Episode #35: “Cooking with Closed Mouths” by Kerry Truong

March 22, 2017

Cooking with Closed Mouths

by Kerry Truong

A gumiho could run faster than shadows spread, but since Ha Neul doubted that Americans would take kindly to a nine-tailed fox streaking down Los Angeles’ busy streets, they opted to walk to the bus stop in the falling darkness after work.

The cool night air was a relief after the hot confines of Mrs. Chang’s restaurant, where Ha Neul had spent the day carrying heavy dishes and enduring customers’ complaints. Mrs. Chang’s mediocre food attracted few customers, and her refusal to use air conditioning made those who did come disinclined to be generous. Ha Neul never told her this, of course, because what was the point of trying to change people’s ways? For this silence they were rewarded with meager wages and leftovers that turned to ashes in their mouth.

 

Full transcript after the cut.

[Intro music plays]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip, episode 35 for March 22, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Our story this week is a GlitterShip original: “Cooking with Closed Mouths" by Kerry Truong.

Kerry Truong writes about many things, including folktale and horror. Their hobbies are futilely trying to train their dogs; tearing their hair out while reading comics; and eating good food. They like their meat rare, and if a story doesn’t mention food at least once, it wasn’t written by them. You can follow their queer firebreathing on Twitter @springbamboos.

We also have a guest reader!

R Chang hails from a small valley on the West coast, where they moonlight as an artist. Their dearest wish in life is to quit their day job and establish a farm for dogs.

 

Cooking with Closed Mouths

by Kerry Truong

 

A gumiho could run faster than shadows spread, but since Ha Neul doubted that Americans would take kindly to a nine-tailed fox streaking down Los Angeles’ busy streets, they opted to walk to the bus stop in the falling darkness after work.

The cool night air was a relief after the hot confines of Mrs. Chang’s restaurant, where Ha Neul had spent the day carrying heavy dishes and enduring customers’ complaints. Mrs. Chang’s mediocre food attracted few customers, and her refusal to use air conditioning made those who did come disinclined to be generous. Ha Neul never told her this, of course, because what was the point of trying to change people’s ways? For this silence they were rewarded with meager wages and leftovers that turned to ashes in their mouth.

Today was no different. After mediating between Mrs. Chang and angry customers, Ha Neul was finally left in peace, a bag of banchan the only payment for their troubles. They stood at the bus stop in a crowd of other commuters, careful to remain at the edges where they could go unnoticed but still hear the conversations around them. There was chatter about everything from peace in Viet Nam to some boxing championship or another. Ha Neul didn’t understand the voracious interest humans showed in things that would only fade from memory or repeat themselves in a matter of years. Still, they liked listening. There was something comforting about the way humans kept going, as full of energy as if they were the first to experience these things.

When the bus arrived, Ha Neul boarded in a stream of other passengers, shouldering their way through until they could find a place to stand. Proximity filled their nose with the tang of everyone around them and made their stomach clench. They ignored it, used to the hunger. Instead of thinking about it, they studied the people closest to them.

An older woman stood next to them in the aisle, her eyes drifting closed as if the lurch and stop of the bus were a lullaby. A pair of students on their other side consulted each other in urgent voices about what songs to put on a mixtape for a crush. Ha Neul listened with amusement. It must be nice, they thought, to be caught up in the rhythm of falling in and out of love; to hope over and over that warmth could be found in the clasp of another person’s hand.

 

At home, Hana was waiting for them, her homework fanned out on the kitchen table. Their one-bedroom apartment was too small for a proper desk, and neither of them had much use for the kitchen’s traditional function, so Hana had claimed it as her study room. The table was often strewn with books and papers and half-chewed pens. Ha Neul had given up on putting the mess into any kind of order. No matter how hard they tried, the table would be cluttered again within the day.

Hana waved when they came in. “Took you long enough to get home! Did Mrs. Chang give you food again?”

Ha Neul nodded, searching for an empty spot to set the bag down. After a moment they gave up and simply handed it to Hana.

“All mine, and none for oppa,” she sang.

Ha Neul sat down next to her as she searched through the bag, their body heavy from exhaustion. They relaxed in the warmth of the kitchen, watching as Hana tasted each banchan in turn. She was eager to try them all, which was why Ha Neul always accepted Mrs. Chang’s leftovers. It didn’t matter if the food couldn’t make her full. It reminded her of home, of a life where she’d had family and people to belong to.

Ha Neul’s stomach clenched again. They went to the refrigerator and opened it. It was nearly empty, except for the large plastic bag dominating the center shelf and several plastic cartons arranged in neat rows beside it. Ha Neul brought the bag to the table.

“Oppa, don’t you dare get blood on my homework,” Hana said as they stacked books and papers to clear a space on the table.

“I would never sully the homework of a top student.”

Ha Neul took a package wrapped in butcher paper out of the bag and set it on the table. The paper was damp in spots, its white color stained pink by the blood that seeped through it. The tang that Ha Neul had smelled on the bus filled their nose again, this time richer and deeper. Hana stopped eating to watch, her eyes intent. She could smell the blood, too.

They unwrapped the paper to reveal hearts, kidneys, slices of liver, and other organ meats, raw and glistening. Ha Neul ate a heart, ripping the muscle with their sharp teeth. It was savory, satisfying them in a way Mrs. Chang’s food never could, making them crave for more. They reached for a piece of liver as soon as they’d finished the heart. It was good to be home.

Hana was still watching them. They thought they could see the hint of a fang beginning to protrude in the corner of her mouth, but when they offered her a kidney she waved it away. “I’m not into solid food.”

Ha Neul raised an eyebrow, looking at the banchan.

“That’s different. I eat that for fun, not to get full.”

“Can you really taste it?”

“A little. It’s really faint though, like when you have a cold and can only get an aftertaste.”

Ha Neul didn’t understand, having never had a cold. They nodded anyway. “Do you remember what human food tastes like?”

Hana looked wistful. “I think I’m forgetting. I know that hotteok are sweet and kimchi jjigae is spicy, but even though I know the words I don’t remember the taste.”

She must be nearing forty, but time hadn’t changed the smoothness of her skin or the roundness of her face. If there was one thing that aged her, it was her eyes. They were too knowing. It was only now, with her longing so apparent, that she seemed exactly the high school student that she pretended to be.

Ha Neul had known that longing. It had been food that first drew them to humans, after all. So many colors and textures: thick, greasy noodles coated in black bean sauce, kimbap dotted with yellow, green, and orange vegetables, cream-colored crab meat marinated in soy sauce. They supposed it was harder for Hana, though, having actually known what human food tasted like. Reaching over, they squeezed her hand.

Hana squeezed their hand back and smiled at them. “How’s your food, oppa?”

“Delicious.”

“It’s still weird to me how you eat cows and not humans. Isn’t it unsatisfying?”

“It’s a good enough substitute.” When reduced to their innards, humans and cows weren’t very different, Ha Neul thought, and offal was easy to get from the butcher for no more than a few cents.

Hana trailed a finger through the blood that had congealed on the paper, then licked it off. “You know you’re welcome to come find dinner with me any night.”

The food soured in Ha Neul’s mouth. Being hungry around humans was one thing, eating them was another. Thinking about it made them feel ill.

“I don’t eat humans anymore,” they said, allowing their voice to get sharp.

Hana bit her lip, looking chastised. Ha Neul felt guilty, but they’d told her often enough that they didn’t want to be goaded about their eating habits. They’d tried living as a human long ago, hoping to discover the taste of other food. But a gumiho is a fox at heart, its human appearance a mere illusion, and Ha Neul’s hunger had only grown with each dish they’d eaten. It was all ash. In the end, they’d given into their hunger, only to be horrified by the uniform redness. They’d stopped eating humans by the time they met Hana. She should have known better than to tease them about it.

Ha Neul worried that she would sulk, but instead she rummaged through her backpack and brought out a flyer.

“Here,” she said, sliding it across to Ha Neul. Her voice was light, the previous subject waved away. “Talking about food reminded me of this. I don’t think I can wiggle my way out of it.”

Ha Neul chewed on a piece of liver and read the flyer. It was printed on daffodil yellow paper, the words on it thick, black, and followed by multiple exclamation points. Cartoonish pictures of rice bowls and tacos surrounded the text.

“A cultural diversity lunch? What exactly are the students supposed to learn from that?”

“How to appreciate other people’s cultures, I guess. Mr. Hanson says we should start learning about diversity in high school.”

“I understand that, but why food?”

“Because people like food, obviously. We’re all supposed to bring in one dish from our culture.”

“What do you want to bring in?” They stared at the pictures of rice bowls. Did her teacher expect her to bring in rice? Even Ha Neul knew that plain rice didn’t make a meal.

Hana answered without hesitation. “Kimchi fried rice.”

They couldn’t help laughing at her confidence. “And where in the world are we going to get that?”

Hana smiled. She was prettiest like that, which was exactly why she smiled widest if she needed a favor. “I was going to ask if Mrs. Chang could make it.”

Ha Neul’s answer was as ready as hers had been. “Mrs. Chang is busy and has no money to make kimchi fried rice for free.”

“She doesn’t even have to make that much. There are only twenty students in my class.”

“Isn’t that still a lot?”

Hana pouted. “Please, oppa? I don’t want to be embarrassed. What if everyone else brings something fancy and I don’t have anything?”

There was that longing again, not as obscured by the pout as she thought it was. Ha Neul didn’t understand. Food was food, so what did it matter if she brought banchan or kimchi fried rice? But they could see how happy this simple thing would make her, and that mattered. She was their sister by choice, the only person who wanted to share the partial life they led.

“All right, I’ll ask Mrs. Chang. Even if she says no, we’ll figure something out. Does that sound good?”

“Oh, oppa, I knew I could count on you!”

She threw her arms around Ha Neul, startling them. After a beat, they remembered to lift their own arms and hug her back. They held her close, taking comfort in the gesture that was at once strange and warm.

 

Many years ago, on a warm spring night in Korea, Ha Neul had heard a cry of despair. If they had ignored that cry, they might still be living in Korea, trying to find a way to fit into the jumbled new pattern that the war had created. But they had listened, and that was how they’d found Hana, blood on her shirt and two bite marks on her neck. They couldn’t abandon her to that despair. Instead, they had held their hand out and said come, there is still a way to live.

So the two of them had lived, as best as they could, side by side for more than twenty years. When they had decided to go to America, it made the most sense to claim that they were siblings. They’d argued about who should be the elder. Ha Neul had won her over by pointing out that if they were her older brother, they could support her while she went to school.

The papers had been made, and the two of them had moved to Los Angeles to join the number of Korean immigrants building a new life along Olympic Boulevard. While Hana finished her last year in high school and dreamed about college admissions, Ha Neul waited tables and lifted boxes, letting Mrs. Chang speak to them as if they were a child.

It didn’t matter to them whether Mrs. Chang’s food was good or not. They couldn’t taste any of it, after all. They were content seeing the variety of colors in her kitchen. She, in turn, was grateful for someone who stayed in spite of her temper and the customers’ insults. Ha Neul hoped that her gratefulness would soften her to their request. They made sure to be of extra help in the restaurant the day after Hana showed them the flyer, lifting heavy pots off the stove and chatting with customers until the bad food was forgotten.

The restaurant was never busy, and once the lunch hour had passed it was empty. Mrs. Chang used the time to eat her own late lunch. Ha Neul joined her, choking down the rice and drinking cup after cup of tea. They waited until most of the food was gone before saying, “Mrs. Chang, can I ask you a favor?”

Her eyes narrowed. Perhaps she thought they would ask for money. Still, her voice was not unkind when she answered. “What is it?”

“My sister’s teacher asked her to bring in a dish from her culture for a class project. I was wondering if you could make the food.”

“What kind of food?”

“Kimchi fried rice.”

Mrs. Chang sighed and shook her head. “I don’t think I have the time for that, Ha Neul.”

It was the answer they’d expected, but they were still disappointed. “It’s not too difficult to make, is it? I’ll even work extra hours in the restaurant in exchange for it.”

“After a whole day of cooking, do you think I’d have the energy to make more food for a bunch of children? I have my own family to take care of once I’m done here.” She stood up and stacked the empty dishes to take back into the kitchen.

“Mrs. Chang, please.”

“I already said no!”

Ha Neul stood up as she started walking back to the kitchen. “Then at least teach me how to make it.”

She turned around. “What was that?”

Food is food, Ha Neul thought, and food was only ash in their mouth. But they’d promised Hana that they would help her. “Teach me how to cook, Mrs. Chang. If I learn, then I can help you in the kitchen, too.”

She studied them for a moment. They wondered if they looked desperate, if it was that or the promise of help that made her say, “All right then. But I don’t want to hear any complaints because it’s too hard, understand?”

“Oh, perfectly,” Ha Neul said, and followed her into the kitchen, already questioning the wisdom of learning how to cook without taste.

 

Hana’s luncheon was in a week, and in that week Ha Neul dedicated themself to learning how to cook. The radio in the kitchen played Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder songs as Mrs. Chang showed Ha Neul how to make galbi and gamjatang, kimbap and gyeranjjim.

Although she wasn’t an unkind teacher, she was also not gentle. Ha Neul disliked the way she grabbed their hand to show them how to chop vegetables, or how she would take the ladle from them to taste soup. They learned quickly, however, and their dishes soon looked the same as Mrs. Chang’s. They began to take their own pleasure with food, relishing in the clean crack that split an egg and the feel of rice grains slipping through their fingers. Taste was lost to them, but they could still see, and hear, and feel.

The first dish they brought out to customers, however, fared no better than any of Mrs. Chang’s.

“Do you call this samgyetang?” asked a middle-aged woman with tightly permed hair.

Ha Neul had known she would be trouble the moment she’d walked in. Something about her pinched mouth had foreshadowed grief. Putting on a practiced smile, they said, “I’m sorry if the soup isn’t good. Should I bring you something else?”

“Nothing you brought is any good. The banchan isn’t even seasoned well!”

Ha Neul bit their tongue, even though their hands ached from chopping meat and mixing seasoning. Before they could regain the patience to smile, however, the woman sighed. “Forget it. I’m sorry. It’s just been a long time since I had a good meal, and I thought I’d find it here.”

Ha Neul studied how deep the wrinkles on her face ran, how calloused her hands were. They wondered how long she had been in America, and what kind of dishes she had the energy to make after a long day of work. Did she have family to care for? When was the last time she’d eaten something someone else made for her?

The woman got her wallet and began counting out bills. Before she could set them on the table, Ha Neul said, “I’m sorry, but could you tell me how you’d like the food to be seasoned?”

Later, Mrs. Chang told them that they had too little pride. “You listen too much to other people’s complaining.”

Ha Neul just laughed, and she looked at them as she often did, like something strange and half unwanted. Still, they kept listening to the complaints. They memorized how much sesame oil to add and how long meat should stay in the pan. They noted the exact shade of orange that carrots turned when they were tender but not limp, and the translucence of onions that would be just sweet enough. The complaints lessened and more customers began to come to the restaurant, brought in by word of mouth.

Mrs. Chang talked of giving Ha Neul a raise. They heard the hesitance in her voice and declined. It was enough to spend time in the kitchen while Mrs. Chang served the customers, her temper improved by their praises. Soon, Ha Neul became the kitchen’s only occupant. They preferred it that way, with only the radio to keep them company. This much of human food they had mastered, and they were content to stay in the confines of the kitchen for a long time, basking in its vivid colors.

 

The day before Hana’s potluck, Ha Neul stopped by a supermarket on the way home. They returned to the apartment laden with plastic bags. The kitchen table was as messy as ever, but there was no sign of Hana. No doubt she was out getting food. They cleared the kitchen table, making room for the ingredients they’d bought from the supermarket.

The stove, which had been untouched since they moved in, flared to life without protest. They made rice, and while the water bubbled and spit, they sliced kimchi and diced Spam. They didn’t like Spam. Its sickly pink color reminded them of red watered down, and it slid out of the can with a slither that made them shudder. But it was cheap and Hana liked it, so they tipped the diced ham into the pan without looking at it. Steam filled the air. Ha Neul made more than enough kimchi fried rice for Hana’s classmates, then set aside a little extra for her when she came back.

It was dark when Hana returned home. She was wearing a green polka dot dress, her hair in a ponytail. There was blood on her. Ha Neul could smell it as soon as she walked through the door, and their stomach clenched.

“I’m in the kitchen,” they called out to her.

She walked in, the scent of blood following her. It pervaded the kitchen, making Ha Neul forget, for a moment, the food on the stove. Their stomach growled and their mouth ran dry. They hadn’t eaten all day.

“Oppa, you’re cooking!” Hana said, coming up next to them.

They focused on the rice in the pan, stirring it to mix the kimchi and Spam evenly. The Spam had darkened to a deep pink.  “Of course I am. Unless I’m mistaken, your potluck is tomorrow.”

“You look like a professional chef.”

They smiled in spite of the smell of blood in their nose. “Your compliment is appreciated. Now go wash your hands. I made some for you to eat tonight.”

Hana clapped her hands and ran to do as they said. By the time she came back, the scent of blood had eased, and Ha Neul could hand her the bowl of kimchi fried rice without their hand trembling.

“How is it?” they asked as she began to eat.

She closed her eyes and chewed. Ha Neul knew she could barely taste it, but there was happiness on her face. “It’s delicious, oppa. I know it is.”

They couldn’t smell the blood anymore. Ha Neul felt the warmth of the kitchen again, the steam in the air. They watched Hana eat, a little longing mixed with their pleasure in her enjoyment. The two of them would have made a proper family if only Ha Neul could sit down and eat with her. But if Hana was content with only the hint of flavor, then they were content with only this, its reflection.

They turned back to the stove, and shut it off.

 

On the morning of Hana’s potluck, Ha Neul carried a tin foil tray of kimchi fried rice to her bus stop, handing it to her carefully before running to catch their own bus. A disheveled man with a hoarse voice harangued passengers about sinning as the bus crawled its way down Wilshire, and the couple in front of Ha Neul argued in whispers, almost hissing as each accused the other of infidelity. Ha Neul listened with half an ear, looking out the window at the Ford Pintos inching past and the dusty haze that made everything outside glow.

The restaurant was dark and cool, not yet overheated by the stoves. Ha Neul put the chairs in place and wiped the tabletops while Mrs. Chang chatted with her sister, who had joined them for the day. The sister had arrived in America only the week before, and Mrs. Chang was eager to have someone who knew the same people she did and shared the same hopes for this new life.

Ha Neul didn’t interrupt their conversation, dreaming instead about the food they would make that day: the chill of the soy sauce on their skin, the true red of gochujang dark against the silver of the spoon, the steam beading their face in sweat whenever they lifted the lid off a pot.

No customers complained that day, and Mrs. Chang sent Ha Neul home with more galbi and banchan than usual. Ha Neul had made the food, but they chose to feel kindly towards Mrs. Chang for her generosity.

At home, Hana was waiting for them. The tin foil tray sat next to her on the table, still burdened with its food. It was bent slightly out of shape. Bits of rice flecked the tabletop around it. Hana’s mouth was pursed tightly, but it quivered when Ha Neul asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“They said it smelled bad and made fun of me for eating Spam. What do they know? I could eat them instead!”

Ha Neul knew she would have cried, if she could. They sat down next to her, some vice grip squeezing their chest. For Hana’s sake, they smiled. “I’d advise against it. They probably don’t taste good.”

“They’re ungrateful punks. You worked so hard to make this and they wouldn’t even eat it.”

“I am hardly insulted by the bad taste of children a fraction my age.”

Hana wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, a habit she still hadn’t unlearned. Whenever she was angry or upset, her hand went to her eyes as if there were still tears to stem. Ha Neul took her hand and squeezed it.

Her skin was dry and smooth, eroded by neither time nor care. In that respect, she was different from her classmates and everyone else around her. It was hard to remember that difference, however, when she was squeezing Ha Neul’s hand so tightly, looking for comfort after a hurt that should have been slight.

After a moment she said, “I wanted to eat this fried rice.”

Ha Neul squeezed her hand again. “You can eat all of it now, if you want.”

“No, I wanted to really eat it. I wanted it to taste like kimchi fried rice should, to make me full.” Hana stomped to the drawers and came back with a plastic spoon. “Even though those little ingrates can eat, they won’t make use of it.” She dug into the rice hard enough to bend the flimsy plastic and began eating.

Another layer of sadness settled over Ha Neul, heavy and thick as the smog that pervaded Los Angeles. They should have listened to their own advice from the beginning: food was food. How could it teach people anything? Perhaps for Hana’s classmates, the kimchi fried rice was not a sign of comfort and family, but of something else entirely. Perhaps some of their fox’s nature made its way into the dish, marking it as something fearful.

“I’m sorry.” They felt useless with only those words for comfort.

“It’s not your fault, oppa.”

The two of them sat in silence as Hana ate. Ha Neul knew she could finish the whole tray. It wouldn’t make her full, after all. They sat and watched her, trying to imagine what it tasted like and only remembering the crunch of the kimchi under their knife, the splash of red over white rice, the Spam glistening pinkly before they’d thrown it in the pan. Things which were only parts of the whole, not enough to fill the quiet of this kitchen.

Ha Neul wanted, as they hadn’t in years, to take a spoonful of food and taste it. But they knew, even before they finished the thought, that it would be nothing but ash. All they could do was say, “I’ll make you as much food as you want.”

Hana smiled, and though the corners of her mouth lifted, her expression didn’t brighten. She looked her age. “Even if I’ll never be able to tell how good it is?”

“Of course.”

They thought about the colors of different ingredients, the textures under their hands. No matter what other people thought, they didn’t want to forget any of that. As long as Hana wanted food they would cook, and the two of them would keep trying, again and again, to discover taste in the warmth of this kitchen.

 

END

 

“Cooking with Closed Mouths” is copyright Kerry Truong, 2017.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprint of "How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War” by Rose Lemberg.

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