We found Elisa the morning after the big storm. My father and I had gone out before sun up, to check on the nets we hadnt been able to take in before the storm hit, and there she was, floating on the surface like a small buoy. She wasnt scared or anything. She just stared up at us with those impossibly grey eyes of hers. But that wasnt the only funny thing about her either. For one thing, her pale skin wasn’t even wrinkled, despite having been afloat – naked – for at least the entire night that the storm was howling.
For another, her hair didnt feel like hair at all. She had a lot of it, certainly, but it was so fine and so smooth, it reminded me of corn silk, except it was dark as night. In her right fist, she clenched a length of gold chain with pendants of red coral. Up to that point in my life, all i’d ever seen were my mother’s jewelry, but i knew with certainty that what that water baby held was no cheap trinket.
Other than that, she looked like any other normal baby,coming on close to the end of its first year of life. So my father decided to take her home.
On the way back, my father, the baby, and I kept silent. Like any other boy of 11, my mind was already on other things. We had salvaged quite a few odds and ends, and those bits were what excited me. The baby was a grown-up matter that would be taken care of by grown-ups. Apparently, that was what my father thought as well.
“Balong,” he said. “When we get back to your mother, don’t tell her how we found the baby. I’ll tell her that the baby was given to us by one of the families down the coast that had lost everything to the storm.“
“Yes, father” i replied. What did i care?
“We’ll adopt her, and you’ll treat her like your sister.”
“Yes father,” i said again. It would be good to have a sister, i thought. In about two years, there’d be someone else to do the chores. “What will we call her?“
It wasn’t hard to convince my mother to agree to the adoption. And once she gave her consent, that was it. No paperwork, no lawyers. Everyoneknew Elisa was adopted, and it was a matter of small importance, even to the other children. What mattered to many was that Elisa appeared to have been untouched by the horror of the storm that had driven her parents to give her away. And everyone respected my father’s unwillingness to talk about things.
The only real grumblings about Elisa came from the parish priest who seemed gravely concerned that he could not find any baptismal records from any of the parishes up and down the coastline. In his constant badgering of my father to reveal the names of Elisa’s birth parents,the priest had atireless ally: the widow Rosario Magat.
With her dog-eared bible firmly clutched in her hand,the widow wasted ni opportunity to harangue my father and mother everytime they were in church. Magat would stand by the doorstep and bar entrance to Elisa, saying that the unbaptized had no place in the House of God. Often, she would reduce Elisa to tearsand my parents would content themselves with standing outside the church,listening to the sounds if the mass coming through the thin concrete walls.
My father and mother never stood up to the widow. Hardly anyone did, especially since she was landlady to nearly everybody. Even us. But one day,maybe he had his fill of her hatred, my father picked Elisa up and brushed past the widow and into the church. People gasped and the church fell silent. Into the quiet stormed the widow, screaming at the parish priest to expel my father and sister.
“Drive this unpious man out, Father Salas! Drive him out and his Jezebel of a daughter!”
My father stood his ground, staring at the priest. When it seemed that thepriest was about to do as the widow demanded, Elisa stamped her foot in disgust, whirled about with tears streaming from her eyes, and marched out of the church,all but dragging my father and me along in her wake. Outside, people started shouting as the coconut trees began swaying.
Since only a few people saw Elisa stamp her foot just before the earthquake happened, no one really took the widow seriously when she began slandering my sister all over the place. Her increasingly shrill accusations, in fact, probably turned people off who would have otherwise been predisposed to taking her side. Still, she was our landlady and as soon as she had a sliver of a reason to kick us out,she did.
With nowhere to go, my father built us a raft boat and anchored us in a large tidal pool just off the rockiest part of the coastline, hidden from any passing ship and from the shore. It was a dangerous place to live. Everyday, i had to swim about a kilometer just to get to shore on my way to school. I brought my school uniform in a tightly tied up plastic bag that i slung over my back. Still, as difficult as it was,i did become a strong swimmer.
Elisa, on the other hand, wasn’t sent to school anymore. Instead, my mother took her instruction upon herself. Day after day,mymother and sister would do their lessons as they went about their housework. In the afternoons, my mother let Elisa swim in the sea. Early on,she’d proven herself a strong swimmer so my mother had no fears. After all,when you’re married to a fisherman, how scary can the water be?
It was on one of these afternoon swims, a few months before the 11th anniversary of Elisa’s finding, that things started changing for all of us.
By that time, i was already in college on an athletic scholarship, living away from home. Our raft home had grown into a something not so much a raft as a number of connected bamboo platforms straddling the big rocks. I came once in awhile, when i could afford it. It was on one of these rare occasions that Elisa woke me up in the dead of a moonless night.
“Kuya, wake up! Can you hear that?”
I mumbled incoherently about it still being dark and she should go back to sleep, but she refused to be mollified. “wake up! Listen! Please tell me you hear them too!”
It was the desperation in her voice that woke me up, rather than the shaking she was giving me. So i sat up in bed and strained my ears. But all i could hear was the wind and the crashing surf. “i can’t hear anything, Elisa,” i said apologetically.
She stared into my face a very long time before finally bursting into tears. “am i crazy? I hear them talking!” she wailed.
“who? Who’se talking?”