To Ashes

This is a short piece I wrote for my fiction class this quarter!

In the place where Erendira grew up, a place of almond trees and narrow streets and purple-gold sunsets, the candles were lit just before the descending of dusk. She could see them out ahead of her as she left her aunt’s spice shop, tiny yellow flames shooting up from long stems in windows, tea lights floating in shallow fountains, large masses of wax with many wicks atop metal posts that would usually hold street lamps.  The entire city would suddenly glow golden, flickering slightly, warmer. Erendira could feel it, the hum of sudden increased movement, could feel the urgency in the air. From the moment the candles were lit, the seconds ticked down, waning, drooping, melting into the darkness, until a breeze would blow through the streets and snuff them all out, filling the air with the thick sweetness of smoke.

She didn’t know how long exactly the candles stayed lit. She was never paying attention to the degree of darkness in the sky–she was always anchored to the spot on the riverbank, surrounded by thousands of others, staring out into the moving blackness, frozen.

Her aunt’s spice shop, where she worked after school was finished for the day, was a four-minute walk from the river, a blessing she relished in every single evening. Every day, they lived their lives, walking the narrow streets bathed in creamy sunlight that slanted through the almond trees, and every evening at dusk, before the candles went out, they visited the dead.

No one knew when it all started, all they knew was in the brief, fleeting moments between waning daylight and utter darkness, while the candles were lit, the dead appeared at the river, wispy and white, waiting for the living to claim them. Erendira had been visiting her grandfather since he had died three years before when she was eleven, from a severe bout of melancholy and nostalgia when his wife suddenly disappeared. She had never been seen among the dead at the river and no one ever discovered where she had wandered off to. Erendira’s grandfather appeared each evening with the hopeful expression of someone who believes they are about to be given good news, and each evening Erendira would shake her head slowly, biting her lip.

Her mother had gone with her at first, for the many years following her father’s death, but lately Erendira had gone alone. Her mother had spent the past few months sitting listlessly at the window in the kitchen, gazing out at some unseen point on the horizon, unable to speak except for the word “yet,” which she mumbled under her breath every few minutes through cracked lips.

Each evening, when twilight had faded and night was complete, all of the tiny flames would suddenly be extinguished, and the eerie white light that had been created from thousands of souls floating above the river would vanish, and the city would be plunged into utter darkness. Erendira had completed the trip from the river back to her home so many times in the dark that she no longer needed to grope around to find her way, she could sense her path without needing to see anything at all. And in the long black nights that followed, a low din of weeping could be heard for miles and miles and miles.

But this night—at the very beginning of the spring when the almond trees were beginning to blossom and the river threatened to overflow its banks— this night was different. Erendira exploded out of her aunt’s spice shop at the first sight of candlelight, forgetting her sandals in her haste, and sprinted barefoot in the direction of the river. She felt as though each and every candle in the entire city was burning onto her skin, hot wax dripping down her back, ashes in her hair. She couldn’t feel her feet beneath her as they pounded over pebbles and roots. Nausea swept through her as she ran, her head spinning with vertigo. She knew how she looked to all the others making their way to the river, knew that it would be clear to all exactly what was going on. She had seen it herself over and over, the fierce terror and determination in the eyes, the increased speed, the ragged marriage of panting and sobbing. Seeing it over and over hadn’t prepared her for how it would feel, how it would burn, into her skin and her lungs and her soul like all the candles of the city thrust into her chest cavity.  Erendira reached the riverbank in record time, the trees still casting dark shadows across the raging water. She was the first one there, chest heaving, alone. She could feel the pressure in the air as wispy whiteness began to appear before her, as she saw all of the dead beginning to appear. And this time, when she saw her grandfather, he had the terrible expression of someone who is forced to be the bearer of grave news. Erendira clutched her mouth, preventing herself from screaming into the darkness. It wouldn’t be real until she saw her, wouldn’t be real until she knew for sure that she was among the dead. Elsewhere it was possible to exist for lifetimes in denial, but not here.

As the shore began to crowd with the living, Erendira watched as in the open space beside her grandfather a sort of shimmery silverness grew more and more defined with each passing moment. She had seen it happen before, to others—the first night of death. The newly dead took a few moments to shiver into their white wispy forms. And so for a moment, there was nothing, and then the translucent whisperings of something, and then there was her mother.

It had happened the day before, in the early hours of the dawn when the slats in the fence around the yard became a sieve for clean, gentle light. It was the hour when Erendira’s aunt awoke to begin cleaning the countertops and sweeping the floor, when Erendira would rise and wash her body with cold water before slipping on her school uniform.  She would then enter the kitchen to bring her mother water and brush her hair, her mother muttering and staring blankly all the while. Erendira’s aunt was certain she had descended irrevocably into madness, but Erendira sat by her side at all hours of the day, hoping that constant company and the coming of the spring would bring her mother out of her stupor. She had been this way ever since the winter, which had brought cold, slanting rains and an intangible heaviness. As always spring arrived bringing the scent of roses and almonds through the house with every breeze, but Erendira’s mother’s condition did not change. And the previous morning, she had vanished. It wasn’t uncommon in the area for people to wander off outside the walls of the city, into the vast and empty countryside and never return, that is, until one day they appeared in white wispiness above the river.

When Erendira was young, younger than she was now, she had been so terrified of the lit candles that the scent of wax or smoke made her sick. She spent a good number of years vomiting every day at dusk, terrified to the point of nausea of what twilight would bring.  Each day she thought that somehow a loved one would die unbeknownst to her during the day and appear without warning over the river at night. She was eleven the first time she followed the waxen trail down to the edge of the river, holding her mother’s hand the entire way, to see her grandfather for the first time, after seeing him for the last time.

After that she had never stopped following the candles but she had never stopped fearing them, the way they cast crooked shadows on the streets and the way people sometimes seemed to live their entire lives by them.

It’s enough, sometimes, just to see them, even for moments each day, her mother told her that night. Even this way.

It’s enough to drive you mad, her aunt told her, who only set foot near the river in broad daylight and lit her spice shop with gaslights.

This morning her mother had been a woman at the window and now she was wispy whiteness, waving and wavering. Erendira could barely look at her, her face not vacant as it had been in the past months but fierce, focused, as it had once been. She was only yards away out over the river, but she was still gone. The distance masked the permanence.

The breeze would come soon and blow out the flames, would harden the warm wax, would leave the air ashy sweet, and the city would again be coated in darkness. The air above the river would be empty; the living would be left alone. But the next night the candles would be lit, and it would all come back, even for a few fleeting moments, something to hold on to.

But as she felt the breeze rustle her hair, saw the dead begin to fade out over the river, she couldn’t help but think that her aunt was right. That all of this, the dripping wax and the flickering light and suffocating smell of extinguished flame, all so the living could cling to the dead and the dead could cling to life—was mere madness.  Tonight she joined the murmur of soft sobs and turned her back on the river to climb the hill, covering her face with her hand to stifle the scent of snuffed out candles.

Also, Northwestern’s Prompt Literary Magazine has published my essay “Parentage.” You can find it here!