Karen stood at the kitchen sink, washing kidneys.
They were pigs’ kidneys, $4.99 a pair. At the Cold Storage supermarket, doing the weekly grocery run while waiting for her son to finish his Chinese tuition class, she had come across the twin commas wrapped under clear film in black Styrofoam box, nestling among the lean pork, striploin and minced meat in the giant open-faced freezer. Something in their smooth ruddiness entranced her.
She had always loved eating pigs’ kidneys. Yo ji in her mother’s dialect tongue of Teochew. Transcribed into English, the name sounded like a hip-hop artist hailing his yoga guru – losing its flavour: the long-drawn, lilting first vowel; the almost-glottal stab with the tongue. As a girl, they had been a Sunday Morning treat, when they went to New World Amusement Park in Jalan Besar to eat fragrant, peppery bak kut teh or pork ribs soup. Instead of the prime or spare ribs swimming in the oil-splotched soup, she would ask for hers to have kidneys in it. A delicacy. And at $5 a bowl, a dollar dearer than the normal pork meat. When she had asked her mother why, her mum had replied that it stood to reason: Each pig only had a pair of those, hadn’t they?
She sliced the kidneys with a big knife, removing the white veins. The carved slices, like little ears, she tossed into a plastic container full of water, and was now dunking them and dumping the dirty yellow water smelling of ammonia. Dunk, dump, refill. Repeat. The motion was oddly therapeutic, the sound of running water lulling her into a trance.
When she had given birth to her first child, the confinement nanny had cooked pigs’ kidneys too. Drowned in ginger, all the better for dispelling wind. The dish was present at every meal. After the month was up, she was done ‘sitting in the moon,’ zuo yue, as new mums are supposed to – the term made her think of women in rural China wrapped in red patchwork quilts and sitting all day on their stone beds while others did the housework in their cottage. By then, the sight of fried kidneys made her want to retch. It was many moons before she regained her taste for them again.
Getting rid of the pungent smell of pee from kidneys took longer, much longer, than she expected. Karen held up a slice to her nose and inhaled. The slightest whiff remained, but she could not imagine serving anything with even the hint of urine. Back into the container the slice went, Karen’s hand swishing the slippery pieces of organ around like she was washing a pet. As she tipped the lemon-coloured water out of the container, a few slices slid through the sluice gates she made with her fingers. Karen marvelled at how similar the kidneys were to her own flesh – the same pale brown hue – and yet so different in their slimy pore-less appearance to her skin. She thought about the paradox of seeing something that belonged on the inside, outside –within turning without. Why did the Chinese believe that eating an animal part would boost the corresponding organ in a human? Generations of liver-chomping, bear gallbladder-slurping, tiger penis-snacking, sheep placenta-inhaling descendants of the Central Plains, scattered to the southern oceans, golden mountains and other lands, remained united in this belief.
Karen remembered her mother feeding her pigs’ brains on the eve of her Primary School Leaving Examinations. She remembered looking into the blue-and-white porcelain double boiler, with carp painted on its side. Remembered seeing the whirls and whorls of the brain, its strange blueish-grey colour. “Drink the soup,” instructed her mother, tall, slim, with her hair in a 1980s explosive perm. Remembered choking down some of the clear liquid, with unidentifiable pieces swimming in it. The smell of hair salon chemicals inexplicably in her nostrils. And then the imbibed carriers of cultural, historical, biological porcine knowledge of some kind being regurgitated straight into the double boiler. Her mother had taken away the dish with a sigh: “No need to drink any more.”
A quick sniff of the kidney slices. Satisfied that she had gotten rid of the smell to the best of her abilities, Karen used a pair of chopsticks to grip then drop them into a stainless steel pot of thin peppery broth bubbling on the stove.
Two years ago, her mother, then 76, had been diagnosed with kidney failure. Three times a week, Karen left her employees in charge of her drinks stall in the food court during the afternoon lull and drove her mother to the dialysis centre in Thomson Road, nosing her MPV up the hill to drop Mum off at the foot of the hexagonal, glass-fronted building. A keloid the size of a cigarette box had formed on the inside of the septuagenarian’s fore arm, where the nurses inserted the thick needles to hook her up to the dialysis machine.
“Take so long,” grumbled Mum at first. “Sit there, nothing to do.”
Karen had given her an iPad, installed with retro games such as Bubble Mania and Shanghai, to while the time away. Mum promptly stopped complaining.
Two of Mum’s children had not been a match to donate a kidney to her. Julie, the youngest, refused to even take the test.
For years now, Karen and Julie had not spoken, a cold war that Karen knew hurt their mother. When they were growing up, their mum had often launched into impromptu lectures on the importance of sticking together. “When I die, you girls will only have each other,” she would say, automatically discounting their elder brother Nelson, because it was taken for granted that Nelson would marry and have his own family. “If you don’t love each other, who will?”
Karen had rolled her eyes. Not this speech again. She had had to share everything with her sister all her life – a bedroom, bathroom, school books and clothes – when could she be rid of her? As they grew up, bickering constantly, Mum had tried in vain to counsel sisterly love. “You two are supposed to be a pair,” she had pleaded unconvincingly.
The final straw came when Julie, at age 23, had married Tak Heng, a layabout hated by the entire family. Unable to afford their own home, the couple moved in with Karen’s retired parents (Dad was still alive then) and sponged off them. They fought constantly, and borrowed money incessantly. Heng even pawned the white gold wedding bands that Mum had bought for them when they got hitched.
One night, the neighbours had called Karen on the phone, worried after they’d heard screaming and shouting coming from her parents’ front porch. Grimly, she had driven from her new flat in Sembawang – leaving her two sons at home with their father – to her childhood home. There, she had found the living room in disarray. Heng had gotten drunk and picked a fight with her sister. When Mum had tried to intervene, he had pulled a knife on her.
Incensed, Karen called the police. When the cops had taken Heng away, with a sobbing Julie following in a taxi to bail him out with lord knows what cash she had, Karen had stormed into their room and thrown out everything they owned. The last time she saw Julie, she had been crying, mascara running, while she tried to rescue her belongings from the rain. Karen had simply padlocked the gate and turned back indoors. A decade had rapidly squeezed its way between them.
Researching kidneys and alternative medicine after Mum’s diagnosis of renal failure, Karen had come across a new-agey Internet article about the physiology and symbolism of kidneys in Chinese medicine. “Kidneys are said to hold our connection to our ancestors,” the author, a California-based acupuncturist and clinical herbalist had written. “They also relate profoundly to our offspring as they hold the basic material for reproduction and fetal development.” Karen, thinking of the fraught relationship she had with her sibling, wondered what was wrong with her own kidneys.
Dunk, dump, refill. Repeat.
She turned the fire on the hob. Using a spider sieve, she fished the slices of kidney up and dropped them in an empty rooster bowl to stop them from over-cooking. Beads of blood oozed up on the surface of each slice, seemingly forced out by the heat in the boiling soup.
Karen thought of how Mum’s nose and upper lip used to bead with sweat when she slaved in the kitchen when they were kids. None of the three siblings had inherited this ‘sweaty nose’ trait from their mother, but Karen’s elder son Jason had. When he perspired, perfectly formed droplets sat on the bridge of his nose.
It was Jason, doing his surgical student internship at a local hospital, who had told her about the latest research breakthrough, a great swine hope among kidney failure patients: scientists in the United States were exploring with using pig kidneys for transplants in humans. Of course, it was still at the lots-of-hype stage. Researchers were still trying to figure out how to prevent the human body from rejecting the genetic material from another species. It sounded like pigs-could-fly, sci-fi mumbo jumbo. But the idea was there: decellularize the pig kidney, by washing it of all its cells, while carefully retaining the structure of the organ, before syringing the human patient’s stem cells into the ‘scaffolding’ – what is left of the pig kidney – for them to take root and grow.
Suddenly, pig kidney became very relevant to those whose kidneys had broken down. Only, you did not need to eat them as tonics; you needed to get them into your body by surgical means. How clever, she had thought. Not for the first time, came another thought unbidden, ironic: Pigs are more useful than your own children, in a pinch.
Having waited for it to cool a little, Karen ladled the tea-coloured spicy soup into the rooster bowl. Then she scooped some rice into a small bowl, with a blue-and-white dragon motif – the same set Mum had given her when she got married, along with the once-dreaded carp double-boiler. She put the two bowls on a tray and carefully carried it upstairs.
“Come in,” said Jason, when she knocked. Opening the door, she saw him bent over the books on his desk. The room was bathed in the orange glow from the study lamp on the table. Clicking her tongue, she flipped a switch on the wall. Bright, cold, white LED light sent darkness fleeing under the furniture. “Aiyoh, want to spoil your eyes, ah?” she scolded.
“Thanks, Mumsie,” breathed Jason, perking up at the aroma of the kidney soup.
She stood next to him as he hungrily scarfed down the food, running her hand over his thick medical textbooks, tenderly taming the bashed corners. “How? Your preparations?” she asked, circumventing subject-verb-object clauses in favour of the pragmatic economy, the way Singaporeans do.
“Coming along,” her son replied. “Final professional exam. Don’t play-play.” They both smiled at his bad attempt at levity. He took off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. “I saw Yiyi Julie today,” he added.
“Yeah? Where?” Karen was surprised. Their family had not met Julie’s for years, not even during Chinese New Year. She was startled that he could still recognize his aunt.
“At the hospital,” he said. “She was there to see her specialist. Lung cancer. Stage four.”
There is a God, thought Karen, then immediately felt ashamed. Her sister, living with a pack-a-day-habit husband, was a non-smoker.
“She’s looking for a donor,” continued Jason. “She gave me her number. Here.” Rummaging in his pocket, he produced a scrap of paper with Julie’s neat handwriting. Her sevens were always crossed through the middle, one hook away from ‘zi,’ the Chinese character for ‘offspring.’ There were two of these little offspring in her phone number. Karen took the piece of paper. She watched as her son turned back to his food, slurping up the soup with relish. When the bowls were empty, he looked up and thanked her again. She ruffled his hair and took the bowls away, as he once more turned back to his texts and anatomy charts.
Back in the kitchen, Karen stirred the bottom of the pot. A few stray pieces of kidney floated to the surface. She ate them, still standing in front of the stove. Then, fortified, like with like, she sat down at the dining table with the cordless phone and dialed her sister’s number.