Jenny’s six feet under, getting eaten by mushrooms. Three months before she died, she told our parents to scrap their funeral plans. She’d found a biodegradable shroud on the Internet, infused with fungus that could decompose flesh. She wanted to be buried in that thing, sans coffin, sans fanfare.
“It looks like a friggin’ potato sack,” I told her, squinting at her laptop screen. She punched me from the hospital bed, but not hard enough to hurt. On the drive home, our parents cried—again—and begged me to “be sensitive.” Then they ordered the potato sack, which arrived on our doorstep a week later.
My sister was a teenage decompinaut. She was fascinated with the process of dying, being fed to the soil, getting reconstituted into That Which Gives Life. She tried to get me into it. Maybe she thought it’d help me process grief. At that point, though, everything was a big joke to me. I had to skip lightly over all my feelings so they didn’t suck me into some muddy, unforgiving hole.
She’d also started wearing the burial shroud over her hospital gown. That way, she said, she could “grow into it.” The shroud really was too big for her, but what unnerved me the most was the fungus. It ran in white veins across her body, a dormant flesh-eating monster.
“You look like a discount Muppet,” I told her one afternoon. She glared at me ineffectually. I’d snuck some of her favorites into the hospital room: Slim Jims, black cherry seltzer, three back issues of Cosmo. All things considered, she was in a good mood.
“I’ve been having the weirdest dreams in this thing,” she said, tearing at a Slim Jim. “Like the mushrooms are talking to me. Today I woke up, and this name was echoing in my head: Ebenezer, Ebenezer.”
“You’re more of a Tiny Tim.”
“Shut up,” she said, hurling the Slim Jim wrapper at me. “I’m just thinking that, I don’t know—I could be an Ebenezer in my next life.”
I wanted to say that the mushrooms were eating her brain. But she was serious; I could tell. I wanted to say something about how it wasn’t helpful to hear about her next life, or how seeing her in that fungus costume made me want to vomit. Instead, I rolled my eyes and asked her if she wanted to play Tetris.
A month later, she was too weak to lift her head. She made me borrow thanatology books and read them to her. She’d look sagely at the ceiling while I stumbled over Feifel. Did she understand any of this stuff better, being closer to death?
Sometimes I got angry. I’d stop mid-chapter and refuse to go further. Or I’d read a passage and ask “So, what does this mean?”—knowing she was half-asleep, or half-alive, or whatever it was that allowed her to tolerate hours of death theory. Most of the time she wouldn’t answer, and feeling guilty, I’d keep reading. But one time she said “I’m just imagining Ebenezer,” and the way she said it made me even angrier.
“You’re still hung up on that?” I asked. What I should have said was I want you here with me, not lost in some afterlife. But I was still in high school, and my sister should’ve been too. Between our parents’ loud sorrow and Jenny’s acceptance, nobody had given me a vocabulary for grief.
In the end, most people marveled at how I handled things. At the funeral, I eulogized her like a pro. Even Mom laughed when I joked about how Jenny would say mah-cah-bray, not macabre, or how she’d once planted herself in the garden in hopes of sprouting leaves. Of course I had to talk about the shroud—how Jenny was going to be part of the dirt now, which was in turn feeding everything else. Wasn’t it beautiful that she wasn’t actually gone?
The truth was, I couldn’t see Jenny in anything. Sometimes I’d stop in the middle of the sidewalk, staring straight ahead, turning every nerve in my body outwards. I was thinking that my sister had dispersed herself into the world, and that if I kept still, nature would reveal some part of her to me. A cryptic leaf, a Jenny-shaped rock. I didn’t know.
I found a VHS of A Christmas Carol in our basement. Had the two of us ever watched it together? In the absence of a tape player, I found an online bootleg. Really, Jenny wasn’t Tiny Tim or Ebenezer.
One day, I went to Jenny’s grave with a carton of grocery store mushrooms. I sat in front of the stone that marked her mulched-up bones. Ripping the carton open, I put a mushroom on my tongue. I pressed it to the roof of my mouth.
Jenny had once said that mushrooms could communicate with each other. This was a dead mushroom; it probably didn’t count. I still tried to channel thoughts into the earth-flavored hunk in my mouth. Imagined it sending messages to the pale seedlings below.
Hey, I thought to Jenny. It’s me.
And then again: I can’t find you anywhere. I guess you were wrong.
And again: You missed the fiftieth anniversary of The Muppet Movie.
And again: It’s all humbug, I tell you.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The mushroom was slowly disintegrating in my mouth. It was leaving a chalky, white taste behind. I decided to swallow it.
The mushroom went down slowly, sinking its roots into my gut. I felt it grow ripe with old thoughts, the ones I’d tried not to entertain while Jenny was dying. Then I felt it: the soft, slow bloom, grief mushrooming under my skin. By the time our parents found me, my whole body was covered in pale caps—waving and bobbing in the wind, fat with all the things I’d never said to her.
Ariel Chu is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Syracuse University. Her work can be found (or is forthcoming) in Beecher’s Magazine, Nat. Brut, Wildness, Underblong, and Stirring: A Literary Collection. She lives in Eastvale, California and is currently serving as a Hutchinson Fellow in Creative Writing. Visit her at ariel-chu.com.