Something from a Silver Tin
By Lily C. Fen
People on earth no longer knew how to make them, but somewhere in the back rooms of Pasay City's hardware stores, it was something that was still illicitly sold.
Most thought it was the stuff of legend or an old wives' tale. I probably thought of keeping it with me just to make my mother happy.
Star herders usually came to collect them when stars had gone brittle, breaking up red and orange giants into tiny fragments. Afterwards, taken to a manufacturer, the dried up bits of luminescence were ground into a fine powder. Some blends sparkled of the starlight that they had once possessed, glittering in a kind of crimson way if one paid attention.
The mango float I was making was something he had grown to love about me. It stood for the city in which we had fallen in love. It was easy to make.
I sliced the mangoes into three parts: the seed at its centre, then the cheeks on either side. The kitchen countertop oozed with sticky streaks of marigold as I diced them into pieces. A cup of thick cream and condensed milk went into one bowl. Then I laid out a bed of graham crackers at the bottom of the main container. Then a layer of the diced fruit. A dollop of the cream mixture followed, swirling over the golden layer with spirals of white. I repeated these steps several times until I had reached the brim. On the top layer, I sprinkled nutmeg and cinnamon.
Then I took something out from a silver tin hidden in the kitchen cupboard. Inside it was a small sack of fine powder my mother had given me when my husband and I had wed.
It was the spice of love, made from stars that had dried up.
Mother had given it to me on my wedding day. She told me that I would need it one day. I did not believe her at the time and shrugged off the urgency in her voice. But I kept the pouch with me all the same, even when I flew away to live with him, an ocean away.
We were five years married and still had no children. Our marriage was falling apart. Now I knew what my mother meant about emergencies.
She had said that I would know when the crisis arrived, that I would recognise when I would need the red stardust. It had been lying there at the back of the cabinet, half-forgotten.
I remember the first time I had made a mango float for him while we lived in Manila. It had been his request.
"Hey Hedgehog," he said, because that was what he called me. He hated addressing me by what he deemed as overly common pet names like "sweetheart" or "honey" or "babe". I had never met anyone like him.
"Hedgehog, I remember tasting a mango float at the office once, one of the interns from Ateneo had made it. Do you think you could make some?"
I agreed that the mango float was an amazing Filipino dessert. And I vaguely remembered that it did not take much effort (or skill) to make them. It was a no-bake refrigerator cake. All anyone needed were mangoes, condensed milk, cream, and graham crackers.
The key ingredient to a good mango float was the fruit itself. I have memories of some of the best ones, growing up. They came from a place called Guimaras in the Visayas.
My childhood friend always had a stash of them at home, since her mother was the governor of the province. She was seldom home to take care of my friend Aline, but Aline's mom did bring us the best mangoes we had ever tasted.
Almost every weekend, her mother would send home mangoes bigger than both of our ten-year old fists combined. We feasted on them on Saturday afternoons in the kitchen, where her yaya looked after us.
Aline and I moved to the same high school a few years later. We forgot about each other as we went our own ways in the new school.
Years later, I found myself on the white sands of Boracay. The popular island had a tiny wet market where a heavy-set lady was selling Guimaras mangoes. Remembering the mango-selection lessons my mother had given me when I was younger, I took a fruit up to my nose to have a good sniff. One could always tell how good a mango would taste by how its skin smelled, my mother said.
There was a time he and I had been together on Boracay. We played gymnastics games in the water and foosball in the evenings at Aria Ristorante. We were happy then.
Boracay was a long place away, in a time that belonged to two people who were no longer the individuals we had become. I shook myself out of the haze of my memories. It was the first time I was using mother's spice of love.
I put my nose into the silver tin and got a whiff of that strong nutmeg that was not really nutmeg at all, but the death of a red star.
Maybe a small part of me still believed in the life of stars. So I had kept it, just in case something happened that would leave me at a loss.
That time was now, I knew.
I had to resign from my job at the office since I no longer knew which way was up. I had been trying so hard to be like everyone else at work that I had forgotten who the woman was that my husband had fallen in love with.
I was determined for both of us to remember.
"Take this," my mother had said then, years ago. She had shoved the silver box into my hand when no one was looking. "It will help you and your marriage when all seems lost."
I thought she was crazy at the time. But as I sprinkled some of the aged spice of love onto the mangoes and crackers, I changed my mind. Somehow, she knew that one day I would need this.
"Mango float," his voice lightened at the sight of his favourite dessert from my country that he had loved so much.
We dug into the cold cake that Sunday afternoon. We each helped ourselves to a square. I tried not to look at him.
I felt a fire ignite in my heart as soon as I swallowed my first bite. Neither of us made any indication that something had changed, but that was all right. The spice had begun its work and I trusted that it would guide us, though I did not know exactly what it would do or how we would change when everything seemed hopeless. The following week I moved out for a few days.
We both agreed that we needed some time apart. I decided to stay at Tracey's. She was an ex-colleague of mine who had extra room in her apartment and did not seem to mind that I was there for a time.
As soon as my head hit the pillow that first night on her couch, I felt that a part of me had been torn away. Was this the starry spice doing its work?
I awoke in the middle of the night, breathing in gasps and starts. The fire that I felt from that mouthful of mango dessert had felt like strong rum sliding down my chest, but this was something else.
I could literally see that a small ball of fire had erupted in the centre of my sternum. It traced itself forward by a thin beam. It did not end, but instead pointed like a laser shaft out of Tracey's front door. I opened it in the middle of the night as silently as I could, not wanting to bother Tracey.
I gazed out the hallway and the yellow glimmer stretched towards the street. The beacon continued on, away from our building, towards the nearest tram station. Somehow, I knew where it led.
I tried to go back to bed. I was unable to find sleep. I think I managed to catch slumber by the hem of its skirt when the light was beginning to turn grey outside. I had dreams of magpies rustling in the trees outside the apartment window. As soon as the sun rose into a watery sky, I knew where I had to go.
I glanced at my watch. Half-past six in the morning.
I would make it back to Palmovka, where he and I lived together, before he went off to work. When I arrived, my fingers froze on the doorbell. Was I really doing the right thing? The tip of my finger began to glow, turning into a yellow spark.
What else could it be but the red stardust I had put into our mango float? I thought this stuff was supposed to work on him, not me.
But my fingertip was glowing there in the middle of the morning, like an obstinate flashlight.
I pressed the bell, and he answered, "Hello?" in a sleepy voice over the intercom.
"It's me," I said. "Can I come up?"
He did not answer, but I heard the buzzer ring me in through the door. The elevator ride to the sixth floor seemed to take eons. I contemplated what I was doing.
As I pushed the tiny elevator door open, the golden beam that had come alive last night in me shone even brighter. It shot out from my heart into a thin line that raced like electricity to our apartment door.
He stood in the hallway, still in his pyjamas. I wanted to reach out and touch him but I was not sure if it was the right thing to do.
And then I saw it.
The same lemon glow was on his chest, though I do not know if he knew it was there. It was all I needed.
I gulped down my doubts and my fears and I stepped into our cramped foyer. "Hedgehog," was all I said. I reached out to embrace him, my head coming in contact with the light that was effulgent from within his ribcage. He wrapped one arm around me and with the other he pushed the door closed.
I was home.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016