The Ashes

by Andrew Johnson

An hour this side of the ashes, an hour this side of the forehead imposition, words whispered to you in the cathedral at dawn: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. After receiving the ashes, after the liturgy, the scripture reading, homily, passing of the peace, here on the far side of the ashes smudged on foreheads, and upon your departing the cathedral there is a tension in how to start the day: wipe the mark from your forehead so no one on the street will see how you pray, or leave the ash there so that, in spite of risking vanity, the mark might be felt by your mind, a way to remember your mind, a reminder. Remember you are dust.

This side of the ashes now, but troubled: Before the ashes, the fire. Ash doesn’t simply appear. Something that once had been is now burned back to dust. Something destroyed. Out of destruction, ash.

In January you stood on a hillside in the Ojai Valley of California, looking across a mountain range ravaged by the Thomas fire two months earlier. You did not know what you were seeing. What was there before, green bursts of trees? Underbrush? Creatures? Homes? From afar you didn’t know what had been destroyed, only the charred and dirt-dark evidence of destruction.

So you listened to locals explain what had been, what was lost, what was spared, what remains. You listened to those whose homes were destroyed as they searched for the words beyond easy explanations, beyond phrases like Time will heal and We shall rebuild. They search beyond such easy words because their eyes have seen the coming of the fury of the fires. They have seen an approaching glow on the horizon that somehow burned a hole in their hearts that their hope slipped through for a week or two. They saw black snow falling upon their rooftops, landing on tree branches, getting caught in their children’s eyelashes. They saw what was coming. Some of them evacuated, others stayed put, stayed put because of duty or fear or resolve or nowhere else to go. But they all saw what was coming. Perhaps they see most clearly what might be on the horizon for all of us with feet set to earth. Perhaps they will remember this for us.

Remember you are dust. Fires will cleanse and destroy and nearly miss your home by thirty feet only to destroy your neighbor’s fields and you will not know what it means to be spared anymore. Outside, your blue-eyed son is blinking his long lashes toward the sky, feeling the breeze and not knowing what it carries. And now, here, an hour this side of the ashes, you wonder once again what must die, what must be cleansed, what demands recovery and what requires relinquishing, what shall be destroyed, and what is hidden deep that just might bloom among ruins, if anything, if anything, if anything.

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About the Author:

Andrew Johnson lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His poems and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, Guernica Daily, Sonora Review, Storm Cellar, MAKE, Passages North, and elsewhere. In 2018 he was the recipient of a NEA fellowship residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He is the author of the essay collection On Earth As It Is.

About Weekly Flash Prose and Prose Poetry:

CutBank Online features one work of flash prose or prose poetry every Monday. Submissions are free and open year-round. Send us your best work of 750 words or less at https://cutbank.submittable.com/submit