Janice Tay


an excerpt from The Memory Eaters

THE woman pulled something from her belt and pressed it into his hand. ‘Take it,’ she said. ‘It may be of use.’ He looked down to see a dagger, the indigo cords wrapped around its hilt almost as dark as the sheath.

‘Do you know the use of it?’ asked the woman.

He drew the dagger; the black lacquer of the sheath was chipped but the blade was oiled. He pushed the edge against his thumb, watched as a slit of red opened across it.

He’d found slashes on his arms and legs the night before. Sword cuts, said the woman, but not deep. Anger rose, a red wave beating against an empty shore. The person, the people who had struck at him – had they somehow also made him forget himself?

‘I did not bandage your cuts only for you to make new holes in yourself,’ said the woman. Her hands closed over his, sheathing the dagger and pushing it into his belt. ‘Wear it like so.’

As she adjusted the fit of the dagger, something clinked; his gaze went to the bracelet around her wrist, to the bell among the cloudy beads. Prayer beads! He knew them for what they were, just as he knew that it was no common thing to have a bell strung together with the beads. He let relief wash over him – one tiny piece of his vanished past, recovered.

The woman’s hands fell away; the bracelet hung limp, too large for her wrist.

He remembered her hands, her thin white fingers reaching for him in the night – one of his first memories in this new, bare life. Those fragile hands had somehow found the strength to pull him up as she half-dragged, half-carried him into the cover of the pines. 

‘We shall begin with names,’ said the woman. ‘We stand on Kamishima – the Island of the Gods. Pilgrims from all across the land of Honchou travel here to seek divine favour.’

Without appearing to hurry, she moved so swiftly over the sand he had to run to catch up with her. ‘There,’ she said. pointing to mountains across the sea. ‘To reach the shrines on this island, the pilgrims pass through that town called Hashidate – also the name of its castle – and cross the bridge of sand that binds Kamishima to the mainland.’

He saw the sandbar first – it lay across the sea like a fallen ladder. But he did not need the woman to point out the castle; it could be nothing else, that white tower rising against the mountains, the black roofs curving up into horns.

‘You may have come with a band of pilgrims – we shall begin our inquiries in town,’ said the woman.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, his voice returning only to break off as he tried to arrange words scattered in his head into speech. ‘Perhaps,’ he rasped, ‘I lived… I live on this island?’

© Straits Times Press

by Janice Tay
from The Memory Eaters (2017)
published by Straits Times Press