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Apr 10, 2013

Child Wife by Delfin Fresnosa



CHILD WIFE
Delfin Fresnosa


                There were eight of us in the family, including grandmother who could hardly do anything any more because she was so old. Father was in his forties, but from his boyhood up his life had been one of toil and he looked like an old man: slow, taciturn, grey. He worked very hard but it was time for planting again, we would have no more rice left in the house. Mother and sister Carmen, the eldest, made abaca slippers but at most they could finish only four pairs a day between them and each pair sold for not more than three centavos. The other children were still too young to be of help on the farm, except Tino who took care of our carabao and the pigs and the hens. He came after Mameng and was only twelve years old.
                Then things took a turn for the better.
                As I remember, it must have been a month or two after we had planted the rice that Mang Julio began coming oftener; he had been in our house before, as he and father were good friends. I know it was a month or two after the planting, for I remember we had hardly a thing to eat in the house. Everytime he came, he brought fish and a ganta or two of rice for us. At first my folks were ashamed o take the things he brought, but Mang Julio insisted very nicely. After that we hardly lacked anything.
                Mang Julio brought many dresses for Mameng. Some were of imitation silk, but you could hardly tell the difference; some were of cotton that had pretty designs of flowers and leaves. He also gave mother yards of cloth that she made into skirts and pillow cases and handkerchiefs. We boys got only undershirts but wore them at the first opportunity. Sister Carmen did not at first want to wear the dresses, but father and mother would coax and scold her until she would finally put one on. She looked very pretty in any of them.
                Father and mother were more than usually kind to Mameng. They would ask her what she would like to eat and what she would like them to bring back to her when they were going to town. They told her not to work too hard because she might tire herself, and they did not allow her to make any more abaca slippers. They also said that she did have to cook or wash clothes or even the dishes if she did not want to. All this embarrassed her, for she had never received so much attention before. There were times when she would suddenly run away from them and go to grandmother. Grandmother would ask her what she was crying for, and would pat her head and say” “Poor child, poor child.”
                For almost a month, Mang Julio came uninterruptedly at least three times a week. He always stayed a long time, talking to father or mother and his eyes would follow Mameng as she moved about the house. Sometimes he would try to talk to her, but she would only answer him in monosyllables, eyes everted and trying to show her desire to run away. He often spoke to her pleasantly, smiling and trying to gain her confidence, but then she would leave on some pretext or other and he would resume his conversation with the older folk. After he left the house, our parents would reproach her for not being nice to Mang Julio, but she would not say a thing, and so they would add that the next time he came, would she please try to be more agreeable to him?
                And Mang Julio would come again with more presents. He would be wearing a new suit of clothes, but as it was in the rainy season, he carried an umbrella and came barefooted. The older folk had to entertain him, but he did not seem to mind; his agreeableness seemed without bounds.
                Then one day, as he was leaving, he said that perhaps he would not be coming as often as usual. It was after mother had told him, haltingly, that Carmen was still too young. She had just turned fourteen. Mang Julio said that he would send men to repair the house, and he himself would drop in now and then.
                Our house was a poor sight – something which the old folk had casually mentioned. Mang Julio had said that they could get all the necessary things or repairs at his store in the village and he would also send men to help do the work. So then three men came to repair the house and they brought with thyem nipa, bamboo, and wood from Mang Julio’s store.
                It was while the repair work was going on that mother told sister and Tino and to me to go to the village to borrow a few gantas of rice from Mang Julio. Mameng said that she was ashamed to go to his store where he might see her, but mother said that if Mang Julio would lend us anything, he would give it to her rather than anybody else. Mameng put on a green dress. She turned around several times before mother and asked how she looked, and mother replied that she looked very pretty. Mother also arranged Mameng’s hair and touched her face and neck with powder. Then the three of us started for the village.
                We did not find Mang Julio in his store, but his wife was there and asked us what we had come for. Mameng was in a panic at first and she turned red and seemed to shrink away. She must have had only a vague idea that Mang Julio was a married man and had perhaps never thought of meeting his wife face to face. She must have felt how far away was pur house and father and mother. Everything in her seemed to want to escape.
                Mang Julio’s wife was struck with a sudden thought and asked: “Are you Carmen?” and sister nodded her head dumbly. The the elder woman made haste to offer her services. She was thin and very ugly, and her face was marred by a distorted mouth that was constantly twitching. She was already an old woman; her face and neck and hands were wrinkled, and her hair was all white. Mang Julio was very much younger than she was; ,maybe he had married her for her money, for they said she was rich.
                Carmen was much surprised when she found the woman fussing about her, very amiable and all the solicitude. With a dumb-like expression on her face, Mameng listened to what she was saying. By that time we had already made to sit down. The two of them sat face to face at a small table, and Tino and I were some distance away eating what the woman had given to us. Now and then snatches of their conversation reached our ears.
                She told of how she and her husband had been married for more than twenty years and that they had never had a child. That was why they wanted to have a child and Carmen was to be its mother. The old woman spoke of many other things, and as she talked her eyes remained on Carmen’s face, watching her every expression and taking in her youthful freshness. Carmen listened with an impassive face, and now and then nodded her head in assent or pronounced an almost inaudible yes. All the time she was nervously twisting a handkerchief in her hands. Then the old woman adjured her to take care of herself, and gave her much other advice. After a while we went away with Tino carrying the rice in a sack. Sister brought up the rear and sometimes we would stop a while and wait for her, for she walked very slowly and was sniffling most of the time.
                While the work on the house was in progress, Mang Julio dropped in now and then and stayed to chat with the old folk and inspect the work done. A lean-to had been added which was made into a room for Mameng. The workers went away and we we left alone with a remodeled house, and new chairs and tables. Mother hung curtains in the windows and we children were not allowed to play inside the house anymore because we would dirty the shiny new floor.
                Harvest time had passed, the rainy season had set in, and the farmers began breaking the soil. Father now did not have to go out so early in the morning with the plow and the carabao, because Mang Julio had made him his overseer. All that father had to do was to go around to Mang Julio’s farm and to see to it that the renters or other workers did not neglect the planting. The months passed. Mother often went to the village, and sometimes when she came home, she would complain to father of something that had happened to her there. But father would shrug his shoulders and say: “Let them talk; what do we care?” Most often, however, she came home with a smile of satisfaction on her face which she would try to hide in a meeker expression.
                When June came, tino and I went to school because father did not need our help any more on the farm. We did not lack anything in the house and we children had clothes and plenty to eat. Carmen grew prettier with her body filling out, and she grew taller, too. Even grandmother was not neglected, and sometimes reeived presents from Mang Julio. At mother;s urging, she discarded her rags, bathed more often, and came out of her dark corner.
               
One morning, when I woke up earlier than usual, I saw Mang Julio leaving. I believe it was the first time he spent the night at our house. Mameng was with him, and he stayed for some tine at the door. He had an arm around her shoulders and she was shivering slightly, for she had on only a thin cotton dress. She did not say a thing to him but did not move from his side; she just stood there silently and resignedly with head bowed down. He was a rather tall man and he looked big and strong beside her girlish body; her head did not quite reach his shoulders. For some time they stood thus, scarcely moving, while he bent his head and spoke to her in a low voice. As the mountains stood suddenly strongly outlined against the red dawn, he gave her a hurried squeeze and held her tightly for a moment; the he went away.
                When he had gone, Mameng suddenly seemed to give way and to be very near to crying. She did not look at his retreating figure, and after a moment, she turned in and went to grandmother’s room. When Mang Julio glanced back, and was about to raise her hand to wave to her, she was no longer at the door.
                Mameng stayed for a long while in grandmother’s room. She talked excitedly, sometimes sobbing, and grandmother quieted her and murmured reassuring words. Mameng was calmer when the other children were waking up and mother began preparing breakfast. The younger children went down into the yard and began to play and I joined them. Mameng watched us for a while, and then she shouted that she was coming down to play with us. In a moment she came running down the stairs and into the yard. She was very much excited and she romped and laughed and we were very happy together. It had been quite a long time since she had played with us because she had always had many things to do in the house, and when Mang Julio began coming mother told her that she must not play too much with us now because she was already a big girl. But now she was free and wild and she laughed and chattered and ran around the yard with our smallest brother riding on her back and the others clinging to her dress.
                After that day, Mang Julio came to the house very often. Sometimes he came in the night and left in the early morning. Sometimes he stayed the whole day and we would go out and have a sort of picnic under the tall trees by the river. He was always considerate of Mameng’s slightest wish and would talk to her slowly and in almost a whisper, and when walking he would take her by the arm of the slightest rise of the ground. She talked to him now and even laughed a little at his jokes, shyly and guardedly watching his face. And she grew prettier everyday it seemed. There was always a flush on her face and her skin became fairer and she had tome to arrange her hair. Mang Julio still brought her many things; dresses, creams and powder, and after he had given her a bracelet, he brought her a necklace. They were not costly, he said, but they were very pretty just the same. And she wore them because mother told her that Mang Julio liked her more when he saw her wearing the things he gave her.
                We still had the outings when the weather was fair, and sometimes, on special occasions,
we went to town. We had many sacks of palay and father even sold some. We were well-fed and well-clothed and the children looked healthy and strong and happy as the months rolled on.
                But sister Carmen did not play with us anymore. She went about in the house silently and mother warned us not to bother her. Father and mother treated her lovingly, but now, unlike before, she was not embarrassed any more; she seemed hardly to be aware of anything. She was under spell of something greater than the things that happened around her. Mother, counting the months, said that her time coming near, and watched Mameng very closely, hardly letting her do anything that might tire her.
                All the dresses that Mang Julio had given her had become too tight, sohe brought her new dresses, loose and comfortable. He still came very often, bringing her delicate things to eat, and all the time he was in the house he would hardly leave her side. Sometimes of an afternoon, he would take her out for a short stroll, and they would walk very slowly, he giving his hand to support her.
                One Sunday morning, Mameng told mother that she would like to go out for a little walk. It was a very fine day, with not a trace of a cloud in the sky and it was not yet very hot. Under the trees, the sun had penetrated just enough to dry the dew on the grass. Mother said that she should not go out alone, and warned her again that her time was very near. Mameng said, “Please, mother, it feels so close in here inside the house; I want to go out for a little fresh air.” So mother told me to go with her, and said, “But you must not go far from the house.”
                Mameng flung an arm around my shoulder and I could feel a little of her weight as we started out. She looked around at the green countryside and at the blue mountains in the distance. The grass that grew rank beside the path brushed our legs and the smell of the flowers and the earth floated lingeringly. Even at our slow pace, she soon breathed hard. I told her we should stop a while if she were tired already, but she told me that she was not tired at all, so we walked on farther. For the most part was remained silent. She just looked at the grass, and at the trees growing tall and green.
                When we were quite far from the house and we could not see it any more because of a rise of the land and the trees,s he began all of a sudden to feel differently. She became more cheerful, and laughed, and it seemed as if she wanted to play with me again, to throw off her weight and be as light and free of foot as before.
                We stopped for a while and she asked me to help her sit down, and when she was seated, she told me that I could play. So I lifet her side and gathered some stones and threw them into the river which was not far away. Little by little I had walked quite a distance away from her, absorbed in what I was doing. Then I heard her shriek. She shriekd several times and kept calling for mother. I ran back to where I had left her, and when I caught a sight of her, she was already running. She ran in short, sudden burst, and all the time she ran, she kept calling for mother.
                When I reached her, she had fallen to the ground. I helped her to a sitting position and when she looked at me, I saw that her eyes were wild with fear and her face, covered with dirt and tear stains, was contorted in a grimace of pain. She kept sobbing, “Oh… Oh… Oh…” and her mouth kept twisting as she tried hard to stop from crying out loud.
                For a time the pain must have eased, for her face became clearer and her breath came more regularly. Then she got up suddenly and ran again. I ran after her, shouting to her to stop, but she wouldn’t heed me, and so we ran wildly up the path to the house. Mother ran to meet her, and afterwards father came and took her in his arms and carried her into the house. She had already lost consciousness.
                Word was sent to Mang Julio and he in turn sent for a doctor, but when the doctor came he could not do anything any more. Grandmother and the other children were in the room, and the old woman kept saying to herself: “Poor child, poor child…”


Originally published in Philippine Magazine, June 1940

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