Online series: Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines

15090916841_4f28edd42e_o copyContrappasso has a special relationship with the literature of the Philippines through the enthusiasms of our frequent contributor and occasional guest editor Noel King. Now we welcome you to a special online series of pieces – many published here for the first time – that journey through the contemporary Filipino literary scene.

We will feature in-depth reviews of recent books, interviews with key writers, short stories and novel extracts, as well as Noel King’s presentations at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao on September 20-21, 2015.

Stayed tuned as Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines.

EDITED BY NOEL KING & MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

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[Header image: Pasig City by Yacine Petitprez. Image altered. Reproduced under a CC licence.]

Online only: ‘Dingoes’ by Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford’s work has previously appeared in our Noir and Writers at the Movies special issues. We now present an excerpt from Gifford’s forthcoming book, The Cuban Club, to be published in New York by Seven Stories Press / Random House in the Spring of 2017.

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DINGOES

by BARRY GIFFORD

Roy liked to ride his bike up to Indian Boundary Park to look at the dingoes. There was a little outdoor zoo with a variety of smaller animals at the northern edge of the park, among them llamas, monkeys, ostriches and a patchy-furred, old brown bear. But it was the wild dogs of Australia that interested Roy the most. The dingoes were feisty, beige- or dun-colored knee-high canines that constantly fought among themselves and bared their fangs at the zoogoers who stared at them for more than a few seconds. Roy wondered why dogs were in a zoo, even supposedly wild ones. He guessed that in Australia dingoes ran in packs across a vast desert in the western part of the continent. He’d read about Australia in his fourth grade geography book which only mentioned dingoes in passing; most of the information about fauna in Australia was about kangaroos.

“Nasty little critters, aren’t they?” a man said to Roy. “Now they’re cooped up in this hoosegow.”

Both Roy and the man were standing in front of the dingo enclosure on a cloudy day in August. Roy was nine years old and the man looked to Roy to be in his thirties or forties. Roy straddled his bicycle and watched and listened to the dingoes nip and yip at one another.

“The cage is too small for them,” Roy said. “They need to be out running around in a desert.”

The man was only slightly taller than Roy and thin with a grayish-brown mustache. He lit a cigarette then flicked the match through the bars at the dingoes.

“Wild dogs,” the man said. “In China they’d be beaten to death. They’ve got police squads over there that do nothin’ but run down stray dogs and club ’em over the head, then throw the bodies in a pile and burn ’em.”

“These dogs are from Australia,” said Roy. “They’re not domesticated.”

The man gave a little laugh with a hiccup in the middle of it. Roy had never heard anyone with a strange laugh like that before.

“Pretty fancy word you got there, kid. Domesticated. You learn that one in school?”

“Dingoes aren’t meant to be pets,” Roy said.

“Neither is that fat, scabby bear,” said the man. “He shouldn’t be in durance vile, either. These cages here are like cells in the Chateau d’If.”

“What’s that?” Roy asked.

“Prison island off the coast of Marseilles, in France. Like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Nobody escapes from there.”

“These animals can’t escape from here, either. You seen the Chateau Deaf? Is it for deaf criminals?”

“Nope. It’s d’If, not deaf. Name of the island is If. I read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Man named Edmond Dantes gets put away for life but after sixteen years digs a tunnel to the sea and swims away.”

“I thought you said nobody escapes from there.”

“Not in real life they don’t. The Count of Monte Cristo is a story takes place in the nineteenth century. Edmond Dantes is an innocent man and after he gets out he finds a treasure a dying inmate at the Chateau d’If told him about and changes his name to Monte Cristo before taking revenge on the three wrong customers who were responsible for having him take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit.”

The man dropped his butt then lit up another cig and again flicked his match at the dingoes.

“How come you’re not in school, kid?”

“Summer vacation.”

“I’m kind of on vacation, too.”

Roy looked at the man again: his pale blue shirt had dark brown stains on it, as did his khaki trousers. When the man turned his head Roy saw that his left ear was missing; there was only a misshapen lump of skin where an ear should have been.

Roy climbed onto his bicycle seat and started to ride away but the man took hold of the handlebars with both of his hands.

“If you’re clever,” said the man, “you won’t ever let anybody take advantage of you.”

“What’s that mean?”

“There are evil spirits haunt this earth who beguile good men and women and render them useless.”

Not only was the man missing an ear but Roy noticed the mean-looking red and blue-black scar that ran almost the entire length of his hairline.

“I’ve got to go, mister. Let go of my bike.”

The man released the handlebars, removed his cigarette from the right corner of his mouth and flicked it into the dingo cage.

As he was riding Roy remembered his grandfather telling him to listen carefully to what even crazy people said because the information might be useful later. When he got home Roy would ask him what in durance vile meant.

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barrygifford.com

Copyright © by Barry Gifford, 2015. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.

[Header image: Château d’If by Ralf Smallkaa @flickr. Unmodified. Reproduced under this CC licence.]

 

from Long Distance: The Whale Ghosts by Elias Greig

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THE WHALE GHOSTS

An essay by ELIAS GREIG

SOME TIME AGO, under the influence of the twin stars of employment and achievable rent, we came to live in Mosman, and it was here I first thought of the whale ghosts. I was working, then, as a salesman, helping wealthy people into worthless shoes, the kind designed to do nothing but proudly state their incapacity to the world. Mosman was and is a fine place to sell useless things, as it is full of money—so much so that, thanks to a small commission on each useless pair, and the aforementioned achievable rent, we found ourselves living fairly comfortably in Sydney’s richest suburb, our shared minimum wage allowing us a harbour view, and a vantage on the baffling behaviour of the rich. We were, we felt, living the life of fleas on a pampered but erratic dog.

Though it is the confluence of great wealth and extraordinary power, Mosman is also a fearful place, full of the listening and the overstrung. On quiet nights, walking home under the suddenly visible stars, my back to Spit Junction and my eyes on the moon rising over Middle Head, I noticed myself noticed, saw the twitching curtains and the frowns; the kempt mothers in their music-box porticos falling still, ushering children inside; a final stab of the hand holding the car keys, the jeep locking, the door slamming shut. Shut out with the currawongs, I walked on at the same pace, benign and bemused. The old couple in the apartment beneath us wrote us a letter within a few days of our moving in, complaining of our footsteps and the sounds we made when washing up—rattling cutlery, the note confided, was particularly upsetting. We brought them beer and flowers, those two sure-fire sweeteners of the post-war generation, flashed our wedding rings, and smiled. After a brief grace, the letters started again.

At first I wrote off these strange episodes of fear and complaint as the effects of Mosman’s seclusion, its isolation from all the regular chafes and strains of city life helped along by its geography, and its extraordinary wealth. It seemed anxious to repel boarders. It reminded me, sometimes, of the seaside towns I’d grown up in, with their suspicious, mad-eyed elderly; where a tight-jawed man in sunglasses might ask if you were local, and show you his teeth. But as time passed, I heard something else in the fraught confidences of my customers, a common theme of anxiousness and annoy, about “people round here”, “people”, who’d complain endlessly, or, conversely, were deaf to complaint, overly precious or brazenly profane. Beach towns menaced strangers with the odd bit of theft or violence under the coral trees on hot afternoons—crimes of envy and defence. Mosman watched its neighbours. It judged, and felt judged. It compared, it juxtaposed. It felt loftily superior and queasily insecure. The glances I drew on the way home were not reserved for strange men passing by on foot at dusk—these same eyes took in their neighbours, before the brittle exchange of hellos. Mosman was most frightened of itself.

I looked closer. First to my notice were the signs, some slickly professional, others hand-written and lavishly insane. I was instructed to keep off lawns, to smile for cameras, to get my own newspaper, to beware dogs, to never, ever, under any circumstances, park here, to drive slowly, or not to drive at all: “Do Not Turn Around In This Driveway—IT IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!!!” I was reminded, in tedious detail, that it was my responsibility to pick up after my dog, I was warned that trespassing was an offense, that this was a private path, that there was no point informing the council, because this garden was watered with tank or reclaimed water, and that “if you park in front of this house again, you will be towed.” Suburban grievances about stolen newspapers and dog shit, parking spots and water restrictions, were here backed up with threats of litigation and deadly force. I witnessed a long argument between two fat-faced men in polo shirts about the mowing of a nature strip. Both were shouting and, absurdly, watering their lawns, gesticulating furiously while their hoses gushed—two angry fountain cherubs gone to seed.

Approaching a house at night, it is possible to tell, from a distance, if the television is on. Even if the program is inaudible, the night walker, passing by, can discern beneath the sounds of wind and foliage, of cooling roof iron and cars ticking in their mechanical sleep, a kind of hum—a high and eerie keening, a dog whistle set to the human ear. The ghost in the television is electricity, pulsing at high frequency, causing the metal parts of the appliance to vibrate minutely, shaking its tiny ferrite bones. As I became more convinced of Mosman’s affliction, I began to think I could hear the suburb producing a comparable sound, a common chord of anxiousness, the ringing in the ears brought on by a collectively held breath. And so, gradually, I fell into listening, too. In our apartment over Mosman Bay, lying awake after the ferries had stopped, I heard the stealthy motions of the water and the small talk of the gulls. And, on some nights, when the southerly dropped and the bay was scaled over with moonlight, I had my first inklings of the whale ghosts—strange, rhythmic swells and puffing exhalations that set the yachts rocking on their moorings, as if vast bodies passed beneath them, the chiming of their masts like the tinkling of a nervous flock on a black hill.

The old couple beneath us stepped up their campaign. More letters, laboriously typed on an old word processor, appeared in our mailbox or were pushed under our door. (I knew they were typed—with my newly sensitised hearing, I could hear the machine working directly beneath the spot I’d chosen for my own desk). The notes were sometimes circumspect and sometimes personal, inflamed with capital letters and aggressive pronouns: “We” was brandished over our heads like a spear. More ominously, the building itself was personified, its two redbrick wings suddenly teeming with feeling—“the building feels”; “this building has always valued quiet”—a composite organism, like a coral. Finally, on a night when I was out, the old man himself appeared, provoked beyond endurance by the sound of my wife igniting the pilot light on the gas hot water system in the kitchen, his face puffy and red as a baby’s knee, his teeth askew from shouting. When she apologised, and suggested that he might be kinder, he promised consequences.

Our real estate agent rang the next day. The old man had been in touch. Rather than describe the actual encounter, he focussed on our original offence: the demoniacal racket of utensils as we washed up. In his volcanic imaginings, this was by far our most egregious act, and we did it every night. “What’s going on down there?” the agent asked, genuinely baffled. “We’re having midnight dishwashing parties,” I said, but hastily explained. The agent told the old man that if it happened again, we’d call the police on him—our very first Mosman threat of force, issued by an intermediary, but ours all the same. (It was satisfying imagining the old man arrested, his tortoise face crushed into the patterned carpet on the stairs, the cuffs snapping shut while he bawled). Past tenants, we discovered, had had similar problems; some had even moved out, pushed past endurance by carping letters and unpredictable knocks on the door. What part the old woman played in all this we never discovered. Her moon-eyed silence whenever we met her on the stairs invited construal—she looked equal parts addled and afraid, shrinking behind her laundry basket, never saying a word.

These episodes were absurd, but took their toll. While he never confronted us directly again, the old man was, we knew, working quietly on our removal, sending letters to the body corporate and the building as a whole. From the window of my shop on Spit Junction, I’d see him, wheeling a tartan trolley, sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone, waiting at the lights, taking the steps up to the office of our agent one at a time, unaffected by my best efforts to strike him dead with my mind from across the street. At home, we were increasingly constrained. We kept any music we played low, never washed up after dark, and took to walking on tiptoe. If either of us dropped something, we’d both leap like cartoon cats. In making entirely ordinary actions the grounds of their complaint, the old couple had made it impossible for us to live unconsciously—even the simplest action was measured for its potential to disturb. Worse, constantly listening to myself made me hypersensitive to the noises of others, almost preternaturally aware of ambient noise. Unable to sleep, I would stand in our lounge room after midnight listening to the neighbours, or, in a kind of despair, imagine the old man doing the same—we two listeners, with only the floor separating us, each listening madly for the other.

Mosman was taking hold. We were, we realised, crouching—two rabbits hunkered down in a field while the hawk circled—waiting for a letter or a knock on the door; waiting for the suburb to assert itself, to shake us like a cold; sure we had no business living here with no money to defend ourselves, and that we would, in time, be dispatched by the old men, or the nervous mothers, or the nature strip hose cherubs. It took effort, conscious effort, to remind ourselves of the suburb’s madness; not to take it personally. At the same time, feeling myself surveilled, I naturally began to surveil, became a window-watcher and a snoop, a garbage bin wowser and a picker-through of other people’s misdelivered mail. The old man, I noticed, played his kitchen radio early in the morning, and, shockingly, sometimes transgressed to putting green waste in the wrong bin. I would note these tiny infractions with a petty, fascistical relish, plot the writing of my own letters, either to him or the body corporate, and curl up like a salted slug in self-disgust.

Meanwhile, the suburb waxed madder. I woke up past midnight to oafish laughter and a strange wet gushing sound: two teenage boys from a nearby mansion were using the building’s extinguisher to cover a neighbour’s motorcycle in fire-retarding foam. They ran away as the lights came on, even though everyone knew where they lived. We borrowed my wife’s parents’ aging Subaru, parked it under our building, and woke up the next morning to find someone had tried to hotwire it. The old man, always on duty, had called the police, who’d caught whoever it was in the act. Three streets east a woman was beaten, almost to death, by her drunken spouse. Walking home, we cut through a little park, disturbing a teen couple getting to grips on a bench, the girl arching while the boy, his knees in the dust, his short hair twinkling in the bright suburban dusk, pressed his face between her legs: public cunnilingus at ten past eight on a school night. I watched a mob of artfully dressed teens from the local high school stream across the road (crowding a mother with a pram off the curb into Spit Junction traffic) and corner a classmate against the front window of my shop. When I waded through the ranks to break up the fight, a kid half my age and a third my weight threatened to hurt me, pushing at me and stumbling backwards when my weight didn’t shift. Flat-footed, baffled and incredulous, I asked him how he’d manage that—did he have a knife, a gun, a grenade? A fearsome, curly girl beside him intervened: “If you touch him, it’s child abuse, and he’ll fucking sue you!” Confronted with this apparition of the suburb’s mad logic, I hustled the kid they were lynching inside and shut the shop. The mob beat and spat on the glass, but subsided when I came out with a spray-bottle and a cloth to buff away the palm prints and the phlegm. That weekend, the curly girl and her mother bought shoes.

When the anticipated bad news finally arrived, it came as a phone call from our agent. The owner had decided to sell, and we took it as a kind of reprieve. Caught as we were—between an apartment from which the weather was so miraculously visible; where the refracted light of the afternoon sun flashed and shifted on the high ceilings like a school of fish; where you could watch the southerly sweep into the bay on great white wings, churning the water green, then grey, then white; where every storm had a sense of moral grandeur, and the spires of the city erupted over the green arm of Cremorne point like an onrushing future; and a suburb whose aged and relentless emissary lived beneath us and gnawed at our sleep; whose warlike offspring, with shield-bearing, venture-capitalist names like Angus, Hudson, Saxon and Max, an unholy but compatible mating of skaldic epic and Atlas Shrugged, wrought havoc with our modest goods and livelihoods; where vast silver Range Rovers ploughed through pedestrian crossings like tanks, horns blaring as an afterthought; where anxiety and dysmorphia thrived symbiotically with the serried ranks of beauticians, cosmeticians, chemists, and the nail salons, whose bright windows presented a kind of colonialist tableau: small, deft Asian women working tirelessly on the long white feet of their blonde customers, painting and burnishing their pink toenails up to a violent and barbarous red—caught as we were, it was a relief to be forced out.

As the lease ran down, we watched the real estate websites, and thought about where we’d live next. My job was still good (for what it was), and we were in love with the water, but worn down by all the rest. And so we looked around, turned up with the crowds for Saturday inspections in Glebe, Chippendale, and further west: forty grumpy people struggling up and down narrow terrace stairs, resigning themselves to a converted garage, imagining their furniture into a squalid little flat. After the chalky blue skies of Mosman, the steep sandstone plunging into the bay, the terraced mansions sleeping on the hills, their gardens breathing sultrily, the gentle susurrus of the tall palms, and the sweet coastal rain, these metropolitan suburbs, fed by train lines and great roaring thoroughfares, felt stuffy and landlocked. And they cost more. The workers’ cottages were full of cool young couples driving up the prices, and the air was sulphuric with fumes. I thought back to our first house inspection in Mosman. We’d taken the ferry from Circular Quay and set out across the harbour under an ultramarine sky. At South Mosman, while the ferry pulled away, we stopped, astonished, to watch little penguins wing past beneath the waves.

And so we stayed. Once we’d decided, the suburb seemed to welcome us back. We found another beautiful flat in a rambling white house divided into four, with a private entry and a spectacular purple bougainvillea climbing up one side. It was even cheaper than our first place, and it was closer to the water—the lawn gave way to a break wall and a set of steps that lead into the bay. From the tall windows of the sunroom, we could watch the gulls fly past at eye level, or follow the flight of the terns, tracing the sickle shape of their wings as they swooped and plunged for fish. In the afternoon the bay turned glassy, a mirror to the sunset—only the shoulder of Cremorne point, a hill of windows in the dusk, broke the water from the sky. Coming home after dark, I’d follow Raglan Street, and pick my way down one of the many sets of covert public stairs that led to the ferry, the great spiral of Scorpio visible overhead, with red Antares held like a sting in its tail.

From the windows at night we could see the ferry wharf, where the fishermen argued and smoked long past midnight, and the floodlights reached down into the water, as if to draw up something finned and massive, to lure some ghastly, cloud-vast fish from obscene depths, its eye bigger than the wave-riding moon. And one windless night when there was no moon, I woke up to the groaning of the wharf, moving with a great surge of water, rising and falling on its pylons, the pontoon bridge shrieking softly where it needed oil. I walked to the window and looked out. The bay was like black glass, but the yachts, like the wharf, were rocking wildly with a sourceless swell. And suddenly the water bulged up, the lights from the far shore writhing out across its mirrored surface like white scars across a great black back. As I watched, transfixed, the bay seemed to furrow, to push up into dunes, and finally I thought of the whale ghosts, huge travellers, passing into the bay in pods, their silent breaths pluming invisibly between the harbour lights and the faint encircling stars.

Told this way the whales seem unheralded, appearing out of nowhere, the suggestion of a moment that might happen anywhere, water being what it is, and darkness doing what it does. But Mosman was full of their loomings. I’d first noticed them as charming peripherals, of a piece with the turrets and crenulations of the federation houses, part of what made Mosman improbable and baroque. Over the municipal buildings hard by Spit Junction a whale rode the air, a sperm whale, its blunt head and upraised flukes the finial flourish at the apex of the council chamber’s many-gabled roof. When the local sports teams played, they played as the whale, and in the whale’s colour—the Mosman Whales always wore blue. Best of all, the white community minibus that picked up and dropped off seniors to the bowling club (its mascot: a killer whale) or library was called the Whale Rider, or, simply, The Whale, with the jaunty slogan, “Hail the Whale!” emblazoned on its flank. This suburban Moby Dick cruised the backstreets of Mosman, swallowing the elderly and disgorging them on distant shores—I was pleased one day to see the old man get on—as fit an allegory for onrushing death as you could wish for. In Mosman, when you got old, you’d someday ride the whale.

After my first sighting of the whale ghosts, Mosman’s allegorical mascots took on a darker aspect. I looked into the suburb’s origin, and found it was built, figuratively at least, on whales, as if the story of Sinbad had been rewritten, and those unwise merchants who kindled a fire on the back of leviathan had somehow subdued it and set up shop. Archibald Mosman and his twin brother, George, Lanarkshire Scots, lately of the West Indies, decorously termed ‘planters’ by local historians, sold up their interests in sugar and arrived in Sydney in 1828, six shrewd years ahead of the commencement of the Abolition Act. Perhaps it was luck, or a sharp weather sense; perhaps they’d been tipped off—I was diving only shallowly into their affairs, reading between the websites and the pamphlets distributed by the library. In 1831, Archibald Mosman won a grant for a piece of what was then Great Sirius Cove, with the intention of setting up a whaling depot. The Government, eager to shift the reek of the whaling industry from Darling Harbour further afield, gave him money and convicts. Their free labour pulled timber and stone from what would soon be called Mosman’s Bay to build a storehouse, depot, outfitters, and ‘The Nest’, a grand home and Archibald Mosman’s seat, from which he could oversee his flourishing business without having to smell it.

Like so many extractive industries, like sugar, like slavery, like coal, the profits were vast. Mosman soon bought out his rival, John Bell, and acquired more ships, profiting meanwhile from the outfitting and careening of the ships of others. The men who crewed the ships, who risked the waves in thin boats, who hurled harpoons and did huge murder, were often payed a pittance, reduced, through a system of shares and tariffs for provisions, to something like indentured servitude. From ‘The Nest’, Mosman trafficked in the largest sentient bodies ever known, whose masses of blubber yielded up oil to light streets and grease machinery, whose subtler fluids anointed faces in cosmetics, while pet food, fertilizer and dresses were fashioned from their cathedral bones. The whales were hunted and killed, stripped and atomised, became blood, oil, and bone, and Archibald Mosman, like Rumpelstiltskin, transmuted these gargantuan piles of offal into gold.

To my eyes then Mosman Bay became a scene of unimaginable carnage, a great, weltering charnel house, an abattoir for god-sized bodies. I envisioned lines of ships pouring through the great jaws of the Heads, each one bearing with it a dead or dying whale, snug against their sides in gruesome parody of an escorted calf. Ignorant of the way whalers rendered down their prey at sea, I conceived a production line in Mosman Bay, a red mirror to the ships’ outfitters nearby, a place where whales where stripped down, and sweating men heaved chunks of blubber into giant cauldrons boiling with profit, or crabbed for ambergris through tortuous swathes of bowel. And in that epic butchery, what airs and fluids where released to seep into the land and water of that place? What sobbed from those lungs in which a man could fit, whose breath had weight and could move matter, its voice like a vast limb? What burst from those cuts, those lurid curtains of flesh parted by knives, the skin peeled back in spirals by the flensing spades? I thought of a sea made treacly with blood, and the creatures drawn by such a rich spill, the bull sharks with their brawny necks, the leech-like hagfish roiling into knots, and sleeper sharks up from abyssal depths, their eyes black and staring, their skin a pouched and putrid shade of grey. Or the creatures from inside the whale, itself an ecosystem, twining, hook-nosed intestinal worms as long and fat as eels, spilling out from their punctured atmosphere and finding new food in this strange external sea. I thought of the bay turned all red, the fish moving in it like maggots in a wound.

Archibald Mosman, shrewd as ever, did not stay long. His profits were enough that he sold his share in the business for a steady annuity. The bottom dropped out of whaling soon after: the whales were harder to find, their numbers drastically reduced, and anyway there were new fuels from organisms long dead—whales lost out to oil. Archibald Mosman moved inland, but the suburb remained. Its sea views and dramatic sandstone heights made it attractive to artists and wealth; property was already prohibitively expensive. Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts set up a bohemian artist’s camp around the point from Mosman Bay at Sirius Cove. Shedding its industry, Mosman bloomed. Mansions appeared on its hills, with tennis courts and flowering trees—bowers maintained for the courtship displays of the rich. Whaling was quickly reduced to a romantic aspect of the past. Henry Lawson wrote a clumsy poem about it. What was left of the whales in Mosman bay was silted over, the depot gone, the storehouse now a community hall with an arched door fashioned from a whale’s rib, through which couples passed to dance.

But maybe they still lingered. It seemed impossible that so little trace of so many enormous lives should be left, that such an atrocity should be attended by no marker, no consequence, nothing. The bodies of the whales had vanished into profit, into so much organic material and economic activity, an immeasurable blood sacrifice offered up to prosperity, rich red gallons poured into Mosman Bay. Maybe the waters were rippling with their ghosts. The studies I read about whales had a spectral aspect—a kind of reverence for what was still unknown, and awe of what was. Sperm whales, I learned, used their bulky heads as sonic projectors, pulsing sounds that stunned their prey like an invisible fist; caused haemorrhaging in the tissues of squid. Bowhead whales, it was posited, lived for up to three centuries. Many whales navigated by listening, their ears attuned over hemispheric distances to the breakers on strange shores. Humpbacks learned new songs, and sang them. Blue whales communicated with each other by infrasound, a call so deep and low it was inaudible to the human ear. Killer whales had distinct dialects, and taught each other skills of such complexity they were said to have culture. One hypothesis stated that many whales were capable of religion. Their brains and lives were complex enough to warrant a cosmology and a sense of self. Above all animals, they seemed capable of ghostly returns, swimming in and out of memory, recalled always by the sea.

And so I fell to thinking, half-seriously, that what I’d witnessed were whale ghosts, intent on pilgrimage to the place of their slaughter. And maybe the whale ghosts, with their ocean-traversing voices, were singing of their sorrow, a titanic song of mourning for themselves and for their dead. And this song, rippling through the suburb’s many waters, passing unheard into the ears of its sleepers, was the source of Mosman’s madness, its hostility and dread. Perhaps the suburb’s making, Archibald Mosman’s great enterprise of death, had called up this doom on the place, blighted it with unquenchable grief.

It was a deeply seductive idea. It gave to my sense of paranoia and grievance against a suburb I barely knew an attractive aptness, as if I was on the side of the whales, riding in the bow waves of their ghosts. I felt sorrowful and righteous: brooding over man’s wrongs, seeing what was unseen. But if at times I swerved into seriousness, I was also amused—my eldritch speculations let the pressure off the real unpleasantness of Mosman, restored irony, humour and equipoise. Over time the whale ghosts settled into a useful idea, a coverall term for what was rotten in the suburb, a lens through which to view its freaks and starts. Still, though, on those nights when the wind dropped, and I woke to the groaning of the wharf, I always got up and watched for the strange travellers, whose saintly procession made the inky water boil.

Still, too, the suburb waxed strange—fishermen drowned in calm seas under a full moon, a woman was strangled by her partner in the west wing of our former building, and a cruel, stupid man strapped a fake collar bomb to someone’s daughter as a convoluted form of revenge. He’d left behind a series of obvious clues, sent his ransom note from a library computer on the Central Coast, and used references from James Clavell’s Shogun—an arduous philistinism that seemed to me the perfect emblem of Mosman’s rich. Finally, the interior of our first apartment caught fire—a freak accident caused by a shorting wire. The new owner’s face was in the paper as part of an appeal—we’d met her previously when she tried desperately to involve us in a lawsuit she hoped to pursue against the old man who was now making her life hell. Narrating all this to the barista at the café around from the shop, I laughed, and blamed it on the whale ghosts. When he asked, I gleefully explained—I had high hopes for them as an urban legend, a new aspect of Mosman’s grim mythology, a complicating element in the stories of its many high-profile tragedies, like the murder of Victor Chang, or John Wayne Glover the ‘Granny Killer’, who’d stalked the backstreets despatching old women with a hammer. But still they appeared.

On my days off I took long walks, following the water, past Camp Curlew, where Streeton and Roberts had painted; the treatment plant, its electric fence ticking in the wind; the musky lower reaches of Taronga Zoo. And then on, the land tending upwards, whipbirds calling, the harbour and the city at my right shoulder, out along the curve of Athol Bay with white boats winking on its brim. Each step more haunted than the last, each landmark brimming with portent, Bradley’s Head and HMAS Sydney, the keep-like stones, the hulking, gunmetal crucifix of the mast, and a lonely faux-Grecian column, suggesting all the rest had been eaten by the sea. North to Taylors Bay where yachts rode at anchor, and a tarnished sign told of more ghosts locked in the water: Japanese sailors caught in the submarine net. A grand mansion, bristling with chimneys and scaled like a dragon, loomed over the path to Chowder Head, once the meeting place for theosophists and quacks, now empty of everything but books and the molten gleam of copper that lined the walls (in their séances and circles, channelling saints, philosophers, and sometimes Napoleon, had they heard the whales?). Then Clifton Gardens rising up in perpetual sun; Chowder Bay, with swimmers, a shark net, and sometimes an oil tanker; and on, up great stairs in the footsteps of Bungaree, friend of Flinders and Governor Macquarie, to George’s Heights where kookaburras hunted on old fortifications stamped Victoria Regina. Past abandoned barracks shedding paint, past lightning rods courting the clouds, past tennis courts, ovals, and the path to Whiting Beach, where sun-cured, leathery naturists stalked up through the trees, out onto the bulwark of Middle Head, Mosman’s terminus, sandstone cliffs washed by an elegiac blue-green sea.

On the brink of Middle Head I’d rest, on sandstone warm as a biscuit, or on the rounded sward of grass beneath the ruins of the fort, the pillboxes giving way to weeds and concrete rot, the great gun emplacement like an alchemist’s circle washed out by the rain. Lying on the earth, I’d listen for things moving beneath, the passage of air in the abandoned military tunnels that honeycombed the cliffs, their entrances barred or covert. Somewhere in this subterranean network were the Tiger Cages, barred enclosures too small to stand up in or sit down, where intelligence recruits were taken and incarcerated in preparation for possible capture in Vietnam. Here, too, was the Well of Truth, a round shaft of unremitting darkness in which men were interred and, at times, driven past breaking by the constant roar of water seeking them through the cliff. I thought of these tunnels, worming through the rock, as capillaries, great circulatory systems, but also points of ingress, where the waters and the whale ghosts could pass into the rock, into the marrow of Mosman’s bones. But then the light would change, or the weather would draw in, and I’d look up to the swallows snapping and arrowing over the fort, or out over the harbour, at the seabirds commuting home in the lanes between the smooth lines of swell, and walk on.

In the end, the whale ghosts were solved for me by accident. There was no real pattern to their appearance, save a preference for the smaller hours and mild weather. All my attempts to anticipate them failed and anyway my motives were unclear. I was captivated with their aptness, their usefulness as metaphor, and so warded off my own scepticism, watching with a closed or winking eye. Until one night, to avoid a sharp-nosed neighbour, I walked down to the wharf for a smoke.

We’d returned, that day, from Hobart, another place of whales. From Hobart we’d driven down to Recherche Bay, where I’d learned whalers processed their huge catch at sea, or in small camps near their cruising grounds—and so my lurid vision of a red-dyed Mosman’s Bay was dispelled with one swift flick of contingent fact. Recherche Bay was one such camp, and great butchery had been done in its sheltered waters. It had once been a nursery ground for Southern Right Whales, and men had killed them in great numbers, wounding the young first so their mothers would not flee. On the point of the now empty bay stood a lonely memorial—a statue of a Right Whale pointed mournfully at the sea. The overwhelming air of the place was one of peace—a vast, sorrowful quiet, an ocean empty of whales and their ghosts.

I thought about this as I smoked, and looked down into the obscured waters where the wharf lights met the dark. A light fog passed over the harbour, and the wind stilled. On Cremorne Point, the lighthouse winked its Gatsby-green light. I began to listen carefully. What I was looking to see I did not know—a milky apparition passing beneath the surface of the waves, or great shapes, black on black, visible only by their profound absence—peering through the water, hoping, perhaps, to be pushed back into credulity by some marvel. But out of the dark came a vast luxury craft, high-storied with a prow part fist, part sword, not black or blue but tooth-white, with a soft, deep-throbbing engine, and a man in a white shirt drinking from a can at its helm. From where I stood the craft looked like the scrimshawed remainder of a whale, its dorsal fin pointing down, its body riding, against its nature, above the surface, become its opposite. As it passed into the bay, it was pursued at distance by its wake, and the bay heaved in its familiar, eerie way. And I realised then what Mosman’s whales became; what their killing left behind. Here was no nemesis, no cosmic doom drawn by sundering crimes. Countless whales had been killed, carved, pulled, and boiled into their sundry useful parts: some rich men grew richer, some fat men fatter. Mosman’s whales were gone, and even their ghosts had long since been turned into money.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ELIAS GREIG is a part-time retail worker, and a full-time PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focusses on the link between poetic and political representation in the early work of William Wordsworth. He still lives in Mosman.

[Header Image: Currawong by Virtual Wolf @ Flickr. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.]

 

from Issue #8: Poetry by Bill Adams

Photo (CC) Vic Nicholas @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Vic Nicholas @ Flickr

*

Wren

This is a bird’s back
Keeled as a breastbone
Fragile as a bag of sticks
Creaking like a matchbox.

Life is still a kind of test
You pick at details out of place
Lose concentration for a moment
And everything will come to pieces.

Your pinched body shrinks
To the essential kernel of discomfort
A sharp questing wren, forced to perch,
Flinty with disapproval.

Your bones are hollowing,
Soon you will simply blow away,
And we will hold only echoes of sharp song,
The self-belief that framed us

 

*

 

Halloween

Tonight is the night that old dogs bark
And kids fill bus shelters,
When leaves give up and slump
Like plaster in a roofless house.

Tonight, car drivers desperate to get home
Jump lights and shave corners.
It was dark early – the fog
Is thick as ash and eats sound.

Tonight, November shambles forwards,
Asthmatic and grey-faced, sucking out the light.
The thinning hedge is a shrew ash,
Dressed with plastic. The festivals

We use to ward off darkness,
Tonight start to reveal themselves,
Stalk empty streets,
And search for souls.

 

*

 

Barn Owl

Wings supple as a scarf:
Rigged to perfection,
That box fuselage
Stretched canvas over bent sticks;

Inside, a small hot body,
The rest is buoyancy.

Launched across the thin grass
You float beside the hedge,
Dipping and rising, a lilting tune
Against the dark blackthorn stave.

But this is not a maiden flight,
Your eyes miss nothing:

A roving drone, with death
Slung sheathed beneath you.

As the cooling air thickens
Wingtips sense the layered currents,
You turn, a shark quartering a reef,
Flip across the hedge, gone.

Ghost bird, for years your blank eyes
Watched me grow up, face pinched with disapproval.

Now I see you sometimes, towards dusk
In desert camouflage,
Fragile in the light air, drifting,
And I think, where did it all go?

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

BILL ADAMS teaches about the complex relations between people and nature in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He has published various books on conservation and development, including Wasting the Rain (Minnesota University Press, 1992) Future Nature (Earthscan 1995), Against Extinction (Earthscan 2004) and Green Development (Routledge, 2009). Bill lives in a village just within bicycling distance of Cambridge, and blogs on conservation at thinkinglikeahuman.com.

New from Contrappasso contributor Kent Harrington

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Remember ‘Nirvana‘, the excerpt from Kent Harrington‘s novel Satellite Circus that appeared in our eighth issue? Well, the author has brought his wicked noir vision to a frightening post-meltdown scenario – “a Fukushima-created, isotope-glowing nightmare.” The novel is called Howlers. Ebook only, available now.
Here’s the information:

Timberline, California is a small mountain town whose citizens look after each other. The local sheriff, Quentin Collier, keeps the peace much as his father did before him; crime is rare enough that he and his deputies can help the state ranger service with search and rescue operations when needed. A recent widower, Collier’s raising two daughters on the cusp of adulthood and is just starting to think about making a new start with Patty Tyson, one of the state rangers.

It doesn’t make any sense when Willis Good, the town’s only defense attorney, is arrested for the murders of his wife and children. No one doubts Good’s guilt: the deputies found him standing over his wife’s dead body, while their two children lay dead in the family car. Good’s story doesn’t make any sense, either. He insists that he had to kill his wife because she’d become something horrible. Quentin, his deputies, and the town’s doctor, Marvin Poole, mourn the deaths of the Good family and the inexplicable loss of Good’s sanity.

Within hours of Good’s arrest, however, it becomes clear to Quentin and the other residents of Timberline that something is very wrong. Reporter Miles Hunt attends a press conference at Genesoft, the area’s largest employer, and sees that half of the food technology firm’s workforce has called in sick. Timberline High School reports an unusual number of absences, and the sheriff’s phone is ringing off the hook with missing persons reports.

Over the course of the next several days, the residents of Timberline must rally against an unknown force — virus, food contamination, radiation or something even worse — that transforms their friends and neighbors into murderous, howling monsters. When the military forces they expect to save them reveal themselves to be as dangerous as the howlers, Timberline’s survivors realize that no one is safe, and no place is safe — except, perhaps, the sanctuary built by “doomsday prepper” Chuck Phelps, who was sure all along that devastation was coming.

HOWLERS is an intense, multi-layered thriller that follows Timberline’s survivors over the course of four days: Sheriff Quentin Collier and his med-student daughter, Lacy; State Park Ranger Patsy Tyson; Doctor Marvin Poole; reporter Miles Hunt and his boss, editor Howard Price; Patsy Tyson’s ex-con former husband, James Dillon; teenager Rebecca Stewart; and others, good and evil, whose motives boil down to the need to survive an unimaginable disaster. HOWLERS, first in an anticipated series, will remind readers of such apocalyptic classics as THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney and Stephen King’s THE STAND. Kent Harrington brings his unique noir sensibilities to a thriller that will leave readers tense and talking.

Buy Howlers for Kindle at Amazon.com
and don’t forget to check out

from issue #8: ‘Love in Mini Stops’ by Andrea Pasion-Flores

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LOVE IN MINI STOPS by ANDREA PASION-FLORES

SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM during the monsoon season when she went out to get a bite from a Ministop store.

Even if the rains battered the glass walls of our 21st floor office, even if the winds sang a howling protest against the wisdom of their insistence to huddle under a black golf umbrella, they still went out for short orders of pork siomai, asado pao, and fried dumplings, crossing the street even if the umbrella could only keep their inner halves dry. In a storm, puddles aren’t really puddles but streams of water overflowing from the gutters to be leapt over with gingerly grace. Pia kept her hand tucked under the arm of her man as she skipped over streams on their way to, what one officemate referred to with snickering glee, their “dim sum delights.”

During monsoon weather in Manila, the skies turn a brackish grey and the southwest winds blowing from the Pacific turn potted palmeras, trees that are not quite trees, irregularly dotting the center island of Emerald Avenue, into fluttering fronds, like hands desperately calming the beating heart of a nervous bride. The Philippines is the only country in the world with no divorce, thus the words “till death do us part” sound ever so permanent. But at thirty-one, Pia was still unmarried though she was dating a man who was. Sean, the guy, was a stockbroker and a consultant for a holding company a couple of floors above ours. He was in his late forties with, I would guess, a couple of kids. But Pia doesn’t like talking about that.

Pia and I work for a call center and I used to be the one who lived on steamed or fried dim sum with her. We both have degrees from “reputable universities,” as the ad in the papers required, with Pia having the distinct advantage of a couple of semesters towards an MA in comparative literature. But degrees from reputable universities, even with units towards an MA, don’t guarantee people high-paying salaries in places like banks and multinational corporations—except in BPOs, like the one we work for, where units towards an MA actually impressed the manager, who thought Pia would naturally speak English well, which was probably why I was hired too. Who else would she have her flawless conversations in English with?

But really, it’s Pia who is the epitome of call center excellence. She very quickly perfected the friendly, impersonal tone that placates irate callers in New York—the worst of them with their hurried speech and their demanding-to-speak-to-the-supervisor tones. She counters with her I-understand-your-concerns or I-know-how-you-feel said in a melodious voice. To sound convincing, Pia speaks slowly, with an envied twang that remembers that a U has an “uh” sound and not the “ooh” of Filipino. And that, for Pia, was a lot considering she has never been to the US.

I was a June bride and, unlike the seasons in the West where June brides walk down aisles of flowers in garden weddings, I married during the monsoon. No garden wedding for me, just the one where the groom anxiously waited at the end of a church aisle, his inability to smile giving the impression that he was forced by circumstance to be where he stood. Unlike Pia, I believed in fairytale endings even if I did have a child growing inside of me that negated my happy ending and forced me to marry in a month of bad weather. At twenty-five, old enough but not quite ready to be a bride, I said the dreaded till-death-do-us-part vows. I do wonder, sometimes, if the words had not been heard through the din of rain drumming on the galvanized iron sheets of the church’s roof, do they count?

That was four years ago when, despite my misgivings, marriage and everything I thought it stood for beyond the white dress, the walking down the aisle, family crying in the pews, overshadowed all the doubts I had. With a love-conquers-all attitude eager to overcome the vastness of infinity that could not have been comprehended in a single moment, I clung to the stubborn belief that my new husband and I could weather everything till death do us part. Of course, we didn’t succeed. At least, I consoled myself, it was a slow parting; after about a year of mutual torture, he didn’t bother to come home at all.

But I’m fine. I tell myself that I can raise my son on my own, that I am strong, that I’m an I-don’t-need-a-man-to-define-me kind of girl, and so what if I do dial his number and hang up before his phone rings? And I still remember things like our anniversary, June 9. We chose the number nine because nine is a lucky number, the largest single-digit Arabic number, lucky because of love potion number nine. Many people thought I was lucky when Jason became my husband. The guy was a catch. He was tall and good looking, fairly well off with a condominium unit he was paying for, and a car to his name. He seemed decent, the kind of guy I hoped wouldn’t let a girl he got pregnant go it alone in the world. And, for a while at least I thought I had it made: I got the guy.

I’m two years younger than Pia, but I do feel older and wiser, capable of counseling her on matters such as falling in love in bad weather. Of course she doesn’t listen. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t listen if I were in her shoes. Thus, despite my warnings and in the pouring rain, Pia fell in love over an order of fried siomai and a large Coke in a convenience store, a thirty-five-peso meal. I forgot to ask her if Sean had at least paid for her dim sum that day she thought he was the one but it would have been tragic had he not, so I didn’t ask.

All she said was that she noticed when he strode into the Ministop. She was standing in line to pay for her food as he made a beeline for the beverage refrigerators at the back before stopping by the siopao steamer to help himself to an asado pao. She knew it was an asado pao because that was the only variety that was ready that afternoon; the others, though already in the machine, were fresh from the freezer and still frozen. There were two cashiers open that day because it was relatively busy, and there were a few people who went inside to shelter from the rain, milling about the aisles of snacks, petite-sized toiletries, and magazines. He happened to line up at the other cashier and their elbows grazed each other. She doesn’t know if that was intentional on his part, but it was the moment she looked up and their eyes met. She looked away quickly only to look back up again, noticing that he had large brown eyes and thick bushy eyebrows and that he had not looked away.

“Nice weather we’re having.” He had a deep masculine voice, strong and in control, and it made her heart flutter. She noticed how thick his neck was, like it was straining out of his collar, fighting with a button and the knot of his tie that was begging to be loosened.

“The best,” she said. Then they were at the counter, where candies, chocolate bars and bananas fought for space with cigarette lighters and condoms. They didn’t leave right away because the rain was pouring in sheets and someone had wondered, she can’t remember who, whether work would be called off that day. So they stayed.

There is a smell that permeates every store, every single one within walking distance from our office. Some people are unable to place it, but those who frequent a Ministop would know that it’s the stink of used oil, of cooking balled up meats that might’ve qualified as street food except they’re not in the open polluted air of the city. The odor seeps into walls, suits, shirts, bags and even into a person’s skin so that there really is no denying having come from a Ministop. Like a tryst in a drive-in motel room that reeks of the smell of forbidden sex that can’t be hidden beneath swipes of Zonrox bleach or sprays of Lysol, the Ministop smell can’t be disguised with spritzes of Nenuco, which Pia keeps in her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30, an irrational purchase to be sure but it’s iconic, she assured me. I guess it complements her woman-of-the-world façade and the I-can-handle-casual-sex attitude, a persona she seems to be trying hard to perfect. It’s there and can’t be denied. I knew from the odor of used cooking oil when Pia had been downstairs on a break with Sean—just like when a fruity-floral smell accompanied her, it meant she had showered in her apartment with him.

When I used to come home somewhat regularly at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, I used to wonder if the excuses I made to my parents of having worked the night shift could cover the hours I spent with Jason in Pasig’s motel area. The eyes of the motel employees never meeting mine, speaking in whispers only to Jason of the room choices we had for a three-hour tryst, or a twelve-hour overnight special. I thought then that I could mask my guilt with dabs of cologne, or pretenses of being too tired to stay awake for breakfast. But then again, it doesn’t matter now because I have a four-year-old boy named JJ, after his father, a “junior.”

There is a kind of vanity to naming a child after a parent, I know. But I had another motive for agreeing to this arrangement. It’s as if the act of naming him after his father would compel the dad to make a commitment to the child, to the relationship. A child, after all, becomes more than the I-dos, more than the ceremony, more than the eternity symbolized by the ring. Sometimes, as in my case, it is the reason for being a couple after all, for a marriage. But even if that is argued as a flimsy excuse, then the naming of a child after the parent should be another reason to commit. Isn’t it an acknowledgment of paternity? The clichéd promise of continuity?

I had JJ in December, the real wedding season in the Philippines when the weather is cooler, the streets are lit with festivity, and people are filled with the hope of eternity. The cool dawn air is chilly enough for a light sweater and, if I wake up early, I can see my breath form a cool fleeting mist in the air, and I can pretend to be in the places the calls I process come from: Washington, New Jersey, New York, or California.

Pia’s dad lives in Los Anjeh-leez, Cal-fornya. When taking a call, we’re supposed to speak English with an American twang so that customers don’t suspect that their calls are taken by someone in a third world country. But they know. I hear it in the disdainful tone they use when they enunciate every syllable. If they didn’t like sending the call center business our way, they should just opt to hire the cheap labor found within their shores, like Pia’s dad for example. He left the country as a tourist and could not return to the Philippines unless he was ready to leave the US forever, armed, as was his promise to Pia, with enough money to live comfortably in Laguna where he had a plot of land to turn into a thriving business. But that was eight years ago. And, even if he worked as a supervisor at Home Depot, where he put his talent for carpentry and furniture-making to some use, there seemed to be little hope that he could turn an hourly rate into wealth to convert idle family land into a living, especially since, being an illegal, he wasn’t supposed to be working in the first place.

I know that, for a while, Pia had hoped her dad would get his green card and petition for her so that she could go to America and leave her dead-end love life behind; at least, that was how I thought her relationship with Sean was. But that was just my opinion because, according to Pia, it wasn’t like that, and Sean wasn’t like Jason. That would shut me up.

At first her dad’s calls were filled with promises of bringing her over. When that plan didn’t seem possible, it became the promise of returning home with enough money for everyone to live a comfortable life. Now, even that line seemed hollow. These days, when it comes to the topic of her dad, Pia just says she doesn’t care if he doesn’t come back as long as he sends her some money, which he does, albeit erratically: three hundred dollars this month, two hundred when he’s a bit hard up, like when his rent, car, and credit card payments are due, which is all the time. Once, however, she received five hundred dollars for her birthday, brought over by an aunt on holiday. And that seemed to make up for everything, while the money lasted—all of three weeks. It doesn’t matter I guess because, before long, our earnings were more than what Pia’s dad was sending.

Her mom apparently had long known that her dad had abandoned them. So she had taken up with another man, whom I thought had the decency to tell her up front that he had a wife and two kids he was never leaving. But then again Pia’s mom wasn’t exactly single, so that worked out, unlike Pia’s guy Sean, who was non-committal, who just had a lot of “Soon, I promise,” or “I am leaving her as soon as the kids are okay.” I would look at Pia with my you-know-better-than-that look but she would just look at me as if to say who was I to give advice? End of argument.

Sean’s wife was a salesperson in a company that sold everything from makeup to dishwashing soap, so was always traveling. According to Pia, it didn’t feel so wrong when the wife wasn’t in town. Sean would show up at her studio unit on Sapphire Street, a couple of blocks from Emerald, with a bottle of wine, a box of garlic and herb boursin and a loaf of French bread. And when he did that, Pia said it felt a little like being in a restaurant where they had real tablecloths with cushioned layers under the toppers so that the dishes and the wine glasses wouldn’t make offending clinks when the waiters set them on the table—and not a cold, quick snack in a Styrofoam box laid out on a printed paper menu on a laminated table. Sometimes he also brought jars of moisturizing cream that were the new products of his wife’s company, and that seemed to make things feel special.

Sean wasn’t like the guys at work, Pia said. He held the car door open instead of just lifting the automatic locks. He reached out for her hand across the table, rubbed her knee in the movie house, said he admired her independence and, well, maybe her legs, too. Jason actually told me that, that he liked my legs during one of those motel trips, during the part when he should’ve said I love you. But I might have equated it to mean the same thing so I believed him, the way Pia might have been convinced of Sean’s feelings for her by the moisturizing creams he brought her, though she shouldn’t have counted those because he got them for free, from his wife.

I didn’t have it that bad, Pia always liked to remind me. At least Jason still gave money for some of JJ’s necessities, even if it was only when I’d ask, of course. Never voluntarily. I would have to text him something like, “Need stff 4 JJ, cn u dep 3k in my acct?” He responds at least, even if they were digital grunts, like a “k,” or a “nxt wk.” It was enough. Well, not really, but if that’s this millennium’s idea of fatherhood, I’d best take what I can. This didn’t happen often enough to be called real support, but it did happen now and then. No complaints about how much he had to deposit, I only needed to ask and he would give it, as if to say, “Here’s the money, take it, and be gone.” At least he doesn’t complain, and if he doesn’t complain, it seemed incumbent upon me to do the same. Jason never visits, never asks about his child, never asks about anything, period. It’s just as well.

I know I should have reminded myself not to be too invested that day I told Jason I needed to meet him to get money from him personally because the need was urgent. I didn’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought there might still be a spark I could rekindle so that we might find our way back together instead of just ongoing messages about depositing the money in my account. Tomorrow night, if he didn’t mind. Ortigas area, I said, suggesting Florabel’s at the Podium where the food was a bit pricey but not that expensive. If Jason wasn’t going to foot the bill, I could whip out my Mastercard and think about the money later.

I wore a camel-colored jersey dress with a V-neck to show a little cleavage, making sure I do not look too desperate. The dress was ruched at the hem, and I paired it with black strappy shoes and a red clutch. I thought I looked sexy in a way that wasn’t trying too hard. It was a dress that was suitable for work, too, looking like I just threw it on in a rush and not like I tried on five dresses before I settled on it.

I was five minutes late for our seven o’clock. He was thirty minutes late, striding in in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt that had the insignia of San Miguel beer, Crocs shoes, looking, for all intents and purposes, like he just came from a car wash.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said as he sat down, signaling the waiter for the menu. “Had to pass by Honda to have my car checked. What’s good here?”

“They have Angus beef burgers, steaks…” I answered, trying to calm the nervousness in my voice. The waiter stood silently, patiently waiting to take our orders.

“What are you getting?” He said, his eyes scanning the menu, his voice calm.

“I’m having the grilled lapu-lapu.” The waiter scribbled quickly. At 475 pesos, the dish was medium-priced and would not break my budget, I thought.

“I think I’ll have the foie gras burger,” he said. I looked quickly at how much the burger costs and noted that it was P780. With drinks, our meal would cost around P2,000 if we skipped dessert.

“Anything to drink?” the waiter asked.

“Just water for me,” I replied.

“A regular Coke, please,” Jason replied, folding the menu and pushing it towards the waiter.

I must say that I didn’t know what I wanted to happen, only that I wanted something to. So I asked him about his job, his family, and even his car. He grunted his answers and kept things politely moving along.

He ate fast but not too fast for me to think he couldn’t stand to be with me another second, which was probably why, in the middle of his sentence talking about his boss, I swallowed my lemon-buttery fish heavily seasoned with my pride and the fear of rejection that had me frazzled during the whole meal, and dared to stretch out my hand to cover his, lying brown and non-committal against the white linen. He stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me, first with a puzzled expression on his face, then something similar to a smile.

“So, you need some cash for JJ again?”

“Let’s not talk about that,” I said, hoping I conveyed in my voice and with the fingers gently rubbing the back of his hand that I wanted to communicate more than just through text messages. He must have gotten the message because he took my insistent hand, held it and leaned forward to say gently, almost like a promise, that we should get out of here.

I grabbed my purse to reach for my wallet. But he waived it away just like the old days and called the waiter for the check. When that was dispensed with, he grabbed my hand and, like kids who couldn’t get to the playground fast enough, we headed for his car. He drove towards the motel area in Pasig, picking one of the places we had gone to in the past.

It was awkward at first, like kissing for the first time. Then it was like a drink after walking the sidewalks of the city during a particularly hot and humid afternoon. It was frenzied and desperate and over quickly. We were both on the bed staring up at our images in the ceiling’s tacky mirror, where I could see our bodies separated by a foot of space I was wondering how to bridge. The blanket was up to his waist. I turned on my side to look at his face, his disheveled hair, his thick eyebrows, his nose in profile. His phone sounded: a message. He reached over to the side table to take it and started texting back a reply.

“Who is it?” I asked. I reached over to trace his face with my finger.

“My girlfriend, Linda.” It was probably the truth because the reply came fast and without hesitation. He looked at me sideways, like he realized his mistake. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling telling myself not to make an embarrassment of myself by starting to cry. And I am your wife, I wanted to yell but didn’t.

“I’d like to go home now,” I said. I stood up, throwing the blanket behind me, looking around for my clothes, trying to put them on as fast as I found them. He got up, too, looking for the words to erase the awkwardness.

“Hey,” he said, as if trying to begin an explanation. “It’s not like we’re still together, right?” He was right. Before bringing me home, he stopped by an ATM machine. Then he dropped me off in front of my building.

“Umm, here’s the money for JJ,” he said, handing me a wad of 1,000-peso bills. I had the mind to refuse it, really. I know now it would have made me feel better if I did and made him feel worse, I’m sure. But I took the money and stuffed it in my bag and got off the car without counting it. He gave me 20,000 pesos in all, which wasn’t much, but it was much, much more than the usual. At least, I tried to console myself, he said the name of his child, which means, even if he was with someone else, that there might be that chance that he would come back for his son. Right?

Once I was in a store with JJ, buying a pair of rubber shoes when Jason came in with a girl. She wasn’t pretty, that much my own low self-esteem acknowledged as a fact. She also looked older than he did, which would mean she was older than I was. He was talking, distracted, and didn’t seem to have seen us before it was too late not to be noticed. It took him a few seconds to feel that I was staring at him. He looked at me and, for a moment, we stared at each other before his mouth hardened. He saw the child marching around the store trying out his new shoes. He feigned this look, as if assessing whether the salesperson had time to assist him, given the number of customers. Then, acting as if he saw that there were two too many, he steered his lady friend out the door. And that was the last time I saw Jason. I now always buy JJ’s shoes from that shop, hoping to bump into Jason again. It never happened. Unlike me, he seemed to consider the encounter a mistake never to be repeated, like the mistake of agreeing to see me that one time.

Then it came one day in the mail, a notice to answer a petition for the declaration of nullity of a marriage—mine. The law office where I brought the document was on the 28th floor of Winston Tower on Emerald Avenue. The air was thick with the smell of cigarettes. The glass walls met in a corner that pointed to Manila Bay in the smoggy horizon, the bright sun descending into the gray-blue waters in the distance created swathes of red and orange. Good thing Jason filed the petition in Mandaluyong, the lawyer said. Mandaluyong had judges who still granted annulments as a matter of course, he said, and everything would be okay if I just followed the path of least resistance—which was not to contest it.

An annulment, I came to learn, is the Philippine equivalent of a divorce. It can only be applied when one spouse (or both!) is declared “psychologically incapacitated,” nice legal mumbo-jumbo to mean the person is crazy. Of course the lawyer qualified this, saying that the “incapacity” may have shown up during the marriage even if a person seemed perfectly normal before the wedding. He explained that incapacity is essentially the inability to perform the duties of a spouse—give respect, support and love—which is a disease, apparently, a medical condition that is incurable. Thus, the lawyer said, his voice now slightly booming in the office, there was the necessity of an annulment. Having been fooled into a marriage with a spouse incapable of fulfilling these duties was an important factor—as if Jason had been duped into thinking that I was the kind of person he could spend the rest of his life with, and somewhere along the way towards this happy-ever-after I had failed him. Or vice versa, depending on who was willing to be the fall guy. This incapacity, the lawyer’s voice seemed to grow louder in anticipation of an enumeration of incapacities, could be seen in how the spouse may have acted like a mama’s boy or how he refused to support his child or if he used drugs or was an alcoholic or other signs of immaturity slash incapacity I might be able to think of. Choose your own adventure.

I was silent for a moment, wondering if I was about to ask an intelligent question: How about if he just didn’t come home one day? Isn’t that a manifestation of Jason’s psychological incapacity to perform the duties of a spouse?

“Well, not really,” the lawyer said, somewhat disappointed. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes on the table, making a show of pulling one out and reaching for the lighter, but he thought better of it and didn’t light up. “That’s just abandonment,” he told me, “and the legal remedy for that is just legal separation.” Being left alone holding the proverbial bag, in this case the wailing child, meant only that—being left alone. There must be something more than being abandoned, the lawyer insisted, like “a manifestation that something was wrong with him psychologically.”

“Wasn’t leaving enough?”

“No. You don’t want that.”

“I don’t?” Legal separation, the lawyer explained, his voice with its condescending tone, sounded more and more like a call I was processing, didn’t allow either of us to remarry. And marrying again, he presumed, was the option I most wanted. I must have nodded at this point, thinking to myself that, to the world, Jason must have had all his marbles intact when he decided to leave. In any case, the lawyer droned, having lost interest in the particulars of my case since Jason was the one filing for an annulment, not contesting might be the smarter thing to do.

“Let him pay for it,” the lawyer declared smugly. “You’re young. You will find someone again.” He seemed to consider that statement to be the best advice he had given the entire duration of our one-hour conversation. Getting married a second time, he said, unable to emphasize it enough, was something to consider after all.

Thus, even if I was raising our child, even if I wasn’t the one who left, even if I thought myself up to the challenge of being able to give respect, support and love, I resigned myself to the fact that I was the psychologically-incapacitated spouse because Jason was paying for the annulment. Going by the petition, my being a spoiled brat, overly-dependent, and scheming (having used our child to secure a marriage with him, not to mention how I deviously continue to use our child to extort money from him) all pointed to the fact that I was not okay in the head. Of course, this incapacity showed itself in telltale signs like my propensity to lie and my domineering behavior and of course, unfortunately for him, all this became apparent only after we were married. This said, he could not have known of my mental state before that rainy day in June. Worse, continued his complaint, I had become an unreasonable person, making demands on him for luxuries his meager salary couldn’t sustain.

“It’s not so bad,” Pia told me over her cappuccino at Figaro’s after browsing the 12-page document. “Says here he is willing to support your child, right? So, just let go, move on.”

I am all for moving on. So I kept an open mind as best I could while Pia changed the subject to talk about her dad. “He’s getting married.”

“I thought he already was.”

“He’s going to file for a divorce, marry a US citizen, get a green card and petition for me.”

I thought for a moment how seemingly simple that plan was, but I knew Pia’s dad needed a lawyer, like I did. And that lawyer might tell him that, because he’s Filipino, he should get an annulment like what I was doing so that he could marry a US citizen, as divorce applied to everybody else in the world but us. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked a stupid question. “Who’s the lucky girl?”

“He’s arranging something with a Suzanne, who is willing to get hitched for twenty thousand dollars up front and another twenty when he gets his green card. Then there are lawyer’s fees, expenses and all sorts of other fees.”

“How is he supposed to pay for all this?”

“Well, he asked me to help him sell our land in Laguna. Everything will be okay when he gets his green card, he promised. He’ll get a better job, a house, and all that, and he’ll be able to petition for me. As long as I stay single, he says.”

“Why do you have to stay single?”

“Because if I get married, silly, it’s as if I broke away from my parents to be on my own and I’ll have to do all this by myself. I mean it’s hard enough that I’m no longer a minor. Now that I’m an adult, the petition will take much longer.”

By which time, if it were even to happen, I thought, no one would want to marry you. But, instead of saying that, I just nodded my head and said, “Okay. And Sean?”

She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her coffee, perhaps the only clue she was willing to concede about the uncertainty of their relationship. “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said. “It’s not as if we were rushing to get married in the first place.” And she tossed her hair like she didn’t care.

“How is Sean?”

“He’s fine, I guess.” Pia shrugged. “Says it’s the time of year when he’s busy at work. He hasn’t been passing by in a while, actually.” Again, she tossed her hair, her fingers taking one end of hair to twirl.

I looked at Pia, wondering if I should probe deeper. It would be Pia’s birthday in two weeks. The other day she said she had asked Sean to get her a Louis Vuitton Neverfull GM bag. The large one described on the website was worth $900, she said with a giggle. She dropped subtle hints, like an email with a link to the website.

“That’s the spirit,” I told her. “Finally, a step above siomai!”

I told her it was as if she had given a long-time boyfriend an ultimatum: let’s take the next step or break up. Why keep at it if it seemed to be going nowhere, right?

She agreed. A LV bag might be considered this era’s equivalent of an engagement ring for relationships that do not fall within the till-death-do-us part category. She’d asked for the style that featured the trademark monogram of the brand. “It’s a classic,” she told me. “It’s like jeans or a Chanel 2.55 quilted bag.”

“Huh?”

I just didn’t get it, Pia said. “The LV will age beautifully, with the vachetta of the handles and seams developing a honey-brown patina that will make it look more beautiful over the years.”

“It reminds me of a diaper bag,” I told her back in the office when she clicked on the link to show me the bag. “And why is the name Neverfull? I can fill that up easy.” I bristled at a promise that would easily be broken.

“That’s because you’re a mom, everything is babyfied. But it’s a practical purchase,” she said. “I can put everything in it and use it every day.”

I wondered how practical it would be for Sean to bring almost forty thousand pesos in cash to the LV store in Greenbelt because he couldn’t risk his wife catching the item on his credit card bill. After which, he would have to find a way to hide his purchase from the wife and deliver it to Pia.

Two weeks later, Pia was waiting for Sean to pick her up from her apartment. For her birthday, they were going to have dinner, he said, at the Top of the Citi, a restaurant with a stunning view of the Makati skyline. It was managed by Le Soufflé and did French cuisine well. She already knew what she wanted, she told me, as she had looked up the menu online. She didn’t want to seem like she didn’t eat in proper restaurants or that all she knew of her food was spelled out on the lit menu boards of convenience stores. She would get the French onion soup, slow-cooked onions topped with a slice of baguette and smothered with Gruyere cheese. She would also order the duck confit served with the échalote sauce reduction, with blanched veggies on the side. She would suggest he get the charbroiled rack of lamb in a garlic-rosemary jus, accompanied by blanched spinach and mashed potatoes. For dessert, they would share the sugar-free chocolate decadence, drizzled with caramel sauce. The dinner would be long and intimate, and they would talk about things that matter. So she told me she had dressed up for it: a silver, sequined dress and blue high-heeled shoes with rhinestones covering the knots of delicate bows at the peep toes. She was excited and giggly, and I imagined she looked like Christmas. I was happy for her.

She had been waiting an hour before finally deciding to call me. He’s late, she said. But she tried to sound cool about it. She kept the conversation light, talking about our new supervisor who replaced the one that didn’t last six months. She tried to sound like she didn’t notice that it was way past eight, but I can imagine her nervously twirling her hair while she spoke. It was apparent that Sean was not going to come through with his promise of a Le Soufflé dinner. I wanted to tell her that it was useless to hold on to this guy who might have another girl, someone he might’ve met in another Ministop. I wanted to tell Pia to move on. Instead, I told her to hang up since he might be calling and we weren’t helping the situation in any way by holding up the phone, as if mobile phones were yet to be invented.

She might have known the futility of carrying on with the dinner, and maybe even carrying on with Sean because when Sean’s call came past the hour of nine, she was still trying to be cool and worldly like a Speedy 30.

“I’m really sorry, baby.” He said he got caught in a meeting and would be a little late. Would it be okay if they ordered in instead? He was thinking of Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust barbecue pizza. It looked really delicious on the billboard, he said, and wondered out loud if she wanted to try it with him, in bed. He playfully made his voice hoarse and sexy, in a way he knew could make Pia tingle all over. I’m not sure if she finally smartened up, or if she just looked at her sequined dress and the strappy shoes with the little rhinestones and decided that, at thirty-two, when it was almost ten in the evening, she felt a little bit tired. So she told him it was late.

“I have a surprise for you,” he insisted.

“I’m not feeling up to it,” she said.

“Another night?”

“Oh, you sound sick.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Pia said.

“Do you want me to get you something?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’ll drop off my gift at the lobby, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Happy birthday, baby. See you next week? I’ll drop by your office.” His voice sounded casual, like he had no intention of walking out of her life permanently. So she tried her best not to sound too disappointed. If someone were there watching her, she might have made a big show of saying it was nothing. But she just said okay, like everything was okay, the way people say okay when it’s really not okay.

Of course he didn’t drop by the office the week he said he would, or the week after that. It may not have been intentional, I told her, just a gradual forgetting that became a habit. This seemed to be the manner of telling that seemed most kind at the time, the way I might have wanted the truth about Jason told to me in lies because I would’ve waited just the same.

Sean, predictably, just stopped showing up. He didn’t call either, despite the many text messages she sent his way that did nothing to bolster her battered pride. After a few months, Pia and I slipped into the habit of going down for a snack together. Eventually, we stopped talking about Sean and, without having to say it, we avoided Ministop stores and found other places to spend our breaks.

But that evening when the guard knocked on the door carrying the brown paper bag with the name Louis Vuitton printed on it, I think Pia might’ve thought everything was indeed okay. And I thought so too when she called to tell me about his gift. She had carefully opened the soft dust bag that contained her new bag. The bag’s handles felt smooth and had a subtle new-leather smell. The body of the bag had the monogrammed canvas design she liked, sturdy enough to be impenetrable in the rain, and beautiful, she added, as she held it in her hands admiring the way the light reflected the hues of brown and yellow of the bag’s surface. It was a practical bag, a classic she could use forever.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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ANDREA PASION-FLORES was born in Manila. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she received her degrees in Journalism, Law, and her MA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Philippines Free Press, the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s Likhaan and Silliman University’s Sands and Coral journals. Her story collection For Love and Kisses was published by UST Publishing House, Manila, in 2014.

from issue #8: An Interview with F. H. Batacan

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SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES

An Interview with F. H. Batacan (and Andrea Pasion-Flores)

by Noel King

“You have to find a way of tapping into your anger about the extent of suffering and injustice you encounter every day.” —F. H. Batacan

*

F. H. “ICHI” BATACAN was born in Manila and graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BA in communications and an MA in art history. After ten years of working in the Philippine intelligence community, she turned to broadcast journalism. Smaller and Smaller Circles, her first novel, won the prestigious Philippine National Book Award and is widely regarded as the first Philippine crime novel.

ANDREA PASION-FLORES is Batacan’s literary agent and also a prominent Filipino writer. Her story ‘Love in Mini Stops’, taken from her new collection For Love and Kisses, appears in issue 8 of Contrappasso.

Noel King spoke to these writers at the Bayleaf Hotel in Intramuros, Manila, on September 8, 2014.

*

KING: Ichi’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (1992) won several prizes—one of which led to its publication. Andrea, can you give me some indication of the initial print run and, since it is now into its sixth or so edition, can you guesstimate its total sales?

PASION-FLORES: For whatever reason publishers here settle on 500-1000 for an initial print run. By 2006, Ichi’s book had gone through four print runs and sold 6,000 copies or more—a pretty good number for a literary crime novel here in the Philippines. That was a good eight years ago, so it’s safe to assume many more have been sold.

KING: It is described as the first ‘Pinoy’—which I gather is a slang term for ‘Filipino’—crime novel, or perhaps the first by a female writer here. What other Filipino works would you see as inhabiting the same broad generic terrain? For example, Jose Dalisay’s second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2007), certainly suits the ‘literary crime’ label.

PASION-FLORES: For literary crime, I’d say Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows (2003). More recently there’s also Blue Angel, White Shadow (2010) by Charlson Ong.

BATACAN: I think the distinction some academics make is between literary Filipino fiction and a sub-set of literary fiction where the narrative is structured around a crime, but does not necessarily meet the expectations of readers seeking typical mystery-thriller ingredients. In that sense, some scholars say Circles is the first Filipino novel that’s more typical of the Western idea of a mystery-thriller, even though it’s more of a ‘why-done-it?’ than a ‘who-done-it?’ But that’s not a claim that I myself make for the book. I’m not a scholar, so I leave all that to those who are.

KING: Are there any works of fiction that you would cite as having made a sufficiently strong impression to prompt you to start writing fiction? These need not necessarily be instances of crime writing. Elmore Leonard routinely cited Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Richard Bissell as the writers he learned from.

BATACAN: The first thing to say is that I don’t have a literary or creative writing background.

KING: No, I noticed that your studies and subsequent professional work involved broadcast journalism, art history, and a period of working in intelligence.

BATACAN: I would say my early influences in the genre came from film and television. As a child my father and I loved watching television crime shows together. In some ways I had a difficult relationship with my father and so watching TV detective programs became a way for us to bond—things like ITV’s The Professionals, The Sweeney, Columbo, Baretta, Quincy M.E., and Hawaii Five-O.

KING: Hawaii Five-O in its first iteration, starring Jack Lord, with lines like ‘Book him Danno, Murder One,’ which became a line in an Australian pop song, “Aloha Steve and Danno” (1978) by Radio Birdman. What work did your father do?

BATACAN: He was a radio man. All of us, including my mother, either started or ended up in broadcast journalism.

KING: So you watched lots of TV with your radio dad.

BATACAN: We would have exchanges where he would say to me, ‘we haven’t seen this episode,’ and I would say, ‘yes we have, this is what happens.’ Parents today are very protective about what their children watch whereas in my era it was much more open, in a sense. The family would watch TV together and we would all go to see current release movies. Our parents would say, ‘let’s take the kids to whatever thriller is playing.’ We were only five minutes away from the nearest cinema and my parents loved going to the cinema. And so, on a weekend, after church, we would go to the movies.

KING: What period is this?

BATACAN: The 1970s.

KING: Well, that was a great moment in the history of US cinema, the period variously known as ‘New Hollywood,’ or as a ‘Hollywood Renaissance,’ or as a ‘New American Cinema.’

BATACAN: Things like The Domino Principle, Telefon, The Odessa File, The China Syndrome, the French Connection films. My mom and dad loved the James Bond films and when they first met, my dad was tall and slim and knew how to work a suit. My mom thought of him as a kind of Filipino Sean Connery.

In regard to your earlier question about reading: in terms of crime fiction or mystery-thrillers, I had an early exposure (aside from the childhood Conan Doyles, Poes, and Futrelles) to female writers like Highsmith, du Maurier, and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom my mother loved and made us read. She was a great reader. While there was crime fiction in the house, we had far more “mainstream” literary works thrust upon us: Shakespeare, E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Dickens and Dumas, Faulkner and Golding. A lot of plays, authors like Harold Pinter. And Euripides, an early favorite.

KING: So, classical drama.

BATACAN: Yes, and if you think about it there are lots of aspects of crime fiction on offer in those works—ideas of justice, retribution, of redemption, of good and evil.

KING: Absolutely. It’s not for nothing that an academic article on Chinatown is called “Oedipus in Chinatown.” I was utterly charmed by your two Jesuit priest investigators. What made you settle on Jesuits as your detectives? The connection between religion and crime fiction obviously already exists, in G. K. Chesterton’s Catholicism, in the Yiddish series from Harry Kemelman: Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Sunday the Rabbi did something else, etc. So to give a speculative counter-example, why isn’t your male detective, say, a former security guard whose marriage has broken up and who now does investigative work? Walter Mosley’s wonderful ‘Easy Rawlins’ series has Easy conduct his detective work without being a private eye in the traditional sense. But why Jesuit clerics?

BATACAN: To answer that I think I would have to go back to the time I was working for an intelligence agency and the context of the work I was doing in the intelligence community at the time I started writing the book. Of course I’m not going to go into very much detail about that work but it was at a time when the agency was coming off a period of reform under a really reform-minded Commissioner. And as always happens in the Philippines, when there’s a change of National government, programs associated with the previous administration are often discontinued, even when they are producing positive results. So I went from a period of four years’ work in which I felt really proud about what I was doing, feeling that I was really making a difference, to an entirely different work environment, one that changed literally overnight. A new President was inaugurated in 1992, my reform-minded boss got promoted to a higher position, and the next day my agency was under a new management that was completely uninterested in reform and efficiency. For years, we were forced to watch while every good thing we worked for was thrown away, subverted or, worse, perverted.

KING: Can you say what kind of Intelligence work you were involved in, nothing too detailed, just a broad category that might indicate something to readers?

BATACAN: Economic intelligence. When I started Circles in 1996, I was in a place of great frustration, great anger, over how many of our past achievements had been eroded by corruption in the Agency and that there wasn’t anything one could do. You would propose projects to professionalize the organization, to improve intelligence collection and analysis, saying, ‘OK, in the beginning this will make a dent in what you are currently raking in, but down the track it will mean you will be able to stay longer in your jobs, and it will generate real change.’ This was the twenty-six or twenty-seven year old me thinking that of course for the love of your country you would do this. But of course it was never going to happen. So since I couldn’t write about what was happening at the Agency in terms of compromises and corruption, I could write about the general mindset of law enforcement agencies, the proclivity for complacency, patronage, and corruption.

At the same time I had always been fascinated with the idea of the relation between science and faith. And of course the Jesuits had a long history of being able to traverse those two realms. So while I can’t say I had a Eureka! moment, it just seemed a natural thing to go with. With the concepts of science and scientific techniques you can map the idea that there is a better way of doing things, there are absolute ways you can improve things to make peoples’ lives better. People matter, even if they have no money, no status, no power. They must demand their rights. Nothing that the people in the Philippines demand from their politicians is anything other than their right, whether it’s efficient transport or food on the table or a decent education for their children, or even safety in the streets—all of these are things that it’s the job of government to provide. For example, the Philippine National Police are always putting out these ads warning people to ‘be careful’ about street crime.

KING: I’ve seen them.

BATACAN: Why is the onus always on the individual citizen to watch out for him or herself? In any proper democracy the onus is on the government to keep the streets safe—it’s not the task of the individual citizen.

KING: You have just finished a process of revisiting your original work, rewriting, adding new things, expanding it by half again for its forthcoming publication in the US with Soho Press. Could you say something about what this process has involved?

BATACAN: Well, first I must say that this rewriting is done by me as a forty-five year old on work originally done by me as a twenty-six or twenty-seven year old, so I hope I’ve got rid of a lot of juvenile mistakes and gaucheries. I think it has been more about rounding out the characters and also an attempt to make the narrative more intelligible to a non-Filipino readership. In my rewrite I tried to be aware of those aspects of the book, those where a Filipino reader would get the point immediately whereas a non-Filipino might not. So I was working on bridging that gap as much as possible. They are small things but they are also mind-set things that need to be made a bit more accessible. For example, many crime fiction readers expect a fast-moving plot which increasingly ramps itself up as it goes along.

KING: A ‘real page-turner’ as we say.

BATACAN: Whereas I think in the Philippine context, it’s very different. As an example, four years ago there was a huge massacre involving two rival political families in Maguindanao. One ambushed the other. Lots of people witnessed the killings, saw the ditch dug and the bodies thrown into it. Four years later, nobody has been brought to final justice. Although there were dozens of witnesses, piles of evidence, it has been estimated that in terms of trying to get convictions, it could take one hundred years! So that was something that had to be made clear to a non-Philippine readership. Something you might expect from a Western democratic perspective does not apply at all here.

KING: Andrea, can you say something about your role as an agent in this process of getting an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles published by Soho in New York? When I interviewed Jose Dalisay last time I was in Manila he mentioned your work at The National Book Development Board, saying, ‘it has recently been very active… in supporting both publishers and authors. Andrea Pasion-Flores—herself an excellent writer of fiction and also a lawyer—just left the job of Executive Director for that body. It used to be pretty much dormant, and she made a very dynamic intervention. So I think things are looking up, from the Filipino perspective.’ And now you are at Jacaranda, a literary agency.

PASION-FLORES: When I was at The National Book Development Board I used to do the Philippine Literary festival and I’d invite writers and publishing professionals. I asked a couple of literary agencies to come, and one of them was Jacaranda whose founder Jayapriya Vasudevan I had heard about while in Singapore during the Asian Festival for Children’s Content. I spoke to her about coming to Manila so she could invite Philippine writers who might be interested in representation. After Jacaranda’s visit they came back to me and said, ‘why don’t you select some writers and bring them to us?’ So I picked up two writers, Ichi and another person. I have this feeling it’s very hard to sell a distant press on a Filipino topic or author if they have never been to the Philippines. In the next literary festival I wanted to bring in more professionals, and I was introduced to Juliet Grames of Soho Press in New York, and she gamely agreed to come. I wanted to slowly introduce to the wider world the Philippines and the wonderful writing that’s coming from here because I suspected people needed to see the Philippines firsthand and not just read about it in the news and be misled by the bad press it constantly gets. Juliet had Filipino friends and was keenly aware of the Philippine context, and open to its cultural offerings, which was very refreshing. And I suppose when Jacaranda offered Smaller and Smaller Circles to her she was already interested in looking at work that was coming from this part of the world. Of course it helped that Soho publishes place-based crime, so Juliet made an offer to Jacaranda for Smaller and Smaller Circles, and that’s how this got started.

2015 Soho Press edition

2015 Soho Press edition

KING: Ichi, the University of the Philippines edition of Smaller and Smaller Circles has the author’s name as F. H. Batacan. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to non-genderise the authorial name, or were you thinking of the tradition of F. R. Keating, G. K. Chesterton, et al? Or did none of this apply because you were already well known in the Philippines by way of your journalism? What do the F and H stand for?

BATACAN: My first name is spelled ‘Felisa’ on my birth certificate and ‘Felicia’—my real name, the name my parents chose for me—on my baptismal record. The ‘H’ is the initial of my mother’s maiden name. So when the University of the Philippines Press asked me which name I wanted on the book, I had the slight dilemma of wondering whether I should honour my parents’ wishes or use my legally recognised name.

KING: So ‘F. H.’ gets you around that nicely.

BATACAN: Yes. No thought at all to non-genderise my name, despite what many people think. No one has been more surprised than I at the journey Circles has taken. It really surprises me to see how far it’s come because I didn’t shop it around.

KING: Well no, that’s Andrea’s job!

BATACAN: I wrote it because I was so angry and I assumed there would be many others out there equally angry. I think if you want to write crime fiction in the Philippines you have to be constantly angry. You have to find a way of tapping into your anger about the extent of suffering and injustice you encounter every day. When I worked overseas for thirteen years—

KING: This was in Singapore.

BATACAN: Yes. Every time I came back here on a visit I found something new to be angry about. It’s a wonderful country but the suffering and the injustice you see every day is staggering. When I was all those years in Singapore at no point did I contemplate writing about Singapore. My heart, my consciousness are in the Philippines.

In the past decade or so, I think there’s been a strong backlash in the country, especially among many younger writers and critics, against creative work that tries to say something about the state of the nation, about its ethics and morality. But I think that’s where crime fiction maybe has an edge over other genres of writing, because it enables you to talk about ugliness, to speak of what’s wrong, while at the same time providing an entertaining read for those who may not necessarily want to be confronted with that ugliness except as a fictional element. You get to plant the idea of a better way of doing things. I feel so powerless so much of the time in the face of this ugliness but when I write…

KING: It provides you with an outlet?

BATACAN: Not just an outlet. It is my power—the only one I have.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Lyn Vellins

Photo (CC) Selena N. B. H. @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Selena N. B. H. @ Flickr

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Dancing with echoes

Last night’s rain listens on the grass
…….it hears wings whisking upwards
………..the whips of cuckoos rising and falling,
hitches a ride on a train ticking in the distance.

This morning skulks beside stones lonely as a leash of foxes
…….it fails to warm even the brown lizards that perch alert
………..beside the fallen frangipani and the dew-sopped feather.

A Xerox copy of the screen door’s angles
…….lies sun-stamped onto the green street door
………..gracing true light silence and shade
echoes filter through splayed fingers.

.

*

.

Sunday 3pm

i

In this solitude
……..ambient light presses
……………maquillaged diamonds
across the threshold.
The open door
………….lays columns of
…………luminous shade and light
on the linoleum floor,
………weightless bright notes
…………….waiting to be played.

.

ii

In front of me
……..the dog on the Persian carpet
……………has no need
of anything right now:
sunlight makes
……..her fur iridescent
……………she lifts
her face in wonder
……..as if she is
……………seeing me
for the first time
again &
……..again &
…………….again

.

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ABOUT THE POET

LYN VELLINS is a Sydney-based poet. She runs a monthly poetry reading group, ‘RhiZomic’, and was on the committee of many reputed publications and on several editorial committees whilst at Sydney University. Her first collection of poetry, A Fragile Transcendence, was published by Picaro Press in July, 2012.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Alicia Aza, translated by J. Kates

Photo (CC) Brendan Lally @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Brendan Lally @ Flickr

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Read Alicia Aza’s original Spanish, then J. Kates’ English translations in blue.

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La golondrina merodea entre el magnolio

En la penumbra de los días
se desvanece lo vivido
en los misteriosos susurros
lento marchitar de las flores.
Tus labios, sépalos robustos
que dulcifican la sonrisa
de un cáliz poseedor de néctar,
se condensan en mi memoria.
Mientras me esfuerzo en ser corola
alentadora de suspiros
muestro los colores de un ave
cuyo nombre tú me ensañaste.
Negro, azul, blanco, trilogía
de la noche aterida y mansa
cuando sólo es una mañana
apaciguada de domingo.

The swallow swoops among the magnolia

In the twilight of days
animation vanishes
in mysterious whispers
a slow withering of flowers.
Your lips, robust sepals
that sweeten the smile
of a calyx filled with nectar,
tighten in my memory.
While I strive to be a corolla
encouraging sighs,
I show off the colors of a bird
whose name you taught me.
Black, blue, white, trilogy
of a quiet and frozen night
when it is only a Sunday
morning at peace.

.

*

.

Las sendas del olvido

     (Der Hölle Rache)

La gota de té desdibuja
las letras que me nombran a Montaigne.

Y me hablas de un anhelo
como la gota aclara
el rojo que discurre
por el libro de lágrimas
que ha de quemar mi rostro.

Canta la Reina de la Noche.

Y así comienza otra mañana
que haré cruzar hacia el olvido.

Paths of oblivion

       (Der Hölle Rache)

The drop of tea blurs
the letters that read Montaigne to me.

And you are telling me about a longing
as the drop clarifies
the red that runs
through the book of tears
that will burn my face.

The Queen of the Night is singing.

And so begins another morning
I’ll cross over into oblivion.

.

*

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Restos de un alga

(Nelly Sachs pasea por la playa en Malmö)

Las vueltas de la vida van y vienen
las busco, me doblegan, me perturban
bailo con ellas, me abrazan y escapan.

Agitadas regresan de las rocas
con una turbulencia indefinida
de ardientes espirales que traicionan.

Fluyen mareas en la dulce noche
del renovado bosque de armonía,
y el frescor reconforta y nos seduce
como ríos de quietudes afligidas.

El cielo gris del mar bravío
tienta a las olas en la orilla
de los límites de mi esencia.

Busca mis peces de colores
pósate en mi cálida arena
girando alrededor del ancla
que firme me amarra a la vida.

Remains of seaweed

(Nelly Sachs walks along the beach in Malmö)

The turns of life come and go
I look for them, they twist back and torment me
I dance with them, they embrace me and flee.

They come back in a lather from the rocks
with an indefinite turbulence
of treasonous fiery spirals.

The tides ebb and flow in the sweet night
of a renewed woodland harmony,
the fresh air comforts and seduces us
like rivers of distressed quiet.

The gray sky of the rough sea
tempts the waves on the shore
of the limits of my being.

Seek out my fish of many colors
rest in my warm sand
circling around the anchor
that moors me safely to life.

.

*

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El silencio de un lirio blanco

En el silencio de una noche
señora de dos lunas propias
nuestras palabras alumbraban
un luminoso lirio blanco.

Otro silencio nuevo acude
a nombrarme con el mutismo
de unas viejas botas expuestas
con sucios cordones y pliegues
que desprenden aroma usado.

Todo remite a narraciones
con protagonistas ausentes.

Me convertiste en personaje
y con la calma del silencio
pude aprender ante el espejo
la dicción de aquel lirio blanco.

The silence of a white lily

In the silence of one night
mistress of two appropriate moons
our words have illuminated
a luminous white lily.

Another new silence turns
to naming me with the wordlessness
of some old boots gaping
with dirty laces and creases
that reek of second-hand.

Everything goes back to stories
with absent heroes.

You turned me into a character
and with calm of silence
in front of a mirror I was able to learn
the way that white lily speaks.

.

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ABOUT THE POET

ALICIA AZA is a lawyer and a poet, born in 1966 and living in Madrid, who has published three books: El Libro de los árboles (2010) which was a finalist for the Andalusia Critics award; El Viaje del invierno (2011) which won the “Rosalia de Castro” International Poetry award;  and Las Huellas fértiles (2014).

J. KATES is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Mary MacPherson

Photo (CC) noricum @ Flickr

Photo (CC) noricum @ Flickr

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Mary MacPherson’s poems “Threads” and “Subtraction” are presented here as a special PDF to preserve their unique formatting. Click here to read them.

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ABOUT THE POET

MARY MACPHERSON is a poet and photographer from Wellington, New Zealand. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and her work has appeared in many print and online journals. More information is available on her blog, marymacphoto.wordpress.com or website, marymmac.weebly.com