The Man in the Cave
Many people come to me: the Man in the Cave. Each wishing to forget a lover, a friend, a tragedy they deem too painful to carry any longer. They edge nervously into view at the caves entrance as if a monstrous claw will snap them up. They all look the same to be now after centuries. They all look afraid. I call to them from the dark, beckoning them forth to sit before me. Some walk forward quickly, some look over their shoulder as if to run away. They all sit before me in the end, driven forward by their need to forget. They recoil at my pale hunched form, but sit nonetheless. I pull out the memory and they go on their way with a smile on their face. I am cursed to remember. I carry centuries of pain. I carry centuries of trauma. That is why I sit in the dark of my cave. The memories dance before my eyes awake and asleep, never ending, never relenting. I accept what I am.
One day a young woman appeared at the entrance to my cave. I saw tears streaking her face reflected in the midday sun. She did not wait for me to beckon her forth. She shuffled into the cave a broken woman, something small clutched to her chest. When she saw my pale visage she did not recoil. She sat before me. Her body shuddered as if too tired to weep, but determined to do so. I watched her warily. This would not be a small thing she wished to forget.
"The elders say you can help me," she said, still hunched in despair. "They said you can remove my memory."
"I can," I replied, in my low growl. "Part of it."
I sighed in relief, but her face showed no less sorrow. "I want..."
I waited for her to continue.
She looked down at her hands with what looked like shame on her face. A few minutes of silence passed between us. Sometimes people found it hard to even speak of what they wished to forget. I was accustomed to this. I took note that the item she had clasped to her chest was a small doll. Her clothes were dingy and worn. Nothing about her denoted a fortune of any kind. A simple woman.
The young woman screwed up her face and said quickly. "I want to forget my daughter. She's dead."
So young a woman to have lost a child, I thought. "You wish to forget her death?"
Her eyes locked onto mine. They carried an imaginable weight. "No, I want to forget her. I can't imagine life without her. I already lost my husband. I can't lose her too. Please, can you help me?"
I nodded slowly. "You family knows you are here?"
"There is no one to tell," she said, her eyes dropping again.
"I will warn you," I said leaning forward. "A memory surrendered, can never be replaced. Once it is within me, I cannot put it back."
The woman sat up straight and wiped the tears from her eyes and face. "I understand."
I nodded to her again. "Very well."
I reached forward and touch one hand to the side of her face. I connected to her memories immediately. An average life. A boring life. That was all this woman had known until her daughter was born. Then she had a loving, though simple, husband, and a beautiful baby girl. Things were happy for almost three years. Her husband had died in an accident, I saw. Her daughter had died of illness. The young woman hadn't been able to afford medicine after her husband's death. I reached and gathered for the memories of the little girl. I gathered up all the pain, including the pain she felt sitting before me. I pulled them forth into a globe of light and pushed it down through my arm and into my chest. The girl's name was Saricia. I felt a tear well in my eye as I took my hand away from the young woman. Saricia would be with me forever.
The woman's shoulder relaxed, and she blinked around the darkness of the cave.
"Hello," she said with a weak smile. She continued looking around the cave. I saw the woman I sensed in her memories reemerging: sweet and good, much as her daughter had been. "I had you remove a memory. Is that why I'm here?"
I nodded, looking away from her. The fresh waves of grief washed over me as Saricia's first steps played in my brain. Joy mixed with sadness in all the memories I had acquired. It had been delicate work because her daughter had toughed so many aspects of her life. I had left any memory without her during the last three years alone. Sometimes memories had to be spliced together to not create a noticeable gap.
"What was it?" she asked.
"I won't tell you," I whispered, choking back tears. These memories were more potent than most. "Please go."
"Alright," The woman rose uncertainly to her feet. She found the doll in her grasp, and held it out to me. "Is this yours?"
I reached out and snatched the doll from her. Saricia had loved this doll. I snapped at the woman, "Go!"
"Sorry," she said and rushed out of the cave.
I curled up into a ball on the dirt floor of the cave, and cried clutching the doll. My Saricia was gone. No wonder the woman wanted this memory gone. All the wonderful happy times that were now as painful as punching through glass. I hugged my knees and watch the memories play by over and over again. I knew I would adjust to the memories, as I had with all the others, but happy memories turned sour were the hardest to absorb.
A month passed. I saw more people wanted to get rid of more painful memories. Compared to the memories of Saricia they were easy to take in. I still held her doll at night. Her mother's memories were still as fresh as they day I taken them. I sat in my cave one morning, watching it rain. I held the doll on my lap. No one came in the rain, so I let myself sink into a stupor of memories. I was shook from my stupor by the young woman running into my cave, soaked to the bone, and screaming.
"Tell me what I've forgotten!" she wailed, as she dropped to her knees before me. "People keep saying how sorry they are for my loss, but I lost my husband over a year ago. I found baby clothes in my house! Oh God, what did I do?!"
I stared at her in shock. Despite what I warned people before taking their memories, no one had ever come back to find out what they had forgotten. I didn't know what to do.
The woman's eyes dropped to the doll in my lap. "That was mine, wasn't it?"
I eyed her warily. "You remember?"
She shook her head. "Please, sir, please tell me what I've forgotten."
She laid a hand on the doll, eyeing it in confusion.
"I can't give you your memory back," I said.
"Just tell me," she said, grabbing my hands so tightly that I could not recoil. "Please."
I looked at the woman. Her eyes did not carry the same amount of pain as they had before, but her desire was no less earnest. Did I have the right to her any portion of her previous pain? I felt that pain. I lived it, and I wished someone could remove it from me. Her eyes searched mine for some kind of clue, and I decided that I had no right to hide it from her.
"You asked me to remove all memories about your daughter," I said. "She died."
The woman went limp. "Why would I do that?"
"Grief," I replied, wrapping my hand around the doll again. My voice cracked as I spoke. "You were in so much pain."
"So now you feel it?" she said.
"What was her name?"
"Tell me about her."
I looked away from the woman, torn again as to what the right course of action was.
"Please, sir," she said, grabbing my hands again, this time with less force. "I did something very stupid in the throws of grief. Tell me."
I took a deep shuddering breath, but remained silent. The memories of Saricia flowed through me again.
"I must have given you so much," she said, tears forming in her eyes. Her voice wobbled. "I'm sorry that I did this to you, and that I have to ask more. Please, tell me about... my daughter."
"You loved her very much," I said. Then I started telling her about her daughter, how much she meant to her. I told her how she died. I told her how she lived. I told her everything I could put into words. We sat there for hours. The woman didn't say a word. She didn't wail. By the end she was smiling a sad smile. I tried to give her the doll back, but she wouldn't accept it.
"I gave you my pain. I gave you my daughter. The least I can do is give you that."
She rose to her feet and took in my small cave. I didn't have much: a pile of blankets for a bed, a small pile of wood for the occasional fire, a cup, a bucket, and a few small things. "You deserve better than this."
"No," I replied, clutching the doll to my chest. "I carry the pain of centuries. I can't imagine living any other way."
"We give you what we cannot bear. You ask nothing in return. You deserve our gratitude. If people knew the weight you carry, they wouldn't let you live like this. Some say you are a ghost, but I've touched your hands."
She bent down a kissed me on the cheek. Then she turned and left the cave. I figured that would be the last time I saw her, but it was not. She brought me food, and things for my cave. She sat and talked to me. Others started to do the same. Some were people who had visited before, who wanted to say thank you. I was overwhelmed for a time. They never stopped coming. I was no longer alone with my pain. I still remove painful memories. I still ask for nothing in return. I accept what I am, but now the burden is much lighter to bear.