Ashes to Ashes
By Sharon Hunt
Iris Mitchell was at peace this morning, the first time in thirty years she hadn’t felt as if there was a boot on her chest, pressing down and forcing the air out of her lungs. She took a gulp of the damp, November morning, swallowing greedily. Back in the house Imogene was asleep at last, her wild hair a shock of red against the pillow. Iris sighed. It felt good not to be afraid anymore.
She got to the church a little before ten and went downstairs to the hall. Ruth and Jessie were already there and Iris could tell from Ruth’s clipped tone that Jessie was being more of a nuisance than a help. Good intentions, poor execution, Iris thought as she looked into the kitchen and saw plastic containers everywhere.
Ruth turned around and shook her head. “Jesus wept,” she murmured, motioning to Jessie, on her knees, cleaning up something that looked like it might have been a cake.
“Maeve is late,” Ruth said. “It’s five past ten.”
Jessie stopped what she was doing and looked up, frozen for a moment like Lot’s wife in the Bible, but the sight of Iris shook her out of her inertia and she returned to the mess on the floor.
Father Thomas, who had lumbered in, looking for something sweet, crossed himself upon hearing the news.
“Maeve is never late,” Jessie mumbled.
“Well, she’s not here and it’s after ten so, today, she’s late,” Ruth said, slapping a couple of date squares on a plate and handing them to the priest.
Jessie stood up, lacing her chocolate covered fingers together.
“We’ll have to see if we can find her. The woman is 80, after all,” Father Thomas said.
“Maybe she was too ashamed of what happened last night to show her face this morning.”
“Jessie, did you just hatch or something?” Ruth said, shaking her head. “Maeve ashamed of something? Christ himself will dance the tango before that happens.”
Although Maeve hadn’t gotten much support at the meeting the night before, a lot of people were there and Iris knew that some of them believed, like Maeve did, that Imogene was dangerous. Iris herself was finding it harder to ignore her daughter’s increasing impulsiveness that, coupled with her strength, made her more and more uncontrollable. Still, that was no reason for Maeve to call her possessed and demand that she be ‘locked up.’ Not for the first time Iris had realized how backward people on this island could be, feigning religious goodness but stooping to superstition. That was why she had finally decided to take Imogene and leave here. Although it would be harder – at least here she had support from Ruth and Tom – Iris would find a way. She had to, for Imogene’s sake.
After sweeping crumbs from his cassock, Father Thomas followed Ruth and Jessie upstairs, while Iris stayed behind to tidy up. She took her time. There was no rush, since Maeve wasn’t here.
Like most others, Iris hated Maeve but, more than that, she was afraid of her. Maeve spun lies, created havoc and held grudges, never forgetting or forgiving anything. She wore the fight out of people until they just gave up and stepped out of her way. Iris had done the same, especially since Imogene was born but that was over now. She’d reached her limit after last night and knew she couldn’t live here anymore. She wouldn’t survive.
Ruth and Jessie waited by the church door while Father Thomas slumped forward in a pew, resting his ever expanding body. Twice this month Iris had mended his clothes, where the seams gave way. He, too, had been worn down by this place, arriving fifteen years ago with joy, only to have it wrung from him by a despair that isolation and poverty fed. Unable to lift his congregation up, he comforted himself with food and liquor.
Iris didn’t know why he decided to go look for Maeve. She and Ruth could do that. Iris doubted it was concern on his part, more likely curiosity that would get him walking farther than from the parsonage to the church. Granted, he wouldn’t walk much farther this morning, since Maeve’s house was just down the lane, but it would take longer because of the fog and his fear of falling again, after breaking his arm last year, when he was drunk.
Before they got across the parking lot, he started wheezing and holding up his arms.
Maybe he’s having a heart attack Iris thought, holding back to see if he fell before doing anything, but his arms returned to his sides and the black robe began moving again. From behind he looked like a monster and she was glad that Imogene wasn’t awake to see him or the sight would be dredged up in another night terror.
Imogene was only asleep now because Iris had ground up the last sleeping pill, mixing it into the juice she made her daughter drink before tucking her into bed. Usually, it took two pills to get Imogene to sleep but she hoped one would work since Imogene had been more overwrought than usual when Iris got home last night.
Imogene never slept well at night. Darkness brought the nightmares that had plagued her since was a little girl. By morning she was exhausted enough to sleep for a few hours, but Iris couldn’t because she had to tend to their lives. Most days Iris walked around like a zombie but when her nerves felt so stretched that she thought she could kill someone, she gave Imogene sleeping pills so she could rest, too; little good that would do her today, it seemed.
There were three houses down this lane: Iris’ green bungalow in the shadow of Maeve’s burgundy two-storey, and, further along, where the lane meets the only road around the island, Tom’s brown shack.
Tom spent most of his time huddled by the wood stove, reading newspapers he got out of other people’s trash. Iris left National Geographic magazines for him and, when a map was tucked into an issue she left that as well, knowing it would end up tacked to a wall, the thick paper good insulation. In return, he carved little figures that Imogene moved around on the floor of her bedroom, like a general deploying troops.
Tom had been a drinker and fighter decades ago. Because of that Iris had left the island once before, refusing to marry him. When she returned, with Imogene, he stopped drinking, hoping to win her back, but Iris’ father had been an alcoholic and she wasn’t going to risk such a childhood for Imogene.
When people asked about Imogene’s father, Iris invented a husband who left her, to save her daughter from being called a bastard, but Maeve knew there had never been a husband and, Iris suspected, knew Tom was the father.
At one point last night Iris thought Maeve was going to say that, but she didn’t. Still, the meeting was terrible, with name calling and threats to call in the constable to have Imogene taken away.
“She’s a menace, Iris Mitchell. I’ll have her banished, if you don’t keep her under lock and key.”
Iris had fought back and others joined in. Even Jessie, as frightened of Maeve as any of them, said, “She’s a little girl.”
“She’s 20 years old and could knock the head off your shoulders, not that it would matter for you, Jessie Evans.”
“She’s not dangerous. She gets excited. She likes people,” Iris said collapsing in the pew.
After Maeve and most of the others had left, Ruth sat down beside Iris.
“I knit these for Imogene, for tomorrow night,” she said, offering mittens and a cap.
“She loves blue.”
Ruth nodded. “What a release it will be for all of us when Maeve’s finally gone. My Robert always said she was the devil. She practically chased him off the cliff when he was a boy, laughing the whole time.”
When the fog fell away enough that she could see it, Iris smiled at her house. She would be sad to leave it. It wasn’t much but it was hers and Imogene’s. She’d painted it apple green and it always seemed to shimmer, no matter the weather.
There was so little green on the island. Summer grass quickly turned brittle and yellow, blowing through the air like confetti. What grass remained was anchored by iron ore dust that even two years after the mine had closed was everywhere, not only on the ground but mottling the clapboard houses, coating cars and bicycles, shaking from people’s hair, filling their lungs and getting into their noses. Imogene, who because of a lack of oxygen at birth would be eternally eight, was rewarded with an orange finger after she pulled it from her nostril, making her laugh, but Iris was afraid all of them here would die horribly because of the stuff.
People called Iris ‘the leprechaun’ because she wore green all the time, but she clung to the colour like Joan of Arc had to those voices commanding her to save France, although Joan’s reward had been torture and incineration. Iris read a lot about female saints, but Joan was her favourite and on days like today, she wondered if dying young but remembered forever wasn’t preferable to wasting away, year by year, in a place like this. She sometimes dreamt of Joan’s death, the orange flames, fierce and magnificent, reducing everything familiar about her to ignoble ash.
Tonight everyone on the island would gather around another pyre while new flames devoured wood and anything else that was piled on to keep the fire alive until morning.
Iris and Imogene would sit far enough away so they wouldn’t be singed by leaping embers and also so that, if Imogene rushed towards the flames, Iris would have time to catch her. Imogene was drawn to fire, twice setting fires in the house. Iris had caught each before it consumed everything, but she was afraid that one day she wouldn’t and both of them would be reduced to ash, like Joan of Arc.
“It’s a bad day for this,” Father Thomas said, stopping to rest.
The wood Iris had used to shore up the rotting fence hadn’t done much good, she thought, judging from how it shimmied as he leaned against it. She couldn’t afford a metal fence like Maeve had but, with its pointed finials, it would have been dangerous for Imogene. In August, Jimmy Hunter had skewered his arm on one of the finials and suffered nerve damage, but when his father complained, Maeve told him Jimmy got what he deserved for trying to trespass.
Father Thomas tried to open Maeve’s front gate although it was always locked. Deflated, he led them around back where that gate banged against the fence.
“What to make of this,” he said and Jessie nodded.
The back gate was always shut, unless Maeve was coming or going through it. She didn’t like open gates, open doors, open windows. The Venetian blinds were closed tight and the only sign of life in the house was the spiral of smoke from the chimney, although there was none this morning.
He lifted his cassock, walking through water instead of risking the rocky ground on either side of the puddle.
Jessie crossed herself. “Maybe Maeve is down the garden, getting brush for the fire tonight.”
“Down the garden? Do you even see the garden, let alone any brush?” Iris nudged Jessie ahead of her.
Jessie hunched her shoulders, crossing herself again. Her hand seemed to be programmed to fly from forehead to chest, left side to right, whenever someone raised their voice.
“She might have taken a flashlight with her. There’s often fog, Iris. If we stopped doing things because of the fog, well, we’d all shrivel up.”
Iris move around her and up the stairs, waiting for the priest to push open the door that was already ajar.
Go inside, for God’s sake, she thought. How did he think he would lead a flock to Heaven if he couldn’t even ferry the four of them into Maeve’s kitchen?
Maybe it was the unknown he was hesitant about. After all, he had never been inside the house. Iris had only made it to the kitchen with its lingering smell of onions and black puddings, although she wanted to go further; everyone knew Maeve kept all her money here, not trusting banks. Every time she cashed her pension cheques, she carried the money home in her handbag and hid it. Iris would never ransack the place but if she saw a fifty dollar bill poking out from a chair cushion, well, she might be tempted. She lived on relief, like her father had, and what cleaning and sewing work she could find. Fifty dollars would be a windfall.
Ruth picked up a pearl-headed pin beside a maroon hat on the kitchen table but dropped it when Iris said she had seen Maeve filing the thing until it was “sharp enough to poke the life out of you.”
“She wore that hat last night,” Father Thomas said.
“Maybe that’s what left of her,” Ruth said, pointing at a black spot on the linoleum in front of the oil stove. Ignoring the priest’s shaking head, she added, “Well, doesn’t everyone want the Wicked Witch to melt away?”
It was all right for him to pass judgement, Iris thought, since even Maeve was afraid of God and left Father Thomas alone most times, but the three of them would be forgiven for hoping that Maeve had finally melted away. Iris suspected they would not be so lucky to have her reduced to a spot scoured off by Comet. All of Maeve was lurking, somewhere.
“She could be in the attic, or she might have gone to the city,” Jessie said.
“We were meeting this morning to organize the food for tonight. She wouldn’t go to the city when there were people to boss around,” Ruth said.
The women laughed.
“Even one of God’s trials deserves our sympathy.”
Jessie and Ruth nodded, but Iris kept smiling.
“Well, what about the basement?” he said.
In the end, they didn’t stray into dark places like that. The kitchen, living and dining rooms were quickly checked and then the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom before they congregated again at the table. Not one of them bent to look under the beds or moved aside clothes to see into the backs of closets. Although walking under the hatch to the attic, no one got on a chair to see if Maeve was up there. They didn’t go into the basement, either, the stairs bowed and threatening to give way with the slightest weight.
If Father Thomas had insisted that Iris check the basement, she would have defied him, although he seemed content for her to stand at the top of the stairs and see what she could as the light bulb in the ceiling uncovered the shadows. It would be just like Maeve to hide behind those stairs and grab her passing ankle, pointing her finger when Iris tumbled down.
Iris knew all about pointing fingers. The Good Friday she was 12, she sat in the pew across from Maeve who had worn a bright blue hat to the service. The colour and the curling feather at the back stood out since everyone and everything else in the church was shrouded in black.
It is a day of crucifixion Iris thought at the time but was too young to realize, until years after Maeve saw her finger pointing at the hat, that Iris was the one who would be crucified.
At least Pontius Pilate hadn’t wanted to crucify Jesus, she thought now, staring at the finger that had begun suffering still unfinished.
“We will call the constable. He would be the one to do the strenuous searching,” Father Thomas said and walked back outside.
“Why didn’t we do that in the first place,” Ruth muttered, tightening her scarf around her neck.
In the evening, Iris bundled Imogene up in sweaters so that later, when she took off her coat, she wouldn’t be cold. Imogene was more subdued than usual, a residue of the sleeping pill Iris decided, but smiled when her mother pulled the blue cap down over her head and said, “Are we ready for the bonfire?”
She clutched her mother’s thin hand with her own. The last traces of orange haze that had failed, all day, to burn through the fog were fading as the two of them walked down the lane, meeting Ruth in the parking lot for the drive to the cliff.
“Imagine, Maeve left the church last night, walked down the lane and disappeared,” Ruth said. “Just disappeared.”
“I don’t mind telling you I’m relieved but I’m also scared, Iris. A body doesn’t just disappear?”
“If you get caught by the undertow, you could,” Iris said.
“But Maeve was hardly swimming in the ocean last night was she, in November. Can she even swim?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”
Maeve had almost drowned when she was four. Some people at the time believed her mother had set her down in the deep water, close to where the undertow was. Her mother swore she couldn’t swim but she could have dropped her over the wharf, people agreed. Tom’s father, then a young man, dove in and saved Maeve although he’d regretted it ever since, he told his son, when Tom went to see him on his birthday.
Maeve’s near drowning always made Iris feel a twinge of pity for a child whose mother might have tried to kill her. Maybe that was why she’d become so hard.
Tom’s father had found Maeve’s mother walking back and forth on shore while her child fought for air, muttering, “I can’t swim.”
Iris would have gone in for Imogene, even if she couldn’t swim, drowning with her if need be, rather than do nothing.
Word had spread quickly around the island that Maeve hadn’t shown up at the church this morning and that now she was missing. People who weren’t already at the cliff getting the bonfire ready went looking for her, while the constable searched the house more thoroughly. Finding nothing, he locked it and posted a note forbidding anybody else to go inside.
By suppertime people were edgy, even though it was Maeve who had disappeared. If it had happened to her, couldn’t it happen to them, too?
After Father Thomas’ service to pray for Maeve, everyone looked ahead to lighting the bonfire, since there was nothing else they could do.
Now there was a second reason to ‘remember, remember the 5th of November’ and the islanders would pass down the story of Maeve Skanes’ disappearance the same way their parents and grandparents had the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of four hundred years ago, in a country they were no longer connected to. Guy Fawkes had tried to end the tyranny of a king and his House of Lords, hoping to send them to kingdom come, and tonight they would celebrate his folly, again, but they had been released from another kind of tyranny and hadn’t even had to light a fuse.
As the night drew on, there was dancing and Fawkes’ name was chanted while flasks were passed around, but Maeve’s name was murmured, as if she might still be among them and they didn’t want to risk her wrath.
Mrs. Mitchell, who turned 102 the week before, sat in her wheelchair between Imogene and Iris and, at one point, leaned over and shouted, “When they find Maeve, someone better drive a stake through her heart to make sure she’s dead.” She started to laugh and Imogene joined in.
“I imagine God is trying to figure out where to put her so she won’t cause too much trouble in Heaven.”
“Heaven, Mrs. Mitchell? You are a kind woman,” Iris said.
“We can all be forgiven our sins on Judgement Day.”
After bringing a plate of sandwiches and cookies to Imogene and Mrs. Mitchell, Iris sat further back, beside Tom.
“Is Imogene all right?” he asked.
“How do you mean?”
“She’s not running for the fire like she usually does,” Tom said.
“I think she’s still tired out. She was worse than usual last night.”
He nodded, offering Iris a ham sandwich.
Too much mayonnaise, she thought, but took a second bite, realizing she hadn’t eaten all day.
“I put the map of Romania over the bed.”
“So you can dream of Dracula?” she said, smiling when he did.
They sat quietly then, finishing the food on the plate between them.
When it was gone, Tom took Iris’ hand. “Don’t worry any more about Maeve bothering you or Imogene.”
“I’m not,” she said, wondering if she should tell him about her plans now or let him enjoy tonight.
“She won’t bother either of you anymore.”
His eyes gleamed and Iris felt that familiar knot in her stomach, fear taking hold, like it had when they were young and he’d been drinking.
“What did you do?”
Tom laughed. “I didn’t do anything. She fell and hit her head against the fence. Imogene was out, running around and Maeve came outside…”
“Before you got back from the church last night. I went over to check on Imogene and she was running around outside. I tried to get her back in the house but then Maeve came out and Imogene ran towards her. Maeve slipped.”
“But Imogene never goes outside alone, at night. She’s afraid of the dark.”
Tom looked at her. “You don’t believe me?”
Iris pulled her hand away, trying not to shake. “If they hear about this they’ll take her away.”
“They won’t. They won’t hear about it.”
“But where is Maeve? The body...”
He stood up, turning back to the bonfire. “The flames look like they’ll reach St. Peter’s Gate tonight. Maybe he will have pity on her and let her pass.”
Iris’ legs weakened as she tried to stand up.
Tom pulled the collar of his coat against his neck. “Ashes to ashes. It comes to us all.” He leaned into the wind as he started back, towards home.
There would be no getting away from here. Right now, it had been an accident but if she tried to take Imogene away, it might become something else.
Imogene had pulled off her coat and thrown it towards the fire. She started to sway in front of the old lady but when she saw her mother she began to run towards her, waving her arms and laughing.
Sharon Hunt’s short stories have been published in various publications, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
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