Palimpsests

A story I should like to write one day is about a woman who has lost her memory. 

She wakes up, I know, on a grey shingly beach, the pebbles ranging from the size of peas to the size of, let us say, bowling balls.  The stones are mostly grey, some white with quartz, others dark, pebbles brought from far away by the seething of the tide.  The shore is grey, the sea is grey, a steely opaque grey, unfriendly, secretive, taciurn; the waves are very small.   The sky, therefore, is cloudy.  The shingle stretches a long way each direction, into haze; there are no islands out to sea, no boats or ships or seals visible.  She’s on a shoal when she wakes up.  On the shore proper the shingles sweep up to marram-grass dunes, not high ones.  Behind them stretch marshes.

It is, I think, neither cold nor warm; some shoulder season of the year, spring or fall.  The sea is very still, the grass very still, the only sounds the soft plashing of the wavelets and the cries of thousands upon thousands of white birds in the marsh.  The woman turns around, looking, not yet afraid.  Then, off down the shore a ways, she sees a house: something like a Scottish bothy, low, squat, white-washed walls, thatched roof of reeds from the marsh, dark windows.

Or perhaps the story doesn’t start there.  Perhaps it starts much later on.  Seven years later on, for instance.  It is something of a fairy tale; she is searching for her memory, or at least the hint of her identity.  She gains a new name — Wayfarer, let me call her, for her identity is wholly contained in her searching, she has no patronym or toponymic to anchor her in communities, no Anne of Bath or Nora Smith she.  She gains a life, experiences, friends, enemies perhaps.  She learns new things; she comes to be a new person.

What if she then regains her memory?  It is a fairy tale; she might.  What if the past comes seeping up through her new present, so that her old name, old identity, old relationships to people and the world, come to light?  What then?

There are manuscripts where this happens; it’s called palimpsest.  Someone, let us say, copied out some lines of Virgil.  Later on, someone else needs a piece of parchment for his own purposes, so he scrapes the top layer off and with it the ink, and copies out a passage from Augustine’s City of God.

And seven hundred or a thousand years later, the remnant traces of the old ink come to light again, and you can read Virgil in and through Augustine.  There are works we knew only by a two thousand-year-old reputation that have been rediscovered in this way.  I like the idea of writing about that: what happens when it is one’s own mind that this is happening to, when one has rewritten on the tabula of the mind that John Locke said was a tabula rasa — a blank slate — or an erased one.  But if not fully erased?

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