All stories have happy endings. Especially the last ones we tell.
Art by Yvonne Quisumbing
There is something wrong with the sky again today, and once again the city has shifted. I feel a small coldness snake itself up from my heart and through my throat. The unpleasant tingle settles in my mouth, and I tell myself to get ready for work.
Once, when I was a child, my mother took me with her on a visit to Binondo to consult with a fortuneteller of accurate and unflinching visions. She talked to him for quite some time about her business ventures, her brothers and sisters, and her gradually disintegrating marriage, while I sat on a chair that was too high for me and swung my legs back and forth with increasing frequency and vigor. At some point, my mother swatted me on the back of the head and told me to be still.
Not long after that, the consultation came to an end, and she stood up and thanked the fortuneteller profusely. I can no longer remember what he looked like at all—when I try, all I can see is a dark vagueness, an indentation in existence shaped like a child’s-eye view of a grown-up—but I remember what he told me as we were on our way out of the room. “You have eight stories,” he said. “Use them well.”
There are stories inside everyone, of course; some are like caged birds of varying hues, some like ripe, slimy pods ready to burst at a touch. Most people have no idea how many they contain. Some people think that they have limitless tales when, really, they recount the same one over and over with insipid variations, tales of People-think-I’m-cool or God-I’m-so-wasted-in-this-country or Well-I-showed her. No one ever notices. Some people actually do have a large and wonderful variety of stories within them, and—whenever one is released—it sparks and dazzles and hangs in the air for a slow moment, like a December-sky firework.
The fortuneteller told me that I have eight, and I have never forgotten. I used two of them in grade school: one to get me out of trouble and one to cheer myself up. The first one was told to an initially skeptical priest at the Catholic school I was attending, and involved the matter of several missing library books. As I spun my story, a lie of exceptional intricacy, I could see the doubt drain slowly from his gaze, and feel the story slip away from me—I knew then that it would save me from punishment, but that I would never be able to use it again.
The second story came to me on a particularly gray morning when the routine of school weighed so heavy on me that I felt as if I would split open in tears on the morning bus ride. Then it came to me: I was not riding to school but to an apocalyptic war zone; I was no student, but a soldier. My classmates were fellow pawns in a never-ending conflict. Every lesson threatened our lives; every brief snack break was a blessing. In my mind, the history of the war was laid out, and our insignificant part in it was clear and unchanging. This scenario transformed my hatred of the day-to-day into a sort of ragged heroism. Once established, it filled me and sustained me, more vivid than any daydream, until I entered high school.
In high school I used another story, this time to win the heart of my first love: a story of luck and destiny and ever-afters, naturally. It was worth it just for the look on her face as we danced together during one of the school-organized parties. I would never see such innocent longing and admiration again. I knew our love would die within less than a year, but given the choice, I would waste that story on her again and again.
I used three stories in college—the circumstances and motivations behind two of them, I no longer care to recall. My sixth story was a particularly convincing rumor I started online, that spread with great swiftness through a certain sub-network of concerned parties and resulted in the shutdown of two websites and the subsequent unemployment of about a dozen people. At the time, I gloried in the power of a well-twisted and strategically placed untruth and, admittedly, even now, the thought brings a crooked smile to me.
I was working at my first job when I used my seventh story. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a frantic call from the housemate of a friend who lived nearby. This friend of mine had downed a bottle of pills in an attempted suicide. I helped rush her to the hospital and waited while they pumped her stomach in the emergency room. Afterwards, I sat by her hospital bed and held her hand. I told her a story about a girl whose eyes would shed rose petals instead of tears, a girl for whom life was a labyrinth instead of a straight line. She gripped my hand tight as I recounted how this girl eventually learned to navigate the twists and turns of her maze and appreciate their intricacies. Soon after, she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I knew I was down to my last story, and I wondered if I had used up too many, too soon. That was three years ago. Since then, I’ve had two more jobs—neither of them especially fulfilling—and the world has changed for the stranger.
Little things at first, corner-of-my-eye things. Like light glinting off objects in a manner that seemed off, somehow. Or the occasional sense that the sky was fouled by something other than pollution, like a presence inexorably eating into its blankness. Or the way an arrangement of buildings I would always pass while riding the MRT in the morning would seem to shift, to subtly change order. No one else seemed to notice. I chalked this all up to my inadequate sense of spatial relationships, to a possible need for a visit to an ophthalmologist.
It got worse. I started seeing people as other things, things that weren’t people. It’s difficult to explain. I would be talking to my boss, for instance, a tall and jovial man, and then I would see something—like an image superimposed on his actual appearance—a balloon, say, saffron-colored. Or I would be arguing with the head of our Human Resources department, and be aware of a kind of blackened spiral shape floating where his face should be, an ink-stained thing coiled in upon itself. I supposed they were hallucinations. I read up on neurological case studies and thought that I had found a name for my condition upon stumbling upon Oliver Sacks’ account of a man who mistook his wife for a hat. It’s not like I can’t tell people and objects apart, though.
I’ve almost gotten used to it by now, though day by day it gets a little worse. Last night when I was looking at myself in the mirror after a shower, my reflection shifted and reassembled itself. I saw something undeniably grotesque and yet at the same time deeply appealing: a sort of chimera, with a child’s arms and face, which for a body had a roughly ovoid shape with a snaky tail. I was revulsed and fascinated in equal measure, and could not look away. The patchwork creature looked like I felt inside: half-formed, immature, somewhat ridiculous. It was then that I realized that I was not exactly hallucinating—but more like I’m seeing hidden things, secret and unsettling truths.
Tonight I ride the MRT home as usual while trying not to look out the windows or at my fellow passengers. From the station, I start walking to where I can get a jeepney ride, passing a shopping center and a squatters’ area, wondering as I walk if I’m going mad.
You’re not going mad, the fortuneteller tells me.
I look up and see a vague darkness, an indentation in existence. I can’t make out his face. He’s blocky, sketchy, indistinct. But his voice is clear and unwavering.
It’s the world that’s gone wrong, he assures me. It’s shaky and wobbly and will soon come apart. What you’ve been seeing are glimpses of a grand machine that will soon break down.
He goes on to say: All of everything is an unfurling and an unraveling, a binding and a weaving. It’s all cycles. Things turn in on themselves and blossom outwards into other things. Beginnings into endings into beginnings.
But the cycle needs to be fed, he explains. Otherwise it slows and stutters and fails.
I stare at him as he says all this. No one else notices us. All at once I’m tired and nervous, but I know what is needed.
It’s all I have left, I tell him. I know, he says.
My last story.
Who do I tell it to? I ask. You can tell it to the air, he says. You can tell it to the firmament. He asks: Are you willing?
Yes, I whisper, and that small affirmative sound seems to rise up and make a space for itself in the night sky.
So I start to tell my tale. And, as I do, an understanding comes upon me . . .
I understand that this, my final and eighth story, is my life itself—and as I mouth the ending, I feel my heart beat, beat, stop.