When the first mother arrives on the mainland, she will not know about the baths. But after a few months, she will seek out a hilot for the pain in her chest that feels like a small rabbit scrambling for escape, and the hilot will send her to the baths. “You want to be clean,” the old woman will say. And she will be right.
This is what will happen: Following the directions the healer has scrawled on a yellow legal pad, the mother walks and listens to her heels click on the concrete for fifteen blocks, smelling every few steps the accreted oil in her own hair. She fingers a scab below her elbow and rubs until it rolls off, walking with the desire to rub salt into the wound. She will use her index finger as a stamp in the ink pad of this newly exposed pink sting, transferring small fingerprints of blood in a trail around her forearm as she walks.
When she finds the small blank-faced building, she enters the number she’s been given into the keypad and is led by a tall woman down a poorly lit hallway. At the tub, she is handed a plastic basket. The tall woman will stand in front of her with arms crossed, looking straight into the mother’s eyes with chin up, as if she is about to make a declaration, or as if the mother just has, and it is a declaration that has stirred the tall woman— to pride or passion, support or dissent, the mother isn’t sure. She will realize that the tall woman is waiting for her to disrobe, and so she will, while the tall woman remains about two feet in front of her. Each time the mother looks up from unzipping her jeans or hastily rolling her socks over her ankles, the tall woman will be there, maintaining steady eye contact. The tall woman stands still while the mother fumbles, her face growing warm. When the mother finally straightens up, the tall woman will not move. The mother holds her breath, hears it stall in the base of her throat, and is unsure of what to do next. Glancing down at the uneven skin of her abdomen, the wiry puff of pubic hair, the long coffee-dark scar above it, the mother notices her string-thin golden bracelet, still on her wrist, her only piece of jewelry and something she hasn’t removed in over a decade. She will remove this as well, and place it with her other belongings in the plastic basket.
She will consider all that she has walked away from. It’s difficult even now to locate a knotted core, an epicenter for the quake that moved her in this direction. She can only say that it is the dead grass of the mainland, the puzzled or salacious gaze of strangers, or the experience of invisibility, of bodily absence, dissociation on those same streets that she walked to get here, the demands on her body made in the name of its abstraction, and what she hears in her sleep: the polyvocal testaments of thousands and millions like her, the wavering voice of a child, hers, woven through. And, during the day, the flattening, computer-screen sunlight: glaring, monochrome, flooding every corner, unrelenting, of every surface an impenetrable pastel, leaving her at all times and in all locations utterly exposed. Here is where one went to become real. Here is where one went to be made clean.
The cast iron tub stands solitary, sentinel, in the center of the blue-tiled room, which is thick with steam. When the mother places her hand on the surface to test the water, the heat forces her to draw it immediately away. She looks up at the tall woman, who has scarcely moved and perhaps has not blinked since the mother has begun to undress, except to step aside and allow the mother to approach the bathtub, and she has certainly not spoken. Now the tall woman says, “Get in.”
This first cleansing shocks the mother, as it is intended to. When she manages to lower herself haltingly into that deep cauldron, tears streaming down her cheeks and nose, and a whimper bubbling up in her mouth, she feels the blood drain from her face and her head suddenly seems to drift or slide away, tethered down only by the tenuous connection of her spine. Her thoughts are foggy, but she understands that she is about to faint. Gripping the sides of the tub, she tried to stand, but the tall woman materializes in the steam to hold her down. It does not take much effort, as most of the mother’s strength has left her— it is almost a caress. The mother notices, in the brief moment that she’s managed to elevate herself from the liquid, the stark line between the scalded red and the untouched brown skin of her breasts. When she throws up over the side of the tub, the tall woman will stand still.
After the mother is released from the water and her nausea subsides, she is brought to the adjoining room, where her hair is combed and she is wrapped in a paper thin robe. The mother is then led to a room at the other end of the house. When she passes by the blue tiled room, it is now busy with a team of four or five women in gloves, draining away the clouded bath water, throwing new buckets of steaming water over the tub, the walls of the room, and each other’s feet. They are taking the rags that they use to swiftly and roughly wipe the walls, floor, and bathtub down and hanging them, dripping, from a line, and it will seem to the mother as if they are developing photos in a darkroom.
The mother will find, in the room at the end of the hall, six others in paper thin robes, sitting in straight backed chairs or on floor cushions with their hair parted and the skin of their foreheads and noses shiny, scalded. Two look weary or wide-eyed, the same way the mother feels, and she will assume they are also newly arrived. The others are gazing calmly at the floor in front of them, expectant and very still. When she sits down on the last available cushion, she is handed a stringed musical instrument of a type that she has never seen before. Something like a mandolin. She will hold it awkwardly in her lap, feeling its hollow tight balance and its fragility. One of those who had been in a posture of calm meditation now looks up, takes a deep breath and entones a high, clear note that seems to soar and glide across the ceiling.
The second mother will materialize on the mainland as a brokenhearted woman eager to change her appearance. She will sit with a thick magazine on her lap in a salon in the commercial center of a community of islanders working overseas. She will search every slick image—mestizas with high cheekbones, lowered eyelids, lips parted having just inhaled as if the model is going to gush a secret tsismis gossip bit to you, but has at the last moment thought better of it. She will look for the person she is sure she can become, and in becoming will feel weightless and smell smell-less. Tale as old as time. She will chew the ends of her cigarettes, a nasty habit already leaving a little stain on her lower two front teeth. She will flip through the books, looking for something to point at when the stylist asks her what she wants.
This is what will happen next: A tinkling bell, someone walks through the door. An old lola with a little wide-eyed girl holding her hand. The little girl wanders over to her as the older woman speaks to the receptionist, and points her toes inward as if to say, and what do you have for me and my wide eyes? Do I remind you of anyone? Of course. Little decorative dots for knuckles. She stops breathing for a moment as the little girl wavers, unsure, and then raises a hand to her own cheek, opens and closes it hopefully. It looks like a pudgy starfish, anchored to the shy inclination of the child’s head. Her lola comes over and steers the child away, and this is when she exhales, feeling something slide like a fish in her gut. A line connected to this trails after the small girl and her grandmother. She thinks of the clear jelly and pink viscera on her fingers after ripping a hook from the rough lip of a fish, splitting its white seam of belly with a short knife, pulling its pink and purple-wet organs out and feeling their weight in her hand, tender, how the clotted mass resists being separated from the throat of the fish until she gathers it all in a strangle and rips without mercy, ignoring a worry that the fish’s scales will slice her other hand as she grips it to keep from slipping. She is both the ripping hand and the hand fearing the slice as she watches the girl walk away.
The third mother will be sent for by a man on the mainland who is seeking a wife. After she arrives, she will imagine getting into a bathtub and pulling a mattress over herself, and then she will do it. Two weeks before this, when she meets her smiling white in-laws for the first time, the sky will turn to bruised green, and they will usher her down into their basement. When she quietly expresses worry that her husband’s home, with its mauve plastic siding, has no basement, they will share this technique of the bathtub with her. It is meant for protecting the body from being crushed and lacerated by flying household objects in the case of a tornado (to think what her quiet coat rack or the framed photo of herself on her first communion, in a white dress and delicate veil under the sun in Dasmariñas, white gloves with artificial pearls at the wrists—a small bride about to eat the flesh of Jesus—could do to her if activated by such a circumstance), but she thinks perhaps it can be extended to other emergencies. A soft sprung tomb on top and cold waiting basin beneath.
This is what will happen: As she lays curled up in the half-light, her own breath hot on her face as the underside of the heavy mattress traps it in close, she hears with chagrin that she’s left the radio on in the kitchen, in her haste to take shelter. The UB-40 version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” will warble at an obscene volume. The trundling pseudo-Caribbean bass line, synthesized strings and horn loop that she can only describe as bubbly radiate obliviously throughout the apartment. She feels jittery under the skin with embarrassment, imagining her assailant entering the apartment as she’s pictured her doing so many times before, having tracked her over thousands of miles, breaching the deadbolt on the back porch, or putting an elbow through the front window, only to be met with this saccharine island love song, elevator music. Darling, so it goes— some things—were meant to be.
She will want her to come, more than anything. She will want to put her protections to the test. She knows that she can refuse her when the time comes, knows she has it in her and is desperate to prove it.
When the three of her met for a meal
Before deciding to come to the mainland, the three mothers met for a meal.
“I’m worried that I am already dead,” the first mother said to the other two as she scooped a sticky substance from its steamer and flattened it into bowls. The other two were surprised when she’d called this meeting, as the three of her didn’t usually go out of their way to get together, what would be the point? And how could she be dead, when there were three of her right here in the room? The walls of the room were burgundy, blood blanket walls, a feuding color, and the air between the walls was killer calm. But the first mother fretted as she prepared the meal, and it was apparent to the other two that she was in real distress, so they tried to help.
“But I’ve seen your handprints on a mirror,” said the second mother.
“But I’ve seen your head on a poster,” said the third.
“And you know,” added the second, “this building is on the site of a temple that was destroyed in the war.” She nodded and agreed with herself, “It used to be sacred.”
The first mother looked at her with narrowed eyes, knowing full well that the second mother knew nothing about the neighborhood. She then handed out the bowls, repeating, “I’m worried that I may be gone already, the walking dead. Taste this and tell me what you think.”
The second mother pinched her thumb and four fingers together into a little cup and scooped, bringing the morsel to her nose for a sniff. The first mother inhaled sharply, affronted. “When are you going to let go of this silliness and superstition, and get in touch with the real world?” the second mother asked before placing her glistening fingers into her mouth, then into the first mother’s, then into the third mother’s.
“I’ll cut your hair?” offered the third mother, “if you think that might help?”
The second mother was in the habit of making sure, whenever she could, to walk by the workplace of the third mother. She walked quickly past the front entrance, and was careful to arrange her face in a posture of knowing amusement. She was also careful to arrange her delicate cheekbones to reflect the sun.
The third mother’s job was to stand at the entrance of a bank with a semiautomatic rifle strapped to her back. This was the only woman-owned bank on the island, or indeed in the entire archipelago, and the third mother was proud of her position there. The second mother was very proud of her as well, but would not admit it, because a stronger feeling that she had was of blood curdling, bone cracking envy. She walked by on the other side of the street, pretending not to see the third mother. Sometimes she lit a cigarette, and usually she carried a ball that was unidentifiable to the third mother. It was round and white, but too small and smooth to be a soccer ball or volleyball.
It felt very important to the second mother to be seen strolling free, lost in her own dreaming, on her way to a place where a smooth white ball was necessary, where they were waiting for her and would be pleased when she arrived. It felt very important to the third mother to allow the second mother to do this, to not call out to her in greeting. The third mother knew how humiliating this would be for the second mother, how it would collapse the shimmering image that the second mother erected during these walk-by’s. The third mother also did the second mother the favor of not mentioning these bi- or tri-weekly performances to the first mother, but the third mother needn’t have bothered— the first mother’s job was to watch the live feed of security footage from the bank’s entrance and its immediate surroundings, so she saw each performance of herself walking by her other self with a small smooth ball and a cigarette. The second and third mothers believed the first mother to be between jobs, focusing on her studies, and she did not want to disappoint them, so she never brought it up, nor anything else that she saw over the live feed.
Back in the blood-colored room on the upper floor of the wide and empty warehouse surrounded by other wide and empty warehouses which the mother had been using as a temporary apartment, the three of her interrupt their quibbling and turn their heads, because they hear a child singing through the window. “Do other people live here?” demanded the second mother, annoyed to be interrupted in her steady consumption, sucking throatily on her fingers every few bites. “I thought this was an industrial zone.” “You just said it was sacred,” teased the third mother.
The three of her went to the open window and stood on tiptoe to lean out and look down toward the pavement through the rattling palm fronds, at the top of the head of the singing child. She looked so much like their daughter that they all shuddered. The second backed away from the window with a jerk of her shoulder, then the first turned to fuss with a candle on the table, blowing it out so that she could relight it. The third mother leaned on the windowsill and listened to the song.
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” the first mother breathed after a long moment, “what if she’s here to tell me it’s too late?”
“We’ll just go down there and ask her what she’s doing,” the second mother responded too quickly, fidgeting, “It’s probably just a hungry kid. We’ll ask her what her name is and tell her to scram.”
The third mother turned away from the window at last to look at the other two. She crossed the concrete floor to the television, picked up the remote wordlessly and turned it on. Once the screen warmed up, they could see the same child singing, head-on this time and softly lit, black curls waving under the dirty palm trees. The camera angle shifted periodically, but each time, the child sang straight into it. “This song,” the second mother whispered without taking her eyes from the screen, “It goes into your ear and comes out something else.”
As the three sat watching, window still ajar, the song of the child onscreen formed a duet in perfect harmony with the song of the child in the real air.