FOOT SKIN BROTH
“Can I have broth with noodle?” a middle aged man who just entered called out to the kitchen. His loud voice filled the small noodle shop immediately.
“Sure, just a minute.” A young boy stuck his head out from the kitchen answered with a small voice, holding a large ladle in his hand. He retrieved his head back to the kitchen, and after some clacking noises, he went back out with a rag on his arm and a tray on his hand. There’s a large bowl of hot broth, and a dish of cooked noodle.
“You are here on a good time, this pot of broth has just been cooked.” The boy wiped the surface of the table with the rag, and said to him with a smile.
“Oh, great! It’s been a long day and all I’ve wanted was to have some broth and noodle here.” The middle aged man took off his jacket. He leaned close to the bowl of broth and took a sniff, “It smells so good! I already told my workmates about your place. I told them what good broth you make here and how it’s separated from the noodle, saying that it’s going to disturb people from the tasting the broth. They all thought it’s unheard of, and wanted to try a few days later when there’s a break.” He glanced down at the boy’s feet, slightly opened his mouth but said nothing. He turned his sight back to the bowl.
The boy was standing next to the table, writing something down on a small notebook. He looked up upon hearing him, pressed in his lips a little, feeling shy, “Wang, I’m so glad that you like our broth.” he stopped, then continued, with a gentle touch on Wang’s shoulder with his hand: “then you should come more often if you really like the broth so much.”
Wang was a manager of a company near by. After working late, he always eats something from the noodle shop before he went home. Because he came so many times, he was familiar with the boy already.
The boy finished writing, tore the paper off and put on the table. He walked away but then turned his head back: “I’ll go and take care of the others for now. Please enjoy your meal.”
“I will, Guicheng, go do your work, don’t mind me.” Wang took off his fogged glasses, picked up that bowl of broth, blew on the surface, and raised it to his mouth, drank almost half of it in one breathe.
“Ha!” he let out a long satisfied sign. Then he took the lid of the salt container off, scooped out a small bunch of salt, out it on the palm of his left hand, put the lid back on. After that he picked up a pinch of salt from his palm, and carefully sprinkled it over his noodle.
It didn’t take long for him to finish eating and leave.
Guicheng watched him walking away, and licked his lips as though he was thirsty. He looked down and cleaned off his bowl and dish, returned the table back to its clean state.
Guicheng had the typical look of a teenage boy, nothing special. Tallish, slim, wears a pair of glasses. Maybe because he had an extraordinarily small nose, the frame of his glasses looked as though it’s been glued around his eyes. He’s never taken care of his skin, and together with his undernutrition, he did not look pale even though he had almost never been under the sun. His skin tone was a very dull yellowish color. Plus, he never had a regular sleep pattern, so there’s always two purple shadows under his eyes. He always looked as though he’s got no strength or energy. And even his hair was not healthy black, but a greyish color with dull reflections.
It’s always been four months. Since Guicheng has graduated from high school in June, he’s been working at the noodle shop that his uncle owns. He did not go to college, was not because he didn’t get into any. In fact, even though he failed his first choice, he got accepted by all the other colleges that he applied to. He didn’t continue going to school, one was because he thought it’s time for his to start paying back the debt that he’s always felt he owe his uncle, for raising him for so many years. After all they were always tight on money, and couldn’t afford to pay anybody to work for them, so it’s always helpful to have one more person other than his uncle working for the shop. And two, was because his uncle never said anything about going to college. He pretended not to see the admission letters. Guicheng saw all of these and he understood entirely, which was why he put away all those letters quietly and focused on helping his uncle run the shop.
Ever since his mother died out of sudden cardiac arrest, his father could not face him gain, because he looked too much like his mother. Therefore his father left him to live with his uncle, who lived on his own and run a noodle shop. From then on, his understanding of fatherhood became the money transfer form that he got monthly from him. And it seemed that neither of them had the intention to get to know each other better, they rarely called each other, although they lived in an era with so many ways to communicate with others. At most, they’d call each other on holidays, but even those calls usually got dragged into awkward silences after mere thirty seconds of connection.
As the only helper, Guicheng did everything in the shop. At first, he was only in charge of receiving guests and cleaning. But since he cooked his own meals in high school when he was living on campus, his uncle sometimes let him help preparing the broth for the noodle as well. Surprisingly enough, ever since he started to help preparing it, the broth tasted better and better time after time, and it got to a point when uncle himself suggested to separate the broth with noodle, so that the broth can be enjoyed on its own. It can also become the shop’s special feature.
In fact, the broth that Guicheng made tasted so good, had nothing to do with his experience of cooking for himself. It was kind of an embarrassing thing to say even. No explanation could be offered, the whole thing happened not long after he started helping his uncle’s shop. One night after he finished cleaning the shop downstairs, lighted new incenses and said good night in front of his mom’s photo as usual, he went upstairs back to his room and started to copy a new book that he newly borrowed.
Sitting in front of the table, he naturally put one foot up on the chair. While his right hand was still engaged in writing he reached down his left hand and started tearing the skin of his foot. He has always been picking on the thick dead skin around the edge of his toenails, then put them orderly along the edge of the desk, between the book and his body, so that it wouldn’t interfere with him reading the book, nor would he accidentally knocked the skin off to the floor. Occasionally when he tore down a slick that’s relatively large, he’d put it in his mouth and chew on it using his front teeth. It might sound like that this person is disgusting, with such a weird addiction. But in fact, it’s only the hand finding something for the mouth to do subconsciously, and there’s no difference between that and turning pens or shaking legs. But that night, Guicheng found that his foot skin took a different texture.
He didn’t notice in the first place, was still chewing on it, listening to the sound coming from the inside of his skull, from the instance when his teeth broke through the springy surface of the skin, while focusing on copying the words. But when the longer he chew, he found that instead of broke after chewing for a few times and had to be given up, this time it lasted for a long time. Not only did it survived from being cut into pieces, it was as chewy as new, and there’s even a very special burnt ash taste to it. He had to put down his pen and took out that small piece of skin, and examined it carefully. This piece of skin was remarkably transparent, with clear skin texture on top. And the thickness, was two to three times as thick as what it would normally be. While he was still amazed by it, he did not move his eyes from that skin, and tore down another piece from his feet. This time, the size was as large as half a palm! He was shocked, and looked down immediately. He saw that a large piece of whole skin disappeared from the edge of the nail on his big toe all the way to the center of the bottom of his foot, exposing the skin underneath, which was a few degrees whiter than the skin that was originally covering that place.
With great care, he started to tear from the broken edge of the skin, which was slightly rolled up. Tearing piece after piece, and in the end he successfully peeled off the skin of the entire foot without much effort. He looked up and down his new born foot with skin white and tender as though it belonged to a baby. He couldn’t help but caressed through every inch of the skin. Then he peeled off the skin on the other foot as well. It was as effortless as when he did the other one, and the skin beneath, as tender.
Since then, peeling off the skin became a ritual act of his at night. The exposed new foot skin would remain its white and soft state, until almost a whole day has passed, then it showed signs of decay. That’s when Guicheng would start to peel the aged skin off, so that he can have tender feet again. For some reason that he didn’t even know, but simply following his instinct, he would store all the peeled off foot skin in an old wooden box.
One time when he was preparing the broth, he suddenly remembered the taste of the foot skin from that night. So he went off and brought the wooden box, and spilled some of the foot skin into the pot. After the broth was boiled, he tasted it, and found it exceptionally good. He’s always thought that the broth lacked something, being just chicken and some simple spices. But now that with the special burnt ash taste of his foot skin, the subtle bitter and astringent taste, the excessive taste of oil and fat was accidentally balanced, and formed a very delicate balance among the tastes. Plus, the broth cooked from foot skin, bore a semitransparent consistency, with some skin that’s not completely melted but boiled to a point where they’ve already lost their skin texture, the whole pot of broth looked like a pot of melted jade.
“Your broth is so addictive. Every time after I’ve had it, I want it again right afterwards. How did you cook it?” The people that came there always ask like that.
“That, I do not know. It’s all Cheng’s effort, you have to ask him!” Uncle always laughs loudly, pointing to Guicheng, showing a sign of proudness.
People always felt surprised when they learnt that he was the one that cooked the broth. After all, who’d believe that a boy as listless and slouchy as him would have the ability to cook that good. Guicheng would normally lower his head a little, answering with a polite voice: “Control the temperature, cook longer, and stir well. There’s nothing special to the method that I cook really.”
Somehow, maybe due to the warming effect of broth, people that come here to eat were all behaving in a friendly way. Naturally, they all talk to Guicheng as though they’ve known each other for a long time.
“Being a boy, how come you talk like a girl, that polite?” people couldn’t help but started to joke about the way he talked.
“Is it fish broth?”
“Why does it taste fishy then? Weird.”
Seeing that the noodle shop had such a great ambience, his uncle was in good mood all the time. “I really have to thank you, Guicheng. Ever since you started helping me, the business has been so much better.” Sometimes uncle would say so with gratitude in his voice.
“I’m just doing what I should.” Guicheng would answer with the same voice and posture as when he was answering the customers.
Guicheng’s secret was never found out.
“Wow, you have such white feet!” One time, a woman who always came to the shop said so with amazement, looking at Guicheng’s exposed feet inside of his sandals.
“They are better looking than girls’ feet.” some other women that also came quite aften commented after looking down at Guicheng’s feet, upon hearing what the first woman had said.
Guicheng’s cheeks would turn bright red, sucking on his lips tightly, his sight would reach out from the frame of his glasses nervously, and glances from one face to another, not knowing how to react. But he wouldn’t have any attempt to hide his feet. Instead, he’d stand at the most centered place, showing them, blushing. The feeling from doing so, is like exposing the part of yourself that you feel the most embarrassed yet the proudest about out in public, to let people look and play at it.
Very soon, through those women, people who live nearby all knew that the nephew of the owner of the noodle shop has feet better looking than girls’ feet. Guicheng hence became a popular figure for a while.
True, in day time, his feet are white and tender as those from a fourteen-year-old girl who picks lotus seeds. Texture of the skin delicate and fair, and the bottom of his feet soft and plump. Ten toes look just like freshly picked lotus seeds, every one of them are crystal-like, every one of the tips shows slight color of pink. Especially when he walks, his toes looked as if they couldn’t bear the weight that’s been put on them, and turned even pinker and tenderer. They always attracts everybody’s sight. People’s eyes tend to follow around wherever his toes go. Even though he lives nearer to the South, on October, the weather still turned quite cold. But on contrary of Guicheng’s normal low tolerance of coldness, he insisted on wearing that pair of sandals which exposes a large amount of the skin on his feet. One time there was a customer who was sucking on his noodle, being too focused on watching Guicheng’s feet, he chocked on his noodle and shot them out from his nostrils.
However, when it becomes night time, after midnight, his foot skin starts to grow madly. Unlike at the beginning, recently, it’s been growing at a speed which naked eye can detect. Under the original white and tender skin, layers after layers of new skin rapidly grow. The texture of skin overlapping like crazy. The shapes of his feet like two socks been stuck fuller and fuller by stripes of fabrics, growing fast in a deformed way. The skin on the surface merges with the newly grown, and becomes yellow and rough. Even though it still doesn’t hurt, it takes a lot of effort to tear them off. Each time, it takes a long and repetitive process of peeling off piece after piece, until a thick layer of skin has been tore off, then his feet can be turned back to the normal white and tender state before the skin grew thick crazily.
Therefore, every night Guicheng spent more and more time cleaning off his foot skin, which has only been growing more rapidly. Night after night, he did not sleep but cleaning off the dead skin all night long. He could have stopped once the deformed shape has been cleaned off, leaving the hardest-to-peel layer there, it wouldn’t be bothering much. But he had to peel all the new grown off before he decided to stop, had to peel until there’s only that white tender layer left, and no new skin would be forming.
The wooden box which he kept the foot skin, he hid under his bed. Every early morning, he grabs a handful and put them in a tissue paper, then put it inside of his pocket. After putting in the materials for the broth, when his uncle’s not looking, he’d take it out and spill the skin inside all into the pot. He then would stir the broth with all of his effort, trying to let the foot skin melt as fast as possible. Every time when the broth is almost ready, he looked as if he’s been drained completely. Then he normally finds a chair and put it next to the pot, then squatting on the chair, caressing his feet in silence. The skin of his feet still turning and melting inside of the pot.
His uncle saw him always squat next to the pot in such a weird posture, thought it must be his lower back pain, which has become severe recently. One time, after seeing him staggering through the kitchen, almost falling to the ground, with his hand holding the back of his waist, he couldn’t help but said to him: “How can some one as young as you have lower back pain that is so severe. You’ve also been getting up at night recently, right? I have been constantly hearing noises and toilet flushes. As a boy, you have to mind all of these.” he hesitated for a second, then leaned close, with a sound no louder than a whisper, said with a serious voice: “Everything need to have a limit.” then he left as fast as he could, seemed to be extremely uncomfortable about a topic so personal and intimate.
A workday night, Wang came again. It’s almost been two weeks since he last visited.
“Guicheng, are you here? Are you closing yet? I want broth with noodle, and a poached egg.” he called out to the kitchen as soon as he entered the door.
Recognized Wang’s voice, Guicheng immediately walked out from the kitchen, “We are not closing yet. How is it that you haven’t been here for such a long time? You almost came here everyday before.” he accused with a sign of coquetry.
“I’ve really been so incredibly busy these days. I’ve been ordering deliveries to the company. Today that I finally have some time, the first thing I do is to come here and have your broth. I’ve been wanting it badly. I even dreamt about it one night.” Wang explained, scratching his head.
Guicheng heard him saying so, blushed a little on his face, with a smile at the corner of his mouth, he walked back to the kitchen and brought out a bowl of broth, “drink the broth first, I will bring you the noodle with the poached egg once it’s ready.”
But after putting down the broth, he did not leave at once, instead he lingered at the same place, slightly rubbing his feet together, which are in sandals. He moved his lips as though he wanted to say something, but didn’t.
“We’ve had another news about stolen urns in the past few days.” seeing him still standing there, Wang said through the fog of the broth.
“Yep, scary.” Guicheng answered rather mindlessly, he seemed somehow disappointed.
“This society is becoming more and more deformed.”
“Guicheng, have you been resting well? You don’t look good.”
Guicheng touched one of his cheeks with a hand, just when he was about to answer, Wang gulped down a mouth full of broth, added fiercely, “People that steal urns from other people’s tombs should all die.” He’s clearly still thinking about that piece of news.
Guicheng put down his hand that was touching his cheek, the light inside of his eyes dimmed then relit again. He blinked, then nodded his head once as though he’s understood something.
Wang was the last customer at the shop, he finished very fast and left quickly, saying that he shouldn’t put them off from closing the shop.
Guicheng stood in front of the table that Wang just sat on, still looking at the door that hasn’t fully closed yet from when Wang pushed it open to leave. Then, he picked up the bowl which Wang had just used, stuck out his tongue and licked along the edge round after round. His eyes closed, his face wore an intoxicated expression. The color of his lips was almost the same as the skin on his face, greyish yellow. Yet when he stuck out his tongue, it showed an intense red, like fire burning at the center of a dessert.
“Cheng, shouldn’t you change your sandals? It’s been really cold outside. And how are they so dirty? Why are they covered in dirt?” The uncle had just walked into the kitchen, said so when he saw Guicheng washing the dishes.
Guicheng behaved as though he heard nothing, and went upstairs after finished washing the last bowl.
His uncle looked at him going upstairs, shook his head, and did not ask anything more.
The next morning, when it was almost time for opening the shop, Guicheng still hadn’t showed up. His uncle walked up stairs to check on him while calling out his name, and his voice chocked half way in his throat when he opened the door of Guicheng’s room.
Lying in the middle of the room, like a piece of rotten wood stuck out from the floor, was Guicheng. His face a purplish blue, and his features twisted together. Around him, was a floor full of dried semen and broken pieces of urns.
One week later, a news report astonished the people around the country. Everybody was calling the boy in the report a deformed freak nurtured by the society. While those that knew Guicheng when he was alive, treated this as though it’s their best conversation starter, gossiping about his stories with made up stuff that had never happened. The content of the report was roughly as follows: The person that has been stealing urns was found. His name was Guicheng, and he already died from sudden cardiac arrest in the morning of October the 14th. After deeper investigation, more disturbing crimes were discovered, including putting the ashes inside of the stole urns and his own semen into the broth of his uncle’s noodle shop for customers to drink. The only undamaged urn next to his body had a candid photo of a middle-aged man inside. He looked a lot like the boy’s father, but the identity was denied after investigation. According to an informed source, he was a regular at the noodle shop that Guicheng was working in, but his true identity was never revealed in the report.
Author: Simeng Wang