Noelle Q. de Jesus
Harder Lives To Live
The dream was a good one, and the night’s sleep Faith was having, was, well, sarap was the only word that could describe it. Delicious. She was beginning to wake, and she did not want to. But part of her was aware of sharp, heated sunshine filtering through the open slats of the single window in her room in steady rays. It was Faith’s habit to be up early, before the sun came out even, and be done with a short dog walk, watering the plants and wiping down the car before either Mam or Sir were even awake. While they got their own breakfast, she was already upstairs making beds, dusting, giving their bathroom a once-over. As good as she felt, panic sprouted, and Faith sat up with a start. Her phone read ten after eight. She had not slept this late in years. Before the pandemic, Sir would be gone before eight, and Mam shortly after that. Now, no longer. Both worked from home, which made it trickier to get work done, make lunch now as well as dinner, take the long dog walk and keep up with the laundry while remaining unobtrusive, the way she knew they liked.
“Faith, has the dog been out?”
Faith cleared her throat. “Sorry, Mam, not yet. I’m coming!” She splashed water on her face, tied her hair and then grabbed the mask hanging on the hook by her bedside. Toby was a border collie, usually good about holding it in, but when she got out, both were gone. The gate to their house was ajar. Sir was having his coffee at the dining table, laptop cracked open. No need to say a thing; he wasn’t one for chatting. Faith hurried to fetch the mop pail and the vacuum and start work upstairs, feeling slightly worried and out of sorts, hoping there would be no consequences.
Mam and Sir were Australian. Faith worked for them four years now. Before them, she worked for an American family with three children. She liked this so much better. The couple was younger, modern and easy. They did their own thing. No kids. And she loved to walk the dog. Faith’s favorite thing was the long walk she took with Toby every afternoon, now even on Sundays. A full hour walking along two kilometers of canal upon a quiet path as breezes whistled through large trees, birds perched on branches or in the water, lizards and turtles sunned themselves on the pavement. It was the most wonderful part of her day. Pandemic or no pandemic, off or not off on Sundays, the dog had to have that long walk. And for as long as she was masked, didn’t get too close to anyone, didn’t touch anything, it was fine. It was freedom.
Upstairs, she found there were two beds to make, two rooms to set right, instead of just the one. But Faith was used to this. It didn’t usually mean anything. Mam slept in the TV room, which she had also made her workplace since the pandemic began. She slept there, she had said to Faith when Sir had a late conference call. And she could play Netflix as long as she wanted and have the aircon thermostat the way she liked. Faith made quick work of setting that room to rights. She was soon done, and moved to the master bedroom, and when she was done with that, Mam came in. “All done?”
Faith nodded and added quickly in a rush. “Sorry Mam that I overslept. Chicken salad with that bread from yesterday is okay, for lunch? Grilled salmon and greens, dinner?”
“Oh no worries, Faith. I was happy to get outside, get exercise out of the way.”
The woman’s eyes were swollen, the whites slightly red, dark hollows beneath them that seemed a little green. She had not gotten much sleep.
“Anything’s fine. Leave it on the stove and we’ll help ourselves. We’re likely to eat at different times, anyway.”
Faith nodded, kept her face expressionless and left the room. The separate rooms appeared to mean something today, unfortunately. Well, that was just the way life was, wasn’t it? As hard as life was, and it was hard, there were always other harder lives to live, weren’t there? Harder things to bear. Everyone had some kind of burden. Mam had them. Faith had them. And Ate Siony did too. That’s who Faith had stayed up so late last night talking to. That’s why she woke up late this morning.
Ate Siony was not really her older sister, but she could well have been. When Faith first arrived in Singapore, Ate Siony took care of her…almost as if Faith were her own daughter. She showed her the ropes, shared her systems, introduced her to people. Whenever Faith turned to Ate Siony, the older woman had a solution, a way to fix things. And of course, Faith had her own problems. An ageing father who drank and a teenage son, Anthony, whom she had had out of wedlock when she was 20. The boy’s father was so long gone from the picture, Faith can’t even remember his face. Since Faith’s mother died of pneumonia years ago, the two men lived together. Anthony left school and sometimes he had a job. Sometimes, he didn’t. Both never not needed money.
But Ate Siony’s problems were coming to an end now, she said. She had called Faith from the airport. She was going home now, for good. And that’s what they were taking about last night. Yes, it was all of a sudden. Her son had bought her ticket, she said. He and his wife wanted her to come home to the province and take care of their children—one three years old and another one soon to come, so they could continue working in town. Ate Siony agreed. She had set enough aside, enough, she figured—enough that they would be okay for a year, maybe more. The small house they stayed in was paid for, thanks to her. And maybe, after a good rest, she could then start a business right there, perhaps a piggery.
Tears pricked Faith’s eyes at the thought of Ate Siony leaving. They hadn’t seen each other in weeks and weeks, ever since she had stopped going out on her off days as a precaution. But she said nothing as she listened. She worried about Ate Siony not being able to chase after small children. She worried about her friend running out of funds for her own future. After all, Ate Siony had worked so hard all her life, and Faith was sure, going home meant the hard work could only continue, just in a different way.
It was still better to be here, Faith thought. Because there was work, and work for regular pay. There was always electricity. Water flowed out of the faucets. You could take a bus or a train to anywhere, and there was Wi-Fi everywhere, so you could call home and speak to family when you wanted to. And then, there were trees and grass and green to sit in, and as hot as it always got, there was cool in the early mornings, the pleasure of a quiet house at night. The thing about funds, they always ran out. That’s just the way it went. And then what? Faith already knew she would not go back home until she was good and ready, maybe not even then. But she said nothing. She bit her lip and held her tongue. Her friend was too happy, too excited. Faith did not want to spoil it, except for this one thing.
“But Ate Siony, the virus…you have to be careful…be sure to wear your mask. Use sanitizer.”
“Oh, the virus. We were fine with SARS, we will be fine with this one. I sent all my money back a month ago, so I’m hoping they can pick me up at the airport…”
“Text me, Ate Siony, ha. Let me know how you are.”
“Ay naku, you worry too much. You always did. Look at you! You didn’t even know how to clean a bathroom properly, if I hadn’t taught you how.”
Faith laughed through the tears that finally rolled down her cheeks.
“Sige na. It’s late. You have to get up early and work! Me, no!”
And so Faith had the dream of being back home by the mangrove-laced sandy shores of Anda in Bohol, with her father and with Anthony, but then, surprisingly, Ate Siony lived with them too, solving all their problems—the hole in their roof, the termites in the walls. And then she made them dinner. She cooked chicken rice without chili, and smokey bak kuh teh in a large clay pot over large stones and wood charcoal.
Faith finished cleaning the house. She made the chicken salad with chopped red onion, celery and just a little bit of mayo. She pre-marinated the salmon steaks for dinner. They would go on the grill later. She sliced the bread and laid out butter, lettuce leaves and sliced tomatoes. Then she bathed Toby and fed him. The house was cool and quiet even though outside the sun beat on the rooftops. At noon, Sir came down to take his lunch, followed an hour later by Mam. At half past three, she set out with Toby on the long afternoon walk. The day was bright but breezy, but Faith chose the path shaded by large trees, careful to keep her mask in place. In the distance across the canal, she saw some ladies she knew only slightly, waved at them but proceeded along in the opposite direction. She checked her messages. There was one from Anthony.
“Ma, please send us money. Lolo is sick and wants to go to the city hospital.”
Faith texted back. “Do not go to the hospital. There is a deadly virus. Make him hot water with salt and ginger to gargle. Make him tinola. Stay home, both of you. Will send money when I can.”
Faith’s heart turned over with worry as she continued to walk, keeping pace with Toby’s brisk stride. Perhaps she could ask Mam for an advance on her pay; she had never asked that before. That’s what she would do. The sound of the birds in the trees was pleasant, and the warm air on her skin comforting. A thought occurred to her, and it was not a new one.
Hardly anyone would be likely to agree with her notion, more frequent now in this strange, frightening year of masks, sanitizers and isolation, that the ordinary things people took for granted here: a walk in the outdoors, fresh air, the sight of swaying branches or a blue and white bird perched on a metal steel railing—all these were cause for some kind of happiness. Except Faith felt, as she always did feel, this happiness was a gift she didn’t deserve, so it came with guilt. Why her and why not them? Why Faith? Why not Siony? Why not Anthony who was forced to grow up without her, and surely that was not his fault?
Faith shook off tears and fished out her vibrating phone—a third-hand, second generation smart phone. She paused under the shade of a huge black tree, its sprawling branches laden with pink blossoms, and obediently, Toby did too. The number was unidentified, and she did not picked it up in time. But there was also a text. That, too, was unidentified. However once Faith read the text, she knew who it was from.
“I am outside the airport, under the express way. We landed at 4am, and we haven’t eaten anything since. No public transport is running. About two hundred people are stranded here needing help. I’m not feeling well and I can’t reach my son.”
Faith just stood still, succumbing to the deep gnawing in the emptiness of her stomach. She was paralyzed on the green path. Again, she was overtaken by desolate sadness and smarting guilt. Helpless, she scrolled through her directory looking for Ate Siony’s contacts. Perhaps the number of her son. There was nothing.
Toby was now pulling at his leash, attracted by something, some movement down in the canal murky shallows of the canal. A low growl emitted from deep in the dog’s throat as he tugged at her, but she held him firmly, grounding her feet in her still very serviceable pair of Asics tennis shoes—castoffs Mam had given her. They wore the same shoe size.
Faith looked over to see what was agitating Toby. Below, not a feet away from them…a large monitor lizard, about four-and-a-half-feet-long, eyed a slender white egret as it probed the shallows for snails and guppies. The lizard moved with stealth, closer and closer to the oblivious bird. And then Toby let out a warning bark, piercing the quiet. The bird turned and took flight. Faith watched the lizard snake on in the water, unperturbed, almost unaware of what was lost.
For an instant Faith forgot all of it, walking alongside the dog as clouds drifted across the bright blue sky. Wind rustled through the branches of the trees. Loose pink blossoms began to fall, coasting on the breeze, landing on the path before her steps. She and Toby continued to walk. They still had some time left before they headed home, so Faith could fix dinner.