But the acacia, the acacia, an enormous mouth of a tree, gobbled up the sky. In dry season, fine filmy strings dripped like saliva from its branches. At the end of each string curled a terrible basil, furry black "itchy worms” that left insatiably itchy welts wherever they touched skin. The strings were a hanging mine field. We prayed for those moments when light escaped through the canopy and ran down the lines setting the entire lattice alight. Then, we'd wind our way effortlessly through the treachery.
That Saturday began in a usual manner. The trees calmly chatted with their neighbors while gaggles of birds landed and whooshed through their hair. Just a stone's throw away in the high school yard, Sousa’s marching music blasted the hot morning air, announcing ROTC practice. The high school boys, certain of their beauty in crisp khaki and black shoes, goose-stepped to the captain’s orders. Their secret girlfriends watched from the fence, giggling into their hands as the boys marched past the grand acacia that swallowed a swath of the high school yard.
I was five. My siblings and I were the neighborhood American kids, everywhere noted, then ignored. I wandered past the high school fence on my way to Reyes Sari Sari store for a sipa and plastic balloon, when–it was the next second– something magnificent happens you cannot pray for. You meet the wild angel who annunciates Mary. Huge wings scattered the acacia leaves above us. The girls gasped, “Ang ganda!” They marveled softly in Tagalog: parang Carmen Miranda, from Manila zoo, kaya. She must have escaped and wandered with increasing weariness over Manila's galvanized rooftops.
Oh, I loved her, swiftly. My smallness matched her height. She was my annunciation, regal and strange, her head and bill streaked yellow, maybe green, blue. Fear not. Wide winged, the mal'ach bird shifted slowly on her acacia limb. What? Fear not what? I whisper.
By then, others had seen her too. The ROTC boys gathered at the thick acacia trunk and peered up into the leaves. One boy gave a shout, picked up a small stone and whirled it at her. She gave a small screech and flapped, but did not fly. Pain sliced my heart. And I knew immediately, the way creatures smell terror, that panic had crippled her instincts. Inspired, another boy joined him, then another, another, until pandemonium broke up the military practice. They circled the tree, whooped and threw. Wet stones landed near by and blood splattered the shiny green leaves around me. Her blood was a fire engine red.
I was only five, small and not brave. I knew – don’t make a fuss in public. "Please," I pleaded as the pastor of the big church walked past, "Please tell them to stop!" He shook his head sadly.
Dazed, the bird shifted, one foot to the other. Under my breath, I begged, Fly! Fly, don't stay here, go up to the roof of the church where they can’t reach you! But she smelled her own death. She raised her brilliant bill up towards the crown of the tree and screeched just once. Then she drew up her strength and let go, out over the school yard, wide angel wings over the Quonset roof, toppling down.
I collect bloodied relics of her execution in a cardboard shoe box under my bed. For months, during siesta, I scoop out the box, slip off the cover and whisper to her stained leaves and stones. The old rocks sop up my sorrows, but her blood cries out. One night, four, she presses up through the mattress into my dreams, flapping her wet matted feathers, beak half gasped. I jerk awake, Ay, I can’t save you, Ay!
When we pack up for the ’68 winter of our American discontent, I find the dusty old box mouldering under my bed, spiders' abandoned nests among the stones and the leaves crumbling at my touch. She is distant, sad. “I won’t forget,” I whisper. In the dark earth at the root of the acacia, her elements join the soft bones of fallen fledglings, turtles, ducklings, and our Siamese, Saksit. Through my life she haunts me until she changes back to the angel. I will tell you that story later.