Emeniano Acain Somoza
The Lady From Buffalo Island


I.

Where I come from, it was easy to believe in what neighbors said because we trusted each other enough. There was a shared understanding, a kinship of some sort that one was there for the other – a unique trait of superstitious folks in a quaint barrio located in one of the forbidding marshlands of Siquijor.

One always had time and ears to spare for a fleeting buzz – a rumor, anecdote, or just plain fancy of the conforming mind. Topics ranged from the hair-raising tales of the macabre and the supernatural to the commonplace details of day-to-day affairs – for instance, which fisher had made a wife happily beaming with his bountiful catch or, which boy for the longest time had not had his member cut yet or, whose daughter had caught the eyes of the majority of the lads.

"I would say your Miraluna is blooming quick to be a looker compared to Inday Puring's Perfidia." Carmen buzzed it clear to a huddle of wives on the shore waiting for their husbands one late afternoon.

"Aysus, Carmencita, if you knew fidelity was one of God's favorite virtues, there's no use in asking why Turing wouldn't be blessed with such comely offsprings."

"I think I caught Didang wishing her little Jumbo would grow up to be within Inday Turing's taste…"

"Oh well, Didang never stops until she gets a mestisa for a daughter-in-law, does she?…remember her Dodo and Nating's Elgie?"

But then again, it was the older folks who had the upper-hand in most of the collective decisions so there was nothing much to worry about if it was you who got enmeshed into one of those diurnal oral entanglements.

II.

One late afternoon, when the cocks cock-a-doodled to signal the darkening of the land and when the sun was bidding us good-night with its one last hazel blink, she came and, so began the story on how myths and men are sinisterly woven with one another and too of how sometimes they connive to preserve each other.

Her name was Solita. No, let us call her Luna, or Astra, or Celeste to give her character a kind of distinction above those she had control over and, to further define her power that actually bordered on witchcraft and magic.

Charming with a nervous narration of her general background and then on how she decided to settle in our place, we believed her instantly; on noting this, she finally added, now with a quivering index finger the nail-color sadly chipping off at the cuticle, she said she came from a neighboring island we boys referred to as the sleeping giant buffalo which had an amazing trait of changing color with the weather – greenish blue on sunny days, and brownish black when it rained hard and long. Sometimes it just kind of bounced off the color of the sky when there was nothing to behold except for the smooth and creaseless dome of blue clouds above and the placid ocean under it.

On days when the sea was raging with wave upon wave of silvery foam lapping at our shoreline, we had the buffalo to blame – it wandered off into the night before; it was only its tired restless feet stirring up the waters. And if men, and women, had indeed sprung from the bowels of the earth, there was no doubt she came from there if one was to trust the common judgment based on the surface characteristic of the island – sleeping at daytime and, roaming about at night.

"We shall be off now, Nana. I'll be fine with these little big men here." She was referring to us – Makmak and me, now confessed men after our members were healed completely from the ritual cutting – who were elected by our grandmother to walk her to the family's abandoned hut. Until now, it stands pitiably forlorn yet stately in its austere silence on the edge of the cliff for years since the tragedy many, many moonless nights ago. Makmak prepared the frond-torch while I readied my slingshot.

On the way, a group of men was huddling around a big galloon of cocowine at the porch of Manoy Pablo's house. I saw Butoy, the bulliest of them winking at me then sleazily wagged his slobbering tongue. The group broke into suppressed laughter when the Lady stared them down.

The wind grew chill.

At the knoll before the bamboo grove just a few meters away from the drinkers, one of them made a mocking bird-call. The Lady stopped then drew something from her blouse pocket. She wore it around her neck then touched its sparkling blackish pendant.

A streak of lightning tore through the pitchblack sky.

III.

"This might interest you - nobody could personally prove the rumor that she was a creature of the night even if every other neighbour's husband spun endless tales about tales of his fellow-fisher's encounter with her on more than one occasions."

IV.

Sundays she was Nana's regular visitor. Panting and perspiring she would first lean on our bamboo gate-post. Then she would take off her bandana and wave with it at anybody she would chance inside our small tarsina or anybody hanging around the porch. If it was me, I would wait until she had dusted her bandana before I would call Nana to give her time to fix herself – brush off those dainty little things sticking to her hair like a dry leaf or two or petals of wild flowers here and there – and also to make her feel that her visits were not unpleasant at all.

Their talks always seemed deep and rich as the Lady's flowing hip-length wavy tar-black hair which she loved to wear free from the contraption of a hair-clip or a ribbonette. Without bandana, it danced beautifully with the breeze.

At first, she was scared by the daunting prospect of having to survive alone in our place without a regular means of livelihood. Nana was prompt with an assurance that in time she would find one if she was not at all picky with her choices. She went on with her enumerations about housekeepers complaining of having to wear themselves thin with the chores left them by their husbands like mending fishnet, untangling lines, cleaning the kiln, gutting fish for dying, or producing coal among others.

"Lady, I tell you, the women don't have to talk aloud about it…I know the face of resignation…Why, their shoulders look like they have been drooping for ages with their burdens…Just you keep your faith…. In a day or two I know one of them wives would cry out for an extra hand in the household…As sure as a sigh of desperation, Lady, believe me I'll be sending for you pretty soon."

When Nana had nothing to do except man the tiny store which was a community store in itself where people got every needful things from – remedies for pains, needles, nails, lard, vinegar, cocowine, taro leaves, dried anchovies, fish or shrimp paste, and what-nots – she too would squeeze her petite body into the tiny space left beside my podgy grandma. Eventually, she became a fixture in our tarsina every Sunday.

V.

"Aduhoy ka, Carmen! What do you need extra hands for? You only have to sigh or roll your eyes, in a flash your Crisencio would come fawning before you to take your orders…your highness…"

Carmencita known for raising a henpecked husband was again on the hot spot while all fishermen's wives gathered at the shore waiting for their husbands.

"Bitaw, Carmen…You are one fortunate woman aside from getting the young and nice-smelling Ricardo as your water-boy…"

The women broke out laughing again. The sea was now a burning field of orange slivers. The sun was slowly inching down the horizon. Carmen excused herself. Everybody was cast behind her shadow as she walked briskly past them. Instantly the jovial mood was severed by a shade of spiky silence.

"Ladies, Carmen does not need an extra hand as a matter of fact. She said she could do the chores alone except fetching water. She needs one just so you stop bugging her about Ricardo. You see she needs a lady-hand…to pair the young man off…I think.…" Nana tried to talk some sense into the group. The next day, the Lady was seen gutting fishes for drying inside Carmen's backyard.

VI.

"Well, now, yes, I did say I looked forward to her visits alright but not in a manner where a man was breathless in anticipation for his lady. No. Not that."

"Don't tell me it's all about the hair…come now."


VII.

The following Sunday, she reported to Nana about her new job as Carmen's help. The woman, she told Nana, was nice to her except that she was a hopeless chatterbox when in the mood.

"And how she loves suwa… the house reeks of it." She shared the information as if it was the world's greatest secret.

"Oh I see. Now that explains why Cresencio reeks of rotting citrus too whenever he opens his mouth." Nana seconded with her own find. Then they laughed so hard Nana's glasses slid down her nose.

"At least Ricardo is a gentleman. He never reports without coating his hair with a thick swab of Three Flowers…and whew, that Brilliantine!"

"Oh match it please with the ubiquitous black comb sticking out the back pocket of his slacks." The two laughed again Nana had to excuse herself many times to make trips to the outhouse. Neither one of them noticed that the evening was wistful and sighing as it fell on our windowsills.

"Nana, I might not be here next Sunday and the Sundays thereafter."

The pealing of the old belfry from the neighboring sitio had an urgent ring to it as it reminded us to pray the Angelus.

"Well, I understand you also need time to yourself, young Lady. It's okay. Don't worry about me."

"You know how I love our Sundays. But you see, I have been referred to another household just for the drying season…"


VIII.

On one of those specified Sundays which by the way was viciously hot with all the grime and salt formations on the skin, while Makmak was in town for an errand, I ventured on my own out into the mangrove forest with my slingshot. I was hoping to catch a bird or two. I was dead set on bringing home either a kingfisher or an oriole – both wickedly elusive species bird-catchers had put high premiums on. We young bird catchers shared one common chant: a kingfisher in hand makes one a hustler; an oriole in a cage makes one a soothsayer.

The cow-paths were cracking dry from the heinous heat. The goats bleated deliriously perhaps from dehydration. I transferred without their owner's permission a couple, no, three goats which sounded desperately thirsty – one female and two raunchy and sinisterly obstinate males – to a shadier spot to lessen their agony.

I was dying from thirst, of course, when I reached the mangrove. The sun must have licked up all the water in my body with its burning tongue. Just then I figured out the Lady's hut was only a dozen meters away.

I took the feeder that forked at the curb. It led straight to the hut standing slightly above the hill overlooking the sea. It was plain common sense of course since the new road was snaking strategically under the cool shades of ancient acacias on one side and wild berries on the other and there were jackfruit trees of course.

IX.

"I found the earthen jar luscious with its leaking faucet. I quickly cupped both of my hands and helped myself to the cool water…It had quenched my thirst in tremendously profound ways…I know I must have looked hideous but I did not have to think of anything else anymore…a man was a man when it came to things as basic as thirst… He could not afford to be self-righteous when something sating as water leaked too good to be true before his very eyes."

X.

We all lived in houses that looked strikingly similar in many ways. They were made mostly from commonplace materials – nipa fronds for roofing, beaten bamboo for walling, bamboo strips for flooring, and hand-sawn coconut lumber for framing. Interestingly we were clustered in a marshy valley tucked between two small mountains facing the sea on the eastern side.

Ours was a little bigger than anybody else's because Nana's husband, Lolo Tano, was a carpenter himself who had helped in the construction – mostly as foreman or group head – of most of the houses of Sitio Bantayan. While each of the houses only had an outhouse as an obligatory appendage mostly built at the back, our outhouse had a twin room that served as a store-room where we filled with lumber or firewood and the old native sow by the way which made a very peculiarly funny – almost human – kind of snort. Then of course we also had a small room for a tarsina as an adjunct to the porch.

I figured Lolo Tano must have been one fellow of a guy because a mere mention of his name could evoke an air of reverence. The mentioner as well as the listener would momentarily let a second or two pass by in complete quietude whenever his name slipped into a conversation. I myself did not know what to make of it whenever I found myself precariously perching on those eerie crests of silence.

I was two or three when Lolo Tano built the hut for Nana. This I got fortuitously from my eavesdroppings on a couple of idle women-talks. Never had Nana shared this with us, not even in one of the most intimate of our familial gatherings. But since she seemed to have gained a balanced outlook already I supposed it was okay now to talk about the whole thing.

XI.

The hut. From below the feeder it looked detached under the haunting shadow of the dying balete. If one took the cow-path straight from our kitchen door that winded on and on through a thicket of pungent coronitas, pesky amor seco and wild guava then finally down the enchanted mangrove forest, it looked brooding and pensive on the edge of a cliff facing the sea – like the ghost of a forsaken lover doomed to wait forever a lover and a love that was not meant to be.

As I said, it was basically built for Nana so one got the hint that it was a labor of love. Oh well, love or, otherwise I still thought it had nothing to do with the thick spooky air wadding about that abandoned shack. Accordingly, Nana hated Lolo Tano's alternative occupation – fishing, I mean, no, not exactly that. Her aversion was not about fishes or anything though but, something about having to stay alone at night while the man rowed out to sea. When the docile old man caught up with Nana's predicament he took to his carpentry tools and hammered and sawed and pounded away with all his might until a hut was erected that faced the sea.

Here obviously was an expression of a man's love for his fretful wife who had had to bide her time – thinking of sea monsters – while he sailed away. Here too was a look-out shack or, waiting shed for a melancholic wife who could not sleep while her man was out at night ploughing up the silky body of the ocean. And here too was the only witness to what really took place during that fateful moonless night – before Lolo Tano was found dead at the bottom of the cliff one morning.

XII.

One only had to live through a sad memory either fighting or taming it. Either way, I thought Nana had found her equilibrium at last because for the first time she said "yes" to someone asking permission to use the
hut.

Why, that gesture must have used up a tremendous measure of courage as the Lady's entrance and, later the friendship, also meant opening and walking through a door that could lead her to suffer untold misery again.

"Somebody…Mrs. Samson actually…suggested that I come here and try to ask you about it, Nana." She placed her words carefully before raising those sad almond eyes that pleaded forbearance and compassion.

She said for weeks she had been at Mrs. Samson's – the grade school teacher who saw her at the quayside – when she was told to pack herself ready because her sailor husband was coming home in the evening. Nana held her shawl tight like a lady hanging on to the memory of a warm embrace long gone. Then she drew a long breath and examined the young homeless Lady before her.

"Young Lady, your sudden appearance could very well be that which I have been asking for from the Spirits…Yes, I have been praying hard for a sign… something that would embolden me to step out of some dark corner…of self-loathing and guilt…so that I can move on with what is left of my miserable life…True a woman must learn to appreciate the rain falling on the sheet of happiness she had spread at picnic hours, wash it clean, then spread it again for another party…" Nana's voice quivered then she stopped and excused herself. She took off her glasses and turned her back to wipe her eyes.

"Nana, I promise to take care of it… keep it undefiled for all its worth…"

"Well as Mrs. Samson had trusted you enough to take you in to her household I find no reason why I shouldn't believe you…Come now here you boys, you take the young Lady to the hut…or would you want me to take you there too?…"


XIII.

The night after I had a fill of the cool water from the earthen jar, I felt a sudden urge to wander out into the mangrove forest again. There was something with the way the night breeze had intimated with me. It spoke to me straight in the eyes, whispered something sweet in my ears, as it slowly slipped under the blanket before it lingered in my groin. I knew I just needed to be somewhere near the forest.

The heaven was aglow with stars. The moon was a beauty with a single star close by. My heart was skipping faster than it should. I knew the signs were all working for me.

"Boy, do not venture into a-courting when the moon is alone. You will only find yourself skewering with such difficulty into a lady's heart…" Ricardo offered an unsolicited piece of advice to us young boys gathering at the mangrove forest one afternoon. I personally agreed because I thought I heard that line too from Nana once when she talked about how Lolo Tano had timed his courting with the movements of the moon and the stars.

If my time was right this should be the night. I was all ready now. Nothing could stop me. After what happened?

XIV.

I did not expect her there. I thought she was in some household charring woods for the iron and scraping off pans and kettles or gutting fishes for the drying. At the store, I heard Ricardo telling Nana about Inday Puring's request for the Lady's hand.

She just stepped out of the shower when I got there. She was all wet and dripping in her bathing shirt. I was embarrassed when she caught me there staring at her. She made me turn my back.

"Young boys must study proper timing…how else could you expect a lady to be considerate if you caught her in an outfit like this?…"

I knew I was in for a fix. I was sure Nana would not be pleased with me if she learned of this. Damn the thirst. Damn the heat. Damn the sun. I was ready to walk away. Just then she called out.

"Hey, where do you think you're going young man? Turn around so you can see me clearly…What now eh? Aren't you going to help yourself to it? Here. Come closer now…Oh yes, that's my boy…"

XV.

Some rainy days like these, one can't bear the long haul of self-questioning.

Why didn't I join the group of big men drinking in front of the hut that night?

Why didn't I call out from the bushes and stop Butoy from passing a glass of wine to the Lady?

Why did I cry when I saw her dancing naked in the middle of those god-forsaken men?

The big city I tell you cannot give you much of the answers really. Some time these days I will just pack my belongings and head for the island. I am going to pack them all like I will be out for a real long time, like there is no coming back, like I swear I shall never breathe the air here again…because, God, please, I want to know why.