The Human Genre Project

The Code of Forgetting

She was tall, and green-eyed, and red-haired, and fair; her limbs were long, and her fingers slim and tapered; she had a secret birthmark on her left hip, the one small blemish that had to mar absolute perfection lest it prove too be too much for her imperfect world to hold. All these things that were written in her DNA, passed down from ancestors like legacies, a memory written in code of four letters: A C G T. On those four letters rested everything that she was, or could become.

She was fiercely intelligent, and had a laugh that turned heads in the street with its infectious joy. She had a low, dark singing voice, the kind that fits well with slow jazz in smoky bars; she liked the taste of chocolate and of habanero peppers; she could roll her tongue into a tube; she had a talent for playing the guitar. All these things were written in her DNA, passed down from ancestors and then changed to suit her own self, the same four letters – A C G T. On those four letters trembled the foundations of a human soul.

She took on the skin of her world. She went to school and learned her multiplication tables and her letters; she learned about poetry and art; she learned how to decide what kind of literature and art amd music she liked and what kind she did not. She played make-believe with her dolls. She went to the seaside on her summer holidays, and she gathered up the memories inside her mind – the sound that a seashell makes when held against her ear, the touch of sea-foam on her bare feet and the feel of wet sand between her toes. She learned the sound of thunder. She learned the smell of the air just before the snow comes in winter, sharp and cold, and she learned how to kick-walk through the fallen leaves of autumn. She learned how to love, and mourn, cats and dogs and goldfish which were so much less long-lived than herself.

She grew up loving those who raised her – the parents, the grandparents – and then she grew, and learned to respond to other people. She met friends along the way, people who would travel along life’s highways with her, and she met people who bore her only malice. She met, eventually, a man she fell in love with, and in the fullness of time she bore him children… and she loved this next generation with all of her heart. She took them to the seaside on summer vacations, and shared the memories of the sound of the ocean within the dark mystery of the seashell, and the wet sand; she shared the rustle of autumn leaves, and the art of making snowballs, and the smell of winter in the dark mornings.

And she grew older, and her red hair became streaked with grey, and then turned white.

And then, somehow, the memories started to slip away, slowly, one by one. At first, it was the little things, the seemingly uniportant things, and then it grew – where did I leave my glasses? Where did I put the keys? Did I turn off the stove or the iron? Strange – I could have sworn I had done the laundry, but there sits the laundry bag on the washer, still undone. Why did I turn right at this corner – I don’t recognise this neighbourhood, where am I?

Individual threads remained, for a while, lost in an increasingly thickening fog that dulled everything and made it hard to find her way, but they found nothing to connect with. The ocean’s roar in the seashell became a disembodied thing, something she might have heard about in a fairy tale – she could no longer hold the memory of lifting the shell with her own hand to her own ear. The things she cherished and cared about from the days of her life slipped away; sometimes she would find herself waking from a living dream, convinced that she had been in quite a different place and time, finding herself startled and disoriented when she returned to her own old woman’s body.

She forgot who her mate of many years was. She no longer recognised her children. She retreated, and the fog closed around her, and her eyes grew empty and distant and cold – and now it was other people’s memories of her that were the only thing that remained. Her husband’s memory of her long red hair spilled over the pillows as she slept. Her daughter’s memory of her mother’s singing voice from the days that it still sand lullabies. Her son’s memory of a mother’s long fingers soothing and healing, drying tears and applying band-aids to a scraped knee. Everybody’s memories of her passions and her laughter and her fears and her joys and her love – all of the things that were gone from her, as she was left remembering nothing, not her own past, not the bridges to her future that were her children.

In the end, when the dementia monster took everything, she would accept being fed one spoonful at a time by her patient and grieving husband – she would take the food, like a doll, like a child, but she did not even know that he was there. The shell of her remained, the shell that was once perfection, the only memory of that perfection the small birthmark on her hip. But everything else… was gone.

And this, too was written in her DNA, in those four letters of her destiny: A C G T. Her genes would give her a life to choose, but it would be they that would decide how and when that life would end – and how high the price would be for all the choices that it had allowed her to make. The simple building blocks that could spin together a being, a creature, a personality, could also unravel it all – the complexity that was built into the system eventually breaking down to the same four letters. Her life was her own to live, and to fill – but her genome decided how she would live, and die.

The genetic code that had coded her looks and her personality – that had unfolded a blank canvas, and called it a human being instead of a dolphin or a gorilla – that had written what and who she was or could be – the code that let her step into her life and start gathering memories – that was also the code of forgetting.

Four letters.

A C G T.

Alma Alexander