by Jennifer Skogen
The old woman walks through the Forest, having gathered her memories for the cleansing bonfire. They are simple to carry; she has practice choosing the ones that will burn easily. The mid-life memories are light in her arms and will take to the flame like moths’ wings. It is the childhood memories that are more difficult to burn.
There’s one she's been trying to burn for years that just won't catch: that time she held her little sister's head underwater in the pool just because she could. It's the look in her sister's eyes when she finally let go, when Nina came up sputtering and choking. That look is what she's been trying to burn for decades now, but it only chars and smolders until the stench of the memory fills up the clearing and she must leave, taking the half-burned memory with her. She hopes that the disposable memories from her mid-thirties to late forties–that long exhale of years–might help the difficult memory to burn.
When she reaches the bonfire, a young girl is already standing close to the flames. She's holding the body of a small cat in her arms, tears molten down her cheeks.
The girl glances at the old woman. "I miss him so much," she whispers. "I don't know what else to do."
The old woman shakes her head, adjusting the bundle in her own arms. "It won't burn cleanly," she cautions. "Take it from me. Best not to even try."
The girl lets out a sob and clutches the dead pet closer. "I don't want to feel like this anymore."
Before the old woman can explain that there are other things you can do with memories–other places in the Forest where you can leave them for a year or ten until they soften and rot; until, when you return, they are just bones and not the unrelenting flesh (so you can keep them)–the girl tosses the cat into the fire.
The cat screams as its fur catches fire, and then the girl screams. The cat's memory is tough, as the old woman had suspected, and it jumps clear of the flames and runs–fur smoking and sparking–into the Forest. The girl chases after the burning cat, sobbing and calling its name. Soon they are lost to the trees, and the old woman is alone again.
She sighs, knowing the girl has to learn these lessons for herself but still wishing that life was different. That it was a little kinder.
She throws the easy memories into the fire first, despite her earlier resolve. They burn in wisps and sighs—memories that did no harm but took up space. She has so many memories that are nearly the same. Those long days when her children were young: playgrounds and sticky tabletops, the same movies watched over and over again. These she can spare, and they are gone as quick as birds’ wings flashing.
The old woman looks down at the memory that remains in her hands. Her sister's eyes stare back at her. Maybe this time they will finally burn away completely. Maybe this time she can forget.
Footsteps behind her. She turns, the long-scorched memory still gripped in her hands, and sees another girl approaching from the Forest. This girl is older than the last–perhaps 25, 26–and behind her follows a man. He follows too closely, stepping just behind her feet, his hands hovering at the base of her ribs but not quite touching. The girl's shoulders are hunched, and though she doesn't look back at him, the old woman can see the impact of his presence on her face. She flinches, and her eyes lock on the old woman in recognition. Though she is not crying like the young girl, pain cracks her face like a broken window.
"He won't burn," the old woman warns. "But there are other things you can try. Other places in the Forest you can take him–"
"Stop," the girl says abruptly, but not sharply–her voice the dried-out tone of an empty puddle. "I know how to do it now."
Then the girl climbs into the fire. She curls herself down among the flames and stays there with her arms folded over her knees, her body burning. The only thing not burning are her eyes.
The old woman nods, understanding. Then she turns to the man and shoos him away from the fire. He's slow to realize what happened–slow to comprehend that the girl has gone where he cannot follow. But the old woman keeps shooing, and eventually he wanders off into the Forest, until even his noisy, crushing footfalls fade. All the old woman can hear is the crackle of the fire as the girl burns and burns and burns.
The girl watches the old woman from her cocoon of flames, and the old woman watches the girl. The half-burned memory of Nina’s eyes watches them both.
No one blinks.
No one looks away.
Jennifer Skogen is the author of The Haunting of Grey Hills series, and her work has appeared in journals including Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Luna Station Quarterly, Bowery Gothic, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Crow & Cross Keys. Jennifer lives near Seattle, Washington, and goes hiking in beautiful places whenever it isn't raining.