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Novena by Noreen Ocampo

CW: mentions of family members who have passed away

I almost don’t hear the knock against the window pane. The rush of nighttime rain sings over the

sound of knuckles on glass, and I am stuck somewhere between nap-dream and reality, curled in a bed far too big for a flimsy thirteen-year-old body. The rain softens and swells in an unending cycle, the only familiar sensation as I finally wake in that room that smells like elsewhere.

Again, I hear your knuckles rap against the glass. You are gentle in your greeting, yet I bolt from

the room without thinking to return the hello. Without thinking to open the window so you could

come into your own room and find refuge from the rain and the blackness of night.

Now all I hear is my own heartbeat shrieking at me from the inside and the harried shuffle of my

socks against the floor. A single white thread snaps as my foot catches on a splinter in the wood.

Darting through the hallway like this does nothing to soothe the feverish ache that had coaxed

me into a late afternoon nap in the first place, but I run like something horrible is chasing me.

I find my mother in the kitchen of the house I can now only remember as full — of people, past

childhoods, color. She sits at a long table with the food and family America has been starving her from. My father is in the middle of a conversation punctuated only by laughs, and my brother stares wordlessly at the decorated pole that shakes in the air to ward off mosquitos.

My mother notices me first, like always. I do not recall what she says, only that she asks with her

eyes, silently.

“The window,” I respond, just as silent, but the kitchen is as full as ever, and all eyes are on me.

“I heard someone knocking on the window.”

Here, in the motherland, my family is made up of people I do not know. The fullness of this

house is one I have never experienced, growing up alone in America, and in this moment, I

somehow feel all the more alone among my family and their curious eyes. Even my mother’s

smile does not console me — it reminds me of the time I told her I heard voices outside my

bedroom window, and she turned off the lights, scaring me more, and stood and listened for the voices, rather than telling me there was surely no one there.

“Your Lolo must want to talk to you before you go home,” she says.

Maybe her words reawaken my crippling fear of the supernatural. Maybe they remind me that we will soon leave and disappear again for years and years. Or that we visited graves of people I can no longer remember and I did not know how to feel. That an elder visited the house and I was the only cousin not to greet them because I was too afraid. That I do not know my cousins’ birthdays despite them knowing mine. Or maybe her words remind me that I cannot imagine the loss experienced by everyone in the house, but the night before, I had dreamed my brother was gone and woke up crying so desperately I should have drowned.

I begin to cry in front of my mother, my father, my brother, and my family that does not know

me but watches with eyes full of all the love and concern I could have ever asked for. In between new sobs: “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

As an answer, nothing but a crescendo of rain and a hand, then another, on my shoulders.

By the time my parents and brother are asleep, crammed together in the bed too big for me, the rain has quieted enough that a new knock on the window would slice through the room. I sit on the planes of moonlight cast on the floor beneath the window, waiting.

In my lap sits a wallet of worn brown leather. I open it to reveal a photo tucked safely into the

compartment where an ID would be and peer at my own crooked smile, too-big eyes, and new

moon nostrils. I angle the wallet, thick with memory, to the light, letting it glint off the clear

plastic protecting my three-year-old face.

For as long as I can remember, I sit and wait and listen.

I spend my last night

in the motherland

crying out of guilt.

You take your last breaths

here; you take your last

breaths without ever knowing

me, yet you carried me

with you every day—

I will do the same for you.


Noreen Ocampo (she/her) is a Filipina American writer and poet based in metro-Atlanta. She studies English, film, and media at Emory University and currently writes for COUNTERCLOCK, {m}aganda magazine, and Marías at Sampaguitas. Say hello on Twitter @maybenoreen!

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