This is one of my (Cecilia Brainard) sketches in reed and pen and ink. This depicts two women from my childhood who fascinated me and inspired my fiction. One was a woman who reportedly had horns on her forehead; the other was said to be a witch and who always carried an umbrella so she could hide her face. I’m pasting below my short story “Woman With Horns” which is part of literature curriculum in many schools in the Philippines.
WOMAN WITH HORNS
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Copyright 2019 by Cecilia Brainard
Dr. Gerald McAllister listened to the rattle of doors being locked and footsteps clattering on the marble floors. The doctors and nurses were hurrying home. It was almost noon and the people of Ubec always lunched in their dining rooms with high ceilings, where their servants served soup, fish, meat, rice, and rich syrupy flan for dessert. After, they retired to their spacious airy rooms for their midday siesta. At three, they resumed work or their studies.
His assistant, Dr. Jaime Laurel, had explained that the practice was due to the tropical heat and high humidity. Even the dogs, he had pointed out, retreated under houses and shade trees.
Gerald could not understand this local custom. An hour for lunch should be more than enough. He barely had that when he was a practicing physician in New York.
He reread his report about the cholera epidemic in the southern town of Carcar. Thanks to his vaccination program, the epidemic was now under control. The success was another feather in his cap, one of many he had accumulated during his stay in the Philippine Islands. No doubt Governor General Taft or perhaps even President McKinley would send him a letter of commendation. Politicians were like that; they appreciated information justifying America’s hold on the archipelago.
He glanced at the calendar on his ornate desk. It was March 16, 1903, a year and a half since he arrived at the Port of Ubec aboard the huge steamship from San Francisco. Three years since Blanche died.
His head hurt and he removed his glasses to stroke his forehead. When the headache passed, he straightened the papers on his desk and left the office. He was annoyed at how quiet his wing of the Ubec General Hospital was, as he walked past locked doors, potted palms, and sand-filled spittoons.
In front of Dr. Laurel’s office, he saw a woman trying to open the door. She looked distraught and wrung her hands. She was a native Ubecan — Gerald had seen her at the Mayor’s functions —a comely woman with bronze skin and long hair so dark it glinted blue. She wore a long blue satin skirt. An embroidered panuelo over her camisa was pinned to her bosom with a magnificent brooch of gold and pearls.
“It is lunchtime,” he said in English. His Spanish was bad and his Ubecan dialect far worse.
Dark fiery eyes flashed at him.
“Comer,” he said, gesturing with his right hand to his mouth.
“I know it’s lunchtime. It wasn’t, fifteen minutes ago.” She tried the door once more and slapped her skirt in frustration. Tears started welling in her eyes. “My husband died over a year ago.”
“I’m not. He was in pain for years. Consumption. I have been coughing and last night, I dreamt of a funeral. I became afraid. I have a daughter, you see.”
“Dr. Laurel will return at three.”
“You are a doctor. American doctors are supposed to be the best. Can you help me?”
“I don’t see patients.”
“Ahh,” she said, curved eyebrows rising. She picked up her fan with a gold chain pinned to her skirt. “Ahh, a doctor who doesn’t see patients.” She fanned herself slowly.
Her words irritated him and he brusquely said, “Come back in a few hours; Dr. Laurel will be back then.” She stood there with eyes still moist, her neck tilted gracefully to one side and her hand languorously moving the fan back and forth.
“It was nothing,” Jaime said. “I listened to her chest and back. There are no lesions, no T.B. I told her to return in a month. I think she is spectacular; she can come back for checkups forever.” With mischief in his eyes, he added, “Agustina Macaraig has skin like velvet; if she were not my patient — “
“Jaime, your oath. You and your women. Doesn’t your wife mind?” Gerald said.
“Eh, she’s the mother of my children, is she not?” Shrugging his shoulders, he fixed the Panama hat on his head.
It was late Friday afternoon and they were promenading in the park, trying to catch the cool sea breeze. The park was in front of an old Spanish fort. There was a playground in the middle and benches were scattered under the surrounding acacia and mango trees. Children led by their yayas crowded the playground. Men and women walked or huddled together to talk about the day’s events.
As he walked by the playground, Gerald was surprised to see Agustina pushing a girl of around five on the swing. When the child pleaded to do the pushing, Agustina got on the swing. He watched her kick her legs out and throw her head back, her blue-black hair flying about. She was laughing, oblivious to the scandal she was causing.
“The people don’t approve of her,” Gerald commented when he noticed women gossiping behind their fans, their eyes riveted on Agustina.
“There is a saying in Ubec, ‘A mango tree cannot bear avocados,’“ Jaime continued.
Gerald shrugged his shoulders.
“Look at her. Is she not delectable?” Jaime said. “People say she is wicked, like her mother. She has a very mysterious background.”
They sat on a bench next to a blooming hibiscus bush where they could see her. The child pushed her hard and Agustina’s infectious laughter rose above other sounds.
“I can see why the people would despise a widow who carries on the way she does,” Gerald said.
“But, friend, you don’t understand. We love her. She is one of us. It’s just that Ubecans love to gossip, even when she patiently nursed her husband. They said she had lovers, but for five years, she took care of him. The people of Ubec like to talk. Over their meals, they talk; after eating, they talk; outside church after worshipping God, they talk; during afternoon walks, they talk. Just like we’re talking, no?”
“I did not come here to gossip. I was perfectly content planning my bubonic plague campaign when you —”
“Friend, you don’t know how to enjoy life. Look at that sun turning red, getting ready to set spectacularly. It is a wonderful afternoon, you walk with a friend, you talk about beautiful women, about life. Now, let me finish my story. People say her mother — a simple laundry woman —jumped over the seminary walls and behind those hallowed walls, under the arbol de fuego trees, she bedded with one of Christ’s chosen.”
“Ridiculous, nothing,” Jaime replied as he pulled out a cigar from his pocket and offered it to Gerald. “Tabacalera, almost as good as Havanas.”
Gerald shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t smoke.”
“You don’t smoke; you don’t have women; you are a shell. Bringing you here was a chore. Are all American doctors like yourself? If they are, I wouldn’t be caught dead in your rich and great country. You look like a god from Olympus — tall, blonde with gray eyes. You’re not forty, yet you act like an old man.”
“Jaime, skip your lecture and get on with your story.” Gerald watched Agustina loll her head back. She was biting her lower lip, afraid of how high she was.
“If you were not my boss, I would shake you to your senses. Anyway, the story goes that Agustina was born with horns.”
“Like toro, yes.” Jaime put his finger to his forehead. “At noon, her mother went to the enchanted river to do her wash. The spirits roam at that time, do you know that?”
Gerald shook his head at this nonsense. “I swim almost daily at your so-called enchanted river and I have seen nothing but fish and an occasional water buffalo. Filthy animals.”
“Well, maybe there are or aren’t spirits, no? Who are we to say there are none? The people say that her mother had — ah, how do you say —an encounter with an encantado, a river spirit. And Agustina is the product of that brief encounter.”
Gerald watched her jump off the swing, her skirt swirling up, her shapely legs flashing before his eyes.
“Her mother bribed a carpenter to saw off her horns when she was an infant.”
“She doesn’t look much like a river spirit’s daughter, Jaime,” Gerald said with a snort.
“Beware, you can never be sure.”
She took the girl’s hand and they ran to a group of women. Agustina carried on an animated conversation then waved goodbye. Before she turned to leave the park, she looked briefly at Gerald. He caught her gaze but she quickly lowered her eyes and walked away as if she had not seen him.
On the way to the Mayor’s house, Gerald thought that attending social functions was part of his job. He was not only Ubec’s Public Health Director, he was also an ambassador-of-sorts for the United States. The truth was, he didn’t really mind social affairs at all. They kept him occupied. When he was busy, he didn’t have time to think about the past, to feel that shakiness, that pain that had possessed him after Blanche died.
During the day he was fine; he worked, lunched, swam, went on promenades, had rich frothy chocolate with the men. Later he dined, sipped after-dinner brandies and liqueurs, and chatted until way past midnight. It was when the servants locked the doors and the house was still, when the only sound was the lonely chatter of the night watchman, that he would feel his composure slip away. His heart would palpitate and an uneasiness would overcome him. He would try to cram his mind with thoughts — health education campaigns, sanitation programs, quarantine reports —but the disquiet would stay with him.
The Mayor of Ubec, a small round man, greeted Gerald warmly. He introduced him as the great American doctor who was wiping out cholera, smallpox, and bubonic plague from Ubec. The people knew him of course and they shook his hand heartily. They congratulated him on his recent success in Carcar and inquired about his current bubonic plague campaign. Rats, Gerald explained, transmit the disease; therefore getting rid of the pest by traps and arsenic poisoning would eliminate the problem.
When the food was served on the long dining table with tall silver candelabras, the Mayor teased Dr. McAllister for his squeamishness at the roasted pig. The women giggled demurely, covering their mouths with their hand painted fans or lace handkerchiefs, while the men laughed boisterously. The Mayor’s mother, a fat old woman with a mustache, tore off the pig’s ear and pressed it in Gerald’s hand. “Taste it, my American son,” she said. Laughing and clapping, the people urged him to take a bite until he finally did.
When he later went to the verandah to drink his rice wine, he saw Agustina standing there, gazing at the stars. She looked different, not the frightened woman at the hospital, not the carefree girl at the partk, but a proper Ubecan widow in black, with her hair done in a severe bun. Curiously, the starkness enhanced her grace and beauty, calling attention to the curves of her body.
“You did not like the lechon?” she asked softly, with an amused twinkle in her eyes.
“I beg your pardon? Oh, the pig —?” He shook his head, embarrassed that she had witnessed that charade. They were alone and he hoped that someone would join them.
“What do Americans eat, Dr. McAllister?” She was studying him, eyes half-closed with a one-sided smile that was becoming.
Gerald pushed his hair from his forehead. “Pies — cherry pies, boysenberry pies —I miss them all. Frankly, I have — “
She drew closer to him and he caught a warm, musky scent coming from her body.
“—I have lost ten pounds since I’ve been here.”
“In kilos, how many?”
“Around four and a half.”
“Santa Clara! You must get rid of your cook. She must be an incompetent, starving you like that. It is a shame to the people of Ubec.”
Gerald watched her, aware of his growing infatuation.
“I like you,” she said suddenly. “You and I have a kinship. Come to my house and my daughter and I will feed you.” Pausing, she reached up to stroke his face with her fan. His cheeks burned. “Nothing exotic,” she continued, “just something good.” Her eyes flashed as she smiled. “You know where I live?”
He hesitated then shook his head. His knees were shaking.
“The house at the mouth of the river. I see you swimming during siesta time. I like to swim at night, when the moon is full.” She looked at him, closed her eyes languidly and walked away.
After dinner, Gerald hurried home and paced his bedroom floor. He should have been flattered by Agustina’s advances, but instead he was angry and confused. She was enchanting and desirable and he was upset that he should find her so.
Once he had been unfaithful when Blanche was bedridden. The surgical nurse who laughed a lot had been willing, and he had wanted even for just a few hours to forget, to be happy. Blanche had known, just by looking at him. “Oh, Tiger, how could you? How could you?” After her death, he had not given this side of himself a thought. Yet now, he found himself recalling that indescribable musky-woman scent emanating from Agustina.
There was something else. It bothered him deeply that Agustina, widowed for only a little over a year, would laugh, be happy, even flirt outrageously with him. Why was she not consumed with grief? Why did she not sit at home crocheting white doilies? Why did she not light candles in the crumbling musty churches, the way proper Ubecan widows did? He was outraged at her behavior. He condemned her for the life that oozed out of her, when he needed every ounce of his strength just to stay sane.
He strode to his desk and stared at the album with photographs, which he had not looked at in years. The wedding picture showed a vibrant smiling girl with a ring of tiny white flowers around her blonde curly hair. His face was unlined then, and his mustache seemed an affectation. Anxious eyes peered through round eyeglasses, as if he knew even then that the future would give him anguish.
He studied the other pictures — serious daguerreotypes — that unleased a flood of emotions. He found himself weeping at some, smiling at others. He remembered Blanche’s soft voice: “Oh, Tiger, I adore you so.” Blanche in bed, waiting for him. And later, Blanche in bed, pale, thin, with limp hair. She had been eaten bit by bit by consumption; she had been consumed, until only a skeleton that coughed incessantly and spat blood remained. Gerald did not believe in God, but he had prayed for her death, just so it would end. When she died, he was surprised to feel another kind of grief, more acute, more searing.
After her funeral, his mind would go on and on about how useless he was — a doctor whose wife died of consumption was a failure. And always the soft voice: Oh, Tiger, how could you?
Returning from work each night, he had found himself waiting for her voice: How was your day, Tiger? He saw slight women with curly blonde hair and he had followed them. He plunged into a depression — not eating, unable to work, to think clearly, to talk coherently. He stayed shut up in his room with wine-colored drapes. At times he thought he was losing his mind. When he pointed a gun to his forehead, a part of him panicked and said: NO. That part had taken over and started running his life again. Eat, so you will gain weight; exercise, so your body will be healthy; work, so your mind will not dwell on the agony.
It was this part that had led him to the Islands, far away from slight women with curly blonde hair. It was this same part that now said: Blanche is dead, you are alive; you have the right to laugh and be happy just as Agustina laughs and is happy.
Gerald struggled with himself but would not allow himself to surrender his mourning. He decided not to see Agustina; he would not allow her to corrupt him.
Governor General William H. Taft’s handwritten letter from Manila arrived that morning and Gerald reread it several times, trying to absorb the congratulatory words. He felt nothing. He would not have cared if the letter had never come. He realized that he didn’t really care, nowadays. Work was predictable; there was little risk. He applied himself and the laurels came. But the successes, the commendations did not fill his emptiness. He picked up the conch shell that he used as a paper weight and tapped it, listening to the hollow ring that echoed in his office.
Gerald went to Jaime’s office to show him the letter. Jaime appeared cross; he sat erect and immobile as he listened quietly.
“Well?” Gerald asked after reading the letter aloud.
“The letter — it’s a fine letter, don’t you think?” He hoped for an enthusiastic reply that would rub some life into him.
“The Mayor’s mother is dead,” Jaime said. “She choked on some food.”
“Too bad. Well, at least it wasn’t typhoid or anything contagious,” he said.
Jaime’s black eyes snapped at him. “You bastard!” he said. “All you think about is work. You have no soul.”
Gerald could not work the rest of the morning. He felt a growing restlessness, a vague uneasiness that he could not pinpoint. No soul. Had he indeed lost his soul? Was that why he could not feel and why he didn’t care about anything? In trying to bring order to his life, in restructuring it after Blanche died, had he lost a vital part of himself — his soul?
Funerals, Gerald thought as he walked to the Mayor’s house, were dreary, maudlin affairs, where people wore long faces and tried to sound sincere as they dug up some memory of the deceased.
He braced himself when he saw mourners in black and the huge black bow on the Mayor’s front door. Inside, he was surprised to see the number of people crowding the place. Some wept; others laughed and related stories about the old woman. A rather festive air filled the place.
The Mayor hugged Gerald, saying, “What a tragedy, what a tragedy! She was eating pickled pig snout when suddenly she choked. It was over before any of us could do anything. She loved you like a son and worried that you were too thin.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Gerald.
The Mayor brought him to the casket in the living room. “Mama chose her own funeral picture,” the Mayor said as he pointed at the huge picture of a slim young girl, propped up next to the coffin. “She was a vain woman. The picture was taken almost half a century ago.”
The Mayor continued, “Her mind was not clear. She wanted to be buried in her wedding gown but it was far too small. I had to hire three seamstresses to work all night. They ripped and stitched, adding panels of cloth to the dress. It was still too small. Finally we decided to clothe her another dress and to lay her wedding gown on top, pinned it here and there to keep it in place. Family deaths can be trying,” he said.
The old Spanish friar said a Latin Mass and spoke lengthily about her goodness and kindness. “She had a rich and long life,” he concluded. Near the hearse, an old man riding a horse stopped them. He was dressed in a revolutionary uniform with medals hanging on his chest, and a gun in his right hand which he fired once. Gasping, the mourners stopped still. The old man ordered the men to open the casket. He got off his horse, bent over the casket and planted a kiss on the corpse’s lips. Then, he got back on his horse and galloped off.
It took a while for the mourners to compose themselves and continue to the cemetery. A pair of scissor was placed under the satin pillow; family members kissed the body; the priest blessed the coffin and she was finally buried.
Everybody returned to the Mayor’s house for a huge banquet. Jaime tried to explain the revelry by saying that a person was feted on his birth, his marriage, and his death. “It’s the end of a good life, my friend,” he said.
Agustina, who was there, walked up to Gerald. “It was a beautiful funeral,” she said.
“I’ve never attended one like it,” he replied and laughed. “I guess it was.”
They were near a window and she looked out. “Ahh, the moon is full.”
From his room, Gerald watched the large moon rise, shining on the star apple and jackfruit trees in his backyard. It was a warm night, even with all the windows open. He waited for even the slightest breeze to stir the silvery leaves, but there was no wind and a restlessness grew in him.
At last he decided to go to the river. Silence and oppressive heat dominated Ubec as he walked the cobblestones. He reached the path leading to the river and the sea. The moon was so bright that the air seemed to vibrate as he followed the trail that widened, then narrowed, then widened again, until he reached the riverbank.
After leaving his things under a coconut tree, he walked to the water and saw how clear it was. Little gray fish darted between colorful rocks. In the distance the river and sea shimmered brilliantly.
The water felt cool and silky. Gerald swam back and forth, marveling at the brazenness of the fish that brushed against him, some even nibbling his toes. He spotted a bright green rock and wondered about it. Diving to the river bottom, he fetched it. When he surfaced, he saw her standing next to his things. He was not surprised; he knew she would be there.
Moonlight bathed her, making her glow. A green and red tapis was wrapped around her, exposing golden shoulders and neck, showing mounds of flesh.
Gerald felt life stirring in him and, holding his breath, he waded to the shore. She walked toward him. The water splashed and the small gray fish skittered away when she slipped into the water. He watched the river creep higher and higher as her tapis floated gracefully around her, until they fell into each other’s arms.
“Woman with Horns” is part of the collection, Woman With Horns and Other Stories, reviewed here by World Literature Today.
Tags: fiction, short story, Cebu, Philippines, #Ubec