In 1952, “The Virgin,” written by Kerima Polotan, won first prize in the Philippines Free Press Literary Contest and in the Carlos Palanca Awards.
He went to where Miss Mijares sat, a tall, big man, walking with an economy of movement, graceful and light, a man who knew his body and used it well. He sat in the low chair worn decrepit by countless other interviewers and laid all ten fingerprints carefully on the edge of her desk. She pushed a sheet towards him, rolling a pencil along with it. While he read the question and wrote down his answers, she glanced at her watch and saw that it was ten. “I shall be coming back quickly,” she said, speaking distinctly in the dialect (you were never sure about these people on their first visit, if they could speak English, or even write at all, the poor were always proud and to use the dialect with them was an act of charity), “you will wait for me.”
As she walked to the cafeteria, Miss Mijares thought how she could easily have said, Please wait for me, or will you wait for me? But years of working for the placement section had dulled the edges of her instinct for courtesy. She spoke now peremptorily, with an abruptness she knew annoyed the people about her.
When she talked with the jobless across her desk, asking them the damning questions that completed their humiliation, watching pale tongues run over dry lips, dirt crusted handkerchiefs flutter in trembling hands, she was filled with an impatience she could not understand. Sign here, she had said thousands of times, pushing the familiar form across, her finger held to a line, feeling the impatience grow at sight of the man or woman tracing a wavering “x” or laying the impress of a thumb. Invariably, Miss Mijares would turn away to touch the delicate edge of the handkerchief she wore on her breast.
Where she sat alone at one of the cafeteria tables, Miss Mijares did not look 34. She was slight, almost bony, but she had learned early how to dress herself to achieve an illusion of hips and bosom. She liked poufs and shirrings and little- girlish pastel colors. On her bodice, astride or lengthwise, there sat an inevitable row of thick camouflaging ruffles that made her look almost as though she had a bosom, if she bent her shoulders slightly and inconspicuously drew her neckline open to puff some air into her bodice.
Her brow was smooth and clear but she was no beauty. She teetered precariously on the borderline to which belonged countless others whom you found, if they were not working at some job, in the kitchen of some unmarried of some unmarried sister’s house, shushing a brood of devilish little nephews.
And yet Miss Mijares did think of love. Secret, short-lived thoughts flitted through her mind —in the jeepneys she took to work when a man pressed down beside her and through her dress she felt the curve of his thigh; when she held a baby in her arms, a married friend’s baby or a relative’s, holding in her hands the tiny, pulsing body, what thoughts did she not think, her eyes straying against her will to the bedroom door and then to her friend’s laughing, talking face, to think: how did it look now, spread upon a pillow, unmasked of the little wayward coquetries, how went the lines about the mouth and beneath the eyes: (did they close? did they open?) in the one final, fatal coquetry of all? To finally, miserably bury her face in the baby’s hair. And in the movies, ah the movies, to sink into a seat as into an embrace, in the darkness with a hundred shadowy figures about her and high on the screen, a man kissing a woman’s mouth while her own fingers stole unconsciously to her unbruised lips.
When she was younger, there had been other things to do—college to finish, a niece to put through school, a mother to care for.
She had gone through all these with singular patience, for it had seemed to her that Love stood behind her, biding her time, a quiet hand upon her shoulder (I wait. Do not despair) so that if she wished she had but to turn from her mother’s bed to see the man and all her timid, pure dreams would burst into glory. But it had taken her parent many years to die. Towards the end, it had become a thankless chore, kneading her mother’s loose flesh, hour after hour, struggling to awaken the cold, sluggish blood in her dying body. In the end, she had died—her toothless, thin-haired, flabby-fleshed mother—and Miss Mijares had pushed against the bed in grief and also in gratitude. But neither Love nor glory stood behind her, only the empty shadows, and nine years gone, nine years. In the room of her unburied dead, she had held up her hands to the light, noting the thick, durable fingers, thinking in a mixture of shame and bitterness and guilt that they had never touched a man.
When she returned to the bleak replacement office, the man stood by a window, his back to her, half-bending over something he held in his hands. “Here,” she said, approaching, “have you signed this?”
“Yes,” he replied, facing her.
In his hands, he held her paperweight, an old gift from long ago, a heavy wooden block on which stood, as though poised for flight, an undistinguished, badly done bird. It had come apart recently. The screws beneath the block had loosened so that lately it had stood upon her desk with one wing tilted unevenly, a miniature eagle or swallow? Felled by time before it could spread its wings. She had laughed that day it had fallen on her desk, plop! “What happened? What happened?” they had asked her, beginning to laugh, and she had said, caught between amusement and sharp despair, “Someone shot it,” and she had laughed and laughed till faces turned and eyebrows rose and she told herself, whoa, get a hold, a hold, a hold!
He had turned it and with a penknife tightened the screws and dusted it. In this man’s hands, cupped like that, it looked suddenly like a dove.
She took it away from him and put it down on her table. Then she picked up his paper and read it.
He was a high school graduate. He was also a carpenter.
He was not starved, like the rest. His clothes, though old, were pressed and she could see the cuffs of his shirt buttoned and wrapped about big, strong wrists.
“I heard about this place,” he said, “from a friend you got a job at the pier.” Seated, he towered over her, “I’m not starving yet,” he said with a quick smile. “I still got some money from that last job, but my team broke up after that and you don’t get too many jobs if you’re working alone. You know carpentering,” he continued, “you can’t finish a job quickly enough if you got to do the planning and sawing and nailing all by your lone self. You got to be on a team.”
Perhaps he was not meaning to be impolite? But for a jobseeker, Miss Mijares thought, he talked too much and without call. He was bursting all over with an obtruding insolence that at once disarmed and annoyed her.
So then she drew a slip and wrote his name on it. “Since you are not starving yet,” she said, speaking in English now, wanting to put him in his place, “you will not mind working in our woodcraft section, three times a week at two-fifty to four a day, depending on your skill and the foreman’s discretion, for two or three months, after which there might be a call from outside we may hold for you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
He came on the odd days, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday.
She was often down at the shanty that housed their bureau’s woodcraft, talking with Ato, his foreman, going over with him the list of old hands due for release. They hired their men on a rotation basis and three months was the longest one could stay.
“The new one there, hey,” Ato said once. “We’re breaking him in proper.” And she looked across several shirted backs to where he stopped, planing what was to become the side of a bookcase.
How much was he going to get? Miss Mijares asked Ato on Wednesday. “Three,” the old man said, chewing away on a cud. She looked at the list in her hands, quickly running a pencil down. “But he’s filling a four-peso vacancy,” she said. “Come now,” surprised that she should wheedle so, “give him the extra peso.” “Only a half,” the stubborn foreman shook his head, “three-fifty.”
“Ato says I have you to thank,” he said, stopping Miss Mijares along a pathway in the compound.
It was noon, that unhappy hour of the day when she was oldest, tiredest—when it seemed the sun put forth cruel fingers to search out the signs of age on her thin, pinched face. The crow’s feet showed unmistakably beneath her eyes and she smiled widely to cover them up and squinting a little, said, “Only a half-peso—Ato would have given it to you eventually.”
“Yes, but you spoke for me,” he said, his big body heaving before her. “Thank you, though I don’t need it as badly as the rest, for to look at me, you would know I have no wife—yet.”
She looked at him sharply, feeling the malice in his voice. “I’d do it for any one,” she said and turned away, angry and also ashamed, as though he had found out suddenly that the ruffles on her dress rested on a flat chest.
The following week, something happened to her: she lost her way home.
Miss Mijares was quite sure she had boarded the right jeepneys but the driver, hoping to beat traffic, had detoured down a side alley, and then seeing he was low on gas, he took still another shortcut to a filling station. After that, he rode through alien country.
The houses were low and dark, the people shadowy, and even the driver, who earlier had been an amiable, talkative fellow, now loomed like a sinister stranger over the wheel. Through it all, she sat tightly, feeling oddly that she had dreamed of this, that some night not very long ago, she had taken a ride in her sleep and lost her way.
Again and again, in that dream, she had changed direction, losing her way each time, for something huge and bewildering stood blocking the old, familiar road home.
But that evening, she was lost only for a while. The driver stopped at a corner that looked like a little known part of the boulevard she passed each day and she alighted and stood on a street island, the passing headlights playing on her, a tired, shaken woman, the ruffles on her skirt crumpled, the hemline of her skirt awry.
The new hand was absent for a week. Miss Mijares waited on that Tuesday he first failed to report for some word from him sent to Ato and then to her. That was regulation. Briefly though they were held, the bureau jobs were not ones to take chances with. When a man was absent and he sent no word, it upset the system. In the absence of a definite notice, someone else who needed a job badly was kept away from it.
“I went to the province, ma’am,” he said, on his return.
“You could have sent someone to tell us,” she said.
“It was an emergency, ma’am,” he said. “My son died.”
A slow bitter anger began to form inside her. “But you said you were not married!”
“No, ma’am,” he said gesturing.
“Are you married?” she asked loudly.
“But you have—you had a son!” she said.
“I am not married to his mother,” he said, grinning stupidly, and for the first time she noticed his two front teeth were set widely apart. A flush had climbed to his face, suffusing it, and two large throbbing veins crawled along his temples.
She looked away, sick all at once.
“You should have told us everything,” she said and she put forth hands to restrain her anger but it slipped away and she stood shaking despite herself.
“I did not think,” he said.
“Your lives are our business here,” she shouted.
It rained that afternoon in one of the city’s fierce, unexpected thunder-storms. Without warning, it ceased to shine outside and the skies were overcast. The rains gave the world outside Miss Mijares’ window a gray, unhappy look.
It was past six when Miss Mijares ventured outside the office. Night had come swiftly and from the dark sky, the thick, black, rainy curtain continued to fall. She stood on the curb, telling herself she must not lose her way tonight. When she flagged a jeepney and got in, somebody jumped in after her. She looked up into the carpenter’s faintly smiling eyes. She nodded her head once in recognition and then turned away.
The cold tight fear of the old dream was upon her. Before she had time to think, the driver had swerved his vehicle and swung into a side street. Perhaps it was a different alley this time, but it wound itself in the same tortuous manner as before, now by the banks of overflowing esteros, again behind faintly familiar buildings. She bent her tiny, distraught face, conjuring in her heart the lonely safety of the street island she had stood on for an hour that night of her confusion.
“Only this far, folks,” the driver spoke, stopping his vehicle. “Main street’s a block straight ahead.”
“But it’s raining,” someone protested.
“Sorry. But if I get into that traffic, I won’t come out of it in a year. Sorry.”
One by one the passengers got off, walking swiftly, disappearing in the night.
Miss Mijares stepped down to a sidewalk in front of a boarded store. The wind had begun again and she could hear it whipping in the eaves above her head. “Ma’am,” the man’s voice sounded at her shoulders, “I am sorry if you thought I lied.”
She gestured, bestowing pardon.
Up and down the empty, rain-beaten street she looked. It was as though all at once everyone else had died and they two were alone in the world, in the dark.
In her secret heart, Miss Mijares’ young dreams fluttered faintly to life, seeming monstrous in the rain, near this man—seeming monstrous but sweet and overwhelming. I must get away, she thought wildly, but he had moved and brushed against her, and where his touch had fallen, her flesh leaped, and she recalled how his hands had looked that first day, lain tenderly on the edge of her desk and about the wooden bird (that had looked like a moving, shining dove) and she turned to him with her ruffles wet and wilted, in the dark she turned to him.