Before I became the Keeper of Secrets, before I even knew that the Keepers were real, or that I would one day join them, my mother would tell me stories about these women. These were old family fairy tales: there was the Keeper of Light, the Keeper of Gates, the Keeper of Promises – on and on and on. Keepers of everything.
My mother was distant, lost. When she told me anything, I turned it over and over in my mind, clinging to her words with the ferocity of a frightened child. I knew if I let go something terrible would happen. I remember one particularly frigid morning, when the rain turned to ice as it landed so that the window was glazed like a frozen pond. We were in the kitchen. She said, “If it always looked like this, I would stay forever –“
What does that even mean? Stay where forever? On the earth? In our house? In my life? I was afraid to ask.
She was loopy that way, always saying things like that – loosey-goosey, my aunts said. But when she told me the Keeper stories, she came back to life. I loved the stories because she would pull me onto her lap, even when I got too big for that, and her eyes would clear up and her voice would emerge from the cocoon she kept it in. I used to beg to hear them – but I wasn’t pleading for the stories, you know. I was asking for her.
The story she liked the best? That would be the Keeper of Memories and Forgetting. Of course.
A Fairy Tale
The Keeper of Memories and Forgetting lives in the middle of the woods, hidden in her little cabin among the trees. Even in the middle of the day, with the sun directly overhead, the forest is dark as night. You’d only get to the Keeper of Memories and Forgetting if you knew where to find her, or if you were very, very lost.
One day, a girl from the town bordering the forest set out to find the Keeper. All the townspeople knew of the Keeper of Memories and Forgetting, but they didn’t much like to see her, for though she was useful, she was very ugly. When people returned from seeing her, they would wander for days through town, looking lost and faded. They all spoke well of the Keeper, and said she was very kind, but they never were the same after seeing her.
Still, the townspeople knew that there were some things in life worth forgetting. And they knew that this girl needed to see the Keeper.
She was not really a girl – she was a young woman of about sixteen. In earlier years of her life, she had appeared much older than she was, but now she seemed very young.
Encouraged by the town, the girl set off into the woods. As she walked, the forest grew darker and darker, just as the townspeople had told her it would. She did not grow frightened; or, rather, she was always frightened, so she did not grow more frightened. She thought only of the Keeper, as the townspeople had told her to. Soon enough, she reached the cabin.
At this point, though it was still dark, darker than any night the girl had ever seen before, she found that she could somehow see. From out of the cabin came a woman, just a shape. The girl could not see her face and a new kind of fear suddenly came crackling up in her throat.
When the Keeper spoke, her voice was sweet as licorice tea. “My dear,” she said.
The fire in the girl’s throat eased. “Are you the Keeper?” she asked. “I need you to take a memory.”
“Yes,” said the Keeper. “Come in.”
The girl followed her in. A lamp burned brightly in the corner and the girl winced, squinting in the sudden light. The cabin was one room, with golden logs for walls. There was a rocking chair in the corner and a single bed with intricate vines and flowers carved into the headboard. Everywhere she looked was wood.
Hesitantly, the girl turned to face the Keeper. She tried to prepare herself for the ugliness she’d heard of, but when she finally came face to face with her, she found only a very old woman. The Keeper’s face was weathered and lined, wrinkles circling like the rings of a tree. It was not a face like any human’s that the girl had seen, but neither was it the monstrous countenance she’d imagined.
“I’m not nearly as ugly as they say,” the Keeper said. Her eyes twinkled.
The girl smiled shyly.
“Now,” said the Keeper, moving to sit in her rocking chair, “I must warn you about the removal of memories.” She motioned to the bed. The girl perched tentatively on the edge of the quilt. “It’s very painful. Removing a memory is not like taking off a sweater. To take away a memory is to take away a part of you, a part of your soul. It will make you half a person.”
The girl swallowed hard, but the embers in her throat didn’t flare up and so she nodded.
“And your body will sometimes go searching for the memory. Like losing a limb – even with the memory itself gone, you’ll have phantom pains. Removal of memories is not to be taken lightly. So you must be absolutely sure.”
“I’m sure,” said the girl.
“Very well,” said the Keeper. “Then we’ll begin in the morning.”
The girl slept that night in the Keeper’s bed and the Keeper slept in her rocking chair and when they awoke it was dark as ever, but the girl rose with the Keeper and they went out of the cabin, into the nest of trees.
The Keeper placed a jar on the ground. “Open your mouth,” she told the girl.
For the first time, the girl felt a wave of distrust. “The memories are in my head,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be better to go through the ear?”
The Keeper moved closer to the girl. “Memories only begin in your head,” she said. “But they settle quickly. They’re in your center now.” She reached out and tilted the girl’s head back. “Open your mouth.”
The girl did as she was told.
“Are you ready?” asked the Keeper.
And the girl was afraid, but she was more afraid of the memories she carried, the way they ate away at her insides and split open her heart. “Yes,” she said.
The Keeper twisted her fingers together until her hand looked like a misshapen claw and then she plunged her claw into the girl’s mouth and down her throat.
The girl felt this time not the fire she’d grown accustomed to, but a great sea, rising in her. She tried to cry out but she couldn’t speak and the sea was rising and rising and soon she would drown – and then the Keeper pulled out of her mouth a ghostly, twisting mist, which, as it settled became the shape of the man the girl had loved, the married man, and he held their baby, the dead baby that belonged to both of them, and the figures solidified and they looked so real that the girl did cry out, with a great aching in her heart. She reached out to touch them – but as soon as her fingers entered the mist, the world grew icy and cold and dark, darker than ever before and the girl could not see, she could not hear, and she collapsed into the blackness.
When the girl awoke, she was again in the Keeper’s bed. It was dark still, but now her eyes were working. She could not speak.
“Drink this,” said the Keeper, placing a steaming mug in her hand.
The girl opened her mouth and drank. The tea was hot and sweet and she felt it in her throat and in her belly.
“You must go now,” said the Keeper gently.
The girl returned to her town. For months after, she spoke only in one-word sentences and when people spoke to her she looked at them blankly. In time she learned again to laugh, but she always seemed a little lost and though the townspeople were kind to her, she felt nothing. Still, life went on, and the girl grew into a woman and her heart never cried and her throat never burned and she lived for a very long time, alone in her old family home.
We – this family – are used to missing things we can’t remember having.
If every morning was like this – is something my mother never would’ve said. The truth: silence. We filled mornings with crunching granola and clinking spoons.
I went on to become the Keeper of Secrets, yes. That’s another story. But here’s what I learned from my mother and my grandmother and all the stoic, silent women in my family: We are the keepers of our own hearts.
Audie Shushan lives in Chicago, IL, where she teaches English for the City Colleges. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the University of Washington, where she won the 2014 Eugene Van Buren Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from MAKE magazine, Sun Star Review, and Luna Station Quarterly, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a 2017 Chicago Luminarts Fellow.
Artwork: Natalia Drepina