Rice

1

She woke in the middle of the night to cook rice.

Couldn't sleep. She was lying on the bed, eyes closed, but she hadn't the slightest sensation of sleepiness.

He slept quite well beside her. When you are insomniac, the person slumbering next to you is like a curse. She rolled over, got up, and sat at the edge of the bed. Then she lay back down, and rolled over. He was completely insensible. In life not only are birth and death solitary, but so is sleep, and even insomnia.

Then she decided to get up and cook rice. Why cook rice, she wasn't even really sure. Anyhow she just felt she should get up and cook a pot of rice.

She went to the kitchen. No more rice. It took her a while to remember she had used it all the day before.

She stared into the rice barrel; only bits of grains remained. But the desire to cook rice was intense. She kept staring into the barrel, and her mind went blank for a moment. Strangely, she had no desire to go back to bed and sleep. It was as if there were countless voices in her head monotonously commanding: "Rice! Rice! Rice! Rice!" The sound was like a file of soldiers marching by the inspection platform, with clicking footsteps.

She went back into the room to change clothes.

He was still sleeping. Nothing could rouse him.

Only after she had pushed open the front door and entered into the night, did she feel better.

At the other end of the street was a convenience store. In the convenience store was rice.

Her arms undulated in the night breeze. Her body seemed to move as if led by the sway of her arms. She felt shapeless and weightless. Unlike the day, because in the day there are shadows, other people, people whom you can see, and people in whose eyes you can see yourself. But there is no one at night.

It was the middle of the night. She didn't look at the clock when she left the house, but she knew it was late. The road was empty, without cars or people. Stores and residences all shut their doors. Those tight-shut, dark, mute houses seemed to have sunken into another dimension. They seemed to have never existed.

She walked along the side of the street, looking into the black windows. Looking at the interiors enveloped in dark shadows behind the windows. At the utter darkness of night. She was going to buy rice.

She felt a familiarity, as though she often did this. Often she had gone to buy rice in the middle of the night. Often she had walked in the utter darkness of night, on the dark street, to go buy rice.

She didn't feel it was dangerous, as she should, logically. But she didn't feel that. She only felt something was about to happen. On her way to buy rice. That "something" was awaiting her.

It was the reason she went out to buy rice: she knew something very important was waiting for her. It flickered like a shadow, in the night, somewhere before her, at some point in space. She only had to keep walking second after second, minute after minute, and like a derailed train or a comet, it would collide with her.

Surely, about two meters in front of her was a strange convexity on the ground.

That was it. She felt neither shock nor fear. If it's something you've predicted, then it's not a matter of being afraid or not. She walked forward precariously, and felt only a kind of fatigue.

As a matter of fact, she had seen it from afar. It was obviously a person, judging from the shape and size.

Someone lying on the road.

A person lying on the road in the middle of the night might be a drunkard. Might be a corpse.

She contemplated the word "corpse." Immediately she felt a numbing, tingling soreness from her neck down her spine, like a surge of electricity. Softly hissing and raising her hair strand by strand.

For a brief instant, she wanted to change direction. To walk on the other side of the road.

Still, it wasn't a matter of being afraid of the corpse. It wasn't like this. It had nothing to do with the question of fear.

It had more to do with sadness. Whether a person likes to or not, he must walk in his own destined direction, and encounter the destined thing. She felt sad. Her eyes itched.

The itching of her eyes also took her very much aback. She shuddered, and used a finger to wipe away the drop of tear that had flowed to the bridge of her nose, like squashing a bug.

But the most important thing still was to buy rice. There was no more in the barrel.

She didn't need to bother with him, this drunkard or corpse.

As she was thinking this, she was walking toward the protrusion. A string seemed to connect her eyes to the object, pulling her forward.

The person on the ground had putrefied.

Finally. She thought. Finally saw it here, too.

She looked at the rice, the countless grains of rice, white and elongated, crawling out from that person's eye sockets, nostrils, mouth. Swarming out of that person's ears, hair.

Rice, countless grains of rice, crept out from her eyes, nose, ears, mouth. Flooding from her navel, her anus, her vagina, all of her orifices. Those were the things inside of her—an infinite amount of rice.

She sensed herself sinking into black, moist, powdery chunks of earth. With all the crawling rice, she submerged.

2

He discovered her absence when he woke up.

He knew she must have gone to buy rice again.

The convenience store just at the other end of the street sold rice. He didn't know how long she had been gone. But that wasn't important. He had to bring her back.

He put on a coat and left. The night was still a little chilly.

He put his hands in his pockets. The sky was still dark. The road was empty, without cars or people. Stores and residences all shut their doors, except for that one, faraway convenience store, glowing, he knew, at the other end of the street. The light seemed to refract through the air; he felt as if he saw it.

He walked along the side of the street, looking into the black windows. Looking at the interiors enveloped in dark shadows behind the windows. At the utter darkness of night.

Then he saw light.

The store clerk was already familiar with him. Seeing him come in, she smiled and said, "She went back already."

"She bought rice?" he asked.

"She bought rice," the clerk replied.

He checked out with something to drink. Opened it as soon as he got outside.

The beverage was cool, with a metallic hint.

He didn't see her the whole way.

He got home, and saw a bag of rice, with the seal torn, on the dining table.

He carried the bag of rice into the kitchen. The electric steamer was making cooking noises.

On the kitchen floor, on the counter, sat about ten pots, big and small, filled with cooked rice. White, plump grains of rice that had hardened lay side by side; the pots were their big family.

Ever since she went jogging that one morning and found a dead body on the side of the road, she began to have this problem of cooking rice. He didn't know why either.

Some pots had been cooked a couple of days before, and had softened, emitting a strange, damp smell.

He dumped those pots of cooked rice into the trash bag.

Translation of "Mi." Copyright 1998 by Yuan Qiongqiong. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Hsiang Hsu. All rights reserved.