White Rice

The little Chinese boy was eating a bowl of plain, white rice. He scooped the fluffy, white grains into his mouth with his chopsticks as easily as though he were merely using a two-pronged fork. I admired his dexterity as I munched on my sandwich. A few people filtered in and out of the hospital cafeteria, but he caught my attention. Such a small child calmly enjoying a simple meal – he seemed incongruous in a place like this. On the other sides of the walls, on the floors below and above us, someone somewhere in the place was dying, and countless others were physically suffering in some way. Yet this little boy sat in the midst of all this, his cheeks expanding and contracting as he ate in typical, gleeful boy fashion, oblivious to all that was going on in the rest of the building.

As I finished the first half of my ham-salad-on-rye, I sneezed loudly. He wished me good health in response, I thanked him, and he politely inquired if I were sick. He had a good-natured, slightly concerned look on his face as he asked me, as though he were a doting old grandfather, not a child of barely ten years of age.

No, I answered, touched by his childish anxiety. My sister was expecting her first baby, I explained, and I had lost sleep staying up the past few nights, just in case the baby came, and I was probably just coming down with a slight cold brought on by lack of sleep.

He took interest in the baby. I always wanted a baby to be my little brother or sister, he said wistfully, a speck of gluttonous rice stuck to his cheek.

Would you prefer a brother or sister, I asked him, enjoying the small talk.

Either would be good, was his non-committal answer.

Babies are noisy and smelly, I pointed out, cajoling him slightly.

Doesn't matter, he reasoned, unperturbed, I would love it either way, so long as it grows up big enough to play with me.

I laughed, delighted by his naive, yet perfectly logical answer.

Why are you here, are you visiting someone? I asked him, curious and concerned as to why he was here alone.

Sort of, he said thoughtfully around a mouthful of rice. My mummy used to be here, but she left…

He trailed off ominously, quietly setting down his chopsticks, and I regretted asking him. I felt rather awkward – here I was, blabbering away about trivialities, and with one phrase I had unwittingly reminded him of something painful; an emotional wound not yet healed. I wondered if his father, or some other relative, was there for him, or if he was alone, and my guilt became worse. He seemed lost in thought, and not knowing what to say, I tried to distract him from the subject I had led him to.

Are you going to finish that bowl of rice? I asked. A Chinese friend of mine says that if young boys don't finish their bowls of rice, they end up marrying an ugly wife.

He brightened at that, playfully licking a stray white grain from the side of his mouth. I'm not marrying a girl, he retorted disdainfully. Girls my age are all icky, he declared, assured of his own opinion.

I chuckled at his apparent hypocrisy as I watched him run off down the hallway, sandals slapping the linoleum, energetic legs pumping. I turned and looked at the bowl he had left behind. It was still half-full, and he had left his chopsticks sticking straight up out of the remaining rice. I automatically pulled them out and laid them neatly aside. I knew I was being silly, but my friend had told me not to leave them like that. It was considered unlucky, as the chopsticks sticking up out of the rice supposedly resemble a grave sticking out of a hillside.

I turned back to the forgotten other half of my sandwich as the cafeteria matron came over to tidy up the discarded bowl, white rice sticking to her broad brown hands like leprosy.

Cute little kid, isn't he? she commented and I nodded in agreement, my mouth full of ham-salad-on-rye. Been coming in every Friday afternoon for the past few weeks, she continued affectionately, always gets the same thing, plain old boring rice. I tell him he could have something with it, or he could get something else, noodles or something, but he just keeps on asking for plain rice. Must be an ethnic thing, she shrugged nonchalantly, probably what his mother brought him up on. Any idea what he's doing here? she asked me. I shook my head, mute behind my diminishing sandwich. I'll ask him next time I see him, she decided aloud, and returned to the kitchen, bowl and chopsticks clutched in her hands.

I munched away at my sandwich, my mind working in time with my jaw as I chewed. I remembered how he had been savoring that bowl of rice. I wondered if it really reminded him of his mother, like she had said. Poor little tyke, I thought to myself, losing his mother so young. I wondered why he hadn't eaten half the rice in the bowl. I hoped my careless comment hadn't put him off with unappetizing memories. He had seemed happy enough when he had run off. Ah well, I thought. I might see him again next week –hopefully by then I would be here again, visiting my new nephew or niece.

I hoped that boy would be with an adult next time. A little kid like that shouldn't run around a hospital alone.

One month earlier…

A mother carefully balanced a ball of white rice on her chopstick and transferred it to her ailing son's mouth. He shook his head vigorously, propped up on pillows, his sallow cheeks churning slowly as he struggled to get the latest mouthful down.

Come on, Jimmy, the mother encouraged him, we're almost there. Just half a bowl to go, she tried to reassure him. But Jimmy had suddenly forgotten how to swallow. He choked and gagged on the glutinous ball of grains that refused to go down. His mother dropped the chopsticks as she hastened to aid him, frantically calling for a nurse.

That was the last meal Jimmy's mother would feed him. That day, they put him on a drip. Needles and tubes replacing the steady hands, the gentle coaxing voice, that had fed him - had nurtured him - before. As though she had already lost her grip on him. As though he were already growing more distant from her.

Days later, he lay on his back in the hospital bed, surrounded by machines that beeped and whirred. His shallow breath fogged up the respiratory mask covering his mouth, as though the chill of death had already infiltrated his lungs, cold vapor condensing on plastic. Jimmy's mother clutched his hand, trying to anchor him to the world of the living, not understanding that he was already drifting beyond what was physical, what was 'real'.

Stay here, Jimmy, she begged him. She stroked his hair, his blank, lifeless face becoming wet with her tears as she bent to kiss his forehead. Promise me you'll stay here, Jimmy. Don't you dare leave, Jimmy.

On that Friday afternoon, though his eyes were closed and he lay stock still, Jimmy heard his mother's plea over the feeble beep of his own degenerating heart rate. Silently, wordlessly, he promised her; he stayed at the hospital, he never left her side.

It was his mother, overcome with grief, who did not see him waiting for her, once again the happy, vibrant ten-year-old he had once been. Through her tears, she didn't see him, and it was she who left the hospital, leaving him behind.

Author's Note: A bit of background, perhaps, is in order. Not much, since there's not that much to tell.

I wrote this for a creative writing course I did at uni as an elective. I was nervous because it was the first thing I was handing in, and I had no idea what was expected or what standard my work was at compared to all these 'literature students'. So I got my mum to proofread for me, to her chagrin. She started off making flippant remarks, then got quieter and quieter, until she got to the end and turned to me in tears, sobbing 'But that's so sad... you killed him..."

I was rather taken aback.

The story is based on Chinese customs; the part about the chopsticks sticking out of the rice representing a gravestone is true, though I can't remember where I heard it. I also think it resembles two sticks of incense before a grave - I have vivid memories of standing before my grandfather's grave in Hong Kong, on a windswept cliffside, watching the sticks of incense standing in a bowl of sand, gradually burning down. My mother is, actually, also partly to blame - the story was probably inspired by her comment that hospitals must be the most haunted place of all, since so many people die in them.

My main aim with this story was to create an unexpected twist - the boy's mother is expected to be dead, not the boy himself.

I hope that effect was evident.

~ W.J.