Braiding Shapes by Gabriella Graceffo

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Close up of a challah bread

After the divorce, my father teaches me how to braid bread. It’s July, two weeks into triple digit heat. As he presses my hands into the half-formed dough, I try not to squirm. He doesn’t remember that every daughter of my maternal grandmother can’t stand the texture of sand, sugar, or flour—an adaptation for pristine table manners and clean kitchens. But I can tell even at ten years old that he needs this small moment to keep me close, to make sure I won’t run away, so I dig my hands in deeper and watch goosebumps shiver up my arms.

When it’s finished, we bake the bread. Hours later, the heat from the oven is still weighing down the apartment, a thick blanket over the air mattress as I try to sleep. The upstairs neighbors shout and then start thumping against the floor, making the broken ceiling fan rattle. I don’t understand what they’re doing, but the sound pools in my head and I suddenly have the vivid impulse to cut off my ears and eat them to make the noise stop. My father snores in the other room, unbothered.

I ask him to braid my hair for school the next morning. He stares at me, first bewildered then defeated. I can’t, I don’t know how, he says, tearing off a piece of fresh bread before pouring a cup of coffee, careful not to look me in the eyes.

I know what he means: He doesn’t know how to braid something he can hurt, how tightly he can pull before the whole thing comes apart.


The chickens don’t blink. I stare at them as my father talks about his day, two dozen feathered bodies in the rafters all in perfect stillness. In another location of this Texan restaurant chain, I counted thirty-eight hens and five roosters watching us eat honey biscuits and wings. I never eat much here, and when I do, I lean forward to keep the taxidermy chickens from seeing my plate. I want to be kind to them.

On Tuesdays, we come here so my mother can transfer my brother and me with clean clothes in our backpacks to our father for the night, an upgrade from the McDonald’s parking lot off I-20. Our dinner order is the same as before the divorce: a platter of chicken strips and bottomless sides, all served family-style. We waste most of the meal with fewer mouths and smaller stomachs. The restaurant doesn’t allow boxes for leftovers.

Before the waiter takes back the half-full bowls, I imagine the chickens flying down from the rafters and feeding on their brethren because they don’t know any better.

I use my teeth to rip a hangnail back, further and further until it bleeds.


My father knows how to make bread, beer, and wine—learned sequentially in college, med school, and residency training—and fills in the rest with Costco ready-meals and take-out from Taco Cabana. My brother and I rent a movie from Blockbuster and watch it while the meals cook in the microwave. Our father flips through chartwork with grease-stained fingers. I want to spend time with him like we used to, nights where he retold the plot of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park so we had something to talk about before I was old enough to watch them, but we’re both too tired to put in the effort. Mandated parenting visitations mean longer hours and more on-call shifts to make up for lost time.

I keep to myself more than ever before, hiding in the long grass outside as the sun dries everything to a thinner version of itself. Before my father or brother wakes up on the weekends, I sneak into the kitchen and use a paring knife to cut apples into wedges, slip them in my pocket, and walk down the hill to our neighbor’s barn. The horses eat them from my hand, sometimes pinching my thumb between their teeth if I hold the fruit wrong.

This morning is different. I look for the paring knife and find a new knife set, one my mother didn’t choose. I press the new blade into an apple and immediately slice my finger, a deep cut that burns as I bring it to my mouth to suck out the pain. I force myself not to cry, just bite pressure around the wound until it clots enough that I can keep cutting the apple.

I miss my mother’s Johnny apple peeler, the kind that cores, peels, and slices all at once. It got lost in the move, thrown out, or donated. It was so easy: cutting off all the unwanted bits to leave the good parts behind. The horses don’t mind, though, even if there’s a little blood.


When my father’s pantry gets weevils, it takes years to get them out. We seal everything in plastic bags and hire exterminators to spray down the house, but nothing kills them. I use it as an excuse to not eat. Before high school, my father would have me exhale by his nose so he could smell for ketones in my breath—a sign of burning fat from skipped meals. Now, even he doesn’t have an appetite. We still go to the store and buy groceries, knowing full well they’re not likely to last. It seems like the house is full and fed if you don’t look too hard.

Dad, would you eat me if you had to? The already quiet table goes silent as my father and I stare at my brother. It’s the first time he’s spoken at the table in months.

You want me to do what?

Andrew rolls his eyes. I know you aren’t going to. I just mean like the Donner party—would you eat me?

Our father eases back in his chair, the doctor in him visibly taking over. No. It would make most sense for you to eat me, in that case. I’d last you longer in terms of meat.

Why are we talking about this, exactly? I ask, pushing my food around my plate, trying not to look for weevils.

Because we learned about it in school. My friend Warren said he’s okay with his family eating him. Is it bad I don’t want you to?

I think it’s pretty reasonable to not want to be eaten, I say.

That’s just because you’re scared you taste bad.

That’s not—

Enough. Our father looks at both of us, knuckles tight around his fork until he sets it down gently on the table. Please, just eat. He picks at a few bites before he sighs and adds, And besides, your mother knows how to cook just about anything and she wouldn’t have any qualms about cooking me.

She can’t cook gravy, I say. He looks at me, confused. I swallow, acutely aware of the tally board my parents keep in their heads for their parenting competition. For holidays, I mean. She can’t cook gravy. She buys it from Boston Market and puts it in the gravy dish to look like it’s hers.

There’s a split second that I feel I’ve revealed something dirty and that I’ll pay for it, but then he bursts out laughing and I laugh, too. After I calm down, I realize I feel hungry and actually want to eat. The room feels lighter. I feel closer to my father than I have in years.


There’s the oyster! My dad waves the chef’s knife in victory before plunging the blade into the turkey carcass to remove the elusive knobs of dark meat just above the hips. I pat him on the back, then grab the freed oysters and set them with the wings and breasts. After ten years, he’s found a way of cooking that appeals to him: surgical and piecemeal.

Will you help me with the dry brine? I look at the bag of sugar—still wrapped in plastic despite being weevil-free for five years—and the spices pulled from the cabinet. My stomach twists at the thought of touching the granules. I’ll mix it if you put it on, I say. He agrees.

We work side by side, almost the same height. Nodding, he hands me the wooden spoon with the longest handle. The brine makes the air tighten with pepper, salt, and sugar. We don’t need to talk. When it’s done, I bring out the green beans and start snapping off the ends.

Do you think you’ll ever date someone new? I ask, keeping my eyes on the vegetables.

I might, might not. Doesn’t seem very important now. He snaps three beans and grabs another handful. Do you think you’ll ever date someone?

Might, might not, I answer.

You just have to be safe about it.

I scrape the bowl so the brine settles at the bottom. Are you trying to have another sex talk right now? That ship kind of sailed when you told me about periods in third grade and I informed all the girls in P.E. we’d start bleeding and almost got sent to detention because I caused a panic.

Ah, no, not that. He grabs a fistful of brine and shakes it over the turkey. I just mean about people. Not all of them will hurt you.

I know. I just don’t know which ones will, I say, giving him the rest of the bowl. He doesn’t respond, but after he finishes, he grabs yeast and flour and a new bowl. I know the recipe.

This time, he kneads the dough before we braid the bread together.

He never makes me touch the flour.

Meet the Contributor

gabriella graceffoGabriella Graceffo is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate at the University of Montana studying English and psychology, specializing in lyric essays and the representation of trauma. She serves as managing editor at Poetry Northwest. Her work appears in Poets & Writers, Pleiades, MAYDAY, Cordite, Rattle, Autofocus, and others. For her writing and scholarship, she has received the David R. Russell Memorial Poetry Award, a Richter Fellowship, and a Goedicke/Robinson Scholarship. You can find her curled up with her two cats in snowy Missoula, Montana.

Image: Domenico Bettinelli / Flickr Creative Commons

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