Behind the Trees
By Catherina Garcia Dario
The night before Nora left for Manila, Marvin had kissed her on the footbridge. She was sitting by the door of her aunt's hut—one foot perched on a hardwood rung of the ladder, another tracing the gravel and sand below—and picking nipa leaves from their stems. Inside, her aunt was already asleep. Marvin must have known that Aunt Ida would not have to chase him past the bamboo fence. From afar, Nora had seen the lamplight aglow in the midst of the paddy field. She knew it was Marvin; he had promised to see her before she left for the big city.
She put on a jacket and crossed the field, careful not to trip and fall from the narrow ridges. The night was cool; the mid-evening wind rushed through the tall stalks of rice as she made her way down the field. Marvin was waiting for her by the road. His face was dirty, and he was still wearing his school uniform.
They had grown up together, playing street games with the other children and walking to school every day. They would sometimes fish at the creek near their neighbourhood. Marvin would roll up his pants and dip his fishing net into the clear water. Nora would crouch in the grass, and then slowly watch him lift the net—heavy with a trembling heap of small, silver fish. Sometimes, they'd return them to the water. Other times, Marvin's mother would cook them over charcoal and serve them with salted vegetables. They would sit together and pick at their plates. It was on a night like this when Nora had told him about her cousin in Manila, and how she had landed her a well-paying job with a wealthy family.
"We must write each other every day," said Marvin. It was 1984. The only postal office was in the capital of their province, where all the government offices were. Nora couldn't imagine how they could possibly stay in contact, but she promised that she would come home for the holidays.
"What if your boss won't let you?"
"Lina tells me that Mr Enriquez is a kind man."
"If he is so rich, then he might not be."
"I believe Lina. She is 18 years sold."
"They only speak Tagalog there. Or English."
"I'd like to learn how to speak better English."
Nora imagined Manila: tall buildings, shiny automobiles, train stations, discotheques, cinemas. When Lina had come home for Christmas, she had a stack of American fashion magazines and a purse full of imported cosmetics. She had taken them from the Mrs. Enriquez's dresser.
They came to the footbridge which ran over a wide creek. It was larger and slightly deeper than the small one where they usually fished. Marvin put his hands on her shoulders, leaned in, and kissed her.
The journey to Manila took almost two days. Nora had watched the island disappear; the jetty grew smaller and smaller as the boat propelled further away. They had departed mid-morning, and by half-past four her body already ached from the rough, splintered mahogany benches that were lopsided against each other. She fell in and out of sleep, jolting awake whenever a large curl of water would hurl itself at the hulls and cold sea spray would shower her skin. She would think about the Enriquez family. Mr Enriquez was a businessman who travelled around the world, and Mrs Enriquez was a stunning mestiza who only wore custom-made designer clothes. Sophia, their only child, was five years old. According to Lina, she was very talkative and only spoke English. Nora hoped that they would like her.
They arrived at the port early in the morning and the passengers were immediately ushered into a bus. Dawn had just broken; the sky was the colour of a ripe pomelo. As Nora settled down, she looked out the window. The streets were bare, save for a few cars parked by the sidewalk. Nora spotted a Nissan Bluebird; Lina had mentioned that Mr Enriquez had one. She had shown Nora a picture.
Nora admired the large advertisements splayed on the buildings. There was a Pepsi-Cola neon sign mounted on top of a shopping complex, along with a cartoon billboard ad for beer. Thick black wires ran from post to post, sometimes tangled up against the branches of acacia trees. Now and then, they passed by grand hotels with elaborate water fountains and flower arrangements displayed behind glass doors. Aunt Ida once told Nora that the President's wife often held lavish parties and entertained important people at these sorts of places. Nora wondered if she would get to see the Palace one day.
After some time, the bus slowed down and stopped at its station. Nora saw Lina sitting on one of the plastic chairs. She was wearing her uniform, which was a pinstriped frock with an eyelet apron. She had a cigarette in her mouth, and was talking to an older man. The older man, whose grey-white hair was slicked back behind his ears, was wearing a navy blue button down. As they spoke, he twirled a pair of keys between his fingers.
Lina saw Nora and called out to her. When the bus stopped, and the engine slowed down to a purr, Nora took her things and got off the bus. The older man was drinking from a coke bottle; his eyes scaled Nora as the two girls greeted each other. "This is Fred," said Lina eventually, "He's Mr Enriquez's driver."
Fred unlocked the car, and Lina helped Nora put her bags in the trunk.
"We're using Mr Enriquez's Mercedes-Benz," whispered Lina.
"Where is he?"
"He's in America. He's always out. But you'll get to meet Mrs Enriquez."
Lina stubbed her cigarette with her slipper, and then opened the door. Nora made a mental note to write to Marvin that evening, and tell him about the leatherette seats and the bottle of expensive alcohol that was tucked in a marble drink holder.
The drive to the Enriquez home was longer than Nora expected. Lina explained that they had built a new house a few months ago, and just moved in. Lina watched Manila disappear behind them, and the road stretched between fields of wild grass.
When they finally arrived at the subdivision, it was almost mid-morning. The wheels grinded over the dusty dirt road as it approached an iron wrought gate. Fred spoke to the security guard at the guard post, and was responded with a salute. The village, which had only a few houses, appeared to be a winding maze of mango trees.
"Mr Enriquez told me once that during the war, there had been a prison camp around this area," said Fred. It was the first time he had spoken the entire trip. His voice was low and raspy.
"Not this story again," whined Lina.
"When the prison would get full, the Japanese officers would release the prisoners to this mango grove. The prisoners would think that they had escaped."
Nora remained quiet.
"And then," continued Fred, "They'd gun them down here."
"So this place was a dumping ground for bodies."
Nora opened her mouth to reply, but they had finally arrived at the house. It was a white-brick manor with a red roof, and rows of pale green shutters. From the driveway, past a concrete latticework wall, she could see a swimming pool and cabana. The clear, blue water glistened underneath the mid-morning sun.
Nora had never seen ceilings any higher. The marble flooring, occasionally interrupted by a piece of furniture—the grand piano, then later a round hardwood table on which stood a glass vase of marigolds, then later a billiards table—extended from the doorstep to the patio, preceded by sliding doors. Nora saw a woman seated outside, her back against a white garden chair; her slim hand poised against the tabletop. "That's Mrs Enriquez," whispered Lina, as they heaved Nora's bags into the house. Mrs Enriquez heard them, and turned around.
She was much more beautiful than Nora had imagined. Lina had described her as mestiza, but never mentioned her high cheekbones and light brown hair. She was tall and very young—probably in her early 30s—and she reminded Nora of the supermodels in the American magazines.
"Nora," she said gently, offering her hand. She smelled like flowers.
"Good morning po," Nora squeaked. She shook Mrs Enriquez's hand, hoping that she wouldn't notice her calloused, sweaty palms.
"How was your trip? Are you tired?"
Nora tried to remember the few Tagalog words she knew. She didn't say anything.
Mrs Enriquez smiled at her genially. "Sophia is upstairs. Mr Enriquez is away. Your uniform has been washed and pressed by Lita."
Another girl appeared by the door. She was younger and smaller than Nora, who had just turned 15 that year. Her pinstriped frock hung loosely around her skinny frame. She waved at Nora, her wide eyes like teacup saucers.
Nora met Sophia later that afternoon. She had been trotting around the living room, still dizzy from her nap, and wearing a pink tutu. Her big belly bulged from the garter. Like her mother, she had rosy cheeks and fair skin. When she saw Nora, she pounced and wrapped her sausage legs around her waist. As she peppered Nora with kisses, Nora noticed that her black hair twisted from her head in bouncy ringlets. Nora imagined that Mr Enriquez had dark, curly hair as well.
To Nora's surprise, Sophia was a very easygoing child. Prior to accepting the job offer, Nora imagined that the little girl would spit out her vegetables; throw her toys at the wall, and kick and scream when put to bed. However, Nora found herself enjoying Sophia's company –braiding her hair, and helping her dress into her starched, plaid school uniform, fetching her at the elementary school gates, watching afternoon cartoons with her during merienda time, and listening to Sophia's stories before her bedtime. Nora would tuck her in her pink duvet covers, sit on the floor, and listen to Sophia's silly, often nonsensical narratives. She only spoke in English, so Nora had to listen very well.
"There is a land far, far away," said Sophia one night. She lifted her hands and spread them in the air—a routine that Nora noticed every time she began a story.
"And the land is full of trees. And behind the trees, there are people! Old people, young people, big people, small people. And some of them are evil." She wiggled her fingers and widened her eyes.
"And they live behind the trees. They don't come out. They stay there. And they listen. And they watch. Hundreds of them."
She fell asleep before finishing the story, as she sometimes did. As Nora shut off the bedside lamp, she remembered the bamboo thicket back at home. She and Marvin would sometimes pass there on the way to school, because it was a shortcut that saved ten minutes of their time. They would be careful not to tread atop a mound of dirt or a thick patch of grass. The dwarves, Aunt Ida often warned them, would get angry and make them sick. One of their neighbors had pissed in the thicket, and had suffered high fever and painful boils on his legs. Nora and Marvin stood by his bed, along with a flock of other townspeople. They watched an old lady pour candlewax on a basin. Little stumps of people emerged from the sticky wax.
Later that night, when Lina and Lita were both asleep, Nora crept out of bed and wrote to Marvin. She had been writing him since she had arrived in Manila, and was still waiting for a response.
Lina did not seem to think of home much. She and Nora barely spoke during the week; Nora was busy attending to Sophia, Lina was in charge of general cleaning. When they would talk, however—during mealtimes or before lights out—Lina would always share the latest celebrity gossip, the new American film being shown at the cinema square, or the new handbags and shoes that Mrs Enriquez recently bought. She would whisper and cackle excitedly, trimming and painting her toenails in between. As for Lita, however, she never said anything at all. She went about the kitchen, fiddling with the pans, her small face always shrouded by a cloud of steam as she hovered over a boiling pot.
Once, when Mrs Enriquez was out, Lina brought Nora to her dressing room. Nora had been watching over Sophia as she took her afternoon nap, flipping through some of the English storybooks that she had found on the bookshelf. Lina opened the door slightly, and coaxed Nora outside. "Come," said Lina, "I'll show you something."
Nora had never been inside the master's bedroom. Mrs. Enriquez, although kind and gentle, was tight-lipped when she explained that only Lina was allowed inside to make the bed, vacuum the carpet, and dust the drapes. Mrs Enriquez kept the key to her dressing room inside a music box, which Lina furtively fished out when they came across Mrs. Enriquez's desk. They unlocked the door, which led to a roomful of closets. Lina opened each of them, revealing rows and rows of dresses, shoes, and handbags. They were displayed behind glass. Lina told her which ones were from Paris and Milan and Hong Kong. She pointed to them as if they were artifacts on display.
"What about Mr Enriquez's things?" asked Nora. An entire month had passed and he still had not come home from America. She was beginning to doubt that he would come home at all.
Lina opened a few more closets. A dozen black suits hung from hangers. They looked like large bats, wings folded against each other. She noticed a cardboard box at the bottom of one closet. "What's that?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen it before," said Lina. They bent over and lifted the lid. Inside were stacks of papers, each one held together by metal fasteners. Nora took a pile out and set it on her lap, trying to study it. There were numbers printed on them; Lina remembered Marvin's accounting book. It had belonged to his older brother's, who had also worked in Manila as a houseboy for a bank officer.
Lina grabbed the stack of papers and put them back in the box. "I don't understand anything," she said. "Mr Enriquez is a lawyer. Lawyers are very complicated people."
Lina wanted to try on some of Mrs Enriquez's clothes, but Nora insisted that they leave. She was worried that Mrs Enriquez would come home any time now, and she didn't want to get caught snooping around. They locked the door and left the room. Lina went back downstairs, and Nora returned to Sophia's room. She sat down by the bed and watched Sophia's chest rise and fall as she slept.
Almost four months had passed when Mr Enriquez finally arrived home. It was the middle of the night, and Nora's eyes flickered open when the glare of headlights flashed at the window. Mrs. Enriquez knocked at their door, instructing Nora and Lina to help Fred with Mr. Enriquez's things, and Lina to prepare a small meal.
Nora and Lina quickly filed into the garage. Mr Enriquez had already gone upstairs; Nora could hear his heavy, patented leather shoes thump against the floorboards. He and his wife talked in low whispers.
Nora, Lina, and Fred carried several bags and suitcases upstairs. "I didn't know Mr Enriquez would be coming home tonight," said Nora to Fred.
"He was scheduled to come home next week, and then he calls up Madam from Hong Kong and tells her he will be arriving in Manila tonight."
Nora didn't say anything. She remembered the box of papers that she and Lina had found inside the closet. She had not thought about it in a while, although it had bothered her for many nights.
Mr Enriquez appeared at the top of the stairs. She was surprised to see that he, like his wife, was very young. He had dark hair and thick eyebrows, and black-rimmed glasses that framed his angular face. "You can just leave them here. I'll take care of them," he said, pointing to the bags.
Mrs. Enriquez followed him. She was carrying Sophia, whose legs were wrapped around her waist. Her eyes were heavy with sleep, and she reached out for her father. Mr Enriquez took her and carried her.
"You haven't met Nora yet," said Mrs Enriquez softly.
Nora felt her face grow hot. Mr Enriquez looked at her.
"I'm sorry, Nora. Good evening."
Nora placed two of his bags gently on the floor. "Good evening, sir."
"Is Sophia too much to handle?"
"I love Yaya!" Sophia chirped, draping an arm around his neck.
Mr Enriquez laughed and pressed his finger to her nose. Nora watched them, as he bent over and kissed his wife on the cheek.
Marvin's letter arrived a few months later, around late March. Neither Nora nor Lina had gone home for the Christmas or summer holidays; Mrs Enriquez had offered to triple their pay if they stayed. Nora cashed the check, and sent money to both Aunt Ida and Marvin instead.
By that time, Nora's Tagalog had improved. Fred, who was fluent, had helped her practise. On the way to fetch Sophia from school, for instance, he would help translate Bisaya sentences to Tagalog. When he would join the three girls for dinner, he would write down words and phrases on a paper napkin. Nora would stare at these for hours, examining Fred's twisted handwriting underneath the dim light bulb that dangled over her mattress.
She had also learned a bit of English from Sophia, such as "I'm hungry," "I'm tired already," and "Why can't I have another slice of cake?" She continued to read the picture and storybooks, which she always took from the shelf whenever Sophia took her afternoon nap. Her diligence paid off eventually, when she and Lina took a bus to Makati during their weekend off. They watched a local movie at the cinema square, and then spent the afternoon at one of Lina's favourite eateries. Besides the cheap noodle soup, Lina liked it especially because of the handsome European man who often frequented the place. That was the day Nora learned that Lina was not a virgin; that was also the day she learned to flirt in English. She remembered a soap opera that she once listened to on the radio: "I want to kiss your lips," a woman's voice purred through the speakers. The European man seemed very impressed.
That evening, the gardens were lit up. Mrs Enriquez was hosting a dinner party. The President and his wife arrived, along with several other men and women whose cars pulled up on the driveway. Nora braided her hair and put on the navy blue uniform that Mrs. Enriquez had custom-made for each of the girls. She stood in the dining room for most of the evening, tray positioned against her chest, keeping an eye out for empty champagne glasses. Her eyes would always wander to the President, who wore a grey velour suit over a velveteen necktie. His wife sat at the other end of the table, whispering to Mrs Enriquez. Everybody else clinked their spoons and forks against their plates.
When dinner was over and the girls had finished clearing the plates, Nora followed the guests to the gardens. Mrs Enriquez had moved the grand piano to the gazebo, and hired a pianist to perform below the string of lanterns that hung from the white beams. The women whipped out their woven fans; the men puffed their cigars.
A hand clamped on her shoulder. It was Fred. "I overheard the President talking to Sir," he said. He was wearing a white cotton button down which fit well around his arms. Nora thought that he looked handsome.
"What did he say?"
"People are angry. Things are about to change."
Nora didn't understand. "What do you mean?"
Fred curled his lip.
"Mr Enriquez will leave the Philippines soon, and so will Madam and Sophia."
"Why would I lie?"
Nora shrugged. She felt Fred's hand snake around her waist. His fingers tapped against her ribs.
She did not tell Fred that she was a virgin. She made up a story about Marvin, and how they had made love in the coconut grove outside her house. "Did he do this?" asked Fred, crouching to his knees and lifting her skirt. When he put his tongue inside her, she felt her entire body stiffen.
He waited for her now. He had locked the door and told her take off her clothes. She retreated to the bathroom, took deep breaths as she unbuttoned her uniform and unclasped her bra. She ran her hands across her breasts and down to her belly, feeling the hairs at the back of her legs stand against her skin. When she stepped into the bedroom, she almost forgot to undo her braid.
In the dark, she felt much younger. His body was large and heavy against hers, and her thin legs trembled underneath his weight. She groaned every time he tore through her, hoping that he would mistake it for ecstasy.
When they were done, he kissed her and swiftly changed back into his uniform. She did not realise that the music had stopped, and that the light outside had dimmed.
Fred left and went to the garage. Nora went back into the main house. She was relieved to find Lita and Lina sweeping the floor, unsuspecting of Nora's momentary disappearance. In the dining room, the guests were having coffee. Mrs Enriquez beckoned Nora to come over. Sophia had fallen asleep, and was slumped against her mother's chest. Nora lifted the child from Mrs Enriquez's arms, and carried her up the stairs. She seemed heavier than usual.
Mr and Mrs Enriquez left the country the following week. Nora woke up to find their bags parked by the front door, and Mr Enriquez perched by the telephone. Lina told her that he had been making calls all morning, and he and his wife were leaving for Hong Kong for a business trip. Mrs Enriquez assured Nora that they would be back in a few days, and that Sophia would be staying at a cousin's house until then. Nora poked her head out the garage door, and saw that Sophia was already seated at the back of the Nissan Bluebird.
She knew that she should've felt excited that they had the house to themselves, but Nora felt her stomach squeeze and churn as she watched the car lurch into the distance. Fred, whom she had not spoken to since they slept together, had his eyes fixed to the windshield. His lips were so tightly pressed against each other that they appeared stitched.
Lina threw off her uniform and put on some jeans, complaining that Mrs. Enriquez had taken their radio and locked the entire upstairs area. "I don't know about you," she said, brushing her hair in front of the mirror, "But I'm going to catch a movie at the cinema square." She took off before lunchtime, leaving Nora and Lita alone in the big house
The clock ticked slowly. Lita slept through the afternoon. She curled up against the wall; she looked like a tough piece of clay folded against itself. Nora noticed that she quivered in her sleep.
At mid-afternoon, Nora decided to take a walk. She unlatched the gate and opened it slowly, careful not to scrape the wrought iron against the concrete driveway. There were no other houses nearby, just the snaking mango grove that stretched from either end.
As she walked, she tried not to think about anything. She focused on the rust-coloured leaves scattered above the undergrowth, and the foreboding canopy that towered overhead. She remembered the story that Fred told her on the day she arrived in Manila—how the subdivision is a grave for prisoners of war. She imagined being released from the prison cell and running through the expanse of trees, then hearing bullets being fired from behind her.
She had been walking for quite some time when she came across the creek. It was a small, shallow stream that cut across the woods. Nora crouched above it, picked up a stone, and tossed it in the water. It sunk to the bottom. Nora looked at her reflection, which had wrinkled when the stone hit the water.
The orange sun broke through the canopy, and Nora made her way back to the house. She was worried that she had lost her way, but then saw that she had left footprints in the soil. By the time her hand closed against the iron latticework of the gate, it was already dark.
She went into her room, and saw that the lights had not been opened. The room was purple, and Lita was whimpering under the sheets.
"Lita," called Nora, "What's wrong?"
Nora switched on the lights, and saw that Lita was indeed crying.
Lita opened her mouth and spoke, but her words came out garbled and incoherent. Nora sat next to Lita, and hesitantly took her hand in hers. "I can't understand you."
"Don't tell Lina," Lita mumbled, "She will call me a slut."
Nora saw that Lita's eyes were red and swollen. Mucus ran down her nostrils.
"Fred," Lita began, "Fred forced me to."
"What are you talking about?"
Lita lifted the bedsheet. Her thighs were caked with brown, dried up blood. Nora felt her throat dry up. "Lina can't know," Lita wept. Nora stood up, her knees almost giving in to the sudden weight of her body. Lita called out to her. Nora's fingers trembled as she closed her palm against the doorknob. Lita said something to her again, but Nora couldn't listen. She slammed the door behind her and headed for the main house. The room was purple; the moonlight stained the marble floors.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. In her panic, Nora imagined that it was police. In her mind, they had found a dead body in the mango grove. Somebody behind the trees had slashed her throat. The phone continued to ring.
Nora picked up the phone. She could not say hello. The receiver crackled.
"Nora?" It was Mrs. Enriquez. "Nora, is that you?"
"Mrs. Enriquez, I only have two minutes before the operator opens the line again."
The ring of keys, as Mrs. Enriquez explained, was inside the piano bench.
Nora's palms were sweaty as she took another key from the key ring and opened the door to the master's bedroom. She tossed the keys to the bed and hurried to one of Mr Enriquez's cabinets. She lifted it from its box—the grey paper shredder that Mr. Enriquez kept sealed in cardboard package.
She went to the dressing room and opened Mr Enriquez's closet. The suits were displayed in their rack, still lined up together like sleeping bats. Nora took the box, too heavy for her to carry, and pushed it to the master's bedroom. She switched on the paper shredder. It gave a metallic screech. Nora unfastened the papers and began shredding.
Mrs Enriquez had told her that she would not be coming home any time soon. What about Sophia? Nora had asked. Sophia's aunt would chaperone her to London, where they would be staying for a few months. Until things settle, were Mrs Enriquez's words.
She was almost halfway through when she saw it: the crumpled piece of paper smoothed and flattened in between the stacks of pages. She grabbed it, cutting her finger in the process, and saw her name written in Marvin's distinct handwriting. He had written it months ago. Most of the letter had been smudged, but she still understood it.
We are scared. We are thinking of leaving, but don't know where to go. People are disappearing and dying. It is not safe here anymore. Please do not come home.
MarvinQLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015