“Mirasol.” Hadassah calls. They’re not cuffed anymore, but the bars between their cell and the next one cast a shadow across their faces.
“You, too?” Her breath starts to hitch, but the room is cold and she’s already cried enough for the past couple of days; the most she can manage is a couple of sandy rasps of her eyelids.
“What the hell were they talking about?” Hadassah wonders. “The ocean? Was Haik wearing cologne? Or aftershave?”
“Sure.” She laughs. “Right before we tried to escape from ICE, Haik took a shower and drenched himself in cologne.”
She thinks about the truth--Haik is the sea-god of the Tagalog tribe, from long before Spain and Islam combined, and he always smells of the ocean--but she’s tired. She wants to get out of here with Hadassah, find Haik and take him home, and feel the volcanoes burning in his skin.
But the police know where she lives, she realizes with a sinking feeling. Her house is still safe, but it’s outside the walls that’s the problem.
“Maybe they went a little crazy.” Hadassah crosses to Mirasol’s side and leans into her shoulder. “They could barely aim a taser, after all.”
From where they sit, they can’t hear anything outside the door, and there’s no one inside the next cell yet. There’s only the sluggish, fractured light through the window to mark the passing of time, and it’s too high for them to look out even while standing on the bench; it’s clearly daylight now, but Mirasol has to tap out the minutes with her hand, since both their phones are gone.
“I wish they picked after we got out to go nuts,” she sighs.
Then more waiting, until the light starts to cool down. (Three hours and forty-six minutes later, to be specific.)
And a guard walks past their cell, sparing a glance at them, but he cruises right past.
An hour and twenty-eight minutes after that, Haik arrives. Two guards are dragging him along; they dump him in the cell next door.
“Haik!” Mirasol bolts across the cell. “Are you okay? Where were you?”
“I’m fine, lovey.” He inches up with the help of the wall. “They were just interrogating me.”
“Interrogating?! About what?” She tries to reach him through the bars.
“Asking where I came from. Then where my parents came from,” he laughs. “Where I lived before I got to you. Any crimes I did. And whether I had any documents, of course.”
“It took them a day to ask you some fucking questions?”
“Well, you know white people.” And now comes the unsteady walk towards her. “Asians can’t just tell them where we live. We have to give our life story, medical records, and genealogy. Plus I had to repeat that shit three or four times, since they were testing if I could keep my story straight. ‘Four cousins? You said you had five!’ Well, two of them are twins, the youngest one got lost in foster-care until he was eight or so, and then Rambo tased me AND the TV. I’d like to see you lot keep everything straight--”
“Haik.” She gets her arm around his elbow, tight but brittle and shaky. “Please stop.”
“Ay.” A laugh.
“Does it still hurt?” She can’t see his back. Did the lightning leave marks on his tattoos?
“Tasing isn’t that bad, lovey. Just hurts like a bitch.” He arcs down to meet her, smile flashing in the last of the sun. “It’s a little foggy up here, but I can fuck with people if I concentrate.”
Despite their efforts, they can’t get through the bars, so Mirasol snakes her arm higher around his neck for the ungngo.
Their foreheads can’t make contact, not with the bars in the way--but she feels his breath hissing past her cheek, a patch of his neck pulsing under her arm like lava, and she strains like a horse towards him until her temples start to sting.
And all he has to do is straighten back up to break contact. “Don’t hurt yourself, love.”
So Hadassah links arms with her and tugs her away from the bars, and she’s relieved that they’re all alive and mostly intact; two hours and eleven minutes later, plus one or two more for their conversation, she drops asleep like a stone into water.
Her soul wanders miserably, back and back and back across the water, where home is waiting.
There’s a gnarled mangrove in the doorway, with bundles of branches and little white flowers nestled between the leaves. Its roots drag like an octopus, groaning with the effort along the driveway--until a saltwater crocodile comes along, grinning wide at her.
“Hello, neneng.” The crocodile’s female, if low-voiced. And clearly much older than her, since she skipped ‘anak’ and went right on down to ‘baby.’
“Um… hello. Lola.” She could fit her arm into that mouth, and she wonders where Haik is. “Where did the tree come from?”
“That’s your heart,” the crocodile laughs. “Don’t bother to watch it, ay? It took an hour just to get to the door.”
“Where’s it going?”
The heart-tree groans again, but out of sadness this time. A small flood of seawater spills out from its roots, bringing limp open-eyed fish, a weary sea-turtle, and groggy cuttlefish in faded colors. They clamp suckers onto the turtle’s shell for a lift.
The crocodile moves towards the tree, and Mirasol panics-- “Wait, not the living ones!”
She’s lucky that this is the Otherworld. Sea-turtles are so much bigger than she expected: When she picks the turtle up, its shell spans from her shoulders to her knees.
“Oh, neneng,” the crocodile laughs. “I’m too old to take on a loggerhead now. Especially not one as old as me.”
Some of the cuttlefish flash in bright colors and latch onto the crocodile like so many children, then vanish gray-green against her scales.
The others catch Mirasol’s belt-loops and turn a bumpy navy for her jeans; a couple of them dig into her hair and go matte black instead, with their tentacles spiraling to imitate her waves.
She goes past the dead fish all the way to the heart-tree, digging under the roots. Then she grows, even bigger than she already is, all the way to the length of a bus: Her legs straighten out like tree-trunks, her back and tail ridges sharpen like knives, and her head squares out into something like a T-Rex.
The dragon pushes up with all four legs, cracking the tree out from the cement, and Mirasol’s reminded of how Haik came out of the sand; then she snakes along like an old steady river.
Now the cuttlefish flash rainbow colors, and the sea-turtle glides out of Mirasol’s hold. They hitch rides along with their fellows--not from need, but companionship.
So Mirasol (hesitantly) trails behind the dragon, too. They go down the street, cutting across the lawns, passing like ghosts through walls and fences. “Are we going to the sea?” She asks. “This is the wrong way, Lola. We’re on a boat.”
“Your bodies are,” says the dragon. “But your souls are over here.”
And here is the crocodile-god, unchained and smelling like the sea, so his brethren give cries of joy. “Did someone throw a party?” He waves as the cuttlefish circle him--and to Mirasol’s surprise, they wave back. “Or is that one just scaring Mirasol?”
He doesn’t mean the sea-turtle.
“Napaka bastos.” The dragon’s laugh is like gravel. “You of all people taught her something about dragons.”
“Haik!” Mirasol doesn’t quite know which of these comes next--her mangrove-heart’s snapping contortion of joy, or the liquidized quake of the earth in a tremor--but he laughs as she runs right into him and drags him down.
“What a terrible choice for a sea-god!” The dragon shakes her head. “So much land and fire! Ay, young men only pick wives because they’re pretty.”
“Why should I only pick wives from the water-people?” Haik retorts gently, laying his arms around Mirasol’s shoulders. “The land and sea are very close by, after all.”
“Oh, but there’s green earth and there’s hard earth,” says the dragon. “She’s as hard as the rocks on these shores. You see this?” She flicks her tail at the tree on her back. “A whole hour just to get out of the house. There’s being a tree and there’s just being stubborn.”
“I don’t mind girls who like staying home, Ina,” Haik tells her, chuckling. “I travel enough for the both of us.”
“Ina?” Mirasol wonders as she curls into Haik’s chest. “Why are you calling her an old lady?”
“Naku! Haik might not be bright about women, but he is good to them!” the dragon retorts, though her teeth clack as she laughs. “He calls me grandmother.”
And now Mirasol wonders about Haik telling her that ali meant aunt--her grandfather in this life used to call her ina, but it definitely wasn’t how Haik used it.
“Ay, na parang ina!” He laughs at her when she’s twelve, picking a fight with Lloyd. “You’re too young to be so grouchy, apo.”
“Tagalog words mean all sorts of things, depending on how mad you are,” Haik laughs. “I had a bitch of a time learning it.”
And it’s just a blink of distance before he kisses her.
Then she tries to figure out what their conversation means, between the smell of the grass and his long, heavy arms: The land-and-fire people versus the sea-people, and which type of which elements makes her such a bad wife for Haik--but Ina can’t be that serious if she’s calling Haik stupid and joking about “young folks only want pretty wives.”
The fragments of memory pull weak at her, land-sea-sky-fire-rain-green-rock, all these clans of all these forces and all the people spanning them (but they were more like guidelines)--
She tries to mix them back into a new, whole memory (Lumawig’s brothers are sky-men but they’re not spoiled rotten)--
But she’s too heavy-handed, too desperate right now, so they just scatter like raindrops. (The sea-people like Haik, the water-people, they live right over there.)
“I can’t remember.” She curls into his neck. “I can’t remember anything, fuck.”
“We can teach you again,” Haik whispers into her neck, though his temple gets stained with her tears. And he folds his arms around her: “You just need some flashcards, lovey.”
She cries hard at that, as gentle as he is, which makes the dragon laugh again.
“Naku.” Lola’s snout nuzzles against her elbow. “All men know is how to make women cry.”
“Everything does that.” He sighs now and holds her tighter. “Ever since Spain. There’s no more ships, at least not pagan ones. No more pagans, at least not the ones she can reach. Not even the fish have lasted.”
“Why are the fish dead?” Mirasol rounds back to them, scales shining but so very still. “Are they too far from the sea?” Sea-fish can’t live in fresh water, she remembers from school.
“They were lonely,” the dragon sighs. “Any company is better than nothing, but most sea-fish do not thrive in small groups. They are meant for deep water, with dozens and hundreds and thousands of kin. You kept them happy as long as you could, neneng. We’ll find new fish soon, don’t worry. Once you’re out of jail.”
Mirasol gathers them up like so many dropped toys from her kids, with the cuttlefish pairing off to help. The fish whisper snatches as they’re touched, some in men’s voices and some in women’s, but they speak a centuries-old language she can’t understand. (Not anymore, mourns the voice in the back of her head.) “Are they your followers?”
“Stories,” he tells her. He swirls one hand to gather the cuttlefish into his arm--he’s not bothered at their protests of ink--and then he pulls Mirasol along with his other one.
She especially doesn’t want to leave them now, but Haik’s fingers have closed on her wrist and she’s pulled tight to his chest.
“Ay, neneng, you forgot the halok.” The dragon pokes at Mirasol’s shoulder with her knife-crested head. “It isn’t your fault. If we had more people than your husband around, you’d remember to do it more often.”
“What’s the halok?” Her stomach sinks: Here’s something else she can’t remember.
A pair of cuttlefish swim in front of her, gently bumping heads to demonstrate. A third does the same with Mirasol, in a way she can only describe as the ‘boop’ poke that people do with dogs and cats.
“Oh, the ungngo?”
“Ay, Haik!” More laughter from the dragon as Mirasol does a belated forehead-press with her. “What’s a Tagalog using Ilokano for?”
“Why does it matter?” Haik catches Mirasol’s fingers again, though he lags behind this time. “I’m too many things now. Maori, Tagalog, Samoan, Hawaiian. There’s no place for me to go.”
The red around his waist rustles, but it strikes Mirasol that he’s wearing a malong--the cloth is hiked up to knee-length to show off his pe’a, wrapped into a fusion of loincloth and surprisingly modern-looking shorts. Gold trim and embroidered flowers glow against his skin. “I thought the malong was for girls.”
“That’s what white people told us,” he chuckles. “Tagalog men wore pants, but it was never a solid thing--fashions go in and out of style, tribes borrow from other tribes when they get tired of hating each other. The Spanish told men to at least wear pants with the malong, but why the hell would we wear both? It’s too fucking hot for that.”
“You know the conquistadors,” the dragon grouses, shifting the heart-tree a few feet forward as if it’s a child on her hip. “Teachings the heathens how to be civilized.”
“How do you tie it like that if it’s sewn into a tube?” Mirasol wonders.
“The trick is, malongs aren’t always sewn up.” Haik grins. “I’d demonstrate if you like, but this was once a full outfit, so that means nothing underneath--”
But now the world starts to fray at the edges, in spite of Haik’s hand in hers.
“Mirasol!” Haik calls, but he’s stretching back like a fun-house mirror. “Fuck it--Ina! She won’t know where she’s going!”
The dragon’s tail whips to grab Mirasol, but it’s too late and she… falls? Flies? Into the melting streets. She’s not quite going down, but neither is she traveling straight, and even if she was, the cement starts dissolving into the ocean.
The sea-turtle catches up while she’s scrabbling at the chunks of street, and she grips it tight while the cuttlefish go spotted and striped in alarm--and then there’s just indigo.
When she surfaces to a sunset sky, she sputters through locks of wet hair. “Where did we go?”
The cuttlefish try to tug her down by her shirt--not that they can do much, but she panics and picks them off anyway, then drops them at arm’s length back into the water.
“Haik is the sea-god, not me!” She reminds them, helpless. “And I know I can’t drown in the spirit-ocean, but… don’t do that. Please.”
One of them clambers up along her shoulder and does the halok with her: She catches a flash of its intention. “We go down. Find Kuya. Take you back.”
“Well… go ahead.” She doesn’t know who the cuttlefish would call ‘big brother’--or she doesn’t want to admit it--but she’ll stay with the air-breathing turtle.
One cuttlefish winds its tentacles around her fingers; the others swim a few feet below and begin to flash neon colors, in a dizzying circle of water.
“KUYA!” There’s a multitude of small voices now--and it’s not just from her companions. Where did they all come from? “KUYA!”
Is that noise something’s heartbeat, or an oncoming wave? Deep in the water are soft and eerie constellations to mirror the cuttlefish’s flashing, and they grow at the steady, inevitable pace of a sea-monster’s rising.
“Go, go!” She keeps a firm hold on the cuttlefish and starts kicking along as the sea-turtle pumps all its legs, though from instinct more than hope--the shape in the water is too big to escape.
When they’re halfway down the creature’s shadow, two tentacles breach the surface for Mirasol, and she loses her grip on the sea-turtle with a mindless screech--but it lifts her out of the water and sets her down between its giant eyes, and again for the flailing sea-turtle.
“Kuya!” The cuttlefish latch onto the kraken with their arms and tentacles outspread, some mixture of a hug and the halok.
She doesn’t know what to do right now, with her fear-then-relief giving her whiplash. “Well, you’re--you’re a really big brother, then.” She thumps its mantle.
“No worries, Ate.” But his voice is much younger than she expected, in his late teens or early twenties. The water ripples from his laughter, and one arm tosses up a rock--rough-cut shades of green and blue, with mother-of-pearl edges and an indigo core.
“Oh, you found Haik’s heart!” She scoops it up like a puppy. “Thank you, Kuya!”
It wails and crunches against her chest, where the roots of her own heart strain towards it.
“It’s never hard to find,” the kraken warns her. “The trick is having it stay with him.”
“Haik wants it back, though,” she argues. “Plus, it only goes away for… I don’t know, a week.”
“And it only used to leave for a day or two,” he sighs. “Or he’d catch up while it was running away. Eventually it’s gonna leave for longer, and longer, and longer. And then it just won’t come back. Not on its own, at least. That’s when you need a quest.”
“Why not?!” Mirasol bursts, and then has to soothe Haik’s shivering heart. “My soul leaves, like, all the time! Why is it a bad thing with his heart?!”
“Haik wasn’t born a god,” he explains to her. “He has gained many powers from his travels, and our people’s love of him. But his heart is still human, with human fears and troubles. That is his strength and his weakness.”
“He’s immortal,” Mirasol pleads. “I mean, he can die, but it’s really fucking hard to kill a god.”
“That’s assuming the god is grown-up. Or you don’t kill their followers first.”
Will Haik always come back to the death of the whale-goddess? And to Spain?
Tears fall unbidden on her shirt. Haik’s heart pulses when some of them fall on a corner, and it warms like a blanket on her shoulders. The nearest cuttlefish nuzzle against her shoulders, and the kraken sighs again.
“Hold on.” One arm each curls around her and the sea-turtle. His fins and arms pump steadily, sending out billows that the cuttlefish use to jet out of the water.
She appreciates the security of the kraken’s arm, but this is a moderate pace even for humans; it looks like rowboat speed. “Well… Kuya, I’m pretty sure I can hold on by myself--”
And then the kraken breathes out.
The water rears up in a great wave, and Mirasol can’t even hear her own shrieking as it slams back down. A whirlpool howls behind them, and it froths like the mouth of some creature even the kraken has to flee.
She’s nauseous by the time they slow down, but the cuttlefish and Haik’s heart bounce along happily in the kraken’s wake.
They can see the edge of the land now, red in the sunset.
“All right! Second lap, Ate!” The kraken celebrates, and this time Mirasol shuts her eyes.
They crash into the sand as a ship runs aground, though all the kraken does is shake it off. Mirasol has to dig her way up, eyes screwed shut as her mouth struggles to choose between letting air in and keeping the sand out.
Warm ochre hands catch her own flailing ones, and she’s pulled straight up against Haik’s chest. Despite his strong arms, his form’s as unsteady as a heat-mirage.
“Trying to become a sea-goddess, ay?” His legs arc up by her sides. “Sand’s a tricky beast, lovey--too solid for water, too wobbly for land.”
The turtle hasn’t had nearly as much trouble; it burrows back to the surface with a small, contented groan, paddling a few feet above the ground.
Against Haik’s chest, Mirasol doesn’t know why the tears start coming, but it’s some mix of relief and weariness.
“Haik, we found your heart.” She stumbles to meet the cuttlefish as they float it over. “The kraken got it back.”
“Oh.” Haik cradles his heart like he did with their children. “Well, thank you, Totoy.”
“The trouble is whether it stays,” the kraken repeats.
“That’s no problem, mate.” Haik smiles like he’s getting stitches. “My dear wife would go on a quest with me, if it comes to that.” He puts his forehead below the kraken’s great eyes. “Have you seen my daughter, ‘Toy?” He asks. “She’s grown up now, and I missed all of it. Fuck.”
“You’ll need your tattoos for that.” He glows with the many-colored lights Mirasol saw when he was surfacing, as much against the growing darkness as to make his point.
“I’ll see you later,” Haik says firmly. But his croc-teeth tattoos flicker across his face.
“Bye, Kuya. Let me know if you need help.” He rumbles and drags himself back to the water, waving a tentacle before he sinks back into the deep.
Haik turns his heart over and over in his hands, growing steadier but not quite solid. “You need to stop running off like this, mate.”
Then his mouth opens wide, with the teeth flashing sharp like a forest beast. Haik’s heart, so miserable away from him, gives a cry of joy and leaps straight down his throat.
The tide rushes up to their shins, kelp and scattered shells left behind like bodies, and Mirasol is still raw from the sight of the whirlpool--she bolts for the crocodile-god, a dark island above the waves. “Haik! What’s happening?!”
He’s laughing and meets her halfway, lifting her clear from the water, and for a small terrified moment she wonders how many human-sacrifices Haik would have gotten--
But he wraps his fingers in her wrecked hair, and his eyes are dark and soft against the white of the seafoam. “I won’t hurt you.”
And his mouth is warm against hers.