by Scott P. Salcedo
The last dance Jennalyn had attended and often revisited in her mind was the baile held during the fiesta in her barrio, at a time when dry season dragged on towards June. It was a long stretch of summer, a rainless month of May. The heat of the sun had hardened the soil in farms and valleys where tufts of brittle weed spiraled on the surface of the fields. That season, drought eventually robbed almost every plant life of its pallor. It had been more than thirty years since then and now that quail season would begin again in a few days after which her village would celebrate fiesta and hold the dance, Jennalyn looked forward to once more building and setting up traps for the wild birds on the dry thicket of grass and shrubs and to reunite with Samuel. She frequently wondered if the boy who by now turned into a man, would still look at her the same way he did in the ballroom that June. She was sixteen when he took her by the hand, pulled her close to him and placed his arms around her waist, both of them drenched in sweat as they gyrated about a makeshift dance floor hemmed in by panels of woven bamboo, the disco ball hovering above them, throwing colors at their young faces.
They danced to slow and fast songs and remained oblivious to the farmers and their wives undulating and pirouetting around them. A redolence of dirt, sun-baked mud and the earthy stench of summer wafted from their skin and shirts and from the bare ground that was their dance floor, oversized speakers blasting Modern Talking. It was a night when with wild and youthful recklessness, they shook their limbs to ‘Brother Louie’ and other songs that until today she’d remember the lyrics of, would sometimes play on her CD player and would hum when she found time alone. Samuel’s round eyes, circled by thick brows and lashes, latched on her face the whole evening. It was the gaze and the toothy smile – a surfeit of teeth showing at one corner of his mouth – filled with awe and wonder and happiness breaking out from his plump lips that she would often recollect. There was no doubt in her mind that the boy loved her then. No one else had ever shown the same tenderness he showed her when one afternoon they sat on the grassy hill under the shadow of the santol trees waiting for the sunset. Before the sun dissolved like orange liquid beneath the horizon, she found her hand entwined in his and for the first time, he held her head close to his chest.
A few men came and went into her life and it was only now that Jennalyn came to realise that nothing could surpass the happiness she felt during the time she had with Samuel, however short-lived that bone-dry season had been. She wondered sometimes if her decision to remain unmarried and childless was because her idea of affection had been set and laid out clearly to her during that summer. She strove to seek the same gentle attentiveness from others who sought her but never really found it in them. As with her childlessness, it was a slightly different story. Maybe she’d count Samuel as part of the reason but it was, for the most part, her decision to spend her life caring for someone else’s children whom she treated as her own and nurtured until they grew up, she growing older with them, she loving them more as the years went by. She didn’t know how it felt to let go of a child of your own blood but when the children she cared for became adults, started their own families and moved away, she feared going through the worse pains if she had her own children.
But now, the early afternoon sun, seeping in through the wide glass windows had filled the living room where Yvette slumped on the carpet, reduced to tears, holding a phone close to her ears and lips. Yvette had just learned that her father went missing. Outside, on this humid Manila afternoon, the city glimmered blindingly with its glass panelled high-rises and steel bars and car-brimmed streets. Sunlight found its way into the opening of structures and rooms and there was no way to escape the heat as its rays made gleaming pools of the roads, flooding them with their glow.
In her room where she heard Yvette weeping, Jennalyn knew for sure that she wouldn’t be allowed to go home to the province even though she already got Yvette’s permission months ago. And so once again this year, she wouldn’t be able to come to the baile or see Samuel who had just become single again after his wife left and found another man. Although disappointed, she felt she must console her employer but her mind slanted far away – as distant as her memory of a long gone season, that she, for a long time, tried to piece together in her mind like a landscape puzzle. She tried to recall that one particular afternoon when she stood across threshers and tractors, silvery tools and farming machines that released from their surface the spectre and the glassy blur of summer heat. She was surrounded by dead crops that she couldn’t recall the names of. All she remembered was that they swirled like dried wreaths or at times, a hairball of rusted wires. That afternoon, a flock of mayang-pula and the layang-layang rose to the sky, and fell, some landing dazed on the clothesline and on the roof of the tool shed. The machines stayed still, unused for months. Weed had sprouted around their tires. She’d often ask herself what she was doing there but it took her time to complete this image struggling to give it some context. She tried and failed many times in the past. But for now, she needed to attend to Yvette.
“Ahay-a, it is okay. It will be fine.” Jennalyn said as she stepped behind Yvette and sat in the couch. The telephone had been anchored in its cradle. “You should stop worrying. I am sure he is somewhere safe.”
“My sister said the police barged in my father’s house and took him but when she came to see him at the station, he wasn’t there and the police told her to look for him in other jail cells. They kept on pointing us from one station to another.”
“Maybe, they have made a mistake on which station they took your father. The police, you know, they have their hands full. Too many addicts these days to catch or kill.”
Yvette turned her head towards the couch. There was fear on her pale face, and in the agitation of her hands which she kept on wringing. “I’m afraid he’d turn out dead just like the thousand others. Have you watched the news lately? They’re even killing women and children and worse they’re just suspects.” A smudge of eyeliner bled across her cheeks.
“Let me get you some water, Yvette. And you are right, this is not a good time for someone to just disappear.” She stood and walked towards the kitchen, still hearing a sniffle. In her mind, a disappearance didn’t always mean the police did it. But what she was more surprised about was the fragility of younger women these days who were quick to shed tears, too vulnerable and too transparent with their emotions.
She remembered one time when her father fell off the water buffalo who’d had run amuck and the beast, flailing, almost ran him over, almost struck him with its horn. Jennalyn was the only one home then. Her mother had business in town, and when she heard her father scream for her name out in the fields, she ran towards him and carried him on her back, placed him on a karosa and pulled it until they reached the road where a truck full of sugarcane stopped for them.
At the hospital, her father praised her toughness and composure and said she had the strength of a carabao. He was exaggerating of course but she wondered whether she still harboured the same vigour as of late, she had gotten more plump, her waist heavier and fuller. Her cheeks widened and the skin on her face had wizened. She tried to remedy this before by applying astringent but her face got sunburned which left some dark blemishes. Yvette took her to a dermatologist though she adamantly refused the offer at first. It had gotten better now, and lately, she had gathered more resolve to take care of how she looked, growing her hair longer, having her wavy hair straightened. And although her body had lost its leanness and firmness, there weren’t many things that could rattle her, not even the news of someone whose father had gone missing at a time when killings happened everywhere and many more had disappeared, found in some morgues later. When she got back to the living room carrying a glass of water, Yvette was gone but Jennalyn heard the click of her bedroom door closing.
Yvette came out of her door again with her bag and car keys, wearing a blue dress which made her skin much paler. She looked beautiful though. Jennalyn had always admired her beauty. Seconds later, the front door swung ajar and Hannah came in dragging her backpack across the floor.
“How’s school today, Hannah?” Yvette forced a smile at the child and looked down to rummage for something in her bag while Jennalyn took the backpack to the child’s room.
“It was fun, Mommy.” We made some slime.”
“That’s good to know Just stay with your Yaya today, Hannah. Take care of everything here, Manang. I’m going out to search for him.”
“Search for who?” Hannah asked
“Ay this is adult conversation only and don’t be a chismosa. That is a bad.” Jennalyn called out from the bedroom.
“Sorry Mommy. Sorry Yaya.”
When Yvette slid out of the door, Jennalyn called out, “I’m hoping for good news Yvette.”
She felt surprised with herself and wondered whether she meant what she said. She might not know Yvette’s father well, except that he used to be a small-time drug runner. Of late, she tried to understand why some people could peddle drugs to survive and wreck other people’s lives. Her parents raised her to be god-fearing and hardworking and even if she earned little, she knew it came from honest work. They had not stolen or robbed anyone just to put food on the table. That would be too embarrassing. They’d lose face if someone in her family resort to that. And thus, the lawless lot could blame no one if the police started butchering them as she thought they brought it upon themselves. She would be lying if she did not admit that the killings made her feel safer. But the disappearance of Yvette’s father felt slightly different since she worried more about her employer and the child she was taking care of, worried about their vulnerability. In her mind, she knew the chances of anyone disappearing and being found alive was slim. She didn’t want to tell Yvette what she thought. She didn’t want to tell her to give up looking or that there was no use searching. She knew a lot of people who did and failed. On the news a few days ago, a young daughter was looking for her father who, riding a motorbike was last seen being stopped at a police checkpoint. An update on the news yesterday ended the long search and weeks of waiting, the daughter was told that her father was found at a morgue. It would be a long day for Jennalyn as well, a long day of waiting for Yvette and for the phone to ring. She might feel ambivalent about all this, but she reminded herself that there seemed to be something sinister about being ambivalent and it shouldn’t be an option.
Now that the child was seated at the table, Jennalyn served a bento box with soup, rice, togi and fried fish but the child, newly washed, started spreading peanut butter on whole wheat bread.
“Ay naku, Hannah. I should tell your mother that is not a proper lunch ha. This one,” she said pointing to the fish, “will make you strong.”
“I like this one. Yaya. This is healthy too. Did you tell Mommy I’m coming with you to Iloilo and then we will catch some birds?” A dot of peanut butter blotted the corners of the child’s lips.
“Ay, this child. Let me wipe that off.” She took a wad of tissue from a rack in the centre of the table and wiped the girl’s mouth.
Hannah’s face had gradually resembled her mother’s, small pointed nose, straight dark hair and bony cheeks, a good set of teeth. She watched over her ever since she was born and before the girl was even conceived in her mother’s womb, Jennalyn had been there, from the time Yvette and Chino were newly wed. It felt hard to believe that it had been more than eight years. She had come from another family before this one and Louella, a distant relative, one she cared for until she turned seventeen, had gone abroad to study and Jennalyn found herself nothing to do. She was too old then to find a career or go back to school or find a man to marry. When she found Yvette and Chino, the couple treated her like a family.
“Well, your Yaya is not anymore sure because something important again is happening and your mother, she would be busy. No one will take care of you when I go. But again I will ask her if we could when she comes home. If not, maybe some-a-day.” She turned to the telephone, visible from where she sat, still hooked on its body. Yvette could have been anywhere by now. Cavite was such a big place one would not know where to start looking. The woman wasn’t even a very good driver and could get easily lost in back alleys.
“Okay then, how do you catch those birds again.”
“They’re called quails Hannah and we catch them by trapping them.”
“Okay, how do you trap quails.”
“Well, it isn’t that hard. You need slender but strong branches of trees and some strings. And if you can’t find strings, we skin the outer layer of the branch and pare it off into thin threads.”
Samuel had shown her how to do it. One afternoon when they were tasked to fetch water from the waterfalls on the hilltop, they found themselves on the other side of the incline where there were a few plants and trees left standing. The reed that sprouted around the other plants looked gritty and could turn to powder with just one touch. Above them, the sky remained free of clouds but the sun had strangely washed the hills in light yellow hue. They came upon a thicket of short trees on the slope, the madre de cacao, if she wasn’t mistaken, trees whose saplings were elastic and couldn’t break easily.
“It’s easy,” Samuel said. “Just watch.”
That summer Samuel had grown longer hair, streaks of hair dipping above his eyelids. He wore denim shorts and a flannel shirt whose blue squares had faded out. He had the legs of a runner that turned darker over the summer and Jennalyn thought one could measure a boy’s strength through the color of his skin – the darker, the stronger. She thought about the boy sometimes and wondered how it felt to be touched by him, his strong hands tracing the curves of her body.
Samuel started cutting a few branches that were long and slender and started skinning the twigs. He looped the outer skin of the branch into a noose and soon, he said, he’d lay the snare on the ground. Ground snares could lift their prey into the air for a sure and violent death.
“Is there any other way to do it?” she asked.
“We instead can set up upright snares and when birds walk into them, their necks would get entangled in the noose. Sure catch but not as violent.”
“That is still violent.”
“Sometimes the birds just get tangled and not die. But then what’s the difference? We’ll kill them anyway.”
“What if I keep some and raise them?”
“Why not. That’s also possible unless they’re maimed.”
Samuel skinned some more sticks, bent them into arches and drove both ends of the sharpened sticks into the ground. He made sure they were all of the same height which Jennalyn measured as approximately half a foot. He twined noose snares in each of the arches which eventually looked like fishnets with bigger holes. The snares rippled like green and brown waves on the ground.
That afternoon, Samuel didn’t even have a sandal on and one would think that his skin was impervious to heat. But he didn’t mind it and thus, kept himself busy by laying a fence of sticks and twigs around the snares and clearing a path that led to the traps. They left some seeds and corn kernels by the snares. It was a time when there wasn’t much food on their tables and Samuel thought a nice quail adobo could invigorate them.
“How long does it take to catch a few birds?”
“This season, the birds are hungry as well. It won’t take long.”
“We might end up with bony ones.”
“We can cook bird bone soup.”
“Slowly, you are turning into a real joker.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “In our house we make soup out of bones.”
They moved to the bamboo grove and did the same. She watched the boy crouch with ease towards the ground. Behind him, the breeze softly whirled among the lifeless feather-grass reed whose blooms turned cottony white. The valleys, the plains and distant hills swelled around them and for a moment, they felt that their lives could just revolve around these things and it wouldn’t be that bad. They walked up the path to the hill’s peak and under the shade of the trees, they listened to the snap of twigs. Sometimes when the winds changed directions, they’d listen to the susurration of the blades of grass when the air blew amid them. They’d sit there so quietly and when the sun sank below the horizon, they’d run downhill to collect the trapped quails. Jennalyn would try to save the wounded ones and cage them but most of the time they’d cradle in their palms some dying birds intermittently throbbing like a weakening pulse.
On some days that they could catch some game early in the afternoon and the smell of shrubs and wild vines on their sweaty skin, they’d walk home along their secret paths in the woods until they reached a coconut plantation. These trees were sturdy and no drought could topple or dry them. They’d stop by to climb the trees and take some fruits, drank the fresh juice off of them to quench their thirst.
But there was some kind of relentlessness she observed and learned from everyone during that summer not just from Samuel. Her grandmother couldn’t just give up her plots of vegetables, ginger and a garden of comfrey plants she kept green all throughout the dry season. The old woman would patiently take water out from the well downhill and carry it in a bucket to her garden uphill. And if she wasn’t doing that, she’d start clearing the fields of weed. Her only rest was at night when she listened to some radio drama before she dozed off to sleep.
There was always a dearth of cash but they didn’t run out of rice or corn which they stocked in their silos. Her mother would make oil out of the comfrey plants which she said naturally healed every affliction and was an effective antiseptic. She’d bottle them so she could earn some cash by selling them in neighbouring barrios. Her mother would wake up before sunrise, stuff the bottles in a huge bag and walk towards the nearby villages, come home after sundown. Still, her mother cooked before she’d leave home, kept the house tidy. She cooked up some food even if there was almost nothing to cook; she’d always find ways. A sprinkle of anchovies in her soup filled with greens constituted a meal in itself.
And there was her father. It was always a surprise since he could often switch from one job to another. The crops that required extensive work had failed and dried and so he’d go with other men to do carpentry work in town and if he couldn’t find any, he knew how to paint fences and walls or do construction work. It occurred to her that there existed choices and innocuous alternatives in life and it was often possible to live quite honourably.
The telephone rang and Jennalyn was roused by a bolt of anticipation. She was in Hannah’s bedroom as the child was about to take a nap and couldn’t do so without her. When she picked up the phone, it was Chino.
“Any news? Was he found?” She asked.
“No news yet, but I’m joining Yvette with the search,” he said.
“Should I prepare dinner?”
“We might get home really late.”
He checked on Hannah and she told him the girl was trying to get a nap.
The child lay in bed, eyes wide open. Oftentimes, she would tap the child’s arms or legs so she could go to sleep. This afternoon, she did that to no avail. The child stayed awake. Outside, the sun foamed along the furrows of the blinds. Jennalyn stood up to draw them close. The sun was still high but the electronic billboards were already lit, shimmering. The city breathed and howled without pause: firetrucks blaring somewhere, cars honking and the ambulance’s siren tintinnabulation as if it couldn’t stop unravelling new secrets.
She sat on the side of the bed and asked the child. “Do you want me to tell a story about your Lolo, Hannah?”
“What’s a Lolo?”
“Your grandfather. Your mother’s father?”
“I haven’t met my mother’s father.”
“He came to visit you when you were very young.”
“I don’t remember. But what is the story about him? Can he do magic?”
“Never mind Hannah.” She wanted to tell her that her grandfather earned a living doing something illegal but was afraid the girl would get more curious and she’d get in trouble if the child told her mother.
Yvette explained to her once that her father was pushed into a corner. He had not acquired good education and barely finished elementary school. But Jennalyn also knew some farmers who refused to do anything outside the bounds of law even if they wallowed in abject poverty. She found people in the city lacking this kind of moral certainty as well as patience. They didn’t know how to learn from suffering and would just want a shortcut to everything. Yvette’s father had abandoned his family when his children were very young and Yvette found a way to remain in school despite poverty, got scholarships in high school, found a job to finance her college education. She’d often say, she worked her way up and now that she owned an advertising agency, she wanted to help her siblings and her parents. Her father was always nice to her. He was never violent to anyone. He still tried to provide for them, sending them a little of what he earned driving a tricycle. But then his new partner gave birth to more children and to supplement his income, he peddled drugs. Yvette explained that her father didn’t earn much from it because if he did, he would have built a new house. But her father and his other woman lived in a shanty by the Pasig River, in a house with iron sheet roofs pinned together by rubber tires, the stench of clogged sewers and rotting garbage frothed around them.
“He is helping destroy people’s lives.” Jennalyn told Yvette once. They were in the kitchen preparing breakfast and the news on TV were about the killings of drug users and small time drug couriers. Yvette harbored mounting fear that her father might end up sprawling lifeless in the streets but got shocked when Jennalyn told her that the murders proved good for them and the country as a whole.
“We can’t be little gods and judge those who made mistakes by killing them. My father was a small time drug pusher, yes but that was before. He has changed and he stopped peddling. People make mistakes. People can be left devoid of choice.”
“That’s not always true,” she replied. Yvette turned quiet. Jennalyn thought that Yvette always respected opinions especially those of an older person.
Yet, Jennalyn told herself that there always remained a choice, maybe a more difficult one but it existed. She remembered one afternoon when she and and Samuel were on the hill watching the sunset that flared like the flame of a torch on the surface of the sky. They were talking about their future plans and she asked Samuel about his. He told her that he wanted to finish high school at least but it was impossible for his family to afford it. He had five siblings and his parents needed help with expenses in the house. He said he was going with his uncle to work in a sugar mill in Bacolod after that summer, try to save money and go back to school. She found this tenacity missing in most people these days.
It was already past eight and the phone hadn’t made a sound. She checked her mobile phone for some messages but there were none. She had already made dinner of fried chicken and coleslaw and the child ate her meal quite excitedly. As soon as the girl fell asleep, Jennalyn retreated to her bedroom and began to wonder what she would do if she were in Yvette’s shoes. She’d most probably scour every cranny of the city to search. She wouldn’t go to sleep until she found what she was she searching for. She wondered how long Yvette could last and a part of her questioned her resilience. The woman showed too much kindness and was too quick to forgive – the kind of person who’d easily get taken advantage of.
When the phone rang again, it was almost midnight.
“Have you found his body?”
“No, we haven’t. It doesn’t feel right to assume that he’s dead, Manang. We’re actually hoping we find him alive. I am on my way home though. Is Hannah asleep?” she asked. “She’s been on her iPad a lot lately.”
“Yes, she is asleep.”
“You should rest now as well.”
“Are you coming home with Chino?”
“No, someone tipped us off about a body found in a morgue in Bulacan.” Yvette’s voice began to shake and crack. It had gotten hoarse from crying. “It matched the description of my father. Chino is on his way there to check.”
“Let’s pray it isn’t him,” she said. In her mind though, she wanted to wish it were him. She didn’t think that Yvette could take it any longer. The woman was on the verge of breaking down.
“Just go to bed, Manang and I’ll be the one to open the door for Chino when I get home. I brought my keys.”
She was half asleep when the door clicked open. And later when the phone rang again, she woke, dazed, her mind treading between consciousness and dream. She heard the phone being picked up, then Yvette’s voice. She was inconsolable, her words quivered and were drowned out in a string of spasmodic sobs. Jennalyn thought that it could be over but whatever happened, whatever the outcome, she always knew what to do. She would help bury whoever it was that needed to be buried. She wanted to offer, if they had not found the body, and she considered this for some time, to be the one to look for Yvette’s father but it might prove harder to build sympathy for those who abandoned their family and sell drugs to earn money. She thought of her parents who stuck with each other and took care of their children, tended to the farm until their bodies turned as dry as rolls of tabako. She told herself, “come what may, bahala na”. In the morning, she’d make up her mind.
Before she drifted off back to sleep she heard another click – like the bolt of the knob snapping, a mobile phone unlocked, locking, the telephone placed back in its hook – a sound so familiar that it fished something out of her memory.
A few forgotten images of that summer with Samuel came back to her, some missing pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture. It was mid-afternoon, the sun scorching hot and the humidity high, when she and Samuel climbed the hill, set up traps by the clearing and hid behind the bushes, under the shade of the trees. Samuel would leave with his uncle in a few days. They sat too close to each other, they could smell the sun in each other’s skin. She could hear Samuel’s punctuated breathing. Wedges of sunlight arced on his skin. Not saying a word, they lay down and gazed at the sky, a streak of cirrus clouds drifted by and the sky turned clear blue. Twigs and dried leaves crackled under their weight. Samuel took her hands, wet and clammy and pressed her fingers and clutched them tightly. He pulled her palm towards his face and kissed it.
She didn’t notice him rolling on top of her. Breathing heavily, his hands busied at first with the buttons of her blouse. It was her favorite – checkered pink and white with huge metallic buttons. She could feel his fingers shaking, impatiently fumbling with the buttons. He pulled it with some force that her blouse got slightly ripped where the buttons were, the buttons snapping off her clothes and came rolling to the ground. Jennalyn thought the sound came from the snares they placed nearby.
“I think we caught some quails, Samuel.” She imagined the birds flapping trying to free themselves from the lopped threads.
“Let’s listen first. I don’t think it came from the clearing.” He said this while his palms cupped the mounds of her breast, fingers tracing their heaps and shape. She felt his rough fingers on the skin of her neck, his weight pinning her, bringing comfort, reassuring. She was so overcome by the tide of emotions and the calming pleasure of his touch that she didn’t notice the boy had removed the last piece of her clothing.
“I’m pretty sure I heard the twigs snap.” She told him but the boy took no heed, placed one finger on her lip and motioned to her to be quiet. She closed her eyes and felt the boy’s mouth on hers, his tongue traveling from her lips to her earlobes towards her neck. Samuel’s heart fluttered. She could feel its rhythm alongside the beating of her own. The boy removed his shirt and pulled his shorts down to his ankles. He reached down to find her. His hands were of the farmer’s, strong and calloused.
“It’s just the wind. Let’s forget about the quails.” The boy was now inside her. She could feel his hips heaving like mad and whatever she was thinking, she forgot all of them. She felt some pain tear through her but she didn’t want the feeling of bliss to wane. And when the pleasure simmered down, both of them were drenched as if they had accidentally fallen into a pool of water.
She walked home clutching together the ripped blouse that lost a few buttons. When she reached the backyard of her house she wondered how she could come in without anyone noticing her torn clothing and unkempt hair and the blots of blood on her shorts. Beside the tool shed, the tractor and other farming machines smoldered like the surface of a stove. She thought about the trapped birds on the hill, bloodied, wings broken, necks and limbs tangled in the nooses, already cold and dead by now. It was too late to free them and she felt, no shame, no remorse.
About the Author | Scott P. Salcedo has been awarded three prominent writing fellowships in his country, the Philippines. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Bull and Cross, GNU Journal and SAND Journal. He is currently working on his first novel and a collection of short stories.