Fiction

Living memory

For a time we moved into the [_____] memorial. Many had died, but we were not among them. Some among us had come closer than we would like to remember, but to not remember seemed a small destruction.

There were no names inscribed on the [_____] memorial. In some ways this made it easier to inhabit. In any case, the names of the dead were carried with us.

This wasn’t a radical occupation. Hardly utopian idealism. It was not even as simple as having nowhere else to go. We could move as freely about the world as the next person, give or take, if at the not insignificant expense of our histories. But there was nowhere else in which we recognised the greater scope of our lives, unabridged; each moment lit and shadowed by what we had survived.

Did we hope, against all reason, that our lost might find us there?

Yes. Of course.

 

The architects of the memorial were anonymous. Rumoured (a) to have been lost to [_____] themselves, and (b) to be living among us now. Perhaps there was room enough for both things to be true. We were used to accommodating dissonant truths.

The memorial had been assembled quietly, on disregarded land. No one could say whether it was complete, whether its current dimensions were faithful to its vision. We were confident enough of its structural integrity. It was built of dark plutonic stone and bale-thick glass that absorbed the warmth of the day and gave it back gradually over the length of a night. From outside it appeared sombre, severe, but from within its many alcoves and arteries the greater effect was that of lightness. The transit of sunlight across a day, a season, a year had been given intimate consideration. Although the structure had obviously not been conceived of as a residence, was not easily divisible, and this inevitably caused friction.

In truth, aside from the obvious, we had very little in common, in regards to how a day ought to be lived or a monument inhabited. Things were never exactly harmonious. Still, for a time, we functioned. We maintained a kind of dual citizenship, between everything that had happened and the dominant, outside preference to forget everything that had happened.

Now and again came threats to report us to the authorities.

But it was difficult to say who the authorities were.

The foundations were sunk deep into alluvial soil that until recently had been estuarial, but that branch of the river was gone, syphoned for cotton irrigation. The status of the riverbed, studded with dreck from the city (animal bones, car parts, industrial rubble) was unclear; an unstable and untenantable mess that no one wanted to take responsibility for. So for a long time the [_____] memorial stood largely unnoticed, and uncontested.

Most of us were not – are not, even now – especially old. We held jobs and bank accounts (saving towards oblique futures yet to regain their former dimensions) and on our days off would call on ageing relatives in facilities that were themselves all too much like memorials, likewise estranged from the matter of actual living.

Visitors would occasionally seek out the memorial, and were often perplexed to find people inhabiting it. Some were openly hostile.

– But, this is a memorial, they would argue. You cannot live in a memorial. It’s not what they’re built for.

– No, we agreed. Well, it isn’t ideal.

We tried to explain. Then we became weary of having to explain, of having to number our losses so very often.

– This is History, the visitor would continue, oblivious. It belongs to everybody!

Eventually, they would leave in a huff and we would just as likely never see them again.

Other visitors might arrive hoping to read a loved one’s name, to run their fingers over inscriptions chiselled enduringly into stone, and would be at first disappointed to learn there were no names. Occasionally inconsolable. In these instances we would endeavour between us to recover something of the lost:

– Oh yes. A laugh like corduroy.

– Slight tremor in the hands and still they played so beautifully.

– Believed in ghosts, and cloudbusting, and that everyone was redeemable.     

Although often – whether out of shyness, caution, loyalty – we could not share those most adored details, those that burned brightest and most agonisingly. We held them close, hoarded them:

– All I wanted, for the rest of my life, was the vision of them in a habutai shirt and odd socks, taking forever to cross the room to me.

– The last autumn, how she spent an afternoon stitching a quilt of newly red maple leaves because I was too frail to get to the window.

– And afterwards I wanted to run out into the streets and scream, Do you know what we’ve lost, you fucking morons? But of course, they didn’t. All of that was mine alone now and I had nowhere to put it. And on the world went. On and on. As if nothing.

 

The population of the [_____] memorial ebbed, swelled. All at once it might become very crowded. The zeitgeist would periodically find us: someone’s ghost woken, invoked because their music had been used in a car commercial, or their astronomical theory had proved out. And so their death was reviewed in the delayed light of genius, a starkly backlit, singular tragedy within the larger incomprehensible catastrophe.

For a time, life would become claustrophobic. We bore it out, warned our kids away from the haphazard blaze of votives, tidied up the rotting tributes of flowers, knowing such revivals were never too longlived.

How long ago was this, now? In a sense, it is happening still.

Contrary to popular speculation, no, we did not dismantle the [_____] memorial ourselves, carrying off small fragments to disperse secretly throughout the city. Though many of us wish we had.

When the river returned, suddenly and violently, there was barely enough time to vacate. We carried off what we could of the intangible stuff, slipping back without much ripple into Conditional society, and the rising water and shifting silt covered over the rest.

I am only setting it down here because, forgive me, I have nowhere else to put it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Living memory".

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Josephine Rowe is the author of a novel and three short story collections, most recently Here Until August.