Episode #36: "How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War" by Rose Lemberg
Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 36 for April 13, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story for you. Today we have a return of Rose Lemberg, whose story "Stalemate" was published in episode 7. This is the last story for the Winter 2017 issue, and Spring 2017 is right around the corner! We also have a guest reader, Rose Fox, for this episode.
Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Rose's work has appeared in Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues. Their Birdverse novelette "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds" has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and longlisted for the Hugo Award and the Tiptree Award. Rose's debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird, is available from Aqueduct Press (2016). Rose can be found on Twitter as @roselemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/roselemberg, and on http://roselemberg.net.
Rose Fox is a senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and the co-editor (with Daniel José Older) of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. They also write Story Hospital, a compassionate, practical weekly advice column about writing, and run occasional workshops for blocked and struggling writers. In their copious free time, they write fanfic and queer romance novels. They live in Brooklyn with two partners, three cats, the world's most adorable baby, and a great many books.
How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War
by Rose Lemberg
At the budget committee meeting this morning, the pen in my hand turns into the remote control of a subsonic detonator. It is familiar—heavy, smooth, the metal warm to the touch. The pain of recognition cruises through my fingers and up my arm, engorges my veins with unbearable sweetness. The detonator is gunmetal gray. My finger twitches, poised on the button.
I shake my head, and it is gone. Only it is still here, the taste of blood in my mouth, and underneath it, unnamed acidic bitterness. Around the conference table, the faces of faculty and staff darken in my vision. I see them—aging hippies polished by their long academic careers into a reluctant kind of respectability; accountants neat in bargain-bin clothes for office professionals; the dean, overdressed but defiant in his suit and dark blue tie with a class pin. They’ve traveled, I am sure, and some had protested on the streets back in the day and thought themselves radicals, but there’s none here who would not recoil in horror if I confessed my visions.
I do not twitch. I want to run away from the uncomplicated, slightly puffy expressions of those people who'd never faced the battlefield, never felt the ground shake, never screamed tumbling facedown into the dirt. But I have more self-control than to flee. When it comes my time to report, I am steady. I concentrate on the numbers. The numbers have never betrayed me.
At five PM sharp I am out of the office. The airy old space is supposed to delight, with its tall cased windows and the afternoon sun streaming through the redwoods, but there’s nothing here I want to see. I walk briskly to the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and catch a train to the city. The train rattles underground, all stale air and musty seats. The people studiously look aside, giving each other the safety of not-noticing, bubbles of imaginary emptiness in the crowd. The mild heat of bodies and the artificially illuminated darkness of the tunnel take the edge off.
When I disembark at Montgomery, the sky is already beginning to darken, the edges of pink and orange drawn in by the night. I could have gotten off at Embarcadero, but every time I decide against it—the walk down Market Street towards the ocean gives me a formality of approach which I crave without understanding why. My good gray jacket protects against the chill coming up from the water. The people on the street—the executives and the baristas, the shoppers and the bankers—all stare past me with unseeing eyes.
They shipped us here, I remember. Damaged goods, just like other states shipped their mentally ill to Berkeley on Greyhound buses: a one-way ticket to nowhere, to a place that is said to be restful and warm in the shadow of the buildings, under the bridges, camouflaged from this life by smells of pot and piss. I am luckier than most. Numbers come easy to me, and I look grave and presentable in my heavy jackets that are not armor. Their long sleeves hide the self-inflicted scars.
I remember little. Slivers. But I still bind my chest and use the pronoun they, and I wear a tight metal bracelet on my left arm. It makes me feel secure, if not safe. It’s only a ploy, this bracelet I have found, a fool’s game at hope. The band is base metal, but without any markings, lights, or familiar pinpricks of the signal. Nothing flows. No way for Tedtemár to call, if ever Tedtemár could come here.
Northern California is where they ship the damaged ones, yes, even interstellars.
Nights are hard. I go out to the back yard, barren from my attempts at do-it-yourself landscaping. Only the redwood tree remains, and at the very edge, a stray rose bush that blooms each spring in spite of my efforts. I smoke because I need it, to invoke and hold at bay the only full memory left to me: the battlefield, earth ravished by heaving and metal, the screech and whoosh of detonations overhead. In front of me I see the short, broad figure of my commanding officer. Tedtemár turns around. In dreams their visor is lifted, and I see their face laughing with the sounds of explosions around us. Tedtemár's arms are weapons, white and broad and spewing fire. I cannot hear anything for the wailing, but in dreams, Tedtemár's lips form my name as the ground heaves.
I have broken every wall in my house, put my fist through the thinness of them as if they're nothing. I could have lived closer to work, but in this El Cerrito neighborhood nobody asks any questions, and the backyard is mine to ravage. I break the walls, then half-heartedly repair them over weekends only to break them again. At work I am composed and civil and do not break anything, though it is a struggle. The beautiful old plaster of the office walls goes gritty gray like barracks, and the overhead lights turn into alarms. Under the table I interlace my fingers into bird's wings, my unit's recognition sign, as my eyes focus resolutely on spreadsheets. At home I repair the useless walls and apply popcorn texture, then paint the whole thing bog gray in a shade I mix myself. It is too ugly even for my mood, even though I’ve been told that gray is all the rage with interior designers these days.
I put my fist through the first wall before the paint dries.
Today, there is music on Embarcadero. People in black and colorful clothing whirl around, some skillfully, some with a good-natured clumsiness. Others are there simply to watch. It’s some kind of a celebration, but I have nothing to celebrate and nothing to hope for, except for the music to shriek like a siren. I buy a plate of deep-fried cheese balls and swallow them, taste buds disbelieving the input, eyes disbelieving the revelry even though I know the names of the emotions expressed here. Joy. Pleasure. Anticipation. At the edge of the piers, men cast small nets for crabs to sell to sushi bars, and in the nearby restaurants diners sip wine and shiver surreptitiously with the chill. I went out to dates with women and men and with genderfluid folks, but they have all avoided me after a single meeting. They are afraid to say it to my face, but I can see. Too gloomy. Too intense. Too quiet. Won't smile or laugh.
There is a person I notice among the revelers. I see them from the back—stooped, aloof. Like me. I don’t know what makes me single them out of the crowd, the shape of the shoulders perhaps. The stranger does not dance, does not move; just stands there. I begin to approach, then veer abruptly away. No sense in bothering a stranger with—with what exactly? Memories?
I cannot remember anything useful.
I wish they'd done a clean job, taken all my memories away so I could start fresh. I wish they'd taken nothing, left my head to rot. I wish they'd shot me. Wish I'd shoot myself, and have no idea why I don't, what compels me to continue in the conference rooms and in the overly pleasant office and in my now fashionably gray house. Joy or pleasure are words I cannot visualize. But I do want—something. Something.
Wanting itself at least was not taken from me, and numbers still keep me safe. Lucky bastard.
I see the stranger again at night, standing in the corner of my backyard where the redwood used to be. The person has no face, just an empty black oval filled with explosives. Their white artificial arms form an alphabet of deafening fire around my head.
The next day I see them in the shape of the trees outside my office window, feel their movement in the bubbling of Strawberry Creek when I take an unusual lunch walk. I want, I want, I want, I want. The wanting is a gray bog beast that swallows me awake into the world devoid of noise. The suffocating safe coziness of my present environment rattles me, the planes and angles of the day too soft for comfort. I press the metal of my bracelet, but it is not enough. I cut my arms with a knife and hide the scars old and new under sleeves. I break the walls again and repaint them with leftover bog gray, which I dilute with an even uglier army green.
Over and over again I take the BART to Embarcadero, but the person I seek is not there, not there when it’s nearly empty and when it’s full of stalls for the arts and crafts fair. The person I seek might never have existed, an interplay of shadows over plastered walls. A co-worker calls to introduce me to someone; I cut her off, sick of myself and my well-wishers, always taunting me in my mind. In an hour I repent and reconsider, and later spend an evening of coffee and music with someone kind who speaks fast and does not seem to mind my gloom. Under the table, my fingers lace into bird’s wings.
I remember next to nothing, but I know this: I do not want to go back to the old war. I just want—want—
I see the person again at Montgomery, in a long corridor leading from the train to the surface. I recognize the stooped shoulders and run forward, but the cry falls dead on my lips.
It is not Tedtemár. Their face, downturned and worn, betrays no shiver of laughter. They smell unwashed and stale and their arms do not end in metal. The person does not move or react, like the others perhaps-of-ours I’ve seen here over the years, and their lips move, saying nothing. I remember the date from the other day, cheery in the face of my silence. But I know I have nothing to lose. So I cough and I ask.
They say nothing.
I turn away to leave, when out of the corner of my eyes I see their fingers interlock to form the wings of a bird.
Imprudent and invasive for this world, I lay my hand on their shoulder and lead them back underground. I buy them a BART ticket, watch over them as even the resolutely anonymous riders edge away from the smell. I take them to my home in El Cerrito, where broken walls need repair, and where a chipped cup of tea is made to the soundtrack of sirens heard only in my head. The person holds the cup between clenched fists and sips, eyes closed. I cannot dissuade them when they stand in the corner to sleep, silent and unmoving like an empty battle suit.
At night I dream of Tedtemár crying. Rockets fall out of their eyes to splash against my hands and burst there into seeds. I do not understand. I wake to the stranger huddled to sleep in a corner. Stray moonrays whiten their arms to metal.
In the morning I beg my guest to take sustenance, or a bath, but they do not react. I leave them there for work, where the light again makes mockery of everything. Around my wrist the fake bracelet comes to life, blinking, blinking, blinking in a code I cannot decipher, calling to me in a voice that could not quite be Tedtemár’s. It is only a trick of the light.
At home I am again improper. The stranger does not protest or recoil when I peel their dirty clothes away, lead them into the bath. They are listless, moving their limbs along with my motions. The sudsy water covers everything—that which I could safely look at and that which I shouldn’t have seen. I will not switch the pronouns. When names and memories go, these bits of language, translated inadequately into the local vernacular, remain to us. They are slivers, always jagged slivers of us, where lives we lived used to be.
I remember Tedtemár’s hands, dragging me away. The wail of a falling rocket. Their arms around my torso, pressing me back into myself.
I wash my guest’s back. They have a mark above their left shoulder, as if from a once-embedded device. I do not recognize it as my unit’s custom, or as anything.
I wanted so much—I wanted—but all that wanting will not bring the memories back, will not return my life. I do not want it to return, that life that always stings and smarts and smolders at the edge of my consciousness, not enough to hold on to, more than enough to hurt—but there’s an emptiness in me where people have been once, even the ones I don’t remember. Was this stranger a friend? Their arms feel stiff to my touch. For all their fingers interlaced into wings at Montgomery station, since then I had only seen them hold their hands in fists.
Perhaps I’d only imagined the wings.
I wail on my way to work, silent with mouth pressed closed so nobody will notice. In the office I wail, open-mouthed and silent, against the moving shades of redwoods in the window.
For once I don’t want takeaway or minute-meals. I brew strong black tea, and cook stewed red lentils over rice in a newly purchased pot. I repair the broken walls and watch Tedtemár-who-is-not-quite-Tedtemár as they lean against the doorway, eyes vacant. I take them to sleep in my bed, then perch on the very edge of it, wary and waiting. At night they cry out once, their voice undulating with the sirens in my mind. Hope awakens in me with that sound, but then my guest falls silent again.
An older neighbor comes by in the morning and chats at my guest, not caring that they do not answer—like the date whose name I have forgotten. I don’t know if I’d recognize Tedtemár if I met them here. My guest could be anyone, from my unit or another, or a veteran of an entirely different war shipped to Northern California by people I can’t know, because they always ship us here, from everywhere, and do not tell us why.
Work’s lost all taste and color, what of it there ever was. Even numbers feel numb and bland under my tongue. I make mistakes in my spreadsheets and am reprimanded.
At night I perch again in bed beside my guest. I hope for a scream, for anything; fall asleep in the silent darkness, crouched uncomfortably with one leg dangling off to the floor.
I wake up with their fist against my arm. Rigid fingers press and withdraw to the frequency of an old alarm code that hovers on the edge of my remembrance. In darkness I can feel their eyes on me, but am afraid to speak, afraid to move. In less than a minute, when the pressing motion ceases and I no longer feel their gaze, I cannot tell if this has been a dream.
I have taken two vacation days at work. I need the rest, but dread returning home, dread it in all the different ways from before. I have not broken a wall since I brought my guest home.
Once back, I do not find them in any of their usual spots. I think to look out of the kitchen window at last. I see my stranger, Tedtemár, or the person who could be Tedtemár—someone unknown to me, from a different unit, a different culture, a different war. My commanding officer. They are in the back yard, on their knees. There’s a basket by their side, brought perhaps by the neighbor.
For many long minutes I watch them plant crocuses into the ravaged earth of my yard. They are digging with their fists. Their arms, tight and rigid as always, seem to caress this ground into which we’ve been discarded, cast aside when we became too damaged to be needed in the old war. Explosives streak past my eyelids and sink, swallowed by the clumps of the soil around their fists.
I do not know this person. I do not know myself.
This moment is all I can have.
I open the kitchen door, my fingers unwieldy, and step out to join Tedtemár.
“How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War" was originally published in Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue in June 2015.
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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back on April 18th with a GlitterShip original and our Spring 2017 issue!
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