My mother told me how lucky I was to be Raul’s wife. Unlike her, I had chosen to marry my husband. “During our time, our parents decided whom we should marry,” she told me.”Teyi bagi kan, you are not a dwey and there is no sign of looking for a second wife in your husband’s face either.” This would always crop up in our conversations about her and my father. Although she never admitted it, she envied my freedom.
Yes, my mother was right. Even Maria, my high school friend, praised me every time I passed by her fish stall at the market. “You look younger every time I see you, Bea,” she said, waving her hands and inviting me to come closer. “Your husband really loves flesh. Ah, uhm, fresh! I mean, like these fresh tilapias, fresh tomatoes. But you look fresher than them. Don’t you?” And then she laughed in the way that irritated me. “Well, who would love to eat rotten food after all?” I answered, shooing away the flies that might ruin her fresh display.
Raul made it a point to spend time with me. When he came home from his office in the municipal hall, we enjoyed our “family” time together. Only the two of us. Thinking about Raul made me realize how fortunate I was compared to other women there. Grilling tilapia was not easy, but it made me happy when he praised my simple accomplishments in a day: doing the laundry, keeping the house clean, and welcoming his visitors. “My wife does it all. That is why I am very lucky to have her in my house,” he boasted to his friends during his thirtieth birthday. “Can you imagine how she does it?” He wrapped his arms around me as he gave me a sweet kiss.
After five years of hoping that I could bear a child, we finally both gave up and adopted Priscilla. Although I did not feel her growing in my womb and sucking at my breast, she was our child. I heard her first chuckles and cries. She relieved me of my tiredness as I was busied myself with daily routine around her. I could not compare to any other the joy I felt when I first heard her calling me “Mama”. I could not put into words and tears the happiness that I felt, realizing that I was indeed a mother. Her mother.
As I saw Priscilla growing up, I also saw my husband enjoying the love and responsibility of a father. He woke up in the middle of the night to prepare milk for Priscilla, he stretched his arms to guard her as she took her first step, he put a ribbon in her kinky hair, took a day off from work to watch her dancing during her Kindergarten Recognition day. Priscilla gave us all the reasons to appreciate life. Until one fateful day.
Priscilla and I were left at home. I had just finished weeding our flower garden in the backyard, which I used to do after cooking breakfast. I thought she was just sleeping then, so I didn’t bother waking her up. Besides, she had no class because it was Saturday. But when I woke her up for her breakfast, she was shivering with fever.
We stayed at the hospital for almost one week, but our girl gave up. She died at the age of seven because of pneumonia. Raul had managed to carry her casket during her funeral. For two days, no words escaped either of us. I thought, perhaps, Priscilla was not really meant to have become our daughter.
After the death of our daughter, my husband turned his attention to work— always working overtime, always attending out-of-town meetings. As the months passed by, I saw him in the house less and less. “I miss a child’s presence in this house,” he would always tell me. Being alone in the house only made me think that my husband would leave me sooner or later. I got used to rowing a banca in the lake by myself to pass the time and cast my negative thoughts, my problems, and my frustrations to the depths of the water.
I was on my way home from the lake when I met my husband’s friend on the lakeshore. He informed me that Raul would be coming home that afternoon, so I passed by the market to buy fish. I said to myself, I must prepare a special meal for him.
Maria’s was just a few steps away. She was sprinkling water on her fresh products, the flies flying above them and even above her head. Her youngest daughter was crying beside her, pulling the hem of her mother’s dress. But Maria did not seem to hear her child crying. At first she ignored her, but when the child cried harder, she lulled her in a soothing voice and pulled out her sagging breast. Oh, she was really a mother after all!
Maria was fixing her daughter’s hair when she saw me. She signaled for me to come closer. She did not offer her fish on display. Instead, she spoke the words which I never wanted to hear in all my life as a wife, although Raul had mentioned it and I knew that sooner or later somebody else would tell me. “Bea, I heard Raul is coming home with a dwey?” She asked so as to confirm what I had already expected would happen. “Is it true that the woman is a daughter of a datu in another town? My brother-in-law told me they already have a one-year-old son…the woman is…” Her puckering mouth exaggerating this hearsay, buzzing in my mind, Maria’s face blurred and all I could remember was the cry of her child when she was refused to offer her other breast. I felt the urge to run home.
I walked in the street like a lost soul. I couldn’t feel the ground nor see the faces of the people passing and approaching me. My eyes were only fixed on the house that my husband and I built together with prayers for a strong family. The house that became our home. Our home. But until when would it stay as such, now that the very life I had come to know and love was under threat?
I found myself standing in the doorway. It stood wide open. Luggage was sitting in a chair, some bags were on top of our table. The door of our room was ajar and all I could see was the arc of his back as he fixed our bed.
A young woman was standing beside the window looking outside. A child, a tottering boy, was playing with a ball on the floor. They were the newest members of this family, there was no doubt about it. “This is Claudia,” he introduced her casually, as easy as my father had introduced his dwey to me and my mother as if he were introducing an old friend. It was like presenting a crying child with a beautiful doll in the hopes of making it better. But he did not need to explain further why the woman should be in the house, either.
The woman glared at me. Maybe she could clean the house better and make orchids in the backyard bloom, I thought.
After lunch, Raul brought them to the lake. From my window, I could see them in the banca, the same way we had rowed it before, making themselves to the heart of the lake. It was the picture of a perfect family: father, mother, and the child. The husband cuddled his child in his fatherly arms, drew him affectionately to his chest like a precious jewel. They stayed there until dusk, watching the birds returning to the forest.
By the time they came home, I had just finished preparing our dinner. Our table looked too small now that there were four of us sitting around it.
Claudia stared at the food Raul put on her plate and when he asked her to eat, she ran like a child towards their room, the room which used to be mine and my husband’s. “Pregnant women are unpredictable,” he murmured. But how would I know? I never knew what it could be like, I would never know. He followed her to the room without finishing his food and brought her the plate she hadn’t even touched, like an obedient and loyal servant. From their room, I could hear murmurs until she screamed “I don’t want that food. I don’t want to see her, either!”
Silence fell upon the house.
My husband was sleeping with her. He did not remember, did not even consider his sobbing wife in another room, whose only comfort was the cold embrace of the blowing wind. But I would not disturb him. I would not demand his time. I would demand only his love, however meager. The same love he gave to her.
I heard a knock on my half open door. Raul was standing there, wearing his blue shirt and pajamas, hiding his still broad shoulders in the shadow of the doorway.
Tense and uneasy, my eyes surveyed the lake outside my window and noticed the silhouette of a floating cottage, still and perfectly lying on the water. It rested on its cold surface, like the bamboo floor that felt smooth and chilly under my bare feet. I looked away from the lake’s solitude and stole a glance at his now welling eyes, which were searching for the words to say in the distressed look in my eyes.
“I am sorry,” he said. I did not want to look at him but I could not bring myself to look away. “She is pregnant and it’s not good for her to lose her temper.” His voice was low, his eyes pleading. I did not reply. I did not know how to, either.
The lightest of his kisses grazed my cheek. How I wished it could have lasted longer this subtle act that we shared, but as his lips brushed my face, I could only feel the coldness of dawn’s breeze emanating from them. He left and I could only follow his shadow to the door.
I went to my banca and put it out into the lake. The banca was my companion. It brought me anywhere, anywhere that I wanted to be, without any complaints, without restrictions, without asking for anything in return. Though I had never tried rowing in the lake by myself at such an hour, I knew I would always love it this way. At night. When it was silent. And I had only myself for company. The night was cold. The sky was dark. Maybe, the birds had also fallen asleep; they were not singing anymore.
As my paddle struck the water, I drifted farther from our house. The light from the fluorescent lamp in the cottage created broken pieces of silver on the water as I disturbed its calm, still surface with each stroke. As I rowed faster, the water splashed onto my tired face. My face wanted to feel the cold, colder than it could ever have become, until it made me numb and I would not be able to feel anything. It was relaxing, there in the middle of the lake. The ripples in the water were lulling me to sleep.
Now I understood why water lilies bloomed in this lake. They didn’t worry if they could have daughters or not; they were not bothered with searching for another lake if they ever became unhappy. My vision started to blur and the muscles in both my arms throbbed but I wanted to live in the water. I wanted to stay. I wanted to feel its warmth; the warmth of generous acceptance. My daughter died. My husband was now the husband of another. He was as good as dead. My banca and I were floating away; we left the shore, and now we were leaving our house.
The fading light from the moon slowly disappeared. The dark clouds must have covered it. Tomorrow it would be raining as it has been for these past few days.
I could see nothing but the darkness on nights when a downpour would, in the morning, bring news of the death of tilapia. I didn’t want the kamahong to happen. The smell of death would just be all over the lake. But then again, it was a natural phenomenon that nobody could control. I had no choice but to endure the stench and continue with my daily routine.
At the moment while the lake was still silent and beautiful, I would stay there. Above the water and among the lilies, I stared into the dark skies, imagining the days Raul and I shared together in the same lake. Those were of a different time, memories that now belonged to the two people who rested side by side in that familiar house across the lake.
Joy Rodriguez is a BA English (Creative Writing) student of UP Mindanao.