Eel Broth for Growing Children by Helen Han Wei Luo
2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Helen Han Wei Luo has made the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Eel Broth for Growing Children.
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books.
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will be announced April 18. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and win a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31.
Helen Han Wei Luo is a writer, artist and philosophy PhD student at Columbia University. She holds a BA in political science from Simon Fraser University and an MA in philosophy from the University of British Columbia. Her poem Consider the Peony appears in the Best of Canadian Poetry 2023 anthology. She is currently working on a novella titled Elegy for Daji, a radical feminist retelling of Shang dynasty Chinese mythology. In Vancouver, she paints hummingbirds, tunes violins, touches trees. In New York, she photographs flamboyant subway rats. She previously made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize longlist for Aranaj, the Fishmonger Who Wept for the Fish and she was also on the 2016 CBC Nonfiction Prize longlist for Character.
Luo wrote Eel Broth for Growing Children as a way to honour the memories she has of her early life in Wuhan, she told CBC Books.
This story is about the universality of loving under hardship: the limits, the brutality, the magic.- Helen Han Wei Luo
"During the first months of the pandemic, I was embarrassed to admit that I was from Wuhan. Though I immigrated with my family to Vancouver at a very young age, I have a lot of formative memories associated with the city. In many ways, this story is about those little memory fragments: the rickety wooden benches in communal kitchens, the harsh tonality of the rural Wuhanese dialect, the bicycle my mother used to take me to school on. But in Canada, as incidents of Sinophobia escalated, I was afraid of being associated with the city that had originated the pandemic, and angered at the racialized associations of Wuhan being dirty, uncivilized, othered. I was especially unhappy with the Western world's misconceptions about Asian food practices. I had been very loved in Wuhan, and ate from very loving hands. So this story is about the universality of loving under hardship: the limits, the brutality, the magic."
You can read Eel Broth for Growing Children below.
This story contains strong language.
A cockroach, speckled and flattened, darted between walls as the catapulted slipper skidded against its carapace. The splat was dry. The ulcers inside Yao's lip throbbed.
"Springtime luck," Madame Wei clucked, eyeing Yao beadily. "Good things happen soon."
The other women, crotch-openly sprawled on rickety wooden benches, tittered in agreement. The fluorescent lights flickered from the dripping, wooden ceiling. Yao fetched her slipper, and redirected the spinning fan to her side, ignoring the chatter. She had yet to grasp the guttural, third-tone laden Wuhanese dialect, and even less its rural coloration, which acquired a sandpapery brush on the throat as it aged. Returning to her sink, she lifted the daikon from the basin, and in the same murky water settled in the scallions. The cloud ear fungus needed more soaking. She had moved into the shared unit in Wuhan's Hankou district just three months ago. Her conditions were much improved from the last winter in Hangzhou, where she and Lili were quasi-lawful squatters inside a repurposed cargo container, holding each other through the night like clamshell halves. Still, the community kitchen left much to be desired: it was excavated under a hotpot restaurant's facilities, and flooded on the whims of the Yangtze. Its atmosphere was humid, piquant and meaty.
From one rat city to another: Wuhan offered more working hours, her aunt's hukou allowed her to register Lili at a normal school, and an old sweetheart, Lao Gui, the Stoic Bullfrog, promised years ago to help out. When she first arrived at the bus terminal, he was an hour late, and to her misery he muttered sheepishly: "My fiancée's office changed schedules." Yao wished she had known about the fiancée before she'd spent her last coins on a razor and lipstick. She glanced down at Lili, fretfully asleep in her arms. Lao Gui handed 750RMB out to her in small, crumpled bills, gently stroked Lili's cheek.
"I can't take this," Yao said, lowering her head. "You're getting married."
Lao Gui stared unblinkingly at her. His mouth was ajar, as if bubbling over with sentiment. He'd grown a potbelly since Yao had last loved him: his chin developed a fleshy protrusion, his fingers were swollen, his skin beaded with sweat. Yet, he'd kept the same gruffness, the same beautiful, tepid masculinity. He coughed, and tried stuffing the money into her pocket.
"Take it. You take it," he repeated, hoarsely, shaking his head and wrapping her hands around the cash.
He turned, and Yao watched him hobble away. She thought about wiping off her lipstick, but decided against it. She wanted to stand there prettily, and imagine him sneaking backward glances.
"Is that eel?" Aunt Feng asked, craning her gold-rimmed head, brushing her white curls aside. "Live?"
The porcelain statuette of the Boddhisattva perched atop the cabinet gazed downwards, smiling softly.
"Yes," Yao answered, untying the nestled plastic bags, "I've got daikon and mushroom for a broth. Tomorrow at breakfast I'll drop the rice noodles in."
"Celebrating something? Lili do well in school?"
A pause. "No. But she will. You know how fish is nourishing for the brain."
Aunt Feng bleated derisively. "What is she, seven? Eight? And still no progress."
Yao bit her lip as she gave the cilantro a shake. "We'll see a Western specialist once I have the money. She's very athletic, you know."
"Listen to me, I've got no stakes in you. Better to save the money. A child like that won't take care of you when you're old." Madame Wei, ears perked, bobbed her head in consensus.
"But no one can blame you. I've done the same," Aunt Feng sighed, sounding very tired.
Lili was born premature, and Yao never knew what she did wrong; she felt so sorry for it. The guilt perforated her, and her bleeding didn't stop for months after the delivery. Newborn, Lili was so small, so red, like a lotus bulb. The pregnancy had gone wrong and Yao knew it was her fault, she knew it inside her body. So she wasn't surprised when, years later, a primary teacher pulled her aside after school and showed her Lili's slowness in reading, her inability to write simple characters. Yao gripped the table. There was barely a term for the diagnosis. She grabbed Lili's schoolbook and carefully copied down the English word. D-y-s-l-e-x-i-a. Reading blockage.
The pregnancy had gone wrong and Yao knew it was her fault, she knew it inside her body.
"It's manageable with alphabetized languages," the upscale language pathologist had informed Yao, months later as her husband's hand, his heart, fell limp. "But with Chinese, you see — there is no mnemonic system that could help. Our language is brute memorization."
Yao's veins throbbed — she had sold her blood at the back-alley clinic to pay for the single consultation. The thought came to her when she sliced her hand open when cooking, and the rich red liquid poured out, a wealth of possibilities.
The pathologist turned to face his computer screen. "Your daughter is a serious case. In my experience, children like her never learn to read or write."
The eels flip-flopped, black ripples circling against the scallions. A droplet, flicked upwards, glazed the Boddhisattva's serene cheek.
Aunt Feng wringed a rag. "No sense hoping for miracles, dear."
Of course, all this pessimism was horseshit — there's nothing a dedicated mother cannot change. Yao gritted her teeth and sat with Lili every night, until well past midnight, hand clutched tightly around a metal ruler, slapping it sharply against the table, on her daughter, until their peeved neighbours gave in to the noise, yelled and glugged until the forms for tree, cloud, field, woman twitched at Lili's fingertips in her sleep. Until her husband, who could tolerate a homely wife, an illiterate daughter, a disquieted household, but not all three, left her. "Your daughter's done poorly on the exam again," he roared, slamming test results on the kitchen table, and after clockwork arguing, pinning her to the wall, he would sputter, "Look at the thing you've birthed, the job you've done!" It was an eccentric turn of phrase — after all, he was there too. Lili's half-brother was born six months after their separation, a sturdy, pumpkin baby.
"I wish you'd care for me too," her husband laughed bitterly, the night he brought out the papers. "I deserve love, too." He poured her a shot of baijiu. She downed it without flinching and picked up the pen. He stared at her, eyes blood-shot. Suddenly, he jerked out and grabbed her hand.
"No. Wait. Let's try to make this work. The money for Lili's treatment, she's my daughter, I'll pay it."
Yao felt her limbs loosen, her face foaming at the mouth as she slid down weightlessly onto the floor, her convulsing leaving circular patterns on the tiles. Her husband's face was large and impassive as it loomed over the lean, black spiral of her signature.
The smallest eel flicked urgently, and water sprayed on Yao's forehead, trailing to her eyes. Her hands paused from plucking the cloud ears, and reached to her cheek before yet another serendipitous splash burst forward, in a colonial choreography. She jerked back. The droplet on the Boddhisatva trailed to the slimy floor. A shudder shot down her spine.
Madame Wei and Aunt Feng were sorting the trash near the crooked doorway. "You sleep well, dear," Aunt Feng called back. "And if you need money, don't ask me!"
Yao's vision was obscured, she shook her head and felt her shoulders loosen fluidly. The sound of water gushed through her cranium. "Good night," Yao stuttered, gasping with strangled release of air to her throat, her limbs hanging loosely without shape, without ligament.
Her skin blackening, viscous, glutinous tissue forming, in clumps, a hungry ghost paralysis spreading through her, she felt her body sink, she fought the sensation with a uterine urgency as the wetness melted into her bones. The other eels watched her motionlessly, like dragon kings, their eyes wide and ancient.
What is sadness but a pang in the chest? Yao was without chest, without sadness. With no stretch marks, no cellulite either, the only curves remaining were from the exquisite curlicue of her tail, furling and unfurling like the hibiscus's languid tongue. The weeping emerged before long, but with no birdcage ribs to push through the tears — no tears. Her backache, her thinning hair, her intestinal disease that had grieved her for years, all submerged and evaporated. Within moments the middling temperature of the water settled into her musculature, she felt void and weightless, and though her lips could no longer upturn, the twinge at her mandible was unmistakable laughter. No sooner had the thought of happiness frothed into form, she was swirling around in the crowd, unrepentantly occupying liquid space, reveling in her entitlement to sound, to crashing chorus of waves.
Begone, fear of wetness! Trepidation, anguish, all motherly despairs!
Begone, fear of wetness! Trepidation, anguish, all motherly despairs! Never again would she wake before dawn, climb over the heaps of newspaper bedspread, straddle over her rusty bike, if she was lucky shove a boiled egg yolk into her mouth as soon as the mint of the mouthwash faded, for she left the whites for Lili, who smacked her lips as she ate, head to the southern gate and begin rounds of cleaning, apartments, high-rises, offices, cycle back before noon-hour to bring Lili her lunch, the afternoons she shelled chestnuts at the wet market next to moaning ostriches, before strapping Lili to the bike and heaving to the commercial district for her tutoring classes, which Yao paid in cash, often with the day's earnings. Never again would she worry that she was doing it all wrong, that she had fucked everything up.
The Boddhisattva stared onwards.
"I want dance lessons too, mama," Lili whispered to Yao some weeks past. She pointed to another girl in the schoolyard, who wore a sleek purple leotard, her hair pinned back to a bun. Yao bit back her tears. She had said no to Lili's request for the new dress, the markers, the school trip. Lili caught sight of her mother's expression and slumped. "It's okay," she said quietly, "I won't ask anymore." The eels pirouetted in the negative space.
"No," Yao said, crying silently. "I'll tell you what — you pass the next language test and I'll ask your baba for the money."
Her ex-husband had called her three times since the divorce, each time to gloat about his new family, ramble endlessly about his satisfactions in life. Strangely, Yao thought, he would always offer to help. His words made Yao's insides twist and turn sour.
She was always waiting for a miracle, and she sensed it coming, from the gentle fragrance of the daikon to the life insurance policy papers tucked under her bed. Lili's evening class were ending soon — she knew the bus route home and a classmate could lend her the fare, but really Yao should have been there to pick her up, if Lili were kidnapped she would never forgive herself, if only the entire city flooded over and Yao could slither across the streets to find her daughter, wrap her in her spiney body. And the broth was not prepared. Perhaps Madame Wei would lend a neighbourly hand, though Yao shuddered to think of her puckered lips spooning a bowl for herself — "After all I cooked it, I may as well sample a bite" — when Yao had been such a fastidious economizer for this feast. And Madame Wei would be parsimonious with the sesame oil, but no, it wouldn't taste the same, not without a mother's tireless devotion watching over the boiling pot.
Footsteps echoed in the hall.
If they met again, without shaving or lipstick this time, Yao wanted to tell Lao Gui that she missed him dearly, and maybe he deserved to know this long before he married someone else. Her gills pulsated at the thought. "I'd always prayed for us," Lao Gui croaked from the lotus pads, splashing water gently on the bulbs.
"I tell you, Lili, don't cry, your mama is just in the kitchen, and she'll be so very happy to see you," Aunt Feng said coaxingly, leading a smaller pair of footsteps into the doorway. "She's very busy, if she forgets to pick you up then you come directly home and find me, or Madame Wei."
The door creaked open. "Mama's never forgotten me before."
"Well, first time for everything. Your mama's been cooking all day. Eel broth! From live eels. Very expensive — see how she loves you," Aunt Feng said, peering in. "Yao? I've got Lili with me."
Yao peeped in response, a bubbling gurgle accompanied by frenetic movement, her eyes darting to the door. Lili began crying. Soft whimpers at first, Yao could sense her releasing Aunt Feng's hand, clutching the hems of her uniform, her pale cheeks bursting with redness, and when the final hairsbreadth pillar gave in, the shrieking was incessant, pitched, almost angry. Yao dashed blindly in the basin, bashing her skull against its edges, numbing herself from the vibrations in the water.
"No, no, hush dear," Aunt Feng said quickly, throwing up her hands. "You know, I was just tricking you! A little joke! Your mother's gone away for the weekend, I forgot to tell you. She'll be back next week, she's out visiting her friend."
The crying only intensified.
"And goodness, look at the time!" Aunt Feng spun wildly. "Almost too late to cook the broth but I'll tell you what, you'll eat dinner now, sit there and help me with the mushrooms, I'll get the eels going. I might even have a stub of ginger tucked away somewhere."
It was already too late for dinner. Aunt Feng silently cursed the inconvenience of this new neighbour, and to add to it her idiot daughter would take at least another hour before she calmed and readied for sleep, and besides which how would she convince the poor child about her mother's absence? She barely knew the two, and if that Yao disappeared for good, how would she do right by this stranger's girl? She had already raised her own children, who grew to be good-for-nothings.
The Boddhisattva gazed. As Lili's weeping became weaker and more muted, more sober hiccups than screams, Yao relaxed her body — she had been clenching in ways she did not know bodies could be clenched. Aunt Feng's hands dug into the basin and plucked writhing eels out, one by one, crushing their skulls seamlessly, Yao rather admired the expertise, as she bifurcated their bodies and sectioned the meaty sides before dropping them into a generous sizzle of sesame oil. Yao emerged from her trance, she loosened her tendons, uncorked her ribs, she had read long ago that animals slaughtered with their final moments in fear would seep toxins into the flesh, so no, that could not come to pass, she must relax, this broth was for the nourishment of growing children, a miracle, and Lili would be cured with it.
Read the other finalists
- Dear M by Clara Chalmers (Vancouver)
- Just a Howl by Will Richter (Vancouver)
- Marriage by Nicholas Ruddock (Guelph, Ont.)
- Bird Emergent by Katie Welch (Kamloops, B.C.)
About the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is currently open until May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET. The 2024 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2024 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2024.