By Alan MacLeod
My Aunt Ruth piles family photos in boxes, and calls it our ancestry. Those faded images of people and places transport me like a time machine. Peaceful, sad feelings roll through my body. For years we’ve had quiet heritage talks in her parlour: clock ticking on the mantle, budgie scrabbling in its cage, faint noises from the TV where my Uncle Brad sits in his study watching game shows. Every year the pictures get more blurred with age, like my aunt, but she still has her quest.
A year ago, I dumped one of the boxes out on the attic floor. My head jerked back with the wet socks smell of mold in that stuffy loft. It was a smoking day, dust motes filled the air, and drifted to the trill of cricket song. I get sweaty just thinking about it. Aunt Ruth squinted her eyes at the mess, nostrils flaring.
“All right, let’s put them in a bag with baking soda,” she said.
“That got a rise out of you.”
“Funny you,” I said.
So, I slid the oldest photos into baking soda bags, making believe, for my Aunt’s sake, that this could work. Ruth urged me to refresh the bags every few weeks. While I did so, she would pace the floor, head raised to the heavens as if summoning some higher power. I remember my Aunt as you would some good movie you saw, with different scenes flashing back. The part of the movie that keeps returning is her march in the attic, long dress swaying, eyes fixed on the ether. She passed on recently. We miss her in ways that words can’t tell. The days don’t seem right without her.
The baking soda did not work its magic. My Uncle Brad, blood draining from his face, tears erupting down his cheeks, says, “Burn them.”
“You sure Uncle?”
I wait, but he remains adamant. I keep my eyes on him, till he looks directly at me, nods his head and turns away. Uncle Brad plods along with a slow shuffle since my Aunt died. “Go ahead,” he says. I don’t know what to do. I reach for a bag, but stop halfway. It feels like something is not settled. A part of me wants to honour my Uncle’s wishes, but another part says, Wait. I lean against the wall trying to figure something out.
Sometimes I have these thoughts. I imagine my Aunt walking into one of those pictures where the old time people are posed for the camera in that somber manner. Ruth looks at them a certain way. They respond to her with shoulders lowering, and smiles breaking out like shooting stars in the night. In that clip she looks back at me in wonder.
I slump to the floor. My Uncle turns and looks at me like there’s something he needs to say, but can’t find the words. After a minute he says, “I know you remember your Aunt well. Her understanding was as deep as the ocean.” Then he nods his head again, eyes squeezed shut, as if in pain, and dodders out.
After two days of pondering, I slouch in front of the fireplace staring at the browns and creams of the granite stone. It’s a crisp, sunny day with deep blue skies and wisps of white clouds. Too nice for what I’m about to do, I think. Another part of me answers, Don’t procrastinate. I picture leaping flames of red and orange as I light the fragile pyramid of kindling and newspaper. The kindling goes up with a whoosh, and the fire begins to rage as it jumps onto the dry log pieces I stacked on top. Watching the flames, I begin to feel my muscles let go as the flickering blaze induces a sort of trance. My mind quiets. A longing begins to percolate and rise up from the deeps. I must do this slowly honouring my Aunt and those who have come before.
I become aware of another presence slipping into the room. A chill runs through me, chased by goosebump feelings. A faint figure darts across my peripheral vision accompanied by an indistinct voice. One at a time, murmurs through my mind.
I sit in front of the fire, with heat warping the air before me. The flames wrap the first of the pictures and bend and twist it to nothing. My face is hot. I wipe the sweat from my hairline. The firelight smears the walls around me. The wood crackles and pops. The pungent smoke swirls. I have the strange feeling that my Aunt Ruth is there in the room with me. I see her standing beside me: her grey hair, the silver locket she always wore around her neck, the sweet, lilacsmell of her perfume. I know she’s gone forever, yet I sense that she wants me to finish this, respectfully, proudly. There’s a peacefulness in her face as we watch the burn together.
Alan MacLeod is a Canadian writer with publications in a number of literary magazines including: The Antigonish Review; The Nashwaak Review; Dreamers Creative Writing; Blank Spaces; Beyond Words; Prometheus Dreaming; and the Leaf.