LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Nights of the Swollen Moon, by Cristina Osmeña

Content notice: sexual assault, partner abuse

The night before his wife vanished, Memorare could sense another breach underway in the island’s veil. There were clues—strange slices of cold in the air, the swollen moon, and a disturbing quietude that made him think the currents had shifted once again. The moon was a waxing gibbous, full of yellow fluid that kept it large and low on the horizon. It reminded him so much of the night of his own arrival exactly two years ago. But on the eve of her disappearance, Memorare checked his wife’s breathing twice before descending into his own world of loin-tangling dreams. When day broke and his waking hand went searching for the familiar feel of conjugal flesh, there was nothing there.

Memorare Puzon sat up abruptly and called to her in a husky whisper.

“Clarita…”

No answer.

He stood up. He yanked at the volume of combed cotton sheets and feather pillows.

“Clarita!” he yelled again.

When the flash of heat in his temples subsided and his heart fell back from his mouth, he tugged at the sheets one final time. Buried there in the folds of his bedding, cowering and confused, in between a tuft of pillow and a swirl of cotton, hid a miniature schnauzer. Its muzzle dripped with moisture. Its tail curled down and trembled. Confronted with this emotive, shirtless man, it shivered in place, shaking drops of saliva-sweat onto pressed cotton.

Mr. Puzon snatched the throat of the small dog with a thumb and middle finger. Then he remembered the gentleman he had become and let it go.

It didn’t take long for news of this event to spread among Memorare’s neighbors, and even less time before the entire island knew. The people of Ampalaya Island organized themselves into five search parties. Even teenagers joined in. They combed the only mountain, the rocky shores, the leeward-side caverns, the lagoon’s prolific coral, and the pockets of jungle between the mountain and sandy flats.

“Do you think she was taken by Colonel Hiroo?”

Lips puckered, no. “Baka it’s her. She didn’t look happy in the end.” It was the first time anyone considered that.

“She fell by accident. Her body is trapped below, food for fish.” Someone pointed to the kaleidoscopic lagoon.

There was no limit to where their imagination could take them since there was no limit to where it had been. No one had ever encountered death outside of stories and song and they were fascinated. Some were disturbed that this strange and awful thing could happen to one of their own. So, they searched, and they searched for the only person to have found both the entrance and exit of Ampalaya Island shrouded in a warm fog of open-ended questions.

*

Clarita Puzon vanished exactly nine years to the day she arrived on Ampalaya Island. It was easy to remember her long printed red dress that looked like it had seen the worst of a world war. She slid onto the soft sand on a bangka without a boatman, her dress ironed so fastidiously that the places charred by gunpower glistened like heated plastic under patches of moonlight. Clarita’s silhouette curved into and around the tangled roots of balete trees, their shadows quivering as she passed through air that was stone still.

With a currency no one had seen before, she purchased a large white house, one of four framing the town square and the ancient bells displayed there. It was a tired house that recalled forgotten insults from Spanish times. It needed at least three coats of paint and serious patchwork to the roof. She extended a verandah the length of the house and hired local artisans to paint her steps to look like Calacatta quartz, much like the marbled floors she remembered of her childhood home. She hung burgundy goblet drapes on all the windows that faced the midday sun and covered the tables with tatting lace. With all the details of her new abode in place (and plastic saints installed in a personal altar), Clarita, head held high, unrolled a long red polyester mesh as a gesture of invitation to her new neighbors.

The town did not react with enthusiasm. Nobody granted audiences this way. Neighbors opened unlocked doors without knocking. Newcomers were so rare that it was possible to imagine that the town had been hidden in the folds of time by winds that blew not just southeast but also west and southwest. And there were deep currents that ran fierce and far past the continental slope that came so close to Ampalaya’s windward shore. The wars had come and gone. So had the revolution. With the exception of Colonel Hiroo, the Japanese occupation had bypassed Ampalayan sands and the smell of its fresh calcium brine. These agents of history could not find their way through the tides and the fringing reefs and the mismatched pace of events that prevented entry to others but somehow permitted Clarita to glide ashore in a war-weathered dress without getting wet.

“What if Colonel Hiroo learns of this? He will feel threatened,” said one of the matrons of the town as her family gathered around the table for breakfast. She took a heaping spoon of garlic rice and set it on her plate.

“Don’t be ridiculous. He will not. He’s been in that cave for as long as anyone can remember. We tell him over and over, you lost. Nothing. Bahala na. He’s trapped in his own prison of time.”

“I know those wounds, the ones on her wrist,” said one breakfast visitor. “She was bound like an animal. What if they come for her?”

They spoke two at a time, then all at once. Their dissonant voices merged into a cloud of panic above them. It was impossible to distinguish the words from the grains of garlic rice that soared through the air wrapped in saliva.

“Tama na,” said a man who up until now had listened in patience. Gesturing with a spoon in his right hand, he spoke, “We are not an island of savages. We are not in the business of putting runaway slaves back in harm’s way. If she has pierced our veil, that would be a good reason to send her away. Before that, we need to better understand what is true and what is fear.”

The person set to the task was the honorable mayor. He waddled up Clarita’s carpet, extended a welcome on behalf of the island town, then probed for answers in a way that he thought would not arouse discomfort.

“Do you have any relatives?” he asked, stroking his own fleshy jaw, showing the furrowed brow of a mayor concerned.

“Yes. Maybe. No. In Pangasinan.”

“It is not usual for a woman to live by herself here. This is not the big city with honking automobiles and single girls with short haircuts walking fast.”

“Sir, when I left, the country was out of fuel and the cars were abandoned on the roads.” Clarita crossed both her arms and legs.

“How did you find your way here?”

“There was no finding. The boat landed on your shore as if it knew the way.”

“Your boat made it past the reefs on its own,” the mayor muttered, mostly to himself, the bristles of his moustache contracting and expanding as he spoke. “Where is that boat now?”

“Gone. Back to sea, over the reefs.” She thought of that spread of coral defense bubbling beneath the shallow waters. She had never seen flamingo pinks and mints, magentas and mustard yellows on shapes that looked cotton-soft but cut like a thousand tiny blades.

Clarita could see the kindness in his eyes, a kindness that had no real knowledge of human atrocity. She wished she could steal a slice of his oblivion and consume it so that she could have it too.

Ampalaya digested the mayor’s visit in synchrony, over round breakfast tables and weeks of iteration. While they debated the matter, the locals tolerated Clarita’s presence while disregarding her hospitality. She maintained her composure as the myths percolated in her wake, simmering on the tongues of townsfolk when she walked by. They said she was descended from a Castilian Marquesa, an aswang, and a Moro assassin. They made many claims they would later forget.

Despite the signs of unwelcome, Clarita remained installed in her white house, resolute like the seed of a burdock plant. The days she spent awaiting visits stretched into months and the months became more than a year.

*

The next time anyone ventured up Clarita’s slippery red carpet, it marked the 13-month anniversary of her arrival on Ampalaya. They were the town matrons, the married women who sat among the first few pews in church and steered town opinion. They were empowered to break the boycott on Clarita’s company with a basket of ensaimadas and homemade jugo de manzana, a fruit procured at great expense from Ampalaya’s air-conditioned market. Guessing that Clarita’s arrival meant a dearth of eligible husbands on the larger islands, they asked her who among their brothers (but not their sons) she wished to marry, for the presence of a proper master of the house would ensure not only Clarita’s place in their society but their understanding of her.

Clarita asked if she could meditate on this subject because she did not want a husband and knew from instinct not to answer honestly. The matrons felt threatened by her independence. They thought it best to avoid what they couldn’t control. So, they departed and never returned.

Opinions formed and unraveled around news of this visit until the puzzle of Clarita’s arrival became just another piece of town life.

The old man with the spoon brought the matter to a close. “We will accept her,” he said. “The island has let her in. She may stay.” It was some larger design that brought her here, he calculated, perhaps the same coincidence of tide and current that kept Colonel Hiroo suspended in time.

“This is just an excuse not to act,” said one voice of dissent.

“She doesn’t have the ability or imagination to harm us. She has been here over a year and has made no offense except to decorate her house with gaudy drapes and imitation marble.”

“That is not the point. Should we accept every transplant who washes ashore?”

“My decision is final,” said the man, inserting a spoon of garlic rice in his mouth.

A lonely gloom had yellowed over Clarita’s veranda. But it was not long before new visitors—the visitors she wanted all along—walked around the edges of the red carpet, stepping on the sun-spoiled plastic only when they couldn’t avoid it. Old women, eyes missing from their sockets, prolific parents peddling their middle litters, young men with oiled hair, and other victims of calamity. They came for assistance and advice. They came to conduct business. Clarita gave them rolls of odd-sized bills and mended their fresh wounds. And, when nothing else would do, she served them purple yam in sweet iced milk.

She shared stories that were hard to believe. “I once saw cotton pouring out of the sky,” she claimed.

She described what it was like to drive a car, ride an airplane, and feel the scratch of a lion’s tongue on her salt-buttered palm. Everyone silently pondered the breadth of her intimacy with the opposite sex.

Clarita especially loved to soothe the sufferings of others because they muted the sound of the clock ticking on her own memories, the clock that was blanching the wounds on her wrists, the same clock that reminded her that the only thing that separated her from her past were the rusting innards of a device that diminished in accuracy every day, slowing time as its coils succumbed to the humid air.

After seven years, Clarita became a fixture on Ampalaya Island just as anyone else who had been there since birth, the red carpet flapping in the wind like an old flag, trod thin in parts all the way to its plastic backing. The youth could not recall a time when she did not live there. The mystery of her past was replaced by the comfort of her presence. And, although the town matrons never acquired an interest in visiting again, they allowed their daughters to wander up her carpet, entrusting Clarita with the task of explaining to them the unutterable weapons of womanhood.

The tattered red carpet remained resolutely extended from Clarita’s entrance, held in some places by brick or stone, pinned to the veranda in others with thumbtacks. During typhoon season, when the entire village boarded its windows and hid its pottery, the red carpet remained. It flapped in the violent wind, ripped, dislodged, but it always survived—crumpled, dirty, but intact.

*

If Ampalaya’s anxiety spiked upon Clarita’s surprise arrival, it exploded when she disappeared.

They turned over rocks and fallen palm fronds to look for pieces of her nightdress. They ventured near Hiroo’s cave and called her name. They gathered around bonfires on rainless nights because many of them could no longer sleep.

Mr. Puzon, now inseparable from his schnauzer, took up the disgusting habit of biting his cuticles to reveal the lower layers of skin on his fingertips.

“Clarita,” he said to the dog (because he named the schnauzer after his missing wife), “you stay here. Stay…stay.” He dropped a large bone on the sandy ground and watched as the dog gnawed at the subchondral tissue.

*

It was just over two years ago, after a certain typhoon Miranda broke below the surface of the sea, that Memorare Puzon washed ashore without even a boat beneath him. Recently cast out of Bacolod and preoccupied with improving his fortunes, he spotted a red carpet in the distance and took this as a good omen. He followed the collection of tatters along the circular path formed by the storm. Around and around the center of town he walked, past the church, past the bakery, past the orphanage and the ancient bells in the town square until he arrived at the entrance to a white house with a weathered verandah and a tangle of red plastic fastened to its top step with a single thumbtack.

Mr. Puzon entered the house, unpacked his wet suitcase, ate the chicken in the refrigerator, and left a trail of soiled dishes with utensils askew. He burned the tatting lace because it was too feminine for his taste. He sold the silverware to purchase himself a wristwatch and a handmade barong. He repaired the leaking roof, installed locks on all the doors, pulled out the final thumbtack, and let the red straps of plastic crinkle into a growing wind that swept it high into the sky.

The people of Ampalaya did not second-guess the changes at Clarita’s house. They knew her days of independence were over when a permanent man entered her life. Clarita was compelled to settle into different habits of Sunday church visits and children (if she could still have them) and suppressed self-doubt.

Clarita never addressed the abruptness of Mr. Puzon’s uninvited occupancy. Nor did she inquire into his identity or his intent. Nor did she question how he felt he had the license to possess her twice a day without solicitation or caress or courtship or conversation. She knew his name already and was certain he was the Memory that had finally found her after exactly seven years of respite and that Memorie would never again leave her alone.

The MeMorie was bound to follow her from the land of atrocities where it bound her right leg with a belt and dangled its buckle on a nail where a picture of the Sacred Heart had once hung when the place was another place, someone’s home, before the MeMorie took it over, before IT trapped her there along with other girls, employing them in humiliations for eight hours a day and calling it comfort. She turned her head to the right, closed her eyes, and pictured the benevolent blue stare from the Nazarene, hair of gold, glowing heart resting on an open palm.

The MeMorie didn’t stop even when she cried, even when she bled, even when she foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog. For one yen a turn it consumed her sanity and took the human part of her and shred it into a tangle of hair and blood and skin. At just fourteen, she wondered, why me? She was the daughter of property, a relation of nobility. They could have preyed on peasants instead, those who had no other prospects in life. Why me? In what way did I sin against God to have my leg hung on a nail that belonged to the Sacred Heart?

She could not pose these questions to the garrison. They spoke in guttural gibberish she was afraid to imitate. They were foreign monsters with pocketknives in their pants. She couldn’t ask if that was her father’s head on a pike. She couldn’t scream when they dangled her infant nephew by his ankles. Instead, she rolled her eyeballs into her brain and disappeared. She coughed and growled and foamed at the mouth until she was sure, at least at moments, that she had finally turned into something else.

Because she understood what his arrival meant, Clarita remained silent on all matters of complaint against Memorare Puzon. And it was this silence that Mr. Puzon first resented, devising ways to punish her for it, through further impositions and more egregious violations. When she decorated the windows with boxes of planted irises, Mr. Puzon pulled them all out at the roots. When she was caught entertaining one of the few visitors still brave enough to climb up her bald steps, Mr. Puzon burned part of the visitor’s left eye with the stub of his Marlboro Red.

Clarita endured it out of a creeping suspicion that this was all inevitable. She hoped that if she refused to address it with words, it might not be true. With time, it was this impenetrable silence that drove Mr. Puzon mad with unfulfilled desire. This is what he tried to keep fixed in his mind as the roots of her once luscious hair grew white and her breasts sagged and her posture crumbled sideways like that of a dying spider, a shriveled version of the ice princess that had captivated him with her coldness.

It was into one of these morning states of tortuous nostalgia that Mr. Puzon woke with a swollen phallus and the miniature schnauzer curled into his armpit. He looked at the dog critically and tried to see what sentience lived in its eyes.

“You know what happened to her, don’t you?”

The dog licked the oil-sweat from his chin. Together, man and dog fell back into a deep synchronized sleep, possibly into the same dream.

*

Mr. Puzon could still be seen with his new Clarita on walks around the square, both creatures with noticeable springs in the six legs they shared between them. Everyone excused him for transferring his affections to a schnauzer so soon after his wife disappeared. They understood that the disappearance of one Clarita Puzon would be fixed forever as a singular unsolved mystery on an island otherwise hidden inside the skirts of time and away from the path of atrocities that have written the history of our archipelago.

*

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Issue 23 (Spring 2021)

Story copyright © 2021 by Cristina Osmeña

Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House

Cristina Osmeña is a Philippine-born writer of short fiction. Her science fiction story, “By the World Forgot,” appeared in the anthology When the World Stopped: A Collection of Infectious Stories. Her prior magical realist stories include “The Monkey Strip,” published in the Santa Monica Review, and “The Centaur,” winner of the Elizabeth Mills Crothers Award. Her work has been taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Cristina received a BA in English from UC Berkeley.

Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.

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This entry was posted on December 10, 2021 by in Stories.
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