Fumée d’Ambre Gris
John Singer Sargent
A shrine is a holy place. It is a place that is highly revered by a culture. It is a person of historical significance. It is a library that holds all the knowledge of the world. In this case, it is a relic designed to challenge.
History holds many secrets of its culture. Buried in tradition, one can forget the true meaning of life. Sometimes it takes an important journey to discover the true meaning.
In an age of prosperity and marvelous landscapes, the temple stood as a monument to its people. This shrine was inside the most sacred temple of their land. When the tribal men and women of their city turned sixteen, they were required to enter the tall marble halls for the first time in their life. Under the temple’s golden dome, the young men and women traversed a long and seemingly empty hall. A carpet with vibrant red and white circle patterns guided the young seekers. Their eyes beheld a diminutive object, steeped in simplicity. Once they cast gaze on the shrine in the center of the temple, they were required to uncover its mysteries, the test of true adulthood.
On this day, Nasreen was hesitant to take the ultimate test. It was her fourteenth birthday, the proper test age. She stood in front of the temple that she had been solicitous of since she was little. When she was six, she even tried to sneak across the golden entrance but was caught and severely punished for her crime. Ever since, fear grew stronger within her. A decade, to Nasreen was a long time to consider what was sacred about the shrine. Was it worth her punishment? Curiosity colored her agitation. She was reluctant to cross the threshold of the portal leading into the alabaster sanctuary.
Centuries ago, a group of nomads discovered fertile hills hidden deep within the vast arid desert. Mysterious waterways ran underneath the hills, providing the proper nutrients for the soil. The nomads knew that this land would be perfect for growing food for their people. As they travelled deeper into the hills, they discovered a rich oasis with beautifully clear water. It was perfect for drinking. They did not make this discovery without a little help. They called it the “gift of the gods”: swift-flying red birds, the guardians of the fertile land.
The nomads saw the birds as the messenger of the gods, welcoming them to a new land. They saw it as an opportunity to settle. They began to build a thriving society by the fertile ground. With the new abundance, they began raising families without the worry of the harsh desert and limited resources. They were grateful for the opportunity to grow and prosper. The nomads could finally get the most out of their fragile lives.
Soon after, the temple was built as a dedication to their new-found bounty. They didn’t want their descendants to forget the message from the gods, bestowing such blessings. The temple was later used to teach the young about the importance of the land. Generations passed. The message was passed down.
The day had finally arrived for Nasreen. She was the first of her generation to learn what it means to take responsibility as an adult. Though fear stricken to enter sacred ground, there was talk that Nasreen would lead a new generation. Nasreen was always driven to stand at the front lines. Her peers looked up to her. It was finally time to prove that she was a leader among the youth.
Dressed in a weighty, white robe, Nasreen stepped into the marble halls. The sunlight reflecting off of the golden silk sleeves and silver neck-piece instantly disappeared as she stepped inside. The sacred presence of the temple overwhelmed her. She kept her face covered with the heavy white material and her eyes to the ground. The vivid circular and diamond designs of the carpet pattern entranced her. It guided her to her destination.
It was the shrine. It was forged with the richest of polished silver. The base consisted of as simplistic design that almost resembled that of a vase. The shrine increased in width as it increased in height. Near the top of the shrine, the silver began to weave together in a spiraling pattern. The spirals merged together to create the crown. A round hood protected the top of the crown. The hood’s tip was molded into a circular handle.
Nasreen was cautious. She studied the design for several minutes. Nasreen was surprised at the small size of it. Her heart began to beat faster as she thought to touch it. She never expected something so significant to be so small.
She wondered what contents laid under the hood. Her hands began to shake as a new fear rushed through her body. How could an extraordinary revelation be made with such a tiny object? She wondered why it only sat on the floor.
Why wasn’t an alter built for it? Maybe it’s not necessary, she thought. Its reputation was great enough. The temple was constantly discussed in Nasreen’s city and needed no introduction. However, the contents of the temple were shrouded in mystery. The elders did not talk about them out of respect and the children feared the possibilities. Nasreen was the only child ever brave enough to attempt entry when she was young. Now that she understood the temple’s significance, was she prepared to face the challenge?
Nasreen pushed all the doubts aside as she gently reached for the handle with her right hand. She gently clutched the lid with her index finger and thumb. Slowly she lifted it off of the tray. Her eyes widened at the sight.
It was the remains of a small bird. Nasreen was very familiar with its species. It had been a symbol of her people for many generations. It was the messenger of the gods. Flying over the city, the people were entranced by the bird’s majesty. They were always high above the fertile lands, a beacon of their home. Why were the bones of this specific bird placed in the shrine?
Nasreen thought of death. Is this a lesson about life and death? She wondered. Nasreen gently stroked the smooth skeletal remains of the delicate creature. Through touch, she began to feel a connection with this gentle race. She remembered her childhood. Her parents once kept a majestic young bird at her home after it had been injured. It sat in a cage and sang beautiful songs to Nasreen. As time passed, the bird’s wounds healed and its songs became more joyful. However, the bird soon became restless and the songs became sadder.
Nasreen understood that the bird wished to be free. It wanted to spend its life with salvation and prosperity. Nasreen was instilling hopelessness in a bird that was supposed to be the city’s symbol of hope. A messenger must perform its task. One day, she snuck the cage outside and released the bird. Immediately, it whistled joyful tunes as it joined other birds that were passing by. The birds soared high above the city.
The pieces began to fall into place. She understood the meaning of the shrine. Nasreen placed the lid back on the shrine and began to slowly walk back down the pathway. Those poor, fragile creatures, she thought. It’s amazing to think that an animal so frail…so susceptible to pain, death, injury…could be the symbol of prosperity and a servant of the gods. As she exited the temple, she thought back to the beautiful caged bird. Its beautiful song could still be heard from outside the temple. It was a careless creature, fulfilling its short life. It was as if it knew…nobody is immortal.