“Skipping between Timelines”

“He believed in an infinite series of times,
in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of
diverging, converging and parallel times.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

1

DESPITE ITS MATHEMATICAL TERRORS, the curiosities of quantum mechanics have drawn me in. Since last year, I have buried myself into reading its concepts, especially its framework of space, time, and reality. According to its theories, time does not run in a straight line; instead, timelines bifurcate infinitely: all moments, the theories supposed, exist simultaneously—the past, the present, the future—and are like branched-out threads weaved together into a singular rope, which, hypothetically, makes up the whole universe.

          A god sees the universe as a finished race—its beginning, middle, and end all perceived in a single flash of a moment. All this is indeed difficult, maybe even impossible, for us to grasp since the whole idea stands contrary to what our senses perceive. But a physicist’s inspection on how atoms behave on a quantum level tells us that what we see is not exactly what it is. Well, to us nonscientists, quantum mechanics is either a food for the imagination or a trigger to a headache.

2

In the university’s dormitory bed, weary from the day’s ridge and tunnel hike, I pondered about reality and quantum mechanics and came to realize the different timelines happening in the world within my skull. Then I entered the first layers of my dream.

3

The dream: I was asked to write a piece inspired by the hike: be it a short story, a poem, an essay, or a haiku. I could remember the first stanza of the poem I wrote titled “The Test of Time is the Jest of God,” “Time is God’s measure / Of how much a rock / Can take / Before it breaks.” The poem ended with the next stanza (the first line of which eluded my memory), “[…] / So the cracks remain silent/ And, without despair, accept / God’s eyes into their darkness.” Admittedly, I imagined during the hike that if I peeked into the cracks, my eyes would, by chance, meet God’s or someone else’s.

4

And during the hike, I walked behind a girl and took fancy of her impossibly supple and shapely waist, which, in each her twists, turns, and bends, made my blood boil and undeniably inspired this haiku: “Let my fingers trace / That spine of yours that tempts me / Like a devil’s snake.” Reading the lines, one does not need to look far for an interpretation.

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Illustration by Geraldine Sy

5

In the short story titled “Limbo” (apparently envisioned as we reached the ridge’s peak), the narrator, sensing the story’s coming end, refused to continue lest he might disappear afterward. So he went back narrating in reverse, risking the story to fall into a frightening absurdity: “The summit awaits all of us. But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. Shall we continue? Shall we continue? But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. The summit awaits all of us.” The story went on and back.

6

Oddly enough, I conceived of an essay, titled “At the End of the Tunnel,” stating that “the end is imminent, so even if one is alive here and now, one should consider himself dead and gone already, for the future is inevitable and as irrevocable as the past…. In the journey of life, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of the end—that is, death—and the darkness inside the tunnel was that of life.” Unlike the narrator in “Limbo,” we have been nearing the end of our stories one line at a time, and “in the end, we are all nothing but words.”

7

So that’s all I’m able to retrieve from the dream. In another timeline’s future, I may have completely written all those pieces better or perfectly. And probably some future is now reading this article, since, to quote Borges, “the future already exists now.”

8

I hope, in some future out there, I have read and written all the books I want before “getting out of the tunnel.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend, October 9, 2016)

Chicken Abortion

Naa kay eighteen diha, ki?
—Anonymous

I WALKED ALONG the polluted sidewalk downtown where there lay a stretch of street food stalls that habitually begins to grow crowded at the first stroke of twilight. People who just got off from school and work found themselves feasting on the delicacies to relieve their hunger and nerves, sometimes while enjoying a conversation with an acquaintance or a friend, mostly exchanging summaries or anecdotes on how their day went.

Passing by, I could hear peals of laughter, as incessant as the sizzling of food in the scalding oil, and even belches of people whose stomachs were gratified right after the gulp of their beverage, often followed by lighting a cigarette.

I looked with astonishment at the burning of the cigarettes, for their tips stood out perfectly, like crimson stars, between the moonlight and the glares coming from the headlights congested in the road.

The greasy savor in the air suddenly rendered me famished, but somehow absolved me from the whole day of earthly labors.

*****

I was well into my fourth piece of penoy when a group of foreigners lined by the stall I was in. The crowd threw glances at them.

The five foreigners, three men and two women, whom I thought were Americans, looked exhausted, out of breath, undoubtedly from carrying huge backpacks, bags, tents, and rolled sleeping mats. Nevertheless, I saw excitement gleaming from their faces; their eyes were of those beholding the arrival of a long-awaited meal.

At once, I reckoned that the foreign group must have heard myths about Balut and that now they were going to unfold its mystery; one of them confirmed it by saying he found “the Balut.”

The men declared to draw first blood while the women backed them up with cheers.

I listened to the vendor stuttering his way in giving instructions. He guided them through gestures—like pointing at a certain part of the shell—and managed to convey the instructions with precision.

I was surprised at how the men devoured the embryo in an instant, perhaps without even tasting, and certainly without spitting the bits of bones and hairs out; regardless, they expressed delight at its tastiness.

The women’s applause caught the attention of the busy crowd. It was their turn next. But no sooner had they peeled the shells than they backed down at the sight of the embryo.

As though spectators in a show, passersby circled around the stall and cheered for the women.

“Chicken abortion!” I broke in. People, including the foreigners, turned and laughed at my remark; a student even repeated, “Di ta mokaon ani uy, kay chicken abortion.”

One of the women stopped laughing and asked me, “What happens if no one eats them?”

“They’re thrown away,” I said rather coldly. “The reason they’re ‘aborted’ is because the farms here can’t afford to raise them. So even if they were to live, they’d eventually die of starvation. Besides, no one can shelter all of them, and they’d be a nuisance if they’re too many.”

The crowd, I realized, was silent and listening to me the whole time, perhaps never expecting such an insight on the matter.

“Balut,” I continued, “is actually a solution to poultry overpopulation.”

*****
page-33-chicken-abortion
Illustration by Geraldine Sy

I lit my fourth cigarette while walking into the heart of the downtown, which I fancied to be pumping the traffic of strangers and vehicles into the streets.

The evening declined, and I looked at the moon glowing brighter beyond the rise of the buildings, the sight of it misted by the smoke coming out of my mouth.

I stood on the street corner, listening to the cacophony of wheels, horns, footsteps, and gossips, when a strange memory involving balut sprang into mind:

Once, a sallow balut vendor, who was my “suki” since he was just across the street near my home, confided to me about hearing death rattles of full-grown embryos from inside their shells as he boiled them in his large pot.

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend: March 27, 2016 and on Zerothreetwo, a local online magazine)

“Bugsay”

HE WAS NOW DOWN to his last bottle of rum. He swigged half of it as he sat at the edge of his bangka, his feet swaying with the current, his eyes gazing at his reflection on the water under the blurred disk of the moon.

He poured the rest of the rum into the sea and let the bottle slip from his grasp.

Soon he began paddling, arms afire, intoxicated yet determined. He held on to his resolve and never looked back. The clouds above him massed together, like a crowd gathering around a man threatening to take his own life.

Upon reaching the farthest his arms would let him, he set aside his paddle and unsheathed his sundang, which was a fine glint under the feeble moonlight. He glided his fingertips along its cool edge, the image of the blade leaping down his throat and of his naked body afloat in the sea running through his mind.

Just then the clouds sparked, and rain started to pour.

Chills ran all over his body. His bones grew weak. His life was a line of delicate tiles falling one by one. The sundang dropped from his helpless grip. Vertigo struck him as a lightning would a remote tree, and he collapsed into his own vomit.

 

It was a timeless dark when he opened his eyes—eyes he didn’t remember closing. The rain had stopped, he figured as he looked up, but the clouds remained crowds in the sky.

He kneeled in front of where he thought God was and cursed him without cease. He wept until he was blind, and fell into the deep well of sleep.

He awoke amid the still night, shivering. He willed himself to stand but couldn’t: he was feverish to the bone. He curled up in his bangka as would a fetus in his mother’s womb. He closed his eyes and entered sleep’s chamber. There he dreamt in delirium as, outside, the night crept closer toward dawn.

 

The night arrived at daylight.

His fever had already settled down, but his mouth still held a hint of nausea. His inflamed eyes looked for the sun and saw it. Lying on his back, spread-eagled, he let the warmth sober him up while he squinted at the clearness of the day.

It was not long when he regained the strength to get back to his feet. He stood, welcoming the heat that stung his back. He picked up the sundang lying near his feet. It glinted under the sun. He glided his fingertips along its edge, which was also starting to get warm. He dipped the sundang into the sea, wiped the blade with his shirt, and slipped it back into its sheath.

When the day turned into fire, he stripped off his clothes, unsheathed the sundang, and dove into the water.

The Accomplice

                                           

And one clock stopped—and knew the meaning of time
—Anonymous

 

AT PRECISELY 6:30 P.M., he noted, his mother was rushed to the hospital on account of a violent seizure.

The building was possessed by the spirits of disinfectant and the long lines of cold, seemingly undying fluorescent lights. The march of the doctors, nurses, personnel, and patients on wheel chairs with their guardians, along with the around-the-clock operative necessities in the passageways and rooms, always unsettled him. He wondered—not for the first time—how many patients die each day in all hospitals.

They were now inside a room. He sat on a stool beside his mother’s bed, gently pressing one unresponsive hand.

He felt that his mother’s apparatus sourced an ominous gravity. He tried not to keep time to its punctuated beeping, yet he couldn’t help but give a furtive glance at the transparent tubes and fluctuating green lines, and then at his timeworn watch wrapped around his wrist.

Its hands pointed to 8:15 p.m. Checking the time gave him a sense that moments were now fixed and numbered. When he heard the door swing open, he turned and saw the doctor, who then reported to him the results.

“Sir, I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “But your mother’s in a critical condition.”

He didn’t respond—or rather, had no idea how. In fact, he turned back to his wristwatch, and made as if he was fiddling with it.

The doctor waited. The silence let in an air so sinister that despite the double fluorescent bulbs, the room seemed to grow darker as if it were also suffering an episode of its own illness.

“Sir,” the doctor addressed him again.

“Doc,” he said. He wiped his face with the neck of his shirt and stood to face the doctor.

“We all did our best,” said the doctor, “but there’s nothing we can do now but pray and prepare ourselves for anything tha can happen any moment.”

“I see that,” he said as he gazed at an invisible dot on the white wall behind the doctor. “Doc, can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” said the doctor.

“Doc,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the dot. “What are your thoughts on God?”

The dot on the wall sprang into visions corresponding to his sharp query.

The doctor just stood silent.

“Him letting people suffer and die?” he added. “It seems like Death is God Himself.”

He tapped at his watch as if to indicate life as it draws near death. He glanced down.

The hands pointing coldly to 8:31 p.m. made him ask, “Where’s God now?” He looked at every corner of the room and turned to the doctor. “See, Doc? Only Death is coming to us.”

He sat back on his stool, realizing he has never actually believed in God, but has always wanted to blame Him ever since.

“I bear witness to these tragedies almost every day,” said the doctor.

He stared at him, and their eyes met.

“Doc,” he said. “I just don’t understand why all these things happen.”

“I suppose we must try to endure all that is to come, however worse they’ll get. The least we could do is to try.”

The doctor let out a deep sigh, reviewed his other papers, and checked his own watch. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I need to be going now. I need to attend to my other patients.”

The doctor hurried out with an unsteady stride.

When the door opened, from where he sat, he heard a score of footsteps, and imagined one of them to be Death’s.

He took in what the doctor had said about enduring “all that is to come.” He observed his mother’s faintly heaving chest and thought her lungs were giving up on the weight of breathing.

He meditated on her mother’s culminating mortality that was reflecting his, the doctor’s, and everyone’s. Diseases, accidents, misfortune, time, fate, and even life itself were all accomplices of death.

His own belief templates and choices, in some obscure link, influence or even determine someone else’s, and his too, he concluded, were preconfigured by other people’s, by the past, and all the way back to the womb of space and time.

Thus he examined the course of his life, as a metaphor: Had he spent more time with her mother, her life would not have been thoroughly miserable. Had she been a better mother, he would have not left her alone. Had his father not been a monster of a husband, his mother would not have turned insufferably monstrous herself. Had life gone easy on his father as a child, he would not have created monsters.

Everyone, including himself, was Death’s accomplice, he thought with the similar certitude sentencing his own death in the future.

He looked at his watch and turned around to listen to the muffled footsteps behind the door. For some unknown reason or sensation, he divined the inevitable arrival.

A long, loud beep filled the room.