As a finalist at this year’s Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, this story has a chance to win. Not sure if it will, but being shortlisted is already an honor.
I wonder how that will go at the awarding. Will all the finalists be made to stand onstage and hold hands? Will we be given a chance to cry? Can we put our hands over our mouths and shriek when another person’s name is called? Can we hug each other but secretly think ‘You bitch, that crown should have been mine’?Tell me, is there going to be a suspenseful drumroll? GASP.
Oh, you’re still here. How kind of you.
Anyway, here’s “An Abduction by Mermaids”. Special thanks to Katt, who read it first.
Hope you enjoy it.
P.S. My poem, “Storytellers” is now up on elimae. Click on the link to read.
Okay, back to the story. :D
An Abduction by Mermaids
Philippines Free Press
April 26, 2008
The day the mermaids appeared on the surface of the river in his hometown, David was too busy figuring out how to get a copy of an NBI clearance as soon as possible. The one in Carriedo required an NSO-authenticated birth certificate, and to get that, David thought bitterly and wearily, entailed the shelling out of P125 pesos times three because HR wouldn’t accept photocopies so that means I have to pay around four hundred and half a day of sitting on his butt in that sad East Ave office with the wooden benches and the dark and the people who assume automatically that you want to leave the country. David did have a copy of his birth certificate, only it was frayed and torn and looked like a flat sheet of butter, being as old as he was. It was sitting at the bottom of his sock drawer in his family’s house in Bulacan, which was a tricycle ride away from the river full of mermaids.
Or, David thought, he could go home to Bulacan, get his birth certificate, and bring that to the NBI office in Plaridel. NBI branches were less stringent than the main office. But the thing is, David thought again, backtracking mentally but feeling the fatigue settle on his shoulders, if I had a namesake in the records I’d have to wait for a week. A week, and David Cruz wasn’t an extraordinary name. Surely a David Cruz somewhere, sometime, have murdered someone, raped someone.
David felt exhausted just thinking about it all. When his mother’s call came, he was already writing TO FOLLOW opposite NBI CLEAR. on his requirements checklist, fighting the urge to add IN A HUNDRED YEARS OR SO.
“There were what,” David said, softly, into his cell phone, not because he wanted to be polite—everyone around him in the office was barking orders into telephone receivers, at fax machines, computers that were just too slow, so it didn’t matter whether he screamed at his mother or not, or threw his phone at the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the cubicles, which was what he was aching to do—but simply because, when he heard the steady drone of his mother’s voice, he knew everything was hopeless. Again he wondered how it had come to this. Again he wondered why he didn’t just change his SIM card, why he even gave her his number.
“Mermaids, David,” his mother said. She said she saw one when she went out with Agnes to the market yesterday. The boats were pulling in, it was very early, and there was a mermaid sitting on the shallower parts of the river. “The ilados and that noisy tindig didn’t see her because they were too busy counting the kalakal and hauling off the coolers.”
Her mother said Agnes went out again yesterday night. “She saw five,” David’s mother said. “She told me. The moon was full, and she saw five of them.
“And now she’s gone,” his mother said, sobbing now. “David,” an editor called. “David!” David turned away from his computer monitor, head canted at an angle to keep his cell phone from falling off his shoulder. “David!” A press release was stuck in one of the fax machines. “Storify this one once you figure out how to remove the damn thing,” the editor said. “I need this ASAP. Inside pages, okay?”
“I woke up this morning and she’s gone,” his mother said in his ear. “Your sister’s gone.”
David knew he was supposed to feel guilty, but he had been feeling guilty for many years now, and he believed he’d had enough. “I don’t need this right now, Mother,” David said, and stood up to get the damn press release out of the stupid machine.
“So how’s your first month?” Monica said when they met up at lunch break. Sam was already there, staring at the TV. ANC’s on. ANC’s always on. CNN, sometimes. Or Eat Bulaga, on rare occasions. There was a cafeteria on the ground floor, but Monica and Sam—they did layouts—ate at the round table in the middle of all the cubicles and the computers and the wires, surrounded by stacks of first edition newspapers. Their food came from the free lunch at the editorial meeting, which, according to Sam, did not taste bad but was not spectacular either. Monica told David to get some from the buffet, but David had already ordered take-out from McDonald’s.
David was employed as an editorial assistant. His tasks included writing the kind of stuff that the reporters couldn’t be bothered with, like that press release, or the occasional obituary, and basically being ordered around by any of the seven editors present on that floor. The skills required in his job included, but were not limited to, pressing F5 on his keyboard to refresh the company email, which was where the reporters send their stories; looking at the wall clock immediately above his workstation so as to know what time to put when logging in the articles as they came, and waiting, waiting, waiting, until all the articles were sent and all the editors/reporters/researchers/outsiders sufficiently pampered. He believed he had the longest time-out range in the entire building: between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.
On his first week on the job he had already downloaded several gigabytes of free online games and the most inane sitcom episodes from YouTube to keep him company during the empty hours.
“Uy,” Sam said, nodding at David when he sat down. He and Sam started working on the same day, but Sam had already given HR all of the requirements. David thought of Bulacan, birth certificates, NBI, his mother. Agnes. David suddenly wanted to sleep.
“All right, so far,” David told Monica, who smiled approvingly. “Still alive.” David wondered why Monica even bothered to ask him this every single day. He always said the same thing.
They ate. “Can somebody tell me why the ‘Inside’ box is in the second page?” a female editor said to no one in particular. She clutched today’s edition of the newspaper in one hand. “Why tell me what’s ‘inside’ when I’m already inside?”
David saw Sam heave a deep sigh, but said nothing.
“Honest mistake,” Monica whispered, now also staring intently at ANC. The news said it rained hailstones in Quezon City just that morning.
“Damn it,” Sam said.
“Oh come on, Sam.”
“Hailstones, huh,” David said.
Monica glanced briefly at him. “Maybe it’s the end of the world.”
My sister saw five mermaids last night, David thought, but didn’t say. He offered some fries, but nobody wanted them.
“I’ve heard of weirder stuff,” Sam said, who had apparently already recovered from the lashing. The female editor thumped the newspaper on her desk and sat down, fixing her makeup. “I have a cousin who takes up Socio. They do immersions, ethnography, that sort of stuff. Once they went to this town, which was cursed—“
“Cursed,” Monica said, still looking at the TV. One of the editors fired up a cigarette and changed the channel, switching to a soccer game.
“Cursed,” Sam said, nodding. “My cousin and five of his classmates stayed there the whole day. They mingled with the townsfolk, ate their food, went to the local chapel. Everything appears normal. The town looked like just any old town—“
“Where is this?” asked Monica.
Sam shrugged. “So by sunset they said good bye. The town mayor went with them to the town exit, you know, that place with the arc marking the boundary—“
“Yes, yes, yes, yes.” Monica said, her eyes on Sam now. Either she was excited about the story’s climax or she wanted to say something. David glanced at the TV screen, watched the ball weave around feet and legs, so much green surprising his eyes. The editor smoked.
“Then when the sun set,” said Sam, “the town captain walked back into the town on his hands.” Sam smiled. “Apparently, that’s their curse: everyone in that town, come sunset, will walk on their hands. Isn’t that fucked?”
“And they don’t get bothered by it?” Monica asked, then made a face. “This sinampalukang manok is horrendous.”
“No,” said Sam. “My cousin said the people there walked on their hands like it’s the most normal thing in the world. They just watched from the arc, of course. They were too scared. I can have it if you don’t want it. You can have my daing.”
David watched Monica and Sam fish into each other’s plates. “Man, their palms must’ve hurt like hell every morning.”
“Yes. You know, we should pitch this story at the editorial meeting.”
“Oh. Yes. For colors.”
“Why were they cursed?” David asked.
Monica and Sam looked at him as though surprised he was still sitting there.
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “It’s like a long time ago they killed a witch’s kid. Something like that.”
“I know another fucked up story,” Monica said. “Although this is truly fucked up, because yours is at least based on some real curse. Well, unless, your cousin’s just high on rugby when he went on immersion.”
“That sounds plausible,” Sam said. They went on to make jokes out of the words “drugs” and “immerse” and “rugby”, until they ran out of wit. David looked at his fries, took one, chewed on it without tasting it.
“I know it happened in Bulacan,” Monica said, automatically looking at David. No, David wanted to say, don’t look at me, I don’t know the province like the back of my hand. No, I haven’t heard of it, whatever it is. No, I’ve been there only once in the past four years so it is impossible that I—
No, I don’t want to go back there ever again.
“San Miguel?” said Monica. David shrugged.
“Anywho, a barangay there,” Monica continued. “There’s this river, all right. Every year, people drown in that river. Townspeople believe it’s cursed, like the people it takes are the sacrifices for some past atrocity their ancestors committed. Yadah-yadah-yadah. Then one day, they found out that there were people under the river who pull those who swim there to their deaths—“
“Mermaids?” Sam chirped. David flinched.
“No,” Monica said. “People. Employees of the local funeral parlor. They were killing people for profit.”
“Yes,” Monica said. “Google it. I think GMA’s made a report out of it a week or so ago.”
Silence. “That is fucked,” said Sam.
“I know, right?” Monica said. “I wonder how they can sleep at night.”
“Must have made the superstitious want to hide their faces.”
“I know there’s a place in Batangas, or, I don’t know, somewhere in Central Luzon. You know, like an open field”—Sam gestured “an open field” with his arms—“where you can hear your own voice speaking to you at midnight.”
“Brrrrr,” Monica said, shivering. “Now that’s scary. What will it tell you?”
“Stuff about the other side.”
“In your own voice?”
Monica shivered again, this time without the vocal equivalent.
David wondered what his voice would say if he had stood on that field.
Hello, David imagined himself saying in the darkness. Hello there. Speak up. If I had known this place existed I would have saved myself an awful lot of time.
The fact was, back in his hometown, he and three of his good friends—Sarah, Marco, and Marco’s younger brother Allen—were Red Cross volunteers. There was a chapter in their barangay which held seminars every other Saturday, and the four of them decided to sign up high school senior year (Allen’s freshman year) for the free lunch and the chance to blow air into the old Red Cross CPR dummy, whose mouth tasted unsurprisingly like a thick wad of rubber bands. Their concern for extracurricular points came later, but when their adviser did the tallies for high school graduation one of them was as good as dead and so they hardly cared anymore.
What started it all was that early morning in December when they were hanging out by the river after the mass, when one of the fishermen’s children fell off the boats while the coolers were being hauled off. Marco dove in and carried the boy back, then “breathed life into him”, as Sarah phrased it.
It wasn’t the fact that Marco just saved a life that stuck to them, the way the December chill stuck to their bodies. What they carried home was the fact that the boy, when he came to, said he saw a small white dot on the top of Allen’s head. The white dot was actually Allen’s scalp, white against his thick black hair, a scar from a fall when he was young.
What the boy Marco just saved was saying was that he floated above everybody, that he left his body when he drowned and flew.
They’ve heard of near-death experiences before, of course, of course. Who hasn’t? But the boy was closer, the confession innocent, firsthand.
Marco and Allen were orphans, and it always bothered them that they couldn’t know for sure whether their parents were still around in spirit, whether they could hear them whenever they spoke to them. Their maternal grandparents believed in the afterlife with fervor, but Marco and Allen didn’t care much for their grandparents.
David couldn’t now for the life of him remember who initiated that first suicide. His best guess was Marco, but it could have also been Allen, maybe even Sarah, with all the books she’d read about how many minutes the body can safely stay dead before revival and so on.
David knew it wasn’t him, but he couldn’t be sure.
All he knew was that it led to another chilly December stay by the river, this time at the dead of night, and this time not by the marketplace where all the boats docked, but farther, past three barangays into the next town. They rode in Sarah’s father’s tricycle, driven by Marco, the cold wind rushing at them, every whoosh like a laceration. Sarah told his father that they were just going to finish a project in Marco’s house, and Sarah’s father trusted Marco enough not to phone his and Allen’s grandparents to check.
They brought flashlights, spare batteries, towels, spare clothes. For the “project”, Sarah told her father.
Marco parked the tricycle by the river in that other town and asked his brother, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Can you carry David?” Allen said, grinning. “With Sarah I don’t think you’d dare.”
Sarah would have hit him with a fist, but that night she simply tested the flashlights and took out the towels.
David tried to read Marco’s expression, but it was too dark.
“Yes,” Allen said then, and before they knew it they were pouring out of the tricycle and Marco and Allen were wading into the river—“I can’t feel my balls!” Allen shouted gleefully—with David following a few feet behind.
He looked back once: Sarah stayed by the tricycle, spreading one of the towels on the ground with the flashlight lit and held in place with her chin, her face shining like a ghost from some movie.
Marco stopped when he thought it was deep enough and held Allen underwater until he stopped floundering, which seemed to David like a long, long time.
Then they were running back, Marco holding Allen’s head and shoulders and David carrying his feet. They lay him on the towel, and Marco administered CPR. There was a moment when David thought all three of them would crack: Sarah was already crying and Marco screaming like someone deranged—Allen, Allen, Allen, come on—but then Allen gasped and coughed and everything was fine.
The first thing Allen did after he got over the coughing fit was cry his lungs out.
“What?” Marco said, shaking him gently. “What is it?”
Allen said he saw their parents.
They became obsessed about it for weeks and weeks. They didn’t want to do it in the river again—they caught colds and Allen ran a slight fever—and naturally they couldn’t hang themselves or cut themselves because that would leave marks. So David smothered Marco with a pillow one day and Sarah the next.
Marco said he saw his father sitting beside him, with that grin he remembered, that grin that seemed to say, What are you boys up to now?
Sarah said she saw a light, which comforted her.
(It comforted her so much that she apparently sought it for years after that, until she jumped from the twenty-first floor of a hotel, junior year college. She and David attended the same University; he heard of the jump from the TV and covered the event himself for the college paper. In the article he talked of her like he didn’t know her.)
Allen wanted to do it again, so Marco straddled him in his bedroom and covered his face with a pillow. It took a very long time to revive him, and it affected his brain, something about oxygen deprivation, David didn’t really listen to the doctor that closely. Allen lost the ability to speak, and Marco was shattered, so naturally the “project” had to stop.
It was Marco who smothered him, David remembered well.
David saw nothing.
There was that struggle, then darkness, then he was breathing hard, staring at the ceiling, gasping for air on the bed with Marco holding his face saying, Easy, easy.
David didn’t lie to them. He said he saw nothing.
David told them, I feel cheated.
On that field, will his voice answer him? David wondered.
There is nothing here, it might say.
It might say, This is all there is.
David knew Agnes wasn’t abducted by mermaids not only because he didn’t believe in mermaids but because Agnes has been dead for nearly three months now.
Agnes killed herself. She hung herself with one of her black stockings in her bedroom one afternoon when no one was at home.
Their father saw her first, coming home fresh from a K of C meeting.
Their father wasn’t a Red Cross volunteer, so he didn’t know how to do CPR. In any case, CPR wouldn’t work because Agnes had already broken her trachea the moment she kicked the chair from under her.
So it didn’t matter that David wasn’t there to help cut her down or “breathe life” into her. David had announced that he would not come home to their house in Bulacan anymore the moment he stepped foot inside the University.
But David blamed himself anyway.
David guessed it was the grades. Their mother was a control freak, and David saw, when the mail from the University finally arrived, that Agnes had to retake three electives because she failed to pass the finals. Agnes was two years younger and was taking Computer Science, a far cry from Journalism, so David didn’t care much about her. Even during their high school days they were never close, David having Red Cross and his three friends, and Agnes having Physics tutorials and books and the TV.
Their last interaction was on David’s first day as an official unemployed college graduate, and Agnes’s sophomore year, a week before her suicide. They met outside SM North Edsa because Agnes wanted to borrow David’s laptop, which annoyed David no end because he needed the computer to fix his resume and portfolio.
“So when can I have it back?” David snapped when they met. Agnes said something about having to rush three papers, which made David’s blood boil even more. Agnes sounded like it’s his fault she couldn’t write her papers on schedule.
“And kuya,” she said, “can I borrow money? I have this project that’s so costly I—“
“Are you crazy?” David said. “I’m job-hunting. Why don’t you ask Mother for money? Why do you always have to come to me?”
David was indignant, but he knew, deep down, that he was also ashamed he couldn’t even spare his sister a few hundreds when she needed it.
“Okay,” Agnes said, and shuffled away with his laptop. Okay was Agnes’ last word to him, her last word to him on the planet. Okay. She said it with a sigh, with a tone that said, Well, at least I tried.
Marco was present at the burial, and he cried harder than David’s parents when the casket was shut and lowered. David didn’t cry at all.
“I didn’t really see him,” Marco told him, sobbing. “I didn’t really see my father when you—I just said it because Allen was so happy and I didn’t want—“
Marco looked at Agnes’s casket being covered with dirt, looked at the hole like it was the most horrifying thing in the world.
“You said you didn’t see anything,” Marco said. “David—“ Marco looked at the casket fast disappearing beneath the dirt, and touched his shoulder. “ David, I am so—“
“What?” David said sharply, jerking his body away from Marco’s touch. “What else do you want from me?”
“Let’s bring these back,” Monica said, collecting her plate. They stood up. David looked at the leftover fries and the mound of ketchup, rolled them all up with both hands.
“Yes. I still have two pages to finish.”
“Yes. And maybe this time you can put the ‘Inside’ box on the front page.”
“Who wrote this article?” an editor asked.
David cursed under his breath.
“You,” the editor said. “Were you present at the orientation?”
Of course. The rhetorical question that had to be answered. Monica and Sam scurried away.
“Yes, sir,” David said.
“And what’s our policy about direct lifting?”
I didn’t lift from the press release, David protested in his head. I wrote my own lead, I looked at previous articles, I—
“Sir, I didn’t—“
Or did he?
“You’ve wasted enough of my time already,” the editor said.
This is the part where I’m supposed to blow up, David thought, but he was too tired. He threw the rest of his lunch into the trash and urged his finger to work. F5, F5, F5.
No new news blew up after 7 pm, so the banner stayed, and David got home early. It didn’t matter; he rented a bed in a boarding house filled with college boys, so the house was empty when he got home, being a Friday. All of a sudden he missed his roommate, a law student named Carlos. David normally hated him because Carlos couldn’t stop talking about himself—throw him a question, any question, like, “How many units are you taking this sem?” and his mouth would be off, tackling not only his “toxic semester”—he used that word a lot when referring to law school, “toxic”—but his favorite profs and his abilities and the awards he took home while in undergrad and on and on, making David avoid asking him anything at all costs—but now the only sound there was was the sound of the cars passing outside, and David suddenly wanted to hear a voice other than his own.
He got his wish after taking a shower. He was about to go to bed when he found his cell phone flopping around on his bed like a fish.
“Yes, Mother,” David said.
“Oh, Bert, he’s awake!” his mother said to someone else. “David? David?”
David didn’t reply.
“David,” his mother said, tearing up again. “About Agnes—“
“She’s dead, Mother,” David said.
“No, no,” her mother said. “The mermaids—”
A brief silence, then a soft sobbing. David heard the phone change hands. For a long while his father didn’t say anything.
“You could have tried to be nice to her,” his father said.
David wanted to scream. She’s losing her mind, you dumb fuck, don’t you get that? Why don’t you do something?
But David so wanted to sleep, and the house was so oppressively mute, so he just ended the call. He thought of the line, lines, he had to wait in after tonight, thought of his stupid job, his measly salary, his mother, the brokenness he was going to inherit after his father passed on. The nothing that comes after, the nothing that Agnes was in now, because there are no mermaids, there is no comforting light.
David cried, clutching his cell phone with both hands, sobbing so hard his chest ached.
David dreamt that night. In the dream, he was standing waist-deep in the river of his hometown. He believed, without a doubt, as men are wont to believe without a doubt in dreams, that he would find his sister if he looked down into the water. He knew he would see her face, if he looked close enough.