Fiction / April 2018 (Issue 39)

Prawn Mee

by Joanna Lee

One day, the prawn mee stall disappeared. When I looked up, the usual sign that marked the stall, decorated by peeling paint and black water stains, was missing. We had driven up to our usual spot, but even the boundaries of the parking lot had changed. All that remained was one empty chair beside the rickety metal kitchen. We could not even find the shadows of the old couple, which we expected to be imprinted on the walls after the decades of their work.

"What do we do now?" I was hungry when I asked the question. I was certain my hunger had been inherited from my mother, whose frame looked like that of a ghost in the now uninhabited space. No one answered my question as we got back into the car—it was as though the stall had never existed, and we were quickly forgetting that we had eaten here every Sunday, driving up the pristine street into the dingy alley just for bowl of hot noodles in the humid weather.

Later, my mother found out from the son of the stall's owner that the old man had boiled himself to death. He just fell over and the prawn mee consumed him, his son reported. The prawn mee had never tasted more fragrant. When my mother pressed the young man to continue the business, he said it would be impossible and hung up.

After that, we avoided speaking about the prawn mee stall. My mother tried recreating the dish, boiling the shrimp for hours to squeeze sweetness out from their shells. The fragrance filled the kitchen, and after a full day of boiling, we sat around the table, eager to eat. But when we spooned the sweet and salty smelling soup into our mouths, it turned sour, the noodles turning into powder on our tongues. My father ate the entire bowl anyway, but grew angry and broke his ceramic bowl against the table when he was done.

My inherited hunger persisted, but from then on, I stopped eating. Once a year, I would open a packet of dried shrimp and eat them voraciously, compensating for a year of starvation, before throwing up a soup of orange and pink vomit. My mother disapproved and scolded me frequently, always mentioning the poverty and hunger of her childhood. Jiak, jiak, jiak, she repeated like a curse, you ungrateful child. But I always refused the food she put in front of me, so my father ate my share. His belly swelled like a balloon, bumping into tables and walls, barely supported by his tiny ankles. When he died, it deflated so dramatically that the doctors called a meeting and asked my mother to donate his body to scientific research. My mother was dragged out of the room kicking and cursing in a dialect I did not understand, and I later found out from one of the nurses that she was shouting about the history of food and love.

My mother, on the other hand, continued to shrink. Despite regularly eating bowlfuls of oily local food, she always complained that she needed to eat more. Soon she was nothing but a wrinkled sack of bones, hobbling around the hawker stalls of the city, asking for extra lard in her packets of stir-fried noodles. Sometimes, while impatiently spooning food into her mouth, she would mumble about growing up without the luxury of meat. Her most-repeated story was about the day she asked a hawker for a little bit of fat-filled gravy on her rice, desperate for her week's fill of protein. The man slapped her and told her no food was free, so she stole a chicken from him the next morning. She thought she was making me feel guilty, but all I could think about when she told these stories was the possibility that an ugly crustacean had grown in her stomach, feeding on everything she ate and every story she told like an unborn child. I wondered what it would be like to have such an ugly creature for a sister, but it made me afraid that I was one myself.

Finally, my mother both ate and starved herself to death. She woke before the sun rose, and with what remained of her skinny, ghost-like frame, obtained fresh prawns and began to boil them in an old pot. I woke up to the scent, both familiar and not, of the soup she was making, feeling hunger pangs go through my entire body. When I entered the kitchen, I found her slouched over the pot, her body curled up like a shrimp, the clumps of silvery hair on her head turning into fragrant rice noodles as she bubbled her last few breaths into the soup. I wanted to lay her out on a bed and say goodbye the correct way, but I was so hungry that instead, I began to fold her, gently, into the pot of soup.

Hours passed, and by the time night fell, there were no more traces of her, just as there were no more traces of the prawn mee stall where a new office building now stood. A thin layer of red prawn essence floated at the top of the pot, the moon-shaped pieces of my mother's flesh gleaming with orange and white stripes. When I took a tentative bite, it tasted exactly as it did at the prawn mee stall, so I scooped a bowl for myself and began to devour it.

But a bowl was hardly enough to end years of self-imposed starvation. I ate monstrously, slurping down bowl after bowl of noodles. By the time it was finished, it was already midnight, moonlight pooling into the base of the pot. Still, I was filled with a sense hunger and ending. So I stayed in the kitchen, cradling the moon-filled pot like it was my child, my fingers scraping up every last taste of prawn mee. When I finally looked up, I could see sleep raining down on the city. It dripped down the sky-scraping concrete arms that stretched into the dark sky, scorched from the heat of the day like my tongue that knew that it would never taste food like this in the city again.

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