Category B: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Natalie Loh
Title: A chicken drumstick for a duck wing
Johnson was never particularly good at anything. In fact, if there was one thing Johnson excelled in, it was his ability to do nothing. He was the human embodiment of a potato, a body that had more substance on the outside than it did on the inside. At eleven, he carried the 80 kilos worth of fat that pooled around the waistline of his shorts like his own inbuilt floatie, and waddled, rather than walked, to the few places he ever went to in a day: the couch, the kitchen and his bed. He was a boy who ate too much, and thought too little. If he filled his brain with half the things he filled his stomach, he would have the IQ of Einstein; a number that, sadly, at this point of time, more closely resembled his weight.
Johnson’s mother worried about her son. Everyday, she watched him come home from school, gather his snacks, and sit in front of the telly. There he stayed until dinner was ready; and there he returned until bedtime. The consequence of this ritual was gluttony; and, to his mother’s dismay, poor grades. She often wondered if her son’s lack of purpose to do anything in life except eat was the result of her parenting: a feat she struggled with on her own. Johnson’s father had passed away when Johnson was only 2. For most of his life, he was nothing more to Johnson than a picture they hung on the wall.
Annually, during the Qingming Festival, Johnson’s mother visited the temple to worship her ancestors. She usually went alone. But this year, as an attempt to offer Johnson a life outside of his daily cycle of food, telly and sleep, she took him along.
As they approached the temple, the pungent incense tingled their noses and their eyes watered from the sting of smoke. Johnson’s mother brought out an array of food offerings: roast duck, pork, chicken soup, fruits, bao buns. Johnson stared intently at the elaborate dishes which were being continually thrust into his arms, his mouth salivating. She caught him staring, and slapped his arm.
“Not for you!”
She paused, and a thought crossed her mind. Bending down, she looked at Johnson in earnest. “Johnson, if you can do well on tomorrow’s test, I’ll cook you a great feast. Even bigger than this one, okay?”
Johnson eagerly nodded. In a reverie of roast chicken and steamed fish, his eyes glossed over, not unlike the honey glaze that coated the duck.
Together, they shoved their way through the crowd. The air became heavy with the fumes of smoke and fire. They entered the temple hall, and were greeted by the monumental statue of Buddha. Bowing three times, Johnson’s mother progressed towards a display of rows upon rows of wooden tablets, each engraved with the intricate strokes that entwined to form their owner’s names. Having found her husband and his parents, she signalled for Johnson to place the food on the table and handed him a joss stick.
“Take this. Place it between two palms of your hands,” She gestured her head towards the tablets. “And pray to your father.”
Johnson stared at the joss stick. It was a fragile, feeble thing between his meaty hands. “What do I say?”.
Johnson’s mother thought about this. “Ask him how he’s doing… tell him to bless our family. And maybe… for you to do well on that test?”
He turned to the plaques, unsure of even which he was speaking to. This was the closest he ever came to having anything to do with his father. He didn’t even know what to call him.
“Uhh, Dad? Hope you’re doing well. Please help to… ”
Amongst the fragrance of the incense, the aroma of roasted duck slowly wafted through his nose.
“Please help to bless…”
The smell was heavenly. He could taste the crispy skin of the duck, the sweet savoury juice from the layers of fat against chewy, tender meat.
“Bless our family…”
His eyes wandered to the food. He licked his lips, remembering the deal he made with his mother. His stomach grumbled.
“Help me ace my test so Ma can make me a grand feast!”
He bowed and placed the joss stick into its holder. They left the temple with the food offerings by the tablets; a duck short of one wing, a boy with a slightly fuller stomach, and a prayer to be answered.
That night, Johnson’s mother watched hopelessly as her son sat before the telly, gorging on snacks, seemingly having forgotten their agreement. She sighed, having thought she had given him enough motivation to finally work for something. Alas, it was in vain.
On the test day, Johnson did only as he knew how to. He looked at the question, and circled the answer as his gut (for he had a lot of it), told him. He completed the test as such and a week later, it was much to the surprise of Johnson, his teachers and his mother, that he correctly answered all 30 questions of the test.
“Johnson! You make me so proud, you know that? Get ready for a banquet tonight!”
Compared to his elated mother, Johnson could not care less about his grade. He was simply pleased that he was now getting his promised dinner.
As they dug into the feast, Johnson’s eyes wandered to the picture of his father on the wall, the prayer he made coming to mind. Johnson picked a drumstick from the chicken and placed it in a bowl.
“Can’t beat duck, but still delicious.”
He nudged the bowl towards his father, “For you, Pa. Thanks!”
Johnson’s mother looked at him in astonishment, and then chuckled.
“Hey Ma, what kind of person was Pa?”
As they continued to savour a lavish dinner, a man looked down from the tiny window of his photo frame, smiling at his small but happy family, enjoying the taste of a braised chicken drumstick.