In which I become Vincent.
In that space just between awareness and sleep, I thought I heard a murmuring melody swirling around me. It pulled tight around my wrists and ran fingers through my hair before disappearing quietly out the window.
I blinked open my eyes and shut them quickly. If I moved then this would be real. But I couldn’t stay asleep forever. Slowly, I let my eyes flutter open. Moving without sound, I climbed out of the hammock, feeling sore and stiff. It was then I noted the smell of cooking fish. I yawned, and my eyes wandered toward the old man. Ernest, wasn’t it? He flipped a flayed fish in a pan over a portable stove. I remember thinking distantly that it was probably dangerous to use the device in an enclosed area.
But Iwas far too hungry to care. “Food,” I croaked.
“Right you are.” Ernest flipped the fish again, and it sizzled and spat in the pan. Still painfully quiet, I sat down at the table and rubbed my eyes. After an excruciatingly long few moments, a plate of fried fish clattered in front of me. I devoured the food without hesitation, and it was several minutes before I was aware of my surroundings once more.
“Good grief, kid. No one ever fed you before?” Ernest seemed to find more interest in me than in his speckled cup of coffee.
I shrugged. “Thanks.”
Murmuring in response, Ernest sat down across from me. “So? How do you feel?”
He cackled. “No doubt.”
My eyes were glued to my plate. I knew which question would be coming soon. I didn’t want to answer it. Hoping to delay him, I stood and washed my dish in the sink. The dishes clinked and clattered against each other; the sole noise in the softly dipping cabin.
“Alright,” Ernest finally said. “Are you goin’ to tell me how you ended up nearly dead?”
I gulped. Slowly, I set the plate and gripped the edge of the sink. “I… must have fallen.”
Here it was. I didn’t want to say it just like I didn’t want to open my eyes. Saying it would make it real. Concrete. Un-retractable. Once I put this reality into words, it was there forever.
“I don’t remember.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Ernest’s bushy brows contract. But I continued to speak before he could respond. Words spilled from my lips quickly, propelled by fear. “I don’t remember anything. Oh, gosh. I don’t even know who I am- You have to believe me.” I faced him now. “I’m not lying. I’m not a bad person. I don’t think so.” And that thought sent me down another rabbit hole of fear. “Please! I just- I just-”
He stopped me then. Ernest was standing now, hands on my shoulders, looking at me with sympathy. “Don’t pull a muscle, boy. I believe you. I’m sure it’ll come back. Didn’t you say your name is Vincent?”
I gulped down the shivering fear attempting to overwhelm me, grateful for the minor distraction. His calm gaze settled me steadier into the ground. “Yes. Well. Sort of. It was the first name I thought of.” I was hardly going to tell him that I hallucinated about the sea speaking to me as I drowned. I racked my brain, hoping for some spark of light; a crack in my walled off mind. Nothing.
“Sit down, alright? Just sit down.”
I did. Heavily. Wrapping my arms around my skinny form, I noted the freckles that dotted my pale skin.
“What’s the first thing you remember?”
I pursed my lips and thought. The answer came easy. “I was swimming in red water. Away from something. I was scared. Before that...” My fingers shook, and I hid them in my too-long sleeves. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be really happening.
Ernest nodded slowly. Calmly. Like my declaration was an everyday saying. I imagine his composure was for my benefit. “Red water,” he murmured. “No red water ‘round here. You travel a few miles north, though…” Suddenly Ernest frowned. “Dear Lord, kid, how far did you swim?”
“Could you have come from one of the battle zones?”
“Of course. You don’t remember. They’re fighting over the…” Ernest paused, considering, but suddenly he cast aside whatever he was thinking. “Never mind that. Let me look at your head. Maybe you injured it.”
I complied, and Ernest searched gently through my hair. Realizing I didn’t know what color it was, only made me nauseous.
I frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Ernest came back around and sat once more. “You’re fine, as far as I can tell.”
What? I cocked my head. What did that mean? “But-”
“Sometimes the mind works strangely, kid. I imagine you saw something right horrible.”
So horrible that I’d wipe my own memory in order to get rid of it? So horrible that I’d forget my own name and come up with a new one? “So then, I’m crazy.”
“If you wanna call it that.” Ernest shrugged. “I imagine a real doctor could tell you better. But to be honest, I imagine your memory will come back to you soon enough.”
I didn’t respond. Suddenly the room was stuffy. Oppressively so. Standing quickly, I stumbled outside. Ernest didn’t follow me, thankfully.
While I had once been quiet, I now let my footsteps fall loud on the deck. The deck was salt stained and wooden, and I wondered for the first time why Ernest was the only man on such a vessel. Or maybe he wasn’t, and I just hadn’t met anyone else.
But my other thoughts were too loud for me concentrate on that bit of information. Shaking, I moved to the edge of the boat and stared down into the greenish water. No red. No blood, as I figured it was. Had I imagined it? I gripped the edge of the boat until my knuckles turned white.
This wasn’t something that actually happened. Not to me. Not to anyone. Right? People forgot who they were in movies. Books. Stories. Fiction. The reality of complete amnesia was so rare, it could hardly be named ‘reality’. So what was this? Perhaps Ernest was right. My memory would return bit by bit. Trauma did strange things, I knew.
But that was even stranger. I knew about the mind. How it worked, to some extent. I knew what a hot dog was, for example, and how it tasted. I knew how to button my pants, and use a fork. But I couldn’t remember ever learning any of it. It made me want to sink into a puddle on the floor.
Who was I before the red?
I had an odd, skirting thought that I was born of the ocean. That she birthed me in her depths. Named me, and thrust me into the world like a chick from a nest.
Despite the situation, I was thankful for the one thing I had. My name, true or not, was a name. I was not some formless, lost soul. Not an animal. Not a specimen.
For now, I was Vincent.
The name prompted a thought of another man by the same name. Vincent Van Gogh. A brilliant and tortured man. A painter who saw the world in swirls of color and light and beauty. Why did I remember some dead painter but not my own mother? I clenched the edge of the boat, rocking in the salty wind that seemed to whisper to me. For half an instant, the wind was made of secret thoughts and forgotten dreams that could be whipped up into a frenzy of anger and passion at their abandonment.
Sighing, I closed my eyes and listened, hoping to block out my thoughts. But the words of the wind tumbled over each other, scrambling in their haste to be heard. It made little sense, and I shook myself out of the stupor. What rubbish was this anyway? The wind did not have voices. Where did I ever get the idea?
I turned from the ocean and headed back into the cabin, chanting over and over in my head, my name is Vincent, and I don’t like red. My name is Vincent, and I don’t like red.
My name is Vincent.