Sita was on her way home. It was a warm night. The breezes kept still and the air hung about like a heavy cacha blanket, causing her brown skin to moisten from the walk. Her worn out daster clung helplessly to her tiny frame, unflattering to her firm breasts, her round hips and slender legs.
The road before her was quiet. All she heard were the shuffle of her rubber slippers on the river of crushed rock beneath her, the occasional twig that snapped, and the redundant whirring crickets that surrounded her. The darkness that shrouded both sides of the road hid from the scope of the yellow light emanating from the bulbs atop rows of bamboo posts.
Sita’s steady steps brought her back to the supper at Natan’s balay, the tiny nipa hut that she was so familiar with ever since she was a child. Natan had just arrived for vacation from his amo in the city, and she was sent through word of mouth to join him, Tatay Andoy and Nanay Etring for supper.
The meal was quick. The tiny salted fish that swam with pieces of ginger and red pepper in a sour coconut sauce, the steaming brown rice heaped on the worn out tin plate, the red fleshy tomatoes mounted together with the salted eggs on a plastic platito, all laid out on the bamboo floor, were eaten quietly.
Sita looked down on her plate most of the time, raising her head only when she brought a pinched handful of rice towards her pink lips. She was more careful with herself this time, arranging her fingers into the shape of a duck’s bill, her slim arm stretched gracefully whenever she reached for the fish or the blushing tomatoes. Though her back was trembling, she insisted on sitting without hunching, her legs folded to a slant, toes tucked neatly under her bottom, and the trunk of her body slightly bent to one side.
Natan could not help but glance at the lissome image before him. Years have passed since he last saw her. The memory of their childhood games together, the awkwardness in her that defied her sex, allowing her to play rough, flourished in his thoughts. He liked how her daster revealed only an imagined suppleness of the body beneath it. He smiled as he chewed, savoring the juices of the salty fish and tomato in his mouth.
When the mound of rice diminished to a shallow scatter, and the plate of salty fish left in a puddle, Sita raised her head but kept her eyes wandering on the floor.
“How long will you be staying Natan?” she asked.
“Not very long, Sita. Maybe just a week.”
She quivered upon hearing his baritone voice. But it was the sound of her name that brought a warm rush running across her arms, nape, reaching her ear lobes, and then her cheeks. Sita. Her temples began to sweat.
“Tatay Andoy says that you found a good amo to work for in the city. He must treat you well.”
“Yes, Don Manuel is a good man. He has a very pretty and kind wife, Doña Corazon. Their four young children get rowdy sometimes, but most of the time they are little angels.”
“Ah, it’s good to know that they are all very kind.” Sita replied indifferently. She was not really interested about Natan’s life in the city. Instead, she found herself missing the games they would play on the front lawn till night fell. She remembered the climbs up the calachuchi, and how vigorously they would shake the branches of the old mango tree, waiting till the beetles fell to the ground. She wanted to go back to it all, to the leisure of playing, to the unbridled comfort of friendship. But most of all, she longed to cast away the fervid caress of her name on her skin.
“You’ve grown a lot since I’ve seen you Sita. You look so different now.” Natan said, his eyes catching a glow as his lips curled to a meaningful smile.
“You’ve grown also Natan,” was all Sita managed to reply. A feeling of unease welled up in her, her mind interpreting the possible meanings to the sudden glow in his eyes and his pregnant smile. She felt as if Tatay Andoy’s nipa hut shrank in size. It imprisoned her with an overwhelming warmth and a man before her whom she remembered only as a boy.
“Let’s go out and get some air. It’s getting warm in here.” Sita proposed.
Outside the stars were sparse. Tatay Andoy’s small lot was lit by the weak gleam of the kerosene lamp inside the hut. Beyond was a world of pitch-black shadows. Hidden among the acacia, ipil-ipil, calachuchi, and mango trees that bordered the front of the lot was the lit road that looked like a snake of yellow embers.
Sita and Natan stood side by side facing the trees and the road, their bare arms barely touching.
Placing his palm gently on her shoulder, he asked, “Sita, so how have you been all this time?”
“Fine.” Feeling the gruffness of his touch, Sita closed her eyes as the wave of heat surged once again through her body. She had to escape him. She walked a few inches away.
“Tatay bought some carabaos last week. One of them was pregnant. One of them was pregnant. It just gave birth the other day to a pink calf,” she said, urging something different to talk about.
“Really? How’s Nanay Pering? I do miss her ibus. I love how sticky it gets. Oh, to dip it in brown sugar! Mmmm…” Natan slid his tongue across his lips.
“Nanay is well. I think she shall be making some sticky rice again. Maybe… maybe… you can come by tomorrow.” Teresita closed her eyes once again. She hated herself at that moment for being so coy, for being so inviting. She hated herself for wanting and not wanting. But it was too late.
“That would be really great Sita!” Natan’s voice seemed to have leapt out from his throat. “And maybe we could catch up about more things we’ve missed,” he continued in a sudden subdued manner, careful at not giving away his intentions.
More? More things we’ve missed? Sita tried to smother other thoughts with the smiles and laughter she expected from reminiscing with a childhood playmate. But they persisted. Things missed? Is there more? More of what? She hated these questions that prodded her mind, questions that teased her. What more did we miss? More sticky rice?
“I think I should take you home now. It’s late, and Tatay Lando and Nanay Pering might be worried sick for you.”
“Oh, it’s not necessary. I’ll walk myself home. It’s not too far really. Besides you might be exhausted from your trip home.”
“Tired? No, never for you. Besides it’s dangerous for someone like you to walk all alone at this hour. The spirits are out now, you know.”
“No, really, I’ll be fine. The road is well lit, and what can a spirit do to me?”
“Then I shall pray hard while I walk.”
It was indeed late, about half past the hour of eleven. Sita did not expect to be on her way home at such a time, and actually wondered about her safety. She was also bothered with thoughts of Natan. So much he had said seemed cryptic to her, yet somehow she knew and felt what his words meant. Her heart softened when she remembered the boy she held hands tightly with while at play. Yet why was her heart different, tightened in fact, even to the slightest touch of his rough palm on her shoulder? What was it in his voice that made her hear her name so strangely? These thoughts of Natan made her think of her mother’s sticky rice. Lifting her daster’s skirt, Sita bent forward and wiped off the sweat that made her face, arms and neck shine in the yellow glow of the light bulbs.
As soon as she reached home, Sita rushed to the fat rubber jug that sat idly by the kitchen’s ashen kilns. She squatted beside the black container, lifted its conical lid up, and ladled out its content with her hands. As she felt the cool water splash on her flushed face and trickle down on the seething skin of her hands and nape, she let out heavy sighs. After, she stood up and sauntered towards her bed.
Her body ached upon laying herself down on the firmness of her bamboo-laden mattress. Sleep awaited her as she was feeling the warmth and heavy stillness of the midnight air. She kept thinking of the supper at Tatay Andoy’s house. She kept thinking of Natan.
Slowly, as her eyes began to close, she began to dream. She dreamt she was helping her mother make ibus. She felt its stickiness smeared on her fingers.