• A Warm Belly

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    It was a cinch for them to break his crystal cradle with their teeth that were as sharp as the claws of a raven. Formalin and water burst forth and they momentarily retreated with intense aversion. Carefully, they tottered on the bed of broken glass to see if he can still be saved. One of them poked him and tried to wake him up with a soft grumble. Then, as if waking up from a long slumber, he opened his deep black eyes. He began to adjust his vision gradually and then he saw them as they all grizzled, eyes all ablaze, and their scaly emaciated bodies glittering under the faint moonlight. He then realized that they were once all like him.

    * * *

    Mara went to church as if she was not feeling the burning sensation in her lower belly. She managed to endure an entire hour of prayer, singing and kneeling in between. At the end of the mass, she noticed the marmoreal face of the Sto. Nino smiling at her. She wanted to smile back but tears started to well up as her feet dragged her out of the church.

    * * *

    Some restless owls howled to announce the death of daylight as the cicadas played their music to foretell the last days of summer. The crescent moon sliced the clouds and the frigid wind scythed the tall cogon where his brothers and sisters were feasting on the carcass of a stray dog. They ate greedily, letting blood and saliva drool from their mouths, slurping the meat that hung from every bone. One of his sisters offered him a strip of meat but he refused. A slap to punish him for his ungratefulness landed on his cheek. All of his brothers and sisters suddenly stopped their banquet to look at him. He sensed that they will all force him to at least have a foretaste of his destiny so he ran and then, amidst the swirls of thick fog and darkness, a chase began.

    * * *

    Despite the burning pangs in her abdomen, Mara still opted to do her volunteer work at the church. Before leaving the house, she tried to clean the blood stains on her blue satin bed sheet. Mara has gotten used to the sight of blood on her bed every morning. The same thing happened to her three days ago when she was about to leave for school so she was not worried if ever her mother would notice. She could always say that she was not able to take note of her monthly period as an excuse.
    Some stubborn scarlet patterns remained in her mattress but she already felt enervated so she just covered it up with a fresh bed sheet. She left the house feeling that she was able to cover up last night’s mess but not the mess that she made some weeks ago which she intended to deal with on that day.
    Upon arriving at the church, Mara went to the place where she left something over a week ago. As careful as a thief, she inspected the thick bougainvillea bush under the grotto. Curiosity and fear exploded within her as she discovered that it was not there anymore. All that was left of her secret were shards of glass and the broken lid that seemed to have been bitten forcefully by some hungry animal. She suddenly felt her stomach turning inside out as a cloud of haze suddenly blinded her. Mara tried to move away in denial but she lost her balance and her pale body crashed the dry Bermuda grass. Rivulets of blood flowed from her insides to nourish the loam soil of the grotto.

    * * *

    Escape was not easy especially when those who were after you were beasts reared by nature to kill. It was a miracle that up to that night, he was able to hide from his enraged brothers and sisters. The chase was as wild as a hunt for a new victim. He could still hear her brothers and sisters shrieking in glee as they ran after him. He stumbled a few times and was almost caught by their flesh-tearing hands but he managed to slip away until they eventually lost him. Small wounds on his legs bled and his eyes shed their young tears. Inside his little bald head, a voice told him “Sorry”. The sound reverberated to haunt him in his solitude. It was probably the first word he heard and every time that he hears it resounding in his head, he feels the little thing inside his thin chest beat violently.
    Without him even noticing it, the sky turned gray and a mild drizzle followed. Lightning and thunder came to scare away the stillness of the sky so he sought refuge under a cluster of gabi leaves. He coiled his body to protect himself from the cold and then he tried to glean the syllables of the word “Sorry” amidst the roaring sound from the sky.

    * * *

    What greeted Mara as she opened her eyes were the sounds of thunder and the gush of flowing water. Her mother caressed her forehead with her gentle hands. Mara felt nervous and consoled at the same time because she knew that her parents had already found out what she did. Her father stood behind her mother with anxiety and restrained anger marking his face. The silence of her family told her that her secret was unearthed. Mara remembered what her late Grandma would always tell her whenever she was caught telling lies: “All secrets shall be revealed and all lies shall be discovered at the proper time”—and, apparently, it was Mara’s time.

    * * *

    The rain had subsided but the sky was still pale and gray. Little puddles like scrimshawed images of the doomed heavens adorned the wet earth. He knew that his brothers and sisters would continue running after him so with uncertain steps, he started to walk in order to find his way to the place where he came from. For some strange reason, he felt that something was guiding him to go back to that place. His intuition was telling him that, of all places, that was where he could find safety.

    * * *

    Mara lay awake in her bed, gawking at the ceiling, still feeling the pain in her belly. She tilted her head a little to stare at her reflection on the bedside mirror. Except for her skin that became paler than before, nothing much has changed—she still had those weary eyes and chapped lips. She thought about how things would have been if she had allowed the thing in her belly to grow. Would it look like her? Would it have the same weary eyes? Would it smile at her the same way as the Sto Nino at the church? She stared at the ceiling again as she felt her belly’s rage—it was longing for the thing that it had lost. Mara closed her eyes and clenched her fists. Regret, Mara thought, was the malevolent ghost that had been haunting her after she had decided to take away that part of herself that could have changed her future.

    * * *

    The ground was still clammy as he walked under the faint light of dusk. From where he stood, he began to recognize the surroundings. He had seen those thick stone pillars, the weathered statues of winged women, and the bushes of bougainvilleas. This was where he came from, the place where his brothers and sisters had found him. He looked around and, as what he expected, he felt somewhat safe. With small steps, he walked up the building’s entrance but just as when he was about to go in, one of his brothers pulled his arm. With all the strength that he could muster, he pushed his brother away. His sisters suddenly blocked his way, hissing and exposing their fangs. He stumbled to the ground, his back flat on the rough pavement. One of his brothers held his head up with a grip that was so tight that he felt his veins were on the brink of breakage. He knew that the only option was to escape so he forcefully kicked his two sisters and just like the savage beast that he wanted him to be, he bit his brother’s rough hands. He took the opportunity to run beyond the half ajar door. He did not look back, he just ran to free himself of the frightening memories of his brothers and sisters. He sensed that there were many of them chasing after him this time so he leaped faster. The floor was slippery and cold but he managed not to stumble nor feel the icy sting on his feet. He crawled his way up to the platform and when he got to the top, he finally looked back at his brothers and sisters, their mad and hungry eyes glowed as they dissolved into the darkness. He stood under a candle’s light and he clung to its waxy pole. That was when he knew he was finally safe.

    * * *

    Everything started to dim. Mara did not wish to close her eyes but her entire body decided to surrender to the enchantment of sleep. Amidst the nothingness that consumed her, only the lullaby that her mother sang for her allowed her to drift safely into the darkness of her dream. In her dream, there was a tiny speck of light moving away from her. She tried to chase it but by the time she had moved closer to it, it dissolved into a warm cloud that wrapped her body like an unfamiliar embrace from an unknown and nameless memory.

    * * *

    When he saw her, he thought that she was beautiful in her blue veil and white robe. Her smile was serene and she was clasping her hands as if she were delighted to see him. He went near her and leaned his exhausted body on her smooth feet. He looked up again and she was still smiling at him. From her feet, he crawled up to her legs and the further way up to her belly. He was drawn to the belly’s warmth and he realized that it was the feeling that he had always longed for. With his little arms, he clung himself to her and decided to stay there for as long as he wished. The thing inside his frail chest started to move again, pulsing stronger as he rested his head on her navel. He clung tighter and smiled his first smile for he knew that the owner of the belly would keep him forever.

    CHRISTOPHER D. ALONTE

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