White, Brown, Old, Young

Fiction by | September 26, 2010

My name is Ling-Ling and I am speaking from inside a jar. My place is no ordinary piece of container. Back in 1993, when my husband won a small-time lottery in Australia, he backpacked to China and spent a fortune on antique porcelains. One of the precious things he shipped to Australia is this huge Chinese porcelain jar from the 16th century, painted with blue intricate scenes of ancient Chinese life. But I am Filipino inside a Chinese jar in Australia. Is this an instance of globalization? At least I know I have finally ended up in an exquisite and expensive place.

Back where I came from—you cannot imagine—cows are as thin as the people in our town. Do not fret as I tell you: I come from Siquijor, a place where perhaps the rest of the Philippines thinks we only produce potions for sorcery and Barang. But I say Siquijor offers very few mysteries. The mystery comes from the fact that while its neighboring
towns (Tagbilaran, Dumaguete, and Cebu) continue to prosper, Siquijor remains a fourth class municipality. Isn’t that mystical?

I grew up in a small Barangay called Pasihagon. In all of Siquijor, I think we have the best view of the sunset. But when you grow up to see mundane sceneries such as the sunset, you tend to become apathetic to beauty. Most of the folks there assume that the play of red orange lights dominating the sky at around five or six in the afternoon happens all over the country. Perhaps historians got it all wrong. The Spaniards named our place Isla Del Fuego (Island of Fire) not because of swarming fireflies that make
the island “glow”, but because of the raging sunset burning in the sky. Believe me, sunsets here look hellish. Are we cursed? 

Not necessarily. Our place, though undeveloped, remains livable. You see, my father is a fisherman; he heads our village because, in all of Pasihagon, he’s got the most number of kids and relatives. Originally, there were eleven of us in the family. Two of my youngest siblings died during childbirth. Our youngest brother suffered from an unknown infection and died when he turned three. I have two other younger sisters—Tata and Mai. Tata is semi-retarded while Mai tries to be one. So I grew up mostly with my five elder brothers—Tito, Marlon, Jermaine, Jackie, and Michael. All named after the Jackson 5. Funny, my father never knew who those guys were. He only happened to pick up a glossy poster of them while he was once out at sea. That was precious.

My mother? I never knew what she was like. She never spoke anything—except to echo my father’s commands. But like any other woman in Siquijor, she works a lot harder than my father who only sets out at sea at late afternoon. She does all the chores by the way—cooking meals, feeding us, feeding the cocks, washing clothes, and selling my father’s catch. Sunset signals us to join her look for tuyom, suwake, and sasing for dinner. At night, she waits for my father to dock and pool his fresh catch near the shore. She’s the one who patiently takes out all basnig trapped from my father’s fishing net. She sells them to the night market after and comes home very late.

As a result, I sleep very late too. Insomniac, is that what it’s called? Mine was a result of suffocation. Inside our nipa hut, you can’t imagine, all eight of us squeeze ourselves on the floor, near the kitchen. Beside me is Tata who does not bathe for weeks. She is unimaginably polluted, but breathing. At night, the air is agonizingly thick and humid. We’re lucky with clear skies; we can force to close our eyes. Otherwise, we’d wrap ourselves with plastic so as not to wake up soaked from the rain. Hell, that’s poverty understated.

I’ll give you a true picture. My brothers and I started working as soon as we knew how to put white sands into sacks. I was about 8 years old. My elder brothers carry these sacks of sands into trucks of a construction company. Imagine five truckloads daily. Fifteen pesos per sack. The entire village at work. My brother Marlon’s classic question was, “What if we’ve reached the bottom of these sands?”

I don’t know. Then we would all have to be fishermen? No, back then, I really wanted to be like Lady Amy—the Amerikana who once lived in our village. Her skin, so smooth, soft, and smelled sweet, like a marshmallow. Together with her husband Johnny, they rented the construction owner’s house near us. At the time, the young couple was building a resort in San Juan. My parents were caretakers of the house. But I doubt they understood what Johnny or Lady Amy says. Communication was done through smiles and comical gestures.   

How could I forget Sundays at Lady Amy’s? Big Parties. The couple always invited kids to watch cartoons in their home. Outside, parents enjoy barbecuing with them. Talking. Eating. Laughter. Drinks. We fondly call Johnny Tito Santa Claus, because of his beer belly and candies for kids. Johnny and my father were best pals with the bottles. Drunkards. Johnnie Drinker. These are a few of their names.

With Lady Amy, one of my friends call her “Flor,” from that blinding light we never had at home—fluorescent, was it called? Yes, and I can only agree. On moonless nights, the glow from Lady Amy’s glass window is the only light that floods the village. What a
sight on a dead night. I often see her sitting at her desk, writing pages and pages for hours, as if one has to chronicle life from day one. It seemed so peaceful, whatever it was she did.

From days of watching Lady Amy write, I started daydreaming about going school. My father, he can read bit by bit. My mother can write, but only her signature. Not surprisingly, their children learned no more than a cat’s instinct for survival. Oh no, no—I was lucky. When my father declared that I go to Cang-alwang Elementary School, my
heart bounced out of my chest. That day, my mother looked supportive. Tata flipped from her chair. Mai followed her act. The Jackson 5 brothers were smiling. They were envious of course. The white sands at Pasihagon appeared to be bottomless for them.

But when did my father start believing in education? He hinted very little interest. He once implied that education is as vast as the sea. Beyond school halls and classroom walls, we learn more things in the open. Perhaps sea winds changed the direction of his thoughts. Why, I was neither his eldest nor his brightest child. I am female. Nothing special. I was little Ling-Ling—the dark girl who runs around Pasihagon sniffing snot endlessly up her nose.

I changed a lot when I started going to school. I liked the equality in wearing uniforms. I felt neat and adapted. Thus I handled elementary years well. In those years, they won’t give you room for disappointments. There would be awards waiting around the corner: Best in English, Best in Math, Most Honest, Most Behaved; name it. I remember receiving the Most Punctual award because my father always made sure we’d both leave the house at 6am. He goes out fishing; I walk my way to school.

In High School, I was not someone you would call an achiever. For sure, I was diligent. Who wouldn’t be when your family could only provide you one candlestick a day to read your notes and study? Still, I managed High School fairly well. I did not fail a subject. I was included in a circle called “Fwendz”. I was punctual as always. I finished High School without a future.   

My family remained rat poor. Tata died from a fall. A neighbor got Mai pregnant. Jackson 5 poured every cent of their labor into my school fees. My father became old and demanding. My mother remained a follower. This seemingly stale atmosphere inside our hut changed when Johnny came to visit us one day. The mood inside went festive after eight years.

Johnny still looked like Santa: fat, white, round, small glasses. He brought a case of vodkas for my father. Drunkards. Johnnie Drinker. Then he gave us tons of Australian chocolate bars. I noticed he looked old. He noted how we all have grown while the village sleeps. For instance, he said, houses and resorts in Siquijor are still built from
white sands of Pasihagon. He talked about change, or lack of. I was the only person who understood his English.

From Johnny, we learned a Danish man bought his resort at San Juan. He and his wife left the country five years ago. Lady Amy died in a surfing accident in Western Australia. I was saddened by this. Scenes from the glass window rushed back to my mind. After that night, my father told me to marry Johnny. In his words, that was what I was sent to school for. To learn English. To marry a foreigner. To save my family.

Johnny, he was lonely, he said. He needed a wife to take care of him. I was seventeen. He brought me to the busy town of Larena. There seemed to be a trend of lovers in that resto: white and old paired with brown and young. I was in. Johnny talked about his cliff house in Australia. He promised I would like it there. He promised more and then finished his beer. He ordered sisig and adobo for us. That time I tried to erase Tito Santa Claus in my mind.   

Australia was too dry for me, from the weather to how Johnny treated me. I got here on a summer though strange, it was December. We got married. Daily, I remained alone at home. Johnny was always out to his antique shop. We rarely talked. We were done talking about the weather. For four years, it was all about his complaints. Clean this,
clean that. Filipina. Lazy. Uncivilized. Johnny stabs me with names. He gets home drunk. He beats me. I get locked in the bathroom upstairs. I imagined Lady Amy.

Such a gentle woman, she was. Perhaps this was what she had been writing all along. Pasihagon. Sunset. Village kids. Poverty. White Sands. Pitch black night. My feelings existed in her writings. Loneliness. Despair. Emptiness. I was locked in a lifeless Clift
house. There was no way to reach Pasihagon at that point. I was twenty-one. I knew I was already dead before I jumped out the glass window.

Johnny heard the noise. He ran outside. His face was blank. I was lying on the cliff. Calm, I was carried inside the house. Past the kitchen, he opened the basement. Full of antique jars plastered with names. Dulce. Lillian. Setiawan. Pina. I passed by Amy. Alinah. Michelle. Ling-Ling. Yes, that’s me. I was placed inside an exquisite piece. Johnny carefully sealed and tightened the jar with his pale white hands. Three more jars, he smiled and left.

My name is Ling-Ling and I am speaking from inside a jar. My place at Pasihagon still has the best sunset. Back in our village, I imagine Mai having four kids. The Jackson 5 brothers continue shoveling white sands. I picture my old father fishing and my mother waiting for him. There seems to be few places left where things remain unchanged.

Seneca Pellano of Tagum City is a graduate of BA Communication Arts at UP Mindanao planning to become a teacher.

7 thoughts on “White, Brown, Old, Young”

  1. @jayson: kung madawat! hehe, thanks. 😉

    FYI, to all readers: the correct title of the piece is: “White, Brown, Old, Young”.

    Confused, I submitted the wrong title pala to Dagmay. Mea culpa.

  2. Hi, Seneca: might have been an error on the part of the editor. Anyhow, I’ve fixed it here.

    PS You should submit this to a Philippine speculative fiction anthology.

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