BIG SISTER by Consorcio Borje

sister“YOU can use this,” said Inciang, smiling brightly and trying to keep her tears back. “It is still quite strong, and you will not outgrow if for a year yet.”

Itong watched his sister fold his old khaki shirt carefully and pack it into the rattan tampipi, which already bulged with his clothes. He stood helplessly by, shifting his weight from one bare foot to the other, looking down at his big sister, who had always done everything for him.

“There, that’s done,” said Inciang, pressing down the lid. “Give me that rope. I’ll truss it up for you. And be careful with it, Itong? Your Tia Orin has been very kind to lend it to us for your trip to Vigan.”

Itong assented and obediently handed his sister the rope. His eyes followed her deft movements with visible impatience; his friends were waiting outside to play with him. He was twelve years old, and growing fast.

Sometimes when Inciang toiling in the kitchen, sweeping the house, or washing clothes by the well in the front yard held a long session with herself, she admitted she did not want Itong to grow. She wanted to keep him the boy that he was, always. Inciang had raised Itong from the whimpering, little, red lump of flesh that he was when their mother died soon after giving birth to him. She had been as a mother to him as long as she could remember.

“May I go out now and play, Manang?”

And Inciang heard herself saying, “It will be a year before you will see your friends again… Go now.”

She listened to the sound of his footsteps down the bamboo ladder, across the bare earthen front yard. Then she heard him whistle. There were answering whistles, running feet.

“TELL him, Inciang,” her father had said. That was about three months ago. Inciang was washing clothes by the well with Tia Orin.

“Yes, you tell him, Inciang,” said Tia Orin. It was always Inciang who had dealt with Itong if anything of importance happened.

Inciang rose to her feet. She had been squatting long over her washtub and pains shot up her spine.

“Hoy, Itong,” called Inciang. Itong was out in the street playing with Nena, Lacay Illo’s daughter. “Hoy, Itong,” called Inciang. “Come here. I have something to tell you.”

Itong gave a playful push at Nena before he came running. He smiled as he stepped over the low bamboo barrier at the gate which kept the neighbors’ pigs out. How bright his face was! Inciang’s heart skipped a beat.

“You have something to tell me, Manang?”

Inciang brushed her sudsy hands against her soiled skirt. “Yes. It is about your going to Vigan.”

Itong sat down suddenly on the barrier.

“Your are going to high school, after all, Itong,” Inciang said. She said it defiantly, as if afraid that Itong would like going away. She looked up at her father, as if to ask him to confirm her words. Father sat leaning out of the low front window, smoking his pipe.

Itong looked at her foolishly. Inciang’s heart felt heavy within her, but she said, with a little reproach, “Why, Itong, aren’t you glad? We thought you wanted to go to high school.”

Itong began to cry. He sat there in front of his father and his sister and his aunt Orin, and tears crept down his cheeks.

“The supervising principal teacher, Mr. Cablana,” went on Inciang in a rush, “came this afternoon and told us you may go to high school without paying the fees, because you are the balibictorian.”

Itong nodded.

“Now, don’t cry,” said his aunt Orin. “You are no longer a baby.”

“Yes,” added the father. “And Mr. Cablana also promised to give his laundry to Inciang, so you’ll have money for your books. Mr. Cablana is also sure to get the Castila’s laundry for Inciang, and that will do for your food, besides the rice that we shall be sending you. Stop crying.”

“Your Tata Cilin’s house is in Nagpartian, very near the high school. You will stay with him. And,” Inciang said, “I don’t have to accompany you to Vigan, Itong. You’ll ride in the passenger bus where your cousin Pedro is the conductor. Your cousin Pedro will show you where your Tata Cilin lives. Your cousin Merto, son of your uncle Cilin, will help you register in school. He is studying in the same school. Will you stop crying?”

Itong looked at Inciang, and the tears continued creeping down his cheeks. Itong was so young. Inciang began to scold him. “Is that the way you should act? Why, you’re old now!”

Then Itong ran into the house and remained inside. His father laughed heartily as he pulled at his pipe. Inciang started to laugh also, but her tears began to fall fast also, and she bent her head over her washtub and she began scrubbing industriously, while she laughed and laughed. Outside the gate, standing with her face pressed against the fence, was Nena, watching the tableau with a great wonder in her eyes.

Inciang had watched Itong grow up from a new-born baby. She was six years old when she carried him around, straddled over her hip. She kept house, did the family wash, encouraged Itong to go through primary, then intermediate school, when he showed rebellion against school authority. When he was in the second grade and could speak more English words than Inciang, her father began to laugh at her; also her Tia Orin and her brood had laughed at her.

“Schooling would never do me any good,” Inciang had said lightly.

She watched Itong go through school, ministering to his needs lovingly, doing more perhaps for him than was good for him. Once she helped him fight a gang of rowdies from the other end of the town. Or better, she fought the gang for him using the big rice ladle she was using in the kitchen at the time.

And her father had never married again, being always faithful to the memory of Inciang’s mother. The farm which he tilled produced enough rice and vegetables for the family’s use, and such few centavos as Lacay Iban would now and then need for the cockpit he got out of Inciang’s occasional sales of vegetables in the public market or of a few bundles of rice in the camarin. Few were the times when they were hard pressed for money. One was the time when Inciang’s mother died. Another was now that Itong was going to Vigan.

Inciang was working to send him away, when all she wanted was to keep him always at her side! She spent sleepless nights thinking of how Itong would fare in a strange town amidst strange people, even though their parientes would be near him. It would not be the same. She cried again and again, it would not be the same.

WHEN she finished tying up the tampipi, she pushed it to one side of the main room of the house and went to the window. Itong was with a bunch of his friends under the acacia tree across the dirt road. They were sitting on the buttress roots of the tree, chin in hand, toes making figures in the dust. And, of course, Itong’s closest friend, Nena, was there with them. Strange, Inciang thought, how Itong, even though already twelve years old, still played around with a girl.

And then, that afternoon, the departure. The passenger truck pausing at the gate. The tampipi of Itong being tossed up to the roof of the truck. The bag of rice. The crate of chickens. The young coconuts for Tata Cilin’s children. Then Itong himself, in the pair of rubber shoes which he had worn at the graduation exercises and which since then had been kept in the family trunk. Itong being handed into the truck.

Lacay Iban, Tia Orin, and Inciang were all there shouting instructions. All the children in the neighborhood were there. Nena was there. It was quite a crowd come to watch Itong go away for a year! A year seemed forever to Inciang. Itong sat in the dim interior of the bus, timid and teary-eyed. Inciang glanced again and again at him, her heart heavy within her, and then as the bus was about to leave, there was such a pleading look in his eyes that Inciang had to go close to him, and he put his hand on hers.

“I’m afraid, Manang.”

“Why should you be?” said Inciang loudly, trying to drown out her own fears. “This boy. Why, you’re going to Vigan, where there are many things to see. I haven’t been to Vigan, myself. You’re a lucky boy.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“I’ll come to see you in Vigan.” She had considered the idea and knew that she could not afford the trip.

“Manang,” said Itong, “I have a bag of lipay seeds and marbles tied to the rafter over the shelf for the plates. See that no one takes it away, will you?”


“And, Manang, next time you make linubbian, don’t forget to send Nena some, ah?”

Inciang nodded. “You like Nena very much?”

“Yes,” coloring a little.

Itong had never concealed anything from her. He had been secretive with his father, with his aunt Orin, but never with her.

From Vigan, Itong wrote his sister only once a month so as to save on stamps and writing paper. His letters were full of expressions of warm endearment, and Inciang read them over and over again aloud to her father and to Tia Orin and her brood who came to listen, and when her eyes were dim with reading, Inciang stood on a chair and put the letters away in the space between a bamboo rafter and the cogon roof.

“My dear sister,” Itong would write in moro-moro Ilocano, “and you, my father, and Tia Orin, I can never hope to repay my great debt to all of you.” And then a narration of day-to-day events as they had happened to him.

And so a year passed. Inciang discussed Itong with her father every day. She wanted him to become a doctor, because doctors earned even one hundred pesos a month, and besides her father was complaining about pain in the small of his back. Lacay Iban, on the other hand, wanted Itong to become a lawyer, because lawyers were big shots and made big names and big money for themselves if they could have the courts acquit murderers, embezzlers, and other criminals despite all damning evidence of guilt, and people elected them to the National Assembly.

Itong’s last letter said that classes were about to close. And then, one morning, when Inciang was washing the clothes of the supervising principal teacher, with a piece of cotton cloth thrown over her head and shoulders to shelter her from the hot sun, a passenger truck came to a stop beside the gate and a boy came out. He was wearing white short pants, a shirt, and a pair of leather slippers. It was Itong. But this stranger was taller by the width of a palm, and much narrower. Itong had grown so very fast, he had no time to fill in.

“Itong, are you here already?”

“It is vacation, Manang. Are you not glad to see me?”

They ran into each other’s arms.

Father came in from the rice field later in the afternoon. “How is my lawyer?” he asked, and then he noticed Itong wore a handkerchief around his throat.

“I have a cold, Father,” said Itong huskily.

“How long have you had it?”

“For several weeks now.”

“Jesus, Maria, y Jose, Inciang, boil some ginger with a little sugar for your poor brother. This is bad. Are you sure your cold will not become tuberculosis?”

Itong drank the concoction, and it eased his sore throat a little. It seemed he would never get tired talking, though, telling Inciang and Lacay Iban about Vigan, about school, about the boys he met there, about his uncle Cilin and his cousin Merto and the other people at the house in Nagpartian.

He went out with his old cronies, but he had neglected his marbles. The marbles hung from the rafter over the shelf for the plates, gathering soot and dust and cobwebs. It was a reminder of Itong’s earlier boyhood. And he did not go out with Nena any more. “Have you forgotten your friend, Nena, already?” Inciang asked him and he reddened. “Have you been giving her linubbian, Manang?” he asked. And when she said “Yes,” he looked glad.

On those nights when he did not go out to play, he occupied himself with writing letters in the red light of the kerosene lamp. He used the wooden trunk for a table. Inciang accustomed to go to sleep soon after the chickens had gone to roost under the house, would lie on the bed-mat on the floor, looking up at Itong’s back bent studiously over the wooden trunk.

Once she asked, “What are you writing about, Itong?”

And Itong had replied, “Nothing, Manang.”

One day she found a letter in one of the pockets of his shirt in the laundry pile. She did not mean to read it, but she saw enough to know that the letter came from Nena. She could guess what Itong then had been writing. He had been writing to Nena. Itong had changed. He had begun keeping secrets from Inciang. Inciang noted the development with a slight tightening of her throat.

Yes, Itong had grown up. His old clothes appeared two sizes too small for him now. Inciang had to sew him new clothes. And when Itong saw the peso bills and the silver coins that Inciang kept under her clothes in the trunk toward the purchase of a silk kerchief which she had long desired, especially since the constabulary corporal had been casting eyes at her when she went to market, he snuggled up to Inciang and begged her to buy him a drill suit.

“A drill terno! You are sure a drill terno is what you want?”

Itong patted his throat, as if to clear it. “Please Manang?”

“Oh, you little beggar, you’re always asking for things.” She tried to be severe. She was actually sorry to part with the money. She had been in love with that silk kerchief for years now.

“Promise me, then to take care of your throat. Your cold is a bad one.”

Another summertime, when Itong came home from school, he was a young man. He had put on his white drill suit and a pink shirt and a pink tie to match, and Inciang could hardly believe her eyes. She was even quite abashed to go meet him at the gate.

“Why, is it you, Itong?”

He was taller than she. He kept looking down at her. “Manang, who else could I be? You look at me so strangely.” His voice was deep and husky, and it had queer inflections. “But how do I look?”

Inciang embraced him tears again in her eyes, as tears had been in her eyes a year ago when Itong had come back after the first year of parting but Itong pulled away hastily, and he looked back self-consciously at the people in the truck which was then starting away.

“You have your cold still, so I hear,” said Lacay Iban, as he came out of the house to join his children.

“Yes,” said Itong, his words accented in the wrong places. “I have my cold still.”

Looking at Itong, Inciang understood. And Itong, too, understood. Lacay Iban and Inciang looked at each other, and when Inciang saw the broad grin spreading over her father’s face, she knew he understood, too. He should know!

“Inciang,” said Father gravely. Inciang wrested her eyes from Nena whom she saw was looking at Itong shyly from behind the fence of her father’s front yard. “Inciang, boil some ginger and vinegar for your poor brother. He has that bad cold still.”

Inciang wept deep inside of her as she cooked rice in the kitchen a little later. She had seen Itong stay at the door and make signs to Nena. She resented his attentions to Nena. She resented his height, his pink shirt, his necktie.

But that night, as she lay awake on the floor, waiting for Itong to come home, she knew despite all the ache of her heart, that she could not keep Itong forever young, forever the boy whom she had brought up. That time would keep him growing for several years yet, and more distant to her. And then all the bitterness in her heart flowed out in tears.

In the morning, when Nena came to borrow one of the pestles. “We are three to pound rice, Manang Inciang; may we borrow one of your pestles?” Inciang could smile easily at Nena. She could feel a comradely spirit toward Nena growing within her. After all, she thought, as she gave Nena the pestle, she never had a sister, she would like to see how it was to have a sister. A good-looking one like Nena. Inciang smiled at Nena, and Nena blushing, smiled back at her.