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The Oubliette’s Daughter

Lost, found, then lost again; there is a totem which contains the essence of being completely and irrevocably forgotten, of being written entirely out of time and memory.


The Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley has a long and storied place in French history, but outside of its more commonly known past it was also the location of a secret prison and grave, the need and the intent behind its creation and construction long forgotten. Seeming to predate even the earliest mill built on the riverbank, the Chenonceau oubliette was built from rough-hewn stone, largely carved into the bedrock. Its one opening was stopped by a large, misshapen rock, and the oubliette was built over and around for hundreds of years until - quite by chance - that stone cracked. A small depression formed, a cave-in that exposed a dungeon. The then owner Louise de Lorraine, Dowager Queen and Duchess of Berry, had the opening cleared immediately, and even by the meagre light of a candle she could see that the pit was covered in layers of loose bones.

It was there, buried amongst the bones of an incidental ossuary, that The Oubliette’s Daughter was discovered. A small, crude totem, around five inches tall and shaped similarly to a peg doll, it was made from a piece of cast iron roughly fashioned into the form of a woman. It was a single piece that seemed somehow to have been moulded like clay. Its surface a tapestry of marks and fingerprints pressed into the metal, blurred impressions of tiny and impossibly strong hands. No tools were found in the oubliette, no signs of it being worked by anything other than hand, but no other metal was found there at all. From the absence of anything but bones, no scraps of clothing, no personal items, it seemed as though the people immured there were stripped of all their physical effects along with their hopes and futures.

Already deeply consumed by the grief of losing her husband, Henry III, Louise de Lorraine had the bones brought up and blessed by her priest before having them reinterred all around the edges of her estate, estimating the number of complete skeletons at nearly one-hundred. The oubliette itself was filled, partially with the dirt and loose rocks which were displaced from the graves of its victims and the rest just packed to secure the ground, then covered up. It was de Lorraine’s intention that - with those whom it had claimed laid to rest - it be forgotten, an ignominy that needn’t trouble her ancestors. The Oubliette’s Daughter was supposed to have been buried with one of the smaller skeletons, assumed to be a child’s toy, but had instead been taken by one of the men who had worked to dig the graves, a gift for an unfortunate daughter.

This minor theft was confessed to the local priest, who mentioned it in his journal. Without this journal we would have no record of what happened next, even if it is hard to parse meaning through the obvious confusion with which later entries and notes struggle to comprehend what, even now, is nearly incomprehensible. Still feeling guilty, he returned to repeat his confession a few weeks later, only to find that the priest did not remember him ever having a daughter. The priest consulted his journal, finding the original mention of the man’s daughter and scrawling questions about the contradictions of his previous and subsequent certainties. By the next time they met, the man couldn’t even remember having a daughter. The man had never considered The Oubliette’s Daughter to be his, the intent always to pass it on, and so the magic or curse - seemingly triggered by a sense of ownership - began with his child.

The Oubliette’s Daughter unravels people from their live and their timelines, slowly making all memory of them dissolve and fade away. This process continues, inexorably, until only the physical evidence of their existence remains; a puzzle without the piece that would bring it into focus. The vibrance and immediacy of memory affect how long they hold out against the effect. People begin to forget who the affected person is: First their acquaintances, then their friends and families, even their pets. It starts off seeming like forgetfulness, hints of their being unnoticed or invisible, and is sometimes ascribed to an illness or condition in those who are forgetting. Soon though, a person’s everyday life is affected, disrupted and then destroyed as the world moves on without them as if they had never existed. Someone’s immediate family; parents, partners or children, are usually the last to forget them, and then there’s just an absence - a hole in the story that no-one knows to question.

One of the reasons that The Oubliette’s Daughter was able to affect so many people before it was lost again is that once one person has disappeared, it becomes a strange, placeless curio. The kind of object that might end up on the shelf of a dusty old second-hand shop or archive shelf until it catches the eye of someone, a new victim. If there were only documentation of one or two people having been unwritten from their lives, we might reasonably assume that the stories were just that - perhaps even an elaborate joke or a hoax - but the history of The Oubliette’s Daughter is rife, almost legion, with evidence of the forgotten. We have records of some of those who have disappeared in the personal effects they left behind. We can watch them becoming unreal, becoming nothing more than paper trails and marginalia, footnotes and half-lives that never were.

It is impossible to know for sure what happens to the person who has been forgotten: They may document the early stages, but such accounts always trail off. They either cannot or do not carry on. Some argue that the last stage of The Oubliette’s Daughter’s punishment is that its victims disappear altogether, others that they become such a wan presence that they eventually become incapable of leaving a lasting mark on the memory. That even evidence of the forgotten, the rest of the apparently unfinished journals, becomes functionally invisible to us. Perhaps some still linger on, effectively ghosts, following and watching the lives that have moved on without them, screaming silent pleas to just be seen one more time… In the absence of certainty I would rather just assume that they are truly gone, the loneliness of the other outcome being more than I can bear to imagine.


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