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art by Agata Maciagowska

So Far Faithful

Sarah Kanning is currently migrating from Lawrence, Kansas to Portland, Oregon, lured by cooler temperatures, excellent craft brews, and the vortex of geekiness that is the Pacific Northwest. Her work has also appeared in Strange Horizons, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (an anthology edited by Brit Mandelo), and the Crimson Pact anthologies (edited by Paul Genesse). Find her online at sarahkanning.com.

I walked to the patch of bare earth at the edge of the grounds and began the slow, fluid movements of the Yang long form, my body remembering its one hundred and eight precise actions, each flowing into the next. The full cycle takes nearly twenty minutes. I have no recollection of where or how I learned them; that memory is lost, probably forever, but the movements are there, distilled into my muscles, grounding and calming me with their eternal flow of form and emptiness, echoing the blue-black ocean crashing into the tumbled seawall far below.
The view is good, even seen through a twelve-foot fence. "Overkill for a rest home," I explained to the rocks and spray below, "even a rest home for incorrigibles like me."
"Aggrandizing self-talk, Mina: minus two points. New sanity score: fifteen." The voice came from a squat steel cube that crouched on its miniature tank treads two yards from my feet.
Damn, I hadn't realized that I'd spoken that last part aloud. Now I'd have to spend the afternoon acting reasonable to avoid being confined to quarters for dinner by my robotic nanny.
The thing looked like nothing so much as a benevolently sentient laundry hamper. Japanese, of course. Its brand name, which I only remember because I can read it on the side of the device, is Cheerful Friend; they use them here to keep an eye on their more troublesome patients.
Yes, I am troublesome, apparently. My captors say that I was a member of a cell of political dissidents who tried and failed to overthrow the government. That was in 2033-forty years ago. They say that when I was captured, certain triggers embedded deep in my psyche broke crucial connections in my memory, making me unable to betray my friends to the enemy, no matter what methods they used, brutal or subtle, to compel me.
The blocks aren't complete; I can still recall my childhood in almost perfect detail, and college in bits and pieces, but I have no memories at all of the next seven years after that. It's as though someone forgot to press RECORD in my head. I've been shown pictures of myself laughing, or smoking, or waiting at a stoplight in a car. I don't remember ever smoking. I wonder if some of the photos are doctored. They may as well be stills from a movie scene, with the rest of the cast as much strangers to me as I am to myself.
The block was thought to be irreversible, though they tried like hell to reverse it in the early years of my incarceration. Now, forty years on, I'm developing symptoms of dementia, so my current doctor-captor has taken an interest in me. He hopes the disease will dislodge my repressed memories, but so far it doesn't look good for him. It's more likely that the disease will progress until his pink, piggy face is the only one I recognize, the only one I remember. I may even forget that I loathe him.
But there's no need to dwell on that while I'm lucid, and when I'm not lucid, I can't dwell on anything.
I bowed to the sea below me and a word fluttered just out of my reach, the word people say to each other at the end of tai chi practice. I told myself it will come to me later, then went to find my friend Craig and earn back some points.
Craig was kneeling next to a long row of plants in the garden, wiping his seamed brow with the back of one grimy gardening glove. His thatch of short white hair bristled. A trowel dangled from his other hand, and gardening implements were piled in the basket attached to his walker.
"Namaste," I said, feeling ridiculously pleased at remembering the word at last. Then, "Need any help?"
He squinted up at me. "Can you tell a weed from a pepper plant?"
"You're hired." He nodded down the next row, where shoots of grass and dandelions were rioting in amongst the peppers. My robot nanny delivered a trowel to me with a click and whir of approval--or at least a recalculated sanity score. Soon I had dirt under my nails and a small pile of uprooted weeds beside me.
"So how are you doing these days, Craig?" I finally asked, after I'd weeded for a few feet.
"All right." His voice was guarded, his gaze flickering over to my impassive unit. His sat at the other end of the row, and a human orderly was lounging on a park bench nearby. Humans, robots, or both, they were always there, always listening. If you aren't crazy when you first get here, they'll fix that, we say-when we're willing to risk the demerits by saying it aloud.
Craig had gotten close scrutiny from our monitors lately because of the incident in the dining hall. One of the orderlies had gotten too close to him and was suddenly airborne, crashing into a table. Sweet, docile Craig, a white-haired octogenarian, was bellowing like a bull, raging, swinging his walker around like a weapon. I saw his nanny bot jab him with a needle, then felt a sting on my own thigh and sank into whiteness. I might have thought it was a dream except that since then, the staff gives Craig a wide berth, relying on the machines to wrangle him. I wanted to ask him why he'd done it, but there was no way to do it without getting docked points-and he didn't have the points to spare.
So I kept the conversation carefully neutral. "I hear there's apple pie tonight," I said.
"Yeah? That's good. Worth going to dinner for that."
"I'll save you a seat, if you like."
We finished up our rows and gave the tools back to our keepers. "Three points each: socializing and occupational therapy." We both laughed, embarrassed. At least they didn't announce your sanity score when other inmates were in earshot; it was thought to be unnecessarily humiliating. In old folks' homes, there are more than enough necessary humiliations to go around.
I went back to my room. It is depressing in its blandness. Like everything else here, it's designed to prevent mishaps. The window blinds have breakaway cords, there isn't so much as a letter opener in the desk drawer, and all sharp edges on the furniture have been smoothed away. The bed sheets are disposable and designed to tear like tissue paper under a load of more than five or ten pounds. Even if I didn't have my own nanny bot following me every waking moment-and crouching on its base in my room as I sleep, recharging but still watchful, like a napping housecat-I am always in full view of at least one security camera, and human attendants are only thirty to sixty seconds away at all times.
"Meds," the robot announced, and I dutifully shuffled to the sink, got a glass of water, and swallowed the handful of pills the robot spat out onto a little tray for me. It made me think of baby birds accepting regurgitated meals from their mother. I stifled a laugh; the robots did not understand humor and viewed it with suspicion. I would say this makes them less than sentient, but the human orderlies here don't understand humor, either.
I didn't have to stay in my tediously safe room very long, because the robot stirred, said, "Time to see Dr. Mills," and trundled out the door on its little treads, leaving me to follow in its wake.
When the weather's good, the doctor likes to meet me on the facility grounds, where two park benches sit facing one another. I brought my notebook with me so I wouldn't have to look at the way his jowly, florid cheeks push his blue eyes into narrow slits behind small wire-rimmed spectacles, or the perspiration darkening his pale hair. Instead I looked at my notebook, or the ground, or the green golf shirt stretched tight over his pot belly. After inquiring about my health, he got right down to business.
"Mina, can you tell me the name of your college roommate?"
I drew a rough cartoon, a blank circle for a head with two curved lines to indicate a neck and shoulders. "Which one? I had three."
"The first one."
I shaded in the featureless head and tried to dredge up a name. "She always made me think of Anne of Green Gables. Earnest like that. And-there's a smell of cinnamon. Maybe she was a redhead?"
He leaned forward expectantly. A single blond chest hair peeked out of his open collar. "Was she in the student protest group?"
I laughed. "I have no idea. I think she liked white wine spritzers." My memories are solid from childhood through high school, Swiss cheese from there through my junior year, and a blank wall after that.
"Fine. When was the attack supposed to happen?"
"I don't know," I said. I set the notebook aside and brushed a speck of dirt off my loose white cotton smock. Funny that they dressed the patients more like doctors than the doctors in this place. "I don't even know if there was supposed to be an attack."
"What day of the week?" he pressed.
"I don't know." I picked up my stubby felt-tip again and rapped it, hard, on the pad.
"What about the time? Sunrise? Dusk? Midnight?" The urgency in his voice made me look up. A fine mist of perspiration gleamed on his upper lip.
I squeezed the felt-tip tightly in my hand. "I. Don't. Know." It was an effort to keep my voice level and calm. If I wasn't calm, though, my Cheerful Friend might roll in and tranquilize me, just to be on the safe side.
"But you can see a picture in your mind," he said. "Just a flicker, maybe, or an impression. Like your roommate and the smell of cinnamon."
"No," I said. "There's nothing." It was nearly true. There might have been something, but I wasn't sure what it was, and I wasn't about to tell him about it. "I am physically incapable of remembering," I said, stressing each syllable. "You know that. Why bother with all this?"
He shrugged. The arrogant smirk under his stubby nose made him look more like a pig than ever. "We're getting further. The drugs are helping. You will remember."
"It's been forty years--look at me!" I hold out my arms as evidence, the flesh on them wasted, the skin flabby. For some reason, this makes the doctor chuckle. "What does it matter? Why don't you leave me alone?"
"People want the truth. Don't you think they deserve it? You could be vindicated--"
"Or condemned--"
"Which already happened a long time ago." He leaned back against the park bench and draped an arm casually over the back of it.
"All the more reason to keep my mouth shut," I said. "And my mind." I remembered the arrest and my holding cell, but not a trial, or prison, or being transferred to this place, although they showed me documents, photographs, recordings.
He waved away the idea like an irritating insect. "They're all dead, Mina. All those people you're still trying to protect forty years later. Dead, or in places like this with holes cut out of their memories, waiting to die. You can't save them or help them. You don't need to protect them anymore."
I began drawing in a brick wall behind the blank-faced person on my notepad. "And you don't need my confession any more. So why bother?"
"You know there are the medical ramifications to consider." He leaned forward again and his face took on a kindly, paternal look, though he was at least fifteen years younger than I. "Others want to remember, and can't. You can help many more who struggle with all kinds of psychological trauma. And a breakthrough could improve your care here."
I snorted. "I am an old woman. I have grown old in your care, if you want to call it that. Let somebody else help the amnesiacs and trauma victims. Let the dead bury their own dead." As I spoke, I saw something slip out of his pocket and drop soundlessly onto the grass. A pen. A real one, a ballpoint with a metal barrel, not the felt-tips they issue patients here.
"You aren't dead yet, Mina."
"No, I suppose not." Who knew for sure? This place has all the marks of a highly personal purgatory, a place to expiate one's sins, and my memory loss leaves me unmoored in time, vulnerable. I sometimes look down and see my body as a corpse, or devoured by extreme age, my arms and legs sticks. Sometimes in dreams I am thirty, the age I was when they took me, with nothing more than a scattering of gray in my hair as harbingers.
I can tell they are dreams because the doctor is there and utterly unchanged by any passage of time. He is always in his fifties, the age he is now, slightly gone to seed, the perfect age of paternal authority. Only I am different, young again, the muscle restored to my hands and arms. I can never see my own face-there are no mirrors anywhere here, awake or dreaming-but my breathing is easy and painless, and the dozen small aches and twinges of age are gone.
Sometimes I dream I am back in the cell where they questioned me after I was first captured. I remember the walls painted white, the fluorescent lights buzzing twenty-four hours a day. The lights were hung ten feet up with protective grilles bolted on so I couldn't smash them.
I watched the pen fall from the doctor's pocket onto the grass, and remembered a dream I'd had the night before. I was strapped down in the white room. They forced open my jaws to accept a rigid plastic mouthpiece that scraped my gums as the doctor shoved it in.
There was a paste smeared in it, bitter herbs mixed with the coppery taste of my own blood. I wanted to gag, but was flat on my back, and the mouthpiece had straps which an orderly secured around my head, so I breathed and tried to stay calm instead. I could twist my head a bare inch to the left, and saw foamy green flecks of drool hit the pillow.
And then... time, and time, and time out of mind.
Give me back my withered flesh, my sparse white hair. I don't want this burden of memory. Give me 2073, not 2033.
Inside this dream I can remember. Waiting, walking, the night streets shining with rain. My palms are hot. Am I waiting for my lover to call? For the signal to post my report? For the right time to press a detonator switch? The street is empty because it's ten minutes before curfew. I have something someone wants. There's to be an exchange.
My gait is a young woman's, my stride confident. My bones are strong; I won't lose my balance, and even if I fell I wouldn't shatter a hip. If the shops weren't all closed I'd buy a coffee and a newspaper, maybe cigarettes to keep me company. No, I never was much of a smoker, but a little light and heat would be welcome here on the midnight pavement.
Someone is coming. If I had a cigarette, I would stub it out now. I will not look at my contact's face, or even notice whether it is a man or woman; safer that way for both of us.
Agitation surrounds me suddenly, buzzing in the air like angry insects. A gloved hand reaches out to take what I have come to offer.
Then I fall through time again, back to the park, trying not to stare at a simple ballpoint pen lying among the grass blades.
The doctor fidgeted on his park bench. "You're doing great, Mina. I think you're making real progress." I could still taste the bitter herbs in my mouth.
"Salvia," I said.
"What?" His eyeglasses flashed in the sunlight.
"I have a taste in my mouth. Right now. It's salvia."
"Interesting." He made a note in my chart--redundant, since the robot captured and transcribed every word we uttered. "Did you take salvia often when you were younger?"
"Oh, no. I--" but I had to stop there, because I didn't know how I knew the taste of salvia.
He patted my arm, smiling at me and my skinny, sexless body.
"You'll remember sometime." He smiled his most unctuous smile, and left.
You know, I don't believe I will. I managed to refrain from saying it aloud; in the robot's constant presence, I might as well whisper in the doctor's ear. I had to be very careful. There were dandelions, weeds growing right up by the bench where the doctor had been sitting, brave things in this sanitized, regulated place. I picked a few for my room, scooping up the pen at the same time, I hoped unobserved. Just an ordinary ballpoint, but it was heavy in my hand. Dangerous. It could make so much possible.
Sometimes I dream I'm young again and so is everyone else. Craig is shuffling around in his bathrobe and slippers, still hunched over and pushing his walker, but his forearms are the size of my calves and he's two inches taller and only forty years old, not eighty. I want to shout, "You're young!" but I know I mustn't, the robots are still here, and they never change, never stop listening, watching.
Lately I haven't been able to tell waking from dreaming. The states overlap and intersperse, a symptom of my dementia, they say. My young hand grasps the edge of the bench while I talk to the doctor, but I feel the weight of years bending my back.
"You can return, in your mind," the doctor has told me. "You can be that young woman again and remember. Remember your friends, your lovers, your plans and dreams. You can have it all back."
It's the drugs that will provide this miracle. And I can see that they will work, eventually. I have already caught glimpses of faces, the angle of a jaw, remembered a single word. It is starting to come back.
That's why now, tonight, I have to commit this most antisocial of acts. I finger the doctor's shiny ballpoint.
I have gotten an idea as I have flitted back and forth between 2033 and 2073, dreaming and waking, as my flesh has sloughed and reformed like soil enriched and eroded by the flooding of the Nile. I have gotten the notion that it may be 2073, or it may actually be 2033. Maybe my friends are still alive and endangered by my returning memories. What better way to bypass the blocks in my memory than to bore holes through them with drugs and convince me that it's all irrelevant now anyway, nothing to save, nothing to protect, just the rambling recollections of an old woman?
Since there is no way for me to know for sure whether it's 2073 or 2033, I'm afraid I won't be able to provide the doctor with the footnotes to history he so desires--especially since I'm not entirely sure whether my history has actually played out yet.
Although my memory is confused, I know, and do not know how I know, the precise angle and amount of force needed for a single strike to my own inner thigh: the femoral artery. Then a second strike to the throat: the trachea. I have this one chance, the pen, this one weapon left to me.
My arm muscle twitches. I will know what to do.
To my unrecollected revolutionaries, loves, and friends: Adieu. I remain yours, so far faithful.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 14th, 2012

Author Comments

This story was inspired by fear. I had been taking care of an elderly relative--who had a sharper mind than mine, most days--and I was thinking about her peers, some of whom had lost vast swathes of their memories to dementia. What was that like? Caretakers could seem menacing if you don't remember who they are, and waking up every morning in some strange institutional setting where every move is limited and observed would be downright terrifying. Without the ground of memory, what could you trust? How would you make a really important, possibly life-and-death decision without access to your memories, without even the ability to trust the evidence of your own senses? That's what Mina must do in "So Far Faithful."

- Sarah Kanning
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