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Fiction

Dégustation

You are a spore, barely more than a twinkle in your many parents’ breeding-breathing air. They are your family, among other things, living as a colony in the dim light beneath an abandoned office building. They fill the already-damp air with the encouraging words of hopes and aspirations for you and your siblings. And though you are nothing more than a speck in the air, the sentiment is warm, just as the earthy mulch you settle into that embraces you like a blanket.

Your parents—the colony—tidy their gills, exchange tender kisses on lips and on cheeks, and close the reed-blinds just enough to still let in the silver moonlight from above. The mulch smelled of the world, your parents would later tell you. The nursery was the world, for all you knew. And though your people grow fast, and you and your siblings are on your feet, free from the mulch before your parents could blink (as they tell you), your lives are in the nursery with only short trips for play and food.

When you are old enough, you go to school with the other kids. You and your siblings are sent to different schools, in different districts; far enough away that the subtle differences of your people don’t get noticed. You’re just a slightly odd child among the many. The teachers take little notice, but the kids, oh somehow you’ve been caught in the kids’ eyes, their stares from afar feel menacing more than simple curiosity. You can’t quite pinpoint why, not yet. Perhaps, you think, your skin is too plump, too ashen. Perhaps they can see that you are different.

(you don’t notice perhaps that your responses to their questions come out jumbled to them; you aren’t aware of how they sound just yet)

Learning to speak with the other kids is like learning to speak in tongues. You find that constant smiling is off-putting to them, but laughing as a response to stories puts them at ease. You learn this balance, carefully navigating a needle through a tightly-woven tapestry to place your thread among the hundreds of thousands already coexisting as a lush landscape. You feel yourself falter every time you remember the way your classmates sometimes speak to you, and you can’t help but wonder why. Eventually, you learn the scripts. The scripts are still not enough.

(you don’t yet know that your conclusions are drawn from a network of connections within the aether of your mind; strange to the other kids yet ruthlessly efficient to you)

You’re alone at recess, as you always are, when a classmate greets you one day (a girl by the name of Jenny, whose hair twists in curls the other girls call beautiful) with a grin you’ve never seen her bare. Not to you, anyway. She’s friends with all the other girls in your class, and she’s normally found with her clique of tight-knit preteens. Although, you don’t see them right now. You feel a flutter of anxiety and discomfort that flies up from your belly to the tips of your ears.

You frown at her with suspicion. “Do you need help with something?” you ask. Because they only talk to you when they want help.

“No!” Jenny replies. “I wanted to talk to you.” You don’t make eye contact, not that you ever do, but you can see out of the edges of your vision that her eyes are pinned to yours like needles. You search over her shoulder for signs of her friends among the other children playing on the pavement. You don’t question her further, either; your mouth is closed like someone has sewn shut your lips, though the pressure builds inside for you to leave.

“What, you’re not going to say anything?” Jenny asks, tilting her head as if disappointed.

Your eyes pass hers briefly and you try to respond with a smile. Gentle, you hope. Sympathetic. “Talk to me about what?” You drag each word out of your mouth like molasses; slow, viscous, and unwilling from the aether’s tight grip.

Jenny’s expression changes; she puffs out her cheeks, contorts her face into a pout, and mutters “weirdo,” under her breath. (You still hear her, though; the tone of her voice will haunt you for longer than her words.) “Nevermind!” she says, louder this time. “They dared me to come talk to you.”

You search the playground again for her friends and this time you find them, peering around the corner of the school like a small flock of observant seagulls.

Jenny takes off with her same grin from before (glee laced with malice and no fear of consequence), running to meet with her friends.

• • • •

High school is slightly better. One of your siblings is here, although your family was careful in ensuring no one else knows you’re siblings. You’re told that the world thinks you’re cousins. This works out okay, although you two are never in the same classes together.

It isn’t long before you make a friend. That is, Kat talks to you like she needs you and spends her spare time by your side (although you don’t yet realize that she doesn’t listen to you, and your friendship grows like a rosebush around you, thorns threatening to pierce from all sides as you try to smell the flowers). She’s kind, you think. She offers you advice and tells you she knows it can be harsh sometimes “but the real world sucks!” as she’s exclaimed more than once.

You’re walking home with her after school when she offhandedly comments on the small bump on your chin. “That’s just a zit, right?” she asks. “It looks . . . weird. Y’know, like it isn’t red or anything. I get zits too so, like, don’t worry, I’m not, like, judging you or anything. It just looks funny.”

You feel around your chin with the pads of your fingers, brush over the bump with your thumb. You smile nervously and tell Kat you’ll take a look at it later.

“I’d bring you my concealer, but I don’t think it’ll match your skin,” she says, putting her hand next to your face. “I’m definitely lighter than you.”

• • • •

When you arrive home, you head straight to the bathroom before your mother can ask you about your day. You look into the mirror and see a girl with ashen brown skin and chestnut hair. You look fine, you think. Maybe a little more grey than the others. Maybe a bit rounder in the face. But you look like a girl, just like all the others your age, and your eyes fall to the pale white bump on your chin. You know what this is, and you can’t blame Kat for thinking it’s acne. And you know it’ll get bigger.

As always, your family prepares dinner for the colony. It’s a mix of mothers and fathers who come home early enough to prepare a feast and those who are home already, resting as their sprouts mature. It’s been a particularly wet week, and your home smells of fresh earth; the adults of your family have removed fresh sprouts from their bodies and now prepare them for the meal. Suddenly, it makes sense that you have one on your chin. You’re about the age when they start to grow, and the moisture in the air has been especially fertile. But you’re young, and your body is not yet used to producing sprouts so progress on yours has been slow.

You find your mother in the kitchen, cutting a sprout off her shoulder. She stayed home from work when it began to protrude past her skin and she could no longer cover it up with her sleeves. Another, smaller sprout juts out from the base of her neck. That one, you notice—in its twisting maitake form—has not quite finished its growth. It graces your mother’s neck like petals, delicate and promising. You suspect your mother will be taking more time off work.

“Homework?” she asks as she slices the portobello sprout she took from her shoulder. You shake your head. “Can you go check on the elders, then? Take a basket.” You nod and take a small, woven basket and duck under the low doorframe that leads into the basement below the basement.

The ground here is fruitful, you can smell it in the air. It’s musky and teeming with life and the darkness is peppered with luminescent fungi protruding from cracks in the brick and lazy fireflies floating along in a haze. Your grandparents—the colony’s grandparents—sit amongst the mulch and rocks in caverns connected by small hallways. They busy themselves with books and talks over tea, while some of your younger siblings run through the caverns shuttling food and drinks. You sidestep out of the way as a child almost runs into you plate-first. Next to you, a grandfather laughs. “Be careful now,” he says. “These kids have energy and absolutely everywhere to put it.”

You smile as you take your seat at a table filled with grandparents. In the dim light, you see their faces; the cracks and wrinkles in ashen skin, their hair darkened with age. Their sprouts are numerous, with too many varieties to name, all along their arms and faces and legs and hands. You hold up your basket. “Mom wanted me to come collect,” you say.

A grandmother pulls out a small knife with a shaky hand and presses it into yours. “Go ahead,” she says. “We’ll get back to our game after.” And, surely enough, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you notice the cards on the table laid out in a few games of solitaire. The elders are helpful in pointing you to their sprouts. They smile as you cut away mushroom after mushroom, patting your arm in thanks as you free them of their growths.

(this feels natural, not just because this what your people do, but because you are helping; the disconnected parts of your mind clicking together in pleasant rhythms)

“Bring us some of the feast,” they ask, as though the colony never did. Growing sprouts is too energy-intensive not to give back to the colony.

• • • •

You cut off your first sprout the day you visit Kat’s house. Her parents aren’t home, though she insists she’s allowed to have you over for a sleepover. Hesitant but excited, you agree to dinner but make an excuse to not sleep over. The sprout pops from your skin—a shiny button mushroom, pearly white and perfectly round—on your way home from school. Panicking, you pinch it at its base, pluck it free (it doesn’t hurt at all, despite what you expected) and, watching in the reflection of a closed coffee shop, you watch your skin close up around it, like nothing was there before. Holding the sprout in your hand, you get an idea.

“I’ll cook!” you say as you step foot into Kat’s home. Her house feels like a suburban castle, although from the way she talks about money, you expected something smaller. Still, it feels cozy and more like the expectation of a home than the basement of an abandoned office building in which you live.

“Cook what?” asks Kat, leading you to the kitchen. “I was just gonna order pizza or something. You can cook?”

“I help my mom all the time,” you reply. You unload the ingredients bought on your way over from your backpack; your sprout stands out from other button mushrooms in a paper bag—rounder and whiter than the store-bought ones. You pull it out to show Kat. “I found this growing on the way home,” you lie, although you know it’s a safe lie. “Thought I’d make mushroom pasta for us.”

Kat’s eyes narrow. “You know how to pick mushrooms? How do I know that’s not gonna like, kill me or something?”

You shrug, reciting another lie you’ve practised over and over on your way here. “My parents are mushroom scientists,” you say. “Uhh, mycologists. They taught me how to forage.” You drop it back into the bag and hand it to her. “You can compare them yourself!” You feel the tinge of relief as she shakes her head and tells you she trusts you, and the high of the day gives way to the fatigue that goes into growing a sprout. The spot on your chin feels numb.

Kat thanks you for cooking (her words sound hollow, but you think you’re misreading the leaves for thorns), although she brings up that she was just going to order pizza when your pasta takes more time than you expect to cook. You fry up the mushrooms and your sprout in a pan of hot butter, crushed garlic, and a bed of tart greens. The world comes together in Kat’s kitchen, and you hope she appreciates it, despite her impatience. When you taste your completed dinner, you’re satisfied with the dish, even if it’s a little on the salty side. Kat doesn’t finish it. You watch her take the empty bowls and throw the untouched pasta away.

(you don’t yet know that the break you feel is the scratching of thorns tearing your skin as you slowly break free; all you feel now is the twisting, shearing pain)

“I guess I’ll go,” you say instead of asking what was wrong. You lie to both her and yourself because it’s easier not to cry when you believe it. “I have a lot of homework to do tonight anyway,” you say. You swallow pride with sadness, churning it into disgust in your belly and tying a knot in your throat. You force yourself to smile because you know it puts people at ease, but the pit in your stomach and tangled, unformed thoughts in your mind swell into a gully. You know you should thank Kat for having you over, but the words don’t reach your tongue.

• • • •

When you tell her, your mother suggests you keep your sprouts to yourself. And that’s what you do, for a time. You cut them off before they get too big, stay home from school on particularly damp days, and sleep all day as the sprouts mature, leaving you too exhausted to do much else. You keep them in a small paper bag in your room where you know they’ll stay fresh. You bring one out sometimes to show Kat (knowing now that she’s not exactly the best person to impress with your cooking), who does seem to entertain your interest in foraging mushrooms. Once, when you bring a small handful—porcinis this time, bright yellow and buttery—you see her eyes widen. “Whoa, aren’t those super expensive?” she asks. You shrug. “Can I . . . Can I have them? Mom will be impressed that I brought these back.”

You agree, and feel a small spark of acceptance clicking into place as your friend takes your offering. You drop them back into their paper bag, take great care in folding the opening closed, and hand them to Kat.

The next day is normal. Kat talks at you, not with you, about her latest TV show obsession that you haven’t been interested in watching, and you wait until the very end of the day before asking how dinner went with her mushrooms. Your friend simply shrugs. “Mom didn’t cook it,” she says.

“Oh,” you reply, disappointed. “Why not?”

“She didn’t trust them.” You catch Kat’s eye. “Hey! I mean, how do you know they for sure aren’t poisonous? I know your parents taught you and all, but lots of things look like other things.”

You only nod. You know the energy it took for those sprouts to mature. You know that the sprouts that grow on your people are not poisonous. But that is a secret you can’t reveal. And so, you half-heartedly—defeatedly—agree that there’s a chance you’re wrong, and that it’s safer Kat’s family doesn’t eat them. You only wish Kat had told you herself.

• • • •

When you finally move out for university, you’re tired of being talked at and not listened to. You make friends with the others in first year; brief, fleeting relationships you hope will last (until you learn that they, too, find you cold and standoffish, despite the warm smiles and gentle laughter).

You offer to cook for your floor of your residence, and they think kindly of you, despite the mixed reactions to meals cooked with mushrooms. The cooking is therapeutic, an extension of your efforts as you produce something tangible to be enjoyed and shared.

“Some of these are hard to get, some are just expensive,” you tell them of the maitakes and morels and chanterelles and porcinis. “Just . . . try them?” you insist with a smile even you aren’t sure is convincing.

You find friends who listen and smile and give advice, and you’re comforted for the first time in too many years. Something feels like it’s settled into place, and you offer to share what you can. Your friends here, they trust you and they take your offerings happily. That is, until Oliver breaks up with Heather and you’re told there’s another rule you’ve not yet learned: the girls stick together, even if you were closer friends with Oliver. You suggest cooking a post-break-up feast, mentally preparing yourself to use the stores of your sprouts that sit in your fridge. Heather, Emily, and Pauline agree, but it’s only Pauline who shows up.

Pauline is sympathetic. She even offers to take some of the food home. You like her, enough that you hope her words aren’t empty and that her actions are genuine. She hovers in the doorway as though she senses the awkwardness, and smiles and laughs sympathetically at the whole ordeal. “Shit happens,” she says with an exasperated smile. “It’s probably nothing, but . . . take care of yourself.”

“It feels personal,” you say. “That’s all.”

(it feels nice, too, saying that; you’ve learned to identify your pain even if you’re still learning the language to describe it)

“I dunno. If you don’t want to ask, you don’t have to. Especially since they didn’t say anything. I mean, look, I know it’s shitty, but would it be worse if I asked them for you?”

“No, no, it’s fine. T-Thanks, though.”

(you don’t want to be a burden, and asking feels like you’re intruding upon a decision already made regardless of how you were affected; despite your friendship some walls are built with plans you were never privy to)

You’re left alone in your apartment when Pauline leaves. It takes less than a month after the break-up for neither Heather nor Oliver to talk to you ever again.

(you don’t know, yet, how fleeting these friendships can be; how deep confessions expressed long past midnight can be ignored and pushed aside when they look at you again years later like you’re a stranger)

You feel another sprout growing on the inside of your elbow, its brown ribbon-like gills slowly pushing up against your skin. That, you think, will take a while.

And it does.

You spend the next few days at home, relaxing between classes and watching the rain come down against your apartment windows as you sit nested under blankets and sipping vanilla tea. You consider calling Pauline over for dinner, but as the maitake blooms and you watch it unfold its petals as it emerges from your skin, you think otherwise. The day it blooms fully from your arm, you take your knife, dig it out from the base, and admire it on your cutting board for a moment before finding your nicest bowl to put it in. No cooking it this time, you think. You make yourself a pot of tea, placing it and your sprout on your coffee table as you nestle into your blankets and pillows on the couch and swipe on the TV to something you love. You break off pieces from your maitake, taking in the beauty of the gills and soft skin.

(the fruits of your labour deserve to be savoured for once, you think—for you understand your work and your thoughts and your intentions—you have no one else to please)

Your sprout is yours to eat, to indulge; piece by piece, all to yourself.

Ashley Deng

Ashley Deng is a Canadian-born Chinese-Jamaican writer with a love of fantasy and all things Gothic. She studied biochemistry with an interest in making accessible the often-cryptic world of science and medicine. When not writing, she spends her spare time overthinking society, culture, and genre fiction. You can find her at aedeng.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @ashesandmochi.