Every day he digs the same grave, and every day he leaves it untouched, a grave as deep as himself. And he digs. He digs. He digs. He will keep digging until his work is done, and it might take years—too many years. The dead call him memory-eater, thief of warmth, consumer of the past, and he is all of that, he won’t deny. He wakes at dawn, and eats. He works, and eats. And, whenever a memory of his own resurfaces, he keeps eating until nothing else remains.
Once, the memory-eater was alive. Not a breathing in-between, with his entourage of ghosts; a man, a boy, a child. Once, before his many deaths, the deaths of his entrails and his soul. Once, before the mortal injuries his body refused to succumb to. But once is no more, and he roams the graveyard, followed but alone.
The memory-eater always has visitors. Solitude is a gift he must earn. His spectral companions, the nightly observers of his efforts, grant him offerings of the lives they already lost: a girl gone too soon, a ruptured marriage, a fever dream. One, most of all, watches, behind a tree, leaning against a tomb, humming as he digs.
“Still hiding?” The memory-eater glances over his shoulder. Central to the graveyard is a tree, an ibirá-pitá, vast, prodigious, ever blooming. Its golden flowers never wither, suspended in eternal beauty, the object of affection of a courtship of loyal bees. Its compound leaves undulate, mocking him. Its thin, sturdy trunk resists the wind. “I can see you.”
A short face appears behind the tree.
The memory-eater beckons him. Sweat runs from his brow to his neck, soaking his battered shirt; the new grave is not as deep as his own; the soil under his nails is black and brown.
The dead boy hides again. Boy, he says, because anyone feels too young for him now. Even a ghost, even the old—he has lived many lives, and this child has died in the beginning of one. The phantoms of his play-doll cemetery complain loudly when he says he has children to care for, but he has been them. He was the old woman who lost her son at the Battle of Boquerón and mourns him to this day, a girl eaten away by syphilis, a wealthy father of ten.
He is older than anybody else.
“I told you I won’t hurt you.” The memory-eater buries the shovel’s blade into gravel and earth. “What happened the first time was a mistake.”
The dead boy looks at him from behind the lower branches, face hidden by yellow flowers and emerald leaves. He can see the striped chiripá the boy still wears tied around his waist, the battered white shirt, his bare feet. The memory-eater turns around, but the ghost is no longer with him.
The dead always come to him. They chase the siren song of oblivion, ready to depart from the love and the rage, the fear and the unrest. They wait around him, vultures of his gift, carcasses for consumption, offering memories to this silent god, a final display of earthly faith. When the memory-eater came to the Platine basin in 1939, after abandoning his natal Andalucía, he thought Paco would be the same.
The young are always the ones who feel the most pain.
Rumor has it that Paco did not even die on that land; he had been dragged there to rot, engulfed by a pile of human remains. Cruelty, the others say, a war with the sort of cruelty the likes you have never seen. The memory-eater shakes his head. All wars are one; he would know, he was born and buried in one. Cruelty is varied, creative, individual or organized, but the taste of it remains like garlic under fingernails.
The memory-eater saw Paco for the first time after he settled into the cemetery. He had offered his services in exchange for a place to stay: a small hut, a place to grow food, tools to cut, patch, build, mend. Paco, the dead boy, observed him from afar, hiding behind the ibirá-pitá. The new gravedigger was still learning local names.
“Come.” The memory-eater rubbed his fingers together, the same he did when he approached a cat. “I won’t do you any harm.”
Two little eyes watched him, curious, eager, life-like. “You’re not from here.”
The answer didn’t matter. It never matters, because he will always, eventually, know. Feelings and memory crumble, removed from their original masters, and with them the burden of knowing is gone. The ghost is, then, an empty shell, a repetition, an enchanted mask. Half mirage, half delusion. It’s not what it once was. With a swallow, the memory-eater drains any reminiscence from their empty veins, and their pain becomes his. The hands that choked are around his neck; the stolen breath of consumption perforates his lungs; bullets that invade, organs that penetrate, fire that contaminates.
His, his, his.
“Once . . . ” started Paco. “No. I’m not from here, no.”
At first, the memory-eater looks, but fails to recognize, like he’s in front of an invisible, conscious thing. He’s so concerned with taking and the peace that taking brings, so eager to steal the memories, that he is unable to truly see. There is a ghost, and the pain seeps from him, nectar for the most ravenous of bees.
“I can take the memory of home from you.” The memory-eater stopped digging and wiped his hands on his own pants. He turned to face Paco. “Of loss. And, above all, of hurt.”
Tentative fingers touched the ghost, tracing his cheek, measuring his thin neck. Here, where the jugular once pumped blood; here, in the hollow of the chest. Here, in the space the lips open to the depths.
The memory-eater could not see nor hear. He ignored the fear, so used to it he rejects seeing himself as the source of it. Everything that others were is what he is, and now he needs. He needs, he needs, he could feel the pain flowing toward him, replacing his own, removing him from past to present, but Paco slipped from his fingers, and the flesh was taken from the mouth of the beast.
“No,” someone told him for the first time. “Not me.”
If the memory-eater ever had a name, it was forgotten or drowned during the long voyage that removed him from the womb, in the thousands of miles of salt water between the Strait of Gibraltar to Puerto Nuevo. The dead whispered that he must have lost himself there, turning nameless, bondless, historyless; whoever he was, he ceased to be, devouring others instead.
Sometimes, he wonders if there was a first. He remembers ghosts that he became along the way, fleeing or during the ship—the young woman from Sevilla, whose coarse shaved head he could still feel at times, whose shame became his; the writer from Almería who hung himself before his properties were taken from him; the Hungarian refugee who died a few hours before they reached Argentina. Whenever he had a glimpse of himself as a child, a person with recollections of his own, he pushed the thought away by eating somebody else.
The graveyard is no different. His lifeless orphans surrender all kinds of pasts to him, from love stories to boy soldiers, suicides, illnesses, murders. Memory-eater, memory-eater, they call him, in prayer, take it from me, take another memory from me. Only their likeness roams the place, peaceful and empty, an open air haunted house adorned by his wind-up toys.
Only Paco, man-boy, old child, retains the essence of what it is to be alive. His eyes are the color of stirred earth wet with rain. His black hair is unsure if it straightens or waves. His flesh is still vivid in the cheeks, in the lips, in the unlikely softness of his bruised hands. His skin is brown like the sun-soaked roots of the ficus tree, warm, warm, warm. The memory-eater resents the color and heat that he emanates—it is Paco who should live, not the reaper himself, that is, him.
“If you tell me your name,” says Paco, sitting by his side. He speaks Spanish and Guarani, and the memory-eater has learned to understand both. “I might forgive you.”
“You know I have none.”
Paco knows he is not talking to an exiled intellectual or a persecuted politician; he knows he is not preceded by family or fame; he knows a name is just a name. A few strung together letters, the sonority produced by air on tongue and teeth, a pointless symbol for a pointless escapee. That is what the memory-eater tells himself. I am nothing and will always be nothing, I have been living for a million years. I am dust, rock, an un-man.
“No name, no deal.” Paco smiles, rests his cheek on the memory-eater’s shoulder. The air smells like mango and guava, and so does him. “If you change your mind . . . ”
No one should be this sweet. Maybe that’s the reason Paco is dead. Unlike the memory-eater, he is not walking famine.
“I can’t give what I don’t know,” says the memory-eater. “Whoever I was, if I ever was, is long gone.”
Paco, mango-ripe, honey-flavored, magical creature who should not exist, laughs. Despite his needless, tortuous death, despite everything, he laughs.
“I’m patient. I also don’t remember many things.”
The last words feel dishonest. Maybe it’s a warning (I remember, but won’t yield to you), maybe it’s a threat (I refuse, and if you insist . . . ), but maybe, only maybe, it’s the truth. The memory-eater knows what silence feels like. He respects it; he has to. He has enough silence of his own.
An infant dies in the village, and the parents, almost as young as the little body in their arms, beg the memory-eater for a grave. She deserves a burial, they say, placing the limp, weightless form bundled in blankets atop his hands. The winter can be harsh in the plains of the Chaco, colder than his motherland, and it kills the frail and the weak. This couple comes from Tarija, in Bolívia, has traveled through Boquerón, Presidente Hayes and crossed the border in Ñeembucú, and has stopped, now, in his graveyard.
“If you’re a father,” the man says, “you understand.”
The memory-eater has hundreds of children, but none of his own. He has lost as many sons and daughters as he has killed; he has delivered, through the wombs of others; he has died at birth, he has sired, he has taken and was taken by force. A father, what is a father? He had a father, once. They worked together in the fields of a distant life. He had a mother, too, with hair covered by a red kerchief.
“I’ll bury her for you.”
For the child, he digs a tiny uterine grave. He kneels, shaping the walls of soil like clay; he sculpts the perpetual cradle, lines it with blanket, a nest of rag dolls and clothes. The mother never weeps, caressing her daughter’s black hair, holding her to her breast, humming a lullaby in Aymara. Her woolen poncho reminds him of Paco, and it covers part of her full skirt.
“You’re not as cold as you look like,” says Paco. The memory-eater looks up to see the bare feet of Paco, visible under his chiripá. His shoes, if he ever had them, lost somewhere in the far past.
Paco kneels by his side. He stuffs the grave with flowers of the ibirá-pitá, a whirlwind of petals flurrying around them, and they watch, together, as the couple places the corpse in the middle of the freezing crib. The father takes the infant from her mother, kisses her forehead, leaves the cross hanging from his neck in her little hands. The memory-eater holds her, a miniature Pietà laid to rest, sleeping, almost, in the arms of the god of graves.
“She returns to where she came.” Paco also kisses the child’s head, and the infant giggles, untied from her physical vessel. The memory-ester wishes he could give her back to her parents, but they are unseeing; the alive and the dead are kept apart by a veil. “She’s not buried in her land, but all lands are hers.”
The memory-eater lowers his head.
He refuses any kind of compensation from the parents, and bids them farewell. Safe journey, he says. The new ghost flutters, running in the open fields, tumbling, rolling. She gets up, realizing that no one she knows is in sight. Her cries echo, reaching him in waves of sorrow, pleading for her parents, for her home, for her health. She has no language yet, but he always understands.
The memory-eater welcomes the girl into his arms, father and mother, patron saint of every dead child. Drinking her tears, he remembers: opening her eyes, screaming away from the blood and amniotic fluid, the sweetness of milk. He also remembers the fever, the cough, the rashes, bright red spots everywhere. But, above all, the love, warmth that consumes and pacifies, arms that comfort, bringing him closer, wiping the sweat off his brow.
“You didn’t have to,” says Paco. The child disappears, back to her bed-cave. “You could have left her here. You could have left them all here with me.”
Despite himself, the memory-eater feels a stir of personhood pulling at his entrails like guitar strings. A memory buried so deep beneath the ghosts that he feels famished enough to consider pulling Paco by the neck to devour the essence of him.
Instead, he continues to work on his own future grave.
Before the memory-eater realized he could swallow others, the horrors used to ambush him at all times. They came in all shapes or forms, as glimpses of a boy undone, the specter of a father taking over the house. An older sister found naked in a well, left there to die, one of her shoes still strapped to her foot. Larvae eating from the inside out, like the other corpses, corpses piled one over the other, a trail of rot tapering into a nightmare, sleeping or not. And the smell—the smell never goes away. It’s the smell of sweltering decay that reminds him that we are animals in the end, when he has to remove the dead, again, again, again.
The memory-eater steals to replace. Every memory eaten from others is a memory erased from the self, it’s a fragment of the man that is gone. Right now, his physical receptacle has only a few decades, but the memory-eater has lived for a million years. He has absorbed Paco’s fallen brothers, massacred by Brazilian and Argentine troops seven decades ago. He has been republicans, nationalists, anarchists, falangists, priests. He has been here before the invasion, he has died at sea.
Anything is better than being him.
“One day, you will have to face it,” says Paco. The memory-eater stuffs yerba mate into a rudimentary gourd, sprinkling sugar in the water. He’s gotten used to the beverage, but he needs to soften the bitterness in some way. “One day, you will die like we did, and all there will be is you.”
“Maybe it will be the day you discover my name.”
Paco smiles, a small gap between his front teeth, and the memory-eater almost wishes to be like everyone else. Not a black hole of memories, not a corroded man. He could be young, then, he could smile back.
“Is it a promise?” Paco rests his head on his shoulder, and the memory-eater can feel the softness of his hair, the weight of his cheek. “Swear it to me.”
Smoke twirls, disappearing into the orange and blue of the dusk, cooling the ember of the small fire he made to boil water.
“I swear that, if I ever remember, I will tell you.”
“Then I swear that I will face the burden with you.”
The memory-eater continues to dig his grave. He has been digging since he was born, it seems, and he will keep digging until the end of days. He is tall, so the grave has to be long; he is lean so the grave has to be thin; he has nothing of life, so the hole has to be as empty and sun-dried as he is. This cavity will swallow him, one day, it will assimilate him until he, too, becomes the roots of the earth.
Paco observes him from above. The memory-eater is almost entirely submerged inside his man-shaped crater, welcomed into the monster’s bowels, who waits, patient, until he drops dead.
“It’s too dark to keep going,” Paco says. At times, the memory-eater can see through him the lit-up candles scattered around the cemetery. They are left by visitors from villagers and travelers passing by, along with statues of the most varied faiths: a Gauchito Gil wrapped in red ribbons, Saint George fighting the dragon, la Difunta Correa with flowers, crosses and rosaries, an offering for Eshu with raw steak with farofa, popcorn, cachaça. “Come here and rest.”
The memory-eater considers denying the offer. He can keep going, he wants to keep going; it’s been a while he doesn’t eat, and the memories are rumbling in his belly, threatening to rescue the man from their depths. His fingers are calloused and full of blisters, his drenched shirt was discarded, his pants are soiled with mud. Rest, rest, a little voice suggests, alluring, while another retaliates: continue digging until you’re dead.
Something is different tonight. It might be the lovely, unlikely heat of spring taking over the night. It might be the genuine exhaustion he so often blocks, finally freed. Or it might be Paco, the little dimples that appear when he smiles, his singsong voice, his gentle peace.
The memory-eater leaves the shovel aside and climbs back to the surface. Paco doesn’t seem to mind his filthy hands when he pulls him out of the hole, terrifyingly warm. He exists where his bones exist, and there, in the graveyard, he is real, he could be alive.
The memory-eater blinks, realizing he wants that. That—Paco of the robbed life. But wanting means confronting that he is nothing, a person without a past, ties, or a name. He has nothing to offer, his presence is sour, his affection stilted; once, someone made him like this, or the world did, and all that was left is a deteriorated body conducted by an invisible puppeteer.
“Come,” says Paco, still leading him by the hand. Without his ghost companion, the memory-eater wouldn’t remember to wash or eat the food that keeps him alive.
A path of candles lights their way, fluttering lanterns in shades of black, red, white, blue. Braided trails of flowers link one grave to the other, their tombstones connected like terrestrial constellations, and together they go to the brook behind the hut. Water runs softly, illuminated by fireflies and the moon, and the memory-eater walks into the stream.
“I miss it.” Paco kneels by his side, playing with the pebbles, darkened by the night. “I miss so many things.”
The memory-eater looks at Paco, moon-bathed Paco, the singular thread of connection embroidered from the memory-eater to him. He sees, too, his own reflection in the water; it’s been years since he last saw himself. Thick black hair cropped short, once grown in curls, dark eyes, almond in shape, his father’s droopy nose, his mother’s nut complexion, his cheekbones sunk with adult age.
The memory-eater recalls a moment, perplexed by realizing he is still able to remember. It’s the day he arrived in Puerto Nuevo, penniless and hungry, forced to rely on the charity of strangers. A local church offered soup to the European refugees, but he rejected the idea of stepping inside of it. Long ago, before the trip, he swore to himself he would never again enter a church. He would never talk to another priest.
Why? He couldn’t remember. His past was already fading into nothingness, but the promise itched still. The memory-eater remembered going with a Polish translator to a synagogue, and seeing himself reflected on the window glass while they waited for food. He was so young, then. The flesh of his face was still soft, he barely had a beard, but he couldn’t recognize himself. Humanity was already slipping, and the pallor of hiding had dissolved his colors, but it was him.
He returns to Paco.
Part of him wishes to offer the possibility of relief. If Paco accepts, the longing will vanish, and the memory-eater will protect him forever inside the sharpened claws of his ribs. Instead, he asks:
“Why? Why keep all of this with you? Why do you choose pain?”
Paco stands up to face him. Water covers up to his knees, and he lifts his chin.
“Why wouldn’t I? The pain is part of me.” Paco touches his chest, hand on his sternum, fingers sprawled around his heart. “The more you run from it, the harder it will catch you when you least expect.”
“Not if I don’t allow it to.”
“There are many other things you don’t allow, not only pain.” Paco offers a faint smile, fingers walking up to his neck. “Nowadays, you don’t even allow yourself to exist. It’s sad, I think.”
And, unlocked with an unseen key, Antonio shed the memory-eater’s skin. Every single devoured memory fell with the skeleton peel, melted by water, and here he was, revealed. Antonio, the second youngest of eight. Antonio, thirty-three, who sometimes missed his native Spain.
“Antonio,” said Paco, voice almost drowned by the sound of the brook. “I like the sound of it.”
Paco brushed lips on his chin, mouth, throat. Paco, who should have been so cold, who should not be able to touch or feel. Antonio took him by the neck, tongue into his dead mouth, the same kiss he should have given when they first met. Vulnerable like he was, it would be easy to get into Paco, to steal his core, to return to the peace of unknowing, but he didn’t, he couldn’t.
Now, for the first time, he had to be Antonio, who knew the sensation of skin on skin. And Antonio didn’t need a grave—his place would come, and the earth would swallow him, gently, warmly, but this day would not be today.
Originally published in All That’s Lost: A Collection of Stories (collection).