Congee of Youth
by Chi Le
Runestone, volume 3
Blood splashes all over the table. The monkey’s brain is revealed after the top part of its skull is chopped away. Tears fall down its cheeks. For the last few seconds of life, it is still aware of pain. The chef’s hand trembles as he tries hard to hold the knife stable. Nhan laughs out loud at the chef’s cowardice. How dare he claim to be the best chef in this province when he can’t even make monkey brain salad properly?
Nhan is the first to scoop the monkey brain, mixing it with garlic, scallion, and cilantro then wrapping all the ingredients together with rice paper. He dips the roll in fish sauce. This balanced the flavor as the metal taste of blood complimented by the pungent garlic, fish sauce, and the citrus overtones of cilantro. This is Nhan’s first time to taste these infamous (and illegal) specialties of monkey meat and monkey brain salad from Despicable Province and he loves them too much, especially after hearing that they’re beneficial for the brain. He tends to forget things easily these days.
Following Nhan’s first roll, his subordinates and business partners start their meal. They pour sorghum wine imported from the North and cheer and pressure each other to drink until passing out because they know that’s what Nhan enjoys the most, seeing people getting drunk and become pathetic. He is the Minister of Planning and Investment of this country after all. Pleasing him is a must if any enterprise wants to secure a government project or wants its construction to go smoothly. This evening is no exception. Desperate Inc. is building a 3000-hectare golf resort in Despicable Province and things are not going well for them due to a tax scandal. In order to prevent an indefinite delay of the project and company’s bankruptcy, the Board of Directors has used all of its connections to reach Nhan, who holds their lifeline.
One of Nhan’s unique hobbies besides betting on buffalo fights and singing opera is to taste “strange” dishes. He had three meals straight of shark fin a day before it became trendy, bird nest was also his favorite dish of 2013 until it was discovered that many restraints used fake bird nests imported from China, and he remembers swallowing raw snake penis because his secretary told him that it could help him last longer in bed. In short, he would eat any animal available to be killed, and he blames that guilty pleasure on his name, which literally means “human.” He interprets Nhan not as “humane” and “benevolent” as other folks sharing the name do, but explains it as the power of the highest form of animal. Deep down inside, he believes he has the right to defeat and consume any creature lower than him. Thus, there were no words that could describe Desperate Inc. CEO’s happiness when discovered that Nhan had never eaten monkey brain before.
Their main target, however, is not Nhan’s stomach, but his safe. Desperate Inc. understands that even if they feed him 100 monkey brains, he would not approve their project unless he sees the smile of Benjamin Franklin. In between the exchange of shots and laughter, Desperate Inc.’s CEO approaches Nhan:
“How’s your daughter doing these days, sir?”
“Thank you for asking. She’s growing into such a breathtakingly beautiful young lady. She’s well behaved and caring, too. She’s very mature for her age and never complains a word about the lack of mother’s love. She lost her mother at birth.”
“You might have saved the world in your previous life to receive such blessing, sir. She must be a high school senior now. May I ask which college is she applying to?”
“She’s really talented in painting, and I’m thinking about sending her to France to study art. There are no prestigious art schools here.”
“I really admire you, sir. You must have worked hard in order to support your child’s dream.”
“No, no, no. It’s not hard at all. Isn’t it a parent’s happiness to see their children successful in life? My daughter is my everything, and I have educated her well. As her father, I have to protect her as well. I might have done terrible things in life, but I won’t let any dirt get on my innocent child.” Nhan realizes he is tipsy as he’s being honest.
“The care you have for your daughter really moves me, sir. I have a small gift for you, to better support her education in the future and lessen your worry.” Desperate Inc.’s CEO smiles as he hands Nhan a luxurious box of premium English breakfast tea.
Nhan slowly opens the box to find one million dollars under the tea packs, not surprisingly. Having held this position for five years he has gotten used to all forms of bribery. He’s sober enough to understand that this bribe means more than his daughter’s life in France; it’s a contract. Like the other times he tells himself that he can support his dear daughter with this huge sum of money. Nhan happily accepts the deal. Desperate Inc.’s CEO tries hard to hold back his tears of joy. The CEO feels as if Superman has rescued him from a cliffhanger, and invites Nhan for a dinner next week to further discuss about the construction. Of course the CEO is aware that he has taken up a challenge to find another one-of-a-kind dish within the limited time, or else Superman might return him to the cliff.
Hien rubs her eyes as if they are about to pop out. Two lines. How could this happen? She is just a high school student whose future is still waiting. What about the upcoming college applications? What will her friends think? Most importantly, how will her strict father react to this situation? It might negatively affect his political career if the public finds out his daughter is pregnant at seventeen.
She nearly breaks her phone keyboard trying to call Dung, her art teacher, the guy who planted this life in her belly. For a split second, she hopes she can run away with him. He’s eleven years older than she, so he must have enough experience with women to know how to deal with this problem. First call, second call, then third. No answer. He must have sensed something was wrong when he saw her rushing to the bathroom to vomit during her last lesson. He surely has enough experience with women to know what to expect, but not enough experience to solve it, so he runs away. By himself.
As she tries to stop herself from crying, Hien splatters all of her drawings with paint. She remembers how handsome his side profile was, enough to make her fall for him at first sight. She remembers how he treated her differently from previous teachers, as if she wasn’t a famous politician’s daughter but just an ordinary student who loves art. She remembers when he tried to teach her a new painting technique and their hands first touched, her heart skipped a beat. She remembers him kissing her passionately one hot summer night. She remembers giving her virginity to him in the basement art studio in her home. She thinks that his love was sincere, but now realizes that unlike his name Dung which means “brave,” he is just a coward.
While still trembling about this discovery of cowardice, Hien hears the sound of her father’s car engine. Nhan changes his car twice every year, yet Hien never fails to detect the sound of her father’s car. He has always praised her for such talent, and boasted about her ability only to realize later that Hien could only recognize his car.
“Because yours is the only one I anticipate.” She would say shrugging her shoulders.
Hien tries to mediate her breathing. “Inhale, 1, 2. Exhale, 1, 2. Inhale…” She can’t show her nervousness in front of her dad. Succeeding in regaining calm, she fixes her dress, smiles to herself in the mirror and goes upstairs to greet Nhan.
“Dad, you’re home!” She grins. Her stomach aches.
“Hi darling! How was school today? Did you get good grades on your Chemistry exam?”
“Decent, Dad. Good enough to be first in my class this year.” She grins wider to hide her stomach cramp.
“Good job, daughter! You know that this year is important right? You’re a high school senior. You should put greater effort in polishing your portfolio. Watching you achieving your dream is my greatest source of joy. If you need more time alone to better concentrate, I will tell the servants not to bother you. I won’t let anyone hinder you.” He kisses her goodnight on forehead then leaves for his bedroom.
Reality overwhelms her. She had thought of running away, of suicide, but somehow along the way lost sight of the truth. She has her future, her studies, her career and her father. Seeing his expectations, she promises herself she will never let him down. She has to live the way her name “Hien”, which means “well-behaved,” suggests.
There is only one solution.
Hien stands in front of the mirror. She can’t decide between the pastel pink floral dress and the grey tweed jumpsuit. She wants to feel good about herself today. Eventually she picks the dress, thinking it might be painful to wear pants right away.
She can hear many sounds from where she sits in the corridor of Sketchy Hospital: Women screaming and cursing their husbands while giving birth, relatives who wait outside praying so loudly that she can tell what religion they follow, nurses gossiping about doctor Kien cheating on his wife with doctor Ngan, then doctor Ngan yelling at doctor Kien that she’s pregnant with his son. She tries to focus on every single sound she hears, that is the only way she can be distracted from her fear.
Finally it’s her turn. Her procedure is the last one of the day, and it is performed at closing time: 6pm. With all of her courage, Hien timidly lies on the operating table. The doctor says that it will be fast and painless. He tells her all of the obstetricians at Sketchy Hospital are experts in this field. It is fast but not painless at all. Even though she has been given painkillers. The pain when the fetus is drawn out of her womb via suction is probably not a physical one.
“But at least it’s done.” She comforts herself, pretending it’s her mom who’s talking.
Hien can’t even walk home properly. But she doesn’t want to take a taxi either, since the hospital is only 1 km from home and she needs to practice walking normally so that her dad will not become suspicious. She has a dinner date with Dad today. He has promised to treat her abalone if she was first place at school. Hien feels lighter, since both the tangible and mental weight are now gone. Hopefully forever. She will continue her life as if the baby has never existed, as if she had never ruined her paintings, as if she’s still the same well-behaved daughter to her dad.
Nhan feels bad that he has to cancel the dinner date with his daughter. Desperate Inc.’s golf resort faces another opposition from the locals so he agrees to meet with them to figure out solutions. This time the CEO invites him to Secret Restaurant near his house.
Nhan didn’t know there was such a shabby restaurant in his wealthy neighborhood. He can’t understand why he’s been invited to Secret Restaurant. Are the financial problems at Desperate Inc. so serious that they cannot afford a decent place to eat? Secret is not decorated very much. On the peeling tacky walls there are only a few family pictures. Strangely, the whole restaurant is packed with people wearing designer clothes and the prices on the menu are indicative of a restaurant with a Michelin rating. Among those dishes, there’s one whose name catches his eyes.
Congee of Youth: $500.
The CEO whispers that Congee of Youth is Secret’s specialty and despite the four-page menu, everyone orders that dish. Rumor has it that eating this soup will make people feel as if they are in their twenties. This piques Nhan’s curiosity so he orders one bowl.
The dish looks as simple as the restaurant serving it. There’s something Nhan doesn’t recognize that is blue and green and tangled served with broth and rice. Nhan stares at it for several minutes debating whether he should eat it.
“It must be plants of some kind from the Far East Mountain that I’ve heard talk about.” Desperate Inc. CEO assures him.
Nhan has his first bite and his eyes light up. The broth has the sweetness as if it was cooked from pork bones. The blue and green plant has the texture of seaweed but is crispier. He eats the whole bowl until there’s nothing left.
“Hey, what kind of plant is this? It’s so good.” He asked the CEO.
“No, sir, actually it’s not a plant. It’s an embryo.”
Nhan’s stomach churns as if the enzymes are staging a protest. For the first time, he wants to throw up after eating a “specialty.” He knows the flavor of shark, snake, deer, mouse, cockroaches, scorpions, and even monkey. But now, what has he eaten?
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” the restaurant owner runs over to comfort him. “We only select high quality embryo from the nearby Sketchy Hospital. We heard you are an important figure so we have specially prepared your dish with the newest, freshest embryo received at 6 pm this afternoon. You think it’s good? Then it’s good. Don’t think about its origin.”
It takes Nhan half an hour to come back to his senses. Suddenly he turns to the CEO and proposes a question:
“What percent of people do you think would eat their family? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that if one found out, that person would want to jump off of a cliff. Someone old and wise has said: Even the most ferocious tiger doesn’t eat its child.”
Chi Le is a senior majoring in creative writing with a minor in media and cultural studies. Since her childhood in Vietnam, she has always been a passionate storyteller. To Chi, writing in English as a second language is both challenging and enjoyable. This is her first publication since she decided to set her heart on creative writing.