When Mom fell in love with the man of ash, we tried, at first, to be happy for her. We vacuumed, we mopped, we sang. We swept up the ashes without complaint. Even then the thin film of him settled beneath our fingernails or whirled up at us from a plumped cushion, catching in our eyelashes. We muttered to each other as we combed him from our hair. We couldn’t be rid of him even when we were alone.
We’d loved the man of light. He’d shuffled through our house gently with his long, glowing hair. If we wanted our space – and we always wanted our space – we could easily hide from him in the shadows. He didn’t get all over us the way the man of ash did. But Mom felt very little for him, and then she felt nothing at all. He lived now in the downstairs broom closet, and it comforted us to know he was there, glowing alone in the darkness even if we never ventured there to check on him.
The man of ash was different: He paid us too much attention. I saw the way he watched Fern when her back was turned, his gray hooded eyes dark with hunger, his lips moving subtly within his shaggy charcoal beard. One day she passed too closely by him, and his dense, smoky arms unfurled and clasped her around the waist; he pulled her smoothly into his lap. For a moment, I couldn’t see her; she was lost in the cloud of him. Nearby, Mom coughed.
I lifted from my chair and hurried to my sister, groping for her hand.
“Let’s go outside,” I said, my fingers encircling her wrist, breathing in the fumy deep smell of him.
He met my eyes, scowling, but to my relief, he released her. Fern rose mechanically from his gloom, her dress filthy now and cindered, and Mom issued a nervous laugh.
“Like scared horses, my girls,” she’d apologized. “They’re not used to men.”
But we were used to men, all sorts of them, the man of light, the man of thunder, the man of air who flirted with Mom but stayed just out of her grasp. What we weren’t used to was a man who wanted every part of us, who would smother and dirty and settle into us ruinously.
“If he touches you again,” I told Fern once we were alone, “I’ll murder him.”
My tone frightened her. “Nothing’s happened, Minnie,” she argued. “I just got too close.”
“It’s not your fault, numbskull,” I spat and regretted my tone when she flinched.
We grew careful then, edging along the walls, crawling near the baseboards. We threw buckets of water on the floor to try and sop up the ash that now carpeted our whole home, but it was futile. We retreated whenever we could to our bedroom or to the fresher air of the backyard and garden.
One day after we weeded the garden beds, as I lay on my sore back on the lawn, I told Fern we should run away.
My sister was always swift to argue with me, to call out my poor decisions. It wasn’t the first time I’d suggested such an enterprise. She plopped down next to me on the grass, and I awaited a quarrel.
Instead, she laced her fingers through my own.
“This crystalline air,” she said. “Good for the lungs.”
She brought my hand to her mouth and kissed my knuckles in a goofy way, and I laughed. I was so grateful for this backyard, the garden we’d tended, the fresh air. The house was covered in his film now, the state of it worsening by the moment.
“We’ll be bandits,” I said. “We’ll leave them behind.”
Fern’s smile flashed and then faded. “Why does she always choose them over us? What’s wrong with us?”
“She’ll never change. I know that now.” Then I added, irritably, “Nothing’s wrong with us, Fern.”
Fern absently poked at a hole in her sneaker. “We’d be happy, just the three of us. Maybe one day, she’ll see it.”
For years, we’d done all we could to shake Mom out of her misery. We cooked, we cleaned, we gardened, we drew her bath, we ironed her clothes, we made the beds. But the drinking, the men, the poor choices continued.
“A bandit’s life for me,” I sang, shaking Fern’s hand gently.
She sprawled out near me and put her head on my shoulder. “I hate everything,” she said, as she sometimes did.
“But I love you,” I rejoined. “Most of the time, anyway.”
From the open window in the house came a protuberant cloud of ash, billowing, settling, edging cunningly toward us. Fern eyed it warily, and I eyed her.
“Minnie,” she whispered, desperate now. “Tell me what it will be like, our bandit life.”
We crept away from the house on hands and knees, toward the small orchard with its squat apple trees.
“We’ll walk the railway all the way to the big lake,” I said. We tucked ourselves behind the tree trunks, the tendrils of ash curling and uncurling, searching for us. “We’ll cross the narrow bridge over the water and skirt the town.
“There will be an abandoned cabin in the trees not far from the river, and we’ll break in through an unlocked window. It will be stuffy and dusty there, but no ash. We’ll throw open the windows and doors, and we’ll clean the entire place top to bottom until it glitters and gleams. It will be ours and ours alone.”
“And Martha the Bear?”
“Of course, Martha the Bear is there, too.”
“And Peter the Fox?”
We were too old now for stuffed animals. We were menstruating girls who in normal situations would soon start public high school, but I didn’t – wouldn’t – argue with her.
“Yes, Peter, too. From time to time, we’ll steal into people’s homes for food and supplies. We’ll boil tea from dandelions and foxgloves. We’ll braid columbine in our hair. In the summer, we’ll bathe in the lakes, and in winter, we’ll tend the fire in the woodstove.”
“Eventually she’ll come to live with us,” I lied.
“How will she know where to find us?”
I shrugged. Just the idea of her coming for us at all had exhausted me. I wasn’t sure she ever would or ever had.
The house was quiet. Soon, we knew, she would call to us to come inside, to hug her. She would force us to hug him, too.
“We leave,” I said. “Or we choke.”
Fern rested her chin on one knee, her gaze on the house. Her face was slightly broader than my own, friendlier, but one of her eyes was darker brown than the other so that she always seemed half in shadow. This was how people could tell us apart if they bothered.
“Minnie,” she said. “Look.”
I twisted around to see. The yard was filling up with ash, smothering our garden. We could see the tiny trails of dying insects as they wiggled and flailed against the invasion. From the murky rooms, we heard Mom’s cough: hacking, now, violent; she’d absorbed too much of him. We pulled up our T-shirts over our noses, stepped across the powdery detritus, hurried to our room.
“Tonight,” I told her, reaching into our closet to retrieve our bags. “Or else.”
To my relief, Fern agreed.
Days passed, then months. In our dusky cabin near the big lake, we wiled away the hours. Men of stone, men of trees, men of water, men of ice, men of light and ash; none of them bothered us. Now it was just stone, trees, water, ice, light and the sparkling dust made from our own living bodies.
We no longer cleaned up daily but on Mondays, and that suited us fine. We took jobs at the local grocery, one of us with a shift in the morning and the other with a shift at night. In the summer, we put on our jewel-colored jelly sandals and walked into town. We bought Popsicles and perused books at the library. We knew disasters were unfolding both near and far, but we paid them no attention. We were free from anyone’s terror but our own.
I didn’t tell Fern when Mom arrived. Fern was searching for fiddleheads in the woods; she wanted to make an omelet for supper. She was curious about a set of boys who we worked with at the grocery.
“They’re not men of any one substance,” she assured me, and she talked of inviting them over.
I didn’t encourage or discourage her. After having a mother who didn’t care enough, I didn’t want to be a mother at all, only a sister, a friend.
It was Mom’s cough I heard first.
The rattle of it rent the air; its vibrations skimmed across the lake.
I’d been staring out at the calm water over a sink-load of dishes daydreaming of summer and swimming. We wondered if and when the family would return to their summer cottage, which we’d broken into swiftly and easily not long after crossing the narrow bridge, and we feared the moment of arrival the way we had once feared God.
In a bedroom bureau, I’d found a red swimsuit, and it fit perfectly. I’d stood in front of the bureau’s large mirror, and Fern, holding Martha Bear on her lap, exclaimed that if it wasn’t for the port-wine stain across my chest, I’d look like a supermodel. We’d laughed for an entire night about that, imagining a more glamorous life for me as a catwalk ingénue. A life of caviar and expensive clothing and rich friends and loneliness. The opposite of what we shared now.
And now that familiar cough. I stepped outside, still wiping my hands on a dishrag, and there she was, our mom, a long, pale specter emerging from the tall grass. I crossed the gravel carport to speak with her, but Fern was already there, putting her arms around mother, sobbing.
Oh no, I thought. Fern would invite her in; Fern would make a new home for her. And it would all begin again, all of the neglect and harm.
Mother coughed, and the ash sailed out from her lungs. The man of ash was inside her, she’d never be free of him, and she’d brought him to us like a disease.
I heard what she mumbled to Fern, that she was sorry, that she was a terrible mother, that she needed our help. Coughs erupted one after another, expunging dense scuds of volcanic rock and glass, and my sister, assailed by them, transformed into an old woman before my eyes, flesh and hair graying and singed.
To my chagrin, she embraced our mother even harder, telling her she was understood, she was seen, and I sank into a paralysis of misery. Fern would be destroyed by her own capacity for love. I’d always known it. I couldn’t approach and free her – my feet held fast to the gravel as if I were a tree newly planted.
I prepared myself for the end of us.
But then Fern, squeezing Mom even tighter, tears staining her ashen cheeks, said, “I love you. But I can’t let you near us now, Mom. For Minnie’s sake. For my own.”
The embrace intensified. Mom’s cough worsened. Her eyes bulged, her bones cracked. Muscles and viscera liquified. Fern held her in such a tight embrace, her whole body rippling from the effort, that I worried the earth would open up beneath our feet, the sinkhole swallowing us all.
I called out Fern’s name, to let go, to save herself, but my voice only strengthened her resolve. She bore down, and the embrace became a vise, then a spike, then a fire. The heat of it assailed us. All at once, I regained motion of my feet and stumbled forward, blindly grasping for my sister’s shoulders.
The ash settled around us. The clouds, having gathered darkly overhead, released a cleansing rain. In Fern’s hands, she held what was left of our mother, a small ceramic ring, which Fern offered to me, gasping.
“You wear it,” I said. I was so grateful, so moved.
We stood in the afternoon light just the two of us, facing the water. Taking up her hand, my flesh grazed the threadlike circle near her knuckle, the small, firm proof of Mom’s remaining love. The rain sluiced over us, returning my sister’s youth to her, the gray melting from her hair in grotesque clumps. I was shocked at how strong she’d become, how resolute. I gave her hand a squeeze and then let go.
Before us, the lake was just lake. The stone was just stone. The light was just light. The boys my sister wanted to befriend were just boys. This was what I hoped, anyway. We allowed the day to yawn before us, as filled with potential for good and ill as any of us living beings.
I breathed deeply the petrichor. I hid my naked hands in my sleeves.
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