Smoke Signals

Vegar Svanemyr

The parking lot was close to empty and Aniek and her husband Jan pulled in next to the three other cars parked at the far end. Their parents stood waiting for them outside the front door and greeted them with sad smile grimaces. Jan’s father opened and held the door for them all somewhat formally, and they entered into an open and airy lobby quite tastefully done in  raw concrete, exposed wood, and nice leather furniture that vaguely reminded Aniek of an upscale hotel. Hotel California. Some magazines were laid out on a table and she made a note to look at what could possibly have been deemed appropriate for light reading in a place like this. One end of the lobby continued into a broad, short hallway with a glimpse of what looked like a some kind of meeting room with a podium and floor-to-ceiling windows. At the other end of the lobby a more narrow hallway went around a corner towards the back of the building, from where a blonde good-looking, middle-aged woman dressed in a slightly gaudy, pinstriped suit with a bright green silk tie emerged. She greeted them with a blend of reserved courteousness, somberness and cheer, making Aniek wonder what it would be like to have her job. After some small talk a slight pause arose, and Aniek indicated she wanted to get to the matter at hand. The woman gestured for them to follow her back down the hallway.

Two heavy doors swung open to a plain white, utilitarian room dominated by a massive, windowless metal box painted in industrial green. Next to the square, casket-sized metal door in athe front sat a small panel of buttons, an lcd display, and a small company logo. Aniek realized  she had expected something like a big, brick pizza oven, or something they may have used in a concentration camp, where you could look in at everything.

On the second day after her daughter died, Aniek had gone with Jan to the mortuary to make choices and sign papers. With each question the grey, suit-clad mortician had peeked up briefly over his reading glasses, and then he had folded his hands over his papers and offered a more intent stare at them both.

“Now, have you given any thought as to the vessel you would prefer for your loved one?” he asked.

“Vessel, is that like the casket?” Aniek asked.

“If you will, yes.”

“Well, what is she in now?”

“That would be our standard coffin.”

“What is it made from? Pine or something like that?”

“No, it would be more of a cardboard type material.”


“Here, let me show you some different options, perhaps one of our natural…”

“No, the cardboard box is fine.”

Jan sat up in his chair.

“Aniek, we are not going to bury her in that.”

“We’re not burying her Jan, we’re burning her up, and she’s been laying in the box all this time so how bad can it be, and why should we cut down some perfectly beautiful living trees just to burn them right up again? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Perhaps you’d like to take some time to think about it?” the grey man interjected.

“We don’t need to think about it, we’ll use the cardboard box.”

Jan opened his mouth again, but Aniek stared at him until he looked away. The grey haired man’s eyes shifted back and forth between them, and when he realized it had been settled he moved on.

The short box that somehow had Frieda inside of it sat on a wheeled table in front of the incinerator. It looked like something that might contain documents or office supplies. The room, the oven, and the box were stark and strange in their plain mundanity. Aniek wished she could have built a bonfire, carried Frieda to it, placed her on top, lit the logs and watched it all burn. Then she would have used a rock to crush the bones and sift the ashes, crushed the little bits again and again until it was all a fine powder. It was useless. There were rules for everything here, and no one would be burning anyone else in a campfire.

A man dressed in white overalls that Aniek hadn’t noticed stepped forward from a corner, a little closer to the table with the box. The woman looked around at the small group and let them know with a small movement of her hand that anyone could say or do something. Aniek’s mother stepped up and put her hand on the box, Jan’s mother sobbed silently. She had been very upset about the cardboard box. Aniek wondered if she should do something, perhaps put her hand on the box like her mother or say something. She couldn’t think of anything. Frieda didn’t hover close like she had in the hospital, and whatever was inside the box felt far away and disconnected from the outside. It was better to just get it over with. The woman took a last glance around, and with a quiet tuck of her chin and a nod to her helper she opened the door and the two of them pushed the box into the opening. There was some friction with the box against the charred inside of the oven, so even though Frieda’s body wasn’t very heavy, and the two of them were practiced at this motion, there was something surprisingly physical about the maneuver that stood in contrast to the stillness and control that pervaded elsewhere. Once inside, the equilibrium was reestablished and the box returned to its quiet self. No flames were visible. They closed the door. The technician pushed on the buttons on the panel, and a number started ticking slowly upwards.

“Is that the temperature?” Aniek’s father asked.

“Yes it is,” said the woman.

They all stood silently and watched it. It moved up quite slowly.

“How long will it take?” asked Aniek.

“It will take about two hours. Once it is complete we will gather the remains, and then you can collect them from your mortician tomorrow. You are welcome to stay here for as long as you need to, you are also welcome to walk out into our garden.”

The oven hummed and the number kept climbing. That was it, Aniek thought, those numbers would just reach whatever it was they were supposed to reach. It said 547, then 548.

“How hot does it get?” she asked.

“It’ll get to about 950 degrees.”

The numbers ticked slowly upwards.

“Ok,” Aniek replied, then she walked out.

The garden was done in a half-wild, half-austere contemporary design with tall grasses, fine gravel, and rusted metal accents. A breeze came in over the ripe fields beyond the hedges, rustling Aniek’s loose strands of hair and the deep green crowns of the trees. It brushed over the back of her neck and underneath her ears. A twinge of something shot through her, at once aching and soaring. A trace of saturation and decay hung in the air, as if the season had tired of itself and yearned to turn into something else. She went after the thought and lost track of the feeling, then wanting it back, bent down to smell a pale purple flower in front of her. It had only the faintest scent and had probably been planted for looks. As she stood up and turned back towards the building she noticed the chimney, carefully hidden from view from everywhere except the back corner of the garden where she stood. A colorless, smokeless stream rose up from it, shimmering and undulating. It was Frieda’s body, melting into a hot column of gas. As the beams or waves of light traveled from the cool blue sky through the warm air that had been the cardboard box and her child’s body they slowed down and changed direction ever so slightly. She thought about how light bounces around everywhere, traveling in all directions all at once. There was no way to understand something like that. She followed the column up to where it disappeared into the fast-moving, small white clouds above.

Invisibly perched in a cypress tree

a strange bird shrieks like a cat.

The last flowers of spring,

grasses going to seed,

x days left in this world.

A quail startles up from a brush and is gone,

all of it here like a dream.

A mirror-blue sky not above or below,

love for the sake of itself.

Gravel pings under bicycle tires.

A laughing crow on a rock.

How do I handle hardship?

The water flows from the faucet,

the sun rises through the fog

and the dirty kitchen window.

Pointing the heart to the north

there’s no difficulty,

only death and practice.

Beauty lies beyond self-concern,

fear is a four-letter feeling,

saving ourselves and others

is the same effort.


Vegar Svanemyr was born in Norway, moved to America in his early twenties to study Zen with Genpo Roshi at the Kanzeon Zen Center. A decade later, after the death of his wife, he joined Lost Coin to become a student of Doen Roshi. He is currently living with his daughter in California’s Sonoma County, working on his first novel.