Sam couldn’t stop his mother from the Viking Burial his father had requested. She would douse their wooden cabin cruiser with gasoline, spark the flames with his father’s lighter, cut the lines, cast their boat ablaze into the river. His father’s body would burn, his ashes drift up into the industrial haze, the unburnable parts settle beneath the scoria-thick waters.
“There will be hell to pay,” Sam said, but his mother was already deep into the boathouse shadows, searching for the gas can.
“Hell to pay,” she sang again and again, until the phrase took on the rhythm of “Amazing Grace.”
“Ma, there’s a law. You can’t do this.”
But then she emerged from the shadows with a gas can. “Was blind but now I see.”
“Ma, you can’t control a gas fire. Can’t you once, please, do something normal? Bury him in the ground like everybody else.”
The gas can bumped against her thigh and she sang, “How sweet the sound.” At the end of the dock, his mother bent over the transom. The sound of the water was everywhere, but Sam knew the sound he heard was gasoline hitting teak.
“Ma, why do you always have to make me such a freak?”
His mother stood slowly and her voice bounced sharp across the bay.
“This isn’t yours,” his mother said. “I won’t give this to you. It isn’t about you.” Sam turned away from his mother, away from the river. It was too soon, he knew, but already Sam felt the heat on the back of his neck. He was sure he felt the sun setting low in the wrong corner of the sky.
In 2008, Jeanne M. Leiby (1964–2011) was named editor of The Southern Review, becoming the first woman and the first northerner to hold that position. “Viking Burial,” reprinted here, was first published in New Orleans Review in 1995, and appeared in her story collection, Downriver, which won the Doris Bakwin Award and was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2007. She died in an automobile accident at the age of forty-six.