked mind in a way that felt helpful and calming.
The Boatman found out about the copy shop. He found reasons to go with her; a letter, an announcement about a class or exhibition. He would stand, lanky and fair-haired – almost white beneath the glare of the lighting above – his head illuminated, the halo of an avenging angel, and stare hard at the copy boy. And in a voice that came from some formless and grey world within, he would speak harshly.
Afterwards, when they were alone eating in a nearby kebab place, he would do the same to her. His voice carried every known or imagined cruelty. If she had allowed it to continue, if she had believed, he would have convinced her to give up. But she pushed herself to search beyond the words and their pain, looking for the place just before vanishing point where what is imagined converges with what is true. And at this point came fragments of memory. Wild Manatees. Warm ocean water. Looking into their eyes and someone saying, ‘if they can trust you, surely you can trust yourself’.
It happened slowly, quietly at first. The linkages, the sensors and springs; all the other parts of her internal machinery began to reconnect. She hardly noticed it until one desperate night she dreamt of being led to a room below The Boatman’s attic. There she saw what was left of her; his shadowed figure standing motionless in the corner, his Bela Lugosi eyes fixed on some faraway place, ‘there is no way off the island now’.
And in this dream her dark passageways illuminated like the lights of the copy machine. And as the images faded she felt a recognition, like an old friend lost through time. Reaching out, speaking from familiar’s warm heart. A voice connected to what she had forgotten.
‘What Is Forgotten’ original title ‘You Are Here’ published in ‘At Love’s Altar’ (c) 2020 Labello Press
Revised version ‘What Is Forgotten’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
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