KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 1: Fall 2014
Essay: 997 words

Rosemary for Remembrance

by Angie Athanassiades

If I could float above them in absolute darkness, I imagine they would look like constellations, these countless roadside shrines, their vigil lights flickering softly, the roads whose twists and turns they mark invisible. Perhaps, as I watched from above, one or two more would appear, lit by unseen hands; I would hear a latch being pulled shut, the rustling of a bag, footsteps shuffling away. Daylight only enhances their poignancy: no matter how stark the glare of the sun, however many flaws it reveals—the dust, the rust, the faded colours—they always retain their dignity, their aura of grief and love shielding them from the mundanity of time.

Along a 500-metre stretch of winding mountain road, lush and shady with plane trees grown tall and strong with spring water, the outer margin of the tarmac, where it meets the slope which descends sharply down to the stream, is marked by nine roadside shrines. Some are a few hundred feet apart; two are only thirty feet from one another. Each one is different: of those made of iron, standing on legs, some are crooked, bent, while those built from stone stand straight, strong against the fate that put them there.

They are all anonymous, the only evidence of identity to be found in the faces of the saints depicted in the icons placed inside them; in the vessel for the oil and wick; in the cloth, or sheet of newspaper on which the icons, vigil light, and matches rest.

These are no traveller shrines, no resting place for the weary to pray and contemplate their journey; these mark the scene of road accidents and stand for grief and remembrance. They stand silently; no words haunt the air, not here, where these shrines were erected after the shock had subsided, after the questions were asked that were never to receive a gratifying answer, after the funerals, the first days of mourning; no, these came to be when the only thing left was ineradicable sorrow, the realization that what had happened was final, irrevocable.

Iron Shrine photo by Angie Athanassiades

Photograph of rusty iron shrine
by Angie Athanassiades.
Copyright © 2014.

These memorials, these tiny monuments of remembrance, exist outside the law, outside land ownership rights. They require no license, no application needs to be filled. All that is needed is the tragic, sudden, loss of a loved one; all that is required is love and the need to remember. Indeed, they stand as testament to the authority of tragedy.

I often wonder, when passing these anonymous shrines, what Sophocles and his Antigone would have thought of them... It is impossible to know, of course, how each and every one of these people were buried, whether the rites were performed as the family would have wanted; but I like to imagine that their poignant and magnificent lawlessness would have given the playwright a sense of gratification, would have reassured him that, so many years later, the law of grief, timeless indeed, stands above anything temporary governments ordain, or decree.

It is rare to see someone tend one of these shrines, as though their custodians feel the need, like Antigone, to perform the task under cover of darkness. Once I saw an old woman and a younger one, her daughter, or daughter-in-law perhaps, tend a shrine. We had stopped the car some distance from them to check the map and I sat there, trying not to stare, captivated by the tenderness with which the women cleaned the shrine, tidied the contents, and lit the vigil light, as though tending the body of their loved one. As they finished their task, the older woman wiped the little glass door, as the younger woman looked on for a few seconds. Then, perhaps realizing that the older woman was reluctant to leave, she touched her gently on the shoulder; the older woman took a step back and put the cloth in a blue plastic carrier bag by her feet and the two walked away into the distance in what looked like silence. I wondered how often they visited the shrine, if they always came together; if they came on specific days, or whether they only came when they needed to remember, or when they feared they were beginning to forget.

And how would I remember a loved one, I who do not believe, have no saints to comfort me? Would I, too, make a shrine of sorts and keep a vigil light burning? And where would I choose to have it, I who have no permanent home, am constantly moving? Perhaps I will make one I can carry around with me and assemble in the various spaces I call home from time to time. Perhaps I will always choose to live near a forest and wait for the new moon; then, at dusk, I will walk deep among the trees and find a place near a path; I will dig a hole, murmuring softly, asking the forest to give me strength to not forget, give me strength to remember; I will take seeds of rosemary out of a cloth pouch and plant them in the earth, laying a handful, or two, of soil over them gently. I will speak words recalling my loved one, letting them drop and fall into the earth. Then I will walk away, through the trees, out of the forest, leaving my words behind, custodians of my grief.

And when those moments happen, when, busy doing something, I remember my love, how he laughed, or the way his skin smelled of summer, I will think of the rosemary, growing in forests, each plant a separate moment of love, of sorrow and remembrance. I will think of someone walking past, catching the scent of rosemary in the air, perhaps remembering a love of their own, a summer long ago when they were happy, the smell on a loved one’s hands. I will think of them walking on, smiling, and, however near or far, I too will smile, I too will remember.

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