24 Setyembre 2012

Midnight Snack

Six meters long, five meters wide, and as marginally empty as her mother’s old bags. Pap removed two boxes of them, strappy saddle-stitched things hard and enduring, all brown and all business. The room retained an old room smell: aged leather, the aroma of damp fur, insect droppings, and paint baked in the sun of a hundred undisturbed afternoons. It was like breathing through blankets.

Maria’s head spun, her father coughed, and both were convinced they must pry open the windows to invite the breeze. Maria’s new room needed the Sunday afternoon scent tangled in the boughs of twin mango trees fighting for sun and completely obscuring any view from the windows.

The small room had acquired the habit of becoming indispensible for disappearing or appearing whenever necessary. It served first as Mam’s home office. Long before that, when Maria’s paternal grandparents owned the house, the room had been decorated as a second sala –slim saloon doors swinging on hinges, heavy couches carved from driftwood, plates of kakanin or sticky sweet rice desserts on the floor – where her father and his brothers spent long afternoons feigning sleep. Now, during one of the hottest tropical summers the Abante family had ever experienced, their eldest daughter Maria claimed it for her tenth birthday.

Two weeks before, 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 shot her a glance filled with pride and the tremulous anxiety of being left behind. He looked upon Maria’s glassy face boiling under his stare. She stabbed her omelet and nibbled her toast spread with cheese. More than the inevitable recognition of his daughter’s selfhood, it was the physical separation and the fact of her wanting to tear herself away that punched a hole into his gut. It was nothing he could recognize because how can his baby want her own room? Then he stared at his sons fighting over the jam jar. Straining to regain his nonchalance as a detached father, head of the family, bastion of logic, and supreme judge, Maria’s father nodded and allowed himself a small smile. Isang dekada na nga pala, her father said. Without another word, he pointed her towards the dishes piled in the sink, her prescribed after-dinner chore.

Pap attached a bow to the door and surrendered the keys to his daughter in the presence of his sons para alam nila, he said, looking down at Abe and Ino. The seven year old boys grinned twin promises of sabotage, monster tricks, and taunting. It was, after all, a big day for them, too: another room, another hiding place. He cuffed them gently and the blow sent them spinning across the hallway, down the stairs, and into the shady backyard. Within, Maria and her father listened to the trees growing, inch by inch, in a silent invasion of the sky.

The room was very dim, the way it should be, she thought. Maria’s father stripped off gray curtains, handed her a damp rag, and pointed to the grimy windows. 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.

When her father left to find kuya Pip, Maria walked all over the room, measuring it in strides, She accurately figured she needed only six seconds and three long leaps to make it to the door and down the hall, 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 their large bed, lumpy and forgiving.

One—Maria ran out the door.

Two—three—four. She passed the bathroom.

Five. A breath, she lunged.

Six! She made it to the edge of her brother’s identical cots squeezed together between bed and wall. Ten seconds. She could return in six seconds. Maria grinned at the thought. Maria? Mara! Her father called from the bottom of the stairs. Show Kuya Pip where you’d like your bed.  

Kuya Pip, the gardener, also repaired their stove, restored the broken cabinet doors, took apart simple appliances, and tinkered with her father’s motorbike. Kuya Pip’s favorite sport, however, was staring up at the mango trees growing around their house. There had been seven – three at the back and two on either side – but only five survived her brothers. They jumped and swayed from its branches, built a tree-house in one and attached a tire-swing on the other; they disturbed the birds, picked unripe mangoes, and shook the trees bare.

Ayaw pa rin! Kuya Pip strained against the welded steel window grilles, 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 Maria’s low-ceilinged, faded lavender room with a dusty mirror hanging behind the door. Maria’s sturdy bed stood on one end, directly underneath the lowest part of the ceiling. 

Red-faced and snarling with effort, Kuya Pip heaved. The windows remained shut. The grills threw narrow shadows on the floor where Kuya Pip’s tool box sat heavy and full. He breathed through his wide-open mouth, one deep lungful after another, sucking in air, eating the dust. He seemed to shrink into the wooden floor. Kuya Pip groaned and coughed until, finally, the first two window panes swung free. He hooted, slapped his thighs, straightened his back, and eased the rest of the windows open with a flat-headed screwdriver. Outside, the sun retreated behind the trees.

Kuya Pip unscrewed and retired the grilles from her windows. Where once welded iron, slender, smooth, and painted dark blue, had been hammered into tough wooden walls, Maria saw only yellowing plaster painted brown. Once we get these opened, Mara, don’t ever close these windows, her father had warned. He was the only person who used that name.

Cabinet doors checked and bed assembled, Kuya Pip sat on its naked steel beams and slowly drained a long, sweating glass of water that Maria brought. Outside, the sun hung from charcoal branches. A breeze cooled them both and brought the taste of overripe mangoes and rotting flesh.

Mukhang excited ka na. Kuya Pip spoke in phrases, nods, and whistles. He blew a long, low note to the wind and caught Maria around her waist. He pulled the girl into a light embrace. Opo. Maria sat on his knees, her body leaning out. The gardener, in a white undershirt with his head shaved clean and arms decorated by long white scars, ran a hand through her hair and arranged it around her face. Maria watched blank eyes collapse, first, into bewilderment. Next, they darkened with fear. Finally, Kuya Pip? Her voice broke. Kuya Pip stood, eyes downcast, and shuffled out. Teka, Dai, tinatawag yata ako ng papa mo. Don’t, kuya, she said, hurrying after him. Too late. Maria stopped at the top of the stairs, craned over the banister, heard the crash of something breaking, the scuffle of a fight, and the muted clash of bone on bone.

Nakawala nanaman! Her father’s shout echoed up the stairs and chased her down the hall. Past an altar heavy with Saints, she flew into her empty room and shut the door against the rising sulfurous stench.


Her mother came too early to tuck her in. Ang kukulit ng mga kapatid mo. Maria climbed into bed; her mother sat at the edge, unfolding a thin blanket. Hindi ka raw makakatulog. A clumsy cluster of galaxies on the wall glowed where Maria arranged them on the low ceiling. She allowed her mother to pile pillows all around her and kiss her goodnight but when her mother closed the door and the darkness was complete, Maria climbed out of bed towards the windows.

Maria lay awake until 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. 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 polished plates but her mother stacked it full of picture books, heavy encyclopedias, and colorful bilingual dictionaries. Its glass doors slid uneasily and screeched loudly in the dimness. As soon as she could slip a hand through, Maria retrieved a slim volume and tiptoed back to her room.

She closed her door and turned on the light, a luxury to relish. Maria soon came to associate solitude and, in turn, loneliness with bright, airy spaces, the hum of an electric fan, and a particular shade of lavender. 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.

The rustling began at half-past midnight. Leaves trembled on groaning branches; the noises came from deep in the wood, from some straining core. Straight-backed and sweating, Maria leaned against warm walls reading the storybook she fished from the cabinet when something wet brushed against the nape of her neck and she swatted at the flies that buzzed about her ears. Her hand came away sticky, stained the color of her brother’s open wounds. 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. The ten-year-old turned, saw the trembling branch, and leaned out of the window. The mango trees were silent.

A cool, rancid breath. A sharp, intrusive poke. Something wet crept around her neck. A tongue? Without hesitation, Maria reached back and yanked. A weight shuddered and rocked the upper branches. The girl pulled until something gagged and coughed. A low moan, the air shifted, a shower of leaves, splintered moonlight. The stink and cold of new-hung meat and entrails. A man fell, completely silent, without crying for help or absolution.

Hands cupped over her mouth and eyes watering, Maria could not cry out, bolt from her perch, duck her head, or disengage herself from the sight of a bare-chested man sprawled on the twined limbs of their twin mango trees whose rustling ceased as though content to shelter him. Maria breathed air fanned by wings.

Damp hair nestled twigs. Eyes grew large with silver light. He looked almost peaceful. But a stink irrevocably emanated from him and the ragged flesh that hung loose about his belly, the stretched and burnt skin of his naked, featherless wide wings spread out limp. Straining to hold its shape, his wings looked unhurt.

Never mind the wings, here was a shirtless man. He was a creature from the almost-grown-girl’s imagination and, for a while, Maria could not force herself to examine his nakedness. Well trained, Maria covered her eyes with her fingers until she felt something cold and wet lift them away 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. Hindi mo ba ako tutulungan? His efforts to convince the girl he was essentially harmless spoilt only by a row of narrow, sharp teeth and an exhalation of breath, a sigh that choked her. Tao po? He spoke with guttural, monosyllabic words pushed out with a long disused voice, cracked and splintered as he ran out of breath. Natamaan ako ng ligaw na bala, he said, crawling closer on his hands. The admission barely resembled a call for help. One wing folded back; the other a tent of flesh. That was the stink. Shifting his weight on the branch, Tomil turned to show her a bright red wound the color of tomatoes or her mother’s least favorite lipstick. She stared at the place where left wing met shoulder, the jagged mouth of a wound. Wings fluttered and creaked. I’m injured, he repeated. Hindi kita sasaktan, kailangan ko lang magpahinga. Maria kept firmly shut her watering mouth and moved aside.

Although he fumbled and scratched himself, Tomil moved swiftly into her room; he slid from the window, dropped a foot, and landed on the bed with a dull flop and a groan. His wound began to bleed, the flesh stretched anew. Maria latched her windows, trapped Tomil’s stink and the sound of his breathing. Maria’s lavender room shrank with the withered man upon her bed. It remained a bare room that did not echo. Maria arranged Tomil as carefully as she could: she kept his head elevated, wings propped on several cushions. She left him to return with an armful of blankets, a towel, a long shirt, cotton balls, and medicine. Tomil lay on his belly while she massaged the joints of his wings and cleaned them where she could.

From among the books she read, Maria had seen pictures of wounded animals and, sometimes, wounded people. Her mother’s guide to 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, well-bandaged wounds. The manananggal reminded her of birds, although his wings were scaly and fine, like leather. Her hands were small and clumsy, at first, but it was a 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.

She knelt on the floor to stare at what remained of his hips, to feel the dangling intestines with her fingers. San ka galing, Maria asked, unused to Tomil’s staring. With his lips he indicated the east and the rough vicinity of a shantytown established near the highway.

Maria 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 brothers with their high voices, suspended from one or both mango trees, and brown as baked bread. Tomil seemed another creation and completely new and something Maria felt entitled to receive. She didn’t bother to police ecstatic thoughts: why else did he fall out of the sky?

Tomil finally released a clattering breath rancid with decay.  He shifted his position on her bed and leaned 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. Afterall, an aswang fell out of the sky and into her bedroom.

Tomil had begun to snore when Maria returned from the bathroom, an entire roll of gauze in her hands. She bandaged the wound and only when she finished did Tomil open his eyes and smoothed the white swathe of gauze at his side. Hindi na sana kailangan, madali naman ako gumaling. 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. She ran her hands gently upon the membrane, and fondled the ridges and fingers. Na-sprain yata yung pakpak mo. She massaged the joints, spread lotion and medicine. Mint and honey mingled with the scent of decay and meat. Maria giggled. I read about these wings in my books, she said, 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. Tomil grinned. His gums the bristling bright red of a traffic light. Sweet girl, he murmured. Her smile was wide.

Maria’s breath and the sweet milk scent of her body seeped into the bed and its sheets like heat. The girl settled on the floor, her bare legs white against worn wood. Delicious, fresh, and warm. Lulled by her nearness, Tomil swooned and fell fast asleep.


Magigising yan, huwag ka maingay!

Ikaw kaya!

Quiet, nakikinig siya. Gising ka na ba?

It wasn’t his collision with the mango tree—Tomil grabbed hold or branches that reached out to him with equal panic, his hands slipped until they held on, splinters lodged deep into his palms—or the prolonged racket he made while resting against the boughs that woke Maria’s brothers. It was Tomil’s wretched stink that seeped out of Maria’s room when she left the door ajar that crept into the house. Abe and Ino dreamt of burnt things and flesh in bruised colors, sisig cooking in too much oil, the head of a stuffed pig with its cheeks carved out.

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 and arms akimbo. Abe, a boy of six or seven, knelt to stare into Tomil’s yellow eyes when the manananggal woke. A dog barked, he thought. He heard a rusty gate open. It was hot out but Maria’s room kept its shadows, preferred the dark and its dust. Ino sat at the edge of Maria’s bed, inspecting Tomil’s chest, what little of his bones protruded from below his navel. Abe’s twin peeked and poked, his nose inches away from the rotting meat stink. Tomil shifted away, his hand on the locked window latch.

Sabi ni ate nabaril ka raw? Abe beckoned to his brother and, together, they sat opposite Tomil who rubbed his eyes.

Oo, pero mabilis ako gumaling. He stretched to reveal the bandages. Magaling na ako ngayon.

Abe nodded and turned to his brother. Gusto ko rin. Tingin mo papahiram siya ni ate? Sana.

On the other side of the door: heavy, brisk footsteps of a man who knew his destination. Tomil shivered as a cold draft blew through the open door. Muscles clenched and half-spread wings like a cornered animal ready to spring. From behind her father, Maria rushed into the room to stand between him and the manananggal whose dexterous, sharp tongue tasted the air and sampled the father’s delicate amusement. Something’s wasn’t right. Tomil’s skin prickled. The windows were still barred. Maria’s father – a middle-aged man of medium height with thin, graying curly hair and tired eyes – stepped around her towards the bed. Sandali lang. Tomil, diba? Magaling na yung sugat mo. A fist around his wrist. Takot ka? Maria’s father grinned, blew a sweet breath into his lungs, and straightened. Tomil’s vision swam.  

Kitam! I wasn’t lying, Maria insisted. Abe and Ino climbed off the bed and moved to stand on either side of their father, allegiance and judgment withheld. They left Maria alone.  

Maria, her father said, I told you never to close these windows. Tomil looked from Maria to Abe to Ino to the father who stood with his arms akimbo.

Baka kasi makawala siya, Maria replied. A half-second glance flickered towards the manananggal.

Her father continued, we will have to find his legs otherwise this stink will never go away. The boys shrieked simultaneously; the little room shook with the sound.

Gusto rin namin! Abe tugged on his father’s shirt. Kami rin!

You have Kuya Pip for now.


Same premise as Maria & the Manananggal and Summer Night

14 Setyembre 2012

Divine Intervention

At the precise moment before the stool toppled over and out of view, as he gripped rough plastic woven into thread and woven again into the rope around his neck, Ton stared at his own kicking feet and at that last second, his guardian angel jumped, shrieking, to stop him. An invisible force pushed Ton upward, suspended him in midair, safe from choking to death as the Angel hovered beneath him and between his legs, just a pair of yellow eyes and a crooked grin as though to say not again, Ton, not again. Ton eased the noose over his head and held it in his hands and he stepped off the stool, arms crossed.

Ton stood beneath the mango tree in his backyard in the space where its large roots hadn't upturned the earth, a space free of grass and moss. It was a cool space bordered on one side by the tree's massive trunk and by the concrete wall of their house on the other. It was a close space invisible from their neighbor's fence. The angel towered above him, stooping over small, middle-aged Ton standing on stubby legs, barefoot on the earth. Ton glanced up at the shadowy form above him and stared into the window of his room where, on his bed, he left a letter addressed to Manang Charing. I left a note this time, he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. The angel laughed with the same chirruping notes of a tricycle refusing to run or the noise of a young child's surprise before landing on concrete. But this time Ton was ready for him.

I'm glad you're here, he said. It was half-past five and cars gunned down the street. Incapable of full manifestation, the angel hovered like a ghost. Even in the faltering daylight, only the angel's face was truly physical: his grave energy written in long, deep lines on his brow, sagging jowls, a mirthless frown. His face and hands clasped tight, withered and aged, deep veins green like leaves ready to rot. I don't have to commit suicide if you help me.

I'm not a genie, you know. Except the angel didn't speak in a voice, he spoke with all available sound: some wind rustled, a honk extracted from some horn, the hard 'I' sound from a creaking door. I don't do wishes. He spoke in the colloquial, using the same jargon to prove that he had been there all through Ton's life. I don't do Aladdin.

I know. No wishes. Ton hadn't moved. Man and his angel stood on the same ground as the mango tree stirred. There was fruit up there, Ton smelled it in the bark and the honey-sweet smell of the sap pooling at his feet. He climbed onto the chair, the noose dangling at shoulder-height, to stare at the angel and his sad eyes, the rest of him wavering in and out of colors and sounds. There were two points of light in those eyes, like a light from far away. When Ton shivered, the chair rocked.

No more wishes from me but if I were to fall by accident, you see, then no one's to blame, least of all you. There, he had said it. It would take, he continued, only a second -- half a second, even -- while you flickered in and out of life. His guardian angel blinked. Wouldn't you like that? You'd get a vacation, a little reprieve. A short, much-needed rest. The eyes in that head were ancient and gnarled, like a dark place that had never been visited by light but Ton stared on, his own eyes watering. Ton wasn't a complicated man -- just someone who knew how to get what he wanted. He took the noose carefully in his hands, slipped it on, and waited. But the angel didn't move, didn't flicker out of sight, and there was no wind to speak of. The last thing Ton knew was the mango tree's leaves: dark green and worm-eaten, falling as though shaken, all around him. It must have been an accident, a powerful gust of wind that shook the leaves, that turned the earth, that tiniest push on the small of his back.

13 Setyembre 2012

Angel of Death

Outside in their garden, a large mango tree -- already hung with the tire swing -- spread its branches over their concrete fence, screening their backyard from view. His suicide will go unnoticed. The rope he bought three days ago from a neighbor's sari-sari store -- it was made from woven plastic, bright blue and tough -- was too long and he took a while to cut it to the length he needed using a kitchen knife. He positioned an old chair carved from a single piece of driftwood, one of the four his parents bought as a dining room set, underneath the tree in the place where its roots hadn't turned up the earth, where there was no grass, where he could see the window of his room clearly.

On his bed, which he had made up before breakfast, he left two typewritten pages stapled together addressed to the Manang Charing. She came every Wednesday and Saturday to clean the house and wash his laundry. When he was younger, she lived with his family until his sisters moved out, his parents died, and he couldn't afford her full-time services. Now she worked in the wet market gutting fish and when she to spend her days with him he often found her asleep on their couch, two pillows tucked beneath her head, her mouth slightly open, and exhaling a fishy smell.

The rope held when he tested his weight. The branch above his head was sound and did not creak. Bark chipped off and peppered his hair and shoulders but he concerned himself only with the coarse rope chaffing his skin where it lay, barbed and scabrous, around his neck. It was Friday, late in the afternoon, he had just finished his afternoon cup of coffee, the mug lay drying beside the sink. There were wet spots all over his mother's yellow kitchen. He was leaving the house in relative order -- some dirty clothes were left in the hamper, he couldn't help that, while socks and bed sheets hung over his lawn to dry. He couldn't help that. The boy thought he wanted another cup of coffee. After all, why not. When they cut him down, his teeth will be stained brown with nicotine and his moscovado sugar.

Their house was painfully the same, still dark and crammed, the walls too close and the floor was warm as ever. His father insisted on using long, white fluorescent lights and they had never been changed. When he flicked them open and they illuminated the corridor he saw his guardian angel tucked into the breakfast alcove with its circular table and its one chair for his mother. The angel was smoking a cigarette and puffs of smoke wafted towards him. It was a tobacco variant he  had never experienced and it smelled like burning tires. Maybe it was burning rubber. It was an angel, he had wings, although he faded in and out of opacity, translucent, everything about him swayed with the light, except his face and its expression like the angel wanted to shout at him, berate him within an inch of his life. The angel took on his mother's countenance and the hallway filled with the smell of river water and freshwater fish. Air wafted lazily over cold running water carrying damp sprays to wet his face.

I'm not impressive, the angel said by way of greeting, pero tignan mo naman ang sarili mo. It gritted its teeth and pursed its lips and continued to stare down at him where the angel in its fog and light formed and exploded. Tingin mo papayagan kita magpakamatay?

The angel was all light and strange shadows but when it spoke, it was a clear, high voice, like a bell ringing in a closed room. He wasn't afraid -- after all, this was his guardian angel -- and the familiar high walls of his home were a comfort. He moved towards the kitchen where he invited the entity to sit at their table, pulling back a chair and sitting opposite him. His guardian angel hovered at eye-level, his stare was yellow and slightly vacant and there was nothing that held his shifting form in place.

You're in my father's chair, you know, he said. He thought about making coffee and then decided against it.

Tingin mo ano mangyayari sa'kin kung magpakamatay ka?

I don't know. You get another person to look after? Anyway, this isn't your fault. He said. The floating angel spat clouds and dust in his direction, incessant. Hands and fingers -- long and bony riddled with veins -- moved towards him from across the table, grasping.

Madedemote ako! Mawawalan ako ng benefits. You can't do this to me! The angel settled, only glaring, it moved around the kitchen, opening drawers. It picked up forks, spoons, knives, and plates. It broke a cup and a saucer, it glared at him from a window. Mawawalan ako ng kaibigan! Magiging loser! Hindi ako sasahod! You can't do this to me!

The kitchen was the largest room in this house. Upstairs, the masters' bedroom perched directly on top opened to a terrace big enough to accommodate four or five people. Big enough, certainly, for him and his three sisters. The angel hovered next to him, reached into his mind with a hooked finger, and dragged memories of his childhood to the forefront of his mind. Here, his sister being chased by their large dog. Another: the first time he climbed the mango tree as a dare. Wala ka'ng excuse, maganda naman buhay mo.

Puwede ba, wag ka na magdrama? 

He began preparing coffee for both of them but there was only enough sugar for one cup. Do you want some coffee, he asked, because he was polite and the angel was still raging against him. You can kill me, if you want. That way, there will be no suicide. You'll do me a favor. That's why you're here, isn't it? To stop a suicide? He put the cup of coffee beside the wavering form of his guardian angel and waited.

10 Setyembre 2012

Scottish Marigold with Brown Sugar and Calamansi

Boil enough hot water for four people. (Ton) Make sure, at this juncture, that you will not drink this tea alone. Prepare colorful mugs. (Chet) If you must drink this alone, do so at dawn when the sky is aflame and there are people in the street below because, otherwise, what’s the point? (Sia)

It was called ixora, flame of the woods, but when she saw the flowers, she only thought of their strange color: half-way between red and orange, flaming but never burning out. They grew – in large, uncontainable bushes – at the base of the far wall bordering the backyard of their ancestral house in Rizal and Sia grew up plucking handfuls of tiny flowers – a brilliant bouquet in each babyish hand – to drain each flower of its nectar. The sweet, provincial soil regularly watered by rain, unrelenting sunshine, and turned by the loud, brash winds, nurtured a garden of weeds, brilliant grass, the sturdy and knotted branches of young trees. Everything grew upright and strong, each color magnified into a hundred different hues all with tinkling names. Sia’s childhood garden acquired the untamed irregularity – untrimmed trees with large spreading branches, bushes that refused to take recognizable shapes, flowers sprouted everywhere including from high upon the cracked cement walls – of the undomesticated adjacent lots and Sia enjoyed it with her bare feet. Nourished by unspoiled nectar of that garden, flowers were in her blood and their petals colored the blood in her veins so it was not surprising that Sia, who hid among the planets to breathe, pilfered her grandmother’s box of flower-tea recipes for herbal concoctions to lift her spirit.

Her grandmother’s recipe for ixora tea had been recorded by Great Uncle Ton whose family legacy, he maintained, was the swirling alphabet devised and refined throughout his career as a librarian. Curlicues embellished his letters: they swelled like the warm summer sea distressed by wind; they were fluid as salt water so that the words written in this hand floated in Sia’s memory, buoyed up in her memory by her Great Uncle’s calligraphic masterpiece.

The entire box of recipes had been penned in the same illustrious hand wielded by three different generations: Great Uncle Ton, Sia met as the large man speaking in whispers, his gurgled vociferations bubbled just below hearing so Sia sat next to him during reunions to listen to his stories; Kuya Chet, Sia’s Uncle, only a few years her elder, with large blinking eyes that glowed in the dark; and Sia, determined to bring the box of tea recipes to Manila. Although she couldn’t find half the flowers in the city – and she stole what she could from the neighbors – she found a ready supply of simple blossoms at her university and street children offered garlands of sampaguita.  

It was called ixora, flame of the woods, but when she saw the flowers, she only thought of their strange color: half-way between red and orange, flaming but never burning out. They grew – in large, uncontainable bushes – at the base of the far wall bordering the backyard of their ancestral house in Rizal and Sia grew up plucking handfuls of tiny flowers – a brilliant bouquet in each babyish hand – to drain each flower of its nectar. The sweet, provincial soil regularly watered by rain, unrelenting sunshine, and turned by the loud, brash winds, nurtured a garden of weeds, brilliant grass, the sturdy and knotted branches of young trees. Everything grew upright and strong, each color magnified into a hundred different hues all with tinkling names. Sia’s childhood garden acquired the untamed irregularity – untrimmed trees with large spreading branches, bushes that refused to take recognizable shapes, flowers sprouted everywhere including from high upon the cracked cement walls – of the undomesticated adjacent lots and Sia enjoyed it with her bare feet. Nourished by unspoiled nectar of that garden, flowers were in her blood and their petals colored the blood in her veins so it was not surprising that Sia, who hid among the planets to breathe, pilfered her grandmother’s box of flower-tea recipes for herbal concoctions to lift her spirit.

This is important: Choose a marigold bulb still on the vine but close to rotting, one filled with ants, those connoisseurs of sweetness who, like us, appreciate the taste of flaming petals. (Ton) Choose, if you find no bulb of that description, the brightest and reddest. (Sia)  

Sol held the mug by its rim, between thumb and forefinger, and the ice of the words on his tongue would not cool Sia’s honeyed-sampaguita tea. Every breath slowed his thoughts and soon he found it impossible to speak, open his eyes, or force words out of his throat. He felt the mug tip onto his lips, a steady stream crept, hissing, over his tongue and fell gracefully down his throat, burning all the way so that he felt his lungs collapse and drown, his own flesh steaming. Still he drank the sweet tea because, what else could he do?

That much he remembered. It tasted vaguely refreshing, like dew, and the heat was more than burning; it was a deep, rich rumbling kind of heat that swept away feeling and memory. In the brief six months – the highlight of their relationship – Sol never liked Sia’s provincial tea. Each cup she gave him he finished off as quickly as he could, in large gulps, the dregs from unrefined sugar sifted into his last mouthful, and he swallowed the choking as best he could. That much, he remembered and recognized as thought and insight before – here, yet more tea, more hot water, more of that sick flower smell that Sia wore on all her clothes and on her skin and in each kiss, it even tasted like her – and then Sol fought, struggled to raise his arms. He could have knocked the mug away, breathed the hot air out and lived enough to heal burnt lungs, half-drowned heart. Instead, he fell asleep, drugged, in the same way Sia, drowsy from the flowers she drained, collapsed on a bed of emerald grass to soak up the afternoon sun until she glowed pink.  

Sia: long-legged, bony, with an oriental face, round and plump cheeks the texture of ilang-ilang in full bloom and gumamela red when she blushed looking at Sol, and tiny eyes like beetles hiding beneath velvet leaves. But he did not see the florid arrangement, the bouquet of emotions cramped upon her face when she tipped the steaming cup down his throat: anger crumpled her features, crushed her beneath its heel so that she exhaled an aroma of ground cinnamon and bruised jasmine; afterwards, a long moment of recognition sweet and painful as the morning flowers fall, a shadow-moment fleeting and intense the way a rain-heavy cloud momentarily obscures the sun; and, finally, the devastating remorse like a garden besieged by storm and wind, her eyes grew into twin moons white and empty, and she could have howled.  

Sol slumped on the tile floor of her bleak room, his open mouth steaming like a hot kettle.

With your wrists and knuckles, crush the flowers, ruin the petals. Only with violence can we reach the sweetness. (Ton)

Sia’s room was a fragrant, moist place and she slept on a dew-sodden mattress and under every book she pressed flowers, not as mementos and bodies for her memories, but for tea. She hung discarded tarpaulins or cloth to shade the delicate potted plants shaking in the weak wind.

Half-empty, Sia’s bowl of honey – the color of worn wood, a dark burnished gold deeper and more malevolent than amber – lay forgotten as Sia shuffled the recipe cards. Here: rose grape, kapa-kapa, toasted over an open flame and reduced to ashes and then boiled, sweetened with moscovado. Another: kalachuchi – the frangipani – finely chopped along with three large leaves should produce a bitter tea perfect for an all-nighter. Its flavor obstinately stayed on her tongue and it came with restlessness so pervasive, she could not sit still until she resolved to ignore the tingling in her bones. Sia became a tolling bell, her bones tinkling an alarum that woke her spirit, propelling her into an insomnia from which she would not recover for three days. She read and studied until dawn.

Asusena or tuberose, which she encountered only twice, was the sweetest natural tea she had ever tasted. Coarsely chopped and stuffed in a bag, her grandmother let it steam in the boiling hot water for an hour. They drank a small pitcher of tuberose milk tea with a tin of biscuits and she felt lightheaded, giddy, for the rest of the day. What would she give for some of that witchcraft?

Abandoned in the heartless wild of the city, Sia confronted her poorly stocked cupboard with a somber grin. While she shook the honey pot, dusted the moldy shelves until her hands came away coated with salt, sugar, and dust, she resolved, finally, to visit the twenty-four hour convenience store to find some bread, sugar, and a mug.  But she would not return home to drink tea or prepare a midnight snack; Sia would not come home, at all.   

When kosmos, pot marigold, became her immediate favorite tea, Sia thought it was a sign from her grandmother – a divinity she trusted more than saints because her grandmother had been the recipient of her grandfather’s great love – that Sol would play an important part in her life. His home along a small street just off the highway was obscured from view by flourishing marigold bushes reaching outwards to the street, creating a canopy under which Sol stood a foot from her, raiding his pockets for keys while Sia, her shirt dripping wet from Sol’s spilled soda, breathed marigolds.

Mahilig ka rin sa tsaa? She smiled because, no matter how many times she asked, Sia divined the answer. No. No one drank tea the way her family did and she relished every opportunity to flaunt this achievement. I know how flowers taste, I know that dew tastes like the moon and it glows and it makes your face glow, too. Sol discarded cigarette ashes, held a case of cigarettes and a tiny lighter in his hands, a few lose coins, until finally the keys revealed themselves where they had been hidden in the fold of his pants pocket.

His house smelled of ash and soot and darkness because it was a hole of concrete and it was cold. Sol brought her a towel, pointed her towards the bathroom, and wrung his hands but Sia only smiled and repeated her question. Mahilig ka ba sa tsaa? His books tumbled to the tiled floor in the living room, books Sia recognized. Sol was a foot taller than her but nervous, body tilted away in an attitude meant to be read as standoffish if Sia did not notice how often he glanced at her expression and, no matter how well he pulled his emotions inward – as though they were in danger of flying away and reaching her – now and then, his expression swelled into the bright luminosity of hope, something young, ringing with adventure. He seemed to say, without meaning to: I did it, she’s here, now what?

Drown the petals in boiling water. Squeeze the juice of the smallest, most bitter calamansi. (Ton) Two calamansi. (Chet) Wait until the petals have ripened and risen to the surface, bloated with water and juice, and then strain the tea directly into mugs. Do not wait! (Sia)

Kiko was late.  Behind him: a highway jammed with screaming cars and pedestrians hiding beneath umbrellas, all obscured from view as a wall of water crept past. Finally stepping into the light – despite the storm, cafes and restaurants remained open and accommodating – Kiko shook the water from his hair and shoulders. He checked the bruise on his cheek – some tall yuppie rushed to reach shelter with a heavy laptop bag that swung wildly as Kiko stumbled out of the way and onto the street – and scanned the wide, low-ceilinged tea shop. He spotted Sol – back curved against the wall, a little smile, and his loose white shirt – and wedged past the tightly packed group of college students.

Kiko was naturally apologetic, his anecdotes and stories interspersed with contrite asides, but with Sol, at least, his tardiness had become a disappointing fact long accepted with infinite patience, like Sol’s white shirts, how he can’t concentrate after four hours, the way Kiko chewed pencil erasers,  or his sweaty palms. When Kiko sat down, Sol didn’t bother to look up, only allowed the smile to creep higher, empty hands clasped on his lap, his shadow obscured a half-inch thick stack of photocopied readings. Sol’s shoulders dropped an inch, his body sagged and his wrinkled shirt pooled around him although the smile, Kiko noted, seemed fixed. Kiko took a seat opposite the friend he hadn’t seen in four months, his backpack damp with rainwater. They found themselves – Kiko’s body ringing from movement and rushing through rain and wind his whole attitude and character muted and waiting; Sol languid on the couch alone at the back of the café and bent over – in the setting made familiar by their annual reunions, after their mutual friends have all decided to go home, and one bottle between them.  
Pare. Glad you’re here. When you didn’t answer your phone, I thought you weren’t going to make it.” Sol inclined his head towards the shuddering white doors and shifted in his seat as a draft broke the calm: tinkling glasses, the door creaked loud as shattering glass, someone squeezed in among the tables muttering excuses as she went. Kiko refused to become a fixture in Sol’s life where, Kiko felt, their one-sided relationship wouldn’t survive. One day soon, Kiko felt, Sol needed to be punched.

 During the phone call Sol sneaked while Sia took a bathroom break on their Saturday night study date, Sol whispered a meeting place and time. Thanks, pare, he said, letting the static accumulate into a weight at the end of the line until Kiko hung up.

The café was the last in a chain of recently renovated shops lining the avenue. Outside, an alley led into a maze of side-streets. Kiko watched it turn sharply right and out of view. Sol had chosen this café, Kiko knew, only because the alley beside them led almost directly to their house and Sol frequented the sari-sari stores along the way. Kiko chose the seat near the windows, staring out into the shifting darkness, legs folded beneath him. He was Sol’s sounding board and Kiko knew to expect only trouble. He was acquainted more with Sol’s problems, not their complicated back stories, not what led Sol into the cafe, and certainly not Sol’s romance. So he waited, a little on edge, because he came tonight with a story of his own and he did not know if Sol was the person he wanted to hear it.

Walang beer dito, e.” Kiko tried a joke to bait Sol out to meet him. Sol’s attitude hadn’t changed: he refused to look up and he was biting his lip. “Hoy, sige na. Nandito na’ko. Ano ba nangyari?” Sol closed his book, rested his hands flat on the table, and frowned, his long face made gaunt by shadows under his eyes. His face had lost all its natural curves – it was some geometrical shape, pointed and severe, all jutting angles and deep creases.
Wala.” He had ordered and eaten a sandwich. A plate, a fork, the dull knife had been left on the table. Sol gripped a mobile in his left hand until it rang and he slipped it into his bag, a weather-spotted backpack. “Parang ang hirap lang niya pasayahin at napapagod na’ko.”
Kiko waved a waitress over and asked for two tall glasses of lukewarm water. “Mag-aaway kami kapag hindi ko siya nakakausap nang maayos, pero pag nag-uusap kami, puro away uli.”  
The water washed away the taste of the street, smog, the yellow-and-red lights. Kiko drained his glass until water ran down the side of his mouth. “Parang ayoko na.”

 Strain, stir, and set aside. Allow it to cool. (Ton) Do not add more calamansi or sugar. (Chet)  

From down the hall, Tyn heard breaking glass: a thud, the metallic ring, and her roommate’s tinkling voice cooing to soothe Sol’s aggravated baritone. Not again. Sia invited Sol to their room and Tyn fought off the urge to turn back towards the elevators. Not again. She wouldn’t allow herself to be turned out of her own room – not tonight, at least. January had been ushered in by a cruel, howling wind. In the morning, she pushed herself out of bed before the heat baked the sidewalks and she stayed in the office to wait out sporadic bursts of pounding rain. But all day, the wind pricked her eyes and made her blind, dried her lips and spun the grime of the city in her hair and clothes.

Their door unlocked, Tyn pushed her way into the apartment. Crammed into the space between her bed and Sia’s mattress, Sol crouched on the floor, shirtless, carefully gathering pieces of a broken mug. Her mug. Pushed to the wall, their fold-away table set with a canister of hot water, chips, a stack of paper plates, and one of Sia’s small bottles full of the dried flowers she drank as tea. Tyn inhaled jasmine, another faint fruity scent, and beneath all of this, the earthy smell of damp grass and new bark. She felt lightheaded and dizzy.
“Where’s Sia?” Tyn kept her voice level.

“I’m here!” Sia emerged from the bathroom, Sol’s wet shirt in her hands. “I’m sorry for the mess, Tyn, we’ll clean it up.” Behind her, Sol swayed on his bare feet, carrying shards to the trashcan. He nodded at her and ducked back down to finish his job. If it wasn’t for Sia, Tyn wouldn’t have seen Sol, would never have glanced at him. His was a forgettable face, something a stare would never pick out, all glances slid off of him.

“I’m tired, Sia.” Tyn picked her way to the bed and dumped her bag upon it. “Do you mind if I stay?” The question grated her pride but her sense of propriety held sway: if they wanted to be alone, Tyn had no choice but to leave – albeit she would take her dear sweet time to do so. Even her pillow had acquired the jasmine-breath of the room. Tyn opened the window above her head and from below, the wailing street issued siren song after song. Sol began whispering. He inclined his head towards the door and nodded at Tyn.

Tyn toyed with her mobile, trying to disappear because the limited space in their apartment and its blank white walls provided no distraction from the arguing couple. Sia’s body didn’t move. She froze in place, tense, so that when she finally turned to look at Tyn – smile hardened in place – her roommate heard a rattling anxiety and unease. Instead of flowers, now, the room stank of rot. Sol kissed Sia’s cheek, an approximation of their goodbye ritual. He stood a foot or two above her and waited for Sia to kiss him back. Something heavy fell somewhere, Tyn heard it echo in the hallway. It startled Sol who twitched where he stood. Sia thrust her lips towards him, a child. Tyn looked away, unconvinced.

Dip the petals in sugar. Pour lukewarm tea into mugs. Serve iced and with one petal in each glass. (Sia)

Sol shared his hospital room with two other men: one lay still, his left leg bandaged and a tube had been inserted down his throat; the other was an octogenarian whose wife dropped by once a week, he breathed through his mouth. He had been confined indefinitely, abandoned to old age.  A pump inflated his body while it hissed in the corner. Sol’s bed, wedged between them, enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the hospital parking lot seven floors below, and rooftops covered in graffiti. The room had been chosen for him because neither of its first occupants was capable of speech. Sol and his burnt mouth fit in.

It was Thursday, three in the afternoon. Sol’s last classes ended at noon. During his first week of confinement, his friends visited after school and ate the cakes his mother brought. Sol was fed through a slit in his stomach. His friends wanted no part in changing the heavy bag of his urine. They didn’t want to see the boils on his lips, or his shattered cheeks.

Fuck Punk. Green, blue, and the pink of gumamelas Sia brewed into herbal remedies. Graffiti on the walls he read to wake him up. Fuck Punk. The door to his room opened to reveal Sia carrying her school bag and a metal jug. Her arrival filled the room with static and made his mouth water and sting.

How are you, baby? There was no room for a table or a chair so she perched on the foot of his bed. The tongue in his mouth – cut into a stub by the emergency room surgeon – would never recover. That’s okay, I’m here. School was great. I copied down our lesson for you. I wrote out our homework, too. Don’t worry, I can pass all your tests and all your quizzes for you, too.

And since there was no way to respond, Sol closed his eyes. Fuck punk, he read in his mind.
He felt Sia shift closer until she leaned over him. He smelled gumamela, marigolds, sampaguita, flowers, and leaves. Somewhere, a hot sun toasted petals in its glare, bark hardened on trees. Sia pried his eyes open, an eyelid between each thumb and forefinger, her nails long and poised. What’s wrong? I came from school pa, and you won’t even listen?

02 Setyembre 2012

Not A War

The house was a long, flat bungalow with six windows and three doors, one of which was blocked by the wickerwork-seat divan made to resemble driftwood. This door, well-oiled although little-used, opened into a view of well-stocked, door-less cupboards, stacked translucent plates, and the giant table too massive for the airy house. Solid and imposing, the table alone threw a clear, opaque shadow on the tiled, cold floor. It gave the impression of solidity so imposing you could see it even with your eyes closed. And although Dan Chaves had stumbled drunkenly into their house many times before, this time the twenty-two year old was disoriented not with the comfortable lightheadedness as the result of too much tequila, but from an encounter so alien and heartbreaking it knocked him into a coma where he sat in a much-frequented watering hole, watered-down glass of beer knocked out of his hand as another tipsy patron – someone who looked sixteen and unsteady atop three-inch heels, slick and upright in a tight shirt, her cheeks unevenly coated with blush too red for the busy orange-red-yellow lights – obscured his view by landing on his lap. It was with the inevitable force of the immense family table’s gravity that pulled Dan into a midnight collision – first, Dan staggered towards it, all elbows and knees – and his own momentum threw him back onto the divan where he lay, immobile.

He began smoking three months ago, in the sari-sari store up the street that serviced village construction workers, grass-cutters, the guards who peeled off straining white uniforms and played basketball in the afternoon, but lying there waiting for the morning, he felt the half-buried craving for a cigarette between his lips, something to taste instead of dew, the dampness of a new morning. He wanted to feel sullen, menacing, some crawling dark invader.

Outside, the night sky swelled into an angry bruise. Dan burped and fanned his breath out towards the surrounding lawn, the superfluous door yawning wide. He tasted the dawn.

Alone of the siblings, Dan possessed the only key to this door, surrendered to his responsibility the night he came home announcing he had been assigned the graveyard shift at work. Use the side door, his mother said, so you don’t disturb the dogs in the backyard, so we can lock both the lightweight screen door and the heavy oak front door. He enjoyed the thrill of sneaking into his bedroom to steal some sleep. And, alone among the three siblings, Dan inherited his father’s insomnia and a boiling in his gut, a slow-cooking fire that disturbed prolonged periods of idleness. Dan began tapping his feet to keep busy as a headache formed and his consciousness slowly retreated, pulling back layers of coherent thought to accommodate a throbbing pain in his temple. Tangina. His father was the same way, unable to sit still, physically incapable of staying put. Dan’s father’s eyes raced over the walls of their house, unstoppable, forever moving and agitated, until he strung up family pictures to maintain the illusion of a story told one frame at a time. It was no surprise, therefore, when his father walked barefoot into the kitchen.

And there it was: his father’s distinctive smile. At five feet eleven inches, Dan towered over his father of the same height who had become so used to stooping, he rarely stood up straight. His wireframe build, a clean-shaven head, and bright large eyes hid little less than half a century of drawing supermarkets, condominiums, curving roofs of several storage facilities, some schools constructed out of lego blocks, and a few government offices tucked between several acres of grassland. His father’s smile had been hung there by his mother because Dan, being the eldest among the siblings, recalled no memory of a smiling father before his mother gifted her husband with one, wrapped prettily and boxed up for an early Christmas. His youngest brother only a baby and the floor littered with colorful paper, his father discovered the box addressed, simply, for my husband. The smile was small, malleable, and warm and it grew or shrank, when appropriate. Her mother gathered her husband in her arms and managed to water his lips with a kiss before a permanent curve, a wrinkle of satisfaction, appeared and stuck.

It was this smile that Dan’s father wore as he advanced towards the refrigerator gently humming in one corner. Uy, anong nangyari sa’yo? It was a mild question because, Dan knew, his father was a patient man who expected little from his children. Despite the dangerous pounding headache, Dan sat up and stared at his father, bent over to retrieve a pitcher of cold water. His bare legs, translucent skin, the green veins shooting up his thighs; the way his father bent his head lower, as though in submission; his father’s smile. All of these were familiar and recognizable.

Earlier that evening, Dan pulled on his father’s old leather jacket. Deep brown, it hugged the contours of his body almost perfectly, his elbows sunk into the familiar burrows his father wore thin, and when Dan slipped his hands into its pockets, he found the lining warm and smooth where his father’s hands had once been. Against his ribs, it hung protectively, a solid weight. Under the cool September night, Dan nurtured the relative comfort of a cold drink and the warmth in his belly as he settled down with some friends in Torque, a cantina, half of whose patrons spilled out onto the street where there were no cars or tricycles or jeepneys or buses, it was a narrow Cubao back-alley. The wind that blew between the tall buildings sidling up on either side of the slant-roofed restaurant smelled of concrete and some sweet, overripe fruit.    

Wala, dad. I just got home. Dan stood beside his father, put a hand on his shoulder, felt the muscle tense there. He watched his father’s grip on the jug of water waver and slip. It was awkward as any confrontation but Dan stood up, trying to grow one extra inch, eyes hooded and head slightly thrown back.
Ikaw, anong oras ka nakauwi?

Maaga ako, kanina pa. His hand on his father’s shoulder crept up towards his neck, measured the strength and the brittle bones, found itself clamping shut in a grip. His father did not shrink, did not quiver, did not fear, only squinted in the dark at the boy.

Dan? On the ground, the shadows disappeared.

Hours ago, a sixteen year-old in the club danced with one of Dan’s buddies from work, Gin, whose loose tongue and deep, drained pockets guaranteed only that he would be noisy and robust in any restaurant. Unfit for anywhere but McDonald’s at midnight, Dan and Sol, another co-worker, brought Gin out to their college-era haunts in Cubao where the cleaned-up streets swerved upwards and outwards. After four buckets between them, Gin assembled the solemn one-syllable words that remained within his control and stumbled into the girl. A tiny waist, naked arms, and the way she swayed in Gin’s general direction. As out of control drunk as he was, Gin managed to collect her into his arms long enough to sway, lean close and whisper some remedial compliment as he nosed her cheek. She was tall for her age.  Whenever a chill wind blew, Gin closed himself about the girl, reeking of his cologne. Dan and Sol watched, holding hands, both of them disinterested, until the girl crashed into Dan’s lap and he excused himself to wander into the small cantina in search of a bathroom.

Dan found himself crushed beside the back-counter where half a dozen men crowded together, ordering drinks. He left the handsome leather jacket with Sol outside. He crouched, folding his body inwards, trying to become as small as possible because the place was crowded and there was no room. And there was a moment when an odd, golden glint must have caught his eye, when one of the liquor bottles displayed beyond caught the gleaming strobe lights and illuminated a familiar shape, a familiar weight.
It was the same smile, the same lilt, the same curvature and it was impossible to mistake his own face. It was crisp and new and it had been re-hung and stretched, by another woman whose hands – fine fingernails, long fingers, a naked wrist, gleaming bands on eight fingers impossible to decipher which was gold or silver or glass – framed his father’s face.

The lights popped open. Dan and his father stood blinking at each other.


His mom stood at the edge of the kitchen, hands splayed on the wall. Anong ginagawa mo