These holy relics, which make me experience something so close to guilt yet a more powerful feeling that I cannot describe here, dropped of their own accord from the shelf above that television. The scene is set in this picture; taken many years ago when the camera had just recently been invented. I imagine it may have been called a daguerreotype, that thing that is etched into a copper plate and thus remains so unchangeable through the years. What changes then? These holy relics are falling in the picture.
The scene is set in this picture. I, too, had found this photo deep in the ugly archives of my history. It came after a day of moping for having lost my dog, my one friend who had in over 12 years left no place for me to doubt her love and commitment for me. Thus wanting to follow my dear friend who had died only the night before, I found myself in the garage, in the midst of musty old cardboard boxes that had stored photographs of family for generations. Photo after photo I discarded until I found this, this one picture, the three relics on the shelf over the television. The first relic was modeled after an image of my father; it must have been done by one among those blind artists that, during my father’s time, had been so popular. For each detail of my father’s face had been replicated so accurately in miniature by this artist; the relic would have fit in the palm of a baby’s hand. And it would, too, have fit perfectly into the palm of a baby who must have been learning to feed during the time, to introduce this baby to an image of his own father without having actually met the father. This relic when it dropped from the shelf over the television first bounced on top of the television and then landed by the Moroccan carpet visible in this picture.
The second relic depicted the baby who would hold the image of his own father in the palm of his hand. This, too, modeled by one among those beautiful blind artists, had those exact same characteristics of finesse and precision. The blind artist, I imagined, had on her hand a metallic glove that had allowed her to sculpt without stopping to refine the edges, for the edges came as they came, metallic. The baby son, too, followed a similar path like his father’s as he fell from the shelf above the television, first bouncing on top of the television where the father had already left a tiny indelible mark, and then resting in a comfortable place next to his father on the Moroccan carpet. And in this picture I saw the third relic, the most important relic perhaps, but I could not tell what it was. It had fallen off the shelf but was resting in air, suspended in the moment of the picture, waiting to fall or waiting to return to the shelf. This third sculpture must have been the most important one, but I could not for the life of me understand its significance. So I believed that it must have been a transcendent object, or the locus of this picture, as though all rested on this one relic pasted in midair by the magic of the camera. It was the spiritual something that had taken over this otherwise simple photo. This third object made the relics holy; it is because of that object that father and son lay so close to each other and in such similar poises.
And as I spent my many hours confined in that dark room lost in the ugly rawness of history’s seductive archives, I forgot about my dearest friend, my dog, my one animal friend who had unequivocally kept my company for the last how-many years. When I became aware of this, I experienced overwhelming guilt. It must have been these three objects, falling, fallen, stuck, that had distracted me from this real pain, that had confined me in an abstraction like history’s archives had me confined now, away from the tragedy of the death of my dear friend. Thus wanting to understand what it was in these three objects that I was looking at – the father, his son, and this unwanted, unwavering, suspended spirit – I began to look at other objects around me in sets of three. And thus I saw everything: the white master, the colorful slave, and the beautiful consensual bond between the two, the cotton plantation bond, that slave ship with a pit in the middle opening to a hell in which not fire but water prevails; the cow, her milk, and the ugly milk drinker who rides a casket to the farm and at the farm empties the casket to fill it with milk, thus killing the dear cow whose milk would have been for somebody else, or perhaps something else.
These were just stories, and I was making them up. I had to get back to where I had started, I realized; and that was the simple fact of having forgotten. Thus I returned to the stone-paved bridge next to that river where my one friend had been cremated the night before. My dog was long gone, and I had forgotten her in just a single night. Was that what memory had come to? Is that history, relegated to the backwaters of memory, revealed only when important to these ruling forces that I had identified, these relics, the three things, the objects of the picture, the objects so importantly set in this set of countable numbers: one, two, three; father, son, spirit; me, you, and us – and is it that the moment one of the three disappears, all of it, too, disappears, and I begin looking, again, for a new set of three things of which I am one part, I am one and whole and defined so properly by this set of three things. And to think that I had reached this state of oblivion about my beautiful dog, my great, loyal dog, my committed little animal, paradoxically by attempting to remember her, by taking those memories I had of her with me to my own archives, and then getting lost in those archives. It is a wonderful paradox, but it is ultimately demeaning. So what must I do? I must protect my memories; I must punish myself for having forgotten every time I do forget; and until every shred of memory is filed in the deepest and most intimate compartments of my memory and organized so as to be available to me at any point in time, I must not rest. And to those who say: you must allow yourself to grieve by forgetting, I say: you are he who lacks shame. You are he whose life is not worth being lived to completion, for it will never be complete, as you will forget whether you have done all those things that make it complete. And you will not tell me what I must do. I will do what I must do.
Painting by Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Skull”