Tip of tongue played along tops of teeth, ran smooth along gum line, felt bumps that could not be seen.
The young man stared into the mirror, slowly turning his head from left to right, trying to determine if the pain in his mouth displayed signs of pain on his face. He thought his face looked normal but was not convinced.
“Remo, quit admiring the view.” He spun from the mirror and saw Chief Gilchrest leaning against the doorway to the head, arms crossed and a smirk on his face. The older man wore his Service Dress Blues – black jacket, black tie, white shirt, black trousers, black shoes. A chest full of medals. He carried his combination cover under his arm, a white disc a contrast against the dark formal uniform. “You’re gonna be late.”
Seaman DeRemosan blinked hard. “Sorry, Chief.”
Gilchrest sneered. “You calling me a sorry Chief?” he teased.
Remo shook his head. “No, Chief. I was just–”
Gilchrest nodded. “I know. This is your first one. I remember my first, I was nervous as hell. Just remember,” he said, standing up and away from the doorframe, “you’re carrying the cremains – that’s what they call the ashes when you cremate someone. You just wait for Chaps to say ‘we commit his body to the deep’ and when you hear ‘deep’ that’s when you dump the urn.” He grinned, his thin face reminding Remo of a decorative skull. “Too easy.”
“But Chief, it ain’t really a body, is it?”
The man shrugged. “It’s what’s left of him, I guess.” He turned to leave, then paused. He spoke without looking at Remo. “Hurry up, though, you got five minutes.”
Remo turned back to the mirror. He’d only been in the Navy a few months, onboard ship just a few weeks, not long enough to qualify for any ribbons or learn his way around the ship or understand what people meant when they talked about wildcats and pad-eyes and monkey’s fists.
He’d been assigned to Deck Division, working for the First Louie, who was named Ensign Billings, but really he worked for Chief Boatswain’s Mate Gilchrest. Not that he’d had any idea of what to expect when he’d signed the paperwork – his recruiter having been an aviation logkeeper, or something, and never setting foot on a Navy ship – Remo was surprised when he’d been handed a needlegun and goggles and set to work attacking a section of the ship’s bulkhead, stripping it of paint. When that section was finished he went to the next section, and for his entire naval career, short as it was, he’d only ever wielded a needlegun.
He smiled weakly into the mirror. The few minutes he’d had before Chief had walked in to the bathroom – head, Remo reminded himself – and the four minutes remaining before he had to report topside was the longest stretch he’d had to himself in months. Sundays underway were generally quieter than the rest of the week, but with a burial at sea scheduled for the afternoon the entire ship took on an air of caution, like the crew was speaking and walking quieter in hopes of not disturbing their dead passengers.
Six caskets had been loaded pierside in San Diego, along with a dozen urns. Remo was just one of twelve young sailors picked to carry an urn; each casket required six sailors, and there would be a firing party to give a 21-gun salute, an honor platoon, the Skipper, the XO, the Chaplain, the Master-at-Arms…Remo smiled at his face, though when he smiled he felt the stabs of pain more than when his face rested.
Eighteen men, World War Two veterans all, about to be buried at sea, and he’d be a small part of it. If only his mouth wasn’t full of pain.
Remo checked his uniform – easy with no ribbons to align – also called Service Dress Blues but entirely different than Chief’s SDBs, except that his, too, were black. Leave it to the Navy, he thought, to call something blue when it was black. They called left port and right starboard, so why not just make up words for everything?
He ran a lint brush over his black jumper, a v-neck top that had a useless flap in the back that hung over his shoulders. In Boot Camp they’d said it was a holdover from the Revolutionary War days, when men were allowed to grow their hair out, and the flap kept the ponytails off their uniforms. Remo had pointed out that the flap was still part of the uniform, so didn’t the hair just get on that part, and he’d done push-ups while the rest of his division had learned about the square knot in the neckerchief that hung from their necks and sat on their chest. The petty officer leading the lecture, the one who’d made Remo do push-ups, deviated from the lesson plan long enough to reveal that, during World War Two, sailors kept a roll of coins in their neckerchiefs. Not only did that keep the black silk tight, when things got out of hand they could be used as weapons in a pinch.
The petty officer let Remo take his seat, then launched in to a discussion about the bell-bottom trousers, notorious with their thirteen buttons in front. He once again divulged what seemed like insider information to the wide-eyed recruits when he admitted that, when stationed in Japan years before, he’d paid a local seamstress to alter the buttoned flap, lining it with Velcro instead, which made for much easier access. The petty officer and most of the recruits had laughed. Remo laughed, too.
He’d spent the last few days polishing his shoes, laying a nice even shine on the black leather, much nicer than any pair he’d owned before. Chief had told him he’d be participating in the burial at sea, that he’d better look good, but that the Chief was confident in Remo’s ability to clean up.
The day he found out he’d be dumping the remains of a dead body into the ocean was when Remo noticed the pain in his mouth. That first night the pain was bad enough to wake him from his sleep. By the next morning it had faded into a dull ache. Doc Spigot had been unable to diagnose anything, giving Remo’s mouth a quick onceover and a hasty explanation that he “weren’t no fang fairy dental tech” and therefore couldn’t be sure. Maybe in a few days, when the ship was closer to land, he could schedule Remo for a trip to the dental clinic on base, but for now told Remo to suck it up and given him some Motrin.
The next day Remo had stuck his finger in his mouth. His suspicions were confirmed – some of his teeth were loose. He was surprised – he’d thought he’d lost all his baby teeth, that adults weren’t supposed to lose their teeth until they were older, and he was still very young. Maybe he’d misremembered losing all his baby teeth, or maybe a third set was growing in. He’d read about a man with a vestigial Siamese twin, a little lump of flesh attached to his side complete with its own set of teeth and a kind-of-head of hair…this wasn’t as strange, but maybe Remo had some sort of medical anomaly.
This morning he’d actually lost a tooth. He’d been careful, eating soup or soft food, brushing around the loosest teeth, and trying not to worry the teeth with his tongue. But a few hours ago, when Remo had rolled out of his rack and started to get his uniform ready, he’d spat a tooth into his hand. He hid it quickly, not wanting anyone else nearby – and onboard, everyone lived close to everyone else – to see his tooth and give him grief about the Tooth Fairy or anything like that. After the ceremony maybe he’d take it to see Doc Spigot again, though he wasn’t sure what he’d do about it. Best to let him know, Remo thought, but he had no expectations of what he could do.
The overhead speakers crackled to life, the voice of the Boatswain Mate of the Watch echoing through the ship. “All hands bury the dead.”
“Yo, Remo, c’mon, we gotta go.” Winston, another deck seaman and one of Remo’s needlegun buddies, poked his head into the head. “Don’t wanna be late, Chief’d kill us.”
“Okay, I’m coming.”
We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep.
Remo held the urn. It was heavier than he’d thought it would be. A simple metal container, if he didn’t know it held a man’s ashes he would have called it a jug, or maybe a jar.
He stood with the other five urn bearers, closest to the railing. Normally, Chief said, they’d put the caskets and the urns on their own tables, then upend the table so the bodies would slide off into the sea, but since they had so many to commit the Skipper and Chaps had modified the ceremony. The urns would go first, and since Remo was closest to the railing – near enough that he could swivel his eyes down and stare at the greenish water without moving his head – he’d be dumping his urn first. Not spreading the damn ashes, Chief had insisted, but just holding the urn over the side, arms straight, and bingo, simply let ‘im go.
We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep. We–
Pain lanced through his jaw and Remo pinched his eyes shut. He opened them, tears at the corners, and hoped everyone else was keeping their eyes forward. He moved his tongue across his gums, trying to locate the source of the pain, and stopped. His tongue ran back over the protuberance, the odd sharp edge now growing from his gums. Teeth were supposed to grow straight up, he thought, not perpendicular, jutting out into his mouth.
His tongue moved again, slower, paying attention to every subtle ridge and dip in his mouth, and he found three other teeth that had, in the last few minutes, decided to start growing ninety degrees off the way they should. Actually, Remo thought, the teeth shouldn’t have been growing at all, and not nearly this fast. The direction was the least of his worries.
At this rate, he thought, his mouth would be full of teeth by sunset.
He felt sweat collect at the back of his head. Chief had made all the urn and casket bearers get fresh haircuts, and so the bare skin at the back of Remo’s head allowed the bead of sweat to drop without obstacle, tracing a straight line down his neck, past the collar of his white undershirt, past the useless black flap blowing in the slight breeze, and all the way down his spine. He could pinpoint the nerve endings briefly cooled by the sweat, all the way to his underwear, where the moisture was soaked up and disappeared.
It wasn’t even that hot out, Remo thought.
He still had the problem of his teeth, as well as paying attention to the ceremony. We commit his body to the deep.
The deep. Remo swiveled his eyes again, staring down at the green sea. He hadn’t been out very long at all – Chief liked to remind the junior sailors that he had flushed more saltwater than they had sailed over – but he’d learned a lot about the ocean already. It wasn’t blue, not like the pictures or school had taught him. The ocean was a lot of colors. Waves acted according to their own minds as much as they did wind or current. And the weather at sea could change in the course of a conversation.
The deep. Remo kept staring at the sea, though the angle of his eyes started to strain those muscles that controlled the motion of the eyeball. He couldn’t look away. The deep. He was about to drop a human into the deep. Growing up he’d always thought when you died you got buried; at least that way your family knew where to visit you. How would this man’s family visit him? How could they show him they cared? They couldn’t even be at the ceremony – off-limits to civilians, he remembered hearing.
The deep. Crazy things lived down there. They probably wouldn’t eat ashes – though Remo was no marine biologist, so couldn’t be sure – but the half dozen caskets contained enough meat and flesh to feed an army of crabs and worms and sharks and whatever other creatures wanted to eat dead men’s bodies. He’d read in a magazine that scientists knew more about the Moon’s surface than they did about the bottom of the oceans.
And here they were, about to dump eighteen war heroes, men who’d fought on oceans far stranger than this one, sending their bodies into the deep that was no home for man, to rest eternally not in peace but among monsters that did not want them. At least you bury a guy in the ground a worm’s gonna know what to do, Remo thought. How long would it even take for the caskets to sink all the way down? How deep was the ocean here? Did the number even matter?
He sensed the man next to him – Reeves, which made him think of grieves – stand up a little straighter. He heard Chaps droning on, something about days without end, and Remo panicked. Had he missed his cue? Was everyone else waiting on him? He had no clue how the whole prayer went, had only been to his grandma’s funeral, where they’d stuck her in the Georgia ground with what seemed to a little boy to be no surprises, no waiting for the right moment to ceremonially discard someone’s son or father or brother over the side of a warship and into the deep.
We commit his body to the deep.
Had Chaps said that or had he imagined it? Would it be better to toss the urn early, let it plunge through the depths before its time, or late, trying to catch up with the blessings and incantations being offered by the chaplain as it fell through the water?
His teeth flared again and he clenched his jaw, which just made the pain worse. His teeth felt loose and he felt the new teeth – fangs, really – stabbing through the soft tissues of his gums and he couldn’t stop his tongue as it tested each new peak inside his mouth. He imagined his mouth filling up with teeth, an entire gaping hole full of ivory bits and blades. He’d die, of course, either starving for want of room to swallow or bleeding out when his incisors pierced his brain or–
“We commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope…”
“Dump the urn, dummy,” Chief Gilchrest hissed from right behind Remo.
He turned and, as solemnly as he could, extended his arms and opened his hands. The urn dropped straight down, made only a small splash, and continued on its path. Remo stepped away, remembering to snap and click his heels and march as ceremonially as he could. He took his spot at the back of the formation and stood with the others as they, too, entrusted their urns to the deep. He ran his tongue over the edges of his teeth and gums – no loose teeth, no violated gums, no rebellious fangs poking through. His mouth was back to normal.
And tomorrow he’d go back to the needlegun.
Travis Klempan joined the Navy in 1999. He served as a Hospital Corpsman and Surface Warfare Officer. After leaving the Navy he was accepted to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where he is pursuing his MFA in Writing & Poetics.