“Radiance”

Mother cannot bear to throw out books donated to the library under her watch. Stored in our attic, dozens of boxes filled with paperbacks of nearly naked men and women wrestling on the dog-eared covers. At bedtime, Mother models her favorite titles. Tonight, Lost in Love’s Forest. Mother’s arms wrapped around her waist, fingertips digging into her soft back. Black hair, a knotted curtain covering her face.

As my eyelids become heavy, Mother turns out the lights. In the dark, she describes the wooded forest in the background: plush, deep-green moss on moss, and fir trees, pointy stark shadows. The moon, a full-grown star.

It’s night all around; my bedroom door ajar to the bright hallway, the berber carpet glows beneath her feet.

 

Like many nights before, I wake to Mother and Father arguing through the walls.

Father: “Eight isn’t a proper age to learn about such filth.”

Mother: “What’s the point of teaching about sex if you don’t make it enjoyable? What is light without the flame?”

In my dreams, I paint Father into Mother’s paperback forest, reaching down to the glowing dirt, plunging fingers into deep termite mounds, reaching up, dipping fingers in the stars. Fingers tangled in Mother’s hair, caressing her earlobes until they glow. Body, breath, and shudders as he leans in, a tree at full bend, dappled moonlight moving on their shoulders.

 

The next day at school I sweat three hours straight through a secret fever because I don’t want to miss a thing. The school nurse drapes cool, wet cloths on my forehead, a bag of ice on my chest. My head throbs, eyes stapled shut. Mother arrives with a thermos of hot apple cider, orange, steaming, spiced with cinnamon. In the checkered hallway, Mother grips my arm, supports my weight. And then: Loud roaring. Static and then white space and then static. And, I’m back.

My first seizure.

On the car ride to the hospital, Mother maneuvers the steering wheel with one hand, my sweaty fingers clutched in the other. She whispers promises of savory rice porridge, chicken chunks, boiled eggs with sunny yellow yolks, cherry-red pickled ginger.

Mother: gentle, tender, a balm.

Me: wanting to be sick forever.

 

Seizures make you famous with your friends. Back at school, they ask: Are seizures like earthquakes? Does it hurt? Do you get dizzy from all that shaking?

Fame makes me flush, a lit flame.

Bell Chan, fellow fourth grader and my neighbor, not quite a friend but not a stranger. A foot taller than me, with hair full of static. Mother calls her Mountain. Everyone knows that her grandmother can’t feed or bathe herself, that gentle Bell pushes the old woman in a wheelchair up and down our street, silent and creeping as ghosts. She stutters an um when she is nervous.

“Can you, um, help me do it?”

“You can’t just make someone seize.”

“Dad, um, says it’s like dying.”

“You’re crazy.”

Mountain’s face crumbles. “I hope someone in your life dies so you know what it’s like to lose someone.”

I want to tell her that if seizing is like dying, then dying is a cherry apple life.

That night, Mother models a farm scene. Cows mooing in tandem, sensual pink udders, soft black-splotched coats. Father knocks on their bedroom wall with his fist, says loudly through the ripped, rose-print wallpaper, “Where’s our love story?”

“We have a twentyyear love story!” Mother’s lips close to the largest flower. She chuckles at her own cleverness; her answer is head-shake wonderful.

We watch the sheer curtains billow in the night breeze, the window breathing in and out, the luminescent moon.

“Have you heard about how the moon shares our earthshine?” Mother describes the difference between libido and albedo, how sex is not like the reflected light on the night side of the moon. “One, you can keep to yourself. One, gets shared with the world…One day you’ll understand.”

I ask about seizing. “Will I always be this way? What if I don’t come back?”

“Have you heard the one about the girl who could lift a cow?”

I shake my head. I tell Mother how Bell had asked at recess, then at lunch, “Please. Can you help me, um, do it? Help me do it. Please.” How, when I saw her in the bathroom after school—gritty, powdered yellow soap scraping between her palms—she’d shorthanded to just, Please. How, Please became Bell’s um.

Mother responds, “Girl lifts a baby calf when it’s small, spotted and furry, size of a middle-aged Spaniel. Each day she lifts the calf. And each day, the animal and her black splotches get bigger. Size of a dog, then a gangly ostrich, then a majestic mountain lion. Then one day it’s a full-grown cow that Girl, arms trembling under its great weight, lifts straight overhead…You can do anything you put your mind to. You can turn off the moon by just closing your eyes.”

 

The next day, I watch fifth-grade boys, warped by sugar and boredom, playing Guantanamo in the schoolyard. Rich boy, Tuff Lee, dumps orange soda on a third-grader, pulls the soaked t-shirt halfway over the poor boy’s head, binding his arms and face in the fabric. By the time a teacher reaches them, the third-grader has blacked-out.

Bell is not at school, the other kids say, because she’d rather be at her grandmother’s funeral.

 

In Bell’s backyard, it’s warm and September under her apple tree. Fruit, in abundance, sun burnt nickel-sized circles, tan scaly skin on top of red. Me, barefoot, in a tank top, pink naked shoulders. I tell Bell to crouch down. “Good. Now, squeeze your elbows in.”

Bell, sweating in all-black, in a duck-and-cover position. She looks up. “You sure this is what a dying person’s like?” Behind her, magenta bougainvillea shrouds a screen door, the back of her green house faded to yellow.

I throw Bell a candied look. “I’m sure! Hold your breath. Okay, squeeze everything in. Really squeeze! Don’t poop your pants.”

“What if I die?” Bell’s whole body is shaking. A leaf in her electric hair, bark crumbling on her back. Bees murmur overhead. Apple pulp mashed between my toes. I think of Mother’s bedroom novels, open face-down on Mother’s sleeping chest. The trembling cow udders. The spent moon. And Father’s mouth roaring, hot static yelling, fingers squeezing Mother’s earlobes.

“Get real tight. Hold your breath. Cut all oxygen to your boobs. Shut down your brain. Can you feel it? Man this is so bad for you…Good! Hold it. Hold it…Now STAND!”

Bell springs to standing. I hold her against the tree, press into her chest with both palms, all my weight. Bell’s eyebrows, stitched with hurt. She blacks out, crumbles to the ground.

She lays there.

And lays there.

Terrified, I place a hand on Bell’s smooth forehead, feeling for forgiveness. Suddenly, she pops up and I, caught by surprise, slap her in the face. She rubs her cheek, red and steaming, smiling. Pure radiance. I drop to my knees, take her by the shoulders and shake until her teeth chatter. “Well? What did you see? Tell me! Tell me! What did you see?”

Nancy Au

About Nancy Au

Nancy Au's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Anthropology, and is an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing at California State University Stanislaus. She recently received an award to attend the Spring Creek Project (Oregon State University) collaborative residency dedicated to diverse writers and artists who are inspired by nature and science.