MERCEDby barbara barquez ricafrente

She was a diminutive woman who always walked barefoot. She walked so fast she was gone before you noticed it, going at a speed that could put to shame those jeepneys loaded to the brim with passengers, goods of all kinds, and even fowls that were headed for the more remote villages of Oas, my old hometown where Mayon Volcano’s peak is perpetually visible. Merced had dark red lips and reddish teeth, for she was always chewing betel nut and constantly spewing out red spittle into the ground. She kept her betel nut supply – prepared with some amount of lime wrapped in a buyo leaf – in that dent between her small breasts, and would extract it from there whenever she needed to take another bite.

She had no idea when she was born, never went to school, and knew nothing about reading and writing. On election day, she simply pressed her ink-laced thumb on the appropriate box on the ballot to indicate that she had exercised her right to suffrage.

Laughter came easy to Merced, for she had a generally cheerful disposition. Her laughter sounded like the bleating of a goat, and always caused everyone around her to laugh as well. She took no interest in gossip, and no one knows what it was that preoccupied her thoughts. She fervently believed in the power of the albularyo, as practitioners of indigenous medicine have always been known in these parts, and had an abiding fear of medical doctors. But whenever the albularyo’s prescriptions did not seem to work, she would come to our grocery store to seek my mother’s advice. My mother, who devoted all her adult life to being a teacher at a local public elementary school, gladly obliged by prescribing the usual over-the-counter drugs for fever, stomach pain, cold, or toothache. Merced would come back after a day or two, profuse with gratitude and genuflecting unabashedly before my mother, to the latter’s embarrassment. She would flash that broad smile that reduced her face to wrinkles and her eyes to a pair of slits.

One day, my mother decided to close shop because she had resolved to put a stop to any further dealings with some neighbors who had racked up a long list of debts from the store and refused to pay up. Merced was distraught. She tore at her hair and was on the verge of tears, saying she would not know what to do if she no longer had our store – ¬specifically with my mother in it – to go to for medical advice. She said, with gestures to match, that she felt like burying a dagger between her breasts. My mother told her she could always come to our house if she needed anything, but Merced could not be appeased. She went away crying.

She shared a home with Pablo, the father of her three children. Pablo, who was only slightly taller than Merced, was an even-tempered and soft-spoken man with a drinking habit. But even when he was drunk, he never caused trouble and simply went off to sleep. There was one time, though, when he had had one drink too many, and ended up rolling in the dust in his alcohol-induced stupor. A group of children went to fetch Merced, who promptly showed up at the scene. As she had never approved of Pablo’s drinking, she ordered him to get up and go home. Pablo, too drunk to be able to help himself, was smiling like a nut and told her: “Cut it out, Mama!” Merced gave him an ultimatum, telling him to do her bidding by the time she had counted to three. But the man was unresponsive and continued to mutter incoherently to himself. Doubling over with laughter, the neighbors egged him to get up, but he did not budge even as Merced finished counting to three. Without any hesitation, Merced stood directly over Pablo, lifted the hem of her house dress, and urinated on his face. Everyone was cackling and howling with so much glee that the small table where the men drank went crashing down, along with the cuatro cantos (gin in a clear four-cornered bottle) and appetizers. The infuriated woman stormed out of the scene, while Pablo spent the rest of the afternoon snoring on the ground in a pool of his wife’s urine.

Despite this, Merced and Pablo got along very well. They lived in a hut that Pablo built on a lot owned by a benevolent old woman. They planted their own vegetables, and earned their keep by working in neighbors’ farms during the seasons for rice planting and harvesting. In the lean months, they wove weed baskets for sale to a local middleman. When their eldest daughter who was her mother’s spitting image – except that she was taller and big-boned – started to grow breasts, they sent her off to the big city to work as a housemaid. Every month hence, the daughter would send them a small amount from her earnings.

The couple never stayed long in one place, for their hut was always reduced to a pile of wood. This may not make sense at first, but that is exactly how it was. It was not because their house lay in the direct path of typhoons (though everyone knows Oas is in the so-called typhoon belt), was caught by a tornado, shaken by an earthquake, or washed away by a flash flood. Rather, it was something far less cataclysmic. Merced and Pablo cooked their meals on a hearthstone, for which the fuel used was firewood. Whenever some cooking had to be done, the couple simply pulled out pieces of wood from a section of their house. They did this constantly until their hut grew smaller and leaner and there was not enough left of the beams, the walls, and the flooring – all made of bamboo – to prop up the house. At one time, Merced came up to my mother and father to ask if she and her family could put up a hut on that small island in the middle of our rice field. My parents gave their consent. But, as had happened before, the new hut grew progressively smaller until, in less than four months, only its skeleton remained. After that, Merced and her family moved elsewhere.

The last time Merced was seen, she was eating soil. Looking pale and gaunt, she had a ball of earth in her hand with which she fed herself upon the advice of an albularyo. She said she had fallen ill for having stepped on an unseen being, a to’ng lipŭd, while gathering leaves in a forested area in the locality. She was spitting out blood, but did not notice it because of the red betel juice. Not long after, it was told that she had coughed up blood and died. Since her husband Pablo was too poor to afford even a small lot in the town cemetery, he is said to have wrapped her in a mat and brought her to the graveyard for pagans – where tombs are inundated by waist-deep floodwaters in the typhoon season – on the other side of town. Until the end, even he who had spent most of his life with this woman did not know how long she had lived on this earth. It is told that Pablo simply had the gravedigger write MERCED on the cross that marked her tomb, after which he went away. Today, no one knows for certain where Merced truly rests, for nothing remains of the cross that bore only her name.

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