‘Time Traveller's Memory’, Davian Aw

Illustration © 2020 Rachel Linn

 [ Like a ghost, © 2020 Rachel Linn ] Remember the first time you murdered someone?
(in a manner of speaking; the historical records
show you blameless as usual, as they always do,
and any sharp-eyed detective scanning your log
would find nothing but a life of sinless piety
so pure as to make a nun guilty.)

You were so scared, then, that very first time,
so beholden still to whatever was left
of that moral code you once formed as a small child
huddled in your bedroom away from the storm,
hardly daring to grasp the breathless extent of your powers,
and so afraid.

(The storm. The longest storm. You’d kept rewinding
to the start of that hour when the sky grew dark
and wild with wind and the heavens thundered
heavy with rain and with just a twitch of your mind,
the skies were clear and the storm began again.
A mundane test, to try yourself. But it felt
so powerful, conducting the skies, making the heavens
bend to your will, and it didn’t make sense
that you cried the whole time as the weight
of that secret sank deep in your bones.)

For good, you told yourself—swearing a promise
to that audience of one, feeling already
the spidery shroud of deepest loneliness
creeping over your terrified soul—
you would only use it for good.

You could go back. Never forward.
That’s how it worked, that one-way road
that kept you from exploring too far, too afraid
of what you might find at the end of your route,
too afraid of forgetting yourself.

Short jumps, then. An hour. A week. A month
to relive a vacation, and then once more,
not wanting to go back to school.
A year was the longest you dared, as a child,
escaping the panic of deepening puberty,
weeping in relief at the time you had bought
to linger in a body that still felt like you.
It kept you sane when you finally gave in;
knowing you had a way out if you needed,
assuring yourself you were still in control
even as your body betrayed you.

Short jumps. You came to learn the hints
that things would turn bad, and take yourself back
just far enough so you’d be safe: that time
you’d misjudged when your parents would return
and didn’t have the time to unfix your appearance
and you fled back in time when they opened the door,
and broke down in your room, an hour before.
You were prepared this time. They never found out.
But still you were left with the sight of their faces:
that dawning realisation, the furious anger
seared into your memory, your secret memory
your time traveller’s memory, only for you,
and home never felt the same again.

The first time (the first choice),
you learnt how to move through the streets
like a ghost—invisible, untouchable, safe—
rewinding by seconds to cross the road,
to bend your head, duck round the corner,
like a secret dance, slurs fading to nothing,
the cruel eyes never turning your way,
the impact of assault dissolving before
you even hit the wall; the bursts of anger
slipping off your skin like water from oil
as though they never happened
(you made sure they never did),
that only your time traveller’s memory remembered,
broken from pain that never would be.

But, we are here to talk about death.
The first one you caused, and all the ones after
that twisted your heart into a deeper darkness
that those around you would never know;
for that was the second life you lived
(the easiest choice, the hardest choice),
rewinding your way with dizzying speed
as your body became a stranger’s again
and the strangers became your family again
and you stopped, and your face was a child’s again,
innocent again in the eyes of the world.

And you crafted a life, a different life,
a perfect life with the strength of your powers
where you would be loved and lose no one,
and your body kept safe for keeping its secrets.
For you had to know how it could have been
(and no one would see the wounds on your arms
that you cut and uncut back to unbroken skin)
and your life was a tower, safe and immune
like a ghost—invisible, untouchable, safe
though it ravaged your soul, being friendly with monsters
with people whose laughter once haunted your nights
indelible in nightmares and waking screams
and laughing along when they joked about people
like you in the life that you never lived
anywhere but in memory, your time traveller’s memory
in scraps of imaginings, shadows of dreams
and you drank to get by, and rewound yourself sober,
and none of them ever suspected a thing.

The first time you shot him, it felt so good.
An explosion of relief from all those years.
But the surprise in his eyes hurt you somewhere deep
as the light from them faded and his body fell
still clutching the glass he had raised in friendship
and you waited for catharsis that never came;
nothing but the creeping bile in your throat
as the screams piled up and the people came
and you froze the moment and turned it back,
spinning the wheels of time back around
till your slate was clean and the dead lived again
and the light returned to his eyes, the smile to his mouth,
and you finished the toast with the ghost
and his murder existed only as a secret
in your cursed memory, your time traveller’s memory,
and you left for the night amidst jovial goodbyes.

You still do not know why you did it.
(because you could. because you could undo it.
because of the pain from a life that had never been.
because you were invincible, looking and living
like that, like you were no different from any of them.)

But no one would know. Nobody but you
with the stains on your memory, blood-stained memory,
time traveller’s memory, whispering condemnations,
driving you slowly, inexorably to hell.

Then you did it again.
More senseless violence that others perhaps
might rush to defend: detailing your lives,
your struggles, your trauma, unyielding oppression;
and they might be right but also be wrong
and they didn’t see the tears in your eyes
as you kept taking life and giving it back
in a twisted compulsion, playing at godhood,
watching the victims fall and rise, fall and rise,
fall and rise, and move on, unknowing,
smiling at you standing there as you trembled
in the useless immensity of your power
and all of the things that you could change
and all of the things that you never could.

They invaded your nightmares—the ghosts of all
the ones you killed and lived to not know the tale—
and your mind spun slowly to madness, seeing them
alive on the streets, oblivious to you.
You moved through time in jerky starts
like a comforting rhythm, a memory of childhood,
skipping back every other second, and forward,
and backward, weaving a cage of temporal protection
that captured nobody but you.

And the rain in the sky went up and down
objects falling and rising, falling and rising
life folding, unfolding, again and again
anger turning to fists back to kindness to love
and the things that were stolen returned once again
save the innocence taken in a memory of selfsame
men who were your friends or who would be your friends
who were lovers and bullies, gentle and cruel,
compassionate and violent, monsters or angels,
the fate of their souls predicated on the choices
you made as a child: when to tell, when to run,
when to steal away with meds from secret dealings
or suffer through time and the probings of doctors;
who to tell, how to tell, inevitably determining
if they hurt you or loved you or choked you
or hugged you or laughed with you or at you
or yelled or cried or were killed and lived again,
and in the mirror your face has become a child’s again
but your eyes tell a story, a time traveller’s story
and the future spreads desperately far out before you
and you control everything and nothing at all
and you cannot wash out the blood on your hands,
the hands of a man or a woman or child
and there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhen to hide
from the guilt on your heart and the stain on your soul
that nobody can see and nobody will know;

but the house is silent with the gathering storm.
And you are ten, wrapped up in blankets,
watching the darkening clouds move above.

The rain falls.

© 2020 Davian Aw

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