To the Place of Ashes by Scott Warrender

The uninvited dream made itself at home.

Jane opened her eyes and nudged Tom.

“Sunday’s my one day to sleep, and you wake me at—” He squinted at the clock. “—six?”

“I just had the mother of all dreams,” she said.

Tom rolled out of bed and walked into the bathroom. Jane heard the shower curtain scrape, then the groan of old plumbing. She wanted to recount the dream before the day diluted its wonder, but by the time she had joined him in the bathroom and rubbed a face-sized circle into the foggy mirror, the dream was already pulling out of focus. She could only remember a few images: fire, ashes, colored glass. She shouted over the hiss of the shower and watched herself fade away into the steam.

“So?” he said. “I’ve had crazier dreams after a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”

Jane handed him a towel, then winced at the sudden sounds of gunfire, explosions, and death screams from the T.V. downstairs. The boys were up.

“I’m a bad mother.”

“No. You good.” He rigged his towel into a turban. “Sunday now. Me want waffles.”

They dressed and went downstairs. He pulled the waffle iron out of a cupboard while Jane swiped the remote away from Micah, her youngest. The boys groaned when she changed the channel.

“Heard anything from the university?” she asked Tom.

“Nope, and before you disparage the folks at Super Home Center, remember I was lucky to have found that job. So—”

“So?” Jane asked.

Tom put his arms around her and whispered into her hair. “So there.”

Jane pulled away from him. “God, it’s hot. Isn’t it? Do I feel hot?” Tom reached out to touch her forehead, but she had moved away, distracted.

“Bring up the window fan,” she said, opening one kitchen window after another.

***

After Tom and the boys left the house, Jane sat at the kitchen table, focused on her dream and its lingering suggestion. She shifted in her chair, and rubbed the tops of her legs, which had begun to ache and throb.

“Hot,” she said aloud, then blotted her face with a paper towel. “Please tell me this isn’t a fever.”

She placed her palm on her forehead. Her wrist brushed against her face and she smelled something that made her cock her head. What was it? A day-old campfire?

She moved her hand to her nose and inhaled deeply. Something crackled inside her head like crumpling paper. A connection was made, and the virus that had disguised itself as a dream began to replicate inside of her.

She walked out to the side of the house and chose two medium-sized logs from the small woodpile in the driveway. She carried them to the living room and, using some scraps of kindling and a section of the Sunday paper, built a fire in the fireplace.

***

Later that afternoon, when Tom returned, he noticed the open screen, the box of matches, and made a face. “You didn’t burn something, did you?”

Jane paused. “Just some old checks.”

“It was a zillion degrees today.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Next time, use the shredder.”

The four sat in the kitchen eating Happy Meals. The boys kicked each other underneath the table and sucked their milkshakes. Tom stuck French fries in both of his ears and, using his best cartoon voice, recounted the baseball game and their practice.

After the boys were in bed and Tom had drifted off to sleep, Jane went downstairs to the living room. She opened the fireplace screen, reached out and touched the burnt wood.

“Cold,” she whispered.

She scooped some of the ashes into her hands, backed out the front door, and walked outside to the yard. She chose a spot by the dogwood tree Tom planted the week before and began to quietly sing a song she had taught the boys when they were small.

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home

She laid the ashes in a pile, carved out a small piece of sod, and dug a hole several inches deep with her hands.

Your house is on fire and your children are gone.

She pushed the ashes into the hole, covered them with dirt, and replaced the patch of sod.

All except one and that’s little Ann.

For she crept under the frying pan.

Jane washed her hands, tiptoed back up to the bedroom and slid into bed.

The next morning, as the sun slanted onto the lawn, Jane crept outside and scooped the dirt from the hole. A shiny object reflected the sunlight. She clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from squealing with joy.

She removed the silver, coin-sized square from the dirt and held it up in front of her face.

The object was engraved with odd shapes, coiled lines, and in the center of one side, the embossed image of a flame.

“It’s got to be worth something,” she whispered.

She slid the silver piece into her robe pocket, then checked to make sure no one was watching.

She woke the boys up and got them dressed. Half an hour later, she was making sack lunches when Tom ran through the kitchen and out the back door.

“If you have time today,” he shouted, “rob a bank.”

He let the screen door bang shut. It thwapped and Jane dropped the peanut-butter knife. “We have got to fix that door.”

Kyle, her oldest, watched her, eagle-eyed. “Here, Mommy,” he said, handing her a clean knife from the silverware drawer. He wrinkled his nose when she held up his lunch bag. “No granola bar?”

“Why don’t we make those a special treat? And anyway, they’re not really granola, in the healthy-granola sense.”

“That’s why I like ‘em,” he moaned. He wore a pouty face the entire drive to school, even turning away when she leaned over to kiss him.

“It’s only a granola bar, for god’s sake!”

Micah ran up the sidewalk to the school’s front door and Kyle followed. She watched them until they disappeared inside the entryway, then reached into her pocket, removed and stared at her treasure.

A loud rap on the van window startled her. She smiled over at the nine-year-old traffic guard and pulled out into traffic.

The morning heat was already stifling. She rolled down the windows of the minivan and drove, far too fast, through the labyrinth of the neighborhood. Once home, Jane could hear the annoying voices of the neighbor’s gardeners and their growling mowers, so she closed all the windows and pulled down the blinds.

She washed the silver piece, dried and polished it with a cotton rag, and placed it inside a Tupperware box.

Over the weeks that followed, Jane built fires as soon as Tom and the boys were gone, and each night, she would bury ashes in the hole by the dogwood tree. In the morning, new objects appeared in the dirt: emerald gemstones, clear squares with inset ruby-colored flecks, small golden cylinders wrapped in delicate red wire, opaque rectangles of bubbled pottery inlaid with blue and gold beads.

By the first week of June, the woodpile was gone, so she burned the old rocking chair that sat forgotten in the corner of their study, then a paint-splattered table, and finally a broken bookcase from her workroom. Using Tom’s axe, she chopped them into pieces and placed them into the fireplace. In the days that followed, Jane became convinced that Tom would never miss his old records or his college textbooks, nor the boys their board games and storybooks.

“It’s all just collecting dust.” Her voice, hanging in the air of the empty house, was comforting. She loved sitting close to the fires, singing, watching the flames blacken, crack, and consume the wood, vinyl and cardboard.

London’s burning, London’s burning

Fetch the engine, fetch the engine

June temperatures topped eighty-five degrees, but Jane liked the tickle of perspiration dripping from her face and neck, and down her back as the fire raged.

On the twentieth day of burning, she walked to the curb to watch the smoke smear the cobalt sky.

“Lots of fires lately,” her next-door neighbor said. “Everything okay over there?”

Jane swatted her bangs out of her eyes. “So much to burn, isn’t there?” she said and walked back toward the house. “Have a super day!”

She kept a few of the objects in her pocket, occasionally placed them on the hearth, admired their beauty in the firelight. They made her life beautiful, magical, and one day she could sell them and money would never be a problem again.

 

Fire, fire! Fire, fire!

Pour on water, pour on water

***

“What happened to our chairs?” Tom asked one night.

Jane remained calm. “Do you have to take that tone? We have four. Isn’t that enough?”

“We had eight, Jane.” Tom’s voice sounded weighty, but she wasn’t concerned. He would understand once she began selling the objects and the money started rolling in.

“If you must know,” she said. “I lent them to a neighbor.” She thought for a moment, then added, “For a party.”

When she turned to face him, Micah appeared in the doorway. “What’s this, Mommy?” He held up the piece of glass she had found that morning.

“Don’t touch that!” she snapped. “Give it to me!” She lunged and swiped the object from his hands. Micah stepped back, whimpering.

Tom picked up their son and turned on Jane. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, trying to sound contrite. She looked at Micah, then patted him on the head. “It’s a surprise, honey.”

Her son had left finger smudges all over the beautiful blue-green glass object, and Jane furiously rubbed the glass with the belt of her terry cloth robe.

When Micah quieted down in Tom’s arms, he gave the boy a popsicle and sent him outside to play.

“The boys ate,” Jane said, as if nothing had happened. “Sit down.”

Jane served Tom his dinner, and busied herself placing dirty dishes from the sink into drawers and cabinets.

“Talk to me,” Tom said.

“I can’t,” she shouted. “Not yet.”

Tom frowned, moved the undercooked green beans around his plate and dissected his raw pork chop.

By late June, the two were barely speaking. Jane didn’t understand why he took the boys out for pizza every night.

We have food in the house, don’t we?” she asked her own reflection in the kitchen window.

It wasn’t long before Tom demanded to talk about the fires.

“Yesterday,” he said. “I noticed the woodpile was gone.”

“I’ve been cold,” was her response.

“We need to get you help, honey—“ Tom began, but Jane interrupted.

“I can’t believe you just now noticed.”

Tom drew in a long breath, his body stiffened.

“Find a psychiatrist or I’m taking the boys.” He slapped a brochure onto the table and walked into the living room. Jane glanced down and when she read “Your mental health,” she crumpled the pamphlet into a ball and left it on the counter for her husband to find.

The next night, when Tom and the boys were out, Jane placed the twenty-nine objects she had collected on the table. She stacked, counted, and polished them, amazed at how out of place they looked. Still, she couldn’t help thinking what a beautiful statement they made in her unremarkable world. She began to notice the patterns made by their colors or shapes; she swore they were talking to her.

“I understand! Yes!”

She cleaned out her great-grandmother’s chest-of-drawers and stacked the clothes in a corner of the bedroom. She dragged the chest downstairs, gouging holes in the stairwell wall, pulled it out into the middle of the backyard and chopped it into pieces.

Tom returned, saw the stacked clothes and the shattered dresser, and ordered Kyle and Micah to their rooms.

He followed her to the kitchen, but before he could say a word, Jane reached over and took his hand.

“I want to show you,” she said.

Tom pulled away. “Show me? Show me what?”

She lifted the box from out of the back cupboard and removed its lid. “These used to be ashes, Tom. Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t they amazing?”

Tom stared into the container for a few seconds, looked back at Jane, and spoke deliberately and softly. “This is all about some glass and metal—” He glanced down again. “—ornaments?”

“Not ornaments,” Jane scolded him. “These are—” She reached into the box, chose a quarter-sized piece of blue glass and held it up in front of Tom’s face, teased it from side to side. “—our retirement.”

Tom made a strange sound: an involuntary gasp or a strangled scream. Then he turned, kicked a large dent in the kitchen wall, and stormed out of the room and up the stairs.

“Crybaby,” Jane snickered.

Early the next morning, Tom took the boys and went to his parents’ house, sixty miles away in Lexington.

Jane watched the minivan disappear at the end of the street, then ran to the backyard where the wood that used to be her great-grandmother’s cabinet waited for her. She felt like a little girl again: innocent and free, liberated from the responsibilities of motherhood.

Ring around the rosy

A pocketful of posies

She built a fire and moved through the house, taking paintings off the walls and stacking them by the fireplace. She made piles of shoeboxes, drawers from kitchen cupboards, even wooden cooking spoons and bowls. She burned her wedding photographs and watched the edges of each page curl like small fingers. She burned Kyle and Micah’s baby albums and the flames blushed cherry red. She kept the fire alive from morning through early evening, and cried when the flames turned to embers.

While the ashes cooled, Jane spread a towel across the empty linoleum kitchen floor and placed the objects on top.

She stacked and turned them, held them up to the window to catch the last light of day.

She placed the first-found silver square in her mouth and moved it with her tongue, tasting it, warming it. And when she returned the object to the towel, a pattern emerged: red in the middle, green on the outer edge, alternating gold, silver, and multicolor in a strip around the core. She rearranged them, again and again, until the pieces formed a perfect twelve-inch by twelve-inch panel.

The group of objects began to fuse together and glow, casting the walls and ceiling in blue-green light. Jane laughed wildly and applauded. She jumped up and began to dance around the room.

Ashes, Ashes!

The heat from the panel intensified, and she backed away. The towel began to smolder, its edges browning, curling, igniting. The linoleum beneath the burning towel began to bubble. A fountain of flame burst upwards from the center of the panel and the kitchen ceiling ignited.

We all fall down

She reached toward the flame, but when the skin on her fingers and hands began to blister, she backed up and tripped over her robe.

The kitchen was consumed. The heat forced Jane away, pushing her backwards over the entryway into the front room. The wall on which the plasma T.V. hung combusted and she shrieked and ran out the door, slapping burning bits of wallpaper from her hair and clothing.

She fell, coughing, to the edge of the lawn, and felt a ripping pain in her hands and arms.

Neighbors in bathrobes stood motionless in their front yards, as the fire trucks and emergency vans screamed down the street.

“Ma’am,” a paramedic called to her and helped her into the ambulance. She was drenched in sweat and felt cool to the touch. Finally cool.

“What happened, ma’am?” the young man asked as he moved her hair away from her eyes.

She looked down at her arm. It was black as charcoal. There were pink, coin-sized patches of bloody flesh where her skin had melted away. Her arms and fingers were blackened branches and on one hand, where the flesh had burned away, a porcelain knucklebone had been exposed.

At the edge of her vision, she saw the fire. Light twitched on the windows of the ambulance, on the young paramedic’s face, on the glassiness of his eyes.

“Where are my sons?” was all she could think to say.

______________________________________________________________________________

Scott Warrender is a teacher, playwright, and composer. He lives in Seattle and teaches at Cornish College for the Arts.

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