Wild Ke-Bah Si Ko Mushrooms

Eliot Li

Momma says I have to eat her Three Cup Mushrooms, but I don’t want to. It has one cup of sesame oil, one cup soy sauce, and one cup of wine. Authentic Taiwanese recipe, much better for me than greasy hamburgers and French fries.

          “Your dad loves it,” she says.

          “I’m not hungry.”

          Momma taps her fingers on the dining table. “Eat it, or else I won’t practice violin with you anymore.” 

          During our practice together this morning, Momma threw a pencil at me. It bounced off my face. Just missed my eyeball. Why do you always turn into a little mouse when you play? You can do so much better. She’d given me the look that bludgeons. Rigid chin, her mouth like stone. 

          “No thanks,” I say.

          Momma lifts a spoon of glistening, fleshy, bulb-like bits to my lips. “It’s got the wild ke-bah si ko mushrooms I picked on our hike yesterday. Good for your immune system. Tastes way better than the ones from Safeway.”

          “I already said no.” I cover my mouth with both hands. Does she think I’m still a baby? I’m fifteen for god’s sake!

          “Just one bite. I promise, you won’t regret it.”

          When I keep shaking my head, Momma turns with the spoon and levers the mushrooms into Father’s open mouth. His lips smack and his eyes bug out from the pleasure.

          “You’re not really Chinese,” Momma says, flashing that rugged jawline. “How did I raise such an inauthentic child?” 

          “There’s no such thing as consent in this family!” I push my chair back from the table, rise up, and retreat to my room, twisting the lock shut.

          A day later, Momma and Father barricade themselves in the bathroom. I hear retching and vomiting, moaning, and intermittent explosive diarrhea noises. They emerge looking sallow and holding their stomachs, eyes a light shade of yellow.

          “Just a little food poisoning,” Momma says. “It’ll pass shortly.”

          I hold on to the image of her face when she threw that pencil, when she tried to stuff those mushrooms into my mouth, how she’s softened with misery now, how as an authentic Chinese mother she’s probably downplaying her suffering, and Father who has no spine and always capitulates, it’s only fitting that he share in her torment, may it all last a good long while. 

          Momma and Father are now on ventilators, breathing tubes down their throats. 

          They’re lying flat, motionless in their hospital gowns, clear pouches filling with tea-colored urine hooked to the railing of their gurneys. 

          Father’s eyes are open. Still buggy. He has a tube going into his nostril. I waive my hand around in front of his face, but he doesn’t respond. 

          In the ICU conference room, the doctor sits across the table from me. “I’ll be straight with you,” he says, “because you’re old enough to understand.” He sucks air in simultaneously through his nose and mouth. “Your parents’ livers have failed. They need emergency transplants. If they don’t each get a new liver, they could die within days.”

          Momma had told me what good fortune it was to have found those wild mushrooms along the trails in Golden Gate Park–the same variety, she thought, as the ones her parents picked and ate when she was growing up in Tainan. As usual, Momma wouldn’t let anyone question her expertise, or her decision to try to feed us what were apparently death cap mushrooms

          “We only need half your liver,” the doctor says, holding his hands six inches apart. “A quarter of your liver will go to your mother, and a quarter will go to your father.” 

          I should’ve been scared. But for some reason I was thinking of Momma in the kitchen stir frying pig liver with onions in oyster sauce, which I’d also refused. The chopsticks she hurled at me had bounced off Father’s scroll painting of serene misty mountains.

          “Will my parents go back to their normal selves afterwards?”

          He tugs at the collar of his white coat. “You can live just fine with half your liver. It’ll grow back.”

          Auntie and Uncle are on board a flight from Taipei, rushing to get here. But right now, it’s just me and the doctor, alone in this room. With lighted boxes on the wall, filled with x-rays. And a dry erase board displaying someone else’s leftover scribbles, a cryptic alphabet soup, CVA, DPOA, DNR/DNI

          “Will it hurt?” 

          “I won’t lie,” he says, sketching a crude picture of a human body on a scrap of paper. “This is the incision.” He draws a line that seems to go on forever. “We’ll give you narcotics to help with the pain.”

          He needs my consent for the operation. Says ordinarily in this situation they’d get a court to appoint a power of attorney for someone my age, but there’s no time for that now. 

          What would happen if I refused? No more violin practice. No more nightly coercion, or passive aggressive threats. 

          I’m reading over the consent form, while digging my fingers into the spaces between my ribs. Momma always chided me for being too skinny. Maybe it’ll be easier for the doctors to cut through. The consent form is written in what seems like a foreign language, though risk of death and permanent disability are terms I understand.

          “It’s truly your decision,” the doctor says.

          I hold the pen next to the line where I’m supposed to leave my autograph. Next to it is another line intended for the signature of parents or guardians of minors. I start to well up when I realize nobody is going to sign the parents’ line. 

          Several weeks later, Auntie and Uncle are still at our house. Uncle’s on the couch, watching Korean dramas. “You get all the good channels,” he says. 

          Auntie’s in denim overalls, wadding up paper towels in her hand, scrubbing our windows. “Let me cook,” Auntie had said. When I refused, all she could do was get out the Windex. Hope they fly back home soon. 

          I’m in the kitchen sculpting tapioca starch into doughy balls between my palms. I squeeze one into the shape of a bowl, fill it with lean ground pork, then fold the opening over, caressing it with my thumbs until it’s fully closed. I’m careful not to leave any gaps, as instructed by the chatty Taiwanese lady on the YouTube videos. The original recipe calls for mushrooms. I omit that part.

          I’ve recovered a lot faster than the doctor predicted. The pain’s getting better. Even though I mostly feel like lying in bed all day, learning to cook is giving me energy. Especially when I try to make Taiwanese street food, Momma’s favorite.

          Momma and Father still smell a little putrid. I bring the Ba-Wan to their room, where they’re sitting up in bed. My sloppy dumplings surely aren’t up to Momma’s high standards, though fortunately her tastebuds haven’t returned yet. 

          “Xiexie,” Momma says, over and over, her hands clasped together while she nods. “Xiexie,” like it’s the only word she knows how to say after the transplant. Momma, so incapable of nuance, no self-reflection, nothing in between. When she’s at full strength again, maybe things will just go back to how they were before. I don’t really care anymore if they do. 

          I watch them eat, soft muscles moving around in their gaunt faces. The food, dissolving into their blood, making its way to the pieces of me the doctor put in them. Afterwards, I gather their empty plates and bring them back to the kitchen. Momma’s already told me what she’d like to have for dinner, and I’m searching online for the recipe.

Eliot Li‘s work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, CRAFT, Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Cleaver, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He’s a Submissions Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. He’s on Twitter @EliotLi2.

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