“Hello. Hello. I don’t know where I am! Hello. I don’t know you!” the elderly woman kept repeating, the woman whose elbow Ziri, the lighthouse keeper, cupped with his hand.
“Don’t touch me! I don’t know who you are! You’re hurting me! Stop! Let me go! I want to go back to Brooklyn!”
Ziri’s eyes were the color of amber molasses and agitated as he spoke, Sarah thought.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” he apologized,” but someone left her here. Just now. I saw the boat pull up to the shore.”
Sarah wasn’t fully awake and tried to focus—to frame the older woman who had a small suitcase in one hand and a rusted flashlight in the other. Her waterlogged slippers swished as she shuffled her stiff legs that did not seem to bend.
“It was an expensive sailboat,” Ziri added.
The woman was still in a panic. “The soldiers will be here. We need to hurry! Do you have any food? I don’t have any money. Hurry! Have you seen Melissa? I lost the baby. I’ve been up all night looking for her. Why are you so calm? The soldiers took her. Help me find her!”
“It’s okay,” Sarah said to the woman while removing a folded piece of paper that was pinned to her ocean-sprayed blouse.
“What are you doing?” the woman shrieked. “Don’t hurt me!”
A stack of hundred-dollar bills fluttered to the ground. Sarah read the note aloud to convince herself that she was, in fact, awake:
We have heard of your House of Forgetting and wonder if you could reverse the process for our mother, Sonya, so that she can remember all or some of what she has forgotten. This plea is our last hope. She does not recognize us, and her hostility has become more than we can bear. Thank you for what we know will be kindness. Yours truly, Melissa and Michael.
Sonya appeared to be in her mid to late sixties, but for the not-quite elderly woman, Alzheimer’s or dementia had settled in to burrow. Sarah knew she and Ethan had to take her in, believing her to be an ironic lucky charm—a reminder of the danger of forgetting too much.
Ziri explained later to Sarah and Ethan how from the lighthouse tower, he had caught sight of a figure and its silhouette returning to the sea’s vanishing point alone, paddling out from the shore with the sailboat’s motor turned off before leaving a rough wake under a splinter of moon.
The Fletchers and their guests came to think of Sonya as the Stone Angel of the Glass House. She listened to the guests’ stories with acute concentration and without judgment, interjecting an occasional “ah” or “is that so?” Their voices and words may have dislodged an echo or forgotten detail from her own life. Or perhaps she experienced something more abstract and fleetingly on a different plane. But there was no way of knowing.
While listening to some of the guests, Sonya tried to record notes in the hardcover orange book she carried with her, but by the time her pen touched paper, she could not remember the words—if she remembered the location of her pen. She often turned sharply to an invisible third party that Sarah thought she referred to (mumbling under her breath) as Death—to assure him, “I’m busy right now!”
Sonya was the perfect witness, a reminder that not everything is in one’s hands. Though she could not carry on a conversation per se, she was a charming presence when happy, especially when in close proximity to the sea or sitting with someone whose company she enjoyed. Other times, her dementia turned violent, her arms flailing, hitting anyone within reach. Like the first night Sarah walked her, with her three-pronged cane, into the dining room for dinner. Because of the cane, Sarah had been thinking of the riddle of the Sphinx—what walks first on four legs, then two, and then three? The riddle that ancient king Oedipus solved with his answer “man,” as he progresses from crawling baby to upright adult to a decrepit old man walking with a stick—when Sonya lashed out and swung her arms at Sarah. “What are you doing to me? Don’t touch me! I don’t know who you are!”
The few seated downplayed the outburst out of respect for Sonya and Sarah, and partly out of discomfort in seeing what could lie ahead for any one them. Why gaze directly into the crystal ball if one were powerless to change the circle of events? Sarah saw several guests watch from their peripheral vision, perhaps to learn how to prepare for anyone’s possible demise.
Sarah managed to settle Sonya into a chair and appease her by handing her the menu. Sonya appeared to study it, weighing her choices. Pointing to the menu she announced, “I want a Rueben. Just like in Brooklyn!” Sadly, there was no Rueben on the menu. She repeated, “A Reuben just like in Brooklyn. I lived in Brooklyn. Were you there?” Sonya smiled with a vapid gaze.
“Yes, Sonya,” Sarah answered gently to calm Sonya, who was clearly agitated, “I was there.”
Somehow Ethan improvised a Reuben sandwich out of ground lamb, cheese, and a tomato-yogurt sauce on a thinly sliced baguette he grilled. Sonya didn’t notice the difference and ate greedily while staring at Sarah. “Good! Do I know you?”
Every night she ordered a Rueben just like the ones she had in Brooklyn, New York as a young girl, a fact she unequivocally remembered. Sarah knew the uniformity of dinner provided comfort or maybe it was the only food Sonya remembered.
“I like you!” Sonya told Sarah as she ate.
Sarah smiled. It felt good to be liked by Sonya. She wanted to believe that it was because Sonya sensed on some level, the way that animals or children gravitate toward certain strangers, that Sarah was, at her core, kind.
Because of Sonya, Sarah wondered if without memory, love could exist. Sonya favored certain things and people intuitively, the way one comes to feel an affinity for the style of a Van Gogh painting, the wild abandon of the brushstrokes, the rich tones and piercing cries of an oboe, or the unbroken undulations of the sea.
She watched Sonya eat her Tunisian “Reuben” sandwich in the dining hall among the guests and mused how arrogantly (or was it out of necessity?) we forget or ignore our own paths ahead.