My father was a great man, once. I can remember a time, so long ago now, when he held me in his arms and sang to me beneath the silver moon. I remember how he smiled when I first began to walk, toddling about our cave and bringing him spare bits of memory. I remember his laughter.
In my early years he cared for me, alone, bringing me food whenever I was hungry. I did not eat much in those days. He would steal photographs and diaries for me, and I could take all the nourishment I needed simply be staring at them, sometimes for hours on end. There came a day, however, when I really was getting too big for these childish methods, and so he took me with him into the world above, to hunt.
"It is best," he told me, "To stay in the shadows as much as you can, out of sight. It saves the bother, later on, of eating more than you really want. Sometimes—" but here he broke off, for someone had appeared out of the fog: a boy, wrapped in a winter coat, hurrying along the sidewalk.
"Ah," said my father, and pounced.
Back in our cave, with the boy lying asleep, he showed me how to extend the tongue of my mind into his memory, and how to taste the riches hidden there. It was chaos at first, a blur of images pressing in on all sides; but my father showed me how to take a single strand of memory and follow it, probing further and further, not looking of anything, but letting the experience wash over you as it would. I did my best to relax, which he insisted was the key, but I could not hold back my fascination. I tasted the boy's shame and fear as he was thrown against the lockers, felt tears pour from his eyes. I moved further, through a rather musty gray stretch, and felt a sharp flare of happiness: a bike ride, through some barely glimpsed street, without a care in the world. Then there was more fear, a sort of dull flavorless area, and then longing: he was standing in front of a cage, hands wrapped tightly around the bars. There was a tiger there, stalking back and forth, not twenty feet away. The boy stared at it, and around him the other children shouted at the tiger, flinging bits of garbage at it and laughing when it thrashed it's tail and snarled. "Look at it," said one of them, in a high pitched bellow, "It's so fuckin' stupid," and the speaker crammed a handful of popcorn into his overflowing mouth, jaws pumping mindlessly. In memory the boy's hands grew even tighter on the bars, and confused visions flashed through his head and mine: the cage falling away at his touch, and the tiger springing into the crowd, the jeers dissolving into screams and blood, and running, running, free and majestic and powerful—
That was what he saw in his minds eye that day; and I held it in my mouth, trembling, before biting it away and consuming it forever.
Had I been more experienced, I would not have been so hasty, and I could have spared myself what came next; but as it was the strand of memory was severed, and suddenly I was confused, having lost my hold, and trying to find my bearings I reached out at random—
—despair, blackness, agony, death, nothingness—
—I was throwing myself back, towards the wall of the cave, and my father was holding me, keeping me still until my hysterical sobs had died away.
"What was that?" I asked, shakily, when I had recovered myself.
"That was a dark place," he said gravely. "We do not go there."
I shuddered and hugged him, and he stroked my hair. "Do they all have places like that?" I asked him, and he nodded. "How do they live?"
He paused. "I don't know," he said at last, looking faintly puzzled. "I don't know."
I learned about the dark places, and how to avoid them when feeding. I learned how to tell with a glance which memories would be the most delicious (a dream, remembered from childhood; the nervousness before giving a speech; a piece of music, heard for the first time at the late night party). I learned the taste of loneliness and love, the difference between the fire of freshly minted memories and the savor of those that had ripened with age. In the mind of a girl lying drunk in the gutter I learned how to pull down the complex and tangled barriers that concealed a treasure trove: memories of the sweaty hands of strangers, curses and blows, and wandering lost trough the rain. I gorged myself that night.
My father was a great man. He could pull out a strand containing a night or a week worth of memories, of love, for instance, without destroying the source of the love, and thus be able to feed on the same person again and again as they regenerated their thoughts. He had a number of these "regulars" scattered throughout the city, and they were always dependable for a good meal. I, in my early days, was far less skillful, and I would often make a terrible mess in the minds of my hosts, strewing useless experiences all over the place while I searched for the tasty ones. One night, after tearing apart the mind of an old man dying of cancer, I unexpectedly came upon a whole cavern filled with the memories of sunsets. I popped them into my mouth, one at a time, like cherries, until them were all gone.
I suppose that I grew up a bit, although I did not notice it happening, immersed as I was in other peoples' worlds. They lived my milestones for me: I graduated from middle school in the mind of a very skinny girl who hated herself because she was fat, and devoured another child's first visit to a foreign country. Once I accidentally took a bite out of the frantic memory of virginity lost the night before, and it startled me. I ate it slowly, even though it made me uncomfortable. I had never tasted anything like that before.
Things were changing. My father was changing, although he tried to hide it from me. He would go out on longer and longer trips, quickly flitting from mind to mind to mind as though searching for something in particular. I was usually far more indiscriminate in my tastes, although there were times when I got craving that not just any mind could satisfy. Then I would stalk through our city for hours, looking for sustenance. It was on these trips that I found the dreams of an old soldier, created in a prison far from home; a teacher's reminisces of the college days when changing the world had still seemed possible; a mother remembering the pain of labor while standing by her child's coffin.
This last one intrigued me. I did not know about mothers.
I sat in the hallways of the school, sometimes, and nibbled at the thoughts of the students as they passed. All of them seemed to have mothers. In curiosity, I followed a pair of them home, into their apartment. While they banged about and put away their things, I slipped into the mind of the woman in the kitchen, who I could only assume was their mother. There was a good deal of love wrapped around the thoughts of the children in her head, as well as plenty of exasperation and concern, and I feasted on it—but thoughtfully. I had been given much to think about.
I left the room just as the children came rushing in, faces flushed, eagerly spilling out accounts of their day. Their voices, so carefree at first, grew increasingly plaintive and desperate as I descended the stair; and I knew that the woman would be starring at them, blank eyed and uncomprehending. She had no more memories of them left. It made me a little sad, and when I realized this I stopped, rigid, feeling the sadness moving through my brain. It was strange: I knew what sadness was, of course, having experience other peoples' sadness hundreds of times. But this was the first time in my life that I had ever had any of my own.
I was too troubled by this idea of an emotion coming from the inside of my own head to ask about mothers that night, and in any event my father was in a bad way when he got home. Normally he was very fastidious about his food, but sometimes he would just go gulping down whatever he could find, and lots of it. This always game him indigestion, but more that that, it would sometimes so clog his mind with excess memory that he failed to recognize me. That was how I explained it to myself then, anyway.
On this particular night he shouted for a while and then sunk into a black mood; and in the morning he announced that we were moving. The food in this area was getting all used up, he declared, and it was time to be moving on.
This was true, as far as it went—be were becoming surrounded by far too many of those whose memories we had already taken, and who spent their days sitting and nodding, not realizing that there was a whole past they had forgotten. But I was worried. My father truly did not seem himself. He remembered me now, but only vaguely, and he showed none of his usual affection. He was surly and angry, and when we reached our new home—a dark alcove beneath the old bridge—he vanished into the night without so much as a good bye. I curled up in a ball and went to sleep, tired and heartsick. I did not understand.
The sun was just rising, spilling a few milky rays of light into the river, when he returned. He took me in his arms and held me, just as he used to do when I was young, and rocked me gently. "Oh, my daughter," he whispered, "I am sorry. I have grown careless, and lost when I should have kept…say you forgive me."
"You know I do, father."
"That is good," he murmured, as the sun rose. "I have found some of the old threads again, at least. That is good."
Thing were better, for a brief time, after that. My father still stayed out for long intervals, but when he returned he was almost his old self. I did notice that some phrases seemed to have dropped out of his vocabulary, and new ones taken their place; but as far as I knew, this was a natural part of growing older. He also seemed to have suddenly developed a great love of music, and would come how singing snatches of songs that I had never head of. But these were minor things, and anyway I was too wrapped up in my own concerns to pay much attention to my father's eccentricities. Since the day I had discovered that I had emotions of my own, I had begun watching my own consciousness more carefully as I traveled the world above, and I was finding that it was a stranger place than I had imagined. I learned that there where certain thing that made me happy—things I could see with my own eyes, not just through someone else's—and it was strange, so very strange, to feel the memories bubbling up inside me like some great fountain of dreams. Where did they come from, I puzzled, and why? Why did it lift my spirits to look up at the stars, or to watch the children jumping through puddles after a rainstorm? Always before I had been able to follow the strands back to their source, and understand what made peoples' minds tick; but I did not understand myself.
I was changing. Body and mind, I was changing.
I spent more time in the world above now, among the humans, who had brains like mine, and who knew nothing else. Sometimes to amuse myself I would close my thoughts, and speak to them as equals. It was hard to know what they were thinking at first, without access to their thoughts; but their raw laughter and tears moved me more than I had expected. I was discovering a new part of myself, a part that was always alone, and I found that because of this it was always reaching out for others, groping in the dark for a connection. I, of course, could have made this connection in an instant with my powers. And yet, more and more often, I did not.
I had begun to wander the school in my spare days, prowling from class to class, and while I plundered the minds of the teachers ruthlessly for the answers to questions, I did not reach into the thoughts of my friends among the children. Perhaps it was instinct, or perhaps it was only a guess, but something told me that if I interfered our friendships would be tainted. You can't really look at someone the same way, after you've seen their most precious moments and their deepest desires. Better to just stumble along, and let this new and isolated mind find what understanding it could, understanding made all the more valuable by its imperfections. Besides, I did not seem to need to eat as much now. The memories that I was creating for myself day by day sustained me, though I did not have to devour or destroy them.
I had certain special friends, to whom I told secrets (secrets! A strange concept, if ever there was one; but then weren't all of my thoughts secret to my companions? Was this what it was like to be human, to have a head full of secrets all the time, looking for the right people to tell them to?) And some of these friends I could have loved, maybe, even though love is hard to look at properly when it's your own and not someone else's. One of these I grew particularly fond of, even going over to his house one night. He rather awkwardly introduced me to his parents, and we spent the rest of the evening in his room, listening to music and talking. I was so happy…but I couldn't resist. I had to know everything…
There were other girls there. There were girls with shrines and portraits and gardens…and there was me, on the outskirts, a shallow ghost, already waiting to fade away. Something inside me cried out then, as I looked into his mind, and without even thinking, I lashed out, ripping away all the lust and all the passion and all the misplaced love. I tore it all away, and swallowed it whole.
He looked at me, startled for just a moment; and then he smiled, for I was the most beautiful girl he could ever remember seeing.
My father knew that I was not eating properly, and it bothered him. He would spend hours upon hours searching through dozens of minds, looking for I knew not what, while I would simply sit and gaze off into the distance, content to explore my own emotions. He hated this, and would constantly urge me to get out and feed, although for some reason he never now took me to visit his "regulars." In fact he never went with me to feed at all anymore, but only hounded me to go out by myself; with genuine concern on the days when he found whatever he was looking for, and with curses and shouts when he apparently didn't. This was a side of him I had never seen before, and it disturbed me more than I was willing to admit, even to myself.
On one of these bad days, I was stalking despondently through the rainy city, unable to find any food that would satisfy. I did not want to eat memories; I wanted to be back with my friends, making new ones. All of the thoughts in peoples' heads seemed stale and unappetizing by comparison.
It happened then, seemingly by chance, as I slouched along beneath a dripping façade. I caught a taste of a memory of my father.
People do not remember us. Usually they do not even see us, when we do not wish to be seen, and we can always remove any unwanted glimpses of us that they might be able to catch. Here, though, it seemed that my father had been careless, and left a few strands of memory dangling. I was curious. I could not help it.
The woman was approaching middle age, but already there were ragged gaps in her mind, and her family, rather than dealing with her endless streams of repeated questions, had shunted her away into the oblivion of a nursing home instead. She did not know where she was, and did not seem to care. I didn't much care either; I saw her forty years of life at a glance, and then turned my attention to the images of my father.
The strands were ragged and tangled, as though he had torn them out in a great hurry, and I had to tease apart the remains very carefully so as not to damage them further. They were perhaps fifteen years old, and starting to fade; but that was my father, beyond all doubt. As I held the memory I felt a great surge of affection for him, which I at first thought was my own; but then I felt something else, and realized that it was coming from the memory: love, even desire. It was not a comfortable feeling, and I dropped the strand hastily, looking for others.
These strands were even harder to read…he appeared a few more times, in the next months…and then, where the last strand ran out, there he was again. There was a good deal of pain here, and weeping. I felt the woman reaching out her arms, pleading with my father, who was walking away, carrying a screaming infant over his shoulder. It raised it's head, looking straight at it's mother, and gave a great howl of misery and incomprehension.
The baby was me.
"Mother," I whispered, and cupped her face in my hands; but she only stared in bewildered confusion, and I realized that my father had broken her. There was a hole in her mind, and all her newborn memories were trickling away before she even realized that they were there.
So I was half human, then. So this was where my thoughts were coming from.
I stormed home in a fury, and demanded the truth from my father. He was sitting beneath the bridge, running strings of memory through his fingers like liquid glass, and he hurriedly clenched his fist around them when I came in. "What?" he said.
"I've seen my mother." I was very angry; my breath did not seen to be coming right.
"Ah," he said, almost carelessly, and he tossed the memories back into his head. "Well, I've an idea. Why don't we go to the park tonight? There'll be lovely—"
"Why didn't you ever tell me about her?"
He looked blank. "About who?"
He expression changed, and became cautious. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
"My mother! The woman you fucked and then stole me from!" I didn't usually swear, but the tears were coming now and suddenly I couldn't stop them, couldn't hold them back. "W-why c-couldn't you have just said, j-just told m-me I was part human? I didn't understand anything f-for so long…"
"Understand what?" he said sharply, and I felt a fresh wave of anger.
"Why should you care now?" I asked bitterly. "Apparently you never cared before."
The wariness in his eyes had deepened into something unreadable, as though he was erecting a cage around his expression. "Tell you what," he said slowly, "Why don't I go out for a bit, and then I'll come back, and we can talk all this over."
"No, dammit, we can talk now!"
But however much I raged at him he would say nothing else, and at last I flung myself down onto the bed, exhausted and uncaring.
He was skillful, but I woke up anyway.
We had never entered one another's minds—the thought had never even occurred to me—so I did not immediately recognize the sensation for what it was. Then he moved on, and I felt it, with horror: it was like a great black spider, crawling through my brain, scuttling into my most intimate memories and examining them with its horrible, hairy pinchers. Then it would drop them off to the side, and go scuttling on to the next moment, leaving a trail that writhed and itched—
I screamed and threw up all the mental barriers I could, and the thing withdrew; but there was something clenched in its jaws. As I leapt up from the bed, I saw my father, staring at me, the memory twisting in his hands like a silver fish. To this day I do not know what it was he took. How could I? It is gone from my mind.
My father gazed at me, and there was something deeply troubled in his gaze. "I think I see," he said, "Just a little. If you would let me look—"
"Get away from me!"
I fled through the city.
It was violation of the most terrible sort imaginable, to have someone else pawing through your dreams and fantasies. And he was my father. I shuddered, but no matter how much I shook my head, I could not rid myself of the feeling of that thing in my head, picking apart my life.
Was this what I had been doing all these years, to so many people? Was this what they had felt, when I ate away their pasts? I couldn't stand it; I bent over a garbage can and retched. I wanted to tear out my mind and throw it away.
It was then, in the night, in despair, that I realized something. My father had gone through my memories seemingly at random, but there was one place he had not touched, a place I had never noticed before.
Oh no. No, no, no…
We always avoided the dark places when feeding. They were where humans kept all those things they could not stand to think about, all their despair and insanity and fear of death. Going into a dark place could kill you, my father had told me gravely when I first began to consume memories.
And now there was one inside me. In my head. And I was so close to falling in…
"You all right, love?"
I turned quickly, but it was only a tramp, wrapped in a tattered old jacket, looking at me with concern. "You need anything?"
He surely couldn't have spared me anything of his own, but his concern touched me just the same. "No," I said, and somehow managed a weak smile. "I'm fine. I'm—" An inspiration struck me. "I'm staying with a friend."
"Well, that's good then." His eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. "You want me to walk you there?"
"No, I'll be fine, really. But thank you."
He insisted on walking me to the end of the street, at least, and waved as I walked off into the dark. Snow had begun to fall, whispering through the air like the last breaths of a thousand dying ghosts.
He came to the door looking sleepy and bleary eyed, but his face lit up when he saw me, as it always did. I knew I should feel guilty about that, but I was too tired.
"What's up?" he asked, still yawning. "It's kinda late—"
"I know, I'm sorry, but, I was…" The tears were coming again, whether I would ever have them or no. "I was w-wondering if could m-maybe stay the night…m-my father…"
H seemed to draw his own conclusions, for both anger and pity washed over his face. "Sure," he said gently, taking my hand, "Sure you can stay. We've got an extra bed…here, why don't you come in, I'll go get my mom…"
And he led my inside, where I could forget, at least for a few hours.
I stayed away from the bridge for a long time, sleeping in alleys or the dark corners of the school. My friends were generous; they had been told that I had "problems at home," a phrase that many of them could understand all too well. They were tactfully kind, and I was almost unspeakably grateful. They, with their isolated minds, understood nothing; but sometimes they still managed to get things perfectly right right.
So I was happy, after a fashion. But I could not forget forever, and I loved my father too much—or loved the man he had been too much. I thought that maybe I could bring him back to sanity. And so I returned to the bridge—but I took a knife with me. I was not sure if I would use it when I got there. I was not sure if I wanted to.
He was there when I arrived, and he looked at me for a long time. "Wait here," he said at last, "Please;" and he scrambled up the side of the bridge and out of sight.
I sat there, arms wrapped around myself, not sure what to expect. What would he say, on his return? How could things ever go back? Once again I felt the memory of that crawling black thing inside my head, and I shivered. I almost left…but in the end, I stayed. Maybe I was naïve. I don't know.
In was nearly an hour before he returned, dropping down into our—his—home. "Hello, love," he said, smiling at me. "You all right?"
I stared. I had hoped so much that he would be back to his old self, and he seemed to be, but there was something in his voice…
"Yes," I whispered, "I'm fine."
"Well, that's good then." His eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled.
He was too friendly for me not to be at least polite back, but something in our conversation disturbed me; and though I looked long and hard, I never saw that old tramp again.
So the days went by.
My father tried, in his way, to make things up between us, although I usually tried to keep my distancce. He would go with me on walks through the city, pointing out landmarks that I walked past every day but which he seemed to think were very significant. And he brought me books, books which he seemed to expect I would like because they had been a part of my childhood; but which in reality I had never even see before. I did not understand. I thought that maybe he was going senile, falling apart at last. It saddened me, but I consoled myself that this was just life. Everything ended eventually, even ones parents.
That was what I told myself. Maybe even then I suspected that it wasn't true.
"You don't have to come," the boy said awkwardly, "If you don't want to, I mean, we can pick you up later—"
But I did.
They were visiting his grandfather in the hospital. He was dying, and had been dying for a long time, but now he was really dying, and this might be their last chance to see him alive. I had almost become enough of a member of the family to tag along, even to the deathbed of a loved one. And I tired to pretend that it was because they really cared for me, and not because of my meddling with their minds…
"He hasn't known me for a long time," my boyfriend told me, as we gazed down at the ruined old man. Look, my dark place whispered. Look at what you will one day become.
"Sometimes he smiles. Look, here—there's this song he always used to sing. He taught it to my dad, and he taught it to us…" And he began humming.
The old man's face remained perfectly, utterly blank; but I felt a sinking feeling, somewhere inside my heart. I knew that song. My father had sung it only that morning.
And suddenly it was all clear, all those songs he had sung, all those memories that I didn't remember. I knew the truth. I had known it all along.
"I don't understand," the boy was saying, sounding close to panic, "He's always known this, always—"
With a soundless howl I flung myself into his mind, into all of their minds; and I erased it all: all of the months of affection, all the memories of myself. And then I tore out the strands entirely, so that they would not know that there was ever anyone to forget.
I went looking for my father.
Was this where he had been, all those times away from home? Sifting through this old man's mind, looking for the choicest of his character traits? How much of his life had he stolen, in the name of providing me with love? And how many others had lost themselves in order to keep his illusion intact?
For many years my father and I had assumed that we were essentially like one another. I think that he began to doubt this on the day he invaded my mind, and found memories there. I think I did too. But it was easier, as it always is, to lie to myself.
The shadows grew longer, and then the streetlights cast them away into the corners, and still I walked. All that long night, I paced through the empty streets; and in the pre-dawn light I finally found him, standing on the bridge, looking out at the river. He had not eaten. Perhaps he could not find anything suitable; perhaps his old regulars had finally all died off, taking his disguise with him. Or perhaps he just didn't care anymore. The dream was over.
"Father," I said, and he turned to look at me. There was nothing in his eyes. "Father, I know the truth."
"Truth?" he said, and I opened my mind and showed him: all my knowledge, all my guesses and revelations. He looked, and sighed, but said nothing.
"Humans need to be loved," I said. "You can't feed off of their emotions for years without picking that up, I suppose. And you did pick it up. Maybe it was a very strong memory, or maybe it was a lot of memories taken all at once, I don't know. But you tasted their love and their need too much, and you started to want to be like them."
All was silence. My father stood there, amidst the wisps of morning fog, and said nothing.
"So you conceived me, with some human help. And you stole an identity from someone. You found a parent you thought I would love, and you consumed them and made them into yourself."
"And you did love me."
I nodded, my throat constricting. "Yes…you were a great man. But then that man died, or moved, and you didn't have access to his emotions any longer. You had to find others to take love from, and you had to look for a long time, trying to piece back together that identity you were already forgetting. Sometimes you couldn't do it. I knew. And then you'd be more careful, careful to keep up the pretense. But you were only taking bits of memory now, disjointed pieces not connected by anything. So you forgot. You forgot why you needed someone who loved you. Because it was never you who needed it in the first place. It was human beings. You just picked it up from them. I know what you are now—"
"And what am I?" he whispered. His voice was soft, and dangerous. I hesitated for a moment; but I had planned for this. I pressed on.
"You're nothing. You're a parasite, and you take on the form of your hosts. All those men I loved over the years, they weren't my father. They were people you stole. And I thought that I loved you. But the love never really had anything to do with you or me, did it? It was all stolen. None of it was real. And neither are you. You're nothing."
"Then join me," he said. His voice was a hissing snarl now, like nothing human. "Become nothing. Leave yourself behind, and live forever."
"But I wouldn't be me forever," I said softly. "I'd be…no one. And I think I'd rather be someone for a lifetime than no one forever."
He stared at me, this creature of nothingness; and then he lunged, face contorting, flinging all his strength at my mind.
I think he expected me to have barricaded my thoughts and was prepared to batter his way in by force. But I offered no resistance, and he overshot his goal, flailing around in confusion, and trying to find his bearings he reached out at random—
I opened everything to him. Everything.
He did not notice the darkness until he was surrounded by it. And then I saw his eyes grow wide with horror, as the raw, uncontrolled agony and fear rushed over him. With a scream he flung himself back, throwing up his arms.
His legs hit the railing of the bridge, and he toppled over the edge, all the way down to the rocks below, where he broke apart and disappeared.
It had been harder, far harder, to take away all the barriers around myself than it would have been to actually fight him. But sometimes the only way to win is to stop fighting.
It was strange…my father had always told me that going too deep into a dark place would lead to madness or death. Yet here I was, the door to my dark place standing wide open. And I wasn't mad. And was still alive.
Was this, then, what it was to be human? To bear this darkness, and to go on living anyway?
Well. There was one task left to complete, and then I would find out.
I reached back into my own head, far, far back, to where the strands were knotted and bound together into my instincts. And I began to pull them apart, collecting all of the loose ends, separating those I wanted and carefully putting the rest back. I had never done this to myself before, and it was tiring work; but at last I had them all, held together, clutched within my fist.
For a moment, I stayed there, frozen at the edge.
And then I jerked my hand forward, pulling out all of my knowledge of how to look into minds, my ability to see thoughts, my power to read dreams. I pulled them all out and let them go, and they went sliding away across the floor, silver images bubbling up and fading and reforming—
Then they were gone.
I walked away from the bridge for the last time, into the world above. And the sun rose.