A strange feeling came to him when he touched his mother’s swollen belly. Caleb felt his knees burn against the red tiles as he struggled to undo the knot of what it was. He was disappointed when he found it to be nothing more than the vague idea that something was coming together and coming apart at once.
He put his fingers in the coarse fall of her hair, and looked at the sharp lines that unfurled around her mouth and eyes. She did not tell him fairy tales these days. She never spoke, unless she was angry, or worried for the baby that slept beneath her breasts. There were only old love songs from her, and the mystery of what they meant.
The sound of hooves on the broken street made him turn and squint out the window. At noon, only the mango trees and rusty gates stood tall beneath the blistering heat. Slowly, he rose and stumbled away from the couch, past wicker chairs and benches set askew. Heap after heaps of battered luggage lay sprawled between them. The sight caught him by the throat; he had wept like an infant as Mama stood packing his possessions away last night, fuming that he was ten, and too old to behave like this.
He bit his lip, humiliated. It is no easy thing, he wanted to tell her, as his fingers grasped the rough-edged sill. A great chill wracked him at the thought of leaving. His departure loomed like a specter on the edge of a great city.
Black ants wandered by under his nose as he peered into the heat and light. A kalesa ambled by. The old man at the reins looked stooped and parched beneath his straw hat. Caleb felt the stir of thirst beneath his tongue.
Nervously, he turned to Mama. She groaned and stretched. Her black veil of hair spilled freely over the couch’s edge. He shifted uncertainly. The crackle of their radio drifted in from the kitchen, cranking out a ballad woven in static and Tagalog.
The maid hummed along, a wisp among her sea of pots and pans, the keen odor of garlic, fish stock and sizzling oil. She had gone to market hours ago; asking a favor of her was out of the question. He put a hand into his oversized pocket. It closed over a five-peso coin. The nearest vendor was just across the street.
He struggled to his feet, slipped through the half-open door and onto the tiled landing of their house. The sun prickled at his neck; sweat blossomed on his forehead. The long, winding staircase spilled into the gravel patch and sunburnt street.
The dogs gathered about him in the yard, fawning and expectant. He opened the rusty gate carefully, making certain not to let even the bent-eared puppy out. As he shut and bolted it behind him, the heat that rose from the crumbling asphalt shivered through the air.
Dust collected between his naked toes. His face streamed. He wiped vainly at it with his shirt. The road ahead rose went south, towards cathedrals stalked by dead women in white and waterfalls that hid moon-swallowing serpents.
A row of mountains gazed out over the town, the dark, wet earth cradled at their feet. He inched across the street, between pedicabs and automobiles that veered past one another. Beside the vendor, an old woman fanned herself in front of a rusty grill, turning over ears of corn. He raised his eyes timidly when she greeted him, and went to the where the building, itself, stood. It was solitary, with only a trio of coconut trees to shade it, and a velvet ripple of field behind.
Caleb thrust his coin cautiously through the barred window, and called softly for the shopkeeper. When nobody came, he rapped upon the ruined concrete, squinting into a thicket of powdered milk, blood-red knots of mangosteen, bottles of Tanduay rum, and sticky rice bundled into banana leaves.
“Hello,” he said, and listened as his words came vacantly back to him.
Suddenly, a boy stepped into the light. He grinned impudently and clasped the bars, nodding brusquely at the coin. “What do you want?”
Caleb had never seen him before. It was always the dark young woman, crowned with her dimples and wild spray of hair, who took his order and laughed. The smile before him was brittle, perched on the edge of a laugh.
He asked for mango juice. Rough, warm hands took his coin. As the boy handed him the icy can, their eyes met. Caleb started. There was a wrongness there that he could not quite place.
Slowly, the boy put his chin in his hands. “My tita is giving birth today,” he said. “Jing went to be with her.”
“Jing?” Self-consciously, Cael tore the lid from the can.
“The one who runs this shop. They are sisters.” He paused, not uncomfortably. “What is your name?”
“I’m Nester. ” The boy seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in saying so. He nodded, and his blue-black hair shimmered in the light. “I thought you spoke English.”
“I was born in Cebu.” He oft-repeated phrase felt heavy in his mouth. “My mama and I crossed the water when I was four. We have lived here ever since.”
“Ah. Your papa is American, then?”
“From Belfast.” The admission him squirm a bit. He broke his nail opening the can and sipped his juice. “Is your tita afraid?”
“My tita has three children already. She says that life is pain, and pain is life.” He reached under the counter, produced the five-peso coin, and held it out to Caleb. “You don’t happen to be heading north, do you? To Sibulan.”
Caleb felt like a seashell dragged from shore to deep. A warmth and eagerness that he did not comprehend flooded his chest, and he nodded without meaning to.
Nester looked relieved, and pressed the coin into Caleb’s hand. “Fare,” he said, and gave a wolfish smile. “For the ride. If you could stop by and see how my tita is doing. Her name is Sharifah Abas. It is the only house by the airport. Just tell the maid your name.”
Caleb saw it then. He stammered something, leaned forward, and pressed his head against the bars, until he thought the blotchy steel that separated them might dissolve. He stared with naked wonder at his reflection, inverted in the coal-dark eyes that looked back.
“Aswang,” he breathed.
“You’re crazy, my friend.” Light rushed into the space that opened when they parted. Nester put the coin down on the splintered ledge. Then, he turned quickly towards the shop’s enfolding darkness and vanished, leaving Caleb alone on the side of a dusty highway.
He shifted awkwardly, moving one foot and then the other, shoving his hands deep into his pockets only to pull them out again. A chill lay upon him, and a compulsion, like an insect bite he had been told not to scratch. Home was just across the street. Sibulan was a fifteen-minute ride from here. He could have stood rooted to the spot till sunset, struck silent by what he had seen—had he imagined it?
But some wheel turned in him, fixing his eyes on both roads and none. He shuffled to the roadside, glancing over his shoulder at the field, the palm trees, and the shop. There were no signs of life from within. Even the old woman, turning corn over a grill, had disappeared.
The first three jeepneys that he tried to flag down passed him. On his fourth try, a red jeepney slowed and pulled over, splashed with bright paintings of comic book superheroes, an anemic Christ, and the word MABUHAY done in pink over the windshield.
He tried to enter through the door in the back, only to find that all seats had been taken. He slid grimly across the dented bumper, found his footing, and hung on. As they left the mountains and field behind, the smell of brine bloomed, and the image of himself, reflected upside down in Nester’s dark eyes chased him.
Only the witches that walked at night and stole corpses from their coffins could do such things. For a moment, he thought of crossing himself. Mama took him to Mass often enough. But the road was bumpy, and he needed both hands as they entered traffic, jerking and lumbering around motorbikes, stray dogs, children and bicycles. A long, wave-washed boulevard ran like twine along the horizon, balanced on the rim of an electric-blue sea.
The waters on the western coast of Europe were stormy in every picture book he read. For just a second, the memory of his reflection was blotted out, Mama sending him away. He was going to his father, and that was that, she said. They wanted him to continue his education abroad.
He closed his eyes against the polished-gold sun. Warm wind drove its fingers tirelessly through his hair. The engine and the sea and all that it was resounded in his ears, its heavy, bottomless smell filling his nostrils until he thought he might drown. He felt a thousand feet tall then, as if his legs went deeper into the dark soil than the oldest root at the center of the oldest world.
When the sea vanished, and the empty stretch of barbed wire and field and runway appeared, the jeepney sputtered to a halt. He paid his coin forward, and scrambled off in a wave of bodies and bags. Mama might be awake, wondering where he was. His heart tore to imagine the soft furrow of thought that would appear between her great, dark brows.
The runway was quiet. The sky seemed eternal over the dusty, brush-strewn path that looped around the control tower. His feet followed the dirt road on their own, scattering sheaves of brown birds as he went. A ditch sat beneath the tarmac. It became a stream further north, disappearing into a thicket of young trees and vines.
The jeepney roared to life and bumped away. There were no houses in sight. Caleb stepped over the ditch and into the cool of the thicket. He was startled when the shadows gave a leap, closing over the fingers of sun that filtered through the thorny acacias. The world went dark. When his sense returned, the slow burble of water had become a roar.
He straightened, heart racing. Strange cries filled the air. In the feeble light, he saw the vast roots of mangrove trees, snaking over one another and into the depths of a wide, fast-flowing river.
Numbly, he moved closer to the water’s edge. The loamy ground bent beneath his slippers. He came to where the water ran slowest, and looked mutely at his serrated reflection. There was a flash of motion on the far bank. He bolted to his feet, and was met by the the sight of a woman, walking out of the mouth of the mangroves.
“It is almost five o’clock,” the woman said, in strangely-accented English. “You should be having dinner, Caleb.”
Caleb’s chest constricted as she moved to where dull light bounced across the river’s face. She wore bright, woven skirts, and strings of turquoise beads that glowed with a dull brilliance. Her sinewy legs were bare below the knees. Her jaw tensed when she spoke. The eyes above the broad bridge of her nose were playful and cunning.
“Nester spoke to you, then?”
“He did, miss.” Caleb’s voice was tiny, swallowed up by the river and the trees. “Are you Sharifah Abas, po?”
“Don’t be stupid. Sharifah Abas has nothing to with me. Besides, she is giving birth.” The woman licked her lips. “The child will be stillborn.”
He removed one slipper, and, without knowing why, put one foot into the rushing current. “Is Nester an aswang?”
“A witch?” She laughed, jubilantly. “No. I suppose your mama taught you that. Her sisters say that she is a witch, herself. They are wrong. Inday is simply one who believes.”
“In creatures like me. She grew up with uncles who told them tales of wish-granting giants among the leaves of the banyan trees, great dragons in the water.” She shook her head. Her curls bounced. “Her brothers and sisters grew up, married, and moved on—to offices in Manila, homes on the other side of the world. They outran us—but not Inday. She is a flame in our hearths. She will make you a flame, as well, Caleb.”
“Who are you?” Caleb hardly dared to breathe.
“You can call me Ada, as our last visitors did.” Her mouth twisted.
“How do you know my mother?”
“How else?” The words were affectionate. “Inday has never once caught a glimpse of a diwata in the leaves, or a siyokoy in the water. She never will. But she spoke to us, as if she was praying, kneeling in front of her window at night. We heard.”
“Ada.” The name felt strange. “What are you?”
“I am a hunter.” She laughed: a low, pleasant sound, and sank to the loam of the bank, folding her legs neatly beneath her. “I have always been a hunter.”
“Nester sent me here.” Caleb shifted, growing impatient. “What is it you want with me?”
Ada sighed and bent her head, examining her naked toes. “I fell in love with a spirit, you know—long before the Spaniards came. He was making his way to the sea, along this very river, when we met.”
“But there is no river here. This is not real.”
“There once was. And it still exists, though not in the world that you walk.” She splashed idly at the water before her. Light fragmented her face. Behind her, the mangrove roots recoiled. “He loved me back,” she said, flatly. “At least for a little while, until I made a mistake.”
“We all make mistakes.” The need to touch her, and assure himself of human flesh, overcame him. But her image flickered. The sun shone through her, and the leaves above parted. When he looked again at the winding river between them, he understood that they were separated by matter and centuries.
“You are just a boy,” she said. “Of course everybody makes mistakes. But you understate the matter, obscenely.”
“What was it you did?”
She grinned at him, and her mouth moved outward and hardened. Her eyes receded into her skull, and a burnished, pale fire ignited in them. “I bound us to this land,” she said. The wind shrieked. “I was exquisite, and too wicked for my own good. Water spirits are not like me. They cannot be held for long, not by any magic.”
Her thick, dark curls became a golden mane. She raised her hand. White-tipped feathers blossomed upon her upturned palm. She gestured at the treetops; the wind swept them aside. The mangrove shattered into a million pieces. Sunlight streamed into the greenery.
The wind caught the river, too. It surged about Caleb, filling his mouth and blinding his eyes, and for one terrifying moment, he thought that must be all the world is made of: darkness and the roar of salty water, till all his days became one.
He saw her suddenly, a dark splotch against the afternoon sky. She was moving, the realization came to him, reenacting some strange story that had happened before his oldest grandmother had settled into the soft darkness of her mother’s womb.
Slowly, against a great crush of water, a man swam through the light. His limbs were far too long. Three gaping slits pulsed upon his cheek, and an armor of scales enclosed him. He was making his journey downriver, to the electric blue sea, Caleb knew, and to home.
Ada was waiting for him. She was a hunter, and she had been watching him for years.
His eyes were flat and cold, but when he met her, and felt the blood running hot in her veins, he grew tender and warm. There had been many like her, century after century, and he had known a few. Ada had seen eternity in him. He had seen a brief spark in her, a node in the endless constellation of time.
He had broken free, Caleb saw, as the sun set on the Chinese rigs and dawned upon Portugal’s white sails. By then, the earth had claimed her. She was tied to the river, an unwilling fixture.
“He found life,” she said suddenly. Her words were a dim roar. “A shapeshifter. A wanderer, who returns to the salt again and again. He forgave me.” She looked blithely at him; her copper eyes and beaked face spoke silently of Nester. “A ghost’s life is no life at all. He said he would restore me to what I was.”
And suddenly, he was looking down upon his mother as she rose from the bamboo couch and wiped sleep from her eyes. Strands of hair clung to her skin. She groped for the electric fan and sat in the pressing heat, an arm upon her swollen belly.
The fan and couch vanished. Light shattered upon her womb, tearing it open to reveal the thing that moved within. Caleb cried out. Two hearts stirred; two sets of great, dark eyes peered out. He saw them: the timid palpitations of half-formed veins, and bones he could have crushed beneath his thumb.
Sisters for him, and Ada wanted them. She did not have to say anything. He saw the glitter of want in her eyes.
“I will not kill both,” Ada said. “I need only one. The other, I shall wear like coat. I will make your mother happy, Caleb. I will be a good daughter. I will be a woman she is proud to boast about in her old age.”
“Why are you asking me?” His voice quivered. “You could just take them.”
The darkness opened and closed, and the forest spun, shrouded in the muted shades of a silent film he had once seen. He felt the river trickling to nothing beneath his feet, and see Ada’s face, transfigured by some trick of the sun into a bird of prey.
“You granted Nester’s wish by coming here. I am released from this land by your presence. But think, child.” She reached out and stroked the rough bark of a receding mangrove root. Bright feathers mingled with warm human hands. “Remember what Inday has taught you. Your mother sleeps with her amulets at her head. I need you to remove them.”
Laughter, loud and panicked, bubbled up in Caleb’s throat. “Why would I do that? You want the hearts of my baby sisters!”
Fury flashed in her eyes. She tore at the dwindling water with her nails. “You took the coin,” she sneered, and he shrank from her. “We are connected, you and I. If you do not do as I ask, I will follow you, and sleep at your feet until you die, twisted with age and torment.”
“No. I cannot give you their souls.”
“Infants have no souls.” She gestured again, and the air shivered. He saw his sisters again, fast asleep, pressed against one another in their silent galaxy. “Souls are grown,” Ada said, “like plants, like the unfolding of a person’s life. Souls are drawn and shaped.” Her eyes brightened. His heart raced. “Oh, I could save them the trouble,” she sighed. “I would be a brilliant.” She raised her head. “I shone brightly enough to make an ocean-god settle for a river, did I not?”
Another path open, shuddering upon Cael’s consciousness. He saw his mother, lifting one of the twins from her wicker cradle and bringing it to her breast.
Then the little girl opened her eyes, and there was Ada’s trick on her face.
Everything seemed to still then. Even the water grew quiet. The forest vanished entirely, and they were standing alone together in a grove of saplings, with only a murky brook between them. Slowly, Ada bent, and took Caleb’s face between her hands. He felt nothing, not even when she stooped to kiss his cheek.
“I miss home, little boy,” she said. “Your father is a monster of a man. He wishes to steal you from your mother, and because of the way that this world tilts, he will succeed. I can comfort her. I will make happier than she has ever thought possible.”
“I can say no.” The words grated against his throat.
“You would regret it.” Her eyes were stormy and dark as the waves at midnight. “Think about it, Caleb. Your soul is almost grown. If you say yes, you will move on to fortune and power among the rulers of the lands the crushed this one. You will become a stranger to Inday, but she will speak well of you: the strong young man who sends her foreign coins each month. She will speak of me, too. Her loving daughter. The reason she smiles as she dies.”
“You are lying.” Caleb’s words were a whisper.
“Do nothing that will bring you hardship, anak. All our lives are cruel enough.” Her face was radiant. “You will seek warmth and company, only to find cold and desolation. You will run and go nowhere. When you walk, and thorns will follow in your footsteps.” She paused. “I will see you tonight.”
She released him. Her toes left marks in the soil between the new-growth forest and the trill of maya birds. Throat constricted, he watched her go, until she vanished, accompanied only by the sound of running water.
It rained that evening. The clouds that billowed from the mountaintops erupted into a downpour that was monsoon-grey and cold. The smell of sewage filled Caleb’s nose as he stumbled from the pedicab, shoved his money at the driver, and trudged up the muddying street that led to home.
He stopped in front of the rusty gates, and leaned his head against them. He smelled his own sweat, and felt the dreadful thump of his own heart. The roadside store and Nester were lost along the road’s blurry curve. It felt like hours before he finally let himself in.
The ground squashed beneath his slippers. The yard smelled like burning garbage, and almost all of the dogs were were gone. He glimpsed two of them huddled under the wreckage of an old jeep. Only the broke-eared puppy seemed to be enjoying himself; he leaped and frolicked between the garden patch and trees, escorting Caleb gallantly to the base of the red stairs.
The maid opened the door when he knocked. The house blazed against the rain and the night, punctured by the smell of mangoes and smoke. The old woman gave a little shout, bundled him into a towel and ushered him into the house. He suffered her ministrations without a word, until the voice of his mother came creeping through her bedroom door.
“Caleb? Is he home, Mona?”
He snatched up the towel and bolted into the bathroom, slamming and locking the door behind him. In the buzz of a dying bulb, beneath the eyes of lizards perched idly upon the window slats, he washed himself clean and toweled himself dry.
When the last of the water had been swallowed by the drain, he dressed, and let himself out into the hall. The maid had turned on every light. By the glow of an orange lampshade, he saw the luggage that sat beneath the sill. This was a call to—what? To battle? To a new and exciting life? To the end of all things?
Carefully, he rapped at his mother’s half-open door. The knob still rattled beneath his hand, as it had since the day that they moved in. The room’s lace curtains were drawn, and the television screen was dark. He often wondered why she bothered having it set up in her room, at all.
The walls were stark and bare. A statue of the Black Nazarene stood on alter above the mattress, gazing down at Mama’s sprawled limbs. Her hands were draped loosely over her belly, swollen with twins.
The doorknob’s rattle had alerted her to his presence. She heaved herself upright, and gestured kindly at him. “Come here, Caleb,” she said.
Solemnly, he approached the bed, and seated himself beside her. Mama turned all the way now, reached up with one hand, and ran her fingers through his hair, again and again. Dimples puckered her cheeks when she smiled.
“Two days isn’t long,” she said. “I will miss you, anak. Here, lie beside me.” There was an edge in her voice that he had never heard before. It sounded like the impossibility of tears.
He pulled himself onto the mattress and reclined, glad at the cool, soft feel of cotton beneath his cheek. All of this was his—the darkness, the rain, Mama facing him in her overlong nightgown, with his sisters between them. His father, the stranger, and an unknown land bordered by a frozen ocean, were not yet born.
Images of ships, of long trains and airplanes going north enveloped him, and he fumbled stupidly in the gloom. He put his arms around her, and buried his face in the hollow of her throat. She smelled like incense and soap. He cried and cried, thinking that he would stop when he was exhausted, as most people do—but the sobs went on, like a sickness that had found its way into his bones.
Inday held him, protective and indulgent. He knew her oversimplification right away: that all children cry when they are homesick or about to leave home. He did not bother to correct her. When she fell asleep, he was still weeping.
He stopped, eventually: all things must. He waited there, damp flesh pressed against the soft mattress, clinging with a stoic cowardice to his mother. Her encircling arms seeped into a faded unreality, and turned to ice. He was alone in the stillness of the room, waiting for judgement. The question began to form in his mind.
What is it you will do, little boy?
He turned from his mother, decision made. At first, fear made him quail. But at his back were two pairs of eyes—his sisters, clinging silently to him. When, an hour and a half later, he heard a scrape at the top of the stairs, and felt Ada’s presence pour like tattered silk into his mind, he made no move to rise.
“The amulets, child.” In his mind, he saw her: dark, clever eyes, and a tongue like knives. “She wears them around her neck. Take them from her, now.”
Caleb was silent. Ada’s presence so strong, it was as if she were lying next to him, and he was caught firmly between the two women. He looked for a long time at something that he could not see. “No,” he said.
He felt Ada recoil. A small, white gap opened between them. Her confusion, bubbling up in the space left between them, then, her determination to rectify his error.
“You do not understand the meaning of suffering, little boy,” she said. Her words were a sadness that barely brushed his mouth.
“I will find out,” he said, insistent. In the half-light, he surged up from the mattress, onto his elbows. “We all do.”
She did not answer then. For a second, he thought that perhaps she had flown from the doorstep. But then, she entered again, brutally this time. The world reeled around him. She bore down, squeezing all the empty spaces from him until it was filled with nothing but her, and her voice, murmuring, “Well, Caleb Espinosa-Sullivan. This is what you will have, then.”
He was falling into water. Caleb had never been afraid of it, of streams or lakes, or the beaches where he had spent summers watching his cousins pull the legs off tiny crabs. But this—the roar and cold, and the endless depth of an ocean he did not know, terrified him. He was tossed back and forth. Waves broke in shades of murky green and blue, glass-hard upon his face. He felt himself shrink in his skin, and knew that this salt, this cold and dark and endless, roaring despair was his.
Like the snap of fingers, something inside him and around him broke. He vomited, and thought to himself: No. Mama changed the linens yesterday.
His body convulsed. His mother’s hands shook him, and he heard her frantic voice in his ear: “You have a fever! You’re soaked.”
Trembling, he rolled over, collapsing onto his back, and scrubbing vainly at where saliva and vomit streaked his chin and cheek. As Mama pulled his shirt over his head and called for water and washcloths, he felt Ada fill him, one last time.
You will eat from that, for the rest of your life?
“You do not know the future,” he said, raggedly. “I don’t need you. I will make her happy on my own. She is my mother. I will not forget her; you’ll see.”
He was not sure when Ada let herself out. There was only the quiet murmur of words between his Mona and Inday. The last thing he saw before slipping into a place between sleep and wakefulness was the curve of Mama’s belly as she leaned over him, tugging at the buttons of his pajamas. The distant roar of a foreign sea covered the rest.
That night, he dreamed not of distant lands, nor of stormy seas, nor of the father he had glimpsed once or twice in all his ten years alive, but of a road.
He had seen it before. It was barren and dusty, empty of everything but the sky that sagged onto the horizon beyond. It took several tries before he got his knees to steady beneath him. He stood up straight, the click of lizards loud in his skull.
He had read once, of the noise that people make in their final hours, and had seen one of their dogs as she lay, sides heaving, pushing new dogs out of her. His science teacher meant to deconstruct it all for them, star by burning star. Cells dying, dividing, replicating, constantly, and what did it all mean?
On the trunk of a scorched tree, one of the lizard clicked, and turned its eye on him. It was a tuko, broad mouth and scales speckled with aquamarine.
“No one knows,” it said. “This rock just keeps on turning. You are not one thing, or the other. If anybody tells you what the secret is, they are selling you snake oil, boy.”
“Snake oil,” repeated Caleb, unfamiliar with the expression. He sighed a little, but did not stir until the sun came through their bedroom window.
© 2019 Justine Rosenberg