Lucia wondered how long the rain had been pouring and, with some urgency, edged off the bed and slipped her rain jacket over her duster. The throbbing rain dangled a curtain of mist outside her open window – the skies heft with the twining bodies of clouds. Outside it was already light. She worried about the rice fields that could have turned waterlogged and, by now, caking with mud. She floated barefoot across the narrow partitions of the bamboo walls, and the gaps of the hallway, the slat floor squeaking as she whisked by.
Her nephew, Jimwell, who’d arrived at Madarag the day before for a visit, lay quietly asleep in the next room. A mobile phone vibrated next to him but Lucia did not want to wake him. She wanted to ask him last night why he came but there were other things to worry about. Her farm wasn’t making much and she feared he would ask for something she might not be able to afford or give. That was something she’d ache about like some flame being stoked in her gut. She paused when she reached the house’s small receiving area, only to see her son gone. His sleeping mat was already folded on top of a wooden bench. The radio beside it droned with static. She looked out of the window and found Arvin, sunburned skin glistening with rain, crouching by the pond fields, drilling holes between the canal walls of the paddies to drain water out of them. He no longer looked like a boy of nineteen but a man with his muscles straining around his neck, his shoulders rounded and chiselled. Valleys and wide flat-lands glinted behind him; the trees that stood on the edges of the rice fields were draped in rain water.
‘Are the rice plants flooded?’ Lucia called out when she reached the ladder of the house whose elevated foundations, abetted by sturdy culms of bamboo, sank into squares of concrete. Her feet landed on the soil, soft and wet – the crunching of her bones drowned out by the squawks of hens and roosters and the squeals of pigs penned behind the sty. The roosters and fowls and the dog and her puppies scrambled to circle her, their heads aloft and alert for an early meal. She felt the cold air circling pockets of mist toward her skin; the weight of humidity that blanketed them the night before had simmered out.
‘I got up as soon as the rain started,’ her son called back, pressing his fingers against the mud that surrounded the young, short stalks of rice. The soles of his feet and the corner of his ankles were buried in the swirl of muck.
‘I’ll cook for you some breakfast. Come and eat when you’re done.’ She wasn’t sure if he’d heard her. She got busy with the drenched firewood by the small stove on a concrete cubicle they had placed a few steps away from their stilted house. She stacked the firewood on top of each other and lit it with a match that she thumbed out of the side pocket of her dress.
She noticed her nephew yawning by the ladder when she turned to chase the hens and the chicks that occupied the table as well as the benches below the elevated house. Thick bellies of smoke from the firewood looped and wrung about them the odour of wet muddied boots and rotten leather.
‘Ah, you are awake. How was your sleep?’ She wondered if this time she should ask why he came but fought the urge to do so. He’d probably tell her in no time.
‘My sleep was good, Iyay. Where’s Arvin?’
‘Your cousin rose early.’ She turned her head toward the fields. ‘We were worried the rain would swamp the rice field.’ She held a piece of wet cloth, wiped the table and scraped dirt off of it.
‘I’ll do the cleaning, Iyay,’ he said as he took the damp rug off her hands.
‘I’ll make you some kalo-kalo. Your nanay used to like her rice with coconut oil and lots of garlic.’
‘That’s the way I like it too.’
‘How’s Cecilia by the way? Is she still busy making dresses?’
‘Not as busy as before.’
A smoke load of garlic rose from the stove followed by the smell of salted dried fish and egg. Lucia placed some plates on the table in front of her nephew and sat across him.
She thought about her sister as she studied the face and features of the boy. He had his mother’s cheekbones, the soft arch of her neck and the protrusions of her shoulder bones. Her younger sister loved dresses and would look beautiful in anything she wore. Cecilia used to be the star of the baile in Madarag; during the dance for the village’s fiesta, men would fall in line just to hold her hands on the dance floor. Their parents would often get inconvenienced by her suitors who’d come knocking late nights offering her a Harana of love ballads with their guitars. Lucia never wore or owned silk or exquisite gowns, but her sister didn’t run out of reasons why she had to purchase new ones. Her resentment grew when their parents sent her younger sister to town to study dressmaking, while she was left home to tend to the farm. There were times they fought about things, the dresses, the farm she had to manage and keep so that Cecilia could finish her vocation but all the same, she loved her sister achingly. When her sister married a man poorer than they were, she helped them get by anyway.
‘Here,’ she said, pushing a heap of fried rice on a plate towards the boy. ‘Eat a lot for breakfast. Don’t worry about your cousin. I’ve left some for him.’
The boy glanced at the far off edge of the fields where Arvin crouched towards the soil like a halved tree branch.
‘And your father? Is he still in the city? In Iloilo?’ Lucia asked.
‘Yes, Iyay. But he got sick for a week and couldn’t work.’ Lucia noticed the boy heaving his chest and pursing his lips as if to say something but stopped short and only mustered an airy, ‘He’s well now.’
‘I’ll tell you, night shift as a machine operator, it isn’t easy. That’s why you need to finish college. Your nanay and I, we didn’t go to college. At least she finished vocational school.’
Lucia remembered her parents telling her that no one else was able to care for the farm except her. And when her parents turned taciturn and sickly, she tended for them. And by the time she was free to marry, she was past her prime, as her neighbours would say. She met Rudy when she turned almost forty and at least bore a son before the man, younger than she, lost interest in an aging woman condemned to farming for the rest of her life.
‘I’m trying my best, Iyay,’ the boy said. ‘I’m on my second year at college now and learning agricultural science. It gets harder. There are times we don’t know where to get money for school.’
‘I’m hoping I could help you more with it but ever since your Tay Rudy ran away with that younger woman, it’s been harder to earn from the farm.’ Lucia glanced at her house that had shrunk in size. During their more prosperous days, when the farm produced well, the four bedroom house was abetted by stone and concrete, its walls made of prized wood, ornate and florid with the embellishment of Spanish baroque. The ventanilla was lined with Narra grills shaped like hourglasses and the windows were made from capiz shells with the hues of stained glass. The house had been standing there as long as she could remember. When things got worse and the walls and the ceiling crumbled from age and storms and the changing seasons, they found no resource to have it fixed.
‘I understand,’ the boy said with half a smile and Lucia felt the other half of that emotion lodge a rock in her throat.
Lucia felt she had to make clear her own circumstance. She remembered having no one to ask for help when a strong typhoon had blown off the ceiling of her house and her rice plants had been obliterated. She was depending on the onion and garlic and from the earning from them for the rest of the year but all had been lost.
‘Your cousin and I, we had some difficult times too and we did it on our own.’ Lucia was surprised by the way she sounded and by the way her response ruffled with and hinted of resentment. ‘I wanted to send Arvin to college. But I’m not sure if we can afford. I pity him. I don’t want him to end up in this farm his whole life. I feel sad when he looks at some people who own mobile phones, material things… I know he wants them but he never asks.’
The boy curled like a fishhook in his seat with his head drooping towards his feet.
‘I am sorry to hear that.’ He thought of better words to say and composed a comforting one in his head but hesitated and when that fizzled out, he finally blurted out, ‘I hope Arvin could get back to school. I wish there’s something I could do to help.’ He feared it might not have sounded genuine but he meant what he said. He rose and gazed at the direction of his cousin. ‘I have to go and help Arvin in the fields now.’
She nodded. ‘Don’t worry about us. We’ll get by. We always did.’ Lucia watched her nephew hasten across the fields. The two boys laughed and reached for the soil.
The woman was quiet almost the whole dinner while the boys wolfed down the black beans that she stewed with pork and wedges of young jackfruit. The skies slid punctured shawls the colour of mud above them and the night pleated in planks of complete darkness. The cousins were still awake, shuffling cards, a bottle of Tanduay Rum across them, talking about the city, a new place called the Iloilo Esplanade by the river and the restaurants and coffee shops that now lined its banks. They talked about how they’d love to visit once they earned enough money and one of these days when they found work in one of those glass office buildings in the city.
In her bedroom, Lucia couldn’t sleep. The whirr of insects and the cadence of the frogs’ ribbiting failed to break off her thoughts about her nephew and her sister and everyone that mattered to her. In the coming years, she would be alone. She knew this for sure. Arvin would find a wife and it would be best if they had a house of their own so he could raise a family. In this part of the world, she knew what she couldn’t afford: a retirement plan or a health and death insurance. Nursing homes would either be inexistent or exist as shoddy government funded homes for the miserable. She’d rather be ill as long as she could be in her own house. She knew she had to do more for her immediate relatives and in return, she thought she would be happy if some of them visited her, especially when she would turn sick or incapacitated. They would refuse to abandon her. Her nephew would come more often with his wife and children. Arvin would do the same. Her sister could stay with her whenever she could…
She drifted off to sleep thinking about this and dreamed. In her dream, there was another man in her life, she watching him by the windows, his hands probing the soil or rubbing the golden grains of rice between his fingers, cupping their harvest in his palm. Behind him the red munias and the cattle egrets, like dried leaves, scattered across the vastness of the skies. Their lives would swirl around them – rice fields, coconut groves, the cacao laden hills, the browning huts amongst the tufts of green, walls of bamboo trees that pierced the sky; there would be someone who’d care for her farm, someone who proved good with the carabao or the rice thresher, one strong enough to handle the tractor.
When the boys woke up, she was ready to leave. She rose early when mist still domed above her house. She felt like a ghost in front of the frosted mirror, tying her hair in a bun, her white dress a little bit too big for her. She noticed wrinkles that lined the corners of her mouth and a few that folded just above her lips. She clutched a bag and stopped by the living room to tell her nephew to wait for her until she came back from the bank in town.
There was confusion in Jimwell’s voice. ‘What do you mean mortgage the farm, Iyay?’
‘What I’m saying is, I’m going to use the farm as collateral in exchange of cash.’
‘Why would you do that? Is there anything wrong?’
‘I know you need money. I thought about it for a while and I know how difficult it is to ask someone for help. I am this old, but until now I can’t even ask anyone for a favour.’
Outside, the sun tipped above the horizon and the mist had thinned out. Jimwell walked towards the bench by the window and sat down. His aunt followed him and stood across him with her bag still clutched against her chest.
The boy looked up at Lucia as if to think of what to say and instead replied, ‘No Iyay. I came to study the farm and think about what I should do to help you grow better crops. I am now earning a little by working at a coffee shop.’
‘I was a bit confused and I thought you might be needing money for school. I still think I must give some to you before you go home. How about your tuition fees? I want to help you pay for it.’ Lucia replied.
‘I will be fine. There are scholarships available that I can apply to. You have nothing to worry about. The truth is, I came here to test the soil and survey the farm and to see if turning organic would be a good idea. The prospect for it is great.’
Lucia felt both surprised and elated that her young nephew showed interest in farming and in taking care of the land their elders had left for them to tend to. She thought that if she got too old to care for it, she’d be forced to give it up and sell it. But now, she could see the land prosper again, just as it had done in the olden days.
‘I don’t think there’s harm in trying. Now that I think about it, the farm’s not doing much even if we tried our best to keep it going, so it’s time to try and learn something new. You should help me manage it. Only if you can.’
The boy smiled a little, nodded and glanced at the rice fields outside. For the first time, Lucia felt like sitting at the far off edge of the fields, on the hand-carved mounds of dirt that bordered the rice paddies, watching the birds, watching the blades of rice grow thicker, watching her life, like water, writhing along one pond to the other.
Scott P. Salcedo has been awarded three prominent writing fellowships in his country, the Philippines. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Bull and Cross, GNU Journal and SAND Journal. He is currently working on his first novel and a collection of short stories.