Western Sierra Collegiate Academy
Maria pulled back her mother's hair as she sobbed over the sink. She kept the water running, splashing it around the edges of the sink every couple of minutes to get rid of the bile. Her mother’s hair was frayed at the ends. Maria would be the one to cut it. Her mother moved her head so that some of the little strands fell and brushed against the sink. Maria gathered it together into a ponytail. She saw the split ends, the grey roots, the frizz that framed her face like a halo of light; she saw her mother’s eyes, tightly closed, and wished she had come sooner.
Her mother muttered words she could not understand. She drew out the last syllable of each one until it resembled a groan. Her clearest sentences were in Russian. Maria, who left the country with her mother when she was still in diapers, had long since lost her limited comprehension of the language. Her mother would chatter with Maria’s aunts and uncles. Any timid request for a translation was only met with laughter. It was their turn to host the family Christmas dinner that year, so Maria moved the ottoman to cover up the burgundy wine stain on the carpet. It was much easier than washing it out. But Maria reprimanded herself for being lazy and spent the rest of the day cleaning the oily fingerprints from the bathroom mirrors and sweeping the crumbs from the kitchen. By the time of the party there was no fuel for gossip left in the house.
For a while, Maria's mother refused to let her touch the stain. She would walk into the room and stare at it, her eyes filled with disgust, trying to shame herself into stopping forever. The Catholic guilt characteristic to their family was particularly potent in Valentina. But she went for confession once a week, writing down the number of bottles to tell the priest, and then she did it all over again.
She was determined to find something more degrading than the wine stain on the carpet. She tried placing the empty bottles around the house as decorations. She placed one in the bathroom by the bar of soap and one on the mantel next to a single iris in a yellow-tinted vase. She numbered each one with a permanent marker until she got to twenty-two. She promised Maria that twenty-two would be the number she gave to the priest at the end of the week. When she reached twenty-three the next day, she figured there was no use in keeping track anymore. When Maria visited her mother’s house, all of the bottles were gone from their little places. Valentina was hunched over the bathroom sink.
Maria hugged her mother, kissed the top of her head, and splashed a bit of tap water on her face to clean her skin. Valentina looked up at Maria and made a valiant effort to compose herself. She used her shirt to wipe the water from her face—staining the collar with yellow bile—then took one look at the color and began to cry again.
Masha. Masha. She repeated the nickname with tenderness in her voice. She had spoken the same way to the little mushroom in the basket on the bathroom counter—gribochek, gribochek—holding it and caressing its cap before tucking it back in like a baby in its cradle.
Maria saw her own daughter in her mother. She was less of an adult than a child. She possessed none of the quiet strength Maria had relied upon growing up; now, Maria became the source of comfort. Everyone ends up taking care of their parents. Maria had to assume the position earlier than most, but she could not be resentful—it would have happened eventually. She named her daughter after her mother years before—little Valentina, always called Valya—certain she had chosen a worthy namesake. But now she was brushing her mother's hair out of her face and calling her Valya as if she were her own child. She hoped her mother would hear the name and think of her own mother, who must have used it when holding her hand in the middle of the night, reassuring her that there were no monsters lurking in the dark corners of her bedroom.
Maria picked up the mushroom knife and ran her finger over the engraved monogram on the side. She cleaned the residue from the blade and retracted it, scared that she would forget about the knife and hurt herself later. She put it back in the wicker basket on the bathroom counter and threw away some of the pieces of mushroom sitting inside.
She remembered the day her mother returned from her first meeting at the mushroom club. She met a man who could identify any mushroom within seconds of looking at it; a man who said Morchella elata instead of morel, Cantharellus cibarius instead of chanterelle. He was a saint in Valentina’s eyes. She would excitedly list off the names of the mushrooms she found over the phone. They were no longer gribochek; they were Armillaria mellea, Amanita virosa, Pleurotus ostreatus—
Whenever her mother saw a mushroom, her eyes would light up as if looking at her own child. She told Maria that she regretted moving to the city because there were no forested areas around; once, she credited her distant relationship with Maria’s brother to not having gone mushroom hunting with him in his childhood. Maria was certain she had never received as much affection from her mother as she reserved for her mushrooms. So Maria bought a foraging guide and started sketching the pictures inside, determined to make her a calendar for her January birthday. Once she found a mushroom on the lawn at work and brought it home to show to her mother. She handed it over with the same excitement a dog would give to its owner when presenting a stick, but it seemed her mother would only be impressed with a spore print and a scientific name to go along with it.
She promised to accompany her mother during the next mushroom foray. In the meantime, Valentina had discarded all of the decorative bottles and seemed to have no interest in finding something else to regulate herself.
When Maria found her mother on the floor, she figured there was little she could do. It was a familiar scene. She could not risk calling the ambulance and being unable to pay the fee, but she could not drive her to the hospital and multiply her motion sickness tenfold. So she cradled her mother in her arms and propped her up on a stool, keeping the sink in reaching distance just in case. Her gaze caught on the leftover pieces of mushroom in the basket. The cap faded from white to black and curled up at the ends. She did not recognize it from her field guide. She feared a mushroom poisoning, wondering if it was a false identification by the man from the mushroom club or a mistake on her mother's part. She should not have allowed her mother to poison herself. But what if it had nothing to do with the mushroom at all? Maybe Valentina had only drank, and her tolerance was getting worse over time—but it was supposed to be the other way around—
And suddenly her mother was her child, her lost, suffering child, her little Valya—
"Tell me what happened," she said, squeezing her mother's hand.
She was surprised to see her mother give her a small smile.
"Coprinopsis atramentaria. He found some and thought of me."
And her mother explained, with sudden clarity—her face lighting up with the same affection she gave to any mushroom—that the man from the mushroom club was the one who gave her Coprinopsis atramentaria—only poisonous, she said, when you drink afterwards.
Once the vomiting subsided Maria could see the pride in her mother's eyes. She insisted that it was the man's idea, not hers, but it was perfect for her: she would eat the mushroom in the morning every day, fully understanding her punishment if she had a drink anytime after. It would stop her. It was the one. She had to go through it once to ensure she would be scared enough never to do it again. It was going to work, she said, repeating it under her breath: it was going to work, it was going to work. She rested her head on the bathroom counter to steady herself. She was overcome with nausea, and yet there was a sort of elation about Valentina that transcended any pain she was in.
It was the one. It was going to work. She looked at the pieces of mushroom in Maria's hand as if they had saved her life. Part of it was affection for the gribochek, but Maria saw something similar in her mother's eyes when they stood up together in prayer and fixed their gaze on the rosy, stained-glass image of the Virgin Mary.
And Maria could understand the burgundy stain on the carpet, and she could understand the labelled bottles on the mantel, but she could not understand this. She washed the bile out of the sink and prayed her little Valya would never take her place.
An intimate story about a neglectful mother yet caring daughter. Their story is told with the help of mushrooms and alcoholism, which somehow allows the reader to immerse themselves in their world and empathize with both the mother and the daughter.
Megan Romero is a high school senior at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy in Rocklin, California. Megan has been reading and editing for Polyphony Lit for two years. When she's not writing, she can be found painting, mushroom hunting, or spending time with her family and her pet tortoise, Vern.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR