On Relics

by Natasha Ayaz

Photograph by Mishal Weston

Spring / Summer 2022 Issue

Among the treasures in my mother’s care when I was a kid, there was a dried baby seahorse delicate as a grain of rice. A fibrous and fragile floss of bone I would touch with the pads of my fingertips. It lived inside a round box, beaded in golds and blues, that could fit on a child’s palm. The lid opened to reveal the seahorse resting on—if I’m remembering correctly—a velvet cushion. A pure wonder. How did it survive all that time unbroken? How did it make the long and surely perilous journey from the ocean to my hand? I haven’t seen the box or its inhabitant in at least a decade or perhaps closer to two, and I hadn’t thought about it in years either until the little thing floated unbidden across my mind the other day like a diaphanous ghost. I asked my mother, and she isn’t sure where it swam off to.

Once, when asked whether I harbored attachment to objects, I answered no. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction was to scorn materialistic association. The objects that came to mind were fancy cars, pricey clothing, luxurious unnecessaries. My oldest friend disagreed with me, insisting that I did have such attachments. She was, of course, right; I’ve always had strong feelings for particular belongings, which while perhaps not materialistic in the classical sense is still not exactly ascetic of me. My grip on the past is too tight to allow me to live an unadorned life. Relics are necessary companions. A gold heart necklace from my mother, a red-beaded, Parisian camel pin from my father, a collection of ceramic animals, partially chipped, from my deceased grandfather. These tactile reminders provide the fortifying balm of personal continuity; they testify to my understanding of my life. Innumerable objects hold such meaning for me—the pull of memory, which is to say the weight of displacement by time. In some ways more emotionally potent than the items emblematic of lost eras are the items literally lost: the gold hoop from Pakistan that fell off during a soccer game fifteen years ago (I ran back to the field to search with no luck), the frog family of nesting dolls I haven’t locked eyes with in ages (I had a frog phase, my mother alleges), the three-banded, engraved Cartier pinky ring I lost during a playground snowball fight one winter (this ring was found on a playground, though, so I take solace in thinking the finders-keepers cycle was continued). Where have these things gone? What lives do they lead now, beyond our shared orbit, without me?

I think it’s not only a natural instinct to dabble in nostalgia, but also an act of love. My affectionate reliance on relics is not dissimilar from my lifelong compulsion to write things down. Both impulses are borne from the soil of preservation and full-heartedness. Both are fundamentally attempts to create points of access, portals to a past. We do not want to forget, and so we circumvent oblivion with words and objects and images, with fallible but persistent documentation. We turn over the soil of our lives habitually, loosening the earth of our memories so that we may grow lush and true. “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point,” Joan Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping A Notebook.” I feel I must insist, for myself, that this perpetual effort is worthwhile. I must insist that it is neither decadent nor trivial, but rather a human instinct toward endurance, toward—if you’ll allow it—storytelling, which is humanity’s oldest stab at eternity. Is our infatuation with lost things not proof that what is lost has a life that extends beyond its material disappearance? Is our lingering attachment not powerful enough to blur the barriers of physical reality, to orchestrate an improvised but pacifying oneness? I think it is. I think our infatuation with lost things, relics, the personal past as a whole, is evidence of an ongoing and valiant denial of loss. We fight against the current. We hold what has left us with both hands, even as we move forward. 

Let us consider that what is lost is still capable of coexistence. Let us consider that what is remembered cannot be wholly lost. And if we do one day forget, let us trust that the past will stream back into our lives like a herd of sentimental seahorse skeletons. 

Natasha Ayaz is a contributing writer to The Documentarian and an alum of Bard College and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in publications including Narrative Magazine, Hobart Pulp, and Blue Earth Review, and she is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Cornell University.