Sunday, July 23, 2017


I have a small box full of pills of different kinds. The box is made of heavy paper. It’s about three inches long by two inches wide by two inches high. The outside is coated with a gloss; the inside has a white matte finish. An aqua or seafoam-colored band runs around the outside, and above and below it there is some small black lettering that I can’t read. On the top is a matte sticker with handwritten lettering. I can’t read it either, but I know what it says: “Teeksa 27,” meaning that it’s meant for me. The box was provided, I think, by the company that makes the pills. Lots of pills are inside it, and they are mostly crudely made, looking like tiny chunks of concrete; few are perfectly formed. Except for the tiny pale-yellow gel capsules, none are colored. They all are just a dismal grey.

I can’t remember what these pills are for. I used to know—that is, I think I used to. But that was back before my memory went, back when I actually used to take the pills. Now I just take out the box sometimes and put it on the varnished blonde oak table in front of me when my father isn’t around, and I look at the many pills inside.

I know the pills were given to me by a woman with dark hair in a white lab coat—unless I dreamed this. But no, it was real, I’m sure. She sat at a desk among a lot of other vacant desks in a large and gloomy office. I think she gave me some instructions about how to take them—when, and whether to take them with milk or water or food, and how many to take, and so on—but I can’t remember. That’s okay because I don’t need to remember. Others remember these things for us now. And I haven’t taken the pills for a long time, anyway.

So I sit at this table peering into the box. It’s not unpleasant, being here, for we live in a large bright and airy house at the seashore. It’s much better than what most people have, I think, and my father says we won the lottery when we got this house.

Today is the Day of the Ships. A long wide window runs along the length of our beach house facing the water, and from where I sit, I can look out across the sands at the dark and despotic-looking ships looming on the water. Some of them are quite large; one is as big as an office building.

The idea enters my head that I should put a ship in the water, too. I rise from the table and go to find the one I have hidden away in the bottom of the coal box. It’s a little black wooden model of an old-fashioned single-masted sailboat, from the Times Before. I bring it back to the table, along with a small nugget of soft coal, and set it gently on the smooth oak surface, beside the box of pills. Another idea enters my head (this is dangerous, having too many ideas in a single hour), and I tear off the flap from the part of the box that folds to close it, the top, the part with the matte sticker that says “Teeksa 27.” With the coal, beside these letters and numbers I draw a star and a flower, and I long to write a wish of some kind for the New Days that begin today. I think I learned how to read and write once, but that has been forgotten. My father can write, and he’ll be home soon—perhaps I’ll wait, and then ask him to help.

The little ship is about the size of the box, but a bit bigger, too big to fit inside. It was my mother’s. She collected boats, or rather, figures of them. Her brother had served on a ship during one of the wars—the one before the one before the last one I think, or one or two before that—and he would get them in various ports of call and send them to her.

She had dozens, displayed carefully and attractively on wooden shelves in a glass-fronted bookcase in the home where we used to live. They were all beautiful—much lovelier than anything you see nowadays, and certainly more attractive than the black looming boats on the water outside for the Day of the Ships. Most of my mother’s small boats were a little bigger than this one, but all were still of a size that you could hold each one in your hand. And they were painted the most gorgeous colors. She had a model of an ancient barge with purple sails. And the flagship of an explorer with a red and yellow cross on the mainsail. Others had gilded masts and silver threads as rigging; one had an intricately carved mermaid figurehead with the scales painted metallic green and her flowing hair painted scarlet. Some had designs or colored trim on the sides, and others had words on the bow telling the name of the ship.

Of course, that was in the days when people collected things. They are all gone now, all but this single tiny black sailboat I’ve kept hidden away. Not wanting to wait for my father’s return, I spindle the shred of paper from the box and wrap it carefully around the bottom of the mast of my little ship.

Clutching it in my hand I run out the door and down the stairs until my bare feet touch the warm sand. It feels pleasant. The sun is high overhead, and my shadow surrounds me like an irregular disc at my feet. A few people are lounging on the beach, but not many. They don’t look at me. They don’t seem to notice me. I pause, and then run into the water until it’s above my waist nearly to my armpits, and I touch the boat to the water.

At first it won’t float. It tips and sinks. I catch it as it falls slowly downward in the black oily water, and set it on the surface again. Again it tilts and starts to sink. But I try a third time, very carefully now, and it takes hold and floats in the thick liquid. I watch it for a moment, and then I trudge back to the shore. Standing in the wet sand at the water’s edge I turn and see it. I shade my eyes from the sun and focus on it, floating—or rather, sailing—there. Of course it’s the smallest one among many giants, but it is there, and that’s the important thing.

For a moment, I imagine the tiny object as a life-sized sailboat, and I picture myself sitting on it and looking back at the shore. I turn my head to gaze over my shoulder at our house: the white perfect paint, the sloping sand-colored roof, the broad and long glass window, and the sand surrounding it. It’s nice, I think, and I’m happy to live here. The nearest one is many measuring units away down the long beach. I wish I could remember how long I’ve lived here, and when we came here, and how. But I can’t. I want to sigh, but sighing is not allowed, and there are still some people lounging nearby on the sand. As before, they seem not to notice me, but then again, maybe they do notice me; maybe they all notice me and are pretending not to. Perhaps the function of the broad glass window is to allow them to watch me inside our home.

Anyway, I don’t sigh. I walk calmly back to our comfortable beach house. My feet gather sand with their wetness as I take long steps to the door.

Back inside, the pill box is there on the polished wooden table waiting for me—the box with all the pills that I haven’t taken in a long time. It beckons to me, and I look inside it again, seeing all of them, wondering what they are for, and wishing I could remember. I go to the sink. I take a green crystal glass from the cupboard and press a button to fill it with water. Then I return to the table and sit there looking out the window at the ocean. With perfect clarity, as if looking through a telescope, I can see my little toy black ship bobbing on the water. But my note, my little shred of paper with the drawings of the star and the flower and “Teeksa 27,” it has just become detached from the boat. And it is floating away. I should be sad, but I’m not. I feel happy to see my boat there among the others, and I think this will bring me luck for the New Days that begin today. “Take pleasure in small things,” my mother used to say. And I do.

I hear a noise at the door and look up as my father enters the house. He’s one of the Healing People, from Former Times. He has grown old now; he is bald and what hair he has left is grey. His face is wrinkled, and he is stoop-shouldered—yet he is a proud man, not conquered by his experiences, like so many others are. He’s fatter than he used to be, too, but he’s mostly healthy. Good health is the greatest gift, we’re told, but I don’t think he is happy. He has barely smiled since my mother died, and that was long ago.

She became ill, right at the beginning of the Time of Forbidden Illness. He tried his best to heal her and failed. I think this is the cause of his unhappiness. They forced him to send her away. I was allowed to visit, just once, in the big white building, and I saw her there in her bed beneath a mound of grey blankets. In spite of her sickness, she smiled at me. That’s my last memory of her.

I look back into the small box of pills, cupping it and hiding it with my hands from my father. Again I wonder if I should take just one pill, swallow it with water from the green glass, even though I can’t remember why or when or how. I stare into the box as my father crosses the room without speaking. There are so many pills. Except for the gel cap’s pale yellow shell, each is crudely formed and sinister-looking in its crudeness. I’m old enough to remember the days when pills were perfectly round or square or lozenge-shaped, with flat or domed tops and words and letters stamped into them. They were the most marvelous colors: pink, orange, yellow; some were even aqua or magenta. They were nothing like these dull imperfect things resembling crumbs of concrete.

But these were given to me for a reason. I know this, given to me by the woman with the dark hair in the lab coat at her place among the desks. I recall stepping up to the counter and speaking with her. But that’s all I remember.

Perhaps I should take one? Would that make my memory worse than it is? What harm could be done by a single crudely formed little pill?

My father, not seeing the small box cupped in my hands, gives me one of his rare weak smiles. He carefully folds his coat, places it on the bench under the window, and asks me how was my day. I start to shrug, but shrugging is not allowed, so I say “fine” and think of asking him where he’s been. But I decide not to.

He stretches out in the big comfortable chair across from me between the table and the window. I keep my position, with the box hidden cupped in my hands that rest innocently before me and beside the green glass on the table. He’s not looking at me. He’s looking up at the ceiling, thinking or daydreaming. Daydreaming is not allowed either, of course—but how could they know?—so everyone does it. At least, everyone I know. Which is myself and my father.

Thinking about the box and the pills and whether it would make me sick to take one, the thought comes into my mind of how sickly I was as a child. I was not expected to live, and if my father hadn’t been one of the Healing People, I wouldn’t have. I think of the stories about how, in spite of his being a healer, I was nearly taken away from him and from my mother during my earliest days. It’s strange that I survived.

I speak up and say to him casually, “Hey, Dad?”

He turns to me.

“When I was a little sickly baby,” I continue, smiling at the thought that we’ll have a conversation, “did you think I’d live to be 27, or 37, or 57, or 60?”

He doesn’t answer and gives me an odd look, perhaps not remembering or not wanting to remember, and I drop the subject.

I sigh—inwardly only—and wonder what to do next. In my impotent state of wondering and having no ideas, I inwardly sigh again.

Suddenly, impulsively, I look beyond him to see if my little sailboat, my tiny offering, is still out there on the dark water. There are more people on the sand now, and more large grey ships in the water. They all seem predatory to me: ships like sharks, or killer whales, or sea monsters. I try hard to focus my eyes and finally I manage to do so, again as if looking with a telescope.

But I can’t see it.

It’s gone.

I’m glad it has floated away.


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