This article contains very graphic imagery and detail. Please don’t read if this is something that triggers or bothers you.
By Anshi Shenxing
That smell, I’ll never forget it. It crept into everything.
Stepping into the house, it was almost like I’d smelled it before, but I couldn’t remember where. It’s like a dusty old attic, or a rusty car on flat tires partially hidden by thriving weeds.
It grew stronger as we made our way to the bedroom. I don’t know about where you live, but out here, the police don’t do much cleaning after a crime. You either have to do it yourself or hire someone.
After we stepped through the door, it took my mind a few seconds to make sense of what I was seeing. It wasn’t what I expected, which is great because I expected something out of slasher film. Most of the blood was confined to the mattress, pillows, and blankets. A few droplets made their way to the bedside lamps and tables.
There was a scattered array of blood, hair, bone, and brain matter on the wall behind the bed. Small numbered pieces of paper were still stuck to them. This was it, this is where they died. This is where they were shot in their sleep by a heartbroken man with a shotgun. There were no signs of forced entry, a lot of people don’t lock their doors out here.
Murder. That’s a new one for me. I’ve known people who’ve died of illnesses, overdoses, accidents and suicide, but not homicide. Murder doesn’t happen where I live, which explains why five different police agencies were involved in the investigation.
Not only did I know the victims, but I knew the killer as well. He was an ex—a spurned lover whose mind was muddied and misfiring after years of alcohol abuse. She’d left him a few weeks before after he put her in the hospital. Then, in a series of strange events, she got back together with her former ex-husband. They’d been apart for more than 20 years, each going their own way and facing their own struggles.
It’s like something out of a Shakespearean play. They found each other again, and returned to their youth, both filled with more love and light than they’d known in years. All that joy was interrupted by the rage and confusion of a man who couldn’t see beyond himself. Interrupted with thunder in the night that took them in their sleep.
Their bodies laid in bed for about two days before his brother found them. I can’t even imagine that. He’s a beautiful person, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and life just keeps shitting all over him.
They found the gunman the next day, dead in his home from a self-inflected gunshot wound. If that’s what he was ultimately going to do, it would’ve been better for everyone if he’d just skipped ahead to that. Instead, he had to pawn his pain off on others first, on the victim’s family and friends.
I knew both of them through their son. We met in high school and we’ve been brothers ever since. His dad used to give me rides home after I stayed over at their house. We used to listen to Metallica and Pink Floyd in theater chairs surrounded by speakers. Despite my quietness and eccentricity, I never felt judged by him. Not even when I puked in his sink one night after drinking too much.
I broke down once while listening to Pink Floyd. It was a battle between me and my subconscious. I wanted to weep, I wanted to let it out, but some voiceless part of me kept trying to keep it in, to horde and defend the darkness like it was some kind of priceless treasure. I know all too well that there’s a part of me that likes to suffer, because suffering is what it knows.
People aren’t just one thing because the mind isn’t just one thing.
Research shows that each part of the brain is basically a brain in itself. Each network of neurons has its own views, habits and motives. Who we are as “a person,” is the image of these pieces all coming together from moment to moment. Not all them have our best interests at heart.
After secluding myself in the bathroom, the part of me that understands the necessity of feeling won out, and the tears flowed with a quiet sob muffled by a bath towel. Then it was done. My pain was transformed into salt water, destined for clouds.
Maybe I’ll feel them raining on my head later.
When we got to the house, a new feeling flooded my senses. I don’t know what it was, I’d never felt it before. Most of the time, we feel and think the things we do because we learn that that’s what we’re supposed to do. But when we find ourselves in a new situation, we don’t have that supposed to in our toolkit for guidance. We just have a handful of ellipses and question marks.
I was also distracted by everyone else’s emotions. I’m always analyzing people’s body language and facial expressions to the point that I don’t usually know my own take on things until I’m by myself.
The house was filled with the remains of a lives in-progress. There were half-finished bottles of water, dirty dishes, unopened Amazon boxes that were delivered the day after they were shot. There was her diary in a bedside drawer, the written pages giving way to a dozens of sheets of screaming blankness that will forever go unfilled. There were un-filed papers for a property he was about to buy.
Outside the house, it was a beautiful day.
The sky was a clear blue, and the summer wind seemed to embrace all that it encountered. I sat on their porch, enjoying a smoke (I’d quit months before, but come on, I was at a murder house; I’ll smoke a hundred cartons if I damn well please). The atrocity happened in in a small town, so everyone knew. Each pedestrian was a looky-loo, slowing their pace to gawk at the innocent looking abode with its seashell wind chimes and sky blue windows.
With each curious pedestrian, that simmering rage seemed to increase by a few degrees. I’ve never been a huge fan of what I arrogantly call the “Generic Person.” That’s one area that my practice has never been able to work on, never been able to fill with compassion. Gawking at a crime scene while the victim’s family is gathered around is a heartless, generic thing to do. Please try your best to not be a piece of shit. That should be a greeting card issued to all newborns as their first life lesson.
After four days with the family, I found myself alone, able to check-in with my inner scenery. I just saw that mattress, and smelled that smell, even though I’d taken a scouring shower and thrown away my clothes.
When you practice Buddhism or mindfulness, one thing you realize is that “you” have a choice. You can choose how you respond to things.
I could choose to let this all go, to move on like nothing happened. But I don’t want to do that. I want it to change me, I want to let it turn me in a different direction.
Just as those lives were interrupted, it seems like the stream-of-thought I had before was interrupted as well. I can’t even remember who I was before I walked into that room. But, I’m glad to see my former self go. All the fear and longing, the need to belong and even the need to share the Dharma, it’s all gone; wiped away by the reality of fresh tears and old blood.
I’m someone new now, someone thousands of years older than that self-doubting man who went in and never came back out.
For we’re not all taken by a madman with a shotgun, but we are all taken. Life is cheap, and it’s lived in free-fall, and yes, there is a bottom down there. And it smells of musk and mildew. Spitting in Buddha’s face, I say cling tightly to those you love. Reach out to other free-fallers, intertwine your limbs and laugh with the lightning that fills your senses. Partake, and let life wake you up on its own.
Take risks, face your fears, and give up the neurotic, self-centered narrative you’ve been carrying around since you hit puberty. You don’t need it. Stop and see, step back and examine the situation. Seeing through everything that can be taken from you, you’ll find what’s truly yourself, that shining silence that knows nothing of time.
The trick is to say, “Yes,” to everything that appears, but say it from a place of, “No.”
That’s the Bodhisattva path, the Middle Way, the Way that allows us to be human without being horrified by our own humanity. When we only identify as the person, there’s only suffering. If we can stop and see that we’re also the space we’re in, then there’s still suffering, but it’s in context. That’s where we find our ability to choose. Until then, we’re really just like any other animal, blindly responding to stimulus and response like a slime mold with anxiety.
That’s why I don’t feel anger toward the killer. He was just following his programming, caught up in dependent arising’s if-then algorithm; that’s where my anger really went. In the absence of a god or a self-made person, I can only sneer at the absurdity of reality itself.
So, while I encourage you to dive into life, to spend your days immersed in sights, sounds, and togetherness, to destroy your illusions and unleash that brightness, I’m going to take the other path, the one that leads to an inner mountaintop. The one that travels through cool shadows beneath the autumn moon and winds through sweet smelling fields of yellow and green.
The one that can only be walked alone.
Tired of free-fall, I dissolve into the space around myself where blood has never flowed, thus it can never be spilled. This is a choice, not a blind response. I’m choosing to let it all go. “Enjoy your life,” says the dead man, the quiet lion sitting alone among his natural deep. Feel, play, keep reading your stories.
If you remember that that’s what they are, then you get the best of both worlds: human and Buddha, which—of course—are not-two.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Dharma Noir.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone.
Editor: Dana Gornall