Until he met the girl, Mateo did not know that the soul could thrive in such an emaciated hulk, but she was real, as tangible as the small cloud of flies hovering around her, and until he had looked into her eyes, he had never seen irises so darkened by adversity. Her deep cheeks, protruding collarbone, and limbs that had more bone than flesh in them revealed the years of deprivation that had shriveled her stature to that of a younger child.
From the counter, Mateo watched her rooted on a shallow pool of foul water, staring at his humble grocery before striding to him with the obeisance of people who breathed on charity. From her previous visits, he could see her presenting a ragged list of the barest necessities. He abandoned the cash register and hurried to the door, spreading his arms across his threshold. “No. Not today,” he curtly said and turned his back.
“Please… ” Stung by the plaintive cry, he resorted to examining the growing void on his store shelves and remembering that only the grocery stood between his family and the cold streets. Like the girl, the pain eventually left him and his thoughts about his dwindling stocks.
The next sunrise found her planted on the same pothole across his stall, attended by flies, pale-lipped, and with less flesh clinging to her. The increasingly empty store shelves cried louder to Mateo than her eyes. Mercy would only further deplete his meager stocks with no hope of replenishment soon. He treated her like air — present but invisible.
She visited Mateo again the next morning, watching from the same spot and displaying more bones. Her eyes lightened when he beckoned to her.
“He hasn’t returned since… since…”
“Saturday?” Mateo supplied the answer and she nodded. That was the last time he’d seen the old man on Sunrise Boulevard, pricking the conscience of the generous with his gauntness. Sensing her eyes lingering on his store shelves, he presented her a notebook stapled with bits of paper scrawled with the most humbled goods that his neighbors needed but lacked because of their scant finances. Every payday, he would attend to a stream of dutiful debtors who, upon settling their old obligation, would quickly present fresh lists. Lately, however, his visitors had dwindled while his notebook had swollen with unpaid debts.
“Your grandpa hasn’t me paid in a month.” He retrieved the notebook when she started wetting it with her tears.
“Food… ” She received the same rebuff from his turned back.
The next day, the girl was not on her favorite pothole to torment Mateo with her hungry eyes. All day, in between swatting flies and attending to a handful of customers, the grocer would glance across the store and see the cardboard wall of a shanty, garbage carpeting the ground, and the fetid pothole. He imagined her practicing her family’s trade, sitting on a sidewalk, jiggling a can to passersby, displaying her bones to better aid the humane in parting with their loose change.
The following day passed without the girl occupying the pothole. Only flies and the nearly destitute visited Mateo. Before shuttering his stall, he surveyed the dark and stinking space across his store. No scrawny girl occupied the spot, only rats the size of cats.
Death’s intimacy with the misfortunate showed in its frequent visits to the discarded cardboards, wood splinters, and metal sheeting that Mateo’s neighbors had sewn into homes. Death was even more powerful after a bountiful reaping, its stench overwhelming even Mateo who had grown and lived with rot. Only his notebook, tucked into his back pocket, pulled him back into the mishmash of wood, carton, and sack that was home for the old man and his grandchildren.
Speaking behind a crude facemask, Mateo asked the colony elder present. “How long?”
“A day at least. Ben, here,” the elder indicated a man who lived in a pushcart groaning with recyclables, “said he last heard the children crying for food about Thursday or Friday, nothing on Saturday, then he smelled something rotting. This girl,” he toed one bloated corpse, “went to your store last week a few times, right?”
The girl’s gaunt body was puffed but some of her bones still showed. “Yes, begging that I lend them some food… but… I… I turned her away.” The men did not flinch from his revelation. “Her grandpa hasn’t paid me in a month. Worse, he’s been missing for a week.”
“So they died of hunger, nothing unusual. The cops will say the same thing.” Mateo’s eyes sifting through the family’s possessions caught the elder’s attention. “After the cops are done, pick anything you can salvage. They still owe you.” The order made Mateo feel the gulf between his family and the cold streets widen but only by a meter.
Mateo surveyed the house again, and this time, his sight settled at the still girl. “No,” he pulled out his notebook, “they owe me nothing.” There was the ripping of paper, and a shower of the shredded notes.
Prospero E. Pulma Jr. is a Filipino whose stories have appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Flashes in the Dark, short-story.net, and Very Short Stories for Harried Readers, a local flash fiction anthology. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, www.inquirer.net.expressions, and Philippine Panorama have also published his essays and poems. He also posts identical entries on his Friendster and Blogspot blogs.