Fiction: Dead Tongues by Peter J Coles
Image credit: Douglas Perkins
The ramen reminded Tabeko of the cove in which she grew up. She held the sides of the earthenware bowl and imagined they were the sheer mountains that encircled the bay her family home overlooked, a thousand kilometres away from her apartment in Tokyo.
A slice of pork floated like a sun-bleached island on a spray of spring onions. A single piece of dark green nori stood to attention, a taut sail held in place by rope-like noodles. Opposite was a half-submerged slice of egg — its brilliant-yellow yolk cresting the surface like a sunrise, and the broth, ochre-coloured, thick, smelled as her father had done when he would return home from fishing on the bay to shake her awake her for school, stinking of a trawler full of sea bass.
Breathing in deeply, flaring her nostrils, she waited for her mouth to salivate, for the twangs of hunger to flutter in her stomach.
But her hunger was missing.
She looked up from the bowl into the webcam.
‘Good evening, everyone. I will now begin eating,’ she said.
The chat window on the screen before her became a torrent of messages: wishing her a pleasant evening; telling her how beautiful she looked with hair tied back; asking her to eat slowly, to not mop her chin if juices flowed down it, to suck the meat before she took a bite.
‘Itadakimasu,’ she said, with her palms pressed together in thanks, holding disposable chopsticks horizontal with her thumbs.
Bon appetit! her audience replied.
She unclasped her hands and snapped the chopsticks in two, grinding them together to sheer off any splinters. Tabeko began by depressing the meat gently with the end of her chopsticks, allowing the broth to flood across its surface. The spring onions underneath sunk in response while the nori flopped over and descended further between the wriggling noodles. The egg remained buoyant.
Tabeko-chan, where’s the narutomaki? asked one viewer. It’s not ramen without narutomaki.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, bowing to the camera. ‘I’m tired today. I’m not in my head.’ She imagined the crimped discs of grey fish paste with their garish pink swirls sitting on a plate in the dark of the fridge. They would be cold, slimy, like dead tongues in her mouth. She swallowed away the acrid taste the thought had brought to her throat. ‘Tomorrow. I promise.’
Tomorrow is okonomiyaki night.
Are you having ramen twice this week?
I’m not prepared for that… (;ﾟдﾟ)
‘No, of course, you’re right. Tomorrow we are having it Osaka-style, with fried noodles.’
Her viewers insisted she eat the shredded cabbage pancakes with bonito, fish flakes, scattered on top. The way those skin-like slivers squirmed, as though they were alive, writhing in agony, made her stomach turn.
Get the narutomaki, Tabeko-chan.
We can wait. ♡( ◡‿◡ )
She stared blankly into the camera.
‘OK,’ she said, breaking into a wide smile, making her eyes bright.
She stood up from her desk, gripping the chopsticks tight in her fist. She walked the two strides it took in her tiny apartment to reach the mini-fridge perched on a wire-rack next to a hobcum-sink. Off camera, she knelt and opened the fridge allowing a dull light to pool around her feet. There sat the narutomaki, just as she feared. They looked unreal. They were unreal. Processed beyond all measure, until all the nutrients had been drawn out of the fish meat. Nausea rose around her temples as she used the chopsticks to separate one limp slice from the others, like peeling a wet plaster from a sodden wound. She held it to her nose and sniffed and immediately turned her head away. It smelt of ear wax. Sweet with a sweaty sourness, like the hard lumps she would dig out of her father’s ear while he lay on his side on the floor, working the curved hook he used to catch marlin deep inside. By the time she had finished one ear — the tissue she cleaned the hook with slick and oily — he would have fallen into a bottomless sleep. Impossible to wake, she would lean against his back, as solid as a concrete wall, and wait. She couldn’t let him walk around unbalanced.
It had been her mother’s duty, but when she left, it had become hers.
Tabeko carried the narutomaki pinched at the end of her chopsticks back to her desk.
She’s got it!
Such a good girl! (´∀｀)♡
She knows how to do things right.
She lay the narutomaki in its correction position in the bowl, to the right of the egg below the flooded pork island.
Just, perfect. o(^▽^)o
Such a good girl.
The surface tension broke and one end of the narutomaki slid beneath the surface, its waxy oil leaking into the broth. Something knotted below her ribs, and kept tightening, winding up the muscles in her neck.
‘Let’s start again,’ she said, sitting, full of enthusiasm, hoping to release the tension. But the knot constricted, bringing bile into her throat. A bead of sweat ran between her shoulder blades.
Are you sick? (๑–﹏–๑)
You look pale.
( ⚆ _ ⚆ )You’re not ill, are you?!
‘No, no. I’m fine. It was hot today, don’t you think?’
Not here. It’s always cold here.
Yes, boiling, I could hardly breathe on the bus.
My office has air conditioning.
‘I would have liked to have gone swimming today,’ she said. ‘In the bay near my family
Can you swim? 人人人人へ( ﾟｪﾟ)＿ 人人人人
I used to swim for my high school. Are you a good swimmer?”
I could drown in a bathtub I’m so terrible. (´_ﾉ` )
‘I used to swim every day. My mother taught me so I could go out on the boat with my
father and —‘
Your food is getting cold.
You should eat it while its warm. L(·o·)」
We can’t start unless you do.
Tabeko gazed into the bowl.
The pink whirlpool swirl on the narutomaki seemed to be pulling everything towards it, making her eyes spin, her head swim. She felt tiny, as though she was standing on the rim of the bowl, and at any moment a strong gust of wind could whip her off the lip to plunge her into the broth and she would be sucked down, caught between the noodles which would bind her by her limbs and drag her into the depths.
‘I haven’t got a spoon,’ she said, standing, leaving the desk, staggering, steadying herself against the front door away from the eye of the camera. She needed air. The sea breeze. She unlatched the top lock and turned the door handle, slowly, silently, breaking the tight seal of her room. She could leave, catch the metro to Yokohama bay, sit out on the breakwater formed from tetrapods, those massive four-pronged concrete jacks that look to her like they had been tossed aside by some giant child. She could wait there for the sunrise. Wait until she was hungry again.
But something wouldn’t let her leave. The door seemed to weigh a tonne, as though a thousand hands were holding it closed, and even if she could pry it open, her legs felt as limp as the noodles in her bowl. Those same hands trying to drive her back to her desk.
She was only thinking about herself. What would her audience do without her? All on their own. Nobody to eat with, to share a meal with. Sitting alone in front of their computers, in their tiny apartments, watching their ramen grow cold. She couldn’t abandon them. She couldn’t be so selfish.
She could see her father sat on the veranda as he used to, the curve of the bay wide below him. A plastic bucket of fish entrails swarming with flies at his feet. He could gut for hours, using the thin knife he would whet each morning to slice open fish bellies then digging in his fingers to scrape out their innards. He would do it so fast the knife seemed to hang in the air as it glided out of the fish making space for his fingers to get to work. Once the guts had been removed, the fish tossed onto a growing pile by his side, their insides slopped into the bucket, a new fish would be ready in his left hand, the bloodied knife eager in his right. He would do all this without expression.
He didn’t look bored or even contented. Just empty. Like he had become an automaton, wound up and set in motion, his fingers and limbs working under the own steam. Tabeko would watch him from inside the house for the tell-tale moment when he would start to flag, his shoulders rounding, his surgical cuts becoming curved and jagged. She would grab a beer from the cooler and rush it out to him, taking him by the wrist and putting it forcibly into his hand. He would look at her and then at the bottle, and then, as though his body finally remembered that it needed to take on sustenance to live, he would drink it all in one long gulp.
Tabeko took a wooden soup spoon from a pot on top of the fridge and sat back down at her desk.
What took you so long? (;¬_¬)
<(｀^´)>You’re very forgetful today, Tabeko-chan.
You should see your doctor. Young people can get Alzheimer’s too, you know. (ó﹏ò。)
‘Thank you all for being so concerned. But I’m fine. I really am. I’m hungry, that’s all.’
Start with the meat.
Start with a spoon full of broth.
o(^▽^)o Noodles first, please!
The ramen had started to take on the look of the cove in winter. In the summer, in the heat, the bay was in constant flow with the sparkle of the sun on its surface; the undercurrent wave of the verdant green fronds of sea grass; the swarms of fish flashing their scales. But in winter, everything hardened. The water turned into a flat grey plane, the mountains a ringed wall of black. Her father retreated in winter; spent most of the day asleep in the darkest corners of the house, curled up and ossifying beneath layers of blankets. He would only emerge at night, weighed heavy by his inertia, to come slump next to the brazier and drink while Tabeko served him the food she had prepared. He would not speak, and the more he drank the more his mood would darken, shrinking further inside himself until he could take no more of her food, or the light, or the worry on her face, and shuffle back into the gloom. Some days, standing on the shore dusted in snow, wrapped up against the bitter wind, Tabeko thought the colour would never return to the bay. It was on those days that her resolve to leave would also harden.
I’m starving, Tabeko-chan!
Is she ever going to eat? (; ·`д·´)
(ఠ” ˓̭ ఠ“) I’m not donating a single Yen tonight if she doesn’t put something in her mouth soon.
Tabeko brought the bowl towards her. The flooded pork island remained drowned; the spring onions had become limp and entangled. The taught nori-sail looked to have melted into a clump of weeds, while the egg yolk, once a golden dawn, was now pale and insipid. The narutomaki had submerged completely, dispersing its odorous toxins into the bowl.
She lowered the spoon into the broth to fill its head and kept it there.
‘I’ve never told anyone this,’ she said, her eyes cast downward. ‘But when I was younger,
I ran away from home. Except, I didn’t run. I walked. I just strolled out through the front door, and in the sky, there were bursts of brilliant colour, because it was New Year’s Eve, and although the colour had been drained from the bay in winter, that night it returned. And as I walked I thought, look how full of life everything is with this much colour, and that maybe I could just stay here and wait for nights like this. But my feet kept moving. I thought I was going down to the shore, to watch the fireworks, but I turned at the end of my street and started walking to the centre of town, to the train station. It was New Year’s Eve so all the trains were free. They were free all night and I boarded the first one I could, and it took me to the next biggest town, and then I boarded another and another, towns ballooning into cities, until I was so far away from home I couldn’t possibly afford to get back. And all the while, the sky was filled with colour, like exploding neon signs…’
I’m leaving. There are other people to watch. (＃｀д´)ﾉ
Go on, share your story Tabeko-chan.
How could anyone abandon their family so easily? ( •᷄ὤ•᷅)？
‘But I didn’t abandon anyone. I was the one they all left behind,’ she said, dashing the spoon, sending up a spray of broth to splash against the screen and wavelets to crash around the side of the bowl.
(; ·`д·´) What an attitude!
Please don’t be angry with us, Tabeko-chan. (((( ;°Д°))))
Why can’t we just eat!
‘Because I’m not hungry.’
Tabeko picked up the bowl, went to the sink and tipped the ramen in. Chasing the broth, the noodles thrashed as they glugged down the drain; the egg collapsed as it thumped into the sink, only to be smothered by the meat like a lolling tongue. When she saw the pink swirl of the narutomaki sitting proudly on top of the mess, she threw the bowl in after, smashing it to pieces.
The front door relented when she took it by the handle this time, sliding open with only the slightest pull. When it closed behind her it did so quietly, almost in apology.
Peter J Coles was born in Oxford and currently lives in London. He came to writing after stumbling through various universities around the world studying Japanese literature. He recently finished an MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck University, is the Deputy Managing Editor for The Mechanics Institute Review and was an editor for the MIR 15 anthology. He is currently working on two novels and was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018, longlisted for the Grindstone Literature International Novel Prize 2018, and has been published on Ellipsis Zine.