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Dark Hours [10th Anniversary Edition]
 9789719640301, 9719640308

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DARK HOURS

DARK HOURS

CONCHITINA CRUZ

Dark Hours: 10th Anniversary Edition Copyright © Conchitina Cruz 2014 First published in print 2005 by the University of the Philippines Press This edition published 2014 by the Youth & Beauty Brigade Quezon City, Philippines Cover image and overall design by Adam David All rights reserved. ISBN 978-971-9640-30-1

DARK HOURS

CONCHITINA CRUZ

I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t have written this book any other way. For this reason I steer clear of it. I worry that reading it again would make me think otherwise. Distance keeps me on nodding terms with the person I was when I wrote these poems. Once in a while this book and I meet again through those who have read it. When this happens, I get a glimpse of its life, and I’m grateful that it seems to have found its company. This book is for my family. It is also for B, who was my company when I wrote it. Some of the poems were published by High Chair in a chapbook called Disappear. Those poems are for J. Thank you to UP Press for publishing what I thought was this book’s only edition almost ten years ago. Thank you to the people of High Chair, dear friends. Thank you to Adam, my reader, the reason this new edition exists.

Dear City

3

Move your hand over your body

7

What is it about tenderness

8

Geography Lesson

9

Smile

11

I must say this about the city

12

Tremble

13

The Gist of It

14

Geography Lesson

17

Autobiography

27

I must say this about the city

28

Now and at the hour

29

Tourist

30

Insomnia

31

Alunsina takes a walk in the rain

32

The Gist of It

33

It has come to this

34

Elegy

35

Return

36

News of the Train

39

Disappear

47

Monument

53

Tourist

54

You there

55

The Last Page

56

It has come to this

57

What is it about tenderness

58

Notes on the recurring dream

59

Morning

62

Autobiography

63

Ashfall

67

1

Dear City, Permit us to refresh your memory: what comes from heaven is always a blessing, the enemy is not rain. Rain is the subject of prayer, the kind gesture of saints. Dear City, explain your irreverence: in you, rain is a visitor with nowhere to go. Where is the ground that knows only the love of water? Where are the passageways to your heart? Pity the water that stays and rises on the streets, pity the water that floods into houses, so dark and filthy and heavy with rats and dead leaves and plastic. How ashamed water is to be what you have made it. What have you done to its beauty, its graceful body in pictures of oceans, its clear face in a glass? We walk home in the flood and cannot see our feet. We forget to thank the gods for their kindness. We look for someone to blame and turn to you, wretched city, because we are men and women of honor, we feed our children three meals a day, we never miss an election. The only explanation is you, dear city. This is the end of our discussion. There is no other culprit.

3

Move your hand over your body Make the sign of the cross. What do you see? the nun says. A naked woman, a torch, a skull. Black cloth. What do you see? A naked statue in hiding. I see nothing, you say. Under the sheet is a body washed up a shore. Under the sheet is a face. Make the sign of the cross. Sign the form and tear along the dotted line, carefully. The moral of the story is forgiveness, but you ask, are there any other options? Make the sign of the cross. Carry a knife in your purse despite the statistics: the weapon you own may very well be used to kill you. Walk into the confessional, properly armed. The wooden saints watch over you, their faces trapped in expressions of pity. In the beginning, you are six years old. Move your hand over your body, make the sign of the cross. Not with your left hand, the nun says.

7

What is it about tenderness Next to herself, the body was all that mattered to her. It was the opposite of her greatest fear: the city where streets sprouted overnight like weeds and snaked their way into each other’s aimlessness. She closed her eyes and there it was, plowing into her dreams like a battered train, searing its name, a dirty word, on her skin. Peopled to the brim and heavy with smog, in the city there were no stars to lend order to the nameless nights, no traffic lights to follow, no lamps to keep the street signs in sight. The body was a different matter. She drew her scalpel across its skin like a lover tracing the distance from this city to a beloved’s across a map. She undressed it to the bone, prowling the alleys of its nerves and vessels with the certainty of a frequent visitor. She uttered the names of its smallest parts, the words sliding off her tongue. A month, a year. How could naming keep the landscape the same? Another siren howled on an empty street. She looked up, the city moving into her eyes as she brushed the maggots off the body with the back of her gloved hand.

8

Geography Lesson Inside the story is a garden with a pear tree, the view of a house with a staircase and mahogany desks. Inside the house is a woman with her back against the windows, her body bent over her child inside a crib, her body leaning against a table as she fixes the fruit in a bowl. From the back of the room, somebody mentions foreshadowing, somebody makes distinctions between image and symbol. The board is filled with words. Inside the story is a dinner party the woman hosts, the idle talk of guests, the moment her husband leans toward the body of another woman. She watches her husband and his small gesture, the drawing room unable to contain her sudden knowledge. Inside the story, the woman turns away from the climax, turns to the windows and the pear tree outside, the symbol of her life, the tree in full bloom, the tree caught in shadows. We talk about the tragedy of false notions, the link between discovery and despair, the joy of understatement. When there is a knock on the door, a request to take a minute of our time, I say sure. We are inside the story, and to the students outside, I say, sure, come on in. What they pass around is a can, a sheet of paper, a request for loose change and volunteers to dig for bodies. A few miles away, the residents of a dumpsite are dead, their bodies buried in an avalanche of trash. Inside the story, the woman cries, what will happen to me now? On the first day, the dying tried to raise their voices above the weight of their own tin roofs. The digging was slow, the voices stopped. Inside the story, the woman fixes fruit in a bowl—apples, oranges, and grapes. She arranges and rearranges the fruit, draping the grapes on the rim, balancing the oranges on apples.

9

The relatives need bodies for a proper burial. The can grows heavy. The students pause carefully upon the sheet, and the others say think about it, we have a booth on the third floor, you don’t have to sign up now. Inside the story there is a woman, a house, a man, a pear tree. Inside the story is a house, a bowl full of fruit. Some students are braver than others. They write their names down. The woman leans the sadness of her body against the window, tries to look beyond the pear tree. Inside the story, she sees nothing but darkness. She is ungrateful for the luxury of despair.

10

Smile The man who thinks he is God likes to say “I forgive you.” Because they are obliged to be kind, the nurses ignore him as he raises his right hand to bless them. While they change the sheets, he forgives the world beyond his window, the trees, the parked cars, the janitor sweeping the cigarette stubs off the sidewalk. I forgive you. I forgive you. The nurses lead him to bed, then leave. They cannot stand his eyes, full of pity and condescension. To the doctor, he says nothing. He thinks she is the Virgin Mary, and even God is in awe of The One Without Sin. She approaches his body with the method of a mechanic. She listens to his heart, his pulse, his lungs, inspects his ears, checks his reflexes. In a few minutes, she will be out of this hospital, in her parked car, off to a date with the man she believes she will marry. When the patient catches her eye, the doctor is somewhere else, in bed, holding the blanket close to her body as her future husband holds a camera above her. “Smile,” he says, and she does. The man who thinks he is God returns the smile of the woman before him, the Virgin Mother, and the room is flooded with the radiance of the moment, a man and a woman in the middle of a sweet misunderstanding.

11

I must say this about the city The floor is my only friend I press my ear against the wood I put my body to sleep in a corner hush I say to the floor but it has no control over its utterances it cannot keep the city’s secrets to itself I hear the coming and going of rain the swagger of trucks taking pigs to a slaughterhouse the heels of women tapping on a stage footsteps on their way somewhere please let me listen only to the dance of fingers on a typewriter the stammering pulse lone comfort of the wrist the alphabet falling like seeds the white page blooming but the floor cannot make concessions it tells me everything all at once without running out of breath I am all alone the room is bare and like a god grown weary the tree outside the window lays its shadow on the floor beside me

12

Tremble The boys in her room are hiding in the same places. Who can explain their thrill in finding and being found? One always takes the closet, the other the hollow under her bed. One, two, three, the smaller one counts, and by ten, she is lost in the mystery she’s reading, her favorite detective breaking a code, on the verge of understanding— She turns the page. Downstairs, their mother is turning over another omelette in the pan. Milk, detergent, soy sauce, she recites, in the same tone she will use later to say wash your hands, finish your food, take your vitamins. She traces her mother’s voice in the lines of the story she hasn’t finished but knows very well, the detective about to be caught in the act of deciphering, able to escape with the answers in the end. Her brothers touch base, another game ends and begins, nothing ever lost in the predictable plot. She marks the page with a pamphlet given in school, the story of her body told in a diagram, the way to plot her own cycle taught in five steps. This is the beauty of the declarative, like gravity, like the roses on the curtains, always abloom. It’s as easy as one, two, three, her smaller brother counts, the hollow under her bed shuddering with contained laughter. Ten! he shouts, naming the last number before something explodes, something is thrown out of orbit.

13

The Gist of It If you remove the placemats and paper plates, the haggard flowers, the teacup with an image of a woman in spring, spilled wine, the newspaper, and a ponderous pen, you will find it, the round face of the table, placid and certain, ready to bask in the morning sun. The table knows only joy once uncovered beneath so many objects of no consequence. Despite the lost time, you have found it, and this in itself is a happy ending. Bless the table with the mist of the right wood polish, let its face revel in the sweet clarity of natural light. Think of the table in your time of darkness: on your knees with tears in your eyes, searching for the familiar face, digging with your bare hands into the rubble.

14

Geography Lesson

You might want to know that the road also leads to The Chapel of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The number alludes to infinity yet resists exaggeration. Each Buddha is the size of your thumb or the barrel of a gun, depending on where you stand. 1

17

For the cursory traveler, there is no need to come to terms with the state between melancholy and a summer month. Why burden yourself with the indistinguishable terms for insomnia? 2

18

Within the city, the street bears the name of a prolific translator, best-known for his English translation of the novel Noli Me Tangere. Beyond the borders of the city, its name changes to McKinley. Unfortunately, the map does not make this distinction, causing many guests to lose their way. Avoid stating the obvious at all costs: it would be wise not to ask strangers for directions. 3

19

It’s true, there are no statues of the wife of God. Her expertise is disappearance; even God cannot find her. He deserves to be punished. “Let him weep; let the rain flood the earth.” See Alunsina, A Brief History of Rain. 4

20

It can signify a broken bone, amnesia, or a misspelled word. The graffiti won’t help, but it will tell you other things: the story of a day, ten years. 5

21

6

22

Has it been said that the novelist believed in revolution and loved white women?

“How it touched me,” said the ailing veteran to the dream of a road. In an interview, his biographer consistently mispronounced the name of the city. Residents are accustomed to such a mistake and are quick to forgive. 7

23

8

24

Such is the curse of this place: if you close your eyes, it disappears.

Autobiography While you wait for the inevitable hour of loss, the man in the book tips his hat to the protagonist who has asked for directions to the subway. You follow him before he disappears in the crowd. Because you don’t want to be lost, you clutch his elbow, slip your hand inside his coat pocket. In the story of your life with the man in the book, there is a bench in the park reserved only for you. Everything else on the way is atmosphere: the headlines, the traffic lights, the vendor of marionettes. Somewhere, maybe a phone will ring, maybe someone will put her hand on your shoulder and tell you the news you’ve been waiting for, but that is another life. Here you are, smiling at the man who buys you a puppy on strings, crossing the street with your little family, the wooden dog strutting by your feet. Here you are, sitting on a bench as the man rubs your back and reads the paper, and it is warm in the city, it seems to get warmer each day.

27

I must say this about the city The blackout takes over the night erases the city from the map erases everything I can’t stand the sleeping bodies under bridges the bleached faces on a bus get lost I say to the boy tugging at my purse there are telephones ringing in other people’s houses I can’t tell where I am where you are until you speak I lie awake and dream dry land fine geometry the endless aisle in a church tell me something I need to know on a night of disappearances your voice nowhere on a bridge by the telephone saying things to people in the dark crucifixes hang like threats on doorways thin bodies signifying something    maybe the end    of another dream    maybe a fire

28

Now and at the hour The aftermath is marked by tremors, the earth trembling in its decision to reshape itself, to collapse what is familiar. Between the old world and the new, the minutes of silence, the road home. The heat of July, its shameless indifference. We survey the fallen pyramids of fruit on market floors, the uninterrupted horizon: buildings and the bodies beneath them succumbing to the pull of the earth. Where are you? I don’t know, I can’t say by the acacia tree, before a neighbor’s house, the cracks multiplying like snakes on the ground. Where are you? I am here— A girl has lost her mother. She sits in a bus, ignorant of her loss, scribbling her name with her finger on a dusty window. Across the city, a man turns from a corner to his street. There are too many keys in his hand and not enough doors to open.

29

Tourist When we enter the new house, I can’t see my mother’s face. I follow the folds of her orange dress, follow her feet in soft sandals. Look, she says to the shadows in a mirror. Hello there, I wave. I don’t want to be lost. Blue means kitchen, white means bedroom. I memorize the colors of floors. The glass doors lead to the terrace, the terrace leads to the backyard. In the backyard, there are trees. There will be trees, she corrects herself. There is a lady dancing on a cracked blue plate. A withered spider on the carpet. A piano with a full set of yellowed teeth. Of course, there are rules. No hiding in the closet. No pounding of doors in the middle of the night. Once you enter the new house, you aren’t anywhere else. The noise from outside stays there. My mother must be smiling to herself. I can’t really tell. I tiptoe behind her, stare at the buttons scaling her back.

30

Insomnia Outside the church, the children squat on the steps and string sampaguitas into wreaths for wooden saints. In response to the interviewer’s question, the aging nationalist says, “The goal of activism is to make itself obsolete.” His voice rises above the static, and I look away from the roadkill as you, driving me home as usual, swerve the car to avoid hitting what is already dead; a cat soaks in its own blood; the roads glisten with the slippery bodies of frogs, and you say, when I turn away from the road, “Listen, I’m too tired so I need you to talk to me while I drive.” Because I have not read the newspapers in years, I can no longer recite the capitals of many countries in South America. The children approach the highway without fear, peddling their flowers to speeding cars. Beneath the hum of the fridge, there are other sounds: falling trees, the riot of slaughterhouses. One gains nothing from physics, which makes its point in one word: entropy. I start buying sampaguitas each day; you clip them to the stem of your rearview mirror. The withered wreaths accumulate in the garbage. In a crowded bus, the hungry child eyes the purse in my pocket. I am tired and about to fall asleep; I know he is waiting.

31

Alunsina takes a walk in the rain It is difficult to miss you in the summer, your voice written all over the clear night sky, the stars mapping out your single instruction: go home. Each night, I keep my eyes on the shadow of my open umbrella. I stay indoors, stay away from windows. Today, the news tells me you are scheduled to be lonely. I part my curtains and look up. Later, when the roads turn slippery with your sadness, I will put on my shoes, soak myself in your tears. It is difficult not to miss you when the evening sky is speechless, when your silence travels down my cheeks, like a request. I cannot forgive you. That day, if you had not refused, I would have given you a present. I would have carved my love in stone.

32

The Gist of It Beneath the tattoo of a fish on her wrist, a dark pond. A bridge arched like an eyelid above water, a lone figure, her mother. Skin pressed against cold stone, a surface etched with raised eyebrows, a plague of scales. Her mother tending pebbles like plants. Mouth hung open, a hook grazing her lips. Eyes without urgency. The fish a shadow on her wrist, a token, a warning.

33

It has come to this All God had to do was speak and each word became a thing and each thing lived, turning its name into its shadow. This man cannot even remember a word. He watches a tiny crab make its way up a woman’s thigh, and all he can think of is that other word, the elusive one, specific and stranded at the tip of his tongue. The crab falls when the woman rises and brushes the sand off her thighs. The waves heave, the woman sighs, and the man finds himself at the doorway of the turning world, where all he needs is a word to enter.

34

Elegy The city is a house with many rooms. It is impossible to get lost. In one room, your mother is buying a white dress. In another, I am reading you a story. I am reading you a story from another room. It’s ridiculous, really. Your body breathes on a white bed. I want to open a door to yesterday at the bar, where we sipped margaritas and you said I needed to do something about my hair. I want to plunge into the first line of this story. We sipped margaritas and you said I should watch this ridiculous film. Your mother is buying a white dress. The vendor shows her the tiny pearls sewn on its neckline. I am pretending to read you a story as I sit on the other side of the city. In the car on the way to my wedding, you held the train of my dress. You brushed the hair off my forehead and looked me in the eye. Your body lies on a white bed. I want to pull myself through the first line of this story. I want to put my hand on the mouth of the vendor who asks: what occasion? Your mother strokes the tiny pearls. The priest says one who dies moves from one room to another. In this city, this house, nothing is lost. Your mother buys you a white dress, end of story. It’s ridiculous, of course. I pound my fists on the door to another room. I hold my breath and wait for an answer.

35

Return He drives inside the tunnel of night. He drives down the alley stretched out like a tongue. The shadows of lampposts graze your face again and again. The word is a finger against your lips. A bloodied moon against the glass, a child’s mouth hung open. What does she see in this dark chamber? Your flesh an interruption on the backseat, the crucifix on the dashboard. The word is a festering bruise on your knee. When he speaks, the driver looks you in the eye. You keep your eyes on the rearview mirror. You memorize what the cops might need to know.

36

News of the Train

It’s been called names but I feel only fondness for the train that cuts across the city, following the path of a single avenue. Did I have the chance to tell you how the elevator pulled me through the years before the train arrived? Of course, I’ve outgrown the thrill of rising and falling; my loyalty goes to the horizontal line, the sensible movement from north to south and back. 1

39

It wasn’t the first time I dreamt of railroad tracks that went into my room, but it was the first time I worried I would miss the train. I thought of your displeasure in riding elevators with children, those newly struck by their power over machinery. How I longed to be one such child, how I wanted to press an almighty button. Instead, I knelt on my bed, waiting anxiously for the familiar rush of wind, pressing the ticket against my palms. 2

40

I missed the train right away. I despised the return to the road, the chaos of buses, the cops on the lookout for bribes. We became believers in the rule of elimination: every place became a potential target; the safest spots were those that had already been bombed. We ignored the warnings and kissed on the steps to the train. 3

41

They blamed the jellyfish for the blackout, the terrible dream of one night. Truth, of course, is hard to bear when it comes from an unreliable source (i.e., I met you on a crowded train. We held on to the same pole and stared at the same ad for contraception. And if I said I hated the ticket, the way it bore the president’s face, that ridiculous smile? 4

42

I should’ve told you this story: after the crash, for many days, the wife prayed for a body. What she got was a hand; she recognized the wedding ring. Why bury a hand in a coffin large enough for a man? The children must think their father is inside. They must be able to say goodbye to their father. 5

43

Once, I saw you on the other side of the tracks. But it was too late—the train had come, erasing you in one swift motion. 6

44

Disappear What is a shadow? It is the self without a face or a name, all outline and no feature, the self on the verge of being erased. It is the incidental child of matter and light. Look how it spreads itself on the ground, weary but weightless, unable to leave a trace. Another one of those days when we’re standing by the side of a road with our mothers, sweating in our Sunday dresses, waiting for the bus home. You stand in the puddle of your mother’s shadow, twisting your body so your own vanishes inside the darkness. I’m invisible, you shout, counting the three shadows left, then blowing me a stiff kiss. It’s cooler here, too. Is it possible for this not to be a story of disappearance?

47

Your voice from a phone booth on a sidewalk, in the rain, outside a diner with an unreadable sign. Your voice speaking in code, coming to me in bits and pieces, syllable by syllable. Your voice doubled, echoing, bouncing off a stained glass dome, traveling through a dark tunnel where a train is about to pass. The lilt in your voice betrays you as you pretend to sell me potato peelers and non-stick frying pans. Your voice from another time zone, competing with the waves of the sea. In a letter with no return address, your voice cracks jokes and says “my feet hurt” in another language. Your voice in the tired words on my computer screen, hidden somewhere in the identical towns of postcards. Your voice like a shadow on a road.

48

When we were children, you didn’t care for words, you only filled pages with vertical lines. Beyond the page, the bite marks at the tip of your pencil, bare knees, a scrawny cat sleeping at your feet. We lived in the city and I thought you drew lampposts, telephone lines, the long, rusty rods scattered in construction sites. Your voice insisting, no, no, these are trees.

49

I walk one block and pass a series of testaments to failure—the skeleton of a building, a half-built bridge already breaking down. On the dusty metal fence hangs a sign that promises a highway. You were in love, you wanted out of a city that screamed abandonment.

50

A new mayor, a new name for this road. The man selling sweet corn at the corner makes it a point to recite all the names to every customer in need of directions. I don’t listen to him as I make my way to this place, known to me now only as the road where you last stood. I stare at its slender body, following the shape of a tree that has fallen down, beaten endlessly by the weight of buses and trucks.

51

I fall into a puddle on my way to catch a bus, and unlike a dog, I can’t sit around and lick my wounds, I have to walk away like nothing has happened. The face of Jesus looms on a billboard, but where is the comfort that can be bought? Let me watch the blind men by the terminal massage commuters for a fee, let me listen to karaoke music and stare at the stall selling cheap umbrellas, let me stand under the shadow of a lamppost as is my habit, though it is evening, the weather is cool, and you are gone. If I keep still enough inside this shadow, it is as if I am not here. If I keep still enough, there is no proof you are not here with me.

52

Monument Nobody warned us. The sign said “open.” The waiters were dressed in white. We were hungry; we asked to be fed. On the walls were pictures of the walled city: cannons and lampposts and horse-drawn carriages. The waiter brought us a tray of sweets. I picked a cupcake named after a street. “Named after a man,” you said. Nobody warned us. We wanted coffee and cigarettes. Outside, tourists strolled down authentic cobblestone streets, drinking their authentic bottled water. We sat in our charming hole in the wall, a magnified version of a mousetrap. Nobody warned us. Inside the bathroom I washed my hands and read the sign. A few words and suddenly, I was somewhere else, in a dungeon teeming with last breaths. I pressed my hands against the rough cement walls. I filled my palms with fake bruises. You threw up on the bushes outside the café, the wretched monument to a thousand deaths. Nobody warned us; how could we remember? There was nothing to do but smoke by the bushes. There was nothing to do but forgive ourselves.

53

Tourist The chair, the flowers and the open door, the click of her mother’s heels growing fainter, her mother disappearing into a corridor. In a room made for silence, even the children hold their breath at the collision of marble and bone. The cracked head of a boy. The clumsy leap from a dinosaur’s footprint to the floor. Blood, then the cave of his mouth opening, the soundless cry. Don’t look, her husband says to her. She remembers the wait. Waiting for the curled edge of the wallpaper to flutter, for the flat flowers to emerge from the walls. Waiting to open her mouth. Between the slats of a dinosaur’s ribs, the eyes of tourists multiply like wounds. They watch the mother lift the howling boy, their black cameras hanging around their necks like heavy jewels. The dentist pulls out a tooth and places it in her palm. It wasn’t blood she was afraid of. She stares the tooth, the part of her no longer part of her, something she could hold in her hand then throw away. There are bones everywhere. Another mother fades into the crowd. Let’s go, he says to her. She looks at her palm. Nothing there, then nothing quickly disappears inside her husband’s hand.

54

You there, You on the passenger’s seat of a car, watching the rosary swing on the rearview mirror. You want to stop the habit of drumming your fingers on tables, and if dreams are habits, you want to stop dreaming of teeth. Yes, you there, buying fruit from a vendor who speaks in a dialect you can’t understand. His chatter reduces you to nodding and shaking your head. You take your oranges and take off. The buttons in the elevator unnerve you, you in the black coat. You press a dozen numbers, relieved to break the fall to the first floor into a series of stops. You hold your coffee against your reflection on the shiny elevator wall. Sometimes, you think, it isn’t so bad to be you, working two jobs and always getting the late shifts. You at the bus stop, waiting for the last trip. The street stares blankly at you, the ripped portion of a poster waving, not saying hello or goodbye. That’s why you there, that’s why you pay your bills on time. Or sing in the bathroom. Or watch reruns every night. Yes, you there, I’m talking to you.

55

The Last Page Her mother looks at the woman’s body and sees graffiti on the side of a train. What has he done to you? she asks, wincing at the tattoos, the dragon draped across her shoulder, the Last Supper sprawled on her stomach, the halo around the halo of her navel. Her mother doesn’t ask what will you do now he is dead—she wonders instead how to undo the traces of the lover’s needle and ink on the woman’s body, she wants to know how her daughter can be un-touched. I look up from the last page, right before the woman speaks, and think of your mother, walking toward me after the terrible call, after each number going dark in the elevator and the long walk down a hollow corridor. She looks different is all she can bear to say, and I take her word for it. I don’t peel myself off the bench outside your door. I am unable to take one last look at you. Who can blame the mother who bargains for the daughter she had on page one, the woman prior to the heroine and her grotesque body, infected by epiphanies? Weeks later, we find ways to pass time—your mother wipes all the furniture in her house with wood polish, willing every surface to shine, and over coffee, I listen to a long-lost friend lament the end of another relationship. The tattooed woman leans against a mirror, or she looks her mother in the eye, or she surveys the view from the window. What does she say right before the story ends—I don’t know, she must say in plain yet eloquent terms that she is beyond retrieval, and I won’t have any of it. My friend knows nothing of my grief, and I console her with stories of your sordid affairs, I judge you without mercy as if you were still here, on the other end of the phone, on the verge of a word I refuse to hear because I must say, again and again, snap out of it, you’re too good for him, please get a hold of yourself.

56

It has come to this The little girl looks forward to afternoons. Her brother comes home, slams his bedroom door, turns up the volume of his radio. She touches the wall that divides their rooms, the music thumping against her fingers. She mouths the words to many songs and laughs without a sound, the obscenities coming out of her mouth in a deep voice. The little girl grows up, becomes a secretary. She is on the phone, standing before a row of carts, the vendors selling the same food: fishballs, salted eggs, arroz caldo. The boss she hates is giving her instructions. I want salted eggs from the fourth cart, arroz caldo from the seventh. Fourth cart and seventh. Across the street, ballerinas in pink tutus prance across the dance floor. Their teacher claps her hands, taps her foot to count the beats. The secretary approaches the glass that divides the ballet studio from the city. Inside, a woman plays the piano while a couple of mothers sit on a row of benches, watching their little girls dance. Why does this remind her of her one habit, shamelessly labeling all her possessions, her initials on every piece of clothing she owns? Are you there? her boss asks, and she pulls away, marking the glass with her fingerprints, with the faint cloud of her breath.

57

What is it about tenderness The dead woman in the laboratory has lost her heart. Otherwise, she is intact: ribs, muscles, and skin in place. Nothing betrays the emptiness in her chest. Wrapped like a sandwich, the heart shivers and jumps inside the backpack of a woman who is on her way home. She sits in a battered train, holding the bag close to her chest. At her desk all night, she masters the valves and chambers that add up to a heart, naming the ways it gives up and permits one to die. In the dictionary the woman no longer opens, dried petals, the remnants of flowers from a man long gone, mark the pages of her favorite words. Somewhere in this room are the streets where the dead once lived, but there are names that need not be spoken. Please, the woman says, though there is no one to hear her request.

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Notes on the recurring dream 1. The table shook. It was a choice               “Give me your hand,” between the open door                

the fortuneteller said to me.

and the glass of water.                  2. I needed an excuse; I took my wine glass to the kitchen. Nobody told me to do the dishes. The basin of water reeked of fish. 3. He said: “The sea coughed up a year’s worth         According to the fortuneteller, I should guard myself against

of corpses. When I called it an accomplice,            my own stupidity. Give me its waves crept up to my feet,               anything and I will drink it. licking them clumsily. So intense, it seemed,          was its desire to be forgiven.” 4. The locked door could not subdue their drunken laughter. Nothing could be done about the smell of fish; I scrubbed my arms and the bathwater shook my face to pieces. What is a mirror but water that refuses to budge?       I wanted to smash the

tattoo of a butterfly on

                           her wrist.                            

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5. The earth shook. Somebody dreamt of a bowl of fruit, somebody asked for water. The night was a single wail of a siren. 6. I wanted to hear about cops and hoses.           She bored me with the details of my past. She called me

He said: “Can I tell you instead about the time         names that couldn’t hurt me. I lived away from the sea?”                7. After the bath, I signed my name              She said her tattoo was on the glass. I wanted to see the city           

“her lucky fish.”

through my clumsy script, but my breath erased every opportunity. 8. The loaves, the fish, the water-into-wine.         

I asked the fortuneteller if I could spend the night on her In every story, there must be room             couch. I was afraid to sleep; for the sea.                      the siren outside her window soothed me.

                          

                          

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9. They slept like corpses on the carpet. Wearing nothing but a towel, I stepped over their bodies and reached for a glass. 10. It was water that killed him.                “Drink,” she said. They drowned him in a bucket because he never said a word.

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Morning You never know when somebody will walk away from you on a bright day on a busy street, never looking back and you cannot believe the slow disappearance, cannot believe what is moving away from your reach until the busy street no longer needs its presence to look the same, because it is the same. And the city offers you its fruits and fish, and the churchgoers lift their veils as they step out into the open and you know the picture is incomplete but it can stand for itself and who are you to ask for more, who are you to insist on hunger?

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Autobiography The page opens to a field. A man on a couch, his memory of a field. You look up the word daffodil. The word is a door to a greenhouse of cold-weather flora. This is the moment the bougainvilleas outside your window become a lie. This is the moment you point a gun at the dishonesty of this place, the bougainvilleas rising honorably in their pots like victims in an execution. Who can blame you for falling in love with a word? The tropical sun sets behind the page that sleeps on your chest. You thank the night for a black window. In your sleep, you wake to a yellow field. You are lost in such beauty. Bruised for life.

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Ashfall Before it was given a name, it was rain without drops, without sound, it was rain in slow motion, regretting the many times it slapped against the ground, regretting its relentlessness. It was rain resisting its temper, attempting tenderness. It was rain that wasn’t rain at all, it was snow, snow without the cold, without the sting in the air, the ache, the chill, snow out of place, out of date, out of season. It was a tropical dream, new breath, a break in reason, a pause between sun and rain and sun again and rain. It was treasure from the sky, a secret we found out first, a prize for being good girls. It was reason enough to refuse to sleep, reason enough to get up at three in the morning, reason enough to step out to the pavement and hold up our arms to what was snow but not snow, rain but not rain, the world around us turning pale, the world bled of color. In a minute, somebody will wake up, somebody will be frightened by the open door, will stumble to find us, will tell us to get in, will ask why what is falling from the sky is falling. We will hear the word volcano, we will learn the name to fear. But right now, when there are no labels yet, we lift our faces in thanks, our faces turning pale, what has yet to be named resting lightly on our lashes.

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About the Author Conchitina Cruz teaches literature and creative writing at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She helps run the Youth & Beauty Brigade, a small press, as well as the semiannual small press expo Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX). She is a PhD student in English at State University of New York (SUNY) Albany. Dark Hours won the National Book Award in 2006.

Other books by Conchitina Cruz Disappear elsewhere held and lingered A catalogue of clothes for sale from the closet of Christine Abella—perpetual student, ukay fan, and compulsive traveler (with Adam David and Delilah Aguilar) Two or Three Things about Desire