FROM THE MEMORY A ROOTED SORROW
Part 2 of 2
Red-rimmed eyes stared at him uncomprehendingly. ‘Do I know you, sir?’ she asked, her voice deeper than yesterday, more grating.
He lied. ‘Yes, you probably have already forgotten. I'm your tutor, William Jasper. You have these memory lapses, don't - ‘
‘Oh, yes, Mother told me. The doctor's making me well... Once I conform to her wishes, everything will be all right.’ She smiled briefly, then her face darkened as she looked down at the book in her hands.
‘Why can't I remember?’ she asked, giving him a heart-wrenching look.
Gently taking her arm, he said, ‘Let's take a walk, and do some lessons at a friend's house - okay?’
She nodded, but pulled her arm free. ‘Aren't I a little old for lessons?’
‘No, Kathy, dear, I think you're just in time...’
A short journey brought them to a drive bordered by Spanish moss. The double doors of the house opened and a manservant said, ‘Professor Gaston is expecting you, Mr Jasper.’
They were escorted through the hall, footsteps echoing. Kathy didn't seem affected by the size of the place, as though used to wealth. ‘Follow me, please. He awaits you in the study.’ As they crossed the glistening parquet floor, she whispered, ‘What am I learning?’
‘The truth, Kathy. In particular, medicine and psychology...’ She screwed up her face, and he found it appealing. But he must convince her, must -
‘Professor, Mr Jasper and Miss Greene to see you, as arranged earlier.’
‘Earlier?’ she queried sharply, glancing up at him.
Will grinned, more pleased than he thought possible to perceive the quickness of her reaction. ‘I phoned before meeting you - ever the optimist, that's me.’
Balding and almost emaciated, folds of flesh stretched across cranial bone, the professor removed his bifocals and stepped forward, offering a wrinkled hand. ‘Good morning, Miss - ‘
‘Kathy will do fine, thank you. Thank you for seeing me - us.’
‘Please sit down.’
They both settled on an elegant chaise longue that faced a broad rosewood desk with an inlaid leather writing surface. Behind the desk was a French window. Wherever possible, the room's walls were ceiling-high with shelves of books. Professor Gaston fumbled in his fawn baggy cardigan pockets then began tamping down his briar. ‘Will has told me the little he knows about you, Kathy.’
She gave him a puzzled look.
Will held her hand reassuringly, smiled. She was completely trusting - how could she be anything else?
‘Now, what can you remember of your childhood?’ He lit his pipe and sat against his desk, a thick encyclopaedia in his hand. Almost absently, he leafed through its pages.
‘Most of it, sir. My father was an architect. I had a happy childhood...’
‘But he's dead?’
‘Yes, cancer... He was only forty-eight ... about two years back, I think...’
‘That brings me on to my next question. Can you come forward in time - when does the memory become foggy?’
She closed her eyes, but only tears materialised. She shook her head, black hair cascading, glinting under the chandelier. ‘No... I'm a complete blur after my ... eighteenth birthday...’ Suddenly, her eyes unclosed and she clutched the green book. ‘What's your name, I forget so easily - ?’ And she looked down at her book.
Professor Gaston paused in his scrutiny of the encyclopaedia. ‘George. George Gaston.’
Will relieved her of the book. It contained half-completed poems, names and addresses. His name had been scrawled in and crossed out violently, as had other male names. He handed it over to the professor.
‘I think they were friends of mine,’ she explained. ‘I'm trying to find out who they were, maybe they can fill in the blanks for me...’
Will sighed. ‘Not if your mother has anything to do with it, Kathy...!’
‘Perhaps I had better explain, my dear,’ said the professor. He lifted sad worldly eyes from the page. ‘If the sense of my explication loses you, don't be afraid to speak up. Your amnesiac condition will probably have affected your understanding of some vocabulary.’
‘Yes, that seems like me,’ she said, interest bringing her forward to the edge of her seat. ‘I can recognise and use words, they are familiar, yet often the meaning escapes me!’
‘And any reading that requires any background of general knowledge is difficult?’
‘Yes, well-nigh impossible,’ she said, tear-filled eyes enviously surveying the shelves of books.
Clearing his throat, George said, ‘I'll resume, then. Over a thousand years ago Pliny the Elder recommended the application of the live electric ray for easing headaches, so you can see that shock treatment is not new. Even our revered Ben Franklin became involved. After being knocked unconscious and suffering a brief period of amnesia following his famous experiment with kites and lightning...’
‘Yes,’ she interrupted excitedly, ‘I remember doing that at school!’
Her pleasure was infectious.
George smiled, pleased for her. ‘Well, he recommended the practice on mad people... But I hasten to add that mad is not a good description. No more than schizophrenic and depressed are accurate descriptions... Then a man called Cerletti in Rome discovered a slaughterhouse that used electric shock to stun hogs prior to their being killed; thus was born the electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT for short...’
The initials elicited a response, a glimmer of memory trying to break through the darkness...
Will noticed too, and said: ‘ECT was used to stun the hogs before they were killed? My God!’ And he gritted his teeth, remembering again this small defenceless woman undergoing that ‘therapy’.
‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Your mother has been paying for your ECT treatment, Kathy. She must have seen the damage it's doing to your memory, but she doesn't seem to care.’
‘George is right, Kathy. Every time you wake up from a session, you are diminished as a person. People are not people without memories. And the books I've alluded to and dozens like them all say the same: shock therapy does more harm than good. It doesn't ease the cause of depression or whatever, it simply makes you forget. It's like using a mallet to fix a micro-circuit.’
‘Micro-circuit - ? Oh, one of those words, I guess... But why?’
‘But the doctor, the psychiatrist, he wouldn't intentionally harm me, would he?’
George smiled with irony. ‘Your faith is enchanting, my dear.’
‘No, Kathy, he's probably fooling himself,’ said Will. ‘Better to have a compliant patient, sunk in depths of forgetfulness than someone who constantly taxes his professionalism. No, he's interested in the three hundred bucks per session, perhaps, but he's not intentionally bad...’
‘Bad. The bad being killed off to make way for the good; I think he said something like that, Will... Am I bad, is that why - ?’
He took her arms, shook her harshly. ‘No, for Chrissakes, it's your mother who's bad! To put you through this!’
‘But the visions of me - ?’
‘I don't know, but perhaps the electric shock awakens dormant memories from past incarnations,’ suggested George. ‘Maybe the shock affects the brain's psychic potential, latches onto racial memories stored in historic structures?’
Kathy seemed confused.
Will squeezed her hand. ‘But, Kathy, do you think that the journeys into the past could be simply hallucinations, brought on by stress?’
‘I honestly don't know. What is odd is that once I've experienced these visions or whatever, the memory of the event does not get lost though memories either side of it often do - I don't know if I'm making myself clear, but...’
‘Kathy,’ George asked, ‘can you tell us of some of these visions, as you call them?’
Nodding, she closed her eyes and relived the scene in the warehouse, describing it in great detail, and then went on to relate her encounter with General Oglethorpe and the young reporter. Each incident came from her lips in vivid pictures.
When she finished George rummaged in his bookcase and came out with Gone with the Wind. ‘An excellent book, I've recommended it to all my students. Have you read it, my dear?’
Kathy nodded, puzzled.
‘That description of your clothes remarkably resembles this,’ he said: ‘It's from the first page, a description of Scarlett O'Hara.’ And he read of Scarlett's dress setting off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque that showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. ‘The green flowered-muslin is here, the yards of material, the hoop-style etc… etc...’
Will stood up, reached for the book and read the passage. ‘This is incredible - how'd you remember such a description?’
‘It just happens to be one of my favourite books, faithful to the South and the Civil War...’ George cleared his throat, continued, ‘As for Florence Martus, as far as I can find out in my library, she didn't have the name of Katherine: but there is a statue of her waving. Her story is part of Savannah's folklore, as is the landing and subsequent history of Oglethorpe...’
Kathy looked pale, and confused. ‘Yes, but - ‘
‘It could be your shock treatment juggled knowledge of local history and formed a cohesive waking dream, Kathy... A kind of desperate retreat from - ‘
The phone rang on his desk. He leaned across, lifted the receiver. ‘Yes, he's still here.’ He glanced up. ‘Will, it's your sister, Anne.’ He cupped the mouthpiece: ‘She seems distraught,’ he whispered.
‘Hello, Annie - what's up?’
‘The police have been round, looking for you - Kathy's mother has told them you've kidnapped her! They're talking about getting the FBI! And they have your car's description...’ He swore. ‘What are you going to do?’ she asked.
Watching the concern in Kathy's eyes, he said, ‘Well, I'll not involve you any further. I'll have to take Kathy away, I guess, give her time to recover... Thanks - and take care. I'll be in touch, Annie, don't worry.’
‘What about your job?’
‘It'll have to wait - look, can you ring Adam, tell him everything, he'll understand. I won't expect him to keep the job open for me, but say I'll be in touch and that I'm sorry. Look, I must go, we've a lot to do, and fast. 'Bye.’
As he lowered the phone, Kathy came up to him, rested her hand on his shoulder. ‘I'm causing you a lot of trouble, aren't I?’
Arms outstretched, he held her and smiled. ‘No. Your infernal mother is, though...’ He craned his neck, ‘George, my car's marked...’
‘Take mine,’ George said without hesitation. ‘But where will you go?’
‘Oregon, probably - I've friends there. They might help...’ and he chucked Kathy's chin, ‘... if you want to come, that is?’
She hesitated - panic wasn't far off the surface, was in her eyes. Everything was going so fast: not so long ago she'd as good as awoken from a sleep of so many years... Then, she seemed to make a decision and his heart surged as she hugged him. ‘Try going without me!’ she said.
Within ten minutes they had packed a bag of food, essentials and medical stuff, courtesy of George, and were motoring along West Boundary, headed for Route 17N.
Those memories had seemed so real, though; it seemed impossible that she could have simply hallucinated such detail of past events... Coincidence? Or had Margaret Mitchell based her introduction on common dress styles? But the absence of the name of Katherine from Miss Martus's history seemed to prove George right... Would the visions persist, now that she was speeding away from her mother and the ECT machine?
As they approached Talmadge Bridge, she was disturbed to glimpse a violent redness in the sky to their right. Will hadn't noticed... ‘Will, stop the car, please - there's something wrong!’
‘What's the matter, Kathy? Kathy!’
He was by her side, one hand on her trembling shoulder, the other on the metal hand-rail; she was deep in another memory, he reckoned, glancing down at her knuckles whitening as she gripped the metal.
The passing cars sent vibrations through the bridge; the whole surface bounced through the soles of his feet.
But there was something else as well. As the tremor of the bridge ran through him like a mild electric charge, white spots danced before his eyes.
Then he saw vivid pictures of flames, and smelled the acrid fumes of smoke. Atlanta was being put to the torch by William Tecumseh Sherman. On the breeze he could hear the Union soldiers lifting their voices, thrilling to their commander, ‘Glory, glory, Hallelujah!’
He turned to Kathy as he felt her hand slowly enfold his, gently prizing it from the railings. Her green muslin dress rippled in the wind that carried the fumes of civil war along the river.
From the far end of the bridge the sound of hooves clattered on the wooden boards. Two horses, heads nodding as they strained in their harnesses, pulled a teetering carriage towards them. Will watched it rock from one side to the other.
‘It's all right, Will,’ Kathy said, tugging his hand, making him look at her. ‘There's nothing to fear.’
Will caught a glimpse of two deathly-white, worn faces gazing from the carriage as it rolled past them.
He allowed Kathy to lead him to the end of the bridge.
Previously published in Maelstrom, 1994
I drew the illustrations that accompanied the story in the magazine
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):
Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.