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Islands

By
August 1, 2012

I dreamt I was stranded on an island no bigger than a kitchen table. From where I stood I could see the mainland. Men in camouflage ran out of the jungle to the shore. I was their prey.

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I think about my mother and what she said about the islands. How some of them would disappear when the tide was high. She wouldn’t teach me her language, but my mother taught me this. I was six years old. She was trying to impress me. She wanted me to believe the islands were magic. I asked her what they looked like, but she wouldn’t tell me. She hadn’t seen them since before I was born, and they had begun to slip from her memory. So I imagined the islands as big rocks just below the water’s surface. When the tides receded they shone slick and wet in the sun.

What would it be like to watch them descend? I wondered how people could be so sure the ground beneath their feet wouldn’t also disappear.

*                      *                     *

It happens every day: Boys throw punches and call each other faggots, girls taunt each other without mercy. Their classmates egg them on. But a glare from me is enough to make everyone freeze. Recess is over. The kids fall in line. I don’t bother to find out what their arguments were about.

The older teachers say I look like I’m barely out of high school. But to the sixth graders, I’m a real grown-up, old enough to have influence. When they act up, I stare them down until they behave. When they talk about Mrs. Kozlowski, I keep quiet and listen.

She still terrorizes them. They see her when they close their eyes at night. Sometimes she scolds them. Sometimes she is just a pouting face, like a close-up in a magazine.

Though she haunts them, my students weep for Mrs. Kozlowski as if she were their own mother. Their mourning confuses them. This is the one bond they share. They ask, Why are we still afraid of her? I know only what they’ve told me, which no adult at the school will confirm or deny. That Mrs. Kozlowski hurled markers at the whiteboard, slammed wooden rulers against her desk until they splintered. She threw out our lunches if we were bad, they say. She said we were sinners who Jesus wouldn’t save.

I don’t know whether to believe them. Still, I have to reassure my students somehow. I say I understand their fear, the kind that blossoms like a cancer when you first realize how terrible and unsafe the world really is.

When I was twelve, before the first and only time I went to the Philippines, my father warned me about everything upsetting I might see. Poor people and garbage in the streets and soldiers with machine guns.

I tell them this story:

When I was twelve, before the first and only time I went to the Philippines, my father warned me about everything upsetting I might see. Poor people and garbage in the streets and soldiers with machine guns. He told me about his old classmates who were assassinated for being communists.

Don’t provoke anyone, he said. Don’t do anything suspicious-looking. And don’t ever become a communist.

I started to dream about the danger I would face. I dreamt I was stranded on an island no bigger than a kitchen table. From where I stood I could see the mainland. Men in camouflage ran out of the jungle to the shore. I was their prey. They walked into the surf until the water touched their knees and aimed their guns at me. I fell to my stomach and listened to the bullets overhead. With my face in the sand, I began to pray. I asked God for His deliverance. The ground heaved beneath me. I raised my head and looked across the water. I was moving. The men with guns grew smaller. Untethered from the ocean floor, the island drifted like a raft. Soon the mainland was completely out of sight. Hours passed. Alone, I started to panic. Around me was nothing but water and more water. I knew it was only a matter of time before the sea grew violent and the waves pulled my tiny island under, with me along with it.

*                      *                     *

My parents wouldn’t leave until my sister promised to take me in if I ran out of money. She only promised because she knew I would never ask for her help. With everyone in the family satisfied, my parents sent their belongings overseas and retired to their new house in the mountains outside of Baguio.

But my sister didn’t want to take any chances. She called me every Saturday and asked, Did you work this week? Most of the time I said no. But after Mrs. Kozlowki’s appendix burst, I started subbing full-time. Every Saturday from then until the end of the school year, I could tell my sister yes.

She still had her worries. What happens after that? she asked.

Why can’t you be happy for me? I said.

Some of the younger teachers took me out to celebrate. We went to the Red Lobster across from the hospital, sat at the bar and did shots. Kozlowski was a joyless cunt, they said, and now her brats are all yours. You’re finally one of us.

For a while, at least, I said.

When everyone left, I walked home on the sidewalk that runs along the highway. Light radiated from the shopping center, a tiny city of chain stores. There used to be nothing there but farmland. Construction began just after I dropped out of college and moved back in with my parents. I complained to them about it all the time. Every year this goddamn city puts up more stores that no one fucking asked for, I said.

I threatened to move to the islands and never come back. My parents laughed at me. Don’t you remember how many malls we went to when you were there? they asked.

There was just the one in Makati, I said.

They laughed again.

We spent almost the whole trip shopping. It was all your cousins wanted to do.

I thought hard. By then it had been eight years and I barely had any clear memories of my stay in the Philippines. What stood out more vividly were the stories my parents told me about their childhood. Like my dad, alone in his room, tearing out pages from his mother’s Bible to prove God didn’t exist. God declined to strike him down, but his mother chased him into the street with a wooden spoon after she found her Bible destroyed.

While they worked, they held their cigarettes between their teeth with the lit end in their mouths, protecting the embers from the splashing water. Smoke hovered around their sun-leathered faces. They looked like brown devils.

Or my mom’s earliest memory: watching her aunts wash piles of clothes in the river. While they worked, they held their cigarettes between their teeth with the lit end in their mouths, protecting the embers from the splashing water. Smoke hovered around their sun-leathered faces. They looked like brown devils. My mother hid behind a tree.

Did you know that the Philippines has some of the biggest malls in Asia? my parents asked proudly. In all the world?

They had told me many times, but somehow it never stuck.

*                      *                     *

Two of my students have birthdays today, so I pick up donut holes and mini cupcakes on my way to school. This is against the rules. No sharing food ever, not since a batch of peanut butter cookies put three first graders in the hospital. But I take precautions. After announcements I say, Raise your hand if you have any food allergies. A girl in the back says she will die if she eats shellfish. Anyone else? No response, I’m in the clear.

We wait until late in the day to sing Happy Birthday. I pass out the treats and decide to forget about afternoon lessons. The kids are quiet and pleasant. No one says thank you, but I’m not upset. My students and I have a tacit agreement. I give them sugar and they don’t rat me out for poisoning them with wheat, dairy, eggs, and soy.

The kids are sedated from too much food. Teasing and arguing takes too much effort, so for the rest of the day everyone pretends to like each other. They put their heads down on their desks and wait for the final bell to ring. No one breaks out in hives or stops breathing. Tomorrow I will resume my lesson plans. Tomorrow the armistice will end.

*                      *                     *

Somewhere outside of Manila, I climbed six rickety flights of stairs to a platform that stood higher than all the nearby buildings. It was a weeknight, the sun was fading and the park was mostly deserted. A man older than my father waited at the top of the stairs. He pointed to a burlap sack by his feet. When I didn’t move he barked at me in Tagalog. I was too timid to admit I only spoke English. I guessed at what he was saying. I stepped inside the sack and held it around my legs. The man pulled his hair in frustration. I stepped out of the sack and walked toward the stairs. I didn’t want to go down the slide anymore. But the man motioned for me to return. He spread the sack out like a bed sheet and demonstrated, got on his back and crossed his arms like a dead person. He stood up and I lay down. The man got on his knees and pushed me. The burlap slipped across the yellow plastic. The fall only lasted a few seconds, but I felt like I was weightless, I was flying.

*                      *                     *

My sister drives to my apartment and hand-delivers me a check for a few thousand dollars. Enough for more than half a year’s rent. She says, Me and Mom and Dad want to make sure you have a cushion after I leave.

I’m not surprised when she tells me she’s quitting her job and moving to Cubao. She’s thirty-eight, nine years older than me, the oldest of the cousins on both sides of our family.

I’m getting my mid-life crisis out of the way early, she says.

Clearly, I say.

She was twenty-one when we were in the Philippines, just starting to wear colorful clothes after years of all black. She asked our lola about when then Japanese soldiers occupied the islands. My lola said, My sisters and I had four brothers. Anton, Narciso, Carlos, and José. During the war, they marched and bled and starved and died. The war ended and we mourned, found men to marry, and started families. Years later, our brothers came back as ghosts. Their bodies were made of light and warm air. They visited our children at night and whispered blessings into their ears. Our children were not afraid. They knew the ghosts were family.

My sister and I looked at my dad in the corner. He shrugged. His mother carried on. She told stories about vampires and evil horses who lived in the mountains. She knew from my father that my sister liked dark things, and she tried to indulge her. But my sister only listened to be polite.

I sign the back of the check and put it in my wallet. I know full well this is a buyout. My family has relinquished responsibility for me.

You don’t have to stay here, my sister says. Think about what you could do with the money.

I drive to the convenience store after she leaves and deposit the check at the ATM.

It was my mother who caved, sick of her daughter begging for gruesome stories. She got straight to the point. You know what the Japanese soldiers did when they found a baby? she asked.

It was my mother who caved, sick of her daughter begging for gruesome stories. She got straight to the point. You know what the Japanese soldiers did when they found a baby? she asked. They picked it up and threw it in the air and caught it on the bayonets of their rifles.

She let my sister imagine the aftermath of blood and gore. My mother hoped it would haunt her. But my sister’s curiosity only grew. During our three weeks on the islands, she wore down our relatives, got them to share their worst memories from the war. Don’t those stories give you nightmares? my dad asked my sister. She shook her head. None of them sound real, she said.

*                      *                     *

The school buys new park benches with shiny metal plaques drilled into them. In Memory of Ellen M. Kozlowski, they say. At the dedication ceremony by the playground, the older teachers look bored. The younger ones are visibly annoyed. This is bullshit, they whisper. No one liked her. Death doesn’t make people good.

The principal goads us all into lining up and walking past the benches like they were open coffins. Single file, we each brush our fingers against the wooden beams and feel the raised metal letters spelling out the dead teacher’s name. It’s hot and everyone wants to go inside, but my kids hold up the line. They stand with blank faces and stare at the plaques. None of them touches the benches.

She threatened to hit us, they told me once. She held up her hand until we cowered.

It’s their word against a dead woman, the other teachers told me.

Together, my students and I push through finals. I show them mercy. No one gets below a C, not even the kids who deserve to fail. But they complain about their marks anyway. They tell me they are special, they deserve better. I tell them they are right, but I am still not changing their grades.

*                      *                     *

My parents call to tell me my sister is doing well. They say she is already starting to speak with an accent. They ask me when I’m going to visit. I say I can’t, there’s nothing left of the money they gave me now that my tuition payment has gone through. In the fall I start taking classes again. English, American History, and Psychology. I am ten years older than my classmates and two years away from being a real teacher.

*                      *                     *

My dad took us to the fort where his father was imprisoned during World War II. My lolo had volunteered to clean up all the prisoners’ shit because it was the only way he was allowed outside. He saw the sun and breathed clean air, but he also saw the dungeons. When the tide rose, water from the river rushed through the metal grates and slowly flooded the chamber. Sometimes the tortured men trapped below pleaded with God, though they knew the Lord would never intervene. Sometimes they thanked Him for the cool water that soothed their burns and cleansed their wounds before filling their lungs.

My sister took picture after picture of the gray stone walls. Was lolo ever tortured? she asked my father. He pulled down the collar of his shirt and drew a line with his finger below his clavicle. He held out the palms of his hands. He pointed to the inside of his thighs.

They cut him up. Put cigarettes out on his skin.

Every morning the dungeons were emptied, readied for the next group of prisoners slated to die. But my lolo never disappeared beneath the tide. After the war he married and raised a family. I was a baby when he died.

Every morning the dungeons were emptied, readied for the next group of prisoners slated to die. But my lolo never disappeared beneath the tide. After the war he married and raised a family. I was a baby when he died.

Before she moved to the Philippines, my sister found the photos she had taken of the dungeon and showed them to me. Pictures of rocks and dirt and shadows, the legs of a tourist who stepped into the frame. There was one of me, too. I remember my sister taking it. The flash makes my tan skin look blurry and pale. In the photo, I stare at the ground imagining I am one of the condemned, what it felt like to have my fingernails torn off. I clench my fists tight and brace myself for the pain, wishing I was off this wretched island, wishing I was home.

G

Author Image

Alex Vallejo grew up in Newark, Delaware. He was recently a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has fiction forthcoming in The Asian American Literary Review. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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2 comments for Islands

  1. Comment by Martha Corona Fetters on August 30, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Alex, I really enjoyed your story. It resonated with me on many different levels, being that I am a teacher from an island; an island that I left as a young girl and returned to as an adult. This is the kind of story that will keep me thinking and will mean something different to me every time I reread it. Congratulations.

  2. Comment by Ant on July 29, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    Glancing at the stars…

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