He had first met Nina on a night much like this, except the wind had been greater. The rushing of the humid, warm air had hidden her footsteps from him until she was standing nearly as close as his own shadow. Remembering the surprise, and the wonder of it, the sudden magnetism in her small smile and the luminosity of her wide eyes; it had been love at first sight, something he'd never believed in.
In time, he knew why he hadn't heard her approach.
In time, they grew closer. Her curiosity was bottomless, particularly with words. English was a language new to her, and always, she'd ask about meanings. She had a simple and abrupt appreciation for beauty, and to his analytical mind, it was like learning to breathe again. But she seemed to delight in twisting the words,
"I love you," he told her once, having watched her stare unabashedly at a sunset.
"What is love?" she replied, and laughed. "Your words mean nothing. That was something."
"But words let others understand what they haven't experienced."
"Understand is just a word. You say 'love', but what is that? No one can tell you the same thing."
"Then how do you let someone else know that you love them?"
Nina had pointed at the slowly darkening horizon. "If you do, they will know, just like that. Believe."
I believed in you, he thought, watching the water rush back and forth. That the sand kept disappearing from under his feet seemed appropriate.
What do I believe now?
Nina, who ate very little, and never seemed hungry; who seemed at times to be impossible to wake up, and who could walk without making a sound. Nina, who had come upon him while he was whistling in the dark, something the old men of the island had told him never to do.
And now, Daniel stood in the dark of night, with a gun, smelling sharply of limes, wondering at the madness of what he'd come to believe about Nina.
He'd heard about the clouds of red fireflies some said they'd seen around his house at night. He didn't believe them, of course; it was all folktale, superstition for the outsider.
But after a while, he found himself wondering.
Nina, and her night walks.
Nina, saying it was nothing, she'd bitten her lip, it bled a fair amount, but see, already clean.
Nina, who sometimes seemed to be in two places at once.
Though he felt like a fool, he had to know for certain.
Pausing, standing on firm sand, it took him several tries, but he began to whistle. He kept at it, a simple piece by Bach, aware of a vague moaning sound in the distance that seemed to fade.
A cloud of embers, flickering in and out, seemed to grow directly from the darkness of the beach, and when they faded entirely, leading his eyes to doubt they were ever there, he recognized the small, nimble body of Nina.
"Daniel," she said softly, and then stopped mid-step. "Where did you go?"
He simply looked at her. Soft black hair, the wide, bright eyes, small and secret mouth. Round, smooth shoulders, tidy waist.
"Did you believe in me," he asked her quietly.
She tilted her head slightly, questioning without words.
"I need to know," he continued.
"Daniel," she said again, pressing meaning into the name like a thousand flowers in a book. "Why is it like this?"
"I want to have faith you are what you told me."
She took a half-step forward again, and then stopped. "You never asked me."
The absurdity of it all caught up to Daniel, and he suddenly felt embarrassed, ashamed that he had put lime juice on bullets, proof he'd gone mad with suspicion. He'd never believed in the aswang, the berbalang, or any of the other strange phantoms the islanders whispered about.
Nina, who always shut her eyes for a long time, when bright light came on... whose pupils sometimes looked narrow.
He looked back at her, the half of a smile slipping free from him. "Nina... I don't know what to say."
"The old men said things," she murmured, and he saw that she was looking at the gun; he'd forgotten to keep it hidden. The wide eyes slipped back to his like a cool kiss, and she shook her head. "Daniel, my family is not like yours. We are not like your people."
Suddenly, he did not feel the steady warmth of the wind. "What do you mean?"
"You are always with the words, Daniel; I mean what I am saying to you. Berbalang are real. You always think so much, but you knew it a long time ago. If you had asked, I would have told you."
Berbalang aren't real, he thought, but if I truly believed that, would I be standing here with lime-juice stained bullets? They said it was the only way to kill one.
Do I believe I could kill her?
Do I believe she is what she says?
"They... they say your kind kills and eats people," he said, feeling slow and stupid.
Nina sighed, and his spine felt like it had turned to velvet. He treasured that sigh.
"There are so many poor. Many die from the sickness or poverty. They die anyway, Daniel, I'm sorry."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this."
"You are always saying that. You said you love me, but what does that mean? Is your love acceptance? Is it trust? What is it?"
"So, you've killed and eaten human beings."
"I am honest with you. Yes, my people all have. That is how we live."
Daniel's body seemed clamped in ice, and he could hardly breathe. "I never knew you at all," he said tightly. "I never even thought... imagined... you never..."
"Daniel," she said softly. "You never tried to see me, only what you wanted. It is the same with your words."
"I've had enough of your words," he said, and lifted the gun, firing, the gun making a flat interruption to the ebb and swell of wind and water.
But when Nina fell down, she did just as a normal woman might, and bled, and kicked for a few moments, and finally was still, the breath he adored so much leaving her in a slow rattle.
Daniel threw the gun into the ocean, trying not to think of what he might have just done, if he had been wrong, and dipped his head into the surf. If he had been wrong...
But when he looked up again, towards the shore, he saw a wall of red fireflies, lazily blinking and drifting there, and he remembered Nina saying that she had four brothers.
"I'm sorry," he whispered before he knew what he was saying, and as the fireflies moved inevitably towards him, he wondered what he'd meant.