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GeminiMAGAZINE
2016
Flash Fiction
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NOVEMBER 2016
STOLEN MEMORIES
by Timothy Jay Smith
Everyone wants to revisit where they
spent their early years, where so much took
place that they will always carry with them.
For me that was Algiers. I had memories of
it that would flash like the sun on the
whitewashed walls of their origin. I yearned
to see the home where I had grown up. I
wanted to confront someone, anyone,
whomever I could blame for taking away so
much from my parents. As much as I grew
in Paris, they shrank, and my withered legs
had to carry the weight for all of us. Of
course I never expected compensation.
What compensation can there be for lives
not lived? For stolen memories? But I
wanted to know if it had been worth it. Had
someone gained so much that the expense
to my family was warranted?

Our house was in the old
souk, its entrance
a simple door in the market’s passage. You
would never suspect that it was the
entrance to a house, nor how much was
hidden behind it. I hesitated to knock. It
was chilly in the shadow of the wall and I
was shivering when I finally did. A moment
later a man answered. He wore a simple
cotton robe, frayed and patched but clean.
He looked at me strangely, and I suppose I
did look strange to him, a crippled,
shivering European standing in his doorway.

When I explained that I had grown up in
the house, the man opened the door wide
and invited me into the small courtyard.
The floor was covered with blue tiles—the
same blue tiles from when I was a boy. I
had played games there, solitary games
because I couldn’t play with the other
children, not with my feet. My mother hung
birdcages in the courtyard—white cages
filled with finches and canaries—and all day
I would listen to their songs; or when I
grew tired of my games, I would open the
door to the souk and watch the people go
by. The birdcages, of course, were gone,
and the courtyard was filled with laundry
hanging in the sun.

The man shouted an order for coffee into
an open door, before we sat at a small
table. He told me that his father had been
a leader in Algeria’s independence
movement. He had been captured and
tortured by the French, and his reward had
been our house. That’s what the man called
it, a reward. His father had died many
years earlier from complications caused by
his injuries, but the sons still lived in the
house. Three sons, each married, and each
with four or five children. My family had
been prosperous but our house had not
been especially large, certainly not big
enough for three families. I looked around
for signs of so many people, and then I saw
them everywhere: the variety of clothes
hanging on the lines, the shoes outside
every door, the movements of curtains as
the women—or I guessed them to be the
women—stole glances at us.

A boy whom the man introduced as his
youngest son brought us coffee. His father
scolded him for taking so long, but it was
clear that the boy had taken time to wash
quickly. His hair was wet and slicked down,
and his face looked freshly scrubbed. His
robe was also patched but clean, smelling
like soap and sun, and he carried our
coffees on a brass tray. The cups were
delicate, not the usual thick ceramic cups,
and on each saucer he had placed sweets.
The family was poor, and they probably
had few visitors—certainly few European
visitors—and I was being treated with great
respect.

Who did I expect to find in my family’s
home? What had I planned to say to them?
I had gone there filled with my parents’
bitterness ready to insult them because
that was easy enough. At the right moment
I’d have the choice phrase that forever
would haunt them, nag them when they
wondered if their lives had meant anything,
let them know that whatever they had
gained they had stolen from someone else.
I wanted to take away from the sum of
their lives what they had subtracted from
my parents.

I was totally unprepared for the man’s
response. He expressed sorrow at the loss
that my family had suffered. He took my
hands in his and kissed them, and begged
me to be his guest as the only meager
recompense he could offer.

Of course I did not; it was an impossible
proposal. I felt awkward, and could not
imagine the great clumsiness of my
crippled body in that crowded household.
Suddenly I felt suffocated in the courtyard
with its lines of laundry and the furtive
eyes at the windows. The blue tiles of my
childhood lapped at my feet like water, and
I thought I might slip on them and fall, or
drown. A great sadness came over me, and
oddly, a great relief as well. It had been
many years since I had cried, but I did cry,
and the man looked confused. By coming
home I had crossed another threshold,
though I could not articulate it—not then,
and not to a stranger. I wanted to run
away, but at that moment, with the tears
in my eyes, it was difficult enough for me
to stand. When I did, the man held out a
restraining hand and said,
‘Un moment.’

He returned in a minute holding a birdcage,
one of my mother’s white birdcages.
‘Nothing else was left,’ he said, ‘only this.
It was hanging there.’ He pointed to a
corner. ‘I always knew someone would
return. I know it is a small memory, but it’s
all that I have to give.’
‘Une petite
memoire,’
he had called it. I left the man’s
house holding my mother’s birdcage. I had
come to think of it as that, as the man’s
house, no longer my family’s.

Timothy Jay Smith won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now
the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels.
Kirkus Reviews called a second novel, Cooper’s Promise,
“literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best
Books of 2012. Fire on the Island was short-listed for the
2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for unpublished novels. His
stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious
Stanley Drama Award. His screenplays have won
competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters
Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode
Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros,
and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute.

What was my inspiration for “Stolen Memories”?

While I was living in Jerusalem from 1994 to 1997, my
next door neighbor was an old man with two clubbed feet.
He was an Algerian Jew whose family fled that North
African country at the time of its struggle for
independence. I don't know if he ever went back to see
the family's old home, but in “Stolen Memories,” I imagine
that he does. He was also the inspiration for the character
Efrahim, an old painter, in my novel A Vision of Angels. For
anyone interested, it's available on Amazon Kindle or in
paperback from
Owl Canyon Press.