From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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The Word-Eater Falls in Love

He lives on words.

Literally, he eats them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes he has them for snacks too.

For example, the word “effervescent'” is a tasty morsel, a bit on the spicy side with a light tinge of sweetness. Or the words “cavalcade” and “arboretum” are good together, the former’s saltiness combining well with the basil after-taste of the latter. He loves the feel of words on his tongue before he swallows them.

Of course, he eats and drinks what other people do. No point in letting others see what you really are. Like now, sitting with his fellow college English teachers from Ateneo de Manila University at a bar along Katipunan Avenue—he is drinking San Mig Light beer and eating appetizers like sisig and tokwa’t baboy while exchanging gossip.

It’s fun, sometimes. Sometimes being the operative word, of course.

So Cherie goes and tells him to pass the varsity player even after he drops all his classes.

No shit! Well, what did he expect?

Yeah. It’s all about winning, I know. What I hate is if you get on Cherie’s bad side. She can be a real nasty bitch when she puts her mind to it.

He can’t resist now and then snatching words around him. For example, a couple is talking dirty to each other at a nearby table. Words like “torrid” and “climax” are aphrodisiac to him—until someone says “orgasmatory” and he loses all appetite.

New words always leave a bad taste in his mouth.

I still don’t get what the new program is all about.

Me, all I understand is that I’m overloaded with students clamoring for classes.

You’re overloaded? Almost all my subjects have been cancelled because there haven’t been enough students!

He wonders if there are others like him. Others who share his preference. Are there others who like the taste of Cyrillic? French? Or even a dialect like Bisaya with its hard words like “kadyot” or “pesteng yawa”?

That’s one way he eats. The other is a bit. . . noticeable.

Fuck!

What’s the problem?

I’m trying to remember this poem by Neruda. But there’s this word at the tip of my tongue that I can’t. . . Aggh!

He smiles at the taste blossoming on his tongue, like a claret of good wine, dry and sharp like blood: “melancholy”.

Hey Kathy! Over here!

It’s at that moment that Kathy walks into his life.

He turns around like the others and there she is, walking towards them: short black hair, round eyes, dusky skin and an impertinent mouth. His colleague leans over, says: “Kathy used to teach in Ateneo before she got into a no-holds-barred shouting match with Mr. Miraflores.”

Someone overhears, asks, “Mr Miraflores? The quiet one, right? The senior coordinator?”

“Yup. Good thing U.P. was looking for English teachers when Ateneo fired her, caught her on the rebound.”

He winces at the invasion of his personal space—and the annoying number of grammatical errors from his colleagues. If he has his way, he would flog any English teacher that could not speak their subject matter properly, much more teach it.

“So, how are the poor and the oppressed?” someone jokes.

Kathy sits down at a proffered chair: “Funny that, coming from you private university teachers. But as far as I know, your salaries don’t hold a candle to what La Salle pays.”

“Hah! Don’t let Father Perez hear you. He hates second-best comparisons to La Salle.”

“I don’t care. Bastard headmaster kicked me out and he can go to hell for all I care,” Kathy says with a smirk.

He raises an eyebrow: not too many university teachers speak with an American accent—unless they’re from a call center. East coast maybe. It’s different, but not rare.

As he muses over the word “sobriquet” (chewy, with a slightly sour after-taste), he learns from his seatmate that Kathy came from the U.S. to the Philippines with nothing more than a degree in education and the accent in her speech.

“Hey, Kathy, why did you come back here anyway? If it were me¸ I’d stay in the US. This country’s crazy, just like you.”

“Couldn’t,” she replies as she drinks from a bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen, “My visa expired. But at least I can still visit my parents.”

It’s then he realizes he’s fascinated: her diction, her vocabulary, her accent. But what does one do with a fascination like that?

“So does your friend speak?”

He’s startled, losing his train of thought—is she reading his mind? Kathy looks at him and he falters under her curious stare. Random thoughts run around his head like panic-stricken mice.

“Halloo! Cat got your tongue?” Kathy asks with a smile. The others at the table laugh at his apparent loss for words.

“Don’t mind him, he’s new. Meet our English program handler”, someone says.

And because he’s uncertain and confused, he does the only thing he knows best: he reaches out for the words.

He swallows and gags. He jumps from his chair and runs towards the comfort room. Hitting the door with his elbow, he barely makes it to the sink before throwing up everything he’s eaten for the day. Everything in his stomach, the words a vomit of sound and images:

. . . shimmering blinding bright quicksilver light wingless seraphim singing the song of a mad scientist such joyous glory unfettered the sun unshackled screaming it flies across the reddening room a tintinnabulation of laughter a confabulation of matter is bubbling is building is ringing is MADDENING. . .

Finally, it passes. He breathes, sighs.

He admits making a mistake in going after Kathy’s words. He remembers the last time he threw up, when he accidentally swallowed a Filipino term. Different languages are poisonous for him if he isn’t careful. And unfortunately a lot of English-speakers still think in their native tongue.

Still, despite being wrung-out, he feels exhilarated.

He looks at himself in the mirror and wonders if he’ll get a chance to ask Kathy out.

#

The Word-Eater Drinks His Fill

He’s always hungry.

Working together in a room at the English department of the University of the Philippines with another teacher, he corrects piles and piles of cheap blue exam notebooks.

He made the move to the state university after Kathy convinced him. A year later, they broke up and Kathy fled back to the U.S. She told him he had a problem with “communicating.”

It’s funny how life works.

“How are you doing with your pile, kiddo?” asks Claire.

He sees her rubbing her pregnant stomach again and he smiles in return, nods as if they both know a secret. He’s discovered a long time ago that the world is never the wiser if you look as if you know something the other doesn’t.

He barely notices as the room’s light bulb flickers overhead. He’s used to the cramped office, barely five strides forward and two across (he knows, he’s tried it). And the thin walls: he hears his fellow teachers talking through them, the murmur of voices almost erotic.

If not for the rumble of the air-conditioning unit in the room, and the footsteps and chatter in the corridor, he would think he was in a brothel.

Did you read the Chair’s memo? Putang ina, how did he ever manage to get that position?

Don’t tell anyone but I hear his secretary checks the memos for spelling before they’re sent out. And she’s been sick for the past week.

Talaga? And here I thought she got sick because she got tired of the dirty old man shtick.

Still, I can’t believe he even tried to use the word “persnickety” in the memo. I didn’t even know he knew that word.

He winces. He hates the word “persnickety,” all thorny and chalky, but he forces himself to chew.

He’s grown leaner here but stronger, like a hunter forced to contend with dangerous animals. Unfortunately, the economic status of the state university means its students aren’t as well-versed in the English language as Ateneo’s population.

It also doesn’t help that the Filipino department is just right above, on the second floor.

Motherly Claire makes it easier for him though. Claire’s the only one whose mind he can’t take the words from, though he doesn’t know why. There are a lot of things about what he is that he doesn’t know.

Claire’s phone beeps and it’s a text message from her husband, “Oh. Mark’s going to be late again. He says I should go home already.”

He raises an eyebrow at the idea of her going home alone; Kathy always thought he was rather old-fashioned. He would have said something except that raucous laughter erupts outside the corridor as a group of students pass by.

“So, handsome, I’ll see you tomorrow?” Claire asks, picking up her handbag. He nods in resignation, gestures at the piles of test notebooks. Claire laughs.

He watches Claire as she waddles out the office, closing the door behind her.

I heard that another teacher at the Philosophy department got fired today. They’ve been firing a lot of them lately.

It’s that latest department policy. You can’t take your masters while taking up something else, like a law degree. Looks like a lot of them were doing exactly that.

Ah. What are the chances they’ll do that here?

Considering how many teachers we’ve already lost to other schools or abroad, good luck na lang!

He sighs, knowing exactly what they mean. Shifting another pile of papers, he shakes his head. He’s constantly amazed at how kids nowadays manage to mangle the English language, thanks to texting and Internet chat.

For example: She will dranks beer from the glass.

He knows the sentence is wrong and is amazed that college students still don’t know their simple tenses. However, he is more amazed at how the sentence endearingly wraps all the simple tenses into one. He does not know where to start correcting and this is just the first item of the exam paper.

He wishes he could smoke or drink beer at times like these, when he checks papers, to blunt the pain of language abuse. Though he is never one for either, he can understand why teachers end up consumptive.

He hears shouting outside and looks up.

A short female teacher shoulders his office door open, looking red-faced and out of breath.

“Huy! Claire’s down at the lobby! I think she’s having her baby already!”

He gets up and scrambles outside. As he runs through the corridor, he hears the teacher shouting behind him: “They’ve called the infirmary na! They’re sending an ambulance!”

He finds a crowd at the entrance of the faculty center. He pushes students aside to find Claire seated at the center, a female security guard cradling her back as she breathes through the contractions. He kneels beside her.

Quiet people! Give them some space! Move!

Oh my God! Is she giving birth here?

The shouting in the enclosed space is deafening but he doesn’t hear it. He barely even notices the errant delicacies—rare as they are—floating around in people’s heads like “cacophony” (salty, crunchy) and “emergent” (like freshly-squeezed orange juice).

“Hey kiddo,” Claire says, perspiring heavily.

He tries to say something, takes her hand—and it feels like he’s taken hold of a live wire cable.

He realizes the reason he could never read Claire is because of the baby. And now that the baby is being born, he finds himself focusing on the baby, his thoughts drawn like light into a black hole.

(But inside, there is nothing like words in the babe’s mind. Just pure concepts like ‘warmth’ and ‘mother’ and ‘nesting,’ each idea blazing passionately like suns, pouring such power of meaning into his brain. It is barely an instant but it feels like a thousand of years of pain entwined with pleasure. Like sex but better.)

Then the baby screams inside his head and he is repelled, thrown back from Claire’s side.

It is only after Claire is taken to the ambulance that he notices that he is not hungry anymore.

#

The Word-Eater Meets his Match

He is bored out of his mind.

But then again, he isn’t the type to hang out in a bar.

He sighs and watches the musicians set up their instruments on stage. Amid the eye-stinging smoke and bright lights, the darkened bar in Fairview is packed. Most of the patrons are teenage groupies waiting for a popular band scheduled to sing that night.

He is accompanying a friend, both of them seated near the stage with several empty bottles of Red Horse beer on the table. The friend is morose when drunk.

“Can you believe that asshole? The department head scolded me like a fucking kid in front of the other teachers,” his friend says.

He nods, takes a puff from his last cigarette. He normally doesn’t smoke but he’s thinking about his thesis, which he had planned to work on tonight. Unfortunately, he’s quite late in finishing it and he’s afraid he’ll lose his job.

He blames this on the latest department policy: finish your degree within the prescribed time period or else you’re out. After five years of teaching in U.P., he doesn’t know what else he would do if he gets fired.

His friend says, “Is it my fault I don’t have a license to teach? I graduated from college in English Communication, for God’s sake. I can speak better English than that bastard.”

He offers his half-empty bottle in commiseration and his friend automatically offers his. The clink of the two bottles meeting is distinct over the hubbub.

So, you know, I really like him. Like I really, really do.

Me too! Ang cute nya!

Here, look at my screensaver.

Oh nice! Send it to me naman.

Don’t like!

He squirms as the two girls nearby giggle. He wouldn’t have thought the language skills of teenagers would be so bad. All the girls in the bar are fourteen or fifteen years old but their thoughts run roughshod over his sensibilities, leaving him with no appetite.

Then all the girls start screaming and applauding as the band takes to the stage. The Lead Singer ambles to the microphone and grins saucily. This sets off another round of screaming.

“Fuck. It’s that frigging Vietcong,” his friend says, a pet peeve name for the Lead Singer standing before the fierce klieg lights with raised arms.

He knows his friend doesn’t like this band, especially the Chinese-looking Lead Singer. If they had known which band was singing tonight at this bar, his friend would have suggested another place to get soused in misery and alcohol.

The Lead Singer starts singing; it’s in Filipino, a drinking song that he thinks is overplayed on the radio. Everyone starts singing along and bobbing their heads in time with each other.

“Fucking sheep,” his friend says, and turns back to his bottle of beer.

He doesn’t listen to his friend or to the singing. Despite no appetite, he feels hungry and thinks he should at least try to eat. But the noise is overpowering and he can barely catch an overheard word or two.

He seizes one: “tentative” (sweet like cherries with a subtle bitterness) but he barely takes a bite before it’s gone. He has better luck with “roundabout” (gamey, almost bland but filling).

“Hey, let’s get out here,” his friend says, with a swift gulp of his bottle’s dregs.

He nods absentmindedly and stubs out his cigarette. He’s been chasing down a word, ranging here and there in people’s minds like a rabbit through the undergrowth.

Unfortunately, if the noise level is too high, he’s discovered that people have a hard time thinking their thoughts out. He’s still feeling in disarray when his friend gets up, draws money from his pocket and tosses it on the table.

The Lead Singer has finished singing. The crowd goes wild again, clapping and stomping their feet on the bar’s fake parquet floor.

The Lead Singer gets out a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros and gestures with a flick of his fingers. Several lighters are offered from a gaggle of girls but since he and his friend are standing up, the Lead Singer is looking at the two of them.

Incredulous, he looks around and then looks at the red Cricket lighter in his own hand. He throws the lighter to the Lead Singer, who catches it one-handed and lights his cigarette.

Then the Lead Singer starts singing again and everyone jumps up to the catchy opening of the next song. The lighter, he sees, is gone from the Lead Singer’s hand.

Seeing the confused look on his face, his friend laughs, the first time he’s heard him laugh today. His friend says, “Why the hell did you give him your lighter in the first place?”

He shrugs heavy-shouldered.

“Yeah, what can you do?” says his friend.

With that, he follows his friend away from the stage, threading their way through the crowded aisles between tables.

That’s when realization strikes him: the word he’s been chasing around, like catching sight of a lizard’s tail disappearing into a hole in the wall, is more than a single word. He discovers it’s a string of words—like an electric toy train that rushes in and out of people’s mind.

He tries to catch it; he fails. He tries again but is distracted when a waiter almost gives him third-degree burns with a hot plate of sisig. He looks back to see if he could make one last attempt when he hears someone else’s thoughts resonate in his mind:

Fuck. Stop that, will you?

He looks around in surprise; he doesn’t know where it came from. Then he sees the Lead Singer looking directly at him as the guitarist goes into a head-popping, ear-screeching solo.

He flees from the bar in panic.

#

The Word-Eater Saves the Day

He really doesn’t know what to do anymore.

Several days after his encounter with the Lead Singer, he is warily watching the band again in another bar—this time in Makati City, this time on his own.

He feels quite unsettled, like a cat in a dog pound. He still can’t get a grip over the idea that there could be someone just like him.

No, man I’m not like you, the Lead Singer says, looking at him from halfway across the room. We’re like different kinds of fruits, like apples and oranges. That doesn’t mean both don’t roll.

As an afterthought, he hears: Shit. That sounds so gay. He shivers at the feel of another’s mind beside his own.

Even their introduction had been surreal. He had received a text message on his cell phone, the recipient identifying himself as the Lead Singer of the band and asking if they could meet. Wary at the effortless way he had been tracked down, he had agreed for a rendezvous at a Starbucks café in SM Megamall.

And he remembers the eye-opening discussion that had left him almost convinced—dangerous, it seems, like offering one’s throat to a wolf.

Over a cup of Americano, the Lead Singer tells him, “Shit, in a way, we are alike but in another. But we’re not. The way I figure it, we live on words because we’re part of the language that people use. And language is like an ecosystem of its own, you know.”

He scoffs at the description but the Lead Singer shakes a finger at him, the burning cigarette hanging precariously between his middle and forefinger. “Think of memes: they’re like viruses, moving from one person’s mind to another. The stronger the meme is, the better its chances. The weaker ones, well. . .”

“Good thing we’re at the top of the food chain. We’re the predators lording it over the jungle,” the Lead Singer adds with a devilish grin.

The band starts playing, interrupting his memory of that afternoon. The Lead Singer is gyrating on the stage with a microphone in hand. One of the girls nearby has fainted and is being carried out on her friends’ shoulders.

He remembers the Lead Singer telling him: “You eat words. In my way, I do too. But in my case, I sing and then feed on what the audience feels when they go my way. You might say I’m a vampire in a literal sense.”

The Lead Singer laughs at his own joke and drops his cigarette carelessly on the mall floor.

“Fuck, here’s a better example: Adolf Hitler, the way people reacted to him. They couldn’t resist him when he talked. It’s the same way for me. The audience gets off from me and I get off from them.”

Now, as he watches the band, he realizes the truth of their discussion: nobody would think the Lead Singer is anything else but normal. But on stage, when the music is playing, the Lead Singer seems to bear an aura of invincibility and attractiveness.

He hopes he isn’t turning gay when he thinks like that.

The band finishes their last set and relaxes, lighting up cigarettes and drinking their beer even as the groupies go ga-ga over them. The Lead Singer ignores them all as he strolls towards him.

“So you believe me now?” the Lead Singer says, lighting up. He sees the Lead Singer is still using the lighter taken from him days before.

He shrugs. Thankfully, in the face of such conviction, his life-long noncommittal attitude comes in handy. Or maybe it’s because of what he is.

“Hell, man with what I am, I can be anything I want to be. If I wanted to, I could run for president and win pretty handily just by opening my mouth. But I prefer to sing,” the Lead Singer says.

He ignores him and takes a careful sip from his tepid coffee. Despite his nonchalant appearance, he doesn’t feel calm. He understands the source of his wariness: he doesn’t like the Lead Singer on a very basic level, like a tiger eyeing a crocodile in a river. Doesn’t trust him like the proverbial scorpion waiting to sting.

“Ah, you’ll come around,” the Lead Singer says confidently.

He watches the Lead Singer walk to the counter to order another beer. Minutes later, he notices him talking to a pretty and obviously drunk sixteen year-old girl.

His mouth curls in disgust at the sight: the girl is half the Lead Singer’s age. He turns away and concentrates on his coffee.

When he looks back once more, he sees the Lead Singer and the girl are gone. He does not like the direction this night is going but he cannot resist its pull. He stands up and walks toward the exit.

Outside, away from the dry coolness of the bar, he feels the night’s humidity like a damp sweater. Sweating, he hears whisperings in the dark and drunken laughter. He follows the sound.

He finds the two in an alley beside the bar’s parking lot. The Lead Singer is feeling up the girl and smothering her with kisses and innuendos, which sets the girl into fits of blushing giggles. But he knows, reading the girl’s blurry mind that she’s only half-aware of what’s going on.

He feels his palpable disapproval radiate like heat waves. It is this, he thinks, which alerts the Lead Singer to his presence and makes him look up in anger.

What the fuck? The Lead Singer grimaces as he pushes the girl away. He feels the rage emanating from the Lead Singer is almost equal to his disapproval. He does not care.

“Get out here,” the Lead Singer says, slapping the girl’s butt stingingly. The girl frowns and stalks off, affronted.

Surly, jamming his hands into his pockets, the Lead Singer tells him, “You’re starting to piss me off, you know. Why don’t you come over to the dark side like a good little sheep and stop giving me such a problem, eh?”

He shakes his head over the idea that it’s all about the girl. He thinks it is time for a climactic showdown of sorts that one reads in books, if one discounts the grungy, smelly alley floor and that the cowboys are an English teacher and a rock star.

Before the Lead Singer could speak again, he instinctively reaches out with his mind. A flurry of thoughts and words, a frenzied bright kaleidoscope that spins radiant pulses of concepts and ideas faster and faster, all but blinding to the eye. Then all of a sudden, it settles down once more into blackness.

When he opens his eyes (he does not realize he has closed them), the Lead Singer is gone. Only the clothes remain on the ground, with a pair of black Italian shoes, a cell phone, a diamond-stud earring, a pack of cigarettes, and a red Cricket lighter.

He picks up the lighter, looks at it for a moment, and then throws it away.

Two things he realizes this night. One is that they really weren’t much alike despite what he’s been told. The Lead Singer is the embodiment of the word. He, on the other hand, eats words.

And two: the Lead Singer tasted like chicken.

#

The Word-Eater Becomes a Father

He is strangely content.

He is admiring the view at a nice restaurant in Tagaytay overlooking the scenic Taal volcano. At the moment, he is polishing off his dinner with a glass of pricey Black Label. He finally understands why as one gets older and crankier, one wants to spoil oneself with expensive stuff.

He supposes that he should be happy. He has lost his teaching job in U.P. a year ago for not finishing his thesis. But at least he’s found another job—a better paying one—as a political speech writer for a governor aspiring to be a senator. Granted that teaching is only slightly better than politics, he thinks it’s still not a bad turn of luck.

“Sentimental.” He wonders which person in the restaurant had thought of it as he pounced on his dessert (soft and tangy, with a brittle sweetness at the core). It doesn’t help that most of the customers in the restaurant are young couples. He feels out of place by dining by himself.

After Kathy, he has not had a relationship with anyone, though he has been attracted to one or two women. Still, he thinks it would be nice to have someone he doesn’t regard as a walking meal ticket. He thinks it bad manners to eat the one you love.

He chuckles, attracting a curious glance from the nearby waiter. He knows himself well enough that he will always look at things with a careful, disdainful eye—even with his own life.

Though he admits to himself that he misses being a teacher, he is perceptive enough to know teaching is not in his blood. He knows such a choice would drain him as surely as the Lead Singer had disappeared into nothingness.

Thinking about the Lead Singer reminds him of the fleeting hope, the possibility that he is not the only one of his kind. He relishes the idea that somewhere in the world, there is someone who thinks like him, has the same likes and dislikes as him, and eats words like him.

He takes a sip from his glass. Sometimes he even finds his solitude bearable. Sometimes being the operative word, of course.

He hears a yelp and looks up to see the surprised, smiling face of Claire, slightly slimmer and looking bubbly as usual.

“My God! What are you doing here?” Claire says, sitting down at his table. Before he could speak, she waves behind him. “Mark! Look who’s here!”

When he turns, he sees a bespectacled older man, slightly frazzled but smiling, and leading a six-year girl by hand. He thinks he should recognize the girl but isn’t sure why; she returns his look with an earnest intensity.

Claire tells him, “Remember my husband, Mark? Wow, I can’t believe it! You look good! What are you doing now? Are you still teaching? Are you finally married?”

Mark looks embarrassed as if he knows quite well what a handful his wife is. The little girl rolls her eyes.

He shrugs, smiling.

He plays catch-up for a while with Claire as Mark acts the indulgent husband beside her. The little girl runs around the restaurant, first playing with a firefly, and then pestering a couple with questions.

Mark finally announces it’s time to go home: “We have a long drive back to Cavite.”

The couple stands up and a tearful Claire leans over to give him a hug and a peck on the cheek.

“Don’t be a stranger, hon, okay? Give me a call one of these days. You still have my cell number, right?” she asks. He nods.

“Rica! Come on, sweetie! Daddy says we’re going home na,” Claire says over her shoulder. The little girl hops-skips-jumps back to them into the waiting arms of her father.

“Say goodbye, Rica,” Mark says, waving for her benefit. Quiet little Rica waves and says nothing.

As the family turns to go, he thinks that it would be nice to have a family. He imagines a picture in a frame, detailing a wife and children to come home to after a tiring day’s work.

Rica is still watching him from a distance when he raises his glass to drink and forgets a particular word. He sputters in shock, spilling cold liquor down his shirt. This has never happened to him before.

He looks up and sees the little girl still watching him from her perch on his father’s arms while Mark adroitly opens the car door for Claire.

He remembers the word he was thinking about: “melancholy.” When he sees Rica’s wide, astonished eyes, he laughs as he finally recognizes the touch of the little girl’s mind.

He wonders if this is how it feels to be a father.

Joseph F. Nacino has been working in media and online publishing for most of his working life. His fiction has been published in the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series, the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, the anthology A Time of Dragons, and Writers Connect . He was also a winner of the Neil Gaiman-sponsored 2nd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, of which this story won first place. He now serves as the series editor of Estranghero Online Press on his free time and has edited two online anthologies: the secondary world fantasy collection The Farthest Shore and the urban horror collection Demons of the New Year.