The Centipede by Rony V. Diaz

The Centipede by Rony V. DiazWHEN I saw my sister, Delia, beating my dog with a stick, I felt hate heave like a caged, angry beast in my chest. Out in the sun, the hair of my sister glinted like metal and, in her brown dress, she looked like a sheathed dagger. Biryuk hugged the earth and screamed but I could not bound forward nor cry out to my sister. She had a weak heart and she must not be surprised. So I held myself, my throat swelled, and I felt hate rear and plunge in its cage of ribs.

I WAS thirteen when my father first took me hunting. All through the summer of that year, I had tramped alone and unarmed the fields and forest around our farm. Then one afternoon in late July my father told me I could use his shotgun.

Beyond the ipil grove, in a grass field we spotted a covey of brown pigeons. In the open, they kept springing to the air and gliding away every time we were within range. But finally they dropped to the ground inside a wedge of guava trees. My father pressed my shoulder and I stopped. Then slowly, in a half-crouch, we advanced. The breeze rose lightly; the grass scuffed against my bare legs. My father stopped again. He knelt down and held my hand.

“Wait for the birds to rise and then fire,” he whispered.

I pushed the safety lever of the rifle off and sighted along the barrel. The saddle of the stock felt greasy on my cheek. The gun was heavy and my arm muscles twitched. My mouth was dry; I felt vaguely sick. I wanted to sit down.

“You forgot to spit,” my father said.

Father had told me that hunters always spat for luck before firing. I spat and I saw the breeze bend the ragged, glassy threads of spittle toward the birds.

“That’s good,” Father said.

“Can’t we throw a stone,” I whispered fiercely. “It’s taking them a long time.”

“No, you’ve to wait.”

Suddenly, a small dog yelping shrilly came tearing across the brooding plain of grass and small trees. It raced across the plain in long slewy swoops, on outraged shanks that disappeared and flashed alternately in the light of the cloud-banked sun. One of the birds whistled and the covey dispersed like seeds thrown in the wind. I fired and my body shook with the fierce momentary life of the rifle. I saw three pigeons flutter in a last convulsive effort to stay afloat, then fall to the ground. The shot did not scare the dog. He came to us, sniffing cautiously. He circled around us until I snapped my fingers and then he came me.

“Not bad,” my father said grinning. “Three birds with one tube.” I went to the brush to get the birds. The dog ambled after me. He found the birds for me. The breast of one of the birds was torn. The bird had fallen on a spot where the earth was worn bare, and its blood was spread like a tiny, red rag. The dog scraped the blood with his tongue. I picked up the birds and its warm, mangled flesh clung to the palm of my hand.

“You’re keen,” I said to the dog. “Here. Come here.” I offered him my bloody palm. He came to me and licked my palm clean.

I gave the birds to my father. “May I keep him, Father?” I said pointing to the dog. He put the birds in a leather bag which he carried strapped around his waist.

Father looked at me a minute and then said: “Well, I’m not sure. That dog belongs to somebody.”

“May I keep him until his owner comes for him?” I pursued.

“He’d make a good pointer,” Father remarked. “But I would not like my son to be accused of dog-stealing.”

“Oh, no!” I said quickly. “I shall return him when the owner comes to claim him.”

“All right,” he said, “I hope that dog makes a hunter out of you.”

Biryuk and I became fast friends. Every afternoon after school we went to the field to chase quails or to the bank of the river which was fenced by tall, blade-sharp reeds to flush snipes. Father was away most of the time but when he was home he hunted with us.

BIRYUK scampered off and my sister flung the stick at him. Then she turned about and she saw me.

“Eddie, come here,” she commanded. I approached with apprehension. Slowly, almost carefully, she reached over and twisted my ear.

“I don’t want to see that dog again in the house,” she said coldly. “That dog destroyed my slippers again. I’ll tell Berto to kill that dog if I see it around again.” She clutched one side of my face with her hot, moist hand and shoved me, roughly. I tumbled to the ground. But I did not cry or protest. I had passed that phase. Now, every word and gesture she hurled at me I caught and fed to my growing and restless hate.

MY sister was the meanest creature I knew. She was eight when I was born, the day my mother died. Although we continued to live in the same house, she had gone, it seemed, to another country from where she looked at me with increasing annoyance and contempt.

One of my first solid memories was of standing before a grass hut. Its dirt floor was covered with white banana stalks, and there was a small box filled with crushed and dismembered flowers in one corner. A doll was cradled in the box. It was my sister’s playhouse and I remembered she told me to keep out of it. She was not around so I went in. The fresh banana hides were cold under my feet. The interior of the hut was rife with the sour smell of damp dead grass. Against the flowers, the doll looked incredibly heavy. I picked it up. It was slight but it had hard, unflexing limbs. I tried to bend one of the legs and it snapped. I stared with horror at the hollow tube that was the leg of the doll. Then I saw my sister coming. I hid the leg under one of the banana pelts. She was running and I knew she was furious. The walls of the hut suddenly constricted me. I felt sick with a nameless pain. My sister snatched the doll from me and when she saw the torn leg she gasped. She pushed me hard and I crashed against the wall of the hut. The flimsy wall collapsed over me. I heard my sister screaming; she denounced me in a high, wild voice and my body ached with fear. She seized one of the saplings that held up the hut and hit me again and again until the flesh of my back and thighs sang with pain. Then suddenly my sister moaned; she stiffened, the sapling fell from her hand and quietly, as though a sling were lowering her, she sank to the ground. Her eyes were wild as scud and on the edges of her lips,. drawn tight over her teeth, quivered a wide lace of froth. I ran to the house yelling for Father.

She came back from the hospital in the city, pale and quiet and mean, drained, it seemed, of all emotions, she moved and acted with the keen, perversity and deceptive dullness of a sheathed knife, concealing in her body that awful power for inspiring fear and pain and hate, not always with its drawn blade but only with its fearful shape, defined by the sheath as her meanness was defined by her body.

Nothing I did ever pleased her. She destroyed willfully anything I liked. At first, I took it as a process of adaptation, a step of adjustment; I snatched and crushed every seed of anger she planted in me, but later on I realized that it had become a habit with her. I did not say anything when she told Berto to kill my monkey because it snickered at her one morning, while she was brushing her teeth. I did not say anything when she told Father that she did not like my pigeon house because it stank and I had to give away my pigeons and Berto had to chop the house into kindling wood. I learned how to hold myself because I knew we had to put up with her whims to keep her calm and quiet. But when she dumped my butterflies into a waste can and burned them in the backyard, I realized that she was spiting me.

My butterflies never snickered at her and they did not smell. I kept them in an unused cabinet in the living room and unless she opened the drawers, they were out of her sight. And she knew too that my butterfly collection had grown with me. But when I arrived home, one afternoon, from school, I found my butterflies in a can, burned in their cotton beds like deckle. I wept and Father had to call my sister for an explanation. She stood straight and calm before Father but my tear-logged eyes saw only her harsh and arrogant silhouette. She looked at me curiously but she did not say anything and Father began gently to question her. She listened politely and when Father had stopped talking, she said without rush, heat or concern: “They were attracting ants.”

I RAN after Biryuk. He had fled to the brambles. I ran after him, bugling his name. I found him under a low, shriveled bush. I called him and he only whimpered. Then I saw that one of his eyes was bleeding. I sat on the ground and looked closer. The eye had been pierced. The stick of my sister had stabbed the eye of my dog. I was stunned. ,For a long time I sat motionless, staring at Biryuk. Then I felt hate crouch; its paws dug hard into the floor of its cage; it bunched muscles tensed; it held itself for a minute and then it sprang and the door of the cage crashed open and hate clawed wildly my brain. I screamed. Biryuk, frightened, yelped and fled, rattling the dead bush that sheltered him. I did not run after him.

A large hawk wheeled gracefully above a group of birds. It flew in a tightening spiral above the birds.

On my way back to the house, I passed the woodshed. I saw Berto in the shade of a tree, splitting wood. He was splitting the wood he had stacked last year. A mound of bone-white slats was piled near his chopping block When he saw me, he stopped and called me.

His head was drenched with sweat. He brushed away the sweat and hair from his eyes and said to me: “I’ve got something for you.”

He dropped his ax and walked into the woodshed. I followed him. Berto went to a corner of the shed. I saw a jute sack spread on the ground. Berto stopped and picked up the sack.

“Look,” he said.

I approached. Pinned to the ground by a piece of wood, was a big centipede. Its malignantly red body twitched back and forth.

“It’s large,” I said.

“I found him under the stack I chopped.” Berto smiled happily; he looked at me with his muddy eyes.

“You know,” he said. “That son of a devil nearly frightened me to death”

I stiffened. “Did it, really?” I said trying to control my rising voice. Berto was still grinning and I felt hot all over.

“I didn’t expect to find any centipede here,” he said. “It nearly bit me. Who wouldn’t get shocked?” He bent and picked up a piece of wood.

“This wood was here,” he said and put down the block. “Then I picked it up, like this. And this centipede was coiled here. Right here. I nearly touched it with my hand. What do you think you would feel?”

I did not answer. I squatted to look at the reptile. Its antennae quivered searching the tense afternoon air. I picked up a sliver of wood and prodded the centipede. It uncoiled viciously. Its pinchers slashed at the tiny spear.

“I could carry it dead,” I said half-aloud.

“Yes,” Berto said. “I did not kill him because I knew you would like it.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“That’s bigger than the one you found last year, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s very much bigger.”

I stuck the sliver into the carapace of the centipede. It went through the flesh under the red armor; a whitish liquid oozed out. Then I made sure it was dead by brushing its antennae. The centipede did not move. I wrapped it in a handkerchief.

My sister was enthroned in a large chair in the porch of the house. Her back was turned away from the door; she sat facing the window She was embroidering a strip of white cloth. I went near, I stood behind her chair. She was not aware of my presence. I unwrapped the centipede. I threw it on her lap.

My sister shrieked and the strip of white sheet flew off like an unhanded hawk. She shot up from her chair, turned around and she saw me but she collapsed again to her chair clutching her breast, doubled up with pain The centipede had fallen to the floor.

“You did it,” she gasped. “You tried to kill me. You’ve health… life… you tried…” Her voice dragged off into a pain-stricken moan.

I was engulfed by a sudden feeling of pity and guilt.

“But it’s dead!” I cried kneeling before her. “It’s dead! Look! Look!” I snatched up the centipede and crushed its head between my fingers. “It’s dead!”

My sister did not move. I held the centipede before her like a hunter displaying the tail of a deer, save that the centipede felt thorny in my hand. Ω

©1952 by Rony V. Diaz