THE OLD MAN AND THE PALE GIRL
I was alone and old and it was a sweltering Monday afternoon. Sleepy, I was lying on my rattan hammock outside of my home when a girl, around nine years old, came to me because she had gotten so pale she thought she needed a physician.
“But I am no physician, young girl. I’m a physicist,” I said, not getting out of my hammock.
“But aren’t you a doctor?” she asked, gripping the edge of the hammock. She was so small and so close to me I needed to get up to avoid the smell of moss stuck on her hair.
“I am a doctor in physics, not a medical doctor, so if you could please go back to your parents now, for they may be looking for you.”
I stood up and she tugged the hem of my shirt, still pleading.
“But I have travelled so long with my dog, Champ, just to reach you. We’ve crossed seven rivers and my dog died on the way here. I need your help.”
“What help?” I asked, trying to get her hands off my shirt.
“I’m getting so, so pale I’m afraid I’m becoming invisible.”
Then she extended her hands and indeed they were oddly pale her skin looked like layers of gossamers, that I could see through her if I just drew myself closer. Her face, I noticed, was as white as my balding hair. But I told her, “No. There is nothing I can do.”
I turned my back and she desperately ran after me.
“No, doctor! Please don’t turn your back on me! Look! Look what’s happening!”
And when I turned around, I noticed how one of her fingers had turned translucent.
“Have you got no daughter, doctor?” she asked, a voice of a six-your-old articulating the thought of a middle-aged lady.
“Don’t call me doctor,” I said, taken aback still by her partial invisibility, “and I did have a daughter, but she died a long time ago.”
“Then you should know how it feels to lose a daughter, sir,” she said, back to her pleading face.
I sighed and fixed my stare at the abandoned hammock. It somehow turned into an empty cradle.
I looked at her and her hand was gone.
“Please don’t take your eyes off me. It makes me paler,” she said. “My dog had been looking after me during our journey and see what happened when he died.”
“So you just want me to look at you?”
“I don’t know.”
I wanted to shoo her away and shut the door but I was afraid the moment I open it I would see only her orange headband and her orange dress floating over her orange sandals. I let her in and made sure my eyes were all on her, trying my best not to blink.
She walked around the house dazzled by how large it was.
“It’s only large because it’s empty,” I said, but she was no longer listening, for she was already taking her sandals off, heading toward the couch. As she was jumping on it, I stared at her, for I had to stare at her, and realized I had not seen a girl for a long time. I had not seen a hair so curly bouncing over tiny shoulders. She was flailing her hands as though there was music only she could hear.
She fell from the couch and it shook me from my recollection. I ran toward her and pulled her up, asking if she was okay. She just giggled and said everything was fine, but she was getting hungry.
“Do you have biscuits, sir?” she asked. “Champ and I only ate moss on the way here I think they’re growing and greening inside my stomach.”
I lead her to the kitchen table and together we ate the cookies that had been untouched inside that tin box for weeks. As she ate biscuits after biscuits, leaving not even crumbs, my eyes were still on her, for I had to, but also because I was looking at how her hand was slowly going back to normal.
She yawned and slouched on her chair.
“I’m tired,” she said just as I was about to remind her it was rude to yawn at the dining table. “Do you have storybooks, sir? Will you read me storybooks?”
“Isn’t it too early for bedtime stories?” I asked.
“But I am sleepy.”
I took her to my daughter’s room upstairs, keeping an eye on her, telling her not to move too much for she might trip. We reached my daughter’s room I hadn’t opened for years. She walked around the room and ran her fingers along the edges of the unused cradle, poked the bobo penguin doll, traced the surface of the empty bookshelves, asking, “Sir, where are the storybooks?”
I did not know how to tell her there were none, for there was suddenly no one to read them to, that going there for the storybooks was just an excuse to go to the room I hadn’t visited for years.
“I forgot I sold them a long time ago,” I said instead. “But I could tell you a story!”
The truth was that I knew no children’s story, that all my life I had been burying my head on my books I had forgotten stories that once filled me happiness when I was little. Having thought of the most childish story, I asked, “Do you want to hear the story of a young man and an apple?”
She seemed excited, not knowing that minutes afterward, she would be yawning as I lectured her about gravity. So this is how you make a young girl sleep, I told myself. Talk about gravity like it is a beautiful unicorn, when gravity is what’s responsible for a heart getting heavy, when gravity is what pulls a wife’s body down when she decides to hang herself, when gravity, too, pulls an infant out of its mother’s womb during a miscarriage.
I looked at the girl already sleeping on my lap as I was in the middle of grappling for an answer to her question: will I still have my gravity when I become invisible? You will not become invisible, young girl, I should have told her. I should have comforted her by saying I will never take my eyes off her, that this time I will pay more attention, for there are things more fascinating than my hunger for knowledge and validation. I should have read her stories about wizards and witches than talk to her about Newton. I should have come home when I knew they needed my affection. I did not notice I was already smoothing the girl’s curly hair, humming a lullaby I practiced a long time ago when she told me we were pregnant.
But I was old and alone and it was a sweltering Monday afternoon when I was supposedly lying on my hammock. My own humming lulled me to sleep. I felt my eyes drooping and I tried to fight back, but something in my head told me there was no way I could do it, and that I had been like that always. I tried to pinch myself several times but my back always felt the comfortable couch. Humming and rubbing her hair, I did not notice my eyes were already closed as I lay back and started to snore.
When I awoke, I felt the weightlessness on my lap. She was no longer there. But I knew she was in the room somewhere. It was just that I could not see her. Feeling so sorry, feeling so angry at myself for having slept, I searched for a floating dress that could have been roaming around the house. Desperate, I was about to shout her name, but I remembered I never asked for her name in the first place. But I knew she was there. She must be hiding, furious at me and how I slept when I promised I would not take my eyes off her. There must be traces of her inside the house—some foot marks she had left or pieces of furniture slightly moved to tell me where she went. But the house felt so empty that my footsteps echoed inside it.
I searched for her until sunset, until silence enveloped me like a suffocating bag to make me feel how I was so old and so alone and it was a cold Monday night and no one could look after me. I caught a glimpse of me on the window pane. I’m getting pale, I realized. I’m getting so, so pale.
Reil Benedict Obinque is a calculus and physics teacher in Ateneo de Davao Senior High School. Some of his works have appeared in Dagmay, Philippines Graphic, Manila Times, Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, and The Brown Orient.