Only So Much Memory

There is something you need to remember.

“Tell me about your favourite trip,” he says. He leans forward, his hands folded neatly in his lap. Fingers folded into each other, folded so they don’t fidget, or fly away.

“Favourite trip?” she asks, turning to him, her face blank. It pains him that it isn’t her face, her old face, with her fair skin and bright eyes framed in soft curls, but come on, Simon, what can you expect after everything that’s happened?

“Yes, Mattie,” Simon answers. His voice is still and his hands are not. They shake, mildly, and he pulls the gray sleeves of his sweater over them to cover the distraction.

“My favourite trip.” She falls silent. Then, just as suddenly, her features brighten. To Simon, it seems to light up the entire room. “The conservatory. Ma and Pa and Simon and me.”

Yes! We were all there. He hides his smile.

“We went to the conservatory.” She pauses again. “I caught a black bird.”

“You almost caught it,” he corrects her, and this time he grins in spite of himself.

“I almost caught it,” she agrees. “It was big. Huge. Ginormous! The biggest bird you ever saw.”

He shakes his head, chuckling, not bothering to correct this time.

“I chased it over the bridge,” she continues. “I lost a shoe. You found it for me.”

“Yes,” he says, the word hushed and nearly inaudible, letting himself drift in the memory.

“I fell asleep on the ride home. I had fun.” She finishes the story and hums softly.

In the background, there is a scratchy bird laugh. He looks up to see Hugh flapping his wings, feathers brushing against the cage, the bars vibrating with a rattling tin sound. Mute, as usual, says nothing, his yellowed head cocking from side to side in sudden, jerky motions.

Simon laughs too, and the sound catches in his throat. He turns his attention back to the most important thing.

“Wonderful, Mattie,” he whispers. The delight is etched like pain on his face. “Wonderful.”

“Wonderful,” she repeats, and the accident seems so far away.

Human memory is an imperfect thing. So many factors impede your ability to remember. Distance. Time. Age. Stress. Disorder. Disease. Accident. Daily, you lose subtle moments, nuances, bits and pieces of your life before you even realize it. Suddenly, you lose entire chunks, huge gaps splayed across your memory like chasms, entire experiences that once defined whom you were.

Human memory is limited. Archive can change that for you. No limitations. Every word you say. Every letter you write. Every picture, video, sound. Let Archive save your life for you. Record it. Database it. Tag it. Is it meaningless to you? Archive can give it meaning. Archive is more than storage. Archive manages pieces, connects fragments, merges assets with metadata. Archive remembers for you. Intelligent asset management for your life.

On the screen, an impeccably groomed man, with a voice so smooth it grates, declares, “Me? Memory like a goldfish. It’s downright embarrassing. Archive helps me keep track of people I met, what we did. It’s more than facts. It makes the memories personal. Real. Makes them your own. Thank you, Archive.”

A woman who looks like a girl appears. She leans forward in an earnest manner. “I was in a car crash. I couldn’t remember anything from before it happened. I forgot my husband, my children; they were complete strangers. They told me stories, but I couldn’t relate to them. I felt like an intruder in my own life. But Archive helped me get it back. Thank you, Archive.”

“Viewer off,” he says, and the woman blinks into blackness. The shop is picking it up today. He needs the money.

There is something you need

“It worked!” he’s saying. “It worked perfectly. You should have seen it!”

Pete blinks up at the rambling, dishevelled intruder hovering over him. “What?”

“It’s amazing.” Simon’s hands fly through the air as he speaks, his gestures and words a stuttering torrent. “The progress was incredible! I got the system hooked up, fed the photos, the videos, the journals, the – the … everything I could remember about … about anything, really.”

“The what?” Pete takes his glasses off, cleans them with the edge of his shirt, sets them back on his face and squints back up like a wary stranger. “That Archive thing?”

“Yes!” Hands clutch at the empty air like excited claws. “Let me tell you about it. Yesterday I tried to make a tag. I talked to her, and Mattie remembered. I mean, she remembered. I mean, her memory was recreated. Her favourite trip. Exactly the way she would have remembered it before.” He braces his arms against the table, shaking the bowl of pistachios, and leans forward to look Pete in the eye. “There’ll be other memories too, you know, when the software makes the connections.”

Pete stares at him, stares at the other man’s bleary eyes and straw pile hair. He reaches for a nut. “That’s great, Simon,” he finally says, chewing thoughtfully.

“Oh, and, here’s the rent I owed from last time.” Simon flips it onto the table like it’s nothing. ”So what did you want to see me about?”

Pete looks down at the chips, then back up at the figure. He chews some more. “Nothing. Just go back. Go back to Mattie.”

“Gotcha. See you later, Pete.”

“See you, Simon.”

Simon is two steps out the door when Pete adds, “Say. How do you know it was really her favourite trip? Maybe it was all made up.”

“No. It happened. I was there.” Simon chuckles, runs a hand through his mussed hair. “God. I completely forgot about it until now.”

Hugh and Mute are a pair of mynahs, fat and sedentary. Hugh was a present from a co-worker who said Simon looked like he needed something to take care of with more personality than a goldfish (this was before he had been able to pick Mattie up and take her home). Mute was a bird Simon had bought because he thought Hugh would appreciate the company.

Mynahs are supposed to talk, but Simon has had the luck of tying himself to not one but two defective mynahs. Hugh mostly laughs a lot, and sometimes makes random sound effects with an incredulous sort of undertone. Mute is mute, whether out of choice or inability, Simon has no idea.

His weekends develop a semblance of routine and purpose. There are four things to take care of: Hugh, Mute, Mattie and Simon himself. Breakfast, lunch, dinner for the motley group. He spends the rest of his free time working with Mattie. Sitting in the lumpy chair picked up thirdhand off the street, with foam peeking out sadly at the seams. Little by little he coaxes progress out of her, out of Archive. He’s no expert; some days the coding takes forever to make sense to his cursedly dull mind, and other days the meaning jumps out to him, clear as a birdless sky on a sunny day. It’s worth it, it’s all worth it, he tells himself.

This morning Hugh and Mute are already up, as usual, pacing skittishly and pecking at old seed hulls stuck to the cage floor. Mattie sits in the corner where he’d left her, as always, humming a soft, tuneless melody. It’s a pleasant buzz to his ears.

“Morning, Mattie,” he says.

“Hello, Simon,” she answers. He closes his eyes for a moment, imagining her smile. Seeing her smile is impossible now, of course, but the memories are enough.

There is something

Something is wrong. Mattie is slow and sluggish. Slow and sluggish everything. He grabs her with both hands and barely manages to stop himself from shaking her. She can barely run.

“What’s wrong?” he begs, but she doesn’t answer, lost in her own little world. In the background, Hugh whistles to himself, a nervous and reedy note. Mute, as always, says nothing.

He has only so much memory. Simon tosses a glance over his shoulder at Mattie, still sleeping in the corner, then back to the half-crumpled printouts in his hand. The processing power is being run into the ground. It’s something bound to happen, and in the back of his mind, he knows it, but he doesn’t want to know. All the information he’s been feeding the system, generating memories on the fly, the culling and compiling, leaving every possible connection open for Archive to look through: it wears on the system. Badly.

There’s only so much memory.

“Damn it,” he mutters under his breath. He knows what he needs to do. Even he knows what he needs to do; it’s that simple. He needs to lock the existing memories down to shut off potential connections and free up formulating processes. Static, frozen assets are the only thing his pathetic setup can work with.

“I can’t do that,” Simon says out loud, hating himself for not being able to afford something better. The memories Mattie holds now aren’t even close to completion.

Still so much detail missing. “I’ll wait ‘till I can get more memory,” he mutters, rifling through the sheets and feeling stubborn as a goat.

“I hope that’s soon,” says a voice.

“Christ, Pete,” says Simon, grabbing the chair before it hits the wall. “What the hell are you doing there?”

“You left the door open.”

“Ah. Must’ve forgotten.”

“Maybe you need a direct plug-in for your own brain.”

Simon laughs, and the sound rings, awkward and uncomfortable to his ears. “Too expensive. I pulled my own teeth to pay for Mattie as it is.” He sets the papers back down on the desk and his fingers brush against a worn photo frame, the one of Mattie on a pony, a stocky white pony speckled with grayish-blue.

He scratches his neck, “You know, Pete,” he says. “It’s funny. It hasn’t even been that long. It’s amazing the things you can forget.”

“Like?”

“Like how someone looks. Or what they sound like when they talk. Or laugh. Or whatever. I can remember how Mattie looked before the fire because of this photo. That’s about it. You ever think about the things you’d forget if they weren’t staring you in the face or echoing in your ears?”

Pete shakes his head. “Listen, Simon. I can’t stay long. This is under the table, you hear? I hafta tell you, I can’t cover for your lateness anymore. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Simon turns his head to the side to look back at him, quietly surprised at how unsurprising the news was. After a moment he opens his mouth. “Yeah.” He nods. “I understand.”

“You’re going to lose Mattie.”

Simon is silent.

“I know it’s important to you, but you’re at the end of your rope. You’re still behind. If you can’t cough up the money for this month’s … I’ve done all I can. More than I can.”

“Mattie is all I have left,” he finally says, almost bitterly.

“If you’re that desperate, you could strap everything to your back and carry Mattie around or something.”

The ludicrousness of the image forces his lips to curl upwards, unhappily. He looks back at the picture of Mattie on a pony. “Thanks for letting me know.”

In the afternoon he sets Hugh and Mute free, opening the cage and all the windows in the apartment. They eye the unlatched door for twenty minutes before hopping out, and circle the room for another four before flying away. He doesn’t say anything to Mattie when he brushes past her in the small room; he can’t bear to even look at her right now.

In the afternoon he goes out, taking a walk to clear his mind. He goes straight for as long as he can before his legs tell him it’s time to go back. Back to home that won’t be home.

When he gets back, there’s a clump of feathers by the door. Mynah feathers; Simon ought to know. He cleans them out of the cage every morning.

Poor Hugh. Or is it Mute? He’s not quite sure. Simon sighs and swipes his card, waits for the click, and lets himself in. He looks around the room, small and white and bare save for the couch, the empty cage, and his desk with the old photos. And Mattie. It wouldn’t look all that different after everything is taken away. The only thing of value is Mattie. He’d spent all his money on Mattie.

“It’s all going,” he says, to no one in particular.

To his surprise, she turns towards him, pivoting smoothly on her circular base, her face lighting up.

“Hello, Simon,” she says. He smiles wanly and shakes his head. He must have forgotten to take her off sleep mode. “Not much time left, Mattie,” he replies.

Her sensors pick up his inflection and dialogue boxes blossom across her face. “Time?” she inquires.

“No, Mattie.” He shakes his head. “It’s not a new tag. Don’t assign it. I don’t have time for that.” Frowning, he pulls the cuff of his sleeve over his palm and wipes the dust from her face – had he really forgotten to clean in this short period of time? – then blows at the screen, clearing away the rest. He can see a ghost of his reflection in the dark areas behind the glass, a thin and tired ghost with bags under his eyes.

There is only time for one last thing. He should wipe the hardware, turn off the system and disconnect Mattie for pick up. He begins to methodically erase the data, beginning with the dynamic memories.

It’s slow going. Voice commands would make it faster, he knows, but it feels obscene, and he stubbornly clacks away at the keyboard. With every keystroke, with every deleted story, Mattie runs faster, runs way faster, click clack click clack. Runs away faster. He’s almost done trashing the dynamic assets when he sees the last set of verbal modifiers.

The top one flickers against his vision, dangles up like a feather sticking out of a limp avian corpse. Almost. He remembers the day it was made, and his forefinger hovers over the keys.

There is time for one last thing.

Simon pulls his hand away from the board, quickly, as though it burns, and walks to the opposite wall. He sits down on the lumpy couch. He settles into it the way a child would, all folded arms and legs and nothing touching the floor. He closes his eyes. “Search tag,” he says. “Favourite trip. Cull and compile.”

“Favourite trip?”

“Yes, Mattie. Tell me about it.”

There is a nearly undetectable pause as Archive searches through its memory banks, retrieving and sorting the multimedia, the photos and videos and journal entries. The software picks at the details, plotting correlations, assembling it all into a distinct story, refining it with the stored data of verbal corrections, weaving it according to the profile that had been defined at setup. Child, it says. Female. Energetic. Prone to exaggerations …

Simon curls into a fetal position, the words wrapped around him like a blanket, their uneven, childlike rise and fall lulling him to sleep.

“My favourite trip,” the Archive says. “The conservatory. Ma and Pa and Simon and me. We went to the conservatory. I caught a black bird. I almost caught it …”

Only So Much Memory end

Our memory is our coherence, our reason,
our feeling, even our action. Without it,
we are nothing.
– Luis Bunuel (1900-1983), Spanish filmmaker


2006. Written as a final project for a Science Fiction English course I took in university. My main inspiration at the time was a tiny newspaper clipping – a blurb about Microsoft’s MyLifeBits research – along with another course I was taking at the time that discussed digital asset management solutions.

The illustrations are watercolour and pen on handmade paper.