Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ashes to Ashes: A Father’s Memory, A Son’s Lesson

I wrote this short story inspired by several ideas that I kept feeling haunted by all at once: memory, family legacy, death, and the supernatural. I wanted it to be a "snippet" of a family’s life that would feel very real to the reader, as if they were peering into one chapter of this family's life or as if this chapter was pulled right out of their own life story. Please read and enjoy. Any feedback is very much hoped for. Thank you.

"Ashes to Ashes"
K.A. Phinney

He stood in quiet nostalgia. No noise, but the pounding of his heart and the slush and crunch of his boots across the drive. Melting snow was encrusted in dewy, grayish patches throughout the property. The daunting pines and fraser firs lined up and towered over him. Bare branches, like open prayerful hands, reached toward the heavens, as spurts of sunlight beamed through the spaces between their fingers and trunks. And in all of this, the wind gently carried about the smells of aging winter, impending life, and the vanishing memories that were once lived out in every crevice of the lake house.

In his mind, Sam heard a child’s laugh, a woman’s voice, a man’s contentment, all together, dancing in the lovely relics. Blinking, he was transported between his world of reality and that of the ancient shamans. His physical self gripped the ashes of the departed between his fingers, but a vivid memory reached out and tousled his young son’s curls and stroked the small of his beloved Victoria’s violin-like back…

“Daddy, come look. You can see the little fishes swim over the rocks right here… I wanna touch them and catch them in my hands.”

The little boy groped in a haphazard manner at the laps of water that surrounded him. Small specimens of fish swam to and fro, breaking schools and reforming beneath the glassy surface.
“Matty, you mustn’t rush things. Steady your hand. Learn to wait for them.”

“How, Daddy?”

“It takes great patience… and practice.” Sam gently reached out the soft palms of his hands and soaked them into the cool water. Matthew stared at his father’s craft and open mouth, forming words and saying things he couldn’t understand, but he felt them and their gravity, as children often do.

“If you wait, the fish will come to you, between your fingers. Feel their life all around you... and then… when the time is right… you--”
SPLASH. Sam quickly pulled a small fish out of the lake in very little effort at all. Its iridescent scales glimmered in the sun, the glow blinding them both.

“Can I touch it, Daddy?”

“You can hold it, but then you must let it go.”

Matthew’s small, chocolate-almond eyes were deep and jumping with life. Without hesitation his hands jutted from his sides and sprawled before the catch in desire. The hungry water jumped and nipped at his knees, licking the edges of his rolled trousers. He took the fish into his eager care.

“Ewwwweee… it’s slimy.”

“Yes, it is.”

“It jumps around a lot.”

“Yes, it does.” Sam surrendered a grin of satisfaction.

“Daddy, do fishes have hearts too?”

“Yes, Son, all living creatures have hearts,” Sam replied as he eased the fish from his son’s hands and placed it back in its liquid dwelling.

“How’d you do it, Daddy?”

“Do what?”

“Catch the fish like that…”

“It’s magic,” Sam replied with familial authority.

For a small breath, Matthew pondered the supernatural, setting his gaze upon his watchful mother, lounging on her blanket just steps away. “Mommy,” he appealed, “was it magic?” With gentle excitement, he waited for her words.

“Yes, Love. That was magic.” Her voice was clear and sweet as air.

Victoria was musical, and her words gave Matthew a joy that would later carry him when she was gone.

“Magic,” he whispered back to her. “Magic...”

And she blew a kiss into the air...

The temperate summer breeze whipped through the trees that outlined the water and property, swirled and then grew cold as the memory slipped away. All of the green leaves fell, shriveled, and hid under seldom patches of ice and snow. The clear water grew dark and restless, with white crests that rippled about the whipping air. The bright blue shutters and white paneling of their lake home faded to a shadow of gray. The beautiful woman vanished to ashes. The bright-eyed, laughter-filled boy was carried away on the wind, and a man’s voice interceded…


A silence ensued.

“Dad,” Matthew called once more as he carefully navigated his way down the embankment before the waterfront where his father now stood, alone.

“Son…” The word dragged off of Sam’s tongue. “I’ve been waiting for you. I have Mom’s ashes here, and they’re ready to be…” There was a hesitation and brokenness in Sam’s voice.

“How do you want to do this?” Matthew asked.

“Well… we can… Who am I fooling? I don’t know how to do this. I don’t think I can.” His chin trembled.

“Dad, do you want me to help you?”

“No… I… I have to do this. Your mother wanted it.”

Matthew whispered now, as he took in the expansive view of the lake and surrounding wood. “It’s what she wanted… what she deserves…”

Sam gingerly approached the shoreline. He paused. Laying the crimson urn beside him, he took off his shoes and rolled his trouser. Taking up the urn once more, he stepped into the icy water. It was unforgiving and engulfed his feet.

Matthew watched in a pensive hush. He paused too, taking off his shoes too. He rolled his trousers too, and let the freezing water swallow his feet. There were no words exchanged. There was no need for them.

Sam opened the urn, now nestled under his arm, and touched the lovely relics with his fingertips. Now, just a small portion of her ashes were pinched inside the crevices of his palm, but before Sam could bare his palm to the freedoms of the wind, a wintry gust swirled about him and embraced the ashes. The ashes swirled too, danced, and dispersed, settling into the heavens and onto the choppy face of the lake. My beloved Victoria, today is the first day of spring, Sam mouthed to himself.

For the first time, in front of his father, Matthew had a beautiful breakdown. He was overwhelmed with both pain and acceptance. This was my mother. Her lips, her skin, her hands, her heart... And he was broken. Tears flooded down his cheeks, as he was accosted with the moving pictures of their history. The memories were exquisite and many exquisitely painful, but Mathew was certain of this: It was all magic.


  1. This is a very beautiful passage. The transition from the memory into the realization that the mother has passed is powerful. And tying the son back into the living memory of his mother with the last line 'It was all magic' is a nice touch.

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