by Marianne Villanueva
Ana’s mother moves her head backwards and forwards. Her head is a flower, her neck a stem so fragile it can barely support this flower. There was a typhoon, Ana’s mother says. There was a blackout. I gave birth to you in the dark. The doctors had to use flashlights. It was just after midnight. She adds, almost absentmindedly, Typhoons are always given women’s names, I don’t know why.
Ana wishes there were something more to hold on to. Her mother is dying. Not this very minute, but with each passing day her memory disintegrates a little more. Disintegrates. Ana hates that word. But it is true. And every day that more of her mother’s memory moves away, or disappears, or is lost, the same happens to Ana’s personality, to her childhood.
They’re in the collection center, aka sanitarium. No one calls them what they really are because it increases people’s anxiety/heart rate and memories get garbled. The mind and the body are interconnected, or at least that’s what the Interceptors aka healers tell us. They’ve been working at their tasks for a long time. I, we, have to believe them.
The same is happening everywhere. In time, everything will be lost. Without a past, who will they be? Memories are spores. Once scattered, they never return.
Ana’s childhood took place on the other side of the ocean, in a place she barely remembers. Her only reliable memories are the ones connected to her skin: the coolness of night on her bare forearms; a hand on her shoulder; crowds and touching and heat.
The images, on the other hand, are confusing: she can’t be sure there ever were horned beasts sitting buried up to their necks in the mud of flooded rice fields; or people clapping their hands and dancing. Why would people be dancing? The dancing is accompanied by music, and women lift their skirts and twirl. She doesn’t understand why her memory can only dredge up these trivial details.
The only name Ana can call up consistently – Oras – belongs, she thinks, to the town of her birth. What will happen to all of these, when her mother goes?
Well, of course, they will still be in your head, Ana.
I’m afraid, Ana thinks. I’m afraid that’s going, too.
All around, heavy doors, locked and labeled with each patient’s name. Why the need for locks? No one is going anywhere. Not without their memories. They’ll just sit happily in induced aka drug-infused contentment, thinking that’s where they’re meant to be.
Everything is under the benevolent gaze of the Ruler of EUSA, the All-Seeing Eye, whose emblem is everywhere: the healer’s name tags, the doors, the walls.
Her mother smiles politely at her. Ana smiles politely back, to reassure her. They’re sitting in a collection chamber. As soon as her mother has a memory, the synapses start firing, from all corners of the room. The sound is something like a whoop whoop whoop.
There’s some sort of window to the right. But it’s too high for either her mother or Ana to see out of. Her mother cannot escape. The only way she will ever get to leave the facility is when she’s taken to the crematorium. There’s not enough food, so once Generation Y has done its work, they’re turned into ash which goes into the fields.
In a way, every time Ana succeeds in coaxing a memory out of her mother, it brings her mother a step closer to extinction. The thought overwhelms Ana with fear and shame.
Her mother, once emptied of memories, will be EV-2035. Empty Vessel 2035. Then, she will undergo the final procedure, Obliteration.
A letter had arrived. Ana’s gut twisted. The return address was nothing: only the emblem, the All-Seeing Eye. It consisted of a long list of instructions: See below the list of penalties for non-compliance. The final instruction: Ana was to bring her mother to the collection center called Silent Hill Sanitarium on such and such a day. That was when Ana had decided to hide, to be in non-compliance, to bring her mother to a secret place.
No father anymore. She was the eldest. Who could object?
A mountain spring. Apple trees, crabbed and twisted, barren of fruit for years. Rocky paths. A stone cottage that once belonged to the Goat Man. He had a name, but everyone knew him as the Goat Man because he had given up city life and survived on what he could forage, springing from rock to rock on the gently sloping hillsides, harvesting moss and lichen.
The Goat Man had either died or had escaped. In either case, he had disappeared.. Ana thought, Now’s our chance.
She hoped her mother might be able to live there indefinitely.
Oh, the Kingdom of EUSA, the land of milk and honey. Once you’ve made it there, you can make it anywhere.
But she forgot, or chose to forget, about the power of that All-Seeing Eye. The one that stretched invisible, lazy tendrils across the Kingdom. That was Ana’s fault entirely. She had allowed herself hope, and it was hope that was the most dangerous thing of all.
The day they came for her mother, they heard a deep booming sound. It came closer and closer, accompanied by the sharp whirring of rotor blades. The walls of the cottage shook. Her mother began to tremble.
She should have tried to get away. But there were many and they were coming, just over the hill. When she saw the first of them, silhouetted against a stormy sky, she knew it was too late.
Ana had grasped her mother’s hand.
“Are we being taken over?” her mother had whispered.
Since they discovered her mother, Ana can’t sleep and needs to be put down every night. Every single night. With a small, round, yellow pill. She doesn’t know what the chemical make-up is, at first she refused to accept the pills because she feared they might be poisoning her. She demanded a list of the components. Because she knows all too well the effects of Sertraline. Or Zopiclone. Or, most terrifying of all, Opioids– she has seen the way they led to somnambulism and hallucinations. Even, in extreme cases, psychosis.
The Interceptors laughed. They laughed and laughed. One of them shrieked:Take the pill! Ana took the pill, her eyes slipped into darkness.
She’s been on the pill now for six months. She knows she is developing an addiction. If it pleases them, they can stop giving her the pill. At any time. Then she will remain sleepless and tormented, forever.
Ana has no idea how to save her mother’s life, how can she hope to save her own?
Without her mother, there will be no corroboration. Ana could make up anything. She could say, for instance, In the land of my birth (What was it called? She can’t remember), we lived in the middle of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Or, My grandfather used to operate a fishing boat. She could also say, We were Earth Worshippers. We lived in the south, the Kingdom was at peace, the mountains were covered with forests. It was prohibited to cut down any tree that was more than 30 years old. We owned our own soil.
When Ana points this out, people laugh and say, And that’s a problem? Why is that a problem?
Ana dares not voice what she is thinking: Because it isn’t true. She wants so much to have something that is true.
Why didn’t you tell me, Mother, Ana wants to scream. Why didn’t you tell me more of that past, that rich past of fish and ocean, lakes and markets. ow all that is locked within you. How selfish you are.
Ana’s last thought, every night just before she swallows the yellow pill, is: I hate you, Mother.
The camera holds on Ana’s face a few beats longer than usual. Ana is afraid. Her thoughts are being plumbed again.
What she knows: she had an older sister. They lost each other long ago. Her sister worked in the Silent Hill Research Program until she fell in love with one of her teachers. The couple were exiled to a faraway kingdom in the country formerly known as Xian. Now Xian has become Eastern Prayerland, the land of miscreants and malcontents. And yet, exile was a lenient sentence. The teacher was married and had two children of his own. People had been tossed into the Drowning Well for lesser transgressions.
Ana’s sister writes only when there are typhoons. These occur several times a year. Her sister writes: We have just lost the roof to Typhoon Ursula. Or: The children had no school. I thought I would lose my mind. Thankfully, Dolores was able to come and help out.
Once her sister wrote that, during a particularly strong typhoon, a gust of wind drove a knife right through the palm of her right hand.
Her sister has birthed four children in Easter Prayerland. She is kept very busy overseeing their school lunches and homework, not to mention trying to keep her husband from mauling the new maid.
From her sister’s cryptic messages, Ana has been able to construct only vague impressions of the place: It only takes 15 minutes to get from the town proper to Dumpao Beach. Or: Peter the filmmaker is here on one of his infrequent visits. He always stays at the Wayside Lodging House.
Ana’s mother sits in the collection room. She complains that Ana is a disobedient daughter. She berates Ana for forgetting to bring her chocolates. Her favorites are the kind she calls butterscotch squares.
Butterscotch, Ana knows, is a flavor. Square is a shape. But chocolates are on the Banned Items List. They are drugs, or close to. They make people unpredictable: anxious one minute, tired the next. They’ve been a Banned Item for almost as long as Ana’s been alive.
Her mother sometimes threatens to stop talking unless Ana gives her a butterscotch square. A hand snakes through a slot in the door and, with an eerily fluid motion, throws something on the floor. Ana walks over to examine it and nearly reels. It’s a piece of candy, it looks like chocolate.
“Look, Mother, look!” she cries out, happily.
Her mother wobbles over, peers at Ana’s hand, then swats it away.
A White Coat comes in and gives her mother a shot. Why the necessity for the white coats, Ana wonders. Then Ana’s mother cannot remember anything for days and days and days after.
How can Ana explain what is happening to their mother to her sister?
It is terrible; it is not her fault.
Ana blames her sister for not realizing that there are things Ana needs to know: for instance, Dumpao Beach. Does it have white sand? Who is this Dolores who helps with the children? Who is Peter the film-maker and why does her sister complain that his visits are infrequent, not aware she is sounding like an aggrieved lover.
Why, Ana thinks bitterly, does her sister never think about visiting her. She realizes that, given the terms of her sister’s exile, getting on a plane involves petitioning and going through layers of bureaucracy– it is complicated, but not, Ana thinks, impossible.
Her sister insists she can’t leave her husband, or the fish cannery they own. Her sister writes that her home is right next to a lake, so it makes perfect sense that they own and operate a fish cannery. No, she has too many responsibilities, what with the children and running a cannery. There is always a very good reason, none of which Ana believes.
But then, Ana thinks, she and her sister were never close. There is a seven-year gap between them. A gap large enough that it sometimes causes Ana to wonder whether her father had been away part of that time. Or, if not away, then separated from Ana’s mother, living with someone else.
Ana herself cannot leave: there is her mother, who would die of shock or fear if Ana were to be replaced one day by a nurse. At least she still knows enough to recognize Ana as her daughter. She still knows enough to realize she is in EUSA, that the collection center is in a city called Sticktown.
They are stuck, she and her sister. They have nothing to hold them together but birthdays and Christmas cards and reports on typhoons.
Ana tries, but she sometimes feels she is not a very dutiful daughter. For instance, there was the cutting of her mother’s toe nails, which she hated to do. When they lived in Eastern Samar, a nurse came once a week to do them. The nurse also gave Ana’s mother sponge baths because Ana didn’t have the time. Ana worked as a Program Director for a big university. Staying late at the office was par for the course.
And now her husband is gone. He left on a business trip, disappeared, and then four months later sent word that he had met someone and would not be coming back. The message came via postcard. Ana looks at it from time to time. It’s a photograph of a dark-skinned child, with closely cropped curls. Ana stares and stares at it. But the picture makes no sense, just as her separation from her country or her sister makes no sense.
Now Ana is in the middle, stuck between two worlds. Should she come? Should she go? Should she do the groceries? Who knows? Ana’s only certainties are the birthdays of her three children. Her own she conveniently ignores, has been doing so for a long time.
Once, her eldest, a boy, asked her when her birthday was. “June,” Ana answered.
“I thought you said it was October,” the boy said. “Aren’t you a Libra?”
“No, I’m not a Libra. I’m a Gemini.”
Libra. Ana’s mother is a Libra. The astrology chart says that Libras are intensely passionate and romantic. Really, Ana wants to say. That is so odd. Because it always appeared to Ana that her mother was so cold. At least she was to Ana’s father.
Maybe she was just mad at him, Ana thinks now. Maybe he should have given her mother more presents. Or moved them away from Eastern Samar, from that remote and barren place where there was nothing much for her mother to do and where her mother spent long afternoons simply staring at the river. She always suspected her father was seeing someone else, perhaps his secretary.
It is night again. Ana’s thoughts are roaming. Ana’s eldest, Carlos, is a talented guitarist. His teacher tells Ana so every time she attends the parent meeting. “He should try and get a scholarship to a conservatory. To one of those on the East Coast.”
Ana doesn’t think she will encourage the boy to embark on this career path. It’s hard enough making a living, for God’s sake. She thinks the music teacher is nuts, but all the while she listens patiently and nods her head. She is pleased, and of course flattered, to be told about her son’s unique talent. She would love, in fact, for her former husband to open the newspaper one day and read there about Carlos’ concert debut in some fancy recital hall.
But why indulge in such daydreams? Carlos’ father, wherever he is now, probably doesn’t even have the time to read the papers. He had never struck Ana as being a very intelligent man. What he liked was working with his hands. They were big hands, hard and callused, from working in his auto shop. She would never, ever forget the day he laid his hands on her. She had ached for his touch for weeks– no, months.
Her mother was scandalized. “You, daughter– you bother to look at a mechanic? A man who goes around all day in oil-stained pants?”
But Ana loved everything about him, his smell, his sweat, even his feet, high-arched and criss-crossed with prominent veins. She has never given up hope that he will return, that one day he will walk through the front door and surprise Ana with a hug. Because how can he be with someone else when Ana loves him so much, loves him more than anyone else in the whole wide world, loves him even more than her three children, her mother, or her sister. She could spend all day contemplating her love, when she is filing in the office, or pulling weeds in the garden.
The realization that she still loved her husband gave her days purpose, made her life joyful. Ana was in the kitchen, while her mother was in her usual chair before the large-screen TV, and she heard her mother say something.
Ana shouted, “Did you say something, ‘Nay?”
Her mother didn’t answer, so Ana wiped her hands and went to the living room. Her mother pointed at the screen.
It was the Nat Geo channel, people on some Pacific island were gathering cowries and clams from a beach. Must be low tide, Ana thought. She watched for a while.
“Kima!” her mother exclaimed, when one of the gatherers dredged up a particularly large clam. “Sikad-sikad.” Always.
“Yes, ‘Nay, I know,” Ana said wearily, and returned to the kitchen.
The kids always came home late. There was a super-mall they passed before they got to the residential neighborhoods, and she knew her children liked to stop there and ogle at the shop windows. Ana was always reminding her sons to keep an eye on their sister. They said they did, but Ana suspected they left their sister to her own devices and went to the Arcade in the basement, which had all the latest games. Worse, she thinks they leave their sister at the twelve-screen cineplex, because her daughter has lately shown a familiarity with all kinds of grown-up words that Ana is sure are not taught at school.
Her mother, however, kept speaking; it was distracting. Finally, Ana wiped her hands and decided that dinner could wait for a few moments.
Now, her mother looks intently at the screen. Ana sees a fishing boat. Men are gathered on the deck, hauling in a net.
Her mother suddenly claps her hands and bursts out, “Oh, we used to eat crabs, oysters, mussels, clams, octopus. Always, everyday. Cooked in vinegar or grilled. You know, my husband had the widest net in the village. It was long and wide, with sticks tied alongside. He made his nets large, for wide rivers and the sea. He went out at night. He was very brave.”
Ana can only stare– never has she heard such a volume of words flow out from her mother’s lips before.
When the final memories are loaded into the information net, her mother stops talking. She simply sits, looking straight ahead of her. There is no more of the strange whoop whoop whoop that Ana has been hearing ever since they arrived at the collection center.
Ana stares at the door, her hands folded patiently together on her lap, willing for someone to enter and tell her what has just happened, waiting for it all to become real.
About the Author: Marianne Villanueva is the author of Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (a Finalist for the Philippine National Book Awards), Mayor of the Roses (the inaugural publication of the Miami University Press fiction series) and The Lost Language (published in Manila by Anvil Press). Twenty years ago, she co-edited, along with poet Virginia Cerenio, the groundbreaking Filipino women’s anthology, Going Home to a Landscape. Her work has appeared in Manila Noir, Ms. Aligned Vol. 3, Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 9, Growing Up Filipino Vols. 1 and 2, Another Kind of Paradise: Stories from the New Asia-Pacific, Witness, Fourteen Hills, New Orleans Review and elsewhere. She has collaborated with the composer Drew Hemenger in creating a full-length opera, Marife, about the mail-order bride of Oklahoma bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols. She teaches creative writing for UCLA Extension’s Writers Program and has just completed her first novel, White Sails, Green Oceans, about a 16th century Spanish priest who is sent to an island in the central Philippines to fight demons. She has begun her second novel, Farm and Mountain, about the Japanese Occupation of Bacolod, Negros Occidental, during World War 2.