San Miguel, northwest Philippines, 1934
I have seen him before, when he comes to my house with his father, the postman, to help deliver packages. His name is Arturo Viray, and when he sees me he always smiles. Today, at the market, it’s the way he walks—leaning forward a little, his hands behind his back—that catches my eye. That’s the way Father walked. When I look at him he smiles again, and I wish I could talk to him, but Placitas, our maid, is just ahead of me and she always tell me not to talk to boys.
“Miss Mei, don’t straggle—” Pacita calls, then starts haggling with the fishmonger in the crowded market, so she’s not paying too much attention to me. I walk a little closer to her, glancing back to see if Arturo is following. He has moved a few feet closer and is staring right at me, which makes my face burn. I look away, but inside I feel like singing.
Arturo is handsome, with thick, dark wavy hair, and he is slender but not skinny. He is Filipino. Uncle doesn’t like me to mix with Filipinos, since we are Chinese. There are not many of us in our town, so the only boys I know go to my Chinese school and are not very interesting. Uncle says that we will go back to China someday, when things there are peaceful, and that Chinese are better than Filipinos, but I don’t agree. Pacita is Filipino, and has helped raise me since before my parents died. She is like a mother to me—but Uncle would not like me saying such things.
I watch Arturo from the corner of my eye as he walks in that funny way of Father’s, and Father’s voice echoes in my mind: You are my Mei-Feng, beautiful and precious. I giggle. Pacita snaps her eyes on me so I stop, but then she starts talking to one of the market women so I move closer to Arturo, Father’s words making me brave. As Pacita talks to the woman selling eggplants, I suddenly find Arturo standing next to me, and before I can say anything he slips a piece of paper into my hand, then disappears into the crowd. I open the fold and read.
You are pretty. Meet me at the river bridge today.
I read the words three times over to make sure I’m seeing them right—he wants to see me! Then I stuff the note quickly into the pocket of my skirt.
“Miss Mei, let’s go—” Pacita says, walking over to me. I wonder what I should do: If I do not go, Arturo may think I do not like him. If I do go, he may think I’m not virtuous. Then I think about what will happen if I do nothing—I will walk home with Pacita, have tea, and read until it’s time to help her prepare dinner for Uncle. The thought of another boring, lonely afternoon makes me want to cry.
“Pacita, can I go and visit Lily? I finished all my schoolwork,” I lie.
“We have too many things to carry. I don’t want to walk all the way to Miss Lily’s house.”
“I’ll go by myself. Here—” I take one of the bags she is holding, and though she eyes me suspiciously, she nods and tells me to come home before the sun starts to go down.
As I walk to the river, I grin with the secret knowledge of the note. I feel like a dozen little fish are flopping around inside my chest. He wants to meet me at the river! Maybe we will walk to the waterfall, my special place—the place where I first found out that I could fly.
I was sitting by myself at the top of the waterfall that day, remembering my old home in Manila, when Mother and Father were alive, and though I missed them, it was one of those times when I only let myself think about happy times, before they got sick, before I was sent away to the country with Pacita to live with Uncle. I was looking up at the blue sky and listening to the birds chirping in the lauat trees, thinking of our boat rides in the Pasig River, how I would dress up in red on Chinese New Year. Sitting there, remembering, I relaxed and closed my eyes, the sunlight warming my skin. A few minutes later, when I opened my eyes, I screamed because I was floating in the air! My body dropped down to the ground with a heavy thud.
I didn’t know what was happening, but I figured it could not be a bad thing because I was happy when it happened. I thought of what my name means—beautiful wind—and that maybe that had something to do with being able to float? I wanted to know if I could do it again, so the next time I went to the waterfall, I did the same thing and ended up floating up all the way past the trees, fear leaving me as I realized I could control my body up in the sky. It’s easiest for me to fly at the waterfall—the one place here where I feel free and happy. I love flying, leaving everything behind, floating up, seeing everything from up above—my waterfall, the river, the trees, our town with the big church in the middle. As I rise, they get smaller and smaller until I am inside the clouds where it feels cool, and everything is quiet. I listen to the wind whispering around me, and it calms me.
I wish I could stay in the clouds forever, or fly away to another place and get away from Uncle, but I cannot. I always think of Pacita eventually. I remember when Father and then Mother died, how much I missed them, how sad it is to be here without them. I don’t want to make Pacita sad. I start to miss her, and my body grows heavy, until I sink and sink until I am back on the ground.
As I walk, I see the brown water of the river and the wooden bridge that crosses it, and Arturo standing on the far end of the bridge.
“Good day, Miss Tan,” he says. “I am glad you came.”
“You don’t have to call me Miss Tan,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too forward. “My given name is Mei—Mei-Feng,” I stutter. I have never talked to a Filipino boy like this before.
“I’m Arturo,” he says, holding his hand out to me to shake as if we were Americans. I laugh.
“I know your name, you come to my house with your father, remember?”
“Of course,” he says, blushing, which makes me like him more. “I would have asked your father’s permission to court you, Miss—I mean, Mei-Feng—but since I’m Filipino—”
“He’s not my father,” I interrupt. “He’s my uncle.”
“Where’s your father?”
“Father is dead,” I say quietly. “So is Mother. They died when I was seven years old, from consumption. Uncle is Mother’s younger brother.”
“So your Uncle brought you here after your parents died,” he says. “I’m sorry about your parents. But I am also glad that you are here, or we wouldn’t know each other.”
I wonder what Father and Mother would think of me meeting a boy like this. They would probably disapprove, but they would also want me to be happy, and I am happy standing here with Arturo. I want to go to the waterfall, so I point to the trail that leads away from the bridge. We walk down the path, and Arturo keeps a respectable distance, not walking too close, walking with his hands behind his back like Father.
“Where did you live before?” he asks.
“Manila. Near Binondo, where all the Chinese people live.”
“I’ve never been to Manila,” he says. “What is it like?”
“There are lots of Chinese,” I say, then feel foolish. “But it’s nice here in San Miguel, less crowded—”
“I hope to go to Manila someday,” he says.
“Pacita—our maid—told me that you are going to go to Ateneo. That is the best university in the Philippines.”
“Maybe. I haven’t heard from them yet, but I will soon,” he says, smiling. “I want to study to become a lawyer.”
Soon we are at my waterfall. It is not big, just part of the river that spills over the side of a small green cliff in a white spray and falls into a little pool below. The waterfall is not very wide, and it falls with a gentle, shushing sound.
Some children swim in the pool, laughing and shouting. There are lauat trees all around, and their long green leaves swaying in the breeze, their yellow flowers like tiny starbursts. Arturo sits on a log.
“Someone must have left this here.” He points to a bag of vegetables on the ground next to one of the lauat trees. I look at it, puzzled, because it looks like the other bag that Pacita was carrying at the market—the straw handle has a pink flower on it and there are eggplants inside—but I don’t pay much attention to it and instead sit next to Arturo.
We say nothing for a long while, and it feels peaceful. The children are splashing in the water. Suddenly, Arturo moves me aside just in time to avoid me getting wet.
“Watch out!” He shouts. I smile because he is protecting me, and my happiness makes me feel light, like my body is dissolving into the air around me. I feel my body wanting to lift into the air, so I try to keep myself on the ground, try to think of Uncle who I hate. No one knows that I can fly, and I don’t want them to, since they may think that I am a witch or demon. Pacita has told me stories about the aswang, who look like people during the day but turn into flying animals and eat babies and children at night. I know I am not an aswang, but it’s best to keep my flying a secret.
After a while, we walk to the top of the waterfall. I peek over the edge and see the little boys playing and laughing in the pool, their dark heads shiny. We sit on a patch of grass and he tells me about his family—he is an only child, like me, and his parents are doing all they can to make sure he can go to college at Ateneo, which will be expensive.
“Your parents must care about you very much,” I say, feeling a little jealous.
“Family takes care of each other,” he says. I say nothing, thinking of Uncle, but I am glad that at least I have Pacita to care for me.
We talk for a little while, then I notice that the sun is starting to sink in the sky.
“I should go home,” I say. “Pacita will be looking for me.”
Arturo nods, but then asks, “Mei-Feng, may I hold your hand?”
I know I should not let him do this, but he is kind, and I have am so lonely here, with only Uncle and Pacita. I nod, and he puts his hand slowly over mine, our palms slipping together.
“I have never held hands with a boy before,” I say, embarrassed, but it does not feel wrong. I close my eyes and relax, breathing in slowly and deeply.
“Mei-Feng?” Arturo’s voice sounds shaky. I slowly open my eyes—I am floating. Cold fear fills my body and I drop to the ground.
“H-how did you do that? Are you a witch?” He backs away from me, his eyes wide.
“No, I’m not—it’s just—” What can I say that will make him believe that I am not evil?
“What are you?”
“I’m just a girl—I’m Mei-Feng! I don’t—I don’t know why I can do it, I just can—when I’m happy.”
He shakes his head, not believing me, his eyes wide with fear. My heart beats hard inside my chest, and I turn and run away, the small happiness I felt just a moment ago gone. I run and don’t turn back, even though Arturo is shouting my name, asking me to come back.
Pacita has tea waiting for me when I get home, but she is not in the kitchen, so I go to her small room near the back of the house. She is there, kneeling in front of the small wooden crucifix on the wall near her bed, her orange rosary beads in her right hand as she prays. She carries that rosary with her everywhere she goes. She murmurs her prayers as she does everyday: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I sit on her bed. I am feeling confused about Arturo and I want to tell Pacita about it, but I know she will not approve. She does not know that I can fly either. I sit still and listen to her pray.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” She crosses herself, and even though I am not Christian—Uncle says it is not Chinese—I have learned from watching her, and move my fingers from my forehead, to my left and then my right shoulder.
“So you decided to come home. What did you do with Lily?” She says, her back still to me. She does this often—she can always sense when I’m in the room. She eyes me up and down.
“We walked by the river,” I say, knowing it’s better to tell a lie as close to the truth as possible. I follow her into the kitchen where she will prepare dinner.
“Miss Mei,” Pacita says in her scolding voice. “You should not talk to boys.”
“I wasn’t,” I say, almost spilling the tea as I pour it. How did she know that? She gets the vegetables for dinner and sits down at the table.
“Don’t lie to me, hija. I have my ways of knowing the truth.”
I blow on the tea to cool it, thinking about sitting by the waterfall with Arturo. She must be bluffing—how could she know?
“Your Uncle is trying to find a good husband for you,” she says. “Your parents would not have liked you talking to a boy.”
“When will I have to marry?”
“Soon, you are already fourteen. When you get married, maybe I can come and work for your new family.” She smiles at me. “Ask your uncle.”
“But he’s been so angry lately,” I say.
“His business is not doing good. The Americans are making things harder for Chinese. But more Filipinos are making money now. Your Uncle will need to learn how to get along with us better.”
I think about how Arturo held my hand, how good it felt, and wonder if he will ever talk to me again.
“Would Uncle let me marry a Filipino?”
Pacita laughs in a strange way as she chops the eggplant. “Why?”
I shrug. “I hope he doesn’t make me marry that ugly boy that just came to our school. He has a big mole on his nose!”
“Your Uncle wants a good dowry for you, and a family that can take care of you.”
“Will he find me a boy that I love?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Lily told me about a woman she read about back in China—her name is Ting Ling, and she did not marry her cousin, even though her family wanted her to. She ran away to Shanghai and became a famous writer—” I say, but Pacita frowns.
“Ting Ling is a bad woman, then,” Pacita says. “Are you a bad girl? That’s not how your parents raised you. Now stop talking nonsense and go and make rice. Your uncle will be home soon.”
Uncle is in a bad mood when he gets home.
“I received a letter from your First Uncle in China,” he says in Chinese during dinner, looking down at his rice bowl with a scowl. “The government will not allow him to come here. He could help me with our business here, but the Americans say Chinese cannot come to the Philippines anymore, since the Philippines is part of the United States.”
I know better than to ask why, because Uncle will tell me anyway.
“Chinese are the ones who make this country better! We make business, have stores. These Filipinos, they just talk about me behind my back.”
“Uncle, maybe they are not talking about you,” I say. He does not speak the local dialect as well as I do. “How can you know, if they are speaking Filipino?”
But he just keeps eating, his mouth moving fast, his fat chin greasy with oil from his food. Uncle does not look like Mother—she had a small chin and pretty eyes.
“They look down on us now, even though Chinese helped them during their war with the Americans—”
I glance at Pacita as she brings in the steamed fish that Uncle likes, then goes back to the kitchen. I don’t like it when Uncle talks badly about Filipinos. He makes his money from them, why does he dislike them so much?
“They call Jose Rizal a hero, but he is part Chinese!” His pale, flabby cheeks shake with anger.
“But Uncle, you look down on Filipinos too,” I say quietly, and Uncle stops his chopsticks midway up to his mouth and gives me a hard look.
“Remember that you are Chinese, niece. Our civilization is the oldest in the world. Someday we will go back to China. It is too bad your mother did not live to return to her homeland.”
Uncle gets a faraway look in his eyes when he talks about China. I want to go to China too, but when Uncle talks like this it makes me angry, maybe because of Pacita, or maybe because I hate Uncle, although I would never tell him that. Pacita comes back in and bows to Uncle.
“Mister Tan, sir,” she says quietly, looking down at the floor. “Tonight may I go and see my relatives? It is Monday.”
Uncle grunts his approval. My chest feels heavy all of a sudden. With everything that happened today with Arturo, I forgot that it is Monday, when Pacita spends the night with her family, meaning Uncle and I will be alone together. She goes to clean up in the kitchen, and I try to finish the rest of my dinner, but even though Pacita is a good cook, the food is tasteless now and I’m not hungry anymore.
I hate the nights when Pacita is gone, because that is when Uncle comes to my room. He says that what he does to me will make me into a woman and please my future husband. The first time, I was eleven years old, and I cried and screamed and tried to push him away, but he was so much bigger than me with his clammy skin and heavy body, like a big hairless seal. He slapped me hard until I stopped fighting him, and when Pacita saw the bruises on my face the next day and asked what happened, he told her that he had beat me because he caught me doing bad things in my bed the night before. The way they both looked at me made me feel so ashamed that I just cried until Uncle sent me to my room. Pacita never said anything about it, and I often wanted to tell her, but what could she do? Uncle is my only family here in the Philippines.
I can’t fly away when he comes to me at night, though I have tried many times. I can only fly when I’m happy, it seems, and when Uncle comes to me I am only scared, angry, ashamed. So instead I press my lips together tight and stare up at a corner of the ceiling of my room, ignoring the rough tearing of Uncle’s fingers between my legs. I imagine that I am flying far above my waterfall, in the clouds where the air is cool and sweet, and though Uncle’s breath is hot on my face and smells sour, once I am in the clouds I do not feel anything that he does to me, do not hear anything but the gentle rushing of the wind and the birds chirping far below.
A week later, I am just arriving home from school when I see Mr. Viray’s bicycle propped against the side of our house. I look and see that Pacita is at the door speaking with Mr. Viray, who hands her a small package. I glance around, looking for Arturo, both fearful and excited that he may be here, since I have not seen him since that day at the waterfall more than a week ago. Pacita and Mr. Viray are talking at the front door and don’t see me, and I don’t see Arturo, so I start to walk, disappointed, to the back door to go inside—and almost bump into Arturo, who is coming around the corner of our house.
“Hello,” I say, jumping back a little. He jumps too, but smiles at me the way he always does.
“How are you?” I ask, trying to smile and keep my voice calm. My hands are shaking so I put them in my pockets. “Did you find out about Ateneo?”
He shakes his head. “How are you?”
“Fine.” We stand there, not saying anything, for a long moment.
“Well, good-bye then, Arturo,” I say, disappointed, and step past him, but then he grabs my hand.
“Mei-Feng, actually—I—I was hoping to see you.” he says.
I feel like I can barely breathe. “You were?”
He nods. “I don’t understand what happened—at the waterfall, but—but I like you. You are a nice girl. If you like me too—will you meet me again?”
I look into his eyes. They are dark, beautiful, kind. Something about them calms me. But then I hear his father and Pacita saying good-bye to each other, and I know I have to talk fast.
“Yes. Wednesdays, Uncle works late at the store. I’ll meet you at the waterfall then, after school.”
I wave good-bye and run to the back door of our house, already thinking about when I will see him next, at the waterfall.
I start to meet Arturo every Wednesday, when Uncle is working late at the store, keeping the books. I tell Pacita that I am staying late at school to help my teacher, or that I’m at Lily’s house. I don’t know if she believes me, but she has stopped questioning me, and just tells me to be careful.
Arturo makes me happy, and it seems like I can only fly now when I am with him. Even my schoolwork bores me and my friends say that I am different. Now that I am in love, the things that my friends talk about—books, their future husbands, what kinds of dresses they wish they could wear—seem silly, and all I can think about is when I will see Arturo again.
At the waterfall with him, my troubles fall away—I forget about Uncle, about being lonely. Arturo knows so much—about history, mathematics. I even teach him a little Chinese. And he is so handsome, with his skin the color of young coconut husk and his brown eyes that always smile. He listens to me talk about school—how we learned about the Emperor Qing, how my teacher complimented me on my characters. Arturo always listens.
Often, we sit in a special place not far from the bottom of the waterfall. We have cleared away some of the plants and found a couple logs and put them on the ground. They’re big enough for us to sit together, and no one can see us, the lauat trees giving us shade and privacy. Some days, it feels like we are in a magical place, far away, the orchids and sampaguita flowers so big and and sweet-smelling.
When it is not too hot, we go up to the waterfall and if no one is around, I let myself fly. I tried to get Arturo to fly with me—I held his hand and we closed our eyes, and I told him to think of happy things. I thought about happy times with Mother and Father—the way Mother’s hair smelled after she washed it, like jasmine blossoms, the way Father would pinch my cheek and tell me I was pretty—and I start to float, but when I open my eyes I can see that he is trying hard, but he is still stuck on the ground. Eventually, I let go of him, and soon I’m floating far above him and he stares up at me, his mouth hanging open like a fish’s. My happiness bubbles up inside me until it spills out as laughter.
When I am high above the waterfall and the town, I think about Arturo, waiting for me, and I miss him. My body grows heavy and I sink, slowly, then faster until I land. I walk over to him.
“How do you do that?”
“I don’t know, I just can. I wish we could fly away together, live in China or somewhere else far away.”
He leans forward, and kisses me on the cheek, just a feathery kiss, and a delightful fear paralyzes me. He only kisses me once, and then we race back down to the forest, where we sit in our special place, holding hands and listening to a frog croaking nearby. The leaves of the lauat trees around us rustle in the breeze, and our breath rises and falls in the same rhythm. I have never felt so close to someone as I do to Arturo right now.
“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere in the world?” he asks.
“I’d visit Manila again, to see our old house,” I say, thinking of Mother and Father.
“I hope I get to go there, if I get into Ateneo—”
“You will,” I say, squeezing his hand, and he smiles.
“Where else would you go?”
“To China, to see the Great Wall,” I say.
I tell him how it is the longest, oldest wall in the world, how a great emperor built it to protect our people.
“But Uncle says China is too dangerous now. There is a war. He says we will go back someday.” I suddenly feel sad when I think of leaving Arturo, and then I remember how Uncle comes to my room at night, how I cry myself to sleep sometimes after he leaves.
“What’s wrong?” Arturo asks when I stop talking.
“Uncle—Uncle—” I stutter, then begin to cry. Arturo puts his arm around me.
“Why are you crying, Mei?”
And because he is gentle and kind, I tell him. I have never told anyone what Uncle does, and I am afraid, but I cannot stop myself. When I am done he looks down at the ground, horrified.
“Do you hate me?” I ask. I will want to die if he hates me now.
“How could I hate you? You are just a girl—and he—does those things—Mei, I’m so sorry.”
He puts his arm around me again, and I lean on his shoulder. It feels good to have told someone, though I am afraid now that somehow, someone else will find out. I look around but we are alone, there are not even any children swimming in the pool today.
“You won’t tell anybody, will you?” I ask him. “I will be shamed, and what good would it do? Uncle is my only family here.”
Arturo doesn’t say anything for a long time. I hold my breath, waiting for his answer.
“No, I won’t tell, Mei. I promise.”
The weeks go by, and I am so happy with Arturo, and Uncle even stops coming to my room, because Pacita hardly ever goes to her family’s home anymore, and though I know that Arturo would not tell anyone my secret, I wonder if telling him has changed something, that maybe now everything will be all right.
Uncle comes home one day as I am sitting in the kitchen, snapping the ends off of long beans for dinner. He usually goes straight to the dining room and waits for his dinner without saying much to me or Pacita, but tonight he comes into the kitchen and stands over me.
“How long?” he says, his voice loud and angry.
“That boy—Arturo—how long have you been seeing him?”
I swallow hard, wondering how he found out, and feel my mouth go dry. “I—I don’t—”
“Don’t lie to me!” He shouts. “I’ve been trying to find you a husband, and this is how you show your gratitude?”
“Uncle, I’m sorry—” Just then, Pacita comes in the door from outside. She looks back and forth between me and my Uncle.
Uncle grabs my arm. “I asked you a question, girl. Have you disgraced yourself with this boy?” His breath is hot on my face, just like when he used to come to me at night, and I have to stop myself from throwing up. How can he blame me for everything when he is the one who did those things to me?
“I’ve done nothing—”
“You’ve been going to the waterfall with him! I would not believe it except that more than one boy told me. What were you doing with him?”
I push him away from me and his eyes grow wide, then he grabs me again, harder, and he is hurting me, and I cannot hold it in anymore. I will not be blamed for doing nothing.
“My only disgrace is you! How can you tell me that I cannot talk to a boy when you do things to me—dirty things! You are the one who disgraces me!” My knees buckle and Uncle lets go of me, his mouth dropping open, and I start to sob on the floor.
“I’ll teach you—” Uncle says, taking his belt off. I hear the clink and slither of it, so I try to run to my room, but somehow Pacita is suddenly standing there, blocking my way.
“Please!” I yell, but she just stands there, a faraway look on her face. Her eyes seem to glow with a bluish light.
“Don’t run, or it will be worse—” Uncle comes towards me, but Pacita shoves me behind her, her orange rosary in her right hand.
“Get out of my way!” Uncle shouts at her. He pushes her but she does not move, not even a little. It is like she has grown roots into the very ground beneath her, and she begins to grow, her gray hair floating up and away from her head, then turning into the grayish branches and the long oblong green leaves of the lauat tree as her body becomes a thick wooden trunk.
Uncle stumbles backwards as Pacita—or the lauat—grows tall enough to touch the kitchen ceiling. And then she makes a terrible sound—her voice like the howling of wind during a monsoon. She is speaking, making words of some kind, they sound strangely familiar, until I recognize what they are. She is praying.
Hail Mary, full of Grace— she says, her voice echoing like wind through the kitchen, her leaves shaking violently. Uncle’s eyes are huge and round, and his hand goes to his chest.
The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women—
I crouch down behind Pacita, the wind whipping my hair across my eyes. Uncle falls flat onto his back, his eyes still staring up at the tree, at Pacita.
And blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Uncle’s body is shaking on the ground, his head turning from side to side.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners—
I watch, horrified, not wanting to see, not able to look away. His body jolts up and down, and I scream.
—now and at the hour of our death. Amen!
Uncle’s body jolts one last time, and then he is still, his eyes wide open, spit dripping from the corner of his mouth. I know before going over to check him that he is dead. I weep, out of sadness or happiness, I’m not sure. As I go to kneel next to Uncle’s body, the wind dies down and I hear a loud creaking sound. When I turn around, Pacita is no longer a lauat tree, she is just Pacita—small and slender, her gray hair hanging loose around her small shoulders.
“Come,” she says, her voice quiet and gentle again. She holds her wrinkled brown hand out to me. “There is nothing here for you now, child.”
Darkness is falling as we walk towards the river, and Pacita tells me that she has always known that I could fly.
“Your mother said that she picked me to work for your family,” she says, holding my hand as we walk. “But I was the one who picked you. As soon as I saw you, when you were just barely walking, I knew. I can see when somebody has a gift. And I was there, by the waterfall, when you told Arturo about your Uncle. I have always tried to watch over you.”
I remember that first day at the waterfall with Arturo, Pacita’s bag on the ground next to the lauat tree. She was there!
“Why didn’t you tell me? I was so confused when I first realized what I could do—”
“It’s better this way, for both of us. When you get older, you will know when you can trust someone enough to tell them. Have you told Arturo?”
“He will not betray me,” I say.
“Be careful, child. You must protect yourself,” she stops for a moment. “Your parents were good people, trusting. But it is not always good to trust too quickly.”
What does she mean?
“You are a woman now, and we must protect ourselves, especially those of us who have gifts,” she says. “People may call you witch, demon, aswang. But there are many who do good with their gifts.”
We are near the river. I can hear the waterfall in the distance.
“Here—” she presses her orange rosary into my hands.
“Pacita, I don’t understand—”
“You must go. Your Uncle has enemies here, and some of those boys at the river may have seen you flying. It’s too dangerous for you here now. I can only do so much to protect you.”
“I don’t want to leave you, Pacita. You’re all I have now—you and Arturo.”
“You can fly, now, Mei-Feng. Go to China, find the rest of your family there. Go and do good with your gift. I have work to do here. And my rosary will help you. Do you remember the prayer?” I nod and look down at the string of orange wooden beads in my hands.
“When you feel you are in danger and there is no way out, hold my rosary and say that prayer, believe that you will be protected, and you will be safe.”
She embraces me for a brief moment. “Come back and visit me someday.”
And then Pacita gently pushes me towards the river, towards the waterfall, where I will be able to fly away. But before I leave, I have to go and see Arturo.
I wait until night falls completely, when the townspeople go to bed, before I make my way to Arturo’s house behind the post office. It is dark but the moon is half-full so I can see. I make my way towards the back of the house, where Arturo told me he sleeps. When I get to a slatted window, I peer inside, hearing someone’s soft sleeping breath. I hiss, hoping that it is Arturo in the room. Something moves around in the dark and I hear Arturo’s fearful voice.
“Arturo,” I whisper. “It’s Mei-Feng. Come outside.”
I hear him get up, and when I walk to the front of the house, he is outside. I follow him to the front of the post office.
“What are you doing here?” He sounds angry.
“I have to leave, Arturo, and I don’t want to go without you. Run away with me.”
“What?” His voice is sharp. “Mei-Feng, I can’t just leave.”
“But don’t you want to be with me?”
He drops my hands. “Even if I wanted to—I can’t.”
“Mei—we shouldn’t have been talking so much at the waterfall. Your uncle—”
“What did Uncle do?”
“He—he told my father that I should stay away from you. He said he would—come after me—if I kept talking to you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, remembering my Uncle lying dead on our kitchen floor. “Not anymore. Let’s run away. As long as we’re together—”
“It’s not just that,” he says, turning away. “I found out today that I got into Ateneo. I’m going in the new term, Mei.”
I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I should be glad for him, but everything has changed now.
“I thought you wanted to be with me.”
“I do, but you must know that we could never get married. You’re Chinese, I’m Filipino—your uncle does not want it, and my parents—well, I don’t think they would want it either.”
“I can take us away from here, both of us—at least I think I can. We’ll go to the Great Wall, anywhere you want to go.”
He moves away from me.
“Are you crazy?” he says, and my heart lurches inside my body. I move towards him but he shakes his head. “Go home, Mei. I am going to Ateneo. It’s what I want, what my family wants. You and I, we have to let go of our foolishness.”
He seems so different than when we are alone together at the waterfall. Suddenly I feel like I hardly know him at all. Or maybe I’m the one that has changed.
“Good-bye, Mei,” Arturo says, turning towards his house, not even kissing me good-bye. I watch him, a mad swirl of feelings churning inside me. I turn and start running, tears streaming down my face, running as fast as I can to the river, and to the waterfall.
The next day, I am flying high above our town. The happy feeling in my chest lifts me up, up and up, and the corners of my mouth lift too, until I can’t remember what it feels like to feel angry or sad or bad. I only feel light and full of air. I swoop and land on a big tree—I can’t really stop, I just hold on to a branch so that I can’t go any further. I look around, hear birds chirping and insects buzzing in the forest below. I breathe in the warm, moist air, the breath of the trees, and feel at peace.
Then I fly east, towards the rising sun. I see houses and nipa huts and fields, and then the narrow river, and my waterfall. The river looks like a shiny brown ribbon laid over the green land. I hover above the waterfall, and I can see, far below, someone walking next to it. It’s Arturo. I recognize him by the way he walks—leaning forward with his hands behind his back, like Father. I wonder if he is looking for me, and I am surprised that I don’t feel bad to have left him behind.
I feel lighter, and let the wind carry me up and up, and then I am flying over the small path that leads to Uncle’s house. I look down one last time at that house, and then I see a small figure walking on the path away from it. Pacita. She stops walking and looks up at the sky.
And then I look away and out towards the western horizon—towards China to find the rest of my family, or the Great Wall, or perhaps the Forbidden City. But I know I will come back someday, to visit Pacita and to see my waterfall again.
Rona Fernandez is a writer, mother, fundraiser and activist who lives and works in Oakland, Calif. Her writing has appeared in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, Greater Good Magazine, Philippine News, Instant City, and the anthology Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. She currently blogs at https://ronagirl9.wordpress.com/