Grief-Eater

As a girl, Abu was a grief-eater. This was before she came to the city with a jaw full of pennies. Whenever someone died, families hired grief-eaters to enter the deceased person’s home and eat everything they owned. That way, the dead person’s belongings can be reincarnated too, carried in my mother’s belly and rebirthed through her intestines. Grief-eaters are always women, Abu says. I’ve eaten everything. Belts, clothes. Dishes, knives. Furniture takes a while. It wears down your teeth. That’s why mine are titanium-capped. I’ve eaten cats, snakes, fish-tanks. Bed-frames, mattresses too. I’ve eaten every species of shoe. I’ve eaten clocks, watches. I went to bed with my belly ticking. I could tell the time without even looking at anything. Something was counting the hours inside me.

To audition for grief-eating, my mother had to walk to a temple located on the scalp of a mountain and sit in a damp room and wait for nuns to bring her an assortment of objects on wooden trays. She had to eat each object in the dark and defecate into a copper tray that was located beside her, gleaming red-black like a picked-open scab. The room was empty except for the tray, a cushion to kneel on, and a teacup of water that lit the room. My mother was first brought a glass frog the size of her fist, which she swallowed whole to prevent glass-splinters in her throat. For a month before, she’d trained herself to swallow her own fist by first probing her throat with her pinky, then fitting her forefinger and her thumb, until at last her jaw was stretched like a sock and she was able to socket her entire fist inside without even bulging her neck. After she swallowed the frog made of glass, the nuns brought her a tray of match-sticks as long as her arms and so sensitive to friction that they could be lit by breathing onto them. Abu knew they were testing to see if she could swallow them without striking their heads and setting her throat alight, so she broke the sticks apart in her hands and mixed them into the teacup of water until it was a dust-thickened porridge. Then she drank. The nuns brought the final object, a mirror the size of her body. Abu could not see herself in the dark. The room was dim as a nostril, and Abu reached out a single finger, stroked the mirror like the spine of an animal. She’d been practicing how to dislocate her jaw and then relocate it, to unhinge the bone so that she could fit large objects inside herself, but this mirror was too large for any mouth. She beat the silver pane with her fists and her forehead and her knees until the dark of her blood replaced the dark of the room and the mirror was battered into island-shaped pieces. Abu sucked the shards like candied rain, said her tongue was in tatters afterward, but it had been worth it, because the nuns opened the door and sound renamed the room and there was a light looming inside her mouth, light like a bloodletting.

Grief-eaters were paid by the pound, so Abu learned to eat the heavy things, necklaces and rings and jade cuffs and statues of lions and stone likenesses of national leaders and paperweights of ambered butterflies and hardcover books, so many books, and this was when she discovered that every language had a different taste, and that when we spoke we were so used to the taste of our native languages that we were numb to them. But if you ate the page of a language you didn’t know, it would taste of all kinds of things: sweat on a wrist, muskmelon, tang, piss, a grape popsicle. In the bedroom she shared with my aunts, Abu liked to keep a shelf of holy books in every language that had heard of god, and some nights I stood in the doorway and watched as she took down a book and tore out a prayer and folded the petal-thin page into neat shapes and pressed them to her tongue to dissolve them. At night, in the dark, she eats. She eats the sheets, the cotton trim of her pillow, the callouses on her palms, the dark itself, the curtains, the moldy rind of the moon, the wind with its bones in. Her own hair. Plaster from the wall that become crumbs when you pinch it. Once, she woke with a doorknob plugged in her mouth, and my aunts had to reattach it to the door, except that it melted in her mouth and was now shaped like the inside of it, a mold of her mouth like the kind you can get at a dentist’s. Every time I turn that doorknob, my hand learns her teeth.

Grief-eating, Abu says, is something I’m not allowed to try. She says my stomach is calf-soft and will be slaughtered by anything not rice-based. She says that when I was a baby, I swallowed my aunt’s disposable lighter and farted littles fires all over the house that had to be beaten down with a wet mop and a blanket. Grief-eaters were supposed to bury what they excreted, but my mother and her sisters collected the jewelry expelled days later and pawned the pieces off, saving them for plane tickets to bigger countries. They pried the pearls out of earrings, snipped necklaces into bracelets, hammered gold cuffs into sheets to be resold and redistributed as daylight.

Because they’d technically thieved from the dead in order to fly to California, Abu and my aunts went to the temple every other week to pray to the deceased they’d stolen from and atone for their bad karma. At the temple in Milpitas, the names of the dead are written on slips of rice paper and pasted to the walls, which are so thick with sheets that the room resembles wind, mist pasted to the walls, and when you walk to the front of the temple where the plastic Buddha sits with its shoulders half-melted, the slips of paper flutter up like a flock of breeze-whittled wings.

In California, my Abu and aunts were so overwhelmed by the new griefs that became available to their bodies – vowels fell to the sidewalk like shot birds, girls disappeared from our apartment building, and the sky miscarried rain every day – that they decided to abstain from appetite, to shut off their swallowing. Every summer there were wildfires that swept us out like a broom, and the houses were incinerated completely, so no one hired anyone to come and eat. The deceased here have no homes, Abu says, so there’s nothing I can swallow for them. My aunt XiXi refused to eat anymore grief. She let go of her throat like a handlebar and it disappeared from her, and now she had only her sleeves to speak through. My other aunt NaNa created her own griefs to eat in the absence of clients: she adopted stray cats off Pinto street and drowned them in our bathtub, eating the yarn collars she’d woven from them, the plastic tags stained with their names. She always made sure to love them for at least eight months – otherwise, she told me, the grief would be too weak to eat. But the cats learned to shirk her, and they fled our street and populated the caves beneath the highway. My Abu said she was worried that her sister would start killing dogs soon, but aunt NaNa decided it was safer to starve. Dogs are a test, my aunt NaNa said. If you aid a starving one, it will reincarnate and come back as a human who will help you. So I never touch dogs. Aunt NaNa told me that love and loss are synonyms: she said that though I didn’t know how to eat grief the way they did, I could still get situated with my stomach, learn to carry more than my meat. The first grief-eater, my aunt NaNa said, was a mooneater. The moon is the skeleton of the sun, bled of its gold blood, and the first grief-eater swallowed it. But it’s still there, I said, pointing at the sky, though the city was so bright with buildings and sirens that it looked translucent as a fly’s wing.

Have you noticed, my aunt NaNa said, that the moon disappears a little every month, and some nights it’s gone? The moon is too large to be swallowed whole. The first grief-eater dangles from the sky and nibbles it away into day. And then it grows back again, like my toenail. Luckily, she said to me, the first grief-eater is always hungry. She can eat month after month and never reach the end of a year. Appetite can be trained, she said, like the neck of a shirt that needs to be stretched out. She brushed my hair every morning, parting my hair to the left, teaching me how to eat the strands bushing out from the brush.

My mother and aunts thinned every day and resorted to eating dead tree branches and house ash that fluttered down from the hills. Grief grows everywhere, they said, eating aphids from their fingertips. We’ll always be in business, my aunt NaNa said, luring an owl to the window with a Slim-Jim. She’ll cage it in a colander and electrocute it later, after she’s loved it, and my Abu will mutter and slam the doors and say it was sick, for her sister to cannibalize her own grief, when all their lives they’d been trained to relieve the grief of others. They taught us how to eat griefs, aunt NaNa said, flicking the Slim-Jim at the windowpane, but no one taught us how to live with them. That night, aunt NaNa brought me outside to the aviary she’d built illegally in our neighbor’s side-yard, a single twig roof with tinfoil sides. Crouched inside a sogged cardboard box was the owl she’d seduced into her hands, its legs twisted together and twined with wire. You have to name it, she said, because you can’t grieve something unless you’ve named it. I asked her why I had to be the one to do it, and my aunt NaNa yanked at my braid, flicked it over my shoulder like reins. Because this will be the first grief you eat, she said, this one belongs to you. I looked at the owl with its feathers curdled together, its eyes like wedding rings, blood circling its beak. It was small as my palm, and my aunt NaNa said it would trust me enough to eat from my fingers, peck out my hangnails. In eight months, I thought, the moon would be eaten clean, loosened from the night like an earring. Tonight the moon was the shape of a beak, pecking a perch into the dark. I wondered if it was true that owls shat from their mouths, spitting bullets of bone that shone in my palm. I wondered what a bone in my mouth would make me, and how owls sorted marrow from meat so cleanly. My belly, too, learning to separate grief from its body, expelling the feathers, unbraiding the bone. I sought a name for what would remain. I landed on love.