Talk to Me
The voice hadn’t yet come out of the fireplace in Zoe Talancon’s new apartment when she moved in, unpacked her boxes, arranged her photos, knickknacks, and books just so. She was twenty-five, flush with a surprise monetary gift from Tita Luisa upon graduating with a master’s in mass communication. She was ready, long-ready, to leave the roommate world behind. The apartment had appealed to her immediately: wooden floors, black and white tile in the bathroom and kitchen. Crown molding. Best of all, a working marble fireplace, which was original to the building. The unit creaked with odd noises, and sometimes the hot water tap needed coaxing, before it spewed out lukewarm liquid. But it was hers and hers alone. She imagined herself, when she toured it, sprawled on a couch with her red afghan, fire lit and crackling. Maybe she could even get a cat to complete the picture.
Her mother told her to bless the apartment, when she first moved in, prior to the voice. Zoe thought of her mother, Dora, as rational. She had come to the United States to study engineering and worked for Delta afterwards. Mom had kept her Catholicism, but it lacked the flamboyance of her sister, Tita Luisa. It had been Tita Luisa, actually, who told Zoe of the duwende in the garden back in San Fernando when she and Mom had been girls.
“The mound rose up one day,” she said to Zoe, when she was a wriggling little girl. “We call them men of the mounds when they live in those tall ant hills. The duwende, I mean.” Tita Luisa always looked witchy to Zoe. She had long curling hair and big dramatically outlined eyes, with clumps of mascara clinging to her eyelashes. She liked flashy jungle colors, peacock blues and sunset oranges and lemon yellows, and her ears, throat, and wrists were adorned with heavy jewelry from the Philippines. She was so unlike Dora, who wore suits to work and plain pullovers, button-downs, and jeans at home, all in neutral colors. Yet, they both had the same laugh, horsey, startling, and loud, though Luisa laughed more often.
“You don’t mess with them. If you see a hill of dirt, stay away. The house had bad luck afterwards. Things disappeared all the time. Mangoes, pens, pesos, even your Lola’s pearls.”
Later, when Zoe was in high school, her mother would tell her that the house-boy probably scooped the mangoes and pesos. Pens are household items that are always lost. And that Lola’s pearl necklace was later found around the neck of another woman, her Lolo’s querida as it turned out. His two daughters, kindling a fiery rage, eventually moved to America, one after the other. Despite their urging, Lola never could bring herself to leave her husband and join her daughters; they died within a few years of each other after Dora and Luisa left.
Unlike Tita Luisa’s fervent Marian Catholicism, with the Virgin displayed all over her apartment, flowers and incense in front of the house altar, and rosaries clinging to the walls, Mom’s faith was practically Protestant. There was Mass on Sundays and holy days and Catholic school for Zoe. That was it, plus the annulment of her marriage when Zoe’s father up and left with nary a word. Mom calmly reverted her and Zoe’s name back to Talancon. Unorthodox for a Filipino mother and wife, but since Mom had married Zoe’s father because she had uncharacteristically gotten pregnant in college, Zoe couldn’t blame her too much.
So when Mom told her to bless the apartment, Zoe felt surprise at this intense religiosity.
“You never know,” said Mom awkwardly over the phone. “What happened there.”
Zoe laughed. “So, ask the ancient priest at the church down the street to come by and pray, sprinkle holy water?” Zoe hadn’t been to church since starting college, except Christmas and Easter when she was home. It was a known secret to her aunt and mother, though never spoken out loud, except during phone conversations on Saturday night, when her mother reminded her, painfully casually, to go to church in the morning.
“Yes.” The tone of her mother’s voice struck Zoe — the urgency. “You never know, you hear? You don’t know what happened in that apartment.”
Zoe laughed. “Fine. I’ll stop by the parish office. I’ll let you know, okay?”
That was the last conversation she ever had with her mother, who died of an aneurysm the next day. Just slumped into her chair, her breakfast of garlic fried rice and coffee cooling, congealing, in front of her. The doctor told Zoe and Tita Luisa it was quick, and Zoe tried, hard, to think of that as consolation.
After her mother died, Zoe left the apartment even less. She had shaken off Tita Luisa’s offer to stay with her for awhile, after the funeral. Tita Luisa had moved to Hawaii when Zoe was still in undergrad, to teach English at the University of Hawaii. In the wake of her sister’s death, she had already been away too long. Zoe herself had taken time off from her job, in the publicity department of a liberal arts college. She felt antsy, that perhaps it would be good, for both of them, to be back to work. The first day back in the office, she politely accepted the consolatory words of her coworkers, the cakes and cookies and the card crammed with signatures.
“We’re so sorry for your loss,” said her boss, Jan. Zoe murmured her thanks. Blushed. She hadn’t even been working there for more than a few months when she suddenly took off a couple of weeks to prepare her mother’s funeral and take care of her (few) assets. Everything to her and Luisa. They couldn’t track down her father, not that he was willed anything anyway. Her coworkers didn’t know her well, and here was all this expectant kindness.
Zoe had eaten the cakes and cookies, and the card was lying, half out of the envelope, on the mantelpiece. The inked messages were burned in her brain: May your mother rest in peace. . .I went to pieces when my grandma died. . .God bless you. . . Pleasantries, platitudes. At least she could eat the treats, which she had, leaving the boxes, plates, and aluminum pans piled in the sink and on her kitchen table. She found it difficult to cook, in the weeks after the funeral. Instead, she ordered pizza, Chinese takeout, and gyros or if she did venture to the grocery store, purchased Lean Cuisine frozen dinners and trays of lasagna. She kept meaning to take out the trash, but garbage bags proliferated in the corner, emitting a sweetly rotting smell.
Her mother would be ashamed of the mess, the fast, unhealthy food. Dora had raised Zoe to pick up after herself and to cook at an early age, to be neat and self-sufficient. A mini-adult, her teachers would say during parent-teacher conferences, with admiration and the faintest hint of unsure disapproval, since Zoe’s idea of play during recess was to pat out perfectly circular mud pies, sprinkled with the cleanest, whitest sand she could find in lieu of powdered sugar, while the other kids screamed and threw toys and tantrums around her.
Her mother worked long hours and when she finally brought Zoe home from daycare, she enlisted her small child for help. Zoe would stand on the stool and peep at chicken stewing with garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and peppercorns.
“Don’t stir until the vinegar cooks off. It’ll ruin the flavor,” said Mom.
“Don’t stir,” repeated Zoe.
The chicken slowly transformed, from pink to brown and fragrant. Mom spooned the adobo over a bed of white rice, and Zoe ate, filled her belly until it ached. It was perfect.
It was a couple of months later, when the murmuring began to seep from the fireplace, what Zoe had thought to be the settling, the stretching of a building with older bones.
She was sprawled on the sofa (a list of angry red notifications on her phone, reminding her that she had missed days’ worth of texts and calls from Tita Luisa) when she heard it.
“Stop lying there.”
Zoe closed her eyes. Probably the neighbors downstairs or upstairs, a sparking argument. She had said hello to them when she first moved in. There was even a nice couple upstairs who invited her for dinner, but then her mother died, and she forgot to return their voicemails.
The voice was louder this time, and startled, Zoe looked up, scanning the room. The hairs prickled on her neck. It had sounded like it was coming from inside the apartment.
She groped around, trying not to knock anything over, trying to find something to fend off a potential invader. Briefly, she remembered her mother’s admonition to bless the house, even though Zoe knew that holy water was hardly a defense against flesh and blood intruders. She picked up her TV remote; it didn’t feel heavy enough, not by a long shot.
“That’s not going to help.”
This time, it was close to her ear. She jumped, fell off her sofa, tangled in her throw blanket, a red one lined in shearling, that Tita Luisa gave her when she went to college. She thumped the floor; she noted that there was a thick, clinging layer of unswept dust and hair.
Zoe scrambled to her feet. She thought about grabbing the lamp. “Who’s he-here?” She meant to sound loud, confident, but it came out half-strangled from her throat. “Who’s here?”
“I got you up.” The voice sounded pleased. “I did.”
She gulped. “Who are you?”
“I got you up.”
“Who are you?”
“I got you up.”
Zoe looked around and was surprised to see herself, indeed, upright. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so alert.
The voice was coming from the fireplace, a voice she couldn’t describe as male or female. Sweat gathered on her forehead. “What?” she asked.
No answer came.
Feeling silly, she asked the supervisor the next day about strange noises in her fireplace.
“It’s normal,” he said. His desk was cluttered with papers and pictures of his towheaded grandchildren, smiling cherubs with big pink cheeks. She felt nauseated looking at them. “Old buildings make noise.”
Coherent sentences? she thought but imagined what that would sound like, coming out of her mouth. She thought of the story that would be told — That odd girl, the girl who never talks to anyone and rarely leaves her apartment, the one with the weird smells, is hearing things from her fireplace. She said nothing further.
The voice spoke to her again when she came back from work a few days later, her head buzzing, her mouth dry, her stomach rumbling. She fell onto the sofa without even removing her shoes, which Mom and Tita Luisa would have scolded her for because only Americans left their shoes on in the house. She wrapped the red blanket around herself and closed her eyes.
“Take your shoes off.”
Shakily, she opened her eyes and looked. Nothing, but the voice was as clear as if someone was sitting next to her. She asked, “Why?”
“Don’t you know why you take off your shoes?”
“I do. But, why do you keep talking to me?”
“I need someone to talk to.You just sit there, your mouth open so a fly’ll fly in.”
Startled, she sat up and closed her mouth. If you sit like that, a fly will will sit down there. A memory of hands taking her outspread skinny legs, pushing them together, straightening her slouched back, so she sat like a lady.
“Mom?” she said, swallowing. “Mom?”
“I’m listening,” she said. Her shoes slipped off.
The voice — her mother — was an enormous help. “Pick up those smelly clothes of yours,” and Zoe would scoop her clothes into a laundry basket and wash, dry, and iron them for good measure. “Make yourself real food for a change,” and Zoe would stop munching on Halloween Snickers bars and heat pea soup and toast bread. “Reply to those emails from Jan,” and Zoe would only think the barest “How does she know about that?” before obediently cleaning out her inbox.
For the first time in weeks, Zoe was clean and presentable. If she had dark circles under her eyes, her hair was brushed, and her clothes matched and smelled like meadow flower detergent. Her apartment was no longer littered with detritus; dirty plates were in the humming dishwasher. Trash was taken to the bins outside. Her fridge was stuffed with Tupperware, neatly labelled: chicken curry, macaroni and cheese, sinigang made from her mother’s particular recipe.
She was fine. She had her mother back, though her voice never quite sounded like her, often crackling like radio static. On the other hand, her apartment smelled clean again, cleaner, like lemons and pine forests and prairies and antiseptic. Her reflection stared back at her from the mirrors, windows, TV, floors, and silverware, all of which she dusted and polished daily. Every night, she lit a fire in the fireplace, watching the orange and gold flames lick the logs, and would doze as her mother murmured secrets, secrets Zoe could only half-hear, half-understand, until she fell into a sleep empty of dreams.
One day, her mother told her to make a specific meal.
“Listen to this recipe. Make enough for two.”
Zoe nodded, rooting around her desk for a pen and post-it notes. Prepared, she waited.
“Yes.” She scribbled it down. She thought of her mother’s recipe book, the recipes she had collected, written in her neat, rounded handwriting.
“Cubed beef, tomato paste, pineapple juice. Onions. Potatoes. Red bell pepper. Carrots.”
Zoe stopped writing. “Caldereta?”
“I know how to make it.”
“Not this way.”
“I know how to make it. You taught me how.”
“Listen to me.”
Then, the voice — her mother — was screaming at her. It was ringing in her ears, making the drums vibrate. It was as if the disembodied voice was standing inside her head. It sounded nothing like her mother. She clapped her hands over her ears. “Make it this way.”
“Why?” Liquid pooled at the corner of her eyes, but she blinked them away.
“Because I said so.”
“That isn’t a good reason.”
The voice whispered in her ear, sounding like her mother again. “It should be.”
Zoe made the caldereta. She stewed the beef, added the tomato sauce then vegetables. It was rich and red. When it was finished, she poured some over rice puffing steam and ate, trembling, sopping up the liquid with more rice. It tasted like sand in her mouth. She accidentally bit her own tongue and yelped. She waited for a comment that never came. Her tongue sore, she gulped down wine to flatten the taste. The flavor of blood flooded her mouth regardless.
She left a plate of caldereta steaming in front of the other chair. On a black woven placemat with a matching coaster for the wineglass. It was out of a magazine, brown beef cubes, orange carrots, golden potatoes, red tomato sauce and bell peppers prettily arrayed over snow-white rice, the wineglass filled to the brim with ruby-red pinot noir. When she woke up the next morning, both plate and glass were licked clean.
Zoe came back a few day later to discover her apartment in chaos. Her books torn and scattered on the floor, her pots thrown out of her cupboards, her TV overturned and cracked. Light Bulbs shattered, pictures ripped from frames. She stared. Over the wall was written, “BAD GIRL DIRTY GIRL CLEAN THIS UP LISTEN TO ME”
“It wasn’t my fault,” she said aloud, even though she started to sweep up the shards of glass, put her books back on the shelves, stack the photos of her, her mother, and Tita Luisa on vacation, smiling from beaches, cruise ships, and the Spanish Steps in Rome, on the coffee table. She wiped and swept until the furniture was cleaner and shinier than it had been before.
“This isn’t right,” she said. The apartment smelled sweetly of lemon furniture polish.
She called Tita Luisa, sitting on the sofa wrapped in the shearling blanket pressed backwards, white shearling out, red fuzz in, against her body. It rang, then she could hear Tita Luisa on the phone, even though the connection wavered.
“You haven’t called in a while,” she said. Her voice went in and out. Zoe pressed her ear harder against her phone.
“I—“ She sucked in her breath. “I was busy,” she said. “I cooked and cleaned the apartment today, the way Mom taught me. It smells like lemon polish.” She felt a pit in her throat. “It smells so nice.”
“Zoe? Zoe?” Her voice sounded urgent, but Zoe hastily gulped.
“I have to go. She says I can’t talk to you anymore.” She switched it off, to cut off Tita Luisa’s surprised protests, and stared at the dark screen.
When she got up the next morning, the door was locked, and her keys were missing. She briefly thought of opening her windows and jumping out, but the windows were stuck as well. In the kitchen, she found a bowl of rice, black as ebony.
Zoe picked up a handful of grains, let them slide through her fingers back into the bowl. They felt warm. “I don’t know how.”
“I’ll tell you how.”
She boiled the rice in water and coconut milk, until it was sticky and soft and dark as midnight, then mixed in sugar and salt. Sometimes, she could have sworn something was guiding her hands, but it was hard to recall which movements were learned at the side of her mother and aunt, and which were learned at the beck and call of the voice — her mother, she corrected.
When the porridge was finished, she poured it into her best white porcelain bowl, the lip of which was edged in gold. Over the top, she sprinkled coconut flakes toasted brown.
“Make a fire.”
She took the bowl to the living room. Kneeling in front of the fireplace, she arranged newspaper, lit it, blew softly on the sparks until they crackled. She fed the little flames wood. “Good morning,” she whispered. “Eat up.”
She settled on the couch, the bowl of porridge burning her hands.
Zoe stared at the bowl. It smelled delicious, familiar, like the Asian dessert shop Mom and Tita Luisa used to take her to when she was small. They’d have halo-halo, shaved ice heaped with fruits, jello, and evaporated milk, and she’d have the bubble tea, tapioca bubbles squeaking between her teeth. Mom and Tita Luisa would argue over what version of halo-halo was best. Tita Luisa was a sweet corn apologist, and Mom a red-bean backer.
She stuck a spoon in the bowl and lifted it up before hesitating. She could have sworn she heard thumping, like drums, like a processional. She wondered where she was going.
The spoon clattered to the floor, spraying black globs on her shiny floor. The knocking was coming from her front door.
She could hear Tita Luisa’s voice, her jewelry jangling. The knocking, the tinkling, the shouting, was so loud it was drowning out the voice.
With more strength than she thought possible, Zoe threw the bowl into the fireplace. It shattered, spraying porcelain and black rice all over the shiny floors, the gleaming mantle, the hissing logs. The flames greedily devoured the pieces, swallowing them up.
Tita Luisa burst through the door, a bird of paradise in blue, purple, and pink, silver clattering around her face. A rosary at her throat swung like a pendulum. “Zoe!” She looked ridiculous. Her face was red; she was gasping. Zoe laughed hysterically. She thought of the mess on her floor and in her fireplace, the burnt-out pot in the kitchen. She thought of trying to explain herself to Tita Luisa. She was tired, hungry, and yet, she could keep standing, laughing until her belly ached.
“I’m here,” said Tita Luisa. “I heard you. I came back.”
“You are,” said Zoe. She swallowed. Blinked. “You did.”