Ashes Hollow

Posted on 7/31/2012

Few of those who had made such encouraging noises actually showed up when they scattered Edric’s ashes. It was difficult to blame them. His widow had chosen a damp, granite cold February morning to set his mortal remains free in the valley they had both loved so much. As the grim, black-clad cortege slowly trudged and squelched its way across the campsite, over the footbridge and alongside the stream that cut through the foot of the valley, some of those few wished that they had come up with excuses of their own.

The beauty of the valley was impossible to deny, but February was doing its best to hide it. A cold mist was concealing the peaks of the surrounding hills so that only the immediate inclines on each side of the stream could be seen at all. The sheep all scattered at the approach of the mourners, all except one whose spinal column protruded from its fur mat, and whose gaping skull lay immobile, gazing blindly forever at the hidden sky. That a dead sheep lay no more that several feet from the spot where Edric was to be scattered was seen as a bad omen by most of the entourage, many of whom had given up trying to keep shoes and trousers clean, and instead hoped to get this ceremony over with as quickly as possible and retreat forthwith to the Ragleth Inn.

Edric’s widow was unperturbed. She and Edric had spent hours happily sitting by this stream, and her vision of the immediate environment owed more to the comforts of nostalgia than to the inhospitable reality of the day. She stood for a moment, bringing to mind some of her favoured memories of this place, and of the man she had discovered it with. And then, with a few secret, whispered valedictions he was gone. There was nothing dramatic about it once it had happened. Like so many little rituals, the drama was all in the minds of the actors, but for Edric’s widow it was the fulfilment of a promise, and of Edric’s final will. For her, the meaning was not in the moment but in the acceptance of a reality outside of time; of an eternal persistence of life, whose presence could best be caught in moments of forgetfulness, of forgetting who we are, and in wordless realisations that we may be something other than what we think we are.

She and Edric had talked a lot about such things, and where she had not quite fully understood, he understood for her. And where he had not quite fully believed, she believed for him. And so they had complemented each other, each providing for the other’s shortcomings. And in the weeks of his absence she had needed to believe more strongly in the reality of the other reality, the eternal order. In her distress at losing him she found it easy to comfort herself with this belief. But in his absence she found it increasingly difficult to understand why she believed it. And in the absence of a partial understanding she developed a perfect belief. This cold February morning was to be the fulfilment and seal of that belief.

She spoke to none of the others about these matters as they filed inelegantly back across the mud and moss to the warmth of the Inn, but she seemed to glow with an inner power that comforted her friends. They could see that this morning’s ritual held deep meaning for her, even if it lacked the picturesque grandeur that they had been led to believe would accompany it. There was a sense of completion, a feeling of finality in the air.

There was great relief in being back at the inn. Tongues were readily loosened, with men offering to buy everyone drinks, and women fussing over the prepared food. There seemed little to say about the morning’s ceremony as its icy grasp was thawed by the crackling log fire in the small pub lounge. This half of the inn had been set aside for the informal wake with a handwritten notice reading, ‘Private function, please use other door for bar’, stuck to the frosted glass of the door. And so the mourners remained untroubled by the few locals and visiting walkers who came to the pub.

Relatives who had not seen each other since the last funeral caught up with each other’s news, and Edric’s few friends who had turned up segregated themselves into a closed ring of drinkers and reminiscers. There was an air of awkward cordiality. Some of the relatives struck up conversation with some of the friends, either about the food that was on offer, the location of the scattering, or the nature of relationship to Edric. Some of the men immediately intuited a resonance with each other and heartily exchanged anecdotes. It was mostly the women who sought to attend to Edric’s widow’s feelings. They surrounded her with a loose and informal confederation of allies who instinctively knew when to refer to her loss and when to distract her with practicalities. Everyone sensed that her dignified self-overcoming was entirely admirable, and felt glad to have come to this strange ritual; even if they did not understand its significance, the fact of its importance to Edric’s widow was undeniable.

Little time passed before protracted and uncomfortable goodbyes were being presented to the widow. Her deportment and mien throughout were flawless; she was noble. As each exiting party left, the lounge became a quieter and more reflective place. The general background noise of chatter disappeared and everyone became more self-conscious, as their words could be heard by everyone else. The women were less affected by this than the men. No one was surprised when Edric’s widow escaped to the Ladies’ for a few moments. As she entered the toilet, she was stunned to hear an alien, disembodied voice talking to her. She was already in a sensitive frame of mind, so she felt resigned to this strange experience, and let it happen with a sense of resignation. The voice was confused but it spoke of the reality of death, and its primacy.

As those moments of her absence grew to long minutes, no one worried. After ten minutes, one of the women discreetly went to see if she was okay. Her confused return to the lounge, trying to stifle her panic with a fear of being accused of overreaction, alerted the mourners to the fact that something was wrong.

When the men broke the toilet door open they found her seated fully clothed on the toilet lid, her hands clasped in her lap, and her face a mask of quiet contentment. Although they were able to stop the blood flow from her wrists she had already lost too much, and Edric’s widow was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

There was little that could profitably be said about the sad events of that January and February, though much actually was said behind closed doors. Edric and his widow had died childless, so there was nothing left to stifle unanswerable questions. Those who had been present at the scattering of Edric’s ashes seemed to be most obviously affected by this further tragedy; some even spoke of their feelings to a reporter who subsequently wrote a short piece for the local newspaper. But the effects of Edric’s widow’s shocking suicide went much further, and much deeper.

Of those who had not, for whatever reason, attended the scattering of Edric’s ashes, there was a great deal of confusion and hurt. Many thought that Edric’s widow would not have done what she did if only they had been there. These bereaved felt a mixture of anger and guilt, and often could not distinguish between the two: if only I had been there, she would still be alive because I would have sensed that something was wrong, so why didn’t anyone else spot it? Over time, as the Earth thawed and then froze again, the energy that animated such complex emotions dissipated itself.

There were others who were affected by the suicide who did not think that it would have been prevented if they had had an opportunity to intervene. They accepted a much more fatalistic interpretation of those sad events, and believed that there must have been a power that possessed Edric’s widow, a force invoked through her grief that had been the real motivation lying behind her actions. They accepted that her suicide was inevitable because they didn’t believe that she was truly responsible for it.

Of these fatalists, some few who were of a pre-existing melancholy temperament came to feel that there was in any case a degree of inevitability to suicide. Not that they were drawn to suicide themselves, but they saw that death held such power, such a ubiquitous horror, that it was understandable that some would be overwhelmed it.

One of those so affected was an old friend of Edric’s who had maintained only sporadic contact with him since his marriage, and that mostly conducted through third parties. This friend had suffered in the past from a series of violently terrifying nightmares which usually left him lying awake in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, and focussed quite clearly on the reality of the inevitability of death. Following each nightmare, his fear and morbidity would recede as the sun rose, so that by the time he started work his only problem was a lingering tiredness; the perception brought about by the nightmare was forgotten.

A few days after Edric’s widow had killed herself this friend was visited by another of his terrifying nightmares. He was quite unprepared for it, as he had not suffered from one for some years previously. In the dream he was sitting in a bar with the mourners following the scattering of Edric’s ashes. In the strange manner of dreams, he was both a detached observer and an intimate confidante of Edric’s widow, hearing her innermost thoughts. He watched, and heard, as she stood up from the table and made her way to the Ladies’ toilet, thinking to herself about her imminent death. She was consumed with the idea that she would soon be reunited with her husband, inhabiting the same nether universe that Edric was in. He tried to reason with her, to talk her out of her set course. He explained to her that she could not be reunited with Edric because ‘Edric’ no longer existed. There was no Heaven, or any other afterlife for him to go to. He had died and therefore no longer existed. He pleaded with her not to go through with her suicide, as it could only lead to a complete absence of being, and that was the most terrifying thing in the world. She refused to shift her focus from her imminent suicide, and cut her wrists open as she smiled at him. She waited to die, to meet Edric again, but she simply disappeared from view, certainly to nothingness. At this point in the nightmare, he realised that Edric’s widow had disappeared completely from existence, and that he, at some point, would also certainly disappear from existence. He was now trapped in the toilet cubicle alone and he felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness surrounding him. He realised that an eternity of this emptiness, however horrifying, would at least be a form of existence, and when he thought about the reality of the absence of existence, the total annihilation of self, he awoke, breathless and panicked.

As with previous nightmares throughout his life, the sun expelled the terror and allowed him to continue with his day. When he returned home from work that evening his wife and daughter were both sitting in the garden listening to the radio in the sun. He looked at them with overwhelming love and suddenly remembered the feeling in his dream, or rather, the absence of feeling, the absence of everything. He stared at his wife and daughter and started to hear some of the voices from the dream. He wondered how he could reconcile his love for his wife and daughter with the knowledge of their certain deaths. He poured water into a glass and tried to forget about it.

Originally published at Corse Present