Day One started with flaying a dog, and Day Two started with flaying a baby dog. So when day three started with Teacher Liu saying, over breakfast, “I think you’ll do a sheep’s head today,” I cheered with glee. I almost spilled my bowl of fresh soy milk & nescafe.
Little did I realize, though, how tough a sheep’s head could be. They’d already been peeled off the skulls, but there was sooo much fat and flesh to be carved off. I started with a fresh scalpel blade, but the skin was paper thin to me. Even touching the sheep’s lips with the blade seemed to cause a new tear.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The cartilage was just terrible. I tore one of the ears in two trying to rip that section out. And the cartilage in the nose? Oh lord… never did I expect such frustration! Trying to scrape away the little hard bits of white cartilage was just incredible. I hacked, and I tore, and I cursed, and I swore, and I ripped so many new holes in the nostrils. And the poor sheep, giving away his face to such tyranny.
So I embraced any distractions that arrived.
We got to change the brine for yesterday’s dog skins, which was a thrill. They’d been soaking overnight, and I didn’t expect to see a new skin in the bucket: it was a small wolf that fellow student Xiao Li had brought down from Harbin.
“Did you kill it yourself?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It died. I don’t kill animals.”
“I don’t kill animals either,” said one of the other students, Xiao Han, proudly, adding, “Only he kills animals.” He pointed to the apprentice Xiao Long, and Xiao Long nodded in agreement.
Xiao Li continued, matter-of-fact, “The mother left it alone. It starved to death.”
Later, we watched Teacher Liu mold a caribou’s ears, packing them with Bondo — an auto-body repair sludge — and then molding the ears into a believable shape with his fingers. He fit the caribou skin on the mannequin. He showed us how to enlarge a mannequin with some kind of liquid polystyrene, and how to reduce one with a saw and a large file. The distractions were great.
But mostly, I hacked and sliced at the sheep nose, trying to get that damn cartilage out.
“Does it really matter,” I asked Teacher Liu.
“Yes, it does matter. It will shrink, and then the nose will look really bad. You have to get it all out.”
But I couldn’t get it all out. Not even close. By the end of the day, the base of my thumb ached from holding the scalpel so tightly. It started to swell up.
Watching the others slice anew at the dog skin only made me feel worse. Sure, they’d been doing this for years, but they were such masters. Xiao Han carved like a true professional, repeating the precise same motion with the knife held just so, over and over again. I joined in, trying to follow his motions, but it was no use. After a while, I compared our piles of flayed flesh. Xiao Han’s was almost the size of a tennis ball. Xiao Li’s was more like a squash ball. My pile? It was something like a bean. Not even a big bean… maybe a lima bean of fat.
And that’s when Mr Zhou showed up. He’s a chef from Harbin, an old friend of Teacher Liu’s, and a taxidermy hobbyist. He’s the fifth student in our class.
I have to admit… when I heard there’d be students coming from Harbin, I’d expected drinking, and shouting, and fights. The cold northern city up near Russia is legendary for such stuff. But then I arrived here to meet Xiao Li, who’s so quiet, and so sweet, and so very pleasant to be around, and I was surprised. He didn’t seem like a Harbin fellow. Mr Zhou, though, was exactly what I’d thought he’d be. He’s fantastic.
He’s short, strong, and has a huge belly. His accent is thick — I can barely hear most of what he says. But more important, when he arrived, a dozen large bottles of beer appeared, then two-dozen more, plus a bottle of clear 小刀 (“small knife”) booze, plus a bottle of red wine. He scrunched up his face when I ate rice with the meal, insisting “先酒后饭“ — “booze first, rice later.” During dinner, he smoked furiously — he’d light three expensive cigarettes at a time, then pass them around the table. There were toasts and speeches and karaoke. Shirts came off, muscles were compared, there was arm wrestling and other feats of strength.
And I was very, very drunk.
“大哥,” I said at one point, addressing Mr Zhou as “Biggest brother.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “I’m… I’m… you should call me… What should he call me?”
Drunkenly, everyone threw out ideas, until the right one was found.
“Da Shi Ge,” Auntie Zhong said. She’s always hovering around, cooking some of the meals, taking some pictures. She was very drunk, too.
“Shi, like in teacher?” I asked.
“Yes, the same shi. You call him 大师哥。” Big Education Big Brother. “You call Michelle 师妹。“ Education Little Sister. A complicated round of explanations followed, since everyone needed to call everyone else a different name. Michelle was Education Big Sister to some, I was Two Education Brother to most. This was all too troublesome at the time.
But at some point, I decided it was time to solidify this brotherhood. I stood up, clumsily knocking back my chair and spilling chicken wings across the table. I raised my glass, and spoke out. I spoke loud, poor, and forgot some of the words. But the effect was magnificent.
“不求同年同月同日生,” I started, but I was only halfway through before my red- and shit-faced classmates joined in, “但求同年同月同日死!” It was the perfect line, referencing the literary grandeur of China, poetry, and passion. It’s also very morbid. “I don’t ask for us to have been born together, but I do ask that we die together!” Perfect, maybe, for a taxidermy school.