This story won First Place in the Short Story category of the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards for 2009, given out last night at the Zobel Dining room of the Makati Sports Complex.
by Eliza Victoria
This story originally appeared in the Philippines Free Press
He was finally able to speak with his older brother in 2008, in a room at the end of a hospital corridor in Manila, by the wall with the window, the final light of the day slanting in as the dusk settled, coloring the sky outside the pane of glass. They were both staring through it, thinking of the words to say. Meanwhile the yellow light faded with each passing minute, the glow so much like the sunset in their early days, descending upon their shoulders as they walked side by side on the field. He remembered that: the walk, and the wait, the plan in his brother’s head so clear it was almost palpable. Their fear. And they were afraid, both of them. Both of them. He remembered that clearly. It was a memory that glimmered more brilliantly than all the others.
He had seen him before, of course. In Marbach, for example, during the madness of the Children’s Crusade, marching toward Italy where they would later disintegrate, some of them (including his brother) disappearing forever. He saw his brother dart away from the boy from Cologne, the one who supposedly received the Message, as he himself moved in and gripped the boy’s arm, whispering urgently: umkehren, umkehren. Turn back, turn back. The boy didn’t listen, of course. The Holy Land needed their aid. What Holy Land? he had wanted to scream then, suddenly weary and furious. What aid? He had followed the boy, who spoke to him while the group was in Mainz, out of curiosity and mild amusement. Then he saw his brother among the boy’s followers. As the boy gently pried his hand away he tried to push through the knot of marching children. He wanted to come to his brother and say, Listen.
He had lost count of the many times he had attempted to approach him. In China, during the famine, when he saw him shoving pulverized stones into his mouth in a silent backyard. Walking several paces ahead of him in the shadow of the Tower of London, waiting for the queen to be imprisoned. Standing, morose and alone, in the Hall of Mirrors, reflected in one of the looking-glasses as the dancers of the ball rose and fell all around him like a wave of fabric. He knew his brother was among the crowd escaping from the soil that wouldn’t yield, the land that betrayed them. He knew he was there when the factories rose, when soot and sound fell across the cities.
But he knew, also, that his brother could sense his presence, and did his best to avoid him. Once, in Cambridge, in 1850, they ended up in the same dormitory, students at the dawn of a new age. (There was always a “dawn” and a “new age”; he wondered what this particular one—mechanized and ruthless—would bring.) For days he would look for his brother in the faces of his classmates and professors, but would fail to find him. He knew his floor, his room number, so one night he finally summoned the courage to climb up the staircase and stand outside his doorway. A light was flickering inside the room, and from the shadows seeping through the gap between the bottom of the door and the floor he saw with a jolt that his brother was standing on the other side.
He touched the door, his fingers resting lightly on the wood. He was getting ready to say his brother’s name.
“Don’t,” a voice on the other side suddenly said.
He jumped back as if the door were on fire.
“I know you’re there,” his brother said. “Just go.”
And he did, because he was a coward, because he was heartbroken, because the very act of forming his brother’s name in his mouth after so many lifetimes had drained him, and now he wanted to just go back to his bed. Years and years ago his brother had said to him, “Let’s go out into the field”, and he followed. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised to feel himself pulling away from that corridor, as he watched his feet walk down the stairs. Back in his classes, he kept imagining that someone was calling his name. His real name, not the name he was given in that particular life. That was impossible, of course. Nobody knew his name.
He had one other close encounter with him before 2008, and this time, he was able to see his brother face-to-face. It was 1902, in the Philippines, in the country they would choose to live in for several decades. (It was a country filled with the usual maladies: a history of invasion, more than one declaration of independence, corruption, discontent, diaspora—things that didn’t surprise him, having seen them in other shores, other times. Later, he would see this country give birth to a generation with members who would find beauty still in a country so much less that it once was, but would feel in their bones that something was amiss, something had been taken from them. Their forefathers would try to talk to them about a lost greatness, but would do so spitefully, as if the loss were their fault. They would go through life with a pensive expression on their faces, trying to remember.)
In 1902, Manila fell to cholera. The boats and the trains traveling to the provinces were temporarily stopped, and more than 200 special police swooped into the city to guard its exits. In that life his name was Niño, and when the plague came he was twelve years old. He knew nothing of what had caused it; being a child, he was never spoken to seriously, and even if the adults did speak, Niño was quick to realize that they also did not have a clue. Later, lives later, he would read in a book the theory that the disease was brought into the metropolis from Canton, which was suffering from it, through a shipment of cabbages. Cabbages. It was almost hilarious. But in 1902, all Niño’s parents could think of was judgment and darkness. All at once, their neighbors were waking up sick and vomiting over the side of their beds. They became fearful of the disinfectant carts: the sick driven away in an ambulance, their relatives forced into isolation, the food inside their homes destroyed, everything else submerged in acid. They were horrified, but not surprised, when stories about fathers who kept their sick children locked in secret rooms traveled the paralyzed streets. Who could blame the young man who carried his dead sister in his arms, and placed her on a slab of stone several meters away from their mother’s house, in a place where her origin would not be traced? Who could blame the mother with two healthy sons, who pushed her sick youngest out onto a dark street and told him, Stay here I will come back for you, and did not come back? Who could blame the daughter who said Not mine, not mine when confronted with the dead body of her own mother? Dead bodies were found in fields and rivers, discarded and nameless. Every night, the people would dream of a man with the feet of a rooster knocking on their doors, and wake up covered in sweat, dreaming they had answered.
One of their neighbors, a kind young woman named Luisita, lost her husband to the plague. She accepted the fumigation and quarantine with a calm that astonished even the health inspectors, but one night they heard her screaming from inside her house: “This town should be burned! This town should be burned to the ground, so we could start anew!” Sometimes she called her dead husband’s name.
Niño’s father, who was a businessman, began talking to his mother about bribing one of the special police so they could slip out of the district. “And how do you suppose are we going to travel from there?” she said with alarm. “Are we going to walk to Cavite? Is that what you are proposing?” They had money, but they were not rich enough to own a car.
While this apparently futile plan was being hatched, Niño slipped out of the house. He always left the house whenever his parents fought, but this time he went further and opened the wrought-iron gate and walked out onto the sidewalk. He turned around the corner and listened to the soles of his shoes slapping on the pavement. Behind the houses was an empty field of grass and weeds and trees, unlit. Every now and then the clouds shifted, and a moonbeam would hit a leaf here, a wild flower there, making them glimmer. It was an empty lot that had been bought by one of the Americans, and for weeks after the purchase his mother wondered, not without a hint of envy, how his house would look like. The speculations ended when the plague came; she became positive the American would just sell the title to the government.
Niño stopped walking when he came upon a dead body in the middle of the field.
He waited for the clouds to shift again, but he knew from the smell alone that it was another victim of the plague. After a few seconds the moon shone through, and he saw that it was a little child, a little boy, maybe three or four years old. Well-dressed, probably came from a family just like his. Well-fed, also, perhaps, but now gaunt, shriveled up by his illness. Judging by the positions of the blades of grass around the body, Niño could tell that the body had just recently fallen, or had just recently been laid there.
All of a sudden he became aware of someone panting. “I can’t—“ someone said. A boy Niño’s age was on the other side of the body, the top of his head facing Niño. The boy was bent over, hands on his knees, breathing hard. “I can’t go any further,” the boy said. “I was—I was supposed to take him to the edge of town, by the river, but the health inspectors seemed to be everywhere and I just—I can’t—“
The moon had disappeared again. Niño, recognizing the boy almost at once, sadly asked, “Is he your brother?”
Apparently the boy didn’t know he was standing there; he had been talking to himself. He straightened up with a jolt and stepped back in alarm. Then, perhaps seeing Niño’s size, calmed down long enough to say, “My cousin. He’s my cousin, I don’t have any bro—“
The boy stopped talking. The moon remained hidden, but of course by then the boy already knew who he was talking to even without seeing him. Niño saw the boy’s shoulders slump, saw him take another step back.
Niño felt frantic. “Please,” he said. He imagined his brother carrying the little boy on his back across the field, and was suddenly assailed by a familiar sadness. “Please,” he said helplessly, desperately, knowing his brother wouldn’t stay. He burst into tears.
Even through his grief, Niño still perceived the look of surprise on his brother’s face. At the sound of him crying he saw his brother take a step forward and reach out a hand, perhaps responding instinctively, not thinking.
Beyond the edge of the field came the sound of a scream, an explosion like glass breaking, and the pale glow of a distant fire.
Niño glanced back. He couldn’t see it completely because of the other houses and the trees, but he knew Luisita had done what she had wanted to do and had torched her own house. He heard his mother screaming: Niño! Niño!
He turned back to face his brother again, but there was only the dead boy, left there on the grass. He knelt beside the small body and looked at it in silence, his brother’s name sitting inside his mouth, waiting to be shouted. All around him the blades of grass reflected the yellow glow of the escalating fire.
Since then, if he saw his brother at all, he saw him only in the periphery, like a shadow at the edge of his vision. Standing in a crowded bus, walking aimlessly in a marketplace, once even passing by outside a restaurant where he was eating dinner with his wife of that lifetime. That night he and his wife were arguing about migration—she wanted to move to the States “out of this wretched country”; he wanted to stay, because “anyway, everywhere is wretched, everywhere is beautiful”. His wife wondered out loud why he kept treating everything she said as a joke, and something else that he didn’t quite catch because that was when he saw his brother walking outside the window.
“I wish for at least a second you’d pay attention to me,” his wife said.
He sighed. He had always wondered why he even bothered to preserve friendships in a universe where his memory never crumbled, in a world where, in effect, he lived forever. But he knew time offered no mercy; it ran just as slowly in a single lifetime. Every action would be made to count. Every relationship. Every birth. Every death.
Every death, he thought, watching his brother disappear from view again.
In 2008, his name was Jonathan, and his brother (he would learn later) was named Brian. They were both sixteen years old. It had been a hundred and six years since their encounter during the plague. The country was no longer under American occupation. Christmas was near, and they were stuck in traffic behind a red light. Jonathan was sitting in a car with his father, the backseat covered with groceries and boxes of decorations for the new tree. At the head of the long line of vehicles, Brian and two of his friends were sitting impatiently inside a jeepney, the three boys fresh from a soccer game, now showered and dressed on the way to the mall and maybe the cinema. They talked animatedly about the opposing team’s horrible pass that ended the game, but Brian soon tired of the repetitive put-downs and pulled away from the conversation, choosing instead to stare blankly at the windshield, at the cars passing on the perpendicular lane, their left-to-right motion almost lulling him to sleep.
Inside the car carrying Jonathan and his father, the radio blared news about another fuel price rollback, an update on the global financial crisis, a brief debate about Charter change, Britney Spears’ comeback tour, this year’s top ten rock songs. Jonathan changed the station again and caught the tail-end of a woman caller’s rant: “I mean, it was worse, it made me feel worse. I asked him, ‘Who was it?’ and he told me, ‘She doesn’t know it yet.’ Probably heard it from a movie, the bastard. He was ready to give me up for something he wasn’t even sure yet. Like his present job was so bad he’d rather leave it and be unemployed for who knows how many months than continue working. Am I that bad?”
Jonathan’s father gave a brief laugh and shook his head. “Oh, I love Christmas,” he said, making Jonathan wonder if he was laughing at the caller or at the red light that seemed to take forever to change.
Jonathan and Brian knew where each other were, but dismissed this awareness.
Minutes before this moment, a man sat in a bank two streets away, talking his head off at a younger man waiting to cash his check. “It changes when you become a father,” the man said. “You want to stop your children from getting tired all the time. Tired of commuting, tired of waiting in line, tired of not having enough. My children go to public school and after the last storm they said they had to have their classes under a tree. Can you imagine that? And in this heat, too. But, you know, you think it’s beyond your power. And then you realize, it’s not beyond your power. You can work abroad, or take another job, you can earn money, you can put them in private school, buy an air conditioned car—you can shield them from these things. But you commute, too. You also wait in line. You also don’t have enough. You can only do so much.”
The younger man said that after saying all these, the man suddenly looked unsure of where he was, getting ready to panic. But then moments later he nodded to himself, pleased, as though hearing a signal, as though he had just finished an oration and was satisfied with the reaction of his audience. He declared a hold-up.
After that instant, the younger man’s memory clouded up, the details of his story becoming foggy. But he knew there were other armed men, and that the security guards had miraculously disappeared. He knew a teller and two bank customers were shot, he knew the robbers were able to leave the bank quickly in what he assumed to be their getaway vehicle, idling outside the glass doors, waiting.
And yet, watching the news reports later in the hospital, Jonathan still couldn’t get some things straight: did somebody call the police, or did they just happen to be nearby? And was that robber (and which of the robbers?) just deranged, or was he really aiming at the police car behind them and the gun just got yanked out of position by one of his companions? Or maybe there was more than one gun. Maybe there were two, three weapons dislodging bullets out of the van’s window.
Brian saw the dark-blue van emerge from the vehicles cruising from left to right on the perpendicular lane, saw it like an object suddenly coming into focus, frozen against a background of movement. It swerved away from the motion like a hand parting a curtain and plowed down the empty lane, on the other side of which Brian and his friends sat dumbstruck in the jeepney and Jonathan and his father, still several vehicles away from the chase, listened to a woman ask, Am I that bad? Following the van was a police car, enveloped in its lights and the sound of its siren. Brian didn’t know what was happening until it happened, until the bullets came and his friends fell, he was sitting near the door of the jeepney and he could have gotten it in the head or in the chest as well but the gun moved or was yanked and so the bullet drilled into the side of his left knee instead. Down the length of the lane the van went, the gun or guns firing wildly, hitting another passenger or two. A bullet hit the windshield of Jonathan’s father’s car and buried itself in Jonathan’s right shoulder; another shattered the side mirror on the driver’s side but left his father unharmed. For several seconds Jonathan didn’t even know he had been hit.
Before he passed out, Jonathan heard the screams. He thought it was the plague again, the Children’s Crusade coming to its doom in broad daylight. He thought his brother was calling his name.
And so it happened that they were brought to the same hospital. Three days after the shootout, Jonathan knew his brother was in the same wing, the realization coming to him as a faint humming beneath his skin. He knew where he was, his room number, it would be like when they were students in that dormitory. Except that this time, Jonathan promised himself, he wouldn’t walk away. His mother had been urging his father to have him moved to a “better” hospital within the week, so might as well go now, might as well walk through that doorway before the years eroded and the lifetimes buried him again.
On the afternoon of that second day his father fell asleep watching him sleep. Jonathan wasn’t really sleeping; he was just waiting for his father, guilt-stricken and exhausted, to smoke a cigarette outside or buy something. But what he did was better. Jonathan had insisted on wearing his own clothes, and so after pulling out the needle of the IV drip, affixing his sling, and slipping into his rubber shoes (he liked them big, so he could slip in his feet even when the shoelaces were already tied), he looked like he just came from the hospital’s outpatient clinic. Many parts of him throbbed and hurt, his clothes were wrinkled, and the laces of his right shoe needed to be re-tied and tightened, but otherwise he could walk through the corridors without panicking any of the nurses.
The corridor he ended up in was silent and deserted, but he knew it was the right corridor. Walking past the numbered doors, Jonathan realized that the silence was an illusion. Whispers sailed past hinges and cracks, worried murmurs, sometimes strains of music from the radio or a portable player or a TV. The TV! Jonathan froze, wondering if he had turned off the set. He didn’t, he didn’t, and he relaxed. His father liked to sleep with the television on, it would take a while before he realized his son was not in his bed.
Jonathan walked on, his left hand cupping his right elbow. Brian’s room was at the end of the corridor and the door leading to it was slightly open. Jonathan was getting ready to barge in when he heard voices. Brian was talking to his father, or his uncle. Someone male, older. Tired.
Suddenly there was the sound of weeping. Jonathan, aghast, managed to remain silent.
Something unintelligible from the older male. Probably, What is it?
“You keep saying they’re asleep,” Brian said.
“They are asleep, Brian. They’re in a coma.”
“You keep saying that,” Brian said. “But they’re dead, aren’t they?”
“What? No.” The older male surprised, hurt. “No, no.”
The voices were lowered, the older male offering something. Food? The promise of food. Brian sighed. “All right,” he said. The door was opened and Jonathan pressed himself flat against the wall.
The man facing him looked to be in his forties, but could have been younger. Jonathan looked at the man’s eyes and saw that the man recognized him, but couldn’t seem to place him. “You should be in bed,” the man said, but he said it distractedly and didn’t make a move to steer him away. After a moment the man seemed to have forgotten him altogether and staggered out of the corridor.
Jonathan watched the man leave, waited for him to disappear around the corner. Then he took three quick strides and stepped into the room.
Brian was sitting on a wheelchair positioned near the window, a pillow placed under his injured leg, his right elbow resting on the windowsill, his right hand covering half his face. Someone had wheeled over his IV drip and put a black sweater over Brian’s hospital gown. Brian must have wanted to be near the window, out of his bed.
Brian was looking at his reflection, or at the world beyond his reflection. When Jonathan stepped into the room, he saw the eyes of Brian’s reflected face shift and stare at him. Brian was still calming the hiccups left over from his sobs, the skin around his eyes still pink and raw, still wet with tears.
He looked defeated. Why, why, Jonathan thought. This wasn’t a game, this wasn’t a chase. He’s not the police, and his brother wasn’t the robber. Jonathan closed the door behind him, and Brian looked away.
“Cain,” Jonathan said, and it was as if a door long pinned against a storm were suddenly thrown wide open, the wind rushing in. Brian sighed.
“Abel,” Brian said.
Jonathan nodded. There was a couch pushed against the wall, facing the foot of the bed. Jonathan sat on it, gently elbowing away a paper bag filled with books and other knickknacks. Taking up the rest of the space on the couch was a dirty-looking jacket and a large throw pillow still covered in plastic, probably a gift. The only source of light was the sunlight coming from the window, the light now waning, much of it blocked by Brian. Jonathan glanced at the sky outside and thought it looked like rain.
Brian had let his arms drop to his lap but still wouldn’t look at him.
“Who was that?” Jonathan asked, throwing the question like a blacksmith throwing a strange new metal to the fire, wondering what would happen next.
Nothing. Brian looked out of the window, looking tortured.
To his own ears, Jonathan sounded as if he were pleading. Brian must have heard it, too, because he threw him a quick look before averting his gaze again. Brian nodded, and Jonathan sighed with relief.
“I heard they’ve caught the guys who did this,” Jonathan said. “Does your father say anything?”
“I just wanted to talk, that’s all,” Jonathan said.
“I have been exiled,” Brian said, speaking to the window, “not just from the soil where we came from, but from you. We shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
Jonathan was filled with horror and anger. A memory from an old life came to him, and he heard a child saying, The Holy Land needs our aid, and Jonathan felt a growing desire to scream at the child (What Holy Land? What aid?) and shut him up. And yet, now, sitting in this room with his brother, all he could do was repeat what he had already said: “I just wanted to talk.”
They fell silent. Jonathan stared at his left shoelace as though hypnotized by it. He was still thinking of what he was going to say next when he looked up and caught Brian staring at his sling.
“I had it in the shoulder,” Jonathan said
Brian stared at him for a long, long while, as though mourning him and the sight of his sling, and Jonathan, for a reason he couldn’t articulate, suddenly felt a swelling in his chest. “It doesn’t hurt that bad,” he added in a soft voice, and Brian reared back and looked away, surprised that he could be read so easily, that he had allowed himself to be so naked.
“How’s your leg?” Jonathan said. He wanted to get up and sit closer to his brother.
“At times like these, I wish we were still in the Garden.”
The remark startled Jonathan into inaction. Again with the story of the Garden. He sighed. “That’s just something our parents told us.”
“Really,” Brian said. “Then how do you explain the fact that we die and survive and remember everything? Our parents we’re given something in the Garden, and later lost it. What we have is a remnant, a poor substitute.”
A remnant, Jonathan thought: Something inside a plastic container. Leftover food shoved into a visitor’s hands before he is pushed out of the house.
“And everyone else,” Brian said, “everyone else—they experience one life, one death. That’s it. And then nothing. Our parents died, and we never saw them again, same with the many parents we’ve had. The friends we’ve made, lovers, our own children. They died, and we never saw them again. The Garden has been closed.”
“Maybe everyone survives,” Jonathan said. “Maybe everyone’s memory is intact.”
Brian looked at him then, his eyes sad.
“Maybe they’re just pretending.”
The truth was, he couldn’t tell. He had met people who believed in survival and remembering after the last day, in many variations, shades, and ferocity, but he would look around him and not see a familiar face, a spark of recognition, a welcoming smile. Just fleeting memories, consciousness where the old stories could not find their grip, where they wither and disappear like dust. Among them, how could he find a home, how could he find a place where he belonged to and which he could say belonged to him? One day, he believed, he would find himself standing in the center of a ruined place, gathering up the fragments of a forgotten story as he would the hands of a friend, or the scraps of metal from a building just bombed. And he would be alone, he knew.
I have been exiled, his brother had said, and Jonathan wanted to say that he already knew what the words meant, had known it for as long as his brother did.
“It was a gift,” Brian said, “having the life that we have, being able to close our eyes without fear, knowing with certainty that sooner or later we will open them again. It was given, it could be taken away. We shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
“Nothing’s happened so far,” Jonathan said.
Brian turned his head; again that sad, sad look.
“Your friends aren’t dead,” Jonathan said.
Brian didn’t comment. Jonathan thought he would know if someone from the same crime scene had died—news among the survivors’ families traveled fast, and his mother traveled with it. When one of the wounded died yesterday he heard about it from his mother. He was a driver, she had said as she combed his hair. Single, no wife and kids. No wife and kids, his mother nodding, repeating the detail, latching onto anything she could be grateful for.
And then nothing. A thought suddenly occurred to Jonathan: what if everyone else goes to a place inaccessible to him and his brother, a Garden closed only to them? Gone were their parents, the members of the Children’s Crusade and the many other crusades, the victims of various famines and plagues, the little child in the field, the people shot in the bank and inside their vehicles—all gone to a place where time and repetitive histories could not touch them.
And then nothing—but perhaps, there is rest. But he’s not sure of this. He wondered how he could be sure, how he could possibly find out.
“Have you visited them yet?” Jonathan said. “They’re not dead.”
“They will be,” Brian said, looking at his own hands.
Jonathan took a deep breath. He felt transported back to Mainz, its dark skies, the bodies of desperate children blocking him, the innumerable moments of almost-words and closed doors.
He wanted to say, Listen.
He wanted to say, This is not the Judgment.
There is no Judgment.
Out in that field, who were there? Just you and me, your plan and your anger.
You put the Mark on yourself as punishment, knowing how easier it would have been to be killed than to walk desolate for years and years. Your brother is dead, you didn’t want things to be easy. You told everyone another story, which, after several lifetimes, you learned to believe.
I was still alive when you carried me on your back for days, not knowing what to do. I shouldn’t have done it, you said.
You asked for my forgiveness before the sun set and the bird came, that bird that showed you how to bury a body— and I gave it. Tell me, who else should you ask forgiveness from? Who else must forgive you?
Please—I don’t want to stand alone in the center of a ruined place.
The thoughts came to him, composed and arranged and neat, the images sharp enough for him to taste, but the words flooded his brain in a meaningless torrent, crashing into each other, dissolving his certainty. This is not the Judgment. But what if it is? he thought. He imagined his father waking up in his room, he imagined Brian’s father coming around the corner, his arms filled with food for his grieving son. Jonathan felt a sharp pain shoot down his upper arm from his wound, and he hissed and touched his right elbow, feeling helpless, feeling the minutes pass by.
“Do you want to lie down?”
Jonathan looked up and saw Brian looking at him in alarm. They both saw that there wasn’t enough room on the couch, and Brian indicated his own bed with a jerk of his head.
Jonathan was too surprised to speak. They regarded each other for a moment.
“I haven’t visited them yet,” Brian said miserably, answering the question Jonathan had already forgotten he had asked.
“Maybe we could go see them then,” Jonathan said. “Later. Tonight.”
“Okay,” Brian said, and was jolted upright by the sound of his own answer. Jonathan could almost hear his brother debating with himself, turning the word over and over in his head. Suddenly there was a blast, and they jerked and together turned to look out the window. The rain had come, hard and without warning. Brian stared at the sunlit sheet of water, enthralled by it. The room cooled instantly. Okay, his brother had said, and Jonathan felt a great weight being lifted from him and realized that he could stand up, realized that he could sit on the edge of the hospital bed and watch the rain with his brother.