NER contributor Maria Hummel has received the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her manuscript House and Fire was chosen by this year’s guest judge, Fanny Howe. Howe will also write an introduction for Hummel’s book.
Kingdom of Dumpling | By Maria Hummel
From the moment we enter the restaurant, I am craving the pop. I know it will be over too soon, and I am almost glad to wait for a table in this small, steamy room.
My five-year-old son is with me, climbing onto one of Kingdom of Dumpling’s ripped red seats, touching a soy sauce stain on the wall. He is a radiant child, all eyes and platinum hair. When the waitress comes, she smiles at him, as most people smile at him, with astonishment and pleasure.
We order shrimp and chive dumplings, onion pancake, farmer’s cucumbers. My son gleefully clatters his chopsticks, dropping three. When we moved to this mostly Chinese San Francisco neighborhood last year, he had just finished months of isolation from his bone marrow transplant. We were free! Why not step into a tiny, crammed joint and try something new? I had never eaten food like these glistening white pockets, pinched at the top by a cook’s fingertips. First they slid into my mouth, slick, whole, and then my teeth crushed down. The pop.
At twenty, I dreaded my thirties. I knew I would dislike aging—who doesn’t? But I didn’t understand that I’d also face despair. My life of late has become so slippery, so full of uncertainties: how to pay our next rent, how to keep our health insurance, to find a permanent job. How to know whether the pink now blooming in my son’s cheeks comes from steam or fever, or what makes him still bleed inside. Once, I married a wonderful man. Once, I had a son. Then he fell ill, and we saved his life. But these days, I can’t find any signs that I am changing for the better.
The pop comes when the dumpling skin breaks. Juice, meat, and greens slide out, shocking my tongue. I swallow. I fumble for another one. Smoothness gives way to exquisite texture.
“Too hot,” my son says, pointing at his plate, so I cut his dumplings for him. He slurps the ragged pieces from his fingers. “Yum. More, please.”
He doesn’t know the pop yet. One day he could experience the sensation, but for now he knows only the taste of it and the taste is good.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Maria Hummel’s recent poetry and prose have appeared in Poetry, Narrative, and The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.