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Karen Nunley

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Ashes to Ashes


Burning brush was a mark of spring, sure as a robin bobbing across the lawn with a worm in its beak, the yellow fountain of forsythia, May apples opening their umbrella foliage on the north side of the house. Brian Gull linked two hoses so that they reached all the way into the clearing. He raked a large circle and drenched the soil around its perimeter. In the center of the circle, he placed crumbled newspaper, then some of the smaller twigs. Flames leapt with the first click of the lighter.


Brian dragged the casualties of winter storms into the clearing. He had to take his saw to the largest ones, use clippers on others, but most he could snap over his knee and throw onto the blaze.


He fed the fire. After a while, the big pile of brush began to dwindle. Brian took a break and sat on the big rock. He thought about other Aprils when he had burned with his little family. He took a swig of bottled water. It had been over a year now since Emily had moved out, almost three years since Evan’s passing. His eye rested on the wooden sign hanging beside the back door. Emily had painted it when they first moved into this place. “The Gulls’ Nest” it read. Two little birds poked up their cartoon-like heads.


Brian thought about how he had carried Emily over that very threshold. Everything about her had been soft then. Her brown eyes melted when they looked at him. Her brown hair brushed over her shoulders. She wore flannel nightgowns and fuzzy socks. When she first told him she was leaving, he was shocked. He cried and begged her to reconsider. That was before he realized that the soft woman he had loved was already gone. In her place was a stranger, all bones and sinew. She got up at dawn, meditated, did tai chi. She wore pencil skirts and heels that clicked. Her eyes were sharp and focused.


Brian took the sign from its nail, thought about it for a moment, then dropped it onto the fire. It took a minute to catch. The little nest smoked, and the paint curled and separated from the wood. A lightness washed over Brian.


He re-soaked the perimeter of the fire pit and dashed into the house. From the book shelf he took a copy of Leaves of Grass. He opened it to read Emily’s inscription. Love always. The hard cover smoldered, and he had to put on some dry leaves to stoke up the blaze, as the brush was mostly gone now.


His mind wandered to Evan, as it did so many times each day. He would have been finishing fourth grade this year. He would be writing in cursive now, playing Little League, not hitting a ball off a tee. He felt the familiar heavy weight in his chest. Maybe Evan would have outgrown Patty, the threadbare stuffed platypus, who had watched over his bed at Children’s Hospital, kept him company on the many trips into Dana Farber, lain with him those groggy final days. Brian thought of Patty who still lay upstairs on the twin bed with the Buzz Lightyear spread. When he came downstairs with Patty, he also brought the rainbow hat Emily had knit and a pile of things that he’d kept in the bottom of his sock drawer – a cardboard picture of Goofy outlined in an orange shoelace that Evan had carefully threaded through the pre-punched holes, a Father’s Day card with a hand-drawn rocket, notes that Emily had left that had touched his heart. Brian sat on the big rock and watched as the flames hungrily ate these pieces of his life. After a while the embers glowed, but the burning chore was complete. Brian wet down the area well, raked the ashes, and rolled up the hose over his arm.


Back in the house, Brian sat on the sofa and put his feet onto the sailor’s chest that served as a coffee table. He looked at the curtains that dragged on the floor. They “puddled” Emily had said. He was surprised at how easily the synthetic fabric ignited. Within seconds, flames lapped at the ceiling. Brian felt the heat on his back as he walked out the kitchen door.