Ling squeezed her stomach muscles tightly and stopped breathing. The grumbling sound in her stomach was relentless. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten properly. Her share of food went to her son.
Ling pulled out the plastic bag that she had tucked in the drainpipe. The bag was filled with lily bulbs. She checked that no one was looking. She placed the bulbs into the mortar, pounded them and added a few drops of water from a rusty food can. She fought to control the shaking of her ice-cold hand as she poured the liquid into a plastic bottle. She washed her hands so much that they turned white and wrinkly. Ling felt nauseous. Was it the wind in her empty stomach or the toxin that made her sick? She threw up.
Ling walked into the house holding the last of the crispy spinach that she had cut from her garden. She would have to wait for spring to reseed them. As for the winter, she would have to find other ways to get food. At the living room’s dining table, her son was doing his homework. Ling walked to him and took a peek at his work.
‘ When are we eating? My tummy is hurting.’ A little sharp face, all crunched up, looking at his mother.
‘ Very soon, I’m going to cook now. So how was school today?’ Ling stroked her son’s head.
‘ I have an excellent on my Maths paper and I might move up a class.’ The little boy beamed, looking up at his mother.
‘That’s very good, your father will be very pleased. Now tidy up and lay the table. Your father is coming home soon. Don’t forget to lay matching chopsticks because different lengths means bad luck.’
Her mother-in-law had been nodding off to sleep and was now breathing heavily. Her blood pressure must have been high again, Ling thought. Time for her medication.
In the kitchen Ling poured the last remaining rice out of the sack into the pot and started washing it in the sink, stirring gently with one hand while biting her other fingernails. Her thoughts were with the last sack of rice that was hidden under the bed. It wouldn’t last them this winter.
Ling threw some logs into the stove and started the fire. The oven was glowing. The oil in the wok was heating up; she poured the spinach into the wok. The crackling sound of heated oil touching wet vegetables was so loud that it sounded like fire crackers thrown into a tin. She placed the spinach onto two plates of different sizes. To the larger plate she added a sprinkle of soy sauce, the smaller plate was without salt. Ling took the plastic bottle out of her pocket and poured the toxic liquid over the the smaller plate of spinach.
The smell of food woke everyone up, even the old lady. Faces lit up. She placed the larger plate in the middle of the table and the smaller plate in front of her mother-in-law’s usual seat. Ling’s son cleared his books and helped lay the table with chopsticks and bowls. Ling was helping the frail woman out of the cane chair when she heard her husband walking into the home, a big smile on his face. In his hand, he was holding up eight fishes. The whole family beamed with excitement as if they had won the lottery. They were admiring the fishes. Ling didn’t want to know where he got them from. The fish could feed them for many meals. Ling followed her husband into the kitchen to help him clean the fishes. They were discussing how to preserve them for the winter, perhaps by salting and drying them.
If her plan worked, the three of them would have a better chance of surviving this winter and nobody would ever know. Walking out of the kitchen, she saw her son picking the last vegetable off the small plate. Ling yelled. The rice pot smashed on the floor.