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.
These are true: In 2003, the circus came to Manila and an elephant escaped. The eight-foot-tall mass of hide and ivory took a stroll
down EDSA, causing much traffic. In Olutanga Island, there is a man who speaks to sea snakes. Their local nickname
is walo-walo, because their venom kills in eight days. They do not harm him, but only live in his hut. Calamba
is native to a man who underwent 17 plastic surgeries to look like Superman. Visit any karaoke joint in the country—
residents believe a certain Frank Sinatra single kills. My sister has three moles precisely, which when aligned form Orion’s
Belt. When she first showed me this, I demanded: How did that happen? North of my hometown a boy born paraplegic
stands up and walks at the age of ten. His mother says it was a gift from a saint. Whenever I am kneeling to a Virgin of Miracles, I ask:
Is it you who writes this stuff? The devotees are a wave of hands, reaching to grab your consecrations, the ironies
you have to offer. I’m at the back of the line, sick of all these riddles. When I dig up all these bones, I’m sure
some femur or phalange will be missing. I’d stalk a magician after the show, search his pockets
for rabbit holes. I am always waiting to be seized by one more plot twist. God, just tell me how you did it.
2019 SPEAKS TO 2009
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Capitalism finds a way to make you pay for things you can download for free. You’re okay with it.
Borat plays a dictator. Then he fights authoritarianism.
Friendster and MySpace are dead. Do not trust their successor.
You’ve spent over 70 hours on a TV show that will disappoint. But you’d do it all over again.
Spider-man is black. He’s also monochrome. He’s also a pig.
The Jonas Brothers break up. Don’t worry, they’re back.
Mexico’s drug war is coming to your street like gossip on the galleon from Acapulco.
Pigs are still getting sick. This time, humans can’t catch it.
Mulan supports a fascist regime.
You’ll stand for hours in a protest all because someone wants to bury a dictator and a hatchet.
My Chemical Romance breaks up. Don’t worry, they’re back.
The feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift doesn’t end.
A Filipino hosts Blue’s Clues.
There are only 27 endemic hornbills left on the island of Sulu.
Everyone is sick of Harry Potter now, mostly due to J.K. Rowling’s Twitter account.
The Amazon is on fire.
The Philippines is the last country in the world where divorce isn’t legal, after the Vatican.
People will clap for Kim Jong Un and boo Aung Sun Suu Kyi.
So many people you do not know are dead. The two prevailing causes are dengue and hitmen.
Polio was eradicated. It’s back.
At the airport, before their flight home, your nephews—you have nephews—will cling to your side, and ask you for stories.
The world is coming together. The world is coming to shit.
In short, the period is so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The excavation began in June. My companion Billy is a scientist, so he only ever believes in facts. I’d like to believe I’m a number one fan of this artifact, so hard to come by since Pluto’s on-and-off undeclaration as a planet cut short its lifespan. Everyone on earth was minding their own business when the Internet crashed into it like an asteroid and jumpstarted the cretaceous post-truth. Climate change makes for a good deadline—what a great and terrible headline that would be, if we ever get to release it. But today we might as well be devotees looking for their God. We had had many leads: The space rover we cast gave us only rocks. The Antarctic expedition was a bust. The probes we sent to the Pacific came up empty. We had heard that the Gobi Desert was once a sea, so we pressed the shells we found there to our ears: white noise. Sometimes I worry: Have we been searching for truth so long that we don’t recognize it? What was the last thing it said before it left? Do we even remember what it looked like— a fossil? A papyrus? A voice? I’ve heard so many people claim to hear him preaching in the Andes, his voice bouncing off the back of a mountain. Only the other day he was trapped at the bottom of a well in Egypt. But you can believe no one nowadays. How could we, since truth went missing? And once we found him, how were we to present him? Would he resist examination? Or was he lost somewhere, his leg trapped in some canyon or cave, waiting to be found? Some afternoons I’d tell Billy, he’s so close now I could reach out and tug his sleeve. Or, can you hear him? He’s laughing at us this very minute. But at night when the tent is wrapped in the chirping of crickets, I think of how afraid I am of chasing the most sought after interview in the world. When we find truth, would I be angry at him, or relieved? Would I ask first how could you, or do aliens really exist? or how many times did you manifest in George Orwell’s 1984? Sometimes I wonder if he’s off on a mission to eat, pray, love in some Tibetan monastery or Indian yoga camp. Sometimes I wonder if he wants to be found. So many people break their backs every day, waiting for him to arrive: schoolteachers, private eyes, criminals lined up on death rows. One minute he is in a newsroom in New York, the next in a birthing room in Kenya. Nowadays, rarely ever in urban spaces, and almost never in America. And what if I’ve been walking on truth all along? What if truth had many surfaces? What if truth was a sphere? Sometimes I doubt even my companions, but trust is different from truth. Billy is the most honest person I know, holding the team’s shit all together. He tells us the earth isn’t flat and we believe it. Once, on the way to a campsite, our raw thanksgiving chicken tumbled out of the icebox, exploding on the mudtracked road. He told us the microbes would kill us if we ate it. We were relieved to have someone confirm our biases, but best believe we’d have gobbled it up at the slightest pang of hunger. So we roasted marshmallows instead, on some forgotten backbone of Canada, watching the ice melt. He says when the truth finally occurs to us, we’ll never believe what he has to say. He says, we’ll probably think he’s a poem. We’ll come up with all these adaptations of him. We’ll cut him up into obscene lines. No way, I tell him. Yes way, he says. The truth can say whatever the fuck it wants, and we’ll all still hear something else.
HERE AT THE END OF ALL THINGS
You would not believe how many people abandon their pets. The pet store was clearing shelves, so I took a bone and a dog and drove. The news delivers until it can’t— a few hours before it happens, the last station broadcasts its last goodbye: Thank you, and good night. The end will be live tweeted, anyway. At my office carpark, I call my parents to tell them I love them. I hit the road with an eighties playlist. But there’s a traffic jam here, at the end of the world, so I get out and walk the dog to nowhere. I thought that I would at least be busy with paperwork, or sex. Instead, I am looking for my friends in the last diners, the last gas stations, the last Korean supermarkets. They are always in the last place you look. I think of my bullies, including the senile landlady who refused to close the pipe when we blew off a tap by accident. I think of my exes, even the one I never call my ex. I think of the neighborhoods I have lived in, their flower pots and stray kittens. I turn them over in my head, empty their alleyways to walk my ghosts in them. How must they be doing, I wonder, here at the end of all things? I thought when it would arrive I would be angry; instead, I am tired. But we have our afterlives for tiredness. Today is for walking as far as you can. The orchestra played Autumn right into the ocean as the Titanic sank. In the morning we will all be frozen. I find my friends in our favorite picnic spot, blanket spread, spreading strawberry jam on bread, overlooking the end. I pull up a chair. The dog chases a butterfly. Here at the end of all things, I am looking over the edge: Everything is still. The world flickers, like a mirage— or like a television channel, right before the static.
Regine Cabato is a journalist based in Manila. She is a recipient of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award and Loyola Schools Award for the Arts for poetry. Her poems have been published in Kritika Kultura, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Rambutan Literary, among others. She hails from Zamboanga City.
Introduction: The Past in Ruins, a Future in Bloom
While there have been numerous studies on the margins of the Cordillera Protected Area (CPA), botanical explorations in the post-Quake ruins of the area formerly called the “Metro Baguio-La Trinidad” have been sparse. After a month of research in the said zone, we present to you the results of a series of field immersions by our botanical expeditionary group.
After a 9.6-magnitude earthquake levelled what was once an overdeveloped mountain city in the year 2030, citizens received practically no support from the national government as the entire country at that time was experiencing a total societal collapse. With all government functions (including scientific agencies) paralyzed to a halt, populations left the ruins of Metro Baguio and migrated to larger cities. Thus, it was only after a full century that scientists were able to re-enter the now inhospitable Cordillera mountains.
The Baguio-La Trinidad area specifically, is a fascinating field because it is one of the few places rife with opportunities for botanists to study post-civilization flora. Its relative ecological isolation also adds interest when it comes to biodiversity and unique ecosystems.
The undisturbed status of post-Quake Baguio-La Trinidad’s flora has been established by two factors. The first are the natural barriers that cropped up after the 2030 earthquake, effectively blocking major and minor entry points into the zone. The second is the government’s decision to mark the entire Cordillera highlands as a protected area after the Quake. Due to the persistent local beliefs about ‘ghosts’ of the victims of the 2030 earthquake still roaming the forests, public discussion on the famed city became a taboo topic (Miekle, 2116).
Regarding the former: even up to now, geologists find it mysterious how the area’s landscape managed to change in such a dramatic manner. But while we cannot underestimate the role of “The Quake” in the area’s geological transformation, we know that the stage for the city’s ruin has already been set for quite some time before it happened. Decades before the earthquake struck, the city has been burdened by a host of urban problems, including relentless ‘development’ of vacant green areas, an uncontrollable urban sprawl brought by lack of housing options, and others. All of these led to geological hazards such as ground subsidence, erosion, etc. which were bound to exacerbate the effects of even the mildest seismic activities.
Interestingly, we have evidence that in ingenious ways that only nature itself could design, pre-Quake urban flora has also adapted to the relentless urban scourge. For instance, according to records, the “septic lumot” (Leucobryum reynosum/ septic moss) which emerged in the city’s rusty water and sewage system in the late 2020s was considered as “public enemy number 1” by Baguio Midland Courier’s 2029 year-end list. Its resistance to herbicides of the time, its fast propagation, and its density were a major headache to residents and the Water District. But they failed to realize that their enemy was created in their own image: Leucobryum reynosum developed its most destructive traits in the city’s gentrified communities, when a certain group of residents cultivated the invasive moss species for their terrariums, unintentionally altering its traits (Dal-ew, 2115). A short-lived craze for terrariums gripped Baguio, and coupled with faulty water systems connecting the myriad high-rise developments all over the city, led to a city-wide moss invasion that clogged toilets and made tourists hurry back to their vans while covering their noses.
In fact, as early as 2019, the effects of unmitigated urban activity on wildlife in the city have already been observed. In Baoanan’s study (2019) of a certain forest park near the former Convention Center, she noted that “there has been a considerable decrease in the number of resident birds in the tree park due to the noise coming from the said amusement park” (referring to a development project called Skyranch in the latter half of 2010s). The tree park, which was “home for diverse species and provides ecosystem service in the form of microclimate regulation and nutrient cycling,” was one of the last ecological refuge within the city before it was fully engulfed by overdevelopment and hyper-tourism in the latter half of 2020s. These final gasps for life from the city’s pre-cataclysmic flora and fauna heralded the city’s ecological death, long before it was hit by the Earthquake. Ironically, when Chapis and Yang’s post-cataclysmic expedition first surveyed the area, the two remarked that they “were struck by the profound silence of the forest and the stoic fawns [they] crossed paths with,” saying that they “tip-toed into the depths of the long slumbering forest, as if trying not to disturb a child on an afternoon nap.”
With reverence for nature’s nonchalant persistence, we present to you some of the most remarkable plants our team has discovered in our first botanical expedition into the depths of the Cordillera Protected Area. We would also like to acknowledge the help of the Northern Luzon Historical Collective, James Chapis and Robert Yang of the Pre-quake Explorers Society, Miles Herrera, Nikki Camille Malabad, John Levi Masuli, Amihan Fernandez, Jesusa Paquibot, Ivan Emil Labayne, the Bilo-bilo Gastronomical Squad, Archivos Filipinos (for their invaluable archives), and our friends and family for their unwavering support. This research endeavor would not have been possible without you.
— The Pedantic Pedestrians Botanical Research Group
Baonan, Zenaida. “Species Richness and Carbon Stock Assessment of the GSIS Tree Park, Baguio City.” Forum on Preservation of the Last Forest Patches in the City, University of the Philippines Baguio 2018. From Miles Herrera’s historical archive collection.
Baguio Midland Courier. “Year Ender List for 2029.” From Miles Herrera’s historical archive collection.
Dal-ew, Cherry. Tracing the Stank: Ethnobotanical History of the ‘Leucobryum reynosum.’ April 6, 2115.
Miekle, Michael. Urban Myths on the Cordillera-Northern Luzon Protected Zone. January 2116.
Pedantic Pedestrians (PP), a laboratory for experimenting with modes of cultural production. PP has launched four folios online, held a book launch without a book, released an Oncept Series and helped organize a small press expo in Baguio City. Other works can be seen and downloaded in the group’s site.
Its height does not overshadow Its length does not protrude Its strength does not falter
It’s sufficient always in all its uses.
self-translated from Ibaloy
Its decomposition and its disappearance is not something you’ll lament because you know that is how it is going to prepare for its perennial showing up again.
self-translated from Ibaloy
It plows well It is strong in harrowing It can endure the heat
Equally shares Father’s works in the fields.
Melvin Clemente Magsanoc was raised in a small community overshadowed by the majestic Mt. Pulag in the mystical town of Kabayan, Benguet. He is Ibaloy by language and ethnicity; he traces his ancestry on the maternal side from Tuba, Benguet and Baguio City, and his paternal side from Kabayan. He was a fellow at the first and second NCCA – UP Baguio Cordillera Creative Writing Workshop. He is one of the founding members of Ubbog Cordillera Writers. Some of his poems have been published in the Ubbog Journals, Ubod Anthology, and the Philippines Graphic. He lives in Baguio City and he is currently a faculty member of the Senior High School department of Baguio City National High School. He writes poems in Ibaloy then translates them to English or the other way around.
As Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, she slapped a fly which had perched itself on her forearm, and noticed a ripple jump from puddle to puddle, before the earth fell from under her.
Thelma Arsenal, one of Adiway’s five best bakers, would later tell to the provincial government, officials from the Department of National Resources, and various fact-finding groups that she witnessed the ground beneath Sto. Basilio crumble like a badly-baked cake. Chunks of earth slid down the mountain’s edge to the remains of the Bagat River below. The river, which served as a primary water-source for Adiway and several communities in the Cordilleras, crept where it once rushed. Over the years, its waters had receded, inch by slow inch, until two barren gorges surfaced alongside it, and the townspeople had to turn to other bodies of water. The river had also developed a rotten-egg smell, and those who had last swam in it—in the clean parts, at least, before they knew better – reported itchiness, rashes, and tiny red marks. A teenager even reported a strange sac on his ankle. The Starway Mining Corporation attributed the river’s evolution to natural climate change.
Arsenio Arsenal, barangay councilor and Thelma’s husband, participated in the relief operations following the landslide. On its way to the river, Sto. Basilio had passed through several acres of rice-paddies, whose farmers were now being housed in the town hall on the other end of Adiway. They found the church completely dismembered—its wet, wooden body scattered along the upturned earth on the dry riverbank and floating with the oatmeal-like sledge from Starway’s nearby tailings dam. Arsenio clasped a hand more tightly over his face-mask. The stench seeped in everywhere. He spotted Sr. Wallang’s old, mud-colored Nissan upturned, its wheels floating on the watery surface.
The digging took the better part of the week. As the clean-up crew surveyed the landslide’s damage, the rest of the townspeople—once the day’s work was finished—would visit the site to see if they had finally found the body. When Arsenio saw the white edge of fabric peeking out of the muck, he prepared himself for the broken body, the decaying flesh and ruins of the good nun’s face. But all they unearthed was the tablecloth for the altar, washed by night-soil and mineral waste. Sr. Wallang was nowhere to be found.
When she had first arrived in Adiway, the community could not give her a school. Her abbess had already informed her that the town did not have much in terms of modernities or comforts, other than the chilly mountain air, which the abbess stated might help her cool down. Sr. Wallang brushed the comment aside, and was glad she could stay in the Cordilleras after a long, hot lifetime in Metro Manila.
On her initial visit to her supposed flock, she found the sun was fiercer than she had anticipated. There was a sign greeting, “Welcome to the Gold-Town of Adiway,” with Starway Mining Corporation’s trio of golden stars underneath, as well as a cartoon of a happy miner in a hard hat, with his blonde-haired family. Much of the land had already been stripped of topsoil, and even more had been allocated for the company’s various structures: tailings dams to hold the wastes of the mines, underground tunnels to divert water for the processing site, barracks for the workers, cordoned-off lots for the promised school and community center. But since the school was still a promise, the town had no budget of its own to rebuild the old elementary school, which had been swept away by last year’s flash floods and storm. So, they gave her dominion over the haunted church of Sto. Basilio.
The church was empty. Fr. Acero, the previous priest had relocated to Baguio City when he claimed his first year in Adiway had been disturbed by a spirit of death, which had manifested in an army of black worms, robbing him of sleep. Such superstitious behavior seemed unbecoming of a priest, so the townspeople allowed him to leave. Some of the more pious residents trekked four miles into the next town to hear mass, but most had been content to know the Almighty knew they did good works, loved most of their neighbors, and kept their promises. Upon hearing this, Sr. Josephine assured them that God understood their predicament; she was a nun, and was not authorized to officiate mass, but she said weekly catechism, for the meanwhile, should be enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger.
Their physical and mental hungers were different matters altogether. The elders informed her that the seasons had grown stranger and stranger in the recent decades. Rain fell in the months it was not supposed to, while the crackling dryness reached even the cool peaks of the hills. Life cycles had to be revised. More and more of the men-folk traveled to the lowlands to eke out a living or took up employment with Starway, which quickly set them to work harvesting the buried hoards of gold and copper. They coughed more frequently.
As her car rumbled through the landscape to settle into Adiway permanently, she witnessed huge machines, sitting idly in the distance, next to mountainous piles of dirt and rock. Imposing concrete buildings were protected by barbed-wire fences, manned by armed men in uniform. Cars filled their parking lots. She drove even further, her car rumbling for mercy, until she reached the ramshackle barangay hall, where to her and her car’s further dismay, they directed her upland. When she reached the church, she surveyed the grounds, found cracks multiplying wherever she looked, and climbed up the small bell-tower to get a better view of the flock. Clumps of green and earth had been pulled out from the fields and mountain ranges. The wound-purple sky seeped through the cracked windows. In the shadow of the altar and cross, Sr. Wallang better understood Fr. Acero’s superstitions. The church seemed a home to night creatures. The rotting pews rattled, coal-eyed insects darted at the sides of her vision, and she heard herself utter a black murmur to God, startling her heart into silence, before she rushed to the back of the church to prepare her room.
Sr. Josephine met the golden woman during the dialogue between the government, the townspeople, and the mining company. She was a manager at Starway’s human resources division, and wore more jewels than the Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario at the height of the feast of La Naval de Manila. The metal hung from her ears, encircled her fingers and wrists. She wore a gilded cross around her neck, to add some piety to her opulence. Even the frames of her eye-glasses appeared golden. Unlike Nuestra Senora, no one flocked to her, even the ones who weren’t poring over documents and reports and figures or the ones who had only been called to the barangay hall to give their testimonies, no one wanted to talk to her. Her bodyguard and driver stood behind her.
“Just a simple garment, something for galunggong shopping,” Hannah de Ramos whispered into Josephine’s ear. Hannah was one of her oldest friends. They had gone to the same high school in Manila, and were planning on entering the convent together when she suffered a crisis of faith and left Josephine alone at the doors of St. Benedict. She found she could not cultivate any anger in her heart towards Hannah, especially when their lives intertwined again, year later, when Josephine moved up north for her mission and Hannah began working with an environmental group as their legal counsel.
The town mayor officiated the meeting. The golden woman spoke first. She talked of the Philippines becoming flooded with hot money, profit from foreign investors who bought metal ore stocks because of their potential for mountainous profit. The world market glittered, and Adiway had an opportunity to share the wealth, through jobs and a school for the town.
“Ms. Evangelista, whatever benefits you promise, you started your operations without getting either the environmental compliance certificate or consent from the community, which means that you’re operating here illegally.”
The golden woman presented a document from her sleek, brown-leather bag. It was a document, granting Starway access to major portions of the town, signed by Fr. Acero. Sr. Josephine gripped the edges of the table to suppress the urge to flip it over, and she could feel the red building up in her face.
“That’s not valid,” Hannah replied. “He’s not a member of the community. You can’t rely on his consent to lend legitimacy to your rampant plunder.”
“Legally, he is. I can show you his cedula, and the land title of the church of Sto. Basilio, under his name. He owns property in Adiway, so he’s a member of the community.”
The next hour involved even more alienating conversation between Hannah and Ms. Evangelista, where they fought on derivative trading, financial bonds, speculative bonds, covalent and metallic bonds, and the golden woman evinced such a thorough knowledge for all these kinds of bonds that Sr. Josephine surmised she had no space left for human bonds. The meeting ended when Ms. Evangelista proclaimed that no one understood her. In the middle of her tirade, Sr. Josephine’s vision suddenly abandoned her, mosquitoes stung her ear and spiders crawled on her palms. A thousands buzzards flooded the room. Night creatures threatened to overwhelm her. She felt Hannah’s hand on her cold nape, and she stirred into consciousness, to the golden woman announcing the operations would continue as they planned, otherwise hot money would flee from the country. Hannah asked if she were okay, and Sr. Josephine asked for a cup of water.
Hannah left the following morning, to follow up a case in the neighboring town of Bukod. There, she inspected bodies of water rendered acidic by waste from one of Starway’s copper mines. They were supposed to introduce lime to bring the acidity back to normal levels, but Hannah told Sr. Josephine they appeared to be cutting costs.
Two days later, schools of dead fish surfaced in Bagat River, and it developed the smell of bitter almonds. Sr. Josephine contacted an environmental group from the capital, and they arrived a week later, to study the river’s chemical composition. With their test strips, they found concentrations of cyanide in the water. The group told her that cyanide leaching was one method of extracting gold from the ore.
Sr. Wallang and Thelma, flanked by a crowd of townspeople, marched into Starway’s local administrative building to present the findings. Ms. Evangelista greeted them, and claimed that the results were part of the river’s natural processes. Cyanide was a naturally-occurring substance. She gestured to the armed guards, who validated her claims.
“It’s getting worse,” Thelma told the nun, as she closed shop. Sr. Josephine walked in just before closing time, and the baker welcomed her presence, since they were both searching for human conversation.
“When I was a child, it never flooded,” she said. “Sometimes the crops would go bad, and we would go hungry, but there was always deer in the forest, or other villages to trade with. Now, I don’t know. At least I still have some bread.”
Sr. Josephine felt her own inadequacy gnaw at her soul. Everything in her head sounded too pithy, if she had said it out loud.
“There is no theft if the refusal of goods is contrary to reason or the welfare of the community. There is no theft if using the property of others is the only way to provide for someone’s basic needs’” Sr. Wallang said. “That’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us.”
“Careful, sister,” Thelma replied. “If the wrong people hear you, they might think you’re one of the people from the mountains.”
“Aren’t we all from the mountains?”
“You know what I mean.”
“What did you think of Ms. Evangelista?”
“I didn’t understand her,” Thelma said. “All her talk, she made it like the entire problem was that we didn’t understand her.”
“Do you think that’s the entire problem?”
Thelma stared at her quizzically. Sr. Josephine told her she could take her time. After a few minutes, she responded.
“With all her education, she should know how to explain what she’s doing, and how it’s going to benefit us. And if we still can’t understand it, how we benefit, maybe we actually don’t, and there’s something wrong with her and her people,” she said.
“I think she’s arrogant,” she added. “I think she and all her bosses should live here forever, so that they know the actual price of what they’re doing. They should swim in the river, and drink the water, and work the land for their breakfast.”
Thelma offered Sr. Josephine the last of the day’s goods, which the nun accepted with much thanks for her generosity. The baker told her it wasn’t generosity, but the fact they would expire if left uneaten for the night.
Stuffed with bread, Sr. Josephine found her night prayers full of computations and figures. To produce a gold ring, you’ll need to sift through and throw away two tons of waste. Ms. Evangelista had at four gold rings on her fingers, or eight tons of waste on her hands. The country produces forty-eight tons of gold per year. How many tons of waste is that? And where does all that waste go? Rain started falling through the gaps and cracks on the church roof. Sr. Josephine worried she spent too much time on such earthly matters, but asked herself what else she was meant to do on earth. On earth that was being hollowed and hollowed. She floated in the dark, alone, the god of death and his animals having retreated into the empty pits of the world.
When storm season came, Adiway and the rest of the region were destabilized. Underground tunnels collapsed, landfills overflowed, vats of water were overturned, and the wind blew doors off houses. In the gloom of the church of Sto. Basilio, the families of Adiway ate their relief goods by candle-light. Sr. Josephine tried singing church hymns to break the wet madness of the storm, but realized that it didn’t contribute any peace.
With her radio, they listened to what was occurring in the other regions of the country. The roads around Adiway were impassable, and chunks of lands had caved-in under the pressure of the typhoon. Farther away, in the cities helicopters were rescuing people stranded on rooftops. The water fell on concrete streets and alleyways, found nowhere else to go, and gathered in pools until it threatened to overwhelm the cities’ inhabitants. Thankfully, there was still some soil and forest to absorb the worst of the flooding in Adiway, but the majority of the town were either trapped in their homes, in the town hall, or in the church, if their homes had been swept away. Sr. Josephine muttered a heretical prayer, for Starway to be flooded into oblivion.
The typhoon continued for several days. During lulls in the storm, Sr. Josephine would venture outside and shine a flashlight in the sky, to signal any rescue teams that they needed more supplies. She gathered edible wet bark from trees and roots, and boiled them for food when the packed noodles and sardines ran out. They even ate the bags of communion wafers, and ancient boxes of wine Thelma had found in the storage closet, underneath a pile of moth-eaten cassocks.
When the typhoon finally passed, Sr. Josephine accompanied the people into the town proper to take account of what had been damaged. They found nearly everything splintered and rain-lashed. They also found that Starway’s administrative building was not spared the damage, but that there were already men repairing its windows, mending its doors, ensuring operations returned to normal, as quickly as possible.
Sr. Josephine sat in the lobby of the hotel in Bukod, listening to a harmless, instrumental song. She focused on the song to prevent the red from coming back up to her face. She told the receptionist that she was waiting for a friend, and he believed her, because she was evidently a woman of God and grace. The receptionist was now at his post, sleeping. No one else entered or left the hotel. In fact, almost no one walked the streets of Bukod, Sr. Josephine figured they were probably still reeling and recovering from the effects of the storm.
A few days prior, as Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, Hannah arrived with news, and she felt the earth fall from under her.
“I tried to reach you earlier, but the roads were terrible,” Hannah told her. “Hurry, come with me to Bukod. The petition against Starway is going to court today. We’ll know, based on the judge’s decision, how good our legal chances are.”
In the hotel lobby, Sr. Josephine reflected that she shouldn’t have expected anything more. Of course, the judge would rule in favor of Starway. He ruled that there was no negligence, that the evidence presented by the people of Bukod was lacking, because they had not reached the same level of education as Starway’s legal technicians, and so their arguments did not hold water. Ms. Evangelista was there, because she had to be there. She shot the nun a poisonous smile as the judge read his decision.
Then, she received the panicked text from Thelma, telling her about the landslide that had engulfed Sto. Basilio, asking her where on God’s earth she was. She managed to text a brief “I’m okay,” before a long dark night of the soul fell on her. She spent a day and night lying on the bed of Hannah’s boarding house, refusing food or drink.
She figured there was nowhere else the golden woman would stay. There was only one hotel in Bukod with electricity and running water, and she had nothing else to do in this foreign town. The hours ticked slowly. She fingered the heavy metal cross around her neck, and wondered about the feasibility of her endeavor, the entire purpose of it. Supposing she even saw the golden woman, what would she do? Would shaming her publicly have any effect on the shares of Starway? Would a curse return the stolen wealth beneath the ground? She felt herself lifted up, and possessed by a foreign power when she spotted Ms. Evangelista come out from an elevator and enter the ladies’ bathroom. Sr. Josephine followed her inside. She locked the door behind her.
The bathroom was surprisingly spacious, tiled in pink and smelling of pleasantly-tangy citrus. Ms. Evangelista was completely oblivious to the nun’s presence, fixing her hair in the mirror, before she entered a cubicle. There weren’t any cameras inside, of course, since it was the ladies’ bathroom. And Sr. Josephine couldn’t recall seeing any cameras in the lobby and in the corridor leading to the CR. Even if it had air-conditioning, it was still a small hotel in the mountains, the owners had better things to spend their money on than cameras, and the rooms probably didn’t have anything worthwhile to steal. The metal around her neck grew colder. Ms. Evangelista emerged from the cubicle, and Josephine uttered a dark cry to God.
When her self returned to her, she found the golden women stripped of all her gold. Her jewelry was in the nun’s hands now, while the woman was asleep, her hands tied around the cubicle’s legs with the sister’s metal cross. The mirror was broken. A metal trashcan was lying on its side, streaked with something red. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and felt for a pulse, which was faint, but still there, and her heart gained some semblance of peace. She got up to wash the red from her knuckles. When she left the bathroom, she made sure the door was still locked, and that she smiled at the receptionist on her way out, though she found him still asleep. She rushed as quickly as she could back to Hannah’s boarding house. In her head, Josephine planned what she would tell her friend, how she would insist they leave Bukod and return to Adiway as soon as possible. Crying would be necessary, to ensure that Hannah understood the gravity of the situation. Josephine wouldn’t tell her what had happened, to ensure her friend didn’t suffer any culpability. The future, sin, they would be matters to sort out as soon as she returned to her ruined church. The gold weighed heavy in her pockets.
Lakan Daza Umali is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He lives in Metro Manila.
Who’s going with who? Sheila asks, her perfectly plucked brows gracefully arched, even as her own gaze wanders to the broad back of the school jock, seven servbot aisles away.
What are you wearing? is what Rachel of the bountiful curls would like to know, her head tilting this way and that, always just narrowly avoiding the whizzing monidrones.
Isn’t it exciting? But curvaceous Donna isn’t really expecting a reply, only waiting for an opportunity to squeal and giggle at the same time.
The boys are uncharacteristically interested in the topic as well. Thin-boned Jared thinks the Eclipse Party will spell his demise: how can anyone fathom that an asthmatic-diabetic would survive outside a biosphere? Lucas the Brash believes the adventure is worth a thousand deaths, and says so in a tone that irks Jared; the resulting argument inevitably draws the attention of a monidrone.
Brix–with-the-unsettling-eyes eventually intervenes and calms the two before a third warning is issued, but then betrays you by saying he’s looking forward to hearing a certain kind of quiet, one untainted by the whir of generator engines.
You of the bushy brows and untameable hair; you, the one everyone refers to as ‘the new girl’ even though you’ve been enrolled in Bio72’s school system for the past year; you don’t want to talk about the Eclipse Party, because doing so will mean dealing with the elaborate tale your Papa spun about birthrights and birthduties and shitty artifacts and fucked-up moon-threatening monsters. And until Brix actually spoke out, you hadn’t thought he’d want to talk about it either. The two of you had shared eye-rolls, subtle sighs, and discreet shoulder shrugs since you’d been coopted into their clique. In your mind, you’d begun thinking of him as an ally, a comrade, even perhaps as a friend. But here he is, keeping the Eclipse Party conversation alive by offering insights (looking at you), speaking as if he’d always been interested in parties (looking at you), then going about smiling awkwardly and expecting a response (looking at you).
You suddenly feel the weight of everyone’s attention.
(Papa always said that the right moment would inevitably find you. It would chase and track you, hound and haunt you, pursue you to the ends of the universe and seek you out from the safety of darkness until you were exposed to the fates as either a coward or a hero. Papa also said that your family descended from aliens tasked to protect this world from a mooneater. It was hard to take Papa seriously.)
You nod because you foolishly think this is the safest option, given the circumstances. Donna squeals then giggles; Jared and Lucas get into a pushing match that finally earns them a visit to the Overseers; Rachel tosses her head back while Sheila lowers her raised eyebrow. You’re still trying to figure out what happened when Brix says—as though it were the most natural thing in the world—that he’ll pick you up at seven.
As the world moves on—as Jared and Lucas are escorted by a drone and two bots out of the cafeteria, as Sheila and Donna and Rachel’s shallow chatter resumes—Brix casually puts an arm around your chair. You notice it but you’re too shocked to lean back, and too shocked to lean away. Instead, you sit still, wondering how in all of biosphere you got yourself a date on the same night that you’re supposed to fight Bal’un of the Void.
a voicechip of Papa’s Bullshit
T’kish-bila had fifteen moons; fifteen beautiful moons for the fifteen luminescent queens, for the fifteen long months, for the fifteen intersecting fortunes held in perfect harmony.
But from the vast emptiness came the mooneaters, the Rdaskanas. Longer and larger than drukanh’i, more terrifying and fearsome than orgkli-hian, they are led by the mightiest of them, Bal’un of the Void. The Rdaskanas are creatures of hunger and madness driven only to consume the stars and the moons, and when they came, they brought with them the promise of infinite darkness.
The warriors marched, the wizards chanted, the people prayed and the queens sang, but still the Rdaskanas swallowed fourteen moons and killed the fourteen divinities that defended them. It was not until the last queen, in the last month, holding on to the last remaining fortune, discovered the secret symphony embedded in her bones that T’kish-bila found salvation. And so it was that she who was the youngest, she who remained, she who still stood, obliterated the armies of mooneaters with the song in her bones.
But mighty Bal’un of the Void could not be destroyed as easily. With all that was left of her, the lone luminescent queen produced a melody of mourning and triumph by splashing her blood and bone against the wind, against the ground where her sisters died, against the skin of the greatest of devourers, against everything that was lost and everything that can yet still be, until the sound of prayer and hope and fury and desperation resonated with such force that it pushed Bal’un of the Void to the vast blackness, diminished, defeated, wounded but not dead, exiled to worlds that have no music in their queens.
a rebellion of sorts
Mama is asking you the usual things in her usual slurred manner: How are you today? What did you do in school? Are you ready to fight Bal’un of the Void?
You mumble something vague which only draws more questions: Shouldn’t you be practicing with the artifact? Are you sure you remember what your Papa taught you? What about your back-up plans, have you even made them like I told you to?
Mama, like the bulky household monidrone, is old. She was old when she had you; older still when Papa died. Now, she spends her days sitting in an antique rocking chair, her fine, silver hair up in a bun, flesh-colored nodes attached to her pulse points continuously monitoring her vitals. She usually stores enough energy to stand and shift seats when you come home—an act of strength purely for your benefit. You usually pretend not to see the periodic tremors that torment her—an act of defiance against the inevitable that you put on for both your sakes.
Despite her debilitating illness, it was Mama who insisted to push through with Papa’s plan of transferring to Bio72, one of the few technically capable biospheres that allow its citizenry monitored fieldtrips in unenveloped environs. This was the year of the mooneater—at least according to arcane calculations that your Papa made which you never understood—and the original plan was for Papa to accompany you to the Eclipse Party and deal with the hidden threat to the world as he has purportedly done once before, as his family has purportedly done in all previous generations.
But then, Papa died.
Mama says you don’t understand how important this is. You’re the one born with the ability to save the world. You’re the one who can operate the artifact. You’re the one tasked and gifted. Only you—
It’s at this moment that you finally snap.
(Papa always said you were special. He said that on the night you were born, the heavens echoed the joyful harmonies of luminescent queens of a distant galaxy. When you were six, and then again when you were eight, and then lastly when you were twelve, you would get into fights with people who bullied smaller people, odd people, people like you. And you would lose. And your Papa would say you’re special, don’t doubt it, hush, don’t cry, be brave, hush, you will be strong someday, you will save the world, hush, have faith. For too long a time, you believed.)
Only me? you say. But what you really want to say is that you’re not special, just a girl who wants to hold on to something real for once, and to move on, and damn the artifact because that’s not yours, and it’s not you, and you don’t want any part of it, because there’s nothing special about you, no music, no symphony, no magic hidden in your blood or in your bones.
But all that comes out as a growl, not unlike the growls Papa used to make when he played make believe with you, when you were much younger.
You repeat, only me? and when you can’t get any other words out, you blurt: I have a date, and who gives a shit about Bal’un. And you tell yourself that you don’t care, you don’t fucking care you mentioned Bal’un’s name so clearly in the presence of a monidorone, and that it sounds crazy and irrelevant and stupid if, in fact, your Papa’s stories are true, because everything he said is fiction, every goddamn thing he made you believe is a lie.
You stomp to your room and slam the door. You hear the monirdone outside drop to the floor followed by a rare silence. Eventually, the monidrone picks itself up, coughs itself to a start, then grumbles to a roar. Only then do you cry.
a hologram’s welcoming words of wisdom
Welcome adventurers and explorers. The annual tour of the unenveloped environs by the graduating students and their companions has long been the highlight of Bio72’s founding festivities. This is a particularly special year as the expedition coincides with a rare lunar eclipse, usually unviewable within biosphere grounds. To celebrate, the Overseers are hosting an Eclipse Viewing Party where, under protective surveillance, you will be allowed to view the heavenly alignment and partake of a special meal especially crafted for this occasion.
Bio72 is only one of 12 biospheres equipped with state of the art monidrone technology that then permits people to safely explore the Red Glade, the Viridian Forest and the Arch. But while we take your well-being seriously, we cannot guarantee your protection from the elements unless you follow these protocols:
Do not leave the touring party. Please make sure that your tour leader and botguides are in your line of vision at all times.
Do not touch or retrieve items from the grounds. Reasonably priced souvenir items – especially sanitized for the purpose of bringing back into a biosphere – are available at the viewing deck at the end of the tour.
Do not interact with the animals. Animals can be carriers of diseases or bacteria which can not only infect you, but other citizens as well.
Always keep your locator nodes activated. Aside from serving as a mapping and tracking system, these will also provide periodic updates of your vitals to our capable health technicians.
As our partners, we expect you to strictly comply with all of these protocols in addition to any other directions your tour leader may provide. Violations will be punished accordingly.
Thank you for trusting us. We know you will have a wonderful time.
an unexpected surprise
Brix is holding your hand. He has been holding your hand ever since he picked you up at exactly seven. He kept on holding your hand even as your mother silently shot him disapproving looks as he valiantly attempted polite conversation. He didn’t let go of your hand despite the teasing the two of you endured when you met up with the rest of the gang. And he’s still holding your hand now, even though you’re both gloved and you can barely feel the heat of his palm.
It’s not unpleasant.
The tour leader along with the botguides have been busy pointing out interesting things in the Red Glade (named after the scarlet flowers that grow abundantly close to the ground, which curly Rachel stole from), the Viridian Forests (the unimaginative appellation for the vibrantly green cluster of trees in which Sheila and her jock were found ‘accidentally’ wandering off), and continue to do so as your batch makes your way to the Arch (the purported city center in a time gone by where you suspect Lucas and Jared will get their third and final violation for disturbing the peace). You only pay enough attention to follow the instructions. Your mind is distracted by Brix whose eyes are darker without all the manmade light, and the artifact in your pouch which miraculously got through the detectors.
Mama said just before you left that she believes you will do the right thing. Mama’s immense faith in you is such a stark contrast to the dizzying depth of your doubts. You don’t know if you have it in you to believe, much less do anything. All you know is that there’s boy beside you, and it seems like he likes you though you don’t know why, and he’s solid and normal and real.
You wonder if he thinks the same about you.
You wonder what the hell has gotten into him when, just a few minutes before the lunar eclipse, he suddenly pulls you to the side, takes quick steps diagonally to the left, and then a sharp turn.
You no longer have the tour leader in sight. You can hear an odd rustling in the bushes behind you. When you think it can’t get any worse, Brix switches off the locator node on your wrist.
(Papa always said that the artifact would activate when it needed to, not a moment before. He first said this to you after your expression revealed your disappointment at being shown a long bone-shaped piece of metal. At the ripe old age of five, you had expected it to be glittery. At the very least, it should have gleamed. But Papa said what he did and over time you were convinced that, when you really needed it, it would be as magical and as wonderful as a piece of bone and left over blood from a luminescent queen should be. Papa was good with words like that.)
You try to pull away but Brix only tightens his grasp.
No, it’s nothing like that—oh fuck, this isn’t coming out the way it should, isn’t it? Brix asks and you nod, because you don’t know how it should come out, only that you’re in some place where you shouldn’t be. You turn to the side to try and catch a glimpse of the tour guide through the thick of the trees, but you see nothing, just foliage and shadow. Brix is still spouting words, looking earnest except for his even darker eyes, but the only thing you catch is: this is supposed to be romantic.
You laugh at that. It’s a spontaneous laugh, and it’s a little hysterical to your ears, but Brix laughs with you, and suddenly, you’re not as afraid anymore. When Brix leans forward, still smiling, you don’t step back.
That’s when you notice the shadows swirling, dripping, taking shape behind him as the ground begins to tremble. With no time to scream, no time to run away, only enough time to take a gigantic leap of faith, you take the artifact out of your pouch.
a video clip of Papa’s confession
All the stories I told you, daughter—aliens, symphonies, bloodlines and duties—are lies. They are products of my imagination. Any threat to a biosphere can be capably handled by the Overseers. Any threat to any biosphere can be resolved by use of current technology.
Don’t believe me.
Instead, believe in yourself. I’m sorry but you’ll have to do things on your own now. You’ll have to learn what to trust and when. All these things a father should have taught you, I can only tell you in words now.
Remember these words. I love you. Always.
a return to the familiar
A heartbeat later, the shadows are screaming. The artifact in your hands pulses blinding light as it thrums a familiar song. In the distance, you hear your name being called, and Brix’s name, and shouts to stay calm, and an army of monidrones whizzing through the forest, all while the earthquake gains in intensity, all while Bal’un of the Void roars in anger and loneliness and hunger.
You are calm and, perhaps strangest of all, you’re smiling. Above you, in the gaps between the trees, you see the curve of a pale moon. You know its secret now. You can hear the moon sing its tale in the symphony that emanates from the artifact. You know the names of the moon’s dead sisters. You can hear the moon’s voice resound in your bones.
When you turn toward Brix’s direction, you are not afraid. Brix is all but gone now, swallowed by the shadows except for his eyes that to you, seem to gleam. You take a step forward, and another, and another until you are surrounded by darkness, until you can no longer hear the persistent buzz of drones, until you are in the very heart of a monster.
Don’t worry, you say to Bal’un of the Void, knowing in this instance, if only in this one instance, your words have weight, I’m here. And then as if you’ve always know what to do, you put the artifact to your lips. And blow.
Kate Osias believes that love, chocolate and the right kind of madness can save the world. She has won five Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Gig Book Contest, Canvas Story Writing Contest, the 10th Romeo Forbes Children’s Storywriting Competition, and the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. Her work has been cited by Publisher’s Weekly and the Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has been published locally, online and abroad, and has co-edited the sixth, seventh and eleventh volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction. Her first collection, Heroes, Villains and Other Women, is a finalist in the National Book Awards (2019) and is available via Ateneo de Manila University Press.
We came up the hill, sore and wheezing like old dogs, after the water had swallowed the last shelter in miles that had a power generator, and I, having lost my son and my husband, dropped my knees on the soil upon seeing the children run into a muddy, trampled field of bananas.
My sister would tell me later that when one of the elders came, I was beside myself. “We don’t want trouble! No trouble,” I was screaming with surprising force at the old man ambling toward us. The two younger men who followed him grabbed us out of the trough we’d wandered into and half-carried us to what was left of their village.
In a hut raised on hard palm trunks, Lina spoke to the village chief about the last few days when we survived on coconuts that floated by the roof of a convenience store. From the open door of the chief’s house, men and women from the village observed us, examining our shrunken bodies, perhaps wondering how we made it this far, and this high up. Two policemen who’d been paddling a canoe had rescued us from the roof. The same policemen were later killed in an encounter with men dressed as soldiers who sneaked up on us when we approached the road that supposedly led to a shelter. My sister and I managed to leap into the floodwater, which ran deeper than an Olympic diving pool, and hid under a floating rafter until the men went away.
“They have what they wanted,” said the chief. “To rule over us all.”
I was only half listening, bowing at the empty plate where two boiled bananas had been. I considered eating the peel. My stomach could probably take it since lately it had been churning nothing but air. I restrained my self. I might have been starved, bordering on hysteria, but I still hadn’t lost my good manners. The four of us, including the chief’s wife, sat with our legs crossed over slats of bamboo, as though we were in a secret arbitration.
I watched my sister, in awe of her vast reservoir of energy. From the day of the announcement, the first evening downpour, to the swift sinking of the city, Lina described our horrors to the leader of the people who found us.
“Where do you intend to go?” asked the chief, and we were both silent. We didn’t want to be anywhere else but on higher ground.
Everyone had known a storm was coming that week. The yearly cyclones had inured those who lived along the path of destruction. Nonetheless, the national government sent rescue teams a day before landfall: a collection of towns and a small city that were islands away from us.
We watched on our screens as early evacuations were carried out, coastal towns emptied of its last stubborn residents, supplies delivered by the truckload to hills where mobile shelters had been put up. In one clip, I saw people on top of dump trucks, waving at the camera. I tapped the screen of my tablet shut and turned in bed, my son in the other room loudly watching a movie on his phone, my husband doing his nightly rounds at a private hospital. Not an hour later, the President would appear on every television, computer, and phone screen to deliver a final warning. The storm that picked up its speed off the Maluku Islands and brushed the tip of Borneo had gathered force after it hit Sulu and was now dragging its eye up north.
A change in the wind’s direction had been far from our worries. We’d lived most of our lives untouched by storms. Our nearness to the country’s highest peak, the mountain ranges that absorbed the gales, and the wind’s direction had long been acknowledged. An anomaly in a typhoon-prone republic, our city was among the few that had been fortunate. Many of our children had grown up believing that storms destroyed only the lives of those who lived far from us. We are safe here, each of us must have quietly told ourselves before going to sleep.
But signs to the contrary had been closer than we’d allowed ourselves to believe. The week before Christmas, after my son had turned five, a flashflood tore apart a city northwest of the island. Around the same time the following year, we received our first Storm Signal No. 1 in a long time. The notice was so uncommon that imbeciles with Internet connection derided online what they’d found underwhelming. They expected cars carried away, I had thought, a squall uprooting huge trees, bodies on the streets. While some of us scoffed at a few telephone posts toppled along the roads, only four hours away, a mining and logging town had been covered in loose soil. Still, we never imagined it could happen to us.
The skies had not cleared. On our first night in the village, rain pelted the hut’s roof until morning. Rain occasionally poured in the middle of day and return late in the evening. The flood by then had been going on in what seemed like half a month. Power cut off, telecommunications signal dead. The government, the rest of the world, would have been terribly alarmed that a city was about to disappear from the planet. Not a single chopper had come, if only to toss a box of instant noodles or canned sardines.
Lina, who once worked in a wildlife sanctuary, was quicker to adapt. On our second day in the village, she washed our clothes with the women at a nearby stream. She spoke with the chief and the heads of families who were mostly men. She helped gather firewood, which were dried near a stone furnace that every day the villagers kept aflame under a zinc roof. I stayed behind in the hut an old man and his wife had allowed us to occupy. The hut used to be their unmarried son’s.
“Shot by one of the guards,” the chief told us one afternoon when he dropped by bringing a bowl of sweet potatoes.
“Which guard?” Lina asked him.
“The pastor’s men. The ones watching from behind that fence.” The chief gestured at the high perimeter wall that loomed over the village.
Everyone in the city knew of the televangelist who owned most of the property in the area. Nobody could touch him because he secured votes for the ruling clan, who even gave him a private army of his own. I might have heard of stories about stolen land. I might have vaguely turned the news over in my head and—as with similar injustices that didn’t directly affect my family—pretended that I didn’t hear anything.
“He and a few others went down the city to testify against the pastor,” said the chief. “Days after they returned, he and two of our men were dead.”
Famished and sapped when we arrived, I hadn’t noticed the wall, which had been choked with vines, only the banana trees that had gobbled up much of the land around the village.
“Do they own these bananas?” my sister said.
“These belonged to the tenants.” The chief, arms akimbo, looked out at the plantation. “They take the bananas to factories.”
“You lease your land?” I said.
“For a low price,” the chief said. “The only way we can prevent the pastor from taking what’s left of our land. These bananas have been here for twelve years.”
“The soil deteriorates when you plant only one crop,” Lina said.
“We had many kinds of plants and trees here,” said the chief. “Now, it is mostly bananas, unless you go into the forest. We earn a little from it. The tenants hire us to plant and harvest.”
I thought of other communities in the mountains, the concessions they had to make, and the harm it would cost us all.
“Do the pastor’s men still harass you,” I asked, worried that we’d have some unwelcome company soon.
“Every day that the heavens gave,” said the chief. “I don’t know if they are still around after what happened. Maybe they are still there. I hope they all drowned.”
“What’s behind the wall?” asked Lina.
“His kingdom,” the chief said.
The pastor had built a mansion, town houses, tennis courts, and another church in the compound enclosed with concrete walls, which from outside looked like a prison in the middle of a banana forest. The mansion, said the chief, had around a hundred rooms. Lina and I didn’t contest.
“You think he’s still in there?” I asked.
“He owns private jets,” my sister said, “he must have flown to Hawaii or Guam, or wherever else he’s built a church.”
“If it is true that he escaped,” the chief said, resting his arms on his hips, “I hope the plane fell into the ocean, and he drowned.”
“On our way here,” said Lina, “we saw a huge gate blocking the road. That road is for public use.”
Lina and I had meandered through another banana plantation for what seemed like hours, drinking water from a creek, and taking off our shoes when the ground rolled from loam to mulch, before we found the village.
“As you can see,” said the chief, “we are not part of the public you speak of. Your government does not care about us.”
Lina winced, as if she’d caught herself uttering a forbidden word.
“They want to drive you out of here?” I said. “He already has so much land. Why does he want more? Where are you supposed to go?”
“In heaven,” the chief said, “where we can’t plant anymore.”
He sounded like he’d been indoctrinated, the chief. Perhaps the rebels who’d been roving the mountains had radicalized him and his people, and there were guerrillas behind the trees who, at a given moment, would saunter into the village in search of food, a place to spend the night. I looked at the ground, ashamed of myself. We had done exactly that. Walk into their lives, expecting some relief.
Lina had found me on the third day of the deluge. I was coiled on a folding bed inside a gymnasium that had been converted into a shelter. We were an hour away from downtown, quickly running out of food and clean water. She talked to me about Gil.
My face lit up when I heard my son’s name.
“Has anyone seen my son?” I yelled out above the crowd. “Gil! Gil!”
My sister held my face, forcing me to look at her.
“Do you remember the last time you saw Gil?” Her voice cracked. “The rescuers said you were alone when they found you on the roof.”
But Gil went up ahead of me, I thought. I’d followed him out of the house when the water rose. I’d told him to go up the ladder. And when I got to the roof, my son—he wasn’t there. Or was that only a dream I’d been having since they’d taken me to the evacuation center? The surge came upon us like rocks, the water so dark, I could hardly see, the wind whistling. When the rescuers came, three of them, I didn’t get up right away. I held on to my knees, my entire body drenched. One of the rescuers, a young woman, shouted at me to get into the boat, and so I did, believing Gil had already gone ahead. I only followed him.
“Manang.” My sister took me in her arms, her tears hot on my cheek. “He’s gone.”
The woman living in a nearby hut waved at me to come down. She was trailed by two giggly little girls who couldn’t be older than six. I ambled barefoot on the icy soil, a misty spray falling above us. We walked across a grassy mound farther from the banana plantation.
A crowd had gathered around two men who appeared to be debarking a palm tree. I didn’t find my sister among them. A few children ran around the area. The two little girls who had accompanied me had joined their playmates.
“Here, closer,” the girls’ mother said.
I gaped ahead and spotted a grove of palms from which they must have taken the tree. After the bark had been stripped away, exposing the palm’s white pith, the men proceeded to pound on the tree with hammer-like tools made from stalks of bamboo. One of the men picked up another wood instrument, which resembled a scythe but leaner, and seemed to scrape the pith into finer bits. Soon one of the women scooped the pounded scraps and plopped them into a tub of water. They kneaded and squeezed the wet scraps over a cloth sifter.
My neighbor pinched a drop of the stuff and placed it on my palm. Viscous, white, starchy.
“Natok,” the woman said. “We eat later.”
Where had I heard this word before? I closed my fingers on the gluey substance in my hand. Summers in Aklan, my grandparents’ house, the swishing of a broomstick over dry leaves, Sunday mornings after church, my grandmother buying us a treat from the marketplace, my teeth sinking on warm, glutinous cake wrapped in a soft leaf. I’d only seen this way of drawing starch from palm in that barrio in Aklan where my parents had been born, where my grandparents had been laid to rest, and the villagers here called it by the same name. I’d never known what we had in common.
The sound of metal smashing against the bleachers woke us that day at the shelter. The flood had burst into the gymnasium, people running to the exit, and when I looked around for my sister, I saw a boy tumble into the water.
Lina was on the other side of the gym. I got up and yelled at her, but my voice came out hoarse, a feeble croak. I jostled past the others, shoving and climbing over bodies, flesh torn from my elbow, my thigh bruised. At last, I got to my sister, who didn’t immediately recognize me when I tugged at her arm. “Don’t leave me,” I gasped.
Still in shock, she didn’t say anything. I pulled her up to one of the vents that thankfully had none of those grilled panels and was low enough to peer into. There were four rectangular vents on both wings of the gym. We were all fighting to get out first.
A man was shouting at us to back away, no one would be saved if we wouldn’t give up some space. He was a short, hairy man with flashing eyes. Nobody was listening. The crowd had become a mob hammering against the walls of the gym. Then we heard a gunshot.
I’ll kill you if you don’t back off, the man was yelling, his gun pointed at the ceiling—I’ll kill you all! Our group settled down. The flood had risen above the second row of the bleachers. I pushed closer to the opening and peered out. Water swelled below, dragging along furniture, logs, a chunk of someone’s house. I watched as the man with the gun clamber into the opening and fling his body into the roiling waters. Like fluff, he was swept away.
It only took a few minutes for the water to reach the last bleacher. I held my sister’s hand, a quietness settling upon me. We were about to die, I told myself, but instead of fear, relief washed over me. This soon would be over.
But it wasn’t. A rescue team that apparently the shelter had radioed earlier finally came, shouting from below the vents. Five inflatable rafts and a motorboat had arrived to save the less than fifty survivors trapped inside the gymnasium. Since we were among the few remaining women, my sister and I got on a raft, more than half of the evacuees still left in the gym.
There were six of us in our boat, including two male rescuers. We were supposed to be taken to a bigger shelter situated on higher ground. But not twenty minutes on our way, the rescuers steered the boat to a strip of buildings that to my horror, I recognized. This was where Gil went when he bought spare parts for his bike.
The rescuers parked the raft at the back of one of the buildings, trying it to a telephone post. The water was about seven feet deep.
“Why did we stop?” I asked the rescuers. One of them was speaking on a handheld radio.
“Not enough boats, Ma’am,” the other rescuers said. “We need to go back and get the others.”
“You’re leaving us?” said an older woman behind me. She was clutching her shoulders, her discolored hair hanging in wet clumps over her head.
“Take us to the shelter now!” another woman said. She was sitting beside the other rescuer.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” said the rescuer with the radio. “Those we left behind don’t have much time. We’ll come back and bring the others here.”
But none of us moved. The rescuers repeated their story of being called back to the gym because the flood was rising to the ceiling. If we had gone our way, said the older woman, perhaps there would still be time to return for the others. And how were we supposed to get to the roof? I thought that was that and rescuers had conceded, but Lina spoke up.
“I’m staying here,” she told the men. “You can take three more on this boat.”
“No, Lina!” I protested. “Stay here!”
One of the rescuers had grabbed a life vest and handed it to my sister. “The next building has a stepladder,” he told Lina. “I’ll take you there.”
The two other women sat mutely beside us. Lina put the life vest on.
“We’re not the only ones who need saving,” she said.
Anger welled up in my throat, hot, noxious. She and the man were about to jump into the water.
“Wait,” I hissed. “Just wait.”
On the concrete roof of what turned out to be a 7 Eleven, Lina and I waited. Soon it started to pour, a thunderous, vision-obscuring shower. It took us about three hours to admit to ourselves, sitting out in the cold, that the boat was no longer coming back.
A boy was shouting at us to go see something. I’d been helping a group of women grind the flakes of a palm’s pith inside a shack on the edge of the village. We stopped when we saw the chief himself walking with children and some men. I cleaned my hands in a washbowl placed by the door and stepped out of the shack. Even though it was almost noon, fog had thickened over the field that day and, with light rain, made seeing very difficult. I held a sheet of canvas over my head and followed the voices coming from the cliffs. Among tall wild grass, men and women stood on a small hill, murmuring among themselves.
“The town is gone,” the chief said when he saw me approach. I stood by him and the others, watching what the children had seen.
I looked behind and saw Lina emerging from the fog. She was wearing a straw hat and a cotton shirt whose long sleeves she’d rolled to her elbows.
“We tell stories about this all the time,” said the chief. “The difference is that you thought something like this was never going to happen. People down there always believed they were in control of things.”
Lina said, “A cyclone after a cyclone, after another cyclone. If this rain doesn’t stop—”
“There is still no sign it will,” the chief said.
“We’d have to leave,” said Lina.
“We are prepared,” said the chief. “Even before you arrived, we knew we would have to leave our homes.”
“Why isn’t anyone coming?” I said to my sister.
“The flood must have held them back,” Lina said.
“They can land planes here,” I said. “The Red Cross? The goddamn Air Force!”
The chief was watching me searchingly, his broad face suddenly alert. I didn’t know what had slighted him, my cursing or my stubborn belief in salvation.
A draft blew rainwater in our direction. The chief and the villagers walked back to their homes.
“Connie, let’s go,” Lina called out.
But I stayed awhile. Beyond the cliffs, fog was thinning out, revealing patches of cleared land rising toward the hills, the shiny tips of homes and buildings partially submerged in floodwater that had wiped out the coast and spilled into the sea. Water had nearly engulfed the whole city. Somewhere in that sinking corner of the island were my husband, my son, a life I had known.
The policemen had come hours after the winds slowed down. For three nights, Lina and I had been staying behind a fire exit door on the rooftop of a convenience store building. Water had nearly gone up the roof. We had grabbed a bunch of coconuts that drifted along the building, tore the husk away with a car key and our bare hands, and ate the meat as frugally as we possibly could. The policemen came at night, shouting for survivors. I rushed to the side of the roof and yelled out. Here, we’re right here!
On the boat, Lina and I listened to the policemen’s account of the last few days. They had come from the capital as volunteers since many of the local rescue units had been badly hit. Several shelters had been washed away, the government stultified. Not even our meteorologists could explain this endless rain. More help was coming, promised the policemen, but there were also flooding up north and storm surges on the islands scattered above us. Our city and six other towns along the gulf had been struck the worst. Foreign commentators had begun using the words “catastrophe,” “biblical,” and “apocalyptic.”
The policemen were taking us to an evacuation center up the hills when a petrol-powered boat halted us. On board were four men in military uniforms. They asked the policemen who we were and where we were going. One of our rescuers got up and talked to them. I noticed for the first time that the policemen were only wearing black T-shirts over their cargo pants. After they handed their IDs, the soldiers demanded they turn over their weapons, a rifle and two handguns strapped to each of the policemen. One of them asked why they had to surrender their weapons and a soldier shot him in the head. The other policeman quickly drew his gun but the soldiers on the boat shot at him several times. By then Lina had grabbed me and pulled us into the water.
We swam desperately, for as long and deep as we could below the surface, but they didn’t pursue us. At a distance, we watched them take the weapons and leave.
We were running out of bananas to boil. The cassavas were too young to uproot. I spotted a household with one chicken and a goat. They were being saved for when the water finally receded, I thought, or when there was nothing else to eat. I didn’t dare ask anyone, let alone the chief, who had remained calm even though for about a month now none of us had seen the clouds part. The grove of palms behind the village had been our source of sustenance. We wrapped starch with banana leaves and roasted it over a low fire. Steamed, sweetened, and sometimes, we ate the palm starch raw. Lina and I kept a small sack inside our hut and soon enough, I began to count anxiously the remaining palms in the grove.
In brief moments when rain subsided, we scattered starch on woven trays to dry. At some point I grew sick of eating nothing but the stuff and drank only a broth of ginger and kamote leaves—until I craved again for starch.
“Maybe we could look for coconuts,” I told Lina one night after dinner in the hut.
“I don’t miss it,” she said, remembering perhaps our time on the roof.
“I mean to mix with the starch.” I reminded her of the ambolong cake we used to have at our grandparents’ house. “It’d be tastier, at least.”
“Remember they had plenty of those at Lola’s place after a typhoon?” she said.
“Really?” I said, a little put out that of all things she could mention, it had to be the very thing that sucked us back to our predicament.
In our grandparents’ village in Aklan, Lina told me, typhoons usually felled a lot of the trees along the fields, including the palm from which natok was extracted. Because the rice paddies had been ruined, families turned to starch from palm trees, food they could store for a long time without spoiling.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me the villagers here knew about natok.” I might have tripped over a delicate matter because my sister’s expression changed, her sharp-boned frame twisted toward me.
“Many people know,” Lina said, “not just in Aklan. In the Agusan Marsh, whole families survive on harvesting starch.”
“I don’t travel as often as you do.”
“Goodness, Connie,” my sister said, “Agusan is a bus ride away.”
“Let’s go now if it’s so easy,” I said.
She took the rolled up mat leaning on the wall and unfolded it.
“I know you’re sick of this place.” She pulled the blanket made from patches of flour bags. “I know you’re fed up living with these people. Look around. You don’t have a choice.”
“I wasn’t saying anything.”
“You stay here in the hut the whole day,” Lina said. “You don’t even talk to them. Do you even know anybody’s name? When did you ever care about the people in the mountains? You only think about your expensive house, if it’s even still standing. When you can do yoga again with your snooty friends.”
“And you’re the selfless one,” I said, “the activist hopping from one cause to another. How many NGOs have you been in? Always ready to help strangers, but when it comes to your family, where were you?”
Her face shifted, like she’d been shot.
“You won’t see them again, Connie,” she said. “None of us will see our families again.”
She lay on the mat and turned toward the wall. Her shoulders were trembling.
I’d not seen my sister, my shrewd, headstrong sister, crack like this. I moved closer to her. We were quiet for a while, hearing only the downpour outside. Then Lina said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“We’re safe,” I whispered. “We’re safe here.”
The night the storm changed its course I had woken up thinking my husband had come home. I stepped out of our room and dipped my feet in water. My eighteen-year old son Gil was standing on his toes above the coffee table in front of the TV set. The sight of water rushing into our living room immobilized us. There was hardly any time to think, no time to grab official documents, anything of value.
We raced up to the balcony on the second floor where a folding stepladder came down from the roof. I told Gil to climb first. The wind knocking against us, he barely took two steps when he slipped and snapped his neck on the firewall.
There were gaps between Gil’s fall and my rescue. On the roof, I imagined the water receding, my husband returning home with our son, both of them radiant as the grass at noon. Then, water lapping at the rooftop, the arrival of a boat, the long walk to the gymnasium, stale air flowing inside a building full of strangers, a child’s cry erupting in the night. I retreated within myself. I searched for a place to curl up. But in the crowd soon appeared a face I recognized.
Lina couldn’t believe what she’d found: a woman whose skin hung loosely on her narrow bones. I had been refusing food because wasting away felt like an option at the time. When Lina held me, I sobbed, not because I had been found, but because I had to go on living.
I saw them tramping over bananas stalks. Hairless faces, freshly laundered clothes, one of them carrying a long blade on his waist. I shouted at a group of children bathing in the rain to go back to their homes.
In their transparent raincoats and rubber boots, the men climbed over the ditch between the village and the plantation with an ease that suggested they had been here before. There were seven of them, similar physique and height, and they stopped outside our hut.
“We have a visitor,” one of them said. He had a prominent forehead, big moist eyes, a mouth slightly curved. He was the only one who’d tucked his shirt into his pants. I asked them who they were.
“We’re not the ones who need to answer questions here,” he said. “And don’t try to run. There’s nowhere to go anyway. My companions here will take us to the chief because we have a matter to discuss. Go ahead. Follow them. I know my way around.”
The villagers had gathered outside the chief’s hut, all ten households, including the chief’s daughter and two sons who also had children of their own. They stood still as we approached, Lina stepping forward when she saw me flanked by the men in raincoats.
“Stay where you are,” the leader of the group said. “We don’t want to make a mess, not now. The matter we’re here to discuss can be easily resolved. No need for hysterics.”
“Let my sister go,” Lina said.
“Who says we’re doing anything to her?” the man said. “I don’t know who you are and what your business here is, but you’re way ahead of us. Way ahead. She’s free to go.”
The men laughed.
“Your sister wants you to join them,” the leader said to me.
I didn’t run. I imagined one of them shooting me before I could reach the other side, but I made it. Lina pulled me closer to her.
“What do you want now,” the chief said.
My eyes flitted across the villagers. The men and many of the women carried axes, bolos, and pieces of wood. One woman held an empty pot.
“Don’t you think that’s a little hostile?” the leader said, smirking. “After all, we’re neighbors.”
“This land is not yours,” said the chief. “It is ours but you have taken most of it away. This belongs to our families and those who had passed on. This land is ours.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t have the papers with me,” said the man. “They’re too important to carry around. Not in this weather. You see—titles are precious things. You don’t want them to get wet during a typhoon.”
“What kind of people are you,” the wife of the chief said, “bothering us at a time like this?”
“Actually, my friends,” the man said, “that’s why I’m here. I bring you a message from the Pastor.”
“We don’t want anything,” the chief said. “Leave.”
“The Pastor only wants to welcome you into his home. We’ve known for a while now that you’re running out of food. He sent me to bring you over the other side of the wall. We have plenty of food to share. Warm beds. The Pastor even bought you new clothes. He would love to see the children so happy. Come now. You can only eat so many palm trees.”
“Go back to where you came from,” the chief’s wife said.
“Why does it have to be this way?” said the leader. “The instruction is so simple. Come with us to the Pastor’s house. If you may be so kind to form a line on the way, that would be lovely.”
“You’re disgusting,” said Lina. “You have made these people suffer enough as it is.”
The leader gestured to his men, and they marched toward us. I gripped Lina’s hand. When the men in village made a move, the outsiders took out their guns.
“Hold it,” their leader said. “We wanted to take the children and the women first so they could end their suffering sooner, as one of the trespassers so wisely put it. But since the men volunteered, that is also fine with me.”
The children wailed when the leader ordered the men to separate from their families. I was shouting at the outsiders to stop, but the leader wasn’t hearing us, the women shrieking, others hurling rocks and slabs of wood, and when the men had been pushed back to an area closer to the forest, the chief drew his blade and charged at the outsiders, hacking one of them in the chest before he got shot. The old man fell on his back as if he’d only slipped on the grass. A volley of gunfire shook the ground.
Lying on our bellies, I held my sister and told her to close her eyes, close them now, as we both waited to die. Then we heard the sounds coming from the forest. There were shapes moving behind the trees.
A group of young men and women we had not seen before were advancing across the field. They had downed several of the outsiders, two of them fleeing into the plantation but were shot, their bodies doubling over the rotting banana trees, and when the group reached the villagers, the pastor’s last man, whose hip had shattered, had already stooped to the ground, defiantly calm.
“Parasites,” he said to them. He pressed his hand on the ground, the tip of his head grazing the soil.
A woman wearing a cap approached him. The man’s body rattled. He spat. She didn’t wait for him to look up.
Three of our men and one woman had been killed. We buried them near the palm grove behind the village. The group’s medic removed the bullet lodged in the chief’s shoulder. Lina and some of the women appeased the children. The others gathered what they could bring. The dozen or so guerrillas scattered around the village, trying to get things done quickly.
One of them, a young man who managed a smile after everything, helped me collect the sacks of starch we had extracted in the last few days. “This is delicious with coconut,” he said. He must not have been a couple of years older than Gil, I thought, if not the same age.
Lina asked me how I was doing when we were about to leave. The chief had been put on a stretcher that his sons and two other men would carry.
“Don’t be afraid,” Lina said. “I don’t believe they will harm us. The villagers trust them. We got nobody else.”
“I know,” I said.
The wind was blustering over the field when we departed. We had quite a distance to cross before we could get to a camp in the mountains. Three days of walking through the jungle, two if we’re quick, said one of them. I carried the clothes that had been given to us during our stay and a sack of starch. Before we went up the hills, I turned back to the remains of the village, rain lashing over the meadow, devouring the wall the pastor had built. Not long in our journey we found ourselves on a steep rise, and the young rebel came to me again, his rifle slung on his back. I gazed at him, his bright, youthful face deep in concentration, anticipating the weight I carried. “Here,” he said, reaching down. I took his hand, making myself as light as possible, and when I reached the top I thanked him like he was my own.
John Bengan teaches writing and literature at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. His stories have appeared in Likhaan, Kritika Kultura, Asian Cha, and BooksActually’s Gold Standard, an anthology of Asian fiction from Math Paper Press. His translations of Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s fiction have appeared in Words Without Borders, LIT, Anomaly, World Literature Today, and Shenandoah. He co-edited the anthology Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021).
At a young age, Naila (pronounced na-ee-la) had learned that milking the government for money was her best route to a better life. There are important things in the world accessible only to the privileged, so she learned to climb the floors of an invisible, commonly denied social caste. The government was her ladder.
“A bureaucratic world is only looking for two things: impeccable papers, and a convincing face to present them.” Naila’s old mentor, The Councilor, used to say. “Do this and government coffers will open up to you, like a flower.”
She took her mentor’s words to heart. A complex architecture of government bursaries, educational subsidies, and corporate grants paid for her high-profile university tuition, dormitory rent, travel excursions, and daily expenses. It wasn’t all legal. But she was so proficient at what she did that, after graduation, The Councilor hired Naila full time. Through The Councilor, Naila learned the subtle art of bending laws, building legal fronts, and skirting penalties.
The Councilor was a good mentor as well as a kind boss. When Naila made a rookie mistake—the kind that someone with twice the experience and half the temperament could’ve avoided—and Bureau officers came knocking, The Councilor quickly covered for her protégé and sent her off to a rural town for vacation.
“Let me ask a few favors, twist some arms, and we’ll be up again in three months,” The Councilor said in parting.
But the Quarantine happened, and city borders were locked. Naila became stranded as a tourist in a northern mountain town, fourteen hours’ drive away.
She met the old miner there, as a fellow quarantine violator. She wandered too far away from her village, in search of snacks, when she was caught by a group of kagawads on her way back.
Inside an open school gymnasium, the old miner and Naila exchanged words between push-up breathers and floor mopping breaks. By late afternoon, they’ve established a comfortable bond, weeding the community garden together. As night approached and their punishment neared its end, the old miner noticed that one of their captors—a loud-mouthed kagawad—was eyeing Naila’s behind a little too intensely. Like every ogled woman, Naila could feel the kagawad’s leering eyes without seeing them. She turned around and was about to say something smart, when the old miner made a racket with his work and asked Naila, his “niece,” to massage his sprained ankle. The old miner later explained that the loud-mouthed kagawad was “connected,” and had a reputation for extending the punishments of those who earned his ire. Naila pleaded humanitarian concern for her “uncle’s” sprain and the loud-mouthed kagawad finally let them go.
Outside the gym, Naila thanked the old miner’s intervention and, after a moment of hesitation, decided to come clean.
“I’m not from this Barangay,” she said. She lived in an Airbnb, two kilometers outside the village checkpoint.
“Your accent… you’re not from this region either, are you?” the old miner asked.
They were speaking in the local dialect. Up in these mountains, only tourists used the national language. Naila was born and raised in another northern town, four hours’ drive away, so she could speak the dialect. But after studying high school and college in Metro Manila, she eventually adapted to her lowland peers’ accent.
The miner said he can accompany her until the next checkpoint, although the leering kagawad’s friends may be manning it. He thought for a while, and then decided, “If you want, you can stay in my home for now.”
It was said that if visiting Manileños, incapable of speaking the local tongue, needed to ask directions from one of the old, northern folks, they’re better off asking in English than Filipino. The north was barely touched by Spaniards, who reigned in the capital and the rest of the country (except the Islamic south) for over three centuries—so northerners became infatuated with the GI’s Country music and Wild West tales.
When Naila was a little girl, her mother coaxed her to sleep with a honky-tonk lullaby. Growing up, she listened to country singers all day; from speakers underneath jeepney benches to youth bands playing late in the evening.
She would later discover that her lowland peers never heard of the songs she grew up listening to. In high school, Naila eventually grew tired of Country music. She was adjusting to her new life in the bustling, mountain-less capital, and old cowboys crooning about long winding trails, crystal clear rivers, and comforting coffees by the campfire didn’t help.
The old miner lived alone in an abode composed of three structures, standing several meters from each other and forming a proscenium with a fire pit in the middle. It was the old miner’s childhood home, back when his parents and three other siblings were still alive, and his only surviving brother has not yet moved to the far South with his own family.
In the “main house” living area, beside a boxy, 13-inch Changhong TV, a few steps from the gas stove and dining table, Naila observed a wall rack that hanged the old miner’s prized possessions. She could tell they were special to him, owing to their immaculate manner of display, shrine-like. These were all the things that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson warned mamas about: gold and black, steel-toe pointed pair of leather boots; a high crown, wide-brimmed Stetson knock-off hat; a brown leather jacket that loosely resembled John Wayne’s western costume; two pairs of jeans that—upon closer inspection—were certifiably old-school Levi’s; and a long, black, snake-skin leather belt, attached to a custom-designed Lonestar buckle. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
The main house was flanked by the bathroom on one side, and the “dirty kitchen” (a seven-by-six feet ash-covered structure, fully equipped to portion, and braise animals of all sizes) on the other. The old miner opened his music player, and a band called Alabama hee-hawed about having a fiddle player in a band if you wanted to play in Texas.
That night, Naila woke up from a dream. Her phone displayed three minutes past two. From a small crack in her window, she could hear the endless murmur of crickets and the cool, whistling breath of the mountains. Unable to get back to sleep, she slunk outside and found the old miner sitting in front of the bonfire, beside his dirty kitchen, drinking what smelled like freshly brewed, northern-grown, dark-roast Arabica. The old miner went back to the kitchen, prepared something on a small iron pot, and heated it by the fire. Naila could smell the thick aroma of cocoa. The old miner said it came from his younger brother, in the far South.
“You’re still going back to sleep. And the coffee here is too strong for tourists,” the old miner quietly teased, handing her a cup.
“I’m no tourist,” she beamed back. “How about you?”
The old miner pointed to the trail that led from his home to a deeper part of the mountain. “I work the mines at three, every morning. So that it’s not too hot outside,” he said. Too much heat could trigger his high blood, he explained, so he usually headed home when the sun was high.
Naila sipped from her cup and felt the heat course smoothly throughout her body, warming her soul, thawing the stiffness in her heart.
There’s something about these wee hours that felt contemplative and honest. That particular time of the day when night had passed and dawn was yet to arrive. Surrounded by stars, enveloped in a cool night’s embrace, warmed by the hearth of a fire and the pleasant company of another, Naila felt capable of sharing things that she was not entirely proud of.
“Mr. Miner, do you ever dream of your first love?” she asked.
Against the bonfire’s shadow, the old miner’s upper lip jerked into what might have passed for a smile. “I’m too old to be dreaming of first loves.”
“But do you?”
He was silent for a while. Then he quietly admitted, “Sometimes.”
She beamed. “Me, too. I dreamt of him. Just a while ago.”
In Naila’s dream, she was back in sixth grade, covertly sharing a stick of Marlboro red with her friends at a mall terrace, on a dare. It was her first time smoking, and she was terrified of getting caught. Leaning on the terrace railings, she was just about to take another furtive puff when she saw him, the boy she’d been crushing on since fifth grade. He was a year ahead of her, leaving for high school when Naila reached the last grade, so she hadn’t seen him for months.
“The following day, after I saw him, I got sick,” Naila said, shaking her head at the memory. “It was my first time getting sick in two years, after the pox. I didn’t go to school for a week.”
“He’s your bad luck charm?”
She sighed, “He was my wake-up call.”
Naila said she had never experienced an immense feeling of happiness until that day. “Thirteen years old and feverish in bed, I realized that happiness was like an alien disease to me,” she explained. “I was so used to hardship that my body simply didn’t know how to handle anything else.”
Naila also said she had lied to her mother so she could go out that day. She was supposed to help at the market, selling meat as usual, when she was half-heartedly invited by her friends to the mall after class. The invitation was quick and passing, not expecting her to say yes because she never did. Every day, she went home and helped her mother out. During weekends, while her peers were going to trips, picnics, or family restaurants, Naila would be doing chores at home. Then she would assist her mother, who did other people’s chores in other people’s homes. Every night, after all the chores have been finished and all the meat has been sold (if they’re lucky), she would study. She needed to maintain her high grades to stay tuition-free in an exclusive private school that she could never afford. One of her mother’s affluent customers, an alumnus of the school and now a retired judge, agreed to pay for Naila’s tuition and school expenses as long as Naila ranked among the top ten in her class.
Naila said her mother did her best. But they just had too many problems: the gambling debts that her father left behind, before running out on them; her mother’s fragile health and the expensive medication that came along with it; the monthly rent, the bills.
At least once a week, Naila’s mother would be sick in bed. Then Naila would have to man their market stall alone, wishing that none of her classmates would happen by. But she soon learned that they never visited the crowded, chaotic, and malodorous public market. They only went to malls or brand-name grocers, and most of them had a helper to do the actual shopping.
Naila’s narrative was just one of the many variations of “inspiring stories” by people of her kind: parents toil hard until they’re bent and broken; children graduate, fight tooth and nail to get a job, then spend their adult lives paying for their parents’ bills, medication, and interest-laden debts—all incurred to push them through a mid-range university.
To Naila’s people, a successful career prospect would often mean one of three possibilities: employment in foreign companies, with above-minimum rates for outsourced grunt jobs that first-world citizens refuse to do; a government position, through a reliable “backer” or; the best-case scenario, an approved working visa for overseas factories, hospitals, elderly care centers, or the back office of major conglomerates, earning the holy grails of labor: dollar, dirham, pound, approved citizenship application.
In a strange moment of fever-induced clarity, thirteen-year-old Naila saw herself dutifully preparing for the harsh cycle of destitution that commanded her mother, her relatives, her neighbors, and now, her life.
And she didn’t want it. She wanted so much to be like her exclusive private-school friends who can afford to be superficial, immature, and uncaring about the weight of the world. She wanted to talk about boys, gossip on who is dating who, hang out at cafes and malls, and smoke and drink like a rebel. She wanted to forget the meat market and her mother, who cried silently every night, lamenting the husband who abandoned her. She wanted to stop being such a goddamned responsible, understanding, patient daughter.
“My mom died from a heart attack that year, and I was sent off to live with my aunt in Sampaloc, Manila, where I studied high school, and eventually moved to Quezon City for college,” Naila said quietly.
“I was really sad when my mother passed away so suddenly…” she trailed off and looked at her companion.
Her companion was staring at the mountainous horizon, where the sun would rise, drinking his coffee. He turned to her. In the dark, she could just barely make out the bonfire reflected in his eyes. Naila felt that he would understand. That it would be okay to say it. She just knew.
“But honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. Deep inside, I’m glad I escaped.” She said, realizing this was the first time she articulated her true feelings about her mother’s death.
She looked at the old miner and smiled. “It has subsided over the years, but I still feel guilty. I still have these moments, every day at random, where I’m doing something or I wake up from a deep sleep, and then remember that I felt glad my mother—who loved me and did her best to raise me—died early, so I wouldn’t have to take care of her debt and her bills.”
They stared at the sky in silence. The old miner slowly refilled her cup and, holding her gently, placed her closer to the fire. She only realized she’s been shivering when she felt the fire’s heat. Naila sipped her drink, sniffed, and gave a small chuckle, wiping her eyes. She was silent for a while.
Then she said, “So how about you? Tell me about your first love.”
The old miner laughed, for the first time since they met. It sounded like a gentle draft, blowing from a long winding cave.
“You don’t forget your topics, do you?” he said.
She smiled back. “I have a good memory. I’m a top student, remember?”
The old miner shook his head. “I’m bad at telling stories. And it’s not a very exciting one. Just some boring story about a first love I didn’t get.”
“Please?” The “e” on her “please” was stretched long and thin, like a displaced worker’s budget. She was starting to sound more like her age.
“Maybe later,” the miner smiled.
Naila relented and asked if she could sleep outside next to the fire and under the stars. The old miner took out a large blanket and tied each end to a sturdy post. It was now a hammock, just over a meter from the bonfire, overlooking the mountains, facing the horizon where the sun will rise. Naila wrapped herself in another blanket and settled comfortably. The easterly Amihan whistled by, swaying the hammock gently like a crib.
“Do you also like singing, Mr. Miner?” she asked.
The old miner laughed again. “It sure is nice to be so young and full of demands, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. Can you sing for me?” she grinned.
“I’m no good at singing.”
He turned to the fire and thought for a while. “But I do read, now and then,” he said.
Naila’s eyes lit up. The old miner said he was fond of an old book of poems. Its lines were simple and didn’t rhyme. A traveling Belgian missionary gave it to his mother, a long time ago.
It was a tattered old book missing its cover. The spine was taped and almost falling apart. The pages were ragged with stains, cracks, and burns—marks that came with their own stories. He opened it slowly and tenderly. He stopped at a particular poem.
He looked at her expectant eyes, reflecting the fire and the stars. He took a deep breath. How long has it been, since he read this poem to someone? It felt like ages ago, and it was, indeed, ages ago. Four decades, twice the age of the girl in the hammock, since he had sat by the shore, feet among the waves, reading the poem he loved to someone he loved even more.
He started reading slowly. His voice was deepened by old age, buoyed by a youthful lilt. The words floated steadily, like boats on placid waters, fading into the night. Naila dreamed of endless fields and wispy stalks, swaying with the wind, golden under the light. The sun tapped gently at her cheeks. She was warm. Free.
John Pucay is a Kankanaey-Ibaloi writer from Baguio City. His essays have appeared in The Philippine Daily Inquirer (Young Blood) and the Baguio Midland Courier (Speaking Out). His first published short story appeared in Brittle Star Literary Magazine (June 2020). He holds a degree in Communication from Saint Louis University-Baguio.
No line, no we want to be kids again. We want to be friends. No worries where the punctuation ends. No in over your head. The birds got bones but still they bend. Ain’t hollow yet. Once. Poems playdough they, they won’t know. They forget and so we get to relive. We spring. We get to sing. Off key, off beat, off these swings. The knot knowings. These speakers wheeze. Music. He’s funny man. He sleeps. He’ll wheeze. We see. Once we were glad all at the top &. Sing. Say, sycamore. We’ve seen these things. We found stuck down in celery heart God. We’ve seen flowers saying let me be. We get to say see this this is not a test. See/saw. Saying this is not a drill. Birds pecking for oil. We get to see this. We see you, men on the moon. Once in a sycamore. Your best shot, Doctor, Doctor. My arm bone connects to my shoulder bone. I’ve got a bad case. I get chills. We hear. Voices. Once we were glad all at the top. We end stop. We begin to wheeze. We seize. We grow these wings. Fly but forget to be. In a sycamore. We sang. At the top. Once, we put words in our mouths.
Extimacy of a collective trauma
The patent fear upon which we let rest our biases creeps upon us like a network of knowing cells. A drop of Pom spreads throughout a white shirt in the wash, forces slipping red beads all along its spindled fibers. The TV blares the capillary action of a whitewashed war. We tremble until polished anchors shed tears for the truths they will not say, and these flow out with the washing. Thin plastic shirts slip over us like a pleasure smooth enough to choke on. They flood down with leaflets gone unread to the sewers, push fatbergs and jetsam, microfibers coalescing as a network we cannot see. Red elastic spurts slip over us like a pleasure smooth enough to choke on. We discard bodies as if they were our own. Our skin grows into its own stain, is its own reverse, its insides outed and unready for a wretching, sicklife world. The only thing left the soldier took up close was his very own self. If only God could have made that seem more true. Discard- ing these hells as if they were my home.
The first result on YouTube when I search “extimacy” is a woman who has put on a variety of wearable technologies for a year and has not taken them off. She is at a loss but is excited to try out something called a mood sweater. What she is wearing has not given her extimacy, which she describes as allowing people (including herself) an insight into—I guess—her unconscious, which, confoundingly, she also calls her self. I wonder what she calls the technologies. She is a data scientist.
That is not the extimacy in my poem, and yet my alarmed reaction to the video is emblematic of what I wrote about in the poem. Extimacy, a Lacanian concept, is just what mathematicians call a mapping, a (topo)logical collapse between what we so often suppose are fixed opposites, self and Other. Such an encounter with what is “strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” can indeed be transcendent, but it is also sure to be terrifying. The extimacy in my poem is that of the mood sweater’s surveillance capitalism, of the so-called War on Terror, of coded messages, and of ecological collapse. A collapse of the binary keep, self/Other, that happens again and again. But these traumas are collective; the Other here is big. Illegible as it may be, this poem is one of witness and protest, not memoir.
Jacob J Billingsley: I’m a queer bipolar poet in St. Louis, and I write most often when I am manic or hypomanic. I aestheticize worry and hurt. I love deceptive syntax. I don’t know if writing is a way of transcending or transceiving. I have a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Missouri. I serve on Carve Magazine’s poetry committee. This is my debut publication.
Content warning: science-fictional medical abuse, body horror, transmisogyny
Endgame Girl Form
In the year 20XX a great cataclysm overcomes humanity. The cataclysm is of indiscernible nature, gender, and political inclination. Some believe the cataclysm to be God. Others believe it to be the first mother’s hatred. Still others refuse to acknowledge a difference.
In the future the only women left are invented: structurally exquisite automatons of diamond and titanium designed to survive the harsh conditions of the post-apocalyptic gender atopia. Women are wired from “birth” for adornment and armament, women are lab-grown in chambers filled with heat and weight in a brutally cost-efficient but chemically identical approximation of the real thing. Differences can only be discerned by experts under great magnification that reveal curved growth lines, microscopic gas bubbles, increased likelihood of osteoporosis and urological conditions.
Future breed women make abominations of language, and are thusly denied publication. Language is born out of utility, a mechanism to convey battle strategy by meme. Women are our soldiers for the permanence, the vessels of contrived ingenuity into which We (the protagonists, the Player Characters) place our attempts at perpetuity.
[i h8 / th future. i h8 th way it wud desire smth / from us, as if / it had a will. smth like hunger / born from th h8treds of men. i h8 / how it resurrex / dead names, like “destiny” / and “vitruvian .” h8 how it keeps making us. i promise / i wont let it get away with this.]
Portrait In Saw Wave
(after Lauren Bousfield and Ada Rook)
smth abt an imprecise distortion of / form and msg. smth abt noise. smth abt / disruption of respectable comm / -unication. smth abt illegibility. smth abt hurtin ur ears. smth abt liking / the hurt. smth abt liking hurting u. / i like hurting. / im gonna peel my face out of the sticky plastic sheet of white noise. / an shes gonna look slick an brand new an / made up all ovr an beautiful an / im nvr gonna make sense / to u. thunder makes a noise with a name / but on the video its jus clippin brutality. / listen its like this, / u understand form thru the empty / space. u understand color by the / diffrence. you build rhythm out of the broken / and remade silence. / pause. repeat. pause. / this is the world of things meant to exist. / the world of / i am where i am supposed to be. / im not / where i should be. im not here to live in it. / im the dis / -rup / -shun / of canonic structure. / im the thing that cant be heard. / im the noise.
Girl is a Cup
I. Girl is a cup. Girl is a vessel towards something. Girl is a thing to be filled with something else, poured into as another thing is evacuated. Girl is shaped to carry something alien.
I am a small oat milk iced latte which is a vessel named after its contents, rather than what it is (which is a cup filled with cold slaking), and after the contents are emptied the purpose of the vessel is void, and it is stripped of a name and discarded. Plastic carcass decomposing in an empty Starbucks.
II. Rain on the mountain basin is a name. Swelling the eroded pelvis of saltwater. The accumulation of violence made into a new face, even in stone. The water keeps falling cold. The mountain basin imagines the raindrops are still, and that she is racing towards heaven, a fantasy of being elsewhere.
Two girls hold their hands out to each other. They locate love outside the body, in fluids and salt. I want to hold you. Come into my hands. I want to hollow out and carry you. I want holding to be every kind of touch.
I was six years old and terrified of the thought of swallowing an apple seed. Feeling her root gutrot into my womb, weave latticework hunger into my lungs, something parched and cynical coming up my throat. She would grow through me like a sin, make herself known like bitterness. “This is what could have happened,” she says, before the world ends. “This is how it could have been different.” Sweet and crisp and all inside you. Don’t you hate it? Don’t you want to tear it down?
I am with a girl I have loved wrong. We are wine drunk and bludgeoning each other with tendernesses and indulgent sentimentalities. We are the last survivors of womankind. We are crushing grapes for tomorrow, somehow, even though tomorrow won’t come. I hate the way we became. The way we leave thick streaks of ourselves on the windowsills for the mice to come and lap. The way we still tried to love when we didn’t know how. The way she clutches my hand as if to say: Imagine. We could have so much more than this.
Nora Hikari is an emerging poet and Asian-American trans lesbian based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Perhappened Magazine, ANMLY, and Ogma Magazine, among others, and her poem “Deer-to-Fish Transition Timeline” has been nominated for the Best of the Net award. She can be found at @norabot2.0 on Instagram, and at her website norahikari.com.