part one: a luminous breath
During the Japanese invasion, when Daya's grandmother thought she was about to die, she went to the piano and played Beethoven. Beethoven knew the sound of helplessness.
Seventy-five years later, the piano still gleamed, from its gilded corners down to the faded pedals, not a single mote of dust on its chestnut surface. Her grandmother would never have allowed it. The maids had taken care of her and her piano, trying to ease her way to death.
Daya touched the ivories but did not press them. She turned away from the old piano and looked around the house.
Paintings framed in dull gilt covered the wood-panelled walls of the foyer, interrupted by the wide archway at the front and the heavy narra doors leading off to other rooms. She ran a careful gaze over the paintings—her grandparents had had no particular theme in mind when they began collecting art. They were mostly the works of obscure artists, but her Lolo had never distinguished between the famous and the unknown—it was all about the voice.
"Paintings speak all the time, Daya," he'd tell her. "Go to a museum, and you will hear them call. The better the art, the more people will hear."
After his cancer finally ate all of his lungs eight years ago, she went to a museum. She paid for her ticket and cried in the foyer until a young man offered her chocolate. Say, is there a sea in this city?
No, not really.
If you say so. You really don't want chocolate?
Miss, I don't wanna be rude, but the sky is still in place.
Daya realized she had been staring at one of the doors for a while now. Taking a deep breath, she opened it and stepped into the cozy living room.
The quarter-sphere fireplace in the corner was unlit. She remembered attempting to crawl into the hearth because it had looked warm and comfortable. Her parents had nearly gone apoplectic as they came upon the sight. It had been one of the few times they'd yelled at her.
Daya wondered if they had yelled, too, when the World Trade Center collapsed on them while she waited and waited and waited in their apartment.
She walked slowly around the room, edging past the cluster of sofas at the center. She had felt betrayed when she'd found out why they never came home. How come they were allowed to leave and she wasn't? They all left. Maybe loneliness had rules she did not know about.
She sat on the floor. In her head, Lola played Hammerklavier, not letting her old bones impede her in the least. Lolo waxed poetic about Bacardi rum and the voices of art. Her father read Dr. Seuss to her and showed her the colored pictures. Her mother cooked her favorite dish, calamares, in the kitchen. She could almost smell its crisp, salty tang—but not quite.
But here, only the dusty bookshelves and wine racks stacked against the terracotta walls watched her. The house smelled of old wood and paper and abandonment.
She knew, then, that she would not be able to stand living her by herself. She had moved out to a place in town near Kisad road years ago because it was closer to the Baguio Midland Courier. She'd visited her Lola every weekend. Now that her relatives were dead, the house was hers. She could not live with their ghosts, their absence.
Daya cast a short glance around. It was a beautiful place. She could not just sell it. Leaving it to rot was unacceptable.
She stared at the bookshelves and wine racks opposite her. The bookshelves and wine racks stared back at her.
She blinked and straightened slowly, suddenly feeling lighter, heavier with the weightlessness. If she wasn't going to live in it or dispose of it, she would just have to use it in ways that could prove more profitable than—than what?
What is the word for trying to find everything you've ever lost?
The weather was rather desolate, even considering it was the middle of June. Pale shafts of sunlight filtered through the gaps between the grey clouds. The trees crowding around Legarda Road and its widely spaced buildings seemed to sigh with the breeze as Dayanara stepped out of the house. The smell of pine and leaves hit her.
Her car, an old black Ford, was parked beside the rickety steps. A tall woman with a long braid and what appeared to be an ink-splattered shirt leaned against the trunk, reading a magazine.
"Heard about it from the editor," the woman said without looking up. "Said you asked for a few days' leave."
Daya walked slowly, not saying anything. She knew she should have told someone, anyone—especially a close friend—but she couldn't bring herself to come up with an apology. Creak, creak, said the stairs.
"I take it you're moving?" asked the woman.
"No." She shoved her hands into her pockets. "You're supposed to be at work, Justine."
Justine flipped a page. "Far as I know, nobody there just lost a grandma. After losing a grandpa. After losing a mother and a father." She clicked her tongue. "Well, there probably is someone. Too bad for them, but I know my priorities."
Daya felt a rush of gratitude that momentarily robbed her of words. She was suddenly glad Justine wasn't looking at her.
"Seems a waste not to use the house, though," said Justine. "Pretty sure your grandma would want you to be there. For memory and spirit and whatever."
Memory and spirit and whatever was playing the piano inside her head. She cleared her throat. "I have other plans." Memory and spirit and whatever told her that Beethoven wrote Hammerklavier just as he was coming to terms with his deafness. "I've decided to turn it into a bar of sorts. Part library, part bar. They would have loved it." Memory and spirit and whatever, despite their weak auditory senses, heard their son and daughter-in-law dying miles away, then took their granddaughter back to the Philippines.
Justine closed the magazine and finally looked up. There was no trace of pity in her expression, and the convincingly bored look calmed Daya. "You know, if you're going to sell liquor, you might as well throw in some coffee. Your customers might need it." She frowned. "Am full of extraordinary ideas today, for some reason. Wanna go eat some place? Or just drive?"
She shrugged. "Nowhere."
part two: a phosphorescent sigh
One of the great things about Baguio City's winding roads was that they made 'nowhere' seem like an actual place. Daya drove and Justine talked. Listening to her friend's suggestions made her feel better, and for the moment, she occupied herself with plans for the bar. Or libarafé, as Justine insisted on calling it.
"You should apply early for a loan," Justine said. "Saves you from all the hassle later on." She gave Daya a long look. "You should put some of your photos on display." Another pause, then she glanced at the Polaroid photos on the dashboard. "But keep the bird pictures to a minimum. Not all of us are fond of those."
Daya almost laughed. Almost. "Thank you, Justine."
Justine waved a dismissive hand. "No. Thank you for the ride. Drop me off here at Yagam, will you?"
She pulled over beside the entrance to the café, waved goodbye to Justine, and drove away.
Alone, she felt the silence as if it were a physical being. This silence sat in the passenger seat and sang lullabies. She imagined everything collapsing on top of her, buildings bowing to meet the earth. Beside her, the silence was all their voices translated to radio static. All her losses, travelling with her.
Nothing in her line of sight could distract her. Photos of telephone lines and birds and faces and faces and faces and through the window were trees bending against one another, leaves and twigs forming shadows. The occasional building poked through the growth, but mostly it was endless, sickening green and alabaster—
Daya frowned and slowed down. After a moment's hesitation, she pulled over to the side. She was almost sure this building wasn't here the last time she passed this road.
It jutted from a bramble of trunks and branches, looking out of place. Three stories high and divided by elaborate and inscrutable friezes, it looked like it was built from veined marble, accented with bronze cornerstones and arches. A hand-carved sign was perched atop the lowest frieze. It read:
LUMOS FINANCING INSTITUTION:
interest rates as low as 1% for short-term loans
and 5% for long-term loans
Daya raised her eyebrows. Five percent was quite low for long-term debts. Before she could think about it, she was already walking down the roughly hewn path, to a handsome mahogany door. Well, why not? Justine did say I should apply early.
However, it was odd that she had never noticed such a grand-looking establishment. Granted, she hadn't been in this area too often, but still...
A sleepy-looking guard opened the door for her. She stepped into the lobby. Seats ringed the back, while counters and tables separated by glass populated the front. Tellers manned them, all wearing a pristine uniform that made the place look more immaculate. A bell-shaped chandelier brightened the blindingly white space.
Daya had not even taken a step forward when a woman approached.
"Miss Medina? Miss Dayanara Medina?"
Daya looked around, then back at the woman. "How did you know—"
"We've been expecting you." She turned away. "This way, please."
Daya was certain she had never heard of this institution in her entire life, which was saying something, because she had lived in the city for her entire life, barring the 3 years she spent in US.
Still, she followed. Her guide led her to a plain white door she hadn't noticed before. She knocked and opened it, then gestured towards the entrance. "The Banker is waiting."
Daya stared at her, then peered inside. A carpeted hallway lit with orb-lamps ended at another door. She returned her gaze to the woman, who seemed to have frozen in her elegant pose, her arm still outstretched.
"The Banker is waiting," she repeated, not even a hint of impatience in her voice.
"Uh, that's nice of him? But—"
"The Banker is waiting."
"...fine." She walked in, glancing over her shoulder. The woman had not moved an inch.
The room at the end of the hall was round, spacious and lavishly decorated, but not to the point of extravagance. An applewood desk guarded by a pair of sofas dominated what seemed to be an office, topped with a tall lamp, a laptop, an empty mug, and a bottle of wine. Bookshelves stuffed with thick books, empty glass jars, and trophies curved against the white walls. A curtained archway was set directly behind the desk.
She surveyed her surroundings, circling the space. The thick red rug muffled her steps as she scanned the bookshelves.
Daya jerked away from the shelves and threw a furtive glance at the room. There was no one there. Her heart seemed to have lodged in her throat, and her entire body was filled with pulses.
"There's no need to look so terrified." The voice sounded offended. "I'll be there in a moment; it's quite difficult to tear myself from a task such as this once I begin."
She wondered what the hell he could be doing behind the suspicious-looking archway. What task could possibly rivet someone who talked to people who couldn't see him? Something equally nefarious, no doubt.
"Ah. That should do nicely," the voice said.
The smell of something fresh from the oven wafted throughout the room. A hand pushed the curtain aside, and the Banker stepped into the office.
He was as tall as she was, and impressionably dapper, with his posh black suit and gold cufflinks. She almost felt intimidated despite the frilly pink apron that completed his ensemble. He carried a plate stacked with chocolate chip cookies and placed it beside his laptop. He straightened and offered his hand. "Good morning, lady," he said, bowing a little.
Daya shook his hand, watching him. Unease held her spine. He was fairly good-looking, with his straight nose, narrow eyes, and neatly combed-back hair. Thick stubble covered his square jaw. His mouth seemed to be stuck in a knowing smile.
He angled his head, and stray hair fell over his eyes. The smile remained. He walked around his desk and sat before Daya could feel anything more than discomfort.
"Would you care for some cookies?" the Banker asked brightly.
She eyed the cookies with suspicion.
"Well, of course. You're here for a loan." He sighed and picked one up before biting into it with relish. "Hmm. I daresay I have outdone myself."
The delicious scent teased her, but she scowled. "How do you people know my name?"
The Banker pulled a drawer open and rummaged. "We know all our potential clients, lady." His lips twitched as he glanced at her. "It's our business to know their needs before they themselves even know it. This is delicious," he added absent-mindedly , then pulled out a form. "Here you go."
Daya scanned it. It seemed to be a normal application form, except—
"'We require intangibles only for collateral'?" she read aloud, frowning. "You only accept patents and goodwill and—"
"Oh, you misunderstand. Not those intangibles. You could, for instance, offer your sense of sight."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't think I heard you right, but did you say my sense of sight?"
"You heard correctly, lady. It is the most common offer we get here. After all, it's not that high of a price, hmm?"
She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again.
The Banker finished his cookie and took another one. "Go on, pick something. They usually go for what they think is less valuable, something they can afford to lose. Or something that will give them an advantage over—" He paused, cocking his head to the side as if scrutinizing her, then did what he always did: he smiled. "Over life, perhaps. The ability to feel hunger, to get sick. The ability to feel, and even their ability to die."
She gave him a dubious look. "Right. Did any of them default?"
"And you foreclosed the security and sold it?"
The Banker's smile had a curious edge to it. "Naturally."
Daya stared at him for a long, long time. "How?"
He raised an eyebrow. "We sell it in an auction, of course."
Her skepticism made its way to her voice. "You sell senses and abilities in an auction. And I suppose you just put them in a jar and hand them over to the winner."
He spread his hands. "Exactly as you said it. Many pay millions to have a sense of sight without having to undergo any potentially dangerous operations. Or simply to watch it die in its jar." He shrugged. "I would not claim to understand why, so please don't ask."
"I wasn't going to." She stood. "This is all very interesting, Banker, but I'm afraid I don't have time for this."
"That's all right," he said, all casual-like. "I understand."
She watched him for a few moments. The smile was still there, unfailing, and there was something about the bored amusement on his face that urged her to run.
"No," she finally said. "You don't."
He didn't smirk. His expression didn't change at all. "As you like." He finished his cookie, not taking his gaze off her. "You will come back, anyway."
She stared back at him. "No, I absolutely won't."
His smile almost looked sad. "Oh, you absolutely will."
part three: an incandescent scream
a week later
The Collector straightened his tie and combed his curls back before getting out of the car. It was important to look his best even in the line of duty. Several strands of hair disagreed with him and promptly fell over his eyes. Clearly it was also important to be flawed.
Café Yagam squatted between small houses and towering pines. The wooden seats outside stood empty beneath a sky the color of wet denim. The street lamps were dimly lit, and a bleak sort of brightness scrabbled for the doorway and brushed against the rustic furnishing. The smell of ground coffee beans hit him as he entered.
An unlit fireplace to his right stood resolutely beneath the mountain of tattered paperbacks on its mantel. Instruments and a mixture of odd objects in frames covered the timber walls. A wide archway led to where the smell of coffee was coming from; sheets upon sheets filled with beans were laid out on tables. A group of teenagers sat on pillows around a low log table in a corner near the door. Wooden tables and chairs clustered all over the room, all but two sets unoccupied.
The Collector paused when he saw the clientele. Oh, surely not, he thought wryly.
Behind the table where the target and his blabbering wife dined was a lone woman. She was eating kakanin, her eyes on her laptop. Sketches and notes surrounded her food. She had a narrow, angular face curtained with long, flowing pale brown hair.
He approached her table and sat across from her, his back against his target's.
She looked at him, blankly at first, then with animosity. A frown crossed her features. "You."
"Me," said the Collector. A waitress approached, holding a menu. He held a hand up. "Just a jar of tap-ey, please."
The woman across him glared. "I have secured a loan from some other sane financial institution with normal conditions and secured with normal collateral. I don't want anything to do with you and your stupid bank, Banker."
"That is good," he said. "Although I'll have to correct you, lady. At the moment, I am no Banker." He smiled. It was important to be cheerful when dealing with clients, even the cross ones. Especially the cross ones. "You may call me Collector, if you like."
She stabbed her kakanin with her fork. "What are you doing here?"
"Enjoying myself, of course. Have you tried their tap-ey? The finest of wines and acclaimed liquid stars simply pale in comparison. It is proof that bitterness can be exquisite." He looked at her sketches. There were floor and wall and furniture designs, and a drawing of the exterior of a house. She was quite a good artist. He pointed at the house. "This is a lovely home."
Her voice was softer when she spoke. "Yes. It's my grandparents'." There was a pause that made the Collector look at her. She didn't seem to notice. "Well, it was. It's mine now."
Loss recognized loss. "I see," he said quietly.
Someone placed the tap-ey and a pair of small cups in front of them. He waited until the waitress was gone. "And what do you plan to do with your grandparents' house? I mean no offense, but I have never found it appealing to live in what they leave behind." They will haunt me for failing. Them and them. "It's a tad...unbearable."
He looked up. She stared at him as if a tree had sprouted from his head. She opened her mouth, probably to say, to ask something, anything, but she only ended up closing her mouth.
He wanted to say: Astonishing, isn't it, how often words fail us when we need them the most?
The Collector poured them some tap-ey and smiled. It was important to be cheerful when dealing with clients, even kind ones. Especially the kind ones.
"Libarafey," she blurted out.
The Collector blinked in astonishment. "Pardon?" He tried to think of a language that had the word 'libarafey' in it.
To his further surprise, her cheeks flushed. "None of your business," she snapped.
He looked at her, baffled. "Really, lady. I have no idea what a 'libarafey' is."
She addressed her the kakanin, her face still pink. "How are the prices at Baguio Craft Brewery?"
"Aha." He leaned forward. "It is a sin, a grievous sin to not taste their Baltic Porter, and at a price of only 190 pesos for one bottle. And their American Ale, if you prefer something lighter, for only 180. Then there's the Ipa, very delicious..."
He talked more on this vein for a while, for she seemed genuinely interested, even noting his suggestions down. He decided that the intent look on her face suited her far more than the scowl.
"...and have you tried the pesto at Arca's Yard? An utter delight. And there's also the..."
If, in the future, he was asked why he did not stop and stand and do his job as soon as he had addressed her question, he would simply say he was sharing his experiences, and say nothing of the fact that she had stopped taking notes and was listening intently to his every word. He would, of course, not mention the little furrow between her eyebrows. Little things, unnecessary things.
A poet once said: A human being is a collection of lost things.
"You work in a bank," she suddenly said.
The Collector stopped. "Pardon?"
She blinked at him. "Why do you work in a bank? You talk like a chef. Or at least a food critique."
"Ah." He looked down at his tap-ey. It did not answer her, nor him.
So he shrugged and picked up his drink and downed the contents of the entire cup. The liquor scorched its way down his throat, rancid and clear. He could feel her gaze on him as he filled his glass again and repeated the process. And then again and again and again. It felt good to burn, sometimes, even before doing his job. Especially before doing his job.
He took his wallet out, tried to count the bills as he took them and slapped them one by one on the table. He did it again and again and again. Just to be sure. He stood, swaying in place, and bowed to her. The ground zoomed swiftly to meet his face, but someone grabbed his arm. He squinted. It was his target. He smiled, wanting to laugh at how easy it was, how easy it all was, how difficult.
"Thank you," he said to him, as his entire body tingled and pulsated with the awareness of something radiant in the man's head. "Thank you," he repeated, struggling to his feet, aching for the brightness screaming at him to be taken, take take take take it he wanted to take it he wanted he wanted he wanted
"You all right, young man?"
Young man? He smiled as he take finally take managed take it to stand, then take it, almost absent-mindedly TAKE IT TAKE IT, he grabbed the light.
White flooded his vision. A million bugs buzzed under his skin, clamoring for escape, their wings scraping, grating against his bones, and now they were telling him about their bellies and how empty they were and couldn't they just leave him alone he was tired he was so tired of this
His mouth filled with warmth. The sun shrank and collapsed in his fist, and the world shoved itself back into his sight.
As he staggered out of the café, he could hear the target saying, "What? What were you saying? Didn't catch that—"
"I SAID WE'RE GOING HOME, ARTHUR!" his wife bellowed.
"What? Talk louder, woman, it's all you ever do—"
As soon as he stepped out, he walked normally to his car. Inside, he took out a glass jar from the glove compartment and opened it with one hand. He unclenched his fist. A firefly lay at the center of his palm, its belly full of green light. He tipped his hand, and the bug slid into the jar. He hastily capped it. The firefly zoomed around its new cage, bumping against the glass walls.
The Collector put it back inside the compartment. He straightened his tie and combed his curls back with shaking hands. Several strands of hair fell over his eyes.
He sat there for a moment, breathing loudly in empty space, then drove off to his next target.