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What Memories Are Made Of

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there's no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXVI. She can be found online at www.katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.

There was a footbridge on the road leading into the town, but its troll was small enough that Hans only had to sell a woodcarving memory to gain passage. Afterwards, he prodded at the blank space in his mind, like tonguing a missing tooth, even though he'd sold enough memories to know that it was gone forever. He reached into his pocket and felt the reassuring shape of his latest carving. After five decades of working with wood, surely he had memories to spare. And even if he didn't, the price was still worth it.
Another chance to find his daughter, his Inger, was worth any price.
The caravan of Traveling Folk was circled just outside the town walls. A steady stream of men and women flowed between the town and encampment--people who coveted goods from far-off lands more than they despised those who brought them. Town and caravan children played together underfoot, oblivious to the tensions of their elders. They had not yet learned to fear the memory loss that accompanied traveling.
Hans wandered through the encampment, searching for Inger. When he reached the edge of the wagon circle, he meant to turn back but instead found himself frozen in his tracks.
He stared at a blue wagon trimmed with images of red clover. He knew that wagon, knew it by feel, the way he knew his own teeth, though a moment earlier he would have sworn he'd never seen it before. He struggled to catch hold of the memory and came up against sharp-edged blankness, the feeling of a memory cut away. Increasingly uneasy, he circled the wagon, struck by the same feeling again and again--three, five, ten times. How many memories of this wagon had he sold? And why?
A woman with a baby on her hip opened a door set in the back of the wagon. "You again!"
Before Hans could ask what she meant, she retreated inside. A moment later, Inger's husband Butolf emerged.
"Where is Inger?" Hans demanded, torn between hope and a growing fear. Why was a strange woman sharing Butolf's wagon?
Butolf crossed his arms and glared. "I've told you this a dozen times."
And after each one, Hans must have sold his memory of the telling to a troll. His heart hammered in his chest. "Tell me again."
"She's dead."
Hans reeled back against the neighboring wagon. "No. No, that's impossible--"
"You saying that doesn't make it any less true."
"You lured her away and now you're trying to keep her from me!"
Butolf threw his hands in the air. "Check the wagon, if you like."
Hans did, checking every nook and cranny, while Butolf's new wife complained and the baby cried and Butolf snapped at all of them. Finally, Hans surrendered to the terror that Butolf had spoken the truth and went back outside. He leaned against the side of the wagon, fighting back tears. The last words he'd spoken to his daughter had been angry ones. Now she was gone and he'd never see her smiling face again. Never hear her laugh. Never apologize.
No wonder he'd forgotten.
Butolf exited the wagon, still glowering. "Look, I'll give you whatever you want, if you promise you'll go away and remember to never come back."
Hans shook his head. All he wanted was Inger. But Inger was gone.
Butolf made an annoyed sound, then suddenly shouted, "Marit! Get back here, you brat, Luitgard needs your help with the baby."
Marit. Hans blinked in surprise at hearing his dead wife's name. Then he stared in mounting shock as a shabbily dressed girl emerged from the crowd. She looked exactly like his Inger had as a child. For a moment, he was afraid that his mind was finally coming unraveled but then he blinked again and realized the truth.
"Grandpapa!" The child--Inger's child--caught sight of him and flung herself into his arms. "Did you bring me a present?"
Instinctively, Hans reached into his pocket and came up with his latest carving: a bushy-tailed fox.
"It's perfect!" Marit snatched the carving out of his hands, her delighted smile an uncanny echo of her mother's, and his heart spasmed in renewed pain. "I'll add it to my collection."
Butolf was scowling at them both, now. "Back into the wagon, Marit."
Marit's smile vanished. "But Grandpapa just got here--"
"And now he's just leaving," Butolf snapped.
Tears glistened in Marit's eyes but she was as proud as her mother--as her grandfather. Instead of crying, she stormed into the wagon and slammed the door.
Inside, the baby wailed even louder than before.
Hans began to stumble away, not certain where he was going, just knowing there was no point in staying where he was unwelcome. But he'd only made it a few steps when he heard the door bang open again and Marit called out, "Grandpapa, wait!"
She ran after him, then opened a canvas bag and spilled its contents into his hands.
He hadn't just given her one carving, he'd given her a dozen--no a score--of tiny woodland creatures. They spread across his palms, a child's lifetime's worth of happy memories.
He didn't remember carving any of them.
"My granddaughter." Hans only realized he was going to speak when he heard the words ringing in his ears. He could never apologize to Inger--and how that hurt!--but he could still make things right for her daughter. "Give me Marit and you'll never see me again."
Butolf only hesitated for a moment. "Done."
Marit's eyes widened. "Really?"
Hans would make mistakes, of course, but at least he could avoid making the same ones as before. "Only if you want to come." He slid the carvings back into the bag and gave it back to her. "If you would rather go with Butolf, I understand."
Marit slipped her hand into his. "I want to go home with you." She smiled again, but this time it was a smile full of hope and the promise of a new beginning.
It was a moment he would never forget.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 29th, 2014
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