by Marianne Villanueva

When she was a girl, she ate crab, bitter melon, rice soup. She loved milkfish, which at that time was still abundant. The cook, who was as dear to her as her own mother, served her glutinous rice cakes, salmon cured with tamarind salt, grilled squid stuffed with chorizo, the meat of young coconuts.

When she was a toddler, cook cut everything into tiny morsels so that the girl’s mouth would not stretch and become wide and ugly. The girl ate only the sweetest pastries, the sweetest pickles, only the smallest and most tender eggplants: Cook herself grew these in a corner of the garden, which every summer sprouted with little trees with purple-tinged leaves.

She loved fried bananas, but they were bad for her complexion so cook served them to her only once a month.

Later, the girl developed strange predilections: she would eat bamboo shoots, but only when cooked in milk. She would eat corn, but only if silk threads still clung to the infinitesimal spaces between the kernels. She hungered for taro leaves, but only when braised in a sauce made from roasted capsicum. She liked dishes cooked in vinegar and garlic, and soft noodles sautéed with pork hocks. To disguise the girl’s increasingly sour breath, cook served her bowls of coconut flakes sweetened with brown sugar.

Later still, the girl would demand that she only be served okra if it had been fried in a cast-iron skillet made to her exact specifications. Her squid must come encased in steamed rice cakes, her plantains boiled in the water in which she herself had bathed that morning.

She would suck the juice from raw shrimp shells, and demand that cook stir her soup with a counter-clockwise motion of the left hand.

Cook grew weary.

The girl didn’t notice.

She wanted more and more of the purple sweet yams that grew on the slopes of the volcano looming in the distance. She drank only water flavored with annatto. She began to crave food that was harder and harder to procure: the eggs of monitor lizards, at that time already hunted to near-extinction, the eyes of albino water buffalos.

Cook walked farther and farther.

One day, she walked so far that she lost her way and did not know how to go back again. She sank to her knees and wailed piteously, by an ocean whose water was of an indescribable warmth, where the fish had scales of strange iridescent hues.

The girl waited, refusing to eat until the cook returned.

The girl’s mother, who herself was as thin as a sapling, as thin as a cane of bamboo, watched her daughter from the door of the bedroom, wringing her hands in lamentation at her daughter’s strange ways. Already, she knew it was too late.

Marianne Villanueva grew up in the Philippines and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published two collections of short fiction: Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Press) and Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press). Her third collection, The Lost Language, is forthcoming in November from Anvil Press of the Philippines. Her recent work has been published in The Chattahoochee Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project, Isotope and The White Whale Review.