Copyright © 2010 by Antonio Enriquez
From paper book- Dance a White Horse to Sleep and Other Stories, Asia-Pacific Series, UQP, Queensland, Australia, 1977
by Antonio Fermin Enriquez
“Papa will surely get angry when he sees this fallen fence,” he said as he came from the house to meet his girl. “And he fixed it only this morning.”
“Why did it fall down?” she said.
“It is because of the carabao of ’Ñor Piloy. I does not know why he cannot keep his carabao tied good and strong.”
Tito pressed down the rusty barbed wire with his feet and Thelma, carrying the food basket, held up the hem of her skirt between her brown legs and went through the fence. “Be careful with your dress,” he said. “It may get tangled on the barbs.”
She waited for him on the other side.
“Is that why your father was so angry with ‘Ñor Piloy the other day?”
“Si,” he said. “His carabao ate up most of Papa’s coconut seedlings.”
He straightened the bamboo post and dug in some stones around it. She stood behind him and watched him work.
Tito and Thelma had come to the beach to fish and eat under the shade of the trees. Tito brought along fishing lines, one for himself and the other for her. He carried the lines himself because he remembered how Thelma had pierced herself once with the hook while carrying her line and how he had to pass the hook all the way through her forefinger and how he had to cut off its head before pulling it out.
They pulled off their slippers and walked barefoot on the sandy bank, going toward the trees where they would leave the food. There were dry leaves in the shade under the trees and they crackled under their feet.
“Just leave the food there,” Tito told her, putting down the pail of shrimps. ”O, o. Just there.”
“Them dog might eat it,” she said.
He said, “We can watch the food from the shore while we is fishing.”
Tito uncoiled the lines from their bamboo reels and made sure that there was no break in the cords. Then he attached a small weight to each line. He picked up the pail, and together they went on down the beach with their bare feet cold on the sand.
“I hope to catch a big one,” she said, smiling at him and digging her toes into the sand.
“You will get a big one,” he told her. He handed her one of the lines and some shrimps in a banana leaf.
“I thinks I will fish over at the bocana,” she said. “There at the mouth of the river.”
She started off toward the inlet, Tito watching her from where he stood. Then he reached down into the pail, his hand chasing the shrimps. He caught one and hooked it through the tail so that it wouldn’t come off while in the water. And then he threw the line way out, throwing it like a lasso. It hit, weights splashing, and sank quickly.
Tito stood in the afternoon sun holding the line in one hand, waiting for that sudden jerk at the line. But the fish were not striking, not even eating his bait; so he rolled up his pants and moved knee-deep in the water, changed the bait with a live shrimp and made that asthmatic sound by pressing the line hard between his thumb and forefinger and pulling at it suddenly against the other hand holding the bamboo reel. This was supposed to attract the fish. Still, the fish did not strike and he turned and watched her sitting on the bank of the bocana.
“Did you catch any yet?” she shouted from the inlet.
“Not yet,” Tito shouted back.
“There is no fish here either,” she said.
“There is plenty there,” said Tito. “There is always taraquito when the tide rises.”
“I does not seem to catch any,” she said.
Tito drew in his line, coiling it around the bamboo reel. He walked up along the seashore toward her. He stopped and gave her his line and took hers. He said, “Perhaps the bait is gone.”
“I did not feel any fish biting my bait,” she said.
“You has to jerk it at once when the taraquito strikes,” he told her. “Or else it will get away.” He watched the hook as it broke the surface, skimming the top of the waves. “You put the bait on the wrong way,” Tito said, breaking off the head of the shrimp and throwing it back into the sea.
“No, she said. “I did it right.”
“Then why is the head left instead of the tail?” he said.
“I does not know,” Thelma said.
“You must hook the shrimp through the tail,” said Tito. “Then it will not come off so easily.”
“I put on the bait correctly,” she insisted.
“No, you did not.” He knew he was being contentious, unfair. But he went on: “You hooked it through the head,” he said. “You did not add any weight when the current became strong. How can you catch any fish with that kind of line?”
Thelma did not answer. She was suddenly angry. And she had been very happy a short while ago. But he had spoiled it all.
They went on fishing, together, without talking. A wind came down and made little, fast-moving waves that raced interminably to the shore. Tito and Thelma both knew it was useless now to fish, even if they put on more weights. So, still without talking, they went up the white-pebbled shore toward the shade of the trees, Tito carrying the pail of shrimps and the fishing lines and walking ahead—and she following behind. They sat under the tree where they left their food-basket.
She set the food on the banana leaves and cradled the bottle of water in the sand. Then they ate without talking. The wind came in strong from the sea, ruffling the surface of the sand.
“What is the matter?” said Thelma.
“Nada,” he said. “Nothing.”
“Something is the matter,” she said. “Why does you not tell me? Like you always does.”
“Nuay nada ba,” said Tito. “Nothing-nothing.”
“Is it about your mother?”
“It is not about anything.” Tito did not want to think about his mother. Somehow, it always upset him and usually spoiled the day for him.
“You seems so upset,” she said. “You always gets this way when you has had a scene with her.”
He said, “No; we never quarrel.”
“I knows she loves you,” she told him. “But her kind of love has made you bitter. It suffocates you.”
Tito did not say anything.
“Is not love beautiful anymore?” she asked.
He could not look at her. The wind was blowing gently on his back now and ruffling the dry leaves—shrieking up the shoreline. He felt her probing him with her eyes, but he could not look at her.
“Si; it is not beautiful any more.”
They sat there quietly for a while.
“I cannot love anybody,” he said. “Not even you. I mean, I tried ... but it is like—“
She knew he was trying to say something which often came hard when he was moody and crabby; then he would stop even before he had finished. The ants were crawling over the food. She started counting them in her mind.
“It is better this way,” he was saying. “I cannot really love anyone, really love anyone—freely.”
They sat across each other. Then she said:
“I thinks we would better go.”
Tito helped her put the leftovers and the bottle of water back in the basket and handed it to her. He picked up the pail of shrimps and, without looking at her, said: “I is sorry, Thelma. But I cannot help it.”
But already she was running down the shore, the food basket swinging in her hand. She ran toward the point, running quick-legged without looking back.
Alone, Tito stood there watching the sun now low over the horizon. After a while, he walked down the footpath which cut through the woods. He followed the path around the schoolyard back of the house. He opened the back gate and went around the house. Then he climbed the steps.
He went through the kitchen and into the dining room. He saw his father come in from the bedroom.
His father said, “Has you just come in?”
“Yes, Papa,” he said.
His father said, his voice sad: “Your mother has been waiting for you. You goes in and see her now.”
Tito looked up from the table then. There was something in his father’s voice, although there was nothing in his eyes. So he went into the bedroom.
He smelled sickness there as soon as he entered the room. It came from the leaves soaked in oil, from a bottle on the altar. She used the oil to ease the pain in her chest.
“Mama …,” said Tito. “What is it?”
The light from the petrol lamp on the altar threw grotesque shadows over her face. She motioned to him with a thin hand, and he moved to her bedside. Her eyes were pale and her face ashen: the color from her cheeks was gone.
“Is you feeling very bad, Mama?” he said.
“Just the usual chest pain, hijo,” his mother said.
“Does it hurt badly?” said Tito.
“I is used to it,” she said, her voice harsh but faint. With her fragile hand, she pated the side of her bed, saying, “Sit here beside me.”
Tito sat down on the edge of the bed.
“I has been waiting for you,” she said.
“I was out with some friends,” he lied to her.
His mother was looking straight into his eyes, with her own eyes saying: “You is lying again, hijo. You has been seeing her, again.”
He read those words in her eyes. Still, he lied to her again, saying, “I has not seen her, Mama. Verdad!”
“I is glad,” she said. “You must not ever see her.”
Tito said nothing. Talking would only hurt his mother and he did not want to hurt her. How can you tell your mother to leave you alone? Because you’re a man now, no longer the little boy she used to spank. How can you tell her that when she is sick—very sickly?
Her voice came in harsh whisper, “Tito, does you love your mother?”
Still he said nothing. Then, he felt his hand become wet on her cheek.
She caressed his hand, pressing it against her own cheek. “I will always love you!” she said.
Tito gently drew his hand away. He felt, all of a sudden, drained out and tired. He stood up and went slowly out of the room. He walked up to the table where his father was sitting.
“How is she?” his father asked.
“She is all right,” he said. “I think she would like some hot soup.”
“You must not worry her too much, hijo,” said his father. “She is a very sick woman. Your mother es bien enfermosa …” His father walked away to the bedroom, carrying the hot soup in a bowl. Tito looked up from the table, out through the window, and across the river to the forested mountain. He watched the peaks beginning to sharpen against the sky, the slopes forming deep clefts as the evening shadows deepened. The humps of the mountain looked like a woman’s breasts, and, looking at them, Tito felt hollow and empty inside.