Become Ashes

Chris Holdsworth

I hurled the buggy down the dried up river and it skidded atop the loose dirt like a pebble, its cells sucking in what it could from the low, evening sun. It’s been over a year since I heard the news about you, since I got the phone call from Jed and he told me that it was the hunting rifle we bought you and that the birds had scattered and not returned for days and that we were going to have to make this journey, because you wrote about it in one of your published poems like some kind of prophecy. You apparently even specified a date: the longest day of the year, 2074. 

The buggy threw itself into a low point of the river and the tyres screeched, throwing up a wall of dust that came back and punched me in the face. I turned to check on you. Your father, Jed, was blinking the dust out of his eyes, and on his lap, your son Isac coughed — his arms protecting his backpack with a tight grip. The same backpack where your ashes rested.

‘Sorry about the buggy,’ I said, turning back down the river. ‘It must be annoying.’

Isac smiled. ‘It’s kind of fun.’ 

Shit. He was just like you. In front of me, the river was cracked and eroded like a desert mosaic and the buggy’s shadow stretched out long before us. I remembered you laughing that time we collected hay bales at dusk. That was hard work and we liked it. It made us feel like men. When we collapsed into the tray of the ute, you asked me profound questions: do you think there’s people like us around the stars? Do you think they’re looking back at us? I laughed. Your thoughts were always too big for me, even then. I turned the buggy around the riverbend and long tendrils of smoke rose from the horizon.

‘Grandpa,’ Isac said. ‘Do you think Brisbane will be how you remember it?’ 

How was poor Jed supposed to answer that? I drove out of the river onto a pothole-riddled road. The buggy’s tyres crunched over rubble and a bitter, metallic smell wafted through the air. We passed houses repaired with tarps, withered veggie patches, couples walking, children playing cricket in the dirt, and one man pushing around a shopping cart full of planks. Why hadn’t they migrated to Sydney or Melbourne? Is this what you wanted us to see? Is this how you imagined it?

‘Do you think we can see a movie today?’ Isac asked. ‘Dad said he loved the movies.’

Jed rubbed Isac’s shoulders.

‘Grandpa, you told me there were movies about superheroes, like in my comics.’

‘There were.’

‘Can we see one of those movies, please?’

‘We’ll see, mate. Maybe after the important stuff.’

Isac looked down at his backpack and nodded. His generation had to grow up fast, and he’d done a damn good job doing so. He was going to be tough, like you were.

I parked across the street from the coffee shop you loved. It was so close to how I remembered it, except the cream walls were stained with dirt and the windows were painted black. Written on them in chalk was: Coffee. Cash or Carbon Credits Accepted.  

I took a deep breath. On the other side of the road was a stumpy old building shedding its white paint like scales. Beyond it was the remains of Roma Street Gardens. I felt nothing.

Isac jumped out the buggy and flung his backpack over his shoulders. ‘Wow,’ he said, thumbs under his straps. ‘Everything’s so big. Way bigger than anything at Tara.’ 

‘You wait ‘till we take you to Sydney,’ Jed said. ‘I’ll take you to the top of one of these skyscrapers.’

His eyes widened.

A voice yelled out to us. It was your wife, Liz. Isac ran and jumped into her arms. She hugged him, kissed him on the forehead and asked him if he got here alright. ‘Of course we did,’ he said.

I smiled and hugged her.

She walked us into the café. ‘How’s life in Tara been treating you?’ 

I couldn’t respond. The café was crowded with people and candles bathing the room in an orange glow.

I looked to Liz for answers.

‘Apparently everyone’s here for Eli,’ she said.

‘Christ,’ Jed said. ‘Did you organise this?’

She shook her head. ‘He wrote a lot about this place.’

People noticed us, got up, apologised, told Jed about how much you meant to them, how your poetry had changed their life, how they somehow knew you well enough to be here. I’ve been your mate since you were a boy, and I didn’t know any of these people. Did you?

‘A publisher from Melbourne popped by earlier,’ Liz said. ‘And I don’t want to do it without your permission, but he wants to publish Eli’s poems. I think it’s a good idea. The money could help Isac get through school.’

Jed glanced at me. 

I didn’t respond. I never thought there would be this kind of reaction to poems, of all things. I was a bit speechless.

‘I’ll think about it,’ Jed said.

‘I want you three to come with me. I want to show you something.’ 

She put her hand through my arm and led me downstairs. She’d always been beautiful and I was always jealous of you. It was weird—I wasn’t sure how I felt about telling you.

‘We were so lucky to have known him,’ Liz said and turned the lights on. ‘The café owners created a mural for his poems down here. They framed them alongside some art the barista made. They wanted to show them to the public, but I wanted you to see them first.’ 

It was cool and damp down there and your poems hung on little wooden frames next to exquisite pencil drawings. I couldn’t stop myself from smirking; even on your own mural, poetry wasn’t enough.

Jed walked over to a drawing of a bushfire where the flames turned into a politician’s face.

‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ Liz said. ‘Apparently he was an artist at UQ before… well you know.’

Jed leant in and read the accompanying poem. ‘He was so bloody stubborn.’

‘These are the ones he published,’ Liz said. ‘There’s so many others the world hasn’t seen.’

Isac squinted and silently mouthed the words of a poem. ‘I don’t get it, Mum,’ he said.

‘I remember when he wrote that one, don’t you? He said the rhymes were cliché.’

Isac glanced up at her. You could tell he felt guilty; how was he supposed to understand all this?

Jed shrugged and patted Isac’s back. ‘Come on, mate,’ he said. ‘Let’s go upstairs and get a coffee.’

I turned to a drawing of the water cycle. It was interconnected with a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, webs intricately weaving in and out of both. I couldn’t see either of them clearly, but when I stood back, I saw both at once and it hurt my eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to read the poem. I remembered when we watched a documentary about the butterfly’s life cycle. You made it your mission that day to catch a caterpillar and see it for yourself; you just wouldn’t believe it until you saw it. We grew up as mates, but you were so much more adventurous than I was, so much more curious. Somehow, I felt responsible for you.

The next piece depicted scientists taking measurements of glaciers. Throughout your whole life you fought for the environment, pleaded with people to listen to scientific advice. I even remembered that time you were arrested at King George Square and you uploaded the video to social media like it was a prize. It was no wonder things turned out how they did. I squinted over the accompanying poem but couldn’t make sense of it. I always thought you should’ve been a scientist instead.

Liz approached me. ‘He certainly had the imagination of a poet. Didn’t he?’

I shrugged. ‘I’ve never understood poetry,’ I said. ‘I mean…’ 

She nodded. ‘I understand.’

I walked over to a prose poem called Climate Hostage. This one was more straightforward; you wrote that no one was caught up in history and that if enough people moved, they could change the current. The art beside this one was of mangroves drawn in thick black pen. Your optimism was so misplaced.

Liz wrapped her arms around herself, eyes passing over the same poem. ‘I need to tell you something. I…’

‘You can tell me anything, Liz. It’s alright.’

‘I have to tell someone. No. I’m sorry.’

I shook my head and looked over to her. ‘Liz, don’t be sorry.’

She took a deep breath and I saw her eyes tracing the mangroves in the picture, the branches spiralling and curling in and out of the water so organically, so without reason that it was almost intimidating, like there was no escape.

‘I guess… I feel like I wasn’t a good wife. I was never there. I worked too much.’

I shook my head and looked down at the concrete floor she was standing on.

‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’ She sniffled. The muscles in her neck twitched. ‘I was so selfish. We should have known that he didn’t need a gun for his farm.’ She paused. ‘I should have known.’

I was scared it would be awkward, but I leaned in and hugged her. I knew that was what you would have wanted.

‘He battled with depression his whole life, Sam. He bottled up generations of trauma. His antidepressants had stopped being made. For God’s sake, I should have been more careful. He was a climate activist who watched the climate collapse. His father did so much for him. I was so careless. He’d still be here, Sam.’ She wrapped her arms around me. I felt warm tears on my shoulder.

I took a step back, holding onto her. ‘Liz, this isn’t your fault. We all knew he’d taken up hunting. And I think he actually was hunting too, it’s just… you know how it was when he wasn’t himself.’

‘I’m sorry, Sam.’

‘We all wish we could have done something. It’s not anyone’s fault, really.’ I closed my eyes and held onto her again. I gave her all I could for you. 

She stepped back and wiped her nose with her wrist. Her face reddened and she nodded, then nodded again and rushed upstairs.

I took a deep breath and tried to rub the tightness out of my temples, the headache pulling from behind my eyes to the top of my spine. I turned and looked back over the Climate Hostage poem, looked at the drawing again, and just barely remembered the mangroves, the beach, fishing with you at Bribie, strolling around and looking for crabs. I almost couldn’t believe you’d fucken done this to us. I couldn’t even remember anything of that day, nothing you said, not even how old we were. I guessed I was tired. ‘I guess I still am,’ I said.

Jed’s voice called down the stairs: ‘The sun’s setting, mate.’

I followed him up and walked through the cafe.

‘Did you read his poem, Transitions?’ he asked. ‘The one where he described where he wanted to be spread?’

I shook my head. ‘No.’

‘Shit, Sam. They hung black fellas from the windmill. You know, back when the place was colonised.’

‘That’s why he wanted his ashes spread here?’

Jed looked across the road to the stumpy old building. Was that the windmill? Behind it, the sun was bleeding pillars of light, and in the surrounding gardens, I saw animal tracks criss-crossing in the dust.

Isac came out of the café with Liz and smiled when he saw us. My chest tightened.

I walked with Liz behind Isac and his grandfather. They blocked the light in front of us and I saw in their silhouettes that they were holding hands. Isac approached the windmill and placed his palm on its white exterior, then took a step back and placed his backpack on the ground. I wished I was stronger for you when you were alive, Eli. I wished I fought harder for you. I wished I was there for you when you needed it.

Jed knelt beside Isac and unzipped his backpack for him.

‘I’m sad I’ll never really know him,’ Isac said.

Jed nodded and took a deep breath. ‘Isac, I have to tell you something about the poem. About us. Your father…’ He paused. ‘Eli wanted his ashes spread here because he was a descendant of survivors. You are a descendent of survivors. Their strength runs through you. You can talk to them and ask them for guidance. Remember this, so you don’t lose hope.’ Jed glanced up to the windmill, as if the words he needed were hidden within it.

Isac reached into the backpack and, with his hands shaking, lifted out the little steel chest where you rested. He held it there, staring down at it, at the rust in its corners, at the little clip keeping it closed, and his hands slipped. He dropped you on the ground.

Jed placed his hand on Isac’s shoulder and opened the chest where it laid. He reached his hand in and lifted the ash up and watched as fine white dust ran through his fingers. He threw what was left of you towards the city and it dissipated into the air. I just couldn’t believe that was you. I couldn’t believe that you, like everything else here, had been burned down to ash.

Isac looked back to me and I knelt beside him. ‘I’ve never told anyone this because I’ve been embarrassed, but I’m sad. Sad about everything. I’ve been hiding it for a long time. Don’t let fatigue disguise despair.’            

Isac gazed down intently at the ash and clenched his fist around a handful of it. He stood up and threw you into the air like he was pegging a ball.The ash erupted into mist around him.

I scooped up a little pile of you and let go towards the sunset. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and felt the warm air in my nostrils. When I opened my eyes, I marvelled at the last rays of light that fell over the mountain, over the remains of the city, and I finally realised what you meant by transitions. You weren’t the ash; you were the sunset.


Chris Holdsworth is an emerging writer from Brisbane, Australia.