Gun Dealers' Daughter

By Gina Apostol


W.W. Norton
July 2012


My doctors say (they're a bit cuckoo, I'll admit, one of them fairly rundown himself) that cases of anterograde amnesia are common in traumatic instances. A senile diagnosis. How can it be amnesia if one remembers even the terms for herbs or the shine of someone's shoes? But this is my case, the doctors say: I carry phantom mnemonic cargo, nauseous waves of memory. I shore them up by words. I've been given the medical term for intermittent clarity, these strikes of lucidity upon which memory invokes its pathetic fallacies: hyperthymestic scenes, with lacunar phases. The mind at the best of times is a ruinous house, with traps.

Language plays its part, the doctors say: above all, words are symptoms. I must be alert. Even one's vocabulary could be a crime. The way sounds repeat themselves. Assonance. Odd lines in slant rimes. Repetition: the site of trauma. Repetition is the site of trauma, the doctors repeat. Beware the Asian mariner, the lady with the albatross. Words have their own way with you: be careful. Allusion, ditto. Consonance, epistrophe, chiasma, miasma. Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

But I kept practicing, and sometimes I felt I could become whole. Words were everyone's crutch, anyone's accomplice. I told the aging quack doctor—is it not so, that it is language that will save me? This work I am doing right now could become a hesitant, ­crepitating—talambuhay? A reckoning. A confession. The doctor just kept coughing, looking for something, a slipper, the cat that got his tongue, hiding under a rug. Bunch of useless geriatrics. True, he could be right. "Reckoning" may be too strong a word. And to what was I confessing? Who was to blame? The doctor kept scratching at his throat, coaxing out with scrawny fingers his furtive phlegm.

The strange thing was, when the day came that I could write whole paragraphs, tentative, one-storied stories, linked sentences in a coherent void, my vertigo stopped. Rooms stabilized, objects stayed in place.

My parents soon returned to Manila. I understood that Frankie and Reina Elena, founders of Soliman y Kierulf Import-Export Emporium, Inc., were building a new palace. They had a business that required their presence all over the world, from Ankara to Zamboanga. Their lackeys remained: comforting stooges with graduate degrees. They were harmless, but I kept away from them nonetheless.

Intermittently, my parents would telephone. But since it became increasingly clear we had nothing much to relay to each other, even these halfhearted acts diminished. One must forgive them. They were dealing with architects, feng shui advisors, visionary salesmen of their new order. They were carrying an empire into a new world. And in the meantime, I was gathering a sense of self without a designer to keep me informed of my errors. My days were subsequently taken up by my disasters.

To be honest, the early days in this precarious mansion had a calm sense of emptiness that might translate, if I bothered to name it, into a kind of peace.

So maybe my discovery of that oriel window was unfortunate. I do not know how long I meandered along my allotted portion of the house, like an obedient child, with the gym to the west and the balcony facing the river, so that some phantom of beauty always hovered about my vision wherever I turned.

That day, I was done with lunch, and with guilt I had left unopened the canopied silver of the usual canapés—Reina Elena had left behind a new chef, a shy girl named Eremita. Victoria Eremita. When I was done with all my meals, Eremita, who looked only a bit older than I, a slim girl in her twenties, always lifted the covers of the dishes in my presence, to check my appetite for her budding art.

Another servant, some dwarf apprentice, a little man in grown-up clothes, also looked at the dishes in reproof. In this way, I learned that dawdling after lunch was impossible: I would witness Eremita's disappointment as she left the room with the laden plates. At first, I felt the need to reassure the girl by biting into each cake and pudding and casserole, flattering her good intentions. Then I took to wandering the hallways and stairwells to escape her return.

As I said, the house in New York was familiar, but surprising. It had lacunar themes—sculpted vaults and scalloped corners. Bootlegger Baroque, Uncle Gianni would call it. I wound up, then down, its marble staircase, knowing someone's steps might follow. Shadows were everywhere amid the Brahmin brocades. But everyone was discreet. Down in the basement, I found a broken bowling alley in a mysterious labyrinth reeking of ancient steam. It was spooky. I rushed up the marble staircase, happy to see a fleeing figure, an orderly with a notepad in his hand, pretending to be a writer, dispelling ghosts.

Back in the house's main rooms, I found myself in the second-floor hallway, where I avoided my image, a serial loiterer against mirrored walls. I escaped into a passage. To my surprise, it opened onto an outdoor ledge, full of ladybugs: a flimsy path, a vertiginous virgin walk. Mine were the first footsteps in ages on its dust. If I reached out, I could grasp the house's buttresses. If I looked down, I would fall.

The best thing about it was no one would follow.

It was this path that led to the oriel window. The window jutted toward the river. I hung upon the window's travertine and peeked into my home's reflection.

At first, all I saw was my face, peering at me in illusion, a figure hanging from a ledge as if seeking refuge from bad weather. The river and the trees behind me framed my dark hair, a graded mesh of black, and a halo of light from the horizon tricked my blinded eye. Gradually, I glimpsed bits and pieces of the benighted room.

It was easy enough to jimmy the window open and enter through the unscreened casement. Moths, cobwebs, a host of ladybugs and gentle pests. I had seen it, an old door, reflected from the window. A massive mahogany vault, with an unaccountable lunette: a peephole of darkness framed in antique stencil.

I walked across the room's dizzy floor, a trippy tortoiseshell motif with an oleaginous layer, a syrup sheen. Everything was dusted and polished, but untouched. The door itself was unlocked, like the rest of the house's rooms. Why lock up a place in which no one ever stepped foot?

I looked out from where I had come. I had a clear view of the silver river. A twin tableau, a pair of stucco pomegranates or concrete figs, framed a vanishing point in my vision, toward the water.

I walked about the cluttered room. I found portraits lined like suspects against the walls. I vaguely recollected them. Solemn pictures of morbid women. A scary child in sausage curls. Watercolors of French cypresses and wheat fields by someone who was not Van Gogh.

A life-size picture, framed in gold.

A diving sensation in my chest. A kind of heated swarming. Pink and blue gases colored the monstrous frame. I heaved. I thought I would vomit, but my throat was dry. My body jerked in convulsions, I was shaking as if poisoned: though I had left Eremita's tiramisu untouched, and my insides, in fact, were empty.