All over the islands, breech babies grew up to become valuable members of any community—for their reputed skill in easing out fishbones stuck in one’s throat.
All her life, Purificacion was called upon to conduct the task, just because she was delivered feet first.
Occasionally, in the middle of the night, the caterwauling in Barrio Ejemplo in the town of Asingan would abruptly die down, and the folks knew the men had just declared a cessation of streetcorner intoxication because of a little accident.
Mang Kardo, a thin, wiry man with a squeaky but often loud voice, had done it again, orated while carelessly wolfing down roasted milkfish. Now he had to stop from his perorations, shake and quiver as he rose from a wooden bench, and attempt to harrumph in his screechy manner, again and again, until Big Boy Reynoso pulled up his bulk from the bench across, strode over and gave poor Kardo a mighty whack on the back.
The wiry man lurched forward like a felled banana sapling, but it took only one drinking buddy to prevent him from toppling over the rickety table weighed down with bottles of gin, and sit him back on the bench. Big Boy’s back-whacking never worked with fishbones caught in the throat. It only hurt badly for a minute, but always failed in its simplistic intention.
Mang Kardo would continue to cough, as if choking to death. Then he would wail in spurts. Someone would offer a chunk of rice cake, sometimes a banana or sweet potato, and he’d gulp down the offered antidote, profuse with gratitude the way he nodded nearly violently.
Then someone else would offer what looked like a clear glass of water, which Kardo would instantly down as a chaser, while his Adam’s apple bobbed up for a mighty swallow. But all that did was cause him to sputter and spit out the liquid, for it was still gin, the kind that causes blindness as the town’s pundits often said.
Everyone knew this was coming. Athletic dodging became the order of the moment, as Kardo doubled up and retched … nothing. Big Boy would come up behind him again and thump him on the back, twice, thrice, gentler than the first time, as everyone else slapped their palms on thighs and knees, someone else’s shoulder, the air, while Barrio Ejemplo shook with loud laughter.
Big Boy would draw Kardo upright, solicitously massage the narrow stump that was his neck. And Kardo would glance at the larger man with unalloyed gratitude, eyes widening before he drew himself to full height, pursed his lips, and attempted—in a dramatic demonstration for everyone to see—very slowly and carefully now, to swallow anew.
Instantly the pain would be writ large on his wretched face. And another wave of boisterous laughter—anticipated and thus prepared for with agitated bodies as taut as cruel humor—resounded from the wildest streetcorner of Barrio Ejemplo.
Next in the order of things on a Friday night, or a Tuesday night, or whichever night the idle menfolk chose to gather around rickety tables weighed down by bottles of cheap gin, and/or basi or lambanog, sugarcane wine and coconut wine, respectively, or on special nights some bottles or cans of San Miguel Beer, was what everyone knew to be the final resort.
“Purificacion! Aling Puri! Aling Puri!” rose the chorus.
A young boy is summoned. It is time to call Aling Puri. “Go with haste, boy!”
The snickers, chortles, guffaws die down as soon as the boy picks up his slippers and runs barefoot on the dusty road that led past a grove of mango trees.
“Aling Puri! Aling Puri!” the boy would shout from houses away.
Purificacion gets up from the mat where she’s been suckling her baby girl Vilma. She wakes up Helen, a niece who’s been left in her care since the girl was five, all of ten years ago, and tells her to watch over the baby.
She peers out the window and hushes the boy still calling out her name. She puts on a shawl and slippers, goes out and follows the prancing boy to the far end of the dusty street.
No cheer rises as she arrives and heads straight for the bench where Kardo is still trying to cough out the offending sliver. The men know well enough to respect her. Any one of them could suffer Kardo’s fate, except that he always seemed to beat them to an annual quota for fishbones lodged in the throat.
She places a thumb on Kardo’s neck. The man blinks imagined compliance. Aling Puri’s thumb strokes down once, twice, thrice. He gulps. The fishbone is gone.
Purificacion turns around wordlessly, adjusts her shawl, and walks back home, a chorus of muffled thank-you’s in her wake, even as Kardo still tries to collect his voice.
Her year-old child is starting to cry as she walks back into their hut with the bamboo-slat flooring. Helen has gone back to sleep. Puri shrugs and picks up her baby.
Her husband Pete is hardly ever around except for Christmas and Holy Week. He says he works in Manila as a truck mechanic. But when he drinks with the men of Barrio Ejemplo and one of them complains about a jeepney engine, Pete only says he doesn’t do the small stuff.
Everyone knew Pete Santos loved to gamble. In the few weeks that he spent time with his family, he wasn’t found in their hut but in the drinking corner, having organized a game of blackjack, with him as the banker, always. He won more times than he lost.
He’d leave Puri even on those holiday weeks and find himself in the town proper, hustling up for a game of blackjack or rotation billiards in the Mayor’s pool parlor with two tables.
Once, he lost big in Lucky Nine, or what the locals called baccarat. It turned out to be providential for the family he’d eventually leave for good.
When she was nine, Vilma, whom her mother named after a popular movie star, had to walk to town and stay all of Sunday. Her father was convinced to have her join the schoolchildren that congregated after Sunday Mass in the small wooden church. The priest allowed Esteban, the town chronicler who was considered the smartest fellow around, to conduct exercises he had read and researched about.
Neighbors told Puri her husband had lost a big bet, to Esteban. He would cover for it by sending his daughter over. Puri didn’t mind. It meant that Vilma would be well fed on Sundays. She’d even have biscuits and Coke together with the other children, aged 8 to 12, as Esteban instructed them on how to travel far in space while asleep on the church pews. Their “dreams” would help the town of Asingan.
All over the province, various towns gloried in their healers, sought after by locals as well as large groups of foreigners bused in all the way from Manila. The healers performed psychic operations in a jiffy. Long lines of patients stood outside the doors of the more famous ones, day in and day out.
Russians and Eastern Europeans often joined these throngs. Even old ailing Americans came. The country had gained a reputation as Asia’s counterpart for Brazil, except that there was none of that New Orleans-type, gory chicken-head voodoo before bloodless surgery was performed.
Japanese scientists came with cameras to document the proceedings. A few fake healers were found out to be conducting simple sleight-of-hand. But patients swore by many others, how their kidney stones were taken out just like that, arthritic knees turned good as new, colons cleared, cancer lumps diminished or eradicated.
The more successful healers set up clinics in Baguio, a highland city of temperate climate, and Manila, where travel agents easily arranged a steady flow of foreign patients.
The people of Pangasinan knew who were the most authentic. These healers, like the celebrated spinster Josephine, stayed home for their practice. Josephine would sometimes collapse with fatigue by sundown. Sometimes she’d rest for a week to build up her psychic energy again.
Asingan town didn’t have any such healer. What it became noted for was the group of children who were taught to conduct out-of-body experiences by Esteban. They engaged in astral travel, he explained to anyone who cared to listen. And since he had served as a sacristan or parish church attendant, the priest dismissed complaints about occult stuff going on inside the church.
Esteban’s activities helped the Sunday collection. When the children woke from their afternoon sleep, they told Esteban where they had gone and what they had seen. He started to allow people with any kind of problem to consult with the kids. They couldn’t perform bloodless surgery. But aching joints, sore eyes and throats, and simple headaches could be alleviated by a child handpicked by Esteban, depending on the minor ailment.
They were also effective in resolving psychological or domestic problems. They simply described the spheres they flew in while asleep. And if one had faith in their narration, he or she came out of Asingan Church with a rested mind.
“I can heal like you now,” Vilma told her mother when she was 12.
Puri nodded matter-of-factly. “Good for you, girl.”
“I can’t do fishbones, Mama. But my hands are good for knees and elbows, or stiff necks. They say my fingers have the whisper of angels I’ve met in the sky.”
Puri served her beef broth from a foot-long shank cut up in three parts. They hadn’t had real soup in weeks, just the Instant Noodles stuff that came in packets or styrofoam bowls. But she had been winning steadily in mahjong of late. They needed that, as Pete hadn’t shown up in two years. Her niece Helen had also disappeared. Puri knew the neighbors thought Pete had taken her to Manila.
“Tell me more about your travels, Vilma. I can imagine where you go, what kinds of angels you meet up there. And I gain such peace of mind. And my fingers become so good with the mahjong tiles. I can feel the right numbers coming up. I win most of the time when that happens.”
When Vilma Santos started to bleed, she had to leave the young company of Sundays in Asingan Church. She had gotten too old, Esteban said. She was given 500 pesos, which she turned over to Nanay Puri. It doubled that day over the mahjong table.
At 15, Vilma sometimes took over her mother’s seat when the mahjong game was played in a neighbor’s house. Why, all the matrons said, she had her mother’s touch. In fact she was better. Soon the matrons told Puri they couldn’t allow Vilma’s subbing anymore. Obviously, angels told the girl what combinations to seek for a winning hand. She would always beat them handily, clean up all their money.
Puri took Vilma to Baguio City for a weekend test. They looked up a distant cousin and were taken to a professional parlor with four mahjong tables. Puri took a seat in one, and offered her young daughter to complete the “quorum” for another.
They stayed for two weeks. When they got back to Barrio Ejemplo, they had new clothes, boxes of canned goods, and over 15 thousand pesos, or what could last them for as long as five months.
Upon the advice of neighbors, Puri and Vilma took the bus to Manila, five hours away. Puri always had a heavy heart when she left the barrio, but she was convinced that it was for Vilma’s future. At 16, the girl could also be reunited with her father, should they find him. And she could complete her education in the big city.
It took them a month to find Pete, thanks to tips from townmates. He was working at a karaoke bar. He recruited young ladies and taught them how to serve as GROs or Guest Relations Officers. Helen had served as one, but now she had just lost a child, Pete’s. She stayed grieving in the one-room shack he rented for them. Puri took pity and handed her a thousand pesos behind Pete’s back.
She told her husband that their daughter couldn’t be beaten in mahjong. She’d leave the girl in his care.
He took Vilma to a large house that had three tables operating day and night. The wealthy hostess took a liking for the quiet teen-ager who won on all the tables she joined. The matron told Pete she’d pay Vilma for special tutorials. All her life she had wanted to be a mahjong expert like the 16-year-old girl.
Pete counseled his daughter to learn to pretend to lose for some games. She could always make it up before a long session ended. In fact she had to learn to lose on certain days. That way, they wouldn’t be denied participation in other matrons’ homes and professional parlors.
But word still went out that when the girl put her mind to it, Vilma couldn’t ever be beaten in mahjong. Capitalists from Manila’s Chinatown asked for her. They didn’t mind losing to the special girl. Not only did she add youth and charm to a table. Maybe her skills would brush off on them.
At times, Vilma simply declared to her father that she missed her mother. He knew better than to hold her back whenever she asked to be taken to the bus depot. She’d only be gone for a week, she promised.
She rewarded Puri with a television set and expensive ladies’ items like bags, dresses, lotions and perfume. Each time she left Barrio Ejemplo, Puri would call for some men to fix up their hut, expand it with rooms in concrete, change the roofing to corrugated iron sheets.
Puri resisted Vilma’s entreaties for her to join them in Manila.
“We can live alone, Nanay, by ourselves, without Tatay and Helen. They have an apartment now. We can get one, too. Stay with me, ’Nay. Keep house for me, for us.”
But Puri insisted she couldn’t stand the big city, or any other place but Asingan. This was home. She felt at peace here, even if she had to live alone. She was content enough with her modest winnings in mahjong.
“Even without you, the neighbors support me, Vilma.” She laughed weakly, although her eyes remained sad.
Besides, she said, they need me here for their throats. “Mang Kardo could die if I ever left for long.”
Pete was nothing but savvy. He knew he had a golden goose for a daughter. He had to stay on her good side. He gave her half of her winnings, which kept going up in high-stakes levels. He even made a show of sending money to his estranged wife. And Helen wasn’t ever to complain one whit in Vilma’s presence.
He told his daughter he was saving up the rest of the money for her education. She would have to go back to school soon. Perhaps she should only be allowed to play the tables a couple of hours or so in the evenings.
He took her to Cebu and other southern cities. The Chinoys or Chinese-Filipinos marveled at her skill. It was unearthly, some said. The mestizo sugar magnates of Bacolod and Iloilo asked to see if she had any electronic device strapped to her body. Pete took offense. They quickly apologized.
At 18, she was declared “The Mahjong Queen” all over the islands.
In Davao City, a visiting Taiwanese businessman took Pete aside and made him a proposal. It would be easy for Vilma to learn the game variant played in Taipei. 16 tiles, the same, but with flowers counting for combinations, not just the balls, sticks, and characters. Even the N-E-W-S or North-East-South-West tiles counted for something.
He could host them there, all expenses paid. He’d settle for 20 percent of her winnings. It would be for much higher stakes than any game played in Manila or Cebu. These would be taipans she’d not necessarily be hustling, for they were good, they had played all their lives, and always loved a challenge. There would also be many professional players, guys who went around the world making much money out of mahjong.
Mr. Kenny Chiu said he was sure Vilma Santos could compete worthily against the best of them. Or wouldn’t she herself want to know, wouldn’t Mr. Pete want to know, if Vilma could lay claim to being The Mahjong Queen of Asia?