Sisinia is six moons away from giving birth. She is barely showing but a practiced eye like Puring’s could tell that the child held fast to its mother’s innards. A clingy, stubborn child. She kneads Sisinia’s lower abdomen until the child takes shape just beneath the skin of the womb. It is as big as her fist. Puring cups it between her palms with the same affection a potter has for a lump of clay. At Sisinia’s signal she squeezes and pinches. Her hands are gnarled but her grip is fearsome. This is the ideal time, Puring thinks, when the bones have not yet fully formed.
When Puring is finished she wipes the damp hair from Sisinia’s forehead. “You will start to bleed tonight and it shall be gone by morning.” She shuffles to the kitchen to brew ginger tea while her patient lies still on the mat. Sisinia waits for the daggers in her vitals to relent and the torment subsides to a dull, tolerable ache.
When it is time to leave Sisinia offers Puring a few pesetas and a burlap sack from which a plump hen emerges in a flurry of feathers. It squawks in protest, its vermilion eyes radiating hate. “Supper,” Puring says with a wan smile as she stuffs the bird back into the sack.
In the evening Puring makes her way to Sisinia’s hut. She skirts the main road to town and wends her way through the thick woods. She can sense the dying breath of the dry season in the humid night air, and in a matter of weeks it will give way to the damp exhalations of the monsoon. The treetops are awash in pallid moon glow but underneath the dense forest canopy a black void simmers beyond the reach of light. Puring’s eyes are accustomed to the dark and she moves along steadily, cautiously. What explanation could she – an old woman wandering about in the deep of night – offer to the guardia, for whom no Indio was above suspicion? Violation of the curfew would mean spending a most unpleasant night in the town jail.
A decrepit plaza sits at the heart of the pueblo. At the turn of the seventeenth century the first Castilians hacked their way through the jungle, rounded up a settlement of Indios, and established the parish. From there the pueblo was born. Two and a half centuries later, the plaza had abandoned its pretensions to stately magnificence, surrendering to neglect and to the punishment of the tropics. Every structure is scarred with mementos from earthquakes and cyclones. The plaza’s missing cobblestones remind one of a child’s grin. A stone obelisk at the center of the plaza commemorates the valiant deeds of some Castilian monarch but the engraving has long since faded or was defaced by a disgruntled subject. The governor’s mansion calls to mind an orgulous, ailing dame held back from collapse by the flimsiest skeins of pride. Behind the old church – built out of the volcanic vomit that abounds in these parts – lies a sprinkling of thatched huts.
Sisinia’s hut is propped a few feet above the ground on bamboo poles as large as a man’s thigh. Placing both palms and the sole of her right foot flat against the thatch, Puring scales the wall. She is approaching the rooftop when a foot misses its mark, and for a moment she hangs on to the thatch, her legs suspended in the air. From within the hut someone lets out a low groan. Puring feels the beginnings of an agitated flapping in her insides. She used to be much nimbler and sure-footed. With great effort she heaves herself up and crawls to the rooftop.
Puring glances up at the sky and determines that she has a few more hours until moonset. With her fingernails she pokes a small hole through the roof and lowers her long, thin, hollow tongue through the opening. The sharp point of her tongue pierces the swell of Sisinia’s belly. It triggers only the slightest discomfort, like the bite of an ant, and Sisinia hardly stirs. Puring makes quick work of the child within. She had kneaded well. It is like fruit that had been macerating in wine. A small belch escapes from her lips. Like a tick engorged with blood she unlatches herself from the roof and springs down noiselessly to the ground. Humming softly, Puring disappears into the woods.
Sisinia had married him out of obligation. To settle an old debt her parents had given her hand to Espiridion. Her parents tilled the fields that belonged to the governor and when he claimed more tribute than what he was owed, her parents maintained a helpless silence. To speak out would be folly and to claim recourse to justice would invite the governor’s ire. As it was, Espiridion offered some reprieve. He had inherited a bit of farmland from a distant relative. It was not much but it was considerably more than what Sisinia’s family had, which was nothing. Espiridion offered the field for her parents to till. With the land Espiridion also acquired the airs of a señor. He reminded his neighbors to address him as Don Espiridion. He insisted on taking a cup of hot chocolate for breakfast, as the Castilians and the rich mestizos were wont to do, rather than the humble ginger tea that his neighbors subsisted on.
Despite his pretensions Espiridion is coarse of tongue, quick of fist, and has a weakness for palm wine. The thought of bearing his children instills deep fear in Sisinia. She would never live with the shame of propagating Espiridion’s line. Puring had been surprised when Sisinia, then a frightened sixteen-year-old, came to see her, for no wife gets rid of her first fruit. Very quickly Puring understood the reasons for Sisinia’s distress. She could identify fathers from the scent of the unborn and Sisinia’s issue exuded an aroma of tobacco, palm wine and spite. She put an end to all seven of Sisinia’s subsequent pregnancies.
No one suspects Puring of being anything other than an old, prudent midwife – and to those whose pregnancies she quietly terminated, she is lauded as a discreet and eminently reliable masseuse. No one knows about her nocturnal visits. They do not know that she can smell man-fruit in their wombs. Her rule is simple: she can only feed on discarded man-fruit. She hides among them in plain sight knowing that they would torch her alive should her secret slip out.
There had been an accident, once, in her early years. Her tongue had punctured deep in the patient’s womb and caused her to bleed to death. Puring did not realize it until morning when loud keens erupted from the woman’s hut. She joined the anxious throng that gathered around the body, which lay on a mat with its hair streaming out like the tendrils of some dark, malevolent plant. Its right eye was slightly open. No one else saw it, but the eye twitched ever so imperceptibly and turned its gaze on Puring. Overcome with horror and guilt, she ran out of the hut. For a long time she did not venture out to feed.
During her mother’s final years, Puring kept her alive with bovine fetuses. At night Puring roamed her neighbors’ fields in search of pregnant carabao. She left them bereft of offspring and at daybreak a murder of crows fed upon their slit bellies. She wept for each animal that she slaughtered.
“I have had enough,” her mother said one night after Puring hauled in a warm, pulsing sac.
“But you must,” insisted Puring.
“You fear what comes after I am gone. There is nothing to be afraid of. You must let me go.”
Her mother had lived far too long. Puring knew that the time had come but she did not want her mother’s gift. She did not want to feed on man-fruit as her mother did. She wanted to live a life free of terrible secrets, without fear of hurt at the hands of her neighbors. And doing so would mean her mother languishing in a state of uncertainty.
The mother regarded her sobbing daughter with a helpless pity. She, too, had reluctantly gone through the same transformation years ago. She herself had been a midwife and, after receiving the gift from her own mother, she eventually devoted her practice exclusively to women who wished to terminate. She waited until Puring ran out of tears. In the ensuing silence she began heaving and retching. The sounds reminded Puring of a choking cat. Before she could look away, her mother reached into her throat and, to Puring’s horror, plucked out a tiny bird the color of charcoal.
“You must swallow it whole.”
The bird wriggled in Puring’s grasp. Nothing about it seemed unusual except for its eyes that gleamed like obsidian. The eyes had no sclera at all. She thought of her many forebears who had borne this bird within them. Most had been fortunate to avoid scrutiny but a few had been driven out by the Castilian friars, who called on their god while holding back angry villagers armed with machetes. There was a great-grandmother who barely survived a whipping with stingray tails. As far as Puring knew, no one had broken the line.
Her mother stretched out a searching hand and Puring realized that she had gone suddenly, inexplicably blind.
“Please, Puring. You know that I cannot die until it is in you.”
The bird made strange ticking noises as it slipped down Puring’s throat. It clawed at her with its little talons and the taste of blood flooded her mouth. Strange things were happening to her tongue: it twisted about, rolled unto itself, thrashed like a fish stranded on shore.
Puring held her mother’s hand until she was gone. As she bent to kiss her forehead she saw that the entire surface of her mother’s eyes had turned a shiny, dark gray. It was as though she was looking into a mirror and she was puzzled to see that her reflection was inverted. She ran her hand over her mother’s eyes. With the eyes closed, Puring could only interpret the expression on her mother’s face as one of gratitude.
Espiridion is infuriated by his wife’s miscarriages. Since inheriting the land he had been anxious for progeny, and with a young, lissome wife like Sisinia he expected to father a big brood. After ten barren years he is beginning to worry that he may be cursed. He is irked by his neighbors’ subtle mockeries. He is older than Sisinia by more than two decades and any fault would be perceived as his.
“I’ve been rutting you like a bull and you give me nothing in return,” he yells at his wife.
“It is not my fault that you have poor seed,” Sisinia shouts back. Nothing can be farther from the truth but she must take care to put the blame on him. Espiridion’s seed resisted all manner of intimate infusions and crude pessaries. What misfortune to be married to a fiend, and one with such prolific loins.
“How is it my fault if your womb is full of thorns?”
“Very well, then. I hope it shreds your thing to pieces.”
His fist lands on a choice spot. She leans against the wall until the room stops spinning. Her tongue informs her that a tooth has gone loose. She spies the empty water jug resting on one of the kitchen shelves. The smirk on Espiridion’s face vanishes as the jug hurtles in his direction. It comes crashing to the floor. Without taking his eyes off Sisinia, he bends down to pick up a shard and flicks it at her.
In the afternoon he returns home early from the fields. He seizes her from behind and pins her to the ground. She paws around wildly for something to hit him with. The ferment on his breath makes her stomach curdle.
“Why can’t you love me,” he whines. A thick trail of his spit trickles down her nape.
When pickings are slim Puring travels to neighboring pueblos, knocking on doors under the pretense of selling herbal remedies. She makes friendly overtures to pregnant women, plants doubts in the minds of the most vulnerable, and drops discreet mention of her skill. She is ashamed of her deceit, but, she concludes, she would rather engage in such manipulation rather than feed on someone’s womb without some sort of permission. The Castilians are largely to blame for her troubles. Man-fruit is scarce in pueblos where the men are called away to build churches and bridges for the Castilian lords. Puring finds herself venturing out more often to other pueblos. The travel wears her out. She would have to find a willing heir while she is still capable. The thought fills her with dread.
There are others like her living in various pueblos and she must seek them out before it gets too late. Now, in her old age she regrets not having children, not for the sake of passing on the gift, but for the joy it would have brought her. A daughter would have been a source of comfort, a confidant, a protector. A daughter like Sisinia. She feels an urge to protect her from her brute of a husband. She could, for a moment, lay aside her principles. How hard would it be to waylay the husband in a dark, lonely road and gut him like the animal that he is?
Puring informs her neighbors that she is going away on a long journey to visit kin. She laughs off their concerns and bids them farewell. She entrusts the care of her little hut to Sisinia.
“Please don’t be gone too long,” Sisinia whispers as she bends to kiss the old woman’s hand.
“I will be back before you know it,” Puring gently assures her. She tucks a handful of cigars inside her blouse, wraps her sparse hair in a bright red kerchief, and sets off on her way.
It is as Sisinia feared. She is with child again. She curses her fecundity, wondering what sort of alchemy exists between her and her husband’s vitals. It is almost as if her womb is in rebellion, furious at her for quelling its very purpose, and persisting in creating yet more life. If only it would be easy to pluck out this cursed organ, be rid of it once and for all. The herbs Puring taught her to use have no power over the creature growing within her. She bears no anger towards this child or to the others. Rather, she is seized with an urge to punish her treacherous body. After Espiridion leaves for the fields she leaps out from the steps of her hut, over and over, until her bones begin to feel like gravel. Blood appears in her underclothes but her joy is short-lived. It slows down to a trickle and nothing else comes out of her.
In a moment of despair she grabs the large, wooden pestle for pounding rice. She manages only one blow. The shock of it knocks her out of her senses.
The child stays put.
Puring’s hut remains shuttered.
Sisinia decides that it is time to see Manong.
Manong makes a living casting misfortune: spurned love, a string of bad luck, incomprehensible maladies. Espiridion had gone to see Manong when a man claiming to be a cousin appeared in the pueblo and demanded his share of the land. The cousin fell ill and eventually left without pursuing his claim.
“Manong is the very devil, indeed,” Espiridion said to Sisinia with the glowering smugness of a man who had successfully thwarted a rival. “But you see, even Satanás himself has a price.”
Manong lives on the outskirts of the pueblo near a coconut grove that slopes down the foot of a hill. He glares at Sisinia through the window and does not return her greeting. He is of slight build, stooped with age, and seemingly innocuous, if it weren’t for his unsettlingly lush, black tresses. Something about them gives him a minatory air. Sisinia is careful not to look him in the eye to hide her apprehension and to indicate respect – it is unwise to meet the gaze of someone much older.
She is not sure how to bring up her predicament. How would this hostile man react to her plight? She could barely discuss her pregnancies with her own husband. She remembers Espiridion stumbling upon her bloodied skirts and recoiling as if he had stepped on a nest of vipers. She detests Espridion’s revulsion even as he has no qualms taking pleasure in her body.
Manong’s nostrils flare in indignation at Sisinia’s request. “Do you take me for a midwife? You find midwives aplenty in this town but there is only one of me. I do not deal with women’s things.”
Sisinia holds out a pouch of pesetas that she had carefully pilfered from Espiridion and Manong’s face lights up. This time Sisinia meets his gaze with undisguised contempt.
His hut is a small, one-room affair, and surprisingly sparse. From Espiridion’s account of his business with Manong, Sisinia expected a certain dark opulence and evidence of gristly victories. She realizes now that Espiridion may have exaggerated Manong’s knowledge of the black arts and the sense of danger that comes with consorting with his ilk. Except for several unlit candles snaking around a mat in the center of the hut, nothing seems out of the ordinary. There are no inverted crucifixes hanging on the walls, no jars of mysterious unguents on the shelves. An oily, herbal tang hangs thickly in the room.
“This is it?” he sputters, incredulous, when he is done counting the pesetas.
“I can come back and bring you something. Rice, a hen or two, vegetables from my garden –“
“Don’t bother,” he barks, stuffing the coins into his pocket. “I’m not an invalid who needs soup. Lie down and shut your eyes.”
As she stretches out on the mat he lights the candles around her. Manong hums in a low monotone. She can feel his hands moving over her body, close enough for her to feel the warmth of his palms. Very slowly he places his hands on the gentle rise of her belly and begins chanting in a language Sisinia does not understand. The heat from the candles suffuses the room with a welcome warmth. The scent of burning wick is oddly comforting. It reminds her of prayers at the altar, of the quiet evenings of her distant girlhood, when her family used to gather around a lamp before retiring to their mats. She feels her body go slack.
His hands slide down and linger in a place where they have no right to be. He stops humming. Her muscles tense and her body braces for violence, a response honed from years of fending off Espiridion’s assaults. With a quick push she sends Manong stumbling backwards.
“Swine,” she shouts, bolting to her feet. “May the earth swallow you whole, you mud-sniffing pig.”
Her foot makes a swift arc and sends the candles toppling to the floor. He cries out what she presumes to be curses in an unknown tongue. His throat catches. What had sounded earlier like ominous invocations have now lost their power, and all she hears now is the whining of a crumbling old fool. She oscillates between regret – for acknowledging his supposed sorcery – and triumph, at the ease with which she ripped off the charlatan’s mask. She trains a jet of spit at Manong in an asperges of fury and disgust.
For once, Espiridion addresses Sisinia with courtesy. He refrains from hitting her. Her silence used to enrage him; now, he pats her cheek as one would do to a sulky child. He makes clumsy efforts to feed her with her favorite foods. Lifting her jaw with a finger, he says softly, “I will take care of you, wife.” His eyes shine not so much from sentiment but from the palm wine he had been imbibing in increasing amounts as Sisinia swelled with child.
The moment coincides with a rare summer thunderstorm. The fields are shorn from the harvest and bled dry by the unrelenting April sun. The heat burrows its way with the persistence of a parasite into Sisinia’s innermost crevices. Even the child within her lies still. She plants herself by the window, desperate for a breeze. The air, ponderous and unmoving, begins to turn, and Sisinia picks up the scent of the earth sweating. A sharp cracking boom bursts forth from the skies and the deluge pours.
Despite the welcome cool Sisinia feels an intermittent flush. In the next instant water sluices down her thighs, and she is confused, thinking that the rain had gotten in through the window. A lightning-like stab pierces her lower back.
Espiridion declares that it is impossible to seek out a midwife in the storm and Sisinia, seething with loathing, chooses not to remind him of his terror of lightning. She wants nothing more than a measure of mercy from the heavens, for the caitiff to venture out and be struck dead by a thunderbolt. She collapses on the slatted bamboo floor as Espiridion drops to his knees with the trembling awe of a supplicant appeasing a wrathful deity. The sight of his sour, anxious face, his eyes gaping at the thing that is erupting from her, causes Sisinia’s blood to boil.
“Get out,” she snarls.
“But Sisinia, our child,” he begins to protest. Ignoring the clamping around her hips, she lifts herself up and delivers a kick to Espiridion’s jaw. His lip, ample to begin with, bloats like a well-fed leech.
Espiridion’s eyes narrow into hateful slits. “Puta.”
“You come any closer and I will kill your child.”
The room fills with the smell of iron. Sisinia grits her teeth, determined to deny Espiridion the satisfaction of hearing her cry. The effort in of itself saps her strength. She had thought of herself as one accustomed to pain but she is taken aback by the sheer violence of birth. The child slides out of her in one wet gush. The lashes are thick like hers. The mouth is wide like its father’s. It is perfect in every way except that it came with the cord coiled around its neck like some regal, imperious jewelry. The silence baffles Espiridion. He grabs the infant by the ankles with the bewilderment of a child struggling with a broken toy.
For a moment Sisinia feels something unloosen within her, some nascent pity for Espiridion and a fleeting guilt for birthing a dead child. The feeling swiftly vanishes when she sees the disbelief and fury on Espiridion’s face. Her glance falls on the tiny body. The newborn’s coat of white wax reminds her of the heavily powdered harlots who hang around the town jail. Laughter begins as a warm, ticklish itch. The giggles come in fits and starts and soon she is overcome with laughter. She does not remember laughing this hard in her entire life, and this bright surge coursing through her body is the closest she thinks she has ever come to happiness. For what happiness existed in a life like hers? Her girlhood abruptly ended, her youth pawned off to service her parents’ debt, her body a vessel for Espiridion’s lusts and rages. She remembers her mother’s advice on the eve of her marriage to Espiridion. Pleasure follows pain, her mother had said, somewhat consolingly. Sisinia never understood what that meant until now. A strange, intoxicating euphoria is washing over her as though her body is rewarding her for withstanding the pain of birth. She locks eyes with Espiridion, takes delight at his stupid, toadish face, and she feels mirth bubble anew within her. The only way to relieve that warm, inner itch is to laugh long and good and hard. It is impossible to stop even as Espiridion’s hands close around her throat.
Puring leans back against the tree and relishes the warmth from the fading afternoon. She has finished all her cigars and now she wishes she had kept one cigarillo for this moment.
Glistening with her juices, the gray bird writhes on her lap.
The last thing she sees before the curtain descends over her eyes is a large piece of driftwood floating along the marshy river that stretched out in front of her. All her other senses are at their sharpest. She feels the dapple of light through the trees, the shift in the air as afternoon bows down to night, the flitting of winged ants. The gentle lapping of water from the river’s edge soothes her. She senses some creature lurking nearby, tasting her through the air with its tongue. Darkness falls around her. The water stirs briefly and she pauses, inclining her head in the river’s direction; she hears a splash and all is silent. She lies in wait. They will come, she assures herself, and in their stealth she may not even hear them. Without resistance it will happen quickly. She could have saved herself a long journey had she come to that resolution earlier. She could have bid Sisinia a proper farewell. She could have repaid her for entrusting her fecund body to her care by dispatching the husband to his end. A quick puncture to the heart, unnoticed, and the neighbors will simply blame his demise on years of rough living.
There is a quickening in the river. On her lap the gray bird lets out a strange, almost plaintive, ticking noise.