Ash Wednesday

Jacob Euteneuer

It started with your nose. I always thought it was your best feature. We were sitting on the couch, and I leaned over to kiss it while you gazed at the blue glare of the TV. At first I thought it was me, that it was my mouth, my body that was turning to dust. I pulled back from your nose and put my finger to my lips.

It was almost like the sand in Jamaica where we went for our honeymoon. Fine and white. I ran it between my thumb and index finger. You stared straight forward. I think you had known about it for a while and didn’t want to tell me because when I looked at you closer, I could tell you had been crying. I hadn’t noticed before.

I took your hand in mine. “Let’s go for a hike,” I said.

You gave my hand a squeeze. “But the wind and the sun. And the other people.”

I shrugged my shoulders and stood up. I helped you up from the couch and into your hiking boots — the ones we bought when we first moved to the mountains. The ones you said you needed because they rose up past your ankles and you thought they would prevent snake bites. I always told you that it wouldn’t be a snake that got you, and it turned out I was right.

“It’s more like the dirt from a vacuum filter than the sand from a beach,” you said. You were worried about making a mess in the car. You stared at the back of your hand and gently blew on your fingertips until they dissipated in the air around us. The recirculated air from the car’s A/C that sent the same wind with the same dust around and around through our lungs. I took breaths that filled my whole chest and held them in until I could feel my heart pound against my ribs.

I parked the car at the trailhead, but you didn’t want to get out.

“Was it something I did?” you asked. I assured you it wasn’t. Each of your fingers was down to the first knuckle and your elbows were rounded instead of the sharp angles I had become accustomed to.

“And what if I can’t walk. Will you carry me?”

I nodded. You were limping as we got on the trail that would wind down to the stream that cut a path between the pine-covered granite hills on either side of us. I wondered about your boots, about your toes in the boots, and if they were still there or if there was only a pile of dust at the front of each shoe where your toes used to be.

We rounded the first bend, and you sat on a stump to catch your breath. You coughed and it was like a child clapping a pair of chalkboard erasers together. A white cloud that cast no shadow escaped from your lungs.

“Does it hurt?” I asked. That was what I was worried about. I didn’t want you to be in pain. I wanted it to be a release. You were disappearing before my eyes. Your eyebrows turned to dust and were carried off by the wind.

You got off the stump, and placed your hand on my shoulder for support. You straightened the bottom of your jacket, and whole clumps of dirt fell out as if you hadn’t showered once in your life. As if this was just an accumulation of so many details, so many memories, so many that you didn’t know what to do with them so you shed them off like a dog in the summer, you molted like a goose after it lays its eggs.

But it wasn’t. It was you. It was corporeal. It was real. It was you that was crumbling in the heat of the sun and taken away by the wind. I didn’t know when it would stop or if it would, but what I kept thinking about was what I would do when you were gone. Where could I get the glue that could piece together the billion tiny fragments of you that were scattered around our house, around the car, and all over the trail?

You stumbled, and I reached out to catch you, but your hand was gone. I scooped you up from the ground and carried you in my hands. You were so light, like a piece of wood that had been sitting in a fire for too long. With each step I took, I could see the parts of you rub off where my skin touched yours.

We reached the bottom of the valley. Two chipmunks were chasing each other through the dead leaves beneath the pines. I didn’t know if it was out of love, camaraderie, or anger that they dashed and tackled each other, and I guess it only mattered to me. The chipmunks were going to do it no matter the reason. Up above the valley where our car was parked, a turkey vulture glided in lazy figure eights. Down by the river, a groundhog perched on its hind legs.

“I knew this would happen, just not like this.” Your voice came out like a whisper. It smelled like dry earth.

I leaned in to kiss you, but you crumbled away like a cicada shell in the hands of a child. I watched the pieces of ash that had once been you twist in the wind until they reached the river, and then I couldn’t see them anymore.

I said them, but what I meant was you.

JACOB EUTENEUER lives in Akron, OH, with his wife and son where he is a candidate in the Northeast Ohio MFA. His stories and poems have appeared in Hobart, WhiskeyPaper, and Front Porch Review.

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