LOVE IN THE CORNHUSKS by Aida L. Rivera
Tinang stopped before the Señora’s gate and adjusted the baby’s cap. The dogs that came to bark at the gate were strange dogs, big-mouthed animals with a sense of superiority. They stuck their heads through the hogfence, lolling their tongues and straining. Suddenly, from the gumamela row, a little black mongrel emerged and slithered through the fence with ease. It came to her, head down and body quivering.
“Bantay. Ay, Bantay!” she exclaimed as the little dog laid its paws upon her shirt to sniff the baby on her arm. The baby was afraid and cried. The big animals barked with displeasure.
Tito, the young master, had seen her and was calling to his mother. “Ma, it’s Tinang. Ma, Ma, it’s Tinang.” He came running down to open the gate.
“Aba, you are so tall now, Tito.”
He smiled his girl’s smile as he stood by, warding the dogs off. Tinang passed quickly up the veranda stairs lined with ferns and many-colored bougainville. On landing, she paused to wipe her shoes carefully. About her, the Señora’s white and lavender butterfly orchids fluttered delicately in the sunshine. She noticed though that the purple waling-waling that had once been her task to shade from the hot sun with banana leaves and to water with mixture of charcoal and eggs and water was not in bloom.
“Is no one covering the waling-waling now?” Tinang asked. “It will die.”
“Oh, the maid will come to cover the orchids later.”
The Señora called from inside. “Tinang, let me see your baby. Is it a boy?”
“Yes, Ma,” Tito shouted from downstairs. “And the ears are huge!”
“What do you expect,” replied his mother; “the father is a Bagobo. Even Tinang looks like a Bagobo now.”
Tinang laughed and felt warmness for her former mistress and the boy Tito. She sat self-consciously on the black narra sofa, for the first time a visitor. Her eyes clouded. The sight of the Señora’s flaccidly plump figure, swathed in a loose waist-less housedress that came down to her ankles, and the faint scent of agua de colonia blended with kitchen spice, seemed to her the essence of the comfortable world, and she sighed thinking of the long walk home through the mud, the baby’s legs straddled to her waist, and Inggo, her husband, waiting for her, his body stinking of tuba and sweat, squatting on the floor, clad only in his foul undergarments.
“Ano, Tinang, is it not a good thing to be married?” the Señora asked, pitying Tinang because her dress gave way at the placket and pressed at her swollen breasts. It was, as a matter of fact, a dress she had given Tinang a long time ago.
“It is hard, Señora, very hard. Better that I were working here again.”
“There!” the Señora said. “Didn’t I tell you what it would be like, huh? . . . that you would be a slave to your husband and that you would work a baby eternally strapped to you. Are you not pregnant again?”
Tinang squirmed at the Señora’s directness but admitted she was.
“Hala! You will have a dozen before long.” The Señora got up. “Come, I will give you some dresses and an old blanket that you can cut into things for the baby.”
They went into a cluttered room which looked like a huge closet and as the Señora sorted out some clothes, Tinang asked, “How is Señor?”
“Ay, he is always losing his temper over the tractor drivers. It is not the way it was when Amado was here. You remember what a good driver he was. The tractors were always kept in working condition. But now . . . I wonder why he left all of a sudden. He said he would be gone for only two days . . . .”
“I don’t know,” Tinang said. The baby began to cry. Tinang shushed him with irritation.
“Oy, Tinang, come to the kitchen; your Bagobito is hungry.”
For the next hour, Tinang sat in the kitchen with an odd feeling; she watched the girl who was now in possession of the kitchen work around with a handkerchief clutched I one hand. She had lipstick on too, Tinang noted. the girl looked at her briefly but did not smile. She set down a can of evaporated milk for the baby and served her coffee and cake. The Señora drank coffee with her and lectured about keeping the baby’s stomach bound and training it to stay by itself so she could work. Finally, Tinang brought up, haltingly, with phrases like “if it will not offend you” and “if you are not too busy” the purpose of her visit–which was to ask Señora to be a madrina in baptism. The Señora readily assented and said she would provide the baptismal clothes and the fee for the priest. It was time to go.
“When are you coming again, Tinang?” the Señore asked as Tinang got the baby ready. “Don’t forget the bundle of clothes and . . . oh, Tinang, you better stop by the drugstore. They asked me once whether you were still with us. You have a letter there and I was going to open it to see if there was bad news but I thought you would be coming.”
A letter! Tinang’s heart beat violently. Somebody is dead; I know somebody is dead, she thought. She crossed herself and after thanking the Señora profusely, she hurried down. The dogs came forward and Tito had to restrain them. “Bring me some young corn next time, Tinang,” he called after her.
Tinang waited a while at the drugstore which was also the post office of the barrio. Finally, the man turned to her: “Mrs., do you want medicine for your baby or for yourself?”
“No, I came for my letter. I was told I have a letter.”
“And what is your name, Mrs.?” He drawled.
The man pulled a box and slowly went through the pile of envelopes most of which were scribbled in pencil, “Tirol, Tirol, Tirol. . . .” He finally pulled out a letter and handed it to her. She stared at the unfamiliar scrawl. It was not from her sister and she could think of no one else who could write to her.
Santa Maria, she thought; maybe something has happened to my sister.
“Do you want me to read it for you?”
“No, no.” She hurried from the drugstore, crushed that he should think her illiterate. With the baby on one arm and the bundle of clothes on the other and the letter clutched in her hand she found herself walking toward home.
The rains had made a deep slough of the clay road and Tinang followed the prints left by the men and the carabaos that had gone before her to keep from sinking mud up to her knees. She was deep in the road before she became conscious of her shoes. In horror, she saw that they were coated with thick, black clay. Gingerly, she pulled off one shoe after the other with the hand still clutching to the letter. When she had tied the shoes together with the laces and had slung them on an arm, the baby, the bundle, and the letter were all smeared with mud.
There must be a place to put the baby down, she thought, desperate now about the letter. She walked on until she spotted a corner of a field where cornhusks were scattered under a kamansi tree. She shoved together a pile of husks with her foot and laid the baby down upon it. With a sigh, she drew the letter from the envelope. She stared at the letter which was written in English.
My dearest Tinay,
Hello, how is life getting along? Are you still in good condition? As for myself, the same as usual. But you’re far from my side. It is not easy to be far from our lover.
Tinay, do you still love me? I hope your kind and generous heart will never fade. Someday or somehow I’ll be there again to fulfill our promise.
Many weeks and months have elapsed. Still I remember our bygone days. Especially when I was suffering with the heat of the tractor under the heat of the sun. I was always in despair until I imagine your personal appearance coming forward bearing the sweetest smile that enabled me to view the distant horizon.
Tinay, I could not return because I found that my mother was very ill. That is why I was not able to take you as a partner of life. Please respond to my missive at once so that I know whether you still love me or not. I hope you did not love anybody except myself.
I think I am going beyond the limit of your leisure hours, so I close with best wishes to you, my friends Gonding, Sefarin, Bondio, etc.
P.S. My mother died last month.
Address your letter:
Mr. Amado Galauran
It was Tinang’s first love letter. A flush spread over her face and crept into her body. She read the letter again. “It is not easy to be far from our lover. . . . I imagine your personal appearance coming forward. . . . Someday, somehow I’ll be there to fulfill our promise. . . .” Tinang was intoxicated. She pressed herself against the kamansi tree.
My lover is true to me. He never meant to desert me. Amado, she thought. Amado.
And she cried, remembering the young girl she was less than two years ago when she would take food to Señor in the field and the laborers would eye her furtively. She thought herself above them for she was always neat and clean in her hometown, before she went away to work, she had gone to school and had reached sixth grade. Her skin, too, was not as dark as those of the girls who worked in the fields weeding around the clumps of abaca. Her lower lip jutted out disdainfully when the farm hands spoke to her with many flattering words. She laughed when a Bagobo with two hectares of land asked her to marry him. It was only Amado, the tractor driver, who could look at her and make her lower her eyes. He was very dark and wore filthy and torn clothes on the farm but on Saturdays when he came up to the house for his week’s salary, his hair was slicked down and he would be dressed as well as Mr. Jacinto, the schoolteacher. Once he told her he would study in the city night-schools and take up mechanical engineering someday. He had not said much more to her but one afternoon when she was bidden to take some bolts and tools to him in the field, a great excitement came over her. The shadows moved fitfully in the bamboo groves she passed and the cool November air edged into her nostrils sharply. He stood unmoving beside the tractor with tools and parts scattered on the ground around him. His eyes were a black glow as he watched her draw near. When she held out the bolts, he seized her wrist and said: “Come,” pulling her to the screen of trees beyond. She resisted but his arms were strong. He embraced her roughly and awkwardly, and she trembled and gasped and clung to him. . . .
A little green snake slithered languidly into the tall grass a few yards from the kamansi tree. Tinang started violently and remembered her child. It lay motionless on the mat of husk. With a shriek she grabbed it wildly and hugged it close. The baby awoke from its sleep and cries lustily. Ave Maria Santisima. Do not punish me, she prayed, searching the baby’s skin for marks. Among the cornhusks, the letter fell unnoticed.
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