Graftings by Stella Lei
When we first read Stella Lei’s “Graftings,” one of our short fiction editors immediately remarked upon its poetic quality. But why, exactly? The reason for its impact wasn’t immediately apparent; this story just seemed to possess an ineffable something, but upon further consideration, the poetic nature of the narration revealed itself in the writer’s use of individual lines—each themselves quietly remarkable, then together, rather marvelous as they form a reflective recount of the narrator’s early life.
A story “charms us (or doesn’t) a line at a time,” according to George Saunders. Perhaps we could equally posit that a story charms us one thought at a time, as its narrator presents idea after articulated idea—which is so often what sentences accomplish, the expression of a singular thought. A truth both straightforward and wondrous, because, to quote Robert Frost, “Every thought, poetic or otherwise, every thought is a feat of association.” These connections are central to the magic of language and of story, both of which harness associations to convey the complexity of human experience. In “Graftings,” Stella Lei accumulates feat upon feat of this nature on the line level, joining thoughts to form episodes that, in turn, organically chronicle the narrator’s childhood as a hungerless daughter mothered by a devoted sister who saves her as much as a sibling can from their temperamental single-parent mom.
The associative movement of “Graftings” begins at the story’s outset with sentence after sentence linking ideas that quickly advance the narrative as though the first paragraph were a piece of flash fiction. Hunger, infancy, family, birth, emptiness—all tied together in a fabulist explanation offered to help a child make sense of life. This associative path Lei leads us along continues in the following paragraphs, taking us to an absent father, poverty, cultural expressions, rapport between siblings—the narrative ever expanding and finally settling us into that last thought, a memory, for a while.
Because the mind naturally works in an associative manner, the associative movement of “Graftings” has a familiar fluidity that allows its narration to populate the story with contrasting opposites: a misguided mother and a fiercely protective sister, acceptance and resistance, scarcity and plenty, harsh reality and hopeful dreams. In so doing, the narration offers us the ideas it articulates as well as those it implies—and thus encourages us to articulate ideas ourselves and fully participate in the story as readers.
Lei’s story is the kind of work we love to read, the sort that floats in a space combining story and poetry. The former is concerned with narrative and character arcs, the latter distinguished by the degree to which it privileges associative thought, to borrow from Matthew Zapruder. Throughout “Graftings,” the associative movement feels purposeful as it works in concert with characters and plot. As Kevin Young said, “What you want out of a good poem is a mind at work.” In Stella Lei’s “Graftings,” the narrator’s mind is steadily at work weaving together thoughts to form this poetic story that makes some sense of her life. —CRAFT
Hunger never came naturally to me. As a baby, I didn’t cry for milk, preferring to gaze at the mold-splashed ceiling and grab at dust motes, twining my tiny hands through their light. Elaine told me this was because I left my hunger in our mother’s body when I was born—a scrap my clementine-sized fists forgot to grab. It took root in her chest instead, and Elaine said this is why our mother lacked the milk to feed me, her breasts shriveling after my birth, nutrients reflooding her body. Filling the space I left behind.
Our father had left after my mother’s stomach started to swell, his presence blown away like a seed in wind, vanishing his paycheck and half our savings with his clothes. Our mother cursed him as she returned from her job at Panda Express, as she did the dishes, as she watched water drip from the pipes, choking the droplets in her fists. Hún dàn. Bastard. Thieving bastard.
“What’s so bad about mixed eggs?” I asked Elaine once I understood hún and dàn individually, but not together. I didn’t like eggs regardless, mixed or fried, even when Elaine pointed at the yolk and said, “Look, it’s the sun. Eat this, and you’ll never be cold.”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Elaine said, holding my hands and swinging them back and forth. “Ignore her.”
But I kept asking, prodding Elaine as she did her homework, pinching the back of her neck. “Hey, hey. Why is our dad a mixed egg? Hey, hún dàn, hey. Are you a mixed egg too? Am I?”
She slapped me lightly on the arm. “Don’t say words like that. It’s just a saying, okay?”
I mouthed it at her, hún dàn—it didn’t count if I didn’t pronounce the sounds.
Elaine pinched my cheeks, pulling them wide. “It means something bad about his mother, alright? But it’s just a saying. Just because Mom says it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” She gave my cheeks a final squeeze. “Don’t become like her. Don’t say mean things, especially if they’re lies.”
“Okay,” I whined, but I mouthed hún dàn to myself in the mirror, stretching my mouth around the vowels. Something bad about his mother. How a tainted bloodline was the worst thing someone could hold.
Because our father was gone, Elaine set feeding alarms every three hours when I was small. She kept a bottle of baby formula warming in a sun-drenched windowsill or nestled in the crook of her arm, and she tipped this into my mouth every time the alarm rang, my lips fastened around the cap. It took me years—going to first grade where parents dropped kids off, picked them up, tucked lunch into their bags—to understand that a father was more than a picture book drawing or a curse prepared to fly. That a mother was more than her rage. I watched Elaine walk from the high school and join the parents at the door, carrying her backpack instead of a handbag or purse. I pictured her bringing the plastic bottle to my mouth.
According to Elaine, when our mother was pregnant with me, her stomach bloated so far the skin split at her touch. Layers peeled below her fingers like an overripe peach. There was no time to go to the hospital, so she rushed to the bathroom and flooded the tub with water, climbing inside as her uterus crumbled, my wrinkled body tumbling free. A remnant of her, forever separate from her grasp.
Elaine, then ten, wandered in and saw our mother lying in the bloodied tub. That was the first time she saw me: floating facedown in the water, choking on the aftermath of my birth. She mimicked the nurses from a health class video and cut the umbilical cord with safety scissors, washed me in the sink, and swaddled me in an old shirt from summer camp, wrapping faded tie-dye around my limbs. That night, Elaine rocked me to sleep and laid me in a cloth-lined orange crate, worn cotton warding off splinters and nails. She named me Charity—a gift, or something given away—but when we were alone, she called me Chéngzi. Wǒ de chéngzi. My orange.
Elaine never explained what our mother did after my birth. Whether she tried to lift my tiny head. Whether she wiped the fluid from around my eyes. And so I imagined my mother leaning back as I cried into the chamber of the tub, the sound of my drowning amplified and carried back. I imagined my mother closing her eyes.
I never asked my mother about this story. When I was younger, I tried to see if there was ridged skin or a gaping hole under her shirt. A scar for my birth. The former was more plausible, but I secretly thought it would be the latter—a cavern gasping against cloth. Insatiable.
My mother’s hunger was steeped inside her like a ghost, her hands grasping in front of her, curling air between her fingers like claws. I saw her in the kitchen one afternoon, peeling oranges in a single citrus swirl. I paused at the door. Imagined the grit of peel beneath her nails, the sting of juice as it entered a cut. She watched me, silent, fingers turning like the action was innate—this dissection, this endless taking-apart. She split the wedges with her nail. Lined them on the countertop like a fleet of tiny boats bobbing away from the fluorescents’ buzz. All those identical ships, sails primed to unfurl, arching their oars toward the sea. Years later, I thought she would’ve given me a piece if I’d asked. Handed me a miniature boat as she ate one herself, our mouths anchored to the same land. But that day, I walked by and climbed the stairs to my room, numb to any cravings we had.
Still, I peered into the kitchen after school, watching for my mother’s hands, for evidence of her scar. Maybe it would reveal itself if I looked closely enough, a tangible source of her hurt. But her shirt fell smoothly across her stomach as she cut apples in half in half in half until the slices were transparent wisps, then cut them again. Disappearance unfolding beneath her knife. Once, she took an apple and swallowed it whole.
I would later learn about genetics. How the parent strand of DNA transcribes to its daughter, heritage just breakage to build anew. I would learn how farmers grafted branches so fruit budded in another tree’s hands. I would run my fingers over the calloused seam of wood, wondering how it carried all these offspring so easily, how the foreign branches didn’t rot to the ground.
But years before this, I climbed the apple tree in our backyard and tilted my face so it sweetened in the noon sun. I scrambled higher and higher. Stretched my arms above me and hauled myself through the air. Halfway to the top, my foot snagged on a branch and stuttered, my body careening to the ground. Elaine found me gasping through my tears, my arm a ripe pulse of red.
At the hospital, they said it was a greenstick fracture, named after the way young trees bend under stress. Bone splintered from shaft. They encased my arm in a cast and handed my mother the bill.
Back home, Elaine and my mother frowned at the blur of numbers before them. “That can’t be right,” Elaine whispered. “That’s too much.”
They spent nights arguing in whispers, pooling their paychecks from Panda Express and scribbling in a legal pad, its edges translucent from their grease-infused fingertips.
When Elaine brushed my hair before bed, she told me that she and our mother would take more shifts so we can pay for your arm to get better. It’ll be okay. Just stay at home and be good. The smell of orange chicken and chow mein lingered as I went to sleep, and I dreamed that oil seeped through to permeate my bone. That my mother could lay her palm on my cheek and its emptiness would glow forth, my body never more than the memory of hers.
One night, I snuck to the kitchen and watched my mother flip through a packet of paper, jotting notes and circling numbers. Years of burns splayed across her hands, and they flexed as she fidgeted with the pen, so pale I thought her veins would shine through.
She lifted her head, and the overhead light cast her eyes and cheeks into shadow. She turned to look at me in the doorway. I had never seen her so starved.
Later that year, Elaine took jobs on the side: babysitting the neighbors’ kids, mowing lawns, tutoring under the guise of studying with friends. She packed the bills into empty toilet paper rolls, stacked the tubes in a shoebox, and hid it beneath the bed. She showed it to me when our mother was out, unfurling twenties in my palm. “It’s not a lot, but this will help me pay for college,” she said. “Then, I can get a job with good pay, and we can live together, better than this.” Bills fluttered to the floor, quiet with promise. “Better than this, okay?”
It only took six months for our mother to find the shoebox. She slammed it on the kitchen table when Elaine and I returned from school, its corners creased like a punch. I ducked behind Elaine, who stood with fists clenched. More statue than sister.
Behind the table, our mother gutted each roll with her nail. “This is yours, right Elaine?” Bills bled across the wood. “You know how much I spend on rent and food? Just for you to hide money like a rat?”
“I already give you all my paychecks from Panda Express,” Elaine’s jaw tensed, “I can have savings of my own.”
Our mother ignored her, sweeping the shoebox to the floor. Money splayed across the carpet like bodies. “Everything I’ve given you, and you just take, take, take.” She punctuated each word with a fist to the table. “Steal.” Bang. “Steal.” Bang. “Steal.” She glared at both of us. “If I’d known I’d end up with a household of thieves, I wouldn’t have bothered. To hell with it.”
“Leave Charity alone. This isn’t her problem.”
“How isn’t it her problem?” Our mother aimed a nail at me. “The little freak doesn’t even need to eat, and I’m still breaking my back trying to feed her.”
I swallowed, unaccustomed to the weight of her gaze. Its unfiltered heft, aimed at me instead of my shadow.
“Obviously she needs food.” Elaine pressed a hand into my shoulder. “What are you, crazy?”
Our mother laughed, a cruel, splintered sound. “So I’m the crazy one. Me. I’m always the monster, right?” She crossed her arms across her chest. “It’s always me.”
When Elaine left for college, my mother stopped calling me for meals. I was eight and too preoccupied with cutting sheets of paper into daisies and roses, taping gardens to my walls, to remember that 7 p.m. meant dining table and chipped plates and broccoli speared onto a fork. So I stayed in my room, colored scraps burying my feet, ribs blooming from my chest.
Elaine called a week later, and I cupped the hall phone in my glue-filmed fingers, breath sticky against the receiver. She said she was sorry, unpacking and orientation and finding her classes had taken all her time, and I said, “That’s okay. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Chéngzi. Are you alright?”
I wrapped the cord around my knuckles. “Yeah.”
“You are eating, right? Mom is giving you food?”
I chewed the inside of my lip.
Elaine’s voice tightened, winding up in her throat, preparing to overspill if let go. “She’s feeding you, right? I told her to remember. She said she would remember.”
I toed a crack between the floorboards. “No…but it’s okay. I feel okay.”
“Give the phone to Mom.”
I cradled the phone. “I think she’s busy. I don’t want to bother her.”
“Give it to her. Now.”
Palms prickling with sweat, I carried the phone to the kitchen, where my mother stood, filleting a fish so only its head was rooted to its spine. “Elaine wants to talk to you.”
She put the knife down. Extended her hand. I gave her the phone and tiptoed away, slipping to the other side of the room.
Elaine’s voice crackled through the speaker, low and laced with heat. “You aren’t feeding her.”
“She’s not hungry.”
“You know that doesn’t matter.”
My mother held the phone between her cheek and shoulder, freeing her hands to pick up the knife.
“I can’t believe you. You can’t just— How can you—”
The knife thudded rhythmically, its tempo the same as the heartbeat thrumming my throat. Scallion slices spilled cleanly across the cutting board, sliding in an avalanche of green.
“I’ll call the authorities on you. You could go to jail.”
My mother laughed. “Just you try.” She hung up and threw the phone on the countertop. It skidded against the wall and rang-rang-rang, Elaine’s voice suffocated by distance.
“If you want food, make it yourself.”
From then, I set an alarm for 6:30 p.m., haunting the stairway to watch my mother cook. The blade was lithe and light in her hands, and I held my own in front of me and tried to reflect her movements—left fingers curved against an imaginary leek, right hand slicing a meal out of air. Fast. Neat. I remembered my first-grade teacher asking what our parents taught us at home, and I had picked at lint as a girl next to me said her mother taught her cooking on weekends. Pasta and omelets and pillows of bread, sourdough baking the house sweet. I mimed scraping onions into the pan.
Even though I didn’t have to, I often stayed to watch my mother eat. She swallowed quickly, endlessly, left arm curled serpentine around her stomach. Like it was holding every vegetable and grain of rice inside.
After she washed the dishes and retreated to her room, I crept into the kitchen and wrapped my fingers around the same leeks, the same carving knife—my hands inherited from hers. I poured oil into the pan and pushed the vegetables back and forth. The first time, I grabbed the pan to steady it and a blister blossomed across my skin, white and thick with fluid. I ran it under the faucet and watched the lines of my palm boil themselves from the inside out. The smell of cooking meat filled the room.
At school, I joked that I didn’t need to buy roses for Mother’s Day because I carried a scar in my hand like a bouquet, petals seared into skin. Charity: a gift, or something to give away.
I walked home after class and cut receipts, Post-it Notes, and stained napkins into a froth of florals. The edible ones—marigold, honeysuckle, mint—I taped at the head of my bed so they could float above my head as I slept. The belladonna and foxglove I stuck everywhere else. To protect me.
I was twelve when Elaine called with news. I held the phone between my ear and my shoulder as I peeled an orange—Vitamin C is important, Chéngzi. You have to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day—above the trash can.
“I have a custody hearing this Sunday.”
I forgot she couldn’t see me and nodded, frowning as rind burrowed into my nails.
“Isn’t that great?” Her voice was distant and metal-worn over the phone, like a nickel face blurred by decades of hands.
The peel came apart in tiny pieces, flaking atop the trash. Orange pulp bruised in my clumsy hands. I licked the juice off my fingers. It was still sour, not quite ripe.
STELLA LEI’s work appears in Up the Staircase Quarterly, Four Way Review, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. Her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger, is forthcoming from River Glass Books in 2022. She is an editor in chief for The Augment Review, she has two cats, and she tweets @stellalei04.
Featured image courtesy of Charles Deluvio on Unsplash