by K. A. Mansi
Jun rubbed the whites of his knuckles raw, anticipating his brother’s response. The tension remained suspended in the hot and sticky air like the curls of smoke from the Marlboro cigarette that Rico had smashed against the wall.
“S-so, what do you think, Kuya Rico?” Jun finally had the courage to ask.
The task was simple: Find a pretty girl and bring her home. Jun had done exactly as he was told. The girl was pretty enough with her long black hair, smooth legs, and mestiza-like complexion. But Rico never told him the girl had to be conscious. How was I supposed to know what she’d be like when she was awake? Jun pressed clasped hands against his lips in premeditated repentance.
“Of all the street girls there are in Manila, why would you pick this one? Really, Jun, bobo ka talaga, how could you be so stupid?”
Rico’s voice trailed off when he noticed the girl’s steady stare. Like the long-legged creatures at the sound of a breaking twig, she cocked her head to an unnerving angle before remaining completely still. Seeming satisfied that the young men wouldn’t make any sudden moves, she skulked on all fours to the farthest corner before turning her attention to the rope around her ankle.
“Tignan mo — just look at her, using her teeth like some sort of animal!” Rico cringed, shaking his head. He paced back and forth, rubbing a hand over his buzzed scalp.
Jun hated disappointing his big brother just as much as he hated the things his brother asked him to do. But the very thought of taking a girl — a conscious girl against her will — left a burning knot in Jun’s stomach.
“She was sleeping on the beach, Kuya, I saw her lying there and...” Jun hesitated, then winced as he confessed, “I thought she was easy to take. Don’t ask me to do it again, I can’t do it, Kuya, I can’t!”
Rico stopped pacing. His pinched face softened as he wrapped a callused hand around Jun’s neck, squeezing it softly. “Remember why we’re doing this, Jun-Jun. Where will we live if we get evicted with Nanay and Tatay gone?”
Jun’s eyes welled up with tears at the thought of their parents. How disappointed they would be if they were alive to see their sari-sari store go out of business, and soon the only home they’ve ever known, foreclosed.
“Kuya,” Jun implored, “what if we asked Auntie Bebe—”
Rico spat at the very mention of their aunt’s name. After their parents died, their mother’s wealthiest sister had offered to adopt Jun but not Rico. Rico knew too many bad people, Auntie Bebe said, she didn’t want ipis — roaches — like that near her home, near her own boys.
Between confirmation classes and choir practice, Jun didn’t know how their pinsan found the time to stop by the sari-sari store after morning mass on Sundays. They’d ask Rico so many questions. Jun wondered if they were as curious about his lurid conquests as they were about their catechism studies.
But Jun knew better than to tell Auntie Bebe, secretly hoping that one day he, too, might attend morning mass dressed in his Sunday best with a real family again. Jun recounted their aunt’s words to Rico with a naive hope it would spur him to prove their aunt wrong, but instead it did the opposite. For once in his life, Rico fulfilled and then exceeded someone’s expectations of him.
“You think Auntie Bebe’s gonna take you in, especially after she finds out what you’ve done?” Rico chuckled.
How fast his brother could shift from angry to amused. The unpredictability disturbed Jun. Another Malboro hung from Rico’s lips as he cupped his palms to light it. The girl craned her neck towards the sound of the flickering lighter.
“Wh-What do you mean, Kuya?” Jun asked, feeling a cold sweat upon his palms.
Perhaps more than his erratic moods, Jun dreaded the sharpness of his brother’s mind. Ever since they were young, Rico had known the most effective ways to pin the younger brother in his place.
Rico exhaled a stream of smoke before licking his bottom lip. “Remember, Jun. You did it. You took her. I didn’t.”
Jun felt his head go numb; his stomach seemed to float up to his chest.
Rico looked pleased by the effect of his words on his brother’s face. “Stick with me and I’ll make sure nothing happens to you, little brother.” Rico spoke soothingly. “But I need you to take care of this. Japok is coming tonight and I still need to sell his last batch of shabu.”
Rico ruffled his brother’s hair then put an arm around his shoulders, turning their attention back to the matter at hand. The girl had settled herself into the darkest corner of the room with the light and shadows shifting across her placid face. Sitting on her haunches so erectly, she reminded Jun of the great clawed figures sitting atop San Augustin church. When he was a child, they used to frighten him with their great stone eyes.
When he had passed by the statues today, it bothered him that their eyes now appeared vacant. Jun followed her gaze to the high and narrow window above their heads. Fat grey clouds were rolling past.
“Give her a change of dry clothes, Jun. And for Christ’s sake, make her look presentable. If you found her unconscious” — Rico paused to tap the ash from the tip of his Marlboro — “we’ll make sure that’s how she’ll be when Japok finds her.”
* * *
When both of them leave, the air clears and we can finally attune ourselves to the environment. Chipped walls tinged yellow surround us, but the ground beneath our feet is as smooth as sandstone. We press a hand against the wall but there is only stillness.
Even the smallest plankton feel the baleen whale’s call that shakes the tiny hollows of their body from miles away. But there is an inert delay in air that dulls the senses. Only now and then do the little hairs vibrate and our host’s living labyrinth lights up. The sounds are familiar to it. A barking dog. The zip of a motorbike. A church bell ringing somewhere. They drift away like ripples returning calm to the sea.
We can smell the sharp smell of rain before we hear it pelt the window. Rivulets of water trickle through the cracks in the wall, turning the floor a darker grey. We taste the salt of it on our tongue, desperate for it.
When the rain passes, we watch a bright rectangular patch of light slowly glide its way across the room. We are reminded of the first time we beheld the sun in its true form, trembling over the edge of the horizon. Nothing in our experience could help us register the sensation when we latched onto a seeing-eyed creature for the first time. We who are born without eyes, who have no need for them in the darkness, we assumed we had somehow split apart in the birthing of a sister.
We made the first creature swim in circles, tirelessly trying to understand the concept of up and down. Then, like the lifting of a heavy mist, our perception through the seeing-eyed creature sharpened. We did not know the wondrous things we were seeing through this raw and tender organ: wild patches of reef, bright schools of fish, the shattered rays of light beneath the surface.
In our hunger for knowledge we abandoned one creature for another, eventually understanding the senses a creature used for survival. There was so much to be learned, we did not wish to return to the numbing darkness.
Remembering the vastness of the ocean, strangely, the rope around our ankle seems to tighten. We remind ourselves of our time in the deep, before the great quake upturned the seafloor, raising us out of the trenches. All those years of darkness have taught us nothing if not patience.
The fat one comes back, its mouth moving. We spread our tendrils thin, accessing our host’s vast pool of memories. Slowly, gradually, the murmurs seep into meaning.
“This is one of Nanay’s old dresses. Go ahead and put it on,” the fat one says to us, tossing something white and bunched up near our feet.
Hesitantly, we bring it to our cheek. It feels delicate, as soft as sea anemone.
“Uh, no. Like this.”
The fat one stretches its arms in the air one after the other. We mimic the same movement, but it shakes its head. It points to the dress, and we hand it back. It shoves its round face through the big hole, and one hand and then the other through the smaller holes, but only halfway.
“See, like this,” the fat one says.
It removes its arms, but then struggles to remove its head. The image tickles our insides. It smiles and hands it back to us. We put on the dress the way we’ve seen the fat one do it, and it slips onto our form perfectly. We can’t help running our fingers along the frayed edges.
“C-can you speak?” the fat one asks, hesitantly.
Though it still keeps its distance, we understand that the creature attempts to bridge the space between us. We widen our mouth, pull back our tongue, and push the air between our teeth. It seems surprised when we respond.
As we practice with the fat one, our grasp of this creature’s speech improves. Our mouth learns to shape words through the width of its aperture. Our tongue learns to curl, flatten, and push up against our teeth. Our lungs learn the pattern, the rhythm, the cadence of breath to syllable.
Soon we learn many things. The fat one calls itself Jun, short for Jonathan. Jun calls the thin one Kuya, because they are brothers. When asked, we call ourselves the first word that curdles in our mouth upon hearing the question. Like a smooth round pearl on the tip of the tongue, we tell it our name: Luzvaminda.
Since we began to speak, to connect in the inefficient way its kind connects, we notice that Jun sits closer and closer. This pleases us more than any words. Unlike these creatures and their constant murmurs, it is only through touch that our kind connects.
“Where are you from, Luzvaminda?” Jun asks.
Jun rips and peals the shiny outer covering of a small brown rectangular object, then crumples the covering in its palm. It breaks the object in half and places one half on a stiff board before sliding it towards us. The smell stimulates the watering of our mouth before the object even reaches it. It crumbles when we bite into it, sticking to our teeth.
“The ocean,” we say, still chewing.
We finish the sweet morsel and hope Jun gives us the other half in its hand, but its mind appears to be somewhere else. It chews the object of our desire while staring at nothing in particular. Its furrowed brows leads us to believe it does not gain the same enjoyment in eating the morsel as we did. We let out a deep sigh. Such a waste.
“Tatay would take us fishing sometimes,” Jun says as it lies down, hands behind its head.
Jun’s eyes look like they see the sky, but all we see is the blankness of the ceiling. We pick at the cracks between our teeth, hoping for a sliver of sweet.
“Oh, how Nanay would yell and yell when we’d bring the fish dripping wet into the house. She’d complain about the smell, how she had good-for-nothing sons,” Jun says with a smile. “But then we’d hear the oil sizzle and pop, smell the fish starting to crisp. When we’d hear her humming an old Nora Aunor tune. That’s when we knew we could come into the kitchen again. That’s when we knew she was happy.”
By this time, the slick of sweetness has left our tongue, and we consider Jun’s words. Whereas our kind concerned itself only with the present to satisfy its immediate needs, these creatures think back to yesterday and the days before it and, in its rumination, create even more need, a painful yearning. We find it odd for a creature to recall its sensory experiences to impose any sort of pain upon itself, for it goes against the highest instinct of survival.
As we watch Jun quietly wipe his eyes, we recall the fat drops of water that fell from the sky. We wondered if each drop eventually found its way home to the ocean. Home. Along with the pain of futility, how does it also bring an intangible sense of comfort? We do not know why, but this moment makes us feel connected to this creature in a way we have only felt towards our kind.
“Come,” we say to Jun, “we offer you Union. Share in us, and we in you.”
It crawls towards us, so close we could touch its golden brown skin. But then it pauses. Perhaps it processes our words for their meaning. Its eyes, at first hazy, become urgent, desperate. When Jun finally unties our rope, we hold its tear-stained face in our hands. It closes its eyes as we lean our face in. We slip into its mouth easily.
Once we’ve fully unfurled inside of it, we sense a figure standing over us. Gradually, the blurry image sharpens into view. A pale face floats above us surrounded by long strands, thick as kelp, cradling us in a net of shadows. We think we are in the ocean again, just beneath the surface.
But a sudden ripple startles it. Footsteps, Jun registers. As we sit up, the beautiful creature quietly springs towards the door. Like a fish returned to water, it disappears in a flash of silver, its long black hair catching the moonlight.
* * *
Rico’s eyes were smoldering with rage as he threw down the loose ends of rope. He grabbed the collar of Jun’s shirt with both hands, lifting him an inch off the ground. “She was as dumb as a dog, and yet she still got away? You think Japok’s gonna do business with me again after screwing up twice?” Rico released his grasp, but not without shoving Jun into the wall. The tension in his shoulders shot like electricity down to his fists. The spot near his temple throbbed. It is too hot to think straight. He wanted his brother to beg, no, grovel for forgiveness.
Instead, Jun stared out the darkened window like he was a thousand miles away. Rico looked at the window, then back at Jun, smiling menacingly. Without warning, he lurched forward throwing a punch, but stopped a few inches before his brother’s face. Rico’s eyes widened when he pulled back his fist. Jun hadn’t flinched. Slowly, Jun turned to look at Rico with a glossy, blank stare.
“Say something, you fat baboy!” Rico spat as he stumbled backwards. “What, are you dumber than the girl you let get away?”
Without a word, without even a second glance, Jun strode past his brother, making his way towards the door. Rico, surprised by the audacity, was too incredulous to stop him. “A-and where the hell do you think you’re going?” Rico yelled, feeling the hold he had over his little brother slipping away.
Fishing, Rico thought he heard as Jun walked out the door and into the night. He thought he heard him humming too, an old tune he knew he’d heard before.
Copyright © 2017 by K. A. Mansi