Monday, March 21, 2011

The Goat

Ever since Ian can remember, and he can’t really remember much since he is just four years old, all he ever really wanted was a goat. Not a big one. Even the littlest one of the lot would do. Just as long as it was a boy. Because their goat is a girl. And baby goats just aren’t made any other way. At least that was what Mommy La had told him, and Mommy La is never wrong. She told him too that their goat was getting old; and it had better produce a kid soon, or else it will be sold for meat so Ian can go to school.

‘Can’t I go to school and let her live too?’ Ian asks.

‘Ay, but school is expensive, Yan,’ Mommy La says. ‘You have to buy uniforms and shoes, books and notebooks. That goat better bring us a baby soon, or else she’ll be the one sold in the market.’ Mommy La says this while taking her breakfast with wisps of white hair dripping down her coffee and crusts of pandesal sticking on her whiskered upper lip. Mommy La isn’t really his mother. Ian had learned of this when they were at the market and someone had stopped them at the exit to talk to Mommy La.

‘Is this Ian?’ the stranger with musky perfume and too much make-up asked. ‘He’s so big already! Why, you were just a baby when I last saw you!’ She squeezed Ian’s arms the way they do with pigs sometimes to check if they were fleshy enough for eating. Ian just fidgeted there, holding Mommy La’s hand and trying to stay put.
‘No news of his mother yet? Ai, Diyos ko, that ungrateful daughter of yours.’ Later on, Mommy La explained to him that his mother was in Manila, working so she could save up for Ian’s future. Manila was such a faraway place, even farther than the market. You had to ride two planes and a bus just to get there. Someday, his mama will come home, Mommy La told him. And Mommy La was never wrong. She showed him what Manila was like one time on one of those soap operas on TV at night.

‘See, Yan, see those tall buildings, long bridges, and well-dressed people? That’s where your mama is.’ And ever since then, Ian had taken to watching TV every night just in case his mama shows up on the screen, walking on Manila’s sidewalks.
‘Now, hurry up and finish your breakfast. I have plenty of sewing to do today,’ Mommy La prods. Mommy La is the third most popular seamstress in all of Tanjay. When she and Ian go to church, they count the number of people wearing her creations that Sunday. Ian feels proud to walk with Mommy La even though her nervy and crooked fingers are a little uncomfortable to hold on to.

They look at the goat tied to their front yard, its brown fur glistening under the sun. They stare at it for a few more minutes before Mommy La stands up to do the dishes, then she’s off to her sewing machine to start the dress for her customers. Ian runs off to play with Mayumi until lunch time.


Mayumi’s Papa-san is very old, older than Mommy La even. He is Japanese and comes to visit Mayumi only twice or thrice a year. Every year, after her Papa-san goes home, Mayumi’s mama seems to be carrying another baby in her womb, so she is always crabby around Mayumi and Ian. They are careful not to disturb her. Once, during one of his visits, Mayumi’s Papa-san gave Ian a box of chocolates shaped like Hello Kittys. He forced himself to get only five a week. It took him a month to finish the whole box, which he still kept to place all his marbles in. In between then, he sends Mayumi all kinds of toys. She has so many she sometimes forgets to take back what Ian borrowed from her—robotic puppies that say ‘Arigato,’ wooden kitchen sets of sushis and rice cakes, bubble gum dispensers with small trinkets, and anime action figures. But she doesn’t mind. She gets more every three months. Mayumi has plenty of jewelry too. She is careful not to play too much in the dirt for fear of losing one of her bracelets. She even has a bracelet called corales, which she said protected her from the evil spirits and from getting hurt. It seemed to work too because Ian has never seen Mayumi scrape her knees or fall from a tree when they were playing. Ian wishes they had enough money to buy a powerful bracelet like that. That way, maybe he won’t be so cautious. That is what Ian heard Mayumi’s mama say about him one day.
‘That boy, Ian, is such a cautious boy,’ she said. He thinks what she meant was he wasn’t brave enough.

This is the day he and Mayumi are to visit the Marquez kids. Mayumi’s mama used to be a house help for the Marquezes before she married; and so, every so often, they turn to her to do some odds and ends, which she respectfully complies to. She will probably be always afraid of Mrs. Marquez. This time, Mrs. Marquez has requested for Ian and Mayumi to come play with her grandchildren. They are city kids from Manila who came here for the summer.

The Marquezes have a large house. Mommy La told him once they how they used to be rich, their ancestors being one of the first sugar barons in this area and all, but they’d fallen on rougher times. And all that was left was their grand house that needed repairing and repainting. When they enter the gate, two girls are busily taking pictures of everything. They are taking pictures of the untended grass, the wooden posts, the tractor parts, even the goats and chickens. There might not be goats or chickens in Manila, Ian thinks.

‘Spartan, be good ha’, the fat one says to the brown goat. Ian finds it funny how they liked to name their animals. Ian’s own goat doesn’t have a name. He will always be referred to as ‘the goat.’

He learns later on that the fat one is named Ida, and the tomboyish one named Dianne. Ian and Mayumi follow them around the good part of the morning, doing what they wanted to do. They climb on the irrigation pumps as if they were monkey bars. They take turns playing hide and seek around the big garage. They eat buko in the small nipa hut at the back. Ian and Mayumi even teach Ida and Dianne how to turn the leaves of the coconut into all sorts of shapes, like a cross or a hat, until the house help calls them in. Mr. and Mrs. Marquez join them for lunch. The way Mrs. Marquez cuts her fish so precisely, deboning the flesh without even using her hands, somehow scares Ian. He remembers the warning of Mayumi’s mama to behave when in front of her. She said she once saw Mrs. Marquez spank a child with a stick for playing with the cut sugarcane mounts in their front yard.

‘How is your mama, Mayumi? Does she still like to cook like when she was here? I remember your mama made the most delicious bitsuelas for us,’ Mrs. Marquez says.
‘No, she’s pregnant again, so she just eats all day long. She even eats my brother’s baby food,’ Mayumi says knowingly, then goes back to her prawn-shelling.
‘Oh.’ Mrs. Marquez does not know what to say for a moment. ‘And how about your friend?’ she asks, pointing her mouth to Ian. ‘I don’t seem to remember his mother being from around here.’
‘Ian doesn’t have a mother man,’ Mayumi says to her. Ian wanted to kick her from underneath the table, but Mrs. Marquez might notice, and for some reason, he is tongue-tied in her presence. He has used up all his Tagalog and English this morning, and talking is becoming a strain. He reminds himself to pinch Mayumi hard for saying that later.
‘Ian is Nang Eldring’s apo, ma’am,’ the house help who is waiting at the side butts in. ‘You do remember her daughter, Rachel, don’t you? I think she used to help around here during fiestas.’
‘Oh, yes. I remember her. Short, pretty girl, wasn’t she?’ Mrs. Marquez inquires. Ian can’t tell whether she truthfully remembers his mother or not.
‘My mother is in Manila,’ Ian blurts out all of a sudden.
‘Talaga? Where in Manila? If you visit her, you should drop by our house,’ Dianne says, preoccupied with her food.
‘The part where there are big buildings,’ Ian stammers.
‘Silly! All of the places in Manila have big buildings. Our school is a big building,’ Ida chimes in, starting on her second serving.
‘Basta, in one of those buildings. I see it on TV all the time.’ Ian stubbornly says before quieting down. When they continue playing that afternoon with Ida’s Legos, Ian builds a building so high, it continuously topples to the ground, breaking into small colorful pieces.


‘But, Mommy La, where in Manila? Ida said the whole place is full of big buildings. Mama might be lost there.’ Ian has been badgering Mommy La about this since he got back from the Marquezes.
‘I don’t know, Ian. I really can’t remember already. I’ll have to check the address she wrote the letter from.’ Mommy La has shown Ian the yellowing piece of paper she received from Ian’s mother. She does not tell him the letter was from three years ago, when Ian was still a year old, with an address that she constantly wrote to but never received a reply from.
‘And don’t worry, anak,’ she says as she prepares Ian for bed, ‘your mama is a very smart girl. If she is lost, she will find her way back soon.’
That is what he prays to his guardian angel for when Mommy La asks him to say his prayers.

That summer, during the many times Ian goes to the Marquezes, he becomes quieter and quieter. He is easily bored by Mayumi’s, Dianne’s, and Ida’s continuous talking. They even let their dolls join in the conversation, as if the group were not noisy enough. Even Dianne, whom he first thought was the type to want to fly kites and play with guns, is as much a talker as any of them. He is annoyed by how much they place so much attention on his gangly knees, his brown skin, his open wounds. They pick on him, telling him they want to cut his hair or marry his action figures to their dolls. They always want to do something and be somewhere. Ian was happiest when they just let him be to watch Ben 10 on their cable TV. The characters sound so different from the Tagalog voiceovers he usually heard on the local channel. Sometimes, he even ventures to the fenced grazing area on the back where the goats, cows, and chickens are at just so he can be alone. The girls are afraid to go there. Ian had threatened them that there would be plenty of black poisonous snakes hiding in the tall grasses. There, he can just poke on the mud with sticks or look for frog’s eggs in peace. Sometimes, Manoy Poldo will be there, but he is not much of a talker either. Manoy Poldo takes care of all the Marquezes’ animals. He is in charge of taking them back and forth their houses to bigger grazing areas during the day. ‘Animals need lots of space, Ian, or else they won’t grow,’ says Manoy Poldo.

Another time, he says, ‘Ian, make sure to let that goat of yours couple with a mestizo. That way, the kid will be more expensive. Bigger and stronger, like this goat here.’ He proceeds to pet a goat with caramel fur. To Ian, they look the same, but Manoy Poldo points off the many differences. Mestizos have bigger hooves, more twisted horns, cleaner and finer furs, he says. He often gives Ian tips about goats and other animals ever since he found out Ian has one of his own. Take off their ticks. Give them high rock formations to climb on. Don’t let their feet touch water for too long. Ian takes note of these before ducking off from the girls. Their voices can be heard even before Ian gets a glimpse of their shadows coming closer to his hiding place.


Mommy La is agitated for the past few days. He knows this because she is constantly badgering him to do one thing or another. Take off your slippers when you come in, she says. Sweep off the leaves from our yard, she says. Chew your food well, she says. Take a second bath, why don’t you? she says. Ian does not know what is wrong with her. Mayumi says old people can be like that when they’re problematic.
‘But what could she be problematic about? She wasn’t like this until a week ago, after she got back from the marketplace,’ ponders Ian.
‘Don’t you know anything? Old people are only worried about one thing, and that’s money. That’s what Mama constantly complains about at home, at least when Papa-san’s not around.’

What Ian does not know is that it was in the marketplace, while Mommy La was picking ripe tomatoes and big onions, that a returning domestic helper showed her a picture of her daughter. She was with an Iranian and carrying a small toddler in her arms.

‘Hay, business never used to be this slow. In the previous summers, bakasyonistas used to come to me to have their dresses made. Now, everyone is buying ready-mades from stores. Where are we going to get money for our daily expenses? My pension just isn’t enough for this,’ Mommy La says, grimacing. She is talking more to herself. Ian is watching a soap opera on the couch while Mommy La is finishing up her day’s work, a red skirt with pleats for one of her regular customers. But Ian really hears her although he pretends not to. He continues to watch the figures on the screen, but deep inside, he is held by an immovable, incomprehensible panic that somehow, this will affect his going to school. The fear spreads uncontrollably to the rest of his system so much that he is feeling pins and needles on his hands and legs. Mommy La had told him once that school was expensive. Where will they get the money now? And Mommy La is old. She may not find more work anymore. Ian has to find a way before school starts. From the window, he peeks at his goat, kneeling down on all fours, resting for the day on their front yard. He decides to take the goat to Manoy Poldo soon.

It is nearing the end of summer. In just two weeks, Ida and Dianne are going to fly back to Manila to start the new school year. He knows this because the girls constantly volunteer information even when he doesn’t ask. This makes Ian more anxious because he may not be let in the Marquez home after they leave. Somehow, he had to let his goat have a baby soon. Manoy Poldo will know what to do. He waits for him in the grazing area. The girls follow him there, excited at the sight of Ian bringing his goat around with a rope. They are eagerly jumping up and down, scaring the goat, making her fidget and trip on the rope. Manoy Poldo is surprised to see all of them there. He is even more surprised to see Ian with his goat, its brown skin with black patches radiant in the sun.

‘Manoy, will you help my goat have a baby? I need to sell her kid so I can go to school,’ says Ian in one breath. He is feeling flustered, and his heart is beating too fast.

Manoy Poldo is stunned by the boy’s request. His hand smacks his forehead in an involuntary reaction. He looks at Ian’s red face and sits the boy down on a rickety chair. Manoy Poldo can see tears springing in Ian’s eyes, so he speaks to him as gently as possible.

‘Dong, it’s not as easy as you think. We have to find her a mate, and even then—’ says Manoy Poldo.

‘But we can use one of Mrs. Marquez’s goats, right? She has so many of them here,’ cuts in Ian.

‘Yes. But if you do, you have to give the baby to Mrs. Marquez. That’s the protocol around here. The first baby always goes to the owner of the goat who gets the nanny goat pregnant,’ continues Manoy Poldo, measuring his words so Ian will understand.
‘That’s no problem, Manoy,’ Dianne butts in. ‘We won’t tell abuelita if you won’t.’
‘But it’s not just that, kids. Ian, we’re not even sure if your goat can have a baby. She looks a bit old to me already. She’s a bit slow on her legs.’
‘She’s really very healthy. Please, Manoy Poldo. I have to try so I can go to school.’ Ian’s tone is pleading.

‘I’m sorry, Yan. Let me know if you have a younger goat. Maybe we can try then. You better return her to your house now. You don’t want to get in trouble with Mrs. Marquez for bringing her here.’ Manoy Poldo pats Ian on the head before leaving.
Ian does not move for a long time. He does not know what to do or say. He was so excited to go to school and buy a new bag. He has even chosen which one he is going to buy, how many pencils and what notebook design to go along with it. The girls try to console him, but he can barely hear them for once.

‘Don’t worry, Yan,’ Ida says. ‘Maybe Manoy Poldo’s wrong.’

‘Yes. He doesn’t know everything. How about we try later this afternoon? We can sneak your goat in at the back and let loose abuelita’s big goat with her,’ Dianne encourages.

‘Yes. We’ll go with you, and here,’ Mayumi adds in, taking off her bracelet and putting it on Ian’s right wrist, ‘I’ll even lend you my corales. Then we’re sure nothing bad’s going to happen to you.’

Ian can only nod. He has to try. He does not have time to be a cautious boy.


They wait inside the whole afternoon. Ian and Mayumi pass on word to Mommy La that they are going to be late because Ida and Dianne want them to stay longer. They are leaving soon, after all. From the living room, they can see Manoy Poldo bringing the goats, cows, and chickens around to the sheds to rest for the evening. When they are sure that he left, they sneak in at the back, retrieving Ian’s goat, which was tied to the fence. She is quite a feeble goat so she easily follows them down to the grazing area. Ian knows the place well enough to make out the part of the fence that can be easily moved to the side. Once they are in, they tie her rope loose and check the sheds. They are looking for the goat with the caramel fur, the one Manoy Poldo says will get bigger money. Once they find him and let him loose, Dianne and Ida quickly take their posts in front to keep watch in case anyone comes along. Ian and Mayumi watch as the two four-legged figures basking in the sunset stare at each other from across the grazing area.

‘Do you know what they’re supposed to do?’ Mayumi asks, keeping her voice low.
Ian shakes his head. He is too intent on the two figures, watching their every movement, taking in each step. He rubs the beads of the corales anxiously as if he is rubbing a magic lamp. His whole body is so tense that he involuntarily shudders once in a while from the incoming gust of evening wind. The only prayer that he can remember at the moment is the one that started with ‘Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts . . .,’ and he starts muttering this under his breath. He is sure the Lord won’t mind what prayer it is, especially during an emergency such as this.
They wait for ten minutes, twenty minutes, but the closest the goats seem to being with each other is when they smell each other’s furs around, then quickly lose interest, going back to their own separate areas to eat more grass.
Suddenly, a voice breaks the quietness of the place, and he can feel Mayumi jolt by his side. It is the house help calling Ida and Dianne in. Ida whispers from her post, asking if they are done yet. Ian pleads for a few more minutes. He pulls the big mestizo goat towards his goat, desperately bringing them together, but they are insouciant to his efforts. The house help bellows again, and this time, Ida breaks in from the shadows to tell them she and Dianne has to go in.

‘I’m really sorry, Yan,’ she consoles him. Then they are gone. His hand is sore from the rope burns. Ian and Mayumi take the line between them and lead the goat home.


Both Ida and Dianne are gone for good. They have left some of their toys with him, almost apologetically after the last episode with the goat, and these are what he plays with back at home while he is waiting for Mommy La to come home from doing her errands. In the afternoons, he is back to cleaning up after her, taking the leftover cloth from the floor and placing it in the designated box.
He is idly swinging his leg back and forth the sofa now when all of a sudden, Mommy La bursts in, her buys from the marketplace trailing behind her.

‘Get yourself dressed, Yan. We’re going out for the afternoon,’ Mommy La says. She takes water from the refrigerator and sits down on the dining area to rest her feet.

‘But where are we going?’ He is both surprised and confused at the sudden change in Mommy La’s attitude. Just this morning, she was snapping at him to return the toys to the Marquezes in case Mrs. Marquez finds out and accuses them of stealing. Now, there is a twinkle in Mommy La’s eyes.

‘Well, your lola isn’t the third most popular seamstress in Tanjay for nothing!’ Mommy La starts to pace unknowingly. Ian sits back and watches her while she explains.

‘I just met a teacher from the public school, and they’ve been panicking the whole week, trying to find a seamstress to finish all their faculty’s uniforms. You see, both Miling and Luisa have turned them down. They said they were too busy with trying to finish a bunch of high school uniforms and college uniforms and what not, that they simply couldn’t accommodate the teachers in. So they asked me instead.’ Mommy La gulps down some water before continuing. Each time she gulps, it sounds like another heavy object has fallen off a well.

‘I just got back from the public school where they took me so I could get measurements of them. And look,’ Mommy La slaps an envelope in front of the table to show Ian, ‘their first down payment for the work. Fifty sets of uniforms to be finished by the end of the week.’

Ian looks at the envelope and opens it. He sees two blue bills and stares up at Mommy La inquiringly. He is unsure if the amount is a little or a lot.
‘Get dressed, Yan. We’re off to buy your things for school.’

The store is so packed that he has to hold on to Mommy La’s hands really hard so he won’t get pulled away by the crowd. Sometimes he will run off ahead, looking longingly at the many notebook arrangements. He will wait until Mommy La will tell him ‘Get five’ or ‘Choose something else’ before he actually picks up the supply and moves on to another selection. He is tempted to run ahead, but Mommy La is too slow.
They are so beautiful, he thinks, so new that he is sometimes afraid he will ruin them just by touching. He stares at the pencils neatly lined in a row, comfortably finding their place on his box, the paper leaves so crisp, their whiteness glimmers or the new bag he is to take his things in that still has a strong smell of plastic. He touches them one by one, his hopes matching their brightness. In his mind, Ian is already ticking off the things he wants to learn first from school. Numbers above 10, for example, like how many years it will take before he graduates. The complete alphabet, so he can write long letters in the cursive way he always sees Mommy La doing. Or places, like how far Manila really is, and how to find people lost.

(My entry for the IYAS Workshop. I don't know if it's going to get in. But at least it got me writing again.)

No comments:

Post a Comment