The house and yard dressed in a skin of ash.
It was raining embers, the night air thronged
with giddy petals that swirled
on the updraft, flared
to incandescence before curling into papery
ash, as we fled around midnight, my son
bewildered in my arms, his sister bright-eyed,
exclaiming, It’s snowing, Christmas just weeks away.
We sweep the aftermath like penitents, the air
acrid, shriven, ashen, as it was on the day
of Qing Ming, Clear Brightness, in another life,
when families filed to the tombs with broom,
rice wine, boiled whole chicken and fruits, and stacks
of paper money, gold and silver currency
valid only in afterlife. The dead were fed,
their abodes swept, and the filial queue
of joss offered. Then the money was given
in fanned reams to the flames, transferred
to replenish the ancestors’ underworld credit.
Once Grandma brought us to the cemetery,
dragging us in tow with armfuls of offerings,
filing up and down the crowded ranks
for the right address. I don’t remember whose grave
it was we were tending, or Grandma telling us
to pray. Only a blurred oval photo of a man
on the worn headstone, and the hundreds of fires
around us, the air swimming
with ash-drifts, the sun eclipsed in the smoke
but its heat made more palpable by the pall
that hung over the day. I imagined the ancestors
catching the burned money like willow catkins, turning
them into real millions that they could send back
to us to bail my father out of bankruptcy.
Now grave news from the living I have left;
the cemeteries are dug up, razed, the dead
expelled, their bones unhoused, ashed
and relocated to columbaria to make
room for progress. No more tomb-sweeping
and picnicking with the dead.
No such unrest for Grandma and Dad
who went straight into the fire.
Anyway they turned Catholic
and have no use for paper money
or earthly feasts.
Here the bush is charred, the trees
splintered, pulverised like Dad’s bones
after the fire. The ash taste clings
to the house, even after hosing and sweeping.
It seeps into my dreams, into the new life
I have made, and on my sleep it is still raining
ash, flakes falling like memory, on my dead settling
like a snowdrift of forgetting.