Kelley J. P. Lindberg
When Colorado-based freelance writer Kelley J. P. Lindberg isn’t writing, reading, hiking, or sailing, she’s traveling as far and as often as she can. If there’s still time left over, she blogs about writing craft and the writer’s life at www.KelleyLindberg.com.
A Sail of Ash
Amy was slow to recognize the small sound as rock toppling onto rock, slow to drag her thoughts away from the cardboard box in her backpack and the plastic bag within it. The trail cornered just ahead and dipped into a shallow saddle. She couldn’t see Skyzanski though she knew he’d probably caused the sound. As usual, he ranged far in front, his focus constantly on the trail.
Amy shifted her pack, shrugged her shoulders into the burden, and avoided catching the eye of the woman hiking next to her. Amy knew Darla stayed beside her because she thought they ought to have something in common, being women. But Amy was emptied of words. She wasn’t sure what she had in common with anyone anymore.
Ted, Darla’s boyfriend, hovered nearby, stopping to study rocks, flowers, or isolated puddles of water trapped in holes etched in the rock. At the beginning of the trek, he had pointed things out from time to time, his voice puncturing the quiet. Now he kept his discoveries mostly to himself.
It was a rough hike, plenty of ascent, a bit of boulder-scrambling, but with enough glimpses of the valley below to keep the four hikers climbing the southern ridge. It was the second day, and they had fallen into an uncomfortable rhythm.
As Amy rounded the corner of the trail, she saw four rocks the size of fists that had been stacked in a cairn marking the trail. Now the four rocks lay scattered. Skyzanski was thirty feet ahead, his steps long, his hands deliberately hooked into the straps of his backpack. Amy stopped. If Paul were here, he would restack the rocks, re-create the marker that would point other hikers towards the summit. Amy knew she should try. She could imagine the weight of each rock in her hand, the grit of its surface, the residual warmth of the sun it had been absorbing all day. She could imagine the rock flying from her hand into the valley below. She just couldn’t summon the strength in her arms to reach out and pick it up. She walked on.
Behind her, she could hear Darla and Ted restacking them.
As the afternoon wearied into evening, the four found a campsite. It was a flat space, softened with grass, sheltered on three sides by granite outcroppings. The fourth side opened toward the valley. The hikers dropped their packs and began setting up camp. As the sun slid closer to the horizon, one by one they stopped what they were doing and stood up, facing the valley.
When the ice-age glacier had finally surrendered to the warming sun and begun its slow retreat north, it left behind a changed valley. Scoured smooth, broad, and softly curving, the valley was cradled in the arms of the mountain. Boulders dotted its long, gently sloping floor, and the setting sun filled it to the rim with alpen-glow in a hundred shades of rose. Birds flushed from the hillside nearby and filled the gilded air with wings and song.
The breeze that brushed Amy’s face and teased loose hairs from her ponytail quickened with the cold of unmelted snow from somewhere farther up the trail. Amy reminded herself to breathe, and pine-scent filled her lungs. Her hands, her shoulders, her back—the chill worked its way into all of them. Before her, the sunset spilled slowly along the backs of dark clouds, pulling colors out of them they’d never known they harbored—tangerine and pomegranate and ripening plum. The clouds stretched and soaked in the glory and cast pink shadows back at the mountains. It seemed a waste of color.
Amy tried to feel something about Paul, about the box in her pack. She felt nothing. She thought perhaps she should cry, but she couldn’t think why that was so important. All she could feel was the wind’s chill.
Ted and Darla slid familiarly into each other’s arms. They stood like that for a time, Darla’s head on Ted’s shoulder. Amy tried not to look at them, at the way they fit together without effort. Then they moved over to Amy and folded her into their embrace.
Amy stood awkwardly, not sure what to do with her arms while Darla and Ted hugged her. Over the last two years, she’d spent a lot of time with Paul’s friends. She thought of them as her friends, too. But now their touch felt vacant, obligatory. Paul had been the connection. He was the one people gravitated to. Paul had a way of making you feel like part of the adventure, whether the adventure was hiking these mountain ridges or running to the grocery store for a six-pack. Now the adventure was ended, and Amy, Ted, Darla, and Skyzanski were all just tourists with baggage, waiting for trains to take them to their separate destinations.
Skyzanski stood a few feet away, his face turned toward the melting sun, his hands shoved in his pockets. The breeze toyed at his wind-shirt, flipping it against his back. He hadn’t said more than a handful of words in two days. Amy was grateful for that. If he didn’t speak, she didn’t have to answer.
Darla and Ted each patted her shoulders a couple of times, then stepped back a few inches.
“Paul would have loved this sunset,” said Darla.
With effort, Amy nodded.
After a moment, Darla asked, “When do you want to do this?” She and Ted were both looking at Amy now. Skyzanski was still staring at the sunset, letting her sort this one out by herself.
Darla tried again. “You know, this is about as beautiful a spot as I can think of. From up here, with this view . . .” Her voice trailed off.
After a long moment, Amy sighed. The clouds were slowly pulling their colors back into themselves. Soon they would forget they’d ever been anything but shadows. Amy turned and rummaged in her pack, extracting the cardboard box. She opened it and withdrew the plastic bag of ashes. When she turned back around, the other three were all watching her. Skyzanski still had his hands in his pockets, but for the first time in two days, he met her eyes.
For the briefest moment, she expected to see the familiar hint of a grin radiating crow’s-feet around Skyzanski’s eyes, expected his usual patient, understanding look—the look he always wore when he tried to explain why Paul acted the way he did, how Paul really loved her, why she shouldn’t take him so personally. She’d always assumed that you were supposed to take a lover personally. Kind of the point of the whole thing, really. But with Paul, sometimes different rules applied. Skyzanski seemed to know those rules. Amy wanted Skyzanski to reach out and brush the back of her hand with his fingers the way he sometimes did and tell her why Paul was gone. But he didn’t, and it occurred to Amy suddenly that now she’d never have to understand Paul’s rules. And Skyzanski would never again have to explain them, would never have to help her patch up the cracks in her heart over cups of coffee and cornbread muffins. No wonder his eyes seemed different now.
She held the plastic bag by its top. She was unwilling to rest its weight in her palm, where she might feel the shifting ashes mold to the shape of her hand. Paul had never been that pliable, that willing to fit into her life. She didn’t want him to be that way now. Four weeks ago, maybe, before Paul’s motorcycle hit loose gravel, a weak barricade, and sky. But not now. Not when all it meant was a deeper commitment to absence. She realized in a detached sort of way that another plastic bag was inside the first. Double-bagged. How practical.
She looked up at Darla and Ted. She had no idea what to do next. Too late, she wondered if there was some sort of ceremony one was supposed to perform. Some ritual that would launch Paul onto his next trek. Words that should be spoken. She couldn’t think of any.
“Where should we do this?” asked Darla.
Again, Amy shrugged and looked at Skyzanski. He held her gaze for a moment, then turned and glanced at the sunset once more. Then he began walking up the trail. The other three followed.
They climbed atop a flattened boulder large enough for all four to stand together. The wind blew steadily against their backs, past their shoulders, beginning the long slide down into the valley below them where it would eventually meet with the sunset and tangle into its darkening clouds.
Amy twisted off the wire tie and opened the top of the first bag. Then she untwisted the second tie and held the double-bagged remains of Paul for a minute more. Finally, she turned it over and let the ashes sigh out of the bag like whispers. Most dropped to the ground, but enough found flight in the breeze to create a sail of ash. The sail swelled and rose and spread out into the air and downward into the valley.
Ted and Darla helped her down from the rock. Skyzanski followed, his eyes dark and the lines in his forehead deeper than when they’d begun this hike. As they walked back to camp, Amy felt him behind her, could hear his steps crunching on the rocky ground. He’d known Paul since they were kids, daring each other to take the training wheels off their bikes. Brothers bonded by life instead of blood. She wanted to say something to him, but just moving her feet was taking all the energy she could muster. Words weighed in her abdomen like rocks tied to a drowning woman.
Amy lay in her tent a long time, cursing the dawn-rushing birds that had woken her minutes after she’d finally fallen asleep. Waking was always the hardest, when she realized another day was coming and she would have to live through it. When she emerged from the tent, Skyzanski was still sitting by the long-cold campfire where he’d been last night, his back against rocks. His black hair was tangled and wind-whipped; his eyes looked bruised.
She opened her mouth and wondered if she could speak today. “Have you been here all night?” she asked, noting that the words came out rough and scratchy against her throat, but at least they came out.
Ever so slightly, he shook his head. “Nah,” he said, his voice not much more than a whisper under the wind’s hush. “I hiked for a while after the moon came up.” He stood and motioned for her to follow him.
She did, and he led her around the rocks to the ridgeline where they’d released Paul’s ashes. Below them, the valley unrolled for miles. The sun was just clearing the mountain at their backs, so Amy and Skyzanski were still in shadow. But before them, they watched as the mountain’s shade let go of the valley, one treetop at a time. Each inch of the valley that found itself free of darkness burst into green and gold and the blue of honest shadows. The birds that had sounded so raucous while Amy lay in her tent took on new melodies now, richer ones that stitched across the valley in waves of sound. The dark clouds on last night’s horizon were gone, replaced by small puffy white ones that sped by, tumbling so close Amy thought she could taste them. At her feet, wildflower grasses dotted the ground, their buds ripening and anticipating color.
There were no more ashes remaining here, no death that lasted. This valley was big enough to hold all the pain four people could pour into it without even acknowledging that such a thing had happened.
Skyzanski was watching her. She turned and tried to smile at him. He nodded back, but he kept his hands in his pockets, then turned his face back to the valley. Something about the way he turned away from her felt like vertigo, and she caught her breath to keep from flinging out her arms for balance. Paul—the third leg of their tripod—was gone. She and Skyzanski were all that remained, and there was nothing left for the two of them to hold up. With a rising sense of panic, she realized they had no reason to even know each other now.
The breeze played his dark hair across his forehead, and Amy felt whatever was left of her heart fall away into dust. When Paul had died, he’d left empty space all around her—a moat of crystallized air that distorted everything she saw through it, and which nothing could cross. Now she felt emptiness cracking inside her, as well, as she realized she was losing Skyzanski, too. Then something forced its way into the cavity that was left, and she began to cry.
Skyzanski stood beside her and let her cry. He didn’t try to comfort her or make her stop, but he didn’t move away, either.
After a while, when her breath stopped coming in jags, they both sat down and waited while the earth turned and the mountain gave the rest of the valley back to the sun.
Just out of sight behind the rocks, Ted and Darla were talking in soft voices. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she wished they would stop. With them talking, she and Skyzanski could no longer hear Paul’s ashes falling.
“ Loss is an earthquake. Your foundation shakes and tilts, the walls crack, and the shelter over your head gapes open, leaving you exposed to raw elements. But the aftershocks are just as devastating. The aftershocks are where you realize you’re not just losing your loved one. You’re also losing aspects of their life you took for granted—their friends, the way they colored your own view of the world, the way you fit into their orbit. That feeling of standing on one side of a widening chasm, watching as people on the other side get farther and farther away, is an aftershock we are seldom prepared for. The characters in ‘A Sail of Ash’ are all experiencing their own aftershocks, realizing Paul was the only thing keeping the earth between them whole. ”