A Filipino Child’s First Pantheon
Nanay [na-nye]• Mommy, Mother
Tatay [ta-tye]• Daddy, Father
Até [ah-teh]• term of respect for an older female, such as an older sister
Kuya [koo-yah]• term of respect for an older male, such as an older brother
Lola [lo-la]• Grandma, Grandmother; or a term of respect for any woman of your grandparents’ generation (Lolo, Grandpa, Grandfather)
Tita [tee-ta]• Auntie; or a term of respect for any woman of your parents’ generation (Tito, Uncle)
‘Sus, Mari‘Osep [soos, mah-ree-oh-sep] • Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Jing wanted to hunt monkeys in the breadfruit grove—give the little thieves a good scare and laugh at the monkey-shaped holes left in the foliage—but as usual, Gisele was being a goody-goody, fussing about dirtying her dress.
“My mother said—“
“Nakú!” Jing huffed. “How are you supposed to play if you’re always worried about getting dirty? Doesn’t your yaya wash your clothes?”
Gisele nodded slowly, still reluctant. It was a rose-colored dress today, not her best, but she always looked nicer than Jing. Jing, too small for the clothes handed down from her older sister. Dust in her hair from reading under Nanay’s truck.
Jing said, “Then what does your mother have to do with it?”
She knew she was being shockingly rude. Tita Esther, Gisele’s mother, was the village Doktora, a real medical doctor with a clinic by the river. She wore smooth, tailored things brought from Manila, and demanded spotless minds of her children, as well as spotless clothes. She always had a smile for Jing, who was Most Likely to Succeed at school. But the Doktora was not here, and Gisele would probably not tell.
Gisele, though, lifted her chin and said, “Well, maybe I don’t want to dirty my dress!”
Jing wrinkled her nose. “But Gisele, it’s fun. It’s way more fun than anything you could do without getting dirty! Please?”
“Sometimes the monkey even throws breadfruit at you!”
“What’s good about that?”
“It’s funny! Please?”
Jing knew she would win. She also knew that Gisele would have fun, if only she could get over being so prim.
Just then Nanay’s shrill call came from the kitchen door, insistent.
“Hoy! Jing! Get your sister and Badong out of your father’s garden before he comes home and beats them black and blue!”
Gisele had opened her mouth, had probably been about to agree, but now she said, “I guess we’d better.”
Jing groaned. A moment longer, and they could have been away to the breadfruit grove, where Nanay’s voice could not be heard. She began to stomp toward the garden. “Come on,” she said. “But it probably doesn’t even matter. Tatay never beats Bebot.”
“And my mother never beats Badong,” Gisele added, sucking her teeth.
Bebot was generally spoiled, but Tatay especially spoiled her. It had all started with the War, with Tatay bringing things home from the Commissary. Those sacks of chocolate. New clothes. Little luxuries, like white sugar and wheat flour and cheese. Bebot always got the first taste or glimpse or touch. Tatay then allowed Bebot to accompany him into the garden in the evenings, his garden which only last summer had been so sacrosanct that he would beat any child disturbing his agricultural projects, with a length of knotted rope he kept for the purpose. Even Jing’s eldest sister Virda did not escape. Last summer, Virda harvested a cauliflower he’d been cultivating for seed, under her mother’s direction to take “the biggest one” from the garden, for company. Tatay beat Virda so hard that her calves blossomed with welts, so painful that she had to sleep on her belly for a week.
Not so with Bebot. She alone dared to squat beside Tatay in the garden, listening to his words about the plants. Sometimes she just played with fallen leaves and dirt while he squatted among the green rows, teaching each plant to resist disease and hungry pests by applying mysterious concoctions brought back from the city. Sometimes he appeared to do nothing but talk to the plants, or breathe on them, and Jing could see the garden growing under his gaze, she would swear it, as if his face were the sun itself.
Before Bebot, long ago, but not so long ago that she had forgotten, Jing was the baby. She remembered fearing her father’s rope, even then. But it was not so with Bebot. Bebot wandered in the garden without fear, and waited by the road every afternoon, looking for Tatay, looking forward to climbing into his lap.
Jing stopped short of the garden’s boundaries, marked by a low fence of wood gleaned from fallen trees, with one hand out to stop Gisele. Bebot and Badong squatted under the broad leaves of a misplaced taro plant, in the part of the garden devoted to flowers. They had plucked up a number of marigolds (Jing felt her scalp crawl in dread at the thought of what Tatay might say to that), lined them up like little soldiers, and given them military haircuts with a pair of scissors they’d found who-knows-where. They were feeding the little soldiers at a mess made of sticks. The meal seemed, disgustingly enough, to be a combination of garden dirt, dried chicken manure, and the flower petals that had lately been the soldiers’ hair.
Bebot finished snipping the last of the flower petals into a bright garnish for the mud hash, and stood the scissors in the mud, its blades akimbo. Jing thought she heard her say, “Now, Tatay says to eat.”
Something about Bebot’s completely peaceful face wounded Jing like a poke in the eye. Jing was suddenly sure that Bebot would not get beaten for trampling marigolds or chopping off their heads. Not only because Tatay favored Bebot, but because no one had gotten beaten for anything lately, not since December. Tatay was too worried about the War to worry about some dead marigolds.
“Come on, you two,” Jing called out. She still would not approach too closely. “Nanay says to get out of the garden, before Tatay comes home.”
Bebot and Badong turned to her, faces smeared with the flower-men’s meal.
Gisele spoke up, “She says he’ll be very angry! Do you want a spanking?”
Neither little face looked all that alarmed. Did they even know what a spanking was?
Jing then had an idea. “Look,” she said, “We’ll take you fishing.”
“Fishing?” Gisele asked, looking worried.
“Don’t worry about your dress. You don’t have to do anything.”
“Fishing!” yelled the little ones, jumping up and clambering over the flowers and the scissors. “Where? Where?”
Jing smiled. This would be nearly as fun as hunting monkeys.
The dozen or so homes of Dinaig were connected to each other and to the river by wooden walkways, to keep the villagers’ feet out of the everlasting mud and puddles. At the end of the Estoñas’ walkway, the outhouse leaned out over a pool that never drained, fed by the slowly ebbing estuary tides and by the household’s rich waste. Fish got trapped there, and grew so content and fat, thriving in the warm stagnancy, that they never went back to sea. They plumped to the size and appearance of swimming gray mangoes. River grass grew tall and bright green around the pool. If it weren’t for the smell, and the constant drip-drip from the bottom of the outhouse, it would have been a perfect place to spend a whole afternoon doing nothing.
Startling at the children’s approach, the fish darted for the bottom, sending up sluggish mud-clouds and making the long, voluptuous seaweeds sway. Jing herself was so excited by the bright flashes that she almost didn’t notice the odor.
Even Gisele admired the fish. “They really do look tasty,” she said.
“You don’t use a pole,” Jing told Badong. “You just scoop them. They’re very easy to catch. Try it.”
No encouragement needed! Badong lay down flat on the walkway, and would have plunked a hand in without hesitation, but Jing saw a striped river snake in the weeds and grabbed Badong’s hand before he struck it.
“Wait!” she gasped. Stupid kid. Nanay had first showed her the striped snakes when she was very small. One of the village dogs had worried a snake out of a puddle and killed it, but died of the poison on the spot, eyes slitted and surprised, the snake still in its jaws.
Jing stamped. Such a satisfying, big noise on the wooden planks. They watched the snake disappear into the weeds, black and scarlet.
“Idiót!” Jing scolded. “You idiótas play in the mud all day! Don’t you know yet to look for snakes?”
Gisele didn’t speak. Jing could tell she was scared, although she didn’t say anything.
But Badong, watching the weeds, finally cried, “It’s gone!”
And he darted his hand into the puddle, swishing it around vigorously. Bebot knelt beside him, eager for her turn. In no time he came up with a wriggling, silvery fish. Some slime dripped off his hand as well. Gisele found her voice, screaming with either disgust or hilarity, Jing couldn’t tell, while Jing exclaimed, “Wow, Badong, excellent! You’re a great fisherman!”
Bebot squealed and dropped to her belly, reaching a skinny arm into the muck.
“What do I do with it?” Badong screamed happily.
“Cook it,” Jing told him at once. “What do you think a fisherman catches fish for?”
“We can make our own merienda!” Bebot gushed, her voice a little lost as she leaned far out under the outhouse. “We can build a fire in the pit just like they do for lechon.”
“We can build our own house and live there every day!”
“Sure,” Jing said, pulling at Gisele’s arm. “But Gisele and I have homework. Make sure you bring Kuya Felizio some merienda if you have any left over, okay?”
As Jing and Gisele ran back to the house, the little ones chorused thanks behind them. “Salamat, Até! Salamat po!”
They would have laughed themselves breathless, if they hadn’t seen Bití, one of the maids, watching from the doorway as they came.
“Good afternoon, Até,” Bití whispered. They nodded briefly to her. Bití was a year older than Jing, but called her Até because Tatay had become like a santo in the village after giving away all of his own children’s clothes during the rainy season flooding. Bití was one of the teenaged girls that had silently lined up at the kitchen door since then, asking to be hired away from families with too many to feed.
Jing and Gisele barely kept from falling-down laughing out loud until they had passed almost completely around the house to the backyard, when they heard Bebot scream, “Hala! Look, Badong! Hala! Bigger than yours!”
But Lola, not Felizio, had merienda with the little ones that day. They brought her the fat, blackened fish on a banana leaf as she sat dozing in the shade of the breadfruit grove.
“Mmm, what’s this?” said the old woman, delightedly sniffing at the gift. She took one crusty bite. “Oh, delicious! Did you cook this?”
“Yes, Lola,” said Bebot proudly. “Badong caught it under the outhouse.”
Lola nearly killed herself dashing to the kitchen for clean water to wash her mouth, weeping and screaming for mercy from Santo Niño, Maria, Josép, and all the santos.
Bití watched it all, and told Nanay as soon as she came home from Upi.
That’s the story that Jing overheard later, anyway, from the isolation of her bedroom. She lay in the dark without supper, Tatay’s blows still stinging her bottom and the backs of her thighs. In the next room, Gisele and Badong blubbered audibly. They had been punished as well, by Tita Esther.
The four children had nearly escaped by hiding under the truck, but of course Bebot had ruined everything. Nanay called out that any child who didn’t show herself would have to stay out all night without supper, and Bebot, screaming over nothing, scrambled out of the hiding place and across the yard, revealing them all.
Bebot’s crying brought Tatay out of his garden. He had changed out of his Army khakis into the worn old canvas trousers he always used for gardening. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong with the child?” he asked quietly, laying a hand on her head as she clung to his leg.
“Your children fed your mother a fish that swam in shit!” Nanay shrilled. “Don’t you dare give that one any candy tonight!”
Bebot’s sobbing redoubled. She buried her face against Tatay’s hip.
Tita Esther was beside herself. The Doktora to the village was forever dispensing medicine to children with bellyaches. “They should all be beaten!”
How Gisele and Badong bawled! Jing, standing beside them, found herself despising them both so suddenly that she had to take a step away. She had never cried for a beating, never. And they hadn’t even been struck yet.
Nanay tsked. “The big girls put the little ones up to it,” she said. “Badong and Bebot didn’t know better.”
“Well, my children will know better forever after!”
Tita Esther made Gisele and Badong wait in the yard. They cried as if they would never stop, while she went away, to look for a whip, Jing supposed.
Bebot didn’t get beaten at all.
“Hoy!” Tatay said to Bebot, giving her a little shake and making her look up at him. “Do you know what happens when you eat dirty things? Worms grow inside you! Do you want worms to grow inside Lola?”
While Gisele and Badong might have been crying hard, Jing had never seen a performance like Bebot’s, when Tatay told her about the worms. Her screams rose so high and loud that the jungle itself fell silent. She collapsed to the ground at Tatay’s feet as if she had been struck, though all she had gotten was that one little shake. Jing expected, though it had been months since she had seen it, her father’s expression of anger. His calm face would harden, his lips would become very tight, and he would look as severe and cold as God himself must look, just before sending down typhoons and lightning.
But Tatay did not grow angry. Instead, his face was still, and his mouth frowned softly, sadly. He looked down at Bebot and scooped her up off the ground. She went on sobbing against him, as he carried her toward the house.
Jing was so stunned that she almost did not hear him when he said, as he passed her by, “Jing. You will wait there.”
Jing grew numb. She knew that he was going to look for his rope.
Tita Esther returned, sure enough, with a makeshift whip in her hand. It looked like the spit from the little ones’ burnt-out cooking fire, a bamboo shoot, very black on one end, but the other end was supple. Her children cowered and wept harder.
At first, Tita Esther only glared at Jing, but then she said, “Think you’re funny, hah? Most Likely to Succeed! You almost made two little children and an old woman very, very sick. Ha! An urchin, playing in the mud!”
Then Tita Esther went to work with her whip on Gisele and Badong. Jing stared down at her old dress, smeared with dirt from lying on her belly under the truck, trying to hide from her beating. Her dirty hands, her bare, dusty feet. She found herself gasping with sob after sob, letting the tears drip from the end of her nose.
She heard Tita Esther’s whip hit the ground, when her children’s begging finally made her drop it. They passed Jing on their way up to bed, Gisele and Badong’s weeping muffled in the sleeves of their mother’s beautiful dress. Jing would not look up.
Jing was still crying when Tatay returned with his knotted length of rope. She turned about and put her hands against the wall of the house. He quietly thrashed her. She ground her teeth. She could not stop her tears, but she would not scream.
The beating was not bad enough to scream about, anyway—only ten strokes, not very hard ones. Jing felt a little bewildered by the mildness of the blows. No way would she have welts like Virda’s last summer. Tatay left her there without speaking to her, without looking at her.
Nanay came out to Jing, then. She took Jing’s hands, one by one, and sponged them with a warm, wet cloth. She sponged Jing’s face, and last of all she held the cloth to Jing’s nose, so Jing could blow out the last of her crying.
“Stop now. You watch. They’ll be fine,” Nanay whispered. Jing was glad of the comfort, but almost wept again in frustration at being misunderstood. She didn’t care about Gisele and Badong getting so worked up about a beating.
Then Nanay said, “Lola and the little ones, they’ll be fine. Doktora, hah! She doesn’t know everything. You used to eat those fish all the time.”
Nanay was not smiling, exactly, but her face was gentle. And she did not embrace Jing, but her hands kept on caressing Jing’s face and hair, even after the washcloth was put away in one pocket. Then she slipped a pan de coca, a reheated breakfast roll spread with coconut oil and sugar, out of her other pocket and pressed it into Jing’s trembling hand.
“To bed, now, child,” Nanay said, and Jing went, feeling she had wept herself dry.
She didn’t think she’d have any stomach for the pan de coca, but when no one came for her at suppertime, and she had nothing to do but listen to the plates clink, and smell the boiled rice, the braised greens, the grilled pork, she ate the sweet bread in small pieces, to make it last. She had to pull up the edge of her mosquito net from where it was tucked under the mattress, so she could brush the crumbs off onto the floor, feeling stupid that she had not eaten in the yard when she had the chance. Well, if the ants decided to bite tonight, she would just have to scratch.
No one called up to tell her she was forgiven when Tatay cranked up the phonograph after dinner. It was her favorite record, Johann Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Tatay would not abandon it, even when Nanay speculated to him that supporters of the U.S. shouldn’t listen to “that German-sounding business.”
“Among the ruins there are still gardens to be cherished,” Tatay said to Nanay. “If we don’t keep Brahms and Beethoven for our own culture, Hitler will have truly won.”
Tatay called to Virda and Bebot to dance. Jing heard Felizio whoop, and Bebot squeal, and she imagined the great circle Bebot’s heels marked in the air as Felizio swung her around. Jing wondered whether Tatay had ever noticed that she, Jing, danced the most eagerly to the Hungarian Dances, leaped the longest, stomped with the best rhythm. She wondered if he had ever noticed that she was the only one who laughed along with him, when the music slowed to sweetness and stopped, then slammed to life again, faster than before. Even in her isolation, the music pulled at her, so that she almost crept downstairs. Then there was some murmuring, and Tatay began to sing.
O ilaw, sa gabing malamig. Oh my light, in the cold of the night.
A love song. One that the women giggled over, whispering about young men who crept out of the shadows under their windows. Offering flowers, taking flowers? Jing wasn’t sure.
Tatay stopped. When he started again, Bebot was singing with him, her silly treble voice almost a whistle beside his resonant baritone.
Wangis m’oy bituin sa langit. You’re like a star in the sky.
Jing shut her eyes and tried to keep the music out by putting her thin pillow over her head. But while Tatay’s voice became muffled by the pillow, Bebot’s voice was so ridiculously high that it cut through everything.
O tanglaw, sa gabing tahimik, Larawan mo, neneng, nagbigay pasakit. The vision of you, darling, brings me only pain. Ay!
Oh, that last, long note! The family downstairs laughed as Bebot held it, longer than Tatay. Jing kicked at her mattress, then had to sit up to tuck the mosquito net back in where she had loosened it at the foot of the bed, jabbing at it so forcefully that she put a hole through the gauzy fabric with one angry finger. She slammed her face back into the pillow. The nighttime murmurs of storytelling downstairs came through only as a hum. Jing knew the stories by heart, anyway. Nanay telling about how big Bebot had been when she was born: fat as a suckling pig, and just as greedy for milk, with a cry that set the whole hospital staff running. As if they never heard the cry of a baby conceived by the river, Nanay would finish, with her high, explosive laugh. Tatay’s stories about the might of America, before the War. About the first time, as a student in Manila, that he’d seen the airfield packed with majestic warplanes, marked with stars and stripes, parked wingtip-to-wingtip. Tatay told this story less and less, now that the American airfield was no more, and the skies above Manila filled only with planes bearing the Imperial red circle under their wings. The War was not yet here in Mindanao, Tatay said, but it was at the doorstep.
A new record on the phonograph, a long melodic strain of piano music, rising and falling with a sweetness and strength that squeezed Jing’s heart with longing.
At least, there was no more singing.
Later, when Virda and Bebot came up, Jing turned her back as Bebot approached to join her. “Don’t you open my mosquito net,” Jing growled at her. “Tattle-tale!”
She could still hear Bebot breathing behind her, standing close to the bed. “I’m sorry, Até,” Bebot said softly. Then she said, in an even lower voice, “I ate the little fish too. They were good. Do you think I’ll get worms?”
“I hope you die,” Jing said, unmoving.
Bebot began to cry.
“Rude thing!” Virda said, from across the room. “Jing, why are you so mean! You’re scaring her! Bebot, come here and sleep with me. You’re not going to die!”
Jing listened to Bebot’s blubbering until it wore out and stopped, and then she listened to the hum of mosquitoes, and to the growl of her stomach.
She closed her eyes, but could not sleep, and when she opened them again, she saw things in the dark. Impossible not to, when sleep wouldn’t come. Tita Esther’s cold and angry face, the memory of her voice mingling with the lurid banded colors of the river snake. Bebot trampling the garden. Tatay’s sad face, as he carried Bebot sobbing, and his odd reluctance to punish that had ended up doing Jing no good at all.
Photo By: Mike Linksvayer