A few days before my birthday, my mother and I would go to the farmers market and buy balut. It was customary to buy three. It was our tradition, not a Filipino one. The man who sold the balut didn’t even speak Tagalog, but she ordered it that way anyway, even when English didn’t take any extra effort. I would hold up three fingers for tatlo, and the man would pluck the warm eggs from under his heat lamps and plop them carefully into a paper bag, reminding us about how his parents never taught him to speak, how all they gave him were eggs, how the joke never got old, and how once a year was not enough to really remember someone. He always asked if we wanted salt, but we refuse it every time. We would take the balut to the McDonald’s across the street and have it with French fries and Orange Hi-C. On our trays, we’d make a nest of potato straw and lay the egg on top of it to begin our process. Eating balut was our yearly ritual. In silence, we thumbed a hole, ate a fry, sucked the soup from the hole, ate another fry, peeled the rest of the shell from the hole until it became a bowl of muddled flesh, ate more fries, lapped the yolk and white, ate fries again, and then devoured the feathery fetus. Each year, they were different: one more or less developed than the other. Their beaks, their lungs, their hearts. All nothing but a shape of what never was. Ugly ducklings, like a newborn’s heads in my mouth, the hair soft and warm, tickling my tongue, bones crunching like the thrum of rain.
I preferred the ones without the batu; the bones were always difficult to pick out and cut my cheek. As I got older, my fingers got bigger, and I liked them less and less. At the end of the meal, my mother would put the third egg to her cheek before throwing it away. She’d always say “someone’s crying” whenever rice fell on the floor or a full carton of milk got expired and went to waste, but she never said that about this. Instead, she said “mainit at mabuhay”, warm and alive, and pushed the trash bin open with her knuckle, dropping it into the waving darkness with the rest of what we didn’t finish.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen going on eighteen when we stopped. The days before my birthday came and went and neither of us asked about it. For years, we let it go. We got older. I went to college, then got a job. Mom worked, then retired. We remained alone, except for each other. Never once did she pester me about finding someone, starting a family, making another.
Then her lab work came in, the x-ray, the biopsy. Something had grown inside of her. It had spread like the footprints of a lost soul, tore her insides like the clawing wrath of a caged spirit. She cried in pain every night, her howling seeping through our walls and into my dreams. Then I saw them. Babies cooing, eating my mother from the inside out. They didn’t stop coming. One after another, a procession of tiny, murderous feet.
When I told my mother about them, she flicked the tube running from her fanny pack to the catheter in her chest. It waved weakly like the fragile neck of a dandelion, the solution staving off her death pumping upwards like slow beads of traffic.
“Let’s go out.” She said, cheek to fist. Bruises dotted her arms. She had hidden her pain well up to this point. What this did to her in the end gave her no reason to anymore.
“Where to?” I asked. Besides the dreams, I had long before made peace with my mother’s death and only wished to help her do so as well.
“Balut. Let’s go get some.”
“And McDonald’s?” I added. I hadn’t forgotten. I wanted her to know that.
A weak smile rose and collapsed. “Like it’s going to be your birthday, anak.”
But I Yelped balut and nothing came up. I called every Filipino market, but no one had any. When I told my mother, she started boiling three eggs.
“Teka muna. When these are done, let’s go.” She said and watched them until they bobbed to the surface like glistening pearls rising from the depths of the ocean. She scooped each one into a kitchen towel, wrapped them up, and put them in a recycled grocery bag.
When we got to the McDonald’s, we got our usual balut combo, but our ritual had changed. By the time we received our order, the eggs had lost their luster and revealed themselves: cold, soft, and lifeless. Nothing lived inside. When the meal was finished, I longed for the duck fetus. I wanted it there for my mother, for both of us. Who were we to think we could replace one egg for another?
“You cannot wish for fragile things to last.” My mother said, the third egg to her cheek after our meal. We were still at our booth, far from the trash. “Things that last, that don’t change, aren’t worth holding onto. Deba?”
I nodded, but I didn’t really know how to respond. I watched her drip move, her life on a string.
But she always knew where to take us, even in that moment, and said, “You know, when you were born, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, is this my child? I thought you were a tiyanak.”
“Wow. Thanks, mom.” I said and laughed, although, for a moment I thought the description was accurate. For as long as she was sick, I felt like a mirror of her fear and pain, a reminder that life goes on without her.
But my mother didn’t laugh. Instead, the egg shook as if coming to life in my mother’s hand. “No, it’s a monster that takes the form of a baby to lure in and eat people who really want children. I really wanted a baby. I just didn’t know I would get one. It’s like you weren’t real.” She reached over and took my hand, the egg glistening at her cheek. In her watery eyes, I saw my own. At her trembling lips, our hunger hung on her words. “But you were there, Anak. You gave me life.”
E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. His newest book is a forthcoming novella called The Cussing Cat Clock (Hash Journal 2022). He was a finalist for the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Fiction and the 2021 Five South Short Fiction Prize, and is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club at the Open Book, Canyon Country. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipino markets to gossip with the crabs.