Surveyors of the Liguasan Marsh
By Antonio Enriquez
The two of them—Alberto Gonzales and his cousin Francisco—were on top of the papaya tree by the house in Zamboanga. They were then still boys. Suddenly, the papaya tree started to sway toward the house. Before he and his cousin could climb down, the three fell. The papaya top broke off against the edge of the galvanized iron roof and came down upon both of them: fruit, flowers, leaves, and all. They were too shocked and scared of his mother and Tia Isabel, who were in the yard near by, to cry.
“What was that, Albertito?” said the mother, using his pet name.
“Nada, mama,” he said. “Nothing”—although they were standing there, the papaya tree trunk still between their legs, for they had had no time to climb down because the tree fell so quickly.
“Ooohhhh,” she said. She never once looked at them, not even to turn her head for a glance, since she was too busy talking to their aunt. “Then what was that racket I heard?” She went on talking, not looking at them still.
“It was nothing, mama,” he said. “Nada, nada,” although the leaves, flowers, and fruit were still coming down on them like rainfall.
The two squatted there under the eaves, Alberto and his cousin Francisco, not moving a hair, really scared to move so as not to catch his mama’s or their aunt’s attention.
They were then still boys.
For was he not a Zamboangueño, born and raised in Zamboanga, with Moros as his childhood playmates? Quite often, outside of his home town, in the Visayas or in Luzon, he was mistaken for a Moro.
“You must be a datu –chief,” the dimpled whore from Culi-Culi, a haven for worn-out prostitutes in Manila, had said to him while putting the money away under her elastic panty belt.
He had tipped her generously for one lay and treated her more gently than he would a decent girl. “No, no, I’m not a datu,” he said, sitting up on the side of the pallet and gazing at the icon of Christ on a tiny altar up against a wall. “Why do you say I’m a datu?”
She sat up on the pallet too, and, wrapping her arms round him, leaned her head on the small of his back. She said, “Did you not say you were from Zamboanga?”
“It does not mean I’m a Moro,” he said. Her hair brushed against his back. Under a glaring electric ceiling bulb he was naked but for his socks, which he had not taken off. While screwing her he had felt silly and had even once turned his head to look at his stockinged feet. “Much less am I a datu,” he said, “just because I gave you a big tip.”
Because Alberto had treated her decently, gently, the whore said she would give him an extra lay. He said, “No, no, no, thanks,” and immediately felt so proud for having self-control and strong will. And yet one lay was truly enough, because before the week was over he had the clap, and while pissing into the toilet bowl in his boarding-house in Sampaloc, Manila, to relieve the burning sensation, he broke the toilet bowl cover, and two days or so later he nearly broke his head when he slipped on the bathroom tiles. He made up his mind then to see a doctor who had his clinic on the unlit ground floor of a half-demolished building in front of the University. The doctor gave him a long sermon on morality and the virtues of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the soldier saint and patron of fornicators, but after over half an hour had not written any prescription for his social disease. Alberto stood up to leave, and the doctor nonchalantly asked him where in the devil’s name he was going without the prescription. Alberto changed his voice to an effeminate’s, and said, “I’m going to see a preacher.”
In a way crudely, that was his life—always going crack, crack, crack. Or perhaps more like a duck’s nervous quack, quack, quack. But there was always a crack a cleavage, a break, and somehow he was always responsible for it. He was never conscious of it happening at the time. The exact moment could only be traced back—or, sometimes, foreseen—but at that infinitesimal moment when the break, aayyiiieee, the crack came: never!
He left some girls (not so many as he would like to boast or pretend to have had to his friends by his non-committal silence when the subject of girls and prostitutes was brought up)—before that rumble near the school, over a girl, in Zamboanga. He would like to think he left them, but now looking back and being true to himself, it seemed they had drifted away when that crack came.
And as for Myrna, that moment came some two years ago. They were standing by the side of the Liberal Arts building, in half darkness, the concrete parade-ground walk hard and firm under his feet.
“I have mother’s jewelry and some money I saved in my handbag,” she said. She smiled, so sweetly, and her face seemed to light up in the half darkness. It was as though she had smiled into his face, sending radiation of light into his with her love and trust in him.
He wanted to ask what she was doing with her mother’s jewelry, with the money. But then it suddenly came to him that her reply might force him to a commitment, irrevocable and implacable—to say yes to her. So, instead he said, “Won’t your mother be angry if she discovers the loss of her jewelry?”
“Does it matter when we are gone?” she said. And he saw the light in her face begin to dim. Still, she looked radiant standing there before him in her green-and-white school uniform, so beautiful and desirable. He ached wanting her. But was he ready to pay for tonight’s and all the night’s screwing for the rest of his life by running away with her now and eventually marrying her?
He tried not to look into her face when he said, “Maybe we should think more about this. Why don’t we talk about this again tomorrow?”
Finally, the light, the glow in her face, dimmed: but oh! she was so beautiful still. And then, suddenly, quiet and pitiful, she stood there with her mother’s jewelry and the little money she had saved in her bag. She did not say anything, although her eyes said, painfully, to him—or so he imagined—“You goddamn coward! You pitiful (how ironical), goddamn coward!”
And then crack, crack, crack! And nothing he could say or do afterwards would change that scene or bring back the light, the radiance in her lovely, innocent face. Crack, and that finally was lost. O that I shall die!
And then there was Baby. He called her Baby, although her real name was Concepcion. She was a quiet, silent young girl, very dark, not so tall as Myrna, but more vivacious, easily excited: more soft in your arms, liquid-like, the moment you touched her. The two of them were in the unlit operating room of the town hospital, in the darkness, and she was in her immaculately white nurse’s uniform, since she was on night-duty.
“You mean do it here?” he said, incredibly, holding both her hands in his and looking round for the operating table. He hardly could see it in the darkness; and there, in the unlit operating room, only her white nurse’s uniform reflected the shafts of faint moonlight coming through the windows.
“Why not?” she said, as she withdrew one hand and quickly thrust it inside his pants. She was panting then, and he thought he saw her red lips parting, hot, moist, falling like dewy rose petals.
But he was not ready: trembling and scared that if he gave in he would have to be tied up with her every moment for the rest of his life. Or, perhaps he wanted to show her he was much more gallant than other young men, mas galante; and had more dignity by refusing her: to quell her soaring passion on the operating table. “What if the head nurse sees us!” he whispered, stalling for time. “She comes in here during her rounds.”
Really, she did not say anything, but in the closeness of her mouth and her breasts he felt her silent laughter begin to rise, to tremble as much as he trembled then—and to soar up her throat before breaking with contempt and hate for him. This he had not expected. And now, viciously, he heard her say, although she never said a word above a hiss, heard her say, spitefully, lashing her hiss-words like a horse-whip across his face: “Miss Lydia Tamparong! She lays more men here on the operating table a night than there are patients operated on by Dr. Carreon in a week!”
He lost her. He tried to capture the falling petals, to open her red roughed wet lips with his, but catlike she withdrew; hiss-falling away silently, invisibly, wafting down in the air-current of her hissing when he tried to kiss her again. And he swore just as silently: Dear God! Dear, dear God!