Inspiration comes in different forms at different times. This story has morphed over the three months it’s taken me to actually finish it, ending in a place I hadn’t quite expected but is right for the main character. Sometimes we take too much responsibility.
The brilliance of lightning broke the sky into pieces. For a shaving of a second it reached upward and every hair on my body lifted in an echo of a memory. The world turned into a negative with shadows a bright unreal blue.
Was it a memory? I still wonder.
Two years past – can it really be that long? – I walked the path along the back of my grandparents’ property. So many feet travelled it for so many years that the rut long ago gave up any pretense of grass. I followed the narrow, brown river through waist-high, golden meadows and under old, solemn oaks.
What I sought waited at the very end. The dirt path faded into sandy aggregate. I left my shoes at the grassy edge and curled my toes into that perfect golden warmth, tucking smooth stones against the balls of my feet. Fingers of wind lifted my hair from my neck and tugged at my clothes, the eager hands of a long absent lover.
The cold in my chest began to fragment. For a breath I held onto the pieces, afraid to let them go. They were all that remained of the things that kept me safe for so very long; bars, steels doors, false trails, traps in the floor, dead falls in the woods. I looked back at the skeletal trees, bared bones lit against the darkening sky with every flash of the sky’s fury.
How many times did I burn my finger on another’s lightning? How often did I chase thunder before I learned that it came after things were broken beyond repair?
The breeze pulled at me again. I turned my face up to the sun, spread my arms and sank to my knees. It was the home you can’t return to, nostalgic, ripe with the taste of watermelon, purloined whiskey and first kisses. The warmth was a caress I never held a true memory of; the real ones instead tasted of copper and faded to an unsightly green.
I stood and the echo of a bonfire tickled my nose when I kicked at an old, buried length of drift wood. The log rolled over like a seal playing in the surf, revealed a charred belly and a fire-crazed end. The past lingered so close to the surface there on that bluff, just waiting to be touched. I wanted to pull the memories of the one I missed closer to me, hold onto them, squeeze them, but they slipped through my arms, fingers, and out of my mouth like smoke, fading more and more every day.
I left the log and followed the sand to the edge. The bluff tipped out over the lake far below, it’s profile much different than I remembered and still familiar in its constant shifting. I sat at the edge and dangled my feet over. Here you could almost believe you were at the edge of the world and nothing existed beyond the small towns crowding the lake’s bays and harbors.
I slipped the satchel from my shoulder, set it beside me. I’ve carried it so far, for so long, it felt like so much more than the six pounds of ash left over from a life. I pulled the bag from inside. The tie parted in my fingers, the bag opened with a grey exhale. The inside of my nose tightened as the ash stuck to membranes and the first tug at the corner of my eye accompanied it.
Ashes have such a strange texture. They are the driest of things, and yet feel wet and silky. I slipped my hand into the bag and pulled out a handful. The same breeze that played with the tips of the waves below, frothing them, spun a curl of who once was into a tiny funnel. I watched it spin out over nothing and disappear. When I tipped my palm the ash clung to me and I fisted my fingers around it.
My desperation pushed the pale, almost white remains through my fingers and it drifted out and down and around.
“I would have come with you.” The voice that slipped around me, invading the moment, was so soft, so thin, so absent everything it should have held. My fault. I let the clump of ash in my palm go and retrieved another handful.
“I know.” My voice was thick, clogged with the sediment of emotion, of heartache, of misery, of mourning. I trickled the ashes into the air and they swirled around and around, lifting up and, for a heartbeat, revealed the currents of wind around me. “I knew it would hurt you to be here.” Those words, too, sounded as if I’d pulled them through a throat far too small.
“It hurts you.” I couldn’t look back, though I heard the shift of sands beneath Karen’s feet. My scooping of ashes continued, a steady staining of the air, of the sky, of the bluffs.
“You don’t understand.” She didn’t. I knew she didn’t. She couldn’t. No one could understand what it was like to miss the very person who made life hell. For a moment I rubbed my thumb against my forefinger and the scar there that stood out in stark relief.
“I know,” Karen answered, and this time her voice was thick. I dumped another handful, and another, before she continued. “Just as you can’t understand.” I flinched and my motions paused, just a moment, before continuing.
“Scars and scars and scars,” I mumbled and my fingers scraped the bottom of the bag. I blinked and looked down. Six pounds of ash, and somehow I’d managed to dispense all but a few dregs.
“I love you, Sasha.” Karen was closer and I swallowed against emotions I didn’t want to examine. I lifted the bag.
“Do you want to do the last?” I didn’t. Somehow, at the last, I didn’t want to be the one to tip the remains of the remains into the lake.
“I don’t think it’s my place to.” The careful words, the tone, and the hands that trembled every so slightly in my peripheral vision said even more than that. She thought it was mine to do. I had thought so too. I looked at the bag, plastic, so similar to a bread bag at any other moment I might find it amusing. I gripped the bottom and tipped it up. The shake felt irreverent, and yet…
“It’s ok to say goodbye to him.” I fisted the bag up and stuffed it back in the satchel. Out across the lake lightning forked again and the thunder that rolled away from it sounded against my chest, a timpani drum. I watched the rising wind erase the last of the ashes leaving only a dusting clinging to my legs.
“Is it?” The question escaped, soft and hard, dry and wet, ashes of a marriage clinging. My tears fell at last and I turned away. Karen’s outstretched hand filled my vision and I blinked before I took it, scattering salty drops into the wind. “Yes,” she answered. She led me away and I followed, the weight, one-eighty reduced to six, off my shoulders replaced by a different one. Would I ruin her, too?