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It was a hot sultry day, mid-March on the island of Luzon. The sun was obscured by low-hanging gray clouds of smog that clung, velcro-like, to the taller buildings. Everything was gray and faded from the constant exposure to smog and humidity. Maisy was bored. Home from school, Maisy could find nothing was on TV except dull news channels and bright, annoying game shows like Game Ka Na Ba and Ok, Fine, Whatever. Maisy flipped through the channels, feeling the weight of the black and silver remote in her palm. She was jerked from her stupor by the phone’s loud scream. It screeched three times before she picked it up and said, “Hello?”
“Is Maisy there?” Maisy was happy to hear Kate’s voice. A soft lilt, slightly higher-pitched than her own and so familiar.
“Speaking.” She said. “Hi Kate.”
“Glad you could tell.” Maisy heard Kate laughing, but the connection crackled with static. For a moment she missed America. The fast internet connection, the lack of humidity, higher-tech phones.
“Come over.” Maisy said. “I barely have any homework.”
“Ok.” Pause. “I’ll tell my parents we have a project together.”
“Wanna go biking?”
“I don’t know, so humid today.”
“I’ll see you soon,”
“What about dinner?”
“My mom made some meatloaf. Do you want me to bring some for you?”
“Sure. Just come soon. I’m dying of boredom.”
Click. Maisy put down the phone and turned off the TV. Her eyes settled on the glossy clear glass separating her from the little outdoor patch in the middle of her house. She gazed vaguely at the drooping palm trees. The hot weather seemed to be making everything droop and sag. Especially Jack. The family dog was an overweight, middle-aged Doberman. He wasn’t harmful, but he could be mean, so they mostly kept him outside. At night he calmed down, especially after a big dinner, so he kept Maisy company and slept on her bed. There were little yellow signs that read “Guard Dog on Duty” posted on the front gate. Maisy often pictured Jack, his stomach lurching forward, trying to run after an intruder. The image never failed to make her laugh.
“Mom!” Maisy said. “Can Kate come over? She’s bringing meatloaf and we might go biking.”
“Sure.” Her mom said, absently. She was young for a mother, Maisy liked to think, and very stylish. Her glossy black hair was pulled into a chic low braid, secured by a gold beret. She always wore the same dark pearl earrings and open-toed black flats that she bought in New York.
“I’ll see you for dinner?” Maisy said.
"Sorry,” said her mom, “You girls eat together. I need to get back to the office.”
Maisy just nodded and walked to the front door to wait for her friend.
Kate arrived on her matte pastel pink bike. A delicate white floral pattern stretched across the left side, curling into little ringlets. The white rubber handlebars felt gummy to the touch, especially on such a muggy day.
Kate skidded to a halt and left the bike leaning on its side in the stretch of asphalt in front of Maisy’s house. They could smell the steamy petrol fumes rising from the blacktop. The girls ran inside, sighing as the cool breath from the air conditioner slid down their lungs.
“Let’s go to your room, I want to show you something.” Kate tugged on Maisy’s arm but led her first to the kitchen. “Can I keep the meatloaf in your fridge?”
Manang Nila, the ancient housekeeper, a leathery woman dressed in a bright red flowered duster, sat by the kitchen table. She was wearing her clear, thick rectangular glasses and held a worn paperback bible in her hands. It was an old copy in tagalog, the shiny golden words Biblia embossed mid-cover. She had read through it multiple times already, pages were dog-eared and floppy. She had highlighted her favorite passages, paper-clipped the falling pages back in. It was her prized possession. Manang Nila was a very religious woman. She read her bible constantly, and her little room was filled with plastic glow in the dark statues her favorite saints. She kissed her Madonnas every night and was constantly fingering the neon plastic beads of her wellworn rosary. Dried palm fronds lay crumbling, pinned to the head of her door. She bought them every palm Sunday from the street vendors milling around the church plaza. She said they kept away unwanted spirits. She has a small shrine by her window, decorated with religious baubles. A Jesus prostrated on his cross, glittering with red plastic rhinestones, andanting anting, little brass medals decorated with odd symbols and ciphers that were supposed to act as protective talisman.
“Don’t,” she said in garbled English, “Ay nako, I will. I will.” She got up and hobbled over to Kate, snatching the plastic bag containing the meatloaf and shuffling over to the refrigerator. “You girls want snacks? Merienda?”
Maisy and Kate smiled politely and said a quick “No, thank you,” as they left, kitchen door swinging behind them.
“She’s such a kook,” Kate said.
“Aw don’t make fun. She is getting old now.” Maisy said, “I thought you had to show me something?”
Kate plunged her hand into her jeans pocket. Whatever it was, was small. She pulled out a black velvet drawstring pouch.
“I found it in one of the small drawers in my mom’s antique wardrobe.” Kate said.
“Well, yes. But I was bored.”
“Anyway, don’t tell anyone because it might actually be worth something.”
“Like treasure?” Maisy raised her eyebrows. She was smiling, though.
“Hah…I guess so.” The girls paused as they neared a cream-colored door. An arts and crafts sign made of cheap thick plastic beads, hot-glued onto dark cardboard, read “Maisy” in childish script. It had been a second grade art project that Maisy brought with her from the United States. She liked it because it reminded her of home, of her old school and her old friends. She still remembered making it, taking a painfully long time to find the perfect beads and glue them over the outline of her name that she had drawn with precision, line by line with a black felt-tip.
“Music?” Kate said, walking over to Maisy’s computer.
“Sure. But show me the thing.”
Kate opened the little pouch and Maisy saw something inside glimmer. She watched Kate slide her fingers in and pull out a delicate, ornately carved necklace. It had a strange shape, like the head of a pencil.
“It’s a pendulum,” Kate said, proudly. She unscrewed the lid, showing Maisy the hollow inside. It contained a shiny white pebble. “I’ve read about them in old fairy stories.”
“Me too! I think…but I’ve never seen one.”
“Yeah,” Kate frowned, “they are supposed to be magical.”
The girls huddled closer, whispering about its magical properties and getting closer and closer to believing. Maisy asked to hold the pendulum and was surprised by it’s weight. She almost dropped it, as if it was trying to squirm out of her hand.
“Careful! It’s delicate.” Kate said.
Maisy put it down gingerly in the center of her down pillow. Its weight made it sag and dimple. The girls picked up their notebooks and plotted spells. They wanted to test out its power, and together they wrote,
Oh East, oh West, oh North, oh South
Bring this fairy power out,
By fire, water, wind and air,
Sun, stars, ocean fair,
We Summon thee from the Great Beyond
Hail and Welcome before us You Stand
They had decided the spell should rhyme, to be a proper fairy enchantment, and it should praise whoever was the most powerful, in case they got mad. Both girls had been fascinated by fairy spells and magic, and owned a good deal of youth spell-books from the New Age bookstore by Maisy’s California home. Together they chimed out their incantation and ended up giggling. Suddenly Maisy’s phone rang. She realized the sun had fallen; the room was lit by a single light bulb in the center of her ceiling.
“How did it get so late?” Maisy said, “it must be dinner time.”
The girls left the room without answering the phone. They assumed Maisy’s mom or Manang Nila was calling for dinner.
The table was set and Manang Nila had reheated the meatloaf. She had prepared a generous portion of steaming mashed potatoes and a small plastic tub of frozen fruit salad was out to thaw. She was in the kitchen, eating a more traditional dinner of fried fish and rice. Maisy’s mom wasn’t there yet, but the girls ate ravenously, barely chewing their food.
After dinner, Kate left in a hurry. With school in the morning, both girls felt guilty about neglecting homework and both wanted to be asleep before sun up. When she ran back to Maisy’s room to grab her stuff, the pendulum was gone. Maisy and Kate searched for it, of course, but Kate had promised her parents to be home as soon as dinner was over so she had to leave without it. Kate, of course, told her she would return it if found.
That night Maisy dreamed of swimming in a lake. It was a lake she had been to before, although she could not remember how she knew it. She was floating on her back in the middle of the lake, but the water seemed to be stretching farther and farther away from her. Icy water swirled under her, freezing her skin. A lull of warmth washed over her from the surface, heated by the low red sun. The lake grew and grew until she was in the middle of a large ocean. Waves began to froth and bubble, lapping over her body. She tasted the salt and brine, coughing as the bitterness coated her tongue. As she sank beneath the surface, tangle weeds snaked around her limbs, pulling her further, faster. The sticky, slimy weeds wrapped around her body and she felt as though she was engulfed in sticky ropes. She could no longer breathe, and struggled to be free of her bonds. The sticky ropes turned into coarse, hairy. She smelled earth, dirt, a horsey smell. The matted hair blanketed her limbs and filled her with heat. Her ears were filled by a low rumble, escalating into a thunder of snarls.
Maisy felt cold. She opened her eyes, searching for her comforter. The room felt icy, though she knew the outside temperature could not be less than 75º. The room was silent except for the hum of the air conditioner. Suddenly Maisy noticed that Jack, the Doberman, was not asleep. He was barking madly by the foot of her bed, the comforter twisted around his fat doggy body. Maisy sat up, confused, and tried to calm him. She placed her soft palms soothingly on his rugged coat and stroked him with a deep, calming force. As he settled back down, she tugged the comforter gently from underneath him, making a sleepy mental note to turn off the air conditioner when she woke up, before falling back into the dream world.
Brown bristly, matted fur. Everywhere. Choking her, smothering her. Maisy felt as if she was wrapped in an itchy wool blanket. The hair whirled around her, a mass of darkness, but she could make out sheaves of light through gaps in the coarse fur. It seemed to be moving, writhing around her. Then smoke. Thick, sultry tobacco curling into her nose and mouth. She tasted the bitterness and felt paralyzed as it continued to fill her lungs. Then noise. Like wailing. A low, suffering noise. And the barking. Maisy woke up again. She couldn’t breathe. The smoke was everywhere, clinging to the room.
Jack was on the floor, dancing around the room. He was letting out a low, mean growl. Maisy hugged the comforters tighter to her body and said, “Hush, Jack.” She held out her hand for him to sniff but he paid no attention. He was circling the bed, as if to protect her from something. Maisy rolled over and strained to grab her cell phone from the bedside table. Digital green numbers flashed 4:22am. Maisy started as her phone started vibrating. Kate.
“Hello?” Maisy said, sleep sticking to her throat.
“Hey, sorry, did I – ?”
“No, Kate, I was awake…uhm…”
“I had to call you. I had the weirdest dream. I was in this large pool of water…”
Maisy sank down onto her pillow. It deflated beneath her weight as she squeaked in shock. The two girls had nearly identical dreams, except Kate woke up to rough patches of raised, bumpy skin around her feet and wrists.
“An army of hungry ants? Killer mosquitoes?” Maisy loved to tease Kate about her fear of bugs.
“I’m not kidding, what else could it be? Unless you fell into a patch of poison oak while biking home yesterday?”
“Maisy, we’re in Manila,” Kate said, “there is no poison oak.”
They laughed and chatted until the sun rose and it was time to go to school. Maisy and Kate carpooled most days because they lived so close and were such good friends. When Maisy arrived at Kate’s house, Mrs. Delaney came out to greet her with a granola bar and a mini milk carton. She worked for the Asian Development Bank, so she shopped for most of her food in the commissary, which sold a lot of American goods that Maisy longed for.
“Kate will be just a minute,” Mrs. Delaney was saying, “Her rashes are not looking too good.”
“Do you know what happened?” Asked Maisy, genuinely concerned now.
“I think it may be heat rash. Summer is just around the corner.”
Maisy nodded, fiddling with the overhang on her sweatshirt sleeves.
“It is supposed climb to 97º this Saturday.”
Kate finally emerged, hunched from the heavy weight of her backpack. Her thick hair was pinned to the side with crisscrossed bobby pins and she wore long stripy fingerless gloves.
“Aren’t those from, like, the fourth grade?” Maisy had gloves just like Kate’s, which she bought from Limited Too back in the US. Hers were pink with leopard print, but she had lost them before moving.
“Ha-ha,” Kate said, glumly, “look.” She pulled down the glove, exposing her bright red skin. It was dry and flaky, peeling at her wrist where it bent. It spread to just before her knuckles and was not noticeable underneath the gloves.
“Hurts like hell,” said Kate. “Itchy too.”
Maisy felt slightly sick, she put her hands on her stomach and slouched into the car seat. It looked like someone had used a brillo pad to scrub Kate's arm raw. She was beginning to get scared.
The next day was worse. Kate’s rashes had spread up her arms and she wore full long sleeves to completely cover them. She was beginning to feel slightly feverish and brought a doctor’s note to school, in case she felt feint. She ended up using it just after lunch. She slept in the small cramped clinic the rest of the day, with ice packs over her arms and forehead, “the only treatment the nurses know give!”
On their ride home, Kate told Maisy that she had the same dream again. Maisy had had the same dream too. As the week progressed both girls continued to have the same recurring dreams. Whereas Maisy dreams started to fade being interrupted by Jacks wild howls and antics at dawn, Kate's only got more vivid.
“I can still taste the salt from the ocean and feel it stinging my eyes,” Kate said. “I can still smell the matted fur all around me.”
“And the smoke.”
Maisy shuddered but tried to comfort her friend. They both tried to ignore their feelings of fear, and had more or less forgotten about the pendulum.
By the end of the week, Kate was no longer coming to school. Her fevers were constant and kept her in bed with cool towels and lukewarm vegetable broths. Maisy was growing more and more frightened, but she did not know what to do. She tried calling Kate over the weekend, but her mother said she was too sick to come to the phone. She was having night terrors, and her delirious screams were waking her whole family. After each dream her symptoms would only worsen.
Maisy couldn’t think about anything while her friend was so sick. She was sitting at the kitchen table, her legs tucked into her chest, when Manang Nila walked in. Her heavy arthritic footfalls gave her away, but Maisy was glad for the distraction.
“Maisy, what wrong, anak?” Manang Nila walked over to Maisy. It was an excruciatingly slow journey from the sliding kitchen door to the chair that Maisy was curled up in, but she seemed determined to reach her. Manang Nila put a heavy, comforting arm around Maisy, patting her back as she let out sob after sob. She felt as though she was drowning in her tears, and the salty ocean-lake from her dreams was pouring through the tears she shed for Kate.
“What is happening?” Maisy did not expect an answer.
Manang Nila pulled out her rosary and began to murmur. She prayed every hour of every day,and prayed extra long and hard during Sundays and holidays. Now, she was praying for Maisy and Kate.
“Thank you, Manang, but this isn’t something you can just pray for.” Maisy tried to push Manang Nila’s leathery hand away, but she just gripped her rosary tighter.
“Why crying?” Manang Nila said, her eyes searching for the truth.
Maisy did not know what to say, but she decided talking was better than crying so she began before the nightmares. She told Manang Nila about Kate finding the Pendulum, and the play spell. She told her about their shared dreams and the nightmares. She told about the rashes and fevers.
“Ay, Ay, diyos santisima, hesusmariahosep!” Manang Nila looked at Maisy with her large, shiny eyes. They were blue black, deep and oily like an endless dark river. She was schooled only until the forth grade. Thereafter, she was too busy bringing up her seven younger siblings, until she herself married at fourteen and started raising her own brood. At twenty six she was a war widow. Even without much formal education, Maisy felt Manang Nila's wisdom extend beyond book learning. She was always so religious, but a part of Nila clung to her Pagan roots. She was deeply connected with the land. She looked at Maisy with her large dark eyes and Maisy saw the fear, mingled with compassion, love.
“Darling, darling,” she crooned, “you have summoned a Kapre. A tree Spirit”
Manang Nila explained why she kept her gold medallions around the room, “to ward off spirits that don’t belong.” The moderm world full of tall buildings and hardly any trees is not a friendly place for nature spirits. They are scared, just like us. Their homes are being destroyed and no one believes they are even there. Maisy wept for the spirits that were losing their homes, and she wept for the damage done both ways.
That weekend Manang Nila showed Maisy how to brew various cures to combat what she called “spirit sickness.” She took Maisy to the Sunday herb market. It was a tiresome two-hour ride by jeepney. Then walking through the sweaty, muggy alleyways was brutal. Maisy felt the sweat pooling in the creases of her eyes, in the ridges of her eyebrows. She wiped her forehead with the side of her hand, but followed Manang Nila, like a diligent student. Manang Nila showed her how to pick the most potent herbs, sniffing and pinching. Then they bought wooden bowls and spoons for mixing. “Spirits do not like plastic,” Manang Nila said.
They returned from the market with a small aromatic bounty. Maisy started to feel hopeful. However, Manang Nila had other plans. She ushered Maisy out of her room and switched on the TV. She was addicted to Gulong ng Palad, a local weekly telenovela. Maisy called Kate again, but Mrs. Delaney answered and told her to call back later. The fevers were worsening and Kate was now covered with angry red pustules. Mrs. Delaney was worried it was an evolved strain of the chicken pox.
“Could be contagious.”
Maisy shook her head a small, sad smile cracking on her lips. If only she knew.
By five ‘o clock the sun had already set. That was another problem with living so close to the equator. Maisy missed the long Californian summer nights of laying in the cool grass and watching the sun set later and later. By mid summer the sun would keep her company until nine, sometimes ten, at night. Maisy grew impatient and knocked loudly on Manang Nila’s door.
“Come in,” Manang Nila called. Her voice was raspy with worry. “I am ready, na.”
“Manang, can you help me?” Maisy said. She walked into the cramped room, mesmerized by the Catholic paraphernalia.
Manang Nila brought out the herbs they had purchased at the market. There was a long brown root with thin strands sprouting from the end, probably roots. There was a white bulbous thing covered in raised orange lumps. Maisy followed Manang Nila back into the kitchen and watched her take out a small mortar and pestle made of coarse lava rock. She passed her the shiny silver grater and helped her grind the herbs together. By the time the herbs were a thick, gooey brown pulp, a pot of hot water had boiled. Manang Nila mixed the herb paste into the boiling water, whispering complicated prayers that Maisy could not hear. Along with the Tagalog chanting were the occasional “Mother, help us,” an “Amen,” and a “Lord All Mighty.”
Manang Nila put a lid over the concoction and sat down at the kitchen table, groaning as her joints popped into place. Her arthritis was beginning to affect her knees, and she felt pain when she bent them. Maisy joined her, and listened to her story.
“Kapre is a dangerous thing,” Manang Nila said, “Tall man, hairy man…” Manang Nila knew about the tobacco, the Kapre never goes anywhere without his pipe, about the long, scratchy hair, and the symptoms, Kate’s fevers and rashes.
“He live in balete tree,” said Manang Nila, raising her arms wide, over her head. “On Sunday, Holy day, we can go.”
Maisy jumped up, smacking her palms on the table. There was a balete tree almost exactly in the middle of Maisy and Kate’s houses.
“That’s probably where he lives,” Maisy was telling Kate about her recent discoveries. Kate had recovered slightly, enough to be on the phone asking about the homework she missed.
“Will you be well enough to come?” Maisy asked. She was even more worried about her friend, now that she knew what was causing her illness.
“Mom wouldn’t let me,” Kate said, “What am I going to say? Mom? Can I please go pour some cold herbal goo on that big tree by Maisy’s house? Right.”
Maisy felt comforted by Kate’s voice, she sounded stronger over the phone. Maisy hoped it would last.
On Sunday, Manang Nila and Maisy walked to the balete tree. The walk was slow and tedious due to Manang Nila’s poor legs. Maisy held onto a glass mason jar, watching the slimy potion splash around inside the container. The mixture had time to cool overnight, but it was still warm to the touch.
It was another hot, muggy day. The sun was bright and oppressive. Maisy felt like she was walking through mud, the tarry streets were softening in the unrelenting heat. Manang Nila’s steps were excruciatingly slow, and Maisy wanted to sprint ahead and wait by the tree. However, as she grew closer and closer, a feeling of dread began to swirl around her stomach. She felt dizzy and carsick, though they were only walking.
Maisy could taste the pollution in the hot air. As she crossed the street adjacent to the balete, the sun began to grow dimmer. There was a cluster of trees lining the street, blocking the bright rays. The balete, itself, was magnificent. So tall, its branches hung heavily, covering the rest of the street and blocking the light.
Maisy looked over to Manang Nila, who nodded once. She unscrewed the plastic cap and knelt down, feeling the cool, damp earth cling to her knees. She poured the thick concoction into the soil, feeling it stream out of the small opening. The rich, dark soil quickly absorbed the liquid, and Maisy slowly circled the tree, pouring a little bit of the brew over each side of the tree, until her hands felt light and she was holding a sticky, empty bottle.
At last she sank down again and began to cry. She could smell the freshness of a nearby flowering bush and the pungent earthiness from the soil. She hadn’t realized how the smell of tobacco had filled her, blocking all other scents. As she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, she saw a white glint next to the tree’s large root. Maisy scratched at the loose earth with her shaking hands until a smooth white pebble rolled out.
“It for you,” said Manang Nila. She was smiling broadly. “It mean that everything done now.”
Maisy picked up the pebble. It was surprisingly heavy in her hands.
“Manang, thank you.” She said. “You can go home, na, I need to go to Kate.”
Manang Nila held out a hand to help Maisy up and began to slowly hobble away. Maisy lost no time in running to Kate’s house, the little pebble tucked into her jeans pocket. When Mrs. Delaney answered the door, her flushed complexion showed Maisy that she had just been crying.
“Is something wrong?” Maisy asked. “I just wanted to see Kate.”
“No, no.” Mrs. Delaney smiled, and Maisy knew everything really was fine now.
“That’s the thing,” said Mrs. Delaney, “This morning Kate’s temperature had spiked and we were afraid,” she paused, “the doctors were worried.”
“But it’s all fine. I just checked on her. She is sleeping now, but I’ll tell her you came by. Her forehead is no longer hot. The swelling is almost all gone.”
The feeling of relief that flooded Maisy with adrenaline made her sway slightly. “Oh,” she said. “I,” she presented Mrs. Delaney with the white pebble, “could you give this to Kate when she wakes up?”
Mrs. Delaney laughed to herself, shaking her head. “Of course, Maisy.” She said, “I’m sure it will be important to Kate.”
Maisy went home that night and slept through without waking up. She dreamed of nothing and rejoiced the simplicity.