When the killing frost hit the Central Valley, we tried to sleep in spite of the wind machines, droning like distant helicopters. Above the orange trees, on slender poles, the steel propellers spun, trying to chase the frost, but working like toy pinwheels. In the morning, my mother put her parka on and checked the pomelo tree she’d planted four years ago next to our orange grove. “If we had known,” she said in a quiet voice. One by one, she pulled off the large yellow globes, like swollen lemons. Her fingers pushed into the rind easily and left indentations from her thumbs. Water sloshed inside, separating seed, membrane, pulp. My mother held the fruit up to my nose. The citrus juice was teasing, at first sweet, then moldy. She threw the pomelos down, and they broke the thick-roped icicles that shackled the trees to the hard earth.
My mother sighed, her breath clouding up. “Awanin. No more,” she said to me. “Agnes, this is the worst winter.”
The Central Valley’s Tulare Basin lay cold and burned before us. It’s been two years since I’ve been home. I am thirty-four years old, married four years, and now come home by myself.
I didn’t tell my mother the first night I came home. I had connecting flights from LaGuardia to LAX to Bakersfield. It was already dark by the time I boarded the Greyhound bus and headed north, sixty miles to Terra Bella, but I kept staring out the window, looking for signs that I was closer to home. I couldn’t make out a thing, but I imagined old pumps rising from the flat land like iron horses bucking in the air, miles of railroad tracks waiting for the thunder of the Southem Pacific, and rows of palm trees lining the dirt roads to the farmers’ houses, their fronds fanning out over tall, thread-like trunks.
I kept trying to find the words that would make sense to my mother. I knew she wouldn’t understand, but I thought if I could speak Tagalog, I would find the exact meaning that would make my mother understand. What was easy was keeping the secret from her for so long. Sam and I lived three thousand miles away from my family, and whenever my mother called I could truthfully tell her that Sam was working late, working on weekends, already at the office. But the day I got the judgment in the mail, notifying me that my marriage had been legally dissolved, I packed my bags and came back to California.
My mother waited for me the night I returned. She rushed up, her papery lips brushed across my cheeks, a phantom kiss. She complained about how she hated for me to visit without Sam, how it wasn’t good for a wife to travel without her husband. I nodded, tired and loaded down with luggage.
She followed me to my old bedroom. She had turned down the sheets and draped a comforter across the layers of blankets on my bed. The room was cold. I hadn’t noticed the cold before. When I was in New York and imagined winter in Terra Bella, I thought of the Tule fog that seeps into the Valley, how as children my sister Elsa and brother Jimmy and I played ghost, flitting our arms and then disappearing a shadow’s length behind the opaque whiteness. We flung ourselves forward, chasing each other, guided by the sound of our laughter. Or, I thought of the false springs in February that tricked the orange trees to flower early, so that from a distance it looked as if winter had never left and had tipped the green leaves with frost. Or the incessant rains, carving out gullies in the vineyards in the outskirts of town between the years of drought. Too much one year, too little the next year.
But that night, I heard the giant fans outside. My mother adjusted the heavy curtains to cover the window completely, as if that would muffle the sound. “Sleep well, if you can,” she said, and closed the bedroom door behind her. The dull beating made me feel hunted.
The next morning, we walked the length of my mother’s small orange grove, twenty rows of ten trees each. It was my mother’s idea to plant the trees thirty-five years ago, to sell the fruit, cash crops, to the local packing houses, though my father and then us kids did most of the work. When my father died two years ago, my mother decided to keep the grove. It gave her something to do.
My mother enlisted the help of neighbors and her cousins, and let them take as many bags of oranges as they wanted. But this winter, it seemed everybody was fixing busted pipes or filling out unemployment forms because all the crops in the Valley—table and raisin grapes, peaches, nectarines—were ruined.
“It’s good you’re home,” my mother said.
She pointed to the smudge pots lining the grove like sentinels, and I knew to check if they were still burning oil to keep the air warm. You weren’t to touch the blackened bases, but I put my hands close around the long necks of the smudge pots, where the clay-colored rust bubbled like old paint. The heat warmed my face, though the rising soot, black bits of snow, stuck to my eyelashes. My mother tugged at my sleeve, and I reluctantly moved on.
My mother spread her hands out in front of her. “Look how they are,” she said.
Her hands were like knotted ropes at the knuckles, and when she placed her hands side by side and pointed her fingers forward, two fingers curled down and three curved away from the center. They looked like
branches from the trees.
“Thirty-eight years in the packing house,” she said.
Thirty-eight years of intense heat in the summertime, standing next to the steel machinery that shot oranges down a chute and bruised my mother’s groping hands. Thirty-eight winters of freezing beside the wide-open, barn-like doors while noisy forklift trucks hauled away crate after crate of oranges.
Sometimes she wept, and at night my father, my sister, and I took turns rubbing tiger balm into her achy muscles—my mother, comprising small stones and sticks. She didn’t like working at the packing house, I could tell, but she always volunteered for overtime during the winter season. Extra money, she assured me.
“The mortgage is finished. We put all three of you through school. Your dad lived to see you and Elsa get married. We were happy,” my mother said. “Maybe I’ll live to see your brother get married,” she said, but shook
her head. “Maybe I hope to be a grandmother before I get too old. But I don’t ask. You know, Agnes, it’s bad luck to wish for more when what you have is good enough.”
“It’s cold,” I said. “Let’s go back to the house.”
But my mother walked around in a small circle. She held onto an icicle on a frost-burnt leaf, as if that would keep her there, but it snapped in her fingers.
“Elsa had an operation to have her tubes tied.”
I took a step towards my mother, stumbling in the rocky soil. My sister Elsa had left short messages on my answering machine back in New York, but I had ignored them.
My mother opened her hand and stared at the broken bits of leaf before they scattered in the wind. “She and George decided they don’t want any children,” she said, bitterly. “After all this time of maybe, maybe not,’ and now this is their answer. Your dad said to me before he died, Concepcion, we are unlucky, we have no grandchildren.’ At least your Dad was spared this news.”
My mother wiped her hands on the sleeves of her parka. “I was hoping Sam would come home with you,” she began.
I didn’t wait for her to finish. I started walking away, but I could hear her call out, “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
My mother’s labored breathing seemed to echo in my head as she reached my side. I held the door open for her, but I would not look her in the eye.
“I know something’s wrong. Elsa said she left many messages on your answering machine, and you never called her back. Do you think I don’t know anything?”
“What do you know then?” I challenged her.
A disoriented, frightened look crossed my mother’s face, the kind of look she has when she drives in the Tule fog and can’t see beyond the hood of the car,
I took off my coat and sweater, but the living room still seemed hot. I was surrounded by the past, all around me photographs in heavy ornate frames, pressed beneath glass. The large family portrait the year before my father died, all adults, no children. The wedding photographs. Elsa and George. Sam and me, in an eight-by-ten frame. I took the picture from the shelf. The trees behind Sam and me diffused the sun; the rustling leaves created velvety shadows and star bursts. Around us was hazy, but we were in focus. Sam’s shirt and trousers were made of white linen. I wore a white linen sheath that grazed my ankles. My mother had warned us against wearing linen, how it wrinkled easily and looked sloppy, how it wasn’t seed pearls, silk shantung, starched tulle. She would soon come to know that our choice brought bad luck. Perhaps the iridescent flash, oily black shadow, in the tree was a blackbird, a crow, an omen.
My mother took the picture away from me and put it back on the shelf, adjusting the position as if there were an exact spot where it should be.
“Don’t tell me you’re not going to have children or you can’t have children. Three children, but no grandchildren. Maybe I’m to blame. Maybe this is the curse for marrying so late in life.”
“Mom, you weren’t. old. You were thirty.”
“Same as you when you got married, Agnes, but I had you three by the time I was your age now. Don’t tell me you and Sam aren’t going to have children.”
“Sam and I aren’t going to have any children,” I said in a calm, deliberate voice.
My mother pinched my arm as if I were ten. “I told you not to say it.”
“Mom,” I begged. “Don’t.”
I looked at my mother and said, “Sam and I are separated.”
My mother folded her arms tightly against her chest, as if to keep from trembling, to keep the words from penetrating. “You two need to move out of New York. It’s too expensive. Come back to California.”
“I am in California.”
“I mean with Sam. I never liked you living so far away from me. Start over again here. When you go back to Sam.”
“I can’t go back to Sam.” The words pushed up from my throat like heavy stones.
“Of course, you can go back to Sam. Your dad cannot come back. Don’t you think I know the difference?”
“We’re divorced. That’s why I came home. To tell you.”
My mother waved her hand behind her, trying to find the couch, then sat down slowly.
“We didn’t have much to divide, no property, no assets, just debt. It only took the minimum six months.”
“Six months? You lied to me for six months?”
My mother shot up from the couch and slapped me across the face. “You are worse than a dog,” she said.
My mother had called me that once before, when I was a child and had talked back to her. I knew she meant the mangy, stray mutts that roamed the countryside. She had called me that at the dinner table. My father, sister, and brother kept their heads down and resumed eating in silence. I ate my food as calmly as I could. Then I excused myself and went to my bedroom, where I cried into my pillow so my mother wouldn’t hear. At thirty-four years old, I refused to touch my cheek, which still smarted. I refused to go to my room where she would assume I would cry. We stood staring at each other, but when my eyes began to water, I walked back out into the cold.
I drove my mother’s car into the next town and stayed away the rest of the day and into the evening. I came back in the middle of the night. The porch light wasn’t lit. The house was in complete darkness. I didn’t know if she was waiting for me, but I was quiet as I entered the house. Her bedroom door remained closed. Maybe she had fallen asleep trying to wait up for me. Or maybe she had already disowned me.
I woke up the next morning reliving a scene from my high-school days, when I lied to my mother about where I was on a Friday night and ended up crashing my car with my best friend. I had crossed an intersection against a red light. My beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit was sideswiped, but neither I nor my friend was hurt. We both called our parents, who were angry with us, but my mother hung up on me. When I returned home late that night, she and my father yelled at me from the driveway to my bedroom. It was only in the morning, after my mother saw the damage to the back end of the car, that she rushed to my bed and ask me if I was all right.
My mother was at my side now, holding my hand. Her face was red and swollen around her eyes. “Why?”
I sat up in bed.
“What happened? Tell me.” The force of her words was like the pressure of her thumb in my palm.
“I wasn’t happy,” I said.
“Do you think I loved your father when we first met? I hardly knew him when we got married. Just like your Auntie Eusebia. She said after the wedding night you learn.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? What kind of life is that, Mom?”
My mother let go of my hand. “It was my life,” she said, bewildered.
“I wasn’t happy,” I said simply, and started crying.
“Awanin. No more, Agnes,” my mother said. “We’ll clean your bedroom closet. You need to keep busy, Agnes. When your dad died, I cleaned the whole house.”
“But I’m tired. I haven’t slept well for months.”
“Work will make you sleep better,” she said.
My mother threw the covers off my bed and pulled me, fighting gravity, toward her. She opened the closet doors, and I knelt down to refold the blankets she kept handing me. The smell of mothballs stung my nose. My mother turned her back to me and drew the bunched quilt she held in her arms to her face.
When she was done folding the last blanket, she said, “Agnes, there are times in a marriage when you aren’t happy. This is how marriage is.”
She bent down to pick lint from the carpet, then stood up and said, “Let’s eat breakfast.”
I didn’t follow my mother out of the room. Instead, I stared at the clean carpet. My mother was fanatical about cleanliness, and the clash between her obsession and my father’s inability to live up to that standard was a daily event. Their screaming matches drove me, Jimmy, and Elsa to our bedrooms, where Elsa concentrated on her thousand-piece puzzle and Jimmy glued scores of wooden airplanes and spaceships. I retreated to the closet, to the bunched-up blankets in the comer. I was the only one who cried when my parents fought.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered that my parents were paired up by my father’s cousin, a fellow teacher of my mother’s in the Philippines. My cousin wrote to my father, who had already been in the States for several years, and sent a picture of my mother. My father sent his picture, and they exchanged a couple of letters. Then my father flew back to the Philippines to meet my mother’s parents. After they were married, my father promptly returned to his job in the States, and my mother followed him a month later. Neither of them told me about their “courtship.” My father’s cousin came to the States for the first time years later and visited us in Terra Bella. I didn’t know why she showed me two black-and-white photographs, one each of my parents, until she introduced herself to me as “your parents’ matchmaker.”
My mother had once told me, before I got married, “You grow to love someone.” I could agree with that statement, except that I would never have applied it to my parents’ situation. The way they fought, banging kitchen cabinets, raising voices to be the last one to scream, “Bullshit, bullshit,” I could never see that love she spoke of. One hot summer evening, we heard my Auntie Eusebia scream from the kitchen, and when we ran out of our bedrooms, we saw my father put away a knife he had threatened her with and awkwardly carry my mother, who had fainted, to their bedroom.
I used to hide in the closet, pulling those blankets tighter and tighter over my head, and tell myself, “Stop, stop, please stop.” It was my mantra to drown out the words my mother called my father, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Once, when my parents started fighting again, the door to Elsa’s and my bedroom flew open, and my mother ordered the three of us into the kitchen. She stood us in a line facing my father. “Your dad wants to leave us,” she announced, emphasizing the word “us.” Although our heads were lowered, I stole a glance at my father. He had a suitcase clenched in his hand, and was threatening to go back to the Philippines. My mother pulled out a torn legal advertisement from the newspaper and waved it at us and my father. “Your dad wants to divorce me. O.K. Go ahead. Let’s see how far you go.” My father went as far as their bedroom, to put the suitcase back in the closet.
“You grow to love someone.” My mother’s words returned. I stopped believing her after she had so many fights with my father, but she fooled us all. When my father’s weak heart gave out two years ago, my mother was inconsolable. When the nurse confirmed that his heart had stopped for good, my mother tried to climb over the steel bars of the hospital bed. She caressed my father’s head. She kept kissing his face, even though his spirit had left his body. My mother called out his name, pausing now and then for him to answer her.
“You grow to love someone.” My mother’s advice gave me reason, hope, to stay in my marriage, where there was no reason and no hope.
“Your eggs are cold,” my mother announced when I joined her in the kitchen.
She watched me pick up my fork and inch the fried eggs from the middle of the plate to the edge without breaking the yolks.
“Your dad and I had our fights. We stayed in our situation, and things got better. We did love each other. We were just two strong-headed people. That’s what happens when you put two strong-headed people in a marriage. I saw that in you and Sam from the beginning. You’re like me.”
I stopped playing with my food. “I’m not like you, not at all,” I said.
“There were times when I wasn’t happy being married to your father,” my mother said, in a halting way, as if the words were hard to let go of.
“I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore,” I said.
“But he loved you and you loved him.”
I stabbed at my eggs, and the bright yellow yolk slowly oozed out of its shiny white lining.
“Yes. He was generous, kind and caring when we first met. He was safe, and I felt very secure with him.”
“He would never cheat on you or have an affair. I know Sam would never hit you,” my mother added.
“What more could you want?” I could hear the frustration rise in my mother’s voice, the same frustration she had when her patience had worn thin with my father.
“I want to be in love. I want the other person to say I’m the most important thing in his life. I want romantic love,” I said. It was a simple declaration, a revelation that took four years to realize that that was what I needed but didn’t have, but the moment I said those words, I felt foolish and indulgent in front of my mother.
“Humph!” she said. “Nobody forced you to marry Sam.”
“He couldn’t understand me. He couldn’t accept me, flaws and all, I said, urgently, as if I remembered those exhausting late-night arguments where we pushed for truces instead of resolutions, forgiveness.
“When you got married, you took a vow. Do you take that so lightly? You made a foolish decision and now you think you can correct it with an impulsive decision.”
“Can’t you listen to me?” I said.
“All I hear you say is, ‘I want this, I want that.’ If you don’t get what you want, you abandon everything,” my mother said. She leaned back in her chair. “We spoiled you.”
“It’s my life, Mom. I didn’t ask you to do all those things for me. You wanted to do those things for us. You and dad taught me that I deserved a good life, that there was such a thing as a good life,” I said. “Sam and I had some very hard times.”
“You don’t know what hard is,” my mother said.
I knew she was thinking about those years in the packing house. Even when the demand for oranges slowed in the summertime, my mother did not stay home. She and my father joined the other Filipinos in Terra Bella and picked Thompson, Riber, and red flame grapes near Delano and Earlimart. My mother got up at five in the mornings. She woke my sister, brother, and me up at five, too, and fed us and sent us back to bed. We ate our soupy oatmeal, hastily made, in a stupor of sleep. My parents came home late in the afternoons, and in the garage, so as not to dirty the house, my mother stripped away the layers of clothes, the straw hat that protected her face from the valley sun, the faded bandanna she wore across her mouth, leaving fine dust swirling in the air and loosened clods of dirt from her work boots. The purple and ink-blue grape stains on my mother’s fingers looked like bruises until she held her hands under the faucet and water drained the color of indigo. She scrubbed herself with a pumice stone and laid in the tub for hours it seemed, the bathroom hazy with steam, while my sister, brother, and I rinsed bunches of grapes and ate them, spitting out the seeds.
“You have to make do. I did.” she said.
“But you hated it.”
My mother picked up her dirty dishes and took them to the sink. “Do you think life is a fairy tale? I learned not too long after I arrived in the States that there is no dream, not the kind that everyone back home talks about.”
I got up from the table.
My mother followed me to my bedroom. She watched as I opened drawers and tossed my clothes into my suitcases in the comer of the room.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I didn’t care that I was dumping clothes, but my mother grabbed my cotton shirt and smoothed the wrinkles. She tried to fold my pair of jeans in thirds. I was moving too quickly for her, the clothes piled up, and soon she stopped. I watched her massage her curled fingers and imagined them throbbing with pain from her arthritis.
“I don’t want to fight. Sam and I fought all the time.”
“You’re my daughter,” my mother said.
“You won’t leave, then?” she said, anxiously.
I overturned one suitcase on the bed and let my mother put my clothes away. She shut the drawers as she filled them. Then she zipped the suitcases and spun the numbers on the locks several times, stopping finally after a certain number in her head, for good luck I supposed, my mother’s island superstition, as if that would keep the suitcases empty.
In the early morning, my mother gathered her parka, my father’s canvas gloves, and a roll of tarp-like garbage bags. In my restless sleep, I’d heard her moving about the house, opening drawers and closet doors, as if on a scavenger hunt. I figured she’d been up for hours, waiting for the first wash of light to spread across the valley, confirming daily the existence of ice.
“Today we’ll pick the rotten oranges from the ground,” she announced, when I, still in my nightgown, came out to the kitchen for breakfast.
The task seemed unnecessary. Why not leave them there until spring? Perhaps, my mother was thinking, by spring the oranges, soft and powdery green, would turn to mush in our hands. A rake would do. My mother needn’t touch the oranges at all. But I didn’t say a word. She buttoned up her parka to the collar and pulled the fur-trimmed hood over her head. My father’s gloves were too big for my mother. She held up her hands, fingers grasping canvas. I watched her tuck the roll of plastic bags underneath her arm and march outside.
When I joined her, she pointed to the fruit beneath one tree. The oranges were undersized in my hands. A few were soft, others blackened in spots where they had fallen to the ground.
“I hate to look at them,” she said.
We had gathered enough oranges from only six trees to fill one garbage bag, when we heard the voice of my mother’s cousin Fidel, whom I called uncle. As he approached us, Uncle Fidel waved, his hands thick and bare. His head was uncovered and his white hair fell forward across his forehead—a tongue of snow. He seemed undaunted by the cold, the way he strode forward easily, unlike my mother who was swaddled in wool.
“Hallo,” he said.
I kissed him on the cheek when he reached us.
“Where’s Sam?” Uncle Fidel took a step back and looked beneath the nearest fringe of leaves.
“In New York,” I said.
“Oh, he should have come home with you. It’s bad for him not to come home more often. By and by, he will soon fall in disfavor with Concepcion.”
Uncle Fidel laughed and winked at my mother. She looked up, out of courtesy, I gathered, then shook a bag she’d opened, settling the bad fruit to the bottom.
Uncle Fidel tapped the lumpy bag with the toe of his boot. “Helping your mother? That’s good. So now you see our bad freeze, eh, Agnes?”
“Mom told me about the pipes freezing over,” I said.
“We just fixed them. We didn’t have water for a few days. It cost a lot of money to fix, but we wanted to make sure they were working for tomorrow. Your mother told you about my Stephanie?”
I nodded. I remembered my mother calling me up in New York and telling me about Stephanie’s baby being born. I couldn’t concentrate on her news or even be irritated that she was hinting about grandchildren because Sam had just walked out the door after another one of our fights.
“That’s why I’m here, to remind her of the baptism party. You must come, too, Agnes. Too bad Elsa and George aren’t here. Maybe they’ll see the new baby and want one. Maybe you will, too, Agnes.”
My mother crawled under one of the trees, her feet splayed before us. If there were room under the circular shade of limb and leaves, she would have drawn her legs in and stayed huddled there, I was sure.
“Tomorrow, you two come at lunchtime,” he said. “We need something to celebrate this winter, eh, Concepcion?”
My mother emerged from hiding, and the pained look on her face told me we couldn’t excuse ourselves from Uncle Fidel’s invitation. He patted me on the back and walked out of the grove.
My mother tossed an orange weakly into the bag.
“We should’ve told Uncle Fidel.” I said.
“Why? You can’t even say the word now. Why should I? Do you think I would be proud to tell everyone you and Sam are no longer married?”
“People make mistakes. They ought to understand.”
“Agnes, you make mistakes without thinking of the consequences. They’ll ask why. What kind of an answer is that—that you’re unhappy.”
“So you’re ashamed of me, is that what you’re saying?”
“No,” my mother said, the word punching air.
“I came home because I need you to understand what I did. And instead you’re making me feel bad,” I said, exasperated.
“How?” my mother said. She looked stricken. “How can you expect that of me when you make me feel bad? Do you think you’re the only one with needs right now?”
She gathered the opening of the garbage bag in her fist and dragged it between the rows of trees. She stopped, then stooped lower, her face tightening with the effort, but she would not let me help her. The heaviness of all those oranges cut into the rocky soil, and the crust of frost melted in its wake, leaving a wet, uneven trail behind her.
Uncle Fidel’s house was full of family, friends, and neighbors, pale blue-wrapped packages, and green felt-covered card tables. The winter freeze drove the rummy and mahjong players indoors, so that every room, even the bedrooms, turned into a casino. The players were entrenched in their games by the time we arrived. They swept up and stirred the mahjong tiles, the tumbling and clicking like thousands of marbles crashing in my head. The house was hot, thick with the smell of fried fish. The dining room table was empty, while in the kitchen women wiped their shiny hands on aprons and sprinkled finely chopped peanuts over stacks of freshly wrapped lumpia. Uncle Fidel had even butchered one of his pigs, and its roasted head, charred and greasy, bore two black holes.
Everyone asked where Sam was, though I heard my mother tell Manang Pilar that Sam was very busy with work. She mingled with a few relatives before settling down to a game of rummy. She gave me a long look before shuffling the deck of cards. She had warned me not to say anything about the divorce. I pretended interest in the nearest rummy game, watching my relatives fan out their cards at nose level, then glance around, trying to guess one another’s hand. My mother laughed at the next table. She won the first round and scooped up quarters and wilted dollar bills.
I excused myself and stood before the window. The sky was pearly gray, mottled like the inside of an oyster. The crabgrass lawn glittered. I wanted to be out there, in the cold, not inside where someone else might ask about Sam.
My cousin Stephanie made her way across the room. She cradled the new baby, lost in all the lace and yards of the snowy white christening gown, close to her chest.
“What’s the baby’s name?” I said, when she reached me.
“Peter Mark,” she said. “After his father.”
I asked to hold him, and when Stephanie lifted him in the air, I sat down on the sofa, my lap ready. He was light in my arms, but I had to put one hand behind the delicate folds of his neck to keep his head from snapping back. A bird baby, I thought. Peter Mark’s eyes, polished slate, watched me alertly, and his fingers, waving as if blown by a gentle wind, reached for my mouth.
“And you? When will you start having babies?” Stephanie said.
I was used to that question. I was used to the elderly Filipino women, with secretive smiles on their faces, cupping their hands on my stomach not more than a month after Sam and I had married. At first I thought they were checking, then I was convinced they were casting a spell over me that would make my belly grow. I knew at some point I would want kids, just not right away. But Sam was indifferent, and my enthusiasm waned. The first time I was asked by my relatives, I said, “When the time is right.”
But to Stephanie, I said, “We won’t be having any children.”
From the rummy table, my mother swooped down, pinched the back of my arm, and plucked the baby away from me. Peter Mark started crying, but my mother kept rocking him on her shoulder, though his arms and fingers struggled, as if grasping for air.
“No children?” Stephanie said to me. She tried to adjust the lace of her son’s gown and wipe the milky spittle from his chin.
“Agnes doesn’t understand,” my mother said to my cousin. “You have to give up everything when you have children.”
“But look at Peter Mark,” Stephanie said to me. “He’s worth everything.”
Maybe because I was hungry now, because I had lost my appetite these past months, the center of my stomach seemed more a cavity, an empty sack.
To my mother, Stephanie said, “Isn’t that right, Auntie Concepcion?”
My mother wrapped her arms tighter around Peter Mark. His lips buckled, then formed a pink circle, a tiny opening of a cave, and released a piercing wail.
“Sometimes they break your heart,” my mother said to Stephanie.
My cousin looked distressed, but I didn’t know if she was confused about our behavior or concerned with the scarlet shadow deepening on Peter Mark’s face. My mother surrendered the baby to Stephanie when I excused myself and grabbed my coat from the sofa. She was right behind me.
“Where are you going, Agnes? The food isn’t even out on the table yet,” she said in my ear.
My mother followed me to the front porch and shut the door behind us. The cold hit us like wind, making me wish momentarily for the thick heat of the kitchen. The sky boomed once, and hail came slicing down. It rattled the tin roof of Uncle Fidel’s house and flattened the crabgrass.
“This is not the time,” she said.
I threw my coat on and braced myself for the long walk down the road to our house. I didn’t expect my mother to come after me, but she did, coatless, sidestepping the field of parked cars and hailstones.
The hail suddenly turned to rain and soaked my tennis shoes. Mud clung to my soles and slowed my step. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside the house once I reached our driveway. My mother looped ahead of me to get to the garage first and motioned me to join her. I figured if I walked into the orange grove, my mother would give up and wait for me inside. She would heave the garage door up and let it swallow her as it came down behind her.
The distance to the back of the house, to the grove, seemed to grow. The rain halted, and from a crack in the inky clouds more hail tumbled down. I could see part of my mother’s bedroom window between the rows of orange trees. She was standing there, still, vigilant as the giant fans. Her face was obscured by the white blur of hail, yet I recognized the unmistakable look of sadness and futility.
I wandered farther into the grove, zigzagging between the rows, out of my mother’s reach. I came to the last line of trees and just stood there, with the orange trees behind me and the wood fence and the back of Manong Bert’s land before me.
My mother struggled to hold my father’s big black umbrella above her head. In my father’s rubber boots, she stumbled toward me, the mud sucking up hailstones around her feet.
“Come inside. You’ll catch pneumonia.”
She tilted the umbrella and looked to the sky. “Stop this,” she said, as if she meant for me to somehow stop the hail.
My mother moved the umbrella to her right, leaving a space for me to join her. In her other hand, she offered me a wool blanket. I looked down at myself. My fingertips were burning from the cold air. My coat, grown heavy with rain, was sealed to my skin.
“Agnes,” my mother said, though softly now.
“Yes, you can. If I can come out here to get you. Do you want me to get Uncle Fidel? I will if you don’t come.” Her voice sounded familiar again.
But I shook my head. I almost laughed, thinking how I had become nine again. My mother had scolded me for rolling in the dirt with our dogs and demanded that I take a bath. Face the scalding water, the gritty pumice stone, and a burning rash by her hand. She waved a slipper in the air, at the entrance of the door. I remembered circling the length of the garage like an airplane preparing for landing. I was trying to figure out how to get inside the house without getting spanked.
But I was thirty-four now.
“Just come inside. We won’t talk about it anymore.”
“Mom, you can’t keep saying that.”
My mother pulled down the umbrella, as if the taut black nylon hindered her, came between us. She offered her face up to the sky and hail, and blinked her eyes. “You tell me without warning that you’re divorced now. You didn’t even tell me when all the trouble started happening. Ever since you told me, I have cried every night. Now you want me to understand right away.”
“When I was twenty-four,” my mother went on, “I fell in love with a Filipino soldier who was stationed in Georgia. I saw him in church when he was on leave in Baguio. When he returned to the States, he wrote me all the time. He wanted to marry me. He came back to the Philippines to ask my parents for my hand. At that time I was teaching in this mountain village, and my supervisor wouldn’t let me take leave. I told him to go to Baguio without me, but he was afraid to. He knew from my stories that my father was very strict. He didn’t go, so when school got out I returned home and told Ma and Pa about him. I told them I was in love. Pa told me I had to choose them or him.”
“How could they do that to you?” I demanded.
”They raised me. They would always love me. Maybe this soldier would be fickle. You can’t trust passion sometimes. How could I really know?”
My mother looked beyond me, beyond the orange trees. I didn’t know if she were asking herself that question, so many years later, or if her parents had planted those doubts in her when she was a young woman.
“You didn’t regret it?”
My mother’s gaze returned to me. “My parents loved me, and I loved them,” she said, simply.
“And then Dad came along.”
“By that time, I was the only one out of nine kids not married yet. Oldest daughter and old already. So when your dad’s cousin played matchmaker, I didn’t say anything. Ma cried, and Pa was going to say no again, but the pastor came to our house and talked to them. ‘Concepcion is already thirty years old. Don’t be selfish,’ he told them. I know they loved me. Your dad was much older than me, and Ma and Pa were concerned. But because of the pastor, they let go of me, and I married your dad and came to the States.
“Your dad had been in the States for years, but everything here was strange for me. I was homesick. He didn’t treat me very well early on and I was afraid of him, so you know what I did? I worked hard, I had three children, and I worked for you all. Maybe I was unhappy in those early years, but I made the best of things. And now you tell me you didn’t marry for love, that you’re divorced.
“How do you think that makes me feel? You say I’m ashamed of you, but I’m disappointed in myself.”
“You had nothing to do with it.”
“Do you think we’re not connected at all?” my mother said. “Agnes, this is the worst winter. It’s been hard on all of us.”
I stared at her whitened knuckles. My father’s umbrella and the wool blanket fell to the glossy mud. After all those years of picking grapes and packing oranges I thought how her hands, her fingers, must ache in the cold.
My mother moved toward me.
I clasped her hands between mine, and rubbed them, wanting to thaw her hands. I thought I felt a slow, gurgling push in my fingertips, as if water were trying to break the surface of my skin.
A few days passed, and then another, marking the end of February. My mother wanted me to cut the dead leaves and branches, but I told her the trunks needed protection from the cold. She nodded reluctantly. I knew what she meant. The singed leaves, many in bunches like funereal bouquets, seemed to spread, as if carrying a disease. My mother thought if we cut the dead leaves we could stop the sickness.
She had already given up on the grass in our front yard. Where there weren’t scabs of dirt, there were patches of yellow scrub like hay. The perennials, I imagined, bulbs packed in cold earth, had shriveled, turned hard, so that you would mistake them for peach pits from last summer.
I told my mother the weather would be kind in March. I would reseed the yard for her. Daffodils will line the front of the house like an orbit of blazing orange suns. At night, I told her, we’ll leave the windows open and breathe the citrusy air.
But until then, I checked the outdoor thermometer and the trees daily. One morning, I came across a small tree at the edge of the grove that was not saved by smudge pots or Manong Bert’s wind machines or my mother’s worrying. Like the rest of them, the tree had dropped most of its fruit. The ones left clinging hung by spindly stems, hardly capable of bending the branches. But unlike the other trees, most of its leaves were gone. I touched one leaf and it came apart at the stem. The tree trunk bore gashes in several places, as if the wind were a knife, cutting into the perfect rings. Now my mother would want the tree uprooted and hauled away.
When I heard my mother calling me, I hurried toward the sound of her voice. She met me halfway into the grove and saw the tell-tale blackened leaf in my hand.
“I found a dead tree,” I said.
“We have to dig the tree out,” my mother said.
“It weighs a ton. Wait until spring. Ask Uncle Fidel. He’s got a chain saw.”
My mother shook her head. “He has a new grandson.”
“We’ll be out there forever. It’s too cold.”
“If you don’t want to help, I’ll do it myself.”
My mother stood before me, inhaling so that her chest puffed out, but to me, her body was still small stones and sticks.
“All right, then.”
My mother pulled up the zipper of her parka—that old faded green coat, like second skin. We resurrected ancient shovels and the garden clipper from the tool shed, and I took my mother to the back of the grove.
“We’ll cut off the branches first,” she said.
I began snipping with the clippers, and the branches snapped like twigs between the silver blades. My mother threw the branches off to the side, and they grew into a tumbleweed. When the tree was bald, we stopped and she crouched to touch the exposed trunk, dry like old ginger.
My mother grabbed the shovel and drove its tip into the earth, metal slicing the ground. I worked the other side of the tree. We dug and dug, creating a shallow moat around the tree. My mother stopped to rest, and handed the shovel to me to hold for her. Droplets like fine rain gathered on our faces.
“It’s good that you’re home, Agnes,” my mother said.
I nodded. She held out her hand toward me and I gave her back the shovel.
How much time, how many hours passed, I don’t remember. I couldn’t mark the arcing movement of the sun, shielded by opaque clouds that made the light more memory than fact. We kept digging, forming a wall of soft black dirt around us. My muscles ached, but my mother worked as if she were beginning the first of thirty-eight years in the packing house, in the vineyards. Every now and then, I jiggled the trunk, the massive weight of wood, like a loose tooth. How stubborn it was, how firmly entrenched, as if it still had life.
(Originally published in Many Mountains Moving, Vol. IV, No. 1 in a slightly different form)