Tita Glo // We Were the Spirit Already
I take a couple of days off work to fly to Manila and stand by her bedside where she lies and breathes with great effort. There’s an oxygen tank in the corner painted an alarming shade of red. I want to cover it up, throw a towel on it to hide the color. My Tita Glo beckons to me with her hand and a quick raise of her eyebrows and I walk over to her and kneel by the bed.
“Ah yes,” Tita Glo says. “I remember this one. This one is my favorite.” She says that out loud, so my parents, my sister and my various cousins standing in the room can hear. She reaches out to rest her palm on the top of my head.
Dad says I should pay my respects to her, so I take her hand in both of my hands in the way that I’ve rehearsed, and I press the back of her hand into my forehead and I breathe in. None of these movements feel very graceful. I’ve never made this gesture before in my life, and I probably never will again. Back in California, there’s no one around that’s old enough to deserve it.
Two days later, Tita Glo dies. Cause of death: complications related to lung cancer.
I remember when I was six years old, sitting on the floor of Tita Glo’s house in Manila. There was some marble in the foyer which I’d stare at for hours, crouching and scratching with my hand at my back through the sando I was wearing. I’d look at the patterns in the marble, just try to follow the little veins and constellations with my eyes. I’d imagine I was staring at an exposed canyon cliff wall. There were little fossilized plants embedded in the rock, or dinosaur bones. I’d imagine bits of mica in a cave at night that shined back at me. Or the Milky Way. And I would breathe a little sigh and my eyes would go slightly cross-eyed.
I went cross-eyed a lot. Mom and Dad would always point out these moments. “Why so sad?” they’d say. I never knew what to say, or I didn’t know how to say it. And that got me even more sad, that I felt this iron ore chunk of grief lodged in my belly and I would never, never find a way to get it outside of me.
Tete would always pucker up her lips like a sucker-mouthed octopus. I’d always ask her what she was doing and she’d break out in wild laughter.
“That’s you,” she’d say, “That’s the expression you’re making with your face.”
“Stop doing that,” I’d say, “That’s not what I look like.”
And I’d chase her round and round Tita Glo’s house as she laughed. My little legs could never keep up, and by the time I’d grown taller, it didn’t matter anymore, because she’d found new ways to tease me.
I remember another thing that made me feel sad in Tita Glo’s house. She’d collected seashells on her various trips with Mama C., our grandmother. Some were from Mindanao. Others from Indonesia, Brazil, the Mediterranean. I liked looking at one of them in particular, a purple and white shell. It had a fractal kind of pattern to it which looked like mountains rising up out of the sea. I wanted to live on those mountains, and I knew that I couldn’t. Because it was just a seashell.
“Ah yes,” Tita Glo says. “I remember this one. This one is my favorite.” I think about her words. I was her favorite. What could she have possibly meant by that?
If the competition was between me and my sister, then I probably would bet money on my sister. Tete’s desires always seemed so much more intelligible to the rest of the family. Good grades, a white collar job, the works. She, the first born child, was the one ordained to duke it out in the immigrant American rat race and take it all.
If, improbably, Tita Glo meant that I was her favorite among the cousins and the various children of my generation, then I’m even more stumped. We moved Stateside pretty early on, and only went back to visit at intervals of three years or more. If you’re counting, I really only saw Tita Glo with my own two eyes maybe ten, fifteen times. So most of Tita Glo’s memories of me would have been of a shy, awkward child drooling away in the backseat, with occasional breaks to plug away at Legend of Zelda. I’m not sure I would have been my own favorite kid, honestly.
Here’s the thing though, Tita Glo was a gynecologist, like my grandmother Mama C. Tita Glo was the one who delivered me, one of the first people to see me soon after I was born. And so, she knows what I really am.
Sifting through old Polaroids after the funeral, Tete and I talk about how we never realized till late that Tita Glo loved women, all her life. It made so much sense in retrospect. She’d never married. Her short, cropped hair was always flipped back in a pompadour. She had a walking cane that was tipped with a brass duck’s head. Never once did I see her wearing a skirt, always the same faded denim jeans. And she had these knuckle rings she’d wear occasionally that spelled out her name. Three letters on the left, “G. L. O.” And three letters on the right, “R. I. A.” I couldn’t make this stuff up.
We were sure of it, that Tita Glo loved women until the day that she died. I keep this photo of Tita Glo on my desk, which is of her and my grandmother, Mama C., standing by the beach, both laughing. The two of them are standing shoulder to shoulder with the Pacific licking up on the sands behind them. Both of them smiling. They wear their wrinkles well. And Tita Glo has her arm around my Mama’s shoulders, draped there like a brown branch, the hand clasping Mama’s far shoulder.
As long as she lived, Tita Glo wanted to protect my grandmother, because she loved her. They went through medical school together and were always the closest of friends. So close that everyone in our family always called her Tita, as if she really were related to us by blood.
At Tita’s funeral, Mama wears tortoise-shell-framed sunglasses and cries beneath them. Her tears are as salty as the ocean.
Here’s the conversation I imagine having with Tita Glo’s ghost. We’re on an abandoned beach, in the dead of night, with the surf crashing so loud we practically have to shout at each other to be heard. Her black face is silhouetted by the moon behind her. Because she’s a ghost, she’s got a silver sheen to her, like negatives from old photographs.
Tita Glo starts by telling me all the circumstances of my birth. All the things I learned too late.
“When you were born,” she says, “we weren’t sure whether or not you were a boy or a girl. Actually we were pretty sure you were a girl, judging by what was between your legs…”
“Yes, yes,” I say. I’m trying to rush her along. By now, I’m so sick of the past and everything that happened in it.
“So when we found out that you weren’t really a boy, or a girl, but something in between, that changed everything. We had to alter your birth certificate, leave the gender blank, push the date of birth forward by about two weeks. Enough time to let your parents decide.”
“I know, Tita, I know.”
“And they decided to raise you as a boy. So they did. And now you’re a man, standing here before me. Is that worth getting angry about? What? You’re telling me you want to be a girl?”
“No,” I say. A real man. That’s what I want to be. Even though coming up and going to school, I always felt like the runt of the litter.
Then I ask Tita Glo: “What was wrong with our bodies to begin with?” Our bodies, I say, meaning the two of us together. What was so wrong with our bodies, that we never felt at ease, even among our family.
Tita Glo doesn’t answer. I think, maybe I shouldn’t have asked that question, because it really isn’t my place to ask that of an elder. She just stares at me.
The sound of the sea beats all the thoughts out of my brain.
Sige na, sige na, Tita Glo.
Some months after Tita Glo’s death, I sit and eat in my backyard back in the East Bay. Birds are singing and eating grass seed and pea shoots are starting to come up from the five gallon buckets I dragged out to the patio and filled with soil. It’s hard not to love the world, even though the world is throwing reason after reason out for me to hate it.
I stopped seeing the girl I was seeing during the winter. I realize it’s now spring, and as the seasons change, I get older. My fears of being stuck in a low-paying job until I die are slowly coming to fruition. Nothing in my life is adding up. Inside, I feel like a chopped-up, broken-down man. An impostor. All these thoughts make me lose my appetite.
Suddenly, I get an image of Tita Glo’s face, lighting up my memory.
Without knowing why, I crouch down to the ground and scrape a bit of the food on my plate onto the dirt. I think of Tita Glo, as it hits the ground with an unceremonious splat.
I don’t know why I do it, make this offering. It feels crazy, completely contrary to my Catholic upbringing and a waste of good food. I’ve never even seen a ghost, which is kind of unusual for a Filipino. What would my parents think? Mom would probably cuss me out, so eager to forget her childhood in the provinces that she hates anything that smacks of superstition.
I spoon out some more food onto the ground, collards braised with raisins, some poached whitefish. I even pour some water out from my canteen. A swarm of gnats begins to hover in the air.
And what would Tita Glo think? Would she be honored by my gesture? Or insulted by my naïvete?
Here, eat, I say to her in my mind. I don’t know if there’s food where you are, but there’s plenty here where I am. I’ll come join you as soon as I’ve done what I came here to do.
No ghosts appear. Tita Glo doesn’t talk back to me. Nothing unusual happens in my dreams that night. In the morning, my little pile of food has completely disappeared, eaten away by slugs and raccoons.
// We Were the Spirit Already
It was the month of the dead, when the grass at the top of the hills fried to a deep brown crisp. My little brother Pak ran far and wide on those hills and I ran after him too. That is, whenever I could get a break. After I’d gone to and from the stream more times than I could count and filled the well behind our compound with a jug, I snuck out. We kicked at dandelions together, dug in the clay for sleeping frogs and lined up the husks of cicadas at our feet. Pak was scared of them because the cicada husks looked whole, but had nothing inside of them. Like ghost bugs. Before we went home, he insisted that we cover up the husks with fistfuls of dirt. One time, he stole a little clay jar that our mother used to hold combs and, emptying it of its contents, he gave a burial to one of the cicadas. He put the husk in the jar and sealed it with a bit of hay, then buried it in a hole in the ground. In just the way that Pak’s father was buried the year before.
I couldn’t get to sleep those nights. Instead, I stared at the corner of the thatched ceiling in our compound. There was a little person that lived up there, in the darkest corner. The person was made out of air. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there because moths were flying around, all scatter-shot. One night, my mother edged over to my corner of the mat and whispered in my ear. “You’re too old to play with Pak,” she said. “Don’t go out to the hills anymore. You know how much we need you around here.” We’d been working hard, even harder ever since the death of Pak’s father. It took some time for her words to settle in my mind, the sound of her voice dripping through me like sap. I pretended to be asleep and didn’t respond. Through the crack of my right eyelid I tried to catch a glimpse of the corner where the little person was.
“I know you can hear me,” my mother said. And she rolled so that her back faced me. Black crabs and black ocean waves were written on the skin of her back. “Don’t forget, you won’t be a girl any longer once the season ends. Whang Ibu will make sure of that.”
There were three of us girls that became women that season. Ligaya and Sili walked in front of me that morning, as we all made our way through the bamboo grove toward the Women’s Lodge. The two of them were holding hands and murmuring to themselves. That was just fine with me. I never got along with the girls in our compound because I was taller, because I saw little people, because I hadn’t bled between my legs. Indeed, I would never bleed between them, even to this day, a fact that made my life so different from that of other village women. I was made to walk a different path.
When we arrived at the Women’s Lodge, Whang Ibu and the other women of the lodge were there, and my mother among them. Everyone was wearing green sashes and flowers in their hair. Whang Ibu had tucked her writing stick into the sash by her hip. The teeth of the writing stick were made of tiny, sharp fish bones all lined up tightly with barely any spaces in between them. Like Whang Ibu’s smile.
I offered beer and jade beads to the shrine at the lodge and I noticed that Ligaya and Sili were both crying. I couldn’t help but feel a bit superior, and scared. Whang Ibu told me to lie down.
Writing was the work of at least four people. Whang Ibu did the writing, which was usually the duty of a man, or a woman-living man. There was another woman to hold tight the skin of your arms, so the writing stick made true marks. Another woman was there to smear ash and charcoal into the writing that the stick made. Then there was another woman who tapped out a rhythm on a bowl made of bone-white clay. The rhythm helped ease the pain.
Whang Ibu closed her eyes and whispered words over her writing stick. I could see the fine white hairs of her nostrils, and her teeth stained red from betel nut. She was the only woman I knew who chewed betel, and she was the only woman in any village we’d ever heard of who wrote upon the body. My heart cries out as I say this. How much I miss that old strange woman, and how much I wish she could hear me telling this story.
She pressed the teeth of the writing stick up against the skin of my forearm. Gently, she began tapping. The pain of it was like small lightning striking the same spot on my arm, over and over again. One of the women smeared black charcoal paste into the pain and the stick moved slowly upwards. My mother sang with her cool, strong voice. I closed my eyes and followed that voice deep inside myself. When I opened my eyes again, I didn’t see the Women’s Lodge or the women in it. Instead, there were little people opening up holes in the ground, and in the sky, and in the shrine. All of them stared at me through these holes. I couldn’t bear to meet their gaze, so I closed my eyes and hummed to myself until I was sure the little people had disappeared. Slowly, I returned to the tapping of the writing stick and my mother’s voice, my burning arm. This went on until the evening.
Pak was friends with an older boy named Mang. Mang was always baked a deep brown color because the people of his compound worked in the gardens further down the mountain and by the sea, where it was hotter and more humid, and the sun struck you that much harder. He and his father knew some of the language of the Sea People and they knew how to steer a boat.
Mang’s father would visit our compound from time to time, and I’d always linger a bit on the path and Mang would too, so we could talk discreetly. At first, Mang would tell me about the Sea People and their ways, how they would rarely ever come to land but instead follow the whales from island to island. After a while, I began to tell him about the little people I’d seen. We were both villagers, but outsiders to the village because of knowledge we had, and that’s why I talked to him.
Mang once told me what he thought about the spirit. He said the spirit was like the sun. Everything existed because of the sun, he said. The sun shone upon all things, and what’s more, it shone through them as well. In his philosophy, everything was just a faint reflection of the sun. All rocks and plants and people were nothing more than a kind of cloth that was a covering for the spirit. You could see the spirit shining through the cloth. But the point of life was to get rid of the cloth so you could get to the sun, and see the true spirit of things shining with your naked eyes.
When Mang finished talking, I asked him if he thought that the sun was a man or a woman, and he wouldn’t answer me. I didn’t think much of Mang’s ideas. He kept asking me what I thought about them. Even when I refused to answer, he kept pressing. Finally, I just came out and said that I thought his ideas about spirit were stupid and only a man would think that was what the spirit was like. My cheeks were hot when I said this, as if he’d insulted my mother.
Mang got angry of course, and we argued. I thought at the time it was the kind of argument that would bring us closer together, but instead we grew farther apart. That was the last time I saw him.
While Whang Ibu was writing, I wondered if Mang would visit and watch me. It was permitted for children and uninitiated men to enter the lodge for the writing ceremony. But I knew that he would not.
Whang Ibu finished writing in the evening and the women of the lodge washed my wounds clean with water. I looked down and saw that she had written two black millipedes. Each one crawled up an arm and over the shoulder. There were clusters of ferns sprouting from the heads of the millipedes. Between my breasts, a tree was growing.
That’s what I’d wanted to say to Mang, but didn’t have words for. The spirit was like a tree, which touched the sky with its branches, but also places deep inside the earth with its roots. The spirit was male and female. It was the sun, but also the shadows. No need to uncover anything. We were the spirit already.
Whang Ibu said to me, “You didn’t cry. That’s good. Now you’re a woman. I would wish you good fortune, but you know better than that.
“Life is difficult for initiated men and women. There’s way too much of that other kind of fortune for my liking, before you get to the good kind. But I know you. You’re not like the other girls. You wouldn’t have it any other way. Welcome.”She said these words with such a sweet knowing tone. It was the love I’d never received, but wanted so desperately from my mother. I thanked my mother silently, because I knew she had arranged for Whang Ibu to be the one that wrote me into being a woman.
Whang Ibu took my head in her hands and pressed her forehead into mine, and I began to cry. After the ceremony was over, I walked away from the lodge by myself, into the early evening. Alitaptap were blinking on and off as they flew in the air. I could see Pak’s hills in the distance. I thought I heard a boy’s voice calling behind me; perhaps it was Mang’s. I kept on walking, into the rest of my life.
The Third Person
There is a myth about people who were born like me. The god who created the heavens and the earth decided to create people. So he spat on the ground and made the first people out of clay.
He touched the first person between the legs and he made a stalk grow there. This person he called man. He cooked this person alive in the oven of the earth.
The second person he touched between the legs and made a crack there with the tip of his fingernail. This person he called woman. He cooked this person alive in the oven of the earth.
The third person he dropped on the floor. As he picked up this third person, his thumb smudged the person in between the legs. Not realizing his mistake, he cooked the person alive in the oven of the earth.
This third person came alive. This third person wanted to help man hunt animals, but the third person was too weak. This third person wanted to feed everyone like woman does, but woman wouldn’t accept this third person.
The god came to the third person and apologized for the mistake that he had made. And the god gave this third person a new role. Every morning, man and woman would kneel before the god. But the god said that this third person’s role was to stand before him, and he set this third person before the throne and the third person stood before him.
I’m still waiting for that time. When we can stand, all of us, before the king.
Because I had a body that was neither here nor there, I let my mind wander. My mind was neither here nor there. My mind encountered many strange places and many strange things. But after many years, I became like a ghost, not belonging to anyone or anything.
My body was not sick. But after my mind had wandered too far, it withered and no one could cure it.
I took the feeling that had hurt me so much, which was the feeling called love, and I locked it inside a little box. Then I threw the box into the ocean and waited until the next Ice Age came and the seas froze over. I prayed the little box with my feeling would get frozen inside a glacier, so that nobody would ever open my box and see the feeling hidden inside there.
One night, I dream that the spirits find me while I am lying on the ground, paralyzed. I can’t see what the spirits look like. My eyes are closed and I can’t open them. But I can hear their voices.
One of the spirits sounds like a large animal and it says, “Hey! Look what I’ve found lying on the ground! It’s another one that’s confused about what it is. It’s spent many years pretending to be something that it is not. Now why would it do something like that and hurt itself so?”
Another spirit sniffs me all over like a dog. “That’s very strange,” it says. “This person thinks it’s fire, when it’s really water. Someone must have told it to be that way. But why would a human tell another human to act like fire when it’s really water? Humans really are strange. *Yeeech*! Let’s eat the damn thing.”
Before they can eat me, a third spirit snatches me up in its arms and holds me away from the others. You are not fire. You are water. That’s what it tells me with its touch and I feel something begin to melt inside of me.
“You belong on this earth,” says this third spirit to me. “Stop pretending to be a ghost. You no longer need to pretend to be something that you’re not.”
She commands me to be what I am. But I cannot. I can’t move or respond to her touch. It’s because I am made out of mud and clay. She lays me on the ground and I begin to melt into the earth.