She walked slowly into a dark room that smelled of cigarettes and the only visible lights were the signs on the exit doors. In the darkness, she saw threads of smoke. Her hand touched the rows of wooden chairs anchored to the floor. Peanut shells and candy wrappers crunched beneath the soles of her shoes
She saw a seated figure, a man who helped her draw the upturned theater seat downward to enable her to sit comfortably beside him. Chinese words appeared on the movie screen. Sneak previews of future Chinese movies flashed in front of her eyes. A Chinese female star, whose name she could not remember, sang on the screen.
He opened a bag of watermelon seeds and one by one popped the seeds into his mouth. He cracked them open with his front teeth and then spat the shells onto the floor. She held onto the ends of her skirt and tried to avoid being spattered with the shells.
Then, his hands, so much stronger than hers, removed hers from her skirt. He moved his hands up and down her legs. She tried so hard to keep her eyes on the screen, to read the English subtitles of the Chinese movie. The words came and went faster than her mind could comprehend them.
He whispered, “Beautiful, she is so beautiful. Ya sui.”
Something excited her, something she could not understand. She looked at the actress and wondered what made her beautiful. She portrayed a Chinese princess, dressed in a Chinese empress costume, and she could not see her face because his heavy arms blocked her view.
“Look at her jewelry, her tsiu siak. You want jewelry, too? How beautiful!” He whispered again.
She looked at the princess and thought she was decorated like a Christmas tree. She heard his voice but refused to look up. He repeated the words, “beautiful, beautiful,” until she looked up and saw the face of her Grandfather. She cried out loud.
The air inside Marlene’s dark room was hot and dry like fire in the kitchen stove. “Run away, ghost!” Marlene screamed. Then she waited until everything became clear. She walked into the bathroom and washed her face at the sink, allowing herself a tiny laugh afterward just to pacify herself.
She sat on the steps just outside the main door and tried to find the moon. When she was younger, her mother told her that the moon was kind. She heard the bark of a dog and the buzz of mosquitoes.
“What are you doing here?”
Marlene recognized Kang Atsi’s voice. She was Grandmother’s yaya from China.
Marlene didn’t look up. She still tried to find the face of the moon.
“It’s so hot, I wanted to cool myself,” Marlene said.
Kang Atsi unbuttoned her pajama bottoms, rubbed her stomach and fanned hersef briskly. She sat beside Marlene and rubbed her eyes.
“Where is your mother again?”
“Working in some other country. I know that Amah doesn’t want me here but I don’t have anyone else,” Marlene said.
Kang Atsi sat watching her for a while. “You seem anxious. Is it because it’s Auntie Ma’s birthday tomorrow?”
“I really don’t belong there. I don’t understand most of the things they say. There are just too many ghost stories.”
Marlene could not find the moon and finally looked down. She did not want to go to Auntie Ma’s party.
“Come inside. There are bad people around. It’s not safe.” Kang Atsi said.
Marlene nodded and walked into the house. She could make out the shadowy form of the altar table and the faded picture of the Goddess of Mercy hanging above the josspots. Several pictures of dead relatives stood on a wooden table covered partly with a cloth, embroidered with the design of a dragon. Joss-smoke rose toward the ceiling. Grandmother must have been praying this evening, she thought.
Marlene Ong always hid inside the ladies’ room. For her, it had become a familiar place of refuge, when Ong family parties became fashion contests amid high-pitched calls of admiration, with every guest hanging onto every bit of the latest gossip.
She had told Amah several times that she always felt out of place. She had never cared for the gossip because she never fully understood the stories. Still, her limited Fookien allowed her to guess meanings from context. She understood enough to catch the gist, but even if she wanted to make a point, she always remembered her mother’s words: “Less talk, less mistake.”
She sat inside a cubicle, fanning herself, until she heard several women enter the bathroom, whispering excitedly.
One woman said, “It was a hot summer night.”
Another: “It was almost midnight when it happened.”
The third voice mentioned a familiar name, “…the girl…Shirley Ong.”
Marlene held her breath. Shirley Ong, her mother. As the women continued whispering amongst themselves, she heard the zip of a purse opening and closing, loose change being tossed into a crystal bowl, the burst of a hand dryer coming to life. From her side of the cubicle, she heard a door being locked.
“Tsk, tsk. Shirley was only eighteen,” said one woman, clicking her tongue and sounding like a lizard.
“No sons, an only girl-child…who lived with her mother and father on the third level of a building in Nueva Street.”
Marlene covered her mouth to stifle a sneeze.
She caught a new voice.
“It was also the year of the tiger.”
And what did that have to do with Mother? Marlene thought.
Though Marlene caught only snippets and phrases, in her mind, she was able to follow their story down an old road, into a narrow stairway of an old familiar building.
“Shirley had been waiting for her father…”
Shirley did not know whether to stand or sit while she waited. Her earlier memories haunted her. She recalled the scrunching sound his feet made as he walked over peanut shells and candy wrappers in the movie house. This sound had since been upsetting for her. Her nightmares were of giant watermelon seeds fractured into two pieces, yielding rotting meat inside. She had not yet told anyone about his strong hands that moved up and down her legs, the evenings of unspoken madness inside closed quarters and on cold bathroom floors.
Shirley had been staring at a wall for several hours in the dark corner on the second-floor landing of her father’s apartment building in Nueva Street. She had been drawing circles on the wooden plank with her foot and swatting at the mosquitoes that attacked the backs of her legs.
Her heart skipped a beat when she recognized the sound of his footsteps. He was flatfooted so he shuffled as he climbed the wooden stairs, breathing heavily. She smelled liquor on his breath when she stood before him on the second-floor landing. He snorted and told her to mind her own business.
“Ah, Shirley, ano ikaw pakialam sa akin?”
Then, he shouted at her again.
“Ano gawa ka dito? Masyado gabi na!”
“She brandished a knife.”
“Ten times, she stabbed him.”
Shirley was ready to meet his strong hands. She looked straight into his eyes, held up one of her mother’s kitchen knives and began stabbing her father.
“Ah! yo!” another voice repeated.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk…”
“He rolled down the steps.”
He shouted for help but lost his balance. She watched him roll down the stairs and felt nothing. Shirley proceeded down and looked at the body. She checked for signs of life.
“Why did she do it?”
“But even after he was stabbed ten times, Uncle did not die!”
When Shirley realized that she had failed to kill him, she dropped the bloody knife and ran as fast and as far away from Chinatown as she could.
Marlene covered her mouth with both hands. Her mother was nineteen years old when she was born. She had never heard this story before. She was scared to leave the cubicle. It must have been the heat that caused her to behave the way she did. She was breathing heavily now, confused, overwhelmed, and unable to think clearly. She threw up.
The Ong women heard someone flush the toilet in one of the cubicles. Their heads turned toward the door. Marlene walked out. The women noted her black t-shirt, a stark contrast to their red clothing.
Marlene walked toward the sink and splashed her face with cold water. She looked at the Ong women from the wide mirror. She returned their measured stares, staring at their short hair dyed to look like a rooster’s feathers. They had lined up their designer bags on top of the sink counter in an ordered line. They were either Ong women by birth or by marriage—she never could tell one from the other.
Marlene fixed her long straight black hair, and lined her lips very slowly with pink lip-gloss. She wanted to scream at the Ong women because she had the most urgent desire to say something about useless chatter: “If you have nothing good to say about anyone, I suggest you keep quiet.”
But she held her tongue. Instead, she turned her back to the tongue-tied Ong women and walked away. Their prattle resumed just before she shut the door behind her.
“Who is she?”
“She’s Shirley Ong’s daughter.”
Marlene heard laughter.
“Wrong move, too late.”
Even as a young girl, Marlene had heard rumors within the Ong clan about an incident that happened between her mother and her grandfather some nineteen years ago. Her mother had told her about it, in bits and pieces but she had never heard this version before. She thought about the nightmares and the ghosts that haunted her in her sleep. The silence came when she held her breath, always conscious of the man in the dark who looked like her grandfather.
“So many ghosts,” she said to herself.
She returned to the party to join her grandmother and grandfather who sat with other relatives at one of the round tables, all covered with red tablecloth, symbolizing an auspicious day for Auntie Ma, Grandfather’s sister; it was her seventieth birthday.
Marlene was uncertain as to where to sit. She felt a strong reluctance to stay at the table, at the party, but they had seen her approach.
‘Would you please sit down? I will get you something to drink. I’ll get you a Sprite,” Angkong said.
Marlene tried to control her nervousness as she sat between her grandparents. She watched Angkong turn the lazy susan, was shocked at how Amah’s hands crossed over her thighs underneath the table and clutched her grandfather by his shirt to stop him. He pulled himself from her grasp and the smile on his face tightened.
When he held the can of Sprite, he called out to Marlene softly, and touched her hand. “Look, Sprite, your favorite…”
He poured the drink into the glass. Marlene took it, held the glass with both hands and drank slowly.
“Wah, see that!” Auntie Ma said, “Now, you have to show your Angkong some gratitude,” she said.
Marlene squeezed the cold glass. He looked at her. She sensed his excitement but brushed it aside and thought: he is only Grandfather. She meant to kiss him on the cheeks but at the last moment he turned his face a little too much so her lips met his. She pulled away instantly.
“That’s a good granddaughter,” Aunty Ma said.
Amah sat up straight, staring down at the food on her plate. She rolled the corner of her red napkin between her fingers into a ball, held it hidden in her palm.
Marlene’s plate filled with small portions of fish, abalone, lettuce leaves and gabi paste, swimming in what appeared to be combinations of soy sauce and salad dressing, but she ate little. The story she had heard inside the ladies’ room left her with very little appetite.
“Your food is getting cold,” Auntie Ma said.
Marlene took hold of her chopsticks and ate slowly, trying not to pick at the food on her plate so that Aunty Ma would not lose face. Her grandmother nudged Marlene on the elbow. In response, she tapped her stomach so that Amah would know that she had had enough to eat.
Marlene had often considered confronting her mother about the rumors, but she knew how her mother artfully dodged any queries that involved her family. When she had become insistent, her mother always became angry.
“There are some things you cannot change even if you reason with them. You must know the difference.” Marlene knew that her mother adapted these quotations from her Christian fellowship meetings.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she would continue. “There’s just so much drama. It’s old news. Let’s throw it away. I was young and angry and what good did that do me?”
The next time they saw each other, would she dare to ask: “Is it true? Did you stab Angkong ten times?” But how can I ask such a thing if I’m not supposed to know?
Amah nudged her elbow again but Marlene remained quiet. Angkong burped, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, the way he always did after meals.
This was her morning ritual: Amah stood in front of her red lacquered altar table, topped with two green urns, picture frames of dead relatives, three divine gods, and bowls of fruits and flowers; with lighted joss sticks in hand, she believed that each wisp of smoke would bring her petitions up to heaven. She prayed to her three gods– Hok, Lok and Siu-– representing luck, happiness and long life.
Amah also prayed to her dead ancestors, ringing her bell in between murmured prayers. During special occasions, Amah prepared three kinds of dishes to offer to her gods: The whole chicken, steamed with its neck and head still attached to its body; crispy pata; and a steamed fish. She did this at least once a year, during ghost month, or when her grandmother wanted to ask her gods for something really important, maybe a Christmas wish.
After her morning offerings, she prepared her breakfast of lugao and waited for Marlene to join her. Amah sat in an almost prayerful pose while she watched her granddaughter prepare her own breakfast from leftovers.
That morning, Marlene felt robbed when her grandmother took away her breakfast plate of leftover steamed rice mixed with mahu and mayonnaise. Grandmother sniffed at the shredded pork, tasted it, then spit it out. She threw everything that Marlene had put together into the kitchen sink.
Amah said, “Tapun, na! Amak na!”
Marlene said “Amak?” then realized she meant amag, spoiled. Her grandmother’s strong sense of smell had saved her. The powdery pork was moldy and her grandmother had the foresight to grab her plate away lest she fall ill from eating it.
Not for the first time, Marlene saw the beauty of her grandmother’s white round face, her thin eyebrows, high cheekbones and almond eyes, emphasized all the more with her hair pulled back in a tight bun–the elegant features of the Northern Chinese.
Her grandmother spoke in Chinese, which Marlene did not understand. Frustrated, Marlene remembered her own Mother’s words: “Just for two months. I have to do something important. Stay with Amah just for two months.”
Amah stood up and called Kang Atsi. They spoke in Chinese and her grandmother pointed to the plate on the kitchen sink.
“Ah, amag yung mahu.”
Kang Atsi patiently explained to Marlene that there was mold on the dried pork. In exchange for the breakfast plate that her grandmother had taken away, she offered Marlene a bowl of hot lugao.
“Just for two months,” said Mother, “stay with Amah.”
Amah brought Marlene to the Arangke wet market almost every other day to buy the best fish for her grandfather’s lunch. Each time, she watched the tindera splash water into her displayed catch, which to Marlene’s imagination looked like an assortment of dragons’ scales.
She always inspected the different kinds of fish. She poked them, stroked them, and inspected the eyes for clarity and sheen. But in the end, it was her nose that determined whether or not she bought that one special fish for Angkong’s lunch.
Yet it seemed strange that on this day, instead of just one fish, Amah bought two, one larger than the other, one cheaper than the other, one black Lapu-lapu and one red Lapu-lapu. Marlene could only guess that the more expensive black lapu-lapu was meant for Angkong’s lunch and the other red lapu-lapu was for her gods.
Marlene followed her grandmother, who then approached the poultry man. He brought out two live polka-dotted pullet chickens from his basket of live birds. She chose the chicken with a red crown and reminded the chicken man to give her some chicken feathers.
“Balahibo akin, bigay akin konte balahibo,” she said. The poultry man nodded.
They walked over to the vegetable section and gathered some ginger, leeks, dried mushroom and wansui. She smelled each item before it was weighed. The vegetables were individually wrapped in newspaper then gathered together with string and finally loaded into her bayong.
Amah reached for her coin purse and unfolded some bills, to give to the vegetable vendor. “Bigay akin recibo,” she said.
They boarded a kalesa that took them back to their house along Nueva Street. Kang Atsi met them at the side entrance of the building and helped Grandmother down. Marlene hefted the bayong that contained two fish, one chicken with the head still leaking blood, and vegetables. She followed Amah and Kang Atsi as they ascended the three flights of narrow steps to the apartment building.
Marlene counted her steps, “oro-plata-mata, and oro-plata-mata,” to see whether the steps landed with death. They did. Her mother did the same each time she ascended stairs, no matter where she was. She murmured gold, silver or death under her breath with eyes cast down as each foot landed on the step.
The bayong left drops of blood as she ascended. Amah called out to Marlene, “dugo, dugo,” pointing to the steps. Marlene took out her handkerchief and retraced her steps. She wiped the small trickles of blood from the bayong but the blood had already stained the area.
“How do I clean out the blood, Amah?”
Her grandmother threw several chicken feathers up in the air. Marlene followed them until they landed softly on the steps. Kang Atsi demonstrated what was meant. She called Marlene’s attention to each feather, with its numerous fine strands on either side of its hollow shafts. She used each feather to strip away the drops of blood. The impossible seemed to happen before her eyes.
“Blood stripped off by one’s own covering,” she thought.
Marlene noticed older, darker stains that also looked like blood. She inspected these and remembered the story she heard about her grandfather, stabbed ten times by her mother.
“Bilis, bilis. Linis, linis,” Amah said to Kang Atsi.
Xin Mei is a published author with her book, “Afraid to be Chinese”. She has two pieces included in “When we were Little Women” edited by Rhona-Lopa Macasaet and Patricia Vergel de Dios. She has one piece included in “Belonging, Stories of Relationships” edited by Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio.
Xin Mei started writing when a group of women friends decided to come up with a writing group under the tutelage of Dr. Jing Hidalgo about ten years ago. Most of the stories she had written were about growing up Chinese in the Philippines. These stories were put together in “Afraid to Be Chinese”. In writing these stories she realized that family issues of honor, shame and being the other, meant confusion and contradictions.
After her first book launched in 2006, she enrolled in the University of the Philippines, Diliman for her M.A. in the Creative Writing Program.
“Less Talk, Less Mistake” made Ellen Datlow‘s Honorable Mention list of the Year’s Best Horror Vol. 4 for 2011. It was first published in print in The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories: Crime Issue.
The above image is by artist Josel Nicolas.