Marianne Villanueva was born and raised in the Philippines, received a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University, and now lives in San Francisco. She has three collections of short fiction and a novella, Jenalyn, that was a 2014 finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Awards. Her short stories have been published in a wide range of anthologies and literary journals, including Potomac Review, Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Your Impossible Voice, and Juked. She is completing a novel about an 18th century Spanish priest who is sent to the Philippines to fight demons.
Read by Morgan Cooke
K thinks the boss is in love with her.
She looks like a mosaic puffball, her skin covered with checkered patterns.
The boss was born Earthstar. He’d never look her way. His spores were meant to go else: to a Silverleaf. Or a Shag. Not K that smelled like wet rot. All scaly cap and throat gills. She belonged with other Common.
Varnish and varnish. I’ll say this for K: she is tenacious. Especially about her delusions.
“Me mum’s a thick,” she said once. “A focking thick.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“She a root rotter,” K said.
“Hit brew and all?” I asked.
“Twelve pints one go. Honest,” K said.
K silent the rest of the day.
I’m weary of K. We have the worst job: growing giant polyphores, thousands and thousands of them, in little paper fans studded with 4-micron ova. The fans burn our fingers. Burn like sulphur. We have to wait hours for the new skin to grow back. Fingers never feel the same, after.
We can’t leave the room until Growing’s over. That means days. We’re the slowest team in the whole White Zone, the boss says. Probably even the slowest in the whole planet.
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. Where those words come from, I don’t precisely know.
“We be needing foxes,” I say once.
“You lousy hedgehog,” the boss says, giving me a good one. My right eye swells up almost immediately.
“You not be asking me to fetch, you lousy Common!” He gives me another good one on the way out.
K trembling there in the corner.
“Here,” she says finally, pulling something yellow, bell-shaped, out of her pocket.
I shake my head.
“You sure?” she says. “I got these fresh.”
Hours go by. Then K says, “He’s a stump, that one. Jesus.”
Me standing up straight, trying to forget the pain in my right cheek. “I don’t think we’re at liberty to discuss,” I say.
K’s eyes well up. Copious.
“Shut it,” I say. I don’t want to hear another word. Sighs and pity, I don’t need. Especially her sighs and pity. “I won’t ever look as good as I do now.”
K begins to laugh. Then she sees my face. Her right hand claps over her mouth. “Oh.” I want to cuff her.
“You might be wanting a piss soon,” she says. “Then, if blood comes out of you...”
“You’ll be wanting to feel my fist,” I say.
“Oh,” she says again. But this time, she looks sad. She says, strange-voiced, “I’ll bring oak milk tomorrow. Might help.”
When my friend Summer lay under the beechwood seems a lifetime ago, puking insides, puking until her stomach was a strange convex shape, what happened was, I heard a whooshing noise, and then from the other side of the trees came a Sand Spirit. Drum-beat Ta-ra! It came down from the sky, propellers whirring, dredging hay and thistles. Then snapped her right up.
As they used to say in Marble Arch, when some play was on: The Lady Exits.
For a long time after, I stayed under the beech, whispering Summer, whatya reckon to all this and watching two yella bitterns wing from branch to branch to branch. Until the shadows chased me home.
In P-1, the teachers tell, Heaven is up a winding stair. Hell is like falling off the Whitecliffs—down and down and down and down. Limbo is—somewhere between. Those lessons always gave me the frights.
Now K making delicate noises over there on her side of the table.
“The fuck is this—?” I exclaim. My fingers are snagged on a Changeable. “How did these get in with the others?”
K stops. Looks guilty. Bends her head to have a closer look at what I have in my right hand. “Oh,” she says. And starts to hum. Even though her voice is low, I think I hear her say “lash” and “blood.” She swats the Changeables out of my hand, as if they were nothing. “Leave them,” she says. Against the white-tiled floor, they look dove-colored. “I’ll take care of them later.” She notices me gaping. “Seriously,” she says. “I’ll take care of them.”
I’m shaking. She isn’t afraid. Of him. She looks at me again. “I know, R. I know.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you—” I say.
“Come on,” she says. “I’m mad. Mum says I could drive anyone to...well, you know.”
K has very quick hands, I must say. I hate those slimy Changeables. They’re rascally, which means they’re quick to mutate, and almost impossible to spot. If only three or four of them had gotten through—oh, they come after ya.
My jaw starts to ache, as if the boss had just landed another good one. But now he never has to, and he knows it. Trembling at just the memory.
K nonchalantly scoops the Changeables up from the floor, with her bare hands. I’ve never seen anyone do that before. She really must be crazes.
Her fingers are an angry, violent red. They must hurt terribly. Either that, or something has killed off her nerve endings. Or she just wants to die.
She nudges the door to the ovens with her left boot. The door slides back with a rusty groan. The fire is hungry and seems to lap out at her.
“Watch out—” I say.
But by the time I get the words out, she’s dumped the Changeables into the oven and slammed the door shut again. This whole time, I’ve stood rooted to the same spot.
“Hello?” K says, snapping her fingers. Then points to the table. “Shouldn’t you be arranging those Poriales? Into brackets?” She adds, for good measure, “You lousy Common!”
I finally smile, though feels like my face is breaking.
Humans are a small and fragile species. But we have the distinction of breeding almost as quickly as microbes. Sex is soporific and palliative. No one would attach a pejorative such as “meaningless” to any form of sexual activity. We’re all encouraged to do it as much as possible, as late as possible. Grandmothers in their sixties do it, as well as children as young as eleven or twelve. It’s considered a patriotic activity. The rate’s been dropping over the past few decades, though, which is why there’s so much emphasis now on breeding and genetics.
Once a female gets pregnant, her food rations are tripled. She can’t have liquor, but any other loblolly she craves gets delivered on a plate. The message is she’s special now.
Whereas, it’s grim for the ones who haven’t borne. Stood up, nineteen hours, on the pylon, and—have a go, anyone who has spore stiff.
That’s what happened to K’s mum. She gone mind-bent. K the result. K who believes in love. To the best of my knowledge, love’s a result of a pill or a drug, or an amphetamine. So it can’t be real. Anything produced by a pill can’t be love, it can’t be real.
K. Only twelve, she let herself be used by a lout. Days by, no K. Her mum came knocking on my door: Seen K? I was worried. Thought I caught a glimpse of her long dark hair, there at the edge of the lake. She been lying there, face down, probably most of the night. Shite! Shite! Fock! Shite! Fockers!
She still alive, though. Lout threatened her with a knife. You’ve no idea, no idea. Blackened both her eyes. Top all bare.
“K!” I cried. “K!”
I didn’t know what to do. I hated her so much in that moment.
She got transferred else, where I don’t know.
New partner now in the lab. She makes no sense, but what’s gone through is gone. Sure, me and my family will starve. The thought only bothers me when I think about it too long. I try not to mess around with those kinds of thinks.
“I’ve been,” L says. “Been and done.”
“‘s only fair,” I say, with no care.
L knows what happened to K. “Poor wee bitch,” she said, once.
I couldn’t face it. “You about done?” I said. “With the new ones?”
“What you blathering ‘bout,” L said. “You a Ruddy Common, just like me. And she. We all be dead in a drawer, like.”
Fuck all. The truth: K showed which of us had the more courage. Common or no, she was a Single. Never another one like her.
Slow is time. No watches allowed. Done when we’re done.
“Pheeew!” L says. “These fockers stink.” She wrinkles her nose. “Swear I don’t know how you—”
“Don’t you go off again,” I say, gritting teeth.
L begins to sing: “In Dub, Dub, Dub, the streets, streets, streets, in Dub, Dub, Dub—”
“Shit,” I say. “You no voice.”
L glares. “Jesus!” she cries. “Long live motherfockers like youse.”
“And why that song? Of all the bloody—”
“Stuff it, R,” L says. “Wonder who had the crazes to marry youse. Boring as a carwash. Fock. Take a pill.”
Excellent advice: I finally take a pill. Pray when I take it, too. First time in years. Better than having it snipped.