PUHON

M.I. ESTEPA

Glo mirrors the electric fan as it oscillates, face so close to the grate it brushes her nose. The blades filter her humming into a new octave.

“Gloria,” calls her oldest sister, and Glo turns her neck. 

Fely has her limbs spread to the ends of the bed, Sunday dress hitched above her knees. Her swirly, unbraided hair is a dark halo framing her head, and her eyes carve shapes on the ceiling rafters. There’s a saint’s mural at church that has taken her likeness, and during each mass it steals more of her face.

 “What d’you want?”

“Don’t answer your Ate like that.” Fely doesn’t even look at her. “Would you get my new records for me?”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’m resting,” she explains, a chore enough.

“Can’t Inse do it?”

“Alma’s with Mama.”

“Inday?”

“She hasn’t been to the store before, has she?”

Groaning, Glo gets up from the carpet and dusts off her shorts in vain. It does nothing for the smudge on one leg. She says, already half-resigned, “It’s hot outside, Ate.”

Fely doesn’t answer right away. She lifts a hand and wipes the back of it across her forehead. Sweat collects on her knuckles. The fan continues to propel.

“It’s hot inside, Anding.”

*

On the route to the record store, Glo passes by Our Lady in the alley between apartment blocks. 

She stands on an old pedestal carved from rock, now strangled by overgrowth. Someone’s left a rose offering in a rusty cup by her feet, a single stemmed flower already browning at the petals. The water inside is murky and dark. What little paint she once had has chipped away with time, leaving stone white skin and a grey-tone veil. The only bit of color comes from a single tear, plasticky and yellowed, dripping like melted wax on the left cheek.

Tito Pancho from the butcher’s told his cousin Manny that his Guadalupe medal had cried real tears the day his dog gave birth to a litter of four. Only two had survived the night, and Manny, a close worker under Glo’s father, gave the girls the stronger pup of the two. Glo doesn’t know what happened to the runt; it could be on the streets with the other strays, or perhaps long dead.

Without a real prayer, Glo presses a quick kiss against Our Lady, eclipsing her stark face. Her lips get caked in dust.

*

It’s 1971, and Tagbilaran in the height of summer is a drowsy city. People sleepwalk routines to the extended hours and seasonal pining get infectious by sundown. They tune in to the evening radio with a cold drink in hand. A man’s request is breathless before the night has really begun. From the speakers it crackles awake: Starry, starry night… Paint your palette blue and grey…

Clutching Fely’s records, Glo runs home for the fun of it. Her shoes beat the concrete sidewalks in loud thuds. Wind bats at her cheeks, throwing her hair this way and that. The buildings blend in stark beige-black-white colors in her peripheral vision. Her jaw slackens when she tires, panting through her teeth, but doesn’t think to stop.

Glo gets to her street and slows to catch her breath. Her heart is pumping louder than her steps and her skin is raw from windburn.

In three weeks, she turns thirteen. The aunties croon at her when she passes by the grocer’s. “The boys’ll come running,” they say. Glo thinks of Fely, whispering into the receiver in the cavity of night, someone different on the line each time. Glo thinks of her best friend Marianne, visiting relatives in Manila for break. Marianne’s baby hairs mat her forehead when they race to school, and she’s got a birthmark on her shoulder the shape of a puddle. She rings the house every Friday afternoon, to ask if Glo’s still alive.

“Here’re your stupid records,” Glo grouches, tossing them on Fely’s bed.

Fely had put up her hair and changed to slacks in Glo’s absence. Now she sits on the stool of her vanity, blushing her cheeks. “Thanks, Anding. Want to listen with me?”

“No. They’re stupid.”

That perfect pout is practiced, mirrored from the cover of a magazine. “Gloria, why are you so mean? I know you can be good. I know you when you’re good.”

At that, Glo slams her body onto the bed, reveling in the cracking sounds below. The record jackets dig against the back of her cotton shirt, and she raises her arms in a hapless reach.

“I don’t want you to know me!” Glo is non-stop, like time and blood flow. “I want to be ugly! I don’t want to be good, I want to be mean! I want to be mean!”

“Don’t say that, Glo,” scolds Fely. She’s trying not to smile and failing, aborting the quirk of her mouth seconds too late. “You’re going to be the prettiest thing.”

*

The Americans had tried for the moon in spring and burst into flames. It had been the week Manny procured the askal, its new coat still ruddy, so Alma named it Apollo.

Apollo gnaws on the vegetables Inday drops under the dining table. He bounds around their feet for more scraps with some success: Fely’s on a diet, and Glo is easily swayed. It’s Alma who’s strict with him. She presses her calf against his side and nudges him away from her chair.

“You shouldn’t over-feed him,” Alma chides, her fork lunging at a chicken piece bobbing in her sinigang. “I think he stops by the markets when he’s out. He’s getting fat.”

“Might as well get meat on him enough to serve everybody,” Glo says. She looks to Papa at the head of the table who chuckles on cue, even as Alma and Inday whine.

Papa is the soft-spoken proprietor of the complex that spans their block. He had fought in the war, during a period when anyone who wasn’t a soldier either ran away or got blown up trying. Papa’s first wife didn’t make it in time, and neither did their two-year old son. 

After dinner, Glo is corralled by Mama to help her with the dishes. Chore-abhorrent Glo turns docile while soaping and leans against Mama, singing with the radio. Mama is the sun to Papa’s moon, and the stars to Glo’s telescope. Glo watches in a daze as Mama strips clean every plate and the water rolls down her chapped fingertips. The moment now tender, Mama calls Glo tata amaymy little darlingand she thinks she loves her mother best.

Still: a typical Japanese Type 99 AT grenade weighs 1.25 kilograms and detonates within ten seconds. In her dreams, Glo exaggerates the size of the mushroom cloud.

M. I. ESTEPA is a Filipina-American living in Southern California. Her carrd is at maises.carrd.co

TINY SPILLS
  • Sweetest thing:
    Condensed milk + fruit.
  • Favorite lyric:
    “Everything is everything, but I still haven’t paid my rent” – Noname