It began to burn
Paulino was 8 when he was first mistaken for the devil. 10 when it happened again. At 11, in the jungle, surrounded by buzzing things and burning wood, he saw a woman dressed in the black ash of a burnt crucifix, screaming in bible tongue. “I just wanted my skin reattached,” she said. Paulino watched it all.
Joy was a stout woman. She carried robust legs, a swimmer’s back, skin leathered with patches of discolor, and hair that was never bothered with. She was built for daily labor. She arrived one summer from the Philippines, the land of her birth. “A country that is both brutal and gorgeous” was how Joy once described it. “Like a butterfly knife,” she said. “It is like the slow motion bullet through a rapist’s heart,” she said. “It is the science of a thunderstorm,” she said.
That place, her home, the Philippines, was built from poverty and maintained with ghost stories. You clean, you carve, you cook, you eat, you pray, you clean, you pray- this was her life. She was never meant for abundance. It was too much. Her hands became idle. The ghost stories became flesh. Her prayers became nightmares. It all started that summer.
The first meeting was uneventful; the rest of it was not.
“Hi, you my new mom?”
Paulino once asked the father what happened to the other mom. He said, “I forgot how to love her.”
That evening, her first, Joy cooked fish and rice. She ate with her left hand. She drank water after every third bite. She sat with one leg down, the other one up, with her knee pressed against her chest. Paulino noticed. Sitting across from her at the dinner table he thought her knee looked like a broken fat fist. He didn’t know why, it just did. He kept watching. How she chomped away at the rice. How she pulled fish bones from her teeth. How she sat there eating with her hair tied back, loose strands sprouting like hiccups. How it made her look electric. Joy was a thunderbolt wrapped in skin, he thought.
One day she caught him watching her. It felt like a hand pressed over his mouth.
“How come you never smile, or frown, or anything? Just blank. You are always blank. Except your eyes,” Joy asked Paulino.
“I don’t know.”
Joy would always stare at him. Her eyes squinted like knife wounds. It made Paulino’s heart feel like a million hummingbirds were locked in his chest.
It was like this for a year. He watched and so did she. When Paulino’s dog died, Joy wondered why the boy didn’t cry or express any sort of grief. This frightened her, but she never said anything. They barely spoke after that. They lived in a house, never a home. The space between Paulino and Joy was an empty highway littered with used furniture and blank walls.
It was all uneventful until the father lost another job and had to move where the work was. Everything became tense. Nobody handled it well.
She erupted in Los Angeles. “The devil is near,” she said.
They had been there almost a week, staying in a North Hollywood apartment the size of a fist. They’d sold all the furniture to help pay their first month’s rent and security deposit. The family ate standing up or sitting on the floor with their backs to the wall. The father was gone most of the time looking for work. Sometimes he would return late at night holding a two-legged chair or a sweaty blanket stinking of mildew or sometimes, if Paulino was lucky, an action figure not missing too many parts. This was his life and Paulino was happy with it. He liked the empty quiet.
Paulino was 8 the first time it happened. He remembered eggs were frying that morning. He remembered the smoke licking the fake-wood paneling above the stove. He remembered how the popping grease in the skillet sounded like a standing ovation. A great way to start his morning, he thought.
Joy was cooking. Joy said she didn’t know what happened next, except that something inside her broke. To Paulino, it was like a vicious tide. It arrived without warning, without any sirens. It left their shore with bits and pieces of them, leaving only debris. She was not in control, he thought.
She later told the doctors it was God who did it, a mean God with heavy hands. She tried to pray that morning. She really tried, she said. But no one ever answered.
That morning, Joy turned towards Paulino. He was dressed for school looking down at his shoes. He stared at his laces, embarrassed that he was the only kid in his class who tied his shoes with the rabbit ears method. She started to mumble, her empty eyes never leaving Paulino, and then that mumble grew into a mean growl. Paulino looked up from his shoes and was smacked by her stare. He stood attentive like prey. The empty space between them swayed.
“You are the devil.”
His knees locked. His heartbeat left bruises on the inside of his ribcage.
“You are the devil.”
His eyes widened as if she stepped on his neck. She gripped something behind her.
“You are the devil.”
They were alone in that apartment. She was screaming at him.
Joy stared at Paulino, her right hand firmly tucked at the small of her back. She continued to scream the phrase over and over again until it was just a frenzy of sound and snarling teeth. Paulino ran towards the door. She ran after him. The knife rose like a paint stroke. The eggs began to burn.
Joy stayed in the hospital for 6 weeks. Before she got out, Paulino asked the father if she was still going to live with them, he replied, “A boy needs a mother.”
Paulino was 10 when they lived in the small town of Bremerton, Washington. The father burned his bridges in California and hugged the coast north with the family until he found something to stop for. Paulino walked home alone from Central Kitsap Elementary every day, always happy when it wasn’t raining. They lived in the last house on a dead-end street. Blackberries grew in the backyard. Nothing grew inside.
He walked in the house in the afternoon and dropped his canvas school bag in the thin hallway. He heard the sound of static dancing in the other room and followed it. Joy was there, splayed on the couch like a fat shadow, head tilted towards the hallway. She stared at him as he crept forward. It made his teeth scream. Her eyes were not hers. Her eyes were stolen from a Los Angeles kitchen. He remembered them. The doctors lied. It was in that moment, a rare sunny afternoon in Washington, that he knew that heaven had again fallen from the skies like a hit and run. God was back.
“What’s wrong, mom?”
“God cut off my legs because of you. It hurts. It hurts.”
“No he didn’t. You, you can walk.”
“He won’t allow it. I let the devil in my house. It hurts. Stop it. It hurts. You are the
“Please stop saying that, I’m going to help you. Please. I’ll call the hospital.”
Joy exploded to her feet and stomped towards Paulino. She stopped inches away and stared down at him, so close her blouse tickled his nose. So close, he heard the drum in her chest.
“No, they want to hurt me too. You want to hurt me. Why do you want to hurt me?”
She started to cry so hard it felt like mud. Paulino stood there and watched while her tears pooled at his feet. He quietly walked to the phone, dialed, and whispered into it, “help, help, help, help, help, help, help, help.” Until someone did.
That night, when the war song of sirens faded, Paulino went to his fake aunt’s house 6 blocks away and slept. The next day everyone at school asked if Paulino’s mom was crazy.
“She’s lonely,” was what he would say all over the playground. “No wants to talk to her, only God does and only when he’s angry.” He stayed at the fake aunt’s house until his father showed up 6 days later.
Paulino once asked the father why he was always gone and the father replied, “You have to learn how to take care of yourself because one day I won’t come back.”
Paulino was 11 when the marriage between Joy and the father dissolved like small promises. She had to go back to the land of butterfly knives. The father could no longer afford the maintenance of Joy. The family flew to the Philippines to give her back to her land, her family. “She can’t do it on her own,” the doctors said. Her last episode in Bremerton lasted forever. Paulino hated that idea. He wanted to stay behind. The idea of flying with her, with nowhere to run, shook him into a panic.
“It’s the least we can do. She took good care of you the time she was here. And it’ll be good to see where you’re from,” the father said.
Their flight was uneventful; the rest of it wasn’t.
In the Philippines, Paulino heard coughing motorbikes everywhere. He saw cars decorated like exclamation marks. He felt the heat everywhere. It hugged him like an old coat. Men and women with skin like soft dirt, bent over and working, always working, were everywhere. He watched it all. He never saw anything like it. They drove past the noisy cities and settled into a soft lull through the country side. It took them 4 hours to make it to Joy’s home. The entire drive she stared at the ceiling of the jeepney, smiling and sobbing, clenching and unclenching her rose embroidered dress.
The first thing he saw as he entered the village of Iriga was the dogs. He thought they looked like walking ribs. He watched as they snuck in and around trashcans and thick brush. Then he watched the kids, kicking an empty bottle down the street; he saw how they looked like a laughing whirlwind.
The smell of burning wood was everywhere. The smell of fresh cut meat was everywhere. The smell of prayer candles was everywhere. The sound of Joy sobbing stopped. Paulino looked up and met her stare.
The father left right away and Paulino was dumped with Joy’s brother, the Uncle. He took Paulino to a small shack, not far from the gravel entrance to the house, where he had seen an older woman take Joy earlier. A single pig that was still not fat enough for the cull slept near the doorway. Inside the shack, surrounded by her family and local priests, Joy laid on a skinny straw mat on the ground. She was covered in sweat and shook like a slow rumble seizure. The tip of a small wood crucifix, burning in a priest’s hand, floated above her. Paulino was told to leave. “She is not ready to see him.”
They walked to the back of the house. The Uncle looked down and smiled at Paulino while pointing to 10 or so chickens stacked separately in cages. “I train them to be brave and vicious. I make them love me so much they want to die for me. Come, I’ll show you while they fix your mom.” Paulino nodded and followed.
“Do you want to see how I make them love me?” said the Uncle.
“Yes.” So much so, it almost made Paulino smile.
The uncle unlocked a bent and rusted cage. He flirted two hands into the opened door and pulled out a chicken that looked like a rainbow smacked it. He softly kissed the head while stroking its soft back feathers. He whispered gentle things to it. Paulino watched carefully. With such a slick grace, the uncle placed small gloves on the chicken’s feet without it noticing.
“Without the gloves the cocks will use their bone spur to slit each other’s throats.”
The Uncle told Paulino to grab another chicken from a cage. Paulino nervously stuck his hands in and felt soft pecks that scared him and caused him to snap his arms back out. The chicken jumped out and ran towards the Uncle who quickly snatched it with his free arm.
“Here. Hold him tight.”
The Uncle told Paulino to swing the chickens at each other. He said this makes them feel hate for the other one. “Only with men and chickens is it so easy to make them hate each other,” he said. The chickens began to snap and kick. Their feathers swelled. They squealed and squawked. Their eyes became insults. Frenzy was built. At the height, they released the chickens. Paulino saw nothing but noise and blood.
Afterwards, Paulino went to the shack to see Joy. From the door, smoke seeped out like black silk. He silently walked in. Joy was vibrating. Her face covered in crosses written in black ash. The priest chanted. She kept screaming that God was burning her face. Her back buckled. Their eyes met. Paulino’s toes ground into the dirt. She began to wail. He started to cry without tears. “Devil,” she kept saying. “Devil.”
Paulino, a long time later, once asked the father if they would ever see Joy again. He replied, “Who?”
The last remains of the bully sun dug into Paulino’s neck. He was alone late that afternoon, still at Joy’s family’s house. The father was supposed to pick him up hours ago. He sat there in their dirt yard staring at the chickens, waiting for him, the father. No one was around. He walked toward the cages and took a chicken out. Make them love me, he thought. Paulino grabbed the smallest one. An eye was pecked out. The eyelid was stuck together with wet thick pus. Its neck feathers had large patches missing, exposing scabs and skin. That ugly bird looked like he had lost a few but never gave up. He liked that thought. He held that chicken tight to his sunken chest, a big fat hug from a small boy. He softly kissed the head. He carefully ran his soft hands across the remaining feathers. He whispered gentle things to it. He said, “I love you. I won’t leave you. Please. Please, love me back.” And with such slick grace he quietly put the gloves over the killing spurs. He kissed the chicken’s ugly head one last time and then slowly snapped its neck.
[BIO]: Jaylee lives in Los Angeles.