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.