Friday, May 20, 2022
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Public Park

The city has a way of seeming endless. Every new corner I turn into seems like a different world. Each new street is a new explosion of color, activity, and faces. And the city changes quicker than any could ever track. A designer brand store opening, a restaurant newly renovated, a skyscraper dominating another patch of sky. I always have to fight back the temptation to get lost in these streets. In about twenty minutes, I glimpse my destination, a tiny rectangle of green surrounded by a tall metal fence. The words “PUBLIC PARK” are scrawled in fading letters on a metal sign outside.

    My phone buzzes again as I enter the park. It’s my mother again. “Have you found anything today?” the text reads. I frown. She must know that the answer will be the same as all the other times she’s asked.

I finally unlock my phone and type out a response. “No. I haven’t,”

I write. Send.

    I put the phone away and look around the park, which, when I first found it three years ago, had been desolate, nothing but bare soil and rotting grass. Now much of the soil is covered with green, and there are a few patches of flowers, though I’ve just begun working on those. There were a few trees, though they are barely as tall as my chest, save for the huge narra tree in the center of the park. It had likely once dominated the skyline, stretching thirty meters into the sky and its branches spreading out to form a net that catches the stars, but now, it’s shriveled and gray.

    I move into True Sight and follow the traces of azure energy that I see in the narra tree. True Sight makes the forms and distractions of the physical world fade away, letting me see the life energies lying just underneath. He’s sitting on the topmost branch today, probably smoking again and watching the skyline. I approach the base of the tree, but the branches are too thick for me to see past them.

    “Kanag,” I say. “Come down, you damned kapre. I’ve got something you should see.”

    I hear a sound coming from high up in the branches of the narra tree. The sound is faint, but it’s high-pitched and whimsical, sounding like the clink of a spoon against glass. It takes me a moment to place the sound, then I hear it again. It’s a laugh. The kapre leaps down onto a branch next to me, and I finally get to see him in full. Kanag is almost invisible save for his thick hide, mane of bushy hair framing a thin face, and the smoking cigar in its hands. The kapre himself is probably no taller than waist-height, pathetic when compared to some of the kapre I knew growing up.

    “What you got for me today, kid?” Kanag says.

    “Something special, Kanag,” I say. “A little thank you present for the past three years.”

    Kanag grins. “And here I was thinking ya stayed for the scenery.”

    “Come on, you know I had to get the hell away from my parents. Compared to my village, this place is paradise.”

    I reach into the bag slung over my shoulder and pull out a single, green leaf. It seems unimpressive at first glance, but surrounded by the wilted foliage, it almost seems to glow.

    “Is that what I think it is?” Kanag asks, swiping the leaf out of my hands and examining it for himself.

    “Yup. Straight from a narra tree near my village,” I say.

    “How in the world did you find it?”

    I wink at him. “I have my ways.”

    He looks up at me, raising an eyebrow. I laugh. “All right, I got it in the mail this morning. What do you want from me?”

    The kapre laughs. “It’s fine, kid. This is a damn good find. Now, I’m guessing you’d want to do the honors?”

    He hands the leaf back to me and I kneel on the ground, pressing it to the roots at the narra tree’s base. I move into True Sight and draw out the bright green energy from the leaf, mixing it with that of the narra tree and the kapre. Both the creature’s blue and the tree’s green are flaring, looking like tiny candles in the dead of night. The two energies mix, creating an elegant cyan hue, the color of a clear sky. The aura washes over me as well. The light is too bright for a moment, and I’m forced to shut my eyes.

    When I open my eyes again, I’m somewhere different. The narra tree isn’t the only one standing in the park. Instead, it’s surrounded by hundreds of its cousins, a forest of blooming trees, animals scurrying through their branches. Kanag grows to stand nearly two meters, his muscles bulging. I look around me and there are about a dozen other kapre surrounding us. The sounds of the forest erupt around me, and it’s an orchestra of life, the blue and green auras around me coalescing to form an explosion of color.

    I reach out to touch one of the trees, but my hand goes right through it. I have to remind myself that it’s merely an illusion, a daydream, and even as I look at the beautiful expanse around me, it begins to decay, colors becoming less sharp, sounds fading into the background.

    But Kanag stands tall in front of me, looking down at me with tears in his eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kapre cry before. The illusion around us fades as Kanag’s tears water the ground beneath his feet. And slowly, the plants disappear, Kanag shrinks, and the great narra tree returns to its wilted state. Finally, all that remains is the green leaf in the kapre’s small hands, which fades into dust, as does its energy. Kanag whispers a silent prayer of thanks then turns back to me.

    “Thank you,” he whispers. “I…I forgot what it was like. Back in the day.”

    “It’s the least I could do,” I say, and when I look around the park, the grass looks a little greener and new patches of flowers have sprouted. And on the narra tree itself, there are a few leaves on its branches, and when I brush my hand against the bark, it feels stronger now. It no longer crumbles at my touch. I take a deep breath, and the air tastes a little fresher, like a little sliver of the forest came here to rest. And for that moment, I forget about the city and all its chaos. All that matters is that right now, I can hear birds singing in the trees. I can hear the rush of a river. I can feel the trees sway in the wind.

    I turn back to Kanag, who is scanning the changes to the park with tears in his eyes. “Come on, Kanag. You can’t be that shaken up by it,” I say.

    “It’s not…” the kapre says, shaking his head. Then he steadies himself, meeting my eyes. “Kid, there’s something I gotta tell you.”

    “What is it?”

    “There were a few kapre through here last week. I tried to get them to stay, but they wouldn’t. Said they were heading up north. They can’t stand the city, I think.”

    I frown. “That’s unfortunate. But why couldn’t you tell me that from

the start?”

    “That’s not all. They also passed along news about…about him. Gawigawen.”

    I freeze. The name sends shivers down my spine. For a long time, I had only thought the name was used to scare small children who wandered too far into the mountains. The legendary giant who guards the prize so many heroes had died for. He’s the one I’ve been looking for, all these years.

    “And you kept it from me for this long?” I ask. As I do, I feel my good mood evaporating. And without my willing it, my mind drifts back to the last time I saw my grandmother. She is lying in bed, a half-eaten meal of fruits beside her bed. My mother sits next to her, clasping her hands, red light coursing from her hands and entering my grandmother’s body. We aren’t sure how much longer she has. According to my mother, there is only one cure for her illness.

    “Kid, I’m not sure if…” Kanag says.

    “Tell me,” I say.

    Kanag sighs. “Their elder had a vision from Dalikamata, right as their forest was destroyed. She told them to seek Gawigawen in the highest point of the city, where steel meets the sky.”

    I look up, past the buildings surrounding the park to the highest one in the distance, a skyscraper so tall that it seems to scrape the clouds. The building has an official name, but Kanag and I have always called it the Sentinel.

    “That’s where I’ll go, then,” I say. I start to leave the park, but then Kanag catches me on the arm.

    “Wait, kid, are you sure you need to go now?” Kanag asks. “It’ll be dangerous.”

    I look at him sharply, shrugging off his hand from mine. “Haven’t I had enough of your lies today? You told me that the orange doesn’t exist.”

    “Two weeks ago, I would’ve told ya the same. We always thought Gawigawen was a myth. I just needed to wrap my head around it.”

    I scoff. “You and I both know that that’s a lie.”

    “All right, all right, you want the truth, kid?” the kapre says, getting on his knees. I’ve never seen him like this before. “These past three years…we’ve done so much for the place. Another month and more kapre might actually start to come back.”

    “What does that have to do with it?” I ask.

    “We need that orange, kid. We could use that orange’s energy to save this entire park. Think about it. This park could be a haven, an oasis.”

    I pause for a moment and look around me, considering the park. Despite all the work we’ve done, if I left tomorrow, I know that it won’t last another month without proper care.

    “I’m sorry, Kanag. You know why I’m here. I’ve got…I’ve got people depending on me. My family would never forgive me.”

Illustration by Randy Constantino

    “You really wanna go back to that boring village so much? I’ve heard the way you talk about it. You couldn’t wait to get outta there. Face it, kid, this place, this city, it’s where you belong.”

    Suddenly, I can’t meet his eyes. “I’m sorry, Kanag. We always knew that this would end someday. I can’t be the one to save you.”

    “Then who will?” the kapre says as I remove a beak from my necklace and let its green aura flare, allowing its essence to flow through me. Within a few seconds, I’ve taken to the skies, but I’m still near enough to hear when Kanag calls after me. “You’re leaving us to die. Do you understand? There’s nobody left for us.”

    I can barely keep my own thoughts present as the eagle’s attempt to overpower them. I allow it to soar through the skies, its instincts taking over as the energy delights in one final flight. But I nudge it towards where I need to go, and I am taken north, gliding along the draft. I fly for a time that I cannot measure. The only indication I have of time passing is the sun on the horizon beginning to set. Eventually, the sun is low in the sky, low enough that its rays cannot dominate the sky as it normally does.

    I dart past the buildings, quickly enough that I can’t see anything in the rooms they contain. Instead, all I see are a million tiny flashes of light, each of them like a star pulled so close to the earth that I can reach out and touch them. Then I’m soaring above them, higher than the rooftops, the gray spires themselves falling away as I speed towards the Sentinel, a lonesome giant in the distance.

    The Sentinel is different from the other skyscrapers. The other buildings call attention to themselves with huge signs or neon lights, but the Sentinel stands undecorated save for the metal and glass that forms its structure, like a spear piercing the sky. It needs no introduction. I soar higher and higher, eventually breaking through the clouds and reaching the building’s rooftop.

    Finally, just as I think I’m about to run out of air, I land on the Sentinel’s highest point. I let the eagle’s essence evaporate, the bright green energy dissipating into the air around me. I feel my body expand and the detail in my eyesight begins to fade away. Then suddenly, I’m back in my own body, the energy flowing around me returning to a bright red. My fingers immediately go to my necklace and I feel the eagle’s beak dissolve, the last remnants of the creature finally set to rest. I close my eyes and mutter a silent prayer of thanks. When I open my eyes, the green essence has faded away entirely.

    The roof is a restricted area, so it’s deserted save for a few air vents and a tiny shed with a set of stairs leading downwards. When I glance off the side, the entire city spreads out before me, a mass of changing lights. But otherwise, it seems like a normal rooftop, until I move into True Sight.

    When I open my eyes, I see a faint blue mist in the air, subtle enough that I wouldn’t have seen it if I wasn’t looking for it. But it’s there—the same signs my mother told me to look for three years ago. I release myself from True Sight and rummage in my pack, taking out a small golden coin. My mother dug it out of the ground last week, entrusting it only to me. She told me that she had prayed that we would never need it.

    I place the coin on the ground, pressing it to the floor, muttering only a single word: “Gawigawen”. The moment I do, the scene around me changes. The empty rooftop changes into a mountain top, the concrete underneath my feet becoming brown soil and the scenery changing from the city to the rolling hills of the countryside. A strong wind blows through the mountain top, and it smells like fresh-grown crops and wild grass. I kneel down and touch a small bush growing at the peak’s edges, but when I do, my hand goes right through it.

    “An illusion,” comes a voice like an earthquake, and immediately, I look up.

    Gawigawen towers over the peak, the orange light from a small cooking fire casting an eerie shadow over him like he’s just been birthed from flame. He’s larger than any house in my village, and his six heads all fix their gaze on me. For a moment, as he stares at me, I can’t help but feel as though he’s dissecting me, peering into every depth of my soul.

    He sweeps his hand through a tree beside him, which is as large as the park’s narra tree, but only comes up to his waist height. His hand goes right through it.

    “None of it is real,” he says, all six of his heads speaking at once. “An illusion of my own making.”

    “What energy does it draw from?” I ask, too enamored with the illusion to realize the irony that I’m facing a creature older than every tree, blade of grass, and mountain I’ve ever known. The detail of the illusion is stunning. Every leaf, every petal, every patch of soil is richly rendered, as real as if I was actually standing on that ancient mountain top in Adasen.

    “My own,” Gawigawen says, and I move to True Sight, and I see swathes of azure leaving the giant’s body and dissipating into the illusion around him. “I built this illusion for myself five hundred years ago, ever since I was cast out of my home. This is as close as I can come to returning.”

    As he speaks, I reach into my backpack and take out a small metal rod, barely as long as my forearm.  I slam its tip into the ground, and it expands into a gleaming spear, polished wood and fine silver tip.

    Gawigawen doesn’t even flinch at the spear. “Ah, you’ve come to kill me. I apologize for droning on. I do have that tendency, especially when I only have one conversation every century.”

    “What?” I say, leveling the spear at him. The look and stance I take are fierce as a cobra, but inside, I’m trembling. “I’ve no quarrel with you, giant. I’m here for the orange.”

    “Of course. The heroes always are,” the giant says. “But I can’t just give it to you. The orange is lodged deep inside my ribcage.”

    “Then I’ll cut you open and take it,” I say.

    “Go ahead,” Gawigawen says, spreading his arms and closing his eyes. A huge spear and head-ax rest next to his fire, but he makes no move to retrieve them. “I won’t stop you.”

    “What?” I say, lowering my spear. “Aren’t you going to fight me?”

    “No need,” the giant says. “Do you know how many heroes have died fighting me? Do you know how many times I’ve failed to die? I’m tired of it all. Come and kill me, hero, and prove yourself.”

    I take a closer look at the giant that stands before me, and the slump in his shoulders tells a deeper story than I had initially expected. He wears nothing but a torn loincloth, and his hair is unkempt in messy, growing in uncertain waves around his face. The creature’s story is told through his eyes—loss, confusion, loneliness. He lost his people centuries ago, and all that’s left to him is a fading illusion of what once was. There is nothing left for him here.

    “What happened to your home?” I say.

    “Time and darkness. Even I, old as the world, could not save them,” the giant says, then he stops himself. His voice booms again. “What happened to your grand quest, hero? You have a loved one, don’t you? Someone you want to save?”

    He’s right. I don’t have the time to feel sympathy for this giant. There are people depending on me to do what needs to be done. I level my spear at him again and prepare to charge. His eyes aren’t on me, but on the sky. The clouds are thick this evening, but I can tell that he’s dreaming of the stars.

    Then I hear a crack from behind Gawigawen like a thunderclap. The giant’s six heads look downwards, each of their eyes staring wide-eyed at the hole in his chest. There are a few more bangs, opening new holes in the giant’s chest, then he collapses to the floor, blood seeping in a pool around him. The illusion arounds us evaporates, trees, grass, and soil melting away and suddenly, I’m back on the empty rooftop, the city blaring around me again.

    Behind him, Kanag stands at the edge of the rooftop, a rifle in his hands. The kapre drops the rifle and takes out a large knife from his belt. He approaches the giant’s body.

    “Kanag…you…why?” I say, unable to say anything more. I kneel down and try to sense Gawigawen’s energy again, but even I know that it’s futile. His spirit is already lost.

    “Just came to make sure you finished the job. Thanks for distracting him for me. Don’t think I could’ve gotten that shot otherwise,” the kapre says, digging his knife into the giant’s flesh and opening his ribcage. He reaches inside and pulls out a glowing orange. I can’t help but marvel at how beautiful the fruit looks, like a sliver of the noontime sun.

    I begin walking over to Kanag, extending my hand for the orange, but he raises a hand to stop me.

    “Hold on a second,” he says, raising his knife.

    “Kanag, what are you doing?” I say.

    “Kid, with this orange, we could do twenty years’ work in twenty days. Not just the park, but an entire forest. Kapre from all over the city would come.”

    “My grandmother needs that orange,” I say. “Give it to me.”

    The kapre takes a few steps back. Then he shakes his head. When he does, I see tears build and fall from his eyes. “You’re all I’ve got left. This place is all I’ve got. Are you really going to take that from me?”

    I take another step forward, raising my spear again. Kanag backs up until he reaches the guardrail. A quick glance behind him reveals only empty air.

    “Don’t make me do this, Kanag,” I say.

    Kanag stands still for a long time, then he drops his knife. “Fine,” he says. “I won’t fight ya.”

    I sigh in relief and begin to approach him, but he clutches the orange tighter to his chest.

    “I won’t fight ya,” he repeats. “But I won’t let ya have it, either. If you want the orange, you’ll have to kill me for it.”

    “What the hell are you talking about, Kanag? I’m not going to kill you. Just give it to me.”

    He shakes his head. “Like I said, the park is all I’ve got left. If I can’t have it, then you might as well leave me to die. Can you really make that choice?”

    I stare straight into the kapre’s face and can tell that he’s serious. My breathing becomes unsteady, and I fall to my knees. My spear clatters to the floor next to me and my face is in my hands. I see my grandmother again, sickness threatening to destroy her, but her eyes still full of love. Then her image changes into Gawigawen, the ancient giant sitting in a shadow of his old home. He clings as tight as he can to the illusion, but even as he does, it slips from his fingers.

    Then I get to my feet again, my posture firmer now and eyes forward. I leave my spear on the ground and approach Kanag. He grips the orange tighter. I kneel before him and read the story told by his eyes. It’s the same one I read in Gawigawen’s. I place my hands on the orange and feel its bright green energy. I let some of it escape and enter Kanag’s body. His eyes suddenly become glossy, and though he stares straight forward, I can tell that his gaze is with the forest.

    I let some of the orange’s energy into my own body, and suddenly, I’m back in my grandmother’s hut on the day that I left her. She wears a smile on her face. The same smile she wore when I graduated from high school at the top of my class. She wore it when I brought my first girlfriend home to meet her. She wore it when my family sat on the hills outside the village watching the stars, not knowing that it was the last night we would spend with my grandfather.

    I can tell that sitting up and smiling is the most she can do with her remaining strength, so I ask no questions. I kneel down next to her bed so that my face is level with hers and she pulls me into a hug. I can feel the strain in her arms as she does. I return it as best I can and wish that I don’t have to let go. But I do.

    The vision leaves me as quickly as it came, but I’m left with the memory of the look in her eyes as I pulled away. Then I take the orange from the kapre’s hands and throw it off the rooftop.

    “No!” Kanag yells, snapping back to reality and looking over the edge, watching as the orange falls into the street below. He starts to climb over the guardrail, but I pull him back onto the roof.

    “It’s too late,” I say, and when I move into True Sight, I see the last vestiges of the orange’s energy fade into dust as a car grinds it into the street. I mutter a silent prayer of thanks then turn to Kanag.

    “You’ve doomed us all,” Kanag says, releasing himself from my grasp. He curls into a ball, tears flowing freely down his face. “Why would ya do such a thing?”

    “The orange would only have bought us time, but the rest of the world won’t wait for us, Kanag,” I say, placing a hand on his shoulder.

    “That orange was the only thing that could’ve saved us.”

    “That’s not true,” I say. “Just like you said, we’re family. We’ll get through it together.”

    Kanag’s sobs start to slow, but he stays curled up in a ball, refusing to speak any longer. I leave him and move to the side, taking out my phone.

    “Lola’s gone, isn’t she?” I write, my hands shaking. Send.

    My mother’s reply comes within seconds. “Yes. Two years ago.”

    I close my eyes and try to grasp my final memory of my grandmother. I get a sinking feeling in my chest, like my body is making space for the memory, moving parts of me aside so that I can take it with me. But just as quickly, it departs, like when a dream leaves a mind after waking. I exhale and allow the memory to depart. I can’t let it shackle me any longer.

Steven Sy
My name is Steven Sy. I am a Filipino university student currently studying in Singapore.

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