THE old woman is dying.
As far as human activities went, death was overrated, boring and distasteful, and she could not recommend it at all. Lying on her back, staring at the ceiling all day, she feels heavy on her chest the weight of years, driving the breath from her lungs and forcing her to chase air with shallow, stabbing puffs.
Above her blurred faces hover, none the less kinder-looking for all that she cannot see them clearly: her two daughters, one on each side of her. Max, the older, her face impassive, pats her arm and asks a question she cannot hear: WHwuhn whun? When she does not reply, Rosie, the younger by seven years, says in a more insistent tone: Whung whun WUH? She smiles and gives them a nod that seems to satisfy them, because the faces withdraw. Moving her head is difficult, at this stage of the illness, but all she wants is to be left alone and slip back into the lake of memories that lap, with increasing frequency, at the shores of her consciousness.
She was a young mother, smooth-skinned and heavy-breasted, walking her children around the grassy outfield of the racetrack in their neighborhood. Rosie, a year old, was slung on one hip, while Max toddled beside her, occasionally stopping to watch the horses exercising, stamping her little feet in time to the thudding of hooves.
The sky wore a gray cast that pulled a veil over the worst of the sun’s heat. Her children’s father drew close to the rail on his horse, a large bay with a braided mane. It’s time to take them home, he said, and feed them breakfast. The bay neighed, flicked his tail.
Max didn’t want to leave, she wanted to stay and watch the horses being put through their paces, but her father had spoken, and he expected to be obeyed. After honey and oatmeal were consumed, Max said, Fun day, Mama! and she replied, Yes, baby, and there’ll be more of that tomorrow. Take a nap.
Rosie shakes her awake. Don’t do that, I was dreaming, she says, but either her daughter doesn’t hear her or ignores her because a hand is slipped under her head to lift it up. A straw is slipped into her mouth, and bitter liquid squirted in. She gags, but a hand pinches her nose and she swallows. WhunNinin, says Rosie. Medicine? She sinks back against the pillow.
She was reading Dr. Seuss to her girls, starter-kit readers for the children of educated parents with a black sense of humor, for Seuss’ illustrations could give nightmares to those whose imaginations were wrought of flimsier stuff. A favorite was “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”:
Look what we found in the park in the dark.
We will take him home, we will call him Clark.
He will live at our house, he will grow and grow.
Will our mother like this? We don’t know.
The two children in the story carry Clark, a tufted, befuddled monster crammed into a demijohn, back to their mother. In the book there is no information about Clark, what he is exactly, where he is from, and what he does in homes where there are soft, vulnerable humans made of meat and blood. Max asked, Will Clark bust out of the jar and eat them up? Will he tear them to bits and shred them into fibers, THEN eat them up?
Maybe something is going to happen to the mother when Clark gets home, something dark, something DREADFUL, she said, and Rosie, cradled in between her knees, and Max, sitting beside her, shivered in fright that was more delighted anticipation of what could happen next rather than fear. Children, she decided, are gruesome by nature.
The book ends:
And now, good night.
It is time to sleep
So we will sleep with our pet Zeep.
Today is gone. Today was fun.
Tomorrow is another one.
Every day, from here to there,
Funny things are everywhere.
She’d read them the book often enough to have memorized this part. She told the children, in our country we have Gleeps instead. Each person on earth, she said, was assigned a Gleep at birth, along with a guardian angel. Unlike an angel, a Gleep did not guard from harm or charm; a Gleep’s job was to put you to sleep, and each one looked different, and revealed themselves only to their human, if they chose. Some never knew they had a Gleep, but were rewarded with slumber nonetheless, because everyone needs sleep to grow and grow, she said. Every night after that, all she had to say was, It’s time to sleep with your pet Gleep, and off to bed they’d go, without complaint.
Hands turn her over on her side and she is jarred again into unwelcome wakefulness. Hands lift her clothing and dab at her back. It stings and she moans. Bedsores? How long has she been lying here, waiting for death? Why is her dying taking so long? The ministering hands rub a cool sponge over her body, arms, legs, the soles of her feet.
She was in court, listening to a judge pronounce her marriage null and void. It took eight years of scrimping for her to save enough for an annulment—two hundred thousand pesos—but it was worth it to gain her freedom and self-respect. The father of her children had left them for another woman years ago. She rebuilt her life, a life around the racetrack, its people and its business: a slow, gradual process that began as a way to survive, but that, in imperceptible increments, became her life.
Max and Rosie, seated in the back row of the humid, airless courtroom, wave at her. Her freedom is their freedom, and moving on was a journey they made together as a family. She never thought she’d be able to live without her husband—didn’t he tell her so many times? That she’d never eat another meal without him, much less survive? But look at them now. Funny things are everywhere.
A finger pokes a hard, bitter morsel into her mouth. Another drug, she thinks, my family’s attempt to keep me alive. Futile and inutile. She pushes the pill out with her tongue and presses her lips shut. There was nothing more to do or say, but to open the last door and step through it. What was taking so long? This life was fun, this life is gone.
She was sitting in the front pew of a church, her hands smoothing the folds of her pink gown. Its embroidered edges grazed the machuca tiles on the floor, and she tapped her foot, willing the Mass to be over. It was hot and the ceiling fan, eight feet up, cooled the air as much as a paper pinwheel would have.
At the altar, Rosie and her first husband were saying their vows. It was the fellow who was Catholic, not her daughter. She’d raised her children to be freethinkers, like she was, but Rosie liked to observe convention and all the social niceties, the place cards at the table and the calligraphy on the wedding invitations.
It was Max, seated beside her, who’d turned out to be the liberal—bisexual, marriage-shy, a pagan. On Max’s lap was her cat Horus in a basket. Around his neck was a small blue velvet pillow; he was the ring-bearer. Rosie turned around and sought her eyes, perhaps sensing her mother’s impatience. Mama, she mouthed, and smiled.
The room is filled with light when she wakes. No one is around. Her entire sensorium is aflame with pain. It is quiet. She is so very, very tired.
She was in a rocking chair and cradling her grandson in her arms. Back and forth, back and forth. It was late and they only saw each other by the light of the moon that streamed through the open windows. He wouldn’t shut his eyes. Rosie was in Los Angeles on her honeymoon with her second husband, and had left little Blue with her. Blue not sleepy, Lola, he said. So she took the battered copy of “One Fish” and read to him, the familiar words and cadences floating back to her on the stream of years. And now, good night, it’s time to sleep with your pet Gleep, she whispered, but she needn’t have lowered her voice, because he was fast asleep.
Through a filmy haze she sees shapes moving around—her girls, maybe her grandchildren, a nurse? Her vision is fading, she can no longer make out faces nor details. Two heads above hers. Max and Rosie. She hears them, so faint, as if they are shouting through a glass wall. Mama, you can let go now, they say. Rest. She feels both her hands being pressed. They are crying.
She is not sad, but curious and impatient. There is some trepidation, to be sure; she faces the unknown and that unnerves her, but she has never been afraid of change or challenges. Above all she would like to be free of the suffering of inexorable entrapment in a body that no longer functions properly.
She is eager to let go and rest, but does not know how. I’m letting go now! she tells the universe in her mind. But what is the proper procedure for dying? I didn’t get the memo! and she chuckles deep in her mind.
At the edge of her vision a dark dot grows into a palpable shape. As she stares at it, she is filled with foreboding, a physical sensation that creeps up from her feet up to her chest and squeezes like a fist. Cold settles on her body like a dank blanket she cannot kick off.
The shadow, tufted and deformed, creeps closer, and she recognizes him. It is Clark, who grew and abided in the dark. He has escaped from his jar, she saw, and was coming for her, a mother among many who read to her children about him being brought home trapped in glass, and the reading made this true as it also brought him into existence.
She can no longer see nor hear Max nor Rosie nor anyone nor anything outside of the events playing out in her mind. This, she realizes, is the final scene from her life book.
Her heart, already weak beyond healing, makes erratic flutters in its cage of bone. Somehow she is aware that if Clark touches her, she will die. She does not question this knowledge nor where it comes from. Dying is what she wants, but Clark will take her with him into the dark and imprison her within the glass jar, where she would have no rest but only the torment of a consciousness spiraling upon itself, without body nor bone to act and break free.
She wills a change. If imagination brought Clark here, it can also drive him away. A flare of brilliance fills her eyes and the dark shape scurries back. The light resolves itself into a ball of shimmering white fur. She stares at it, fascinated. It is a creature that climbs onto her chest and remains there, weightless. It bobs up and down in time with her breathing.
Is this her Gleep? It has purple eyes that compel her to gaze into their depths, and she feels soothed, rather than anxious or frightened. She relaxes, and one by one her fingers and toes unclench as drowsiness drifts over her. On the fringes of her awareness she hears sobbing. Goodbye, she thinks, goodbye Max and Rosie, Mama loves you.
So this is death. This is what she has been waiting for. Her Gleep has come. She yields. The shimmering blazes brighter, and expands to fill her mind with white incandescence.
She falls then into the true deep sleep the Gleep brings at the end of years, when her story is all told.•
This story was first published in the author’s first collection of short fiction, “Fictionary: Stories,” published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila in 2016. Republished with permission from the author.