That first day was a trial. We’d flayed a dog’s legs, and worked the bones from the feet. But that was nothing compared to the second.
“We’ve got two squirrels for you this morning,” Teacher Liu said at breakfast. I was thrilled — a squirrel sounded like something I could do all of, myself. But when Xiao Long pulled the animals out of the bag, they didn’t look anything like squirrels.
“No, they’re dogs,” he said. “Baby dogs. Their mother crushed them.” He pointed towards the giant Tibetan mastiff chained up in the courtyard. She was gnashing and growling and tearing at the chain. I think he was telling me she was the mother. I looked down, and felt like vomiting.
Teacher Liu walked in and then gasped. “These aren’t squirrels,” he said. “Oh, well. Just cut here.” He used his finger to draw a line down the chest. “Then you’ll skin it.” I didn’t like this one bit.
I delicately sliced through the skin, terrified I’d do something wrong, but Michelle gripped her scalpel like a dagger and plunged it into the dog’s chest. She pulled it towards her in one swift motion, like seppuku should be done. And, like with seppuku, the blood was followed by guts and intestines, pooling over the body. “Um…. Do you think I did something wrong?” she asked, reching for a roll of toilet paper and mopping it up. It seemed endless. “Swab, swab!” she said.
But once I buried myself in the act, when it went from being a dead infant pup to being a series of tasks, the horror faded. It was a lot like preparing a rabbit for dinner. (If that rabbit’s 200lb foaming-at-the-mouth mother was watching you through the window, of course.)
“This is kinda therapeutic,” Michelle mused. Sure, if you were a serial killer. But then again, I kept thinking the thin strips of flesh I was skinning off looked like parma ham. It made me feel hungry.
By lunchtime, when the dogs were skinned and massaged in salt, I felt like a professional. Even if I’d been completely unable to work the cartilage from the ear. And mutilated both ears in the process. At least I didn’t cut off the dog’s tail, like Michelle did.
“Don’t worry,” said apprentice Xiao Long. “These are just for you to learn with. Do you drink liquor?” He held up a small plastic water bottle, filled with yellowish liquid. Bits were floating in the liquid. “This is Chinese baijiu. This has snake in it, and other things, too.” He offered it to me. I refused, and he took a sturdy pull.
“How much can you drink? I mean, how many jin of liquor?” A jin is half a kilo. I didn’t have any idea how many I could drink, and I told him so. “Oh. I can drink one and a half jin. But not every day. Every day, my father drinks one jin.”
In the afternoon, we worked more on the dogs, taking breaks to brine yesterday’s dog skin, sew up cuts in the skin, learn to mount a caribou’s antlers correctly (it took us 2-1/2 hours, with six people somehow involved), and explore the village. Every alleyway, people stopped to stare at us. Evidently, not many foreigners come to this village.