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SERVANT GIRL
by Estrella D. Alfon

Servant Girl
©2001 by Copper Sturgeon

 

ROSA was scrubbing the clothes she was washing slowly. Alone in the washroom of her mistress’ house she could hear the laughter of women washing clothes in the public bathhouse from which she was separated by only a thin wall. She would have liked to be there with the other women to take part in their jokes and their laughter and their merry gossiping, but they paid a centavo for every piece of soiled linen they brought there to wash and her mistress wanted to save this money.

A pin she had failed to remove from a dress sank its point deep into her fin­ger. She cried to herself in surprise and squeezed the finger until the blood came out. She watched the bright red drop fall into the suds of soap and looked in delight at its gradual mingling into the whiteness. Her mistress came upon her thus and, shouting at her, startled her into busily rubbing while she tried not to listen to the scolding words.

When her mistress left her, she fell to doing her work slowly again, and sometimes she paused to listen to the talk in the bathhouse behind her. A little later her mistress’ shrill voice told her to go to the bathhouse for drinking water. Eagerly wiping her hands on her wet wrap, she took the can from the kitchen table and went out quickly.

She was sweating at the defective town pump when strong hands closed over hers and started to help her. The hands pressing down on hers made her wince and she withdrew her hands hastily. The movement was greeted by a shout of laughter from the women washing and Rosa looked at them in surprise. The women said to each other “Rosa does not like to be touched by Sancho” and then slapped their thighs in laughter. Rosa frowned and picked up her can. Sancho made a move to help her but she thrust him away, and the women roared again, saying “Because we are here, Sancho, she is ashamed.”

Rosa carried the can away, her head angrily down, and Sancho followed her, saying “Do not be angry,” in coaxing tones. But she went her slow way with the can.

Her mistress’ voice came to her, calling impatiently, and she tried to hurry. When she arrived, the woman asked her what had kept her so long, and without waiting for an answer she ranted on, saying she had heard the women joking in the bathhouse, and she knew what had kept the girl so long. Her anger mounting with every angry word she said, she finally swung out an arm, and before she quite knew what she was doing, she slapped Rosa’s face.

She was sorry as soon as she realized what she had done. She turned away, muttering still, while Rosa’s eyes filled with sudden tears. The girl poured the water from the can into the earthen jar, a bitter lump in her throat, and thought of what she would do to people like her mistress when she herself, God willing, would be “rich.” Soon however, she thought of Sancho, and the jokes the women had shouted at her. She thought of their laughter and Sancho following her with his coaxing tones, and she smiled slowly.

Getting back to her washing, she gathered the clothes she had to bleach, and piled them into a basin she balanced on her head. Passing her mistress in the kitchen, she said something about going to bleach the clothes and under her breath added an epithet. She had to cross the street to get to the stones gathered about in a whitened circle in a neighbor’s yard where she was wont to lay out the clothes. She passed some women hanging clothes on a barbed-wire fence to dry. They called to her and she smiled at them.

Some dogs chasing each other on the street, she did not notice because the women were praising her for the whiteness of the linen in the basin on her head. She was answering them that she hadn’t even bleached them yet, when one of the dogs passed swiftly very close to her. Looking down, she saw in wide alarm another dog close on the heels of the first. An instinctive fear of animals made her want to dodge the heedlessly running dog, and she stepped gingerly this way and that. The dog, intent on the other it was pursuing, gave her no heed and ran right between her legs as Rosa held on to the basin in frantic fear lest it fall and the clothes get soiled. Her patadiong was tight in their wetness about her legs, and she fell down, in the middle of the street. She heard the other women’s exclamations of alarm and her first thought was for the clothes. Without getting up, she looked at the basin and gave obscene thanks when she saw the clothes still piled secure and undirtied. She tried to get up, hurrying lest her mistress come out and see her thus and slap her again. Already the women were setting up a great to do about what had happened. Some were coming to her, loudly abusing the dogs, solicitousness on their faces. Rosa cried, “Nothing’s the matter with me.” Still struggling to get up, she noticed that her wrap had been loosened and had bared her breasts. She looked around wildly, sudden shame coloring her cheeks, and raised the wrap and tied it securely around herself again.

She could stand but she found she could not walk. The women had gone back to their drying, seeing she was up and apparently nothing the worse for the accident. Rosa looked down at her right foot which twinged with pain. She stooped to pick up the basin and put it on her head again. She tried stepping on the toes of her right foot but it made her wince. She tried the heel but that also made her bite her lip. Already her foot above the ankle was swelling. She thought of the slap her mistress had given her for staying in the bathhouse too long and the slap she was most certain to get now for delaying like this. But she couldn’t walk, that was settled.

Then there came down the street a tartanilla without any occupant except the cochero who rang his bell, but she couldn’t move away from the middle of the street. She looked up at the driver and started angrily to tell him that there was plenty of room at the sides of the street, and that she couldn’t move anyway, even if there weren’t. The man jumped down from his seat and bent down and looked at her foot. The basin was still on Rosa’s head and he took it from her, and put it in his vehicle. Then he squatted down and bidding Rosa put a hand on his shoulders to steady herself, he began to touch with gentle fingers the swelling ankle, pulling at it and massaging it. They were still in the middle of the street. Rosa looked around to see if the women were still there to look at them but they had gone away. There was no one but a small boy licking a candy stick, and he wasn’t paying any attention to them. The cochero looked up at her, the sweat on his face, saw her looking around with pain and embarrassment mingled on her face. Then, so swiftly she found no time to protest, he closed his arms about her knees and lifted her like a child. He carried her to his tartanilla, plumped her down on one of the seats. Then he left her, coming back after a short while with some coconut oil in the hollow of his palm. He rubbed the oil on her foot, and massaged it. He was seated on the seat opposite Rosa’s and had raised the injured foot to his thigh, letting it rest there, despite Rosa’s protest, on his blue faded trousers. The basin of wet clothes was beside Rosa on the seat and she fingered the clothing with fluttering hands. The cochero asked her where she lived and she told him, pointing out the house. He asked what had happened, and she recited the whole thing to him, stopping with embarrassment when she remembered the loosening of her patadiongand the nakedness of her bosom. How glad she was he had not seen her thus. The cochero had finished with her foot, and she slid from the seat, her basin on a hip. But he took it from her, asking her to tell him where the bleaching stones were. He went then, and himself laid out the white linen on the stones, knowing like a woman, which part to turn to the sun.

He came back after a while, just as Rosa heard with frightened ears the call of her mistress. She snatched the basin from the cochero’s hand and despite the pain caused her, limped away.

She told her mistress about the accident. The woman did not do anything save to scold her lightly for being careless. Then she looked at the swollen foot and asked who had put oil on it. Rosa was suddenly shy of having to let anyone know about her cochero, so she said she had asked for a little oil at the store and put it on her foot herself. Her mistress was unusually tolerant, and Rosa forgot about the slapping and said to herself this was a day full of luck!

It was with very sharp regret that she thought of her having forgotten to ask the cochero his name. Now, in the days that followed, she thought of him, the way he had wound an arm around her knees and carried her like a little girl. She dreamed about the gentleness of his fingers. She smiled remembering the way he had laid out the clothes on stones to bleach. She knew that meant he must do his own washing. And she ached in ten­derness over him and his need for a woman like her to do such things for him—things like mending the straight tear she had noticed at the knee of his trousers when her foot had rested on them; like measuring his tartanilla seat cushions for him, and making them, and stringing them on his vehicle. She thought of the names for men she knew and called him by it in thinking of him, ever afterwards. In her thoughts she spoke to him and he always answered.

She found time to come out on the street for a while, every day. Sometimes she would sweep the yard or trim the scraggly hedge of viola bushes; or she would loiter on an errand for tomatoes or vinegar. She said to herself, He dreams of me too, and he thinks of me. He passes here every day wishing to see me. She never saw him pass, but she said to herself, He passes just when I am in the house, that’s why I never see him.

Some tartanilla would pass, and if she could, as soon as she heard the sound of the wheels, she looked out of a window, hoping it would be Angel’s. Sometimes she would sing very loudly, if she felt her mistress was in a good humor and not likely to object. She told herself that if he could not see her, he would at least wish to hear her voice.

She longed no more to be part of the group about the water tank in the bathhouse. She thought of the women there and their jokes and she smiled, in pity, because they did not have what she had, some one by the name of Angel, who knew how to massage injured feet back to being good for walking and who knew how to lay out clothes for bleaching.

When they teased her about Sancho, who insisted on pumping her can full every time she went for drinking water, she smiled at the women and at the man, full of her hidden knowledge about someone picking her up and being gentle with her. She was too full of this secret joy to mind their teasing. Where before she had been openly angry and secretly pleased, now she was indifferent. She looked at Sancho and thought him very rude beside… beside Angel. He always put his hands over hers when she made a move to pump water. He always spoke to her about not being angry with the women’s teasing. She thought he was merely trying to show off. And when one day Sancho said, “Do not mind their teasing; they would tease you more if they knew I really feel like they say I do,” she glared at him and thought him unbearably ill-mannered. She spat out of the corner of her mouth, letting him see the grimace of distaste she made when she did so, and seeing Sancho’s disturbed face, she thought, If Angel knew, he’d strike you a big blow. But she was silent and proud and unsmiling. Sancho looked after her with the heavy can of water held by one hand, the other hand flung out to balance herself against the weight. He waited for her to turn and smile at him as she sometimes did, but she simply went her way. He flung his head up and then laughed snortingly.

Rosa’s mistress made her usual bad-humored sallies against her fancied slowness. Noticing Rosa’s sudden excursions into the street, she made remarks and asked curious questions. Always the girl had an excuse and her mistress soon made no further questions. And unless she was in bad temper, she was amused at her servant’s attempts at singing.

One night she sent the maid to a store for wine. Rosa came back with a broken bottle empty of all its contents. Sudden anger at the waste and the loss made her strike out with closed fists, not caring where her blows landed until the girl was in tears. It often touched her when she saw Rosa crying and cowering, but now the woman was too angry to pity.

It never occurred to Rosa that she could herself strike out and return every blow. Her mistress was thirtyish, with peaked face and thin frame, and Rosa’s strong arms, used to pounding clothes and carrying water, could easily have done her hurt. But Rosa merely cried and cried, saying now and then Aruy! Aruy!, until the woman, exhausted by her own anger left off striking the girl to sit down in a chair, curse loudly about the loss of such good wine, and ask where she was going to get the money to buy another bottle.

Rosa folded her clothes into a neat bundle, wrapped them in her blanket, and getting out her slippers, thrust her feet into them. She crept out of a door without her mistress seeing her and told herself she’d never come back to that house again.

It would have been useless to tell her mistress how the bottle had been broken, and the wine spilled. She had been walking alone in the street hurrying to the wine store, and Sancho had met her. They had talked; he begging her to let him walk with her and she saying her mistress would be angry if she saw. Sancho had insisted and they had gone to the store and bought the wine, and then going home, her foot had struck a sharp stone. She had bent to hold a foot up, looking at the sole to see if the stone had made it bleed. Her dress had a wide, deep neck, and it must have hung away from her body when she bent. Anyway, she had looked up to find Sancho looking into the neck of her dress. His eyes were turned hastily away as soon as she straightened up, and she thought she could do nothing but hold her peace. But after a short distance in their resumed walk home, he had stopped to pick up a long twig lying on the ground. With deft strokes he had drawn twin sharp peaks on the ground. They looked merely like the zigzags one does draw playfully with any stick, but Rosa, having seen him looking into her dress while she bent over, now became so angry that she swung out and with all her force struck him on the check with her open palm. He reeled from the unexpected blow, and quickly steadied himself while Rosa shot name after name at him. Anger rose in his face. It was nearly dark, and there was no one else on the street. He laughed, short angry laughter, and called her back name for name. Rosa approached him and made to slap him again, but Sancho was too quick for her. He had slipped out of her way and himself slapped her instead. The surprise of it angered her into sudden tears. She swung up the bottle of wine she had held tightly in one hand, and ran after the man to strike him with it. Sancho slapped her arm so hard that she dropped the bottle. The man had run away laughing, calling back a final undeserved name at her, leaving her to look with tears at the wine seeping into the ground. Some people had come toward her then, asking what had happened. She had stooped, picked up the biggest piece of glass, and hurried back to her mistress, wondering whether she would be believed and forgiven.

Rosa walked down street after street. She had long ago wiped the tears from her face, and her thoughts were of a place to sleep, for it was late at night. She told herself she would kill Sancho if she ever saw him again. She picked up a stone from the road, saying, I wish a cold wind would strike him dead, and so on; and the stone she grasped tightly, say­ing, If I meet him now, I would throw this at him, and aim so well that I would surely hit him.

She rubbed her arm in memory of the numbing blow the man had dealt it, and touched her face with furious shame for the slap he had dared to give her. Her fists closed more tightly about the stone and she looked about her as if she expected Sancho to appear.

She thought of her mistress. She had been almost a year in the woman’s employ. Usually she stayed in a place, at the most, for four months. Sometimes it was the master’s smirking ways and evil eyes, sometimes it was the children’s bullying demands. She had stayed with this last mistress because in spite of her spells of bad humor, there were periods afterward when she would be generous with money for a dress, or for a cine with other maids. And they had been alone, the two of them. Sometimes the mistress would get so drunk that she would slobber into her drink and mumble of persons that must have died. When she was helpless she might perhaps have starved if Rosa had not forcibly fed her. Now, however, thought of the fierce beating the woman had given her made Rosa cry a little and repeat her vow that she would never step into the house again.

Then she thought of Angel, the cochero who had been gentle, and she lost her tears in thinking how he would never have done what Sancho did. If he knew what had happened to her, he would come running now and take her to his own home, and she would not have to worry about a place to sleep this night. She wandered about, not stopping at those places where she knew she would be accepted if she tried, her mind full of the injustices she had received and of comparisons between Sancho and Angel. She paused every time a tartanilla came her way, peering intently into the face of the cochero, hoping it would be he, ready to break her face into smiles if it were indeed. She carried her bundle on her arm all this while, now clenching a fist about the stone she still had not dropped and gnashing her teeth.

She had been walking about for quite a while, feeling not very tired, having no urgent need to hurry about finding herself a place, so sharp her hopes were of somehow seeing her cochero on the streets. That was all she cared about, that she must walk into whatever street she came to, because only in that way would he see her and learn what they had done to her.

Then, turning into a street full of stores set side by side, she felt the swish of a horse almost brushing against her. She looked up angrily at the cochero’s laughing remark about his whip missing her beautiful bust. An offense like that, so soon after all her grief at what Sancho had done, inflamed her into passionate anger, and mouthing a quick curse, she flung the stone in her hand at the cochero on his seat. It was rather dark and she did not quite see his face. But apparently she hit something, for he suddenly yelled a stop at the horse, clambered down, and ran back to her, demanding the reason for her throwing the stone. She exclaimed hotly at his offense with the whip, and then looking up into his face, she gasped. She gasped and said, “Angel!”

For it was he. He was wearing a striped shirt, like so many other people were wearing, and he had on the very same trousers of dark blue he had worn when he massaged her foot. But he gazed at her in nothing but anger, asking whether her body was so precious that she would kill his horse. Also, why did she keep saying Angel; that was not his name!

Rosa kept looking up at him not hearing a word of his threats about taking her to the municipio, saying only Angel, Angel, in spite of his protests that that was not his name. At last she understood that the cochero did not even remember her and she realized how empty her thoughts of him now were. Even his name was not Angel. She turned suddenly to walk away from him, saying, “You do not even remember me.”

The cochero peered at her face and exclaimed after a while, “Oh yes! the girl with the swollen foot!” Rosa forgot all the emptiness, forgot the sudden sinking of her heart when she had realized that even he would flick his whip at a girl alone on the road, and lifted her smiling face at him, stopping suddenly to tell him her foot had healed very quickly. The cochero asked her after a while where she was going, and she said breathlessly, without knowing just why she answered so, “I am going home!” He asked no questions about where she had been, why she was so late. He bade her ride in his vehicle, grandly saying he would not make her pay, and then, with many a loud exclamation to his horse, he drove her to her mistress’ house.

Rosa didn’t tell him what had happened. Nor anything about her dreams. She merely answered the questions the cochero asked her about how she had been. “With the grace of God, all right, thank you.” Once he made her a sly joke about his knowing there were simply lots of men courting her. Rosa laughed breathlessly and denied it. She wished they would never arrive, but they soon did. The cochero waited for her to get out, and then drove off, saying “Don’t mention it” to her many thanks. She ran after the tartanilla when it had gone off a little way, and asked, running beside the moving vehicle, looking up into his face, “What is your name?”

The cochero shouted, without stopping his horse, “Pedro” and continued to drive away.

Rosa went into the house without hesitation, forgetting all her vows about never stepping into it again and wondering why it was so still. She turned on the lights and found her mistress sleeping at a table with her head cradled in her arms, a new wine bottle before her, empty now of all its contents. With an arm about the thin woman’s waist, she half dragged her into her bed. When the woman would wake, she would say nothing, remembering nothing. Rosa turned on the light in the kitchen and hummed her preparations for a meal. Ω

This 1937 classic always makes it to everyone’s list of outstanding 20th century Philippine stories.

 

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