Part 1 of 2
The dead god descends on me as I sleep, the way it did my mother the night before my conception, and my grandmother before that. Even with my dream-eyes shut, I know it's there; the weight of folded limbs on my body threatens to crush my ribs, and I can smell the wreaths of sweet sampaguita hanging from its neck.
"Go away, po," I tell it, adding the honorific since Nanay always taught me not to be rude to gods. "I'm having a good dream for once." I usually have nightmares during bangungot, trapped halfway between sleep and waking, unable to push my way fully to either side. The pressure on my chest, the terrible prescience that something very bad is about to happen, and the sound of distant screaming, like a boiling saucepan of human voices, are too familiar to me. But tonight there is only a pleasant floating sensation, fresh from a dream of flying over the oceans cresting Manila.
Cool, smooth fingers push my eyelids open. Just as my mother told me, the dead god dresses like a saint, all in chipped, white paint and dried offerings braided together on cheap twine. It is man-shaped, though it is neither a man nor a woman. Even though it has no skin or flesh, the stench of rotting lechón assaults my nostrils. Magandang gabi, my child, it whispers. Blessed evening, Maria, my heir.
"You have the wrong Reyes sister," I tell the dead god. "If you're talking blessings and inheritance, find Silvia, po. She's two years older."
It lowers its bone-pale head and kisses my hand. The waking dream ripples around me and my beautiful, healthy dream-arm evaporates, shriveling and twisting into a withered claw. My real arm. I do not make mistakes, says the dead god. You wear my mark, like your nanay and your lola and many others before you. It cradles my mangled hand so gently, lacing its fingers through mine. I chose you, just as I chose them. Therefore you are mine, Christina Maria Reyes, are you not?
I fight the sleep paralysis enough to snatch my hand out of the dead god's grasp, but when I try to cradle it to my chest, my limb flops against me like a useless wing.
"Why are you here?" I shout. The shrill boiling sound has started up again, a high wail in the distance. "Nanay promised you wouldn't show yourself to me until I was grown. I've still got years! Besides, Nanay is your disciple right now, not me."
No, says the god. It has no eyes in its empty, hollow face, but somehow it manages to look away. Not any more. Your mother is dead.
The waking dream shatters. I bolt upright in my bed, drenched in cold sweat. The dead god is gone. My sister sleeps quietly, tucked next to me in our small, wooden bed; none of the other maids in the room are awake, either.
It takes me almost a minute to realize that the teakettles I've been hearing are my own high-pitched, muffled whine and that my lap is damp with tears.
My sister is draped in piña in the middle of the Calderones' living room, trying to avoid the dressmaker's pins and the American Ma'ams' glares. The piña's thin cloth shimmers over her dark hair like a halo, and she reminds me of the fresco of The Holy Mother on the wall of Saint Peter of Makati's Chapel, only rounder and shorter. But she has the Holy Mother's same expression of inner contentment and peace. All of the bladed comments and piña in the world would not be enough to hide Silvia's inner glow.
"I don't know why we're paying for this wedding," says Ma'am Chitti. She is sprawled out on the couch, neck beading with sweat, vying for a spot in front of the electric fan. Her voice rings loud over the dressmaker's muttered measurements, uncaring of who hears. We maids, standing in the corners of the room, are all but invisible. "I don't know why there's going to be a wedding at all."
"It's because he got her pregnant, the idiot." Ma'am Margarita flaps a newspaper in front of her face to create a fake breeze and snaps her fingers at me. "Water," she orders without looking. "With ice." To her sister, she says, "If he was going to be fucking the maids, especially the under-aged ones, he should have at least used protection."
"It's harder to get here," says Ma'am Chitti. "Kasi Catholic."
I dip out of the room with a soft, "Yes, Ma'am Margarita," and pad to the kitchen. My withered right arm is tucked beneath my apron, so as not to offend any onlookers' sight.
"Mom should just send her back to the province where she came from. Get rid of her and let her have the baby there." Ma'am Margarita's voice chases me down the hall, and I bite my bottom lip so hard that my teeth threaten to break the skin.
I have not told Silvia about our mother. I will keep it buried deep inside myself, a dark, jagged hole. Maybe I will tell her after the wedding. Maybe I won't at all. After all, with no cell phone service back home and a postal service that takes ages and loses more letters than it delivers to the provinces, how could I know such a thing?
Stepping into the kitchen at midday is like wading through a cloud of steam. Even the ceiling fan on its highest setting can't cut through the oppressive heat trapped in the room. Two of the other maids, Jene and Vicky, glance up from the stove where they're making sinigang. "How's it going in there, Tíntín?" Jene asks me.
"It's fine," I mumble. I keep my body angled away from them as I slip my right arm out of my apron and use my wrist to open the cupboard where we keep the glassware. My hand works just fine, even if I can't use my fingers to grip things. I know my arm scares other people, though, and even the other maids still stare when they think I'm not looking. I'm always looking. "Silvia's getting fitted for her wedding dress and the Ma'ams are making a big deal out of it."
"It is a big deal!" chirps Vicky. Before I know it, she's dropped the ice bucket on the counter next to me, the top already propped open. "You only get married once. And especially a maid getting married to Sir Carlos—"
"It's no wonder they're pissed," says Jene. "Your sister's a nice girl, Tíntín, but she's a probinsyana like us. They want a high-class bride for their brother."
"You don't have to remind me." I slam down a glass a little too hard, and the others flinch. Sometimes I wonder if they are scared of me, even though I am five years younger than Vicky and two younger than Silvia. My mother, small and dark-skinned, has the same effect on people.
My mother. My stomach turns.
"Tín," calls Ma'am Loretta, her voice muffled through her bedroom door, adjunct to the kitchen. "Tín, I need you here right now!"
"I'll be right there, po," I shout from the kitchen. Hurriedly balancing the glass of water and its coaster on a tray, I ferry it to Ma'am Margarita in the living room, stepping carefully over the train of my sister's dress. Ma'am Margarita takes it without a word, and I dash back to Ma'am Loretta's room. Tucking the tray under my arm, I knock on her door. "Ma'am?"
"Come in, Tín."
Ma'am Loretta, matriarch of the Calderones, lies on her bed in near darkness. All of the curtains are drawn; only a single, clip reading lamp lights her face. The shelves lining her room are covered in wooden carvings of saints, each adorned with wreaths of dried, dead sampaguitas. The air is perfumed with their stench.
I do not know how old Ma'am Loretta is, but if my own grandmother was still alive—if she'd had a normal life without the interference and patronage of the dead god—I think she would be almost as old as Ma'am Loretta.
Ma'am Loretta beckons me over. "I have a special task for you, Tín. I need you to go to the jeweler's for me." Her voice is low as she hands me a small wooden box. I cradle it in the crook of my right arm, flipping the latch open with my left hand. My breath catches in my throat when I see what's inside.
The Calderone arrhae lies on a pillow of blue velvet, a ring of thirteen, gold-dipped coins strung together like a crown. I've never seen this ancient family treasure, but I've heard of it: four-peso coins engraved in Spanish lettering, kept away from outsiders' eyes, passed down and used in every Calderone wedding since the first in the 1800s.
"The color's gotten tarnished, see?" She lifts the arrhae and shows me a series of dark spots on the underside of the coins. "Go to Manila Jeweler's above the tiangge and get it re-dipped. It needs to look good for my son's wedding." She lets the arrhae fall back onto the pillow. "Salma's my suki there; tell her to give you a good price in my name."
I can't believe she wants me, of all people, to hold onto the Calderone arrhae. Me, with only one strong, healthy hand to hold. But I do not mention this. "Yes, Ma'am Loretta."
She presses an envelope into my hand; inside is a thin, crisp stack of ₱100 bills. I swallow hard and look into her eyes. Age clouds their edges milky blue, but at their core, they are mahogany hard.
"I trust you, Tín," Ma'am Loretta tells me. "More than I trust anyone else in this house. Don't break that trust."
"I won't, po," I say.
I can't escape from the room fast enough.
A ten-minute jeepney ride becomes thirty with traffic, but I make it to Greenhills without incident. Pushing my way through the tiangge, with the arrhae box tucked in a pouch beneath my blouse, is harder. The market writhes with people, flooding in and out of makeshift booths, pushing past the vendors shouting, "Ma'am! Bags! Wallets!" My sister hates this place, but I adore it. There is a lovely anonymity among the crush of humanity in the tiangge; people are pressed too close to care about small things like a withered arm or a damaged face, anything but: "T-shirts 300, Ma'am! Hairclips 25 pesos, Ma'am!"
Climbing the steps to the jewelers' alley, I let the security guard check my purse. He doesn't think to check the pouch around my neck. They never do. The jewelers' alley sprawls before me in a sea of glass cases and glittering stones, almost all of which are real. You could drown in opulence here.
"Manila Jeweler's?" I ask the security guard. He points me toward a stall in the corner, with a big, plastic banner reading: SALE. It seems largely abandoned, but a single figure is tucked at a desk behind the large display counter. At first, I think that person is a girl, but then I realize he's a boy my own age with very long, black hair. Most of that hair is tied in back in a ponytail, falling well beyond his waist.
I clear my throat. "Salma?"
He glances up at me through stray strands of dark hair, and I catch sight of a pair of eyes the color of new bamboo. Oh. "I'm sorry, Ma'am," he says. "Salma is my mother. How can I help you?"
"I was told to give something to Salma," I tell him. There's a strange, high pressure in the back of my head, very similar to the shrill sound I hear during bangungot. I feel stupid, and I have an irrational urge to hide my arm from him even though he's already seen it. "She's my Ma'am's suki. My Ma'am says she'll give her a good price and I don't want to be cheated."
He smiles. "What's your Ma'am's name, po?"
"Ma'am Loretta Calderone."
The boy whistles. For the first time, I notice he's holding a pencil, and the papers in front of him are covered in sketched jewelry designs. "Oh yes, I know her. Everyone up here knows Ma'am Calderone. What work does she need done?"
With hands that have suddenly grown clumsy, I fumble for the pouch and pull it from my shirt. I am stupidly conscious of the droplets of sweat that splatter from the bag onto the countertop. When the boy sees me having trouble with the drawstring, he reaches for the pouch. "Here, let me—"
"I've got it," I say, pinning the edge of the pouch down with my right elbow and using my left hand to pull the drawstring free. I pop open the box so he can see the arrhae, keeping it close to my body in case he tries to grab it from me. "Ma'am Calderone needs this dipped in gold for her son's wedding."
"May I see?"
Reluctantly, I let him take the arrhae. He examines it in the light, peering closely at the tarnished metal. "We'd usually charge 1000 pesos for this, minimum. But for Ma'am Calderone, 850."
"800," I reply shortly.
"You would beggar us, Ma'am!" he protests, but there's a hint of a laugh in his voice. It's a nice laugh. "850 pesos for Ma'am Calderone." He pauses. "But 800 pesos for you, if you tell me your name."
"Done." I slap the money down on the counter before he can change his mind. A name given is surely worth 50 pesos. "I'm Tín."
He grins again. "Rodante," he introduces himself.
Instead of shaking his hand, I make him write a receipt to prove that Manila Jeweler's was now in possession of the Calderone arrhae and had agreed to dip it in gold—"14k? 24k? Yellow, or white?"—for 800 pesos. Rodante folds the arrhae and places it carefully back into its box. "I'll take very good care of this for you," he says when he does shake my hand at the end of the transaction. His green eyes are serious. "I promise, Tín."
"If you don't, I'll find you," I threaten. "Worse, Ma'am Calderone will find you."
He laughs again as he lifts himself out of his seat and walks toward the back of the shop. That's when I see that he's limping. Rodante's right leg is a tangled, rippled mass of scars. Just like my arm.
The hum in the back of my head builds to a dull roar.
I am dreaming, and dreaming proper, of my mother's house in Bicol, a small, bamboo-and-hemp structure that the Ma'am in Manila call a 'shanty'—a word I never knew before coming to the city. Shadows from the malunggay trees dapple our house's nipa leaf roof, and the scent of the white sampaguita blossoms by the door is so strong that I almost don't smell the dead god arrive.
Perhaps I came on too strongly earlier, says the dead god. Today it wears a skin bristling with black feathers, thin panels on the side swinging open with each movement to reveal white bones beneath. I keep forgetting how young you are.
"I'm not that young." When I lived here, nanay's house and the land around it were full of running, tumbling children. But in the dream, the house is silent. The curtain over the doorway swings open in the thick, salty breeze, revealing darkness inside. "Did you go back for her funeral?" I ask the dead god. As soon as the words leave my mouth, I feel stupid; who knows if or how gods travel?
The dead god sighs. I stayed by her side until your family cremated her and scattered her ashes in the sea. Then I came to find you.
A face flashes in the window and for a moment, I see my mother running her palms over the latticed screen for dirt. The dead god's mark glimmers like white fire in the sunlight, a web of discoloration and scarring across her face. She vanishes before I can call out to her.
I loved her, the dead god says quietly. Very much.
"She loved you too," I say. The sea wind whips around us, ruffling the dead god's feathers and my own short, black hair. "She used to tell us stories about you all the time." I don't say that these stories, like those of all of the old gods, are banned in Calderone household in favor of Catholic masses and Ma'am Loretta's saints.
The dead god laughs, a dry sound like marbles rattling. Don't I know. I've been looking after your family since its inception, long before the milk-skinned Spanish washed up on your shores with weapons in their mouths and greed in their hearts. It turns its head to me, empty eye sockets staring through me to a different time and place. Your mother was special to me, though. She was my favorite, so fierce, so strong. She made me promise to take her youngest daughter as her heir when she passed on, in honor of her years in my service, and to grant you a special boon when you make your pact with me.
I do not want to think of my mother dead and lying in ashes at the bottom of the sea, so I wipe my eyes and ask the god, "What kind of boon are you offering me, po?"
The dead god grins, revealing a beak full of thick, blunt teeth. I would give you the gift of transformation. Pledge yourself to me and I will teach you to wing about the night, unhampered by human concerns. I will show you the secret banana groves where your mother hid her legs, deep in dreamland and Bicol's jungles.
My right hand tingles. I shield it from the dead god's sight with my good hand, banishing the images the god's words conjure up. A perfect, straight limb. No more stares. No more hiding. "That's not what I meant."
Well then. The dead god shrugs. I offer you knowledge of charms and spells, enchantments that will guarantee your household safety, recipes to keep the curses of other aswang away. I can teach you to make a man love you and stay by your side for the rest of your days. How rare is that?
"No, you promised me something special," I say. I pretend not to notice my knees shaking so that the dead god will not notice either. I pretend not to think of Rodante, with his sharp green eyes and sweet smile. "In memory of my nanay. She was your charge for most of her life, and you would teach me all these things if I pledged myself to you anyway. Do not try to cheat me, po."
The dead god clicks its beak. It sounds pleased. All right, clever child. You really are like your mother. I can offer you a special gift: one death, or one life, before you take on my powers. No one will ever know it was you, and you may cast the blame or credit on anyone you choose.
I shiver. What a great and terrible gift. Before I think it through, the words fall from my mouth: "Can you bring my mother back?"
The dead god is silent for too long. You would not recognize her if I did, it says finally. I would have to gather her ashes from the sea, and the ocean has already claimed most of her essence. Even so, I may only keep one living disciple. She has already designated you at her passing.
"So you can't," I say. "Or you won't."
To bring her back, you would have to die. And I refuse to trade our living daughter to bring back only half of the disciple I loved most.
The love and sorrow in the dead god's hollow voice makes me flinch. "You're no father to me," I snarl. "I don't need your gifts. You'd best leave. Don't bother coming back."
The dead god sighs. I'll see you tomorrow night, it says and vanishes, leaving me alone with the whispering trees and my abandoned childhood home. This time, it doesn't take the sampaguita scent with it.
Read part 2 here