Or We'll Burn This Town Down

Ferdison Cayetano is majoring in history at the College of William & Mary. You can find him on Twitter @ferdwrites. Please vote for his story and then offer him jobs.

Image of Short Fiction & Poetry Contest - 2019
Image of Short Fiction

Fermin Tobera's grandfather was killed by the Americans. Now Fermin is in their country. He is in California. He is there to farm cabbages.

The Americans will kill him, too.

But he shouldn't worry about that right now. Right now he's walking along La Selva Beach, a half-hour's drive from Watsonville, and he is on one hell of a first date. In all the dance halls from Seattle to Salinas he's never met a girl like Lily. By the end of that night they were telling each other things neither had ever said aloud. 

Lily was a fantastic dancer. Her eyes were fire-green. 

He remembers talking about his most treasured memory. The clearest memory he has of his family. Of home.

"We're at the beach," he said. "All together."

"Was it prettier than this one?" asked Lily.

"Oh, of course." It might have been true. He cannot remember.

He has spent the last fifteen years of his life trying to remember.

Sure, there were flashes. Sometimes he even thought he remembered a face. But even his clearest impressions are so dim they are useless. This strange gray hole where his family used to live, it is his greatest shame. 

All Fermin could say was "I miss them."

Lily's pace slowed. "And?"


She stopped in front of him and put a hand on his chest, right where the bullet would go, but no, he shouldn't be focusing on that, he's focusing on—

The Americans have killed him already.

—on Lolo. All the stories about his lolo that he never believed, not really, not until it was too late. Fantastical stories, meant for children. He was a child, though, back in that ship's hold, bound for a place called Seattle.

Fermin remembers the last story about his grandfather that he ever heard.

"Alam mo, kinailangan nilang patayin siya habang tulog." (They had to kill him in his sleep, you know.) Fermin's father was a farmer named Gregorio, and he was delirious. Between wet coughs his voice was barely a whisper. There was a typhus outbreak in steerage. Neither of them had eaten for days. 

Both of them know that Gregorio will die down there. 

"He was a great soldier. They'd go to shoot him. The Spaniards, the Americans, they tried. Bang!" A sharp movement of Gregorio's hand. "But it would just bounce off. You know why? It was because of—"

"You've told me this story already, Dad," said Fermin. "You should rest."

Gregorio tapped at the bronze agimat that hung around his neck. "It was because—"

"Yes, Dad." Fermin's voice almost broke. "Are you bulletproof too?"

Gregorio's brow furrowed. The tapping grew more insistent. It occurred to Fermin that he should allow his father free reign over his last moments.

"It was because of this! With this around his neck, he drove the Spaniards out. Then the Americans, they... they set fire to his hut, while he was asleep. But they never could have shot him. He was the best soldier the Katipunan ever had, my son. He was a giant."

An old argument sprang unbidden to Fermin's lips. Before he could stop himself Fermin asked his father why they were going to America, again, if they killed Lolo.

Gregorio thought of the poverty that followed the war. He thought of farmland that was no longer his, and the hunger bloating his nieces and nephews. He thought of the Americans flooding his country, wave after wave of them, teachers and traders and governor-generals who came to destroy generations and rebuild them in their own image— so that even if Gregorio kept his son at home, to starve, it would not be their home for much longer.

But despair does not drive children. So he said: "Because America is a vast country. A land of opportunity, and they are not all like your grandfather's killers. Now tell me what you will do."

"I will work. I will survive." The response was pounded into Fermin's head like a prayer. 

"You will work hard, my son," said Gregorio, "and you will survive."

Gregorio pressed the necklace into Fermin's hands. 

Some time later Gregorio's body was dumped into the ocean. It bobbed listlessly as it receded into the distance.

In the darkness of the ship's hold Fermin imagines a bulletproof warrior, long-haired and valiant, returning home, to his family, to a wife he met in a California dance hall— 

Lily's hand is on Fermin's chest. Waves crash upon La Selva.

"And what else do you want to say?" she asked.

And Fermin wanted to say that he was tired of his life. He was tired of drifting, of following the work and the seasons, from fisheries in Juneau to cabbage fields in Watsonville, never staying in one place long enough to put down roots. He felt unmoored. Alone. Unseen, without even the memory of community to haunt him. 

Until a newfound determination to stay. To be known. No matter the cost.

Until Watsonville, and a girl with green eyes. 

He has forgotten the names and the faces of his aunts and uncles and cousins. He has forgotten their voices. He has forgotten that tiny little glint you can see in the eyes of the people that you love. 

But he never forgot what it felt like, and he wanted to tell her that after all these years, it was starting to feel like that again.

He wants to tell her everything, but instead he's on his knees and he is begging, he's pleading, please, let him keep walking on the beach. 

All he wants in the world are a few more seconds on that beach, but no, oh Jesus no the pain is roaring back into every fiber of his being and why can't he just go back to the beach, please can he just go back to—

To anyone, anywhere, anything that is not right here and right now, because right now somebody drenched in his blood is letting go of his hand and telling him I'm sorry, kid, I'm sorry but we all have to go, they'll get us, too, if we don't get out of here, and they're trampling over each other to get out of that room and Fermin is only twenty-two years old and he does not want to die alone.

Each heartbeat spills bright, arterial red out of his chest and onto the floor.

It's 1930, and Californians are taking California back. In San Francisco and San Jose there are beatings in the streets. There are burnings in Exeter and bombings in Stockton. And for five days and five nights mobs run riot in Watsonville. 

You'd understand why, if you were there. 

It was because of all those dirty Filipinos. 

All those filthy jungle apes. Barely ten years removed from the bolo and the breechcloth. You cannot understand why they think they'd ever be welcome here, in the midst of a depression, after they've taken your jobs. Your women. 

And even if there were no such depression they would still be filthy jungle apes.

If you were a true American you wouldn't stand for the mongrelization of your motherland. You'd do your part.

There's a sign posted somewhere downtown. Hopefully one of them knows how to read. 


They came when he was sleeping. He and ten other Filipinos at a boardinghouse for workers. They pumped round after round into the walls and refused to let themselves hear the screams.

Right next to his grandfather's amulet a bullet rattles in Fermin's lungs. There is a low gurgle when he exhales.

Oh, even the spirits have abandoned him in America, he thinks.

His vision blurs. He can no longer lift his head up off the ground, but he no longer needs to. For Fermin is no longer dying on the dusty floor of a Watsonville shack. Instead he is ankle-deep and content in the Visaya surf, squinting up at an impossibly blue sky as the warm laughter of nameless aunts and nameless uncles drifts across the ocean; yet he is also somewhere else, he has crossed the world and fallen in love, he's sitting fireside with Lily after a sunset on La Selva; warmth blooms in his chest as she settles into his arms. With the murmur of a drowsy angel she whispers things into his ear that he cannot understand, that he will never understand, and time is running out, oh God time is running out and soon even his most vibrant memories fade into nothing as a final thought flickers unfinished through his mind.

Fermin Tobera wonders which of these places he should have called home—