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fiction | nonfiction

Ascent

There was this girl. She was my age. She was sitting in a chair at the very top of a tall building. It is nearing sunset, and though the skies are cloudy, the heat is intense. It is a miasma of suffocating warmth coming from the highways below, borne up by the sounds of revving engines and blaring horns of vehicles. It is only slightly windy. Everything is in slow-motion. Her long black hair is waving gently, like the tentacles of jellyfish or some other underwater sea creature. She says, this is the first time she has been out of her apartment in months. She says, this is the first time in months that she’s had a cigarette. She looks unkempt, like she does not take care of herself. Is she eating well? Is she alright out here sitting, looking at the sky?

She says she’s somewhat happy, or at least not as miserable as before. It’s the wide open spaces she loves, the vast empty stretches where there are no people to be seen. The problem with the world, she continues, is people. There are too many of them. There are too many of us. Imagine there would be a catastrophe, and only a few people would be left. The cities would be empty. There would be no blaring of horns, no more revving of loud engines of cars and motorcycles. No loud music coming from huge speakers about Christmas, the joy of Christmas, the happiness it would bring into all our lives. No more loud televisions broadcasting the voices of the famous and what the world has labelled beautiful or enticing or charismatic. It would be just people sitting around the campfire at night, talking.

She says, we need stories. Real stories. Not the empty, emotionally and intellectually bankrupt scenes they show on television every night. This world is suffering from a lack of imagination. So full, yet so lacking in the things that really matter. I remember, she continues, about this story, I think it was by Plato. He said that there are only a limited number of souls in the universe. They probably float around just waiting for their assigned bodies to be born, and then they merge with that body. The body lives and feels and hates and loves and just be all engaged with the world for a time, and then the body dies. The soul is released back into the aether where it floats with all the other souls once more. The problem, she says, is that there are more people now than there are souls. The industrial revolution has made mass production, especially in the realm of agriculture, possible. The scientific method has improved the medical arts so effectively that humans generally live longer now. A child born now has a higher chance of living than those born centuries ago. We are mass-producing people, we are making empty containers. There are soulless people walking around. This is the cause of the misery of the world.

She finishes her cigarette. She exhales the smoke. The smoke rises up towards the sky and merges with the clouds. It looks like it’s going to rain. I can hear the low rumbling, the pressure building, of the thunder waiting to be released. She looks at me with the cigarette stub clipped between her fingers. There are dark rings under her eyes. She looks tired and worn-out. The light makes her appear paler than she really is. She’s wearing jeans and flip-flops and a white baggy t-shirt with a few tiny holes in it. She leans over, forearms on her knees, and looks down. She lets go of the cigarette butt and crushes it under her left heel. She asks me: how do we make souls? How can we make this world a less miserable place?

It was just the two of us at the top of the building. I was sitting cross-legged on a piece of cardboard on the floor, about twenty or more steps in front of her. From where I am, she looked like a giant statue. She looked tired, like her words were her strength, and by speaking at length, she has lost a lot of energy. She does not move, she looks heavy, like she’s made of granite. I wondered whether the cement would crack under her feet if she stands up and takes a step.

As if hearing my thoughts, she raises her head and looks at me. She stands up, and the cement holds her weight. She stands up, slowly, and I thought I could see the dust that accumulated through centuries slide down from her onto the floor. I look at her as she walks towards me.

Just then the clouds parted, opening up a vast portion of the sky. It revealed a very bright light that covered the entire world. I could not see. All I managed was a glimpse of her feet as she started to float. Her flip-flops slipped off as I started to crawl towards her. The light had weight and was bearing down on me. My limbs felt heavy, it was hard to breathe. I thought I would lose consciousness. Then the light vanished as quickly as it appeared. My eyes took a long time to adjust back so I could see. When I looked around she was no longer there. The only things left were her flip-flops, the cigarette butt which she has crushed earlier, and the empty chair.

Examination Days

Examination Days

Last Sunday, I went to my old high school in the city, to take the Civil Service Exam. A day before, that is Saturday, our names and room assignments were posted on a bulletin board inside the school, near the entrance gate. I looked up my name, found out my number. I walked to find the room in the school, and realized the universe was messing with me.

I still get this nightmares where I am in my homeroom in my old high school. It was my last year of high school, there were only a few months left until graduation. It was exam time, and I couldn’t make out the numbers and symbols on the paper . In the nightmare, I failed and dropped out, and had to transfer to another school. What happened actually ten years ago was I did fail, I did drop out, and I did have to transfer to another school.

So you can imagine what I felt when I found out the room where all those recurring nightmares, all those memories that I’d rather suppress, is the room where I will be taking the Civil Service Exam. Well you probably can’t imagine, since my reaction surprised me. I was giddy actually, I thought, because it was some kind of proof that there is something larger, in the metaphysical sense, going on. Like, behind this curtain of a world lies another probably more interesting one. Could it be the real world, and this world is just an illusion?

I managed a smile, I was laughing inside, walking the nearly-empty corridors of my old school. Somehow in my mind it was larger. I mean, it is a large school, but maybe I was just smaller then. They did some renovations. They acquired the land nearby and built another building complex. They call it ‘The Playground’ because the buildings surround this wide open space used for sports activities. A decade ago, that spot was the site of the city gymnasium. The gymnasium was already old at that time, so it wasn’t any surprise that when it caught fire, it burned rapidly. In the morning, all we saw were the embers and the half-charcoaled posts. The city management did not rebuild it.

They still had the religious inspirational quotes painted on the walls of the classroom. These were on all the four corners, and I looked at each one as I waited for the exam to begin. These aren’t supposed to be there, being a public high school and all, but we don’t have a strong secular tradition in this here beautiful country. I am sitting there on the chair, near the exact spot where I used to sit so many years ago. We used to have these long benches with armrests as dividers that could sit four students. But maybe they stopped using those years ago. Or it could be that they still use it, only this time, for the Civil Service Exam, they replaced the seats with the single-chair ones so the examinees would have some distance between them.

The exam went on for three hours. What surprised me was I found the mathematics portion easier than the word and sentence problem portions. After the exam, we were not allowed to loiter in the school grounds. I walked slowly in the peopled corridors, munching on the White Chocolate KitKat Bar I bought the day before. People were smiling and talking, the proctors and examiners were serious-looking. The day was hot and bright. There was no wind blowing.

Smoke World

I don’t know why, but those who live in the provinces here seem to have an aversion against fresh air. At exactly five-thirty in the afternoon, which is thirty minutes past the end of the school and work day, you’ll have people burning their trash. It happens in front of their houses, behind their houses, by the sides of the streets. Consider yourself lucky they don’t burn plastic with the leaves, twigs and paper. At least the information campaigns from both television and non-television media penetrated through and remained in their minds that burning plastic is not a good thing.

It could be a manifestation of what is called ‘racial memory.’ Generations upon generations have been burning their trash in much the same way. One could even bring up the fact that the indigenous people here have been burning twigs and leaves to produce smoke just before night-time, since before the Spanish period. The people reason that mosquitoes avoid smoke-saturated air. Between learning to live with smoke-filled air, and catching malaria, the former is certainly the lesser evil. Smoke also drives away insects that do harm to ornamental and fruit-bearing trees.

Between the final two weeks of September and the first weeks October, when the rice have been harvested, the rice straws and hulls are gathered in the middle of the ricefields. These are burned by the farmers. Before the sun has set, you’ll see the thick columns of white smoke rising up to the sky. The smell of burning rice straws and hull sticks to the clothes and skin. The tiny particles, sometimes mixed with dust, irritates the nose and throat. At night, especially when it is hot, the smell of the smoke becomes even more oppressive. It is hard to fall asleep.

Public structures should not be named after politicians

public structures

Vexations to the spirit

The girl was what the poem would call a ‘vexation to the spirit.’ Before and after classes, during that transition period when we are waiting for the teachers, she would go around the classroom and talk to her friends. It was more speak-shouting than talking. They have been told by the teacher having a class next door to be silent several times, but still they keep doing it. The most irritating thing about them is their laughter. It is a high-pitched squealing that pierces through your eardrums and creates havoc inside your head. I sit at the back. I am witness to all these.

Her face is a feet away from mine. She is staring at me. She’s asking why am I so silent, why am I reading all the time, why do I have these dark circles under my eyes. I don’t speak for myself, those who seat in front of me and at my sides choose to be my speakers. Speaker one says to her, ‘don’t bother him, he’s reading.’ Speaker two who sits at my right side says, ‘yeah, if you read as much as him maybe your grades would be just as high.’ Speaker three at my right says, ‘hey you have a crush on him, don’t you?’ She replies by slamming the book I was trying to read, then pinching or at least trying to pinch those who spoke for me. I kept my mouth shut, I wanted to speak for myself, but my voice is too low and the words sometimes don’t come out right. So I disengage. I leave them alone.

Then the teacher comes and everyone settles down, keeps quiet. I close my book, take out my notebook and start to listen. The class is history. The lesson is about Africa. It was about colonialism. It was about this guy called Jomo Kenyatta, who was not only a writer but also government official. It wasn’t that interesting really. The teacher was what kept most of the students interested. She is beautiful and smart. She has wavy black hair that reaches far below her back. She sometimes ties it in a tight bun, but more often she just lets it hang loose.

Emphysema and Bastard

Emphysema and Bastard

Her name is Emphysema. She wears glasses. Her hair is long and she keeps it in cornrows. She rarely smiles, the neutral state of her lips is a smirk. She likes to read, stays up reading late into the night. Claims her brain only works in the early hours of the morning. She writes. And writes. And writes. Short stories, short short stories. Vignettes. She never finishes anything. Not for a long time. Not a poem, not a story. This frustrates her. No alcohol. No cigarettes. Tea and coffee only. Her stomach gets acidic, and she drinks a lot of water. She burps and tries not to turn to the television. She has a compulsive personality. Short attention span nowadays. Dogs constantly barking outside. She got used to it. It’s hot this night, she wants to go out somewhere far.

It was supposed to rain, the news said it’s going to rain. Instead the heat’s been intense for days. She hates the heat. She imagines she’s a rain-child. A rain child is someone who is born on a rainy day. She was born in July, and in July it usually rains where she was born. She likes to look at the raindrops falling from the tips of the leaves of the trees and the grasses and the plants during and after the rain. She likes the smell of the rain, the smell before and during and after the rain. Rain children wilt under the heat. They must maintain a certain level of temperature, beyond which their souls will no longer function so well. This causes a psychic blockage, which is an artistic blockage, which is the reason why she cannot write anything this night.

On her table, in front of her laptop, behind the laptop screen, is sleeping Bastard. Bastard is six months old. She found him one rainy day underneath an upturned cardboard box just meow-meowing all alone. One day back in high school, she was elected President of the English Club. She said no, I would like to protest my nomination. The teacher said no, your classmates have spoken. She sat down and frowned and when she finally won to an overwhelming majority against another candidate, she was called on to preside the class election of officers of the English Club by the teacher. She said no ma’am, I would like to resign my post. The teacher is getting annoyed now, asked why. She said, ma’am I hate responsibilities. Then, the teacher replied, you should have not come to this school. And that was the end of the matter. She stood up and presided over the election of the rest of the officers of the English Club. She remembered her answer to the teacher that day she found Bastard. ‘I hate responsibilities.’ And the next though in her head is ‘fuck,’ as she picked up Bastard, wrapped him in her handkerchief, and placed him inside her purse.

Bastard is curled around his favorite toy, a tiny golden teddy bear. She got it for him a day after finding him. Bastard grips the bear with his paws. He is sprawled on top of the table belly-up. His fur is white with silver-grey stripes. Bastard sleeps a lot during the day. He sleeps a lot during the night too. He likes to eat raw fish. His favorite activity is chasing after rats in the apartment. Lately he developed the habit of biting her. To remedy this, she has taken to spraying him with a spray bottle.

My Brother Saving the Girl

My Brother Saving the Girl

When I was in high school, there was this smart and very beautiful girl everybody had a crush on. I remember her getting almost all perfect scores on math quizzes and exams. She was tall and pale, she had long black hair. She never painted her nails or wore lipstick. She never spoke in class unless it was necessary. You never hear her raise her voice. When she wants to call someone, she would approach slowly and tap the person on the shoulder. She rarely smiled, but when she did, it was as if the whole world is actually not a bad place to be alive in. Looking back now, the way she moved in the hallways and corridors was what could be described as ‘graceful.’

She wasn’t perfect though. She was absent a lot. Sometimes she comes to school looking harried – hair slightly unkempt, eyes a little red, with just a small dark patch of skin underneath the lower eyelids. Her uniform is wrinkled some days. More often it’s smooth and white. For all that, I thought it just made her more attractive. I was reading Buddhism at that time, having been forced to it by my older brother who is crazy. My brother said to me, it’s those little imperfections that a person should take to mind when looking for a friend. I asked why. He said, it’s because it mirrors the nature of the world. The world is imperfect, impermanent. Perfection is not of this world. Applying the idea to the girl, she was indeed of this world. She was real. Or at least that’s how I thought about it.

One day, she did not show up for school for about a week. Usually she kept her absences to two at most per week, and never one day after the other. There wasn’t any note or excuse letter from her or her parents. The second week she still did not show up for school. He friends started to worry. Rumors spread around the school. One was that she stopped showing up because she ran away from home. Her parents were strict religious, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses – that’s why she was never allowed to paint her nails or wear lipstick or perfume, even floral cologne which was so popular then and which the girls shared so freely with each other was forbidden from her. They said she found a boyfriend from another high school who ran away with her. One said her boyfriend was actually a college student who has a car and a house. I asked, how can a college student have a car and a house? A friend of mine replied, it’s because he’s rich, man, his father’s a politico haciendero and the college student was the unico hijo and thus an heredero of all the father’s riches. Speculations went on like that for months.

On the other hand, my brother who dropped out from college and has been holing in the house for months started getting dreams. He’s been arguing with my parents a lot. Father talked about his future. Mother talked about his future. What was he going to do with his life, they asked. Meanwhile he just stood there on the doorway of his room and looked at my parents, with their elevated heart rates, with the most innocent expression on his face. He said to them he was going to look for the girl. He said he wasn’t going to be a useless person any longer, that he would be a useful member of society. That he would begin by finding out whatever happened to the smart girl who is also beautiful in my class. In a dream, he told me, the girl spoke to him.

“How did you know it is her. You haven’t seen her.”

“Yes, but you have described her to me numerous times.”

“She ran away.”

“Are you sure?”

“Her boyfriend is rich and he has a house and a car.”

“But you’re not sure. None of you are sure. You want me to find out for certain.”

“Do what you want.”

So after half a year of living like a hermit, my brother shaved his beard and moustache. He went out during the early morning to go to the town barbershop. Had his hair trimmed. He wore decent clothes and talked to my parents about how he’s going to the city to find a job and work while thinking about whether he wants to continue with his higher education or not. My parents were delighted.

“In my dream the girl appeared to me. She was shouting help, help. Her hair was frazzled and it was moving on its own, her eyes were stark-red, no pupils, just red eyeballs. She was falling from a building and I am looking down at her as she’s falling, as if I’m falling facedown above her. Her parents I knew were at the top of the building opposite where she jumped off. They were looking at her. She was clawing her way up, like she’s trying to pull me down. She was kicking her legs, like she’s riding an invisible bicycle. I was telling her to not worry, I will save her. I will save her from everything. From her parents, from her problems, from this ugly sad terrible world. But she was just screaming, she does not hear me. She does not see me. And we’re falling, we’re falling, and we’re a few meters from the pavement. And then I wake up.”

What really killed the dinosaurs

What really killed the dinosaurs

What killed the dinosaurs was a lack of love. All around and inside them was just this feeling of emptiness and coldness. They wandered around avoiding each other’s eyes afraid of what they might see. A reflection of themselves?

Were they cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it really matter, what with all the suffering in the world? They catch a glimpse of themselves while drinking water. They are captured for a moment by their reflection. Is this who I am? What is the meaning of life? Why do I feel this way?

They stay awake until the early hours of the morning, thinking about the future. They worry that there isn’t enough to be done about things. They run over what they’ve done with their day. They think about how things could be improved. They sigh and realize it’s pointless, all the thinking, all the worrying, what matters is to accept and move on. Not to dwell on the past. At least not to dwell on the past too much.

And when sleep finally comes, it is shallow and troubled. Dreams of flying, dreams of swimming, dreams of walking over an open graveyard of bones, feet crushing brittle ancient skulls.

Memories of Bogart

I’m the only one among us siblings who remember our very first family dog. He was a gentle giant mutt named ‘Bogart.’ I used to ride Bogart into battle. My father made me this sword out of bamboo, then I made myself this hat made of paper, and I would ride Bogart to battle the monsters living under the vast mango tree within walking distance from our house.

Bogart lived in a dog-house built into the side of our hut. This was just below the window. Every morning I would wake up, climb on the chair beside the window and call on Bogart. “Bogart, it’s time for breakfast,” I would say. Bogart would just whine and continue sleeping. Then while drinking my milk I would spill some and my mother would get angry, said I acted like a dog and maybe I should just lick off the spilled milk, which I did.

A Review of ‘Midori’ [1992]

A Review of ‘Midori’ [1992]

Midori is an anime film that came out in 1992. It was made by one person and it took him a long time to finish it. The quality of the animation is pretty weak. It’s mostly stills of scenes with some movements. You don’t get the smooth product of a Hayao Miyazaki.

Midori is disturbing. There is no mincing of words here. It tells the story of a young girl who lives with her sickly mother. Then something terrible happens and the girl is forced out of their cramped and decaying apartment/room, and into the streets. It is there where she meets the characters that would torture her and abuse her and make her life a living hell. But then, an unlikely person comes to her rescue. He genuinely loves her, though their relationship is still highly questionable.

Muzan-e is a mid-nineteenth-century collection of ukiyo-e prints by the artist Yoshitoshi depicting gruesome scenes of violence. Some of them are sexual in nature. There are lots of blood and gore. Though in the highly stylized / non-anatomically-realistic style which is ukiyo-e, it is still very unsettling. Midori harkens somewhat to that infamous collection, and shows the level of depravity and disturbing images that have been incorporated in Japanese art. To follow on this, you’ll find the same things, though in a more muted and sublime way, in the writings of Yukio Mishima. For all its gruesomeness, there is that element of beauty somehow in the anime Midori and these works.

Midori ends somewhat predictably. Though I will not divulge what happens in here. Overall, the film will leave you with a terrible feeling in the head and the heart, and probably your other internal organs as well. Only a few will be able to find meaning, much more, enjoyment from it. There is something very wrong with you if you find this film entertaining.

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