The desk had not been a computer desk but a writing desk, old and nice but not very ergonomic or practical for a keyboard. The awkward strain of using it left an indelible stamp on each memory associated with it, marking a particular time period in your early to mid-20s where recollections of your online activities are easiest to date.
You remember having gotten the link from a friend in one of your old Yahoo! chatrooms, remember having been told that it was hard to describe but that it was "very you" somehow. You remember this being said with an apologetic coda to it, in case you somehow took that the wrong way.
You remember thinking "What the fuck?" as you started reading, and then, "No, but seriously, what the actual fuck?" and then "HOLY SHIT. HOLY FUCKING SHIT!" and then, eventually, reluctantly, admitting that your friend was right to send it to you.
As you sit there thinking about that time, you remember how strangely familiar it all was at the time, and now you are remembering for the first time having read the story before that, in a hard-bound volume of science fiction stories in the school library when you were just in seventh grade. You remember thinking how weird it was, and how out of place. You hadn't understood it, hadn't understood how it made you feel. None of the other stories in the book had featured such raw, visceral emotion, or such bloody imagery, or what you later realized were sexual themes.
The part where the woman walks up the mountain, shedding her garments as she goes, walking on bare, bloody feet and leaving a red path up the little goat trail... you remember that part. You remember thinking back on it at random moments and trying to recall how it fit into the larger story, which exists more as disconnected images in your head than a plot. The woman, clad in moonlight. Her blood gleaming on the rocks. The knife, making its first careful incision, skin-deep and no deeper.
The deeper cuts came later.
You remember them.
You wonder at the zine taking a decades-old reprint, one that circulated on the internet before it was properly an internet, but it must be the same story that you know because you know you recognize the name of the author, E.M. Warfield. You click on the link and you start to read and there it is, just as you remember it.
More than you remember, even.
The story opens in a little house on a dark plain, and a family eating dinner. The conversation is so trite and banal that even though you didn't remember any of it, you remember now that the second time you read it, you thought it was no wonder you didn't remember it. You find yourself only half-reading it this time, skimming and even skipping ahead until the first mention of the woman walking up the mountain, which you now remember is intercut with the conversation of the people at the dinner table.
You are a little surprised to realize that the people are not a family, or at least not explicitly identified as such. You remembered them that way, perhaps because you made an assumption the first time you read it, or because you added that detail when you later recalled it.
They all seem to be adult, and they all seem to be quite pleased with themselves.
It's a little off-putting, really. You just want to know more about the woman. Who is she? Where is she going?
Why is she going there?
She is walking across the desert. It's not a mountain she's walking to, but a mesa, a great big sandstone bluff. You thought you had remembered her taking off her boots, but she is barefoot at the first mention of her. You go back and forth within the text a few times to make sure of that, because you had such a vivid impression in your mind of the image of her pulling off her boots without breaking stride.
Her feet are already tender and sore at the first mention, and it specifies that she has been walking for hours. It does not say from where, only that the mesa is before her. You have the impression that whatever it is the men are talking about (and you notice now that they are all men, something you don't remember noticing before) seems to be about her, though they don't appear to mention her. They speak of responsibility and accountability, and the greater good, but also opportunity, "tremendous opportunity", and they assure each other that the doubters and naysayers will be placated in the morning.
It's not a path up a mountain but a switchback trail that ping-pongs back and forth up the least-steep side of the mesa. Her feet bleed, and not just her feet but her arms and sides where she brushes against jagged edges, stumbling up the path in the dark. In your head the woman has always walked proudly, defiantly upright. It's hard to shake that image even as you read about her tripping and falling, swaying, bumping into the walls.
There comes a point in the story where the men in the house say goodnight to one another and most of them leave, while those who remain go to bed. It is not a moment weighted with importance in your memory or in the story, and it does not seem to correspond to anything significant in the woman's journey. Sometime after that, a fox appears and begins to follow after her, but it is hard to say if that is meant to be related to events in the house, or how.
The fox's arrival is followed by a pair of snakes, who slither after her, their sinuous courses always taking them over the twin bloody trails left by her feet. Before long they are slick with blood and turn the broken, irregular tracks into two curvy lines.
The procession is joined by insects: crickets and locusts and moths, and then night birds begin circling overhead, landing on the mesa in great numbers. All of them are there when the woman crests the top of the bluff, pulling herself up the last few feet because it is too steep to walk.
Already there is a great beast, a beast like a goat with the wings of a lion. That's what it says. That's what the story says. A beast like a goat with the wings of a lion. You didn’t remember that, but that’s what it says. The beast regards her quite calmly, and she is calm, and you are calm, too, as she goes to it, stops before it, picks up the knife stuck point-first in the stony ground before it.
It is a knife, stuck in the ground. You remembered it being a dagger, stuck in a stone. In your head it was not a natural stone but one that had been shaped and placed there, to hold the dagger, which is a knife. When you realize that the word "dagger" is not used at all in the story, the image in your head changes slightly. You see something less ornate, less elegant, more utilitarian.
She picks up the knife and turns her back to the beast, looking up at the starry sky. She feels hands on her shoulders. You remember them belonging to the beast, but as you read the story now, you see there is no mention of whose hands they are. They are simply hands, falling on her shoulders from behind. She closes her eyes, and the hands move downward, finding her hips, pulling her backwards.
You remember being confused by this, confused and a little... excited? Afraid? Both at once? You don’t remember having realized it was sexual when you read it the first time, but you remember knowing it when you started it the second. You don’t remember at what point the penny dropped.
It’s less explicit than you remember, or imagined. Somehow, it’s all less exciting. The sexual part is just not that interesting to you now. The last time you read it, you didn’t exactly remember how the story ended, but the more intimate bit had left more of an impression on your young mind. This time you’re waiting for the final scene, for the cuts, the careful, awful cuts, and then the peeling, the endless peeling, the stripping away, then standing glistening and exposed in the moonlight.
Then, it happens, and it’s so much shorter than you remember, and the story is over and you’re not sure what it was about it the last time that imbued it with such a sense of import and meaning. You were never sure before what it meant, only that it meant, and in your younger years that was enough. You realize you’ve been reading the story hoping that you would understand that nebulous, numinous something you had felt before, and not only have you not understood it, you haven’t even felt it.
You read the author’s bio at the bottom, which tells you that E.M. Warfield is an author of speculative fiction and this is their first published story. It doesn’t mention if it was published before, that it was published before. You search the name and the title and they both just lead you back here. You try to remember the name of the collection of short stories it was in, but you can’t find that, either.
Your best guess leads you to a book whose cover looks familiar but not only is this story not in it, it’s a collection of science fiction stories set in the near future, with a theme of emerging technologies. The time period of this story is not specified, and there is nothing in it that speaks of a future, near or otherwise, nor of technologies, emerging or otherwise.
But you remember it. You remember reading it, remember having read it.
You remember this story.
You ask a few of your friends who have been talking about the zine if they’d ever seen any of the stories in it before, and none of them had. You don’t mention the specific story or your memories, because you’re afraid of... well, you’re afraid of how it would sound, but more than that, more than being afraid of anything in particular you’re just plain afraid, and you don’t know why, or of what.
You never finish reading the zine. You never read any of the future issues of it, though you do read a poem or story occasionally when someone links you to it specifically.
You didn’t decide to not read it. You’re just not reading it, and you don’t ever think about why.
You do think about the story often, then less often, though intensely when you do, and then one day, you stop thinking about it at all.
The next time you remember reading the story is when you find it in a new collection of The Year’s Very Best Science Fiction Stories. You remember it as soon as you see the title in the table of contents; E.M. Warfield is not one of the luminaries among luminaries who get to be listed on the cover. When you see the story listed, you remember how weird it was finding it in the zine, a few years back, and you again remember having read it on the BBS archive, and in the seventh grade.
You also remember now the time you found it on a forum post somewhere, collecting a weird story that had been published across a series of apparently unrelated comments on different, apparently unrelated Reddit posts. The comments and the account that left them had been deleted by the time you saw it, and you remember that some of the commenters thought the whole thing was a bit of fabricated creepypasta, an internet folktale, that the comments had never existed.
Multiple people attested to having seen them when they were made, some offering screenshots, but you alone had been there insisting that it was a real story, one that had been previously published, that you’d read it in a book in junior high. The consensus at the time had been that you were making that part up to give yourself importance because the story, while weirdly compelling in its own way, was an unpublishable mess, and wouldn’t have been in a public school library.
You remember now how, as you searched the invisible corners of your memory for facts that might have proven you right, you had recalled that before you even checked out the library book, you heard the story as it was told by the weird, soft-spoken kid, the younger brother of a friend of yours who, through vagaries of birthdays and deadlines had ended up in the same grade as both of you.
He was the one who would always tell you the plot of episodes of Simpsons and Seinfeld you had both seen and then ask you to explain them to him, and he had told you about this story, told you this story, describing the sequence of events in his own broad stroke fashion, and you had thought he had to be telling it wrong, so you’d gone to read it for yourself, and found that while the story wasn’t just what he had described, the parts he had described were just as he’d described them.
You remember all of this as you stare at a collection of fiction from the previous year. There is a note that the story previously appeared in another collection of short fiction first published last year.
You Google it and learn that not only is the collection out of print, but the publishing house that put it out has gone out of business.
You read the story, or you try to read it. Your own recollection gets in the way. It’s not like reading a story again. It’s a bit like having deja vu, a bit like hearing your own voice reverberating back at you as you’re trying to speak. The parts with the boastful, arrogant men congratulating themselves and each other are almost impossible to read, but even harder to skip past. You cling to them, scrabble at them like the woman scrambling her way up the side of the mesa, bouncing and stumbling and skittering along. You see her as you read about them, you feel the pain of her progress as you scrabble and attempt to find purchase on the scenes in the house and a place to stand within the structure of the story.
Her journey is intercut with their conversation, but you see them both happening at the same time. You remember her as you read about them. You remember them as you read about her. You remember this story.
The woman. The mesa. The animals and insects. The moonlight. The beast. The knife. The ruined temple. The knife. The man... no, it never says that it’s a man. It never says that it’s the beast but it never says that it’s a man. The one who takes her from behind.
The ending is just as unsatisfying as before. It’s worse. It doesn’t just fail to satisfy; it unsatisfies. It robs you of any sense of composure, of finality, of resolution. You feel the woman, standing wet and gleaming in the moonlight, bloodier and more naked than the day she was born. There’s a feeling at the end of the story. Triumph? Despair?
Is she dead, or is she free?
Is there a difference?
Now you remember when you were in college and this story was in a collection of short stories in a lit class. It was one (along with Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star”) that your professor had told you would be a tough sell if you chose it to write about, because he hadn’t believed that genre fiction had any worth.
You remember having been first excited to realize you knew this story — you remembered this story — and then having despaired at writing a paper on it that would have changed the professor’s mind once you were thoroughly reacquainted with it. You knew it was better than he believed it to be, that it was more than he knew, but you didn’t feel up to the task of explaining it to him, so instead you’d written about “The Star” and been given a B, which he told you was partly for chutzpah.
You don’t finish the collection of last year’s science fiction. You don’t even read any of it, other than the story you flipped to. You had remembered writing about “The Star” after basically being dared to, but you hadn’t thought about passing on the other story. You hadn’t remembered that until you started reading it again.
It’s weird to you, that you didn’t think of that the last time you read the story. You remembered the story, but you didn’t remember that.
You shudder, and hug yourself a little, and tell yourself that memory is weird sometimes.
Years pass. You’re something of a writer now yourself, or you mean to be. You want to be. You certainly write some, some of the time. You go to conventions. You do workshops. You join groups. You go to conventions.
You vote for awards.
You’ve just received the voter packet for the Hugo Awards. It’s been a busy year, and not entirely a good one, so you haven’t paid much attention to the hullabaloo around them. It sounded like some of the nasty politics of recent years has died down, and though you hate to admit it, that alone made you pay less attention to it, maybe.
So the first time you know that this story is among the nominees for best short story is when you see it in the packet, and you remember reading it. You remember reading it in the Best Of collection, you remember reading it in the spec fic zine, you remember the forum post and the BBS archive and the collection in high school and you also remember when you heard it recorded for that dark fantasy podcast a year or so ago.
You remember being a child, just starting on chapter books, and finding a battered paperback book in the pocket on the side of your mother’s chair.
You remember having believed that your chapter books were the same as the grown-up books she read, and you remember having been excited to test that theory, excited and then confused, and then... excited? Afraid? Both? You remember how the ending had fascinated you, the final image, the woman standing unbowed, undone. You remember that battered paperback had been illustrated in simple pen and ink, and you realize this is where some of the images in your head that aren’t in the text have come from.
There’s no ruined temple in the text, but it was there on the page. The boots were from a picture, too. The woman standing upright, even while the text described her more labored passage up the trail.
The beast’s head had loomed over the woman’s shoulder as the hands fell on her.
That was in the illustrations.
And on the final page, taking up a full half of the dry, yellowing paper, had been an illustration of her standing, one foot higher than the other on a rock, her face a death mask framed by wavy hair, half of her body flayed and stripped to bone and viscera, with one perfect breast exposed, and that image stayed with you, it haunted you, you can remember staying awake late at nights thinking about that, that image burned into the back of your brain until you forgot where it had come from, and remaining until it was buried under the weight of other memories.
You remember this story. You remember another paperback, the cover missing and pages falling out, that was passed around summer camp. Most of the stories in it were less weird but more explicit, and most of the other campers were more interested in them, but this was the story that had consumed you, both because you remembered having read it before and had been excited to find it again, but also because you had only just sort of learned what sex was and so were just starting to grasp that the story was sexual, just starting to make sense of the things that had confused you about it before.
Some of the things.
The anthology it was in last year is out of print, but desperate to find some proof of the story’s prior existence, you scour the internet until you find a used copy for sale. You find it, finally, for the price of $179.01. It’s less than a year old, but it’s apparently in high demand for a book that couldn’t save its publisher. Maybe the nomination caused a run on already scarce used copies.
You buy it anyway.
You don’t know how many times you’ve read this story, not really, but you can’t remember having read it in two different places without having forgotten it in-between. You’re a little bit afraid of what it might mean, what might happen, if you can break the sequence, but you need to know that you’re not... not making things up. You know?
Memory is weird, you tell yourself, but you’re having a hard time believing it can be this weird.
While you wait for the book to arrive — you paid for rush shipping — you scour the net for what you know you will find of any Hugo-nominated stories, and that’s other people’s thoughts.
It turns out there aren’t many. Oh, many people have written about this story, but they don’t have much to say about it. It seems to be a middle-of-the-road contender, is the consensus. Neither the worst short on the ballot nor the best. You find some critics who are willing to talk about the imagery being esoteric or confusing, but no one who will talk about what it means, or how it made them feel.
No one mentions having read it before. No one mentions any controversy about its eligibility due to, for instance, having been first published decades before.
You remember this story.
You’re waiting at home the day the book arrives, having tracked the package obsessively and called in sick to work to be there to receive it. You don’t have sick time and you can’t afford this, but you feel in a very real sense like you couldn’t afford to miss the delivery.
The whole time it was in transit, you were waiting for the tracking to return an exception, to tell you the package was lost or damaged en route and could not be delivered, and then when the day arrived without any mishaps along the way you were seized by a powerful fear that it would be stolen from your porch, so you took the time off and were there to take it out of the delivery person’s hands.
You tear the padded envelope open and start rifling through the book, until you find the story, and you start reading it, and it is just as you remember it. You realize as you read that you hadn’t even really read it all way through when it showed up in the Hugo packet. The flood of memories had overcome you, sent you searching through the halls of your memory and the tubes of the internet, leading to the moment when this book arrived in your hands. You’re reading it now, re-reading the same droning conversations and retracing the same steps up the side of the mesa, up to the plateau and to beast and the knife and the temple that isn’t in the text.
This version has the illustrations, and they are just as you remember them, only the lines are sharper and cleaner. It’s like the same drawings were done in digital ink, but they are the drawings you remember, and as you look at them you remember how your grandfather had given you a paperback book adapting classic science fiction stories into comic books for your birthday one year. That had been your first exposure to Anne McCaffrey, with a story about a boy with a broken leg waking up late for a dragon hatching, and your first Asimov, with a story about a robot who played the piano too well and yet without meaning.
You remember this story had been in it, too, with artwork that was clearly inspired by the original illustrations. The whole thing was far more sexually charged and violent than anything else in the book, geared as it was towards young readers. You remember having thought that your grandfather would never have given you the book if he’d looked at that story, that your parents never would have let you keep it, so you read it once, quickly and carefully, and then hid it away and forgot about it.
You remember it now, remember how it spent a whole page drawing the walk across the desert, even though that’s covered by a few lines of text. You remember how that made the march to the mesa seem much longer in your head the next time you read it, and every time thereafter.
You remember how it rendered the fox and the snakes and the insects and the birds much more prominently. In the text they are not mentioned much after they appear, save the snakes, who cease to be a part of the story after it describes how they become slick with blood.
In the graphic novel adaptation, though, they are depicted alongside the woman each step of her journey after their appearance. They are with her atop the bluff and are rendered in a panoramic view behind her in the triumphant final panel, where she stands doubly naked and revealed.
You remember that panel and you remember how it changed the whole tone of the ending, that the woman was not alone and not just attended by the beast and perhaps an unseen lover.
The actual illustrations are much sparser, but your eyes catch on them when they appear on the page, and you lose your place, and read certain passages over, which feels like it changes the meaning. You feel the weariness of the woman as she climbs the path, but you know she is not resigned. She is driven by a certainty and a sense of triumph. You feel that her climb represents her victory, her victory over those small men in the big house, so very far away. You know that while she is the one climbing to the heavens, this is a story about their hubris and their comeuppance.
You remember your friend’s little brother telling you this, and you remember your professor who hated genre fiction explaining that the theme is an inversion of the tower of Babel and likening it to an inverted Tarot card, the lightning-struck tower. You remember your mother finding you with her old pulp fiction book and telling you it’s a story about how you must be careful how you treat others. You remember the librarian finding you puzzling over it and telling you that it’s a story for older children, but one that everyone should read, at some point, eventually.
You remember your wife giving you a copy of this story the day that she goes into the hospice. You don’t remember the marriage, or meeting her, because those things haven’t happened yet. You remember before that having read it on your phone while you waited in the little room for someone to come out and tell you how the procedure had gone.
You remember reading it before going on the writer’s retreat where you would write first draft of your breakthrough story. You don’t remember what that story will be, though you remember that you will have been thinking about the flayed woman standing victorious beneath the moonlight.
You remember that you read it just before you broke up with him. You remember how in that moment, his voice sounded in your head like all the reedy, wheedling, whiny men who were sure of their favor and fortune. You remember having caught a glimpse of your own face reflected in the window of your car right before you climbed into it and drove away, and you remember thinking you looked like her, glistening and naked and perfect and powerful, so powerful.
It was the first time you looked at yourself and really saw a woman, and though you didn’t remember that moment until now, you have never since then thought you looked half as fierce or as feminine as when you glimpsed yourself reflected in a dark window.
You remember finding the story again in your own twilight years, like re-discovering an old friend, and you remember that when you read it for the last time, you finally understood what it was really about, what everyone had been trying to tell you. What it had been trying to tell you.
You don’t remember what that is, though.
Not when you’re reading the collection that you bought off the internet for $179.01, remembering all the other times you have read or will read the story.
When you finish, you put the book back in the envelope. You take it to the post office and you send it back to the address it came from, at your own expense, with tracking. You remember you should probably give the seller positive feedback, but by the time you get home, their account has been deleted.
You watch the tracking for the package. You see when it is declared undeliverable — no such person at that address. The envelope is damaged on its way back to you. It arrives, chewed open at one end by a sorting machine.
You are not surprised.
It’s not that you expected it to happen this way, so much as you remembered it.
This is not the last time you remember the story.
It’s just all the times you have remembered it so far.