by Alex Purugganan
Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Biggs
Locals were afraid to speak to her not only because her visions were invariably condemning, but the people were also wary of being seen by the inquiring, judgmental eyes of others who took Marcario’s great aunt as a mankukulam, a witch, and the Forefinger of Death.
Marcario licked the powdered sugar from his lips and fingers. “I’m so hungry, Lola Tunay,” he said. “The ensaymada is so delicious.” His stomach yearned for more bread. The hunger made him foolish enough to challenge her. He said, “Besides, you eat too much anyway.”
“Stupid child! Always so disrespectful! Your mouth will be your doom!”
“You don’t frighten me,” he said, crossing his arms. “Everyone else is scared of you. Not me.”
She shook her head, narrowed her eyes and took a bite of the half-eaten pastry. “I find it humorous.”
“That your own mouth – the bad-mannered mouth that eats and eats – will itself be consumed by a monster’s mouth.”
Marcario tried to hide his fear. He rarely spoke to her, his lone surviving relative after his parents’ deaths. He learned to disguise his emotions while he lived with her, but she had never before prophesied anything regarding him. Whenever she spoke of future events to the townspeople, she had always been correct. Just a month prior, she had foretold the drowning murder of a neighbor’s daughter, referring to it as “a prolonged ballet in the village waterfall, ending with the child too weary to continue after the final dip from her partner’s powerful arms.” Her prophesies were always morose, predicting the fall or death of others, but sugar-coated to lessen the blow and, perhaps, to enliven hope. Another time she had envisioned the return of the town scholar who had sailed to America to study English and find work in order to send money home to his family. “He will be messianic and resolute in a hail of flower petals, and will bestow on our children the glorious gift of knowledge seared into him from America.” And the scholar did return. He had stepped off the horse carriage with help from the driver, holding a bushel of orchids for his mother in one hand and awkwardly supporting his weight on the cane he held in the other hand. The heavy limp was the result from an accident with a shredding machine at a Seattle cannery. His eyes were pained and dull, blind from the torch’s fire blazed into him after he had been seen kissing a white woman outside a San Francisco nightclub.
Marcario knew of all the rumors. He was familiar with his great aunt’s legend. Before her days as a seer, she had skin as fair as cotton and hair fashioned by the Virgin Mary herself. She was the town’s beauty queen, prevailing in all of the local and regional contests, drawing the eyes and desire of men and the malice of women. After her first vision became reality—the torture and execution of her parents by the Spanish magistrate—she had realized how fleeting, almost meaningless, everything she knew was: her admiration from others, her beauty, her hope of a potential family of her own. All would eventually be lost or taken away. She became indolent, growing her hair as course as coconut tufts, gorging on cassava cakes and ensaymada, and developing hideous moles and deep caverns of wrinkles along her cheeks and neck after baking her skin daily under the oppressive island sun.
Locals were afraid to speak to her not only because her visions were invariably condemning, but the people were also wary of being seen by the inquiring, judgmental eyes of others who took Marcario’s great aunt as a mankukulam, a witch, and the Forefinger of Death. Nevertheless, they were always compelled to walk over to her porch while Marcario sat in silence and she sucked the juicy meat of a mango pit or slurped the remains of marrow from bones. No one asked of her health or of her day, only of their fates and the fates of their family members and if they could be altered. So she kept to her visions, which galvanized her and became her only true solace—her visions and the desserts she concealed in her kitchen and underneath her mattress.
“You will be eaten by a beast,” she told Marcario.
“What beast? The carabao? The chickens? The monkeys in the forest?”
“Its teeth will chew on your flesh.”
“You’re a crazy old woman!” He tried to mimic her with his own pointed finger, but it did not carry the same effect. “And I’m the only one who’s not afraid to tell you!”
“Your blood will drip from its lips, spill into in its mouth.”
“Liar! I don’t believe you!” He knew his voice was replete with dread. He balled his fists and held his breath.
He had already once lost consciousness, but even through the immeasurable pain, he fought not to pass out again. Not here, not like this, the old man thought.
* * *
It took all of Marcario’s strength, what little of it was left, not to move. The cold razors that pierced into his abdomen and had already ravaged his face, felt as if they were sinking deeper into him at the slightest movement. His hands grew colder. He could not feel his legs but imagined them broken and twisted. He was afraid to open his eyes, refusing to see the slow death that chewed at him; his blood was warm on his face. He smelled pine—artificial pine—and whiskey.
He had already once lost consciousness, but even through the immeasurable pain, he fought not to pass out again. Not here, not like this, the old man thought. His throat and tongue were dry; he swallowed hard, tasting his blood. He tried to yell. “Please, someone. I need help! Someone?”
His eyes opened to the sound of a door’s lock unbolting behind him. A thin streak of light flashed above his head, landing onto the back seat, spotlighting a black medical bag. A stethoscope dangled from its side like a noose. Without turning his head, he said, “Please. My legs. I can’t move them.”
“Hush up!” the voice behind him said.
“Please! I need help!”
“You need to hush up!” the voice said sharply.
The door shut quietly with a click and Marcario was once again left underneath a shroud of darkness.
He managed to move his left hand along the warmth of the car’s hood. He felt small fragments of broken glass, but he concentrated on the heat from the engine. It comforted, soothed, and reminded him of the balmy white sands of Puerto Azul where his great aunt had regularly brought him as a child after much imploration on his part.
* * *
The walk to the beach from the village was far too long, far too lonely since none of the other children would accompany him being the nephew of the Forefinger of Death, and his great aunt had her bicycle which she had never allowed him to ride alone. “Not until your eyes can meet mine,” she told him. “Only then can you use it.”
It was humiliating to sit across the spine of the bike, cradled in between her corpulent, clammy arms. He was never able to ignore the other children’s clamoring or their taunting faces. But they never dared insult her. The children said that she was intimate with the most wrathful and repugnant demons of hell, the ones that retched lava, savaged on the souls of the living, feasted on Satan’s most rancorous of shits. The children prattled how she transformed to an aswang, a vampire, at dusk, hunting for pregnant women. They said she would fly to the rooftops just above her victims’ bedroom and, as they slept, extended her rapier-like tongue from the thatches of the roof, piercing the woman’s belly and sucking out the contents of her womb. Afterwards she would dance with the kapres, the giants of the jungle that were as immense as the trees, empowering her with more enchantment from the smoke of their pipes.
“I can tell you how they will all die,” his aunt told him during one of his more abusive rides and as she sucked on sugar cane. He counted the grotesque moles poking out of her forearm’s skin, dark and with tiny whiskers like the noses of rats peering through their holes.
“No,” he said. “I know they will all die.” He felt her grin behind his head.
He found peace at Puerto Azul in an area where no one seemed to venture, away from the cruel children and other locals who feared his aunt. As he cooled himself and swam in the water, she soaked the blazing light of the sun without a hat, without any concern of burning her leather skin. She was an expert swimmer in her time and had told tales of touching the ocean’s floor and finding a lost tribe that had turned amphibious after the landing of the Spaniards. She roared with laughter whenever he was taken by a wave, and he had wondered whether or not she would attempt to rescue him if he never emerged. He had decided to put the matter to test, swimming as far as he could and remaining underwater for what he thought was an immeasurable amount of time. When his lungs could no longer endure the strain, he rose for air and found her still sitting on the sand, unmoving.
“I could have died,” he said with exhaustion after swimming back to shore. “I could have died and you don’t care!”
“No. You are very much alive.” She was eating puto, small rice cakes, swallowing them whole with barely a chew.
“I almost drowned!”
“Almost is not death. I’ve already told you how you will die. The beast will—”
“I wish I could swim the entire ocean and never see you again!” He turned his back to her and looked beyond at the vastness of the water.
“No one is stopping you.”
He collapsed onto the sand and wept. The warm earth coddled him more than his great aunt ever would, he thought.
* * *
The light shifted upward, above his eyes. He could see more shadows, excessive curves, but it was the piercing fragrance of synthetic rose petals that prompted him to say, “You’re a woman!”
“Who’s there?” He didn’t possess the strength to lift a hand above his face to shield him from the light. He squinted instead, trying to distinguish the shadow emitting the light, hoping he could somehow reach its soul. “I’m an old man,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I need a hospital, a doctor. Please – ”
“You alright,” the voice said. “I need another drink. You wanna drink?”
Marcario heard the sound of ice ringing, swirling in glass. He asked, “Who are you? I need a hospital!” The light shifted upward, above his eyes. He could see more shadows, excessive curves, but it was the piercing fragrance of synthetic rose petals that prompted him to say, “You’re a woman!”
“It’s yo fault,” she said. “You shin’t been on the street like that. Late as it was. Slow as you walk. Wearin’ nuthin’ but black and gray as if you was the Reapa’ himself. Man yo age out that late!” The source of the flashlight scanned the air clumsily. He heard the snapping of rubber and felt two cold fingers press into his neck just underneath his jaw. “Hmph,” the voice said. The flashlight turned off. With much effort, the powerfully built shadow stumbled out of the car. Marcario moaned as it shook.
“What are you doing?” His mouth was dry, and he traced his cracked lips with his tongue. “Mam, my name is Mark. Mark Propeta.”
A light switched on and Marcario blinked as the blackness transformed into a garage. He could make out shelves with an assortment of paint cans, wood treatment canisters, boxes of surgical gloves, and a folded black tarp. Hanging from a wall were folding chairs, a rake, a wheelbarrow, and a shovel. Below the wheelbarrow was a bag of “ALL-PURPOSE PREMIUM FERTILIZER” and another of “Weed Control.”
A large poster with a group of different ethnicities, men and women, dressed in hospital scrubs, promoting “Healthcare Services Month” at City Hospital draped the wall next to the shovel. Marcario narrowed his eyes, staring into the happy, smiling faces on the poster until the woman said, “Look at my goddamn car! Fender’s done. Lucky to have gotten back home.”
“Please, just drop me at a hospital. Any hospital. I will not say anything.” With each pleading word, he felt his strength leaving him. He tried to control his breathing, fearing he would convulse into shock.
She paused. “Can’t do that.”
“Water, then. Water, please.”
“Yeah, okay. I could do that.” He heard her shuffling away from him, the sound of the ice in the glass faint and distant. He heard the door behind him open and close.
Marcario thought of his now useless legs. He could no longer feel them but he knew they were still there, not left in any dark, empty intersection.
The woman returned, switched on the light, and entered the car through the driver’s side. “Don’t look at me,” she said, raising a glass of water to his lips. With eagerness, he lapped the water, some of it dripping onto his chin.
“Thank you.” He began to moan, feeling the wetness across his stomach slowly extending onto his chest.
“Will you hush up?” she whispered with violence. “It’s your fault, ya old fool! You shin’t been on the street in those old rags. No person in the world could’a seen ya. Two in the mornin’. Man yo age. How’s anyone suppose’ta see ya?”
“No, no! No one will blame you. I do not blame you. But, please, you need –”
“Need? The hell I need! The hell I need! You needed not to be on the streets at two in the mornin’! How’s anyone suppose’ta see ya, huh? You just shut yo mouth and let me think!” She moved next to the shovel and touched its handle with her fingertips.
Standing in between the shovel and the Healthcare Services poster, Marcario saw that the woman resembled one of the nurses in the photo.
“Get yo head straight, Clara,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Get it right.”
“Clara?” he said.
She turned to look at Marcario, blinking excessively, swaying as she stood. Before leaving the garage again, she switched off the light.
Marcario thought of his now useless legs. He could no longer feel them but he knew they were still there, not left in any dark, empty intersection. His legs and feet were the only things about him that his great aunt had openly admired. He had taught himself how to dance native folk dances, and she watched him practice, nodding and clapping along to his movements.
* * *
“Develop this talent,” she said, “and no one will touch you.” As a teenager, he wooed the girls with his dancing during the town fiestas. His fair complexion, which resembled his great aunt’s and was so highly valued among the colonized, and his brooding, sad eyes also made the girls take notice, and oftentimes left them breathless, but their fear of his great aunt took precedence over their attraction for him.
“Why do you torture me, Lola Tunay?”
“What are you complaining about now?”
“You’ve frightened away another girl.”
“You’ll have plenty of women in your life.”
“What women? I only have you.”
“If only everyone were so fortunate.”
* * *
Marcario did not hear Clara enter the garage. He awoke to the sound of the wheelbarrow being removed from the wall, the toll of the shovel echoing into its carrier.
“You want more water?” she said, motioning to her own glass.
“Why? Why are you doing this?”
Breathing heavily, she took down one of the folding chairs, unfolded it, and sat. She finished her water, placing the glass underneath her, and kneaded her face with her hands. “You got any family?”
Although his vision was blurred, he could see a softness in her expression. “No one will say anything.”
“You got any family? Anyone take care of you?”
She took a long breath and sat erect. “Like my gran-mama. Raised me. Put me through school and made sure I went. Made sure I made somethin’ of myself.”
“My grandmother’s sister. My great aunt. She’s my only family.”
She tilted her head and furrowed her brow in disbelief. “She still alive?
“She raised me.”
She took a long breath and sat erect. “Like my gran-mama. Raised me. Put me through school and made sure I went. Made sure I made somethin’ of myself.” She laughed, clicking her tongue. “She taught me how to garden. Grow plants, pull weeds and shit. I love puttin’ my hands in the dirt, sun on my face. She taught me that. Salt of the earth, my gran-mama, that’s what she is.”
“The pain is too much for me, Clara. Please help me.”
“So, you see, right? I can’t let her down. I’m only twenty-six. I got a whole life ahead. Some kids, maybe. I’ll teach them to garden. How old are you?”
“I’m dying,” he managed to say to her.
“Yeah, well, I see people die every day,” she said, almost as if she was telling herself. She picked up the glass, stood, and moved to the wheelbarrow, pushing it to the side of the car.
“Because you work at a hospital?”
“The poster. You’re a nurse.”
“Mister, right now, all I am is someone tryin’ to survive.”
“No, you’re a nurse! You are supposed to help me!”
“I’m just someone trying to survive. That’s all that matters.”
“But you’re killing me!”
Her eyes widened and she trembled at his words. “No, uh-uh. That’s not what this is. I’m not a bad person.” She lowered the wheelbarrow and put her hands on her hips. “Grant me strength,” he heard her mumble. She turned, her back facing Marcario, and left him in darkness.
* * *
Before leaving for America, Marcario saw anguish and perhaps even fear in his great aunt. She would finally be alone with only her morbid visions to keep her company, he had thought. She had reminded him of this fact when she reaffirmed his appointment with Death. “Your monster has a master,” she said.
“Lola Tunay, I don’t want to hear anymore –”
“You will be most intimate with this master. More than anyone you will ever meet.”
After years of hearing of his losing battle with the ravenous beast, he had finally erupted, “I pray death upon you, you witch! You have been nothing but a curse, a plague in my life!”
Lola Tunay stood before him and gripped his shoulders. She was much shorter than him, but their eyes met as equals. “Tell me how I will pass from this world, Marcario.”
“What do you mean?”
“We are unable to see our own deaths.”
“You have the gift. I know you have the gift.” She smiled and reached for his cheek.
He pulled away from her and resumed packing his clothes. “You’re speaking nonsense. More than usual.”
“You should not hide yourself any longer. You are like me.”
“Embrace who you are, Marcario. Give me peace before you leave me. Tell me how I am going to die.”
Isolated, he grew old and tired, waiting for the animal, the one his great aunt had foretold, to finally take him. He grew very old. He was very tired.
He left the Philippines, never sharing the secret his great aunt had sought. He left a year before her mangled, charred corpse was buried in an unmarked grave hidden deep in the rain forest. Even in death, she was right about his ability. In America he saw how all of his friends, his romantic companions, even strangers in passing would die. He knew of their fates but could not change them, so he learned to never allow himself to become too involved, too absorbed in relationships with others. It not only became too painful to behold all of their deaths—his beloved friend who choked on her own vomit while gagged and trapped in a trunk of a car; the comrades-in-arms whose bodies exploded in enemy mortar fire; the gaunt faces of children condemned with disease, taking their last breaths—but he learned almost immediately that he could also feel their deaths. He felt their angry, willful spirits wanting to roar at God. He felt their false optimism while trying to barter for a few more years, a few more months, one last week. He felt their fingertips clawing for anything to grip as Death dragged them away. All of it was so much to ingest. How did Lola Tunay do it? he constantly asked himself.
Isolated, he grew old and tired, waiting for the animal, the one his great aunt had foretold, to finally take him. He grew very old. He was very tired.
* * *
Clara sat on the folding chair. She looked freshly bathed and had changed into hospital scrubs, charcoal in color. She was wearing rubber gloves. Traces of light seeped through the cracks of the large garage door as dawn made its approach.
“I’m so thirsty,” he said. “It’s cold.”
“Listen, mister, I know this aint right. I know that.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I have to protect myself, though, you understand? I’m not a bad person. And you aint gonna make it now.”
“I’m sorry. You hear me? I’m sorry. I’m just a simple woman.”
Marcario could hear the pain in the woman’s voice, sounding as if she was talking while driving over gravel, sounding like Lola Tunay’s voice when she had begged him to foretell her death. He could not tell her that the villagers would take her feeble, elderly form while she suffered from consumption. No longer fearing her and her predictions, they would take her from her own bed—her hidden candies scattered across her floor—drag her into the forest, and engulf her with flames. One would think that her terror and agony would be cloaked by the consumption, but she still managed to wail curses at the villagers while the fire consumed her flesh. Marcario shook at the image of his great aunt’s blackened corpse. With all that was left in him, he howled for her. “Lola Tunay!”
“Stop it! Stop the yelling!” Clara said. “I’m sorry! They’ll take my life away. I can’t! Can’t you see?”
Marcario took a long, painful breath and said, “Please just lay me on the hood of the car, and I’ll stop.”
“Then you’ll stop?”
Clara again entered through the driver’s side door. Her face was next to his own. Up close in the light, her eyes were swollen and red and her cheeks were soft and doughy. In the light, Marcario thought her smooth, dark skin, her thick hair, and her full lips were beautiful. Her hands made their way underneath his armpits. “You ready?” she said. She huffed, the smell of whiskey filling the car, lifting and pushing his broken body from the windshield.
His strength gone, he could only muster a sob. More blood left him, its metallic scent, stout and forceful. He whimpered as he looked at her strained face. With much care, she slowly pushed him onto the hood of the car. He surrendered his cheek onto its cool, wet surface.
His great aunt had prepared him for this moment unlike the gift he was unwilling to give her to prepare for her own death. He siphoned her power from his memories as he felt the force begin to manifest in the pit of his stomach. It was dense and mounting, surging onto his shoulders and neck, inducing both euphoria and despair. His muscles became taut, and for the first time, he did not possess the will or the desire to suppress what his great aunt had called their gift.
“I’m sorry, Clara.” He lay on his stomach, reaching out for her hand.
“What was that?” Clara pulled herself out of the car, leaving the car door, like herself, agape.
“I finally know who I am.”
“What’cha . . . I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you.
He watched her struggle to reach for his hand, lifting her fingers gently into the air before pulling them back onto her lips.
“You will live in seclusion as a pariah, as one who loathes her own reflection.”
“The remainder of your days will be riddled with condemning verses and declarations, your bones toppling like children’s blocks. The children that you will never have, the children that will forever abhor and fear you.”
“And your flesh will boil from your own shame, your family’s shame, bringing about a bloodletting that will sever you . . . from this life.”
Clara cupped her face with her hands, stained with his blood, and shook.
“Know this, Clara. Know that I love you. Know that you have allowed me to suffer some peace.”
The smell of pine, whiskey, roses, and his blood, along with the sound of Clara’s violent sobbing and the sight of her overwrought body, dissolved into a vacuum of nothing.
* * *
He savored only the pineapple ensaymada, the smell of Puerto Azul’s waters, the smile of his great aunt.
© Alex Purugganan