Fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)


by Matthew Jacob F. Ramos

My first meeting with Mister Neilson occurred on the night I was to return to Manila. The rain had forced an end to the outdoor wake, and only I was left to deal with the paperwork the funeral parlour had handed over. In the stillness of that moment, I stared across the chapel aisle and into Gale's casket. And I wondered how her face could look so unfamiliar. So strange.

That same face returned to me hours later. This time, Gale's face was pensive, completely focused on the canvas before her. The cloth there was bare. Her hands, however, were coated in flecks of colour as if she had been painting for hours. Her eyes, as she turned to me, were cracked lenses. Her lips were blue and split. And tied around her pale neck like a noose was her favourite yellow ribbon.

"You're home?" she said. She inflected in a way to signify that it was a question. But this was not our house. Looking around, all the banisters were made of rotted wood. The walls were bare concrete blocks that had not been daubed. And the windows appeared to be deliberately fractured. The whole structure was either unfinished or on the verge of collapse.

"What are you painting?" I ask.

She smiled. I could tell that she was trying her best to appear wistful. But the skin around her lips cracked so intensely that I was only left with a sense of revulsion. Still, there was nothing to indicate that I was in any danger.

"A portrait." Her hands were now within reach of my own, and she took them softly. It was a lifeless gesture, a routine act of intimacy.

"Is this person invisible?"

She laughs. "Hardly. The man is nothing if not overt."

Gale continued to talk but the words were more distant this time. I'm only half-listening anyway. Gale calls it a flaw on my part. I like to think of it as necessary compartmentalisation.

That was when a thick hand began to nudge me awake. My eyes were bleary. My tongue remained like stone. The lights of the terminal flooded into my head, and that was all I could take before wildly shutting them once more. I did, however, catch of a glimpse of the man who had awakened me.

He was a burly sort of fellow. Hanging over his collared shirt was a dirty jean jacket painted in all sorts of bright and clashing colours. Looking again, I could barely place his ethnicity. He didn't have the sort of leathery skin shared amongst other Filipinos. Instead, he wore a bird-like face alongside his meaty body. He came across as the sort of person who spent their entire lives trapped in one of these airports. On the other hand, I must have come across as someone completely anathema to him.

"Sir," said the large man. I could see that he was doing his best to stay polite. "Is it OK if I sit there? You're occupying two extra seats."

I sat up immediately and wondered why this man had to come all the way to this distant bench to bother me. But when I looked around, it was clear that our gated area had reached capacity. There were people sleeping on the marble floors with no thought to the shoes that had tread upon it. There was a pregnant woman standing by the entrance, disheartened by the lack of offers for seats; a number of kids shuffling into every open crevice they could find; a family that had just entered with nothing to look forward to. Besides my rude awakener, no one looked the slightest bit at home in this dreary place.

Home. In a country like this where the waters constantly separated the firmament, home for many was always a plane ride away. During the days leading up to vacation, the bus stations, ports and terminals were always crowded. People's eyes would be grey; their clothes would be lacking a few days' laundry. And yet, some people were not averse to the distances. Some people depended on the separation of islands. The distances tied their lives together.

It was then that I noticed that, with the exception of a few airport lights, the view outside was pitch black.

I began to curse.

I had only been in here for a few hours. I was sure of it. And, as I thought these things, my feet began to pull me towards the nearest airport personnel. But from the overhanging clocks stationed all over the terminal, my grave mistake was all too clear.

"Is there any way I could be transferred to a different flight?" I pleaded. "I'm out of money, and there's no place I could stay. Please. I just overslept. Your manager must have something for emergencies like this. I mean, I already paid for the flight!"

My incoherence and visible madness must have frightened the attendants. The portly manager who approached some time later was deliberately less helpful. There was no reimbursement. No way to get on another plane without forking out a fortune. And what little money I brought with me had gone into setting up Gale's funeral.

"There was a man who was handing out his ticket, earlier," said the manager. "I don't know how serious he was. You could try to ask him." And he slowly searched the crowd for the stranger. Finally, he clapped his hands and pointed towards the fat man who now occupied the bench I was previously sleeping on. He was certainly the same man who, moments earlier, startled me awake.

"That's him," said the manager.

And that's how I met Mister Nielson.


To be a chance passenger is a special kind of Filipino miracle. Often enough, you can find failed ones stalking the streets of Katipunan, panhandling for money, so they can afford a ticket back home. It is an exercise with a lot of despair and prayer in an environment completely abhorrent to both. Those that succeed accomplish their journeys just by the skins of their teeth. Those Samaritans kind enough to contribute become nothing less than saviours.

After a few conversations, I found Mister Nielson to be, on the whole, a very unapologetic human being. He had an opinion on every subject you could think of: airport taxes, carry-on luggage, inter-island navigation and corporate art. And, oh, how he hated corporate art. He could spare hours critiquing the impressionist illustrations adorning the grey walls of the airport. So fervent was his disdain that keeping him on topic about the forty-thousand-peso ticket was considered challenging.

"You can't seriously be giving this ticket away for free?" I pressed.

Mister Nielson grumbled, revealing the possibility that he wasn't quite sure why he was being so generous. Much less have his gift rebuffed. Still, the man showed no misgivings in giving away his ticket.

"Child, take it," he said. "The place you're going to is much more interesting than the one I'll be headed for if I make the trip."

I stared at the boarding pass in my hands. "But aren't we headed for the same place?"

This made Mister Nielson laugh. "Manila? Never the same place twice. But I don't mean the city. I was made to attend a funeral of a good friend of mine."

I take my place beside him. "An old friend?"

"Ancient," Mister Nielson bellowed and could not be bothered to add more.

It took me a while to memorise every little detail written on the boarding pass. Even the bar codes and logos felt like they should be engraved to memory. Only because the unlikely chance of it fading into dust seemed like such a scary thought to bear.

"I attended a funeral recently myself," I said.

Mister Nielson nodded. "I thought it might be something like that. You look halfway dead already."

I did not expect to laugh so soon. "It's been a long day."

The overhead public announcement system began to call out the seating numbers for our flight and that was my cue to leave. I looked at Mister Nielson again, and the smile on his face was filled with something that resembled warmth. "You don't want to miss this one, I'm sure," he said.

"How do I reach you? I need to send the money to you somehow."

But Mister Nielson waved me off. No matter how much I pleaded to return the favour, he seemed less and less receptive. I suppose it was like listening to a man tell a bad joke over and over until the audience gets sick of it. It was there that I realised that airports were a poor place to make friends.

What I was surprised to find, however, was the general seating area Mister Nielson had booked for himself. I didn't think about the importance of his seat number at first. But now I realised that the number was within the single digits. Only when I found myself sitting in his chair with legroom to spare and softer cushions than I was accustomed to, did I finally realise that I was holding a pass to business class.

"I'm sorry. Is it OK if I take the window seat?" said the woman right behind me in line. In the uneven lights of the terminal, she looked pale—olivine. She was smaller than she seemed at first blush and looked deceptively young because of it. But under the soft light, her skin had the consistency of tree bark. And this made her appear strangely exotic.

Embarrassed, I ushered her into her chair as quickly and as reasonably as I could. I already felt out of place here in a seat that was never mine.

"I didn't think anyone could be so excited to sit by the aisle," said the woman, smiling.

"You get to love it with age," I replied. And it was true. Gale once explained to me that each of the seating areas were favoured during distinct stages of your life: the window seat was your age of wonder; when the outside world was still a treasure trove of secrets and perspective was strange if not refreshing. The middle row she called the "sibling seat": when you had to sacrifice visibility to someone younger than you—someone who could appreciate the view with new eyes. It was a seat of wistfulness and responsibility. But it was the aisle seat that Gale favoured: the throne of practicality. It was a place devoted to the aged with the leaky bladders, the hungry looking to grab lunch from the passing snack cart, the couldn't-be-bothered. "That," I continued, "and it's night. It's not like you can see anything."

The woman playfully stuck her tongue out at me, winning the argument once and for all. Then her face scrunched up as she began to carefully place her words. "You don't look familiar," she said. "I don't recognise you at all."

I laughed. "Sorry. Should you?"

She prodded further. "Are you from Amanikable's ancestry? You have their cheeks, their hairline. Or are you a Languiton with their eyes? Some descendant of Kaptan maybe?"

Through the confusion, a thought popped into my head. "I'm sorry. Maybe you're looking for somebody else. I was given this ticket by …" It dawned on me how suspect any kind of explanation I could give would be. Nobody gives random strangers their plane tickets. "It was given to me by my brother. He didn't want to waste it."

Her eyes lit up instantly. "I didn't know Muhen had a brother! How exciting! My fellow sisters are seated somewhere further back."

Before I could correct her, a fierce looking old man stood next to me. His lips were pressed so hard together that they were white and pulsing. He towered over me and didn't breathe a word until I caught on that he wanted the seat in the middle.

"Upa Kuyaw!" exclaimed the woman in welcoming surprise. "This is Muhen's brother! Did you know Muhen had such a thing?"

The old man whom she called Upa Kuyaw grumbled. He glared at me, giving me a once-over. His grumbles echoed like distant thunder "Muhen has no brother, Macky. This is just some man."

My face was flushed, and I could feel the cold of the cabin lose its efficacy.

If anything, this news made the woman—Macky—all the more invested; her eyes glittered as if it reflected all the light in the cabin. "Really? Just some man who walked in here? How extraordinary." There didn't seem to be a single drop of sarcasm or irony in her tone.

All at once, I knew that I was less than welcome here. People many rows over that had overheard the conversation began to murmur amongst themselves. Their faces, in their suspicion, in their distrust, didn't look even vaguely human. There were moments when the cabin lights flashed as we taxied down the runway. And in those brief moments of uncertainty, some of them would disappear, turn into shadows, become animal-like or even fizzle into hazes. Such was to be a passenger on an airplane.


Gale's husk reappeared once more in dream. She looked progressively more wasted and desiccated this time. Despite that, she seemed to be in good spirits. So eager was she to show me the progress of her painting that she did not seem to mind the bits of torn funeral gown slowly falling away. The portrait, on the other hand, was not that of a person, as I had originally believed. Gale had painted an image of a rooster sporting an unrealistic plumage of many colours and gradients. The creature could even be seen flying.

"It's terrible," I began. "Horrendous. This could blind a man."

"The child in you is as dead as rock," she said. Her smile had gaps where teeth had rotted away.

We were still inside the same building remains as before. It was brighter this time around—but only because there was less in it. The roof was now held in place by large cement pillars and bamboo scaffolding. The glass windows with their deliberate shatter patterns were in fact a mosaic of some sort. But the images had been broken through long ago. And the ground was beginning to shake.

"Am I supposed to remember this place?" I ask.

Gale shook her head. "You don't have to worry about the temple. Not long now before even a strong gust of wind knocks it over." Then, after a beat, she looked at me with those now-whitened eyes of hers. "Are you really home?"

My swallowing was clearly audible in the empty recesses of the building. A cold sweat ran down my nape. She continued: "I tried messaging you. And when you didn't reply, I thought that maybe something had happened en route to Manila. That maybe you had died. No one seemed to be answering my calls or acknowledging your existence. It was as if you'd fallen off the face of the Earth."

Rambling again. This time, it was my turn to put her bony, paint-covered hand to my face. "Honey," I say, "you're dead."

"Am I really?"

It had never occurred to me that this particular manifestation of Gale did not know that she had died. Still, the woman did not appear perturbed by this piece of news. She did stare at the ill-fitting gown that had now slipped halfway down her waist, as if half-heartedly acknowledging the reality of her situation. But that was the extent of her self-examination.

"How'd I die?"

I looked at her, and for a fleeting moment, I imagined her whole again, felt her full lips brush against mine, combed away the wisps of hair that gently grazed my face. But even that memory was distant and artificial. "You died, honey. Some sort of respiratory failure. Couldn't quite understand the doctors since they were talking in circles. But it was no one's fault."

There was a pause as I watched Gale weigh this new bit of information.

"Still a terrible liar." Gale was laughing now. Still, her tone betrayed no hint of malice. "You weren't there, were you? No. You weren't there. You were off again, to some distant place. Forgetting me." Her arms slid past my shoulders from behind. And just when I thought she was about to trap my neck in a vise, her warm breath blew into my ear. "You never came home."

I tried my best to shake her off. "It's not that simple."

She drew her chapped lips closer to my ear, just barely grazing against my hair. "The world is simple. Simpler than you could ever imagine. But if you were capable of imagining a much simpler world, you wouldn't be here."

I closed my eyes and waited for something to happen. Instead, I was treated to the acoustics of the dying wind.


I woke up with a start. Macky, the woman previously seated by the window, was now one seat closer and was playing with the fingers on my hand. She seemed childishly curious, marvelling quite vocally as she touched each digit. I looked around for the other passenger—the old man whom she called "Upa Kuyaw"—and saw no sign of him.

"People should have fourteen fingers on each hand," she said. "Don't you think that would be helpful?"

I immediately pulled my arm away from her. How long had it been since we left? Maybe Manila was just outside, and we were about to land. But as I looked out the window, it was difficult to tell. The blackness was impenetrable and vast.

"Stop toying with the man," boomed Upa Kuyaw as he appeared beside me in a flash of colour. He looked much older now. The shadows around his eyes seemed to deepen and the hair that had once looked shoulder-length was now trespassing into his shirt. "He is a guest."

That was when the flight attendants began pulling one of their carts into the aisle. Other attendants lined up behind her. I assumed this was the part of the flight where the people onboard would be subjected to a number of inane party games; a half-baked attempt at stimulating a very tired cabin of passengers. There was a small part of me that wished flights in the Philippines lasted longer than two hours, so we could be treated to inflight movies instead. The only solace found in these tacky recreations was that they signalled the final leg of the flight.

"Good evening," said the flight attendant. "Or should I say, 'good morning.'"

A few in the crowd gave off an uneasy laugh.

"I think I can speak for my family with me here when I say that we are very thankful, very appreciative, of those who took the time to come out here tonight. To see all my mother's friends—to see the lives my mother has touched—among the sea of faces has been incredibly uplifting and inspiring. My mother's heart would have been filled with joy to know you all came out to see her."

Mang Upa could see the face I was making and responded by gently taking my hand. He whispered to me, asking me to be quiet. To listen.

"Something's wrong," I whispered to the old man.

"Listen," Upa Kuyaw slowly repeated. "You behave, or I will throw you out of the plane myself."

In front, the flight attendants shifted in place, squirming uncomfortably as they struggled with what to say. "My mother went by many names," the flight attendant continued. "To the Tagalogs, she was 'Anitun Tabu.' The Visayans called him 'Lihangin.' 'Apo Angin' was his name among the Ilokanos. He was 'Linamin at Barat,' 'Egoi,' 'Aeolus,' he was the great 'Venti,' the lowly 'Ehecatl.' She was—she is—the God of Wind. And she was a good mother to the four of us, to her only remaining family."

Mang Upa nodded, and there was a resounding murmur of agreement among the passengers. I said nothing, hoping as I squeezed the arm rests that I could wake up from this strange congregation. The only thing that felt remotely familiar was Gale's dead smile shining through the many monitors within the aircraft. It was only then that it clicked in my mind that they were all referring to the same woman. This was her funeral.

"I can remember the first time my mother first saw an airplane," said the daughter. A note of bitterness lingered on her lips. "She marvelled at their cleverness, their ingenuity. As she said this, her voice would echo across the mountains and sweep down valleys. You could feel her joy like the summer breeze on a white sand beach. She was so proud of the little people. But she was mainly excited because she knew that the little people would soon meet her up in the sky and enjoy her world. That was just like her, I suppose. She wanted others to experience her joys. She wanted to share everything."

There was a weighty pause as the speaker's lip trembled. Her eyes began to search the ceiling of the aircraft for solace. And when it was clear that she could find none, her eyes tightly wound themselves shut.

"I didn't share my mother's enthusiasm, however," she said. "When I saw the airplane for myself—when the contraption intruded into my night sky—I knew that it was a signal. A sign that the little people no longer needed us. That they were slowly manipulating their world, so they could explain us away. I tried telling my mother that their device could overthrow her, upend her usefulness. Even kill her. But my mother didn't care. She never did. She cared more for the little people than they did for her. And she passed away without their acknowledgement or blessing. We mourn her inside the very thing she was so relentless to defend. But now, I think I finally understand.

"We are no strangers to death. Our time in this world fades away as the little people remember and forget us. But what my mother did was create something—a testament—that would endure beyond her life. I feel her handiwork on this rugged little craft. The evidence for her existence is here before us. Her hands shape the very contours of this plane: from the wings to the smooth fuselage. She is here, and it is through her, that the people fly at all even if they do not attribute her."

The attendant winced, tears stinging her eyes.

"We are a dying breed in a more critical world. Death claims more and more of our kind every year. But rarely does something ever endure beyond our passing. In a world that moves as fast as this one, who can claim to have moved more lives than the God of Winds?"

It was at this point that the other flight attendants began to push the trolley through the aisle. But what I had assumed to be a trolley filled with airline merchandise was instead filled with a single object: an old mason jar.

Passengers by the aisle extended their hands—and sometimes paws—out to touch the surface of the trolley. Others whispered strange incantations in languages I could never fathom. Many wept as they tallied their goodbyes. And as I watched it approach me, I tried to think of something important to say or do. But the situation was so alien, so bizarre, that my mind came up blank.

By the time the trolley reached the end of the aisle, it had accumulated all sorts of memorabilia. There was a bolo, a rosary, a wreath, four sets of molars, a vial that looked like it was filled with blood and a long cerement cloth. Then, to my utter horror, the flight crew began to unscrew the plane's front door. I looked outside just to confirm that we were still some ten thousand feet in the sky. If they pried that door open while we maintained this height, there would be no saving us from the sudden and rapid decompression that was to follow.

With a final twist, the mechanism that held the door in place gave way. I tried to jump and intervene, but Mang Upa's hand kept me in place. He had a grip that imitated stone, and he barked at me with the force of thunder.

When the door opened, there wasn't any sudden and violent decompression of the cabin. There was hardly a breeze or whistle. The eldest of the flight attendants, a weary man, took his mother's urn in his hands, opened the lid and tipped it over the edge. The entire event was beyond my ability to see. I wondered if there were ashes in the jar. Or, since they claimed Gale was the God of Winds, maybe the jar would be empty.

Everyone else was looking out the window, waiting for something to happen. And as we stared out, we could see the horizon slowly take shape. The distant clouds moved from a dull grey to a navy blue. And the darkness slowly conceded to sunlight.


The ground did not hesitate as it rose up to meet us. There were moments as we descended when the buildings looked like cardboard—a diorama with too many scratches and creases to be real. But that god-like perspective disappeared as the wheels came in contact with the tarmac. The sound of the tires screeching and the buckling of the seat restraints could not compare to the roar of the engines as they overwhelmed the surrounding din. This would have been a completely routine landing if not for the events that had preceded it. And the fact that we had arrived at the airport a complete six hours after leaving Cebu—five hours longer than our expected arrival time—was something chilling in itself.

"I think I'm still dreaming." I mumbled.

The laughter that followed was both patronising and benign. "Red eye flights can feel like that sometimes," said Upa Kuyaw. "You're awake now, which is what's important."

It took the aircraft a few more seconds to bleed away its forward momentum and another minute to meander into a taxiway. Everything then came to a halt several metres in front of the white structure of the terminal building. In the dawn-light, the edifice no longer appeared drab or utilitarian. The grey concrete took on the texture of exposed bone. And sunlight caught its windows at angles that reminded me of stained glass.

This was The Great Megachurch of Pasay. Gale had used the term once or twice to refer to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport complex. She would remark on how the terminal's seats and benches mimicked pews at a cathedral. How passengers had to pay tithes to seek passage. How people weighed their possessions like they were being judged before they could cross. And how planes travelled down brightly lit aisles and corridors before ascending into the heavens. Even precious blood had been spilled on the tarmac here, giving the edifice its name. The comparison was a cute one, if a bit tasteless. But now, there seemed to be a strange lilt to Gale's analogy. It was almost as if I could see her smiling behind every word.

But if it was a church, then I could see no god. Its walls bore no image of the being it supposedly deified. Instead, everything about the terminal spoke to a kind of fastidiousness I would not expect to find in any traditional temple. Its lines were too sharp, too pragmatic. Its colours muted. But most glaring of all were the queues people seemed preternaturally destined to form. It was a world of constant waiting. Where people quietly waited for the chance to leave.

As we disembarked from the plane, I continued to notice telltale signs of strangeness still lingering from the flight. Some of my fellow passengers did not seem to be interested in staying solid; often disappearing in between rays of bright sunshine. Large billboards that used to hang on the walls of the entrance hallway were now replaced with the images of a woman whose vibrant smile I had nearly forgotten. Each picture showcased her hair in that distinct, wild, wind-blown state. And Gale's eyes. They seemed to follow me everywhere.

"I think I'm going mad," I said. The uncertainty was robbing me of my voice.

"First time at a funeral?" Macky asked as she sidled alongside me. "Grief can do strange things to people." She flashed a smile my way and took it upon herself to adjust my shoulder bag. I will admit that the feeling of her touch was a welcome one. The warmth felt completely out of place within the terminal's morgue-like air.

"I'm not sure what's real anymore." I was visibly shaking now. These convulsions were barely within my control. "Gale was an accountant. A goddamn CPA. The woman hated being outside, so I considered meeting her on the beach as some improbable circumstance …"

The two of us stopped just before the baggage claim. Slowly, my composure began to slip away. It started as a slow trickle: rapid breaths, finger twitches, the occasional stuttering. But this gap of vulnerability ultimately widened until I could feel the cold marble floor through my jeans.

Macky knelt beside me.

"Aren't you precious," she said, still smiling. She took my hand in hers and pressed it to her face. "We're real. I'm real."

She was there, I thought. Breathing, feeling and alive. And she was younger than I had given her credit for. What I had perceived as wrinkles borne from aging quickly vanished with each pass of my fingers. The lights in her eyes began to dance.

"Make me real," she whispered.

Macky's warmth continued to mystify. But there was something sharp in her tone. And as she continued to talk, a rhythm to her words began to manifest that left me completely gripped. It continued until the words themselves disappeared entirely. Only the music remained. And slowly, I could see the edges of my vision darken. Like I was being pulled away from my own body. Like I was falling down the narrow shaft of a deep well.

I was never so happy to be plummeting.

There was a loud and violent crack as the air split apart. This glancing shot was enough to tear Macky away from me and onto the floor. I began to breathe again after what felt like years being submerged in icy water. Both of us stared at the blackened crater now separating us.

"I did say he was a guest," barked Upa Kuyaw as he shuffled towards Macky. "More importantly, this man is 'his' guest. So I wisely recommend you don't fool around while you're in his house."

Macky snarled at the elder but said nothing. Quickly, she got back to her feet and started walking towards the exit. I was about to call after her had Mang Upa not stopped to help me up.

"Sorry," said the old man. "Makiling's notorious around men. Not to mention excited. I guess it was only prudence that I was assigned the seat next to you."

I mentally searched his words for sense. "A guest of whom?"

Mang Upa pointed in the direction of a large painting. A man stood next to it, his wide back facing me.

"Make sure to thank him before you leave," said Upa Kuyaw. "He's been very generous with these arrangements. Least you can do."

The painting in question was completely recognisable now that it was finished. The image of a great bird was a common figure in Philippine folklore and mythology; a creature capable of bringing good fortune or terrible disease depending on where the story was told. And it was told everywhere. Birds, after all, could get anywhere, the pests.

The painting's colours were tackily reproduced on the man's denim jacket. Once again, I imagined him being fully comfortable in this artificial setting—as if he were squatting on neutral territory. No. I did not believe there was a room here that belonged to him. Rather, I believed there was no place here that was denied to him. He could cozy up to a bench, and it would suit him better than a king-sized bed.

"People always pray for uneventful flights," remarked Mister Nielson. "You ever wondered about that? You'd think that with flying, people would demand that each experience be majestic. But no. Every flight's got to feel closer and closer to riding an elevator. Humans won't admit it, but they love when things get boring."

I stared again at the oil-strewn canvas before me. It was a large one, taking up the height of the lower wall. Each brush stroke was heavily accented, still thick with layers of paint. The heavy usage of bright colours gave the image both life and emotion. From one angle, you could see the bird drawing the ire of the sky. Another angle showed it taunting the seas. And on one corner of the frame were the golden initials of the painter written in script.

I considered this for a moment. "I didn't know she painted."

The burly man crossed his arms, and his expression soured. "A hobby that became necessary when your absences became more frequent."

The thought of Gale toiling away in a hidden room soaked with paint felt like a betrayal. I knew it was selfish to even think about it. I understood why she had to keep secrets. But unlike recent events, this was a part of her that I felt I could have grasped.

"Thank you," I said. "For all of this. The funeral was—"

"A million times better than your poor excuse for a ceremony," hissed the god. "No funeral marches. No publicly open wakes. No obituaries. Nothing to signify that Atlas had slipped, that Sisyphus had rested, that a star had fallen from the constellations."

Mister Nielson continued to fixate on the painting until tears slid down his cheeks. I don't think I will ever know what he was searching for in that painting. And when the silence seemed to stretch forever, Upa Kuyaw pulled me aside so we could walk away.

"He's hurting," said Mang Upa. "But he'll be all right."

That was the least concerning thing on my mind. "Where are you taking me?" I asked. We were nowhere near the exit. Instead, Mang Upa pushed me beside one of the baggage carousels.

The elder then produced a long paintbrush from his loose sleeves. It still had flecks of paint from where Gale had gripped it. Its bristles were flattened; each spread so widely that they appeared worn out. Quickly, Mang Upa stabbed the tapered end of the brush into my neck, taking care not to snap the handle under the pressure. His face, however, remained impassive and soft. There was no malice there. Only love. With his leathery hand clamped over my mouth like a vise, I was quickly reminded of the abrupt silences in slaughters. The blood that pooled on the floor remained coherent and whole.

As the world started to blacken, my eyes then fell onto my surroundings. Overlooking the baggage claim area was a large display that assigned arriving passengers to their respective carousels. And another screen showed all the flights to come, their destinations and the times they would depart. There were trips to every island you could think of: General Santos, Bohol, Camiguin, El Nido, Jolo, Dipolog, Cagayan Valley, Roxas, Masbate.

Of course, Mister Nielson was going to be all right. He had churches everywhere. His was a living faith.


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