Vermilion: a short story
By: Peg Steiner
I have carried my husband’s ashes today down the Okavango. I have had these ashes with me for almost two months now—the same “earthly remains” handed to me by the undertaker who wanted to sell me a memorial urn, ranging in price from one hundred dollars to ten thousand.
I nearly bought the one with the Greek-like figures. I thought Rory, a poet, might have been amused to be enclosed in his own “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But it wasn’t fucking funny to me. And Rory is dead. So I took the cardboard box the black-suited mortician handed me and put it all on the hearth. Ashes to ashes, I thought. A few weeks later I transferred the ashes to a Dixie Delight peanut tin, the lid hammered tight against any sudden gust of wind that might want to separate us. Rory had been a connoisseur of peanuts. And I guess he still is.
On this fine African morning, chilly with no hint of the heat to come, I step onto a motor boat, and the Botswanan driver—a brown man, not black—introduces himself. “Good morning, ma’am. I will be your river guide. My name is Salvation.”
I blink. “So I just get on a boat and there’s salvation?”
“My mother said that her children were her salvation. I was the first, so I got the name.”
“Heavy burden, that.”
“Not so heavy,” Salvation says. “Are you interested in birds or hippos or fishing, ma’am?” The morning reflects on his white teeth and on the chop of the Okavango.
“We just want to ride on this river for a while.” I can’t stop saying we although there was no we now. I correct the pronoun. “Then you let me off at the island camp.”
He unties ropes, starts the engine, and pushes off. In the middle of the river, the small metal boat rocks from the wake of a larger fishing boat. Water sprays in; the boat tilts more.
I grab the side of the seat and then remember I don’t care so much about living anymore so I release my grip. I move a little closer to the edge.
“Bee-eaters.” Salvation points to the shore and then pulls the boat towards the colony of turquoise-backed birds that swarm in and out of deep holes dug into the bank. The bottom of the boat scrapes the reeds and stirs the thick mud.
One bee-eater, its side a soft pink, holds a fat bee in its bill. “Why doesn’t the bee sting them, the birds?” I ask.
“They hold the bee in their beaks and beat it on a tree branch first.”
“I guess if you gotta die, you might as well be dinner,” I say and see Salvation smile.
A hippo snorts as it swims past, a low rider. Suddenly there are four, then six, then nine.
“Don’t worry,” Salvation says. “We are safe.”
“Too bad,” I whisper.
I have considered all forms of dying since the Tuesday in October when Rory died. Death by hippo sounds just the ticket.
One of his writing students, a blue-eyed Irishman, found him in his tiny office at Moore Mountain College. As the heart attack pulled him down, Rory hit his head on the edge of his walnut desk. A small wound bled red on the white rug. I wanted to tell O’Malley or O’Shaunessey or O’Whatever never to use this day in a poem, not ever to describe the vermilion flow from the magnificent heart that circulated it and then broke.
I sat in our study all that day, trying to remember the message I had left on his office answering machine. Did he want salmon for supper? Don’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning. Love you.
The study window was filled with maples, red and yellow, that blew in the autumn wind but held tight. People came and they must have gone. Someone called a doctor who patted my hand with his ice-cold fingers. “Let me give you something, Mrs. Southerland,” he said, “a sedative. You’ll need to sleep.”
There was tea. Rory’s sister Megan came. I tried to call my best friend Tessa but a message on her machine said that she was gone. Someone planned a memorial service. And one day everyone went home.
I packed up the car. I sat the cardboard box beside me. Along the way, I transferred Rory from his cardboard home to the Dixie Delight tin. I thought that if I headed south, maybe I could get warm again, maybe I could un-numb. I had a mission too: I needed to set these ashes free, somewhere that mattered.
The car turned itself down the same route we had taken five years before, the trip that gave Rory his Spanish Moss and Other Reveries poems.
In Sumter, South Carolina, I used the toilet in the same McDonald’s where Rory and I stopped years before. A stout woman had yelled, “B 12,” a pause, “G 48,” as I passed by. I couldn’t figure out if she was selling vitamins or bras. As I was coming out of the Women’s, a silver-haired woman yelled, “Bingo, bottom row,” while simultaneously a redhead said, “Bingo, diagonal.” The redhead rose and stomped over to get to the caller first. For a moment I thought I was the “bitch,” but then I realized that old lady 1 was going for old lady 2. In the car I had asked Rory, “Why didn’t you step in between them? I almost got brained with that bowling-ball-shaped purse.” He replied, “I figured you could take at least one of them.” He titled that poem “Sumter, a Battle.”
In Florence all that was left of Rory’s beloved Red Hog’s Barbecue Shack was the chimney. I almost opened the Dixie Delight tin there until I saw the sign that said, “Applebee’s Coming Soon.” In Charleston our favorite restaurant, The Seriously Fried, had burned down, the ashes swept clean, now a parking lot. In Beaufort I drove past the house we had rented but I did not stop because someone owned it now, someone with at least four small children, all with open mouths, all shrieking in the dust their feet pummeled in a timeless dance. Outside Savannah on Tybee Island, I couldn’t remember where we had found sand dollars and then I gave up looking because I knew where I had to go. I had known all along. I just didn’t think I could go there. Not alone.
But this morning I am here. Salvation is returning me to Rory’s best words, his National Book for Poetry Award, his Africa poems. I am going to Pangolin Island where the monkeys have blue balls. “I’d like a purse and some shoes made out of that skin,” I had told Rory. “Honey,” he said, “I think you might have to give up a lipstick or two and maybe cut off some of your toes cause those are some mighty small genitalia.”
This memory makes me laugh out loud, but Salvation politely stares across the flat water to the shore. He points out a monitor lizard that hooks one hip and then the other to traverse the thick grass. Cows graze. They are fat and sleek except for the parasite trails under their skin like topographical maps on hide.
And we are there suddenly, Salvation and I.
Valerie, the owner of the camp hotel, greets us along with a small blonde boy who is definitely a new addition and four dogs that might or might not be.
“Glad to see you back, Mrs. Southerland,” she says, and hurriedly adds, “and so sorry to hear about Rory.”
I clutch the bag that holds the peanut tin and point to the dogs. “Where’s Stumpy?”
Valerie frowns, holds the child’s ears, and mouths, “Later.” Out loud she says, “This is William.” The smallest dog, a dachshund, stands on its short hind legs and licks William in the mouth. He hocks and spits and then runs back up the hill where he strips off his pants and jumps into the spray of the sprinkler. I am glad for the distraction.
At the late lunch Valerie serves me, she tells me the ending of the story of Stumpy, the yellow dog they had found one morning on their dock with its bleeding stump of a left hind leg.
“That dog loved the water,” she says, “and the crocodiles loved that dog.”
I had fed Stumpy most of the kudu Valerie and her husband Tom had served us our first night on their island since I could not eat what we had photographed a few mornings before. Rory smacked his lips over his dinner. “If everything’s got to die,” he had laughed, “it might as well be dinner.”
Before the uneaten kudu, what I remember is the afternoon sex like a malaria dream in which the sweat and sheets and white mosquito netting stuck to us like a second skin and the deep sleep and then the evening with white South African travelers doing shots of Jack Daniels—who were a long, long way from home—and a thousand mosquitoes that must have gone back to their tangled vines as drunk as we all grew. What I cannot remember, I could recover in the cryptic lines of what critics claimed to be Rory’s finest work, Pangolin Time, where the words on the paper made rhythms as steady and sure and strong as the Okavango.
The only woman at dinner that night, I had matched those men drink for drink, story for story, and, all the time, my hand rubbing the smooth, polished wood of the bar, made from some dark African tree that I could neither pronounce nor remember, until I picked up the splinter that was to fester and surface a long month later back in the States. Yet when the men rose to go looking for a pangolin, an elusive night animal, a kind of anteater with scales and a long tail, my feet wouldn’t move.
After Rory had tucked me under the mosquito net and I had said, “Be careful. There might be mambas or sambas or somethings out there.” I knew that he would see a pangolin that night, an impossible feat, a creature that would crawl into his poems in its prehistoric skin while all I would know of it, much later on, would be the image he left me. Instead of exploring in the dark, I would toss about in the restless sleep of the sometime drunkard, waking dry-mouthed with missed opportunity.
This time I am the only guest on this island. Well, I and my Dixie Delight. Alone, I sweat through the afternoon, listening as my wristwatch ticks each hour. After my cold shower, the water straight from the Okavango, I dress in white as sheer as the mosquito net and go down to sit at the bar. I have asked for a cold supper and refused the kind offer of company from Valerie.
As the sun begins to set, I carry my wine glass with me and hoist the tin under my arm. The Chardonnay catches the pink tinge first and then darkens, along with the sky, to red. A dead tree stretches over the Okavango and I set the wine glass down in the crook of two stones and grab a branch. I steady myself on the bank and try to unfasten the lid. I break a nail to the quick and recall the past splinter and its surprising pain. I stagger, unsteady on my feet, not this time from too much drink but from the treacherous slick of a river that can swallow you whole.
I hear a loud splash. A crocodile? A hippopotamus? I right myself and find purchase on firmer ground and with that assuredness I know absolutely that I do not want to join Stumpy.
I am astonished at this revelation.
I pull on the tightly fitting lid and suddenly it is loose and so is the Dixie Delight peanut tin. It flies up and out of my hands. Ashes spiral in a dark spin and seem to hang there in the darkening sky. And then the tin drops with a simple splash, its shiny silver joining the shining vermilion of the water.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.” I had thought that I might say more. There was so much to say. But it seems enough somehow. Thank you.
The sun flashes once and squats low on the horizon. A flock of open-billed storks obscure the remaining light. They land in my tree, hanging limb on limb above me, black against red, part of the sky, but not of a poem.
“Thank you,” I say again, maybe this time to the birds, to the African sky, to the pangolin. I will search for that strange beast tomorrow or the next day because I have to stay. I will sit with Valerie as she kindles, even in summer, an open fire and wave to Salvation as he motors by, wending his way down the long, deep, and placid river. I may stay a while.
I grew up in Galax, Virginia, an Appalachian mountain town, and ran from the poverty that was my heritage. I find that I love that place still, but I cannot go home. Instead, I write about the South—because I have to. These days I type my latest novel on my back porch in Asheville, NC, and watch wild turkeys eat all my blueberries.