Perpetual fire. His wait, like a perpetual fire. He would sit by the window, the palm of his hand holding up his chin, his elbows pressing the window ledge, his eyes closed as if weighted by the sky. During these moments, he rarely utters a word, but when he does it’s as if he’s speaking in another tongue. The words are not his but only borrowed, a script he’s memorized but never understood.
He is waiting for his stories, which came without certainties. Often, he would surprise him, after a long day at the rice fields… and then he would be there in his house as if he never left. He would be sitting on his favorite stool, holding his favorite cup with the chip on the rim. When he sipped his coffee, and noticed almost belatedly that his lips will touch the chipped part, he would turn the cup just a few degrees clockwise, smell the coffee and drink as if nothing has distracted him. The man who waits for stories would replay this scene over and over in his mind to the point of obsession. It’s enough to tide him over.
He does not have a name for him because he comes in many names. His real name has lost its meaning, and most of the time he would not respond to it, as if he himself has already forgotten. He would just call him by the name of the protagonist of the story he told him during his last visit. It doesn’t matter whether it is a man, a woman, or an animal. It feels a lot safer this way, to attach someone to something that can be easily remembered, that can be easily retold.
One of his stories goes like this: a mother in a far away village has been searching for her daughter for two years. When asked about how she lost her child, she can provide only an incoherent story, punctuated here and there by sobs. They were abducted by men with guns. There were questions they have no answers for. They were blindfolded, beaten, raped. Throughout their shared suffering there is only darkness; she doesn’t know when or how exactly she disappeared, just the spot where, finally released by her captors, realizing that she will never see her daughter again, she broke down and wept rivers. Like a ritual she would visit this site, burning a letter for her daughter that no one else will ever read, one letter for every day that passes that she remains missing. If one happens to pass by this spot that is not a grave, one will see ashes marked only by the soul of tears that have long vanished.
When he tells sad stories like this he would assume an impersonal voice, as if he’s reading from a textbook, the characters in the story merely fictionalized brainchildren of his mind.
There are many things that he loves about this man. He loves the way he holds his cigarettes between his index and middle finger. He loves how he can stare at the ember tip for hours—who knows what crosses his mind—the heat of the sun, the smell of sweat, a suddenly remembered face? He has seen the same delicateness on him when he was cleaning his M-16. He loves his beard, his sideburns, the veins in his hands. The way he would quickly fall into contemplation in the middle of a story, as if there is something to be revised or the story has suddenly lost sight of its own ending. His face is somber yet beautiful.
He liked the stories set in the cities the most. These were stories of happiness—struggle, yes, but there is happiness. He would tell him about university students who got drunk every night and smoked weeds, and how their lives would suddenly turn for the better when they started taking to the streets, shouting calls that previously sounded to them like alien language. He would tell him about other people’s love stories—those that end in failure, homosexual relationships consummated under the cover of the night, love that never managed to materialize.
These stories come so infrequently that he was prepared to sit through the saddest ones just to see a glimpse of them. They bring joy, if only vicariously.
He always takes his leave in silence, the man who tells stories. As if there’s an unwritten promise of a return. He would linger a moment at the doorstep, smoking a cigarette, his back to him. He would trample the butt with his shoe and spit, and that would signal his departure. The wee hours of the morning: that’s when the painful, shifty glances are exchanged.
Lately, the wait has become increasingly prolonged. A couple of months, and then years. There are times when he would suddenly feel that he has finally arrived—and he would actually hear the thud of footsteps and smell the rising aroma of coffee—but he was not there.
Even during those instances when he is physically there, most of the time there are no stories to tell, only silences that blanket existing surfaces. Once or twice, the man who waits for stories would hear repressed sobs. If the man who tells stories mustered enough energy to start a tale, he would stop mid-way and never finish.
Now and then he would think: How could a day of waiting become a day closer to seeing each other again and at the same time just another day of pining? Waiting is a flame that destroys things but also gives off heat. He waits. He burns, like perpetual fire.
He soon learned to cope with waiting by telling stories the he remembers to himself. But he’s not good at it for he always mixes things up—characters, dates, events, motives. But there is something therapeutic about it, as if fumbling and fixing fictions equate to fixing lives. With these stories, he is undead.
When stories fail to flow from his mind he would just sit by the window and wait for him. Sometimes, for hours. Sometimes, he’ll close his eyes and just listen. Listen to what? Gunfire, perhaps? The rustle of leaves, head-splitting shrieks, the sound of a falling body as it cuts through the air to be stopped by the ground?
The problem with departures without goodbyes is that you’ll never know when the one who left has really started to be gone forever. Did he intend to return, but was stopped by raining bullets? Still, he waits for the man and his stories. He drowns in uncertainties. Yet we know that one thing is certain: he never came back. Perhaps there are no more stories to tell.
(The author is a BS Civil Engineering student from the University of the Philippines-Los Banos. He is also a member of the UPLB Writers’ Club, a university-based writing organization.)