I have spent my life trying to understand what the thing called memory is. I know some of what it is not. It is not the opposite of forgetting. And it is not a record of what happened.
How many summers did we spend at the castle? Five? Seven? We did not go there every summer, though now it seems impossible childhood summers could have existed without the castle.
We always arrived by train. The city was fumes of beer and cigar smoke, the constant din of silverware scraping out from the restaurants, the sweating faces of overdressed citizens mashed inside the trams.
Our motorcar drove past the city morgue. There, important people who died were taken and set up in a great chair, where for days they sat in state. Generals in their uniforms choked with medals, the burgomaster’s wife in jewels and silk. A string, we were told, was tied to a finger. The slightest twitch would ring a bell. When we passed, I would picture my grandfather in there, in that great chair, in his morning coat, his gray hair brilliantined, his striped trousers neatly creased. Trying to move. Trying to be alive, though he was dead.
But our grandfather was not dead. He waited for us at the castle, his silk hat in his hands. As if we were not children, but the most distinguished guests.
Summer began in the rafters of the hay barn, in that first leap down into the hay, when we left our insides in the air and what remained of us plunged into heat and fragrance. We passed, in that moment, through the final membrane—out of the elsewhere spring, into the world of the castle.
No one scolded us at the summer castle. There was no place we could not go, nothing forbidden. Our own fears were the only borders. And so, in that last summer, when we could hear artillery like distant thunder, and sometimes see flashes that were not lightning on the horizon, we did what we had always done: we explored the castle’s secrets. And in that last summer, our borders had widened.
We played tag between the yeasty barrels in the beer cellar, as we had done in years before. But we also explored the castle’s other cellar, reached from a trapdoor in the courtyard. There we pondered a dark hole, shut off by an iron gate. We had been told it was a secret passage leading to a ruined monastery a mile away. We would crouch in the dark behind the pile of old potatoes with their feelers twisting toward the light of the cellar’s only window. We huddled there, ears to that grate, and listened until we could hear the monks chanting, and we ran screaming from the darkness.
We confessed all of our sins to our grandfather over dinners in the great hall, at the long table beneath the antlers ringing the upper walls, the cooing of pigeons who had taken up residence somewhere in the rafters.
He was never angry with us: there were no rules to break. We told him of the grate in the cellar. “Oh yes,” he said, “One of your many uncles tried to crawl down that tunnel, but the air was bad, and he nearly fainted. We put up the grate to prevent others from losing their senses.”
“I heard the monks,” I said.
“I should imagine so.” And he placed another hunk of fish between his teeth.
We went on drives down roads lined by pear trees, into villages where people took their hats off and greeted our grandfather with “Gruss Gott, Herr Professor!” as our car passed.
The village inns were tall. The skittle alleys rumbled inside them, audible even from the road. The pins clattering, the hoarse shouts of unseen men. The maypoles banded blue and white, monuments to something we did not understand.
Did I see, standing in front of an inn, a soldier on crutches who stared at us as we passed, failing to remove his hat? A soldier who said nothing, the empty trouser leg of his uniform neatly rolled and pinned?
I think I did not. I think the thing we call memory added it later.
Our father came to visit, in his uniform. He came three times, as if marking for us the passing of time which otherwise we could not feel. We resented his intrusion, stiff and pale in his tunic of no color. He tried to be kind, but we just wanted him to leave. He was the ticking of a clock, the inevitable end of joy.
“Is this trout from the pond?”
An underground river welled up into a pond near the castle. It was one of the castle’s marvels. Fish surfaced in it white from their time in the darkness, of enormous size, and blind.
The pond was ringed with irises. Its water was cool and dark, its surface roiled with currents. We often watched the farm laborers netting the fish there, standing knee deep in the water and then emerging with their nets full of white, wriggling fish.
The laborers would sit afterwards on the shore, carefully salting the tails of the leeches attached to their legs while the fish struggled and died on the grass.
After dinner our father departed, chauffeured in our grandfather’s car, headed back to the station. He held each of us briefly by the shoulders before we went, telling us to be good.
He was ignorant, of course, to the fact that “goodness” had no place at the castle.
“Why won’t he go and fight, like the other fathers?” we asked, as the car drove him away.
“He was one of the first to go,” our grandfather said. “And now he needs his rest. Perhaps one day he will be ready to go and fight again.”
Was it in that last summer that our grandfather showed us the chest? It may have been in another visit, but the thing called memory writes the scene as if it occurred in that final year. We stood in that whitewashed room at the top of the keep—a room with no windows, only arrow-slits. Outside, the sound of the guns rolling over the plains. Almost not a sound at all—just a vibration in the blood. Warm air and the smell of cut grass through the arrow-slits. The chest was of iron. It was twice as large as the door. It must have been made in that room. When was it made, we asked? In the twelfth century.
Our grandfather had one key, and his steward had the other. Tradition said the chest was never to be opened unless the castle was in great danger.
But what was inside? Our grandfather smiled. “Not even I can know.”
We dreamed of gold, of Greek fire, of a magical clockwork knight. We decided it was unlucky to speculate. We dreamed we heard sounds coming from the chest. We stalked the steward in the courtyard, searching for where he might hide the key. We cooked up plots to open it, and were appalled by the thought.
Summer went on: Rye bread, pine honey, ice cream puddings of raspberry juice, chilled by the snow stored in the icehouse.
And the anger of the guns increasing in the night. We stuffed cotton in our ears to sleep and were ashamed of being afraid. Then one night, they grew so loud we could not sleep at all. They did not seem closer, just more furious. We stood at the window and watched the horizon shudder in ripples of fire, the stars faded to nothing in contrast.
We were walking in the field when we saw the commotion: a group of farm laborers running. We ran after them, to the pond. There, on the shore, were dozens of pale, twitching bodies. Bodies the color of snow under winter pines, their eyes white-blind in an alien sun.
Fish nearly the size of men. The laborers danced and whooped in excitement. We could barely understand their dialect, but there was talk of smoking, of pickling, of feasts. One of them untangled a fish from the net and gutted it with his thumb. They tore great hunks from it, passing it around, eating it raw.
That evening our father arrived late. We were hungry, plunging our forks into the fish-flesh on our plates. The ribs lay open like two hands raised toward the hall’s antlers, shuddering above us in candle-shadow.
We ate with gusto, rudely, pretending we were tearing hunks of meat from the fish right there under the sun, straight from its cold, deep source. We grinned at one another with greasy mouths. We had hesitated, in the field, to join in the feast. Now we made up for our hesitation, aping the way they had torn into the beast netted on the grass. Eating with our hands, barbaric and unnoticed, while our father and grandfather talked.
“Your own factories contributing, of course.”
“The finest standards of quality.”
“But a bad shell fell short among my old company, I heard. Killed the last veteran who fought with me.”
“Not one of ours.”
“And I wonder, sometimes, what an army is. I had thought it was a thing one joined to fight. But it seems to be a place of passing-through. We compose it, for a time, but it is so much larger than us. The company—two hundred men? No. Just two hundred places into which men shift. Two hundred slots into which they are fitted. Thousands and thousands of men, over the centuries of a company’s existence. Materiel. So much materiel, replaced when broken. And we know it. We even call the new ones replacements—as if they were only struts, or wheels. Not men.”
“Not one of ours, I am sure. That shell. The highest standards.”
“And where was I, when it happened? When the last man who served in the company with me died? Was I with him? No. I was on horseback, in a field. Recovering. I can still feel the path where the bullet went through me. But I am well enough to go and do my part. I may no longer want to kill, but I can, at least, make it a bit better for the men. Do my best—for them.”
“Your body may be ready, but not your nerves.”
“Oh, but none of the officers’ nerves are good. They never were. We were all held together by rum and irony. That’s what courage is really made of, you know.”
“Do you have any medals, Papa?”
I do not remember which of us asked it. It could have been any of us.
“I got one for courage, child, the day your mother died. They pinned it on me at her deathbed. They have pinned other things to me since, but I will throw them in the sea.”
“Enough,” our grandfather said. “Let’s get you back before the last train leaves.”
“Can we see them, before you throw them in the sea?”
“No, dearest ones. No one can see the medals. It is the medals who see us. They look right into our hearts, and know how brave we really are.”
That was the first time we saw our grandfather touch our father. He put a hand on papa’s head. He stroked his hair like a child, leaving the hand at the nape of his neck.
“Enough, my boy. You will miss your train.”
Was it that night we decided to break into the chest? The thing called memory has made it seem as if it were that very night, but I believe it was a month later, when August had already come.
August, when true evening thunder blended at times with the relentless guns, and the sky often answered the fire on the ground with its own.
We crept up the stairs in the dark. We brought a candle with us, and a stolen horde of hairpins.
We had practiced the art of lifting tumblers, finally managing to open an old padlock in one of the outbuildings. We were certain of our success, and horrified by the thought of it. We would lift the great chest’s lid. We would finally see what was inside. That was inevitable. And we would be destroyed by the sight. That was also inevitable.
But that destruction, in the logic of children, was no deterrent. Discovery was greater than death, and death was nothing more than a temporary change of state from which you returned again, good as new.
For most of the night we attacked the heavy, unmoving tumblers with trembling fingers, until finally the candle was a blob of oil and wax, the stub of wick floating in it like a life raft on fire.
In the darkness that followed its sinking, we all heard it. Something shifted in the trunk, like a sleeper turning on their side. We fled.
We were throwing stones into the pond when the soldiers came through. They did not come up the road, but cut directly through the fields.
There were hundreds of them. They were nothing like the soldiers in our minds. There was no officer on horseback, buttons gleaming, to lead them. They did not wear what one could call uniforms. They were clothed in misshapen rags, their feet wrapped from the knee down not in puttees but in what looked like bandages, terminating in sodden masses that would not resolve into feet. They wore blankets wrapped around them that blurred their bent outlines. Some had no helmets: their heads were wrapped, like their legs, in winding cloth.
But there was one thing about them that was uniform: the paleness of them. They were covered, from head to foot, in chalk dust. It was as if they had come from a flour mill. The colorlessness of them made them all the same, and blended them into a mass that still walks through my mind at times, nearly silent except for the creak of leather and the clank of tin. At its straggling pallid tail were several men being led. They held on to a rope, their eyes wound with bandages.
We stood, watching them pass. And we might have thought they were ghosts if it were not for the stench of them: a stink of unwashed men and their sodden, unwashed clothing, of earth and rot.
For some time, the thing called memory created a moment where one of them turned, and saw us. But I know this is false. They went past and never raised their heads. I think none of them ever knew we were there. I remember all of the grasshoppers in the field went silent as the soldiers came through, then suddenly sang again, the moment the last man disappeared into the trees.
The thing called memory would like to insert feelings that were not there. It wants to create a moment at which we understood what was happening. A feeling of revelation that caused the entire summer to cohere. More than anything, it wants to condense all of this season into a single feeling.
But I do not believe its alterations. We felt many things. And above all, while the world twisted in agony just over the horizon, we were happy. We flung ourselves into the air from the hayloft and chased one another around the cellar barrels. We shuddered at the thought of the thing in the secret medieval chest and enjoyed that fear. We snuck away to the crumbling walls of the monastery to find, if we could, the other end of the secret tunnel—but there was just quiet stone, open to the sky, spattered with bird shit.
We were happy in the Summer Castle. We feared many things there, but that fear was a part of happiness—blended with it in a world where nothing yet had consequence. Only later would the season become a symbol to haunt us.
Coherence is a construct, never occurring in the moment. A moving river cannot reflect clearly. So it is with the motion of life: Only in later stillness do we see the shapes of things thrown out upon the surface. The inverted, clutching fingers of the trees. The enormity of sky.
September came, and our father with it. By that time, the bloated, blind fish being dragged from the pond had become a daily occurrence. We went in the morning to watch it. They rose, helpless, from their depths into an alien world. The laborers were already there to net them and drag them from the water where they drowned, unseeing, on the grass. The laborers took them off in barrels, loaded them on carts. The first few days there had been joy in it. Now it had become routine, executed with a lazy efficiency.
They would be sold fresh, or pickled, or smoked, or canned. They would be made use of. They had gone from being something miraculous to merely being a resource.
“I can’t eat it, knowing where it comes from.”
“The flesh is good. It is some of the best trout we’ve ever had. An exceptional season. And we know where it comes from. The limestone here is riddled with caves, and the rivers disappear everywhere into them, only to . . .”
Our father laid his silverware down. “Not that. All of it. All of . . . this. This medieval fantasy world. I know where it comes from. In the town, our factories darken the sky. While over there . . .”
He gestured toward the great hall’s fireplace, but we all saw where he was pointing. The fields, and beyond the fields, beyond the pleasant woods, the pear trees of the village roads, to where the earth was torn and shattered.
And we could hear, the thing called memory insists, the creak of leather and the clank of tin.
Did I see, standing in front of an inn, a soldier on crutches who stared at us as we passed, failing to remove his hat? A soldier who said nothing, the empty trouser leg of his uniform neatly rolled and pinned?
Our father’s hand shook. So white, and fragile. The blue veins in it, the delicate wrist jutting from the uniform cuff. Pointing, accusing . . . and then dropping to his lap.
“I’ve been discharged.”
“Yes,” our grandfather said. “And you have earned it. A noble wound, gotten bravely in service.”
“No. That wound healed. It is my nerves that will not.”
Our grandfather wiped his mustaches carefully.
“And that is another noble wound, gotten bravely in service.”
“I’ll . . . I’ll take a walk. And once I’m back it will be time to go. Children? Pack your things.”
After our father had left the room, there was silence. We felt something hanging in the air. People use that metaphor without thinking of what it means, but I use it purposefully here: We felt something hanging above us in the air. Something in the rafters, above the blossoming angles of antler bone. Hanging.
Our grandfather broke the silence. “I have something I would like to show you, children. Come with me.”
We knew it would be the chest. The castle was under threat. Now, finally, we would see what was inside.
We followed him down hallways filled with the slant of summer evening light. Here, crossed swords on a wall, thinly coated with dust. Here, a tapestry of men at joust. We mounted the staircase, glancing at one another in joy and terror. Now. Now we would know what was inside the chest. Now.
But then he turned off, to another door. A door we had crept past without even noticing it was there. A door so obscure that later we would suspect it had not been there at all. Not until that moment.
Our grandfather opened the door with a key from an iron ring. On it were so many other keys. And one of them, of course, to the trunk.
In the room, light barred down through one narrow, stained-glass window. It was a small room, filled with swimming dust. A table in the center held nothing but a wine glass. We gathered near it. An unexceptional thing, of crystal, but no different than others we had seen.
Our grandfather cleared his throat.
“Your uncle’s father found the glass. He fought in the Franco-Prussian war. He was separated from his cavalry unit, and half-unconscious. His horse bolted. When he awoke, he found himself in the middle of a village. The village had been bombarded, and burned to the ground. This glass was the only thing intact. It was standing upright, in the middle of the square. He took it and placed it here. You see . . .”
Here he faltered. At the time, we thought he was choking from the dust. Adults did not have feelings like children did. Our father sometimes had feelings, it was true. But he had not had them before the war. The feelings he had now flowed from him like blood, we understood, gushing from a saber cut. When the cut was healed, the feelings would stop.
Our grandfather continued. “You see, your father has been hurt. Many have been hurt. But something of beauty will always survive in the world. Always.”
This scene has a stillness to it, a clarity—as if it were the lesson, and we had learned it in that moment. But that is not true. We learned nothing in that room, where dust-motes writhed in the colored beams of dying summer. We shifted from foot to foot, staring at his keys.
Finally, one of us was brave enough to ask it. “But Grandfather . . . what is in the chest? The chest that cannot be opened unless the castle is threatened?”
“The one you tried to open?”
We glanced at one another in guilt. But our grandfather just smiled, and walked out of the room.
When we came out to the portico, there was a commotion. No, that is not true: there was a scene there which was, clearly, the scene after a commotion. Two of the farm laborers were holding my father by the arms—as if restraining him, or supporting him. We could not say which. His tunic was torn, his hair in rare disarray. And he was wet—soaked to mid-thigh above his riding boots.
There were other laborers and servants there—half the staff of the castle. The steward and our grandfather talked, just out of range.
Our father shifted away from the men who were holding, or supporting, him, and came over to us.
“Come, children. It is time for us to go.”
Our grandfather broke from the steward. He held each of us at arm’s length, examining us, the way he always did when saying goodbye—as if looking to see whether we were intact.
Later we would remember him having held us for a few moments longer than usual, but I do not think he did. Then he did the same to our father, and said something to him we could not hear. But all of us heard our father’s response.
“It was nothing. Just a moment of weakness. I wanted to be with my men, that’s all. I wanted to find a way back to them.”
In the car, as we drove away from the castle, we did not know it had been our last summer there. But the whole scene is saturated with the tone of goodbye, as if the colors had begun, already, to fade. As if, when our grandfather lowered his hand and turned to enter the great front doors, he was walking directly into his grave.
Not so, of course. Though we did not see him again, he would live for years. He would write us letters on holidays, describing harvests and cycles that outlasted the war.
But this, I know, is true: As we passed the morgue I saw through its walls. I saw through them, as if through the thick glass of an aquarium. And like an aquarium, the morgue was filled with water, all the way to the top, green and drifting with water weeds.
There, in that underwater forest, in that great chair, in his morning coat, his gray hair drifting slightly, but his striped trousers neatly creased, was our grandfather. The slight motion of the water made it seem he was alive, but I knew he was dead.
One of us said, “Father, we have to know. What is in the chest?”
Our father, who had been looking out the other window, silently, passed his eyes over us, and smiled.
“I suppose your grandfather took you to the little room, and showed you the stained-glass window, made from a wine glass he found shattered in a village his artillery bombarded during the Franco-Prussian war? And told you the story about how sometimes, when things seem broken, they can still be repaired? Made whole again, or even into a greater work of art?”
“He took us to a room,” I said. I had to speak, to clear what I had seen from my head. To come back to the world. “But he didn’t show us a window. He showed us a wine glass. He said our great uncle had found it, unbroken, in a French village. Just standing there in the middle of the square.”
The expression on our father’s face did not change. “Well, child, I suppose both things can be true. Or one. Or neither.”
I would not be deterred by riddles. “But what is in the chest?”
We had come to the station now, and the car was being unloaded. The crowd sweated in their clothes, too heavy for a warm September summer evening. Pale faces said goodbyes. Sweating, flushed faces loaded and shouted.
“What you must understand about this family,” our father said, leaning down and straightening the clothes of each of us in turn, “is that we are the type of family that will never open the chest. And so we are the type of family that will never know what is inside.”
“But we did try to open it, Papa. We tried our hardest.”
He wiped a smudge of something from my face. “No, child. You did not. But you thought you did. And that is important, too.”
I knew, then, that our father would survive his wound. He would live.
I have spent my life trying to understand what memory is. Still I am uncertain.
What is this thing that killed my grandfather years before his true death? That made our leaving that day seem final, though at the time it was nothing but the end of another summer? What is this force that shifts our experiences around to fit its schemes, changes what we felt, manipulates the order of the scenes?
We are unable to recall the true shapes of our lives, because the thing called memory is forever altering them. How is it that we live with it inside our skulls without succumbing to terror? What can be more awful than the fact we are helpless against the memory’s machinations, its rewriting of what was? What should disturb our sleep more than the fact we can never know what, of our past, was real?
Yet a part of me believes we have nothing to fear at all. Perhaps memory is nothing more than the mechanism that fulfills our desire to be whole. Our desire for a world that makes sense. The true world—the objective world—is indifferent to us. I think that indifference is the real terror we fight against. In order for the world to have meaning, something must shift the past around to suit our present and our hopes for the future. Something must make the seasons of our lives cohere.
Memory made the train come, right at that moment, and all of us rushed to get on it.
Spread the word!