Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Cure for the Mulligrubs (Draft I)

This is a true story.

There was a girl who lived in a small fishing town where all the men wore beards and the women button down shirts with the sleeves rolled up.  Gutting the fish was women's work, and they cut their hands on the gills.  The salt seeped into each new wound, but the women were tough and didn't even seem to notice, or if they did, they never complained.  Mostly, the women worked outside on their porches, even in the frequent mist and fog, the brine cast upon the nearby shore.  Their hair was almost always wet.

The girl would help her mother, delivering knives from the kitchen or bringing out brown shopping bags her mother used to sop up and throw away the fish guts.  By age five, the girl was so used to this that she learned how to take the eyeballs out of a fish head, how to separate which fish could be used for market,which for food and which for bait.  But one morning, as she was brushing her teeth, she noticed something about her hands.  Something was growing from the palms.  Her mouth gaped open so wide, she dropped the toothbrush on the floor and, bringing her hands closer to her face, she saw nubs of cream colored disks protruding every quarter of an inch of so.

The girl grabbed a dirty piece of white soap and started scrubbing vigorously.  The mysterious things fell into the stained drain, little shreds of spongy somethings getting clogged on the stopper then forced down by the faucet. But the more she scrubbed, the more it hurt, leaving moon shaped imprints, as if someone had pressed fingernails into her skin,  hard enough to leave marks.  Raw, her hands almost looked normal again, like her mother's.  No one would notice, but she ached and hid her tears.

She was about eight years old the day this happened, which meant she was long since proficient at fish gutting, had learned how to clean up blood enough so the wooden chopping table would not hold bacteria and had mastered cooking fish in a variety of ways--because fish was what they mostly ate.  It was only the three of them, her father who dragged his soaking self through the back door each evening, her mother and her.  Her father was rarely in a good mood, grousing about the shrinking fish population, the old boat, his fishing partners and the food.  Fish this, fish that.  Fish with rice, fish with potatoes, fish mixed with stale bread and old butter.  He drank bourbon before, during and after the meal, yelling at her mother, slapping the girl upside the head, calling her a stupid little thing and why couldn't she ever get anything right, though the girl never really knew what she had done wrong.

The worst nights were when her father brought his fishing mates home (the same ones he complained about), told her mother to bring them more bourbon and demanded the girl give him a kiss like real daughters did their fathers.  "Now go kiss your uncles," he said, and each time she did, their beards rubbed rough against her girly cheeks and all she could smell was alcohol when they laughed with their mouths open.

Meanwhile, the strange half circles kept growing, more deeply embedded, it seemed, with each passing day.  It became more and more painful for her to wash them down to the root, so much so that she decided to skip a day or two just to see what would happen and to spare herself more misery.  Within three days, she discovered the things were mushrooms--not toadstools like the kind in a field, but the kind that grew in columns on tree bark.

Horrified, she stole a piece of steel wool from the kitchen and scrubbed until she bled, red mixing with water, pink flushed down the same pipe as fish scales and fingernail dirt.  She wrapped clean rags around each hand, wincing and wondering how she would hide the wounds.  She needn't have worried, though.  Her mother asked casually, and the girl said she had cut herself on gills and washed in the salt too hard.  "Silly girl," said her mother, handing her a pair of rubber gloves used rarely, and only to pin strong, still-live fish to the chopping table. "You know better than that."

Her father didn't even notice.

This went on for several years, and by the time the girl was a teenager, she didn't even bother to scrub off the mushrooms.  She stole a few dollars to buy several pairs of rubber gloves which she wore every day.  "Why you doing that, girl?" her father demanded.  "Be like your mother and toughen up."  He grabbed one of her hands tightly, the rubber glove bending the mushrooms so far over that she could feel the tips breaking off.  He slapped her across the face.  "Few more of those should help," he said.

The girl was so angry that evening that as she was cooking the rice mixed with fish, she took off the gloves and dumped the pieces of mushrooms into the pot.  "Let's see how he likes this," she thought.  The fragments of fungus were practically invisible, stirred amongst the other simple ingredients, but she got great satisfaction knowing he would eat her years of pain.  She wondered briefly if the particles would make a difference in the taste of the food, and when she lifted a forkful to her mouth to test the rice's texture, there was something a little different, something she couldn't quite name.

The girl scooped a big bowl for her father, a small bowl for her mother and barely any for herself.  If the mushrooms were going to make them sick, she didn't want any part of it.  Her mother was tough and probably could get over any illness the ingredients might bring on, but she hoped if the mushrooms were poisonous, her father would get really sick or even...  She stopped her thought there. 

She watched him closely as he gulped down the first three spoonfuls then stopped. 

"What'd you do different, girl?" he boomed.

"Nothing, father," she said.  "It's the same recipe I always use."

"Well it tastes better."

"It does," said her mother.  "The fish must have been in a good mood today."

Her mother asked for seconds, her father for thirds, and now, nervous, the girl again served her parents.

The next day, her father came off the boat, but he was a little quieter.

"Get me my bourbon, girl," he said.  But he drank just a little less.  "Where's my supper?"

The girl again served her parents.

"Why, it's even better than yesterday!" said her mother.

Her father nodded.  "By God, it is. Huh."

This time, he ate four bowls of the potato-fish concoction, the girl wondering if she was slowly poisoning them all.  But it did taste good, so she actually ate a full bowl herself, knowing she had broken off bigger edges of her mushrooms this time, more out of curiosity than anything else. 

By and by, the girl added more and more mushrooms, always leaving enough nub on her hands so as to avoid pain.  During dinner, she kept her hands cupped to hide the evidence, but her parents were so engrossed in the increasingly delicious meals that they didn't even look at her hands.

Each night, her father came home happier, drinking now only a single serving of bourbon, then eventually, half.  One night, he washed his face until it almost smelled like soap instead of seawater, pulled his wife to him and kissed her cheek.  Her mother blushed.

The next night, her father did the same, but this time, he also came over to the girl, bringing his hand toward the top of her head.  She winced, preparing herself for a strike, but instead, he tussled her hair.

The next night, he brought his rowdy friends home with him.  "Taste this rice dish my daughter's been making," he said. It almost sounded like bragging, and he didn't demand she kiss any of them.

The men at heartily, grunting that this was good, better than what she usually cooked.  "You finally got her to do something right, eh?" they laughed.

"She's a good girl," he said.

Word soon spread about the girl's cooking.  Her father, to her and her mother's surprise, started bringing home more men from the town, some they had never met before.  "Try my daughter's cooking," he said.  "It's amazing!"

By this time, she could not believe the change in her father, and she actually worried she couldn't grow the mushrooms fast enough to supply food for the increasing numbers he brought home with him.  But as more and more people came to dinner--some women, some men--the mushrooms grew more quickly and bigger, and the people from the town brought their own potatoes and rice and fish so they wouldn't be a burden on the girl's family.  Now, the girl didn't even bother wearing the rubber gloves unless she was gutting fish.  She had learned to break off the mushrooms far down to the base,leaving enough that she never felt an ounce of pain.  And no one ever really looked closely, though once in awhile, when she had to shake hands, people would comment on how soft they were.

"Must be the rubber gloves," she mumbled.

One day, her father came home from fishing and said suddenly, "Girl, no more fish gutting for you.  You're the cook for the family."

Her mother beamed and nodded, agreeing that the girl was indeed a talented cook and that such a skill should not be wasted on fish entrails.  Besides, her mother had grown to like her own job, and she felt relieved at not having to both clean fish and cook.

The girl's reputation for cooking soon spread through the town.  Lines began to form at the girl's house.  They all wanted her food.  So the girl said to her father, "Perhaps we should charge a little money.  Then they won't have to bring their own rice and fish and potatoes."

"I think it's a good idea," he said.  "What do you think, mother?"

"It think it's a good idea," her mother said, smiling.

At first, they charged just a little bit, enough to cover their expenses.  But the more popular the girl's cooking became, the more the family discovered they could raise the prices, not enough to inconvenience the customers, but enough to bring in extra income until the girl's father did not have to fish at all but could help her mother cleaning the fish.

And so, that is how it went, the mushrooms growing bigger each day, the girl enjoying cooking more and more and varied meals, including breakfast and lunch, the money rolling in until no one in her family had to gut fish because they could afford to buy already clean ones as well as other ingredients.  Eventually, the family built their own pub, the only one in town, and everyone was happier.  And the girl never told a soul about her mushroom hands.

Until now.   

Copyright Katherine M. Gotthardt
All rights reserved.

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