The Miracle of Rice
By Barlow Adams
Oscar didn’t know why his mom called the big bag of rice in his father’s pantry “The Body.” Oscar was still in his mom’s belly when his grandmother--brittle as a bird, IV sticking out of the top of her hand--dragged it to the front door of his parents’ first apartment and pressed the buzzer like she was ringing a funeral bell. But he’d seen his father carry it from house to house when they moved, always the last thing out, cradled in his arms like the corpse of Christ.
Oscar hadn’t heard the argument his father and the grandmother he’d never met had that day, about giving up and holding on. Hadn’t seen the old lady push that 50lb bag at her son like she was rolling a stone off a tomb.
“I don’t want you starving,” she said. “I know you, Phillip. I know you.” Phillip had replied that she was stronger than this, that God had worked miracles before and could do it again. Oscar never heard his grandma say that He already had. But he did know what she said next, because his dad had repeated it often enough. He heard it every time they moved, when Oscar’s mom begged Phillip to leave the big bag behind or eat it, or something.
Rice is forever.
Phillip told them, if stored properly, rice could outlive empires. There were grains found in China from 10,000 years ago that you could eat right now, if you wanted. If there was any immortality to be found in this world, it was to be found in rice.
Eventually, Oscar and his mom left and The Body stayed. Oscar came to visit it and his father twice a month in a cramped studio apartment with the porch light that never worked, sat at the kitchen table underneath the cluster of crucifixes, each more tragic than the last. Sad men with honey-blond hair, bleeding over his breakfasts of stale cereal, heads turned toward the bare cupboard like they were staring off into eternity.
The crucifixes had been Oscar’s grandmother’s. Philip kept them even if he no longer believed they bled for him, hadn’t believed in the decade since his mom’s death. Not even the miracle of Oscar’s birth could shake that loss of faith.
But Oscar didn’t know any of this. All he knew was he was hungry and there was no food except for that big bag of rice.
He’d asked before, of course. Just to see. The answer had always been no. The bag stayed sealed. That was the deal. Oscar had never been to church, but he knew consecrated ground when he saw it. Could feel his father’s reverence each time he opened the pantry door.
Today shouldn’t have been any different, but it was.
Even Phillip didn’t know why, other than he had nothing else to offer.
Oscar was surprised how easily the scissors cut through that sacred sack, and he averted his eyes for a moment, half afraid light would stream from the bag, like in that scene with the Ark from Raiders, and melt his face right off.
But it was just rice inside. Perfect white rice, pure as the day it was gathered. It shone like a clutch of pearls when his father scooped some up between his hands. Oscar listened to every grain as they tinkled into the stainless steel pot, and neither spoke while his father boiled that holy water--just exchanged excited glances through the veil of steam. It wasn’t until the lid was on the pot, the rice inside thirstily drinking up the liquid, that his dad started talking.
He told Oscar about his grandma in quiet, hushed tones barely louder than the simmering water.
She had married at 17, already pregnant and round and dimpled as a clementine. She water-skied even though she’d never learned to swim. Her favorite color was orange and she never wore a seatbelt, not even once, but the cops wouldn’t give her a ticket because she hadn’t had a citation in forty years, and no one wanted to give her the first. She’d predicted Oscar’s sex before he was even born by holding a spoon over his mother’s belly. Every once in a while she would smoke a cigar in her basement and try hide it, but there was no way, not with the smell. But even when confronted, she’d lie and lie. Other than that, she always told the truth. Always.
Oscar learned more about his grandma in the time it took that rice to cook than he had his whole life. When the food was finally ready, Phil scooped clumps of it into a bowl and topped them with a single spoonful of margarine, which melted before Oscar ever picked up his spoon.
His little hands were shaking when he brought the first bite to his lips. It was too hot to eat and it burned the roof of his mouth, but he dared not spit it out. He used his cheeks like the bellows of a furnace, sucking in air to cool the rice and stoke his burning heart. When he finally managed to swallow, his dad stared expectantly.
“It’s okay,” Oscar said.
"Yeah. Kind of bland.”
Soon Phil had a spoon himself. He had to admit it was kind of bland, but he ate it anyway, in front of God and everybody. And the father and his son talked and ate with the best of spirits. When that bowl was gone they made another. And another after that. This time they added sugar. They both liked it much more.
When they could eat no more they sat back in their chairs, bellies straining, under the watchful eyes of half a dozen saviors, and looked at the bag of rice.
“Even if we do this every time I come, we’ll never get through all that,” said Oscar.
“It’s okay,” answered Phillip. “Rice is forever.”