THE IMMENSE MELANCHOLY OF THE SALTVILLE MAMMOTHS
by Brigitte N. McCray
Gertrude craned forward to see out the living room window, scooting right to the edge of her recliner, careful to not let her slippers catch the wires that led from the infusion pump across the floor and up the legs of Curtis’s TV tray.
Curtis spoke, his voice low and stubborn. “They’re here for our mammoths.” He clasped his Smyth County Hospital mug—the green one they’d given him during one of his chemo visits.
She stood to get a better view. The yard with its maple tree and too-long grass lay empty, but the window gently rattled in its frame.
“What are you on about? There aren’t any—” She broke off at the sight of a backhoe rolling into view, right onto their property, crushing the low hedge.
The bucket went up, the engine sputtered to a stop, and the driver climbed out.
“You stay here,” she told Curtis, throwing her seersucker robe over her nightgown. He was too ill for so much excitement.
She marched across the lawn, sweat dripping down her neck from the sticky summer heat.
The driver, a young man, removed his shirt, which he then used to wipe his tattooed chest. Trespassing and getting practically naked. The nerve!
She planted herself in front of him. “Get off this property. I don’t know who you think you are.”
The man swiped his face with his shirt and squinted at her. “Huh?”
An unfamiliar black car, some sort of SUV, sped towards her up the long driveway, flinging dust and gravel behind.
The backhoe operator said, “Don’t you know?”
“He’ll explain it,” he said, pointing.
The man who got out of the SUV had a sunburned face. A pen was tucked behind his ear. He wore baggy and faded army pants with a threadbare t-shirt that read: “Science Helps You Prove Others Are Dumb.”
“I’m Dr. Simon Lewis.” He carried a clipboard and a small notebook. Dressed like some college kid, he didn’t look like he could have a doctorate, but a few strands of gray spoiled the darkness of his beard.
“What do you want?”
The backhoe operator said, “I thought you already had her sign the document!” He slung his tee over his shoulder and returned to the beast.
“Wait. It’s just a slight slip in procedures. She’ll sign and you can begin digging in just a moment.”
“Dig for what?” Gertrude asked.
Dr. Lewis said, “We believe mammoth fossils are buried here.”
“You’re not digging on this property. This house and land hasn’t been disturbed since my family bought it in 1905.”
“I know how important family history is, but wouldn’t you want to be a part of a larger history?”
“Mammoths. From the Ice Age?” He handed her the clipboard with some legal document attached to it.
“So? What do I care?”
“How could you not care? It would be an important scientific discovery in our region.” Dr. Lewis tried to take Gertrude’s hand, but she jerked away.
Why couldn’t people leave things as they are? Tearing up the ground. Thank God her mama’s grave was up in the family plot. “Do I look like a scientist to you?” She tightened her robe. “I’m going inside to make my husband some breakfast. You people better be gone by the time I finish frying up an egg.”
When she turned, there was Curtis outside on the side porch. He wasn’t wearing slippers. Christ.
“Something terrible happened here,” he shouted out to them.
The scientist narrowed his eyes. “What does he mean?”
“He doesn’t mean anything.” Gertrude said. “You’ve upset him. That’s all.”
“How did I upset him?”
Gertrude took the scientist’s arm and tried to lead him to the SUV. “Just get on out of here before I call the police.”
Dr. Lewis wouldn’t budge; he just stared at Curtis. “Is he all right?”
“No. He’s dying.”
“Does he want to come in and talk?” Curtis yelled across the yard.
“Let them be on their way,” she yelled back.
Dr. Lewis tried once more. “Uncovering the mammoths would help us understand—”
“There’s not a thing we need to understand about what’s down in that earth.”
Clenching his IV and taking short breaths, Curtis tottered to them, his pajama bottoms dragging through the grass. Lord she needed to mow, but with her sore legs and back, she’d been avoiding it.
“What do they need?” he asked.
“Something about mammoth bones.”
“They’re buried down in our backyard.” Curtis crossed his arms and nodded his head several times.
“Have you found a fossil?” Dr. Lewis held his clipboard and notebook to his chest.
“No. I just know they’re there.” He raised his voice, as if he couldn’t believe evidence was needed.
“How?” The scientist asked.
“He’s probably got a fever,” Gertrude said, even though it was pointless.
“It’s not the cancer, Gert. I know what I’m talking about.” He used to call her Gertie when they were first married but it’d been “Gert” for the last forty years.
“What do you know about fossils?”
“They mourn. Can’t you feel it?”
She grabbed the clipboard from Dr. Lewis. “The fool isn’t going to rest until y’all dig. That means I won’t get any rest either.”
Lewis gave her his pen.
Gertrude tapped her menthol cigarette against the kitchen deck rail. Down the slope, at one of the salt ponds that dotted the Appalachian valley, the men worked. Dr. Lewis, the taller of the other two East Tennessee State University scientists, raised a fossilized mammoth tusk above his head like a barbell and shouted in triumph. How did grown men find such joy in digging up that dirty old thing?
White fluff drifted past her head and sizzled against her cigarette cherry. Milkweed? No, it was snow. Snow in July! She chuckled, too worn out to question it. If it was another Ice Age, so be it.
Over the next 10 days, the snow kept falling. A pile accumulated in the cement birdbath. The tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains whitened: pale humps in the distance, like a line of Ice Age mammoths. Gertrude and Curtis watched from their back sitting room. Sometimes they pulled on their coats and walked down, stepping over the heaps of snow the backhoe worker lifted and dumped. During the first three days, the workers formed a swimming-pool-sized excavation, which was partly hidden by the tent, but Gertrude could see workers endlessly scraping layers of mud off the surface and slopping it into buckets.
Inside the house, in every room, the radiators popped and groaned. They seemed angry about having to work in the middle of what was supposed to be summer. When was the last time any maintenance had been done to the heating system in the house? Not since Gertrude’s mother died. The thermostat probably needed replacing. One day it would feel like a sauna; another day the cold would hang in the air.
Gertrude wanted to sleep and sleep. She turned the volume up on her alarm clock to make sure she rose in time to give Curtis his pills. Even that had become difficult. No. A pain in the ass. Each morning he closed his mouth tightly, jerking his head left to right until she held him still. It didn’t matter how little they saw of the scientists, since the unearthing of the tusk, a strange melancholy had descended on him. At first, Gertrude believed it was the cancer, but they’d been dealing with the illness for a year, and she’d never seen him so angry and irritable. He threw a handful of crackers at her one afternoon. Another morning he wouldn’t speak to her until lunch time.
She thought of the living room, of the kitchen, of all the square footage that Curtis filled with his books, his rock collection, his presence in her life. How empty it would be if, like the wooly mammoths, he disappeared.
Morbid. She crossed her arms as the snow outside kept falling. Their driveway butted up against highway ninety-one. The snow plows rumbled. Damn. If they blocked the driveway like they had last January, she didn’t know what she’d do. She’d shoveled for hours then, and her hip had ached for days. When she had come in from shoveling, Curtis had said, “I could have done that.” He couldn’t then and he sure couldn’t now. Why did Curtis no longer worry that she’d have to traipse out to work her already sore muscles?
Now, in the sitting room recliner, he watched the television news report about the excavation. The screen showed reporters only a few hundred feet from their house. The women with puffy hair and too-much make-up huddled in that white canvas tent, holding their microphones, while scientists pawed through corpses as the world kept darkening. Curtis didn’t even seem bothered by the fact that the sun still hadn’t returned. It was July. July! The grayness made Gertrude want to crawl under their bed covers. Instead, she rolled her neck back and forth, stretched her arms, and clenched and unclenched her fists. Shake off the dreariness. Shake it off.
She set up the TV tray next to the recliner and then brought Curtis soup and a cheese sandwich. He waved her away.
“Don’t you shoo me. You need to eat lunch.”
“I won’t keep it down.”
“You don’t know that,” she said.
“I know my body better than you.” He scooted the bowl of soup as if he couldn’t even take the smell.
She picked up the remote and flipped the television off.
“What are you doing?” Curtis tried to boost himself and tried to seize the remote, but Gertrude removed the batteries.
“Eat, now, and I’ll let you watch it later.”
Mumbling, Curtis held the side arms of the chair to balance his body as he slowly sat back down. He started slurping the soup.
Shouts from outside were so loud that she went to the window and opened the blinds. Lewis and the other two scientists put down their tools in the snow and circled the opening. They stared at something in the ground.
The recliner creaked. Curtis was leaving. Gertrude went after him and said, “Don’t you go out of this house.”
“I’m dying, Gert. When are you going to realize I ought to do any damn thing I please?”
“Don’t say ‘dying.’ You’re going to be fine.” She moved so that she was right in front of him.
“Stop all this nonsense.”
“Move out of the way.”
She let him pass. After a few seconds, she followed.
Outside, more media trucks were driving up. When did the driveway get shoveled? Did the workers take care of it? They must have. As she stepped over the piles of snow, Gertrude shaded her eyes from the news camera flashes. She could barely make out Curtis’s form, but she could tell he was shoving through the crowd of reporters. She heard whispers. Are those the owners? Make sure to interview them. Zoom in on their reactions.
A skull as tall as a stove poked from the jet-black mud, near the edge of the swimming-pool-sized hole. If the scientists bent over, they could touch the top of the skull. The mud though still hid the bottom. Tiny holes dotted the surface of the skull, and part of the top had a chunk missing. Had a saber-toothed tiger taken a bite as the mammoth slept? Or had an ancient human used a sharp blade to hack the mammoth’s head? Did it matter which? Once the creature lived in the world, then it was just gone. Gone like her poor mother with all those sleeping pills and soon, Curtis.
She shivered. It was all too disturbing. She wanted a thaw. No bones. No thought of death. She wanted all the ice and snow to melt until only mud was left in an empty yard.
Some of the people from town sat on the fence. In front of them, the reporters covered the small hill. Curtis started crying, streams of tears, just as he had at Gert’s mother’s funeral 10 years ago. He had blubbered like a kid, not bothering to get tissues; he had used his suit jacket’s sleeve.
“You’re making a scene.”
“I can’t help it,” he said.
It must have been the eye sockets. They made her think of space and earth, the round sphere crusted with thick ice and bones, bones, bones trapped under all that ice, the ice so solid that no one could break through. What she saw there through the sockets made her body feel heavy and tired. She just wanted to sit on the ground, even if it meant getting all wet from the snow. She wouldn’t.
A shovel leaned against a tree. She went for it. Before the scientists could realize what she was doing, she lifted it and brought it down on the skull. All of them started screaming “no.” She heard a camera flash. Her arm, shoulders, and neck ached with tension; the effort made her whole body vibrate. Someone off to her side yanked the shovel from her.
She’d only made a crack.
Later that evening, a blustery wind slapped the flaps of the tent as Dr. Lewis explained to the crowd of townspeople and a television crew that, each time a mammoth came to what was once a watering hole on Gertrude and Curtis’s property, hunters had killed it. Gertrude could see the deep line in one of the bones. The humans were smart, Dr. Lewis said. They knew the watering hole was an important spot for the mammals. It occurred over and over again, until the hunters contributed to the demise of the species in the area. The strewn carcasses, he said, resembled an elephant graveyard. Lewis pointed at the line. “See here? That’s from one of the human hunting tools.”
A week later, Gertrude watched from the window as a truck arrived and the workers and three scientists filled it with the skull, tusks, molars, and femurs. At least five hundred bones uncovered on or near Gertrude and Curtis’s property. That night, after the truck drove off, she helped Curtis crawl into the bed. He started crying again.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“The animals didn’t even get to bury their dead. Did you know that’s what elephants do? Bury their dead just like us? Mammoths are bound to be the same. Don’t you think?”
“How would I know?” When she had lifted that shovel the previous week, the heaviness vanished the second the crack in the skull appeared, but Gertrude’s fatigue had returned. She didn’t even have the energy to ask him how he knew all that about elephants and their dead. He kept weeping, so she went to sit in the recliner. When she had tugged her mother’s lethargic body to help her in the bathtub all those years ago, that heaviness had been with Gertrude then, too. She had hoped the hot water would melt the ice of depression.
That night, as she tried to sleep, she couldn’t stop thinking of her mother’s suicide.
A shake jolted her eyes open. Crash after crash and shattering glass. Were the picture frames falling from the walls? She touched corduroy fabric. Must have fallen asleep in the recliner. She blinked a few times at the darkness. After a couple of seconds, her eyes adjusted. The shaking stopped. An earthquake? The gas line bursting? She went to check on Curtis. Her slippers crunched glass on the floor. Once she flipped on the hallway light, she could see him slumbering in their bed as his IV dripped morphine. She shouted his name, but another loud noise drowned out her voice. It sounded like wood hitting clay. From the kitchen?
Still half-asleep, she ran her palm along the wall to steady herself. When she flicked the kitchen light on, she nearly fell over in surprise. Right there in the center was a mammoth tusk. It had come up through the center of their kitchen table. But it wasn’t the same tusk as the scientists had found. It gleamed with the glossy texture of bone, rather than the pumice-like surface of a fossil. How in the world? The houses in their Smoky Row neighborhood were built on blue limestone; only dynamite could break through that rock.
Break it did. It had even split the table in half, the two pieces angled on either side of the tusk in a v-shape. She crept closer, afraid the bone would unexpectedly move. She scooted one of the chairs out of the way, and when she got to the tusk, she assessed the situation.
The white oak floorboards were split open to reveal pieces of the limestone. Underneath that, the loamy soil mixed in with clay. She got on her knees and scooped some of the dirt out to find the whiteness of what seemed to be more bones. Had the earthquake pushed up all those bones? And when was the last time southwestern Virginia had an earthquake? She stood, rubbing the dirt on her robe. The tip of the tusk was right there in front of her face. She wanted to smack the thing. Instead, she took a deep breath and wrapped her hands around the curved, middle section of the tusk. She pulled. It wouldn’t budge. She grasped it tighter and yanked it harder, grunting. Damn.
On her knees, she tried to rip up the floorboard section circling the bone, but splinters jabbed her skin. She stopped for a minute to pick them from her flesh while Curtis’s snoring drifted from the other room. Tears welled up, but she wouldn’t let them come. She shook her head, and, once she removed the nasty bits, she said aloud to the tusk, “I’ve had enough.”
She went outside to the shed, and when she returned carrying the battery powered circular saw, Curtis was standing in the kitchen, wisps of his white hair sticking up left and right. “What’s going on?” he asked.
For years she had fixed him bacon and eggs every Saturday. She had fixed her mother biscuits and gravy in the same kitchen. She cooked her mother food even when she wouldn’t eat, when she couldn’t lift a fork. Now, she knew what her mother had suffered. Staring at that tusk with its creamy natural colors, Gertrude felt so tired and heavy.
She put on a pair of safety goggles and started up the saw. Over its shrill whining, she shouted, “Out of my way.”
She had hauled the tusk out to the shed, along with the pieces of the demolished kitchen table. The tusk’s stump remained stuck there in the kitchen under the TV tray she set up so they would have a place for their plates and cups. Curtis nibbled at a slice of bacon. She pushed her fluffy scrambled eggs across the plate when she noticed flecks of white dust in a morsel of egg. From the bone? Gertrude began coughing; she dumped the food in the trash can.
“Now what?” Curtis asked.
“We’ve got to get a contractor in here this week. That hole in the floor’s got to get fixed.”
“I like the bones here.”
“You like looking down at our floor and seeing a hole full of death?” She turned on the faucet to scrub her dish. No water. Great.
“You don’t get it.”
“Correct! I don’t. It’s like we’re living right on top of some gravesite. And now we’re going to have to call a plumber, too.”
“Why’s this all such a bad thing?” Curtis ate one more bite of bacon and walked out of the kitchen. His morphine pump squeaked as he rolled it beside him.
“Death is a bad thing,” she said to the empty room.
A smash from the other room disrupted the quiet. Not again! When she entered the living room, another bone, what looked to be a femur, protruded from the floorboards right in front of the entertainment center. One after another they came. A bone crashed up near the window, another tipped over the potted fern and spilled dirt across the living room carpet. One even shot up from the earth in the bathroom, cracking through the ceramic tub. Gertrude began cutting. Curtis yelled something from the recliner, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying over the noise. Bother? Why bother? That’s what he was saying. She, too, wondered. Would more just keep coming? Possibly. She’d just cut them down one after another.
When she had finished, and they had six new bone stumps in their house, Gertrude swept away the shards and dust. Curtis wouldn’t allow her to empty the dustpan. Instead, each time she filled the pan, he packed all that would fit, mostly the dust and smaller pieces, inside some mason jars he found in the pantry.
“What are you going do with those?”
“Bury them,” he said, as he placed the collection of jars inside of a box.
The ground’s probably frozen. What an old fool.
He put on his winter coat and tucked the morphine pouch in the pocket. At least he would stay warm.
When he left, she busied herself with wiping down the framed photographs hanging on the walls. There was the picture of Curtis at the top of Mount Rogers after a long hike. There was a picture of her mother working in her garden. With each swab the dust from the mammoth bones clung to her rag. Gertrude balled it up when she finished, ready to throw it away, but she stopped and spread the rag open. That’s what will become of Curtis. That’s even what will become of her.
Curtis returned an hour later, his coat damp from a wintery mix of snow and ice and his boots muddying the hallway carpet. While he was gone, Gertrude had started tying decorative scarves around each one of the stumps. She didn’t wear such things; they had been in her mother’s wardrobe. They were the scarves Gertrude bought as a kid as gifts she hoped would cheer her mother up. Since her mother’s death, the moths had been feeding on them. She didn’t know then how a person couldn’t be cheered up from depression. The old items were finally of use. If she couldn’t see the bone stumps, she wouldn’t have to think about all that death. What was the saying? Out of sight, out of mind?
“Where’d you bury those jars?”
“Do you want to know?”
“Not really,” she said as she finished with the last stump.
“I didn’t think so,” Curtis said.
Gertrude stood in the living room with her hands on her hips, smug. What a clever way to hide the stumps. At least until they could hire a contractor to remove them. Her face hurt from smiling. How long had it been since she smiled? Since they found out about Curtis’s colon cancer? If it had been that long, why didn’t it feel good to stretch her lips? It seemed odd. Unnatural, even.
A growl came from under the house. Another earthquake? Not just an earthquake. It sounded like the entire ground below them was shifting into another space and time. A sad keening came next. Were all those mammoths waking up and mourning their own extinction? Curtis was right the entire time.
More breaking came next; it came from inside her mother’s old room. She rushed through the hall and went into the bedroom, where a mammoth skull had crashed through the antique dresser. The skull had knocked over one of the picture frames, the photograph of the three of them at Gertrude and Curtis’s wedding.
Before Gertrude could catch the frame, another bone came through the floor right near her feet. What the hell was happening? But she didn’t have time to answer her own question; they all started coming so fast that Gertrude nearly tripped over one of the bones as she backed away. Curtis caught her by her waist, keeping her from stumbling. She wrapped her hands over his warm, familiar fingers. How long had he been standing behind her? She managed to release him, too afraid her weight would drag his frail body down.
They rushed from the bedroom through the hallway. The crashing sounded like the house caving in. Bones and bones filled each one of the rooms of the house. Gertrude’s heart beat raced and she couldn’t catch her breath. She felt suffocated, like someone had buried her alive. “We’ve got to get out of here.” She held Curtis and tried to steer him towards the front door.
“No.” He let go of her. “I’m staying.”
The bones already surrounded him left and right. The scarring where muscle and tendons had once been attached showed in the bone grain. A shoulder blade, nearly as large as his leg, emerged through the floor in front of him. The rest of the floor began collapsing, opening a good sized hole. Curtis stepped over the house’s boards and crawled inside. Stop! She wanted to shout, but she held clumps of her hair, as if preparing to tear them out.
The house clattered; the walls began disappearing; more bones appeared; soon, both of them would be buried. The front door hadn’t vanished yet. She could escape.
She wouldn’t leave; instead, she crawled in, and they lay together, just like they had every night for forty years. She could have sworn she felt fur warming her. She could cry forever. For Curtis, for her mother, for all the people of the earth, and for the immense melancholy of the Saltville mammoths. She could cry until the end of time or until the beginning of a new Ice Age and until the snow covered and consumed the whole valley and the whole earth. Uw
Brigitte McCray is a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop for Fantastic Fiction, and she earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She also earned her PhD in English at Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth.com, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere.