One day during the height of mandarin season, the aunt stopped by for a visit, and sitting down at the kitchen table, asked me for a mandarin. I took one from the fruit bowl on the countertop and walked to the sink to wash it.
“You don’t have to wash it,” she said.
Thinking of her perpetually dirty fingernails, I realized that it didn’t matter, but I washed it anyway, out of habit. In the meantime, she had taken a paper napkin and laid it on the table before her. I handed her the mandarin, and as she began to peel it, she announced that she had been suffering from constipation.
“Really?” I asked, feigning interest. In my mind I began to go over all the things I needed to do before picking up Pata from school, in order to block out what surely must have been some rather unpleasant details. Distractedly, I watched her place the rinds on the white napkin and separate the slices of the mandarin, taking a couple of them and putting them in her mouth.
When she spat the chewed pulp into her hand, and said, “This is how I eat mandarins now,” I almost wished that I had been listening, because I had the unmistakable sensation of having missed something important.
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she told me. “I just chew them.”
To be completely honest, I couldn’t blame her. All of our mandarins come from the aunt’s trees, and that winter there was not a decent one among the whole crop. N and I had thought that she was giving us either old mandarins, or ones that had been left much too long on the trees. But now it seemed that she too had been eating dry mandarins. I had spat out quite a few wedges myself, until I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, and made liqueur, syrup, and curd from the mandarins instead.
“I suck out the juices,” she continued, “and I feed the the rest to the chickens.”
“Cosa?!” I asked. I imagined her chickens running around their enclosure, seeking out piles of masticated mandarin pulp, and pecking at them, innocent of the knowledge of their origin. I thought about how I’ve often misunderstood the aunt’s idiosynchratic form of dialect, and decided that this must be what had happened just now, because it was simply too strange to be true.
Indeed, the aunt then said, “I give the peels and the seeds to the chickens. I drink the juice and they eat the peels and the seeds.” She smiled, pleased with the symmetry of it, or something.
“Oh.” I imagined her picking the seeds out from the masticated pulp, and that seemed almost as odd to me as the idea of her feeding it to them directly.
A couple of weeks later, she came over late one weekend morning. I was in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast. She came to sit down at the table, N and Pata following behind. I overheard her ask N for a mandarin. A minute or so later, she called to me and said, “Look, this is how I eat mandarins!”
When I turned to face her I saw that she was holding the chewed up pulp of what looked like half a mandarin in one of her hands. “Yes, I know,” I said, “you’ve told me already.”
Once she finished chewing on the other half of the mandarin, she asked N what to do with the pulp. He told her to put it in the wet waste bin under the sink. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her open the cabinet there. When she sat down at the table again, N roared with laughter. Curious, I asked him why he was laughing.
“Show Karen what you did!” N told the aunt.
Sheepishly, she pulled a handful of chewed mandarin bits out of her coat pocket. At the sight of them, I remembered that I had tied up the wet-waste bag just before she arrived, and realized that she hadn’t been able to put the pulp in the bin. “Give that to me, I’ll put it in a new bag,” I told her.
“No, no,” she said, “I’ll keep it for the chickens.”
“Cosa?!” asked N. Judging from his reaction, he had drawn the same conclusion that I had a couple of weeks before.
“I suck the juice, and then I give the rest to the chickens,” she told him.
“But only the rinds and the seeds,” I explained.
“No, no,” she said, correcting me. “I give it all to the chickens. That way there’s no waste.” Then she smiled.
N looked at me quizzically, but I just shrugged. When she put it that way, it almost made sense. Almost.