Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

Violeta

 

 

To this day I do it the way Violy did it. Spray it moist, start with the collar, followed by the sleeves, then the two front sides, and finally the back, always moving from left to right, careful with the buttons and the pleats. The shirts always come out perfectly.

The persistent squeaking of the ironing board pleased my ears when I was a child. It was the first thing I would hear when I came home from elementary school in my sleepy hometown in a rural province in the Philippines. My father was always away on distant assignments to mountaintop radar stations, often for months at a time. Money was never enough, so my mother worked until late at night at her convenience store. But Violy was always there to open the front gate for me. On days when she decided that I had been good, she made me a special afternoon snack of day-old rice fried in pork fat, coarse salt, and garlic. On sunny days I would rub my cheeks, with my eyes closed, against the sheets and pillowcases that she had just ironed to enjoy the crisp, warm, cotton fabric gently scraping my skin. On rainy days she would let me take a nap inside the large, metal bin that held the pre-moistened clothes and linen yet to be pressed. Inside, there was a moldy smell that was strangely comforting, and when I woke up, she would spin tales about evil dwarves who lived on earth mounds and ate naughty children, half-horse/half-men creatures who squatted and lurked behind fat mango trees, with their knees higher than their heads, and lonely giants who wailed in mountain forests. She would tell me stories about holy saints with heroic lives and gory deaths, and lovers cursed with tearful heartbreaks that she heard on the radio that morning. She only finished high school, but she nurtured a strange world in her mind that could not help spilling into torrents of hair-raising words.

She had a shy way of smiling. To hide her crooked front teeth, she would purse her lips while she smiled. She laughed frequently, covering her mouth entirely with her left hand. She was not left-handed, but her right hand never seemed to stop ironing. At only ten years old, I felt safe and confident with her. Sometimes, from inside the musty bin on the floor, I looked up at her and wondered if I should ask her to be my girlfriend when I grew up. I wanted to be hugged, but I did not know by whom. In the end, with my mother a ghost and my father a distant shadow, I decided that I preferred Violy to be like a parent instead.

One late night my mother returned while Violy and I were watching a gaudy singing contest on TV, one among many that fed opiate to masses of the Philippine poor. It was the question-and-answer part of a love duet, and we sang the words together with the contestants. In the lyrics we were asking each other teasingly whether our passionate love was honest, forever, and true. We did not notice when my mother entered the living room. Violy was sitting on my mother’s favorite chair, left leg hooked on an armrest, while I was sprawled on the floor, lying on my mother’s favorite shawl. My mother’s eyes were very tired, but she had some other look that made Violy say good night and quickly go to her room. It was the disdainful glare aimed at an oily-skinned servant who dared to charm away her son’s affections while she toiled to keep everyone adequately fed.  My mother did not say anything as she removed the fitted covering of her chair, grabbed her shawl from the floor, and threw them into the laundry bin. She slapped the TV power button off, sat on a dining chair, and glared at me while I stared, unmoving and unmoved, into a dead screen.

Strange days followed. My mother complained that her blouses were crumpled and that a zipper was broken. Then she said a button was missing and something else was stained. The food was too salty. The dining table was dusty. The floor was waxed and polished unevenly. It seemed that Violy spent more and more time apologizing to my mother and less time with me. She was not covering her mouth much anymore. Quietly and suddenly, she was gone. My mother did not explain anything to me. I overheard her telling a street vendor that Violy was no good and that we had a new maid. My mother started coming home earlier and enticed me with shoestring potato crisps to watch TV singing contests together. But with Violy gone, the duets had only words and no music.

* * *

At age fifty-four, after decades away, I visited my childhood home. Sad at how decrepit it had become, I took a walk in the backyard late at night under the sinister moon of the damp monsoon season. Unexpectedly my foot hit an earth mound. I felt my heart jump when the image of evil dwarves crossed my mind and smiled at what my lips whispered:

Violeta.

I never heard from her again. She must have been eighteen or nineteen when she left us more than thirty years ago. If she did have her own children, I wonder if they sang love duets, spun ghost stories by candlelight, hid from imaginary goblins, imitated holy martyrs, and cried at the radio at stories of broken hearts.

 

Fernando Manibog holds a Ph.D. in energy and resources, a master’s degree in international relations, and a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies and education. He has recently completed graduate certificates in journalism and evaluation. He was an energy economist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. for 27 years and presently works as an evaluation consultant, simultaneously taking writing workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, participating in creative writing groups and studying at the Studio Theatre’s Acting Conservatory. He has work forthcoming in Mary: A Journal of New Writing and in The Silk Road Review.