A Burden of Memories

A Burden of Memories
by Tamoha Sengupta

I was 16 when I was born. The cold of the table beneath my bare back was the first thing that touched my consciousness. And then a man clothed me in a dress whose color, he told me, was dark blue. I had no memories of my own, only those that belonged to Sheila, now dead.

For weeks, the wires were planted deep into my mind, and I soaked up Sheila’s memories like a sponge. I realized that the man was Sheila’s—my—father. I soaked up memories of the day her mother—my mother—died in a car accident. The picnics she attended became the ones I went to. I had never seen the hills, yet I already remembered seeing them, snow-capped, glittering in the sunlight.

I also had a capsule given to me by Father. It was inserted into me at around the same time he installed my heart.

“Now no diseases will snatch you away from me again,” he said to me, pulling me into a hug. The hug was nothing new in my memory, but the feel of his warm arms around me was.

I was officially Sheila now. When people I knew saw me for the first time, they asked how I had survived.

“Oh, the method’s not important. She’s alive; that’s all that matters,” Father said to them, with a laugh that was as hollow as his words.

Each night, Father tucked the blanket around me when I went to bed. I remembered how secure I felt when he kissed my forehead, but that’s all there was. I just remembered; I didn’t feel it now.

So I adjusted to Sheila’s life, went to school, took music lessons, and blended in with her friends as though I had always been there. In the beginning, Father refreshed my memories weekly, but as the weeks melted into months, I grew stronger and didn’t need those reminders anymore.

The day before school closed for winter vacation, I started walking back home instead of taking the bus, as usual, when voices near the bushes lining the school made me stop.

“It snowed yesterday in Darjeeling. Dad’s going to take me there. I talked him into letting you come as well.” I knew that voice. It belonged to a boy in my class. Nikhil.

“Ooh, really?” This was Ragini speaking, without any doubt. Ragini sat in front of me in class. “That’s great!”

Darjeeling was in the hills, I knew. I remembered having been there before, remembered the sunrise on Tiger Hills. I walked closer to the voice, walking around the bush. I could see them now, standing quite close together. A pink glow was spreading across Ragini’s cheeks. As I watched, she stood on tiptoe, her hands on Nikhil’s shoulders, and gave him a quick peck.

“That was for the good news,” she said, and an identical blush grew on Nikhil’s cheeks.

Then they both noticed me. Ragini stepped away from Nikhil quickly, her eyes burning as she faced me, the color not completely gone from her cheeks.

“What do you think you are doing, pervert? Spying on us like that?”

I ignored her question as I turned to look at Nikhil.

“Are you going to the mountains tomorrow?” I asked.

Nikhil gave me a disapproving glare. “Spying on our conversation, too?”

“Take me with you.” I said in a rush.

Ragini’s mouth fell open in shock.

“What?” Nikhil said, his eyebrows disappearing into his hair.

“I want to feel the wind on the mountains. I’ve never been there. Take me.” I said again.

Ragini’s look of shock was replaced by fury. She marched up to me, fire in her eyes.

“You liar!” She said, giving me a shove on the shoulders. “Just last year, you missed a week of school because your father took you to Gangtok.” Another shove. “And you say you’ve never been to the mountains? Liar.”

A feeling took hold of me for the first time. I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed as if the fire I saw in her eyes was spreading inside my body now. Deep from the trenches of my memory, the name of that feeling surfaced—a feeling which the old Sheila hardly felt. Fury.

I shoved her back, using my rock-hard hands to deliver all the force I could. She stumbled and fell down.

“Are you crazy?” Nikhil shouted, running forward toward me. My hand curled into a fist, sliced an arc through the air, and collided with his nose. He fell down too, clutching his nose and expelling a groan. Tears had welled up in Ragini’s eyes.

“Are you OK?” she cried out, rolling over toward where Nikhil was doubled over.

“Broken, I think.” Nikhil said, his voice thick. I watched the red fluid ooze out from where I had hit him. He stumbled up, wincing, with Ragini’s support, and they both backed away from me, their eyes wide with alarm.

“Mad. She’s gone mad.” Ragini’s voice shook as they kept backing away from me, disappearing from my sight.

The heart installed in my chest felt heavier than usual. That feeling, fury, had gone as suddenly as it had come. The knuckles of my right hand held a smudge of that boy’s blood on them. I wiped it off with the end of my skirt, trying to remember how I had felt when the fury had taken hold. I wanted to feel like that again. I wanted to feel, not to just be a container holding someone who was no longer alive.

As I started walking home, tracing the path along the river, I gazed out at the horizon. The mountains were a chain of bluish pyramids, some of them so white and bright that it hurt my eyes even from a distance. I stood there watching them for a long time. I wanted to feel the memories I had been given. Could I ask Father to take me there? Would he take me? He would understand, wouldn’t he? He would understand my desire to play with the snow, to feel my head grow dizzy as I climbed the circling roads.

Realizing I was already late, I rushed back home. Father was not waiting for me at the main door like he usually was. Even his bedroom was empty. I dropped my school bag onto his bed and hurried through the house to find him. Finally, I spotted him sitting at the kitchen table. An empty glass of water stood in front of him as he sat there, unmoving, his head in his hands.

“I’m back.” I said, sitting down.

He looked up and his brows knitted together as he noticed me.

“Nikhil’s and Ragini’s parents were here.” He looked as though he had been waiting to say the words for a long time. “They said you hit their children. Is it true?”

I cocked my head, observing him. Why did that agitate him so much? They had deserved it, hadn’t they? In any case, I had more important matters that I needed him to know.

“I want to see the mountains,” I told him.

He blinked. As I watched him, I realized how pitifully fragile he was.

“You’ve seen them already,” he said, his voice sounding dismissive.

“Not actually,” I said, looking straight at him. Something flickered in his eyes. I suspected he was seeing me, really seeing me, for the first time.

“You have,” he said again. The chair scratched the floor as he stood up. My eyes followed the movement. “Anyway, we were discussing something else. Is it true that you hit Nikhil? And Ragini, too?”

I rested my elbows on the table and supported my chin on my palms. “Yes,” I said. My eyes wandered away from him toward the photo on top of the refrigerator. I remembered when it was taken, at the picnic all three of us had gone to a week before Mom’s accident. I had been laughing at one of her jokes when Dad had taken the picture. The day had been sunny and cloudless.

“Sheila wasn’t like that,” I heard him say, almost to himself. The room was quiet and the words reached me without any problem at all.

I turned my dark eyes toward my creator again. My eyes pierced deep into his, and I saw his Adam’s apple rise up and down. He shifted on his feet.

“I am Sheila,” I said. My words rolled out, steady and heavy, coming to rest between us.

He blinked again. “Of-of course you are,” he said, stepping back toward the door. “Wait here. I just remembered something. I-I’ll be right back.”

He rushed out. I knew at once where he was going. Traitor. That’s what he was. He would never, ever take me to the mountains, I realized. I stood up, snatching a knife from its place on the counter. Its silver blade glinted as it caught the last traces of sunlight creeping in through the window. Just then, I heard footsteps. I hid the knife behind my back, waiting. If he thought he could use weapons, then so could I.

I watched him walk up to me, carrying that thing in his hands. I knew he would use it on me again. It would wrap its tentacles around me and I would be sucked into a black hole again. A black hole filled with someone else’s life.

“I don’t need the memories,” I said, trying to give him one last chance. He had given me life, after all. “I have my own. And I want to make more. My own memories.”

“Sh-Sheila.” He tried to sound calm, but he was a bad actor. “You need these memories.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his free hand. “This is why you exist. This is who you are,” he added.

I don’t want you to decide who I am. I didn’t say the words out loud, but I didn’t think he would understand anyway. I remembered Nikhil and Ragini from earlier and the reddish glow of their cheeks. Their veins had dilated and the flow of blood had increased. That was the reason. I had learned it from a book in school. I wondered how it felt to have blood rushing in your veins, to feel your heart beat. A real heart, not the battery-operated one my father had given me. Would having a real heart have mean that I could have that color in my cheeks as well?

“You’re a great scientist,” I said to the man before me. The statement caught him off-guard.

“What?”

My lips curled. The conversation was in my hands now. For the first time, I was controlling something.

“You’re a great scientist,” I repeated. The knife twitched in my hand. “But you’re also very selfish.”

His eyes widened and I saw fear saturate their widened pupils.

My actions were quick. The hand behind my back leapt out, plunging the knife into his body at lightning speed. The knife sank in through the layers of clothing he wore, piercing his chest a little left of the center. His flesh seemed so soft, so unlike my rock-hard skin.

I took care to twist the knife as I pulled it out, and blood emerged with it. He let out a strangled yelp; to me it sounded like the squeal of a trapped cat. The memory box fell from his hands and shattered on the floor, bits and pieces falling here and there, wires rolling away in every direction.

He tried to clutch on to me, tried to speak, but only blood flowed from his mouth. His hands had no strength in them. He fell at my feet with a thump, now clutching the place where the knife had pierced his body. The same fingers that had pieced me together were now covered in his own blood, as was his sweater, which was the same shade of blue I first remembered wearing.

“No one will become a slave to your memories,” I assured him, but he wasn’t listening anymore. I stepped over his body, walking toward the kitchen sink. The tap squealed as I turned it open and water splashed into the basin with a hiss. I washed the blood off the knife, watched it swirl into the water and down the drain, vanishing as though it had never been there.

Daylight had started to retreat by the time I finished. I placed the knife on the table, hurried toward the switchboard, and turned on the lights. If our house remained dark, people would notice and come snooping, and when it came to other people’s business, they had long noses.

I walked to my father’s lab and switched on the lights there as well. I took a moment to look around at the place where I had first opened my eyes, where I was given someone else’s memories before I had a chance to make my own.

Then I walked over to where my creator kept the charger for my battery-heart. It was the only thing I needed to take from here. It felt cool in my hands, readily fitting into the shape of my palms, as though it had always been waiting for me to hold it. I left the lab, clutching my possession, not sparing a backward glance.

I placed the charger in the bag I used to take to school. I had already emptied it of books and all the other things I wouldn’t need. I swung the bag over my shoulders and returned to the kitchen. Father was still lying where I had left him, with the blood forming a circle around him.

I bent down and turned him over. As I did, my fingers brushed against his. They were cold now, as cold as the table that had been my first real memory. I paused for a moment, my eyes tracing over his profile. Then my hands went to his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. I knew that in this world, money wins everything.

Standing up, I pushed the wallet into my bag too. Sweeping my hair from my face, I picked up the knife again. I didn’t want to keep it lying around for the detectives to find. I knew they would eventually come to investigate the murder. Maybe they would catch me, maybe not. I just wanted to reach the mountains before they did.

I walked out of the kitchen and toward the front door. Stepping out of the house, I glanced up at the sky. The moon was bright, sliding across the sky, surrounded by the halo of its own light. In its radiance, I could make out the mountains near the horizon, their shape a shade darker than the night sky.

I took the path that I took every time I walked to school and back. The river was still gurgling out its usual music, and I paused for a second, watching the waters glitter like sequins in the night. I threw out the knife toward the rapids and observed as the river swallowed it in a second, not for a moment stopping its music to yell out in pain. The river was stronger than my creator had been.

I smiled and started walking again, toward the mountains that were waiting for me. I began to hum a tune. It was a tune which had scared Sheila, but I loved it. And because I loved it, I told myself, Sheila would have to love it too. Because I was Sheila now.


Copyright © 2015 Tamoha Sengupta