By Lily C. Fen
The funeral had taken place three days ago. He felt as if he had been walking through a grey dream the last week. Five days for the wake then a weekend of nothingness. After everyone had left, paid their respects, and mumbled their condolences with glistening eyes as they shook his hand, he could shut the heavy wooden doors closed. The marble floors were filled with the silence of parents who were no longer there.
He had woken up bedraggled, hair musky from having not stepped into the shower since the funeral. He felt like springing into action now and flung the opaque curtains open. Sunshine.
Today was going to be a day of busy-ness. Even if it just meant physically letting go of items in the house. He took comfort in letting the cavernous home breathe.
There was something about the rooms that seemed cloying. His memories of his parents clung to his shirt, as if he were walking through a thick cloud.
The sooner all those memories were gone, the better, Paolo thought. His first task was to get rid of all the junk that had accumulated over the years. He headed straight for the storage room under the stairs. The house had so many ghosts.
When he got to the silver box, Paolo hesitated. It glinted under the wash of the weak light bulb. He had been glad to clear out shelf after shelf and basket after basket of dust and forgotten memories. He wanted to lift all of it away from his tired spirit.
He paused and looked at the small package. Then he opened it. Paolo had asked Mang Berting to pack up many of the other items and deliver them straight to Caritas Manila. But this one was different. It was marked in red letters, "Keep." He wondered what was so important that his parents couldn't part with it and what it was still doing in the storage room. Paolo undid the ribbon and dusted off the box. Inside was a ring with a light-green gem in its centre. It resembled a cat's eye. Paolo had the sensation that the rock was staring back at him, studying him.
He shook off goose bumps that began to crawl up his arm. He gazed at the jewel in the sputtering light. Its beauty shone against the white ceiling, leading him to decide that it was worth saving for Maristella. They had been dating for nearly two years and he was beginning to feel the twinges of domesticity. She had stood by him during his parents' loss.
When the funeral arrangements were made, she was next to him. She was quiet when he needed silence, joked around when heaviness enveloped him. She knew what he needed before he did.
It took several months for him to gather up the courage to ask for her hand. "Will you marry me?" he asked, giving her the ring.
It looked stunning, especially after he had taken it to the jeweller to have it polished. The gem glinted like a movie star, a thousand light bulbs flashing in the wake of trailing paparazzi.
Maristella gasped in excitement at the sight of her ring. She held it up to the light and admired it often. She never took it off.
They married a year later. The cat's eye overpowered the sheen of her wedding band. She gazed at it from time to time, thinking the same thing that had struck Paolo when he had found it. The ring was looking at her. The thought gave her the shivers, and she shook away the sensation of dozens of thin spider legs creeping up her arm.
Maristella was washing the dishes when it happened.
A cut, just a tiny gash.
She stared at the wound in the afternoon light. The drop of blood glowed like a ruby dropping from the heart of her finger. And that was when the ring awoke.
It had belonged to Katrina once. She was 12 when her parents announced that she was going to have a baby brother. She had been an only child for so long that she had mixed feelings about the entire thing. There were times she felt thrilled about becoming an Ate, or Big Sister, and she scoured her beloved whodunit books and gothic stories for a name for the baby.
"Paul" was a protagonist in one of her favourite tales. He had sold his soul to the devil for a successful career as a tycoon in Metro Manila. It wasn't a very original story, as her English teacher later taught her when she entered high school, but she loved it anyway. "Paul," she had suggested to mom and dad. They nodded, and amended the name to "Paolo" to sound more Manileño. "You did a good job, Kat," her father said as they discussed the name. He patted her head as he did so, a thing she loved. She could never get enough praise from her parents and won medals at horseback riding competitions in Alabang and graduated at the top of her class from elementary school in Makati City.
But then the baby came, and there were no more pats on the head from her father. Every time she passed by the master's bedroom to tell them about her day, their attention was elsewhere. They were busy with Paolo, the baby, who cooed at them from his crib.
On her 13th birthday, mum and dad gave her the ring. It was beautiful. It glinted in the golden Manila light that streamed in through the curtains of her room. She always got the afternoon light. "Oh my gosh, thank you so much," she said, gushing and rising up to hug her father. "You're welcome, my love," he said, laughing at her excitement. For a few weeks, she was content and forgot about how Paolo was taking away attention from her.
But the day she came home after an entire week of being ostracised by upperclassman Victoria Martinez and all her friends at school, Katrina's patience for her baby brother was stretched thin.
"Mum, I have something to tell you," Katrina said, as she opened the door to her parents' room. Her lip quivered as the words fell from her lips. "What is it, Kat, can it wait?" Katrina's mother said, getting up to pick up Paolo, who had begun wailing in a way that reminded Katrina of a lost dog.
That night, when her parents were asleep, she crept in to take the baby. He was silent, but opened his eyes as she took him. He then gurgled at her the way babies do, as if whispering the secrets of life and youth to tickle her. But she was not there to listen.
She was heaving Paolo and herself up the rickety ladder that she had poised over the deep end of the pool. The plan was to fling the baby from as great a height as possible into the water. It would be less cruel than hurling him to the ground from the window, but his life had to end. He was usurping her place, taking what belonged to her. But then she slipped and the involuntary scream that escaped from her lips tore through the air. It wretched her father from sleep and her mother jumped up to check on Paolo. There was no baby but they could hear waves splashing onto tiles from out in the pool yard.
Mum and Dad ran outside. Somehow, Paolo, with the lightness of babies, had stayed afloat, and Father rushed in to get him.
Katrina had slipped from the ladder and hit her head. Red escaped from her temple like fingers wanting to reach the far edges of the pool.
Father handed the baby to Mother and he took Katrina, shaking her small body. She didn't respond. He felt his throat constrict, panic rise up like a great beast from the bottom of his stomach. They rushed her to the hospital but it was too late, too late.
When it was time to have her buried, father noticed the ring on Katrina's finger. Her beloved gift. He could not bear to say goodbye to her, but he had to. The earth was laying claim to her body. But he slipped the ring off her finger, pressing it to his lips.
Katrina was on the edge between the living and the dead and was about to leave all behind when she felt it. Her father's kiss upon the green stone. Her spirit caught his sadness and the tenderness with which the kiss was given and it became a tether that fixed her attention to earth. She stayed there, tied to the ring, watching over her father. He didn't put away the ring until 10 years had passed, when she would have been 23.
He stored the ring away, together with other valuables, in the then-empty storage room under the stairs. Her spirit slumbered as the door remained closed. Dust gathered and time forgot.
The ring had been in the box for a while, lying there in the dark, locked away in the stuffy room under the stairs. Kat had nearly forgotten she existed or why she was there. She was the cat's eye now, and she craved to take from Paolo what belonged to her. All his happiness. There were no more parents, he had taken that away from her too, while she slept in the shadows. But she could almost taste the life in Maristella's veins, the object of her baby brother's affections. The one who wore her ring. Katrina began to feed on the ruby red of Maristella's well of life.
Kat found her opportunity when Maristella was doing the dishes, sometimes when she was in the shower. Just a little nip. It appeared to Maristella as if she was grazing her skin by accident on the green gemstone. Its edges were as sharp as the jagged cliffs of Sabtang in Batanes, Maristella's hometown. She sometimes thought as a child that the island wanted to keep everyone else out.
When water was running she would stop and start. "Oww," Maristella said, frowning at her finger. She had done it again, cut herself on her beautiful ring while washing the dishes. Then in the shower. "Aghh," she said, gasping and shaking her finger at the hot water and steam accumulating in their granite shower. Maristella thought about how she should get the edges of her ring smoothened by a jeweller. She just never got around to it.
Katrina drank of her in little spurts, so systematically, that eventually, Maristella looked like a ghost. She almost disappeared into the beige wallpaper in the hallway of their home. She sought the help of a doctor then, thinking that she had become anaemic. She began taking iron supplements that revived some of the flush in her cheeks.
A few months later, Maristella became pregnant.
The evening Maristella told Paolo the news, he took her in his arms and raced them up and down the hallway. Their home was filled with the joy of expectation.
Maristella was three months along when Katrina figured out how to do it. The green gem could get a taste of the baby in Maristella's belly. Just a cut, a tiny gash. Every time Maristella accidentally cut herself in the shower or the bath, the gem siphoned blood from the baby forming inside its mother. Just a drop at a time, as had happened with Maristella.
Katrina's stone partook of the baby's lifeblood every night. She drank of its new energy as if sipping a cold soda through a straw.
The baby was not as hardy as its mother. One night, it had gotten to be too much. It could not hang on to Maristella.
She woke in the middle of the night. They were swimming in a pool of red, she and Paolo. Their hands were stained crimson as she cried out.
Paolo held Maristella's hand as she let out sounds that grated through the windows and the quiet of night. Her face looked like the silver moonlight that washed over their bedroom floor. She leaned against Paolo. Her heart felt as if it were spilling over the folds of their bed.
The ambulance came, its glaring lights a distress signal in the late hour that neighbours woke. They glanced through cracks between curtains, wanting to witness that night's gossip first-hand and be privy to the late night news in their neighbourhood.
Maristella survived the night but their baby did not. She and Paolo ran out of words to share with each other. Every subject turned to the baby they had lost. Maybe it was better to remain silent.
The monsoon season in Manila was starting, and they were caught in the stillness before the storm. The air was heavy with the threat of rain. A tiny leaf fell off a branch across from their window.
Maristella never recovered the flush in her cheeks that was evident in photographs. It was something her friends had envied about her. "Maristella," they would say with thinly disguised jealousy, "You never have to wear blush-on, even when we're at the beach swimming. Ugh, all the boys seem to love that about you."
Paolo had met her on the beach. Her rosy cheeks had glowed in the afternoon light, an amber sun setting slowly into the turquoise waters of Boracay Island.
"Hello," he said to her, when the volleyball he and his friends were playing with on the powdery sand landed next to her unfolded sarong.
"I believe this is yours," she said, smiling back at him with her perfect teeth and putting up a hand to shade her eyes from the low rays of the sun.
What remained of those memories stood on their dresser table, a photograph of the two of them against the sun-kissed backdrop of the Visayan island.
She was thinking about their memories and glancing at the photograph when her cheeks went white. Too white. Maristella's knees buckled and she collapsed on the floor. Paolo found her that way, several hours later.
He had her buried with the ring.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017
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