Summer Ash


“When I die I want to do it like this. I want someone, a stranger, to find me on the shore. I want to be unrecognizable, but beautiful. I want seawater in my lungs and salt in my hair. I want blue lips and blue skin and perforations where fish ate my body.”

“That’s morbid. Why would you say that to me? I hate that you said that.” She was making herself coffee, but stopped mid-pour to look at me. “That’s a whale not a person. You’re not a sea creature, you’re mine.”

I turned up the volume on the television manually because we lost the remote. I yelled over the newscaster’s voice. “It’s not a whale. They say they don’t know what it is. That it’s a mystery. That it could be a new species or a sea monster that old sea shanties are written about.” I grabbed a donut from the box on the carpet next to me. The cherry filling dribbled down my chin. “Besides, I only said it because it’s true.” I wiped it off with my sleeve. “It’s not morbid for me to want to die a certain way. It’s not like I said I wanted it to happen soon.”

“It is.” She grabbed the other cherry donut and put it on a plate. She bit into it more carefully than I did.

“It’s not. Stop saying that.” Powdered sugar dusted the front of my flannel shirt. I could have left it alone, but why shouldn’t I say how I feel?

“It is. That’s seriously what the word means.” She stood up and muted the TV. Everything on the screen appeared in a greyscale, even though we had a color set. The people on the beach behind the reporters stood around in groups, static.

“Morbid,” she restated. As if she hadn’t made her point clear. Only a few of the tiny figures moved, mostly only to join another group.

“Don’t watch this shit all day. I’m going to work.” She kissed my head. In a few minutes, I watched out the window as the city bus she boarded flashed an advertisement for funerary services at me and disappeared down the street.

Out loud to myself, alone, I said, “I don’t need to be told how to die. That’s my own, that’s mine. Mine, only.”

It wasn’t ten minutes later that I stepped out the door in my rainboots and my late-father’s denim jacket. It wasn’t two hours before I was in the grayscale world of my television screen.

There were barricades now around the creature, so everyone could only get so close, maybe ten feet or so. I thought about begging strangers for information. Have they figured out what it is? How did it live? How did it die? I watched gulls dip down from the sky instead. It’s ok not to know, sometimes. It can be good not to know.

“Hello.” An old man in a Seahawks poncho next to me swapped camera lenses. “Hello,” I replied as I began to feel self-conscious about doing nothing but standing and gawking. It was most of what everyone on the beach was doing, though. It was refreshing, how cold the air was, and to be out in the world with all these people instead of inside on my own. But you could tell from the stench rising from the sand that this gathering wasn’t for fun. That it was for a dead thing. That this wasn’t a sunny Sunday beach crowd, but a cloudy, 10:30am on a Tuesday one.

The creature looked more real than it did on TV, but no less still. It was a big, grey thing. All flesh and decompose. I liked it. I wanted to crawl inside it. What would it mean to lose myself under all these fatty layers? Would the gulls and flies descend on me too? Or would they sense the heat in my blood and work around me, like picky children who start in on a sandwich by pulling off the crust.

A family of two parents and three kids who all wore puff-coats and sunglasses descended down the hillside towards the barricade. I stood and stared for hours at the dead thing as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and tried to make sense of the mess of marine sinew before me. After awhile, it was warm enough for me to take off my late-father’s jacket. After awhile, it was cold enough again for me to put it back on.

After a longer while, I felt a hand appear on my shoulder. It was her. She was grinning a huge grin. I smiled too, amazed at her cleverness. To find me there, in this crowd, on this beach. I didn’t ask any of the obvious things I could have asked her because sometimes it’s ok to not know. Good, even. It didn’t matter how she arrived here, how anyone did, just that there were hundreds of people on the beach now, all recalling old sailor’s stories told to them by their grandfather’s or parodied on kids TV shows.

“So. Is it what you thought it would be?” Her words were punctuated with the beginnings of a yawn. She had brought the donut box from this morning, and held it now in her arms, wordlessly offering them to the people around us. The old man in the poncho wasn’t there any more, but a different man in a Seahawks hoodie accepted a french cruller with a gracious nod.

“No,” I decided after a final scan of the scene: crashing waves, diving gulls, a rocky hillside, a line of cars and the people stepping out of them and rushing down the hillside to see the one dead thing at the center of it all.

“No, it isn’t.”

“Good. I don’t want that for you.” She leaned her head on my shoulder and I looked her in the eyes. “I want you to look pretty when it happens,” she said. “Rosy and pink, like you’re sleeping. I want to be offered an open-casket but decline because we’re not interested in catholicism, or scaring any children. I want you to go gracefully. To ‘pass away’ or ‘move on.’ I don’t want you to be found or declared or to be blue or fishy or anything like that.”

“Ok,” I said to her. “Ok.” I said it again because I meant it. “That’s ok with me.” I took her hand and leaned on her now, and let her support my weight. I let her walk me up the hill, back to where I parked my car. She let me drive her home.