by Luisa A. Igloria

Our Overseas Contract Workers are the new heroes
of the Philippines –Fidel V. Ramos

In Hong Kong last summer
my office mate and I took
turns, smiling for pictures
in front of “The Court of Final
Appeal,” as a joke, or maybe
in a kind of atonement–because
two women boarding the same
ferry we took that morning said,
in the dialect they were sure
we would recognize, Is it
your day off too?

One of them had a quick, nervous way
of smiling, as if ready to take it back
if we had turned on them with
indignation. The other was clearly
ready to challenge, if the well-
intentioned expression of solidarity
were read otherwise. It was a day
filled with rainclouds, a sky
the color of aluminum, the dull
sheen on the inside of an old
rice cooker.

Yes, we smiled, it’s our day, off
too. Is your amo kind? ventured the younger
of the two, shyly. Yes, we said, thinking of the air-
conditioned offices and computers we had left behind
for two weeks of r & r, as we leant back on the green
railing. The boat punched forward, toward the red
and yellow buildings, the rickshaws lined up
in the shade.

Mine too, she said; now. But the first one…
and her voice trailed like a scarf over the water,
hesitating. We had to force our way in,
said her friend, picking up the thread. I called
the center, you know, the one near the church?
Migrante. She was this close to being raped.
Did you hear about the last one? The one
who threw herself off the hospital roof?
Instead of an autopsy they scraped
her insides clean, stuffed her
with cotton. Now no one can
prove anything.

If the body can keep secrets, what can it tell
of them? The body as a scroll: what calligraphy,
what message, did that woman’s family unwrap
when they received her body aerogrammed
in a bronze casket? For so many dollars,
you can get your name carved
in ideographs on an inked stamp
that is also called a chop.

The shy one asks me to braid her hair.
She calls me ate, older sister. She shows me
the scar on her left leg from shimmying
down a mango tree in their old backyard
at home. She has just turned nineteen,
and her smile can still be
warm as a ripe mango.

I run my fingers through the ink of her hair,
dividing into three sections. What was loose
and rippling in the wind, she has let me gather
in my hand. I braid, picking up the faint scent
of coconut oil; yeasty, warm, like good bread,
rising. She could be my daughter, my niece,
my cousin, my best friend.

Our new friends take us to the Central Station
where they will share a picnic meal
with others: garlic pork and rice, sour
broth, rice cakes, meat stewed in blood
gravy. They will talk, exchange
numbers, letters, news of better
openings, the meanings of insults
in a foreign language; pictures of grade
school children proudly stepping up
to receive medals on closing
day at school. Their hands
the size of their sleeping

Even on their day off, the army
ponders the different ways
to share strength in the many
lands of the enemy, abroad
where they are known
by only one
©1998 by Luisa A. Igloria

First appeared in the November 21, 1998 issue of Philippines Free Press