When she saw him on the stone bridge, sakura raining down upon his oblivious shoulders, she nearly stopped breathing.
He was slim, young—looking, serious, and absorbed in the cracked leather book in his hands. Smart but adorably shy—who but a soft-spoken academic would come to a bridge in the height of sakura season, not to marvel at the trees, but to read?
The closer she came to him, the harder her heart beat. He was so perfect. She wanted to tease the book away from him, have him look up, and fall immediately into her eyes. But things would never unfold so simply. Instead, she screwed up her courage and asked, “What are you reading?”
He started. “Sorry?”
She leaned next to him on the low wall of the stone bridge, too nervous to get any closer. She willed herself to speak casually. “You’re reading on a day like today.”
“Yes.” He swallowed. “I am.”
“And you don’t care about the sakura.”
“No. Well, yes, but I’ve seen them before.” He glanced down at the worn stones of the bridge, half-melted into each other with incalculable age. “I just like to read here.”
“A bridge is an odd place for that, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. But ever since I found it 50 years ago, I’ve been drawn to it. It feels like a good place; I can’t explain it.”
She nodded. “What are you reading? It’s got to be good.”
She leaned over, trying to see the cover, hoping she looked graceful. The leather-bound volume bore no title, but she did see the hash marks tattooed on the back of his left hand. She straightened and tapped her own knuckles. “I saw your hashes. I’m 8,000 too.”
As soon as she said it, she winced. The line was so amateurish and awkward, but he seemed not to have heard her.
He flipped back to the title page. He paused before speaking, as if embarrassed of his tastes. “It’s a collection of papers about the behavior of memory in a mortal being.”
“You mean, the behavior of memory in an animal?”
He stared at her, clearly surprised at her interest. “No. In a human.”
“When humans were mortal?” She laughed. “I thought you were a scientist. I guess you’re a historian.”
He hastily looked away. “I’ve been both.”
She nodded. Her heart kept pounding. Had he thought she was laughing at him? “I think I was a history teacher, once.”
“I don’t know. Why do you say Seattle?”
He looked at her quickly, and then away. “I can picture you in Seattle, for some reason. I don’t know why.”
She nodded again. A breeze shook the branches, and another lazy snowfall of sakura fluttered down. Around them on the bridge, couples and groups marveled, snapping pictures of the flowering boughs. She tried to think of something further to say. “Death interests you?”
He turned his book over in his hands. It was extremely old; the leather spine was cracked, and the page edges were crumbling. On the inside of the cover, written in faded ink, it said, ‘from Mutsumi’. She wondered who that was.
“Not death, exactly,” he said. “Memory. The fact that we could remember our entire lives, once.”
“When we were only 400 or 500?”
“No, when humans as a race were mortal, before we beat aging. Millennia ago, human beings could remember their full lives up until the moment they died.”
Yes—keep talking, she prayed. He seemed to be opening. She could picture him opening the same way, at a lectern in a room in Tokyo University, presenting findings about Europa’s ecosystem. She did not know why she pictured this.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s tragic—all those people before us, only living for a century, and then an eternity of nothing.”
“Well. If you can ignore the dying part, it becomes quite fascinating.”
She smiled. He glanced at her, and his dark eyes were so intense that she had to self-consciously look away, into the river. “Perhaps.”
“You don’t think it’s amazing that people could once account for every year of their lives?” he asked. “Or that they could remember all the people who ever mattered to them? Or that they kept the same name, never outgrowing it? Even when they kept personal journals, it was to remind themselves of their pasts, not to re-learn it. Now, with our extremely long lives, humans have vulnerable spots in their memories. You said you were 8,000, yes? If you haven’t kept a diary, you’ll never know for sure what happened to you between 600 and 3,500 years ago.”
She smiled again. He was getting carried away already, propelled into some exhilarating and abstract place. He looked so alive. “Go on.”
“The ability to remember your whole life changes everything. It changes who you are. You can remember all the major experiences that have shaped you. But for us, even the lessons we learn in the first 200 or 300 years, the strongest ones, can be changed. I think I was an eco-terrorist once, because I’ve seen pictures of myself with a name I don’t recognize in history books about environmental activist groups. But now I’m a pacifist. You see?”
His eyes shone. He straightened and turned to her, and the full force of his eagerness nearly knocked her breath away. She blushed, furiously, and once more glanced over the water.
She could feel his eyes on her. “It changes romantic relationships, too,” he said. “Remembering everything.”
She snuck him a glance. When their eyes met, it jolted her down to her toes. “… Oh?”
“Oh yes. They used to marry, you know. That is, they used to pick one person to love for their whole lives, because they both stayed fundamentally the same, and if they started out compatible, then they’d likely end up that way. But because of our immortality, we can’t possibly stay with one person forever. We change too much. We forget too much. So of course every relationship disintegrates. And—”
She blurted it out before she could stop herself. “You don’t believe that true love still exists?”
He caught his breath. His demeanor changed somehow, as if she had just spoken a secret password.
Strangely, she could picture him staring at her this way in a dark room in Beijing, in a café twenty miles south of Paris, and somewhere on the Russian steppes as they marveled together at the clarity of the stars. She could even picture him doing it on this very stone bridge, as they leaned against the other wall, on a wet day in early autumn.
A new light shone in his eyes. “Are you asking me if two people can still be destined for each other?”
Unable to reply, she nodded.
“Perhaps they can be—but because we change so much, they’d have to keep meeting and separating, over and over, letting it end when one of them changes too radically. Perhaps they’d even forget all about each other in the interim, so if they met again, it would be as if it were for the first time.”
She swallowed. “You think so?”
He said, “I think… “
She leaned in closer.
“I think… actually… it’s a little warm out here. I think I’m going to go get some ice cream. Would you like to join me?”
Her heart leapt. She still said nothing, but she grinned and gestured for him to lead the way.
Together, they walked off the stone bridge. The breeze picked up again, and the fallen sakura chased after their footsteps.
© 2007 by KJ Kabza
First published in Quantum Kiss, November 2007.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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