Mushroom Karl

IN MY DREAM, I was Karl, I went by my first name, not Daniel by which almost everyone called me, and not Ayel, by which Uncle Tony called me when I was young, or whenever he felt the need to remind me that I was the same child that he sat on his lap or whose hair he ruffled during school activities where he’d catch me staring at a classmate’s father, school activities where my father should’ve been, but wasn’t. Of course no one ever called me Karl in that dream, because of course in dreams I saw things from the third person, so what I really saw was myself answering to someone who called me Karl. Whenever I remembered what happened in my dream, I would be Karl, and not Daniel or Ayel, names by which I was called in my waking life.

In my dreams it always seemed as if it was about to rain, or as if it had just rained. It’s never rained in the world of my dreams. And always, I was looking for something. I would be going around the room I was renting in Marikina. I would step out of the room, into the yard, into Grandma Bining’s old yard in San Pablo.

The skies would be dark. Had it just rained? Or was it about to rain? I would go behind the house, and I would remember, while walking, what I was looking for. Mushrooms, I was looking for mushrooms. It had just rained, after all. I was sure about it, and at the same time I felt a sense of loss. The rain had passed and I wasn’t there. Immediately after this thought I would find mushrooms, growing near a mound, a patch of soil near the old pump-well. As soon as I see the mushrooms, I would feel, with certainty, that they weren’t at all what I was looking for. But I would pick the mushrooms, I would roll my shirt up and put them there, because as yet I couldn’t remember what I was really looking for. Only after picking all the mushrooms I could broil and eat would I notice that I was still a child, and that I had picked not mushrooms but flowers, gumamelas, leaves and flowers of the gumamelas. Do you have the papaya stalk with you, I would think of shouting to him and I wouldn’t hear his answer but I would feel him waving the stalk in the air. I would smile and look at his direction and as I do this I would realize that I was inside a large bubble. After a moment I would see that he was approaching me, inside his own gigantic bubble, floating in the wind. He looked like Erik. He laughed at me, because why didn’t I recognize him right away when no one but him was there. I would laugh, laugh aloud. Of course, of course. And then I would remember that we were inside our bubbles. I think I shouted at him, screamed. He didn’t seem to realize that we were inside our bubbles, and we were about to collide. But I would be too late. Our bubbles would collide, explode, and I would fall, through the air, unto my bed.

I would wake then.

I’ve been having these dreams for a long time, but I haven’t yet told anyone. I didn’t see the point in narrating my dreams to anyone. Not even to Uncle Tony. Least of all to Uncle Tony, because of course he would just tease me about it. Back then. Until I met Teresa.

I WAS ALREADY in Marikina, in one of those apartments cramped in the uneven terrain of Barangka. Afternoons, before darkness arrived, I would take a stroll through the village by the Riverbanks. I didn’t know why our village, our subdivision, didn’t go by any name. It looked like one of those villages that wasn’t planned out. It looked as if the neighboring subdivision just had some leftover cement, and so they put in three more streets, shaped almost like a Y. My apartment was at the far end of the street on the right-hand side. I was a few minutes away from the Riverbanks.

Concerts would usually be held Saturday afternoons at the Station Grill. I could see it even if I didn’t go inside the bar. Bands that hadn’t yet gotten a break. Would any of those bands ever get a break, when the next big band came a week after the other? I had no idea who they were. I stopped listening to rock bands after the Eraserheads released Carbon Stereoxide. It made me sad, thinking about how little I knew of the band scene now. This could be the first sign of aging—not knowing which songs were popular. I tell myself, well, they’re just pale echoes of the Eraserheads. Or, well, the Eraserheads sang about that in one of their songs. Or, the Eraserheads had a song just like that, and it was way better. I never felt the urge to go inside the Station Grill just to listen to the band that was playing. Or even to stop for awhile outside.

I often went down the stairs by the side of Station Grill to get to the river, to the part of its banks with that well-known landmark, that statue of a gigantic pink shoe. I would walk awhile, until I decide to cross to the other side, to have dinner at the row of food stalls, grilled fish, squid, other creatures of the sea that of course couldn’t have come from the Marikina river. It was cheap fare, but good. Often I would take my leftovers home in a plastic bag and finish it off in the middle of the night, whenever I would get hungry in the middle of doing the things that needed to be done. The school’s cafeteria food can get tiring, and so can the chicken I could buy from any of the fast-food chains in front of the University. The endless chatter of people who ate in those restaurants unnerved me; the noise would hit me like a wave as soon as I stepped into those glass doors. And I didn’t have the wings to fly away from those places once I got in.

I MET TERESA one afternoon. She was sitting on the lowest step of the stairs that led to the river. That was that. We saw each other, and the timing was just right: the sun was setting, it was dusk, and the streetlamps were coming to life, one after the other, as were the patio lights of the rows of bars and stalls, and a few moments later she was holding my hand, leading me towards the darkness, to the patches of grass facing the river. Or with its back to the river, depending on how you look at it. It was maybe a Tuesday then, or a Wednesday, there was no weekend crowd. Or maybe it was just too early for a crowd?

“Don’t be afraid.” It was as if she could read my mind.

“I can read your mind.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. But I wasn’t looking at her face. I was afraid to see in her eyes that she was really telling the truth. “I can only do this at night.” I felt a fear and doubt, both at the same time: Wow, that’s nice, a mind-reader at night. ESP? Who the hell was this girl?

“Teresa.” It was then that I looked at her face, and we met each other’s gaze even before I could look away. “My name is Teresa.” And it looked as if she were telling the truth. Even before I could speak, her mouth was on mine and her hand was crawling over my thigh. “You? What’s your name?” she asked in a breathy voice. Her breath smelled nice, smelled as if she had just drunk mountain tea from the northern highlands of Sagada. Or whatever tea that had a tinge of lemongrass. Or she might have just taken one of those cheap lemon-flavored mints. I felt nervous, and at the same time I was excited. I had never been that bold in a public place. I closed my eyes. I tried to convince myself that, if I couldn’t see anyone, then no one could see us.

“Karl.” I wanted to lie, but it was as if my mind went blank and I couldn’t think of any other name, a name that wasn’t mine. It was a good thing that I didn’t add Daniel, by which many people knew me. I was sitting on the grass then, with my shorts and my underwear pulled down, when she sat on me.

Even before I could think that I might contract something from what we were doing, she spoke. “I don’t have anything. Don’t worry,” and then she ran her tongue over my neck. I felt a current run from the base of my ear, to my knees, to my heels. My toes tensed. My face was on her breasts. Just a few moments of grinding and I came. He held up my face and kissed me in the mouth. She sucked on my tongue. Lemongrass tea in Sagada. She pulled her long hair to her nape, and whispered, “We’ll meet again.”

She got up. I was panting softly as I pulled up my shorts and my briefs. I didn’t know what I was expected to do. Teresa was sitting beside me, staring off into the row of lights across the river. Did I have to pay her? What if she got insulted? Who the hell was this girl?

“200 will do,” she said softly. Her eyes were still on the lights across the river. I was sure she wasn’t staring at the river itself, even though I couldn’t fully see her face. I scrambled to get my wallet from my back pocket. Good thing I had 300 in change. I gave it all to her. When she got the money, she stood up slowly, walked slowly away without even looking back. I sat there, unmoving, as I watched her fade into the distance, into the crowd.

As she had told me, we met many more times after that initial encounter. But after we would meet on that last step on the stone stairway that led to the river, we would rent a small room in a motel in downtown Marikina. Well, it wasn’t really a motel; it was a house, an old house with a small sign that said: 24 hrs. We would ride a jeepney that travelled the route to San Mateo or SSS village, keep silent throughout the ride that took less than five minutes, and get off at the 7-Eleven right after the bridge. I didn’t know anything about her then, except for the fact that she did these things to earn money. And that she didn’t speak a lot. And that she could read people’s minds. At night. Only at night.

I never told my dream to anyone except Teresa. When I met her it was as if I wanted to tell her everything. Without any hesitation. Even if I felt that she knew everything about me even before I spoke. Or maybe it was because of this, because I felt that she knew everything about me even before I spoke, that I chose to tell her everything anyway. For some reason that I can’t fully grasp, it was here, so far from

Atisan, because of Teresa, that I began to remember with absolute certainty that, yes, I did go through my youth, I was a child once. The river of Marikina. Sapang Ligaw. What did we talk about, really? We didn’t talk about where the river led. She didn’t think that way. Or maybe I just don’t know, I never got to know, how she really thought. Why do we call a river a river? I might have said that aloud, or I might have just thought it, said it in my mind. Or I might have thought about that question during the time I was staring at the Marikina river, alone.

I HAVE SMALL ears, like a rat’s, like that mushroom called rat’s ear. The old folks would say that large ears signified a long life. I would hear Grandma Bining say that whenever she saw Erik, when we were younger. But no one ever talked about how long or short a life could be whenever they saw how my ears were. Except for Teresa. Only Teresa had the guts to tell it to me straight: “You’re going to die early.” I felt the dread creep through my whole body. But she did say that I would die a different death, a death unlike the one I was thinking then, or unlike anything I’d expect.

I tried to lighten the mood, more for my own sake: “What, will a plane crash on me?” But Teresa didn’t smile. I felt closer to her then.

Whenever I have a new idea for a novel and I couldn’t find a way to work on it or to make it work, I would go to the place where we first met, and always, always I’d find her there, even without any previous agreement to meet, and she’d listen to me as I told her. That’s why, later on, “Karl” evolved into “Karl Kabute,” mushroom Karl.

“Because you just appear out of nowhere,” she said, and of course I knew that was what she meant even before she said so. I didn’t know, and didn’t ask, if she called me that because she remembered the dream I once told her about. That dream when I thought I was looking for mushrooms.

I tried to lighten the mood, as I always do. “Good thing it’s not Bubble Karl!” I said, perhaps to find out too if she remembered the dream.

“Yeah, that could work too,” and again I had no idea whether she did remember the dream, especially after she followed it up: “because you just vanish into thin air, as quickly as you appear.” I laughed along, not minding the ache inside of me, which stemmed from the fear that maybe she didn’t at all remember that dream, the dream that I had told no one about, no one else but her. I was tempted to tell her that no one else knew about the dream, but I hesitated because it was off the topic, because it would’ve been difficult to try to force the conversation. And after all, she might’ve been reading my mind, anyway.

MUSHROOMS HAVE NO history, as that novel said, the novel that made me decide that one day I’m going to write a novel too. I felt a certain sadness remembering that sentence as Teresa lay beside me. Teresa whom I thought could cleanse me of many things, like the rain that would birth mushrooms on earth that had not tasted water for a long time. I was staring at her then, and I had no idea that this woman whose history I did not know, who appeared out of nowhere, into my life, would, just like a bubble, vanish into thin air.

(This chapter is part of my novel Eight Muses of the Fall, translated by Mikael de Lara Co and Sasha Martinez, and published by Anvil Publishing in 2013. In 2012, Kritika Kultura published a version of this chapter. The novel was longlisted to the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009. Go to BOOKS to see all my books. If you want to include this chapter in your textbook or anthology, kindly contact me to ask for permission. Art work above is by Sean Sonsona.)

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