about the author

Kawika Guillermo is currently finishing his doctorate in Seattle, where he also teaches literature and writes fiction. His work has appeared in Annalemma, The Monarch Review, Mobius: Journal of Social Change, and others.

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Strange Gifts

Kawika Guillermo

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When I was fifteen or so our gang of young punks would prowl the top floors of the towers in springtime. Facing the sun’s blinding rays, we would catch the canisters that floated in from the southeast wind. With no locks or keyholes, the canisters were meant to be found by anyone, though probably not by kids like us. Anyway we could sell whatever strange objects were inside, and break the metal into sharp edged knives for cooking or, at times, for keeping those Whisp immigrants from our side of the towers. We owned those top floors, those plains of jeweled flowers built by the excessive elite, then abandoned when they discovered the sun’s disease. Since that scalding radiation could poison us at any moment, only the fastest of us could collect the cans. And I was the fastest.

The canisters usually floated in during sunrise. In the mornings I would watch the sky in patient anticipation, until those small multicolored parachutes floated in with the wind, peppering the sky like bits of spices on curry. Sometimes there were thousands of them at a time, and I would wake up before school to the sound of hard metal clacking against my bedroom window. Inside the canisters were all sorts of useful items: canteens, mugs, forks and spoons, long straw hats that kept us safe from the sun, packaged candy, cigarettes and toothbrushes. If the items seemed useless, we could still sell them at the twentieth-floor markets to tourists seeking Whisp exotics. We found half-man, half-animal figurines, dolls made of dyed twine, yellow flowers, and other Whisp trinkets. Only rarely did items float in that we could make no profit from. Once, balancing on the post-consumer billboard above the shooters mall, I caught a can filled with blue powder that puffed into the wind and covered me in a dust so enchanting it drew me into a primal rage and took days to scrub off. Once, during the three-minute interval between commuter trains, I caught a can at the apex of the tracks, only to find a woman’s pink laced panties inside.

Every now and then we found bones, pieces of burnt flesh, fingers or locks of pulled hair. Of course none of us knew where those canisters came from, or anything about the Whisp Civil Wars over beyond the fog. We only knew what the war had given us: the Whisp refugees who invaded our towers, and the floating canisters that came from some distant propaganda machine. Why these cans were sent our way we could only guess, since the notes and propaganda that accompanied each can were in the Whispish tongue. So I used the strange items to decorate my room, if only to upset my mother with the strange bones and pink panties hanging from my ceiling.

The speed I possessed was in fact a gift from the cans themselves. After my growth spur, when the Whisp gangs were still taking most all the cans, I saw a canister with a white parasol dragging across the large empty square just outside of the Perkina library, where we took refuge from the sun in the free computers and films. I remember catching the canister, still wet from the fog, and feeling the scratches and tears that tore across the aluminum can, sensing the long distance it had traveled in the cold rusted metal worn from the hardships of rain, sun and wind, smelling the gunpowder scent still at the canister’s base. Inside the canister was a pair of white runner’s shoes with no logo, only the usual accompanying letter in a language I could not understand. The shoes were snug and hugged the bottom of my feet and I felt barefoot walking in them. I discarded my flip flops and began to run, to balance on the metal detritus pipes, to vault through the precipices of buildings and ledges around every floor, to propel through crowds and market dwellings. The shoes awoke in me a daredevil spark, a need to go crashing into one of those neon advertisements near the one-hundredth floor mall and let the electricity purge my veins, jar my soul from the pallor hemmed in by glossy towers and advertisements for objects my family could never afford. Soon I outran all the Whisps. Soon we punks had a monopoly on the canisters, and the Whisps never came to the top floors again. We had won it back. The adults looked up to us even though we skipped school, calling us “the little entrepreneurs,” while those Whisp gangs remained a plague of lazy hoodlums and gangsters.

At times, balancing on those gaudy, stripped awnings, I wondered why those shoes fit me so well. If they had been only half a size off, perhaps we never would have survived through the sweltering summers atop the towers. At times I would forget that they were made for another: some poor, Eastern Whisp living next to a brown, lukewarm rivulet, forced to fight for their religious triumvirate. But if those canisters were meant for propaganda, why would the West Whisps send shoes? Candy was so much sweeter, and those panties could at least remind the poor Whisp of the freedom on the other side of the demarcation. But shoes? They only made the enemy faster, better able to run from rubber bullets and toxins, better able to plague crowds of shoppers, with dynamite tied to their torsos. Often I wondered about those strange gifts that floated in from some unimaginable realm. Often I wondered where they came from, and if I was even using them the right way, or if a Whisp could have used them better than I, someone whose toes matched with mine, whose ankles shifted like mine. But in time, those white shoes became torn and grey, and I had to discard them, like all shoes when their soles begin to break.

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