BY RYLE LAGONSIN
Copyright is held by the author.
RUBEN LETS Anton pour him another glass of gin and drinks when goaded. There are more bottles in the house, Anton says. Ruben lets him talk. The wake is long over but it’s too dark now to go home. Too dangerous, Anton says, and Ruben agrees. The bamboo footbridge to his house needs reinforcement again after the rain this morning. The river seems quiet tonight, but it’s too late to go home.
“Friend, don’t act differently,” Anton says. “As if you never come to visit.” He slurs. “Just sit there and drink some more.” He curses when he finds the bottle empty. He calls out to his wife. He slams his glass on the table. Before he bellows a third time, Kristina rushes out.
“She is sleeping now, Pa. What is it?”
“Sleeping?” Anton turns to his daughter and wags a finger. “Tell your mother to stop being rude. Does she not know we have a visitor?”
“Pare,” Ruben interrupts before Anton can get louder. “We should stop. We drank enough.”
“Nonsense!” Anton shakes his empty glass in the air. “Kristina, get us another bottle and wake your mother. There’s nothing to eat here.”
Ruben watches the girl totter back to the house, one hand under a hefty stomach. From behind, she looks slight, but the girl can pull a skiff out of stormy waters. Ruben knows. Despite tendril fingers, she can tie a knot just as strong as he can. They were friends, Ruben remembers, Kristina and his Ningning. His Ningning would have been seventeen now just like her.
“Kristina’s eight months along, can you believe it?” Anton says. “Didn’t like school. Did this instead. And who’s going to feed it once it’s out, ha? Me!”
Ruben clenches his jaw.
“My son was the good one, you know. He was a good boy…had big dreams. He had such big dreams.” Anton grinds his teeth and his tears fall. His fingers coil around his glass in a tight grip. He turns with a swift motion and hurls it towards the river. “What right do they have, ha?!”
The glass smashes against something. A rock maybe, or a tree. The candles only hold enough light for both of them to see just across the table. Even then, it seems they can’t see all too clearly. A rough splash follows the shatter. A hiss, as if someone in the water is responding, the sound of threaded ripples dragging about.
They said the same thing whenever this incident happened: Crocodiles are an endangered species. They are vital to the ecosystem. It is punishable by law to kill a crocodile.
No one in the village cried over missing dogs, or even lost goats and pigs. No one protested over the cows that washed up, ripped and mangled, on the low embankments. They understood. They respected the reptiles’ power. They kept silent.
“Right now is breeding season.” It’s what the village captain said when Ningning disappeared. “We cannot capture crocodiles during their breeding season.”
For years on, Ruben searched the river for a trace of his daughter. They were crossing the footbridge from their house that day, and it was raining. Something stronger than a drizzle, but the wind snatched Ningning’s hood. He had to lunge into the water to get it back. It only took a second, a snap. When he turned around, Ningning was gone.
“There is no chance,” they told him. “The river surrenders a body within three days. After that, there is no chance.”
When he dreamt since then, Ruben often found himself wrestling a bask of crocodiles and enduring somehow. He would take them by their tails, break their jaws apart, pry their mouths open, and he would not bleed. He would find in their throats the night sky twinkling with flecks of gold.
“It’s Ningning,” Kristina said to him once. “Those stars… It means soon you’ll see her.”
That night, they lay together on his bamboo cot. With his arm around her spare frame, her back pressed against his chest, they shared warmth. It was only because the storm washed the bridge away, she could not go home. Then, it was simply a yearning for relief. Kristina never screamed all her nights beside him. Whether Ninging screamed that day, Ruben could no longer remember.
In the candlelight, the shadows scatter, blurring and sharpening edges. Ruben averts Anton’s gaze. They don’t speak. Miasma steams from the soil, the heat and imminent rain sparring over the skies. Ruben doesn’t move, except for his fingers forming claws on his trousers; they dig into his thighs. Anton stands and goes into the dark.
Kristina returns with two gin bottles and a fresh bowl of fish crackers. When Anton arrives after her, he is clutching the hem of his shirt like a makeshift pouch. The fabric smooths back to place as he takes each egg out and places them on the table.
Ruben grows cold. The eggs jitter and roll towards the edge. Anton retrieves them over and over, cackling as he lines them up.
“Pa, how did you get these?” Kristina backs away, nearly missing a step. “It’s breeding season. This is illegal.”
“These were in a nest where they found your brother’s body,” Anton says.
An egg, at last, rolls off the table. It drops to the ground, landing just by Ruben’s foot with a blunt throb, like a sudden knock or half a heartbeat. Anton doesn’t notice. He nestles what remains inside the crook of his arm. The water stirs and bellows for Ruben, while Anton, with a wide smile and swollen eyes, urges him: “Go on, pare. Take one. Eat.”
Ryle Lagonsin is a freelance writer from Laguna, Philippines. Her prose and poetry have been published in various print and online publications, including Sheepshead Review, FlashBack Fiction, and The Cabinet of Heed, among others. When not writing, she divides her time between research tasks, online learning, and video editing. She is currently working on her first novella.