Homegrown by Iris Yu

I am thinking about the way 姥姥 dices cucumber. Her skin is thick from bleeding and healing, bleeding and healing, a sinusoidal function acting independent of the moon. She does not fear the knife’s edge and I am thinking, now, about the dark of her hands against mine. Between the two of us, we are the cucumber deconstructed: me, the dewy fruit, and her, the tough peel. I have grown up on milk and meat and eggs every morning and my fingers may not be long and lithe like those of most piano players, but at least they have never had to work soil. I have the hands of a child, soft from overpriced lotion, and though I am a child still it is hard to picture my grandmother as one, much less than a child with soft hands. I do not have laborer hands, sun-smoked hands, poverty-wrought hands; my hands are the white lily and 姥姥’s are the gnarled roots of the maple tree the lily grows beside.

There is a story she tells me often, of when I was two years old and eager with curiosity. We walked from our cramped apartment to the cramped drugstore down the street, my fat baby hands enclosed in hers. When I grew tired, she would sit me in the empty stroller we always brought and push it steadily. When I grew bored, she would point to spindly city trees and ask what I saw, and I would say 小鸟吱吱叫! with a nimbleness my tongue has since lost. When I grew hungry, she would procure a wrinkled bag of M&M’s from her coat pocket and feed me the red ones first, because that was my favorite color. We did this many days. She would browse the drugstore’s aisles, sometimes, but mostly it was about the walking from place to place, the fresh air. We never bought anything, only looked. I don’t know what she was looking at on this particular day—soap? shampoo? hair dye for her greying roots?—and I don’t know if she remembers. Through all her retellings, she’s never mentioned it. All she recounts is the crash, the ringing echo, my yelp. The red nail polish oozing like blood on the tiles, glass in its midst. The employee rushing to our side and staring at the broken bottle. Neither 姥姥 nor I knew enough English to explain, so instead, we cried. I picture 姥姥 repeating the three words she knew best: “Sorry, no English. Sorry, no English. No English. No English. Sorry.”

She says it’s a story about the kindness of other people: the kindness of that drugstore employee, who was likely underpaid and overworked yet didn’t charge us for my mistake and took it upon themself to clean it up. I think it’s a story about the way I was born part magpie and part lucky, the way I’ve always loved shiny things and the color red—red, for happiness. Red, for fortune.

We once tried to make tapioca pearls together. The internet was ablaze with claims that the pearls were cancerous, so instead of buying a packet of rainbow boba from the Chinese supermarket, 姥姥 promised me she would make them. 我们可以自己染颜色, she told me. In the kitchen, we worked deftly. We had no tapioca starch so we replaced it with glutinous rice flour, and 姥姥 taught me to bring the dough together with careful pushes and pulls, in the way that the moon tugs upon the oceans: gentle. I crushed blueberries while she chopped spinach and halved strawberries, letting their juices soak into the cutting board; I learned that day that a blueberry’s juice was purple and its fruit green and its skin the only blue thing about it. We dyed three fourths of the dough, leaving one quarter white, and shaped it into pearls. It wasn’t all the colors of the rainbow, and it tasted more like 汤圆 than boba, but it was enough. It was more than enough.

When I was nine, I dreamt that 姥姥 was a witch. Knife-wielding, she severed my father’s head and kept it for nine years as punishment—he stayed alive and asked for it back once his sentence was served. Last night, I dreamt of 姥姥 as a witch again, slicing an infinitely long cucumber into a cauldron. Behind the steam, she lectured me on history, on superstition, telling me of how our ancestors regarded cucumber as having too much 阴—too dark, too womanly—and of how I have loved the gourd since my first teeth came in. 楚大宝, she said, 我爱你, and the last of the cucumber fell into the pot.


姥姥 – maternal grandmother
小鸟吱吱叫 – “a little bird chirping”
我们可以自己染颜色 – “we can dye them ourselves”
汤圆 – tangyuan, a dessert made from glutinous rice flour
楚大宝 – the author’s Chinese nickname
我爱你 – “I love you”

Iris Yu is a Chinese-American student from Ohio. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Sine Theta MagazineBlue Marble Review, and The Heritage Review. She is an alumna of the Sewanee Young Writers Conference (’19) and the Iowa Young Writers Studio (’20). 

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.