Passing Away

Northridge Review, Vol. 6.2 (1988)

Herman Fong

We come each spring to this deserted field
where headstones reach up
like pale tongues tasting the living air.
The names chipped out on cracking marble
are unknown to me,
and you only half remember,
but still we trek through congested streets,
half the afternoon gone,
and walk into the windy valley
to lay a square of antique cloth
on thinning grass
and to set for ancestors
a simple meal of boiled duck,
bits of fatty pork,
and round lotus seed cakes
sprinkled with sesame seeds roasted brown.
After prayers and bowing,
whiskey and wine,
warmed in porcelain teacups by the sun,
are thrown down and soaked into the earth.
Bamboo chopsticks are laid on end in pairs,
and slender red candles shaped like cattails
are lit for good fortune
along with orange stacks of crisp hell money,
thousands of sheets burned to ashes
which lift to the sky with an April breeze.
We leave the flames burning,
the meat and cakes glistening in their oils
as we go and look
for other gravestones rows away,
and when we return,
we must chase off a cemetery dog
that has stolen the largest piece of gray fat.
We are the last in a line
to carry on this ceremony.
I do not believe, as you do,
that it does the dead some good,
but I wish that I could.
Then, I would go on kneeling and rising,
holding bundles of incense
by bowls of tangerines and sprays of kumquats,
but I could probably count the years left
on just my hands.

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