“Ashes to Ashes” by Jes Rausch
“There sure are a lot of characters out there,” said Mike.
Jackie looked up from her bowl of granola and yogurt to glance at the grey painting of the bird in a top hat. She shrugged, looked down at the contents of her bowl again. “People grieve in all different ways.”
“Used to think it was only Dee,” said Mike, and Jackie could hear him ruffling his feathers.
Mike was her first. When Dee had brought his ashes to the studio, looking to turn him into paintings, Jackie had thought twice. But she was at college and had needed the money, and thought that any woman who took her dead pet birds to the taxidermist’s in order to keep them indefinitely would probably not get angry with her after the fact. So Jackie had painted the black-and-white landscapes the woman wanted.
“Wish I had told her how much her little quirks meant to me,” said Mike, and Jackie stood to take her bowl to the sink. He was moody again. He had not taken it well to hear his wife had despised him when she informed Jackie what she had wanted. “Shouldn’t’ve teased her about the hats she made for her birds.”
Jackie was not about to have a relationship discussion with him; she did not have any of that figured out either. And she did not want to be crabby when her next client showed up, so she left Mike on the wall to grumble to himself and went to tidy up the tiny spare room she used as a studio.
When the bell rang Jackie opened the door to a middle-aged woman, who blinked at her.
“Is your roommate here? I’m looking for Jackie.”
“Come in,” said Jackie, stepping back. “I’m Jackie.”
The woman entered, looking awkward, and Jackie held back a sigh as she shut the door. She did not know why some people seemed so shocked to find the artist painting with their loved one’s ashes was a somewhat-overweight young black woman. They could have bothered to look at her website.
She offered the client a seat, but the woman refused and shoved the container of ashes at Jackie.
“Is that someone?” she asked, staring at the bird in a top hat.
“Mike,” said Jackie. “My first client. His wife let me make that with the extra.”
Jackie moved to get her printout of the woman’s request, ignoring that. People were understandably not always tactful at this time. Mike, however, returned his own insult, which Jackie knew the woman could not hear. She had learned long ago only she seemed to understand.
“You wanted me to paint versions of Jemma’s drawings, right?” she asked, bringing the woman’s attention back. She remembered the poor girl’s death; it had made the papers. Eight-year-old shot by brother at family cookout. A tragic accident.
“Yes, I brought them,” said the woman, pulling a cheap paper folder from her purse. They settled on size and cost, the woman not once shedding a tear, her face emotionlessly stony.
“Any remaining ashes will be returned to you.”
The woman nodded, paid her upfront percentage, and left Jackie to her paintbrushes and canvases. Jackie was relieved to see her leave, feeling more comfortable with only the company of the deceased. She set up, organized the child’s drawings in the order she wanted to work, and began to mix the ashes into paint.
“Hi, Jemma,” she said as she worked, waiting patiently for a response. Sometimes she never received one. Not all the dead were communicative.
“What are you doing?” asked the child, and Jackie explained.
“She’s making you beautiful,” added Gloria, a small abstract not far off. She had been 87 when she had departed, a woman with strong personality. Though there had been no messing around with her in life—she had told Jackie she had once poisoned the family dog to get back at her husband and hidden it—in death she had been turned into a collection of kitschy farm animal paintings. She had hated them.
Really Jackie should not have Gloria around at all; she had never been given permission to keep her ashes, but she could not resist some of the people that passed through. It was worse to pass along her finished work to loved ones knowing she had not fully captured the essence of the deceased.
“I don’t like that one,” said Jemma. “Don’t paint it.”
“Sorry, I have to. Why don’t you like it?”
“It reminds me of yelling. Did my mom yell at you?”
“No, she didn’t,” said Jackie, and painted, and listened to Jemma talk about how scared she had been at home, the threats, the arguments, items thrown and broken. “Jemma, can I paint something for you?”
“Okay,” said Jemma after a moment.
Jackie stared at a new canvass, thought of Jemma. The poor child had lived her entire life trapped, blamed. She deserved more. Jackie painted her tall, strong, a mountain on an alien world, a forest full of trees, a new curtain of stars far from earth. She painted all that Jemma could have been, had she been allowed to grow, and felt the child satisfied with what she had done.
“Are you giving that to my mom?” she asked. Jackie smiled and shook her head.
“No. You can stay with me.”
She did not tell Jemma’s mother about the last painting she had made. The woman returned for her work and the remaining ashes, and took away the canvasses showing Jemma as she was in the drawings, smiling, simple, happy.
When she had gone Jackie took the painting of the real Jemma to her bedroom. She flicked on the light to reveal walls filled with dozens of paintings, all unique, all beautiful. She would have to move her bed out soon to make more wall space, but for now there was room to hang Jemma across from the window. Jackie crossed the room and opened the curtains.
About the Author
Jes Rausch lives and writes in Wisconsin, with too many pets and too much beer for company.