The Fence by Jose Garcia Villa

They should have stood apart, away from each
other, those two nipa houses. There should have
been a lofty impenetrable wall between them, so
that they should not stare so coldly, so starkly, at
each other—just starin, not sayin a word, not
even a cruel word. !nly a yard of parched soil
separated them, a yard of brittle"crusted earth
with only a stray weed or two to show there was
life still in its bosom.
They stood there on the roadside, they two alone,
neihborless but for themselves, and they were
like two stealthy shadows, each avid to betray the
other. #ueer old houses. $o brown were the nipa
leaves that walled and roofed them that they
looked musty, loomy. !ne hiher than the other,
pyramid"roofed, it tried to assume the air of
mastery, but in vain. For thouh the other was low,
wind"bent, supported without by luteous bamboo
poles aainst the aressiveness of the weather, it
had its eyes to stare back as hauhtily as the
other—windows as desolate as the souls of the
occupants of the house, as sharply anular as the
intensity of their hatred.
From the road these houses feared no enemy—no
enemy from the lenth, from the dust, of the road%
they were unfenced. &ut of each other they were
afraid' there ran a reen, house hih, bamboo
fence throuh the narrow ribbon of thirsty earth
between them, proclaimin that one side beloned
to one house, to it alone% the other side to the
other, and to it alone.
Formerly there had been no bamboo fence% there
had been no weeds. There had been two rows of
veetables, one to each house, and the soil was
not parched but soft and rich. &ut somethin had
happened and the fence came to be built, and the
veetables that were so reen bean to turn pale,
then paler and yellow and brown. Those of each
house would not water their plants, for if they did,
would not water their water spread to the other
side and (uench too the thirst of pechays and
mustards not theirs) *ittle by little the plants had
died, the soil had cracked with nelect, on both
sides of the fence.
Two women had built that fence. Two tanned
country"women. !ne of them had cauht her
husband with the other one niht, and the ne+t
mornin she had one to the bamboo clumps near
the river ,asi and felled canes with her woman
strenth. $he left her baby son at home, heeded
not the little cries. -nd one by one that hot
afternoon she shouldered the canes to her home.
$he was tired, very tired, yet that niht she could
not sleep. .hen mornin dawned she rose and
went back t the back of the house and bean to
split the bamboos. /er husband noticed her, but
said nothin. &y noon, -lin &ian was drivin tall
bamboo splits into the narrow ribbon of yard.
,ok, ,ok, ,ok, sounded her crude hammer. ,ok,
,ok, ,ok",ok, ,ok, ,ok.
.hen her husband asked her what she was doin,
she answered,
01 am buildin a fence.2
0.hat for)2 he asked.
01 need a fence.2
-nd then, too, even -lin $ebia, the other woman,
a child"less widow, asked inoffensively,
0.hat are you doin, -lin &ian)2
01 am buildin a fence.2
0.hat for)2
01 need a fence, -lin $ebia. ,lease do not talk to
me aain.2
-nd with that -lin $ebia had felt hurt. !ut of
spite she too had one to the bamboo clumps to
fell canes. -fter she had split them, tried thouh
she was, she bean to thrust them into the round,
on the same straiht line as -lin &ian3s but from
the opposite end. The buildin of the fence
proressed from the opposite end. The buildin of
the fence proresses from the ends centreward.
-lin &ian drove in the last split. -nd the fence
completed, oily perspiration wettin the brows of
the two youn women, they a4ed pridefully at
the majestic wall of reen that now separated
5ot lon after the completion of the fence -lin
&ian3s husband disappeared and never came
back. -lin &ian took the matter passively, and
made no effort to find him. $he had become a
hardened woman.
The fence hid all the happenins in each house
from those who lived in the other. The other side
was to each a beyond, dark in elemental
prejudice, and no one dared encroach on it. $o
the months passed, and each woman lived as
thouh the other were none+istent.
&ut early one niht, from beyond the fence, -lin
&ian heard cries from -lin $ebia. 6nwillin to
pay any heed to them, she e+tinuished the liht
of the petrol kinke and laid herself down beside
her child. &ut, in spite of all, the cries of the other
woman made her uneasy. $he stood up, went to
the window that faced the fence, and cried from
0.hat is the matter with you, -lin $eban)2
Faintly from the other side came'
0-lin &ian, please o the town and et me a
hilot 7midwife8.2
0.hat do you need a hilot for)2 asked -lin
01 am oin to deliever a child, -lin &ian, and 1
am alone. ,lease o, fetch a hilot.2
-lin &ian stood there by the window a lon
time. $he knew when child it was that was comin
as the child of -lin $ebia. $he stood motionless,
the wind brushin her face coldly. .hat did she
care of -lin $ebia was to undero childbirth)
The wind blew colder and pierced the thinness of
her shirt. $he decided to lie down and sleep. /er
body struck aainst her child3s as she did so, and
the child moaned'
The other child, too, could be moanin like that.
*ike her child. 6mmm. From the womb of -lin
$ebia—the wron womb.
/astily -lin&ian stood up, wound her tapi4
round her waist, covered her shoulders with a
cheap shawl.
6mmm. 6mmm. The cry that called her. 6mmm. The
cry of a life.
$he descended the bamboo steps. They creaked in
the niht.
The fence rew moldy and inclined to one side, the
child of -lin &ian rew up into sickly boy with
hollow dark eyes and shay hair, and the child
that was born to -lin $ebia rew up into a irl, a
irl with rued features, a simian face, and a
very narrow brow. &ut not a word had passed
across the fence since that niht.
The boy 1kin was not allowed to play by the
roadside% for if he did, would he not know were
on the other side of the fence) For his realm he
had only his home and the little backyard.
$ometimes, he would loiter alon the narrow strip
of yard beside the fence, and peep surreptitiously
throuh the slits. -nd he could catch limpses of a
irl, dark"comple+"ioned, flat"nosed on the other
side. $he was an uly irl, even ulier than he
was, but she was full"muscled, healthy. -s he
peeped, his body, like a thin reed pressed aainst
the funused canes, would be breathless. The flat"
nosed irl into+icated him, his loose architecture of
a body, so that it pulsed, vibrated cruelly with the
leap in his blood. The least sound of the wind
aainst the nipa wall of their house would startle
him, as thouh he had been cauht, surprised, in
his clandestine passion% a wave of friid coldness
would start in his chest and e+pand, e+pand,
e+pand until he was all cold and shiverin.
.atchin that irl only intensified his loneliness—
watchin that irl of whom he knew nothin
e+cept that form them it was not riht to know
each other.
.hen his mother cauht him peepin, she would
scold him, and he would turn (uickly about, his
conve+ back pressed painfully aainst the fence.
09id 1 not tell you never to peep throuh that
fence) Go up.2
-nd he would o up without answerin a word,
because the moment he tried to reason out thins,
proloned couhs would sei4e him and shake his
thin body unmercifully.
-t niht, as he lay on the bamboo floor, notes of a
uitar would reach his ears. The notes were
metallic, clankin, and at the middle of the
nocturne they stopped abruptly. .ho played the
raucous notes) .ho played the only music he had
ever heard in his life) -nd why did the player
never finish his music) -nd lyin beside his mother,
he felt he wanted to rise and o down the
bamboo steps to the old forbidden fence and see
who it was that was playin. &ut -lin &ian
would stir and ask, 0-re you feelin cold, 1kin)
/ere is the blanket.2 ,oor mother she did not know
that it was she who was makin the soul of this
boy so cold, so barren, so desolate.
-nd one niht, after -lin &ian had prepared his
beddin beside her, 1kin approached her and
01 will sleep by the door, nanay. 1 want to sleep
alone. 1 am rownup. 1 am fifteen.2 /e folded his
mat and tucked it under an arm carryin a
kundiman"cased pillow in one thin hand, and
marched stoically to the place he mentioned.
.hen the playin came, he stood up and went
down the stairs and moved towards the bamboo
fence. /e leaned aainst it and listened,
enthralled, to the music. .hen it ceased he
wanted to scream in protest, but a stranlin
couh sei4ed him. /e choked, yet his neck craned
and his eye strained to see who had been the
/is lips did not move, but his soul wept, 01t is she:2
-nd he wanted to hurl himself aainst fence to
break it down. &ut he knew that even that old,
mildewed fence was stroner than he.
$troner—stroner than the loneliness of his soul,
stroner than his soul itself.
,ok, ,ok, ,ok—,ok, ,ok, ,ok.
The boy 1kin, pallid, tubercular, watched his
mother with sunken, hatin eyes from the window.
$he was mendin the fence, because now it leaned
to their side and many of the old stakes had
decayed. $he substituted fresh ones for these, until
finally, amon the weather"beaten ones, rose bold
reen splits like stout corporals amon s(uads of
unhealthy soldiers. From the window, the boy 1kin
asked nervously'
0.hy do you do that, mother) .hy—why;2
01t needs reinforcin2 replied his mother. ,ok, ,ok,
0.hy"why:2 he e+claimed in protest.
/is mother stopped hammerin. $he stared at him
01 need it,2 she declared forcefully, the veins on
her forehead risin out clearly. 0<our mother
needs it. <ou need it too.2
1kin cowered from the window. /e heard aain'
,ok, ,ok, ,ok—,ok, ,ok, ,ok.
That niht no playin came from beyond the
fence. -nd 1kin knew why.
,hthisical 1kin. =ihteen"year"old, bony 1kin.
*yin hastly pale on the mat all the time. .aitin
for the music from the other side of the fence that
had stopped three years ao.
-nd toniht was >hristmas =ve. 1kin3s >hristmas
=ve. /e must be happy toniht—he must be made
happy toniht;
-t one corner of the room his mother crooned to
herself. - &iblia was on the table, but no one read
it% they did not know how to read.
&ut they knew it was >hristmas =ve. -lin &ian
said, 0The *ord will be born toniht.2
0The *ord will be born toniht,2 echoed her son.
0*et us pray, 1kin.2
1kin stood up. /is emaciated form looked so
pitiful that his mother said, 0&etter lie down aain,
1kin. 1 will pray alone.2
&ut 1kin did not lie down. /e move slowly to the
door and descended into the backyard; /is
mother would pray. 0>ould she pray)2 his soul
asked; /e stood motionless. -nd then he saw the
fence—the fence that his mother had built and
strenthened—to crush his soul. /e ran weakly,
roily, to it—allured by its forbiddin, crushin
sterness. /e peeped hunrily between the splits—
saw her;
/is dry lips mumbled, tried to make her hear his
word, 0,lay for me toniht:2
/e saw that she heard. /er uly faced turned
sharply to the fence that separated him and her.
/e wept. /e had spoken to her—the first time—
the first time;
/e laid himself down as soon as he was back in
the house. /e turned his face toward the window
to wait for her music. /e drew his blanket closer
round him so that he should not feel cold. The
moonliht that poured into the room pointed at his
face, livid, an+ious, hopin, and at a little, wet,
red smude on the blanket where it touched his
>icadas san and leaves of trees rustled. -
oreous moon sailed westward across the sky.
9ark"skinned bats occasionally lost their way into
the room. - pale silken moth flew in to flirt with
the flame of kerosene kinke.
-nd then the cicadas had tired of sinin. The
moon was far above at its 4enith now. The bats
had found their way out of the room. The moth
now lay sined on the table, beside he reali4ed
now that the fence between their houses e+tended
into the heart of this irl.
0The *ord is born,2 announced -lin &ian, for it
was midniht.
0/e is born,2 said her son, his ears still ready for
her music because the fence did not run throuh his
The moon descended; descended..
-t two a.m. 1kin3s eyes were closed and his hands
were cold. /is mother wept. /is heart beat no
Two"three a.m.—only a few minutes after—and
from beyond the fence came the notes of a uitar.
The notes of a uitar. ?etallic. >lankin. @aucous.
5otes of the same uitar. -nd she who played it
finished her nocturne that mourn.
-lin &ian stood up from beside her son,
approached the window, stared accusinly
outside, and said in a low resentful voice,
0They are mockin. .ho would play at such a
time of morn as this) &ecause my son is dead.2
&ut she saw only the fence she had built and
strenthened, stately white in the matutinal

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