Counting, October 1950

Nonfiction by | March 25, 2024

An excerpt from House, Tree, Person

For my great grandmother
Who bore my grandmother
Who bore my mother

I was chasing the chickens outside our home. The early morning dew had settled finely on the shrubs that grew around the perimeter. One, two, three, the chickens lay on their backs to expose their bellies toward the sun.

Later that day, our town would hold a celebration for the annual feast of Sta. Maria. Segundo would be there. During practices for the parada, we had to march side-by-side with my hand around his arm. We both looked down and saw the fine blonde hair on his fair skin, touching against my scaly, browned arm. “It’s from helping my parents with the chickens,” I defied.

We were to lead the entire congregation of pious young people, just behind a tow of men carrying Maria herself. On the last day of practice, he told me he would wait for me at the corner near our home, so we could walk to the town center together.

After I went about my rounds and click-click-click went the grains to the feeders, I suddenly remembered that I forgot to hang my bestida. It lay on my bed, freshly hand-washed, but how I feared it would become wrinkled!

I ran to our backdoor, past the charred coco lumber from last night’s cooking. It was quiet at home. All my siblings had already gone for early preparations—the four of us each given a task as important as the next. As the youngest, I was only too glad to be a part of the festivities. Even if it meant I had to go straight home after practices, unlike my elders.

Save for my older sister’s side of the bed, which was unkept, my white dress lay quietly in order. I took a hanger out of the closet and hooked the dress next to our mirror. I avoided my reflection, as my face would be flushed and as brown as ever from heat and sun. I can already surmise what neighbors and relatives would tell me today: you look so much like your mother.

I was meaning to ask mama if I should be getting ready by now. When she found the white, tiered dress for me at the tailor shop where she worked, she was told it had many tatters beneath the ruffles. The shop owner, a Chinese-American woman, told her to take it home, without asking so much as a sentimo. I look back now and realized I must have looked disappointed when she came home with it. It took her many bright afternoons to sew in the gaps between the delicate lace. Then she made alterations to the fit, submerged the garment in water and cornstarch (twice), and for good measure added a small bow by the collar. When she saw my face in the mirror wearing the dress, she put her hand on my cheek then went to fix herself sweetened kape nga mais in the kitchen.

She must have been up late last night again.

A few nights ago, near midnight, she was called outside by one of our neighbors. None of us could hear the entire conversation, but it seemed severe. Our eldest, Panchito, closed the windows when we heard raised voices. Then we heard our mother wailing. When she came back inside, Anita, my elder sister, offered her a glass of water. My mother waved her hand and said: “Dili. Kape.” She wanted corn mix coffee.

Our father was not home yet, but in due time would come barging in our front door with treats. All of us listened intently to his voyages to lands like Butuan, Leyte, and Cebu. “It was raining hard one night, and the very roofs over our heads were beginning to come off—luckily Dodong (our long-time family friend) found shelter for the three of us down by road. It turns out to be a chapel of San Pedro. Dodong had to make the sign of the cross before busting open the chains with a heavy rock. Hopefully God and all the saints can forgive us!”

I saw my mother make a face.

For an entire year, papa frequented Bohol, where he said the pristine beaches had sand like milk powder, and there were strange creatures that made noises at noon, and again at sunset.

“These were the Alimokon,” he said. “If you are on a journey in the morning and an Alimokon coos in front of you, turn back and go home. You have been warned of impending danger.”

Before departing again, he kissed mama good bye and left money for a month’s spending. But mama learned quickly to be tight-fisted, as papa was known to be gone for much longer. He left only last month.

The next afternoon, as they were repairing a sacristan’s robe for the parada, she looked at my sister Anita with her suha-shaped eyes and asked about Roldan, one of the men who accompanied father at work. That morning, Anita had just seen Carmen, Roldan’s wife, front-heavy and heaving. “They have to make do without a third man until I give birth,” Anita heard Carmen prattling to a choir of helpers sweeping the steps of the rebuilt St. Augustine Cathedral. “Roldan has been home for seven months now. He’s a good, loyal husband…” Carmen trailed off as she fanned herself with a thin, Mama Mary paypay. Through the fan, she peered at Anita passing by.

“’Nang Carmen will be giving birth soon so she forbade ‘Nong Roldan to Papa’s trips,” my sister told my mother. “There’s no Manong Roldan, only Papa and Dodong. Just the two of them.” Mama looked at Anita calmly. After that, Anita thought none more of it. But after Mama’s death, my siblings and I learned she went a little further. Mama had sought the cousin of a distant relative who once lived in the same town Father frequented. She was told it was no secret that her husband strolled about the plaza with a young lass tied to his hip, with the loyal Dodong trailing behind. One, two, three, and a fourth, growing inside my Father’s mistress.

“She bore a child! The boy has your husband’s eyes, and his love for women. How the boy clings to his young mother’s breast like a tarsier.” This was what we heard before our mother awoke the entire neighborhood with her wailing.

I knocked on the door to my parents’ room. “Ma?” Sometimes she overslept. At odd hours of the night, light would still flicker beneath the space of her bedroom door.


“Ma! Ma! Mama!”

Mother was hanging from the ceiling. I stood on the chair just beneath her and ached my limbs to untie her overhead. I dared not look at her face.

When her body came down, I untangled the many layers of cloth straining her neck. I crouched down with her and held her close, my arms wrapped around her to keep the warmth from leaving her body.

Panchito saw us like this. My father eventually took the handsewn cloth made of retaso when he got home a week later, and we never saw it again. Papa would cease his travels and stay home to take care of us, eventually working at a soda plant until he died in his 70s. Through the years, his handsomeness faded until it was apparent that he was much lonelier than he liked to admit. Papa never remarried.

It was much, much later when I found out that Segundo had been waiting for me nearby when they took my mother’s body away. He must have seen me in house clothes, crying for God.

Anna Miguel Cervantes (b. 1993, Cagayan de Oro) is a writer & artist interested in the nexus of her identities as maker of text, moving images, and installation.