Pele the Goddess of Volcanoes passed away on Monday at my mom and dad’s place. I found her in that armoire you bought me a year ago on our fifth anniversary. Pele had curled herself at the back of an open empty drawer. When I reached in to pull her out, I discovered a photograph pinned between her furry spine and the rear wall of the wardrobe. It’s the picture of you and I in the elevator, the picture you cropped into the meme that made me Internet famous. I put it aside to deal with later. I had Pele’s body frozen and made preparations to have her cremated.
On Friday, my sister, Jena, flew in from Kahului. My other sisters couldn’t be bothered to come. I picked up Jena at Lihue Airport and we drove straight to the veterinary hospital. We waited silently in the main lobby while an assistant clinician fetched the corpse. A sorry-looking boy in wrinkled scrubs and blackened sandals shuffled up to me with a large cardboard box that read, Love + Remembrance. Kaumuduli’i Animal Clinic. The kid stared at me through the bangs of his shaggy hair, scanning my face, trying to remember where he had seen me before. I turned away. I avoid people under 30 because my eyes betray me, they say, yes, I’m the one from that image in the comments section of viral videos, the one from that pic sent to friends in text messages about getting blackout drunk, the one from that meme that became so hugely popular a major Korean-pop star had it printed on a t-shirt and wore it during a performance on an American music awards show, yes, that one.
My sister collected the box and sat it on one of the waiting room benches. She pulled back the folded flaps and inside the box Pele rested wrapped in a pink plastic biohazard bag. The box resembled the drawer of the armoire in width and depth. Again, I reached in for Pele. I pulled open the mouth of the bag and Pele’s swollen frosted eyes stared up at me. Her whiskers clung to the sides of her muzzle, and clumps of sparkling ice covered the purple tongue pushed past her dingy fangs.
Pele the Goddess was orange. Do you remember? She used to be the color of hot lava, the color of fire, a bounding flame, a roaming flame, Pele would vanish for weeks and return suddenly, suddenly a tiny blaze appears on your chest in the dark as you fall asleep alone in bed, a tiny blaze you thought was lost creeps out from under a couch or table or out of an open armoire. Death transmutes us. She used to be orange. She used to make heat. Bleached by the white cold of fatality and a deep freezer, Pele became a distant yellow.
My mother had gone ahead to the temple. She had been waiting with a Theravada monk and the technician who would return Pele’s remains to fire. Hidden behind a large prayer hall, the small concrete structure that housed the crematorium could only be identified by the long rust-spotted pipe jutting out from its terracotta roof tiles. Inside the cramped space, Jena, mom, the monk and I watched quietly as the technician worked. He laid a square of clean linen over the surface of a medical table and pulled on a pair of latex gloves. He removed Pele from the packaging, placed her on the cloth and then grabbed a permanent marker from a bin on a nearby shelf. On the fabric the technician scribbled words and characters I could not understand. Next to Pele’s corpse sat a bundle of incense sticks and a small clay bowl of magenta orchid petals. He instructed my mother, Jena and me to step towards the table. He told us to sprinkle the petals over Pele. With a lighter he lit three incense sticks and handed one to each of us. The monk cleared his throat and asked everyone to lower their head. I pressed my palms together, trapping the thin smoldering stick between my index fingers. I bent my neck forward and raised my prayer hands. My lips kissed my thumbs and I listened to the monk incant scriptures from the Pāli Canon. His voice covered me like the fragrant smoke.
While the monk chanted I thought about Pele. I remembered her as a hungry stray stalking you and me and our bag of fresh salmon through the open market near the house we used to rent together. I remembered her sitting like Buddha by our patio window, scratching her folded ears as she contemplated the mysteries of the universe.
A smartphone chimed through my reflection. The technician’s ringtone sang in the breast pocket of his short-sleeve oxford. I waited for him to silence the device. I waited for him to answer it. When he didn’t, I erupted at him. The monk had stood between the technician and me. I nearly pushed the holy man to the ground as I reached for the front of the technician’s shirt. The phone continued ringing under my shouts. Cornered against the table where Pele’s carcass lay, the technician failed to understand why I was attacking him. Jena and my mother grabbed me. Someone pulled my arms behind me. Another tugged at my waist. They dragged me outside as I cursed the technician for being thoughtless, for not seeing the gravity of Pele’s death. In my explosion the incense fell to the floor. I had stomped the sticks to dust. The black ash stained the tiles of the crematorium.
Beside the prayer hall I bent over and retched onto the roots of a shrub. My mother rubbed my back while Jena stood over me searching her purse for a wet wipe. Jena passed me a single moist napkin. She observed me while I cleaned my mouth and face. Her brow furrowed with concern, and she asked, “Is this just about the cat?”
I swatted my sister’s eyes, scratching the top of her left cheek. She staggered, perhaps more from shock than the force of my slap. The red claw marks flushed with blood.
In response, Jena began to scream. She told me things about myself: how I make it impossible to love me, how I successfully alienated the last sister willing to talk to me, how I had managed to lose everyone’s respect, how I had managed to lose you, how I couldn’t take care of you or myself or a cat, how I couldn’t take care of anything. Jena called mom an enabler and then demanded my mother’s car keys. Jena would drive herself to my parent’s house. Dad would be there because he hadn’t seen the point in attending Pele’s cremation. Jena would explain to dad what had happened, and he’d remind Jena that he had warned her not to come. He’d drive her to the airport so she could catch an earlier flight. Before storming away, Jena said that by choosing to be a fuckup I prompted you to upload and caption that unflattering photo of me inebriated in an elevator.
My mother took my shaking hands into hers. In her calmest voice she asked me if I had been taking the Seroquel. I lied and said, yes, because I didn’t want the anger to be explained with chemistry. I wanted what I felt to swallow and scorch the Earth. Looking down at my mother’s fingers clasped with mine, I imagined the specks of Jena’s flesh trapped under my nails.
Mom returned to the crematorium alone to apologize. She saw the technician slide Pele into the furnace. Mom chose a beautiful urn decorated with a hundred dharma wheels and lotus patterns. Now the urn sits on the cheap plywood desk in my room and behind it, tacked to an otherwise empty corkboard, is the 4×6 photo of you and me.
In the picture, the mirrors and fake wood panels bounce the camera flash. Light swallows our shadows. Your pajamas are royal blue, an honest color and it looks good on you. I have a lime-green tank top and it almost matches the neon glow necklace hovering over my collarbones.
I appear to be enjoying myself. My open mouth reveals rows of crooked teeth. I make sure to cover my teeth when I talk to people now. You’ve pursed your lips into a wry half-smile. Whatever has caused me to guffaw you don’t find as funny. Or maybe you did and you’ve just stopped laughing. I’m tired, shiny with sweat. My head leans back against your shoulder. Hair sticks to my red face. You spread the digits of your right hand to grip my naked arm, pressing so firmly the tips of your fingers turn white. My eyes are shut. You keep me on my feet. Your eyes, open and ready, wait for my next blinding burst and the subsequent flash of cameras.
What should I do with this grainy, fading, moment? I could scan it and put it online, snap a picture of this picture and post it to social media, tag us forever, turn our mistakes into ghosts haunting the invisible webs moving between us.
Maybe this picture of us on the elevator should stay lost in a dresser drawer. I wish I could do the same with others, remove them from digital walls and tuck them somewhere I might forget them.
Everywhere I go there is a screen and Wi-Fi. How do I move on when my history is mobile? How do I get past all the ways I’ve hurt people when the past moves with me?
You can’t answer these questions, so I will never send this email. I will destroy this picture of us, douse the photo in something 80 proof and set fire to it in a steel trash bin in my parent’s yard. I’ll have the half-smile then. As the flames erase me and you and the elevator, it will be a kind of death. I will be transmuted. The ashes from this image of me will resemble those in Pele’s urn; we will be siblings.
When I was a child, my mother told me stories about Ka‘ōhelo, Pele’s mortal sister. Ka‘ōhelo was so favored by Pele that the goddess captured Ka‘ōhelo’s spirit in a burning bush that could withstand the heat from magma. My mother told me whenever you see a ‘ōhelo ‘ai shrub reaching out from lava flows it is Ka‘ōhelo. For Ka‘ōhelo, one life ended and she received another. Maybe in the ashes of the elevator photograph I could find an impossible new life and grow out from underneath devastation and extrusive rock. I could have a life that is a mature shade of green and yields fruit.
Standing over the flames I will curl my toes and root the heels of my bare feet into the warm muddy sward. The Internet will vanish into smoke. I can be instant. It will be so cathartic I won’t care that my mother might be watching from a kitchen window and that she might start worrying again. I won’t think about being broke and not having found another job. I’ll think of Pele and cleansing fire, and the heat rising from the short cylinder might remind me there is a world of things I can end and begin again.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Apeiron Review, The Adroit Journal, Inscape and Publishers Weekly. He received his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.