And the beaches, when they finally empty of human congregation Bridges whose curves will show from one abutment to another, with only air threading through cantilevered spans And on the railroad tracks stretched like so much forgotten history from coast to coast, the wraiths of those of us who drove their spades into the earth What spaces are there now where our bodies can go to find sustainment— with only clear wind, not bearing virus taunts or streaks of spittle
- after Juan Luna's "El Pacto de Sangre"
("The Blood Compact"), 1886
A year after he finishes the famous
mural showing two dead gladiators
being dragged from arena to spoliarium,
he paints a few more big-ass
canvasses. Actually he needs to paint
only one in return for a scholarship
that pays for his studies and the cost
of living while in Rome and Madrid.
But like almost all expatriates or immigrants,
even with gold medals won from arts expos,
he feels the need to do more; be extra. And so
in this painting, "El Pacto de Sangre,"
once more the focus is on history—canvas which
by nature shows how miniature the scale of
human effort against the long drag of time.
The artist understands: it's no accident
Datu Sikatuna is the only one with his back
to the viewer— though he has the rippling,
tattooed, muscular arms of a warrior, a gold-
threaded vest fused of carabao horn and chain
mail, a dagger tipped with precious metal. It's
1556: the scene is meant to illustrate
the triumph of diplomacy: according to
the conquistadores, the skin on each man's
chest was lanced to draw a little blood for mixing
with water or wine. Drinking this cocktail
symbolizes alliance akin to blood brotherhood:
each one supposedly rendered equal to the other.
But the scene, generous with shadow, instinctively
raises questions about that ideal. The knuckles
of the indio's right hand tense above the blade.
Both hold a cup filled with mingled fluids.
Who is vessel, vassal? In 342 years, more ships burn
in the bay. The Datu's descendants are sold as
easily as a cup is passed from one hand to another.
When the old have lived their lives
almost to the end, you will find
almost all their teeth are either gone
or worn down to nubs as touch-sensitive
as the old-time keys of the vintage
Royal Crown typewriter sitting on top
of one of your low bookshelves. This
is what you think when you get the picture
sent by text message of your eighty-six-
year-old mother; she is now at an elder
care home in Baguio, sitting in a wheelchair
in the garden with a pink throw around her
shoulders. Today is the the last day of March;
two weeks ago, April seemed like a a very
long way away, until the quarantine order
changed to June. There are still planes
that cross the skies, though their contrails
sketch a looser trellis with each passing day.
Overnight, ships and schools and cathedrals
have turned into hospitals. Now you can only
bear to watch reruns of shows like Downton
Abbey, and it no longer seems implausible
that the first floor of the wealthy family's
mansion is turned into an infirmary for
soldiers in the war. Who of them knew how long
it would last? Even the small army of hired
labor cooking and cleaning in the kitchens,
fitting out the horses and carriages and cars
could feel the world changing. How could you
have known how large this theatre of seclusion
would become, how it stretched from continent
to continent until the surfaces of every map
bristled with thousands of push-pin heads
signifying contagion? The old, as long as
they're alive, are not yet history. They want
to sit in the sunny garden and eat the breakfast
that the nurses bring, even if it takes a longer
time to chew and swallow. They want to raise both
hands as if conducting an orchestra and break
into song: some memory that's escaped confinement.
Every one of us still beckons from
the front counter of what used to be
your favorite Asian restaurant or take-
out place, now shuttered unless
your state still allows food service
for pick up only. Maneki-neko: my battery-
powered paw relentlessly rows the air.
Come in, come in, my name is not contagion.
I will sit in the doorway as I have done
for centuries, washing my face.
Cup of sugar over the fence; raking leaves, pine needles,
horrid gum-balls. Can you baby-sit the children while we
go to the movies. Will you watch my house while I’m
in California. The irises are out again in the corner of the yard.
Help yourself when you’re out walking the dog. I still have
the aluminum tray you brought to the cook-out. Do you
have any paracetamol? All we have is Motrin. My friend’s aunt
showed me how you can make at least three meals out of one
head of cabbage. Her grandparents who lived through the war
ate a lot of cabbage. We found a small abacus when we finally
cleaned out the garage. Your preschooler might find it fun.
I have extra gauze from when one of us had root canal surgery.
Can that be used to line homemade masks? It’s funny
how I got excited to find those two packets of seeds I got
in January from the library: chives and bok choy. It was “A Night
of Philosophy and Ideas.” All these groups of people in one place,
listening to lectures and poetry, watching artists make charcoal
portraits on the spot; students talking about the universe,
and love, and presence until 4 in the morning. Today I found
some soil and planted those seeds in pots. Our friend said,
if you tell the cashier at checkout that you need toilet paper,
someone will go to the back and get one pack for you.
No one knows what will happen. Things are changing every
day. But surely, things can’t just go back to being the same.
At a party where I've only just met you,
your conversation gambit has the words
maid and Hong Kong
or maid and Saudi Arabia. At the mail
room where I'm making copies, you stop
and ask me how my people are doing;
and how awful it must be for them
in the aftermath of the latest natural
calamity. Looking through the grocery's
refrigerated section for eggs, I hear
you say something-something-maganda.
I don't even turn my head. I walk
toward the dairy and yogurt section,
even if I don't need anything from there.
On second thought, something icy. Dark, cold,
bittersweet. No glass noodles, no egg rolls.
the house smells of rosemary
and cambodian pepper—
they don't necessarily
but i don't need to smell
or taste to remember
those yearnings banked
tight behind the grate.
you are convinced i took
my heart out of my chest,
and that is what made it
possible to leave you
all those years, and travel
to this land of forsaken winters
where, left to myself,
i only read books and did
you are convinced i can't
put it back in place again;
or that i don't want to
anymore. nights, when the wind
howled and rattled the ice
ornaments worn by trees,
i didn't bother with plates.
i scooped rice directly from
the pot to my mouth. it usually
took a week to eat all the way
to the bottom. nothing i say
can convince you of the depth of my
longing. I suppose it's hard to see what
a body has to do to keep alive, or
what time has shielded from it.
i suppose it feels like a sea
emptied of all its whale songs.
there are bands of moving shadow;
perhaps boats are crossing the water.
One is an image someone has posted on FB:
in it, rowboats and swan-boats and sea-
horse boats have been laid over
with every brilliant filter. Blooms
on the bottlebrush trees that fringe
the lake look yellow instead of red.
But the beggared mind can’t choose.
Another: creased and oily, a certificate
that records the day but not
the time of birth. When does the butterfly
know how to rip through the tent
of its own misgivings? The language
of goodbyes can sound like a language
of warnings: wait, stay, next time. I saw
a footbridge printing itself as it was built:
or rather, the arm of a machine was visible,
out of which molten filaments dangled
in the air before hardening in place.
simultaneity is the relationship
between two events assumed to be
happening at the same time within
a given context. Science says camels
and civets, ferrets and bats, have all
been non-human hosts for coronaviruses.
Science says a non-pathogenic version
of COVID-19 jumped from an animal
host—some say bat, others say pangolin—
to a human; and then developed quickly
into a pathogenic strain. A pangolin
is kind of a large, scaly anteater.
Curled up into itself, it looks like
a shuriken or throwing star, something
a ninja could send flying with a flick
of the wrist, before you feel it lodge
in the side of your neck and the carotid
artery supplying blood to your brain.
Did you know it is the world's most
highly trafficked non-human mammal?
In some countries, there are beliefs
(not science) that decoctions of its meat
and scales can cure excessive anxiety
and hysterical crying in children, or women
thought to be possessed by devils
and ogres. Science says there's no known
cure for the pandemic raging in all
the nations of the world right now.
Science says it's reckless and dangerous
to tout so-called cures that haven't been
clinically tested or verified. Science
knows how human behavior, pushed to
desperation, has been shown to defy logic.
Science knows why the man who took
chloroquine phosphate died; it can also
hypothesize about how he might've thought
it was identical to the anti-malarial with
a similar name. Science takes pictures
with electron microscopes, showing each
virion crowned by a halo. From there,
it's possible to make the leap to that other
image in close-up: each round cluster, clad
in red-tinted caps; and tiny white letters
spelling something lethal above the brim.
In that awaited version, all the people
we lost return to their village with lungs
unscarred. All the doctors and nurses
and emergency personnel stand on the steps
of the capitol to receive a standing ovation.
The markets teem again with produce, but all
the wild animals have been returned to their
original homes. The children who were fed stones
in captivity have grown wings and go around
teaching others what it means to apocalypse:
which is to say, they have become the instruments
of revelation. Every bricklayer, carpenter,
food server, trash collector takes their ease.
And the petulant and inconvenienced? They sit
in long, low schoolrooms, instructed to reconcile
sums: everything they took and took for granted,
all the leaves they turned for personal gain;
all the seams they lined with ill-gotten
light. Their souls writhe at their feet,
unable to wear flesh again like protection.
The national guard patrols each row. No credits
roll; only the lion lifts its head and roars every so
often, and a firing squad idles under the willows.