Yes, I am a collector. I collect coins. And stamps. And knives. And books. I gather the mementos of other lives lived separate from mine. I take each treasure in hand and trace my fingertips over every bump and groove, for I must remember how each of these things feels to my living hand.
I relish the paper cuts, the cuts from the keen blade edges. I relish the temporary intaglio of coins pressed to my palms. I relish the smells of book paper and dried ink, the scent of chamomile oil and forge-fire lingering on the steel of the unsheathed cutting edge. I immerse myself in the wordless stories of each of these things I gather to mark those private moments when I collect the shards of myself to put them back together after the world shatters them.
When I am no longer even a memory, these things will outlast me. When they, too, are dust, we will finally be inseparable, as we were once, when we were all part of a whole thing that has since been forgotten as I will be in the erasure of time’s plodding.
The world needs to forget, to make room for those things that insist upon being remembered, if only for the time they exist, and shortly after they cease to be. Some things just must be consumed by midnight like a snack before they can come back. Revenants never stay gone for very long. But they never come back the same, either.
Now I begin a new collection, before my shadow fades into the intrepid darkness, never to return: I open a fresh new box in which I place the faces I’ve collected. They are clean now, free of sinew and bone. So are the knives, though the flensing and fillet blades will always carry the scent of blood and microscopic nicks from unfortunate jawbones. My hands tremble when I touch my treasures, you see.
I am collecting faces, for when I lose my own.
* * *
All Soul’s Day means the family will be over to partake of the family feast of favorites. Lolo Cholo’s caldereta, Lola Ninay’s Sinigang na Ulo sa Miso. Tito Pascualito’s Beef Tapa con Ampalaya will make its first appearance at the table this year, beside the box of Krispy Kreme chocolate donuts young Paquito used to scarf down when his chemo permitted.
Saling set a furious pace for herself. She had kare-kare from scratch to prepare for the clan and she had but a few more hours to get it done as she’d always gotten it done: Perfect, hot, served with spicy shrimp paste she’d sauteed from scratch with bird’s eye chilies from the backyard.
There’s the leche flan to chill yet, she thinks as her cook’s knife decimates the banana hearts on the chopping board. Her hands fly over the talyasi in the yard sitting on its roaring wood fire, testing the heat before she begins the process of making the perfect oxtail in peanut sauce stew. The family will want this dish as she makes it each year: The meat fork-tender, the sauce rich and sinful. After all, this is the one time in the year she gets to make it for everyone.
Decades of love in a huge wok, the simmering heart of her, this is the best expression of love Saling knows—and she never fails to express it with piquancy, with heat, with all her heart and soul poured into every morsel and drip of sauce.
Saling pops the flans in the ref and moves on to the sink to wash up. It just wouldn’t do to leave the care of her precious cookware to the kids. Might as well do this while the stew simmers.
Somewhere in the yard, a time-addled rooster crows at the witching hour. Saling turns her face up to the ebbing moonlight filtering into the outdoor kitchen.
She closes her eyes as she calls the names of every clan member over the slow-bubbling kare-kare, dropping the okra and pechay in carefully, giving the lot a final firm stir before setting the lid on the huge wok.
Saling takes a few minutes to look at each window of the old house where she’d spent the happiest moments and some of the most difficult days of her life.
Breaking her reverie, she ladles the stew into large clay pots and sets them and the little sauce-bowls of sauteed shrimp-fry out on the buffet table set up in the ancestral home’s sala (the family always set that up ahead of time, of course), her smile tired, but so very satisfied.
She sighs and fades slowly as steps out of the front door, out onto the porch where the winds scatter her image into the fading night.
“Enjoy the food. I love you.”
Her whisper permeates the house and touches the slumbering family within. It reverberates in dreams that connect all her kin. It is the kiss that never fades, though the memory of her face will.
* * *
So there she was, at the old typewriter that she’d painstakingly learned to repair. The battered old Marathon with the grayish-white laminate peeling off one metal flank was a trooper, taking the weight of her words, the impact of her impatient fingers, with nothing more than its stoic clackety-clacks. Into this keyboard went all the hard facts of life that would break lesser, younger machines. Into this keyboard, and through it, went her words onto the crisp sheets of paper where her fears could be made smaller, more rational, less the bogeymen they were when they wandered about in her disorganized head.
She wrote to remember things that were slowly being taken from her brain—and she began with her fears because that is where her writing would end. There was a symmetry to it. When the sun shone, she wrote of her beloved, how the curve of his cheek fit the palm of her hand. How his gaze took the place of her morning coffee just fine. How his voice resonated through her chest the same way it resonated in the air surrounding them both.
When it rained, she wrote of her childhood, of the person she was when removed from everyone else. She wrote of all the girl things she indulged in solo, of who she was before life intruded upon the world of her own making.
She wrote until her gnarly fingers could no longer strike the keys with the strength it took to leave her mark on the paper, to assert her existence with memory.
Mnemosyne rose from her desk one last time, having finished her final sentence: “I forget and am lost.”
Perhaps she would remember that she can still read.