In the Forests of Memory
The cemeteries of tomorrow are no place for the living.
Especially after a week given to celebrating a holiday of thanks and remembrance, perhaps it is worth thinking about who gets remembered and why. Here, the great E. Lily Yu imagines a future where cemeteries have been upgraded, but so many other things have not. Enjoy. -the ed
After ten years living in one of the Forests of Memory, A-294 to be specific, Sunny Carballo had discerned two fundamental truths: firstly, that almost all of one’s friends, children, and lovers came in the first year, some in the second, to converse with the holographic remains of one’s self, and never again after that; and secondly, that Asian families could be relied upon to leave gifts of fruit, buns, and alcohol, in contravention of all regulation, at the graves of their dead. Sunny always waited until the funeral party moved a respectful distance away before eating the oranges and drinking the wine.
The world was not kind to seventy-year-old women without homes. The Forest at least provided food, a bathroom, a concrete shelter, and some safety: a fence had been erected and groundskeeper assigned after the carbon-sequestration tract had been converted into a Forest of Memory. Although the groundskeeper had seen Sunny once or twice at a distance, during the day—she was very careful—little in her dress or behavior distinguished her from the other mourners moving among the trees.
Her companions in the Forest were precisely the kind of company she liked: occasional, appearing only when she chose. Today she tapped lightly on the brass plaque on a beech that said Alfonse Remi, 1954—2031. From the projector embedded in the plaque came a glittering cone and web of light. Sunny stepped back, and there was Alfonse.
He was a handsome man at the time of recording, with kind eyes and a gold chain around his neck. Its physical twin was wound around the plaque, weighed down with a small gold cross. His family had been lucky: a slow-killing cancer meant enough time to record the man in detail, his image so real and vivid that Sunny wanted to stroke the wrinkles at the corner of his eye. The families of teenagers killed in accidents and middle-aged office workers dead of heart attacks had to settle for still images and candid family videos, grainy and two-dimensional.
These were, of course, the rites of those with money: Jane Does and the destitute went to unmarked and unmapped plots in commercial orchards.
“How has your day been, Alfonse?” she asked.
“The best day of my life, I was walking to the market in Bolinao. This was before the seas rose—it’s not there any more. Isn’t it tragic, how places wash away? Ana was still asleep. I was going to surprise her with breakfast. The fruits in the market glowed brighter than anything, and I laughed with joy. Something about the sunlight. I bought a great big armful of mangos. Later Ana and I rode bicycles along the edge of the sea.”
“I’m doing well too, thanks for asking,” Sunny said. “Drank from the drinking fountain, used the bathroom, ate that peach I was saving. Now here I am. It’s nice having someone to talk to, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” Alfonse said. “I don’t understand the question.”
“Oh, the company you hired was the real deal, wasn’t it. Usually that message is just an error window. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tire you out. Goodness knows you’ve earned your rest. Just tell me this: when was the last time your grandchildren visited you? Because I’ve been here ten years, and I’ve never seen anyone else swing by.”
“My family is the love of my life,” Alfonse said, hands moving like birds. They cast no shadow on the mossy earth. “Julia, Nellie, Christophe, Sebastian—I have messages for all of you. If you step up and let the plaque scan your eye.”
“That’s very personal,” Sunny said, giggling. “We only met last week.”
He blinked at her, uncomprehending. Sunny whisked her skirts in a shallow curtsey.
“Good talking to you,” she said.
Two trees away was Gilda, twenty, with bold makeup, and rashy. She squinted at Sunny, as if the light was too brilliant to bear, though what filtered through the canopy was soft and emerald.
“Ay, hija,” Sunny said, “What happened to you?”
“If you ask me,” Gilda said, “it’s really a gift. Not the tumors—I’d blast them with a flamethrower if I could. But the sense of shortened time, the intensity of living—not a day wasted. I can’t afford to waste a day.”
“You should have grown old,” Sunny said. “Gotten married. Divorced. Fought a custody battle. It’s what we all do.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Gilda said. “Don’t give Marcus a hard time. Not everyone can—I mean, he couldn’t. Bear it, I mean. And that’s okay. Tell him I said so. I hope he finds—I hope he’s happy.”
Sunny clicked her tongue. “He wasn’t good enough for you.”
Bold as robins, she woke three other holograms. It was the caretaker’s day off, and she could be less circumspect. She could speak to all the dead, if she wanted.
“But that’s enough,” she said, feeling the sourness in her feet. The forest floor was uneven duff, knitted with roots, despite the even layer of dead that lay beneath.
Her wandering had taken her to a secluded part of the wood, near the tall chain-link fence that partitioned the Forest of Memory from a logging stand. She sat down under a spreading elm and peeled one shoe off, then another. Her soles had toughened to parchment and hide over the years. She wiggled her brown toes and dug her heels in the moss.
Idly she observed that the bottom part of the fence had come loose in one place, bulging in, as if someone had pried the links up with a crowbar. Sooner or later the groundskeeper would notice and mend it.
A caramel-colored mushroom poked through the loam by her hand. She plucked it like a flower and sniffed its earth scent.
Low and loud a drone came flying, over the fence and between the trees. Her niece’s daughter had played with such a thing, Sunny recalled, running up and down the beach, shooting video, until the drone careened into the sea. No amount of blotting, crying, or blowdrying could resurrect the sodden toy.
Although the drone had vanished from sight, Sunny still heard its tooth-aching burr. After a minute it returned, zipping over the fence and into the short and stubby firs.
A young man crept out of the logging stand, a crowbar in one hand, a garbage bag in the other. He crawled through the billowed opening in the chain-link fence, then darted past Sunny, toward the memory trees.
Sunny curled her bare feet up against herself, thinking invisible thoughts, trying to turn as green as the moss.
From here and there in the Forest she heard a burst of confused noise: ghosts arising and speaking and stuttering silent.
When the man came back, his bag was full and clinking, and a gold cross swung on a gold chain around his wrist. Walking past Sunny, who could have wept with relief, he pushed the bag beneath the fence.
Then he turned and looked at Sunny Carballo.
“No,” she said, “please,” but his eyes narrowed with a drugged and desperate calculation.
The crowbar arced once through the air. A dull light slid down the length of the metal.
Sunny was frail. It was quick. There was not much blood.
When they found her, some time after accounting for the stolen plaques, lenses, projectors, and chips, and the sap-dripping gashes in the memory trees, the family members that could be tracked through DNA grudgingly scraped together enough to inter Sunny in A-294. Nothing, not even a photo, was sent for a hologram.
As backup copies of other memories were reinstalled through the forest, and the chain-link fence replaced with cement and spiked iron, Sunny sank down under the rich green moss, and no one, not one, remembered her.