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From the Ashes

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

She could feel the heat on her fingertips as she dropped another photograph into the flames and watched it curl and blacken at the edges, willing the heat and fire to erase yet another memory from her life. The flames bit quickly, so quickly she wasn’t even sure what the image was to begin with, not that she really wanted to know. They were all the same really, images of a happier point in her past. It felt like a lifetime ago.

What did they say about photographs? Something about how people only took photos of the good times, it was the stuff in between that made a life. She couldn’t remember where it came from, if it came from anywhere at all. Her thoughts clattered and cascaded around in her head, sometimes she tried to grab at one of the thoughts, to collect it, examine it, to try to understand it, something that might provide a sense of reason or purpose but this wasn’t one of those times. The chemical concoction in her blood and killed off whatever parts of her still longed for understanding, all that mattered now was destruction.

Her fingers fumbled at the pages of the photo album next to her, she kept her eyes averted, trying to avoid whatever image was on the thick glossy sheet but her dexterity and coordination had abandoned her, like so many other things. She tried to keep her eyes trained on the city in the distance, she willed them to focus on something, desperate to pick out a building of note, something to concentrate on as her fingers tried to blindly peel the image free of the backing paper but it wasn’t working, the buildings seemed to shimmer and shake on the horizon and her fingertips continued to slip over the image beside her.

She tried to bring her focus closer, her gaze passed over the green carpet of trees below towards the deep blue sapphire lake sat at the foot of the escarpment, but its sheer width made picking out a single point impossible and the shade of blue hurt her eyes. She shut her eyes as the edge of her fingernail finally caught the corner of the photo, she picked again at the edge and swore as the sharp corner pierced the soft skin under her nail drawing a drop of blood. She subconsciously sucked the tip of her finger as she held the photo in her other hand. Once again, she refused to look at it as she reached into the flames and let it go, another part of her history erased, at least physically.

She hadn’t planned this moment, not really, although deep down she always knew something like this was coming. The idea for this “ceremony” of sacrifice had come to her one sleepless night, one of those nights where the chatter in her head was out of control, one of those nights when nothing she drank would quiet the noise. Was she being melodramatic to call it sacrifice? Burning photos was surely no one’s business but her own? She owned them and they haunted only her, yet somehow sacrifice was the only word she could attach to this moment.

Despite the numbness she felt, there was a dull ache in her lower back and she longed to stretch it out. She stretched her feet forward disturbing the soft dirt surrounding her and arched her back towards the darkening sky enjoying the crack in her upper back. She drew her feet back in and went to stand, she was unsteady on her feet and the sudden change in position made her feel ill. She wavered for a moment before finding her balance and she stepped closer to the edge to peer down the steep rocky mountainside before her.

She couldn’t even recall how she’d made it up here. She’d been here before, many times in fact, so many times it was like another home. Some of her earliest memories were of this spot.

Staring out over the lake and the city, the jagged rock face reaching all the way down to a road below. She couldn’t see the road from here but she knew it was down there somewhere. The road was new, well at least the tarmac surface was, there’d been a trail there for as long as she could remember, the memory of the road troubled her, like a sense of unease, of being hunted. Not now, but before. She pushed it from her mind. The jagged rocks were much the same as they’d always been, as was the lake. The cityscape was always changing, was there even a city there back then? Back in her earliest memories? It was hazy and she felt so old. Maybe there was, or buildings at least? It didn’t matter now and she felt so out of it that she was no longer sure what was real and what was imagined.

The smell of burning was acrid and it stung her nostrils and cut through her thoughts. She stepped away from the edge and back towards the photo album on the ground next to the fire. She reached down to pluck another photo from the album but her sense of balance deserted her and her knees gave way causing her to fall to her hands and knees beside the open album. A hint of orange on the image caught her attention, was it a trick of the light? A reflection of the flames beside her? No, the image itself was fiery orange. She struggled to focus, the image was blurred, the finer details dancing within her grasp and away again.

It looked like a sunset, or fire maybe? She couldn’t place the time or the moment exactly. Was there even anyone in it? The two of them must be there somewhere, silhouetted against the backdrop, lost in the deep orange and blood-red background. Suddenly the brilliant blue of his eyes met hers from the image, leaping out from the page and her head dropped. It was like he’d sprung from the image and torn her heart out once more. She could clearly see the two of them together, standing in front of a burnt orange sunset and the moment came flooding back to her. She could feel the heat on her skin, the warmth gently blowing through her hair, the smell of the ocean in her nostrils. She let out a sob and dropped her head to the dirt.

She couldn’t recall how long he’d been gone now, it felt like only yesterday such was the pain she felt. His life extinguished in that massive pyre, surrounded by flames, smoke and ash. He’d been gone in the blink of an eye and now the time had come for the memory of him to do the same. To burn in the mass of flames she’d built, perched high on this rocky outcrop, towering above the ground.

She pushed herself to her feet, resisting the wave of nausea that washed over her, her resolve strengthened, knowing what she needed to do. She bent and picked up the entire photo album, closing over the hard embossed white cover as she did so. It was heavy and thick, she felt the weight in her hands but didn’t really see it. She gazed into the flames that had continued to climb higher, they towered over her head now, growing ever stronger and hotter. The clothes and photos she’d tossed in had long since turned to ashes. Inhaling deeply she tossed the album into the flames, she heard the sticks crack as the weight of it thudded on the ground somewhere deep inside the blaze. She couldn’t see it any more, in fact, she could see nothing but a wall of orange.

The fear she felt earlier had evaporated, seeing that image of them together in front of the sunset had stripped it away. She felt almost sober now, steady on her feet and more focused. She had been terrified earlier, scared to death even, but now, now there was nothing but calm and acceptance. It was her turn, the time had arrived, she knew it in her bones.

Taking one last glance at the lake and the city, she took a deep breath and stepped forward into the flames, not really knowing what to expect, she couldn’t remember the last time, a vague sense of deja vu perhaps, but no details, no real memories. She was expecting to feel the heat, to burn, expecting to feel the flames stinging her skin and burning her eyes but there was nothing. The flames enveloped her, dancing around her and rising over her head but she couldn’t feel them, she felt nothing. She closed her deep blue eyes and sat down in the dirt and sticks, allowing the flames to wash over her. It was the end.

The flames roared for hours, scorching everything they touched until nothing remained, nothing but ash. No trace of the photos, the photo album or her body remained when the fire finally exhausted itself. It was still and the outcrop was quiet and still.

For three days it was still, nothing moved except the birds and the soft breeze that rustled the leaves. On the third morning as the sun began it’s climb into the violet morning sky, something began to move, something from beneath the pile of ash that had sat undisturbed.

Gradually a brilliant red and orange wing pushed from the pyre and stretched towards the sky, followed by another. Limb by limb the giant golden bird pushed free of its funeral pyre and turned the fresh blue eyes towards the sky. The massive wings stretched wide and pushed her into the sky, surging away towards the sunrise, high above the lake and trees below. She’d been reborn, a new young phoenix, the memories of the past erased, the memories of her past life nothing more than a dream, the ghosts of him forgotten, ready to begin once more, to once again collect those memories. To begin again.




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Jason Fairbairn

Jason Fairbairn

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