Ceferina in Apartment 2G


For my brother Rey Gio

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.

Apartment 2G.

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.”

She acquiesced.

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.”

“You wish.”

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.”

“You cleaned?”

“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.

“Yes, Ma?”

“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.

After This, Our Exile


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.

Bottle Full of Smoke


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.

The Moon Has Many Shapes


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.

“What kind—”

“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.

Sweet Baby


It’s Reggae Wednesday and I’m drunk again on the third Tanduay flat. No chaser. As rhum should be drunk.

Escaño Beach with a full haloed moon. A hot chick passes by. Fair skin, long hair, pink halter top, ample breasts, tiny waist, hips made for large hands. I’d love to fuck her. I wouldn’t want her for a girlfriend though. Girls who look like that will only leave you for someone else. Someone more good-looking, with more money. Or a shinier bike. 

Sometime later, I walk to Hayahay to use their toilet. I pass the large foam flip-flop that might fall on me any minute. 

The hot chick is suddenly at my side. 

She grips my wrist. “Come with me,” she says, and drags me to the toilet. “I need someone to take me home.  I’m a little tipsy na.” Giggle, giggle. 

We’ve never met before. It’s a lucky night. An easy score. 

“But I need to pee first. Wait here,” she commands. 

I nod blindly. The gel on my curly hair feels heavy and I lean on the rough blue wall reeking of human and crab piss. I realize I don’t have a condom on me. Great. Wait, I think I know this girl. My friends have done her. Not a prostitute. Just very, very slutty, and desperate as hell. I bolt out of there and hide in the shadows of a friend’s parked car along the sea wall.

The next day at lunch my girlfriend asks me how my night went. She doesn’t go out much because of her curfew and because she doesn’t really drink. 

“I went home early because I felt a fever coming on.”

She places a small, warm palm on my forehead. Her neat eyebrows softly furrow.

“A little headache too,” I say. 

“Aw. My poor baby.”  She kisses me on the nose. “How do you feel now?”

“Better.” I give her the smile that a girl once called the bra-snapper. 

She’s a sweet, pretty girl, and I feel awful for lying. But she knows I love her and that’s enough.  “You know, someday I’m going to marry you.”

“Because I’m a cheap but effective pain-reliever?”

“Yes.  And because you’re good for me.” 

And she leaves it at that.

Three nights later all the bands are playing U2 covers at Hayahay.  The whole barkada is there—guys I’ve known since first grade. 

We wave our lighters in the air when Mickey the Poet performs “Until the End of the World.”  We sing along to the last band belting out “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Our anthem.

We’re all stoked from the high that only good rock music can bring and we decide to go for another round of beer. 

Along the sea wall, the boy choys pose with their stripped motorcycles; loud college freshmen crowd on a pick-up truck; and guys in same-colored shirts flick The Finger at some passing foreigner in a blue convertible, clearly rented from Happy Fred’s. 

A couple of Red Horse Grande bottles lay smashed on the road. Someone is cursing in Binisaya to a hip-hop beat. This scene isn’t for us, so we make our way to Silliman Beach. 

A couple of girls have joined us—classmates and girlfriends and friends of friends. One of them has pulled out all the stops. Short skirt, thin shirt, silver glitter on the cleavage.

Everyone gets stupid drunk real quick. One guy tries to light his cigarette on the wrong end of the car lighter.

When the ice runs out, I volunteer to get some. The glitter-cleavage girl comes with me. No one notices we take a ten minutes longer than we should have. This one’s a real Girl Scout, ready with a condom. We do it standing up in the bathroom stall at Barefoot Bistro. She cleans up well, too. There’s not a spot on my jeans or my Vans slip-ons.

On Sundays my girlfriend and I go to church together. Today my head feels only slightly numb after I downed two Tylenols and half a liter of water. I pick her up at her boarding house where I know I’ll find her waiting outside, a bright smile on her face. She never makes me wait.

Today she’s wearing a pastel yellow shirtdress, which brings out a pinkish flush on her cream complexion. My heart stops a little at the sight of her. 

“Awww. Guwapa-ha sa akong uyab, uy.” I plant a light kiss on her cheek. She smells like freshly squeezed sugar cane.

Nyeh. You say that because you’re late.”

She blushes anyway.

Our first anniversary is coming up fast. I let her think I’ve forgotten it. She drops hints, and I play dense. I want to surprise her, if only for the pleasure of seeing her blush. I’ll probably get her some roses and a Marvin the Martian pillow.

“No, really. I’m the luckiest guy in the whole world.” That elicits another blush. We both laugh. She slips her arm through mine as we wait for a ride.

She’s the only girl I’ve ever held hands with in church. I used to think public displays of affection like that would feel awkward, but with her it’s different. It feels natural. When I’m with her I don’t think about other girls and other nights. They don’t really matter, anyway. She doesn’t have to know and she never will. There’s an unspoken rule among male friends. You never talk behind a friend’s back to his girlfriend about their relationship—or anything remotely related to it. You can talk about school, about common friends, even celebrities, the weather. Anything else, but never about the relationship. A similar rule goes for one-night stands. Those girls understand that when you meet in daylight, a nod and a half-smile is enough. 

“I’ll miss you when I go home for the Christmas break,” she whispers to me after Communion.

I squeeze her hand. “We’ll talk everyday.” 

We take turns calling each other once she is home in Bukidnon. She wakes me up in the morning with a call. We talk before we fall asleep at night.

“Good morning! What are you doing today?”

Uhm. Playstation. And maybe go to my high school homecoming tonight.”

“As in? Me too. I’ll be at my high school reunion.”

“Don’t have too much fun. And watch out for those ex-crushes.”

She laughs.  She went to an all-girl school.

“So how did it go?” she asks when I call her the next day.

“Fun at first. But then it got a little boring.”

Of course I don’t tell her that all my friends and I did was check out which girls filled out, lost fat, or finally learned to show-off a little skin.  I don’t tell her we made bets on who’d lost their virginity. 

“You? Lingaw ra?

“Yup. ‘Ey, I’ll talk to you later. I need to help for a party tonight. My parent’s friends are coming over.”

“Sure, okay.”

Weird, I later think. She only gave me a one-word answer when usually she took up all of fifteen minutes before Sun Cellular cut off the call.

Finally New Year comes and Dumaguete is alive again. I meet my girlfriend at the pier. Walking behind her on the ramp is glitter-cleavage girl, still underdressed for the occasion. So she’s from Mindanao, too. A nod, a half-smile. Well-played, I’m impressed.

“Hi.” I take the duffel bag off her shoulder.

“Hi. Thanks.”

I grasp her hand and link my fingers through hers.

“I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.  Let’s have lunch?”

She lets go of my hand.

This scene replays itself clearly in my mind a month and a half later while she sits crying on her bed with the pink sheets and her Marvin the Martian pillow. Her hands are on her lap holding a flat, white plastic stick the size of a ballpoint pen. On one end is a small, yellow smiley-face.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

I am too stunned to say anything.

“He’s a family friend. We hadn’t seen each other since they left for the States. We were thirteen then. We didn’t think we’d see each other again. Then they came home last Christmas. It just happened. After that party. I didn’t realize what I was doing. It happened only once.  I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Her sobs and hiccups shake her small frame.

I punch the nearest surface blindly. 

I don’t notice my knuckles starting to bleed. I don’t see the specks of blood on the cement wall.

But I keep promises. 

That summer I marry her before the bulge in her belly starts to show. 

She moves in to our house. She doesn’t know this yet, but as she sleeps next to me each night—a soft, warm presence—but I don’t think I can ever have sex with her again.

Justine Megan Yu hails from Dumaguete, and was a fellow for creative nonfiction at the 2011 Silliman University National Writers Workshop, and also at the Second Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop for Doctors in 2021 by the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center. Currently, she is a medical doctor practicing Neurology, and maintains a clinic at Negros Polymedic Hospital in Sibulan, Negros Oriental.

The General


There were only two days left before the centennial, when the twins, just turned eleven, arrived in Bacolod with their father. They came on the second flight from Manila, although their father had lobbied for leaving on the earliest one, meaning they would have to be at the airport by four-thirty in the morning, at the latest. The twins had their mother to thank: she had argued that if the boys did not get enough sleep, they were liable to be cranky, and it was highly likely that their father, notorious for his short and fiery temper, would find them impossible to deal with. It was for the good of all, she had pointed out, and their father, after a while, sighed, conceded she was right—what mattered after all was that they went. It was surprise enough that the twins had asked, over dinner a few nights ago, when their father announced his plan to go to Bacolod, if they could come. Their father, pleasantly taken aback, lowered his fork.

“Really? You want to come?”

The next day, after getting over the initial shock, their father—instead of his secretary at the office—saw to it himself that the accommodations were arranged: a flight was booked, the lodgings reserved. They would be in Bacolod for five days and four nights, from the tenth of June to the fourteenth, when they would leave on the last flight. While they were away, their mother would remain in Manila and look after the office. All was set by the morning of the tenth, a sunny and humid Thursday, and the twins found themselves on a plane flying away from Manila, destined for their father’s hometown. Nicky, the older of the two by minutes, had brought along his Gameboy and a comic book while Raffy had neatly packed his knapsack with three volumes of The Hardy Boys and the folded extra shirt their mother had advised them to take. When the plane lifted into the air and they felt an invisible hand pull on their tiny, seatbelt-strapped bodies, they secretly rejoiced over the fact that they were certain to miss the first day of classes, which began on the fourteenth. Nicky was seated by the window and his dark eyes shone as he leaned over Raffy, seated beside him, and whispered that perhaps if Mama took pity, they might just even be able to skip the second one. Raffy didn’t answer; he merely adjusted the round pair of glasses perched on his nose—it was the only way they could be told apart—and went back to his detective book, although Nicky noticed, that his twin remained stuck on the same page for a good ten minutes, staring at the print.

When finally they got off the plane, it was late morning, around ten, and the twins felt grateful after having been cooped up for over an hour. Nicky all the while had kept whining about how the window seat was useless since about all it offered was nothing but blue, blue, blue. The dimness of their spirits had only lifted when the pilot announced they would be landing shortly. The plane dipped and banked and shuddered, and the twins, for the moment, were afforded a temporary thrill—tugboats chugging along the glinting strait, a dark column of smoke rising from the green sea of sugarcane, and finally the traffic cluttered on the narrow city streets, which from above reminded them of toy cars.

“Why’s there smoke?” Raffy asked.

“It’s the milling season,” their father replied.

On the tarmac, the sun fell full upon their faces as they walked squinting towards the terminal. Raffy commented there were fireflies in his legs and feet. Above, the sky was naked and cloudless. Nicky, apparently not yet finished, began to complain about the heat, about having to walk under it. At least in Manila, he claimed, you passed through a tube and it was air-conditioned. Raffy quietly assented to this observation. Nicky then began to lag behind, dragging his feet, groaning, and feigning exhaustion. Their father, with a hand over his eyes, his bald head shiny like a cue ball, ordered him to hurry up.

“It’s so hot,” Nicky whined.

“What do you expect?” their father said curtly. “When you go down south, naturally it gets hotter.”

They continued walking, following the other passengers, Nicky wearing a long face, still muttering complaints under his breath.

“Why can’t you behave, like your brother?”

Nicky finally clammed up.

Their father led them to the terminal, where a lone conveyor belt cranked out the luggage slower than an old woman stirring a pot of soup. He was a squat bald man and his teeth were yellow from too much coffee. He wore a maroon Lacoste shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of shiny dark brown moccasins, without socks—a businessman on a holiday. He looked different to the boys, without the heavy-shouldered suit and colorful ties. The twins always heard their mother—who helped their father choose what to wear everyday—say that she was glad their father didn’t dress like a probinsyano anymore, like when he had arrived in Manila. Nicky especially took this to mean that he dressed funny, like a farmer in one of their history textbooks—a straw hat, tsinelas, camisa chino, and pants hitched up to the knee.

Still, their mother always said that he was a brilliant man. Insurance was what he did for a living but his ruling passion was history, the degree he held from his university years. His desk in the office was lined with a calculator, insurance policies held together cleanly with paper clips, and checks awaiting his loopy signature. But at home, in the den, there was another special table, one where only he was allowed to sit at. It was clear save for a fountain pen bought in Italy when he had left the country for the first time at the age of twenty-three, and a thick ream of loose bond paper, the words all scribbled in his cramped illegible hand, comprehensible to no one but himself.

“Papa, what are you doing?” Raffy asked one afternoon, when he was furiously at work on the pages. The twins were playing and had somehow burrowed their way into the den. “I’m trying to write a book,” he answered, still scratching away with his magnificent pen.

“Why don’t you just use a computer?” Nicky asked.

He threw his hands up in the air and sighed. “I don’t really understand those things—they just slow me down.”

Raffy said, “What kind of book? A mystery book?”

“Not really. More a history book.”

“Like the ones in school?” Nicky asked. “Those are so boring.”

“But not all books are boring,” Raffy said.

Their father just said, “It’s a book about our family.”

“About us?” said Nicky, his eyes widening. The twins, who had been crouched over the floor, dropped what they were doing, and sat up.

“Well…more about your lolos and my lolos and so on.”

“Oh,” said Raffy. “I like mysteries better,” he confessed.

“No way! Comics are better!” Nicky said.

Raffy said nothing and after a while, the twins went back to playing.

When finally they were able to wrest their luggage away from the prying sweaty hands of the porters in numbered shirts, who jostled and hollered at the exit, they found a cab. Their father now owned nothing in Bacolod, had sold everything when he had decided to settle down in Manila and marry the twins’ mother. They had to ride in a cab, which sped now along the main road. Their father, without fail, reminded them, beaming with pride, that this very road was named after the General, his grandfather and the twins’ great-grandfather. He peered out the window, wanting to show them the family name emblazoned on a street corner, but he found a street sign only after four blocks because, on the first three corners, dust, soot, and rain had weathered and faded the paint away, leaving only a smudge, a faint outline of letters. There was no need to paint it in anyway, he said to the twins; everyone knew the street; it was the longest one in the city, stretching all the way north—to Silay and past it.

The twins though weren’t paying attention. Every wall and telephone pole had been strung up with flags and ribbons for the upcoming centennial. Raffy remembered that on the TV back home specials on the revolution and its heroes and villains were being aired. Their father constantly encouraged them to watch. “It’s important you know your history,” he had told them.

The car rolled along, past more pennants and banderitas. “Even here,” Raffy observed, admiring the floating sea of white, red, and blue that had been put up in honor of the centennial.

Then their father pointed out quietly that in fact that was what they were here for. The twins for a moment stared at him, bewildered. When they realized they had missed the turn-off to the Memorial Park, which was the first place their father took them to every time they came, Raffy asked why they had not gone to the cemetery. “This time’s different,” their father answered. “We’re here for the General.”

“The General—Lolo Anacleto?”

He nodded. The General—the twins knew of his legendary figure by heart thanks to their father, who had an elephant’s memory for tales and anecdotes about the family. The practically memorized it: Lolo Anacleto, the General, famed Sang-ley mestizo revolutionary of Hacienda Matab-ang (the wealthiest hacienda in Negros), President of the Cantonal Government, member of the Katipunan, an acquaintance of President Aguinaldo, although it was widely known that his sympathies and support lay with Bonifacio, their friendship sealed by a blood compact. There was a scar to prove it, their father would often tell the twins, and he had seen it with his very eyes as a young boy, a wound signifying the liberty that had been fought for.

Their father explained that just recently, he had gotten a call from his cousin Carmen, who was as in love with family history as he was. In the past they had together organized an enormous family reunion for all the General’s descendants. Carmen rang him up in early May: the Bacolod City Museum was planning to put up an exhibit on the General—arguably the city’s greatest hero—in time for the centennial. The centerpiece was to be his coffin, which lay entombed in the parish church of Talisay, his hometown. It was Carmen, in fact, who had suggested this to the committee, of which she too was part, and the other members had all thought it a dazzling idea to have the General laid out in the national colors, for every Negrense—and Filipino—to admire. They further agreed that Carmen should be the one to transport the General’s coffin to the museum (she was the great man’s descendant, after all) and blushing, she said it would be her honor. She had then suddenly remembered their father; thus the call asking if he wanted to help her out, tag along. But their father had replied that he was swamped with work and the whole thing was for the moment put aside.

It was about a week ago when Carmen called again. She explained to him that she hadn’t yet picked up the coffin; other things had needed attending to. But she had already managed to make the arrangements and all that remained was to pick up the coffin from the church and transport it to the museum. She had a pickup; men had already been hired to remove the coffin from its tomb; the angles seemed covered. The only thing missing was a companion and the May offer was reiterated. Did he, her primo favorito, want to come, to serve as Lolo’s escort? “Oh come on,” she cajoled him. It would be their one last adventure before they grew too old to do anything else except fuss over and spoil their grandchildren, she kidded. He had glanced cursorily at his planner, a useless gesture since already he knew his schedule was free. He would be there, he said, he would most definitely be there. “I mean, how long has it been since you were last here?” Carmen said, before putting down the phone, and he—he had told her that he had never left.

This sense of anticipation he tried to incite in the twins as he explained to them in the car the upcoming enterprise. Nicky, curious, asked if they would perhaps be able to look inside the coffin, maybe see a skeleton, a skull, or even just a bone. Raffy, who had only ever read about these things in his mystery books, was equally excited by the prospect. To see a dead man’s bones—that was what seemed to the twins the most interesting thing about the whole venture.

“I don’t think you’ll see any bones,” their father said. “The coffin’s likely to be sealed shut.”

Their faces fell.

After a while, Raffy asked, “Who’s Carmen though?”

“Carmen, my cousin—you met her remember?”

The twins shared puzzled looks.

“In Barcelona, some summers ago.”

“Oh Carmen who doesn‘t want to be called Tita!” Nicky and Raffy exclaimed—although they barely recalled—and broke into giggling. Carmen from Barcelona, who told them not to call her Tita Carmen but just plain old Carmen because it made her feel younger. They had met her on a visit to the Catalan capital, when the family had sought to escape the torrid Manila summer. She was working then for the Hotel des Arts, a posh establishment along the beach in Barceloneta. She had moved back to Bacolod two years ago—a year after they had met her.

When their chortling died down, Raffy confessed, “We have so many Tita Carmens. Sometimes it’s so confusing.”

“I thought it was the one who lived in that big empty house in La Vista,” Nicky said.

“I thought it was the one from Silay, with all the birds in her house,” Raffy admitted.

They fell once more to giggling, trying to think of more Carmens they were related to. Their father laughed along with them, as they passed the plaza and the cathedral and the taxi continued to make its way through the slight traffic. The twins knew he was in a good mood: he sang along loudly to an old Ilonggo love song playing on the radio, the words deeply unfathomable to the twins, who all their lives had lived in Manila.   

In a few minutes, the taxi began to slow. The driver signaled left and pulled into the driveway of the hotel. “This is where we’re staying?” Nicky asked incredulously. Raffy could see the gleaming lobby and hoped the answer would be yes. They had both harbored the thought they would be putting up at a relative’s—just like the last time and most of the times before that.

Their father answered yes, adding that it was too bad that he and Raffy got their asthma whenever they all stayed at Tita Teresit’s house, because she was such a gracious host, such a pleasure to talk to. “If only she’d stop smoking,” he sighed.

The twins sighed as well, but out of relief: for once they would not have to endure dusty sheets and hard beds. No creaking floorboards that sounded like ghosts in the hallway, no strange photographs that seemed to return the stare, no the lingering stench of cigarettes. But best of all, no more Tita Teresit and her breath stinking of smoke and alcohol, pounding them with an endless barrage of questions and comments, each one insinuating that Bacolod was much better than Manila. Perhaps that was why their father got along with her; he was a milder version of this blind, one-sided city love.

Tita Teresit, another of their father’s numerous cousins, would often in fact be the cause of their greatest embarrassment, an inexplicable shame that caused them to hang their heads and remain silent. When she had found out that they had never learned to speak Ilonggo, she burst out, “Dios mio, what is this generation coming to!” On each visit she would inadvertently mention this to their father in one of the hushed (but still overheard) conversations in the sala surrounded by saints. “Baw ka nugon,” she would say repeatedly, piously shaking her head and sneaking glances at the twins. “Too bad—they look so much like Lolo too.”

Then she would go on, enumerating the features they had inherited from their famous great-grandfather—his thick, wavy hair, the cleft chin, the bulbous nose that from a distance seemed flared like a horse’s but upon closer inspection contained a geometric sharpness and definition. Then the eyes, the slightly imperceptible Oriental slit at the edges, the color the darkness of pits—wild, Moorish, capable of anything, from treachery to heroism. But that was the irony of it, Tita Teresit claimed: two boys, who were almost exact replicas of the General, the greatest man the line had ever sired, and yet they couldn’t utter a single word in Ilonggo to save their lives.

“But I bet you,” she would always say, finishing up with a languid drawl on her cigarette, “even their penises are the same length as the General’s.”

They checked in, left their bags in the room then they were back out (stopping only for a bathroom break) on the road again, driving through the city. They passed Robinson’s, the only mall in the city, where the movies showed a month late. The twins pointed this out and their father said quite defensively that at least it was half the price of a movie ticket in Manila. The twins rolled their eyes. The traffic on the road lessened as they approached the old Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. The heat grew hazy and and the surroundings blurred into a vista of sugarcane.

“Imagine,” their father said with an encompassing sweep of the hand, a grand gesture, “all this was once the General’s.”

“It‘s all grass,” Nicky said.

“No—it‘s sugarcane,” their father said, quite defensively.

A monstrous truck loaded with bundles of cane clattered by. The cab pushed forward, past cleared land and the real estate being developed on it and, gradually, traces of the city disappeared; they were outside of it. Even from inside the car, they could detect the odor of ashes and burning earth, and from the window discerned the thin gray line of smoke they had seen earlier from above. Their father, sensing their discomfort, reminded them it was milling season.

The twins crinkled their noses. They continued to look repulsed until they finally got used to the persistent odor of burning. Some minutes later, their father instructed the driver to turn right at a dirt road beside a dilapidated billboard that read El Fuego Resort: 40 Km Away! The driver veered sharply, the wheels caught on a large lump sticking out of the dust path, and the car lurched forward. Wary of more rocks, the driver slowed the car down; he didn’t want to damage the suspension. It was a very narrow path, an alley in the outdoors, shaded on all sides by tall stalks of cane. They crawled along at that pace, their father explaining that this road led to Hacienda Matab-ang and that Carmen lived nearby, when the car surged forward violently and sputtered, emitting a loud cough. The driver swore, shook his head, and when the car began to shudder and backfire, he finally brought the car to a complete rest, got out, and popped open the hood. Their father followed. The twins he told to stay in the car. He consulted with the driver and returned to the window Nicky had rolled down.

“Something broke,” he told the boys. Then he added that they were almost at Carmen’s and they could simply walk. The house was just at the end of the road, anyway.

The twins clambered out. The end of the road was still a good distance away; they were only at the beginning, having just turned off the highway. After their father paid the driver, they set forth, trudging through the heat. Raffy, asthmatic, complained about having difficulty breathing; Nicky once more feigned fatigue by walking like a drunkard, and was set to complain about his legs, when the twins heard the beating of hooves.

It was an old brown man, without any teeth or hair, atop a shoddy wooden cart drawn by a stubby horse. They all watched, breathless, as the mare and its shriveled chauffeur approached. When it was within proximity, their father waved and asked the man to stop. “What’s he doing?” Nicky wondered, watching their father approach the man and say something in Ilonggo. They couldn’t hear any of the conversation, but eventually, their father called them both over.

“He’s going to let us ride,” their father said. The boys looked up at the old man. He gave them a gummy grin. Their father hoisted them one at a time—first Nicky, then Raffy—onto the cart. The twins sat on each side of the old man. “What about you, Papa?” Raffy asked, when he saw that there was no space left. Nicky edged a little closer to the old man, as if to make space.

“It’s okay. I’ll walk. Don’t worry about me.”

The old man prodded the horse into motion and it broke into a slow bumpy trot. Their father kept up beside them, his bald head covered with the sheen of sweat, his shirt stained with perspiration. For some time, it was just the regular, rhythmic clacking of hoof beats upon the road. The old man beside them said nothing—just gazed ahead dreamily, his mouth working tirelessly on the thing he chewed. Silence took hold of them all until Nicky shouted, “Look!” and a crumbling two-storey high mansion appeared, imprinted against the pastel blue horizon. Nearer they noticed its closed shutters, the white paint flecking off its walls, a spacious verandah that opened out onto what must have been a spectacular view of green, and adjacent, a gigantic gnarled tree that engulfed the house with its leaves.

“Is that Carmen’s?” asked Raffy.

“No, that’s Hacienda Matab-ang. It’s the General’s. We used to call it the casa grande—the big house.”

“Does anyone live there now?” Raffy asked again.

“Ghosts,” Nicky butted in. “Woooo.”

Their father ignored him. “A caretaker comes once in a while.”

“I bet it’s haunted,” Nicky added. “By the General’s ghost.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing Lolo’s ghost,” their father answered.

“So where does Carmen live?” Raffy asked.

“Just across. She helps take care of the house, too. Trying to turn it into a museum.”

“It looks old,” Raffy said.

“And haunted,” Nicky repeated.

Their father said nothing. He turned to the cart driver and asked something in Ilonggo. The old man was first silent then gave a long reply, talking in a slow, hoarse voice, occasionally looking ahead thoughtfully into the horizon, still chewing. Their father and the man continued to converse and then eventually it was just their father talking, groping for words, and the man nodding along, as if to say he understood. The old man said a few words in reply and it was after when he suddenly began to sing. The words were in Ilonggo. The song was slow and sad and the old man’s voice was grave and throaty and the effect was powerful because of the late morning silence.

“Why’s he singing?” Nicky asked their father.

“I asked him if the house was haunted. Some nights, he says, he hears singing. Says it’s the General’s ghost, moving about the rooms in the house, lamenting the death of his wife, singing the song he sang the day she died.”

Nicky listened to the old man. “That’s what he’s singing now? The General’s song?”

“Yes. In fact, my dad would sing it too. A composo—that’s what we call it here.”

“Now that fellow’s father,” he went on, pointing at the old man, “worked for the General and one day took him to meet Lolo. But he tells me he doesn’t remember much about the General now, except for his famously thick moustache and that song—and the fact that the main road’s named after him. So I was telling him about Lolo’s role in the revolution against the Spanish. It’s too bad people forget so easily,” he sighed.

They were nearer to the General’s house now. The old man was still singing. The veins in his neck bulged as he belted out, the twins guessed, the story of the poor General’s broken heart. The words rang out louder and clearer in the hot stillness. Then their father joined in, singing from memory, his voice low and deep and bottomless like a well, and together their voices carried over the fields. Old men, Nicky thought, slapping at a fly hovering by his knee, who could understand them.

“This is Carmen’s,” their father said, ringing the doorbell. The old man continued along down the road, where there was a faint wisp of smoke, a thick gray strand of an old woman’s hair in the sky. The twins and their father stood on the dusty path, facing a black iron gate, their view no longer obscured by cane. On the other side of the road stood the General’s house. The rich dark mahogany of its front door was punched through with holes, the rotting and splintered wood remembered only by the termites. The lawn was tangled with weeds.

Their father shook his head sadly and the twins heard him mutter to himself that he would have to talk to Carmen. If they were to turn the house into a museum, it would need a lot of work. “She must be busy with the centennial exhibit,” he said to himself.

When no one still came out, their father rang the doorbell once more. While they waited, Nicky began to toss dusty pebbles he had picked up from the ground; Raffy noticed that all the windows of the General’s house were shut, barring any sunlight; like the sleuths he idolized he kept his ears pricked, listening for any snatches of song, but the General’s ghost was silent—it must have been the heat, he thought—and soon the gates swung open and a boy let them in.

Up they went—the gates revealed a long driveway and an airy bungalow at the end of it—past a black pickup with mud-caked wheels. A dog was barking and the air was a blend of smoke, fruit, and melted brown sugar. Their father said it was bayabas, the maid cooking it into jelly. The boy showed them into the house and Nicky said he had to pee. Their father asked the boy where the bathroom was. There was one right by the front door, he pointed out. To the left rose a staircase, where by the first step, just before the banister, stood a large porcelain vase about as tall as the twins. Raffy thought Nicky might have liked it because of its design: it looked like the stuff in Nicky’s comic books. In bold relief, armor-clad samurai crossed swords and emerald-scaled dragons slithered around cherry blossoms, their forked tongues twisted like taffy around beautiful chalk-faced, night-haired geishas wearing distressed expressions and elaborate kimonos. The handles at either side of the oversized amphora were hand-carved extensions of the relief—two dragon heads, each with a jade-studded eye. Raffy pointed it out to Nicky when he came out of the bathroom. “Wow,” Nicky said, glancing at the vase. “Cool.”

“It’s the General’s,” their father said. The vase had been imported from Japan and, with its twin, had once stood sentinel at the bottom of the General’s coveted mahogany staircase. This was the only one left though; the other jar had been looted by the Japanese during the war. He was explaining this when Carmen came down the stairs. She was tall, about their father’s height, with pronounced cheekbones and peach-colored skin. Kisses and embraces were exchanged; she led them into the living room where they tumbled thankfully onto the sofa. A maid brought in glasses of Coke, fizzing in ice.

“Please, have something to drink,” Carmen said, offering each one of them a glass. “This weather’s really something. Awful. Biboy, will you please bring in another fan?” Their father began by telling Carmen about the taxi that broke down, their long walk, and soon they were deep in conversation, exchanging stories. The twins sat back, half-listening, relishing their Cokes. What a cluttered living room, Raffy thought, noticing the shelves and tabletops, groaning with books with ripped spines and yellow, flaky pages: Philippine Ancestral Homes by Zialcita, Gaudi: His Architecture and Life, The History of Negros by a fellow with the bizarre hyphenated name of Modesto Sa-onoy; also, black and white photographs of mestizos and mestizas, and a collection of china with the family seal and beneath the seal the inscription Hacienda Matab-ang embossed in sky blue. Nicky’s eyes, on the other hand, were riveted to the floor cluttered with boxes and crates, some of them packed and sealed with masking tape, others with their contents bared: handwritten letters and correspondences in Spanish, portraits of men in uniform, a monocle, a fountain pen, a violin, a medal, a saber, a revolver.

Nicky’s eyes widened, riveted on the gun. He stood up but their father held him by the arm. “Don‘t touch anything.” Nicky grumbled and sat down again.

Carmen faced the twins, her eyes twinkling. “Your dad tells me you had quite an adventure this morning.”       

“We had to ride in a cart,“ Nicky said. “It was really hot.”

“And there was this old guy with us, singing. Papa said the song was what the General sang when his wife died,“ added Raffy. “And Papa was singing too.”

“Ah, the General’s composo,” she said to their father, smiling.

“I still remember the words. Thought I’d forgotten it but some things you just don’t forget. My dad used to sing it with the other men during wakes to pass away the time.”

Carmen smiled at the memory. She stood up and said she wanted to show them something in her room. “It’ll be quick—we have to get going soon to pick up the coffin. The museum wants it in by two the latest.”

She led them up the stairs. In her room was a large armoire, a full-length mirror, an air-conditioner, a neatly made four-poster bed, and a side table with a lamp. She told the twins to sit on the bed, which was made of a dark, reddish mahogany. On the headboard was carved the same intricate seal Raffy had seen on the china displayed in the sala. The bed was the same one the General and his wife used to sleep on in the casa grande, she explained. “On this thing,“ she smiled at them, “I sleep like a baby.“

She patted on the bed. “Come, sit, try it out.” The boys got on, testing the mattress, touching the smooth mahogany, running their fingers along the ridges of the carved seal, as if searching for a trace of their dead great-grandfather. But it seemed to be what it was—just a bed. “Maybe a ghost sleeps on this bed, too,” Nicky wondered aloud. “Maybe beds come with ghosts.”

“I wouldn’t mind sleeping with Lolo’s ghost. I probably sleep with it every night,” Carmen laughed. “Look at this.” From the bedside table, she passed a black and white picture in a frame to Raffy. An old woman lay on a bed—the General’s bed—on her back, feet pointed upward, her entire body covered in a white sheet, save for her head. Her eyes were closed.

“You remember the song about the General’s dead wife?” Carmen said. “That’s her, your great-grandmother. Taken on the day she died.”

She looked like she was merely asleep, Raffy thought. It seemed that her eyelids were slightly darker and swollen, like their father’s eyes, when their mother stayed out late and he couldn’t sleep, anxiously awaiting her arrival. But Raffy discounted it; the picture was old; he’d been reading too many detective novels. He gave it to Nicky, who pronounced it, “Creepy,” with a shudder. Nicky wondered how a man as big and influential as his great-grandfather could cry over a woman. Their father looked, too, then returned it to Carmen.

“We’d better get going then,” Carmen said. “Let me just get some things ready.”

Raffy said he had left the book he had brought along in the sala. Before anyone could say anything, he was out the room, bolting down the stairs to get it. Carmen was putting some things in her bag, telling Nicky about her retriever, which Nicky wanted to see before they left, when they all heard a loud crash come from below. They ran out of the room. On the landing, their father buried his face in his hands. “Hijo di puga,” he swore.

“It’s okay,” Carmen kept saying to Raffy in the pickup. She rubbed his back with her hand; he was wedged between her and Nicky. Their father sat in front. Biboy drove. “It’s okay.”

Through tears he had tried to explain that it had been an accident: he had picked up his book lying on the coffee table in the sala and headed for the stairs. He’d taken his glasses off to wipe them clean and then had come the miscalculation: unable to see clearly, he missed the tread of the first step, felt his foot slip downward, and instinctively reached out for the first thing within arm’s reach to steady himself—the vase. It wobbled then came toppling down with him. He’d hurt his elbow. It was still a bit sore but the pain was nothing compared to the scolding he received from his father.

“Be more careful next time,” their father had growled, explaining that due to his carelessness, a priceless memento had been lost. Raffy said nothing as their father babbled on about “historical value” and looked over at Nicky. Nicky felt pity because their father could be harsh; being the one who received the brunt of their father’s temper, he knew what Raffy must have been feeling. Worse, Raffy thought, the most embarrassing thing was being scolded in front of Carmen, who unlike their father had been a darling about the entire incident. She had held his hand after she’d given him some ice to put on the elbow and agua oxinada to clean the scrapes. He’d kept mumbling he was sorry and she in turn reassured him in a soft voice that it was nothing, really—at least he hadn’t been hurt seriously. “It‘s just a jar,” she said, and explained that if Lolo had to pick between his jar and his great-grandson, he would most definitely choose the latter. This made Raffy feel slightly better.

Raffy’s eyes were still swollen as they made their way to Talisay. It was just past eleven thirty. Their father was still a bit grumpy but his mood seemed better now—he was singing along again to the radio. “Feeling better?” Carmen asked Raffy.

He nodded. In Carmen he saw a new friend, an ally, and he wanted to say something to her. He asked why she had moved back to Bacolod from Barcelona. “Didn’t you like it there?”

She began to explain that she had gotten homesick. It was different when you were home. Never mind if what she had left behind was a city as beautiful as Barcelona.

“Well I wouldn’t move from Manila,” Nicky said. “Have you ever been there?”

“Many times,” Carmen nodded, “and—”

“Are you like Papa?” Nicky interrupted again. “Papa told us he wants to be buried here in Bacolod in the Memorial Park too, beside Dada and Wawa.”


“You should come to Manila,” Raffy said. “And we’ll be your tour guides!”

The car rumbled on, and eventually a welcome arch appeared above them. “Wel-come-to-Ta-li-say,” Nicky read aloud. He turned to Carmen. “So we’re here for the General right?” They were, she nodded, in order to pick up his coffin—just as their father had explained it to them earlier.

“Will we see any bones?” Nicky asked. “Or a skull?” He crossed his fingers in hope.

“If you opened it, probably. Most coffins though are closed pretty well,” she said.

“That‘s what I told them,” their father said.

“So we won’t see anything?” Raffy asked.

“Boys, boys, boys,” their father said from up front. “Leave Lolo in peace will you? Turn up that air-conditioner,” he added, turning to the boy. “Ka init gid.”

It was noon when they arrived in the town proper and came into the dusty plaza. The flag at the center lay still. There were banderitas here as well, strung like Christmas lights across telephone poles and the grandstand. In the benches under the shade of tiny trees surrounding the plaza, old men played chess, women picked lice from each other’s hair, and their children played a short distance away, running barefoot and black-soled on the scorching concrete. The pickup slid through the gates of the church. The Angelus tolled; there was a moment of prayer and even the twins sat still.

“He’s buried in one of the side altars,” their father explained when Raffy asked why they were going to the church.

“I already called in advance,” Carmen said, “and told them we were coming. The woman I talked to said to drop by the parish office first.”

Inside the office, they waited on a ragged couch, listening to the whir of a fan. An old woman with shocking white hair and dark-rimmed glasses sat at a desk, punching the keys one finger at a time; with the other hand, she used a spoon to eat from a plate. The woman waved to Carmen and spoke to her.

“They’ve just taken it out,” Carmen said when they left the office. “But the men are eating lunch. They left it inside the church, beside the altar. We can look if we want, but we’ll have to go in through the side—the front doors are locked. On Thursdays, they lock up the church.”

They made their way to the church. The twins, growing weary from the heat, lagged behind Carmen and their father, who had begun to sing the General’s composo once more. “I can’t get it out of my head,” he confessed with a chuckle. When they reached the side entrance, they pushed the wooden slabs open and the hinges sang out, rusty with time. Birds in the naves scattered at the sound, startled by the noise. They entered, a hush falling over them. No breeze, but the air inside was cool and calm, almost like being underwater, like being in a bubble. The sunlight falling inside through the stained glass and the open windows was gentle and the church was lit up and golden. Where the light did not reach, there was a shadowy but inviting darkness. They walked further in and felt assured by the watchful gazes and alabaster smiles of the saints and the Holy Family. 

“It’s so nice in here, isn’t it?” Carmen said.

It really was. The twins fell with relief into one of the pews. They spotted the coffin, a large box of dark gilded mahogany illuminated by the rainbow-tinted panel of stained glass above, lying beside a life-size glass-encased replica of Christ carrying the cross. “You boys want to look?” their father asked. They both said they would stay and rest for a while.

“It’s the heat,” Carmen said. “It makes you tired easily.”

The two adults made their way up to the coffin.

“You think we’ll see anything?” Nicky asked.

“Probably not.”

“Yeah, probably not,” Nicky repeated, with a sigh.

They were hungry and tired and this they admitted to each other. They slumped into the pews and remained still, hearing only their breathing, savoring the break. It had been a long morning. They watched the two adults, who stood before the coffin, silent, their eyes full of admiration for what lay before them. Their father was telling Carmen something. He liked to tell stories and, he told them wonderfully, although mostly they were about the family. Nicky and Raffy strained to listen; they couldn’t really hear what their father was saying, failed to catch which story he might have been telling. There was just the echo of it across the empty church. But they could see that there was something aglow in their father. They both somehow understood, just by watching him, that it was being home and being able to be proud of his ancestors that made their father very happy. They watched now as the two adults inspected the coffin. Their father tested the lid, which came up slightly, with about enough space for a finger to pass through. But he quickly lowered it, and clucked his tongue repeatedly. Carmen put her hands on her hips.

So it wasn’t sealed.

Their father and Carmen walked back to where the twins had remained.

“So that’s Lolo?” Nicky asked.

“The General himself, your great-grandfather.”

“Can we look Papa?” Raffy asked. They might as well; they had gone all this way.

“Go ahead. Carmen and I are just going to look for the men to help us—we need them to nail the thing shut and then help us to carry it to the coffin. I wonder why it wasn’t closed,” he added.

“The men might have accidentally opened it when they were taking it out,” Carmen said. “Better close it—it’s going to burst open in the pickup on the way to the museum unless we do something about it.” Soon the adults left, Carmen saying they had better get moving.

“Want to look?” Raffy finally asked, getting up.   

Nicky nodded. They snaked their way through the pews, to where the coffin lay. They saw the gap in the side altar, where the coffin had once been entombed. The General’s name—their family name, how strangely disconcerting—was inscribed on a marble plaque, together with the year of birth and the year of death. They stood before it, not knowing what to say or do.

“Let’s open it,” Nicky said.

“We might get into trouble.” Raffy said, instantly remembering the vase.

“Oh, don’t be a girl,” Nicky said.

“Don’t call me that!” Raffy said. But then again, he second-thought, maybe his twin was right, maybe he was being a girl. They’d come all this way for the General. Why not venture a peep? They would be careful. His favorite sleuths, he knew, would look, impelled by that investigative spirit. “Okay, I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” Raffy suddenly said.

Nicky looked his brother in the eye, surprised by his response.

“You sure?”

He hadn’t expected his brother to acquiesce so easily. It was usually Raffy who was the more prudent one, always playing the angel. If something did go wrong, their father’s wrath was not something worth incurring, even if he, Nicky, had incurred it many times before.

“Who’s the girl now? Chicken.”

“Shut up, dork,“ Nicky retorted. “Come on.” He walked over, placed his fingers on the lid, and tried lifting the coffin. It wouldn’t budge.

“It’s heavy,” he grunted, wiping his hands on his shirt. “Help me lift.” Nicky replaced his hands on the lid and Raffy’s fumbled as he hastened to grip the underside. “Together,” Nicky said. Each heard only the throbbing of his heart, unsure whether it was due to excitement or fear.

They put all their might into it. The lid of the unsealed coffin came up easily, inaudibly, with a slight exhalation, a whoosh of ancient air. It was a little past noon, the hottest hour of the day. Raffy had not counted on it being so easy—how had they done it? It always seemed harder in the detective novels he read. Nicky felt a twinge of fear mixed in with his excitement: he had never seen a dead man before, much less one who had been buried for almost a century. They were both momentarily stunned. Here, before their very eyes, was the General—hero of the revolution in Negros, their great-grandfather, whose blood wound and coiled through their veins.

He was indeed nothing but a heap of bones.

The surge of adrenaline was replaced by an immense disappointment.

“That’s all?” Nicky just said.

“We‘d better close it now,” Raffy said. “Before Papa comes back.”

Their small fingers reached for the lid but they were suddenly stopped. Like a prayer answered it came; first like a whisper, the lace over the altar fluttering once, then again, and a soft breeze appeared from nowhere and brushed against their tired, disappointed faces on this hot, end-of-summer June day. But then the breeze touched upon the brittle bones left exposed by the opened coffin, resting its invisible hands upon the skeleton, like a poker stoking the red-hot, quickly wilting embers—and in an instant the bones disintegrated into thin air and the beautiful light inside the church was suddenly alive and twinkling with dust motes, swirling like snow, which the twins had never but always wanted to see.

For a moment they didn’t know what to do. Then, together, straining once more, they finally brought the lid down with a resounding thud. The General was gone, blown away by that fugitive breeze, particles of him swept everywhere and nowhere—under the pews, into the dark cool corners, out the windows. In vain, the twins ran to one of the open ones, watching hopelessly as he floated away, seeing nothing of him—only the little cemetery at the back of the church and its white glinting crosses, and a thin column of smoke, ash and dust that rose and billowed into the sky, like a silver necklace, because it was June and it was the milling season.

“We shouldn’t have opened it,” Raffy said.

“It’s all your fault,” Nicky shot back.

“You were going to open it first.”

“Because you called me a girl.”

“You were first,” Raffy said. Beneath the rims of his glasses, the skin was wet and salty. It didn’t matter—they knew at bottom they had both had a hand in it. They glared at each other.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Nicky said.

Raffy said nothing first. Then: “Okay.”


“Cross my heart. Shake on it if you want.” He offered his hand.

No one had to know, no one needed to find out. They shook hands; they crossed their hearts again; hoped to die, because the guilt was unbearable.

They were about to head back to the pews when Carmen and their father returned with the men. He saw them by the window. “What you boys looking at?” he asked, walking over.

“Nothing,” they said in unison, their voices shrill.


They couldn’t answer. All they could think of was the General, gone forever, dissipated into dust, drifting over the parched brown earth, and the cloudless sky that was blue, blue, and blue. The men were already hammering nails into the wood, Carmen supervising. Their father smiled and peeked out the window. He was still humming the composo, he couldn’t get it out his head. They stood there not saying anything—there was no breeze coming in anymore, the twins noted. It was only their father singing in a soft low voice, almost a hum, and Raffy remembered the picture of their great-grandmother. “Papa, how’d she die anyway?” he asked meekly, wanting to dispel the terrible silence.


“Lola—the General’s wife.”

Their father looked at them. They twins waited for him to answer. He looked away then told them, staring out the window. It had been Lolo who’d done it: he’d beaten her and she didn’t survive it. Raffy asked, his voice a whisper, “Why Papa?” And when he didn’t answer, he asked again, more softly: “Why?”

And their father said: “Do you remember when Mama and I fought because she had a boyfriend? Lola had a boyfriend, too. One night Lolo caught her with his own brother in his own bed. Carmen’s bed now.”

No one said anything and they could hear the nails being driven further into the wood.

“And his brother?” Nicky asked, softly, almost breathlessly. “What happened to the General’s brother?”

There was no answer; their father was lost deep in thought. Then finally, he spoke.

“He was a great man, boys—perhaps the greatest this city will ever know.”

He said nothing else, and they all looked out the window. There was nothing much to be seen.

Nicolas Lacson graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in the Humanities, magna cum laude. He is the recipient of the Mulry Award for Literary Excellence, the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts, and the Raul Locsin Award for Student Journalism. He is currently the chief operating officer of Lacson & Lacson Insurance Brokers, Inc.



Fourteenth of September, I scribble into a brand new black Moleskine notebook.

I think: Wow, if I hadn’t seen my own hand glide along the page, I would have sworn the writer was about five.

It has been about a month since I woke up from a two-month coma, I write.

At least that’s what I’m told.

I don’t remember anything about how I woke up except weird bulbs of white light and feeling scared of them. I remember nothing about my first conscious month either. But I am told that I was rowdy and often hysterical, that they had to pin my arms down so I wouldn’t hurt myself or anybody else.

Nowadays I have nothing but therapy, all day, every day. A morning session to help me regain my mental abilities and one in the afternoon for all the physical stuff. They insist on calling me Tom.

I don’t feel like a Tom.

By “they” I mean the hospital staff and a woman who claims to be my wife. Sonia, she insists is her name. They are the only people I ever get to see. Anyway, I’ll leave it here for now. Sonia has just arrived.

“How are you, love?” she asks as she kisses my cheek.

She holds a cup of takeaway coffee. From my angle, as I lie on my bed, she looks especially beautiful. The plainness of her office clothes do not diminish her; in fact it accentuates her slender figure. Her dark hair is swept back severely, keeping the focus on her glamorous face.

I can’t believe she’s my wife, I think. For one, she is much too pretty for me.

For another, there is that woman in my dreams.

My thoughts are interrupted by a blinding stream of white light that takes over my room.

“I’ve rolled up your blinds, Tom. It’s way too gloomy in here.”

I don’t realize Sonia has stood up from my bedside.

“Besides, I know how much you love the New York skyline,” she adds.

But I don’t, I think.

So that’s where I am. New York. Though it feels like I could be anywhere in the world right now. I suppose all hospitals look the same wherever you go.

A nurse enters the room.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave soon. Dr. Ellis says your regular visits may actually cause Tom here to regress further into his hallucinations,” she says, speaking as though I am not in the room with them. “You have to trust in the process.”

“Oh, alright,” Sonia says. “I’ll come back after work, dear.” She gives me a kiss good-bye, then traces my eyebrows with her finger before leaving the room.

The nurse checks on my vitals, jotting things down on her notebook, then prancing out of the room wordlessly.

As I watch her leave, my vision gets hazy and I drift into unconsciousness.

The next time I open my eyes, I get quite disoriented. Then I see Dr. Ellis’ familiar face staring down at me.

“Oh good, you’re awake. But you missed lunch, so I’ll let you have some before we start on your therapy.”

The same nurse from a while ago enters the room and starts spoon-feeding me with porridge. I struggle to slurp the soupy mixture. It is only my first week back on solids. Patiently, the nurse wipes the drips from the sides of my mouth with a napkin.

Something in the porridge triggers my memory and I see the red-headed woman from my dreams scooping up porridge from a paper cup while sitting languidly beside a lake. I don’t quite know what it is that makes me recall this, but I am almost certain that this place is called Central Park. In my mind, I watch her throw her head back in laughter, her freckled nose crinkling into a million vertical lines.

As I finish my lunch, the nurse gets up to leave. Before she turns away, she gives me a sly wink, and I grimace in shock. But soon all thought of her is gone, and I only think of the red-headed woman from my dreams.

I’m brought to the physical therapy room and an intern I don’t recognize works on stretching my underused legs. Dr. Ellis watches and supervises, all the while chatting with me.

“Tom, did you have a good lunch? Did you eat a lot? You must, you know. You lost a good deal of weight while you were in the coma, fifty pounds to be exact. Do you remember how it happened?”

“I can’t recall anything from before the coma.”

“I’ll help you out. It was the fourth of July and you were rushing home from your job to get to a party. What do you think happened, Tom?”

“I’m sorry, doctor, but I have no idea.”

“You got into a car accident. You suffered a traumatic brain injury and broke parts of your neck and back. Do you not remember this?”

“No, doctor.”

The doctor gives a massive sigh and continues jotting down notes on his clipboard.

It’s about eight in the evening when Sonia arrives.

“I’m so sorry. I was so caught up with work and we had a business dinner afterward, you know how it is,” she says. She tries to catch her breath.

“But I don’t know how it is, Sonia. What is it that you do again?”

“I’m a lawyer, sweetie, and so are you. We met in Law school?” she says. She’s fighting tears. “Don’t you remember anything about us?”

“I…,” I start to say.

“I’ve had enough of this. First you get into that damned accident and I come running to you. Then I find you in a coma. They tell me you might never wake up. Now you have, but you don’t seem to know me or, or care about me. You’re a different person inside the same body and this is not what I expected marriage to be.”

“I’m sorr—”

“It’s not your fault,” she cuts me off, “None of this is your fault.”

After a beat, she adds: “I’m sorry, honey. I think I’m just tired. I should go home. I still have work tomorrow.”

“All right, good night.”

“Goodbye, Tom. I love you.”           

“I love you, too.”

She smiles sadly. She knows I don’t mean it.

Second of October.

It’s October and the people in the hospital are getting much too excited for Halloween. Eager interns decorate the hallways with streams of paper pumpkins and paper ghosts to please their superiors. I hear a famous superhero actor stopped by the other day to visit the children’s ward, though I didn’t quite catch his name. I’ve made a lot of progress with my rehab program and I can now walk and eat unassisted. Most of my vocabulary has come back as well. And with it some memories. 

I have even received an invitation to the annual Mt. Carmel Hospital Halloween Party. As I write this, I can’t help but be swept into all the merriment.

Here comes Sonia now, and trailing her is the nurse.

“Hi, honey, your room is looking great!” Sonia says, gesturing to my new Halloween-themed decorations.

“Yeah, Sonia. It’s a welcome change.”

“What’s that in your hand, hun?”

“Oh, nothing, just the Halloween party invitation for the thirty-first.”

Says the nurse: “Ma’am, may I stress that this party is only for in-house patients and hospital staff.”

“But my sister will be in the city then!” says Sonia. “What a shame. I guess we’ll just drop by before the celebration.”

“Well, you and your sister wouldn’t want to catch anything from the patients at the party, would you? But if you must insist on dropping by…,” the nurse trails off.

“I do,” says my wife.

Now I see how I could have fallen for her.

I drift off to sleep. I do not know when my wife and the nurse left the room.  

Here, in this expanse of dream and fantasy, I meet her again. And again. The woman in my dreams. They feel like memories and yet I know somehow that they aren’t. I’ve never met this woman before—but somehow I’ve fallen in love with her.

In this particular vision, it is an itchy hot summer in June. We stroll along with the tourists eating ice cream in the packed High Line. Though drenched in sweat, she seems only to get more beautiful. Perspiration lights the high points of her face, giving her an irresistible glow. I do my best not to reach out and wipe the thin strip of moisture building above her lips.

We are walking with a large bulldog whom we have named Sparkles. On the way home we stop by a pet shop to buy him a tutu and little pink shoes to match. Then the three of us dance to the music of vinyl on a record player in the living room. As I pull her close—close enough to smell her watermelon-scented shampoo—I hear myself say: “Why can’t it be like this every day?”

“Because you can’t dance with a June in June every day, Jay. If you could, it wouldn’t be special.”

I freeze.

Then I wake.

My name is Jay.

Her name is June.

Above me I see a smiling Sonia. What day is it? You never can tell when you’re confined in a hospital.

Sonia’s dark hair cascades in large waves, framing her gorgeous face. Her eyes are full of love, which pains me. What does she see in me anyway? I haven’t even seen myself since the accident.

I turn to face her. “Sonia, do we know a woman named June?”

“No, love, I don’t.”

She pauses and hesitates for a moment.

“But you might,” she continues. “You know, you woke up from your coma screaming for someone named June. I didn’t know what to do. I assumed she was an old high school girlfriend. I read it online that this kind of thing happens quite frequently for people coming out of a coma.”

“Is that so?” I say. “Maybe she was, but I don’t remember anything just now.”

“Enough about ex-girlfriends, I’ve received wonderful news!” she says, beaming.


“Dr. Ellis says that with the progress you’re making, you’ll be out of the hospital in time for your favorite holiday!” she laughs. She whistles the unmistakable melody of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Christmas is not my favorite holiday, but I don’t tell her that.

It is the day of the Halloween party and everyone is dressed up in their costumes. My nurse is still dressed in her hosptial scrubs, though she has spattered blood all over it. For a second, those spots of blood on her look a little too convincing.

I shake the thought off.

Sonia comes early in the morning, before work, to decorate my hospital gown with R2-D2 cut outs. If she’d known me at all she’d know I’d have wanted to dress up as C-3PO.

I join the party and sit on a chair. The decorators really have gone above and beyond. I scan the room and sheepishly realize that most of the guests are children. To think I had gotten so excited for this party.

Anyhow, I am here now so I may as well enjoy it. I watch as the children play games, I watch as the hospital staff give the adults candy so that the children can go around the room trick-or-treating.

When the party nears its end, I see Sonia hurrying towards me.

“I’m so sorry, Tom! Work had me glued to my desk. I’m here now,” she says.

She bends towards me, takes my face, and kisses me.

When she straightens up, her head no longer blocks my view. I see clearly who is behind her.

“I told you I’d bring my sister, didn’t I?” she says, looking over her shoulder. “Come greet Tom, Cindy!”

Behind her is the woman of my dreams.


Red hair flowing wildly behind her, freckles all over her face. Her eyes meet mine. She smiles.

Though nearer to me now, she still seems so far away, like a dream.

My name is Tom.

Her name is Cindy.

Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday. Halloween is.

Francesca Marie V. Flores was born in Pampanga in 1997. At the early age of 2, she was captivated by words and stories. This allowed her to read avidly throughout her formative years spent in Dumaguete. In May 2017, she finished her bachelor's degree in Management with a minor in Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University. Her chapbook, Storm Surging, was published in 2017. She lives in both Dumaguete and Cebu, with her dog Bootie.

Rain Without Meaning


The door to the master’s bedroom was wide open, and the doctor, bag in hand, paused unnoticed and leaned against the jamb, listening to Don Ramon play one of Lizst’s familiar pieces on a grand piano, which was parked in the center of the room. It had always seemed, to the doctor, such a ridiculous place to put the grand piano, but Don Ramon de Cabrera cared nothing for propriety nor the opinions of his friends.

 “Tell me that I won’t last long with this damned acute diabetes,” he told the doctor once, “and I might believe it. But when I talk of music, my statements are conclusive, and my bedroom is where that piano rightly belongs because I will it so!”

The doctor merely shrugged his shoulders then. Don Ramon and he had been neighbors when they were boys and they had grown up together. As a child, Don Ramon was fiery and rebellious, fearlessly and obstinately devoted to his own ideas and beliefs. He did everything differently from other people, and no amount of persuasion, cajoling, or threat had ever swayed him from what he thought or did…

“That’s enough, Ramon,” the doctor interrupted at length, glancing at his watch. “There’s still tomorrow, you know, and genius has its limits. Besides, it’s almost dinner-time.”

“Miguel!” Don Ramon wheeled about eagerly and laughed. “You incorrigible adolescent—how long have you stood there spying on me? I had almost given up waiting for you, hoping all the time that you and your putrid hypodermic needles would never come at all!”

The doctor entered the room and perched his bag on a small table beside the piano.

“I suppose,” the doctor said, smiling, “you would consider it another exhibition of adolescence if I wished you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. You’ve always scoffed at Christmases and you’ve never been really happy in your life.”

“Bravo!” Don Ramon answered and crossed toward the window. “And there’s a good chance that I shall have died before half of the New Year’s over. You don’t have to avoid my glances, Miguel, because I’m not at all sensitive about dying.”

Don Ramon raised the blinds and drew the dark heavy curtains wide apart. Sunshine burst into the room and fell partly on the piano. The white keys sparkled. He looked at them and then out of the window, at the lazy streets below, while the doctor snapped open his bag and pulled out the blood-pressure apparatus, sterilizer, syringe …  Every day, the same routine …  Not much change in your blood pressure  … Sleep well last night?  … But who says you mustn’t eat? … Avoid sugar though … And starchy foods …. And avoid excitement, physical or emotional …

For the last eight years, Miguel had come to this room, had opened his bag and brought forth the blood pressure apparatus, sterilizer, syringe, insulin ampules—the indispensable insulin ampules without which the patient will die, die, die, tortured and ghastly, the whole rotting frame shaking vehemently in its last attempts to live, the eyes bursting out of their sockets, the mouth taut in a futile attempt to scream … and the hands, clutching and tearing at the twisted throat, painfully thirsty for a minute drop of insulin—insulin!—like a dying man in the desert who knows an oasis in the immediate vicinity but is bound and gagged, cannot move towards it and can only see the vultures circling overhead, impatiently waiting, avidly watching…



“Your daughter’s mouth,” the doctor said, “seems to be queerly pink and swollen this morning. Have you struck her again today?”

“I couldn’t help it.”

Of course,” replied the doctor in mock sympathy, lighting a cigarette. “Always you can’t help it.” He drew a deep lungful of air and coughed it out in a note of detest.

“Stale,” he commented, throwing the cigarette out if the window. “As stale and as deteriorated as your carcass and your mad standards of artistic perfection, which you have so brutally demanded of her to attain, and she hates you for it.”

“Oh, so you’ve noticed that, too.”

The doctor nodded thoughtfully and turned to prop up the scale of the blood pressure apparatus.

“I have never before seen a deeper and a more consuming hate for a father than that which I see it in your daughter’s eyes as she looks at you. I feel sorry for her somehow; I grieve for her in fact, as I watch her cling so desperately to her morbid hate. It is the only weapon which she possesses against you. Hate and nothing else; and for that, I grieve for her.”

“Because it isn’t enough of a weapon?”

“Because it’s madness,” the doctor said. “I tell you, Ramon, it’s madness to compel her to equal you—she just can’t! I don’t know of anyone else in this country who can. In all fairness, instead of raving over her slightest mistakes in technique and manual dexterity, instead of screaming and scowling in her face, you should see it. In all fairness, you should! Or—why don’t you scratch her eyes out and rip her face beyond recognition for a change?”

Don Ramon left the window and sat on the stool, his back against the piano, his hands toying tunelessly with the keys. He stared fixedly at the mounted sterilizer.

“If Farruca were only born a boy…” he said, answering from another stream of thought. “I could make an excellent pianist out of the child yet.”

The doctor shrugged tolerantly and moved closer towards Don Ramon.

“Well, shut your mouth and open your eyes wider,” he said. “That sudden attack which gripped you yesterday might have caused a shock to your liver.”

“Farruca makes a pathetic musician,” Don Ramos continued, as if to himself. “So do all women.”

“There ought to be a yellowish thing in your eyes if it did.” And the doctor stooped forward and forced the eyelids wide with his fingers.

“They make excellent novelist and painters. They even make good poets. But they shouldn’t try to write music. They’re not savage enough.”

“No, I don’t see any yellowish tinge here,” the doctor observed, peering keenly into the patients eyes. “So far, so good.”

“Or perhaps, they’re much too savage,” Don Ramon added, upon second thought. “In which case, the more reasons why they make poor musicians.”

The doctor grinned sheepishly and moved the blood-pressure apparatus to where it suited him. “Although why, in the name of common sense, you expect to make a genius of your daughter, knowing fully well her shortcomings as a woman, is beyond me,” the doctor said. “It is not foolish; it is brutally unreasonable.”

“Damn, a doctor with his head smugly hammered on! Must there always be a reason for everything?” Don Ramon felt his blood beat hotly in his face.

“Please remember what I told you about the danger of exciting yourself, if you intend to live longer.”

“Women to me…,” Don Ramon struggled to explain, “… are nothing but necessities…”

“… Like insulin,” the doctor prompted, “without which you will die, tortured and ghastly.”

“Necessities to stimulate me in the creation of my art and, much more, in its perfection. But with Farruca, it is different. I want to perfect her, not just because she’s my daughter and I love her and am fond of her, but because I have never considered her being a woman as any gap at all between herself and the art of savages. Oh, you don’t believe me, I know; but I do love her. I do! Except when she plays the piano and repeats those horrible mistakes I have continually warned her about. It revolts me to watch her struggle and border on near-perfection, only to weaken and fall short, that the desire to perfect her simply clogs my reason and I suddenly find myself loathing her.” He began rubbing his face in utter confusion. “It shouldn’t be so, I know.”

The doctor gently brought down his hand and silently buckled the airbag of the blood-pressure apparatus around his arm. Squeezing the pump, he carefully watched the mercury rise up the scale.

A maid came in bearing a tray of food. She carefully and timidly set it down beside Don Ramon’s elbow. “Señor,” she began, “your dinner—“

“Take it away!” The master’s voice was low and menacing.

“But, Ramon, por Dios! You’ve got to take something at least.”

“I’m not hungry!”

The maid hastily picked up the tray and started to move out. “Farruca says that dinner will be ready downstairs as soon as the doctor is—,” the words tumbled one after another and she was gone.

The doctor kept his eyes on the ascending mercury. “Eighty-five,” he read slowly, “Eighty-six, eighty-seven … Eighty-seven. Tsk, tsk. Quite a considerable change. Must be due to that attack yesterday.” He unwounded the airbag, released his patient, and started packing up the apparatus.

“Don’t trouble telling me this is bad,” Don Ramon said, “because I know it is.”

The doctor worked silently, efficiently. “Someday,” he said when he was through, “when I deem it profitable to write your biography, I shall devote one chapter wholly on … The Genius, As Seen By His Kitchen Maid. I believe it would sell—but God! This weather is killing me. No trees at all to screen the house.”

“It’s a matter of getting used to it,” Don Ramon said drily, staring distantly out of the window. “Besides, there’ll be rain from the mountains before long. Look—.”

The doctor looked to the west. Dark clouds were racing fast towards the city. “Yes, it’s about time the rainy season sets in. I think I’m very glad.”

Outside it had started to drizzle. Heavy clouds had hidden the sun, and the dining room darkened. Soundlessly, the drops fell and met the smell of the earth as it rose up…

Farruca and the doctor remained seated after dinner. The girl looking absently at her hands which she had spread out in front of her, the doctor glancing aslant now and then at her swollen lips, debating whether to treat it or keep on pretending to have not seen it.

“Thinking of anything special?” he finally asked when the maid who waited upon them had cleared the table. “Is it a big secret?”

The girl drew in a deep breath and smiled fondly at him. She seldom told people much of what she thought, and when she ever did, it was with an effort painful to watch. However, with the doctor—perhaps because he was to her the nearest thing to an uncle, and she had always considered him as one—she affected no front and could afford to say anything without fear of being too self-revealing.

“Oddly enough, I was thinking of my mother and what she might have given me for Christmas, if she were alive. I don’t remember her at all, as people say she died the day I was born, and there isn’t any pictures left of her in the house, so I’ve been trying to imagine how she looked.”

“Your father had all her pictures burned after the funeral,” the doctor said. “There was a life-sized portrait of her, which used to hang on the sala of the old house. That, too, was thrown into the fire.”

“Is it true what people say, that she—looked like the Virgin Mary? Did she really?”

“Come think of it, why yes, she did!” he agreed heartily. “It never occurred to me before but, yes, she did look like her!”

Farruca laughed happily for the first time. “She must have been really beautiful,” she said. “What was it like when she died, Tito? I hear my father locked himself up in his room for three days, refusing to see people.”

The doctor nodded reminiscently. “I couldn’t even see him.”

“He must have been so in love with her,” she said wistfully. “Although I can hardly conceive of him as being in any way capable of loving anyone or anything but his music and his money.”

The doctor waited until she looked up and said: “He loves you, too, my dear, much more than you can possibly dare to imagine.”

She laughed as if what he had just said was a bad joke, and she searched his face for the slightest trace of amusement, but when she did not find any, she laughed just the same, and the doctor moved uneasily in his seat because he sensed that there was something morbid and calloused and disturbing in her laughter now, which only a terrible hate could bring about.

”He doesn’t love me, he loves his music. And he loved my mother for her money. He married into her family because doing so spared him the necessity of having to play for a living in concert halls for a multitude of what he regards as high-browed, dissipated idiots paying their way in and waiting to be impressed!”

“Please, Farruca!”

“Yes, I know!” She tossed her head defiantly and laughed. “It never occurred to you that I knew, but I do; and I more than hate him for it. I despise him!” And she laughed some more at the doctor’s look of shock and blank surprise at the terrible hate which he saw in her bluntness.

The rain fell harder and pounded on the roof. They could hear the water gurgling down the drain outside, by the window near where they were. The doctor stood up and pulled down the glass panes. The gurgling stifled.

“I’m sorry, Tito Miguel. Are you angry with me?”


“Did I disillusion you?”

He remained silent.

“Please do not be angry with me, Tito. You are the only one I have left in the world.”

“Forget it,” he said. “Now go up and ask your father if he is ready for the injection.”

But she did not move. Instead, she looked up at him and said, “He wouldn’t allow me to have a Christmas tree in the house. He said that Christmas trees were among civilization’s sentimental—and therefore stupid—devices in its attempt to defy destiny, or something like that. Just what did he mean, Tito?” She waited for him to speak but his lips were clamped tight, his eyes narrowed in deep thought. Seeing that there was no indication of any desire on his part to speak more, she arose and went up.

Her father’s door was shut. She stood in front of the knob, poised her first momentarily and rapped against the panel.

The rain drowned her knock.

She tried again, louder. There was no answer. She turned the knob and walked in, just in time to see the windows, wind-driven, fly wildly on their hinges. She saw them crash against the wall.

And then she saw her father.

He lay huddled on the floor. A violent paroxysm had seized his whole body. His shoulders, against the leg of the table, shook furiously and the table along with them, upsetting the mounted sterilizer and a glass of water. His feet jerked outward, became rigidly still, and jerked again. His hands choked at his throat, nails ripping deep into the flesh. His mouth was avid and open, shrieking soundlessly; and his eyes sought her in an agony of helplessness, while the water from the upset glass flowed sluggishly on the tabletop, lingered for a while at the edge, then tripped coldly down his pain-twisted, horror-distorted face.

She rushed wildly out of the room in an impulse to scream for help. At the top of the stairs she suddenly stopped and composed herself. Mustering every effort to pull her wits together, she turned back to the room and, compelling herself, stood on the threshold, and watched the twisted figure that was once her father, die in pain. For a moment, his eyes sought hers; then they rolled and the whiteness was all she could see. His body had become limp and motionless, quivering slightly now and then.

Softly, she shut the door and walked to the end of the hall, into her room. She sat on the edge of her bed, trying hard not to think. Fear had gone out of her but her hands trembled with anticipation. She strode to the mirror and brushed her hair elaborately. By the time she finished, her fingers had ceased shaking, although her face was white and bloodless. She looked at her face for a while in the mirror and felt that she could gaze forever at herself. She examined her every features as if she were seeing herself for the first time, idly running her fingers over her chin and cheeks. After a while, she left the room and walked down the hall without glancing at her father’s door when she passed.

Back at the dining table, the doctor, who had been watching her as she came down, asked anxiously, “Is he ready for the injection?”

She felt too exhausted to speak, and said nothing; but she looked at him distantly and full, as if she were a stranger in the house.

Thunder rolled, then cracked, like a bomb detonating. The glass panes rattled and the house seemed to rock.

“Why don’t you answer me?” exclaimed the doctor. “Is he ready or are you sick yourself, Farruca? What is the matter with you? Farruca!”

Intuitively, he dashed frantically across the room and raced up the stairs, three steps at a time.

“Telephone the hospital for an ambulance!” he called hoarsely. “Oh, Santa Maria, it cannot be! Please let him live! Padre Nuestro!”

The wind whistled and sent the rain crashing relentlessly on to the roofs and the streets.

Alone by herself, Farruca leaned her tired head on the closed window, her nose pressed flat against the glass, and she watched the big drops sputter on the pavement outside. From far away, the landscape had grown nebulous. The puddles overflowed as thunder boomed mercilessly and more and more rain fell—to her, without form.

And without meaning.

Cesar Jalandoni Amigo grew up in Dumaguete, where he graduated with a degree in political science from Silliman University in 1948. Together with Aida Rivera-Ford, he served as the first editor of the Sands & Coral. He is a much-awarded screenwriter, famously for Buhay Alamang (1952), Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig (1958), The Moises Padilla Story (1961), and Igorota (1968). He also directed Sa Atin ang Daigdig (1963), 7 Gabi sa Hong Kong (1966), The Hunted (1970), and Babae ... Sa Likod ng Salamin (1976). He received the 1974 Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Screenwriting and TV/Film Production.

Snake Twin


When he found his seat he was pleasantly surprised that it was in the midsection of the plane with the “Exit” sign on the wall to his left; more leg space here than in any other section except on the first row, next to the pilot house. His was the B seat which gave him elbow room as well as convenience should he find it necessary to go to the comfort rooms at the rear end. He had always wondered at the plane’s seat arrangement: the aisle separated the passengers on the A and B seats from those on the C, D, and E. Wasn’t the passenger weight on the right side heavier than on the left?

Beside him on Seat A was a lanky foreigner whose coat, gray worsted, seemed too loose for him; he was the only one wearing a coat and tie. He couldn’t be an American tourist who was generally informal, so informal he and his fellow Americans walk in the streets of his town in shorts and rubber sandals.

“Is this your first trip to Dumaguete?”

“Yes. Are you from there?”

“I am.”

“I understand Dumaguete is a university town.”

“It is. Two universities and three colleges.” He felt like a PR of the Chamber of Commerce.

“It must be a big town then.”

“It’s not a big town. A population of only 60,000.”

His continental English had a pronounced British accent.

“I teach in the older school there, founded by American missionaries.”

“Then you must know Dr. Leodegario Montesclaros.” He pronounced the name slowly and overcarefully.

“He’s the dean of the Divinity School.”

“I met Dr. Montesclaros at a conference in Amsterdam last year. I have a copy of his book, A History of Christianity in Southeast Asia. He interests me—he has a graduate degree in theology at Boston University, but his doctoral degree is in history. From the University of Edinburg. He seems more of a historian than a theologian. One reason I’m seeing him.”

He pulled out a wallet, extracted a calling card from one of its pockets and gave it to Ariston.

Klaus Peter Lembke, D. Theol.
Tubigen University
Beethovenstrasse 97, D-500
Tubigen, Germany

“May I know your name, please?”

“Ariston Paler. I work in the mathematics department. How long are you staying in Dumaguete?”

“It depends upon what I can find there.” He was quiet and then he said, “Have you heard of snake twins?”

“Snake twins?”

“That’s right. Have you heard of a man or a woman who happens to be a snake twin?”

“What does that mean?”

“In Germany and northern European countries there have been instances of persons born with a snake for a twin. I am doing a study of snake twins.”

Ariston looked at the longish face of the man, the deep creases like askewed arcs from the wings of his narrow nose to the corners of his mouth. He had a receding hairline and his elongated ears hung flat on the sides of his face. Why was a theologian doing research on snake twins?

At that moment over the intercom came the captain’s voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re flying through heavy clouds and we may hit an air pocket or two. Please fasten your seatbelts. Expect a little bumpy ride in the next few minutes.”

Through the windows on both sides of the plane Ariston saw heavy cloud banks and it seemed the plane was burrowing through dirty white muck. After a while came a series of bumps and then suddenly the plane dropped a few feet and a child of six or seven a few rows ahead cried out. He braced himself for another drop, but there was nothing more. After a few minutes the aircraft captain announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, you may now relax. We’re out of the air pocket.” If the plane was flying at 500 kilometers per hour, Ariston calculated, in four minutes it had covered thirty-two kilo-meters. In April and in the summer months he had never in his own experience seen a cloud bank covering, say, the distance between Dumaguete and Tanjay, which could be the length of the cloud bank the plane had pushed itself through. The sky over Manila was clear when the plane had taken off.

“That plane drop, is that a regular occurrence on this route?”

“No, Dr. Lembke. As the captain said, we just happened to hit an air pocket.”

“Over Manila the flight attendant announced the plane was flying at 29,000 feet. On a short route like this it need not fly higher—the reason for the bumps. My flight from Stuttgart to Tokyo—at 40,000 feet over the Arctic was a smooth one. No air pockets at that height.”

“A while ago you were talking about snake twins. Does that mean a baby and a snake come from the same womb?”

“In the Germanic tradition there has been such a belief since the Middle Ages. When I speak of the Germanic tradition I’m not just speaking of Germany. The countries of northern Europe Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway—they share the so-called Germanic tradition. Have you heard of the epic Beowulf?” Ariston nodded.

“The characters of that epic, you remember, are Danes, Finns, and Northmen from Norway. The monster that Beowulf slays is the dragon named Grendel, which lives in a loch—that’s Scottish for lake. Beowulf also kills the dragon’s mother. The Beowulf story was current in northern Europe in the seventh century, and the epic itself was written by monks in the ninth; one can see the Christian coloring.”

“I thought Beowulf was a part of English literature.”

“The Beowulf you know is a modern English translation. The original was in Anglo-Saxon.” He pulled out a memo notebook from his pocket and drew a rough sketch of northern Europe as well as of England off what might be the French coast. With his ballpen he pointed at Denmark. “This northern part of the Danish peninsula was the land of the Jutes. The middle section was the land of the Angles, and this southern part, now northern Germany, was where the Saxons came from. These three Germanic tribes invaded England, called Angle-Lond then, in the fifth and sixth centuries.”

He made a circle around Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula. “All this area was covered by the Beowulf story. When the Germanic tribes settled in England they carried with them the oral tradition of the Beowulf story. The English language as we know it today is a Germanic language, from the three tribes in their original homeland in this area.” His ballpen point was of what he indicated as Norway. “The body of water where Grendel, the snake monster, lived could have been one of the Norwegian fjords. Have you heard of the Loch Ness monster, Mr. Paler?”

“There was great interest in it some years ago.”

“There seems to have been authentic sightings of a many-humped snake in the last half century.”

“Neither the Beowulf dragon nor the Loch Ness monster has any connection with your snake twins, has it?”

“None. I’m only saying that in the German tradition the snake story and that of snake twins have persisted. I understand snake twin stories circulate in this country.”

“Do you already have a record of any?”

“No, not yet. But Dr. Montesclaros told me last year in Amsterdam that there are such stories. That’s the reason I am here.”

“Are you a minister of a church, Dr. Lembke?”

“I used to be the minister of a small church in Bavaria after my seminary training. I left it when I returned to Tubingen University for graduate studies. I have been teaching at the theological college there since then.”

“Research on snake twins—it’s not exactly theological, is it?”

Dr. Lembke smiled. “The first verse of chapter three of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, mentions the snake that counsels the first woman it was perfectly all right to eat of the forbidden fruit. She tasted the fruit and it was good. At her insistence her husband partook of the fruit. Then as the writer of Genesis tells us, ‘The eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.’ The story of mankind’s rise and fall started then.” After a pause he said, “Milton in Paradise Lost has a slightly different version of the Genesis story. Milton’s Adam partakes of the fruit only because he wanted to share the burden of his wife’s guilt.”

“Is not the snake in the Old Testament story—including the stick that became a snake in Moses’ hand—aren’t they symbolic?”

“Of course they are. But don’t we live by symbols?”

“You say you’re in this country to do some research on snake twins. That study belongs more properly, don’t you think, to the biologist—or the anthropologist?”

“Theology is more inclusive. It covers the fields of biology and anthropology, among many others. Dr. Montesclaros, by the way, told me you had an American biologist in your school, a fellow by the name of Chapman, if I remember right, who had the biggest collection of ants in the world. A study on ants is legitimate for biologists, but many people would wonder, why ants? John D. Rockefeller was more interested in collecting stamps than coins—you have a long list of oddities. I’m probably what you call a freak. You must admit, Mr. Paler, that a study on human twins of snakes should be more interesting than just a study on snakes. And if one was looking for symbolic meaning, don’t you think snake twins just as symbolic as the Old Testament snake?”

At the Dumaguete airport Montesclaros was waiting for Dr. Lembke. As they moved toward a Volkswagen Ariston saw a gross incongruity: a plump Donald Duck waddling beside a stalking crane.

In the tricycle he took from the airport to his house Ariston thought of Father Tropa who appears nationally once a week with his pet python on PTV 4. The fifteen-minute reel shows the small barefoot self-appointed priest wearing his shabby black-brown habit in the manner of the ancient Roman senator or a Buddhist monk, one shoulder bared, and most interesting, the upper section of an enormous snake draped around his shoulders. Because the snake is ten feet long and heavy and its girth the size of Tropa’s thigh, two men help him hoist it, one holding up the midsection, the other near the tail. The act closes with Tropa caressing the python and kissing its mouth and then resting the head, like a gun muzzle, on his bent arm and all the while aiming the serpent’s head as though to shoot the TV viewer. The snake exhibition is Tropa’s way of propagating the Lamp Lighters which he founded in the United States a couple of decades ago. His obvious message: if man and snake could peaceably live in intimate contact, there is no reason the human race shouldn’t stop fighting each other. Tropa insists that the Lamp Lighters group is not a religious organization but an international brotherhood. Many of his followers have been descendants of immigrant Filipino sugar cane plantation workers in Hawaii who had crossed over to the American Pacific coast. Before the python-kissing fadeout five frames are shown, one after another, with Father Tropa himself reading his own statements about the brotherhood of man; this is followed by his announcement that for fifty pesos he would send to subscribers a copy of his book.

Though born in a barrio of Zamboanguita, twenty kilometers south of Dumaguete, he made the provincial capital his national headquarters, his office in a rented building just across the street from the Silliman campus. He also advertises the two zoos he owns, one on Cebu island and the other in Zamboanguita. The latter, the bigger zoo, includes a gorilla which a woman attendant dolls up in front of the camera, monkeys, deer, a tamaraw from Mindoro, the only place in the world where this carabao-like specimen is found; and ostrich, peacocks, guinea fowls, a sleeping owl; reptiles (Tropa seems to have a special interest in them): snakes, crocodiles, iguanas, and the black scavenger lizard. Included in the reel are shots of animals from foreign zoos; penguins, sea lions, and cavorting dolphins from a Hawaii marine resort; underwater life on a Philippine coral reef. These deliberate juxtapositions give the illusion of a magnitude Tropa’s zoo does not possess.

Tropa has a license to take his python along wherever he travels around the country, as far north as the Ilocos and the Cagayan valley, where he seems to have the biggest following among the peasant folk. He is in his sixties, from his looks; the python couldn’t be more than ten years old.

It was possible Dr. Lembke had seen this TV show on Father Tropa and his python, because PTV 4’s nighttime program covers, more than any other national station, events of national importance, a coverage that foreigners, Ariston thought, would be interested in. In any case, a snake-man relationship, partly indicated in the Tropa show with the priest kissing the python, was what Dr. Lembke could well have come to the country to observe for his research.

Ariston had forgotten his conversation with the German theologian. But a week later, as he was about to go up the second floor of the university library to return a book, he decided to stop at the nearby reference section, in the south central area of the first floor. Mrs. Linda Lirazan, section chief, had been his student in trigonometry fifteen years or so before. She interrupted her talk with another librarian across the railing which partially enclosed her office.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Do you know of any material, book or pamphlet that has something about snake twins?”

“Snake twins?”

“Yes, about people born with a snake for a twin.”

“We have books on reptiles, and there are illustrated sections on snakes in all the encyclopedias. But I don’t think we have anything on—snake twins.”

He addressed the two women, “Have you heard any snake twin story?”

“I have heard some stories like that in Mindanao—I come from Davao,” the other librarian said. “But it seems they are only rumors.”

“In my town,” Mrs. Lirazan said, “there is a man who is known to have a snake for a twin.”

“Do you know this man?”

“Yes. Everyone in Sibulan knows Anatolio Torres. In a small town everybody knows everybody. But it’s been many years ago when a few people saw a snake in Anatolio’s house and nobody seems to be talking about it anymore.”

“How old is Anatolio?”

“Must be in his mid-fifties. If you’re really interested, sir, I’ll make inquiries. I know his wife quite well.”

Sibulan is only six kilometers north of Dumaguete. A coastal town facing the southern tip of Cebu island, Sibulan has the provincial highway for its main street. Five narrow streets starting from the shoreline cross the highway and end where the second street runs parallel to it. Inside the hectare-size public plaza the statues of Jose Rizal in heavy winter coat and barong-clad President Magsaysay face each other. The attractive Catholic church on the northern edge of the plaza faces the municipal hall across the highway, and across the street from the church is the public market. It was at this intersection where Mrs. Lirazan waited for a bus or a jeepney when she commuted to Dumaguete. The third street farther north leads to the cemetery, near the edge of the shoreline, and on the opposite end of this street stands the house of Anatolio Torres.

There was not much Mrs. Lirazan told Ariston about Anatolio and his snake twin the following Monday when he went to see her again in the library. She gave him a detailed description of Anatolio’s house: a large, box-like house, the type built by the affluent in the nineteenth century. It fronted the second street parallel to the provincial highway, with no space for the barest shrubbery. A couple of paces from the street and you stop on the first rung of the stairway, made of the hardest wood, as was the lumber used for the rest of the house, The stairway top came out in the middle of a large open verandah from the corner of which one could have a glimpse of the sea. Orchids of many varieties hung from the beams on the two open sides of the verandah, on the side fronting the street and on the other perpendicular to it: cattleya, phalaenopsis, dendrobium, vandah, and the tiny dove orchid. Below them, lined on the sills, potted plants and assorted ferns: maidenhair, staghorn, Boston, birds-nest, spiny wood; a medley of African violets.

“My excuse for going up the house last Saturday was the orchids. Many people in my town know I have a good collection myself. I had been there several times before. Only Nang Emilia, Anatolio’s wife, was home.”

Mrs. Lirazan related that she was particularly attracted to the giant broadsword hanging fern suspended from two intersecting beams supporting the eaves above the verandah corner. She had not seen such enormous fronds before, at least half a foot wide and six feet long tapering to a sword point, clustered in several layers and forming a circle from the pot-shaped crown. The crown, a full foot in diameter, was really the bottom section of the gigantic fern; from its porous osmundine body clung what appeared like a parasitic fern, with slender fronds growing in circular formation and hanging like green tentacles reaching a couple of feet below the level of the floor.

“She pulled me away and pointed at one orchid spray of chartreuse and brown flowers with very long sepals. ‘You recognize that?’

“’It’s brassia longissima.’

“’You gave that to me two years ago.’

“It was with reluctance she left the verandah. Her plants had been her children since her miscarriage. A most interesting story about her miscarriage. Let me backtrack a little. When Anatolio was a sophomore or junior at Silliman, he invited a few friends to his house, including two girls, one of them his girlfriend at the time. They were having merienda when the girl suddenly screamed, pointing at a snake coming from Anatolio’s room. Everybody ran out but before they had gone down the stairs they saw the snake, bigger than a man’s arm and about eight feet long, coiling around Anatolio’s legs. Since that time that room has been kept locked.”

“The man’s wife, the woman you saw last Saturday, was she the one who screamed?”

“Oh, no. After that incident no girl in Sibulan would consider Anatolio for a husband, not even with all his family’s property. Before I went to his house last Saturday I saw Margarita Alonzo, now a widow, the girl who had screamed, for confirmation about the snake incident. ‘You can also ask Pascual Lavina, our town treasurer, for double checking. He was in that little group with us,’ Margarita told me.”

“The man’s wife is not from Sibulan then?”

“He met Nang Emilia when he was studying law in Manila. He never finished law because in his third year he was forced to marry her. He had impregnated her.”

“So there was a child in the house after all?”

“No, sir. Nang Emilia had a miscarriage when she saw the snake on her arrival in Sibulan. In fact, it was she who insisted on locking up that room. She threatened to leave him if that room was not locked up. She never conceived again after that miscarriage. Either the presence of the snake in the adjacent room was an inhibiting factor, or she was afraid of the possibility of herself bearing a child with a snake twin. Anyway, last Saturday I was determined to ask her about the snake room.

“She left me in the living room to go to the kitchen to instruct the house help, a woman Emilia’s age, to prepare a drink for us. A minute later I walked to the kitchen and stopped at the snakeroom; I turned the knob counterclockwise. The room was locked. I wanted to press my ear to the door to detect any movement inside, but I was afraid Emilia might catch me at it. I proceeded to join her in the kitchen, wondering if, had the door opened, I would have dared peep inside to sniff for any animal odor. Earlier, before going up the stairs, I saw that the windows of the snakeroom were shut, as it had been for almost half a century.

“‘Nang Emilia, you don’t have to bother about refreshments.’

“‘No bother.’

“‘There is a room beside the kitchen. Is that your storeroom?’

“The maid’s room. Come, let’s go back to the sala.’

“‘There should be children in this big house. Who’s going to inherit your large holdings?’

“She was quiet. As she looked at me her eyes seemed to have clouded. I plunged on. ‘I heard about your miscarriage, Nang Emilia. People talk about your having been frightened by a snake in the house.’

“‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

“‘There are crazy people in this town who think the snake is still alive. I’ve never heard of more insane talk. But that’s a small town for you.’

“‘Let’s not talk about it.’

“Yesterday she sent her maid to my house to return the orchid I’d given her.”

Ariston was quiet and then he asked, “What kind of a man is Anatolio?”

“Well, what you call normal. He mixes with people, drinks a little with people in his favorite carinderia in the market. He goes to the cockpit, bets a little—he’s not really a gambler. He goes there because he enjoys seeing the cockfights. The only unusual thing people say about him is that he has no money in the bank, yet he is one of the wealthiest in Sibulan.”

“What’s the source of his wealth?”

“Coconuts. He has more than seventy hectares of coconut land starting from the back of his house. Sibulan is mostly coconut-producing, and he has the biggest copra dryer in three towns. But no bank account. His life insurance, though, is known to be a fourth of a million.”

“Are you implying Anatolio keeps his money in his house?”

“That’s what people think. One reason for the locked room. The other reason—people think the snake is still alive. They think there’s no better security guard.”

Ariston laughed.

“By the way, there is a general belief that a snake twin is a sign of good luck. That may be true with Anatolio. Before he was born his parents had just the property behind his house. A couple of hectares planted to corn and bananas and vegetables. After his birth his parents acquired one parcel of land after another, mostly those adjacent to their property.”

“I thought you said the house was built in the nineteenth century.”

“That’s right. It was built by Anatolio’s grandfather, a wealthy man who dissipated the family property in gambling.”

“You said the other day Anatolio is in his mid-fifties. If the snake is still alive, it must be a huge one now, considering that it does not have to scrounge for food. What’s the lifetime of snakes?”

“I don’t know, sir. But according to Guinness Book of World Records the longest-lived animal is the tortoise. One called the Royal Tongan was reputed to be more than two hundred years old. A certain Captain James Cook presented the tortoise to the South Seas king of Tonga in 1773 and it died in 1966.”

“How do you know this?”

She tittered. “You gave me only a C in trigonometry, but I have a long memory for some things, mostly inconsequentials. Maybe the reason I am a reference librarian.”

“Can you remember the longest-lived mammal besides man?”

“A bull killer whale named Old Tom. He was observed by his distinctive marking every winter in a bay in Australia between 1843 and 1930. The oldest land mammal was an Asiatic elephant who reached the age of 69.”

“Why don’t you know the statistics about snakes?”

“Because I hate snakes. I can get you last year’s edition of the Guinness book.”

“I have a class in a few minutes. Thanks, Linda. I do have a Guinness book at home. Thank you very much for all the trouble you’ve taken. I’m sorry your interview with Anatolio’s wife ended disastrously.”

“I’m sorry, too. I wish she didn’t send back the brassia longisima. I have four of them at home.

The facts about snakes that Ariston gathered from his 1972 edition of Guinness Book of World Records were fascinating. The “greatest irrefutable” age recorded for a snake was 34 years one month in the case of an Indian python (Python molurus) at Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, which was still alive in January 1971. The longest snake was an anaconda (Eunectes murinus) of South America, with a length of 37½ feet, reported for a specimen that had been shot in the upper Orinoco River in eastern Columbia. The longest snake ever kept in a zoo was “Colossus,” a female reticulated python (Python reticulatus) that died of tuberculosis on April 15, 1963, in the Highland Park Zoological Gardens, Pittsburg. She measured 22 feet on August 10, 1949, when she arrived from Singapore, and was measured at 28 feet 6 inches on November 15, 1956, when she was growing at the rate of about 10 inches per year. Her girth, before a feed, was 36 inches on March 2, 1955, and she weighed 320 pounds on June 12, 1957. She was probably at least 29 feet long at the time of her death in 1963. The longest venomous snake is the king cobra (Ophiophagus hanna), also called hymadryad; a specimen collected near Fort Dickson, in Malaysia, in April 1937, it grew to be 18 feet 9 inches in the London zoo. The fastest-moving land snake is probably the slender black mamba (Denciroaspis poiyitypsis); an angry black mamba was timed at 7 miles per hour over a measured distance of 47 yards near Mbuyuni on the Serengeti Plains, Kenya. Stories that black mambas can overtake galloping horses (maximum speed, 43.26 m.p.h.) are wild exaggerations, though a speed of 15 m.p.h. may be possible for short bursts over level ground. Authorities differ on which of the world’s 300 venomous snakes possess the most toxic venom. That of the Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) of southern Australia is perhaps matched by the Javan krait (Bangarus javincus), and more likely by the beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa) of the Indo-Pacific region. The beaked sea snake has a minimal lethal dose for man of only 1.5 mg. (1/22,000th of an ounce).

A more appropriate name for Siquijor is Diwata, the Cebuano word for superstition. The island is only 45 minutes by pumpboat across the channel from Dumaguete and has only six towns in it. Siquijor used to be a sub-province of Negros Oriental. A few foreigners had done anthropological research on its folklore, burial customs, occult practices, its manambals or medicine men.

The last researcher, to Ariston’s knowledge, was an Australian woman who did a study on folk medicine. She was stumpy for a Caucasian, barely one or two inches above five feet; after four months in Siquijor she was back in Dumaguete, a muscular Siquijodnon in tow. The man was a tricycle driver she had employed as her translator as they moved from one place to another. The joke went around that they administered a local potion to each other. When the woman took him back to Australia, her parents, who were sheep farmers, sent the fellow to school.

Siquijor is limestone country; much of its shoreline are craggy coral rocks, some of them broken kilometers of smooth gray lime-stone cliffs looking like ramparts. Below the waterline are numerous crevices, a good number really underwater caves; in some of them sea snakes flourish, and according to a Silliman herpetologist the population can be so thick they look like spaghetti. They are poisonous, but when their girth comes to the size of a child’s arm they are harvested during the season when they are passive; they are placed in drums containing sea water and shipped to Hongkong and New York where in Chinese restaurants their meat is gourmet dish. Probably more important, it is processed, not necessarily as a separate dish, as aphrodisiac; a concoction consisting of bits of the bile, brain, tongue, and eyes of the snake, served as condiment: behind all the preparation are four thousand years of Chinese history and myth. There is no waste of snake material because the skin makes expensive bags and shoes. The caves above the shoreline were used in the past as burial ground, especially by people who had no families; a person who knew his time had come crawled inside a cave of his choice and there awaited death. Some of the largest caves have rich deposits of guano, centuries-old accumulations of the excrement of the thousands of bats inhabiting them. The smaller crevices, especially those inland, are the habitat of snakes. The mananambals choose Good Friday to butcher pythons for the sanctified snake oil Siquijor is well known for.

With the abundance of snakes in that island, Ariston thought, the percentage of the existence of snake twins there should be higher than in Negros. Joaquin Kintanar, the herpetologist who had told him about the sea snakes congregated like spaghetti in Siquijor’s underwater caves, accepted the possibility, no matter how remote, of a snake lying alongside a baby in a crib, but ruled that baby and snake coming out of the same womb as biologically inconceivable.

Ariston asked Gabriel Duhaylungsod, a Siquijodnon, to stay after his class in differential calculus. In the graduate class of seven more-than-average students, Ariston rated him number three. Duhaylungsod’s mouth, just a thin line above an insufficient chin, seemed to belie a certain churliness in the man: he had a habit of saying so little, though you had the feeling he knew much more.

“Dr. Kintanar tells me the snake population in Siquijor is probably bigger than in any other island its size in the country.”

The abrupt statement did not register any reaction on the man’s flint-like face.

“Are there snake twins of humans in Siquijor?”

His brows knitted and then he nodded slightly.

“Do you personally know of any in Siquijor?”

He nodded again.

“Where does he live?”

“She is a woman. In San Isidro. Silvestra Tulabing.”

“How old is she?”

“Sixty. No more than sixty-five.”

“There was no hospital in Siquijor sixty years ago, was there?”

He shook his head.

“So we can’t check any records, Gabriel. Did the snake come out with her when she was born?”

“The snake was on her bed when she was born.”

“Does that mean they came out of the womb together?”

“She said the snake was on her bed when she was born.”

“Sixty years ago in rural areas—this would include Siquijor—lots of people didn’t sleep on beds but on mats spread on the floor. Mats—of pandanus or hemp—were either folded up when not in use. It’s possible a snake might have laid eggs in the folded or rolled up when not in use. It’s possible that when Silvestra was born a stray snake egg was hatched on the bed—or in the blanket—used by the mother and the baby. Is that scenario possible?”

The slow nod of Duhaylungsod and the way he looked at Ariston indicated his recognition of the teacher’s intelligence.

“Does she have siblings?”

“The only begotten.”

“Either of her parents still living?”

“Almost mathematically impossible considering.”

“Considering what?”

“Lifespan in Siquijor, especially in the past, is not long. Her parents died when she was in her twenties.”

“Does she have a family of her own?”

“None. She’s still a virgin.”

“How do you know that?”

“No man would ever propose to her despite her property.”

“Anything wrong with her?”

“Her legs are wide parentheses. A German shepherd can walk between her legs.”

“You mentioned property.”

“She is the richest woman in Siquijor. She owns three of the seven jeepneys running on the island. She also owns the biggest nipa swamp.”

“Does she admit she is the twin of a snake?”

“She is open about it.”

“Have you seen the snake yourself?”

He shook his head. “Lazi, my town, is eight kilometers from San Isidro. Silvestra is a second cousin of my grandmother, who has seen the snake. When I was a boy I told Silvestra—I call her Lola—I wanted to see the snake. You cannot see it, she said, it was not good for me.”

“You say she speaks openly about her twin. I’d like to go to Siquijor with you one weekend. To talk to your Lola Silvestra.”

He nodded. “I usually go home Friday. The last trip is 4:00 p.m.”

As Duhaylungsod was about to leave the room his solemn face broke into what looked like a smile. “By the way, Lola Silvestra has a peculiar way of talking. I’m preparing you. She hisses.”

“What do you mean?”

He clamped his teeth together and expelled his breath three times by way of demonstration.

The jeepney they took to Lazi from Solong-on, where the pumpboat landed, was owned by Silvestra. She also owned the tricycle they took from Lazi to San Isidro. Duhaylungsod muttered, “I have to pay the fare, not one centavo less. All her relatives have to pay. No exemption. A tightwad.”

Like the road from Solong-on to Lazi, the one to San Isidro was paved with lime. The bumpy ride was tolerable, but the whiteness of the road was a strain to the eyes after a while. When a jeepney passed by, white dust filled the air; even the tricycle tires swirled the dust up inside the cab. By the time they reached Silvestra’s house Ariston’s brown kepi had accumulated dirty white dust and Duhaylungsod’s hair had turned blonde. They took turns working the waterpump beside the house as Duhaylungsod doused his head with the cold gush of water and Ariston washed his face and neck and arms.

Silvestra’s two-story wooden house was the only one with a galvanized iron roof. It stood near the edge of a swamp. Five nipa houses were huddled about a hundred meters away. Duhaylungsod went up the stairs, but when nobody answered his call, he came down to look around. They saw her in a shed partly hidden by a huge acacia tree; she was raddling nipa blades into shingles. With her was an albino stripping the blades off a pile of nipa fronds. The skin and hair of the man, even his eyelashes, were whiter than the road lime. His age was indeterminate; he could be forty or seventy. The most visible oddity of Siquijor is its albinos. Ariston knew of no otherplace in the country that produced albinos. Their completely Malay size and features are very incongruous in Nordic coloring, so that they look like creatures of outer space. He had seen an albino student at Silliman and now and then a couple walking in the streets of Dumaguete, but seeing this albino was startling, the off-hand way he was working beside a nipa swamp, a curved wooden scabbard dangling on a string around his flat waist.

“Lola, this is my teacher at Silliman, Mr. Paler.”

She wiped her hads on her plaid skirt, a wrap-around that reached down to the ankles, and extended her hand to the visitor.

She nodded to the albino and led Ariston and Gabriel to the house. In spite of her long loose skirt Duhaylungsod’s description of her parenthetical legs was no exaggeration. Obviously blighted by a congenital deformity—unless her snake twin in their sleep, from her babyhood, had habitually positioned itself coiled between her knees, her ankles pressed together by one coil of her twin’s body—she waddled horribly, her toes turned inward from the open tips of her rubber sandals. The albino was a few steps behind them.

In the sala she said, “Gabriel, entertain our g-ues-s-s-t while I prepare lunssst. Excuse me, sssir.” She proceeded to the kitchen, the albino following her, his bolo now sheathed in the scabbard. He never took off his weapon all the time he was puttering in the kitchen.

“Is he her bodyguard?”

“A factotum. She does not need a bodyguard.”

“Any other house help?”

“None. Don’t worry, sir. She is a dependable cook.”

“She should have a substantial income from her jeepneys and tricycles. Why does she have to do the nipa shingles herself?”

“To keep her busy. She has three to five people to do the shingles certain days, and she has the whole island for her market. She has her own delivery service—the top of her jeepneys. The nipa swamp she owns is a kilometer long bordering the shoreline and half a kilometer wide. The supply for the nipa shingles is inexhaustible.”

“I wonder who will inherit her holdings.”

“That is a big question. I’m afraid a time will come when her relatives will be murdering each other for their shares.”

“That albino, how long has he been with her?”

“No one can remember, sir, but he has been with her a long long time.”

“I suppose he’ll inherit something.”

“No question about that. He is one reason there is going to be some trouble.”

Lunch consisted of chunks of dried fish cooked in coconut milk; there was water cress for salad, and huge swamp crabs, whose pincher claws, eight of them, were the size of Ariston’s wrist and had been pre-cracked for easy picking at. As was the custom in the place Silvestra did not eat with them; she was there to serve the teacher of her cousin’s grandson.

Shortly after she and the albino had eaten she joined her guests in the living room.

“Mr. Paler, sir, I’ll go down to stretch my legs a bit while you tell Lola Silvestra why you’re here.”

Gabriel left and Ariston turned to the woman. “Manang, I hear you have a snake twin.”

She looked at him for a full minute. Her black unblinking eyes, unclouded and too young for her age, had no eyelashes.

“I understand many people know about it,” he added.

“What do you want to know?”

“I’d like, if it’s all right with you, to see your twin.”

Her eyes never left him. “That isss my room. That wasss my parentsss’ when they were ssstill living.” She pointed to the next room, adjacent to the kitchen and facing the dining room. “That isss hisss room.”

“If it’s all right with you, may I see him?”

She stood up and beckoned to him to follow. She opened the door. “Come in. Do not be afraid.”

It was completely dark inside. Terror seized him when she moved to the other side of the room. Any moment fangs would sink into … A window panel was pushed open and then another and light dissolved the darkness. There was no bed in the room. Not a single piece of furniture. He had expected to smell some animal odor; there was only stale air.

“Where is he?”

“He isss not here.”

“Where is he? Is he dead?”

“He isss alive.” She closed the window and led him back to the living room.

“It isss a long ssstory but I make it ssshort. In the beginning when he wasss ten years old he wasss the sssize of your ssshin and ten feet long. People visssiting my houssse got very ssscared when he came to me in thisss room. Sssome even sssaid a few died from the ssscare. Ssso when he wasss big asssh your thigh and maybe twenty feet long I let him out at night and he would disssappear in the nipa ssswampsss. That alssso redussst the expensesss for chickensss, hisss favorite food in the ssswamps he isss ssself-sssupporting. In the lassst few yearsss on the day after the full moon he comesss home to hisss room. I leave the door half open. He staysss for a few daysss and goesss back to the ssswampsss.”

“Aren’t you afraid people might kill him in the swamp? People with guns.”

“Nobody ever daresss enter the ssswamp area. They are afraid of him. Very afraid of him.” She smiled. “Nobody daresss sssteal nipa from my ssswamp.”

“Do you know whenever he comes?”

“He tapsss hisss tail on the wall between our roomsss. And ssso I go to him.”

“When was his last visit?”

“Two monthsss ago. I wasss beginning to worry. He isss very old and can die any time now.”

“You look very healthy and strong. How old are you?”

“I am sssixty-sssixss come November.”

“How big was he on his last visit?”

“In the midsssection asss big asss your thigh. He never got bigger in the lassst twenty-thirty yearsss.”

“What does he eat in the swamp?”

“Sssari-sssari. Lizards. Eelsss. Many kindsss. Crabsss like thossse we ate for lunchsss. Turtlesss. Many turtlesss in the ssswamp.”

“Can he digest the carapace—the shell?”

“He choosssesss the sssmaller onesss. But no worry about the digessstion. He can digessst anything.”

“That man who helps you—what’s his name?”


“Wasn’t he—isn’t he afraid of the snake?”

“In the beginning, yesss. He almost crussshed Sssilvino; he did not want a man in the houssse. Later they accssepted eachss other.”

When they got back to Lazi, Ariston had a confused feeling of half-belief and suspicion. The woman had seemed a little too glib. There probably was a snake in the beginning, a pet snake like Father Tropa’s but which could frighten a lot of people. There was something repulsive about a snake, its flattish doghead, its knowing tongue whipping about nervously outside its mouth like a separate snake itself, the wicked sinuosity of its body. Ariston was not squeamish, but he couldn’t poke a finger at a dead snake. Silvestra’s snake was almost twice the age of the longest-lived snake in the Guinness book. Wasn’t the woman propagating the twinship and the snake’s continuing existence to protect herself, her money and the nipa swamp from thievery?

As Ariston stepped off the pumpboat in Dumaguete he felt he had been had.

And he decided to terminate his curiosity about snake twins.

Half a year later his wife’s favorite sister, Josie, came for a visit. Her husband was a judge in the regional trial court in Zamboanga City. Ariston’s wife Clarita came from a large family of five sisters and four boys. Originally from Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, the siblings were now scattered in several places in the country. Only Genia, the eldest, remained in Vizcaya; her family had settled in Solano, a river town four kilometers north of Bayombong, the provincial capital. Marian, who came after Genia, married the son of an American who owned a mine claim in Agusan, near the north-eastern end of Mindanao. Two boys came between Marian and Josie. Born hardly a year after Josie, Clarita treated her like a coeval, especially because they had shared a dormitory room while studying at the state university.

Josie had been bleeding for eight months, and had been treated at the Manila Medical Center for her malfunctioning uterus. Several months after her return to Zamboanga, in spite of the hormonal pills her Manila doctor had prescribed, the bleeding recurred. The Zamboanga internist she had consulted advised her to go back to the Manila Medical Center.

“Before going back to MMC I’d like to see Dominguez. Did you know, Sis, that he is from Solano? Ate Genia says she knows him very well.”

Dominguez was considered the most famous faith healer in the country. Sick people from Australia, the United States, Spain and a few other European countries came to see Dominguez, and foreign doctors also came to observe him and one or two other healers. President Marcos, who had lupus erythematosus besides kidney transplant (his doctors had installed dialysis machines in Malacañang Palace, sent a captain of the Palace security unit in a Mercedes Benz to pick up Dominguez for regular healing sessions). Josie had brought a couple of articles on the healers clipped from Philippine magazines for Ariston’s benefit because she and Clarita knew him for a fanatical unbeliever. In the few articles he had read about faith healing, Dominguez was regarded as the top and most effective practitioner.

“Don’t you believe in the healing of the sick by Jesus and his disciples?” Josie challenged him.

“I do. But Dominguez is not Jesus Christ.”

“Perhaps you know that Dominguez reads passages from the Bible before he starts his healing session.”

“That’s true, Resty,” Clarita said. “Dominguez came to Dumaguete a few months ago at the request of the Aguirre family. Artemio Aguirre, sis, is a Spaniard who married a daughter of one of the biggest sugar hacenderos in. Negros. Aguirre’s only daughter—he has three sons—had been operated on twice in the States for brain tumor. You didn’t know it, Resty, but I was at the Aguirres’ then. They know I originally came from Vizcaya and the Aguirres wanted me to be present. The first thing Dominguez asked for was a Bible. It took them twenty minutes to produce one, a huge tome. ‘A copy of the Bible, even a small one,’ said Dominguez, ‘should always be in the sick room.’ Later, Dominguez told the family, ‘I’m sorry I can’t assure you about your daughter. She has had too many operations. But then I am only an instrument. It is God who does the healing.”

The Aguirre girl died a few months later.

“Sis, I’d like you to go with me to see Dominguez during your semestral break. I’d like you to come along, Resty. This will be an occasion for a little family gathering. We will stay with Honoria.”

Honoria was Josie’s sister-in-law, whose husband was what the family called a “silent millionaire.” He had a huge house at the exclusive Alabang subdivision.

”I have asked Ate to join us in Manila.”

The only Ate in the family was Genia, the eldest sister, who was a townmate of Dominguez.

“Did you know, Sis,” Josie said, “that Dominguez has a snake twin?”

“What are you talking about?” Ariston was all interest now.

“Ate told me about it. She was with me for a few days when I was under treatment at the Manila Medical Center. ‘You should have seen Dominguez first,’ she told me. ‘Then you wouldn’t be spending so much here.’”

“What about the snake twin?” he asked.

“You remember the incident in the Bible when people were pressing around Jesus after he had healed the dying twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, the Jewish religious leader. In the crowd a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years and couldn’t be helped by anyone touched the hem of the garment of Jesus and she immediately got well. Jesus asked who had touched him. Peter wondered why Jesus asked, considering there was a crowd milling around him, but Jesus said he felt his power had gone from him at the moment.”

“What has that to do with the snake twin you mentioned?”

“Ate says that after a few months of healing, Dominguez feels completely drained out. He goes home to Solano to reinvigorate himself. At such times he goes to a certain section of the Magat.” She turned to Ariston. “Why are you smiling?”

“I remember the butchog, Josie.”


“Your river fish. One day several years ago your clan had a picnic in Bayawa, where the river curves and forms a body of water like a lake. Your husband, Vizcaya’s chief provincial prosecutor then, didn’t join us because he knew Ate Genia’s husband was going to use dynamite to get the butchog. He didn’t want to be implicated in the criminal act.”

Ariston had been told the butchog, quite prolific and liked for its firm white meat, had been introduced by the Japanese during World War II.

“Don’t you want to listen to my story?” Josie asked coldly.

“Sorry, but go on.”

“Dominguez was with two men rowing him up to a section where the river touches a slope of the Sierra Madre. The men beached the outrigger and as Dominguez got off he asked them to wait for him. He disappeared into a deeply forested area. After almost an hour of waiting one of the men got impatient. He went after Dominguez, trying not to make the slightest noise. After about twenty minutes of stalking he was shocked to see Dominguez with a huge snake. Dominguez was sitting on a low boulder and his hands were clasped below the snake’s head which was almost as big as Dominguez’s.”

“That’s material for Guinness all right. He should send researchers to Solano.”

“He won’t do it, Resty. Like you Guinness won’t believe it. But Ate Genia and people in Solano believe it one hundred percent.”

“Now I know,” said Clarita, “the reason for the snake around the wand of Caduceus, the emblem of the medical profession. It’s sometimes called the rod of Aesculapius, in Roman mythology the god of medicine.” Clarita had a graduate degree in literature from an American university and was not known for intellectual modesty.

Ariston accompanied Clarita to Manila, but they stayed with Michael, a son of Marian who died when Michael was only twelve. Michael had stayed for a few years with Ariston and Clarita when he was studying at Silliman. Genia was with Josie at Honoraria’s. They all had dinner at the house of Michael’s brother Eric, who was a vice president for marketing at a cosmetics company.

The following day Michael was with the group at Dominguez’s clinic. They thought they were early at eight quarter, but eleven people were ahead of them, seated on benches which looked like pews. Indeed, beside the healer’s clinic was a concrete chapel that could accommodate sixty people. According to Genia the chapel was the donation of an American woman who had been diagnosed for terminal cancer by her doctors in the U.S. After Dominguez had treated her, the American doctors certified her completely cured. Genia said that three years ago there had been just a bamboo shed, which Dominguez had used for his living quarters and clinic.

“How much does he charge?”

“He doesn’t charge.” Genia pointed at the small wooden box on the table in the right corner of the clinic. Beside it, leaning against the wall, was a Bible. “People drop into the box whatever they want to give. Or they hand it to him.”

The clinic was enclosed on two sides by a wide dark-gray curtain. Back of the curtained space was a private room, and visible above the curtain top were four parallel slats below the ceiling giving ventilation to the private room.

When Josie’s turn was called, Genia said they could all go in, as had other relatives before them.

”Oh, Genia, I didn’t know you were here,” Dominguez greeted her.

“I’m with my sisters, Josie and Clarita and Clarity’s husband, Ariston Paler. The young man is our nephew, Michael.”

“Which of you needs help?”

“I need your help, Mr. Dominguez,” Josie said.

Ariston thought the man was in his late forties or early fifties. He was dark, and above five   seven, neat-looking in a fresh white shirt tucked into pressed tan-colored ramie pants. He would look presentable in Marcos’ Malacañang Palace.  

“What is your complaint?”

“I have been bleeding. I had treatment at Manila four months ago and I thought I was already well, but there had been a recurrence, though not so profuse. The internist I consulted in Zamboanga advised me to return to the Manila Medical Center. I decided to come to you instead.”

He told her to lie down on an elevated bed, the only furniture in the room except for two cabinets attached to the wall. He pulled a towel from one cabinet and draped it across Josie’s stomach a few inches below the navel. Clarita and Ariston were on one side of the bed opposite Dominguez; Genia and Michael stood a couple of feet beside him.       

Dominguez got a wad of cotton from a bottle in the cabinet, soaked it in alcohol, and with it rubbed the area below the navel. He threw the wet wad into a pail under the bed. He raised his open palm about eight inches above Josie’s abdomen and in an instant plunged his hand into the abdomen, all the five fingers disappearing under the skin. The fingers of his left hand picked up a pellet of flesh, raw and striated, the size of a polebean, which he threw into the pail. While his right hand remained in the abdomen, in lightning succession, his left hand took out similar pellets, throwing them into the pail each time.

Ariston placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder to find out if she was seeing what he was seeing. She looked at him, nodded almost imperceptivity to assure him that what he was witnessing was not a wild trick his mind was playing on him. Seven or eight pellets in all, each time the incredible fingers picking up a piece of something that came from inside Josie’s abdomen. At the end there was just a tiny drip of blood staining the smooth unbroken area of skin where the man’s right hand had gone in. Dominguez got a ball of alcohol-soaked cotton and rubbed it on the area, which showed not a sign of a wound or a scar. Dominguez followed this with swabbing the area with his fingers soaked in coconut oil. When Dominguez had thrown away the cotton ball, Ariston bent down to look at the place where the healer’s hand had penetrated; there was not even a trace of a scar.

If Ariston was under a hypnotic spell, then all four of them watching the operation—for indeed it was a real operation—experienced identical hypnosis. When Josie stood up from the bed, Ariston asked how she felt when Dominguez dug his hand into her abdomen. All she knew, she said, was the touch of the healer’s hand and at the end, not even the brief coolness of the alcohol or the scent of the coconut oil he had rubbed on.

Before they left the curtained room Dominguez gave Josie some large pieces of tree bark. “Boil it,” he said, “and drink the brew three times daily. You come back every day for eight days.”

Dominguez repeated the operation eight more times and on the ninth day he told her she could go home to her family.

According to reports not all Dominguez ‘s ministrations were fully successful. Josie’s healing was complete. Ariston, the fanatical unbeliever, became a Dominguez convert. Dominguez was doing with limited success and in a more cumbersome manner, what the first-century disciples did.

Though the dictator Marcos, a superstitious man, was reported to be more and more dependent on Dominguez than on his doctors, there was increasing talk that the healer’s power had diminished. Dominguez had become a man of means, thanks to the patronage of the dictator.

Three years after Josie’s treatment by Dominguez, Michael dropped in at Ariston’s house on his way back to Manila after a settlement of his share of the Agusan property left by his father. At the airport, while waiting for his plane for the trip back to Manila, Michael said, “I understand, Uncle Resty, that Professor Yamaguchi taught at Silliman for only a short time.”

“That’s right. His appointment as a visiting professor was only for a year. He’s back in his university in Ohio. What about him?”

“You of course knew that his wife Meniyo stayed in my house because of a letter that Aunt Clarita wrote to me.”

“Yes. Clarita and Meniyo were very close friends. It was good of you and Flor to accommodate Meniyo.”

 “Perhaps you knew that Meniyo was in Manila to consult Dominguez. About having a baby. It seemed she had not been helped by gynecologists in the U.S. That’s what she told Flor and me.”

“Yes, Clarita told me that’s what Meniyo wanted to consult Dominguez about.”

“I accompanied Meniyo to Dominguez’s clinic. Did you notice there’s an opening about three feet wide above the wall separating the curtained clinic and the private room?”

“That opening is intended, isn’t it, to provide ventilation to the private room?”

Michael nodded. “Meniyo was received in the room where Aunt Josie was treated, but after the consultation Dominguez took her to the private room. Four or five other patients had preceded Meniyo in the curtained room. There were almost a dozen people with me on the benches awaiting their turn. I wondered why Meniyo was taken to the private room since it was known that it was only for seriously ill people. After about twenty minutes I sneaked into the curtained room. Because I didn’t see any chair in it I pushed the bed against the wall and stood on it and peeped above the wall opening. Meniyo was lying down naked on the bed and Dominguez was massaging her stomach and then his hands went slowly down on the mound just above the intersection of her legs. His hand made circular motions around the mound for three minutes or so and then his hands went slowly up the abdomen and then to her chest. He cupped the breasts with his hands and kneaded them for two or three minutes, and then one hand, the left hand, shot downward between the legs. Suddenly Dominguez was on top of Meniyo. His right hand covered her mouth, perhaps to keep her from crying out, and then he withdrew the hand. But the way her face looked—it was turned halfway to the wall where I was—it seemed she didn’t want to cry out. She looked up and saw me. I knew she saw me because at that instant she opened her mouth to cry out, only her cry couldn’t—didn’t come out.”

“’Please, Michael,’ she begged me when we had gone out of the clinic, ‘please don’t say anything about it. I was helpless. I couldn’t do anything about it. Please, Michael.’”

After Michael’s plane had taken off Ariston was still leaning on the fence staring at the empty tarmac. He thought of the healer’s incredible hand inside Josie’s abdomen the same hand that covered Meniyo’s mouth in Dominguez’s private room. And then he thought of the locked room in Anatolio’s house in Sibulan, and of the room in San Isidro which Silvestra left open the day after the full moon.

Edilberto Kaindong Tiempo was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte in 1913. He obtained his BA in English at Silliman Institute [now Silliman University] in 1937. He enrolled for graduate studies in 1939 at University of the Philippines but did not finish. In 1940, after marrying Edith Lopez, he returned to Dumaguete to teach at Silliman. He would later be accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he would obtain his MA in 1951. In 1957, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. Upon returning to the Philippines in 1962, the couple established what is now the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. At Silliman, he served various positions, including chair of the English Department, graduate school dean, vice-president for academic affairs, and writer-in-residence. His novel, Cry Slaughter, published in 1957, was a revised version of his Watch in the Night, which he culled from his wartime experience in Negros Oriental. Cry Slaughter had four printings by Avon in New York, a hardbound edition in London, and six European translations. His other books include the novels To Be Free [1972], More Than Conquerors [1982], Cracked Mirror [1984], The Standard Bearer [1985], and Farah [2001], the short story collections A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories [1970], Finality: A Novelette and Five Short Stories [1982], Rainbow for Rima [1988], Snake Twin and Other Stories [1992], and The Paraplegics and Five Short Stories [1995]. He also authored Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays [1995]. He won the Cultural Center of the Philippines Prize, the Palanca, the U.P. Golden Anniversary Literary Contest, and the National Book Award. He died in 1996.

Good Husbands and Obedient Wives


“Obey your husband willingly, trust in his guidance, and never show a pained or resentful face. Put up with your husband’s faults, no matter how bad they are, always remembering that the body, even when ill or rotting, still clings to its head, however ugly or confused this may be.”

~ Urbana to Felisa

Diva recognized the voice on the phone right away, though she would have been happy if she hadn’t heard it again in her lifetime. It was the only voice she knew whose Ilonggo inflection sounded like it was made of wind chimes pitched too high. “Divina, is that you?”

She had never cared for that name either. “Divina”—it had been her school name, and it only pointed mockingly at her clunkiness. “Diva” was her first symbolic break from the Bacolod childhood that she had been eager to turn her back on. After high school, she had gone to a university in Manila and blurted out this nickname on her first day in the freshman ladies’ dorm, when a roommate had asked her name. “Nice name,” the roommate said indifferently as she unpacked her suitcase. “Easy to remember.”

Now, decades later, Diva was suddenly Divina all over again.

The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to Lita Montinola, a high school classmate. Rene had died three years ago, she said, and she was just coming out of mourning. Would Diva like to come over and keep her company? She had a house full of empty rooms and Diva could pick any room she liked—even the one farthest from Lita’s own if Diva was still anti-social. Mwahahahaha!

It was the same hearty laugh of 35 years ago that, if it came from another woman, would have been called coarse. But only Lita could make such a laugh part of her guileless charm. It burst out of her to everyone within hearing range into her personal space. Even the way she asked her questions was not out of any uncertainty but was simply her way of gauging how much the world would need to bend over to accommodate her. And if it refused, well, she’d shrug her shoulders and go on to something or someone else more pliable.

Lita’s invitation was a surprise to Diva. They had never really been friends in school. In fact, Diva couldn’t remember if they’d exchanged more than ten words with one another then. There had been—she suddenly remembered—the one time twelve years before, when Lita and Rene had treated her to a buffet lunch in Bacolod’s most popular restaurant, but that had happened purely by accident. And even then, it was Lita who’d done most of the talking. Maybe Lita had remembered that day and thought that Diva had seemed to enjoy their company.

So it was desperation that must have goaded Lita into offering her hospitality. After the solicitous attention the other classmates had poured on her at her husband’s wake and funeral, life had to go on for those that death had as yet no claim, so she was left to deal with her bereavement her own way.

Diva had gotten trapped into that lunch with Lita and Rene twelve years ago, when she had slipped into Bacolod for a weekend seminar on real estate. She saw Rene first as he came out of the bank, his head bowed, frowning down at a sheaf of papers in his hand. She was about to brush past him, pretending not to know him, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks and they collided.

“Hi, Rene,” she said.

She didn’t know where that had come from. She had meant to say, “Sorry” and then gone on her way. But she’d already said his name and couldn’t now pretend she’d mistaken him for someone else. She watched as waves of various expressions washed over his face. Puzzlement as he tried to place where they’d met before, apology at his failure to recollect it, the slow recognition of her name as she introduced herself, and finally astonishment at his inability to match the name with her face. They stood on the sidewalk and made desultory conversation until she realized they were both genuinely interested in what each had been doing all these years.

“Look, Lita will be happy to see you again. I’m meeting her for lunch at Bob’s. Come with me,” he finally said. He was already pressing buttons on his cellphone to tell Lita that Diva was with him.

Rene had warned her that Lita had filled out somewhat, but he hadn’t prepared her for the giant beach ball that came bounding across the restaurant and enveloped her in a pair of elephantine arms. It felt like being cocooned in a padded cell.

Lita brushed aside Diva’s awkward attempt to hide her shock at Lita’s prodigious size. “Of course you didn’t recognize me! I’m so fat. This is what happiness does to people. Mwahaha!”

Lunch at Bob’s Restaurant was an eat-all-you-can mongolian barbecue. People were already milling around the buffet table, choosing which vegetable dishes they wanted to go with the tenderloin strips. But Lita was heaping nothing but red meat on her plate as she instructed Diva, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t bother with the veggies. This way it’s an eat-all-you-can steak dinner for half the price.”

“But isn’t that sort of . . . bad faith?” Diva whispered. “I mean, doesn’t the management mind? After all, this buffet price is a steal; maybe we should just return their goodwill.”

Hay, Divina.” Lita sighed and shook her head. “You may have been the class genius but you were never street-smart. Why, do you think these restaurant owners get rich on goodwill? We don’t owe them anything.” She still didn’t bother to keep her voice down. A few of the other customers were already beginning to follow her lead.

Rene and Lita were smiling at each other conspiratorially, but Diva saw that Rene’s plate held equal portions of meat and greens. She herself decided to leave out the meat and eat a purely vegetarian lunch, in some vague attempt to even out what Lita was doing.

Lita was laughing as they sat down at their table. “I can outsmart the best of them, can’t I, Rene?”

“I keep telling you,” Rene said, caressing Lita’s cheek with the back of his hand, “you can be very, very smart when you want to be.”

This was how it would feel, Diva thought, if she stumbled into their bedroom and witnessed something that not even husband and wife should be able to look each other in the eye about the next morning.

“Well, Divina,” Rene said, turning to her as if suddenly remembering that they had company, “are you here to solve our problems?”

Problems? Anyone who’d been married for almost twenty years certainly had their problems but what business was it of hers? Rene waved around at the people at other tables, from where they could hear snatches of conversation about harvesting and milling and sugar prices. Somebody was talking vehemently about pole vaulting.

“Pole vaulting.” It seemed that throughout her life in Bacolod, Diva had heard this phrase uttered always in vehement tones. Hacenderos, driven by desperation during the sugar crisis, used their bank loans to vault from one expense account to another. A long time ago, Diva’s mother had hurled it accusingly at her father when he came home from his numerous nocturnal excursions. It was the measure by which claims, in Negros, shrank.

Diva had once told her husband Ed about how meanings had accrued to the phrase, ranging from hacienda to domestic discourse, and he had replied, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” She couldn’t tell if he understood what she had meant.

But Rene knew exactly what Diva’s raised eyebrows meant when he laughed and said, “Me, pole vaulting? I haven’t gone that way yet. At least, I have other resources.”

Ay, ambot ah!” Lita exclaimed as she shook out Rene’s napkin and laid it on his lap. “You two stop being so serious. You know how that song goes, ‘Don’t worry; be happy.’ That’s my philosophy in life. So let’s just talk about happier things. Do you know who just bought her mother a townhouse?” And without waiting for either of them to reply, she said dramatically, “Lenny.” Her salary, Lita went on, pointing her steak knife at Diva for emphasis, could buy her a brand new Toyota car every month. Yes, Diva agreed, they’d always known Lenny would be the class achiever.

“But you, Divina,” Lita went on, “when Rene told me just now that you were in real estate, I was quite surprised. Why, I always thought with your brains, you’d take up something like chemistry and become the president of an oil company like Shell or Petron.”

“Well,” Rene said, “I, for one, always knew Divina’d be very good at getting people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

He must have been just covering up for Lita’s tactlessness, for that was surely what he thought it was. What Diva had always seen since their schooldays as Lita’s streaks of meanness were to men simply her winsome airheadedness. She picked up a cube of tofu with her chopstick and said, “You know how it is for people who don’t finish college. It’s either insurance or real estate. I’ve done both.”

But Lita’s virtue was that she was so involved in her own thoughts that she often failed to recognize what might have been a juicy bit of gossip. Her mind had already wandered off to other classmates. Remember Tess? She had married so well! She had joined the Bayanihan while still in college and had bagged a European ambassador on a tour. And they were still married! She was now living in a castle in Vienna. Imagine that! What a long way it was from living in a rented old house with eight younger sisters and brothers, and her father just an accountant. Hay, Tess was so very, very blessed.

“But you’re very blessed yourself,” Diva said. “You have three beautiful children, a loving husband, and a very comfortable life. What more could you want?” And Lita herself had risen from the same middle-class origins. By her own standards, that would have been the greatest blessing of all.

“You’re right,” Lita sighed. Then she turned to Rene. “I do have only one regret. I know I’ve tried everything in my power to be the best wife to you, Rene. But I’m so fat gid. I wish I could lose all this weight.”

Rene laughed and said nothing.

Lita turned back to Diva. “Everyone else has been trying to get me to stop eating. But not Rene. He lets me eat as much as I want, because he knows how much I love to eat.”

Rene said, “Well, after all, she feeds me so well, I think she should eat whatever she wants to. You should try her mango cream pie, Diva. Nothing like it in the world!”

“The secret is in the butter. It’s got to be Crisco. Never settle for anything less, not even Anchor. It’s worth the expense, believe me,” Lita said emphatically.

Diva’s fellow activists during her student days had conducted their group discussions with the same degree of conviction. She looked from one to the other. It seemed to her that Rene’s smile was trembling at the corners, as if it was too much weight for his facial muscles to bear.

“You’re so lucky to have such an indulgent husband,” she said and arranged her face so that it would look properly envious.

“That’s why I worship him gid ya bala. He’s so kind and protective. He never burdens me with worries about the hacienda and he never criticizes me. He loves me as I am. I’m very blessed. God is so good to me. Mwahaha!”

You had to believe in that raucous laugh, Diva thought. No laugh so raucous could be less than sincere. Or else you would have to lose your faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. “Redeeming grace” the Sisters had called it. Everyone had their “redeeming grace.”

The waiters were clearing away the buffet table and one of them was putting up the sign “Closed” on the table. They had run out of meat thirty minutes earlier than usual.

The evening of Lita’s call, Diva told Ed over dinner about Lita’s invitation to stay the weekend with her in Bacolod. She was halfway through the story of her chance encounter with Rene and Lita twelve years ago when she noticed he wasn’t really following. Even the refrigerator was staring at her blankly. The beef stew had already fallen asleep.

Ed moved from the dining table to the TV set and watched CNN as he said, “Go ahead and keep her company.”

“But I’m surprised she thought of me at all. We were in two entirely different worlds back then and I can’t imagine what we’d have to say to each other now.”

“People change. Some for the better, some for the worse. Others just change. That’s life.”

She was already sorry she’d said anything. It was remarks like this that gave her a clear idea what Mrs. Aesop’s life must have been like. “Oh yes,” she said dryly, randomly picking from his personal collection of aphorisms, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

He nodded and took a swig at his beer as he switched to the Discovery channel. A female simian chattered around her mate that was lying on the jungle floor and studying islets of sky through the canopy of vines and leaves. The world was full of lonely creatures. The problem was that they each chose to be lonely with someone else.

Ed had been her political officer—P.O. they called it back then—during the student revolution in the ‘60s. Now, after 33 years of marriage, his end of their conversations still sounded like he was pulling quotes out of a book. At least, they were no longer confined to Mao’s, Marx’s, nor Lenin’s, Diva thanked god for that.

She had married Ed at a time when his common sense seemed exotic among people whose every conversation was an argument over some Monumental Issue. He was an ardent lover and came home every night to her, although sometimes he came home tipsy but not drunk enough to be disgusting. Diva wasn’t sure if the solidity of their marriage was built on total trust or simply the absence of supervision. As far as Diva knew, he was faithful to her, which was incredible, considering the macho culture that Philippine society encouraged. And so she did not boast about it to friends, who at some point or another suffered from a husband’s infidelity. They would merely have raised their eyebrows and dismissed her for her gullibility.

Ed and Diva’s togetherness that her friends envied was simply a prolonged state of polite suppression regularly punctuated by explosions of mutual lust. Diva had long ago accepted that this was the natural order of things. Surely marital fidelity was all part of the cosmic order, for the cosmos was nothing more than the black hole with peripheral meteor showers.

Within the first ten years of their marriage, Diva had discovered the secret to a happy marriage by the process of elimination. She had raided her mother’s armory for the weapons that she had then hurled at Ed: logical argument, recrimination, the sulks, emotional blackmail, silence, and withdrawal. One night, in the middle of another of her somnambulist nights, she had realized, in one epiphanic flash, that her marriage was turning out no better than her mother’s—all exhausting, aching effort, like blowing into a rubber balloon that, once let go, went out of control, flying round and round, whistling derisively. Then she scoured women’s magazines, self-help books, dog training manuals, reading them upside down for the answers to the quiz at the end of each article and chapter. Good communication, breakfast in bed on Sundays, anniversary celebrations—she had claimed all these as the wife’s right until it finally dawned on her that all these formulas were merely part of the Great Hoax that made Marriage Encounters brisk business. Finally, the only thing left was SEX. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. It was the fulcrum to the ritual checks and balances that kept their marriage plodding on. Afterwards, Ed would gather her in his arms and murmur, “I love you.” Or, for variation, “my voluptuous sweetheart.” He would be more than half asleep; his eyes would be closed, a hand wandering indifferently over her surfaces. She might have been any woman.

The morning after Lita’s call, Diva’s boss called her into his office and said, “Pack a bag. I’ve got a good one for you. There’s a resort that’s up for grabs in Bacolod and we’ve a client here who’s interested in adding it to his resort-hotel chain.”

Bingo! Diva thought. A working vacation. She’d do her good deed by Lita and earn her commission in the same week. That night, as she packed her bag, she told Ed jokingly that she was going back to her hometown to recapture the innocence of her youth. Of course the irony escaped him entirely, and he agreed with her, himself adding sagely, “The state of grace, that’s where we all start from.”

In Bacolod, as she emerged from the airport, Diva immediately recognized Lita, whose 51-year-old figure was as slim and firm as it had been when they were still wearing the convent school uniform of baggy blue jumper and white blouse. She had sloughed off a hundred pounds since twelve years ago and bore no trace of whatever punishment her body must have taken as it seesawed on the weighing scale. Not an inch that skin sagged anywhere; there weren’t even any stretch marks to signal that the body had once fallen into gluttonous times. She was wearing hoop earrings, and a big plastic butterfly held back her shoulder-length hair, the Color of Wella Copper Sunrise. The only sign of aging on her face was the crows’ feet at the corner of each eye, and only a faultfinder would notice them. She was right; God was good to her.

As they drove from the airport, Diva gazed out of the car window. The past twelve years had shaken the island’s monocrop system into a diversified economy that had changed the landscape. What had once been a swath of earth corduroyed by sugar plantations stretching interminably on up to the horizon had been colonized by commercialism. Standing on a former canefield was Golden Fields, which was a cluster of restaurants dwarfed by a casino hotel rising majestically at its hub. Sugarland Hotel, which belonged to an earlier era, tried to hold on to its dignity but its jagged top gave it the comic look of a rectangular bottle cap turned upside down. This was where their class had held their high school prom. Lita explained that its upper floors had been lopped off when it was discovered that it was too dangerously near the airport runway.

Before they reached the heart of downtown, Lita pointed to the circumferential road that drivers took to avoid the traffic snarls. Traffic snarls in Bacolod? Diva was incredulous. She remembered her adolescent eagerness to escape the city because its chronic somnolence had weighed her down unbearably.

Diva was pleased to see a workers’ rally going on in front of the provincial capitol, although it was a just a small group of about a dozen men. They were holding placards and listening to someone holding a megaphone. A red streamer bore the hyphenated name of the local trade union and its national counterpart, like a woman declaring her independence despite her married status. Snatches of their leader’s speech reached Diva through Lita’s chatter. The phrases were familiar: “minimum wage law” and “amelioration law” and “SSS benefits.” People walked past without pausing or turning to see what was going on.

Lita swung right into a four-lane highway that cut across another former sugar plantation and stretched around the circumference of the city, like Life that had suddenly gone off tangent and then decided to take a meandering route to its destinations. A road sign read, “Don’t stick your elbow out to far/It might go home in another car.” It must have been the mayor’s most inspired moment in his term when he’d hired a modern Aesop for the Traffic Management Office. Here was at least a moral lesson with wit and rhyme, never mind if the spelling was flawed.

Suburban villages, gated and guarded, were just beginning to spread but were obviously taking a while to fill up, like batter slowly filling up the little squares on the waffle iron. The numerous empty lots were overgrown with cogon grass. But what few houses there were had a neglected look to them.

As Lita drove on, the old ruins of a mansion loomed up behind a row of these empty lots. Diva suddenly recalled having come to explore these ruins in the middle of prom night with Lita and Rene and another boy named Tony.

“Oh look!” Diva exclaimed. “It’s the Duertas mansion. Remember we had such a hard time searching for it, when there weren’t any houses near here?”

Lita looked at her blankly for a few seconds and then saved herself. “What a photographic memory you have! You know what a scatterbrain I am—I can’t remember anything beyond a year ago.”

Lita’s indifference was quite understandable. Prom night had happened 35 years ago, when the real estate business had not yet eaten into the sugarcane. They had sneaked out of the ballroom to confirm for themselves the rumors that such a mansion existed hereabouts. But bankruptcy, land reform, and time had stripped the ruined mansion of its mythical cloak. It was now just a heavyset straggler in full view among the streamlined specimens of modern architecture.

A full moon had helped Diva and her three companions glimpse its distantly small silhouette from the highway, but it was mainly Rene’s determination that had compelled them to find the old dirt road that led to it, despite the undergrowth. Fray Duertas’ marble statue still stood in front of the ruins, although weeds and vines had sprouted from cracks on his head and chest and tumbled down his sides. The first and second steps of the stairway leading from the ground were split apart by a sugarcane plant obtusely growing through them.

They’d made a pact never to reveal their secret find and to visit it together every year thereafter until they died. Of course, after graduation, Diva’s life had completely veered away from theirs. She had buried the memory of Prom Night along with that of all her other adolescent disasters. The mansion hadn’t been significant enough for Lita to remember it either.

The car turned into a gated driveway as Lita explained, “I want to show you what Rene and I worked on together just before he died.”

They stopped at a three-storey building whose façade had a large plastic sign on it that read “Nirvana Spa.” The building had a deserted look but Diva guessed that it was too early yet for anyone to be around, not even the staff. 

They had built the spa together six years ago, Lita said as she guided Diva around the grounds. After they’d sold the farm, Rene had had more time to devote to the charismatic movement. Then their prayer group leader had offered them the construction job, with Rene as contractor and Lita as the supplies purchaser. God surely knew how to provide, to Him be the glory. And then, when the spa was built, Rene had such wonderful ideas about how to run the business that the owner had asked him to stay on as its manager. But Negros was no longer living on sucrodollars. The hacenderos were having to make hard choices. Were they willing to give up the golf and country club for the spa? Would their wives prefer a year’s pampering at the spa to the occasional trips to Hong Kong?

“It must have been the pressure of his work here that killed him,” Lita said. But Rene did leave her a priceless legacy. He was the only person who could make her feel so intelligent and competent. He had trusted her with the financial side of the construction and had given her the self-confidence to deal with the hardware suppliers, who would have cheated them every chance they could if she hadn’t had the nerve to stand up to them. She had cut the construction budget to more than three million pesos.

And, in the same reverent tone with which Lita acknowledged Divine Providence for every turn in her life, good or bad, she said, “But of course, Rene coached me every step of the way.”

The next day was Sunday and that morning Diva was watching Manang Ine fix breakfast. The cook dropped some oil into a Teflon skillet whose surface had peeled off in patches, like reptilian skin. Then she laid several slices of bacon on it. More oil oozed out of the bacon. The smell of it was as thick and sharp as that of burning tire.

Hay, Inday,” Manang Ine said, “everyone was so surprised gid when Toto Rene suddenly died. But he and Inday Lita were celebrating his championship that night and she cooked him all his favorite dishes. I think bad wind must have entered his stomach while he was eating, and he forgot to belch before going to sleep. That is how people die, you know. My husband and I made itot one night and when he withdrew, the air blew into his pitoy and he died.”

Diva was still digesting this bit of elemental wisdom when the cook added, “Te, now I have to go and dust the flowers. Just call if you need anything.”

Lita was still in her room. Ever since she joined the charismatic movement six years ago, she spent her first waking hour vouchsafing her day to God. Now she was dressing to go to church. There had been a moment of awkwardness when she had emerged and reminded Diva that Sunday mass would be in an hour. Diva had distracted her by remarking on her lipstick, which she thought Lita had accidentally smeared on the area around her lips. Oh no, Lita said, pleased that Diva had noticed. She had discovered the new style in which lipstick was being worn these days. You painted outside the line of your lips for that pouty, come-on look. Ah, Diva said, it was woman’s revolt against Nature’s stinginess. And the shade was called Celebrating Vanity, Lita went on, choosing not to hear what she couldn’t comprehend. Wasn’t that so imaginative? Make-up was no longer being used merely to color one’s face; one could actually put on a new one over one’s skin. But now she had to go back to her bedroom to put on the rest of it.

Alone in the kitchen, Diva looked around for a teaspoon for her coffee. As Diva pulled open a drawer, it erupted with table napkins, each with a dainty cross-stitched pattern on one corner. More drawers revealed more of them, piled in rows according to sets of flora, fauna, days of the week, nursery rhyme characters. It was a whole aviary of folded linen set upon by hands maniacal with purposeless activity. Diva was pulling another drawer open when Lita came in and, seeing her coffee mug, pulled out the drawer where the spoons were kept.

“I’m sorry you have to fend for yourself,” Lita said as she handed Diva a teaspoon. “My other maid quit last week when I scolded her about letting the dog out of the gate. It got run over by a truck and I was so angry I shouted at her. Of course I was sorry for it afterwards and immediately went to confession. But the next morning she quit.”

She opened a cabinet and showed Diva the cans of dog food still stacked there. She had bought this particular brand because the dog’s picture on the label had looked like her own poor dead Sputnik. Oh, how she had loved that dog! And it was so expensive too. So, could anyone blame her if she had lost her temper at that maid? Ay abaw, these maids gid ya, they were so different these days. Imagine, their amo saved them from a life of hardship as farm girls by bringing them to the city. But this was how they repaid such kindness, she mourned.

“I know charity begins at home, but it’s so hard to be charitable sometimes. They are ka pilosopo na gid ya bala! Can you explain  it to me, Divina?”

Because you’re the class enemy and charity is a matter of praxis, Diva was tempted to say. But now she just wanted to pursue the question, What breed of dog was  it?—so she could empathize with the depth of Lita’s grief. Here she was, barely out of mourning over a dead husband. And now, there was a dead dog. Was there a difference?

“Oh well,” Diva murmured, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

She was a good person, Diva tried to convince herself. She had the fear of God in her and she did favors for the less fortunate. Somewhere else, people were numbing each other’s brain to the same degree discussing truth and justice. Or gorillas and guerillas.

Diva waved one embroidered napkin and exclaimed, “But there must be hundreds of these embroidered napkins in all these drawers! Did you do them all?”

If there could have been a basis for solidarity between the two of them, it was that they had been the two girls in school to whom Sr. ingeberta had frequently exclaimed, “Oh you lazybones! I pity the man who marries you.”

And she would hold up Diva’s and Lita’s sewing projects as harbingers of failed marriages. It was because of this that Diva had never picked up needle-and-thread nor pot-and-pan for any man. But Lita had gone the opposite way and made it her mission for the rest of her life to prove Sr. Ingeberta wrong.

“Oh, I did all that sewing whenever I waited up for Rene to come home,” Lita said. And she painted a picture of a 28-year marriage spent cross-stitching and crocheting while sitting at her bay window. She had done most of the waiting the year just before he died, when he had spent more and more time at the spa. That had been a very trying time for him, marketing it to the locals, so he had to find a way to attract foreign tourists to Bacolod… Lita’s voice trailed off as she stared at her coffee—as black, Diva imagined, as the nights she had stared at from her window during her married life.

She couldn’t complain, Lita said. Rene had been such a good provider. He had made sure she was secure for life. The house was fully paid for and they had savings. And then, of course, there was his insurance. With these altogether, Lita could still travel at least once a year. He had sold the hacienda just in time too—just before the sugar crisis had hit the region. Now that the hacenderos were desperate to sell, it was too late. Who would want to buy an hacienda, with all its problems?

Problems. This was a new word in Lita’s vocabulary. Perhaps her widowhood had finally forced her to take on matters that used to be Rene’s sole burden to carry. “What problems were you having?” Diva asked.

Ay, ambot ah!” Lita said. “I don’t know anything about that. I just know that Rene worried about it for a while until he finally managed to sell it. I’m so stupid about such things. But when it comes to my family life I’m proud to say I made very few mistakes. Basta, at home I made him relax and absolutely forbade him to talk about his money problems. I really knew how to keep Rene very happy till the day he died.” And she let go with her trademark laugh.

Everybody just wanted the chance to take centerstage and sing their aria in the key of Me: me me me me me me me! Do re Me fa so la Me do! All Diva had to do was give them the cue to burst into it. But this was the first time she had ever listened to an aria that switched willy-nilly from Me major to minor and back again.

“That’s quite a feat, you know, considering the Ilonggo hacendero’s playboy reputation,” she said. “Some of them are found dead of a heart attack on top of some other woman not their wife.”

Lita shrugged. “Maybe he had his queridas too. But this I’m very sure of, Divina. He would never have left me.” She had been the perfect wife to him; her only regret was that she had been at her ugliest when he was alive but never looked better in her life now that he was dead. Pero te, she had lost all that weight because she had deeply, deeply mourned him gani.

“The funny thing is he was the one who kept himself fit. He played golf regularly. Hay, we never really know what is God’s plan for us.” And Lita led her out of the kitchen to point overhead at Rene’s trophies. They were lined on a shelf running the length of the living room walls beneath the ceiling. Tendrils of plastic vine curled themselves around some of them and hung from the shelf to soften their masculine effect. Manang Ine was as already standing on a chair and wiping the dust off their leaves.

“But he wasn’t eating right,” Diva said. “With his heart condition, there must have been a lot of things he wasn’t allowed to eat.”

What good was exercise if Lita clogged her husband’s arteries with fat and sodium? Diva knew this type of women. They cooked and baked and jumped at their husband’s call and made him a present of such devotion and self-sacrifice that they sucked all the power out of him. And the husband, if he was a decent man, was grateful for this servility but felt guilty for feeling trapped by it. Women like Lita made their home an impregnable fortress of expectations which their husband had the moral and emotional obligation to fulfill. Now could Rene resist Lita’s lechon kawali and mango cream pie? She had even eschewed the social life that a cooking class might have provided, taking a private tutor so she could concentrate solely on his favorite dishes. How could Rene not love her back?

Hay, Divina,” Lita sighed. “You know naman men.” It was a loud, theatrical sigh, meant to convey affectionate exasperation with the object of their conversation. But it was overlaid with her amused sense of superiority over Diva’s failure of understanding.

She had once tried to regulate his diet, but it had only annoyed him, she said. He had asked, What was life worth living for if he couldn’t enjoy it? She had no argument against that, because she agreed with him entirely. If she had tried to stop him having what he wanted, he would only have looked for it outside. Surely Divina knew where that would have led to. One day it’s mango cream pie they’re looking for in Manila hotels, the next thing you know they’ve got some fashion model or starlet that they’ve picked up there. It was a wife’s pious duty to keep her husband happy. Hay, these men! Lita sighed again. Besides, it was probably sunstroke that killed him. The night he died, it had been the hottest day of the year but he was playing for the championship in the golf tournament. There was a pause as Lita struggled with some decision she was trying to make.

Suddenly she gave a nervous giggle. She had a secret she was bursting with but couldn’t find anyone open-minded enough to listen without blaming her for Rene’s death, she said. But Divina had always been the one person in the world who was impossible to shock anyway. Lita paused—for dramatic effect or for the right words, Diva wasn’t sure. The confession finally came out in one staccato spurt.

“We’d made love that night.” But Lita’s voice went one decibel higher instead of lower as confessional tones were supposed to go. What was this sudden unearned intimacy with Lita supposed to signify? Was Diva supposed to thrill to it, be touched by the tender emotions the imagined scene was meant to evoke? She felt the same kind of discomfort that she had once felt the first time, as a child, she had seen a pair of dogs attached to each other on.the street outside her bedroom window.

“When I woke up the next morning, he wasn’t breathing. And was that. Oh, I felt so guilty. But my only consolation was that he died in my arms.” Lita’s eyes were beginning to well with tears. One rolled down her left cheek and Diva reached out to wipe it off with a cross-stitched Little Miss Muffet and her spider. “A lot of other wives weren’t as blessed as I was with such a good husband. It was truly a marriage made in heaven. I miss him gid ya bala, Divina. I worshipped him so much.”

Despite herself, Diva was moved by the desolation in Lita’s voice. The only thing sadder than remembering a past full of a loved one’s presence is imagining a future full of their absence. But suddenly the sparkle in Lita’s eyes and her brilliant smile were back. “But you know, throughout it all, I never lost my faith in God. I really believe in the power of prayer. After all, pain is pain but you create your own suffering.”

She was doing it again; she was pole vaulting from somber to chirpy to platitudinous and back again. Listening to Lita was like sitting through all the messages in one’s answering machine.

When Diva asked to be dropped off at the real estate office on Lita’s way to the church, Lita did so without question, except for the raised eyebrow that questioned why anyone would be working on the Lord’s day. She had never been one to show interest in anything to do with anyone’s preoccupation except hers. Anyone who didn’t know her would praise her for minding her own business.

Mr. Santos, the branch manager, drove Diva to the property that she had been sent to Bacolod to sell. She was not very surprised when he turned off the main road into a gated driveway and stopped at the building called “Nirvana Spa.” Diva could not pin down exactly when she had begun to see that Lita never did anything that was coincidental or unplanned.

“Let me warn you it’s not as good as it looks,” Mr. Santos said as he unlocked the door. “The building is barely six years old but it’s falling apart already. I don’t know if we can sell this at the owner’s asking price.” They walked around the reception area and he pointed at the boarded windows and at the cracks running like lightning jags along the walls. Very few of the windowpanes were still intact. The whole place had the disgusting smell of public latrines.

“All the toilets are clogged,” Mr. Santos said, shaking his head. “The plumber who was called in said that the pipes for the toilet bowl were so small not even pigeon shit could squeeze through them.” The purchaser had scrimped millions of pesos on the construction budget by buying inferior materials and then pocketed the money, Mr. Santos went on to explain, with his vocabulary getting more and more colorful by the sentence. And of course, the contractor and purchaser always worked as a team. They were an incompetent pair of cheats, obviously. No finesse. Sus! Ka bahol gid ya. You could tell they weren’t used to doing it. They got away with it only because they and the owner, Mr. Tony Ramas, were in the same prayer cell in the charismatic group, so Tony trusted them completely. It was just as well the contractor had died three years ago, just when all the structural defects were beginning to surface, or he’d have been criminally liable.

Diva said, “Maybe it was the waiting to be discovered that killed him? He must’ve been out of his mind to think he could pull this off.”

Mr. Santos shrugged. “Or suicidal.”

He added, “It gets worse,” and led her to the wing of the building that contained the suites. He opened the door to the first room but didn’t look in. He was looking at her face instead as it registered shock at the paintings on the ceiling and the walls. They were the kind of paintings that Diva guessed one would see in brothels or theme motels in red-light districts. They were arranged in panels, like a giant cartoon strip without the speech balloons but with a storyline leading up to a graphically obscene punchline.

She could, not stop herself from uttering a sharp cry, which Mr. Santos could only assume had something to do with moral squeamishness. But it was Rene that Diva was seeing on the walls. Rene trying to keep his land by taking bank loans and paying them off with other bank loans until all the unpaid debts finally caught up with him. Rene paying the mortgage on his house with the sale of an hacienda that was itself in danger of foreclosure. Rene with arms raised and eyes tightly shut, hollering Lord save us! and To God be the glory! and silently praying that Tony Ramas his best friend and fellow charismatic would give him the construction job though he had never built anything in his life. Rene saving millions on Tony’s construction budget and siphoning them into his account because the hardware suppliers had convinced him everyone did it anyhow and he had three children still in college. And when the building was finished, Rene presenting Tony with business proposals for the spa so that Tony would hire him to manage it because where was Rene going to get the money for the children’s tuition and the upkeep of the house and the cars and his mother’s dialysis treatments? Rene promising Tony that the business would break even soon he had fresh new ideas for it no one had ever thought to combine the spa and the convention business just give him three months and they would tap Japanese and Australian businessmen as their main clientele. Rene explaining himself to the Catholic Women’s League and to his own charismatic group and finally to the Bishop who was glad to distract the people’s attention from the rumors that he himself was being sued by a basketball player for molestation. Rene striding from one green to another whacking at golf balls because he was going crazy from not being allowed to pace up and down his bedroom that was also Lita’s.

“What happened to the purchaser?” Diva at last asked Mr. Santos.

“She was the manager’s wife. The owner feels it’s awkward to be going after the grieving widow now. She’s in his prayer group as well. It was probably the husband who plotted it all anyway, and she just went along with it. You know how Bacolod wives are—they try to be the supportive partner but they never interfere.”

Mr. Santos drove her back to Lita’s empty house, where she intended to stay just long enough to take her bag and simply vanish from Lita’s life again. But as she rolled her bag out of the room, she knew she first had to ask the questions teeming in her head. Lita had come upon her sitting in the living room, staring out the bay window. “You knew I was coming into town even before I did, didn’t you?” Diva asked.

“You know there are no secrets in Bacolod,” Lita said.

“How did you think having me as your houseguest would help?”

“I wanted you to see what we were really like, Rene and I—what it was like for us those last few years. If it hadn’t been for me, we would have lost everything. The hacienda would have been foreclosed if I hadn’t nagged him to sell. He was so sentimental. He wanted to keep it because it has been in their family since encomienda times.”

“You could have lived on the hacienda sale. But you were living above your means. He had to scrounge around for money because you were clinging to your affluent lifestyle.”

“Don’t make him out to be more than he really was, Divina. He liked the lifestyle. He—and all his other women. I would have lived a thrifty life if the two of us were doing it. But why should I have to scrimp while he was throwing whatever we had left on that model he was keeping in Manila? And before that there was the starlet, to whom he was sending child support. And there was the farm girl—the one I know about. I don’t know how many other farm girls there were. Believe me, I know what pole vaulting means.”

Lita’s laugh this time was bitter. “What do you think was playing on my imagination during all those nights he spent at the spa?”

“Well, you weren’t much competition.” Diva was horrified to hear herself sounding like the gossips in an aerobics class.

“You don’t know how many diets I tried all our married life. Cabbage soup, Herbalife, Slimfast, Scarsdale—I tried everything. All he had to do was take me to a restaurant and my willpower would vanish.”

“You weren’t much help to his heart, either, with your cheap little tenderloin trick…”

“That was long before he had a heart condition.”

“… and your what-me-worry-philosophy …”

“And how does not worrying aggravate a heart condition? … Wait a minute.” Lita’s brows furrowed as she struggled to catch a thought and hold it. “Didn’t you have a crush on Rene?”

Diva didn’t answer. A lightning flash had ripped open the past and Lita had had a sudden glimpse of a ghost in it. Lita went on, “Why, yes of course. Our yearbook labeled you the class’s hormonal retard. But you were just hiding behind that mountain of books because you had a crush on Rene.”

“Rene was a good man, Lita. When I knew him, he was a good person.”

“He was, Divina. So was I. We were both good persons.”

At the airport the next morning, they managed to hug each other, and Lita made her promise to stay with her whenever she came to Bacolod. Diva said yes of course. Both of them knew they would never hear from each other again.

As the plane slowly taxied forward, Diva watched the ground and felt that she was moving backward—like she was moving away foul something—while the plane stood still. She had almost completely forgotten, until yesterday, Rene’s big-brother kindness 35 years ago and the diffident way he’d offered to be her prom date, as if she had the option to refuse him. At the prom, he’d sat out all the dances with her after he’d felt her agony during the first dance, and he was careful not to let his gaze linger on her classmates. They were all Twiggy-thin in their ball gowns after putting themselves through weeks of excruciating hunger spasms. And they were dancing with an ease that belied all the grim determination they’d put into practicing the boogie and the slow drag.

He’d brought her physical stupidity out in the open so she could laugh at it. “Okay, Divina you’re not. How about if I call you Diva? One day you’re going to be so rich and famous you’ll be too big for this little town. And you’ll forget all about us.”

Then he drew out of her what she could do best—conversation. It was when they were talking about ghosts and kapres that they’d almost simultaneously thought of sneaking out of the prom and looking for the ruins in the canefield. Lita was several tables away with Tony, but she must have noticed Rene helping Diva into her coat. She and Tony had joined them to make it a foursome, wherever it was Rene and Diva were going.

Rene had been the persistent one even when Diva herself was ready to give up the search for that elusive mansion. Lita and Tony, after seeing the shadows of the ruins in the moonlight, were content to sit on a rock at the edge of the canefield and wait for them there. As soon as Rene found the pathway, he raced along it, the sugarcane plants level with his head. Then he turned and waved impatiently at Diva as he waited for her at the top of the mansion’s stairway. But she had to pick her way though the field, because she was wearing high-heeled shoes; and the serrated leaves of the sugarcane plants occasionally caught at her skirt. Besides, there were things half-buried in the ground that were gleaming in the moonlight, and she wasn’t sure if they were pieces of discarded sugarcane or the bones of the dead.

Diva was jolted back to the present when the plane finally took off. Ed would be at the airport at the other end, munching a hotdog sandwich while waiting for her. He would ask as he took her overnight bag from her, “How was the trip?”

And because they were husband and wife, because she had no one else to tell her story to, she would tell him about the many ways she’d learned a man could die of a heart attack. She could almost hear him say as he concentrated on his driving, “Ah well, dead men tell no tales.”

But then again, sometimes he could also surprise her with something specific to her story, like “Some things about a person you’re better off not knowing.”

Rosario Cruz Lucero was born in Manila but grew up in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. She earned her AB, MA, and Ph.D. degrees from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Besides the Palanca and Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, she has also won the Manila Critics Circle's National Book Award and the CCP Gantimpalang Ani for the short story in Filipino. Her books include the short story collections Herstory [1990], Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros [2003], and La India, or Island of the Disappeared [2012], and the historical romance Dungawin Natin ang Kahapon (Look Back to the Past) [1992]. Her literary criticism is collected in Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila/The Nation Beyond Manila [2007]. She teaches Philippine literature and creative writing in Filipino and English at the UP Diliman.