by Elyss G. Punsalan
“What was she last night?”
“I don’t know. All I remember was that she was blue. All blue. Even the whites of her eyes were blue, her skin, her hair. Everything blue. It’s a new one. I’d call it the Blue Terror.”
“Did she scream, like she used to?”
“No. Stopped doing that for years.”
“She didn’t remember who I was. When she used to scream at least I’d hear her calling my name. Even when she sounded like satanas it consoled me that her old self was there.”
“Her memory’s failing now.”
“I’m sorry I was gone too long.”
“Don’t say sorry. It was best that you left. At least my daughter’s a full-fledged architect. I’m proud of you. Your Mom is too.”
“I should have visited. It’s just that the classes were... I couldn’t get away from the load. I wanted to, but there were exams I needed to study for—”
“Shush. I understand. You’re not the only architect in the family. Besides, I’d rather have you back in Manila, doing what you like to do, enjoying yourself, than being here, troubled by your mother.”
“She’s not troubling me, Dad. She scares me sometimes, but I don’t mind.”
I caught my father looking at the long-healed gash in my arm. I’d had at least fifteen stitches then.
“Your scar’s still there,” he said. He held my arm to look at it more closely.
“I barely notice it.”
“Why don’t you use that make-up stuff you can apply to cover these things?”
“Like a concealer? I wouldn’t bother. Too lazy. Where’s Mom?”
“Taking a shower. She woke up with a lot of grime.”
Just then Mom stepped into the living area. Her hair was wrapped in a towel and she was wearing the pink sun dress I sent her last year. The sight of something familiar made me realize that I missed her more. “Ma!”
“Kara!” She hugged me and kissed me on the head. “What time did you get in?”
“Around four in the morning. Dad opened the door for me.”
My mother looked at Dad and I noticed a deep crease form on her forehead. “Hon. Go, rest. You’ve not had any sleep. I’m sorry I kept you up again. What was I last night?”
“Dad said you were a blue monster.”
“Ayayay. A new one? Did I eat anything?”
“Dad, did she eat anything?”
“I couldn’t tell. She just slithered on the ground. She was quiet. Went in and out of a lot of holes and cabinets in the house. I had to keep an eye on where she was, or else she’d drown herself in the pool. I’m going to take a long nap. Don’t wake me until lunch.”
* * *
“It used to be a lot worse, remember?”
“Yeah. Your dad says the same thing.”
“I think I was seven years old then. I woke up in the dead of the night — you were screaming, like something was getting to you. I ran to your room, not knowing what else to do. Then I saw you.”
“What was I then?”
“A cross between your Shark Teeth persona and the Tikbalang.”
We had names for all her transformations. It was easier to remember that way. “I couldn’t get over those rows of teeth you had. They were shiny. Like metal. Like the teeth of a saw, only you had two of them in each gum. Your face was stretched to look like a sweating horse, and your legs grew longer than the bed. Had a lot of hair. Straight, coarse ones. Black. Ugly feet. And, of course, the screams were there. It was, hmm, disorienting because you looked like a very masculine ghoul, but your voice sounded like a banshee.”
“Did I traumatize you?”
“I guess. I cried the whole night. Dad couldn’t do anything to comfort me because he was tying you to the bed. You were feisty. You almost kicked him in the face.”
“How come I don’t remember you getting scared after that?”
“Thank Dad. Or because I was seven and I believed everything he said.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That you were sick every night, and that to get rid of the sick you had to change into something else, other than yourself, so that you wouldn’t feel the pain. Made sense to me.”
He told me another thing, which totally worked, expunging all my fears.
“He also said if I was lucky, I might catch you changing into an angel. Or a fairy. I liked the idea. I got hooked.”
“Your father’s really smart.” Her laughter tinkled in the air.
“I watched you transform every night, until I was, you know, fifteen,” I said.
Mom shook her head quickly, as if shaking off a bad memory.
I took her hand and held it tightly. I told her, “Sometimes I’d get so tired I’d just fall asleep, and just wait to be roused by your shrieks. The closest change to an angel was, I guess, that time you turned into a gigantic peacock.”
“Yes, I remember that. That was also the time we found out you were allergic to feathers.”
“I had hives and I was sneezing like crazy. Every time I sneezed all of the eyes on the feathers looked at me and blinked.”
“You never told me about the eyes.”
“It’s just coming back to me now. It was one of the best nights. The feathers had indigo eyes with yellow eyelids set in long purple quills. The lashes were thick in emerald and sapphire.”
Dad was happily sitting on the floor, relieved, fanning himself with one of the large plumes that frayed from my mother’s avian body. My father was glad because a peacock, even a gigantic one, was certainly less stressful to handle, than say, Mom the Vampire Vamp or Mom the Flaming Dragon. (The Vampire bit his drawing hand. The Dragon singed his shoulder.) He fought her most of the time. I loved how my mother strutted around like a queen in a brand-new palace.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“Did Dad know about your condition, before you got married?”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“I didn’t want to lose him.”
“Do you think... have you ever thought that he felt tricked that you didn’t tell him? That he didn’t have a choice?”
“I guess I do. I do feel guilty about that, you know. But I guess your father... he’s different. He never left me. I think that says something about our marriage. We’ve been together for over thirty years. I’m the lucky one.” She smiled.
Just great, I thought.
“What’s your problem?”
I reached for something small and round in my pocket and showed it to her. My Dino gave it to me days ago. I haven’t answered him anything yet.
“That’s a big rock you have there. Oh. We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”
“I haven’t been changing, if that’s what you think.”
“Say ‘yes’ and you will, my dear. It’ll start slow. Would only show after a couple of years. Usually it begins with just parts of you. One year it may just be the head, then the next you’d have limbs, then, in about five years, your whole self.”
“Then after some more years, your mind.”
“That would take another twenty years. So it’s still a long way off for you.”
“You’re already there, Mom.” I was right and she nodded back.
She raised her finger to my face and tenderly drew a lock of hair away from my cheek. “That’s how life is for us. Our consolation is that we change only at night. We still have control over our lives when it’s daylight. The good thing about this is we won’t ever need sleep. How else could I have sold all that real estate and send you off to private school?”
She went on to ask me the toughest question of all. “Dino. Does he really love you?”
I knew the answer to that. It was just hard to admit. “I guess.”
“Then you wouldn’t have to worry about a thing,” she replied. “Love is both the curse and the cure.”
* * *
Four nights later, I’d witness my mother change into a dog-headed lizard, a foul-smelling troll with huge ears, a Venus flytrap as tall as our front door, and a bright orange sea turtle that glowed in the dark. When Mom was the last one, she was silent, gazing out to the night sky with my father.
Dad sat beside her and stroked her back or feet, and offered her some midnight treats to snack on. I felt sorry for my father, who wanted to say many things to my mother when she was not in her human form. And I wondered, when I saw him tug my mother’s turtleish chin playfully, if my mother understood anything.
On Saturday night, Dad and I had early supper. He asked me about my career plans, where I wanted to work, if I needed his help to get in touch with old friends from the firm. When we got to dessert, we both heard my mother scream, as if her head was being torn off her neck. “But it’s too early for her to change,” my dad said, worrying.
He quickly got up and grabbed his knife and ropes which he kept under the stairs. We both rushed up the bedroom to see what the matter was. My mother was still human, on her knees by the bed. Her back was bleeding at the shoulder blades. I wanted to run to her and stop the blood from flowing, but Dad held me back.
“Wait,” he said.
Two white, slimy stubs pushed their way from her back, growing longer and longer until they reached the floor. But then the bleeding stopped and my mother fell silent. She wobbled as she got herself to her feet. She called out my father’s name.
“Come, my dear,” she said to him. Her voice was, still hers, but different. It was gentle and terrifying at the same time.
Dad walked towards her in measured steps. He looked at her. Her face shone a golden light, illumining her hair, which had turned silver, moving in the air like fabric caught in a sea current. Dad put his arms around her waist. “Never thought I’d see this again,” he said.
My mother embraced him, and suddenly wings spread open, high and wide behind her. She took one look at the silver-tipped feathers and flapped them once, like a sail unfurling at sea. Wind surged through the room and the window shutters flew open, unhinging themselves from the walls. She looked out the window, then at me. She must have seen wonder and fear written all over my face.
Mom held my father tighter in her arms, stronger now, filled with unearthly power. Her wings arched overhead then pressed downward, and at once she and my father were in the air, out the window, soaring higher and further away from me until they were tiny white dots in the evening sky.
In our family, we do not say goodbye.
* * *
The engagement ring glimmered briefly in Dino’s hand, catching a bit of candlelight, before he slipped it into his shirt pocket.
“So that’s it,” he said to me that evening.
“Can you tell me why?”
I thought I’d never get to say it. “It’s not you. It’s me.” I laughed a bit, the absurdity getting to me. It’s the lamest breakup line in the world, but it’s true.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Maybe you just need time to grieve, Kara. I’ll wait.”
As he looked at me, his eyes reminded me of stars. I kissed him on the cheek, said “See you around” and ran out of the restaurant into the cold street.
I caught my breath and felt my hand twitching. When I looked it was blue. All blue.
Copyright © 2012 by Elyss G. Punsalan