Duck Head

Mom decides that we’d better hurry because she needs to do some serious cooking.  But she massages each leaf, bulb, and root that she selects from the vegetable stalls, then puts them to her face and breathes in.  When I spot a purple potato worthy of being added to our stash, I hold it up for Mom’s approval.  She studies it, sniffs it, rubs it between two fingers, and then gives me the head shake.  I think about that man in Ohio who brought his spud gun to work.  He sat at his desk all day with it and no one said anything.  At closing time, the man shot his boss dead with potatoes.  I wonder if the ones he used were purple like Mom’s, if he took as much thoughtful care in picking them out, and if he washed or cooked them first before he loaded his gun.  I wonder if his potatoes closed their eyes as they zoomed through the air.   When I ask, Mom says, “If that man saves his potatoes, he has lunch.  Then he is not so angry and maybe he eats potatoes with his boss instead of kill him.”


At the butcher counter, Mom chooses the middle duck.  “That is the biggest,” she says in Cantonese, jamming her finger against the glass case.  “MeiLin, how big of an egg do you think it once was?”  She takes a potato out of her overflowing shopping basket and cradles it like a baby.  “I bet you the egg was even bigger than this.”   

“We already have so much,” I say, but Mom shakes her head and uses the potato to knock on the glass.   The butcher looks nervous, probably because he knows that Mom will haggle for the best price over anything.   Mom likes to brag that the Chinese shopkeepers on Clement Street tell all their butchers, Ai-ya, watch out for Sophie.  Hide your biggest ducks if you want to stay in business. 


While we wait in line to pay for our groceries, Mom tells me about the time she tried to hatch a duck egg with a desk lamp when she was eight years old and living in Shanghai.  She’d accidentally cooked the embryo. 

“Oh the smell, it was awful,” Mom says, shaking her head, chuckling.  “And the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.  Totally see-through, it was like a raw shrimp, and its eyes were just these black pinpricks.  Your grandpa drank a whole bottle of cooking wine to push out the stink.  Drinking all that made him sneeze for days.”  She closes her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest.  “I wonder why it shook him up so much?”  Mom was not really asking me.  This is the thing to remember about Mom’s stories: Know them, just so you have something to compare things to, otherwise you’ll never figure things out.  


As soon as we settle into the house, Mom throws herself into cooking her famous Chinese New Year dinner.  It takes hours and hours to pinch off the tips of bean sprouts and sweet peas, dice the fragrant ginger roots, purple potatoes, and daikon, and slice up the stringy gray mushrooms and flat black ones that stink up the house as they soak.  Mom washes each bok choy leaf with the care of a surgeon.  When it is time to dissect the roasted duck, Mom lets me rest.  She grabs her biggest cleaver, the one with the bamboo handle, and chops the bird in half.  She cuts off its head and gives it to me to chew on.  I go for its eyes first.  Then I dig my tongue into its empty eye sockets and lick the wrinkled hole on its face where the beak used to be.  I use my fingernails to scrape off the skin, and then set to work on the threadlike tendons and muscles.  When I have stripped the duck head mostly clean, I turn it around and around in my hands, then stick the whole thing in my mouth and chomp down with a loud crunch.  Mom says that bird eyes are the biggest part of their head, besides their brain, and that if I ate enough of them, I would never need glasses. 

At dusk, once the sun slides below the houses and the whole sky turns orange, it is time to set the dinner table.  Extra chairs are brought in so that we have nine.  I leave a big gap where Grandpa’s wheelchair will go. 

“I do not feel ready, but the day is already gone,” Mom says as she wipes her hands on her apron and surveys the table.  Some of her jet-black hair, which has wriggled out of the low bun she always wears when she’s cooking, is stuck to the sweat on her cheeks.  “MeiLin, use the special chopsticks for this dinner, the ones that are carved into spirals and painted red.” 

I nod.

“And put your Grandpa’s spot next to my seat.  I don’t want you to have to talk to him tonight.”

Mom adjusts her apron strings and then studies her palms like she is inspecting one of my potatoes.  I watch her closely, liking the way she moves when she’s nervous.  She looks like a little girl, much smaller and quieter than she really is.   I notice how dirty and ruddy Mom’s hands are in the presence of the table settings I lay out.  The glossy chopsticks and ceramic tea cups are delicate; everything about them is elegant, like fine bone china.

“Your grandpa is a no-good, that’s what he is when he drinks.  He goes crazy and doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Mom says.  “Only tea tonight.” 

I nod and look away from Mom.  I think about the man in Venezuala who broke his brain when his angry wife dropped a bushel of sweet potatoes on his head.  The doctors drilled a hole in his skull to fix him, but afterwards the man didn’t know his own name or that he was ever married.  I bet if he had eaten his duck, he would’ve seen his wife coming from a mile away.

I want to ask Mom how she plans to stop Grandpa from drinking since he always brings his own bottle.  I must look worried because she smiles real big.

“Duck is his favorite.  I saved him the biggest pieces.”

“Goody,” I say unenthusiastically.  “At least I’ll be far away from him when he starts sneezing.”  Mom snorts a laugh.

“Ah, my daughter, always using your brain.  But he is your grandfather and you cannot say everything that pops into your head.”  I wonder if Mom knows how much I know.  I wonder what happens to old stories or memories that we try to forget, if everything that we think but don’t say churns in our brains until it explodes out of our noses, like how broccoli that we eat comes out as stomach gas.  Does Mom remember my stories the same way I remember hers? 


When my aunties and uncles arrive, the dinner table is crammed with all the dishes Mom has prepared: a purple potato and sweet pea stir-fry, gingery bok choy, braised whole cod, crispy daikon radishes and water chestnuts over rice, and the roasted duck.  In the center, I’d placed Mom’s Monk Special made of garlicky gray and black mushrooms that adorn a steaming pile of clear rice noodles. 

“Sit, sit!” Mom commands everyone cheerfully, after we gather around the table.

Shit down, everybody,” Grandpa mimics. 

Mom looks down at the floor and I know what she is thinking: Brain first, mouth second.  So I spin the Lazy Susan so fast that some of the chopsticks fly off the bowls, and the duck dish skids to a stop in front of Grandpa.  Sometimes you have to put your two feet down to show who’s the boss. 


We all start talking at once.  My aunties compare parking woes—trying to find a space near our house on Chinese New Year—while my uncles compare who has the bigger appetite.  And Mom hurriedly loads up Grandpa’s plate with duck.  It grows dark outside, and our chatter softens as we get busy eating.  Mom stares at the dishes, her eyes follow the steam gently weaving up to the ceiling.  I think about the long day that I spent helping prepare Chinese New Year dinner with Mom. I think about the man and his spud gun, the angry wife and her sweet potatoes, and Mom giving me the duck head.  I want the clatter of chopsticks and slurping and chomping to go on forever, and for Grandpa to stay quiet.  Mom must read my mind because she plops another chunk of duck on to Grandpa’s plate.  He starts to complain about the duck head being gone, but a sneeze stops him.

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