SHORT STORY | ‘The Two Women Of Bantayan’
This short story is included in The Heart of Summer: Stories and Tales, the latest book by Danton Remoto, published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia.
A block away from our house stood a wood-and-stone house beside the river.
Our housemaid told us to avoid this house. “Aling Barang,” she said, referring to the woman living in the house, “kidnaps children and keeps them in her house. She always keeps her windows closed,” she added, and before us rose the image of her windows tightly shuttered even in the hottest days.
“It’s because she keeps the children inside her house,” she continued, “and then she would stab them in the chest, drain their blood, and drink it.” Gooseflesh crawled on our skin. “And you know what she does to the bones of our children?”
I drew closer to our housemaids, whose nostrils flared wider at the sudden and delicious turn of her tale. “She grinds the bones again until they have been reduced to grains.”
Her eyes would widen for dramatic effect, and then she would end with a flourish: “She would add this to the food she eats every day. Her version of Vetsin,” she ended referring to MSG, monosodium glutamate.
* * *
Having been sufficiently warned, we avoided that house, looking away when we passed by it, or running away the moment somebody opened the door. But one day I did see her. I was walking home in the late afternoon when the sun was beginning to die when the doorway opened. Even the depths of her house seemed dark.
Aling Barang stepped out quietly, with no sound at all. She looked smaller than I had imagined her to be, her gray hair loose around her bony shoulders. Her dress had faded to a very light shade of blue, and as she approached, I stopped the impulse to run. Closer and closer she came to me, and when she was near,
I saw no fierceness in her eyes. She just looked tired. And those thin hands, the skin around them beginning to blotch with age, they looked as if they could not swat a fly, even if they tried to.
But still, I remembered our housemaid’s tale, and I walked away as far as I could, afraid that she would be hovering behind me, her snake-like hair coiling around me, her mouth exhaling breath audibly on my neck.
* * *
Near the talipapa, the open-air market, lived Aling Bekang. She had left her incorrigibly drunkard husband in town and from then on took care of her nine children, one of whom was a young soldier. Nine children, you would say? The whole neighborhood was mildly titillated when Aling Bekang began living with a man half her age, Oswaldo, or Weng-Weng for short.
And the mild titillation turned to plain shock when Aling Bekang announced to everybody in the talipapa, before her stall of the greenest vegetables and the yellowest fruits, that she was pregnant.
“But, but?” Aling Pacing, who sold the longest bananas in this side of the world, shaped like scimitars, was about to say something.
But Aling Barang beat her to it. “Why, I’m only 40 and I can still bear more children. You see, Weng-Weng wants to be a father now, and what he wants, he certainly gets.” The crowd at the talipapa fell into a hush. But every day they were surprised, for Aling Barang’s belly did not grow.
To their inquiries she would always say, “It’s going to be a tiny baby.”
Aling Barang didn’t show up for months after she had made her declaration. And then one fine day, when the sky was polished like an egg shell, the news flamed around that she had given birth. The curious and the sincere went to visit her hut, and found beside her bed a round glass bowl half-filled with water.
“Haay,” she began. “I didn’t have difficulty giving birth after all.”
Of course, the kibitzers wanted to say, it’s your tenth after all, but since they did not want to sound impertinent, their eyes just roved around the small room. The walls were plastered with posters and calendars of the Christ Child robed in red and the Virgin Mary wearing white and blue clothes.
When they could not help it anymore, they finally asked: “Where’s your baby?”
She looked at them, her face filled with surprise. “Oh, my baby is here, beside me. Can’t you see my youngest baby?” she asked, pointing to the glass bowl where a small brown-black mudfish swam.
The crowd thought it was a joke. Their faces cracked into wide smiles and they slapped their thighs and laughed.
“But I’m not joking,” said Aling Bekang. “In fact, I already have a name for her. Jezebel. And I’ve already asked Padre Agapito to baptize her two Sundays from now. Of course, you’re all invited to the baptism.”
“And what, errr, what did Padre Agapito say?” this query, from Aling Maring.
“Oh,” Aling Bekang answered, smirking, “he said he’ll think about it.”
So the photographers and reporters from the tabloids came, not minding the eight-hour drive from Cebu City to Bogo, then taking a ferry for another two hours before arriving at the white sands of Bantayan.
Then later, even those from the English-language broadsheets visited the house of Aling Bekang. And after that came an army of bloggers, who now called themselves “influencers,” young and seemingly brainy, with their pert noses up in the air. They all crowded around her, taking photos and shooting videos of Aling Bekang cradling the glass bowl where Jezebel swam contentedly, fed with rice bran sprinkled on the surface of the water. Weng-Weng, the father, even posed for shots of himself kissing the glass bowl.
“See?” he told the photographers after the photo and video shoot. “We look alike. We even have the same lips.” Much later came the parachute journalists, the Americans with their banter, the British who spoke with pebbles in their mouths, and the Japanese, who kept on bowing and who never stopped taking videos.
Aling Bekang found her photos and that of Jezebel, or rather, her bowl, splashed on the newspapers. Read all about it, and the circulation of the tabloids, which covered the news every day, zoomed, and the views on the bloggers’ sites rose to the sky, at the startling news of Jezebel.
The news competed with that of the poet who talked to extraterrestrials in Batanes, the chicken that was born with three spindly legs in Pangasinan, and the boy with a bloody face who talked to the Virgin Mary – but only in English, the King’s English. None of these pesky World Englishes for the Messenger from Heaven.
But even the extra-terrestrials and the Blessed Virgin Mary did not appear regularly, unlike Jezebel, which was there for all the world to see, in living and vivid colors, images frozen in print or dynamic on video, and so the whole country revolved around the universe of her very precious glass bowl.
However, before a priest called Johnny Barron could baptize her as the newest member of a new sect that would certainly survive the next millennium, Jezebel died. The cause of death: her glass bowl had accidentally tipped over, and Jezebel was eaten by Aling Bekang’s mongrel dog with its coat of deep black.
When everything was over, Weng-Weng abandoned Aling Bekang. She just woke up one day and found her wooden bed empty, and all his clothes gone from their closet with no door. She sulked for a week, moped and swallowed her saliva, and then she went back to the talipapa, before her stall of the brightest heads of squash and the ripest of mangoes.
But when nobody was looking she would touch the mango’s warm and smooth skin, touching it carefully as if it were a grenade, wondering when the world would end.
* * *
The Heart of Summer: Stories and Tales is available at Fully Booked and in the website of Penguin’s local distributor, Acre Philippines. Danton Remoto was educated at Ateneo de Manila University, University of Stirling UK and Rutgers University USA.