by Marc Perez
“In my desire to be Nude
I clothed myself in fire:—
Burned down my walls, my roof,
Burned all these down.
— Jose Garcia Villa
Father, I am the only person who knows Magda’s story, which, she said, as we sat next to each other on the seawall watching the low, scarlet clouds drifting over Manila Bay, although best kept untold, she could no longer hold inside her, for if not left in the open, so to speak, the convoluted narrative of mental and physical sensations would very soon consume her and the innocent pulse cradled inside her.
“Martha left for Dubai in 1997,” Magda began, “and David came home for Christmas the following year. Resting my head on Aunt Lydia’s lap at four in the morning at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I remember falling in and out of shallow sleep, lulled and startled by shuffling footsteps. Around me people came and went. Through a swarm of people, a tall, handsome man pulling a black suitcase approached us. He embraced Aunt Lydia, and we got on the rented Toyota Tamaraw FX. Only then did she introduce her younger brother to me. ‘He’s David,’ she said flatly from behind the wheel. ‘Go on, sit on his lap.’ I moved from the backseat. David reached for his bag and gave me a wrapped present ‘Do you like dolls?’ he said, staring through the windshield. ‘Yes,’ I mumbled. ‘Good girl,’ he said, and hugged me in his broad chest. He smelled like a balikbayan box, a mixture of lotion and detergent.”
Magda fell silent. “Do you remember,” she said after a few minutes, “the Barbie doll that we set on fire seventeen years ago?”
Without closing my eyes, I can still see, as I did there at the bay, Magda’s pensive eyes blinking faster than the Christmas lights that adorned our neighbourhood in that smoggy December morning, and the naked Barbie’s hair that tangled tightly with her little fingers while I held her free hand and guided her as she, like a tightrope walker, carefully tread the cracks on the asphalt street on our way to the elementary school. I can no longer recall where she got the lighter from, but I can never forget the wicked smile that flashed on her face when she dangled the doll upside down and set the blonde hair on fire, tallowing the hollow head.
“You looked very scared then, yelling for water,” Magda said, touching the smooth, white scar on my right thumb before kissing it. “All I do is hurt you, don’t I?”
After smouldering the doll, Magda seemed to mature tenfold, and glaring at me whenever I played house with Amanda, our club-footed childhood friend, who helplessly wrapped herself in my arms whenever Magda was near me, I remember, she would tell me that in her eyes, the game was embarrassingly unfit for someone who had already done things only adults do, so if I could please stop being childish and asking her to join me, she would greatly appreciate it, but after every confrontation, missing the truth behind why she adamantly refused to live in the house I had painstakingly built from old blankets and lithe aratilis branches and twigs, I would protest that only a minute ago, she was my loyal wife, so how in the world could she so suddenly change her mind and choose to cast our family—me and our disabled daughter—aside. Had she no heart?
“You could’ve married Amanda,” Magda said, laughing nervously as she often did whenever she was reminded of the past, which, she once said during a rainy All Soul’s Day at the South Cemetery, where we had visited to offer candles for my parents years ago, if I accurately recall, was nothing but dead time, whose forged essence we, the dying, desperately dig up from the grave and string together, as if beading talismanic bones to ward off departed spirits that seem to have a penchant for lingering amongst the living.
Father, I did not want Amanda.
When the sky darkened, Magda suggested strolling on the bay-walk, along drooping palm trees and neon lights. We headed south. Then, crossing Roxas Boulevard, we sat by the fountain in Plaza Rajah Sulayman. “He’s the courageous ruler of Maynila,” Magda said, “the place where the plant nilad once grew abundantly.”
I am aware of that, of course, but she nevertheless continued on with her lecture.
“According to the priest Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition that ended on Mactan island in 1525,” Magda went on, “Maynila was a wealthy kingdom in which more than two thousand souls dwelled peacefully in straw houses behind palisades in the arable banks of the Pasig river, where locals farmed rice and cotton which they bartered for pottery, silk, and jewelry from itinerant merchants. Warriors defended the fort with artilleries and an oared ship that could efficiently destroy baying enemy praus.
In early May 1570, led by the conquistador, Martin de Goiti, ninety cavalrymen and twenty sailors aboard La Tortuga, accompanied by fifteen praus carrying native allies from the Visayas region, sailed to Maynila, where they were cordially welcomed, but not without suspicion, by the maharlika and the local populace. A day after their first meeting, the parties partook in a blood compact, which, apocryphally, Rajah Sulayman soon broke by shooting the first three shells at the Spanish ships anchored at the bay. Inevitably, costing the Tagalog, or People of the River, hundreds of lives, a lopsided battle ensued, and the conquistadors, capturing the cannons at the fort, successfully ravaged and torched the settlements.”
Then four hundred and forty four years ago on that Mayo Uno, Labour Day evening, which Magda and I spent wandering around Malate and Ermita, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a Spanish Governor, arrived with his fleet in the conquered kingdom with the intention of making it his capital, and on this second coming the indios themselves burned the communities that they, in a short period of time, had painstakingly rebuilt from the ground, handing to the pale overlords the ashen brown delta on which Intramuros was later on fortified.
“David flew back to Vancouver just before the New Year,” Magda said after a while, breaking the melancholy muteness she had lapsed into while observing a half-naked boy obliviously lying sideways and sniffing glue from a plastic bag under Rajah Sulayman’s monument. “Back in high school, Aunt Lydia told me that David had already started rearing a new family with a certain Sonia, a blonde Canadian, who, apparently pregnant, knew nothing of his obligations here in the Philippines. I felt cheated, disowned. We burned his pictures that night, remember?”
Disregarding my warning that she would later regret it, I recall, Magda slid the photographs out of a cheap plastic album, and after wrapping the deck with newspaper, set it on fire, sparing nothing, not even the one where, crawling in her crib, she peers trustingly between the rails into the lens. It was taken by him.
“I did not see him again until 2013,” Magda went on. “After fifteen years without a word from him, you can just imagine my surprise when one night, two years ago, arriving home from a book discussion at the Cadre Cafe in Global City, I found a duffel bag tagged with a YVR sticker blocking the doorway. Furtively I went inside, and sure enough, there he was, splayed on the love-seat as if a grand explorer exhausted from surveying far-off territories, while Aunt Lydia, sweating profusely herself, refocused the electric fan to him. He lost so much weight was the first thing I thought, because in my mind then, the arms that ensnared me, the chest that pressed me against the bed, and the thighs between which he clamped me were trimmed and strong, but now, looking at him, it was as if the carnal skeleton that haunted my sleep had manifested itself in reality. Noticing his hair, its deep black hue and thick strands, his sideburns that curled slightly towards the ears, his bushy brows, his glazed eyes buried deep in greyish sockets, and his ridged cheeks, I thought that without my mascara, plucked brows, blush on, and reddish hair, our genetic similarities would have been more pronounced. ‘Come, baby girl,’ he greeted me, tapping at the space next to him. ‘Squeeze in.’ I sat down beside him. ‘You’re starting to look more like Martha,’ he whispered in my ear. Then, slightly tilting up my chin, he kissed my lips.”
Magda’s faltering voice brought me back to the times when, complaining of a hangover at the high school cafeteria, she would often mix a one hundred peso worth of crystal meth with her morning black coffee, and for the rest of the school hours, entertaining teachers and students alike, she would rowdily patrol the waxed corridors and the quadrangle more often than Ms. Hernandez, our school principal, ever did. Then, in the afternoon, we would panhandle at the video games arcade on United Nations Avenue, where she would usually leave me alone when nighttime came for the company of a college student from Emilio Aguinaldo College or Adamson University, at times even a medical student from University of the Philippines. Finally the next morning, smoking cigarettes while observing the infernal Taft Avenue traffic from a window on the fifth floor of our school’s condemned building, she would animatedly share her previous night’s exploits with me—she met so and so, got totally wasted here, high there, she had sex with him, with her, with him and her, her stories usually went.
These educational excursions, as she called them, were the closest she had ever been to the university life she had always envisioned for herself, for halfway through our senior year, she got expelled for starting a fire, which, serendipitously, the janitor mopping a coffee spill next room quickly extinguished. To defeat sheer boredom, Magda explained to me right after surrendering her matchbox and identification card to Ms. Hernandez, she punched a small hole in the Home Economics room’s double-wall and, stuffing the dusty space within it with sheaves of paper, she tossed in live matches. She must have stood there, grinning, I imagine, as the blue flame charred the unpainted plywood.
Regardless, highly proficient in both spoken and written English, the only subject in which she showed interest and hence excelled, Magda easily secured a job as a call centre agent in a shady office near Cartimar Market in Pasay City—rumours had it that her workplace was a front for a cybersex den, though she denied any knowledge of it—and making a decent income, she determined that she no longer had a need for an overrated college diploma, and that the lack of formal education would be properly compensated with gluttonous reading and, of course, life experience.
Magda had always been a voracious reader of fiction, the sole activity in this world, she said, as we lay beside each other on the lawn in Luneta Park sometime during my college years, that enabled her to live lives she would have never in a million years lived, and unscathed by secondhand disappointments and traumas, she could rest comfortably there, in whatever position she desired, and through empathy, visit pasts and futures and even venture in the ever elusive present. In short, she said, fiction was not a mere mediator between her and life, for printed tales were tangible as the verdant blades of grass on her back.
Around that time, when I was busy studying tedious business college manuals, which Magda, on scanning them, described as mere cerebral versions of Santa Ana horse racing dividends that canny professors used to brainwash sheepish students like me into becoming dull bank tellers, she decidedly took on the task of feeding me with nutritious novels she prescribed as necessary to remedy my disease that she had diagnosed as intellectual malnourishment.
Hence, as if under duress, I bore on the weight of War and Peace, skipping, against her passionate protestations, the pedagogical passages on history, and focusing instead, as she had assigned, on salvaging spiritual solace from the catastrophic outcomes of war and the ruins of Moscow, which, according to Count Tolstoy, she reminded me, was burned down neither by the invading French Army, nor by the sanguine patriot, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, but by its own fleeing inhabitants, who, Magda lamented, in their desire to be free, set their own city on fire.
Regrettably, burdened by schoolwork, I had to break free from Magda’s tutelage after rereading Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. She never gave up on my intellectual wellbeing, however, and as a matter of fact, a few years ago, she even succeeded in cajoling me, a sexy philistine, into joining a book club that bimonthly held politically charged meetings at the Cadre Cafe in Global City where, hobnobbing with the youthful left-leaning literati, she boasted that I, her beloved protégé, had successfully tackled War and Peace in less than a week!
Like the sudden tropical drizzle that dampened the city streets, these reminiscences moistened spots in my arid mind as I now quietly sipped whiskey and Magda had orange juice served by the sullen, grey-haired waiter of a dimly lit and empty bar in Adriatico where, blistered by my leather shoes, I had hastily entered to recuperate.
“David kissed me on the lips,” Magda picked up later on, fondling the embossed phoenix logo on my stainless zippo. “A week after his second homecoming, David invited me for a day-trip to Tagaytay, which, he said, we could use as an opportune moment to catch up and get to know each other better. For some perhaps filial reason, I agreed to go with him, and on a rented car, we drove off before noon, frequently stopping at shops and viewpoints along the serpentine pass. After an anxious day of sightseeing and an early night of getting unreasonably intoxicated in a hotel bar, he booked a honeymoon suite with a view of the steaming mouth of Taal volcano, its kindled core a rumble deep in the polluted lake. And there, in a humid night shrouded with a drunken blur, David began to undress me.”
When he came home in 1998, David told Magda as they lay naked beside each other in the hotel bed, he learned from his sister that Martha had already deserted him and Magda to elope with a fellow nurse, a young Arab, in Dubai. Magda was very young then, about eight, so it was impossible for her young brain to comprehend the vengeful plans and fantasies that broiled inside him during that fatal homecoming. Filled with dread, he allowed betrayal to push him into doing despicable things, such as, quite unpardonably, leaving her alone all these years and ultimately abandoning her for another woman. But would she please forgive him? Working as a real estate agent for a spineless company, he lost his job when a mild recession hit Canada, a disastrous event that his cunning mistress, after two consecutive miscarriages, utilized as a practical excuse to discard him. Seeing himself as an unsellable merchandise, he became clinically depressed. Without an income and drowning in whiskey, his savings dwindled considerably in a short period of time, so before it was too late, he made the decision to temporarily relocate, and where else should he go, if not there, beside her, the only thing that could possibly bail him out from internal bankruptcy.
Soon after that night in Tagaytay, David and Magda started renting an apartment together, and for the past two years, he kept her on a tight leash. Before departing to Vancouver last month David promised to complete her petition papers as soon as possible, and abroad, away from his sister’s prying eyes, they could lead a peaceful family life—the three of them.
“I just wanted to say goodbye,” Magda said. “Thank you for being a good friend.”
We left the bar around midnight. As we walked down a quiet street, Magda handed me a creased prayer booklet and informed me of this church, which she said was visible from their apartment. From the living room, she would often observe the parishioners enter and exit through the corrugated gate, noting the congregation that would occasionally overflow to the marble vestibule and onto the street busy with pedestrians and jeepneys. When evening came, she would gaze at the illuminated cross looming above the dome, and picturing celestials, garbed saints, and plump cherubs stringing golden lyres on clusters of clouds, Magda wondered what the mural on the high apse looked like, never discovering, as I do now, the plain white paint. At one point, she purchased jasmine wreaths from the children on the sidewalk, during which she caught a glimpse of the Pieta sculpted on the archway.
Before we parted, Magda pleaded for me to come here, threatening that she would not enter the gate unless I swore to drop by and recite an Our Father, which, in case I had already forgotten the words, I could read in the booklet, under the header, The Lord's Prayer. I had no intentions of fulfilling her wishes, yet as you can see, here I am, telling all, praying on my knees for some sort of human Agape, without which it would be impossible to forgive.
Early morning after our nocturnal walk, still recovering in my bed, I received a curious telephone call from Magda’s aunt. She spoke, I remember, through a static noise, which made her trembling voice sound distant and unreal when she told me that Magda, at around three in the morning, had set herself on fire. As her ghostly murmur broke into hysterical sobs, a creeping sense of doom engulfed me, as if Magda herself had blazed up my floorboards, curled around the posts, and leaped onto the walls and ceiling, scorching everything in her path—tables, chairs, cupboards, curtains, photographs, and memories—turning the very air that I breathed into suffocating billows of smoke. Lying weightless on my bed, I reached for a cigarette: Father, Magda had my lighter.
Marc Perez is a Filipino immigrant-settler on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and short fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3.