This First Breath
Melissa R. Sipin
Winner of the 2015 Washington Square Flash Fiction Award, selected by Tope Folarin
It starts with a bombing of an ancient city. It starts with the screams of the crowd. It starts with the Pearl of the Orient in ashes. It starts with a general marking his return. It starts with a war. Doesn’t it always start with a war?
There is a woman, and she is dying.
It starts with Intramuros being captured by the Japanese. It starts four hundred years ago when the Spanish came and built a colony on seven thousand islands. It starts when the Spanish lost and the Americans came, forcing English into our mouths. It starts with a war, with the bombs falling from the sky, with the children dying, with the Japanese raping the women, with the gas being birthed from planes, with one hundred thousand burning, with two hundred thousand burning, and everything reduced to ashes. It starts with two atomic bombs, with Nanking and Manila aflame; it starts with the Americans saying: We Americans never quit.
This is where my grandmother stops the myth. She doesn’t weep. She raises her fists, repeats: Those Americans, they never quit. She begins again:
There is a woman, and she is a teacher. There is a woman, and she is beautiful, a dark-skinned pearl. There is a woman, and she elopes with an American officer against her family’s wishes. Utang na loob. No respect, walang hiya, shameful.
So she suffers, my grandmother says.
There is a woman, and she is captured. There is a woman, and she is raped. There is a woman, the wife of a guerrilla, freedom fighter, and she is with child. There is a woman, and the Japanese force a gun between her legs. There is a woman, and she gives birth. There is a woman, and the Bataan Death March begins.
She recants this myth deep in the night, when I am young, three or six. She begins: It starts with a war. Doesn’t it always start with a war?
The child is my father, Narciso, a player, a charming mestizo, a liar, a man who takes after his white father.
My grandmother laughs: Did you know I beat your father when he was young? If he didn’t turn out like your grandpa, maybe then. Maybe then.
Maybe your grandfather died in the march, she lies. It is a white lie, an emotional truth. It is better than him leaving for his American wife, she says. She is drunk, unsure, unwavering.
The myth erases itself—this burning, this first breath of my father.
Then why come here? America? I ask my grandmother.
She is far away. She is someplace cold, dark, unraveling. Ablaze. I beg her to return, to see me again. I am young, I am wanting, I am alone.
In defiance, my grandmother beats me with her fists. Revise that: with a pan. Revise it again: with a bamboo broomstick.
Do you beat me because of the war? I ask her. She does not answer. Maybe then, I say. Maybe then I’ll understand.
MELISSA R. SIPIN is a writer from Carson, California. Her work is featured widely in Guernica, Glimmer Train Stories, PANK, Eleven Eleven, HYPHEN, and other journals. As a Kundiman fellow and VONA/Voices fellow, she is co-editor of Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology of new Philippine myths from Carayan Press, and cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine. She is currently at work on her first novel.