Rachel picked out two gnarled ginseng roots and absentmindedly stuffed them into a plastic bag. The doctor’s matter-of-fact voice came to mind as she pushed her shopping cart to the cashier: As long as she gets plenty of rest and takes her medicine every day with a healthy meal, she’ll recover just fine.
As the cashier handed her her groceries, Rachel took out her phone and called the house to check on her mother, only to hear an automated voice telling her to leave a message. Rachel dialed again, and then a third time. She tried calling her mother’s cell phone before texting her, “Are you doing okay?” She waited. There was no response.
The heavy rain stung her face as she rushed out of the grocery store with plastic bags dangling from each arm. A chill wind whipped through her coat and battered her hair, seeming to pull her towards her car. Hurry, the trees rustled brashly, writhing as she drove away from the parking lot.
As soon as she parked her car outside the house, Rachel leapt out and rushed to the door, fumbling for the house key. She entered, greeted by the humming of the heater. It was dark, save for the red light emanating from a salt crystal lamp.
“Mom?” Rachel called out as she set down the groceries on a table and tore off her dripping coat. She raced up the stairs to her mother’s room.
Illuminated only by the bluish glow of the TV was a blanketed lump on the bed. As Rachel turned on a lamp, she heard a snore. She sighed with relief – her mother had just been asleep.
“Hmm?” Her mother stirred, opening her eyes slightly. “Back already?”
“I thought something had happened to you because you didn’t answer my calls.”
“Both the house phone and your cell phone.”
“Really?” Her mother grunted as she sat up, picking up her cell phone on top of a nearby desk and looking at it.
“You must have had the ringer turned off again.” Rachel noted. “Still, I can’t believe you didn’t hear the house phone.”
“You know sometimes I’m a deep sleeper.” Her mother chuckled, followed by a row of coughs.
Rachel sat next to her mother and put a hand on her shoulder. Her mother reeked of mint from the pain relief patches that she’d been wearing for the past week.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Her mother insisted.
Rachel noticed a mug that had been sitting on the desk, holding dregs of coffee that had long gone cold.
“I’ll take this downstairs for you.” Rachel sighed – it was too late to mention the online article she had read advising people with pneumonia to avoid caffeine.
“So what did you get at the market?”
“Some ginseng – I was thinking of making your ginseng chicken soup for dinner.” Rachel replied.
“That’s good. I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes.” Her mother smiled, taking the TV remote and changing the channel to the news.
Rachel went downstairs and brought over the grocery bags to the kitchen, turning the lights on and setting the bags on the counter. Putting a pot of water on the stove to boil, she opened a cupboard above the counter and took out a box of herbs. The jujubes are for sweetness, the goji berries are good for the eyes, and the angelica root is good for blood circulation, her mother once said. Rachel put the box down next to the cutting board and began to chop a ginseng root into thin disks. She blanched a small chicken to clean it, and then left it to cook more thoroughly in the pot on the stove. She went to one of the larger cupboards at the other end of the kitchen and opened a bag of rice, using a small plastic scoop to pour some into a bowl before rinsing it at the sink.
She grew more unnerved by the empty spaces of silence between the boiling of the water, the chopping of the ginseng, and the rattling of the rice as it swirled in the water at the bottom of the bowl. It was somehow different not hearing her mother run around the kitchen like she did when Rachel herself got sick.
“Come on, Rachel.” Her mother would say when she was a child. “You’ve only got a cold. The doctor said everything will be just fine.”
Six-year-old Rachel clung to her mother’s hand.
The edges of her sleeves were wet.
“Are you crying?” Her mother asked her then. “You know I’ll take care of you. Don’t you trust me?”
She couldn’t stand the thought of the silent spaces between each sound in the kitchen becoming permanent.
There was a loud hacking cough followed by a clatter that made Rachel jump. She had dropped the bowl of rice into the sink.
“Is everything going okay?” Her mother cleared her throat as she walked into the kitchen.
“Er, yeah.” Rachel quickly said, still looking at the bottom of the sink.
“Yeah?” Her mother repeated, walking over to the sink to see what she was doing. Her eyes widened at the mess. “Did you spill all of that rice?”
Rachel looked away from her.
Her mother glanced at her face. “Are you crying?”
Rachel said nothing, wiping her face on her sleeve.
“Rachel. I told you I’ll be fine. Trust me. I’m not that old yet.”
The smell of herbs used to always follow her mother. The relief patches covered it all up, but the herby aroma of the soup seemed to bring it back.
“I know, mom.” Rachel mumbled.
“Come on now. How about you go get some more rice? I think the soup’s almost done.”
Rachel rinsed more rice and placed it into a rice cooker, waiting for steam to float out from the top. Rachel stirred the soup to make sure the chicken was cooked through and tasted it with a spoon. She scooped some rice into a bowl and then poured the soup over it, letting the rice soak up the fragrant broth. Then she cut out a chunk of the chicken, slicing it into thin pieces and layering them on top of the rice. Holding the bowl with a napkin beneath it, Rachel brought it over to the kitchen table where her mother was sitting.
“Careful, it’s hot.” Rachel said as she placed the bowl in front of her mother. She watched as her mother took a spoonful, gently blowing on it to cool it down before eating it.
“Very good.” Her mother nodded, taking another bite.
When she had finished, Rachel took the empty bowl to the sink to wash it. Her mother went to a drawer and pulled out a bottle of pills – the medicine she was supposed to take before going to bed.
Rachel saw herself as a child again, clinging to her mother as she stood in the kitchen stirring a bubbling pot of ginseng chicken soup.
Penelope Yagake is an undergraduate English Creative Writing major at California State University Long Beach. She has been a member of the narrative and gameplay design team for the CSULB Video Game Development Association. Her work has appeared in Page and Spine, Fifty Word Stories, and Poppy Road Review.