My friend Callie says that Freud would have a field day with me, but Callie was raised by a white divorcée with a frequently-used Tinder account. Ma wears cardigans with all the buttons clasped, and her head of hair is undyed and half-silver. For most of my life, it seemed that her sex instinct had been ripped out of her like an afterbirth.
Ma takes the call after a moment, a quiet, “Hello?” trailing after her as she goes out into the garden. I watch her pace among red elderberry shrubs and stinging nettle, looking for signs of infidelity: a stray smile, a blush rising on her cheeks. She gives me nothing, her features composed as she squats down and fingers a yellow leaf. The bleeding-heart has been dying slowly for several months now, no matter how much she attends to it. It doesn’t do well in this climate, but Ma is persistent.
Ma hadn’t wanted to move to this house, with its large staircase and cold floors. Worse still was the small rectangular patch the realtor had called a backyard. But Ba, Jiě, and I had craved a house like this: sterile and suburban and so very white. Ma, outnumbered, had relented. And eventually, the backyard patch gave in to Ma’s green thumb. From the kitchen window, the whole of the small garden is visible.
For lunch, Ma made me a bowl of congee with a splintered boiled egg on top, its yolk raw and runny. Congee is meant to be healing—the meal I get on sick days—but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be healing from. Ba got brown rice and slices of lean chicken, because he’s diabetic. She makes separate meals for us, because Ba eats in his office, Jiě is off at college, and I like to eat alone. When I leave the kitchen, she makes something small and eats it in my abandoned seat. I don’t know what she cooks for herself, but I’ve seen sad boxes of microwave meals in the recycling. Lately, Ma has said she doesn’t trust the local produce, so we’ve all been getting rice at every meal. She buys it in bulk from the nearest Asian grocery store in Beaverton, which is still forty-five minutes too far from being convenient.
The congee, barely finished, is congealing. It develops a tight skin. I’m still watching Ma check on her plants, her back pointedly facing the window. She hangs up the phone, slipping it into her cardigan pocket. When she turns, I expect to see some sign of betrayal flash across her face, but instead, she bears the same tireless, cheerful smile. Our eyes meet, and I notice that hers are shuttered and flat.
* * *
Jiě has been at college for three years now. She only returns for holiday breaks, though she even tries to wheedle out of those visits. Spring breaks skipped for road trips, winter breaks for ski trips. Last Thanksgiving, she phoned and told us she was going to stay on campus and have a “Friendsgiving” with ready-made stuffing and rotisserie chicken. Ma still set her place at the table, to the left of mine, and we ate in silence with the empty seat between us. Even when she is at home, she is a person tucked away. Mostly she stays in her room, and when we eat together, her face is pinched and withdrawn—nothing like in the beaming photos she posts online.
I’ve been staring at our messages for an hour, the question, do you think ma would have an affair? lingering unsent. The last thing we talked about was whether she had left her strappy silver top at home. But Jiě hasn’t really been home in three years and hasn’t been close to Ma for many more than that, so I decide against it. I don’t erase the message though, watching the cursor blink after the question mark; instead I leave it there for me to either send or delete one day.
When Jiě went off to college, Ma got certified as an Oregon Master Naturalist. Ma has always liked plants, says she understands them better than people. When Jiě was born, Ma was in the middle of a master’s program in ecology. But Ba was working all the time and Jiě turned out to be a colicky child, so Ma had to abandon the program. My whole life I have been surrounded by plants: the pothos that wrapped around door frames and cabinets, the spoiled and temperamental orchids, the fiddle leaf fig that stretched to the southward windows. Ma says the trick to keeping them alive is to talk to them, to make them feel seen. Each morning, she would hum the same tune to them as she went around watering and tending. It used to drive Jiě mad hearing the same song every day before breakfast. A few years ago, she boiled over and snapped, “Can you stop humming that same annoying song?” We never heard Ma hum to her plants after that.
Ma and Herbert met during volunteer hours for the Master Naturalist certification. And afterwards at a Pacific Northwest Mushroom Association foray. And then again and again all over Portland—his presence sprouting up throughout the mossy landscape. Before Herbert, I did not know any of Ma’s friends. They were nameless calls taken in low whispers in the garden. And then Herbert arrived, named and loud and infesting our lives. Herbert is a tenured biology professor at a nearby university, where he runs a mycology lab. He and his team study pathogenic fungi, which is just a convoluted way of saying he works with mushrooms. Ma volunteers as their part-time fungal herbarium manager.
Ma says she got the job offer during her first foray with the Mushroom Association. She and Herbert were in the same small group with a foray leader who seemed content to let group members wander off on their own. Under a lodgepole pine, Ma stumbled upon a rarity: a cluster of matsutake, which go for fifty dollars a pound. Even the foray leader, absentminded as he was, admitted that he’d never seen someone so attuned to sniffing out mushrooms. For months after, the Pacific Northwest Mushroom Association homepage displayed a picture of her holding the bunch, her smile so wide it exposed the jagged left canine that she always hid.
Now I wonder how much Ma didn’t tell me, how much I remember of a story that I only half-listened to three years ago. Where and when in the gaps and slippages had Herbert taken root?
* * *
The Pacific Northwest Mushroom Association has an outdated site but a very avid website manager. It takes me an hour of slogging through archived photos to reach the year that Ma became a member, and then there’s even more slogging to find her first foray. Mostly, my digging turns up photos of white Oregonians in varying styles of rain gear, clutching woven baskets full of mushrooms. The wash of white faces makes it easier to spot Ma’s odd one out. I find this ironic, because Ma only knows what she knows about Oregon’s forests from the lu Mien pickers, who taught her that matsutake fruit under mature lodgepole. Even though foraging was their whole livelihood, even though they were skint—living in the cheapest housing on the North Portland Peninsula.
The lu Mien pickers were Ma’s first friends here. I never met them. They all passed away before I was born. When Ma first came to America she would go on hikes. Long, isolated walks away from the English she couldn’t understand and the wary eyes that bored into her. “If I could’ve understood them,” she says, “I think they would’ve told me to go back to China.” A pause. “Actually, I think they did.”
Her hikes led her into the forests, which were different from the ones in her native province of Liáoníng, but comforting nonetheless with their swaths of sacred green. Saintly and lush in their verdancy. Sometimes there was no one around—only the gallery of trees, the canopy overhead. Sometimes she came across hikers, who nodded to her as they passed. It took two months of these walks before she encountered the lu Mien pickers, who carried baskets of mushrooms on their backs. She hurried to them and asked them, “Shuō Zhōngwén ma?” Do you speak Chinese?
One spoke a smattering of Mandarin and replied, “Yīdiǎn.” A little. And to Ma, who hadn’t heard her language spill from anyone’s lips but Ba’s, it sounded like an orchestral swell. She laughed and clapped her hands like a child. She showed them groves of edible mushrooms she had encountered and noted on her walks, and that was also a shared language.
When Jiě left, I began to forage these stories of Ma’s life before us like mushrooms, harvesting them to understand her. On the Pacific Northwest Mushroom Association site, I almost skip past a photo of Ma, because the hood of her yellow rain jacket is up, covering the metallic roots that have been growing out since I was five. In a pair of my discarded rain boots—children’s boots, garishly patterned—with the dark length of her hair jutting out from under the hood, she’s almost unrecognizable. But there she is: pixelated and grinning, a flush across the crooked bridge of her nose.
The next photo is of the foray group: a cluster of pale mycophiles with their walking sticks. I spot Ma’s yellow raincoat and a blurred, fleshy hand at her waist. I follow the arm to Herbert and his large stature looming over the group. The green jacket he’s wearing clashes with his ruddiness: the pink of his hand on my Ma and his rubbery lips—did he put those on my Ma too?—covered by the red bristles of his mustache, his hair, the rosacea on his cheeks. Everything rendered redder by the fury that wells up in me. Sure, Ba was not a handsome man, but between him and Ma, they shared a language, a culture, an understanding of where each of them came from. Herbert couldn’t begin to fathom the poverty of China, the landscape of the Liáoníng countryside Ma came from. Herbert probably couldn’t even pronounce Liáoníng.
Last September, Ma invited him to our Mid-Autumn Festival dinner. Because Ma never had many friends, Ba let it happen, watching with pursed lips as Herbert tried to pick up a mooncake with his chopsticks. He introduced himself to me as the mushroom guy (“I’m the fun-guy. As in fungi?”) and had to admit he needed a fork to eat the spread Ma made.
“The duck is delicious,” he said, his words swallowed up by his open-mouthed chewing. And Ma, of all people, beamed.
“Hěn hǎochī,” I added, “xièxiè, Ma.”
“What does that mean? Thank you?” Herbert asked.
I chose not to respond, placing a piece of fatty duck on my tongue, letting its crisp brown skin crunch under my molars in the silence that ensued. As far as I was concerned, Herbert could fuck off to whatever mushroom-ridden forest he came from.
I zoom into this photo to see if Herbert has wrapped his arm around the woman on his other side, but her basket, slung around her shoulder, blocks me from seeing.
* * *
I keep returning to the website to search for breadcrumbs. It’s been two weeks since I first came to it. It’s the limbo of not knowing that consumes me. Ma notices. I hear her light footsteps coming up the stairs and I slam my laptop closed so she won’t see the photo on the screen. She brings me a plate of sliced persimmons and a bottle of water, because Ma has a thing about the tap water. I’ve told her that the plastic bottles are wasteful, but she insists.
“Everything okay?” she asks, rubbing circles on my back. I lean slightly into her touch.
I almost ask her then, point-blank, “Are you having an affair?” But I can’t make the words leave my throat. Because if it’s not true, Ma would never recover from the affront. And if it is true, then I would never be able to look her in the eye again, knowing she had chosen a white man over us. So I clear my throat of the question and nod. Ma knows something isn’t right, but she lets it be. I watch as she leaves my room and disappears into Jiě’s before opening the laptop again. Ma dusts Jiě’s room every week, and she sits there for hours sometimes.
I move on from the photos and turn my attention to the “In the News” section of the site. I’m luckier this time, because Herbert and his lab appear in an article on the second page. It’s from a small local paper I’ve never heard of. The lede talks about an outbreak of pathogenic fungi on the North Portland Peninsula, specifically the Albina district. I’ve heard Herbert and Ma talk about the area, Fun Guy referring to it as “Toxic Town” in homage to the chemical corridor to the east of us. The rest of the article is hidden behind a yearly subscription paywall, as if someone doesn’t want me inquiring further.
* * *
Ma has the Thursday through Sunday shift at the lab, so on Monday three weeks after I’ve scoured the site, I pilfer cash from Ba’s wallet and pretend to go to the school bus stop. Instead, I make my way to the closest TriMet stop and wait patiently for the bus to Portland to pull up. From the cover of the stop, I notice gray clouds gathering. Something is bound to burst: if not a storm, then my curiosity.
The driver seems surprised to find anyone from our sleepy suburb at the stop so early. It takes an hour to reach the closest stop to the university the lab is housed in, and then it’s a fifteen-minute walk through the drizzle without an umbrella. The lab isn’t on any of the outdoor campus maps, and when I ask the girl at the information desk for directions, she has me spell out ‘mycology.’ Surprise flits across her face when she finds it, and she directs me to the northwest corner of campus.
From the photos Ma has shown me of the fungal herbarium, I know that the windows of the lab overlook a courtyard. I don’t know what rooms surround that courtyard, but my hastily-made plan is to find one where I can sit for the day and watch the man Ma is having an affair with. To see what Ma does from Thursday to Sunday—what keeps her there until dark, sometimes until nine or ten, while I wait at home for the sound of her car. Each one of those late nights accompanied by the fear that this is one where she doesn’t return.
Here is how I know that Herbert loves Ma. Two years ago, Herbert came to the house to drop off the cat after our spring break trip. Ma was in the backyard, clipping flowers for the kitchen: a blend of rhododendrons and lilacs. She always pruned the half-spent flowers, and the resulting bouquet was faded, touched by morbidity.
I opened the door, and Herbert—looking a little worse for wear with a cat scratch across his neck like a glossy pink scarf—greeted me with the cat carrier.
“Hey, kiddo. Is your mom around?” The affection of his tone screeched against my sensibilities. I offered him a stiff nod. I let the cat out and then called for Ma through the kitchen window.
“Hello, hello,” Ma said as she bustled inside, her arms laden with wilting flowers, their petals translucent and damp. “Thank you, Herbert. We got you something from our trip as thanks. Let me grab it in a moment.”
I watched as Ma put her trimmings in a vase. She fingered a nearly dead leaf with her thumb and index finger, frowning at its brittle curl. When she left to get Herbert’s cheap souvenir gift, the leaf detached and fluttered onto the white kitchen table, and I saw Herbert pause. He held it in between his fingers gingerly like Ma did. I watched an expression flit across his face, a stab of tender hunger, and I watched as he pocketed the leaf quickly—the act of harvesting this souvenir a shallow nourishment for a chasm-wide yearning. I recognized it. That longing for scraps of second-hand attention: even broken leaves of it.
I was an accident. So was Jiě, but only in terms of timing. Ma and Ba had always planned to have a child. Child, singular. I have always been competing with Jiě, or else the ghost of her, for the leftovers she does not want. I was accidental in the sense of never meant to be, could not afford to have. A sex position from the dusty book of sex positions gone horribly awry. The beginning fracture that drove Ba to work longer hours and distance to blossom between them.
* * *
The building is locked, so I wait in the rain for someone to open the door. Eventually someone does: a graduate student clutching a pack of cigarettes. I slip in as he leaves, ignoring the confusion on his face as he takes me in: a girl soaked to the bone, a touch too young for a college campus.
Most of the rooms around the courtyard are other small labs or locked classrooms. I’m nearing the end of my rope checking out the last few rooms that would let me see into the lab, when one of the doors swings open. It’s diagonal from Fun Guy’s lab—a decent view—so I sit on the ground near the tall windows, pulling my damp knees to my chest. Already I can feel a cold blooming in the back of my throat. By the end of the work day, I’m hoping my clothes will have dried, and the rain will have stopped, and I can return home like nothing was ever amiss.
Of all the labs in the building, Herbert’s is the busiest. People without lab coats filter in and out. Some stay for a while, making easy conversation with the members of the lab as their vitals are taken. Others seem hesitant to enter, their eyes dart from corner to corner, taking in the herbarium, the lab assistants, the equipment. Spooked is the only word I can come up with—as if at any moment, they expect something horrific to jump out at them.
It takes me two hours of observation before I realize what’s wrong with them. Their bodies have started growing mushrooms. None of these people are white.
In the earlier visitors, the patches are small, easily covered by clothing and hard to see from where I’m sitting. But then an elderly man comes in, and I notice that there is something malformed running along the ridge of his arms and his shoulders like a hunchback that his jacket cannot hide. He shrugs it off, and he’s a veritable forest of mushrooms, the sheer variety putting Ma’s herbarium to shame. I rub my eyes until they’re red, until my contacts threaten to rip from the friction. I briefly entertain the idea that I’ve slipped into another reality. That somewhere between home and here, I fell through a tear in this world and into another, where human-fungus hybrids like this man exist. My phone vibrates, jarring me from my interlude in this alternate plane. It is Callie, texting to ask why I’m not in school, which seems so normal—mundane even—just like everything else in the building aside from these people that come and go.
A woman enters and takes off her head scarf, revealing a shock of white lion’s mane mushrooms blooming from her head, replacing her hair. A boy with toadstools erupting from his chest comes in, clutching his mother’s hand. A pregnant teenage girl tries to suppress her sobs. Herbert offers her a tissue, pats her shoulder. There are mushrooms sprouting from the soil bed of her skin, from the swell of her belly.
When she leaves, I watch as she lingers in the hallway and runs a hand through the fruiting, fleshy stems, cooing gently to the hybrid fetus curled inside her. I ache. I wonder if Ma ever sang to me when I was inside her, like she used to sing to her plants.
The song Ma used to hum was a hand-me-down from her mother: a nursery rhyme lullaby called xiǎo mó gu gū niáng: little mushroom girl. Ma’s love affair with forests began when she was a child. The woods have always called to her like a siren song—from the deciduous trees of Liáoníng to the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest. She spent her childhood in the canopied landscape, amusing herself and gathering edible mushrooms while her parents worked the farm. At dusk, she would return, bearing the returns of her labor, and her mother would exclaim over these riches, pat her cheek affectionately and call her her xiǎo mó gu gū niáng.
When Ma came here, she didn’t know a lick of English. In her schools, the only foreign language they’d taught was Russian. The customs officer had to tell her “Welcome to the United States” three times before giving up, waving her through. Ba knew English and was working on his postdoctoral research, but he was also ten years older than Ma and had had more time to study. They met in university when Ma was a fourth-year student and Ba, a professor. She was older than most girls in her glass, and unengaged. It was a short courtship. Some might call it a marriage of convenience.
Ma did not need to know English to understand the communion of light and leaves, the undulation of prismatic Saxon greens under a high noon sun. The lu Mien pickers introduced her to other foragers who knew this mother tongue: Asian refugees, Indigenous peoples, undocumented Latinos, disabled veterans. If she gave them the mushrooms she gathered on her walks, they would give her things in return: English cassette tapes, children’s books, plant cuttings to propagate. Most of them lived on the North Portland Peninsula, close to the Columbia Slough. Over the years, Ma watched as her friends got sick and died before their time. She invested in a black dress, kept it hanging at the ready in her closet for the next in a series of funerals for the prematurely dead.
Eighteen years after she left her master’s program, the illnesses were stranger, the deaths more gruesome, the caskets closed. Ma persisted, following the question of the peninsula and its casualties to a nearby university lab. She needed to be the deliverance for the friends she lost to the land. Which is to say that Ma didn’t belong to any of us. Not to Ba, not to Herbert, not to Jiě. Not to me.
* * *
PORTLAND, ORE. – Mushrooms have taken root inside residents of the North Portland Peninsula. Experts believe that the disease originated from the Columbia Slough, where millions of gallons of Portland’s sewage, the Portland International Airport’s deicing fluid, the waste of two hundred nearby industrial factories, and the pesticides of the city’s surrounding farms and golf courses wind up.
“Fungi have always been found in human bodies—in oral cavities, on the skin, in our lungs, on our nails. Researchers have documented some 267 fungal species in our digestive tracts alone. Healthy individuals have cells designed to fight off fungal infections, but the residents of the North Portland Peninsula often have compromised immune systems,” Professor Herbert Johnson, the chief mycologist at Oregon University’s Plant-Pathogenic Fungi Lab, said.
The communities along the Slough are largely comprised of African Americans and recent immigrants from Laos and Cambodia. For many of these communities, the housing along the Slough is the only affordable option in a rapidly gentrified Portland. But decades of build-up in the waterway have resulted in the accidental ingestion of crude oil, pesticides, and plastics—which fungi break down and consume.
“Parasitic fungi feed on decay, and it would not be a stretch to say that those afflicted are decaying.”
—Excerpted from an article in the Albina Gazette