Melody Sumner Carnahan: Manananggal (1994)
© 1994 Melody Sumner Carnahan
My mouth embodies luxury. Stories flow out like a bobbin unwinding. For her it's not so. We don't get along all that well. She's jealous of my ease, my exaggerated charm, the studied intensity with which I narrate the tender and curious details of a situation.
And the way she sings. I know all the melodies. I know all the words to songs but I don't sing. I'm quick to catch her mistakes, but I never sing. Surprisingly, we dance well together. She is taller but I lead. She's the best dancing partner I've had, she knows how to follow though I'm not sure she is following, so perfect we are together moving exactly the same way at the same time as if we were one. Effortlessly - there is no beginning or end to the song. She and I were dancing one night to a radio in someone's bedroom at a party. The event took place in early spring. I remember being quite happy that evening. We were dancing, a man stood by watching us; he interrupted frequently with comments like - boy, you two are terrific, do you practice a lot, how do you do it, can I try, will you show me how? I left them there.
She exercises a practiced mystery. I abandoned that style years ago. Before I met her, I was just like her, understand? (An afternoon or an evening with her and I find myself imitating her gestures, her responses. My hands and feet are first to betray me - eager for the vitality of her expression.) I am thinking now: She is after me. She wants something from me. She gets me to talk about myself. A dangerous woman feeding a fantasy. All that follows is true I swear.
She wears a pin. Her hair reaches the hem of her dress. Her shoes are blue. She is tall. She is missing a finger. Her glasses are crooked. Her lips are full. Her heels are hard. She walks quickly. She looks around. Her hair is short. She wears a white scarf. She wears a white blouse. She opens her purse. She carries a sack. She carries a pink box tied with string. She wears a pin. She steps down. She removes her sunglasses. She watches a dog. A child takes her hand. She waits in the car. She touches her hair. Her sandals are black. Her toenails are red. Her belt looks too tight. Her hat has a green band. She carries two sweaters. Her hair is red. She plays with her keys. She wears a carnation. Her earrings are gold. Her pants are striped brown. She looks at the ground. She wears a locket around her neck. She waves her hand. She touches her abdomen. She flicks the ashes of her cigarette. She closes her wallet. She carries a cane. She looks behind her as she walks. Her hair blows back away from her face.
[The Manananggal, something like a vampire, is a woman who can cut her body in half. The top half flies around at night searching for babies to devour. The top half must return before daybreak to rejoin the rest of the body and move around like regular folks.]
It's scary. There is no guarantee that goodness is possible. We have trusted the word of religious men. That's why I don't sleep alone at night. We were standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I said, joking, that it would be OK to jump if you could enjoy the trip down. Well, she said, you can stay right where you are and enjoy the trip down, only it takes a little longer. . . . I heard a woman talking about her in a crowded Divisadero market as she paid for fresh fish. "She attacked me. I was just lucky I was able to get free. I saw half of her body. It was naked. She had long, scraggly hair, skinny arms, sharp nails. I saw her flying away from my house."
Nature is extravagant, but logical. A woman can never be quite as elegant. Like the stories she tells, which don't have an end or a beginning or any meaning at all- you simply open your eyes underwater and look around. My real name is Elizabeth. I voided that name years ago because it was given to me by my mother - a regal, porcelain-faced alcoholic. She and I made a very bad team. We tortured and poisoned each other, politely, the English way.
Cartilage was removed from behind my ears at age nine. I had been given lessons of every kind, for the foot, and the voice, and to charm. I was taught to inflate men's egos, to be thrifty and excessive and condescending and shy and maternal and childish and exquisitely sensual under Victorian lace necklines and skirts made of antique curtains slit to reveal a lot of thigh.
I gave birth to an imperfect child who died on its ninth day of life. The baby lacked a large portion of its brain, had only one lung, was without kidneys or genitals. The doctors assured me the damage was not the result of anything I had done.
I have been wanting to tell you something for a while. I want to tell you about how I broke my nose.
Were you lovers?
Yes . . . but not in the conventional sense.
So, how did you do it?
I just caught sight of his large amethyst ring moving straight for my face. I didn't have a chance. I got hit square on the bridge of the nose. It changed my life. When you kiss do you keep your eyes open?
Do you want to borrow my sewing machine, give me a light will you, play that record again.
You're not afraid of me are you?
I don't think so, perhaps.
I asked, would you like some guacamole, she said yes, we dipped it out with chips and talked about sex. She confessed her friendships with women were often difficult. [The intricate path two swans make traversing a lake results from the attempt of each to stay as close as possible to the other without ever touching.]
Why are you here?
Self-knowledge. That's about it.
I'll tell you what I think of you: I am not impressed with your belief that everything you do is ordained by a higher order.
To me, the brain has no special significance. It's the heart that houses the soul. I remove the brain of my husband through his nasal passages. Then I remove his entrails through an incision I have made along the fold of his groin. I replace these things each morning before he awakes, and remove them again each night. My husband knows nothing of these practices.
Why are you laughing?
I'm not laughing.
Don't you think desire is primarily the result of the recombinant life urge?
I think there are two kinds of women: Those who love stuffed animals and those who hate them.
The pursuit of power is always seen as evil.
Because it occurs in place of love. You can't have both.
she dresses in white
she speaks in black
her thought are red
she dresses in red
she speaks in white
her thoughts are black
she dresses in black
she speaks in red
her thoughts are white
She told me on the phone we were entering a new "mature" phase of our friendship. She said that in order to truly choose your qualities, and not let them get the best of you, you've got to give them up, even the good ones, for a time. The business is finished, she said. What were we doing anyway, mucking about with nature like that?
Luminescence in nature is still a mystery.
All that follows is true, I swear. They mate in little cages made of tufts of thyme. The eggs themselves were what we were after. These eggs are luminous even when contained in the womb. The eggs shine softly through the skin of the mother's belly.
Lampyris noctiluca, the lantern-bearer. A curious little animal, which, to celebrate the joys of life, kindles a beacon at its tail. The tail-light most commonly issues from the male. The bride-light, much harder to spot, is a pale scarf of light, draped veil-like about the neck of the female. Six short legs, dark brown fur, pale pink thorax. Each body segment marked by two bright spots of red.
A costume like this was never worn by a worm, or a woman.
All that follows is true, I swear. We knew from our researches that luminescence is controlled by a respiratory mechanism; the light itself is a type of oxidation, but oxidation of what substance no one is sure. It's a liquid-like powdery material not known to occur elsewhere in nature, difficult to breakdown chemically, impossible to synthesize. Something like matter in the fourth or plasmic state. Air flowing over this unknown powdery substance regulates the brightness. Excitement sets the air in motion. From start to finish, the glow worm's life is one great orgy of light.
A small snail, about the size of a cherry, is the glow worm's favorite meal. With conscious consideration, before the glow worm begins to eat, she administers the soporific: chloroform.
This is the secret of the little lightening bugs we collected together on hot July nights.
It was high summer when we dissolved our partnership: we sat on a pebbly beach outside the infamous burg of Paradise. We shared a basket of ollala berries, dark bread, champagne, spiced cheese, gin, garlic and plums, unsweetened coconut, black beans, more garlic, more gin. Her reconstructed nose had taken six weeks to heal. By this time, it formed a perfect patrician line down the center of her face. Soon she would be leaving. Starting a new life. She offered me a pair of glass-based boudoir lamps, which I declined.
I saw it on television. A dozen young men barged into the woman's home to investigate rumors she was the dreaded manananggal. The cameras revealed the face of a terrified elderly lady attempting to explain that she was not the manananggal. She had proof that she herself had been attacked by the demon. She displayed her feet which were missing several toes.
On a broad boulevard, we pause on our way to the station to watch a performance by two men with a goat and a llama. The she-goat is dressed in a bikini top and short half-skirt with a rhinestone-studded g-string. Tiny silver bells surround her ankles, she wears a feathered hat. The stunt consists of this: The goat is led up a three-foot high step-ladder. Slowly, slowly she climbs to the top while one man whips the backs of her legs with a leather strap. On the tiny pedestal for a moment, she carefully places all four delicate hooves. She climaxes the act by raising one leg a few inches in the air. Even more slowly, she descends. Her trembling makes the ladder unstable. I can see now that she is old. How many times has she been forced to enact this little drama? Hind legs first, slowly, slowly she descends, while the llama is led around by a second man who collects money in a hat. And a third man I hadn't seen before beats a single drum.