She was eight when she learned that nothing good ever came out of eavesdropping.
It was summer, and the manor was filled with light as her mama opened the windows wide for the breeze to come in. The mango tree in their front lawn brought in the scent of ripening mangoes— its gnarled branches only slightly bent from the legion of growing fruit. When she looked outside, their green, mango-ish shape would bring her excitement. There were so many of them, and soon they would be ripe for the picking.
The afternoon brought in the sound of birds as they returned to their nests for the evening, and alongside the cacophony of caws from the nesting mayas, the sound of her mama cooking added a welcome interval to the tranquility of dusk. There, too, was the smell of sizzling garlic and the fresh scent of newly applied floor wax. The feel of the wooden grain of their antique round table— passed down from her mama’s mama, her lola, was rough as she incessantly rubbed her palms against it.
“Behave,” her mama said with her back turned.
“How do you know what I’m doing?” She whined, cupping her face with her hands and petulantly resting her elbows on the table, “You’re not even looking at me!”
Back turned, her mama tutted, “You always get impatient when the food is about to be served. Behave, little one.”
The front door suddenly swung open, its uncoiled hinges creaking. She whirled around. There was her papa clutching his helmet against him as he walked in with another man. She stilled, carefully turning in her seat and watching the stranger.
“Well! Is this my pag-umangkon?” the man exclaimed.
She ducked her head, guardedly looking at the man behind her lashes. She had never seen him before. He was as thin as a walis tingting and just as brown-skinned. Stood next to her papa, he looked like one of the men who worked their rice fields instead of a relative.
“Hala, mao jud! Do you still remember me? I’m your Uncle Dodong!” the stickman said.
“Oh, Dong!” her mama said, “It’s been forever! What brings you back?”
“Just passing through,” he said, giving her mama a small smile, “I’ll be gone again very soon.”
“Off to the mountains again,” her papa grumbled. He set his helmet down on the counter and pulled out a chair. It screeched against the red floor.
“But look at you!” Uncle Dodong said, ignoring what her papa said and turning to look at her. She shrank back in her seat. “The last time I saw you, you were only this big, and you had no hair on your head! Now your hair is as long as your waist! And so pretty, too! You better watch out, cuz,” Uncle said, eyeing her papa with laughing brown eyes, “Soon you will have suitors knocking on your door, asking to court her!”
She felt something warm in her chest, part shyness, part happiness. She scuffed her toe on the floor and smiled at the man. Her Uncle Dodong was a lot nicer than he looked.
Her mama’s laughter sang in the wake of her Uncle’s compliment, “Yes, she is a big girl now! A real lady with her own crushes. Should I tell your Uncle Dodong about—“
Her papa’s voice echoed painfully like the crash of her mama’s favorite vase, the one that was passed down from her Lola’s mama, that she accidentally bumped into while she was playing in the sala. It sounded like trouble, like chaos, like dissonance.
Then to Uncle he said, “Eat dinner and after, you need to leave.”
“Love—“ her mama said, voice taut.
“I said enough— stop. It’s bad enough that she was born a girl, now you degrade her with talks of nonsense,” her papa stood from his seat and lumbered towards the sala. His chair left skid marks on the red floor.
There was silence for a moment that seemed to stretch for infinity, before she felt herself cry, helpless to stop the tears from escaping. She clutched the sides of her chair, sure that the force of her grip would leave marks of her fingernails against the ancient wooden grain.
With a harsh, economic whip, her mama threw the labakara from her shoulder on the dining table and went after her papa. Minutes passed, stretching painfully like an overused Chinese garter, before her parents’ loud, arguing voices drifted from the open archway.
“SHE IS USELESS, AND SHE WILL STAY WEAK IF YOU KEEP CODDLING HER!”
“SHE’S YOUR CHILD! YOUR CHILD!”
“DAMN YOU, RENATA! DAMN YOU!”
“Cover your ears,” said Uncle Dodong. His voice was an island of calm in the turbulent sea around her. She clung to it: the sound of his scraggly baritone, scratchy and low and quiet, vainly trying to stop her tears. When she dared look at him, his lined, kind face was eerily blank. Then he said, “But if you want to grow stronger, keep them open, and listen.”
A chill ran up her spine as she tried to understand him. His cold eyes looked strange on his previously warm expression.
“Listen to the sound of hatred and keep it in your heart. Foster it. Cultivate it… so that one day, you might become strong.” Then he took a seat at the table and laced his weathered hands together.
With her hands glued to the sides of the chair, she had no choice but to listen as her papa hurled insults at her, and she did as her uncle instructed. She listened to the sound of hatred and kept the strain within her. This would be the only song she listened to, the only song she would hear, for the years to come.
That night, after a tasteless dinner with a mute uncle, her papa’s voice played inside her head like a broken record while she lay on her bed, staring at her ceiling, trying to muffle the sobs that no one would hear, anyway. Hours passed in this manner, and soon light broke through the horizon.
Dawn brought with it the sound of thousands of chirping mayas as the sky became lighter and lighter. In the stillness of the early morning, the disruptive creaking of their heavy front door snapped her out of her staring contest with the cracks in her ceiling. Creeping to her window, she spied her uncle and her papa facing each other. She felt a pang in her heart at the sight of her papa’s rumpled appearance. His eyes looked sleepless and bloodshot. It seemed that he and her mama had argued well into the night, this time behind their closed doors. He did not get any sleep, too. She wondered if her mama did, and felt a deeper pang in her heart.
“Well, this is goodbye,” her uncle’s voice carried into her open window in the quiet of the morning.
Her papa took a while to reply to her uncle’s farewell. When he did, his voice was rough and grating, “Back to the boondocks again, crawling in your little mud tunnels. I don’t know why you bother.”
Uncle Dodong laughed, light-hearted despite the harsh criticism, “Don’t count us out yet. My Comrades are passionate, and our numbers are growing. A revolution may happen very soon indeed.”
Her papa scoffed.
“You know, your little girl… you shouldn’t have—“ said her uncle tentatively.
“Leave it, Virgilio,” snapped her papa.
“You have no love lost for her, cuz. Your own daughter. For Karl Marx’s sake, why?”
She held her breath — she dared not breathe. Frozen by her window, hidden behind her gauzy curtains, she listened to the reason why her papa hated her. It was a question she had asked all her life. Maybe now she would know.
“…she is not mine.”
“What? Renata would dare—?”
“She would. She did, God damn her.”
“Why don’t you just leave her, then?”
“You know I can’t. The hacienda— all her family’s lands. They’re in her name. If I leave, I get nothing.”
Her papa and her uncle’s voices drifted further and further away as they walked toward the gate. When they passed under the giant mango tree (planted by her mama’s mama’s mama — her great-grandmother), she looked up and saw a single yellow mango that stood out among the sea of green.
The mangoes were turning sweet. Soon they would be ripe for the picking. For some reason, though, this did not excite her as much as it used to. Only a few hours ago she would have marveled at it and would be gleefully imagining its sweet taste on her tongue. She wondered why as she watched her father close the gate, her uncle now long gone.
When June rolled around, and classes resumed, she turned to her third grade teacher and asked, “What does it mean when lands are in someone’s name?”
Her teacher told her it meant that the lands belonged to that person, and why do you ask, dear?
“No reason,” she said. It was the first and last conversation she had with her teacher, and she would not speak for the rest of the school year. Her classmates grew used to her antics — she had always been a taciturn child, despite being the richest little girl in the class, despite her mama apparently owning more than half the land in their town. She was quiet, well-behaved, and she liked fading into the background. It was a useful skill to have, especially back at the manor, where breaking the silence during dinnertime had become sacrilegious.
The years passed this way: in stretched silence.
It was a silence like the frayed garters in her home clothes, the ones she refuses to dispose of: brittle and worn, and like the too-taught strings in a tightly tuned guitar: painful and unyielding. As the silence stretched, so too, did she. She turned ten, then eleven, twelve, thirteen— her body lengthening as she entered puberty, her legs and arms growing awkward in their thin, gangly, pubescent shape.
Before she knew it, she was 16 and just graduated high school. When she came home from the tedious ceremony, their front lawn was decked with plastic chairs and tables covered in starch white covers, the chairs decoratively tied with celebratory red ribbons, like belts around their stiff backs, and the tables covered in equally white, lacy doilies. There was a prodigious helping of food set under the mango tree, which was in the cusp of harvest. Its ripe fruit was covered in grey newspaper, and she spared a brief thought to wonder why they did not harvest them before this surprise party. She spied a gloriously red lechon placed proudly in the center of the spread with a bright red apple in its mouth, and internally bemoaned her fate. There was food enough for a hundred people— her mother had gone all out.
“There’s my little one! My little trophy!” crooned her mother as she spied her loitering near the gate, staring at the farcical display of food and party banners with trepidation, “Congratulations, langga!”
She forced a smile. So this was why her mother left early from the ceremony and insisted that she stay and “say goodbye to your friends!”
“Really, mama,” she said, her voice quiet, “You did not have to do all this.”
“Nonsense! It’s not everyday my only daughter graduates from high school! And valedictorian, at that!” her mother gave her a bright smile and kissed her gently on her forehead, “I’m proud of you, little one.”
Her mother’s voice had always been melodious, and her penchant for crooning at her, talking to her as if she were fifteen years younger, had never really waned. Despite herself, she cracked a smile and felt soft music blossom in her heart. Her mother loved her. It would have to be enough.
“I invited a lot of people. The whole barangay is coming! Some of your papa’s friends will be here as well,” her mother said, her tone flatlining when she mentioned her father, “Your Uncle Dodong is also coming. I hope you remember him? You met him once, years ago. He’s visiting again after all these years.”
“What?” she asked weakly, “Who?”
“Oh, you know,” her mother said, waving her hand as if to bat away a fly, “Your Uncle Dodong? Your papa’s cousin?”
It was not that she didn’t remember her uncle, it was that she never actually forgot about him. She remembered his voice (soft and low and eerie) as he told her to listen and grow strong from hatred. His face was now a blur in her memory, but his voice, his words, remained branded into her soul.
She nodded stiffly and begged off to change out of her toga. With one last hug and kiss, her mother let her go. She watched as she bustled off, back to the kitchen for some last-minute preparations, unhindered by her large frame. Her mother had disappeared back into the manor before she made her way to her room, entering from the side door. This way she was certain she would never accidentally bump into her father. Her footsteps were noiseless save for the sibilant sound of her socks sliding against the wooden stairs. When she reached her room she stood next to her window, staring through her gauzy curtains, watching her father’s people set up the party below.
She had grown taller, and the manor was older, but her great-grandmother’s mango tree remained the same. And she recalled another time, years ago: the sound of a thousand birds as light split the sky open, her father’s harsh, grumbling voice, and the sound of her uncle’s low baritone. The mangoes had been ripening, then. Now they were wrapped in grey newspaper and were ripe for the picking. They would have to harvest them soon.
When she finally roused herself from her thoughts, night had fallen and the cacophony of voices drifting to her window from the milling people in her lawn propelled her to action. She removed her toga, donned a dress appropriate for the occasion, and left her darkened room. Practiced now in moving silently throughout the manor, her sandaled feet did not make a sound as she descended the stairs, which was how she was able to hear the conversation that drifted up from the sala.
“Governor Zamora!” greeted her father, talking to someone below. She stilled.
Throughout the years she had learned to become an expert at avoiding her father, sometimes not running into him for weeks at a time in their own home. She would hide and take detours, frequently escaping into the kitchen, the backyard— places her father would never venture to- all in an effort to avoid him.
“Rogelio,” another voice replied, “Congratulations on your daughter’s graduation. Your wife told me she was valedictorian? Impressive.”
“Ah, yes,” her father replied tersely, “Quite. It is an honor to have you attend this gathering my wife set up for her little princess.”
“It is I who is honored. It is I…” the voice trailed off as someone sat in the leather sofa. Another weight followed the first. The two men had sat down. Discretely, she also sat, steeling herself for another waiting game in the shadows.
“You have become very prosperous, Rogelio, very prosperous indeed. Your fields are abundant, your storehouses are full, you have a lively wife and a daughter who is just as brilliant as she is beautiful,” said the governor. He had a deep, resonating voice— the kind that was prone to laugh loudly, like the full-belly laugh of a benevolent of Santa Claus. He spoke slowly, eloquently, convincingly. It was the kind of voice that belonged to a person of great charisma, able to charm a crowd with ear-tickling speeches— a politician’s voice.
“Ah… Thank you, Governor Zamora. God has been kind to us,” her father said tonelessly.
“But you know how life can be so unpredictable at times,” the governor continued, as if he had never been interrupted, “Today you may be prosperous, but tomorrow is uncertain. You will never know when you might just lose it all.”
There was silence between the men.
“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” her father asked. There was a hint of caution in his voice now, of fear.
“You know what has happened, Rogelio,” the governor nonchalantly stated, “The president has declared Martial Law.”
“Intelligence has come in, and he wants to borrow some of your land to set up a military base. It has been strongly suspected for some time now that those NPA communist bastards may have their own stronghold somewhere in the mountains around this area. The president sent me to ask for this boon from you, knowing that we are friends.”
“I am the wrong person to ask. My wife—”
“How long will you remain a slave for her, Rogelio?” The governor said. He sounded chiding, cajoling, as if he were speaking to a naughty child he would have to exclude from the List.
“What are you saying?”
“You know what I’m saying,” said the governor, his voice turning harsh, his tone scathing, his Santa Claus person melting away like it never was, “You took her last name, you manage her fields, you even stay silent about your bastard daughter—”
“What do you want me to do? Even if you say all these things, there is nothing I can do! How can I leave her? Divorce is illegal! And she is protected—”
The governor laughed. It was not a sound she considered pleasant, “All I’m saying is that the Carlotto clan has always had a history of diabetes and heart attack. It runs in the family. Your wife looks a bit heavy. Obese, is she? She is still very beautiful, of course, but you have to admit that she has let herself go over the years!” again, the governor laughed.
“I don’t— What are you—”
“And there’s a lot of food for tonight, isn’t there? Why, it’s a feast fit for a king! We never know— perhaps your wife will overeat and suffer a… health problem while she sleeps.”
The swiveling of the door broke the conversation between the men. Footsteps shuffled into the sala from the dining room. A voice cut through the stretched silence, at once familiar and foreign, “Rogelio? Rogelio, cousin! It has been too long, you old bastard! Come, come! Your wife is looking for you and your daughter. Everyone is gathered outside already, waiting to eat.”
“Vi-Virgilio,” her father stuttered, “You’re here. What are you doing here?”
“Your wife invited me, of course! And who is this?” Her Uncle Dodong said, sounding light-hearted as he addressed the governor.
“This is Governor Zamora, Virgilio,” her father said.
“Ah,” said her uncle, and then he spoke no more. For a moment there was silence among them.
“I never knew you had a cousin, Rogelio!” said the governor, laughing jovially, seemingly delighted by the new acquaintance.
“He rarely visits,” said her father tersely.
“Does he, now?” Governor Zamora mused.
“We should eat,” said her father, “My wife is looking for me.”
The men continued to exchange painfully stilted pleasantries as they left the sala, leaving silence in their wake, enough of it for her to drown in. In her place at the top of the stairs, hidden in the shadows, she made an effort to soften her breathing. Her heart was pounding. For a long time it was all she could hear— the sound of her heart banging against her chest.
It’s okay, she told herself, trying to calm the wave of discord within her. Her father would not dare. It was a preposterous idea.
She was only able to move when she heard one of the maids calling for her, yelling at the top of her lungs that the party was about to start.
“It will not do!” said the maid, complaining to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “The belle of the ball, missing from her own party! Susmaryosep!”
The rest of the evening was a blur of fake smiles and empty cordialities. She demurred when she ought at the compliments to her intelligence (“Valedictorian! Such a bright girl!”), and blushed as she ought at the remarks on her beauty (“You look just like your mother when she was younger, such a beautiful girl!”).
All of it was white noise like the static on the radio after midnight. She would always forget to turn it off, because the sound had become one with her wall, as part of her surroundings as her dresser or her desk lamp. She remembered nothing of the party, afterwards, as she lay in her bed staring at her cracked ceiling.
She spared a brief glance at her radio, barely noticing the static, as her father’s and the governor’s conversation went round and round in her head. In the crush of people that attended the party, she was spared the company of the men who spoke in the sala. During the feast, she avoided her father and stayed away from his table, and consequently was spared the company of her uncle (who was sat next to him) and the governor (who was seated in the same table), but their conversation was never far from her mind.
Again screeches of dissonance warred within her, and again she tried to calm them. Her father would not dare. He could not.
The sound of her mama and her father’s bedroom door pulled her out of her thoughts. Her father’s heavy, lumbering footsteps interrupted the quiet. His footsteps travelled slowly down the stairs and then— silence. Several moments later, another set of footsteps ran up the stairs. The rapid thump-thump-thump against the wooden floors broke the tranquility of the night. She sat up in her bed, startled, wondering what all the ruckus was about.
The blood-curling scream that followed pierced her and struck fear into her heart. It sounded like needles in her brain, and she burst out her room to run to the source.
“Madam! Madam, please, open your eyes!” It was the maid, hunched over her mama’s body, sobbing hysterically. Her mama was lying still on the bed, her eyes closed and her chubby fingers laced on top of her stomach. She looked like she was sleeping— but her chest was still.
“What is going on here?” said a low, smooth, baritone. Her uncle barged into the room and found the maid wailing over mama’s sleeping form. He was wearing his sleeping clothes. He must have heard the scream from the guest room and rushed over.
“Renata?” he asked in disbelief.
Throughout the ruckus her mama lay still.
“WHAT HAPPENED HERE? yelled Uncle Dodong, whirling on the maid.
“Si Madam,” she said in the middle of her hysterical sobs, “She— she— I was getting water in the kitchen, and Sir Rogelio was there just staring at nothing. He told me Madam wasn’t breathing.”
The world seemed to drown in silence as she focused on her mama. It could not be true. She walked over and lay her hand on her shoulder, her cheek. She had a terrible expression on her face. Her mama was frowning. Her mouth was open in a scream that would stretch forever in silence.
“He has killed her,” she said softly.
She did not know how long she stood there, just staring at her mama, caressing her cheek, combing her thick hair. All she knew was that it was long enough for her mama’s body to lose its warmth, for rough hands to try and drag her away, for the paramedics to come take her mama from her, for the sun to set, for the evening sky to darken. It was funny how the world continued to turn even when she felt for sure that it had ended— the sun still set and rose like clockwork—and all through this she could hear nothing.
There was no sound now but the song her uncle had taught her, years ago in their kitchen as she was seated in her lola’s ancient dining table, clutching the sides of her wooden chair as the mangoes in her great-grandma’s tree were just starting to ripen. The song was the dissonant screeches of her parents’ arguing voices, her father’s barbed insults, her mama’s pleas of “She’s your child! Your child!” It was the governor’s scoff that she was a bastard, the maid’s blood-curling scream. It was her uncle, telling her to listen to the sound of hatred, to foster it, to cultivate it. The song drowned out anything else. It was all she could hear as she gazed outside her window into the darkness.
“Melody,” said a voice, at once foreign and familiar, “Melody, please, look at me.”
Someone was calling her name and she realized she was no longer alone. “What is it, Uncle?”
He was silent for a long, long time. She did not bother turning to him, engrossed as she was staring outside her window, thinking about things that led nowhere, listening to sounds, to voices, to the noise that only existed in her head and lived in her memories. She wondered if her Uncle could hear them too— the noise. It seemed to threaten to drown her, consume her, bury her, under its raging cacophony. Especially when her thoughts drifted to That Man- But she knew her Uncle couldn’t hear. She imagined that he was staring outside her window, still thinking about what to say. Hours passed in this manner, and soon light broke through the horizon.
Dawn had come, and it brought the sound of thousands of chirping mayas. The sky was becoming lighter and lighter when her uncle spoke once more, “I’m sorry, Melody. I’m so, so sorry.”
She swallowed, wondering what he could be sorry for. She thought he had just come to say goodbye.
“I barely knew your mother, but she did not deserve this. You do not deserve this,” said her uncle, “You’re only 16… you are so young.”
“I am old enough,” said Melody, staring at her great-grandmother’s mango tree, its fruit wrapped in grey newspaper.
“There is more,” said her uncle, his voice breaking into a sob. His low baritone sounded even deeper in his tears, she noted absently.
“I spoke with your father before I came here. He told me to take you with me. He told me to take you with me back to the mountains, back to where I live with the NPA, because he will kill you if I don’t, the way he killed your mama.”
And the noise- all the noise in her head, in her heart, he very soul silenced. And she went absolutely still. And with perfect clarity, she knew what she had to do. “I will go, Uncle, but first let me do one thing,” she said.
“Anything,” said he.
The mangoes in her great-grandmother’s tree were covered in newspaper, and she imagined what they would look like once unwrapped — their color, their shape, their texture, how they would smell, how they would feel in her hands and fit in her palm perfectly, and how they would taste. She wondered if they would be bitter.
She would drown this world in noise, too. She would play her song of hatred for all the world to hear. It would be glorious. It would be right. It would be just.
“Let me go get a mango,” she said, ” — they are ripe enough for the picking.”
This story was accepted in the official literary folio for 2017 entitled “Hangtod” of the Department of Communications, Linguistics, and Literature in the University of San Carlos.