Emilia’s Playhouse

Noel Bava, SJ

There are things that despite the passage of time tenaciously remain unchanged. And love like a lingering wound, though it may heal, leaves a scar which never fades, never wanes.

I first met Emilia when my mother asked me to collect from her mother, Mrs. Rivera, the fifty pesos she owed her. That was actually the third time that I was dispatched by my mother to their house, which to me looked more like a chicken coop painted white. At first, I did not like the idea of wasting half an hour going there and back. I wanted to be with my cousins flying kites in the fields, but Papa’s thick leather belt nudged me into obeying my mother’s request.

This third time visiting Mrs. Rivera’s house was like the first two: no one answered my knocking. But since the front door was left ajar, I gave in to the temptation of peering in to take a look inside their little shanty. The house was bare and very dark with unwashed dishes lying all over the place. A faded picture of Our Lady was the sole adornment inside. I noticed a little girl leaving from the back door.

“Hoy!” I timidly called after her, but as she seemed not to hear, I decided to find out where she was going.

She looked back and saw me following her. I could never forget the look on her face—those black eyes that casually disappeared when she smiled, those deeply-set dimples formed with every grin, her long sun-bleached hair that swayed in the air every time she shook her head.

She was but seven-and-a-half years old at that time, while I had just turned eight a week ago. While still looking at me, she began picking up pieces of twigs and empty rice sacks and built herself a shade where she could hide from the scorching two o’clock sun.

Looking at me with eyes that neither expressed surprise nor annoyance, she tried vainly to hitch a strand of string to the branch of a mango tree that was hanging a little over her head. I approached her and took from her hand the string and tied it to where she wanted it. A tingling sensation surged in me when my hand touched hers, which was small and fragile like a baby’s. I immediately withdrew my hand, embarrassed and nervous, and looked down at my feet.

Seeing me behave like this, she sheepishly smiled revealing her chaffed front teeth, without which her beauty would have been perfect. I smiled back at her and for the first time I knew how an innocent girl’s smile could be more refreshing than the gentlest breeze.

That afternoon, we spent the rest of the day building what we eventually called our bahay-bahayan: a playhouse to adults, but a home to us.

The next day, I brought along with me old plywood that I smuggled from my father’s backyard, along with some huge milk cartons I stole from my mother’s sari-sari store. Emilia, on her part, brought her colorful but cheap kitchen play-set and a rag doll with a missing left arm which she lovingly called Lourdes.

While Emilia kept herself busy arranging things in our home, I gathered some banana leaves that would serve as walls. When I arrived, our plastic pots and pans were already neatly arranged over a slab of wood.

She beckoned me to enter through the flapping rice sack which served as a door. As soon as I entered and sat beside her, she scooped imaginary rice steaming from her pot and placed it on a green plate. She likewise poured me some juice from her pitcher and we silently partook of the meal that Emilia lovingly prepared. I pretended that the juice was sour and the rice mushy. She responded with a hurt look while she carried in her bosom our little Lourdes with a missing arm. Then I embraced her tightly and rocked her and Lourdes lovingly and told her that that was the nicest meal I ever had.

Her eyes shone like a thousand shimmering lights all aglow. I felt heaven near and heard the whir of cherubs’ wings.

And like in many households where husband and wife live together, the day passed, night came, and we had to sleep. Imitating my father who never failed to kiss my mother goodnight, I approached Emilia and kissed her little quivering lips. She giggled but said not a word. I feigned that I was already asleep just to take a look at her and I saw that she was looking back at me. And so we both closed our eyes and faked sleep, casually glancing at each other to see if either were asleep.

There, in Santa Inez, I spent all my summer afternoons with Emilia; in our home, acting like a dutiful husband to her and a good father to Lourdes. It was the happiest summer I spent in all my life. I wished that it would never end.

But days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to two full months, and we had to say goodbye because I had to attend school in the city. I promised to return every summer to visit our home and our daughter. It was a promise that even a boy of eight–still untainted by malice–would not be able to fulfill. She cried inconsolably while she hugged our little Lourdes. I felt a sudden stab in my chest that lingered on for years. I kissed her goodbye and handed her a scarf with which to wrap Lourdes during cold December nights.

Ten years later, I found myself back in Santa Inez to attend my grandmother’s burial. It happened that as I was passing by the road that led home, I saw the old mango tree where we used to fasten our mock walls. It was a mere stump with a few dying branches remaining. Tufts of grass were growing where we used to have our home. Everything else remained the same.

Emilia died six months after I left her. That was what I learned from my cousins. She was alone in her house when it happened. Some said it was TB, others that it was due to a high fever, and some even believed it was starvation. I told myself I could not care anymore.

I walked near the mango tree and felt its rough bark toughened by rain and the merciless sun. Something caught my eyes. At the very base of the tree, where roots were gnarled and twisted, there was a hole. I knelt down to take a better look at it. I gently pulled from the hole something wrapped in a muslin bag—a tattered bundle of cloth, awkwardly tied, dirty, and moist. When I unfurled the cloth, which to my surprise was actually a scarf, I saw a very old doll with a missing left arm.

Emilia.

She was smitten by a cruel December wind while her little Lourdes was cozy and warm in her blanket.