Tita Lacambra Ayala
It was all of Sisa’s fault anyway. She said that if I sat beside the window facing the sea without moving, for hours on end, a bird would come and sit on my head and nest there. I mused over these for a long time while I watched her comb her hair with a big red comb.
I really don’t know why she does that, lave her thick head of long hair with coconut oil and comb it, unknotting all the snags from the scalp down over and over again until she looked like a black waterfall a-glisten with brilliant lights with the water falling down in straight lines, falling all over her front so that her body was fenced from sight, the tips of her hair touching her knees as she knelt on the floor.
Her quiet black-red black-red strokes of comb to head and down lulled me into a hypnotic state and all of a sudden I felt very lonely, like I wanted to go home somewhere but I didn’t know where. I swam in the feeling for awhile, staring at the blue flowers on her brown dress, and at the very pale undersides of her feet contrasted against the very dark sides of the rest of her.
When she was all oiled up like snake, she coiled her hair into a loose knot behind her head freeing her face to the light again. Her face had the fine brown skin that glistened from her own natural oils and the coconut essence, and I wondered vaguely if other parts of her body were just as oily, knowing that in a day or two she would probably smell rancid and overripe and would have to use steam or bathwater heated to boiling to wash away that oil again. Coconut cakes wrapped in banana leaves occurred to me and I began to feel very hungry.
She left the room carrying her coconut shell of remaining coconut oil, her red combed hitched to the back of her head. She left behind her a mixed smell in the small bamboo room which we shared, a small bamboo in a not-so-small bamboo house facing the sea, with sawali walls over and under which lizards wove their loveliness and housekeeping without a thought for human beings, leaving their droppings and their eggs everywhere, sometimes inside my baul.
Sisa’s pillow will have an oily mark when she sleeps tonight, I thought, then turned towards the window.
The sea was especially calm in the early afternoon sun, brownish at the shoreline and blue farther in, little ripples, just a few waves marking times of turning. If, as Sisa said, a bird would come would it notice my eyes and peck at them, or get curious about my nose? And that pearl earrings—would it think them seeds? The noonday sun cast a shining on everything, the unquiet coconut fronds trembled their own greenish lights and if I were to sit here at all for the bird I would have to lean with one side against the window, and face the bamboo cabinet where all the red pillows were piled atop each other fatly over all the folded blankets, and the amts on top rolled up like giant cigars.
I adjusted my seating on my baul, leaned my left elbow against the wide bamboo piece that was the window sill, and prepared to wait for the bird. I burped my lunchburp and smelled the gingerfish with pepper leaves all over again and longed mightily for a drink of water. But I would not stir now that I was in the right place and state of mind for waiting. I stared at the stack of red pillows and fell into a trance.
As it happened, it was not at trance at all- I had fallen asleep and with my left shoulder aching I opened my eyes to see Sisa sitting cross-legged on the floor before a low table covered with blankets, a glowing charcoal iron with a red handle to her left, its numerous scalloped eyes smoldering as it moved back-forth back-forth over a garment in the falling afternoon light. A pile of finished ironing was on a mat on her other side and at her elbow a wooden basin almost empty of dampened rolled laundry. Sisa was flecked with orange dots from the dying sun.
There was no bird at all, I told Sisa, turning away, looking out into the sea.
Sometimes when the waiting is strong the bird does not come, she said, her voice coming in waves as she pressed down on her iron. Then one day if you’re patient enough but nearing the end of your patience it will appear.
I mused over that and slapped at a mosquito that was sucking supper out of my toe.
Sometimes the bird takes a long time to come because it comes from a long way and the journey is troublesome. So long that even as it flies to you its limbs grow and its feathers lengthen, ageing in its flight. Some of them start as young birds and get to their destinations already adult and mature.
Don’t they ever turn back from getting tired? Some come over a wide sea, some in a storm, she answered, the waves in her voice growing like the rising tide. The orange in the sky turned lavender as the sun set and soon the sea was part of the sky.
A year passed since Sisa told me about magical birds and, very often as I was attuned to many other things, I decided that waiting for birds was not the best thing. For Sisa perhaps, yes, and women like her who lived by the sea all their lives, rising with the first shimmering of light by dawn and putting away their boats of charcoal irons when the sun set. But as for me I had breaks in the monotony of my life. Occasionally I went to town to call the Chinaman when it was time to haul away the coconuts, or hunted for the buyer of our vinegar and dried fishes, or helped Mother buy cloth to sell in the adjoining barrios. It was the idle days that left me time to dream about Sisa’s birds, and in that year that passed I must have sat by the window in all the hot searing days of summer.
Sometimes as I dove into the water then turned to float on my back I imagined the shadow of a wide winged white bird following me, beckoning to me out of the water and on to the house so that I might sit there and wait its imperative arrival. The shadow of the bird would be a cool cloud over my body.
At times in my sleep I would feel the clasp of its claws on my hip, its weight pressing me closer to the mat, its tail fanning my backside. And I would wake up to find the cat Musang draped asleep over me, her head hanging to my backside, her tail trailing against my thigh.
Sisa never said that the bird would come in the night but when the sea was still and the moon was up I thought it came in the guise of a bat gliding strongly among the palms. Or it was invisible like a wind and entered dead-blind into the bamboo house slapping against the sawali. Or not wanting that, silently perched on the nipa roof scudding in the nipa, resting its travel-worn head under its wing, hiding its eyes from the moonlight, its fine head feathers trembling in the seawind.
Sometimes it would be white gray markings –like a dove but larger. Other times it would be a bright blue like that of kingfishers, brilliant and elusive, the lone flash of color in the black of night. It went for short dips into the sea to catch some fish then came back on the rooftop to dry its salty feathers. Sometimes it was a silver with red markings at the tips of wings and tail, with red feet. But half-blind. And it would circle endlessly above the house and higher searching for me, uttering a forlorn cry, and never finding me would leave again, and my heart would yearn for it painfully in my dreams and I would sigh and cry into my red pillow silently. Somehow, waiting for the bird in the dark, in the night, was a more intense waiting than sitting up still by the window in the afternoon hours. The mysteries of the dark made him more changeable and fascinating, the span of wings wider, the song a deeper call. His reality extended from the sounds and shadows of the hours into the immeasurable ravines of sleep.
The rainy nights were difficult to bear. The bird circled around in the forest of the night, its feathers wet and heavy, its vision blinded by the rain. Sometimes it would find me and under all the wet feathers I would feel its hot skin, its heartbeat fast and strong under my hand.
One clammy morning, the air heavy with damp from the night's rain, I walked the coconut footpath towards the road inland from the sea. Father had complained that the Chinaman had not comet o haul away the coconuts as he had promised. It was my duty to go into town and remind him of what was to be done. Also, the last batch of fish drying on the fillet trays had not been salted properly and on top of that the rain had started to fall heavily before the fish could be taken away into the shade. Sisa had gone about the house in a distracted way as father scolded and mother proceeded to the granary to bring out some bundles of palay to pound. That morning the sun had risen too early and too hot, as if making up hastily for all the faults attributed to the rain that day before. Even the jeepney driver that brought me and the other barrio folk into town seemed morose and unhappy. My change when he handed it to me lacked a coin. I walked away without asking for it.
The Chinaman was not at his warehouse when I got there. He had
gone with his truck and driver to the north to bring in some molasses. I waited till almost noon and while the molasses were being unloaded he ate his lunch in between mouthfuls of which he promised to haul the coconuts the same day. I rode with him and his two men in the truck. He rode in front with the driver and another worker. I sat in the back of the truck shieldign my head and face with mother's checkered shawl. When I closed my eyes against the dust I saw red and orange lights, spots of violet and light green and blue dancing around in different sizes, advancing then re-arranging and blending inside my eyes. The truck floor was hard and twice over stones on the road I bumped my head against the wooden sides. The floor smelled of molasses and salted fish.
After father greeted the men from town I went to the water pump at the back of the house to wash my face and feet to hang out the shawl on a bamboo pole beside the stairs. I was hot and hungry and I called Sisa from the kitchen stairs, the smooth bamboo stairs creaking under my damp bare feet. Sisa did not meet me at the door clutching at her skirt as she usually did when I got back from town, asking questions about how the trip was and what I saw, or if what she had asked me to buy I had bought.
The kitchen window was shuttered down and I wondered if a strong wind had come to blow away the slender pole that held the shutter up like eyelashes over it.
I called to her again, meanwhile getting a wooden plate from the window shelf and lifting a pot lid for some food. Not getting any answer I sat down on the floor to eat, moistening my fingers in the water from a clay basin. The cold spicy sour fish with coconut milk and gabi leaves soothed me and very soon I noticed the sound of grain winnowing in baskets in the rice shed nearby. That means the pounding had been done and I would not be needed to help. My afternoon was free. I would go for a swim in the sea later and watch fishermen prepare their nets and boats. Later on I would go and look at the new litter of Carya's sow. Carya had promised me a female to keep as her sow had benn bred to mother's boar.
The door to our bedroom was barred when I tried to get in and wondered if Sisa was ill. I peeped through a crack between the fat wooden frame of the door and the door but I could see nothing because the room was dark.
Sisa, Sisa, open the door, I'm back from town and I need my towel, I called through. What are you doing in there?
Go away, came her voice. She sounded urgent and threatening. She sounded like she had a sore throat. I'm making a nest.
A nest? Where?
Here in the room.
With what are you building a nest? Straw?
My dreamworld of birds that Sisa had started in my mind was being quickly spurred on again and what she was doing in there suddenly seemed the most exciting thing. A dreamworld come to earth. A fantasy coming true. I imagined myself likewise making a nest with straw and palm fronds. Mother's shawl, soft and downy things. Anything. Anything.
People's clothes, she said. And blankets.
I want to see. I almost shrieked. Let me in.
She made no sound except shuffling, and I could hear the bamboo slats of the floor moving under her feet as she negotiated distance.
Let me in!
I went back to the kitchen for the bolo used for cutting firewood. I inserted the bolo into the door crack and pushed upwards to disloge the strip of wood that was used to bar down the door. The bar fell to the bamboo floor with a clatter and I pushed my way in.
My eyes widened in the closed room. Sisa was seated on the floor beside my baul. She was completely naked, her hair undone from its neat oily topknot. She was surrounded by a circular pile of clothing which I recognized as the laundry that had been out on the poles the day before. They were the clothing that she should have been ironing at that time of the day. The pillow rack was empty and I recognized the pillows among the surrounding humps of material around her. She was just there sitting in the middle of her nest, staring at me with dark round eyes with something like amusement and smugness in them, just as if she expected me to envy her.
An invisible breath of wind pushed in through the door and I felt cold. Outside I could hear grain being winnowed in baskets, and a coconut midrib broom scraping the dried cowdung floor to gather up fallen grain. I looked cautiously around the room as I backed out slowly, half expecting to be confronted by the presence of something that has long been expected and had finally arrived. I could see nothing else, I could see no one. Only Sisa smiling at me with strange sharp eyes. And I knew that even as I did not see the one who had arrived, that it was there in that room and it was eyeing me curiously, questioning my impertinent presence.
I closed the door as quietly as I could, pulling it into place onto the door frame, picked up the bolo, tiptoed the kitchen and down the stairs towards the rice shed to call mother.