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Authors: Skyler White

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BOOK: Strongest Conjuration
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“Nothing is ever forgotten.”

“Technically true,” I agreed. “But functionally irrelevant. The work required to reach back three personalities or more means we lose meaningful access to memories only a few hundred years old.”

“Several thousand, if you're Phil.”

“Fine,” I said. “It still means we all end up forgetting almost everything eventually.”


Forgetting
is imprecise.”

“Forgetting is unbearable.”

Phil had been watching me ping-pong with Ramon, enjoying it more than I did. His voice came in quiet and slower than ours. “Ren, you didn't forget Celeste.”

Incrementalists and their persnickety precision!

I'd let myself get fully angry with Ramon, but Phil was trying to be kind. “I know,” I told him. “But access to the Garden is what makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist, and she left me a broken spoon.”

“That's not all that makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist,” Phil said.

Ramon squinted over his glass at me. “Are you trying to fix your spoon?”

“She's trying to make things better,” Phil said before I could make a there-is-no-spoon joke. His smile didn't flicker, but he was watching the way only he can. “Because
that's'
what makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist. You know that, right?”

Phil had never questioned my motives. He would ask how my work was going. He'd put a new hot cup of tea beside me every few hours. But he'd never asked why I was grazing instead of unpacking.

“I just think it's an interesting problem.” I stood up and realized how much wine I'd drunk. “I think I'm going to call it a night.”

Ramon got to his feet, wobbling less than I did despite what had to be unfamiliar heels. “Thank you for dinner,” he said. “Your new house is beautiful.”

He picked up his plate, Phil's, and mine and carried them to the sink. Phil wrapped his arms around me. “You aren't going to graze again, are you?”

“No. Just sleep.”

“I'll do the dishes and come join you.”

“Don't,” I said, and kissed him. “I'll get them in the morning. Take the whiskey out on the patio with Ray.”

“Mmm,” he agreed and kissed me while Ramon rinsed the plates. “Sweet dreams,” he said.

4. Fly Away

I dreamed of red peppers, tall as houses, with walls curled inward like ears. Every whorl held nested fractals—peppers made of peppers—and Peter Piper looked a lot like Phil. He picked them, and packed them, and peeled their blistered skins into sheaves. He gave them as folio pages to my nana, who lost them—all but one. It, she sharpened against the edges of her red-and-black-spotted carapace. When it was honed to a blade of bloodied midnight, she handed it to me. I took aim at Phil, and sat up in our empty bedroom. My heart beat my eardrums.

I shucked off the tank top I'd been wearing, and wrapped Phil's bathrobe around me in a cotton hug. From our bathroom window, I watched him and Ramon, settled deep into patio chairs, with Susi curled up under Phil's. I wondered whether Ramon's curvy young body could metabolize whiskey at the rate his ancient personality was accustomed to throwing it back. Having other Incrementalists nearby was good for Phil, especially now. I'd asked Matsu and Jimmy to come visit in the next month too. I really needed to finish unpacking.

I brushed my teeth, but nothing helped. We were too close to Phil-gets-naked day for me to be comfortable with anything resembling blood or books. I needed to check my Garden for bad ladybugs.

I propped my back against the headboard, and let the root-beer tickle of my Garden's sense triggers pull me into a landscape as greedy as suburbia, and as bleak.

Standing again, ankle-deep in desolate mud that stretched strange and far away, I said, “July first, 2011, Phil, Las Vegas,” and everything not a part of the memory Phil had seeded on that day and in that place drained away, leaving alpine trees and snow. I stepped into the chilly landscape and knew what Phil had recorded of the ritual in which he had spiked the stub of Celeste—his lover across four hundred years—into me,and I had not become her.

I had been toggling all week between this seed, and mine of the same event. Phil had recorded his right after he'd finished the ritual, while I was asleep. He didn't know yet what Celeste had done, and it was a simple, informational memory. I let it surround me, but nothing had changed, gotten lost or weaponized, and the mountains melted back to mud.

Relieved, I stood at the center of my empty Garden—all my great-aunt Cece had left me. I didn't like it, but I was grateful to be an Incrementalist—even an incomplete one. It didn't make me angry, just a little panicky about all the open space and endless muck, and fiercely protective of Phil.

It wasn't his fault it had gone wrong.

It wasn't his fault, but it was why we were cracking cover. The Incrementalists could soon be a memory for anyone able to spot the seed and willing to graze it.

It wasn't his fault, but he was the one getting naked.

On a whim I said, “Phil, September twenty-fourth, 2013, Tucson.”

Nothing happened. Of course not. We can't see the future. We only imagine it the way we imagine the Garden.

I bent and pressed my palm to the ground to watch the unfiltered muck well between my fingers. Against the uniform brown, my brown skin's smattering of browner freckles just looked messy. I pushed my hand deeper, remembering kindergarten palm-print turkeys in finger paint and pasted feathers. I wanted to leave an imprint, to make my mark, to prove I had been there—that I had been at all. I wanted to make my Garden mine.

“Mine,” I whispered. The mud sucked at my palm.

Then it gave way.

I caught myself with my other hand to keep from falling in up to my shoulder. For a disorienting second, I thought my Garden had run to quicksand, but only the mud beneath my hand had moved at all. I extracted my arm and peered down into the digit-laced hole.

I pinched up a wad of mud. “Pebble,” I said, and waited, and dropped it, and waited. The pebble fell, making no sound, down and down. A dangerous, indulgent thrill slid up the nape of my neck as I listened, and never heard it land.

I opened my eyes, grabbed a blanket, and ran for the back porch.

5. A House Is Not

Susi galloped to greet me, and I hitch-stepped to keep from tripping over him or my trailing bedding.

“You've been grazing.” Phil unfolded from his chair to hug me, and I burrowed my icy nose into his neck. “Sit down,” he said. “I'll tuck your feet in.”

I took the empty chair between him and Ramon, and grinned at them both. Their new forty-dollar bottle had fewer than ten bucks of whiskey left, but I felt drunker than either of them looked.

Ramon drained his glass and poured for us both. “You're peppy for someone just back from the Garden.”

I took a sip of the whiskey and slid it back to Phil. I told them everything: I'd dreamed about get-naked day, and that our gamble gotten lost or turned into something dangerous; I'd grazed to reassure myself, and made a palmprint in my mud, and it had gone deep and stayed that way. Phil's eyebrows rose in polite surprise, but Ramon scarcely tipped his head.

“I wanted to make a bigger hole and jump down it, but I was afraid I'd break my leg.” I was mostly joking, but the pebble drop had both thrilled and frightened me.

Phil and Ramon said nothing.

“This is what I've been looking for,” I explained. “It has to be a clue about how the Garden works!”

Maybe they were drunk.

A graceful curl slipped over Ramon's shoulder to feather just over his breast. “It doesn't
have
to be anything,” he said.

“No, you don't understand,” I insisted. “I graze seeds as landscapes I step inside. What if I could have walked into that handprint?”

“You'd have remembered big hands?” Ramon blinked his baby-doll lashes.

“Ray hasn't done much drinking since the spike,” Phil noted.

“You do know what they say about big hands!” Ramon giggled.

“Big gloves?” Phil would enjoy teasing the morning's sober Ramon with tonight's flirtatious one.

“Seriously,” I implored. “What if, instead of
Who
,
What
, and
When
, I could filter the Garden symbolically?”

“Everything we do in the Garden, we do symbolically.” Phil's words were weary, but not slurred.

“What if we could graze that way?”

“I doubt
we
could,” Ramon said. “This may well be a quirk of your subtractive metaphor. What was it? ‘Take all the egg out of a baked cake,'” he quoted my directions to the first memory I'd seeded. “Oskar was livid.” He giggled again, and drained his glass. “But that's how it usually is with shamans. Jimmy's castle makes grazing faster for him. Matsu's garden makes Garden patterns easier for him to spot.”

“And this would make Ren what?” Phil asked. “A symbol shaman? We don't have those.”

“We haven't had those,” Ramon corrected.

“Grazing by symbol would be more anomalous than spiking in general, more than even mine in particular. Who knows what that kind of an edge case might show us? I think I'll give it a shot,” I said. “I'll make a symbol, and step into it the way I walk into a landscape to graze. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe I'll get the entire symbol's worth of information.”

“A symbol's worth would be a lot to remember,” Ramon said.

“Phil remembers more all the time.”

“But he remembers cumulatively, little bits over long periods.”

“Incrementally,” Phil said.

I grinned at him, but he wasn't joking.

So there I sat, the only Incrementalist who didn't remember JFK, in love with the only one who remembered Christ. It didn't dampen my love for Phil, but it didn't simplify things any. “Well?” I asked, standing up. “No harm in trying, right?”

I didn't like feeling I needed his permission.

Phil met my eyes, then let his gaze linger on the wrap of his bathrobe over my body. “You're good with symbol.” He smiled, using his Ren-voice to tease me. “You'd think an Incrementalist would go slower, do some research, maybe wait till morning, but no?”

“No.” I winked and shrugged. “I'm kind of a screwy Incrementalist.”

“You're not.” He stood up and curled me into him. “You couldn't be better. Not even a little bit.”

I went inside, Susi trotting next to me. I don't like grazing in front of people, but Phil had seemed a little worried about my plan, so I settled on the sofa in the living room, and let Susi hop up next to me. I closed my eyes and hovered in the nervous racket of my blood and breathing. It'd be worth having the Celeste-shaped hole in my memory if it made me a shaman at something. Being able to filter our collective memory without reference to the original seeder's analogy would be hugely useful to everyone.

I sniffed for the saltmarsh burn. Root beer bubbled over my tongue, and my blank gray sky and bland brown ground lay at my feet like gifted teens, maddeningly inert, infinite possibility overburdened into immobility. Phil was right. I'd been spending too much time here. I cleared my throat, grabbed a fistful of the goop, and named it “stick,” stickily. I used it to draw a handprint—four fingers and a thumb —in the mud around my feet, encircling myself with the outline. I closed my eyes, but was too curious or scared to keep them shut.

“Mine,” I whispered. Nothing happened. My Garden swallowed my line.

I drew an inverted triangle of dots and encircled it. “Face,” I said, but the mouth and eyeholes filled in with mud, and I tossed the useless stick away. It flew into splatters before hitting the ground—fear falling into frustration.

I loved Phil deeper even than the mud went, but guilt was something he'd swallowed whole, and I wanted him to spit.

It would be so cool to be a shaman.

I made another stick, and drew another face in the wet salt marsh mud. I hadn't named my hand print “hand.”

I drew a circle around my feet, and another one beside me. I made a mouth and, grateful for yoga, drew an arm-reaching big circle to encompass it all. I took a deep breath, and exhaled. I could do this. I could make mud pies out of mud, and give Phil something juicier than guilt to chew on.

“Me,” I said, and my Garden dropped away. All the way.

6. All The Way

I am not cold in the nightdark, and I am not dreaming. There are many of me, and one is bleeding
.

I am frightened
.

Bleeding causes dying, not every time. She hurts, and I hurt where she is bleeding
.

“Stop,” I say.”

“Stop.” She shows her teeth. I show mine, but she won't play.

We are cooking meat. I am angry, and I am hungry. We eat. I take meat to her, but she is dead
.

I cry.

“Go on to bed, Ray. She'll wake up when she's done.”

“She should eat something. It's been hours.”

“I know.”

“She's spending too much time in the Garden, Phil.”

“She's going back to work next week. She wants to make the most of her time off. Go to bed, I'll just … Ren? Wake up, love. Have some tea.”

I opened my eyes, and ate reheated pasta while Phil showed Ramon where to find extra towels and blankets.

It was almost daylight when we went to bed.

“Learn anything?” Phil wrapped around me.

“When you're tired, do you ever read the same sentence over and over and not remember it?”

“Sure.”

“I'm thinking the same thought over and over, and can't remember it.”

“You've been spending too much time in the Garden.”

“One lonely thought left, no one to tell itself to, running circles.”

“What happened with the handprint?”

BOOK: Strongest Conjuration
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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