"Again, eh? Take a bottle of my special tea from the counter in the kitchen. But first, watch how I get my dinner." With a serpentine strike of her hand, Mrs. Dang caught a chicken by the neck and shoved its beak into the jar, forcing it to drink.
After a minute it stopped struggling. "It's drunk," Mrs. Dang said, placing the chicken on the ground and then taking a quick swig for herself from the jar. The creature staggered sideways. "So it won't feel a thing." She stroked its head and then, with practiced swiftness, wrung its neck.
Vi left when Mrs. Dang began plucking it. She took a brown glass bottle of dark liquid from inside and walked back toward the dirt road. Nhi was waiting for her by the gate and wordlessly joined her. They took turns holding the bottle on the way home.
Huong was curled up on the bedroom floor, smoking, with the curtains drawn. There was a broken vase next to her, and a bloody clump of black hair was stuck to the wall. When Nhi and Vi opened the door to the room they recoiled at the sight. Their mother's face was obscured by the clouds of cigarette smoke, and her bathrobe had fallen open.
"Chim? Is that you?" She struggled to sit up and tuck her breasts inside the robe. The room stank. "Bring that here, Chim con. Your m?'s head hurts very much." There was an oozing bald patch on her scalp.
The twins inched closer, Vi holding the bottle out toward their mother. Huong stretched out her arm to take it, but then suddenly pitched forward and grabbed Nhi's ankle instead. Both girls froze. Huong's grip tightened and her nails dug into her daughter's skin, making her wince. Then Huong's head flopped down and her hold went slack. Nhi dropped the bottle on the wooden floor, where it bounced but did not break and then rolled toward the bed. Without lifting her head, Huong began to grope around for the bottle, her pale hand scuttling across the floorboards, and when her girls fled from the room she did not notice.
The next morning, Mrs. Dang decided to pay a visit to their house, a plucked chicken tucked under her arm as a present. No one answered her knocks, so she opened the door and went in. She wrinkled her nose at the odor that greeted her, and followed it to the bedroom. When she pushed open the door, her face froze and she dropped the chicken: Huong was lying dead in a puddle of vomit on the floor. Mrs. Dang shuffled over and picked up the empty bottle near her. Her eyes grew wide. After she had calmed herself down she retrieved the chicken, went outside, and tossed the bottle deep into the bamboo thicket at the far end of the backyard. Only then did she go out into the street and begin wailing for help.
It took me almost a full minute to realize that Sister Emmanuel had stopped speaking. The egg rolls lay finished in rows on the tabletop; the old nun's hands were still. Through the window I could see that the sun was now red and bobbing on the edge of the horizon.
"That seems like more than enough, doesn't it?" she finally said. She paused, and then something that could have been a smile twisted her mouth and she continued, gesturing at the egg rolls, "They'll never be able to eat all of these." She started to cover them with aluminum foil. Because I could not find anything to say, I took the mixing bowl over to the sink and began to rinse it. My fingers felt clumsy and stiff.
"When do you fry them?" I asked eventually.
"Later," said Sister Emmanuel. "They're much better served hot." There was a pause before she added, "On Thursday I will need to make another batch for the parish potluck." She left the kitchen without another word.
That night, for the first time since my initial vows, I did not say my prayers.
On Thursday Sister Emmanuel was waiting in the convent kitchen, seated at the table, which, to my surprise, was empty. "Hello, Sister," she greeted me serenely. "Do not sit down just yet."
Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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