It’s very watery, the first memory, diluted from being carried so long. The colours are thin as the scene plays out slowly, as though going any faster, it would disappear altogether. Half a dozen men restrain a turtle with black cord and stand it up on its hind legs, a machete pressed against its neck and the clay of the riverbank wet under my feet.
I was born in a hospital in Bien Hoa, where an uncle has a piggery; the sties come up to the back door step and share the same roof as the house. The odour is a fluid that fills the two-story house, curling the pictures of Saints, Madonnas and pop stars that paper the walls. The smell clings like a wet, flyblown sheet that I can’t shake off as we eat cross-legged on the floor, sharing stories that haven’t seen the light of day for almost two decades. After some time apart, the first stories we tell are those that remind us of how we once lived, that reconnect the lines that once joined us. And after a spell, we compare them to how things are now, since time has passed, and so we test the lines to see whether they still hold.
As a toddler, deep-fried field mouse fattened on the grain of rice paddies was my favourite thing to eat. This horrifying revelation is recounted to me eighteen years later by a toothless old woman who also claims to have given me piggyback rides along the river. I ask her about the turtle, but she doesn’t remember, like I don’t remember her, and we look at each other, with nothing between us any longer. I ate grasshoppers; big green ones whose hind legs were drumsticks in my infant hands. Mum saw a grasshopper hanging off the fly wire of the back door in Geraldton, and recalled frying up dozens of them over an open fire in Can Tho.
Eating, like remembering, is a process of ordering, refining and reassessing, developing the palate through re-experiencing flavours and textures until a faculty for dining is formed. There are instances, however, that can’t be differentiated, between what I think are the fragments of my own memory and those pieces planted through the storytelling of my family, handled and embellished until their familiarity eventually colour them as mine. My first memory is an experience I don’t appear to share with anyone, at least that I know of – the slaughter preceding a meal – so it lives in a dream world of things that may as well not have happened, except for the fact that it re-appears in my thoughts and I’m left with an outline that is undeniably of me, but refuses to take a shape or make a boundary.
The most sobering thing I can recall is seeing my father pluck the feathers from a duck’s neck, take a butcher’s cleaver and slit the bald throat of the struggling bird and let the blood trickle onto a dinner plate. The blood would then be put aside to congeal into a jelly-like substance the colour of Alizarin Crimson. Slivers of boiled liver, mint and crushed, roasted peanuts would then be sprinkled on top and the whole thing consumed with a spoon.
I have eaten it just the once.