The First Memory

white feather

My first memory was of a feather.

I was walking through the yard between the house and the barn and the gumbo was sucking my moonboots into it.

I was working at loosening one of my boots when I saw the feather blowing, moving up and down in the invisible chill breeze of summer. I was going to be three soon, it was very nearly my birthday. I wanted the moment of the me and the feather to be something that never ended and then I had a moment of full blown clarity:

I had the power to remember.

I was only a child, little more than a baby, really. It had never occurred to me before that moment that an event could be pulled back out of your own mind and recalled in crystal clarity. That feather, I can still remember it’s shape, the imperfection of broken vanes on one side of the feather and the bits of down near the bottom of the shaft. It wasn’t perfect but it was my feather and my memory.

That is my childhood. That is my life. It isn’t perfect and it isn’t even a pin feather, but it’s all mine and so are my memories of it. Nobody has ever taken them away from me and it’s my story to tell.

But I’m not going to start at the start.

I’m going to start with Philip.

I was eight and I was in grade four and Philip was my friend. He and I sat together for hours and we looked into each other’s eyes and I was happy and so was he. It will always be his eyes that I remember. They were a darker blue than mine, beautiful eyes with black eye lashes around them. He was my friend and I don’t believe that he killed himself.

-but you’ll have to be the judge of that. Clues are gone now, evidence never collected, players involved are dead, or sick, or stricken with willful senility.

I woke up that October morning and I was cold. I wrapped my blanket around me and walked to the hallway and out to the front door. It was an unusual sight that greeted me in the pre-dawn light, my mother standing in the open door with the darkness from outside spilling into the chill house. The light outside was new and fresh, it was the reflected light of the new snow that was different. Last night it had been autumn and now winter was here. Big snowflakes fell as two shapes emerged like shadows in the blue light. One of the shapes was carrying a rifle.

My Dad was carrying the gun. He was walking quickly and his words, when he spoke, were brisk and thick with indifference.

“He did it.”

That was all he said. My Mom stifled a gasp with the back of her hand. I knew what he meant. I knew that Philip was dead.

My Dad called the police and told them about what he had found in the field at the end of the rutted dirt track. I didn’t hear what he said to them, but I heard what he said after to Clint, the friend of Philip’s who had come walking back like a shadow of a dog in the dawn light.

“Well, I think that went well,” my dad said.  “They didn’t say a word about me having done it.”

I saw his eyes flick to me and him realize that I had overheard him. I saw the look of cunning calculation enter his eyes and the briefest moment of concern followed by the confidence that I would never betray him.

After all, I had always been Daddy’s girl and I was a very very good girl indeed.

He assumed that I would stay home from school and I refused. I wanted to go to school.

The house wasn’t just cold because the door had been left open. It was cold because the furnace was broken. Our woodstove had been disconnected in favour of the diesel centralized furnace that had been put into the basement and so my mom turned on the oven and we all sat around and baked our cold fingers and huddled in our blankets while it very very slowly became lighter outside. I demanded to go to school.

The police had not arrived by the time I was ready to walk down to the bus stop at the end of our long driveway. My dad did something that he had never done before, he walked me to the end of the road and stood holding my hand while we waited. He asked me a lot of questions.

“Did you sleep through the night? Do you remember anything after you fell asleep? Remember, Philip was very sick. We should have taken him to the hospital last night, only the hospital said it would be ok…”

Philip was sick. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he was pursued by demons. I had seen them too, crowding around and pushing through the walls. Was it true? Or was it my imagination? The power of suggestion, especially to a child is a powerful thing but there are other things, there is evil in the world and not everything can be seen.

I didn’t cry about Philip, it wasn’t like that. To me, he never really died, to me he was always with me and I felt the tumult far more than any sorrow. I felt the feeling of cogs slipping out of alignment and watched the world fall to pieces. I didn’t want to hold my dad’s hand while we waited for the bus. I wondered if the gun had had blood on it. It must have, why was it so clean when he had brought it back to the house? Why were his hands clean? Why had he carried the gun back to the house? Who would pick up a weapon that had caused a human death and put it back up on his gun rack?

When I came home from school Philip’s body had been removed. The police and whoever else had been summoned by the phone call had all come and gone and I never talked to anyone about it, not then.

My mom and dad went to the funeral and I stayed with some friends of the family along with my brothers and my dog, who I begged to have come with me. It was a lucky thing that I won that fight. While they were at the funeral, right at Halloween, my house burned to the ground.

-Virginia Carraway Stark.


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