It was the seventh night of the blackout. Michaela was six stitches away from closing the hole on the sleeve of her school uniform when she gave a pull and realised that the thread was not going to be enough. Now it was shorter than her little finger and there was hardly room to manoeuvre for the knot. Through the half-sealed gap, a sliver of her skin peeked through.
‘It’s hopeless.’ Florablanca’s ordinarily melodious voice crackled like a hag’s. Fernando answered, ‘No it’s not. If you truly love me, we can run and leave all this behind.’ But he sounded choppy.
Michaela lifted the dress closer to the candle, the needle still dangling from the arm.
When Fernando’s mother Doña Meduza came in shouting, ‘Who do you think you are? Ungrateful witch!’ the insults came out soft, anemic, as if Doña Meduza was ill. Michaela’s mother reached out and gave the radio a tap.
Michaela inspected the contents of the sewing kit that lay beside her on the floor. She lifted the pockmarked tomato cushion⎯ pale pink, tortured by several rusted needles⎯ and flicked through loose buttons, snaps, hook-and-eyes, making a rattling sound against the tin. There was an old AA battery, a small container of thumb tacks, red ribbons salvaged from the Christmas gifts of ninongs and ninangs, and under the emery board, a twenty-five centavo coin. Beside the tangled rainbow of DMC strands from her sixth grade project lay balding spools of blue, black, and brown thread. Her uniform was white. ‘Why can’t anything go right in my life?’
‘Clear-C pimple cream is the answer to all your problems,’ said a woman on the radio.
Her mother, who was gutting fish over a basin, said without turning to her, ‘You can take some from that blouse. I can’t wear it anyway.’
Michaela lifted the empty can of sardines where a white candle stood transfixed in a pool of its own wax, and crossed the room. The migration of light made the objects shine differently and Michaela was hypnotised for a while by her own shadow. Her shadow always looked better than she did. Slender and tall with long delicate fingers and a hint of luscious hair. Seductive, graceful. Like Florablanca. With clear skin. Big beautiful eyes.
‘Don’t go near the clothes with that candle. And watch your hair.’ Michaela’s mother scraped away at the scales— making calm, repetitive movements against the body of the bangus— working without the candle now, with hands that knew their way in the dark.
Michaela placed the candle on top of the plastic chest of drawers, between the statue of Our Lady of Fatima and the image of the black Santo Niño. The top drawer was Michaela’s, the middle one was her elder brother Marlon’s, and the bottom one belonged to her mother. She looked through a few shirts and underwear and said, ‘It’s not here.’
Her mother paused. ‘The box under the TV.’
A gust of wind blew in from the open door of the hut. The flame swayed towards the red robes of the Child Jesus but Michaela quickly cupped the candle and it righted itself, strong and straight. At least summer was over— they didn’t have to sleep through the heat.
Outside, the boys who played tumbang preso in the twilight broke into a commotion. Their shouts, yelps, and the clanging that their dented tin can made as they knocked it from the ground with their slippers had overpowered the radio. The can rolled on and on. The radio was barely perceptible now.
‘See if you can find any batteries there.’
The wide box that had ‘Nissin’s’ written on its side was where her mother placed all their valuable things. Well-preserved folders with birth certificates and school records. The floral headband from Michaela’s First Communion. Photos of her father from some rich man’s party that he got himself invited to. There was no battery.
Michaela pulled out a blue sausage-shaped package containing the rolled up blouse. She unfurled it in the candlelight and shook her head in disbelief. It was a fine blouse. Waves of creamy white fabric around the shoulders and undulating down the sleeves. Pinpricks of shiny crystals across the expanse of the bosom. Stars upon stars against the white silk. Her father said it was silk though her mother said it was not.
It was too beautiful. She imagined her mother Asuncion walking through the eskinita in this white confection like some sort of fairy. Even if the neighbors didn’t laugh at her, even if the children didn’t ask ‘Who died?’ which the children would most certainly do, even if she survived the mockery and the snide remarks, a few minutes on the street would surely soil the garment. She wouldn’t make it past Purita’s sari-sari store without a speck of soot. And what about spending the day selling paksiw na pata at Connie’s Carinderia? Que horror.
Michaela knew her mother wanted to sell the blouse but could not. It was a birthday gift from Michaela’s father, the only significant gift he had given her in sixteen years of marriage. Asuncion despised it. She couldn’t look at it without gritting her teeth. It was proof of Armando’s wild, impractical personality, just like when he blew their life savings on that wedding reception they couldn’t afford, or when he bought an expensive shirt for his first day on the job as Mr Guerrero’s driver.
‘No more,’ Asuncion had shouted at him when she discovered what was inside the recycled wrapping paper. ‘From now on, you have to get it into your head that you’re poor. Look around you! It’s good that you don’t sleep here because your two children are grown and we’re all still sleeping on this one surot-infested mattress! For God’s sake, Mando. A banig would’ve been a better gift!’
She stuffed the blouse into the box that held the historical records of their lives and said that she’d wear it to his funeral.
‘It’s a party blouse,’ Armando had replied.
Michaela sat on the floor near her mother so they could share the light again. She made tiny cuts on the hem of the blouse and with miniscule gestures, using the needle, she carefully coaxed a stretch of white thread from the material. It came out curly. She threaded it into the eye of the needle just as Fernando vowed everlasting love to Florablanca beyond the perimeters of his mother’s hacienda. The romantic music rose to a crescendo but was interrupted by a series of mock sirens. The evening news was on.
Michaela looked up towards the unlit corner where her mother now stood, putting a pot of rice to the boil. Asuncion gave the radio a loud, urgent tap. The sharp, robust voice of a woman barreled through the headlines.
The first story was about the group of people who stormed the offices of the Manila Electric Company. They had been camping out peacefully outside the glass building for six days, but a few minutes ago, they broke through the entrance and started smashing everything in sight. Two security guards were hurt.
The reporter’s voice got smaller and smaller. Michaela sat up. Her mother lifted the radio to her ear.
‘What did she say?’ Michaela asked. She thought she heard that people from San Joaquin were being arrested.
Michaela remembered the stray battery from the sewing tin and quickly handed it to her mother. They bent over the exposed belly of the radio, hands working frantically to save its life. Of course they both knew that the battery had been used precisely in this same manner many times before and was completely drained. And yet they hoped.
‘Ay naman!’ cried Asuncion. ‘Why can’t we have anything working in this house?’
She flew out of the hut to Aling Norma’s next door. They didn’t have electricity too, but perhaps they had newer batteries on their radio.
Michaela stayed behind to watch the boiling pot. The wind had blown away the fragrance of the rice and instead brought the odour of mud and rain. This time Michaela worried that the night would be too cold. Her hands shook as she tied the knot on her stitch.
‘Tao po?’ A head poked in. Michaela’s blood rushed to her face. It was Nico, a boy from her class.
‘I didn’t see you at school, I thought you were sick.’ Only one side of his face was lit by candlelight. The rest of his body was dark and shapeless in the twilight. ‘Are you?’
‘Yes,’ she lied. She pushed her uniform behind her in the shadows. ‘Don’t come near. I have a fever.’
‘I wanted to text you but my cellphone’s dead.’
‘Yes, mine’s dead too.’
‘I got zero in the math test and it’s your fault.’
Michaela thought he winked at her but she couldn’t be sure.
‘How’re you feeling?’ he asked.
‘I’m better. I’ll be there tomorrow.’ She smiled. ‘But I can’t be saving your life all the time, you know,’ she joked.
She really did want to save his life every time, especially at algebra. He sat beside her and cast side glances at her throughout the day— for her beauty, of course, Michaela believed. Except that she knew that in algebra class, the reason was much more practical.
‘What’re you doing?’ Nico asked.
Michaela placed the lid back on the sewing box and pushed it away from the circle of light. ‘Nothing. Just looking for old batteries.’
‘Ours are running out too. You have to keep the volume down so they’ll last.’
The radio lay on the floor, silent. The boys outside have gone home to dinner. Michaela could hear nothing but her heart.
‘How much longer, you think?’ she asked.
‘Maybe until tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Tito Lenny got new cables today. The electric company can always cut us off, but he can always connect us back.’ This time he truly winked.
Just then Michaela heard her mother call her and she knew, even before Asuncion reached the doorway and the light had caught her face, that something had happened. ‘He’s in jail! Diyos ko, they arrested your father. He’s in jail.’
Earlier that morning, word arrived that Armando Romero had not slept at his employer’s home but had joined the protest outside the electric company. Mr Guerrero had allowed him to go out the previous night with the understanding that he would be back at seven in the morning to take the children to school. He never appeared. They had sent their house helper Sonia to look for Armando at his address. Now Asuncion was saying that Armando was on the news, talking nonsense about poor people’s rights.
Marlon, Michaela’s brother arrived, sweaty and with eyes that were still bright from basketball. He stood at the centre of the room and asked ‘What’s for dinner?’
‘Dali, dali,’ Asuncion swept Marlon out of the way to get to the drawers. ‘We have to go to the police station.’
‘We should ask Mr Guerrero for help,’ said Michaela. ‘He might know someone.’
Asuncion grabbed a t-shirt from the drawer, the best that she had. It said ‘Forever yours’ on the front. ‘Your father is the stupidest man in the world.’
‘Do you want to wear the blouse?’ she asked her mother.
From the doorway Nico said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ Faintly. Like a radio in need of battery.
A gust of wind extinguished the candle. Outside, the dented can that the boys had abandoned rattled on the asphalt.
‘Quick! Light it, light it,’ Asuncion commanded and Michaela felt for the lighter beside the Our Lady of Fatima.
* * * * *