Contrary to what you might believe, a lapsed mountain goddess in the new millennium doesn’t live the life of an Instagrammable granola princess, a hippie-activist ensconced in trees. I have an apartment and a 9-to-5 job, a bank account. I have house plants.
Yes, I glow if I forget myself. And yes, my cacti flatten their spines and purr when I croon to them absentmindedly in the evenings. I keep a supply of ginger in my pantry, in case I need to turn some into gold. And yes, my hair is perpetually long, falling past my ass when I let it down from my messy topknot.
People don’t leave offerings on my doorstep anymore. I prefer it that way. You see, it’s not as if I’m trying to be human; I can’t be. But there’s no place anymore for a mountain goddess, not in the United States, certainly not in this city on the Middle American prairie. I can at least try to blend in.
So, today, my boss was screaming at me. I was drawing upon millennia of patience. It’s still taking all I could, not to call upon my father (not that I know where he is anymore or even if he survived the passage of time, the end of the gods, etc.) to smite him in place, to turn him into a tree or an ant.
“Can you be any less competent?” he screamed, throwing his hands into the air. So I made a mistake. Big deal.
I didn’t like my boss, but as I tried to remind myself, he was a run of the mill mediocre little man. The kind who struts around like there’s an invisible crown teetering on his head, who believes that I’m actually listening to him when he’s raining spittle upon me. I’ve seen too many of his kind. Sometimes, I nearly forgot myself and called him by another name.
I’ve had many jobs over the years. This was my fourth position doing data entry. This place was so middle of the road, as far as companies go, that I sometimes called it another name as well.
“I could fire you right now!”
Perhaps he would. Maybe I would go back to working in a vet’s office.
“I quit,” I said politely. And he shut up, deflated, like a bullfrog. I almost felt sorry for him, even though only a few minutes ago, I was debating upon calling my long-lost relatives to turn him into a real frog. Something little and ugly, easily snapped up by a heron.
* * *
I took the L back to my apartment, ignoring the audible lip-licking of a man across from me. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of being a goddess. Despite all my attempts to downplay my looks, wearing a nondescript self-imposed uniform of non-logoed t-shirts and jeans, no make-up, etc., men flock to me like flies. My glowing’s a real problem. Over the years, I’ve learned to dim it, and no one notices anymore unless you know what to look for. But I avoid going out too much at night, or going to dark places like movie theaters.
I don’t go on dates, if that’s what you’re thinking of asking.
Surprise: I don’t live in a treehouse or a cave or even an adorable cottage in the woods with doves and finches singing in the trees. I live in a one-bedroom condo in a cement block in Belmont, overlooking an alley that smells like urine during the summer. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve lived in many places since I left my mountain, the Philippines. And I’ve lived in many combinations of what I just mentioned. But trying to make each place your own—growing vines on the wall, digging up a garden—gets tiring after a few decades. Now, I like my boxy apartments, my plain walls, my few pieces of furniture. I call it minimalism, if I bother.
I don’t keep animals anymore. It was too much after awhile. Cats and dogs and gerbils die even faster than people. Plants, though. Something about their very lack of permanence—how quickly they die—bothers me less. And, new plants spring up so quickly in their place.
It’s also the only power I still indulge in, allowing plants to grow beneath my fingers. They talk, too, don’t you know? They squirm with pleasure when I stroke them to say hello. I like my succulents, my jade plants and aloe vera and crowns-of-thorn. Flowers, I can’t really look at anymore. Too many associations.
When I settled on my low, brown sofa, I could hear the sounds of music coming from next door. The cello. Elsa was practicing again. My next-door neighbor. I wouldn’t call her a friend, even though we nod at each other in the hallway, chat if we’re in the elevator. She even told me once I was the first neighbor who didn’t complain about her music.
“My plants like it,” I said sincerely, briefly forgetting myself.
Elsa took it in stride, though. She was one of those New Age humans, though she didn’t like labels. She did like crystals and smudging places with sage. “I bet,” said Elsa. The fringe fluttered on her silk scarf, as she closed her eyes to nod. “They’re more sensitive than humans can be.”
Now, as I listened, I could see the plants on the nearest windowsill sway, imperceptible to the human eye, but noticeable to a minor nature deity such as myself. I closed my eyes and swayed with them to the strains wafting through the walls.
* * *
After a week of lounging in my apartment, humming to my plants to the tune of Elsa’s cello, with the occasional excursions to the park to talk to the ducks and squirrels (their conversations are not that entertaining, but it’s less taxing than talking to people), I realized it was time to find another job.
I can turn ginger into gold. You might wonder, why do I bother working? (Also why ginger, but that’s simply the nature of my abilities, the imaginations of the people who once worshiped me, etc.).
Here’s the thing: the only thing worse than living for millennia with no end in sight is living for millennia with no end in sight with nothing to do. The time I did decide not to do anything (it’s a long, unpleasant story, why I chose to hole myself up in my mountain, ignoring the cries of supplicants), I eventually went slightly mad. “Slightly” being not that slight if you’re a human subject to the wrath of the gods, but keep in mind, my powers are mostly benevolent. The worst I usually do is to simply not nudge crops into growing or ignore a request to heal a lingering fever.
All I remember was descending, and discovering that much of my former domain was stripped of its trees, ridden with trash.
But that’s something I don’t often like to talk about.
At any rate, having a job, no matter how mundane, keeps me sane. Gives me something to wake up for, something to talk about with my plants and animal acquaintances. Even plants like some variety in their conversation.
While I was eager enough my first days working like humans do, I wearied of it eventually. I don’t particularly care anymore if I drop too many trays or type in numbers incorrectly or forget to pencil in important appointment dates. Better to be fired after a reasonable amount of time. Better for me to leave a job, a town, before people realize I don’t, can’t, age.
I logged onto job sites, looking for work. Finally, I saw there was a vet tech job nearby. Luckily, this city was big enough yet for me not to have to move so soon. I dug through a folder entitled “Resumés” (filled with hundreds of resumés, arranged in a way only I understand) and found one that more or less matched the requirements. Uploaded, done. I waited.
* * *
You might wonder what I, Maria Makiling, formerly of Mount Makiling, am doing here in the urban United States in the twenty-first century. Shouldn’t I be dancing somewhere on my mountain, followed by a train of furry creatures, my hair swirling to my feet, my body robed in white flowers?
What if I told you I got tired of being worshiped? Or even remembered? Not when everything and everyone I ever loved died or was destroyed? That if I had to leave my mountain, I didn’t want to spend it among people who might remember what I was? What if I told you I listened to too many of those strange white hairy men from across the sea who used to wander on my lands, who used to talk longingly of home, so different from this alien, wet, warm country?
Why shouldn’t I too get to leave, to find another place to reinvent myself?
Why shouldn’t I want a new beginning?
Why shouldn’t I too emigrate to the land known as the place of new beginnings?
Wouldn’t you do the same after a few millennia?
* * *
I got the job. No need to go through the gory details. On my first day reporting to work, the dogs and cats in their cage —the curly poodles, the grouchy Persians, the tail-wagging golden retrievers—stuck their noses through the gaps in their cages and panted hellos. The tension I didn’t know I was holding in my shoulders immediately released. Even the lightbulbs in the ceiling brightened for a minute. This was a good decision.
My boss, whose name I deigned to remember this time, Dr. Wu, was a gentle, cropped-haired woman with a soft voice. She had the best hands of a human I’ve seen in a while; the animals relaxed at her touch, instead of springing up in fear like with so many otherwise well-meaning vets. The few animals she couldn’t calm, I chose to intervene,
“You have a real gift,” she said, once, when I managed to calm down a German Shepherd named Captain, with snappish jaws. She herself nursed a small nip on her thumb. Captain’s tail thumped, as I stroked him. I could hear his thoughts. Mostly it was about bones and being scared of needles. Dogs’ thoughts are simple enough to decipher.
I shrugged. “Just a little one.”
On quiet evenings, when I closed up, I’d let the dogs and cats, the boarding ones, or the ones we were observing, out of their cages. They’d rush out, a stream of whites and browns and blacks and golds and silvers and reds. Their fur was curly, straight, wavy, coarse, fine.
I’d let them lie around my ankles, forming a circle. It’d be warm, soft. I’d be nested within their pants, their purring. Sometimes, I’d even let down my hair. Let my mind briefly forget all the thoughts I’ve ever had and will continue having. Let myself sink into the thoughts and conversations of these creatures, like how they all, even the most aloof Himalayan and the most rambunctious mutt, the friendliest saddleback and the most skittish Shiba Inu, agreed that their last baths were the worst times of their lives. Just like the bath before that and the one before that, and how easily it was forgotten as soon as their owners rubbed them dry, ruffled their ears and fed them the food from the cans.
It was a very good job. Maybe I would keep it for awhile.
* * *
I wonder if it was fate. Fate to make one too many errors in my last job, fate to dawdle just the right amount of time in my apartment, fate to find the right job open up at the right time.
When he walked in, a memory I’d forgotten, something that I tried to dig for in the past and failed, gave up on after a few hundred years, reared its head.
Think: Once, in a marketplace, untold years ago, across the ocean, my hand briefly touched another as I reached for a fine piece of cloth.
I don’t remember the color of the cloth, its texture. Whether it was piña, abaca, or Chinese silk. I just remember the feel of the hand. The calluses. The scar on his right thumb.
I never remembered the face until I saw his again when he walked into the office. He was carrying—carrying!—a huge brown dog of indeterminate breed.
“Can you help Freddie?” he said. His voice was wry, not worried. The dog himself didn’t look like he was in too much pain, give or take some whimpering. “I think he ate something he shouldn’t have.”
It took me a few long moments to respond, as I studied the face—the face!—I hadn’t seen in centuries. “What did he swallow?” I remembered to ask.
“I think my housekey. Or at the least I can’t find it, and his appetite isn’t what it usually is.” Freddie, wagging his tail, confirmed it, thinking that he wanted to taste the shine, the shine.
We stared at each other uncomfortably long. “I’ll call Dr. Wu,” I said. My heart thumped.
* * *
I was a goddess. Even if I was not that important, as far as deities went, I’ve had too many lovers to count. Or at least, that was what people used to say of me. Some men I was said to have loved over the years:
A stoic king, torn away by devotion to his people, a war looming on the horizon.
A lost foreigner, who spent a night with me, who probably thought I was a strange dream.
A revolutionary, executed for the ideas he scrawled on paper, a death which I couldn’t prevent.
A farmer with gentle eyes, who, after months dwelling with me, left me, forgot me for an ordinary life.
Filipinos. Spaniards. Americans. Japanese. All kinds of human men.
I don’t remember their names. They blurred together, along with their faces. Isagani? Fidel? Thomas? Tomoyuki? When you live as I do, what is romantic love? Or a soulmate, this concept I only learned of when white foreigners entered my lands? I can’t imagine an eternity bonded to a single person—this so-called other half—when my life has led me here, diminished, overseas, alone. When my lovers left or died, back there, back then, I remained as I had before. Only time and my own voluntary withdrawals truly changed me.
If I think of any of them, I can only think of the first. The first, whose hand I brushed one day at the market, when I hadn’t yet lost my appetite for humanity, or more accurately, being myself among humans. I couldn’t really say now, even though I’d left my mountain, that I was really living down here.
I couldn’t remember his name. I couldn’t even remember his face until now. But that touch, I did remember. I did.
* * *
His name was John. I repeated his name like a mantra in my head as I helped Dr. Wu hold down Freddie, take blood, run an x-ray. John, John, John.
A vague intimation of a name. Something so similar. Juan? Had the one I tried to remember been named Juan?
He smiled at me. He touched my hand once, when I was handing the leash back to him.
That memory again, exploding within me, like a dying star. I had to breathe deep to remember myself.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, catching myself nearly calling him the wrong name.
I will remember. I must remember.
* * *
I’ve tried dating. Really, I’ve tried. Once, I created an online dating profile in one of my worst fits of boredom and loneliness. I wrote down Maria, 27 (that sounds like a reasonable age for me, right?), likes animals and gardening. I picked a photo of myself from the beach. On the spur of the moment, I had asked a passerby to take a picture. Of course, I had been alone. In the photo, the sun was rising behind me, so I had let myself glow more than usual. I always shine, but when I walk among humans, I have to concentrate, to dim myself. It’s not the hardest task, but it requires a measure of concentration, some strain of the muscles.
I got hits within minutes. It’s overwhelming, how many messages I got.
you look like someone on the travel channel. i want to cum on ur face.
I slammed the laptop shut after seeing the first few messages. A few hours later, I deleted the account entirely.
* * *
I had to tell someone. When I got home, I paced nervously in my apartment. I watered my plants and could sense their complaints, that I was drowning them. Liquid seeped up from the dark earth of their pots, and I stopped. Silly, foolish. I even turned some ginger into gold. It’s simple, really. It feels warm, when I do it, and the sharp scent of ginger disappears. The new, unmoving glisten. I never understood humans’ fascination with the stuff. You can’t eat it. It was never alive. It’s cold. Ginger is warm, especially right from the earth, when dirt is still clinging to it. Ginger adds snap to food when grated, cures the aching belly when made into tea.
One of my lovers—I think a king—once told me I was beautiful when I allowed him to drape gold necklaces around my neck, slip rings, glittering, on my fingers. I was naked then; the jewelry felt chilly against my bare skin.
“You truly look like a goddess now,” he said.
His eyes had looked so soft when he looked upon me. I remember him being handsome with thick hair flowing past his shoulders. Eyes which reminded me of the earth right before planting. His words made me shudder, though, the wrongness of them. Perhaps I deliberately excised this man’s name from my memory.
This was ridiculous. Even though my very existence was anathema to the godless, magic-free reality that many people today understood to be true, I had never held with reincarnation. In all my decades, centuries, millennia, I had never seen anything—anyone—like I’d seen today.
A face I recognized, that had belonged to someone long dead.
So I knocked on Elsa’s door.
“I think I have—man trouble?” It was a struggle to find the right word in English sometimes. I’ve lived in America for a few decades. And of course, languages have never been difficult for me. But it’s an alien tongue, more alien than the Tagalog or Bicolano or Ilocano or even Spanish I used to hear and speak back home
I’m still a Tagalog mountain goddess after all. One in self-imposed exile, sure, but this land isn’t made for me. Didn’t come from me or rather, the belief in me, the honoring of me and mine.
Elsa raised an eyebrow, but she let me in. Her apartment was what I expected. Bright cloth and paintings on the walls, a squashy yellow sofa covered with pillows and an afghan. Her cello was propped in the corner.
I described my situation in the best terms I could: that I had met someone at work who looked like an ex and now I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Throughout this, I was drinking a cup of tea. Chamomile. It was soothing, floral.
“He’s not my ex,” I said. “This is insane.”
“Well, true,” said Elsa slowly. “But maybe the universe is telling you something.”
I giggled, nearly squirting tea out of my nose. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe he reminds you of him because there was some unfinished business with the last one. Maybe this is, like, a second chance. Like, not the exact same guy, but maybe it’ll be different this time.”
I looked at Elsa. I imagined she thought we’re the same age, similar people, albeit I was a foreigner, an immigrant from the Philippines. Elsa was just a girl from a rural town called Cairo, now playing for the orchestra in the city. She couldn’t imagine that this ex I was talking about was the first in a long line of exes, none of whom I regretted, but who were honestly just blips in an unending life.
I considered if she could be right, though.
“It wouldn’t hurt to talk to him,” said Elsa, maybe realizing my hesitation. “Just ask him on a date. A date’s a date, right?”
This life, day upon day that stretched into the future. I shouldn’t invite another mortal person in. Should I?
* * *
I had thought about dying, but what could that possibly mean? To die? I couldn’t die. It’s impossible.
I tried. Once, in my car (I did own a car at some point), I was driving home from a bar I drank alone in. I got tired and wondered—what if?
I ran my car into a pole. Totaled it. Front totally gone. But when all was said and done, I walked away with nothing more than achy shoulders, a strain in my neck, that disappeared as soon as I was conscious of the pain. After I tore out my license plate, removed any other identifying materials, I left my car where it stood, smoking from its hood.
* * *
I wish I could remember more of this one I loved, the man who brushed my hand in the marketplace. His name was Juan, though. I’m certain of it now. His name was Juan.
But all my memories of him are mixed with all the memories of the others.
Was it Juan who kissed a spot on my left shoulder when we lay together? Or was it the king I loved, the one I protected in battle until he died of old age, our liaison brief and burning?
Was it Juan who plaited my hair with pomelo flowers? Or was it the simple farmer I chose from three suitors at one time? The one killed by the other two, a soldier and a scholar, out of jealousy, who I then cursed to horrible deaths in a rage?
Was it Juan who brought me fruit from my orchards each evening when we dwelt together in my old hut? Or was it the villager who was conscripted to fight in a war, one of the many, too many, I remember from my life? The one who hastily arranged marriage to another to avoid battle, who was ultimately faithless?
I don’t remember which one it was, just the ecstatic wonder of warm hands tangled in my hair, a damp mouth brushing my belly. The first time I embraced a mortal, the first time I ever understood and returned his emotional, physical hunger, the only hunger I have ever shared with humans.
Sometimes, it makes my head ache. As far as deities go, I’m perhaps too human or not human enough. I have spent too much time with mortals, shopped in their markets, worked their jobs, listened to their travails, although all my time with them has only taught me that I can never be one of them, never understand the pains of a life snuffed out so quickly.
The lovers never last. I, and this hunger, are the only things that stay.
* * *
As if to force a decision from me the next week, John came into the office.
Think of this, this man with the face of one of my old lovers. Dark eyes, dimple in his left cheek when he smiled, a tiny scar bisecting the end of his right eyebrow. A long nose. Only his hair was different, shorter, with an errant lock escaping on his forehead. Men long ago had much longer hair. A leashed Freddie wagged his tail at his side, saying hello, hello.
“Hi again,” he said. “Just bringing Freddie for a follow-up.” He glanced down. “He’s never been so happy to be here before.” Freddie ecstatically agreed.
I blushed. “Yes, of course.” Of course, I think one of the other techs had handled the paperwork. Of course. I reached for a pen, knocked over the mug it was sitting in. I managed to steady it, with movements imperceptible to the normal human eye.
“Nice catch,” he said. I thought there was an odd note in his voice, but I dismissed it as imagination. I resumed the check-in. At least it was a slow morning.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” he said suddenly.
I stopped typing. “Excuse me?”
“I feel like you know me or something. Or I know you. I’m not sure,” he said, shaking his head slowly.
I smiled so hard that I talked through my teeth. “Probably not. I just have one of those faces. People tell me I look like someone they know all the time.”
“But you don’t. That’s the thing. I’ve never seen a girl as beautiful as you.” He stopped himself. “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate.”
For all the times I’ve heard that, for all the times I’ve rolled my eyes or done worse, I couldn’t help but feel my cheeks warm.
You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. . .
Juan or someone else? John or someone else? Whose voice was that?
I wondered, suddenly, if it really mattered all that much.
“Do you want to go out sometime?” I said impulsively, brazenly.
* * *
I stood in front of the restaurant, in Lincoln Park, as we had agreed. Just one of the many Italian places in this flat, Midwestern city on a lake. My hands shaking. Elsa had squealed when I told her the news. “See? It’s fate!” She helped me pick out a dress, some white floaty thing I didn’t even remember having. I realized as I modeled it for her, that she was the first person I had let into my place in decades. She even tried to persuade me to wear my hair loose, although I refused, since I didn’t want it to pick up dust.
I supposed I had a friend now, too. It felt nice.
John had called me some minutes before (oh, the pounding of my heart when I saw his name lit up on my phone), and when I answered, he sounded apologetic.
“Do you mind if Freddie comes along? I can call the restaurant and ask for patio seating,” he said, as barking nearly drowned out his voice. “Freddie refuses to settle down. He keeps trying to rush out the door after me.”
I laughed. “Sure,” I replied, as Freddie’s hurray, hurray wafted through the phone.
Now, it was too dark outside. I was busily concentrating on my glow. I could see my hands glimmering in the dark. No, no. I was supposed to be human. I forced it away. “This is why I don’t go on dates,” I said aloud.
“I have to ask, is it because of the dog or, like, something else?”
I turned around. There was John, wearing a leather jacket, salmon-pink shirt, and jeans. His hair was slightly mussed, and there was a sweaty sheen on his forehead. Next to him was Freddy, tangled up in his leash, tail wagging.
“I’m sorry about Freddie again. He’s usually not like this,” he said, sending a glare that I knew was part-exasperation, part-affection, at the recalcitrant Freddie. “He hopped over the safety gate. Twice.”
I blushed. At least I didn’t light up like a Christmas tree again. “I was just talking to myself. I—I don’t do this a lot,” I said. “I’m nervous.”
He then laughed. “Me, too. I’m just joking around. Really, you’re a saint for putting up with him and this guy,” he said, pointing at Freddie then himself. “Come on.” He offered his arm, his other hand commanding Freddie to stand still. Finally, with a silent word from me, the dog reluctantly obeyed, though he asked for steak, steak.
I accepted his arm. It was warm. I tried to batten down the memory it brought up, a time I was watching the moon from the window of a simple hut with someone’s arms around me.
John, not Juan. Not anyone else.
We went to the host stand. All I could feel was his warmth.
* * *
John was a high school history teacher. Freddie was his second dog (the best dog, Freddie interjected as he gnawed on a treat from the restaurant); his first, Buster, had died a few years ago (still the best dog). He grew up in Chicago and went to DePaul. He liked his job and coached the basketball team. He had been born in Santa Cruz, though, in the Philippines (I had to dig nails into my leg to keep from reacting, to hear the name of a city I was familiar with, that was quite close to my old mountain), though he “barely remembered it.”
“My family immigrated here when I was three. I don’t even speak Tagalog anymore,” he said, spearing a morsel of his chicken marsala. “You’re Filipino, too, right? From here or there?”
I swallowed the last of my merlot down to think. “Yes,” I said. “From there. I grew up in Laguna as well, though in the countryside. I didn’t come here until I was twenty, though.”
“Nice,” he said, smiling. The dimple in his cheek appeared. “At least one thing we have in common.”
“And dogs. I like dogs, too,” I said, only realizing how awkward that sounded after I had already spoken. I was rustier at this than I thought.
He laughed. “So we do.”
I couldn’t help but laugh in response, the warmth flooding into me. Why had I forgotten? What it was like to laugh with someone I found attractive? Just over a meal?
“Is your family here as well?”
It was hard to tamp down the—feelings—the question brought up. I could feel warmth forming on my fingertips. I grimaced involuntarily, trying to suppress whatever was happening.
“I’m sorry.” I looked up. There was concern on his face. Even Freddie stopped his chewing to send inquiring thoughts my way. “I didn’t mean to bring up anything.”
I shook my head. “No—we’re estranged. That’s all.” You’d be surprised to hear how easy it is, for a goddess to refuse to hear or see other gods, especially after a few dozen decades. I was surprised how choked up I was. How much the loneliness hurt, when I chose to feel it.
John suddenly waved his hand. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Freddie could use some exercise.” Freddie thumped his tail against my legs in agreement. John called for the check.
* * *
We ended up at the park, in a spot overlooking the lake where John could unleash Freddie, who immediately rushed off to chase a squirrel—run, run—up a tree. I had chosen this city because when I had first encountered this land, this unnerving flatness so unlike my old mountain, the lake had appeared like a beacon in the distance. It reminded me of Laguna de Bay, of which I had also been patroness, whose waters the people had honored before their numbers, their needs, their desires, overwhelmed their memory and respect.
I could not bear other mountains, even learned to prefer the anonymity of cities and their steel towers, but this lake, this one lake, I allowed myself.
Now, above us, the sky was darker than ever, though the lights of the city around the park brightened its edges.
“Can’t really see stars here,” he said.
“That’s all right,” I said, about to sit down in a likely spot. There were a few other people around, but they were far in the distance.
“Careful, you’ll get grass stains on that dress,” said John, taking off his jacket.
“No. It’s fine. I have a few hairs from Freddie already.”
“Seriously, I don’t mind. It’s sturdy, and the ground’s dry. And it’s the least I can do for someone so cool about a guy bringing his dog last-minute to a date.” He dropped it on the ground. I shrugged and plopped down on it.
“Come sit next to me,” I said, patting a sleeve.
“Not that much room,” he said with a grin.
I smiled back. “We’ll just get close.”
“That sounds like an invitation,” he said, sitting down. He put his arm around me and gently brushed some of Freddie’s hair off my back. “Is that okay?”
I nodded. He was warm, even through the fabric of my dress. I put my head on his shoulder, and some of my hair escaped from my bun.
“How much hair do you have there?” he said. His voice close to my ear.
I wrinkled my nose. “Too much.”
“It smells like flowers,” he said suddenly. “I remember this scent. Sampaguita, right?” Wonder was in his voice. “I haven’t smelled it in ages. I’m surprised I even remember what it’s called.”
“They’re some of my favorites,” I said, closing my eyes. Memories: How many times had men brought me garlands of those white, star-shaped blossoms? And pomelo flowers and hibiscus and dama de noche. . .
I looked up from my reverie. John was looking in the distance, at Freddie, who was romping towards us. “What did you say?”
“I was asking what you were thinking about. You did that a few times, during dinner. Drifted.” There wasn’t any reproach in his voice, but I almost wished there had been, for the stab of guilt I felt. “I wondered what—or who—you were thinking of.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry—why do I keep saying these things? I’ve asked way too much of a first date already.”
“No, no—” I said, though I didn’t know what to say in response. People think the gods are omniscient, omnipotent. Maybe some of us are, but I, at least, for everything I can do, for everything I’ve experienced, for every human I’ve held in my arms, can still fumble. We’re gods, but we cannot be gods without humans to set our divinity against—we cannot exist without humans to worship, to fear, to love us. I’ve come to believe that a tenuous balance exists because of this—that the imaginations of humans, their beliefs, can curb our own divine powers. I don’t know what to say to this man, to this John, even with all my past lovers unspooling rapidly, now, in my memory, because humans, too, still fumble when confronted with the mysteries, the possibilities, of another person, even after all they’ve loved and lost before.
Maria, Maria—Freddie bounded on my lap, rapturous, thinking of the squirrel he failed to capture, a failure that wasn’t a failure because the smells, oh, the smells, the run, the run.
“Freddie, Freddie, no, damn it—” John looked at me, abashed, his probing question temporarily forgotten, as more brown hair attached themselves to my dress, as Freddie’s warm, panting weight pressed me into the ground. “It’s cool if you never want to go out with me again?” The rising, unrestrained question mark at the end rendered his attempt at a sarcastic joke, just that, an attempt. I heard and immediately pitied the squeak of vulnerability.
“Maria?” John was looking at me now, square in the face. “Maria?” I already said even I can’t penetrate the mysteries of humans, or even this one human, but right now, this one moment, I could read the line in his forehead, the fear and uncertainty etched along it.
Behind him, the faint lights from the city haloed him, like he himself could glow.
“John,” I whispered back, before I leaned forward and kissed him. The tension poured out of my body, akin to a bow releasing an arrow, my muscles, my skin, loosening heat, energy, light, yes, so much light, I, we, were glowing brighter than the faraway stars, the sleeping sun, while Freddie barked the shine, the shine, look at the shine.
Anna Cabe is a Pinay-American writer from Memphis, Tennessee, who now lives in Chicago, Illinois. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Vice, Bitch Media, The Toast, Slice, StoryQuarterly, Joyland, Gordon Square Review and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She received her MFA in fiction from Indiana University and has been supported by the likes of the Fulbright Program in the Philippines and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She currently serves as an assistant fiction editor for Split Lip Magazine. You can find Anna at annacabe.com.