Ashes to Emily

The end of the world was born on August second, at two in the morning. She weighed six pounds and two and a quarter ounces.

The last great mistake of mankind (or Emily, as her parents called her) was wet, uncomfortable, and utterly hairless. She didn't make a single sound. Instead, she looked around the room. Eyes colored the bright blue of confusion stared first at the doctor. Then they found the exhausted wreck of her mother. Finally, they settled on her father. He was passed out on the floor.

The doctor had dealt with a great number of babies, but he was unused to them taking everything in so calmly. Emily looked to him like she had a kind of clinical disinterest in everything. It was a scalpel-sharp world-view, and the doctor recognized it from medical school. He also recognized, at that moment, that Emily wasn't breathing.

Emily had just finished assessing the carpet, the bed, and the curtains when a great hand reached out of nowhere and slapped her, lightly. It wasn't an unkind gesture. It was kind of like a firm handshake. It said the world hurts, so toughen up.

Half a minute after two in the morning on August second, Emily took her first breath.

Time grows liquid around the ends of things, sloshing forward and back like a tide. Bits of the past are dragged up and deposited on the shore of the now.

Eighteen-year-old Emily was not afraid of the dark. She liked loud music and warm air and soft seats. She liked the way the moon looked, cupped by dark clouds. She liked boys.

Jarod, for his part, liked Emily. He owned a truck. They went to school together an hour's drive away from a state forest.

It was a warm night in July and the engine was off. A cassette tape was sounding triumphantly through the truck's tape deck, drowning out the little sounds the people in the seats were making.

Jarod kept trying to catch Emily's attention; trailing fingers through her hair, whispering at her. She didn't ask him to stop, but her attention was elsewhere. Her eyes were fixed like floodlights, aimed through the open roof up to where the moon lay, crested on the tops of the trees.

It was pure and beautiful. A polished bone. It washed waves of second-hand magic down upon the earth, filling the night with a soft under-glow. For a moment, Emily thought she could see something other than reflected light. It was silver, fine to the point of invisibility. Braided into the moonlight, it spilled over everything. The grass, the trees, even the truck drank it up. Emily opened her mouth slightly, willing it to sink into her, and Jarod pushed his face in the way.

Six years sideways from that day, Emily was twelve. The world made sense to her in a way that it did to very few twelve-year-olds, but still she didn't see why it was fair for her to have to move.

Her parents had said things like 'her old school was stifling her' and 'she could always make new friends.' They didn't consider how long it had taken her to make old friends, or that she was happy finishing her math lessons in five minutes. It always meant that much more time to study the birds outside the window.

Her new school was cramped and careful about things like treating everyone with respect. Respect meant things like using big, clumsy, vestigial words when you wanted to talk to someone. It meant stopping up the things you wanted to say with grammar. For the parents, it meant that the small fortune a year's education cost felt like a wise investment indeed. For Emily, it felt like she had been handcuffed by the tongue.

"Dear Jarod, I respect your opinions, but I would like to know why you did not enjoy today's lecture." Said Emily. She wished she had a chisel to pare down the sentence with.

"Because, dear Emily, Ms. McKenzie felt, in her humble opinion, that she had to use the phrase 'differently gifted' every time she talked about students who did not have the pleasure of going to our most respectable school." Jarod stuck out his tongue and made a face. "Do you like talking like that? Really? I always feel like I'm gonna throw up a thesaurus." Jarod made the appropriate gestures.

"I, um," Emily stood outside of the main gate of Pfizer's Academy for the Gifted. Her hair was neatly folded into a braid. Her uniform was freshly washed. Her backpack sat quietly on her back. Her tongue was busying tying itself into knots, trying to wrestle with half a year of language conditioning. "No, I don't. I hate it, really." The words echoed like a rebellion in the warm air.

"Then don't use them. I don't. What's the worst the teachers can do?" Jarod paused for a second, mulling over the thought. "Well, I mean, they could replace us with robots." He wiggled two fingers, antennae-like, behind his head.

Emily had spent years practicing when to laugh. For some reason, it had never come easily to her. During the last half year at Pfizer's, she had not had many opportunities to put that practice to use.

Jarod looked at her expectantly, and she complied.

College was a big, scary thing. A beast that sat on the horizon and ate the sun. It belonged in an Egyptian myth, where heroes and Gods could chase it across the sky and stick it with a great, burning spear that would melt down into lead and poison it from the inside out. Or maybe that was a Greek story.

Emily sat at her writing desk, scratching in details on an application. She wasn't certain why her birthday or gender should matter much to a myth, but she dutifully filled out the fields anyway.

Her parents had told her that they would support her wherever she wanted to go. Her school had announced, during an assembly, that there were Pfizer graduates in all the top ten schools in the country. As if that was one of their goals. To collect them all.

Jarod had told her that he was going to a state college. To keep his parents happy and to keep himself in the education system. He said that what you studied at college didn't matter nearly so much as what you did.

Emily wasn't sure. She was so used to being pushed back and forth every which way that she had never had time to develop her own opinion. She found herself wishing for a college with windows. And birds.

Emily remembered her first time seeing the moon. It was through a side window in the little compact that drove her back from the hospital. Her father and mother were there too. One of them was driving. But she didn't remember them much. They were side-shadows. Charcoal smears on the edge of consciousness. Everything that was, everything that she could possibly think of was all drunk up by the moon.

It dominated her vision. It filled out, full and radiant, as the night set around it. It sprinkled little silver things, like confetti, out over the earth. She was vaguely conscious of reaching for one of them. Stretching out on unformed arms that pushed and pressed against the blanket that kept her wrapped. It slid right past her, and wormed its way into the car seat.

That was the first time Emily could remember crying.

The second and only other time that Emily cried was on a July night, in the passenger's seat of a pickup. Jarod pulled back, confusion in his face. His eyes looked blue in the half-light. "I'm sorry," he said, for a full several seconds. Then, tentatively, he asked "what did I do?"

Emily shook her head, lost in the wordlessness of a ruined moment. She tried to stare around Jarod, to catch another glimpse of the moon.

Jarod saw her squirming and withdrew, at a loss for words. He didn't move out of the way of the moon, and Emily kept crying; big silver drops gliding down her face.

Jarod reached over and fumbled with the glove compartment. He withdrew a box of tissues, tore the cardboard cover off, and dabbed at Emily's cheeks. "Hey, it's alright. Whatever it is, I'm sure it will be alright." Emily shook her head and Jarod darted his hand back, narrowly avoiding poking her in the eyes. "Was it something I did?"

Finally he pulled back, baring the night sky again. The moon was still there, burning solitary, but the silver strands were gone. Emily's tears stopped. They sank back into her eyes, lurking just behind the pupils.

Emily had made a wish on her fifth birthday. In the center of a circle of adoring family members, she had said "I wish for the things that I want." Then she had blown out the candles on the cake.

"You don't have to tell me what's wrong. You have that right."

"I don't know what's wrong, I…" Emily realized that the words weren't lined up in a neat little queue for her to speak. She stopped. "This is going to sound so childish."

"Guess what?" Jarod leaned back in his seat, folding his arms. There was a space between them now. Through it streamed the lifeless moonlight.


"Chicken butt. Childish doesn't bother me, Em. Now, what were you going to say?"

"You know that I like watching birds?"

"That's why you're going to school for that ornitho-mathingy." He managed a grin.

"No, that's not it. I don't want to study birds. I like watching them. I don't want to know how they work or what they eat or why they fly. They're like quick little angels. You can't take them apart and make sense of them."

"I don't understand."

"You're not supposed to. That's the point. They're birds."

"Look, Em…"

"I tried that. I try it whenever I can, and people just ask me what I want to do. Like it isn't enough just to see things."

There was a three-sentence collision inside Jarod's mouth. Words had swerved to avoid being said, and they had met in a punctuated pile-up. A lone tire rolled away from the wreckage. "What?"

"I don't really ever want to do anything."

At around the same age that they see the evening news for the first time, just about everyone decides that they want to change the world. The nightly report might be about a fire, or a flood, or an adult doing something that they were taught not to. It might not even be anything big. It might be the shrinking number of turtles in the northeast wetlands. Turtles are pretty big for a kid.

When Emily heard about the extinction of the humming birds, she was sad for an entire week. Her friends asked her what was wrong. Her parents cooked her favorite foods, to no avail. Finally, the week passed and her sadness cleared. She had decided that there was nothing she could do about it. There were just too many people running around and twisting everything up.

"Why would you say that?"

"Because I know what I can do."

It was on a clear, cold Saturday night when the humming birds stopped being extinct. Emily was thirteen, and emotions and logic were pulling her in different directions. Stretching her out. She had grown half a foot during the last year.

Emily had been sitting at her desk (newly bought, a Christmas present from her parents,) and flipping through an encyclopedia that was just as new. She was pulling apart the pages at random, trying to find something that would catch her interest.

Honduras? No. Himalayas? No. Humans? Boring. Humming….

Emily stopped, and sat, and remembered. There was a little tag next to the article that described why they had died out, and what they had looked like, and when the last recorded sighting had been.

Impulsively, she reached out across her desk, grabbed the shutters over her window, and tugged them open. Moonlight spilled out across the page. There were threads of silver in the light, fragile twirling things. Emily reached out and pinched one between her fingers. Suddenly, it was as tight as a guitar string.

She didn't think things through. She wasn't thinking about anything at the moment, just remembering humming birds. With the thread held fast in one hand, she reached out with the other and plucked it. A sound rang soft through her bedroom, filling the air. The thread grew warm between her fingers and, in surprise, she let it go. It shot down into the dictionary, burrowing furiously into the paper.

Weeks later, Emily convinced herself it had been a dream.

That summer, she saw a humming bird hovering an inch off the honeysuckle in her parent's flowerbeds.

"Em, humming birds never went extinct."

"I know that. They never went extinct now."


"Pretend, for a moment, that you believed me." Emily drew herself up, pressing her back against the side window. "Would that scare you?"

"I think, coming from anyone else, yes. It would. But you…" he trailed off. "I don't think you even step on ants, Em. I trust you, cosmic voodoo powers or no."

Jarod was somewhat surprised by the warm weight that pressed against his body, knocking him off balance. He didn't mind, though. Somewhere, though all the craziness, the evening had gotten back onto the right track. Echo-locating, trusting in the dark that he would find his way, his lips brushed against a cheek.

Somewhere in the middle of things, Emily felt long unused instincts stirring to life. She looked up at the sky, at the moon, through the roof, and saw the silver strings rippling down through the light.

She didn't think. Borne by impulse, her hand lifted, and caught, and strummed a single note.

All she would ever remember thinking was that she wanted things to stay as they were, forever.

We don't always get what we want, began Emily's essay, Sometimes, we don't even get the things we need. That is why we need to reach out and change the world. To re-shape it until it mirrors our dreams.

There is precious little poetry in nature that we haven't torn down, or bulldozed over, or roped off and charged admission for. Birds are one of the few things that we've left untouched. Not birds of paradise, of course. They grew too big and bright for their own good, and they couldn't help but catch our eyes. I would like to talk about common birds. Sparrows. Wrens. Crows. So many of us treat them like windblown garbage, but I think that they're worth another look…

Emily scraped the paper off of her desk, balled it up, and threw it away. The introduction was right, but it wasn't the kind of essay that dusty old men in faded suits scored well. Setting her teeth, she picked her pen back up and started again.