Recall your earliest childhood memory. How old are you in this memory? Four? Five? Developmental neuroscience tells us we do not form episodic memories before the age of three. Supposedly, memories from before this time are merely phantoms— errors in the brain’s memory formation process. Ordinary daydreams, mislabeled as fact. This is what the current research tells us. It is important you know this. Bear with me, reader; I will not waste your time with endless foreplay. Here is my story:
I am a graduate student, studying linguistics. My work often overlaps with that of the neuroscience department, and I have made many contacts there. One such contact is the subject of this story. We will call him DV.
DV is also a graduate student. He studies memory. He uses a procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation. This procedure uses magnetic radiation to activate targeted portions of the brain. Imagine a magic wand you can point at a cluster of neurons and say, “dance.” And they dance.
Two months ago, DV asked me to assist me in a pet project he was developing. He has assisted me in the past when I was learning to use an EEG for my research. I owed him a great deal. I had no choice but to help him in his work. DV is what I have instead of friends.
I arrived at his lab after hours, as requested. He was waiting by the door. He was wearing his lab coat. It was far too big for his frame, and swallowed his shoulders. He looked so childlike.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Ready for what?” I asked. He had not told me any details about his project.
“I just need practice focusing the machine,” he said. “I’m targeting an area of the brain no one has targeted with this device before.”
I consented, with little hesitation. He had happily served as my model subject when I was learning the EEG. Academia is built upon exchange of favors. Besides, his machine doesn’t even break the skin.
I made myself comfortable in his examination chair. It had leather wrist restraints, but they were never used. I was facing a bay window. The lab was high on the campus hill. The night loomed heavy over the orange city lights. A few cars floated along the highway.
“Just try to relax,” DV said. His breath was minty, with undercurrents of gin.
He turned on the magic wand, and I felt the familiar buzz of electricity on my scalp. The vibrations converged on points just behind my ears, on both sides of my head. The points began to burn. My hair stood on end.
“How do you feel?” DV asked. He was whispering, but his voice was thick with anticipation. I think he already knew the answer to his question.
Before I could respond, I heard a cry from down the hall. Someone was screaming in the stairwell. Someone was howling like an animal shot through the leg. I heard flesh cracking. I heard tendons popping. I heard a voice choking on words. Someone was vomiting up my name in the stairwell.
“I think I need to take a break,” I said. I tried to turn to look at DV, but felt hands holding my head in place. I tried to move my hands, but found the wrist straps had been fastened.
“How long have I been here?” I asked. No one responded.
The moaning down the hall grew closer. Someone was pounding on the doors. They were locked. The door to the lab wasn’t.
“Please, turn it off,” I said. The current from the machine felt like lightning coursing behind my eyes. The window grew larger. The cars on the road skidded out of control. I watched headlights plunge into the river. I watched headlights careen into each other. The city lights blinked out, one by one. The darkness of the landscape was so thick, I could wade into it. So I did.
I was out there, in the void. There was more distance before me than the Earth’s horizon provides. I was alone, for a precious instant. Then, the darkness was broken by a man. He was the man from the hall. He was a man without skin. Muscles and sinew all twitching, veins and arteries all spurting, I could see his heart shrivel in his chest when he looked at me. He was all slaughterhouse, no humanity. He was so close, I could smell the rotten meat on his silver bones.
“Do you remember me?” he said. His teeth were gripped out like a racehorse. His frame was blurry, as if dislodged in time. His mouth looked like a slow-exposure photo of a burning carcass.
“Yes,” I said, because I did.
When I was young—too young to form memories, I had a dream. In this dream, a man walked behind me and told me things about the universe I didn’t want to know. He was a man without skin. He was the man standing before me in the void. He followed me through movie theaters, through city parks, through howling tunnels and unkempt forests and childhood homes, only to find me huddled in the corner of my bedroom closet. He spoke a few words. I don’t have words for the things he said. I woke up soon after, drenched in freezing sweat, lips burnt with vomit, eyes sore from rolling in their sockets. My mind tried to reject the memory. I have searched every language for the words I heard that night, but no tongue of man has ever spoken the things I heard.
There in the void, there in the lab, the man had found me again. The machine fractured my defenses, and let him in. For the second time, he spoke those words, and for the second time, my mind refused to keep them. At some point, what seemed like an eternity later, DV removed the device from my head. As suddenly as waking from a dream, I came to my senses.
“How long was I hooked up for?” I asked.
“Less than a minute,” DV responded. He had lost his tone of knowing. His voice was quiet, and trembled as he spoke.
“Untie me,” I said. I then realized my wrists were not bound. DV was frozen in the corner.
I stood up and gathered my belongings. My ears were ringing, each in a different pitch. They were dissonant. They were the last notes of a song I hadn’t heard in twenty years.
“I’m not coming back,” I said. “Please don’t contact me.” DV nodded. His skin was as white as his lab coat.
I walked five miles to my home. I didn’t trust myself behind the wheel of a car. The night was silent as I walked. Even the crickets were quiet for me.
When I got home, I vomited into my bathroom sink. I watched my breakfast, lunch, and dinner circle the sputtering drain. I looked into the mirror. My shirt was drenched in blood, except for a pattern of ribs across the front. The blood was still wet to the touch. My pockets were full of cartilage. My socks were soaked in afterbirth.
I threw my clothes in the trash compactor that night. DV and I do not speak. I do not see him on campus. I complete my schoolwork regularly. I pay my rent on time. I fall asleep to talk shows on weeknights, and to whiskey on weekends.
I don’t do too much dreaming, nowadays. I especially don’t think about my childhood. Somewhere, in the unfathomed recesses of inaccessible memory, there are words that shouldn’t be heard. A man without skin chose to tell me those words, and I chose—twice now—not to remember them.
At the beginning of this text, I asked you to recall your first memory. I hope it was from when you were four or five. I hope it was simply a memory of your first injury, or something similar. I hope these things, because somewhere in your brain, there is a memory of something your developed brain chose not to remember. I hope these things, because the infinite horror of those forgotten words is too great for the human mind to comprehend. I hope your dreams are blissful, and your nightmares leave you happy to be awake.
Most of all, I hope that this story keeps you from exploring those damning and boundless vaults of your mind. When we are born, we have no defenses against the world, physical or mental. Perhaps it takes a few years to build these defenses. Perhaps the things we see before then are better left forgotten.