Burning Gold and Silver Paper
"Three days to bid goodbye to a soul which had lived for seventy years."
By Michelle Yu

•   •   •
Grey slurry on my skin, ash mixed with sweat in the moist, thirty-degree heat. Staring into a charred pit which is flurrying and alive, cindering with flecks of fire that consume all into grey ash. It has been two years since my grandmother passed. Burning incense for her journey beyond, this is my spirituality: grey and glowing and throat choking dry with ash. This is my spirituality, past ones communing with you every lunar March over an offering of fruit and vegetarian dishes. This is my spirituality, eyes gritty and tears vapourised from the heat of the blazing fire. I claim it as mine.
•   •   •
On the first night of my grandmother’s death, we knelt on the floor. The monks, dressed in yellow robes, had long, thin chains of rosary beads around their neck, and they held thicker ones in their arms. Clang! Their hands rang hollow wooden sticks as they chanted. This all continued for three days – three days to bid goodbye to a soul which had lived for seventy years.
The realm of the afterlife seemed closer than ever. I moved slowly when I went to the bathroom, turning my head from side to side, so that I wouldn’t catch anything sneaking out of the corner of my eye. I did not know what I might see, just that it was something which might not be as benevolent as my grandmother's spirit.
The guests came and left, eating from flimsy paper plates the offerings of vegetarian dumplings, with crunchy, black edible fungus and dark, squishy strips of mushroom bursting from their translucent rice-flour skin. The dumplings wafted steam into the air upon the first bite. There was also thin, fried beehoon rice noodles, cold and odourless, translucent and oily. But they tasted too good, and I enjoyed them too much, for someone who was supposed to be grieving their grandmother. The chanting, and the kneeling, and the dark funeral clothes, and my mother's grief, had not brought me any closer to my deceased grandmother, with whom I did not share a language. She spoke Teochew, and I speak English in perfect grammar, which I learned from my parents and from TV and from every day in school. I did not know even ten words of her language. To this day, I still do not know how to say ‘Hello.’
The funeral guests drank from the serving-sized packets of sweet drinks – winter melon drink, chrysanthemum tea, and soya milk, small cartons which lay flattened on the tables and floors when everyone had left.
On the 49th day of my grandmother’s death, we prepared offerings of food and incense paper. She would ‘return’ to check her family out after finally realizing that she had departed earth. Signs such as food being moved were tell-tale indications that she had been back. I listened to my father's stories of footprints left in a dish of sand, of a whirlwind that had run through the house, knocking everything over. Somehow, I did not believe. Somewhere along the way, I had learnt that these were the thoughts of the foolish, the thoughts of those who are caught up in superstition and whisperings from other languages. The thoughts and beliefs of those who live outside my seemingly ordered, ‘western,’ logocentric world. A world whose bindings upon my experience I have only begun to discern.
When a spirit comes back, some of us living ones may even have dreams. Thankfully, I did not. One night, my mother reached into the back of her bedside drawer, where she found photos of my grandmother, taken just before she had passed away. My grandmother’s glossy eyes gazed from her photographs, staring at my mother without recognition.
•   •   •
​​​​​​​Grey slurry on my skin, ash mixed with sweat in the thirty-degree heat. I throw another leaf of paper onto the burning pile. It is ash-grey, alive, with bits at the back of the pit that have condensed into black, lifeless piles of spent carbon. There is a choking dryness in my throat, a fearsome heat on my face from the sacrificial fire, and a stinging in my eyes. No amount of blinking will make it go away. On this day, 清明节 (Qīngmíng jié), thousands of pieces of paper are burning, in temples and in large, red, cylindrical metal canisters in every neighbourhood. Little pieces, all burning: pieces of red, silver, or gold foil embossed onto rough, yellow paper. Bags made of thick, gloss-finished cardboard go into the fire too, containing paper shoes, paper clothes, paper money. All of this, turning into light piles of dust that float upwards into the grey sky, making their smoky way to heaven.
•   •   •
"Burning Gold and Silver Paper" was first published in Farrago Magazine.
Michelle is a poet and writer who deals in the minute and the moving. Filled with metaphor, her vivid and thought-provoking pieces breathe new life into common, quotidian experiences that often cross our lives without second thought. Her current works explore the profound senses of home, growth and identity, through evocative intimations. You can find her on instagram @the_sun_shines_back.

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