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Vigilance

It was Espie's job to stand vigilant at the window, looking for her Lola Nemia among the swarms in the Customs Area below. The people pushed carts piled high with suitcases and boxes. They stood in long lines, waiting for their belongings to be opened and rummaged through. Customs officials dug through clothing and undergarments with rubber-gloved hands, examining packages and confiscating perishable items, gifts from back home. Espie stopped watching because she didn't even know what her Lola Nemia looked like. Her uncle, Tito Johnny, told her that she would "just know" when she saw her. After all, it was only natural that a granddaughter would recognize her own grandmother. Espie didn't like the pressure of it all. She thought it felt like a test, so instead she pressed her face against the window until her nose flattened. She licked the window, pleased by the way the glass felt against her skin and tongue, so smooth and cool, like ice that wouldn't melt.

Her mother's forehead was wrinkled with worry. It had been that way often in those months prior to Lola Nemia's arrival.

"Maria Esperanza!" her mother yelled from behind. "Stop that. That window is so dirty. You'll get germs. Come over here." Her mother's forehead was wrinkled with worry. It had been that way often in those months prior to Lola Nemia's arrival.

Espie left her post by the window. Tito Johnny tugged playfully at Espie's ponytail as they switched places. He stood watch at the window, and she sat in the plastic chair next to her mother.

Espie's mother pulled a crumpled tissue from inside her sleeve and wiped Espie's face roughly. "You behave today, okay? Your Lola hasn't seen you since you were a baby, so show her what a big girl you are now." Her voice softened as she tightened Espie's ponytail. "Okay, hija?"

Espie nodded.

"Do you remember what you're supposed to do when you see your Lola?"

"Yes, Mama." Espie looked down at her shoes. They were her shiny church shoes with the little buckle.

"Show me. Practice on your Tito Johnny."

Espie wrinkled her nose and dragged her shiny church shoes across the floor as she approached Tito Johnny. She took his hand that was rough and brown like leather, and quickly touched the back of his hand to her forehead. "Mano po," she mumbled, then dropped his hand and ran back to her mother, burying her head in her mother's lap.

She laughed to herself as she imagined her grandmother stiff and flat, smooth like pants that had just been ironed.

Tito Johnny laughed and looked at his sister, who stroked Espie's hair. "You can't be serious, Pilar. Don't make the poor girl do that. Nobody does that anymore, especially here. It's so…" He shook his head in disgust. "…so old-fashioned."

Espie's mother ignored Tito Johnny and pried her daughter's head from her lap. She hugged Espie and said, "Good girl. I'm so proud of you. Your Lola will be so impressed."

Espie wasn't sure what that word impressed meant. She laughed to herself as she imagined her grandmother stiff and flat, smooth like pants that had just been ironed.

"She's here," Tito Johnny announced. "Let's go down to meet her."
They had to wait another ten minutes behind a rope that looked like the ones at the movie theater. It had been a long time since her mother or Tito Johnny had taken her to see a movie. Espie's mother took out her mirror and reapplied her lipstick. Tito Johnny knelt down and took Espie's hand to his sweaty forehead. He exaggerated her American accent, laughing and repeating man owe poe, man owe poe. His belly bulged over his belt buckle, jiggling as he laughed.

When Lola Nemia finally emerged from the Customs and Immigration Area, Espie stayed at the movie theater rope, turning it like a jump rope. They thought she did not see how everyone cried, how Tito Johnny's belly jiggled when he cried too. They thought she did not see how her mother and Lola Nemia clung to each other, two pairs of arms holding on, looking like they should have been standing at the other side of the terminal at the departure gate. They thought she did not see the bone-chilling worry that rippled through Lola Nemia's body when she looked at her daughter, thin, pale, and tired. She saw everything, but did not understand it all. There were many things that Espie would not understand about Lola Nemia's arrival from the Philippines and the events that followed. She only knew what her mother told her-that Lola Nemia was coming to live with them, to help them. She was coming so that they could all be together, like a family should be.

"Espie, come over here naman! You greet your Lola! Do it properly." Her mother's voice was stern, like when she would tell Espie to take a bath for the third time.

Espie stood next to her mother, who pushed her forward to her grandmother. Nervously, she took her grandmother's cold, wrinkled hand to her forehead and greeted her. Lola Nemia bent down and hugged Espie, peppering her with loud kisses on both of her cheeks.

...life around the apartment changed, and Espie did not like it. Lola Nemia moved into Tito Johnny's room. Tito Johnny now slept
on the couch
in the living room...

"So you're not too American after all. You still know how to respect your Lola." She stepped back to look at Espie. Her pink lipstick was smudged, and black streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks. Espie thought she looked like a sad clown.

"My goodness, Espie. You're so big now. The last time I saw you, you were just a baby. Now look at you. So gwapa." She pinched and shook Espie's chin.

Over the next few weeks, life around the apartment changed, and Espie did not like it. Lola Nemia moved into Tito Johnny's room. Tito Johnny now slept on the couch in the living room, and since he kept odd work hours he'd often be sleeping when she came home from school. This meant that she could no longer watch The Brady Bunch re-runs on channel 32 every afternoon. She couldn't sing along with the opening credits, belting out her favorite line: All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls. Instead, she locked herself in the bathroom, fastening toilet paper tubes to her hair with her mother's bobby pins, but it didn't help. She couldn't get her hair to curl like Cindy's. It just hung straight down pitifully.

Espie also didn't like that instead of her mother or Tito Johnny, Lola Nemia cooked dinner every night. This meant that they had to eat rice and Filipino food all the time, and they never had macaroni and cheese or Hamburger Helper anymore. Espie hated that fried fish smell and she worried that the kids at school could smell it on her clothes.

Lola Nemia tried to convince Espie to sleep with her in Tito Johnny's room, saying that Espie's mother needed to rest and have her own room for a while. But Espie refused. Espie's mother tried to convince her by saying that Lola Nemia needed someone to keep her company, but Espie still refused.

Espie's mother seemed to need more and more rest, which was obviously Lola Nemia's fault. The more that Lola Nemia did around the house, the less her mother did. The more time Espie had to spend with Lola Nemia, the less time she could spend with her mother. The longer Lola Nemia stayed, the more tired her mother got. How could these things not be related?

Although Espie still did not approve of Lola Nemia's moving in and taking over Tito Johnny's room, she liked to stand just outside the open bedroom door, watching Lola Nemia perform her nightly rituals. Lola Nemia always invited Espie inside, but Espie did not want to give Lola Nemia the wrong impression. So she just lingered in the hallway, pretending to be busy playing jacks on the floor outside the bedroom, all the while studying Lola Nemia's peculiar habits.

Espie once asked her where the hair came from. Was it her own braid that she had cut off so she could save it in a velvet-lined box for the rest of her life? "No. It is hair from dead people. Don't touch it."

First, Lola Nemia plopped her dentures into a fizzing glass on her nightstand. Without her teeth her lips looked funny, like she was sucking on a slice of sour lemon. Then, she kneaded baby lotion up and down her arms, making circles around the folds of her elbows. Espie did not approve of an old lady like her using lotion meant for babies. And finally (Espie's favorite part), Lola Nemia pulled bobby pins from her silver and black hair. Most of her hair was silver; just the braid that coiled tightly into a bun was black. She unwound the bun then removed the long braid completely. Before rolling it up and carefully placing it in the velvet-lined box, Lola Nemia held it to the lamplight, examining it for loose hairs. It hung from her hands like a dead, black snake. Espie once asked her where the hair came from. Was it her own braid that she had cut off so she could save it in a velvet-lined box for the rest of her life? "No. It is hair from dead people. Don't touch it."

After she put her braid away, Lola Nemia knelt at her nightstand. Next to her fizzing denture glass, Lola kept a wooden crucifix and a black-and-white photograph of Lolo Edgar as a young man. Espie had been building up the courage to do this for weeks, and on this particular night, she waited for Lola Nemia to start praying. While Lola Nemia closed her eyes and silently moved her lips, Espie tip-toed over to the velvet-lined box. She gingerly grasped one end of the braid, shivering as she thought about how she was touching dead people's hair. The braid uncoiled as she pulled, and she imagined the snake slithering out of the box, across the dresser, and onto the floor. Lola Nemia made the sign of the cross and kissed Lolo Edgar's picture, then the wooden crucifix. She pulled herself up from her knees and turned around to find Espie with the lifeless snake in her hands.

"Sssst!" she hissed. "Espie, you put that down. Maldita talaga!" She shuffled over to Espie and slapped her hands, taking the limp braid and inspecting then re-rolling it. "You better behave. If you're a bad girl, the aswang will come and eat you when you sleep! Do you want that? Ha? You want the aswang to get you?"

"No, Lola," Espie said to her feet. "But what's the aswang?" she asked timidly.

"You don't know what the aswang is? Didn't your mommy tell you about it before?"

Espie shook her head. Her mother used to read her stories before she went to bed, but none of them had anything about an aswang that ate children while they slept. And now her mother didn't even read those stories anymore. Her mother always went to sleep first.

"Well, come sit here next to me and I'll tell you. But you have to listen good, Espie. Listen so that you will remember why you should be a good girl." Lola Nemia eased herself into bed, propping herself up on pillows. Espie sat on the edge, careful not to give the wrong impression.

In the daytime, they look just like normal ladies, but they are not. They are not human. In
the night, their hair turns white like the moon
and flows in the wind.

Lola Nemia drew a deep breath that whistled out between her gums as she exhaled. Her voice lost its sharp, scolding edge and grew soft and raspy, like she was revealing a secret. "Back home in the Philippines there is an island called Siquijor. In fact, when I was a little girl, I could see it from my island. It's just across the way, but I have never been there. There are many stories about that place. That is where the witches are from. We call them the aswang. In the daytime, they look just like normal ladies, but they are not. They are not human. In the night, their hair turns white like the moon and flows in the wind. Their eyes glow red like the devil. When everyone is sleeping, the aswang fly to other islands. They land on the roofs of other people's houses. Sometimes you can hear them land—doog!" She clapped her hands together when she said this. Espie jumped. "After they land on your roof, their bodies will separate in half, like it's cut across the tummy. But it's not cut. It's just half. Black magic, you know. The bottom half will wait on the roof and the top half will fly in the window. And the aswang will fly into the bedroom and eat all the bad children!"

Espie knew the story wasn't real, but still her heart pounded in fear.
"Now go to bed. And be a good girl, okay? Don't wake your mama." She grabbed Espie's face with her baby soft hands and kissed her goodnight by sniffing both of her cheeks.

The light was still on in their room when Espie came to bed, but her mother was sleeping. The tray of food Espie had brought her for dinner still sat on the nightstand untouched. Espie slowly crawled under the covers, holding her breath, hoping not to wake her mother. When Espie switched off the lamp, her mother rolled over to face her and glanced at the alarm clock on Espie's nightstand.
"It's so late, hija. You have school tomorrow. Why did you come to bed so late?" There was only a hint of sternness in her mother's voice. Espie missed the full power of her mother's sternness.
"I was with Lola Nemia, keeping her company. She gets lonely here sometimes."

Espie's mother kissed her on the forehead. Espie couldn't see her mother's face in the dark, but preferred it that way. She hated to see how her mother's skin now stretched over her bones, how her eyes looked like they had fallen deeper into their sockets.
"Mama, are the aswang real?" Espie whispered, as if they might be listening.

"The aswang? Where'd you hear about the aswang? Of course they're not real."

"Lola Nemia told me about them. She told me that she heard them landing on the roofs of other people's houses and that they would eat me if I was bad."

Espie's mother laughed softly. "They're not real. Don't listen to your Lola's crazy stories. That's all they are, crazy stories." Then, as an afterthought, she added, "Anyway, if they were real, they couldn't come here all the way across the ocean. It's too far."

Espie felt relieved by her mother's sound logic.

"And besides," her mother yawned, "she's telling it wrong. The aswang don't eat bad children. They only eat babies who are still inside their mama's bellies."

The aswang floated into the bedroom
and hovered above
the bed. It opened its mouth wide and plunged down. It began to eat her mother.

Espie felt her stomach turn and tried hard not to imagine the aswang feasting on the unborn, curled up into little balls of flesh, their eyes still shut tight to the world.

"Lola's getting all her stories mixed up. Only Santa Claus watches to see who's good and bad. Well, Santa and God, of course."

That night Espie dreamt of a pack of aswang soaring high above the ocean. The moon shone down on them, illuminating their flowing white hair. Their eyes pierced red beams of light through the night sky. With shrill screams, exhausted aswang plummeted into the ocean below. By the time they crossed the vast water, only a few aswang survived, and even those that remained continued to fall from the sky. Only one circled above the city lights, in search of Espie's apartment building. With a loud thud, it landed on her roof then tore itself apart, leaving its bottom half behind. The top half flew from window to window, peering inside for the tasty flesh of one bad girl who nestled at her mother's side. At twenty stories tall, the building had so many windows to look through, and the aswang grew tired. But just as it was about to fall in exhaustion, it clung to the window ledge outside Espie and her mother's bedroom. It licked its lips and slid open the window. Espie screamed and shook her mother, but she would not wake. The aswang floated into the bedroom and hovered above the bed. It opened its mouth wide and plunged down. It began to eat her mother. Like a snake, it slowly sucked her mother in whole. She did not fight and there was no blood. She disappeared from feet to head into the impossibly wide mouth of the aswang. When the aswang was satisfied, it turned to leave, and Espie noticed that its hair was not white and flowing. The aswang darted out the window, with a long, black braid trailing behind.

Espie woke with a start, but did not wake her mother. Months ago, she would have screamed and shaken her mother, just like in the dream, wrapped herself up in her mother's strong arms. But that was before. Instead, she carefully placed her hand on her mother's chest and felt the rise and fall of her mother's breath.

Espie loved school, and especially looked forward to art class every Tuesday. On this Tuesday, Ms. Barrington told the students to draw a family portrait. Espie sharpened all of her colored pencils and lined them up on her desk in order of the rainbow. She drew herself in the middle and her mother and Tito Johnny on either side. They were holding hands and smiling, surrounded by trees and birds and flowers. She finished before all the other kids, so she decided to add Lola Nemia. She stuck Lola Nemia on the other side of the tree, and made her small, smaller than Espie. She looked at Melissa Greene's portrait and saw Melissa with her mother and father and two little sisters. She turned around and saw Billy Walker's portrait. He drew himself and his parents, and in his mother's arms was Billy's baby brother wrapped up in a blue blanket. Espie crumpled up her picture and cried quietly at her desk. Ms. Barrington came over and asked Espie what was wrong. Why did she ruin her picture? Espie only cried more when Ms. Barrington rubbed her back and brought her a box of tissues. That afternoon, Ms. Barrington made Espie stay after school, which made her cry even more.

"You're not in trouble, Espie. I'm just concerned about you. I just want to talk to your parents, so we're waiting for someone to pick you up."

Tito Johnny burst in, still wearing his security guard uniform. When Lola Nemia saw him dressed for work for the first time, she was so proud. She thought he was a police officer and not the night security guard at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Jackson.

"What happened?" he asked, breathless. "Is everything okay? Is she in trouble?"

"No, no she's not in trouble. Are you her father?" Ms. Barrington held her hand out.

He shook Ms. Barrington's hand. "I'm her uncle."

She poked at hard gobs of gum under the table with her pencil as she watched Ms. Barrington show Tito Johnny
the wrinkled family portrait.

Ms. Barrington led Tito Johnny to her big, oak teacher desk at the front of the room, leaving Espie alone and fidgeting at the round reading table at the back. She poked at hard gobs of gum under the table with her pencil as she watched Ms. Barrington show Tito Johnny the wrinkled family portrait. She caught snatches of sentences: very concerned, signs of unhappiness or depression, family life. Tito Johnny rubbed his forehead like he did when he watched football games that he bet on and his team was losing. He answered and again she heard pieces: mother very ill, no father, lots of changes.

On the way home, Tito Johnny bought her a chocolate ice cream cone at Bresler's, but all she wanted was a baby brother wrapped in a blue blanket.

One night, as Lola Nemia got ready for bed, Espie shyly walked into the bedroom. She looked at the picture of Lolo Edgar. She thought about how happy her mother must have been when she was a girl, with a handsome father like Lolo Edgar. She even had a baby brother, Tito Johnny.

Lola Nemia saw Espie in the dresser mirror. "Yes, that's your Lolo, Espie. He was such a good man. I miss him very much."

Espie picked up the picture and sat on the edge of the bed, staring at his smiling eyes, the dimple on his right cheek, his hair parted and slicked back. Was it possible to miss someone you never even knew?

I knew that my Edgar sent me those birds,
a sign to let me know that I am not alone. So ever since then, I believe. I believe that your Lolo is here
with me, with us.

"Yes, I miss him very much. But when your Lolo died, he sent me a sign. I knew right away that he would never leave me. You see, it was a Saturday when he died. Every Saturday afternoon, he would go to the basketball court with his friends and they would watch the young guys play. They would yell and cuss at those young guys, taunting them, telling them how back in their day, they could play better than those young guys. And on this Saturday, your Lolo had a heart attack. Right there on the side of the court. Maybe he was too worked up, yelling at those young guys. I always used to tell him to take it easy. He had a temper, you know. So his friends took him right away to the hospital, but the doctor said there was nothing to be done. Your Lolo was already gone. It was your Lolo's best friend Rudy who called me with the news. The news that my Edgar was dead. I was shocked, you know. Really shocked. Cause I was just there, at home making merienda for your Lolo like always, taking out the fresh pandisal from the oven, pouring a glass of cold calamansi juice, getting ready for him to come home and take his snack. Like he did every Saturday afternoon. But he would not come home that day or any day after that. He was gone. And just as I hung up the phone, I heard a loud, loud noise. Like so many birds chirping at once. It was not normal. I was crying already about your Lolo, but I could not ignore that loud noise, so strange. So I open the door and I look outside and there are birds everywhere. White birds in the branches of the mango tree and the papaya tree, on the roof of the house, on the gate and on the clothesline. Hundreds of white birds everywhere chirping so loud…at me! I could not believe it. But somehow it made it easier. I knew that my Edgar sent me those birds, a sign to let me know that I am not alone. So ever since then, I believe. I believe that your Lolo is here with me, with us." Lola Nemia sat down on the bed next to Espie and touched the picture lightly with her fingertips. "And sometimes I see him. He visits sometimes."

"What do you mean he visits? You mean he's a ghost?"

She laughed and Espie saw her shiny gums. "Ay, Espie. It's not a ghost. It's your Lolo. Just your Lolo visiting."

"But aren't you scared when you see him?"

"Why should I be scared to see Lolo? It's just him. He's not scary. It's nice to see him. I don't feel lonely when I see him. I hope that you won't be scared if he visits you, Espie. Just say hello. See if he will say something to you. Maybe he will tell you the numbers for the lottery!" Lola Nemia shook with delight at her own cleverness.

Espie didn't believe Lola Nemia's story. Not one bit. But when her mother died months later, she stood watch at the window for weeks. Watching. Waiting. Waiting for white birds. She stood at the window of her bedroom. She stood at the window of the funeral parlor. She even searched the sky from the backseat car window, but no birds came. Nothing. If Lolo Edgar sent birds to Lola Nemia to comfort her, why wouldn't Espie's mother do the same for her? Why wouldn't her mother give her a sign to let her know that she was not alone? The birds never came and Espie never did forgive her mother for that.

© Isabel Garcia-Gonzales

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Ikatlong Lagim
ni Conrad Tolosa

Vigilance
by Isabel Garcia-Gonzales

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