by Dean Francis Alfar
This story was previously published in Rabid Transit: Menagerie and was nominated for a Spectrum Award.
Mr. Henares thinks about time
From the moment he opened his eyes in the morning to the instant before he fell asleep alone at night, Mr. Henares thought only about time.
He reflected about how time slowed down when he was engaged in an unpleasant activity, such as dyeing his thinning grey hair over the broken antique basin installed by his son-in-law Alvaro in his blue-tiled bathroom; and how time went faster during the rare instances when he felt happy, such as when his brace of grandchildren came for the cold weather holidays, their hypnotic music invariably loud and invigorating.
Mr. Henares recalled days when time did not move at all: waking up one morning convinced that it was the exact same day as the day before, watching the red display of his tableside clock blinking fruitlessly. The experience of the twin miércoles was to be repeated thrice more, adding jueves, viernes and sábado to his list of repeating days. He endured the repeated conversations and graceless routines, read the same stories in the newspapers and watched the same interviews on television.
Once, when he was a much younger man, Mr. Henares went back in time. The incident caught him completely unaware – he realized he was walking backwards and thinking thoughts in reverse. This unfortunate event flustered him so much that when it was suddenly over, he broke down in tears and resolved never to travel back in time if he could help it.
One morning Mr. Henares thought about the future, methodically spooning sweetsop into his mouth and spitting out the seeds into a cup. He sat at the breakfast alcove of his house that adjoined his little shop and squinted at the sun outside the windows.
“The future is always happening,” he said to the empty kitchen. “If it is always happening, then it is, in fact, the present; and any instances of the future having occurred are, in fact, the past. “
Mr. Henares stood up, wiped sweetsop juice from his chin, washed his hands, crossed the connecting corridor and went about opening his shop for the day.
Mr. Henares makes some sales
His first visitors were a trio of young men, all sporting nose rings and dressed in last year’s affectation of jeans and tulle.
“Vueño arao, Mr. Henares,” the thinnest one said, removing his Pepsi-blue hat as he entered the shop.
“Good morning,” Mr. Henares replied. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“We would like to sell,” the stoutest one replied, wiping beads of perspiration from his forehead with a swipe of a ruffled sleeve. “We’ve been waiting for you to open.”
“Ah,” the old merchant said, “And what do you have for me?”
“We have time to kill,” the tallest one told him, offering his hands, palms up. He looked at Mr. Henares with half-lidded eyes.
Mr. Henares shook his head. “You understand, of course, that rates have really gone down. With the new teatros and entretenimientos, people are finding things to occupy themselves with.”
“Certainly, Mr. Henares,” the stoutest one replied. “We will take what you will offer. You are the fairest merchant in all of Ciudad Manila.”
Mr. Henares brought out his tools, brass and glass and wood, and extracted the precise amount of time each young man wanted to sell. They waited patiently as he labeled each vial, heads tilted to the mellow bossa nova tracks that emanated from a pair of speakers from behind the counter. When he had finished putting everything away, he gave them their payment, wrapped in blue encaje.
The three young men opened the package then and there, much to the discomfort of Mr. Henares. The tallest one took out the Planet Hollywood shot glass and read aloud what was written around the logo, as his two companions unabashedly held hands and closed their eyes.
Silence is foolish if we are wise, but wise if we are foolish
By early evening, Mr. Henares had completed four more transactions.
A young mother, fresh from the provinces, who sold all her memories of childhood: Mr. Henares’s payment was etched on a Flores bandalore, the inscription set deep in the yo-yo’s polished wooden rim.
A drop hollows out a stone
A pair of lovers, who entered his store and left it hand-in-hand, traded in five separate occasions of romance: when they first knew they were in love, when they first kissed, when they first made love, when they first reconciled, and when they decided to stay together for as long as they could, despite all inconvenience, difficulty or portent. Mr. Henares gave them, in exchange, words written on yellowed Badtz Maru stationery, sweat and ink staining the image of the little black Japanese penguin.
Night follows day
A bored widow was next, bartering away two years of future solitude. “I’m certain someone will want that,” she said wryly, “I certainly don’t.” Mr. Henares gave her a polished citrine carved into the form of a tiny fluted flower with even smaller engraved words.
We do not care of what we have, but we cry when it is lost
The widow sniffed, “True, true,” and asked if she could purchase some romance. Mr. Henares offered her the vials he obtained from the lovers earlier. She took two and stepped out into the humidity.
The fourth customer was a proud-looking soldier, the buttons on his dress uniform shiny and golden. “My maternal grandaunt told me that I would lose my right arm in war across the sea. If it must be so, then I’d like to sell the time of actual loss and recovery.”
Mr. Henares studied the man’s resigned face and offered him, in exchange for his future pain, words woven in sawali.
An empty barrel makes the greatest sound
Mr. Henares prepares for bed
As he closed the shop, he reflected on how time’s ebb and flow meant different things to different people. He once had a customer, a dark-skinned young man from Cabarroquis, who protested against his good fortune in the game of love.
“Everyone I meet wants me,” the dark-eyed man sighed in Mr. Henares’ bed. “Everyone wants to devour me. I never have time for myself. I am certain that even you will soon speak to me of love.”
Mr. Henares had not really been listening to him then, but was instead enraptured by the young man’s skin, marveling at the game of hide-and-seek the candlelight and shadows played upon it. It was only much later when he remembered the words the man spoke.
As he prepared his frugal dinner of salted fish and boiled aubergine, Mr. Henares thought about how some people believed in time as a panacea for all hurt, all pain, all woes.
A pair of sisters, veiled and somber, once asked him if he had thirty years of uninterrupted time for sale. He sadly told them he did not, that no one had ever sold him a block of personal time greater than a handful of years. But inwardly, he cringed at the notion that there were people who believed in a blessed future, guaranteed happiness by imbibing his vials or selling their sorrow, whether past or yet-to-come.
He felt too old to believe in what he sold.
Before going to bed in the house that adjoined his shop, Mr. Henares checked on his trading stock, arranging various items containing words, phrases and maxims. Behind a shelf, almost hidden from his eyesight, he found a faded adarna plume etched with
Vision is the art of seeing things invisible
and a handkerchief embroidered with
What we see depends on what we look for
That night, as he stripped his clothes and slipped into bed, Mr. Henares thought about how time, whether bought or sold or unsold, robbed everyone of everything in the end. He chuckled at himself, surprised by his cynical perspective, scratched at a sore spot on his spotted arms, and went to sleep, thinking about time.
Miguel Lopez Vicente’s drought
Three days later, on the eve of his thirty-second natal day, the storyteller Miguel Lopez Vicente came to terms with the fact that he had nothing more to write. His body of work, unmatched in terms of scope and volume, was testament to his genius, read, devoured and performed in various venues all over Hinirang. In years past, he tilled the soil of his homeland and harvested the loves and hopes of its people, transmuting their mundane lives into great dramas of passion. He listened to the tales of sailors, merchants and ambassadors to foreign lands and improved upon what he heard, spinning marvels from the barest descriptions and epics from whispered rumors. But with each year that passed, his ideas dwindled and diminished, leaving a profound void in the center of his heart. He found himself staring at virgin pages, his quill sapped by the ennui of waiting.
“There is nothing left,” he said to his reflection in the mirror. “I don’t want to grow old.”
He recalled the first time he knew he would be a writer, how the sight of farmers during rice-planting season triggered a sudden rapture in him. But the matter of age and the ravages of time had been weighing heavily on his head for the past few months. When he passed the halfway mark of a healthy man’s lifespan the year prior, he did it in a wine-induced stupor, drinking in an effort to obliterate the fact that he had written only one wondrous play the previous year.
This year, he thought about doing something else, to ward off the thoughts of another year ending, a fruitless year of utter desolation – perhaps by losing himself in the arms of some unknown young man, but decided against it. A young man’s embrace would repeat a story he already knew (no doubt the boy’s arms would be strong; his skin perfect and tight; his eyes round; his life exactly the same as every other young man that Miguel had known), a futile exercise. And so Miguel simply resolved to determine his own story’s ending.
Miguel Lopez Vicente selects an ending
The afternoon of the next day, Miguel walked to the Encanto lu Caminata to the shop of Mr. Henares. The shop was empty of people when he arrived, but filled to the rafters with all manner of jars, pots and woven baskets; vials, censers and tsino incense stick holders; beads, feathers, and boxes and bowls of various sizes, shapes and colors. A peculiar scent permeated the room, swirling slowly around a large storm lantern on the counter – the mingled smells of an eclipse, stolen kisses, and newly-opened luggage fresh from an airplane’s belly.
Miguel was about to touch the lantern when he decided instead to ring the tiny porcelain bell whose intricate details seemed to never end.
“Vueño arao, what can I do for you?” Mr. Henares said, appearing from an adjoining room.
“Good morning, Mr. Henares,” Miguel Lopez Vicente replied. “I have come to trade away all my days.”
“All your days? Are you certain?” The old merchant looked him straight in the eye and for a moment Miguel felt himself dissolve into sad and heavy motes that just barely kept the shape of a man.
“Yes,” Miguel nodded. “Believe me, this decision was not at all spontaneous.”
“I cannot buy them all,” Mr. Henares said. “This is not that kind of place.”
“Do you know who I am?” Miguel asked him.
“It makes no difference, sir,” Mr. Henares replied. “But, yes. I do.”
“This way, at least, let someone benefit,” Miguel told him with an unflinching gaze.
“I see,” said Mr. Henares. He leaned forward until the space between him and Miguel was no wider than a fist. “But I have nothing in stock to give you for what you want to give me. It is quite early in the month. The value of your-“
“Sir,” Miguel interrupted him, taking a step back. “Just give me the first thing you see and we’ll call it an exchange fair and well-made.”
“Very well,” the old man said, before vanishing into the other room. He returned a moment later with his tools, brass and glass and wood, and took precisely the amount of time Miguel Lopez Vicente wanted to exchange. Afterwards, he handed Miguel a silver thimble, discolored and slightly dented.
“This was found in a ship sleeping at the bottom of the sea, off the island of Siqui’jor. The vessel sank fleeing pirates – it is a story old but true.” Mr. Henares said in a soft tone. “Sometimes, one cannot run away.”
“I am aware of that story,” Miguel sighed as he looked closely at the thimble for the inscription.
“Of course. Of course, you are,” Mr. Henares nodded, scratching at a sore on his left arm. He left Miguel alone to read.
Around the rim of the thimble, almost worn away, were the words
There is a reason why past is past.
That night at his home, Miguel Lopez Vicente dismissed his maidservant early, mixed water with his last supper’s vino, a simple claret from the vineyards of Sevilla in Ispancio, undressed himself, taking care to empty his bowels beforehand to maintain a semblance of dignity for the benefit of those who would find him, and stretched out on his lonely bed built for two.
His final thoughts, as he slipped into a dreamless sleep, were how he wished he were a man half his age again, at the height of his powers. That bittersweet conceit kept him occupied as cold seawater rushed to submerge his bed.
And so his story ended.
“Cumpleaños felices,” the dark-skinned Katao boy from Cabarroquis whispered, his eyes soft and liquid brown. “I am your birthday present.”
Miguel Lopez Vicente fought his almost overwhelming excitement and sought his voice. “You – you are?”
“Yes,” the boy smiled, trailing a slender finger down his bare chest, stopping short at a point past his hairless navel. “Your uncle engaged me for tonight. For you.”
“Oh,” Miguel managed, “I see.”
“Do you like what you see?”
Whatever words Miguel had suddenly dried on his tongue as he watched the boy disrobe.
“There is no need to feel anxious.”
“No, no, I am – not anxious.”
“You only turn sixteen once. It should be special. It will be special.” The boy had crossed the distance between them in the span of a thunderous heartbeat and Miguel shuddered when he felt the intense heat the boy seemed to radiate. He did not know if it was the result of his imagination or barely controlled desire but he feared that he would burn.
“You cannot possibly be older than me,” Miguel said, casting his gaze to the side, suddenly conscious of the boy’s nearness.
“I am fifteen. Or thirteen. Unless you prefer me to be older,” the boy spoke as he began to reach for Miguel “I can be eighteen. Or twenty. Just let me know.”
“I-“ Miguel began, but as the boy’s fingers found his skin he lost all words, the language abandoning him to the trails of heat left by the boy’s explorations. When their tongues met, he was certain he would be consumed by fire, losing himself in the intense moment of unadulterated sunlight that reduced everything that he was into a throbbing cinder, wanting only the explosive release that was as inevitable as life and death.
“Never leave me,” he told the boy.
“Everyone loves me,” the boy answered. “You must live only for the moment.”
“Then I’ll never be old.”
Later, after his birthday gift had left, he lay trembling in a bed built for one, his body weak with the demarcation of new frontiers, while his soul, not quite anywhere, exulted in the epiphany that he was his own boundary and that it was as wide or as narrow as he wanted.
What Miguel Lopez Vicente did not know, what he could not know, was that his heart was ill-suited for single night’s passion. It was fragile and tender and rare, wanting only true love, and collapsed upon itself, heavy with imagined loss in the small hours before dawn, feeling lost, betrayed and old before its time.
And so his story ended.
When Miguel Lopez Vicente turned eight, his father brought him to see the End of the World.
The spectacle, held only once every generation and lasting for fourteen nights, was staged on a massive series of sculpted sets within the Baluarte of the Plaza Miranda. Ciudad Manila spared no expense – the costumed cast numbered in the hundreds and great machines, made invisible by cloth and convention, spew fire, blew wind and rained artificial hailstones the size of macopas but with the consistency of cotton. The Beast of the Apocalypse (a magnificent contraption maneuvered by three alternating shifts of eighteen people) towered over the amazed audience, clawing its way out of a bottomless pit; its words and imprecations resounded with the voice of the Most Excellent Primo Orador herself.
Much of the performance went over Miguel Lopez Vicente’s head; instead he was terrified by the sights and sounds of the Apocalypse, much to his father’s regret.
“Did you not enjoy the show?” Antonio Manuel Vicente asked him afterwards, visibly irritated at his son’s obvious pallor.
“Yes, Papa,” Miguel lied with little difficulty.
“It is important that you know about things like this,” Antonio continued, not hearing him. “The world ends in horror if the will of the Three Sisters is not followed.”
“That is why you must pray every day, every night, before you eat, before you sleep. Pray for their mercy.”
“When you grow older, you’ll understand that we are all servants of the Three.”
“Yes, Papa,” Miguel replied, but in his heart he had decided never to grow old.
When they returned home, Miguel rushed to his room and trembled in a corner, his thoughts ablaze with images of endings and destruction. He cried for over an hour, caught off-guard by the tears his fear provoked, feeling helpless, alone and destined to die in the Apocalypse that could occur tomorrow or the day after that.
The young boy turned his back on the faith of his father that day, with the fierce determination of the very young, and resolved that he would rather die than live to see the End of the World.
Before he went to sleep, he deliberately did not say his bedtime prayers and turned the statue of the Three Sisters away from his bed. He did not want them watching him.
The Apocalypse arrived that night, triggered by the loss of one little boy’s faith. In their fury, radiant devas came to Miguel’s room on shimmering wings, shattering the walls of the house. “So this is the one who brought about the End of Things,” the fiercest among them said, pointing to the sleeping boy with a sword that burned with a flame unseen since the Beginning of All Things. With a soundless cry she struck down the remnants of the house then flew with her legion into the sky that wept stars.
And so his story ended.
Miguel Lopez Vicente’s mother, dead just a week, came to him on the eve of his fourth birthday, saying something her son could not quite hear.
He sat up, straining to listen to her words, having no fear of the woman who had shown him only love.
“I am lonely here. Will you come with me?”
When his mother kissed him on the forehead, Miguel felt suddenly cold and embraced her, his heavy heart, lately engorged by sorrow, shrinking to the size of a child’s perfect love.
“You are the only one I have ever loved, my Miguel,” she told him as they stepped into the shadows.
“You will always be my little boy.”
“Do not forget to take your smile with you.”
Miguel set his face into a smile of unconditional trust and walked forward.
And so his story ended.
Antonio Manuel Vicente, the rising dramatist, stood at the balcony of his tower residence and contemplated his life, like pages in a chapbook he felt he had only partially authored.
A soft wind, heavy with the suggestion of salt, blew in from the nearby harbor, carrying muted voices that sang, argued, lied or whispered promises. He pulled his dressing robe closer to his body, thinking about the sad and strange paths his life had taken, the people he had loved and left behind, and how the simplicity of a change of perspective –the height of a balcony – could provoke thoughts of drastic action.
In his arms he carried his sleeping son, Miguel; a two-year-old result of a dalliance with a woman he could honestly not remember. He had found the boy sitting alone, silent and stone-faced, on the stairs of his residence, with a brief letter that held even briefer introductions. That was a week ago.
Antonio had his entire life before him and felt that the unwelcome weight in his arms was an unfair burden. When he felt his son stir in his arms, he summoned up all the paternal inclinations in his heart and came up with an absolute emptiness.
He looked at the son he had never wanted, never even dreamed of, and without a single other thought, hurled him off the balcony. He felt no remorse, prepared to act the distraught parent when tomorrow brought news of the horrible accident to his ears, already composing the lines of dialogue that he, grief-stricken, would speak.
Miguel Lopez Vicente watched the ground rush up to welcome him with the same stoicism he had when he was abandoned by his mother.
And so his story ended.
Mr. Henares looks at his inventory
In the storeroom of his shop along the Encanto lu Caminata, Mr. Henares looked at the eighty four vials he had distilled from the future days of his largest customer of the year.
He gently swirled the closest one between thumb and forefinger and watched the marvelous stories of Miguel Lopez Vicente unfold in a glimmer of effervesce, liquid tales brimming with potential. He paused and thought about the nature of stories, the vagaries of time and the single, long road of desire and shook his head, resigned to the fact that for as long as people were people, his business would continue.
Mr. Henares replaced the vial of Miguel Lopez Vicente among the eighty-three others, put off for the next day the task of determining their relative prices (perhaps he would bundle two or three – one of his regulars, a famous astronomer when he was young, wanted some more time for stargazing), and went about closing the shop.
“We all burn sunlight,” he muttered to no one in particular, scratching an arm with a motion that could almost be mistaken as a caress.
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