With her memories recognized as such, and Haik free of checkups or the threat of deportation, he’s free to drop his sunburn and stiffness a bit after breakfast. She’ll make sure Rahil doesn’t visit for a couple more days, to avoid awkward questions about his miraculous recovery.
But with his injuries go his smiles and laughter.
“Where are the others?” She wonders, huddled against his newly-healed skin. “The ones looking for you? Did they get lost?”
“They weren’t supposed to be with me,” he tells her. “It’s you.”
Which one is she supposed to be in this life? The sailor, the shaman, the mother of gods? (And the mother of Filipino dragons, she supposes, as Game of Thrones drifts into her head.)
“I… don’t know any pagan Filipinos,” Mirasol apologizes. “Rahil… She’s Muslim now. I can’t just tell her--‘hey, my new date is a Filipino god--you want to hang out?’”
“It’s not your fault.” He presses his hands around her shoulders. “There have been less of you as the years go on.”
“Where are our children?” She asks him. “Do Filipino gods die?”
“It depends on a lot of things,” Haik says. “The tribe’s beliefs, their nature, how mixed with human they are, their age. It also depends on… well… how.”
Their whale-daughter died even faster than most would from a point-blank gunshot. Mirasol remembers how she writhed, how her siblings heard her crying long after her death.
“The Spaniard didn’t quite believe me,” Haik tells her. “But he wasn’t going to risk it, either. At best, I was a crazy indio leading on one of his servants. At worst, I was telling the truth--that I was a god of your people, still alive despite the conquistadors’ efforts.”
“And our children would be gods.” She inspects his tattoos--there are no whales on his skin, only the crocodile armor. “Why do they call you two things the most often?” She asks. “The whale-rider and the crocodile-god? You only have crocodile scales.”
“Humpbacks are good omens--any whale is good news, but the ones who brought me to the islands are the best,” he tells her. “They are full fishing nets and good winds. But at the same time--you cannot harness a whale to tow your ship. How much rope would you need, how would you feed it, how would you train a whale to do your bidding? They took me to the islands when they could have just left me to drown, and so they are my brothers now. If they decided to eat us instead of floating along singing, we’d be in a lot of trouble.”
“Whales only eat plankton and fish because they’d spend too much energy hunting bigger things,” she muses. “Ones that can fight back.”
“And we should be very grateful for science,” he chuckles.
“What about crocodiles?”
“Crocodiles are fighters,” he says. “They ambush you when your guard is down. They are the dead seas with no wind, or the storms. They swim with the toothed whales who eat devilfish.”
“What happened to the whales?” She wonders. “After the baby died?”
“It wasn’t all literal,” he says. “The Philippines’ whales didn’t leave because of one baby.”
“Whales are such gentle things,” he says like the shaman did. “The bringers of joy and song.” But instead of coming closer, he moves a few inches away, with the stiff pained move again. “She would have been that.”
“What about our other children?”
He laughs, hollow and broken. “They grew up hearing their sister and mother crying all the time. What do you think they were like?”
“Was I upset for so long?”
“Inside.” He taps her chest, like the Kalinga shaman now. “When I asked you to marry me, I didn’t call the whales up--to prove I was a god, or impress you. No. I am not the whale-rider because I harness them like horses: It’s because I asked them for help, and they answered. The whales came to us because I was their brother, and I was getting married. That is all.”
“That’s a good reason to visit someone,” she muses, with a twinge of sorrow. “Why didn’t they come the last time?”
“Because of our other children, what else?”
“They were afraid?”
“They were not afraid of children, even a god’s,” Haik said. “But they didn’t feel welcome, either. If the children had gone home, changed back to human, just relaxed a little, the whales would have come again.”
“But they didn’t relax.”
“And they didn’t come.” He laughs, but it’s more like a cough or a sob. “If your niece and nephew were watching your brother’s door with weapons, would you visit? They were always following you around, whenever I wasn’t there at least, and they had to get wrangled into talking or laughing, having fun.”
If everyone fears us enough, they won’t hurt you again, their daughter says to her. But Haik may be hearing her thoughts, or remembering the ones she used to think, because he shakes his head.
“They were not cruel or vicious. Our children. They didn’t go breaking people’s arms for coughing on you.” He traces a few of his crocodile scales. “But when their mother and sister have been hurting before they were born… they came into the world with that pain, and when they got older, they realized someone did that to you. Our daughter, after our anniversary, she asked me about it.”
The crocodile enters the room, still skinny and striped from youth. “Am I a god, Father? You said your children would be gods.”
“Half,” he says. “And I changed my mind. Did your mother tell you this?” He’s hoping, but their daughter turns human.
“No,” she shakes her head. “You told the Spaniard that we would be gods. He didn’t believe you, but he shot Mother because he couldn’t risk you being right.”
“If you want to kill him, I did that already.”
“Then why is Mother still hurting?”
“Because we couldn’t save the baby.”
“Wasn’t our sister a god?”
“But your mother is human, and your sister was still a baby,” he tells her.
“Why aren’t my brother and I gods? Did the Spaniard curse us after he shot Mother?”
“No, it’s because…” He puts his face in his hands. “Because I changed my mind, anak.”
“If you let us be gods--”
“Then what? You’d kill the Spaniard’s children, to pay him back for what he did?”
“Only one,” she says. “And I’d make their mother bury them, like he made you and Mother do for yours. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
“That is why I won’t let you be gods,” he tells her. “That is equal, but it is not fair. You won’t get any followers just weighing things out on a scale.”
“I don’t want followers,” their daughter says. “And I wouldn’t do anything if they didn’t do it first. I only want to keep people from hurting Mother again.”
“Well, you don’t need to be a god to do that.”
She digests the news, like a croc after a meal, and nods. “I’ll find an eskrima teacher.”
“I know eskrima. Why not learn from me?”
“Because you’re my father and you’ll be too nice,” she says.
“Am I supposed to crack your skull for a lesson, anak?” He pleads. “That’s not a good way to teach people.”
“The Spaniard shot Mother to make you take back what you said,” she tells him. “When you want someone to stay quiet, he said, you hurt their family instead of them.”
“What? How would you know?”
“He told me,” she says. “He hides in the baliti trees, near his family’s house.”
“Don’t hurt him, anak.” He sighs. “It’s not fun to get eaten by a crocodile. He’ll pass on in a few more years. When the shock wears off.”
“I told you! I wouldn’t do anything to people if they didn’t do it first!” Their daughter is miffed, a fleeting glimpse of a normal teenager. “I just talked to him, that’s all.” And she leaves.
Haik and Mirasol are alone in the room as he curls up on himself.
“What kind of gods would they be? If I had allowed it?” Haik asks.
“They loved us.”
“That was the problem.” Haik laughs, and it’s bitter in the fading light. “Children should not feel the need to protect their parents. Not at their age. But when they inherited all that pain--from you, and from me, and especially from their sister--and when they loved us as deeply as children do, their first reaction was to make sure nobody ever did that again.”
She wants to hear something happier. In the red of the sunset, she remembers the whales singing to them. “Haik, you’re a god--you must know your own stories.”
“Who would I tell them to?” He pleads. “We are the only ones left. No one believes me now.”
“We have a lot of Pacific Islanders in California,” she offers. “And there’s a lot of Pinoys who want to know more about our history.”
“Not believes in me,” he corrects. “No one believes me. They love hearing about our culture when I’m just some surfer or boatman or whatever, but when I say I am a god--then they think I’m crazy or playing a joke. They do not hear the ancestors anymore, or if they do, they don’t want to admit it. What kind of followers would they be? I am right in front of them, and they fear me like I’m going to eat them.”
“I believe you.” She takes his arm.
“Because you were my wife! Of course you would!” He laughs, helpless, and lets her go. “Fuck, I shouldn’t have come.”
“No.” She grabs him--but can he vanish from her fingers, or turn into a croc? He wouldn’t hurt her, but he’d do it so he can leave.
“If I stay here, you will only hurt more,” he tells her, bitter. “You remember when the Spanish came! They burned your village, they killed our baby, and that was when I was there! It won’t get any better without me!”
“I can pray to you,” she pleads, “I can leave offerings, I can learn the songs--”
“We are the only ones left!” He reminds her. “Who else is in this room with us?! We cannot make a new tribe with two people! That’s Christian bullshit!”
“No, no, you just started telling me--” She knows about crocodile-dragons and sacred tattoos, the two-faced god of croc teeth and whale-song, but there are so many other hints that she wants him to explain-- “Whale-rider! Stay with me!”
“Do not call me that!” He explodes, teeth flashing. “All those lifetimes after the Spanish came, I rescued you and I loved you and I couldn’t do shit to help you! Not where it mattered! I am a god and I was your husband, and I could not make you happy! Do you know what it felt like?!”
This, she realizes. This is why he’s so sad.
“I loved you,” she remembers, but he shakes his head, like he did when she remembered him.
“You know that’s not the same.” He sobs. “It is not the same to be healthy and to not be sick, it is not the same to be safe and to not be afraid. It is not the same to be happy and to love someone. They are all so different things.”
She feels something cut the air from how he talks, but for her it’s barely a flicker: Is this how gods view prayers and songs? The tiny little shifts between words? “One day… Haik the whale-rider was in a shipwreck.” She’s shaky, and has to cross all the way to the kitchen for a chair. “He was all the way across the Pacific, and his brothers the whales were too far--”
“I cannot be the whale-rider.” He spills back onto the couch. “They will not come to me.”
“He was found by a woman who lived alone,” she goes on. “She was Tagalog like him, but she was born on the other side of the sea. She took him to the healer, she let him stay in her home--”
“Stop,” he pleads.
“--and she did not know the old ways, so he told her.” Mirasol has to stop a minute, she’s crying too hard. “He told her what his tattoos meant, he told her how the Tagalogs thought crocodiles were dragons or gods or both, he told her how the whales were bringers of joy and song, he told her how the ancestors would sing them back across the Pacific when it was time to come home, and she wanted him to stay! Before he told her he was the whale-rider, before she knew he was a god, she wanted him to stay and tell her everything!”
“But they were the only ones left,” he retorts miserably. “The others knew his stories, but when he said it to their faces--‘I am Haik the crocodile-god, the son of voyagers, who breaks the ships in his teeth’--they did not believe him.”
“He wanted to stay,” he pleads, “He wanted to stay, he loved her and he loved telling her their people’s stories. But what kind of god would he be? With only one follower?”
And oh, he is so lonely that the mourning keen wells up in her throat, like blood from a wound.
She runs blind at him--she’ll sing the old songs so he can hear someone else’s voice, she’ll find an artist to mimic every inch of his tattoos, she’ll tie their wrists together if she has to--
But he stands up to meet her, an unexpected wave against a raging wooden ship, and in her surprise she’s bowled over sideways onto the couch.
“So he asked her to come with him,” he whispers, and she can taste the salt on his mouth.
In the sunless deep where the ancestors live, the whales begin to sing.