Featured Work: A Single Pearl

chantwood magazine_dawn lo_pearl

Singapore, Today

Katherine Goh tumbled violently out of a dream she was sorry to wake from. Around her, the room clung to darkness, but the glare outlining the heavy drapes hinted at midday. Her eyes adjusted to the familiar sight of her four-poster bed of Himalayan teak, stark against the chalky white plaster of the ceiling, the white shutter cabinets that lined a wall. The AC unit gleamed white too. It hummed out a chill that belied none of the humid, jungle air of Singapore just outside black-trimmed French doors. Tucked away in her lavish vault, Katherine laid in interrupted rest.

Also familiar was the way she had fallen asleep: in bed sideways, shivering in a velvet robe, stained wine glass on the bedside table, her duvet still tucked into the mattress. She reached for the Vicodin in the table drawer, and popped a pill into her mouth. It knocked about the walls of her throat before she rolled her neck back and swallowed. Then, lying back down, she closed her eyes and chased the garbled traces of her dream. Blurry-edge visions surfaced and expanded into a vastness of somewhere glowing, mollifying, foreign yet familiar, like some stashed-away impression from her forty-one-year existence. The dream’s siren call told her to recollect this warm place in her memory. She had just about eased back into sleep when another thought, the one that had woken her in the first place, invaded her mind: her husband Wolf would be coming home that night after four months away for work.

This thought put her on high alert, though, later, Katherine could have easily blamed her nerves on her dog. The Pomeranian had been sniffing about the adjoining walk-in closet with its clothes and accessories strewn about, like an isolated monsoon had blundered through the night before. It stopped at a scattered cobblestone path of jewelry, where it began to root around the baubles looking for something to eat. And it found something: a pearl, the smallest jewel in the cluster, with a necklace hoop but no chain, looking lacklustre in the dull light. Katherine had just slid fleshy legs out of bed when the guttural choke came.

Two hours later, Dr. Sam Svensson examined the ailing Pomeranian atop the hardwood dining table of Katherine’s modern bungalow. In the middle of his noontime appointment with a struggling feline, his receptionist had swept into the examination room and announced that a Bentley was here to take him to Mrs. Goh’s. Right now? he had inquired, his gloved fingers still probing the kitten’s open mouth, but the receptionist’s alarmed expression and the burly driver peering over her head informed him that, indeed, right now, was the answer. Mrs. Goh, wife of Wolf Goh who founded the gastropub chain Wolf’s Impressions, paid a handsome retainer for the sole purpose of summoning him at any time of day. This was how he found his schedule hijacked by a middle-aged tai tai and a Pomeranian with an upset stomach.

Katherine flitted around Dr. Svensson, all fretful hands that jangled their bracelets about. A master at playing the charming hostess, no one would be able to tell that she drank herself to sleep most nights. On any other perfunctory visit, she would have led the young doctor into the garden to offer refreshments. She liked talking to him, liked forming his full name with her mouth, Doctor Sam Svensson: the alliteration, the sifting of the common with the strange felt voluptuous to say. She often wondered if she would find him attractive seeing his medium build and thin shoulders on the street but, under the fragrant frangipanis, she soaked in his serious eyes. She smiled, and hoped that he saw her as worldly, sophisticated and, well, older, but a real woman. Despite the opportunities, he never once looked at her or said anything inappropriate, and this worried her.

Today, she had no time for fantasies.

“Sam, please, how is my Valdi?” she asked.

“Just a second—” Dr. Svensson tapped the little dog’s spine.

“What has happened to him?”

“Mrs. Goh, just give me a minute to perform some tests.” The vet resented the barrage of questions, especially without the convenience of his regular office and tools. He pressed gently into the dog’s fur and when his hands reached the stomach it gave a whimper.

“From what I can tell, he has swallowed a foreign object. I don’t think it’s very big, maybe the size of a hazelnut. Not to worry, he will pass it in a day or two.” And, as he removed his latex gloves, he asked in passing, “Any idea what it could be?”

Katherine’s mind whirled, working backwards. Dr. Svensson had to be summoned because Valdi, usually so sweet and docile, had raced through the bedrooms and bathrooms, through the outstretched arms of Katherine, the maid, the gardener, and the driver like a modern-day nursery rhyme. It even bit the maid, which has never happened before. But Katherine remembered, before chasing the orange cloud around the house, finding Valdi panic-stricken among scattered jewels with its mouth open, head jerking forward. The jewelry!

“I have no idea,” Katherine replied in such a stilted way, Dr. Svensson frowned at her. She did not see this, with her head down in her hands. His eyes caught her wedding ring, large and cut like a weapon, snarling the light. Without warning, she left the room. He heard her footsteps retreat up the stairs.

After administering a mild dosage of painkillers, Dr. Svensson left Valdi to rest on the leather sofa in the living room. He was escorted unceremoniously by the driver to an awaiting car, a taxi. The mistress of the house did not come down to bid him goodbye.

In her ransacked closet, Katherine picked a careful path to an overturned jewelry box covered in tiny pleated shells, a cheap knickknack a girl might pick up from a bazaar. She had vague flashes of fumbling for something the night before. The strewn contents were of much greater value: necklaces, bracelets, gem encrusted jewels in every metallic sheen. Wolf had given her the Cartier bangle when he took off to Ibiza for a week following his restaurant opening in London; the Van Cleef parrot brooch when he worked through her birthday; the Art Deco sapphire ring, a priceless antique, after the restaurateur convention in Miami. Later, she had found photos of him in an online article covering the event. He was leaning into an intimate laugh with a woman she recognised as an investor in his restaurants.

Whatever Valdi swallowed must have been part of this collection, and she feared it was the smallest jewel she owned. She sorted through each piece, contorted her creaking body best she could to look in corners, behind cabinets, under the velvet divan. But her pearl pendant was gone.

***

Phuket and Singapore, Before

“We could build it right here by the ocean,” a young Wolf says to a young Katherine. They are on the beach in Phuket, are lean and languid as you can only be in your early twenties. It is July and a rare day off work for them in the few months they have been here, him shucking oysters at a seafood restaurant and her as a waitress in a café.

“No one builds a bakery on a beach,” she murmurs.

“Why not? With ovens in the back…”

The sun has warmed the sand for the better part of a day. Katherine had paid for their one-way tickets from Singapore on a rebellious whim because Wolf had never been and wanted to live here. They were relying on themselves now and living in ‘thrilling squalor’: a studio apartment with a mattress on the floor and little else. She didn’t mind because she had a plan. She would save up and open her own bakery for the two of them, a simple, self-sustaining space where others can come and go but they will stay together, steadfast and undaunted. She is convinced she doesn’t need more than this dream with Wolf and beautiful weather.

And the weather today is, indeed, beautiful, balmy with just the right amount of breeze. Katherine and Wolf watch a couple their grandparents’ age wade into the sea. The man is coaxing the woman deeper in. So warm, devoted and welcoming is his encouragement that when the tail of a rogue wave sprays suddenly into her face, she giggles in his arms like a young girl.

Katherine curls her long legs up into her chest. She closes her eyes. The afternoon glow turns the inside of her eyelids amber, surrounding her with the couple’s laughter, with the trill of mynah birds, and she thinks, this must be what bliss feels like.

“…and you can serve your cakes, whatever. I’ll grill fish right on the beach. Then, at night, we can have bonfire parties. All the cooks, the tourists, locals, random people passing by. Everyone on the sand, enjoying each other… Katie, you still listening?”

And though she is, she can’t bring herself to move or say anything. It would shatter the moment she so desperately wants to hold onto forever: sea-scented days with sand in their hair, Wolf talking about their bakery. He wraps her up in his arms, grazes her shoulder with his lips.

“I want to salt every dish with you.”

Making sure her eyes are still shut, he lays her palm flat on his leg. He rummages for a while before a small, rounded thing falls into her hand. A single pearl, gleaming cream and sherbet in the sun. The thinnest of golden chains drapes from the pearl.

“It was in an oyster I shucked, can you believe it? I’ve only just saved up the money for the chain.” He beams at her. “My lucky pearl.”

“Can we afford this?”

“We’ll make it work.”

She runs a finger over the pearl, as if to memorise the smooth uneven dips of the first jewel he has ever given her. “What are you waiting for? Put it on me,” she says.

His fingers graze her neck as he fastens the necklace. The chain is short and the pendant rests at the base of her throat, but it is all he can afford. Without saying so, they both know that this necklace is as good as an engagement ring.

“You’ve never managed to keep a secret from me for that long.”

“Three months. It wasn’t easy.” He gives a hollow chuckle. “It took three whole months to pay for this.”

Some months after the engagement, Wolf decides abruptly that they should leave their Phuket haven, return to Singapore and marry. Almost immediately, it seems to Katherine, Wolf finds work as the host of a new competitive cooking TV show, an instant hit. People would stop them on the streets to tell him how much they enjoyed his show. His sudden fame bewilders her, but had always been a natural performer. And Wolf is reborn. For the first time, his hard work results in appreciation, praise and money. He covers all their expenses, including the rent for a chic newly-renovated walk-up. When the real estate agent congratulates Katherine on ‘having such a famous hubby,’ her first reaction is one of pride, followed quickly by an unsettling feeling, like she’s the one in competition.

A year later, at a party hosted by the network president after a successful first season, Katherine finally meets some of Wolf’s co-workers. While Wolf mingles with the other guests, important execs from the network. Katherine spends most of the night on her own in the corner of the living room, feeling childishly pink in her flaring floral dress, ignored by the older crowd of people who all knew each other.

Thankfully, a tall woman approaches her near the end of the night. Slim arms, ankles and face make her look slimmer than she actually is. She is a woman who wears her weight well, and her understated crepe jumpsuit fills to perfection. Her name is Anabel. And she has heard so much about Katherine, but Katherine had no idea who she was.

“Wolf speaks so highly of you,” Anabel calls huskily over the music, scratchy saxophone wails that make it hard to have a conversation without yelling. Katherine finds it a peculiar way of describing how a husband talks about his wife. She hugs Katherine, which feels strange to her too. “You’re so skinny. I can see your bones! How can a celebrity foodie have an emaciated girlfriend?”

“Wife,” Katherine corrects. Smiling.

“Yes! Yes, of course. We’re working him too hard, he has no time to feed you, isn’t it?” Because Anabel doesn’t seem to need encouragement to keep talking, Katherine merely smiles. “You know, I owe Wolf my career. If he hadn’t insisted that I become a producer, I’d still be out there trying to scout the next hot thing. Mind you, he missed all his cues when we first started filming but I could see that he’s got this spark, even back in Thailand.”

“You knew him in Thailand?” The warm champagne, or maybe the noise, was finally getting to Katherine’s head.

“Oh, but you must know about all this.”

“Yes. Slipped my mind. I’m not a big drinker.”

Anabel grins a little. “You are looking a little flushed. Let’s get you a cold one.”

Anabel takes Katherine’s hand and they thread through pockets of glossy people, balancing glasses in soft hands. Conversations fizz above the music, on the canapés, on the versatile mouthfeel of the wine, on jazz’s superiority over all genres of music, even over, yes, classical. The two women wander into the kitchen, where Wolf is refilling his plate. He looks surprised to see them together, and reaches out for Katherine’s waist.

“Here – let’s fatten you up – you need this salmon-mousse cucumber.” Anabel tries to feed Katherine a cucumber cup. “Wolf loves them. We get them catered to the studio because of him. I know what you’re thinking. Why would a cooking competition need catering? And do you know what the bosses say? ‘Anything to keep our poster boy happy.’” She pauses and squints her eyes at Katherine. “Oh, but… you like pastries, right? It’s bakeries, isn’t it?”

“We eat everything,” Wolf replies vaguely.

“Don’t we now?” Anabel says, crunching into the green.

On their way home, Katherine and Wolf loll their heads together in the backseat of the taxi, and Wolf sighs. “I hate talking to rich people sometimes.”

“Are they snobs? Are we just not fancy enough?”

“Hey, I’m fancy! I say something is ‘damn shiok,’ and people think I must be right because I have a show.”

“You sound so cliché.”

“Anabel thinks I sound cute.”

Katherine steels herself, wondering what territory she’s getting herself into, whether she should soldier on. Another time she might have stopped herself. But a wife should never feel uncomfortable in asking, and so she did: “How come you never said anything about knowing her in Thailand?”

“Didn’t I?” he said with an exaggerated furl of the eyebrows.

“And you told her about our bakery.”

“I must have mentioned it in passing one day. She gives good business advice.”

“I don’t know anymore…” Katherine let her voice trail off.

“Listen, I never want to talk boring work details with you, Darling Kate,” he whispers into her hair. “The little time we have together I want to make about us. You know I’m only in it to make enough, and then, we get out and we get you that bakery.”

***

Singapore, Today

In her walk-in closet, Katherine sat heavily on the floor twirling her wedding ring around her finger. It had spun smoothly when she was twenty-five but suctioned now onto the extra padding she had acquired through the years. She had asked for the ring for their third anniversary, after the TV show propelled Wolf into the limelight and he parlayed his celebrity into the first Wolf’s Impressions restaurant. Anabel became his personal manager. Katherine insisted on a ring that made a stunning, but elegant, impression. She had received an emerald cut diamond, imposing and definite. But, accenting this monolith were delicate little pearls, tiny seeds in different off-white hues. Katherine had loved the ring from the first moment of receiving it, loved that he had remembered, that he had spared a rare thought for her.

In her other hand, her phone screen showed Wolf’s number. She hesitated because she hadn’t called him for years now, had left communication to the odd text when he traveled. She was out of practice; yet, why would it be strange to call her husband before he boarded a flight home, especially if poor Valdi was ill?

Wolf did not pick up by the second ring so Katherine hung up, quickly, mid-peal. Her pulse quickened. When he called her back a couple minutes later, she made sure to sound composed and distant.

“Hello?” she answered.

She heard the jingle of an airport announcement muffled then snapped back into clarity, like he was whispering to someone next to him.

“Hi.” She sat waiting as though he had been the one to call out of the blue.

Finally, he asked, “Everything alright?”

“Yes. Well, no. Valdi has a stomach issue so I brought in Dr. Svensson.”

“Did you give him strawberries again?”

“No. He swallowed…something.”

“I see.” This was not the response she was looking for. Go on, then, she willed, ask what. “Valdi’s gone through worse. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

After a pause, she blurted, “Aren’t you going to ask what he swallowed?”

“What?”

“Some jewelry.”

“Poor thing.”

“You’re not going to ask what?”

“What? Hopefully I can get you a new one—”

“Valdi swallowed the pearl pendant.”

There was silence on the line. She could only hear the background noise of an airport full of people going somewhere. She waited for him to say something but he didn’t.

“It’s not important if you don’t think it’s important,” she continued. “How was the trip? Is Shanghai really so wonderful?” Even though Wolf had restaurants worldwide, opening one in China, everybody said, was a glorious feat: this new world of opportunity, of beautiful people with youthful energy willing to splash money onto the latest, hottest trend. The crown jewel, she snorted to herself.

“Everything is going well.”

“Four months there and that’s all you have to say?”

“Do you want a blow-by-blow account right now? We got the restaurant up and running.”

The word “we’ pierced her to the gut. “Oh, I see. And how is the team?”

As if on cue, a woman’s husky voice breathed through his mouthpiece. “Wolf, we’re boarding now. Stop holding us up.”

“Saved by the bell, I see.” She laughed a little foolishly at her pun, hoping he would too.

He didn’t. He only said, “I’ll see you very soon.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere.” Am I? She hung up in the middle of his goodbye, afraid the bilious, bubbling pit of her stomach would surge out hot anger that he would interpret as him having an effect on her. He did not need to know she had buried her face into the sheepskin rug, mascara-steep tears bleeding charcoal into the white. Shutting her eyes, she let the inward scream pulsating through her body surge through her mouth. Snot, saliva, and tears collected into a chaotic pool. But she’d be okay by the time Wolf came back, she thought. After this catharsis, and newly emboldened, she’d be ready. What if I left you today?

***

Phuket, Before

Shucking oysters at Trove Oyster Bar in Phuket is Wolf’s first real job. The restaurant, which holds itself in higher regard than the nearby stalls displaying skewers of fish balls, dangling octopuses, and vats of sopping curry, wanted an energetic young man to shuck oysters at an ice bed out front. The owner hired Wolf on the spot, never mind that he had never worked in a kitchen before. With friendly quips slipping off his tongue and playing on his dimpled, boyish smile, Wolf fit the bill. He had realised, from an young age, how capable he was of hiding the anxieties that plague him.

Wolf learned quickly and soon he shucked with ease while shouting greetings to passers-by. Locals and the tourists alike found him intriguing: a boy-man who looks like a native, with sun-soaked skin, dark hair, and the comfortable manner of someone at home, yet speaks English with the command of a foreigner. Trove became a sensation, with lines trickling down the street every night, and, ten months after he started working there, a young woman walks up to him with a camera pointed at his face. He smiles and is about to say hello –

“Don’t talk,” she says. “You’ll ruin the shot.” It startles him to hear a low, rasping voice coming from a shapely being dressed head-to-toe in black. His face must have betrayed his confusion because she asks, “Why aren’t you smiling? You’re so adorable when you smile.”

So, he starts shucking faster, popping the top shell of an oyster into the air and smirking into the lens. A small crowd forms around them, congesting the already narrow street. After a few minutes of shooting, she lowers her camera.

“I can make you famous,” she says.

“Looks like I already am.” He gestures to the crowd, which erupts into cheers at the wave of his hand.

She steps back and looks at him with her head cocked. He has the oddest sensation of being appraised. “You love the attention. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“It’s part of the job,” he says but he is curious, a little uncomfortable, and asks lightly, “Why do you say that?”

“Well look at you, showing off. Doing it all without taking your eyes off me.”

“Maybe I like looking at you. Or, maybe, I’m just good at…shucking.” The joke, meant to disarm and help him regain control of the situation, has no effect. Her smile is patronising but polite as she hands him her business card.

“Imagine a studio, primetime TV. Girls screaming themselves silly. Not to mention, more money in a day than you’ll see here in a month. Now, how does that sound?” She pauses to let the effect soak in. “So, why don’t you give me a call when you can be serious.”

He doesn’t know what to say as he takes the card. Printed on it are these fateful words: Anabel Ong-Wiley. Talent Acquisition Specialist. His wet fingers make bubbling imprints over her contact details. When he returns to his apartment in the early hours of the next morning, he sits naked on the tattered sofa studying it.

He always makes a point to strip naked as soon as he walks in to not bring the filth of his work life into his home. When he creeps into the bathroom to scrub his hands clean of their salty, pungent smell, he is appalled by his face: bloodshot eyes and ashen cheeks. A ghoulish mouth drooping from the antics of another night out with the rest of the town’s cooks, night pirates who needed to mutiny after the order of a kitchen. Months of this has taken a toll on him. It makes him disdainful of the having to work with his hands. And, still, he made no real money.

Here by himself in the twilight, he loosens his anxieties, allows them to roam free and swarm him.

He stares at the business card. Then, at Katherine, sleeping noiselessly, the spare morning light washing her violet and cold. He wants to go to her but something stops him. How can he allow himself to be the reason she sleeps on a mattress on the floor surrounded by old furniture and stained walls?

He decides then and there to call Anabel Ong-Wiley in the morning.

***

Singapore, Today

Katherine woke up in her walk-in closet in the dark. Where is Mira, she thought, riding out the dull ache of her joints, picking her way over jeweled landmines, before she remembered her maid’s bloody hand from the afternoon, and instructing her driver to take the scared young woman first to the hospital and then home to Malaysia for an impromptu leave. And where was Valdi, who should have been watched to make sure he didn’t swallow any more jewelry. But the poor dog was not likely to have any appetite until it passed the irritant lump. Katherine, on the other hand, was ravenous.

The clock on the refrigerator shone a green 20:37. Wolf should be home in a matter of hours, but she was determined not to wait for him like for some venerated guest-of-honour. She pulled open the stainless-steel doors and took out all the leftovers she could find: a tub of Greek yogurt, a container of biryani, kale salad with pumpkin and goji berries. Her fork dipped into the vessels in rotation so that yogurt dripped from each tine and the colours and flavours blended together. She ate restlessly, without tasting anything.

Perhaps some company would do the trick, she thought, retrieving Valdi from the living room and placing him on a chair in front of her. Her fingers grazed the dog’s head and ears, tickling down till she reached its tummy and it shrank away with a low growl. She made a face as if to say, Is it hurty? Do you need to number two? With the other hand, she jabbed bits of cold chicken into her mouth, irritated still that the ambiance and the meal could not satiate her boredom. It was no use.

Whatever food was left Katherine swept back into the refrigerator, and, before she quite knew what she was doing, she had loaded the counter top with raw ingredients: all-purpose flour, brown sugar, coconut cream, salt, eggs, oil, then Milo powder and rose syrup. Her body operated a step ahead of her mind but she soon understood what she was doing: She would bake again. She would make muffins for her husband’s return.

Katherine had not baked in years. Her memorised movements reawakened haltingly like an aging dancer’s, and after the initial awkward readjustments for the right amount of flour, she disregarded measurements and threw in choreographed handfuls of powder. The tin of Milo clacked on its way back down onto the counter. Valdi curled up at into a tighter ball. She rubbed globs of coconut cream, eggs and oil into the dry ingredients with her bare hands until the grit and goop blended into soft batter. She drizzled in rose syrup, hoping to mould pretty pink spirals, but nothing appeared in the overpowering brown of the Milo. Still, she was not discouraged; the sifting, folding, the methodical mixing had lulled Katherine into a familiar trance.

With the muffin tins in the oven, Katherine slowly awoke to the mess she had made. Flour dusted and settled on usually spotless floor and handles. The bag of sugar tipped out a golden sand dune. Spilled cream and rose syrup formed jubilant puddles on the counter. The sight surprised her so much she sank to the floor, mitts still on, doubled over by the laughter frothing out of her mouth. The kitchen presented – had she meant to all along? – a scene curated to perfection of a domestic goddess gone to spoil.

What a moment for Wolf to return.

“Hello, hello! Welcome home,” she gasped to him as he leaned, trim and meticulous, against the kitchen door. Valdi looked up in greeting but sank down pathetically again.

“Hey, Darling Kate.”

“I didn’t think you would be back so soon.”

“We landed early.”

“Oh, did we? I am so glad we did.” She waved him in, an egg in her clumsy mitted hand. “What, are you just going to stand there?”

“Where do you want me?”

“Come, come in. Step into your pristine, welcoming, comfortable home, just the way you like it.” She tossed the egg onto the floor near his socked feet, but he didn’t move. The yolk ran over the square tile lines of white marble.

“It smells wonderful,” he said.

“I’m baking muffins.”

“My favourite.”

“Are they? I thought it was burgers you liked. Or is it money.”

“Katie, not now.” He took a step away from her.

“Careful, dear, you’re walking on eggshells!” And Katherine fell into another manic fit of laughter. “That was funny! Why aren’t you laughing? Wasn’t that funny and amusing?”

He didn’t respond.

“Am I not everything you ever hoped for?”

“Sure, Katie. You’re excitement personified.”

“Ha!” She was yelling now. “Is that why I’m baking in this castle of a kitchen?” She snatched the tray of half-baked muffins out of the oven and flung it onto the floor between them. Steaming batter splattered and oozed muddily.

Wolf stared gravely at the mess in the kitchen. He looked everywhere but at the lined face of his wife. He opened his mouth and tried to speak. Katherine watched him lift his eyes to her. Their sorrowful expression reminded her of how he had looked sometimes in their early days in Thailand, working hard to make ends meet. When she had asked what was wrong, he would shrug and say that work was tiring. No words, no explanations were given then, and now.

He finally shook his head and said, “I’m not doing this with you, Katie.”

“How did ‘we’ become ‘you and them’ and not ‘you and me?’” She asked this quietly because she was culpable too, that she had plunged herself into her role of trophy wife: collecting her own trophies, living lavishly, pricking at him to make him feel something for her. She squirrelled away resentment for the winter when all she wanted now was to return to warm, sandy days with him.

A sudden yelp came from the Valdi. Katherine and Wolf turned to see the dog squatting back on its hind legs. The commotion must have awakened a rumbling in its bowels, and it issued out a steaming swirl of brown. Then, shaking but relieved, Valdi gave a happy bark and bounded away.

Katherine leaned over the chair to look at Valdi’s shit. Inside, gleaming still, was the pearl. In a breathless but resolute voice, she asked, “Would you choose me still?”

“What?”

“Pick it up.”

“Pick what – the pearl? You want me to pick up the pearl?” He stared, dumbfounded.

“Yes, the pearl.” She pointed to it. “If, after all these years, you’d still choose me, pick the pearl out of the shit.”

Wolf walked up to her and the chair. He looked down at the moist, earthy lumps.

The two turned to each other and stared.

***

Phuket, Before

The wooden crate of oysters for Wolf to shuck sits next to a booth of sweating ice. He pours the cragged shells onto the chips. One of them doesn’t look like quite right, green-brown and rougher than the rest, but what does he know in his first week of work. He picks that one up, fumbles his knife into the shell’s crevice and twists for the pop. He sees a tiny orb pressing against a side of the fleshy mollusk; a slit from the blade reveals the pearl inside.

The world is your oyster. The joke rolls into his head. He imagines Katherine’s face contorting into amused derision at something so prosaic but the tightening in his ribcage, his breath caught fluttering inside like a feverish bird is anything but commonplace. He draws the natural pearl out with his finger. More oval than round, it juts out a curved lump here and there. Wild as the untamed wind, like my Katie, he thinks. He slips the hard gem into his pocket.

In a few hours, the dinner rush would be over. His first days holding down a job would be over and, with any luck, would lead to the bakery Katherine wants so much. There is still so much road to go before they can achieve such a thing but the thought buoys him up. And, yet, he wonders if she can be satisfied with their little dream. Can he? Can anything stay this simple forever?

He will likely have to go out with the rest of the kitchen crew tonight. There is a bar, they told him, where all the cooks go after the common people have gotten into their comfortable beds. Right now, Katherine is probably leaving the café for home. He maps her route inside his head, sees her stopping by the convenience store under their building to pick up a loaf of bread and tomatoes. Maybe a carton of milk for the cats that yowl by their window in the morning. She would spend the evening alone, reading, falling asleep to the radio playing in a stranger’s language. There is nothing he wants more in that moment than to curl himself around her and whisper, darling, darling, we are going to make it, we are this close, just days and fingertips away. We are going to make it together.

Wolf’s hand unclenches from around the pearl and he takes up his knife because, inside, a call comes for another plate of oysters.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dawn Lo works as a teacher and writer. She received an MA in Creative Writing from Lasalle College of the Arts. She has lived in Beijing, Hong Kong, Montreal, and Toronto, and is currently in Singapore with her crooked-mouthed cat. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine Online.