September 7, 2013
The Mango Summer
Here, there is no electricity after six-o clock. When it gets dark, we use Coleman lamps that you pump to get going; they look like ovens. It’s like water, which doesn’t come out of faucets, but from this rusty red pump that makes scary gurgling noises. We live right beside the church; that’s how we know when the electricity is about to go off–always before the angelus.
My yaya says we have no electricity because Marcos is president, and my sister wants to know if that’s why there’s no Jollibee, either. We can only buy chiz curls and halo-halo in the stores. For one peso, we can get ten pieces of tira-tira, brown sugar sticks that make my tongue sandy when I suck on them too long.
I am a little girl of maybe eight, nine or ten. I forget the exact years; my family is at the beach, in mango country. It is summer, and there is a sticky fibrous sweet smell around the house. The mangoes come from our farm; there are baskets and baskets of it around the house. All these mangoes, with black imperfect marks, are faded yellow green.
They are the exact color of yellow green on my 74 piece Crayola box–not green yellow which is a different color entirely, but yellow green. They’re blemished with bruises. There is nowhere to put them, so they’re lined up above the cupboards of our house.
But there is not enough space on the cupboards so they’re also lined up on the kitchen floor, above the bookshelves, on my lola’s dresser, on the living room table and on the sofa ledge. Sometimes, if we don’t eat the mangoes fast enough, we line them up on the balcony outside.
We are surrounded by this color, yellow green. Juice dribbles down our cheeks and hands when we’re eating mangoes, and all our white vacation shirts are stained yellow green. The maids stopped bothering to take the stains out a long time ago, but whenever we peel open a mango, my yaya still says, “o yang T-shirt mo ha, mamamntsa nanaman yang mangga.” I eat by biting off the skinny mango tip and peeling off the skin, in a circle. Making little spirals of mango rind and piles of chewed-up mango seeds.
My 101-year-old great-grandma, who owns this house, is crinkled and flat like Japanese paper. She moves like a kite, breezing through her house of kids and books and mangoes. She is also deaf, and she always asks me if I can hear the National Anthem playing out loud. Usually, it is so silent I can hear cloud formations moving in the sky if I wanted to.
Our first day, she takes us to the farm to get the mangoes, even though we still have a lot. We walk past the church, past the cockpit where the feathers flying around make me sneeze, past the rice laid out in the streets to dry like banig mats. It takes us forever to get there. We reach a river and cross a bridge that is broken in the middle.
My brother, who is a year older than me and nasty, tries to push me into the brown river, and I run to my yaya. “Niko, wag kang tikis,” she tells my brother. “Carry!!!” I whine to my yaya, stamping my foot. She doesn’t think Niko will push me in the river, but I know my brother. My yaya picks me up and carries me til the end of the bridge. I stick my tongue out at my brother. I’m glad my little sister Ana was too little to tag along; otherwise my yaya would’ve carried her and not me. They’re always carrying Ana even though she’s old enough to steal my Barbie dolls and twist off their heads. Along the way, a carabao is pulling on a caritela with just one wheel. The carabao’s nose is brown and crusty. It looks like dried shit, like the pies that we saw on the way over. Everything is covered with dust and flies. When my yaya puts me down, I complain. “Carryyyyy…” I whine.
“Lola,” I ask, “what do we need more mangoes for?” She smiles and says, “eh, baka maubusan tayo.” I make a face. We’ll never finish all the mangoes in the house. We’re going to start keeping mangoes on our beds and we’d have no place to sleep in. If we slept in mango beds, we’d squish most of them and stain our clothes some more. Yaya wouldn’t like that, I think.
There are stacks of hay in the farm, used to feed the carabaos. My brother and I roll down the hay. When we get bored we play hide-and-seek by the mango trees. I’m hiding behind a water pump when he calls out to me. “Marra, O! Tignan mo to!” I rush off to where he is. “An anthill?”I ask.
Mesmerized, I watch the ants moving in and out in straight lines until my brother pushes me into the anthill. “Gotcha,”he says, running to the base. Ants spread over my feet, biting like they’re trying to make new hole-homes in my toes and ankles. I start crying and my yaya carries me home without me asking her to. My feet are swollen for two days.
I am eight, or nine, or ten, and my mother has left us here with the maids while she works in the city. My parents have just split up, I think. My mother is concentrating on being alone. Or maybe she wants to be away from her children because she is seeing someone new and pretending to be single. I forget the details. Maybe I never really knew. But I am here with my brother, my little sister who still sucks her thumb, my lola who is old but barely dead, and a tassle of maids who follow us around with nothing better to do. And my yaya.
Every morning, we walk through town in our swimsuits to go to the beach. The other kids who really live there stare and follow us to the beach. They never wear bathing suits–the boys wear shorts and the girls swim with their shirts on. Littler kids wear nothing at all and they’re brown and skinny like slippery worms.
The water is really clear in the mornings. Sand doesn’t crumble under my feet, pebbly but smooth. Nothing here is pretty, even though tiny brown transluscent fish swim around my ankles. Except for the sky and the white haze of clouds that sometimes float through it. Brown seaweed everywhere, and grainy air. The saltwater drying sticks my hair together like mango dribble.
I don’t like the beach, so what I do is wade by the shore and look for pretty stones. I can even dive underwater for them, sometimes. There are flat and smoothly white stones, rough stones with pink and purple stripes, and some that crumble when I clutch at them too hard. I like to show my brother but he’s always swimming. He’s turning brown and skinny like the boys who live here. He doesn’t need floaters like I do, so he doesn’t have white stripes on his upper arms like me.
One time my brother goes, “Marra, watch this.” Kicking off into the ocean, he swims a straight line from the beach through the parts of the sea which change color from aqua to deep green to navy blue. I squint my eyes to see where he is. His head is the size of a Mongol eraser before my yaya notices he’s gone. She yells, “Niko!!! Ang layo mo na! Come back here!” Then he looks up and swims back, in the same straight line. Ever since, he’s done that every day, like it’s a funny joke. Sometimes my yaya pretends not to see him until his head is the size of a pencil tip. She panics anyways and then yells and yells till he looks up and swims back, always in that same straight line.
Because there’s no electricity my yaya can’t watch her favorite Flordeluna at six o’ clock. She hates it; Janice de Belen has just discovered she is really a rich girl and her father just had a heart attack. But no one here has TV, so she makes us all go to sleep right after dinner.
We all sleep on a huge mat laid out on the living room floor. Me beside my brother beside my sister beside our yaya. There are no screens on the huge capiz windows; we all sleep under a kulambo. My yaya and I sleep at the edges because my brother is scared of the slither-tongued, half-bodiedaswang waiting for him. Also because I sometimes still wet the bed.
It is one of those nights. Everyone is asleep, except my brother, who nudges me, “Marra, you awake?”
I see the Coleman lamp dying in red, lizards on the walls hiding in the shadows. My brother presses his body close to mine, puts his hand on my stomach under my t-shirt, then sticks his tongue in my mouth. My brother smells like mangoes and sweat. I stare at the lizards, which are now bigger with the dying Coleman light. My brother takes my hand and puts it between his legs. It feels hard, like those smooth white stones we pick up at the beach. “TuK-Oowww,”clucks the lizards. Like a warning.
His hand is on my stomach, sliding it up. My stomach is moving in waves: it is clear, and then aqua, and then deep, deep green. He brings his hand down, in the same straight line, between my legs, and he sticks his finger in.
I cry out. It hurts.
My yaya wakes up, asking, “Marra? Ano yan?”My brother jerks his hand away, fast. He closes his eyes, pretending to asleep. I bite my lip and curl over. “Yaya,” I moan, “my stomach hurts.”Yaya gets up and feels my forehead, which is not hot. She gets the Efficassent Oil and rubs it on my stomach til I fall asleep.
The next day, it hurts to pee. My panties have brown stains on them. My yaya thinks that I made poo-poo in my sleep. I know I didn’t. I am not sick because we had too much pastillas de leche yesterday, like she thinks. The whole time at breakfast, my lola scolds her, “You can’t feed the kids pastillas and mangoes! Sinto-sinto ka ata eh!”
Lola makes me stay home today, too. “Don’t go swimming na. You rest in my room.”I make a face. Lola doesn’t empty out her arinola until its full to the brim, so it smells of urine. But I like my lola’s bed, made of heavy metal. It has long Ts on each side so the maids can hook up the kulambo and tie it to the metal edges of the T hooks. I had my own private force-field in her bed. I imagined automatically electrocuting people who bother me in bed.
Today, though, I feel worse. I stare at the ceiling counting lizards while waiting for my brother and sister. There are 11 lizards in my lola’s ceiling running around, and they’re making me dizzy. Before I know it, my stomach is lurching towards the bathroom and I am throwing up.
In the toilet bowl I see the blue katchawang we had for dinner last night, the malunggay leaves, the tap water that is kinda brown. I am retching and retching and then I am throwing up mangoes. Wave upon wave of yellow green rising from my stomach, sticking to my throat, then cascading out of my mouth. Bile spatters all over my hair and all over the bathroom.
“Yaya…”I sob out. My yaya rushes to the bathroom, with a towel and warm water to clean me up. She wipes the yellow green from the sides of my mouth with a face towel and carries me back to my lola’s room. I doze on and off all day, in my lola’s force field.
It is the next day when I wake up, still in my lola’s room. Everyone has already gone swimming. I want to go to the beach, too, so Lola makes one of the maids go with me. When we get there, my brother and my yaya are already doing their daily routine. My brother is in the seagreen layer of the sea, swimming in a staight line. Then he disappears. I move to the water slowly and look for pretty stones. Nothing is wrong today. Nothing happened. I turn around to see where my brother is now.
While I look for him saltwater drips into my eyes. I don’t see his head bobbing up and down anymore. I can’t see him, and neither can I see his floaters. My mouth wants to scream and hangs open, but all the wind is bringing sand down my throat. My brother hasn’t come up for air.
“Niko! Niko!”My yaya screams. She takes off her slippers and goes into the water, but she can’t swim. Nobody else is moving. Then I see my brother’s pinsized head by the aqua part of the sea. He is swimming back to the beach in a straight line, and when he gets to the shore, he laughs at my yaya. “Nikoooo, Nikoo!!”he mimics in a high pitched voice.
I try to swallow, but there is dirt in my throat, and I can’t speak properly. I go back to looking for shells, looking through the water, but my toes are silting up sand. “Bad boy ka talaga!” my yaya slaps my brother on the seat of his trunks. Niko just wiggles away and runs back into the water.
After that summer, we all go back to school, and I forget what mangoes taste like. In art class, teachers always think I am drawing farmers plowing fields in bathing suits. That is so strange. “Don’t you see?” I try to explain. “These people are swimming.” I always run out of yellow green crayon.
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