Issue 191 – August 2022

7270 words, short story

Slight Forms


You’re five and your teacher tells you fear weighs exactly ten pounds. You come home and you ask Mum and Dad if it’s true, and you don’t stop asking why after they confirm it is. You don’t stop ’til they tell you about the Slight.

By age nine it becomes embarrassing to still believe the Slight are real, so you no longer mention them to the other children, but you don’t stop believing. Fear weighs ten pounds. Sorrow weighs twenty. You won’t defy gravity if you don’t learn to remember.

But you’re born forgetting, says your teacher who now gives fringe lectures on the Slight after the school asked her not to come back. The weight follows people like you around, she says. The Slight were able to fly because they remembered the source of the fear and the grief and distrust and other things they felt. Memory converted the weight to buoyancy, and it lifted them high enough to see that the world had been a different shape than it is now.

You go see her when you’re twenty. Your childhood was lonely, and you want to know why it was plagued with memories you don’t recognize. You’re cooped up with five others inside her living room that morning while she sets up. One of them tells you he’s done it twice now—twice that he knows of. It’s like going into a trance, he says. Sometimes you don’t feel it happening.

Your teacher comes out to silence and rapt attention. She’s a wizened, slender thing in her dress and frilly scarf. She recounts first how the Slight came to be.

There was the Great Offloading when faculties for memory no longer had to reside in the brain. Then subtle mutations as brain and body reorganized their structures for a world without tumult. Then a new type of memory with faculties for it spread throughout the body.

The first Slight claimed to have been people from before the Great Offloading. They remembered things previously erased from the Offload and felt sensations more intense than thought possible at the time. During episodes, their bodies would leave the ground, and soon they learned to hone the skill ’til over time they evolved into beings of flight and vanished.

Your teacher calls it New Memory as she concludes. A gaseous substance left behind by people who lived before the Great Offloading, it is absorbed by those with the right chemistry for it and converted to upthrust around them.

She shuts her eyes next and tilts her head back. You’ve never seen a demonstration in person, but you’ve seen videos. When her bare feet rise inches off the tile and float there, you don’t join the others in applauding. You came here hoping to cross this off the list of possible answers to your condition. The Slight do not exist. You had once believed, then you became haunted by flashbacks to encounters not your own—strife and displacement and other forms of misfortune experienced before the Great Offloading.

You stay behind after the show. “What was the world’s previous shape?” you ask. You’re both seated on the living room floor with a tray of soup and bread slices between you.

“The world was shaped like a dodecahedron ’til we trampled its vertices and made it round.”

There’s a twinkle in her eye as you wait for her to explain. She doubles over instead and begins to snicker. You grit your teeth while looking away. The others had warned you before leaving that she was in decline. It comes like a thing you imagined happening, but it happened.

“Do you enjoy being able to remember things on your own again?”

You recall the procedure when you turned eighteen, and you shake your head.

“The mutation that opened us up to New Memory doesn’t go away when you have the old faculties restored. You’re part of something new and important and you shouldn’t shy away from that.”

“No one has ever seen the Slight,” you tell her, looking away again to hide the look of disdain still on you. “I don’t know how you were able to do that back there, but it proves nothing. I just want the episodes to stop.” You think back to one where you run from a trail of gunfire, a child cradled in one arm, another dragging behind. You hate that you can now recall details of it on your own. “They think it’s all happening in my head.”

She eyes you directly while munching a bite of bread slathered in bean dip. “Do you remember when you were young, and you took everything I told you home to Mum and Dad?” Your newly restored capacity for remembering doesn’t reach back that far but the Offload tells you this happened. “And a lot of it, they confirmed because when a child comes to you with a folktale, you don’t immediately tell them it isn’t real; because when they were that age and went to their parents with similar things, they were similarly indulged.

Fear weighs ten pounds. Sorrow weighs twenty. The slight old lady remembers aplenty. She puts it together. She makes a balloon. She won’t say where she’s going and won’t be back soon.

The Offload surfaces memory of you reciting this as a child, but you punt it like you wish you could punt the episodes. Your teacher pushes the tray aside and reaches her hands out for yours. They’re pruney and cold when you touch them. “The Offload has been tampered with many times,” she tells you. “This is why it’s imperative we remember things the new way if we can. Even if it doesn’t always result in—”

You wrest your hands from hers. You don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve had enough of people reminding you that you can’t even float like the others claim they’re able to.

“Why did you come here?” she asks. It isn’t so much you remembering why that makes you shrivel up at the question. It’s the thought that she knows the real reason you’re in her living room while you just think you do. “I close my eyes,” she resumes, “and a primordial fear comes over me. I’m naked. There are people with bayonets behind me and I must jump.

“When I would first remember that, I told myself I had only imagined it, and I refused to investigate. Eventually I began looking for all I could find on this person I’m so vividly reminded I was in a past life. It wasn’t easy at first because the Offload scrubs traumatic events once too many people begin calling them up. I had to find others who had had episodes where he makes an appearance and slowly I filled the gaps. Somewhere along the way, I began to float each time but if you must take one thing from this visit, my child, it’s that floating isn’t the end of it. You’re a vessel. The emotions you feel—the encounters you don’t think of as yours—are passages. Find who it is they lead to and protect the memory of who they were.”

Something stirs inside you. It feels like understanding, but you were often difficult in class. “Do you end up jumping?” you ask.

“There was a time I remembered what I do in that moment,” she tells you, “but now I only recall seeing the Slight each time and being carried up with them.”

Having bid her a warmer goodbye than you had thought you could manage, you gather your personal effects and are almost through the door when she mentions the slight forms.

Over your shoulder, you regard her lithe frame once more. “Slight forms?”

“Every twenty-one years, the Slight come down over the peak of Mount Serene and reveal themselves to anyone who makes the journey up on foot. I’ve never been able to, and I don’t envision a scenario where I’m still around fourteen years from now and strong enough for another try.”

You make nothing of this while standing in her doorway. When you get home, you cross reincarnation off your list and add “undetected brain-eating bacterium” to the end of it.

Before the Great Offloading—years, maybe decades before (you don’t recall)—you live in a village on a promontory. The air fills daily with a smoked-fish smell that makes your mouth water each night on your way to the communal fires. In the fire’s light, you sit and watch seafaring people impress yearly on the village the imminence of war from people who live across the ocean. You marry one of the seafarers in a ceremony attended by all. You have two children together, then one year he doesn’t return with his company. There was an attack while at sea, they tell you—many lives lost. The war from across the ocean is almost here.

You’re twenty-six when you receive news of your teacher’s passing. The ash-spreading is attended by a man whose face you don’t at first recognize because your link to the Offload always lags on the seafront.


“Hey you . . . ”

His smile is warmer than you remember on your own or maybe it’s the somber mood in the air. The hem of his pants drag on wet sand as he pushes through the crowd to get to you. Eye contact is difficult, but you make a point not to frown. There’s a stilted hug inside, you flash back to hugging your oldest after you tell her Daddy isn’t coming back. You tell yourself there’s still hope for life without these episodes—your life and no one else’s—twenty-six, no children, never married.

You follow the man who still answers to Daddy in this life to a bar on the other side of town. After his sixth beer, he’s loosened enough to tell you again how badly he regrets deleting you and Mum from his copy of the Offload. He has since ditched the static method, he says. He now has a link to the main servers.

You find none of this particularly interesting. It’s no less difficult to forgive in this life, but you’re born forgetting as your teacher would always say.

“Do you remember telling me about the Slight when I was five?” You don’t know what compels you to ask this, but you’re also six beers deep.

He palms the nape of his neck where the link is embedded; the old tick that tells you he’s struggling to accept a memory-packet the Offload has just delivered. “It must have been your mother who told you that.” It was. He had only looked on while she did.

You take a moment to review the most recent memory you made with Mum and her boyfriend on their new seastead. She seemed happy. You remember fleetingly that you resent her for watching you suffer for many years and never once mentioning that she has the same condition you do, though less severe.

“Did you always know . . . ” You trace the lip of your glass with a fingertip. “ . . . about Mummy?”

He pays the question a halting nod. “She was a drug mule—her . . . previous life. That isn’t what she thinks she was—it’s what she was. I wish I hadn’t made her keep it to herself all those years. I look back on it now every chance I get and it’s clear as day.”

He buries his face in his palms, and you’re both content to drink quietly the rest of the afternoon.

Mount Serene terminates twelve thousand meters above sea level. Even in summer, it’s a perilous climb up its stump-steep elevations. You learn all you can about past endeavors, and you relearn it each year. There have been many who meant to summit but either gave up or inspired rumors concerning where their remains might be found. An odd pattern begins to emerge the more you look. Every twenty-one years—starting from the year your teacher claimed she last tried its summit and going back decades before the Great Offloading—there always appears a lull in traffic past its minor peak at eighty-eight hundred meters.

You think you may have gotten the years wrong but the calendar your teacher left you when she passed confirms it each time. The so-called pilgrimage to see the Slight is either a fabrication or it’s taken by people who leave no impression whatsoever on the Offload. No one sees them past the camp at Peak Minor and no one receives them when they come down. No one is made privy to their desires to gain Serene’s actual summit. No one asks after them when they’re gone. Perhaps you’re being morose, you tell yourself, but there have also been no remains recovered from the upper elevations with time of death traced to a Slight year.

At twenty-nine, you begin to entertain some of what the world’s fringe say about the Offload—people and events they maintain are periodically wiped from it to avert public discord. Keep a journal, you’re told. Document what happens to you each day because the Offload will have you doubting your own ability to remember.

You wish the Offload would wipe the fear or, failing that, wipe your memory of it after each episode reaches its abrupt end. You feel your oldest struggling to hang on, her wrist bone crushed in your grip as you try to find cover. She’s seven when the fleet’s jet engines wake the village and the barrage begins, barely awake, bare feet smarting on gravel while the brother stirs quietly against your battering heart. And you’re gasping for air, and you’re in a cold sweat, and the people around you are polite about it, but you just knocked over the game table and they’re having to start again, and they insist you don’t have to go but you must.

You excuse yourself and there’s no more game night after that. You place orders for climbing gear. You hide them away and scrub memory-packets of where they are from your newly installed copy of the Offload. You’ve gone static like Dad once did, and you take advantage of every escape this fully automated future allows you from the past. You make a habit of scrubbing little packets of memory here and there, but you never go near that morning twelve years ago; standing in your teacher’s doorway, listening to her suggest in her roundabout way that climbing Serene might be something else to cross off your list.

Your name—you finally learn—is Sani. You learn it from a child who keeps a journal of his episodes like people keep dream journals. In each entry, he's the elderly neighbor who wakes to find his housemates buried under piles of rubble. You recall the sound of your name in his voice. Hearing it again, you remember the other neighbors calling after you from beneath the compound’s ruins. You decide to carry your daughter because you can’t stomach the pitch of her screams anymore and even if it slows all three of you down, she’s now pressed with her brother to your chest and there’s comfort there.

Autumn finds you more insensate than you fear the other members of your printmaking co-op care to know. You wonder if previous Slight years really only saw attempts to hike Serene from those who keep too much to themselves, leaving no tracks even on systems in place to capture movement with paramount efficiency. You wonder if the Offload decided on the world’s behalf to wipe the attempts from existence. Your guides up and down the practice slopes eye you obliquely each time you mention the forgotten pilgrimages, and you remember you’re the only of their beginners with your particular condition.

You take one of them back to your room. After the night together is when it dawns that you’re meant to take this journey alone because, as the guide tells you over breakfast, no one with friends on the ground to talk them out of it tries for Serene’s summit when the pressure is as low as it is this year, so low and so depleted that it approaches vacuum exposure.

Your group sets out from base camp on the first winter day. An attendant there tells you a score of competing climbers are expected through the next day, scores more through the week. Of all nine of you hiking together, only one suspects what you are. She makes it known through jokes that still eat at your forever-inability to levitate like your teacher was able to.

“What do you get when you cross a mountaineer with a Slight?” she asks, then turns to watch you pick through the grooves her boots leave in the frost. “A real cheat is what. You won’t happen to have seen one latch itself to our group, would you?”

She appears friendly or maybe it’s the gradient of color on her goggles this afternoon. You grin while digging your poles through the snow for purchase. “That’s not a very good joke.”

“I ran out of jokes for you two days ago,” she says, trying—though not too hard—to close the gap between herself and the others in front.

“You’re too old to still believe the Slight exist in that case.”

“I’m old enough to choose for myself what to believe.”

You don’t mind that you’ve spent most of the week bringing up the rear if it meant being stuck with her. Some of the jokes, you’ve heard before. When she told them, there was an innocence there that made you smile, and it felt like she was trying in a perverse way to establish a connection.

It’s a hard gambit, but you broach the subject anyway. “Do you know anyone who went up all the way during a Slight year?”

“Why—is that what you’re doing?”

“I asked my question first, missy.”

She stops and her back begins to heave from a chortle that becomes a muffled cough and you’re reminded it’s much colder up here at fifteen hundred meters than you usually take it.

Finally able to catch a breath, she hoots under it. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I think when I first pegged you as one of them, I was hoping I’d be proven wrong in that sort of embarrassing manner that can only culminate in us making plans for drinks together when we come back down.” She turns and devours you with her smile. “I don’t know you, but we have six more weeks to Peak Minor, and I hope by then we’ll be acquainted enough that I can convince you not to try for the actual summit. Peak Minor is enough madness to spark any transcendence you’re after.”

The chill hardens your bones and you bite down. “Next time, we can do all this without you pretending you actually believe.”

“Oh no, I believe. In some form, the Slight exist . . . out there somewhere. Equally, I believe in oneness with the ocean and a nice, twisty dalliance now and then.”

Her smile lingers as you realize the model of petulance your expression has become. You trudge past her, grunting under your breath when she calls after you and the jokes resume. Easy enough to collect beliefs when she doesn’t have a condition wanting to moor her to just one.

After scrubbing her name from your copy of the Offload, you tell yourself this woman doesn’t have what has plagued you all these years. You hold to that conviction ’til you’re at five thousand meters and the thinning oxygen pulls you back to the village.

She comes in from behind the compound where she’s been frolicking with friends. In the time it takes you to pull her brother from your breast and lay his sleeping body down, she leaves mud stains around the room for you to clean.

“Don’t wake your brother,” is all that leaps from your stream of thought as she prances and giggles, and you’re just happy to see her doing both those things again. “Are you hungry yet?” you ask, which you know is a silly question because stepping outside the room will reveal her paw prints all over the stew pot still on the fire.

“Mama . . . ” She parks her butt at the foot of your bedroll while the excess adrenaline takes a few seconds to wear off. “Mama, can I go with Yara and Nibo to see the soldiers run through their drills?”

You remember soldiers. You remember a city further inland with ramshackle barracks and an influx of untested farmboys scrambling to make themselves war-ready before the threat from across the ocean gets here.

“That’s a long walk,” you tell her. “Even with Yara along for it.”

She rolls her deep-set eyes but it’s a put-on. As she runs out of the room, you recall that—with your late husband as your accomplice—you brought an unnervingly wily child into this world. Outside, you find her sitting with Yara and Nibo around the stone table by the hearth your husband would often use to toast his kernels. Nibo is a boy her age with rashes on his skin and missing front teeth. Yara is nearly in her teens and built already like a prizefighter. They greet you. Their mother must be late coming home from the paddies this afternoon.

“Yara, don’t take my Lilu anywhere without asking first,” is what blurts out as you place a bowl of stew between all three of them and pass cassava wedges around.

Your daughter answers to Lilu. You dwell on the way your tongue catapults from the roof of your mouth when you say it. Li-lu-lee-loo-le—

There’s snickering between her and Nibo and you hear Yara groaning at it. The older girl wants very much to enlist, but she’s a few years shy of the age requirement, and she tires easily of having to remind everyone of the all-girls brigade stationed at one of the city’s barracks.

To defy gravity, you must learn to remember.

The fog continues to lift as more of this quiet interval from generations ago fills out in your mind. Through a window, you hear your neighbor with his palm wine and his equally ancient friends arguing loudly about wars they fought in and who showed the most courage and who hid and who amassed the most vows of marriage from village girls with fathers too surly to ever let them win a round of mancala.

Their quarreling crescendos into braying laughter and there are suddenly two mountaineers barking at you in a language you’ve never heard spoken before while on their knees and guiding a length of rope between their harnesses. While you remain blissful and too disoriented to remember it yourself, the wall of ice before you surfaces memory-packets from all the training you had in preparation for this climb. You’ve fallen into a crevasse.

There’s numbness all around you that makes it difficult to tell your precise orientation inside it. The shouting mountaineers become centered in your vantage, and you take it to mean you’ve lifted your gaze up at them.

“I’m sorry,” you tell them. They stop their hollering but resume it seconds later. It dawns again that they’ve switched from the language you all speak fluently between each other to something completely alien. “I don’t understand,” you tell them. “Sorry, I don’t understand you. I’m really sorry. Just tell me what you need from me, and I’ll do it.”

It’s a rescue, but it isn’t anything like you envisioned. You don’t feel the urgency you should feel. There’s numbness and all you have to go by is the wall of ice in front of you and the worried looks from these two poking their heads down from the lip of the crevasse and speaking in tongues for all you know.

There’s an ax in the wall. There’s a length of rope linking it to your harness, but you sense it isn’t enough to have prevented you falling deeper down the frigid depths of the crevasse. Beside you, a third mountaineer climbs guardedly down another length of rope, negotiating the ice wall with her crampons ’til she’s at eye level and you remember her. Not with the Offload’s aid. Not with your surgically restored faculties for recall. You remember her like your teacher said you should. New Memory. Whatever she awakens of your life in the village is momentarily unclear, but the familiarity is so strong you want her embrace more than you want to be rescued.

She frees the other rope from the ax and clips it to her waist. It’s all very confusing and you know it shouldn’t be. You trained many times for such an incident. Something inside you somersaults when she speaks because you’re able to understand. “Scale toward me,” she tells you, her voice velvetier than all the times she told a joke and you didn’t laugh. Obliging her, you look down and notice for the first time that your right foot, barely in the wall, is all that’s kept you clung to it. After you make contact with her, a pulley somewhere on the surface begins to hoist her weight and yours toward the lip of the crevasse seven feet up.

It’s a much slower hike once you’re out. You think the other mountaineers are more talkative than they previously were, but it’s the language barrier and your inability to ignore it. You catch them staring. You hear the murmurs and wish they would do it in the language you all speak. The terrain is taking more out of them than you feel it should. You feel it in your knees. You feel short of breath but only as severely as moving furniture around tends to leave you. The bivouac sacks come out for the night and there’s chatter you think has to do with supplemental oxygen in advance of Peak Minor at eighty-eight hundred meters.

“They don’t think you need a supplement,” she tells you. Her ski goggles are off. Her expression is cagey as she kneels to help with your bivouac and the last of the day’s sun is occluded by her broad aspect. “Minus the fall, you’ve done remarkably well—better than anyone here has seen prior to this climb. How are you feeling?”

Physically you’re well, but you can’t help the fleeting sense of betrayal when she smiles. It’s been a week since the rescue and this is the first you’ve truly seen of her, marking also the first time you’ve heard someone say anything you remotely understand.

“Where did you go?” you ask her.

“I’ve been avoiding you, if you must know.”

“Normally, I expect that. At least you aren’t pretending you don’t understand me like they all decided to . . . ”

She chortles, then leaves for her own bivouac. You dream of jellyfish. In the morning, the hike resumes with the woman in front of you again. She’s now wearing an oxygen mask below her goggles. You have one on as well, but it isn’t in use yet. All is quiet as the others take care to preserve their energy. Hours blur into each other and days are only worth counting when something significant happens.

One at a time, all nine of you negotiate a climb up an exposed crag with anchors carved into it. When it’s the woman’s turn, she looks over and wags a finger.

“No cheating.”

It doesn’t feel like cheating but it’s easier than you expect up the steep rock face. While shuffling again through snow and sheets of firn, you find a window when the sounds of her exertions are at a minimum.

“Do you hate me?”

She stops, tries to laugh but doesn’t make much of a sound. “No. What would give you that impression?”

Only three of the other seven climbers are visible ahead of her as the falling snow conspires against your vision. “What about them? How much longer do they plan on keeping this up? Pretending they don’t understand me . . . ”

She turns her fully concealed face for a look at you. “They aren’t pretending,” she says. “Two weeks ago, you began speaking a language almost no one alive understands.”

The revelation hits you with blunt force. For the first time, it dawns that you forgot an integral part of yourself inside that crevasse—your first language for more than thirty years in this life. Your next thought comes in the language you speak in the village.

“Are you not the least bit intrigued by all this?” she asks, almost as though she’s read your mind.

“I was intrigued when I was twelve. Now I’m just tired of it.”

She peeks over her shoulder as she trudges on, and you dawdle after her. “All your life you’ve asked why it had to be you but never who else it was—who else might be out there willing to see you up any height you decide you must climb.”

“How are you able to understand me?” You suspect you’re being dense, but why must she be so cryptic?

In the evening, she comes to kneel beside your bivouac again. “I was part of the crew on an outrigger boat,” she tells you. “Standing on the plank and there was a loud bang—a torpedo, I suspect. That’s all I’m ever able to remember.”

Her mask is off. Her chest heaves as she breathes gently in and out. In her eyes, you see braided hair down to your shoulders and a string of ceremonial beads. You look away.

She sits in the snow and leans back to poke her head in front of you again. “I don’t know who I was to you, but I’m sensing we knew each other. If you insist on summiting, I’ll wait for you at Peak Minor. As long as there are guests up there, the oxygen generators stay on, and there are at least two teams currently behind us.”

Your heart becomes a caged thing wanting out, and you choke down a cold stream of vomit. “What if I never come back down?”

She takes a laborious moment to stand. “Do you know what the others have been grumbling about since your rescue . . . ? You should’ve gone down even more than you did and taken me with you. Your portion of rope was slack, and it looked like you managed to suspend your weight on one foot barely in the wall. You were floating. If anyone can see the Slight and come back down before the encounter is wiped from the Offload, it’s you.”

She leaves for her own bivouac, and you don’t sleep this night.

The final push for Peak Minor takes all of you through a wedge in a serac that leans out the higher up it goes so it feels like losing a shoving match to the ice cliff.

Her name here is Tessa. She makes a show of introducing herself again the first night inside the camp, climbing down from her bunk bed to sit with you and compare life stories while the others sleep. She was hurt, she tells you—an older man who preyed on her desperation to learn who she was in her previous life, pretending for years to have been one of her crewmates back then.

You go to sleep saying her name under your breath. Recalling how you scrubbed it once already, you say it again and again ’til the thought occurs that you should reactivate your link to the Offload’s servers.

For two days you search her round face and soft brown eyes for salvation as she clings to you. The camp’s warmth helps her jokes land easier than they did on the way up. As promised, she doesn’t leave with the others when it’s time but concocts a reason you both must stay behind and wait to leave with the next group.

“Do you think they bought it?” she asks. She laughs and—God help you—you can’t help but get lost in those eyes and in the memory of how that laugh would calm your worrying mind each time it traveled from the stone table beside the hearth.

“Don’t go up there,” she intones over a bowl of oats inside the mess hall. “I don’t know what my objection is worth to you now that we’ve—”

“Your objection is worth everything,” you whisper harshly, and she swallows. “I mean—” You dab your mouth with a cloth. “I don’t want my going up there to cause you such discomfort that the Offload takes it as license to wipe your memory of it. You said yourself that you were sure I’d be able to summit and come back down.”

“I’m worried you wouldn’t want to come back down,” she says. “I was where you are now. It took years for me to see it and by then I’d given a dangerous man complete control of my life. We can be happy here. We can stop the search and just be happy.”

It’s dark and misty the morning you set out. The terrain left to cover is vertical, providing sparse ground for you to stand and rest your upper body. There’s no safety rope anchored to the rock and nothing to tether your harness to while scaling its snow-caked surface.

With an ax in each hand, you strike the snow. Your shoulders take constant breaks from their aching to go numb while your feet quake inside your crampons. The threat of falling to your death comes with the added weight of knowing you won’t be remembered after you do.

Intervals between snowstorms taper down in length. You crouch inside nooks in the ice. Your oxygen supply dwindles and perhaps it’s the dizziness and hunger that makes time skip the way it does. You’re hanging precariously from a self-belay. You’re in your bunk bed and you swear you can feel Tessa on the nape of your neck. Day one. Day two. Day three . . .

Nine thousand meters.

Ninety-four hundred.

Ten . . .

Lilu is beside you at the table when the knock comes, and you go answer it. The man at the door pretends he’s here with condolences, but he belongs to the local band of fortune soldiers that will be back here a month later to give the raiders ground support.

Your husband had been holding meetings with others from the village. You had both opened your home to them, seating dozens at a time around the table while the hearth’s fire crackled and translations of dangerous texts were read alongside letters from the other side of the world.

The man at the door wastes no time dropping the act after you tell him you’ve had enough help getting by and won’t be needing his assistance. He elbows past you ’til he’s inside the house and glowering across the table at Lilu. With a foot propped on one of the stools and his forearm on his knee, he asks that she try remembering every villager she had seen at this table with Daddy when he was alive.

Here comes the maternal instinct as the worn wood of a cleaver’s handle finds your palm and you sneak up behind the predator’s back, blade in hand, your daughter hidden behind his consuming aspect.

She meets his request with stone silence ’til he straightens up. You toss the cleaver aside as he turns to regard you again, a crooked smirk on his lips when the blade’s iron smacks loudly into the wall.

“We’ll be seeing you again soon,” he says before exiting at a snail’s pace.

You slam the door shut. You’re shaking. It’s enough to wake you to the climb again.

That’s another five hundred meters under you, but you don’t recall any of it. You’re clung to another serac when the rumble preceding an avalanche begins. Panicked and wishing a little for relief that’s final, you fumble your next swing of the ax so badly it starts a sudden cascading of errors.

You’re falling. There goes your heart crushed into your sternum as the drop flips you on your back. The acid sky pulls its pink and yellow clouds away and it feels like your frontal lobe is being tugged as well. The descent flings your limbs this way and that. Your teacher closes toward your right ear. It’s numb all the way in but under the ringing, you hear her voice.

To defy gravity, you must learn to remember.

Recalling how it ends—how it ended; the lesson you’ve been slow to learn because the Offload refuses to relieve you of the burden. The episode in question is like a recurring dream you wake from before it concludes. A book with a grim ending so you linger around passages you previously read. A film without fast-forward. No skipping. No reprieve after the air raid passes and ground support sweeps in to pick off any survivors.

You’re running. You cross the old burial ground with the manure smell always in the air. Lilu twists while you have her tucked with her brother to your chest. She points to an abandoned well with its pulley still visible behind heaps of rubble.

The bucket is just wide enough to fit her and her brother. The rope is tattered from years of use but there’s shooting behind you and the distant pleas of villagers dragged out from where they hid and rounded up. You work the pulley and pray—heart in mouth—that the rope doesn’t give.

Lilu tugs it to let you know she’s made it down. The sun is up, and you take a second to observe that the village is momentarily as quiet as it had been before the air strikes began. The splat-splat of revolvers echo across. Laughter follows. An engine roars. You fear it might be hauling some of the ground troops in your direction and decide there won’t be time to test the rope before climbing down.

The air down the well is moist and smells fungal. You feel it like oil on your skin as the rope inflames your calluses and daylight blinks from the mouth of the well.

Threads in the rope begin to tear. Your heart stops and every word from you is a prayer. The baby coos from somewhere down—somewhere too far down for you to see. You hear Lilu sob beside him. You look up in time to see the last thread come apart.

You’re falling. Your vision fades to viscous black and all feeling goes away. Learn to remember, says your teacher again, like a refrain in your ear.

The darkness clears. In its place, snow and shards of ice surround you, spinning as if caught in a whirlwind, lifting you in the air as feeling returns to your extremities and a warmth you can’t explain radiates from your head down.

Mount Serene looms in silhouette through the haze and you’re a satellite caught in its orbit. You’re floating. Eyes swollen, lump in your throat the size of a walnut but floating. The upthrust is like a gust of wind under you. The harder you try seeing past your last waking moment inside the well, the higher up you go, past the summit and through the clouds, chest out and your limbs splayed so you’re like a sacrificial offering to the cold, hard vacuum above. Their voices linger in your ear but what happens to Lilu and her brother from this point on is for the angels—the slight forms.

The first one swings down and hovers above you. It’s a ball of light the size of a small airplane with a crystalline object barely visible in its midst. The light pulsates when a voice—low and stirring—rolls from it to ask your name.

“I’m Sani,” you say to it. “My children . . . save them. Please . . . ”

“What’s your name here?”

You’re tongue-tied. You’re blubbering. To give it an answer, you would first have to relearn the language you grew up speaking here.

“Thank you,” it tells you after a while.

“For what?”

“Your condition . . . letting us use you as an implement. It’s never been what any of you think it is but something else—something your teacher and many before her tried explaining but fell short; something that so offends the people who decide this world’s order, they find it more expedient to dismiss it as phantasm, ignore people who have it, and wipe all memory of their encounters with us from the Offload.”

“Then I’m not Sani?”

“You’re something between who she was and the person whose birth we came to this world to engineer. Seizing on your distinct mutation, we use many like you to sequence data we are unable to curate ourselves due to its alien nature.”

“I don’t understand. Can you save them? I don’t understand—why all this if you won’t even try.”

“That’s to be expected. This is as close as you ever come to understanding us; this moment of the most intense entanglement between who you are and who she was.

“Allow us to now parade our delicate, physical forms over you so we may relieve your mind of these memories; memories of Lilu and her brother who live for many years after Sani and are able to find something approaching happiness with time, of Sani, of the village on the promontory.”

You feel your body being cradled next. You hear the crunch of virgin snow under your back as you’re laid down on Serene’s summit. Your eyes water to the view of fuzzy white smudges across the indigo sky, like clouds at first but too round and entirely too bright with lights shivering from crystalline nuclei inside them.

The one that came down to welcome you lifts now to join the parade. They move with the fleetness of hummingbirds. Hundredfold. A procession of light bursts from one end of your vantage to the other and back again. Silly, playful things to rest your eyes on while lying down and thinking you could stay here forever.

Whoever Sani was, she’s leaving to join the procession. You feel her increasing absence with each lap the slight forms take over the summit; a growing surplus of air through your lungs that tickles and makes you laugh, and you’re sitting up because now you’ve forgotten her name.

You shuffle to your feet. While hunched over, you steal glimpses of the strange, ethereal things above you. What are they called? How did you come to witness something so lovely and so sublime?

“What is your name?” they ask, and you don’t remember. “Do you recall how you got here?”

You stand quietly for a moment, remembering nothing, not even words you could use to tell them you don’t. Sensing your newly restored link to the Offload being severed, you try retrieving a memory-packet but the slight forms interrupt.

“Is there someone waiting for you?” they ask. “Farther down?”

A word leaps from the cleaned-out recesses of your mind. You don’t know what it means just yet, but you scream it at them.

Tessa! Tessa! It’s a name for someone. You’ve known this someone for an exceedingly long time. Tessa!

“Would you like us to take you back down?”

Author profile

R.T Ester does some writing on the side while working professionally as a visual designer. However, most of his time is spent raising two young kids with his wife and drawing any inspiration he can from the Texas heat. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld and Interzone.

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