Read The Bamboo Stalk Online

Authors: Saud Alsanousi

The Bamboo Stalk (6 page)



There was nothing special about my relationship with the Church in the Philippines. My visits were very infrequent. After I was baptised I didn't go again till I was twelve. On that occasion I went with Aida and Pedro and his wife for my confirmation ceremony, the third sacrament I had undergone, after baptism and confession.

First confession had been organised by the school. Schools usually call in a priest to meet the third-grade children and take their confessions. I was nine when the priest came to see us and perform this rite. We lined up outside the classroom and the priest sat inside receiving the children one after another. The sins they confessed were what you would expect from children of that age – fairly insignificant, nothing more than ‘Once I lied to the teacher' or ‘I disobeyed my mother' or ‘I stole a pen (or a doll) from so-and-so'. But my sin was different, not a small sin you'd expect from someone as small as me. It seemed like a big sin to me, as big as Inang Choleng was old.

When I think back to my grandfather Mendoza's land, I can't help remembering three sets of creatures that shared the small piece of land with the family. There was Whitey, my grandfather's dog, there were his cocks and then there was Inang Choleng. She lived alone and I never saw her outside her little house. All I ever saw of her was her upper half when she appeared behind her front door examining her daily bowl of food. My mother cleaned the old
woman's house once a week when grandmother was ill and after she died, because grandmother had done the cleaning before her. When my mother was away, Aunt Aida did it. The other women in the neighbourhood used to put bowls of food at her front door every morning and evening. When I was seven I was walking past Inang Choleng's house one day on the way home from school and I was ravenously hungry. I saw a woman putting a bowl of food in front of Inang Choleng's house. Usually the bowls would contain white rice and pieces of fruit or fried plantain, but that day I saw half a chicken lying in the bowl by the door. It made my mouth water. I stopped in front of her house, just a short distance away, but I didn't dare go closer because I was afraid of the old woman. I stared at the bowl. All I could hear was the rustling of the leaves and the buzzing of the bees in the giant hive they had built in the branches of the mango tree over the witch's house. I look around hesitantly.
Should I do it?
I wondered.

I looked at the handle of the wooden door.

What if she suddenly appears and drags me inside?

I started biting my fingernails.

I'd run off before she could catch me.

I took a step forwards.

What if she starves to death?

I looked down at the bowl on the ground by the door.

It looks delicious.

From somewhere nearby I heard a dog barking. It must have been Whitey.

The dog will beat me to it if I don't
. . .

I took another step forward, torn between the thought that the dog would get there first and my fear that Inang Choleng would drag me inside. My hunger drove me to take another step
forward. Then I stopped and thought about the old woman starving to death, then the barking grew louder and drew closer. The bees were still buzzing. I felt a knot in my stomach. I made a dash to Inang Choleng's door, closed my little fist around the half chicken lying in the bowl on the ground and ran off, leaving her an empty bowl.

In the classroom, two years after the incident, alone with the priest, I confessed I had stolen the old woman's food, even if I didn't eat it in the end.

‘First repent of your sin,' he said.

I nodded. ‘I will, Father, but . . .'

‘Pray for the Lord Jesus twenty times and for the Virgin.'

The priest smiled, a sign that the ritual was over.

‘But is there any way I can get the bee out of my head, Father?' I asked.

The priest looked surprised.

‘When I ran away from Inang Choleng's house,' I explained, ‘a bee followed me.'

Now he looked interested. He nodded his head, encouraging me to continue.

‘I was running and the buzzing was right by my ear and I was frightened.'

I started thrashing the air around my face to explain what had happened.

‘I tried to shoo it away, but it was insisting on something. It hit my ear.'

I hit my ear with my finger, continuing my little reenactment.

‘I hit it, but I dropped the chicken and it fell to the ground, then . . .'

I put my hands over my ear and stared into the priest's face.

‘Suddenly the buzzing outside stopped. But then I could hear it inside my head instead.'

The priest smiled. His smile gradually faded. He was thinking about something else but he wasn't silent for long. ‘That's guilt,' he said.

‘The Lord will forgive you if you pray, and the buzzing will disappear.'

I prayed and prayed, but the bee chose to stay in my head for ages.



My mother never stopped talking about my father and Kuwait and the life that awaited me. I used to cry when the subject of Kuwait came up. It was a country I knew nothing about and I couldn't imagine myself anywhere other than on my grandfather Mendoza's land in Valenzuela. I got annoyed when I heard the name Rashid, because my mother never stopped mentioning him. But because life was hard and my mother painted a picture of the paradise that awaited me, I ended up looking forward to the day when I would be rich and I could get whatever I wanted without having to work for it. If I was impressed by an advertisement for an expensive car, my mother would say, ‘You can have one of those if you go back to Kuwait.' If I pointed to something in the shops that my mother couldn't afford, she would say, ‘In Kuwait Rashid will buy you one like that.' I imagined myself as Alice in Wonderland, running after my mother's promises instead of the rabbit's and falling down a hole that led to Kuwait, the Wonderland. My mother convinced me that we were living in hell and that Kuwait was the heaven I deserved.

I had learned to read English, and one day my mother gave me my father's first letter to her to read. He had sent it after we left Kuwait, when I was four months old.

In his letter my father wrote:

Dear Josephine,

It's been three months since you left and you still haven't
asked why I abandoned you and Isa so mysteriously

I handed the letter back to her and sighed. ‘I hate the name Isa,' I said.

She frowned. ‘But Isa's a beautiful name,' she said reproachfully. ‘It's Arabic for Jesus,' she added, patting my head.

‘If you choose your mother's religion, then Isa is the son of God, and if you choose your father's religion then Isa's a prophet sent by God. In either case you should be proud of your name.'

I didn't respond.

‘Go on reading, José,' my mother said with a smile.

I continued, mainly because she called me José:
I know you won't ask, because you're the one who was always saying that everything happens for a reason and for some purpose and you're not the kind of woman who looks for explanations.

We know, or rather we admit, you and I, that getting married and what we did later on that crazy night on that boat was reckless.

I looked up at my mother's face.

‘What happened on the boat, Mama?' I asked.

‘You'll find out one day,' she replied, a look of irritation on her face.

I read on:
That's why we accepted the consequences and lived with them in the beginning. But afterwards I must admit I couldn't take it and in my weakness I put all the responsibility on to you.

I was sure that Isa would soften my mother's heart in her anger, because before I admitted our relationship to her she never stopped saying she wanted to see me have children before she died. But that night, after we came out of the hospital and went to visit her with Isa, I felt she would rather have died
than see the child.

She was so angry she had changed the locks on the doors so that I couldn't come in if I ever thought of coming back. I wasn't happy about the way she behaved and I know how much she loves me, but although I couldn't open the door to the house, I thought I held another key with which I could open her heart, a key called Isa.

I looked at my mother with a frown. She laughed.

‘Very good, keep on reading,' she said.

The smell of incense was the first thing that hit me when the servant opened the door. Was my mother burning incense to celebrate my possible return, I wondered. I stepped inside, impatient to see my mother's face after months apart. The servant followed me, asking, ‘Who are you? What do you want?' I didn't reply. I asked for my mother. She pointed to the stairs and said, ‘She's upstairs.' All the lights in the house were on, something that only happened on special occasions. I headed for the stairs and had gone one step up when my mother appeared at the top, about to come down.

I stood stock still on the first step. She hesitated at first. She was about to back away as soon as she saw me but she resisted the impulse. My mother wasn't one to run away. She looked me in the face, eye to eye. At first she looked angry and severe, but with every step I took up the stairs she mellowed and softened. I kissed her hand and her forehead. I held out the baby boy for her in my arms. ‘Isa,' I said.

I gritted my teeth with irritation at the name Isa, without looking at my mother's face this time.

Did her eyes water at the sight of the baby? Did she have visions of my father when I said the name Isa to her?

She took the baby into her arms and walked slowly downstairs,
while I stood on the top step, watching as she stared into the baby's face and tried to hold back her tears. She sat down on a sofa at the bottom of the stairs and I watched them from the top. I could see them between the crystal pendants in the large chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Isa started crying in her arms. My mother held him close, then burst into tears as I had never seen her cry, except years ago when she heard that my father had died. My eyes filled with tears as I watched my mother and my son, in the house where I grew up, surrounded by lights and the smell of incense. The smell reminded me of the question in the back of my mind: why the incense? Had she had a premonition about this day in particular?

I walked downstairs to where she was sitting on the sofa and knelt on the floor in front of her, with my hand pressing hard on her knee
Although my mother and the baby were both crying I heard the door bell ring. The servant arrived a few seconds later.
‘Madam, there are four women outside asking for you,' she said. My mother pushed the baby towards me as if it were a bomb about to explode. ‘The suitor's family! The suitor's family!' she said. She wiped away her tears, stood upright in front of the mirror to restore the hard look that the baby had softened. Without turning towards me she pointed to the back door that led to the garage. ‘Take your son and get out of here,' she said. I was stunned by the change in her mood. ‘Mother!' I shouted, over the sound of Isa crying. ‘Mother, please,' I added. She stepped towards the back door and opened it. ‘Get out. Now,' she said, emphasising the words. Then she pointed to the baby. ‘And mind you never bring that thing back here again,' she said.

I left through the back door, carrying the curse of Isa with me, so that good fortune could enter the house through the front door. My mother had an appointment to meet the family of a
man who wanted to marry Awatif, my eldest sister.

Josephine, there's more to this than you imagine. I won't keep playing a game when I don't know the rules. I completed the divorce procedures a few hours before writing this letter. Believe me, this will be best for me and for you. As for Isa, I promise I won't abandon him. I'll take care of all his needs and I'll send him whatever money he needs at the end of each month until the time comes when I can take him back. I promise I will do that when the time is right.


Kuwait, September 1988

My mother cried when I read out the words ‘I completed the divorce procedures
despite the fact that she had read the letter years before and had married another man after Rashid. I cried too, but that was when I read about my grandmother saying ‘Mind you never bring that thing back here again

‘Why does Grandmother hate me, Mama?' I asked. My mother was busy mopping up my tears with a handkerchief that was already soaked with her own.

‘As Jesus said, even prophets are strangers in their own country,' she said.

‘So I'm a prophet?' I asked her in surprise.

‘God alone knows,' she said, looking away towards the window.

Frightened, I took her hands. ‘Mama, if I grow up and go to my father's country as a prophet, won't they crucify me there?' I asked.

She hugged me tight and laughed. ‘It was the Son of God that was crucified. Don't worry. They won't crucify you for being the son of Rashid,' she said.

Although he had let her down, Rashid still meant much to her.



My mother said she was stunned when she read the letter for the first time, not because of the divorce, which was how she expected the relationship to end (‘The decision wasn't your father's. A whole society stood behind him,' she said), but because she was afraid of his promise. She couldn't imagine being able to give me up to my father under any circumstances. That was at the beginning, but when she thought about it hard, unemotionally, she realised that everyone in the Philippines dreamed of living abroad in a country that provided stability and a decent life. Women gave up everything to marry Western men who would take them off to their countries, for the sake of an opportunity to live well and have a family, but men found it hard to fulfil this dream. In the Philippines it's the dream of every man and woman to emigrate and settle in Europe, America or Canada, giving up everything – their past, their country and even their family.

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