Untitled, Alice Zheng
A little girl found herself awake at the hour of siesta. She stumbled out of her family’s shack in an abandoned corner of their Quiapo slum, and found her mother among the women on the street. They were sitting on little stools around a water-pump that rusted in the sun, half-drunk bottles of orange soda around their ankles, knees bent in such a way that made their skirts smile a lopsided V.
Her mother, Aling Juanita, was laughing so hard she had to clutch at her sides to keep them from hurting. Her friend, Teresa, tweaked just the right features to transform her face into the perfect caricature. No woman looking at her could avoid recalling the exact droop of Mang Oskar’s lips as he ogled a woman’s rump. Mang Oskar owned the largest stall in the market and sold the most expensive fish. Yet the women knew that all you had to do—if you were hungry enough—was swing your hips a certain way, and you could find yourself the lucky owner of several pieces of stale fish. Juanita also owned a stall at the market, though it wasn’t so much a stall as a patch of ground on which to squat and lay down a basket of boiled plantains. These she peeled and skewered on a stick, padded with brown sugar, and offered to every passing customer—conscious, all the while, of a pair of eyes staring at her from across the dirt aisle.
Juanita felt triumphant when she could come home with a bag of galunggong tucked safely in the crook of her arm. In days like these, with the kitchen sounding the delicious crackle of hot-oil fish, the sun seemed brighter, her husband’s footsteps more eager, the clasp of his arm around her waist more sincere. Sometimes, she would get so happy watching her family eat she would insist on having the usual supper of rice and broth, trying to convince them that she was having a bad stomach. Ricky would then break the last piece of mackerel in his hands, keeping the head for himself and giving their daughter, Tala, the tail.
Neither Ricky nor Tala knew about Mang Oskar; he belonged to another world that didn’t need sharing. A world Juanita, alone, had to revisit after all the pots had been washed, and the last grains were picked out of the cracks on the table. Washing herself in the lavatory next to their kitchen, she would rub her cheeks with coarse soap till all memory of his fingers was chafed out of her skin, and watch in breathless silence as the lather disappeared down the slimy navel of the sink.
As a child, Juanita discovered that this word, “pretty,” which people kept throwing around, was something of a curse. On Easter Sundays of her childhood, the benevolent nuns of the Immaculate Virgin would get the most charming girls in town to lead the procession of the risen Christ. “Head Angel,” they would call her—the pretty pendant to their celestial chain. Always the one leading without a partner flanking her side, she was first to encounter the stares of leering men. Laughing like this now, at thirty-five, in the company of other women who knew MangOskar the way she did, laughing so hard tears streamed from her eyes, so loud she was almost bent over on the ground—laughing like this was the only way to purge the repulsion. It was her one victory, and she relished it with noise, with vengeance, and with gusto.
Amidst this revelry, she suddenly saw the figure of a young girl coming towards her from one of the shacks. For a second she thought she was seeing a phantom of her own imagination—the girl Juanita stepping out of the blurry haze of her childhood, still clad in white, still leaving the scent of rose petals wherever she placed her foot on the ground. Only after squinting did she realize this youthful apparition was her daughter.
“Tala! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be asleep.” Tala put her arms around her mother’s neck and leaned a tired head against her shoulders. Juanita began rubbing the child’s back, feeling the sharp protrusion of a wasted spine and the hollow of an emaciated shoulder. She furrowed her brows, overwhelmed by a tight knotting of guilt. But the child’s grasp was becoming unbearable. Juanita tried to pry off the bony fingers that tugged at her throat.
Tala buried her face in her mother’s neck and caught a whiff of Juanita’s skin. This fishy fragrance seemed to linger on everything Mama touched. It was on the clothes she wore, the pins that kept her hair from falling across her forehead, the cream-colored comb she used to untangle her knots. Sometimes, when Mama was at the market, she would go to her parent’s room and catch traces of this scent in the housedress her mother kept hanging on the wall. She would find the ocean hiding behind an unassuming wrinkle, engulfing her in its waves, shocking her with the warmth of a tight embrace. There was something in the smell that spoke of another world, and she spent many a lazy afternoon trying to cook up an explanation for this unearthly fragrance. One night, she came across the answer in the tattered pages of an old storybook. There, staring at her from the yellow surface of the page, was a woman whose skin was covered by a smattering of scales—a shiny, fishy kind of skin that blurred the edges of her fingertips, and concealed the parting of her hips. She was seated on a rock holding a conch shell to her ear, and as she smiled, Tala could tell that she possessed all the secrets to its deepest, most unfathomable music.
It was then that Tala began to understand her mother. Being a mermaid would explain everything peculiar about her, from the fishiness of her scent, to the irresistible charm of her singing. She started to think about all the times she had caught Mama singing, how it seemed to be a part of her everyday bustle, as casual as it was for her to wave an arm or scratch her head. Mama would sing to everything—to the droplets that fell when she squeezed her hair after bathing, to the bubbles gurgling on her soup, to the languid rhythm of the last flickering candle on the nights she stayed up sewing, pausing only to bite off the extra bit of thread. These recollections reminded Tala of tales about mermaids beguiling fishermen through song—how they captured the men’s hearts with a sweet, silvery kind of sorrow that made them row closer and closer to the whirlpool that engulfed them in one quick swallow.
There was only one thing that bothered Tala about Mama’s singing, and that was that AlingJuanita sang in her native Cebuano, a dialect Tala was never taught. She mistook it for a mysterious oceanic tongue, and spent nights trying to decipher its code, thinking it had something to do with the secret to her mother’s past—why it was she chose to live on land. The storybooks said it was as simple as falling in love, but Tala wasn’t sure she understood their answer. She would try to picture Mama spiraling into a man’s gaping heart, losing the protection of her scales in exchange for a pair of legs that became sturdier the longer she walked on ground. After all, Tala thought, not all mermaids were successful in beguiling fishermen from the shore. Sometimes, it was they who had to succumb. And when they did, instead of capsizing boats, they lost their fins.
Clinging onto Mama’s neck now, Tala got an overwhelming urge to scratch the surface of her skin. Maybe—just maybe—she could scrape away enough of the dust to uncover the scales glistening from within.
“Tala, why are you acting this way?” Her mother’s growing irritation caught the attention of the other women. All chatter ceased, and everyone turned to see what Tala was doing—this girl with the pointed chin and the curtain of bangs cutting straight across her forehead. “What do you want, anak?” The child murmured something unintelligible, something she expected her mother to understand. “Speak up!”
“I said I’m hot and I can’t fall asleep. Come sleep next to me.”
“But Papa’s already lying on the cot. Why don’t you sleep next to him?”
“Because I can’t fall asleep. Not when you’re not there.”
“Stop it, Tala. Look, Tita Teresa is staring at you. Do you want her thinking you’re a little baby who couldn’t sleep without her mama?”
The girl gave her mother’s friend a long, defeated stare. “Come now, Tala,” cooed Aling Teresa. “Be a good girl and sleep next to your Papa. You need to take your siesta, otherwise you’ll be too tired later when your friends come out to play.”
But she didn’t want to play outside. “I can’t sleep without Mama there to fan me.”
So all she wants is a little breeze, Aling Juanita thought, and breathed a sigh of relief. “Papa has the fan on. If you sleep next to him, you won’t be so hot. Come on, child, stop being so difficult.” She gave the girl a parting kiss on the forehead.
But Tala wouldn’t budge. “No. Not without you,” she said through clenched teeth. What Mama did not know, and what she didn’t want to tell her, was that she had had a dream. It was the same dream she had been having for several days now—Enrique standing next to the water-pump, waiting for her to come outside with the red plastic bucket she used to gather water. She would see him from afar, dark and solid against the blazing sky, and her feet would start to betray her, one defiant step after another.
Enrique was the lanky orphan who had moved into the Manzanilla’s shack when he was nineteen. Some say Mrs. Manzanilla took pity on him, took him under her wing after his mother died and his father lost his wages to drinking. Others say she just wanted his company, her husband having been dead for five years and she left alone and childless. Spending her afternoons smoking on an upturned bin, she would smile whenever she saw him turn the corner to their street, and thrust the burning end of her cigarette into one of the potted plants withering on her doorstep. She would take him by the crook of his arm. Enrique would answer with a curt nod and let himself be led into the darkness beneath her roof. Tala used to watch the two of them disappear behind the rusty swinging of the screen, and wonder what it must be like to have her as a mother.
Juanita noticed her daughter sweating profusely. “Sus, Tala, is it really that hot inside? Why don’t you change your shirt and wear something a little more airy? Wear that dress Ernesta gave you.”
Tala shuddered. The first time she had noticed Enrique staring, she was wearing the summer dress Tita Ernesa had given her for Christmas, the one she liked so much because it reminded her of the trumpet flowers growing in the gardens of the rich. She had the bloom of the skirt tucked safely between her legs and above her knees so she wouldn’t have to worry about slipping. She and her friends had been playing tag over the makeshift ramps that hung precipitously above the sewage canals snaking beneath the slums. They were running everywhere, these children of potholed streets. The wooden boards were creaking, bouncing at the thump of their nimble feet. Benji was “it,” chasing after her with a boyish grin—Watch out, watch out! Belinda screamed, her tongue a lollipop-red in the bright sunlight. Tala quickened her pace and started running in another direction, when she came across a pair of eyes that shot cold electricity down her spine. Tag—you’re it! Benji was triumphant. The thudding in Tala’s chest beat even louder, though her heart was already out of the game. You’re it, Tala! You’re it!
“Change into that dress, Tala. Everyone’s staring at you. Come now, don’t embarrass Mama like that.”
The day Enrique approached her, she was squatting next to the water-pump looking for broken bits of clay. Colored chalk was getting too expensive to buy, and they needed to make the lines for hopscotch. Tala was prodding the soil with the fat end of a stick when she found herself encompassed by a breathless shadow. She looked up. He was asking for her name. She pretended not to hear and called out to her friends—Anita! Isabel! Maria! Susanna! They had already left the water-pump and were running through the streets. She threw her stick in a calm, unhurried manner not wanting to let him know that she was afraid. From a distance, the many voices sounded the familiar tinkling of a wood chime, promising nothing, yet warning the onset of wind. Rubbing her dirty fingers on her skirt, she started to make her way towards her friends. Relax, beautiful. I’m only asking for a name, boomed the voice above her. Something about it reverberated like an echo, as if it didn’t belong to him, but to the shell of a man. At that moment, Maria spotted her walking towards them and held up a nice big piece of clay. “Tala, look! I found a good one!” The instant Maria shouted her name, she sensed Enrique’s mouth widen into a victorious grin. Ah, so it’s Tala—Tala as in star. The brightest star in this godforsaken slum. She felt his hand brush up against her wrist, and she started running.
“Come back with me now!” Aling Juanita did not want to leave the circle of women who had sacrificed their siestas for an afternoon of laughter. But Tala had begun crying. Juanita stared at the black hole of her daughter’s mouth and felt paralyzed by anger. She began hitting the child—first, slightly, on the rump, then with increasing vehemence as the girl began to kick and punch and throw a tantrum on the ground. She hated the sight of Tala there, her face about to burst from the noise of her crying, salivating all over her dirt-stained shirt. Her buttocks were flattened by gravel, and out of a red, wrinkled skirt stuck two ungainly legs, skinny as sticks. How many more nights in front of Mang Oskar’s stall, Juanita thought, how many more catcalls, disapproving faces—the shaking heads that sent her feeling small, so small. And still, skinny as sticks! Too bad a young woman like you is already married, Mang Oskar’s smile would show nothing but a pair of rotten molars. And to a poor man, nonetheless. She hit the child harder, this time lashing at her thighs, as if doing so would miraculously force the skin to swell and the muscle to round up. Tala shrieked. Juanita yelled even louder: “Get up!” She tried to haul the child by the crook of her armpits, but the girl refused to let her mother make a crutch out of her arms. “Why are you doing this to me?” She could feel the veins straining on her neck, the pulsating rivers, green and gushing, ready to explode. Come on, baby. Don’t do this to me.
The other women sat in a silent ring. They looked out of solemn, rock-hard faces, the wrinkle of laughter gone from their cheeks. They knew Juanita would eventually exhaust her strength, would sit with collapsed shoulders and notice, for the first time, the throbbing in her fingertips. They knew that somewhere in her chest, she would discover a more painful aching, and they pitied her for it.
Tala’s cries had softened to a toneless whimper punctured by quick spasms of breath. Her black eyes looked suddenly old under the creases of her brow. Juanita peered into them; she saw herself glistening on their surface. The child was tired; there was no question about it. She was crying because she needed sleep. Juanita took the edge of her blouse and began wiping her daughter’s tear-stained cheeks. She brushed the hair away from Tala’s forehead and tucked it neatly behind her ears. Using both arms for support, she draped Tala’s body over one shoulder.
Tala held on, hanging like a rag doll, arms wrapped tightly around her mother’s neck. She was relieved she’d gotten her mother to come—this half-fish beauty who could sing Enrique away, whose voice had the power to fling him into the most treacherous part of the ocean. Mama may have fallen once, like the storybooks say, somewhere a long, long time ago. But something in the way she held Tala now made the girl believe she had long been immune to falling. Now, Tala felt the strength of a mermaid’s grasp, felt that in this simple enfolding of arms, all of Enrique’s plans to touch her, to invade the serenity of her dreams, would be cast away. And as she drew herself closer to Juanita’s body, watching her mother’s slippers tread on dusty ground, she thought she could see a procession of scales following them, winking and exultant, in the light of the sun.
About the Artist
Alice Zheng is a junior at Princeton, where she is seeking a Bachelor’s of Science and Engineering in computer science. She works for the Princeton Student Design Agency, is art editor of the Public Journal, and is associate designer of Side B magazine.