The following short stories go back to 2010, which was my senior year of college. I was taking my first nonfiction writing class. I had virtually no experience with the genre, either writing or reading, so I experimented.
My first assignment for the class was a brash attempt at a spiritual, a travesty of an essay that hopefully gave my classmates a glimpse into having a relationship with God. My instructor compared my writing to Anne Lamott, a compliment (I guess) that still makes me uncomfortable because I don’t enjoy her writing or revisionist “Christian” theology. Thankfully, my second assignment was better.
I wrote three short stories about my childhood growing up as a missionary kid. They weren’t incredible, but they were well received and start me down a path that would ultimately culminate in my writing and publishing Three Ring Circus: Life as a Missionary Kid in a Family of 11, roughly four year later.
The only avenue of escape from my childhood home is through the front gate. Like most upper-class Filipino homes, this one is a two story box of painted concrete surrounded by a six-foot wall. The wall, like a cake, bears toppings. However, these decorations are pieces of glass bottles. Around the front of the house, the wall becomes a metal fence—still six feet tall—complete with spikes and a gate that sports chains and padlocks. Within the perimeters of our compound, our German Shepherd patrols the yard.
At three years old, the home feels like a prison designed to protect the world from my curiosity. Perched in the fork of our Kamias tree, my brother Enoch and I often gaze over the borders of our penitentiary and out across the grounds beyond. As we eat the acidic, lime Kamias fruit, which grow in clusters like oblong grapes, we wonder what the fruit from the berry tree outside these walls tastes like.
One day our opportunity to find out presents itself. Our warden parents are away, and the gate is unlocked. Eager escapees, we seize the chance. To a child, the field is a wonderland jungle filled with vines, flowers, and adventure. When we arrive at the berry tree, my brother rapidly ventures up its heights. As I watch, I step back and the world vanishes.
Cool liquid grabs me; the world is dark now and filled with bubbles churning in the water all around. There is no air; my scream is stuffed back into my throat. I cannot swim. My body descends into darkness. Then, there is something solid underfoot. I kick and fear pushes my weightless form upward.
Breaking the surface, I find light again. An earthen circle above me hedges me in framing the pale sky. I can see now, the vines that hid the well from my sight. Roots hang down toward the water like snakes, just out of my reach. I yell.
Enoch’s face looking down at me bobbles among the clouds. He stretches a stick out to me, I grab on to it, and he pulls me upward. He is not strong enough to drag me all the way out, so I grab onto the roots and dangle there still half immersed, and he leaves. A short eternity later, Enoch returns with our older brother Caleb. He lifts me from the depths. Wet and shaking, I follow them back to the prison that is now my sanctuary.
The Angel and the Molotov
Sooty flames blow outside the barred windows adorning the second floor of our home. The fire is fascinating and terrifying. My four-year-old mind struggles to comprehend the situation. My older brother Enoch, who sits with me on the coarse wood flooring, is equally transfixed.
“Get downstairs; there’s a fire.” Anna yells, sprinting up our floating staircase. Enoch is quick to respond, and I suddenly find myself alone. I respond with the most efficient weapon of a child—tears. Ever the maternal sister, Anna swoops back, picks me up, and rushes outside. From the driveway, I can see the billows in the narrow space between our house and the concrete wall surrounding our compound. The blaze pours forth acrid vapor. The excited clamor from my siblings around me provides an account of the fire’s origin.
Our maid, Ning, was preparing the grill. When the gasoline-doused charcoal failed to catch flame, Ning poured on more of the treacherous liquid. A rogue spark burrowed deep within the coals ignited the stream, transforming the four-liter jug into a torch. In desperation, Ning attempted to douse the flare with hasty breaths, each mouthful of oxygen only goading the growing flame on. She tried to throw the plastic Molotov over the fence, but it was too heavy. The red jug fell to the ground, spewing a burning puddle.
I can see her now, across the dirty fire, throwing buckets of water on the flames that only yawn in response. Our German Shepherd is chained close to the inferno, and my father rushes to save her from becoming a giant frankfurter, while yelling for Ning to stop. With the dog safe, Dad challenges the fiery pylon with an extinguisher. The products of the foamy spray and heat cloud the air. A thick, pink blanket joins the battle, its heavy embrace suffocating the flames. Then, shovelfuls of dirt bury the danger. The last breaths of dying embers, imbedded in burnt cloth and soil, pass away unseen.
It’s in the silence after the chaotic campaign that someone notices the sign on the concrete wall. The blaze coated the pale walls of our house in soot—save for one spot. Above the place where the gasoline can had rested, the clean profile silhouette of a man with wings is visible, white surrounded by black. This figure, imbedded in what was the heart of the inferno, is bent over the gasoline container—a container which never exploded, as gasoline fires sometimes do. When my mother returns to photograph the grungy mural, she finds Ning is already erasing the signs of her foolishness. The image, once clear, is only hinted at now by the smeared patterns of light and dark.
I never see the angel in the ashes. Like the camera, I look for the testimony of God’s protection once the evidence is past. My mind tries to fill in the image, but the angel’s presence, heard of by my ears, goes unseen by my eyes. Only a child, I take the matter by faith.
Shades of Gray
The cold marble flooring licks my feet as I pad around the expanse of my family’s living room. Enoch perches on the bottom rung of the wooden stairs leading to the second floor. A cough, from another part of the house, disturbs the air. Enoch and I are the only two to escape the latest family plague—hepatitis. At five, I find exclusion from the club of sallow skin and amber eyes rather insulting.
As I perch beside Enoch, I ask, “Why aren’t we sick?”
He whispers back, “Esther was sharing candy with some of the neighborhood kids.” I know this already; my little sister’s actions, in defiance of our parents, started everything.
“But, why aren’t we sick too?”
“What do you mean?”
Enoch shushes me. “Esther sucked on all the toothpaste tubes.”
“I guess she likes the flavor.”
“No, I mean why does that matter?”
“Everyone who brushed their teeth got sick.”
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Maybe.” I pause and then ask, “Do you think Mom and Dad know?”
“I think they’re concerned about other things right now.”
I’m not sure what to think. This epidemic started with Esther’s disobedience. But Enoch and I are healthy because of our disobedience. How can both be right?
“What if Mom and Dad find out?”
“They won’t. I’m gonna say I had my own toothpaste tube hidden somewhere.”
I stand and slip up the wooden stairs.
“Where are you going?” Enoch hisses after me.
“I’m gonna throw our toothpaste away.”