This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Child abuse
- Mental health issues
- Self-harming behaviors
I become forty eight kilograms lighter when I detach my head from my body. You shed a lot when you leave all the stupid fat and bones behind. I wish I could do something about the organs. I read that the human head alone is five kilograms. I would like to be five kilograms, but I can’t get rid of these organs. They trail along after me. With them I am an extra five and a half kilos. But ten and a half kilos is better than fifty eight and a half kilos. I wish my bones were hollow, like a bird.
Nonetheless, when I detach, I fly. I like flying. I dream that it works like teeth: if I pop out enough times then a new, better body will grow in place of the old one and I won’t even have to bleed.
The only bad part about flying is the hunger, like having my stomach out in the open gives it more space to think. But I am used to hunger and I am used to telling it no.
“Jerusha James. One point five four meters. Weight, fifty two kg.”
Jerusha is small but all muscle. She’s a swimmer. You can see it in the way she steps onto the scale with her toes curled like she’s going to dive. You can also see it in her shoulders and the goggle tan lines over her dark brown cheekbones. I could never have shoulders as broad as hers, but I wish I had her tight calves and perfect abs.
I watch her step off the scale and pull on her shoes. I notice she kept her socks on. I took mine off. The school socks are thick and weigh a hundred grams for the pair.
My heart is thudding so hard I’m afraid it’s going to detach on its own, just burst out of my throat and go flying off by itself. It would make me two hundred and eighty grams lighter but it would also make me dead.
I pick myself up from the floor. I can feel everyone’s eyes burning into my blouse as I step up onto the plate. I wish we got to change into our PE attire. The T-shirt and shorts are lighter than our blouse, pinafore, and tie. But Mr. Chan told us we didn’t have to change, and I couldn’t change if no one else was. We do this twice a year. It is the worst day of the semester.
“Sixty point eight kilograms,” Mr. Chan reads in his monotone. My heart stops. Gracia Lee, our PE representative, dutifully writes this down. I watch her scratch these numbers into the paper and feel like I am being signed to hell. The scale must be wrong, because yesterday I was fifty eight and a half at home and even Charmaine Low who is a size XXS was complaining that her measurement was wrong and made her sound fat. But Gracia writes this wrong number down anyway and I have to step off, six zero burned into my retinas and my whole body shaking like it will come apart right here.
I fumble with my socks and then my scuffed white shoes as Mr. Chan drones: “Next, Maria Reyes.”
Everyone says Maria Reyes gets plastic surgery because when we were in Primary Six she appeared with a new nose, and last year in Secondary Two suddenly she had bigger boobs than everyone. I don’t know if I believe the thing about her boobs but it’s true that her nose used to be round and kind of flat, and now it looks like Gigi Hadid’s.
I don’t blame her if she did get surgery. Maria is beautiful, the kind that makes boys from the neighboring school turn their heads. I would get surgery too if I could look like that. Mr. Chan announces that she is one point five eight meters tall and weighs forty-six kilograms. She goes and sits with all her friends and they giggle as they put on their shoes. I want to be her so badly.
We take the same bus home. I see the boys at the bus stop look at her, and I wish I liked being looked at.
My parents’ wedding picture is beside the shelf with the bowl of nuts and dried fruits. Mom’s wedding dress had a sweetheart neck, mermaid skirt, and a twenty four inch waist, which she tells me every time she talks about her prime twenties. I pick three almonds and two cashews from the bowl. Then I think about sixty point eight and how my waist is twenty eight inches and put one almond back.
Except for the break where I practice my violin, I eat one nut every half hour until it is time for dinner. Mom is on an organic keto diet, so dinner is a beef stew and I don’t have to take the rice. I have to eat rice if we’re eating with Ma Ma or Po Po, but Mom approves when I don’t eat too many carbs.
At ten-thirty I switch off the lights and lie down under my blanket. Then I detach. The first few times, it took a lot of wriggling and squeezing and figuring out how to suck everything in so it would fit through my neck. But now everything flattens and slips through effortlessly, the way they were meant to. Lungs, heart, diaphragm, stomach, intestines. The feeling when the last of my large intestine pulls free of my body always makes me light-headed. Suddenly I am floating, easy as anything. I fly out the window, towards the moon.
I would fly forever but my parents would be horrified if I just left my body behind and disappeared, so before morning I wriggle back in and let the skin reseal. Reattaching makes me feel like I’m going to suffocate beneath my own weight. My lungs miss feeling the air. I lie there in my body listening to the fan whirr, thinking about how the neighborhood looks at night from above: the neat blocks, the calm rustling trees.
Usually that memory sustains me until I can detach again, but today I keep feeling like something’s not right. Did I leave the window so wide open? Was the blanket folded like that when I left? Have I just been tossing around a lot? Something about me feels wrong, more than usual.
I still haven’t figured it out when my alarm goes off, so I drag myself out of bed and go to brush my teeth. It’s only when I pick up the water cup to stick it under the tap that I realize I’m using someone else’s hands.
“Shit!” The cup falls and clatters against the sink, water ricocheting off its side. I slap the tap off and it’s there again, the hand that isn’t mine moving when my brain tells it to.
What the shit?
I weigh myself every morning because that’s when I’m lightest. I take off my pajamas and stare at myself naked in the mirror. I hate it but I can’t help it. But today when I stare I’m making sure that everything is still me. Feet, thighs, hips, stomach, shoulders, arms. The shape of my flesh is scoured into my brain. So, these hands …
They’re the correct color. They move when I want them to. But my nails weren’t this shapely or buffed. My thumbs were longer. I had more hair on my knuckles. My palm lines didn’t curve like that … did they?
I fight down the panic. I can’t be late for school. I brush my teeth and braid my hair and pull on my uniform. My body has never felt like part of me but these hands are like watching a possession. I have to touch my face to put on sunblock, and every hair on my neck stands.
I stare at them all the way to school. They open my wallet, tap my bus card, wrap around the pole. They open my locker and unscrew my water bottle and take out my pencil case, and it feels like puppeteering flesh.
Across the classroom, Maria is already gathered with her clique. This early I feel like gravity is doubled down on me, but she’s glowing. She laughs and tucks a glossy hair behind her ear, and that’s when I notice. Somehow. Somewhen.
Maria Reyes is wearing my hands.
That night I detach and fly to Maria Reyes’s house.
She gets off the bus at Block 209, two stops down from me. I circle the estate, avoiding bright lights and any late joggers. I think I didn’t think this through. I don’t even know what floor she’s on. But all I could think about in school was her and my hands. My fingers around her pen, my fingers adjusting her tie, my fingers sweeping through her hair as she shook out her ponytail. I just knew. I recognize every piece of my body. I have stared at every inch of it from above.
The minutes pass, cool and useless. The little spark I felt dissolves and all that’s left is the emptiness. I’m about to give up and go fly around to clear my head when someone far below hurries out onto the road. I would recognize the shape of her anywhere.
I am fast and silent without my body. Maria gets on a bus and I chase it, intestines streaming behind me, exhilarated. I have never pushed myself so fast before. We fly through the night, until she alights in front of the hospital.
She walks calmly towards the back. I follow her from behind the trees, all the way to the door marked MORGUE. Here she glances over her shoulder and I duck behind a car, curling up all my intestines so they don’t drag along the tarmac. Once she disappears into the building I wait one minute, then another, and then I go.
I butt my head against the door, pushing it open. Frigid air conditioning hits me and there’s Maria, standing over a corpse with a bone saw.
“Shit!” she exclaims, jumping away from the slab.
“My hands,” I snarl, because it is my right hand brandishing the saw.
Slowly she lowers it. She looks confused. I never thought about what her reaction might be when I revealed myself as a penanggalan, but of all the reactions I ever feared since the first time I detached, confusion isn’t one.
“You’re mad I took your hands?”
Answers jumble in my mouth starting from of course, but what ends up coming out is: “How the hell did you take them?”
“I climbed through your window. What?” she says, affronted, when I recoil. “I’ve known you were a manananggal for ages. Most people can’t, don’t worry, but I can spot the seams in your neck. I just waited for the right time. I gave you back new ones, good manicures too.” She squints at me. Beautiful, popular Maria Reyes, who’s holding a bone saw with the hands she stole off my body. “So you’re mad?”
“Of course I’m mad!”
She tilts her head. “Why?”
I splutter, which makes my lungs flap. “Because—they’re mine!”
“You didn’t look like you wanted them all that much. I gave you new ones.” She looks at me narrowly. “I swap with manananggal all the time. They don’t care, as long as it’s not their face.”
“I care,” I snap, but I can’t understand why. I hate my hands too, even though they’re not the biggest offenders. They each weigh about thirty three grams. But they’re awkward and stupid and they never know what to do in pictures. They’re always hanging limply by my sides. They touch things I don’t like touching because it makes me realize they’re there. I hate them. But she can’t just … take them.
“You have a nice stomach,” she says off-handedly.
Instinctively I suck in. The sack contracts under my lungs. It sways a little. “You steal organs too?”
“Skin is an organ,” she reminds me. “No, I don’t. Too messy. The makcik I learned from, she can stitch bronchi so well—but I’m too clumsy and I have no problems with my organs. Plus I can’t hold my breath long enough anyway. Nah. I’ve just seen enough to tell. You have a nice stomach. And intestines. You have strong intestines. Some manananggal—Jesus! Like mee sua. Drooping everywhere. But yours is firm and compact. Like Maggi.” She pauses. “Before cooking, I mean. Wow. Now I want Maggi.” She looks around mournfully. “Well, I have biscuits. You hungry?”
My stomach growls. No. “What the hell are you?”
“I just swap body parts.” She turns her cheek and runs one finger—my finger—down the side of her nose. “See? I know you all talk about it.”
I must have looked at her Gigi nose a hundred times, but now, like magic, I see faint little dashes all around it. Like it was cut off and sewn back on. I stare and I can’t stop staring. “Why?”
She shrugs. “I didn’t like the old one.”
Her nose seems more and more obvious. It distorts and an uncanny feeling comes over me. I wonder if the story about her boobs is also true and if the rest of her is like that, with faint lines crisscrossing her smooth, perfect skin. “How much have you swapped?” I blurt.
She wrinkles her nose, someone else’s nose. “Most of my head is original. And all the inside bits. I’ve swapped some parts a few times. Sometimes I wasn’t planning on it, but if I see something nicer, why not?”
“So were you … planning to take my hands?”
“Yes,” she admits. “I love seeing you play in the string ensemble. I’ve wanted your hands for a while—and you just leave them behind!”
Maria, watching me play first violin. I drift away, hoping she doesn’t see how my dangling heart has started contracting quicker. Performing is the only time besides flying that I feel like myself, but the idea of Maria Reyes watching me, noticing my hands and my body and me, not the music, makes me suddenly feel terrified. “But you’re—” Perfect? Maria Reyes, who I have wanted to be my whole life? Except how much of Maria is Maria if most of her is assembled from other people’s parts?
She shrugs. “I’m like you.”
“But I don't want other people’s bodies. I want mine, just … just better.”
“What’s the difference? It’s all made of the same stuff.”
“It just is.”
We stare at each other. This morning I would have given anything to hear that Maria Reyes thought we were the same but now … “Are you going to give them back?” I would take them myself but I doubt it’s as easy as snapping pieces together like Lego. I can detach my head and organs from my body, but I think if I tried removing my hands I would just bleed out.
“Come back tomorrow.” She picks up the saw again.
“Let me think. Come back tomorrow.”
I am fifty-eight kilograms according to the bathroom scale and I cannot help but think it is the hands. Somehow Maria has given me hands that have made me lighter. This is all I ever dreamed. And yet when I find the line of tiny stitches around each of my wrists I only feel revulsion. Everything in me wishes to eject them.
But I also can’t stop staring. I try to cover one wrist with my old Mickey Mouse watch, but I have to buckle it two notches up from where I used to and it makes me feel worse than the stitches, so I put it away and stare.
In school Maria says hi to me like nothing is wrong, but I cannot bring myself to confront her. In school I am reminded that she is cool and slim and beautiful and popular and captain of the netball team and has the latest iPhone. She has all the teenage girl superpowers in the world, and I only have powers when I pull my organs through my throat.
Instead I spend the day dreading the deal she will offer. I obsess over it in between lessons. I make lists in the margins of my notepads during class. Blackmail. Do her homework. Do something illegal for her? I do not come up with many good options.
She already took the only thing she envied about me. What else could Maria Reyes possibly want?
“Make me Maggi.”
I blink at her. I am floating in the jetstream of the air-conditioning. It makes my intestines shrivel and shiver, but it’s the morgue and the cold is inescapable.
“Here.” She says it like it is the most normal thing in the world.
“I don’t have hands.”
“Go get them.”
“You’re wearing them.”
“Not your hands, go get the other ones.”
My voice rises. “I don’t reattach at night.”
I open my mouth, then shut it. It is so obvious, and yet I can’t find a way to say it at all. Noodles for my hands is more than a fair trade. So why is my stomach churning and wanting to sink all the way to the floor?
“Well, those are my terms.” She rips off her left ear.
Shock swallows my anxiety. “Oh my god!”
“What! You can pull all your organs out your body but I can’t take off my ear when I don’t like it anymore? Pfft.” She tosses the ear onto the tray and pulls off the other one. It doesn’t bleed, only trails spiderweb stitches.
“Can’t you be more gentle?”
She cocks her earless head. “Huh?”
I repeat it louder and she wrinkles her—are they hers?—perfect brows. “You’re a weird manananggal, you know that.”
I may be weird, but at the end of the night I have always returned to my body. I hated it but it was mine. I would leave it but I would come back. Everything in a rhythm. I never realized how much I relied on it. Now I am off-balance. All I can think of is my hands and for once I do not think of the rest. I spend the day dreaming more than ever of the night. When I finally lie down I tear free of my body and fly far, far away from those hands.
“You’re back.” Maria is scrutinizing a man’s double eyelids this time. “No Maggi?”
I float. I tried to carry a bag in my mouth but my teeth aren’t strong enough to survive the trip. I’d sling it around my trachea but my lungs can’t bear the weight.
“Why can’t you just bring your own?” I snipe. “You have food anyway.”
She has a bag of prawn crackers today, which she crunches in the silence. “You want some?” she asks, and I want to bite her abdomen open and take her intestines in my teeth. I never think these things when I’m flying. I am very good at forgetting. But usually there is no Frankenstein girl reminding me of my hunger.
I shake my head. Maria shrugs and then slits out the dead man’s eyelids. Peering in a mirror, she cuts out her own and stitches the new ones on. I should hate her. But I can’t help but watch my hands work over her eyes, needle and blessed thread, reattaching her eyelashes one by one. Beneath me, my stomach aches. It’s only later that I realize she never answered my question, and when I see her in school the next morning I cannot bring myself to repeat it.
In the day, the hands are so wrong that suddenly everything else seems right. They are nowhere near perfect but they are mine. No matter how neat Maria’s stitches are, they blaze like brands when I look at them. I want to claw them out but I would be using someone else’s hands to do it.
The worst thing is that I cannot pick up my violin. I used to play at least two hours every day. When I play I feel weightless and certain. I control the music and the notes. With the violin I can create something beautiful. I know the wood and the tension of the bow. I know the tautness of the strings. When I play, the violin is my body.
But now every time I reach for the case I am struck with a primal fear. With these hands that are not mine, how will I take to the violin? What if that is disjointed too and I fail even at that? So I don’t touch it. It lies propped against my shelf. I make excuses not to go to ensemble practice. I find a phantom itch in my fingers, wanting the pressure of the strings.
I think I miss my hands. I feel the lack of them so acutely.
“Does your hair ever get tangled around your trachea?” Maria muses. She asks the weirdest questions but no one has ever asked me this before. She also has two bodies on the slab and is carefully switching their thumbs.
I drift in the warmest corner of the room. “No. I tie it up before I detach.”
“That’s smart. I heard of a manananggal who strangled herself like that once.” Her Manila accent comes out stronger whenever she uses the Filipino term.
It has been six days and I don’t know why I keep coming back. The morgue is a much worse place to be than flying around the city. But I like watching her work and I like that she’s somehow even more messed up than I am because at least I remember where I left my body parts, and I also like that somehow, now, I am hanging out every night with Maria Reyes. It makes me feel special being here when none of her friends are, and when we talk I can almost forget all the problems until—
“I like the curry noodles,” she says as she moves onto the ears. “If I’m getting fancy the Prima Laksa is so good. And Indomie is a classic, of course.”
Until it always comes back to this. I don’t think she is cruel but she is oblivious even as my stomach tightens. It is hunger but it is also a fear that I do not understand.
In the silence, she starts stitching ears. I float. My hands make quick work of the tools. I try and regather my lightness but the talk of noodles has brought me crashing down again, reminding me that we are here only because there is a deal. I feel like I am close to falling apart into pieces until I am just a head like I always wanted, except now I imagine a hundred Marias each with a different part of my body and do not know how much longer I can bear this.
Our conductor has been asking for me. We have a competition in four weeks and if I don’t return to practices she will have to replace me. I refuse to be replaced. So I go to a practice room and I force myself to pick up my violin.
Playing should feel like flying, the resin against my cheek, eyes shut, soaring in the sky of the concertos. But today, the moment I tuck my violin under my chin I know my fears have come true. It’s all wrong. These fingers don’t recognize the strings. The fingertips are too soft. I can’t hold the bow right.
Still, I try to play a C major scale. My fingers shake on the bow. I make it three steps, do re mi, and then fa comes out as a screech and I almost drop the violin.
Do re mi fa screech.
Do re screech.
I kick the music stand over and the music books go flying. They have the audacity to catch the air and float gently to the ground.
It is the simplest exchange in the world but I can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t even understand why I can’t. It’s not as if Maria has never seen me in my body before. In fact, she’s seen my body while it was left behind. Why can’t I just walk out of my house with a stupid cup of plastic and MSG?
I scream into the soundproof walls. I am filled with the sudden urge to take my bow and saw these hands off my body myself. But when I pick up the bow, the feeling of the wood on foreign nerves makes me stop short.
They are someone else’s hands still, even if that someone is dead. I hate them but I need to be gentle with them. In this one thing, I am better than Maria Reyes. I cannot treat them like they’re mine to destroy, and I should not make them hurt themselves. To someone they are sacred, and I must be kind.
I set down the bow and pack up my violin. I feel the wood and the velvet lining and the click-shut of the lock. I am on the bus before I think Oh.
Junk food is banned at home so I have to go to the 7-11 for the noodles. There is a whole shelf of them beside a shelf of all the other things I try to avoid. Usually I stare at all the choices until I am proud of myself for resisting, but now I grab a cup and clutch it to my chest and run down the aisle with it. My heart hammers as the cashier rings it up but he just looks bored.
I manage to sneak out of the house with everything in a bag. I get on the bus and make it all the way to the morgue door, but when I touch the handle, I freeze.
I realize what it is now. When I detach I am a bold, careless, lightweight thing who can chase Maria Reyes to a morgue and banter with her at night and keep coming back for no reason at all. But in my body I am not that person. I feel alien standing here. I would rather she see my insides than any of this. I feel braver as a monster of dripping organs than a schoolgirl in size 12 clothes. Be kind, I tell myself, but the epiphany falls flat now that I am standing here.
I can’t bring myself to go in. If I go in like this the thing that is the penanggalan and the stitching girl will become the fat girl and the netball captain, and everything will shatter and become real again.
But just as I’m about to walk away, the door opens and Maria looks from the bag to me. She smiles and the world gets lighter for just a second. “I thought I heard footsteps.”
There is a tablecloth draped over the slab, with one flickering candle on top of it. It’s so ridiculous that my anxiety evaporates. “Is this a joke?”
“No!” Maria looks alarmed. “I just wanted it to look nicer.”
“You wanted the morgue to look nicer?”
She interlaces her fingers, my fingers, and spins around to face me. Shockingly, when I am not floating above her we are almost exactly the same height. “I wanted to say I’m sorry. For stealing your hands. I wasn’t lying, I steal from manananggal all the time, especially those that are just lying around in alleyways or in the bushes of the park. I stole a toe from my tita once. They never care. I really didn’t think you would.” I open my mouth but she ploughs on, twisting my fingers into pretzels until they go white. “But then I heard you in the music room earlier today and I realized you really meant it. Those hands aren’t yours, and these hands are, even though they’re attached to me. So I’m sorry. And also your music sounded really bad.”
“Whose fault is that?!”
“I know, I know! But I steal from manananggal all the time, especially those that are just lying around in—I said that already.” She swallows and exhales in one big breath and I realize she’s stammering. Who is this girl? It can’t be Maria Reyes. “Anyway, can I have the Maggi?”
I hand the bag over and she peers inside. “You really thought of everything!”
Unexpected relief surges through me. She takes out the water canteen, the utensils, the cup of curry noodles. She puts everything on the cloth-covered autopsy table and it almost looks like we’re going to sit down to dinner.
We are really doing this, so I finally ask, “Why do you want to eat Maggi so bad?”
“I just want to hang out without your organs in my face,” she admits. “Like normal friends. Okay?”
I stare at her. My heart starts racing and for once I’m glad it’s hidden away. “Are we friends?”
She sucks in a quiet breath. Something readjusts. “We can be.”
She starts to prepare the noodles, and my trachea constricts at the sight of my hands tearing open the cup and shaking out the packets. Maria pours in the entire pack of seasoning and I start panicking that it’s too much, all the sodium and MSG on top of the fried noodles, but now my mouth isn’t mine because I can’t say a word. I am transfixed by my hands making a cup of Maggi like it is the easiest thing in the world.
Eight minutes later my hands open the lid. The smell of warm soup hits me. I want to either throw up or seize the cup and swallow it all. Then Maria asks, “Do you want some?”
I freeze, and then I manage to say, “Just a bit.”
She scoops out a portion for me. I count ten noodles, one for each finger.
We eat. It is okay. It is fun, even, because we talk about geography homework and our upcoming exams and how we think Gracia Lee has a crush on our PE teacher. “It’s soo gross,” Maria says in an exaggerated drawl.
I giggle, and then I watch Maria Reyes take herself apart.
She does it one hand at a time, replacing the left and then the right with a pair of hands she picked from a woman in one of the fridges. She’s ambidextrous and suddenly I’m jealous because when I get my hands back I won’t be ambidextrous, but it’s strange watching my own hands work. They are quick and slender and tough from years of playing strings. Under her control they are magic to watch. They pick seams and sew capillaries and handle the needle so deftly I can almost understand what she saw in them.
Maria stitches my hands back onto my body and then turns away while I reattach. For the first time, returning to my body doesn’t feel like a straitjacket. I flex my fingers and marvel at the relief of knowing they are my own. “Good?” she says softly.
I nod and my throat is suddenly tight. I close my fists, open them again.
“Sayang.” She smiles wistfully, reaching out and running her own new fingers over my upturned palms. “I liked your hands.” A shiver goes through me. My skin, my nerves, my veins, my hands. I close them over hers and squeeze.