Digging in the Dirt

I’m not one to believe in superstitions, even after having experienced the black-cats-on-Halloween gauntlet of Solomon’s Island. I still harbor a deep fear of such things, however, given that I had been fed bogeyman’s tales about the ills that afflict children with my mother’s milk. “If you say a baby is fat, the evil spirits will come and make them sick.” Invariably when we visited relatives, my mother would remark on how a new niece or nephew looked like mommy or daddy; comments about their good health would invite misfortune. In the case of one uncle who was suspected of infidelity – which was borne out by the baby’s face – my mother advised the newborn to study hard so that he could become a doctor someday. My mother always gave sound, if somewhat predictable advice.

Sometimes I wish I had taken my mother’s advice more often, like the time a stray cat found its way into yard and my mother told me not to touch it. I was six years old at the time, so my ears hadn’t yet developed properly. I was about to start first grade at a public school where I didn’t know anybody. My mother had moved me out of the private kindergarten academy I had been attending after my father was laid off from the law firm he worked at as part of an organization-wide “rightsizing.” I was lonely, bored, and friendless, so I decided that this cat would make a nice replacement companion until school started up again in the fall. The cat didn’t take very kindly to me, being that I was an unfamiliar face and was also not offering food.

I decided to head into the house to fetch it something to eat. As I turned on one heel with all the drama of a stage performer (as was my habit at the time), the cat jumped up suddenly and shot up into one of the several trees in our yard with surprising alacrity. It stayed there for the rest of the day despite my attempts to coax it down with promises of rice mixed with fish and soy sauce. (In retrospect, maybe plain fish would have been a better bribe.) When the sun went down my mother called me inside for dinner and I left the cat in peace, thinking that perhaps a night outside in the cool summer air would give it time to reflect on what a wonderful and generous person I was. (I was somewhat less modest as a child.)

When I came outside early the next morning, I found the cat lying on the ground, sleeping. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to stroke its black fur. When I touched it, something felt odd. It wasn’t warm; the fur was stiff. I jumped back from my kneeling position onto my rear end with a strangled gasp. I ran inside and shouted at my mother in Chinese which was an immediate indicator to her that something serious was afoot – I usually didn’t speak to her in Chinese unless she forced me to (often) or I wanted her to buy something for me (rarely: the answer was almost always “no”).

Or in this case, that my life as a six year old had just become too much for me to handle.

My mother went out to inspect the scene and came back into the house with a stone face. She went into the kitchen and got me a pair of latex gloves, then briefly went into the garage and grabbed a gardening spade. Since I had been closest to the cat at the time of its departure, she told me, I would be the one to lay its spirit to rest in the backyard. With great reluctance, I put on the latex gloves, grabbed the mass of fur in both hands, and took it to the far corner of the back yard near the dark brown fence that separated us from the neighbors behind us. I dug a hole in the earth until it looked like it was large enough to hold the cat’s limp body for all eternity, wrapped it in white cloth taken from the workbench in the garage, and filled in the hole. I marked the grave with a collection of smooth stones I had found on a trip to the beach, hoping that the spirits that guided kitty to the next life would be pleased with the offering of objects that I really, really liked.

It may not seem like much to anyone who isn’t me, but that memory haunts me to this day. I wish I could forget that it had ever happened. This business with laying spirits to rest, however, unfailingly reminds me of that black cat. I’ve become accustomed to the physical act of returning jinns, demons, and whatever else back to their resting places. When the local zoologists responsible for compartmentalizing filth creatures and the like into neatly ordered taxonomies tell me that what I’ll be facing are Ur Draugs and Snorgenbjorgs and whatever other weird names they come up with, I don’t have a problem with sending them back whence they came.

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It’s when I have to exhume, bury, or entomb them that I become anxious and panicky. It’s due to the way I grew up. After I buried the cat, my mother made me shower for an hour and launder all my clothes – all of them – before going off to visit auntie at her restaurant downtown. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with the mechanical act. I understand it cognitively. But something deep within me is positively spooked when I have to deal with putting things in or taking things out of the earth. It’s like crawling into the souls of the departed uninvited and staying there.

You can imagine, then, that when I discovered that spirits at one of the Oxford Archaeologists’ dig sites needed to be pacified and their tombs sealed that I was less than enthused about doing so. I spent an hour and a half listening to the otherwise utterly banal weather forecasts and god-awful poetry crackling out of Montgomery and Arun’s radio before heading out to the dusty slopes to take care of business.

One of the nice things about being out in the desert is that if you have to vomit or otherwise, there are oceans of sand you can use to cover it up. It’s rather unbecoming, but the harsh environment brings out the pragmatic in most everyone.

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