Of Filth and Whiteness
I remember the stones: always oblong, some multicolored, many solid black and shiny. I remember wondering why they lingered on the ledge of our shower. Sometimes, water raining upon me, I gripped one of those stones: felt its weight, its solidity, its power. Sometimes I pretended to be a pitcher on a rubber mound, bases loaded, two strikes, three balls, two outs, and the drizzle blurring my visions as a cacophony of cheers reverberated against our tiled shower.
When my Filipino mother bathed, I used to try to sneak a peek at that stone, wondering what she used it for: secret prayers – some island voodoo, scraping chunks of dead skin from her tiny feet, or did she stick it into cracks and crevices – the shower’s or even her own? I used to army crawl, elbows and knees, along the linoleum floor. I held my breath when her silhouette crinkled the shower curtain. Closed my eyes believing that if I couldn’t see her she couldn’t see me. My sweat mixed with the humidity of the hot water that often left her mahogany-colored skin red for an hour after her evening wash. But no form of bathroom espionage allowed for me to realize the use of that stone.
All through my early years, I wondered about those stones. I dared not ask about it for fear of my white father overhearing our non-American conversation. He never allowed Mother to tell us about her land, her home, her village of somewhere, on the island of I don’t know because all of his flying fists blocked my opportunities to learn about my brown half. We were forbade from learning Mother’s language in his house, but we secreted a few words: mahal kita, I love you, which Mother whispered to me when father had his flabby, white back turned from us.
I once noticed an oblong stone on the floorboards of our silver Volkswagen Rabbit. I thought it strange, lying there under the passenger seat, peeking from beneath the black carpet. I was a teenager then. I held my Walkman in my hands and I wore cheap, orange headphones. Gangster rap blaring into my innocent, yet wanting to be cool, ears. I stared at that slick, middle-finger-sized object. I had on my swim trunks and a tank top. A towel under me, preventing the river water that had soaked into my shorts from seeping into our backseat. We often visited state parks on weekends. Flip Flops dangled from my ashy feet. After a few minutes of staring and pondering, I touched that stone with my long middle toe. I jerked my foot back for fear of a shock, a jolt, teeth chomping into my flesh. But nothing happened. I continued to question its presence: how did you get here, will I have bad luck now that we have stolen you from the river?
The next time we went to the state park, I scurried off the moment we finished setting up camp. Nothing seemed unusual about my wanderings because I was a teenager and I often raced from my father, especially during outings as I became his serf – gathering firewood to heat his throne, sweeping and tending to his kingdom, juggling or reciting sonnets or whatever servants did in a king’s court. But I only drifted far enough away to snoop Mother’s movements.
I watched as her tiny hands gathered things – a towel, a plastic squeeze bottle, a hair tie. I observed her peck father’s plump cheek. I started to stalk Mother, but stopped when she looked up at- and basked in-the sunlight that sliced through the pine trees that protected my father’s claimed dominion. I can recall wanting to be that brightness that held Mother’s undivided attention at that moment. A couple of seconds later and in a blink of an eye, Mother beat feet from our camp.
Mother moved with agility. I had never seen her glide over felled logs or traverse long hills or even march along city sidewalks the way she hovered in that moment. I jogged to keep pace. I jumped over stumps, ducked under branches, cracked stick after stick to maintain her pace. Sweat dripped from my peach-fuzzed chin and my sinewy calves leaked blood from the knicks and pricks of tiny thorns.
I lost Mother for a moment. Sweat poured from me – my back, my pits, my thighs. I raced up hills. I heard the buzz of mosquitoes. I moved from trunk to trunk. Squirrels scampered in fear. I sprinted to and fro. Then I heard her soft, out-of-tune voice singing:
Dandansoy, bayaan ta ikaw
Pauli ako sa payaw
Ugaling kung ikaw hidlawon
ang payaw imo lang lantawon.
Dandansoy, kung imo apason
Bisan tubig di magbalon
Ugaling kung ikaw uhawon
Sa dalan magbubon-bubon.
I had never heard Mother sing in Tagalog before. I know she often woke before the light to write letters, and to make sticky-white rice for our lunches, and to do all the other things that a good Filipina housewife should do. But I had never heard her sing in her native tongue.
Mother had waded knee deep into the river. Her naked body glinted from the sheen of wetness and sunlight. Her arms had been lathered in soap and in her small right hand she held a river stone, the size of her palm. I tracked that stone across Mother’s belly and breasts and thighs and cheeks. I listened to her foreign song and took in her island ways.
I stared at Mother for a few minutes longer, feeling no guilt spying her nudeness or shame for tracing that rock as it moved along her shoulders and her knees and along the dip of her neck. No offense dampened my spirit when I trekked into the waters down river, removed my musky clothes, and cleansed my body of filth and whiteness while wallowing, for the first time, in the joy of being Filipino.
James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His stories have been published in Orca, Forge Journal, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review and others. He also has published essays and poems. James teaches English at university and high school levels. You can interact with him on Insta: @james_morena.
Art: Gypsy by Paola Tavoletti who is an artist, illustrator and writer. Her works include: – Classical Lyceum – IED European Institute of Design: Diploma in Visual Communication (1978)- KLC Garden Design: Diploma, Honours- KLC Designing with Plants: Certificate, Honours (2015)- University of Hertfordshire, UK: Master Degree in Creative Arts (2019)- University of Lancaster, UK: currently enrolled in the 2nd year of the MA in Creative Writing / Poetry
Featured in international magazines: Russia Today (illustrations for literature)- Petite Hound Press (art) – Helen a Literary Magazine (art) – Poetry WTF?! (poetry/art)- Art United (art)- Women who draw (art) – Fiftiness (poetry/art) – Her Heart Poetry( poetry/art) – Adanna Literary Journal (cover art) – A5 magazine (art) – Flare Review (art) – Fiction International (cover art)- Michigan University Coloring Book (illustrations) – Juxtaprose literary magazine (illustrations) – Beyond Words (art)- the Poetry Kit Anthology’ Poetry in the Plague Year’ 2020( poetry)
– ‘Same Strange World: an Anthology of Contemporary Voices’ 2021 (Poetry)
– Collection of Poems longlisted in the ‘Premio Letterario Città di Castello’ 2021 (among the first 20 poets out of 256)