Lethe and Mnemosyne

by Chuck Wendig

They eased the photos down in front of the old man, who gnawed a lip and peered at them through narrowed eye.

“Please,” his daughter said, pushing the hospital tray full of photos toward him, “you need to remember.”

In one photo, the old man’s father — their grandfather — sat in the cab of a gleaming John Deere tractor in the middle of a bright, broad cornfield, the tractor eclipsed by a giant, fat-necked Rhode Island Red hen with a rose comb on top. The hen was caught mid-gobble, her beak snapping up whole corn cobs right off their stalks.

In the photo after, the old man as a boy sat on his father’s lap as the man handed over his farm ledgers to a goat-legged fellow wearing suspenders and a pair of mud-caked boots. Everybody wore smiles.

In the third and fourth photos, the old man as a teenager was gunning a 1952 Chevy Bel Air hard-top across beach sands the color of custard. A mermaid sat on the hood, black ravens-wing hair cascading behind her, her eyes wild, her red mouth laughing.

“Pop,” the son said, “they’ve seen the hen down off of Route Nine, and godsamnit if she hasn’t torn the top from the Walsatch’s silo. You need to think on how you get that chicken to leave this town again, ‘cause this world isn’t made for that kind of thing anymore. Think, Pop, think. We need you to remember.”

“This can’t go on,” the daughter says. “Eleanor Walsatch says they might sue. We can’t handle another lawsuit.”

“Is it a word?” the son asked. “Is that what sends the hen away? Is there something you used to scratch in the dirt?”

The old man looked at the photos one more time, but the truth was, the stroke had left his brain a mess, and no matter how long he stared, he remembered none of it.

© Chuck Wendig 2009

 
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