The Rules of the Kitchen

Vol XLVI, Fantasy Girls


Women of Straw

I always hate it when Mamika-san smokes in bed. She just sits there so languid and impassive, a cigarette smoked to the filter, dangling between her cherry-colored lips, the ashes littering the top folds of a golden bedspread laced with designs of peach boys and Karakuri puppets. Each night, she performs the same ritual--counting her thick wads of cash. She reminds me of a spoiled empress waiting to be served tea.

As I sit on the bare floor across from her, I stare at her beautiful kimono, heaped pell-mell on the floor. It makes me sad.

It makes me sad whenever I think of how lovely Mamika-san once was a child, lovelier than a Hina doll. In fact, that is where we first met, at the doll festival or the Momo no Sekku. She had hair smoother than honey and her eyes were perfect as marbles. Her skin was the color of willow-wood.

That was when Mamika-san cared about me and my sister, Mayako. In the cold, she would wrap me in a warm, thick blanket, pretending I was her child. How things changed. I wish we never left the snow country of Honshu for the bustling streets, the smog-dense air of Sapporo.

But Mamika-san screamed at her parents that she wished to be free, that she would make it on her own. In a rage, she killed my sister, flung her across the room and pulled off her arms and legs until she resembled a Kokeshi doll, just that large head, eyes staring out over a small cylindrical body. I could never forget the way her eyes stared at me. I could never forget her last words to me, “aishite'ru yo"--I love you. But there was little I could do. Mamika-san never replaced my batteries.

Then, Mamika-san packed her clothes and kidnapped me. I can never forgive her for killing my sister. Just like I can never forgive her for selling her body to the strange men that enter our apartment every day. And even though I still love Mamika-san, the way a daughter still loves a deranged mother, I hate her too.

I do not know how a precious child can turn to a woman of straw. What I do know is that a woman of straw can burn very easily. I wish Mamika-san would stop smoking in bed.

Today, a regular customer, Mr. Hayashi, a businessman with kind eyes and always dressed impeccably, picks me up and says to Mamika-san that his daughter would love a doll like me. “Does she talk?” he asks.

“She does,“ says Mamika-san, “but I haven’t replaced her batteries in years.”

I don’t think it is right for her to give me away so freely. After all, I’ve always been a loyal doll. They say that sometimes a doll acquires the sins of its owner. If that is true, I am cursed forever with the fact of not being loved.

The next day, Mama san greets Mr. Hayashi, who then opens my back and slips in two batteries, size A. Slowly, I rise, begin to walk towards him, and say “kon'ya a, taiyô ga noboru”--the sun rises at night.

Mamika-san’s eyes widen.

Mr. Hayashi scratches his face and says this is a very strange thing for a doll to say. Mamika-san tells him that it’s an old saying from the snow country, a promise of revenge. She tells him that maybe I didn’t say that.

“Say it again, stupid doll.”

I stretch out my arms, fix my gaze upon Mr. Hayashi and say “Take me home."

He smiles and says again that his little daughter will adore me.

Standing in a corner of Mamika-san’s cramped bedroom, I watch as the two of them make love, listen to her faked cries of ecstasy. Then, silence. Mr. Hayashi rolls over, heads to the bathroom to shower and freshen up before bringing me home.

Mamika-san lights up a cigarette, sometimes eyeing me suspiciously. “What did you say, stupid doll?”

I say nothing.

She turns, pulls the covers over her, and naps. I listen to the spray of water from the bathroom, its hisses and wheezes.

Slowly, I walk forward, climb upon Mamika-san’s rumpled bed, making sure I do not disturb her nap. I reach for her matchbook and light a stick. And since I am made partly of wood, and like my mistress, partly of straw, I set myself on fire, burning so easily, the flames spreading to the bed, to Mamika-san who is still sleeping.

The sun rises tonight are the last words I will utter. Now this is for what you did to my beautiful sister, Mamika-san. Never will we be like mother and child. Never again will we see the flakes of snow dousing the hills of Honshu. And never again will you ever smoke in bed.



In the Heart of Aube

When she was small, the house seemed so very large, a womb that could accommodate her
expanding thoughts and breaths. Within that womb, light was allowed in but Eponine was
forbidden to go out, never to be delivered. An only child, Eponine made this promise: I will
never grow old or stunted. The house had three endless floors and for each story, Eponine gave
a name. Morning. Afternoon. Night. Years later, her mother, who lost her husband in the Battle
of the Sommes, took her upstairs to Morning. She said, My beautiful flower. . . Never love a
man. Men build houses made of shit and imprison you. Then they destroy everything and deny
the existence of shit.

During the next war, Eponine lived alone in that mansion in the heart of Aube, Champagne‐
Ardenne. Her mother was killed during bomb raids while shopping in a tiny village. The house
was built of stucco, hipped roof and flared eaves. The windows were multi‐paned and clear.
From the window of Afternoon, Eponine could see as far as the old windmill past the vineyard.
Somehow the bombs didn’t touch that or her house.

In that house, Eponine, caramel‐colored eyes and dandelion‐soft flesh, seduced German
officers on Ugni or Sauvignon Blanc. She knew it was against code. During sex, she imagined the
windmill spinning and little girls throwing off their bonnets, the hats becoming weightless. Then
while the officers slept, she stabbed each repeatedly, dismembered them, saying Why did you
kill that little girl? The best of those lovers, the exquisitely endowed, she kept behind the secret
walls that connected arched doorways, the half‐timbered ones in her mother’s den. In this way,
her intruders, light‐of‐foot, would never leave.

After the war, she continued to feed the hungry house. There were the American businessmen
who hustled her to bed after the first dinner of venison seasoned with hyssop or tansy. They
joked about N.A.T.O.. There were the Australian investors asking so many questions about her
family’s vineyards. With them, she often alluded to the freshwater pond out back that held
carp, tench, or bream. She admired their strong slender fingers, slip‐stream manners. And there
was the fellow from Toyes whose body felt as precious as rapeseed. He never flinched during
sex. Riding his flesh, she felt the soar of an eagle. After a false climax, Eponine scattered his
parts to Night.

But she kept a tiny specimen of each man’s semen in a glass jar. Some day, she thought, the
world will grow flowers again.

More lovers came, becoming affixed memories of the walls. And around this time, Eponine
thought of the house as a conglomerate of all the personalities it contained, the men who once
breathed and conspired and lied about the true nature of love. She felt the hallways squeezing
as if a sphincter. Or the eye of the windows watching her disrobe, the curtains allowing a
breeze, swaying like young wheat. How the walls caved in or curved outwards, old soft bone.
And the floors. The floors had ears and were envious.
The house became her.

As days forgot themselves, Eponine stared into the pond behind the house, at the fish
squirming below, the reflection of myriad colors‐‐ the green of spinach and leeks, the yellow of
saffron, the red of certain sunflowers. And she thought: Am I growing old? The reflection of the
sun wavering eclipsed her face.

Then one day a short inspector, with a fat striped tie, appeared at her door. He was the first
man she allowed inside since her desiccated lover from Toyes. Pardon me, Mademoiselle, he
said. Some questions. Inside he recited a list of men’s names, potential predators for her estate.
Eponine feigned a solemn countenance, offered a stingy space between the lips. Yes, she
replied, I’ve met some of them once or twice. But their business proposals did not interest me.
He smiled, a quaint twist to his lips, and said May I take a look around? After he left, the house

But he returned several weeks later with that same quizzical smile that confessed everything.
He said hardly anything at all. She made him a roast swan sewn back into its skin, feathers
intact. Alone, it would taste awful. She filled the skin with the minced and seasoned flesh of
goose, so much tastier. Like her own self, a paradox of perfume and gangrenous thoughts.
After dinner, she took him to bed. Small animals scurried above the ceilings and the windows
frowned. With him, she made love recklessly as a car screeching over a rocky coast. She kept
holding on to that stump of a body, almost memorizing every hair and bump. When they
reached a stop sign, he was a lifeless soldier and she returned him to his wife, a woman she
imagined as meticulous about her rues and espagnole. Eponine told him later that she had
given him all she could. He resigned from the case.

Years later a severe storm swept from the North Sea. The house shook; the windows hissed.
The heavy rain entered Morning through Night, flooding what was left below. A door wheezed.
One by one, the walls wept, shuddered and collapsed. Eponine sat impassive in her mother’s
chair, thinking about windmills and bees. She had grown old. There were no more lovers with
blue sea eyes.

At her funeral, her sole visitor was the inspector, now with grey hair and walking cane. A

mystery, one of the few she did not feed to her mother’s interiors behind spaces. His house,
she once thought, was not made of shit .There was something about the gleam in his eyes, his
refusal to see past her walls.



The Laughing Skeleton

Inspector Mesh, a Cyclopian with one roving eye, red and bleary, sitting in the center of
his forehead, approached the house. Ascending the driveway that was really a bald hill,
moss overshadowing the sides, he smelled the foul stench, imagined the bacteria and
the fungi, the gram positive and negative, the rods and the spirochetes, as if his roving
eye could shrink everything to two-dimensional refugees, unwelcome hosts.

In fact, the house, the sole spinster of a Georgian for miles, was nicknamed Limburger

He had received a telephoned report from his boss, a man he had never seen and was
known as 24 In Doubt, that workers renovating the house discovered a corpse inside a
rum barrel. How 24 In Doubt came upon this information, Mesh had no clue. As was
always the case.

The man inside the barrel was suspected to be the artist Marco Evaristti, an artist who
gained notoriety for serving meatballs fried in his own body fat and pasta cooked in his
own blood. 24 In Doubt had briefed Mesh that the owner of the house, an elderly
woman, Eunice Olfrygt, was in her youth obsessed with Evaristii, of whom it was
rumored to have bore two penises. Evaristii was often referred to by several of his ex-loves
as “the double snake.” When the police questioned these women in regards to
Evaristii’s disappearance, they were often greeted with a sneer and a twitch.

Mesh rang the door several times. “Who might you be?” asked the old woman.

“Police,” he said.

The door creaked slowly. She stared at his eye forever. Wishing to break the
fascination, Mesh said,” May I come in.”

“Never met a Cyclopian face to face,” she said.

She invited him to sit and have some gumbo with fishtails and opossum bones.

Behind her and under an old wicker chair, a mouse was eating a dead bird. Another
made faint squeaks.

“I must search your house, Madam. I will start with the cellar. We have. . .”

She cut him off and asked what he heard about her.

His huge ball of an eye steadied on her slight frame. That same eye caused many a
woman to thrash in bed from nightmares. After coupling with Mesh, they stood alone
or apart, always that glassy look in their eye. Some drifted into a laughing self destruction.

“I remember reading about the famous Morins case. Your great-uncle. You had
discovered his skeleton in your closet many years after he molested you as a young

“Very good, Inspector.” She served him the gumbo but he didn’t touch it. “I see you have done your homework. You may proceed to search. But I must warn you. What you will find, you will never keep.” 

He tilted his head back and regarded her queerly.

She hobbled into the kitchen and returned holding a large egg in front of him.

“This, Inspector, is an unbroken duck egg. If you put your ear to the shell, you can hear
the songs of three live minnows. The question is, Inspector, just who is imprisoned by

Her smile lingered. Her eyes glittered.

Mesh excused himself and labored to the basement. There were all kinds of
malodorous smells, noxious gases, old work benches, Russian dolls and ragamuffins
covered in dust, yet smiling. He lit a match, chancing an explosion. After all, he couldn’t

The room remained dark except for one area of the wall. There, a shadow seemed to
beckon him, almost dancing. Mesh walked over cautiously.

He palmed sections of the rough wall, groping along crevices and indentations, hoping
there was a trap door of some kind. Sure enough, the wall turned, and there, nailed to
the other side was the barrel, covered by fleas and mosquitoes. Mesh suddenly pivoted
around at the sound of her voice.

How did she get down without making a sound?

“It’s true, Inspector. I killed him many years ago. I loved him with the fawn’s heart of my
youth. He bewitched me and betrayed me.”

Mesh steadied his roving eye upon her figure, almost regaining the fluidity and charm
of a much younger woman.

“Do you know how many mosquito bites it takes to drain a man of his blood,

He said nothing.

“1.2 million. I made those mosquitoes very rich. I have a way with things. Now you may
arrest me, such a foolish old woman.”

Mesh lifted the skeleton from the barrel. Many of the bones came apart in his hands.
He wrapped the bones in terry cloth and tucked them into a gunny sack.

He drove for days. He drove north. He drove to a part of Canada where the gravity was
lower, where there were tall trees, endless, reaching up, up, up, and beyond that,
tundras and icy lakes. There, he took the skeleton from the sack, reassembled it, and
commanded it to return the old woman’s heart in exchange for freedom.

“I was once like you, Evaristti, delighting in the murder of women’s hearts. But what I
tried to keep, I could not.”

Slowly, the skeleton rose, swaying slightly in the forest, then levitated.

As it rose, the skeleton laughed.

“And you cannot keep me either,” it said.

Mesh watched the skeleton rise until it was beyond the clouds. Beyond all laughter.



The Bird Woman

She says her name is Garuda and that she misses the sun. You think she is odd, but you ask no questions because you are homeless and where can you go?

The backroom smells of dust and feathers. It is crowded with wire bird cages, feeders and knickknacks, ceramic or porcelain figures of little girls wearing pinafores, the boys, sailor suits, feeding starlings or carrying them on their shoulders. You squint. On the far wall, you can't tell if the portrait is of Jesus or St. Francis. But then, you figure, Jesus didn't wear a monk's robe. We only use organic, she says.

Something about the room makes you sad like the thought of men playing garmoshkas and people throwing them pellets instead of coins. Across from you, she scribbles fragments of what you give up. The fingers of her writing hand are dried petals. Occasionally, the old woman peers up and asks, if it's Katherine or Katy. You shrug and say either will do. You notice she never looks directly at you. You tell her you are good caring for sick birds, really, all animals, but you hope she doesn't ask for references.

She wanders away, opens the door to a small refrigerator, draws some clear liquid through a dropper. Come here, she says, and help her find the one-quarter milliliter mark. The birds must be given their medicine twice a day, she says, once in the morning and in the evening.

Everything, she says is labeled.

She leads you into the outer room, the one where customers bring their exotic birds, damaged, victims of mishaps, and points out the Macaw with the one eye that won't open, the Toucan with the broken foot, the Cockatoo with a torn wing. She has names for all of them, like Millie or Gretchen or Spencer. She turns and asks how old are you.

You are tempted to say it's on the application because you can't remember what you put down. Nineteen, you tell her. And that's about as close to the truth as the woman who once beat you and gave you away. At least, this one doesn't ask for references.

You are wandering about because wandering is something you do well. You are happy that you landed a job, found a temporary nest. One of nature’s requirements is that all birds either eat or starve. You look up and notice a strange bird, bigger than any you’ve seen, one that flies alone. If you knew more about birds, you would give it a genus, or at least, a name.

In this strange city, you skirt its parameters, the streets becoming narrow and sparse, the voices, low, speaking in another tongue, and somewhere behind windows, you conjure a thousand unblinking eyes that can no longer navigate beyond a safe distance. You take in everything and you drift.

In the coffee shop, you negotiate a price with a man wearing a pea coat, who asks you if you'd like another slice of cheese cake, pineapple or cherry. Anything you want he says with an over-confident smile.

For some reason, he reminds you of the sea, a gray eternity of water, of men with rough-hewn faces, spending hours knitting their fingers through gigantic nets, dreaming of the bodies of silver and sleek fish that only danced for a few seconds. His skin is white, whiter than your stepfather's, and the winkles in his face are tiny streets leading to the center of some town you wish to escape from, but know you'll keep returning to. You imagine spending years returning to the same town, only with different names. Birds, you think, have a tendency to return to places where they were either fed or chased away from.

He plays this game with you. Every time you mention a city, say Moscow, he tells you he's been there before all the big changes. He mentions a street or a building that you never heard of, or don't believe to exist.

In the motel room, he stands stiff in his silly pair of boxer shorts, asks how old are you. What he's really demanding, you conclude, is to tell him a lie.

Nineteen, you say, do you want I.D.?

Smart-ass, he says.

You notice his wrists, thick, hairy, the big boned hands of men who spend lifetimes trying to wash the smell of cod oil from them. You hold back a sneeze.

He asks you to massage his back, and then, he falls asleep. You grow claustrophobic in the room, so you take his money and leave. You return to the city's graffiti walls, its mark-downs in windows, its intersections where people wait, but for some reason, you never see them crossing.
What will you tell the Bird Woman if she asks you where have you been?


In the city park, you sit on a bench before a giant statue of Saint Francis. In his right hand, he holds a dove. You study this, the exact turn and crease of his garments, the tilt of his head, the gentle smile, the bird with outstretched wings perched in his palm.

You rise, excited, the way you became when called upon to play a part in a school play, when you were young enough to believe that pretending to be somebody was actually being that somebody. You stand before Saint Francis, now larger than anything brass or metal, the way statues can come to life in movies or commercials. With eyes closed, you ask him how is it you get these birds to fly back to you?

_It’s second nature_, he says.

Recovering your practical self, the self that demands clean sidewalks and safe landings, you think: It's getting late. I must return to the Bird Woman.

It makes you sad to imagine that someday Garuda will go totally blind. Who will take care of her or her birds? Why does everything fly back to the sun?


She points to an old cot, fold-up, and asks if you brought your clothes. You tell her they're in the knapsack. It's not much, she concedes, but it's all she can give to a guest. Never once does she use the words, straggler or runawayor sanctuary.

She says the bathroom is on the right and if you have to get up in the night, whatever you do, for God's sake, don't disturb the birds. You can tell she is losing her sight by the way she tilts her head at your silence, stares past your hands that are empty cups. You suspect she has a sixth sense about things, your past, the short life span of non-indigenous birds.

Then she heads to her own room, no larger than a cubicle, mumbling something about how people never care for their birds and the world is upon her shoulders.

No radios, she says, her voice growing distant, somewhat muted behind thin walls.

In the middle of the night, you awake. There is a strange growling in your stomach. You haven't had anything since that stranger bought you ham steak and cheese cake. If only there are some crackers somewhere, even a crust of bread will do. You begin to tip toe out the room, ever so careful not to wake up the Bird Woman or her birds. The outer room is pitch black. You imagine the birds, their bodies, the outline of dark spaces, their deformities, your most intimate secrets.

You stand before the Macaw, the one with the one eye shut, only now, it is both eyes. The thought amuses you: at least one thing you and this bird have in common is that you are both breathing. And the world cannot hear either of you.

The grumbling in your stomach is growing louder, demanding to be heard. You turn, your feet barely off the ground, your thoughts morphing into strange untranslatable frequencies, in this dark space of a room, quiet as a feather floating behind your eyes.


Months pass. One night you step lightly into Garuda’s room. She is lying stiff in a small cot, and you cannot wake her. Even though you haven’t known her all your life, you want to cry because after all, she’s been your mother for these past months. You are startled by the sound of flapping wings somewhere behind you.

You creep into the outer room and spot the huge bird, the one that’s been following you for weeks, beautiful with blue streaks, standing on top of an empty cage. And because you are on the same wave length, you can hear her thoughts. This bird says she is Garuda. Its eyes glisten a shade of topaz.

She tells you to unhinge all the doors and let the birds fly out from their cages.

You approach this beautiful bird cautiously.

With hands outstretched, you ask, how? They are sick birds.

She tilts her head towards you.

They will follow me, she says, I‘m taking them home.

You do as she says. At first, the birds stumble in their cages, some flitter, but eventually they all fly out. You now open the door to the store because Garuda has asked you to.

The flock streams out into the jet-ink sky of the night. It’s a miracle. It’s a secret. It’s your secret.

Now you know why you were put on this planet. Now you have a mission. You will continue Garuda’s work. You will take in the sick birds of strangers. You will nurse them back to health. And when the day comes when you are too old and wounded, when no one cares whether you’ve been fed, when your vision is too feeble--Garuda will come back for you. You’ll see. You’ll see.