When Kevin Tsang’s dog dies, we ask Dennis Lee what we should do because out of all of us, Dennis knows death best: last month it accordioned his uncle’s lungs and then it came for his mother. One day she was pulling double shifts at the nail salon and the next she was dead and urned. See, you never know when we’ll die, our parents tell us, but what really scares us is how easily the salon replaces Dennis’ mother with a woman from Guangzhou who wears her hair in a perm, bristly as a toilet bowl brush. She looks like Rebecca Pan from Days of Being Wild, Kevin’s sister says, because she’s older and watches for these things, straining meaning out of the most ordinary people, and so instead of greeting the Guangzhou woman with customary politeness, we ask her about birds, about whether she knows what happens to birds born without feet. Do they just keep flying? Do they sleep in the wind? We tinsel the air with our questions, imagining our voices to be footless birds as well, but she brushes us away and tells us to arrange her bucket of nail polish bottles by size, then by color.
Boring, we say, but we have no choice. Either behave or I’ll tell your parents, and then the feather duster will lash your asses, the Guangzhou woman says. Grievously, we arrange the bottles even as our first question, the most important question, squats on our shoulders and dazes us as we clack color against color, mucus yellows against saliva topcoats. You have taste, the Guangzhou woman tells a patron as she unthongs one jade-veined foot, then the other. Dennis looks away and here is when we repeat our question. What do we do, Dennis?
I’ll show you tomorrow, Dennis finally says. He’s the fastest at organizing. The best at patterns. Before him, the nail polish bottles stand in neat rows like candied teeth, hemmed in as if righted by the braces that parallel our gums. Do we need to bring anything? Nothing really. Where did you bury him? Ah, Kevin’s sister tried to grill the body. She thought she could turn it into food for the garden. There isn’t much difference between dying and shitting, she’d said, it all becomes food. It made sense when she put it like that, but now when we repeat her words we feel silly. Dennis laughs. You got caught, didn’t you? Anyways, no grill would’ve been big enough for Kevin’s dog. Go bury him and tomorrow I’ll show you what to do next.
The next day we tell our parents that Kevin won a Kumon raffle and that his family is taking us to the movies. We skip the nail salon and instead skin our ankles through the woods behind Kevin’s house. Is this where you did it? Dennis asks when we reach the spot, a patch of earth as bald as our fathers’ heads. Yes, we say. From here we can see a fence and then the yard and then Kevin’s garden, the proud trellis roped with green-fisted vines. How far away it feels. Our fingers itch to pluck the clenched fruit, the Buddha’s fists, the bitter melon. Pay attention, Dennis tells us, and so we make ourselves still, scuffing our sneakers into the black dirt.
Please, God, Dennis starts to say, but we stop him. Why would God care? Animals don’t have souls, Dennis. Dennis shakes his head and tells us to shut up, that he knows what he’s doing. No, we say. At school, Sister Mary says that God doesn’t give souls to animals. But what does it matter, God still made Kevin’s dog, Dennis says. We consider this because he’s right. God still made Kevin’s dog. Hid a soul from its body. Where does God hide souls? That’s a question for Sister Mary, Dennis says, before telling us to close our eyes and to yawn out our mouths.
We don’t expect it when he cherries our tongues with sweetness. Dennis! we cry, but Dennis just tells us to suck and chew and swallow because this is what he did when his uncle died, and then his mother. He says, I squatted by their bodies for a whole night and then everyone gave me envelopes filled with candy. Ba didn’t let me go home until I ate them all, he says. He tells us that it’s tradition, that eating the candies is supposed to seal someone’s luck. We nod and suck thoughtfully, imagining Dennis crunching the candies, brimming his gums with fortune. We ask, what shape were your candies? Were they round? Because that’s how we imagine souls to be, all the souls that God has hoarded, all the ones that He’s hid from us, from our dogs, from Kevin’s dog: a handful of golden tokens. Dennis nods. He opens his mouth wide, shows us his teeth, and we thrill at how his molars have yellowed, how they’ve grown soft with rot. See, Dennis says and he drags his pinky down and scrapes a hole into one tooth. Dennis! We shudder and scream and we spit out our candies, scared that perhaps he’s given us the souls of dead things, scared that perhaps they’ll find a way to live in our teeth too. We leave Dennis there, his head tipped to the sun, his skull a lacquered circle.
Back at home we huddle in front of our TVs, watching news about a place we already miss but have never been. It’s raining in Zhengzhou, and we marvel at how the rain slants, at how it browns the earth, milkshaking it all the way up to a man’s shoulders. A-Ba, A-Ma, we cry, our mouths pursed around green coins of ice cream. Where will the birds land? Our parents look at us with strangeness in their eyes. Which birds? they ask, and we say, the ones with feet. Maybe the ones without feet too. And then we add, and what about the kids with candy in their mouths? How will they go home? Our parents say nothing, just send us to bed. Still, we wonder about the dogs buried in Zhengzhou, whether their corpses are floating in streets we’ve only seen, never roamed. Food for nothing, we say to ourselves, licking mint and pistachio from our lips.
At night we escape from our bedrooms and pebble Kevin’s window. With linked hands, we hurtle past the proud trellis and bat away the clenched fruit, the Buddha’s fists, the bitter melon. We wade through the garden, the yard, the fence. We find the secret spot out in the woods. We plug our hands into the dirt, seeking those souls we spat. Trying to grow our own.
Celeste Chen lives in Washington, DC. She is knee-deep in student loans and her living room smells like turpentine. Her work has appeared in Sine Theta Magazine and Maudlin House and is forthcoming in trampset and SmokeLong Quarterly. She’s Always Online and sometimes on Twitter at @celestish_.