Thursday, September 29, 2022
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Afterlight

WHEN YOU FIND you’re awake and you’re up on your feet, the first thing you notice is that your watch is partly broken—the hands unmoving; the crown, for some reason, a bit stiff, the crystal face smashed in like the shell of an egg. A small part of your pride is stricken for your beloved keepsake, the first real purchase from your meager college savings, as you acknowledge the little normalcy it affords you in this circumstance—now, in the wider scheme of things, you have found yourself somewhere very strange, far from your last place of origin.

You’re wearing a pair of beaten-up, dirty slip-ons from high school that you hoarded in your closet for years, and only threw out months ago at the behest of your mother, along with jeans and a thick cotton jacket. This is fitting, you realize, for the current climate, like that of the city in October with its light, humid fog. You breathe in and rub your arms, and fix the strap of a conveniently granted, weightless shoulder bag. You’re standing on a sidewalk corner next to a streetlight, in a grayscale-rendered world like the city.

Indeed, where you are, it’s the city, now unraveling as a familiar maze of worn-out concrete houses in pastel shades; sari-sari stores, little wares peeking out behind brown steel bars; high-rise buildings against a cloudless sky that is, nonetheless, a matte cloudlike color—all these, but some oddities: no people walking, as far as you can see; no cars beeping, or whirring, as far as you can hear. Only, from your peripheral vision: along the axis of an intersection lined by these structures are shades—could you call them phases—of floating, foreboding white.

A first emotion—slight unease—you quell by fixating on the most familiar. You pick at the crown of your watch with your nails and set the time to six o’clock, perhaps it could be six. And it is as if the white pockets fade, and the colors of the city infuse with a dawn wind.

The awe washes over you, your mind’s grasp of the power. Then instinct tells you that there’s a way around, that you were dropped at a point from which it was possible to navigate. You toss the flap of the bag over, dig into the bottom corners and find, almost to your expectation, something to aid you—a tattered hundred-peso bill.

In what seems to be minutes, an empty jeepney with a faded blue roof passes and stops at your corner, and you climb on. You pass the bill to the driver, a bearded man in a hat and shirt the same color as the roof. A long scar runs diagonally across his face, permanently sealing one eye, but his expression as he receives you is warm.

“Isa lang po,” is all you say. You count what you receive as ninety-two pesos in change.

The jeepney plies a steady route through both main streets and alleyways, all seemingly abandoned. Though unopposed by other vehicles, the scarred driver follows stoplights, adjusts his mirrors, and looks discreetly for passengers every so often. At one stop, he calls at a weathered old woman sleepily leaning against a station pillar. She passes a bundle of several rubber-bound parcels—quail eggs, shrimp crackers, freshly roasted peanuts—into the back before you take her arm and help her alight.

As you glance at your watch to keep track of its movement, nonsensical as the notion seems, her sandaled feet follow the thrum of the engine. She catches your eye and, like the driver, casts you a smile.

Upon looking more closely, you see that buried under the other snacks are meringues, piped in delicate kiss shapes—the toffee-colored tint of the edges somehow captured in this ethereal light. And you remember, suddenly, the bus rides to Los Baños from your childhood and each time that, after incessant begging, your mother caved in to appease your recurrent sweet tooth, and enjoyed your silence for the rest of the ascent up the shrouded mountain.

You think of the way the woman carries her wares and wonder if, in this life, she is also a mother, try to guess how many rides it will be till she finds her way home.

From the pesos left over, you set aside a twenty bill and look to her, look past the curtain of quail eggs, but somehow she reads you and swiftly tears off a pack with her fingers. “Ah, iho, ‘wag na,” she says, when you insist against it. “Sa ‘yo, libre.”

Cradling the packet, you now search through the rungs of the vehicle’s window, for any and all evidence of purpose—if the watch means anything as the colors of the world changed when you turned the crown, and the pockets of white disappeared. But at a closer distance they appear again, at the rotundas and on sidewalks, as shapes that do not seem distinct. Rather, in the canopy of the city, they are like very white holes or gaps with fluid edges, possessing a chilling blankness. Little by little, the world is populated by these blanks.

The woman has seen you seize up and shiver, and calls, “Iho, kumain ka na.”

She repeats, “Kain na muna,” as you glance at your watch. “May kaunting oras pa.”

Forcing yourself to look away, you open the packet and pull out a meringue kiss. It crumbles against your teeth and melts by the grain into your tongue. You take comfort in a second, then a third, before wrapping the rest with a rubber band and stowing the packet and your change away into the shoulder bag. The woman closes her eyes and peacefully nods off.

You step off near an empty train station and a row of bleak-looking condominiums. Curiously, you find another person rooted at the stop—a young man your age in a crumpled suit, tie undone, mashing his fingers furiously against a smartphone. A few feet from where you part, you watch the driver park near the man, waiting, even as several moments pass without him lifting his eyes from the screen.

Eventually the man gives up and tosses the phone with all of his strength against the sidewalk, breaking it with a loud crunch. There is a heaviness in his step as he climbs in and takes your seat on the jeepney. But to him, the old woman affords the same cheerfulness, offering four quail eggs.

YOU TAKE THE road to the left of the train station, brisk-walking to outpace a group of corporeal Blanks. “Blanks” you decide to call them, as blanks they are to you, amoebic forms that have since assumed roundness and centers like vacuums in addition to their stark white quality. Their presence has started to set you on edge. Suppose they existed, above all, to distract you, to obstruct any attempt at reconciling this already strange actuality?

But you are driven, then, to the scene of an industrial complex, the atmosphere a muted sepia hue. The Blanks disperse here and become a collated mist. You step in front of an odd structure among the corrugated tin sheets, stacked house-high, and stray beams from roofless wood factories—a makeshift Catholic chapel with cement walls, a battered stone cross at its façade.

What draws you toward it is the sound of shuffling pages, punctured by the occasional heavy cough. Inside is a half-bald priest at the pulpit, distinguishable not for any robes or a shawl, only the loosely rolled Roman collar of a shirt worn with jeans as plain as yours. Though he looks upon you with some surprise, he beckons you closer.

“You’ve come a long way, child,” he says. “Inside, now.”

“The Blanks—they can’t come in here?”

“Don’t worry. This is holy ground.”

“Well, sure. We’re in a church now. But can you tell me exactly where we are?”

“I only have an elementary sense,” the priest says, “that this is what I have ‘made’ of things. I have a notion of memory, and that there are precious few memories that I retain. And these are my ‘boundaries’—meaning, I have not left my sanctuary for so long, and do not know when I can leave it, or how much time has passed.”

“Time,” you echo, reaching instinctively for your watch.

“Yes, time. I have only this: when I was a young priest, my life was blindly dedicated to time. Matins, vespers, the poetry from these very pages, but words I now cannot remember. The song of the bells… and each long moment that passes before I can hear even a trace of them.” His nostalgic gaze shifts in your direction. “You are the first soul I have seen cross over from all the ones I know are outside.”

“I have no choice—I was boxed in,” you reply with a wry smile, tapping at an empty pew. “Wouldn’t be my first option to go back and swallow the same crap I used to every Sunday, when I was a kid. To be in such a lonely, irrelevant place…”

“Well, what I’ve figured out is that at least it isn’t Hell,” the priest says, idly turning his pages. “Tell me, child… what have you seen outside?”

“There are the Blanks.”

“And what more?”

“There are… what could you call them?” You scratch your head. “Well, I can’t explain. But I didn’t come here all on foot. I took a jeepney. There was an old woman who sold snacks riding with me. Sweets I enjoyed in my childhood.”

“A river runs through it, after all,” the priest chuckles.

“Padre…” You pause. “I’m sorry I forgot to call you that. Padre. Sorry I was rude. It’s just that, I’m not the religious type anymore. I haven’t been for a long time. I stopped seeing the point, you know? So even if I’m here, wouldn’t it be dishonest if I stayed very long and I just sat here, and no matter how long you preached to me about repentance or salvation, I wasn’t likely to listen?”

“Pity, pity. These pages, they’re empty. Save for Job 3:20–22. A little scripture to have gotten us by. But if you like, we can talk about more ordinary things.”

“If we have time?” you ask him, and he notices you glance at your watch.

“I see… so that is why you can—well, we do have a little time.” The priest steps down from the pulpit and you sit beside each other on a pew. You see from the way his old body bends that he’s spent an eternity standing.

“There’s no point in saying why I’m here, if I can’t even remember the specifics. Those things might be best left in the confessional. All I want to say is that I wish I gave better homilies. I promised myself after I was ordained that I’d make Sundays relevant. Not just read and read the boring stuff, but—hear God like I did in the bells. And I couldn’t do that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” he says, hunching over. “Now in my sanctuary, and with all the time in the world, I can practice.”

Silence passes in the length of prayers. The priest reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tiny drawstring pouch.

“Take this with you,” he says, and adds as you weigh it against your palm, “Holy salt. Sprinkle some on the road as you go. Even a little will go a long way.”

“May you do right,” he adds, signing a blessing as you stand up, turn your back, and wind your watch again, to twelve.

LEAVING THE CHAPEL and throwing salt on the streets without any expectation, you begin to feel the fabric of the city unfurl into things oddly more intimate. Beyond the industrial complex, one street leads into another with—what looks like that barbed wire fence, that silver gate, and as you close your eyes and give a little more, just a little more concentration—that blue telephone pole, that mailbox near your first office, your college, your old dorm.

Alley cats appear near trash cans and tree stumps; you’d been wont to rescue even the sickest of strays, and the ones who grew healthy, you remember, nursed you through a number of your own dark days. You are tailed by an exceptionally pretty calico in a red belted collar, who meows softly till you smile, bend, and scratch her ears, rub her belly when she flips to her underside.

The happiness is short-lived, however, when the cat awakens to a presence that you both sense. On all fours, she accidentally scratches you and hisses violently. Stabs from invisible appendages fly in your arm’s direction, but mostly miss you and hit the body of the cat. They first draw blood, then pull whole patches of fur from her stomach and back, and eventually choke her and prick at her spine. The cat refuses to leave your side, and tries its best to curl protectively against you. The nerves of panic fuse into a hollow that forms in your chest, and the fear turns to anger as you sob and fumble to diffuse pressure being applied at the cat’s neck.

“Please, why don’t you run?” you beg her. “You know that it’s me they’re after. Why do you have to hold on?”

The cat mewls weakly when you manage to pull off her collar; the Blank forces retreat when a clowder of seven cats, tabbies and solids and tortoiseshells, appear from the curbside to rescue her. They crowd her body and purr-whisper until she rises, limps on three paws while raising one. You take, and pocket, the red belted collar. Eight jeweled sets of eyes linger on you before disappearing yet again into the shadows.

 

WHEN DARKNESS FALLS, you trace the glow of a neon light to the sign of a mini-mart. You’ve since been out of breath since winding from three to twelve o’clock and avoiding unwanted presences—with some surprise, you also note you’ve gone this far without smoking.

You wipe your shoes on the doormat and push back the glass door. Wind chimes signal your arrival, but the lady at the counter, the lone presence in the store, has her back turned to you, is busy placing empty glass bottles into a crate and singing the occasional line to “Forevermore” on the radio.

Needing only a few cigarettes and a lighter, you paw through the bag for the rest of your change and sort the bills, waiting for her to finish: “You were just a dream that I once knew… I never thought I would be right for you…”

“Ate, Marlboro Reds. Yung maliit lang po. Saka isang lighter. Ay… teka lang…”

Your eyes have fallen, next to the row of friction lighters and chocolates, upon a stack in a curiously stocked magazine shelf—several newsprint Top Hits chord books with colorful, boldly printed covers. Against gaudy illustrations of boys playing guitars and girls in sunglasses, holding Coke bottles, retro orange and pink font letters spell out titles like Living the ‘80s, Slow Jams, 20 Years of the Best Original Philippine Music, and The Most Timeless Love Songs. On the cover of the latter is a drawing of a car parked next to a tree on a hill; hovering under the text is the comic image of a crescent moon.

Puzzled at what constitutes “timeless,” you pick up the magazine and thumb through it. You find yourself squinting hard at the chords on those gaps above the song lyrics, imagining the guitar frets with some difficulty, rusty as you are from years of not playing.

The fifty-page collection does not follow a particular order, but you perceive a good mix of the old and new, mainstream and eclectic music you grew up and grew on with, from your dad’s favorite Beatles songs to the Spandau Ballet and Fra Lippo Lippi that seem to be on loop in every single taxi you’ve taken to anywhere. Somewhere in the middle pages, you spot Tito’s favorite drunken aria, AfterImage’s “Next in Line.” You can almost hear your neighbors, transcending whole universes, belting “Born for You” and “Take Me to Your Heart” on karaoke Thursdays.

A strong current of nostalgia washes over you when you reach “Ligaya,” “Magasin,” and “With a Smile,” the songs in particular that you and your girlfriend agreed showed the best of the Eraserheads. You’d given her the first Anthology soon after you’d gotten together, and the CDs were permanently jammed into her car stereo when she first started driving.

It hadn’t ended so badly, but you could have done so much more. After the fact, you hadn’t spoken in forever. You wonder now, of all times, how she’s doing. You place Timeless Love Songs on the counter.

“Ate, magkano ‘to?”

“Bente lang po.”

“Sige, pati ‘to.”

The lady sorts the box of tens, a lighter, and The Most Timeless Love Songs into a paper bag, which you slip in turn into your own.

“Ganda naman ng stock ninyo dito, Ate,” you remark, motioning toward the magazines.

“Ah, yung mga Top Hits po, Sir?” she says. “Madalas nagbabago po yung mga iyon. Pero, mukhang kayo lang ang mahilig sa mga lumang kanta. Sana maalala ‘to ng iba…”

She nods her head and returns to her radio, but struck by something, you loiter inside the mini-mart to search through the magazines. They are a whole assortment of dailies with most of the front pages crumpled; tabloids with yellowing stray sheets of indeterminate age; dog-eared Sudoku and crossword booklets, the solutions already scratched onto the covers in smudged ink; and fashion glossies of men in striped suits, girls in chokers and peasant shirts.

Untouched magazines, you realize. Unread, unremembered…

You stay by the window of the mini-mart, within its boundary, to finish three cigarettes. You watch the way the lady shuffles boxes, counts the lighters, and sorts the magazines again one by one. She wears light makeup and a neatly buttoned-up dress. The way she follows a new song playing from that invisible set of overhead speakers, without any hesitation, you cannot tell, exactly, how she feels about running the store solo.

 

BY NOW, YOUR watch is a mess, but its crown is looser and light. Your resolve tightens as you wind—for the last time—to three o’clock, the witching hour, and take one, then another step, outside the boundary.

After barely a kilometer, the dark contrasts the light. The city’s structures blur and the most visible figures are the ones you waited for, the Blanks somehow not blank, less shapeless and now unspeakably corporeal. More of them surround you in the form of furless mammals and reptiles without scale, in various mockeries of the human body, with incomplete faces and grotesque, flaccid breasts.

You have come with what they thirst for, from which to empty you—indeed, more than pained, you would feel hollowed of you, of world; for all that you ever gained, you would lose and tire, and everything from the sweetness to the sacred would fall into the white gaps that had waited for you—

Still… still… where the glass may fall or soil give way, as long as there are voices for a song, as long as there is a world—

“Whatever you want,” you scream at them, “take it! Just take it! And cease to be.”

 

STRANGELY, THE WORLD does not stop.

In a second state of wakefulness only a moment different—one second, a fold across the same side of paper—the Blanks have gone, and the only whiteness is that of a white silk sheet on the very soft bed that cushions your body. You awaken and rise quickly in a room full of mobile figurines: beads, Christmas lights, origami boats and cranes. An old man with gray hair, in a frayed silk barong, strings capiz shell lanterns to hang from the ceiling.

Your eyes meet briefly, and you stare in disbelief for several seconds before you reach toward him with a soft cry. His cracked lips break into a smile as he nudges you to relax.

“Here I was, thinking you were a goner,” he chuckles.

“That’s what I’d thought of you all these years!” you exclaim. “How could you still be alive?”

“Well, in this world I am. You’d be surprised. Since you rescued me, I’ve lived a fairly long time.”

“Oh, I got so upset that day, when Kuya threatened to kill you with the broom. Lolo taught me never to kill spiders.”

“And because of you, and your lolo, I’ve lived to be a lolo, a thousand times over,” he grins.

“I still haven’t found the answer,” you say, “only clues here and there. Where exactly am I—are we?”

“Even that you sense me is a wonder. The clues are what matter. Can you keep them in some form?”

“Yes! Yes, I do. I am sorry to ask, but… when you saved me, did you find—”

“Of course,” the man says, opening a chest of drawers and reaching for the shoulder bag. “Here, everything.”

“Thank you for saving me.”

“An eye for an eye, and a life for a life.”

“How did you even find me?”

“That, I shall leave a mystery, the way a part of your own gift and presence remain to be. But there are ancient ties that bind me to this world, and another and another, through my web. It will take thousands of years outside of my boundary to truly understand this connection. But I am glad… I am so glad… for this point in time, to have found your soul once again.”

He then digs a hand into his pocket. What he slips out and examines is a thin cord bracelet; woven into the ends are small wooden beads. You recall, by accident, spilling a box of that particular kind in your room one Christmas, in a clumsy rush to open the rest of your presents.

“This is a gift I wasn’t sure I’d get to give you. I hope it fits.”

“I promise I’ll try it on later,” you tell him. You remember your watch and find it fixed at an odd hour.

“May I ask if, from here on, there’s a direction I can take? A different one, this time?”

“Surely, there is. When you leave here, I think the path clears straight and to the right.”

“Will the Blanks be there?”

“You’ve learned from this point onward that the landscape will never stay still. When you next encounter disturbances in any form, you alone can determine when and how you will be ready.”

“Thank you again,” you say, standing and grasping his hands. “I can’t thank you enough.”

 

YOUR FEET BECOME more restless as you sense a change in the scenery. A few intersections past the spider’s capiz house is a carless highway, and beyond that, replacing the urban streets you first walked, are flattened lots of dusty earth and patches of muted green grass. You pass the occasional calachuchi tree and santan bush, each blooming weak white flowers. The makeshift wooden benches of what used to be fruit stalls are falling apart. You break into a run, a hard run, ready for a Blank, but hoping for another face.

Slowly the landscape fades into nothing but the road and the sky, and what you perceive is that the atmosphere alternates from thick to light blue, lusher blues. The wind occasionally blows against your hair. You run until your lungs are tearing, your shoes are poking hard at your soles, your bag is slapping hard against at your hip—until it feels, somehow, like real life felt.

The highway ends at the limits of your senses, where your sight of the road becomes that of a curiously open, blue, wavering space. At the edge of it is a clean-shaven man in a white polo shirt, gray slacks, and loafers. He shares with you a hairstyle and complexion, but is a little more heavyset and with a wider jaw. In contrast to your shoulder bag, he holds a neat leather satchel at the handle. His eyes are curious and full of good humor.

“Doesn’t it feel like it’s been forever?” he asks you.

“It does—now that you mention, it does.” Truly exhausted, you take off your cotton jacket and tie it around your waist. Then you notice on his wrist—a beautiful stainless steel watch with a crystal face, with carved gold hands and a gold crown. That looks exactly like the one you saw in the jeweler’s six months ago, the very proper one you thought you’d save up for with your next paycheck at a better time, at a much better time… come to think of it, it looks pretty smart.

“Do you want this?” he asks, lifting it toward you. “I know yours is a bit out of shape.”

“Huh? Are you willing to give it to me for free?”

“At a small cost.” He grins and motions toward your bag. “Anything you don’t need anymore. Anything you can pass on.”

You rummage through the bag, drawing out its contents—you hand over the rest of the money, the torn open parcel of meringues, the pouch of salt, the seven cigarettes, and the friction lighter. Among the items, you keep the magazine, the cat’s collar, and the bracelet. The rest are tucked safely into the leather satchel.

Lastly, you pass him the broken watch, and he unclasps the steel one and plucks at the crown.

“You do the honor. You remember. You remember where things leave off.”

You press the cold metal against your wrist and think, for a few moments, before you rewind the hands to six o’clock and press the crown. You intuit what comes after—all the wind that carries your last body from one plane to another, all the layers that peel and peel in the spell of the light.

Then somewhere, beyond that, you’ve opened your eyes. G

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