We go to the Memory Woman because one of us has received a gerbil for his birthday.
We ask, What is it thinking about? She says, The little creature is heartbroken, that one, she dreams of her playmate and friend. The Memory Woman stretches her hand out across the trees, You should let her go. You don't want to be responsible for sorrow. We listen to the Memory Woman, let the gerbil scurry from our hands, watch it dash along the underbrush.
We can see her house with the blue silky curtains from the road on our way from school if we bow behind the trunks of the paper birches. But we aren't supposed to go near where she lives. Anissa says that the Memory Woman once made soup from a man's hand because he lied to her. This is what Anissa's older brother has told her. We aren't certain if we believe this. Our parents tell us to leave her alone. Let her be, they say. She is old. She has always lived in that house on that hill. We will be grounded if they find that we have not started our chores, that we dawdle in the woods surrounding the Memory Woman. We bring her yellow apples, wrapped packages of peanut butter and crackers, mini chocolate bars ribboned with caramel that she grabs, tucks into the pockets of her crocheted shawl. We press our small hands to her knotted ones--hope some of her powers will rub off on us.
She smells of alewives that wash along the shore after piercing whitecaps pound the beach. We believe that she was born in the sea, her mother, a gull, her father a sparkly fish that leaped into the air to greet his wife with a kiss. We are sure the sea granted her the power to read memories.
Before we go home, we reenact the beginning of time when the lands were covered in low bushes and before our parents stood over us, hands thrashing through hair. Our cave is hhidden in outcroppings between the rocks. We pair up boy-girl, husband-wife. We rub sticks together, puff our cheeks with air, blow. We are always close to starting a fire. We draw sticks,just like they must have and choose the one to be the animal. He is the one to walk on his hands and knees, howl when our husbands stab him with invisible spears, searing his heart. He rolls onto his back, shakes, dies. They drag him, drop him at our feet where we prepare his meat into stew.
We have finished our chores, and are regrouping at the gully when we see the gold tape flapping on the beach, blue and red lights flashing. We cut through sea grass prickling our legs, stick our arms out like airplanes, kick up sand, clouds spinning past our fluttering fingers.
Uniformed adults stand in clumps. We crouch down, push past the men that have finished their shift at the cannery. There are two bloated bodies, girls, clasped hands loosened, puffed white with purple and green marks along their backside and legs with swollen bellies and seaweed knotted tresses. They cover the girls under a black tarp, thick and weighted so we can only see the dull outline of their shape.
An hour later we're on the hill. It's the Memory Woman who tells us how the water transformed their bodies, two sisters submerged. We do not need to ask her questions, the Memory Woman tells us how they dove into the waves, right off the jagged rocks, thrilled by crashing sounds, the spray dotting their bare thighs; how they spun, twirled in the water, joined hands high above their heads, how the sea said, Stay with me, and danced pirouettes with their bony ankles. The waves tried to chase the girls, tickling them with splash, nudging them toward our shore. The Memory Woman says they were giggling as the water tossed them about. When Anissa asks, the Memory Woman says that they felt no pain, that the colors marking their skin was from the rocks that gently painted their limbs as part of a game.
We believe the woman, hand her a package of fudge striped cookies for the memory. But the Memory Woman shakes her head, will not accept our gift, says, I am tired, then turns back inside. Anissa thinks maybe the Memory Woman misses her sister. This is news to us. We didn't know the Memory Woman had a sister. Anissa says she's not certain.
We talk about the two sisters when the sun bends low over the incoming tide and our faces become the color of mangoes. We take one another's hands and jump into the air, holding our breath, while one of the boys pretends he is the sea and tosses pebbles at our backs.
This story was first printed in The South Dakota Review.