/ Fiction /
From her upstairs bedroom, Anastasia cries. It is 9 pm, well into the quiet hours. Her cries echo through the empty second-story hallway, down the stairs, through the living room and past the glass-walled study where Madam is sitting and working, and then finally to you, in your small room adjoining the kitchen. You look up, as if you could see the baby in her small white crib through the ceiling and the floorboards, stretching her hands out above her and kicking her legs out from beneath the blanket, her mouth wide open and face scrunched from wailing.
You look down at the phone in your left hand, at the handsome boy calling for you on the screen. Jorge used to cry in much the same way, in the first days after he was born. His body was as thin as matchsticks, but his lungs were strong. He is older now. His head reaches your husband’s shoulders as they sit side by side on the bed. Perhaps he is past the age of crying.
“Sorry, darling,” you say. “I’m listening.”
You adjust your grip on the phone. The back of it is hot against your fingers. Jorge picks up where he left off, telling you about the goal he had scored during football practice today. It is the first time he has done so in English. You do not recognize some of the words, no doubt more related to the sport, but there is no need to ask. In a few years, Jorge’s English might become better than yours, if his teachers keep encouraging him to practice. Much of the salary you send home goes to his school in downtown Baguio. You are happy to trade a few minutes of conversation in your mother tongue for proof that his education is bearing fruit.
A shrill cry, tearing at the limits of a newborn’s voice, shatters the steady pace of Jorge’s story. Your right hand grips at the threadbare blanket on your bed. For a split second, you look up, dreading if the cry is loud enough to register through the walls of Madam’s study. Then you look back down. Jorge’s eyes are off in the distance, lost in an imaginary football pitch, so he doesn’t notice you looking away. Angél’s eyes are on you. His expression is unreadable. If he understood the fear that passed over your backlit face, he doesn’t show it. If he disapproved, he doesn’t betray it either. The lines on his sun-beaten face become visible in the grainy video as he smiles, ruffling Jorge’s hair as your son looks up. The dimples that appear on the side of his cheeks when he smiles tells you that it is worth it. It is worth the threadbare blanket and cheap twin bed, and the oil smoke that seeps through the radiator fan and soaks through the sheets as you sleep. It is worth the calluses on your hands as you wash someone else’s dishes, and the bruises on your wrists and knees as you dangle out of someone else’s window to keep it spotless and clean. It is worth a bit of time away from your handsome boy, growing up so fast, before he learns to miss you.
Anastasia’s cries die down for a moment. Angél is speaking now, telling Jorge about his last trip out to sea, his hands pulling an imaginary rope, hauling an imaginary net full of fish. For every week at home, he spends three months at sea, so you wish silently that Anastasia sinks back into a peaceful, dreamless sleep. But the moment, stretched to the limit, snaps at the sound of a renewed bout of crying. A muscle in your leg twitches as you listen for the telltale sound of Madam’s footsteps across the living room, coming to chastise you for not doing your job.
“Aking mahal,” you whisper into the phone.
Jorge’s eyes focus on you. He has his father’s eyes, but the world has not made them ambiguous yet. “Yes, mama?” He asks.
“Please wait for a little bit. I have to go do something,” you whisper.
“Say goodbye to your mama, Jorge. She has to work.” Angél reaches for the phone.
“No,” you frantically whisper. The muscle in your thigh twitches again. You move your leg off the bed, sitting up straight.
“I want to tuck you in, Jorge. Don’t hang up for one minute,” you whisper. You lower the volume on your phone a few notches, then slip it into your right pocket of your shorts, keeping your hand on it as you go out into the living room. It is dark, save for the lights filtering in from the drawn blinds and the light in Madam’s study. She has her back to her wall of books, her posture straight in her high-backed chair, with wires trailing from her ears to the computer on her desk. Slowly, unhurriedly, you make your way across the living room, watching Madam through the steel-framed glass walls for any sign that she had noticed Anastasia’s crying, but she does not seem to notice it or you.
You reach the top of the stairs. Anastasia’s bedroom door is slightly ajar. You close it behind you as you slip into the room. It is vast compared to your own, even to the bedroom you, Angél and Jorge share. You take your phone out of your pocket, then turn the brightness down as you approach Anastasia’s crib. The stars in the mobile, suspended from plastic limbs, glow with a sullen yellow light. The black-out curtains blot out all other light. As if noting your presence, Anastasia’s wailing redoubles.
“Are you still there, darling?” You whisper.
“Yes, mama.” Then, after a moment, “is that a baby?”
“Yes, darling. Her name is Anastasia. I take care of her.” You turn on the mobile above the crib. Anastasia’s cries falter as the carousel of stars, comets, and spaceships start to move. The gape of her mouth narrows until it is no more than a slight opening. The folds around her eyes relax as they follow the mobile. You drop into a kneeling position next to the crib, one knee at a time, taking care not to make a sound.
“She’s not crying anymore,” Jorge says.
“She is missing her mama,” you reply.
“Where is her mama?” He asks.
“She is at work,” you answer. Angél looks up and away.
“Oh,” Jorge says. Then, more quietly, he adds, “then it’s okay.”
“What do you mean?” You ask.
“If her mama can’t take care of her, then I can share my mama with her.” Jorge looks up and away as well. “My mama is great at taking care of people.”
Your limbs feel suddenly numb, so you brace yourself on the side of the crib with your free arm. The round edge of the top rail presses against a nerve in your arm, but you dare not move, lest the baby wakes.
“You’re a good boy.” You run a finger down the screen, along Jorge’s face and Angél’s chest. “With a big heart.”
You blink. Your vision has become blurry. The tears become too heavy to hold themselves together, but you have no free hands to catch them, so they fall onto your t-shirt.
“Are you ready for bed?” You ask.
You hear the shuffling of fabric on the other end of the line as Jorge slips under his blanket. Angél turns out the light and the screen goes black. Then, in the darkness that has fallen on both sides of the conversation, you hear Jorge’s voice one more time.
“Can you sing me a song, mama?” He asks.
“My singing is not good enough for him,” Angél says, and a laugh and a sob tangle in your chest.
“Of course, darling,” you whisper. You keep the phone between your cheek and your shoulder as you reach down to turn the mobile off with your left hand. Then, as the plastic limbs grow still, you bring the fingers of your right hand a few inches above Anastasia’s bright, pink face and begin to sing.
“Sana'y di nagmaliw ang dati kong araw.” Your voice trembles at first. You move your fingers to the gentle rhythm of the lullaby, rolling your wrist left, then right, in a manner that quickly becomes unconscious.
“Nang munti pang bata sa piling ni Nanay.” You look into Anastasia’s wide, brown eyes, giving her the warmest smile you can muster. You grab the top rail of the crib with your left hand to steady yourself.
“Nais kong maulit ang awit ni Inang mahal.” Halfway through the third verse, you lose your breath. You sniff shallowly, tremulously, treading lightly on the soft silence.
“Awit ng pag-ibig habang ako'y nasa duyan.” As you reach the fourth verse of the lullaby, your right hand begins to grow numb. You keep constant the slow dance of your fingers above the sleeping baby. The pins and needles spreading through your hand feels like sand falling from your fingertips.