FROM HUNYANGO MAN ANG TAO (EVEN IF HUMANS ARE CHAMELEONS)
Translated from Filipino
A tiny bottle was born in a sweltering factory. He was wrapped in a package, given a name, then placed in a box with his fellow newborns. All of them were brought to stores all over the city, arranged in a cold room where they await being purchased. The bottle wonders why his parents would just abandon him, and withhold their care and affection. They pushed him toward a clear glass that contained a strange world. The refrigerator door opens and a hand reaches for the bottle. Placed in front of a cashier who weighed its value. The man takes out ten pesos. He takes the bottle and outside quickly gulps down its contents. The man then throws him onto the open sea where he floats not knowing where the current would take him the next moment or the next day. Noon came and exposed the bottle to its scorching light. The bottle tried to weep but his mouth had already begun to dissolve, to disintegrate into tiny pieces. Then his body. Finally his head. His tiny parts dispersed into the water. So tiny that fish failed to see him. A tiny one came by. Opened its mouth and ingested him. The fish didn’t know. It just went on to eat whatever bit it could from the sea. A day into playing with his fish friends a huge net descended upon them. They were all hauled unto a ship. Brought to a factory where they were unloaded, moved around, and rolled over again and again. After going through a number of hands, its head wad removed, the rest of him canned. Wrapped in a package, too, and given a name. The cans were brought to the grocery store, then picked up by someone cooking sautéed sardines for some workers’ lunch. But that day no one wanted the dish so the cook took it home for their kids. The kids didn’t want sardines, too, it was always fish day in and day out. This kid got a good scolding. The rest of the brood cried. The sardines were put in a plastic bag and thrown outside. Another group of kids was waiting by the garbage bin. By now they knew what time the cook would throw something out. They opened the discarded plastic bag. Sardines—what a lucky day. Quickly they dug in but the eldest seized the fish and moved away from the frenzy. He devoured the fish he held in his hands. It remained in his stomach for years until he felt hunger anew. His companions had been frolicking by the shore when he, now a young man, felt a pang in his midsection. A sharp pain where he put the sardines. The others, swimming farther away from him, didn’t notice. He tried to come closer to them so they’d hear his cries for help. But that day the waves had been heavy, leaden. They dislodged his feet from the seafloor. He stumbled. Set adrift beyond what was visible from the shore. In this state the sun found him. The sun saw how his body began to disintegrate, broken apart by the water into tiny pieces. Broken apart until it was as small as drizzle. From the tiny breaks in the flesh emerged the plastic and their siblings.
Janssen Cunanan lives in Makati City, Philippines. He is currently a member of AUX (Artists in BPO Unite for Social Change), a cultural organization that utilizes art in fighting for labor rights and advancing national democracy. His works appeared in Plural: Online Prose Journal, ALPAS Journal, and SmokeLong Quarterly.
Glenn Diaz‘s first book The Quiet Ones (Ateneo Press, 2017) is set in the Philippine call center industry. He lives in Manila.
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.
if it’s the summer of 2016 & drake drops views, then you’re 27 and this album becomes the soundtrack to ur life, a lifeline maybe. u start to understand his sentiments abt money being a worthy alternative to love. u understand what he means when he says “all of my let’s just be friends are friends i don’t have anymore.” u start to abandon the stifling politics u have abt urself. it sounds liberating but u know that u are not becoming free so much as u are numb. u are moving towards ur detonation. u do not know how to slow it down or stop it. do you even want to slow it down or stop it? u do know, u will not be sober for ur own implosion. u hope to wake in the aftermath of it and u promise urself u will not notice all the debris. u will pretend it never happened. u learn how to breath in and out and never really exhale. u bloat.
each day u examine ur aging form in ur full-length mirror. it doesn’t matter that it lies to u. the truth is, ur ass and hips sit lower now. and if it’s one thing growing up girl has taught u, is that the hips don’t lie. as ur body shifts and u try to figure out a place for it, u meet a man. u immediately want to love him but u know better. he is beautiful but u know better. u expose the truth of ur body to him. u think, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that u are never present. then one day, he confronts u, points out ur detachment. his observation vibrates ur body. it rings thru out ur old apartment that has become a grave for ur ghost-self and a few roaches u don’t care to exterminate—being alone is too heavy. u let the roaches have the kitchen. u let this beautiful man have ur new body. u let him have u to a soundtrack of alt. r&b, emo rap & trap music. u let these sounds fill the spaces where ur feelings used to be. hurt turns hard, u can almost feel it happening in real time. u fade.
not long before the beautiful man notices ur ghost-self, a different man made ur body a ghost town. he turned ur lullaby into heavy metal. sleep eludes u now. it dances around ur bed and taunts u, daring u to come and get it. u use the new man as pillow, as armor, as a goodnight song. u attempt sleep but the scent of a past love haunts the place. it’s on the sheets no matter how u wash them. the cushions of the sofa hold the scent. u are convinced the scent is coming thru the pipes. it’s in the water. it’s not just the apartment, u smell it everywhere now. u smell it in the emotional rappers coming thru ur speakers. u smell it in older women who, in the past, were too old to understand u. or, u were maybe too young to understand them. u smell it in rage. u smell it with a raging red. u smell it in blues. it stinks like ur twenties going bad. u think ur past love made off with ur youth. u are right and wrong about this. u are learning the nuances of scent. u inhale.
the call center job u stumbled into allows u to disconnect and provides a paycheck big enough to send ur sorrows into outerspace. u stay at the job. u are mostly late, always disengaged. it is too safe. u use lunch breaks to finish blunts from the morning and to mix red wine into ur passion tea from sbux. u use lunch breaks to wonder if u should attempt ur dreams again. u wonder if u should try reconnecting with ur family, try to feel something for them. u smoke again and top off ur cup because the thought of trying pains u more than your stagnancy. each morning on ur transfer from train to bus, u grab a smoothie from the supermarket on grand & chicago. u don’t care that it’s overpriced and packed with sugar. u only care that u look like u care. u ask urself if this is what being woman looks like: overspending on junk on ur way to a job that is draining life from ur body? the answer has been on ur mind, on ur tongue, before u cld speak it. u swallow it again because u are still unwilling to stop buying into ur own facade. u hide.
u wonder why u look so much like ur mother now, wonder why the thought of calling her throws u into a panic. she was ur age when she had u. she was only a few years older when she left ur father in chicago. him in his addiction. her with her 8 kids in tow. u start to wonder if you’re more him than u thought. it’s not only ur alcohol intake. u now crave the little pills that remind u of vitamins from ur childhood. u make a case for the tiny crystals the beautiful man places on ur tongue. u tell urself u work too hard to be sober. u become agitated easily. u decide to tattoo ur chest just to feel the buzz of the needle. u spend money on everything but rent and u wait for the bottom to fall out. u pacify.
ur womb starts to cry out for something to hold. this beautiful man does his part to fill u with life. u are not ready to become a home. there is no cub. finally, there is no address. u lose the apartment and are relieved for it. the season wants to wane, give out, but not before a few suffocating dog days. u spend these intensely hot days figuring out an escape. this planning is not new to u. in fact, u can’t remember what it feels like to not want to run. u think as far back as u can but can’t recall a time when fire wasn’t in ur feet. u plot.
u are unable to recognize urself. u are living for this feeling of feeling dead. u want more of it. u want to never make the mistake of loving again. u think it’s easy to replace Love so u frequent petco. u buy fish that die off. u buy a bird that u eventually set free. u want to be the bird but u are becoming the fish. it’s not okay but it’s inevitable, u think. u believe it’s possible to outrun urself forever and so u plan to. u start at lake michigan. ur fear of drowning is alleviated by this new secret u have found about water. u are discovering its healing properties, its remedies. it becomes ur baptism each day after the call center. u think, maybe, u cld make this living thing work after all. u float.
this man, beautiful as he is, is too close. just the thought of seeing him again makes u uneasy but u crave it. he is both a danger zone and a safe place. u circulate from one extreme to another. u don’t know if he is too good for u or vice versa. somewhere between lake michigan and ur apartment u decide it is neither. u decide, his thorns are like ur thorns, so even though it hurts, it’s not a new kind of pain. u melt into this theory, try to find solace in it. u shatter.
u cry but can’t produce tears. u spend hours by the lake contemplating the thought…u disconnect from him. u depend on him to save u. u forget urself. u remember urself. u don’t understand it, u just know u don’t feel the same and it’s time to surrender. and so u do. u surrender over and over. u do this all summer ’16 until u fall.
-lake michigan, ‘16
R. Tiara Malone is a Chicago born writer living in New Orleans. Her poetry has been published by Partial Press. Her stageplays have been read in Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans. Her essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner and Peauxdunque Review (forthcoming). Her essay “Mikey Go Boom!” was a runner-up in the 2020 Words and Music Festival. She studied Media, Communication, and Theatre at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She is currently working on a lyrical memoir and is the owner of Minimoon Massage Studio (@MinimoonMassage) in Nola. Never tweeting @ascribecalled.
crisp crimson that twirl and turn
to flakes of ice
as they fall
become pink petals
settle on shoulders
that know nothing
Who are you
who can bear
suffer these changes and stand
solid on the Kamo River
where rock and weed and fish
and refuse to cling
even as its waters
hesitate to set
settle at feet
that know nothing
Who are you
ever above flow
head toward the mountain
searching for source
WEIGHT WITHOUT GRAVITY
There is no weight without gravity.
But matter and weight have come
To mean the same things:
What keeps our feet on the ground, what pulls
At clouds to return to sea, why we fear
We have assigned them, too
To other things: meaning
Weight no longer belongs to the body.
My mother's weight keeps her pinned
To this hospital bed, chained
By our fears, by all she has to fight.
She is her body now more than ever.
The pressure of her hand in mine
A collection of mere molecules—
Matter acted upon by gravity.
And I waver at the edge of You and
This is not you, I tell her.
The weight of our worry pulls the water from her eyes.
I do not fear the words dead, weight.
The part of my mother I wait to waken
Weighs nothing and means all.
Andrea Teran is a climate change adaptation specialist, currently working on climate change-induced (human) migration. Her writing is mostly an expression of her fascination with the natural world, and finding our place in it.
Tilde Acuña teaches at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature – University of the Philippines, where he completed an M.A. Philippine Studies thesis about komiks as a symbolic act in Philippine society. His visuals have been published in Kritika Kultura, Tomás: Literary Journal of the Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, UP Forum, Bulatlat, Pingkian, among others. He is the author of Oroboro at Iba Pang Abiso [Oroboro and other Notices] (University of the Philippines Press, 2020), illustrator of Marlon Hacla’s book-length poem Melismas (Oomph Press, 2020), and co-editor of the anthology, Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021). “Dharmachine Delusions” previously appeared in Plague 2 (2012), edited by Fidelis Tan.
Right until the Year of the Flood, we lived in a hundred-year-old house in the city center, a dusky affair with high, vaulted ceilings and walls made of real pine wood; eight drafty rooms upstairs that dripped history as it dropped slates; a grand staircase flanked by wooden balustrades and with dry, worn steps that still managed to hold out for years only because we had the fiddly science of shifting our weights down pat; and, my favorite part of the house, a spacious rooftop that looked out to the whole neighborhood, where I sneaked off to most afternoons dreaming of marrying our next-door neighbor, Mr. Isaac, till I wept in a fury of tears and defeat and everything turned carnation, mauve, pearl amethyst with the inexorable dusk.
The turn of the millennium was almost here, and doggedly I took stock of the years before I turned eighteen and worried day and night that the world would end before my love even realized he was madly, foolishly, rabidly, infinitely in love with me. I was sixteen and saw love as one would a hidden treasure buried deep in the seafloor, but I made no efforts at all at dredging up the treasure and fancied myself a princess to whom troves and bullions and king’s ransoms came simply of their own accord.
Mr. Isaac was a tall, hollowly thin man who looked like he’d whittled away pounds in the name of scholarship, which was probably true, for he taught at the state university, was revered and liked by many, except perhaps when he wore his favorite green parka with a green beret, green pants, green pullover, and thankfully brown shoes—and, really, it was all you could do not to think of puke and not to torch to shreds all the sickeningly green stuff in his wardrobe. He’d only recently moved in from the States and I could distinctly recall the day he first stepped on the neighborhood, partly because it was a foggy night then and from out of the wafting whiteness he emerged, like an angel sent from heaven, and waved hello to me when he caught me peering down at him from the rooftop. But of course, I remembered it for in those days we were made to believe that ghosts roamed the streets at night to steal strong-willed little girls away, and I hadn’t known until then that ghosts had outrageously awful fashion sense.
My brother Jaypee liked to joke about and make a meal of my calf love every chance he got. Five years my junior, he was just being quite the airhead, nudging or poking me so violently at the side I almost fell off the curb when we passed by Mr. Isaac’s, a turn-of-the century monstrosity, a door up the street from us, on the way home from school in the afternoons. If it was my lucky day, Mr. Isaac would be there in a wicker armchair on his screened porch, on his lap a heavy hardbound book, horn-rimmed glasses slipping a fraction down his nose. He squinted terribly, and Jaypee was forever and a day wagering our babies would for sure come out so squint-eyed, just like the father, that they couldn’t tell a two from one, and sooner or later I’d need a pair of glasses, too. The clown would double over with laughter, his eyes lighting up and crinkling till they looked like slits on his face, and my heart would crawl pounding out of my throat as Mr. Isaac looked up in wonder, saw us kids walking by and wished us a good afternoon. My gut turned so watery I thought I’d swoon.
A couple of times Jaypee wrestled off his clown shoes and, in some old fit of sobriety, asked me however I fell in love with a man probably half as old as Father. And so I told my brother about that one time I was on my nighttime walk, having stolen out of the house while Mother and Father plodded through the hills and valleys of slumber, the row of streetlights throwing down my shadow on the asphalt, turning everything the color of foil. Why I felt lonely then, I didn’t now know, and the tears I remembered but didn’t know what for. I walked, then trotted, then ran across five blocks as the wind whipped against my face and wafted dry the tears spilling down my cheeks like runnels. I ran and, before I knew it, Brownie, the neighborhood dachshund, was drooling close on my heels, so I ran, ran for dear life, and who should I run slap into but Mr. Isaac of the horn-rimmed glasses, in a green dashiki upon whose misplaced patch pocket I cried, cried, wouldn’t stop for all the world.
He walked me home under a cluster of stars peeking through a cloud-curtained, velvet sky. We heard the distant toll of church bells striking the witching hour of ghosts and night wanderers, of lovers and dreamers. Dead leaves littered the sidewalk. We walked in silence and gazed into the few houses still lit, paper lanterns flickering in the dead of the night. At a street corner was a flame tree low enough for us, Jaypee and I, to swing on its branches till they snapped, back when we were kids and goosey, and whose crusted bark we’d peeled off with penknives or forks in the dopey hope of making a pasty aspartame. Now it was strung aglitter with capiz lamps, like moths of paper spun from fire. And through the leaves I saw Mrs. Espino in a lonely corner of her parlor reading by the measly light of a gooseneck lamp, hunched over a magazine like a question mark. Upon the dusted mantelpiece was perched the framed photo of her husband, who had a year ago headed for the hills.
Why? asked Mr. Isaac, and I told him how the Espinos had let in a couple of outsiders and fed them for well over nine months, before the Lopezes from across them found out and informed the constabulary on them. Then the two of us walked on alone with our thoughts, passing Bermuda lawns and dark porches. The moon-silvered path gave way to a rustling carpet of fallen leaves under the dappled shade of a sprawling weeping willow. Finally, he broke the silence and told me of some faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to choose who they wished to rule them, free to live, free to love—and it was all too good to be true, like walking into an enchanted land of glittering trees and gold-paved paths and irresistible cherubs giggling behind billowy white clouds.
There was in the air the strong scent of calachuchi. I liked to imagine that he stopped in his tracks and broke off a stem of the flower to loop behind my ear, under a tracery of bowery boughs that made for a cathedral and the moon that made for a chandelier. But the clouds had blotted out the moon, our steps growing fretful and wearied, and we just walked on in comfortable silence. I’d walked this street many times, knew by heart where the sewer grating was, into which I’d dropped in my haste and frivolous inattention perhaps a hundred-peso coins, now sludge-caked, lost forever. I knew the old, old man, though not by name, who owned the only brownstone in our village, and yet spent nights slumped by the post that held our street sign, hissing and muttering and wheezing. I knew the lady with a bottom half heavier than the top, who, every night she took her rust-colored mutt out for a jaunt round the block, seemed to glide instead of walk. I knew she talked to the dog during these walks, but I doubted it had the willing ears to share her sorrows. I knew the Mendozas sent their son not to a boarding school abroad, and that the Abads never liked long hair but wanted to save on monthly haircuts, and that the Villanuevas weren’t agnostics at all but simply disdained giving oblations to the church. And I knew that in a heartbeat I’d hear not the trees rustling against the wind, nor the soft swish of my jammies, nor the rise and fall of his breathing beside me, but rather the persistent thuds my heart perched in my throat making, threatening to plunge out and spill over.
And that was how I knew, with the certainty of all prophets, that I’d already lost my heart.
Every hush between a breath and the beginning of the next was infinite, full of possibilities, and I treasured each as we shuffled our way to our front yard. I found it incredible that only forty-five minutes had passed since I’d rammed into him, for it seemed to me forever. The night breeze hit my bare, thin arms and I felt like hugging him, as if he were a post and I might be blown away. I walked up our front steps, thanked him, meekly, wished him a good night, and we both retreated into the shadows with the knowledge that tonight was all the beginning of everything and nothing.
Hours of summertime found me up on my rooftop, surrounded by books I’d checked out from the library, and there I looked over at my old schoolyard and whispered farewell heard only by oblivious gods. I wanted to leave the featherbedded life I had in the village, to explore the city beyond green lawns and ballparks, and this longing I felt as I leaned over the railings ringing the roof and wanted more than anything to grow wings, fling myself down, and sweep scythe-like through the clouds, like an eagle testing its halters and pinions for the first time. But I didn’t need to wait long, for in a month I was boarding the train, zipping through the city to get to a university far away from home.
In the meantime, my mother, as you’d expect of a woman who puttered bristling with mops and brooms around the house, subjected me to endless lessons of embroidery, laundering, cooking. Now, Mother was the perfect mother—never would you light upon a breadcrumb on the lacquered table, a spot in the kitchen, a stubborn stain on the tablecloth, a coffee ring on the broadloom rugs, a mismatched button in my Sunday dresses, a fallen eyelash on her perpetually floury face or a twig stuck in her shiny bouffant hair. One time, upon seeing the row of drawings tacked on my bedroom wall, she told me it would be really better next time if I colored inside the lines, but I never yielded and she was almost close to tears when she saw my next batch of sketches, ghastlier than the first, with the Cray-Pas straddling defiantly the penciled lines. All the time Mother was nearly apoplectic.
Ah, I was a lost cause. Several times, I almost sewed my finger into the embroidery hoop I was sticking my needle in and out of, and another time I burned my right wrist against a scorching skillet and doltishly dropped the pot cover which shielded me against the sizzling slobber of the milkfish I was frying. I sang so off-key, thunderclouds brooded over the neighborhood and might spark lightning at any moment. I danced like a cockroach shimmying to some epileptic beat. I sat harum-scarum, scratched my thighs repeatedly, for my petticoat was itchy and miserable to move around in. My hair was a hornet’s nest, and so many sucking lice spawned eggs in it that Mother nearly singed it all off in frustration. It came to a point where I feared Mother had asthma, for every time I picked up a needle or yarn, I could hear her breathing heavily through her nose, muttering prayers.
How can Mr. Isaac love you, taunted Jaypee, when you can’t even do a simple hemstitch? But in those sweltering days Mr. Isaac hardly crossed my mind. Our high school valedictorian had confessed his love for me, and for weeks I delighted in baking dry, bricklike coffee rolls he’d dumbly scarf down, blue in the face, and in bossing him around. Rogel was stocky and sprang up and down on the balls of his feet when walking to keep up with me, for I was at least six inches taller and had legs miles long. Yet, to his dismay, I never slouched around just so he’d feel tall. Together, we strolled around like mother and son in the afternoons, during which time I had to listen to his incoherent litanies about how siphons worked, about air pressure and law of conservation of energy and gravity governing the rise and fall of bodies. But it was summer and all around me were chain-link fences; how I wanted to break through them all. During his stump speech one late afternoon I cut in on him and talked about a faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to explore the world outside, and all the while Rogel, mouth agape, looked at me as if for the first time.
That was how things ended between us, and if it was my reward for tormenting him then there was something to say for sin after all. I’d considered talking to Father about boys, but quickly dismissed the idea as he was in over his head already about the rumored recent trespass of outsiders, who had left behind a human flotsam of sleeping bags and broadsheet pages they must have slept under, in front of the church. People promptly went to the pound and took home pit bulls, frothing at the mouth, ready to pounce on and maul to death the unsuspecting outsiders, if it came to that.
There was also the smell that had been bothering the entire neighborhood. We’d suspected it issued from the Dizons’ kitchen, where every Friday they cooked daingand tuyo, but who smugly denied such a thing and insisted it was some exotic species of red salmon from the Mediterranean. The oppressive stench hung like a thick, stale fog in the air. It got into everything, into our clothes and our hair, as if it were just wagging its tail right under our nose. When the wind picked up, the air seemed to drift with its tendrils reaching into every window and clinging to the drapes and couches and jumping right in the shower with you. It was too much, and one day my mother came up with one of the prize statements of hers, which made you want to either throw yourself in front of an oncoming train or flush your head down the toilet. This is the smell of our sins, she declared, and suddenly I felt guilty to death, and on my knees prayed three Hail Mary’s to atone for my sins.
Five airplanes swooped dangerously low over us, one morning. They rained upon us drops of lavender-smelling water that lasted for quite a while. The long-parched earth breathed lavender, and we went about the village smiling and sniffing like crazy dogs. It was on one of these afternoons that I caught sight of one encyclopedia I’d long ago forgotten I owned, its dog-eared pages peeking through the latticework to our crawl space. Jaypee, when I told him this, let me in on his discovery of a knothole in the mango tree in our backyard. It contained, among other things, rolls of thread and a plump pumpkin pincushion which, I recalled, miraculously disappeared in my sewing box. I knew Jaypee had already put two and two together, for though he was plain silly most of the time, he was still my little clever brother who once made a hair-dryer out of a mixing bowl and a smoothing iron, never mind it had burned my scalp for one minute and nearly electrocuted the living daylights out of me.
It remained our secret. A look passed between Jaypee and me over dinner when my mother complained of missing tomatoes and even kaning baboy, and the three gold-rimmed plates exported from Germany just a year before, that unexpectedly she’d found near the garbage pail out back. We’d decided, too, not to let whoever was sheltering in our crawl space know that we knew. Dolorously, I’d go to school every morning and in the shadows of my mother’s shrubbery I could almost believe there were eyes regarding me, stealthily, and I let them. Classes had started out pretty grim anyway, and even inside the classroom my mind would float far out beyond the eight-hundred-foot walls hemming us in and wonder what about outside that made some people there encroach on our city. My professors were beldams who scowled down at us with the kind of murderous frowns that could freeze to death a flock of birds mid-flight, and always one of them, Mrs. Prieto of dressmaking thrice a week, would catch me mooning around and shower upon me the wrath of gods. Sighing, I’d run up away with my fancy sequins and balls of yarn and tambours, needles gleaming silvery in the sun.
The state university was far from what I’d imagined. The libraries, worse than our village’s, only allowed girls in if they were given an instructor’s permit. It had been almost two months into the semester before I mastered at last Mrs. De Castro’s signature, which resembled less a humanly scrawl and more a doodle of a three-year-old rabbit if it were taught writing. But there, in between shelves and shelves of books, I never read up on whipstitching or how to make truffles or bonbons. Endlessly, I read about the rise and decline of nations, structures of power and systems of oppression, till my head felt so full and overripe it might snap from my neck any second. I was dizzy with facts. At dinner I’d try to conceal the blush creeping up my cheeks, the twinkle in my eyes, by tucking in my shoulders and feigning boredom. But Jaypee knew me so well, and would say, in a slightly amused tone, Look at Theresa, Mama, Papa! She looks like she’s finally kissed Mr. Isaac!
And yet Jaypee’s words wouldn’t be true until the last week of the semester, when, as a sub, Prof. Isaac supervised the freshmen’s field trip somewhere outside the city, as was school tradition.
By this time I was almost seventeen and had gotten over my infatuation with our next-door neighbor. I passed him in the hallways and felt not a single flutter of butterflies in the knots of my gut. He was still the tall, hollowly thin man I’d first fell in love with, the man who loved the color green and wore horn-rimmed glasses. I remembered nights up on my rooftop fantasizing scenarios with which our walk that one cold night outside, me in my nightshirt and pajamas, he in a dashiki and faded cutoffs, could’ve ended differently. I’d conjured moments from that encounter to a place he told me about, some faraway, perhaps otherworldly land of glittering trees and people blissfully basking in freedom. And these thoughts whirled in my head on our field trip, as the bus shuddered, hurtled forward, into an unnerving tunnel-like darkness, then into a glare of light, out of the city.
Outside was the city in a shambles. Out the bus windows, we saw men and women walking around on the street—dejectedly. It was a blur of charred buildings and pitched collapsible shelters, belly-down splay of topless men and children in sewage lakes. At some corner the shuttle dislodged us, and so hesitantly we stepped off onto the rutted street. Mr. Isaac took the lead. There was the reek we knew all too well that now assailed our noses, coming from everywhere. We walked a long time. We watched kids no taller than my waist carry to and fro buckets of water and scurry after cigarette packets tossed on the sidewalks, which abruptly fell off to give way to filth and mucky pools of greywater. I glanced that way, saw five naked children, dongs dangling and fannies flashing, bickering over a can of water from a sawn-off drum, others screaming and running freely after skeletal dogs through treacherous alleys and winding side streets. And when I glanced this way, I saw houses stacked upon one another, cobbled together with tarpaulins, canvas, corrugated tin, wood, rusting iron, jutting out, caving in, pitching to the left, toppling over to the right. Under a scraggly tree, a frail, old woman was peddling to us her banana cues and turonswarmed by buzzing flies, in a feeble, world-weary voice. Grinning shrimpy kids followed us down the rocky streets. We walked along shanties and saw yet more garbage strewn around, and I felt sick to my stomach. All along the way curious faces peered around doors, through broken holes of windows, wanting.
Many of us, in our pristine dresses and polished shoes, slumped over a gutter and retched. A group of women in flimsy dusters scowled at us, for down the road flowed a rivulet of our vomit, reminders of what sumptuous meals we’d had for lunch, mixing with the white soap suds of their laundry, with piss and mud. We were crying. We were guilty. I craned my neck up, wished I hadn’t. Overshadowing the street was a mountain of trash frantic with rats. Pickers smeared their elbows and knees climbing the slope with crooked two-foot poles, indifferent to the stench cloud crowning the summit. A child squatting on the edge of a cliff, a sheer drop from death, wasn’t about to jump off but was only defecating for all the world to see. Grimacing, he wagged his flyspeck prick at us.
The smoky mountains sprawled like a slumbering giant all around, as though walling away the city’s high concrete borders. Through the crack between the mountains ran a river the color of carbon black. A trio of girls dressed in filthy ragged clothes combed the water’s surface with their fingers. One of them picked up a rock under the meagre palm fronds, skimmed it in an arc across the river.
Beside me, my classmate, a girl who coiffured her long, silky hair for six hours, was nibbling the ends of her braid as if to muffle her cry. I looked over at Mr. Isaac who stood a little apart from us, his face contorted with what I guessed was sadness. A girl trudged by, heavy jute-sack bag slung over her shoulder, barefoot, the scabs on her knees sucked on by flies and malarial mosquitoes. We walked on in muted horror, over potholes and dried, crumbled dog turds, past hummocks of refuse, blood-stained tampons, broken whiskey bottles, balled-up soiled clothes, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by some typhoon, papers, stinking leftover meals and excesses, sailing crazily along the gutter.
And then it was over. We filed into the bus, shaken. We were too weak to speak, let alone move in our pillow-ticking seats. Relieved, we breathed in the stuffy, frigid air inside. We groaned when the bus made as if it were stuck in the muddy road, but a heartbeat later it hissed and moved forward. I looked out the window and saw a woman pocked with ghastly open sores, her eyes glued shut by dirt, by pus, in her arms a baby, who seemed dead but for the jerk of its arms, reaching out. I reached up as if to clutch the air. Then I turned away, closing my eyes with an almost physical pain.
But I had no sooner made forty winks than I bolted awake at a tentative tap on my arm. In front of me, bent on his knee, was Mr. Isaac. All around us were empty seats, and out the window I saw the familiar tree-lined avenue of the campus grounds. Somehow the sun had slinked off onto the horizon, behind treetops, and I had in my sleep kicked off my shoes, now nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t the first time I walked shivering and barefoot on asphalt in the deepening twilight, but it was the first time I did so with someone beside me. Mr. Isaac and I, we passed under a row of streetlights, our shadows gamboling on behind us. How old do you think are these trees? his voice interrupted my thoughts. They’ve been here forever, I said, older than we are. In the cool linger of the night they took on a deathless look and I knew at once they’d be here, their roots firmly planted in the soil, long after I’d kicked the bucket and been fodder for creepy-crawlies that would pamper the earth for another rambling copse of trees and wilderness. Overhead was a thick canopy of leaves formed by branches twining themselves together as if for comfort, and I looked down at the intricate curlicue shadows they impressed on the asphalt, like tea leaves boding a future both unmapped and untrammeled. I told him this. But they don’t matter, he said, his eyes sparkling, because shadows occupy space but don’t have mass. I smiled at his lame attempt at humor.
Why? I asked, and he and I both knew what I was pertaining to.
I want you to know what’s out there.
So you’ll know at whose expense you’re enjoying all your privileges now. All your freedom.
But I’m not happy. I’m not free. Far from it.
We’re all born unhappy.
We were hosting outsiders under our house, did you know?
Yes, they’re a family of three. I saw the child one night. She was six, seven, I don’t know. I saw her bent over a book I’d dumped many months ago. She was crying for some reason, and so I walked up to her and threw my arms around her. In a minute we were both crying like crazy. We only broke apart when we heard someone cough behind us. It was the mother, I think. I ran into the house. The next morning, I peered into our crawl space and saw nobody. Like they were never even real.
His breath rasped the wind and bit off the end of my name. I felt cold. I rubbed my palms together and pressed them to my cheeks. I walked ahead of him and saw by the rusty gate swinging crookedly on squeaky hinges a trash can knocked over. Trash, I thought, it’s following me around. The plastic bag inside was split open, unravelling crumpled papers, cigarette butts, plastic pull tabs, used coffee cups that bled shamelessly onto the sidewalk. The dented lid was thrown halfway across the grass, and I was about to pick it up when from behind me Mr. Isaac gripped my arm, wheeled me around and kissed me lightly on the lips. I could feel my heart had leapt to my throat, because everything was just all too perfect in such an imperfect world. I pressed my hand on his face and it came away wet. Sobbing, he took my hand, and kissed it to his lips, held on to it for a long moment.
Early in the evening of the day the walls were toppled, our neighborhood became a great blue void, dotted by arms flailing and heads breaking through the surface like ants swimming in a child’s glass of water. The pillar-like trees were swept by so fast that they came off the earth in a tangle of roots and branches. We’d scaled the slope of my roof and stood on its beaten shingles surveying what remained of the city. Houses were crashed in the rage of water as black as the sky, which for months had emptied on us a deluge so unappeasable in its fury, to drown the guilty and innocent alike. As if they were only a pyramid of cards, or houses made out of matchsticks, buildings and telephone lines detached from the ground with a sound I’d never forget—Krr-r-ssh—until they tipped and sprawled defeated under the filthy surf. We saw all manner of things afloat in the water: splinters of wood, pieces of plastic, felled trees, rafters, roofs of houses, dead bodies, my brother —and, really, among the remnants of our vanquished lives, how could we differentiate at all what was trash and was not?
It was only four nights later when we saw the moon peek through the sky, dim at first, then bright and clear, full of promise. It smiled at me and there was a feeling of peace in the air. I leaned over the battered railings of my rooftop, in my sundress drenched, and felt the air heave the smell in from the water below. It seemed only a minute ago that I dreamed to grow wings and soar afloat in the sky, but now the black naked sea beneath looked inviting. One single step towards the void, one single step to cease all the desires that attended living. I saw my body below. I held my breath.
Richard Calayeg Cornelio majored in materials engineering and is working on his master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His research interests include social movements, the political economy of development, authoritarianism and democratization, and political ecology. His essays and stories have appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, Kritika Kultura, Philippine Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. He has won the Palanca Award and the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Literary Contest several times. He writes news and features for the Philippine Collegian.
TOWARD A GENERAL THEORY OF MATTER EXISTING BETWEEN DEATH AND LITERATURE
Translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim
Apart from a few exceptions beyond our limited grasp, no object or creature can travel faster than the speed of light. So fast it will leave in the dust even the premonition of death that once visited writers. In the dust. Yes, the dust. You know, that one and only thing that a writer can scoop up and reform into cities that will allow him to reign over his loneliness. His loneliness that he once held out proudly like a trophy before his cohorts much in the same way he had regaled them with that story about his scar from a stab wound made by a rusted dagger. His loneliness that he used to embrace night after night in sleep without it ever embracing him back. His loneliness that, whenever he stands before a mirror, tends to dissociate from his body to form a haze that engulfs the reflective surface. His loneliness that scrawled his signature on all the first pages of all his books and delivered all his speeches to all the book launch gatherings he attended and did not attend. His loneliness that has now become his source of disgrace, sliding between his fretful sighs of discontent and muddled stanzas. Like all the failures that have left him unfazed, all these are reminders—the peers of those who made the first attempts but were then toppled in the dark—that those, who are about to make a run for the first flash of light, are immediately left behind.
If we assume and then take into consideration that the Earth’s radius is 6,400 km (no offense to flat-earthers) and a toy globe, the type you can buy from a store that sells school supplies, has a radius of 0.001 km, and if we take into account the chaotic roiling motion of the world’s oceans, it would follow that the toy globe will never be able to make complete trip around the world (and therefore there is no way it can return to its launch point) until perhaps one day, one day when fate gives away its paltry winnings to life’s gamblers, when a dreamer whispers all his wishes to the insides of the toy globe before sealing it shut and setting it free onto the sea. Of course, this also condemns the toy globe to a lifetime of fitful movement. Like dreams chased by twinges of regret. This bodes, too, of the likelihood that the dreamer continues to wait. Like a spell cast to once again speak to someone long gone and deeply missed. Only a flat world can be overrun by phantom suns.
We stand by this natural law: only a few inches separate death and literature. But, within that few-inch gap, a digression-marred world is sprouting, thriving, and dying out. The poem is always making a promise. And always, it is the poet who keeps breaking that promise. The novel is always going berserk. And it is always the writer who is fleeing the scene. Self-delusion is the only thing that literature can kill. The writer’s proverbial festering wound is just a pathological manifestation, just ill health. What death can resurrect over and over is just frustration and boredom. The writer dies so his work may live. In the work’s continued desecration, the reader stays alive. To build Industry and Institution, the reader must be constantly misinformed. The writer is once again brought back to life to serve Industry and Institution. In the dismantling of Industry and Institution by the writer and reader, literature lives again.
To reiterate, we stand by this natural law: except for the last sentence, the rest of the aforementioned truths are part of literature’s elemental rules.
In the event that man discovers at the moment of his greatest misconception that he is in fact God, this must also be asked: what else is a writer’s takeaway from that moment of his nascent authority?
You light a matchstick. Yet, you lack a dark cave where you can begin to understand why many others are claiming there’s been dwindling light. There is only darkness, a void. You light another matchstick. And then another. The smoke drifts in the direction of things that pass through the spaces between your fingers. You keep lighting matchsticks, hoping the pitiful bursts of light and the itchy friction of the dancing flame’s heat as it singes your skin will reveal what tomorrow has left in store for you. You keep lighting matchsticks until you are left holding the last of them. The spent ones on your feet hiss out their last remaining will to ignite again. Your eyes inspect every little corner of the matchbox, thinking you have found at last the dark cave you have been looking for. You light the last remaining matchstick. What you see is your shallow grave.
If we take as truth Alejandro Abadilla’s arrogant declaration of himself, us, yourself, and myself—therefore the poet—as the entirety of poetry’s material reality, and if we consider the fact that a poem is unfailingly inadequate, that it cannot circumnavigate the globe, let alone be sea-worthy in treacherous waters, and if we also consider Kerima Tariman’s statement on the poem as creator of a poet, then we can extend all these circumstances to the known behavior of fermions in the quantum state and the impossibility of simultaneous existence for a poem and a poet. Through this interrogation of fundamental natural laws: whose universe must be annihilated to give way to another’s desire for existence?
Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III teaches courses on Southeast Asian literature and creative writing at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, University of the Philippines Diliman. He is the author of the novel Aklat ng mga Naiwan (Book of the Damned), co-editor of Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines, and co-editor and co-translator of Wiji Thukul’s Balada ng Bala (The Ballad of a Bullet). His research and other creative works have been published in Likhaan: Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, JONUS, Southeast Asian Studies, Talas, and Tomas.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and several other books of fiction and poetry. She is co-editor of the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! (2016) and Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021). Her translations include Marlon Hacla’s Melismas (Oomph Press, 2020), as well as Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (University of the Philippines Press, 2021), and Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018). Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Dazed Digital, Literary Hub, and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.