Daniel was praying.
It was still early, sunless dawn filling the sole window of his bedroom. In the next room, the spring mattress squeaked, a body shifting weight. Daniel tensed, listened for more waking noises. But the snoring—he couldn’t tell whether his mom’s or dad’s—continued. They would be glad to see him up this early, already on his knees.
It was Sunday, which meant his parents would rise soon to prepare for the Session. The green Salvation Army couch would be pushed against the living room wall to make space for extra chairs, as if many guests were expected. The talking table would take the space in the middle to allow everyone a good view. The Holy Spirit favored cleanliness, so his mother sanitized its round rotating top while his father complained about the smell of Lysol.
Sundays were the worst.
But the rest of the week, Daniel thought, was not much better. He hated school. It was ridiculous to have been admitted to universities in Manila only to repeat two grades in Vancouver. It was hard to make friends because they changed classrooms every period. At lunch break, they ate off trays with compartments, like babies. He sat with Harold and Nico, both Filipinos who had grown up in Canada, who said “awesome” about completely ordinary things and rolled the vowels off their tongues when they spoke Tagalog, making them sound like girls.
Saturdays went by too quickly.
Sundays used to be fun. Back home, they had gone to the Center with other Spiritist families. Before the Session, Daniel and his friends walked to a nearby wet and dry market just in time for the stalls to open for the day. With money doled out by their mothers, they bought steamed rice cakes and syrupy drinks with slivers of gelatin. Their laughter echoed throughout the festive labyrinth of food and wares. Vendors eyed them sternly as they flipped through displays of bootlegged DVDs, inspected toys and trinkets. Then they raced back to the Center to catch the opening prayer, their church clothes carrying ripe smells from the fruit stands.
Forbidden to play during the Session, Daniel and his friends squirmed and yawned in their seats while the medium imparted holy messages and their parents each shared their reflections. At noon, they feasted on fried fish and boiled vegetables wrapped in foil, rice and hearty stews in Tupperware containers. After lunch, the children played games while the grown-ups lamented about relatives who still followed the senseless rituals and ignorant views perpetuated by the Catholic church.
Even then, Daniel could barely remember the time when his family had been Catholic. They had attended the neighborhood church when he was small; his mother had even wanted him to become an altar boy. But one day, his father started talking about the Spiritists, wise people he had met at the university where he taught. They believed that all beings are spirits going through lifetimes to achieve purity.
Daniel’s mother had been revolted. “You’re letting these lunatics change your faith!”
“Shush, Marcia! These people know the truth .”
“Just listen to yourself. You’re being swayed by a cult!”
“It’s not a cult!”
His father persuaded her to attend the Session for two Sundays. The Center looked like a church anyway, located in a potholed Manila neighborhood an hour’s drive away from their home. Inside, the pews, the podium, and the round table were lacquered with the same parochial mahogany shade. The windows were fitted with wooden shutters instead of stained glass. “Pagans,” his mother hissed, noting the absence of familiar statues and icons. There was an obedient hush as a woman sat on the chair behind the round table and closed her eyes.
“She will deliver a message from the Holy Spirit,” Daniel’s father whispered.
His mother rolled her eyes.
The following Sunday, Daniel began making friends at the Center. He felt a little sad because he knew he would never see them again.
It was summer. Sitting in the Center that morning felt like being in a covered pot on fire. Beads of sweat bloomed on Daniel’s scalp. His itchy polo shirt clung damp to his back. The breeze from the lone electric fan didn’t reach the back row where he sat with his parents. He was about to complain to his mother about feeling dizzy when he spotted Auntie Nelia walking up the aisle.
Auntie Nelia had died of lung cancer before he was born. From time to time, Daniel would catch his mother weeping as she looked through an album of their childhood photographs. He always imagined Auntie Nelia dying during a harrowing chase for breath, buried with lungs blackened by cigarette smoke. But now his aunt was smiling like everything was fine. A chill surrounded Daniel like a bodiless embrace. Then he passed out.
He awoke to find himself surrounded by worried faces. Embarrassed, Daniel sat up. His back felt sore from lying limp on a narrow wooden surface.
“How are you feeling?” His father asked.
“I fell asleep.” Daniel started to apologize, but his father cut him off.
“You’re gifted, Danny!”
His father recounted how Daniel had interrupted the Session by commanding everyone to acknowledge that Nelia Dizon was coming forward. Through Daniel, she declared that her spirit was in peace, and while her ailment had caused tremendous suffering in the corporeal world, it made her fully cherish the love of her family, the gift of life. Auntie Nelia then pleaded with her sister, Marcia, to release herself from the guilt of failing to save her only sibling.
Daniel’s mother declared herself a Spiritist that day.
His new friends were astonished and asked many questions. How did it feel? Did he see God? How about other dead people? Their questions made Daniel feel wise even though he didn’t have any answers, not having recalled the incident at all. At home, his parents acted strangely, observing him closely as he did simple things like finishing his supper or lacing up his shoes.
Days later, Daniel was told of his sacred duty. The mediums believed that his ability to channel the departed could make him an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Daniel felt like a superhero with a mission. When his parents announced his exemption from house chores so he had more time to hone his gift, a gust of self-importance stirred in his small chest, so strong he seemed to float off the hardwood floors he never had to sweep.
Eager to prove his ability, Daniel spent hours of stillness and silence in his bedroom. He closed his eyes, waited for bright rays and floating forms to appear.
“Still your mind.” His father constantly checked on his progress. “Pray for illumination.” But Daniel couldn’t see anything. He mostly yawned and stole glances at the clock.
“I don’t see anything,” he confessed to his parents after a week.
“It takes practice,” his mother assured him.
“We know you have the eye,” his father added. “It just needs time to open fully.”
Another week passed fruitlessly. Silence, Daniel learned, had a life of its own. When he heard his parents moving around the house, his ears devoured their noises as if to stave off a kind of hunger. Boredom drove him to tears. Doubts about his gift wormed into his thoughts, which he crushed by squaring his posture, fixing a somber look on his face. He was no ordinary boy.
One day, while steeped in another despairing bout of meditation, he tried deep words like compassion and godliness on his lips, swirled them around his head. They took hold, blossomed into verses. Sitting still and quiet made his thoughts clamor for release and when he spoke them aloud, the sound of his voice was refreshing, a spring bursting on a cracked dry field.
“I heard you talk,” his father said as Daniel emerged from his bedroom. “I mean, I heard the Holy Spirit. Through you.” His voice was filled with pride.
It surprised Daniel how simple it all turned out to be. All he did was reach for virtuous words floating abundantly in his head and string them together to form a short sermon. Yet when he opened his eyes, everyone in the Center stared at him admiringly and he spied the twinkle in his parents’ eyes.
* * *
“Danny,” His father was knocking on his bedroom door. “The guests are here. Eat your breakfast.”
“Sandali.” Daniel barely hid the irritation in his voice. He changed into his Sunday clothes, hurrying as his skin prickled with goosebumps. They had arrived in Canada last April when the cold, they had been told, wouldn’t be at its harshest. But the sliding doors of the Vancouver International Airport threw them into the icy air that dug into the skin, ridding it the memory of sun and sweat.
His parents could only get job interviews for janitorial and fast food postings. To escape their complaints about degrading duties and graveyard shifts, Daniel took walks around his new neighborhood. He drank in the crisp smell of trees, the sleepy forms of the mountains on the horizon—this new place where he would launch his manhood. He would go to college and make new friends. Get a girlfriend. His first job.
Mediumship didn’t fit in this new life. With a vast ocean between him and the past, Daniel recalled his role at the Center with deepening shame. He now understood that his channeling of the Holy Spirit had been an elaborate act. Auntie Nelia’s appearance had been a fluke, her spirit simply selecting him for being a relative and for his innocence as a child. Was he to blame for the deception? No, Daniel thought. He had only been an obedient son, pressured and controlled by his parents. Here in Canada, he could put that strange chapter behind him.
So he was deeply disturbed when his parents talked about hosting Sessions in their new homeland.
“Why do we have to do this?” Daniel had protested.
His father was surprised by his reaction. “Why would you waste your gift?”
“I already invited people at work,” his mother added. “They’ll be grateful.”
“They won’t understand.”
“It’s our duty as the learned ones,” his father enclosed his family of burgeoning missionaries in a team huddle, “to make them understand.”
Emails were sent to friends in Manila to arrange the shipping of a talking table. Since its delivery, various people had been invited to their home. Coworkers, neighbors, someone they had chatted with at the bank. Daniel pitied the polite strangers who showed up at their door on Sunday mornings. That not one of them returned the following week didn’t faze his parents. They still brewed coffee and boiled water for tea, prepared a tray of artfully arranged cookies from London Drugs, which went untouched, returned to their boxes, to be served to new guests the following Sunday.
This morning’s captives were already in the living room. A middle-aged white couple talking quietly. A drowsy-looking woman in the same uniform his mother wore to work. Mang Goryo from the Filipino store had been finally persuaded. He sat right by the front door. Daniel felt their curious stares as he picked at his breakfast of lukewarm scrambled eggs. In the kitchen, his mother hummed as she lay cookies on a tray. His father asked if anyone wanted coffee or tea. There was a feeble chorus of refusals.
Daniel hated their blissful but useless preparations, their stubborn attempts to recreate the self-righteous social circle they had enjoyed in Manila. Bring your friends, they urged him.
Harold and Nico had enough reasons to make fun of him. They laugh even at lame things like Daniel’s four layers of clothing and the way he stretched his sleeves so that the cuffs would cover his cold hands, making him look like an amputee.
Whenever he felt depressed, Daniel thought of Alyson.
The memory of their first meeting was a piece of bright coal lodged in his head, warming him in his darkest moments. Ms. Loring had paired them up for lab exercises at the beginning of the school year. When their names were announced together, Daniel scanned the classroom before meeting the unfriendly gaze of a girl seated by the window, blond hair catching sparse sunlight.
He approached her after the bell. “I guess we’re partners.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I’ll take a look at the worksheet tonight.”
“Boy, you’re a keener. Lab’s not until next week.”
As Daniel wondered how he had annoyed her so quickly, she shoved her textbook into a backpack, pursing her lips to one side. “Pond water and dead frogs. I did the exact same thing last year.”
“I finished high school back home.” The graduation ceremony Daniel had attended in
March had become a bitter memory. “I should be in college now.”
Alyson’s blue eyes softened. “Oh. That sucks.”
He shrugged, relieved. “So you’ve taken Biology before?”
“My dad died last year. It was shitty, all my grades fell. They told me I have to repeat eleventh grade.”
Alyson smiled, small but a smile still. Daniel watched her hoist her backpack onto her shoulder, her chest rising with the effort. The strap caught her long hair, which she carelessly flung with her hand, frowning a little. They exchanged phone numbers in the hallway as the rushing throng of students parted around them. She smiled again before heading off. “See you around, partner!”
During lab the following week, he asked Alyson how her father died.
“He was so tired from work that day. Mom made some tuna casserole thing but he didn’t like fish. He made himself a ginormous salami sandwich, sat in the living room and had a heart attack during Wheel of Fortune. Just like that.” Alyson snapped her fingers. “He was gone.”
She stepped aside so Daniel could peer through the microscope. He pretended to focus on the tiny squiggly organisms on the slide. “Have you ever wondered where he is?”
“People tell me he’s still around. They say things like, ‘he’s watching over you,’ ‘you’ll feel his love,’ stuff like that,” Alyson said. “No one says what I know.”
“That my dad’s gone. Nowhere. Never to be seen again. Anything else they say is bullshit.”
The growing noise in the living room brought him back to the morning he had to face. The guests were attempting to get acquainted, which pleased his parents. Daniel wished he could stay in his bedroom where he could pray, not with practiced words, but with the wish throbbing within him like another heart. Since meeting Alyson, Daniel had constantly prayed he would receive her father’s spirit, that he would be able to impart the man’s loving message to his mourning daughter. The thought of such a feat—and Alyson looking at him, tearful but joyous—sent a current through Daniel’s veins, encasing him in a radiant glow as if he was a lightbulb.
Noticing he had finished breakfast, Daniel’s mother ordered him to distribute copies of the opening prayer and receiving hymn, translated in English. But the guests stayed quiet as he and his parents recited the new words. The hymn’s lyrics sounded awkward. Some lines had too many words and had to be sung quickly. Daniel was glad he didn’t have to sing along. It was time to summon the Holy Spirit. He sat at the talking table and closed his eyes.
“Your hearts are vessels of kindness that also harbor vain desires. Your journey as spirits will be richer if you let it unravel, giving and selfless.”
Kindness. Desires. Words came to him slowly today. It was freezing in the living room, his mother always wary of the heating bill.
“Strive to be a fount of compassion. You are all here to light each other’s paths.”
Daniel opened his eyes. Brief today but his parents looked satisfied. The guests stared at him with the same look of mingling fear and confusion he had seen every Sunday but had never gotten used to.
* * *
At the cafeteria, Daniel grabbed a ham sandwich, not bothering with the baby tray. Joining Harold and Nico at their usual table, he saw Alyson across the hall, daintily eating her mac-and-cheese. He pondered his plan: after school, he would invite her home where he would tell her everything. She would doubt him at first, he anticipated doubt and resistance. But Daniel believed that selfless intention and deep faith could stir his dormant gift from years of unuse, forge the same miracle it had for his mother years ago.
“Hoy! ” Nico waved a dirty fork at his face. “Snap out of it!”
Daniel nearly bit his tongue. His mouth had been open. “Fuck off.”
Harold whistled. “Can’t blame you, man. I mean, Alyson? Have you seen her tits during PE? She’s fucking hot.”
Daniel’s face burned.
“Ask her out.” Nico chewed loudly. “You’re always so cold, you could use the hand warmers.” He and Harold snickered.
“It’s nothing like that!” Daniel’s voice splintered with an indignation that surprised and embarrassed him at once.
“Cool lang, pare ko,” Nico said.
“Cool laang , pare kow ,” Daniel mimicked, with a girly flick of a wrist.
Nico turned red. “What the fuck is your problem?”
“Nothing.” Daniel looked down at his sandwich, which he had squeezed into a roll. Meat and mustard oozed between the slices, about to burst through the tight plastic wrap.
His heart pounded for the rest of the afternoon. Daniel imagined his pulse was a signal being transmitted between the earthly and spiritual planes, warning of imminent contact. By the last bell, he was spent and sweating as if he had come to school with flu. With heavy but determined steps, he searched the corridors and found Alyson talking to her friends.
“Hey Aly, do you have a minute?”
They all turned to him with lifted eyebrows, lips giving off fruity smells. Only Alyson smiled. “Hey partner, what’s up?”
“Do you have plans tonight?”
“Why do you ask?”
Daniel arranged a casual look on his face. Her friends were watching him closely. “I want to show you something at home. Something cool.” For some reason, he felt a little bad about the word cool .
“What is it?”
“It’s kinda hard to explain. It’s something that belongs to my parents that I can’t bring to school.”
“So mysterious.” Alyson made tiny waving gestures with her hands. “Can they come?”
“I’ll get in trouble if I show it to too many people.”
“Oh, okay.” She flashed a playful look and said goodbye to her giggling friends. The weight that fell off Daniel’s shoulders was promptly replaced by a vertiginous pit in his stomach.
There was no turning back.
It was raining. Daniel was glad he had brought an umbrella because Alyson didn’t bring hers. On the way, their conversation was easy and friendly. He started to relax. His elbow brushed against Alyson’s shoulder. Remembering Harold and Nico’s taunts, he straightened and studiously avoided contact with her jacket.
At home he carried the talking table to the center of the living room.
“Wow!” Alyson carefully touched the surface. “This is neat.”
“It’s used to communicate with spirits.”
“Like an Ouija board.” Her face was bright, lit up by the astounding discovery. “Where did you get this? Do you know how to use it?”
Daniel rested a hand on the table as if drawing strength from it. “Alyson, I wanted to tell you that I’m a medium.”
His mouth felt like paper. “Mediums are people who can channel spirits.”
She gaped at him. “Okay?”
“I once saw my dead aunt. She died before I was born.” It was easy to tell a strange story he knew to be true. “I don’t remember exactly what happened, but she used me to get in touch with my mom. My parents and a bunch of other people heard my dead aunt speak through me.”
“Are you serious?”
“I wanted to tell you about this when you first talked about your father. But you might not understand. But I’ll understand if you don’t understand.” Daniel laughed nervously. “Maybe your dad can come forward too.”
“What are you talking about?”
The sharpness in her voice rattled him. “I—I can channel spirits. I mean, I did it once.
I’m hoping to do it for you.”
“My dad can talk through you?”
“I can’t promise anything, Alyson. But I want to try.”
Alyson stared at the table, no longer touching it. “This has to be a joke.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. That you’ll think I’m making fun of you.” Daniel thought this was how it must be like to stand on thin ice. One careless step and he would plunge to icy depths, shaking and flailing. “I need you to trust me, Alyson. I don’t exactly control this thing. I know it’s possible, but it’s not entirely up to me.”
“Are you nuts? You’re trying to tell me the dead can talk through you.”
“It happened once.”
“You already said that,” she snapped. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you. Especially not about this.”
Alyson still looked upset, but she nodded slowly, accepting what he just said. She looked around, as if searching for a proof of his impossible claims. “This is really weird.”
“I know. But I’m telling the truth.”
“Oh, man. I mean, it would be really cool if everything you just said were true, but I just don’t believe it.”
“That’s fine.” Daniel approached her. “My mom didn’t believe it at first. Until my aunt came forward and asked her to stop blaming herself for her death. Alyson, I know you lost someone you love. You’re probably sick of hearing this, but I swear your father is around and he knows how you feel.”
Alyson’s eyes glistened.
“I didn’t mean to make you sad,” Daniel said.
“I miss him so much.”
“Just try to reach him in your thoughts while I pray.”
She shook her head weakly. “This is hard for me, Daniel.”
Her vulnerability touched him. It also made him feel in charge. “It’s okay. Maybe you being here is enough. But I can’t promise anything.”
“I know. You told me.” Alyson steadied her voice. “It’s up to him. Or other things we don’t understand, I guess.”
“That’s right.” It was the best scenario he could ask for. Alyson trusted him, willing to try with an understanding that things might not work out. A teardrop was trailing down her cheek. Daniel reached out to wipe it off then hesitated, his hand between their faces. Alyson rubbed it away, giving him a kind, embarrassed smile. She lowered her head as he placed his hands on the table.
“Well, good afternoon!”
Daniel jumped. His father stood by the bedroom door, wearing a mustard pajama set, another Salvation Army find by his mother.
“I called in sick today.” Then he explained in Tagalog he had a headache, as if this was something Alyson shouldn’t know.
“Um, hi. I’m Alyson.”
Daniel watched them shake hands. His father eyed the table. “Why don’t you take a seat,
Alyson? And Danny, you know that table is not a toy, right?”
The table felt heavier as Daniel carried it back to its corner. His father sat down on the couch and started talking as if it was his conversation that got disrupted. “Listen, young lady. I heard some of the things my son has told you. Before you get the wrong idea, I will teach you the true philosophy behind Spiritism.” His voice was gruff from sleep. Daniel cleared his own throat, but his father didn’t catch the hint.
“Spiritism was founded by Allan Kardec, a French scholar. The proponent of this belief was an intellectual. He wrote numerous books about his own encounter with spirits. I don’t believe he set out to reach his dead parents.”
Daniel gingerly sat beside Alyson, whose eyes were wide.
“Do you know my son is a medium?”
“He told me.”
“Most religions promote judgment in the afterlife. Do you get rewarded? Or punished?” His father chuckled the way he did at ideas he found ridiculous. “You only get one shot at proving yourself. But the essence of Spiritism is evolvement.” He held up a hand with fingertips pursed together at the word essence. “We are all immortal spirits on a journey to perfection. I am. You are.”
Alyson nodded politely. Daniel wondered if they could laugh about this at school the next day. His father tilted his head, studying her. “Do you believe you’re a spirit?”
Alyson hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“You are. Your father is, too. I’m sure he’s around, watching you.” His father flung a hand as if warding off a bad smell. “Danny, why don’t you heat some water for tea.”
In the kitchen, the running water barely drowned out his father’s voice. Daniel thought about hiding there, pretend to be busy, but it would mean leaving Alyson alone with his father. “After Kardec published his writings in the 19th century, Spiritism reached faraway parts of the world. East Asia. South America. It still has a significant following in Brazil, I think.” His father’s eyes wandered upwards as if his vast body of knowledge was mapped out with the mildew on the ceiling. “I can say it’s the bedrock of all religions.”
“Alyson?” Daniel used the careful tone of someone interrupting an enjoyable experience.
“Let me know if it’s getting too late for you. Your mom might worry.”
She glanced at the window, then at his father, her eyes dancing with indecision. “It is getting late. I have to leave shortly.”
“Have some tea first,” his father urged. “It’s cold out, right?”
Daniel hurried back to the kitchen, turned the stove to High. His father moved on to the lower spirits. Demons. Dwarves. Troubled ghosts. “Danny has to guard against the darker elements.” He wanted to be one of those shadowy beings, existing in a dimension away from their starkly-lit kitchen, the percolating kettle, the scene in the living room. He paced at the entryway between the dining area and the living room. The kettle took its sweet time enjoying the red burning stove. Alyson was sitting with her back straight.
“Back home, most people worship images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. They don’t understand that God is in us.” His father placed an open palm on his chest. “And the Holy Spirit can communicate with us. They think Spiritism is all about faith healing. Chants and seances.” He turned to Daniel with a look that was vaguely conspiratorial. We might do some of those, but there’s certainly more to it.”
“I see.” Alyson glanced at Daniel.
“Did Danny tell you what we do on Sundays?” Daniel wanted to die.
“No.” Alyson actually sounded curious.
“Every Sunday the Holy Spirit imparts a lesson through him.”
“What do you do on Sundays?”
“Oh, we don’t really do anything for worship. We just stay at home, I guess.”
Alyson’s casualness landed like a boulder on Daniel’s chest. His father looked at him as if this was his fault but mustered a kind voice. “That’s fine. We accept everyone.”
The kettle finally whistled. By the time Daniel carried the tray of steaming teapot and mugs into the living room, his father had started talking about reincarnation. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, it applies to you,” he pressed as if he and Alyson were in a heated debate. Daniel poured tea, the hot trickle dousing the vision of him and Alyson laughing about this afternoon like a dream dashed by waking.
“You didn’t steep it.” His father frowned at the pale liquid. “That’s weak black tea.”
“Oh, black tea. I’m sorry, I can’t drink that.” Alyson looked at his father, then at Daniel.
“I don’t sleep well when I take caffeine in the afternoon. I should have told you sooner.”
“We have hot chocolate,” Daniel’s father offered.
“Uh, no, thank you. My mom’s making supper. She’s waiting for me.” Alyson rose, looking at Daniel. Registering the wordless plea in her eyes, he thought of a bird that had just freed itself from a tight crevice, fluttering heavily bruised wings. “I’m sorry. I really have to go.”
“Shall we expect you this Sunday?” Daniel’s father stood up, reluctantly.
“I will try.”
“Don’t just try. It will change your life.”
Daniel saw her off outside. Later, during supper, his father would complain about her rudeness and his mother’s eyes would widen at the thought of an atheist in their home. But even before she left, there already was the sense of irretrievable loss, something broken beyond repair. He kept apologizing to Alyson without being clear about what he did wrong, and she kept telling Daniel it’s okay, without real assurance in her voice. The dusk shrouded her face in shadows.
“I didn’t know he was home. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. See you at school.”
“See you tomorrow.”
She walked away, shoulders sagging beneath an unseen weight. He thought about walking her home, but when she reached a street lamp its glow revealed her hurrying. Fleeing. The rain had stopped anyway, just its cool and lonely smell in the air. Daniel watched his friend grow smaller with each step.
Leah Ranada was born in the Philippines and moved to Canada in 2006. She currently lives in New Westminster and work at the University of British Columbia. Her short stories have appeared in Room Magazine (2nd Place, 2014 Prose Contest), Scarlet Leaf Review, e-merge Anthology (TWS-SFU, 2013) and elsewhere. She blogs at leahranada.com.