by Samuel Marzioli
When Nico was a boy, his mother told him about a world beyond our own, tucked into the
seams of reality like a spiderweb in the corner of a room. That evening, she draped herself across
his mattress at bedtime, pressed her bulk into his side, her eyes fixed on the business of her
"It's unique," she said, deft fingers making both yarn and needles dance. "A place that
welcomes people like you and me because we're unique too."
"What makes us unique?" Nico asked.
"Something in our genes? Our Filipino blood, perhaps?" She smiled, as if doubtful but
amused by her own suggestion. "Or maybe a promise to an ancestor by Bathala Himself, who
sustains the worlds and binds them all together."
"That's a longer story than we have time for now, and in the end, it doesn't really matter.
What matters is that we are."
Nico grimaced, leaned up on his elbows to better see his mother. He was a skeptical child,
especially where extraordinary claims were concerned. Ever since the veil of Santa Claus and the
Easter Bunny had been snatched away, he had little room inside him left for silly things like magic.
"Then why haven't I gone there yet?" he said, more a challenge than a question.
"It only lets us visit when we're ready."
"I'm ready now!"
She wrapped the beginnings of a scarf around his neck, a watermelon pattern with fringe
the color of its rind. "Maybe you are, my sweet. And maybe you and I will both go there
together." She smiled again, the skin of her cheeks sliding into dimples. "Only time will tell."
Nico's mother died soon after. The doctor said she had a weak heart, but Nico didn't
think that could be true. The way she'd always made him feel so loved, her heart was the
strongest thing about her.
His remaining family shuffled him from house to house for years, because they couldn't
stand the burden or expense of having him around. At 12, he moved in with his father's third
cousin, twice removed, a stern old man who radiated ambivalence from every liver spot and
wrinkle. By 17, he graduated high school and moved into his own apartment. At 21, he married
his best friend Cathy.
He didn't love Cathy enough to promise her forever, but he'd gotten her pregnant and had
no intention of abandoning her the way his father had abandoned him and his mother. Once the
child was born, he had no time or money left for college, so he took a job working as a mail
handler in a USPS mail facility. It was a ramshackle building where industrial machines hummed
and whirred, and the wheels of passing forklifts kicked up dust from the corroded concrete floor.
His workstation consisted of aluminum containers filled with newspapers and magazines, and it
was his job to clear them out before his shift ended.
You Live, You Work, You Die, someone had scrawled across the wall in the men's locker
room one night. Nico's co-workers chuckled when they saw it, but Nico only frowned. He much
preferred his own prescription, "Abandon hope anyone who dreams of happiness." Because while
ten-hour shifts made for a dire experience, work was just one wall in the prison of his life.
When Nico arrived home, he found Cathy reclining on the couch in her pajamas. Their son
Dominique was mashed against her breast, a curtain of her hair resting on his head like a greasy,
black toupee. Nico might have been amused by the sight of it had they not been in that same
appalling state that morning.
"Busy day?" he asked, taking in the clutter, the reek of rotting food wafting from the sink
and trash can in the kitchen.
Cathy shrugged. She edged forward, struggling through the weight and roundness of her
belly, and mumbled something about making dinner.
"Don't bother," he said. "You've rested this long. Why quit now?"
She held up a limp middle finger before easing back onto the couch. "Asshole," she
whispered, and he knew he deserved it.
Dominique began to cry. Cathy shushed and rocked him while Nico made spaghetti. Sauce
from a can, meatballs from a bag, precooked noodles from a Tupperware container left for God-knows-how-long in the refrigerator. It took fifteen minutes to prepare the meal, and that was the
best he could pull from that ragged frame of his, running on the dregs of a microwaved breakfast
and a fast-food lunch.
Cathy ate her dinner on the couch while Nico sat at the dining room table. He took a few
bites, dumped the rest into the sink and slipped upstairs, unnoticed. As he changed into pajamas,
he thought about how insubstantial he had become. Like a poltergeist, flustering the residents of
his house, but accomplishing little else.
Something had to change. He knew it, Cathy knew it, and--the way Dominique always
cried whenever Nico was home--maybe the baby knew it too. The only problem was, he didn't
have the faintest clue about how or where to start.
Nico woke in the dark of early morning. Something had roused him from his sleep, but as
he drifted into consciousness the memory dimmed and he could remember nothing but the specter
of a presence. Had someone called his name? He couldn't decide so he sat up, casting anxious
looks around to probe the edges of his room.
A silhouette loosened from the shadows of the corner and scampered to his bedside. "Nico
Aganad?" it said.
From its size alone, he would have thought it was a boy with ears the size of dinner plates.
But from the high-pitched squeak of its voice, he couldn't begin to guess the source.
"Who's there?" said Nico, swinging, grasping at the shadowed figure.
The figure stepped back, out of reach. "Mr. Aganad, you're a hard man to track down!"
With a snap of its fingers, cracks formed along the walls. They lengthened and widened
until there was nothing left but snow, covering a landscape in a dazzling sheen of white. Once
Nico's eyes adjusted to the brightness, he noticed a little man, naked but for a puffy, woolen hat.
The lines of the little man's skin were deep etched, slick and brown as tooled leather. In his hands
he held a flowing, silver beard, crimped near the end so that the tip pointed like an accusatory
"What are you?" asked Nico.
"I'm the duwende of your grandparents' house. My ancestors and yours have lived
together for centuries, but we lost sight of you shortly after your mother died."
"This has to be a--"
The duwende threw his hand aside, finger splayed. "No."
"You expect me to believe this is--"
"But that's not--"
"Maybe? Look, if we're going to have a conversation, you really need to finish your
The duwende sauntered off, his body sinking waist-deep into the snow. Nico followed,
rubbing warmth into his arms, with nothing but a t-shirt and boxers to keep the biting cold away.
A mile off, they came across an array of snowmen fashioned in tableaux, replete with bushes,
flowers, and even trees all formed from snow.
"I made them while I waited for you," the duwende said.
"Was I expected?"
"Someone from your family always comes along, whenever you need us most."
"What could I possibly need you for?"
The duwende only winked, as if he thought Nico already knew the answer.
Some of the snowmen wore ancient Filipino garb, topless with a hint of a loincloth or skirt
carved into their lower halves. Others wore modern clothes, like jeans and t-shirts. They stood
alone, or side by side, or circled around in groups as if engaged in lively conversations. One even
sat beside an easel, a paintbrush poised over a plain white canvas--but whether it had finished its
masterpiece or only just begun, Nico didn't know.
After they passed into the heart of the display, the duwende cupped his mouth and
whispered, "Do you know the difference between snowmen and snowwomen?"
"Let me guess," said Nico. "Snow balls?"
Every snowman turned in their direction. The inside corners of their eyebrows furrowed
and the pebbles of their mouths circled into O's. One snowman had collapsed onto its back, the
coals of its eyes replaced by Xs shaped with twigs.
"No, by their clothes," the duwende said. "Careful about the words you say. Even words
The duwende shuffled off, too quick for Nico to follow. With each step the duwende took,
the world faded. The dark-encrusted walls of a bedroom formed and, before Nico could even
wonder about how to get back home, he found himself lying in bed beside his sleeping wife.
Nico shook Cathy awake and tried to tell her about the strange things that happened to
him that morning. She just rolled out of bed and lurched from the room with a hand pressed
against her stomach. To the incidental music of her peeing, his enthusiasm faltered and his mind
wandered back to memories of when he and Cathy were young.
They were best friends before that one-off, drunken night when they shared each other's
bed. As children, her compassion had drawn him to her. She was a shining light that led him
through the worst of his loneliness and gloom. But somewhere along the way, life had melted him
like wax, poured him into a mold and slipped him out as a warped and bitter version of himself.
Now there was little left between them except the glue that leaked from their darling baby's skin.
Nico spent the majority of his day working on the docks with at least a dozen others,
hustling through a sort line pulled from transportation trucks. A heavy wind swept in, tossing
raindrops thick as bullets in their faces. No one dared speak. Not before every package, sack and
envelope was unloaded. By the end of the shift, the muscles in Nico's arms burned, his hands had
gone numb, and a kink in his hamstring made him hobble.
He insisted on making dinner that night, even though it was Cathy's turn again. The entire
time he tried to ignore the state of the living room: clothes left unfolded, magazines spread across
the floor, and the wrappers from her all-day snacks strewn around the couch like the litterfall of a
junk food forest. He wanted to yell, to start another fight, but he bit his tongue for once.
"Words can sting," the duwende had said, and he'd stung her long enough already.
Sometime in the unstirred morning, he felt his body shift, a sensation that called to mind
liquid flowing through a metal strainer. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes he was hiking up
a russet-colored hill. Snow covered the plains below, but moist, tepid air spilled from cracks and
crevices, as if the hill were exhaling the first breath of spring.
When Nico reached the top, the ground plateaued, its surface smooth and flat as polished
marble. Three enclosures made of wooden posts and chicken wire stood in the center of that
summit. In the left-hand enclosure, a giant sat cross-legged on a small tree whose trunk and
branches sagged almost to the ground beneath the creature's ample weight. A plaque fixed to the
enclosure read: A Light Kapre.
"You don't look very light to me," said Nico.
"A common misunderstanding," said the kapre, the deep bass of its laughter pounding
against Nico's ears. "I'm not light, but I could sure use one!"
It motioned to the unlit cigar dangling from its lips.
Nico made a show of patting his pockets before announcing, "Sorry."
He passed on to the next enclosure where what appeared to be a mermaid lay naked in a
children's wading pool--except her lower half was sleek and tapered to a point, more like snakes
than fish. She took no care to cover her breasts, not that they held any appeal for Nico. Absent
nipples, they reminded him of the heads of two bald sailors bobbing beneath the water's surface.
The plaque fixed to her enclosure read: Mermaid of Moderate Rates.
"Clean your house, mister?" she asked, before Nico could ponder the meaning of her
"Actually, I could use a cook. If you cook as well as clean, you're hired."
She scoffed, muttered under her breath. "For that you'd need a mercook, not a mermaid,"
she said and flipped around to face the other way.
In the last enclosure, a dragon lay stretched out on its side. It had two sets of wings, one
rooted to its shoulders and the fragment of another sprouting from its lower back. Its scales were
the rainbow sheen of an oil slick, and it snored in a way that called to mind a hundred knuckles
cracking all at once. The plaque on its enclosure read: Lazy Dragon.
"What makes you so lazy, dragon?" Nico said, loud enough to wake it.
"His name isn't Dragon, it's Bakunawa," the Mermaid said. "You would know that if you
had bothered asking."
"Sorry," Nico said. "What makes you so lazy, Bakunawa?"
Bakunawa stared at Nico through narrowed slits, the bags beneath its eyes big and round
as plums. "I may be small, but I'm very heavy. Moving is a burden so I move as little as possible.
Still, sometimes I must and when I must I'm draggin'."
"You're . . . dragon?"
"Right." It gave a long and troubled sigh, as if the act of speaking strained it to its limits.
"In the morning, I'm draggin' myself to the river to bathe. In the afternoon, I'm draggin' myself
to the village to eat a few adults or a dozen children. In the evening, I'm draggin' myself into the
heavens to swallow a moon or two and then, Bathala willing, it's back to bed for what little sleep
I can muster. It's all so exhausting."
"You're awfully nosy," said the mermaid. "Don't you have better things to do than harass
a sleeping animal? Why don't you focus on your own state of affairs? Lord knows your family
"I didn't mean to pry. I'm just curious."
"Ignore her," said Bakunawa, clamping its eyes shut. "She likes to nag; it's her way. In
case you didn't know"--it yawned--"your people call her kind 'naga.' It's a little on the nose,
but it sure fits."
"A real man would have better things to do than waste our time. You should try to be one
someday," said the mermaid.
"Look," said Nico, rounding on her. "Whatever I did to upset you, I'm sure it wasn't
"Don't take it so personally. I say and do only what's expected of me. No more, no less."
"What do you mean?"
"It's the way of the world. A muscle-bound oaf is expected to be stupid."
She threw a thumb in the direction of the kapre and it met Nico's eyes and shrugged.
"A monster is expected to be bestial."
She motioned to the dragon and, with its eyes still shut, it grinned and nodded.
"And a beautiful thing like me is expected to be--"
"A nag," said Bakunawa.
"But why not be yourselves? Who cares what other people think?" said Nico.
A chuckle from Bakunawa, a rumble of laughter from the kapre, and the mermaid tittered,
covering her mouth.
"Think it's so easy? You have no idea."
In the morning, Dominique's screaming brought Nico to the nursery. Dominique wouldn't
stop crying even after he was wiped and gleaming pink, so Nico brought him to window and
bounced him in a beam of sunlight. He thought about his own mother, pictured her alone in their
old apartment, cradling the screaming baby version of himself. She'd always found the time to
care for him no matter how sad she was. She was stronger than Nico could have imagined, and he
cursed the realization that he'd grown to be so little like her and so much like the memory of his
The smell of breakfast brought him downstairs. He found Cathy in the kitchen, sweat
pooling on her forehead, her gaze somewhere far beyond the eggs and bacon sizzling on the
stovetop. After they ate in their separate places, Nico sidled over to Cathy on the couch.
"Thanks," he said.
His tongue felt dry, a bloated thing too big for his mouth. He swallowed hard, gathering
up the courage to continue, even as Cathy threw him an exasperated stare.
"I know I haven't been much help around the house, but maybe tonight we could tidy up
She surprised him when her face softened. "Sure," she said--the first real word she'd
spoken to him that week.
For the rest of the day, he emptied sacks from a dozen OTRs at work. Hours of manual
labor grinded his muscles into mush. When lunchtime came, he shuffled to his car and collapsed
into the driver's seat, squirming from the aching of his limbs.
"Please," he said. "I'm ready again."
He concentrated on that other world, trying to pull himself back by the sheer force of his
will. To his surprise, he heard a gentle rasp and felt something softer than the car's metal floor
beneath his work boots. A second more and he was tramping through a meadow toward a
cottage, monolithic in a landscape boasting only knee-high grass.
The cottage was made of stones painted rainbow colors. It had a soft white trim and a
thatched roof that it wore like a bulbous summer bonnet. Beside the front door, an old woman
stooped beside a raised flowerbed.
"Hello," Nico said as he approached.
He watched her spilling dust from a watering can upon a bed of flowers. The flowers had
faces, all them scrunched and coughing, their wilted petals curling toward pallid stems. The
woman didn't turn when he spoke; she just muttered insults, each one aimed at a particular
"Ugly roses. Horrid peonies. Worthless asters. Disgusting gerbera daisies."
With her silver curls, and the wrinkles of her skin sunk deep as trenches, he wondered if
she might be deaf. "What are you doing?" he said, this time much louder than before.
"What's it look like?" she snapped. "I'm dusting my crops."
Once she emptied the dust can, Nico watched her traipse into the cottage. She returned
carrying a digital camera and a small tin filled with paint.
"Smile, you fetid sacks of excrement," she said.
She proceeded to snap photos of the flowers' faces, their swollen eyes and puffy cheeks
appearing stark and magnified upon the camera's LED screen. She then dipped her fingertips into
the tin and flicked paint specks on every petal.
"What's that for?" he said, peering over her shoulder.
"Don't you know anything about plants? It's photo-synthesis." To the flowers, she said,
"Now thrive or, so help me, I'll pluck you all and throw you in the hearth!"
She scuffled inside again, still muttering curses, and slammed the door behind her. Nico let
a few seconds pass before he crouched before the flowerbed, trying to evince an air of kindness.
"Are you okay?" he said.
The flowers shook their heads. "No sir," they said at once.
They had small voices, all delicate and hurting, a sound like someone making tiny rips in
"You look starved. Do you need some water?"
He circled around the cottage and found a bucket filled with water resting in the shade of
a well's limestone wall. He returned to the flowerbed and slowly poured the water on soil so dry
it had split into patchwork, leaf-shaped segments. The flowers closed their eyes and let out a
contented moan. By the time the water absorbed into the earth, they stood erect. A darker hue
bled into their petals, slow at first and then more and more until their corollas blushed with
"Thank you sir," the flowers said. "The mangkukulam who takes care of us hasn't learned
"Learned what?" said Nico.
Nico swung by a florist after work and picked up a dozen red roses. Then, at the grocery
store, he purchased Cathy's favorite treats: chocolate covered nuts and chews. While he had no
false notion that a modest box of sweets and a pretty floral arrangement would somehow spackle
over all the cracks of their relationship, he knew it was a start.
At home, he handed the presents to his wife. She looked taken aback, didn't say a word,
but he could tell she didn't hate them. He led her to the table. They sat down and he took her
hand and cradled it in his own, realizing how much she meant to him and how long he'd craved
the warmth of her skin touching his.
"I put you through a lot of shit ever since the day we met," he said. "And I . . ."
He wanted to say more, to tally up the wrongs he'd done and wrap them in a soft quilt of
his apologies. But shame pressed against his insides and that was all he could manage before he
began to cry. A long silence passed between them: his nervous and imploring, hers quiet and
aloof. For a while, he believed she would stand up and walk away.
Instead, she nodded and said, "Okay."
A hint of the woman she once was peered from behind the sullen mask covering her face.
Nico wiped his eyes. He smiled, though he didn't know why. That little word had so much
meaning packed inside it and he didn't have the wherewithal to decipher it completely. Still, it was
a start, a shiny new path stretching out before them into a broadening horizon. And, for now, it
Nico stood on a cliffside overlooking a great expanse of grassland, the blades catching the
sunlight and sparkling with the luster of emeralds. A herd of tikbalangs argued in the distance, the
sound of their shouts and snorting punctuated by the stamping of their hooves. Kapres rested like
black lumps on the trees of a balete forest lining the horizon. The slow bass of their
snores--muffled by the distance--whispered in his ears, reminding him of an elegy or a prayer.
Perfect for the task he had planned.
He spent hours collecting rocks. He gathered them together and then stacked them high as
his shoulders, sealing up the gaps with mud and clay he'd scraped from off the ground. Once
finished, he surveyed his creation. It was a cairn in the rough shape of a cone. He'd seen pictures
of similar structures online, and though his version lacked the magnitude of Bronze Age artisans,
he felt proud of his accomplishment nonetheless.
"I miss you, Mom," he said, shutting his eyes. "We haven't spoken for a while so I
thought I would catch you up on what's been happening with me. I got a new job. It pays less
than the last one, but it's not as stressful either. I have an amazing wife. You'd like her. She's far
more forgiving than I ever deserved. We also had a beautiful child. He's two-years old now and,
one day, I hope to share this world with him the same way you wanted to share it with me."
He took the watermelon scarf from around his neck and draped it around the cairn.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you for the love you planted deep inside me. It was slow to
grow, but I think it's finally sprouted."
With that he kissed his fingers, pressed it to the cairn, and then willed himself back home.
The other world vanished and, quicker than he could take another breath, he found himself
standing in his driveway. Despite the somberness of the previous moment, he was giddy by the
prospect of seeing his family again. They were waiting for him. They wanted him around. That
realization made him grin and, for the first time in longer than he could remember, life didn't feel
like a prison anymore.