The first time I found the hidden market, it felt like this—
—an April morning, capricious sun flitting in and out of cloud, rain riding the breeze but I’ve no umbrella, of course; a sudden darkening of the sky and a quickening of the rain and it’s under my collar and obscuring my glasses and in my shoes soaking my socks; a strange sensation of space expanding and contracting in an instant, and then—
—there was an umbrella in my hand, and my glasses were clean, and my throat could remember hot tea even though my mind could not, and I had new socks, thick and warm and dry.
The second time—
—I’m hurt, badly, I can’t walk and I’m afraid, and the streets are quiet, too quiet; I’m lost, my phone and wallet stolen, no way to get help or to pay for it if it even comes; I’m bleeding and I might be fainting and I drop to my knees, feeling a familiar simultaneous expansion and contraction of time and space, and then—
—I was on my feet again, and all the sharpness was gone from the pain, and I had a new phone in my pocket with all my contacts in it, and I was entirely without fear, although I couldn’t remember why.
The third time was the last time. The third time is this time, and it feels like this—
—it’s high summer, and the air is beautiful, and the salt breeze from the ocean carries with it a fragrance of citrus but everything is bleak; my mind is a blankness, and my body feels far from me, and the sea glitters like a knife; the company I work for’s gone under, and I’m out of work and I can’t be, I can’t afford to be, and I need, I need—
—and I must’ve been distracted with my frantic thoughts, because I was so sure that this street was empty when I turned down it, but after a sudden and strange sensation of expanding space I find myself in a market, packed with people, selling everything you could possibly need. I walk in wonderment between the stalls, until something catches my attention. A tea shop, half-hidden behind the stalls, an inviting smell of spices wafting out into the warm street, and a HELP WANTED sign in the window.
I walk toward it. I do need a job, after all.
“I adore repeat visitors,” says the woman in the tea shop. “It’s always such fun.”
“But I’ve never been here before,” I reply, confused, as she hands me a cup of tea. “And I didn’t order this. Lord knows, I can’t pay for it. I’m here about the job.” But the tea smells gorgeous, a blend of cinnamon and citrus and cocoa, and I can’t help but take a long inhale as the steam rises to my face.
“Drink up,” says the woman. “You can pay for it. Money’s not the currency round here—the market runs mostly on memories. Pay the same way you paid for your last one. Give up your memory of it, then forget us, and go on your way.”
“Is that—have I done that before?” I say, thinking of that April morning, and the inexplicable taste of tea in my mouth and the umbrella in my hand and the socks on my feet.
“If I told you, you’d owe me a cup of tea,” she says, with a wink. I laugh, nervously, taking her remark as assent, and look around, hoping to stir something within my mind. But nothing comes back. Not the fronds of philodendron in the window, not the smell of spices, nor the sound of the market outside. Not the woman behind the counter, either. This is impossible. I turn back to face her.
“And if I don’t want to forget?”
“Then you have to pay by serving the market. You have to stay.”
When I first met you, when you pushed aside the fronds of philodendron and walked through the door of the tea shop, there was a spark between us. It was like we’d been best friends forever. I looked carefully at you and at my tea leaves and spices, and guessed just the right blend. You loved it, and as you drank cup after cup, we talked for hours. I told you about how my old life had fallen apart, how I didn’t miss it, how I didn’t mind working in a tea shop in the hidden market, meeting people for the first time, and only ever the first time.
What I didn’t tell you was that I was ready for you. The market pays us for staying, you see—pays in memories. Every lost memory sustains the market. And your memories—they stood out from the rest. Things you’ve forgotten that you wish you could remember. Things you willed out of your mind. Things from early childhood, the things we all lose. I put them together and built an image of you and hoped against hope that one day you’d need us, find us, choose to stay. And you came, and you made the wrong choice. You took what you needed, gave up your memory, and left.
I’m breaking the rules by telling you all this, but it’s justified. I remember what it was like to be you and to meet me for the first time. I don’t have to guess—I know how it was for you; I know you’d regret your choice.
So here it is, your memory, your payment returned; you are in my debt. The next time you are in great need, you’ll find us. The next time, you won’t leave.
Lucy Harlow is an Oxford-based writer and academic. Her website is www.lucyharlow.com, and you can find her on Twitter @lucysharlow.