“Hello, Mom.”

7 AM rolls around and my alarm clock lets out an electronic buzzing sound. It sounds like what an AI might think of buzzing bees without ever having been fed a recording of them. I am already awake. I was awake when my next-door neighbors began arguing in Spanish about who the real father of little Ana is. I was awake when an old Chevy pickup with a blown-out exhaust pipe made donuts in the parking lot. I was awake while a group of teenagers smoked underneath the no-smoking sign outside the apartment complex. I was awake when my mother called and left a voice mail message, saying “I love you, call me.”

I was awake, but I simply did not move. Not until the alarm went off.

Silencing the buzzer, I swung my legs off the bed, stood up, and walked to the bathroom. I disrobed, throwing my underwear into the laundry hamper, turned on the shower, and went on with the business of scrubbing yesterday off of me. After I dressed, I drove my car to the Park-and-Ride and took the 7:30 train to downtown. I got off at the 5th and Market station and walked into Jackson & Son’s Marketing Firm. A mirror monolith of a building, Jackson & Son’s Marketing Firm towered over the other sky crappers, reflecting only dark grey concrete and a florescent bulb sky. I walked in and merged with the other workers inside one of the six elevators on the first floor. I got off on the 7th floor, clocked in with my ID, and went to my cubicle. On my desk was an envelope with only one word written on it: “Dorothy Burns.” I took the envelope off the desk and placed it in my dark brown leather handbag. It was time to work.

At 12PM, I took out my lunch box and ate the cold cob salad I made last night. My cubicle neighbor, Ruth, came over and tapped me on my shoulder.

“There’s cupcakes in the break room. You want some?” she said.

With a mouth full of Romaine lettuce and ranch dressing, I nodded.

“Okay, I’ll go grab you one,” she said.

I swallowed the masticated morsel and took a sip out of my water bottle before continuing on an Excel Spreadsheet, documenting the change in consumer engagement. My cob salad, my bottle was empty, and the lunch hour was over by the time Ruth came back, holding two chocolate cupcakes.

She handed me one and starting munching on the other as she went back to work. I looked at the cupcake. Someone with very calm hands had painstakingly wrote the words “Happy Birthday” with royal icing on the cupcake. I placed the cupcake aside and continued typing.

By 7:00 PM everyone except me and the janitorial staff remained I continued to work until my cell phone began to buzz. I picked it up and turn off the alarm. I saved my progress and sent out the last report before logging off the computer and clocking out. I remembered to place the cupcake in my empty Tupperware before exiting the building.

I repeated this morning’s commute in reverse and in the streetlight-speckled darkness. Once back at the apartment, I checked the mail. There were many cards, all with “Dorothy Burns” written on them. But no bills and no tickets. Just cards. I emptied the mailbox into my handbag and went upstairs.

I undressed and threw my cloths into the laundry hamper. I emptied my bag and prepared lunch for tomorrow. I placed the cupcake with the cards scattered on the table. I took out a glass and filled it with sherry and stood for a while looking at the cupcake and the cards.

I downed the glass of sherry in one gulp, sat down, and read each card. One from Mom, one from Big Bro, one from a classmate from college, another from a classmate form high school, one from that guy who lives two hours away, and some from people I don’t remember. After reading them, I organized the pile on the table and took out some pens and paper. I wrote a thank you note to each sender, using a thank you note template I had found on my phone, and sealed each with the same white envelope I use to send checks. I poured myself another glass of sherry and I checked my phone. There was only one message, still. I hit redial and waited for three beeps. At the third beep, my mother answered. I said, “Hello, mom.”

Call Me Grandma

Human blood is my favorite drink, especially, young warm fresh blood. Thirty years old is just young enough to still have that sweetness of infantile wonder but old enough to have a tinge of disillusionment and a splash of mundane fears. On this day, I was finishing a thirty-year-old graduate student from the University of Washington. His blood was a mixture of one-night stands, homesickness, and too many bottles of mountain dew. Yet, his fear as I drained his body was worth the trip and I do love playing with my food.

They are so cute when they beg.

As I was about to leave through the pentagram on his hands (why do “edgy” humans make it so easy for us?), I heard a knock at the door. Usually, that was my cue to hurry up and leave but I was still thirsty. Maybe it was that girl he was texting. She was twenty-five and therefore so much sweeter.

I listened as the faint knocking continued. After the third rendition of “Shave and a Hair Cut,” I heard a feeble voice.

“Larry, Larry, it’s your grandmother, can I come in?”

A grandmother! Grandmothers are terrifying. They are so close to death, that they know not to fear it. Worst of all, the wisest ones know how to deal with demons…The last one I dealt with sprayed me with holy water and threw a saddle at me.

I began rushing to open the gate through Larry’s hands when I heard the door unlock. My foot was halfway inside the gate when Larry’s grandmother came walking in. She was bent over like a cane and have a pink floral shawl draped over her shoulders. In her hands she carried a casserole dish that smelled of tomatoes and cheese. Her face was leathered and creased like a good book that has been read too often, but her eyes were tiny blue dots behind huge thick glasses.

I stood frozen. Not sure how she would respond to seeing her dead grandson and a red naked demon.

But she didn’t even look my way.

Instead, she beelined straight to the kitchen and began fiddling with the dirty dishes.

“Larry, honey, where did you place the soap? Oh, never mind, I think I found it.”

There was a crash and I started to smell blood.

“Oh, Nancy look what you did not.”

Against, my better judgement, I took my foot out of Larry and left the living room. I took a peak into the kitchen and saw Nancy holding a dirty towel to her hand.

“Larry, I think I need a Band-Aid. Can you go get one for me dear?”

Without thinking, I looked around the kitchen and found a first-aid kit above the fridge. That was the only thing I found easily. The kitchen was a mess, dirty dishes piled high to the ceiling, a fold out chair covered in dirty clothes, and empty boxes of Mountain Dew assembled around a tattered table. I pushed the clothes to the floor, and guided Larry’s grandmother to the chair.

She had not looked up at my since she cut her hand.

I took her hand, cleaned the wound, and bandaged it up. How would Larry let his grandmother see the state of his domicile? Shameful.

By the time I was done bandaging her wound and patting myself on the back for getting rid of yet another neckbeard, I finally realized that Nancy had shifted her gaze upon me.

She was smiling at me. The sweetest smile I had ever seen.

“Thank you, dear. My eyes are not what they use to be and there seems to be a lot of sharp objects in the sink.”

I stumbled backwards and ran back to the living room.

“Wait!”

I stopped as I reached Larry’s lifeless body.

She was standing in the kitchen doorway, her tiny blue eyes locked onto my back. I could feel them burn into me like dry ice. The floor boards creaked as she walks towards me.

I spun around. My pride already dashed. Who ever heard of a Hell Spawn Demon being afraid of a hunched back grandmother?

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” I say, staring right into her eyes and raising my claws into the air.

“I am so lonely. Larry lives right in my apartment complex, ignores me every day despite living rent free, and you see how he lives? I was hoping you might want to stay instead.”

I lowered my claws closer to her and tilted by head.

“WHAT?!”

“Stay. Live here rent free and take care of security around here. Larry was supposed to do that but, well, he never was good at anything was he? Except for tattoos. He was good at getting them. I designed the pentagram on his hand. Told him it would be his birthday present.”

At this point, my arms fell to my sides.

“You’re telling me you wrote the pentagram?”

“Yes.”

“To invite a demon, like me…”

“Yes.”

“To replace your deadbeat grandson?”

“Yes.”

I looked down at Larry’s body and gave it a good kick.

“Heh.”

I haven’t heard something that crazy in centuries. I knew I could kill her and leave her to rot by her grandson but the last time I said no to a crazy scheme I ended up being the only demon not apart of the music industry. Maybe security is the next best thing.

“How many young’uns cause you trouble here?”

“Too many to count.”

“And I get free reign over how security is run here?”

“And all my other apartments in the city.”

“And the catch?”

“Visit with me every week and for every holiday.”

I quickly drafted up a contract, with the regular Deals with The Devil clauses. I signed it in and had Nancy signed with the blood from her hand.

“I look forward to working with you, Nancy.” I smiled as I shook her hand, sealing the deal.

“Oh, please, call me grandma.”

Why I Died Single

It was a pie.

Coconut cream pie to be exact.

There I was, munching on another slice of sin and attempting to write another sonnet (Sonnet Attempt Number 456, when suddenly my head falls into the fattest slice of pie this side of the Mississippi.

The waiter, an 18-year-old college student from UW, dropped his tray of dirty dishes when he saw me. Poor thing. He was so shaken up. He even started to cry.

Amongst the panicked-stricken staff and rubbernecking patrons, I was somehow rushed to the hospital where they pronounced me dead. February 14, 2020, at 1AM.

Technically, I was dead by 12:15am. I know because that was the time on my phone. I know because I was about to check my phone when my body collapsed. I know because I didn’t collapse with my body.

I still thought I was alive. Or dreaming. Or half-day-dreaming-half-food-coma. I don’t know. I just knew that I was sitting in my body one moment, and the next I was out of most of it… I say most because the rest was slipped off my shoulders and slumped on the table like a wet overcoat while I sat where my butt still was.

Getting out wasn’t a problem. It was kind of like slipping off a wetsuit, just not as wet and not as clingy. I did have help — the waiter, the EMT, the doctors, etc. They all moved my body without me in it.

And I followed, not knowing where else to go. The ambulance was, of course, cramped so I had to float above my body.

Such a surreal experience never felt so … Real…

I watched as they tried to resuscitate me. CPR. Defibrillator. But by the second time my body jumped with electricity off the bed, the doctors had to call it.

The immediate cause of death was asphyxiation due to coconut cream pie. But what caused me to face plant the pie was an aneurism.

Always thought chocolate would do me in, but that’s life. Never know what you’re going to get.

For a while, after they placed my body in the county’s morgue, I just floated there… All alone in the morgue. Not knowing what to do with myself.

As in life, as in death, am I right?

Twenty-nine years of life behind me, an eternity of death ahead of me, and I still cannot make up my mind what to do. Wasn’t there supposed to be light? A tunnel? A voice? A skeleton with a gardening tool? Or something?

No. There was nothing except my dead body in a metal freezer and me floating around. I don’t know how many days passed as I watched the mortician come and go, sometimes with files, sometimes with more bodies. There was no rush to contact relatives. All of mine have passed on long before me. Should I go looking for them in this after life? How do you find other dead people? Is there a Google maps for the dead?

As I floated, lost in thought (How would you even have host a site for the non-living?), my body was taken to be cremated, as per my last Will and Testament. I watched as the funeral director, the same man who walked me through my mother’s passing, lifted my body into the cremation casket, a simple light brown box with no metal handles and no cushions.

TO BE CONTINUED…

The Summer of Crows

A thought, brought on by the morning chorus as sung by a neighboring murder.

The summer heat crept into my window, driven by the calls of crows. In a large pine tree a family, a murder, trains new fledglings to feed and fly. I am reminded of a story I learned a long time ago, back when I learned that love and expense were tied into one word: Maganda.

As the story goes, when the world first began, there was no land, only the sea and the sky, and between them was a crow — Black as the space between stars. One day the crow grew tired of flying around. There was no land.

Thinking on the wind, she began to stir up the sea with her wings, until the sea threw its waters against the sky. The sky, in return, tossed thousands of islands into the sea to restrain it. Soon the sea could no longer raise. Instead the sea began to flow back and forth, making a tide that beat to the rhythm of the crow’s wings.

Then the sky spoke.

“Crow, go and land on one of the islands. Build a nest and leave the sea and I in peace!”

As my Nanay told it, from then on the crow lived happily ever after with the other birds on islands between the sea and the sky.

That must have been the first summer of crows.

If You Give Deadpool a Lightsaber

If you give Deadpool a lightsaber, he’s going to ask for another lightsaber.

When you give him the second lightsaber, he’ll probably ask you for a red Sith robe.

When he’s finished dressing up, he’ll ask for the largest mirror in your house.

Then he’ll want to pose dramatically in front your largest mirror, as his robe billows behind him, to make sure he looks as badass as possible.

When he looks into the mirror, he might notice an intruder, so he’ll probably ask for his bag o’ goodies.

When he is finished giving the intruder a taste of his goodies, he’ll want a list of new marks to assassinate.

He’ll start killing (while having you drive him around the city). He might get carried away and destroy every piece of property in the tri-state area.

He may even end up killing people who were never on the contract list to begin with!

When he’s done, he’ll probably want to go back to your place and eat some chimichangas.

You’ll have to fix up a large plate of chimichangas for him with a six pack of beer and chips to go with it.

He’ll dig in, and make himself comfortable on your couch, and place his gore stained boots onto your antique mahogany coffee table.

He’ll probably ask you to put on a movie.

So, you’ll get your DVD collection, and pick out some of your favorites (Neverending Story, Princess Mononoke, The Fault in Our Stars, etc) and he’ll ask to see your Monty Python collection.

As he watches  Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he’ll get so excited that he’ll want to make a movie of his own. You’ll remind him that he already did but then he will stick a chimichanga down your throat before asking for a video camera and a black beret.

He’ll film a movie.

When the movie is finished, he’ll want to burn a copy of it onto a disc and sign it with a Sharpie. He will then save it later to auction off on ebay.

Then he’ll want to upload the movie onto Youtube.

Which means he’ll need your computer.

He’ll upload his movie and watch as the view count goes up with each refresh.

Staring at the glowing screen will remind him that he’s badass.

So, he’ll ask for a lightsaber.

And chances are if he asks for one lightsaber, he’s going to want another one to go with it.

 

 

The Thin Man and His Rice

Once upon a time there was a thin man who lived on a farm with his twelve brothers and elderly parents. His parents were in their twilight years and knew that they were not long for this earth.

As per tradition, the couple gathered their offspring together around their large bamboo bed. Starting with their youngest son, the family’s patriarch gave out their inheritance.

The 13th son received his father’s staff and his mother’s shawl. The 12th son received his father’s youngest carabao and his mother’s cat. The 11th son received his father’s books and his mother’s lamps. The 10th son received his father’s pots and pans and his mother’s silverware.

This continued until the first born, the thin man. By then, nothing was left to give except for “the farm and your mother’s rice seeds,” said the patriarch.

“You will stay on the farm alone and live here as we did. Grow and prosper as I have, my son. May this land give you 20 healthy sons and a beautiful wife as it has given me.”

The thin man did not speak, but instead raised his father’s hand to his forward.

“Go now, my sons, and rest,” said the mother.

The next day, both elders passed away. The funeral was arranged and within one week, both farmer and wife lay in the ancient cemetery on the hill overlooking the village.

Following the funeral, each of the 12 brothers left with their inheritance and with one word of advice for their oldest brother:

“Give and receive as Father and Mother did. Give up on your bad habit.”

The bad habit in question was his stingy nature. The thin man was not generous to himself or others, hence his thin form and emaciated chest. Despite his family’s prosperity,  he never ate more than was necessary. Now, without his brothers they feared he would never eat.

However, he thanked them for their concern and, as the last brother left, he let out a sigh.

“Finally,” he thought, “No one to nag at me.”

Just as the elders wished, each son prospered in his chosen field of interests and the farm flourish. However, despite producing the most rice out of any farmer on the island, the thin man grew thinner and thinner.

With each visit from his brothers, the thin man wasted away, until he was just skin and bones. Yet, despite his brothers worries and fear, he looked happier than ever. The thin man rejoiced in how productive his farm had become and he prided himself on his own frugality.

The farm continued to produce bumper crop after bumper crop, which in turn attracted local mice. Fat black mice began to raid the thin man’s storage and swam in his rice paddies. Enraged, the thin man began to set traps for the mice and scanned his field with a scythe, hunting for more. He cooked the pests outside his house on a fire, hoping the smell of roasted meat would scare others away.

Three moons have passed before his 13th brother came to visit. As the brother walked through the fields of rice, he noticed the decaying remains of mice scattered here and there in cages or decapitated by traps. By the time he reached the thin man, the 13th brother had vomited his breakfast. The smell of mice feces and rotted meat was too much for the young man.

“Kuya,” he said, opening his family’s door, “KUYA! What has happened to the farm?”

“Huh,” said the thin man as he turned to his brother, “Mice, Raul, mice! They have come to take my treasure. So I had to do away with them. Look.”

He held by a bundle of dead mice in his bony hands. The thin man had tied ten mice by their tails with hemp rope.

“I will scare them off with this for sure,” said the thin man.

“Kuya,” Raul said, “No, STOP! The mice are not the problem, Kuya.” Raul held his brother’s arm. “You have too much rice here. I passed a dozen or so mountains of harvested rice just sitting there. Sell the rice and be done with the mice, Kuya, please!”

The thin man stroked his chin while studying the dirt caked on his foot. He click his tongue twice. “You have a point, Raul. I will go to market tomorrow and sell as much as I can carry with the old carabao.”

“Yes, yes!” said Raul, “And I will help you.”

The next day, as promised, the thin man and his brother left for the market with a mountain of rice piled high onto the family’s old cart. At the sight of the rice, many villagers cheered. Their farms had not been as prosperous as the thin man’s and they grew hungry and thin with each passing day. Families by the dozen began flocking towards the cart and shouting, “SELL, SELL, SELL, GIVE, GIVE, GIVE!”

Raul quickly found an open spot in the marketplace and spread out a large blanket.

“How much should charge the people,” he asked the thin man.

The thin man’s eyes glimmered as he looked at the mountain of rice.

“No less than 9000 pesos, Raul,” said the thin man, still staring at the mountain.

“9000 pesos!” Raul laughed, “No, Kuya, I meant per pound? Cup?”

“9000 pesos per cup,” the thin man said, not looking at his brother.

“Kuya,” Raul touched his shoulder, “No one here has that kind of money. 10 pesos is pushing it but 9000 is impossible.”

The thin man looked at his brother, “9000, and that is all, Raul.”

Both brothers sat down and turned family by family away. Before the day was half way done, the crowd became agitated as news of the price of rice spread. Eventually, the village elder were called and brought to the thin man and Raul.

The elder approached the thin man.

“Is it true that you are charging 9000 pesos for a cup of rice?” said the elder.

“Yes, po,” said the thin man.

“Anak,” the elder said, “As you can see the village is poor. Every farm but yours has failed this harvest. I know you and your family. Your parents taught you and your brothers to be generous.”

“Yes, but if I give for free now, what will I get in return later? How can I use you are not hording your money somewhere else, po?” said the thin man, “I will not be tricked out of my wealth.”

“If you will not give freely to the village that fed you, then will you sell at a lower price?” said the elder.

“9000 is as low as I will go,” said the thin man.

The two men stared at each other for a while. The sun extracted a thick bead of sweat from the elder’s brow.

“So be it,” the elder turned to the crowd, “live this man to his fate.”

The crowd dispersed and left the two brothers alone.

Raul and the thin man walked silently to the farm. Raul did not look at his brother. Instead, he packed his things and left without a word. The thin man took no notice.

“Fools,” he thought, “It is about supply and demand, the higher the demand the greater the price for the supply.” He click his tongue.

As he started a fire in his stove, he heard a large thud coming from the barn, where he stored his rice seed.

“Mice.”

He took up his scythe and walked into the barn. The thin man flicked on the lights. The old carabao was eating his hay. The tools still hung on the walls. The bags of rice seed seemed undisturbed. There was only one thing amiss; a small trail of uncooked white rice lead behind the larger bags of seed.

The thin man crept to the seed bag and looked behind it to find a cowering small boy.

“They grow vermin larger than I remember,” said the thin man.

“Please, po,” said the boy, “I only wanted a handful of rice for my sister and I.”

“A vermin and a thief, huh,” said the thin man, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

With that the thin man swung his scythe, missing the boy and striking a bag of seed. The boy darted between the thin man’s legs and ran out of the barn, screaming. It had begun to rain outside and the boy’s feet slipped in a puddle.

The barn door swung open as the thin man screamed after the boy, “Come back here, thief!”

The boy ran behind of the dozen mountains of rice scattered around the field.

“Come out little mouse,” said the thin man, as he stalked around each rice pile.

The boy’s nose began to itch and he was about to sneeze when a hand covered his mouth.

It was Raul. He had come back after he heard a scream. Raul placed his finger to his mouth and motioned the boy to stay.

He came out from behind the rice and faced his brother. “Kuya, what is the meaning of this?”

“Ah! Raul! Good. Have you seen a little thief? He stole some rice from me.”

“Kuya, he is just a boy. What is one bit of rice to you?” The boy came out and hung onto Raul.

“YOU!” shouted the thin man. He raised his scythe to cut down the boy and Raul. Raul ducked and shielded the boy with his body as the earth began to shake.

The earthquake collapsed a mountain of rice onto the thin man and drowned his cries underneath the roar of moving earth.

As the quake subsided, the rain stopped. Raul dug into the rice for the thin man.

He found him, dead, suffocated by rice.

After the funeral, the remaining thirteen brothers decided Raul should keep the farm. Under him, the farm and village prospered. As for the young boy, Raul adopted him and his sister and they lived happily ever after.

Tabi Tabi Po

My mother had many superstitions that I thought were, for lack of a better word, quirky…

“Don’t cut your nails at night or a relative will die,” she would say when I was first caught with nail clippers at night.

“Jump! Jump 10 times! You will grow taller,” she would say during New Years Eve.

“Stop leaving your bags on the floor! Do you want to be poor?!?” she would often scold.

Despite living in the US for over 30 years, Nanay kept these superstitions closer to her heart than Lola’s old rosary. Yet, none of these seemingly silly beliefs disturbed me more than Duwendes.

I was by the TV, watching one of my favorite childhood shows, Dave the Gnome, when my mother came to get me for dinner.

She clicked her tongue. “Ah, watching the duwende again, Lili?”

“Huh?” I said, still watching the cartoon.

“The cartoon, anak, the cartoon. That is a duwende, yeah? Oh, what do you call them here…”

“David is a gnome, po,” I said.

“nome? Yes, nome. He is white so he is a good duwende,” she said.

There was a commercial break so I turned to Nanay. She looked so matter-of-fact when she spoke, as if this was common knowlwede. As a child, I believed she and other adults understood more about what is real and what isn’t, so her words took me by surprise.

She is teasing me, I thought.

“Nanay gnomes aren’t real…”

“Shhh,” she put her hand over my mouth, “anak, no, duwendes are real! Don’t ever say that, they will be upset,” she let go of my mouth and made the sign of the cross before muttering, “Tabi tabi po.”

I didn’t argue about it then. As I got older I almost forgot about duwendes, until my mother and I moved to the East Bay. I was in 8th grade when we moved into the ranch-style fixer upper across the street from the local high school. The front yard looked manageable, if in deep need of some weeding and a lot of TLC, but the back yard … that yard was a small jungle. Nothing short of a wild fire could put a dent into the chest high grass and thorny black berry bushes.

I stared at the fenced in jungle from behind our living room’s glass doors and whistled.

“Nanay, you have to see this!”

She was in the kitchen, opening the last boxes. “What did you say, Lillian?”

I moved into the kitchen. “The yard, po. It looks like the last owners let it grow out of control. We’ll need a weed wacker…or a cement mixer.”

She stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow. Her gaze shifted from me to the yard and her eyes widen. Nanay walked passed and stared deeply into the yard, searching for movement. She quickly did the sign of the cross and closed the blinds.

“Don’t worried about the yard, Lil,” she said. She held my cheek in her right hand as she spoke. “I’ll take care of everything. Go unpack the boxes in your room.”

“Yes, Nanay,” I said.

As I turned to go, I hear Nanay whisper, “Tabi tabi po.”

My room had two windows: one facing the street and one facing the backyard. I kept both windows open while I unpacked, blinds drawn to let in the summer sun. After the first three boxes, I began to notice a strange sound coming from the boxes closes to the backyard window. It sounded like a tiny feet of a rat scurrying between the moving boxes. I called out to Nanay.

“Nanay! I think we have rats,” I said as I moved to the window. I didn’t have our broom on hand, but I wasn’t looking to scare the poor thing. I just wanted to confirm if it was a rat or a mouse. As I lifted one box off of another, the scurrying sound got louder. The bottom box was labeled MISC, and contained my childhood collection of rocks, feathers, sand in small bottles, and tiny things I gathered from our trips back home to the Philippines.

How did a rodent get into our boxes so quick? We had just moved in today…

The box labeled MISC suddenly shook violently. I fell on my backside, and scooted back as fast as I could. “NANAY!” I screamed.

She was at my door before I finished screaming. In her right hand she was clucking Lola’s rosary and in her left hand she held a broom.

“Behind me, Lil!” she said.

I scampered to my feet, keeping one eye on the shaking box.

Nanay held the rosary out towards the box and began advances forward, as if the rosary was a shield.

“Tabi tabi po. Tabi tabi po. Bari-bari apo ma ka ilabas kami apo,” Nanay said, with each step. She turned her head and nodded to me. I began to chat with her, “tabi tabi po.”

The box shoot violently with each utterance.

“Tabi tabi po, tabi tabi po,” we said in unison. I creeped up close to Nanay as she reached down and touched the box lightly with the broom.

The shaking stopped. Nanay bent down, still whispering, “Tabi tabi po.” Setting the broom to her side, she knelt down and began examining the box. There were no holes or chew marks to be seen, and the tape had not been disturbed. She took her long nails and began removing the table from the outside of the box.

As she opened it, the smell of Manila Bay wafted into the room accompanied by the sound of children laughing and older, familiar voices, speaking in Tagalog. For a moment, I was back in Lola’s house, gobbling up Halo-Halo, as my mother and my aunts gossiped about this and that. I didn’t notice the tears in my eyes until Nanay spoke.

“Lil, come, look.”

Inside the box was a small replica of our families old house in the province. Everything was there, from Lolo’s old broken down car to the old swing hanging off the porch. I gasped and fell to my knees by Nanay. She hug my shoulders and I could see tears cascading down her cheeks.

On far wall of the box, written with my collection of feathers and sand was “Maligayang pagbabalik,” Welcome Home.

Underneath The Old Mango Tree

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On my family’s old farm, there grew an old mango tree. Papa said it was the oldest in the whole barrio. After the monsoons passed, as the sun roasted our thatched roof, and the  rats began sniffing around our fields, golden mangoes would appear in between the leaves of that old tree.

There were four of us kids back then, Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, Baby Papito, and me. After doing our chores, we’d run as fast as we could, from every corner of the farm, to meet at the tree. Ate Charity would wait with Papito in her arms as Richie and I climbed up and grabbed as many mangoes as we could carry. Each one was bright yellow like the sun and bigger than the palms of our hands. Once we found one as big as Baby Papito. We gathered our bounty in our shirts and slide down the tree to share it underneath the wide deep green leaves.

However, Nanay was always worried we’d spoil our dinner,  so we only ate one each before coming in to wash and help with dinner. For some reason, she was always uneasy about us going by the tree. She knew the mangoes were large, fresh, and juicy. But even the allure of the golden fruit could not shake her nerves.

“Raul! Richie! Charity! I told you not to sit underneath that tree!” said our mother as we came in one day.

I placed my share of mangoes onto the table. “But, Nanay, it’s nice and cool down there. And we were only there for a little bit.”

She went up to my head and pinched my ear. “I know how long you were there. I was watching. Now go wash your hands and stay away from that tree!”

We never paid her much mind until the day before Tito Mario left for America.

Tito Mario was Nanay’s big brother and he had landed a construction contract in the United States. To send him off the whole family gathered on our farm, the same farm we had for several generations. Lola came all the way from Manilla to be back home and to send her eldest son off.

Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, and I were the only kids in the family, at the time. Baby Papito was being passed around like a little saint from one aunt to another. So, as the grown-ups were gathered inside preparing the dinner and gossiping about this and that, we three planned to sneak out to the mango tree. Just when we were tip-toeing our way through the house, dodging between legs of aunts, uncles, and cousins, I felt a tight bony hand grab my arm.

“Where are you going, anak?” said Lola.

I turned around.

“Just outside, po,” I said. I tried to free myself from her hands.

“Why not stay and visit, anak? We haven’t seen you since Chirstimas,” she said.

“I’ll come back, po, I promise, I just want to grab some mangoes for Tito Mar,” I said, freeing myself at last.

“From where, Raul? That tree. It is too dark to go near that wicked thing!” she said, almost shouting, “Anak, come back!”

By then I was already outside. Richie was looking at me, annoyed.

“What kept you,” he said.

“Lola…” I replied.

He clicked his tongue before motioning me towards the tree.

Lola was right, it was dark outside, but the light from the house help guide us to the tree. Before that night, we had never dared go out to the mango tree after sunset. Nanay would never have it. But she was too busy to stop us and we were hungry for sun-ripened mangoes — not the bitter store bought ones Tita Margie brought.

When we reached the base of the tree, I noticed mango pits scattered around the ground. I picked one up. It had no meat on it — it was clean all around. I tossed it to Richie and Charity.

“Maybe a wild pig got to the fallen fruit,” said Charity.

“Pigs don’t leave pits this clean,” I said.

“Whatever, let’s just get some fruit and go,” said Richie.

He was already half way up the tree when I started my climb. Once my shirt was half way filled, I heard Charity gasp.

“Ate?” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I think. I felt something grab my ankle. Please hurry!”

“You’re just imagining it.” said Richie. He winked at me. “Girls, right?”

I giggled and continued harvesting the mangoes.

In minutes we were down on the ground and filling up the crates Ate Charity had brought with her.

“Let’s get inside fast.” said Charity.

Richie and I nodded. We each picked up a crate and started to head back to the house. But, there was a whole in my crate. Mangoes started falling out of it with each step I took. I only noticed because Richie turned around to gloat about how faster he was at climbing the tree than me.

“Hey, slow bro, you are trailing mangoes. Go pick them up!” he said.

I looked behind me. Sure enough, there was a trail of golden fruit right behind me. I sighed, found the hole in the crate, used my shirt to fill it in, and and started picking up each mango.

Charity and Richie were already inside by the time I picked up the last one. I was angry that they left me behind so I kicked the tree and sat down.

“Fine. I’ll just eat this crate all by myself.” I thought.

I began eating the mangoes underneath the tree, taking angry, bitter bites out of the sweet fruit. I three the pit to the ground and tried to reach for another when I realized I could not get up. My shorts were caught on something.

“Just got caught in the roots,” I thought. So, I pulled harder.

However, the harder I pulled, the more stuck I felt. I looked for the root, thinking I could tear it off of me. It was too dark for me to see, so I looked with both hands, near the ground. With my face close to the ground, and my hands to my right side, I found what I thought to be a root.

But roots shouldn’t feel like bony fingers.

I shook that thought away and pulled. The root felt as cold as ice. Pulling it felt as futile as pulling an ox with one hand. But I kept trying, pulling with as much might as I could muster.

That was when I heard a voice, “Mango…”

I stifled a scream. The voice had come directly below me. I don’t know if I was driven by curiosity or by madness but I started digging at the ground directly in front of me, between my legs.
“Mango…” the voice said. I could hear it better with each passing handful of dirt.

Then, I felt my finger nails scrap against something hard and smooth, like porcelain. The light from the house faced me and as a brushed more dirt of the cold surface, I could just make out the outline of an eye socket.

“Mango…” the voice said. As it spoke, a black eye appeared and glared at me from the darkness.

After that, all I remembered was the scream that came out of my mouth of its own accord and the darkness that followed. I woke up surrounded by Nanay, Lola, and a few of my aunts. I tried to speak, but they hushed me and told me to get more rest.

It wasn’t until after I started going to Uni that I remembered that night. Nanay had become more strict about when we could go near the old tree. Papa had placed more soil on top of the ground, around the tree, making a small hill around it. And Lola became more somber.

She was staying at my parents house, her house really, when I came to visit my senior year of Uni. We visited and talked about old days and the future. I had mentioned the mangoes in passing, and how I would brag about how lucky I was for being raised on a farm to my classmates when Lola looked at me with sad eyes.

“No, anak,” she said. “We are not lucky to have the tree. It is our burden.”

I looked at her. The confusion must have been apparent on my face because she then continued. I will make it brief, for the history of my family’s land is long and tied tightly to the history of our island nation. During WWII, Japanese soldiers took control of the town next to our small village. It was only a matter of time before they came to our barrio. The men were already off fighting for our country elsewhere. Only the women were left and our farm stood between the village property and the Japanese soldiers. So my great grandmother and her sisters came up with a plan. They would lure each soldier to the farm, with promises of sweet mango and much more, and murder them. Their plan worked.

The whole unit of soldiers were led to the farm and each drank poisoned mango juice from the hands of my great grandmother. Their bodies were buried underneath a mango tree, as a final sign of victory.

“As the monsoons came and went, more soil would be swept into the rivers and off the bones of those soldiers. That is why your mother and I never wanted you children near that tree.” she said. “Well, one reason, any way.”

She got up, and patted me on the back.

I went outside, shocked, and sat on the steps leading to the yard with the tree. As I sat there, pondering over what Lola just said, I swear I could hear a faint voice whisper,

“Mangoes…”

 

Dragon’s Lair (post 1)

PROLOGUE: Throw Away Treasure

Thousands of beginnings exist within every single solitary second. How then should I begin my tale? I suppose, for simplicity’s sake, I will begin way back when, about twenty so years ago, on the night after the Monsoons ravaged the Bay.

The skyscrapers and the storms were doing battle over who would have supremacy over the city — who would loom over the small lives that dance undertow? The storms had been winning the war; thrashing the mirrored glass of countless windows asunder, bending the steel framework of the new and old until they cracked under their own weight. These storms were putting human architecture to the test. Many buildings collapsed during the Monsoons, but these were mostly the newer ones; those built by profit-driven businessmen from the Lower Heights district.

The safest buildings were the low-lying, older mansions, shacks, and homes of various designs. These were buildings created with respect, or a patronizing sense of respect, to the storms and in honor of the Earth from whence we came and to where most of us aspire to return.

When the storms had past, the wreckage lay splatted across in all directions of the city. Of all the tall buildings erected to stab the sky, only the old clock tower remained swaying in the evening breeze. It’s foundation, untouched by the storms, sparkled crimson under the remains of the fallen buildings. Above the wreckage the tower stretched high into the sky, it’s weathered stone thicker than the height of a man and twice as strong as his soul gleamed like the scales on a Black Dragon’s neck.  The onyx stone gradually gave way to pure white marbled that shined mother-of-pearl when hit by the eastern sun. A single silver bell hang high onto of the bell tower, under a roof-top laced with bronze and gold. As the sun rose, the bell rang out over the once glorious city of Kenae (note to writer: Mykenae = greek city-state).

Most of the citizens, this day, were mourning the dead, counting their loses, and asking WHY in one continuous howl. However, there were those who not only lacked the time, patience, or luxury of sorrow — they lacked the sense of lost all together. For them, Kenae was never theirs to begin with. Separated by politics from family and friends, forced to work by for those who think less of them for little to no pay, suffering various indiginities until they begin to forget that they too are human. No. These poor souls could not mourn for a city that was never theirs to begin with, for they are and will forever be Mystics.

Due to the politics of the day, Mystics were herded into three large groups: the Crafters, Operatives, and Laboreres. The largest group was the Laborers and on the day of September 29, they were out in full force cleaning up the debris, lifting the carcasses of fallen metallic giants off the ground and into large green steel trucks known as Turtles. The Turtles carry the remains into the processing plants on the outskirts of town where Mystics rummage through the trash and extract anything of value before the rest is sent to the incinerator deep below the ground.  The treasures are usually sent to recycling once they reach the processing plant and are sorted out. But where there’s treasure there will always  be treasure hunters. Or as those who possess the fortune to be righteous call them, vultures.

But Mystics by nature do an efficient clean-up job. They began restoring order before it was even lost. They did not do it for home or country — they did it to survive on their daily wages — comforted in the knowledge that their pay checks came from the tax surplus drenched in their forefathers’ blood.

They own no one anything and thus can take whatever throw-away treasure comes their way.

One in particular knew no family at all. Well, no family beyond the forgotten scraps that were once important for a particular task. He collected tin cans, rusted nails, gears, cogs, pistons, panels, sockets, tools, antique trinkets, jewelry, and what ever else he found in the trash of the wealthy.These were kind and kin to Baloo the Bugbear of Trash-Heap Hallows (as he would famously boast in pubs until it finally stick).  His flat roofed, aluminum clad  shack sat a mile east of the processing plant, right in between the plant and the city landfill. It was no bigger than 4800 square feet wide and 7 feet  tall. On the outside, it looked like a very large aluminum crate with an outrageously ornate elm door set into the right corner facing the road. Ply wood steps lead to the door and formed a small porch where tin cans were gathered, standing like sentries to a castle. The earth around the shack seemed to be more mud than earth, but despite appearances formed a strong foundation for the shack and hid the true nature of it fairly well from would-be tax collectors.

You see, Baloo was a treasure hunter and he built his small isolated castle out of the treasures he found before they reached the plant.

He was the best.