Little Harlot

by Nancy Au Read author interview June 6, 2016

Clatter of chopsticks, rice bowls, smacking lips of aunties and uncles seated at wobbly folding tables we’d draped in our best linens, greedily eating our best food: roasted pig pieces, oily duck chunks—tender, pink.

The baby, hidden under a heart-print blanket Lin had strung around her chest with a shoelace, makes kissing sounds like the couples do in the movies I’d recently started to watch. My fifteen-year-old cousin was Mother’s cautionary tale. “That harlot. Sex in a station wagon. All those stains.

A loud crash in the kitchen.

“Grandma, we’re glad you’re visiting us. But don’t let us see you!” shouts B-actress auntie, rubber gasket heiress, mouth full, oily smears on her lips.

Lin loops the shoelace around her throat, crosses eyes, sticks out her tongue. I ask Lin who the daddy is.

“No one.” Lin hands me the baby and joins the food. I carefully lay the baby across my legs, pinch her stomach to see what it’d take to make this little harlot speak, lift her, blow on the strawberry pinch. Spit vibrations and my nose itches. I use the baby’s tuft of head hair to scratch, place my hand on her soft belly, quick bird breaths, warmth, soiled pink terry cloth.

I  think of when Grandma died: early morning darkness, Mother seated at the edge of my bed, whispering to me, voice gravelly with grief.  She tells of finding Grandma in her favorite chair, kitten tightly curled on her lap. Grandma did not have a cat, but I didn’t correct Mother’s storytelling when she described the animal’s rough, barbed tongue licking furiously, rasping life from Grandma’s translucent skin.

I imagine the story kitten, small as a fist, brown paper bag, with x’s for eyes, tongue dangling. I imagine it circling three times, tiny claws piercing Grandma’s paper-thin skin through cotton pajamas, a warm ball in the dent between Grandma’s bony legs. Did Grandma’s last breaths sound like a ragged purr?

Lin returns. I watch her struggle with the baby pouch. I remain silent, small as a cat toy.  Baby observes the ceiling, searching for her own answers.

 

We weave between uncles wavering on their feet, drunk on funeral wine. We push between aunties, their rose and lilac perfume. My parents wave tiredly at me. Captains on a drunken boat funeral tour. I do not wave back.

Upstairs, sweat beads my upper lip. I wipe away like a cowboy. Lin picks a glittering broach out of a relative’s suitcase, holds it to the light. Rolls a gold pen between fingers, licks. Flips open a diary, soft cowhide, sketches of copper mountains, golden clouds, words of sadness. Lin inhales deeply, the leather, ink and gilded grief.

 

The baby slung in a pouch on Lin’s chest, reaches out: red wool socks, silky panties, opal-faced lighters with mesmerizing blue flames. We sniff, probe, lick our way through our relatives’ belongings. And, each room, Lin opens a door, turns, puts a finger to her lips, Shhhhh. 

We snoop our way to my parents’ bedroom: Mother’s jewelry box, heavy jade ring, pearl earrings, a diamond cat pin. I observe the pile of black polyester dresses Mother tried on before dinner.

Lin angrily rummages, “Why does she need all of this?”

The baby sucks a frayed bra strap. I finger a delicate gold chain, lick, taste of a paperclip.

“Take something,” Lin says.

I check the doorway, listen for sounds of footsteps.

“Really. I want to give you something.” Lin slips Mother’s jade ring on, the heavy stone’s deep green holding someone else’s years of good luck. I think: How do you give something that isn’t yours?  Luck, grief, stories, drunkenness? Why do you take when you need, not everything you need?

“Why’d you do it?” I point to the baby.

“I caught a glowing bug before. Did you know that? That we have those?” Lin drops the ring into an empty vase. My eyes dart to the doorway. “Kept it in an old applesauce jar, in water. This beautiful glowing thing.”

“Where’d you keep the jar?”

Lin shrugs, drops Mother’s earrings into the vase with a loud clang.

I imagine her stained wagon, squelching heat. Dirty jar water. Glow-bug floating to the surface on a tiny apple-bit life preserver, trying to suck air through tiny punctures in the lid.

“People see me as some harlot. Even your mom.” Lin holds her face in her hands. “I deserve more.”

I stay silent.

“What’d he do for me that I wasn’t already doing for myself? He said that he loved me. I already loved myself. He said he didn’t want a baby, he was enough for me. He said he’d provide for me, I should quit school. But why should I quit this world? Why?”

The baby punches the air in her dreams; I worry for her first words, what she’d have to say. Would she stand up for Lin, tight little fists swinging at anyone calling her mother a harlot?

Lin cries silently, head curled in, knobby shoulders hunched. After a few minutes she stands, uses one of Mother’s dresses to wipe her nose. “Look what I found.” She holds up a pair of white silk panties harvested from a suitcase, does a squirming dance. “Isn’t this a thrill? I’m going to wear them. I’m gonna stain the hell out of ’em. Our secret. Will you tell?”

About the Author:

Nancy Au graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in anthropology and is completing an MFA at San Francisco State University where she teaches creative writing. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Word Riot, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

Jessica Gawinski is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration at Kendall College of Art and Design in Michigan. Her artwork has been displayed in various exhibitions, including the Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship Exhibition, has been auctioned off at charity events, and can be found in several private collections.