Warped Pencil

Warped Pencil

“The Hail that Pounded like Chatting Frogs”

Zen couldn’t help but think of Gladriel Ferngully when he walked in this wood. Gladriel was a queen of fairies, a Mother Earth, an elvish woman, or what have you, it didn’t really matter.

Zen walked up the trail to a window pane hovering between trees and reflected on his backward surroundings. He always loved this trail if not for it’s mysteries even more so for it’s horrifying beauty. It was a place that encouraged imagination like nowhere else.

He saw something in the distance, or rather someone, walking toward him on the trail. She seemed to emerge out of the wood itself, her tall, slender limbs and long, flowing hair swaying in rhythm with the wind through the trees. Gladriel. It was too much. Sappy. But it approached all the same.

Zen gulped and glanced at his own reflection in the glass of the hovering window. He was a patient person, though he could be violent when he drank too much whiskey. His friends saw him as a skinny, squashed saint. Is that really how they saw him? What was up with these adjectives? Whatever. Let it pass for now as we see where this story leads. Once, Zen had even brought a husky baby bird back from the brink of death. But not even a patient person who had once brought a husky baby bird back from the brink of death was prepared for what Gladriel had in store today. WHAT?! LMAO! I’m so sorry. That cannot stay. It’s like a Mad Lib with random adjectives thrown in prepared spots. Who would ever call a baby bird “husky”? And the structure is so cliche! Nothing makes sense, but I cannot stop. Am I the one who’s mad to think that perhaps something worthwhile could come out of this nonsensical, dreamlike state?

The hail pounded like chatting frogs, calming Zen. He followed Gladriel up the trail where a piano stood in a ray of sun on the edge of the cliff. Dramatic. Cliche. She motioned to the piano and Zen massaged his fingers and began to play. As he played, Gladriel’s eyes gained an xanthocarpous glint. A what? “Xanthocarpous: the scientific name for what is commonly called a yellow berried nightshade. It is a prickly diffuse bright green perennial herb, woody at the base, found throughout India mostly in dry places as a weed on road sides and waste lands.” Well, that sounds most interesting. Maybe there’s something worth picking here, or maybe it’s just a weed.

Gladriel glared at Zen with the wrath of a thousand humming birds. She said in hushed tones, “I hate you…and I want a hug.” LMAO! What the heck is this?! But more importantly, how will Zen respond?

Zen looked back even more calm, his fingers still on the piano. “Gladriel, I admire your eyebrows,” he replied. Oh? Well, of course. How else would you respond to that?

They looked at each other with healthy feelings, like two bitter, bored bears sitting at a very intelligent wake, which had trance music playing in the background. Gladriel looked puzzled, her emotions blushing like a selfish, spitezabbling sandwich….

I can’t. I just can’t! They’re not even trying. They made up a pointless word! Can you even call this writing? Can you call this a story?

I should just go to sleep already. The muses obviously aren’t here, and I’m not getting anything out of this mess. Another wad of trash. Even if there’s a few gems in there, it’s not worth trying to pry them out and clean them off. I’ll wait for something better, something whole, something purely beautiful.

Inspired by Random Plot Generators

Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash


Advertisements

Earthen Story

Earthen Story

Historians excavate stone tablets of dead languages. Religious leaders preach creation stories. Biologists study evolution. Psychologist and sociologists look into the human mind… To the immortal, they all seem to belabor the same question but never reveal the whole truth.

Leaving this trail of inconclusive

trembling bits of some

momentous story.

Was it true, this time, the rumor?

The wherefore of our being here?

Does it come true in the retelling?

And truer in

the re-

presenting?

(“Prayer” by Jorie Graham)

The immortal finds a pail of moist clay—

Let that coolness envelop you for a moment. This clay has been dug out of the creek that you now hear trickling nearby. Can you feel it’s grains beneath your fingers? The ripple of fish, the rush of the current as the winter rains fall, the pecking of birds at stones? Let it’s life wash over you, let it guide you to its true form as we mold it under our hands.

Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. It is not the sand of the Arabian Desert, not the mud of Welsh marshlands, not the flaky slate of the mountains, but a firm, rich, rooted sediment from years of glaciers and flows that rest beneath you feet. Yet, it is the same earth. The grains and water molecules continuously moving and cycling, taking new forms, falling back into the Earth, taken up and thrown back down endlessly. In this manner, it is the same soil; the same soil the immortal touched millennia ago, the same soul from the beginning of time, even if it has changed in appearance.

A book of poetry lay open, it’s words escaping into the air we breathe.

…Yes, the speaking subject in

me wants

to rip the veil. Thought ‘if I bring my pen to bear inside something

will rip.’ But what? We write.

(“The Taken-Down God” by Jorie Graham)

We continuously tended to the vase, smoothing, dampening where needed. Then, when the urn is ready; when you are ready…put impressions into the shaped clay.

The immortal writes their story; the clay’s story; our story; the story of the Earth throughout all time. Memories and tales spin around vase—

Let it consume you, let the present slip away as we dive into the past, dive into eternity.

By their crossing through the one great

inwardness of

mind, by the straining to be held (grasped) by my

meanings…

And yet how they want to see behind themselves

twisting on their stems to see behind—as if there were a

sun

back there they need, as if it’s a betrayal,

this single forward-facing

Backglancing stirrings,

wedged—in between unsaying and

forgetting—

(“Gulls” by Jorie Graham)

Fill the vase from top to bottom with a lacework of text: Cuneiform blending into Latin into Norse, Greek, Italian, …, English, Chinese… and back again through endless time and space.

He speaks of the long chain back

to the beginning of ‘the world’ (as he calls it) and then, at last,

to the great no

beginning. I feel the no begin.

(“Evolution” by Jorie Graham)

The story ends at the beginning and begins at the end, spiraling down into the past and up into the future. How else could you fit eternity in the finite space of an urn? How else do you end a story without end? The immortal leans back, smears dust across their face and looks around.

*Structure of poetry directly transcribed from Jorie Graham’s book, Never. Poem titles stated in text. 

Photo by Shane Albuquerque on Unsplash

This piece written for the Calvin College graduate’s fiction blog: Presticogitations. Visit there for other great pieces from my fellow alumni! 

Blame Nature; Blame the Can

Blame Nature; Blame the Can

The road ended in a blockade of trees. A layer of dried leaves paved the ground, leaving only the occasional green flare of pine needles among the dark trunks. The forest smelled pungent like old jack-o-lanterns with smiles collapsed into snarls.

Fern parked the car.

Murphy opened the door and looked around, “Where’s the cabin? You said we’d be staying at a cabin.”

“Don’t freak out. It’s just a short walk.” Fern tossed Murphy a backpack from the trunk.

Murphy threw the bag over one shoulder and her mustard scarf over the other. Wind jostled her hair, knotting the bleached threads into snarls. She tried to fix her hair in the reflection of the car window.

“Come on, Murphy,” Fern called moving towards the trail head.

Murphy followed swatting mosquitoes. “Did you bring bug spray?”

“They’re not bothering me. Maybe you’re jinxed because of that can you threw out the window on the way here.”

“Oh, shut up.”

After they had walked for a few minutes, they could hear the trickle of a stream and river flies reinforced the mosquitoes. Murphy smashed a fly, flicked the carcass off her palm, and grabbed the hand-sanitizer hanging off her backpack covering up the smudge with the scent of fresh linen. “How far away is this cabin?” Murphy said.

“Just a little farther,” Fern said. “It’ll be cozy and relaxing, I promise. Just what we need after those killer mid-terms.”

Murphy sighed, “Don’t remind me. I don’t even want to know my scores for chemistry and biology.”

“I’m sure you did fine. I helped you study,” Fern winked and ambled ahead.

The clouds darkened and several droplets hit the ground. “Of course, it’s going to rain,” Murphy said.

“It’s just a little drizzle,” Fern said. But seconds later, the rain pelted them in sheets mingled with tiny bits of ice. They covered their heads and ran dripping into the cabin as the wind tore after them.

Murphy threw down her backpack and went to the bathroom while Fern started up the fireplace. Cobwebs strung every inch of the bathroom, and when a spider skittered across the floor, Murphy stomped on it with so much force the floorboard cracked.

“Are you alright in there?” Fern called from the kitchen.

Murphy came out drying her hair with a towel and slumped into the chair closest the fire. “I only came because you like this sort of thing.”

Fern poured two cups of tea from the screaming kettle as wind rattled the windows and thunder rumbled overhead. The electric lights flickered and went out. Fern smirked and threw another log on the fire.

Murphy stared at the writhing flames, her knees drawn up to her chest, a scratchy wool blanket clutched around her. She rung a twig from the wood pile with her fingers scraping off the bark and leaving gashes in the grain. Fern handed her the tea, and Murphy set aside the mutilated twig.

“Have your parents found a new house yet?” Fern asked.

Murphy kept an eye on the writhing flames. “No. They’re still in an apartment. They’re thinking of moving to a different town since Kendelville was completely wiped out by the fire.”

Fern sipped her tea.

“It’s not fair. I’d lived there my whole life, and I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to the house. And all of my stuff—besides what I had in the dorm—it’s all gone.” Murphy put her feet down, and a mouse scampered out from under her chair sending her screaming out of the chair. “I swear nature has it out for me.”

Fern laughed, “It’s just a mouse. Think of it like a little brother teasing you. My brother’s always trying to annoy me.”

Murphy sat in a different chair. “It’s not just the mouse. It’s that fire, the flooding, the earthquakes. It’s like James Henry who took a gun to school in St. Bern and shot everyone for no good reason.”

Tea spilled over the edge of Fern’s cup as she set it down. “That’s too far.”

They locked eyes, and then Murphy looked down into her cup, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” A leak in the roof dripped onto Murphy’s head, and she stood to move seats yet again.

Fern patted the couch, and Murphy sat beside her. The cabin groaned. Fern glanced at water streaming over the panes and wrapped an arm around Murphy’s shoulders, “You really shouldn’t have thrown that can out the window.” They sat together as trees thrashed against the walls and cracks of lightning threatened the roof over their heads.

Cover Image by Imaginings


InFinite Time

InFinite Time

Time is fluid, yet linear, like a ribbon adrift on the wind. It extends and restricts, even at moments folding in on itself. The most turbulent times occur around the equinoxes when daylight ripples and the seasons change. It is during these mystical hours that certain worlds that usually live in different times may be able to touch if only for a moment. Perhaps you have experienced this when you take an evening walk in the woods and as the light tilts, suddenly you find yourself lost among trees and trails that should be familiar. Or when you pass a stranger on the street and swear you know them, but from where? From when?

Usually, these encounters pass quickly and are forgotten. A mere moment of déjà vu. A chill up your spine. The sensation of something brushing past you. But for some, these passing moments become the most important ones.

 

The scent of cherry blossoms filled the car as Mo and her mother drove down the boulevard towards Granny’s cottage, The Golden Equinox.

Eddies of pink petals kissed Mo’s finger tips. 

“The cherry blossoms are beautiful this year,” her mother said.

“I wish they would last longer,” Mo sighed and tapped her fingers against the outside of the car.

“The brief moments just make us treasure them that much more,” her mother said as they meandered down the drive.

“Do you think Dad and Sammy and Aunt Jewel are here yet?”

“They don’t usually appear until closer to dusk you know.”

Mo unfastened her seat belt as her mother parked the car. She grabbed her bag and ran up onto the porch. “Are they here yet?” she asked Granny who was sitting by Auntie Em on the bench swing.

“Mo! Happy birthday! My, you’re growing up,” Granny said.

“I love that hat,” Auntie Em said.

“You know, I have some clothes in the attic you might like, Mo. It’s so funny how fashions come back,” Granny smiled.

“Anything’s better than that hot pink hair you had last year,” Auntie Em said. “What was it your cousin Sammy called you? Flamingo Mo? Flaming Mo?” Sammy was the closest to Mo’s age even in the extended family. 

Mo glanced through the windows and around the yard. “Sammy’s not here yet?”

“Your Uncle Jo and the cousins are out back.”

Uncle Smith never came to the reunion anymore. Seeing Sammy and Aunt Jewel was too hard on him. He spent most of his days alone, and Mo couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to see the ones he loved the most.

“The Manns haven’t appeared yet,” Auntie Em said. 

Granny whispered to Mo’s mother who was opening the door, “The little pea is sleeping in the crib, so don’t wake her up.” 

 

The scent of garlic asparagus warmed the cabin. Mo went to the bathroom. The sun was beginning to slant through the yellow glass making the yellow and orange floral wallpaper look mottled and strange. Her mother was humming to the baby in the bedroom. Her cousins drank and laughed in the backyard. The bench on the porch creaked. But all Mo could hear was the ticking of the grandfather clock as she stared into the mirror. 

After the rest of the family had eaten and laughed and gone to bed, Mo stood on the porch alone. She watched the stars spinning above, the trees swaying in the wind, the whole world tilting too quickly.

“Mo? Mo?!”

“I’m here, Mom.”

Her mother flew out the door and embraced her. “Mo,” she cried. “Mo, don’t leave the house tonight. I don’t want to lose you.” 

Mo stayed on the porch despite her mother’s tugging. “They’re coming aren’t they?”

“Maybe they can’t make it this year. Come inside.” Her mother dragged her into the house.

“But they always come. Every year.”

 

Mo lay awake in the dark wiggling her toes under the quilt. The clock chimed and twelve hours pounded in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“FlamingMo? You’re not asleep are you?”

“Sam the Mann?!” she shot up and hugged her cousin.

He wasn’t a shadow or ghost or some fantasy; he was here, flesh and blood. She could no longer hear the clock. Even if he would scatter like petals with the first rays of morning, she knew he would return as soon as the snow melted again next year, and they would continue to share their birthdays throughout eternity. 

 

Photo by Imaginings


Planets Apart

Planets Apart

“While you’re home, will you go through these boxes? I told Dad not to throw them out until you had looked.” Mom pointed to the boxes crammed in the corner of my room–or rather, the new guest bedroom.

“Sure.” I couldn’t even remember what was in those boxes. I had been adding things to them for years—things I didn’t want to lose.

I set aside my laptop and plopped down among the boxes. I tore open the lids and pulled out each item. The first box was from high school, mostly papers full of scratches that had made sense to me at some point, I think. Soon my recycling bin was overflowing and old clothes and books to donate lay strewn about the floor.

In the middle school box, I found a trinket box. The polished wood and elegant carvings seemed out of place among the stuffed animals and toilet paper rolls smothered in star-shaped glitter. A cheap lock from a diary held the latch shut. Whatever I had put in it must have been important, but I couldn’t remember. I easily snapped off the lock and opened the wooden box.

Nestled in a velvety red cloth lay a leather bracelet with seven beads of varying metals each carved with a glyph.

I touched each bead as memories twinkled in the distance. This bracelet made me look like an idiot in sixth grade astronomy. The gold bead was the Sun; silver was the Moon; the swirling iridescent bead representing mercury was the planet Mercury; the rusty iron was Mars. That left copper, tin, and lead. The symbol on copper was for female, so that must be Venus. What were the other two? Alice would know.

Would she still have her bracelet after all these years? We had bought them at a renaissance festival together.

Now, I was craving turkey legs and keg root-beer. Alice hated those; she only ate salad and coffee.

Whatever happened to her anyway? I rolled the beads between my fingers. We had really drifted apart. There had always been space between us; I think I had insisted on matching bracelets hoping that it would tie us together.

We used to spend hours in the woods collecting “ingredients.” I made pixie dust and ink; she made poison and hexes. While I wrote stories about adventures and love, she wrote novels that merged history, science, and Gothic horror in such vivid detail that I eventually had to stop reading them: I was having nightmares. Her drawing was just as vivid and detailed, obviously inherited from her relatives that had drawn the framed portraits around the house. She could even draw a horse. The best thing I could draw was a cube. 

My sister told me to stay away from Alice; she said she was weird. But I didn’t have that many friends, and I wasn’t about to let go of them. She was a good friend. The type of friend that you can call by nicknames, create secret languages, go on adventures, and play games on the bus that no one else understands. 

In high school, I was overwhelmed with studies, and Alice seemed even farther away. She was home schooled now and had friends of another sort. She had switched from novels and realistic drawing to manga. I wished her the best, but I knew nothing about manga. Weren’t they like comics? If nothing else, she still loved Lord of the Rings; now, I could quote the movies just like she had when she introduced me to Tolkien’s world. 

Now, I was studying physics in college and writing for the campus newspaper. I wondered what Alice was doing. 

I tugged on the bracelet, but the band wouldn’t stretch over my hand and it snapped. The planets spun around the room. It took a while, but I found them all and returned them to the wooden box. I would fix it later. 

I was beginning to pack things up when Mom came in with a garbage bag. “Is this garbage?” She reached for the box of loose beads.

“NO!” I lunged across the room and snatched the broken bracelet to my chest. “I’m going to fix it.”

“Are you?” Mom raised an eye brow.

It was an easy fix; I just needed a new string. It was the beads that made the bracelet. 

 

Photo by Shalom de León on Unsplash

Edited from original submission for YeahWrite 


 

Imminent Wandering

Imminent Wandering

“Can you get the lights?” The roar of the storm drowned Noah’s voice. The solar light whipped shadows around the cabin. “Nah, mate? Fine, I’ll get it.” Noah sat up and braced his elbows against the sides of the cabin to keep from bashing his head. As he reached for the light, a wave crashed over the craft. The floats thrashed in the tumult tipping the ocean row boat off balance.

“Shit!” Noah yelled. He caught the ceiling as he fell up. The boat rolled in the massive waves. The GPS dot blinked somewhere at the edge of the Adriatic Sea, miles from the mouth of the Black Sea where he was supposed to be.

As if being upside down wasn’t enough of a problem, the boat jolted with a screech as it collided and slid off something hard. The door buckled and cold, black water streamed in. Noah grabbed everything in reach—his sleeping bag, raincoat, extra socks—and crammed them into the gap. The water seeped into the fabrics. The solar light winked at his toes as the boat rocked.

“Just gonna hafta suss it out, huh?” Noah looked up at the floor of the cabin. The GPS fizzled into static.

His fingers danced over the seven beads on his bracelet.

“Livin’ The Dream!” he laughed. Water was beginning to pool under him. He looked out the port holes and saw nothing except black. The cracks of thunder weren’t audible anymore, but the grating drone of the currents pulling the siding off the boat was enough to make his bones shiver.

He dug out the emergency radio, but couldn’t get a signal. “I’m a flamin’ galah!” He punched the wall and hung his head.

The seven beads around his wrist shimmered a vibrant blue with streaks of gold–fool’s gold.

“She’ll be ‘right. She’ll be ‘right.” He whispered as tears dropped into the rising water. “Asadi! What am I doing?!”

Her last letter had arrived with the bracelet, seven Lapis lazuli she had mined herself in Afghanistan. Each bead represented an ocean and realm of heaven based off the Mesopotamian history she was studying. The next message he received was her name among a list of the dead in a news report.

Heaven? What heaven? Would he soon land in the same realm as her? He doubted it. So why had he rowed across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, and deep into the Mediterranean with his eyes set on Afghanistan? How could he expect there to be anything left of her in a country so battered by war and death? There was nothing for him there. But, he couldn’t stay in Australia. He couldn’t do nothing.

He kissed the beads envisioning Asadi’s hair blowing in the wind, her eyes full of curiosity, the warmth of her smooth skin, her lush lips…  Noah cried.

Never stop exploring, the last words on each of her letters. She had probably seen death as another adventure, but with his toes going numb in the water, Noah couldn’t imagine anything except the icy darkness consuming him. Water drenched him up to the waist.

He pressed every button on the emergency radio, but it wouldn’t respond. “I can’t just stay here and wait to die!” He pulled on the life jacket and fumbled with the latches.

He stared at the bracelet, his hand resting on the handle of the door. He took a deep breath, his hand trembling, and pushed the handle down.

The latch released. The door blasted in. Water slammed Noah to the back of the cabin and then dragged him out. He grabbed the edge of the boat, but the whole craft was sinking. The current pulled on Noah and the boat slowly slipped deeper and deeper into the abyss.

A flash lit the surface of the water for an instant.

Noah’s lungs were on fire. His eyes stung with the salt water. The life jacket begged for the surface. He let go.

He broke the surface and gasped. The next moment, a wave broke over him and sent him tumbling. The life jacket hauled him to the surface again. He touched his wrist and found it bare; the bracelet was gone. He groped in the darkness and then stopped. What did he expect?

He ducked the next wave and came up on the other side. In the distance a beam of light searched the water: a lighthouse.

He hit his chest, activating the blinking red safety light, and swam towards the beacon. Everything hurt. Everything was wet. Everything was cold. But, what could he do except keep moving?

 

Photo by Mitch Mckee on Unsplash


ξεθωριάζει*

ξεθωριάζει*

The island of Crete rose out of the sea. In the cockpit, Aris’s golden hair caught the light of the setting sun, his eyes as blue as the Mediterranean. I snapped a picture.

The floats hit the water spraying up mist as he landed the plane in the bay. I adjusted my dress and looked at the bulletin in my lap.

Plein’s Atlas Grand Launch – Public ceremony for the publication of Plein’s Atlas and the launch of Professor Plein’s world tour.” Below the title Ba-ba stood in the garden, his hand on the Armillary Spheres that my sisters and I had hung from while he taught us constellations.

Aris pulled up to the dock. “The water girls are home again. I remember sneaking to this beach with the boys when we were kids. We thought you and your sisters were sea nymphs.”

People poured into the patio overlooking the bluff. “Now, we only get together when Ba-ba’s going on a trip. I could do without the fanfare.”

Aris kissed me. “When we get married, it’ll just be family.”

“If we get married,” I replied.

“We crossed the boundaries of colleagues and friends a long time ago. How long must I chase you?”

****

Camera flashes illuminated the banquet patio packed with people from all over the world.

My second oldest sister, Ally, sat at Ba-ba’s right hand.

Electra sat to his left soaking up the limelight as she boasted her headlining summer fashion piece.

Ce-ce and her husband sat beside Electra in their bright African colors. “I’ll have a vegetable couscous,” Ce-ce said to the waiter.

“Sorry, but it’s not on the menu.”

“Oh, right. Kremidia Ofta kai Chidata then.”

I ordered the same.

“I’ll have a minestrone.” Maia said beside me.

“Sorry, but it’s not on the menu.”

“Oh,” Maia glanced at the menu.“The Kremidia Ofta kai Chidata is good.”

Tiggy ordered the same.

Aris chuckled, “You girls always did like onions.”

“Mero hates onions.” I glanced at the empty space at our table.

***

Ba-ba had spent his life mapping the world using medieval devices and stars. It was more than a hobby or passion; it was his life. Ba-ba stood at the head of the table, “This Atlas is a big achievement, but my girls will always be my guiding light.” We drank to the toast.

“A picture, if you would. The Six Plein Sisters with the Professor!” a reporter called out.

I stood slowly as the others gathered on the edge of the patio.

“Is it Mero?” Aris asked me.

I turned away from the cameras. “I’m worried about her. It doesn’t sound like she even leaves her apartment anymore.”

“We can stop by South Korea to visit her on our way to Australia.”

I nodded and forced a smile for the picture trying not to notice the void on my left.

After the picture, reporters engulfed the group:

Was Ally accompanying the Professor on the world tour because of health concerns?

Did Maia’s research on the Sassi de Madera relate to her local studies of the ruins of Knossos?

Was her Italian husband, Zeno, having an affair?

When was Electra’s next design coming out in New York?

Would Ce-ce’s studies on African lions help fund her husband’s Prometheus Scholarship for students in poverty?

Which mountain range was Tiggy going to hike next?

Could Aris show some pictures of the aurora borealis from our recent trip to Alaska? How did he expect the aurora australis to compare?

**

My sisters dazzled as I slipped away. My fingers lingered along the white-washed walls. I sat in the quiet and dark of the garden.

The Pleiades constellation rose in the East. I counted five stars and squinted. The sixth was fading and the seventh wasn’t even visible.

“Astero, why are you crying?”

“Ba-ba!” I startled and sniffled as he sat beside me, “I can’t see Merope. And it looks like Sterope is fading, too.”

Ba-ba looked at the sky. “But we know where they are even if we can’t see them, right?” He wiped the tears from my cheeks, his own eyes glistening. “I never forget my stars.”

I curled into his warm embrace.

“Gida’s arrest has been hard on Mero. Don’t blame her for wanting to hide,” he said.

“She shouldn’t have married him.”

“If you fear the storm, you’ll never leave the dock. That’s not how I raised you.” He kissed my forehead. “I’ll always sail to my girls, even on the darkest night.” He pointed to the sky without hesitation. “Merope is right there, waiting for us to come find her.”

*

*Title is Greek for “fade”

**Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash