Blood and Ashes

The ashes were waiting. The children, adults now, were hanging out in front, smoking, near the Holt & Sons Funeral Home sign. Dani, off to the side, leaned against a pillar toking on a joint. As she held the smoke inside, her eyes rolled up past the tips of barely clad October trees and she thought to herself, “This is what it feels like to die.”

She exhaled. What a fool she was. What fools they all were. Out of the corner of her left eye she could see her brother and sister, both pasty pale, smoking cigarettes as they paced, eyes to the ground. Paul wore a slight beard, not unattractive, but his navy jacket was too snug, no doubt from the days before he started lifting weights after getting sober. Amy in a skirt and heels, her arms crossed so that her purse bounced against her tummy, followed the same path back and forth, head tilted as if trying to make sense of something.

What was there to understand? Their mother was gone. An alcoholic who had set fire to their childhood home, suffocating to death with all their childhood remains and dreams. In her heart, Dani knew her mother, who barely could get it together to get out of bed, could not plot anything, much less her own demise. She and her siblings had not talked about “it.” Of course alcoholism was to blame.

It might have been an electric outlet. The house was old, thought Amy, a legal admin, the only one of them with a real job, she had determined to herself. Anyway, there would be an investigation. Anyway, they would soon find out. Anyway, she was gone.

Paul had not been with his sisters since the previous Christmas, his first sober one in years. At Dani and Ann’s house, he had demolished two plates full of turkey legs, cranberry dotted stuffing, beans and mashed squash prepared by Dani’s partner, a chef. After the meal, their mother shuffled in a pair of Dani’s slippers, furry things with discombobulated eyes, over to the recliner chair, pulled a pint of Jim Beam seemingly from thin air and announced, “Momma doesn’t need a glass, but she could stand something sweet.” At that point, Amy excused herself, pecked Dani and Ann each on the cheek, yelled a quavering “bye ma,” and stepped out the front door with Paul behind her for a smoke before leaving. Then Paul helped Dani with dishes in the kitchen while Ann sat with their mother in the living room watching a Charlie Brown holiday special. They had cherry pie for dessert.

Holidays depressed Paul. Funerals depressed him. There would be no reception and he was not hopeful he and his sisters would go out for a meal either. He repeated to himself the Serenity Prayer to help him accept things as they were.

“Hey,” Dani gestured from the entranceway. Paul tossed his newly lit smoke, Amy carefully stamped hers out, and they followed their big sister indoors, where the pretty autumn-tinted urn sat.

All three stared at it dumbly as if it were their mother herself on display, and when they finally spoke, did so as one—Amy, wondering if their mother had ever stated a special place she might want to be dispersed; Paul, inquiring how long each of them should keep the urn before turning it over to the next sibling; Dani, announcing she would take it first. “You decide for how long.” Then came a silent interim in which each speculated how awkward it would be making a thing of passing along the urn with their mother’s ashes, after which Dani suggested almost in a whisper, “Maybe we should think about sprinkling her somewhere. She did love water.”

“Remember the vacations on the Cape when dad had his sailboat,” said Paul. Three years in a row, starting when they were 11, 12 and 13, when they spent Augusts on Cape Cod, were the best time of their lives as a family, until their dad, who fell in love with an office assistant, became the first to get away. He and Becky took off for Europe and disappeared together in an avalanche, it was believed, while skiing in Switzerland. To his children, he remained the absent father, the one who one time just never came home.

“Paul, since you live in Boston, maybe you should take it. You’re closest to the Cape,” said Amy. His sisters turned to him. His mouth quivered and his eyebrows twitched as he considered, and his sisters realized simultaneously he who could barely manage his sobriety, would be oppressed by the responsibility. Amy raised a hand to flick aside a stray hair strand impatiently and her purse still on her forearm struck the urn squarely, sending it to the hardwood floor where it burst, scattering ashes everywhere.

“Oh no,” Dani muttered as Paul’s loafer tip instinctively shoved a small hill of ashes forward before they all crouched and began moving ashes with the cupped sides of their hands into one pile. Having heard the disturbance, Holt Sr. stepped forward with an immaculate brush and tray, swiftly scooping up what appeared to be every particle of their mother, expertly slipping her remains into a plastic bag, which he neatly tied and deposited gently into Amy’s hands.

“It happens. It was a lovely urn. We can give you a discount on another. Talk about it. Let me know.” He bowed politely and departed.

Amy was crying. “I can’t believe I did that.”

“It’s OK.” Paul put his arm around his sister, nodding sympathetically as was now his habit since joining AA, which had apparently given him the gift of understanding everything. Dani scrunched up her nose, appraising her siblings, then informed them, “Ann rented a cabin for us next month in Truro so I could get some writing done. You guys are welcome. It would be the best time to do it. I’ll hold her ashes until then.”

Amy’s eyes widened and she wiped their corners as she passed the bag with ashes over to her sister. “That’s a good idea. Text me dates. I’ll take time out from work.”

“We can do it on a weekend.”

“Might be fun,” said Paul. His sisters gave him a look. Dani set down the bag where the urn had been and they formed a loose huddle to say goodbye, Paul’s arms holding firm the shoulders of his sisters. Amy went to thank the director, and they each went to their cars.

Dani waited in her car until her brother and sister had left the lot, taking a swig of water from the bottle she always kept nearby as she was thirsty from the pot. Her mother sat beside her in the passenger’s seat. Closing her eyes, she tried to feel her, sense the woman who had been before the drinking really got out of hand. You had to have memories to cry.

She tried to remember how it had been when they were kids, body surfing and chasing gulls along Corn Hill Beach while their mother in sunglasses stretched in a chaise lounge under an umbrella, sipping on a beer from the cooler, watching their dad swim out, farther and farther away. She was a redhead with long pale legs in a one-piece black bathing suit who liked to smoke and gave a half-smile to her children whenever they came near. Beyond that, Dani could not recall much of anything.

When Amy and Paul came to the Cape, they would reminisce together. One of them might have a story to share about their mother, something they could recount fondly before dispersing her ashes. She did not fathom that when standing together in November before the bay, the wind blowing westward, Paul, the most childlike among them, would remark, upon noticing the color of their mother’s ashes for the first time, “Why gray? She wasn’t even 60?” before each reached into the bag for some of her. They would yell together, “good bye momma, good bye,” as they let go because what else was there to say?

Arya F. Jenkins is a poet and writer whose fiction has been published in many journals and zines such as About Place Journal, Across the Margins, Anti-Heroin Chic, Cleaver Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Five on the Fifth, The Fictional Café, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Matador Review, Metafore Magazine, Mojave River Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sunday Stories Series, and Provincetown Arts. Her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and garnered three nominations in 2018. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks–the third, Love & Poison, was published by Prolific Press this November. Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite, 2018) is here:

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