Every winter, my Tita Rubia made sure to keep all the doors closed in her house. My mother told me it was not a habit Tita Rubia knew back in the province, back in the Philippines where their home had no doors, and their rooster, Clark Kent, was free to roam where he pleased. He was mean and proud with feathers the color of Superman: blue and red and yellow and alien and white at the same time.
When Lola took Tita Rubia and my mother to California, their father stayed. The first time he wrote to them, he didn’t write about how much he missed his children, and he didn’t make promises about when he would see them again. Neither did he write about the mountains, or the home they had left behind. He didn’t write about the way things changed or stayed the same; he wrote about Clark Kent and his two new baby hens. The rooster and his chicks kept their father company. They roamed through the house proudly, in and out of doors freely. Clark had roosted on the pages of the letter. Their claw marks sheered the edges. Their feathers smudged the ink. It turned out, all his letters would be like this.
Lola was too nice to tell him to stop, too mean to let him go. She hoped he would just forget about them. Tita Rubia and my mother were too young to know what to say, then they became too old to know the right way to say it. The three of them never wrote back.
But their father continued sending letters and feathers–one each time he wrote. Tita Rubia kept them in a mug until there were too many to fit inside, then switched to a shoebox where she also put her savings. She told my mother that when the box was either full of money or feathers, she would go and visit their father and return the feathers to him. A hundred letters or a hundred bean burritos to go, she would tell Lola every Christmas. But, despite how many feathers their father sent and how much money my Tita made and how many winters passed, the box never filled up.
They smelled like damp soil, burnt plastic, and after years in the states, Tita Rubia compared the smell of those feathers to her first job at Taco Bell. The heat and ache of Taco Bell’s steel kitchen reminded her of the humidity of the barrio, the smell of bagged up grease and refried beans reminded her of home. But she had replaced her accent with a drive-thru voice, and a smile under a visor that pecked at my mother’s head when she said goodbye in the morning, a uniform she donned with pride.
When my mother was in her second year of college and my Tita was already assistant manager at Taco Bell, their father sent a letter that Clark Kent and his hens had gone missing. Possibly a Haring Ibon—more majestic than an American Eagle, less known or seen—had taken them. There was nothing left except for their feathers; they floated through the house, in and out of doors. He enclosed two white and a bluish-red one at the bottom of the envelope.
The next letter they got was from Lola’s sister; their father was gone too. It was a heart attack that did it, or it was diabetes, or it was pneumonia. Lola showed no remorse. She told my mother and Tita about what happened as if a minor celebrity had died, and she turned the volume up on the radio.
Upon hearing the news, my Tita Rubia had gone to work like usual. She hugged my mother and pecked at her head with her visor as she kissed her, not a tear or blemish to her Taco Bell smile. But when she returned, the uniform was gone, and she had brought home bags of bean burritos. Tita Rubia had quit and had made herself as many as she could before her manager kicked her out. She had thrown off her uniform in the ground beef, her visor in the tomato tray, and her cupcake voice out the door without apology. When my mother asked her why she had quit a good thing like that, my Tita said it wasn’t a big deal, that she was getting tired of it anyway.
Eventually my mother graduated from college, became a dental assistant, met my father, and had me. My Tita took a test and became a notary. Lola got old and fat and died at ninety-nine. No one ever went back to the Philippines.
The first Christmas without Lola, my mother brought up the box Tita Rubia had kept during her Taco Bell days. Hey Ate, whatever happened to the rooster feathers, she asked. My Tita looked down the hall of her house where it was darkest, where all the doors were closed up.
It’s somewhere I don’t know, she laughed. I took the money from it. Nothing else matters there anymore. And she left it at that.
E.P. Tuazon is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. They have work in several publications and their newest novella called The Cussing Cat Clock was released by Hash Journal in 2022. They were chosen by ZZ Packet as the winner of the 2022 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction for an upcoming book with Red Hen Press (2024). They are currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club at the Open Book, Canyon Country. In their spare time, they like to go to Filipino Seafood Markets to gossip with the crabs.