Sometime last year, I published an essay on Rappler that chronicled the difficulties that the Martial Law years wrought on Negrense lives, especially with its specific stranglehold on the sugar industry that remains totemic of Negros society — but I wrote it the only way I knew how: in the painful mapping of the upheavals it wrought on my family, and how we lost everything because of political and economic machinations we never really knew had us in their claws. I wrote about our descent to poverty, and the hunger of those days. I wrote about my father, and how he lost his pride, which he never recovered from. And I wrote about my mother, and how she braved through the upheavals with her sense of survival and enterprise. In the final analysis, I can truly say that I understood fully the overarching social reality of my world at that time via the ways my family’s lives were reshaped and changed. The newspaper chronicles may have their facts and their numbers, but the pains and the joys have an extra edge when we see them through the lens of family drama.
I reflect on that because the dynamics of familial relationships—the jagged joys and the recurring recriminations—is the pattern that somehow emerges in this issue of Buglas Writers Journal, especially in our prose section. Here, we have writers trying to understand specific social realities in the ties that bind [and unbind] them with family members.
Two pieces of fiction featured here are the top winners of the Palanca Awards of 2022, and they set the stage for the theme of family this issue is somehow about. Rayboy Pandan’s Bittersweetland, which won the Grand Prize for the Novel, follows a haunted New York exile who comes home to Bacolod to attend a fete celebrating his politician father. In the excerpt we have chosen [which is Chapter 2 from the manuscript], we see the character preparing for the homecoming, and steeling himself from the flood of memories evoked not just by the familiar landmarks of home, but also by the reconnection to family a homecoming always entails. The excerpt provides the backdrop for the novel’s ultimate dilemma: his father, having announced his intentions to run for public office, is assassinated, and this puts our hero into a tailspin that involves not just family drama but also cruel Bacolod politics—and because the novel is set in the early 1980s, also the looming sugar crisis and the slow disintegration of the Marcos regime in the wake of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.
I have also chosen to include my short story, “Ceferina in Apartment 2G,” which won First Prize in the Palanca, because it also chronicles a very specific kind of family dynamics: in this Los Angeles-set story, an aging mother, newly migrated to the United States, tries to make her new home feel more familiar by cleaning every nook and cranny of her son’s apartment, even if she is besieged by homesickness for Hinoba-an [a town in southern Negros], the ghosts of her own troubled past, and the specter of not being aware of her son’s homosexuality.
This gay theme is also touched on by Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s short story, “After This, Our Exile,” which won Third Prize at the Palanca Awards in 1972. Told from the point of a view of a girl adopted by a landed Bacolod family, it chronicles the various personal tragedies that befall this family—all of them springing from the patriarch’s raging machismo. This invariably destroys the lives of everyone in the family, including the scion who becomes an activist who turns his back on his sugar roots after suffering the years of indignities wrought on him by his father who is disappointed by his “effeminate” ways. The story is also an indictment of Negrense society, and how it coddles societal ills by its acceptance of dangerous machismo, as well as embrace of a worldview that treats plantation workers—the sacadas—as vermin to be constantly put in their place.
This repudiation of machismo is also evident in Jose V. Montebon Jr.’s short story, “Bottle Full of Smoke,” which won Second Prize at the 1954 Philippines Free Press Short Story Contest. In this painful tale of family strife, a boy witnesses the abuses heaped by his alcoholic father on his mother—and proceeds to do the only thing he could to even the pain.
In Alana Leilani Cabrera-Narciso’s creative nonfiction piece, “Psalms,” we don’t get a family wrecked by an abusive alcoholic father—but nonetheless, it is a tale about a young daughter coming to terms with her father’s unbending strictness that governs their spiritual life, and how this is tested by a freak accident which changes their lives.
Not everything familial in this issue is painted in strife and struggles. In Albertha Lachmi Obut’s children’s story, “The Moon has Many Shapes,” we get a reprieve: it is the story of a young boy who lives in a world that only knows Day, but hears of a world that is somehow governed by Night. One day, in his reverie about that unknown world, his grandfather comes along to give him a story that may fire up the young boy’s courage to pursue what is not known.
The poems in this issue, however, stray from the thematic thread of the prose pieces. In F. Jordan Carnice’s suite of two poems, we get a mediation on garden life informed by the long lockdown of the pandemic, and we get a play at definition for a word that promises a multipliicity of meanings. In Jhion Jan Navarro’s “Kay Tuman ka Gabok sang Lawas,” we get two Hiligaynon binalaybays that maps emotional geography of a city. We get the same treatment in Simon Anton Diego Baena’s “Orison,” a short poem that that traces the phantoms of a rainy day in his hometown of Bais—a yearning for meaning that is also reflected in Junelie Velonta’s “Bright Lights on the Water’s Surface,” which does the same for Dumaguete with the persona confronting the dark waters off the Rizal Boulevard.
Finally, after the longest lockdown, pale feet stir, long to wander with an extra spring to each step
and the planes begin interrupting the skies again from their unchallenged immensity.
Here in my garden, flea beetles and aphids overrun the hibiscuses, buds shriveling
like the twists of parted clouds above. We are told of ways to get through these
minor inconveniences but the pests keep coming back. Another surge,
another shade of blue shed from the skies. Are they really minor though when
the birds are missing at this hour and each of our movement could be
the start of another long pause in our lives? Where does this shroud of gray come from?
Why does the whole open space still feels like a window we peer through from
the inside? Am I both witness and accomplice to these changes?
I wish someone could just convince me of a life hungry for more, make me want it
the way that split-second pushed Adam to take the fruit from Eve: ungardened
but bold, intrigued, perfectly human. If there is a secret to this, even if it means
having to wring it out of both gods and saints, then tell me. Give me anything
that would take me out of this garden.
Boar, Proposed Addendum to Definition of
: a storm with boundless intensity
: an aging comedian whose jokes have been retold again and again
: the weight of an idea (such as its preciousness, purpose, precarity)
: soaked back of a shirt, usually with perspiration after a long day of manual labor
: to laugh even in the absence of humor
: to clear everything in one’s path or direction, with or without intention
|| the car lost its brakes and boared through the market stalls
: having or showing an abrupt but patterned action, or an expected response
: of that which will stay, not leave immediately or be pushed around
F. Jordan Carnice is a writer and visual artist from Bohol. He graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from Silliman University in Dumaguete City in 2009, and was a fellow at the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 2008. His works have appeared in Ani, Philippines Graphic, MIDLVLMAG, Anomaly, Sunday Mornings at the River, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, among several others. He has won the poetry grand prize in the 2020 Cebu Climate Emergency Literature and Arts Competition for his poem “There is Too Much Light in this World.” He has authored two poetry chapbooks, Weights & Cushions  and How to Make an Accident .
I. Wala sang habak, sang panabîtábì, sang pangadi nga makasarang magsagang sa tuyaw sang unod sa siyudad nga tuman kapaang apang mayami kon hapulason. Ang lawas angingipot nga ginasuláy sang patay-siga nga bombilya, maya-pula sa luyo sang masinulugton nga paon. Tuman kalaba nga siod ang mga dalanon nga ginkatad sa wayang nga sementado.
II. Mariit ang mga yuhum sa sírum – ang mga pasiplat, ang mga pangilay, ang mga kalimutaw nga nagalanat. Bagat ang mga panitsit sa dulom. Makapatindog balahibo ang mga panihol, ang mga hutik, ang mga kuhit. Mahimo makasalapay bisan sa pinakahapaw nga pagdapat sang panit sa panit, sang bulbul sa bulbul. Mahubag, mabanog ang kinatawo bisan nga ang ihi wala magsumpit sa bungsod nga madugay na ginlukat ukon sa lunok nga sadto pa ginpapas agud ang sadsaran sang siyudad mapasad.
III. Masugod sa langaang tubtub mangin tuman ka taas nga hilanat. Ang alibyo yara nahamtang sa paghigda-kaya, pagpatumbaya. Pagbaton. Kag kadungan sang pag-agay sang tuman ka pilit nga bahulay, bayaan sang dungán ang nagaaliwasa nga lawas. Magabawod, magaliad, antes magkanay angay sa balud nga ginalabugay sang indi makita nga kamot sang ugsad.
IV. Sa mation-tion maumpawan ang tuyaw sang unod bangud sa hampol indi sang buyo kag kasla, sa hapulas indi sang lana, sa tayhup indi sang luy-a.
V. Sa mation-tion maumpawan ang tuyaw sang unod. Ang kauhaw mapalong kadungan sang pagpuswak, pagtubod. Kag samtang nagaamat-amat sákò ang panirbato sang mga salakyan luwason sang silaw sang sanaaw sa gátud sang patay-siga nga bombilya ang angingipot súbung nga ang maya makabúhì sa siod sa paglimunaw sang mga paon.
VI. Ang tuyaw magasohot balik sa lipod sang mga nagaalalsa nga landong. Magahulat sa liwat nga pagsamo sang katugnaw kag kadulum agud magbutwa kag maghólon sa lawas nga tuman ka gabok.
Ang Pispis sa Siyudad
Nagahapon sa sanga nga nagapamunga sang pula kag nagaigpat-igpat nga bombilya.
Nagalanton sa lipod sang mga landong sang kagab-ihon kay makabulungol ang dalanon kon aga.
Nagapamugad sa nagkalain-lain nga haligi kag atop apang wala nagabilin sang itlog.
Ang pispis sa siyudad ang nagapalapit sa siod kag ang pinakaulihi abot amo ang makatuka sang pinakadamo nga ulod.
Inday, ngaa sa iya pagwa sa inyo ganhaan kag pag-usoy sang banas padulong sa dalan, nagtulo man ang dugo gikan sa mata nga nagmuklat sa imo aliwatan?
Saksi kami sa imo walay paslaw nga paghalad sang luha kag bahulay sa ginaanay nga altar sang inyo gugma nga iya lamang ginasabat sang mga pagpamalibad kag kul-aw nga panaad
Sang ikaw nagtiyabaw, Wala ka gane niya ginbalikdan. Nagakaangay pa gid ayhan nga ang iya pagpangayaw sa butkon kag hita sang iban, imo dagâan?
Jhio Jan Navarro hails from Bags City, Negros Occidental, where he attended the Ramon Torres Ma-ao Sugar Central National High School. He studied Psychology at the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao. His poems have been published in Bulatlat, Revolt Magazine, Voice and Verse Magazine, and the Philippines Graphic.
I seek the plume that stoked the holes of those tiny moments lost among the smoke
I keep hearing that voice caught in the noise of the edges of the city where the crow buried its beak where silence is mud
the night is a circle that I must always enter
Simon Anton Niño Diego Baena hails from Bais City, Negros Oriental, and is the author of two chapbooks, The Magnum Opus Persists in the Evening [Jacar Press] and The Lingering Wound (2River). He was a semi-finalist for the Tomaz Salamun Prize at VERSE in 2021. His work is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, South Dakota Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Apalachee Review, Louisiana Literature, and elsewhere.
If only the world was a crystal ball, and I was given magic to dive deep into the darkest depths and never drown in the visions of what could be, I could have been a surer man — not by confidence, but through assurance that in the things I’d do I would be stronger, better, happier. But I can barely swim, and I can’t hold my breath any longer than it takes for the carbon dioxide to cloud my brain to near death. At the edge of life, there’d be no magic to save me from the hallucinations my mind creates. Or are they dreams? Are they mine? Are they truths that I am yet to realize? On the water’s edge, on top of rock and sand and concrete, above the sparkle of the reflected holiday lights, I ask the sea: “Who should I be? What should I do?” And I wait there wishing that the breeze would whisper, that the lights on the surface would spell it out. Despite my questions, despite my pleas, the sea below me was still as dark as the nighttime sky, and its surface, smooth like a mirror, reflected nothing else: only me.
Junelie Anthony Velonta was born in Dumaguete City. He graduated from Philippine Science High School—Central Visayas Campus in 2015 and is now pursuing a Physics degree at Silliman University.
When she looks out the window from the second-floor apartment she is in, it strikes her that the blueness of the late afternoon sky over L.A. does not have the same familiar aquamarine comfort of home. How can the sky be so different here? And yet here it is: there is a cobalt deepness to the blue that makes it feel like a gigantic void closing in, and when she thinks about it deeply, she finds herself shivering a little.
You are being a silly old fool, she tells herself.
It is late November and it is getting cold. Ceferina is not used to the cold, although her son laughs off her worries and tells her it is only a very mild autumn chill—20°C is practically tropical—and perfectly suitable for California. She will get used to the slight nippiness in the air—because she’s finally here in America. Gio tells her this in a tone that beggars relief and an undercurrent of bewilderment. And at least in Los Angeles, he also says, it is still warm and sunny.
“It is sunny. But this is not warm,” she insists.
Warm is mid-morning in tropical weather, a late breakfast of puto maya and hot tsokolate, and looking out the big window in her old house in Hinoba-an watching the bananas and the mangos ripening in her small yard.
Here, the windows are squares holes punched into concrete, glass panes mitigating the difference—and underneath them, those things that look like an assemblage of pipes her son calls a radiator, which he has apparently not used until she came to live with him. At least that contraption gives off heat—although the cold still manages to seep in, sinking deep into her bones.
I am too old to get used to new things like strange climate, Ceferina thinks.
“This is nothing, Ma. When I had my first autumn in Nebraska, I felt frozen. Remember I told you that?” Gio tells her. “And then that first winter was brutal. Didn’t I tell you this story when I first went back home to visit?”
How many years ago was that? she wonders to herself. These days, time is flat and extends into forever—like the endless cobalt sky here. In her old age, she can no longer quite grasp the passing of years much, except that they roll by too slowly. Or at least they seem to be. But the hours and days also bleed into each other, and what feels slow also feels fast, but only in retrospect. Today is Friday, but wasn’t it only Saturday yesterday? She has learned not to answer stupid questions like that.
It must have been almost two decades since Gio left home to go to Nebraska to work as a nurse. The hospital he applied to was willing to sponsor his work visa, and he had insisted he had to work in the U.S., not some other country like his college classmates were willing to migrate to.
He didn’t know Nebraska would be corn country, but it was a change of landscape he was willing to endure. St. Edward, deep in Boone County, was small town America that indeed needed enduring—and Ceferina intuitively knew this from reading between the lines of the letters Gio sent from those years, the homesickness apparent in the beginning and then increasingly less so. Once he got his green card, however, Gio wasted no time to eventually make his way to Los Angeles where the climate (and the big city life he craved) was infinitely better, and his for the taking.
Coming to America had always been the blueprint. It was something many people back home did then, and probably still do now: to go to college to become a nurse (or a physical therapist), find all the means necessary to work abroad—America foremost in all consideration, and then be part of the thousands sending remittances home to keep families afloat, to have a chance at a middle-class dream. And then, above all, the grand possibility of migration for the family left behind.
“Someday, I’m going to bring you to America, Ma,” Gio promised her a long time ago when he graduated with a BSN degree—and to be frank, that idea excited her, like it was the ultimate prize for all the sacrifices they’d made as a family. After all, wasn’t that the dream? Wasn’t that what she prayed for? Wasn’t that the natural progression of things? Child works abroad, child petitions parent for migrant status, and after years of waiting, child and parent reconcile in the most promising of all promised lands?
But now that she is here, everything feels askew. She does not know how, or why, but something was amiss. It was not necessarily something to be alarmed about. It was just the feeling of something discomfiting, like a wish fulfilled in a Chinese curse. All the vague feelings have the gravity of secrets ripe for the telling, but no one knows the key.
Perhaps the years of separation do take their toll. And what they are—mother and son—are now really strangers with a shared history cut short, and then learning to share a life together again with all the mismatched shards of circumstances—all in a landscape they are not natives of. They are nevertheless banking on blood to make up the difference.
Ceferina looks at her son. It is a Friday night, and Gio is running about the apartment in his usual haste, getting ready for a night out in town with his colorful friends she has only seen once or twice before. He has spiked his hair with styling gel, and has put on a black sando that looks much too tight. His jeans look tight, too. He is wearing boots, of all things.
“Will you stay out late again?”
“I always stay out late, Ma.”
“I wish you’d come home early for once.”
“You’ll be fine,” he replies in that slightly dismissive tone that is at least familiar. “You’ve always been fine. You have the television all to yourself!”
She shrugs. “I don’t like the TV here. They show too many commercials for medicine. And it’s always the Karda—, the Kardash—, that family of really aggressive girls on. I’m not interested in that.”
“There are thousands of other channels you can choose from, Ma. And I promise I’m getting you The Filipino Channel soon. I just keep forgetting to subscribe.”
But I did not come to America to watch TV, she wants to say. I came to be with you.
“Just be safe and come home soon, please, Gio?”
“I always do. You’ll be fine with your adobo for dinner?”
She nods. “I still have rice from that Asian grocery store you took me to.”
He kisses her on the cheek, sashays to the front door—and just like that, her son is swallowed up by the deep purple of early evening haze in Los Angeles.
Where does he go? She knows, of course. Or at least she suspects.
She has smelled the discarded clothes in the hamper—that smoky, sweetish smell of disco bars is thick. She also knows it goes beyond just the dancing, but she does not say anything. They have yet to learn to navigate conversations that go beyond the usual hellos, the usual familial formula of passive aggressive concerns, the usual tango of recriminations and pregnant silences. She gives him Bible verses and passages from The Daily Bread. He plays Lady Gaga on his Spotify. She retreats and hides in her prayers, and he in his secret escapes that aren’t really secret.
She turns to the quiet of her son’s apartment.
She feels small in it, dwarfed by appliances and furniture that are not hers. She has been bidden to feel at home here, of course, to consider this now as the abode with which to start a new life. But if life is an accumulation of things one loves, then that has been swiped clean here. Every single surface, every single thing in Apartment 2G feels unfamiliar. This is not home, yet.
When stray thoughts of home in Hinoba-an come, she berates herself quietly for thinking of it at all.
There is a way to soldier through this, she thinks. This is not loneliness.
She knows what loneliness feels.
She has been in its claws too many times than she cares to admit, but she has always pulled through somehow. She only has to close her eyes, and the past comes rushing in with memories she would rather forget, but finds the remembrance somehow empowering. What are we except the sum of our mistakes and despair that we strive to rise above? At 68, it feels demonstrably easy for her to see her life as a squiggly arc with vacillations, a fraught journey with markers that are clear only in hindsight.
Most of that arc she has distilled into compartments of memories with distinct themes:
There was the lonely, orphaned childhood in rural Hinoba-an—deep in the southern boot of Negros Island—being raised by a coven of spinster aunts who all believed, with the fervency of holy devotion, in the fire and brimstone of hell waiting for the wicked.
There was the dream of escape in adolescence, which demanded uncommon courage for a small-town girl like her and took her right across the sea to sweltering Cebu City, much to the dismay of her family (“The big city will corrupt a girl like you,” her aunts warned. “You will come home a disgrace!”) but buoyed by a distant relative’s eventually hollow promise of supporting her college education. (Ceferina, too, wanted to be a nurse.) When that failed to materialize, she was forced to seek employment in the strange metropolitan snarl of Cebu City as an apprentice in a beauty parlor along Jakosalem Street.
There were those fulfilling, flighty years in her early 20s as a young beautician with the dusky looks of a Carmen Rosales, soon attracting an assortment of young men who wanted to squire her around town—and then meeting the handsome boy from a family of some social standing, and who would eventually disown the fact that he had fathered a son with her out of wedlock. In humiliation and heartbreak, she felt she had no choice but to flee Cebu City and go back to Hinoba-an with Gio, barely a year old, in tow—only to be told by her aunts that she was not welcome home.
“We warned you, you did not listen,” they said.
She never understood that kind of cruelty from kin. Weren’t families supposed to love you no matter what? Was this the hell they warned about, squarely placed on earth?
Banished from a refuge she thought she had, she fled to nearby Kabankalan City, found another beauty parlor to take her in, and scraped through the years making ends meet as a single mother. She never married, although not purely out of design—she went out with some men, but never found the need to settle down just for the sake of settling down. And they never quite processed the fact that she was raising a child on her own, the father absent from view. I don’t need a man, she thought then, although that also made her sad. She doted instead on Gio and heaped, perhaps unfairly, all her unfulfilled potentials on her dreams for him. Yet Gio never showed her cause for worry. He was a gregarious child, quick to laugh, mindful of her moods, and stayed mostly by her side—a typical mama’s boy. He was a bit fey, a concerning thing that gnawed at her a little.
She doubled down in her prayers.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Gio?” she asked him one night, just for the sake of conversation, while she was closing up the beauty parlor she worked in. He had come in from his day at the nearby private academy. (He was in the fifth grade, on scholarship, and gunning for honors.) He was trying to help out by sweeping the hair on the floor.
But that night, he was unusually quiet for a boy normally talkative about the movies he wanted to watch, the music he was listening to, the books he just read.
“Gio? What do you want to be—are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Ma.”
“You don’t seem fine.”
He heaved a sigh that signaled confession. “They were at me again today in school, Ma.”
“Who were at you again? What happened?” she asked, quickly getting around to facing him.
Gio looked at her, his eyes pleading for understanding.
“Ma—when you see me, what do you see?”
A pause, but she knew there was only one good answer:
“I see my son.”
He nodded and gave her half a smile.
“I’ll be fine, Ma,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Listen, there are people in the world who will not be kind to you, no matter what you do,” she said. “God knows I’ve been called worthless, or even worse, a disgrace. But it’s not up to them—these unkind people—to shape our lives. We shape our lives, remember that.”
When the last of her spinster aunts died and summarily left her the house in Hinoba-an, Ceferina was already a proprietor of a small beauty parlor in downtown Kabankalan—Fennie’s Beauty Haus—which was not exactly a thriving enterprise with competition in town aplenty, but at least it paid the bills and most of all, by sheer amounts of sacrifice, paid for Gio’s education. She was determined to put him through the best schools, even if it meant having to curl or cut hair for eternity.
He’s going to be a nurse, she reminded herself when the going got tough. This is an investment.
Now, in the autumn chill of Los Angeles, she thinks: Are these the dividends?
She feels unkind, and reproaches herself.
But how many times in that arc of a life had she found herself staring out some window and looking for answers in whatever sky she saw?
When she was seven, and she’d stare out into the night sky from their amakan window in their Hinoba-an house, seeing a different world in the pattern of stars?
When she was sixteen, and doing menial work like a housemaid in a distant uncle’s house in Cebu (instead of pursuing a nursing education she was promised), and she’d stare out despairingly from the garage porthole, seeing the stars drowned out by big city lights?
When she was 25, cast out by family and adrift in Kabankalan with a baby in her arms, and she’d stare out a random karinderia’s jalousie windows, seeing the sky turn towards the dark of evening and knowing she only had money left for one last full meal?
What is loneliness except despair heaving a sigh?
She remembers, too, the recent years before this migration to America: she is an older woman now, with only the house help for company, finally settling back into her childhood home in Hinoba-an—the amakan now replaced by fancier French windows, made possible by Gio’s insistence on overhauling from scratch the old, termite-infested house—and staring out into her sun-kissed yard, thinking of Gio in Nebraska, then of Gio in California.
She dreamed often of reunion in those years, although he did visit her in Hinoba-an once in a while, and sent her balikbayan boxes with some regularity.
And now that she has this new life in America she has wanted for so long, all she finds herself doing now is stare out into the Los Angeles sun through this box of an apartment window, thinking of the aquamarine sky back home.
Is this loneliness? she asks herself. She knows very well the vagaries of loneliness, its demands and full measures. What she has not expected is its dogged consistency. Is there no graduating from this?
She shakes her head.
But no, this is not loneliness.
She looks around her son’s apartment once more, and felt that the only feasible remedy to her nagging thoughts was housework—but even that felt impossible in this very American configuration of living. She has her ways of doing things, and vacuuming is not it.
The places we come to live in begin to feel welcoming only in the cumulative of our attempts at owning space, at our introducing ourselves slowly to them, room by room by room.
Ceferina knows this. She has moved to enough houses and apartments in Kabankalan in search of cheap rent to master the art of making any domicile home. She does this by a thorough process of cleaning house—armed with two ample pieces of rags (usually old shirts she can dispose of later), one wet and one dry. They become her instrument at familiarizing herself with every nook and cranny of what is to be home, every wiping of some surface an introduction, every erasure of gunk an exorcism.
She always starts with the kitchen, then the dining room, then the living room, then whatever other rooms there are, and finally the bedroom and the bathroom—ending a whole cycle of housekeeping in the shower, soaping away the dust and the grime in a kind of baptism. By the time she has done the last of her tasks, the house will finally start to feel like home.
Only then does she allow herself to think: I’ve been properly introduced.
Her spinster aunts back in Hinoba-an taught her this. A clean house is a clean conscience, they said, which made housekeeping both penance and psychotherapy combined. She learned to be keen on keeping a clean house—a trait Gio inherited—and when she became too old to do the housework herself, she learned to become a drill sergeant of sorts, directing her house help in Kabankalan or Hinoba-an to do exactly as she would have done it if were not for aching bones.
She wanted to do some housekeeping for Apartment 2G right from the very start, even as soon as she recovered from the jet lag that threw her off balance, which took about two weeks. But Gio, reading her quite well, insisted on postponing her urge. “Ma, you don’t have to clean—I know you want to, but you don’t have to—it’s easy to clean this apartment,” Gio said then, “I can do it myself.”
In the next few weeks after her arrival—when she was well enough to orient herself with L.A. hours and with Gio taking some time off work as oncology nurse at Kaiser Permanente—they went around Los Angeles to see the sights in Gio’s BMW, but often on foot.
She saw the Hollywood sign. Universal Studios. The La Brea tar pits. Rodeo Drive. Santa Monica Pier. The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Getty Center. Venice Beach. Disneyland. This left her exhausted at the end of each excursion, convinced that travel and sight-seeing was invented for the young—although she was also determined to be a trooper for her son, always eager to see and discover what “America” was all about. There was still that buzz of excitement of finally being “in the States”—a fulfilment of hardwired Filipino mythology of America—and it was enough to keep her occupied for a while, to keep her happy.
The newness of everything helped. There were so many things to take in, to take note of: The restaurants. The food trucks. The cars. (“There is no way of getting around anywhere in L.A. without a car, Ma,” Gio told her.) The highways and overpasses. The teeming variety of people she had only seen in movies. The occasional celebrities Gio kept pointing at, but she could not recognize. The immense spread of everything.
Sometimes, Gio’s friend Jack joined them. He was a tall, lanky white man with curly dark hair, and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. They were going to Griffith Park and Observatory when he first showed up—and something about Jack both comforted and scared her, if that was possible.
Jack was affable, that much was clear, and he was easy to be with—even when he talked fast and she could not keep up with his English, which made her say, “Come again?” over and over. It made her self-conscious.
“So how long have you known my son, Jack?” she asked.
“Ma—don’t be such an interrogator,” Gio said, as he drove up North Vermont Avenue towards the canyons.
“It’s all right,” Jack said, from the backseat. “Your mom’s finally here in L.A., and she’s slowly meeting your friends—she might as well know everything.”
“Well, not everything,” Gio laughed.
“I met your son the first week he arrived in L.A., Mrs. Mendez,” Jack says.
She wasn’t a Mrs. but she didn’t correct him.
“He was fresh off the bus—”
“He was fresh off the plane from Nebraska—and we met in a bar in West Hollywood. He looked lost, so I decided to become his shepherd.”
“As if I could ever be sheep.”
“You so could be sheep, Gio.”
The men laughed.
Ceferina did not know what to make of their banter.
“But I’ve known him for years,” Jack says, “and I’m glad you’re finally here to be part of his life.”
Was that how it was? Was she never part of her son’s life until now?
“Jack’s a good friend, Ma. I wouldn’t have survived L.A. without him by my side,” Gio said, a hint of tenderness in his voice.
“Well, that’s good to know,” she said. “It’s important to have friends.”
From the corner of her eyes, she saw Jack giving her son a knowing smile at the rearview mirror. But this was not the time for questions. She took a deep breath.
“It’s important to have friends,” she said.
“So, Mrs. Mendez, what do you know about the Griffith Observatory?” Jack asked as they pulled into the parking lot.
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Are you a fan of James Dean?”
“I know James Dean, he’s dead.”
Jack chuckled. “Have you seen his movie Rebel Without a Cause? It’s one of my favorite movies.”
“I might have seen it. A long time ago. Maybe even in the theaters.”
“Well, they shot the movie partly here. The switchblade fight, they shot it here.”
She surveyed the view as they parked, the dome of the observatory looking resplendent in the afternoon sun. “It does not look like a place for a switchblade fight. It’s beautiful.”
“You bet it is, Mrs. Mendez.”
She remembered the movie, of course. She pined for James Dean once—thought his death so tragic, and she saw herself in the rebellious nature of Natalie Wood’s character. But it was Sal Mineo she remembered most—that tragic tenderness he had, that pining anguish that she would, years later, see a semblance on Gio’s face.
In another excursion, right before sunset, Gio and Jack took her to a place called the Mulholland Scenic Overlook—and she gasped at the sprawl of the city in the distance. It was an overwhelming sight that slightly frightened her.
This is not Hinoba-an anymore, she told herself then.
She would meet Gio’s other friends in spurts and in accidental circumstances, and they’d sometimes come along in their tour of the city—eager to see Los Angeles like how tourists would. There was Mischa, who was a quiet bookworm and looked at Gio like how a cat would a bird in a cage. There was the pair of Gabby and Ted, who both had pink hair and could never stop from screaming and laughing at the slightest provocation. And there was Delroy, who was black and handsome and knew all the musicals and came from Chicago. They all called her Mrs. Mendez. She thought them colorful, “Like a bunch of fruits in a bowl.”
Gio laughed at that description.
“Are you okay so far, Ma?”
“Just give me time to take it all in. L.A. is another world.”
“It’s another life,” he replied—a note of wistfulness in his voice.
And then, when there were no more must-see sights to visit, she and Gio set about the unspoken task of finally settling in—which became a negotiation of separate habits suddenly tangled together.
Where is church? (“I’ll have to look that up, Ma. I’m sure there’s one somewhere near.”)
What time was breakfast? (“I don’t eat breakfast, Ma.”)
Where do we do our laundry? (“The laundry room’s in the basement for all the tenants to use. I’ll show you how to work the machines, Ma.”)
How do we eat? (“I’m not home most of the day, and sometimes night—but the kitchen’s all functional, Ma. I’ll teach you how to operate things. The stove, the oven, the microwave, the dishwasher. The refrigerator is a smart refrigerator—it tells you what things you lack. There’s an Asian grocery store just around the corner from here—they’ll have all you’ll need, Ma. Rice, bulad, the works.” “They have bulad?”)
What are our hours of the day? (“I leave for work at 8 AM, Ma. But I’m always on call. I usually return home around 10 PM.”)
How do we go about cleaning? (“I have a vacuum cleaner, Ma.”)
How do I introduce myself to this apartment with a vacuum cleaner?
She learned to navigate her immediate neighborhood along North Kenmore Avenue, a quiet semi-residential street punctuated by Hollywood Boulevard on its northern end (she likes the cakes at Ara’s Pastry right at the corner) and Sunset Boulevard on its southern end (the Burger King is her boundary). Right across Gio’s apartment building was a parking lot that never got filled and a small Mexican restaurant done up in crimson paint, which she eyed with suspicion. But all she did when she went out was walk by herself, taking in the sun, stretching her legs from staying too much in the apartment—but never really venturing out beyond this length of comfort zone. Only with Gio did she go beyond this familiar radius—to church on Sundays, to do grocery shopping (which he insisted they did together—“You’re too old to be carrying grocery bags, Ma”), to sometimes eat out in one high-priced restaurant after another.
He took her last weekend to a restaurant along South La Brea Avenue, someplace called République, which Gio said was hard to get reservations into. He promptly ordered the chilaquiles with goat cheese and the kimchi fried rice with beef short rib, a rich brunch to be sure, and one she could barely eat since she always ate like a bird.
“Everything is so expensive here.”
“Well, that’s L.A. But you must stop converting to pesos, Ma. It doesn’t help.”
“This meal is worth four meals at The Melting Pot back home.”
“You’re not in Kabankalan anymore, Ma.”
“I certainly am not in Kabankalan anymore,” she says with a sigh.
Gio took note of that.
“Do you regret coming here, Ma?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I know all these is a lot to take in—but you’ll get used to it. My first few years in America was hard, too—I wanted to go home to the Philippines every single day. But it got easier soon enough. I knew I needed to be here, for you, for us. And I remember I made a promise once, to someday bring you here.”
Ceferina was quiet.
It wasn’t that, she thought. I just have questions I’m scared to ask. Questions like, who’s Jack and why do you say you would not have survived Los Angeles without him?
She sighed while forking a bite of her beef short ribs. “You’re right. I’m here, with you, in Los Angeles. I should be happy.” She paused for a bit. “It’s what I’ve always wanted, even back home in Hinoba-an—missing you all those years, wanting only to be with you. And now I’m here. You know? I might as well just start living like a Los Angeles native.” She looked at her plate. “Can we afford this though?”
Gio laughed. “Don’t worry about it.”
All is easier said than done, even when there are questions unasked.
Ceferina looks at the front door where Gio has just vanished into his Friday night, and sighs. She turns on the television, and sure enough there are commercials for Cialis (“She reminds you every day”), Eliquis (“Could I up my game?”), Viagra (“Let the dance begin”). And sure enough, the program that comes on is another marathon of the Kardashians. “I don’t want to keep up with these girls,” she mutters.
She leaves the TV on as background noise to banish away the silence of Apartment 2G. She finds herself gravitating to the kitchen, where she heats up her pork adobo in the microwave. She prepares rice in the rice cooker, enough just for her—although she knows all these is already a feast she can never finish on her own.
The adobo tastes good—she knows this for sure. She has always been a good cook, and she knows exactly what Gio fancies. (His childhood favorites include pako salad, escabeche, and chicken curry.) But she has always hated her own cooking for some reason, can never bring herself to taking more than two bites of whatever dish she has prepared. This is why she eats like a bird. And this is why back home in Hinoba-an, it was the house help who did the cooking—under her supervision, of course.
There is no house help in L.A. She is left to her own devices, left to do her own cooking—and gingerly, she finishes her meal and puts the leftovers in the refrigerator.
I am happy to be here, she tells herself, if I need to be honest about it.This is what I’ve always wanted: to be with my son, finally.
She goes to her bedroom, and finds two old shirts in what remains unpacked in her luggage. It is a pair of Calvary Chapel Kabankalan shirts, and they are old. She goes to the kitchen, and wets one shirt, keeps the other one dry. With the wet shirt, she slowly wipes the counters down, wipes the cabinets, and wipes the tabletops. With the dry shirt, she wipes the refrigerator and every single kitchen appliance.
She looks around the apartment once more, goes room to room.
She wipes tables and chairs and more cabinets.
She wipes books and figurines and appliances.
She vacuums the carpeted floor.
It isn’t hard. The apartment is already tidy—the domain of a neat freak like herself—but she feels compelled to wipe everything down, introducing herself to the rooms in the process.
In her son’s room, she finds a framed photo of herself in her 20s—a smiling Ceferina resting her face on hands clasped together like in a prayer. She is beautiful in the picture, she knows. She wipes the frame and puts it back.
Under Gio’s bed, she finds another picture frame: a black and white photo of Gio in a clutch with Jack, both of them looking happy.
She looks at it for some time, then wipes that, too—and puts the frame on the bedside table where it belongs.
It does not take too long, this attempt at housekeeping. She showers when she is done—and steps out of it feeling a spark of having accomplished something. She stays awake, she sits on the living room sofa and watches more of the Kardashians. She is horrified to learn she now knows their first names.
She cannot sleep.
It is 11 o’clock when she hears the key fidgeting at the lock, and Gio steps in from his Friday night. She meets him at the door.
“You’re home early.”
“I didn’t want you to worry about me,” he replies, kissing her on the cheek. He smells of club smoke and dancing. “So I came home early. Why are you still awake?”
“I couldn’t sleep. So I cleaned the house.”
“I cleaned—or tried to, anyway.”
“You didn’t have to do that, Ma.”
“I needed to.”
Gio sighs, and starts towards his bedroom.
“Gio—,” she begins.
“I love that you have Jack in your life. Always remember, all that I’ve done has always been to see you happy. Are you happy?”
He looks down at his feet, then smiles. He nods.
“Yes, Ma. I’m happy.”
“Then I’m home.”
He nods again. “You’re home. Goodnight, Ma.”
She turns off the television, and prepares to go to her bedroom. She spies the moon and the night sky over Los Angeles through the window—and when she squints, she swears she can see aquamarine blue.
Ian Rosales Casocot taught literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents. In 2008, his novel Sugar Land was longlisted in the Man Asian Literary Prize. He was Writer-in-Residence for the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2010.
Papa serious accident please come, Cristy’s wire said. Milly’s first impulse was to telephone her husband at the office, but on second thought she decided to wait until George got home that evening. She hadn’t gone to work that day; she was two months on and had been sick that morning. Besides, she knew George wouldn’t let her go like that. They would have to sit down and talk about it. They always talked about things, and a few nights back what had started as a quiet discussion had brought them to the edge of estrangement, so that later, in bed, when she watched his fine dark face which she had always believed she could read, she felt a certain sadness, for his face had assumed a terrifying remoteness, and lying there just a shoulder-length away, she could not bring herself to touch him. She had just broached to him the possibility of leaving Manila and settling down in Negros. George had stared at her in astonishment. “But why, Mil?” he had asked. “The agency’s doing great. Our entire future’s in it. You can’t just ask me to leave my work—it’s all for you, and the baby.” George and a couple of his college friends had formed their own advertising agency a few months back, emboldened by their youth and the training they had had in various large firms. “But I’m not asking you to leave the agency, George. We can put up a branch in Bacolod.” “We can’t divert any of our funds to put up a branch anywhere at the moment.” “Oh George,” she said, her voice bordering on annoyance, “you don’t understand. I don’t like it here. I don’t want our child to grow up here.” “What’s wrong with here?” he asked, and she noted a defensive tinge in his voice. “Oh, everything. Back home things are—well, a bit more quiet. It’s a perfect place for bringing up children. Here it’s so crowded, so unsafe. It’s a corrupt, twisted place for a child to grow up in.” After a silence, George said, “Well, I grew up here, and I didn’t turn out to be a monster. Of course, all the things you say are true. But it isn’t so much the place, Mil. It’s what we are, the values and home life we provide for our children.” “It’s still ugly outside, but you don’t see,” she said. “You don’t care about pushers handing kids drugged candies, or whores preying on young boys on some side street, or goons breaking into homes in broad daylight.” “Milly,” he said, “you’re getting theatrical again.” They looked at each other for a moment, then she looked away, thinking, he thinks I am a silly neurotic. “I’m sorry, George. Am I hysterical?” “A bit,” he said. He must think I watch too much TV, or believe all the sensational news items in the papers, she thought dismally as she allowed herself to be led to bed. But that night she could not sleep. Though she had not pressed him then, she knew she would not let the matter pass. She would give their child a lovely childhood in the beautiful country of her roots, a vast garden to chase birds and fireflies in, handsome ponies to taunt the winds with, a place to grow in. And lying there in the dark, even when tiredness had crept into her body, she still couldn’t sleep.
She spent the slow afternoon choosing which clothes to take along and decided on blues and browns, remembering how the old man disdained bright colors. “Nice girls don’t flaunt themselves in such plumage,” he had once reprimanded Cristy when she had chosen a flaming red gown for the high school prom, and though Cristy was the old man’s favorite, not even her tears could make him relent, and she had to wear something she had already worn before.
Strange, Milly thought, how I always think of him as “the old man.” Of course, she had learned to call him Papa, though it had taken her a long time to pin an accent on the last syllable, something on which he insisted. “Now that you are practically one of us,” he had once said, “you must learn how to blend, blend, blend.” Her own father had been a clerk in the sugar mill and Cristy’s father, Miguel Aragon, was the biggest stockholder, the man who called the shots. Milly remembered little of her own father, she knew only that he used to work all day at the mill and that after office hours he took a dilapidated bus for over an hour’s ride to Bacolod City, for his evening law classes. This was something the old man had always pounded into her. “A poor man with enough initiative can improve his lot.” From clerk to supervisor to legal adviser—all in just a little over a decade. They had just moved into a new house with a big garden and a swimming pool when her parents died in a plane crash. She was only nine then and Miguel Aragon came to take her into his house. He had arranged to have her parents’ house rented out and the income deposited in a trust account. It was he who saw to the shipping of her parents’ charred remains, he who took care of the wake and the Masses and the funeral.
All that, she later realized, was the old man’s way of compensating her for her parents’ death: they had been on a business trip in his behalf when they died. Even before she came to live with the Aragons, she and the Cristy had been classmates in the town’s only Catholic school run by old nuns, and what had been a beautiful friendship gradually grew into something akin to sisterhood.
There were many little things Milly had to learn to accept, thing like being given a dress identical to Cristy’s, and Cristy putting up such a tantrum as to prompt the old man to snarl at his wife. “Buy Camilla clothes, Marta,” he would say. “But see to it they don’t have the same things. You know Pannga hates that.” This happened just a few weeks after they had taken her in, and Cristy’s tantrum had frightened her, and she had run to the bathroom and locked herself in and cried. They had given her everything she needed, even most of the things she had wanted, and the girls in the school kept telling her how lucky she was to be living with Cristy in her father’s mansion. Yet the little things were there, always there to prick at some unhealing wound; things like Cristy saying, with an insouciant toss of the head, “Milly, can you carry my books for me?” or “Buy me a sandwich, Milly, will you?” and later, in college, “Milly, I can’t manage these rollers, will you set my hair for me?” Trivial tasks, really, but always Milly felt as though she were no more than Cristy’s lady-in-waiting. Yet, she grew fond of Cristy, and when she was a little older she kept telling herself that after all, Cristy was the family’s little girl, her father’s little angel, and though they were brought up together, Cristy was always “Pangga” to the old man, while in the few instances that he actually spoke to her, she was always Camilla.
The rest of the family called her Milly, and aside from Cristy, it was her brother Guelin, who was about four years older than they, who gave her a sense of belonging. Both Cristy and Guelin had handsome ponies in the stables which they rode every weekend. She had only been with the family a few months when, one Sunday, Cristy came riding in, accompanied by their loyal servant Diego. Milly had watched her coming in, her long hair streaming in the wind, followed by Guelin on his black pony. “Niño is so swift—so swift!” she gushed. “He rides like the wind!” Cristy laughed. Milly gently touched the pony’s glistening mane. Finally, she said, “Can I ride him, Cristy, please?” Cristy quickly answered, “No—I don’t want anyone else to ride Niño. He’s mine.” Diego said, “Just let Inday Milly ride him, Inday Cris. Just for a short while.” Cristy glared at him, her voice rising, “No! If you let anyone ride Niño, I’ll tell Papa.” With that she stomped angrily away. Guelin, his face flushed, took Milly by the hand, saying, “Come, Milly, I will let you ride Fuego. He is more beautiful and faster than Niño.” But the tears were already there. “No, Manong Guelin, I really don’t want to ride. I don’t know how to ride a horse, anyway.” “Then,” Guelin said. “Diego and I will teach you.” Since then there had grown a bond between them which become stronger through the years.
In her own kind way, the mother, Marta, had also shown her she was wanted. “You are one of my daughters now, Milly, so call me Mama,” she had said when Milly first came. It was she who saw to Milly’s needs, knowing perhaps she would be shy about asking for things or making her needs known, things like new shoes, underthings, and when she had awakened one morning with that terrible pain and blood on her linen, she had gone to Marta, crying, “Mama, there’s blood on my bed!” Marta had said, in her usual quiet manner, “Don’t cry, Milly. There’s nothing wrong. Come to my room . . .” Milly knew Marta cared for her although they never spoke much, for Marta was a reticent woman, going about the house in her silent, dignified manner, a queenly presence, and even when she had clashes with her husband, she always impressed Milly with her ability to retain her composure.
Always it was Guelin who gave them cause for argument.
Miguel Aragon had always wanted a son, and when his first two girls were born three years apart, he had been greatly disappointed. He had waited a long time for a son, and the waiting had soured his relationship with Marta, who, he used to tell his friends, “did not know how to produce sons.” When finally, after several miscarriages, Guelin was born, Maris was a grown girl of seventeen and Tere fourteen. At first, Miguel Aragon adored his baby boy, though he was irritated when the infant turned out to be sickly. All these years of waiting had made him eager to make the boy a man and he pushed the boy too far, and faster than he should. Miguel Aragon was himself pure macho, an imposing masculine figure, and he despised anything effeminate. Their servant Diego had suffered countless kicks and whiplashes for his failure to conceal his effeminate mannerisms in the presence of the old man. “I don’t give a damn if you are agi,” he often thundered, “just don’t act like one in my presence. Buisit!”
Milly had always thought he looked formidable, with his whiplash, the pistol which he tucked under his belt, the huge leather boots. She recalled how one morning they had all been drawn to the window by his thundering voice. Down below he was kicking a man to the ground, and even when the man had fallen to his knees, Miguel Aragon continued to beat his back raw. Afterwards Cristy asked, “Why did you beat up the encargado, Papa?” The old man snorted. “These people, Pangga, are like all animals. You have to treat them as such, keep them in their place, or they will stampede all over you.” Such occasions were not rare, and later Milly found that not even his own son was to be spared his brutality. Once, when she had gone out with Guelin to gather fireflies in tiny bottles, Guelin had told her that once when he was about eight years old, his father had thrown him into the river, expecting him to kick himself afloat. He almost drowned. Another time, his father left him in the woods, expecting him to find his way out of the dark trees. Late that night a party of searchers with bamboo torches found him lying unconscious in the forest.
It was then that Milly began to understand why Guelin was a sulky, nervous, resentful boy who sought the comfort of his mother each time his father’s swift hand struck him. Once, when he was fifteen, Milly actually saw the old man whip Guelin. Guelin’s cries brought Marta out of her room. “Stop that, Miguel,” she said, shielding the boy with her own frail body. “Get out of the way!” the old man shouted. Still Marta did not move. She met his eyes evenly. Suddenly the whiplash coiled around her and the boy, but it was Marta who took most of the blows. When he had exhausted his fury, the old man strode out of the house. For a long while, Marta stood there, holding in her arms the trembling, whimpering Guelin, holding and stroking and rocking him gently.
That evening Marta locked herself in her room. Miguel Aragon sat silently at the dinner table, and Marris and Tere were their usual quiet and inscrutable selves. Guelin ate little, picking at his food, his eyes red and puffy, the red long welts on his arms turning into a dark purplish color. Cristy and Milly were watchful. After dinner, when the old man stood to retire to the library, Cristy ran after him, saying, “Papa, I will take off your boots for you,” and the old man turned and smiled. Milly followed Guelin down to the garden. She found him sitting on the rocks at the lotus pool. “Manong Guelin,” she asked timidly, “why did Papa whip you?” After some silence Guelin said, “He always whips me. But how did you know?” Milly looked away. “I watched between the drapes. I was so afraid. And Mama, how can he beat Mama like that?” “It’s not the first time,” Guelin said. “When Mama interferes, he beats her up, too.” He was on the verge of tears. “But why was he mad at you?” Guelin shrugged. “Because I threw stones at his querida’s house.” “His querida!” Milly gasped. Then: “Manong, does Mama know he has a querida?” “Why,” Guelin said, surprised, “even the maids know.” “But, Manong,” Milly said, “how did Papa know it was you who stoned the house?” “He saw me,” Guelin said. “He was there.”
Since that time Miguel Aragon and Marta hardly spoke to each other, and it seemed that he spent more and more time away from his home. He started to lose heavily in monte and cockfights, diversions which became a way of life, a passion. Marta said nothing about his mounting losses, nothing about the fortune he squandered on his women. It was said that he lavishly gifted his women with houses, cars, gems, and that he even sent some of them on shopping sprees to Hong Kong. They were invariably secretaries and receptionists at the sugar mill, young girls from modest families who were dazzled by gifts and money and the attention of so important a man as Miguel Aragon. The first few instances of infidelity must have hurt Marta deeply, Milly thought, though it seemed that in later years she had learned to live with this particular sorrow. Even when she smiled, Milly noted, Marta’s eyes were always sad.
One night Milly and Cristy heard them fighting. They pressed their ears to the wall to listen. “A son—that was all I ever asked from you. You made me wait eighteen years, and look at the monster you’ve borne me! A resentful, effeminate fool!” “He is not effeminate,” Marta said evenly. “What do you know about it?” the old man said. “Seventeen years old—and he acts like a simpering ninny! You don’t know anything—nothing about the nights he spends in town!” “He’s a grown boy now,” Marta said. “He’s entitled to go out with his friends.” “You stupid fool—if he went drinking and gambling and whoring I’d give him my blessings. But that useless son of yours cavorts with effeminate perverts,” he ranted. “Stop that,” Marta said “I will not listen to those lies.” “That’s what you always wanted him to be, isn’t it? A homo! My only son, and you made him into everything I despise—out of defiance. For spite!” “And now it hurts,” Marta said coldly. “It hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” “Shut up!” he said. “No,” she said, “here’s something for you to live down. After Cristy I had a hysterectomy. God, I never wanted to bear you any children, and I did not want to bear you any more sons.” “Damn you, bitch,” he snarled. They heard what sounded like slaps, and then his heavy footfalls leaving her room, and in the sudden quiet they could hear her sobbing. After a while Milly said, “Do you think Manong Guelin is queer, Cristy?” “Of course, he is,” Cristy said indifferently. “I don’t believe it,” Milly said. “Do you want to find out for yourself?” Cristy asked. “Go to the stables in the afternoons at dusk.” “Cristy, I think you’re mean,” Milly said. “I might be mean, but I don’t lie.”
Milly’s new awareness made her watch Guelin closely, and now she thought he did seem effeminate, but even when she started hearing whispers in the kitchen about his escapades, she remained fond of him. All that year, she saw less and less of the old man. It seemed that twice or thrice he went abroad, or that he was in Manila, or in their house in Bacolod, coming to the farm only once in a great while. Violent quarrels erupted when he was around, more now between him and Guelin, for Marta had become a complete recluse. She left her room only to go to early Mass, returning from church just in time for the car to take Guelin and the two girls to town for school. She saw Maris and Tere only at meal times, and more than ever Milly found them extremely strange, leading such dull, quiet lives. The old man made them virtual prisoners in the huge house after they graduated from college. It seemed there was a time when the two girls had wanted to pursue some career or other, but the old man promptly told them there was no need for it.” Besides, the city is a filthy place, a spawning place for temptation and corruption. I will not expose my daughters to such dangers, and to fortune hunters as well. The place is teeming with them,” he told Marta when she pleaded with him, in behalf of the two girls, to allow them to take jobs in Manila. And so it was that Maris and Tere stayed on, withdrawing more and more into the inscrutable world they had, out of necessity, created. Maris was already thirty when Milly came to live with them, and Tere was twenty-seven. They spent the entire mornings in their rooms; Maris was constantly crocheting something until she went into cross-stitching and papier-mâché, and Tere had her records. Sometimes her music would float out of her room like ghostly strains, mostly flutes and strings, Telemann and Scarlatti. They never went out, except to Mass on Sundays and days of obligation, or, when the old man was not around, to a friend’s house for a rare afternoon of mahjong. The only social functions they were allowed to attend without question were weddings and funerals.
And then it happened, when Milly and Cristy were thirteen, that Miguel Aragon disowned Tere for running away with a soft drinks salesman. Milly remembered the year distinctly, for it was the last time she found out that Guelin was indeed, as Cristy called him, a “fairy.” Cristy and Milly heard of the elopement from the kitchen people early one morning, just before breakfast. Miguel Aragon had his fetish about having everyone down for meals, a command which Marta alone defied by having her meals brought up to her room. That morning the old man sent a maid up to call Tere. The maid came running back, muttering that Tere wasn’t in her room, nor in the bathroom. The old man, now screaming at everyone, sent the whole household out to search for Tere. She wasn’t anywhere in the house, nor in the vast garden, nor in the tractor shed, nor in the stables. Discreet questions were asked in town, a few of her friends were called, but no one knew anything. All they knew was that Tere was gone. Where to, who with, why—these became the subject of speculation until a letter came a week later, postmarked Manila. Cristy and Milly read the letter one morning when the old man went to the fields to check on the planting of new cane points.
They went to the old man’s study, took the letter out of one of the lower drawers. From the letter they gathered that once Tere had asked their father’s permission to receive a visitor, and the old man had lost his temper, accusing her of being unchaste. He had whipped her, a grown woman of thirty-one. She had decided to elope, she explained, to marry the man she loved, to have a home of her own where she could become, she said, “a real human being, for you have so restricted us, Papa, that we are stifled, stunted creatures, enduring a meaningless existence from day to day…” She begged for his forgiveness, for “a little misunderstanding,” but Cristy and Milly were later to find that he would give her neither. He set her up as the prime example of an unchaste woman, and in a torrent of curses disowned her. Marta reacted with stony silence; it was though she had accepted the fact that whatever befell her husband’s house had long been decreed by a foulness in the blood, that one’s duty was to wait and endure. “You left her no choice,” she said the night the letter came. “Puta!” the old man snapped. “She chose carnal pleasure with some brute we know nothing about; she chose that over the family.” “Coming from your lips, the word love seems obscene,” Marta said. He turned savagely to her. “Love? What does she know about love?” he said. “You may be right at that,” she said “None of our children would know love from us.” “You knew what that slut was up to,” he said. “You knew, didn’t you?” Marta looked at him unwaveringly, but gave no answer. “You knew, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Answer me!” “Yes!” she cried fiercely. “I knew—and I told her, yes! Escape while you can!” He struck her hard across the face. She did not cry out. She stood there like some statue, her cold hard eyes staring fixedly at him, a small strange smile on her bleeding mouth.
Later that evening he had all of Tere’s things burned and decreed that from then on her name was never to be mentioned again. Not until two years later, when Marta died. Milly used to visit her briefly in her room at dusk to light the candles on her altar, where row upon row of saints’ images stood, cold and emotionless. Once, in the cold month of November, the room had seemed too dark and ghostly, even after she had lighted the candles. “Isn’t it too dark for you, Mama?” she asked. For a long while Marta did not answer, a frail frigid figure still uncannily elegant in her fine laces and pearls and sacred beads, sitting still in her rocking chair. Then, “No, I am used to the dark.” Not long after that evening Guelin came to the dining room one morning, tears streaming down his face. “What is it?” Maris asked. “Mama is dead,” Guelin pronounced simply, his voice small and strange. The old man stopped eating but said nothing. Milly wept quietly, following Cristy and Maris who had rushed weeping to their mother’s room.
Marta lay on her huge bed, her thin lips parted. Her hands and lips had assumed a bluish hue. They were all crying at her bedside when the old man came in. “I want to be alone with your mother,” he said, addressing himself to no one in particular, his voice flat and emotionless. “What for?” Guelin cried. “She’s dead now! You don’t speak to dead people!” “Shut up!” the old man snapped. “You killed her!” Guelin continued. “You should have shot her long ago, that would have been kinder!” “You sissy fool, I said shut up!” the old man screamed and it seemed the whole room shook with his voice. “Murderer!” Guelin cried hoarsely, and his strange grieving voice echoed and reechoed in Milly’s ears as she ran out of Marta’s room, out of the house and into the searing sunlight crying, “Oh God, oh God, help us all!”
Everyone seemed calmer that afternoon when relatives, friends, and officers of the mill and various planters’ associations came streaming in. “TB,” the relatives whispered, and Marta had, indeed, suffered from tuberculosis for the past few years. The kitchen people whispered among themselves, “Consumisyon.” When the body was laid out in the bronze coffin late that night, and those who had come to condole had partaken of the evening meal and had retired to the various gaming tables (for there was mahjong for the matrons, pangigue for the elderly women, poker and monte for the men, and blackjack for the younger set), Guelin took Milly aside. “We’ve got to let Manang Tere know,” he said.
They decided to place an obituary in all the papers, and on the second day Tere’s wire came, stating that she would be arriving early that afternoon. Guelin showed the old man the wire at lunch. The old man read it, his face blank. “The whole family is here,” he said tonelessly. “I do not know who that woman is, and I do not want her around.” Guelin flared up. “Papa, can’t you forgive Manang—for Mama’s sake! Manang’s coming for Mama’s funeral!” “I do not know who that woman is,” the old man said firmly. “I’m going to Bacolod to meet her at the airport,” Guelin said defiantly, ”and I’m going to bring her here.” The old man said nothing, but later when Guelin went to the garage he found that his father had taken all the keys of the cars, the pickup, the jeep. He ran back to the house, fuming. “Cristy,” he said, “will you get the keys from Papa?” “We must not defy Papa,” Cristy said. Guelin was in tears. “I don’t know what kind of people you all are!” Guelin cried. The old man came out and ordered all the gates locked, including the back gates where the tractor shed was. Then he posted himself on the porch, smoking his cigar. Men were ordered to guard the front gate, letting in only the cars of family friends. Guelin stayed in the living room, watching the gate. Maris and Cristy retired to their rooms. Milly stayed in the living rooms. Milly stayed in the kitchen, watching through the shutters.
At about three o’clock a taxi stopped at the gate and Tere, in mourning clothes, alighted from it. She stood uncertainly before the gate for a long while before she pressed the buzzer. The men at the gate, who had seen her alright from the taxi, made no move to let her in. She stood there for a long time, and then the old man went to the gate. Guelin and Milly watched tensely from the window. There was an exchange of words which at first they could not clearly hear, except for the old man’s cursing. Then Tere was on her knees, weeping her thin fingers clutching at the iron bars, and the old man was furiously kicking at her hands until her knuckles bled. “Puta! Puta!” He was screaming. Guelin sprung to the gate and struggled to drag the old man away. The old man struck him in the face and lumbered back to the house. Guelin watched Tere draw the thin black veil over her face, her hands bleeding. For a moment they looked at each other, then Tere slowly moved away. Milly watched Guelin leaning against the locked gate, his hands covering his face.
During the last rites at the family plot, Milly caught a glimpse of Tere weeping in the shadow of an angel with a broken wing. And beyond, where the sun was slowly sinking into the sea, leaving a splash of red and orange hues streaking the sky, Milly thought: Why, why does the sun scream, so beautifully, while dying?
Four months later they buried Maris beside their mother. While the family never discussed the actual cause of her death, it was believed that she died from an overdose of sleeping pills. This time, Tere did not come; they would later hear that she and her husband had left the country.
The following month Cristy and Milly went to Manila for college, enrolling in an exclusive school for girls. Milly took up Mass Communications while Cristy decided on Fine Arts. Guelin, who had stopped schooling after he had finished high school to help manage the farms, followed them to Manila. They did not know what course he enrolled in at the state university. They hardly saw him there, though they had heard that he was going around with a group of student activists that he joined sit-ins and demonstrations. That summer he did not come home, and it was rumored that he had gone with a group of students and journalists to Peking. The following schoolyear he reappeared, and when Milly saw him again, she noted that he had changed a great deal, not so much in the way he looked but in the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, the way he thought. He seemed so knowledgeable, so wise, so morose. The papers then ran frequent reports of alleged abuses committed by sugar planters against their workers, particularly the sacadas. The sugar industry was under scrutiny; government and private surveys were conducted on many large haciendas. Milly thought that the press tended to give too much credibility to the testimonies of sacadas who had run off from their contractual jobs before the milling was over, but not before they had to accumulated debts in the form of rice and cash advances. It was generally concluded that these workers ran off because they could not stand the working conditions. While it was true that there were indeed abusers in the industry, Milly felt that the cases cited in the papers were the exceptions rather than the rule. Thus, she could not understand why Guelin had risen up in arms against his own people, his roots. In a matter of months, he had become one of the most vocal figures in the activist ranks who led rallies and demonstrations assailing the industry. “How ironic, how telling,” one newspaper columnist wrote, “that the son of a big sugar baron and owner of a sugar mill should now stand at the opposite ends with the sugar industry.” “Courageous is the young heir,” another wrote, “who denounces the abuses of his own class, who bravely agitates for badly needed reforms and indicts his own father as guilty of abusing, exploiting, bleeding the hapless sacada to death.”
“A snake has sprung from my own house,” the old man said. “A damned Communist.”
Again, that summer, Guelin did not come home. “I don’t know what’s come over him, crying his fairy voice out,” Cristy said. “Manong’s not that way anymore,” Milly said. “Oh, what would you know,” Cristy shrugged. Milly decided not to argue though she was certain that when Guelin left Bacolod, he had left a lot of himself behind, and she felt that he was not ever coming back to retrieve whatever that was. Once, she had bumped into him in an Ermita bookshop and hardly recognized him. He seemed like someone else, except for the sad brooding eyes. He took her to a coffee shop. “Why haven’t you been coming home, Manong?” Milly asked. “No special reason why I should,” he said. “What have you been doing?” she asked. “This and that,” he replied vaguely. “That’s too trivial for Papa not to approve of, isn’t it?” she said. “Oh,” he said, “what does Our Father in heaven say?” “Well,” Milly said tentatively, “I’m not sure. He hasn’t said anything much. But when you made that speech in Plaza Miranda he blew his top—called you a Communist.” Guelin said nothing, a distant look in his eyes. Then she said, “You haven’t been home in two years, Manong. Aren’t you coming home for Christmas?” After a long while he said, “You know, Milly, once when I was very young, I actually believed in Christmas.” “And now?” she said, saddened because he was trying not to be flippant. “Now—well, times change. And so do people.” “And you have, Manong,” she said. “We hardly know you now.” “But I know myself now,” he said. “I have found something meaningful here, in what I’m doing now. I don’t know how to define it, Milly. Conscience, perhaps. Milly, there was something wrong and destructive in our way of life back home. Something in the family, perhaps, in each of us, I really don’t know. Something which slowly eats you up, some kind of rich man’s disease which makes you totally selfish, callous, indifferent to the plight of others. Before you know it, you wake up one morning to find yourself all eaten away inside.” Milly did not fully understand what he meant, but she nodded just the same. “Corruption,” he said, “is a creeping sickness. You don’t feel it consume your bones back home where vices are flaunted as graces, accomplishments, even. There they remain remote and undefined, for they are not given their true names. But here,” he gestured, “here you see it everywhere—and the sight of it appalls you, chafes you into awareness. You become aware of it enough to be on your guard, enough to define it, enough to fight it.” She did not know what to say. Then, after a silence, “What are you going to do now, Manong?” she asked. He did not answer for a long while, as though the decision, the answer hinged on that one moment’s thought. Then he said, “I’m not sure. But I know I’m not ever going back, Milly. This is where I belong. There are things that I must do here, things I am committed to.” “Yes,” she said weakly, “I suppose there are things you must do.” Guelin had that remote look in his eyes which vaguely frightened her. “Yes,” he said, “Many things.”
The following January, Guelin was shot dead, along with several other student demonstrators on Mendiola. With Cristy, Milly went to the morgue, to identify the body. She gazed at Guelin’s peaceful, pallid face, willing herself not to cry. Then she said, “Yes, I am positive. His name is Miguel Aragon Jr. He is our brother.” And tears came.
She and Cristy brought the body back to Bacolod, and when they arrived, the old man, who had refused to collect his dead, was speechless, and it seemed to Milly that he had aged. They buried Guelin in simple rites the following day, and the two women flew back to Manila that afternoon.
That summer Cristy married someone she had been going out with in Manila. When she mentioned the subject to the old man a few days after they had arrived for their summer vacation, the old man raged. “You are too young—only nineteen, Pangga. Besides, we don’t know anything about this man!” Cristy was insistent. “I love him, Papa.” “Think it over, for my sake,” the old man said. “Listen, we’ll go to Europe this summer. You will see, you’ll feel differently when we return—and you’ll have to thank me for it.” Cristy, fidgeting with her napkin, finally said, “You don’t understand, Papa. I’m going to have a baby.” The old man turned pale, then he said, his voice hoarse as in a whisper, “Carrajo, how could you do such a thing?” Before he could go further, Cristy said, “Don’t make it sound obscene. I love him.” “How, how,” he murmured. “Oh Papa, nobody pays heed to virginity anymore,” she said. “How could you let something like that happen?” His voice trembled, and it seemed to Milly that he would cry. “I don’t know,” Cristy said. “Things happen. Things just happen.” The old man rose from the dining table. He looked out of the window, staring at the vast darkness outside. Then he said, “You do not have to get married just because of that, Pangga. No need to let one mistake ruin the rest of your life. You don’t have to have the baby.” Cristy was crying now, her voice rising to a hysterical pitch. “You want me to abort this child?” He did not look at her. “Is that your answer? You want me to murder my own child?” “It’s not yet alive,” he said, still staring out into the dark. “God!” Cristy moaned in a low anguished dragged-out sound, “It’s alive—alive! I can feel it throb, here, inside me!” He turned swiftly to her. “Since when—” “Four months,” Cristy said. Once more he turned to the window. “Alright, then. If you don’t want abortion…We’ll go to Europe and you can have the baby there. There are orphanages that would take the child.” Cristy stared at him wildly. “I am not a bitch. I won’t give my young away. I’ll have this child. And I will keep this child. And I will marry its father if only to give the child a name.”
Arrangements for the wedding were completed in just three weeks. Cristy’s fiancée, Eric Reyes, was rather good-looking, though he struck Milly as a bit cocky. The old man hardly spoke to him, and Eric Reyes did not appear perturbed. He went about the house familiarly, as though he were not just a guest but an old occupant. They were married in a simple garden wedding, after which they left for a six-week honeymoon abroad. When they came back, they took an expensive suite at a Makati condominium. The old man did not want them to stay in Negros. He did not want Cristy’s condition to occasion a scandal, or perhaps he simply did not want to have an insolent son-in-law around. Two months later, Cristy gave birth to a stillborn son. When Milly came to see her at the hospital, Cristy was pale and haggard. “I’m sorry,” Milly said, clasping Cristy’s hand. “He was a beautiful baby, Mil,” Cristy said. “Yes, yes,” Milly murmured. “The bastard killed him,” Cristy said bitterly. Milly looked at her, uncomprehending. “Yes, he did,” Cristy said. “He used to beat me up, you know. The lazy bastard. He’d spend all my money at the casino—and when I wouldn’t give him more he’d beat me—yes! Even when I was already carrying the baby.” Milly did not know what to say. “What are you going to do, Cristy?” she finally asked. “I don’t know,” Cristy said, “I can’t believe it,” Milly said. “I thought he loved you.” Cristy looked away saying “Yes, so did I.”
For months Milly did not see Cristy again. She heard only that Cristy had finally left Eric and had gone back to Bacolod. She heard also that Eric had, several times, sought a reconciliation, but that the old man succeeded in prevailing upon Cristy not to take him back, telling her that the lazy leecher was only after her money. The next time Milly saw Cristy was in March of the following year when Cristy came to Manila for Milly’s graduation. Cristy was looking much better than she did when she was living with her husband, though it seemed to Milly that she had acquired a cold, hard look. “Papa would have come, I’m sure,” she said, “but at the moment he is abroad.” When she caught Milly looking at her a bit too long, she said half-laughingly, “Go on—I know I’ve changed a lot. Tell me.” Milly shook her head. “It’s that you seem—well, a bit remote.” Cristy took a long drag from her cigarette. “Some things take a lot out of you, I guess,” she said. Then, “What are your plans, Milly?” “I think I’ll stay here for awhile—you know, get a job or something.” Cristy sighed. “Yes, Milly, that would be exciting. Have you any idea where?” “It’s still tentative, but I’ll probably be taken in as a copywriter for Mini Counselors.” “I envy you,” Cristy said, “a career girl.” “Why don’t you finish schooling, Cristy?” Milly said. “It’s just a year more. I’m getting an apartment with Nena and Anne. You can stay with us.” “I wish I could,” Cristy said. “But things are not going too well back home, you know. We’ve had a couple of drawn-out strikes on two farms, and in the middle of the milling season yet. We must have lost close two hundred hectares of cane, including the fields that were set on fire by the sacadas. Things are so bad you couldn’t hire scabs. It seems Papa’s no longer interested in farms.” “He’s not ill, is he?” Milly asked. “No,” Cristy said, “just different.”
Milly did not go home that summer, for she had to hunt for an apartment and once settled, she had to report to her new job. Seven months later, she married her college boyfriend in simple rites, an evening wedding at her alma mater’s chapel with only George’s immediate family and their closest friends in attendance. Milly had written the old man a month before the wedding, but it was Cristy who wrote back, telling her that she was abroad again, and may not be back for the wedding. Cristy added that while the old man was in Rome, he had succeeded in securing an annulment of her marriage to Eric.
“Why so sudden—the decision, I mean?” Cristy asked when she came for the wedding. “Actually we had planned on getting married right after I graduated,” Milly said, “but then I thought I’d work for a while—the thrill of being a single working girl, you know.” “Or perhaps you weren’t sure,” Cristy said. “Perhaps,” Milly said.
Perhaps is perhaps the most uncertain word, she thought now as she waited for George to come home. And perhaps, too, Cristy had been right. A woman did not bind herself to a man and expect their life together to run smoothly just because there was love, and indeed she and George had just started discovering the world, discovering themselves, beginning a life that would perhaps last a lifetime. There was love, she told herself with certitude, but there too were tomorrow’s nameless uncertainties. There was the house and lot to be paid for, the mortgage on the car, the furnishings she had dreamed of. “Let’s get the things we need one at a time, George. Only the things we really want. It may take us some time, but I don’t mind,” she told him the night they moved into their new house, sleeping in their bedroom which was bare except for the bed, and she thought then how lovely the moonlight was, streaming through the shutters. “I’ll give you everything, Mil. In time I’ll give you everything,” he said. He did not want them to touch the money she had in the bank, the accrued rental from her parent’s house which had been in trust for the past thirteen years. “We’ll use the money only when we really have to,” he said, and she was moved.
George arrived an hour later than usual. He was in a jubilant mood. “Guess what, Mil,” he said, “we got the contract. The clients liked Pete’s layout, and your copy was terrific. We signed the contract today.”
All through dinner he talked of his meeting with the new clients, and it was only halfway through dessert when he finally noticed that Milly looked distracted. “What is it?” he asked, “It’s Papa,” she said, showing him Cristy’s wire. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Do you feel up to it? Making the trip, I mean.” “I think I’ll have to go anyhow, George, I owe it to the old man, and to Cristy. You know, they’re all the family I have,” she said. “How long will you be away?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’ll call if I have to stay a while.”
They were already in bed when another telegram came. It was from Cristy, telling her that the old man died late that afternoon. For a long while Milly held the telegram in her hand, and strangely, she felt only a vague sadness, and when George came from behind and held her tightly by the shoulders, saying. “Don’t cry, Mil. It’s alright, don’t cry,” she shut her eyes tight for she was not crying, and she did not know how to explain to him why she could not cry.
She woke up early the following morning, and on her way to their airport she stopped at a boutique and bought a couple of mourning clothes from off the rack. She reached Bacolod at noon and took a taxi all the way to the farm, which took a little over an hour. Bacolod had not changed much in two years, she thought. The taxi deposited her in front of the iron gate and she looked at the huge house and somehow it looked different now. It seemed no longer as imposing, as elegant as it once was. As she came in, she noted that the stained glass windows looked dull and dark at the edges. Even the gardens looked neglected, the grass and hedges untrimmed.
Cristy met her at the door. “Oh, Milly,” Cristy said, kissing her affectionately. “It’s been terrible.” “What happened?” Milly asked. “A car accident,” Cristy said. “Was he driving?” Milly asked. “Yes,” Cristy said, “and they tell me he had been drinking heavily. He crashed into a tractor parked alongside the road. He never regained consciousness.” She led Milly into the living room where people were gathered in small whispering groups. “The body’s already in church. The funeral’s at four. I thought there was no need to wait, since there’s just the two of us. Do you want to rest a while?” “No, it’s all right.” Milly said, and joined some familiar faces in the room.
“Milly!” a small birdlike voice called. When Milly turned, she saw someone whose name she could not immediately recall; she knew only that the elderly lady was a distant relative. She joined the elderly lady’s group. “How have you been?” the lady asked. “It must be simply ghastly!” she continued. “We’ve been talking about that holdup man who broke into a businessman’s house, and held his eight-month-old baby hostage, and in broad daylight yet! Milly, how can you stand it there?” “Oh, those things are likely to happen in any big city,” Milly said. “I wouldn’t live there,” the lady said, “So what I did was put my two-bedroom condominium unit for sale. And I had not even moved into it! A pity, really, but I would not live there and be terrorized each single minute!” “Do you know I’m pulling my son out of there?” someone said. She glanced at Milly and continued, “My son’s in college there, you see, a strict Catholic school supposedly, but I am told that ninety-six percent of the students there take this thing called pot, and tablets or something. Speed, I think it is called. Why, they say the stuff is being peddled everywhere.” “You mean your son is a drug addict?” an aghast voice asked. “Well, I wouldn’t say he’s addicted, God forbid, but boys get curious, you know. So I have a good mind to take him out of there, for his own good. Manila is just teeming with pushers and junkies nowadays, you know, so the farther he is from those bad influences the better.” “I guess those things don’t happen here at all,” Milly said, slightly offended, though she could not understand why. “If at all,” someone said authoritatively, “it could never be as bad. When your children are right under your nose, you don’t have to worry. It’s different here.”
Milly asked to be excused and settled herself in a corner. From where she sat she caught glimpses of farm people, laborers, peering from the kitchen door, and a strange thought gripped her. Had these people, who had been shouted at, whipped and beaten, had they come to pay their respects to the old man? What was hidden in their watchful eyes? She could not tell if it was a sense of loss, or curiosity, or well-controlled glee. She could not really tell, and then she knew; no, she told herself, they are not animals as the old man had always believed; they would not be whipped like dogs and not remember with hate and rancor. She tried to stay the cold shiver that ran up her spine, but the sinister thought persisted and forced its way from the dark recesses of her mind: Christ, she thought, they’ve come for the pleasure of seeing him finally dead.
She pushed the thought out of her mind and allowed her eyes to wander around the house. How this house has changed, she thought, like a person who has grown old, shorn of all light and grace. The drapes hung heavily to the floor, the oil portraits of the Aragon ancestors that lined the wall leading to the chandeliers had lost their elegant glow. I’ve been away only two years, she thought, and it seems like ages.
They buried the old man beside Marta, Maris, and Guelin under an afternoon sky which threatened rain. At the graveside, Cristy nudged Milly and whimpered, “Do you see that woman over there in black?” Milly saw an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, standing apart from the crowd. “Who is she?” Milly asked. There was bitterness in Cristy’s voice. “His mistress of four years’ standing. She had been traveling with him, of late. She’s got a lot nerve showing up here, the bitch.”
After the burial they had dinner, after which a hurried novena was murmured. It seemed to Milly that those who had come to condole could hardly wait for the gambling to start. After the prayers Milly retired to her room, and soon after Cristy came up, the dark rings under her eyes showing under her makeup. “I am so exhausted. I feel as though I have suddenly grown old,” Cristy said, and looking at her from a certain angle, Milly thought that indeed she had. “I was just talking to Attorney Vera,” Cristy continued. “Milly, Papa left almost nothing.” Milly stared at her in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe it either, at first,” Cristy said wearily. “After everything had been threshed out, all we had left was the farm, the smallest of the lot, and this house.” “What about the sugar mill?” Milly asked. “If we sell his shares we would net just about enough to cover his debts in three banks,” Cristy said. “But what about the other farms?” Milly said. “Florencia was sold a few months back, to pay off Papa’s gambling debts, I think. I did not worry about that then. I thought we still had Isabela and Cristina. Well, Cristina was sold two years ago, and Isabela went last year. Milly, this is terrible, but do you know where Isabela went? To that witch mistress of his, and for a mere pittance too!” Milly was incredulous. “You’d better believe it, because there are papers showing there was a sale. Imagine, two hundred thirty-nine hectares of prime sugar land, sold for the ridiculous sum of fifty thousand pesos! And I’m sure that only on paper. I thought all he gave was a house, a car, jewelry—but no. Milly, do you remember Mama’s solitaire, the heart-shaped one?” Milly nodded. “Well,” Cristy said, “the bitch had it on her this afternoon” “I still can’t still believe it,” Milly said. Cristy was on the verge tears. “I don’t understand anything anymore, Milly. I used to think Papa worked so hard just to give the family the best of everything. I used to think Mama misunderstood him so badly, that she did not know how to appreciate him, what he was doing. And Manong, too. But Milly, Mama and Manong must have known something of him which I just did not see, or understand. The gambling, the women, the wasteful dissolute life,” Cristy broke off and sighed tiredly. “What do you plan, Cristy?” Milly asked. “I’ll have to stay until everything’s straightened out. I think this house will have to go. I can’t hang on to it till it falls apart. I don’t know—perhaps sell the farm, too.” Milly said, “I’m flying back to Manila tomorrow, Cristy. If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” “Well, I suppose I might just as well let you know, Milly. I might get married again. After the year’s over, of course.” “Oh,” Milly said, “to whom?” “Someone from here. Oh, I know I should be wary, after Eric and all that. But he’s different. He’s much older than I, and rather plain-looking but he’s very dependable and so kind.” “Do you love him, Cristy?” “I don’t know,” Cristy said, “but after a while kindness seems enough. Do you suppose that’s more important than love?”
Milly took the afternoon jet to Manila, and just before the plane took off, she gazed at the crowd below and saw Cristy wave once, twice, and watching her hold up her hand like that, Milly felt a sudden sorrow assail her heart: once they were children and Cristy was so pretty in her exquisite dresses, so vibrant astride her handsome pony, and she had always thought how beautiful she was. All through the trip, thoughts of the family, the house, its tragedies came surging into her mind, until finally there was Guelin once again, in the bookstore, in the coffee shop, probing her with his brooding eyes. “You don’t see truth in the seeming ease of life back home,” he had said, and indeed it seemed to her now that in the slow procession of years one hardly became aware of the slow and insidious weakening of the will, of the blood. Whatever the primal cause of the weakening no longer mattered: one was still shocked at the fatal discovery, the loss it exacted. She realized that Guelin had, in his own fashion, found whatever truth he sought, and which had evaded him (as indeed it seemed to evade them all) in his early youth. He had found it in another city, somewhere in its streets, somewhere among its people, she thought as she looked at Manila, hazy through the plane window. She was glad to see the familiar landmarks, for in a way Guelin had been right: this city, despite its dirt, its dangers, its corruption, was that lesser evil, for here dangers were real and visible; one recognized them everywhere, their naked forms tagged and labeled. She realized now that truly the more terrifying threat was in not seeing or knowing or recognizing what was corrupt because these lay hidden, though ever potent, in the byways of a way of life. Guelin had found his truth here, and he had called it conscience. George grew up with it here, and he called it values.
As the plane touched down, Milly felt a strange throb in her womb. Dear God, she thought, the responsibility of bringing life into this world . . . Suddenly she was a little frightened of the stirring of the new life within her, and awed at the difficult and uncertain tasks this life, any life, would entail. She pushed the small curtain to one side and through the plexiglass of the round window she saw George standing in a crowd of unfamiliar and waiting faces.
When she felt George’s arm around her shoulder, the tears came though she willed herself not to cry. “I hope it wasn’t so bad back home,” he said when they were in the car. She knew that he meant the funeral, the reunion with Cristy, the sense of loss; but in her mind home meant not only all the years of violence and bitterness, of disease and death. No, she realized now, that huge house had never been a home . . . She had been on a visit to a past and decayed region, and coming back from that necessary visit was coming home. “It wasn’t so bad, was it, Mil?”
“No,” she said.
“In a few days you’ll forget all about it. It’s over and done now.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, though in her heart she wondered if it was really over, if anything was really over, if remembrances of old wounds, old pains ever ended.
Yet, sitting there now in the car, grateful for George’s reassuring closeness, Milly thought that perhaps, perhaps after all, it was not enough to merrily watch life and never grasp and embrace it; one must probe long and hard and painfully into its very soul, and risk being wounded along its dark byways, for truly it seemed to her now that one had to hurt himself to knowledge, to beauty, to wisdom.
As they drove down the boulevard she asked George to stop the car. He followed her gaze to the far edge of the bay, where the sun was sinking into the sea, leaving a splash of red and orange hues streaking the graying sky. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” George said.
She nodded, and inwardly she told herself, as she knew she would always be telling herself, that the sun must scream, so beautiful, while dying.
Elsa Victoria Martinez Coscolluela was born in Dumaguete City, where she earned her AB and MA for Creative Writing at Silliman University. (She was also Miss Silliman 1964.) Later, she was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of St. La Salle, and retired in 2010 after thirty-two years of service. Upon retirement, she was conferred the rank of Professor Emeritus and was designated Special Assistant to the President for Special Projects, a post that she continues to hold. During her term as VPA, she founded the Negros Summer Workshops with film Director Peque Gallaga in 1990, and the IYAS Creative Writing Workshop in 2000, in collaboration with Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Dr. Marjorie Evasco and the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of De La Salle University, Manila. She writes poetry, fiction, drama, and filmscripts in English. She has published a book of poetry, Katipunera and Other Poems. Several of her works have been anthologized. As a writer, she is best known for her full-length play about Dumaguete during World War II, In My Father's House, which has been produced in Dumaguete, and in Japan, Singapore, San Francisco, and New York. She was inducted to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1999 and is the recipient of several awards from the CCP, Philippines Free Press, and the Philippine Centennial Literary Competition. She continues to work at the University of St. La Salle where she manages several special projects and directs projects for the Eduardo Cojuangco Foundation.
The man swayed before the woman on the floor. His face was a dark crimson and a streak of saliva ran down his chin. He was breathing heavily like a carabao in the fields at midday. The woman tried to lift herself up with one arm but soon collapsed. One of the straps of her chemise had slid off her shoulder, showing a red raw welt across her bare skin. She could feel the wind coming through the slits of the bamboo floor slowly drying her moist face. She felt she could no longer cry; even if she tried to, the tears would not come any more.
She remembered the first time his fist landed on her cheek that Sunday morning ten years before. She was sitting on one of the rungs of the stairs nursing her son. He had just finished dressing and was about to leave for the cockpit. “Soling, I need five pesos.” He mumbled the words.
She looked up and took the child away from her breast. “Five pesos? What for, Merto?”
He turned his back on her and sat on a stool nearby. She stood up, cradling the baby in her arms. “You know I don’t have much money!” She could not help raising her voice.
He stood abruptly. She cowered when she saw his face. For the first time, she saw anger there. She saw the hand darting towards her face. She gasped when the blow landed, not so much for the stinging pain but because of the unexpectedness of it all. She did not expect it from him. Not from Merto, the loving husband and tender father. But her cheek was burning and tears were welling in her eyes.
That had been the beginning.
The leather belt swished in the air and the body quivered from the impact. In one corner, the boy watched as the flickering wick of the lamp cast grotesque shadows on the woman on the floor. He winced each time he heard the sound of leather against flesh, and he covered his eyes every time the belt descended. As he watched his mother sprawled on the floor, blood pounded in his temples trying to gush out from his head.
That Sunday afternoon had not been a happy one for Roberto. One of his hens had strayed and he had searched through the thickets and bushes. His search had been fruitless. Now, as the sun sank in the west, he sat sulking before the table.
“Hoy, Berto, look what I brought you,” Mamerto shouted as he ascended the bamboo steps. Before he could reach the landing, mother and son knew he was drunk. He held a rope in his hand, the other end was tied to the neck of a dog. “Here. Now you’ll have somebody to play with.” He tried to lead the dog to the boy but it refused to budge from where it was standing. “Hoy, Berto! Don’t you want him?” His voice rose to a pitch bordering on anger.
“Yes, yes, Tatay.” Roberto answered immediately and stood up.
“Then give him something to eat.”
Roberto slowly approached the dog, which stared at him with its round black eyes. He put out his hand to pat its head but the dog growled, baring its sharp teeth. He withdrew the hand instantly.
“Ha…ha! Afraid, eh, Berto?” The man slapped the dog with his open palm. It whined and lowered its head. “See? He’s timid. If you know how. Ha…ha.” Mamerto tossed the rope to Roberto and went to where his wife stood. Placing a heavy arm around her waist, he drew her to him. “Soling, I won ten pesos on the bulanting. I had Pare Insong take the cock to his house. It hasn’t a scratch on its body. We’ll take it to Sipayao tomorrow. Ha…ha. Imagine, that dog was about to be butchered by Insong. I gave him fifty centavos. Ha…ha.” His laughter drowned all other sounds in the room. “Come, let us have supper.”
“Berto,” his mother called to him, “go light the lamp.” Roberto tied the dog to a post and went to the stove. Taking a match, he lit the wick. Soon thick smoke began seeping inside the nearly empty bottle. The smoke looked like mountain fog in the early morning. Roberto turned to his mother. “Nanay, why does the smoke go inside the bottle?”
“It passes through the wick,” she answered as she started setting the table.
“But smoke always goes up. This one does not. See? The bottle’s full of smoke now.”
“That’s because there is no more kerosene. And the smoke cannot get out although it wants to because of the wick stopping it at the mouth.”
“Stop asking foolish question, Berto, and get ready to eat,” his father interrupted as he sat down at the table. “I’m hungry.”
The water in the river was very cold. Roberto did not want to go to the river so early in the morning but his father had insisted that he give the dog a bath. Call him Dominante, his father told him. He’s a brave dog.
He pulled the rope to get the dog in the water but it had dug its forelegs into the sand, straining to break loose from the rope around its neck. “Dominante!” he shouted.
The dog only showed its fangs. Roberto picked up a bamboo stick lying nearby.
“Dominante!” He shouted again, raising the stick in a threatening gesture.
The dog lowered its head and stood up. Slowly, Roberto dragged Dominante toward the water. He went to where the river was deepest. The dog paddled its legs, trying desperately to keep its head above the water. The boy did not release the rope as Dominante was struggling to swim to the nearest bank. He wanted to keep the dog in the water as long as he could stand the cold, to test its endurance and ferocity; for had not his father said that Dominante was a brave dog? As it tried frantically not to drown, it made a whining sound. Was it afraid to die? He smiled. The dog was so helpless before him. In a few more minutes, strength would leave its body and Dominante would begin to sink, down to the bottom of the river.
Suddenly, he jerked the rope in his hand. A dark figure was approaching, following the path that led to the shallow well on the riverbank. He hastened toward land, pulling the dog along with him. Seeing a flat stone, he sat down and waited. His legs were trembling and it was not from the coldness of the water.
“Hoy, Berto, you are early this morning,” the man called as he set down the bamboo tube near the well.
He heaved a sign of relief. It was not his father.
“That’s a handsome dog you have there.” The man was taking off his shirt.
“Yes, yes, Mang Tasio. He’s a good dog. Tatay gave him to me.”
The words came out mechanically, as if they had been rehearsed in the boy’s mind for a long time. As he sat staring at the man who was about to plunge into the river, he unwound unconsciously the rope around his hand.
In one quick bound, the dog dashed forward, running up the slight slope, toward the path that led to the coconut trees. “Dominante!” Roberto raced after the dog, forgetting his clothes, which he had spread on the trunk of a dead tree.
He ran with the speed of the wind; but the dog was even faster. He nearly stumbled as he stubbed his toe on a jutting stone. Stopping for a moment to rub the aching toe with his hand, he realized he had left his clothes on the riverbank. He straightened up abruptly and headed back for the river.
Roberto climbed the bamboo stairs briskly, taking the steps two at a time. When he came to the kitchen, he saw his mother in one corner, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“What happened, Nanay?”
He shouldn’t have asked that question, he told himself. It would be his father again, he was sure. He was the only one who made his mother cry. But then, talking to her seemed the right thing to do at the moment. He wanted to ask her where Dominante was. He didn’t.
When she did not answer or move from where she was standing, he made a motion to leave. His eyes fell momentarily on the floor. He stopped. There were dark splotches all over the once shiny floor.
He left the kitchen instantly. “Dominante… ‘Toy, ‘toy,” he called at the top of his voice, proceeding at once to their sleeping room.
There, on top of a heap of dirty clothes and rags, lay Dominante, his body covered with brown earth. The dog saw him, but did not move. Roberto took the rope in his hand and yanked the dog from out of the soggy mass of clothing. He jerked the rope so violently that Dominante howled in pain. His mother turned to him when he stepped into the kitchen. She did not speak, but her tear-stained eyes seemed to say: Now you know why I’m crying. That dog adds to the misery of this house. Is it not enough that your father beats me when he comes home drunk?
He left her then, pulling Dominante after him. Once outside the house, he led the dog to where the guava trees grew thick and abundant. After tying the end of the rope to a sturdy trunk, he reached out for a branch and plucked the leaves off. He brought it down suddenly against his leg. There was a burning sensation where the branch landed and red welt showed across his bare leg. Roberto slowly approached Dominante, gripping the stick firmly in his hand. He towered over the dog with one thought in his mind—the dog had to be punished. He raised the stick to strike but it was suspended in mid-air as if a hand reached out and held it back. The thought of his father coming home drunk in the evening flashed in his mind. His father would see the wounds on the dog’s body and eventually he would find out. From him. But he knew that his father would not take it out on him. It was his mother who would suffer. Always.
Slowly dropping the stick to his side, he turned his eyes away from the dog. His vision swept the nearby cornfields and rested on the mountains that loomed dark and huge in the west. Grey clouds hung low on the mountaintops. The fog had not yet lifted and he remembered the thick white smoke in the bottle, whirling as if it wanted to come out.
He glanced down at the dog again. He could not take it back to the house now. His mother would know that it had not been punished. What would she think on him? He did not know. But his father—he was ruthless and brutal; his mother—she would understand.
Roberto strode back to the house, leaving the dog tied to the tree. Once, he heard Dominante let out a low howl. He did not look back. When he entered the house, his mother was still in the kitchen. She was on her hands and knees, vigorously wiping the floor with the sack, which they used for wiping their feet. She looked up when he came to the door. He avoided her eyes and walked over to where the corn feed was.
He was feeding the chickens when he heard somebody approach from behind. It was Kario, Mang Tasio’s eldest son. “Berto, Tatay told me that you have a very beautiful dog. May I see him?” the boy asked when he came to his side.
“He is not here,” he answered curtly. He continued scattering the grains on the ground.
“Where is he?”
Roberto kicked the big red rooster that was trying to scare all the other chickens away. It scurried away in pain.
“Is he in the house, ha, Berto?” asked Kario, tugging at his arm. “Tatay said he is a beautiful dog.”
Roberto left Kario standing there among the chickens pecking at the corn grains on the ground.
The dried fish soaked in vinegar and pepper lay untouched before him. He did not want to come to the table but he had to eat his breakfast for the day. “Where is the dog?” his mother asked across the table.
“I left him there, Nanay,” he answered without looking at her.
“Among the guava trees.”
There was a silence after that. Silence that was broken only by the sound of metal against plate. Then: “Did you kill him?”
“No, Nanay, no.” The answer was spontaneous.
“What did you do with him then?”
He sat stiffly on the stool without answering the question. Somehow he wanted to say that he could not beat the dog, that this would only serve to provoke his father into beating her—for he was cruel and merciless and would make her pay for the beating, blow for blow, but instead he said: “I beat him, Nanay.” He felt a surge of warmth spread all over his face. He had lied.
Pushing back the stool with his legs, he stood up and left the table. He could not face the guilt showing on his face.
Mamerto came home very late that evening. He made a great deal of noise as he bumped against the bamboo stools lined up near the door. “Gaddem this house!” He staggered toward the kitchen, his hands groping for support in the dark. Someone stirred in the other room. Soon, a dark figure approached Mamerto. “Where is my supper, salbahis?”
“I will light the lamp, Merto,” his wife said softly as she walked over to the stove. Soon the improved wick of the bottle of kerosene was burning brightly. The man went to the table and sat down on the bench. He buried his face in his hands, his fingers kneading the bulging veins on his forehead. He muttered unintelligible words as he sat there—and once or twice, a curse escaped his lips.
The woman set the food before him, then took a seat across the table. He looked at the plate of rice and fish. Lifting the spoon wearily, he began poking at the dried fish.
“That bulanting. Ha! Running with just a scratch on the wing. Coward! And I bet all my money on it,” he spoke to himself. He raised his eyes to his wife. “You! Why are you smiling? Are you happy I lost all my money? Ha?”
“Merto, I’m…not smiling,” she stammered.
He stood up instantly and pushed the table against her violently. The bottle of kerosene toppled over, rolling on the bamboo floor. “Gaddem! You are useless!” he shouted.
“Merto, please. The neighbors,” she pleaded in the darkness.
“Ha, now you’re afraid of the neighbors! Gaddem the neighbors!” He strode toward her and she ran to escape him but he followed her until she stood against a bamboo wall.
“Please, Merto, please,” she begged. But the man did not hear her at all.
A fist shot out and landed on the woman’s cheek. She staggered. The fist struck her stomach and she sagged to the floor, crying in pain. His foot hit her breast with a dull thud. The leather belt glided away from the trousers.
Inside the room, Roberto lied wide awake. He heard the sound of a body collapsing to the floor and the scream that accompanied it. Taking the pillow in his hand, he coiled it tightly around his head, trying to drown the screams that echoed and reechoed in his head. The sounds became distant now, but the room was beginning to warm. His breath was hot and moist and soon he was breathing hard and sweating profusely—sweat that was like water in the early morning. It seeped through his clothes and dampened the buri mat.
Hours passed, it seemed to him, since he heard the body fall. There were no screams now, no cries. Just silence. A kind of silence that seemed to make the roof of the house close in on him. And in the darkness he closed his eyes every time he felt the roof was descending, waiting for it to come crashing down. It did not. But the silence remained.
Something brushed against his legs and he curled them up instinctively. He sensed that somebody was beside him on the mat, and releasing the pillow that covered his head, he sat up abruptly. A dark figure lay huddled on the mat. “Nay,” he called out softly, stretching out his hand to touch her. She was sobbing and he could feel the faint trembling of her body. Taking the sheet that laid at his feet, he gently spread it over her.
When Roberto awoke the next morning, dawn was already breaking. He bundled the mat and pillow, then walked out of the room. His mother stood beside the stove, bending low to blow air through the tayhopan into the fire. She straightened up when she saw him. He stared. Her right cheek was swollen and bluish, and on her forehead there was a lump that was shiny and red. The feeling came back again. He was about to say something when his mother spoke: “Berto, the dog ate the fish for breakfast.” He did not move from where he was. The lamp bottle lay overturned in the sink. Then with one quick movement, he dashed out of the kitchen.
Roberto climbed the bamboo stairs slowly. He proceeded to the table where his father and mother were eating.
“What’s the matter, Berto? Are you ill?” his father asked when he saw that the boy was not touching the food.
He shook his head in answer.
“Hmmm,” Mamerto cleared his throat. “Don’t we have any other food, Soling?”
“There was fish,” she answered, “but the dog ate it.”
“Dominante?” He looked around him. “Where is that dog?”
The woman and the boy did not speak.
“Berto, where is Dominante?” There was anger in Merto’s voice.
Roberto slowly raised his eyes to him. Their glances met—and held each other for a moment—then, he softly said, just loud enough for him to hear: “I killed him.”
Jose Villahermosa Montebon Jr. was a lawyer, public servant, and writer. As a college student in Silliman University in the late 1940s, he worked as a student assistant to help pay for his tuition, but also contributed to the artistic culture that was being shaped on campus. He started writing in 1949. His column for the Sillimanian Magazine, “Point of View,” which he co-wrote with Kenneth Woods under the pseudonymous by-line of Alphonse and Gaston, compiled their passionate literary criticism, taking note for the most part the literary works being produced by Silliman writers which were being published either locally or in national and international publications such as Philippines Free Press, This Week [the Sunday magazine of the Manila Chronicle], Graphic Report, Saturday Magazine of the Philippines, Evening News Saturday Magazine, Philippine Review, Sunday Times Magazine, and Weekly Women’s Magazine, as well as Poetry Magazine in Chicago. In 1954, he won the second prize of the prestigious Philippines Free Press short story contest with his piece “Bottle Full of Smoke,” which proved such a popular story it was eventually translated to Russian. Soon after graduation from Silliman, he turned to the practice of law, and later on, politics. He was elected as Dumaguete City Councilor, and then became the OIC of Dumaguete City, and then its Vice-Mayor, in 1986-1987. His short stories are belated collected in Cupful of Anger, Bottle Full of Smoke, published in 2017.
It was difficult not to fall in love with the Night. At least it was for Luan, who was not yet thirteen, and was therefore less learned than the elders in his village, even if he had never seen Night before.
In fact, no one in his village had ever seen the Night before either.
Where Luan lived, there was only bright, gleaming, perpetual Day. He had heard the stories, of course. His father—and every other village elder—had told him all about how the Night was dark and dangerous, and the forests full of horrific creatures that ate curious little boys who wandered too far from home. He knew these stories were meant to dissuade him, but they only made him curiouser and curiouser about what wonders awaited him in the dark.
And while his father told him to stop thinking about it, Luan often indulged himself in the simple pleasures of imagination. Many times Luan wondered what life there might be away from the garish light of Day, the constant thirst that needed to be replenished . . .
He thought of the coolness away from the Sun’s heat, the darkness that accompanied the Night, and wondered how quiet it must be compared to the loud swish and plop of plow and scythe every day.
The field where Luan and his family and the rest of the villagers farmed was a large expanse of land surrounded by mountains on one side, and a cluster trees on the other, so close together you could barely see beyond the branches of the first few. Part of the field had been turned into the village, a small cluster of huts and cottages where people might find refuge from the Sun’s heat. A river ran through the village and cut into the forest.
Luan stood by the river now, staring at the tree line as though he was looking at a precipice, and was contemplating jumping. He’d been here before, on this very spot, wondering.
Behind him, he could hear the sounds of the village coming alive with the day’s work. Today was a special day, and he could hear the village elders delegating tasks, and he could make out the telltale sign of the scythes swinging back and forth as people set to work.
It was the harvest, after all, and the faster they finished, the faster they could get to the celebration after. Luan knew he should be out there helping his parents with their portion of the fields, or at the very least take water for them to drink, but Luan stayed rooted to his spot. He stared at the darkness that waited, as if in bated breath, for him to enter.
A hand clamped onto his shoulder, and he jumped.
“Hey!” he said accusingly at whoever it could be. It was his grandfather, Ka Nelo, who only smiled toothily at him.
“If you want to,” his grandfather said in his usual whisper, glancing also at the darkness, “you should go.”
Ka Nelo was what you would call eccentric. He went around town observing everything and everyone, and always had a thing to say about how you were holding your plow, or how you were watering the field. He would stare at open space for a time, laugh at something no one said, and tell all the children the strangest of stories. As a general rule, his strange eccentricities had the villagers veering far from him. Luan, however, was quite used to his grandfather’s ramblings, and only gave him suspicious looks. “Shouldn’t you be at the hut?” he asked the older man.
“Shouldn’t you be helping with the harvest?” Ka Nelo fired back. Luan smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
“Do you know what’s out there?” he asked his grandfather instead, looking back at the dark edges of the forest. From where they stood, shaded by the great trees, the breeze was cool and welcoming. Luan inched forward.
“Monsters,” Ka Nelo said. “Beasts that eat children who stray.”
But Luan had heard all of these stories before and only rolled his eyes. “Right,” he said. “And you want me to go into it?”
“Only if you want to.”
“I have to go back to work . . .”
But just as he started to walk away, his grandfather grinned at him and sat on the ground, facing the forest. “Don’t you want to hear a story?” He patted the ground beside him.
“I’ve heard them before,” Luan said, but never one to pass up the opportunity to get out of work, he sat.
“Not this one,” Ka Nelo insisted.
Ka Nelo started his story with a flourish, as he usually did. Luan almost smiled.
“It is true there are great creatures in the forest,” his grandfather began, waving his arms above him. “Great ones, as tall as the trees! Or ones as small as the tiniest finger on your hand there.”
Where they stood beside the river, the sound of the raging waters seemed to swallow Ka Nelo’s soft voice, and Luan leaned forward to hear better.
“But these creatures wouldn’t have hurt you, boy.”
Luan cocked his head to the side. “But you said—”
“Och. I know how the stories go, too.” Ka Nelo grinned. “I made most of them up.”
Luan figured as much. Still, he nodded gravely, as if he understood why. “Are you making this one up, too?”
“Oh no, no,” Ka Nelo whispered. “This shall be the only truthful story I will tell. Now, pay attention, Luan. This might come as a surprise to you, boy, but I went into the Night lands once. When I was maybe a little older than you are now.” Luan must have looked funny, because his grandfather laughed. “Do not tell anybody! Especially your father!”
Luan nodded again, at a loss for words. His grandfather—? Surely he was joking! But the old man continued on before he could say anything.
“I was much like you when I was young,” he said, looking at Luan almost fondly. “I wanted to know the Night as you do, perhaps slay one of its monsters, and be rewarded for my courage.” He shook his head. “I went into the forest one day, and so enamored was I at the strange trees, the new smells, the birds that sung sweeter songs than I have heard . . . I didn’t even notice the dark settling in until I couldn’t see my own feet!”
“But weren’t you afraid?”
His grandfather gave him a wry smile. “You’d be stupid if you weren’t afraid, boy. I got so scared of the dark that I . . . stopped. Just stopped walking and sat down on the ground. Like this.” He folded his legs under him. “I waited there for what felt like a long time. I could hear strange sounds too—like people talking, or a twig snapping . . . I knew someone watched me, so I waited. But they didn’t come yet.”
Luan’s fingers threaded through the grass by his hand. “And then?”
Ka Nelo shrugged. “I got up and walked again. I figure, if they wanted to harm me, they would have.” The old man sighed. “No, I thought they were simply curious, as I was. After a while, I realized it wasn’t dark at all. There was . . . well, there was a—light there. But not like the Sun, that light.” He squinted, as if he could see it in the forest now.
“Shh. Pay attention, now. I cannot tell you how it felt, to find light amidst that darkness. I kept walking.
“I walked into a field—though much smaller than this one—” he flipped a lazy hand at the village behind them. “And instead of crops, there grew flowers . . . Flowers I had never seen before! And above me, in the sky . . . there was a floating . . . hmm, how do I describe it—? Orb? Orb of light, much like the Sun, but still, so different. Its light was white, almost, and it flew closer than our Sun does. It washed away the darkness.”
His grandfather looked to the trees, and Luan thought he could almost see it, too. The light. Through the sinewy branches and the crawling vines . . . He could imagine it was softer than the Sun—bright, still, but perhaps not as hot.
“I cannot tell you how long I stayed there, staring.” His grandfather fixed his old eyes at him and smiled, almost shyly. “It was the smallest I’ve ever felt.” He shrugged. “That’s where they found me, you know.”
Luan, who had been frozen with both shock and delight, mouth hanging open and eyes as huge as the Sun, leaned forward and asked, urgently, “Who? Who found you, Lo?”
His grandfather’s voice went even lower, and Luan strained to hear. “The Hunters,” he said simply, looking around as though he was scared someone heard. Luan’s face must have betrayed his horror, because the old man laughed, clapping Luan on the shoulder with a calloused hand. “They never meant me harm, boy. Pay attention. They were only curious.”
“What—what did they look like?”
“Like you. Like me.” Another one of those shrugs. “They looked like us, only different. Where our skin is dark, theirs was pale. So pale, especially under the light. And their eyes! Oh, yes—they glowed. It was . . .” His grandfather pretended to suppress a shudder, but his shoulders drooped when he saw that Luan had looked scared. “Come now, Luan—would I lie to you?”
Luan’s brows furrowed further. “Yes,” he said. “In fact, you have!”
Ka Nelo laughed, as loud a laugh as Luan ever heard from the man. “Well, this time I am not!”
Luan looked at the trees in front of them, squinted his eyes, and focused. “Do you think they’re there now?” His voice had dropped into a whisper, too, and he looked at his grandfather expectantly.
“I doubt it. When I saw them, they only walked me to the edge of the forest and bid me well. I never returned, though not for lack of trying.”
Luan said, “Don’t you want to go back?”
Ka Nelo gave another shrug. “There never seemed like the right time to. Always something to do, someone to talk to . . . The next thing I knew, I was old and senile.”
Luan sighed. He thought perhaps this was the life he’d lead, and he saw himself as Ka Nelo, forever in want of more, reduced to the village madman. But Luan saw something in Ka Nelo’s eyes, and wondered if the old man was telling the whole truth this time.
But some secrets, perhaps, were meant to be kept. So instead he asked, “What of the orb-thing, then?”
“Hmm? Oh, the Moon!” His grandfather scratched his head. “Yes, yes, I believe I already told you—”
“No, you haven’t, Lo!” Luan insisted. “What is a—Moon?”
“Look around you, boy. Everything we touch and see is a bounty from the Sun. Everything in that forest—” Ka Nelo inclined his head “—is a bounty from the Moon. Do you understand?”
Luan only nodded. “And they were—Hunters, you said.”
Ka Nelo sighed. “Yes. Their ways are different from ours, you see. They do not farm as we do, do not tend to the fields like us. They forage in the forests, and hunt animals to eat.”
“And the women?”
“What of them, boy?” There was a glint of mischief in Ka Nelo’s eyes.
Luan blushed. “I only meant—What do the women do? If the men hunt?”
Ka Nelo laughed again. “The women hunt if they wish to,” he said. “As I said, their ways are different. They do not force you to become one thing or the other.” Ka Nelo leaned back on his arms. “That’s what I learned from them, you know. And what I’m telling you now.”
Luan looked up at his grandfather, who was, indeed, looking at him rather fondly. “What do you mean?”
Ka Nelo smiled kindly, and reached out to pat his grandson’s head. “I stayed there for three shifts of the Moon.” Luan opened his mouth to ask, but Ka Nelo beat him to it. “There, the Moon has many shapes. When I first arrived, it looked like the Sun—a ball. The next time I saw it, it looked like—hmm . . .” Ka Nelo looked around, as if searching for something. He thrust his hand into Luan’s face. “Here! It looked like my fingernail here! See?” Luan pushed his hand away. “The next time it looked like—well, I thought it almost looked like the blade of a scythe. The sight of it made me miss home.”
Luan closed his eyes and envisioned it for a second. How strange, the Moon and its shapes. When he opened his eyes, Ka Nelo was looking at him expectantly. He furrowed his brows. “I still don’t understand, Lo,” he admitted. “Why are you telling me this?”
Ka Nelo sighed. “There was a time your father might have ventured, too, Luan. But he—well, he never wanted more. Not like I did. Not like you do.” Ka Nelo looked around, and Luan thought there was a hint of sadness in his old eyes. “Here, under the Sun, when you are born, you are expected to be something. You, and your father, and I . . . we are meant to farm. Nothing else. Your mother—taking care of livestock and you,” he added wryly. “But there is so much more out there, I know it, Luan. You have always known it too, I think.
“So when I tell you to go if you want to, I mean it.”
Luan, not for the first time today, was at a loss for words. “B-but—”
“Look,” Ka Nelo said, his voice rising up from his usual whisper, “you’ll never know if I made up that story or not, but the answer is there if you want it.” He lifted a wrinkled hand and gestured to the trees. “Maybe, when you return, you can tell me stories of your own.”
Luan sat there staring at the trees, even after his grandfather left. Luan could not shake his grandfather’s words from his mind. The Moon has many shapes, he said. And so many possibilities were out there, just beyond his reach.
Luan looked at his hands, caked with dirt and calloused and scarred from the wrong swing of his scythe. He liked farming, he thought, liked the labor and the Sun, the soft singing they did when the days stretched on.
But Luan would be lying if he said there wasn’t a part of him that didn’t want more, to be more. He thought of the Moon, and its many shapes, the Night and its secrets . . . and wondered, perhaps, if he was truly meant to go. He thought of his parents, farming day by day, and of Ka Nelo and his sad, tired eyes.
Luan though perhaps he wanted to create. To see, if his grandfather spoke true.
“The Moon,” Luan whispered to the trees. He stood up, wiped his hands on his trousers, and took a step forward. “The Moon has many shapes. And so, I think, must I.”
Albertha Lachmi Obut hails from Dipolog City, Zamboanga del Norte, but currently resides in Dumaguete City, where she finished her BA degree in Creative Writing from Silliman University in 2021, and where she is also currently pursuing a law degree. She was a fellow at the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 2020.