Animalia

By Wilfredo Pascual

1.

One night in 1979, my father saw a bat inside the bedroom. My young parents turned thirty that year and I was twelve, the oldest of three children. We had just moved into my grandparents’ two-story house in the central plains of Nueva Ecija, Philippines, after my grandparents had migrated to the United States. There were six empty bedrooms in that house, but my father preferred that we all stay in one room. He tore down the wall of two adjacent rooms upstairs. On one side was my parents’ bed and on the other side their children’s. Between these two areas was a twelve-inch portable television on a table pushed to the wall. Next to it was a huge altar that housed a tall, framed image of the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus. We were watching television the night my father saw the bat and the lights were out, which was probably why we failed to notice the arrival of our leather-winged guest.

My father stood and turned on the lights. No one spoke as we watched him walk towards our side of the room and stand facing the wall, his eyes fixed. Without turning to us, he quietly told us what he saw: “Paniki.”

We saw another bat crawling on the floor. Quickly, we looked around and to our horror we found another on the bed headboard, on the TV set, the study table

We slowly walked to the wall, looked up and saw it too, the tiny bat, its body no more than three inches long, clutching our yellow curtain with its clawed leather wings. We stood there, puzzled, knowing how impossible it was for the bat to have entered through the windows. The tall window frames were covered with screens of fine wire mesh to protect us from mosquitoes. It was built with tiny openings just big enough for our arms to reach outside and pull the frosted glass panes, and all these tiny openings were locked that night.

My father turned on the lights. We saw another bat crawling on the floor. Quickly, we looked around and to our horror we found another on the bed headboard, on the TV set, the study table. I turned to my father but he quickly left the room. When he came back, he was holding a broomstick. I couldn’t imagine killing all of them but I also didn’t know how else to drive them out of the room. Next thing I knew, my mother was armed with a long-handled plastic dustpan, my sister rolled a newspaper, and my brother raised his hand holding a ruler. I grabbed one of my rubber sandals.

I looked around and decided on one near the door, its clawed wings clutching the doorknob. To avoid breaking anything in the room, we first brushed the bats away or flung and tossed them. We hit them till they were thrown crawling on the floor where we crushed their slender bones and bludgeoned them. Soon the bats were darting, swooping, swirling and looping in the air, wing to wing. The bats heated the air with their body temperature turning that cold night into hours of humid killing. We didn’t know where they were coming from. We found them behind curtains, on ashtrays. Finally, my father saw a bat’s head protruding from a crack below the air conditioner, the mammal squeezing itself, forcing its way in. He bashed it and finally corked the tiny opening with the bat and what remained of its crushed head dangling.

After several more hours, it was over. Pale with exhaustion and disbelief, we stared at the dead bats that littered the bedroom. We scooped them into sacks and garbage cans and threw them outside.

Many years later, I read about bats and remembered that night. I wondered how the tiny creatures made sense of their ultrasonic cries, bouncing hard and fast, providing a picture of our bedroom, their cries too loud and high beyond human hearing. Did they follow one another, parent and child? But I thought if their hearing could tell the difference between the solid echoes bouncing off electric posts and the light fluid echo of a falling leaf, surely they could echolocate pain, fear, and death. I remember one of them opened its mouth again and again and I knew it wasn’t snarling. It was making sounds, yelling, shouting, and listening to echoes because it knew no other way to find its place in this world.

I will always remember that night when we killed the bats because that is how I later came to realize why some stories would never be silenced. Humans don’t hear well enough. But that’s not the point. Each waking moment a voice screams, sometimes whispers, and a story bounces back against a landscape, a political event, and the whole of humanity and what it fails and aspires to be, all of these echo back to the source, year after year—amidst typhoons, migrations, fiestas, death, revolution, and romance—and it is all that matters.

2.

What’s your most memorable meal? The question was posed one rainy night in 2012 in Colombo while my friends and I were enjoying Sri Lankan dishes in a hotel. When my turn came to share my story, waiters in orange cotton shirts were serving us wafer-thin, bowl-shaped pancakes made of rice flour, coconut milk, and palm wine.

It will never happen again, I began, this lunch I had in Nueva Ecija, Philippines. I was working at the university-based freshwater aquaculture center surrounded by man-made ponds, tanks, and rice paddies. My job was to help edit the proceedings of a Southeast Asian conference on rice-fish farming. This was in the late 1980s. Around that time a British scientist from Swansea was conducting initial genetic experiments on tilapias. He was feeding them estrogen and androgen in the ponds, reversing their sexes in a matter of weeks. Male tilapias are bigger and grow faster. The idea was to make them all male to address the problem of hunger in the developing world.

One day a typhoon hit the central plains. I was at work, but nobody thought of going home. We were used to it. As students, we would brave the deadly wind and run along the university’s main avenue lined with mango trees, the whirling leaves and twigs whipping our faces. Branches snapped, flew, and hit the pavement and buildings with loud cracks. We picked up green mangoes from the ground and filled our bags, occasionally pausing to grab a bite of the fruit, its sour, tart taste giving an extra kick to our howling harvest. We had no thought of the sobering headlines the following day—the destruction, the flooding, the drowned.

He had smooth, dark skin. His chest glistened, his biceps looked like the solid muscle of a fish struggling against my grip.

I was looking out the window when a group of excited students from the College of Fisheries barged into the office. They were very wet and carrying bunches of green mangoes. Something was happening in the ponds, they said. We rushed outside, no umbrellas or raincoats, straight into curtains of downpour. In the field we saw the laborers running back and forth. The wind whipped the flooded ponds and the sex-reversed tilapias had escaped. They were jumping all over.

I thought of catching them but had no idea what to do after that. Throw them back to the pond, I suppose. But we already looked like we were walking on water. Most of the staff ran back to the main building for shelter. I didn’t. I followed the others, the students and laborers who ran to a tiny wooden shelter, its rusty corrugated iron roof rattling violently. 

There were probably half a dozen of us inside. It was warm and smoky. On the dirt floor, somebody was cooking steamed rice, fanning flames under the blackened pot. Another was busy peeling green mangoes and cutting slices into a plastic bowl. Another opened a can of mackerel. Over low fire, they grilled fish rubbed with rock salt. I stood there, shivering, wide-eyed like the others. We huddled in that tiny square of earth, staring at the biggest tilapias we had ever seen.

There weren’t enough tin plates for everybody, so I had to use the cover of the pot. JB, one of the students, grabbed the only spoon we had and scooped out rice from the pot and served it on my “plate.” He had taken off his wet shirt. He had smooth, dark skin. His chest glistened, his biceps looked like the solid muscle of a fish struggling against my grip. He popped a crunchy slice of green mango into his mouth and chewed its sourness with relish. I felt it in my mouth, sharp and tart. I gulped. Meanwhile, the wind howled and the walls shook. We poured the mackerel mixed with vinegar and chopped onion over our rice.

We ate with our fingers, our bodies and faces covered with mud. JB turned to me and offered the transgendered tilapia. Our eyes met. I did not even look at the fish as I tore a piece of its steaming flesh and tasted it. It was delicate, soft and moist, flecked with rock salt and burnt scales. It melted in my mouth. Meanwhile the waters rose. JB and I were still eyeing each other. Nabokov once said that only one letter divides the comic from the cosmic. This is it, I thought. I am going to die; desire and disaster in one bite, my transition marked by the reversal of the laws of nature, the waters obliterating all borders, turning females into males and men into ghosts of their former fish selves.

3.

In 1994, a group of British and Japanese entomologists invited me to see their work in one of Thailand’s national parks. We entered the forest at night, climbed a gentle slope and emerged into an impressive clearing, an immense plateau. In the middle of this field was the project area, a grid that consisted of what looked like rows of small tables covered with white cloth. Some of the tables were lit underneath. I never understood what the study was about. But I remember the site’s lambent glow and the hushed voices as the scientists identified and counted the insects drawn to these squares of white light, rows and rows of them.

I examined the bugs, though I had no clue what I was looking at; they all looked the same. After a while I got bored and decided to explore the rest of the clearing. I walked slowly towards the horizon, marveling at how this plateau on a hilltop could stretch so far. I may have walked a hundred meters away from the project area when I saw something that made my heart stop. What I thought was land extending far into the horizon turned out to be a thick forest canopy. I was, in fact, already standing on the edge of a ravine. I must have stared at the lights so long that it took a while for my eyes to adjust and see things as they were. I easily could have fallen over the edge.

I looked back and saw that my companions had followed me. With the illuminated field behind us, we stood on the edge of the ravine surveying the forest canopy, as if we were standing on a shore looking out at a vast phosphorescent ocean. I can’t remember who turned to whom first, but at some point we all looked at each other nervously. “Don’t move,” somebody whispered.

We all felt it. A mild tremor. Don’t move? Shouldn’t we be moving away from the cliff? But we stayed there, motionless. We heard rustlings in the forest canopy. Branches cracked. Treetops shook. Down there, something huge and noble moved and left us breathless. The earth didn’t tremble. What we felt turned out to be the vibration made by a herd of elephants communicating with one another, a rumbling, low-frequency sound an octave lower than the human male’s voice. We felt it drumming our chest.

4.

When I was in college, my father opened a beer garden in a vacant lot right next to our house. He called it the Plaza Azucena Grande—its specialty: dog meat. Every afternoon the cook hung dead dogs on hooks and blowtorched them. After scraping the burnt fur, he grilled and chopped the meat into bite-sized pieces. He added vinegar, onion, and calamansi to make kappukan; or potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots simmered in coconut milk to make caldereta; or the dog’s blood for dinuguan. The Azucena became a popular meeting place for the military and politicians who arrived in the evening with their handheld radios and guns.

One time I found a dead dog inside our freezer at home, its body curled, fur scraped, the leathery white skin frosted. Its eyes were an opaque, glassy blue-gray, its half-open mouth resembling a grin. It was repulsive. Sometimes it sat right next to the frozen chicken. I wanted to protest but canine consumption was not unlike the reality I grew up with in a town marked by the violence of small-town politics. The laughter and smiling faces disturbed me, the reassuring images of family and friendship played against a backdrop of guns and dog carcasses.

I feared my father, dogs, and guns. When I was a little boy, armed men and two fierce dogs guarded my grandfather’s house at night. Their names were Ali and Queenie. They were kept in a cage and my cousins and I would dare each other to stand in front of them and brave these dogs. The sight of us made them leap and snarl death to our faces. Our presence drove them wild. I wondered whether that was how they were trained to become ferocious.

My father also had a small dog with fluffy brown and black fur he named Bracky. Bracky wasn’t kept in a cage but chained in front of the house. It was my duty to feed him. Sometimes my father would unchain him and I would run back inside the house in fear. From the window, I would watch him run around the garden. He ran in a big circle along the walls and the gate, claiming freedom and dominion over our house. When my father called for him to be chained again, Bracky never protested.

The year after my father opened the beer garden, he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a progressive neurological disease. It paralyzed my father’s digestive and facial muscles. His motor movements degenerated. His eyes stopped moving and his voice became garbled. Later, he developed his own sign language, which took a while for me to understand. When he asked for my mother, he would cup both his palms over his chest, indicating, I realized later, women’s breasts. The disease had no cure, so my family went to church together, something we had never done before. My father asked us to pray the rosary. My mother hid his gun.

One day I saw my father kneeling in front of the grotto in our front yard. I left him alone and went back to my room. Moments later I heard Bracky’s cry. I was about to go out to see what was happening when I stopped. I listened carefully to this tormented bellow. It began to sound less like Bracky and yet it did not sound human at all. It was my father wailing.

My father was sent to the United States to seek better medical care. Being the oldest, I was left in the Philippines to manage our properties. Although our farm yielded a record harvest while my parents were away, my inexperience and irresponsibility left us bankrupt that year. I easily gave in to the farmers’ requests for loans. Their children were always sick. I would give them money and lose track of it in my records. I hated harvest season. It was hot, and the rice husk made me itch. I went to the rice fields wearing headphones. While the rice threshing machine ran, I sat in a corner and read a book. Later I became restless. Sometimes I would go away for days climbing mountains or visiting friends in the city. One day I returned home and learned that the cook had left Plaza Azucena Grande. We had to close it. A few days later, Bracky died. Somebody poisoned him, I was told. We buried him in the abandoned beer garden.

After my father died, there was very little to remind me of my father’s first and last trip to the United States except a box of documents and letters. I was left alone with it, his medical records, notes on his recommended daily diet, get-well-soon cards from loved ones, letters, including the last letter my father signed, waiving the airline’s responsibility if something happened to him on his flight back home. I would go through them whenever I got lonely. One morning I found a cassette tape in the box. It was a recording of my family reciting the rosary. We taped it the night before my father left for the US. When I played the tape I realized that along with our prayers, we also recorded Bracky barking and howling in the background.

I have this one gentle memory of Bracky before he died. I was sitting on the patio when I felt something hairy brush my legs. I jumped when I saw him beside me. He raised his head and looked at me. I waited for him to snarl and bare his fangs but he just lay by my bare feet. My skin felt his warm fur. My heart raced as I touched him. He closed his eyes. I rubbed his fur and patted him. He turned on his back and raised his paws. I touched his belly. I felt a gentle rhythm there, something stronger than the violence and fear that bonded us. Consider the loved one that mysteriously drives you to unexplainable loathing and fear. With my father’s dog, it was easier—but with my father, love in its most mysterious way was a harder lesson to learn. I left the Philippines two years after my father died. I have been away for more than twenty years now. I used to make regular trips back home and I would ask people about what truly happened back then. On one of my trips, the caretaker of the family ranch told me a story. During those desperate months when my father was losing hope in finding a cure, the caretaker referred my father to a faith healer. The cure the faith healer recommended involved a ritual. A stray dog would be captured and wounded with a small cut on its leg. Blood should trickle and only then would the dog be let go. The evil spirit that caused my father’s suffering would be attracted to the dog’s trail of blood and follow him and leave my father alone. What struck me was what the faith healer said about the dog. “There will be no healing,” he said, “until the wounded dog returns home.”

5.

It was getting dark in the Sierra Madre mountain range, the Philippines’ oldest forest. The three of us emerged from ancient trees and giant ferns and found ourselves along the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A storm charged from afar, the horizon occasionally lit in spots by quiet lightning. Raindrops dabbed our faces like electric jolts. “It’s too dangerous to climb down to the beach,” the guide said. I was disappointed: we would not see the sea turtles. But I did not argue. It was too risky. My guide’s wife tagged along to pick ground orchids in the forest and she was pregnant.

Meanwhile, the sea turtles were returning to their places of origin to lay eggs. Recent advances in satellite transmitters and genetic analysis have allowed scientists to learn more about the turtles’ astonishing memory. I wondered what it would be like to be born with an inner compass, to always feel the earth’s magnetic core. Sea turtles have been around for two hundred million years. In evolutionary terms, they are far older than birds and dinosaurs. They are notoriously myopic and are guided by light and darkness. Scientists are beginning to wonder how sea turtles are able to detect magnetic fields, since oceans and coastlines have unique magnetic characteristics. Some scientists have speculated that the magnetic location of home is imprinted on sea turtles’ minds. It’s possible that they are also guided by scent, waves, taste, and visual cues to the beach of their birth.

All at once, the street turned into a canvas of streaming shadows, giant flight patterns gliding over concrete, cars, and people.

How do you store a multitude of knowledge and never lose it across continents and a lifetime? What does it take and what does it mean to be tuned in constantly to home, to always retain the elemental signatures of open waters, to hear coastlines inside you? My own memory fails in comparison. It retains selectively, vanishes in parts, mutates. And yet I know of astounding instances in my life’s shifting geographies and my own mercurial identities when a familiar breeze or a particular freshness bursts on my tongue, or when a pounding rhythm jolts me—moments when I would tell myself: I know this!  

6.

Amid the glare of the afternoon sun in San Francisco I walked towards the plaza at the corner of 16th Street and Mission. I was about to cross an intersection when the traffic lights switched. I’m not sure if it was the pedestrians’ urgent rush to cross the street, but at that point something launched a flock of pigeons into the air. The flapping of their wings startled me. I couldn’t tell which direction they were coming from but it felt close enough that I thought they were going to fly straight at me. I closed my eyes and felt the air ripple in front of my face. As soon as I opened my eyes I saw what to me appeared like a dream. All at once, the street turned into a canvas of streaming shadows, giant flight patterns gliding over concrete, cars, and people. The birds swooped to the ground and it transfixed me, how their rushing shadows grew bigger on asphalt, then smaller, a dark path that constantly changed in size and shape. My eyes followed it until everything else faded and all I could see was a breathtaking ribbon of spectral navigation. It soared and then disappeared. I can’t remember how long it lasted but after a while it came back and swept me again, this looping reel of projected flight.

In the 1970s scientists attached magnets to pigeons’ backs to study their homing ability. In another experiment, they glued a battery-operated wire coil on their heads. It’s still a mystery. Presumably the cells or something in the cells swivels like iron filings do in response to a magnet. Some scientists claim that they have found magnet receptors in the upper bills of pigeons, while others suspect the magnetic information is located in the ears. The biologist Bernd Heinrich wrote all of this in his book, The Homing Instinct. He said that animals “seeing” a map of the magnetic landscape could be literally true. He noted an experiment done on Australian silvereyes: under bright blue light, the birds oriented along the east-west compass direction, under green light they reoriented toward west-northwest. Studies indicate too that pigeons have 53 neurons in their brain that respond to magnetic fields.

7.

One night, my co-worker and I went hiking on a hill overlooking Tomales Bay, a historic spot in the Bay Area where a wireless telegraph station was built in 1913 to receive transmissions from across the Pacific. On a moonlit pine tree meadow, we encountered a mule deer standing a few yards away from us, perfectly motionless. We remained still, hearts racing, seeing wildlife so close. Why didn’t it move? Surely, it must have detected our movement, heard our approach. My co-worker said it didn’t see us; it saw the light coming from our headlamps. I wondered how the deer saw the world. I thought of the rushing headlights on the road. In 1920, the naturalist Joseph Grinnell observed a new source of fatalities in industrialized nations with their new automobiles: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of roadkill in California alone. Grinnell wanted to understand the unpredictable behaviors and adaptations that occur when geographic barriers and ecological niches open up. I’m also drawn to such strange encounters, where they take place—shores, port cities, and highways—what goes on inside us, and what we turn into at the moment of contact.

We all carry a personal wilderness inside us. And then there are these corners in time, the edges of place where contact with unfamiliar realms is inevitable.

At the San Francisco Zoo, I found myself in a dark room with the aye-aye, a lemur known as the world’s largest nocturnal primate and considered a bad omen in its native Madagascar. Some villagers kill the aye-aye on sight and display its carcass to ward off evil spirits. At the Doelger Primate Center, a few aye-ayes are cared for on a reversed light cycle. I visited the primates during the day, which was “night” for them. I couldn’t see anything inside the viewing room. It was pitch-black. I groped for walls and lost my balance. Part of me wanted to leave but the guide encouraged me to be patient, to let my eyes adjust. I felt the metal railing and held on to it. Gradually my vision adapted and I became vaguely aware of a new way of seeing. At first I noticed shadowy greens and blues floating like a hologram. Later, I noticed the same color, but with lighter, almost phosphorescent hues. Finally, I could almost make out a glass wall and the branches behind it. I stared long enough at the canopies until something moved and began to take form. For a long time, naturalists debated what to make of this creature that looked like a cat but had teeth similar to a rodent’s and a tail like a squirrel’s. It uses its bony, elongated middle finger to hunt, tapping wood up to eight times per second, searching for grubs through echoes. But unlike my incandescent moment with the mule deer, I couldn’t tell exactly what I was looking at behind the glass, or if anything at all stared back at me. I waited and waited, and it became clear to me—I wanted the aye-aye to see me too.

We all carry a personal wilderness inside us. And then there are these corners in time, the edges of place where contact with unfamiliar realms is inevitable. We render the rest of the world mostly with eyes closed, drawn to what blinds us in stories, and sometimes we do survive each other’s way of seeing, even thrive in the aftermath. After much time passes, we wake up to the remains of these extraordinary encounters—a cryptic litter of bright bones: obsolete technologies, abandoned buildings, misplaced ektachromes, encrypted files, strands of DNA … The immense loneliness of ruins, arcane fragments, and loose threads keep me awake at night. What had been broken becomes eternal; it latches itself to other things. The wayward universe of the past is my new wilderness and it tugs relentlessly, this epic finding of a rightful place. It won’t let go.

8.

Bernd Heinrich wrote that the earth’s magnetic fields flip on average once every half million years. This magnetic flip can occur in the span of a century and mess up everything. Just like that. All rules could change.

It was dark on the Philippine mountain trail. The guide and his pregnant wife walked fifty meters ahead of me. They each carried a burning torch to light their way. I was exhausted, not just from the hike but from lack of sleep. I couldn’t keep up with the couple. To make matters worse, the trail was strewn with the catastrophic aftermath of a recent typhoon: collapsed mountain walls, loose soil, giant boulders perched in the wrong places, trees uprooted. Some parts of the trail had gotten erased. My legs were weak and my eyes were getting heavy. I could barely make out the trail. Ahead, the couple lit another torch and left it burning on the trail. After some distance they would light another and again leave it there. I realized that they were creating a trail of burning torches to light my way. This got me worried. We could start a wildfire on the mountain. But they couldn’t wait for me anymore. I needed to rest, so I lay down on the rocky trail. I must have fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, I saw the couple kneeling in front of me. The guide raised the burning torch, the light falling on his face and on his pregnant wife holding a giant bouquet of yellow orchids in her arms. You have to keep going, the guide said softly. Five minutes, I muttered, and closed my eyes.

In the old days in my hometown, virile men and wise women, young and old, would go to the river on weekends to catch fish. I was very young then, maybe four or five. I have a crisp memory of them grilling fish over fire pits made of river rocks. “Call your father,” somebody said. “It’s time to eat.” I found my father along the riverbanks, foraging in his underwear. “Look,” he said, lifting a big wet rock. He showed me something underneath it—a gelatinous mass. He scraped it using his hand and asked me to look closer at the frog’s eggs. “Open your mouth,” he said, and I ate it, fresh and wild, straight from his glistening fingers to my hungry bird throat.


Wilfredo Pascual grew up in the Philippines where his personal essays have won several national awards and have been anthologized. For more than twenty years, he has worked in international development in Asia and Africa in the fields of education and culture. He received a Creative Nonfiction scholarship to Breadloaf Writers Conference and attended Squaw Valley’s Community of Writers Workshop and New York University’s Summer Intensive Creative Writing Program. He moved to the United States in 2005 and lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his husband. He is currently at work on his first collection of essays.