The Other Woman by Virgilio Samonte

It is almost a month since my uncle died. Nana Cecilia, his widow, has made up with my maiden aunt Cora, and now stays with her in San Nicolas. The suspicions -- for they proved to be mere suspicions after all -- she had entertained concerning Nana Cora and my late uncle, were dispelled at his death. I don't know the truth myself up to now. But I don't want to know. What matters now is that they are no longer young.

Loida, I learned some time ago, is gone from the old house in Laoag. She stayed there for some days after my uncle's burial, and no one could make her go away then. No one knows where she had gone. Anyway it does not matter. She does no t matter anymore.

As for the old house, it now stands bleak and empty, except for the thick, gathering shadows and the inevitable dust; the bats hanging from the tattered eaves like the black patches; the mice scampering freely within ; cockroaches and lizrds; and perhaps ghosts. The flower-laden cadena de amor, draped heavily on the rotting bamboo fence surrounding it, it is a huge funeral wreath around the deserted house.

The same sense of desolation seemed to enshroud the old house even then, about a month ago, when I arrived from the city. I had come ahead of my father after we received the wire from Nana Cecilia, saying that my uncle was seriously ill, and that she needed my father's assistance.

It was a cold grey dawn, and the clatter of the calesa as it left me, sounded loud and sharp in the yet deserted streets. the old house seemed to loom bigger than the others in the neighborhood, and it seemed to stand apart, squat and dark; light filtered through the closed or half opened windows of the other houses where early breakfast fires were already burning. The large, gnarled trunk of an acacia tree beside it, rose like a phantom, its foliage blotting out a portion of the sky overhead. i knocked for what it seemed a long time on the closed door, the sounds echoing hollowly within as though the house was a huge, empty shell before I heard muffled footsteps coming down the stairway. Light glimmered through the cracks of the door. The sliding bar was moved noisily and then the door opened slowly, grating on the scattered pebbles on the cement floor.

The face that appeared in the partly opened door startled me momentarily. Where the upper lip should have been was an inverted V-shape opening, framing a long and pointed yellow tooth. The lip cleft, with repulsively livid gums showing, went up in an angle to a flat nose; the rest of the face was flat as though it had been bashed in by repeated fists blows; and broad and square. Half-illuminated by the light of a candle on one side, it was hideous.

It was only Loida, the harelip. I had not known that she was still staying with my aunt Cecilia. Her black, beady eyes regarded me with anger and suspicion. I told her my name.

"Where is your father?" she asked in a strange nasal twang when she finally recognize me.

"He'll come tomorrow," I said. I gestured impatiently, wanting to get in. I was shivering under my thin jacket in the cold.

She opened the door wider and turned unspeaking, motioning me to follow, holding the candle above her to one side. The brick-walled first floor yawned emptily. There was only the smell of dust, and when we went up the stairs which faced the doorway, the banister left dusty smudges on my fingers after I'd touch it. The stairs creaked under our weight, a stale smell following the wake of the silent figure in front of me. It was almost as sold inside as it had been outside.

There was a smell and look of disuse all around.

There were no curtains in the closed windows no in the doorway leading to the sala, where the dark shapes of the few chairs and a table crouched in the darkness. They threw long, tapering shadows on a dust-coated floor when we went in. Shadows huddled close together in the corners where the light chased them. In the ceiling on one side, immediately above the room where I thought my aunt stayed a soft light as of another candle wavered, scaring out more shadows. The door to the room was closed, but in the silence the sound of harsh, difficult breathing came from it. Loida gave the room a brief, mute glance and went on.

I had expected one of my aunts to meet me, but there was no one in the sala. Asleep, I thought. Loida stopped before one of the rooms on the other side and opened it and entered. I followed her inside.

"Isn't this the room of Tata Manuel?" I asked. I recognized his four poster with the ornately-carved canopy. My words sounded loud and hollow in the quiet room.

"He stays with your Nana Ceiling there," she said, pointing to the dimly-lighted room.

I looked at her inquiringly. My aunt and my uncle had separate rooms, and Nana Cora stayed with my aunt Cecilia.

"She moved him there when he got worse," she said. She sounded indignant.

"Worse? Is he really very ill?"

She shook her head. "I do not know, but he has become very thin, and he coughs."

I had not known that she was devoted to my uncle. There were actually tears in her eyes.

"You should tell your Nana to leave him alone," she said fiercely.

"Why? I asked. Her sudden change of manner alarmed me.

"He is very sick and she sleeps with him."

"Oh, I thought -- but there's nothing wrong with that. He needs her care."

"Nothing wrong," she repeated bitterly. I could not understand her.

I thought she was going to say something more, but she changed her mind and turned her back on me abruptly and became silently. She seemed to bristle with suppressed anger. She went out after lighting another candle on the windowsill, then came back with some sheets and a fresh pillow. I watched her while in furious haste she worked with the sheets on the bed.

"Where's the room of Nan Cora now?" I asked after a while.

She did not answer immediately.

"Manang Cora stays in San Nicolas now," she said crossly, when she finished making the bed.

I was surprised. I wanted to ask her why, but she went out instantly, leaving me alone in the room. I felt piqued. Her footfalls receded rapidly as she went to some other part of the big house.

I was bothered by the absence of Nana Cora. My father had sent me ahead thinking that with Nana Cora in the house, Nana Cecilia would have no need of him immediately. I put on the light and lay down. Suddenly I felt very tired.

I woke up,having dozed off, feeling the presence of another person in the room. The room was already suffused with the full glow of the sun's ray through the shuttered windows. Nana Cecilia was standing in the doorway eyeing me coldly. I sat up immediately.

She had on a loose, printed housedress which looked stained and unwashed, stressing the thinness and narrowness of her shoulders; her veins appeared clear and blue under her transparent, wrinkled wrists and hands. Her graying hair was stringy, and tied carelessly with a piece of cloth of an uncertain color. She appeared slatternly and she smelled.

"Where is your father?" she demanded in a cranked voice. I could not face her directly for she stared at me with enormous, purple-ringed eyes.

"He'll come tomorrow, Nana," I said.

"I did not call you here. Why did your father not come?"

"He thought with Nana Cora here it would be alright."

She straightened as though I'd slapped her, and grew livid.

"Do not - do not mention that name in this house, understand?" she almost shouted at me, stepping forward.

I stood up, unable to comprehend. She advanced and we stood face to face finally, the redness in her cheeks drained away. She cocked her head suddenly in a listening attitude, as if she had heard something, and her eyes rolled wildly.

"Your uncle," she said frantically, half running to her room. I followed her but hesitated at the door. A dank smell reached me.

The low beds had been pushed together side to side. Beside the nearest bed my aunt knelt. On it the recumbent form of my uncle could be seen, covered up to his chest with blankets. Near the foot of his bed, two new tapers burned before an improvised altar. There was a bronze Christ nailed on a black cross and back of it was a large, glass-encased picture of the Blessed Virgin. On either side of the picture was a vase with cadena de amor flowers. There was also a glass of water covered with cloth. The windows were all closed. My aunt turned her head and motioned me to stand at the foot of the bed facing my uncle.

His eyes were sunken and staring and his bleak-like nose appeared too large in his ghastly thin face. His hands fluttered nervously on the blankets, his breathing was slow and discordant. He did not recognize me. In this house of shadows, he looked like another shadow. His appearance was a far cry from the lusty man that we had known him to be. He already had the ashen look of a corpse.

Healthy, he had possessed a vitality that was insatiable. Servant girls and a succession of mistresses alike were prey to his desires. My aunt had taken Loida in the house as a desperate measure, thinking that a harelip would repel him. The state of penury in which they existed was due to him for he was also a gambler; lands been mortgaged or sold to satisfy his lust and vice. Some had explained his philandering - my father though thought it was more a disease - by blaming my aunt for being barren. Nana Cecilia, however, seemed to have loved him all the more, and when he had insisted on their having separate bedrooms, having tired of her perhaps, she had acted hysterical about it; but he had his way. In her misery she had turned to Nana Cora, her younger sister, who had left the house in San Nicolas to keep her company.

I could not understand though why she had raged when I mentioned Nana Cora. I wondered again why Nana Cora was gone.

My aunt had taken hold of one of his hands and was kneading it, making soothing, baby-like sounds. The intimate, pitifully ardent look on her face made me feel uncomfortable. He started coughing weakly at first then more strongly, each racking cough bringing a look of anguish in his eyes, his thin frame shaking convulsively under the covers. My aunt looked at me with feverish eyes.

"Go out now!" she ordered with nervous urgency.

I backed out instantly in relief, holding my breath in the polluted air. Outside, the thought of Nana Cora came back to confuse me. She must have quarreled with Nana Cecilia, I thought, bu t why? Why?

At noon I was served alone by Loida. She had on a dress that looked well on her surprisingly firm, young body, and not the loose, ill-fitting native blouse and skirt that my aunt had usually imposed on her servants, as a precaution against my uncle's too discerning eyes. Her face was as ugly as ever, and she watched me eat with a proprietary air which I disliked. She did not act like a servant.

My aunt ate all her meals in the room.

"Why doesn't she go out now and then? It's bad her staying indoors like that for whole days," I said when she told me about it.

"Tell her! She stays there all the time afraid to leave him, and she drove away some women on the neighborhood when they came here to offer help. And she sleeps with him, sick as he is!" She sounded bitter again, and contemptuous.

"After all, he is her husband!" I snapped, incensed by her tone and by the unservant-like manner in which she referred to my aunt.

She muttered something and flounced out of the room. I was barely able to control my rage. I felt an irresistible desire to shout at her. I wondered why, if she disliked my aunt, she had not gone away. Besides, I was certain that my aunt could not afford to retain the services of a servant anymore.

Later, I talked to her again, about Nana Cora.

"Look, Loida," I said as easily as I could. "Tell me why Nana Cora went away, will you?"

She looked at me with a sulky expression, then said sullenly, " They quarreled."

"Quarreled? What about?"

I could have wrung her neck, the way she answered.

"Him!" she sneered.

In the afternoon, I took a calesa across the river to San Nicolas. I left the old house unobtrusively. A vague uneasiness grew steadily within me as I kept thinking about what Loida had said and its implication.

Nana Cora was puttering among the zinias and cucharitas, which lined the walk leading to the house, when I arrived. The house, though much smaller than the old one in Laoag, had a neat look about it, and the wire fence disclosed disclosed a well-trimmed row of violets. Behind the house I could see the top of the tamarind tree I used to climb, laden with brownish-green fruit.

She gave a start when she heard me call, dropping the trowel from her hand. I strode with the long steps to her side and touched on of her dirt-stained hands to my forehead. She started to cry suddenly. I could do nothing but hold her, feeling the sting of tears in my own eyes.

"Forgive me, hijo, I am so weak..." she said later.

"I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner, Nana," I said.

I put my arm across her shoulders and we walked to the house. They were bony to my touch, and she looked so small and old in her dirt-soiled, faded dress, so defenseless, that I felt a surge of pity for her. I had wanted to ask her why she had left the old house, but I realized that I would only be hurting her by bringing the subject up.

"It is good to work, one forgets unpleasant things," she said, when I remarked that she should not work too hard. A sad, wistful look was in her eyes.

At first, she talked slowly, but gradually, she became less restrained, and we chatted reminiscently for some time. There was, however, an unmistakable sadness about her, and she was careful I thought with misgiving, not to mention Nana Cecilia and my uncle. I did mention them either, for her sake.

It was much later, when I decided to go, that she asked me about Nana Cecilia.

“How is your Nana Celing?” she asked hesitantly. I could not detect, however, any coldness, in her tone or in her mien; and when I lied that Nana Cecilia seemed in good health she brightened perceptibly.

She did not ask after my uncle though. When I looked after I’d taken my ride, she was still standing by the gate; in the distance she appeared frail and forlorn. An intense feeling of loathing for the sick man in the old house rushed over me.

The old church bell was ringing the Angelus when I reach the old house. Only the room where the sick man was staying lighted.

I met Loida coming from the kitchen with a glass of water at the head of the stairway. There was a scared look about her.

“Where have you been?” she asked, pausing before the sick man’s room.

“San Nicolas,” I said.

“She has been calling for you. The priest was here.”

“Is he dying?” I asked quickly. I felt no compassion whatsoever.

“No -No!” Her eyes widened and stared at me frenziedly.

The door to the room opened then. My aunt stood framed in the doorway, the light of a gas lamp streaming behind her. I felt, more than I saw, the glare of her eyes on me. Her hair was loose, and with the light at her back, seemed like outspread, thin wires, glinting.

“Where have you been, loco?” she inquired in a strident voice, and there was a panicky quality to it.

Loida walked noiselessly behind her to the room with the hasty steps.

“I went to San Nicolas!” I said.

“San Nicolas!” she repeated angrily. “Did you come here only to disappear when I needed you?”

“I thought you would need help from Nana Cora.”

“What? What did you say?”

I repeated what I said.

“You had no right to do that, understand? No right!” she shrieked.

In the growing dusk and in the gloomy stillness of the house, her voice was piercing. She shook with fury, her arms held by her sides with clenched hands, while she bent forward mouthing obscenities.

“All my life,” she continued, dropping her voice to a savage, tremulous whisper, “all my life, I have had to put up with whores. Your uncle is a weak man and I could do nothing to stop it. I could not tolerate it, understand! I will not have any whore in this house after him! He is all mine now! Understand! ALL MINE!”

Then I heard the scream behind her, and it came again and again, rising to high-pitched, eerie crescendo, then breaking and rising again, higher, eerier – filled with a deep and uncontrollable grief. The house seemed to jump alive with echoes of it. My aunt, arrested in her speech, flung herself madly into the room. I dashed right after her.

Loida was holding the inert form of the man who was my uncle in her arms, her split mouth opened grotesquely, screaming, while tears flowed down her face. The man’s eyes were open and sightless, his mouth hung agape.

“Bruja! Release him!” my aunt screamed at her. She tried to pull away the lifeless body from the wailing woman, but she could not. Then, fiercely, she struck her with successive, resounding slaps, crying insanely for her to release him.

While the lamplight shone in her upraised, gaping face, the nasal twang in her voice crazier than ever, saliva flying from her mouth, Loida shrilled back:

“No, No! I will not! He is mine, too! He loved me! He loved me!”

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