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.