By MARIANNE VILLANUEVA
When Carlos’ mother decided to take him to Dumaguete, on the other side of the island, he didn’t question her. One day she said, we have to go, and they did, walking with their overnight bags to the bus station, whose uneven ground was pooled with muddy brown water in which he could detect shapes darting, tiny black minnows. He stumbled once or twice but his mother never paused or looked behind her and he hurried to catch up.
He wondered why she hadn’t asked the driver to take them. Nanding had returned home after dropping off Carlos’ father at the office. But his mother had had the security guard call them a cab. The cab driver had stared at his mother as they got into the back. Carlos wanted to hit him.
His mother had dressed carefully for the trip. She was wearing one of her floaty dresses, and high-heeled white sandals, the better to show off her toes, which were long and thin and elegant and nothing like Carlos’, who in almost everything had taken after his father.
We are going to the Seven Seas Resort, his mother said. You will like it. They have a pool. And Carlos did like it, but that was only after he had retched twice during the twelve-hour bus ride along a twisty narrow road that hugged the sides of the steep mountain. Whenever Carlos looked out the window, he saw terrifying views of deep, wooded gorges and, sometimes, the glint of flashing water. After he retched, the sour vomit smell clogged his mouth, his nostrils, and Carlos was deeply embarrassed.
None of the other passengers seemed to mind. The old woman behind them even leaned forward and handed his mother a couple of plastic bags.
The town itself was small and not at all like what he’d expected. He noticed there were no signal lights and everyone rode around on motorbikes or tricycles. These contraptions roamed all over the City and made a terrific belching noise. Smoke poured from their exhaust pipes, marring the fresh air that blew in from the ocean.
One day they visited a crocodile farm. Carlos was intrigued by the scaly creatures whose mouths opened astonishingly wide at their approach, as though manipulated by invisible hinges.
Another day they visited a large zoo near the central plaza. His mother walked around silently, apparently content, her eyes resting briefly on the animals in their cages, one said to be the tamaraw, a near-mythical horned beast that looked, to Carlos, like nothing so much as a very small water buffalo, with a black hide and two stout, curving horns.
On the fourth day, Carlos felt his insides contract. His mother had taken him to the green campus of Silliman University, and there, among the tall old acacia trees, they’d stumbled across a small museum that held shells and various voodoo paraphernalia from the small island just offshore, Siquijor. From the city’s seaside promenade, one could just discern the faint outline of this island. All day, outriggers plied the distance between the large and small island, ferrying shell vendors and curious tourists to and fro. Carlos had heard numerous stories of this fabled place, but his mother showed no inclination to go there.
Back home, his yaya, Dulce, had told him about witches, about the manunungod who hides under the floor in the room of a sick person, causing the patient to toss and turn feverishly. She had told him about aswang, creatures with long tongues which they use to suck out the baby from a pregnant woman’s stomach.
Dulce slept on a straw mat on the floor of his room. She only told him these stories when it was late and she was sure Carlos’ father was asleep. Looking at the blackened implements, he was suddenly reminded of the yaya and of her strangely urgent whisperings. And almost at the same instant, a picture of his room rose up in his memory: the toy cars neatly arranged on the shelves, the blue bedspread with the red trim. Ma, he said, quite without thinking, I miss da.
Shush, his mother said. Stop being such a baby.
Will I ever see him again, Carlos asked, and to his horror tears began to well up in his eyes, though just a little.
Of course you will, his mother said, patting his back. Her hand was cool. He could feel the imprint of coolness on the back of his t-shirt. It felt good.
Of course you will, his mother said again, looking intently into his eyes. And Carlos was once again caught in that gaze, that green-eyed gaze that seemed to speak of nothing so much as time and sadness. He didn’t know why his mother should have the green eyes, when all his classmates’ mothers had brown; why she didn’t seem to love his father and threatened to leave him after every argument.
This was the first time she had actually taken him with her, though. Carlos had expected they would catch the next flight to Manila, where his grandparents lived. But instead his mother had taken him to this strange city where they knew no one.
On the fifth or sixth day, a change seemed to come over his mother. Alert as he was to her ever-shifting moods, he sensed the change in her almost immediately. She seemed distracted, found excuses to leave him and go to the hotel lobby. Once, when he was swimming in the pool, he looked up and she was no longer in the deck chair that she’d dragged over to the shallow end, where he could look up from time to time and watch her reading her book (A Journey of One Hundred Years—what kind of title was that? It was no book he would ever want to read.). When his mother was reading, two deep lines appeared on either side of her mouth, and she didn’t look pretty anymore. For that reason, Carlos tried to call out to her and distract her, splashing energetically and making sure a few drops of water landed on her still form.
Now, when he looked up, she was gone. He felt a familiar panic rising in him. He thought she had left the hotel, might even have left the city, and now Carlos was sure he was all alone, and must get his things and find his way back to his father, who lived all the way on the other side of the island, by himself.
A group of men had come to stay at the hotel. They’d arrived two days before. They were large, stout men with leathery skin and loud voices. They made the waitresses in the restaurant bring tray after tray of beer. They sat hunched over the table, telling stories about women and laughing.
It was the thought of these recent visitors that made Carlos finally get out of the pool, almost tripping over his towel in his haste. He noticed his mother had left her book, face down, on the ground beside the deck chair. One of the stout men who had arrived a few nights ago was sunning himself on a towel, some distance away. Carlos couldn’t be sure but he felt that the man had been watching him. This angered him and he tried to stare the man down, which was difficult since the man was wearing shades that reflected a deep bronze sheen.
Carlos picked up his mother’s book—he felt sure that the man would paw through it otherwise—and hurried to the cottage he and his mother shared, set some way back from the pool. He stepped on the veranda and noticed that his mother’s slippers were gone. He opened the door to their room—by this time everything was swimming painfully in his head and he had a headache—and a whoosh of cold air from the air conditioner disconcerted him. The room was frigid. The beds were as they had been when he and his mother had left that morning, bringing their towels and their sunblock and her book. He went to the bathroom and saw her toiletries — brush, perfume bottle, lipstick — arranged neatly on the right side of the vanity. His mother had been laughing that morning, she had been happy. But Carlos had not returned her gaiety. He had remained silent in response to all her jibing.
He flipped open the light and in the harsh fluorescent glare saw himself in the mirror. Who was this stranger peering back at him with the frightened expression. It was certainly not he, for he always felt he knew how to hide his emotions. It was a skill his mother lacked, and he had realized this about her very early. And he had carefully tended to his face, even when he was startled, even when he felt lost.
Now, however, the mirror made him call out.
Ma, he said. And then, more strongly, Ma!
He was aware that his mother could not hear him, that she was far away somewhere, and he realized, with frightening clarity, that he was nothing but a child. He had loved it when, on his ninth birthday, almost a year ago, his father had surprised him with a party. It had been wonderful, for his mother wore a white dress and clung to his father’s arm and they had talked to each other in loving tones.
After, his mother had gone away for a much longer time than usual. Because of the party, Carlos felt her absence much more keenly this time. Yet he had no one, not even a younger sister, with whom he could share his grief, his terror. It has always been like this. Whenever his mother disappeared mysteriously from his life, as she had been doing more and more often in the past year, Carlos felt adrift. The reality of school, his friends, his father were no consolation for his loss.
His father would sneer hatefully at him. Grow up! He would say to Carlos. Your mother is not coming back.
Then the days would pass in a long string of waiting.
Carlos’ father was named Oscar. When Carlos’s mother was away, another woman would come by the house. She had a rich, throaty laugh and wore colorful, high-heeled shoes that matched whatever dress she happened to be wearing.
Once, when this woman had bent to hug Carlos, he smelled his mother’s perfume. The perfume his father had brought from Paris after a business trip, that had made his mother clap her hands and cry out with happiness.
The other woman’s name, he found out from listening to his father, was Rica. Carlos observed how his father’s voice would drop when he uttered Rica’ name. Rica had children, too, but her husband, Carlos learned from his yaya, who seemed angry at the woman and angrier even at Carlos’ father, had moved to the States and was already living with another woman there, even before the marriage had been officially annulled. The sad thing was that he had taken Rica’s two young boys with him. Now she had no one—no one, that is, except for Oscar, Carlos’s father.
“Your father is a prince,” Rica had told Carlos once. And for a brief moment Carlos’ narrow chest had swelled with pride. But, with his very next breath, he was conscious of somehow having betrayed his mother. In response to Rica’ remark, Carlos had merely shrugged his shoulders. Rica had gazed at him with a strange look. Then she had laughed and walked away.
Carlos often daydreamed of ways to chase Rica away from his father. He had come very close to writing her a note, to telling her that she must follow her husband, but he feared provoking his father’s wrath. Instead he waited silently, begging, pleading with his mother in his thoughts. And, each time, it seemed that his mother did hear him, because from whatever city she happened to be in, Carlos’ mother would return. He would come down to breakfast one day and see her sitting demurely at the table, her hair damp and smelling clean and fresh, as if she had lingered among flowers. It was only then, at the moment of her return, that Carlos knew his heart had been broken. The pain was so real that he found it impossible to eat. It was as if his mother and father had each taken long knives and plunged them into his very being. He, the fulcrum of these two opposing forces, could scarcely move or think and wanted only to die from exhaustion, the exhaustion of loving two people who felt only bitterness toward each other.
Carlos would often ask himself why his mother and father could not be happy. Or even pretend to be happy, for his sake. In his dreams Rica would assume the shape of a fantastic plumed bird. In her outstretched wings she cradled Carlos’ father’s sleeping form. Other times he would dream of his mother, or at least of a being he felt to be his mother, though this woman was stooped and had white hair. In his dreams, his fragile old mother moved about restlessly, tapping the floors with a wooden cane and then bending low as if listening for a sound from under the floorboards. Once she lifted it and hit a boy lurking in the shadows. Carlos cried out and felt pain shoot up his right arm. When he woke in the morning, the inside of his right elbow was bruised. Perhaps, he mused, he was a shape-shifter, who visited others in his dreams.
The only thing that made Carlos feel better, after having had such a dream, was the voice of Olivia, his yaya. He didn’t know how old Olivia was, but she was very old. She had come to the family with Carlos’ mother. When Carlos’ mother was not around, it was Olivia who talked to him, and told him stories at night, and made sure he ate his dinner. Sometimes Olivia looked at him and shook her head sadly. Then Carlos wondered what he had done. He dreamed of his mother, always.
Once his mother told him she had been to Costa Rica. Such anguish he had felt at this knowledge, at the wounding thought that his mother had boarded a plane, that she had flown many thousands of miles away from him (without a second thought).
His mother had looked at him expectantly, and after a few moments he realized she was waiting for him to ask a question, and he finally asked her what she had enjoyed most (when all the while he needed all the force of his will to tamp down his anger) and she had said, “the birds.”
She then talked about the scenery, and how long it had taken to get to this beach and that, and how she was finally able to practice her Spanish, which had grown rusty from disuse. She described the friendliness of the people, and their lustrous eyes and brown skin. The food, too, she had fallen in love with—the callo pinto—rice and black beans–with every meal; the fat juicy watermelons, the papayas, the piña, the fried plantains; the grilled chicken; the picadillo de chayote with cilantro; and her inn, which was on some street whose name she couldn’t remember but which was 150 meters behind the Ministry of Tourism. His mother said she loved the way everone would say, “No te preoccupe,” which was now her favorite expression.
And, while his mother was describing all these things for him—she had no pictures, she never took a camera anywhere—Carlos too began to see in his mind the beautiful clean country and the smiling unworried people. He thought it must be like paradise, where he expected to go one day, and even though some part of him knew that his mother could not be trusted, that some of what she was telling him was not absolute reality, he understood why she had chosen to leave out details here and there. The world was a messy place that his mother wanted no part of. But here, with Carlos, she had invented an idea of a place where it was possible to be perfectly happy. This invention would always be their secret, a gift she shared only with Carlos.
He did not ask her whether she had told anyone that she was married and had a son. He guessed that his mother might not want to offer this information, not willingly. And anyway she was over there, where no one knew her and where she must have felt she could start afresh. It was cruel, then, of him to have called her back, though he had had to do it; he simply couldn’t live without her.
Carlos was thinking, remembering all these things as he left the frigid room and headed toward the main building, where the reception desk was. He has to skirt through a grove of coconut trees, and he noticed for the first time that had seen no birds in this place, and he wondered whether it might be possible for him one day to see Costa Rica, his mother’s beautiful paradise, for himself.
His mother didn’t know, and he’d make sure she never knew, that in the last year he had learned how to smoke, filching a cigarette a week from the packs his father left on his dresser. He would take the precious stick to a secluded spot in their garden where, hidden behind a large balete tree, he would light it and practice breathing slowly, in and out, watching the smoke curl luxuriantly in the air above him. Sometimes he would deepen his voice and imitate his father. It made him feel big and proud to walk with his head held high and cocked to one side, the cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth. Sometimes Carlos imagined it was he who held Rica, he who Rica gazed at with longing. And he could hardly wait until the day when he, too, could buy presents for pretty women and make them laugh.
The men were loud tonight. He could hear them, drinking and talking in the restaurant. The waitresses scurried around with frightened faces. The loudest of the men was puffing on a big cigar. He wore dark glasses, even in the gloom of the restaurant. He had a pistol tucked against his bulging stomach, in the waistband of his tight khaki pants. The others called him “Sir.”
Carlos could feel Sir watching him as he entered the restaurant. Perhaps he’d been watching him a long time already. It was hard to tell, behind the opaque glasses. Carlos skirted his table carefully, but a heavy, dark hand shot out and Carlos, feeling the heavy pressure against his chest, stopped.
“Teka muna,” the man said. He was smiling. “I want to ask you something.” Carlos noticed the flash of gold on one of his teeth.
Carlos shook his head. He wanted to pretend he was deaf-mute. He’d done this, sometimes, and sometimes it had worked. Sometimes, when his teachers in school asked him a question he didn’t know how to answer, he’d roll his eyes and stick out his tongue. This made his math teacher, in particular, increasingly angry. Finally the teacher had thrown an eraser at him and told him to get out of the classroom. Carlos had moved slowly among the desks, as if underwater.
Sir kept his paw against Carlos’s thin chest, and suddenly he felt like crying. He turned his head, looking around for his mother, and Sir said, “Where is she?”
Carlos shrugged, wordless.
“You come here by yourself?” Sir asked. “Where is your father?” He pronounced it PA-derrr; it was clear to Carlos that Sir was not an educated man. But this knowledge only increased his unease and he blushed bright red. Then, because he was so good at pantomime, he raised his shoulders and shrugged, miming an I don’t know.
He raised both his palms to the air. A hiccup of fear rose to his throat and before he could stop it, it emerged sounding like a belch. Sir laughed.
“What happened to you, ha, boy? I hear you talking to your mom so I know you’re not deaf or dumb. Maybe just scared, ha? Scared of Mario?”
Carlos mimed again, desperately rolling his eyes and shrugging. Sir stopped laughing and gazed at him through narrowed eyes. He’d tired of the game, Carlos could feel it, but he didn’t know what else to do. He stood there, waiting.
Sir gave him a slight push, and Carlos, off balance, stumbled. Sir laughed, and the other men laughed, too. Carlos’s face was burning. He faced the men.
“My father is coming,” Carlos said. “He is coming.”
But saying these words caused a kind of panic to rise in him. He realized, for the first time, that they really were alone there, he and his mother. And indeed he wondered why they were there at all, in that place so far from home, surrounded by strangers. And he wondered why his father had let them go, why his father was always letting them go, why he was never around at the moment of Carlos’s greatest need. Such as now.
Perhaps it was the woman in the red dress, the one who came over when Carlos’s mother was in Costa Rica. Perhaps she was the cause of his mother’s unhappiness and ruin.
As he walked away, forcing himself to move slowly, Carlos heard Sir saying something to the others. He caught the word puki and the evil in their laughter. His heart was racing by the time he reached their cottage.
He flung open the door. His mother was on the bed, doing a crossword puzzle. She was wearing a loose blue shift, and her hair was tied back from her face in a ponytail. She looked young and fresh and rested. She looked up when he entered and smiled.
“Where were you?” she said, as if she had been sitting there all this time.
Carlos sat on the bed.
“I want to go home,” he said. He meant, I want to go to my father. She knew that was what he meant. Her face grew suddenly cold.
“No, not yet,” she said. After a moment, she said, “Aren’t you having fun here? The food is good, no? I saw you eat so many mangoes this morning.”
“I don’t care about the mangoes!” Carlos screamed.
His mother’s arms encircled him almost immediately, but he would not be comforted. “You. Think. I. Care. About. Mangoes!” he screamed and screamed. Spittle was coming out of his mouth but his mother held him gently. Eventually, his screams subsided to a loud sobbing. After long moments, he became still, listening to her soft voice, going “Shhh, shhh, shhhh. You’re tired, just tired.”
Carlos’s eyes were closed. He lay in her arms, exhausted.
He decided he could not tell her about the men in the restaurant. He would think up some excuse to prevent her from leaving the room. Perhaps he’d say he wasn’t feeling well. He could mimic very well: he’d lie still and listless on the sheet, listening to her voice, low and soothing. He’d even force tears from his eyes, so many that they would stain the front of her dress. He’d find a way to hold her with him, there.
Marianne Villanueva was born in Manila, but has Bacolod roots. A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, she has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and Filipino-Americans since the mid-1980s. She is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila , Mayor of the Roses , and The Lost Language . Her novella, Jenalyn, was a 2014 finalist for the United Kingdom’s Saboteur Award. Her individual stories have been finalists for the O. Henry Literature Prize, nominated for the Pushcart, and included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fiction of 2016. She has edited an anthology of Filipino women's writings, Going Home to a Landscape, which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.
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