Ink from Ashes

Ink from Ashes

Ink from Ashes 1920 1280 Charles Ellis

When the ashfall came, we stayed indoors, and when it stopped, we dug ourselves out. We were far enough from the eruption that nothing had burned, but when the rain finally came, it was black as ink. The clouds were like stubborn bruises, gray and blue and green, and the sun was only a vague pulse behind them. Granny Boeme was the one who thought to save the ash, four big vessels in the cellar.

“This is the first and purest ashfall,” she told us when we asked why she bothered to bottle it. It was everywhere outside, burying the plants and piling up in drifts around the beehives. “Someday, someone will want their words penned in smoke from the heart of the world, and we will have this to offer them.”

She was right.

The next falls weren’t the same clean, quartz black — they were smoky, then a pale gray, then at last a sickly white. The ash stopped, but the clouds stayed. The crops failed, between the dirty rain and the smothered bees and the soot-stained sky. When we finally left, Granny Boeme made us take only three things with us: her strawberry plants, the queens from the hives, and all four vessels of ash.

“Berries, bees, and words,” she said. “All anyone needs.”

She was right.

We settled in the shell of a village, abandoned by people who had either believed the soothsayers and moved at their leisure, or who had so disregarded the auguries that they hadn’t prepared at all and had been starved out of their homes even before we were. There was ash here, too, but much less. Already, green was poking up through it as it washed away down the river and billowed away on the wind.

We planted the strawberries and built new hives for the queens, and between mouthfuls of boot-leather jerky and foraged greens and mushrooms, Granny Boeme taught me to make ink sticks from the vessels of ash.

“Let it stew. Let it set,” she told me on the day we poured the first render into molds. “That’s chief in the art. It will take strength not to use it. It will look like black gold, in darkly gleaming bricks on the cellar shelves. The luster will catch your eye, your words will sing to you from inside those pearly blocks, promising you the world for letting them out, but to use the ink before it is ready is to cheapen it, and to give your words a shorter life.” She nodded. “I will be dead,” she said, and patted my shoulder, “long before your words touch paper.”

She was right.

It has been many years since Granny Boeme walked into the forest and didn’t come out. For a long time after, I couldn’t look at those blocks. The words trapped inside them didn’t call to me anymore, and I began to wonder whether they had died with her. Not of old age, but starved by grief and neglect. I had to go looking for them again, with a will I thought had wasted away too. I had to unearth them like green shoots beneath the ashfall, coax them up and nurture them with tears and time and lamplight.

When I grew old and sick, I almost wasted the last of them. I knew I would die and feared my words would die with me, but Granny Boeme, in a dream, put a cold cloth on my forehead and told me: “Stories, like ash, can’t really die. They can only be swept down the river, or away by the wind, to a different place, to be made into new things. When you die, this ink and all the stories you couldn’t tell will find their way to another place, another time, and someone will dip their pen, but write your words.”

And she was right.

Header photograph © S. Schirl Smith.

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