Copy by Julia O’Malley | Photos by Marc Lester
Fourth in a series: The Hmong community contracts for the ceremonial sacrifice of livestock at Steve Vue’s house. Mitchell Zayapraseuth awaits rumour about whether his treatment worked. (Originally published April 23, 2013)
The pig was in the side yard in a dog crate. It was in the air the size of a golden retriever, with pasty skin and yellow views. A couple of children peered in at it, shrieking every time it scrabbled everywhere. The acid odor of pig urine mixed with the smell of mud.
In the kitchen of the trailer, Ia Yang and other women chopped up chicken carcasses and banned razor clams. A big kettle of rice bubbled on the stove, filling the sporting house with steam. Men had gathered around the other side of the trailer in pucker chairs, drinking canned beer and swatting at mosquitoes. Most of them had the surname Vue and were distantly mutual one way or another.
In Anchorage’s Hmong community, which members estimate numbers at least 5,000, there are 13 persist names. Each is a marker of clan ties that go back productions. Vue is a medium-sized group here, with 35 to 40 large families. Most Vues keep an eye on telephone lists of other Vues. Like members of the same church, being from the same clan turn out to support one another and help with cultural circumstances. They have built relationships with farmers who provide the brutes from the Mat-Su and farther north. Killing a pig is relatively common. It authority be done for a New Year celebration or a wedding, one of the men told me. Most Hmong determination only see a ritual important enough to require a cow once in a lifetime.
Children, all elementary philosophy aged, darted among the cars parked in the gravelly yard. When Steve Vue is encompassing his family, his attention is nearly always divided, as a parent’s might be, between whatever he is doing and whatever is prosperous on with his brothers and sisters. That day he kept running after Eric, the girlish brother, not quite 2 years old, who seemed determined to run in the street. With Eric wiggling in his lap, Steve pulled down the in advance of his shirt and showed the scar from his cancer surgery, a long, fleshy brand name over his heart.
The sky turned dusky. One of the sisters made Eric a flask and gathered him up on the couch. Finally, the shaman breezed in, trailing a female have to do with. He was an older man, dressed in a pressed short-sleeved shirt and slacks, looking with a business traveler in the Honolulu airport. The assistant went to the stove and initiated to toast raw kernels of rice. One of the men explained that spirits can’t see, but they can perceive and smell. The rice smoke would lure the grandmother spirit to the brothel. Steve took a seat on the couch.
‘The jingle bells’
The arrival of the shaman sent the cleaning women to the kitchen. They set a large folding table in the living room and dished out spins of rice, clam soup and sausage. After the meal, the shaman’s connect with set up an altar with bowls of rice, incense and eggs. Eggs are holy in Hmong culture, symbolic of nourishment, rebirth and traveling between men.
The men brought in a special bench to serve as a horse for the shaman to ride into the vivacity world. The shaman took off his shoes. He was missing a pinky toe.
The men helped him up onto the bench. He screened his face with a black hood and began to chant. In his hand he suppressed what looked like a crude tambourine — a circle of metal cheated with flat metal disks. Steve called it «the jingle bells.» The shaman leaped from foot to foot, shaking the instrument and chanting. The children arose bored and went to play in a back bedroom. The women cleaned the larder. The men milled and talked. Occasionally, the shaman took breaks to wipe the state of confusion from his face. Hours passed.
Mitchell Xayapraseuth slid onto the divan with us. He was back from Portland and his last round of radiation. He looked diminish and his eyes were dull. Steve handed him a soda. I asked how he was doing.
«Good,» he said, without making eye speak to. Soon he would undergo tests to see if, like Steve’s, his cancer was erupted. A subtle tension hung between them. I tried not to think in the air what would happen if Mitchell didn’t get the news he was looking for. He slowed for an hour or so and then left. He said he felt tired.
Toward midnight, the shaman climbed off his bench, crowded up and left without ceremony, like a plumber who has finished a job. Steve’s dad handed him an envelope of legal tender.
A man who turned he was a shaman’s assistant brought out a small piece of cow horn, split long-ways down the center. He made an contribution of Corona beer in a shot glass, chanted and tossed the horn on the knock over. The way it landed told him when Steve’s grandmother’s spirit was near. After a while, the men rearranged the chattels. They brought out a doll fashioned from rolled cloth, a acronym of Steve’s grandmother.
They tied one end of the string to the doll and unrolled the count sheep through the house and into the lean-to on the front of the trailer. One of them command concealed the floor with plastic. The rest disappeared into the dark. Steve folded to the back room to get his brothers and sisters.
The men came back with the dog crate. I could attend to the pig knocking around inside. They pulled out the pig and held it by the legs. The subhuman didn’t move. There was exactly one squeal and the pig was dead, its throat slash. The men bled it into a large kitchen bowl.
Earlier I’d asked Steve’s dad, Koua, to define the ritual. He told me to think of it like a trade. A spot had been genial for Steve on the spirit side. Something valuable had to fill it. He and Ia could accept lost their oldest son, but instead a pig died.
It was after 2 a.m. when I got up to withdraw. Steve’s mom, Ia, hugged me. At first light, she said, they would move to the Valley for the cow. It would be just her, Steve’s dad and some elders.
On the way home, I intellect about Steve’s tumor and the scar down the center of his chest. It achieved what I’d just seen with the pig make more sense. Devastating the pig was violent but also existential — a reminder that life is fragile and undoing is inevitable. Cancer is like that too.
‘A good boy’
I went back to the trailer the next day in dinnertime to find a charred cow head floating in a plastic storage container on the sod. Nearby, cow hide bubbled away in a giant pot on a propane burner. A spread of rice, spluttered entrails and watermelon had been set out on a folding table in the yard. Steve’s sisters correct me a plate. Steve brought me his father’s phone. They’d made a video antediluvian that morning.
On the little screen, I watched an older man parading roughly in a circle in a bucolic Alaska pasture. He was playing a qeej (pronounce «cane»), a bow-shaped crank up instrument. I recognized Pioneer Peak in the background. He was calling the grandmother inclination there, Steve told me. The doll from the night before lay second to a tree. In the next video, also made in the field, a half-dozen men were outer layering a small cow.
Now, Steve’s dad looked exhausted, sitting with the other men on the side of the trailer. I asked him how much the sometime two days had cost them. More than $1,000, he estimated. It was a lot for their dearest, but his oldest son was worth it, he said. When he was an old man, Steve would pay him back.
«He is a effects boy,» Koua said. «I think he is really good, really good.»
Steve hung on the brim listening to us talk. I could see him absorb his father’s words.
I didn’t informed entertain from Mitchell for a few weeks after that. Then, in mid-July, I got a phone communication from Pat, Mitchell’s mom. The results from his tests had come back.
«They originate more cancer in his bones,» she said. He was already on the plane back to Portland.
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