The Ashtray

The day I became an orphan, my mother handed me a paper-wrapped parcel bound in twine.  In the cool of the hospital ward she explained it was a family heirloom that became our guide in times of trouble.  Taking my hand in hers, she asked me to leave it unopened until my 25th birthday, to consider it a gift from my father and her.  I promised to do so and when she died that night, I stored it high in the warmth of my closet, where it remained untouched for the next nine years.

* * *

Ignited by the shimmering curtain of gas, a spark lights the tip of my early morning cigarette.  Drawing the nicotine deep into my lungs, I lean back and focus through gluey sleep on the parcel centred on the coffee table before me.  Much smaller than I remember, but still carrying the scent of roses, it invites back memories I have long tried to supress: the reporter droning over the image of my father, smart in his crisp naval uniform, her monotonous cadence as numbing as the details of his death itself; the sallow skin draping my mother’s brittle frame, the rasping of her throat as she laid waiting for her death.

I lift the cigarette to my lips, shakily inhaling its calming contents over and over.  Flushed and itchy, I tug at the twine, loosening its binds.  My damp fingertips sticking to the paper, I pull the wrapping away to reveal a worn, wooden box.  Bringing it to my lap, it is surprisingly heavy.  Made of dark rosewood, the scent is explained as my eyes scan its contours.  Around the delicate burnished clasps, grasping fingers have made the wood like silk.  Undoing them produces a sharp metallic click.  The lid lifts fluidly, revealing a ceramic sun – an ashtray, perhaps?  Blood orange, the face stares back at me.  Half-opened eyes and tightly pressed lips convey a sun dedicated to stoicism.  Unravelling it from its velvet cocoon reveals a hand-written note, yellowed with age.  Placing the ashtray on the table, I hold the note to the light, tilting it to read the faded script.

The old wrinkled hand,
Covers the outstretched palm,
Leaves the rising sun.

Confused, I take the last drag and stub my cigarette on my new ashtray.  I light another and shift my place on the couch, seeking the cool respite of unoccupied leather.  Sinking into it, the swirling smoke thickens about me, forced together by the confines of my room.  Infused with rays of lamplight, the smoke cloaks me from the ashtray.  My eyes begin to itch and water.  Rubbing them confounds my vision and in the stinging blurriness, the ceramic sun retreats from sight.  Enveloped, my senses afire, the sun swirls and wavers, growing in size, emerging from the gloom, until a great golden face laid in chiselled stone manifests itself.  Looming above me, it shares its vision with me.

From our place above a temple door, the sun and I survey the scene before us.  Holy Spaniards made malicious by greed, face thousands of swarthy skinned Incas.  Atahualpa, the Sapa Inca, stands resplendent upon his litter.  Adorned in feathers, golden amulets dripping from his limbs, he stands assured of his divinity.  Standing a full man higher than Francisco Pizarro, he looks down upon him with amusement and anger.  Pizarro signals his Friar to step forward.  Bible thrust skyward, the Friar struts towards the Child of the Sun, denouncing his pagan worship.  With the Bible now in his hands, Atahualpa glances towards Pizarro, and smiling, drops the Bible to the ground.

The sharp report of musket fire sounds, unleashing screams of bloodlust and agony to echo off the stonework.  Grape shot rips apart knots of Incan flesh, as conquistadors, astride their sweating horses, power into the seething ranks.  Swords glinting in the sun, tips flicking into Incan stomachs, the Spaniards drive towards Atahualpa.  Reaching him and pulling him down, the Incans buckle and fall beneath the onslaught.  Several months from now proud Atahualpa will be executed and within 40 years, his empire will be no more.  Together, the golden sun and I turn our back on the massacre.

Shocked awake by a hypnic jerk, I find myself back in my room.  Apart from my heavy breathing, everything appears to be the same.  The room is still dim in the early morning dark and my cigarette is still only half smoked.  Clammy and sweaty, I ignore the ceramic ashtray and head towards the shower.  Rattling in its groove, the shower screen slides open and I step in.  Turning on the water shocks me again as cold sheets rush over the curves of my body.  I quickly jump out and hug myself, waiting for the water to warm.  Seeing it start to steam, I re-enter the cubicle and let the heat seep into my muscles.  Now that I am starting to relax, I think over what happened.  The vision, or was it a hallucination? was incredibly vivid.  It could have only lasted for a minute or two.  The note comes to my mind and I struggle to recall its exact words.  I towel off and pad down the hallway on wet feet to reread the note:

The old wrinkled hand,
Covers the outstretched palm,
Leaves the rising sun.

Turning it over in my mind as I get dressed, I think back to my mother’s words, “It’s been in our family for generations. You must discover its importance by yourself.  It guides everyone in different ways.”  Making little headway, I look about the room in frustration.  I register the time and notice that my early rise has left me with a long wait until my regular breakfast date with Lucy.  I move to the kitchen to fix a cup of tea.  Usually a warming comfort, my tea does little to calm me.  So, restless and uneasy, I spend my time flipping through channels and magazines, trying to forget how brutally Atahualpa and his Incans met their fate.

Finally, the clock’s hands indicate it is time to go.  I grab my winter coat from its hook and head out the door.  I brush past an old lady struggling on the stairs and sweep through the doors held open by the doorman.  I see a bus pull up but decide to walk.  Without breaking stride, I wheel left down the block and try to let the crisp autumn air clear my thoughts.  After some time, I step into the warmth of the coffee shop to find Lucy already seated with her fingers wrapped around a brightly painted mug.  I give her a kiss, which she doesn’t seem to register, and begin the process of removing my woollen protection from the cold.  I give our order to a flustered waitress and turn my attention to the woman I hope will soon be my fiancé.

We discuss the usual things: the weather, my disdain for Lucy’s younger sister, my work, and what she’s been doing over the past few days.  A new topic does enter our conversation though – my apparent habit of ordering for the two of us.  I protest my innocence, but eventually concede, making sure she understands that I only do so because we always get the same here.  She says it happens because I order before she has a chance to look at the menu.  Supposedly, she’s brought this up before, but if she has, I don’t remember.  Throughout all of this, I can’t shake the dream.  It spreads a confusion and doubt that causes me to become irritated by the insignificance of our conversation.  Lucy picks up on it and we step out of the overly cheery coffee shop a bit earlier than usual.  Our feet scuff in unison as we lean to give each other a kiss.  Parting, we walk our separate ways.

The rest of the day is spent trying to focus on my work, but ultimately I achieve very little.  Outside, the street’s traffic abates before I am tired enough to consider sleep, but another hour passes before I act on my impulse.  Shuffling down the hallway on slipper-shod feet, I stop to search the bookcase for something on Incan history.  I pull the relevant text from its crevice and take it to bed with my frustrated and weary self.  Flicking through the pages, I find what I am looking for: the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532.  Its tiny print informs me of its background and aftermath.  Having manoeuvred the Spanish high into the mountains, with 50 Incan warriors for every conquistador, Atahualpa was confident of his position.  When he went to meet Pizarro, he ordered his several thousand warriors to enter unarmed as a sign of goodwill, but also arrogance.  Armed with rifles, four cannon and a number of horses, Pizarro’s conquistadors dispersed themselves strategically throughout the square.  Springing their trap, they rained the slaughter I had so luridly imagined.

Placing the book down, I settle into my bed and turn off the light.  In the darkness, I think over my meeting with Lucy and can’t help but feel as though I am Atahualpa.  For the first time, I feel a creeping vulnerability in the relationship.  I do not fear violence, but I feel maybe I have been blind to her needs; perhaps I do not give her the attention she deserves.  As sleep folds me in its embrace, I think that maybe, it would be better to wait to propose.

From our great height, we look down upon a tiny figure flying across the seas and scattered islands of Greece.  Calm and measured, it ventures steadily north above the brilliant blue.  For hours we watch it fly in its measured cadence, muscles bunching and un-bunching in timed monotony, as if the creature was bored by flight.  I remember my father telling me stories of seabirds following the frigates at sea for distances that belied belief.  I find myself assuming a countenance similar to that of my blazing companion, as I watch this loner of the sea.  Bored and with eyelids heavy, I settle into my cloudy cushion to wait for the creature to finish its travels.  But as we watch, it departs from its measured cadence.  Expanding its stroke, it catches more air under its wings, rising higher above the waves.  Closer and closer it spirals, and gaining clarity, its identity is revealed.  The epitome of masculinity, Icarus’ muscles ripple as he bends to his task.  Unable to resist the joys of flight, his lips draw back to release peals of laughter.  Perfect, they ring through the air as he banks and swoops.  Ignoring his father’s warning, he flies continually higher.  From our celestial perch we wait for his downfall in silence.  The whites of his eyes now visible, I feel panic rise within me.  Struggling to break the gag placed upon me by the sun, I flex my muscles in vain.  Mouth open, I scream silence.  Blood courses through my limbs and white spots swim in my vision as I turn, appealing to the sun.  Eyes half-opened, lips tightly pressed, its face reflects its usual indifference.  Turning back to the scene below, Icarus has climbed surprisingly close.  Still turning pirouettes spun from aerial intoxication, he flies unaware of his situation.  Sweat glistens across his back, mixing with the rivulets of wax that are beginning to flow.  And then, a solitary feather slips free of its viscous hold.  Caught by the wind it is held aloft for a moment, but then begins its fall.  Twirling round it falls to the sea, signalling Icarus’ imminent demise.  My throat strains as I scream ineffectually, but soon his shouts fill my silence.  Wax streams behind him as he flaps his rapidly disintegrating wings.  Clumps of feathers join the mutiny, leaving Icarus to feel the full force of his hubris.  Screaming in terrified realization, he falls in an awkward spiral to his azure grave.

I wake to sunlight streaming through the bay windows.  As I lay tangled amongst my warmed sheets, I notice my mind is without the dumbing yoke of sleep.  Unusually alert, I turn to look at the clock, but instead find the spine of the Incan history book hiding its display.  The similarities between Atahualpa and Icarus immediately present themselves, and I realise a third subject fit for comparison: myself.  Yesterday’s unease returns, but it is noticeably stronger.  It spreads to my stomach, prompting nausea to churn within me.  As I think over my rendezvous with Lucy, I am presented with an interpretation significantly darker than that of yesterday.  The peck to the cheek was wholeheartedly ignored, the parting kiss perfunctory, and even the brightly painted mug now seems a paler hue.  I realise our conversation was largely one-sided and led by me.  Lucy sat in silence and her forays into conversation were short and without substance.  My hunch that perhaps work was damaging our relationship is affirmed with awful totality.  I realise my successes in the workplace have instilled in me a pride that has grown into a monstrosity.  I have come to regard her as an entitlement rather than a blessing.

I sit up and move to the dresser on legs made wobbly by nighttime’s slowed circulation.  A recent photograph of Lucy and me sits crisp and neat within the straight boundaries of its polished, metal frame.  We stand side by side, our smiles pasted on.  We reek of imitation.  I pull out our first picture from my wallet.  Made fragile and dog-eared by excessive thumbing, it displays two people in love.  The look we share is one long lost.  It casts a dire light of reality upon our situation and regret rears within me.  Upset and scared I reach for my cigarettes.  I smoke one in less than a minute and stub it on the ceramic ashtray.  Crumpled by my agitated fingers it reflects my emotions.  As I reach for another, I am beset by drowsiness.  Putting the pack down, I arrange the pillows and prop myself up against the bed’s headboard.  Confused by the onset of sleep, I promise to repair our relationship as my eyes fall shut.

Utter darkness surrounds me.  It is so complete, so successful in its theft of the light, I feel as though I am being assaulted.  My heartbeat drums in my ears and my brow runs slick with sweat.  The loss of sight is driving me into a frenzy.  I don’t dare move, so I stand still caught between instinct and logic.  But my desire to escape soon triumphs and my muscles explode forward.  A yelp of pain makes me jump.  Striking my head, I crumple to the ground in a whirl of pain and confusion.

Swimming through an indistinct haze of repressed senses, I feel something wet and soft slapping my face.  A hot burst of must clogs my nostrils as I attempt to push the lapping wetness away.  A dog!  I immediately freeze.  My exposed throat tingles in anticipation.  Minutes pass as it alternates between licking my face and panting in the darkness.  Finding myself once again in a position of indecision, I take in my environment more fully.  I feel the damp sponginess of soil beneath me and the hard trunk of a tree at my back.  It is incredibly hot and the humidity suffocating.  Apart from the panting of the very large dog, I can hear the chatter of birds above me and the patter of falling water.  Evaluating my predicament, I realise I can’t sit trapped against a tree forever, even if the alternative is a mauling.  So slowly but deliberately, I draw my legs in to stand up.  A deep-bodied bark locks my muscles mid-motion.  The muffled pad of receding feet is followed by another bark.  The dog walks back over, nudges me and barks again.  Repeating this cycle for a third time, I realise it wants me to follow.

Throat now safe, some fear begins to dissipate.  I reach out to thread my fingers through the coarse fur.  As my fingertips touch the dog’s back, a calming influence of understanding sweeps through me.  The physical connection formed with the dog signals my initiation into Incan mythology.  I now know and accept that in Incan death, a dog able to see in darkness guides the spirits to the afterlife and reincarnation.  Strangely calmed by this knowledge, I let the dog lead me to my judgement.  The path it picks is easy to follow and with few obstacles.

Hours pass, and in the darkness the great jungle symphony reveals its sections.  The throbbing bass of insects’ wings filters through the brass raucous in the treetops.  As I am assigning the strings their tropical counterpart, I notice the vague outlines of the overripe trees and vines around me.  Excitement mounts as I strain to see more shapes emerging from the darkness.  Looking up I catch the flicker of a monkey moving against a patch of purple sky.  A bark rouses me and I find myself standing still with my hands by my side, bereft of my guide.  Grateful for its vigilance, I once again reach out to it to resume my position as passenger.  Satisfied, the dog continues onward.

Vague details begin to appear on the jungle canvas as the pitch darkness is replaced by a constantly thinning gloom.  The tips of rocks appear amongst the ankle deep mist, then lose this iceberg quality as they reveal themselves in their entirety.  Roots are discovered by sight rather than by fumbling foot, and individual trees are singled out from their brethren.  As these details reveal themselves, I realise many of the trees are not wooden but stone.  Imposturous pillars choked by growth stand as human sentinels amongst the nature.  Looking closely, I see the hand-chiselled image of a friend.  Eyes half opened, lips tightly pressed, the sun so dedicated to stoicism adorns their weathered faces.  The dog barks once beside me and stands rigid with its nose thrust forward.  Looking in the direction it points, I see a glimpse of sun amongst the undergrowth.  We move quickly towards it and burst out of the tangled vegetation into a field drenched with sunlight.

Eyes blinking, mouth agape, the fresh scent of blooming wildflowers clears away the stagnant stench of waterlogged soil.  As my eyes adjust and the pain subsides, I am able to survey the landscape in snatches.  Snow-capped mountains ring the fields and melted glacier water runs swiftly over pebbled beds.  Life teems around me.  I am surprised by how similar it is to the Christian vision of heaven.  The black dog barks once beside me, disrupting my contemplation.  It nudges me roughly in goodbye and then lopes back into the jungle where it disappears amongst the gloom.  Left by my guide, I spin slowly in a circle, drinking in the beauty.  Shielding my eyes to survey the jagged contours of the mountain peaks, I remember the sun.  I look up and to my surprise see that the sun’s stoic countenance has been replaced by one of joy.  As I look upon its smiling face, the words of my mother ring in my ears,  “It’s been in our family for generations. You must discover its importance by yourself.  It guides everyone in different ways, but when you reach the end of your road, you will know it.”  I realise I have come to the end of my road and the sun shines even more radiantly in confirmation.  Its rays strike my upturned face and I feel my shroud of hubris fall away.  My eyes flutter open and for the first time, I see my life in perfect clarity.

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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9 comments

  1. Sam Joines

    Nicely written.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Although your task is a lot more noble and talented than mine =) Keep it up! You are a great writer.

  3. A very enjoyable read! Thank you!

  4. James Barge

    Really great dude, gave me a huge sense of synaesthesia.

  5. Great imagination and very well written.

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