What I Cannot Remember

Christopher Merrill

Why the order was issued not to congregate in the main square to watch the lunar eclipse.

Whose machete was raised on the riverbank, glistening with the blood of friends and foes alike—those who obeyed the edict against rigid interpretations of the law and those who did not.

The argument for books instead of barbells, which must not have figured into the decision to turn the library into a gymnasium for the ex-pat community.

The argument for schooling oneself in the art of diplomacy—that is, in the imaginary.

Not to mention the arts of gardening and cooking, of tying flies and surviving in the wilderness, of posing questions about teleology and linking Telemark turns in fresh snow, in a canyon closed because of the threat of an avalanche.

The art of the bluff, of leading with a weak hand, of knowing when to fold.

The fragrance of incense and ashes worked into the cross-shaped scar on my forehead, during the evening service at the church in which I first grasped the extent of my fallen nature.

What I was doing before the bolt of lightning struck our house on the hill.

Waking in the morning without pain.

What inspired me to climb to the top branch of the maple tree outside my dormitory after staying up all night, high on speed, to write a term paper on ethics.

Where I first heard “The Weight” and what became of the boy who introduced me to The Band at the outset of his descent into madness.

When I finally understood how this music would shape my sense of possibility, even as it spelled the end of our friendship: the story of a life.


What I thought waking one summer night in a meadow, my fellow Boy Scouts having moved my cot from the tent while I was asleep.

The number of campsites I visited at Mt. Allamuchy before I realized the troop leader’s order to retrieve a left-handed smoke-shifter was made in jest.

The fate of the aging water snake stretched out on a log at the edge of the lake, which another scout whacked with a stick, egged on by the others, perhaps including me.

What my father said that fall on the drive home from the sectional Punt, Pass, & Kick competition at Mt. Allamuchy, where I had slipped on the wet grass and shanked my punt, months of training undone in an instant as the ball rolled away.

The outcome of the trick my mother and our babysitter played on my father, in the summer house rebuilt behind the dunes after the Ash Wednesday Storm, turning the clock back hourly to ten until it was two in the morning, when they let it ring eleven times—his cue to yawn and go to bed.

If I regretted feeling gleeful when I first took a set from my father on the tennis court.

If I told him about hitchhiking home from preseason soccer practice at Pingry: how a car pulled over in Union, the driver beckoned me into the front seat, and there he fondled me.

What I was thinking when I asked him what he was doing and he offered to give me a blowjob.

How fast the car was moving when I opened the door to jump out, in traffic, and stumbled to the curb, where a policeman asked me what was going on—a question I still cannot answer.

Why I did not consider finding alternate means of transportation home that season.

What I was drinking the night my father threatened to kill me if I drunk drove the car into a tree—which sent me into paroxysms of laughter.

How many days passed before I skidded off the road into the woods, at more than forty miles an hour, with at least six screwdrivers under my belt and my father’s words ringing in my ears, a sea of green leaves parting until the car came to a stop.


When I grasped that my mother’s memory’s lapses and repeated questions signaled something more disturbing than the advent of old age.

Which imp inspired me to interrogate her about the title of the book she had been reading for six months, who was in her book club, and when they met.

Her explanation of my inability to breastfeed for the first month of my life and why it took so long for anyone to notice that I was starving.

What possessed me to bring the garter snake I caught in the field behind our house into the kitchen, where she was cooking dinner, and if I was remorseful when she sprinted outside, moving faster than I imagined it was possible for her to run.

If I ever thanked her for the blueberry pancakes she served me every morning before I left for work that summer at the lumberyard.

What my sisters and I were arguing about that day in the rented house, when she was on the phone.

Whether she warned us to be quiet before she swung the receiver at my face, striking my forearm raised in self-defense.

The lie I was supposed to tell the emergency room doctor who ordered an X-ray of the egg-shaped swelling, which had already turned purple.

If I was relieved or disappointed to learn my arm was not broken.

How she reacted to this news.

When she began to bring it up again—was it before or after her descent into oblivion?—and why I did not correct her version of the event.

Why I felt the need to tell her my age when she kept saying, You’re my little boy.

Christopher Merrill has published seven collections of poetry, most recently, Flares. He has edited many volumes and translations, and published six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages, and his honors include a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Ingram Merrill Foundations. He directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

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