Amah sat on her sofa and fanned herself while she elevated her tiny feet onto her favorite green stool. Marlene looked at her tiny feet, each one about three inches.
She remembered that it was only two days ago, when she had walked with Amah to La Simpatica Commercial at Ongpin St, a shop stall that sold hand-beaded slippers and tsinelas. They sewed cloth shoes for women who had bound-feet—lotus feet, as they were called.
It was a sight denied to her grandfather, for the deformity without the dainty shoes was unbearable. Everyday some dead skin and in-grown nail had to be clipped away before her feet were re-bandaged with water perfume. Marlene thought that her tiny feet was one reason why Amah could not live outside of Chinatown; there were no other women like herself outside of the neighborhood.
Marlene listened to Amah and Kang Atsi, who spoke with each other in Fookien like she was not in the same room with them. Marlene looked back at her grandmother who was now laughing at Kang Atsi’s jokes. She saw that Amah was happy living in Chinatown. She had her altar, her mahjong friends, and her own shoe store, not to mention the people in the market place who knew her so well. She could see that Amah loved her little apartment in Chinatown.
She watched her grandmother work in her kitchen and made very few remarks, which made her seem like a well-mannered girl. In truth, her silence was simply reinforced by the language barrier, which she found disturbing.
Her grandmother prepared and cooked food for the people she loved. She did this on a block of wood that doubled as her working table.
She taught Marlene how to make spinach wanton and spinach dumplings so that she could have more vegetables in her diet. She even taught her how to de-bone a whole chicken to make crispy soy sauce fried chicken, so Marlene could also make it for her Mother.
She sliced salty ham, not just to put into her soup but for filling a white-floured bun called manto. In the end, she taught Marlene to cut her fruits into small pieces to show Marlene that girls ate their fruits in small portions, and even taught her how to peel an apple in one continuous circular strip.
Today was special because Angkong was visiting her grandmother, which he always did at least three times a week. To Marlene, he was a big man who looked like an overgrown boy scout. He wore long khaki shorts that matched his khaki colored shirt-top. A black military metal belt held his already tight shorts together under a beer belly that stuck out and hung over his waistband. He wore army green knee-high socks and black leather shoes. He even wore a green cap to cover the middle bald spot on his head.
Mother had said that he just collected rent and did volunteer work at the fire station. Mother said that Angkong had several wives but Amah was the first, so he accorded her noontime visits three times a week. Angkong had a routine whenever he visited. He sat with Amah and gave her some money inside a brown envelope. He ate his lunch and always left in a hurry, as if he had some other appointment.
Amah yawned several times as she sat on her padded chair, peeling off the ginger skin. She had stayed up late last night to watch the chicken soup boil. She had adamantly refused to let Marlene stay in the kitchen to watch her make the soup.
As Amah sat, she peeled off the brownish ginger skin, slicing it paper thin. It revealed yellow flesh underneath. A big wok waited on her gas stove. Into this, Kang Atsi poured just enough clean water to cover an inverted ceramic bowl that sat inside the wok. Then, she covered the wok with a lid, and waited for the water to boil.
Kang Atsi gutted and scaled the black lapu-lapu fish Amah had bought. It now looked more silvery than black. Amah took the fish with both hands and positioned it on a white ceramic plate. She tapped the fish’s head twice with her fingers as if she spoke to its spirit to fulfill a wish. She then garnished it with slivers of ginger and dried mushrooms. She tied a stalk of green onions into a knot like a sign of good luck and added it on top of the fish.
As the water inside the wok started to boil, Amah gently placed the plate of lapu-lapu on top of the inverted ceramic bowl.
Even if the steam wafted across Amah’s face, she kept her eyes open to make sure that the ceramic bowls did not rattle against each other. She was always so careful with her ceramic plates, made specially for steaming fish for Angkong. Then she placed the lid on the wok and after a few minutes, turned off the fire to let the steam cook into the fish for ten minutes or until the steam disappeared. Amah’s entire ritual of steaming fish was for her a ceremonial tribute, like a wish of good fortune for Angkong.
Amah felt him even before the doorbell rang. When Kang Atsi shouted that he had arrived, she nodded and ordered Kang Atsi to “kin, pai toh”–to set the table using her blue and white dishes.
Next to the rice and soup bowls, Kang Atsi laid a pair of silver chopsticks for Angkong, a pair of wooden chopsticks for Amah. Amah took out the ceramic dish of steamed fish from the wok. She pointed to the fins of the fish and signaled with her finger, an upward stroke, that the fins were standing and she pointed to its eyeballs, which were white and opaque. She poured hot peanut oil over the fish, creating a cloud of steam. Marlene and her grandmother inhaled the fragrance. She then added a teaspoon of light soy sauce and another teaspoon of sesame oil. She signaled Kang Atsi to bring out the other dish of stewed pork cooked in soy sauce. She started to sauté the Chinese mushrooms for her spinach dish.
Angkong sat at the head of the table reading his Chinese newspaper. Marlene approached him and kissed him on the cheek. Her Mother had insisted that this was something her family had to get accustomed to. Outside of Chinatown, everyone greeted each other this way. Mother would be mad at Marlene if she forgot this greeting ritual.
He nodded as a sign that he acknowledged the kiss, and then he kissed Marlene back with a strange kind of kiss. He murmured some Chinese words that Marlene did not understand.
Marlene heard the tune of silver chopsticks hitting against the blue and white porcelain. She saw Kang Atsi’s frightened face; she had accidentally dropped one of Angkong’s silver chopsticks. Marlene had often wondered about those silver narrow sticks that detected toxins in food. She saw Kang Atsi run towards the kitchen and heard Kang Atsi’s voice of, “Ah, yo!” Within a few seconds, she came out with a new pair of silver chopsticks.
Marlene had witnessed the strange behavior of Kang Atsi. She raced back into the kitchen, just in time to see Amah remove the fish from the wok. She signaled Kang Atsi to boil the chicken soup that she had prepared the other day. Marlene heard her grandmother and Kang Atsi speak some more. The only word she understood was “Shirley”.
Angkong called loudly for his food. He gestured for Marlene to sit beside him. Marlene took a seat to his left, while Amah sat on his right.
Amah filled Marlene’s rice bowl with sautéed spinach and stewed soy sauce pork, which she had cooked with marbled brown eggs the night before. When Kang Atsi brought out the plate of steamed fish, Marlene saw her grandfather’s eyes light up. Marlene looked at her grandmother’s face; she did not seem to notice his reaction. Her eyes looked steadily ahead of her, not looking at anything in particular, while she picked at a few grains of cooked rice.
Marlene turned her focus back to her grandfather. Not for the first time, she noted how much they resembled each other. His thoughts were clearly on his food; he was digging his chopsticks into his rice bowl as if he was looking for some buried treasure.
Amah slowly pushed the dish in Angkong’s direction. With her red mahogany pair of chopsticks, she slowly uncovered the steamed flesh, setting aside the ginger, the tied leek stalk, the wansui and salted mushrooms. Then, she rested her pair of chopsticks on top of her plate, never looking into Angkong’s eyes.
He rolled up his sleeves, exposing old cuts and stitch marks on his hands and arms. Marlene stared at them as he took hold of the pair of silver chopsticks and went for the softest part of the fish, which was the meat near the gills, and placed it on top of Amah’s bowl.
Amah’s eyes lit up. He took another piece and gave it to Marlene. It was only after he had served his wife and his granddaughter did he serve himself. Amah sniffled. It was a sign, Marlene thought. Marlene knew that this seemingly generous gesture of Angkong meant a lot to Amah because it was usually the duty of the wife to serve her husband. Marlene wondered if he loved her.
Marlene bit into the fish. It tasted sweet and delicate. She had never thought that Amah resembled her mother, but at this angle from where she sat, she finally saw her mother’s face, only older.
Marlene knew that her grandfather was enjoying the fish. His tongue quickly licked some sauce at the corner of his mouth it while he closed his eyes, and sighed in deep satisfaction. Marlene wondered if Amah saw this too.
They ate their lunch in silence, but for some reason, despite the tastiness of the food, it reminded Marlene of the cold silence that came after her mother and her boyfriend fought, a bitter pretend calmness, a secret suffering between two people who pretended to like each other but did not.
Or maybe it wasn’t so quiet after all. It seemed to Marlene’s ears, listening to the echoes produced by their chopsticks, that her grandparents were playing a ping- pong match. They were using the way they ate and the food on the table as signals for something she did not understand. Was it because she was in the room with them?
Maybe it was a game they played. She tried so hard to pinpoint the reasons for their silence. She pushed more rice into her mouth, tried to finish every grain on her rice bowl, remembering the stories her mother had told her about starving people in China. She looked at the half-eaten steamed fish, almost skeletal now, swimming in its own sauce. The dish of stewed pork had only one piece of diced pork left behind for prosperity. The white plate that once contained the green spinach dish had been totally emptied. Then it came to her.
It was the meal: The quality and the amount of food prepared by Amah, often more than one course. It was the food. Everything that Amah created in her kitchen came from the goodness of her heart.
This was the way Amah showed her love for Angkong, when they shared meals every other day at noon. There was no need for words. Just the food laid out on the table for him to eat. And hopefully when he was satisfied, to look up at her and maybe give her a smile, a nod, even a sound that might mean that he was pleased.
Yet something inside Marlene resisted this.
How could food go into one’s mouth and no words come out of it? Marlene thought.
Maybe Mother was wrong, less talk, more mistakes.
She looked at Amah, who was also not making any sound. She didn’t understand grown-ups from China, with their pretensions about appropriate behavior. Mother was right about Amah. Women in her time went through so much pain because they did not have a voice. Unlike her mother’s time, women fought hard for a voice of their own. She was wondering about her own voice. Marlene was so glad that she had not been born in China.
Kang Atsi brought out the soup of clear chicken broth laced with some Chinese herbs for Angkong and placed it between him and Marlene. It smelled delicious.
“Angkong, the soup is very hot. I will stir the soup before you drink it,” Marlene said. She took the small bowl and stirred the soup with a porcelain spoon, all the while blowing on it to cool it. She spooned out a small amount to taste.
“Marlene!” Her grandmother screamed. “Soup only for Angkong! Granddaughter not allowed drink soup! Only Angkong!”
Marlene was unable to say anything. Amah spoke in English! She was suddenly confused. But it was clear she had also been disobedient. Marlene placed the porcelain spoon down, bowed her head slightly and slid the bowl of soup towards her grandfather.
“I am sorry Angkong.” Marlene said. “Please drink the whole bowl of soup. I insist.”
Angkong took the bowl from Marlene’s hands and drank it all. After a few moments, he belched loudly. He noisily pushed his chair back from the dining table, stood up and walked straight to Amah’s room.
Later, back in her room, before her nap, Marlene could not pinpoint why Amah had shouted at her so loudly. And in English! There was also something unnatural about her silence afterward, as well. Her silence was surely not voiceless.
A loud sound awakened Marlene from her sleep. She opened her bedroom door and, still groggy, stepped over something that blocked her way. She fell down on her knees and her eyes looked into the face of her grandfather. His body lay sprawled on the floor outside her door, his eyes closed, his right arm draped lifelessly across his torso. She stood up and screamed.
“Amah! Amah! U si lang ti dan mung kaw!”
Marlene screamed at the top of her voice for help. Angkong was wearing only white jockey shorts and a white camiseta. She called out again, uncertain whether she should turn on the lights, frightened as to what they would reveal. She went down on her knees and felt his chest for some sign of breathing, but there was none. Frightened, she got to her feet.
She got up and rushed into Amah’s bedroom and found her sitting at the edge of her bed. She didn’t have her little shoes on and she was hitting her disfigured little feet because she was trying to get up. She saw that Amah was crying and saying something about her shoes. At the same time, Marlene tried to explain about Angkong.
“Akin wala sapatos.” Amah said.
“Amah! Si Angkong hindi humihinga!”
Marlene was now confused. Out of pure desperation, she held her own throat with her two hands, stuck out her tongue and laid her head on the bed, while she pointed a finger towards the door.
Marlene shouted to her grandmother to get her attention but her grandmother did not understand what she was saying. This time, Marlene had to shout that her grandfather was dead.
“Amah! Angkong patay!”
Only then did her grandmother look up at Marlene with tears rolling down her cheeks. She wiped her tears with a blanket, then signaled Marlene to help find her shoes.
“Akin, lagay sapatos na,” she said.
Marlene held her grandmother’s arms while they walked out her room to where her grandfather lay, still sprawled on the floor. Marlene saw Kang Atsi standing beside the door. She stood there holding the doorknob as if she might turn and flee at any moment.
“What are you doing by the door?” Marlene said.
“We have to call a doctor,” Kang Atsi said.
“Yes. Call the doctor,” Marlene said.
Amah walked past Angkong towards her kitchen. She ordered Marlene to bring out three white dishes that contained a chicken steamed with its head still attached to its neck, a big piece of braised pork, and the steamed red lapu-lapu fish. She ordered Marlene to place all three dishes on top of the altar table.
Amah stood in front of her altar, lighted several joss sticks, bowed reverently to the pictures of her ancestors and secured the blessings of the gods. She bowed reverently three times, ringing her bell while she murmured prayers. The odor of candles and joss filled the entire house.
After the ceremony, Amah looked at Marlene and said, “Shirley, ah, Papa patay na.”
Marlene thought that her grandmother was delirious because she had called her by her mother’s name. Marlene looked at Angkong’s body sprawled on the cold machuka tiles.
“Angkong is dead,” Marlene said.
Amah remained quiet as she crossed the threshold into her bedroom. The ambulance took Angkong’s body to the morgue. There was a doctor who signed the death certificate after Marlene paid him a sum of money that her grandmother had given her.
Marlene and Kang Atsi moved around the kitchen. They cleaned and scrubbed the floor.
Marlene thought of her mother coming home. What did it matter what her mother had told her, less talk, less mistake? She recalled Angkong’s eyes, his strange kisses. Marlene scrubbed the cloth with soap, she thought of her hands immersed in water, trying to remove the dirt from under her fingernails. She shuddered as she tried to wash the dirty cloth with soap.
As she washed, she looked out the window and found the moon. It wasn’t hiding anymore. Later, it was quiet and dark when she sat on the steps to finally look at the moon. If only Mother was here with her, she thought. She heard the bark of a dog and the buzz of the mosquitoes. She bowed her head and somehow understood why her mother was not with her. When she comes home I will tell her, she thought. I will make it funny so that she will listen and maybe laugh and after a while we will begin to talk about something else.
We will talk.
Xin Mei is a published author with her book, “Afraid to be Chinese”. She has two pieces included in “When we were Little Women” edited by Rhona-Lopa Macasaet and Patricia Vergel de Dios. She has one piece included in “Belonging, Stories of Relationships” edited by Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio.
Xin Mei started writing when a group of women friends decided to come up with a writing group under the tutelage of Dr. Jing Hidalgo about ten years ago. Most of the stories she had written were about growing up Chinese in the Philippines. These stories were put together in “Afraid to Be Chinese”. In writing these stories she realized that family issues of honor, shame and being the other, meant confusion and contradictions.
After her first book launched in 2006, she enrolled in the University of the Philippines, Diliman for her M.A. in the Creative Writing Program.
“Less Talk, Less Mistake” made Ellen Datlow‘s Honorable Mention list of the Year’s Best Horror Vol. 4 for 2011. It was first published in print in The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories: Crime Issue.
The above image is by artist Josel Nicolas.