The form was ruined. The subtle curve of the ceramic body was marked by jagged fissures, bulging with hardened glue. Carl held the urn in his hands, running his fingers over the places where the lines of paint didn’t join up—the shards sanded down on impact so the jigsaw could never be completed; the lost dimensions now dust beneath the floorboards. His mother had rested within its walls for so many years and Carl had trusted those walls to protect her remains, but maybe his mother had been standing guard all along, as in life.
A week earlier Carl had driven out of town with his mother in the front seat, wrapped up tightly and strapped down by the safety belt. He had driven four hours West, chasing the sunset until he reached the ocean. She had told him what she expected him to do, she said “Carl, I won’t repeat myself, and you’d better not make a mistake.” She paused for a passive aggressive look, or maybe for dramatic effect, “I want to rest in the ocean and I’ve figured it all out, see. Richard was scattered at Rosslare and so if I go out at the beach at St David’s we’ll find each other right in the middle of the Irish sea”.
Now Carl sat in his kitchen, holding the dainty vase. The urn had once been so smooth his hardened palm could barely feel it, but now the cracks announced themselves against his skin like varicose veins, reminding Carl of illness and brokenness, of his mother—pale and fragile when she was near the end.
A surge of emotion rose through the man as he pictured Janet in those last days when she blended into the white hospital sheet but the ECG machine was still tapping away. He felt uncomfortable in himself but was alone in the house and so let himself shed a tear. Soon he was sobbing, his shoulders bucking and his chest spasming. He opened the lid of the urn, overcome in his moment of tristesse, or despondency, or whatever it was, and leaned over further so the salt and the water could replace the dust and the ash. He wanted to give himself to bring her back, to feed the dead space. Like a seashell he longed to put his ear to the mouth of the urn and hear the ocean’s call, his mother’s sweet voice. After a few moments the taps of his tears against the glazed base brought him back to himself and he slammed the lid shut, looking over his shoulder, mortified.
Despite the asymmetry of the ceramic vase, interrupted by these fissures, the product of Carl’s brief self-indulgence remained. He couldn’t bring himself to open the lid again, to have the tears return his gaze. He was also ashamed—he had filled the space that was only meant for her. It felt so unnatural to take up this space, as if he were filling a rock pool with cement. At least the lid would hide his indiscretion, the lapse in his process of selfless mourning. Within himself he had concealed artificial tears and constructed sentiments of sorrow. He had acknowledged what it should be to feel grief and had vowed to keep it within. Who was he to wish for a different outcome, to ask for a second chance? Perhaps the urn had been a test: protect your mother and to you she shall return. Perhaps she had been standing on the other side of the door, waiting to slip back into her woollen dresses and leather mules, but upon feeling the urn slip from his fingers and hearing the smash of hand-painted china she had dispersed, suddenly and without a second glance to Carl’s still face, watching the pieces scatter. He had lost his grip on the urn, and in return she had let go, untethering him from calculated process and releasing him unprepared into feeling.
The next day he climbed into the car again, wrapping the urn up twice as tightly, and checking the seat belt, double checking. He drove the four hours back to the burnt orange seascape, nightfall closing in, and walked toward the water, the blankets bundled around the little container, swamping its porcelain body. At the point on the beach when the surf could slip around his rubber soles he dropped the blankets, and they swayed to and fro, carried lightly on an inch of water. Carl took a step forward and removed the lid, his eyes fixed on the horizon. With his arms outstretched the urn was upturned, and his tears dripped out, immediately lost in the water below. He closed it again and gathered up the blankets, now sopping wet and smelling like gulls.
He looked back at the horizon, the clouds were moving quickly in the sky. By the look of the rip, he’d be with his parents by dawn. He turned and walked back up the beach with the urn hanging by its handle on his thumb—a tenuous hold but the glue stuck fast. The glue had held him within that place, and would give the urn a second life; a chance to live again granted only tothe inanimate.