By Neil Gaiman
I am forgetting things, which scares me.
I am losing words, although I am not losing concepts. I hope that I am not losing concepts. If I am losing concepts, I am not aware of it. If I am losing concepts, how would I know?
Which is funny, because my memory was always so good. Everything was in there. Sometimes my memory was so good that I even thought I could remember things I didn’t know yet. Remembering forward . . .
I don’t think there’s a word for that, is there? Remembering things that haven’t happened yet. I don’t have that feeling I get when I go looking in my head for a word that isn’t there, as if someone must have come and taken it in the night.
When I was a young man I lived in a big, shared house. I was a student then. We had our own shelves in the kitchen, neatly marked with our names, and our own shelves in the fridge, upon which we kept our own eggs, cheese, yoghurt, milk. I was always punctilious about using only my own provisions. Others were not so . . . there. I lost a word. One that would mean “careful to obey the rules.” The other people in the house were… not so. I would go to the fridge, but my eggs would have vanished.
I am thinking of a sky filled with spaceships, so many of them that they seem like a plague of locusts, silver against the luminous mauve of the night.
Things would go missing from my room back then as well. Boots. I remember my boots going. Or “being gone,” I should say, as I did not ever actually catch them in the act of leaving. Boots do not just “go.” Somebody “went” them. Just like my big dictionary. Same house, same time period. I went to the small bookshelf beside my face (everything was by my bed — it was my room, but it was not much larger than a cupboard with a bed in it). I went to the shelf and the dictionary was gone, just a dictionary-sized hole in my shelf to show where my dictionary wasn’t.
All the words and the book they came in were gone. Over the next month they also took my radio, a can of shaving foam, a pad of notepaper, and a box of pencils. And my yoghurt. And, I discovered during a power cut, my candles.
Now I am thinking of a boy with new tennis shoes, who believes he can run forever. No, that is not giving it to me. A dry town in which it rained forever. A road through the desert, on which good people see a mirage. A dinosaur that is a movie producer. The mirage was the pleasure dome of Kublai Khan.
No . . .
Sometimes when the words go away I can find them by creeping up on them from another direction. Say I go and look for a word — I am discussing the inhabitants of the planet Mars, say, and I realise that the word for them has gone. I might also realise that the missing word occurs in a sentence or a title. The________ Chronicles. My Favourite _________. If that does not give it to me, I circle the idea. Little green men, I think, or tall, dark-skinned, gentle: Dark they were and Golden-eyed . . . and suddenly the word Martians is waiting for me, like a friend or a lover at the end of a long day.
I left that house when my radio went. It was too wearing, the slow disappearance of the things I had thought so safely mine, item by item, thing by thing, object by object, word by word.
When I was twelve I was told a story by an old man that I have never forgotten. A poor man found himself in a forest as night fell, and he had no prayer book to say his evening prayers. So he said, “God who knows all things, I have no prayer book and I do not know any prayers by heart. But you know all the prayers. You are God. So this is what I am going to do. I am going to say the alphabet, and I will let you put the words together.”
There are things missing from my mind, and it scares me. Icarus! It’s not as if I have forgotten all names. I remember Icarus. He flew too close to the sun. In the stories, though, it’s worth it. Always worth it to have tried, even if you fail, even if you fall like a meteor forever. Better to have flamed in the darkness, to have inspired others, to have lived, than to have sat in the darkness, cursing the people who borrowed, but did not return, your candle.
I have lost people, though.
It’s strange when it happens. I don’t actually lose them. Not in the way one loses one’s parents, either as a small child, when you think you are holding your mother’s hand in a crowd and then you look up, and it’s not your mother . . . or later. When you have to find the words to describe them at a funeral service or a memorial, or when you are scattering ashes on a garden of flowers or into the sea.
I sometimes imagine I would like my ashes to be scattered in a library. But then the librarians would just have to come in early the next morning to sweep them up again, before the people got there.
I would like my ashes scattered in a library or, possibly, a funfair. A 1930s funfair, where you ride the black . . . the black . . . the . . .
I have lost the word. Carousel? Roller coaster? The thing you ride, and you become young again. The Ferris wheel. Yes. There is another carnival that comes to town as well, bringing evil. “By the pricking of my thumbs . . .”
I remember Shakespeare, and I remember his name, and who he was and what he wrote. He’s safe for now. Perhaps there are people who forget Shakespeare. They would have to talk about “the man who wrote ‘to be or not to be'” — not the film, starring Jack Benny, whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky, who was raised in Waukegan, Illinois, an hour or so outside Chicago. Waukegan, Illinois, was later immortalised as Green Town, Illinois, in a series of stories and books by an American author who left Waukegan and went to live in Los Angeles. I mean of course, the man I am thinking of. I can see him in my head when I close my eyes.
I used to look at his photographs on the back of his books. He looked mild and he looked wise, and he looked kind.
He wrote a story about Poe, to stop Poe being forgotten, about a future where they burn books and they forget them, and in the story we are on Mars although we might as well be in Waukegan or Los Angeles, as critics, as those who would repress or forget books, as those who would take the words, all the words, dictionaries and radios full of words, as those people are walked through a house and murdered, one by one: by orang-utan; by pit and pendulum; for the love of God, Montressor . . .
Poe. I know Poe. And Montressor. And Benjamin Kubelsky and his wife, Sadie Marks, who was no relation to the Marx Brothers and who performed as Mary Livingston. All these names in my head.
I was twelve.
I had read the books, I had seen the film, and the burning point of paper was the moment where I knew that I would have to remember this. Because people would have to remember books, if other people burn them or forget them. We will commit them to memory. We will become them. We become authors. We become their books.
I am sorry. I lost something there. Like a path I was walking that dead-ended, and now I am alone and lost in the forest, and I am here and I do not know where here is anymore.
You must learn a Shakespeare play; I will think of you as Titus Andronicus. Or you, my friend, you could learn an Agatha Christie novel; you will be Murder on the Orient Express. Someone else can learn the poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and you, whoever you are, reading this, you can learn a Dickens book, and when I want to know what happened to Barnaby Rudge, I will come to you. You can tell me.
And the people who would burn the words, the people who would take the books from the shelves, the firemen and the ignorant, the ones afraid of tales and words and dreams and Hallowe’en and people who have tattooed themselves with stories and Boys! You Can Grow Mushrooms in Your Cellar! and as long as your words which are people which are days which are my life, as long as your words survive, then you lived and you mattered and you changed the world and I cannot remember your name.
I learned your books. Burned them into my mind. In case the firemen come to town.
But who you are is gone. I wait for it to return to me. Just as I waited for my dictionary or for my radio, or for my boots, and with as meagre a result.
All I have left is the space in my mind where you used to be.
And I am not so certain about even that.
I was talking to a friend. And I said, “Are these stories familiar to you?” I told him all the words I knew, the ones about the monsters coming home to the house with the human child in it, the ones about the lightning salesman and the wicked carnival that followed him, and the Martians and their fallen glass cities and their perfect canals. I told him all the words, and he said he hadn’t heard of them. That they didn’t exist.
And I worry.
I worry I was keeping them alive. Like the people in the snow at the end of the story, walking backwards and forwards, remembering, repeating the words of the stories, making them real.
I think it’s God’s fault.
I mean, he can’t be expected to remember everything, God can’t. Busy chap. So perhaps he delegates things, sometimes, just goes, “You! I want you to remember the dates of the Hundred Years’ War. And you, you remember okapi. You, remember Jack Benny who was Benjamin Kubelsky from Waukegan, Illinois.” And then, when you forget the things that God has charged you with remembering, bam. No more okapi. Just an okapi-shaped hole in the world, which is halfway between an antelope and a giraffe. No more Jack Benny. No more Waukegan. Just a hole in your mind where a person or a concept used to be.
I don’t know.
I don’t know where to look. Have I lost an author, just as once I lost a dictionary? Or worse: Did God give me this one small task, and now I have failed him, and because I have forgotten him he has gone from the shelves, gone from the reference works, and now he only exists in our dreams . . .
My dreams. I do not know your dreams. Perhaps you do not dream of a veldt that is only wallpaper but that eats two children. Perhaps you do not know that Mars Is Heaven, where our beloved dead go to wait for us, then consume us in the night. You do not dream of a man arrested for the crime of being a pedestrian.
I dream these things.
If he existed, then I have lost him. Lost his name. Lost his book titles, one by one by one. Lost the stories.
And I fear that I am going mad, for I cannot just be growing old.
If I have failed in this one task, oh God, then only let me do this thing, that you may give the stories back to the world.
Because, perhaps, if this works, they will remember him. All of them will remember him. His name will once more become synonymous with small American towns at Hallowe’en, when the leaves skitter across the sidewalk like frightened birds, or with Mars, or with love. And my name will be forgotten.
I am willing to pay that price, if the empty space in the bookshelf of my mind can be filled again, before I go.
Dear God, hear my prayer.
A . . . B . . . C . . . D . . . E . . . F . . . G . . .
About “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”
I wanted to write about Ray Bradbury. I wanted to write about him in the way that he wrote about Poe in “Usher II” — a way that drove me to Poe.
I was going to read something in an intimate theatre space, very late at night, during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. My wife, Amanda, and I were hosting a midnight show of songs and readings. I promised myself that I would finish it in time to read it to forty people seated on sofas and on cushions on the floor in a tiny, beautiful room that normally contained the Belt Up Theatre Company’s intimate plays.
Very well, it would be a monologue, if I was going to read it.
The inspiration came from forgetting a friend of mine. He died a decade ago. And I went to look in my head for his name, and it was gone. I knew everything else about him — the periodicals he had written for, his favourite brand of bourbon. I could have recited every conversation he and I had ever had, told you what we talked about. I could remember the names of the books he had written.
But his name was gone. And it scared me. I waited for his name to return, promised myself I wouldn’t Google it, would just wait and remember. But nothing came. It was as if there was a hole in the universe the size of my friend. I would walk home at night trying to think of his name, running through names in alphabetical order. “Al? No. Bob? No. Charles? Chris? Not them . . .”
And I thought, What if it were an author? What if it was everything he’d done? What if everyone else had forgotten him too?
I wrote the story by hand. I finished it five minutes before we had to leave the house to go to the theatre. I was a mass of nerves — I’d never read something to an audience straight out of the pen.
When I read it, I finished it with a recital of the whole alphabet.
Then I typed it out and sent it to Ray for his ninety-first birthday.
I was there at his seventieth birthday, in the Natural History Museum in London.
It was, like everything else about the man and his work, unforgettable.
— Neil Gaiman
“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” and “About ‘The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury’ ” by Neil Gaiman. Copyright © 2012 by Neil Gaiman.