This story appeared in Warscapes in 2013.
This story takes places at the end of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II in a small town approximately 100 miles north of Manila. The Japanese occupied the Philippines from 1942–1945. My father, who was six years old when the war started, lived with his family under Japanese rule in their village until fighting between the Japanese and American forces became so fierce they were forced to evacuate to a small shack in a remote rice field.
During the evacuation, my paternal grandmother, Anastasia, gave my father most of her limited allotment of food. As a result, she grew ill and weak from starvation and eventually contracted tuberculosis. She died within six months after the war ended.
I’ve seen one picture of my grandmother, and the only other image I have in my mind is one of my father, as a young boy, combing and braiding her long hair when she was bedridden after the war. Growing up, my father used to comb and braid my and my sisters’ hair, and it never occurred to me, until I was older, that it was somewhat unusual for a man to know how to braid hair. Only later did I make the connection about how he learned to braid.
I wrote this story to explore what it might have felt like for my grandmother to return home after the war. It’s my attempt at accessing her world during this time, getting to know her in the only way I know how. I wrote this also for my nieces and nephews, the next generation, who are even farther removed from our family history than me.
They entered the town square of Urdaneta around sunset, amidst a long procession of returning evacuees, and there were met by two lines of American soldiers waving American flags. A blur of red, white and blue. Their caravan inched down the middle of the parade as Anastasia lay on a wooden cart pulled by a starved caribou. The music and the cheering woke her from her nap. She shifted in her loose housedress, wet and clammy underneath, trying to get comfortable. When she attempted to sit upright, pressing her palms against the cart and lifting her head an inch, her arms trembled and then gave out, so she rested back on the cart, defeated. The sky was a hazy pinkish-brown, not the bold blue sky she imagined they’d have for the return home. But they were free. Thank you, Lord, she thought, clutching her rosary.
Her nine-year-old son Roberto and the other children broke away from their caravan to join the festivities. They jumped and screamed as American soldiers tossed bubble gum and candy high into the air. Grab as much as you can, son, thought Anastasia. The children rushed the soldiers, pulling at their threadbare uniforms, begging for tobacco and cigarettes. “You’re too young to smoke!” shouted one of the soldiers, as he tossed more sweets in their direction. Roberto climbed on to his father’s shoulders for an added advantage, and the other children followed suit, hoisting themselves on the shoulders of friends and strangers. Everywhere Anastasia looked, Filipinos held their arms high, making the peace sign, chanting “Victory Joe!”
As their caravan made its way through the town square, Anastasia noticed the checkpoints had been removed. Filipinos no longer had to show their IDs or bow to Japanese soldiers who had had the power to shoot them on the spot. She would never have to say ‘Konichiwa’ again. She wept uncontrollably, which lead to a bout of cough so violent her whole body shook. She hacked for several minutes until she finally came to a rest. Her chest ached and her throat felt prickly hot. When she spotted blood on the white cloth, she bunched up the handkerchief and buried it deep in the pocket of her dress.
When they reached their ancestral home on Bayaoas Street, Anastasia gasped at the magnitude of the destruction. Their street, once lined with mango trees and delicate white orchids, was now littered with broken glass, shrapnel, empty bullet shells and pieces of detonated grenades. Blood was everywhere. Anastasia released a loud cry, the most she’d been able to muster in a long time. She reached for her husband Sylvestre’s hand but he pulled away. Without saying a word, he approached their house and shook each bamboo stilt hard. Anastasia wondered how much strength he had left in him. Satisfied that the foundation of the house was intact, he climbed the dilapidated steps and entered.
Anastasia asked Roberto to help his father. The Quindipans and Ortizes said their goodbyes from a distance, unwilling to come too close to Anastasia. They had joined her family two years ago when they fled their home in the middle of the night, and had hidden with her family in the small, two-room shack in a remote rice field. Now, the women held handkerchiefs over their noses and forbade the children to approach her. They backed away from her cart as they thanked her for saving their lives, and then ran off to inspect the state of their own homes.
She heard the shuffling of furniture and the crushing of broken glass. A small group of young men walked past the cart, and she called out for her oldest son. “Guillermo.” The men looked down at her but continued to walk, kicking objects out of their way. Guillermo, her eighteen-year-old son, had been called to active duty at the onset of the war. The last time Anastasia saw him, he’d been ordered to join troops around Manila, the Japanese stronghold. Before he left, she placed a medallion of St. Christopher around his neck, ensuring his safe return.
Sylvestre collected Anastasia from the wooden cart and carried her upstairs to the living room, where he’d set up a makeshift bedroom. Slowly, he placed her on a low, sunken mattress. The walls were marred with bullet holes. Anastasia looked around the narrow room, which was at once comforting and strange to her; while she recognized it as her former living room, where she and the family had spent most of their leisure time, it’d been stripped of all that was familiar. She’d need to reacquaint herself with it in the same way one reconnects with an old friend.
Anastasia smiled when she saw the faint picture of Jesus hanging above the bed. Although it was worn, she could see the soft outline of his face, his long, brown hair, and the sacred heart in the middle of his chest: large, pinkish-red, wrapped with thorns and adorned in a golden crown. How had she managed to leave this behind?
She embraced Sylvestre as he lowered her to the bed. It was the closest she’d been to her husband in a long time. His body felt much smaller, his arms weak and unsteady. He smelled of sweat, sun and tobacco. An American soldier must’ve given him a cigarette. Anastasia tightened her arms around her husband and began to weep. She held on to his thin body as he tried to pull away. With all the strength she could find, she locked her hands together to hold him as close as possible.
“We’re home,” she whispered.
“There’s plenty of work to be done,” he said.
Later that evening, Roberto came into her room and lit an oil lamp. The moon was low and yellow. Large mosquitoes bounced in through the small window that faced the road.
“Daddy said it’s my job to take care of you,” said Roberto.
“What did you do this evening?” she asked.
“We burned broken furniture.” She held Roberto’s hand. “Tomorrow we’re going to set fire to the overgrown rice field. Daddy says we’ll catch the mice as they try to escape.”
Roberto produced a comb and began to work the tangles out of Anastasia’s hair. She loved the feel of the bristles against her scalp. It made her moan with pleasure. Crickets sang their mating calls in the distance. The low hum of an American jeep patrolled nearby.
“Count to one hundred,” she said.
Roberto stroked her long black hair with the comb as he counted. Anastasia melted into the mattress, the first one she’d rested on in two years. She looked up at her young son, who resembled his father so much. Roberto had thick, furrowed brows, narrow black eyes, warm brown skin. She would never regret giving him her portion of food when they were in hiding. In the beginning, she’d given him a small amount from her ration of mango leaves, sweet potato and other root vegetables they’d manage to unearth by hand, but, over time, as the war progressed and Roberto began to show signs of weakness, Anastasia increased the portions until there was little left for herself. It was what any mother would do. Most of the other mothers had done the same. No matter how much Sylvestre had argued with her to eat, she hadn’t listened. At thirty-six-years-old, Anastasia had had a full and happy life. She grew up on a farm, married Sylvestre by an arrangement her parents had made, and had given birth to two strong sons, although she’d lost two daughters in between. What Anastasia hadn’t understood was how Sylvestre could eat his full portion knowing Roberto went to sleep each night, hungry.
“Braid my hair, anak ko, my child,” she said.
Roberto pulled on the strands to weave them tightly together.
“It looks pretty, Mommy,” he said.
Feeling drowsy, she said, “Blow out the lamp before you leave.”
In her dream, Anastasia came upon Guillermo in the woods. He leaned against a rock, shaking with malaria. Next to him was a thin American soldier with sunken eyes who placed a cigarette in Guillermo’s mouth and lit it for him. Her son looked frail and defeated. Surrounded by Japanese soldiers with guns, the American gripped Guillermo by the shoulders, trying to hold him still. “Guillermo!” she called out in the dream. But he didn’t respond. The louder Anastasia screamed, the harder his body shook. A cigarette hung limp from the side of his mouth, a long ash balancing in the wind. She reached out to him but her body felt submerged, as if weighted down by a large sack of grain. Guillermo’s eyes rolled in their sockets. She continued to scream his name. Giant lizards and monkeys crept along the forest floor. Anastasia threw rocks at them. She threw every rock within reach. The American placed another cigarette in his friend’s mouth before Guillermo fell over and died.
“Guillermo!” she screamed.
Roberto rushed into the room and lit the oil lamp. Anastasia pulled him to herself, weeping.
“My son, my son,” she cried. She looked up at Roberto in confusion, feeling the contours of his face.
“You never leave me. Do you understand?” She pressed her fingers deep into his arms. “Never.”
Anastasia took small bites of the mango leaves Roberto had gathered for her in the fields. Her bones felt like a network of hollow tubes running throughout her body, her muscles soft as a baby’s. She regretted eating shortly after she finished; the weight of the food settled in her stomach like a pile of stones, making her feel more sluggish than she already was. She took quick shallow breaths, in out, in out.
Although she couldn’t see the road, she heard passersby as they headed to and from town. The sound of their feet kicking up the dirt and gravel. A group of women and children stopped briefly in front of her house, and she overheard the words “sickly” and “disease.” By now, everyone in the neighborhood and across the town knew Anastasia was unwell. News travelled fast in Urdaneta. If locals were good at nothing else, she thought, they excelled at gossip.
Anastasia examined the small room, the four walls she’d be surrounded by until she was well enough to walk. The bamboo floors had suffered deep scratches and bruises. The sliver of space between each hardy bamboo pole, through which she used to sweep dirt and crumbs, seemed wider than before. If she looked long enough, she could make out the dirt patch below the house. She wondered how long it’d be before a cow would be living underneath the house again. How long before they could taste its fresh, sweet milk.
Against the wall on her left, where her couch used to be, Anastasia counted seventeen bullet holes; some holes were clean and solid, while others were surrounded by small, frayed slivers of bamboo, with thin hairline cracks that ran the length of the pole.
She thought about the many afternoons she’d spent sitting on the couch with her neighbors Anna Quindipan and Elma Ortiz, sipping cool coconut juice, fanning themselves in the heat. The three of them were known as the town beauties, cackling and gossiping as they strolled in the town square with their heads held high. Anastasia, a former Miss Urdaneta crowned at a town festival when she was sixteen, was the prettiest of them all. Her high cheekbones and tall nose bridge revealed her Spanish ancestry. She was both admired and despised for being a mestiza—admired for her lighter skin and supple complexion, despised for not being a pure-bred Filipina.
The opposite wall, where her wooden cabinet once stood, somehow escaped much of the damage. The thin bamboo rods held together tightly, their ridges smooth and polished. In her mind, Anastasia traced the outline of where her cabinet used to be; now, there was only a ghost of the furniture. It had contained her most valued possessions, many of which Sylvestre forbade her to grab when they fled in the night: a Spanish vase from her mother when she got married, and items from her wedding ceremony, including the cord, veil and unity candles.
Anastasia gazed up at the tightly woven thatched roof. She admired the perfect symmetry with which the dried palm leaves had been tied together to form a watertight canopy. The plot of land the house stood on was once a flat, grassy patch surrounded by coconut trees. Sylvestre and several neighbors had joined together to build their house, as he had done for others, collecting raw materials, setting the foundation and erecting the walls one by one. The men labored from morning until dusk, constructing the house in a few short weeks. That it had stood up in war time proved to Anastasia the care and craftsmanship with which the house had been built.
Roberto returned in the late afternoon and woke Anastasia from her nap.
“Mommy, look what I have!”
In his hands, he held pasta with yellow sauce mixed in with dirt.
“Macaroni and cheese!”
For the first time in years, she gazed upon a real meal. Not a combination of leaves and root vegetables mashed together. The curl of the noodles looked strange to her, the bright orange-yellowish sauce unnatural.
“There was meatloaf, too, Mommy! The Americans just throw it in the dumpster without finishing!”
“Thanks be to God,” she said, crossing herself. “I want you to go there every day and eat and eat.”
“I want to share with you, Mommy” said Roberto, offering the pasta to Anastasia.
Staring at the food in his hands, she hadn’t salivated or grown excited. Instead, she felt a vacant indifference to the meal before her. Scraps from an American soldier’s lunch would’ve been the equivalent of finding gold during war time, but, now, Anastasia lacked the appetite she once had.
“I want you to grow big and strong,” she said.
Roberto buried his face in his hand, careful to lick every bit of cheese sauce from in between his small fingers.
* * *
Sylvestre entered the medical tent at the south end of the town square. He’d come days earlier, when they first arrived home, but was instructed to return when Dr. Henderson was on duty. The tent, lined with two long rows of beds filled with wounded American soldiers, swarmed with flies and mosquitoes that landed on patients like they were raw meat in the open-air market. Sylvestre tip-toed down the center aisle, a sign of respect to the wounded. Soldiers with bloody bandages around their heads droned on in dull, deep moans. Others were missing limbs. A small group of soldiers who only had sustained minor injuries set up a card game in the back of the tent. They played poker using Philippine pesos printed by the Japanese government, now worthless.
“Dr. Henderson?” said Sylvestre.
“Wait out there,” said one of the soldiers, pointing to the entrance of the tent.
Sylvestre paced back and forth outside. How he’d longed for this moment. As Anastasia’s health gradually declined over the past year, he grew hopeless in the middle of the rice field. The most he could do was make his wife as comfortable as possible on the thin bamboo mat on the floor, and gently wipe the sweat from her skin when her temperature ran high.
In the evenings, when the women and children were asleep, he and the other men took turns patrolling outside the shack for any signs of Japanese soldiers. They operated in four-hour shifts from sunset to sunrise. It was during his shifts that he had started to pray.
Before the war, Anastasia chastised him for not praying enough; she had to coax him to church on Sundays. Sylvestre had come to see religion as a belief system more suited to women, having been raised with a grandmother and mother who held regular novenas in their home and woke at three o’ clock in the morning to attend nightly Mass for each of the nine days before Christmas. Even rosaries appeared feminine to him, with their colorful gem stones and sterling silver crucifix. But in those quiet evenings during the evacuation, he found solace looking up at the night sky, brilliant with stars, and having a silent conversation with God about his wife. “I’ll never ask you for anything ever again, Lord.”
A tall, lanky man with large glasses and a wiry beard approached Sylvestre.
The doctor looked at his watch several times, fussed with the stethoscope around his neck. He held his eyes open like someone who’d been forced not to blink.
“Before you start,” said the doctor, “we don’t have any medicine and the hospital has been heavily damaged.”
“I need you to go home and tell your neighbors, relatives and friends. It’ll take a while for the USS Sanctuary to arrive.”
“But you don’t understand.”
The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Yes, you’re right. There’s plenty I don’t understand.”
“My wife is still young. What can I do?”
“Be thankful she survived. Wait until they build a new hospital.”
Sylvestre dragged himself across the town square and crouched next to the crumbling church. He’d promised Anastasia everything would be okay once the Americans liberated them, and that the Americans would nurse her back to health with advanced medicines in a clean hospital that served warm food and fresh water. “Put your faith in the Americans.”
Across the square, young American soldiers hammered away at the roof and walls of the damaged school. Sylvestre covered his ears. Shouldn’t he be thankful for the construction? For all the Americans were doing to rebuild? But all of their energy directed to rebuilding the town took away from tending to the sick, he thought. What good would the town be without its people? These soldiers, with their youth and power, were capable of grand achievements—fighting against the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat, and in relentless dog fights in the sky, where American and Japanese war planes twisted and looped in the air, shooting at each other in rapid succession. Now, the Americans couldn’t bother to put their tools down for a moment to tend to his sickly wife.
* * *
“Drink,” said Sylvestre.
He towered over Anastasia in her bed as he offered her a small cup filled with a strange liquid.
“Is this from the Americans?”
“The American medicine is on the way. Drink this in the meantime.”
An old man, who claimed to be a witch doctor, had boiled a concoction of herbs and leaves for Anastasia to drink. As payment, the man accepted an I.O.U. of rice from Sylvestre’s first harvest. Anastasia took a few sips of the greenish soup before pushing it away. A cough formed deep in her lungs and erupted as a strange hacking noise.
“I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself,” said Sylvestre.
She looked into her husband’s tired eyes. It occurred to her at that moment how selfish she’d been, wallowing in her illness. He was right. She had to be strong for her family. Her mother, when she was alive, had once taught her to ask for what she wanted in order to make it come true. “Close your eyes and imagine it, and when you’re finished, ask the Lord for this or something better.”
Anastasia pictured an overabundant rice harvest for Sylvestre: rice over flowing from their sacks and from the large wooden storage bin in the back; so much rice they’d never go hungry again. She imagined welcoming Guillermo back home, as he made his way down the dusty street in a patched-up uniform. He’d settle into his old room he shared with Roberto, help his father with the farm, and eventually take a bride and give Anastasia and Sylvestre grandchildren. For Roberto, she held an image of him with a large bundle of school books in preparation for college in Manila one day. In secret, she’d always pinned her hopes on Roberto, her smartest son, to be the first college graduate in the family and the one who made his way to America, the land of the prosperous, and Cowboys and Indians. Once there, he’d find a job, buy a home and petition the rest of the family to join him. As she thought about what the future held, tiny goose bumps appeared on Anastasia’s arms.
Sylvestre lifted the cup to her mouth as she took in more of the dark liquid. Although it irritated her throat, she drank and drank until the cup was empty. She imagined the green juice as a type of magic, entering her bloodstream and destroying the disease one cell at a time. She held her husband’s hand, squeezing it lightly, with a promise for the future.
A month had passed since the war ended. Guillermo had not come home, even though two other young men who had also fought in Manila returned. Anastasia pressed Sylvestre to question the men about Guillermo’s whereabouts, but they hadn’t seen him; they’d become separated at the beginning of the war and never met again. She sent Sylvestre to their homes day after day for more information until one day one of the mothers stood outside Anastasia’s window, screaming.
“Can’t you see my boy isn’t well?” she said. “Why do you continue to harass us?”
Anastasia wept for her son until her cries turned to wailing. She spent the whole afternoon longing for Guillermo. How she wanted to see his handsome face one more time. She’d been so proud of him when he joined the Philippine Army and went off to join MacArthur in the fight against the Japanese. Ever since he was a child, he’d always looked for ways to help people. She recalled how, as a young boy, he’d climb tall trees for the elderly neighbors who couldn’t reach their ripe fruit. And how he’d loved to fish with Roberto, teaching him how to make a fishing rod with a long branch and piece of string. She would never give up. No matter what anyone thought or said, Anastasia refused to believe he might be dead. This unsympathetic woman screaming at her window was only in a position to do so because her son had returned.
Anastasia continued to eat leaves and root vegetables, whatever Sylvestre provided for her. She even took a morsel of the American food Roberto offered to her, unfamiliar with the salty taste of corned beef in a can and floury biscuits. The witch doctor made Anastasia’s concoction several times a week, despite the fact that Sylvestre’s rice field had yet to yield a harvest.
The medicine was supposed to make her stronger, but Anastasia felt more fatigued than before. She struggled to keep her eyes open during the day. Even though the rest of her body had shrunk in size, layers of puffy flesh swelled over her feet and ankles to the point where she could no longer see her ankle bone.
During the day, the house was quiet. Sylvestre worked the land while Roberto and the other neighborhood kids hung out by the American soldiers in the town square, hoping to pick up a discarded cigarette butt on the ground or a scrap of food from their lunch.
Anastasia listened to the buzz of two mosquitoes that hovered over her arms. She was unable to move quickly enough to kill them. She watched as one mosquito rested on her left arm. In all the years she’d encountered mosquitoes, she’d never looked at one so attentively. The way its small body hunched over and arched its back in service of the long blood-sucking needle protruding from its head. Such tiny, fragile legs. Where did all that blood go? She laughed as the mosquito drank from her. “You too will become sick, my friend.”
The afternoon was hot and long. More mosquitoes entered her room through the window. A group of them hovered near her bed. One by one, they landed on her body. She learned to twitch her skin to make them leave. They would jump off for a second, dance around her, and then try again. She inhaled as deeply as she could and tried to blow them off her but their grip was too tight. Giving up, she sunk into the mattress and sacrificed herself to the mosquitoes.
“Mommy, I’m going back to school!”
Roberto rushed into Anastasia’s bedroom holding a book. The teachers who survived the war gathered together to announce they would begin lessons in a makeshift classroom underneath a house on stilts. All years would share a single classroom, and Roberto placed in second grade, the grade he was in when they evacuated.
“I’m so proud of you, anak,” said Anastasia. She stroked his hand. “Study hard so you can go to college.”
“Look, Mommy,” he said, as he flipped through his textbook. “There are stories here about Philippine heroes.”
Anastasia felt relieved. During the occupation, the Japanese had changed textbooks, had tried to change history, and Anastasia had pounded her fists hard on the kitchen table. For the past two years, when they lived on the rice field, there hadn’t been any school at all.
Later that evening, Roberto came to Anastasia’s room and lit the oil lamp.
“Let’s not talk tonight, my dear,” she said, as he combed her hair.
Although she wanted to talk to her son, to find out how he liked his temporary school, she didn’t have the strength to carry on a conversation with him. She wanted to close her eyes and feel the smooth bristles against her scalp, the gentle way in which he gathered her hair together in his hands as he prepared to braid it.
She thought about the day Roberto would rush into her room to share good news, only to find she was no longer there.
“I want to tell you something, Roberto,” she said.
He was busy placing one strand of hair over another, tenderly tightening the braid.
“I thought we weren’t going to talk, Mommy,” he said.
“Listen to me closely, anak,” she said. “One day, I want you to go to America.”
Roberto stopped braiding her hair.
Three months passed since the war had ended. When Anastasia’s health declined further, Sylvestre brought in a stronger concoction for her to drink. There was a mix of berries and leaves this time, and the witch doctor was said to have placed a magic spell on the potion that was sure to heal her.
She found it hard to swallow. The liquid stuck to her throat, causing her to gag. It felt thick and pasty. A coughing spell ensued. She tried to push the formula away but Sylvestre insisted she finish it. He lifted her head and tilted the cup toward her mouth, but she couldn’t drink fast enough to keep up with him. Liquid oozed down the sides of her chin and onto her neck.
“Please, Sylvestre,” she said.
He reached into the pocket of her dress where she kept her handkerchief and discovered deep red blood stains all over the thin cloth.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“Put it back,” she said. “I don’t want Roberto to see it.”
Sylvestre stood up next to Anastasia’s bed and looked at her like she was a stranger. She felt his eyes take in every part of her body, from her long hair to her swollen feet. He hadn’t said a word. Finally, he turned around and left the room.
Out in the rice fields behind their house, Sylvestre chopped up broken chairs with a large Bolo knife. He held the knife high into the air before coming down to hack the wooden legs off, and then tossed the knife aside as he picked up each legless chair and smashed it to the ground. Pieces of wood scattered everywhere. He gathered them in a large pile, set it on fire and began to sob. The bright blue sky was blinding. Smoke rose up in a thick column before dissipating into the air.
* * *
“Mommy, they fixed the hospital. But the Americans said there’s still no medicine,” said Roberto.
“Where’s your father?” she asked.
It’d been weeks since Sylvestre visited her. At night, she could hear him shuffling around in the kitchen, washing cups, putting plates away. She called out to him several times, but he didn’t answer. Was it because he couldn’t hear her? Her voice had grown raspy and faint. A few nights ago, she thought she heard him breathing next to the entrance to her room, but when she begged him to come in, there was only silence, and then the sound of light footsteps.
Nearly four months after the war had ended, Anastasia lay in her mattress unable to speak. Roberto’s face was illuminated by the oil lamp. She blinked her eyes to let him know she could hear him. The Americans were rebuilding. Soon there would be doctors, and carts of medicine would arrive. Anastasia thought of the hospital filling with young nurses in white uniforms, tending to the sick. Soon, Roberto would be attending his regular school, the bullet holes on the walls patched up and repainted. He would go to church, too, and say his prayers, just like she taught him to. She smiled as she imagined the town square filled with bright parols during Christmas, and how the Americans would join in with the locals as they went caroling from house to house.
Roberto combed her hair, separated it into three strands, and proceeded to braid it all the way down her back. His grip was stronger, his fingers moved faster, and he kept the braid watertight along the way.
“Can I do it again?” he asked.
Anastasia blinked her eyes twice. Slowly, Roberto loosened the braid and began again.