- OLGA LIVSHIN
Grew up in Odessa and Moscow, and came to the United States with her family as a teenager. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature and taught Russian language and literature at the university level full time before switching to teaching teenagers world literature and creative writing. Her…
Ya-Ya’s Vegetable Salon
Inspired by A.H.
Ya-Ya told me to shave the sweet potatoes. The word differed from the one they used on The Great British Baking Show when they peeled apples for tarts. Ya-Ya knew magic in her native Cantonese.
When she pantomimed the process, the knife with the black rubber handle was a paintbrush in her hands, uncovering the pale orange inside.
I’d never peeled anything. Now I would shave someone. On the counter, I saw ghostly turnips, their mustaches being trimmed. Paling parsnips were undressed and clothed in green soup. Millions of potatoes’ lives were saved by my Ya-Ya’s hands. And mine.
“So?” Ya-Ya stood over me.
I pretended I didn’t get it. I do love tricking Ya-Ya.
Ya-Ya left the kitchen, muttering to herself, looking for a dictionary and leaving both of us full of her darling words. Shave, wrapped in the rough brown fur of “sh.” Sweet, hinting at the inner beast, peeking out: orange, wholesome. Po, I rolled around with my tongue, talike the retainer I love to play with. Toes.
When she came back, Ya-Ya silently estimated me. “Is it to peel?” she said, trying to get the pronunciation just right. To beel, it came out. I was eyeing her silently. We were rehearsing an act for an uncertain audience.
Then Ya-Ya motioned with her elbows: You have to. She showed me again with the sharp knife: You will be me, the mistress of ceremonies, the sensual and solemn un-cloaker of the sweet potato that is glazed with clear juice and hinting at fruit.
Under Ya-Ya’s gaze, I started. I’m only cleaning, I said to myself in my head. Not her. The peeler was uncomfortable, neither a knife nor the enormous pencil sharpener it pretended to be. The potatoes, comically heavy in my hands. Ya-Ya sighed. There was a separate world out there that wanted cleansing and couldn’t have it.
Orange ribbons wrought themselves, right under my American fingers. There was a little glimpse of our womanly, prettytricks, a slim rectangle or a slinky canvas. Ya-Ya and I sat together, we set apart; I cradled each big girl potato and comforted it.
I dial their majesty cucumbers,
deeply obsessed with nitrogen in the air,
the pea plants: how are you, my babies,
in your cozy fourth dimension?
Only in thirty-three days will I learn
if you listened to my hands, petting you…
To the compost, the excitement of fat soil…
It’s just not fair! Can’t you see the phone
hose, the readable water? Your chirping chlorophyll,
I can hear you chattering on the mycelium…
To the peppers dying on the vine,
even to the white mulberry tree…
Share with me. I’m the parent shut out by you teens.
When it all ends in August, sure, you’ll give pretty gifts,
yellow and green. Inside, a curlicued message.
Periods. Seeds: full stops to suck on, spelling,
The number you’ve dialed
cannot be rejuvenated
with language. Please try
when you are a plant again.