INSPIRED AT THE CENTRE: Read latest poems by our guest David Sullivan
Man Eats Head
—for Stirling Adam
When a donation Stirling slipped into the locked metal box before Guanyin’s garishly painted statue started up the trumpet player’s keening, we were instructed in how to bow and do reverance to gods we did not understand. And though the heavens did not open, Bai hospitality did, and we were escorted to the open patio next door where men wielded cleavers to separate fat from bone and bone from bone for a pre-Chinese New Year’s meat-filled feast.
The upturned pig’s head grin widened as strips were peeled from it, and brightly-clad elder women stared at seldom seen Western faces as they held metal trays heaped with batter-fried mushrooms, vinagered root vegetables spiraling like slippery worms, fronds of fennel, and carrots carved into blocky fish. We could not consume enough to satisfy them.
We were motioned to sit on thin wooden benches with the men and handed a plate of braised beef tendons. I chewed and smiled, then gagged down what wouldn’t be broken. Stirling said: I come from a family of twelve so I learned to eat what I got. Then in college I found eating anything was a way to best the bullies, as he reached for seconds. Ceramic bowls of rice appeared beneath bobbing headdresses: Fang la ma? (add spice?) queried the second woman—or something similar in local Bai dialect—offering a spoonful of fiery oil paste. I took yidian-yidi (a little bit), Stirling got dolloped richly. We refused cigarettes and bijou’s fiery clear alcohol, held up water bottles which thunked against their glasses: Ganbei!
Then the real meal began. A whole chicken on a rectangular white tray, the parts reassembled after cooking. Next, slabs of pig meat, slivered lung, and fried insides, the four feet upended on each corner like guard towers, the head a temple mount smiling from the center. The men dug in with chopsticks, pulled apart the edifices. I chose only what I could recognize while Stirling lowered a long twist of intestine (my best guess), into his yawning mouth to the men’s laughing delight. Then he gnawed down one of the bird’s fatty feet.
They offered him the prize of the head and he took the beak between the champ of his teeth and parted the hard pyramids to munch the tongue. Sucked out the eyes to the delight of the men. Others gathered to see a meiguoren do what they do, vise open a skull with his molars. He lifted the pale mass and walnut shelled the two halves with a twist of his hands. Pinkish buns of brain he crunched down to appreciative murmurs. Then he ground up the beaks as the trumpeter reappeared to noodle the end of the bird. The men drummed the table and slapped his back to celebrate. He’d wasted nothing, took the chicken’s head inside his own, making a meal of even the bones.
He’d crossed an invisible line, stepped away from me into the ring of his admirers who knew him to be superman. I was regulated to the status of privileged reporter who nabbed photographic proof, took requested shots of each man
with his new-found brother. Honest stenographer of the impossible, who made—almost—nothing up.