We All Want Ma’s Oven Pan When She Dies

"Wishbone," a short story by Rachel Heng

two hands holding wishbone

We All Want Ma’s Oven Pan When She Dies

Wishbone

The wishbone would be left to dry on a paper towel by the sink. Visual examination was permitted, but it was agreed one’s back should be against the kitchen island at all times. There would be no touching.

These rules alone took an hour to hash out. Joyce, the eldest of the East Coast siblings, thought they should be allowed to handle the bone under reasonable supervision from the opposing side. She came up with an elaborate schedule of handlers and supervisors, but Lee Kwang, the youngest of the West Coasters, insisted it would be too easy for a supervisor to accuse a handler of having broken the rules. Here the discussion was sidetracked by Betty—East—remarking it was unsurprising Lee Kwang would think that way, given her history of rule-breaking. Voices grew heated, the issue of Ma’s crystal swan figurine with the broken wing raised yet again, the old argument repeated.

She gave it to me, Lee Kwang said. It was a gift.

The East Coasters did not agree. Lee Kwang had broken the swan by accident when she was a child and had felt entitled to it ever since, just because Ma had told her it didn’t matter because she would have it ‘one day.’ When the swan disappeared from Ma’s display cabinets a year into her illness, there was uproar. The East Coast siblings guessed what happened at once, Joyce storming into Lee Kwang’s home uninvited, finding the incriminating swan on her kitchen table. The West Coast siblings defended Lee Kwang’s right to the swan, Ah Boon claiming he had been there when Ma bequeathed it to her.

You would say that, Betty said. We all know you’ve got your eye on the crystal poodle.

Other objects began disappearing from Ma’s flat: the faded watercolour of Venetian canals, a saucepot of delicate porcelain, an old, dusty Turkish lamp. Then things of greater consequence: lacquered side tables, Pa’s calligraphy brushes from when he was a boy, the ancient jumbo rice cooker that no longer worked but which Ma had kept for sentimental value.

The seeds of the rift had been sowed decades ago, before any of them had been born. The year was 1965. Singapore, independent at last. The newly installed government was on a spree, shutting down Chinese vernacular schools under the guise of beating Communism, setting up new English-medium ones in the name of new a nationalism. Ma and Pa were practical about things. Half of any children they had would be sent to the former, half to the latter. They would alternate: English, Chinese, English, Chinese, and so on. Six children later, the family was evenly split down the middle. And so, the East and West Coast divide was born. It would only be decades later that the divide would be named as such, the English-educated siblings having left their childhood neighborhood and moved to wealthier enclaves by the sea.

As they squabbled over weddings and money and perceived slights, the siblings still gathered each Sunday in Ma’s flat, the one-bedroom she’d moved into after Pa had died. For a couple of hours, they’d put their differences aside, sit around the large circular table laden with garlicky greens, fish steamed in chili and ginger, strips of pork belly that dissolved obscenely on the tongue. The siblings sat at their usual seats, steaming mounds of rice before them. They waited. Then, Ma would emerge with the oven pan, hands enormous in padded oven gloves, small biceps straining. It was her signature dish: a perfect, golden chicken. Skin done to a salty crisp that crackled between the teeth, tender white flesh that yielded its juices when prodded with a fork. The oven pan—red, cast iron, painted with scorch marks from years of chickens—was the very item the siblings were arguing over now, now Ma was far enough gone she no longer remembered their names or how to operate the stove.

The wishbone was dry and the visual examinations complete. It had come from a store-bought chicken they’d shared in surly silence. Each side picked their representatives: Joyce for the East, Lee Kwang for the West. Whoever won would get to choose first, thereby carrying off the the oven pan, the ultimate prize. The oven pan, of course, wasn’t the only thing up for grabs. From then on they would alternate: Ma’s favorite mug, the apron she wore when cooking, her gold reading glasses on a chain. Chairs with their threadbare seats. The stained dining table itself. The whole flat needed to be cleared out.

Joyce and Lee Kwang took up the bone. A shiver went through them. Reminded of all the times in their childhood they had assumed these very positions, arms outstretched, linked by the fragile joint. Reminded of what Ma had once told them: the wishbone held a bird’s clavicle together, pliable but strong, essential for flight.

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