The kumquat’s sweetness was a disguise, and once it was disrobed in your mouth, the meat inside was sour enough to make your mouth buck, to wring your tongue of its language.
December 9, 2019
My brother’s first job was selling knives door-to-door for Cutco. My mother did the same job back in the 1990s, though she never understood why Americans needed so many different kinds of knives. People like us, she said, only ever needed one: a cleaver could sever anything, skin any body to bone, mince any meat with the precision of teeth. My mother once claimed to have cut my brother’s umbilical cord with a cleaver after birthing him on our sofa. He’d been born early. The size of an apple, she said, demonstrating with her fist. I had to bury him in the backyard to grow him a little longer, and then I dug him back up as a boy.
My brother’s job was to demonstrate the strength of each blade by slicing through a series of non-edible objects. For the finale, he cut a penny in half with a pair of scissors that could detach like a jaw into two separate blades. My grandmother watched as he practiced snipping through pennies, the rust dressing his hands until they looked bloody, the piles of halved pennies on the counter like casualties. They’re paying you to cut up money, my grandmother said, making a riddle of his hands. She tried gluing the pennies back together, but the halves curled like tongues and Abraham Lincoln’s face was warped into mine.
My grandmother wasn’t impressed by my brother’s knife-show, not even when he diced an apple in ten seconds, its flesh shredded into a pile of light. Show me a knife that can cut through these bones, my grandmother said, holding her wrist up to the light of the kitchen, her palms the texture of bark from petting her kumquat tree to sleep every night. Until I was ten, I believed what my grandmother told me: that bone grows into the body like a tree. We begin as flesh only, buoys of meat, and then our bones take root in our feet and grow upward into the sleeves of our arms and legs, a trunk tying the knots of our spine. In this way, we enter more and more of the sky. When a bone breaks, a second grows in its place. I learned this when I was three and climbed the kumquat tree, the one my grandmother grew from a single dried kumquat she’d brought from Yilan. She’d soaked it in a jar of water first, until it bloated like a testicle, and then she’d planted it in a driveway crack, willing the light to loan itself to her hands. I remembered it outgrowing the house, its leaves lashing scars on the roof, but my mother said when I fell out of it, I only fell five feet. My grandmother was five feet exactly, the tallest in her family, taller even than her father who had been born without hands. To plant the kumquat trees at the farm, he’d loaded his cheeks with seeds and spat them out in rows, an orchard sprung from his spit.
My wrists broke, both. My knees unsleeved their bones. Instead of crying, I sat under the tree in a skirt of shade and held out my wrists, waiting for new bones to nudge the old ones out of my skin. You sat there like a beggar, my grandmother said. I was ashamed of the way you sat. Later, the bones in my wrists rewrote themselves, and my knees grew back bitterskinned. Even later, I tried describing a kumquat to a classmate in college: the fruit is bitter and sour, I said, It’s the skin that’s sweet. It was only when I said it out loud that I realized the irony: what fruit is eaten for its skin? Its sweetness was a disguise, and once it was disrobed in your mouth, the meat inside was sour enough to make your mouth buck, to wring your tongue of its language. They have to be eaten whole, I told my classmate, while trying to find language for the way it tastes, that spit-curdling sourness, that bitter bead strung on your tongue. They have to be eaten entirely, sour and sweet, skin and seed, the kind of fruit you could swallow like a pill, the kind of fruit my grandmother could eat even after her teeth reversed into milk. The kind of fruit that tastes of the hands that plucked it: skin yellow, seeds soft, my grandmother’s rot-fucked teeth scattered on the carpet like seeds. I know now what a kumquat tastes of: touch.
My mother cuts fruit with the precision of open-heart surgery. As if the stakes are our bodies, our lives. She sloughs the skins off each individual grape, sometimes with her nails, sometimes with a knife. Can’t eat the skins because of pollution. The skin of the thing is its most dangerous thing, not its seeds: the skin is what the world knows of it, of you. One summer, the kumquats turn white on their branches. My wrists display early signs of arthritis and the doctor says she’s never seen this kind of decay in someone so young. I tell her of my old injury, the tree, my grandmother’s driveway, her house that always smelled of gasoline and shit, the dried kumquat, big as my severed thumb, swimming inside a jar, seeking a soil that exists only in story. The doctor asks me for symptoms of my wrists, and I say: ache. Not during the day but at night, in the dark, when my body can pretend it’s unborn, when the bones in my wrist remember what it was like to breach skin, to touch light. In the dark is where I can source hurt: one summer, I saw a bird skewered on the branch of the kumquat tree. I thought my brother had done it, but my grandmother said it must have committed suicide. There are two hyphens on the inside of my left wrist that I turn from the light when the doctor attempts to read my pulse. They are scars, legible only to what made them, which in this case is me. The doctor doesn’t ask for an explanation, but I say anyway: my grandmother’s knife. I was just curious. I didn’t want to hurt myself, I just wanted to see: if my bones were really the same as a tree’s. Now I wear the dark around my wrists like bracelets: the scars darken in the summer when I wet them in the shower and when I try to rewrite them into bracelets and when I hold a knife or my grandmother’s hand, her skin so slack and sponge-like that it preserves the shape of my grip.
The darker the fruit, the riper it is, the sweeter. My grandmother wouldn’t let the girls go out without raincoats on, even when it wasn’t raining. The sun was a man we learned early to run from. If you get any darker, she’d say, I’ll take the skin right off you. I’d rather you be scarred than dark.
My grandfather is the one absent from this list of skins: he was the one my grandmother couldn’t talk about without something in her hands to skin. A chicken just plucked, a fish, an orange more pith than flesh. He was born in Jiangsu, in a province with its own species of kumquat. The Jiangsu kumquat is a breed I’ve never tasted, but it is known for its mouthfeel: smokiness like a spent match, an aftertaste like suede. Mouthfeel is a term I learned outside of my family, but I begin to use it to describe everything, even words in a language I don’t know, even memories. The mouthfeel of this memory is holed like a sponge, like something that is tender because it is beaten off its bones. At the memorial park, I point at the winged things that scatter off the surface of the water, churning the water to salt with their feet. I ask for their name and my grandfather says yezi, meaning coconut, instead of yazi, meaning duck.I’ve seen coconuts in the grocery store, armored in plastic wrap, pre-holed and skinned of their brown. There were no coconuts in my grandfather’s province, but on the island where he met my grandmother, coconuts grew like severed heads, toppling off of soldiers’ shoulders, the juice inside moon-bright. For years, I called the ducks coconuts, believing that they grew wings while growing from trees, that instead of falling, coconuts flocked off their branches and sought other bodies of water, glowing with all the milk in their bellies. There is magic in mispronunciation, but I would learn to call it shame.
Later, in the kitchen, my grandfather is dead three months and his ashes have been detained by Taiwanese authorities. My mother is wrenching drawers out of their sockets, trying to find documents that will prove her father is her father. But her wedding certificate lists an English name and the Taiwanese census lists a Chinese name. My grandfather owns two bodies in two different countries. I tell her this is a good thing: it means that he’s still alive in this one. His body on the island has died, but the one with the English name, the man I know through mispronunciations: he lives. He is at the bus stop, wearing a hairnet in preparation for a day’s worth of frying at the restaurant, and he has never been ash. He’s smoking a cigarette even though it will crust his lungs into rubies. He says everything is bad for your lungs, including breath, including this city, so I smoke with him. The cigarette is a foreign brand and tastes sour. The kumquats ring like little bells in the wind and we listen to the blood inside ourselves. Jing ju, meaning kumquat. I mispronounce the second word, rhyming it with the wrong ju: juli, as in distance. I say gold-distance by accident and it is the word that describes the tip of my grandfather’s cigarette when he boards the bus and the driver makes him throw it out the window. The ash on the street when he’s gone: the only language that can describe its color is light.
My mother bought damaged fruit from the grocery store because it was the cheapest. Because we couldn’t afford water, we bathed for months in the fountain at Memorial Park, my mother bringing our change of clothes in plastic bags and bars of soap she made from boiled chickenfat. My mother didn’t believe in shampoo. She rinsed our hair in citrus juice and oil that sucked the salt out of our sweat. We waited ‘til it was dark. The fountain was triggered by movement, spitting water in an archway above the concrete memorial. The park was named after a war we hadn’t heard of, and once a year a group of veterans met in the park and barbecued, the smoke thick as our hair. When it was night and the lamps in the park blinked on and the moths drank from the light and the flies too, we ran through. The fountain threw its water up to the sky and I pretended it was rain, that god was the one rinsing us bright as razors. I thought we were playing a game, but my mother said we were getting clean. Birds triggered the fountain when they flew toward morning, and squirrels and stray dogs made rain too. One time a cop car stopped and the man got out, asked what we were doing. He was Asian, wet-looking hair and a torn sleeve that was stained with something. My mother, undressed to her bra and bike shorts, hid our plastic bag with the clothes and towels and soap. She asked me to translate for her: we have homes. We live around here. The cop asked where we lived and my mother kept saying here, here. I didn’t know when I had stopped translating, when I had left her mouth on its own, when the moon had become his Adam’s apple. Our home is here. We walked back to our neighborhood, the cop following. My mother in her bra, the beige cup with a milk stain. In the streetlight, my mother’s bare shoulders looked borrowed from another body, some animal that runs when it’s chased. He walked us home. My mother unlocked the door and went in, but before the cop left, she gave him a freckled plum from the bowl on our dining table, the bowl warm as a palm. He knifed his hands into the dark of the doorway, took it from her. He opened the plum with his thumb, and only when I saw it skinless did I believe his hands capable of harm. His teeth stained purple to the gums, bruised with juice. His hunger made me look away, but my mother stayed. She watched. My mother didn’t let him leave our doorway until the plum was eaten to the seed, and then she shut the door and said you see? He believes us now. We live here, we live here. Even the trees say so: watch them stand with their branches behind their backs as the cop walks by, as if they too can be taken from their bodies.
I tell people: picking fruit at the grocery store is an art. I FaceTime my mother at an H-Mart in Yonkers and point my phone at the pyre of guavas, their green brighter on screen. My mother says she can’t see anything, and I tell her to stop directing the camera into her mouth. The guavas are pixelated, blurred into the color of gangrene. My mother tells me she can’t choose for me: you choose not by sight but by touch, by feel. You have to get your hands around its neck. You have to be born with those hands. How? I ask. When she was eleven, my mother worked on a fruit plantation after school. The plantation grew Buddha’s Heads, a breed of fruit I know only by its Taiwanese name: se gao. My mother lopped the heads of the stalks, each green pod the size of her thumb, the flesh white and soft as snot. Her hands were populated with callouses, each as hard and dark as a seed, and when I complain about my wrists to her, my mother laughs and says I’ve never held a machete longer than my spine, never known how a sweet thing bleeds: to death.
In Japan, growing fruit is an art. My brother, on a business trip to Japan, calls to tell me about grocery stores full of artisanal fruit: each grape on the bunch is weighed separately to make sure they’re all the same. Melons are given gold ribbons based on their adherence to a sphere. He describes a mango grove with only one mango on each tree: all the others have been shorn off so that only the perfect one remains, one mango swollen like an udder of gold milk. When I mention this to my mother, she tells me a different story about the soil: how there were Taiwanese boys sent to Japan to build warplanes for the army during World War II, back when Taiwan was Japan’s colony. When the war was over, everyone forgot to send them home. Those warplanes bombed my grandfather’s province, and he described to me a city plucked bald by planes, a city baring its ribs. I text my mother a picture of stores in Japan where fruit is graded based on their lack of blemishes. Where skin is not given the privilege of scarring. Growing fruit is not art, my mother said. It is not beauty. It is blood.
Before the war, Japan considered selling Taiwan to France, but decided to keep it because of its sugar plantations, its rows and rows of cane that from a plane looked like veins in an arm. My mother said she was lucky not to work in the canefields, where the blade-stiff leaves slashed your arms to spaghetti, where girls with machetes came out of the fields without skins or spines. Sweet things grow in humidity: Taiwan’s money was cut from its sugarcane, wealth in the shape of wounds. My mother tells me any guava that gives to your grip is ready to eat. When the skin surrenders all shape, it is time. I skin the guava before slicing it for my mother. The sweetness scolds my tongue, tells me to stop remembering. Sweetness is a body, a skin, a shape like my fistbone. Sweetness is the reason we own our language, our mouths. Sweetness is the reason we aren’t sold.
My mother develops an idea she says will make us rich: a calendar titled Taiwan’s Sexiest Fruits. She says it is my job to do the photoshoot: I picture a pineapple wearing lingerie, an apple slipped into the cup of a bra. The calendar fruits are, in order: papaya, banana, mountain apple, longan, satsuma orange, guava, starfruit, watermelon, lychee, jujube, pineapple, and kumquat. Kumquats are last because she wants it to haunt longest: she says bitterness is a bone that builds itself inside you. I tell her: people don’t buy paper calendars anymore. People use their phones. I was the one who purchased my mother her first pingguo phone, an Apple phone. I don’t need a phone, she said. I have a mouth. She tells me bodies can communicate through fruit. She mimes biting her phone like an apple and says, I eat this Apple. I shit out its seed. The seed grows into a tree. You walk by the tree and know I’ve been there. You cut down the tree, count its rings, add it to how old I am. A tree can hold so many years inside itself. I grew a cherry tree once, did you know that? The city wouldn’t allow it. It threatened to fine me. It was by the street. It was taller than me when I was married. The cherry tree used to bear fruit but now only flowers. I guess it gave up trying to make more of its marrow. Don’t forget: a tree without fruit is good only for firewood. A daughter who doesn’t bear children must burn.
In my mother’s second language, my grandmother’s third, and my first, the word for fruit is shui guo, meaning the product of water. Or, more precisely, the consequence of water. Our bodies, too, are the consequence of water. During martial law, executed prisoners were frequently dumped into rivers. My mother lived by a river in Yilan county. There were stones inside it as large as heads, and eels braided themselves blue. At my elementary school, all the children and parents were invited to the Halloween party. While I was bobbing for apples, my mother yanked my head out of the water by its hair, snapping it like a leash. Later, while she drove home and her hands opened into birds, she said I’d looked like I was drowning. The way an apple bobs is the way a body bobs. She told me she had a dream about that river. That the river stole voices from the dumped corpses and spoke when the wind whisked its water. There was a boy with wire around his wrists. She has never forgotten that silver. The face when it ripens into something nameless, bluemouthed, a bellyful of eels instead of intestines. The body burst when they pulled it onto the banks. They threw its guts back into the water for the fish to erase.
In Yilan, kumquats are a tourist attraction. I scroll through a webpage about the Kumquat Museum, where I imagine there are displays of fossilized kumquats, seeds exhibited as bones, trees named like gravestones. In Yilan, my grandmother is indigenous. There are theme parks where you can buy loincloths and bead necklaces, group tours for mainlanders and city people who want to see how a spear threads into a sky. In Nan’ao, indigenous families attend pig roasts, standing in a circle to dance without their bones, rotating the buoy of the pig’s body, the sun like a fistful of salt. It is unclear whether kumquats are indigenous to the region, or if they traveled by sea from China or the Philippines. It is only clear that kumquats have out-assimilated my grandmother, whose body is still categorized as an asterisk, who grew up quarantined in indigenous townships, where schools are required to teach Mandarin only and hunting is outlawed by those who have never thanked a skull before hollowing it, never seen a spear sing blood, never been a bowl of grief. Taiwan considers kumquats its heritage: my grandmother, its ghost. I translate her back into a body. Kumquats follow the narrative of history: it is nurtured in its new environment, culled, domesticated. What is wild is inedible, hostile. What is wild is cut down, razed for fields and plantations, birthing workers like my grandmother: they stand so long in the fields that their toes strangle into roots and clutch the dirt, not knowing their bodies are the harvest, the crop.
Consider Montebello: working-class suburb, sidewalks the color of dimes. The nearest grocery store is the dollar store, where the only fruit sold is the plastic kind, dangling from keychains that I shoplift in my pockets. Consider the 80s, when my grandmother and mother worked in the garment factories, the skyline blindfolded by smoke, my mother bringing home yards of plaid fabric to sew skirts in her bedroom. I am not yet the meaning of their grief. I am the mirror above the sink where the moon houses itself in the daytime, I am the toilet behind the tri-fold screen that only works half the time, I am the bowl beside the bed where my mother pees instead, where she squats and keeps sewing as she empties. The bowl is gilded with piss. It is the source of light in this room. Consider Montebello now, the city I wear to sleep: dollar stores and liquor stores and bail bond stores and the women who sell blades of mango by the side of the street, who have their own knife-language. Lawn-dye and a pit-bull without a name and my grandmother’s kumquat tree, implausibly growing from a slit in the driveway. Where I see a wound in the ground, my grandmother invents a tree. The leaves flicker like eyelids, uncasing this memory:
The first time I touch a girl, we are ten and playing family with a redwood tree. Its roots so thick they are our fathers. We are beaded with mosquitos, slapping them off each other’s thighs, our hands bright with the blood we’ve stolen back from their bellies. A laced wing is cleaved to the corner of her mouth and I lean forward, lick it off. My spit replacing the sunlight. Years later, my friends and I have a debate about which fruit is the most Sapphic. We say pomegranate, papaya. The girl crowns my hair with leaves and I don’t take them out, not even when my mother says it’ll attract birds to me, not even when they dry and curl into fists. We say guavas, cantaloupe, the nipple of a strawberry. The girl is my neighbor’s neighbor. We go to a school where solid colors are banned, even on children, because gang recruitment begins earlier than our vocabulary. We say pears, green mangoes, figs, a smear of durian. The girl pees her pants one day in P.E. and I lend her my shorts, even though that means I have none to wear myself and have to spend the hour inside the locker-room shower, the place where her body has been naked, where her shoulders pearl with soap, where a girl can get pregnant if she stays in the water too long—my mother tells me this happened to girls who went into the river. The eels swam up inside them, and then the girls gave birth to limbs. An arm, an ankle, occasionally a head. They had to assemble the limbs together into a body, quilting the pieces into children, and still the military came to take them away.
The girl and I share a bowl of watermelon on the sidewalk, the juice steaming warm as our bowels. We eat the meat, suck out its lineage of seeds, and spit them as far as we can at the cars at the sun at the squirrels at the lampposts at the stray cat at the house across the street with its white cactus garden, its orchard of bones. In her mouth, seedlight. The shape of the seed’s future body: mine. We aim our mouths, shotgunning the seeds across the street. They mature mid-air and land on the far sidewalk, full-grown watermelons spilling soft rubies of meat, sweet before we know the word for it.