I was only five when my paternal grandpa passed away. His death was the first human death I encountered. Before that I mostly experienced the smell of death and a few times its ungainly sight on animals—of dead mice when the cats left them decapitated behind some cupboards or inside closets, of the cat itself, one of the strays who roamed the rooftop and screamed morbidly many nights. My maids said that some toms were having cats and no one could ever catch them at the act. I vaguely understood that some cats eat fellow cats besides mice, rats, birds, and lizards.
The stench was horrendous. Then they found him, her, waterlogged and thrice its normal size, after it had been down to the bottom of the cistern as tall as the wall that supported the kitchen roof and up again, floating on the surface of the water that my father pumped up daily from our own well. It was years ago. I remember the sound of the pump going like I remember the cats’ fighting sound, their nightly screams, the chirping of mice behind some holes and their footsteps running on tiles. I cannot erase the smell of death from my memory.
The violent fragrance of the white tuberoses, the brown tea leaves that covered Grandpa’s dead body so he would not smell—I remember them all. For three days he lay in that coffin, and someone was always present so that no black cat would jump over him. Or else he would rise with the cat.
On the third day I was walking down the stairs of Grandparents’ house with my cousin when we heard a hammering sound. We both froze. It was getting dark outside and shadows dance inside the stairwell. On one wall was a deer head with two marble eyes. Next to it was a large painting of the last supper. My cousin flopped down on the stair step, pulling me after her.
“Grandpa,” we both said, stricken. The hammering became louder and urgent. In my mind I saw him trying to get out. Soon he would call like he used to bellow after me, “Hong-My. Come.”
My cousin covered both her ears and started howling. And I did the same, trying to block out Grandpa’s rapping on the wood of his coffin. Combined in force, our scream might have risen above the loud knocking and drowned them out. Or they stopped. To me, the sudden ceasing of the hammering sound was even more terrifying than their loud knocking. It meant only one thing: Grandpa was done fighting with the lid that held him inside. He had freed himself from the container. And he was about to come after two little girls.
My hysterical howling surpassed my shyer cousin’s. I screamed now for my life with all my might. Ah, ah…tongue knocking against teeth, teeth chattering inside skull, eyes closed to avoid seeing Grandpa walking up to us.
Cold hands wrapped my shoulders. Ah, ah. I was beyond myself. I tried to run away but my feet was two useless lumps of heavy rubber, which would collapse under me like a string-through toy snake. Then my Grandma’s concerned voice, “Hong-My, what’s the matter? Why are you girls screaming like a possessed train?”
No, it wasn’t Grandpa, we were told. The undertakers were the ones’ hammering. They were nailing shut the coffin to take Grandpa to his final rest.
“Wipe your tears,” said Grandma softly. “Don’t be sad, Grandpa is in God’s hands.”