by Apol Lejano-Massebieau
PEDRO DIYEGO WAS BORN with wings on his feet. They grew from the bones in his ankles and spread out in a fan past his heel, plumes of brown flecked with white that made it impossible for him to don footwear.
His mother Mereditha tried to remove the feathers when Pedro was still a child. They were a family of some means, owning a decent-sized tract of land and their own rice mill, so that she didn’t think it was proper to have her only son going around barefoot like the farmers’ children. But how little Pedro shrieked and cried as with eyebrow tweezers his mother yanked! And he did it for so long and so loudly that the chickens in their wooden coop in the backyard stopped laying eggs for at least a week.
Now perhaps in keeping with popular ideas of fairies and angels, you would expect that a child born with wings be delicate. Then you would be disappointed looking at Pedro. He was what was euphemistically called a big-boned child.
Part of it had to do with genes, as Pedro did have a fair amount of resemblance to his father, a beefy Batangueno, but it has to be admitted that much of the fat that rolled around his belly got there by way of his mouth.
You see, delicate also did not apply to Pedro’s nature. He wasn’t a quiet, introspective kind of child. On the contrary, he had such zest for life! He played rough and tumble. He sang with gusto even if he rarely knew the lyrics and was often out of tune. He laughed in that head-thrown-back, openmouthed manner you only ever see in the very confident.
As with most people of this temperament, Pedro displayed his enthusiasm for life’s pleasures by way of food. He always finished his plate clean at mealtimes and often asked for seconds, but Pedro looked forward most to his merienda. He’d never let pass the little snack at ten a.m., and in the afternoons, he’d take it twice.
He was addicted to the brown meringues to be bought twelve to a plastic bag at the Lian public market. Popping an entire cone, he would let it melt in his mouth. After he had sucked the confection down to just a few granules of sugar on his tongue, he would chase the sweet delight with another. A second favorite were those peanuts embedded in flat rounds of brown sugar and called panucha. When he was feeling hungrier than usual, he would make a thick milk sandwich from their province’s famous bread. If you’ve ever been in the area, you would have seen it for sale in the neighborhood bakeries. Round, brown, and with a line splitting it down the middle, the thing has been likened on more than a few occasions to a fat baby’s ass.
Despite that the pediatrician had gravely pointed out that her son was on his way to being diagnosed with childhood obesity, Mereditha encouraged the healthy eating. She would feel a needle of fear prick through her heart every time she imagined that Pedro was losing weight. Unbeknowst to her family, frail, pale Mereditha would often wake up in the middle of the night sweaty from nightmares involving wind, feathers, and her son being carried off, away from her and into some strange, foreign land. She did her best to fatten up Pedro, hoping that the weight would keep him on the ground and close to home.
Nocturnal fears notwithstanding, as with many women who are blessed with a child late in life and only after many years of trying, Mereditha was totally enamored with her little boy. She had even gotten used to the idea that he would always go around bare of feet. Anyway he seemed happy and secure, and was popular with the other children. In the afternoons when school let out, playmates would fight to get him on their team for rounds of agawang baseand tayaan, because even when forbidden flapping, Pedro was on his feet quick and light.
On the weekends the children would troop to the beach to construct intricate sandcastles complete with attacking dragons and damsels in distress, and with towers that because of Pedro’s special ability they managed to build up to six feet high. Once the tropical sun got too hot, they would swim in the sea, running in to slam their bodies against the rushing waves. They would emerge from under the water with salt in their mouths and laughter bursting from their throats.
Having thus built up their appetites, they would dig into pockets for what their mothers had slipped in. There would be an assortment of simple, homemade cakes, bibingka, pitsi-pitsi, kutsinta, biko and puto. Always, there would be suman swaddled in its strip of banana leaf.
The children would come home before sunset riding on the backs of the sugarmill’s giant trucks. Mereditha would feel her heart jump to her throat every time she saw her boy jump off a still moving vehicle, but calm would return as she watched him make his way from the main road to their house. Pedro would be buoyed by his happiness at least a couple of feet off the ground, and often he would be munching on a hacked off piece of sugar cane.
LIKE MOST OF THE VILLAGE CHILDREN who could afford it, on his sixteenth year, and with Mereditha biting her lips to keep from telling him to not do it, Pedro moved to the capital to pursue his studies.
He was bright enough to get into the state university, although to his father’s consternation instead of taking up business management Pedro enrolled in the college of fine arts, where he spent much of his time sketching the dogs and horses of the veterinary medicine students in the neighboring complex.
It must be said here that Pedro planned it so that he would end up in this particular place north of the city. He had taken a tour with his parents of the other learning institutions, and it appalled him that where the Thomasites taught, the students were required to wear leather on their feet. In the academy of the Jesuits, it wasn’t quite as strict, but for Pedro it was love at first sight when he rode a jeepney through the sectarian university and saw that except for a rare, constipated-looking few, the students were comfortably shod in rubber slippers.
What of his physical condition, you might ask. Surely a boy with wings would have been at least gawked at, if not ridiculed and teased. Maybe elsewhere this would have been true, but one thing about this particular campus was that it was constructed right on top of a fault line. Seismologists considered this a bad thing, but a famous feng shui expert was of the opinion that it made for excellent energy vibrations, was in fact the reason the university was one of those exciting centers of thought where new ideas, no matter how far out, were embraced. At one point during the university’s history, the student body had even actually believed that it could build a utopian society free from the rules of the state.
At the time Pedro studied there, the young men and women enrolled were much more realistic about these things and largely pooh-poohed the idea of revolution, but they did still hold on to the laissez-faire attitude of their predecessors, so that the university was where a lot of the strange children born in the islands after the war went to study. Most famous of them was the golden-eyed shopping mall heiress who was taking up statistics and who did her homework at night helped by a twin brother who lived in a large glass aquarium in the well-guarded apartment they shared off campus.
Pedro felt right at home. He became best friends with Nando, a bespectacled boy with a lisp who stocked Pedro’s bookcases with bottles of the nata de coco his parents made a living out of exporting to Japan. And because Mereditha worried, each weekend before he left again for university, she gave her son a generous food allowance.
Studying made Pedro very hungry. On hot afternoons, he would be digging into a halo-halotopped with jackfruit and ube ice cream. To calm pre-exam nerves, nothing worked better than a half-log of brazo de Mercedez. When he wanted a treat, he would order an entire bilaoof Malabon-made sapin-sapin. Pausing a moment to enjoy the myriad of colors–violet, yellow, cream, red, and brown–he would count his blessings before eating.
Pedro enjoyed most of all going to Mang Roger’s cafeteria in a nearby village inhabited mostly by professors. He was allowed into the kitchen where he liked watching the cooking of palitaw. Mang Roger, a rolly-polly man from Cabanatuan, would knead the flour and roll them into flat ovals the size of a girl’s open palm. One by one, these would be plunged into the pot of boiling water waiting on the fire. What followed always seemed to Pedro like magic. The patties would pop to the surface to announce that they were ready for eating. Mang Roger would oblige. He would fish them out with a long-handled ladle and serve them with a thick dusting of grated coconut, sugar, and sesame seeds.
Such was his contentment that in all his four years at the university, Pedro never once had to replace the black Spartan flipflops he was wearing when he first arrived. Borne by good spirits always a few inches off the pavement, he barely scratched their rubber soles.
JUST BEFORE GRADUATION, Pedro met a girl. Seeing the blonde-haired, blue-eyed apparition walking the halls of the European Languages department, he was immediately infatuated. When he brought her to Mang Roger’s and she started clapping her hands at the sight of the palitaw popping out, turning to him and exclaiming in her cute little accent–“Theez eez so exciting !”–he fell in love.
From that moment on, to anyone who would listen, Pedro would point out how apt it was that it was almost the same, the word for her nationality–Pransesa–and the local word for princess–prinsesa. He was thoroughly smitten, and it did seem that Mirren was the right girl for a boy like Pedro.
Mille-feuilles, tropezienne, eclair au chocolat. In the evenings as they held each other, the seduction would begin. Tarte aux pommes, genoise, clafoutis. She told him that where she came from, every village had a shop or two called a patisserie. Tarte amandine, crepe suzette, macaron. Inside you would find, laid out in glass cases brightly lit, the most tempting-looking cakes. Gateau aux groseilles, flan, pudding a l’abricot. Tasting them could easily transport a creature like him to heaven. Creme brulee, tarte tatin, napolitaine. Whispering sweet words such as these she ignited his passion. Mousse au chocolat, tarte au citron, charlotte au melon. They would kiss, and he would taste sugar and honey on her lips.
It was decided that after Mirren had finished her one-year contract teaching foreign languages, the couple would move to her home country. “There eez a better life for us there,” Pedro was told.
He didn’t need the promise of riches to make this leap. Love was enough. Of course, thinking about patisseries did make him do a hop, a skip, and a triple pirouette as he made his way to the airport. (For buy a plane ticket he did because, although he had wings, Pedro wasn’t sure he had the physical stamina to carry his weight across oceans.)
They settled in a city not far from Mirren’s northern hometown. Sitting down at a cafe in the mornings to have coffee and croissants was one of their profound delights. After the obligatory breakfast, Pedro would go to a nearby shop and buy at least three little snacks, starting with the ones whose names he liked best when they were but dreams pouring from Mirren’s lips, tarte tatin, clafoutis, napolitaine.
Pedro noticed that people looked at him funny whenever he walked the streets munching. “Bon appetit, ” they would call out, polite but giving him the vague impression that they somehow disapproved. For the moment, it didn’t matter.
Walking hand in hand on the cobblestoned streets, the couple was quite a sight. Him big and brown, her chubby and blonde. Happiness would have spurred Pedro high above the ground and with such energy that he could have carried Mirren along with him, except that she asked him not to do it. They were in the old country, she warned, and over here they were not used to the new developments in the Orient. They could end up at the gendarmerie for disturbing the peace if the wrong people saw him fly. So Pedro kept to the ground.
“And don’t be so loud when you laugh,” she snapped.
After sending close to a hundred job applications, he found work at an art shop, selling expensive paintbrushes made from the fine hair filaments shed by deep-sea monsters. The owner had spent many years in the young countries and didn’t mind that Pedro was a little different. Like Mirren, however, he advised the boy to lie low.
One late afternoon, stopping at a bar filled with men and women dressed in dark clothes, for the first time Pedro noticed how they hunched over their drinks and avoided each others’ eyes. He hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime, so he asked for a little snack. With his beer he also got a plate containing nine peanuts.
Pedro finally figured out that in this land people sat down at a table three times a day for their meals. Any other way of eating was considered barbaric. He continued to stop at the patisserie for a box of whatever caught his fancy, to eat in the privacy of home. He had his favorites, mille-feuilles, tropezienne, macaron. They were treats rich in cream and butter, confected into the most exquisite of shapes and forms. He had at least one of each every day. Then one early evening, after having just polished off a mille-feuilles au caramel, he could barely stand up because of a terrible tummyache.
The doctor who came to examine him was of the opinion that restrained from flying his body had gotten too heavy, but the same man demurred that he was not an expert in aeronautics. It may very well be that the patient had simply overindulged. Whatever the explanation, Pedro was in great pain for more than a week. When he finally recovered, the few times he looked at a luscious pastry thereafter, he found himself wishing for a simple strip of suman.
Winter arrived. Until October, Pedro tried to keep his trusty flipflops, but when he was almost hospitalized for frostbite he had to give them up. He was forced to buy a size 42 pair of black winter boots. Folding the shafts of his feathers around his ankles seemed to solve the problem of his wings, they even gave him extra insulation. Then he discovered that walking made wool padding press against feathers, snapping the latter one by one. After a week of having to shake his boots out at the end of each work day, one night he found no more remnants of his plumage. Looking down at his ankles, naked-looking and covered only with broken-off quills, Pedro found himself awashed with the same feelings of indignation, hurt, and disgust as when he was a child being plucked.
TWO YEARS PASSED. At Christmas and on their birthdays, Mereditha and the Batangueno would receive greeting cards from their winged son. The notes were brief and were variations on the same themes: He had found a good job, Mirren was doing fine, they would visit them, maybe in the coming summer.
Then at dawn of a June morning, as the year’s first typhoon was stirring, Mereditha woke up with the certainty that something important was about to happen. She rushed out into the backyard where the rooster was just starting his clucking, looked up at the lightening sky, and there saw a vision from her old nightmares: Her son, many many kilos thinner than the last time she had seen him, trying his best to fly but really only half succeeding, barely able to keep a straight course as he was buffeted by wild winds. She blinked sleep from her eyes, stifled a yawn, and bit her arm until she drew blood. Finally realizing that she wasn’t dreaming, Mereditha began at the same time to laugh and to cry.
“Pedro Diyego’s Homecoming” was first published in Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 3, 2007.
Apol Lejano-Massebieau used to be a frantic media practitioner, at various times for more than a decade working as magazine editor, newspaper reporter, and TV-show host in Manila, the Philippines. She has since retired to a much quieter life in the south of France, where she has become crafts artist and occasional writer. She has won in the Palanca Awards for Literature, and been published in the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthologies Vols. 2 and 3 (Kestrel), Sawi (Milflores), and Short Stories for Harried Readers (Milflores); and in the magazines Philippine Free Press and Philippine Genre Stories.