PodCastle 668: Circle of Memories

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

Circle of Memories

By Jessica Meats

Cara brought her hand up to her face and was surprised to find wetness there. She looked at the damp ghosts of tears glistening on her fingertips and wondered what she’d been crying about. On the other side of the ritual circle, the witch held a small crystal, which was still glowing with the magic it had just absorbed.

“That must have been a powerful memory,” the witch commented. The witch was younger than Cara might have expected, her hair a mess of untidy, endearing waves. She met Cara’s gaze with eyes full of sympathy.

Cara blinked away the last of her tears. The confusion was less easy to blink away.

“Do you know what the memory was?” she asked.

The witch shook her head. “I don’t see the memories during the ritual, and you didn’t tell me what it was.”

She held the crystal out and Cara, still feeling a little dazed, accepted it. It was cold in her hand, but tingled with the promise of magic. Cara’s magic, that she’d traded something powerful for, something she now didn’t know. Her memories of coming in here and asking for the ritual were vague, like looking through fog, all the details obscured. She looked about the room as though seeing it for the first time, noting the mess of cluttered jars, the herbs drying from the beams, stubs of old candles, cups and bowls that needed washing, and the big book open on a worktable. It was the room of someone too busy to be preoccupied with tidying. Cara itched to move the tea cup further away from the jars of strangely coloured liquids, just to ensure there was no absent-minded mishap there. But it wasn’t her place to start tidying some stranger’s workshop, or to braid those curls back so the ends didn’t dip into anything.

Cara shook herself before she lost herself in imagining running her fingers through that soft hair or anything else equally inappropriate.

“What happens now?” she asked.

“Our transaction is complete. I’ve taken my portion of the magic. The rest is yours to use for whatever purpose you may have.”

Purpose. It sounded so simple when the witch said it, but when Cara tried to remember what had brought her to the witch’s house and her ritual circle, only emptiness remained.

The practice of trading memories for magic was an old one. The more significant the memory, the more magic it could provide. A memory of a normal, summer’s day could bring enough magic to ease a toothache, while the memory of a beloved relative’s final words could earn enough magic to conjure a mound of treasure. It was said that some of the greatest magic workers had traded away even the memories of their own names to earn their power.

“I don’t remember why I wanted this,” Cara said.

“Sometimes the forgetting is more important than the magic they hope to gain.”

Cara thought of the tears she had been crying. That would make sense if she had wanted to forget something bad.

But what should she do with the magic now? She didn’t want to waste it on something trivial, not when there were people who sacrificed greatly for the wonders that magic could do.

The witch stood, dusting off her skirts, and left the ritual circle. She poured a cup of water from a jug on the crowded worktable, offering it to Cara as she had done the crystal. This was no longer part of the transaction though, this was a simple act of kindness. Cara stood and took the cup, sipping slowly, waiting for her thoughts to rearrange themselves into order around the pieces that were missing. There seemed to be a lot of missing pieces. When she thought about leaving here, she faced another alarming emptiness in her mind.

“I don’t remember where my home is,” she said. There were memories of a childhood home, but they were distant, vague through the mere passage of time and not the influence of magic. There was nothing more recent.

She could use the magic to create money, to buy a new house and live quite comfortably for many years, but that seemed a selfish thing to do with such a wealth of power.

“There is a spare bed here,” the witch offered. “You could stay a while, until you decide what you want to do with your future.”

“Thank you.” Cara felt that she might begin crying again, from gratitude this time.

The witch smiled. “My name is Elner. You are welcome here.”

Elner had a store of books in her house, many written out by hand by previous magic workers. She was kind enough to let Cara read them while she considered what to do with the magic she now possessed. Cara read about spells of healing, spells to encourage plant growth, and spells to create a spring of fresh water in a desert. Cara read these books, imagining all the ways she might make the world better, might help people, with the crystal of power she kept tucked into the pocket of her shirt.

In between, she made herself useful, tidying the clutter that Elner left lying around, preparing meals, taking food and drink into the busy workshop where Elner tried out spells and potions with such an intense passion that she seemed to forget the needs of her body.

“I don’t know how you survived before I got here,” Cara commented, placing a bowl of pottage down on the table while Elner blinked at her with eyes shadowed from lack of sleep.

Elner frowned a little. “Maybe there was someone else?”

That would make sense, but the little bedroom at the back of the house had felt musty with disuse, so it had clearly been a while since anyone had slept there. The fact that Elner didn’t remember might have been worrying, but magic workers were like that, scattered and forgetful as they offered up trivial pieces of their past to fuel their spells. Cara knew that somehow though she did not remember ever having met another magic worker.

On the third day, a man arrived with a boy in his arms, the boy crying at a broken leg. Cara helped clear the space in the ritual circle for the boy and his father to both fit in, the father offering his own memory to power the boy’s healing.

Elner was calm and kind, offering gentle words to both boy and father, giving the boy a potion that she said would dull the pain while she worked. She set the bone back into position while the boy sobbed into his father’s shirt, saying that the more she could do practically, the less magic she would need. The less memory she would need to take.

When she was ready, Elner sat in the ritual circle across from her patient, and Cara lingered in the corner of the workshop to watch, curious about the procedure. Elner instructed the man to focus on a memory he would be willing to sacrifice, and faint lines of light appeared as the magic wove around them. Standing on the outside, she was able to see what someone inside the ritual circle would struggle to notice: the direction the magic was flowing and its relative strength. Pale lights floated from the father toward Elner, and she directed brighter lights out, weaving them around the boy’s leg, knitting together the injured bone. Elner was using her own magic, at least partially, to fuel the spell.

Did the father know? Probably not. He thanked Elner for her help and dropped a handful of copper pieces into her offering plate before leaving with his son walking strongly at his side.

Cara continued to watch as Elner went to a thick book on her worktable and began writing in careful, neat lettering. Elner seemed not to notice that Cara was there, but when Cara brought her food later that day, she flipped open the big book to satisfy her curiosity. Each page was filled with records of spells cast, mostly for healing but also the other requests people summoned a witch for: helping with a poor harvest, diverting floodwaters, and tending of beasts. Elner captured the details of each spell, but also how the people had reacted, the way it had felt, the words of thanks they had offered. She printed the incidents on the paper of her book so that they would never be lost.

“Do you remember any of these?” Cara asked.

Elner, in the middle of eating the pigeon Cara had prepared for her, looked up and saw what she was reading. She swallowed, not quite meeting Cara’s eyes.

“Only the latest one.”

“That must cost you a lot, to give up your memories of spells cast.”

“Better that I can cast more spells. I use the memory of each one to fuel the next, and it means other people don’t have to lose something that matters to them.”

Cara was overwhelmed by the kindness in that gesture, the knowledge that Elner would give so much to help others and never even tell anyone, never want so much as a trace of praise for it. That was why she worked so hard at her magic: she wanted to make the world better with her whole heart and she would give up everything inside her to make it happen if that was what was required. Cara thought of her own store of magic, the store she had yet to determine a purpose for, and felt selfish for holding on to it instead of just giving it over to Elner to work wonders with. She was still thinking that, as she closed the book and caught a glimpse of what was written on the first page.

Your name is Elner.

She only knew her own name because she’d written it in her book. At some point along the way, she had traded away her memory of her own name, of every moment a person had addressed her by it, of every private thought she’d had about it, any conversations about her name’s meanings and any nicknames or terms of endearment that might have been based on it. All of that stripped away and left only as a word upon a page. And how many times had she forgotten her name since then? How many times had she given it up just so that someone else wouldn’t need to make so large a sacrifice to power a healing spell?

Cara looked Elner in the eyes and said, “You are incredible. Your kindness is unfathomable.”

Elner blushed a little, looking away. “I just do what needs to be done. Anyone else would do the same when they see children sick and parents crying.”

But other people didn’t do that. The world was full of people who sought magic for selfish reasons, not to try and heal every sick child. Cara couldn’t let Elner dismiss her own goodness so easily. She reached out and caught Elner’s hand, feeling the skin roughened by callouses and hard work.

“You are a wonder,” Cara said.

Elner’s blush deepened and she looked away, ducking her head as though to hide the shy smile that graced her lips. Cara didn’t think she’d ever seen anything so beautiful as that smile.

A man from the nearest village came once a week with food and supplies. He didn’t seem surprised to see Cara there, just greeted her warmly and discussed the supplies, asking what else they might need. Elner’s garden was given over to mostly herbs for her potions, so Cara was glad of the offerings of foodstuffs and she had plenty to ensure that Elner was well fed and strong enough for her work. The first time he came, the man refused payment and seemed a little surprised that Cara had offered. He said that the services Elner gave them as healer were payment enough; the food was supplied by the village as a whole for her patronage.

So Cara took the food and prepared meals. She kept the house clean and made sure to drag Elner off to bathe or sleep as she required, since she seemed unable to regulate herself, capable of getting lost in her work until days had passed. As Cara shepherded her to bed one night, Elner murmured, “I don’t know why you put up with me.”

“Because you’re kind and clever and too busy taking care of the rest of the world to look after yourself.”

“You’re kind,” Elner countered.

“Nothing compared to you.”

“You’re kind to me.”

She caught hold of Cara’s hand and tugged her closer, bringing their mouths together for a kiss. Cara was so surprised that all she could do was stand there. After a moment, Elner seemed to realise what she had done. She snapped to attention like someone waking from sleep-walking and stepped back, dropping Cara’s hand like it burned.

“Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Cara saw the regret and sorrow written across Elner’s face and would have done anything to wipe them away. She wanted to make Elner smile again, the way she had when she’d called her a wonder. Cara reached out and took Elner’s hand in her own again, drawing her back.

“We’ll talk about this in the morning,” she said, “when you’ve had a chance to sleep.” And then, to show that this wasn’t a refusal, she leaned in and pressed a light kiss over Elner’s lips.

“In the morning,” she repeated.

Now Cara had a new way to draw Elner away from her work when she was buried too deeply in potions and spells. She lured her to the bedroom with kisses and smiles, distracting her with pleasure and then watching her slip into contented sleep. Soon the little bedroom at the back of the house stood empty again, and Cara slept with her arms around Elner, or lying in the pool of warmth she’d left when she slipped out early to get back to work.

Cara learned which dishes were Elner’s favourites, and which tricks in the bedroom would make her squeal with joy. She took care of Elner as best she could, but sometimes she didn’t have to drag Elner from her work. Sometimes Elner surprised her, like the morning she awoke early not to start brewing potions but so that she could prepare the breakfast for once, decorating the table with a bunch of wildflowers.

When a woman left a bolt of dyed cloth in payment for a spell to bring home a lost sheep, Elner had insisted that Cara take the cloth for herself, as a gift.

Elner showered her with affection for the smallest of things, and Cara did her best to ensure she earned that affection. For the first time since her arrival here, she had stopped thinking about the magic in her pocket, about the purpose she might have had once or the home she had forgotten. This was her home. Nothing else was important. She had Elner, and as long as they had each other, they would be happy.

Then a man came, riding up in the night on a horse that looked half-dead from the exertion. He pounded on the door with cries of plague and pleas for the witch to come save his town. Of course, Elner agreed at once to help. Cara packed up the bags and boxes of supplies and then ran to the village to request the loan of a cart and pony.

It took them four days to reach the town. They could smell the pyres for the dead many hours before the buildings came into sight. They met the first of the townsfolk along the way. Some were fleeing for their lives, but others had come to meet them, knowing that a witch had been summoned. One old woman who looked barely able to stand clutched a boy to her chest, his face flushed with fever. The last of her grandchildren, she said, as she begged for magic to save him.

Elner drew the ritual circle in the dust of the road and set to work, the boy so far gone that the woman had to lose the memories of all her other grandchildren to save this one, even with the tell-tale glow showing that Elner was giving of herself as well. She couldn’t take memories from the boy himself because he was unconscious. Elner had explained once that a person had to be consciously focusing on the memories to take otherwise she might end up taking anything, with no way to differentiate between the trivial and the crucial. She might take someone’s most treasured memory, or their memory of how to speak or read, or even how to breathe. It had been the first warning in one of the books in Elner’s collection, so for all those who were sick beyond the point of awareness, someone else had to be willing to sacrifice of themselves to save them.

As they continued towards the town, others stopped them along the way, offering nothing more than pleas in payment for the healings of their loved ones, and Elner stopped for each and every one. The rituals seemed to take too long, the power too strong and the lights too bright. Cara didn’t know a great deal about magic, despite her reading of Elner’s books, but she’d been witness to enough rituals of healing to wonder at the length of time this was taking. As she helped Elner to stand afterwards and boosted her back into the cart so that they could continue to the town, she asked about it.

“There’s something magical in the sickness,” Elner said. “Maybe it started as a curse. It has the feel of a true disease and seems to behave as one, but it’s more vicious, filling its victims with pains and fever dream terrors. At its heart there is a core of magic. That takes more power to dispel.”

“Why would someone use precious magic to create an illness?” Cara asked. She could understand those who used magic for personal gain, or to buy security in an uncertain world, but using magic to create something that would cause only suffering seemed abominable. It didn’t seem Elner had an answer for her either.

As the town became visible, Cara wondered how a place of such size managed not to have a healer of its own, but that question was soon answered as they approached the town square and the man who had fetched them brought them over to an older man who was sitting in a ritual circle of his own, tending to a pregnant woman.

When the healing was complete, Elner went to introduce herself. Then man smiled and started to return the greeting.

“Hello Elner, I’m…” and then he faltered and looked puzzled. After a moment, that puzzlement changed to sadness and he finished simply, “Oh.”

It was clear that Elner wasn’t the only one who gave herself to rituals.

“Arrin,” said their guide. “Our healer.”

An overwhelmed healer in the midst of destruction he couldn’t fight. Elner took her place in his circle and they worked together to cure all those who came begging for aid. It was clear that they were struggling, and Cara felt the weight of the crystal in her pocket, a store of magic waiting for a purpose. What better purpose could there be than this?

When Elner took a moment between rituals to take a drink of water, Cara held the crystal out towards her.

“I can’t take this,” Elner said.

“You can do more good than I ever could with it,” Cara answered. She placed the crystal in Elner’s hand and closed her fingers over it, letting their hands stay linked for several moments longer than was necessary.

There was gratitude on Elner’s face and something else, something deeper. She reached out and drew Cara in for a kiss. Then she got back to work.

Cara helped in what little ways she could, offering water to the sick, holding frightened children while their parents were tended, or just answering the same questions a hundred times for the people who felt like their worlds were ending. She tried to stay calm through the terror as the day faded into night and the lights of the rituals continued on through darkness and exhaustion because the sickness wouldn’t yield and so neither would Elner.

Sometime late into the night, Cara felt the first wave of dizziness overwhelm her but she dismissed it as simple tiredness. She couldn’t just seek out a bed while Elner was still working, so she ignored those feelings and pressed on, but when she carried the cup of water to her lover between healings, Elner frowned at her with concern.

“Are you alright?” she asked and reached out a hand to rest on Cara’s forehead. “You’re burning up.”

In that moment, Elner looked as frightened as any of the townsfolk.

“I’ll be alright,” Cara said. But then the world shifted around her, the buildings no longer so solid and the ground beneath her feet felt like the ocean in a storm. She collapsed into Elner’s arms and tried to think of something clever to say about this situation, some way to tease Elner into a smile with a comment about how all this had been a ploy to get her arms around her. But all thoughts of joking faded at the look of horror on Elner’s face.

“I’ll be alright,” Cara said again. “The best healer in the realm is looking out for me.”

“I don’t have enough strength left,” Elner said. Her eyes were damp, sparkling like stars that seemed to dance as Cara’s vision wavered. “I used up the crystal’s store. I don’t have anything left to give.”

Those words were the last thing Cara heard before she slipped into a darkness inhabited by formless shapes of fear. The dreams had no consistency, no substance, just a feeling of dread that washed over her in waves before slipping away again. A few times, Cara became aware of hands on her and voices nearby, but which came from the dreams and which came from the waking world, she couldn’t tell. Each time she came close to waking, the shapeless fears came to drag her back down into the nightmare world.

And then the nightmares were gone.

Cara was lying in a ritual circle, her sweat-soaked skin chill in the night air. The sky was starting to brighten so she could see clearly as, across the circle, Elner wiped tears from her cheek and studied the dampness on her fingertips with a puzzled air, as if she couldn’t remember what she had been crying about.

“What happened?” Cara asked.

“You were sick with a magical fever,” Elner said. “Don’t worry. I’m a witch. I healed you.”

“I know you’re a witch.” Cara pushed herself into a sitting position. The square was quieter than it had been earlier. Most of the sick had been dealt with before she’d succumbed, and so there were few others about, and those who were nearby were giving them enough distance to grant privacy.

“I suppose the circle makes it obvious,” Elner said. She gave a gentle smile, but it was the reassuring look of kindness she gave all her patients, not the bright, private smile that she usually gave Cara. That was when Cara knew: Elner didn’t remember her. Elner had sacrificed her memories of their relationship to save her from the fever.

Cold dread settled in Cara’s stomach, worse than anything the nightmares had brought. She saw the blankness in her lover’s eyes and almost wished she’d never woken up. As Elner stood and walked away from her, Cara wanted to call out, to beg her to stay, to hunt her eyes for some sign of recognition, but the words didn’t come. Cara sat on the stone paving of the town square and wept.

She couldn’t even be angry with Elner. After all, if their places were reversed, Cara knew she would give anything to protect Elner, to keep her safe and well. But what was she supposed to do now?

She couldn’t just walk away. She could go after Elner and tell her about them, remind her, but it wouldn’t be the same. Would it hurt more to try and rebuild their love when Elner didn’t know her at all? It seemed unbalanced, unfair on both of them that only one could remember all they had been.

Unless that was the answer. Cara could forget too. They had fallen in love once before when they had been strangers. She could trust that they would fall in love again. Without their memories, put together in the same way, they would fall in love every single time because there was no possible world where Cara wouldn’t see Elner’s kindness and be awed by it, where she wouldn’t do all in her power to take care of her, to be worthy of her. It would be a fresh start for both of them, a blank slate that they could build on all over again, entering the relationship as equals. They had been happy before and they would be happy again, Cara was sure of it. She trusted in the strength of their love to keep them together, even without their memories.

So when Elner returned home, Cara followed. She walked into that little house in the woods and looked at the woman who looked back so blankly and announced that she wanted to trade a memory for magic.

As she sat down in the ritual circle, Cara thought about the spare bed in the house and the way the man from the village had been unsurprised by her presence, the way Elner hadn’t known if someone had taken care of her before. As the lights of the ritual rose about them, Cara couldn’t help wondering how many times she had sat in this position. How many times had they fallen in love only to forget it? And how many times more would they have to?

It didn’t matter, she told herself, thinking back over all that they had shared, all the memories she was about to lose. Their love was strong enough to survive. If she had to fall in love with Elner a hundred times over, she would, she promised herself as tears ran down her cheeks. She felt that thought dissolve like mist in the morning sun, leaving calm emptiness behind.

Cara brought her hand up to her face and was surprised to find wetness there.

About the Author

Jessica Meats

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Jessica Meats is a graduate of the University of York, where she was part of the university writing group and a regular contributor to a creative arts magazine. She has been a fan of science fiction and fantasy since childhood and one of her first stories, at aged six, involved slaying a dragon and being made to tidy up the mess. Her first novel, a science fiction adventure called Child of the Hive, was published in 2009 and since then she has published a number of novels and novellas. She works in the IT industry but between work and writing, Jessica finds time to read, do embroidery, and study sword fighting.

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About the Narrator

Jen R. Albert

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Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.

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