Ashes to Ashes
Benjamin Fishbein & Daniel Stieglitz
Maisy brushed her husband’s aged La-Z-Boy chair with a feather duster. She wanted to tidy up before her cleaning woman, Lisa, arrived. Lisa always missed the corners. Or anything with a 90 degree angle, for that matter.
She moved on to the mantel, and dusted her almost 50-year-old wedding photo, noticing how slim her 20-something year old self had been. Next to the framed photo was the urn containing her husband’s ashes. As she began dusting the urn, it rocked slightly. Maisy leapt back. This was only a feather broom. It shouldn’t have been able to push over a heavy urn, solid metal filled with human ash.
The urn rocked back and forth, then hopped slightly.
It’s Earl’s ghost, Maisy thought. No. Earl wouldn’t be caught dead as a ghost. Perhaps it’s an earthquake.
The urn’s lid started to turn, unscrewing itself. It slid off, knocked the wedding photo on its face, and slid off the mantel onto the Persian rug, where it crescendoed to stillness.
Maisy carefully bent over to pick up the lid, feeling her aging bones creak. The urn started clanging again as it shook back and forth on the mantel.
Maisy’s heart lurched at the horrible anticipation of Earl’s ashes on the floor.
I should have left him in the Ziploc bag, she thought.
When the crematorium gave Maisy her husband’s remains, the ashes were in a Ziploc bag within the urn. Earl hated plastic, complaining bitterly when Maisy tried to line their furniture with it. So she had emptied the plastic bag into the urn. The plastic bag still had flecks of ash sticking to its insides. She couldn’t bring herself to drop it in the recycling bin, so she buried the remnants of the plastic and ashes in her garden.
Moving faster than was prudent for a woman of her advanced years, Maisy quick-stepped to the mantel and grasped the urn on both sides, putting a stop to its wobbling. From within the urn reached a tiny hand, the size of an infant’s, covered in gray ash. It grasped the end of Maisy’s index finger.
She screamed and dropped the urn, which clattered to the floor, spilling ash on the edge of the Persian rug and puffing up a low gray cloud. A hideous squeal echoed from within the urn.
Maisy, who had always feared Alzheimer’s, now prayed for it. Please let this be dementia, she thought. Don’t let that be real.
There was a spot of ash nestled under her fingernail where the baby’s hand had touched her.
Imaginary, she told herself. Imaginary baby’s hand.
She stepped closer to the urn and picked out the bit of ash from her fingernail, making sure it dropped into the pile with the other bits of Earl. As it descended, the tiny baby hand reached out of the urn and grabbed it in mid-air. Maisy was too terrified to scream. Too terrified to run. Dear Lord, I’ll take a heart attack over losing my mind.
It slid out of the urn like it was emerging from a womb. The child, clearly a boy, was the size of a newborn and was covered in ashes instead of placental fluid. Inexplicably for a newborn, it began to crawl through the ash. That was when Maisy realized it was growing at an alarming rate.
It seemed to age almost an entire year in a matter of seconds. Then it stood up in the pile of ashes. In an adult-like motion, the boy brushed the ashes off of its face, arms, body, and legs.
This is a dream, Maisy decided. A nightmare.
To prove to herself that it was nothing more than a lucid dream, she decided to fly, but her attempt at this only managed a slight hop.
The boy spoke. “You can’t fly,” he said in a toddler’s voice. “That’s the bad news. Good news is you don’t have dementia. This is really happening.”
As Maisy stared dumbstruck at this little boy who was covered in ash, her manners took over.
“Would you like—“ to take a bath, she was going to ask. No. I don’t want Earl’s ashes swirling down the bathtub drain, though plenty of his hair had certainly gone down there over the years.
She could take the boy into the garden where she had buried the ash-lined plastic bag from the urn. There she would clean him off. But what would the neighbors think of her hosing off a naked little boy? Especially since he was fast growing to more than a little boy. He looked ready to start school.
Maisy composed herself out of her hospitality. “What were you doing in my husband’s remains?” she demanded.
The boy grabbed a blanket from the edge of the couch, the blanket Maisy knitted after her first miscarriage. She had needed to create something after that ordeal.
The boy draped the blanket over his shoulders. It covered his entire frame. “It’s better I cover up now,” he said. “I’m hitting puberty in a few minutes.”
“What were you doing in my husband’s urn?”
“You ever see Aladdin?”
She knew about the Disney movie, but having no kids or grandkids, never felt the need to see it. After the first few miscarriages, they had given up trying to have a baby.
“I read Arabian Nights,” she said.
“You remember the Robin Williams character?”
“He wasn’t in the book.”
“Robin Williams played the Genie.”
“You’re a genie?”
The boy laughed.
“Do I get three wishes?” Maisy asked hopefully.
“No.” The boy stopped laughing. “Certainly not.”
“So what do you have to do with the Robin Williams character?”
“Both of us come from inside metal objects.”
Maisy buried her face in her hands.
The boy sat on the couch, his feet dangling over the edge, and patted the seat next to him. Maisy was light-headed, so she sat on the couch, but at the far opposite end of the boy.
“Remember when you studied Greek Mythology in college?” he asked.
“How do you know about that?” Maisy asked hopefully. Only a figment of her imagination could know so much about her.
“I’m not a figment of your imagination,” the boy said. “I know this because I do my homework before each assignment. Do you remember the phoenix?”
Of course she did. The phoenix was a mythological bird that died in a blaze of fire and was reborn from the ashes. But these were her husband’s ashes, and this thing looked nothing like Earl.
“You’re a phoenix?”
The boy rolled his eyes. “Do I look like a bird?”
He had sort of hatched out of an egg—the urn….
“Yeah, I pecked my way out of the urn,” he said jocularly. “Now I need you to go get me a worm. How are you at regurgitating things?”
“You eat worms?”
“Not a bird!” The boy threw his hands up in the air. “Philistines! I tell you.”
Maisy looked down. The boy’s feet were flat against the rug now. Is he going to keep getting older, she wondered, until he dies?
“I might ask you the same question,” the boy said. “If it makes you happy, you can call me Phoenix, okay? And because it’s going to come up eventually and I’m on the clock here: yes, I can read your mind; no, you’re not hallucinating; and no, I’m not lying to you.”
“Of course my hallucination would say all that,” she said with conviction.
Phoenix leaned over and pinched her arm.
“Ow!” Maisy clutched her arm. She bruised easily at her age.
“See, not hallucinating,” Phoenix said.
“Okay,” Maisy said. “Let’s say for a moment that you are real. Is Phoenix your real name?”
“Actually, it isn’t. But you wouldn’t be able to pronounce my real name.”
I never was able to master that rolling “r” sound in whatever languages I tried, Maisy thought.
“You’re funny,” Phoenix said, his voice cracking. Maisy thought it might be from emotion, but then realized it was puberty. “But not out loud you aren’t funny. You should really let yourself go once in a while. Now let’s get this show on the road.”
Show? Maisy thought.
Phoenix spryly jumped up. As he wrapped the now too small blanket around his waist, Maisy caught a glimpse of some fresh pubic hairs. She blushed.
Holding the blanket in place with one hand, with the other he reached for the urn. By the time Phoenix reached the urn he had begun to sprout hair on his armpits and show signs of acne and cheek stubble. For some reason, his hair and fingernails didn’t grow extremely long.
With his free hand he grabbed the top of the urn and turned it upside-down, dumping the remaining contents of ash into the pile already on the Persian rug.
“Stop that!” Maisy cried, pulling herself to her feet. She couldn’t move nearly as fast as he did.
Phoenix grinned mischievously.
“Please,” Maisy pleaded. “Give it to me.”
Phoenix dropped the urn to the ground, lifted one leg back, and smiled mischievously at her. His bare right foot kicked the pile of ash, sending a puff of it into the air. Maisy moaned miserably, and closed her eyes to stop the ash from stinging them. Some ash got in her throat and she started to cough.
When she opened her eyes, her husband, Earl, was sitting in his chair with a beer in hand.
“What is this?” Maisy gasped.
“What’s what?” Earl asked in his familiar raspy voice. His eyes were laser-focused on the TV screen, his favorite and only post-retirement pastime.
“It’s another chance,” Phoenix said. “To say goodbye. The good news is that you get a whole new lifetime with him. The bad news is that it’s my lifetime, which is going to be rather short. You have until this version of me dies to be with your husband one last time.”
“Is that really him?”
“Is who really who?” Earl asked, his eyes still fixed on the TV. “What are you blabbering about?”
Maisy thought of Earl’s sudden heart attack, how she never got to say goodbye. Now was her chance to make a new final memory. She wanted this to be real.
“It’s him,” Phoenix said. “You’re with Earl exactly one year before he died. Don’t worry about any interruptions. Your younger self is out at the supermarket. Good ole Earl here doesn’t even realize that you left the house.”
Maisy stood in front of Earl, leaned down, and peered at his eyes. The eye crust was in all the right places. This was her husband.
“I can’t see!” Earl barked. “You’re the size of the moon and you’re making an eclipse.”
“Sorry,” Maisy said, stepping to the side. She wanted to keep the mood calm, so they could have a meaningful few moments together.
Earl sipped his beer. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Can’t a wife look at her husband?” Maisy asked innocently.
Earl sighed. “A wife can look at her husband as long as her husband can look at the TV in peace.”
Maisy pulled up a chair and sat next to him. “What are you watching?” she asked.
“What does it look like I’m watching?” he retorted, as though she were an idiot.
She looked at the screen. An advertisement for reverse mortgages.
“Commercials,” she said.
“Don’t be a wise-ass,” he retorted.
Maisy flushed. She knew she wasn’t clever with words. Perhaps if she tried something non-verbal.
She slipped her hand into Earl’s. It was warm. The last time she held it, it had already gone cold.
Earl pulled his hand away. “What are you doing? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Maisy looked at Phoenix for help. He now had a full beard and thick mane of hair on his chest. Phoenix just stared and pantomimed eating popcorn, as if this was entertainment for him.
“Earl, I…” Maisy wondered what she was supposed to say. A genie-like creature gave me a chance to talk to you? No. She didn’t want to spend these few moments with him trying to convince him that she wasn’t insane. “Having a senior moment?” he would ask eagerly, saying he hoped she was so that he could put her in a home and be rid of her.
“Earl, we need to talk.”
He sighed and raised the remote control. She feared he would raise the volume to a deafening level, as he often did when she tried to speak to him. But this time, he hit the mute button.
“Well, what is it?” he asked with an annoyed sigh. “Let’s get it over with. Sooner you get your say, sooner I’m back to watching television in peace.”
Maisy didn’t know what to say.
Earl snapped his fingers. “Senior moment?”
“I love you,” she said.
Earl rolled his eyes. “Wow. 40 years of marriage and you finally have that epiphany.”
It was actually closer to 50 years. Maisy thought. But now wasn’t the time for semantics.
Maisy knew she was screwing this up. A one-in-a-trillion chance to have a few meaningful moments with her husband and she was blowing it.
“What should I do?” she pleaded to Phoenix. He now had a potbelly hanging over the blanket.
“What should you do?” Earl said. “You should be quiet! What in the bloody hell are you going on about, woman?!””
“Don’t talk out loud,” Phoenix said. “I can hear your thoughts, remember?”
She gave it a try. Can Earl hear you? Maisy thought.
“No. Only you can hear me.”
What should I do? she asked Phoenix again.
“He was your husband for almost 50 years. You’re getting one last moment with him. It’s up to you to decide how to spend it with him.”
“Hey,” Earl said. “What’s bringing this on?” He asked with what seemed to be real concern. He had that, from time to time.
“Can’t a wife say she loves her husband?” Maisy asked.
Earl snickered, his concern departing as quickly as it had arrived. “You said it more cheesily than usual.”
Maisy looked down at her lap. If Earl couldn’t criticize what she said, he’d criticize the way she said it. She felt a dormant emptiness filling her. It had been a year since she’d felt this way.
Maisy tried to shake away her dark mood. She couldn’t let it ruin her last moments with Earl. Perhaps if she could just get him away from the television.
She looked to Phoenix, whose hairline receded in real time, as if an invisible razor was giving him a buzz cut. His forehead grew larger. Crow’s feet and the beginnings of wrinkles covered his face. Time was running out.
“Earl, let’s go for a walk in the park.”
“Now? Are you nuts? It’s raining cats and dogs out there with a 50% chance of getting struck by lightning.”
Maisy glanced out the window. Before Phoenix showed up, the sun was shining on a warm summer’s day. Now, blustery winds blew autumn leaves through an overcast day.
“What’s wrong with you?” Earl asked, staring at her hands, which Maisy realized she was frantically wringing.
“Nothing,” she said, folding her hands.
“Yeah, right. I know all your tells. Something’s up.”
At least he was noticing her, Maisy thought. She forced a smile. “Nothing is up,” she said. “I just want to sit here with you.”
Earl pressed the palm of his hand on Maisy’s forehead. “You’re acting really peculiar.”
Her eyes welled with tears. “Can’t a wife just want to spend quality time with her husband?”
Earl grunted and pulled himself up from his chair.
“Where are you going?” Maisy asked, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Do I need your permission?” Earl replied. “I’m making room for more beer.”
Maisy looked at Phoenix to see how much time was left. His sparse hair was now all white.
Maisy stood and blocked her husband’s path. “Earl, please. For goodness sakes can’t you hold it for just a little bit?”
Earl scoffed. “At my age?” He stepped around her and quick-strode to the bathroom, muttering about how a man couldn’t even heed nature’s call if his wife was in a talky mood. He slammed the bathroom door behind him.
Maisy shot her glance straight at Phoenix. “The few precious minutes you give me with my husband and his bladder is full!?”
Phoenix was examining several teeth in his hand. They had fallen out of his mouth. Phoenix’s sagging jowls flexed. “I don’t choose the time or the place,” he said. “I just show up.” The missing teeth caused him to whistle while he spoke. “And I’m certainly not the reason he drinks so much beer.”
Is he implying I drove my husband to drink?
“I’m not implying anything. I’m just here to age rapidly and die painfully.”
Story of my life, Maisy thought. She gently rapped her knuckles on the bathroom door.
“Who is it!?” Earl shouted, his usual response whenever the two of them were alone in the house.
“Will you be long?” Maisy asked.
Maisy heard the rustling of a newspaper. “I’m gonna kill two birds with one stone,” Earl said. “Taking that long detour walking around your wide figure really got the ole bowels flowing too.”
Maisy pinched her teary eyes. She needed something to win him over. She looked at Phoenix, who was hunched over. The blanket was at his feet. He no longer had the strength to grip it around his waist.
Phoenix, can you wave your hand or something and conjure up a six-pack of his favorite beer?
Phoenix rolled his eyes with a sigh. “Again, not a genie. I know I do look like a wizard now, but casting spells is above my pay grade.” Phoenix leaned against the wall and grimaced. “There goes kidney number one. It’s about time to write this body’s obituary.”
Maisy’s hand gripped the doorknob. She hesitated. Did she want her final memory of Earl to be him sitting on the crapper? Any memory might be an improvement over the previous one of finding him dead in his chair.
She took a deep breath and resolved to make the best of it.
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” Phoenix said, as he collapsed down the wall onto the blanket.
“Why?” she asked. “Will I create some sort of paradox in time?”
“No. The smell.” Phoenix broke into laughter.
Maisy was about to scold him for joking around at such a serious moment, but then his laughter turned into wheezing coughs, and she took pity on him.
“How do you die?” she asked him. “Old age?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “I’m guessing this one’s going to be renal failure.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Phoenix shrugged his shoulders, which seemed to require a great deal of effort. “It comes with the job.”
“What is it you do for a living?”
Phoenix smiled, just a few teeth remaining. “No one’s ever asked me that before. But go. Talk to Earl.”
Maisy turned the doorknob, and pushed her way inside.
“Crap, crap, crap,” Earl said. “Can’t I get any privacy here?”
“Earl, I…” Love you? Was that what she was going to say again? And why? Well, that was what people said in their final moments with a loved one.
But was he a loved one? She couldn’t say she loved him. She wasn’t sure anymore.
She had built up a post-mortem image of her husband that was different from the actual Earl who sat in his chair, and now on the toilet.
From behind her, Maisy heard a rattling gasp and then a thump. She turned to look. Phoenix’s eyes flickered and then stilled, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. As his flesh began to rapidly decompose, his lips uttered five last words: “I hope it was enough.”
Maisy looked back at Earl. She wanted to say that she wished they had gotten along better. That was something. But before Maisy could say anything, she gasped as Earl’s fingers began turning to ash, which powdered away. The newspaper fell from them, but Earl didn’t seem to notice, still staring where it had been.
“Earl, your hands.”
“I know. I’ll wash them.”
Earl stared blankly ahead, oblivious to the ash spreading up his arms like mold. Maisy watched as his entire body turned to ash. Some fell into the toilet, some on the bathroom floor, covering the newspaper.
Maisy stepped through the thin layer of ash on the floor and looked into the toilet. Dark gray ashes mixed with the water.
She pressed her eyes shut and felt something soft against her face. She opened her eyes and realized she was lying on the Persian rug. Next to her, tipped over, was the urn, its ashes scattered.
As Maisy sat up, she winced. She touched her hand to the back of her head and looked at her fingers. No blood. Thank goodness for little blessings.
She started picking up piles of the ash with her bare hand and deposited them back in the urn.
A key started turning in the door. Maisy’s heart pounded. Was it Phoenix? Her dead husband, Earl?
“Miss Maisy?” Lisa the cleaning lady said as she entered.
“Hi, Lisa,” Maisy said with a sigh of relief.
Lisa’s beaming smile dropped when she saw Maisy crouched over a mess. Maisy felt embarrassed to be caught in this uncleanliness, but Lisa was the cleaning lady after all. I might as well get my money’s worth.
“What happened?” Lisa asked.
Maisy smiled. “Earl just fell off the mantel,” she said. “Made a real mess of things.”
“Oh dear. It must have been that small tremor we had a few minutes ago. I better collect those ashes for you.”
“Vacuum it up,” Maisy commanded.
Lisa’s eyes went wide. Maisy also was surprised with how quickly the statement left her lips, a knee-jerk reaction.
“You sure, Miss Maisy?”
“I’m sure.” She shook the urn, and Lisa jumped at the sound of Earl’s ashes shifting around. “There’s plenty left in here. No need to be overly diligent.”
“If you say so. You’re the boss.”
As Lisa went to fetch the vacuum cleaner, Maisy carried the urn into the bathroom, almost tripping on the blanket, which had somehow ended up on the floor. Strange. She remembered it being draped over the arm of the couch. She returned it to its proper place.
In the bathroom, she stared down at the clear water in the toilet bowl, and then tipped the urn, letting the ashes flutter out. On its underside she noticed a logo with the inscription, “Phoenix Cremation Services.”
She flushed the toilet, and as she watched the ashes flowing into oblivion she was filled with a strange new sense of satisfaction.
Benjamin Fishbein, an alumnus of the Shaindy Rudoff Writing Program, lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is a bookseller, publisher, and aspiring writer. Ilanot published a previous story of his in its 2010 edition. He also plays the ukulele.
Daniel Stieglitz is a 2013 graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing. His collection of short stories, Tavern of the Mind, was published in 2017 and is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2Izssrz.