Friday, August 12, 2011

FICTION: Fishbone By Catherine Batac Walder

My stepmother loves fish. I don’t recall any moment at our dinner table when she didn’t have fish, even when the rest of us had something else.

But it was also common for her to have a fishbone stuck in her throat.

It became a ball game with scores. Every night we waited. Would she score tonight? Would a fishbone get stuck in her throat tonight? I could recall my father’s sigh of relief whenever dinner had almost passed and my stepmother had successfully gone through it without any problems. But always on the last minute, she would swallow a fishbone.

My father would suggest for her to swallow some rice to push the fishbone down. Or if there were bananas on the table, he’d ask her to bite a mouthful. He’d tell her not to chew the fruit and swallow it down her throat, so the fishbone would go with it. Oftentimes this didn’t work.

My father hated to see her in pain. Once, over at dinner, we had a visiting cousin who was a suhi (breech baby, or one who was born with feet first). Suhi children are said to be able to cure stuck fishbone by their spit. They rub their spit on the sufferer’s throat. And it is said the fishbone would be gone instantly. My stepmother didn’t like the idea of someone rubbing spit on her throat.
And then there was the cat. Fish being the ultra favorite dish of cats, it is said that if you get a fishbone stuck in your throat, you just need for a cat to rub your throat with his or her paw and you’ll be fine.

My stepmother wasn’t friendly with cats so she was afraid they would get aggressive and scratch her instead of rubbing.

Always in the end, she dissuaded all help and was able to get rid of the fishbone on her own.


As my stepmother aged, these fishbone events had become few and far between. But there were changes. I left home, got married, but still maintained a good relationship with her. And there were changes in her, too.

First it was her nose. She showed up one morning at our jogging rendezvous. She changed her nose.

I was at the library and a book fell on my face, she told me.
It was a lame excuse, but I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of the other joggers so I bought it. I said, Oh, must have been really painful. But the new nose suits you.

I lied. Her nose was all right before. I remember her complain to my father once that it was big. But now it was so small that it looked so unreal.

In the months that ensued, other changes occurred.

She added lids to her eyes, letting go of that lovely tsinita look, which she thought had never really suited her.

She had her eyebrows painted. Like the Mcdonald’s sign.

Her mouth. Added some pout to it. Gone were those days when thin-lipped women benchmarked ‘beautiful.’

If not for the same jogging suit, I wouldn’t have recognized her.

This new face didn’t make her look any better. But it didn’t matter  because every time I looked at her, the only thing I could think of was her kindness to me and my sister -- breaking all wicked stepmother stereotypes.

It must be difficult to be brought to a house with all its contents ready-made, filling in the shoes of this woman adored by my father, so physically unlike my stepmother. That woman, when she was alive, lightened up every room she went into. She was slender, delicate and had a pleasant laugh, almost shy. The beautiful face of my mother, though not present in the house, had always been felt.

Perhaps my stepmother would always find it hard to feel secure of her place in our lives. Perhaps some people would never stop being threatened of mere faces, in spite of the love and kindness being shown and returned to them. If these changes in her made her feel good about herself, then I felt happy for her, too.

This new face looked much happier than the image I had of her as a child, of the dinners and the fishbone. I could still recall that face. How usually swollen it was just after dinner. I was a child and I admired how she could relieve the pain by willing herself to throw up her dinner, every night.

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