A Short Story by Kunal Mehra
You’re perched on top of the red cliff, whistling your poem out loud. A moment ago, you were probing under a rock, looking for insects. And now, you’re up here, looking at the open space that’s been your home for the past six months. Blackbrush and creosote bushes dot the high desert landscape. The crevices in narrow slot canyons are one of your favorite places to go looking for food, especially in the summer, where there’s plenty to shade to be found in the canyons.
Maybe that’s why they call you a canyon wren. But six months ago, you were an eighty-year-old, 160-lb human being, living not too far from where you are now. And one day, life decided to say goodbye to you, walking you out the door of its home and there you were, a while later, in your new life, poking your beak out of an egg that your mom laid in a nest made of twigs and bark chips.
There was an interim phase though, a phase that you often think about. You didn’t just go from 160 lbs to 20 grams; somewhere in the middle of that metamorphosis, you were a 5-lb bag of gray ashes in an urn that was left at the bottom of a cliff by your family. After all, it was your life and it was your request to them to leave your ashes in the high desert.
And that’s what you keep coming back to: that blue rosewood urn with the milky way painted across it, filled with eighty years of your previous life. Several times each day, you stand on top of the urn, looking into it. Even though you’re no longer a human being, you can still do the things your body and mind used to: smell, touch, feel, see, hear, grieve, rejoice, regret, love.
You find it hard to believe that your former mind and body, the stage where your entire life played itself – with all its feelings, bones, blood, aspirations, dreams, liver, kidneys, sorrows, heart, mind, soul, toes, fingers, wrists, successes and failures, relationships, work, arteries – is transformed into a 5-lb bag of dust that’s now lying quietly beside you. It’s like a reunion of everything that your life was. How did space, and your time in it, metamorphize into dust? You started as a twinkle in your parents’ eyes and you ended up in an urn of gray ashes. What happened in between?
All those joyous and fun moments in your life, the big ones and the small ones – holding your newborn son in your hands and kissing his fingers, watching a hummingbird dancing near a butterfly bush, having a beer with your best friend from middle school and laughing and reminiscing about all the fun and silly things you did as children, being offered a job that you’d always aspired for, feeling nostalgic about your grandparents as you skipped through black-and-white photos of your childhood on a rainy December evening and, ironically, wondering where they might be now – come to mind. You jump into the urn and peck at the ashes, trying to find those moments.
And then, there were the complementary sorrows and griefs – rushing your six-year-old son to the ER to seek help with his seizure, seeing your pet chihuahua who’d be been your companion for sixteen years finally be put to sleep, getting laid off during a recession and not sure where to go or what to do, having your first girlfriend breakup with you over a telegram that just said “Goodbye forever” – that also blended along with the happy times and are indiscernible from them now.
Or, you just reflect upon those seemingly mundane moments in your life – being stuck in rush-hour traffic on the commute home, standing in line at the grocery store, washing dishes in the kitchen sink, filling gasoline in your car, paying your credit card bill over the phone, standing in line waiting to board an airplane, quietly doing your middle-school homework after dinner, picking raspberries from the salad bar at the grocery store deli – and wonder where they all went. After all, they were as much a part of your life as were the happy and sorrowful times. Did they simply come, stay and shyly fade off into the past and are now staring at you from this powdery mix?
You try to talk to your life – to what used to be your life and is now a handful of gray-colored grains – and ask: Did we live to our fullest potential? Did we love those we should’ve? Did we do the things we thought we would? Were we our best and true selves as much as possible? It’s hard to discern from these five pounds what really happened. It all looks, feels and smells the same.
You wonder how all your years on earth coalesced together into a bag of gray powder. You smell the ashes and dive your beak into it. You realize that it’s just like dirt; but for its gray color and coarse texture, you wouldn’t be able to tell it from the dirt in your backyard where you used to grow cosmos flowers. You lived your life thinking that it was like a straight line, when really, it was a circle.
With your beak full of your past and your heart full of nostalgia, you try to pinpoint the ashes to a specific moment in your life: do these granules correspond to that evening when you were about go on a first date with your to-be-wife and how nervous and excited you felt? Forty years after that date, you remember that summer evening when you and your wife were sitting on the porch, holding hands, the wrinkles on your hands reminding you of the life that had gone past you, of all the ups and downs that you both weathered, of how soothing it felt to have her wrinkles nestle into yours, to snuggle with four decades of life. That fond memory comes to your mind, but now, all you get is gray particles in your beak.
You dig in further and pick up some ashes from a different part of the bag: was this when you attended the funeral of your friend who committed suicide, writing in his final note about how no one ever really cared about him and how he felt like Sisyphus constantly pushing the rock of his life uphill and how regretful and guilty you felt for not reaching out to him earlier? And, not surprisingly, all you have in your beak is dirt.
You wish that you could correlate each year, each month, each day of your life to a specific granule, a specific particle of dust, so you could look at it more carefully and fix – in your next life – what didn’t go as planned, and celebrate that which did. But what you have before you is powder. There’s no starting point, no end point, no middle point – it’s your entire life, distilled down to a 5-lb bag of calcium phosphates and other minerals.
In hindsight, if you knew it was all going to blend together in the end, what would you have done differently? Just because it was all going to end didn’t mean that you shouldn’t have been an active participant in your life and instead just disregarded everything. Of course, you had to live your life the way you wanted to. But would living it with a sense of humility, with a perspective that was vast enough to bear in its arms the reality that in the end, everything crumbles down to dust, have helped you live a more vibrant and honest life? Would it have helped you live more like a maple leaf blowing in the October breeze, rather than a tight hose stuck to a spigot?
You reminisce about that argument you had with a colleague at work over who broke the printer. You insisted it wasn’t you because when you went to the printer, she was already there, fiddling with it. She countered that and said that the printer was malfunctioning because you sent a 45-page document to print, something that was too much for the old printer. And on and on that finger-pointing went, not as much over how to fix the printer, but over whose fault it was. You never talked to each other after that. And now you wonder if you might have reacted differently had you kept in mind, during all that clashing of egos, this upcoming pouch of ashes and how everything – you, her, the printer, the papers, the rigid sense that you were right – would eventually end up in that pouch.
That was one instance, but you try to recollect how many times you refused to acknowledge the transient nature of everything – egos, printers, people, emotions, hearts, jobs, governments, memories, buffets, pets – and how futile it was to hang on to such moments and your feelings in those moments, when, instead, they were calling out loud to be let off the leash of your rigid sense of permanence. ‘This too shall pass’ got morphed into ‘This ought to be that way’. Were you afraid to consider that one day, power would shrivel down into powder?
~You fly out of the urn and sit on top of a rock that’s in partial shade. The ground is dry and solid underneath you. It hasn’t rained in months in the desert. You look up and the sky is filled with dark clouds, with patches of blue in between. Maybe there’s a storm in the forecast; you can almost smell the upcoming desert rain.
The wind is starting to pick up, your feathers feeling the storm coming. And there it is: a strong gust, sweeping past you, toppling the urn and scattering the ashes, scooping up and taking along in its arms, your entire previous life. You also leap up into the sky, flying wildly amidst the swirling cloud of gray dust.
Author’s note: This story was published elsewhere so this is a reprint.
Previously published in Writers and Wordsmiths.