Our house witnessed the birth of a new mother. After almost two days of labor, the doctors decided to cut open my abdomen and stitch it back together. That’s how my son was born. My body never recovered, it remained thin and underweight. My small frame grew thinner during pregnancy because for months, I suffered from vertigo—like my world lost its balance and all I could do was throw up. I grew angry with the new responsibilities, my stitches burned with pain all the time.
Nanay, my mother, never recovered from the trauma of her childhood. She had to be a mother at 8 while Aurelia, my grandmother stayed in the city for days to sew sheets and curtains for a living. Aurelia’s husband left them so Nanay had to look after her younger sisters and 2-year-old brother. Nanay had to take care of their small house, cook rice and fish in soy sauce, wash their clothes as she studied for her monthly exams. She would pin her notebook in the clothesline to memorise her notes while she hanged their clothes to dry.
At 16, she had to look for a job and lie about her age. She worked at the movie house so that her siblings can study at the university. She never went back to school. They moved from one house to another. At 28, she felt like she was getting old. Nanay married a decent-looking man who grew up thousands of miles away from Manila. After 14 years of marriage, she had to separate from him. She devoted her entire life to her four children, to housekeeping, to taking care of her mother and all the gruelling, unpaid labor in between.
Her sisters bought her a permanent house. And another one for when they retire from overseas work. Mother kept these houses clean all the time. Religiously paid the bills, sprayed pesticide to keep roaches and rats away, scrubbed the house and her children clean, burned her fingers in detergent soap and bleach. Nanay struggled to budget her money to feed her daughters and send them all to private school in sparkling white, ironed uniform. She was always angry, livid with the amount of work.
I never understood her anger when I was a child. I would tremble whenever she started banging and throwing things. Then, she would begin her litany. Every week, she would gather her children to tell us how tired she was. With our heads bowed, we would listen to her chant the long prayer of ironing, the pile of dirty clothes she had to wash with her hands, the dishes she had to cook, the regular trips to the market as she scrambled for materials for school projects, the mildews in the bathroom, the countless knickknacks and dust that littered and soiled her sanity. The floor that needs constant sweeping and mopping, the heavy sheets and pile of undergarments she had to hang, fold, separate and return to our cabinets. We tried to do our chores but we were never helpful enough.
I used to be her sidekick, spying on my sisters and telling on them as I massage her ailing feet. The house heard all the rumors that I would tell my mother and heard my sisters talk about my mother. The house listened as the narratives evolved. I grew older and started talking back, turning the narratives against her, shouting at her.
At 23, I got pregnant but never understood motherhood. Motherhood then meant sore nipples, postpartum depression, painful abdominal stitches, sleepless nights, expensive vaccines, hospital visits, endless chores, correcting your child, teaching him, playing with him and wishing you could write but never having enough time or energy. I learned the weight of the litany my mother delivered.
The house that my aunts bought was a hundred square meters wide, with two floors. There are two bathrooms and five rooms, a terrace, a garage, a dirty kitchen cum laundry area. A dining room and living room. We’ve grown older but we never learned how to clean the house her way.
It was only a hundred square meters but because Nanay cleaned the house everyday, her exhaustion grew into a mansion. I tried to understand her anger, university helped me realize the multiple burden she was carrying. But because I’ve seen homeless mothers, I could not accept that she can never be truly happy that she was given a house of her own. I’ve seen landless mothers struggle for land where they can build a house that could withstand typhoons, met peasant women who would sacrifice their lives so the next generation of mothers could till their lands and build a home.
We had a house and it has kept us warm. It has sheltered us and that is all that matters. But to Nanay, the house was her. It was as if the dusts under the sofa felt like dirt in her skin, if they are not vacuumed and aired, bugs will start hatching in her pores. It was as if the house must be scrubbed clean or else she will smell. As if the unkempt shelves and rooms cluttered her mind. As if the house spoke through her litanies.
I never understood her anger but like her, I was always angry. I managed to turn the childhood-trembling around and make mother tremble with my words. I could soil and smear the house with memories she did not want to remember. Anger can be abusive.
One Saturday, as I was washing my son’s clothes, I realized that houses are meant to be unkempt. Maintaining a house is a full-time job that leaves your feet swollen and spine abnormally curved. There were five of us cleaning a two-story house. Because her children had full-time jobs, cleaning and maintaining became the burden of the “jobless” and unpaid. Nanay looked after my son and managed the house— two extremely relentless roles.
That afternoon, my sisters were cleaning their room, I was washing my son’s school uniform while waiting for the tamarind soup to boil. Mother was changing the curtains and my husband was cleaning the garage. The house still looked dishevelled. I saw the impossibility of the task and its feudal tendencies. Nanay is now 60 years old. If we compute all the hours she spent cleaning, we might end up with two decades. That’s 1/3 of her life spent merely scrubbing, washing, organizing. It was imperialist and abusive. But cleaning is essential, I’ve tried not-cleaning the house when she went away for weeks. Bed bugs appeared from nowhere, we nursed skin rash for days until we decided to do exactly what Nanay did: clean thoroughly and regularly.
Nanay is not the house, the dusts do not crawl unto her skin, and she is not scrubbing the floors lest she smell. Nanay was being a parent, a mother, and cleaning the house was an expression of a difficult love. A burden working class mother carry all their lives. Draining and exhausting, patriarchal and thankless. My feet never stopped aching when I became a mother, my fingers show signs of arthritis and my varicose veins have swollen as I begin to understand the malediction of housekeeping.
Nanay was 8 when she started scrubbing the floors. That afternoon, I saw how young and small she was as she tried to reach for the impossibly high curtains.
Rae Rival teaches arts-based research and creative writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts. She co-founded Gantala Press, a feminist literary press, and does volunteer work for Rural Women Advocates (RUWA), a group that pushes for genuine agrarian reform.
At 9:45 on a Tuesday morning, The Branch Head floated down the stairs from the third floor of the government building where it was being billeted, down to the second floor where its working office was located. As it turned away from the second floor landing into the wide hallway that led to its enclosed office, five people—The Branch Head’s direct staff—all seated and working fervently at their own desks since 8 o’clock a.m., turned to look at it to say, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” The Branch Head replied, with a little nod and a smile, and floated into its own enclosed office, keeping the extra-wide door open. It floated to its desk, hovered over its big, black, leather office chair, and swung its head slightly and gently to the right, because its tablet was attached to its ear by a ribbon two feet long. The Branch Head needed to place the tablet on top of its desk to check its social media accounts for that morning.
The Branch Head was literally that: a disembodied head. A head composed of a skull that is covered with skin, hair on its scalp, two eyes and two ears in the usual places, a nose, a mouth, cheeks, chin, a working jaw, teeth, tongue. It is a head without a body, because to do its job in the government it did not really need anything else. It did have a neck, though, because it also had to speak, and so vocal cords and a larynx were essential, but it was a rather short neck, vocal cords and larynx all jammed up in the throat cavity with little space left for vocal resonation. Its voice was loud and flat. It does have, from the looks of it, some kind of a rudimentary brain inside its skull that helps it to manage whatever organs it has remaining, as well as afford it a bit of linguistic and cognitive skills, but for all intents and purposes, as a Branch Head in the government bureaucracy, it had all it needed to function as one.
The Branch Head’s head was also larger than normal people’s heads. Much, much bigger. In fact, it was swollen and bloated with air. Its cheeks were all puffed up, its ears distorted like one of those balloons that coordinators at children’s parties twist and knot into various animal shapes. Its lips were bulbous like a botched lip filler job. Its scalp looked like it held very sparse hair but it’s only because the scalp itself was all stretched because it was filled with air.
With its tablet now on top of the desk, The Branch Head bowed its entire being in order to tap on the Facebook icon with its nose. It scrolled through its news feed using its nose, hovering its head higher over the tablet to read through the contents before lowering its head to swipe its nose up the screen once more. After a few moments, it came across something it found hilarious on its newsfeed, which was created by an app that turned photos of adult faces into baby versions of themselves. The Branch Head then floated out of its office with the extra-wide door, tablet still hanging by its right ear, and proceeded to disturb all of its four staff people seated right outside its office.
“Look at these! Ha ha ha! Look at these!” The Branch Head announced in its loud, flat voice, swinging its head a little bit to call attention to its tablet. All four people then dutifully dropped the work they were doing, stepped away from their desks and approached The Branch Head with fake smiles. One of them, the secretary, took hold of the swinging tablet and looked at the screen where the digitally morphed photos were displayed and laughed. The other three people peered over her shoulder and also laughed, making trite, slightly deprecating comments at the photos of these people on the screen, people they didn’t know.
The Branch Head stayed for several minutes more, cackling loudly and flatly, asking its secretary to continue scrolling through the photos because there are a lot of them, apparently all worthy of suspending government work for. The four people held captive had no choice but to continue looking at the phone and give fake laughs for the next ten minutes.
Eventually, The Branch Head drifted away from these four people to the other side of the second floor. The four people heaved faint sighs of relief and went back to their desks to resume work. The other side of the second floor was where a bigger group of employees were also busy working at their desks. Some were even talking with clients, government employees needing to clarify their outstanding loans and claims, asking about benefits and new loan condonation programs, submitting documents for death benefits of spouses, filing for insurance, bringing up matters that were quite complicated and problematic regarding accounts with unreconciled details. It was a busy Tuesday morning, and several clients were upset. The Branch Head, nevertheless, proceeded to go around each desk showing its tablet to employees at each turn, still on the subject of the morphed infant face photos of random adults. Each employee, as approached, politely grabbed hold of the swinging tablet, scrolled through the photos, gave the expected chuckles while wracking their brains for something funny to say, their mouths showing laughter but their eyebrows knotted together in a an effort to hide their disgust at the balloon that accosted them and their work every day.
One employee, an acting Division Chief, was at that very moment talking to a 65 year-old woman who had just retired as a public school teacher after 42 years in government service; she was supposed to receive over two million pesos in retirement benefits but was left with only 87,569.75, because of her accumulated unpaid loans, the amortizations for which she insisted she could prove have been regularly deducted from her salary. The woman was crying, sitting hunched over before the employee’s desk, looking at the employee’s computer monitor that showed all the deductions from the woman’s four decades of toil, exhaustion, checking of papers, inhaling chalk dust inside poorly ventilated classrooms, hypertension, and commuting, and here was The Branch Head, spreading mindless mirth about infant-ized faces of random adults. The employee politely responded by scrolling through the phone and laughing, and when The Branch Head continued its floating routine towards the rest of the people in the second floor, immediately sat down to resume explaining to the retired teacher whose eyes were red from hysterical sobbing.
“Ma’am, I am sorry, but based on our records, there are unpaid loans that must be deducted from your retirement benefits, according to law.” The Division Chief said, his sympathy genuine.
“I have already shown you all of my pay slips. The amortizations have been deducted from my salary, all of them, all these years.” She said, sniffing into a handkerchief that was getting soggy.
“It is not you, Ma’am. It is your agency that did not remit to us all those amortizations that they have deducted from your salary. They kept the money for some reason and did not remit them to us. You are not the only person in this same situation. This has been happening for a long time.”
“If this has been happening for a long time, how come no one has ever tried to fix it? And what am I to do now? How do I go after my own agency about this? Who do I talk to there?”
“You can ask for help from the personnel in your agency that is assigned to liaise with us. They can double check the paper trail for the billings and the remittances connected to your account. Then we can reconcile the records and proceed with the release of the two million.” It pained the Acting Division Chief to say this, because he knew this wasn’t the proper answer or solution; he was only required to say it. If he tried to save the pension, he would be administratively sued.
“But I have already talked to our liaison officer and she told me the problem was with you, that she remitted what she should have but no acknowledgment receive ever came from you,” The woman’s voice started to rise.
“She cannot prove that.”
“You people keep passing me from one point to the other and no one is telling the truth. It’s like I have worked for nothing.”
The woman gave in to another bout of sobbing while a wave of laughter drifted towards her from the far corner of the second floor, where The Branch Head was still showing employees its tablet.
“Can I get the 87,000 pesos now and just get the rest later when all has been reconciled?” The woman pleaded. “My granddaughter is sick and needs to be hospitalized and her mother who is an OFW in Dubai has not been able to send money.”
“I am afraid that if you claim the 87,000 now, that will, in effect, be your way of agreeing that that amount is all that you are entitled to and you are waiving your rights to request for a reconciliation.”
The woman’s sobs continued. The Acting Division Chief lowered his eyes in remorse and helplessness. He looked at his feet, which are still present, and clad in the required leather shoes. He felt grateful that he had not lost any body part yet, as he had been working at not losing any body part at all, despite the fact that as Acting Division Chief he was doing tasksabove his pay grade and doing them without pay.
By the time 11 o’clock rolled around, The Branch Head was already done showing every single employee its tablet and the morphed faces of random adults, including the employees at the first floor, and the branch driver and the security guards outside, while ignoring all other clients and customers.
The Branch Head floated back up to the second floor to its own office to check its emails. The government has provided it with a voice-controlled computer terminal, on account of The Branch Head’s not having any hands to work with a computer the normal way. The Branch Head has not always been like this. It used to have an entire human body many, many years ago, when it began its career in government, not as a Branch Head but as a rank-and-file employee who did the grunt work while the bureaucratic higher-ups floated about as large and air-headed Heads themselves. Over time, it lost its own body parts, bit by bit. First, it lost its feet, and had to learn how to float, which it enjoyed. After it lost its feet, it got promoted to Staff III. After it lost its legs, it got promoted to Staff IV, and then as it continued to lose body parts, it continued to be promoted to the next higher positions. To get promoted to a supervisory position, the stomach had to disappear, and The Branch Head successfully complied, and was promoted once more.
When its chest area, where the lungs and the heart were, disappeared, it was promoted to an executive position, as Branch Head, as the heart was considered unnecessary to the person’s government-mandated work. The last to disappear were the arms and the shoulders, leaving only a short piece of neck. At the bottom of the neck was a smooth, clean piece of skin, round and flat as a pancake. The brain also adjusted its size. As body parts sequentially disappeared before each promotion up the ladder of government bureaucracy, the parts of the brain that managed that body part also disappeared. By the time Heads-in-line became full-fledged Heads, their brains would have become the size of a tennis ball. Then the head began to puff up, which qualified the floating heads to receive salary increments. Groups of government doctors would visit the branches every six months to measure these floating Heads and submit their official measurements to the General Manager, for approval of the appropriate salary increment. This went on and on to the point that extra-wide doors needed to be widened to accommodate the growing size of the Heads. But now this Branch Head had a head with a diameter of 83.25 inches, which it believes to be well-earned after 38 years in government service.
That 83.25-inch head now floated about its computer terminal, dictating commands to the microphone in staccato bursts.
“Turn on monitor to enter password.” The monitor turned on, and The Branch Head typed in its password, with its nose on its oversized keyboard the government agency had custom-made for the Heads.
“Reply. This has been complied with. Details will be given by the claims department within the day. Thank you. Send email.”
“Compose new email. (Name of employee.) This is to inform you that your sick leave has been disapproved because the medical certificates you have attached are doubtful and seem fake. Send email.”
“Compose new email. (Name of employee.) Please see me at my office at 4:30 p.m. today. Send email.”
“Open check writer. Approve amount of 5,698.23 pesos. Affix my signature. Print check.”
The Branch Head worked on many more tasks of this nature, mostly flexing its authority over the most trivial things and despite the terrified employees’ lack of violations of office rules and policies. Every time an employee was called to its office, the unfortunate employee could not even get a word in edgewise. The Branch Head would start talking in that loud, cackling voice for several minutes, then ask a question, and then before the employee could even finish their answer, The Branch Head would start talking again for as long as it felt like it. Some days, The Branch Head preferred showing power over email. Sometimes, it preferred to do its power-tripping in person. But today was a good day because of that social media app that turned the faces of random adults into baby-faced versions of themselves. And so, at around 1:30 p.m., The Branch Head instructed its secretary to download the app to her own phone, go around taking photos of all the branch employees, and use the app to morph their faces into that of babies.
The secretary did just that. She left the pile of papers she was processing for the preparation of the budget for the next year, one that was due at 5:00 p.m. that day and she wasn’t even halfway done with it yet, to go around taking photos of everyone’s faces, and one by one turning them into babies. That took a good half-hour of paid government time. After she showed her output to The Branch Head, it cackled loudly once more as it scrolled through everything.
“Print all of these in full color and then paste them all on our bulletin board,” it ordered the secretary.
“Okay,” the secretary replied. It took another half an hour for her to download all the photos to her government-provided computer, print them onto government-provided paper using the government-provided colored laser printer. Then she walked to the bulletin board and pinned each sheet by the corners.
At 3:00 p.m., when most of the employees were rising for their fifteen-minute coffee break, The Branch Head swiftly floated out of its office and stood at the foot of the stairs, inviting everyone to come up to the bulletin board. The employees sighed, some shook their heads, resigned to losing more than 15 minutes of their paid break-time, and walked to the bulletin board, only to behold colored photograph prints of two versions of their heads—one as an adult and another one as a baby. A tired wave of collective laughter started to rise from the employees. The Branch Head hovered in front of the bulletin board, flitting from side to side to point its swollen mouth at the photos it found to be the funniest, a giant disembodied head making fun of pictures of heads.
Little by little, the tired, hungry throng petered away. The ones at the back quietly walked to the stairwell. One by one, they fled the scene to go to the canteen near the gate of the office compound, thinking about merienda and time wasted. Some retreated to the pantry to get coffee and some quiet, but the ones right in front of the bulletin board found it hard to just leave The Branch Head. They ended up pretending they needed to pee, as the restrooms were the nearest spaces to escape to.
After the employees have had a brief respite of mostly quiet work among the irate, often anxious members from other agencies, The Branch Head came flying out of its office again, calling out to the employee it wanted to speak with.
“Sit down, please,” said The Branch Head. The employee did as told. The Branch Head flew over to its chair and hovered even higher so it could literally look down on the employee.
“I saw you loitering on the CCTV yesterday. Why were you loitering?”
“I wasn’t. I was on way to deliver our insurance payment checks to the car—“
“Why did you not tell me it was official business? For as long as I am not informed of all that everyone is doing in this office, I cannot be responsible for you. Even our drivers, even when they have no trips, they have to stay at their desks, or else they would be sued for loitering. You know that rule. That rule has been in force in all the 38 years that I have been working in this government agency.”
“I was not loitering. I had a pass that you have signed—.”
“Have you delivered the checks?” The Branch Head interrupted.
“Why did you deliver them in the morning then? Our usual procedure is to deliver them in the afternoon because mornings are reserved for personal insurance claims checks. We cannot change that schedule because if we make too many clients wait outside they will surely take photos and post them on social media and tell them we are inefficient or we are stealing their money because we cannot them their checks on time.”
“There was a new directive last week saying all insurance checks of all kinds must be delivered or released before 11 a.m.—” the employee spoke fast so he could finish the sentence before getting interrupted again, but he did not succeed.
“I have not read that directive and I find it stupid. Why 11 o’clock? Our office hours are at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You deliver checks when I tell you to, not because of someone’s directive. There was this one time when I was The Branch Head down south, someone delivered checks at the wrong time, and clients were enraged at that. So I am very particular about these matters.”
“The directive was from our Vice-President. That’s why you signed my pass for 11 o’clock yesterday.”
“Do not answer back!” The Brand Head’s eyes grew bigger. “I have been working in this government agency for 38 years and this is the first time that people are bypassing my authority. Let me just tell you, in another branch up north when I was Branch Head there, this guy who was so arrogant shouted at a client, and so the client complained to me. When I confronted the employee, he shouted back. I sued him for insubordination.”
“But it’s the VP—“ the employee stuttered.
“If you feel that I have erred, you can cite the details in black and white—”
“No! I will not do that. It is up to your conscience to deal with your mistake. I have been working here for 38 years and I know where I stand. I have occupied such a post as yours many years ago and I don’t remember ever making this same mistake. I do not expect to retire in five years with less benefits than what I deserve because I get a low performance rating because of your incompetence.”
The employee sat, looking at his hands on his lap.
“Okay, you may go,” said The Branch Head.
The employee walked out without looking back.
The Branch Head floated lower to stare closely at its computer terminal.
“Search mail. (Name of Vice-President). Keywords, release of insurance checks.” And then The Branch Head did see the email directive, sent out to all Branch Heads under that Vice-President’s area of jurisdiction, and this Branch Head also saw its own reply: “We will comply. Thank you.”
The Branch Head wiggled itself—its way of shrugging without shoulders—and waited for 5 o’clock to come when all employees would leave for the day, blissfully content in its ability to balance, in the government office that it was lording over, the wielding of righteous power with good-natured humor.
At a little past five in the evening, when it could no longer hear the tell-tale sound of people moving about, and seeing that most of the lights were already turned off, it floated out of its office, and seeing the bulletin board, still with its spotlights on, at the periphery of its vision, started chuckling again and floated to it, expecting a good 20 minutes of laughing over the pictures of the heads before it floated up the stairs to the third floor to end its work day. It floated in front of the bulletin board, moving from left to right and from top to bottom, once again looking for what it deemed the funniest, and laughing out loud at certain photos. Of course, it ignored the memo posted on the bulletin board about the branch lagging very much behind other branches in the granting of a certain important loan. But when The Branch Head came to the lower right corner of the bulletin board, it saw something that wasn’t there before.
On a piece of A4-sized paper was a printed photo of its own swollen floating head, mouth open in laughter, and beside it, instead of a baby version of its own face, was a baby’s bottom, smooth and fat and shiny like The Branch Head’s smooth and fat and shiny cheeks. Dead center in that picture was the baby’s asshole. The Branch Head’s tennis ball-sized brain took a while to understand what it was seeing, as its brain was no longer equipped to process matters outside those related to government bureaucracy—except maybe for inconsequential things, such as memes and apps it saw on social media. But when the meaning of that one A4-sized print finally dawned on The Branch Head, a soft hissing sound ensued from its nose. As the meaning became clearer, the hissing sound became louder. The Branch Head felt heavier and heavier, and it felt itself floating downwards to the floor, and it realized that it was deflating. It started to feel air hiss inside its ears, and tasted air going out of its partly open mouth.
After five minutes, The Branch Head had become a deflated head on the old marble floor beneath the bulletin board near the restrooms. Only its skull, normal-sized, retained its shape. The rest of it was skin, and all skin was pooling around the base of the skull. One of its eyes still lay in its socket on the skull. The other eye plopped closely to the ear, which was on the floor. Its mouth looked like a fully-chewed and stretched-out still-pinkish chewing gum. The Branch Head tried to float, and found that it still could, but only two inches off the floor. Its vision was wobbly, on account of its misaligned eyes. It moved about tentatively, its layers of stretched, wrinkled skin trailing behind. At that moment, The Branch Head knew it would no longer be allowed to retire in five years, at age 65, with full benefits. It would have to resign the very next day, effective immediately and without benefits, because of the degraded state of its head. A new Head would then be sent to head the branch. Thirty-eight years of service down the drain, or more accurately, dissipated into thin air. The Branch Head floated slowly up the stairs to the third floor of the government building where it was being billeted, feeling, with each few inches of belabored rising, its sagging skin slap against the stair’s risers.
Maryanne Moll has published three books. The first two—Awakenings and Little Freedoms, are collections of her short essays. Her third book, Married Women, is her first collection of short stories. One of her short stories, “At Merienda,” won Third Prize at the 2005 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. She is currently working on thesis for her Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature, Major in Literary Theory, in the University of the Philippines – Diliman, as well as a new collection of short stories.
Once upon a time, because now is a time when history has been obliterated, because history is written in the bones and beasts of the land and both have been now mutilated and mutated beyond recognition, they made houses out of meat.
At least that is what the Mamanlaut call them, those cities the savants have named Balay Hunyango, because the houses smell faintly of offal, or like some dead animal left out in the open for too long, or because that’s what they looked like, but also because they have no time or need for more elegant names. When the godstorms come and bring the sangsangin－the smell of the fetid water, fishkill, and carbonsour fumes－the houses “piss”: their pores expel the transmuted waste of Balay Hunyango, a substance so concentrated that the odors the typhoon winds had blown their way couldn’t completely overpower the smell it exuded. On calm days the meat-houses do this, too, in smaller increments, as vapor. The Mamanlaut have grown used to it.
They had a sheen to them, wet and slick with dark rainbows as if slathered with oil, that during the long greenhouse summers became almost limestone-white at high noon to reflect heat away. They were shaped like giant tortoises, if the body and the shell were one thing: “legs” holding up a body that appeared something like a cross between a conch shell and a brain. If you watched them closely without blinking, they would look stationary, like meganimbus clouds that always seemed to be so far away and never any nearer, but look away and back again for a few moments and you would notice them shift slightly, as if they had moved or morphed, which they do.
They adjust to external stimuli. Usually they move like this, imperceptible, except on really bad days when the surges or godstorms would get too strong and they would have to “walk” to more stable ground. In the lowlands, of course, this meant walking through the rubble and rusted remains of old cities, cities built by the savants’ precursors, back when they didn’t know yet the metamorphic art of transubstantiation.
We are making it better, they would say. We have learned. We are not wasteful, and our houses aren’t cold and hard and stiff things.
Balay Hunyango was built through a process called transubstantiation. The savants have perfected the study of living things, the nonliving things, and the things that lived between the spaces of each, that occupy the spaces matter cannot occupy. They distilled from what they called the heathen songs and crude sciences, made necessary improvements. They say they had learned how to do so from their predecessors long ago, who found the bridge between the physical and the psychical, found that such a metaphysics was possible through painstaking research into the interactions of aether with matter and energy. And they needed to.
The world before, with its gargantuan metropolitan appetites, had collapsed; the steel bones and concrete shells of their glass cities had grown brittle, pounded by godstorms and poisoned by neglect. The bittersalt seas have risen, gone further inland, eating up the edges of the islands. Half the year was feverhot, with occasional acid rains, and the other half was ruled by godstorm. There was no high tide or low tide, just days when the eternal surge does or does not come. Farther inland where there used to be freshwater, fetid rivers choked on mutant kangkong, lily, and carpet upon carpet of duckweed and scum; in some of the bigger rivers and lakes, the green monstrosities had formed communities, deep poison-green leaves and limbs intertwining thickly, finding a new language to speak to each other through their exhalations; sometimes you could smell the psychemicals they hiss into the air. The greenmess was so thick in places even an adult Mamanlaut could walk on them, pick off snails that ate and bred on them and other animals that got tangled in the trap. These, too, they try to eat, alongside the green.
This was the best they could do, to save the hardiest, the strongest, the ones that multiplied the fastest. Cut the many losses and move forward. They introduced the mutant vegetables and weeds into the rivers so the Mamanlaut could have something to eat or build their rafts with, or to use for improvised filtration, they said. They made it so that they were edible but resilient, perfect for the Mamanlaut, no? they would add, secure in their goodwill.
Mamanlaut didn’t live in meat-houses. Even then they were told they were too many already, that sheltering an overpopulated community would make this tender ecosystem collapse inside them. But they let the Mamanlaut lash their palayagan to the legs of meat-houses, or built readymade shelters made from the leavings of collapsed cities when the monsoon brings the storms. There are those who were taken in and decontaminated to do important work; after all, to maintain the meat-houses was to maintain everyone’s survival.
The savants called it Balay Hunyango because that’s what they needed, a city that could change and defend itself, an organism capable of adaptation to whatever freak condition had become their daily nightmare.
Walls of membrane that could breathe, help circulate and recycle air and secrete the byproducts of their daily processes. When earthquakes and strong winds come battering Balay Hunyango, the meat-houses fortified themselves, the membranes going stiff yet pliable enough so they wouldn’t shatter and crumble when the earth rattled them.
Many whispered that it was the savants’ forefathers that had left the earth this way, that they had abandoned the world when they had discovered that liminal space beyond gravity, light, and time, where reality itself was mutable, up there, in the stars, in the swirling blackness at the center of galaxies. With one big leap, one valiant push, those who had the art of surviving the journey rocketed into the sky, or vanished between planes of existence. It sounded simple. All it took was massive energy. They had eaten through most of the earth, anyway, and it was a simple matter of pooling as much fuel as they could together, all the best minds.
During this great enterprise, they created aether.
See, aether was soul-stuff congealed and crystallized, both fuel and by-product of transubstantiation. Back at that seeming mythic time when the savants’ forebears, and those who could afford to join them, made the Big Leap to escape the earth. There was a bright light, a quaking in the very atoms of the world, and they were gone, save for some of the most learned of them who had, for some reason, stayed behind. The earth was enveloped in pyroclastic and zodiacal cloud, and many more who had not died in the process of the Big Leap had perished under that cloud as it blocked out the sun. Only when the early savants had seen what new mineral now hung in the air and rained down on the world, what this new material did upon contact with souls that remained alive, bent over in desperate prayer, how it reacted to the touch of a living thing, did they realize what it was they could harness. Mana. Boon. A renewable resource.
The details of this are murky. Even the savants themselves don’t remember everything, or so they say. But they did hang onto an idea, would repeat it to themselves often and to others twice as much because they didn’t know any other way to live—that they had been left behind for a purpose, that they were here to return true equilibrium to the earth, that they had chosen to stay.
A few would whisper that they had stolen the art from the ancestors of the Mamanlaut—the art of the commune, the shaman’s trances, the psychic conversations. But nobody really knows for sure anymore, because the Mamanlaut, too, have lost that language.
It would not be the first thing that had been taken from them. Once, long ago before the rapid decay and the Big Leap had flattened all diversity on the planet, the people who lived in these islands confused the word for “saving” with “unmaking”, and the word hung over the bodies they left in fields of kangkong. The plants do not understand the alien language of human tongues, or the alien language of human violence, or the terms of their forced complicity. Silent, the kangkong enveloped the rotting flesh, and in the dark of no names they would feed. Fishes, leeches, insects, monitor lizards, parasites. The bones joined the silt below, over time calcifying, turning to sand or stone.
The men and women who lost their names to the dark and lost their bodies to the riverbed had tried to claim their land back, many many years ago, when all the great men had thought to mine from them was metal. The savants mine still, this time for aether-veins.
Nameless, the longdead are everywhere. There is so much of them in the soil, in the water, in the blood and bellies of the Mamanlaut. The trees have absorbed them into their armored trunks. So much meat. Even the Mamanlaut have lost their old names, names that told of their ties to the land—the first-by-the-river, the men-of-the-forest, they who were foremost to swim upriver, they who were first among the underbrush—but in their dreams and their daily pains somewhere in their skin retain the water their bodies once held. It seems fitting, somehow, to have lost their land first, and now everyone else has lost their land, too. Now, everyone who is not a savant is a Mamanlaut because when the sea had swallowed up most of the low-lying land, fishing was all the livelihood they could find here: outside the walls, you fished for whatever scraps they give, or the scraps thrown up by the ocean, or sate yourself on bony tilapia, snakehead, and other such pests, another gift from the savants’ efforts to preserve them. If you were lucky to live within the pseudomembrane walls of Balay Hunyango, you were put to work. The worst kind of fishing was diving for aether-veins.
Transubstantiation requires only small amounts at a time, they would say. It is the most efficient kind of substance, at once fuel, at once conductor, where metamorphosis takes place. And whatever waste the use of aether creates only creates more aether, as it dissipates into the atmosphere, to be consumed by living things, and to sink down into the earth and water, forming veins in the dark.
They reminded the Mamanlaut how important it was to keep the aether coming. That it was all their duty to keep the world turning. To salvage.
The Mamanlaut were singing the song of god the night it washed ashore. It had been a terrible drought, and they were living on the insectpests that clung to the legs of the meat-houses. Their voices floated over the waves. In the dark, the gelatinous mass knocked gently against their boats.
O god was born from All There Is, man and woman both, and They had one body, o!
O god, They had one body, and They felt the world sloshing inside Their gut, o!
And Their sexes throbbed for release, o!
And They lay down in pain to birth the world, o god!
From Their holy breasts spouted the oceans,
From Their holy dung the earth,
from Their holy womb all hot-blooded things
from Their balls and cock the cold-blooded things.
O god! Who gave Their body to birth the world!
The godsong was a vulgar song, and no-one remembers where it really came from.
The first to hear the godsong were two young Mamanlaut who had climbed the mountains trying to find the water reservoir Balay Hunyango so closely guarded. It was a long way up. There weren’t so much forests as straggler-trees that had learned to grown permanently bent in the direction of the godstorms’ winds, their bark adapting to the acid rain with thick bark and covered in stinging sap that trapped mosquito swarms and the unlucky blacksparrow that thought they would find succor among their branches. These, too, the trees take into them for nourishment. These Mamanlaut, they needed to be careful: old mines and quarries have made parts of the mountain hollow and prone to landslides. Rumor goes that the savants themselves had put these trees here, experimenting with the metabreeding of mahogany and strangler vines in the hope that these groves would keep the hills and mountains from falling completely apart.
The intrepid Mamanlaut weren’t careful enough. One wrong step and the slope they had been climbing had caved in on them. They thought they would die from the fall and the avalanche, but somehow they had escaped being crushed or mutilated, and their landing was soft. When they looked around them, some shafts of light enabling them to see, they screamed.
Flesh. Mounds, nodes, tissues, growing from the walls. And though the Mamanlaut could see no mouths, they could hear a hum, feel the vibration around them. In fear they stood still, and through the echoes they could discern words. They weren’t sure how they heard them, if they heard them out loud, or in their heads, or both at the same time. They didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t know where the song came from. The cave undulated, responded to the Mamanlaut’ touch. It was warm in there, like breath. They tried to discern anything that resembled a real body, but the flesh seemed to grow from the rock around them, seemed inseparable from them.
There was a theory: that, long ago, the savant-precursors had found out how flora could speak to each other through the air and through the soil, to warn them of danger, to know where and how to grow, how to fortify themselves.
They passed this down to the savants, and the savants tried to use this knowledge when they were building the first meat-houses, in the hopes that they would grow the earth new lungs. Producing grotesqueries instead, they discarded their unsuccessful first attempts here. But this theory leaves out the part where transubstantiation needed raw material to work with; even faith needed something to hold onto, even miracles needed fuel.
There was another theory: that the Mamanlaut who dove down the shafts and the dirty water for aether deposits ended up here, transformed by their contact, or transformed by the savants. To survive the dives, they had been given potions, modifications, alive enough to perform their duties and earn some processed food for their family. With each dive they kept on changing until there was nothing else left except to be absorbed by the land, by the water, to dissolve into the air, and end up here, warm veins in rock, themselves.
The Mamanlaut didn’t know this, and they didn’t remember how they had gotten out of that singing womb in the earth. They must have been caught at some point, and whatever they had seen had been scrubbed from their memory. They went to work for the savants later on, diving for aether, but every night they hummed a song. The other Mamanlaut miners knew it too. And when they visited their families, skin glowing in the dark from exposure, they passed the song onto their families. It didn’t really mean anything, not to them, though they had some faint understanding of the words. It was a nonsense song, like what they would sing to their children when they couldn’t chew through thrice-boiled kangkong.
The flotsam kept on coming.
Someone very old would remember a story their grandmother used to say that their grandkin had said to them in turn, about how earthquakes disturbed the deepwater dwellers like the oarfish—creatures long gone—and they would wash ashore, dead. Even then people didn’t really know what to make of the carcasses, if they were omens foretelling the next disaster. Then people would come along, look at the remains. Shaggy, moplike, stringy, pale white flesh, they almost looked like giant dogs, but not long after they were discovered, the savants of their time would declare that there was really no mystery to it, that it was simply the carcass of a whale gone to rot.
But this didn’t look like wasted flesh, didn’t seem like whale carcass at all. For one, though they had a notion of what a whale might be—an amorphous image of a great fish that wasn’t a fish and made milk like human teats—they also knew very well they, like the oarfish, were never to be seen again. The oceans couldn’t keep alive anything that huge. And yet this one, somehow, was alive in some way.
For one, it was warm to the touch, and faintly vibrating. Fanlike tendrils bloomed from little peaks and hills on the surface of the glob. Blue-green fuzz grew liberally from it, something between algae and fur, and critters that lived in thick communities in the fuzz glowed with phosphorecence. It had a big, translucent hump that seemed to breathe, like a lung. Underneath it, trailing behind it, what looked like a mess of guts and innards. And when they had gone nearer to it, they heard their own voices chanting the godsong in their ears all the louder.
There were others. Long chains of jellylike flesh, red and blue in the dark. Clumps, that looked like the hair that grew on the crotch, dark and thick and wiry, with smooth bladders that seemed to pump water in and out of them to help them move. Were they animals? And yet the Mamanlaut couldn’t see eyes, a mouth, could see other animals latching onto it to feed. What did they eat?
The savants came down one day to the nearest palayagan when the floodareas were thick with the flotsam.
They wanted to sample the globs. To study. To improve our way of life, they said. But when they had gone near and touched the tendrils, they let out a pained scream like butchered gulls; the Mamanlaut had never heard such voices before, and it hurt their ears, made their throat itch. The fishers watched as the tendrils seemed to sting the savants, lashed at their protective skinfilters.
Paralyzed, the Mamanlaut swam away, waiting for the same pain to burn into their own flesh, until they realized they had been submerged for the same length of time with them but coming out itchy with faint rashes, nothing that they hadn’t felt when soaked too long in the bittersalt brine or after a long day’s work of diving for aether. No, the floating mass did not make them break out in angry welts filled with pus and blood, or constrict their breathing, or expel waste for days on both ends—and yet there they were, the savants and their bionic protections ripped open by simple contact from the long ropes of fleshy tubes that trailed from underneath the flotsam.
As if the taste of blood had awakened the floating, lumbering masses, the globs pushed their way closer to the palayagan and, to the horror of those who watched, enveloped their tentacles around the nearest savants. They screamed, limbs lacerated, the flesh of their legs sloughing off. They retreated up into their meat-houses and didn’t emerge again on that day. The Mamanlaut, too, tried their best to stay as far away from the globs as possible, though there wasn’t much room to hide: they were stuck in the bay between the meat-houses, the monsoon shelters, and the water, where the flotsam were.
The savants kept trying. Every time, they would try to scrape off a part of the glob, or cut off a tendril, or shove their crystalens at different parts of the creatures, trying to get their instruments to glow and reveal something. But every time they couldn’t take the pain. At some point, a whisper began to go about the village.
The instruments, they weren’t for measuring the glob. They were for finding aether.
Savants now and then would ask the Mamanlaut to work with them, collect the samples in exchange for more food, or enhancements or temporary refuge within Balay Hunyango during the next monsoon season. Some of them would, and it seemed to be a simple matter of pulling a node or two apart from the glob, as if it were made of different animals connected together. Yet they would soon discover that the sample would be useless once turned over to the savants’ hands. The nodes dried up, shriveled up, decayed rapidly, when not connected to the flotsam. The savants said the Mamanlaut didn’t understand how to handle the animal. Or that not enough of the Mamanlaut wanted to help.
They withdrew the food supplements, formed blockades so even what little they could eat from the mutant green they wouldn’t be able to harvest. They used the waste secretions from the meat-houses to light them afire, keep Mamanlaut to their rafts, keep them floating. It was a particularly hot week, and the globs were in the way of their boats; the Mamanlaut were growing hungry, hungrier than the everyday dull, familiar lack that always rumbled in their stomachs, and they have run out of potable water. Some had talked of going back up to the savants, to beg to try again, or to have one last sweep for aether deposits before the monsoon took the opportunity for aether-mining away for the next several months.
One child, desperate to fish, ventured out to get close to the globs in the hope of climbing over them to swim in the open water, already a dangerous venture without a raft and a rope to tether herself to it. As she got near, the godsong burst from her lips, and she was filled with a strange euphoria. Her mouth watered, and a heady sweet smell drifted up at her. Her family did not see her until morning. Thinking that the globs had killed her, they went out to search for what remained of her bod when they found her there, suckling and prying the crusty cones on the surface of one flotsam. Under the crust the flotsam was smooth, and its lungsail filled with more air as the child, little by little, had worked it free from the dirt and pests that had enveloped its surface. The glob seemed to secrete a syrup, and this was what the child was eating.
The Mamanlaut stopped diving for aether. They ate from the secretions of the flotsam and helped free them from their pests.
These, too, comprised of what looked like crab, pale white and blind, and clams that looked like great fingernails, digging into the flotsam’s flesh. Tentatively, experimentally, the adults did the same, while others watched. The liquid almost burned the throat for how sweet it was; sweeter than mollusk flesh, or the morning flowers of the kangkong they would chew along with the leaves to help it go down easier. The godsong filled their ears, and the others who weren’t scraping off the crusts began to remove the obstructions between the globs as much as they could, maneuvering whatever boats were trapped there away from the globs and using nets to pull aside the debris that usually accumulated on the bay after a surge. It was only then that they noticed that the flotsam had joined tentacles.
Bellies full, they had strange dreams that night, of being buried under the earth, of great chimneys that rose from the ground and belching black nimbus smoke, little stars trapped inside them, atoms roiling, demanding release. A burning white flame winked once from a deepred horizon, and a great tree blooming from the sea, a great tree of flame and ash and a ring of dust around it growing larger and larger. And still farther back they dreamed of being eaten by kangkong, hands bound with rope, heads wrapped in sacks, and metal balls buried in their chests, leaking blood. They watched a people embarking a great exodus from lush forests that fell before mountain-eaters, saw their feet bleeding on the ground as they carried whole families on their shoulders, bursts of flame hounding their fleeing. They heard the name bakwit, they heard the name lumad, and that burning white flame boiled the insides of their stomach, boiled the marrow off their bones, the names sighing to nothing in the wake of a nuclear wind.
The godstorm came the next day.
With the air filled with sangsangin, the savants had begun to ready themselves. They made it so that the membrane of Balay Hunyango became impossible for the palayagan to latch onto for safety, and they had withdrawn the readymades. Unprepared for the monsoon, the Mamanlaut knew they would drown under the fury of the godstorm and the surge it brought with it. They clung to the next best thing: the floating masses. Angry, the waves crushed the weakest boats and barges, but the flotsam remained abovewater.
They began to crawl.
Together they reach out, their tentacles finding purchase, their tentacles reaching for the legs of the meat-houses. The houses shuddered, preparing for assault; they had deployed defenses before, back when more Mamanlaut would try to breach the walls or climb up and invade their perfect environment. Thorns, spikes, toxic liquids extracted from the bittersalt sea. And for a few moments the meat-houses launched their defense. The Mamanlaut, now clinging for their lives on the flotsam, braced themselves for what felt like the inevitable: the creatures falling and taking the Mamanlaut with them.
But the globs held fast, even seemed to cling all the more tightly to the meathouses. Some of the Mamanlaut dared to lift their heads to watch as the storm raged over them, but some silent thing had curled into their gut and hooked itself there. Everyone felt it, a sensation, a reflex, rooting further into their innards. Communion. They were speaking to the meat-houses. And the meat-houses hummed in turn, their surfaces undulating together, its oilslick colors turning bright neon.
But one of the houses lurched away, the great turtle-legs moving faster than the Mamanlaut have ever seen them do before. And they fled. Perhaps ordered by the masters that dwelled within them, Balay Hunyango turned away from the churning sea and left the Mamanlaut, left the bay, left the strange, grotesque newcomers to fend for themselves. They disappeared into the mountains, but the Mamanlaut didn’t watch anymore; they had to survive the godstorm first. They stuck themselves in between the translucent flabs of flesh on the flotsam, and somehow the creatures didn’t shake them off or sting them in defense. Together they sung the godsong, and the flotsam hummed back. They didn’t know why, but a calm had seeped into their bodies, and their own trembling began to match the vibrations of the flotsams’ flesh.
The globs sank back into the water and, slowly, submerged themselves. The lungsails grew jellylike, the organ wrapping around the whole animal, and the Mamanlaut with it. They found that they could breathe in there. Through the translucence they saw the murky match the godstorm with each powerful current, their sight aided by the aether-phosphorescence the creatures emitted.
It had been many, many years since we had seen the meat-houses and the savants.
The flotsam-masses have been calling to each other for a long time, and the Mamanlaut still don’t know how they had started, but it feels like they were all different parts of the same living animal. Perhaps this was the savants’ plan all along when they were metaterraforming the islands. But they have not come out of Balay Hunyango, have not inspected their handiwork. They didn’t seem to understand what it was they made, if they made it at all. The Mamanlaut don’t even know if they are still alive.
In the morning they clear the thick crust of pests for the flotsam in exchange for sweetfood. Moisture would accumulate on the lungsails too, and they collected them for water. When they find another glob the Mamanlaut pull them in with ropes and help them acclimate to each other, learn each other’s language. These things take time for them, but the two songs merge, in the fishers’ ears and minds, and they help them learn the new songs. Each time, the vibrations change a little, imperceptibly, unless one stopped listening and press an ear to their flesh afterward. When they vibrate at the same time, the two masses exhale a fragrant musk into the air that tell the people they are joined.
Over time the Mamanlaut had learned that the words didn’t really mean anything; perhaps they were some psychic echo, leftovers of what the flotsam had been, whatever they might have been. They do not try to decipher those. Instead, they know it is the vibrations and the smells that matter. The savants had a word for it—psychemicals, like what they had cultivated the mutant weeds for—and maybe this is what they mean by that. But they aren’t here to tell us.
The youngest of their people had grown membranes of their own that sealed themselves off whenever they dove underwater. Like the skins of the savants, they didn’t take in the bitter of the seawater, and they could hunt for fish that strayed too close to the stingers of the masses. The children have grown immune to them over time, and they would sometimes suck on the smaller tendrils and laugh at the tickling sensation on their tongue. As they grow, the membranes grew, too, like sails on their backs that collapsed whenever they needed to dive deeper.
The flotsam are migrating soon to avoid the godstorms, perhaps heeding the call of other masses who are on safer waters. The Mamanlaut wondered if there was such a thing as mating for them, if this was different from the fusion of parts whenever they called to each other and joined tentacles, forming another floating world. Their eyes glow green, blue, red, at night, and there is that pull in their gut that tells them the time will be near for the moving. They are always on the move.
At night, though, some of them get the dreams. Whispers, echoes of old lives, older than the flotsam, older than the meat-houses. Whispers of white flame illuminating fragments from collective memory. They get glimpses of the world as it had been before; some see much better than others. Some days they understand everything, other days they wish to gouge their eyes out. They look at each other everyday and see little changes in their features, their skin feeling more elastic than it did yesterday, their noses melting into their faces, their spines growing longer, but when they blink and rub their eyes and look again, they appear to be the same as before.
They wake with the bloodred sea still in their minds and when they look out at the water they tell themselves it is the morning that they see and not the great big burning in their visions. Before joining the flotsam they had grown used to sunrises and sunsets turning the sky into bruise-blue or violent orange through the thickness of the debris in the atmosphere, but lately they like to imagine that the rays shone clearer now, even just a fraction. They rub their eyes again, and they glow with aether-light.
The Mamanlaut stand on the backs of the flotsam and watch the horizon, wondering when the others will arrive.
They picture them, their translucence reflecting the light of a yellow sun and a powder-blue sky, as they slowly, silently, line the shores, fill the seas, from end to end. They wonder if others will be standing on their backs, too, humming the godsong in different tongues without knowing the words, little lungsails ballooning from their backs, their feet wrapped in flotsam-jelly. They wonder if, someday, soon, the glob will fill the earth. What would they be called, then? Mamandikiya? Tagainunan? Baybayonon? No name seems appropriate, and they let each one slip easily from their minds the way their skin now did when they scrubbed it with seawater, or when it would flake off, pieces of them drifting in the wind.
While they wait, they make new songs.
Erika M. Carreon co-founded and co-edited Plural Online Journal. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila, where she taught with the Literature Department from 2010 to 2018. Her literary works have appeared in High Chair, Kritika Kultura, Philippines Free Press, and Sigwa: Climate Fiction from the Philippines (forthcoming from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press). She provided artwork for Adam David’s zine, The Nature of Beasts vol. 1 and Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, forthcoming 2020). With Neobie Gonzalez, Carreon launched the indie art page Occult’s Razor, and under Occult’s Razor, they produced their first project, A Descending Order of Mortal Significance, one of the best Filipino books of 2017 according to CNN Philippines. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.
We wager you wanted us to do it, giving us this place for free, allowing us to re-paint the walls, rearrange the existing furniture.
Cerise, we decided to call it, and we rolled up our sleeves and applied the coat in clean, thick strokes, watching, amazed, as the paint dried, accepting its definition.
Rose, we whispered to each other, and we licked each other’s nipples, each other’s cheeks.
And if we said vermilion? And if we said fire? We pushed our tongues into each other’s mouths, noting the subtle change in taste. Every day our lips burned with the act of naming.
Always, that tree in a corner, unfenced, unguarded, and all at once we knew that everything has been named even before our arrival.
We attacked cerise, chipping away at this mistake with our fingernails. Not rose, not vermilion, not fire. We moved away from each other, clothing ourselves, preserving the landscapes we have yet to discover.
The unnamed belongs to us, but now even the blank walls are resistant.
Is this what you wanted us to learn: how limited we are, how unnecessary?
We were hungry. We were just trying to find a shelter from your rain.
ii. Adam and Eve as Murder Suspects
That day the future took shape, an outline in chalk on the wet sidewalk.
What horrible conceit, the illusion of endlessness, your perfect pathways that never meet each other.
And now, the threat of exile. How it pales when compared to the moment of unshielding. The juice dribbling down our lips, the seeds lodged in our throats.
How it wounded us, how we wept at the sight of all this beauty.
Taken as evidence: our clothes, our wandering gaze. The tree bends in supplication: Forgive me for telling you the truth.
Must we now say We did not do it, We do not know anything, We have been in this room for hours, We were elsewhere when the crime was committed?
Must we say Show us your face, you bastard, you scum? We try to look past your light and witness only our own reflections.
iii. Adam and Eve as Abandoned Children
So this is it, then: this dark spot on the side of the road, the swirling dust, the diminishing form of your car. We move forward to keep the distance constant. We wonder if we are framed by your rearview mirror, if it is in your nature to look back. We wave and pretend it is a gesture of welcome.
Maybe somewhere in your wallet is a picture of us, tattered, handled often. See, now? Deterioration can be an evidence of love. Dog-eared pages, scuff marks on leather, overlapping fingerprints on the glass of a coffin.
The conspicuous absence of the fruit on its branch, and all you notice is our sudden lack of questions, our disobedience.
We come back to the empty house and try to cherish our dirty faces, the dishes in the sink, our clothes in need of mending, the dirt settling on all the surfaces. (Deterioration can be an evidence of love.)
We try to ignore how similar this is to abandonment.
Come back to us and show us again that rock, that flower that you wanted us to see, and we promise that we will do it right this time. We will say How lovely, instead of giving you a wordless smile, the pained look of someone who knows all the answers.
The mother, described as heartless, hates that she is only given a certain portion of the
narrative. How could she know, she has not heard of column inches. More space, and I could have shown my capacity to love.
The boy, now a businessman, tries to find the words to speak of a glorious instant. He settles with good, and his friends laugh, apologize: He has always been like this.
The child found in the cupboard, in a basket lined with flowers. Curiously, you always find space for the people outside the plot: union leaders, a neighbor who knew the parents, their assumption of authority. You want to replace the word good with something else.
One of his friends remembers him before the tragedy, talks to you alone. You take notes, rearrange the sequence of your questions.
The businessman who was once a boy frowns, stunned by your knowledge. He wants you to believe that it is possible to pass through a fire unchanged. In your head, you hunt down an expert who could say otherwise.
The friend says: You know how it is, like during torture, when you lose the words? You ask, What do you mean by good? The way he shrank back from the intrusion.
You want to tell him that you used to like fathers, their silence, the way they become soft when they see their children approaching. The word dances in the air, and he leans back, away from you, satisfied with his answer. You want to ask a question about forgiveness.
You let the priest speak, because in stories like this, the afterlife is important.
Comments on a Tragedy
and perhaps in a house somewhere a mother and a son are watching them praise the man who did not draw his gun for the sake of his passengers and what is the lesson here? the mother asks her boy, ready to tell him to veer away from dark streets, just hand over his belongings in case her first rule proves useless. The lesson here is? The mother draws the curtains, conscious of the presence of men who stab people for no reason, the prayers that rebuke revenge. Onscreen, the widow receives papers certifying her children’s scholarship. The lesson here is? When it’s your time, it’s your time, the mother says whenever somebody dies because she is a churchgoer, she is not proud. She touches her son’s shoulders and feels his back stiffen with this knowledge. Onscreen, the widow sits with his son on her lap, smiling one last time at the papers before the pretty anchor’s face takes over with news of a fire, another car crash. The lesson here is? the mother pleads, staring at the curtains abloom with sunflowers. When you have a gun, just use it, says the boy, and No, no, the mother says sternly, but nods to herself, grateful.
Comments on a Tragedy
In the story where the woman disappears without a trace
The woman must have walked to a bus stop outside of the narrative.
The story is just like any ruined place, filled with cracks and partial to exodus.
Her husband thinks of her in the train. We assume the people around him have grown tired of counting the dead, having folded their newspapers, thinking of the economy.
We brand the earthquake simply as stubborn and desperate. As we would any survivor.
Question: Why can’t it be smart enough to understand that the city does not have what it wants, and what the city does have, it cannot afford to give?
Eliza Victoria is the author of several books including the Philippine National Book Award-winning Dwellers (2014), the novel Wounded Little Gods (2016), the graphic novel After Lambana (2016, a collaboration with Mervin Malonzo), and the science fiction novel-in-stories, Nightfall (2018). Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several online and print publications, most recently in LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction, The Dark Magazine, and The Apex Book of World SF Volume 5. Her work has won prizes in the Philippines’ top literary awards, including the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Her one-act plays (written in Filipino) have been staged at the Virgin LabFest at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Corinna forced herself to look back, look at the figure she knew would be standing behind the window of the blue mansion. She felt the figure’s hot, furious stare and held it, not letting go despite the fear ballooning from within her guts.
You know owner of mansion, mem? The driver asked. Saya tidak tahu. Indeed she had no idea who, what kind of being, the owner of that mansion was.
Oh, speak Malay very good, mem! Corinna managed a smile, saying she knew little. Do you know owner, bapak? She asked.
Everybody know! Famous blue mansion, British times. Painted with limao and indigo. Very unique in Georgetown, he said.
So, owned by a British person? Corinna asked, not surprised if Harrison owned it, or that he was British. She never spoke with him, only emailed. He wanted to open an Art House with his collection of pre-liberation art. Corinna wasn’t sure what this meant, but was sure that Harrison didn’t know what he was talking about either. Corinna said she’d view the collection and the exhibit space. She flew in from Manila, via Singapore, the next day, and went straight to the address he gave her.
It was late when she got there. A South Asian-looking security guard opened the gate, let her taxi through to a path behind the house, and motioned for the driver not to go any further. Corinna told the driver to return for her in an hour. Filipina? He asked. She nodded. The guard led her through a smaller gate, keeping her off the main path to the central courtyard.
Where is Mr. Harrison? Is this the Art House? He ignored her and motioned for her to precede him to the empty office. He took out a canister and some files from a cabinet and gave them to her. Can I look at the house, the art? He shook his head and led her back to the side of the house. Wait here. The guard went around the compound, switching lights on around the house, except for the side where she was standing.
Original owner, mem? Chinese trader, eighteen hundreds. Very rich. Ships and slaves from China, India. But now it is UNESCO, what you say, heritage? Yes, a heritage site, Corinna told the driver, remembering the little that she saw of thecentral courtyard—Chinese timber lattices, cast-iron balusters, Art Nouveau stained glass. Chinese kept many women, British, Indian, Malay. Three women die, they say. The British one kill herself, he said.
But doesn’t someone live there now? She asked.The driver shook his head. Now, no one live, he said, no one live.
Corinna shivered again at the memory, the presence she felt, and later saw, when the guard entered the main house and turned on the light in the main hall: The mural on the wall opposite the window—the snarling figure glaring at her, in each of its huge, black fists the necks of three limp, faceless women. Corinna ran to the driveway and called the driver back.
She could feel the heat from the mural behind here as she ran to meet the taxi mid-way. Hurry, hurry, bapak, let’s go!
She knew then that she couldn’t do it. This was no Art House project, it was something more malevolent than that. As the taxi made a turn for the main highway, she forced herself to look one last time, the mansion now a dark miniature of itself.
Daryll Delgado’s first book, After the Body Displaces Water (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2012), won the thirty-second Manila Critics Circle/Philippines National Book Award for best book of short fiction in English, and was a finalist for the 2013 Madrigal-Gonzales First Book Award. She also received a Philippines Free Press award for her fiction in 2010. She has received writing residencies in Australia, Spain, and the Philippines and holds degrees in journalism and comparative literature from the University of the Philippines – Diliman. She has taught in the University of the Philippines, Ateneo De Manila University, and Miriam College. She presently works for an international labor rights NGO, where she heads the research and stakeholder engagement programs for Southeast Asia and writes global reports on labor issues. She was born and raised in Tacloban City but resides in Quezon City with her husband (and former college paper editor), William. The novel Remains (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2019) is Delgado’s second book.
Every morning, before rolling up the security grill, Eloisa Henares, a woman of substantial heft but otherwise fairly attractive, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into an ash-filled bowl by the cashier’s counter. As the first wisps of fine smoke curl upward, she closes her eyes and waits until the scent of faux sandalwood rises above the stale, musty-sour odor of decay and the lingering smell of mothballs. Though every item has been washed, sanitized, and ironed–Eloy makes sure of this, she is a professional— pre-loved garments can never smell new. Most patrons can’t even tell that Eloy’s stocks are pre-loved: holes have been patched; ripped seams mended; missing buttons replaced. Occasionally, a canny customer brings a sleeve to her nose, smells the old beneath the smoke, and makes a face. “It’s vintage,” Eloy then volunteers, from her perch by the counter. If the mark lingers (though her body turns toward the door), Eloy says, “That’s the smell of love,” and smiles. Charmed, the other smiles back. They all do.
When Eloy opens shop, the reek of old garments rises from the sidewalk and slaps her face in greeting. “Good morning to you too,” Eloy mutters. It is early, and only the vendors without a city permit are milling about, surveying each other’s piles of fabric like seasoned scavengers. They ignore her, as usual, unconcerned by the permanence of her puesto. Eloy’s is one of the few registered enterprises in the heart of an otherwise unregulated district, having had its start as the neighborhood modista’s work area, long before the ukay-ukay vendors moved in.
In her early days at the store, Eloy tried making friends, but quickly realized the sidewalk was a mere way-station, and the faces that struck her as familiar were only similar in the manner that a brand new T-shirt on a shelf at the city mall’s department store was similar to the ones beneath it, or on top of it, each crisply folded and encased in plastic.
Eloy knows a thing or two about these shirts, fresh off the factory line. They’re all she allows herself to wear when she tends the store. It is easier to transact with a stranger, but only if that stranger appears sufficiently familiar, sufficiently non-threatening, sufficiently reasonable, a particular type. With jeans and flip-flops, a white cotton shirt suggests: laid-back vintage store owner behind the cashier’s counter—but that’s the jeans and sandals talking. The white shirt says nothing.
A white shirt fresh off the factory line is sufficiently quiet, if not mute, and so allows Eloy to quickly model the merchandise without having to disrobe completely—to play the part of a helpful friend if a client lacks one. Beneath a pink notch-collar jacket with three-quarter sleeves and matching skirt, a white T-shirt says: cheerful executive assistant happy in her cubicle. With a gold satin skirt and suede sandals embellished with coral beads: woman stepping out of the cubicle for a supposedly casual dinner with the boss. If fat Eloy in her white T-shirt can look like a secretary with a pleasing personality in this jacket and in that skirt, why, imagine the wonders the same ensemble can do for you.
No one asks the white shirt what it wants. No one even asks what it can do. And so when the white shirt finally speaks (as all the pre-loved inevitably do), it says: No one sees me. No one knows I am here.
When this happens, Eloy makes a fire out of the pile of leaves in her backyard and burns the shirt. Now there is nothing to see. There is nothing left here.
Her first visitors of the day are three girls in identical wife-beaters and dark blue jeggings.
“This Eloy’s?” the thinnest one asks. She wears a leather cuff on her lower left arm and Chuck Taylors, reasonably worn, but not yet worn out.
“Good. We’ve been looking for this store—”
“For years,” squeaks the shortest of the three. “Shut up, Shorty,” the tallest girl hisses.
“And here you are,” Eloy says, knowing very well that her store was the last thing they would have been looking for during their infancy. “What can I do for you?” She looks straight into the eyes of the tall one. But it is Chucks who answers.
“You know the rules?”
“Then help yourselves.”
Eloy waits patiently as the girls weave their way through the racks, past all the shelves. At first they follow each other, giggling nervously. When the store falls silent, Eloy knows that each girl has found something worth having, a glimpse of her secret dream.
As expected, it is the tallest who returns first. She knows exactly what she wants. A cocktail ring, mother-of-pearl set in heavy silver—jewelry you used to find at any town market down south. The tarnish is thick, but the dull moss-green verdigris only makes the nacre glow incandescent. Eloy sees: light refracted through the hundred crystal eyes of a chandelier. A hall of mirrors, with one tall figure set off by the light inside each metallic frame. She will be back for that butterfly-sleeve terno, the one with the beaded train. Eloy is certain of it, makes a mental note to keep it off the rack for a couple of years. By then, she will have enough to pay for it. The mother-of-pearl ring will see to that. This one’s a keeper.
Chucks is back with a fitted three-button blazer in black tropical wool lined in chartreuse-colored silk. Eloy remembers the woman who brought it in: impressive in a crisp white suit, a solid gold bangle, and pointy black pumps in crocodile leather—but bored out of her mind. She drove a hard bargain, Eloy recalls. “This perfectly sensible blazer is from Manhattan. Manhattan. Do you even know where that is?” But there is always a market for a sensible black blazer—especially one that never fails to embrace you when you need to be held. In the end, Eloy agreed to part with a hand-printed aqua silk halter from Phnom Penh, a beaded purse in fuchsia from Delhi, and a pair of strappy gold wedges, all in exchange for that perfectly sensible blazer. Will they all be back at the store when Chucks returns? Eloy wonders.
Shorty hands over a blush-colored cashmere sweater set with silver lace trim. “Classic vintage,” she squeaks. When Eloy nods with approval, Shorty beams.
Lana Turner’s appeal has never quite gone out of style, though she herself has long been forgotten. On Shorty’s ample chest, the cashmere would suggest: furry bunny rabbit—cuddly, eager to please, so easy to love.
“All right,” Eloy says. “What have you got?”
The Tall One lays a fire-truck red resin cocktail ring on the counter. First love, Eloy intuits as she turns it over in her palm. Yesterday, a boy and girl ran into the store laughing and breathless, as though they had been cheerily chasing each other up and down the street. There was no love between them, as far as Eloy could tell. But if this ring had been on display yesterday, she thinks, if he had picked it up, and presented it to her as a joke, if she had allowed him to place it on her finger, what would have happened?
Chucks takes off her leather cuff. “I feel naked without it,” she says, her voice wavering slightly. “It was my mother’s.” The odor of sweat and tears is strong.
Eloy recognizes guilt when she smells it. “You’ll feel so much better without it,” she says, sweeping the cuff into a drawer beneath the counter. She thinks of her customers, picks out the ones who might be the most interested: the parish priest, perpetual self-flagellant; the wealthy haciendero eager to put an insolent worker in his place; the militant revolutionary with an unflagging desire to shame the petit-bourgeois; the parent who cannot bear the thought of a child leaving.
Shorty unscrews from her ears a pair of earrings and places them on the counter. Real sapphire set in 14-karat yellow gold. A birth stone? Eloy waits for the items to speak. But the earrings are just that—mere earrings, with no story to tell.
“I’m sorry,” Eloy finally says, “I’m calling off the exchange.”
Tears well up in Shorty’s eyes, then splash on the counter.
“This is not the kind of thing we’re looking for—” Eloy begins gently. But before she can say another word, all three have run out the door with their loot. She turns her attention to the wet earrings on the counter. A child’s tears, they now announce matter-of-factly. That must count for something, though Eloy has no idea what that might be. She has no prospective customers for this newest acquisition.
She’ll be back, the earrings promise, as Eloy slides them off the counter.
Maybe she does after all.
By midday, a few patrons are milling about. Eloy makes a few of the more usual transactions. A plump matron dressed like a school principal buys a black lace tank top and a crushed velvet cape with gold buttons. She also pays for the Italian jacket in blue-gray, with paisley inserts, chosen by her companion, a sallow-faced boy in a T-shirt proclaiming, “Bedista Ako.” They’ll be back. A man, fiftyish and balding, purchases a white tunic in cotton organza with silver thread embroidery, blithely unaware of the trouble Eloy went through to wash out the bloodstains. Eloy notes his fastidiously manicured nails and knows: He’ll be back. Four young mothers leave with four vintage Sunday dresses for girls made from old-fashioned chicken food sacks and plain cotton trim. Eloy does not expect to see them again. But maybe their daughters will find her one day. Will they come together or alone? She calls to a wandering vendor and buys a piece of fried eggplant, a bowl of rice. She eats her lunch by the counter. Alone, she decides. Those girls will find their way here, alone.
That was, of course, how she found her way to the store. Alone, in her early twenties, at a time when she could be anything she dreamed, she felt vacuous, unable to change without the agency of another. She had been a castaway child, orphaned at a young age, and passed from relative to distant relative, every single one reluctant to play the role of fairy godmother.
Lola Paring was the last in a line of relations who were rumored to have made it big in the city. A wizened crone hunched over a pedal-powered sewing machine, she was a neighborhood modista. Nothing interrupted Lola Paring’s ceaseless production. The whir of her sewing machine continued late into the night and early into the morning, invading Eloy’s dreaming, which took place in a bed separated from the work area by a thin swath of cotton. She worked madly, churning out blouse after blouse, skirt after skirt, dress after dress, all in the style of her own distant youth. Mute, she instructed Eloy through grunts, growls and the pursing of lips.
Eloy often felt like the thimble Lola Paring wore on her thumb, the thread pulled through the eye of the sewing machine’s needle, the cloth held fast as Lola Paring pedaled her machine—grunting and pouting, grunting and pouting, until Eloy understood her every whim, her iron will. Despite this, Eloy clung to her— so desperate was she to belong somewhere, to nestle into a narrative that she could call ‘home’.
When Eloy first came to her, Lola Paring’s clientele had dwindled to a cadre of fiercely loyal patrons who failed to notice the occasionally mismatched buttons and slightly asymmetrical hemlines of her creations. Eloy learned to recognize which among these clients stayed true because they longed for the comfort of the old and familiar. The rest, of course, were those whose sense of sight was failing, as Lola Paring’s was; and those to whom the cut and style of dress mattered little. Unaffected by the so-called economic crises which (everyone agreed) seemed to worsen year after year, Lola Paring’s clients placed order after order out of habit and nostalgia. Eloy checked the dresses that slipped off Lola Paring’s Singer, replaced orphan buttons, and fixed imperfect hemlines by hand.
The Doktora was among Lola Paring’s most loyal customers. Renowned for her skill in the operating room, she was well-compensated for her talent and in turn was generous to those who served her. When Eloy first met the Doktora, she was quite taken by the woman’s perfectly arched eyebrows, the beauty mark right below her right nostril, and the tiny mole on her right cheek. Young and impressionable, Eloy was con-vinced that these features were the proper accessories to a fitted black dress, a polka-dot halter—clothes worn by the kontrabida in those black-and-white movies from LVN Studios and Sampaguita Pictures. The Doktora could be one of those characters played by the consummate villainess, that painted woman Bella Flores: characters who lived the way they wanted, without compunction or apology. If only she stopped wearing Lola Paring’s dowdy creations under her white coat, she could be someone else. Someone dangerous, and therefore, beautiful.
It was, of course, impossible to discuss the matter with Lola Paring, and disloyal to raise the topic with the Doktora. Besides, would the Doktora with an angel’s reputation be interested in dressing like a vamp?
But it was the Doktora herself who raised the question.
“Tell me, Eloy,” she began casually, as Eloy helped her fit into an olive-gray shirt-waist dress, “what do you see?”
Startled, Eloy looked at the mirror to read the Doktora’s face. Instead, she caught her own reflection: An eyebrow raised, a lip curled in distaste. She hastily low-ered her head, saying nothing.
In the dim afternoon light, the Doktora watched Lola Paring pedaling away, working on another shirt-dress, this time in navy blue.
As she handed Eloy her payment, the Doktora said, “She’s gone blind, hasn’t she?”
And when Eloy said nothing: “Perhaps the color of my dress does not agree with its cut.” She slipped an extra bill onto the counter. “I am speaking at the surgeon’s convention next month. Tell Paring I expect something new. Choose it for me.”
The Doktora’s instructions troubled Eloy. Surely the Doktora knew that Lola Paring was incapable of creating anything on her own, much less something new. But there was the extra money she had given, and the directive, “Choose it for me.” Eloy puzzled over these words until the day an answer arrived.
At three o’clock, Mariano arrives carrying a box on his broad shoulders. “From the Doktora,” he says, wiping his brow as Eloy examines its contents: a belted day-time jacket; an evening swing coat; a shawl-collar coat; a satin evening coat. So far, so good. Coats are the fastest moving stock. In the early days, Eloy asked herself: Who would want to wear a coat in summer? To ruin such luxurious fabric in the rain? How little she knew back then.
A low-cut sweetheart-neck wrap dress. A lingerie-inspired camisole. A corseted bustier. A silk bra and tap pants. “These came from the Doktora?”
Years ago, Eloy would have assumed that Mariano had seen them first—on the Doktora, and then off her. Eloy would have cared.
A few days after she had arrived at Lola Paring’s puesto, Mariano stuck his head through the door, “To get a sight of the new arrival,” he said, grinning. His curls tumbled over his bright eyes and down his neck. Eloy thought he looked like an angel. Lola grunted when he greeted her through the doorway.
He said he hawked used clothing, but Eloy thought he was too fair-skinned to be one of the vendors that dumped their wares on the street in the early morning. In his white T-shirt, faded jeans, and rubber shoes, he looked like a college student—which (Mariano eventually admitted) he was, too—that is, at the end of their long workday. He had an hour or so to waste before attending a criminology class, and often spent this time with Eloy. He introduced her to other street hawkers who praised Eloy for choosing to befriend the “Attorney”—for that was what Mariano would be one day. There was no question about it; everyone knew this.
For fun, they picked out clothes for the would-be lawyer. Dressed in the day’s leftover stock, Mariano would model various looks for Eloy and his friends: law student in striped trubenized and purple tie; paralegal in short-sleeved Barong Tagalog; attorney in dark coat and leather attache case. They taught Eloy how to pick out luxury brands and why they ought to be priced slightly higher than usual. Mariano told her she had an eye from the good brands and for the pre-loveds of high quality. His approval thrilled her to no end, even as she became anxious that she was falling in love with him, a college boy, a man with a future. Apart from him, all she had was a madwoman pedaling away on her sewing machine.
“But why do you see yourself like this?” he asked, when she gave voice to this fear one day. “You can be anything you want.”
That was enough to silence her, even if he had said this kindly. And although she was falling in love with him, she hated the blinders imposed by his privilege. His privilege. He was in college, after all, moving between a world she was only beginning to understand, and another she was incapable of ever understanding. Besides: Lola Paring’s eyesight was failing; she refused to get up from the sewing machine to eat or drink; the future of the dress shop was uncertain. Though friendly, the ukay vendors were moving into the district. She was certain that they were there to stay. How could she be anything she wanted to be, when she couldn’t even stop the future from closing in on her? Why, she didn’t even know what to make of the Doktora’s curious instruction.
“That isn’t even a problem,” Mariano said. “Leave that to me.”
He took the Doktora’s money and returned in the evening with a bolt of purple satin. “Let Lola Paring use this instead. I doubt she will notice the difference.”
Was he right? Lola Paring paused from work when she felt the cut pieces of cloth in her hand—did her face almost break into a smile?–but ran them through the machine anyway. Eloy did not have to substitute buttons on the new dress or fix its hemline.
The Doktora was pleased with her new outfit. “Next month, I am attending a luncheon for all provincial doctors,” she announced without taking her eyes off her reflection.
Later, she slipped an extra bill on the counter, on top of her payment, and the advance for next month’s order. “Now don’t tell Paring, but I am tired of the old designs.”
“What did she mean by that?” she asked Mariano as he tried on a checkered seersucker jacket from the latest shipment from Hong Kong. “Surely she doesn’t expect me to learn a new pattern in a month’s time.”
“Good luck with moving Lola Paring away from her machine.”
“I wouldn’t dare—” Eloy began. But that was what she would need to do, if she were to sew the Doktora a new dress.
She could not imagine Lola Paring away from the machine. She could not imagine herself, Eloy, operating the machine in Lola Paring’s place. She shuddered.
“Come,” Mariano said, as he took off his jacket. “We don’t have much time. I don’t want to be late for class.” He brought her to a building on a hilly spot behind the town market. All six floors were crammed with used clothing, shoes, bags, and accessories. Eloy wondered why she had never noticed the building before.
“This is where I get some of my own stuff,” Mariano whispered. “Look for something that you think will suit the Doktora.”
Eloy wandered among the stalls and examined the merchandise. A cotton voile dress with a gathered bust; a yellow floral slip-dress with a beaded bodice; a strapless pink tube top, an A-line skirt in heavy satin, and a heavy black silk waistband. She thought the waistband was something Bella Flores would wear, and so Eloy chose the pink set, which Mariano carried back to the store in a long cardboard box.
Mariano carefully cut off the label at the back of the tube top and the skirt. Eloy tried to sew on one of Lola Paring’s labels, but needle after needle broke against the heavy cloth. If she notices, Eloy thought, I will tell the truth.
But the Doktora did not complain when Eloy presented the ensemble two weeks later. Her eyes gleamed. And when she tried on the outfit, the Doktora—it seemed to Eloy—immediately recognized the vamp that had kept herself hidden until that very moment. Never have her eyebrows looked so coquettish, Eloy thought. She’ll be back.
Two weeks later, the Doktora was back. Not even the great white lab coat covered up the momentous change that seemed to have come over her.
“I want—” she began uncertainly, “I want something like that pink dress.”
“Of course,” Eloy replied coolly, though she wondered how she could find another just like it.
“You don’t understand—I know—I know Paring didn’t make that one, and—”
“We’ll get you another—”
“I don’t need one exactly like it, I need one that would make me feel—make me—”
Powerful? Victorious? Free? Eloy understood.
“What are you now, her stylist or friend?” Mariano asked one evening. She had cajoled him into cutting class to help pick out a new outfit for the Doktora. A particularly flirtatious young man had invited her to his company’s Christmas party.
“Do come,” the Doktora had pleaded. “I need someone sensible. But don’t forget to choose a great outfit.”
She’d mimicked the Doktora rather cruelly, to make Mariano laugh. But he didn’t. Instead, he seemed to be considering something carefully.
“Are you coming to the party with the Doktora?”
“Don’t be stupid. I know my place.”
“Stylist or friend?”
He did not need to imply that she would never be more than a service to the Doktora.
“You can be anything you want—”
“Easy for you to say, college boy.” She did not need to look at his face to know that she had hurt him. That evening, he walked slightly behind her, speaking only when she asked him a question about this fabric, that cut.
They found nothing that evening. When he brought her to her door, the sound of Lola Paring’s sewing machine was, for once, a welcome distraction from the uneasy silence between them.
“I think you should go,” he said, as she closed the door. “Go with her.”
Leaning heavily against the plywood door, Eloy considered what he had meant. Was it blessing or curse? Either way, she finally decided, he had judged her and found her wanting.
The next day, Eloy slipped out of Lola Paring’s workroom and traded what remained of the bolt of purple satin for the cotton voile dress with cherry prints and the beaded floral slip-dress.
When she returned, Mariano was sitting on the stoop, a plastic bag in hand. “Where have you been?” He thrust the plastic bag at her. “This is for you.”
Eloy pulled out a white silk shirt with black, purple and green geometric print, long sleeves. Beneath the pungent odor of mothballs, the faint scent of incense, sweat, Chanel No. 5 and Aquanet. The garment shimmered, a palpable dream.“Pucci, 1977,” Mariano whispered in the haze.
“Pucci,” Eloy mouthed back. She had never seen a garment so vivid and luminous.
“Try it on. It’s a gift.”
“Well,” Mariano said sheepishly, a hand behind his neck, “from me, I guess.”
“You can’t afford this.”
“What do you know?” Mariano’s eyes flashed. “You don’t know the value of anything.”
The value of a college education, perhaps. Is that what you are saying? she wanted to ask. But she did not feel justified in her anger.
She knew: He often worried about law school, how much it would cost to attain his dream. Sometimes, they would find a particularly fine-looking suit for Mariano to try on. All went well if the suit fit. But if it didn’t—it depressed him. Sometimes it made him so angry, he couldn’t bear the thought of attending class.
Rage, Eloy thought, must be the price of hope.
Suddenly, the vision: herself, laughing among strangers, intoxicated by light and drink and danger. Herself as someone she had never been or imagined becoming. Loveliness she alone could never have fathomed. In that moment, the imagined self was real, sufficient, absolute.
And then the dream faded. “Wait,” she cried out softly, startled by the tears in her eyes.
And then there before her was Mariano, his curls tumbling over hopeful eyes.
In the dream, she was everything she wasn’t, and everything she could possibly be. But he was nowhere.
“How much do you want for it?”
And when he didn’t answer: “How much do you think the Doktora will give for it?”
Did she really expect him not to walk away?
Sometimes after she closes shop, she asks herself if things would have turned out differently, had she been less confused, less in love, and in complete possession of herself—the self whom her used clothes store and merchandise claim as their owner and master; the self to which she holds fast and claims day after day.
Impossible, she concludes every time. Then, there was no self as she knows herself now. It was the choice she made that evening that had created this self. Eloy cannot even recall imagining herself as anyone—or anything—before the evening with Mariano and the Pucci. The Pucci had allowed her to see herself as something other than the mass of unruly feelings that tumbled through days, filling in whatever role needed to be filled in Lola Paring’s life, or Mariano’s.
Besides, it was Mariano who did not understand what his gift had asked of her. The gift was a vision of herself-without-Mariano—a self she could not even begin to imagine becoming. Who was that radiant stranger? Eloy still wonders, though now she dismisses the question with a shrug and a sigh, deciding instead that she had been too young and stupid to have known the right words to say. Which ought to have been:
“Let’s move in with Lola Paring. Let her work madly as she pleases, while you and I open a store for pre-loved goods. You pick the stock, I clean them up and make repairs. The Doktora will help us set it up, you’ll see. We’ll put you through law school, I promise. That, and keep Lola Paring comfortable.”
Did she want this life of service and efficiency? She didn’t know then, she isn’t even sure of this now— although this is the life that now claims her.
No matter. The night ended as it did.
When she sought him out the next day, he was nowhere. His usual space on the sidewalk had been claimed by a newcomer. The morning after that, it was as though all the vendors had forgotten Mariano—or Eloy, for that matter. She looked for their old friends, but without him, she couldn’t find them. Or was it Eloy who had ceased to remember so quickly how they looked, who they were?
Soon after his abrupt leave-taking, Eloy found Lola Paring slumped over her still-whirring machine. Not a skilled seamstress, Eloy had difficulty fulfilling existing contracts. Foolishly she tried to pass off her finds at the ukay market as her own work. Overnight, she lost Paring’s loyal clientele, some of whom threatened to haul her off to the police, and asked for their money back. But there was no money to return, Eloy having spent everything on the funeral. Was she really dragged to the station? Strip searched and manhandled by the police? No, she reminds herself with great difficulty, this was only the nightmare that kept her up—the one she sought to banish forever by establishing her own puesto. Did she really once hope that Mariano would show up in a Hugo Boss suit at the station and rescue her? And when the Doktora bailed her out, did Eloy ask for start-up money, secretly hoping that her industry would be good enough, hoping that she would still be good enough for Mariano, when he returned? No, Eloy corrects herself, all the foolish and difficult years behind her: The story is of survival, not hope—there is a difference.
She asked the Doktora to spread the word that customers could trade their pre-loved goods for the merchandise at Eloy’s. For soon after she had buried Lola Paring, she began to hear the clothes speak. Of course, she must have always had some sense of their animated presence. But in the hush of the silent workroom, their voices grew more distinct, aggressive, even, in their insistence on who their ideal wearer ought to be. In some respects, they reminded her of Lola Paring’s stubborn will to do as she pleased. There was, for example, a blush pink blouson camisole lined in black that insisted on an audience with the Doktora. She needs me, it wheedled sweetly. When Eloy sent it over, the Doktora sent back an entire balikbayan box of old, branded goods. Not long after, the Doktora transitioned from virtuous surgeon to globetrotting vamp—a reputation she keeps to this day.
Ten years to the day Mariano had disappeared, Eloy raised the security grill and found him staring back at her. The once bright eyes, no longer so; the once abundant curls now cropped close to the head, unable to conceal a receding hairline. But Mariano was otherwise exactly as she had remembered.
He said: “How do you like the looks of the new arrival?”
As he moved through the racks to examine the merchandise, she examined him. Dressed in a white shirt and jeans, his clothes told her nothing. She asked him what he had been up to. He shrugged, saying only that he had not become the lawyer he’d hoped to be. And then he looked at her. Her heart sank, knowing then what he had hoped to find, certain he would not find it.
Try as she might, Eloy could not reduce him to a body whose need could be dressed like a wound. Even if she tried to reduce him to something smaller, something more manageable in her mind, he was still, and always would be, Mariano.
She, however, had changed irrevocably. Now there is nothing to see. There is nothing left here.
Later that afternoon, she tried to make her feelings known, but could not bring herself to hurt him.
“Don’t mind me,” he said as he walked and walked through the racks. “All I want is to be here.” As though his presence could change her mind, move her heart.
But a few days later, the news was that Mariano had moved into the Doktora’s apartment. And soon after, Mariano was at her doorstep, with a box of clothes from the Doktora’s closet, and a handwritten note. She was to choose clothes equivalent in value, and consider the Doktora’s special needs at the moment—all of which were scrupulously described. Eloy felt like retching as she filled the box with fishnet stockings; corsets; negligees; and a whip, yes, a whip that the Chief of Police himself had brought in to trade after the death of his wife.
She knows Mariano is watching her closely as she packs the Doktora’s box. For the coats: a double-breasted cardigan; an indigo smock jacket; a biker jacket in brown leather; a tailored trench coat in beige. For the dress: a lacy baby-doll dress in black. For the rest: a red bubble miniskirt; a striped boatneck top; a pink beret.
“All too young for her,” Mariano says.
“Nobody asked your opinion.”
“These are the clothes of a teenager. She’s retired.” “From her job, maybe, not from her hobbies.” She looks at him pointedly.
“There’s nothing between us.” The sentence sounds like a sigh.
It is ten years since his return, ten years of deliveries and exchanges transacted on the Doktora’s behalf, ten years of silent afternoons and stilted conversations.
“You know I’ve always wanted to ask about the Pucci.”
Eloy has been expecting this. “Sold it long ago.”
“Of course. Haven’t seen anything like it since.”
“What did you get for it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you trade it for something else?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I did, too.” Eloy is suddenly angry. “I needed the money to start up the business.” There is no need to bring up the details about her plan, the embarrassment of the useless sacrifice that a youthful love demanded.
Mariano shakes his head. “I can’t believe you sold it. You might have exchanged it for something else, something valuable, meaningful—that I could have accepted—but you sold it.”
“That shirt was a dream.” Which didn’t include you.
“You could have made it real, the way you make dreams real for your clients.”
It wasn’t what I wanted then.
“I don’t hear things as you do, Eloy. Clothes don’t speak to me. But that night, I knew, that shirt spoke to you.”
What is it that I want now?
“I have to go, Eloy.”
“Fine. Let me tape up the box.”
“No, Eloy. Let me go.”
Eloy considers him as though for the first time; considers the possibilities that might have led him back to her. Love, surely, but guilt too? The need to be forgiven? He had abandoned her, after all. Perhaps he knows what once kept me here. Perhaps he now sees through my eyes.
She abandons the balikbayan box and walks to the counter, returns with the red resin cocktail ring in her hand.
“A keepsake then,” she says, placing the ring in his palm, hoping that the sweetness of first love might be deliverance enough. She smiles at him fondly as he walks out the door, making sure he is gone before she lets her tears fall.
The next morning Eloisa Henares picks herself up among the garments scattered inside the little shop, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into the ash- filled bowl by the cashier’s counter. Yesterday’s deliveries, she throws into a bin for some serious work later in the evening. She washes her face and irons her hair before rolling up the security grill. “Good morning,” she greets the reek of old garments that rises from the sidewalk and slaps her face in greeting. There is no reply.
She rings up the Doktora’s secretary to ask if the Doktora could have someone pick up the balikbayan box she prepared the day before.
Not long after, a plump teenager in a black shirt and stonewashed denim appears on her doorstep. A black nylon body bag crosses her chest. Eloy notices she is wearing a push-up bra.
“Happy new dear,” Eloy sings out from behind the counter. “Who is it this time?”
“Nothing happening, Miss Eloy,” Body-bag says primly though her splotchy red cleavage is just about ready to burst.
“The box is by the sewing machine. I hope you have someone to help you carry it back.”
“No worries. She let me take the car this time.”
Eloy stops herself from asking the girl about Mariano.
“Oh Miss Eloy, I almost forgot.” The girl takes out a garment from her body bag. “Doktora also sends you this.”
White silk, purple, green and black geometric print. Pucci, 1977.
“If the Doktora would like to trade,” Eloy says, her voice quavering slightly, “she should see me personally.”
“Of course,” Body-bag says. “I’ll let her know.”
It is a slow day. At noon, the Doktora herself enters the door. She is slimmer than Eloy remembers. Today she is wearing a white tube top with black polka dots and a sweetheart neckline, and a pencil-cut skirt in the same fabric. A pink beret from the morning’s delivery is perched precariously on her stiff henna-tinted hair. “All this fuss and over what exactly?”
“Hello Doktora. Your Girl Friday came by with a vintage blouse this morning.”
“Yes, I asked her to give it to you.”
Doktora throws the Pucci on the counter. It shimmers in the noonday heat.
“This is an exchange?”
“I told her to give it to you.”
Out of habit, Eloy considers which among her regular customers might be interested in the shirt. “I’m sorry, Doktora. There just isn’t a market right now for a shirt like that.”
“Are you listening? I am giving you this blouse.”
A pause. “You must know I have nothing of value that will match the price of this shirt, Doktora.”
“So you would like to treat this as an exchange. Very well.” The Doktora surveys the racks of dresses, the shelves of shoes. “This store for the blouse.”
“It is, after all, the security you gave me for the first loan I extended.”
“Which I paid in full!”
“You would never have been able to recover from Paring’s death—”
“This life for a shirt?”
“Not a shirt, but a dream, a vision. You, of all people, must know how it works.”
“The store is all I have.”
“It is all that keeps you here.”
“It is all that I know.”
“But it is not all you are, or can be.”
Could this be true? Mariano seems to think the same.
“What I am offering,” Doktora says, “is a way out. It is a gift you once gave me. Now I am giving it back to you.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Eloy whispers.
“It is what Mariano would have wanted. You know he has given you his heart.”
A wave of guilt washes over Eloy.
“But I have chosen this life—” she reasons valiantly. Besides: What would they do without her? She thinks of the three young thieves that ran off with her stock yesterday morning; the schoolteacher in her cape and her young Bedista lover; the man in a tunic with manicured nails; Mariano, walking out of her life with a teenager’s red plastic ring in his hand. Who will they turn to when she is gone?
She had read them, sent them away with her judgment in their hands. But what happens to them outside her store, away from her gaze? She thinks of Mariano and realizes she does not know anything of him, really. Why did he never become the lawyer they all expected him to become? Why did he leave her once, and then return? What did he mean when he gave her the Pucci, and where is he headed now, red resin cocktail ring in hand?
Suddenly, her gift appears meaningless, ridiculous. And the store, never has it seemed so small, so dusty, the incense, so inadequate in masking the moldy stench rising from the pavement outside the window. In the mirror across the room, Eloy catches a glimpse of herself: a woman of substantial heft and fading beauty.
Eloy considers all these gravely. There is business to take care of. And she, the owner of this enterprise, must make a choice.
“A trade is only fair.”
“So you agree?”
Eloy imagines the Doktora turn purple with rage, and saying, in the style of Bella Flores, and with a voice laced with malice: “Mariano is right. You are stubborn and foolish. I curse you with the life that you say you have chosen.” Then she would stomp out of the store and into the garment-covered sidewalk.
But instead, the Doktora opens and rummages inside the drawer beneath the counter and retrieves Shorty’s sapphire earrings. She unscrews them, clips them onto Eloy’s ears and whispers, “We weep to gain clarity of vision.”
She kisses Eloy’s forehead gently, the way a grandmother kisses a dear child.
She looks nothing like Bella Flores. Eloy never hears from her again.
There are a number of possible endings to this story.
The next morning, Eloisa Henares, a woman of substantial heft and fading attractiveness, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into an ash-filled bowl by the cashier’s counter inside a tiny used-clothing store. She is industrious and personable, a consummate professional. Eloy’s products have been carefully washed, sanitized, and ironed–quite a feat in an industry that deals in dirty clothes. Holes have been patched; ripped seams, mended; missing buttons replaced. Eloy’s could have been a success story, had she possessed the foresight to expand operations and hire as assistants the unlicensed vendors hawking third-rate ukay products by the sidewalk. But this was not the case then and now will never be. One day, Eloy does not roll up the security gate. It is months before a police patrol unit breaks into the store and finds Eloy’s body buried under a mountain of heavy winter coats.
The next morning, Eloisa Henares, a woman of substantial heft and fading attractiveness, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into an ash-filled bowl by the cashier’s counter. She rolls up the security grill and finds herself face to face with a staff member of a female doctor well-known in the city for her charity work. The doctor, in turns out, is a valued client of Eloy’s. Eloisa Henares takes this loss hard. At the funeral, she wears a black lace dress accessorized by a simple leather cuff. She resolves to wear the cuff all the rest of her days. It is the only accessory she wears when she marries her old childhood sweetheart, Mariano Chavez, two years later. Today, she is survived by her only child, Josefa, and grandchildren Tomas, Tomasina, and Josefa Carla.
The next morning, Eloisa Henares picks herself up among the garments scattered inside the little shop, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into the ash-filled bowl by the cashier’s counter. As she clears the cashier’s counter of yesterday’s deliveries, she discovers a long-sleeved silk shirt with black, purple and green geometric print. She sits awhile in the cashier’s chair, the shimmering garment in her hands. She sits there for a long time, then smiles. She slides into the silk shirt and a pair of parachute pants with great ease, and then combs her hair into a classic bun. When she rolls up the security grill for the very last time, the reek of old garments from the sidewalk does not rise up to slap her face. “Good morning,” she says brightly to the vendors milling about their wares, before stepping out into the sidewalk and away from our view.
Christine V. Lao teaches creative writing and literature at the University of the Philippines. Her stories have been included in the anthologies, Heat: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Buku Fixi) edited by Khairani Baroka and Ng Yi Sheng, and Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology (Lethe Press), edited by Charles Tan. Her fiction has also appeared in Expanded Horizons, the Philippine Speculative Fiction series, and other Philippine publications. Her story collection Musical Chairs was a finalist of the 2019 Madrigal Gonzalez First Book Award.