by Helen McClory
Grace unscrews the white lid and pulls out the dripping tiplet and applies the polish to one nail after another, then holds the drying almond surfaces up to the light. Fleck and aura of colour, against the ceiling, the slow chop of the ceiling fan. Tonight’s the night, though it’s not tonight yet. There’s music on shuffle: a mix called MISANDRY+PINK GLITTER. She doesn’t know what misandry means, but it sounds tough and cool, and Grace very much wants to be tough and cool. It’s hot in this island city. Sticky-hot. She’s going out to mass first with her grandmother, because it’s a fast day, the wake of the feast day, and there will be an ash cross on her forehead which she won’t wipe off when she goes to her friend Marites’s house. Her fringe covers the cross anyway and if she rubbed it out, her grandmother would get so sick-sad. She’s been that way too much lately. It can’t hurt.
At the moment of Consecration, the small church begins to sway. It’s an earthquake. A few missals fall to the floor like they’re ducking for cover. Small shock, nothing that could stop the rites. Nothing for Manila. The priest doesn’t even break to look alarmed.
After the mass, Grace says goodbye to her grandmother in the car. The driver takes her on to Marites’s house, a beautiful villa with flowers growing all up the wall and in the garden to greet her a pure white bulldog known as St Michael, but only to the girls, when nobody’s around to hear.
This afternoon, there’s few around to hear the antics the girls have planned. The cook is in the kitchen, making a big salad, without meat, and cutting some fruit for a punch bowl. She doesn’t come upstairs. Marites’s mother and father are on holiday in America, visiting her mother’s sister. Marites puts on her playlist and Grace starts dancing. Then they pull out the hair dye, a blue rinse for Grace, pink for Marites. Snarking clever stuff at the TV, they sit wrapped in towels with masks on their faces, before changing for dinner in the elegant white downstairs, and running back up to try every new item of clothing, Grace’s playlist blaring. There’s a brief descent into a squabble over one of the songs. The girls coming out the other side of that through the power of mango smoothies, which don’t count as sweets. Marites tells a secret. Grace touches up her lipstick after brushing her teeth.
It’s St Michael who saves them. Another earthquake is coming; he wakes first Marites on her queen bed, then Grace on the pull-out cot. Growling and pacing towards the door. Tonight’s the night. They go out into the garden. The sky is low, orange. Pulsating clouds, or a trick of the eye that makes them do that. There’s the idea of neon signs somewhere flickering in reflections on a damp pavement. A strong smell of dama de noche. Marites’s garden is big enough that no part of her house will fall on them, if they go right beyond the pool.
The two girls stand in their nightdresses, barefoot on the manicured grass. Nothing happens. Marites looks at St Michael, and he looks back, frightened. Well, she asks?
There’s a low rumbling. Grace feels it in her stomach, a note too low to be heard, but felt instead. The ground begins to shake. A palm tree makes an awful noise, and in slow motion falls into the neighbour’s garden.
Then, with a sudden wrench, Grace realises the shaking is coming from her. From deep somewhere inside. The ground underfoot splits, soft turf cracking along the lines where it was rolled out just last month. Marites is watching her now. Your eyes, God, she says. Grace can only put her hands to her face. She feels the rumble intensify, as if prying her open. She tilts her head back and feels the intensity vomit out from her, straight up into the sky. A bolt of lightning a bright pink colour, sparkling with glitter.
The noise rises in pitch; no longer earthquake, or thunder, it zips past the extremities of human hearing. St Michael falls to the ground kicking, foam at his black lips. The intensity spreads across the clouds, filling them. Grace can see nothing – the thick light is pouring from her eyes now. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. But she’s not happy with the situation.
As soon as it began, it is over. Grace drops to the ground, panting. Marites stands a while in shock before getting on her knees and touching her friend lightly with her fingers. Afraid to catch whatever it is Grace has. Grace spits into the grass, then reaches out to hold Marites’s hand a while. Soon the girls are hugging close, crying, shaking. The sky continues to rage pink and gold. The clouds burst; a five mile-radius of pink glitter rain falls. The felled tree bursts into flames and is immediately put out by the heavy, lurid shower. Ashes glow like fireflies; neon yellow, rather than the orange of true embers. St Michael whines, and gets up unsteadily, retreating inside.
All this won’t be the first time. But for now it’s only the wrecked lawn, the palm, and across town, the church where Grace received ashes earlier that day, chained in the angelic lightning. Inside, the leftover ashes have all returned to bright glossy palm leaves and burst out of the tabernacle. Even now they are unfurling on the tiled floor, and walking themselves out under the door, out into the Jasmine-scented street.
Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first collection will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.