Fiction / May 2008 (Issue 3)

The Lost Land

by Lawrence Pun, translated by Michael Judd

My name is Mnemosyne. I'm no god. I'm a witch, the Witch of Memory. My guests are looking for some lost shred of memory. I turn most away—they're better off if they can forget. Memory's cheap these days, and the earnest aren’t easy to find.

"Mnemosyne, my heart has withered bit by bit, like falling petals. I don't remember the feeling of my first kiss anymore," a man says. His eyes were fixed forward, but his gaze drifts back. If eyes are the soul's windows, they are obviously locked closely in the past.

"Do you still remember the girl, your first kiss?"

"I remember her floral beauty. I remember her name. Her name was Miriam."

"You remember the scene of your first kiss?"

"I remember we were surrounded by stars, clouded in. All stars but Sirius were dim. That night, actually, the only star I could see was the brightest one, the one in front of me. But I have already forgotten the day and the month. I've even forgotten the year."

"That scene already belongs to the past. You remember more than most."

"I remember the telescope's shape, the arrangement of the campground, the damp lawn. And still I feel nothing."

"Physical objects can be held. Feelings are more slippery."

"How can I turn back to innocence?"

"Oh, Man of the Missing Kiss, in innocence life is born and death is sown. Possession is the start of disappearance. The feeling of a first kiss vanishes the instant lips meet."

"Mnemosyne, I can no longer remember the beauty of my own face when I was young."

"Didn't you take pictures to preserve the memory?"

"I did, but each glance at a picture reminds me more and more that the face in the photo belongs only to the past. Lately it's seemed the face isn't connected to me at all."

"Good. You finally recognize the real meaning of a photograph. Flashes are a type of death. The you of yesterday has died, together with your vanished floral beauty. Beauty once gave you pride and self-indulgence. Now that it's lost, it hurts twice as badly. To whom much is given, much has now been taken away. Most would call that fair."

"Are you saying, Mnemosyne, that even as a witch, you can't preserve beauty?"

"Who can stop sand from passing through the seams between fingers?"

"I'd squeeze those seams as shut as possible, at least."

"Woman of Lost Beauty, the largest camel can squeeze through a needle's tiniest eye. Who can stop time from passing?"

If I could, I'd have stopped the earthworm's wrinkle from furrowing my face, stop the cane vine creeping from the corners of my eyes, ears, mouth, nose, every cavern carved into my skin. I'm becoming convinced that, in many matters of this world, even a sorceress is powerless. Many who track me down are only trying to recover their youth. It's true, I can cast a spell, stir up some intimation of their lost mortality, but when the intimations fade, doesn't the seeker still return to reality? To touch the mirage of youth, they must lose again, lose enduringly, some sort of double suffering. Many seekers haven't considered their choice carefully. They only come because they can't endure the gravity of loss. They don't need witchcraft. They need consolation. Each day I feel less like a witch and more like a therapist.

Don't ask "Where do we come from?" or "Where are we going?" A sorceress knows nothing of these questions. These are God's questions. I don't oppose God, really. I'm just uncomfortable in the light.

I dwell in an open land. I dwell in a patch of lost garden, in ruins beneath the city. Before the collapse, this garden was an isolated playground full of hearty unfinished laughter. How it slipped away, sunk like an ebbing tide or swamped by a sudden flood of seawater, I don't know. All that remains now are swings, a see-saw, slides, a carousel, a merry-go-round, all deserted long ago. The swings' iron chain is covered with rust, covered so deep that anyone who brushes it is unable to ever wash the scent from his hands. The carousel whirls effortlessly on windy days, spinning out a mechanical waa, like a sob. The see-saw has split, a black cat perched on its highest point, crying rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye, in the tree top, have a sip of Lethe's water, drink every last drop. The carousel creatures are missing heads and feet, worn down by months and years, becoming circling phantoms. The slide's surface has lost its slip and become abrasive as frost. I often nap there, above, dozing near a serpent.

I'm not bound to the world's troubles. Most of the time, the sun doesn't light the underworld, except each day at sunset, when rail-thin rays shine from a cavern on the west horizon, beating down onto the crystal screen of natural quartz. The flame lights the blazing fence and forces through flickering reflections of the world above. I thought I could keep from caring at first, but occasionally I'll peek through the crystal curtain. The sunlight is scarce in the cavern, and the air is cool. The stalactites grow column by column. For years I've been changing homes, fleeing before the city sprawl, trying to keep myself outside the parentheses of the material world. But the city never stops growing and it's hard now to find an unexplored piece of open land. To keep myself separated out from the world, to keep anyone from knowing I exist, I place a curse upon this lost garden: that it will never be born again, that it will stay dry rubble, that it will never be inhabited, forever and ever amen. In search of calm, all I can do is curse.

But, in the end, my whereabouts were leaked. In this excavatory age, even the oil bottled in the deepest well, even the most prehistoric fossils, are at last discovered. There are no absolute secrets. I've become a legend in this city. Fortunately, most think I'm insane. Only a handful of people believe in me. After all, to believe in an insane woman makes one a bit crazy, too. Occasionally a lost soul wanders in. The lost garden, however, houses only lunatics. No one normal is close to me.

I remember every person has sought me out. I am, after all, the witch of memory. I can manipulate the memories and loss of others, but not my own. My memory is layered over time into sediments, building up and spreading, spreading out and building, until it brims over in a flood and washes itself away, leaving a smooth nothingness. The people that search for me are strange and unusual. Some seek a lost love, some a lost beauty, some a lost face, some a youth that is truly lost, some a lost inspiration. Others are more materialistic, seeking, in some cases, a pen, a plaything, a love token.

Many that have come to me have left dissatisfied. They return to the material world to look for substitute cures, all the youth, the love, the innocence that money can buy. If money can buy back for them the things they've lost, even if they are counterfeit, I'm happy for them. But I have my principles too. Let those who seek substitute cures go back to their world. Some that enter turn back at the gate – but the seekers that are born with such tenacity are few and far between.

The ones that seek me out are usually on the decline, gilded golden-agers, their hearts often blanketed with the dust of years. Today, though, a boy has come. When he speaks up, the tentative stream of his voice is stranded somewhere between baritone and tenor.

"Mnemosyne, something's happened. All of a sudden I've lost my pleasant murmur. I open my mouth and find I can't speak in the pure voice of a child. What comes out is murky."

"It's not that bad, child. Some losses come suddenly, without premonition. It's good, in some sense, to sidestep the long suffering that comes sometimes with loss, like the withering of a tree or the erosion of a rock."

"But I want to keep my child's voice!'

"No boy can put off growing up. You'll grow into your coarse voice slowly, the same way you'll grow into your coarsening body."

"Does it really have to be that way?"

"Well, no. But you'd pay a heavy price to keep your voice. You'd have to be castrated. And you'd have to do it today, because your voice is deepening with each moment that passes. The lump in your throat will soon stick and thicken like a walnut, and never drop, even when the seasons change."

The child drops his head.

"Why don't you sing me a song? Even if your voice creeps lower, deepening until it can't be heard, I promise you that even in your last year, when your hair thins and your teeth loosen, you will still remember the sound of the song you sing."

I don't want to turn out like my father,
voice grating like the branches of a briar,
his shoulders broadened like a granite boulder
but without a touch of beauty or desire.

I don't want to turn out like my father,
voice rattling with roughness and dissent,
his hands that strike and lash out at another
but without a touch of beauty or consent.

"That's the most beautiful song I've ever heard. It would wear a thousand years of stalactites down to silt. That song, who taught it to you?"

"My mother. My mother wrote it."

For the lunatics, the paranoid, the ones forsaken by the world, the lost garden is a sort of sanitorium. Here they can stay behind and search for what they've lost. Seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. This isn't, by nature, incredible witchcraft.

The Soliloquist always carries with him a lantern, looking for himself. He cries, "I've lost myself! I've lost myself!"

I ask him, "What is your name?"

He answers, "No name can limit me."

I ask him, "In what year, what season were you born?"

He answers, "No date can number me."

I ask him, "Then who are you?"

He answers, "I've wondered half my life, but I still don't know."

I ask him, "Then why have you sought me out?"

He answers, "Because I thought that memory might be the key that unlocks that answer."

I said, "Don't be foolish. Memory is the great deceiver."

Walking in circles, the Shadowman hunts his lost shadow all day long. He cries, "I've forgotten where I left my shadow!" The Shadowman always flickers in the dark night, his sharp eyes opened like a leopard's, trying in the tar-black to excavate his own shadow.

I am overwhelmed by the futile figures of the Soliloquist and the Shadowman. They search for essential bits of themselves. If they search in vain, it's only because they've lost consciousness, as well. Coming to, for these two, hinges on a sudden moment of illumination, and between them and their realization lays a dark abyss. So I keep them down here. The Soliloquist has taken on the role of the lost garden's resident gardener. He plants, in his devotion, nightshade, hemlock, wolfsbane. The tamest herbs are also the most wildly poisonous. He sometimes presents several stems to visitors as a gift, for them to slip under their tongues. The poison chases the poison. He's also passed out thorns, sometimes— bundled with scraps, the thorns make a lovely bouquet. Only then did I learn how even trash can blossom with bright buds, fluttering in a carousel of colors. The Shadowman is particularly somber when the light is gone. He's become the lost garden's veterinarian, succoring this kingdom's creatures. Owls, bats, spiders, serpents, toads, lizards—all are under his care. I find him, frequently, staring into the spider webs, lost in abstraction, meditating, as if he might catch a glimpse of the universe between the strands.

The lost garden has no clocks, no tick-tock tick-tock calculating life. Here, the long and short hands don't hold our sense of time to the dial and cut it to ribbons. So time passes more in an uninterrupted current. Nevertheless, cycling time is sensed here in the sun's rising and setting, the tide's procession and recession, the four seasons' bait and switch.

Not everyone is looking to remember. Some are trying to blot out, trying to forget. I can't offer them anything at all.

"I want to forget someone, every sound, every angle, flush them, full and final, from my mind."

"That's impossible. You've come to the wrong place."

"Aren't you the Witch of Memory?"

"I am. But even I have my limits."

"I can't continue living when I bear these memories."

"There's your answer, actually."

"I don't understand."

"You can't cross Lethe until you're at the gates of Hell. But by that time you can't turn back."

He hasn't let it slip, but I know. The one he wants to forget is his late wife. He's locked up in his memory of her, yet he doesn't know what he's living for. He had thought of following her footprints, but he lacked the courage to seek her in death. Losing your love for the world, losing the will to survive, doesn’t whet one's appetite for death. One can avoid both life and death. He became a widower, eternally suspended.

I am the only one who has ever faced Hell then turned back. I snuck up on death like that once. In Hell the light is emptied out entirely, so of course there's no colour there. Even the flowers bloom black. Hades and Persephone dwell in a palace of dark stone. I don't find death repulsive, actually. It's just that I'm a little flighty, fond of Matisse's colours. A monochromatic world is tough to swallow. These are ruminations on my past life though, memories of the days before the garden.

The material world offers more memory aids than you can count. There are even pills that sharpen your recall. There's still no innovation, though, no pharmaceutical that helps you to forget. When that happens, I suppose there will be quite a market. The world is treacherous that way: the things you want to remember are lost, and those you want to forget stay behind, lodged firmly in your mind. The Widower who came to me, looking to cancel a piece of his past, reminds me of another visitor, the Female Patient. The Patient's charts called her illness "traumatic amnesia." She wanted badly to retrieve that lost segment of her memory, convinced that what was stowed away there hid her defining story. She's right about amnesia—whatever causes it must be profound, a wound so deep that by the end it fades to black.

So I console her: "Let go. Others crave forgetfulness, but never succeed."

"But the trauma I've endured must be part of who I am."

"If you remember, you may not be able to bear it."

"If not, I'll bear the deficit forever."

"Why insist on wholeness? Your deficit has sheltered you."

"I don't understand."

"An eclipse is a deficit of light. But you could also say that light is the absence of an eclipse. Everything has two sides. It depends on how you look at it."

If the Widower and the Female Patient could switch places, maybe both would feel a bit better. But memory's nothing if not private. Such a role reversal is out of my jurisdiction, anyway.

What's really vexing is not remembering, but recollection. Memory is like a shoebox left untouched and unexplored, collecting dust—only when you crack the lid to check the contents will you realize the vanity it holds. Recollection is like trying to net a butterfly. Or, more precisely, forever trying but failing to net a butterfly. Only in keeping an eternal distance between yourself and your catch is recollection created. So to some degree, the Man of the Missing Kiss, the Woman of Lost Beauty, the Boy with the Murky Voice, the Widower, the Female Patient, even the Soliloquist and the Shadowman, are all blessed.

The visitors who come to the lost garden are unrelated. I just want to weave together the strands their stories suggest. I imagine that the woman, lost in the memory of the Man of the Missing Kiss, comes to me as well. I imagine that since their first shared kiss they've never left each other's thoughts. I imagine it may have been like this: the moon strung high in the sky, one in the east, one in the west, they look at the same moon at the same moment, each haunted by the other. Even if they know nothing of the other, even if they're separated. But as the Witch of Memory Ive never witnessed such a weepy scene. It does seem, though, that the ones who seek me out are starting to overlap. I'm beginning to suspect, for example, that the Soliloquist and the Shadowman are doppelgangers, one emerging in the day, the other at night, always missing one another. How else to explain their long stay in this fallen garden, never running into one another? Perhaps they should wait for each other at the edge of daylight and darkness, hoping to bump into one another. That's the only way they'll be able to pick up what they've lost.

To tell you the truth, I don't especially like telling stories. In fact, I've just now learned to recollect my own stories. I said that memories settle unceasingly on my body, even those too heavy to recount. Fortunately, the stories we tell are doomed to be condensed. If they weren't, to tell a story we'd need as much time as it took to live it.

If you asked me to explain, I'd tell you that vanishing is the turning point of recollection.

The lost garden is losing its own face. The indistinct rattle of a giant electric drill has already punched into the lost garden, and every day bits of limestone from the surface shower down uninterrupted, like the plum rains. On all sides, the shallows are being filled with boulders. The garden shudders with the din of boulders jarring the seabed. You could measure the depth of the water by the splash and settle of the sinking rock. As years have passed, the water has crept back, inch by inch, until soon the sea will have dried to level land. Once level, it's rumoured the reclaimed land will be the site of a large-scale Virtual Paradise housing ageless cartoon animals. Immune to aging, they don't care much for memory. A Mirage Workshop is under construction on a neighbouring island, and every day bulldozers shuttle concrete over the lost garden in torrents. With the luxury of advanced equipment, the date of completion isn't far off. Because the Workshop deals in full-scale mirage, reality doesn't matter much anyway. The sounds of tumbling rock and electric drills whirring through the earth's crust ring together in a death knell for the rarefied, announcing that the garden's closing up shop.

As each piece of machinery becomes fiercer, the topping of the garden crawls nearer. It's been a long time since anyone sought out the Witch of Memory. I'm at peace with myself already, and the mountain clay is ready to pour down and bury me alive when it's needed. Another slab of sediment cracks apart and another ray of sunlight pierces through. The sunlight soaks up the dark and soaks up my sorcery. If a witch survives her powers being sapped, the best she can hope for is life as a scavenger, a street performer, a vagabond, a whore, or a story-teller.

So I can't help but turn to recollection, as well. I discover my memory's secrets night after night in dreams. The memories of my days before the garden begin to return. Perhaps this normal woman, too, was once someone's first kiss. Perhaps beautiful. Drop-dead gorgeous, even. A pure child, perhaps, once learned a lullaby at her feet and returned to gently sing it back at her before her sleeping bed, so tender that it became something ineffable. Perhaps she once lost track of herself and grew attached to darkness—afraid of the light, but still a glutton for colour. She lost the love of her life, for good. Perhaps. And perhaps she felt a loss so deeply that all behind her went black. Everyone I meet I feel I've seen before. When I awake, perhaps that's all I'll be: a normal woman.

The project's broken through to the underground already, and someone's already discovered thorns winding around the littered ruins, started doubting the evidence of life. A press conference is held. Archaeologists took up the search immediately. They have stumbled upon the remnants of a playground, but haven't yet dated what they've found: swings, slides, carousels, see-saws, merry-go-rounds ... the archaeologists make notes, record them one by one, scour their books to find how the playground pieces function. The city council on development drafts a resolution, deciding instead to turn the underground space into Lost Garden Theme Park, featuring all kinds of relics from the past, and turn the preserved playland into a permanent reserve, open to the public. Two long escalators connect the Lost Garden to the Virtual Paradise and the Mirage Workshop. A high-speed monorail runs express routes from the city centre. The curse I cast is ultimately fulfilled: the lost garden will never spring to life again, the soil is fallow, the rocks crumbled, and no man will dwell in this spot again, forever and ever amen.

My story probably ends here. There's no longer a roof in this city to cover me, no place to lay my head. The old sayings are now only concepts, only barren ideas: no wisp of human smoke, no blade of grass, no strand of hair. There's nowhere to flee to, but I'm always on the run. When I'm there I seem unconscious, and I'm haunting when I disappear. It's vintage Mnemosyne. So don't ask me where I am right now. I'm entirely disillusioned, but I'll exist from now until forever. The sunlight put me in its mouth, but darkness still fills me to the brim. This world is, by nature, incomplete. I've shattered like shards of coloured glass, scattered in every dim corner, in snake holes, in anthills, in dungeons, in the wilderness, in sewers, in asylums, in every prison cell of memory. Every bit of ash has me inside.

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