My grandmother dies in the depths of summer when it’s too hot to eat a popsicle. On the day of her funeral I walk with my mother to the cemetery in our blackest clothes. As we follow the dirt path to the outskirts of our village, I witness a herd of monks dressed in bright orange robes, their knees dirty with prayer. Their robes have been opened to let the breeze in, so they look ostentatious yet fully functional, like traffic cones. One could truly make a living this way: by willing rain to come, by willing rain to end, by praying for the souls of dogs killed during the annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival to get back into the cycle of reincarnation instead of wandering the world aimlessly without form, etc. It’s a busy time of year for them.
Further down the path, an old butcher alternates fluidly between coughing, cursing at the monks, and spitting on the sidewalk. The butcher is squatting on the stoop outside his shop, arms folded piously over his chest with a tampon shoved inside one nostril. He wants to stop his nosebleed while dressed in an apron soaked in dog blood. I turn to my mother and ask, “What’s the point of plugging up one wound while letting another one leak?” Here is an economy based on redemption: a temple built next to a butcher shop where the primary occupation of one is to pray for the killings of the other. Now that I’ve proven how much we need each other, let’s get on with it.
The butcher has a pet dog who barks at the caged dogs, and together they chew on vegetable scraps and howl at the moon. Which is to say: sometimes love means you don’t talk much, but you eat together. This is a signifier in my culture. Please translate into a symbol you can understand. (When going somewhere you’ve never been before, you should always learn how to say hello, goodbye, where is the bathroom, I love you.) The monks say the butcher is sacrilegious, but I believe religion is whatever you embed the totality of your being in—my religion is spoonfeeding eggs to the sink. My religion is informing men how sweaty their hands are. My religion is a cigarette butt that’s started a dumpster fire with no one alive to witness. My religion is skipping the line at the deli and going straight towards my dreams.
The monks prepare for the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival by redirecting traffic in their traffic cone robes, and the butcher prepares by shining the crimson off his knife. In the dark, over the hills, hundreds of flames are lit and dog bodies turned over and over, widening under the cool, black fires. You can excavate their tiny white hearts and lay the skins out to cure. You can do this with the conviction of somebody who has a family to feed. I’ve never eaten dog meat or tried to flag down a god, but don’t equate what I haven’t done with what I wouldn’t do. For instance: my grandmother once asked if I could help her remove the birthmark on her face—a pearl of oiled black the size of an insect. I brought the knife solemnly to her cheek, and made her do the rest herself.
I like to be the one who cleans up the mess instead of the one who tends the fires. I like to be the one who slips in and out of my desire to hurt whoever is standing closest to me. Maybe we are opposites, and we could grow up to become siblings. Maybe you are the same as me, and I could grow up to become the flesh under your nails. This may seem like a finite realm, but there are many things that exist between a sibling and the flesh under a nail—the finger itself, the grime that slides under a nail when you are burying a body, the palm that sweats on prayer beads, the sound of your mother smashing her sunglasses on over her normal glasses, your shadow cast over a freshly-mowed lawn, etc.
After the burial is done everyone is left standing and staring at the ground. I can hear the sound of monks and dogs wailing in the distance, so loud they drown us out. The sun is still a sliver pronounced in the sky, fingernailed yet bright. I squint. I wink. It feels like coming back after a long day, and all the lights are on, but there is nobody home.