She stepped down from the carretela of Ca Celin with a quick, delicate grace. She was lovely. SHe was tall. She looked up to my brother with a smile, and her forehead was on a level with his mouth.
“You are Baldo,” she said and placed her hand lightly on my shoulder. Her nails were long, but they were not painted. She was fragrant like a morning when papayas are in bloom. And a small dimple appeared momently high on her right cheek. “And this is Labang of whom I have heard so much.” She held the wrist of one hand with the other and looked at Labang, and Labang never stopped chewing his cud. He swallowed and brought up to his mouth more cud and the sound of his insides was like a drum.
I laid a hand on Labang’s massive neck and said to her: “You may scratch his forehead now.”
She hesitated and I saw that her eyes were on the long, curving horns. But she came and touched Labang’s forehead with her long fingers, and Labang never stopped chewing his cud except that his big eyes half closed. And by and by she was scratching his forehead very daintily.
My brother Leon put down the two trunks on the grassy side of the road. He paid Ca Celin twice the usual fare from the station to the edge of Nagrebcan. Then he was standing beside us, and she turned to him eagerly. I watched Ca Celin, where he stood in front of his horse, and he ran his fingers through its forelock and could not keep his eyes away from her.
“Maria—” my brother Leon said.
He did not say Maring. He did not say Mayang. I knew then that he had always called her Maria and that to us all she would be Maria; and in my mind I said ‘Maria’ and it was a beautiful name.
Now where did she get that name? I pondered the matter quietly to myself, thinking Father might not like it. But it was only the name of my brother Leon said backward and it sounded much better that way.
“There is Nagrebcan, Maria,” my brother Leon said, gesturing widely toward the west.
She moved close to him and slipped her arm through his. And after a while she said quietly.
“You love Nagrebcan, don’t you, Noel?”
Ca Celin drove away hi-yi-ing to his horse loudly. At the bend of the camino real where the big duhat tree grew, he rattled the handle of his braided rattan whip against the spokes of the wheel.
We stood alone on the roadside.
The sun was in our eyes, for it was dipping into the bright sea. The sky was wide and deep and very blue above us: but along the saw-tooth rim of the Katayaghan hills to the southwest flamed huge masses of clouds. Before us the fields swam in a golden haze through which floated big purple and red and yellow bubbles when I looked at the sinking sun. Labang’s white coat, which I had wshed and brushed that morning with coconut husk, glistened like beaten cotton under the lamplight and his horns appeared tipped with fire.
He faced the sun and from his mouth came a call so loud and vibrant that the earth seemed to tremble underfoot. And far away in the middle of the field a cow lowed softly in answer.
“Hitch him to the cart, Baldo,” my brother Leon said, laughing, and she laughed with him a big uncertainly, and I saw that he had put his arm around her shoulders.
“Why does he make that sound?” she asked. “I have never heard the like of it.”
“There is not another like it,” my brother Leon said. “I have yet to hear another bull call like Labang. In all the world there is no other bull like him.”
She was smiling at him, and I stopped in the act of tying the sinta across Labang’s neck to the opposite end of the yoke, because her teeth were very white, her eyes were so full of laughter, and there was the small dimple high up on her right cheek.
“If you continue to talk about him like that, either I shall fall in love with him or become greatly jealous.”
My brother Leon laughed and she laughed and they looked at each other and it seemed to me there was a world of laughter between them and in them.
I climbed into the cart over the wheel and Labang would have bolted, for he was always like that, but I kept a firm hold on his rope. He was restless and would not stand still, so that my brother Leon had to say “Labang” several times. When he was quiet again, my brother Leon lifted the trunks into the cart, placing the smaller on top.
She looked down once at her high-heeled shoes, then she gave her left hand to my brother Leon, placed a foot on the hub of the wheel, and in one breath she had swung up into the cart. Oh, the fragrance of her. But Labang was fairly dancing with impatience and it was all I could do to keep him from running away.
“Give me the rope, Baldo,” my brother Leon said. “Maria, sit down on the hay and hold on to anything.” Then he put a foot on the left shaft and that instand labang leaped forward. My brother Leon laughed as he drew himself up to the top of the side of the cart and made the slack of the rope hiss above the back of labang. The wind whistled against my cheeks and the rattling of the wheels on the pebbly road echoed in my ears.
She sat up straight on the bottom of the cart, legs bent togther to one side, her skirts spread over them so that only the toes and heels of her shoes were visible. her eyes were on my brother Leon’s back; I saw the wind on her hair. When Labang slowed down, my brother Leon handed to me the rope. I knelt on the straw inside the cart and pulled on the rope until Labang was merely shuffling along, then I made him turn around.
“What is it you have forgotten now, Baldo?” my brother Leon said.
I did not say anything but tickled with my fingers the rump of Labang; and away we went—back to where I had unhitched and waited for them. The sun had sunk and down from the wooded sides of the Katayaghan hills shadows were stealing into the fields. High up overhead the sky burned with many slow fires.
When I sent Labang down the deep cut that would take us to the dry bed of the Waig which could be used as a path to our place during the dry season, my brother Leon laid a hand on my shoulder and said sternly:
“Who told you to drive through the fields tonight?”
His hand was heavy on my shoulder, but I did not look at him or utter a word until we were on the rocky bottom of the Waig.
“Baldo, you fool, answer me before I lay the rope of Labang on you. Why do you follow the Wait instead of the camino real?”
His fingers bit into my shoulder.
“Father, he told me to follow the Waig tonight, Manong.”
Swiftly, his hand fell away from my shoulder and he reached for the rope of Labang. Then my brother Leon laughed, and he sat back, and laughing still, he said:
“And I suppose Father also told you to hitch Labang to the cart and meet us with him instead of with Castano and the calesa.”
Without waiting for me to answer, he turned to her and said, “Maria, why do you think Father should do that, now?” He laughed and added, “Have you ever seen so many stars before?”
I looked back and they were sitting side by side, leaning against the trunks, hands clasped across knees. Seemingly, but a man’s height above the tops of the steep banks of the Wait, hung the stars. But in the deep gorge the shadows had fallen heavily, and even the white of Labang’s coat was merely a dim, grayish blur. Crickets chirped from their homes in the cracks in the banks. The thick, unpleasant smell of dangla bushes and cooling sun-heated earth mingled with the clean, sharp scent of arrais roots exposed to the night air and of the hay inside the cart.
“Look, Noel, yonder is our star!” Deep surprise and gladness were in her voice. Very low in the west, almost touching the ragged edge of the bank, was the star, the biggest and brightest in the sky.
“I have been looking at it,” my brother Leon said. “Do you remember how I would tell you that when you want to see stars you must come to Nagrebcan?”
“Yes, Noel,” she said. “Look at it,” she murmured, half to herself. “It is so many times bigger and brighter than it was at Ermita beach.”
“The air here is clean, free of dust and smoke.”
“So it is, Noel,” she said, drawing a long breath.
“Making fun of me, Maria?”
She laughed then and they laughed together and she took my brother Leon’s hand and put it against her face.
I stopped Labang, climbed down, and lighted the lantern that hung from the cart between the wheels.
“Good boy, Baldo,” my brother Leon said as I climbed back into the cart, and my heart sant.
Now the shadows took fright and did not crowd so near. Clumps of andadasi and arrais flashed into view and quickly disappeared as we passed by. Ahead, the elongated shadow of Labang bobbled up and down and swayed drunkenly from side to side, for the lantern rocked jerkily with the cart.
“Have we far to go yet, Noel?” she asked.
“Ask Baldo,” my brother Leon said, “we have been neglecting him.”
“I am asking you, Baldo,” she said.
Without looking back, I answered, picking my words slowly:
“Soon we will get out of the Wait and pass into the fields. After the fields is home—Manong.”
“So near already.”
I did not say anything more because I did not know what to make of the tone of her voice as she said her last words. All the laughter seemed to have gone out of her. I waited for my brother Leon to say something, but he was not saying anything. Suddenly he broke out into song and the song was ‘Sky Sown with Stars’—the same that he and Father sang when we cut hay in the fields at night before he went away to study. He must have taught her the song because she joined him, and her voice flowed into his like a gentle stream meeting a stronger one. And each time the wheels encountered a big rock, her voice would catch in her throat, but my brother Leon would sing on, until, laughing softly, she would join him again.
Then we were climbing out into the fields, and through the spokes of the wheels the light of the lantern mocked the shadows. Labang quickened his steps. The jolting became more frequent and painful as we crossed the low dikes.
“But it is so very wide here,” she said. The light of the stars broke and scattered the darkness so that one could see far on every side, though indistinctly.
“You miss the houses, and the cars, and the people and the noise, don’t you?” My brother Leon stopped singing.
“Yes, but in a different way. I am glad they are not here.”
With difficulty I turned Labang to the left, for he wanted to go straight on. He was breathing hard, but I knew he was more thirsty than tired. In a little while we drope up the grassy side onto the camino real.
“—you see,” my brother Leon was explaining, “the camino real curves around the foot of the Katayaghan hills and passes by our house. We drove through the fields because—but I’ll be asking Father as soon as we get home.”
“Noel,” she said.
“I am afraid. He may not like me.”
“Does that worry you still, Maria?” my brother Leon said. “From the way you talk, he might be an ogre, for all the world. Except when his leg that was wounded in the Revolution is troubling him, Father is the mildest-tempered, gentlest man I know.”
We came to the house of Lacay Julian and I spoke to Labang loudly, but Moning did not come to the window, so I surmised she must be eating with the rest of her family. And I thought of the food being made ready at home and my mouth watered. We met the twins, Urong and Celin, and I said “Hoy!” calling them by name. And they shouted back and asked if my brother Leon and his wife were with me. And my brother Leon shouted to them and then told me to make Labang run; their answers were lost in the noise of the wheels.
I stopped labang on the road before our house and would have gotten down but my brother Leon took the rope and told me to stay in the cart. He turned Labang into the open gate and we dashed into our yard. I thought we would crash into the camachile tree, but my brother Leon reined in Labang in time. There was light downstairs in the kitchen, and Mother stood in the doorway, and I could see her smiling shyly. My brother Leon was helping Maria over the wheel. The first words that fell from his lips after he had kissed Mother’s hand were:
“Father… where is he?”
“He is in his room upstairs,” Mother said, her face becoming serious. “His leg is bothering him again.”
I did not hear anything more because I had to go back to the cart to unhitch Labang. But I hardly tied him under the barn when I heard Father calling me. I met my brother Leon going to bring up the trunks. As I passed through the kitchen, there were Mother and my sister Aurelia and Maria and it seemed to me they were crying, all of them.
There was no light in Father’s room. There was no movement. He sat in the big armchair by the western window, and a star shone directly through it. He was smoking, but he removed the roll of tobacco from his mouth when he saw me. He laid it carefully on the windowsill before speaking.
“Did you meet anybody on the way?” he asked.
“No, Father,” I said. “Nobody passes through the Waig at night.”
He reached for his roll of tobacco and hithced himself up in the chair.
“She is very beautiful, Father.”
“Was she afraid of Labang?” My father had not raised his voice, but the room seemed to resound with it. And again I saw her eyes on the long curving horns and the arm of my brother Leon around her shoulders.
“No, Father, she was not afraid.”
“On the way—”
“She looked at the stars, Father. And Manong Leon sang.”
“What did he sing?”
“—Sky Sown with Stars… She sang with him.”
He was silent again. I could hear the low voices of Mother and my sister Aurelia downstairs. There was also the voice of my brother Leon, and I thought that Father’s voice must have been like it when Father was young. He had laid the roll of tobacco on the windowsill once more. I watched the smoke waver faintly upward from the lighted end and vanish slowly into the night outside.
The door opened and my brother Leon and Maria came in.
“Have you watered Labang?” Father spoke to me.
I told him that Labang was resting yet under the barn.
“It is time you watered him, my son,” my father said.
I looked at Maria and she was lovely. She was tall. Beside my brother Leon, she was tall and very still. Then I went out, and in the darkened hall the fragrance of her was like a morning when papayas are in bloom.