The worst storm in Philippine history raged on the night I was born, to an impoverished seventeen-year-old father, and a sixteen-year-old mother who detested me at first sight. Like all Philippine mothers, she hoped her children would have pale skin. I was very dark. She hoped I would be healthy. I was very far from it.
The drunken Chinese doctor who peered at me through broken glasses mended with cellophane said I was a blue baby. My heart was ruined, and I would not last a week.
On hearing this, my mother decided that if she hid me in the coldest, gustiest corner of our bamboo thatch cottage, I would die soon, and she could hope for better luck with the next child.
My mother whisked me away from the doctor angrily, and threw me towards the split-bamboo bed. I would have missed and landed on the floor, but my father caught me mid-air. It became a metaphor for my relationship with my parents. My mother would often throw me. My father was the one who would catch me, cradle me, and soothe me.
Mother’s hands were soft, but their blows were not. Father’s hands were coarse from work. But they were gentle. My father never, ever hurt me. My father has always been my savior.
My father has worked every day of his life. Most of his work is in the rice fields near our village. It’s where all villagers work. Even now, at the age of fifty, he works fourteen hours every day. There’s no such thing as a day off work when you’re poor.
I was born in a tiny village on the edge of the Philippine jungle. None of us could read or write. There was no electricity, no running water, and no sewage. We had no television or radio. Many people had not even heard of these things.
We knew nothing of the outside world. Apart from a few of the village elders who had extraordinary tales of the iron that flies and the box that talks, we knew only legends and superstition. Unseen around us there were bad spirits and strange little people, and things to avoid at night. Most villagers never ventured out at night for fear. Superstition was everywhere. Sadly, so too was ignorance. Ancient beliefs clouded people’s lives and their minds. People’s views were distorted by prejudice and ignorance.
Our entire village was poor. There were only about 150 people in our village when I was born. We were all related, one-way or another. We also knew many people in neighbouring villages, a few miles away. Some had a little more than us. Some had enough food to eat, most of the time. But none of the villages were rich. No-one would have ever been considered well off.
Nobody ever had any money. Everything was traded, bartered. Though people were illiterate, they could remember what they owed whom, for many years at a time. There was no such thing as dishonesty. No-one ever reneged on a debt. No-one ever cheated anyone else. That’s one thing we had in the village. Absolute honour.
Many years later, I would discover that I had been born with Rheumatic Fever. It is a genetic defect. It meant my heart was in very bad condition. It was unable to work properly. This left me short of breath, very low on energy, and very sick. In the Western World, I would have been hospitalised and treated. I would have been given medication and probably surgery.
But as we had no money, there was no hospitalisation for sick people. In the villages, people died often. Death was a part of life.
My father’s name is Caesar. I only ever saw him at night, when he was exhausted from the day’s work. There wasn’t much food, and our stomachs were always crying, but he ate as little as he could, so that there would be enough for me.
Father gave me everything he could, which is very little when all you own is the roof over your head, and the scraps of food in your belly. Though always tired, he was the one who fed me, changed my nappy, and burped me.
He rocked me all night long because I kept crying all night long. He made me an improvised hammock, from a flour sack tied at both ends. He put me inside the mosquito net his mother had given him as a wedding gift.
I was his first child, and he treated me with every kindness. I was his only possession. I love him for the fact that he showed me love, and he always thought I was worth something. I respect him because he believed in me, and because he believed it was part of God’s plan that I should survive.
In villages in the Philippines, everyone knows when a woman is going to have a child.
Mother started her preparations by getting empty flour sack, called a Katsa. She soaked it for days so that the fabric became softer. Then she bleached it white. She made nappies and baby clothes from the flour sack, which is what everyone in the village does when they need children’s clothes. She made beautiful nappies and baby clothes with pink embroidery on them. She was hoping for a beautiful child.
Every mother wished to have a beautiful daughter. It was a ticket to status and family pride. A beautiful daughter might attract a wealthy man, or best of all, a white man. Then the family’s fortunes would be made. The villagers believe that all white men are attractive, and all white men are rich.
Everyone knew my mother was pregnant. In the villages, with no television, radio, electricity or running water, there is a lot of gossip. People talk about what others in the village are doing. They talk about each other all the time. My mother would have expressed her desire to have a beautiful child. Especially a child, who was pale skinned, like her. She probably talked about nothing else.
When I was born, my mother would have been very ashamed of me. But what she thought would have meant less than what she believed others thought about me. She would have imagined the other people in the village saying, “Her daughter is black and very sick, God must be punishing her.”
And if God is punishing her, then she must be a bad person.
In the village, everyone was very religious. If a parent had a very sick baby, their standing in the community was reduced. But if someone had a beautiful baby, everyone considered it a good sign, and the family became well respected. Perhaps such a good-looking baby might become a politician’s wife, or go to Manila and became an actress or marry a rich man.
I loved my mother despite what she did to me. No matter how much pain she caused me, I still love her. Though she hit me I was always in love with her, not only because of her fair skin and her beauty, but also because of her singing. I used to overhear her singing soothing lullabies.
That’s one of the reasons father married her. He was enchanted by her perfect voice. She had a beautiful high-pitched voice, and she loved to laugh. Father used to tell me about her laugh. She laughed often before I was born and before my brother was born.
But after my birth she changed. She was utterly humiliated by my ugly nose, wide eyes, dark skin, and my sickness. She became very violent. And when she was annoyed, her voice sounded like a scream, to me. When she got angry, it was like a bomb exploding in the house. You could hear her voice as far away as Afghanistan. Many villagers were frightened of her volcanic temper.
There was no friendship between mother and I. We did not speak to one another. We were strangers. Or perhaps it’s best to say our relationship was like that between a master and a hated slave. She said, “When you were born, you were like a bad omen for the family.”
I was black, sick and ugly. My mother beat me whenever she could, with whatever was at hand. From my birth, my father filled the role of both mother and father. He changed my rags, cradled and talked to me, and did everything that mothers did except feed me. As a man, he could not.
My mother fed me, but even then father had to force her to give me her milk. All she had was hatred for me. Whenever mother saw me it triggered something in her. She got mad and beat me. But the beatings weren’t the worst thing.
It was her words. Often she said, “I wish I had suffocated you when you were born. But I can still do it, if you don’t do what I tell you.”
At first I didn’t understand what this meant. But I heard it so often that when I found out, there could be no mistake about the words.
I was desperate for her approval. I never stopped trying to do things to help her, but I always managed to make things worse, “You are too much!” she would scream, punctually on the hour, it seemed.
Mother said she started to hate me as soon as I got out of her womb. Partly it was because of my colour, and partly it was because I was sick. She said I wasn’t a normal child, especially when I started crying non-stop. She hated me for that. She said baby Jesus didn’t cry. He was perfect.
Father said I looked purple when I was born. He thought I was special.
The doctor said I wouldn’t last a week, because I was a blue baby. Mother didn’t want me, so she hid me in the coldest places. She didn’t care if I died, because she hoped to have another child, a healthy and good-looking child.
Father took care of me each night. Mother refused to hold me. All night long I cried because I was cold. I needed mother’s warmth. But she had no warmth for me.
Father hardly slept because he had to rock me, all through the night. Father didn’t know what to do with me. He didn’t know how to take care of his sick baby. He wanted desperately for me to survive, to be healthy and happy. He would do anything to save me because I was his first child. He said I was his most prized possession. He loved me dearly.
When I was five days old I got worse. Father and grandmother Felicity feared that I was dying. They called the village witch doctor urgently.
The witch doctor ordered father to look for two adult chickens. One should have pure black feathers and the other, pure white.
Father found two such chickens. The witch doctor instructed father to chop the heads off the chickens, and then cut their bodies in half. While the hearts were still warm, he had to put them on my chest.
The witch doctor said this would invite the good spirits and destroy the bad ones. The chickens were like an offering to the good spirits, and they would help me live.
While they were performing this ritual, my grandmother was in the church praying earnestly. It seemed to work. I survived the first week.
They waited to see if I would last a month. When I survived for a whole month, they waited to see if I would survive another month. Then I made it to my first year.
They decided that so long as I survived, they would let my hair grow long until I was seven. Then they would cut it, and prepare a huge feast in the village to thank God and the good spirits.
I did survive. Thanks God!
On my seventh birthday, father organized a feast and invited the neighboring village. The long hair was to remind us to sacrifice in the name of Jesus Christ, the sign of hope, strength, courage, faith and long life.
When I was two, my younger brother Danny was born. Mother changed. That was when the beating routine started.
Mother ignored me completely except when she wanted something from me. Then her way of communicating with me was either a slap, a hit with a cane, or to grab my hair and hit my head on the hut’s central pillar.
I never understood it, but I got used to it.
She told me not to cry. She said if she saw me cry she would beat me harder. “Crying is sign of weakness. If I see you cry I will tie you up and hang you.”
Because I was only a child, I was very scared. Every night I didn’t want to sleep. I feared that if I fell asleep, I would not wake up because I was already dead.
So I didn’t cry. I think somehow, I got used to not crying as a child. So when she beat me I didn’t shed tears.
But I cried inside. I cried deep in my heart. I became immune to the pain. I accepted her beatings were her way of showing affection. In the end I became numb.
I was like a scared animal. I fretted and fidgeted. I was always nervous. My heart was always pounding, sprinting, because I was in constant terror.
But no matter what happened, I was glad for the things she had done for me. I was so grateful to her for bringing me into the world. As early as two-and-a-half she taught me the alphabet, and the things she knew about the world. When I turned three, I could write the alphabet and read and write the names of the animals in the village. She made me memorize simple English phrases like: “What is your name? How are you? Where do you live? What’s your father’s and mother’s name?”
Grandmother was proud of me, and I was father’s joy. Then grandmother taught me a song called Clouds. I don’t know who wrote it, but it went:
White sheep white sheep
On the blue hill
Far out in the distance
You stood still
When sunshine comes and the rain goes away
Why sheep white sheep
Why don’t you stay?
Father was very happy with me, but my mother was not. It didn’t matter what I did. It was not good enough.
I tried so hard to please her. Night and day, I worked harder, ran faster, and strained until I ached all over, but I couldn’t please her. “You will never be anything, no matter what you do. Nothing! Nothing at all do you hear me?” she would yell. She wanted nothing to do with me. Nothing but to beat me.
Father and mother were both born with intelligence and common sense. My father never set foot inside a school, because his father died when he was barely seven. Father couldn’t get an education because he had to be the man of the family. He was the eldest son. He was my grandmother’s helper in the field.
The eldest daughter, my aunt Linda, had to seek employment as early as eight. Linda was father’s older sister. Grandmother became a widow in her twenties, with four children to support.
Grandmother married young, like everyone in the village. She was only thirteen when she got married.
Mother, on the other hand, was the youngest daughter in her family. She was one of four children. Mother had some education. She finished grade five when her father, my grandfather, George, died.
Grandmother Isabel sent mother to distant relatives. They were Chinese, both teachers, and they promised Grandmother that they would educate mother because mother was smart.
Mother read a few books if she had enough time. She got my name from a poem by Longfellow, called Evangeline.
Mother could read and write English, and could understand a few words. She was father’s hero, because she taught father what she knew.
Even though father only speaks a few words of English, he was born very intelligent. People can be very intelligent, even if they don’t go to school. Picasso did not go to a university.
I believe if my father had the opportunity, he could have been an engineer, because he was good with numbers. He said once, “If only I’d been to school, I would be an engineer.”
To be an engineer was his dream. Mother wanted to be a teacher. But both of them shared a tragedy. Their parents died young, so their dreams were shattered.
I think that is one reason why mother hated me and beat me. She detested the sight of me. Whenever she beat me she would say, “I could have been something if not for you. You are the reason for everything that has gone wrong in our lives. You are bad luck.”
It was very painful. If you were a child and your own mother said that to you, how would you feel?
When I was five, I first thought of killing myself. I hated myself. I couldn’t stand all the beatings. I couldn’t take any more of the threats. I could see no reason to live.
I think it was her frustration that drove mother to violence. She had envisaged herself as a teacher, as being well off. Instead she ended up poor. Father was a primitive farmer, and mother became a housekeeper. She dubbed herself, “hen” because of all the children she had. She said she had children non-stop, laying like a hen.
There were ten of us, but one died three days after he was born because his intestines were not fully formed. He couldn’t go to the toilet, because there was nowhere for anything to come out. I felt very sad for him even though I never knew him. I left home at sixteen to try to help the family. His name was Darwin. I hope he’s somewhere where he isn’t suffering any more.
When I was three I was diagnosed with asthma. We couldn’t afford hospitals because father was poor, so the witch doctor often came to see me. Once he asked father to find a baby house lizard. When he found one, he asked father to burn it, and then make it into charcoal, and crush it finely. The witch doctor collected wild grass, crushed it and took the juice out. Then he diluted it with the crushed charcoal lizard and made me drink it.
It tasted revolting. But later on I was able to breathe.
My mother said that when I was one, she wanted to suffocate me because she couldn’t bear the sounds of crying. Some relatives told me that mother was scared to touch me, because she thought I was an evil child.
When she started beating me, at first I hated her. But I hated myself even more, because I made her sad. I hated myself because I could not be the perfect child she wanted.
She blamed me because she failed to be a teacher. She said because of me her life was ruined. Although she hated me, I couldn’t hate her. I loved her and I was grateful for what I had. I was grateful she was my mother.
But I couldn’t understand why she treated me that way. When I was older I felt angry with her, and that anger felt bolted to my chest. I guess blamed her a bit for what happened to me.
I remember when she used to say to me, “You are nothing at all! You will never be anything except a harlot.”
At first I didn’t know what it meant. I thought that parents did their best for their children. Much later I found out what the words meant. There was no mistake. She simply hated me, and she cursed me whenever she could.
I was angry with her then, when I found out what all her words meant. Now I have forgiven her, but the memories don’t fade. I try to empathize with her. I try to understand what it must be like to have your heart set on something, and then to be dragged into poverty. I realize that she was very young when she had me. She and father were so young when they got married.
Because of Christianity in the Philippines, there was a law that the bride and groom must be eighteen before they married. Before this law, people in the village often married as young as twelve. Since 1960, young people have not been allowed to marry until they turn eighteen.
Father had just turned seventeen, and mother was barely sixteen. Despite their love, the priest didn’t allow them to marry. But my great grandfather, Pasay (father’s grandfather on his father’s side) bribed the priest. My parents got married in 1967. The following year, in 1968, where there was floods, and violent storms, and in the middle of it, I was born.
So you must understand that my life really started with adversity.
The 1960s were a liberating era. The 1960s was the highest point in many people’s lives in the Philippines. Even the Beatles performed in the Philippines.
Elvis Presley’s style was copied. Father had an Elvis suit and the Elvis hairstyle when they got married, but their photograph vanished when the biggest flood came. Our house was swept away, along with mother’s wedding dress, which was like Priscilla Presley’s.
After they got married, father built a tiny house for my mother. She didn’t want to live with the in-laws because didn’t want to be criticized.
In village life, the newlyweds usually receive barrages of criticism from the in-laws. Usually from the women, not the men. Father-in-laws generally get along well with their son-in-laws.
It was when mother got pregnant with my first brother that she started beating me badly. I often bled. I couldn’t understand why she beat me. Because even if I had done nothing, she beat me. I was a bit confused about this. I began to feel constant fear. I was always nervous.
At the back of my mind the entire time, I thought she wanted to kill me. Often the beating started when I was busy baby-sitting my baby brother, Danny. My mother went silent. I saw her looking at me strangely. I couldn't look straight at her, because she forbid me to look at her.
So I looked at her with my head bowed and sideways. I could do it easily because I had large eyes, you see. So I think she couldn’t see it. Or did she?
Whenever she saw me, it triggered something in her that made her enraged. Was it because sometimes I laughed with my brother? I believed that I didn’t deserve to be happy. She was happy when I wasn’t. When my mouth was pouting, she would say, “You look better this way.” And she was happy.
Often she would look around, looking puzzled, looking for something to be angry about.
She would hit me and begin shrieking because she said I hadn’t done something she’d asked me to do. When I’d show her that it was done, she’d go quiet for a moment. Then she’d find something else to hit me for. I felt I could never make her happy.
When I was six, I was compelled to do housework. Baby sitting, fetching water, cleaning the house, and cooking simple things like rice and boiled vegetables. I worked every moment of the day, from opening my eyes until the moment I went to sleep.
Sometimes it seemed like I cleaned the house nonstop while my mother ran a white-gloved finger over every surface. My mother beat me if her glove came away marked by dust.
She always managed to find faults in me. Nothing I did was good enough. There was never any encouragement, any words like well done.
The following year, when I started grade one, we had a test, and I got ninety percent. It was the highest score in the class. The teacher said, “Very well done. Tell your mother. She’ll be proud of you.”
But mother was not proud. She hit me on the head and screamed, “What about the other ten percent? You got them all wrong! They’ll think I’m a stupid mother! Why can’t you do better? Why are you such a useless child?”
They stuck in my head those words, useless child. She used them often, when she wasn’t telling me she could drown me or hang me. She wouldn’t mention things like she should have suffocated me at birth if she thought people might hear. At these times I was useless child, a disgrace, despicable.
One hundred per cent was, “Just good enough,” for mother. “Why can’t you get 100% all the time? It’s because you’re a despicable child, isn’t it? You want me to suffer, don’t you? You want them to sneer at me. You want them to think I’m not good enough.”
Sometimes, if I got a perfect score like 100%, she would get just as angry thinking about all my failures as she did when I was bad.
One of my neighbours was a boy called Romeo. He was also my distant cousin, and a classmate. Mother always felt that she had to compete with everyone, especially if they were relatives. Whenever we had a test, I had to come first, or suffer the consequences. Once, Romeo beat me by a few marks. She screamed at me, she was on her feet, “What were you doing in the school? Romeo came first? You are a disgrace! You disgraced me!”
She took the Japanese bamboo stick (it was especially for beating) and she beat me. She started at my back, and then beat my arms and legs. Afterwards, they were bruised, and covered with long red swollen marks.
She wasn’t happy that I didn’t bleed much. So she tied me up against the pillar in the corner of our house. Then she screamed, while still beating me, “Why didn’t you come first? Why weren’t you studying? Have you been playing instead?”
But of course I hadn’t, and she knew that. She knew I had no chance to play. She did this so that the neighbours could hear that I had done wrong again. She beat me across the back with a bamboo cane until it split. I was sure she was going to kill me.
I wanted to come first in all my tests. If she only knew how much I had to rack my brains. I was terrified all the time. When I was sleeping, I once peed my pants because I had a nightmare she had tied me up, and was drowning me.
In class, I was always waiting for someone to hit me as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. In the playground, waiting for the bullies to attack me, and when I ran to school or ran home, knowing that no matter how fast I ran, no matter how much my lungs hurt, it would never be fast enough for my mother. She would scream and beat me, and each time, I was sure she was going to kill me.
I tried my hardest at school. In fact, I tried my hardest at everything. I was always desperate to get my mother’s approval. I thought. If just once in my life I could do something good enough for her, maybe she would love me.
But it was always so hard, being always hungry. My stomach was crying, my heart was heavy, and my head hurt constantly. Partially this was because of my bad heart. Some of it was because mother always smashed my head against anything she could find. She liked to hit me in the head with whatever was in her hands, but she liked it even better to grab hold of my head and ram it into things. She seemed the most satisfied when she could make my head bleed.
My head was always covered in bruises. One day I made the mistake of asking her why she always hit me on the head. In reply she hit me on the top of the head with a coconut. She said it would help me get another five percent. She said I was despicable for not getting one hundred percent, and that she had always got a hundred percent.
So I had to force myself. I was always aching, from head to foot. I was always starving and very weak and tired. Often my breathing was laboured, because when your heart doesn’t work properly, you’re starved of oxygen. I desperately wanted to lie down, to rest, and to have food. I especially wanted my mother to stop hitting me. I desperately wanted her to love me. But she never did.
Sometimes I saw the way she wrapped my brother in her arms. This was when he was sick. She did it to ease the pain. I hoped and begged God that she’d hold me like that, even just once. But she never did.
In everything I did, I always tried to put in triple the effort of anyone else. I had to force myself in every task. But it didn’t seem to do any good.
My self-esteem was very low. I felt very stressed and humiliated constantly. In her eyes, I was a failure.
I was an abnormal little girl. I was very small. I was always the smallest in my class. I had short toes, (and two of my toes are very strange, as you can see in the photograph) and a flat short nose like a frog. (Some people, especially my mother, used to call me a frog.) I was dark and sick and scared, and kids didn’t want to play with me. Often I felt they hated me. I felt like the worst person on the planet.
When my Aunt Linda sent me a second-hand doll I thought I could bribe them into playing with me.
But whenever my mother found out I was bringing my doll to school, she would snatch it away and beat me. Most of the time I bled from her beatings. I got so lonely. I had no friends. Even my female cousins hated me. They called me “flat nose,” or “negrita,” because I was so dark. People are very impressionable in the villages. If people know that your mother is always hitting you and hates you, then they think you must be evil, so they hit you too.
So whenever I could sneak away, I would go with my male cousins to the forest and hunt animals or go fishing. I do not like hurting animals. But to be accepted I had to do what they wanted me to do, which was to slingshot the helpless, tiny, beautiful birds that sang. In the village, you had to eat whatever food you could find. If you saw a bird, you would catch it and eat it, even if it sang beautiful songs that made your heart cry.
When my second brother Daniel was born, Mother’s beatings got worse. She became madder than ever before. She may have felt her dream slipping away from her. Her hope of being a teacher faded further with each child born. There’s no birth control in the Philippines, because they are all strict Christians. They believe what is written in the bible, specially the part that says, “Go forth and multiply.”
But poverty and large families go together. All the modern studies show that poor people, be it in Ireland, Africa, Asia, or anywhere else, have larger families, because there are fewer activities in poor areas. There’s nothing to do but make babies, and the more babies they make, the more mouths there are to feed, and they poorer they all become.
My mother was very distressed when I was born. Then my younger brother Daniel arrived, so now there was a third child. I read recently in an article that sometimes when women give birth, they get depressed, and should go to counseling. But there was no counseling program in the village.
My mother blamed me for everything. If the climate changed, or the harvest was not good, or floods damaged our crops, she said it was my fault. And in the village, people are followers. It’s not their fault. They’re born in poverty, they have no education, and the only life they have ever known is in the tiny village, surrounded by the same people all their lives. They are not exposed to any outside influences or ideas. So something that someone’s grandmother said fifty years ago is taken as being true, or the right attitude, or the right way to think.
So when my mother blamed me for things like the weather or the fact she was poor, other people thought the same thing. Some people said it was my fault that my mother turned out the way she did. They said I was too black, that I was an evil child. I was the child of the devil, and I brought evil to our village, and bad luck.
Many times I wanted to end my life. I couldn’t take the beatings, and I couldn’t take people telling me I was evil. I was blamed for every misfortune. If someone fell over, they said that I caused it. Sometimes, I felt like I was an evil spirit in the village.
Every time mother got pregnant, she became more violent.
When Daniel was three months old he was struck by typhoid fever. My mother was worried that her favorite son would die. We didn’t have money to take him to hospital, so my parents asked one of the elders in the village for help. Mama Iyang was known as the spiritualist. She was old with a bent back, long grey hair, and a single tooth sticking out from her top gum.
Mama Iyang was very slim and her skin hung from all her limbs like sheets from a clothesline. She was considered wise, and she was highly respected. One of the medicines she gave was just a glass of water. Sometimes she would rub a little wooden cross on the patient’s skin, on the arms and forehead. She said this would make the bad spirits go away.
It seemed to work. For weeks and weeks my brother lay unmoving on the floor. (We didn’t have a bed.) He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t drink or eat. Some people thought he was dead. Some said he was in a coma.
My mother never accepted that he was going to die. She never went to sleep. For weeks she stayed by his side, staring at his face, all the time crying. Then suddenly she stopped crying. For a while she hardly ate or drank. I thought she wanted to die with her son. I was afraid, very afraid she might die.
I felt very sad, although I knew she wanted me dead. But I loved her. Sometimes she said, “I wish it was you who was sick and not your brother. I think you are making him sick. You enjoy seeing him sick like this.”
I could never hate my mother the way she hated me. I think my love for her was more powerful than her hate. In the village, it was the custom that if someone was suffering, they let their hair grow. It was a penitent offering to Jesus Christ. My mother didn’t cut her hair for ten years.
Because we didn’t have any money, Mama Iyang was usually paid in rice, chickens, or vegetables. Money was very precious. Most people in the village didn’t have money. Everything was bartered and borrowed. Money was only ever exchanged in the outside world. If someone had money in the village someone else would always ask if they could borrow it. Any money that entered the village quickly made its way back to the outside world.
Mother had to work, around the house and around the garden. Her standards for cleanliness were extremely high. She had the cleanest house in the village. She felt that if anyone saw the slightest speck in her house, it was the deepest humiliation. So even though her favourite son was sick, she still worked very hard. But often, the sight of him lying unmoving would incite in her such rage that she would scream at the top of her voice. During this time, the slightest thing set her off.
At some point, she lost consciousness. She stopped talking and eating. All she did was stare at the ceiling.
I thought she would die. Every night, I prayed to God, I begged God to get her well, and my brother too. I asked God to take my life and give them back theirs.
Despite her violent temper and my terror of her, I wanted her to live. I thought if she died, my father would be very lonely. The thought of her death overwhelmed me.
People in the village were praying and making offerings to God, asking for his help. Father tried all types of natural medicines and called all types of healers, who all had to be paid with rice. There wasn’t enough for us to eat. Father was very thin and suffering terribly, because whenever he wasn’t working, it meant less food for the family. But he tried every type of healing possible, everything except doctors and hospital, because we couldn’t afford them.
All types of healers came. One was an old lady with long silver hair and a long black skirt. She tried to heal my mother. She said that a bad spirit had taken my mother away. She said these bad spirits looked like humans except they were very small. She called them the Twisted People. It was all very scary.
Mother was as still as a statue. The old lady said, “That is because your mother’s body is not actually here. The spirits have taken her.”
She said that the spirits had changed her body into wood. She pricked mother’s skin, but she didn’t bleed. Some of the villagers said, “She is dead. Your mother is dead.”
Some relatives started crying. A few began wailing. The village held a vigil every night. Mother was unconscious for six days.
During this time, I was trying to protect my brothers and stay sane. My brother Danny, who was very clever, asked me what was happening. I told him, but I felt very guilty. He must have sensed how I felt, because he said, “It is not your fault, big sister.”
They were the nicest words anyone had ever said to me, and his words and his love helped me cope. I loved my brothers dearly. Without my brothers, my father and my grandmother, I would have been dead long ago.
Though many villagers were certain mother was dead, the old lady said, “Don’t touch her. She will come back.”
But everyone was terrified.
Father was so skinny and worried he didn’t know what to do. It was the most difficult time in our life, because father wasn’t able to work. He had to look after mother.
Mother was unconscious for six days. During that time, father was so worried, he went around dazed like a zombie. He hardly spoke. I wanted to be strong for my father. “I must be strong,” I kept telling myself.
I overheard one of my distant aunts’ saying, “We had better find some wood for her coffin.”
Because of mother’s illness, father wasn’t able to work in the fields. I watched his worried face, and I guessed he was thinking, “If my children’s mother dies, who will take care of my children, and how can I afford to bury her?”
A few times during her unconsciousness, she leapt from the hut, and hit the ground. But she didn’t react to the pain of the fall. Her body just hit the ground like a piece of wood. I thought my mother was crazy.
In the middle of the night, she let out the loudest scream. Father was in our improvised toilet outside the house. He was half dressed when he rushed to mother to catch her. She was falling towards the ground again.
“I went far away,” she said. Then she started talking in a very strange language. I was convinced my mother was really mad.
Soon our tiny house was filled with people. Mother said that she went to a beautiful place, with lots of food, stored underground. She said when she arrived she was ushered to a huge dining room. Everything around was made of gold.
A woman was sitting on a throne. She had long black hair that hid her face. She wore a shiny black dress that reflected the light so brightly that when she moved, the light was blinding in my mother’s eyes.
Then a man with a deep voice said, “You may eat.” Mother could not see his face. Just a bright light coming from his direction.
There were trays of food laid out. Mother took a little piece of food from each tray. Then the deep voiced man said, “You may sit here,” and chairs appeared. After she finished eating, my mother asked where she was, and why they had taken her.
They ignored her. Then they tied her up. She started screaming. But it seemed like the voice was just inside her. As though no matter how loud she screamed, no one would ever hear her.
Then the faceless woman brought two types of rice, some white and some black, which she offered mother. “Choose whichever rice you like, and we will let you go.”
Mother took the white rice. She said she was lucky she took the white rice. If she had taken the black rice, she would not have come back. Wherever that place was, she would have stayed there forever.
One of the elders in the village said mother had been punished because of the way she treated her children. But mother chose to ignore her. The beatings didn’t stop until I finished high school. Mother was a bit better then. But it was harder for her to beat me when I was in high school, because she saw me less often, and it was harder for her to find a private place to beat me.
Mother recovered. But she didn’t stop the beatings. She began to beat my brothers, as well as me. She loved it most when we bled. Sometimes, her eyes lit up in pleasure when we were in pain.
One time, my brother and I were by the creek. We had borrowed grandmother’s fishing stick from her backyard. Mother saw us. When Danny was holding the line, mother rushed towards us. Mother grabbed the fishing stick my brother was holding. She grabbed hold of my brother’s hand. Then she jammed the hook in his thumb.
My brother went as white as ice. And I thought my mother would be sorry for what she had done, but she wasn’t.
My brother went into shock for a few days. And I got beaten so hard that I was black and blue. My head had bruises the size of golf balls. Blood poured from my head from many different places, and my hair was sticky with it. I though my brain must have been leaking.
If you check my head today, there are many lumps and bumps. Fortunately, most of them are below the hairline.
I was glad that I didn’t go crazy.
Two days after mother woke up, my brother started breathing normally. A spiritualist named Baba Enggo came from a distant village, to purify mother and Daniel.
He brought some holy water. He said it came from the place where Jesus died.
He took some white paper from his pocket, and cut out a shape like a cross. He had a long white beard, and it got in the way, so that some of the hairs of his beard got cut off. He took the paper cross and put in a bowl of water. He said it would drive the evil away. Then he made another paper cross, and covered it with some clear plastic he had brought. He attached each of the crosses to a string, and hung them around mother’s and Daniel’s necks, to protect them.
Slowly both mother and Daniel got better. I was fascinated by this. But it also confused me. I guess miracles work in mysterious ways.
Mother began to look better, and she stopped beating me for a short while. But for a long time, she couldn’t speak coherently. Sometimes in the middle of the night she would scream “Its them. They are trying to take me away. I am not going! No!”
Father had to restrain her. He held her tightly. Father’s hands are rough and strong, from many years of hard work. But they are the gentlest hands on earth. Father has never hurt anyone. To be touched by my father’s hands is to know peace. Mother, who was always so violent and impossible to placate, quickly calmed down in his arms.
The villagers said the evil spirits were visiting her dreams. A few said perhaps it was because mother was so cruel to me. But I believe now that she had a nervous breakdown.
During my mother’s illness was the only period I was able to behave like a normal child.
I ran, I played, and I shouted, I slid down the riverbank and swam, I jumped, I laughed and I cried. I went so wild no one could stop me. My kind, distant aunt said, “Enjoy yourself as much as you can, while your mother can’t get her hands on you.”
My female cousins didn’t want to play with me, so I went with the boys. I enjoyed being with them.
We often played on the riverbank. It was our favourite place. Some days, the boys would watch the Kingfishers. They watched where they flew, to see where their nests were. Then they would steal the eggs. Often we would go to the mountains, climb trees, or visit the fields to find nests filled with eggs.
My cousin Juan asked me steals the birds’ eggs. But I felt bad taking them, because I thought they would become baby Kingfishers. I thought if we took all the eggs, the Kingfishers would disappear.
I liked looking at the baby birds. They had blue feathers and thick little beaks. I liked the way the parents would skim over the surface of the water, catching bugs. I used to think males were brutal, Juan especially. He would grit his teeth when he found any creature he could torture.
I know there is always cruelty in us. But why hurt the helpless little ones? They were so small, much too small to eat. In the village we were always hungry. But Juan didn’t catch animals to eat. He caught them to torture.
I loved to look at the baby birds. The baby kingfishers or the tiny baby finches with their yellow feathers and tiny beaks. Some birds had feathers almost jet-black. There was hardly
any meat on them, never enough to eat, and I would rather starve than eat a baby bird.
I read in an encyclopaedia years later that there were many types of finches. In our village we had brown ones. I loved to hear them chirruping. I loved the dainty way they moved, and fluttered. I thought they had a good life.
But Juan loved hurting them. When he did that, I felt like he was hurting me too. I never understood why he got so much satisfaction from hurting animals, and people.
When mother was sick, I felt free. Part of my mind said, “I wish she could be sick forever.” But whenever I saw my father and my brothers, I felt bad for thinking such bad things about my mother. So I prayed for her to get well.
I was glad when she got well again, and grateful to God. I was grateful that she was better, that my brother was recovering, and that I had a short time to enjoy myself, while she was sick.
During her illness, I was able to visit my uncle Lupe. He was an eccentric but lovely fellow who used to get drunk all the time.
When he’d finished a bottle of alcohol, he would eat it. He used to chew bottles of ESQ or Blue Label, and he would sing and scoop me up and put me on his knees. I was very afraid because his eyes were red and shining. So when he first asked me to dance, I thought it was just to humiliate me. But I didn’t mind much. Later I realised it was his way showing his affection to me.
I felt good, dancing. It was then I got the idea to be a dancer.
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