Your voice seemed to come out of nowhere when you said, “I’ll trade you a memory of eating campfire sausages for that.”
“That” being a memory from my family’s recent trip to Sastalama—of an afternoon outing when I got to enjoy a fluffy scoop of blueberry ice cream as we lazed on a riverbank. Even though we were getting too old for it, I still liked seeing my memories with my eyes, the way I did when my parents showed me theirs—even when those past moments were vague with oldness. So once again, I was sitting in one of the school library’s reading alcoves, delighting in a memory, and the glow of that summertime scene must have caught your attention.
Now your words caught my attention. I had never experienced a campfire—with sausages or otherwise—and wasn’t likely to anytime soon. So we had a deal, and wow, were those sausages good. Succulent and savory as the firewood crackled amid a din of crickets and frogs.
After that, we were swapping memories every chance we got. In the cafeteria or schoolyard, we’d give each other trips to the beach and hikes through the woods, zesty little appetizers in fancy restaurants and platefuls of homemade desserts at family gatherings, movie scenes and raptor sightings—me eagerly offering a white-tailed kite for a great-horned owl, then you suggesting a short-eared owl for an osprey.
Making memories for one another soon became second nature. Every time a hummingbird came to the feeder outside your bedroom window, you’d watch it intently so that later I could marvel at its throbbing little body and blur of wing beats, be enchanted by the beady eyes glistening with sunlight and those metallic-green feathers like finely tasseled scales running down its back. In search of scenery you’d like, I spent an afternoon wandering the island where a gallery was showing Mom’s latest work. With every exchange of memories, we gave each other a new way to be elsewhere and elsewhen—a moment for the mind to slip into whenever the fancy struck. Until we found out that our memories could get mixed up.
We made the discovery after school one day, when you mentioned that you were going to visit relatives during winter break and couldn’t wait to have your aunt’s cabbage rolls again. Something shook inside me, like what you just said crashed into a solid truth. With hurried words, I told you that last month I had given you a memory of eating cabbage rolls bought from a street vendor in Sastalama because you said that you had never tried this dish before. Your head turned toward the woods behind the school, your brow and gaze tightening the way they would during a social studies test. I waited, and when you were done remembering, you showed me some memories of family gatherings. Several had a casserole dish heaped high with cabbage rolls while the rest of the memories had the same casserole dish full of the stuffed grape leaves your aunt always made. I grew uneasy, keenly aware that we didn’t understand how memory works—what dangers we might be heading toward.
So we decided that if we were going to continue swapping memories, which both of us wanted to, we’d have to swap back or forget the memories a day or two afterwards—our trades no longer made for keeps. The new arrangement was easy enough to stick to, just an extra step we made sure to follow. Though I was occasionally reluctant to give up your memories, it helped that I could always look forward to new ones.
Then, about a week after the winter solstice, you gave me an incredible sunset you had seen from the hills outside of town. At the sky’s apex was what you called “the truest blue”—a stunning shade, rich and vivid like no blue I’d ever seen. This sunset enthralled me immediately, then every time I recalled it.
A couple days later, I asked if you wanted the memory back. You told me that I should just forget this one because this mesmerizing sunset sky unsettled you—called all other kinds of blue into question. I realized then that it made me uneasy too and this was one reason I liked the memory. Liked it so much that I wanted to keep it.
But there was no way to preserve that sunset. Outside of the mind, the memory would deteriorate, and though Mom had thoroughly taught me the fundamentals, I was not yet even half as skilled as her and could not capture the essence of that sunset sky in oils on canvas or watercolors on paper. So I kept the memory and waited to see what would happen.
Over the next couple weeks, parts of it appeared in other memories. First, I noticed the truest blue in the birds I’d seen this summer in Sastalama. The striking shade had settled on the wings of kinglets and the backs of swallows, then made itself part of Mom’s still life and landscape paintings—the ones that had recently been snapped up by collectors. When I thought about our visit to the island with the art gallery, the sunset sky’s lavender clouds were there, floating outside the windows of the harborside hotel we stayed in. Soon afterwards, I found that the ribbon of orange glow on the horizon had tucked itself behind the cityscape in Sastalama’s twilight skyline. Fanning out across my memories, pieces of that sunset sky were becoming motifs in my recent past, especially the truest blue, which claimed object after object, many of them things I barely, if ever, thought about: a cousin’s toy truck, the cover of an old children’s book, the sweater from Grandma I had outgrown, Mom’s old suitcase lost during the last flight we had taken. The blue made them all notable, as though they held some significance. And maybe they did.
I tried to sleuth out a pattern, hoping to decode any message that the sunset memory might be conveying, one that perhaps your unconscious mind had embedded into it. This became only more difficult once the truest blue got into my dreams. While asleep, I’d see the uncanny shade in so many strange places and things. But seconds after waking up, I was always left with only a handful of faint memories and the feeling that much of the night’s dreams had been forgotten. This raised uncertainties. Could I really determine the truest blue’s meaning with only a partial awareness of its appearances in my dreams? What if the truest blue meant something different in dreams than it did in memories?
I wanted to talk with you about this and turn us into partners in this investigation, but I couldn’t let you know that I’d kept the memory. Instead, I talked with the sister I’ve never had when she showed up in my dreams. Sometimes she was older than me, other times younger, but the truest blue was always part of her outfit, taking on the form of a t-shirt, scarf, jacket, belt…
For a while, all her explanations were completely different. These appearances of the truest blue don’t mean anything—are only creating the possibility of meaning in your mind. This color is simply accenting things in your mind. Colors in memories always change with time, and the truest blue just makes that more noticeable. To prepare for the color scarcity of winter’s gray, snowy days, your mind is putting vibrant colors into everything it can. Driven by a survival instinct, the truest blue is expanding its presence so it won’t disappear when its sunset is forgotten.
Eventually, she settled on one story about the truest blue, told slowly, over successive dreams, with some conflicting details. Basically, this: Back when everyone saw everything with only contrast, color was just an idea that cropped up—a good idea that quickly spread from one mind to another. That first color—green, according to her—gave rise to more colors that also proliferated then mixed in the minds they inhabited. The spreading and mixing continued until people had the same spectrum of colors—give or take a few shades. But now and then, new colors appear, and like their ancestors, they try to spread across a mind and beyond, searching for others to mix with or complement. The truest blue is no different. A certain way of seeing parts of the world now moving through memories and thoughts, toward—it hopes—colors it will share an affinity with. The greatest green or the only orange, perhaps.
“And how about you?” I finally ask one night. “Will you go off to find other kin?”
“Maybe I already have,” she answers, voice delicate and clear—the thinnest pane of glass between me and some truth, a combination of transparency and reflection. “It’s in the nature of ideas to seek each other and be changed by one another.”
When I wake up, I know—as I have always known but never so clearly as now—that one day, I will have to leave all of this behind. As my parents left Sastalama; as you will leave me. The past becoming ideas, speaking with the world in a new language. One that we will someday use together.