The air smelled like fire and incense, imbued with something magical and lost to time. Taking lungfuls of it made the edges of my vision blur, and everything seemed right.
The tented stalls, the lights, the giggling drunken women who passed me. All of the things that seemed touristy and tacky when I had arrived suddenly seemed perfect. I see a man with one eye, and a woman with a serpent's tongue. But I dismiss them, little glitches in my broken mind.
Of course, this would be it, this was the only place I could ever retrieve what I was missing. It's funny, people always say they can't remember what they had for breakfast, or what they wore, or where they were. I never forget any of that, I have what you might call a photographic memory.
Except for the last nine years. I can still wrestle back a few memories from last year, when I was found, half dead. Then it's just soft. Quiet darkness occupying space in my mind.
My acquaintance, Priscilla, suggested it might be trauma or a head injury, but no matter what I did, shave my hair off or rip through hospital records there's nothing. No record of me. The police barely bought my story of amnesia, but even they couldn't locate me in files and birth records or anything like that.
There are so many things about me that I don't understand. Why I'm so much more muscular than other women, why I have a scar on my arm or a burn on my leg. It doesn't make sense that I was found in an icy cold lake, uninjured, wearing normal clothes. Why was I there? What was I doing? What happened to me?
I've tried a lot of things: hypnosis, drugs, court-mandated therapy, I've played a ton of music to shake something out of the void. Once, at Priscilla's behest, I sunk myself into a bathtub full of ice and let someone speak to me. God, the image still brings heat to my cheeks.
Priscilla actually suggested it too, but until I spoke to another amnesiac at my therapy group-yes, there are in fact enough amnesiacs for there to be group therapy-I wasn't willing to part with money and time to be here.
Here being the Festival of Lost Memories, at least, that's what I've been told. It is a relief that I have enough memory in my messed up brain to know what sarcasm is and how ridiculous this is.
The incense is wearing off as I reach a tent embezzled with flowers, glimmering stones, and crows. There are three of them perched on a tree next to the tent. Without memory, I know I despise birds. Viscerally, I feel revulsion and I glare at them, running my fingers through my short hair.
"You may enter," A voice beckons from inside, and I sigh, collecting myself before ducking into the tent.
Surprisingly, the tent is alive with light, candles, glowing stones, and other lights poured into every nook and cranny. A fair-skinned woman is seated in front of a semicircle of mirrors, her golden hair braided symmetrically on both sides.
"Artemisia?" I try out the name from the business card, doing my awkward voice. I really hate myself sometimes. Here I am, standing before a barefoot woman in a led-lit tent, being awkward? She should be nervous!
The woman smiled too mysteriously and gestured to a lower chair in front of her. "You must be Elaheh. I understand you're here about missing memories?"
Andrew must've told her, that sell out. "If you're psychic, shouldn't you know my real name?" I asked, sitting down and doing my best to sound aloof.
"I'm not psychic, I can only retrieve memories," Artemisia said calmly, smiling despite my obnoxious...everything. "But if your real name is something you want to know, we can arrange that."
"I do," I blurted immediately, falling hook, line, and sinker for her bait. For all my nights awake, racking my brain for the slightest hint, a nickname, the first letter, there was nothing. Anything was better then the false name the therapist forced on me.
Artemisia draped a necklace around my neck, assuming correctly that if she bothered to ask me I would refuse. She muttered some ancient words in a mystical sounding language and gathered up a blue powder in her hand. "How much do you remember?"
"A bit from my childhood, and then nothing until the lake last year."
The woman nodded. "Then it is to that very inch of childhood we shall go. Are you ready?"
"Yes," I said, and she blew the powder gently into my face, the lights went out at once and I swore in panic.
The last thing I remember is a feeling of falling.
I'm on the..ground? "What the hell?" I groaned, getting up. The second I did, I saw pictures: a little girl chase a white rabbit, two screaming people, and I saw a tree.
Before I got my bearings I suddenly felt smooth bark, the worrisome twinges from the ants, and my fingers digging into branches, pulling my little body higher. Somehow, I was on a tree, wearing a small dress, giggling at a chubby little boy squinting at me from the ground.
"Farzaneh, watch out!" The boy shrieked, and I screamed too, in a high pitched way, falling again.
I snapped out of it, my flailing arms almost knocking tea out of Artemisia's hands. "I know it! I know-" The lights were back on and I blinked wildly.
"Tea?" Artemisia asked unconcernedly, offering me a cup.
I ignored her and began saying as much as possible, to sear as much as I could into my brain. "My name is Farzaneh. I don't-there was a boy, and a girl, and Alice chasing a white-"
Artemisia raised an eyebrow. "-rabbit. That's Alice in a Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or Charles-"
"Why was that there?" I asked her, feeling exhausted, but strangely fevered and energetic too.
"Childhood memory that spilt over." Artemisia shrugged, handing me the tea.
I sipped it before staring at it, then her. "What's in this?"
"Not drugs, but that isn't too much of an issue with you." Artemisia grinned, taking a sip of her own.
When I continued staring at her, she answered, "Chamomile, with honey."
I drank it out of politeness and asked her another question. "What's in the powder? How did you do that-when did the lights-?"
"The powder is just coloured powder, there are no drugs in there. The lights went out, well, magic." Artemisia smiled conspiratorially, but I was only after answers.
"Seriously, how did you do that?" I continued warily, worried she might cast me out when I was so close to knowing everything.
"All of us bring our own special little touch into the world. This is mine, as it was in all the women of my family." Artemisia gave me another non-answer, playing instead with a snake she had pulled out of thin air. "What would you like to see next?"
There was no need to think. I was Farzaneh but that wasn't all of it. "The missing years, I need a reason. I need to know what happened." I was already running through the story of Alice in a Wonderland in my head, curious to know who told me that story or maybe I read it on my own.
"Very well, but money first, Farzaneh. In the event you are dissatisfied or upset by what you see, I will not be held responsible." Artemisia warned, holding out a hand with crisscrossing spiral tattoos.
I felt a sudden longing for a tattoo, despite never having cared for them before. Gently, I traced Artemisia's tattoos with my eyes as I handed over a 100 dollar bill. There was something about etching personality into one's skin. How permanent and dramatic that was.
"Now, sit back, relax, this may be longer," Artemisia said when she turned back to me. "Remember, whatever you may see, it is just a memory, it cannot hurt you." She spoke her strange, lilting words again, and I could smell the flowery scent that she wore.
She grabbed another handful of the blue powder, blew it, and once more everything fell dark.
I woke up in a room, handcuffed to a table. "What is happening?" I thrashed against the cold table, hearing the clatter as my handcuffs scraped against metal.
"Well, well, well, imagine this."
My head shot up when I heard the voice, and I saw myself in front of me. Well, close enough. While my hair didn't even brush my shoulders, the girl in front of me had a cascade of deep brown. Her eyes were darker than mine, more ringed, more haunted. Her knuckles were dark with blood, but her arms were much better defined.
"Is this a memory?" I asked it, staring in horror.
"No, buffoon, but I knew you would try this. This is a failsafe, just to stop you from ruining everything!" The version of me sneered, but I could hear the exhaustion under the bravado.
"Explain," I demanded, and when she didn't comply, I slammed my hands down on the table. "What happened to me, are you an alter ego? Why was I left-"
She laughed. Farzaneh laughed and leaned against the frame. Which is when I noticed that she was inside a mirror.
"Oh, you-I'm not an alter ego, I'm the original. If anything, you Miss Amnesiac are the fake. What happened to you was the best thing to ever happen to us. We got out! You don't know this, but I did everything to get us free. It-"
"Free from?" I prompted, eager to know as much as I could.
"If I told you, we wouldn't be free. You were left in the lake as part of a cover story, and a taxi driver we know called the cops." Other me yawned and stretched, pacing. "It's good that I planned for this because of course, you wouldn't let sleeping dogs lie. And what, pray tell, have you done to your hair?"
"Is that important?" I asked sharply. "And why did you do this? What possible reason-"
Farzaneh's voice was dangerous. "The reasons are bad. And bloody, and full of murder, death, and personal sacrifice. Do you want to be so scared you can't move? Scared in your own home, afraid of every breathing thing? You want to be a bad person?" She cocked her head in a terrifying parody of me. "Then take it, take the second chance I got us, and live, goddamnit! Forget the past, we paid our dues, now live!"
"To who?" I pressed. "Please, tell me something, anything more."
Farzaneh smirked. "My protocol gave me ten minutes to convince you, it has been thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds. I'm going to do us a favour, and then you're going to run. Once this is over, it is over, and you will forget and move on. Do something interesting." For just a second, my mirror self looked at me, and I saw something catastrophically broken. Something so wrong that somebody decided it would be better to erase me than let me live with it. "Don't choose to suffer, believe me, I'm not worth all the searching you're doing."
I nodded, my mouth dry, I was completely unsure of what I was agreeing to. Farzaneh saw that I understood, and stepped out of the mirror.
The rest blurred out. I jolted awake and immediately looked around. I was in a forest, or something.
My hands had something on them, and I squinted at my left hand, mouthing the words.
I did it for us. Forget and live.
Blood was spattered on my shoes, and my jacket, and somehow I knew I had to take them off , dispose of them, and never look back. I knew that something and had happened at the festival.
Rising up, I dusted off my jeans and pushed my boots into the soil, letting the mud handle cleaning.
The jacket, I drowned in a creek nearby, before putting it in a bear-proof garbage bin.
It doesn't matter who I was, all I know is that I'm not that. I cannot be this person, this monster who buries and kills, and knows how to hide the blood.
From this moment on, there is no Fazaneh, no Elaheh, just me. And I made a promise to do something interesting.