Mirasol finds a man at the beach one morning, but not in the “went swimming and had fun” way: It’s a drizzly Nor-Cal autumn, and he’s gone through a meat-grinder.
He’s half-buried in the sand, lean muscle under deep-brown burned skin, with a shredded filmy cloth tied around his legs--too fine and delicate for swim trunks. The salt and sun have reduced it to blotchy orange scabs, but there are hints of red left. His shirt’s been long destroyed.
She kneels. “Hey. Are you okay?”
He scrabbles, attempting to swim through the driftwood, but he only digs farther in.
“Yay, nothing’s broken.” She sizes him up to see if she can get him to the car; she’s used to everyone being taller than her five-foot-even frame, but those muscles don’t weigh five or ten pounds. “Let’s see if I can move you--”
An engine sound deep from his chest, and his bloodshot eyes snap open. He pushes up with his hands, sand falling off like water--
Oh, his tattoos.
A net of scales explodes from his shoulder all the way down to his wrist, and rich black crocodile ridges streak down his back when he twists to look around. He must be Samoan.
“Ssss--” he coughs and wheezes out: “Saan ako?”
He squints at her and says something else, but with his voice almost gone, she only catches dagat for the sea.
Damn it, what if he can’t speak English? Most Filipinos are passable in English, but if he’s a new immigrant, he’ll have to put up with her mangled toddler’s Tagalog. “Uh… Salita ka… Ingles?”
“Fuck.” He laughs, splintering like the driftwood. “I’m sorry, where am I?”
And he’s British. Lovely, he was probably on vacation when the sea tried to eat him. “You’re in California. The United States. Let’s go to my car, I’ll take you to the hospital.” She gets her keys.
He doesn’t move, staring with terrified dark eyes. Then he blunders down the empty stretch of beach, and she follows him with a sinking feeling.
“Don’t go back in the water!” She tries to grab him, but he’s too fast for her, even half-dead.
“Is anyone here?!” He lunges back for her and she knows he’s upset, but she can’t help a small jolt of terror when his hands clamp down like a crocodile. “Are they looking for me?!”
“I only found you.” Too tight, too tight--she squirms. “There’s no one else.”
“Sorry.” He realizes he’s hurting her and he lets go.
“I’m sorry.” His voice is crumbling again, and he falls back down into the seafoam.
This time he howls.
She takes him to the emergency room where he’s officially diagnosed with heat stroke, unholy sunburn, and dehydration. He’s dunked in ice-water (his hiss of relief is as good as steam), and given half a dozen bags of IV fluids.
His name is Haik (two syllables, Ha-eke), and unless it’s for medical needs, he will not talk further. He’s like a black hole of sadness against the whites of the hospital room.
In a few days, he’s deemed fine to send home--well, physically fine, and to Mirasol’s place.
“Try to get something out of him,” Dr. Hideki says in her office. “Don’t force him to talk, but legal information would be nice when he’s a little less traumatized.”
“You can’t look on the Internet?”
“We have, but we only get stuff about Filipino culture,” she tells her. “Haik is a sea-god, apparently.”
When they reach her house, Mirasol cooks a pot of sinigang for the week. Haik inhales two bowls of it along with half the pot of rice, then looks hard at his feet while he takes his plate and bowl to the sink. She can feel him physically restraining himself.
“I’m pretty sure ‘got lost at sea’ trumps ‘don’t eat too much,’” she tells him. “Go ahead.”
“Thank you, but I’ll stop.” His laugh crackles, and he blushes like a teenager. “It’s good but not spicy, do you put chili in it?”
“Usually, but not right now because your throat’s fucked up.”
“How long before I can eat stuff with one-hundred-percent flavor instead of fifty?”
“When you stop sounding like a bear who ate glass.”
“Fuckkkkk.” He laughs again.
After she washes the dishes, she grabs a couple of pillows and her blanket, then sticks them on the couch by Haik.
He runs a couple fingers over the embroidery on the quilt. “Yay, soft.”
“Thank you,” she heads to the linen closet. “You’re gonna sleep in my room.”
“You can’t crash on the couch!”
“Haik, you almost drowned and your skin is peeling off your bones,” she says. “If you crash on the couch, you’ll probably lose your tattoos.”
“Inside.” She waves him over once the new blanket’s spread out.
He hovers for a few moments before he walks into her room.
They pass each other through the doorway, slow maneuvers like two ships at night, and the salt smell billows off his collar.
The next day is quiet; Haik can’t go outside because he’s exhausted just going down the stairs, and that’s assuming he wants to. She gets him to eat, washes the dishes, and sits on the couch to do her work for the day.
He does everything politely, without complaining. Complaints would mean talking, and all he says is to answer quick questions about his health. Yes, no, getting better; thank you.
Same for the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
On the sixth evening, she does the laundry after finishing her work and he realizes she’s got two loads.
“Where do you get all the bloke’s clothes?” He wonders, and the sound of his voice startles her. “Do you live with your dad or brother?”
“My cousins like to stay over. I don’t have a dad.”
“What happened to him?”
“Mom got pregnant, so he left.” She counts down in the silence and braces herself.
“What the shit.”
Well, that’s pretty restrained. “Guys do this all the time. Why are you so upset?”
“They shouldn’t.” Haik clenches his fingers over his scaled arm. “Having a fight, at least he’d have had feelings about it, but… Your dad just abandoned your mum because he didn’t want to deal with--”
“He’s not my dad. I never knew him.” She tries to pry his fingers open. “Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself.”
But she’s too late, and his nails leave tiny trails of blood. When she leaves to get him some gauze, she comes back to find him folding his half of the laundry.
His hands are fast and graceful, with the first stack of clothes growing as she watches. But his eyes are practically nailed to the window ahead, jaw clenched like a croc’s mouth.
The next morning, he’s a little more talkative.
“Are you British?” Mirasol wonders.
“Australian,” he says. “Lots of Polynesians in Brisbane, so I grew up less Westernized than most Filipinos. Then I went to Hawaii for a few years.”
“That’s really lots of Polynesians,” she muses. “Did you get your tattoos from them? I thought they could only do it for their own people.”
“Filipinos have tattoos, too,” he points out. “We’re not like secret Polynesian sleeper agents, but we got the tattoos, the coconuts, and the boats, so we’re like their half-Asian cousins.”
“Oh my god, really?!”
He laughs when he sees her face. “Americans always get that look!”
“What look?” Her cheeks get hot.
“It’s like a kid going to Disney World!” And Haik laughs harder when she tries to force her expression back to normal. She likes hearing it, now that he sounds like a person again. “What do the Yanks teach you here?”
“White nonsense about saving us from the Spanish,” she says. “I tried reading the medieval records, like the Boxer Codex, but…”
“More white nonsense.”
In the hospital for Haik’s checkup, Dr. Hideki frowns at the smell of saltwater while she checks Haik’s vitals. “I’m not going to tell you not to go swimming, but just because you feel better doesn’t mean you’re back to normal. I’d say keep by the shore and--”
“What?” Haik asks.
“I haven’t been swimming,” he tells her.
“He hasn’t left my house,” Mirasol points out. “He has no energy for swimming.”
“Then why do you smell like you ate a salt mine?”
Haik squirms on the checkup table. “I… I was floating in saltwater for however long it was? I haven’t been almost dead before, so you tell me if this is normal.”
“Good point.” Hideki still frowns. “Normally the smell fades after a few days, but maybe getting so much sunburn is slowing things down. Let’s just wait and see, plus keep up with your fluids--as long as nothing hurts, you’re good.”
Haik spends a lot of time in the bathroom that night, and after twenty minutes Mirasol knocks on the door. There’s a wet coughing under the shower noise before he answers--she might have startled him. “Sorry, do you need to use it?”
“You’ve been in there for twenty minutes,” she calls. “It’s not the end of the world if you smell like salt for another week.”
“I’ll be out soon.”
The wash of steam from the bathroom is mild and soapy, but presently the salt smell returns. His back ridges are so black that they look like crocodile armor, and the scale-lines on his arm are like a fishing net.
“Do I still smell like a salt mine?” He wonders.
“It’s only been one day,” she reminds him. “But between too much ocean and too much Axe Body Spray, I prefer the former.”
He’s wearing an extremely well-named muscle-shirt today, catches her looking at his tattooed arm, and smiles.
“Sorry.” She coughs and moves a few inches further on the couch. “It’s just… they’re really pretty. Why did you get crocodile scales? What do they mean?”
“The tribes think crocodiles are either gods or dragons,” he says. “And really, that’s the same thing in Asia. Ten-foot lizards with lots of teeth. The biggest saltwater croc in the world was in the Philippines, that bastard was twenty feet.”
She shudders. “Do guys get croc tattoos to prove how manly they are?”
“Crocodiles aren’t bad, you know,” he says. “The tribes put crocodiles on their ships and their swords, for protection.”
“So you got the crocodile scales for armor?” She smiles.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” He points out. “But it wasn’t up to me. The batok artist did this.”
“They just tattoo you right off the bat?” Mirasol wonders. “I mean, obviously they’d ask first, but… how do they decide?”
“The batok is spiritual,” Haik says. “It’s not just, ‘I want this design because it’s pretty,’ or ‘I love cats, so I’m getting a tattoo.’ There’s nothing bad about those kinds of tattoos, but for our tattoos, the batok: You need to do a ritual, and the artist prays to the ancestors find out what your tattoo should be. They talk about who you are, what happened to you. When you die, your soul must cross the sea to the afterlife. Your tattoos let your ancestors know to take you home.”
“Oh.” Her eyes are burning, but it’s not entirely bad--her chest is a swirl of joy and longing.
“Fuck, I made you cry!” He laughs and wipes off her face. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not sad,” she tries to explain. “It’s just… the way you said it. I never heard that before.”
His smile flashes bright against volcanic brown skin, and his crocodile scales wrap tight around her shoulders.
That night she dreams of the islands, mottled green gems in the South Pacific. She’s on a ship with a crocodile’s head on the prow, anchored down with gold and a trailing silk dress, but there’s a sadness on everyone’s faces and her mother keens as their island slips away behind them.
She is the datu’s daughter, the dream tells her. Their closest neighbors have no rice to spare, and going farther needs supplies they don’t have.
Nobody wants her to die, but it is the only thing left.
The island they sail to is small, almost half-beach, and a great hollow hill opens wide like a crocodile’s mouth. The priestess--babaylan, the dream whispers--won’t let her parents come with her, but she allows a long yearning hug, as tight as possible.
Finally the ship’s crew pries them apart, but the captain takes her arm as solace, and her mother’s crying echoes in the tunnel.
“Neneng,” the captain whispers. “Neneng, you be brave.”
She’s not a little girl anymore, but she helps his wife with their children while he’s away, so she leans into his arm. “Don’t let your wife cry too much. You’re already dealing with my mother.”
He tries to laugh, but it comes out like a cough. “You’re not a sailor, but you’re Tagalog,” he says. “Haik won’t hurt you.”
They emerge on the other side of the island, with a rocky cliff over the dark open water. It’s a shocking view from what she expected: White sand wedged between the indigo sea and the myriad grays of the cliff.
Maybe this is why they take the sacrifices here--it’s a beautiful place to die.
They wrap her in a golden fishnet, and the babaylan sings to Haik the whale-rider. Before the captain hoists her above his shoulders, he whispers again: “Neneng, you be brave.”
He swings down and she falls.
But she hits the water like it’s only a well-loved blanket, and a sailing canoe bursts up from beneath the surface. The ship’s crew start screaming when they see the crab-claw sails, grateful and amazed.
“Haik!” Jolts of color and small, distant songs whirl after her; the men are giving their own last-minute offerings, jewelry and headbands and even shirts. “Haik, whale-rider!”
He’s Mirasol’s Haik, dark-skinned with crocodile tattoos, and his hands rip away the gold wire like thread.
“Interesting way to meet a girl.” Haik presses his dry, warm forehead to her soaked one. “Little too risky for me, though.”
“What about the village?” She wonders. “The rains haven’t come yet, the crops are dying. I was supposed to be an offering--”
“Does it look like I’m rejecting you?”
“We only have enough food for a month,” she says wearily. “I’m not… I don’t know if…”
Who will they trade with, after they used half their rations on this last desperate trip? What if pirates come and take their hungry people for slaves?
A sad and quiet laugh. “I’ll be back in the morning,” Haik says.
Against the cold red dawn, Haik comes out of the sea on the back of a dying whale.
“We… we can’t eat him,” she tells Haik numbly; both her parents are starting to cry. “The people in the south islands hunt whales, but we’re Tagalog.”
“You also need food,” he points out. “You can’t sail for trade without rations. You can’t harvest crops if you’re starving. One death for a village; at least it’s not yours.”
“You are the whale-rider!” She barely keeps from shoving him--she’s not a child anymore, and he’s a god. “They carried you here from the east when your brother tried to kill you, so you called the whales your brothers! Are you going to roast a pig for a Muslim next?”
“Muslims can eat pork if they have no choice,” he says gently. “You’re running out of choices.”
“Please find something else,” she begs him. “Anything else--”
But her father steps forward. “This is food, neneng. We can’t wait too much longer,” he says. “Pretend it’s a fish if you have to.”
“It’s the size of the ship!”
“A very big fish,” he chokes out.
Her mother presses her forehead below the whale’s eye, as much from gratefulness as sorrow. “Ten of you stay aside,” she says. “Ten will salt the meat from one half, and ten will smoke meat from the other half. If someone needs to rest, one of the free people will take their place.”
“Can we wait until he dies first?” Mirasol asks. “I… I don’t want him to feel it. He won’t last too long, anyway.”
Haik the whale-rider shuts his eyes and presses his forehead to the place where her mother did. “Go to sleep, brother,” he whispers.
The whale moans like a man, and the skin on his great throat shakes from the noise.
Then comes five days and five nights of smoke-belching fires and barrels full of salt. She and her mother are used to salting and smoking, but not with the crew’s swords instead of knives, and the whale’s great bones must be chopped apart with axes like bleached-white trees.
They tie the whale’s bones behind the ship, and when they reach the open water, the babaylan sings a dirge before she cuts the ropes one by one.
The village is happy to see Mirasol alive, but some women wail and hack off their hair in the next breath as the crew unloads their titanic cargo: What else makes man-sized slabs of meat?
As the cooking pots boil, a strange mix of beef and fish fills the air. The meat itself is good, if too fatty for some people’s tastes, but they are eating the whale-rider’s brother and everything’s bitter with sadness.
Still, it’s the first time in weeks that they don’t sleep hungry.
The next scenes are a jumble of stories or memories, whichever they are, and Haik has so many more names--bringer of fish, the son of the sea, he who hunts with sharks.
The last part is chaotic and fearful, with five ships pouring out men. Pirates.
She is the babaylan now, not too young but neither too experienced, and she runs to the sea with a conch shell horn, flanked by some of the villagers. She blasts it, long and loud, until she has to stop and breathe again.
“Haik!” She calls. “Haik, who breaks the ships in his teeth! There are two hundred men, we can’t fight them alone!”
The sand starts to billow up, like a sleeping creature roused. They wander down to it, nervous.
There’s the engine-growl that Mirasol’s Haik made. He pushes up out of the sand like he did before, fearsomely beautiful, and he turns into a crocodile’s ancestor--the same shape and armor, yes, but with straighter legs, and he’s the size of the pirate ships.
She is the babaylan, she’s seen many strange and wonderful spirits, but when the crocodile-god roars like Jurassic Park’s T-Rex, she’s set off in a child’s mindless screaming.
Haik who breaks the ships in his teeth, he only needs to do that with one of them. The earth shakes from his great head swinging, and everyone falls--her people from terror or lack of balance, the pirates in submission.
“Haik!” Someone begs him. “Stop, please, we’ll do anything!”
He turns back into a man, the most beautiful one she’s ever seen, with crocodile tattoos all over his chest and arms. Even his face has hungry black fangs gaping across his cheekbones, the sign of the greatest warriors.
--are you okay?--
“Let everyone go and leave,” he says. “If you come back here, I’ll break your other ships.”
She’s shaking hard as he walks to her, she almost falls again--
“You are a babaylan,” he smiles, and his hands are so gentle--
“Hey! Hey! Mirasol! Wake up!” Someone’s shaking her. She flails and falls on the floor. This is her Haik now, human-sized. “Fuck, did you hit your head?”
“We can’t eat a whale!”
“The crocodile! I called for help and you--you’re the god who came out of the sand--” She tries to sort the dream out, but the fishnet cuts into her shoulders.
“Deep breaths. Deep breaths, Mirasol. All right?” He hugs her. “Did I give you nightmares with my scary Polynesian tattoos?”
“You’re not scary.” She remembers his smile, and the feel of his hands. “In… in my dream, you were a god.”
He laughs. “Thank you.”
“They had so many names for you.” But she only remembers two of them. “The crocodile-god, the whale-rider. I can’t remember the others.”
“Haik is the god of the sea,” he muses. “Paikea is the whale-rider for the Maori. Maybe the Tagalogs visited the Maori a few thousand years ago, or vice versa. Have you watched the movie Whale Rider? It came out a while back.”
“Well, no wonder that part of the dream was so sad.” She stretches and sits back on the bed. “I watched Whale Rider at night the first time, BIG mistake. I was crying so hard I couldn’t sleep.” Not just from sadness, but from the beauty as well. She is Filipino, and well aware of how desperate it gets when your culture is dying. “Isn’t it weird to be named after a god?”
“It depends on the tribe,” he says. “And we lost a lot of information about the Tagalogs, when the Spanish forced us to convert. I’m not dead yet, though, so I don’t think anyone down there minds too much.”
“Down there?” Isn’t heaven up in the sky?
“The Tagalog afterlife is under the sea.” He moves closer, and she catches the smell of salt again. “It’s cooler down there. No sunburn to deal with.”
What is a babaylan? Mirasol wonders in a moment. It’s definitely some sort of priestess…
“A babaylan is a shaman,” Haik says, startling her. “If you dreamed about being one, the ancestors are probably talking to you.”
“I… I didn’t say anything about that.” Not out loud, at least.
He laughs, but it’s too quick and there’s a shrill nervous tone. “This happens a lot. When other Pinoys see my tattoos. They dream of crocodiles, great and terrible gods, or the old tribes sailing in their balangay ships. And then they want to get batok.”
Your tattoos let your ancestors know to take you home.
“Do you know any stories?” She wonders. “About the sea-god?”
“There are no stories,” he apologizes. “Not all the tribes wrote things down, and the ones that did still got slaughtered. Not many people read baybayin now. And not many bother with our languages.”
“Oh.” She’s not surprised, but it still hurts. “Haik--”
“Shhhhhhhh.” He wraps his crocodile-arm around her shoulders.
She’s crying now, bitter and hot like the South Pacific. “Haik--”
Who breaks the ships in his teeth.