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Eating Bitterness

Every evening we tie Mama down.

It’s my job to fold a clean rag for her to bite on, so she won’t hurt her tongue. Three folds, hot dog style. Now that I’m thirteen Baba even lets me place it between her teeth. Ray, four years younger, is too little to do anything except watch, but he wouldn’t want to help anyway. He still thinks only girls should bother with this stuff.

Baba does most of the important parts. He helps Mama into her seat at the dining room table. Buckles the leather straps around her ankles and wrists. Lines up three wooden chairs in front of her.

When Mama is secured and we’re all in our seats, Baba unwraps her scarf from around her neck. Peels away the soft layers of cloth, one after another, to reveal her second mouth.

It sits at the base of her throat, right above her collarbone. No lips. No teeth. Just a narrow slit like the eye of a snake, searching for prey.

Mama tilts her head back. A tongue emerges from her second mouth, wet and pink, and licks at the air. It can taste all the negative emotions we’ve accumulated throughout the day. How lonely I am at school. How stressed Baba is about the layoffs at his company. How angry Ray gets about everything, like when the older boys pick on him at recess, or when he doesn’t get strawberry ice cream for dessert.

Mama’s second tongue laps all these feelings up. Our fears, our worries, our woes. They leave our minds and take form on her body as bulges and bumps. Like tiny fists extending out beneath her skin.

On Bad Days, when we have too many feelings for her to digest, the growths split open and bleed. Mama strains against the straps like a wild animal. She screams through the rag between her teeth.

Most days, though, everything stays under her skin where it belongs. And me and Ray and Baba, we feel better. Empty. Light as air.

When it’s all over, when Mama’s eaten as much as we need her to, Baba takes off her restraints and smooths back her hair. Mama gives us our vitamin gummies. Asks us if we’ve finished our homework. Tucks us into bed, on a normal day, or lies down in front of the TV, on a Bad Day, to hide her bleeding body beneath blankets and scarves, and waits for our sorrows to scab over.

For months now I’ve been checking my neck in the mirror, hoping.

Today I find it. Just above my collarbone, where there used to be a smooth expanse of skin, there’s a tiny nub, no bigger than the tip of my pinky finger. Like a new tooth trying to poke through the gum.

Mama sees it when I come down for dinner with my chin held high. Her eyes flash down to my neck for a moment, and I think she might say something. You’re growing up. I’m proud of you. Congratulations. But her gaze skids away from mine, like a car from a wreck, and she turns back to the stove without saying a word.

After dinner, while Mama’s clearing the dishes, I sneak upstairs to the master bedroom.

Mama keeps all her scarves in the back of her walk-in closet. Dozens of them, of all shapes and colors. She has plain scarves, white and beige and charcoal, the kind every Asian mom gets at H-Mart for five bucks a pack. And scarves she brought with her from Hangzhou, embroidered with patterns of flowers and birds. Even a real silk scarf, bright scarlet, that Baba got her on his business trip to Paris last year, which she saves for special occasions. I wish she would wear it more. None of the other moms in our town have any scarves as exquisite as that one.

I’m not supposed to touch them, not even the ones from H-Mart. That rule made sense when I was younger. Less so now I’m almost a woman myself, old enough to be careful.

The dishes are still clanging in the kitchen. I pull the silk scarf off its hanger and drape it around my neck, the way I’ve seen Mama do it. Scarlet shimmers over my chest, my shoulders. I slide my hand underneath, to feel the base of my throat. What I have is still only a nub, still unfinished and small.

We look so similar, me and Mama. I used to be proud of how much I looked like her. We have the same small flat nose, the same golden-brown skin, the same straight black hair. And we’re both so small and childlike, barely over five foot. That’s what all the other girls at school tease me about the most: how short I am, how flat I am, how young I look. How I’ll never be woman enough to hold the sorrows of an entire family.

Most of the other girls at school have their own scarves now, the trendy styles you see on TV: polka-dot scarves, infinity scarves, scarves tight as chokers to show off the faint impression of what lies underneath. Sometimes they trade scarves for an afternoon to see if their crushes will notice. In the locker room after PE, they take turns comparing their second mouths whenever Coach Vaughn has her back turned. I watch from my corner as they show each other. Fingers touching in the dark.

They’re normal girls, turning into normal women. They’re not like me, who’s always been different, always been left behind.

I look in the mirror, at the girl with the scarlet-draped throat, and I try to picture what it would feel like to be grown up and married. To use my second mouth to take care of a family. To make my husband and children feel better, no matter how many Bad Days we had. I make myself a promise: when my second mouth is fully grown, I will use it better than Mama does.

I decide to pop the question on Saturday, during our weekly trip to H-Mart. The whole day, I butter Mama up. I get dressed before eight, even though it’s not a school day. I wash the breakfast dishes without being told. But all my effort is wasted because it’s a Bad Day again, the fifth or sixth one this month, and Mama is never happy on days when her growths bleed.

We pick up the carrots, the potatoes, the live crabs in their crowded tanks, and I still can’t find the right moment to bring it up. By the time we get to the frozen aisle, to peruse the selection of ready-made dumplings, I know I have to make a move.

“Mom,” I say, “I’ve been thinking. Maybe it’s time for me to start wearing a scarf.”

Her shoulders stiffen. “No.”

I put my hand on the shopping cart, next to hers. “Why not? All the other girls have one already.”

Sha hai zi,” Mama says. Stupid child. “Your mind should be on your homework. Not on attracting the attention of boys. When I was your age, we weren’t even allowed to choose our own scarves. All the girls had to wear the same standard-issue ones until they graduated.”

“So what? That’s not how it works in America. Everyone chooses their own here.”

She shakes her head, her lips pressed into a firm line. “No matter what country you’re in, there’s no turning back time. You shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up.”

What does she mean, such a hurry? I’m not in a hurry. Compared to the other girls at school, I’m behind schedule.

I open my mouth to protest, but she cuts me off. “I’ll decide when you need a scarf, understand? Now give me a hand with these dumplings.”

I open the freezer door without meeting her eyes. In a few months it will be winter, and I’ll be able to cover up my second mouth with a winter coat and hood. But everyone will still know I’m not wearing a real scarf. It’s not like they’ll forget.

I pile the icy bags of dumplings into our cart. And freeze.

In the aisle across from us, there’s a woman without a scarf. Her entire neck is bare, and where her second mouth should be, there’s only a round pink scar. As though that mouth once puckered up for a kiss and got stuck that way forever.

We’ve all heard about women like her, though I’ve never gotten so close to one of them. Women who choose not to use their second mouths, or worse yet, pay a surgeon for an illegal operation to get rid of it entirely, forcing their husbands and children to suffer alone. Unnatural women. Selfish women.

“Don’t stare at her,” Mama scolds me in Mandarin.

I tear my eyes away. Look back down at my feet.

For the rest of the day, Mama and I don’t mention scarves again. Our conversation feels oddly performative, as though a great big hole has been cut out of the middle of it and we’re dancing on tiptoe around the edges.

Baba calls to say he’ll be working late at the office again, so at dinner, Mama doesn’t bother to make conversation with me or Ray, just leaves our bowls of niu rou tang on the table and scoops hers into her mouth like she doesn’t taste it. Every once in a while, she picks away at one of the old growths on her arms. Slides a fingernail under the scab and pulls.

The fifth time she does this, I shoot her a look. “Can you please stop doing that at the dinner table, Mom? We’re trying to eat.”

“You’re gonna get in trouble,” Ray whispers in delight.

“Shut up, Ray.”

Mama looks at me. “What, so now I’m not allowed to do what I want to in my own house?”

“All you ever think about is what you want. You don’t even pay attention to me and Ray anymore.”

“That’s not fair. You know I’ve had a lot to deal with lately.”

“Not as much as Baba. He’s in the office all day. All you have to do is sit at home.”

She points her chopsticks at me. “Watch your tone. Nobody else I know has such an ungrateful daughter.”

“You always blame everything on me. I bet I would be a normal woman if you were, too.”

Her hand flies up. It’s been years since she’s hit me, and it’s triumph I feel, rather than fear. Like if she hits me, I win.

But the blow doesn’t land. Instead she puts her hand to her neck, adjusts her scarf, and picks up her chopsticks again. We eat the rest of the meal in silence. A ferocious silence, not a submissive one. Even Ray shrinks back in his seat.

Every morning I hide my neck under oversized hoodies. Pull the hood up. Tuck my chin down. Ignore my second mouth, even though it’s getting bigger and bigger.

This lasts until Friday, when we have to give oral presentations assigned by Mr. Johnson, who cares about things like professional attire.

When it’s my turn, I stand up in front of the whiteboard in a pink button-down blouse. It has the highest collar I own. Still not high enough to cover my throat.

I’ve only spoken a few sentences when a girl in the front row lets out a shocked chuckle, more like a honk than anything else. Then the girl sitting behind her, with curly red hair and a scarf as white as snow, begins to giggle too.

I can’t have mispronounced anything. I’ve been careful. I’ve said all the terms exactly the way Mr. Johnson does.

But their gazes aren’t on my face. I look down.

The tongue of my second mouth has come out. It sticks out at everyone, a wild thing.

Mr. Johnson stands up and clears his throat. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. He reaches toward his desk and hands me a bathroom pass, even though I haven’t asked for one. Laughter follows me as I go.

Tonight, when we tie Mama down, I keep my anger at the forefront of my mind. I want her to take these thoughts away. I don’t want to feel this way anymore.

I think about my sympathy for Baba, who works so hard. Baba, who is so kind, so patient, even when Mama can’t do her job. He should have married a woman who could handle all of his problems, no matter how hard it got.

And I think about how lonely it feels to be the last girl to grow her second mouth, the last girl without get a scarf.

Most of all, I think about how it’s Mama’s fault that she made me this way.

We take our seats. Baba takes off her scarf. Mama’s second tongue slurps these feelings away. And for a moment, a brief and glorious moment, I’m not mad at Mama anymore.

Then Mama screams.

A growth on her right calf bursts open. Like a popped balloon filled with red paint. Blood splatters against my cheeks and hands. I feel my anger punch into me again, half-digested and strange. Another growth explodes, on her left shoulder, and on the chair beside me, Baba recoils.

Ray slides off his chair and runs up to her. “Is Mama okay?”

The tendons stand out on Mama’s wrists. She convulses. The noise that comes out of her is primal, guttural, like a physical thing someone is ripping from her throat.

Baba kneels by Mama’s side. “Go play in your room, Ray.”


“Because when your father tells you to do something, you do it.”

Ray trudges toward the stairs, then stops and pouts in my direction. “How come I have to go if she gets to stay?”

Baba shoots me a look. “Both of you. You’re still too young to have to see this.”

He doesn’t understand. I’m not a child anymore. I’m old enough to help.

“What happened?” I ask Baba, hoping I’ll distract him enough to change his mind. “Is it serious?”

He runs a hand through his hair. “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine. Just get upstairs so I can help your mother.”

Nine o’clock comes. Nine thirty. Ten. And still Mama and Baba don’t leave the dining room. All we hear are those soft, guttural groans.

Every day is a Bad Day now. Bad enough that Mama stays in her room without coming out, not even to cook for us or to watch TV. We don’t see her at all except for our nightly ritual, and more often than not, the emotions she eats come right back up. It feels strange to brush my teeth and get ready for bed with all the emotions of the day still locked in my head. I picture them as birds trapped in a small room, battering their wings against the walls, trying to get out.

Baba took Mama to the hospital the second time it happened, but the doctor didn’t do much, just gave Mama a supply of over-the-counter painkillers and told her to be patient. This kind of thing happens to a lot of women, he says, when their digestive systems have too much to process. It should pass on its own.

But it’s been three weeks since then, and it’s only gotten worse. It gets so bad that Baba calls Wai Po, who flies here all the way from Hangzhou.

I haven’t seen Wai Po since I was little. Wai Po is even shorter than Mama and me, and her hair is white at the roots, but her face looks like ours. She wears a purple scarf and a clashing pair of olive-green corduroy pants. Faint white scars crisscross her hands and ankles from all the sorrows she ate for my Wai Gong, during all the long decades of their marriage. I try not to stare at her scars, but it’s hard to look away.

She greets Ray first, coaxes him out of his shell with a box of candies from Hangzhou. Then she turns to me.

“Look at you,” she says. “My favorite granddaughter, all grown up.”

“I’m your only granddaughter,” I say, in my slow and childish Mandarin.

“Doesn’t mean you can’t be my favorite.” She chuckles. “Look. I brought you something too.”

She rummages through her suitcase and pulls out a flat white box.

I open it. Inside sits a fold of cloth. Pale blue, like someone stole a piece of sky and wove it into cotton. Wai Po takes it out and shakes it open. Gathers it around my neck.

“Your mother mentioned you’d started growing,” she says. “Said she didn’t want to let you start wearing one of these until you were older. I told her that was nonsense. How long was she planning to let you walk around town with your second mouth out for everyone to see?”

Xie xie, Wai Po. It’s beautiful.”

Wai Po misinterprets my expression. “Don’t worry about what your mother says. You’ve got Wai Po on your side. I’ll defend you.”

I should be thrilled. A week ago, I would have been. But now I don’t think I’m excited at all. Instead there’s a sick feeling in my stomach, like I might throw up.

“Now,” she says, “let’s go take a look at your mother.”

“Do you think she’ll get better?”

“Of course she will. I remember when I went through a time like this. A hot cup of ginger root tea, that’s what she needs. There’s nothing ginger root can’t fix.”

It seems to me there are a lot of things ginger root can’t fix. A gunshot wound, for example. Or a ginger allergy. But I nod along, because I don’t dare contradict Wai Po.

I take her to the master bedroom, where Mama lies curled up against the wall. Every time I see her, guilt wraps its fingers around the pit of my stomach and squeezes.

Mama rolls to face us, pulling the comforter up to cover her shoulders. Her hair is unwashed, her face pale. “You didn’t need to come.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m fine, really. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“Your husband says otherwise. Take off that blanket now, let’s see what we’re dealing with.”

Mama turns to me. “How about you run down to the store and buy us some ginger root? We don’t have any left.”

“No,” says Wai Po. “Let her stay. She’s old enough to see this.”

I try to look grateful, try to look older than my age, but it’s hard to keep a smile on my face while I look at the marks my anger has made on Mama’s body. The lesion protruding between two vertebrae. The gaping wound on the back of her thigh that looks like it’s been picked open over and over. Wai Po cleans them with some kind of Chinese medicine and wraps them in bandages, one at a time. Is this what it means to be a grown-up woman? I’d thought it would be a privilege, to have all these emotions entrusted to our care.

Mama is crying. I hadn’t noticed until now. It’s a grown-up kind of crying, the kind where she gets silent and still rather than loud and violent.

When all her lesions are bandaged, Wai Po and I walk down to the kitchen together. I try to figure out how to formulate the question in my head.

“Is Mama,” I say at last, “Is Mama really hurting as much as it looks like she is?”

Wai Po is silent for a moment. Then she says, “What’s a little pain? Our second mouths are designed for this task. It’s a woman’s art, the eating of bitterness.”

“But it doesn’t seem fair.”

“Wouldn’t it be more unfair to waste the gifts the universe gave us?”

I think of Mama crying on the bed, so gently she could have been asleep.

Wai Po looks at me for a second. Sees the answer in my eyes.

“So,” she says softly. “It turns out you are a child, still.”

Wai Po shuffles over to the kitchen and fills the kettle with water. I watch her scarred hands move, with a grace that can only be achieved through decades of practice, and wonder why my beautiful new scarf feels like a stranglehold.

Every day after school, I come up to see Mama, and every day nothing changes. Even Wai Po, who used to be so unflappable, gets exhausted. Whenever she uses her second mouth to take Mama’s sorrow away, there always seems to be more of it left over.

Now she scrubs her new growths clean in the bathroom sink. They’re bigger than Mama’s, looser, discolored, with purple veins and brown splotches. The water swirls pink down the drain.

“Look at me,” she grumbles. “I’m too old to digest all these sorrows.”

“I’ve been thinking,” I say. “Maybe I should try to help.”

Wai Po looks me up and down in the mirror. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

That familiar shame, flaring up again. “I know I’m small, but—”

She chuckles. “Small? You’re taller than I was at your age.”

“But I always thought Mama had such a hard time with it because she’s so small.”

“It’s not about size, it’s about attitude. Your mother went through a phase, you know, when she wanted to get that unspeakable surgery. If she’d accepted her duty sooner, it wouldn’t have been so hard for her.”

I can’t imagine Mama as one of those women. It’s like seeing double. The mother I know and the woman she could have been.

“I want to help her,” I say. “Let me do it tonight.”

This time we set up the chairs in Mama’s bedroom, rather than in the dining room. Baba takes Ray downstairs, keeps him occupied. Wai Po ties me down. Puts the towel in my mouth so I won’t hurt myself.

My heart thrums in my ribcage. How bad can it be? I’ll only be taking back the sorrows I gave to her in the first place. It can’t hurt so much more than it did before.

I take a deep breath. Nod at Wai Po, to tell her I’m ready.

She unwraps my scarf.

My second tongue pulls her feelings in. All I can take, and then some.

My mother’s sadness is immense. An ocean. It’s all I can do to keep my head above the water. Her ocean makes a home inside my body. Wraps its tendrils around my insides until I can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t think.

My instinct is to run. The straps dig into my wrists, pinning me in place. How did I never know that Mama held this all inside her? I can’t eat it all. It feels like someone has reached under my skin with gloves of barbed wire, shredding the soft pink flesh that hides beneath.

I look at Mama. Her eyes meet mine.

For her. I’m doing this for her.

Something hits me on the side of the face. It’s the floor.

When I wake up, Mama is watching me from the bed. Some of the color has returned to her cheeks. The bags under her eyes seem lighter now, healthier.

Sha hai zi,” she says quietly.

There are growths all up and down my right arm, white and bulging. A grown woman’s arm.

I open my mouth to speak, but at first only a low rasp comes out. “Where’s Wai Po?” I manage to croak.

“At H-Mart. She still thinks we need more ginger root.”

We share a small smile.

“Come here,” she says. She nods at the growths on my skin. “Those look painful.”

“They’re not so bad,” I say. A grown-up kind of lie.

I sit down next to her on the bed. Mama takes the roll of bandages Wai Po left on the bedside table and begins snipping off strips, one by one. I watch without a word as she wraps them around my arm. Lean my head against her shoulder as red soaks through white.

About the Author

Hannah Yang is a speculative fiction writer living in Colorado. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and TulipTree Review, among other places. Follow her work at or on Twitter at @hannahxyang.