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Kerima Polotan Tuvera
I was fourteen when we moved to Cabuyao. We reached the town at night and though it was not quite seven, the streets were empty. I had hoped we would get to it before dark, while there was light enough for people to see us come. We knew no one, of course ² ´We·ll make friends,µ my father had said ² and expected no welcome, but having left Tayug with reluctance, I had urged my father during the trip to drive faster so that we might arrive in Cabuyao early enough for someone to see us drive in. That was important to me. ´Why, Elisa?µ my mother asked, and I could not tell her why, except that I had left behind in Tayug one friend very dear to me. When the day came for us to go, we could not leave soon enough. I wanted the pain of missing Salud to start quickly. She said goodbye to me that morning by the plaza, asking, ´Are you taking everything, Elisa? You·re sure?µ When Mother frowned, I hated Salud for betraying me. Several times that past year I had told Salud I felt that something was happening to me. I felt I was growing to be another person entirely. ´Something·s wrong, Salud,µ I said one day ² ´I·m going crazy.µ She had laughed and looked pointedly at my breasts and said. ´They·re growing like mine, Elisa.µ She had a way of saying things like that, that angered and also disarmed me; she was 18 and the four years between us yawned like an abyss. During all that time I had watched her turn into a lovely, graceful girl, unfazed by adolescence, leaving me far behind, eaten with envy and yearning. When she laughed at me that morning, I refused to be shaken off. I dogged her all the way along Calle Santa, round the corner to Del Pilar, and catching up with her a few coconut trees from their steps. I said something that made her pull up and look at me gravely. ´Help me, Salud,µ I said. That past September I had come home one Monday from school, my dress with a stain. Since then I had lived with the terrible feeling that I stood on the brink of something. I had dreams about this too, unhappy, frightened nights when my dreams took me to an unknown precipice and I watched helplessly as my body dropped over the edge. It was of this that Salud spoke when she asked, that morning we got ready to drive away, if I was leaving something behind with her. Some books I had given her, and tears, and a girlish promise I would write faithfully. She stood beside the car, saying, ´Goodbye,µ over and over; she would not cry before me. Her eyes, though bright, were dry. I held her arms tightly, wanting to see her tears, but my father said, ´All right, all right,µ and I let her go. She blew her fingers at me and we drove away. We live near the church, I wrote Salud, in a house that is all sawali, except for the roof which is nipa, and the floor which is bamboo. The toilet is at the back, outside the house. It is an outhouse set on posts and connected to the kitchen by a bamboo bridge. You will not believe me but the bridge is the part I like best ² it swings when I walk on it. There are sugarcane stalks on both sides of the bridge and I never hurry to the outhouse. It is beautiful when there is a moon up. I believe you, Elisa, Salud wrote back. But don·t jump off.
Gabriel was small and thin and stooped.µ Miss Ramos is a witch. Not everyone. When she·s around. She said.µ Mr. took me by the hand. through the corridors of the school. demanding forms and reports and C-156·s. Inside the clinic. but I fumbled as before and dropped things and was miserable before people. I had scrubbed myself that day and put on my best dress but at Miss Ramos· remark. he was a weird sight. I like Mr. My days were full of bodily pain and a mysterious sense of growing. my breasts start to swell. I moved about carefully. then sink and disappear. the nightly journeys that took me through the labyrinths of my mind to emerge always on the sharp rim of some mountainside from which I flung myself even as I called for help. It was a brown suit he wore. Elisa?µ she asked. I wrote Salud. ´Only?µ she remarked. Mr. Elisa.µ I said wonderingly. and led me thus. not with palm about my wrist. the flush had disappeared from his face. fumbling through his pockets for the key. It was loose and it fitted him badly. pushed me ahead. He took a long time searching for swab and iodine and bandage but when he sat in front of me. Gabriel. ´Mr. my father came with me. ´It will return later. and without bothering to knock. In the light of early evening. Except for some throbbing. it had ceased to hurt me. a grace. we were weeding the grounds when I swung my scythe and hit my leg instead. Mr. leaving nothing but a wet spot.µ I replied respectfully. waiting for some bit of womanly knowledge to dawn on me. I said so as we left the room ² ´It·s not painful. He hurried down the steps and sloshed through the mud. Bits of clay clung to the cuffs of his pants. and when that happened. not companionably. the other children had left. but you will smell most of all. stain it momentarily. as though he dealt with just another wayward student. leaving a piece of flesh dangling by a thread of skin. Only the unnerving dreams persisted. I stood bleeding. A dark flush had spread over his face and neck. It was not a deep wound but it was ugly. I sat on a white stool while Mr. with a way about him that made him seem even smaller. As he walked. I wrote back. Gabriel took me to the clinic.The first day I resumed schooling. it was to show big false teeth that clicked noisily when she spoke ² ´How old are you. I wondered if she knew about my new condition. She rarely smiled and when she did. Gabriel washed and bound it. and said. When Miss Ramos blazed into his room. Gabriel. this is Elisa. it·s only blood. like an . ´Why. Gabriel. with clear distaste. The tip of the scythe had drawn a gash across my leg. His eyes laughed even when his mouth did not. Mr. I had seen it on him several times before. but with index finger and thumb. A frown passed over the face. I followed him out of the room. through a door marked Mr. The yard was empty. ´Fourteen. One day. Miss Ramos walked up to me. she gives off a smell that makes me sick. Gabriel opened a window. He is a good man. I felt my knees grow rough and dark. if you don·t stop hating people. Miss Ramos stood up. a manner of self. She was an elderly spinster who wore tight rimless glasses on her nose.µ he said. the back of his coat swished about his thighs. Everyone smells. He stopped before the door. Gabriel met the storm with soothing coolness. the tenderness spilled down the cheeks to his quiet lips. Salud replied. We saw the principal together. watching the red fluid flow down to the soil. a sullen specimen. his shoes squeezing down on the wet soil. and it was the wrong thing to say. smiling thinly.
long-legged bird skimming the rice fields while I stood on the shoulder of the road watching. I might have hated him. Gabriel stood beside me in class. dying her lonely deaths. On the fifth day of my illness. trying to recall my feelings as I wrote it. I was certain her answer would come. One day. a friend passed by the house and left a note. a bell seemed to ring inside me. I would in an onrush of hope tell him everything ² Salud and my dreams and the sense of sin that possessed me because I had begun. I fell ill. would undo me so completely that my mind would go blank and I would ask to be excused. but someone came to ask for a hoe. In my own handwriting. ´ I replied. to span with aching arms the emptiness of my youthful bed at night. I trotted after him. Each time I used such a word. despite myself. the great sky above me. For one. Gabriel had seemed amused. no longer. Elisa? It read. In February that year. would she go wandering tremulously on mountaintops. What is wrong? It was the postscript that completed my betrayal ² Leonor·s girlish prescience. If Mr. before whom I now stood. like a woman·s. But it was no use. she was where I sat in my sick clothes. Gabriel. will he marry you? I betrayed myself in a hundred ways. compelled to stay by a new. ´Were you hiding?µ he asked. ´Come out. The . I trembled as I wrote the words. is he a married man. he surprised me beneath the building. instant. One morning when Mr. Perhaps it was the memory of what I had written about ² a white. face to face. but as soon as class was over. I realized I had identified the precipice at last. Dimly. frightening necessity. Sincerely Leonor. He looked under the schoolhouse and saw me on the ground. I fell in love with him. Are you better? Hurry up and come back to us. he raised his hand quickly and disappeared in the twilight.S. ´Elisa?µ he called. writing the fateful words that accepted the knowledge of womanhood. I crawled to where he waited by the hedges. When Mr. I lingered by the door of the teacher·s room. something was gone. He had gone to look for the boys who had disappeared as soon as the gardening assignments were posted on the board. his presence. and I kept thinking: I wish I could talk to him alone. I crawled beneath the school building. and if he is. watching while I wrote a theme. it was all over the place.earthbound ghost hurrying through the countryside. The damning note had made rounds and reached Miss Ramos. Perhaps. Gabriel·s voice: it was soft and low. hugging my legs together. Outside. We had begun to write themes again and I looked for words like agony and happiness and soul. underlined with mockery: Yes. but is he in love with you. I had met the forlorn stranger in my dreams. I replied to that question. and then as gently as that.µ he said. When I returned to school the next Monday. between one heartbeat and another. it was Mr. Gabriel handed me a trowel and I headed for my garden plot. But he smiled faintly and looked away. we miss you. I could have. Then P. I sat still. ´Mr. I wrote: I love Mr. I did not write to Salud about it. and if he isn·t. I stood mute. When we reached the fork. awaiting judgment. Gabriel read one of my themes in front of the class. and Mr. I felt that if I began to explain I would say more than I should. where it was damp and I could be alone. How do you do. Gabriel.
in that grotesque.µ I said nothing. and there on the floor. not bleeding and helpless and dying. Gabriel·s room and found him. accepting suspension. We frightened each other. To my right. and now it reaches us both where we stood in the deserted corridor of the school . ´A costly mistake. I missed a step and fell to my knees. Gabriel did not move until I stood up and. around the graveyard.µ . heavy strokes. and at the sight of him. or even told Miss Ramos. ´Mr. in my shame. I took the long road. the one that led past the market and the billiard hall. Gabriel. taking the narrow dike this time. then I cut across the plaza and headed for home. that made breathing difficult. unintended curtsey.µ I picked up my things and left. Then he approached me and led me to the door. the words were wrung from me. along with the strange. The wind had picked up a mournful sounds. I love you. untouched by the panic that led me to the building on top of the hill. like the far-off despairing wail of an animal caught in some trap.µ he said. Sir. But on the porch of our home. I had no sooner put my books down than I turned around and ran back to school. You have involved Mr. past the empty south lots. but seated at his desk. Mr.µ I never found out if he went to my father about this. ´Run home. but I can see myself in the dusk of that room years ago. Gabriel that may mean his job. I saw on the blackboard someone had written ´Elisa Gabriel. A very costly one. gentle man to whom I had lost my young heart. the river lay. burst into tears. correcting papers. ´Run home. because his jaw dropped. When I returned to my room. I ran so fast that my heart rose to my throat and beat there. For what seemed forever. It was dark when I stumbled into Mr. I think. Elisa. in that absurd posture.principal smiled that grim smile of hers and said.