"The Brightest Light" by Tess Allard
This is what it’s like to be someone’s first memory. You are table legs, sticky floor; you are old language lost to time. You are plump arms swinging Emma up towards the ceiling as she shrieks with boundless joy. You are dancing, laughing, smashing china for good luck. You are the impossible flame of the electric lights, which maybe she’s never seen before, living where she does. But you don’t know yet this is how she will remember you. You are still alive.
You are forty-four and growing old, in this long-gone world. Your sons, who only know America, are in the old country killing people who might have been your neighbors. The boy up there on the stage, kissing his new wife demurely, is so young he still has spots. The little girl in your arms is your granddaughter, wide-eyed and wild-haired, pulsing with restrained energy, her whole life spilling out before her like a raw egg cracked, and when she grows up this is what she will know of you. You smelled like the dough you kneaded every morning, the flour working its way into the lines of your palms. Your hair was the exact color of the horse that pulled the milk truck. You would protect her fiercely, wrap her in the cotton batting of your arms until all that might threaten had passed. You were, you were. You would.
You are forty-four, and you are sixteen, and you are fifty, and you are long since buried with the crabgrass spreading over your grave. You have never been older than fifty. Yet Emma grows and surpasses you and ventures forward into a world you can barely understand. Now Emma is fourteen, thirty-six, sixty. Emma is walking through the doors of the very first building in her memory, that bright high-ceilinged place of wonder, but it is different now, like everything. They have boarded up the grandest windows. There is no more chandelier. They have built the highway and sliced the neighborhood through like a cleaver and now there is a concrete beam where Otto Sprecher’s house once stood, that man whose mouth you knew the taste of though he was not your husband. And Emma is walking into the old hall and seeing the ceiling again. And everyone is looking, wondering why she is here. A baby, held up to the light. No. An old woman. She has lived more life than you.
You have never met her children. You have never heard her grown voice whisper in your ear. You have never been able to tell her that her face in youth looked just like your mother’s. But none of this matters anymore. You are part of the old, lost world.
Ten years from now there will be a shooting and this place will shut its doors. Emma will not see the news; she will be in a nursing home watching game shows. But you will see everything: the slow decay, the graffitied facade, the windows laced with ivy. The kids who break the doors. Another young girl finding another kind of first joy. But amongst this, forever, you are dancing with Emma. You are holding her high above the bright throng and saying, Oh, little mouse. What a life you have ahead.
TESS ALLARD is a writer, photographer and filmmaker living in Pittsburgh, PA, by way of Connecticut and New Mexico. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Jellyfish Review, and Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Her short story, “The World Holds What It Remembers Most,” was selected as the fiction winner in Black Warrior Review’s 2017 contest. She spends her free time gardening, exploring nature, and seeking out strange places. Visit her website at tessallard.com.