Nine days after her husband left for another woman, Elda, after discovering she was pregnant, became worried. She knelt crouching over the chamber pot that morning, retching air, and spewing spit, her stomach contracting as though her innards were being disgorged from her being. At that precise moment, she realized the horror that loomed ahead; having a child was what she had always feared.
But she wasn’t afraid of conceiving a bastard child. As was before, still living with Bartolome, she feared only one thing, and it was the possibility of passing down her inherent and immutable condition.
The day Elda was born, fluidly sliding from the womb and drenched in amniotic slime, she cried—an ear-piercing scream—of deformity that disquieted those who were in the room. Her eyes were huge, bulging and lidless, thought to fall out of their sockets; the bridge of her nose was missing, and its tip rose from her face like a buoyant ball; her lips were thick and chafed; the folds at the corners of her mouth were stretched, and from which her cheeks were pulled taut to the ears; her brown and encrusted skin seemed like scales, like those of a fish. (When she grew up, she had that fixed bewildered look, as though she were amazed at the mere sight of another human being.) Her parents thought of keeping quiet about it—her father suggested to declare her dead and just hide her in the mountains where they could live from a small vegetable patch—, but her mother, Conchita opposed to the idea, because of what use it would be, she argued. So they resolved to stay on the outskirts of Sta. Cruz.
The neighbors, although the one nearest lived some kilometers away, heard of it and visited the baby Elda, began their conjecture that Conchita was nabuyagan, cursed by the elemental beings that roamed around the fishing village. Many feared the presence of these unseen creatures, and they thought Elda’s mother must have unknowingly crossed them.
Remembering this story, Elda shuddered. She wiped her mouth with the hems of her housedress, and staggered up. The quiet morning assaulted her. The twittering of some birds in the distance a mockery of her. She sat on the floor, on the abaca-woven mat for some time when she heard her mother shuffle in the kitchen.
She got up and went down to the open kitchen, a makeshift shed for a makeshift table and a woodstove. “Nay! Nanay!” she called, panic in her voice, her nausea returning. She then froze on the bottom landing of the three-rung ladder, holding herself steady.
“What, Criselda?” Nanay Conchita said without looking up. Laid before her on the table was a tilapia. She was scraping its scales off it. Behind her, on the cooking platform, a pile of wood burned beneath the iron pan.
“I- I-” she stammered, “I’m pregnant.”
Nanay Conchita looked up at her daughter, her gray hair tied back and strands of it fell down on her face, “What did you say? Are you sure?” She had stopped knifing the fish.
“I-It’s been a month, still no blood. And I just puked spit.”
Her eyes widening, Nanay grabbed the slippery fish and hid it behind her back. “Quick, go back up to the house, or else the baby will catch the same disease.”
“But I didn’t look at it long.”
“Nonetheless! Get away now!”
Jumping a little at the command, Elda hurried back into the house.
Inside, the smell of fried fish pervaded the air, as though taunting her. She paced about the room, covering her nose with a thick cloth, still unable to dispel the smell. At that moment, many things crossed her mind: leaving home for solitude, like how her parents thought of doing the day of her birth, but the delicate condition that is her pregnancy made her change her mind; going out to find Bartolome, whom she hadn’t seen since they separated, and yell at him for plotting to plant his seed in her, a carefully thought-out plan to ruin her (“Because you want me to suffer! Because I don’t want to have a baby!” she would scream at him), but she knew it would be her desperate attempt at begging for his attention; she also sought help from God, seeing a poster of Him on the wall, and prayed for salvation of the would-be sea creature gestating in her womb. She’d rather have it dead than suffer as she did.
Elda then lay on the mat, lifted her dress up, caressed her flat abdomen, and pictured its stealthy globular enlargement in the coming months. She looked up at the thatched ceiling and sighed in resignation; it seemed there was no getting away.
She must have lain there for some time, her nose still covered, when she felt footsteps (Elda could tell by the light shaking of the house). From the curtained partition in the doorway came Nanay Conchita.
“Come down and eat. I’ve prepared you another meal,” she said, and finding her daughter’s skin exposed, she added: “And pull down your skirt.”
At the table, Elda noticed there’s only one plate set.
“I’ve eaten ahead so you won’t see nor smell the fish.”
Nanay Conchita sat in front of Elda and said: “I will call on the mananambal tonight. She could be of help.” She continued: “The child, with or without a father, deserves to live as God wills him to.”
Elda didn’t respond, just ate there, not looking up.
“Now don’t think too much of your husband because he’s not thinking of you. I bet all he thinks about are his fish and his dick. I bet he has already interchanged the use of them: Playing the former and eating the latter. You know what I mean?”
“Now don’t worry too much as this might worsen the situation. Otherwise, you’d be all the more prone to birthing a…special child.”
Elda nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes, ran down her cheeks, converged on her chin and plopped on the table. She breakfasted, and her food was sprinkled with tears, brine from her very being.
That night, in the musty stillness of air, filled with the chirping of cicadas, under the faint glimmer of the full moon veiled in thick clouds, the mananambal arrived. Manang Nila, wrinkled and gray-haired, had a rotund body that seemed her source of strength. She was reputed to be effective in curing ailments, known in the village to have expertise in counteracting barang and buyag. She approached the house, carrying a small bottle of rootbits and oil.
“There is some assurance, Elda,” Manang Nila said after hearing the whole story. They sat around sprawled on the floor. “Your condition might not be passed down to the child. But to counteract the curse, the whole duration of your pregnancy will be filled with tedious tasks.
“The curse is very strong,” she continued, “As of now I can even feel the power of buyag vibrating in your house, like a storm current. It is that strong, I am amazed your house is not blown away.”
“But who would do this to me?” Elda asked.
“An enkanto.” The mananambal’s eyes seemed to glow, reflecting the flame of the gas lamp made out of an emptied mayonnaise jar. “Conchita must have crossed them while she was carrying you.” She turned to Elda’s mother who was gaping with fear. “Can you remember an incident, something that you shouldn’t have done, like sweeping at noon?”
“Oh, no,” Nanay Conchita groaned. “That was only once. The yard was littered with leaves that I couldn’t help sweep them. And besides, my husband warned me against it. I never did it again.”
“How can I keep the enkanto away from my baby?” Elda asked.
Manang Nila told them of the ways, their strategy to appease the elemental creatures and to counter the curse. She then asked Elda to lie on her back, lifted her shirt up, poured some of the concoction on her abdomen, and made smooth rubs on her pelvis, running her hands across her navel; the ball of her thumbs tracing Elda’s encrusted skin. The solution smelled of excreta and it permeated the air. All this, while the mananambal whispered imperceptible chants, while Elda stared at the strewn palm leaves for a ceiling, while Nanay Conchita observed in the yellow glow of the room.
Outside, the first strong gust of wind rustled the leaves, and the walls gently creaked.
The next day, early morning, Elda and Nanay Conchita stepped down from the house and went to the backyard where they grew root crops and spices. They were searching for dry branches, twigs and leaves to make a fire. But the earth was so wet from last night’s heavy rain that it made a squelch beneath their slippers. Everything was wet: leaves glistened as they clung on to their stems, occasionally dropping beads of rainwater to the ground; frogs chorused somewhere in the vast field of cogon grass that led to the foot of a coconut hill. Yet they searched until both slumped from weariness, while the morning sun shone on their backs, the sweat it elicited damping their clothes.
“It is impossible to make a fire,” Nanay Conchita said, prodding the dark soil with a stick. “Why don’t we wait until afternoon, after the noon sunlight has dried everything up?”
Although Elda wanted to insist on continuing, knowing the effort—no matter how much they would give—would be futile, she agreed, returned to their hut and waited. She waited until shadows ran parallel to the canopy of tree leaves and until they slant on to the opposite side of which they previously fell.
When they went out again, no remnants of the rain could be found except for the memories of a wasted day. They created a fire from a pile of wood found in the yard. Then they fed the flame with freshly cut grass, creating a thick white smoke. Through the smoke they scattered pounded crystals and incense. Elda stood beside it, letting the smoke engulf her and inhaling laboriously as she chanted what was taught by the mananambal. Once, the smoke stung her nose; she craned sideways to take a whiff of fresh air then resumed to inhale from the lina. Her eyes became laden with tears.
Nanay Conchita could only watch in silence as she said her own prayers, wishing things would turn out well. She watched and prayed until the smoke gradually ceased emitting from the black pile, until Elda, bleary-eyed, with the sharp stench of sweat in her skin and clothes, joined her at the table.
“Elda,” her mother began, grabbing her hands and grasping them in hers. “I’m sorry about this. If only I could undo all this, so that your suffering would end.”
“It’s not your fault, Nay. Maybe it was destined. But the baby we can do something about. We have Nang Nila to help us out.”
Conchita sighed, looked at her daughter straight in the eye and said: “I have something to tell you. When you were born, your father and I thought of hiding you. We were so afraid of what others would say. Now I’m ashamed at the thought of it.” Her voice quaking now, tears on her lashes atremble. “You’re a strong woman, Criselda.”
Elda smiled a reassuring smile, and looked away, at the distant horizon. The sun was already descending, and the sky was gilded, and everything else basked in the glow of the twilight, like faint heat from a dying ember.
For many days that followed, Elda religiously took heed of the mananambal’s advice. Once, she sacrificed a white chicken that strayed into their yard. Its steady clucking turned into hysterical squawks. But her hands were quick enough to cleave its neck before the chicken could flutter its wings in helpless surrender. Its eyes glazing over, and its frenzied flapping from pointless attempts at flight weakened.
She also tried reasoning with the unseen enkanto. Sitting in the shade of a mango tree, on a limb-like root that jutted out from the earth, she gathered her skirt in between her legs and lamented:
“I know you can hear me; please do. I do not know what my parents have exactly done, but I think they have paid the price. My father is dead, and my mother has suffered a lot for me. I, too, have suffered. My entire life I spent suffering because of how people see me. That should be enough payment. There’s nothing else I ask of you. I do not care about myself anymore. It is the child that needs to be saved…” She trailed off, her chest heaving, all sorrows she had carried for years welling up inside her; she felt like exploding. And when she sighed, it was as if a water reservoir broke, and the gushing of tears was unstoppable, rushing forth from her eyes, the sound of water escaping her throat as an animal keening.
“Please,” she wailed, “please. Not my child.”
It was midmorning; the air, still. Not a single leaf moved, nor a blade of grass stirred. The whole world stopped quiet to take heed of Criselda, whose whines had subsided into sobs, then finally toning down to a whimper, while she wiped her face with the hem of her skirt. She sat there for a few moments, hiccupping, shoulders stooped over, when a black bird darting across the sky squawked, breaking the silence, as though in mockery of her. That brought her back from her deep lamentation, and she realized the vast field about her, stretching as far as the eye can see, spaces raped by emptiness, which was a familiar feeling. She felt it the most the day Bartolome took off to Digos City and abandoned her. His excuse was her constant refusal to have a child. Nine days after that, Elda found herself left not only with his haunting shadows but also with their child, and thought him responsible for her predicament. Thus, she resolved, he had to have equal share of the burden, give him what he always wanted. The searching wouldn’t be long because one or two of the villagers knew where he lived.
Nanay Conchita disapproved of the idea, but Elda talked her into it, reasoned out as though her mother were one of the elemental creatures that cursed her. And so the resolution: Elda was to go alone because Conchita didn’t want to see her son-in-law. “Forgiving him cannot be my virtue,” she sternly said. “I hope God forgives him for what he did because I’m really incapable of it.”
Reaching Digos City wouldn’t take an hour by bus. Criselda, however, fretted about it, calculating the lengthy shame traveling to another the city entailed. Although small and still developing, where her husband now lived nonetheless struck her modern. Tricycles gurgled on the roads along speeding trucks. Two-storey buildings rose in concrete walls; driveways which she could not help compare with the rice paddies in some areas in Sta. Cruz. She traversed the city, her face veiled, holding on to a sheet of paper that had his address. Asking around—after spending some time to muster her strength to ask a stranger for directions and after that momentary look of surprise upon seeing her face—brought her to Bartolome, who was at home that afternoon, cleaning a tricycle. The sight of him took her by surprise. He seemed incongruent next to the makeshift carriage soldered to a motorbike, because she was used to seeing him tending his boat and fishnets.
“Bart?” Elda said, but her voice betrayed her; it lodged in her throat that she could not help croak his name. She tried again: “Bart?”
Bartolome looked up and, for a moment, sat still on his haunches.
“It’s me,” was all she could say in the silence.
“Elda,” he said, finally standing up, stowing the dishrag on the seat, wiped his hands on his shorts and went to hug her. Her initial response was stepping back, surprised, then she returned his embrace.
“How are you?” he said.
“I’m pregnant,” she answered to his shoulder.
He let go and stood facing her. She couldn’t figure him out. In her helplessness, she broke into tears. After he conducted her into the house, wooden with the front yard littered with metal scraps, she told him of the purpose of her visit; her tone accusatory at times, spiteful at times, beseeching in the intervals. And she could not stop crying until she felt a mild contraction in her abdomen.
“I wish there was something I could do, Elda,” Bartolome said. “But my earnings are not even enough for Noemi, who is also pregnant.”
“But I am carrying your child, too.”
“I understand that, and I’m willing to take responsibility.” He looked around, sighing. “You have to have a medical, that’s for sure. And I know of a center that can help you out on that. But you can’t stay here.”
“I don’t need a medical.”
“But you have to. There’s no other way. The rituals are of no use.”
“I told you, I don’t need it.”
“Then what do you want me to do about it?”
That kept her mum, and she wondered why she had even come. Looking at her husband, smooth-skinned, brown, free of the stench of the sea and fish, she felt lost. She couldn’t figure him into the Bartolome that wooed her not long ago. He had always been what he was to her: bafflement; from the moment he asked for her hand in marriage—for nobody expected that—to his suggestion of a medical assistance.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” she said, standing up.
“Criselda.” But she was already out of the house.
Nanay Conchita recognized defeat. From afar, she saw Elda, head-bowed and veiled, walking across the field. The afternoon sun defined the cracks in her skin; her skirt billowed by warm winds. She greeted her daughter with an embrace, cooing, “shush shush,” as she wept.
They called on the mananambal again that night, but Manang Nila knew of no other remedies, “because we have done all we could,” she said.
“But there has to be another way,” Elda insisted.
The old woman thought for a moment, and said: “Here,” handing over the small bottle of oil. “Spread it over your abdomen every morning, at dawn. Make sure the sun hasn’t risen yet before you do it. Do it every day.”
Elda nodded in earnest.
“And it wouldn’t harm if you also sought help from God.”
“Oh, we do, Nang Nila,” Conchita said. “Of course we do.”
So the weeks found Criselda following the woman’s advice, however painstaking the ritual was, for she’s not used to waking up early in the morning, even when she was still with her husband, who would fish as early as 2 am.
Nanay Conchita helped along, making sure to rouse her up at the right time. But one morning, she was the one roused by loud stomping and curses. Her daughter was throwing a fit because they both failed to wake up, thus breaking the ritual. At that point, they fell into despair, didn’t know what to do after that. They couldn’t tell the tambalan about it, lest she tell them what they always feared to hear, the defining of hopelessness, shedding light on the ugly truth.
So they continued with the ritual, clinging to a hope of redemption. Everyday, they also went to the chapel and prayed there. Months passed, and her abdomen grew half-round, edema formed in her legs. They would walk the distance from their house to the chapel, which was made of concrete walls; would kneel together in a pew. There were eight pews, arranged into four rows and two columns. In front, a small niche with the statue of the Virgin Mary, above it was a crucifix. On the left was a small lectern, and on the right, on the opposite side of the lectern was a picture of the Lady of Perpetual Help hung on the wall. The Mysteries of the Rosary they chanted under their breath. With the Rosary beads coiled around her right hand, Elda ran her left palm across her abdomen. She need not imagine the protuberance; the form was palpable already. The child was there inside her womb, taking form by the minute, developing heart, limbs, head, faceless for now, with eyes closed, feeding of her. But she could only offer her worries to God, surrender herself to the rituals, and wait.
Exactly nine months after her husband left her for another woman, Elda’s water broke. It was after supper, and Nanay Conchita was washing the dishes outside when she heard her daughter scream from the hut. She knew what that scream meant that she did not bother checking on Elda first. She hurried toward the mananambal’s house, which seemed too far if one would attempt to reach it in haste. Neither moon nor stars illuminated the dim path she took; they were hidden behind thick clouds. Panting, she muttered a prayer that Elda would not push yet.
Meanwhile, Elda, alone in the hut, tried to hold still. But the uncontrollable contraction of her womb was no longer bearable. The explosions of pain rendered her immobile on the floor. Propping half of herself up with her elbows, she was facing the night sky out the window. Her legs bent and spread as she moaned and writhed in pain, trying to clutch at the floor, digging her nails into the furrows between the planks. Her dress and panties weltered, Elda screeched as blood gushed out of her gaping cleft.
“Nanay!” she called out, sweating all over. Her hips felt as if they were about to rupture. “Nanay, help me!”
She looked out the window and froze; she saw outside, by the windowsill, a forehead and a pair of eyes peeping at her. The eyes looked at her opened legs and then at her grimacing face.
“Leave my baby alone!” she screamed, spittle flew from her lips. The eyes, however, remained undaunted, stubbornly locking their gaze.
“Elda?” her mother asked by the door, with her stood Manang Nila.
“’Nay,” she gasped, almost ready to explain when she saw the eyes had already gone. Then the pain exploded once more that her body quivered with it. Elda screeched and helplessly pushed.
“The baby!” Manang Nila said, running toward her, swiftly pulled off Elda’s blood-soaked panties and fetched the newborn as it was just about to slip through its mother’s womanhood.
Then a shrill cry reverberated across the night, drowning out the chirping of cicadas. It was an incessant, piercing cry.
Elda panted, and closed her eyes, lying limp on the floor. The hut seemed to breathe anxiety.
“It’s normal!” Manang Nila cried above the din. “Elda, your child’s normal!”
“Let me see.” Weeping, Elda held out her weak arms and received her child after Nanay Conchita wrapped it in a cloth.
Nanay Conchita and Manang Nila watched the scale-skinned mother and the smooth-skinned infant, who were connected by a pulsating cord. Elda and her baby were both crying; tears from her mother; the baby’s face wrinkly with eyelids closed.
“Thank God,” Elda whispered, kissed its forehead and held it close. “Thank God you’re normal.”
Outside, strong gusts of wind began rustling the leaves. The dark sky fleetingly cracked with flashes of lightning. And thunder rolled with so much portent. In the downpour that followed later Manang Nila would gasp in horror on the discovery—as she washed the newborn in a basin of water—that it did not have eyes. There were only the gaping sockets that seemed to suck her in as though they were a void. She yelped when she saw this, but the loud beating of the rain on the rooftop drowned her out, just like how the rain drowned out the hushed conversations of relief between Nanay Conchita and Elda, who sighed and smiled, saying that the sky was celebrating with them.
barang – Bisaya word for sorcery, voodoo or black magic
buyag (or nabuyagan) – literally, admonish; believed to be a spell cast by spirits to punish humans who have wronged them
enkanto – Earth spirits
lina – a ritual that uses incense smoke to drive away bad spirits or counter their curse
mananambal – Bisaya word for medicine man/woman
tambalan – traditional medicine; may also refer to the person who practices it