10 Mayo 2012

Summer Night

It was the old room smell and the dust crowding the air, so densely packed together it was like breathing through blankets. Each breath brought the aroma of damp fur, insect droppings, and paint baked in the sun of a hundred undisturbed afternoons. It made Maria’s head spin and her father cough, convinced they must pry open the windows to invite the breeze and the Sunday afternoon scent, tangled and trapped in the boughs of the twin mango trees mangled together and fighting for sun, completely obscuring any view from the windows.

The small room had acquired the habit of becoming indispensible for disappearing or appearing whenever necessary. It had first served as her mother’s home office and afterwards, briefly, as their yaya’s bedroom. Now, during one of the hottest tropical summers the Abante family had ever experienced, their eldest daughter claimed it for her own, for her tenth birthday. Her father attached a bow to the door and surrendered the keys in the presence of her younger brothers. Para alam nila, she said looking down at Abe and Ino. The seven year old boys grinned their promise of sabotage, monster tricks, and taunting. It was, after all, a big day for them, too: another room, another hiding place.

Within, Maria and her father both listened to the trees growing, inch by inch, in a silent invasion of the sky. The room was very dim though Maria’s father stripped off the gray curtains. It was cool, also, and other sounds seemed to knock before entering. In other rooms all over the house, anyone could listen to the grumbling tricycles tearing down the road or roaring up the steep hills of their subdivision. Not here, where it was quiet as dawn and sunlight couldn’t dance on the floor.

She walked all over the room, measuring it in strides. By the time she heard her father instructing her to fetch Kuya Pip, she accurately figured she needed only four seconds and three long leaps to make it to the door, should anything frighten her awake in the middle of the night. Her brothers were first to remind her: the family bed was an entire corridor away, past two locked doors and the bathroom. To reassure herself that she was faster than anything frightening, she counted the steps towards her parents’ bedroom and the large family bed, lumpy and forgiving. One—Maria ran out the door. Two—three—four. She passed both doors. Five. A breath, she lunged. Six! She made it to the edge of their bed, coming to a halt before jumping on. Ten seconds. She could return in ten seconds. Maria grinned at the thought.

Kuya Pip, the gardener who also repaired their stove, restored the broken cabinet doors, and took apart their radio speakers. His favorite sport, however, was to stare up at the mango trees. Sitting on the stool in the shade of their patio, Kuya Pip slowly drained a long, sweating glass of water, whistling.  

Two weeks before her birthday, Maria’s father taught her the word ‘decade’ over breakfast, when Maria’s mother revealed her birthday wish. There was a look that passed between father and daughter. Hers was simple defiance, fierce and innocent, but her father collapsed pride and angry disbelief into a swift, trembling double take. He took in her glassy face and arms akimbo while she sat primly to his left. She was eating an omelet and toast, spread with cheese. It was more than the inevitable recognition of his daughter’s selfhood and one of her first well thought out actions with concrete consequences for herself: the physical separation and the fact of her wanting to tear herself away punched a hole into his gut. At first, it was nothing he could recognize because, after all, how can his baby want her own room? But then he stared at his little girl struggling with the jam jar. This was his firstborn growing up. Straining to regain his nonchalance as the detached father-figure, head of the family, bastion of logic, and supreme judge, Maria’s father nodded, allowing himself a small smile. Isang dekada na nga pala, her father said. Without another word, he pointed her towards the dishes, her prescribed after-dinner chore.

Ayaw pa rin! Kuya Pip strained against the welded steel window bars, the palms of both hands purple from pushing against them. Outside, Abe and Ino sat on the mango trees’ wide, accommodating limbs, their faces inches away from the glass. They looked into a small, low-ceilinged, faded lavender room with a dusty mirror hanging behind the door. Their sister’s sturdy bed stood on one end, directly underneath the lowest part of the ceiling. Maria was busy attaching glow-in-the-dark stars, moons, and large planets.

Red-faced and snarling with effort, Kuya Pip heaved against the windows. He was barely breathing and dust swirled around him in chaos. Obstinate, the windows remained shut. Kuya Pip breathed through his wide-open mouth, deep lungful after another, sucking in air and eating the dust and he seemed to shrink into the wooden floor. Her father stepped aside wearing an amused grin. Sandali lang, kuya, sandal lang! Kuya Pip groaned and coughed until, finally, the first two window panes swung free. He hooted in delight, slapping his thighs, he straightened his back and eased the rest of the windows open with a flat-headed screwdriver.    

When Ino knocked on the windows as he swung from the thick tree branches, Maria discovered the little padlock and latch. The evenly spaced grills on the last set of windows would have swung on rusted hinges had they not been locked into place. It’s the fire escape, anak, Maria’s father said, pulling the curtains shut after motioning to his sons to climb down the trees. Maria studied the small lock thoughtfully, as she straightened her shirt. Outside, the sun retreated behind the trees and Maria settled in for her first night sleeping in her own bed, in her own room.

Her mother came too early to tuck her in. Ang kukulit ng mga kapatid mo, she said as Maria climbed into bed, gusto nilang matulog katabi mo. The clumsy cluster of galaxies on the wall glowed faintly as Maria pulled back the curtains and opened the windows. It was a hot summer night and the walls baked underneath the sun all day. She allowed her mother to pile pillows all around her and to kiss her goodnight but when her mother closed the door and the darkness was complete, Maria climbed out of bed towards the open windows.

She lay in bed after her mother left, feeling the hours slowly creep by. There was no wind to disturb her and she listened to the mango trees outside, their long leaves slowly dulling and the deep green giving way to a burnished brown that reminded Maria of her father’s morning coffee. She lay awake in bed, listening until she heard the door to the family room shut and everything grew still and silent. After ten more minutes, just in case someone hadn’t fallen asleep, Maria crept out of her room and down the hallway.

Their house was long and narrow and Maria had grown up the same way. She made no sound walking down the hallway in the blackness because she had done this before and her eyes had grown accustomed. Gangly and clumsy for her age, the young girl made her way past the bedroom where her family slept, towards her reflection at the end of the corridor. An antique glass cabinet once held fancy dishes and Nanay Irene’s polished plates but her mother had stacked it full of storybooks, picture books, heavy encyclopedias, and colorful bilingual dictionaries. Its glass doors slid uneasily, screeching loudly in the dimness. As soon as she could slip a hand through, Maria retrieved a slim volume and tiptoed back to her room.

Although it was a warm summer night and no breeze came through the waiting, wide-open windows, Maria sat on her bed, her back to the night. She had closed her door and turned on the light, a luxury she had never had before. Straight-backed and sweating, Maria sat back against warm cement walls, reading the storybook she fished from the cabinet when she felt something against the nape of her neck, a cool but rancid breath, and a sharp, intrusive poke. The mango trees outside shuffled for space as they swayed in the wind. They had been planted too near each other, one dwarfing the other, each struggling to grow faster.

Maria saw the branch and moved to the other side of the window and the mango trees were silent.

The rustling began at half-past midnight. It caught Maria unaware, fast asleep, her delicate cheek upon the window ledge turned towards the breeze. Leaves trembled on branches that creaked and groaned; the noises came from deep in the wood, from some straining core. There was a wind that inhaled, drew the air out. The same breath sent sweet-smelling wind into her room so that Maria’s hair swirled, tickled her nose, and fluttered over her eyes. Still fast asleep, the ten-year old didn’t hear the tree branches shake, leaves dislodged as a strong gust of wind blew, insistent. She didn’t hear the low moan, didn’t feel the shift in the air she breathed as a man fell out of the sky, completely silent, without crying for help or absolution. 

It wasn’t his collision with the mango tree—he grabbed hold or branches and they reached out to him with equal panic, hands slipping until they held on, splinters lodged deep into his palms—or the prolonged racket he made while resting against the boughs that woke the girl; it was his wretched stink. Maria dreamt of burnt things and flesh in bruised colors, sisig cooking in too much oil, the head of a stuffed pig, its cheeks carved out. She shook herself awake and took a deep, calming breath, only to gag on some repulsive stink outside her window. Hands cupped over her mouth and eyes watering, Maria could not cry out or bolt or duck her head, disengage herself from the sight of a bare-chested man sprawled on the branches of their twin mango trees, whose leaves and branches had become silent, as though content to shelter him.

Though full of twigs and the deep silver moonlight, his damp hair and shining face weren’t grimy; in fact he looked at rest—almost peaceful—if it were not for his unusual perch. But the stink irrevocably emanated from him and the ragged flesh that hung loose about his flabby belly, the stretched and burnt skin of his wide wings spread out limply in the upper branches. Although straining to hold its shape, his wings looked unhurt. Never mind the wings, here was a shirtless man. He was a creature from half-girl, almost grown girl, ten year old girl’s imagination and for a while, Maria could not force herself to examine his nakedness. She blinked her eyes shut, covered them with her fingers until she felt something cold and wet lift her hands from her face. Hoy, hoy, tignan mo nga ako. He wagged his long, agile tongue at her.

And he was looking at her with an accommodating smile and a serene wave. The effort to convince the girl he was, essentially, harmless had been spoiled only by his narrow, sharp teeth and an exhalation of breath, a sigh that choked her. Tao po? His name was Tomil and he was suspended, trapped on the branch, ready to fall, barely capable of remaining upright on the stump where his legs should have been. Anong ginagawa mo riyan, Maria asked.

From where she knelt upon her bed, Maria could see the open window and the dark, heavy curtains of the house next door. I can’t fly, he said, I’m injured. That was the stink. Shifting his weight on the branch, Tomil turned to show her a bright red wound the color of crawling ivy or tomatoes or her mother’s least favorite lipstick. Although the admission barely resembled a call for help, it convinced Maria all the same.

The mango trees grew up to shadow the walls of the house, a sharp corner between them. Tomil sat two branches away from the padlocked fire escape and the window. After Maria retrieved the key from the tin jar in the hallway, she was amazed to discover that the window’s once rusty hinges swung open easily, as though to permit Tomil entrance. Although he fumbled and scratched himself, Tomil moved swiftly into her room; he slid from the window and dropped a foot or two, his wings folded neatly behind him. He fell onto the bed with a dull flop and a groan: his wound began to bleed, the flesh stretched anew.

From among the books she read, Maria had seen pictures of wounded animals and, sometimes, wounded people. Their giant tome for first aid, its dust jacket rat-eaten, would be taken down for special occasions—obstinate stomach aches, oddly shaped wounds, or consistent toothaches—and Maria flipped through, stopping sometimes to look at photographs of clean and well-bandaged wounds. The boy reminded her of birds, although his wings were scaly and fine, like leather. Her hands were small and clumsy, at first, but it was credit to her that Tomil didn’t flinch when she dabbed gingerly at the tear. Pillows and sheets stained, she wiped it clean with a wad of toilet paper dipped in a dipper full of soapy water.

Anong nangyari sa’yo, Maria asked, unused to so much of Tomil’s staring. She came across pictures of young men in her books: painted or drawn large and muscular, they loomed over the page, colorful and vibrant. Most of them were pale and blond, unrecognizable and unreal next to her frolicking brothers with their high voices screeching from above, suspended from one or both mango trees. Tomil seemed another creation and completely new and something Maria felt entitled to receive. Why else, she didn’t bother to think, did he fall out of the sky. Anong nangyari sa’yo?

Tomil finally released a clattering breath, rancid with decay. Natamaan ng ligaw na bala. He shifted his position on her bed, leaning back into her pillows. Attuned to the failing night, his skin prickled at the thought of dawn and the flight back to his other half. Maria seemed no longer affected by his odor as she drew near him to arrange the pillows or further examine his wound, all the while with a small smile, and a calmness that disturbed him: an aswang fell out of the sky and into her bedroom but she had been prepared to receive him.   

Tomil had begun to snore when Maria returned from the bathroom, an entire roll of gauze in her hands. She bandaged the wound and did not tear his flesh and only when she was finished did Tomil open his eyes, patting down upon the white swathe of gauze at his side. Hindi na sana kailangan, madali naman ako gumaling. He traced the planets, the miniature galaxy, lingering on the sun. Gusto ko rin ng ganito, he said. Tomil admitted only that he was at least twice her age and, no this wasn’t the first time he had fallen out of the sky.

When she examined his wings, Maria grew convinced she recognized them from her books. Here, she listened to herself, the wingtip, hollow bones, skin, and blood vessels. They were large wings that would never fit in her hands, so she grabbed hold of them in her way, clasped them, ran her hands upon the membrane, and fondled the ridges and fingers. She massaged lotion into them, mint and honey mingled with the scent of decay and meat. Maria giggled. I read about these wings in my books, she said while indicating a slender children’s guide to common tropical birds. Another volume was about insects; ladybugs crawled over the cover. A book on Greek mythology, which did not help, lay on the edge of her bed, yellowing pages already stiff. I wish I had wings, too, Maria remarked. The windows were wide open for the child’s benefit but the brusque wind trailed her scent. Child, clean, and beneath a layer of sweetness stolen from her body like heat, a layer of fine dust. Delicious and fresh, warm. Lulled by her nearnesss, Tomil swooned, falling fast asleep.

On the other side of her door, Maria stood in the hallway with a tin of keys and locks, listening to her family waking up: a creaking bed, the floor reverberated with their footsteps, and she felt her brothers scurrying to peek from the doorway. Tomil showed no surprise, barely batted a wing, when the twins burst through the door, squealing and roaring. Ino somehow managed to leap onto the bed, narrowly missing Tomil; he landed on a damp pillow and blinked, his bright eyes adjusting to the dimness of the room. The boys looked him over, not surprised, but apprehensive and cautious, their faces blank and strange. In the dark they looked nothing alike: Ino stood uneasily, narrowing his shoulders while his brother cocked his head out at an angle, feet apart, arms akimbo.

Taking their cue from the eldest sibling who waved them away from Tomil, the boys bolted out the door, shouting for their mother. Dito ka muna! Huwag kang umalis! Maria returned only to return the lock on the fire escape, snapping it closed. Her smile never wavered.                

08 Mayo 2012

Keep Them Young

A little girl, around five or so, stood by the gate of her elementary school, patiently waiting for her angel. Although her forehead reached only until the long steel beam that swung open in admittance or farewell of elementary schoolgirls, she stood patiently waiting. Grimy and sticky with the accumulated sweat from fifteen minutes during recess playing tag, swatches of luminous orange and crumbling white paint stuck to her forehead as she rested against the bar, the palms of her hands itchy with rust, while her mild staring eyes scanned the large open gate, the milling parents and be-winged guardians.  

All the other angels had come, collected their little girls, and gone, giving Riza mildly curious but mostly unaffected, complacent looks as she waited another half an hour at least, patient as the cafeteria cat waiting on scraps of food neglected on the benches or below the long trench tables, dropped by the endless carelessness of baby-fat fingers. The little girl felt they all knew what was going on; angels, after all, were attuned to plights for help and human discontent but none of them came to comfort her or offer assurance of Xila’s arrival.

Riza observed an angel beckon to one of her schoolmates, a girl whose runny nose she dabbed at through the first three periods and sneezed into her uniform collar, whose tangled hair was rumored to be infected with fat lice. Her angel was tall, a giantess, the faint light of her halo gleamed behind sleek black hair. Tall and broad-shouldered, the angel bent down to kiss her child’s forehead, fussing over her ruined uniform. Riza knew the little girl as a bad-speller, probably the worst in her class, her penmanship near indecipherable. They had begun practicing the letter ‘G’ now and Riza had almost perfected the nice, big loops as well as the tender flourish, like an afterthought, that accentuated its nimble lower-case counterpart. Hands barely shaking, she finished the last row ‘g’s when she looked over at her classmate sniffling on the other side of the table, hard at work on the big letters. Riza stared at her near-perfect ‘G’s with a sense of serene self-satisfaction that sweetened her smile and made her look away from Lyn’s workbook even as the girl in question looked up.

Tapos ka na? Lyn was behind and Riza pretended not to hear, ashamed to have been caught peeking. Hoy. Lyn sniffed and made to reach over to tap her shoulder. Riza moved away quickly, swiping her workbook out of reach, horrified: maghugas ka nga ng kamay! Lyn’s angel had produced a large, white bimpo with which she cleaned Lyn’s fingers. Busy watching Lyn’s angel pink Lyn’s cheeks pink, Riza barely noticed her own guardian puffing up behind her. Xila’s meaty hand was heavy on Riza’s shoulder.

Xila, tignan mo yun. Ang ganda niya. Without an adult’s hesitation, Riza was quick to demand an explanation for Xila’s own physical form: he manifested as an ungainly youth, squat, flatfooted, and prone to scowling. Bat ikaw hindi? Her angel gave her a tender look, a replica of her parent’s when they were forced into a corner and left with no better answer but an admission that something was beyond explanation. Hindi kasi ako anghel

07 Mayo 2012

Blind Dates

"Type mo siya?" Manda asked, suppressing a giggle.

"Oo nga! Kaya kailan ka ba aalis?" Miguel shot back, finishing his third beer. He set the bottle aside and grabbed a fourth. He didn't know how she roped him into another blind date but here he was, stranded with his fourth beer and a headache, the lights dancing around his eyes and Manda grinning surreptitiously at him from behind a stack of freshly fried kropek and isaw still smoking from the hot, hot coals.

"Tatapusin ko na lang 'to, kuya!" She popped another crackling into her mouth, the vinegar had turned her gums red, her lips ghostly white.

Manda referred to everyone - including taxi drivers, guards, and the waiters she led outside the kitchen and down any alley dark enough to conceal them - as her kuya. When Miguel asked why, she shook her head and smiled. Petite Manda, cropped black hair, loose white tank, faded old jeans, and the dragon that crawled out of sight down her chest, owned a bar and grill along a highway outside Metro Manila. Mapapa-smile sila, she explained, licking her cracked, thin lips. Pag nagsmile na si kuya, gora na. The tall, sweating glass of pink lemonade stood half full. Manda took a long drink and coughed. Miguel called for cold water and pushed the glass towards her, his eyes hovered above Manda's head.

"Sabi ko sa'yo, 'eh." Manda reached over to mess up his hair and he inhaled a faint, earthy scent: newly laundered clothes, soap,  a well-aired room. He shook her off a little more violently than he intended, his hands tight around her wrists. He never knew they were this small. 

"Tama na nga, Manda!

She knew that tone brooked no argument. Shaking his hands off, she seemed to crumple back into her seat the way a stubborn cat recoils when injured. The only reply she ever offered was her silence. Tonight, it was a brooding, haphazard thing that seemed to sulk. It dragged its heavy weight to settle upon Miguel's lap. Manda toyed with a slice of lemon that came with her drink. As usual, Miguel cracked first.

"Hoy, huwag ka na magmukmok diyan. Ang kulit mo kasi."

"You like her, kuya?" She wanted to say: pakipot  mo kasi, 'eh.

He was unused to the honorific but it came to her naturally. The sound of it reminded him of a floating boat buoyed by gentle waves: coo-yah. 

"Kaya nga umalis ka na, eh." He took the last beer but he imagined how she looked with her pixie hair, her ruby cheeks catching shadows. Lyna wore her light brown hair in a tight bun.

"Ang hirap ng trip mo, eh, kuya." Manda said, sipping her drink. Her hair was growing out; short strands loitered aimlessly across her forehead.

For a while, Miguel didn't reply. From where he sat, Miguel had a clear view of the small corridor that led down to the women's restroom. He watched as Lyna reappeared in her pale yellow dress, body swaying upon five-inch heels. She took the seat in front of her second bottle of beer. Underneath the table,  Miguel positioned a hand upon her thigh.  Opposite them, Manda burped and set an empty glass on the table. 

"Your dinner is on me, Lyna. Kuya has a tab here." Manda winked and walked away towards the kitchen. All through Manda's complimentary plateful of calamares, sisig sizzling on a hotplate, and four cups of steaming garlic-fried rice, Miguel ate one-handed. With the other, he sipped a thumb and finger between her legs but Lyna giggled so much it was difficult to judge if he found the right spot. She was telling him about her career as an account specialist at a small ad agency but as she talked, he began to rub lazy circles on her thighs, all the while inching carefully upwards. Lyna uncrossed her legs and bent her head over the plate of food, chewing silently. She made a little sound -- like a moan, only she inclined her head towards him, offered him an exhalation of garlic breath and a fleeting view of her breasts.

Lyna's tastes and preferences were easy enough to discover: she bent towards him, moved to the edge of the chair, made his hand cup the warm flesh between her legs. She had taken off her panties in the bathroom.

Lyna had stopped eating then, instead she was looking at him as he chugged beer and wiped his mouth on the back of his other hand.

"Sabi ni Manda gentleman ka raw."

Underneath the table and between her legs, Miguel gently pushed between the folds of her flesh and Lyna, ever obedient, spread her legs half an inch wider, permitting access, as if he'd asked, as though Miguel was entitled. He felt her straining towards him, straining for more, to be touched in some place that he hasn't yet reached, but he was desperately close.

"Paano ba kayo nagkakilala?" He removed his hand, squeezing her thighs, massaging the flesh there, intead. Lyna sat up, straightening her back, her eyes glinting suddenly cruel.

"Noong high school. Girlfriend ko siya." Her tongue flicked over thin lips and Miguel was kissing her, smothering her, trying to find Manda out, trying to breathe out the many times Manda had called him kuya, soothed him with that voice, ruffled his hair, or never really looked at him.

06 Mayo 2012

A Scene From the End of the World

When the Globe subscription messages flooded his inbox, they drowned the messages his wife left two hours previous and at no point on the long bus ride home did Kiko manage to stay awake long enough to read them, let alone reply. When he explained the predicament at home, during the cold dinner, his wife eyed him from behind two near-empty bottles of banana and tomato catsup and the squat container of patis, summarily displeased and shamefaced for having worried over nothing. She felt herself entitled to the sullen, heavy silence. Trina planned to dispel it with dessert: a slice of leche flan she managed to save because the persistent, slanting rain drove her customers to seek shelter underneath more solid roof than her road-side carinderia could offer. She offered it to her husband on a thin aluminum tray with a small smile that, she felt, more than made up for her nagging.

The couple enjoyed the frail minutes that bridged the haphazardly reconstructed intimacy between them until Kiko's phone rang with another message and Trina hauled herself off to wash the plates.     

GLOBE Subscribers, text "mysins" space "pangalan" space "mga kasalanan mo" to 2332; For SMART Subscribers, text "kasalananko" space "pangalan" space "mga kasalanan mo" to 2728. 
Lately, the messages had doubled. From twice a week, they came in droves almost hourly. Both companies had pointedly refused to address the issue, claiming they reported the news, as usual. No more, no less. Trina's own mobile tinkled in a corner. But they had talked about it for months, it was no longer worthy of any further conversation. It almost made her angry. Obediently, she texted:
MySins Trina Santiago galit sa asawa dahil hindi na kami nag-uusap.
The reply came almost immediately:
Thank you! Please pray 2 Hail Marys and 1 Glory Be.
When the first few messages arrived a month ago, Trina and Kiko talked of nothing else. Aside from an uneasy alliance against McDonald's deep fried chicken, they together shunned the occult, the terrifying, and everything that didn't fit with the morality they grew up with. They knew that what had pushed and kept them together was the gravitational pull of simple geography. Trina grew up three streets away, in the same subdivision in the same city and they blew into each other's lives effortlessly. Soon, they tangled their legs together underneath the same sheets, upon the same mattress, and felt their lives complete. Everything else was a roadblock, cheap entertainment they enjoyed, together, from a safe distance. So when, inevitably, Kiko's phone rang again, he ignored it completely, opting to enjoy the leche flan.

It was Trina, left at home to run her carinderia, who first tried Electronic Confession or TextConfess. It was easy. She texted everything: how she glowered, rustled, felt humiliated when her husband went to work without eating the breakfast she prepared him, although she knew he would be late; how she began flirting with the construction workers who regularly ate the soft rice she cooked fresh for lunch, who came back for merienda and her sweet kamote-que; how she sometimes wished her husband would feel uneasy -- even lonely -- if she didn't message him her loud little reminders like mag-uwi ka ng bigas, kulang na ako. After a few days, she even messaged the long-forgotten sins she buried and lost, that formed the core of her grave and honest dissatisfaction:
MySins Trina Santiago Ayokong kausap ang asawa ko at hindi niya alam.
The reply was swift and clear:
Thank you! Please pray 2 Hail Marys and 1 Glory Be.
By now she had prayed more than a hundred Hail Marys and had begun to question if God would doubt the sincerity of her confession if all she did for penance was pray. Trina felt relieved regardless of her misgivings. Once, she asked if everything she confessed had been grave sins, would she land in hell? The question mark must have thrown off the system because the reply was garbled and two hours late. Still, she enjoyed hearing her phone laugh, tinkle, and bray for her attention. If no one was listening out there, at least she felt a little thrill listening to the incoming message, encouraging the fire of hope that it was Kiko who would message, although he never did.

Kiko, on the other hand, had steadfastly ignored all the messages, deleting them one after the other as soon as they came. He didn't believe in them and he felt offended by reading them. Dalawang linggo, the messages all trilled, two weeks until the end of the world! They were advertising it like a concert or an event, the messages as pervasive as the rallying call for help during calamities. Convinced everything was an elaborate hoax, Kiko was quick to ridicule but when he came home one night, his wife's mobile alarmed thrice, the same beeping that he associated with the persistent subscriber texts. He read the same text calling for 2 Hail Marys from at least ten different messages sent throughout the long day. He felt betrayed and alone, exactly as Trina wanted but it passed when he read the messages she sent out. Each sin accounted for, each sin a little trophy gleaming, each sin made him smile at the silliness of his wife and the impossibly small life she led.

When she finally sat down opposite him, a plate of dinner perfectly set before him, Kiko could not suppress a laugh. Anong nakakatawa? Trina asked, surprised, her eyes narrowed into suspicious slits. They talked about everything, everything, everything until Trina was laughing, too. 

Rehashing the same concept as Half Asleep with different characters. I'm planning on rewriting Half Asleep later on, into longer fiction that doesn't feel as abrupt or as sex-centered.

05 Mayo 2012

Breaking Fast

For Jone, breakfast meant two fruits eaten hurriedly in the bus on the way to school. He took a bite of his apple as each busmate clambered aboard, their strollers smacked against the welded steel step, each note hung and rippled in the 6am air, still cool and untroubled with adult panic. Today, when he unzipped his lunchbox, he found two fist-sized fruits, roughly shaped like apples.

Still alone in, Jone unwrapped the fruits as he lurched with the hulking school bus towards the near-empty highway. But when he saw what his mother packed for breakfast, he cocked his head, his eyes wide and disbelieving. The hair on his arms froze and frizzled with tension and excitement because what he held in his hands, no boy his age had ever tasted.

The round thing collapsed on his lap, still damp and slick from the harvest, and between forefinger and thumb, Jone squeezed it gently, the bright film of skin suddenly concave and he held a small crescent moon in his hands, cradling it against the flesh of his thumbs. It must be damped, Jone mused, from the rain last night. His mother had finished burying the last meat bags of fertilizer late last night. He had seen the slim rope from which his mother hung the dung bags to dry and the brown, flat grass she killed walking in circles half the night. When she finally settled down beside him, Jone had felt large red ants crawl down his neck and, peacefully, out the window.

Good night, anak. Jone's mother whispered before closing her eyes. Jone remembered asking, san na si Pa? His father's habit of coming home later than promised had become a constant source of arguments whispered during Saturday morning breakfast, before Jone was supposed to wake up. He heard it all, anyway. Their voices trailed from the kitchen into the family bedroom where Jone slept with one ear pressed into the pillow, an arm thrown over his head.

Wala pa siya. But Jone had heard the crunch of gravel, his mother's furious hissing like a covered iron pot lid trembling above boiling stew; the tinkling sound of his mother's hysterics outside in the lawn had long ago woven itself into Jone's experience of domestic life, early on established as the herald to his father's arrival. Still, he didn't fall asleep. He heard a curious clunking sound -- something metallic and heavy upon something blunt and large.

It wasn't strange that his mother attended to her favorite garden at all hours of the day or night. In fact, it was typical and therapeutic. It kept the crazy outside, concentrated among the weeds and the drying grass. It was among his mother's tall fruit trees that bore his breakfast everyday. Jone's mother regularly hung bags of meat to attract bats, moths, and cats, believing that the trees needed the company. The sack of meat sometimes thudded against the window panes, squelching when it rained, picked clean by the bats and the cats. But the trees never failed to flower and provide sweet fruit so Jone never questioned his mother's peculiar gardening techniques. 

Jone quietly shoved the thing back into his lunchbox. It was ripe and he should probably eat it soon but it had begun to rain and he looked out the window, counting the cars stuck in traffic. They had only picked up three other busmates and they were all preoccupied with the storm. Outside, he watched another busmate upon the shoulder of his tall father. The rain and wind only blasted more insistently, rocking the bus on its wheels. The air soured, pungent with the smell of the old plastic, a tire waiting in the corner, school books and paper, and Jone could smell everyone's breath in each of his own. His busmate's father opened the door of the school bus and pushed their busmate in. Another stroller quickly followed and with the cold wind and strangely sweet rain on his cheeks, Jone quietly watched the older man stride back to his house. Their bus rumbled on.

 Matulog ka na. When she turned away from him, Jone could no longer sleep or ignore the curiosity. Akala ko narinig ko na siya, Jone said to his mother as he lay tucked in bed, his arms aching from growing bones, and his feet snug underneath two pillows. Nasa baba siya, pero di yata siya matutulog dito.Jone's mother tucked him against her. She smelled like honey and vinegar, the curious, thick liquid she gulped before sleeping and directly after waking.

Jone felt his stomach growl. He had been hugging his lunchbox to his chest but he had to eat his breakfast. His mother would scold him later on if he did not. Gulping sour air, he took the first clumsily rewrapped fruit in his hands and peeled back the tissue paper. His mother must have plucked it straight off the tree, hacked it clean with one of her long, shrewd, sharp knives. It resembled a dwarfed santol in his hands and the giant eyeball glistened wetly. Jone would have liked to show it off but he felt it slipping in his fingers, sticky from some sweet paste he guessed must have been honey. When he bit into it, it tasted almost exactly like almonds and it melted in his mouth like gelatin.

04 Mayo 2012

Hollow Bones

By 15, Sonia was used to the early-morning hunger, comfortable and dependent on its persistent clawing to wake her up every morning. Impressively regular and exact, she felt the first warning grumbles everyday at exactly half-past five in the morning giving her ample time to ready herself for school. That particular morning, Sonia left for school ravenous and eager for mid-morning recess period to wolf down a sandwich and though her stomach settled nicely after three glasses of water, she felt a distinct and unruly hunger that refused to ebb away.

In class, Sonia, first, felt light-headed. The harder she tried to concentrate, the more her thoughts escaped and she struggled to understand the lessons. The sensation was akin to a large, airy room. Stranded in the middle, Sonia looked up at the vaulted ceiling, her arms outstretched towards the blue sky, embracing the clouds. It was summer, summer, summer, she mumbled, scribbling down notes and hanging on to her teacher's every word. 

"Sonia?" Teresa shook her awake. She had fallen asleep and didn't hear the bell release them for recess. "Are you okay? Namumutla ka." Teresa bent over her, feeling first her pulse and then laying a heavy, brown hand on her forehead. "Hindi ka naman nilalagnat." Teresa, like all the other girls, felt obliged to exercise their maternal feelings and skills early on and even now, Sonia felt Teresa reform her face into a passable replica of her own mother's worried scowl. "Masakit ba ulo mo?

Sonia stood and shook her head. The ground was a thousand feet below her and her narrow vision seemed cramped with color, shapes, Teresa pressed close upon her like a moist cotton cloth. "Gutom lang siguro," Sonia said, although she had never felt lighter, less substantial somewhat. She tried to walk but she found she could barely land on her feet, her bones had somehow become hollow. 

It happened quickly, before she could cry, because somehow her bones had been hollowed out by all her unanswered hunger. It must have been the acid that melted that marrow in her bones. What did it matter? Sonia found herself floating, light as a feather, her shadow three and a half shades lighter, just as she was. She floated out the window and was never found. 

An interpretation of Sarah Geneblazo's The Immortal Bird

03 Mayo 2012

Maria and the Manananggal

She knew the windows were open to invite any wayward summer breeze but the sharp, scraping noise she heard in her half-sleep could not have come from her door or any other door in their house. It was a regular, rhythmic tapping, almost knocking to get in, but it was coming from above her, from outside and Maria felt a cool breeze on her legs, on the sweaty nape of her neck, and on her arms and face. She also heard, in the intervals between the tapping, a dull beating as of large wings straining somewhere close by. All this, Maria felt, were part of her dream and she regarded them with wariness and a little annoyance because, at ten years old, she was still afraid of 3am, the witching hour, and the monsters that crawled out to feast. When the girl opened her eyes, she lay still, barely breathing, to listen to the noise. It was still there. She had turned towards the wall, facing black shadow, so her eyes adjusted slowly to the dimness.

Maria stretched a little, turning over in the process, yawning. There was a fine breeze tonight, and sweet, carrying the baby scent from next door where a young infant had recently take residence. Their neighbor Ate Sita had come home from the hospital two weeks before. To keep her child cool, she had thrown open all their windows, too so Maria often saw her during the early evenings, rocking little Tonyo to sleep. Their houses cramped together along a short street, more than the baby's cries carried over on each sporadic breath of wind and Maria had grown as familiar with the baby as its mother.

The little girl inhaled, the sweet dust tickling her nose and she finally opened her eyes, blinking, to see a face more than half-hidden in thick shadow, staring down at her with large, yellow eyes. A manananggal! Maria would have screamed if the monster hadn't wrapped its long, rough tongue around her head, gagging and almost choking her.

It was a man -- or half a man, she couldn't see his legs -- struggling to keep from falling as he bobbed up and down, grasping her window grills. From where she crouched on her bed, unable to run or call for help, she saw that one of his wings bent at an odd angle. He kept it unmoving, still, in the air.

"Wag ka matakot." The Manananggal said. "Hindi ako kumakain ng bata!" Even with his tongue occupied, he seemed perfectly capable of speaking properly.

The Manananggal was pale and tired, Maria could see that from the way he slumped, resting on the narrow window ledge, beads of sweat dotted his high forehead. From the warm, yellow glow of the street lamp below, she could see he had grown pale from his effort to hang on to the grill.

Maria shook her head and sat down, obedient. It was the first time she saw a Manananggal and, since she had no previous experience with them, she knew only to trust him. After all, he was hurt, and he wouldn't eat her. The little girl figured there was nothing to fear.

"You're hurt." She said, when he uncoiled his dexterous tongue and allowed her to speak. "I can help."

The Manananggal looked at her, dubious. It was apparent he didn't want to trust her but, as he was stranded on her ledge, he had no choice.

"O sige. Na-sprain yata yung isang pakpak." He explained. "Kaya ko sigurong ayusin pero pagod na pagod na ako."

Maria pulled him towards the far end of the windows, a fire escape that had been shut with a heavy lock. The girl fished the keys from a box on her dresser and stood back to let the Manananggal crawl through. He fell with a crash on her bed, the springs noisy underneath the unfamiliar weight. The girl walked around him as he lay, panting, on her sheets. She brought him the glass of water her mother kept by her bedside, in case she needed a drink in the middle of the night. The Mananggal drank it in one swallow. He flopped onto his belly and tugged at his wings, grimacing.

"Sumabit yata sa puno ng mangga niyo. Hindi ko kasi nakita." 

"San ka galing?" Maria asked, running a hand down his uninjured left wing. It felt like softest leather, supple and strong, but stretched taut and thin across fine, hollow bones. She thought he was like a bird, a giant bird of prey. The Manananggal didn't answer, choosing instead to concentrate on his wing. He had an ugly look as he gingerly felt two, fine fingers along the wing, checking for breaks. Finally, he took a deep breath and, releasing it slowly, the Manananggal stretched and soothed the muscles along his back, easing the tension.

"Okay lang yata ako, mahapdi pa rin. May sugat at malaking pasa sa likod." He said as Maria blinked at him, chinky-eyed, her face round and soft, reflecting the silver moon. The girl crawled up beside him and was asleep before the Mananaggal could crawl into a proper hiding place.

In the morning, when her mother came to wake her up, she will find her daughter, Maria, dusty from crawling underneath the bed.

02 Mayo 2012


"Hindi naman siya malaking problema."

When Gela snickered, Trina blushed and rushed to explain: "I didn't mean it that way, loka!" 

The girls stood underneath Manong Timbo's dirty umbrella, eating their afternoon snack. Gela sucked a stray piece of breastmeat from between her teeth while Trina recounted her story. 

"Naghahalikan na kami e," Trina said. Instead of sweetened vinegar, she chose the spicy sauce to compliment her second stick of breastmeat. Gela noticed that. Trina tended to eat more when she was anxious, like the time she wolfed down two servings of rice during her first date with Rich. "Alam mo yun?" A rhetorical question. Gela nodded silently, urging her to continue as she swatted flies away from her legs. "Tas, yun. Magth-third base na dapat kami. Biglang -- ayoko pala. Nakakadire tignan!" Gela frowned.

"Kuya," She took another stick from Timbo's cart. "Isa pa, ah." Gela's eyes scanned Manong Timbo's greasy cart. Among his regular fare -- fishballs, squidballs, kikiam, bright red hotdogs -- he also served breastmeat, mermaid eyes, and some TTQs. The breastmeat was golden brown, the skin crispy, thin, and so delicate he served them on small paper plates to catch sweetest honeyed mermaid mik. The TTQ, on the other hand, were gruesome. Probably salvaged from last month's meat rain, Gela could tell -- just by looking -- that the reconstituted meat was dry and hard. Most of it must have been fried at least twice before being hauled out and reserved now. Gela and Trina stayed away from the dubious meat but, as the girl stared, a brilliant idea occurred. Instead of taking another stick of breastmeat, she asked the manong for three large pieces of kikiam. 

That should be enough, Gela thought, while Trina munched thoughtfully, chewing on her problem.
"Hindi ko alam na mandidire pa ako. I mean -- palagi naman nating napag-uusapan."

"Halika na." Gela pulled her inside their house. In the living room, she made Trina sit on the floor and handed her one of the sticks of kikiam. "Magpractice ka." Gela held out the two extra she brought. "Sasabayan kita." She held out the other stick. "May extra pa kung kulang." The girl urged her friend to take the meat in her mouth, showing her what to do with her tongue, how to use her lips.

01 Mayo 2012

The Soul Seller's Wife

It was the big day and Tino was running late. After hurriedly pulling on his pants, socks, and his leather shoes, he spared his reflection half a glance. He couldn't even think properly; his mind buzzed with blurred, half-remembered images and his wife's voice: don't forget your car keys! I prepared the documents for you -- Tino spun around, quickly dropping to his knees and checking under the bed for the slim brown envelope with his files. It wasn't on the bedside table, their marriage bed was a mess, it was nowhere in the room. I left it in the car so you wouldn't forget. Tino dashed out of the room and clambered down the stairs, nearly tripping over his large feet.

Just below the steep spiral stairs, his wife Gina stood waiting with a half-strained smile. The beads of sweat that marred her smooth forehead proof of how much stress and anxiety she felt. It was almost half-past eight and Tino's appointment was at ten in the city. It was a Monday so Gina expected heavy traffic, even after rush hour.

"Aalis na'ko" Tino said, by way of greeting. He gave her a quick kiss and, for a long second, laid his hand on her swollen belly, while drinking the juice she prepared, ignoring the rest of his cold breakfast. "Sana matanggap!"

"Galingan mo!" Gina called after him, sitting back down on the breakfast table. From the window beside her, she observed her husband drive off, their car trailing dark smoke and dust. Smiling serenely, the wife waved her husband off, even though she was aware he probably didn't see her. Tino missed the satisfied smile and the way she craned over the ledge, peeking between the precariously balanced potted plants, as though unwilling to let him out of her sight.

It was a short drive to the bank and on the way, Tino thought of nothing and no one else but Clara, his girlfriend, who was waiting for him after the appointment. They agreed to meet at their usual hotel. Lotus Flower Gardens was a tall building at the corner of a previously much-used highway. Cheap carinderias surrounded the vicinity. Abandoned shops gave off a foul odor -- decaying wood, rat droppings, and rotting meat -- that swept down the street with each gust of wind. Good thing all the Lotus' rooms were completely airconditioned, the windows hung with heavy curtains. In room 1L20B, Clara would wait for him to get back from the bank.

For once, his wife overestimated traffic and he arrived at the bank with half an hour to spare. The bank was near the Lotus -- only another ten minutes away -- and Tino rushed inside, already anticipating his time with Clara. She was only twenty-two, after all, and game for anything. In fact, she was responsible for setting up most of their meetings and rendezvous. She told him she liked him. Younger women nowadays didn't shy away from chance encounters or purely physical relationships. In fact, Tino mused, they had acquired a very male perspective on sex and love.

"Pare," Clara was fond of saying. "Hanggang kama lang tayo, okay? Bawal ang problema dito." She kicked off the thin blanket, her heavy breasts swaying. God, he loved those things. He loved the weight of them. Clara moved closer, spreading her legs, and pulling him on top of her. When she found him only half-hard, the girl pushed him up and tickled him with her mouth, her warm tongue sinfully sweet.

Tino couldn't wait. Woefully hidden behind a towering Chinese restaurant, the gray bank building cowered from the street and deep in the shade of three large Balete trees. Within, Mina, his wife's sister, greeted him with her usual frosty smile.

"Ang aga mo, ah." Mina had disliked him ever since her younger sister came home, headstrong and willful, declaring that she intended to marry him for the sake of their first unborn child. She was eighteen and their family's youngest. Mina, as the eldest daughter, felt duty-bound to disapprove of their relationship. Although Tino had never felt obliged to win her favor ("Bakit ba? Ginusto rin naman ni Gina, ah"), now he trod on thin ice. Mina was Assistant Branch Manager. And, that morning, aside from the guards, she was alone.

"Do you have the forms?" She used her bank-officer voice on him. She acquired an American accent during her training and she used it often when she wanted to impress her clients. Tino was familiar with it only because she slipped into the same voice during family gatherings to impress their older relatives.

Tino handed over the completed Soul Loan forms that his wife filled out for him. Mina looked them over but she frowned. "Sigurado ka ba rito?" He nodded.

"Yan yung sabi ni Gina, 'eh. May problema ba?" He asked, concerned. Tino hoped everything was in order. He wanted to finish as soon as possible.

"Wala naman. Halika na."

"Teka, ikaw na gagawa?" Mina was a small woman who complained of back pain. The Soul Removal Procedure, they said, was a fairly quick process but it required two strong men. One to hold down the patient while the other performed the operation. So it was with a lot of doubt that Tino followed Mina through a doorway to the backroom, formerly a storage facility, it had been transformed into a clean and sterile environment. Tino inhaled the smell of mothballs.

"Higa ka lang." Mina pointed to the uncomfortable-looking operating table. It had been covered with a white sheet, all ready for him.

"Matagal ba 'to?"

Mina didn't answer him. She pulled on long gloves and pushed back her long hair. For Tino, she looked especially plain. His wife, Gina, was made special only by her long lashes and plump lips. When she pouted, Tino's heart melted away but looking at Mina -- who looked enough like his wife -- had the opposite effect. He felt himself losing his temper. That was the effect of ordinary-looking women: it was a reminder, for him, of everything that could go wrong, of all the little inconsistencies of life. It was already half-past nine, he wanted to leave.

"Mabilis lang, wag ka mag-alala." Mina's cold hands were around his neck. "Huwag ka mag-alala. Relax lang." Clara never had cold hands. When she wrapped them around his neck like this, her hands were warm and soft, caressing him. She never touched his face but when she held him firm, Tino sighed. Her hands were warm, her fingers long, and she smiled at him like she liked how he looked lying prone beneath her. But it wasn't Clara now; Mina ran her hands over his eyes.

"Ngayon. Think happy thoughts." At her command, he summoned a picture of Clara, naked, grinning on the bed in their motel room. Almost immediately, his memory failed and Clara seemed to disappear. No -- Tino could see her, still, but she was another person. She was Clara but he didn't know her, felt nothing for her, imagining her usually roused him, elicited some form of excitement. Instead, he felt a strange calm so deep, he could not fathom its bottom or where it came from or how he was stranded in the middle of a desert. It felt like nothing; from all sides, nothing came through and nothing touched him. Tino felt subdued, like a pillow had been pressed upon him from all sides. He saw everything as clearly -- gathered the memories in his hands -- but it was like walking through someone else's house: he recognized everything but nothing carried the weight of meaning. He was complete, he had all his memories, but he felt light as a feather. There was nothing, nothing, he was being suffocated, he was alone in everything.

Confused, Tino opened his eyes just as Mina was poised to remov the needle. "Huwag kang gumalaw kundi mapuputol yung karayom!" Buried deep in his flesh, he saw something bright green seep from the wound. Mina waited a few minutes after she removed the first needle and injecting a new one.

"Tignan natin. Ang saya-saya mo naman pala, Tino." She smirked.


"Ang dami, oh."

Mina held up a jarful of water. It was half-full. Is that what souls looked like? Tino felt no different. He thought he would feel lighter or less human.

"Ganyan pala ang kaluluwa." He mused aloud, scratching the area around his wound.

"Hindi. Kung nagpa Soul Loan ka, nilalagay namin sa box yung soul mo. Mas madaling i-mail 'eh." A heavy feeling of dread began to form at the bottom of his stomach as the statement sank in. Mina was busy arranging the small laboratory, labeling Tino's jar, and returning the gloves. Somehow, the fear and doubt became full-fledged panic and fright, something he hadn't felt since he was very young, a boy who understood very little. The primal fear burst to the surface, screaming in his mind, something went wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and it was all he could do to bite back from shouting.

"Teka, pero nag Soul Loan nga ako."

Mina stopped polishing the equipment and pushed Tino out of the room. In the front area, she gave him a receipt to hand to their tellers -- who had all arrived at some point during their short operation. Mina looked at him strangely, her drawn eyebrow high on her forehead. She shook her head and waved him to the row of tellers. Before he handed over the receipt, he saw that it read: Emotion: Happiness -- Php 5,000.00 only.

He followed Mina to her table, the anger boiling over. He slammed the receipt on her desk, unable to hold back. "Ano 'to, ano 'to, ano 'to?"


I decided to write another story with the same concept as Sold. Eventually, I hope to produce at least five stories from the same idea.