S H O R T S T O R Y
b y l i a s c o t t p r i c e ~ los a n g e l e s , c a l i f o r n i a
SHE BURIED the stillborn child wrapped in her shawl underneath the gnarled roots of the mango tree, in the far corner of the forest where the servants claimed to have seen the apparition of a lady in white with no facial features and no feet gliding towards them in the dark.
The servants might have believed such stories, but not Asuncion, and certainly not on that night. The two superstitious men who had accompanied her on her silent journey across that path, cutting through long stems of sharp-bladed grass and sugar cane stalks, trembled with fear, glancing anxiously around them. They were especially alert for the lady in white, who was said to announce her appearance with a heart-wrenching, wailing cry that announced death or disaster to anyone unlucky enough to hear her.
But to Asuncion, none of that mattered, for her heart had already been emitting its own silent cries.
The great house seemed miles away to her; the glow of its many flickering candles had grown faint. Asuncion stood quietly before the finished grave praying the rosary so fervently that the servants thought that in her grief she might drop dead. But she finished and wiped the earth from her hands, then turned to face them, her pale face in agony.
"My son, had he lived, would have been master of the house. Now he will be master of the forest," she said in Spanish.
The Filipino servants, although they did not understand her words, felt her pain and nodded respectfully. They proceeded to fix a crudely built crucifix upon the mound of earth. They murmured among themselves to the spirits of the forest to not mind so much this violation of their domain. Perhaps at that very moment the spirits had been watching as the tall mestiza made the sign of the cross and the sorrowful group returned to the hacienda.
This was how my grandmother's first and only son died, or so I heard from the many stories surrounding our Laguna plantation. The wooden crucifix has since rotted away; or perhaps it was carried off by playful spirits. The mound of earth has also long been covered by thick roots and leaves.
Asuncion's sorrow never left her, could never be covered up as easily. Though she gave birth to my mother two years after that night, she died of grief long before I was even born.
Why Asuncion chose to bury her child in the forest instead of the ancestral cemetery just outside of town with its marble mausoleums, fat cherubs and poetic statuary is unknown. Perhaps it was all just a legend, a family folk tale that my elders were so fond of telling on rainy nights or sleepy afternoons.
Asuncion never spoke of her first-born. It was said that the superstitious old women of the town had accused her of making an offering to the forest malignos, or evil spirits of the underworld. But the reasons were known only to Marietta, the old midwife, and to the two servants, Genaro and Miguel. She would take the secret to her grave, for the truth was too ugly to be known.
Asuncion's first child had been an unwanted child, one her husband, a Spanish haciendero, had made clear he was not ready to have. Don Francisco cursed his wife loudly in Spanish but she pleaded with him to keep the baby. A few months later, however, Don Francisco secretly ordered Marietta to place abortive herbs in Asuncion's drink. As a result Asuncion lost the child, and her blood flowed heavily that night. By midnight she was wrapping its outcome in her shawl, and facing the cold words of its father. The child, her husband had said, did not deserve a mourning. It was not a child in his eyes, not a lost member of the family. It did not deserve a place in the family grave or in his memory.
Even though in great pain, Asuncion was determined to honor her lost child. Marietta, out of guilt, convinced the servants to take Asuncion to the forest to give the child at least a pagan burial, in place of a proper Catholic one. Marietta herself believed that this particular forest was sacred, and perhaps its resident spirits would welcome the child's soul.
The old servant Miguel told me a strange story one summer night after I had played beneath a large mango tree. It was said to have been a tree grown from cuttings of the original burial tree in the forest, nourished to new life and planted on the hacienda grounds to provide shade and sweet fruit. During the day it was my imaginary playground, full of large branches to swing from and to cradle me as I sat deep within. At night, however, Miguel claimed that the branches took on the shape of human arms and legs, and a mournful cry was heard when its leaves rustled in the wind. Late one night I got up just to listen, but I heard no such sound.
As time went on I began to believe that the mango tree did have a soul of its own. I felt as if eyes were watching me as I walked past it in the late afternoons, when the branches cast twisted shadows on the ground and the fruit dropped on the grass below with a dull thud, attracting red ants that bit hard on my legs and left itchy patches of skin. Children would run by it, yelling out "May multo diyan!" ("There are spirits there!").
The older folk would claim that this particular tree was home to a mythical creature called the Tikbalang. Its torso and head are that of a horse and the rest below is human. The Tikbalang came out only at night, at the stroke of midnight, and smoked a big cigar, the embers glowing red-hot like its eyes. It begged food from passers-by, startling them but never seeming to harm them. Miguel claimed that Tikbalangs made great workers, clearing whole rice fields of their harvests in less than a day, providing that one caught and tamed them.
We named this mango tree's Tikbalang Diego, the name Asuncion had supposedly given her dead child.
"To catch him you must first take him by surprise and hop on his back. Grab him around the neck, grip his mane and hang on for dear life, for he will do his best to throw you off. Then he will fly through the night sky, over the tops of the coconut trees, the church steeple, over the mountains, and high enough to brush the stars. But you must not let go. Then he will finally settle down on the ground and kneel before you. He will pledge to be your loyal servant for life."
Vicente, my father, had once pledged to be my mother's loyal servant for life, in hopes of inheriting the great hacienda and its vast coconut plantations, rice and pineapple fields. What he did not expect was his own family's opposition to his ever marrying a non-Chinese woman, a scandal to a clan that held stubbornly to its traditions and beliefs despite the fact that they chosen to settle in Manila, taken Christian names and even learned the native language. But father declared his love for Milagro, my mother, despite threats of being disowned from the clan. It did not matter. Asuncion was long dead and grandfather, lonely and wishing for company, took the couple in.
For a while they lived in Don Francisco's hacienda, having secretly married in the twilight hours in the great church under the watchful gaze of the Franciscan priests. My father began to take on the family business and my mother settled down to a domestic life and her pregnancy.
Their conjugal harmony did not last long. Although he loved my mother, my father still carried the guilt of disloyalty to his clan. His businesses at the same time began to fail, for Vicente had never been out on his own, having relied solely on his family's advice. Grandfather, unsympathetic, pushed him to work harder and make the hacienda prosperous but his attempts often ended in frustration.
Eventually even my birth was not enough to hold them together. My father took on a drastic change. His mood, once loving, became a torrent of anger, criticism, and accusations, that she had tricked him into marrying her because of her pregnancy, and that she had ruined his life. My mother, not understanding this sudden change, would protest, only to be thrown to the floor, my father kicking her stomach in a rage. Then he would leave her there, her face wrapped in a black flood of hair and tears, her lips trembling and murmuring novenas to the Blessed Mother.
I watched my mother slowly become a mental, physical and psychological slave to my father, enduring his gambling, his drinking, and his cavorting with Asian prostitutes. He blamed my mother. He blamed me. It was only a matter of time before I too fell victim to his rage. Mother's usually pretty face had grown pinched. She was left clinging desperately to whatever sanity she had left, but slipped fast.
Father's rantings had taken on an increasingly feverish character, and often he cast dark, brooding looks at us. Nothing we did appeased him. My mother was punished physically for failing to complete the smallest chore and punished more severely and emotionally if, in his eyes, she displeased or disobeyed him. We sat up nights with father during social visits where his business partners and friends flattered and cajoled him, feeding his narcissistic tendencies and his ego. But he was quick to criticize and his judgment was merciless. One could hear his angry decrees from every corner of the hacienda. His presence even infiltrated my dreams. His eyes would be red with madness, laughing an insane laugh. Every night I prayed for my mother and I to live to see another day.
With the hacienda falling into disrepair, grandfather dying, and my father squandering the family fortune, my refuge became the mango tree. Many days I spent pretending that Diego was a savior instead of a monster, a hideous guardian angel who one night would break down the great wooden doors of the hacienda or fly through his bedroom window and take my father to somewhere far away where he would never return. I would picture the look of terror on his face and the sweat on his brow as Diego reached for him. I would clench my fists and wish with all my might that my one fantasy would come true. Yes, Diego could save my mother. He could save us all. I hated my father that much.
My nights were restless and filled with nightmares. In each one I ran through the house, throwing open each bedroom door. There were several rooms in the hacienda, and in each one I saw horrifying scenes. They were like visions of terrible things to come. I saw dead infants with their umbilical cords still attached. In another room I found a woman lying on the bed, her naked, shriveled body turning gray. I could not tell if she was dead or alive. I started to scream and she turned her face towards me. I began to realize that she was Asuncion, my grandmother. I panicked and ran to the next room, and faced an even more disturbing scene. This time grandmother, young and beautiful but dressed in a long gown covered in blood and apparently in distress, sat cradling my mother's body in her lap. Mother looked like a skeleton. I awoke sweating and crying. I got up and went out into the yard, where I curled up on the ground underneath the mango tree where the servants found me the next morning, my face caked in mud and tears.
Soon father renounced his marriage and submitted to his family's demands that he leave my mother and I. His inheritance and standing with the clan restored, he left one humid November morning and never returned. I heard him sputtering to my distraught mother that had I been born a boy he would have surely taken me with him. But I was born a girl, and in his eyes I was of no value to his family.
I was terrified that he would change his mind and try to take me with him, and I ran into the coconut groves to hide. I was relieved that he was finally out of our lives, and that his reign of terror was over. But I felt sorry for my mother, who was left on her own, alone and pregnant with her second child. I remember the empty, glazed look in her eyes as she watched father drive away. She had become a powerless, helpless shriveled figure -- the woman in my nightmare.
Mother suffered the same fate as Asuncion did one night after the Angelus bells had rung. I had just finished prayers with the servants who were lighting candles on the porch when I heard her scream. The servants began to panic and cry out that they had just heard the white lady's cry.
There it was, lying in a pool of blood on the polished wooden floor. It was so tiny! So blue!
Mother was raising her chemise and howling like a madwoman. Grandfather's dying curses reached my ears from his deathbed. The whole house was filled with the scent of death. The servants were grabbing buckets of water as well as their rosaries. A doctor was summoned. Mother was taken to her room and did not emerge for well over a week. I stared at the drying blood on the floor. Another nightmare relived.
Marietta took on the responsibility of caring for me and running the household. I watched her one afternoon as the household took its siesta and the linens had just been hung out to dry after the morning's washing. She was scurrying around the kitchen, muttering to herself. I peered in from behind a tall wooden door. She did not see me, or if she did she completely ignored my presence. Her mutterings soon turned into an odd chant that I could not understand. It was neither in Spanish nor Tagalog. She was holding up the roots of plants freshly plucked from the earth and examining them closely. Then she would pound them in a small stone mortar and pestle. She was still chanting softly and waving all sorts of strange, unfamiliar objects over the mushy mixture.
Afternoon tea was served. I longed to see my mother but her doors were locked, and from inside I could hear faint weeping. Marietta swept past me and into my grandfather's room. I heard him ranting and raving about his tea being late. I saw Marietta's figure moving back and forth, picking up soiled linens, pouring water. I heard the soft tinkling of spoon and cup. Grandfather ranted on for almost an hour. Then suddenly all was quiet.
Marietta emerged from the room with the tray. She walked past me again without a word. I crept up to grandfather's room. The smell of stale urine assailed my nostrils. He was lying quietly in bed, his face contorted into some grotesque frown, asleep. Or so it seemed. He never woke up again that night.
The house was so eerily silent. All one could hear was the sound of the wind in the trees. After grandfather's funeral I looked around his room for a broken window or a door ripped from its hinges, of any evidence that Diego had come to claim this distant and unhappy old man. Perhaps the servants had cleaned it all up, having witnessed this terrible event. Perhaps Diego had claimed grandfather in my father's place. But I cursed him for not taking my father instead, for not protecting us, for being just an imaginary savior to the sorry figure of a ten-year old child.
I did not mourn grandfather's passing, and I lit no candles and said no prayers. As his only grandchild I reluctantly became heir to the hacienda and its legacy. I erased him from my memory just as I did my father, as I buried my mother several years later in the ancestral tombs.
Years later, after I had settled in the city of Manila, I returned to the hacienda in the provinces, which had gone into the care of grandmother's younger sisters. As I walked the grounds I fought back tears and bitter memories. I felt betrayed by my own childhood, betrayed by the savior in the mango tree, betrayed by my own inability to trust men, to have safety and security in my tortured mind.
I had left behind in the city a string of broken relationships, as my father's memory still haunted me. I allowed men to take control of my life both physically and emotionally. I almost always ended up with abusive men. And I could not stand up to them, always wishing and waiting for a savior, dependent upon hope, or miracles.
For many years, too, I had avoided coming back to my childhood home. But this time I felt a pressing need to finally face these demons, for my father -- dying of a venereal disease from a local prostitute and shunned by his family -- now lay in grandfather's old room. As his only child, I had been summoned to the reading of his last will and testimony.
Much as I dreaded seeing the man who had filled my childhood with so much tension and dread, I was also struggling with questions that I wanted answers to.
The kind nuns of our town's religious order were caring for him. Even with them his words were coarse and acidic. He had not changed.
He did not recognize me as I walked in. "What are you? Another prostitute? Let me be. Your kind has destroyed me," he gasped, glaring at me.
"No father. It is you who have destroyed yourself," I shot back, amazed at my sudden surge of anger and resentment. Here before me was no longer the towering figure of an arrogant, self-centered man but a weak, frail, broken figure dying of a disease he so richly deserved, brought down by his own shortcomings.
It was a secret known only to me that Marietta had poisoned grandfather, to avenge Asuncion's death. Perhaps she had intended for me to know, to remember how much grandmother had suffered. She wanted me to know. It was our secret to the grave. Marietta the bruja, the town's secret witch.
And now it was mother's turn to be avenged.
But I used no poison, no secret herbs, no chants. I did not summon Diego through the window. I stood there and screamed, screamed at father with all my breath until my voice was hoarse. I do not remember the words but they were filled with hate, with anger, with vengeance. To finally have him taste a dose of his own medicine. I became Diego. I became the savior incarnate, the furious, nightmarish angel of the mango tree. And I saw what I finally wanted to see, father's eyes growing wide with terror, the sweat on his brow, his mouth open wide and gasping for air. I must have screamed at him until he stopped breathing, his eyes staring lifelessly into space. The nuns were pulling me away.
I sat trembling in my old room, cursing my childhood, cursing my mother for not having the strength to stand up to my father, cursing my grandmother, and my own culture which taught the women in my family to tolerate and to forgive, not to avenge. But I had broken the trend, so I cursed myself as well for not having done it sooner. I could have saved my mother's life.
I sank into a fitful sleep as the clock struck midnight. The dreams began. I was drifting towards the mango tree, dressed in a long white gown. Glancing down, I noticed that my feet were not touching the ground. Something was crouching beneath the tree, perched on a curious mound of earth. My heart began to beat faster as I got closer. I saw the silhouette of a horse's head framed in the moonlight. Diego. Without a moment's hesitation I leapt onto his back. Startled, the Tikbalang jerked his neck around wildly, his body convulsing. I clung to him, feeling the sting of his coarse mane as it whipped my face. Diego leapt into the air with such force that my neck jerked back. The stars around us began to explode.
It seemed like an eternity before Diego touched ground and I rolled off his back, hitting the hard earth. I looked up and found him sitting cross-legged and panting, his tongue hanging out like a limp piece of meat. To my surprise he got up and kneeled before me. He opened his mouth to speak and I knew what he was going to say. I stopped him.
"That's not necessary. I just wanted to see if you were real."
He gave me a quizzical look. His eyes had a strange glow that was oddly comforting.
"Do you understand?" I told him. "You're still free."
The Tikbalang tossed his head back. "No," he said "I believe it is you who are free." The Tikbalang disappeared into the forest.
I awoke to the smell of wet dew on the ground. My hands still clutched the roots of the mango tree. I had walked out into the garden in my sleep. I picked myself up and climbed the mango tree's branches as I had done as a child. I climbed to the highest branch, and from there saw the massive iron bells of the church steeple in the distance rocking back and forth, loud and melodic.
My heart began to slowly ring with its own sense of awakening, the ringing growing louder until it drowned out even the morning bells of the great church. I pledged, then, to be my own loyal servant for life.
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