art by Shane M. Gavin
by Eliza Victoria
***Be Advised. Mature Language in the story that follows***
There was a girl in a white dress crying inside the MRT station. She was sitting all by herself on a bench on the platform, farthest from the entrance but closest to the doors of the first car of the train. She was all alone because the train had just left, taking the rest of the commuters with it. Dante, on his way to work, had missed the train. He would have missed seeing the girl's wings, too, if he weren't standing at the right angle.
The platform was again slowly filling up with new passengers. Dante walked up to her, then stopped short. He wondered how long she had been sitting there, how many had seen her wings. Maybe no one had, Dante thought, because if someone did, the guards would have had picked her up and escorted her out of the station before anyone could snap a picture for their Facebook Wall. Fairies were prohibited from displaying their wings in public.
So young. Perhaps less than two hundred moons. Her wings were still transparent, still lacking that pink, green, or lilac hue that Diwata wings take on with age. A protester? But protesters didn't protest alone, unless there was a new movement for tearful, solitary demonstrations that Dante had failed to pick up from the evening news.
"Um," he said, finally finding the courage to speak to her. "I'm sorry, but I think you need to fold your wings now."
The girl looked up. Her expression nearly broke Dante's heart. "I can't," she said, hiccupping.
"I ca-han't," she repeated in a plaintive voice. "They wouldn't fold."
"How come?" Dante was confused. "Oh my goodness, are you injured?"
The girl cried. Dante glanced around and zoomed in on a guard facing their direction.
"You really need to cover yourself up," Dante said. "You might end up in jail. Can I put my jacket over your back?"
The girl nodded. Dante wore a jacket that was too big for him--Crystal often said he looked like a child in it--but it was successful in covering the girl's unmentionables.
"Is everything all right?" Dante nearly jumped out of his skin when the guard spoke up.
"Oh, yes," Dante said. "My, um, sister, um, has a headache."
"There's a clinic nearby."
"I see. Thank you."
"You just go down the stairs and turn left."
"Okay," Dante said, thinking, Please walk away.
The guard walked away. Dante turned back to the girl.
"I think we need to get you out of here," Dante said. "Where are you headed, anyway?"
"Home?" the girl said, and started crying again.
"You can't ride on the train with your wings unfolded like that."
The girl looked at her hands folded on her lap.
"I live nearby," Dante said. "You can sit in the living room and shake this off or something. You can phone someone to pick you up. Don't you have a phone?"
"Let's have it charged, then." Dante smiled. "I'm Dante. What's your name?"
"You know I can't tell you my real name," the woman said, firing up a cigarette. She was wearing a short red dress, form-hugging and flattering, and a pair of black pumps with sky-high heels. Waiters came to their table unprompted, bearing extra napkins and glasses and glasses of water. They couldn't stop looking at her. Pauline was amused.
"Of course," Pauline said. "I'm sure you'd like to remain anonymous for the--"
"Diwata don't give you their real names," the woman said. "Every single one of them, every single Diwata you've met and befriended, they've given you fake names. Your name holds enormous power, and to reveal your name is to surrender that power. Back in the days of Lambana I could throw a potent hex at anyone whose real name I knew." She paused. "But then Lambana's been dead for more than a hundred moons now, so why the silly precaution, right? I mean, what's the worse you can do, follow me on Twitter? Old habits die hard, I guess."
She blew smoke out the side of her mouth. "Sorry about that. Bad day at work. Anyway. I've settled with Crystal as my name. Just use C in your article. But you can call me Crystal."
Pauline nodded and added the name to the scribbles on her pad:
2004--the case of T., car accident; emergency wing removal surgery; botched operation; died
2005? 2006? Check
2009--introduction of Diwata wing removal as cosmetic procedure
"And how is your mother?" Crystal asked.
"A bit worried," Pauline said. Pauline's mother, Ces, was Crystal's boss in the marketing department before Ces was assigned to work in Singapore. During her despedida, she mentioned to Pauline that one of her colleagues had finally decided to have her wings removed. That was five months ago, and Pauline never forgot.
"She thought I'd be mad because she told you I'm post-op?" Crystal smirked.
"Are you? Mad, I mean."
Crystal shrugged. "Everyone knows."
"I remember seeing you," Pauline said. "Back when you had them."
"Was I prettier then?"
Pauline laughed, because she didn't know how else to respond.
"You look too young to be working," Crystal said.
"Not too young. I'm nineteen years o--excuse me--about two hundred and thirty moons. This is just freelance work."
"Why this topic?"
"I'm interested." Pauline took out her camera and her digital recorder.
"Interested," Crystal said, in a way that made Pauline feel ashamed. She balanced her cigarette on the ashtray. "I understand you'll need a picture?"
Crystal reached back and zipped down her dress before Pauline could say, "Later." She faced the back of her chair and slipped down one sleeve. Pauline raised her camera and pushed the button. The surgical scar, an open parenthesis before her right scapula, was two handspans long but could very easily be hidden by a concealer. Pauline imagined the waiters looking and scurrying away.
"It's healed well," Pauline said, and helped her zip up.
Crystal resumed smoking her stick. "The doctor gave me a cream. It's a bit expensive, but the scar will be invisible in no time. Funny--" she chuckled "--when the news broke that cosmetic surgeons are starting to specialize in wing removal, I was disgusted. Removal! Like they're warts, or an extra finger. Our magic is dead, Lambana is dead, and now they're offering to excise the remaining piece of our identity. I promised myself that I would never, ever, undergo that procedure, unless I'm on the brink of death, like that poor Diwata who died in oh-four. Or maybe not even then."
"What made you change your mind?"
"Five months ago I was hurrying to catch the train when my wings suddenly unfolded," Crystal said. "They were mutilated by the train doors. I don't even know how to describe the pain. Diwata wings look so thin and fragile, so I guess most humans think you can just snip them off and you won't feel a thing. But it fucking hurts, I tell you. Like maybe if you had your legs crushed by a car. I passed out, and when I woke up I was in the hospital, and the doctor was telling me I could decide to keep what's left of my wings, but I wouldn't be able to fold them and hide them under my skin anymore, and there could be infections and complications and other shit, so I said 'Doc, let's just remove them.'"
Crystal looked at Pauline and saw the expression on her face.
"Your mother didn't tell you the whole story, didn't she?"
"No, she," Pauline said, flustered. "She said you'd decided to have them removed. I thought it was a cosmetic thing. I'm so sorry."
Crystal nodded. "Phantom wings. That's the hardest thing. Every morning you stand up and try to unfold something that isn't there anymore. When it's cold that missing part feels paralyzed, and in the summer that missing part yearns for shade. And the dreams! When I still had my wings I would have flying dreams every now and then, but after the operation I had a flying dream every single night. The exact same dream: one single loop, a view of trees, then I would wake up and feel like it's the end of the world.
"Sometimes I see a group of post-ops and I judge them in my head. Fucking hypocrites. Fucking traitors. But like them, I'm wingless now, so what difference does it make? My closest friend also had his wings removed, as a sign of solidarity. We used to fly together. Before the accident we'd often go to Diliman, to that grassy hill overlooking the Athene construction site--you know the place? The one the company abandoned in oh-nine?"
Pauline said, "I know the place."
"We'd go there, late at night, and we'd fly together, relive the old days. But since I can no longer fly, my friend had the operation. Now his is a cosmetic decision, but also a decision borne out of friendship. But what difference does it make?"
"So you regret it?"
"I regret that we are going to die without wings," Crystal said. "You've heard the latest results from the tests. They're all over the news. We're completely barren. We can no longer reproduce. We're the last generation of Diwata, and we have no wings."
"'But have no fear, Sons and Daughters,'" Pauline said, looking at her hands, "'you will rise again--'"
"'--and your wings shall be filled with rain and all the moonlight of your days, and yours will be the glory of Lambana.'" Crystal sighed. "You've read the Book of the Moon. How impressive."
"I saw a translation online," Pauline said. "I hope you don't think I'm being offensive."
"Not at all."
Silence. "I hope the afterlife really is that beautiful," Pauline said.
Crystal's eyes were sad. "Me too," she said. "Me too."
"I saw a Diwata suddenly take flight along Panay Avenue. He flew so high up so fast he got tangled up in the electric cables."
"You were there?" Pauline said. "I saw that in the news." She was sitting, hugging her knees and chewing her thumbnail, while Ilaria lay beside her, an old gray blanket beneath them. Between them a huge flashlight shone a forlorn beam toward the general direction of the Athene construction site, but was swallowed by darkness before it could even illuminate a single cement block. At least there was a full moon. Pauline was thankful. With the moonlight they could at least see the half-finished columns and the point where they stopped rising from the ground. The utter lack of electric cables.
The sky, dotted with stars, was patient and waiting.
"He died," Ilaria said. The dead Diwata could have been her brother, the way her voice sounded. Pauline glanced at her, at Ilaria's white top with the lace sleeves and cutoff shorts and dirty Chucks, her wide-open eyes. "His wings and back were burnt to a crisp."
"They're saying its urban depression that developed into a full-blown psychotic break." Ilaria sighed, lifted her leg, and used the momentum to sit up. Pauline felt a soft breeze against her cheek as Ilaria unfolded her wings. "It's sad, isn't it? He just wanted to fly."
"Tell me about Lambana," Pauline said, that night when they first met. Ilaria took night classes in the university where Pauline was working on her undergraduate degree, and one dark evening, as Pauline walked to her dorm, she saw a Diwata in a secluded section of the library garden. She had her back to Pauline, one hand holding onto a tree. She was stretching her wings. Pauline stopped, mesmerized. It had been years since she last saw Diwata wings unfolded to their full length. The Diwata's wings shone silver. Pauline had never seen anything like it.
There was a bag with its contents half-spilled on the grass at the Diwata's feet, and Pauline ran to her without thinking.
"Are you okay?" she asked, breathless from the sprint.
"Shit!" the Diwata said, folding her wings in reflex.
"I'm sorry," Pauline said. She gestured to the bag on the ground. "Were you mugged?"
"Almost," the Diwata said, and snatched up her bag. "I slapped him away with my wings."
"Oh, I didn't know you could do that," Pauline said. The Diwata's eyes had silver flecks in them, the same silver as in her wings.
"It's a closely guarded secret," the Diwata said, and laughed.
"My name is Pauline." She extended her hand. The Diwata hesitated for a second but eventually shook it. "Maybe you should report what happened to the police. The student council's been asking for more guards for--"
"No," the Diwata said, and shouldered her bag. "I'd rather go home."
"Sorry," Pauline said.
"Or," the Diwata said, "I can go get some tea to calm my nerves. Want to come with?"
"Oh." Pauline said. "Okay." The Diwata had already started walking, and she hurried to catch up with her. "I don't think I caught your name."
The Diwata smiled. "Tea first, darling."
They went to a coffee place on campus. The Diwata brought two cups of hot chai latte to their table. "Tea's on me," she said, "since you took the time to stop and ask how I was back there. Other students wouldn't have spared me a glance."
"It's midterms season," Pauline said, and the Diwata laughed.
"You a working student, too? You have a night class?" the Diwata asked.
"No, I live on campus, I was just on my way back to my dorm. But I do write freelance."
"Nice. I work full-time in a bookstore."
"Oh," Pauline said, and smiled. "I love bookstores."
"The pay's shit," the Diwata said.
They stayed in that corner sipping tea and talking for several hours. Pauline couldn't remember how, but after pretty harmless talk of curriculums and terror profs and the cafeteria on campus that sell egg mayo sandwiches, they ended up talking about the Diwata's dead realm.
"I don't know where that 'iron is poison' bullshit came from," the Diwata said. "Remember that trend in the late nineties, when humans wore iron pendants on a piece of black string? I hated that. It's so silly! Why would anyone think iron can kill us? We mined iron in Lambana."
"I remember that. Went well with the elephant pants."
"My goodness. But that myth was so widespread. You know they used iron bullets to shoot the Queen."
"They did?" Pauline said. "I thought that was a myth, too."
"Shot the Queen on the field separating the two peaceful realms," she said. "Shot her on the Field of Truce, in the middle of business negotiations."
"Because she spurned a human lover, said the song."
"Another myth," the Diwata said, looking off into the distance and shaking her head. "She was shot because she refused them entrance to the mines. She was shot because the human ambassadors were greedy and she refused to do business with greedy men. In the end the ambassadors got what they wanted. Gold mines and expensive cars. They bled Lambana dry."
Pauline looked into her cup and didn't say anything.
"How did we end up talking about depressing things?" the Diwata said, sensing her discomfort. "Let's talk about egg mayo again."
"Tell me about Lambana," Pauline said. "What do you miss?"
The Diwata closed her eyes and smiled. "Sugar water. Honeyed bread. Flower tea." She opened her eyes. "The smell of the court gardens that no human perfume can ever duplicate. The town square, and how golden it looked in the early morning. The festivals, the dinners after harvest. The dances. The parties. The land was rich enough and our magic effective enough to provide us with all the basic necessities: food, shelter, water, clothing. Most of our days we devoted to sports and the arts, whatever caught our fancy. Magic was used in menial jobs, so no one had to become a menial worker. Everyone was rich and fulfilled. Everyone could afford the luxury to dream."
Her smile faded. "And now I earn minimum wage. I eat fast food almost every day. My cholesterol level is bothering me. I sleep in a room the size of a closet. I inhale soot. I can't even fly."
"Because of the ordinance?"
"Because of the lack of space!" She held out her arms. "There is no sky in this city. Just wires and cables and billboards and thirty-story buildings." The Diwata dropped her arms and sighed. "I haven't flown in eleven years. I may have flitted from one street to the next, but I haven't flown."
"I'm so sorry," Pauline said.
"I wish I had hoarded gold from Lambana before it fell," the Diwata said. She threw her head back and laughed. Some students turned to look at her.
"You're royalty, aren't you?" Pauline said in a low voice.
The Diwata looked at her with a pleased smile.
"Your wings are silver," Pauline said. "And your eyes –"
"The Queen had many daughters," the Diwata said. "I was one of them. I believe I was the only one left. Most died in the civil war."
Pauline met this pronouncement with silence.
"Oh, but this talk of sad things has drained me! Come, let us walk you home. Tell a joke on the way, will you?"
Pauline couldn't think of a joke, so the Diwata regaled her with stories of annoying customers at the bookstore. At the dorm, Pauline turned back and said, "Have you heard of the Athene construction site?"
"Is it a bar?"
"I'll bring you there tomorrow," Pauline said. "It's the perfect place for flying. You'll love it."
"Really," the Diwata said with her usual cynical tone, but Pauline could see her visibly containing her excitement.
Pauline nodded. "Good night."
Pauline turned back with her eyebrows raised.
The Diwata was smiling at her. "My name's Ilaria. Ria for short."
"Ria," Pauline said. "Good night, Ria."
Pauline, yanked out of the past, sat up straighter.
Ilaria had mimicked her pose. She was now hugging her knees. "I think I'm sort of scared."
"Do you want to go home now?" Pauline said. In the span of ten months, they had managed to visit the construction site seven times, and each time Ilaria got cold feet. "Cold wings," she would say. The first few times Ilaria expressed her disappointment in herself through anger: It's been years, why should I even try? And what for? So I can reach the topmost shelf at the store without using a ladder? And why do you care, anyway? Do you really want to help me or do you just want a private show?
Pauline would placate her, and on their commute back Ilaria would refuse to meet her eyes. "Why do you even put up with me?" she would say, looking out the window as the aircon of the taxi sputtered and the driver ranted about gas prices.
This time, Ilaria didn't respond. She stood up and walked to the edge. She remained that way for what felt like an eternity to Pauline, until Ilaria covered her face with her hands and wrapped her wings around her body like a sheet. She was mumbling something. Pauline couldn't understand the words. Ilaria lifted her hands to the sky and unfolded her wings. She did this three times. Hands to her face, hands to the sky.
No, she wasn't lifting her hands to the sky, Pauline thought. She was lifting them to the moon.
Pauline gasped. "She did it," she whispered to herself, surprised. "She fucking actually did it."
A moment passed.