Rochita Loenen-Ruiz has been one of the most supportive Filipino writers that I know, always trying to find ways to help Filipino writers have a platform or be heard in the West. She’s also one of the best speculative fiction writers I know, and her story in Alternative Alamat remains to be one on my favorites. She’s facing some tough times now — she’s asked for the details to be kept confidential, so for those of you who know why, don’t mention it in the comments — and every little bit helps. Her friend Aliette de Bodard has put up a GoFundMe for her, and any donations or help spreading the word is much appreciated.
Here’s her story, “Mouse and I” — she created it specifically for Ruin & Resolve (our Ondoy charity anthology) even if I was accepting re-prints. Rochita has a habit of going above and beyond that way. Please help if you can.
Mouse and I
By Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Around us, the jungle shivers with life. It moves, it creaks—its gears click and turn. Trees bend and sway, synchronized as always. Sun sets.
Shadows chase us through the foliage. Here we are, Mouse and I. The jungle rotates on its axis and hunters shift through hollow space and metal grass.
“Shhh,” says Mouse.
We crouch behind night-dark bush and watch as light elongates and changes the shapes of hunters and hunted.
Mouse rolls behind rock shadow. His smooth steel skin reflects the darkness under the leaves. Close to the rock, he’s almost invisible. My skin is made of tin, there are orange stripes down my back, and I reflect no light. I’m glad for the give in my body as I try to bend myself to the shape of trees and moving grass. We lie still, and wait, and listen while drums beat, voices chant and hunters hunt.
It’s been like this ever since. Every morning, we wake to the singing of the gears. The bush comes alive with the cha-cha-cha of wind-up monkeys. Here, stranded birds flutter their wings in vain, while the last of the sinuous serpents creeps over the cold earth. In the distance, a tiger roars, but we know better than to be afraid of the tiger.
The tiger is not the hunter.
At night, we listen to grass and bushes bend, we listen to the mournful cry of whomever, and we cower away as the ripping sound of metal tears into the quiet fabric of dark. We tremble because we know survival isn’t a guarantee.
Daylight offers temporary reprieve. In the day, there are no knives and spears. There is no clamor of drums, and no pounding of feet, there is no thrum-thrum sound of a heart going mad.
Out on the plains, the sun shines hot, white, and pure. Scattered remains tell us the story of Eland’s demise.
Mouse beckons and we join the search for nuts and bolts and bits of wiring. Eland was our friend. I think of her leaping through the air, sun glinting off her gold-edged flank, and I know we won’t find much of her skin.
“Here,” Mouse says. He stuffs Eland’s key into my paw. I nod and tuck it into my pouch. Keys are necessary for survival.
By the time the heat grows unbearable, there’s nothing left on the plain and we head on out towards Umberto´s hut and the oil slick.
Umberto looks almost like the hunters, but we know he isn’t one of them. For one, his body is made of the finest steel, and when he oils himself, he gleams all over. Like us, Umberto must wind himself up everyday.
Umberto travels far. Sometimes he’s gone for days and when he comes back he’s always got a pack filled with metal strips, odds and ends, nuts and bolts and tiny screws, and keys to fit any notch you can imagine.
When we get to his place, Umberto’s hut is deserted. We mill around and wait. Maybe he can put together the bits and pieces we’ve got and resurrect Eland. I think of my own resurrection; if not for Umberto, if not for Mouse, I’d still be scattered about in the wind. I´d be nothing but gears and metal rusting away under the heat of the sun.
“Do you think he’s gone walking to the edge of the world?” I asked Mouse.
Mouse shakes his head and looks worried. Soon it will be night, and when dark descends, the drumming starts. We can’t stick around Umberto’s hut for long.
Mouse and I talk about the drumming.
“Maybe the jungle is sick,” says Mouse. “Maybe it’s wearing down, and soon we’ll all fall prey to the hunters.”
“But we can’t let that happen,” I say.
“There’s nothing to be done about it, Fant. We all wind down sometime, and there aren’t any spare parts left to keep the jungle from falling apart.”
“At least we could try,” I reply. “Maybe Umberto can help us fix the jungle.”
Four days later, when we go down to the slick, we see that scavengers have been at work. There’s almost nothing left of Umberto’s hut. There’s nothing except an oil rag that he used to wipe his face with.
“Where’ll Umberto stay when he gets back?” I ask Mouse.
Mouse doesn’t reply. His eyes shift and he looks away towards the East. He looks out towards where the jungle ends and the plain begins, where the hunters come from when dark sets in.
“We can’t just wait for the jungle to fall apart,” I say. “We can’t just wait for the hunters to come with their sharp knives and their twisty hands. This is our home, damn it.”
“It’s the way it’s always been,” says Mouse. “Hunters hunt and we hide.”
I wish Umberto would come back soon. I want to see the sun glinting off his steel frame as he strides towards us. If Umberto were here, we could make plans. Maybe we could even trap the hunters. If we strip off their skins maybe we’ll find the solution to the jungle’s illness.
There’s the remainder of a word on the skin of my back. Umberto shaped my new skin from strips of metal he’d found on one of his journeys.
“F-a-n-t,” says Mouse. “Fant. That’s what we’ll call you from now on. It’s your resurrection name, short for fantastic.”
Umberto taught Mouse to read, and I envy him this gift. But when Umberto brought me back, when he turned the key in my side, it was Mouse’s turn to be jealous.
I turn the key now, and I jump far and high.
“Come back,” Mouse calls. “You can’t go jumping about all by yourself. Think what will happen if the hunters catch you.”
“But if I jump far enough, they won’t be able to catch me,” I reply.
Mouse crosses his paws and looks annoyed.
“You’re not jumping without me,” he says.
“I’ll take you in my pouch,” I say. “Maybe if I jump far enough, we’ll find the center of the jungle. Maybe if I jump strong, we could jump clear out of the jungle into another place all together.”
I shiver when I say those words and I wonder if there is indeed another place beyond the jungle. Is there a place where Mouse and I can live without the fear of hunters coming after us when darkness falls? Will we still hear the clicking of gears and the beating of the jungle’s heart when we’re so far away?
Dark descends quicker than before. The drums beat slower and a slice of dread causes my heart to miss a beat.
“It’s the jungle’s heart,” Mouse whispers. “It’s slowing down.”
From far away, we hear the hunters shriek. We hear the sound of metal on metal, and we fall silent.
In the morning, we awake to the chattering of the monkeys. They make such a clamor that everyone runs out into the clearing.
And there’s Umberto. He’s lying by the slick with rivers of black pouring out of him.
“We found him,” the monkeys cry, hopping up and down in agitation.
Mouse shakes his head, as if he can’t believe it. I tiptoe forward and call Umberto’s name, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. His eyes blink open and shut, his fists open and close, and the black keeps pouring out of him.
“Someone’s taken his key,” Mouse says.
And we know Umberto’s dying and there’s nothing we can do about it.
“Is this the end?” we whisper to each other.
We can’t bear to strip Umberto. These metal hands have helped us all. We’ve seen him gather bits and pieces of what the hunters left over. We know his patience and attention to detail.
Besides, what’s the point of stripping him? Of what use are spare parts when none of us knows how to put them together? We can’t bring the dead back to life.
I lift one of his hands between my paws.
“I’ll miss you,” I say to him.
“It’s those damned hunters,” Mouse says. “Why can’t they leave us alone? Just because their hide isn’t made out of metal, just because they aren’t keyed–do they think they’re better than we are?”
We sit and wait until sundown’s hostile glare turns the slick into a fiery lake. Soon the drums start beating, and we’re up and running towards the shadow of the jungle, towards the shelter of bushes and the maze of vines and tangled weeds.
Around us, the jungle comes alive. The gears click-clack and the trees move in slow motion. The landscape changes, and Mouse and I, we’re caught in the glare of the hunter’s moon.
“Run!” I scream.
The hunters pound behind us. The jungle whirls away, it gyrates, it spins. I can almost feel the pain of those twisty hands tearing through my skin. I remember falling into darkness with the sound of my gears winding down to silence.
I run towards the bush, towards the shape of trees and grass.
“We’re safe. Mouse, we’re safe.”
But Mouse isn’t anywhere.
Out under the moon, Mouse faces the hunters. He’s up on his hind legs, his paws stretched out, his teeth bared.
He doesn’t even turn.
My voice is a sob in my throat. My key’s wound down and my hands have lost their strength. I beat the ground with my feet. But the hunters won’t be distracted. The moon shines full on their faces. They gnash their teeth, they snap their fingers, and I howl when I see twisty things appear where hands should be. There’s that whirring sound. High and keen, I’ve heard it before.
I watch as they close in. They’ve found his key. Metal screeches and tears, and Mouse is on the ground. He’s kicking, he’s fighting, his voice turns shrill as they strip off his skin to reveal the gears turning underneath.
Day is a thin light in the East by the time they’re done. All that’s left of Mouse are strips of metal, tiny cogs, and nuts and bolts scattered every which way. The hunters rise, and I rush out into the open, waiting for them to tear me apart.
“Kill me too,” I want to say.
But they just pass on by, without looking my way.
Mouse is dead. Mouse is gone.
I scrounge in the bush until I find his key. I put this in my pouch next to Eland’s key. I go and sit beside the spot of black where Mouse’s life leaked out of him, and I think long and hard.
Eland’s dead. Umberto’s dead. Mouse is dead. I could be next and there’ll be no coming back this time. I take Mouse’s key out of my pouch, and I think of our conversation:
“If I jump high enough, do you think I could jump clear out of this jungle into another place?”
“Who knows? But you’re not jumping without me.”
I hold his key in my hands, I think of the smooth sound of gears whirring and turning inside the compact casing of his skin.
“I’m not jumping without you,” I whisper.
I twist his key into my notch. It’s freshly oiled and it fits just like an old friend. I feel my springs wind up into a tight little ball. I close my eyes, listen to the sound of the key whirring and turning, and I jump.