Monday, April 9


Heard from Charles that this came out in Graphic this week (Jesus on the cover. #afreyd).

Everything is about mothers and chickens

When she agreed to a photo shoot, she had wanted to show off her eight-month baby bump, to immortalize her figure in its maternal aplomb. Eternally optimistic, she imagined looking at the picture as a frail 80-year-old beaming at her good fortune in having bore this child, who by then would have been in his 50s and, like her, happy. So when two weeks hence she woke up with the sheets – 300 thread count and silken ivory – beneath her crisscrossed with blood, a startled scream set off a blur of events that culminated in this quiet morning ten short days later. The sheets had since been handwashed and were immaculate again, and in the living room, the package containing the picture sat atop the mahogany center table, still unwrapped, the golden-brown twine still neatly holding the wrapping in place, terminating in a careful ribbon.
Her tummy was flat now, and as they lay in bed, her husband’s hands noticeably avoided grazing it, choosing instead to part the curtain of her hair, to cup the still concave of her chin. I’m going to do a quick run to the grocery, so I can make Hainanese chicken. That’s your favorite, remember? Then he turned to her, to put forth his earnestness. I need you to stay here and wait until I come back, OK?
She hasn’t been eating right since coming home from the hospital, he noted glumly upon waking up, upon seeing that she, too, was awake, maybe had been awake for hours. For a few minutes, they both noiselessly stared at the ceiling of their bedroom, tinged yellow by the bedside lamp. Her hands sat atop her deflated tummy, a calm outline that under the soft, steady glow registered within him an unrest he couldn’t quite identify. He, too, loved the child, surely, the possibility of it growing up into a boy, then a young man, and so on. But as yet he could not mourn adequately, his mind, in idle moments, still drifting back to that 6 o’clock scream, the blood-stained sheets, his wife’s face ashen with terror. He remembered honking his horn, fruitless against the callous morning traffic that had refused to part.
The car door slammed now and the engine roared to life.
In his mind, his wife was morose, understandably, but not at risk. He had no way of knowing, slowing down now for the final hump before the wooden beam that ascended at his car’s approach, that she rose from the bed and used her feet to look for her fluffy slippers. He honked hello to the saluting security guard just as she walked toward the living room, her fatigued eyes newly lucid, her step now devoid of their erstwhile weight. Daintily, she sat on the couch, reached for the package on the table. She ripped the surprisingly thick brown paper that revealed, in slow but broad strokes, a white box. He had just arrived at the grocery store’s parking lot, was reversing into a freshly-vacated slot, when she saw a small card on the box’s top-right corner. Her fingers gently flicked it open. She smiled at the photographer’s nice little gesture. Congratulations! May it be the first of many! it said, in elegant woman’s calligraphy that may have been his wife’s or eldest daughter’s.
After tossing the zipped bag of chicken thighs and breasts to his basket, he smiled at the nice lady behind the counter. He paid for everything then hauled the two bagfuls to the backseat of his car.
In 15 minutes, he was backing in their driveway, bracing himself. An unduly long stop at an intersection had earlier shoved in his mind dreary scenarios, and he recalled reading about an American woman who, after giving birth to a healthy boy, leaped from her 16th-story apartment in Wisconsin. A quick comparison with his wife’s case made him eagerly bear down on the gas pedal then, and he now rushed to the door, expecting something along the lines of upturned furniture, broken plates, maybe even a body lifelessly hanging from an extension cord, tied to a stolid ceiling fan blade.
When he pushed the door open, the sight that welcomed him was his wife’s pearly whites, arranged in a broad smile that reminded him of his own mom’s inordinately big teeth. You like it, honey? It took a while before he figured out her meaning. In the living room’s most prominent wall, between the two Amorsolo nude’s from his mother-in-law’s collection, hanged his wife’s latest portrait: a black and white photo of her limned profile; her face slightly bowed, her lips on the verge of a smile, her right hand atop the swell in her belly, where much of the sparse light bounced.


She knew, from that hunch she always trusted, that there was something wrong with this man. She could tell something was amiss, despite his ready smile and the more than perfunctory Thank you as she handed him his order. Perhaps it was the sunken shoulders, or the rapid blinking, or the jumpiness so rare on Sunday morning.
But she should stop. This mad fascination to gawk at the lives of other people, to speculate on their happiness, or sadness, is something God did not approve of, she recalled her mother-in-law as saying.
In just over two hours, more than 30 kilos of chicken had passed under her able hands. The pile of drumsticks, always in demand, had to be restacked. She called the attention of the man in charge of that heap, and he nodded. It was 11 in the morning, and the influx of families was calming, as usual.
At 5 p.m., she smiled at the intern who would take her place at the station until the grocery closed at 9. It was an uneventful day: fat, rowdy kids who played with the thongs and old geezers who thought half a kilo of gizzard meant they could order her around. She had long gotten used to it, and she now stretched the rim of her bag for the security guard to check. There’s a piece of chicken neck there somewhere, she joked.
She hailed a jeepney, got on, and sat on the right side, near the driver.
Her 19-year-old daughter was five months pregnant, she was to find out only that night. She had her suspicions (from that hunch she always trusted), but that girl had always slept like a log for days and wore oversized shirts that hid her stomach. When she got home, her shirt smelling of raw meat and animal blood, she found their tiny living room flooded with supplications: daisies, a fruit basket, and – from an oily teenager barely taller than her – a purportedly ardent desire to marry her only daughter. She called her husband, noting that it was just about lunchtime in Muscat. Calmer, she was about to hang up when she realized she was crying and laughing at the same time.
Her mother-in-law had been very generous with her guttural I told you so's and had refused to join them in the living room. In between the niceties and the inquiries as to the whereabouts of this errant boy’s parents, she shot her daughter a look that she hoped communicated her simultaneous rage and despair. The night was too much, just too much.
But she had just stepped out of the gate for some fresh air when she saw a woman walking toward her from across the narrow street. A white towel was draped around her shoulders, advertising a stalled plan to bathe. She knew this woman, and the sheepish glint she got in her eyes at the prospect of titillating gossip. She now nudged her and asked who that boy was; he who came with her daughter that afternoon and unloaded stuff from the tiny sedan now parked by a nearby sari-sari store. She saw how lowly this form of entertainment was, but her husband, after listening to her while he chewed on stale sardines-dipped bread, had told her to call back after a few hours, and she felt she needed an outlet.
And so she told this rabid gossiper the story, linking it with her own tale of having her firstborn at 21. Maybe it ran in the family? There was, from both women, the requisite outburst about this generation’s rashness and lack of faith, and she was just saying good night when her mother-in-law pushed the gate open and joined them. After an hour of stale parenting advice, alongside a quick but thorough enumeration of the loose women in their street, she excused herself. I think I’ll talk to my daughter now. As a parting anecdote, she was told that the young pharmacist who lived three houses down had a strange way of making her six-month old go to sleep. On particularly stressful nights, when she wished to sleep and the boy did not, she would gently pinch a supple thigh – just half an inch of nubile skin – to intentionally make him cry. It worked all the time.
When she got to the living room, the boy was holding the still quivering hands of her daughter, whose figure, now that she had time to scrutinize, was indeed plumper than usual. He rose when she entered, letting go of the hands in an instant. He would go now, he said, and come back next Sunday, with his parents. She nodded, and a flash of terror erupted in her daughter’s eyes. The now empty fists tightly curled.
As they heard the gate creaked close, mother sat beside daughter, their loaded breathing strangely in unison. In this quiet aftermath – the daisies a degree or so closer to the ground, the fruits untouched under the shiny yellow plastic wrap – she asked her, Have you eaten? Her daughter shook her head, and she thought of chicken: its many parts, the many ways to cook it, and how she is tired from being around them all day long.


When she was six, she lived in a remote seaside barrio two hours away from the provincial capital (which itself is seven hours away by land from Manila). The women watched over the kids, and the men fished. That year, a coal power plant was built in the middle of the sea, and she saw, framed by the forest-like legs of the adults, the legions of trucks and boats that hauled steel and cement day in and day out. Once erected, the facility gave a soft whirring sound, endless like the crashing of waves, and a single yellow light, perched atop the smokestack, became a familiar sight in what used to be total darkness. His brother, who was studying then at a state college in the city and came home during the weekends, would often take her by the shore. Together they’d watch this light briefly illuminate the sea or, if it was low tide, the many bent bodies collecting snails and crabs from the waterlogged plain.
Years later, fair-skinned, foreign-looking men in suits knocked on their door and told his father, who was barangay chairman, of their plans to restore the town’s decimated mangrove forest. Could he get some men to help them? And so the boats and nets were briefly abandoned for propagules – mangrove seedlings – that had to be bought all the way from a province five hours away. The task, from acquisition to the actual planting, made his father scarce around the house, but her mother for some reason had never been happier. Fried chicken, once an opulence that only appeared on birthdays and Christmas, was served one Saturday night, and the three of them – she, her mother, and her brother – had just finished eating when a curious craving for ice cream struck her mother. She fished a bill from her pocket and sent her off.
She closed the door gently upon going out.
The town’s only ice cream parlor was near the plaza. It was a 30-minute walk away, and she was already halfway there (having just passed the church with the towering green-ivory spires) when she realized she had forgotten to ask which flavor her mother wanted. Afraid to make a wrong choice, she hesitantly turned around and retraced her steps. A ringing silence welcomed her home, the television and all the lights switched off except in the bedroom where everyone slept. She was already 13 then; she understood things – once, a boy from school touched her there and a split-second jolt ran down her gut – and so she could ascertain what her mother must be feeling. Her mother, whose legs were spread bare and whose lips quivered ajar. It was, she noiselessly assumed, her brother’s doing; why else would his hand be where it was?
This scene flashed in her mind now, three decades later, as she tried to look anywhere but her son’s face, fidgeting as it was under the white light of her office. Are you and Pa free on Sunday? Without thinking, she reached for her phone, clicked on the calendar, and went to Sunday. There’s brunch with a good friend at 10am, but other than that (and the usual plans to catch up on sleep), the day was all clear. And so she nodded.
She may have even smiled, although in truth the grin meant to shrug off a rogue question, namely, What happened, son? this unsaid inquiry that in hindsight may have brought on the impure reminiscence in the first place.
At least this piece of news – and the accompanying memory – offered a fringe benefit: as her son’s footsteps now fade toward the elevator landing, she put her interlaced hands atop the wide table. She thought about progress. How she had forced her legs to sprint from the rustling house that fateful night, how she took her time on her way back, and how her mother and brother complained but still gamely ate the watery chocolate ice cream. She made a silent vow to herself that night before sleeping. After graduating from college, she traveled two hours away to the provincial capital and another seven, in a rickety bus, to Manila. When she applied at the head office of the Japanese firm that owned the power plant, her many precious anecdotes about her childhood barrio charmed the bosses and landed her the job, and over the next 20 years, she negotiated the corporate ladder with a hunger that her city-bred counterparts lacked.
This was progress: the proud ability of respite-taking. She now walked down the carpeted hallway of her department, wordlessly, past her secretary’s table, past the cubicles where heads randomly bobbed, past the reception desk. She pressed Down, to get to the basement parking lot. She was not in the mood for fried chicken.

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