Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fiction by Guest Blogger LYSLEY TENORIO, "The View from Culion"

Dear Readers,
Our Guest Blogger is Lysley Tenorio, author of MONSTRESS (Ecco/HarperCollins).  His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, The Chicago Tribune, and The Best New American Voices and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Magazine Award nomination, the Nelson Algren Award, the Edmund White Award, and fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, Phillips Exeter Academy, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in the Philippines, he currently lives in San Francisco, and is an Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.  Visit his website at

Introduction by LYSLEY TENORIO

The following is an excerpt from, "The View From Culion," a story from my short story collection, MONSTRESS (Ecco/HarperCollins).  It was inspired by an article I'd read many years ago, about a leper colony in Japan, that was still occupied by leprosy-stricken patients who'd been exiled to the colony by their families. The article stayed with me for years, and when I learned about the Culion Leper Colony, an American-run leper colony full of Filipino patients, I knew it could be a setting full of cultural, political, and emotional tensions.  Though it's fiction, I wanted to write it responsibly, so I did as much research as I could, digging through old newspapers, history books, and eventually found a book about the colony itself.  It was a tough story to write--I hope you enjoy it.

by Lysley Tenorio
copyright by Lysley Tenorio, all rights reserved

ROBED IN WHITE, Sister Marguerite appears at my door like a ghost. She smiles, and a crack in her lower lip widens. 
         "Blood," I tell her, pointing to my lip, "right there."  She wipes away the red dot with her thumb.  She doesn't worry, knows it's just the heat of Culion that has dried her skin.
         She enters my room and sits beside me on the edge of my bed.  Without asking, she takes the sketchbook from my lap and looks at a drawing of a piece of driftwood on my windowsill, and the lace curtain behind it.  Most days I’d sketch something outside—the church doors, the Spanish tile roof of the hospital, the palm trees that tower over the colony—but the afternoon is too warm, too bright.
         “It’s a lovely picture,” she says.
         I take back the book and close it.  “It isn’t finished.” 
         She pats my knee, then sets a small burlap bag filled with oranges between us.  I haven’t seen an orange in years, though the doctors who live just outside the colony can supposedly buy them from the occasional merchant boat.  “For the American,” she says.  “You’ll bring this to him?”
         I set the bag by my feet.  “If I have to.”
         The American, an ex-soldier from the U.S. navy, was brought to Culion three days ago, collected from a church-run leprosarium just outside Manila.  He was covered with lesions and sores, delirious with fever.  The fever has broken and he’s back on his feet, but he refuses to cooperate with the doctors, and demands to be released.  “But to where?” she says.  “The Navy won’t have him.  He claims no family.  He won’t survive on his own.”
         “Maybe they should let him try.”
         “He is with us now.  He doesn’t have a choice.”
         A moth crawls along the window.  I flick it through a tear in the screen.  “I still don’t know why I’m the one to speak to him.”
         “It would help to have another American to speak with him.  Someone who understands what he’s going through.”
         “I’m not an American.”
         “You know what I mean.” 
         Warm wind blows through the room; the lace curtain rises, falls.  “Fine.  I’ll bring him the oranges.  But after this, no more visits.”  I get up and take a rubber band from my dresser, pull my hair back into a ponytail.  Sister Marguerite offers to comb my hair but I tell her I can manage on my own.  “When you were a girl,” she says, “you used to let me.”  Except for the doctors and nurses, Sister Marguerite was the first person to touch me after I arrived on Culion.
         She takes my hair into her hands. I feel the teeth of the comb slide against my scalp.  Then she turns me around to face her, smooths the part in my hair.  “The best place for him is here,” she says.  “He needs to understand this.”
         “Then that’s what I’ll tell him.”
         She leaves my room, shuts the door behind her.  I take my sketchbook and draw the gnarled, twisty ends of the driftwood, the lace curtain, another moth on the sill.
AT HIS INSISTENCE--and to the relief of the hospital staff--the American has been given his own quarters away from the other patients, in an old concrete shack atop the hill behind the church. In my time in the colony, no one has ever lived in it, and over the years children have passed along the rumor that it houses the fallÄen limbs of dead patients. Once, I heard a boy with a missing eye and atrophied fingers ask a nurse if this was true. The nurse laughed and told him no, that the room was nothing but dust and air.
I make my way there now.
The day feels hotter than before, but everyone is out in the colony plaza, clustered together wherever there’s shade.  Old women sit beneath the post office awning, weaving crude baskets from dried banana leaves.  A group of men smoke cigarettes in the shadow cast by a gutted wartime bus.  It’s the younger ones who brave the sun, playing made-up games with shells and stones around the dried-up fountain.  I was their age when I arrived in 1954, barely ten years old, but I refused to play with the other children.  They were ugly and broken freaks to me, and I told them as much.  Only after a girl with crutches slapped me did I learn to keep quiet.
I reach the end of the plaza, follow a stone path behind the church. Bamboo steps zigzag up the hill; I take them one at a time.  It gets warmer the higher I go, fewer trees and little shade.  I feel slow, heavy in the light.  
Up close, the shack is smaller than I remember.  The concrete walls crumble at the edges, vines of brittle leaves trail down from the tin roof like networks of veins gone dry.  The wood door hangs crooked, a small hole where a doorknob should be. But there is the creak of mattress springs from inside, a shuffle of footsteps.  Someone takes a long, deep breath.
I knock.  He says come in and I enter darkness: a black curtain hangs from the ceiling and wall to wall, splitting the room in two. There’s no furniture on my side, no window, nothing.  But I can hear him behind the curtain, and down below, in the space between its fraying hem and the floor, I see his brown, heavy-heeled shoes, the leather scuffed and torn at the tips.
“You’re the American,” he says.
I don’t know if it’s a question or an accusation.
"I've been waiting for you.”  His voice is low, a scratchy whisper.
I look at the ceiling, the walls.  I don't know which way to direct my voice, so I take a step toward the curtain.
"You're good right there," he says, "right where you are."  He says that he's not well, not ready to be seen, then slides a folded metal chair from his side of the room to mine.  It’s covered with dust, wisps of spider web stretching leg to leg.  I leave it folded at my feet. “The nun said you're the only other American patient in the colony.”
“Yes.  I mean, no.  Not really.”
I haven’t had to explain myself, not for years. I was eight when my mother and I left the Philippines with the American man who would become my stepfather.  Less than two years later, when the leprosy began to show, I was back.  That was ten years ago.
“I lived in California,” I say, “for a time.”
"If that's true, then you must know the way out of here."
"That’s not possible.”
"There must be someone I can talk to.  Some sort of boat I can take.  I can bring you with me.”
            I close my eyes, trying to remember what I’m meant to say.  “Please listen.  You’re very sick, and the doctors—”
"Your family must want to see you. I can get you to them."
"You need to understand.  This is the best place—”
"Tell me the way out.”  He steps closer to the curtain, his silhouette growing darker.  “Please,” he says, “tell me,” and when I say no he reaches for something and throws it against the floor, shards of glass spilling toward my feet. “Get me off this goddamn island!”
I don't bother with goodbye.
I hurry down the hill, skipping steps and almost falling, then run up another, until I am as high as I can go.  From here, I can see the fenced perimeter of the colony, the guards at the front gate. I can see the rectangle of the plaza, the hospital and the church, the window of my dormitory room. Beyond is the rest of the island, beyond that the empty stretch of sea.

* * *

MOST EVENINGS, I am the first at dinner and the first to leave.  It’s nearly impossible to sit alone, and the surrounding conversations are full of the same complaints, patients comparing their pains, as if there is valor in hurting more than anyone else.  But if you’re physically able to eat in the cafeteria, it means you can walk and sit up, lift a spoon to your lips.  In Culion, a doctor once told me, there’s little else a body needs to do.
            Tonight, there’s a shortage of rice and the food lines grow longer, the patients hungry and irritable.  The air is warm and damp from all that’s boiling in the kitchen, and members of the church choir practice in the corner, their hymns loud and off-tune.  But Sister Marguerite insists I keep her company, and wants to go over my meeting with the American, asking new questions no matter how many times I tell it.  “Did he mention Olongapo City?” she asks.  “He’d spent time there, I believe, just like you.”
            I shake my head.  “He didn’t mention it.”
            “Then perhaps you can talk to him about it, the next time you see him.  Share your own experiences there.” 
"I don't remember very much,” I say.
"If you think about it tonight, then tomorrow you could--"
"I was too young when I left."
"Nothing is lost to us forever.  Not if you try."  As she speaks, she plucks bone from a piece of boiled fish, lining them one by one on the rim of her plate. My first week of eating in the cafeteria, a fish bone lodged itself in an old man's throat. No one heard his gulps of air he took, his struggle to let them out.  By the time I tugged at a nurse's arm and told her what was happening, his head lay still beside his plate, eyes wide open and lips barely parted, as though he had just witnessed something too remarkable for words.
“I’m tired,” I say.  “Good night.”  But before I can leave, a group of patients stops at our table, saying that they heard about my meeting with the American.  More patients gather, even a few nurses, and now the questions begin—When will he join us?  Can he get us things from the States?  Tell us the color of his eyes.  A decade ago, my arrival caused the same excitement, news that an American girl had been sent to the colony.  But what they found was a darkly complected Filipina, nothing special, just a girl who could be any other here.
"He thinks there is a boat,” I say, “one that will take him away from here."  I tell them it’s the same boat we all imagined when we first arrived, the one we dreamed could carry us away from Culion until we realized it would have nowhere to go, because no port or shore in the world would welcome us.  Someone hard of hearing asks me to repeat my answer, but I just make my way out.  I’ve said more than enough.

SISTER MARGUERITE used to say that each person has his own unique journey to Culion.
Some are sent by families who will no longer have them, others collected from leprosariums and clinics.  Many are rounded up like criminals by police, taken from their hiding places, and shipped off to the colony like cargo.
            But I don’t know what my journey was, the ways I came to get here.  All I remember is being sick in California, and waking from a fever days later in the colony, in a room full of dying girls.  My mother stayed by my side that entire day, and she told me how beautiful it was on Culion.  Palm trees along the water, she whispered, staring out the window.  Just like California. Just like home.  She took my hands and squeezed them tight, and I felt cold against the touch of her rubber gloves.  The next day, she was gone.  I will not see her again.
This is what I wake from tonight, but I stopped wishing for her, stopped missing her, a long time ago.
For two days I stay in my room. I eat bread and shreds of dried papaya, drink water from the sink.  The bag of oranges is still on my floor—I’d forgotten to bring it to the American—and against the pale gray floor, the fruit looks bright and sweet.  Once, in the middle of the night, I wake up famished, and I come close to eating one.  But in the morning, I line them along my windowsill and sketch them instead.
This afternoon, I find a plastic container of food at my door. Attached is a note, unsigned but written in Sister Marguerite's hand, explaining that the American will not eat, that he will accept food only if I bring it to him, and that it’s vital for him to keep up his strength.  I remember that you were the same way, the note says, I think that’s very interesting, don’t you?
            It’s true that she was the only I would talk to after my mother left, that she spoon-fed me when I was too weak to feed myself.  Sometimes I don’t know if I should thank or resent her for that; if she hadn’t bothered, then I might have died, and then I wouldn’t be here.

THIS TIME I DON'T KNOCK, but when I enter he’s already on his side of the room.  I walk to the curtain and set the container and the oranges beneath.  "You have to eat.  You’ll get weaker if you don’t.”
A pale hand reaches out, grabs the food.  I hear him chew and swallow, taking quick sharp breaths in between.  “Sorry,” he says.  “I haven’t eaten in a while.  I’ve usually got better manners than that.”
“It doesn’t matter.  Now, if there’s anything else you need—”
"Don't go.”  He slides the folded chair to me.  There’s no dust on it, no webs.  "Stay for a minute.  Please."
If I sit, I'll have to listen to him this time, the whole way through. If I go, then there will be no point in returning. "You can't ask me for help. Not the kind you want.  Do you understand that?  You can't ask me those things."
"Fine," he says.
I take the chair.
"For the record, I don't normally break things the first time I meet people."
It's only when he mentions it that I notice a shard of glass by my foot, catching the light.  “You cleaned it up.”
"Piece by piece. It helped pass the time.  I was a radioman in the Navy.  I'm good with electronics and wires, things like that. If it was broken, they sent it to me."
"You left the Navy.”
"Discharged.  Which, looking at it now, was probably part of the plan.  After that, I made my way through Olongapo, Quezon City, Manila."   Beyond the curtain I see the dark shape of his body rise from the bed, moving toward the glowing square of the window. "But I never thought I'd end up in a place like this. How long has this been here anyway?"
"Since the early 1900’s.  It was built by Americans.”
"God bless America."  I hear him strike a match. Then I hear him exhale.  "And the nuns? What are French nuns doing in a leper colony in this part of the world?"
When I first arrived, I assumed they had always been here, the only true natives of Culion. Only now, when he asks, do I picture them aboard an eastward boat, their habits like sails in the ocean wind.  I imagine Sister Marguerite among them, glimpsing the island as the boat draws near, her destiny finally fulfilled.
"Since the beginning, they've been here."
Wisps of smoke rise, disappear against the ceiling. The curtain suddenly moves towards me; he’s trying to shake my hand through it.  “Just to be safe,” he says.  “My name’s Jack Blessing.”
I don't know what else to do, so I take his hand.
He tells me that he is twenty-six years old, that he was stationed on Clark Air Base when he was 19, then discharged at twenty-two for various offenses—running gambling rings on the Naval base, taking unauthorized shore leave, stealing then selling supplies.  He sounds almost proud of himself for breaking the rules.  For years he drifted through the Philippines, surviving on odd jobs, money made from gambling.  "Not the easiest life, but I was good at it," he says, "and I intend to make it back.”
"I'll tell you this once more.  There's no way off this island.  Not for us."
He says nothing, and for a moment I expect him to throw something else, and I brace myself for the shattering.  But he just takes a slow and deep breath, then asks for my name.  
“It’s Teresa,” I say.
 ~end of excerpt ~

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