by Renee Macalino Rutledge
an excerpt from The Hour of Daydreams
They came down from the mountain, sleepless and haunted, the thirst for vengeance following them from dreams, tempered by memories of a previous life.
With darkness as their accomplice, they traveled undetected by the sleeping villagers, save those who dared to linger after hours, only to forget their bravery at the first trace of unnatural scurrying in the grass—of night creatures waiting to steal their last breath for immortal wrongdoing.
Weeks after the city of tents had been dismantled and the parts returned to backyard sheds and empty closets, when the dust had settled over new paths made by recent wagons loading and unloading supplies and overheated kalabaw dragging their giant hooves, these same ghosts brought pickaxes and dynamite. They surveyed the mountain, diligently testing the strength of the rock face before lighting their explosives.
The blast sounded in the night like a second earthquake, disrupting dreams and sending nocturnal creatures scurrying from their hiding places. It disintegrated the landslide to bits, finishing the work that the villagers had started and the government had ignored. By the time the military arrived with a bulldozer, enough space had already been cleared for passage by that monstrous machine, and the officials from the capital would snap photos alongside the absence of rubble and publicize them in black and white, taking credit for another mission accomplished on behalf of the people.
In the wilderness of the peaks, in the company of mosquitoes, wild pigs, and unbendable wills, they slept in felled trees, hollow with rot. They cleared miles of brambles with machetes and moved from mountain face to mountain face to avoid detection. Had they not been ghosts, frequent starvation, boredom, and unchanging hardship would have broken them. For now, the mountain was their camouflage in a silent, ongoing search for blood that left no one safe from indiscriminate eruptions of violence. They left Manlapaz in peace, though even Manlapaz, like other barrios of similar size and obscurity, could encounter fires, gunshots, death—repercussions of the vengeance against those who despised the ghosts and whom they, in turn, detested.
After the landslide had been cleared, they returned, night after night, leaving the security of dense leaves and untamed ground to walk the village with unusual frequency. They circled the mansion by the barrio square, where the photographers lunched and the military men boasted of their unmitigated sway over the simple residents of this good-for-nothing town.
Contracts were signed (with endless amendments and clauses that rendered them useless) and money exchanged. The idea was for Manlapaz to receive a face-lift, just as they’d publicized in the papers: contractors hired, potholes resurfaced, broken fences repaired, and everyone would be happy. But even as they waved their pens and posed for photos, the officials from the capital knew where all the money would end up.
The bureaucrat who lived in the mansion wasted no time drawing plans for expansion. A second wing would be built for a hot tub on marble flooring, with an adjoining banquet room boasting floor-to-ceiling gothic windows overlooking a secluded courtyard. As the weeks passed, signage throughout Manlapaz remained torn, and crooked streetlights continued to blink irregularly as they had done since a magnitude of 6.9 had rocked them. Plans for the hot tub moved forward; municipal construction came to a standstill.
The ghosts listened in on the short-lived government meetings that quickly became garish parties, watched through the harsh morning light as the bulldozers and chauffeur-driven cars with tinted windows made their way down the mountain once more. Then they surveyed the remodeling site as they had the face of the mountain, assessing the strength and solidity of the existing structure, counting residents, visitors, automobiles, bullets, sticks of dynamite. They itched to ignite their explosives and watch it all burn.
But they kept the fire burning within, storing up their hatred for another war, another time. Manlapaz sheltered a people with faith and reverence, who had suffered enough at the discretion of unseen forces, only to come together to fix the resulting messes on their own. For them, government promises held little sway compared to the helping hands of brothers and sisters, the comfort of a good meal, and the very real presence of mystery. This mystery had no connection to more formal habits of religion. It drove them to act in a manner that outsiders would have considered irrational. By daylight, they revered the same fascinating and immortal beings, neither gods nor demons, that they feared by night.
They uttered greetings like “Excuse me, sir” to the openings in anthills, avoided long stretches of dark, spoke to the swaying in the treetops. They hiked into the forest to tell the diwata their stories, sat on felled logs beside invisible companions, recounting memories of the dead. They left heaping plates of food in carefully designated locations to win favor or seek forgiveness.
The ghosts, making their way to and from their furtive errands, hid in the underbrush and listened patiently, even when the monologues lasted for close to an hour. Then they sought the food, having memorized every drop-off spot. Warm or cold, they licked the plates clean of every crumb and dripping. The villagers, after returning for their tableware, went home appeased by the significance of empty plates, and every bite swallowed reminded the ghosts to surrender them to their peace.
Renee Macalino Rutledge's debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, has been dubbed “essential reading” by Literary Mama, “one of 24 books to get excited for in 2017” by The Oregonian, and a “captivating story of love and loss unlike any other” by Foreword Reviews. Renee's work has also been published in The Margins, ColorLines, Mutha Magazine, Ford City Anthology, Oakland Magazine, Literary Hub, Red Earth Review, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Necessary Fiction, Women Writers Women’s Books, The Tishman Review, and others. She is currently working on short stories and conducting research for her second novel. Find her at www.reneerutledge.com.