In My Mother’s House, a novel-in-progress
The germ of this novel started waaay back in 2004. I proposed it as my thesis for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. Back then, I thought it would take me a year to finish, and then graduate and be welcomed into the elite club of MFA-holders. Obviously I had never written a novel before.
Five years have passed. I am still laboring on. I must say I have done my fair share of living in those five years. Taught kids both young and younger. Lived and thrived in a foreign country. Relearned a language from my past. Started a blog. Gotten my heart broken. Again. Broke some hearts. Rushed to the emergency room. Twice. And required to stay in the hospital a few days both times. Fallen in love yet again. Not bad, on the whole. And while my own life story unfolded (and continues to unfold), through it all I knew there was also a story to be written. Through it all, I was writing that story in my head, worrying, wishing, wondering.
Fast-forward to early 2007. Unemployed and determined, I finally started writing. Not just notes and little scenes or dialogues, but really actually writing. In less then three months, I churned out the first draft of “In My Mother’s House” and sent it to Dr. Cirilo Bautista, my thesis mentor, for a critique. Doc Bau was gracious in his comments, encouraging and supportive as always. We agreed to two more drafts. Reading the manuscript now makes me cringe: loose narrative, raw emotions, sloppy images. I appreciated Doc Bau’s kindness even more. I suppose I needed the two-year severance to gain the clarity for a revision. I am at that point of clarity, I hope.
[UPDATE July 29, 2010 As part of my revision process, I posted chapters online as I finished them. But because the publication of the novel is becoming more and more of a reality, I have since deleted all but the first chapter. The rest will have to be consumed in book form.
Below then is the first chapter of the novel. Comments are always welcome and valued. But try to be gentle.]
(Definitely needs Firefox to load.)
The stench of musty air mixed with burning incense hit Nina as soon as she entered her mother’s house. Immediately it brought back years of turning that same doorknob, entering the house and being assaulted by that same smell. It was the smell of her childhood, so strong that she imagined it being sucked way beyond her nostrils into what the religious would call her soul, scientists the olfactory cortex. If she were to go back to the illustrations in her medical textbooks, she could point which part of the brain is responsible for memories. She could trace with her finger the nerves the scent will have to pass through, until it finally reaches the brain where it will involuntarily be associated to pain or pleasure. Knowing all the names for each nerve and neuron though, did not stop her from being caught off-guard.
The smell hit her so suddenly and unexpectedly that for a few seconds she stood still, hand on the knob while steadying herself. For about a minute, she tried to distinguish the smell: a mixture of the musty odor of old cloth that had not fully dried in the sun, and something oily. Food, most probably. She was reminded of how her mother loved fried porkchop, unable to resist the fat even as she warned the rest of the family from eating it. And then there’s the smoke from the burning incense on the surface, attempting to mask all the other smells. She absentmindedly put her large backpack on the floor as she looked around her. She had not even been aware of the absence of this smell until now that she was surrounded by it again. She took a deep breath, fully aware now of how it filled her lungs every time she inhaled. She left the door open.
Her mother’s house itself seemed to have been caught in a time-warp, a world on its own surrounded by all the fascinating changes all around it. Her journey back to the house she grew up in had her marveling at new shopping malls where vacant lots used to be, condominiums left and right, a busy row of commercial complexes where there used to be a small provincial cockpit. She almost did not recognize the streets. There were so many new buildings and houses and people! Everywhere she looked was abuzz with constant activity; when she could still recall how the only movement on the uncemented, alternately dusty and muddy street just outside their house, depending on the season, were the slow and sleepy herds of cows and carabaos walking home from pasture. Now there were elevated sidewalks and perfectly uniformed trees about three meters apart. It was almost a relief to see the gate, rusty and familiar, with paint peeling off. She wasn’t lost, after all. Inside however, everything was the same. Even the smell. It felt like she had come back to the ghosts she had never really left behind.
Standing right in front of Nina was the one ghost she had tried hard to run away from. If the house was unchanged, her mother now stood just inside the door, smaller than she remembered, paler and thinner. Stooped, the old woman now eyed her carefully. Nina watched her mother stare first at her face, then her clothes, then the bag at her feet, then back to her face again.
Mother and daughter stood facing each other, each waiting for a cue. Did the situation call for an embrace? A kiss on the cheek, perhaps, or a warm clasping of hands at least? Nina raises a hand in an awkward wave but quickly let it fall. There was a hint of a nod from the older woman. How do you greet a mother you had not seen in four years? What do you say to a daughter who had left more than a decade ago, but had been gone long before she had not physically packed up and said goodbye?
Later in her room, Nina wondered what her mother saw that made her look at her that long and hard. She tried to remember what changes she did with her hair, her clothes, even maybe her movements. It must have been a surprise for her mother to see her hair so short, just half an inch below the ears, when she used to wear it so long it would almost reach the small of her back. Or maybe the brighter colors of her clothes now. Once she was told, when she was a child of about nine or ten, that red did not suit her skin color. Dark people should never wear red, or she might have read it in a beauty magazine. It took her more than a decade to dare wear red again. At thirty-two, she no longer believed everything magazines say. Although she must admit that it was through years of poring over their pages that she had learned to put on make-up. Not that the additional color made her look prettier but because it made her feel more grown up; more in control of her life. She had gotten so used to it that she now felt naked without that layer of foundation in the morning, a little blush on her cheeks and a dash of lip gloss. No lipstick for her though. She never did quite get used to the feeling of wax on her lips. Maybe because she felt her mouth was too big and did not want to call attention to it as much as possible. It took her a while to realize how she must be a blur of odd shapes and colors to the old woman now. And why her mother looked so different. She remembered how her mother would never leave her bedroom if not fully made up.
“I am tired,” Nina wanted to say and escape to her room. She would have wanted to say it in Chinese but she could not remember how. “Gua ya… I am very…” she tried but gave up when she could not finish her sentence. Instead she walked slowly in, her mother following behind.
“Chia be? Have you eaten?” Her mother asked instead.
Nina nodded. “Diao lo. Yes, I have.” She pointed mutely to the direction of her room. She did not know whether her mother saw her and understood but she did not know what else to do so she awkwardly hoisted her backpack on her shoulder and climbed the few steps leading to her old bedroom. That smell. She really was back home in her mother’s house.
Nina looked around and noticed Father’s framed picture on a shelf in the living room, one of the most obvious changes since she was last here more than ten years ago. Back then, there was only Shorty’s dusty picture on one of the big shelves in the room, exactly where it was since she was eleven years old. And then now for the first time she saw Father’s newer frame set in its current resting place. She still had to get used to his fixed unsmiling face staring down from the high shelf. In his death he had become a permanent fixture of the house, something unthinkable when he was alive and his presence rarely felt. Her gaze fell on a tray of half-filled ashes and smoke coming from the red incense sticks of varying lengths in front of the dusty frames. The tray had been there ever since she could remember but the minute she saw them again this time, she made up her mind that they would have to go. There was no point in indulging her mother in all of these useless rituals.
“So you still think religion will save you?” Nina had asked aloud in English, tone mocking, not waiting for an answer. She did not get any. As if pushing it even further, she continued, “Fat chance. You’re getting more illogical with age.” It was a cheap shot. Mother did not speak English. She might not even have heard her clearly or at all. Still, she had half-expected her mother to ask her to light three sticks, clasp them tightly with both hands while moving them back and forth, head bowed respectfully.
“Di le chong xia? What are you doing?”
Nina was startled more by the loud Chinese words suddenly behind her than by the angry tone that was used. It had been years since the last time she heard Chinese and her ears needed time to get used to its grating sound again. Like the smell of incense sticks, it made her feel ten years old being caught doing something forbidden. The voice belonged to her mother. Loud. Rough. Even a bit rougher than she remembered. A sound too, that she had not heard in years. It made her stop for a full three seconds, then continued extinguishing the incense sticks by burying them one by one in the ashes. It was the second day since she arrived and she was clearing the sala of the ash-full of tray in front of Father’s and Shorty’s pictures. She thought that was obvious enough without having to go into details. She stubbed the last of the lit incense out but not before she watched the smoke go up and reach Shorty’s little button nose. How nice it would have been if this smoke really reached souls of the departed, she thought. It could be the halfway point of the living and the dead—barely there but there nonetheless. There were mangoes and apples and ponkans in big bowls beside the tray and she removed them too, placing them carefully on the floor while she dusted the shelf that served as an altar just a few minutes ago.
Her mother’s hands were like claws on her arm as they tried to stop her from putting the ashes and half-used incense into a used shopping bag. The sudden force made her spill some of the ashes on her shirt and onto the floor. She cursed loudly. Too loudly, as if daring her mother to feed her soap as she threatened to do more than once many years ago, or slap her mouth at least. The curse was left unpunished. It hung suspended in the air as both mother and daughter did not speak. Those bony hands were surprisingly strong for someone sick and supposedly dying, she thought as they continued to clutch at her arm. Annoyed, she sighed audibly and moved out of reach.
“Are you sure you’re dying?” she would have asked had she found the words in Chinese. But she hadn’t. She couldn’t. She had stopped speaking Chinese for what felt like a lifetime ago. Instead, she spoke loudly, as if volume could bridge the differences in the languages that they were using.
“These are not good for the air you’re breathing. They breed dust,” she patiently, patronizingly pointed to the ashes then the air, then her nostrils. It was obvious by the expression on both women’s faces that they knew they were fighting over something more than just ashes and dust. They had stared at each other many times before over many things to disguise what were to them unspeakable and too complicated for words: about sweaters that weren’t really about sweaters, about food that wasn’t really about food, and this time, about dust that wasn’t really about dust. For how was it possible to argue what to one was misplaced love and to the other a validation of power?
Nina waited for her mother to speak first. Instead the old woman fixed her with a gaze she knew very well as she was growing up. It was a gaze that silenced her, made her bow her head humbly and at times reduced her to tears. She noticed her mother’s right eye seemed to always be tearing up now, a part of which had been eaten up by cataract. It looked odd, one eye almost blind and glassy, blank and expressionless with a white film coated over it, the other filled with venom. When she first noticed the wetness yesterday, she had thought it was for her homecoming. Despite the apparent change, it still felt like déjà vu to Nina. A sudden fear that she had done something wrong gripped at her chest. It was an instinctive fear. A prey sensing a predator nearby. She was a full head taller than her mother now. She noticed how the older woman had begun to stoop, had been slower in her movement. She reminded herself that she was no longer the helpless child who had been trained so well to look down in the presence of authority. She can’t hurt you anymore, she silently told herself. This time she stared boldly back. It was only for a few seconds.
This is not a competition, Nina was quick to reprimand herself. She turned her back on her mother and resumed cleaning the shelves, fully aware of her mother’s gaze on the back of her head. She fought the urge to turn back and see if her mother had remained in the room. Instead she felt the imaginary heat on her neck due to the intensity from her mother’s eyes. Careful to look at the couch, the coffee table, the floor, the old TV set, anywhere but where she left her mother standing, Nina concentrated on dusting and scrubbing, wiping and polishing. When she could no longer help it she allowed herself to turn ever so slightly while her eyes stay on the floor. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw her mother had left. She then turned around, surveying the whole room. She noticed that it was not as unchanged as she first thought. The wooden floor that Yaya Pasing diligently applied red Johnson floor wax to then polished to a smooth shining redness with coconut husk every other day had turned white on most parts. But she could still see the stains of a spilled Sarsi near the door, mainly because she knew where to look. The faux leather couch clearly had to be replaced, its holes and scratches barely concealed by the weak light. The clutter on the coffee table had multiplied but there was still the plastic lampshade, calculator, a few coins and a broken stapler. Even the clutter was familiar.
She wondered if her mother were having second thoughts about calling to tell her about the doctor’s prognosis. How could she have thought that it would be anything other than this? Did she expect a happy reunion, mother and child in each other’s arms, finally free from past transgressions and guilt? Should illness and disease be the great unifier? She had accorded death the power that it does not yet have, Nina bitterly thought. For that she first had to die.
Instead of an embrace they stood meters apart, surveying each other on how time has changed them both. Nina wondered how bad her mother’s eyesight had become. If they had bumped into each other in the grocery store, would her mother have recognized her? Would she have known, smelled something of herself in the woman that she bore thirty-two years ago?
She came back home to her mother’s house to take care of her sick mother, Nina would tell people who asked. In her mind, she came back to her mother’s house to prepare for her death. Her mother had been diagnosed with the final stages of breast cancer. The doctors gave her three months, at most. Six, if she were really, really lucky, or really, really cursed, depending on how one looks at things. She had come to play the part of the dutiful daughter by the mother’s sickbed. So far she had not yet fully gotten into character. She had six months for that. Or less. But this was only her second day after all. Even professional actors needed time to rehearse.
Yesterday when Nina first arrived, she went into her room and tried to take a nap. She was so tired from the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride yet she had trouble falling asleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour, she got up and started taking the curtains down all over the house. She washed them all as if they could never be clean enough. She changed all the curtains in all the rooms and watched the dirty ones tumble and twirl in the washing machine. She delighted in the gradual browning of the water and how it swirled around before finally going down the drain. The fresh scent of laundry detergent made her feel calmer, more in control. She imagined all of the world’s bitterness could be cleaned and washed in much the same way and after, there would be a sweet floral scent wafting in the air. That would have been a nice one, world peace in a sachet. Hurry and buy one while supply lasts.
As if she didn’t trust herself to be idle in this house for very long, she set to cleaning the living room on her second day in the old house. She zeroed in on her mother’s altar and was more surprised at how little her mother had struggled. She was expecting a bigger fight. She did not think she would win that easily because that woman, in her memory, never lost an argument, never got beaten in a fight, never lost to anyone in anything. She expected raised voices, curses on her ingratitude as a daughter, maybe a slap thrown in or even a bit of hair-pulling. As she was to find out later on, she hadn’t really won.
That night, her mother refused to eat. When Nina insisted, she asked with a calmness that Nina did not know her mother possessed, “What’s the point?” She then turned her back and went to her room and shut the door firmly. She had to hand it to her mother, Nina thought. She could still play up the drama. And how could she play the part of the dutiful daughter if the other actor wouldn’t play her role as the dying and helpless old mother?
Nina mixed a bowl of soup with a little rice and followed her mother to her room.
“Di tio chia. You have to eat,” she ordered the older woman, suddenly very aware of her power over the woman who had dominated most of her life even in her absence. “Di tio chia.” The words felt alien in her tongue as she forced them out. She was surprised at how she had allowed herself to speak in the language she no longer thought and felt in. It tasted raw. Too many sharp edges in tones she could no longer reproduce. The voice, in fact, sounded like a stranger’s. Shrill and without emotion. As children, Nina and Shorty were asked, at times forced, to speak in Chinese. That single sentence, although odd in her mouth, had a familiar taste too. Feeling like a child again, stumbling over words, relearning the sound and tone of each one, trying them out hesitantly. But these words sounded like something her mother would say, “Di tio chia. You have to eat. Di tio jiengjieng. Di tio ki lo. Di tio… Di tio… You have to be quiet. You have to go now. You have to… you have to…”
Her mother looked at the soup in her hand, the smoke almost identical to the ones from the incense sticks of this morning, and then at her. She had to make a great effort not to lower her gaze, a habit that had been carried on for years. Even now when she had been living away from her for more than a decade, she realized she still had to unlearn avoiding her eyes, bowing down in both humility and fear. She can’t hurt you now, Nina, she reminded herself again. She can’t do anything to you now.
As if reading her mind, she heard a crash before she realized what exactly happened. Her mother had suddenly thrown the bowl in her direction, missing her by less than an inch. The shock from the crashing of the bowl as it hit the wall behind her made her freeze. Some of the hot soup scalded her leg but she was too stunned to notice the pain right away.
“Piao si! Ungrateful child!” she heard the words being screamed, the voice hoarse.
Nina raised an arm to protect herself from the slaps to the face, automatically curling up to avoid the hard pinches at whatever body part was within reach. But they did not come. She lowered her arm and was immediately ashamed of her reaction. She knelt down to clean up the mess but as soon as her knees reached the ground, she stood up again.
“Clean up your own mess,” she said quietly and left the room. She never did find out if her mother cleaned up the mess. The next day Nina left the house early and called an employment agency for a part-time caregiver who could start right away. They agreed on the schedule and the pay. The caregiver started the very same day while Nina stayed in her room the whole time. Doris, the caregiver, did not mention any broken bowl nor did Nina ask.
That night Nina’s mother threw her the bowl of hot soup, Nina left the room still shaking. She went to the sala and sat down uneasily in her favorite chair as a child, her long legs stretched out before her. She had claimed that chair as hers one day while having a childish squabble with Shorty. It was in fact hers, their father having bought it even before Shorty was born. It was now stained and faded in some parts. The edges of the little pillow that served as its foam were torn and the wood had chipped off its yellow paint. One could no longer make out the little flowers drawn on its backrest. She wondered why nobody bothered throwing it away. Surely, nobody would use it now. This chair, her chair, this was where she learned her ABCs, how to write her English and Chinese names, memorized a number of Chinese nursery rhymes. She wrung her hands together and tried to calm her breathing. She denied herself even a single tear. She no longer cried. She could not remember when exactly she stopped.
They moved in this house when she was two years old. She had no recollection of the apartment they had rented in Manila before Father bought this one. They relocated to Valenzuela because land was cheaper although most of their relatives lived in Manila. It was Father who owned the house, but Nina had always associated it with Mother. It had always been her imposing figure ever present and intimidating, her shadow always looking over her shoulder checking on what she was doing, her voice waking her up from daydreams, her disapproving stare that seemed to permeate the walls. In Nina’s mind, it had always been her mother’s house.