Home > PRISM Online > Going Down Swinging: “Ash Walking” by Robie Arnott

We come to you with another offering from our pals at Going Down Swinging

One of Australia’s oldest and strangest literary publishers, Going Down Swinging was conceived in 1979. It now produces print anthologies, audio recordings, multimedia publications, live events and a very busy website.

We’re happy to be able to team up with Going Down Swinging and introduce Australian writers to our readership–and vice versa. 

Ash Walking

by Robie Arnott

Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother – the curled posture, fast-flicked eyes and firm gait were all unmistakably hers – but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all. Her dispersal among the fronds of Notley had changed her. Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of Hymenophyllum cupressiforme (common filmy fern). Six large fronds of another fern – Dicksonia Antarctica, soft treefern – had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation. And her hair had been replaced by cascading fronds of lawn-coloured Adiantum aethiopicum – maidenhair fern.

This kind of thing wasn’t uncommon in our family. Our grandmother had reappeared a few days after her ashes were scattered into the sea at Hawley Beach. She’d been sporting a skirt of cowrie shells, a fish-hook in her tongue, skin of shifting sand, strands of kelp for hair and a large green-lip abalone suckered onto the back of her neck.

Our great-aunt Margaret had also returned, not long after her ashes had been poured over the family farm at Bothwell. When she’d wandered back into her living room she immediately started shedding sheets of paperbark all over the carpet, while an ornate crown of Eucalyptus globulus (bluegum) branches burst from her head and the furred tail of a Bennett’s Wallaby flopped out beneath her dress. And our young cousin Ella had been spotted a week after her ashes were given to the scraping winds of Stacks Bluff on Ben Lomond. With a speckled body of unyielding dolerite and an iced face of hard winter sky she strode into her former school and marched slowly through the grounds, leaving a trail of snapped frost behind each fallen step.

There were others, too – aunts and cousins and ancestors fused with leaf and lichen, root and rock, feather and fur, stream and snow. Around a third of the women from our bloodline returned to the family after they’d been cremated. The men never did.

They all had their own reasons for returning – unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten chores. Once they’d done what they came back for, they trudged back to the landscape that had re-spawned them, and we never saw them again.

Our mother came back for four days. My sister and I guessed that it had something to do with our father, who hadn’t spoken to any of us in three years, but our mother didn’t give anything away. On the first day she showered, all day long. Like real ferns, her leafy appendages required a lot of moisture. On the second she limited herself to three showers and wandered around our house, trailing her delicate fronds across family photos and heirlooms, ignoring my sister and I as we tried to talk to her. On the third she stopped showering altogether and hacked into our phones and emails. And on the fourth – having discovered our father’s address sometime in the night – she walked to his house and waited on his lawn for him to find her.

By the time he got home from work she’d been without water for over forty-eight hours. Her foliage was brown, cracked and dust-dry. As our father got out of his car and walked towards her she began vigorously rubbing two of her large treefern fronds together. When he was within speaking distance a thin curl of smoke began rising from her back. And when he reached out to touch her mossy face a crackled lick of fire spread up, over and through her. He recoiled, falling backwards as her body swarmed with flames and she burned, fast and bright and loud, blood-orange in the night.

 *     *     *

While this event upset us – and I guess our father as well, although we’re not really on speaking terms these days – I got over it rather quickly. Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated. But my sister struggled to move on. The black patch of burnt grass in our father’s lawn glued itself into her mind. I started finding her staring at the forest, touching plants, sniffing rocks, licking trees. Currawong calls would draw her down into the valleys that carved through our property. Whale-spray, rising from the nearby ocean, threw her into fits of uncontrolled screams. I wondered what form she would take when she returned to me, which brought back the memory of our mother, burning to ash for the second time. This thought proved endless, and worrying, and terrible, and the more she struggled the more I worried; so I did what I thought right. I bought her a coffin, and I swore to bury her whole and still and cold.