Before You Melt into the Sea
((#===#)) is the chamber where I’ll place your body. You’ll float in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide alkali at a temperature of three hundred-fifty degrees. Your skin will flake like ash and the tendons inside your hands with which you messaged me over the years will unravel to the width of spider silk until everything is completely gone. You first came to me when we were young, after a sailing accident you said had left you incomplete. My company, Eden Ice, provides artistic and eco-friendly alternatives to burial and cremation. You wanted your husband’s remains to be liquefied and stored, so when you died, the two of you could become part of a floating ice sculpture of a schooner, which would be cast off to sea. We have a working relationship, but, of course, it became more than that, though I’ve only seen you once, until now.
On the phone, you’d ask me about your husband, knowing full well he remained a frozen pool of chemicals in a steel canister, before raving about the crime scene investigation show we both watched, about the Honeycrisp Apples at the organic grocery store. We exchanged blueprints and photos of schooners, almost enough to cover the walls in my office. One year, you wanted me to make the sails red, another year blue. When I designed a figurehead in your image, you wrote back: Leaving the world should be mythic and pasted a photo of a unicorn jumping over the schooner through a rainbow. I re-sketched my idea and transformed you into a mermaid princess with a note that said: Believe in the myth. I have pictured us together for so long that I sometimes forget, even standing over your body, what you hired me to do: cast you off into the afterlife with another man.
Your husband’s body had already begun to expand and blister, as if a school of microscopic blowfish had infiltrated his veins, by the time his family had signed off on the plan. Blood fell to his backside, his ass the shade of a stray plum, spoiling behind a produce stand. He had a strange look on his face that I interpreted as sadness. And if I had told you my impressions then, you might have said, who doesn’t look sad when they’re dead? My ninety-three years-old client who was married to a stripper? Biggest, shit-eating grin I’ve ever seen. But maybe it was disappointment that had been caught on your husband’s last breath, the thought of not being at your side. On Flickr, I saw the way he looked at you, the way you made yourself smaller in his bear hug embrace, your smile burning a hole in his neck. You ran marathons together, volunteered at a shelter for Shih-Tzus, donated to charity with your trust funds, and hosted murder mystery dinner parties with people you called friends but who really weren’t. I stared at your photos, imagining myself in his place instead of just hoping for the lunch we sometimes talked about if I ever flew down from Anchorage to San Francisco. And later, after we had planned to meet at Fisherman’s Wharf, wondering what that lunch would have been like if you hadn’t been suddenly busy. For the record, I still ate the clams we were craving that day.
I picked out the bone debris after your husband had been liquefied and crushed them for you to take home. Most people opt for “The Evergreen Slumber”, a simple, stained, pine box, or the “Shooting Star”, a gold-plated aluminum urn. But you brought several ships in bottles, each with backdrops of different locales—the Mediterranean Turkish coast, Hawaii, Easter Island, Sydney, Key West. You said they were all places you had planned to sail with him, and then asked me to help you slide the ashes into each bottle, giving the appearance the ships had been beached. I think maybe it was in the next moment, when you were corking the bottles, tilting them to even out the ash, that I wondered what it would be like to be on those ships with you, blown off course, washed up at the footsteps of a five star resort. Would we have pretended we were the only people for miles? Would we have abandoned our ship and checked into a suite and ordered room service?
A month after you left that day, you emailed me a lavish drawing of pirates swinging between masts on a ship you named Fabrizio, after your recently departed bunny rabbit. Only two words accompanied the photo: Like this. I asked myself if you wanted swashbuckling buccaneers carved onto your afterlife schooner or if you just wanted the sails animated, blowing in the wind, the hull beaten and spotted with age. At the time, we didn’t really know each other. You were just a client, although I had thought about your beauty and strangeness, the sadness that wrapped around you with unexpected grace like a chrysalis. And then, one day, a video chat request window popped onto my monitor, and I was caught off guard by how happy this made me. You were looking away, watching a random recording of Jeopardy that you played repeatedly when you wanted to make yourself feel better. You had just won a Daily Double in the Hodgepodge category when you wiped your eyes with a tissue, and were embarrassed when you turned and saw me watching. I wish I could remember more about the conversation we had after you told me, no pirates, but I had already placed myself in your home, watching you talk to me from the loveseat where you probably curled up with a book in the morning. I imagined how easy it would be to walk up from behind and wrap you in my arms, nibbling the fleece of your Hello Kitty footie pajamas. I would have lifted you up as I pulled the zipper on your feline self down, revealing a pair of lace baby blues. If people had known us, would they have said I was taking advantage of you? Would you have said it was too soon? Or maybe we would have just stood there, waiting for a time where we would have had no choice but to give into the gravity of each other.
I arrange your shriveled hands, one atop of the other over your privates, as you wanted to look halfway decent when you changed from a solid to a liquid. There’s a faint tan line on your finger where you wore the ring your second husband gave you. I never asked questions for fear of what you might say and you never mentioned him unless absolutely necessary, and for this I am grateful. I sometimes think of how much I didn’t know about you. But maybe that was never the point with us. Could I have ever been that guy? I wonder, isolated in Alaska with my brand of work, if I could be that guy for anybody. I pictured your body being pristine and smooth but a rainbow colored dragonfly takes flight across your back and a winged liger paws at your belly button. There are two scars running from your underarms to the center of your chest. Moles and freckles dance around the scars, within them, like a Pollack painting, and I want to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what I really meant to you.
We had agreed upon the final designs for your ice ship and memorial arrangements just before you were hospitalized. Your bone dust would be given to your second husband, the rest of you would go as planned. This is it. For real this time is what you wrote in the back of a blown-up photo of the Thomas W. Lawson, a seven-masted schooner launched in 1902 and the largest sailing vessel ever built. I finished a scale mold of the hull some time ago. The sculpting of the mast, sails, and of course, the mermaid figurehead you’ll be poured into is nearly complete. You said the schooner should have a chance to make it to open water but wanted it to melt completely within a day. You wanted people who attended the memorial to place mementos on the ship, but I said they would harm marine life. Because you said you could never harm sea otters, the puppies of the sea, we agreed to have people write messages on water-soluble paper instead. And after you had made your final requests, I asked if I could write you at the hospital, if we could still talk. A long silence followed and you said, no, that’s probably not for the best. You hung up shortly thereafter. You typed four words in your last text message to me: Thank you for everything. And signed your name with love xoxo. Part of me wants to kiss you before I slide you into the chamber, but that’s probably not for the best either.
Unalaska, Alaska, a gateway to the Aleutian chain, is the place you picked for the launch. Walking the island today, I imagine you beside me, pointing out where you’d like to be set free. Everything seems charged, connected. A herd of wild horses is grazing; a sea otter in the bay is cracking a crab on a rock; eagle eggs perched on a narrow shelf of a cliff face are beginning to hatch. I can somehow feel it all. We follow a stream until it empties out into a shallow bay surrounded by grassy hills. An abandoned jetty reaches out on one side to a rocky sand bar on the other, creating a narrow corridor to the Bering Sea. And then you run off, faster than I can keep up, until you’re gliding on water. You’re spiraling with your arms outstretched, your head cocked back, and your mouth open to taste the salty air. So, this is it, I say. This is where we’ll do it. You nod your head and smile, and then disappear beneath the black waves.
It takes days for the schooner to freeze into one piece, for all of the masts and sails and rigging to stay in place without toppling over. It’s almost fifteen feet long and nine feet high. Your first husband is frozen across the deck and parts of the bow, giving the vessel a natural, oaky appearance, something that might actually last on the high seas. You give the figurehead life, with only a thin sheet of iced water, separating you from the abyss. I have made you young and lovely again. I stare into your shiny, mermaid eyes and wonder if you are watching.
Hundreds of fashionably strange people have attended your memorial, and more are coming in on the next ferry. I count seven Mohawks of varying color, several drag queens, one leisure suit, two long sleeved Aloha shirts, and three local television stations. Marijuana and incense and Nat Sherman cigarette smoke piggybacks on the misty air. A Hare Krishna monks flirts with the sitar player. Your second husband sits on a director’s chair, sipping a Bloody Mary while holding a half-eaten shawarma. The schooner is docked at the jetty with you looking out at the bay. A podium stands nearby. One-by-one people say their empty and clichéd words: She will be missed. She was one of a kind. I never knew her well but…I want to say something too, but I know I probably shouldn’t. I know I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from telling everyone about something that only existed for us, and maybe, quite possibly, just for myself. People come along side to admire the schooner, the detail, and the obvious fact that it can indeed float. They take photos in front of it and ask me questions about liquefying the human body, about ice sculpting. Some shake my hand. Some ask for my card. Only a few drop notes of remembrance onto the slippery deck. When the crowd subsides, I slowly pull the schooner out into the bay with my zodiac. People begin to cheer. I turn back to shore and see a large rainbow banner that reads Bon Voyage, fluttering in the wind.
When we’re out far enough, I cut the engine. I enclose my digital voice recorder with a waterproof sleeve. I’m not certain how long it will take for you to melt into the sea, but I plan on staying here until you do. Cargo ships blow their horns in the distance. Seals, perhaps seeing an interesting place to rest, circle, nudging their noses at the bow. I scream a gibberish war cry to frighten them off. A couple of hours have passed and already waves are washing over the sinking deck. Two of the masts have broken in half and a sail is quickly dissolving in the sea like a piece of cotton candy. You are largely intact but beads of water are running down your face, your bare chest. The sun is high overhead and the seam where I froze you to the rest of the schooner is becoming undone. Soon you’ll have no choice but to strut your mermaid skills. I put on my fins so that I may join you. My dry suit is tight and secure, and my mask and snorkel is at the ready. The schooner begins to crack again, the fractures sounding off like a multitude of tiny whips. And before I’m ready for it, you splash into the water, bobbing up and down, hitting what remains of the hull. I jump in and drag you away from danger.
It’s just the two of us now. Your eyes are nothing but subtle concave indentations, your nose a minor bump in a round piece of ice. You’re floating on your back, staring at the sky, and my hands, around your waist, are preventing you from spinning between waves like a crystal log. The battery on my recorder is fading, and I fear water has seeped inside it. Before there is nothing left to hold, I want to tell you all the things I never got to say, what I would have said to you if you had given me the chance to be in your life. I could have loved you; I did anyway. And I think you could have loved me too. I tell you a million other little things until nothing remains of your mermaid self except for a piece in my hands the size of a large hailstone, until that too melts.
Sequoia Nagamatsu grew up in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area and was educated at Grinnell College in Iowa. Over the past years, he has worked as a large scale event planner, a teacher, a historical city tour guide on an amphibious vehicle, and in various capacities in the theatre and performing arts world. He is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gargoyle, The New Delta Review, elimae, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories (New Internationalist, Oxford).