The Table

I dedicate this story for Lance. ^_^

*****

There is something strange with the table. No, it isn’t the legs; they are all straight and sturdy. It isn’t the tabletop either because it is flat and wide. When you sit down against it, the table does act like any table would: keep plates, glasses, and utensils off the floor; place books, pens, and paper on it; cradle a weary head when the bed is just too far. Yet, there is still something off with the table. It is within its grains, within the wood. If you press your ear against it – softly, ever softly, it will say…

“Boo.”

Discrepancies and Dubious Discoveries

By the second song, the crowd was clapping in tune with the beat. At the fourth and final song, everyone was on their feet and head banging. The band was that good; the singer’s voice was that powerful. Aria swayed the audience with the melodies that soared out of her throat and drilled into the audience’s ears and minds. On stage, it was as though she was a rock goddess, the way she moved and sang while the other band members made their own metal-worthy moves.

Well, almost everyone was on their feet and head banging. Daron was still on his seat, though his own head was keeping to the beat. Though he was still awed by the power of her voice, he could not believe that she’d be able to get this kind of reaction from the crowd. Perhaps he was so set on watching her closely that he didn’t seem as enthralled as the rest. Even Vermo was swaying his head to and fro to the heavy beat.

Even before the last notes of the song faded, everyone was stomping their feet and cheering. Those outside the bar looked on curiously as to why there was such a ruckus; the vibrations from the crowd’s response were felt even onto one lane of the concrete road.

The crowd was just as in the same uproar when the session finally ended and clamoured for more. Mark grinned at them. “We need beer too!” he exclaimed, to which the audience laughed. “And give our lovely vocalist here your love. She needs her rest!” Another riotous round of applause shook the building as Aria took another curtsy. Again, Daron noticed the nearly mechanical movements she did. Her curtsy looked exactly the same when she was first introduced. He knew he was right; he felt it in his gut. It was the absolute same movement.

After a final “thank you!” cried out to the crowd, The Nobodies retreated to the stage. When Aria started to move, one of the men went beside her and covered her head with a jacket. It was like they were avoiding any paparazzi-like pursuit from the crowd. When they went to the back of the stage, it confirmed Daron’s suspicions. He stood up.

Yosi lang ako,” he told his friend, who was back on his seat, panting and drinking a large bottle of beer to refresh himself. Vermo could only nod and take another gulp as Daron went out.

He had been to this establishment several times already to know where bands would go out from the back of the building. He made a beeline there, turning around two corners of the building till he reached the back, where there was a separate driveway for vehicles to unload and load people and equipment when necessary. There was also a small parking area covered in stunted grass and gravel. It was there that he saw the four men standing around. Where was Aria, though? As he neared them, he noticed a long leg sticking out from where the four men crowded.

“Excuse me,” he called out. As one, the men turned to regard him quietly. The movement was so synchronized that he was slightly taken aback and almost stopped in coming near them. He shook his head slightly and pressed on, though. “Hi, I can’t help but admire your singer. She’s really great. I wondered if I’d get her autograph?”

The man named Mark looked at him for a few more silent moments, then smiled. It did not reach his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he told Daron, “but I’m afraid that’s difficult. Aria’s sleeping now.” As though from a silent signal, the others stepped back to show Aria.

Aria was with a woman Daron hadn’t seen before from the bar. This woman was fair-skinned and had brown hair slicked back in a ponytail. Aria truly was sleeping, and her head was leaning against this woman’s shoulder. The woman meanwhile was stroking Aria’s head absently, as though the motion kept Aria quiet. However, Daron’s attention was more on Aria. She leaned against the woman, but her arms and legs were splayed out from her, like she just dropped to the chair without any ceremony. There looked to be even no conscious effort for her to sit properly on the chair, with the way her legs were open.

He pushed further. “She got tired, huh?” Daron said. He gave a smile of his own. “She might remember me. I’m a friend, Daron.”

The announcement caused a reaction among the men. Something seemed to shudder among them, like a wave of alarm. One of them actually moved to almost block Daron’s view of Aria. A glance from Mark stilled the movement. Mark looked at him again. “Are you really?” he asked, his voice now in a whisper. The smile was still there, and Daron was beginning to get irritated from it. The man seemed to think that his being friends with Aria was a joke. He wanted to talk to Aria. NOW.

“Let’s see if you are her friend,” Mark said in his low voice. The others stepped back again. The woman who held Aria did not move from where she sat, but continued her gentle smoothing of Aria’s head. Her gaze was calmly directed at Daron, her face expressionless. “Aria,” Mark said softly, “you have a visitor. Wake up, sweet.”

At first, Aria did not stir. Moments later, her eyes slowly opened and blinked several times. Daron noticed the strange movements again as she sat up, her limbs still akimbo. She looked at him, and Daron’s eyes widened in shock when she opened her lips and greeted him.

“Hello…Daron,” she said, her voice containing nothing of the emotion she initially displayed when she sang. It was monotone, dry, and utterly disturbing. There was no recognition in those eyes. In fact, there was nothing at all. Her eyes were glass as she looked at him. Her head tilted in an odd angle as she continued to look at him blankly. “How are you? It has been awhile.”

“That’s not Aria,” Daron blurted out in anger. He turned to Mark and glared. “Where is she? I want to speak with Aria!”

Now, Mark’s smile was derisive, leering. “You cannot accept what is just right in front of you?” he asked. “That’s your problem. Aria is right here. If you don’t want to believe that, then it is of no concern of ours.” He nodded to the others and they sauntered off. The woman continued to hold Aria and look at Daron. “This has been a tiring night for all of us, Daron. Why don’t you just go home, go to sleep, and forget all about this?”

“Like fucking hell I am,” Daron snarled. He took a step closer to Mark. “What happened to Aria? She suddenly went missing for nearly six months. Then I find her here, but that woman’s not her.”

“Whatever is the matter with you?” Mark chuckled. “She went with us for singing training, of course. Why would she bother telling you that?” At the driveway, a van pulled up near them. Mark went to Aria to take her hand, and she obediently stood up. The woman stood as well and walked towards the van with its open door.

“Your concern is appreciated,” Mark said with that same insipid smile, “but there is no need. Good night to you.” Daron could only watch incredulously as Aria-if this was Aria-was led inside the van. As she climbed in, a car from another direction passed by.

The car’s headlights shined into the van. There, in the back of the van, was a figure. There was an odd contraption attached to the head, similar to headphones. When the car’s headlights swept in, Daron saw a pair of dark-rimmed glasses.

He saw a familiar pair of eyes.

Aria!” he roared. The figure with the strange headphones turned to him in alarm. The eyes welled up in sudden tears. The lips opened to say something, but no words came out. Daron began to rush the van. “Aria!”

Mark was holding the door when Daron ran towards the vehicle. He only looked at Daron, his smile now turning into a smirk. Did Daron just see a streak of silver flash over the man’s eyes? Did he just notice the man’s eyes go all black afterwards before returning to normal? The van’s door slammed shut and it quickly drove away with a squeal of tires.

“No! Aria!” he shouted. He could only slap against the rear of the van as it sped off. The one at the back was Aria, the real one! He couldn’t keep up, but he saw Aria turn to him and shake her head, tears now running down her face. It was the last thing he saw before the van disappeared into the night.

He was trembling with rage. What the fuck was happening? Who was this Mark and the others? Why was the Aria who sang in the bar a fake? Why was the real Aria crying? He’d seen her now, and he couldn’t let this go.

He’d find a way to get Aria, the real one, back.

A Discovery, A Suspicion, and Memories

“Hey, isn’t that Aria? “

Vermo nudged Daron with an elbow, and the latter looked up from his mobile and turned to where his friend pointed. His eyes went wide in shock. “Punyeta,” he hissed.

Aria, that woman who disappeared almost six months ago, the woman who suddenly cut herself out of his life, was definitely right across him. She was wearing a black gothic-inspired dress, complete with a lace corset and heavy eye makeup, but it was her alright. The way the length of her hair fell around her shoulders, albeit now slightly permed in style; her manner of standing – slightly straight, with a lean towards one side; a slight tilt of her head as she looked somewhere else – it was all Aria.

Anger boiled up inside him like a flash of molten lava almost breaking through the surface. He remembered when she went on one of her bouts of Facebook deactivation; he thought it was just another pout.  He’d been too busy with work to notice; besides, he thought that she’d be back in no time, posting her short fiction pieces and sharing strange science news. But when two, three…FOUR weeks passed with only silence from her and her Facebook account still deactivated, he worried. 

He worried more when he could not reach her. Texts did not get a reply. Calls went unanswered. He could not even catch her at work or at her home; she was either gone by the time he arrived there or she was somewhere else. It was a frustrating cat-and-mouse run around. A few days of this and worry turned to anger. How dare was she acting this way? Who did she think she was? He decided to give it up; if she didn’t want to be bothered, then so be it. However, even as he decided that, there was pain in his chest. It was like being abandoned all over once more. 

But here she was again, just a few paces in front of him. He would have stood up, marched over, grabbed her wrist and dragged her away to a quiet place to talk, to demand an explanation from her. He couldn’t. There were four other men surrounding her. They wore clothing similar in style to hers, and two of them held guitars. They waited as the stage was completing its setup for the gig tonight. “Wow,” quipped Vermo, “metal heads.”

Daron glanced at his friend. “Why?”

“Dude, would you play pop music with those outfits?” Vermo retorted. He then chuckled. “This’ll be interesting. I wonder how they got the owner to agree for them to play here?”

Daron returned to his contemplation of Aria, looked back at her. It would make sense, he mused, as he knew her to be an avid metal fan. He tried to get her to sing a pop song in another language before, to her amusing display of consternation. From one of the last times they’ve met, he made her agree that she was supposed to sing it to him after a couple of months. By the time the “deadline” came about, though, well…she was already gone. 

As he looked at her, he felt disconcerted. She was still staring at somewhere else, not minding anyone around her. Not even her band mates. She was quiet and still, almost unmoving. 

“Thank you for waiting!” the bar owner’s voice boomed from the speakers. Daron turned to see a middle-aged, swarthy man in a dark-colored polo and black denim jeans. “Welcome to another round of Free Notes, where we feature a variety of music groups each night! Tonight folks, we’re in for a rare treat.” As he spoke, Aria and the other men moved onto the stage and went to their positions. 

“Music has always been a subjective thing; it’s either you like a song or not. Most of us wouldn’t listen much to metal as it’s considered ‘noise’. However, this next band will assure you that you’ll be head banging like never before, even if you’ve never done such a thing in your life. Ladies and gents! Friends, I bring you —

“The Nobodies!”

There was scattered applause as the band members moved to their places. Aria went to the middle of the stage, the lead vocalist position. Daron stared in surprise. He’d known that she was capable of singing, but he didn’t think that she’d actually front a band, and a metal one at that. He didn’t realize that he now leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table. 

However, she did not speak, even with the mike already near her face. Her head was slightly bowed and she remained standing still as the man at her right spoke into his mike. “Hi folks,” he said in a low voice. “Like Trieste said, we’re The Nobodies. I hope you enjoy our performance.” He nodded to the other man at Aria’s other side, and this man reached out and smoothed Aria’s hair. The drummer struck his sticks thrice, and the first song played in a high, heavy guitar riff. The drummer followed it up with a steady beat on the cymbals and bass drum.

All the while, Aria remained motionless. A few notes before the first verse started, though, she finally lifted her head. Her face was expressionless, but there was a hardness in her eyes that Daron did not see before in all the months he’d known her. 

Then, she started singing.

It was as though a huge gust of wind in the form of a giant fist went in and punched him in the gut. Her voice had power, weighty and unwavering. He thought her in the soprano range before, but this song made her voice lower, and you could hear every syllable, every nuance of feeling. The way she stood would make any model jealous; she owned the room the moment she opened her mouth. She gestured with her arms as she sang like a leader on a podium delivering an impassioned speech. She was like a dancer with the way she moved; her body movements told a story of war and pain, of power and guiltlessness. 

When the song finished, everyone was clapping and cheering. Vermo gave a loud whistle with his fingers. “Go Aria!” he cried. 

If Daron wasn’t so set on staring at the stage, he would have missed it. The man at Aria’s right look startled from Vermo’s cry – a look of alarm. He leaned back slightly to gesture at the other man across him with a nod of his head. The other man frowned and made a quick, snappy shake of his head. Daron’s brows furrowed at that exchange, curious to what that meant. Meanwhile, Aria stilled once more in the same pose she had before singing. She did not even acknowledge the audience’s cheers in any way.

“Thank you!” the man who spoke earlier exclaimed. He then introduced himself and the rest of the band. So he was Mark, while the other man across him was Colin. Sloane was the drummer, while Damien was on bass guitar. “And the only rose in the thorn bush,” Mark said as he pointed to the vocalist, “our lovely Aria!” 

The audience cheered again, clearly enamoured with the singer. It was then that she raised her head. Her expression was still impassive when she pinched her skirt at both sides and curtsied. The cheers became louder, but Daron frowned. It was so minute that he felt that only he saw it – there was a moment that when she bowed to the audience, it was not smooth. Her movements were jerky, almost mechanical. 

“You want more?” Mark cried out, to which the audience roared in the positive. “You’ll get more!” He replied with a quick punch to the air.

A Battle for the Princess

The ice began to envelope the unconscious Princess, crystal by lovely, shining crystal. Even though she stood, she looked as though she slept. The ice kept creeping up around her and surrounding her body.

Bjork observed the process with a critical eye, his gaze fixed on the Princess’ face. “Such peace,” he whispered. He took a step closer and touched her chin with a finger. He gently lifted her face up to get a closer look. “You -are- pretty, though in a plain way,” he said clinically. He then smiled. “Never mind,” he said, “for you’re mine now, Princess.” He moved his face closer to hers.

“DON’T TOUCH HER!” 

Bjork paused just a hair’s breadth away from the Princess’ lips and grinned. “Ah, so there you are.” He turned to see a black wolf panting a few feet away from where he stood. The wolf was bleeding in several places, and his right eye was swollen shut. The body’s jerky movements showed that he was limp in his hind leg as well. He sighed like there was nothing alarming in the wolf’s arrival. “I’m surprised you actually came. There was no need for it, though.”

Despite looking weak and battered, a low rumbling growl issued from the wolf’s throat. “Let her go,” he snarled. Bjork blinked as though surprised. “No!” he exclaimed. “Good heavens, no. Why would I? She’s quite a precious little thing, isn’t she? The crowning piece in my collection.” He leaned against the Princess’ head and nuzzled her hair. He inhaled deeply with a smile. 

The wolf growled even louder, his voice almost a roar. “PAWS OFF HER!”

This time, Bjork frowned. He regarded the wounded wolf again. “And what, -PUP-? What can a little dog like you do to someone like me?” With that, he fully faced the wolf. His eyes became fully black, and his mouth lengthened. Fur quickly grew from him and his shoulders bulked from behind him. The ground shook as his true form emerged and his paws thudded loudly against the dirt. 

The huge grizzly roared his challenge, his mouth wide open to show his fangs. “A puppy going against a royal like me? Laughable!” 

The wolf growled again and lunged forward, his own fangs bared. 

The Princess remained in magicked slumber.

Generational Voices

When I was first introduced to James Joyce, it was during one of my classes that focused on fiction masterpieces in the MFA Creative Writing program. That book was the monumental Ulysses, and one of the course’s agenda in analysing these novels was to read one per week before the Saturday class came about for the corresponding class discussion and critique paper from it. So imagine me with a nearly five-inch book and trying to read it. I only got until three chapters before I got dizzy. That was around two years ago. When I saw the short story collection of Dubliners, I was a little hesitant to go through it. The sting of Ulysses has gone far with me, and I thought that this particular work will have the same effect. I’m glad I made a mistake. The Dubliners is quite different both in scope and language, and that’s good because even those of today’s generation can understand this.

This short story collection contains 15 tales. Ranging from those just breaking into their adolescence to those in maturity, the protagonists of these stories look into epiphanies of their lives. These epiphanies are not so directly stated, though. Unlike the blissful migraine that is Ulysses, these stories have a simpler tone and language. Also, the stories are presented from the protagonists’ standpoint, albeit avoiding the first person point of view. This then presents the protagonists very much in line with their surroundings, though the surroundings themselves look to fade as we are faced with how the characters view their environment, their situation, and thus, their relationship with such. One more thing that looked to be in common with these stories is that the endings are not so clear cut. There are no definite mentions on what really happens in the end, where the reader is presented with either the protagonists’ final thoughts or impressions on what was done, seen or heard. With such techniques, the reader is left to her or his own in drawing conclusions on what could be the most possible ending.

Reading through these stories did not make me lose my mind, if that’s a good thing. It has been said that Joyce wrote these stories at the height of Irish nationalism. You can definitely feel that as Joyce is particular in mentioning each place in Ireland. The simplicity of the language contributed to a certain “silence” that the protagonists are going through, even as they go through their own confusions, questions, and ruminations. This gives me the impression that the stories can be relatable for any reader of any age. What everyday scene after all wouldn’t lead to a more “contained” manner of response? Except for truly excitable, squeal-or-shriek worthy moments, we face life with a more subdued view, unwilling to let our thoughts really come out and be seen by others. And with that, I am thankful that reading these stories did not make me go all woozy.

If you’re not familiar with James Joyce, then this collection would be a good primer. At least it will give you a sense of how his writing style, which changes a lot when he worked on Ulysses. Trust me, you’d be glad if you started with this one.