Poetry

A Buddhist Funeral on Reunion Day

26 August 2020

CW: death

There’s nothing in that area, you warned me
too late, after I alighted into a cartography of auto-workshops, flat stretches of old grass;
the shadowy hull of Eunoia Junior College.
Once humming with gasoline, the asphalt lies as if dead
no pink flags rumbling in the distance, no trucks ferrying
the din of lion dance troupes and their rallying drums–
no sounds of the living, but for the white tent
of the temple next door.

In the sombre dust of Sin Ming Drive
cars idle in the sun, while banks of dark blue awnings extend greetings
of scripture and business.
There, on the first room of the other side
I stumble upon a wave of bone-white.
Strangers shift in pale chairs,
eyes following me
an unknown of their number
peering back, moonlike, as if into a mirror.

The front walls of the sitting room are missing,
laying grief bare. Here, only a thin border
separates one transient room from
the occupants in the next.

When I stare at the framed photo of the woman outside
not even an echo surfaces,
but a woman at the front of the crowd
calls my name. She nudges me over,
across the step that divides the dead
from the living. All visitors come face-to-face with
the earthy casket, the floor screen at the back
in austere ink-wash, with its painted cranes and characters of consolation
too obscure to recognise.
Loving tributes from the local shops line the altar:
joss sticks, papery yellow talismans,
petite offerings of food your grandmother loved
or their best substitutes: Kong bak bao, simmered bok choy, stewed mushrooms and carrots
–apple-green and peach yakult for her grandchildren
laden with care. Her last meals are vegetarian,
so no ghosts impede her journey. 

As I wait for you, I bow
once, twice, three times; that should be enough. But I bend once more,
a Catholic faux pas
against the fabric of a Buddhist family.
In front of all this starkness,
I sit down in the late afternoon sun with your older cousin
chatting about the Puffing Billy Trains in Dandenong, how I sound
“Australian” now, and the time you came to visit me in Melbourne.
As these loose stitches of casual nothings
begin to skirt and slip under the weight of memories
her expression hollows, and she gets up to leave.

When you arrive, you can’t stop apologising–
the red lily of your face crumples abruptly
along with your sister’s young voice, for
she and your father just flew in this morning.
I watch as you and your mother guide them in rites, bowing together
backs firm and poised, before you disappear into the back to dress in white.

Sans rehearsal, I envision a choreographed number for when you return
then follow its stage directions; moving tables to keep you company, talking through
the sweat dripping down the white of my shirt.
As the heat slows and your face settles into a mask of duty
it is soon time for the sutras to begin.
I take my cue to leave,
but must do so without uttering the words
“goodbye”.

The last ritual–
I take a yellow tea cloth and its knot of red thread
between my fingers. I begin unwinding
filaments of time, now reduced
to microseconds of flashing images. At this gathering
I search for the beginnings of an encounter
with this shining presence in your world,
the orphan who raised you and your mother
feeding a stranger’s child alongside her own,
maybe once, twice or more.
I conjure something from a different era– 

Old lighting. A mise en scène of us as young girls,
your cousins running around a living room,
absorbed in a game lost to time. In front of us are ceramic pots
laced with the nebulous aroma of pork and mushrooms, braised vegetables,
even tiny bowls of peanut soup they must have been,
a Cantonese staple. My eyes
are in the present, but at the rows of white tables
elliptical as their conversations, these ghosts
are nowhere to be found. Even the watery form of her face
cannot hold firm,
her name lost to my unknowing childhood.
Yellow tea cloth in hand, I wonder why I stopped going
during those days before you left; the years between us when you still called
this place home.

Bowing three times with you,
I disentangle myself from the whiteness
of the wreathed chrysanthemums and
an air pregnant with unshed tears.
Walking forward, I unravel the red thread fully,
then cast it away. 


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