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Memories like Bread, Words like Little White Stones

CÚcile Cristofari lives in South France. She has recently completed a PhD on imaginary worlds in fantasy and science fiction, which is a bit less arduous than building a palace out of letters, but close enough. She blogs at cecile-c.livejournal.com/.

The first time you got lost, I thought you were just light-headed with the heat. We laughed it off as I drove you home. When you forgot our neighbor's name, I just shrugged. Wasn't it hard for a man your age to keep track of the names of everyone he knew? When you forgot our son's, I said it was nothing. But we both knew we couldn't keep lying.
Soon, you stopped leaving the house--it was easier than asking me to come and walk you back when you forgot the way. You took to writing. Sometimes, as you doodled in your notebook, cut off mid-sentence as you tried to remember what was so important you had to write it, I bent over your shoulder to read.
There were pieces of memories scribbled in a shaky hand, trailing off, as you struggled to write our moments together before they were gone for good. But it was too late, already. At first I cried, but it would do no good if you woke up from your nap and found me red-eyed over something you didn't remember. So I took a pen, and I tried to write for you.
Every day, I added new lines to your old memories, and some memories of my own. Sometimes you read from the notebook, and you never seemed to wonder why the writing didn't look like your own. The last thing I wrote was half made up. We had been planning a trip. Somewhere in France, there was a palace made of pebbles, that a single man had built over thirty years of his life. He was a postman, like you used to be. During his rounds, he picked the nicest-looking stones, and added them to his work in the evening. We never managed to see it, but you wanted to so much I made up a memory where we did.
I was so sad, though, when you read it and smiled, and didn't notice it wasn't real. I couldn't keep writing after that. It tore my heart to impose my memories on you. We always remembered such different things--when we talked together, it felt like looking at the past with one eye closed, then suddenly opening it and seeing a flat cardboard picture turn into a beautiful, living landscape. With only my memories remaining, I felt I had become half-blind.
One day, the local post office started hiring extras for the summer. I couldn't stand sitting there and watching you drift away, while the day nurse shuffled around, sometimes forgetting herself and talking to you in a singsong voice as if you were a child. Though she obviously disapproved when I decided to leave you in her care, I applied. When I left for my first round, you smiled and waved, remembering to be proud of your wife even if you didn't remember why.
One of the first letters I had to deliver was a postcard from Brittany, the place where we spent our first holiday together. I could even recognize the beach. I took a long look, then unthinkingly, I put it in my pocket.
The following days, more postcards came. Every time one of them reminded me of something from our past, I set it aside. Then I started opening letters. Some of them told stories that could almost have been ours, and I pocketed them, and hid them in a drawer back home, until the day I found a postcard picturing the postman's pebble palace.
The drawer was overflowing already. I took the letters to the garden. I crumpled them, stacked them, spread them flat, stacked then again until pictures formed in my mind. I soaked them in waterproof glue, held them together, and watched the base of a column take shape.
I went on with the rounds, bringing new letters home every day, and gluing them to my fantasy palace in the evening, after the day nurse had left. At first I only picked letters with the stories that sounded most like ours, and my palace grew from the ground like a pretty flower. One day, in a flurry of arches, a whole wall was formed. I ran into the living room, took you by the hand, and brought you to the garden.
"Here it is," I said. "See? I made it, I made it true! Aren't you happy?"
"Very happy," you said. "What is this place... my dear?"
I'll never forget. Whatever happens, whatever pain I felt before, it was nothing compared to the agony when you said "my dear," in that hesitant way, because you didn't remember my name anymore.
I carried on with the rounds. I kept more and more letters, stories we'd lived together, others we could have, or wished we had, or were glad we hadn't although they would have made us stronger. My palace grew large and convoluted like a fantastical plant. Words sprouted from its walls, and pictures, and names of faraway places.
One night as I finished plastering postcards on top of a turret, I saw a figure inside, watching me. I started. But it was only the outline of a doorway I had finished the week before. As I came closer, the illusion receded. I took a deep breath. For a moment, I'd thought the figure had your face.
The following night, I finished an arched window with a wedding invitation. As I walked back, it shimmered for the briefest moment, as if a cloud had blown strange moon-shadows before my eyes. I stood still, waiting for another mirage. I was certain of it this time: the window had opened, and in the gap, I'd seen us, beckoning.
I barely slept after that. The words of strangers withered in my hands, and from their ashes, a new life sprung for us. It stirred now. Its buds unfolded in silence, its roots dug wordlessly into the garden, brimming with memories that eyed each other, warily, then learned to merge. Every night, as I walked through the labyrinthine walls, I could feel them watching, with eyes that felt like yours. Then one night, I looked at the words that were still visible on the crumpled paper walls. "Come," they said, every single one of them.
Then the house let me go, like a mother lets go of her child, only to welcome it all the more warmly after it comes back from the wide, wide world.
It's time now. Wake up. It's only me, my darling. They're calling us--we're calling us. Look through the window. This is what I made for you, so you'd never have to be lost. We'll never drift away. All we lived through, all we could have lived, we'll keep forever. They'll keep us forever. Come, put on your slippers, it's a warm night outside. I'll be with you. You don't have anything to fear.
They will never let us forget.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Author Comments

The postman's pebble palace is a real place. It was assembled pebble after pebble between the 1880's and the 1910's by a postman named Ferdinand Cheval, who worked at it on his own between his rounds, and it is still counted among the masterpieces of 20th-century architecture. Cheval wanted to be buried in his palace, but was denied his wish. My story may be more fantastical, but the real story is no less strange.

- CÚcile Cristofari
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