In the bus heading to the city, I was sitting between a balloon woman and another who was all sharp corners. Between them they would have squeezed me until I became the smudge they frown upon later at work. The closer we got to the centre, the more the bus filled up. The aisle was covered by a writhing flesh-wall, limbs and organs mortared with plasma, tickets, loose change. The conductor squeezed his tallness through the cracks and orifices, somehow retaining his surly face. He reached out a tentacled arm, jangled coins in my face, eyes bulging from stalks. He could tell I was not from the city, being made of paper and spit and a cardboard skeleton. My mouth tasted alum and rust, and my fare fell through my trembling fingers. The look he gave turned me diaphanous as he half-bent, half-oozed down to pick it up.
I knew then that I needed to learn dexterity, or I will be torn apart.
So I threw up my guts into my bag. They collapsed into wafer upon contact with air. The big woman hummed in disapproval, and her rubbery belly turned it into a rumbling that rattled my whole body. The spindly woman only looked like she wanted to get away, but there wasn’t room for her in the living aisle. This is no place to faint, she squeaked at me, but she could afford to say such things when her limbs were built-in weaponry.
I lost patches of skin that day when I crawled free of that vehicle, found I couldn’t put back my insides without a few falling through the holes. New innards were needed if I had any hope of surviving the rest of this metropolis, which had revealed itself to me to be akin to the buses. Everything joined together like one big intestine. Over time, I filled myself with all things hard and durable: tin cans, old car parts, concrete posts, hunger. I never leave my hole without them. I still keep my old guts, fastened to a canvas with pins, labelled, framed, and hung on a wall. Sometimes, an errant wind makes it through the soupy smog of a million wet exhalations – the buses were long as trains, and their emissions covered most of the earth – and my old guts flutter like leaves.
They spin ponderously, each blade gleaming white in the pale sun. They make a great whirring sound, these giant mills. They line the shores of every beach and work all day to make the white powder. The white powder is used for many things: the fine sands on the beach, the protective paint of the windmills’ blades, cloud seeding, makeup. The mills need to be fed constantly, for they, too, are used for many things. They serve as a beacon, demarcating our territory, which is why they must always be spotless-white, painted over every day. They power the cities. The tremendous noise keeps us awake and vigilant. We are grateful for the mills. We gladly send bleached bones to keep them running. We can’t rest, or the grinding will stop. Every grave, every cemetery, scraped clean. Each femur and fibula, cleaned and dried on pavements and rooftops. The bodies of the dead have become precious in this human enterprise. We praise the makers of the mills for each of us who drop dead in the middle of the great work.
The hedges are alive, in the same way people say the hair and nails of the dead are still alive. They rustle like cockroach wings. They grow, like the cursed city, without thought or real direction, without its own hunger. When one tries to look at them directly, they disappear. But you have perhaps seen their silhouette when your eyes glaze over and your mind is idle. In lieu of cemeteries this is what the city has. They are everywhere.
We don’t know why they are here, or how they came to be. Some say they are older than the city, formed from the metallic tang of the first industrialists. You told me this was not true. You told me about a dream you had. That the hedges had been the remains of the old city – or maybe that the hedges were a window into the Real City, and our rust-and-rubber metropolis was its shadow. Its festering wound. In this dream you were born in the Real City, cellophane-bright like a lantern, but you had tumbled through the hedges to find yourself here, waking up to a monstrous morning. And still a few days later you said the hedges were born from the air that leaves our lungs as we sleep, our real selves escaping from our bellies, little by little, following the current of smog, to settle in cracks in the concrete, forming phantom coral. Here lie the bones of our dreams, you remarked, and you laughed that full-bodied laugh, laughing with the fullness of you.
I turned one day to find you gone and the hedges at the edge of my vision, eyelashes tickling the corner of my eye. The city is efficient when it feeds, it leaves no crumbs, ejects waste into oblivion. Love, I thought we could make do, skirt the shadows and have more time together. But the city with its many jealousies can’t leave you alone. In lieu of your body, I write sideways, type blind, compensating for the curvature of the earth. Perhaps you had gone back through the hedges, escaped the city’s empty hunger. Perhaps you had found the Real City. Perhaps, in another version of events, you would be born paper, onion-skin-thin, in a world with a gentle wind, finally in the body you want. You would not be caught in the invisible brambles.
I hear the flutter of insect wings, and my belly rumbles.
Strangler vines grow from the top of the house. Down the wall they go, for many years on, until they form a house-shaped mass of leaf and bark. Only the hollows remain. The inhabitants of this city fled long ago, unable to stand this imperfection. This hollow is one of many. If you weave your way through you can almost make out echoes redefining the contours of this space. You wonder who could have lived in here, where the dining room might be, the stairs, the window. Light gleams through the green curtains and warms up the floor. Your shadow dances on it, on the fragments of stone and wood and glass covered by underbrush and mulch. Miles away, a woman fixes the drapes, dusts the furniture. Outside her window is a perfect lawn, full of low shrubs, nothing that obstructs the vision of the green carpet stretching for miles. Here they have mastered the seasons. No leaf is out of place. She pauses. She thinks she heard something, like twigs breaking. A sharp breath, before she resumes her life.
She cut open the python’s belly and pulled out her husband’s partly-digested body. Which is better: this, or catching him with one of the mistresses. Seeing them laid out, spouse and snake side by side, she had to admit that she didn’t know who to feel sorry for. With a sigh, she hosed him down so he could at least be presentable for work before she slung him over her shoulder for the trek home.
‘I know you can hear me,’ she said aloud. ‘You always do this, like when you smile or play dumb as you think up some excuse. Why must you always make things diffcult?’ Indeed, she hadn’t had time to change out of the powersuit before running up the mountain to look for him, her stilettos sinking into the ground, like stakes with each impatient step.
His mouth opened, and python digestive juice dribbled onto the back of her suit. She groaned in response. She was so very tired of his petulance. He had a country to run, never mind the rebels that had discarded his body in this remote excuse of a village for jungle animals to feast upon. They had called him too wild, his power too unchecked, and so found justice in the idea of him filling the bellies of the mountain’s resident predators and scavengers but they’d had men presidents and women presidents. Pig presidents, too. Even the sight of a chimera holding a press conference hadn’t made anybody bat an eyelash. Was it because everybody got so used to the spectacle that a simple, honest-to-goodness human dictator wasn’t enough for them?
These people, they didn’t know what they wanted.
Even she wasn’t safe from them. Their questions, their judgment. At least they expected a man like that to be abhorrent, they would say, but what about her? They called her siren, whore, whatever else, for beauty is the handmaiden of brutality. Throw about words like ‘vapid’ or ‘complicit’ or ‘traitor’. How could you stand beside a man like that? She couldn’t entirely blame them. Sometimes she would catch herself wondering how she ended up here.
She wondered if her path had been punishment for her childhood. Everybody had a capacity for cruelty, she reasoned, including herself. She had once pushed her little sister onto the couch in a fit of irritation after the child had stolen her rations, slapping the child over and over as punishment for her incessant wailing. Her mother made her pay for it with a whipping and extra labour, but she bore these without complaint, thinking they were a mere transaction. Pain for pain, only fair, only justice. She hated mosquitos, so she would find old pots and discarded tiles to see if they had stagnant water with wrigglers inside. She would then tip them over and watched the water run and dry out, watch the wrigglers struggling, follow the ants as they discovered the writhing feast. Everybody was starving. She delighted in seeing the small creatures having their fill.
When she started tending her own garden so she could have something to eat, she would devote hours to rooting out every caterpillar that dared to feed on her children, gather them in a cup, and carefully place them on a spider’s web, an offering for her eight-legged friends to keep her safe from dengue.
Was that what she had been doing all this time? Find the fattest, hungriest predator in the garden and keep them happy?
Her husband’s tongue lolled out of his mouth, long, forked, pink, and slimy. He hissed at her. If only they could see you know, she thought, her fingers digging into him as she held him fast on the way down the mountain slope. Oh, is that the way of it, then? Are you going to turn into an animal to please them? What about me? Where was this tongue on our wedding night? Everybody says you are cold-blooded. Is this your way of mocking them? Or did you mean to keep hiding inside the python’s stomach, thinking I wouldn’t find you? That you’ve finally escaped?
He kept quiet. Satisfied, she resumed the trek. From her vantage point, she had a lovely view of the city below. Up here, she would be away from the incessant keening. She could do anything. She could forget her old garden, long-dead now. Many animal presidents later, she could forget her calloused hands. She could forget the hunger the city had planted inside her.
She squinted one eye and reached out, encircling the city with her fingers.
They say these islands don’t have spirit. They are man-made, and because they are man-made they are assumed to be lifeless. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are made from the leavings of the living. As such, some trace of spirit is imprinted upon them. For instance, tons of sand sit on the carcasses of coral, while abandoned lookout towers and aircraft rest their rusting bodies on top of them, tired of waiting for the tarmac to reopen. Nearby, other carcasses. Artificial land bridges. So much sand. They had even carved out mountains and emptied out other islands, only to transfer them out here to form new ones, upon which to build cities with empty stomachs. They had also found a way to process garbage into more artificial sand and so added the remains of civilisations to this geography of the dead.
There are maps for this, if you know where to look. Spirit can only come from decay, and the byproducts of decay are everywhere.
Think of it like this. Each city has its own ghost. But since the city is made up of many bodies, this ghost has different tempers and appetites. When a city decays, it’s because the ghost turns sour. And for this the world starves us, continues to starve us. Somewhere else, too, the husks of farmhand labour, piles of castoffs of niyóg, palay, maís, ságing, asukal, fields of monocrop degrading the slopes, even as many layers of skin feed the earth, rubbing off calloused palms, flaking off sunbaked backs, just to send sons and daughters to the ever-gaping maw of the city, where stand skeletons in the shape of edifices. Across one hotel that overlooked the city is a monument to the dead, films playing inside. Beneath their feet, cement formed shells around twisted bodies. So many remains, we could cover the world with them, we could cross oceans.
It is a necessary skill to find joy these days. I had the other day seen two palm trees glimmering with golden light as they perched on top of a building, part of some manicured oasis. At first I thought the glittering was emanating from Christmas lights strung up on leaves, but as their shimmer shifted with the breeze, I realised it had been the sunset glinting off each smooth, green blade. I tried to take a picture. By the time I had finished fumbling with my camera the sun had moved, taking the twinkling with it. Something about the visage had lifted my spirits, perhaps recalling coconuts growing in a beach resort on a tropical holiday, or perhaps responding to an unexpected good mood that day, having caught the last bus to leave the city before the bombs went off, the overcast sky behind me rimmed with warm orange, the colour of autumn trees before a nuclear winter.
The combination serendipitous, magical, like a reminder of the things I love.