The main dusty road is a gray strip, parted in between rice paddies and bamboo groves, which in turn separate the sawali houses, which all look the same: poor.
Midnight Express is whining intolerably, droning monotonously, a great burden on the road. It is running the course of an empty highway, blank, soul-less, a chunk of the earth bulldozed for the sake of changing the landscape of a previously thick jungle. The highway seems much longer than it should, neither of them have an idea of what to expect. It is the land waiting for them, 850 square feet purchased blindly, driven by a powerful impulse. It’s too late to be sorry to begin the adventure. It is the white man’s adventure more than hers. In her heart, she hears the coherent stab of fear.
Midnight Express passes two short bridges after a junction. Somewhere along a house painted hot-pink; and after that, the bigger, elongated house of Iglesia Ni Kristo. If it were a Catholic Church, perhaps the driver would have made the sign of the cross—a quickie sign-of-the-cross—as it has been done since time immemorial by all the living souls of the island that is only one of thousands in a country synonymous to Magellan—who had not been too careful he was hacked to death by a native warrior named after a fish (or rather a fish was named after him).
Three or four listless poor faces peer out. They take obligatory glances as if by any chance the monotony of their lives might evaporate before their eyes. As if by any chance a movie star might be passing through.
From around the bend, Pasadeña is here.
They step down from Midnight Express by the sari-sari store where they were told to stop and to look for Imelda, the caretaker of Ma’am Grace’s house, where they will have to stay for the time being. Immediately she puts away their belongings in a house of dark wood, which is next door from the store. Imelda insists on carrying the baggage despite her frail limbs. An adolescent boy helps her.
“Your son?” the woman asks. Imelda nods. She has missing teeth that she covers with her hand when she smiles.
“What’s your name?”
“Jojo.” The boy avoids her eyes. Imelda does not smile when the woman asks after the father, and the boy leaves hurriedly.
Imelda offers them a plate of boiled sweet potatoes. The white man takes one and dips it in a saucer of whiter sugar that the maid says must be eaten with the potatoes.
“Masarap,” he says in the native language—provoking a length of giggling from Imelda.
His wife surveys the house, which is sparsely furnished. There is a single long table with benches, and a wooden sofa, crudely made, but suitable to the house’s unfinished architecture.
There is a cat sitting by what resembles a sink in the kitchen.
After all these years her feet will have to feel again the creaky bamboo slats under her soles. This may be one of the few childhood sensations she could relish, this is what she’s been missing from being away, her tender spot; the rest will have to haunt her again, and she secretly wishes her husband would soon enough give up his plan. Why did she have to take him here?
The white man sits on the entrance steps, his long thin legs dangling over the landing. The sun disappears early on this island, but he watches the sky nevertheless. He has told his wife he could live anywhere as long as he could have a view of the sky, and here in Pasadeña the sky is giving him a gift he will never forget for the rest of his life. It paints an orange, a blue, a grey, a yellow that his consciousness seems to be recording for the first time. They hover above him as if he could touch them or pick the colors with his fingers. He sits longer watching, and when the sky is finally black, he goes to the bedroom to find his wife curled under a mosquito netting.
The morning of the following day, Nadia writes in her diary:
He did not make love to me.
Her husband is up, out of bed, by the first crowing of the rooster, before the sun peeps and tries to smile upon a poor village. He didn’t sleep much, voices were disturbing him, and dreams turning upside down. When will they end? When will the spirit of his dead mother kiss him a lovely good night, sweet dreams mon lapin.
He kissed her bonjour, and left the room with his toothbrush.
The mattress on the floor is snuggled within the walls of the room. Books on tropical agriculture and herbal plants are lined vertically, from the biggest to the smallest, against the wall. A sailboat postcard rested on a scaffold; beside it a baby picture of a French boy, brown hair flipping up above his shoulder. The boy is wearing a gray wool turtleneck. He appears to be smiling but one is not sure of a smile like that. (He may have been a happy child.)
Inside her something stirs, she wonders what of it. Was it the orderliness of the room? Everything in its proper place, arranged as neatly as a church altar. Her husband must have done it so early this morning while she was still asleep. He is always up so early. Why does she not feel she is part of the order?
Inside the mosquito netting, she tries taking stock, waiting for her husband to return. He must be done brushing his teeth by now. In the kitchen eggs are frying sunny-side-up in the hiss of cooking oil.
Your wife sleeping – she hears Imelda the maid asking him.
And she hears him say – Yes she’s still asleep. Even though he knows otherwise, and he will not be checking on her.
The nipa window is a square framing the side view of the school. The bell rings. Below the flagpole poor little children are going to sing the national anthem.
How could it be that, thousands of miles away from their apartment in Paris, there is an elementary school like the ecole primaire behind the courtyard where children scream when they play, and their neighbor Simone at the rez de chausse would throw buckets of water over the wall to shut them up.
In this school in Paris, the children don’t sing the Marseillaise. They run around the chestnut trees at recess time. They scream, they fight. Every day Nadia watches them from the kitchen’s double window when she cooks. She loves their wild outbursts as much as her neighbor detests them. Simone watches TV all night with her cat and sleeps all morning. In the summer she takes her breakfast on the terrace while Nadia, three floors above her, is making lunch and hanging on the window the laundry that drips down on the terrace.
If only she could hear the sound of a baby crying out of her womb.
Here in Pasadeña, the children’s voices, if measured, doubles in intensity as the sound is released from their collective lips. In the silence of a faraway village, everything is to be heard, the echoes playing around the space. She could choose to hear the sounds offered to her ears.
It is 8:15.
The roosters are at their peak of crowing they can’t seem to stop themselves in their disorderly chorus.
In the kitchen he says – uu-lan ba nga-yon. Will it rain today? He could not catch the nga syllable.
The maid repeats for him – nga-yon.
Nga. Nga. Nga. Comme D’Artagnan.
And, yes, my rabbit, it looks like it might rain today. The geckoes say so.
Last night Nadia counted the beats of their geckoing; on this island where she grew up, geckoes predict the season, rain only or shine only. Wet or dry. The winds blowing amihan or habagat. A country of extreme dualities, of great polarities. A country she had always wanted to run away from. Seven beats. It means rain.
From the bedroom window a sweet breath of wind forced itself through. The schoolchildren are marching into the classroom. Nadia rises and gets her toothbrush.
Her husband has gone to the land by them. She takes her breakfast of the leftover boiled sweet potatoes and makes a trip to the outhouse in the backyard. Dust and aged cobwebs surround the fragile cubicle. She had to squeeze in a pail of water to have her private bath, which she managed uneasily, reminding herself that this is camping, not real life, wherein she could pour drops of lavender oil in her hot bath.
In the bedroom she takes her time applying lotion on her arms and legs as if she’s tanning herself in the Jardin du Luxembourg during hot summer days. She remembers she will have to stop wearing shorts, her husband says so.
She hears the echoes of hammering dispersing in the air. Excitement takes over. She runs out of the house. Her steps are made quicker by this, looking for the land, only to find the source of the hammering sound from the neighboring house where a farmer and his wife and three
little children live.
“Excuse me ho,” she says, “have you seen a foreigner?”
The response is a finger pointed towards a vague direction. She herself is a vague illusion. Who is this woman pretending to speak like one of us? And the white man before her? Are they sent by the saints or the government?
By the curve of the neighbor’s house, she sees nothing in the shrubs of green, a bush hiding her husband. A white man whose skin, by now a perfect bronze, blends with nature. A few steps inward and there his brown cotton shirt is hanging on a hook of a tree.
A pause, briefly, to recollect something familiar.
He coucoues back, emerging from the foliage. And in his right hand, a bolo.
“It will take you forever to clear this land,” she says.
“I have all the time,” he says.
“No, you don’t.”
“What do you mean?” he is annoyed. “There is no meaning of time in this place. Time belongs to me.”
“I mean, you should get help. Ask the neighbor, they seem like a nice family.”
“It’s your job to ask them. This is your island, isn’t it?”
“Okay,” she mumbles, “I’ll ask later.”
She does not know how to begin helping him. The job of clearing the land is immense. She does not know how to use a bolo. Neither does he. Imelda gave him the bolo this morning, courtesy of Mister Cacal, the owner of the sari-sari store who is starting on good footing with the white man.
At the end of a day, the school bell also rings. And the children also sing. In a day it begins and ends the same way. A complete circle in one day.
At 3:00 in the afternoon classes end. It is precisely at this hour when the maid’s son tiptoes into the bedroom while Nadia is taking her siesta, and slowly lifts her dress up to her thighs, taking a peek at the point of the triangle.
It was the bell, a sharp ding-dong that woke her from a nap.
The boy flees.
She had to move, rising quickly from the bed, perhaps out of shock. She wonders, her hand held against her throat, what her husband, at that very moment, was doing.
Through the window the cashew trees towered above the red-white-and-blue flags. The same color as the flag of her husband’s country very far away. In the frontyard mounds of broken tree branches scattered like decorative pieces.
Before the children are set free for the day, they sweep away fallen leaves with coconut broomsticks, and their teacher standing before them with hands to her waist, give the order. This, That, and There.
Nadia makes tea. She sips it slowly, thinking through the haze of her mind: was it normal to have felt violated by a boy?
The schoolchildren walk past the brown house carrying their books.
At the end of the day, they go home. Afterwards they queue for the well at the backyard of the dark-wood house, where Nadia can see them from the window, watching them lift plastic buckets of water, arm pulled down on one side, head tilted like a broken puppet, their shuffled feet dancing awkwardly. There is no running water in this village. The backyard well is their lifeline. Nadia will meet every mother and every child in this backyard.
The dark-wood house is the second house after the sari-sari store, which is owned by a man named Mister Cacal, whose wife is rarely seen because she has her moods. They seem quite old to have two adolescent boys, Grebing and Norbing. Imelda says the children are adopted. By contrast, the third house is overflowing, you can hear the children rise at dawn and talk rapidly at breakfast. The mother used to keep Imelda company but not anymore. She has about a dozen children or maybe more, can’t keep up with the numbers. Oddly the children are paired in appearance, like twins, so that one is mistaken for the other. Occasionally her husband is away, Imelda says he works in the mountains (but she avoids telling what kind of work).
The fourth house is empty and also unfinished, as if its inhabitants changed their minds and just left. The fifth has a charming balcony, which has a Merry Christmas bunting pinned on the wall — which therefore makes it easy to guess that it is owned by the people running the sari-sari store decorated by the same Merry Christmas bunting, on the other side of the school. They are Mister Cacal’s competitor. The man of the house smiles at her husband when he walks by the house on his way to the land; later they will know the meaning of that smile.
And the last on the road is a downtrodden thatched hut where an old man sits on the mud floor by the door, waiting for destiny to take him away. He lives with his half-blind daughter who has an illegitimate son, who will one day find the courage to leave his little prison and sing his love songs in the dusty roads of Pasadeña.
Nadia will know the other souls of the village in due time.
Imelda comes through the kitchen door. Nadia is sipping her tea, which she had to bring with her because nobody around here drinks tea. It is deadening her nerves. She is contemplating punishment for the boy.
“Do you know what your son has done?” She tells the maid, attempting to speak calmly as if she were describing her observation of the ant formation on the table.
Done with that she climbs down from the kitchen stairs, taking a towel with her, for an afternoon bath in the outhouse, leaving the maid numb and stiff-scared in the kitchen. The heat is beginning to suffocate her.
Her thoughts, again, are on her husband.
The maid runs after her as she prepares to leaves the house, a dramatic scene about to unfold. Imelda has recovered from her shock and so she must do something now to undo her son’s misbehavior. She pulls Nadia back, with surprising force her matchstick limbs could summon, begging, pleading, “let me have the suffering for my son.”
Nadia releases the maid’s hand from her elbows, gently. She is unprepared for this, and felt a homegrown kind of guilt towards this woman. “Please don’t talk to me like that,” she says, taking the maid aback. “Find your son. You teach him a lesson.”
She leaves the woman standing by the gate, looking afflicted with a sort of pain that annoyed her. She walks as fast as she could to the land, where her husband has been chopping down the weeds since this morning, as if determined to end the day for a good reason.
He laughs when she tells him of the maid’s son.
“He’s got a crush on you, that’s all! Every man in this village will have a crush on you, you’re probably the first pretty woman they’ve seen.”
That is not the reaction she had expected, although she didn’t know what reaction she was expecting. By not knowing, she becomes silent.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” She says defensively. But her mind says, “Yes.”
“He’s just a little idiot playing a joke.”
“What if he had raped me?”
He continues chopping. “Aren’t you exaggerating?”
The peeping boy was not present at the table for supper. His mother looked all over the dark for him. When the white man and his wife have gone to bed, the bastard son will slip into the dark-wood house and sleep beside his mother on the bamboo kitchen floor. He will be awake and gone before the white man comes down for his breakfast.