Out of Ash

Out of AshBehind the garage and near the compost bin was a rat, flattened and wet with decay, its shriveled paws curling under what was once a round belly. Its body was big—bigger than I could have imagined, far bigger than I could appreciate. Rats that size should live in abandoned New York City tenements or in the deep swamps of Mississippi. They should not, under any circumstances, take up residence in my Michigan backyard.

It was spring. The rat must have died in the winter, crawling out from its hiding place in search of food and never making it back. Melting snow brings new life to the surface, but also reveals old death that must be bagged up and hauled away.

I slid thick gardening gloves onto my hands, and opened a trash bag as wide as I could. I maneuvered a shovel beneath the rat’s body, struggling as parts of it had stuck to the grass. Then I lifted it ever so slightly and it rolled—flopped—halfway into the bag.

And that’s when I saw its tail. It had been curled up underneath, was just as long as the rat’s body, thick and dark like a bootlace. The sight of the tail sent nausea pulsating through my body, my nerves exploding just beneath my skin.

As I struggled to weasel the rigid and surprisingly heavy body all the way into the bag, I had one thought, and one thought only: “I wish I had a man here to do this for me.”


My first serious relationship was one that was formed from lies, secrets, and forbidden encounters, and probably lasted as long as it did because of some will on my part to prove to the naysayers—particularly my parents—that it was love, that it was meant to be. We met when I was a senior in high school and Mark worked for the IT department in the school district.

In the ten years after we broke up, I got married, divorced, dated casually, remained single, dated seriously, had my first and only live-in boyfriend, and shrugged acceptance when that relationship ended as well. “How,” I wondered, “did I find myself back at this place where I was letting a man take advantage of me, all in the name of love?”

I needed to feel validated, vindicated even. I needed to know that the things that had happened were not my fault, that I had been wronged, and I wanted the person who had done the wronging to not only realize it, but to genuinely apologize for it. So I tracked him down, chatted him up, and accepted his invitation to have dinner together.

As I sat across from Mark in the same restaurant where we had our first date, I learned that every woman he dated after me had been the same age I was when we were together. No matter how old he got, he continued dating eighteen year olds. He was stuck at that age, and that he had never emotionally evolved past the first age of adulthood. He presented me with a box of cards I had given him while we were together, relics that I had forgotten about. He, on the other hand, couldn’t let go of his connections with his youth, his trophies from the past.

Augusten Burroughs writes, “Revisiting painful experiences makes you experience the pain. When you need to move past something, this isn’t helpful. What is helpful is realizing you don’t need closure, you don’t need understanding, and you don’t need resolution.”

The need for closure is a type of untreatable addiction to one’s personal history. Sometimes there are no answers, at least not good ones. Maybe there are excuses or explanations, but not answers. Not the kind that would make any difference. As Burroughs says, “You do not need anybody’s permission to move on with your life.”


In the nineteenth century, it was standard practice among the middle class to take post-mortem photos to memorialize the dead. The adults were propped up in chairs and often surrounded with flowers; children in their crib or their bed, posed with their favorite toy. Because child mortality rates were so high, post-mortem photos were often the only photos family had of children who died in infancy.

I attended a funeral on the arm of an ex-boyfriend when his aunt died in the hospital due to neglect. The family was outraged, deeply in mourning, and quite forthcoming with wailings and other outcries of emotion throughout the wake. Near the end of the visitation, the woman’s niece, Jessica, wanted to take pictures of the many flower baskets and displays, as well as the casket because she picked out the quote, “I love turkey-lurkey,” that was stitched into the fabric. She looked around nervously at the few family members and friends in their seats, afraid of what they would think, what reasons they could imagine that this young woman was photographing a dead body.

She looked at me and shook her head. She couldn’t do it. She slid her phone shut and reach toward her pocket to put it away.

I gently nudged her and held my hand out. I would take the pictures for her.


In Mexico, they celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, during the two days following Halloween. This holiday—much like the post-mortem photos of the Victorian era—are for the respect and remembrance of the dead. Families build private alters for those who have passed on and decorate them with flowers, the deceased’s possessions, and gifts for the departed, including Calaveras, skulls shaped from sugar.

In middle America, we distance ourselves from the dead. After funerals, we put our people in the ground or in urns, and come to terms with their passing individually and privately. There is no annual reuniting with our loved ones. Often, it’s not even acceptable to bring up the dead in conversation out of fear of bringing to the surface the feelings of sadness and loss.

Las Calaveras Catrinas are among the most popular figures in celebrating the Day of the Dead. They are skeletal statues ornamented with dresses, suits, flowers, and other props. The term itself translates to both “dapper skeleton” and “elegant skull,” and they act as symbols of how Latin cultures think of the death as co-existing with life.

During the four years I spent living in southern New Mexico, just an hour from the Juárez, Mexico border, I witnessed annual celebrations of Dia de los Muertos contrasting heavily against the white American culture in which death is taboo, denied, and quickly forgotten.

While living in the desert, I began to feel as though my life had stopped. The lack of seasons and the 320 days of the same sunny weather felt like a dream from which I couldn’t wake. I struggled to grasp a sense of change, of reality. It was as though I had come to the desert to die.


My return to New Mexico after a seven-year hiatus was a slap of familiarity as I headed south on I-25 toward Truth or Consequences, passing signs for other New Mexican towns, towns that I had stopped through at some point during my four years of living in Las Cruces. Unlike every other place in my world, New Mexico had remained unchanged, the freeway the only sign of civilization for miles between exits.

The most noticeable similarity was the heat. My first day at my Artist Residency where I had escaped to for two weeks to get some writing done was spent not writing, but lying on my bed with the window A/C on full blast and still unable to get my body temperature under control. It wasn’t until the next morning when the night sky had cooled the air that I was finally able to function.

Living in the desert is like living in stopped time, and to live means to defy death. The plants that best survive are those that can survive without water, as though the plants have found ways to defy nature. As a result, they are highly defensive, producing thorns—sometimes as long and as thick as toothpicks—to warn hikers and critters alike to stay away.

I had gone back to both dig deep into my memory bank and put stories on paper, but also to forget and rebuild. I had lost the previous six months to thoughtlessly prescribed pills, pills that took my life energy and my memory away from me. Six months gone with only a few choppy paragraphs scribbled in journals to help me recall the experience.

I didn’t know that when I got there, New Mexico would be on fire. The Silver Fire near Kingston had started when lightning struck the dry ground. The sparks spread easily, the fire licking its way through 80,000 acres of the Gila National Forest. It threatened and devoured small towns along the way, towns in which people lived their entire lives on ranches or running general stores or museums, towns in which the houses they had to abandon were their only concept of home, towns with populations of less than a hundred, some less than twenty. They were towns that were easily forgotten.

Still more than thirty miles away, the fire presented a hovering threat as it covered the horizon with thick, dark smoke. The burning earth smell filled the air, and ash drifted down from the sky like snow, a lingering reminder that the fire was ever-present, destructible, and menacing. It spread more and more each day covering thousands of acres, with only twenty percent containment.

The sky darkened and reshaped its smoke cloud, negotiating with the sun, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. I stood outside and took in the smoke, the ash, as my lungs fought for clean air. Every building, every vehicle had a layer of soot. Nature was shoving demise in our faces, getting so close that we could not see beyond the remnants of its destruction, could not breathe without ingesting death.


Melissa Grunow’s writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others. She is also a live storyteller, featured in the Moth StorySLAM, among other Detroit-area events. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter at @mel_the_writer.