I'm wearing a black polo over a red cotton t-shirt in the late April heat. I scratch at the prickles breaking out around my neck where both collars rub against the skin. The air is humid, and difficult to breathe. I had found out from a neighbor that Maita had had most of the windows welded closed shortly after Tatay and I left her nine years ago. But even before then this house had sparse fresh air.
I remember when I was ten years old. The country was in the middle of an energy crisis, and BatElec would cut the current every evening. My cousins Ate Ting, Kuya Rod, and Ayin were in Tanauan for the summer, and I shared my room with them as always. Ate Ting would leave a candle lit in my room, and it would burn all the way down to the last inch. Our eyes watered a bit with the thin smoke, and in the morning our clothes would reek of melted tallow, like St. John's Church on Good Friday. But that was how Maita preferred her house, her little realm: front door perpetually locked, windows shut tight, everyone enduring the stinging byproducts of her whims.
I watch the scene in the sala from the fifth step of the stairs. A few paces from the first rung stands Maita's kamagong display cabinet, which divides the living room from the dining area. Sitting in front of the cabinet's glass face is the low, felt-covered table Maita and her friends had used for sakla, blanketed today by a spread of white cloth. In the middle squats a marble urn, flanked by a crucifix on the right, Maita's framed photo on the left. The white smoke from the candles on the table snake up slowly in the still, muggy air.
Dearest Ayin, I begin a letter in my head, Maita's friends looked like yellow-fin tuna this morning. They occupy the three rows of rented monobloc chairs lined up in front of the makeshift altar. I stare at their arms, poking out from the sleeves of black blouses puffed and frumpy with the extra clothing underneath. Their withered hands grasp missals covered in shiny leather. " Grant Maita's soul rest eternal rest, they ululate in response to the priest's prompting. They sweat, and fan themselves furiously as they shift in their seats.
A year ago to the day Maita had clutched at my wrist, eyes glossing over as she burbled her dying wish: Don't even think of touching my things. On the floor beside her bed her mini pinscher Nelly yapped at me briefly, then looked at its inert master and whined. I felt like grinding my heel over its little rodent head.
The priest picks up a little plastic bottle, squirts holy water on the urn. As the final hymn begins, one of Maita's friends shuffles to the altar. I recognize her as the one my cousins and I used to call Diana Cabalfin. She pauses briefly, eyes darting sideways, checking the gathering. She dabs her cheek with her hankie, bends over, kisses the urn. " Hay, Nelly, I whisper under my breath, blessed art thou amongst canines.
The Miserere peaks, the guests rasping its high, lingering melody. I keep my eyes on the sampaloc tree out in the yard. The matrons finish the hymn, and shed their black blouses, revealing ones of sharp mustard, deep vermillion, or solid mauve, each flecked with shiny beads and sequins, and lined with lace. I take their cue and unbutton my polo. When I throw it off, the tingling sweat feels like a cold hand on the back of my neck.
Chatter quickly fills the house. The guests begin drifting to the dining area and the spread on the family table. I take the last few steps down to help handing out plates.
Cabalfin cuts me off, her dry, cloying perfume almost making me gag. Sparse hair in a low attempt at pompadour, thin moustache visible under the concealer, the rest of her makeup a dull, scabbed shade of pink like the exposed skin of a cat with mange; the woman smiles at me, but her sagging jowls still make her appear to be glowering.
" Your mother is watching over you, Francis, she tells me solicitously, her voice loud enough for everyone to hear, the mole on her cheek quivering like a fly laying eggs on a corpse.
" You're so right, I reply, and chuckle silently at our choice of words. I suspect I will never find out if Maita had ever taken the time to look after anyone. Perhaps she had been different way back, before my father Nitoy went to work in Bahrain, money-transfer and curt letters surrogating for presence and proximate warmth. But the better part of me believes Maita had treated me as a nine-month nuisance, at the end of which her cunt had gaped open to disgorge me with, I imagine, the same exasperated relief one feels after a lengthy spell of constipation, and that had been that. When I ask Tatay about it these days he merely raises an eyebrow and grunts. What I am sure of, though, is that Cabalfin was right: Maita is watching me, considering what I've done to her beloved trinkets.
I glance at the huge display cabinet, empty except for one figurine. All by itself, it seems as though it's floating in space. It used to be the centerpiece of a modest china shelf, and as a kid I would gape at it: boy in shorts, proffering a butterfly nestled in his palm to a girl sitting on a log. Its base is askew, and the figurine favors one side.
My grandmother saw me staring at it once, way back. She scooped it up so carefully it seemed dropping the figurine would have been the death of her. But she handed it to me with a bright smile. I slowly ran my hand over the coarse plaster. I turned it over, read the carefully etched words on the base:
As I stared at it, Nanay Huling told me my grandfather had come down from Makiling looking like a rooster without plumage, his chest quaking whenever he coughed, his system ruined years earlier by water cure. " I think that's why I neglected... Nanay Huling began, then smiled again and shook her head. As she gently took the figurine from me, she told me my grandfather had never fully recovered.
Maita never let me touch any of her souvenirs. She didn't let me do much of anything, in fact. I wasn't allowed to play with the neighborhood kids, or join any special activity in school. " The Bag Lady is coming to get you! she would scream at me, when dusk would catch me in the lawn, engrossed in whatever game my imagination could contrive with a sampaloc tree and no friends, her face jutting out the window she would slam shut again before the sound of her voice faded. When my cousins were in town for the summer Maita forced us to take siesta every afternoon, and insisted that we all be asleep by 8 pm. When her friends were around to play sakla we couldn't even leave my room.
We loved it whenever Maita would go abroad, of course. My cousins and I would go to the nearby river with some of our neighbors, or stay up as late as we wanted. And even Nanay Huling perked up, like some old regret was temporarily forgotten. But then Maita would soon be back, with some trinket bought from wherever she had been. She would put the souvenir in the china stand with much flourish, then re-impose her say-so.
My cousins and I had a few ways to offset Maita's severity. We'd pretend to be asleep for siesta, but tell each other stories when we weren't being watched. Or tag comic-strip character names to Maita's friends: Braguda for the one with all the warts, Ms. Luna for the one with the shrill voice. And once Kuya Rod even mixed Maita's shampoo with a little sugar-water. " Her scalp will be bleeding before she gets enough suds going, he said, and we were in stitches imagining the scene.
With the lids of the food-warmers off, the dining area bloats with the rising odor of sinangag and tapa and the lard everything was cooked in. As I continue handing plates out to the guests, I lose the slight appetite I had to begin with. I smile at those I know had been Nanay Huling's friends, ignore the rest. When the priest comes around in the line I take his hand, press his knuckles to my forehead.
" I have something for you, Father.
" Why are you alone?
" I'll go get it, I mutter as I turn around to go upstairs.
My room doesn't smell any better than the dining area: dusty linen, and the high, sour reek of dry rot. My things have stayed pretty much in the same lifeless order as when Tatay had bundled me off to leave Tanauan when I was nineteen, or when I had locked the house up after the last night of Maita's wake. Small cabinet, a section of the plywood's painted veneer completely peeled off. A study table, crammed with yellowed textbooks I never got around to throwing away, the battered typewriter Nanay Huling had bought me when I was just beginning to write. Old floor boards, which rattle like kindling in some places. And I glance at a container of gasoline, which I had brought with me from Pasig, resting between the two spring-lined mattresses I had used to share with my cousins.
We often stayed up late in this room, despite Maita's rules, often playing pusoy dos with the lights out. We'd squint in the dark, making out the dealt cards under the dim amber light that reached us from the street lamps; press a pillow on our face, to stifle our laughter whenever one of us played a particularly foolish hand; freeze in alarm over every little noise outside, worried that we'd been discovered. But Maita almost never came into my room, and I'd often find myself rushing there when I had whatever hurt that needed easing.
Once Maita came home with a souvenir from a place she called Yogyakarta. It was a woodcarving of a large bird, human in stance, with long wingspan and wicked beak, little crystal eyes that gleamed in the dark.
One afternoon I took it down from its shelf, admired its heft, imagined I was the little boy perched between the bird's shoulders. But then a sharp slap hit me in the middle of my back, knocking the wind out of me. " Do you have any idea how expensive that is? Maita had snarled. As I was about to run up to my room I saw Ayin looking through the window at me from out in the lawn.
The next morning we woke up to Maita's shrieking. She was waving a tube of toothpaste around, her shoulders shaking and a twitch pulsing under her left eye. She waited till all of us were gathered around her before squirting a glob of toothpaste on her hand. Mixed with the white gunk were slivers of wood. I glanced at Ayin; her face was nonchalant, but her eyes gleamed. Before I could give her a sign that I understood, Maita grabbed me by an ear and led me to the sampaloc tree outside. There she threw a burlap sack over my head and knocked me over with a kick in the chest. After toppling down I watched as Maita knotted the open end shut. " Don't even think of getting up, she said, nudging me sharply with her foot.
I sat as still as I could, even though the air inside the sack was quickly turning raw. When I heard Maita's footsteps leading back inside the house I thrust my nose near the sack's knotted opening, and breathed what little fresh air I could.
After what seemed like a dreadfully long time, I felt the knot being forced loose. I watched a slim, tan hand toss inside a transistor radio, which promptly clunked into my jaw. I couldn't help but giggle. As I rubbed my chin, the outline of a face pressed itself unto the sack. " Sorry, Kuya, Ayin whispered, and I didn't know whether she was apologizing for hitting me with the radio or getting me in that mess to begin with. But I held her face, a palm on each cheek, and kissed her forehead. The filthy burlap was rough and sweet on my lips.
I couldn't wait for the guests to leave, I continue my letter to Ayin in my head as I get the package for the priest, But I gave away the last of Maita's trinkets. Inside the box is a malachite Pieta, which Maita had bought in a night market along Orchard Road in Singapore. I keep a hand under the box, to keep the heavy statuette from slipping out.
Maita had started traveling more frequently after my father got a promotion, quickly adding to her stash of souvenirs. Small vases, delicate teacups, handsome ashtrays. A wooden doll from Kyoto. Godheads from Cambodia and Myanmar. A string of large prayer beads from Thailand. A huge Malay top. A bookmark carved from the bone of a water buffalo by a farmer in Hue. She replaced the china case with the large display cabinet, and began sponsoring sakla games played on a table she had set up in front of it.
I sneaked out for the bathroom one late night my cousins and I were up playing cards. I heard Maita congratulating somebody for a good round. I squatted down, peeked between the bars of the staircase railing. The man beside her was pudgy, and had pale fingers that fumbled with his bet. Maita's hand was still on the man's thigh when I went back into my room.
The next time the man was around again for sakla Ayin took one look at the thick frames of his glasses, the wide black stripes of his white shirt, and christened him Flash Bomba. He had a mini pinscher puppy with him that night. Its high-pitched bark reminded me of the squeaking wheels on my rusty bike. From then on Maita went around clutching the dog to her chest, the gaunt little thing announcing their presence with its ceaseless yap.
That was also about the time Tatay stopped coming home, even for Christmas.
Back in the sala another matron sees me handing the box to the priest. I remember her as the one we called Valentina. She saunters towards me, plate in one hand, her long hair still a mutiny of curls.
" I have received the package you sent to me already, she tells me with an overstated twang, and I remember she was back from the States for the summer.
" It was what she wished.
" He is a good boy, she tells the priest, " I knew he would return to take care of her mother. Turning back to me she says " I have read some of your writings to the magazines. Why don't you write a story about your mother already?
The question catches me off-guard. Maita had been so one-dimensional, so thoroughly caustic, that a character like her would seem heavy-handed and implausible in fiction. I shrug stiffly, though the question intrigues me.
One story I had felt obliged to write was informed by Nanay Huling's death and the events that followed. She had been 63. She could hardly stagger up from bed less than a year after she started complaining about some persistent headache. Maita went on with Flash Bomba and their sakla. I spent most of my time looking after my grandmother, my cousins helping out when they visited for summer. Nanay Huling would smile politely at our ministrations, though I could see in her eyes that she no longer knew who we were.
By the time she died, her back was pocked with bedsores, and the outline of her skull jutted obscenely against the mottled skin on her face. Nanay had a smile on her face, I wrote to my father that night about her passing, Perhaps because her memory was gone. And Maita took another trip abroad, right after my grandmother was buried, claiming that she needed a break from the stress and grief.
About a week after the funeral my father suddenly arrived. I hadn't seen him for so long the dusky figure unbolting our gate seemed spectral. " Get your things ready, he had told me after a long hug, his lips pursed in a tired smile. We left for Pasig that same afternoon. On the bus ride out of Tanauan I didn't feel like asking any questions. All that mattered was that I thought I was never going to see Maita again.
It turned out the last time I would see Maita was by her deathbed. " What for? my father had asked when I told him I was leaving for Tanauan. But I had to go. When I heard Maita was dying of pneumonia I went to hear her breath gurgle with the phlegm and puss and water filling her lungs, to see what manner of death-scowl a mangled soul leaves behind on its corpse; to use the memory of both in a story I might write in the future.
But her dying wish had affected me like a cult sleeper given some long-awaited signal. I attended to her cremation, put the urn on display like a souvenir, and suffered the ensuing three-night fashion show, making sure her friends listed their addresses in the guest book. I wasn't surprised that Flash Bomba didn't show up.
On the last night of the wake, after the people from the funeral home had dismantled their things and left, I grabbed Nelly by the tummy and stuffed it inside a sack. I went around to the sampaloc tree, whacked the sack against it thrice with all my strength, the successive sounds bouncing around the lawn: sharp crunch, then dull thud, then wet slap.
The next morning I hacked Maita's deathbed into manageable pieces, then burned it as was customary. I threw in the bloodied sack when the flames were high enough. Then I went inside the house, pried open the urn's lid with a screwdriver. I scooped up the clear plastic bag full of ashes, made my way with it to the back of the house, dumped its contents into a ditch there that led to the sewage drain. Later that night I re-filled the urn with the ashes of the bed and dog. Then I packed all of Maita's trinkets and left for Pasig.
I've been mailing the keepsakes to her friends for the past year. Now the only one left is the statuette my grandfather gave Nanay Huling. It is as alone as I am now, the guests having all left, the rented chairs picked up, the used food-warmers collected by the caterer. I fetch it from the display cabinet and I run up to my room, taking two rungs each step. I trace my fingertips slowly over the carved words under its base, before placing it inside my bag, which I sling over my back.
Then I unscrew the lid from the petrol container, heave it onto my knee, splash gasoline on the mattresses, my bookshelf, the old cabinet. The red liquid runs down my room's wooden walls, collecting in the crooks and angles, seeping between the floorboards. I struggle back downstairs with the container. Continue spilling the gas. On the dining table, on the sofa set, and into Maita's display cabinet. I find a plastic tub, empty the gasoline dregs into it, grab a candle from the improvised altar, and set it in the middle of the acrid, crimson puddle.
I pause, catch my breath. My hands are shaking, and the sweat on my nape is tingling again. I light the candle, watch the thin white smoke curl up in supplication, the melted wax pooling under the burning wick before dripping in slim lines down the candle's length to set there like traces of a persistent memory. And I finish composing my letter to Ayin.
I think I can finally write about Maita. I'd write the story so that she was a spent government bureaucrat, clawing at opportunities to leave behind any sort of legacy before she went down in a fizzle. Nelly would be her hatchet-hag, with the same outrageous features as Cabalfin the matron. And together they would inflict their desperation on the harassed staff. But then maybe I'd give Maita one of those epiphanies where she realizes she's been a bitch. She'd make a little attempt at reparation, and on the afternoon she retires, the employees would laugh on their way to the Bundy clock, like cousins at the end of a yearlong mourning. I just might give it that kind of ending, I ponder, as I snap off some of the congealed trails of guttered wax, the slight heat on my fingertips feeling like the briefest of spites, the smell of melted tallow reminding me of St. John's on Easter Sunday, of a room pulsing with covert joy.
Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006