Mariana looked out of the window toward the other side of Artiaga Street. A group of men had gathered around a low table in front of Sergio's sari-sari store. It was ten o'clock, Tuesday morning. Yet these men did not find it too early to drink, and worse. They wanted her husband to be with them. Victor was now reaching for his shirt hooked on the wall between Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos. Mariana turned to him, her eyes wild in repulsion and anger.
"Those filthy men!" she snarled. "Whose dog did they slaughter today?"
Victor did not answer. He put on his shirt. Presently, he crawled on the floor and searched for his slippers under the table. Mariana watched him strain his body toward the wall, among the rattan tools. He looked like a dog tracking the smell hidden carrion.
"My God, Victor, do you have to join them every time they stew somebody's pet?"
Victor found his slippers. He emerged from under the table, smoothed his pants and unbutton his shirt. He was sweating. He looked at his wife and smiled faintly, the expression sarcastic, and in an attempt to be funny, "it's barbecue today."
"I'm not in the mood for jokes!" Mariana raised her voice. "It's time you stop going with those good-for-nothing scavengers."
Her words stung. For now she noted an angry glint in Victor's eyes. "They are my friends, Mariana," he said.
"You should have married one of them!" she snapped back. Suddenly, she straightened. She heard Sergio's raspy voice, calling from his store across the street. It was an ugly voice, and it pronounced Victor's name in a triumphant imitation of a dog's bark.
"Victor! Victor! Aw! Aw!" the canine growl floated across Artiaga Street. Mariana glared at her husband as he brushed her aside on his way to the window. She felt like clawing his face, biting his arms, ripping the smelly shirt off his back. "I'm coming," Victor answered, leaning out of the window. Mariana opened her mouth for harsher invectives but a sharp cry from the bedroom arrested her. It was her baby. She rushed to the table, pick a cold bottle of milk, and entered.
In his rattan crib that looked like a rat's nest, the baby cried louder. Mariana shook the crib vehemently. The baby - all mouth and all legs - thrust in awkward arms into the air, blindly searching for accustomed nipple.
The baby sucked the rubber nipple easily. But Mariana's mind was outside the room as she watched her husband lean out of the window to answer the invitation of the dog-eaters of Artiaga Street.
"Aren't you inviting your wife?" she spoke loud, the hostility in her voice unchecked by the dirty plywood wall. "Perhaps your friends have reserved the best morsel for me. Which is the most delicious part of a dog, ha, Victor? Its heart? Its liver? Its brain? Blood? Bone? Ears? Tongue? Tail? I wish to God you'd all die of hydrophobia!"
"Can you feed the baby and talk at the same time?" Victor said. She did not expect him to answer and now that he had, she felt angrier. The heat from the unceilinged roof had become terrible and it had all seeped into her head. She was ready for a fight.
The baby had gone back to sleep. Mariana dashed out of the room, her right hand tight around the empty bottle. She had to have a weapon. She came upon her husband opening the door to little porch. The porch was at the top of the stairs that led out into Artiaga Street.
"Why don't you do something instead of drinking their stinking tuba and eating that filthy meat? Why don't you decent for a change?"
Victor turned her off. It seemed he was also ready for a fight. The glint in his eyes had become sinister.
And what's so indecent about eating dog meat?" His voice sounded canine, too, like Sergio's. "The people of Artiaga Street have been eating dog meat for as long as I can remember."
"No wonder their manners have gone to the dogs!"
"You married one of them."
"Yes, to lead a dog's life!"
Victor stepped closer, breathing hard. Marina did not move. "What's eating you?" he demanded.
"What's eating me?" she yelled. "Dog's! I'm ready to say aw-aw, don't you know?"
Victor repaired his face, amused by this type of quarrel. Again, he tried to be funny.
"Come, come, Mariana darling," he said, smiling condescendingly.
Mariana was not amused. She was all set to proceed with the fight. Now she tried to be acidly ironic.
“Shall I slaughter Ramir for you? That pet of yours does nothing but bark at strangers and dirty the doorstep. Perhaps you can invite your friends tonight. Let’s celebrate.”
“Leave Ramir alone,” Victor said, seriously.
“That dog is enslaving me!”
Victor turned to the door. It was the final insult, Mariana thought. The bastard! How dare he turn his back on her?
“Punyeta!” she screeched and flung the bottle at her husband. Instinctively, Victor turned and parried the object with his arm. The bottle fell to the floor but did not break. It rolled noisily under the table where Victor moment had hunted for his rubber slippers.
He looked at her, but there was no reaction in his face. Perhaps he thought it was all a joke. He opened the door and stepped out into the street.
Mariana ran to the door and banged it once, twice, thrice, all the while shrieking, “Go! Eat and drink until your tongue hangs like a mad dog’s. Then I’ll call a veterinarian.”
Loud after came across the street.
Mariana leaned out of the window and shouted to the men gathered in front of Sergio’s store.
“Why don’t you leave my husband alone? You dogs!”
The men laughed louder, obscenely. Their voices offended the ears just as the stench from the garbage dump at the Artiaga-Mabini junction offended the nostrils. There were five other men aside from the chief drinker, Sergio. Downing a gallon of tuba at ten o’clock in the morning with of Artiaga’s idle men was his idea of brotherhood. It was good for his store, he thought, though his wife languish behind the row of glass jars and open cartons of dried fish – the poor woman deep in notebooks of unpaid bills the neighbors had accumulated these last two years.
Mariana closed the window. The slight darkening of the room intensified the heat on the roof and in her head. She pulled a stool and sat beside the sewing machine under the huge pictures of Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, under the altar-like alcove on the wall where a transistor radio was enshrined like an idol.
She felt tired. Once again, her eyes surveyed the room with repulsion. She had stayed in this rented house for two years, tried to paste pictures on the wall, hung up classic curtains that could not completely ward off the stink from the street. Instead of cheering up the house, they made it sadder, emphasizing the lack of the things she had dreamed of having when she eloped with Victor two years ago.
Victor was quite attractive. When he was teen-ager, he was a member of the Gregory Body Building Club on Cortes Street. He dropped out of freshmen year at Harvadian and instead developed his chest and biceps at the club. His was to be Mr. Philippines, until one day, Gregory cancelled his membership. Big Boss Gregory - who was not interested in girls but in club members with the proportions of Mr. Philippines – had discovered that Victor was dating a manicurist named Fely.
Victor found work as a bouncer at Three Diamonds, a candlelit bar at the end of Artiaga, near Jacinto Street. All the hostesses there were Fely’s customers. Mariana, who came from a better neighborhood, was a third year BSE student at Rizal Memorial Colleges. They eloped during the second semester, the very week Fey drowned in the pool behind Three Diamonds. Just as Mariana grew heavy with a child, Victor lost his job at the bar. He quarreled with the manager. An uncle working in a construction company found him a new job. But he showed up only when the man did not report for work.
These last few days, not one of the carpenters got sick. So Victor had to stay home.
Mariana felt a stirring in her womb. She felt her belly with both hands. Her tight faded dress could not quite conceal this most unwanted pregnancy. The baby in the crib in the other room was only eight months, and here she was - carrying another child. She closed her eyes and pressed her belly hard. She felt the uncomfortable swell, and in a moment, she had ridiculous thought. What if she bore a pair or a trio of puppies? She imagined herself as a dog, a spent bitch with hind legs spread out obscenely as her litter of three, or four, or five, fought for her tits while the mongrel who was responsible for all this misery flirted with the other dogs of the neighborhood.
A dog barked. Mariana was startled. It was Ramir. His chain clanked and she could picture the dog going up the stairs, his lethal fangs bared in terrible growl.
“Ay, ay, Mariana!” a familiar, nervous voice rose from the din. “Your dog! He’ll bite me. Shoo! Shoo!”
It was Aling Elpidia, the fish and vegetable vendor.
“Stay away from the beast, Aling Elpidia!” Mariana shouted. She opened the door. Aling Elpidia was in the little yard, her hands nervously holding her basket close to her like a shield. Ramir was at the bottom of the stairs, straining at his chain, barking at the old woman.
Mariana pulled the chain. The dog resisted. But soon he relaxed and stopped barking. He ran upstairs, encircled Mariana once, and then sniffed her hands.
“Come on up, Aling Elpidia. Don’t be afraid. I’m holding Ramir’s leash.”
The old woman rushed upstairs, still shielding herself with her basket of fish and vegetables.
“Naku, Mariana. Why do you keep that crazy dog at the door? He’ll bite a kilo off every visitor. The last time I was here I almost had a heart attack.”
“That’s Victor’s idea of a house guard. Come, sit down.”
Aling Elpidia dragged a stool to the window. “Why, I’m still trembling!” she said. “Why must you close the window, Mariana?”
Mariana opened the window. “Those horrible men across the street, I can’t stand their noise.”
“There!” Mariana said contemptuously. “With them.” The old woman looked out of the window.
“He is one of them!”
“One of what?”
“The dog-eaters of Artiaga Street!” Mariana spat out the words, her eyes wild in anger.
Aling Elpidia sat down again. “What is so terrible about that?” she asked.
Mariana looked at the old woman. For the first time she noticed that Aling Elpidia had been dying her hair. But the growth of hair this week had betrayed her.
“Do you eat dog meat, Aling Elpidia?” Mariana asked.
“It’s better than goat’s meat: And a dog is definitely cleaner than a pig. With the price of pork and beef as high as Mount Apo – one would rather eat dog meat. How’s the baby?”
Aling Elpidia picked up her basket from the floor. “Here’s your day’s supply of vegetables. I also brought some bangus. Cook Victor a pot of sinigang and he’ll forget the most delicious chunk of aw-aw meat. Go, get a basket.”
Mariana went to the kitchen to get a basket as Aling Elpidia busied herself sorting out the vegetables.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten the green mangoes and – and that thing you promised me,” Mariana said, laying her basket on the floor.
“I brought all of them,” assured the old woman. She began transferring the vegetables and fish into Mariana’s basket. Mariana helped her.
“I haven’t told Victor anything,” Mariana said in a low, confidential tone.
“He does not have to know,” Aling Elpidia said.
The old woman produced from the bottom of the basket a tall bottle filled with a dark liquid and some leaves and tiny, gnarled roots. She held the bottle against the light. Mariana regarded it with interest and horror. “I’m afraid, Aling Elpidia,” she whispered.
“Nonsense. Go, take these vegetables to the kitchen.”
Mariana sped to the kitchen. Aling Elpidia moved to the table, pushed the dish rack that held some five or six tin plates, and set the bottle beside a plastic tumbler that contained spoon and forks. She pulled a stool from beneath the table and sat down. Soon Mariana was beside her.
“Is it effective?” Mariana asked nervously.
“Very effective. Come on let me touch you.”
Mariana stood directly in front of the old woman, her belly her belly almost touching the vendor’s face. Aling Elpidia felt Mariana’s belly with both hands.
“Three months did you say, Mariana?”
“Three months and two weeks.”
“Are you sure you don’t want this child?” Aling Elpidia asked one hand flat on Mariana’s belly. “It feels so healthy.”
“I don’t want another child,” Mariana said. And to stress the finality of her decision, she grabbed the bottle and stepped away from the old woman. The bottle looked like atrophy in her hand.
“Well, it’s your decision,” Aling Elpidia said airily. “The bottle is yours.”
“Is it bitter?”
Mariana squirmed. “How shall I take this?”
“A spoonful before you sleeps in the evening and another spoonful after breakfast.”
“May I take it with a glass of milk or a bottle of coke?”
“No. You must take it pure.”
“It’s not dangerous, is it, Aling Elpidia?”
“Don’t you worry. It is bitter but it is harmless. It will appear as an accident. Like falling down the stairs. Moreover, there will be less pain and blood.”
“Please come everyday. Things might go wrong.”
Aling Elpidia nodded and stood up. “I think I must go now,” she said. Then she lowered her voice and asked, “Do you have the money?”
“Yes, yes,” Mariana said. She went to the sewing machine and opened a drawer. She handed Aling Epidia some crumpled bills.
The vendor counted the bills expertly, and then dropped the little bundle into her breast. She picked up her basket and walked to the door. Suddenly she stopped. “Your dog, Mariana.” Her voice became nervous again.
Mariana held Ramir’s leash as the old woman hurried down the stairs. “You may start taking it tonight.” It was her last piece of medical advice. Loud laughter rose from the store across the street. Mariana stiffened. Her anger returned. Then her baby cried.
She hurried to the bedroom. The tall bottle looked grotesque on the table: tiny, gnarled roots seemed to twist like worms or miniature umbilical cords. With a shudder, she glanced at the bottle. The sharp cry became louder. Mariana rushed inside and discovered that the baby had wetted its clothes.
She heard somebody coming up the stairs. It must be Victor. Ramir did not bark.
“Mariana!” Victor called out. “Mariana!”
“Quiet!” she shouted back. “The baby’s going back to sleep.”
The house had become hotter. Mariana went out of the bedroom, ready to resume the unfinished quarrel. Victor was now in the room, sweating and red-eyed. He had taken off his shirt and his muscular body glistened wit animal attractiveness. But now Mariana was in a different type of heat.
“I met that old witch Elpidia,” Victor said, “What did she bring you today?”
“The same things. Vegetables. Some fish.”
“You are drunk!”
“I’m not drunk. Come Mariana dear. Let me hold you.”
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed. “You stink!”
Victor moved back, offended. “I don’t stink and I’m not drunk.”
Mariana stepped closer to her husband. He smelled of cheap pomade, onions, and vinegar.
“Do you have to be like this all the time? Quarreling every day? Why don’t you get a steady job like any decent husband? You would be out the whole day, and perhaps, I would miss you.”
“You don’t have to complain,” Victor said roughly. “True, my work is not permanent but I think we have enough. We are not starving, are we?”
“You call this enough?” her hands gesticulated madly. “You call this rat’s nest, this hell of a neighborhood – enough? You call these tin plates, this plastic curtains – enough? This is not the type of life I expect. I should have continued school. You fooled me!”
“I thought you understood. I-“
“No, no I didn’t understand. And still I don’t understand why you – you –“
“Let’s not quarrel,” Victor said abruptly. I don’t want to quarrel with you.”
“But I want to quarrel with you!” Mariana shouted.
“You are not reasonable. You never tried to please me. You would rather be with your stinking friends and drink their dirty wine and eat their dirty meat. Oh, how I hate it, Victor!”
“What do you want me to do – stay here and boil the baby’s milk?”
“I wish you would!”
“That’s your job. You’re a woman.”
“Oh, how are you admire yourself for being a man,” Mariana sneered in utter sarcasm. “You miserable-“
“Don’t yell. You wake up the baby.”
“To hell with your baby!”
“You are mad, Mariana.”
“And so I’m mad. I’m mad because I don’t eat dog meat. I’m mad because I want my husband to make a man of himself, I’m mad because – “
“Relax, Mariana. You are excited. That’s not good for you. I want my second baby healthy.”
“There will be no second baby.”
“What do you mean?”
“You met Aling Elpidia on your way.”
“And what did that witch do? Curse my baby? Is a vampire?”
“She came to help me.”
Mariana went to the table and snatched the bottle. She held high in Victor’s face. “See this, Victor?” she taunted him. Victor was not interested. “You don’t want me to drink tuba, and here you are with a bottle of sioktong.”
“How dull you are!” her lips twisted in derision. “See those leaves? See those roots? They are very potent, Victor.”
“I don’t understand.”
“One spoonful in the morning and one spoonful in the evening. It’s bitter, Victor, but I will bear it.”
Like a retarded, Victor stared at his wife. Then the truth dawned upon him and exclaimed in horror, “What? What? My baby!”
Mariana faced her husband squarely. “Yes! And I’m not afraid!” she jeered.
“You won’t do it.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Give me that bottle.”
“What kind of woman are you?”
“And what kind of man are you?”
“It’s my baby!”
“It’s mine. I have the right to dispose of it, I don’t want another child.”
“Why, Mariana, why?”
“Because you cannot afford it! What would you feed your another child, ha, Victor? Tuba milk? Dog meat for rice?”
“We shall manage, Mariana. Everything will be all right.”
“Sure, sure, everything will be all right – for you. I don’t believe in that anymore.”
“Give me that bottle!”
They grappled for a moment. Mariana fought like an untamed animal. At last Victor took hold the bottle. He pushed his wife against the wall and ran to the window, his right hand holding the bottle above his head.
And like a man possessed, he hurled the bottle out f the window. The crash of the glass against the gravel on the road rendered Mariana speechless. But she recovered. She dashed to the window and gave out almost inhuman scream at what she saw. The bottle was broken into countless splinters and the dark liquid stained the dry gravel street. Bits of leaves and roots stuck to the dust. Presently, a dog came along and sniffed the wet ground suspiciously, then left with his tail between his legs.
Mariana screamed again in horror and frustration. In the glare of the late morning sun she had a momentary image of the men – now faceless and voiceless – in front of the store across the street. This time they did not laugh, but they watched her from certain blankness. She turned to her husband and flung herself at him, raising her arms, her fingers poised like claws. She scratched his face and pounded his chest with her fists.
“Damn you! Damn you!” she shrieked in fury.
Victor caught her arms and shook her. “Stop it, Mariana!” he mumbled under his breath.
“Let me go! You are hurting me!”
“Behave you woman!” Victor shook her harder.
Mariana spat on his face. Then she bit on the right arm. She spat again, for she had a quick taste of salt and dirt.
Victor released her. She moved back, her uncontrollable rage shaking her. “You threw it away! You destroy it! I paid forty pesos for it and it’s not your money!”
“Forty pesos,” Victor murmured. “That is a lot of milk.”
Mariana caught her breath. She allowed dryly and said, “What do you want me to do now – cut children’s dresses?”
“You are unnatural. You don’t act like a mother, you want to kill your own child.”
“It’s my own child.”
“Nobody will know.”
“I will know. You will know. And God – and God – will know!”
“Ahhh!” Mariana sneered sontemptuously. “Now who’s talking? When was the last time you went to church, ha Victor? That was the time the Legion of Mary brought us to Fatima Church to be married and you fought with the priest in the confessional. And now here you are mentioning God’s name to me.”
“Please, please, Mariana,” Victor was begging now. “That’s our child!”
“I told you I didn’t want another child. You broke that bottle but I’ll look for other means. I’ll starve myself. I’ll jump out of the window. I’ll fall down the stairs.”
“You cannot afford to buy pills or hire a doctor.”
“I want a child.”
“You men can talk because you don’t have to bear the children. You coward!”
Victor raised his hand to strike her. Mariana offered her face, daring him to complete his own humiliation. Victor dropped his hand. He was lost, totally unmanned.
A bit of his male vanity stirred inside him. He raised his hand again, but Mariana was quick with the nearest weapon. She seized a stool with both hands, and with the strength all her arms could muster, throws the stool at him. Victor caught the object with his strong shoulder. The stool dropped to the floor as Mariana made ready with another weapon, a vase of plastic flowers.
“Go away from me! Get out! Get out!”
Victor went out of the room. Mariana was left panting, giving vent to her anger by pulling down the plastic curtains and the printed cover of the sewing machine. She stooped to the table and with a furious sweep of her hand, cleared it of dish rack, tin plates, spoons, and forks. Then she went to the kitchen and tossed the basket of vegetables and fish out of the kitchen window. A trio of dogs rushed in from nowhere and fought over the fish strewn in the muddy space under the sink.
Then Ramir barked.
“Shut up, you miserable dog!”
Ramir continued barking.
Mariana paused. Ramir, she taught. Victor’s dog. A cruel thought crossed her mind and stayed there. Now she knew exactly what to do. She reached for the big kitchen knife of a shelf above the sink. Kicking the scattered tin plates on the floor, she crossed the main room to the porch.
Downstairs, Ramir was barking at some object in the street. Noticing Mariana’s presence, he stopped barking. Mariana stared at the dog. The dog stared back, and Mariana noticed the change in the animal’s eyes. They became fiery, dangerous. My God, Mariana thought. This creature knew! Ramir’s ears stood. The hair on the back of its neck stood, too. Then he bared his fangs viscously and growled.
Mariana dropped the knife. She did not know how to use it at this moment. She was beginning to be afraid.
Slowly, she climbed up the stairs. He moved softly but menacingly. Like a hunter sizing up his quarry. His yellowing fangs dropped with saliva.
Meanwhile, Mariana was untying the chain on the top of the stairs.
And the dog rushed into the roaring attack. Quicker than she thought she was, Mariana slipped the end of the chain under the makeshift railing of the stairway and pulled the leash with all her might. As she had expected, the dog hurtled into the space between the broken banisters and fell. The weight of the animal pulled her to her knees, but she was prepared for that, too. She braced herself against the rails of the porch, and now, the dog was dangling below her. A crowd had now gathered in front of the house to witness the unexpected execution. But Mariana neither saw their faces nor heard their voices.
Ramir gave a final yelp and stopped kicking the air.
Mariana laughed deliriously. She watches the hanging animal and addressed it in triumph: “I’ll slit your throat and drink your blood and cut you to pieces and stew you and eat you! Damn you Victor. Damn this child. Damn everything. I’ll cook you, Ramir. I’ll cook you and eat you and eat you and eat you!”
She released the chain and the canine carcass dropped with a thud on the ground below.
Mariana sat on the topmost step of the stairs; she put her hands between her legs and stared blankly at the rusty rooftops in front of her. And for the first in all her life on the Artiaga Street, Mariana cried.