(Note: this story is set in Shanghai, China, where I currently live. Here in China death is a taboo topic generally not spoken of among adults, much less children. I tend to write a lot of horror so with this story I'm trying to write something more literary, more realistic and subtle with its emotions, story, and mood. Let me know what you think, if it's too subtle or not enough or just right.)
“Rice.” The wooden ends of the chopsticks pushed into the middle of the plastic container, sliding half the steaming rice into the little metal bowl. “And some broccoli.” He pried the lid off the second container, the scent of sauted garlic and oil drifting up. “How many pieces do you want?”
Three chubby fingers popped up over the edge of the glass cover on the dining room table.
“You need to eat more than that.” Six green stalks nestled into the white. “And some meat, too, you have to eat at least four pieces, okay?” The crispy fillet strips crunched between the chopsticks as he piled them atop the now full metal bowl.
Rong Rong scooted forward on the adult-sized chair, reaching for her Hello-Kitty rimmed pair of plastic chopsticks. “I don’t like,” she pouted, stabbing at the miniature hill of food. “I want Mama food.”
“You know that Mama is still outside working.” He paused between the mouthfuls of rice he was shoveling from the bowl in his hand to his mouth. “She’s still on her trip--” he waved a hand towards the distance “--and she’ll be back soon, but, not for awhile. Eat your vegetables first.”
Her fist closed around a stalk of broccoli, her toothy smile nibbling at the florets. “Little trees, Daddy, little trees.” She tossed the headless stalk onto the table, digging her thumb between the rice and pork chops to find another one.
“Hey don’t use your hands!” Grabbing her wrist in one hand he made a grab for the napkins across the table with the other had, her arm following the pull and toppling over her little metal bowl. Rice sloped from the bowl to the table, pork chops tumbling like twigs down the hill.
“I want Mama to feed me,” she whined, squirming back and forth as he pushed the food back into the bowl and set it back in front of her. “I don’t like you I want Mama. Will she be home tomorrow?”
“No. But very soon.” He picked up the bowl, using his own chopsticks to lift a bite of rice up and moving it to her open mouth. “Good girl.” As soon as she finished chewing he had another bite ready, hovering in the air. “How was school today? Did you listen to the teacher? Did you have fun?”
“Yes but but Fanfan, she got angry at me because she found a butterfly on the floor.” Grains of soggy rice fell from the corner of her mouth as she spoke. “And I jumped on it and then it stopped flapping.” Her sticky finger toyed with his sweater sleeve, wrapping her little finger around a loose thread. “And then, and then FanFan cried and tried to wake the butterfly up.” The thread snapped loose as she pulled it towards her. “And then the teacher said it was dead. What’s dead, Daddy?”
“I don’t know. Don’t talk with food in your mouth, Rong Rong.” Uncapping the round plastic container he handed her a spoon. “Drink your soup. Slowly and blow on it first.”
“Teacher said it was dead,” she repeated, her black eyes staring up at him between the bangs hanging down her forehead. “Because it didn’t flap anymore, even when FanFan and I pushed and pushed.”
“Yeah that’s right.” He picked up the soup bowl, stirring it and blowing on the tomato egg water at intervals. “Because it didn’t move anymore, see. Only things that are alive move.”
She slurped up a spoonful of soup, bits of yellow egg sticking to her lips as she flicked the spoon through her pigtails. “Alive? Am I alive?”
“Mmhm. Now stop talking so much and finish eating.”
“Daddy, but Daddy, Daddy.” She splashed the spoon down back into the bowl and picked it up with both hands, gulping down a mouthful. “When we take our naps at school sometimes I wake and I see that FanFan is not moving. Is she dead then?” Soup dribbled down her chin, splattering the collar of her polka-dot dress.
“I said no talking!” He shoved a handful of napkins at her, dabbing up the warm liquid. “Now you made your clothes dirty. Daddy wants you to sit still and eat quietly today, okay? Because Daddy’s head hurts and he doesn’t want to answer so many questions. Open your mouth for a big bite.”
“I don’t want FanFan to die.” Her voice grew shrill and her hands grabbed his sleeve, throwing her head back and screaming as she yanked it back and forth. The chopstick full of rice fell from his hand and onto his leg, the rice rolling down his leg and landing onto his foot, soaking through his socks to his toes. He paused, just for a moment, fingers closed tightly around the chopsticks. Tightening. Then releasing slowly, one after the other.
“Okay.” He swabbed his foot with the used napkins and pried her hands off his arm. “Be quiet and I will tel you.” She stopped, gazing up at him with tiny tears shining off her eyelashes. “FanFan isn’t dead, she’s just sleeping. Everybody is still when they sleep. When you sleep, it’s like, um, your body is still moving inside. See?’ His hand led hers to rest against her chest. “Do you hear that little boom-boom noise?”
She sniffled, shaking her head.
“But Daddy can, and it’s a little--little machine, yes, and it is called your heart, and it is always moving, even if you are sleeping or sit very still.” The chopsticks found their way back up and into the rice bowl, and he led them to her waiting mouth. “Open,” he tapped her chin.”
“But why was FanFan sad when the butterfly died?”
“Last question, okay?” He held a hand under the bowl of soup and tipped it back as she slurped it up. “She was sad because she couldn’t play with it anymore. Because if something is dead then you can’t play with it anymore or talk to it or watch it fly. That’s what makes people sad.”
“If I die will you be sad?”
“I said that was the last question.” He put the empty bowl down, wiping away the tomato skin on her upper lip with the back of his hand. “ Go wash your face.”
The chair slid back with a squeak. “Can I call Mama tonight?”
“No, but we can go for a walk outside. You can ride your little scooter.” His hand swept across the table, clearing the empty food containers and disposable utensils into a trash bag. “But just for ten minutes, okay, because Daddy is very tired today.”
Rong Rong stood on her tiptoes, trying to touch the door handle as he squatted in front of her, buttoning up the knotted buttons on her red puffy coat. She hopped from one foot to the other, banging her fists in disjointed rhythm against the metal door.
“Hey hey stop moving Rong Rong, and stop being so noisy.” He stopped at the last button, his fingers fumbling over and over again. “It doesn’t matter, let’s go.”
Pulling the pink scooter behind her Rong Rong waddled down the driveway and towards the illuminated gate of the compound, where a circle of elderly ladies always gathered with their wicker chairs, chatting with the old security guard. They beamed at her as she came over, her shoes squeaking to a stop.
“Are you going out with Daddy?” one grandma asked, bending forward to button the top button on her coat.
“We’re going to call Mama tonight,” she announced, throwing the scooter down. “I want to tell her about a dead butterfly at school.”
The grandmother glanced up at him and his forced smile.”Why don’t you tell me? I like pretty butterflies too.”
“No!” She pushed the grandmother’s hand away and ran to where her father was standing. “Daddy Daddy I want to talk to Mama now.”
He knelt down and took her little hands in his, rubbing them warm as he spoke. “Rong Rong, I told you not today--”
Her little nose crinkled, her lower lip frowning as she pulled away. Her small shoulders sloped forward, shaking as her eyes disappeared into streaks and she turned around. “I want to talk to Mama now, I want Mama!” she burst into tears.
“Don’t cry, dear,” the grandmother tried to soothe her. “Your Mama is very busy right now, you can talk to her tomorrow and she will have lots of time to hear about the butterfly.”
“Mama now,” she sobbed, tears splattering down her cheeks as she banged her head over and over again against her father’s knees. “Mama now, Daddy.”
He smiled at the grandmother, apologetically. “She’s just tired, I should get her to bed.” He picked up her wriggling,kicking body and held her close, turning back towards the house. As he carried her up the stairs, scooter hooked under his arm, the fourth floor neighbors came down, their five-year-old son wheeling his tricycle thump by thump down the dusty steps.
“Hey.” The mother called out as they passed. “Do you need some help? What’s wrong with little Rong Rong today?”
“Just tired, she had a big day at school.”
“Poor thing. Hey, look, if you ever need someone to watch her if you are busy just bring her over to my place, LeLe would love to play with her and my Mom is always home with nothing to do.”
“You’re too kind. But I wouldn’t want to trouble you. Thank you very much.”
“It would be nothing.” She patted Rong Rong’s head. “She’s such a quiet, obedient child. Don’t work too hard, okay? Take care of yourself.”
He smiled, or tried to, nodding goodbye before continuing up the stairs. By the time he reached their house on the sixth floor Rong Rong’s sobs had shifted to a steady whimper, her teeth dug into his shoulder, snot and slobber trickling down his back as he shifted from one leg to another, trying to open the door and put the scooter down. Unbuckling her shoes he lay her down on the bed to take off her coat when the fit resurfaced.
“Where’s Mama?” she blubbered, limbs punching and fighting his hands away. “Go away Daddy I want to see Mama.”
“It’s okay,” he whispered, picking her up again and rocking her back and forth. His hand moved steadily on her back as he paced from room to room. “It’s okay.”
By the time Rong Rong finally gave in to sleepiness his own eyes were drifting open and shut, his back twinging with an ache that he tried to rub away with his one free hand. He felt her frantic breathing slow to a drowsy putter, and he moved back to the bed, carefully sitting down and leaning against the pillows. Her head slumped on his shoulder, sweat glistening on her forehead and the back of her neck that he wiped away with the wrist of his sleeve.
Her lips parted and he froze in place as she stirred, rolling over to rest her head in the crook of his arm.
“Mama,” she murmured, burying her nose into his chest, a tiny smile appearing on her face as she slipped back into sleep .
His eyes fell to the empty space beside him on the bed, his eyelids twitching, blinking faster and faster. He clamped his free hand over his mouth, silencing his heavy breathing as he watched her through misty eyes, making sure she wasn’t disturbed from the rapid heaving of his chest. His fingers slipped and he balled them into a fist against his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut. The strings of his throat pulled together; he tried to loosen it even as his face reddened, his heart beating so loud he feared it would wake her. He opened his eyes, seeing her still hushed in peace through the blur now running down his face.
The smile on Rong Rong’s sleeping face remained unbroken as he turned away, burying his face in his arm, the sweater sleeve shoved between his teeth to mute the sound of weeping.