The following short fiction by Dominic Sy is the fifth installment in The Pronoun folio of the Transpacific Literary Project. Find the rest of the folio here.
I don’t know if I met her more than once in this lifetime. But I know I met Isabela Alonza once in my youth, and Isabela Alonza again in my early years as a reporter. If that sounds contradictory, it is because all names are contradictory—the attempt to unite in a set of syllables the multiplicities of the body.
We first met at one of my aunt’s parties. She threw them often in the years before her retirement to distract herself from her age. Without daughters of her own, my aunt would bring me in as a surrogate, telling everyone every time that I looked more and more like my mother. Among her friends, I remember a dour old lady whom I had to kiss on the cheek and who my aunt introduced as Isabela Alonza. I was told that Alonza spoke several languages and was a good friend of the historian Patricio Guerrero. I didn’t know who he was. My aunt said that, in the ‘70s, he and Alonza had worked on some monumental historical project, a work that would have changed the discipline forever if it had been finished. Alonza brushed off this remark with a smile. “Another life,” she said. But when my aunt turned to someone else, I saw that Alonza had begun to look around nervously. I thought for a moment that she was just embarrassed, but then without warning she gasped and tripped backwards on her heel. I caught her by the shoulders and asked if she was all right. She didn’t seem to hear me. She was looking at something through the open doorway, though all I saw was darkness. She thanked me for catching her and headed for the exit.
Our second meeting came a decade later. By then I had left my parents, suffocated by their mutual infidelity. I had been staying home to care for my grandfather, who would tell me stories from his youth while he festered in bed. Every night, I would listen to him talk with a notebook in my hand and a recorder hidden behind the desk lamp. Sometimes he would describe how they survived the Japanese, about the weeds they would eat from the canals. More often than not, he told me about being a policeman after the war, when businessmen carried guns in their suits, and gangs divided most of Manila. He described the fights he had been in—his nostrils filled with gunpowder, his back pressed firmly against a wall. Sometimes he would stretch his hands out as if he were holding a pistol to show me “how it was done.” Sometimes, he shouted at criminals at the other side of the room. One evening, I heard a violent screech as I opened his door. He had been weakening for a while, and for the first time in weeks, he was sitting up, his hands raised up to steady his aim. He told me to drop my weapon. It’s me, lolo, I said, it’s just me. I stepped towards him. He lunged backward, hitting his back on the bed railing. He howled. A sore on his back burst and spilled blood onto the sheets. I quickly stashed the recorder into my pocket and hurried to the telephone. When the ambulance arrived, they wrapped up my grandfather’s bedsheet and took it with him to the hospital. He didn’t survive the month.
At the time, I had been submitting my grandfather’s stories to a few publications. From these stories, I would eventually land a job at the Manila Gazette. Though not much, it gave me the stability I needed to leave home. And it gave me the chance, a few years later, the chance to speak again with Alonza.
Back when my aunt would bring me to her parties, she would also ask to take me to the mall every other week. My parents acquiesced, of course, as it got me out of their hair. But as I grew older, I found more and more excuses to get out of babysitting my aunt. We hadn’t spoken since I left my parents, so my aunt practically screamed into the receiver upon hearing my voice. She slipped back and forth between emotions: it’s been so long, where are you, why don’t you call, why don’t you visit, how are your parents, why don’t they call or visit. When she finally relaxed, I told her that I was doing fine, and that I was working at the Gazette. We caught up for a while. I learned she had osteoporosis, but that she still felt more or less healthy, that she still read the paper every day. She talked somewhat randomly about things that had come to pass: new habits, stray memories, the dreams she had had that week. She talked the way people do when they try to avoid silence. Eventually, I managed to maneuver the conversation back to my job, and from there to Isabela Alonza. I said that we were searching, as we always did at that time of year, for stories for the EDSA anniversary. Like every other paper in the market, we had our People Power formula: the main article would discuss human rights violations and the importance of remembering EDSA, one or two smaller articles would talk about the Church, the Left, and the enduring popularity of the Marcoses, and at least one article would focus on a well-known activist. To thicken the pages, we would print a plethora of “extras”: interviews and testimonies, a story or two on reformed politicians, at least a few lines from their various victims. Stories that ensured buyers from friends and family, and at least a few angry shares online.
When I was finally able to ask my aunt for Alonza’s number, I had heard nothing from her end of the phone for some time. The warmth was gone when she spoke again. She would have to look for the number first. After disappearing for nearly five minutes, she came back with Alonza’s address. The number, she said, had been disconnected. As I scribbled down the address, I could hear my aunt fumbling about on the other side. I thought she would chastize me again for not having called, but when I finished copying the address she only said, “Take care of yourself.” She hung up before I could respond. For a while, with the receiver still humming against my ear, I wondered if I should call again. But there was something definitive about what she had done, something that told me that she wouldn’t pick up even if I tried. I put the phone down and promised myself that I would visit her soon, then I changed the time on my alarm and went to bed.
The next afternoon, I took the MRT to Ayala and walked a couple of blocks down to Legaspi St. Along the way, a gust of wind blew into the street, throwing my hair into my face. I turned my head to clear my eyes. It was then that I saw, or thought I saw, my mother walking at the other side of the street, heading in the opposite direction. A sudden sense of unease stirred within me. I stopped to look again and began to walk back in the direction I had come from. I couldn’t make out her face. After squinting for a bit, I realized that the woman was too young to be my mom, that she was probably around my age. Something of the unsettledness lingered though, staying even as I entered Alonza’s building and rode up to the fourteenth floor, until the elevator opened and the feeling was blown away by a wave of must.
I followed the smell down the hall, to a door bearing Alonza’s room number. It was ajar. I called inside to see if anyone was in. The sound of slow, shuffling feet moved towards the door. Finally, Isabela Alonza stood before me, her body bent forward like a bamboo. She looked almost exactly as I remembered, only grayer in the hair and shorter by a few inches. I smiled and said that I was Alice Tolentino, the niece of her friend Nenita. She had a puzzled look on her face when I spoke, as though I weren’t just a stranger but something puzzling and illogical. I cleared my throat and tried to re-introduce myself. I talked about the birthday party and how she had tripped. She continued to watch me as I talked, still looking disturbed. I wracked my brain thinking about what else I could say and even wondered if I should call my aunt, but it was then that Alonza laughed. She smiled, nodding slowly to herself as if there were something that she had just understood. Then she stepped away from the door.
“It’s good to see you again, hija,” she said. “Come in, come in.”
Inside, I found the source of the odor. Columns of folders hemmed the walls, the papers inside them browned and crumbling. They dominated that small, spartan room. Apart from the columns, there was a plastic table, a small shelf of books, and a ceiling fan that groaned like a cat. A short stack of coffee-table books lay on the floor near the table, beside a seat that Alonza pulled out for me. To my surprise, it seemed that she really did remember me. As she took the seat across mine, she thanked me for catching her that night at the party and for preventing a trip to the hospital. I said that it was nothing, though I had worried then about how frightened she had looked. With a smile, she said that it had been nothing to worry about, that she remembered how she had seen somebody unfriendly that night. It seemed to me to be an understatement. I remembered her face, her mouth agape and eyes wide with terror. What kind of “unfriendliness” must she have seen?
We talked first about a number of things—my aunt, my family, their deteriorating health. I told Alonza about my aunt’s osteoporosis, though I had just learned about it the night before. She replied that her own kidneys were beginning to fail, and so it seemed that they were in a race to go. But I think it will be me, she said with eerie cheeriness, I am sure it will be me. Eventually, I was able to bring up the article for the Gazette, and asked her if she was willing to be interviewed. I said I wanted to write about their project in the ‘70s, the one the government had commissioned, from the perspective of a historian who had worked on it. As I spoke, I noticed her hand curl up into a fist from the corner of my eye. But nothing had changed on her face. She maintained a kind of Gordian smile, and it occurred to me how oddly calm she had been—how different she was from the nervous woman I had met long ago, or even the woman that had just been at the door. But I didn’t linger on that difference. She said she was all right with being interviewed, and that she was even willing to do so on the spot. Ecstatic, I asked if she was also fine with being recorded, and when she said that she was, I set my recorder down a little off to the side. There it would be relatively out of sight, and hopefully soon forgotten.
We began with the basics—how she got into the project, what work she did, why she decided to get involved. She said that Patricio Guerrero had contacted her some time in ‘74, when the project was just beginning to take shape. Before then, she had worked as his assistant while finishing her thesis on Rizal’s German influences. She had taken his class twice, the first time out of curiosity, the second out of hunger. She had molded her work after his: his perspective on Philippine history, on the way in which the inheritance of the Filipino reached back over ten thousand years, not only matched her own beliefs but forced her to dig more deeply to their core. Now, he told her that the government was commissioning a multivolume project on the history of the Philippines, from the beginnings of the barangay to the rise of the New Society. He said that there were going to be nineteen volumes in total with Guerrero taking charge of one. He said that he wanted her back.
She immediately accepted, partly because of the pay (more than twice her salary in the public school), but mostly because of pride. Within a month, they and the other researchers had been given a floor at the National Library, whose staff had been instructed to bring up whatever documents they needed from the other floors or from the National Archive. They were ordered as well to transcribe anything that the researchers might wish to take home. That was what she remembered most fondly: sitting at her desk from eight to five, her day devoted solely to the documents. There had been no need to unstick keys or wander through dusty shelves. There was only history as it had been written, and history as they were going to write it. The rest was superfluity.
“Nowadays, some find it hard to understand how big a difference that made. So much had to be done. So much still needs to be done. Even now there aren’t enough historians, there aren’t enough grants. In those years, we wasted so much time making copies: transcribing hundreds of pages so that we could bring them home. We didn’t have photocopiers or digital cameras. The transcriptions alone took all day, sometimes all week, and by then you were too tired to get to the real work.
“But we wanted to write history, a new history, starting at the very beginning, the volcanos and the pygmies, how we were different in a sense but the same, the same culture, the same real, true, common people. Do you know how many pages Zafra gave to that? Or Benitez? How much the historians who came before us had written about the time before the Spanish?”
She asked if I knew who they were; I pretended that I did.
“Six pages. Six pages from each. And we were going to devote five books before Magellan. We just needed time and money.”
“Which you got from the government?”
“Yes, from the government. Let’s be frank, hija. You’re writing this for EDSA, yes? Yes, we were paid. Some people say Marcos wanted to show that we were a single people with a single destiny. That what mattered more than headlines or placards or graffiti on the walls was that we all were Filipino. Maybe. That wasn’t my concern. For me, it had nothing to do with him, or what was happening outside, on the streets or on the mountains or in the palace. This was our history, our past and our future, and it was more ancient and enduring than a decade or two of violence–however tragic.”
“And for me,” she said, “well for me it was about Patricio Guerrero. Patricio. Can you imagine? Patricio had called me; he had asked for me himself. And there were the others too. We were all on that floor: Zeus Salazar, Cesar Hidalgo, Alex Hufana. You know them? Alex wrote beautiful poetry, and his history was even more beautiful. Sam Tan had a volume to himself. Rey Ileto was there, for a while, and sometimes Adrian Cristobal dropped by with a book. Sometimes they were all there together, chatting in one room, and the rest of us would bring our chairs nearby to listen. We would creep in one by one to the door to listen to them talk. And while we listened to them talking, it was like listening to a song in a dream, so that even when our egos reared their heads and we felt like we had something to say, we didn’t. We didn’t speak. We sat and listened, devoutly, afraid that if we revealed ourselves, we would wake up suddenly in our beds under leaky roofs with cockroaches scampering on the floor and people crawling out on the streets, bleeding outside on the asphalt and being shot at for no discernible reason, no reason at all, dying every day for no reason when there was so much work to be done and nobody was willing to do it.
“So we did the work, and we did it well. And the work was good in the end. The work was good. Do you know how good work feels? Do you know what it is?”
I said I wasn’t sure if I knew.
“When you do not work for yourself,” she said. “When you do not live for yourself. That’s good work.”
We took a break then. I glanced at my phone and was surprised that nearly two hours had passed. Alonza asked if I wanted something to drink. She stood up and hobbled towards the kitchen. While she was there, I took out my pen to scribble down a few notes. Usually two hours was the limit for an interview; most interviewees would be tired by then. But I couldn’t tell with Alonza, despite how old she was. That said, I knew I had enough for the article. I could see it already: a tale of hope and ambition and misplaced ideals. It would be easy to frame it that way. Easy but typical.
I walked to the window, letting the warm wind blow over my face. Down below, an old woman crossed the street, hobbling from the sidewalk to the asphalt. Something about her seemed familiar. I watched her shambling forward, a yellow shawl wrapped around her neck, swaying back and forth as her feet hit the ground. I gripped the windowsill then, suddenly dizzy.
Alonza returned from the kitchen, a cup of tea in either hand. I thanked her and tried to put the woman out of my mind. I sat down to drink, but the tea was so bitter I almost spat it out. I looked over at Alonza who was sitting peacefully with her cup. She had made herself green tea, but for some reason had given me something that resembled bile. I put the cup down on the table. Alonza cleared her throat and turned to me with a smile.
She said that it was so nice to have heard from me again, and that she had not heard from anyone else in a long time. I knew then, with those words, that she thought the interview was over. I heard my editor’s voice whispering in my head: “Typical, typical.” It must have shown in my face; her smile wavered.
“Perhaps you think badly of me now,” she said. “But it was a different time then and under different circumstances…”
I realized what she was thinking and assured her that that wasn’t the case, that I was only wondering if she had any interesting documents. I was only stalling for time, but she asked immediately if it was for the article. I understood from her tone what I had to say. I said it wasn’t, that I had enough material already and was just personally curious. For a while, she remained seated, it seemed deep in thought, looking at the stacks on the wall. Then to my surprise, she stood up and hobbled to another room. I heard the sound of a drawer opening and closing. When she returned, she had a large black folder in her hands, a set of cracked and crumbling papers inside. Two things caught my attention. The first was that the writing was in German, not Spanish. The second was that document was an original, not a transcription or a photograph. Crumbs fell onto the table even before she touched the papers. One page looked like someone had spilled something dark on it. Before I could ask anything, Alonza pointed to my the recorder, which I had hoped she had forgotten. She asked me to keep it. I turned the recorder off and returned it to a pouch in my bag, hesitating for a moment, before flicking it on again and leaving the pouch unzipped. I set the bag down so it would face Alonza. She touched my forearm gently in acknowledgement, and we returned to the papers on the table.
Midway through the project, she said, one of the other assistants found this document in the stacks. It seemed misplaced. The assistant, who had a passing familiarity with German, said that it was manuscript written by someone named Herbert Ashe, and that it described what seemed to be a Visayan language of only verbs. Fueled by the discovery, the assistant showed off the papers to the entire floor. Everyone who saw it came to the same conclusion: it was a hoax, there was no such thing as a language of verbs. What we wondered about was the author’s identity, and how he had even gotten it into the archives. Alonza asked to see the papers, interested that they were in German, but Guerrero walked in just then and saw them huddled together. His eyes widened when he saw the manuscript. He demanded to know where it had been found. The assistant showed him the stack—a series of baptismal records. Without explanation, he took the document to his office and told two of the men to bring in the rest of the stack. The rest of the assistants he told to get back to work. Naturally they didn’t, and spent the rest of the day talking amongst themselves, trying to figure out what had happened.
Only Alonza would discover the truth. The following afternoon, Guerrero asked to speak with her in private. When she entered his study, Guerrero was standing by the window with a half-finished cigarette, the afternoon sun in his hair. Guerrero turned around and asked her to sit. He asked if she had already read the manuscript. When she said she hadn’t, he said: You should. You’re the only one who should. He walked towards her and began to explain. He said he had just spoken with the others (she knew immediately that he was not talking about her colleagues, but about the heads of the other volumes), and they had agreed that someone should look through the manuscript. To read it and to verify its contents. They were too busy to do it themselves, however. There had been too many delays, and they were already rushing Salazar’s volume to appease the president. So Guerrero suggested Alonza for the job. He trusted her work, and she was used to reading German. Alonza interrupted him then, confused. Of course, she said, she was curious like everyone else. But what was the point? Why, if it was just a hoax, would they need to take a closer look? Guerrero gestured then to the crumbling papers on his desk surrounding the manuscript. Alonza looked closer. There were almost a dozen letters, written in English and German, signed by a certain Herbert Ashe.
I found them many years ago, Guerrero explained, in an antique shop in Wandernburg. Ashe was a linguist, a student of Wilhelm von Humboldt, and he had come to the Philippines in 1841 after traveling through the East Indies. He had come to prove his late mentor’s theory—that the Tagalog language was the most developed of the Malayo-Polynesian tongues. In Manila, he befriended the Dominicans, who let him use their library. He went through their grammar books and dictionaries, after which he explored the Tagalog provinces. Ultimately, however, and for reasons his letters did not explain, Ashe packed up and left for the Visayas. His letters ended abruptly. In his final message from Cebu, he said he had found proof of something that he deemed to be important— “a revelation in the study of human languages, if not the study of all mankind.” But he revealed nothing in the letter itself, and from thereon was silent.
Alonza picked up one of the letters. “The barangay,” she read, “whose order depended on the dato, is believed to be the original sociopolitical unit of these islands. But every report cites only the one before it, and their ultimate source is a single study by a single friar in the 16th century. Francisco Blancas de San Jose, a contemporary of that friar, did not include ‘barangay’ in his Tagalog dictionary. Perhaps it did not actually exist.”
“Everything he writes is the same,” Guerrero said. “Strange and dangerous ideas, justified by linguistics. The barangay and the dato, those unifying forces of Filipino society—the hubs that held our culture together—eliminated with a dictionary! And what would be left to us then? I admit I used to be intrigued. I was young and hungry for new ideas. I read too many books, without taste or discernment. I searched for more letters eagerly, running from library to library, archive to archive, antique shop to antique shop, hoping to know what he had found. I found nothing. Eventually, I realized he was a fraud, a pseudo-scholar, spreading controversy for the sake of it. If I had the time, I would look over the manuscript myself. But I don’t have time, and your German is better than mine…”
He looked at her expectantly, as if on her answer hung the order of things. Alonza tried her best to suppress her smile. She said that she would do it.
“Excellent,” Guerrero said, taking out a briefcase from under his desk. “I already told the guard you would be leaving a little late. You may need this.”
When she got home, Alonza checked twice that the door was locked before taking out the papers. She had not known what to expect, and was surprised to see that it contained exactly what the other assistant had described: an account of a language of verbs. In the present, Alonza pointed me to some lines near the beginning of the manuscript, and translated it from German: “Humboldt observed the richness of the verbs of the Malayo-Polynesian languages. Among these, Tagalog seemed to him to have the most developed verbal system. But he was limited by the Spanish records, and the verbs of soldiers and priests. In the end, Tagalog continues to posit, like the rest of our worldly languages, the delusion of a world of objects. But the shedding of this delusion, which had led Buddhists and Sufis and the followers of Berkeley to abandon society, had been accomplished in another part of the archipelago for what may have been thousands of years.”
This is what he described. On an island somewhere off the coast of Cebu, Ashe encountered a single, exemplary tribe whose language used, in lieu of nouns and adjectives, an infinite variety of verbal conjugations. The use of affixes (mag-, ma-, ka-, mana-, -kana-, -tala-; makana-, matala-, matana-, etc.) allowed verbs to invoke not only manners of address, but also other lexical categories. Thus, the word ulug (fall) could be changed to nag-ulug (falling) as well as nag-ulu-hoy (falling like a tree) or bag-ulug-id (falling while scraping). Most concepts, to be communicated, relied on a combination of verbs and context. If one combined matana-hulug (thread-like falling) with matana-lun (thread-like swaying), then it was possible (within the proper context) to indicate the general idea of hair. An idea could then be approached through various means, so that combining either ka-lunu-linaw (calmly sinking) or nag-singgit-abun (birdlike screeching) with mabala-hulug (crumbling or eroding) could equally lead, despite the differences in their connotations, to a general conception of “death.”
The implications of this language manifested in many ways, though Ashe was not equally interested in them all. He noted with surprising brevity (given his previous interest in the topic) that the political structure of the tribe did not match that of the barangay. In a few sentences, he explained that there was no dato to rule over the group, though occasionally, when a crisis came, one or a few individuals would be given temporary authority to resolve it. Ashe compared this, favorably, with the ancient Roman system, though that selfsame similarity may have been the reason for his lack of interest. He was more interested in their conception of the universe. Like all human beings, so he noted, they were beset by the temptation to believe in the consistency of the world, to see the thread of their thoughts spooling out from day to day, the singularity of the tree growing at the other end of the brook. They would begin to repeat their combinations; they would be tempted by the idea of a name. But then, so the storytellers said, there would come a time when the winds were low and dreadful, and when trees continued creaking long after their branches were still—when the moon in the night seemed to shift and fade as if other darker moons lay waiting behind it. And when these seasons came, the people would huddle by the fire and hold their loved ones close, trying their best to stay awake—because they knew that if they fell asleep and woke, they would find that their world had altered slightly, that the trees would be a little shorter and that the sky would be a little darker, that a mole would be displaced from the top of the nape to the edge of a lover’s face.
Alonza finished the manuscript in an evening, fueled by some unknown force. With a magnifying glass, she compared the penmanship of the manuscript with that of Ashe’s letters. She found the same slanted R, the same curled tip of the L. She checked the punctuation and the pauses, the semicolons and the dashes. The idiosyncratic turns of phrase. She went on through the night until her eyes began to blur and her fingertips ached from throbbing. For a while, she even thought that the style looked like Guerrero’s. In the end, she concluded that authors were the same, that the Ashe who had written the letters had also written the manuscript. Her head ached. Realizing that she needed sleep, Alonza turned from the table and found that she was walking down a hallway in the dark, and that at the end of that long hallway she found once again her desk. A large square window loomed overhead, the moon shining from above, its contours warped and rippling. And when she looked at it again, she found that she was staring at the eye of a bird. Then she looked at it again and found that she was staring into the eye of a man.
Alonza paused, her face pale and her fingers gripping the edge of the table. For the first time that afternoon, I saw the Isabela Alonza that I had met at the party, the one who had run away from the women at the door. She took a few breaths, and continued:
“I opened my eyes then. The door had creaked open. A soft metallic jingling filled the air. I was in bed. Two yellow rays of light streamed above me on the ceiling. I turned my head. A large figure bent over my desk, silhouetted from the desk lamp, its back turned towards me. I remember thinking that someone had broken in and that he probably had a weapon. It did not occur to me that the man had been standing there for a while, examining something on the table. All that crossed my mind was the statue on my bedside table, a heavy iron statue of Our Lady—tall and thin and steel, with a sharp, square metal base.”
Alonza described how she pulled herself out of bed and lifted the statue from the table, holding it in her hand so that its base faced the ceiling. She brought each foot down silently onto the floor, trying not to think of whatever weapon may be hidden in the man’s jacket. Her footsteps felt heavy, booming monstrously in the dark, the figure ahead of her growing larger and larger with every step. Her ears were buzzing as she approached, until finally she was standing behind the dark back of the man and the buzzing had sharpened into a screech. She lifted the statue high like an offering and let it fall, let its iron base crash onto the man’s scalp, its sharp corner digging into flesh and bone. The electric impact of the collision ran through her arm. A shrill, atavistic scream escaped from the intruder’s lips, a splotch of warmth splashing onto Alonza’s shirt. She raised her arm again and dug her weapon into flesh and bone, into the man now crumpled on the ground, bludgeoning the back of his skull until the base of the statue flung off and clattered onto the floor. Alonza let the statue fall from her hand, listening in the dark to his whimpering. When it finally stopped, she made her way to the light switch. The yellow light blinded her momentarily. She saw Ashe’s manuscript on the desk, a page of it streaked with red. On the floor was the glistening statue of Mother Mary, lying on its side just a foot or two away from the body. Alonza moved closer to the man, and recoiled. It was not a man. It was herself, her face resting in a pool of blood, her own brown eyes gazing up at the ceiling, shocked and horrified.
How long did she stand there, staring into a mirror of flesh? Alonza could not say. She described how she went through the body’s clothes, her bag, her pockets. She found a pack of Judge, a folded napkin, an old leather wallet. She recognized the weight of the wallet in her hand, the feeling of its creased leather. She looked again at the person’s shirt, and knew she had a blouse exactly like it. She hurried to her closet and began to search vainly for her own.
“When finally I understood,” Alonza said, “I returned to Ashe’s manuscript. Blood had spilled across some paragraphs on one page, but none of the important ones. I read again what he recounted, about a people whose language yielded no illusions, whose words promised no stability—about waking up to a slightly altered world, where a mole would be displaced from one part of the body to another. I turned back to my doppelganger on the floor and dragged her to the bathroom. Beneath the shower, I removed her clothes and checked for birthmarks (an almost perfect circle beneath the right elbow, a tiny smudge on the right thigh). When those matched, I searched for some measuring tape and checked the width of our hands. I measured our palms and fingers and our arms; I measured the distance between our eyes. With pliers, I removed every one of her fingernails, fitting them on top of my own. I went for her toenails next, wondering if I should go for the toes themselves. Eventually I fell asleep, a long and dreamless sleep, broken only by the ringing of the telephone. I woke up beside the body, my skin crusted with blood, my head throbbing. I hurried to the phone to stop the ringing.
“It was Patricio, sounding both angry and relieved. He had called four times, he said. He wanted to know where I was. I glanced at the clock and saw that it was well past noon. I said that I wasn’t feeling well. His tone changed then, became gentler and warmer, though only by a little. He told me to get some rest. I said that I would. We waited in silence, until finally he asked about the manuscript. I remembered the blood on the page and realized that I would never be able to explain it. I said that I had spent the whole night reading and said nothing more. He couldn’t restrain himself; he demanded to know what I had found. I hesitated. I said that there was nothing in the manuscript, nothing important. Nothing, he repeated back, surprised. Yes, I said, there’s nothing you’d be interested in—it really is a fake. Neither the penmanship nor the writing style matched, and the spirits of their respective contents were too detached from one another. Patricio didn’t speak for a while, but when he did, his voice seemed both relieved and, somehow, disappointed. He said that that was good to hear, and that I should get better as soon as possible. I said that I would and began to say goodbye, but he added that he would come over in a few days to check up on me. When he hung up, I looked at the floor by the desk where the blood had spilled and had not yet fully dried. Then I returned to the bathroom and stared at my own carcass, the flesh already beginning to smell.”
Alonza described at great length how she got rid of the body, how after hours of cleaning she carried herself down the stairs of her building, hoping it would look like a drunk friend. How she had used her brother’s car to drive herself all the way to the Pasig river, to a sharp bend at the road where the streetlights hadn’t been fixed. How she threw herself into the watchful waves. How there was a single splash and then silence, and how the water quickly closed in around her. How, as she hurried home to beat the curfew, she sped through a cluster of MetroCom standing at an intersection, and how they just stood there and watched her go and didn’t try to stop her.
“The next morning,” Alonza said, “I went to the library and told everyone that I was fine, though my fever had actually worsened. Nobody noticed. They said it was good I had gotten better then went back to work. Patricio didn’t notice either, and though he had said that he would, he never visited in the end. He had said so, I realized, only because some part of him wanted to be sure, the part that he said had long ago believed in Herbert Ashe. But ultimately, he trusted me. He valued my opinions. He knew that if I said that the document was fake, then that meant that it was fake. Once, I would have been overwhelmed by this trust. By then, I was only relieved. In any case, he was too busy to come. I gave him back his letters a week before the first volume was released. He accepted them without comment, only briefly looking disappointed. He didn’t ask about the manuscript.
“Working was not so easy at first. Every morning, I checked the papers for news of bodies, though of course, in those years, that was futile. For a long time, I would often think of the look on my double’s face as she had stared into the ceiling, a look of dread and shock. Not the face of a woman caught where she wasn’t supposed to be, but of a woman attacked in the confines of her own home. For a long time, I tried to tell myself it hadn’t happened, but I still had this manuscript and these pages soaked in blood. Eventually, perhaps in half a dream, I caught a glimpse of the truth. The truth that truth itself was indeterminate, that I myself was indeterminate. How many of my memories did she share? How many of mine were hers? How many times between us did we read through Ashe’s verbs? What was she, really, my doppelganger? A double? A copy? What was a copy? A continuity of memories—from a mother’s first hug to a manuscript on the table? And what was I? A continuity of memories, from a hug to a table? At what point did our continuities diverge? At what point did we separate? By what divine aberration did our souls divide into two, unaware of the splitting?
“I knew then that there was no reason to think that she was a copy. That it was just as logical to assume that I was the copy, and that she had been the original. That I had usurped her life.
“But even then I knew that there were other explanations. That in truth, perhaps, there were neither copies nor originals. I began to double guess myself, hounded by the recollections of others: a forgotten meeting, a snippet of a conversation, the remark or the request of a friend. How long had she been moving about? Sometimes, when I read through documents, I was disturbed by the feeling that I had already read them before, that I had already seen those same words scrawled on those same sheets of paper. For months, I would turn slowly at corners and call out to empty rooms. I would knock loudly on my own door. My friends joked that I had caught something at the archive, some neurological disease amid the centuries of ink. Only I knew the truth: that I could come at any moment, that I could fall upon myself at any moment.
“Of course, it didn’t last, the fear. Fear never does. For a few years, after the project ended, I turned away from research. I lived for a while on my savings. I did some odd jobs. I worked briefly with a friend at the marketing arm of a paper company. But eventually, I went back: to teaching and to history. In the ‘90s I worked again with Patricio. It was a small project, a coffee-table book for a town in Laguna. I remember him saying, ‘Issy, I missed you, where have you been?’ I said, ‘Everywhere, Patricio, I’ve been everywhere.’”
Sometimes I still think of her and when she might come. But I worry less and less. A few years ago, I think I stopped worrying entirely. What is there to worry about, after all? Now, in the present, what is there to worry about? There is nothing left to lose and so nothing left to worry about. When she comes, and I know that she will come, then perhaps that will be that. It will be the end of my fears and the end of our history. And perhaps, by then, we can have a little chat. Perhaps we’ll talk about tea and memory. Perhaps we’ll have some quiet conversation.”
The sun had come down long ago, and the warm wind from the window had turned cold. Alonza put the manuscript back into the folder. I stood up with my bag and prepared to leave. Just then Alonza looked into my cup and asked, with genuine curiosity, why I hadn’t drunk my tea. I apologized and said that it was too bitter for me, and that I preferred green tea like her. She looked at me, confused. She apologized and said, “I always thought this was your favorite.” I turned to look at her, once again expecting her to laugh. But her face was full of earnestness, like a child staring into the moon.