A Sleepless Portrait
Sister twin hands me her digital camera,
tenders her growing family
portrait of Spring—
bright, clawing sunset
feather warmth, cotton fringe,
my twin’s full hips, new belly
a waxen green bloom.
An elegant rowhouse—
two televisions, two fridges, doubles upon
sonograms, shiny black plastic blurs
read a chaotic future
low center of gravity, anxiety
Sister twin tapes her fear
to the fridges, bathroom mirrors.
I avoid the endless shadows, hungry
sleepless future, liminal chaos.
Mother thirst, Aunty cracked bridge,
Sister twenty flights of stairs, asks:
Why don’t you grow your own?
So you will know love.
I study my twin’s creased shadow,
plastic family chaos, tell them
I am not an empty farmhouse
vacant between creaking floorboards.
I choose barn wood’s jaunty splinters,
gilded dust pressed into wet straw,
a fly’s swagger and strut on spider-webbing,
a stubborn barn cat shredding
my soft-chewed nails drumming
warm wooden echoes ringing in my earnest solitude.
Sister twin, once my parallel,
climbs her own steep roof and finds
me growing full, swaggering
jaunty straw love, and
somewhere between I, me, I
lies the truth.
The young boy’s mother taught him how to auction, read to him bedtime stories in her peculiar
Auctionese, a punchy mixture of auction and Cantonese. They devoured Christie’s and Sotheby’s
on TV nights, sofa, upright, hands pounding their knees, gavels and earnest laughter. Once a year
they journeyed to the neighboring town’s cattle auction to watch the animals sway and moo.
The mother’s Auctionese sounds of a monger expertly filleting a fish, knife tripping on bones,
like running your fingers rough along the teeth of a plastic comb. Numbers exclaimed at top
speed, enunciated with authority, excitement. At night, she mimics an auctioneer who points out
a red hat, the blue of a shirt, the misses or mister or missum.
The mother says speaking Auctionese feels like satisfaction. Like slicing a firm tomato, the red
meat separating, cleaving, yielding to her knife. Her filler words, her expert numbers, her rattling
Ds, both brittle and soft, like tuh-tuh-tuh. The boy listens to his mother’s auction, thinks about
almonds rattling in cans, about jade bracelets clanging on his mother’s wrist.
The mother laughs when she achieves a particularly festive sequence of difficult numbers such as
125-135-145; she nods her own head approvingly. And, later, sits with her eyes closed as she
tells stories bristling with alliterations: Precious Peanut, Sinner Spider, Vivacious Viola—her
perfect Auctionese lifting them into sound worlds that must surely spin on oiled axes.
The mother vows to anyone who will listen that she is beyond Chinatown, out of reach of her
family’s farm. Not given a share of her family’s vegetables, she forged her own way. Her parents
confiscated savings to send her brother to college, whose one claim to fame was dropping out of
Berkeley, but not before taking math with Ted Kaczynzki. And, yet, she learned.
The mother cannot help but think as she eats her American hamburgers, about the cow who was
bid on, the auctioneer at the podium, much like a lecturer in a university, describing her strength,
lean muscles, easy temperament. Nimble echoes: Wegottabeasthere-wegottabeasthere-
The mother is asked by her son, “Why do you need to go so fast? There are speed limits. Why
brag that your car can go 300km per hour if the road rules won’t let you?” The mother responds
with anachronistic anarchist authority, exclaims she belongs to a period not her own. She pats the
boy’s cheek, then slaps her own knee, a gavel to show her worth.
Nancy Au is a queer, bisexual writer, artist, and teacher living in Oakland, California. Her writing appears in FRiGG, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Liminal Stories, Forge Literary Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project collaborative residency from Oregon State University in 2016. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing to biology majors at California State University Stanislaus and co-founded The Escapery. Her work is nominated for The Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net 2017 anthologies.