Cold Enough To See Your Breath

by: Steve Passey

A final farewell to a friend amid the howling cries of the wild…

Cold enough

“If I die, scatter my ashes and then smash the urn.”

This is what he told me. And I chose to oblige, knowing that he would do the same for me.

The trail to the river’s edge was bordered by deadfall and small stones, and marked with deer droppings and the paw prints of coyotes. Even from tracks you could see that they were lean and hungry and thinking of nothing other than their empty bellies. It was almost March and it would be dark by five but you could hear the coyotes keen and wail like they have never seen fire.

It’s actually against the law to dispose of anyone’s remains, even their cremated remains, in the waters of a national park, but that’s what he wanted, so we were going to do it. Some cemeteries have an urn garden where cremation lots are available for the burial of an urn. Others have a columbarium, an above-ground structure where urns are held. Another option is to bury the cremated remains in a family plot. Some cemeteries offer a common scattering garden. If you think about this, these are options for the convenience of the survivors of the deceased, those of his flesh and bone, but not of spirit. They are really there for those worst of all human beings, the Godly, those who collect tolls from the bereaved.

What I mean to say: If Dan wanted wind and water – we were going to give him wind and water.

“Hurry,” Mary said. “It’s going to be dark.”

“Think about what we are doing,” Mike responded to her. “No need to rush.”

I carried the urn with the ashes. Together, the ashes pulverized to silt and the ceramic urn weighed almost ten pounds. I read once that the heart, a tough, fibrous piece of muscle, is the last thing to burn. I asked the guy at the crematorium if this was true and he said it wasn’t, that at the temperature bodies are cremated everything burns at the same rate.

“What about in the old days?” I asked. “The Vikings and their funeral pyres? Their burning long ships with their hoary kings and strangled wives?”

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

He did not smile, or hazard a guess, or look at me when he answered.

It was two miles from the parking lot at the trailhead to the river’s edge. I was not sure about Mary, but I bet Mike was sweating profusely and I knew that I was.

“We should say something,” Mary said when we finally reach the river.

We waited for someone to speak. Me his ex-classmate, Mike his former co-worker, and Mary his ex-wife, huddled silently together along the rocky shore.

Mike spoke first.

“I know Dan’s dad committed suicide. He used one of those old Webleys, the British Navy revolvers. I think it may have fired a small cannonball. That’s what the conspirators killed Rasputin with, never mind all that talk of poison and drowning and shocking amputations. A Webley. All he ever told me was that on his seventeenth birthday he found his dad in the garden shed with a hole the size of a man’s fist on one side of his head. It was big enough to see into. The bullet had gone through the thin plywood wall of the shed too, leaving a hole big enough to see into the shed. His Dad had a bible beside him, a glass of good Irish whiskey – untouched – and the Webley. He said he never blamed his father for the suicide but never forgave him for doing it on his birthday. The old man never left a note, so no one knew why he did it. After his dad’s funeral Dan came home with kerosene, a match, and a rake, and while still in his suit he burnt down the garden shed and raked the embers into ash until they were level and the last spark fled into the dark. It took him six hours. He finished just before midnight. He said he didn’t know what he was thinking, only that it is what he felt he had to do.”

I handed Mike the urn and he uncapped it and shook it so that some ashes drifted into the air in a long arc, before sailing off of the edge of the river down onto the almost frozen water below.

He handed the urn back to me.

Mary spoke next.

“When Dan was twenty-one he was bitten by a rattlesnake while he was out hunting deer. He was bitten on the thin part of his calf right above the ankle. He showed me the scar tentatively the first time, but since we were married I saw it often enough as time went by. He and I were used to it. ‘All it did was hurt,’ was all he told me. ‘No real damage.’ He also told me that every seven years or so, in October, around the anniversary of the original bite, it swelled and pained him almost as bad as the day he was bitten. I never saw this with my own eyes. Once we got divorced, I didn’t see him for eight years, and when I did see him the first thing he told me, after I had said ‘hi,’ was that I had come back, just after the seventh year, to pain him again. He laughed when he said it, but I could tell that he hurt a little, too.”

Mary drew quiet and I handed her the urn. She shook out some more ashes on the slow moving water, blue-black in the fading light, and then handed the urn back to me.

I thought for a minute, and then shook out the remaining ashes, far and wide and wild. They glided farther out into the dark water and sparkled in the setting sun, dancing like spirits. I didn’t feel I had anything to add. I had not talked to Dan in twenty years. I couldn’t really even remember making this promise. I think we had been drinking. But here I was. I took the urn overhead and flung it down upon the rocks that lined the river as hard as I could and it smashed and shattered into hundreds of pieces. Any fragments not cast into the river by the force of my throw I kicked in with my foot. Mike and Mary stood back, close together, and said nothing. In the silence we heard the first short, insistent bark of a coyote, nearer than we were comfortable with, but still on the other side of the river. She called again, and again, but no answer came back from her sisters.

“He wanted wind and water,” I said. “So we gave him wind and water. Rest in peace Dan ole buddy.”

We walked back in the setting dark sun along the trail by the coyote and her gathering sisters, farther and farther away from us with each step we walked.

At the end of it, I think, when all is said and done, no one knows you by your last wishes, or even the stories they tell about you, or by the chants and incantations of wild things looking at you from the shadows cast by trees. As for a promise made to another man at another time, it is better not to think about it, but just to do it. Scatter the ashes and smash the urn if they ask, where they ask, and there it ends, and maybe you will know yourself a bit better. Or maybe you won’t.

We walked away from Dan and away from the water, the wind, the shadows of the trees, and the keening sisters, with the air now cold enough to see our breath.


Steve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction and Poetry has been published in over thirty journals and anthologies in Canada, the UK and the USA including Existere, Minor Literature[s], and Bull: Men’s Fiction. His story “All of the Words to All of the Songs” was a Pushcart 2016 nominee. You can reach him on Twitter @CanadianCoyote1.

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