The Hottest Day of May
Hello, all. This is a story I wrote more than a year ago. Was it a year ago, really? It seems like it’s from so long ago. From someone I only vaguely recognize. Is it frightening, how we grow up without us noticing? [“This Fleet of Shadows” was published in Philippines Graphic on September 29, 2008, and it is a happy dappy blessing.]
* * *
This Fleet of Shadows
It is quiet again. Ever since you realized what exactly silence was, you know that is what weights the house in the hours before noon. The arms of clocks move slowly, dust courses through the air without displacing anything. Always that silence, as the day grows from the gauzy rays of dawn to the stark heat of midday.
Your mom is somewhere within the house, straightening pillows and blankets, watering plants, steadying vases; she is most probably humming a song you will never recognize. Your father is at work. Down the road, the old people with their rolled tobacco and nganga are talking about the snow that fell on the town of Rosario for exactly seven and a half minutes, some eleven years ago, the day you were born. Outside, the sun is relentless. Today is the hottest day of May.
In this house, you are as unmoving as everything you can reach. The rare breeze slips through the drawn lace curtains, and sends loose strands of your hair to tiptoe along your cheeks. You lift your hand, and brush the strands away before reaching for a pen on the table beside you. You try to still the fluttering of a pad of paper with the tip of the pen. It leaves a precise, sudden dot on the white page. Slowly, with a care that bordered on dread, you angle the pen downwards to catch the outline of the shadow your arm leaves on the page. Beside that, you write virtuoso, scimitar, geisha, and connoisseur, words you got wrong on this week’s spelling test.
In the stillness of this house, as you look at the patterns your words and lines have made on the page, you think of the man – plumber? electrician? mailman? – you watched on television with your mom. The man who was sitting in the toilet one day when a knock on the door made him, well, hurry things up a little, with such force that nerves popped in his brain. (“That actually happens?” you asked your mom then, wide-eyed with glee and wonder.) When he awakened after a stint and a coma in a hospital bed, he found himself to be a voracious poet, writing verse upon verse on notebooks that ran out in days’ time. And then, after that, he took up a brush, and found he couldn’t stop painting as well. His canvasses were created from this fixed, fevered state, all from a hastened sit on his toilet, and an unexpected visitor.
You used to be like him once. (Not the part about the toilet, though.) Every object that left a mark, every surface that could be marked, you used, most at the flurry of the moment. Passing by your murky reflection on a dusty pane of glass, you used your finger to draw immobile butterflies waiting for flowers in flight. You used your mom’s eyeliner once, to write down a word you’d stumbled upon in one of the magazines lying around the house: palimpsest. Your father shouted at you, a rare occurrence, for using his shoe polish to draw an intricate pattern of swirls and arrows on the bathroom floor – your mom looked at you then with something too much like sadness in her gaze, before she told your father to leave the child alone, Ted.
As a child, younger than you are now, you drew fables on the walls of your parents’ bedroom; imaginary farms and gardens and forests of familiar animals taken from the dreams that made you huddle deeper into the blankets at night; petting zoos of made-up creatures from relatives who sneered at you from way up, their faces too far away to know that your answering scowls weren’t supposed to be endearing. They are still there now, those drawings.
There, almost kissing the tile floor is a mango tree lying sideways on the ground, its branches heavy and swaying with large round fruit. Inching its way atop the horizontal trunk, like a trapeze artist you saw in a picture book once, is a caterpillar with an elephant’s wrinkly knees. Blue swirls for the sky, red dots for the candy the neighbor’s kid stole from you, yellow slashes for the monstrous canary you shriek at on television, orange waves for the trees because the neighbor’s dog ate the green crayon the day before. And then a penguin here, its small yellow beak curved in the smallest of smiles, soaring, filled in with purple.
You drew, you drew. Until your mom, smelling of detergent, gently took the crayon you had been using, and told you to stand still, that she can slash a rough line above your head. She placed her hand on your shoulder to press you against the wall, just to make sure. She smiled to tell you that you have done nothing wrong. She looked really pretty then, with her hair longer.
“You’re growing,” she informed you, as she tucked the crayon in the pocket of her slacks. “Do you want to take a nap?”
“I don’t want to sleep,” you said, and you jutted your lower lip because you had learned more people do your bidding this way. “I do not want to sleep.” You drew your brows together – the way you had seen your mother do when she talked to your father whenever he came home smelling sweet and a little strange. “No,” you said, “No.”
“Okay, okay,” said your mom. She sighed, her hair falling softly over her shoulders. (You remember then that the night before, she had let you brush her hair with the gold-trimmed hairbrush grandmother gave her on her wedding day.) She gave you back your crayon. “Go, uh, trace your shadows then, sweetie,” she told you as she started to walk away.
“What for? How? I have to stay still, and I can’t.”
“Find a way,” your mom told you over her shoulder.
You looked at the flying purple penguin you had just drawn. It was too far from the ground, so whatever shadows it might leave will be on clouds. And so you drew a cloud (too bad the crayon you picked was pink instead of blue) beneath the penguin, close to its belly that it looked like it bounced off a pillow in a moment of pure joy, and you squiggled rough lines of purple on its surface. That, that was the penguin’s shadow.
On the wall, shielding the outstretched wings of your impossible penguin, your head had left its shape. You started with your neck, because one line, and the another, are always the easiest to start with. You then traced the outline with a crayon (purple to match the penguin), making loops on the wallpaper to mimic the curls on your head. When you leaned in to trace the finer hairs, the shadow moved, growing out of the faint purple lines and shapes.
The next day, you stared at the penguin and its companion cloud, and realized that when you had drawn the outline of your head, you had caged the soaring bird into a head-and-neck-jar, almost like the firefly you trapped one afternoon, and left on your bedside table to stare at. You remembered that when you had woken up the next day, the bug had lain on the glass floor of its makeshift prison, as serene as all things that used to glow were.
The next week, you asked your mother to give a name to what you do to the walls, and she called it a mural. Mural. Painters do a lot of it, she said. So, then, when you drew on walls, people might call you a genius. Armed with this knowledge, you rushed outside and joined friends, even the bully who had decided to make peace even for a couple of days, the new word floating from your mouth once, then twice, and then another time, until someone told you to shut up, and the word was immediately set aside for a game of tag.
The next months, right before going to bed, your mother told you to stand by the wall with your shoulders thrown back. She placed a heavy book on your head, steadied it. Then she told you not to move, and then she told you it was okay to move. You stood beside her as she drew a line right beneath the hard spine of the book. You had grown taller, yet again. The penguin you had locked up lagged an inch below this new line. When you looked at your mother, you saw that she looked shorter now, but not less pretty.
You, well, grow up, your petting zoos forgotten and abandoned. You learned a new word for this, menagerie, and you said it to yourself over and over as you went to a school where everyone knew your name, and the history of your entire family, up to when the teachers from the first shipment of teachers landed on national soil. Now, when you walk by the walls of your parents’ bedroom, you are inches above the abrupt dashes your mother left that afternoon. Before you know it, you will have completely abandoned capturing your shadows, leaving them untraced, frozen as they are one minute on the road in front of your house, then moving faster and faster out of your reach, until it runs in circles around you.
Wendy Darling had sewn Peter Pan’s shadow to the soles of his pointy green shoes, so he could fly. But then, they had to chase his nimble shadow around the room first, creating such a big mess that Nana the dog could hear the noise from the doghouse to which she had been chained. You don’t want to chase your shadows, though. You know it likes to move, at times, disappear.
The pen you are holding moves almost of its own accord, trying to record the hazy memory of Peter’s shoes. You draw little veins on the surface, and a stem at the heel. Peter Pan wouldn’t use leather, although the Lost Boys liked to wear dead animals on their heads. You wonder, yet again, why there are no women in Neverland, no other girl aside from Wendy but a spoiled Indian princess, no mothers.
Your own mom comes in the room now, smelling of mornings. She smiles at you. “Hey kid, is everything okay?”
“Yes, mom.” You doodle on the pad of paper, roughly drawing a chicken wing and a melting ice cube.
“Oh, fried chicken. You’re drawing again.” You look up at her, and you see your mom has bitten her lower lip. You smile at her to say that it’s okay.
“It’s so hot,” she says, and you nod. She sighs and runs one hand through the hair that curls around her face with the heat of the day. She cut it into a bob a couple of years ago, saying then that it would be easier that way. You no longer help her brush her hair with the gold-trimmed hairbrush at nights. Your mom bends a little to give your forehead a brush with her fingertips. “After lunch, how about we go to the grocery store and get some ice cream?”
You smile at her. “Cool,” you say. And both of you giggle, although neither of you know why.
You drew arrows with shoe polish and wrote the newest strange words with your mother’s makeup. Wendy Darling had sewn Peter Pan’s shadow to the soles of his pointy green shoes, so he could fly. Today is the hottest day of May. □