The Memory Thief
The young man was running—running through the dark forest, all around him the black and silver harlequin patterns of tree-shadow and moonlight. Branches whipped at him as he ran. Brambles caught at his clothing. He laughed aloud—a wild, exultant, manic laugh.
Free! Finally free!
He felt as if he could run forever, reveling in the power of his pumping limbs, heedless of muscles on fire from exertion and lungs that burned with each indrawn breath. He slid down a bank, splashed through the stream that lay at the bottom, and flung himself up the slope on the other side, scrambling over rocks that rose before him in a pool of moonlight.
So far. . . so far already, but he must go farther still. . .
The change was so gradual that he was unaware of it, but more and more the tree trunks began to reel and waver as they passed. The shapes of rocks and bushes leaped weirdly out of the darkness and danced erratically around him until the world seemed to be turning like a wheel. He felt as if he were floating. The forest was becoming indistinct, shades of darker and lighter gray instead of black and silver. He staggered, his feet stumbling—and then he was falling—falling among ferns, where he lay gasping, his head spinning, too dizzy and spent to move.
. . . face down. . . damp fern leaves. . . finally able to breathe. . . the smell of musty earth. . . . the world turning, turning. . .
A wave of nausea swept over him. Sweat sprang from his already drenched body, and a chill came, racking him, rattling his teeth together in his head. He lay shivering and shuddering among the fern leaves.
Time passed and with it the chill. A delicious warmth stole over him, wrapping him in its blanket. Feebly, then, he tried to move, but his muscles were as weak as water and his head was full of warm fog so that at first he didn’t notice his memories being tugged away.
Names were among the first things to be taken; his own was gone before he knew it. When he became aware that things were slipping away, he struggled against the loss. “No. . .” he murmured, “No. . . Don’ do that. . .” But the memory-thief paid him no heed.
Shapes floated in his vision—faces of shadowy figures, bending over him. There was a girl with honey-colored hair and an expression that was kind and sad and poignantly disappointed. There were men—four men—blond or red-haired, all nameless. And a final face—as nameless as the others—sallow, with short-cropped black hair and a nose like a hawk’s beak. This face had hard black eyes that glittered coldly, chilling him, evoking an intense desire to escape. He struggled, twisting, uttering a wordless cry. . . Then he felt as if he were falling. . . falling into darkness. . . as if the ground had dissolved beneath him. . .
. . . hands were grasping him. . . turning him over. . . lifting him. . .
He struggled to open his eyes. . .
. . . too much light!
He closed them again—tried to speak, but all that came out was a moan. A hand was laid on his forehead and from somewhere, a very long way off, he seemed to hear someone say, “. . . he’s burning. . .” But the words conveyed no meaning to his fevered brain.
Enveloped in darkness and warm, gentle fog, he was wandering in fevered dreams. The troubling faces came and went, intermingled with running and the sensation of falling. Now and again the memory-thief came, slipping into his mind, taking away memories that troubled him, pulling them behind a curtain of forgetfulness.
. . . such a relief to let those things go. . .
But other things were being taken as well, things he wanted to keep. Weakly he sought again to resist the intangible hands of the unseen thief, but he didn’t know how, and the memories kept slipping through his helpless mental fingers until all sense of the need for resistance slipped away, and he yielded.