Phantoms in Mama’s Lungs

(as published on The Manila Times’ Sunday Times Magazine (Literary Life) on 26 January 2020)

Whenever I am away and a sharp longing
for Mother stabs at me, I will buy a stick
of cigarette, light it in the dark, and watch the embers
chew it up. Pa used to sigh her name, “Anita, hay Anita,”

and crack in loving jest that her mouth’s a tunnel
for steam locomotives, to which she would laugh
a response in hot clouds, in the ghosts of stillborn
thoughts she incinerated in her lungs.

Sometimes I wish she would tell me what
they whisper to her, instead of engraving them
as unreadable creases in the corners of her eyes.
Sometimes, the smell would jostle me between

wakefulness and sleep, her stun-gun chuckle
rumbling in my head. My senses clung onto her
and I hear scrawls of chalk against wall planks
for her abakada graffiti branded in my

five-year-old’s head (or were those forks on plates
when we only have shadows to eat?); I re-feel
the friction of linoleum on my skin as I grunt, crawling
out of a forced afternoon siesta (or were those creeping

days of numbness that I mistake for catnaps?); I relive teary
tug-of-wars at school gates, where I refuse to let go
of your long, leathery fingers. All that and a handful more—
my adult mind a child again, roiling in Past Tense

until, after I burn, in her nicotine hold, I will be home.

#

Note: I never thought this would ever see print. I remember keying these words onto my phone’s Notepad app late last year. I was away from home for some event I can no longer recall, caught a waft of a lit Philip Morris, and remembered Ma. It was my way of wrestling homesickness then, musings that I think would be best kept in my journal. The Sunday Times magazine Literary Editor Alvin I. Dacanay has my utter gratitude for believing that this is worthy to be shown to the world. I know you won’t be reading this, but thank you so much, Sir.

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