Right until the Year of the Flood, we lived in a hundred-year-old house in the city center, a dusky affair with high, vaulted ceilings and walls made of real pine wood; eight drafty rooms upstairs that dripped history as it dropped slates; a grand staircase flanked by wooden balustrades and with dry, worn steps that still managed to hold out for years only because we had the fiddly science of shifting our weights down pat; and, my favorite part of the house, a spacious rooftop that looked out to the whole neighborhood, where I sneaked off to most afternoons dreaming of marrying our next-door neighbor, Mr. Isaac, till I wept in a fury of tears and defeat and everything turned carnation, mauve, pearl amethyst with the inexorable dusk.
The turn of the millennium was almost here, and doggedly I took stock of the years before I turned eighteen and worried day and night that the world would end before my love even realized he was madly, foolishly, rabidly, infinitely in love with me. I was sixteen and saw love as one would a hidden treasure buried deep in the seafloor, but I made no efforts at all at dredging up the treasure and fancied myself a princess to whom troves and bullions and king’s ransoms came simply of their own accord.
Mr. Isaac was a tall, hollowly thin man who looked like he’d whittled away pounds in the name of scholarship, which was probably true, for he taught at the state university, was revered and liked by many, except perhaps when he wore his favorite green parka with a green beret, green pants, green pullover, and thankfully brown shoes—and, really, it was all you could do not to think of puke and not to torch to shreds all the sickeningly green stuff in his wardrobe. He’d only recently moved in from the States and I could distinctly recall the day he first stepped on the neighborhood, partly because it was a foggy night then and from out of the wafting whiteness he emerged, like an angel sent from heaven, and waved hello to me when he caught me peering down at him from the rooftop. But of course, I remembered it for in those days we were made to believe that ghosts roamed the streets at night to steal strong-willed little girls away, and I hadn’t known until then that ghosts had outrageously awful fashion sense.
My brother Jaypee liked to joke about and make a meal of my calf love every chance he got. Five years my junior, he was just being quite the airhead, nudging or poking me so violently at the side I almost fell off the curb when we passed by Mr. Isaac’s, a turn-of-the century monstrosity, a door up the street from us, on the way home from school in the afternoons. If it was my lucky day, Mr. Isaac would be there in a wicker armchair on his screened porch, on his lap a heavy hardbound book, horn-rimmed glasses slipping a fraction down his nose. He squinted terribly, and Jaypee was forever and a day wagering our babies would for sure come out so squint-eyed, just like the father, that they couldn’t tell a two from one, and sooner or later I’d need a pair of glasses, too. The clown would double over with laughter, his eyes lighting up and crinkling till they looked like slits on his face, and my heart would crawl pounding out of my throat as Mr. Isaac looked up in wonder, saw us kids walking by and wished us a good afternoon. My gut turned so watery I thought I’d swoon.
A couple of times Jaypee wrestled off his clown shoes and, in some old fit of sobriety, asked me however I fell in love with a man probably half as old as Father. And so I told my brother about that one time I was on my nighttime walk, having stolen out of the house while Mother and Father plodded through the hills and valleys of slumber, the row of streetlights throwing down my shadow on the asphalt, turning everything the color of foil. Why I felt lonely then, I didn’t now know, and the tears I remembered but didn’t know what for. I walked, then trotted, then ran across five blocks as the wind whipped against my face and wafted dry the tears spilling down my cheeks like runnels. I ran and, before I knew it, Brownie, the neighborhood dachshund, was drooling close on my heels, so I ran, ran for dear life, and who should I run slap into but Mr. Isaac of the horn-rimmed glasses, in a green dashiki upon whose misplaced patch pocket I cried, cried, wouldn’t stop for all the world.
He walked me home under a cluster of stars peeking through a cloud-curtained, velvet sky. We heard the distant toll of church bells striking the witching hour of ghosts and night wanderers, of lovers and dreamers. Dead leaves littered the sidewalk. We walked in silence and gazed into the few houses still lit, paper lanterns flickering in the dead of the night. At a street corner was a flame tree low enough for us, Jaypee and I, to swing on its branches till they snapped, back when we were kids and goosey, and whose crusted bark we’d peeled off with penknives or forks in the dopey hope of making a pasty aspartame. Now it was strung aglitter with capiz lamps, like moths of paper spun from fire. And through the leaves I saw Mrs. Espino in a lonely corner of her parlor reading by the measly light of a gooseneck lamp, hunched over a magazine like a question mark. Upon the dusted mantelpiece was perched the framed photo of her husband, who had a year ago headed for the hills.
Why? asked Mr. Isaac, and I told him how the Espinos had let in a couple of outsiders and fed them for well over nine months, before the Lopezes from across them found out and informed the constabulary on them. Then the two of us walked on alone with our thoughts, passing Bermuda lawns and dark porches. The moon-silvered path gave way to a rustling carpet of fallen leaves under the dappled shade of a sprawling weeping willow. Finally, he broke the silence and told me of some faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to choose who they wished to rule them, free to live, free to love—and it was all too good to be true, like walking into an enchanted land of glittering trees and gold-paved paths and irresistible cherubs giggling behind billowy white clouds.
There was in the air the strong scent of calachuchi. I liked to imagine that he stopped in his tracks and broke off a stem of the flower to loop behind my ear, under a tracery of bowery boughs that made for a cathedral and the moon that made for a chandelier. But the clouds had blotted out the moon, our steps growing fretful and wearied, and we just walked on in comfortable silence. I’d walked this street many times, knew by heart where the sewer grating was, into which I’d dropped in my haste and frivolous inattention perhaps a hundred-peso coins, now sludge-caked, lost forever. I knew the old, old man, though not by name, who owned the only brownstone in our village, and yet spent nights slumped by the post that held our street sign, hissing and muttering and wheezing. I knew the lady with a bottom half heavier than the top, who, every night she took her rust-colored mutt out for a jaunt round the block, seemed to glide instead of walk. I knew she talked to the dog during these walks, but I doubted it had the willing ears to share her sorrows. I knew the Mendozas sent their son not to a boarding school abroad, and that the Abads never liked long hair but wanted to save on monthly haircuts, and that the Villanuevas weren’t agnostics at all but simply disdained giving oblations to the church. And I knew that in a heartbeat I’d hear not the trees rustling against the wind, nor the soft swish of my jammies, nor the rise and fall of his breathing beside me, but rather the persistent thuds my heart perched in my throat making, threatening to plunge out and spill over.
And that was how I knew, with the certainty of all prophets, that I’d already lost my heart.
Every hush between a breath and the beginning of the next was infinite, full of possibilities, and I treasured each as we shuffled our way to our front yard. I found it incredible that only forty-five minutes had passed since I’d rammed into him, for it seemed to me forever. The night breeze hit my bare, thin arms and I felt like hugging him, as if he were a post and I might be blown away. I walked up our front steps, thanked him, meekly, wished him a good night, and we both retreated into the shadows with the knowledge that tonight was all the beginning of everything and nothing.
Hours of summertime found me up on my rooftop, surrounded by books I’d checked out from the library, and there I looked over at my old schoolyard and whispered farewell heard only by oblivious gods. I wanted to leave the featherbedded life I had in the village, to explore the city beyond green lawns and ballparks, and this longing I felt as I leaned over the railings ringing the roof and wanted more than anything to grow wings, fling myself down, and sweep scythe-like through the clouds, like an eagle testing its halters and pinions for the first time. But I didn’t need to wait long, for in a month I was boarding the train, zipping through the city to get to a university far away from home.
In the meantime, my mother, as you’d expect of a woman who puttered bristling with mops and brooms around the house, subjected me to endless lessons of embroidery, laundering, cooking. Now, Mother was the perfect mother—never would you light upon a breadcrumb on the lacquered table, a spot in the kitchen, a stubborn stain on the tablecloth, a coffee ring on the broadloom rugs, a mismatched button in my Sunday dresses, a fallen eyelash on her perpetually floury face or a twig stuck in her shiny bouffant hair. One time, upon seeing the row of drawings tacked on my bedroom wall, she told me it would be really better next time if I colored inside the lines, but I never yielded and she was almost close to tears when she saw my next batch of sketches, ghastlier than the first, with the Cray-Pas straddling defiantly the penciled lines. All the time Mother was nearly apoplectic.
Ah, I was a lost cause. Several times, I almost sewed my finger into the embroidery hoop I was sticking my needle in and out of, and another time I burned my right wrist against a scorching skillet and doltishly dropped the pot cover which shielded me against the sizzling slobber of the milkfish I was frying. I sang so off-key, thunderclouds brooded over the neighborhood and might spark lightning at any moment. I danced like a cockroach shimmying to some epileptic beat. I sat harum-scarum, scratched my thighs repeatedly, for my petticoat was itchy and miserable to move around in. My hair was a hornet’s nest, and so many sucking lice spawned eggs in it that Mother nearly singed it all off in frustration. It came to a point where I feared Mother had asthma, for every time I picked up a needle or yarn, I could hear her breathing heavily through her nose, muttering prayers.
How can Mr. Isaac love you, taunted Jaypee, when you can’t even do a simple hemstitch? But in those sweltering days Mr. Isaac hardly crossed my mind. Our high school valedictorian had confessed his love for me, and for weeks I delighted in baking dry, bricklike coffee rolls he’d dumbly scarf down, blue in the face, and in bossing him around. Rogel was stocky and sprang up and down on the balls of his feet when walking to keep up with me, for I was at least six inches taller and had legs miles long. Yet, to his dismay, I never slouched around just so he’d feel tall. Together, we strolled around like mother and son in the afternoons, during which time I had to listen to his incoherent litanies about how siphons worked, about air pressure and law of conservation of energy and gravity governing the rise and fall of bodies. But it was summer and all around me were chain-link fences; how I wanted to break through them all. During his stump speech one late afternoon I cut in on him and talked about a faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to explore the world outside, and all the while Rogel, mouth agape, looked at me as if for the first time.
That was how things ended between us, and if it was my reward for tormenting him then there was something to say for sin after all. I’d considered talking to Father about boys, but quickly dismissed the idea as he was in over his head already about the rumored recent trespass of outsiders, who had left behind a human flotsam of sleeping bags and broadsheet pages they must have slept under, in front of the church. People promptly went to the pound and took home pit bulls, frothing at the mouth, ready to pounce on and maul to death the unsuspecting outsiders, if it came to that.
There was also the smell that had been bothering the entire neighborhood. We’d suspected it issued from the Dizons’ kitchen, where every Friday they cooked daing and tuyo, but who smugly denied such a thing and insisted it was some exotic species of red salmon from the Mediterranean. The oppressive stench hung like a thick, stale fog in the air. It got into everything, into our clothes and our hair, as if it were just wagging its tail right under our nose. When the wind picked up, the air seemed to drift with its tendrils reaching into every window and clinging to the drapes and couches and jumping right in the shower with you. It was too much, and one day my mother came up with one of the prize statements of hers, which made you want to either throw yourself in front of an oncoming train or flush your head down the toilet. This is the smell of our sins, she declared, and suddenly I felt guilty to death, and on my knees prayed three Hail Mary’s to atone for my sins.
Five airplanes swooped dangerously low over us, one morning. They rained upon us drops of lavender-smelling water that lasted for quite a while. The long-parched earth breathed lavender, and we went about the village smiling and sniffing like crazy dogs. It was on one of these afternoons that I caught sight of one encyclopedia I’d long ago forgotten I owned, its dog-eared pages peeking through the latticework to our crawl space. Jaypee, when I told him this, let me in on his discovery of a knothole in the mango tree in our backyard. It contained, among other things, rolls of thread and a plump pumpkin pincushion which, I recalled, miraculously disappeared in my sewing box. I knew Jaypee had already put two and two together, for though he was plain silly most of the time, he was still my little clever brother who once made a hair-dryer out of a mixing bowl and a smoothing iron, never mind it had burned my scalp for one minute and nearly electrocuted the living daylights out of me.
It remained our secret. A look passed between Jaypee and me over dinner when my mother complained of missing tomatoes and even kaning baboy, and the three gold-rimmed plates exported from Germany just a year before, that unexpectedly she’d found near the garbage pail out back. We’d decided, too, not to let whoever was sheltering in our crawl space know that we knew. Dolorously, I’d go to school every morning and in the shadows of my mother’s shrubbery I could almost believe there were eyes regarding me, stealthily, and I let them. Classes had started out pretty grim anyway, and even inside the classroom my mind would float far out beyond the eight-hundred-foot walls hemming us in and wonder what about outside that made some people there encroach on our city. My professors were beldams who scowled down at us with the kind of murderous frowns that could freeze to death a flock of birds mid-flight, and always one of them, Mrs. Prieto of dressmaking thrice a week, would catch me mooning around and shower upon me the wrath of gods. Sighing, I’d run up away with my fancy sequins and balls of yarn and tambours, needles gleaming silvery in the sun.
The state university was far from what I’d imagined. The libraries, worse than our village’s, only allowed girls in if they were given an instructor’s permit. It had been almost two months into the semester before I mastered at last Mrs. De Castro’s signature, which resembled less a humanly scrawl and more a doodle of a three-year-old rabbit if it were taught writing. But there, in between shelves and shelves of books, I never read up on whipstitching or how to make truffles or bonbons. Endlessly, I read about the rise and decline of nations, structures of power and systems of oppression, till my head felt so full and overripe it might snap from my neck any second. I was dizzy with facts. At dinner I’d try to conceal the blush creeping up my cheeks, the twinkle in my eyes, by tucking in my shoulders and feigning boredom. But Jaypee knew me so well, and would say, in a slightly amused tone, Look at Theresa, Mama, Papa! She looks like she’s finally kissed Mr. Isaac!
And yet Jaypee’s words wouldn’t be true until the last week of the semester, when, as a sub, Prof. Isaac supervised the freshmen’s field trip somewhere outside the city, as was school tradition.
By this time I was almost seventeen and had gotten over my infatuation with our next-door neighbor. I passed him in the hallways and felt not a single flutter of butterflies in the knots of my gut. He was still the tall, hollowly thin man I’d first fell in love with, the man who loved the color green and wore horn-rimmed glasses. I remembered nights up on my rooftop fantasizing scenarios with which our walk that one cold night outside, me in my nightshirt and pajamas, he in a dashiki and faded cutoffs, could’ve ended differently. I’d conjured moments from that encounter to a place he told me about, some faraway, perhaps otherworldly land of glittering trees and people blissfully basking in freedom. And these thoughts whirled in my head on our field trip, as the bus shuddered, hurtled forward, into an unnerving tunnel-like darkness, then into a glare of light, out of the city.
Outside was the city in a shambles. Out the bus windows, we saw men and women walking around on the street—dejectedly. It was a blur of charred buildings and pitched collapsible shelters, belly-down splay of topless men and children in sewage lakes. At some corner the shuttle dislodged us, and so hesitantly we stepped off onto the rutted street. Mr. Isaac took the lead. There was the reek we knew all too well that now assailed our noses, coming from everywhere. We walked a long time. We watched kids no taller than my waist carry to and fro buckets of water and scurry after cigarette packets tossed on the sidewalks, which abruptly fell off to give way to filth and mucky pools of greywater. I glanced that way, saw five naked children, dongs dangling and fannies flashing, bickering over a can of water from a sawn-off drum, others screaming and running freely after skeletal dogs through treacherous alleys and winding side streets. And when I glanced this way, I saw houses stacked upon one another, cobbled together with tarpaulins, canvas, corrugated tin, wood, rusting iron, jutting out, caving in, pitching to the left, toppling over to the right. Under a scraggly tree, a frail, old woman was peddling to us her banana cues and turon swarmed by buzzing flies, in a feeble, world-weary voice. Grinning shrimpy kids followed us down the rocky streets. We walked along shanties and saw yet more garbage strewn around, and I felt sick to my stomach. All along the way curious faces peered around doors, through broken holes of windows, wanting.
Many of us, in our pristine dresses and polished shoes, slumped over a gutter and retched. A group of women in flimsy dusters scowled at us, for down the road flowed a rivulet of our vomit, reminders of what sumptuous meals we’d had for lunch, mixing with the white soap suds of their laundry, with piss and mud. We were crying. We were guilty. I craned my neck up, wished I hadn’t. Overshadowing the street was a mountain of trash frantic with rats. Pickers smeared their elbows and knees climbing the slope with crooked two-foot poles, indifferent to the stench cloud crowning the summit. A child squatting on the edge of a cliff, a sheer drop from death, wasn’t about to jump off but was only defecating for all the world to see. Grimacing, he wagged his flyspeck prick at us.
The smoky mountains sprawled like a slumbering giant all around, as though walling away the city’s high concrete borders. Through the crack between the mountains ran a river the color of carbon black. A trio of girls dressed in filthy ragged clothes combed the water’s surface with their fingers. One of them picked up a rock under the meagre palm fronds, skimmed it in an arc across the river.
Beside me, my classmate, a girl who coiffured her long, silky hair for six hours, was nibbling the ends of her braid as if to muffle her cry. I looked over at Mr. Isaac who stood a little apart from us, his face contorted with what I guessed was sadness. A girl trudged by, heavy jute-sack bag slung over her shoulder, barefoot, the scabs on her knees sucked on by flies and malarial mosquitoes. We walked on in muted horror, over potholes and dried, crumbled dog turds, past hummocks of refuse, blood-stained tampons, broken whiskey bottles, balled-up soiled clothes, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by some typhoon, papers, stinking leftover meals and excesses, sailing crazily along the gutter.
And then it was over. We filed into the bus, shaken. We were too weak to speak, let alone move in our pillow-ticking seats. Relieved, we breathed in the stuffy, frigid air inside. We groaned when the bus made as if it were stuck in the muddy road, but a heartbeat later it hissed and moved forward. I looked out the window and saw a woman pocked with ghastly open sores, her eyes glued shut by dirt, by pus, in her arms a baby, who seemed dead but for the jerk of its arms, reaching out. I reached up as if to clutch the air. Then I turned away, closing my eyes with an almost physical pain.
But I had no sooner made forty winks than I bolted awake at a tentative tap on my arm. In front of me, bent on his knee, was Mr. Isaac. All around us were empty seats, and out the window I saw the familiar tree-lined avenue of the campus grounds. Somehow the sun had slinked off onto the horizon, behind treetops, and I had in my sleep kicked off my shoes, now nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t the first time I walked shivering and barefoot on asphalt in the deepening twilight, but it was the first time I did so with someone beside me. Mr. Isaac and I, we passed under a row of streetlights, our shadows gamboling on behind us. How old do you think are these trees? his voice interrupted my thoughts. They’ve been here forever, I said, older than we are. In the cool linger of the night they took on a deathless look and I knew at once they’d be here, their roots firmly planted in the soil, long after I’d kicked the bucket and been fodder for creepy-crawlies that would pamper the earth for another rambling copse of trees and wilderness. Overhead was a thick canopy of leaves formed by branches twining themselves together as if for comfort, and I looked down at the intricate curlicue shadows they impressed on the asphalt, like tea leaves boding a future both unmapped and untrammeled. I told him this. But they don’t matter, he said, his eyes sparkling, because shadows occupy space but don’t have mass. I smiled at his lame attempt at humor.
Why? I asked, and he and I both knew what I was pertaining to.
I want you to know what’s out there.
So you’ll know at whose expense you’re enjoying all your privileges now. All your freedom.
But I’m not happy. I’m not free. Far from it.
We’re all born unhappy.
We were hosting outsiders under our house, did you know?
Yes, they’re a family of three. I saw the child one night. She was six, seven, I don’t know. I saw her bent over a book I’d dumped many months ago. She was crying for some reason, and so I walked up to her and threw my arms around her. In a minute we were both crying like crazy. We only broke apart when we heard someone cough behind us. It was the mother, I think. I ran into the house. The next morning, I peered into our crawl space and saw nobody. Like they were never even real.
His breath rasped the wind and bit off the end of my name. I felt cold. I rubbed my palms together and pressed them to my cheeks. I walked ahead of him and saw by the rusty gate swinging crookedly on squeaky hinges a trash can knocked over. Trash, I thought, it’s following me around. The plastic bag inside was split open, unravelling crumpled papers, cigarette butts, plastic pull tabs, used coffee cups that bled shamelessly onto the sidewalk. The dented lid was thrown halfway across the grass, and I was about to pick it up when from behind me Mr. Isaac gripped my arm, wheeled me around and kissed me lightly on the lips. I could feel my heart had leapt to my throat, because everything was just all too perfect in such an imperfect world. I pressed my hand on his face and it came away wet. Sobbing, he took my hand, and kissed it to his lips, held on to it for a long moment.
Early in the evening of the day the walls were toppled, our neighborhood became a great blue void, dotted by arms flailing and heads breaking through the surface like ants swimming in a child’s glass of water. The pillar-like trees were swept by so fast that they came off the earth in a tangle of roots and branches. We’d scaled the slope of my roof and stood on its beaten shingles surveying what remained of the city. Houses were crashed in the rage of water as black as the sky, which for months had emptied on us a deluge so unappeasable in its fury, to drown the guilty and innocent alike. As if they were only a pyramid of cards, or houses made out of matchsticks, buildings and telephone lines detached from the ground with a sound I’d never forget—Krr-r-ssh—until they tipped and sprawled defeated under the filthy surf. We saw all manner of things afloat in the water: splinters of wood, pieces of plastic, felled trees, rafters, roofs of houses, dead bodies, my brother —and, really, among the remnants of our vanquished lives, how could we differentiate at all what was trash and was not?
It was only four nights later when we saw the moon peek through the sky, dim at first, then bright and clear, full of promise. It smiled at me and there was a feeling of peace in the air. I leaned over the battered railings of my rooftop, in my sundress drenched, and felt the air heave the smell in from the water below. It seemed only a minute ago that I dreamed to grow wings and soar afloat in the sky, but now the black naked sea beneath looked inviting. One single step towards the void, one single step to cease all the desires that attended living. I saw my body below. I held my breath.
Richard Calayeg Cornelio majored in materials engineering and is working on his master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His research interests include social movements, the political economy of development, authoritarianism and democratization, and political ecology. His essays and stories have appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, Kritika Kultura, Philippine Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. He has won the Palanca Award and the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Literary Contest several times. He writes news and features for the Philippine Collegian.