James Morena

Descended Into the Carnage

Whenever I want to feel more Filipino, I go to my younger sister’s, Alma’s, house. She stands four-foot-eleven. Her skin mahogany. She points with her puckered lips. Eats with her hands. She often shouts ay pangit or ay mabaho while scrolling social media because things are ugly and smelly. Alma, my adopted sister, my blood cousin from the Philippines, bridges my white side, my father’s side, to my Filipino-ness. 

Alma cooks all my favorite foods: kare kare, pancit, chicken adobo, and neckbone soup. The dish I most often roadtrip hours for is Alma’s pork belly. Her pork belly dish tastes beautiful. The meat melts on the tongue. The skin crunches and shatters between teeth. I too have alway enjoyed the ballet of her cooking: her secret seasonings, her boiling the meat, her occasional pirouet to stir the pot with her wooden cooking spoon. The air frying of the pork belly – skin popping, bursting, exploding – takes it to the next level. Sometimes we eat it in spring rolls. Sometimes we douse it in hoisin sauce. Most times I pinch the meat, dangle it above my face, tilt my head back, then let it plummet to the back of my throat.  

Alma cooks whatever I ask. She menu plans all my meals for the length of my stay. There are times when fried fish or broiled crab make the breakfast plate, but most of the time we devour spam and fried eggs in the early hours. Halo-halo makes the dessert menu when we have a hankering for crushed ice, condensed milk, sweetened beans, coconut strips, gelatins, soft yams in cubes, and a scoop of ube ice cream. But it’s the pork belly that I love. The only dish I ever refuse is pig’s cheeks because it reminds me of my youth.  

I often stayed home with my older sister, Cindy, during the summer months. When school was out. All of my childhood we lived on a military base, so there was little fear of crime or child snatching. Staying at home alone never seemed an issue. When I was seven, Cindy nine, we lived on Spangdahlem Air Base in Spangdahlem, Germany. Father worked as an airplane mechanic and Mother barbered on base or out in town depending on the day. 

Most times I played alone while Cindy talked on the phone or had a friend upstairs in her room, always behind a locked door. I played army, dressing in camouflage, crawling elbow and knees under our kitchen table, behind leather couches, along the tiles of our bathroom floor. Or, I dressed as a ninja, karate chopping or leg sweeping our dog, Snowball, as he chased me round downstairs. I sometimes made attempts to spy my sister and her friend as I created telescopes and binoculars out of the cardboard rolls from paper towels or toilet paper. But those endeavors, after Cindy finding me out, ended with pieces of cardboard helicoptering over the upstairs banister, becoming a scatter of debris smothered in tears and anger.

That summer when I was seven, I heard a knock at our front door. I froze. Listened. Snowball, our fluffy white Eskimo Spitz, hid behind me. I had barricaded myself under blankets and pillows from imagined enemies behind Father’s bar. At first I thought that I had kneed or shouldered the oak wood. Then the knock happened again. 

“Go,” I said to Snowball, “see who it is.”

Snowball’s pink tongue dangled. I reached to push him, to encourage him, to send him as a scout, but he dodged my hand.      

The knock sounded louder. 

“Cindy,” I shouted. “There’s someone at the door.”

I listened for movement, for the unlocking of her door, for her footsteps, but there was no sound of her. 

“Go. Bark at the door,” I said to Snowball. But he just stood there, turning his head right then left, pink tongue still sticking out.  

The knock again, even louder. 

I duck-walked to the window. Peeked outside. The sun glared off cars. A deflated football lay in the yard. Our wood fence needed painting. But I couldn’t see anyone. Snowball, one of my bravest soldiers, one of my Japanese warriors, stayed hidden behind the bar. I could see his tiny black nose peeping just around the corner. I wanted to call him stupid. I wanted to yell at him and say, You’re supposed to guard me. But I loved him and he was my friend, so I stood, marched – right foot left foot – to the door. 

Boom boom boom. The person pounded the front door. 

My seven-year-old hand grabbed the knob. I twisted it in slow motion. I cracked the door open. Sunlight crept in. I leaned to see who stood outside. Then cigarette smoke fogged my view. I coughed. I gagged. I felt the enemy had breached my defenses. The combatant pushed the door. I stumbled to the floor as light, more cigarette smoke, and a plastic bag charged inside. My butt hit first then my lower back then my shoulder blades, ending with my skull bouncing on the ground. 

“Snowball,” I shouted. “Help me.”

My arms flailed. My legs kicked. Whatever was in the plastic bag had pinned me to the floor. My chest crushed under its weight. I gasped for air. I rocked back then forth. I looked for the owner of the bag but that person had disappeared. 

“Snowball,” I shouted again. 

He was MIA. So I twisted and turned. I pushed with all my seven-year-old might. After what felt like hours but really a few seconds, the plastic bag and its contents tipped off of me. I lay still for a few seconds taking in air. Tears dribbled down my cheeks. My heart pounding my ribs. After my eyes regained their focus from the sudden change of light, I noticed that whatever was in the bag was eye to eye with me. I jumped back. I scooted against the wall. My legs straight out. My back upright. I heard the tick tack tick tack of Snowball’s claws creeping my way. 

“Come here, boy,” I said. 

Snowball looked apprehensive. He smelled the air. Then he hurried onto my lap. 

“It’s a head,” I said. 

Snowball kept shifting his weight from left paw to right paw then back. I pet his fur as a means to calm him and me. 

“It’s a pig’s head,” I said to Snowball.

He glanced up. Shifted his weight. Licked the air then trained his eyes back onto the plastic bag. I tried to push him off of me, but the moment I moved him onto the floor he climbed back onto my lap. We wrestled – pushing and shoving with hands and feet – for a few seconds.

“It’s okay,” I said. He looked at me. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Snowball and I crawled to the plastic bag. I grabbed it with both hands, turning it so that the snout of the pig faced me. I rolled it onto its chin. Its ears pointing to the sides. I searched for the opening of the bag, listening to the crinkle and crackle of plastic. I managed to unwrap the pig’s head. I sat in my Filipino chair – squating cheeks to calves – studying it. 

“Who do you think that man was?” I said. 

He and I kept our gaze locked on the head. Its eyes bright blue. Its ears splayed like sails. Its nostrils perfect circles. The pig had a double chin and wrinkled forehead. It had two inch, yellow-brown, straw-like hair near its ears. 

“What are you doing?” I said to Snowball. 

I started to sweat as he inched toward the head. His sniffs increased in number and depth. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if the head would suddenly turn, open its mouth, and start chopping at him. I shot my hand out. Snowball flinched, scurried behind me. I stood up, placed my hands on my hips. I stuck my bare foot in front of its mouth, then I pulled my foot back then I again put it into its face. I let my big toe – once, twice, four times – touch its snout. I walked behind it. 

“Where’s the blood?” I said. 

Snowball looked at me then at the pig’s neck, like he too was wondering what had happened. I scrutinized the smooth cut of the pig’s skin. I bent over to touch the pig’s jaw bone. I squeezed its nose. I pulled back its ear to see inside its head. I pried open its mouth to find its tongue. I lay level with it then poked its eyes, trying to make it look up then down. 

“How do you think it died?” I said to Snowball. 

He trotted around it. I followed him. I stopped when he stopped. I moved when he moved. When he looked at me, I looked at him. Neither of us found evidence of violence. No bullet hole. No trauma marks. Nothing. 

“Where’re you going?” I said. 

Snowball had turned, walked into the kitchen. I turned to watch him. He had disappeared around a corner. I heard him drinking his water, then I heard the munch of dog food. I noticed then that I too was hungry. It had been an hour and a half since the head’s arrival and my adrenaline had spiked so I felt famished. I walked into the kitchen and scooped white rice from our rice cooker and scrambled eggs from the fridge that Mother had made for breakfast onto a plate. Snowball followed me around the kitchen. I heated my food in the microwave then carried the plate into the foyer where the pig’s head lay. 

I sat cross legged in front of the pig. I set my plate on the floor. Snowball sat beside me. His eyes followed my spoon from plate to mouth. I wondered what was the last thing the pig ate. I wondered where it had lived. I wondered who the person was who dropped it on top of me. For a moment, I wondered if it was rude that I was eating in front of it. 

“Let’s play army,” I said to Snowball after I had finished eating. 

I sprang to my feet. Snowball started. He pranced with excitement. I ran to the living room. I grabbed a small blanket, tied it around my neck like a cape. We ran into the kitchen, crawled under the table. Snowball and I could see the head on the floor. I pointed my imaginary sniper’s rifle at it. I took aim. I pulled the trigger. 

“Bullseye,” I shouted as I forward rolled from under the table, springing to my feet. 

Snowball and I danced, hopped, jumped around it. I held my fists in the air. He leapt at my waist. We ran upstairs. Grabbed Matchbox cars. Pretended to pull pins from grenades then raining the cars at the pink flesh. 

“Kaboom,” I shouted. 

After Snowball and I became bored with shooting and blowing it up, we pounced on the head. We slapped it. We kicked it with our naked feet. Laughed at the smacks and kwaps of skin on skin. I stood on its face, claiming victory in our battle. We rolled it around downstairs, smashing it into walls and the couches and furniture, shouting: “It’s a cannon ball,” “Watch out for the tank,” “Incoming.” The louder the thud the greater our cheers. We tried to break things. We wanted to destroy everything in our path. We claimed chairs and tables and Father’s bar our nemesis, our challenger, our antagonist. 

“Get them,” I shouted at Snowball as the pig’s head bound for the oven.

“Kill’em,” I shouted as the head smashed into my Tonka trucks. 

At some point, Snowball and I decided that we needed to carry the pig upstairs so that we could Hiroshima a pile of toys that we had strategically placed. He and I shoved the head across the tiled floor. We inched it up the first step then the next one then the next one. We took breaks every few steps. We rested our legs on the pink meat as we caught our breath and re-energized. 

“What do you think will happen?” I said to him. 

Snowball turned a circle.

“I think everything’s going to explode.” I waved my arms in an imaginary mushroom cloud. 

We made it to the top of the stairs. I could hear music in Cindy’s room. I ran into my room. Snatched the lid from my toybox. I hustled back to the banister. Snowball and I shoved and pushed and grunted and moaned as the head steadily wriggled to the edge of the railing. 

“We did it,” I shouted when the head made it to the top, balancing on the banister. 

Snowball and I jumped and karate chopped and kicked the air. We were ninjas. We were generals. We were superheroes. In a matter of seconds we are going to defeat our enemies and bring peace to this crazy world. We kept slicing and round housing and celebrating our dominance over evil.

We turned around when we heard the crash. We came to a dead stop, having forgotten about the head. I began to cry. All that hard work. All that time. We had created the perfect village of toys. We had the perfect projectile. But, we missed the cascade. The tumble of snout over neck. 

Snowball and I raced downstairs. I cried even more. We had missed seeing the rainbow eruption of Legos. We had missed witnessing the combustion of action figures. Most importantly, Snowball and I had missed the spectacle of pig’s brains splattering walls and as one of the pig’s eyes dislodged from its socket then stickied the floor and as the pig’s jaw shattered, leaving it open as though it were singing the high note in some famous opera. 

I sat on the bottom step crying until Cindy finally descended into the carnage. 

“What happened?” Cindy screamed.

I shouted, “I didn’t do it. It was Snowball.” 

Snowball looked at me. His black eyes glossy. He looked at Cindy. I stared at him as he scuttled toward the living room.

“Snowball,” I said. Then I ran to my room where I balled and balled until Mother came home. 

That summer I spent hours army crawling in the foyer searching for the bits of cheeks and brains and pig hairs hidden within crevices that left a linger of rot. The old Filipino man, who had brought the first pig’s head, returned a few more times with other pig heads, but Mother had instructed the man to store it himself. I never thought about what happened to those new heads after I opened the door, watched the old man with cigarette in mouth set it into the freezer, then disappear without once saying hello or goodbye. I didn’t wonder why I never saw my mother cook those heads or even give them away. I, instead, focused my attention on rebuilding my relationship with Snowball. 


James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His writing has been published in storySouth, Defunkt Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Citron Review, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review and others. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.