Sabado, Hunyo 30, 2007

STEALING A CHILD by Reine Arcache Melvin

O
ne last time. A man taking her just before dawn, in a house on stilts by the sea. He cups his hand over her mouth, turns her to her side, presses his chest against her naked back.
“Tell me what you want,” he whispers.
She does not answer.
The sun will come. In a moment, in an hour, the shadows will lift and she will see his face. She senses his head behind her, against her hair. She does not want to look at him; she knows what she will see: one eye replaced by glass, scars down his cheek, nose and lips that are almost but not quite those of the man she loved.
She stares out the window. A red sun crests over the edge of the frame. In a few minutes, the sun will float beyond the glass and it will be over. This is the moment of half-light, the world not yet awake. This is all she has wanted – a man pounding into her while she tries not to flinch.
“Does this hurt you?” he says.
She has lied to him. With her body, with her buttocks stretched apart by his hands. Only her back against him, this pounding that will not stop. He is making too much noise -- the child will not sleep through this. She starts to arch toward him, toward his heat and skin and sweat, urging him on, so she can be finished with him.
The cry of a gull. No one else can hear it. They are alone on this strip of the island.
When she opens her eyes, the red sun is gone and a dull light streams in through the window. He begins to emerge from the shadows, reaches for her amidst the pillows and white sheets. His arms tighten around her; his lips find her cheek. His breath is pungent, heavy on her skin. She pushes the sheets away from her and sits up.
She has wanted him and his child for years. She has spent a thousand nights staring at the ceiling and imagining his face over her. And now that he is hers, she cringes whenever he comes near her.
*
Her feet on the cool floor. In the gaps between the bamboo strips, she sees the blur of the sea. More than a dozen sharks are circling beneath the house, in a cage built from wire and rope and fastened to the stilts.
She first glimpsed the sharks a week ago, from the outrigger that carried them into the island. As the boatman tied the boat to the landing, she cradled the baby close to her and stepped tentatively onto the wooden pier. Her lover pulled off his shirt and dived from the boat into the sea. She watched him descend toward the sharks, his legs kicking slowly behind him.
When he surfaced, he was smiling. “Sixteen!” he shouted. “Come and see them.”
He was treading water, his strong shoulders crossed by scars, the sea a deep green around him.
She stood on the landing, the baby straddled over her hip. The heat from the wooden planks seeped into her sandals. “You’re crazy,” shesaid.
He laughed, shaking his wet hair. “Come on,” he said. “They’re only babies. They won’t bite.”
The child began to cry. The woman knelt down, pressing her hand against its cheek, watching the shadows gliding under the house.
“Are you sure they can’t get out?”
He grinned. “What do you think?”
She leaned over, trying to get a better view. After a moment, she said: “Where did you get them?”
“The fishermen in the village,” he replied. “Fifty pesos a shark.” He dipped his head into the water, then stared expectantly at her. His left eye was still the same – golden-brown and penetrating. If she looked only at it, she did not have to see the rest of him. “They’re happy,” he said. “I’m happy. No one’s died yet.”
She watched him hoist himself up to the landing beside her, his denim shorts dripping. He turned away from her, facing the sea. From behind, he was still an attractive man.
*
A chill in the room. She waits until she is sure he is asleep, then tiptoes across the room and peers out the window to the shore. The sky is overcast, the beach gray and damp after the night rains. The jungle begins just beyond the sand, a tangle of trees and bushes rising over the cliffs. She knows there is a path there, leading to the fishing village on the other side of the island, but from the window she sees only the wild growth, imagines it filled with snakes and malaria-bearing mosquitoes. She thinks of white-skinned friars arriving in these islands centuries ago, afraid and amazed by what they saw: statues that wept blood at night, cats that doubled in size, trees whose leaves suddenly lifted and took flight, disappearing into the sky.
His breathing is labored in the humid room.
Magic cannot save us now, she thinks.
She takes a few steps to the child’s cot and lifts the mosquito net. Black eyes stare up at her, the small face still flushed by sleep. When the girl first saw her father, after the accident, she buried her face in her mother’s shoulders. Now she has grown used to him, no longer cries when he comes near her.
“She knows who I am,” he said. “You can see it, in her eyes.”
The woman bends over the cot and takes the girl in her arms. The tiny mouth opens, but the girl says nothing.
“We have to keep talking to her,” he said. “Sooner or later, she’ll come back to us.”
He spoke to Aimee constantly, sang to her, played tapes of the music that used to make her smile. He wanted to hear the stream of syllables again, the teasing laughter that had delighted him before the accident. But the girl just watches him, her silence broken only by cries of hunger or fatigue.
The woman runs her fingers though the child’s hair. Still cool, the touch of night breezes not yet effaced by the rising sun. The girl twists her head, staring at a ray of light that streams across the shadowed room.
Nothing he says can wipe away what happened to this child.
She slips into a summer dress, prepares a bottle of milk, then carries the girl out to the terrace. Only the sea in front of them, calm and clouded after the night’s storm. She remembers the house rocking on its stilts, winds ripping against the windows, but there is no trace of that violence now. For a moment, she imagines the house adrift, floating toward the horizon.
She settles into a white plastic chair, slips a rubber nipple between the baby’s lips. Her thoughts drift to the sharks beneath her, then to her lover in his bed. She caresses the baby’s cheek, hoping for a smile. Empty eyes, scanning the empty sea. What will it take to bring this child back to her? To make her smile again, to make her run laughing into her arms.
The girl turns to her. The woman studies her face, alert for any change in gesture or expression. At times she thinks Aimee is the only person who sees into her heart, who forces her to be vigilant. She cannot lie to this child. One false feeling, one cruel thought, and the child is lost.
*
She returns to the darkened room. The air is stale now; she smells his body under the blankets. He snores softly, an arm thrown across his face.
She sets the baby on the floor. Thin legs, thin arms, only the stomach and cheeks are soft and round. The woman packs diapers into the baby bag, then adds a bottle of mineral water, formula, jars of baby food, feeding bottles. These will take her as far as she needs to go.
Slipping her feet into rubber thongs, the woman glances nervously at Aimee. The child will not cry, she tells herself -- she is used to being taken, she will not protest now.
She bends over the bed, her lips an inch away from his shoulder. Should she leave him a note? Tell him she is taking the baby?
He murmurs in his sleep, but does not waken.
She hoists the child over one hip, surprised as always by how light Aimee is, her arms and legs as fragile as a bird’s wings. The woman slings the bag over her shoulder and steps out to the landing. The beach in front of her, the sea behind her. No other house on this side of the island, no sign of the fishermen from the village.
She hurries across the wooden planks, a few hundred meters to the beach. The girl slips her hand under the woman’s collar, seeking a breast. They move unsteadily across the sand, toward a line of coconut trees. At the last moment, the woman turns around. The house stands small and forlorn on its stilts over the sea.
She begins to make her way through the jungle, searching for the path that will take her across the cliffs. In a few hours, if she can carry the baby that long, she will reach the village, find a fisherman to ferry her back to the mainland. She knows the village people will stare at her, the women in dark clothes whispering behind the men. These are his people; his family has been coming to this island for generations. They will send someone furtively back to the house to warn her lover, but by then it will be too late. She will be gone, and his child with her.
*
The jungle thickens, thorns scratch her bare calves, the sun burns the back of her neck. She stands at the edge of the cliff. The heat has reached its peak; even the monkeys are silent now. The baby sleeps against her shoulder. She studies the descent ahead of her – the journey will be easier on this side.
She leans against a tree, pours cool water into her free hand and moistens the baby’s hair and neck. Far below her, she sees the western side of the island – the fishing village nestled on one end, a deserted cove on the other. As soon as she sees the green waters of the cove, she knows she must go there.
Only a few minutes, she tells herself. A brief immersion in water, not deep enough to be seen by sharks or ghosts. Even the fishermen will not notice. She will dip the baby in the cool sea, calm the pounding in her own head.
She descends faster now, over the tangle of roots and dead leaves, giant plants brushing against her shoulder. She is afraid to look anywhere except right in front of her. One false move, and they will tumble into the thorns and bushes, the baby disappearing into the mouths of snakes and monkeys and razor-toothed flowers.
Mud oozes into the skin between her toes; her feet slide out of the slippers. She kicks off the thongs, digs her feet deeper into the earth and stones.
The child’s body presses against her, its face buried against her breast. “We’ll be safe soon,” she murmurs, kissing its soft hair.
*
She steps out of the jungle and into the cove. Dark clouds race across the sky. She watches them for a moment. She has never seen an island like this, constantly shifting from light to darkness, silence to storm.
A moist wind licks her bare arms. She wonders if he is still asleep.
Then she is running across the sand, each foot brushing the damp grains for only a moment. She steps into cool water; foam swirls over her ankles.
She throws her bag on the sand, unfastens the child’s diaper. She hesitates, then quickly unzips her dress and steps out of it. They are both naked now, a woman and a child facing the sea. She glances around her, wondering if anyone is watching. Rocky walls on two sides, the cliffs behind her; not even the fishing village is visible from here. For an instant, sunshine falls from between the clouds, warming her breasts, awakening the memory of other longings.
She crouches in the shallow water, waves lapping her legs. And then she is on her knees, wading out into the sea. The child clings to her neck, calmed by the rocking.
How far can they go?
Baby sharks are trapped in his part of the island. The larger ones will not drift into shallow water.
She walks deeper and deeper into the sea until there are only two heads over the surface. The tiny eyes, afraid now, watching her lips. She kisses the baby on the mouth.
The sand beneath her feet can give way suddenly, break into bottomless sea. She knows she can simply drift away, the baby in her arms, until the sea opens its heart and takes them in.
*
Her eyes blindfolded. He was leading her down a winding staircase to thebasement of a house she had never seen before, hours from Manila. She smelled the men even before she saw them. Their sweat, barely masked by the odors of after-shave and cigarettes.
He removed the blindfold, and she looked around her. A room lit by candles, dozens of men in expensive suits and a few women in evenings gowns, seated at small tables in a circle around a cage. Five naked girls inside the cage, their hands tied to bars over their heads, thrusting out their small, dark-nippled breasts. They could not be older than fourteen.
The music began – or did she only begin to hear it? A man untied the girls, and they shimmied out of the cage. Eyes downcast, red lips forced into smiles. They danced awkwardly around the room, circling the tables, looking both embarrassed and lascivious. Each paused occasionally to lift one leg and rest it on a table, thighs spread open, vagina clearly visible, as the men smiled tensely and the women laughed. Drunken men inserted various objects – rolled bills, the mouths of champagne bottles – into the girls. An elegant woman pulled her silk shawl around her bare shoulders, then reached out to squeeze a girl’s thigh. “I wish I could be that firm,” she said lightly, pinching the flesh with her manicured fingers and baring her pretty teeth. The people at her table laughed.
When the music stopped, the girls returned to the cage. Several heavy-set men in bathrobes descended the staircase. They entered the cage.
She shut her eyes. Her lover was standing behind her, his arms tight around her waist. He kissed her neck. His lips were surprisingly soft, almost like a baby’s.
“Look at them,” he said.
He held her more tightly, his heart pounding against her back. Her toes curled inside her shoes.
She opened her eyes.
The room was hushed except for the girls’ screams. The woman could not look at them. She watched the faces of the men watching the girls. No one, not even him, had ever looked at her that way.
How far?
*
The baby’s belly against her ribs, warmer than the sea. This small body, waiting to become someone else. The child will look like its mother -- the same small bones, delicate nose, wide eyes. A haunting, the woman thinks: the enemy inhabits this child’s body, and no one else can see it.
She lifts the baby onto her shoulders, walking further unto the sea. The water is just below her neck.
There was a time when she saw no ghosts. Now they are everywhere, even in the sea. Bodies floating past her, voices in her head that even the shrieking monkeys cannot dispel.
In the waves, broken images of the child sitting by its dead mother, small hands rubbing a pale cheek.
Aimee’s legs dangle over the woman’s shoulders, but the child says nothing. This is her gift, the reason the woman will not leave her.
Suddenly she swings around, her movement softened by water. Far away, along the shore, a line of bodies, watching her. She squints to see more clearly. Her clothes lie in a pile along the shore.
She panics. She cannot go back now, cannot walk naked out of the sea with a baby in her arms. And yet she does. Slowly against the waves, toward the shore, lifting first her breasts out of the sea, then her waist, her hips, her thighs. Her lover has given this much to her – a sense of her body, and with it, her ghosts.
Each step makes her stronger.
She steps out of the water and onto the sand, holding Aimee like a shield over her. The women are a few meters away. They step aside as she approaches.
She does not look at their faces, but she knows who they are. Village women. She will never see any of them again.
She picks up the bag, drapes her dress around her neck and walks toward the jungle.
*
Is he awake now? Has he begun to search for them?
The woman and the baby huddle under an umbrella in a motorboat, heading into deep sea. The mainland is three hours away. Black clouds billow over them; the wind lashes her skin.
The fisherman asks permission to return to the village. She stares coldly at him, and he turns away.
She imagines her lover out on the terrace, facing the darkening sea. He will go to the empty beach, call out her name. Then a radio call to the village, his men telling him she is gone. His anger.
His lips against hers, the first time. That rush in her head, in her breasts, in her thighs. After months of wanting, waiting, despairing – it came to this, her happiness.
How fragile they were. How fragile their loves, their longing, their children. Those moments in his arms, his sex in hers, when she thought she had everything she had ever wanted.
*
They turn back. Not because of the storm. She would gladly welcome the black sea, gladly ease herself into its arms. But it is the baby who wraps its hands around her neck and kisses her on the chin, and at that moment the woman wavers.
She no longer knows where this life ends and where hers begins. For so long she has tried to win back this child by becoming like her – watching, reacting, refusing to speak. She loves this child enough to know she has nothing to give it.
She tells the fisherman to change direction, circle the island, head toward the house of her lover.
The girl needs someone who asks no questions. Strength, power, the blind faith of her father. Fear again, she knows. All her life she has acted from anguish. But this fear now – of being alone with this child, of not being enough for this child – emboldens her, excites her, feels dangerously like an act of love.
He will take them back. He will be happy to see them.
The fisherman is shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous,” he says.
She opens her handbag and removes a few bills.
He stares at them, and hesitates.
Fifty pesos a shark, she tells herself. This time she will dive in, press her face against the cage.
The boatman reaches for the bills. His face is that of an old man, but his naked torso, burned almost black by the sun, is as sinewy as that of a young man. He glances at the sky, then shrugs and begins to turn the boat around.
The boat races against the storm, bouncing on the waves.
There are gods in these waters, kind gods who receive all those who seek them.
“Faster,” she tells him, watching the darkening sky.
The baby huddles in her arms, water splattered on her clothes and hair. The woman glances around: no lifejackets on the fisherman’s boat. An easy death, she asks. This is the season of storms. No telling where they will come from, nor whom they will hit.
The fisherman is scowling, but he keeps the boat steady, steering it over the surface of the erupting sea.
*
They reach the house just as the typhoon breaks. A curtain of white rain blinding her as she staggers out of the boat, still struggling to hold an umbrella over the child.
Then into the house. A moment before her eyes adjusts to the darkness. The curtains are drawn, the white sheets in a heap on the floor. She calls out for him, but the room is heavy with his absence.
At that moment she thinks she made a mistake. She has lost him now, for an instant of fear or folly, for an act she could not carry through. Andif she was wrong, if he will never see her or the child again, if he falls into the mouths of flowers and angry friars descend on him with their swords, then all this was for nothing, and she has destroyed the child by wanting to save it.
She sits on the bed, lays the child beside her and curls her body around it, lulling it back to sleep with her own fatigue.
He will come back, she tells herself. He cannot disappear. Lost in the jungle perhaps, but he will find shelter there, among the ceiling of leaves and the ghosts of white men the jungle ate alive.
Later she finds the fisherman huddled on the terrace, watching the storm. The house seems to shake on its stilts; she is afraid the winds will tear it loose and toss it into the sea. She asks the old man into the house, prepares him a cup of instant coffee. He helps her fasten thick plastic sheets over the windows. Rain pounds against the roof, small streams of water seep through holes in the ceiling; the walls shudder. The old man and young woman sit on the floor, heads resting on their knees, waiting for the storm to pass.