by Nadine Aurora Tabing
Every childhood summer he returned to a country that felt loose, unfitting: the smothering heat, the sour stews with bone-in meat eaten under a rusted roof, his aunties that gasped, in English, when a butterfly landed on him at the cemetery: Look, your mother is visiting.
Still, he kept returning—he had no other place on earth to which he could return, no stories of no other motherland. He was drawn to the river his mom said she once bathed in, which now was swollen dark with wastewater and, according to his aunties, ghosts: They’ll snatch you to take their place, so they can be free.
Maybe the drowned captured him after all—the river flooded him like blood—he couldn’t escape. It swept him to Bayawan, where constructed wetland wrung sewage to clear water; and in his mind, the seed was planted. He grew it over years of grants, into reeds that grew hardy on heavy metals, whose roots cradled bacteria that glowed as it ungnarled pesticides, runoff. He returned and with his aunties and the barangay they siphoned the river into marshy gardens that rose lush with hanging blooms. The reeds grew tall, sturdy enough to braid into stilted houses, and the barangay rose, over the flood line. The living stems combed the river to crystal; boats wove underneath, finding fish again.
One day, the river shimmered, strangely. He reached—and from the rippling waters rose a wild plume: butterflies, mapwings, their wings veined black with pathways home.
Nadine Aurora Tabing (she/they) is a speculative fiction writer, artist, designer, and shiba inu enthusiast who lives in the Pacific Northwest. You can find her on Twitter at @suchnadine.