My mother has cooked for us: raccoons, skunks, hawks, city pigeons, wild ducks, wild geese, black-skinned bantams, snakes, garden snails, turtles that crawled about the panty floor and sometimes escaped under regrigerator or stove, catfish that swam in the bathtub.
“The emperors used to eat the peaked hump of purple dromedaries,” she would say. “They used chopsticks made from rhinoceros horn, and they ate ducks’ tongues and monkeys’ lips.” She boiled the weeds we pulled up in the yard. There was a tender plant with flowers like white stars hiding under the leaves, which were like the flower petals but green, I’ve not been able to find it since growing up. It had no taste.
When I was as tall as the washing machine, I stepped out on the back porch one night, and some heavy, ruffling, windy clawed thing dived at me. Even after getting chanted back to sensibility, I shook when I recalled that perched everywhere there were owls with great hunched shoulders and yellow scowls. They were a surprise for my mother from my father.
We children used to hide under the beds with our fingers in our ears to shut out the bird screams and the thud, thud of the turtles swimming in the boiling water, their shells hitting the sides of the pot. Once the third aunt who worked at the laundry ran out and bought us bags of candy to hold over our noses; my mother was dismembering skunk on the chopping block. I could smell the rubbery odor through the candy.
In a glass jar on a shelf my mother kept a big brown hand with pointed claws stewing in alcohol and herbs. She must have brought it from China because I do not remember a time when I did not have the hand to look at. She said it was a bear’s claw, and for many years I thought bears were hairless. My mother used the tobacco, leeks, and grasses swimming about the hand to rub our sprains and bruises.
Just as I would climb up to the shelf to take one look after another at the hand, I would hear my mother’s monkey story. I’d take my fingers out of my ears and let her monkey words enter my brain. I did not always listen voluntarily, though. She would begin telling the story, perhaps repeating it to a homesick villager, and I’d overhear before I had a chance to protect myself. Then the monkey words would unsettle me; a curtain flapped loose inside my brain. I have wanted to say, “Stop it. Stop it,” but not once did I say, “Stop it.”
“Do you know what people in China eat when they have the money?” my mother began. “They buy into a monkey feast. The eaters sit around a thick wood table with a hole in the middle. Boys bring in the monkey at the end of a pole. Its neck is in a collar at the end of the pole, and it is screaming. Its hands are tied behind it. They clamp the monkey into the table; the whole table fits like another collar around its neck.
Using a surgeon’s saw, the cooks cut a clean line in a circle at the top of its head. To loosen the bone, they tap with a tiny hammer and wedge here and there with a silver pick. Then an old woman reaches out her hand to the monkey’s face and up to its scalp, where she tufts some hairs and lifts off the lid of the skull. The eaters spoon out the brains.”
Did she say, “You should have seen the faces the monkey made”? Did she say, “The people laughed at the monkey screaming”? It was alive? The curtain flaps closed like merciful black wings.
“Eat! Eat!” my mother would shout at our heads bent over bowls, the blood pudding awobble in the middle of the table.
She had one rule to keep us safe from toadstools and such: “If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” she said. “If it tastes bad, it’s good for you.”
We’d have to face four- and five-day-old leftovers until we ate it all. The squid eye would keep appearing at breakfast and dinner until eaten. Sometimes brown masses sat on every dish. I have seen revulsion on the faces of visitors who’ve caught us at meals.
“Have you eaten yet?” the Chinese greet one another.
“Yes, I have,” they answer whether they have or not.
” And you?”
from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston