When Galvez and I pull up in front of the house in La Vista, Mrs. del
Mundoís son is waiting for us at the gate. He is about nineteen or
twenty, with a round, shiny face, not tall, but heavy, about two
hundred pounds of fat and muscle. He is smoking like a chimney and
pacing; the collared gray T-shirt he is wearing is stained in the back
and under the arms with sweat.
"What took you so long?" he asks, and I am surprised at the thin,
whining voice that comes out of that big body.
Galvez scowls at him. "Where is she?"
Fat Boy takes a deep drag off his cigarette and casts the stub into the bushes nearby. "I canít go back in there."
Galvez rolls his eyes heavenward and turns to me. "Come on."
We find Mrs. del Mundo at the foot of the stairs, her legs splayed out on the first, second, third and fourth steps, her neck twisted so that
the left side of her face is mushed against the wood panel flooring.
There is broken glass and spilt water all along the right side of the
body Ė she must have been carrying a glass of water upstairs.
We find the girl in a small, dark, musty room beneath the stairs,
sitting on the floor in the dark with her knees tucked under her chin.
She sits there blinking when Galvez switches the lights on, but she
doesnít look at us, doesnít react to us at all. I think the room is a
broom closet at first, but there is a small bed in one corner. I would
hate to have to sleep in here.
"Shit," Galvez says, "itís hot in here."
"Whatís that smell?" I ask.
Galvez raises his head carefully so it wonít hit the low, sloping
ceiling, sniffing the air. "Piss." He casts a hard glare at the girl,
at her faded housedress and disheveled hair. "Somebody didnít make it
to the bathroom in time."
I come closer to the girl. "Come on. Letís go outside." I tap her on
the shoulder, half expecting her to lash out, but she doesnít. She
stands up and comes quietly with us, not even glancing down at the body
as we pass it on the way to the door.
Fat Boy bounds up across the driveway to meet us. "You little demon,"he squeals, and before Galvez can stop him, he lands a stinging slap
across her face.
"Back off," Galvez barks. "Back off, or Iíll arrest you, too."
I look at the girl. Her left cheek is reddening. It occurs to me that she hadnít flinched or tried to evade the slap. Her expression hasnít
changed at all.
Mrs. del Mundoís funeral is held three days later. Nobody from her
deceased husbandís family comes; in fact, only a handful of her own
relatives bothers to accompany the coffin to the cemetery. They all
stand around uncomfortably as the priest delivers the blessing for the
dead, and they are all walking briskly to their cars even before the
coffin is completely lowered into the ground. That tells me something
about her, something incongruous with her sonís insistence that she was
a good, kind, gentle woman.
She was, by all accounts, a young forty-three; the family pictures
showed an attractive woman whoíd kept her looks, although a certain
coldness Ė in the down turned corners of the mouth, in the arch of an
eyebrow -- spoiled them. Her son swears the girl Ė his stepsister Ė
pushed her down the stairs. But he didnít see it happen. I have no
witnesses, no motive and therefore, no case against the girl. At the
The clinical social workers at juvenile hall have been unable to get
the girl to talk. She is about fifteen, perhaps sixteen. They think she
might be retarded, but Iím not convinced. Iíve been a police officer
for sixteen years. Senior Police Officer 4 Mike Rueda, it says on the
roster. Most cops donít get smarter about anything but graft in sixteen
years. I guess Iím one of the luckier ones; Iím good at what I do,
which is homicide.
Juvenile is a lousy place to be. Wherever you go, it always smells of unwashed bodies and stale food, most of it boiled. This is a girlsí
facility, though, and better than most, despite the dingy walls and the
institutional red flooring. She is isolated in a small room down the
hall from the clinic most of the day; she clearly does not belong here,
and something about her -- her clean, good looks, maybe, or her
submissiveness -- strikes a sympathetic chord with the social workers,
who are used to tough-talking, glue-sniffing junior criminals.
All day long she sits by a window and taps her right foot to the beat of silent, faraway music. She never speaks, never makes a sound. She
looks through us, as though we arenít there.
My partner and I have to go out and talk to the del Mundosí neighbors in La Vista, to get a feel of what the family situation was like.
People always have a pretty good handle on what goes on behind their
neighborsí walls and fences, no matter how thick or how high.
As it happens, one of the hardest things in the world for me to do is to get Galvezí butt out of the office and into the field, especially on
a day as hot as this. I spend the better part of the morning wheedling,
threatening and cajoling him to join me.
The thing that finally gets him is the prospect of seeing some maids.
Galvez likes maids. He has had four or five children by as many maids, aside from the four he already has with his real wife. Now, Iím no
looker Ė short, wiry and so ugly my in-laws say my wife wasnít thinking
straight when she married me Ė but beside Galvez, with his leathery
brown skin and salt-and-pepper hair and toad-like physique, I think I
look pretty good. So his attractiveness to the opposite sex baffles
me; I wish I could say itís the uniform, but we donít wear uniforms
anymore since we both started working homicide.
Obviously, this maid at the first house we call on is no exception. A shy, plump, toothy girl with round eyes, she takes one look at Galvez
and goes to jelly, smiling too much and twisting her fingers this way
and that. She lets us in after consulting with the lady of the house, a
certain Mrs. Salcedo, and asks us to sit on the lawn chairs while her
mistress gets ready to talk to us.
She disappears into the house a few minutes. When she comes around
again to ask us, "Would you like some juice or something?Ē Galvez
stirs ever so slightly in his seat, shifting his pelvis Ė along with
his pot belly Ė in her direction, and answers with a meaningful lift of
the eyebrow, "Yes, Iíd like -- something."
The answer causes her to blush beet-red from hairline to neck. The right corner of his mouth
lifts just a little, promising the provinciana earth-shaking sexual
delights. When she heads back to the house giggling, he turns to me
and gives me that some-guys-have-all-the-luck smile of his. The hairs
at the back of my neck stand on end.
When Mrs. Salcedo emerges, she is a large, gregarious woman with big
hair dyed an awful shade of red. Unlike her maid, she does not give Galvez a second look. When I introduce myself, she grips my hand like a construction worker and shakes it vigorously, then immediately begins flapping the front of her red batik caftan to fan herself; the heat, even in the middle of her lush green garden, is oppressive. I like her
almost at once, and by the way she looks at me Ė kind, but focused on
the business at hand Ė I can tell she likes me as well. It is the kind
of rapport one always hopes for when making inquiries of this sort; the
people who like you will almost always give you quality information.
She tells me that Layaís mother Ruth died shortly after giving birth to her. It took Andy del Mundo several years to get over his young wifeís
death, years in which he raised a quiet, sensitive child. Andy del
Mundo married Araceli Robles when Laya was six or seven; she had worked
for his small consulting practice and was a widow with a son. "Andy
used to worry that Laya could not seem to get along with them."
I lean forward, my elbows on my knees, fingers knotted together. "Was she a difficult child?"
"Oh, no, not at all, quite the opposite. Very quiet, always kept to
herself. I think Mrs. del Mundo Ė Cely Ė would have preferred a more
normal child, you know, noisy, active. Like Alvin."
The maid emerged from the house bearing a tray with glasses and a
pitcher of what looked like iced tea.
"Mrs. Salcedo, I was wondering Ė
is Laya retarded?"
She waited for the maid to set the tray down, then poured some of the tea for herself and us before continuing. "You know, we always thought
so. Ruth died giving birth to her ... we thought there might have been
complications but Andy didnít like to talk about Ruth. I donít think he
ever really got over her death." She took a sip from her glass and
chewed on her lower lip a while. "She looks normal enough, `no? But
she moves very slowly, and she hardly talks. She might have had a
learning disability, although I think she went to UPIS for a while."
I think about this, looking down at the kalamansi pulp floating on the surface of my iced tea. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Galvez
putting the moves on the girl, who has lingered, hovering around him
attentively. He is asking her questions totally unrelated to the case
in the low, hot-shit voice he always uses on maids.
As we talk, a clearer picture emerges of Laya del Mundoís life after
her fatherís death. Her stepmother is a loud, high-strung woman,
constantly badgering, threatening, berating the girl.
"Cely was a screamer. She screamed at the dogs, the bill collectors, everything. I think she must have had a thyroid problem, such a loud woman, so
The stepbrother Alvin was just as bad; Mrs. Salcedo
calls him a horrible young man, a spoiled brat who will never amount to
I think about this for a while; so far my initial impressions, of the dead woman and her son, of the atmosphere in the del Mundo household,
have been confirmed. But nothing Iíve heard so far is sufficient a
motive for murder. I realize, though, that I am talking from my own
point of view; my wifeís mother sounds a lot like Cely del Mundo, and
to be sure there are days when Iíd like to kill her, but thatís just
talk. I turn to Mrs. Salcedo and begin taking my leave. She promises
to call me if she remembers anything.
I have to clear my throat several times before Galvez takes the hint.
Mrs. Salcedo is looking sternly at her maid, and the girl wilts under her mistressí stare. But Galvez not only winks at the girl, but at
Mrs. Salcedo as well, as I drag him out of the compound by the arm. The
Before the day is over Iíve been given two new cases to investigate.
Itís always like this; I have to juggle anywhere from two to as many
as six cases at a time. These new ones are ordinary gangland
salvage-type killings, two more I wonít be able to solve. Quite likely
the guys who did it are down the hall from me, at Anti-Narcotics, and
they like it when I stay off their turf.
When I get home, the kids are asleep. Dinner was my favorite Ė pinakbet done just the way I like it, with a lot of squash and eggplant, the
sauce dense with crushed tomatoes and shrimp fry Ė and I know my wife
is upset with me because she has stored it in the refrigerator and
cleared the dinner dishes away, to tell me they couldnít wait.
As I settle in the rickety armchair in front of the television and peel my sweaty socks off, the thing that nags me most about the dayís
inquiries in La Vista is how everyone who knew Cely del Mundo said she
was a loud woman. They said she would be yelling and screaming from
sunup to sundown; at the paper boy who came with the Bulletin Today at
seven oíclock sharp every morning, at the family dogs (Japanese
spitzes, an especially excitable and noisy breed), at the succession of
maids, none of whom could last beyond three months. She reserved her
most venomous tirades for the slow, uncommunicative Laya, who
apparently was so clumsy and uncoordinated that she had to be moved to
the tiny room on the ground floor where we found her that night.
The UP Integrated School. If the girl could have been enrolled at UPIS, she probably wasnít retarded -- maybe just a slow learner. Itís been a
long day, and going to UPIS in the morning is the last thought on my
mind before I doze off in the chair.
At the school, I am told that Laya del Mundo was a student until the
age of twelve; she was pulled out of school in the middle of her
freshman year with no explanation from her stepmother. Her records
show an indifferent student, with below average to average grades in
When I get to juvenile, the administrator tells me the girl has a
visitor. "A teacher," she says.
"I wasnít informed?"
She wrings her hands together; lines of worry suddenly creasing her
forehead. "I didnít think there would be a problem."
"Hmmm," is all I say, and accompany her to the visiting area. The
dingy, pale-green door has a glass viewing panel set in it at eye
level; I look in and motion for her not to open the door. She waits by
my side a few seconds and then excuses herself.
The two of them are sitting on opposite sides of a dull beige desk.
The teacher Ė the slip of paper on the administratorís desk said his
name was Anastacio Arias -- is quite old, to my surprise, probably a
little over seventy; very small, very fair, with light brown hair
graying in large areas at the temples and the crown of his head. The
skin has grown slack over the fine bones of his face. What catch my
eyes are his hands, so big they look like they have been grafted on to
his wrists from another personís body. He is tapping one very long
forefinger on the desk and talking; the girl watches him intently for
a few seconds, then bends her head to doodle on the surface of the desk
with a yellow Mongol pencil.
To his left, on the desk, is a small pile of apple and tangerine
peelings; he has obviously brought her some fruit and taken the trouble
to peel it for her. Something about it touches me; it is the same
little pile on the table at breakfast, when I peel fruit for the kids,
although I havenít done that in over a week. By her right hand, a few
slices of tangerine lie on a square of Kleenex.
The tapping and doodling, tapping and doodling continue for about five minutes. The girlís face is animated for the first time since I have
seen it. She smiles, she talks, her wide dark eyes are bright with
interest. I wonder what kind of teacher he is; did he teach at UPIS?
Why didnít I see him there?
I hear the tapping of heels behind me; the administrator is back with two attendants. I raise my right hand, motioning for them to wait.
"Visiting hours are over," she says, brushing past me.
Ariasí face darkens in helpless fury when the door opens, and the
girlís slips easily back into docile blankness. She allows the pencil
to slide from her hand onto the desk and stands up obediently when the
attendants come to take her away. When the women leave the room, Iím
left alone with the old man; his anger, barely contained in his tiny
frame, crackles through the air in the room like static.
The eyes narrow. "Your report says sheís retarded."
I lift an eyebrow. "You read my report?" Obviously, the administrator has been careless with the papers on her desk.
The old manís face twists into a sneer. "I suppose you are qualified
to make that sort of assessment," he says, as he sweeps the peelings
with one huge, veined hand into his brown paper sack and folds it up.
He walks slowly to the door, turns the knob, and is halfway through it
when he turns back and looks at me. "You are qualified, arenít you?"
I am about to say something when the door opens wider, and Galvez
struts in, belly first.
"Oy, pare, Iíve been assigned to the salvagings
full-time, I need your reports."
The old man takes advantage of
Galvezí intrusion to slip out the door; I try to follow but there is
a costly few moments of fumbling at the door, playing patintero with
the lumbering Galvez before he finally stands aside to allow me to
pass. When I reach the end of the corridor, the old man has
disappeared. Annoyed, I stride back to the visiting area. Because
Galvez cannot write a decent report, I have wasted a perfectly good
opportunity to talk to the old man.
"Next time you need anything from me, Galvez, wait until I get to the office."
The bastard is busy chewing on the slices of tangerine Laya left
uneaten on the table. "Whatís your problem?" he asks with his mouth
I shake my head and sigh. "Never mind." I stand beside the table for a few minutes, in the place where Laya was sitting only a few moments
ago. She left the yellow pencil where it is lying now, and I pick it
up, thinking to get back to the office. And then I see it.
On the dull beige paint of the desk someone has drawn a series of
musical staves, and in those staves, a complicated series of notes and
Joanna Bonifacio is one of those bitch reporters who think theyíre
Godís gift to journalism. Sheís had some success as a magazine writer,
and for a while was hot in Malacanang Palace covering the last
President. Now, for some reason I canít figure out, sheís covering
crime for the Philippines Observer. My theory, though, is that the
lady likes cheap thrills, and there are plenty of those on the police
I ring up her desk at the Observer and this really low,
honey-and-gravel voice Ė sort of like a female impersonator -- says:
"Jo Bonifacio." I can hear the fast, almost aggressive clacking of a
computer keyboard at the other end.
"Jo, Mike Rueda from CPD." I try to sound friendly, no hidden
"Oy." There is a slight pause for what I guess to be a few sips of
scalding coffee. "S-P-O-Four," she resumes, "what have I done to
I clear my throat. "Jo, I need to ask you something. Do you remember
that priest friend of yours? The one who helped the NBI with the
Payatas killings last year?"
The rapid clacking continues; she must type at over a hundred words
per minute. "Yep, Gus Saenz. What do you need him for?"
I try to ignore the question. "Do you know where I can get in touch
"Uh-huh. What do you need him for?"
I try not to sigh aloud. "I need his help on something."
It occurs to me that talking to this woman feels a lot like being
unzipped and fondled in a dark theater against your will. "Heís a
She snickers. "What, you want him to join you for a karaoke night? I
donít think youíre his type."
"Come on, Jo. I really need his help."
The clack of the keys stop and I hear the creaking springs of a swivel chair. She has obviously pulled up closer to the phone. "Do I get a
good angle?" Although she tries to suppress it, a fugitive note of
intense interest manages to creep into her voice. I hesitate a moment
and the springs creak again, and the clacking starts up. "Well, hey,
itís been nice talking but I have to get back to work."
"Okay, okay," I say. "Youíll get your angle. Thereís a minor involved, though."
"Youíre the best, S-P-O-Four," she crows. "Hang on a minute while I
get you the number of the Jesuit House."
Father Augusto Saenz is a Jesuit priest who teaches anthropology at
the Ateneo de Manila. He is also one of the countryís three leading
forensic anthropologists. I have seen him a few times on television,
helping the police and the NBI on one case or another, but nothing
prepares me for the sight of him in real life: a little over six feet,
with long arms and legs and handsome, angular mestizo features, tawny
skin. He looks much younger than the fifty-seven or fifty-eight years
Joe Bonifacio believes him to be. He doesnít even dress like a priest;
right now he is wearing faded black jeans and a gray linen shirt with
the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. When he appears in the doorway of
juvenile and walks past the reception desk toward me, the female duty
officer and the receptionist follow him with their eyes, their mouths
hanging open. I allow him to pass ahead of me into the corridor, then
turn to the girls.
"Sunday confession for both of you," I tell them sternly, and they
titter nervously as they get back to work.
I follow him down the corridor, trying to keep up with the stride of
those long legs. "Thank you for coming down, Father Saenz."
"No thanks necessary. " He walks, hands thrust deep into the pockets
of his jeans, with a curious loping gait, the way someone who rides
horses might. "Joe said you needed some help. Although I have to admit
the police have never asked for my assistance on a musical problem
"No, I guess not, Father. These are Ė unusual circumstances."
"Yes, Joe told me. The young girl." He pauses a while, then continues.
"I donít recall ever having met you before, and Joe doesnít remember
telling you I used to be a musician." He says this matter-of-factly,
not really expecting an answer, although I feel obliged to give him one
just the same.
"When I was a young police officer I rode armed escort for Mayor
Daniel Rodriguez." He frowns and tries to remember; when the creases
on his brow smooth out in recognition of the name, I continue. "You
were at one of his parties once. I think, 1984 or 85? You conducted the
"Ah, yes, one of his wifeís charity things," he nods. "That was a
long time ago, you still remember me?"
I swallow once. "Mrs. Rodriguez had a big crush on you. Everyone in
the escort knew it."
He stops right before the door of the visiting area and turns to me.
His eyes, their irises a curious shade of yellow-brown, narrow a
moment; then the hands come out of the pockets. I take a step back; the
hands grab me by the shoulders and shake me vigorously, but the
handsome face is smiling broadly.
"She did, too," he laughs, "the old
We both have a good laugh about it, and then I lead him into the
I point to the desk. "Over there."
Saenz moves away from me, toward the desk and bends down to examine
the music scribbled on the wooden surface.
I sit on the opposite side, and watch as he traces the progress of the notes down the staves with his forefinger, as his lips move in short,
pulsing bursts of air as though to keep time. He does this for what
seems like a very long time, and then he goes back to the first staff
and repeats the process. When he comes to the end, he closes his eyes
and begins to hum. I canít understand the music Ė at some points it
begins to make sense, and then he breaks off and follows another line
of melody, breaks off again. His face, with the eyelids shut tight, is
aglow with pleasure. I realize, of course, that Iím not hearing it the
way he is hearing it in his head, and I sit patiently until he is
When he opens his eyes, he is beaming. "Bach."
"Good. What is it?"
He snorts good-naturedly. "Johann Sebastian Bach. The Allemande from
the Suite in E Minor, arranged for classical guitar."
"Oh." Of course I havenít the faintest idea what heís talking about.
"So youíve heard it before?"
"Iíve played it before. You say this Arias is her teacher? Did you
find out what kind of teacher?"
"I guess Ė"
"Donít guess," Saenz wags a finger to no one in particular. "Is his
first name Anastacio?"
I fish my notebook from my pocket and flip through the pages. "Yeah,
The priest rocks back and forth in his seat, biting his lower lip,
with one eye closed and looking at me out of the other. "Anastacio
Arias is one of the countryís leading classical guitarists." He
stands up and begins to slap his thighs with both hands, getting ready
to leave. "Your suspect is not retarded, Mike."
When the girl is brought in, the guitar is propped up on a metal
stand; Saenz is sitting beside it with his arms folded across his
chest. She goes straight to her chair near the window, ignoring them.
Saenz looks at me, unfolds his arms and takes up the guitar. He begins
to play. Iíve never heard music like this before: it sounds like Ė this
is stupid, I donít know what Iím talking about -- like a dream of water
and hands and infinite sadness.
The girl does not react. She continues staring out the window, at the yellow-green, paddle-like leaves of a talisay tree. When the music is
finished, Saenz looks up at her, then at me, his curious yellow-brown
eyes questioning. I open my hands and shrug.
Behind me, the door opens and an attendant comes in carrying a tray
with a glass of water and two cups of coffee. She puts the tray down
on the table and walks out of the room, but unexpectedly, she allows
the door to slam shut and I jump, as does Saenz. Slightly embarrassed,
I stand, shaking my head, and close it gently.
"Do that again," Saenz commands. There is an unmistakable urgency in
"Do what again?"
"Slam the door."
"Just do it, for heavenís sake."
I open the door and slam it hard.
I repeat the action, and then I realize the priest has not taken his
eyes off the girl. I turn to look at her, and then slam the door a
third time. She still does not react.
"Okay, enough." The priest stands and moves behind her. Out of her
sight, he leans close behind her, then claps his hands together loudly,
once. Then he sighs. "I think youíd better have her hearing checked."
The chrome-plated Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office clock on my
desk says itís eight oíclock. The fact is itís about ten-thirty.
Yesterday, Galvez, in one of those song-and-dance routines he does when
heís trying to get me to do his paperwork for him, came in smoking like
a chimney and talking a load of nonsense about how heís more of an
"action man" than I am, and since Iím kind of a "thinking guy", Iím
ideally suited to the job of filling out reports. Without so much as a
by your leave, he picked up the clock, shook out the batteries and
replaced them with failing ones from his battered Walkman. The hour and
minute hands have stopped completely; now the second hand has begun
winding down. Sometimes I wonder if I can apply for a change of
partner; better yet, I wonder if the guys at Anti-Narcotics would be
willing to get him off my back for a small fee. Ah, well.
Saenz has picked up Arias from the UP College of Music; yesterday we
agreed the old man might be more cooperative if he was brought in by
someone who wasnít a cop. When they arrive, the old man looks sullen,
and does not take the hand I offer him. He sits in the chair opposite
me and looks down at the huge hands resting in his lap.
"You can help her, you know."
He is quite feisty and temperamental for such a little guy. One of the huge hands flies up, the forefinger jabbing the air in my direction.
"You want to prove she killed that woman."
"I want to know the truth."
All at once he is a little old man again, and he slumps back in his
seat, looking tired and defeated. Nobody moves or says anything for a
"Her father started her on guitar lessons when she was six. I have been teaching over forty years. I have never seen anything like this child.
A musical genius. She can play by ear and by sight, she has perfect
pitch. She can hear the music in her head as she reads it on the
page." He looks from me to Saenz, and back. "You have done some
checking at UPIS?" he asks.
"Then you have seen her grades. Lousy, every last one. But an
The tapping and doodling now make sense; she was writing the notes and tapping them out. "Did she ever tell you what it was like at home?"
The old manís face darkens again. "At first it was difficult to
believe. Mrs. del Mundo was always such a charming woman. Very
friendly. But at home she tormented that child so. Ranting and
screaming from sun-up to sundown. The child couldnít do anything
right. Do you know she would cry at the end of her lessons? Cry
because she had to go home to that house, to that constant screaming."
The old man turns to me. "Did they tell you at UPIS why she was taken
out when she was twelve?"
"No explanation from Mrs. del Mundo."
"Of course not. A better place to look would be St. Lukeís. Three
years ago Laya was admitted for injuries to both ears."
I take a deep breath. "She was beaten?"
When he looks at me, his eyes hold both profound sadness and gentle
reproach. "You are a policeman, Mr. Rueda. You know how the world
works. Donít you know there is more than one way to be beaten?"
Dr. Maggie Paterno was the otolaryngologist who took care of Laya when she was admitted to St. Lukeís. She described the injury to the girlís
eardrums as permanent and irreparable. They were punctured, she said,
with a no. 1 pencil.
The injuries were self-inflicted.
When I step out of St. Lukeís, in the blazing hot sun, with the traffic on E. Rodriguez and the ripples of heat rising from the vehiclesí
bodies, I feel a pain in my chest that I canít explain. I flag down a
cab to get to juvenile, and the pain just sits there, bearing down on
my chest from outside, or straining it from the inside, I canít tell.
I think about what I have just found out, think about both the
desperation and the fierce courage it takes to drive a pencil through
your eardrums so you can silence the world, think about how Iíll
probably never write with a pencil again. I think and then it all
becomes too much for me; the cab driver, handing me a box of Kleenex from
his dashboard, asks if someone has died in my family.
At juvenile, I ask to see the girl.
In her room near the clinic, Saenzí guitar is still in its stand; heís been hoping to reach her through it. She is sitting by the window in
her usual place, staring at the talisay tree; she doesnít mind me, she never has and sheís unlikely to start now. My eyes hurt and Iím tired; when I get out of here Iíll still have three cases to look at. I havenít been home early enough to play with my kids in
the last two weeks; I get home and theyíre asleep in their beds.
Stress and frustration are a regular part of my life, but right now,
Iím just fed up with it all, and the girl, with her blank face and
staring eyes, is the perfect target for my bad humor, a human ball of
"Talk to me, damn it. Iím trying to help you."
Of course she doesnít; she just sits there.
I lean forward and rest my elbows on my knees, open my hands and press the heels of the palms against my eyeballs. The action relieves the
stress a little, but not much. At the back of my eyes the inside of my
brain swirls purple and blue, with splotches of yellow pulsing here and
And then I hear it: the dream of water and sadness. Like a child
waiting to catch a dragonfly, Iím afraid to move, afraid the music will
stop if I move.
A musical genius, Arias had told us, and the phrase didnít mean
anything to me. Well, now I know what that is: someone who can turn
sorrow into sound.
When it is over I lift my head from my hands. She is holding the
guitar to her chest, and her head is tilted to one side. She is
watching me; really watching me, not looking through me to the wall
When I come through the door, Cecille knows not to nag me about coming home late again. Maybe she sees something in the sag of my shoulders,
in the look on my face, in the way I slip my feet out of my shoes and
head straight for the bedroom without a word. I strip off my shirt and
drop it into the hamper, go to the bathroom and wash my face. I reach
for the face towel on the towel rack near the sink, eyes shut tight
against the water; my fingers find it, as well as Cecilleís hand,
which has taken it off the rack and brought it closer to me. I press
both the towel and her palm to my face and stand there without moving
for a while.
When I open my eyes, I can see her standing behind me in the mirror, her pretty face filled with worry and concern. I feel like I ought to say
something, to explain why Iím feeling so awful, but all I can do is
shake my head and say, "I donít understand."
She rubs the back of my neck gently, the way she does when soothing one of the kids. "You will." I turn into the warmth behind me and the hurt
Hours later, I am lying in the darkness, listening to the house. A
house will tell you a lot of things people wonít. I can hear my wifeís
regular breathing as she sleeps beside me in the sweet, quiet peace
that follows lovemaking; the drip of the faucet in the bathroom sink;
the occasional skitter of lizards playing tag on the wooden ceiling.
Since it is a small house, the sounds do not have far to travel, they
do not break the air and change and become something else other than
Cecilleís breathing or a dripping faucet or the skitter of lizards. It
is a peaceful house, noisy, bustling, disorganized in the daytime, but
the air remembers our laughter, our bargaining over chores and
allowances, our problems with math and chemistry and English, our
worries about money, our love and hope.
I think about other houses Iíve been in, how the sounds change in them, how the air smells and feels. I think about how words, voices, anger,
love, joy, fear, linger in the air of a room, and how they alter the
character of silence.
I donít understand, I told her.
You will, she said.
Iím standing in the house in La Vista. Alvin has left the keys with
the neighbors while he vacations with family in the South. Some of the
furniture is gone; he has sold off things he probably has no right to
sell. Inside, the dull resonances of a large and empty house, its
doors and windows closed against the sound of birds, the absence of any
hum of electricity. Something heavy hanging in the air, something sour
and spiteful and unhappy.
I head for the broom closet Ė Layaís bedroom, which no one can ever
convince me is habitable. When I open the door, I catch a whiff of
ammonia almost immediately; the room has been closed for weeks. I
remember the smell of urine in this dark, cramped room, how strong it
was when Galvez and I came to pick her up. Galvez had said -- I close
my eyes and try to remember -- heíd said "Somebody didnít make it to
the bathroom in time."
When Galvez walked her out ahead of me, her duster was dry.
Somebody didnít make it to the bathroom in time.
I turn the bedcovers down. No stains. I look into corners, under the bed, at the piles of folded clothes that lay on the floor, on sheets of
newspaper; it occurs to me that she was put in a room with no closets.
No closets; no tables; her books and things lying on the floor, lined
up against the wall near the door. I walk on my knees to them, geometry
and algebra textbooks, notebooks from when she still went to school,
dictionaries, Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew mysteries
and Archie comics.
I could be imagining things, but that ammonia scent seems to be
getting stronger. I pass my hands over the tops of the books and boxes
and envelopes, exams and class pictures and photo albums, loyalty
awards and Work Ed projects with feathers and yarn.
The tips of my fingers now find edges of paper curled stiff, as though from water damage. My hands stop here.
As always, she doesnít react when I come in. I lock the door of her
room behind me and go to her. I take her by the elbow Ė a little more
roughly than I realize until itís too late -- and make her sit on the
chair at the table where she takes her meals.
I spread the yellowed music books and scores on the table in front of her and wait for a reaction. She glances down at them, then away.
Finally itís her hands that betray her; they open, fingers seeking the
paper slowly at first, then with increasing eagerness.
"Did he piss on them?"
She does not react; I forget that she canít hear me. I put out my hand and tilt her chin up so she can read my lips. "Did he piss on them? Was
that what made you angry?" She tries to turn away but my fingers grip
her chin firmly. "It was okay if you couldnít hear, wasnít it? You
didnít need to hear the music to make it. It was in your head. Thatís
why you were brave enough to make yourself deaf. You needed to shut her
out to hear the music in your head. Look at me. He came in that night and pissed on your music. That was the last
straw. You needed to see the music, you needed to be able to read it."
I push the books and scores toward her. "You canít read any of these,
can you? Theyíre ruined. The ink has run; the pages have gummed
together. The photocopies are the worst; you canít salvage any of
them. Bach, Vivaldi, Barrios, all of them. Lost."
In one swift move she pulls away, shoving her chair back so violently that it falls to the floor. She runs into a corner of the room,
crouches low, as though by making herself smaller she will succeed in
becoming invisible altogether. She presses the palms of her hands to
her ears. I follow her; she cringes as I take her by the wrists and
pull her hands away from her ears.
"Youíre deaf, remember? You donít have to do that anymore. You canít
hear anything. You took care of that. But you couldnít take care of
the books. You couldnít make them deaf. Look at me."
She cries out, a word I canít understand, and her voice breaks hoarsely from disuse. It seems to go on a long time. Then words come, one after
another, clumping together like candy that has been stored too long in
a jar. "He came in he told me to do the dishes. He said I was too
slow he said he would teach me a lesson he pissed on them." And then
she cries out again.
Her wailing sounds like a hurt animal in this small closed room.
I think about my children. I think about how they will probably never
get to Disneyland, never play an instrument, never live in a nice big
house. I think about my noisy, rowdy, average kids and thank God none
of them will ever want to take a pencil and make themselves deaf
because that is the only way they can survive. I swear for as long as I
live no one will ever, ever piss on the things that are most precious
to them, and I take this girl, who is not my child, take her in my arms
and hold her. I hold her hoping it will make up for the moment when she
told her stepmother about the ruined books and was told to shut up
because she deserved it anyway, to go back to that tiny broom closet
because she didnít belong upstairs -- upstairs in her fatherís house,
in her own house. Hold her for the blinding anger and humiliation and
hurt that followed, too much to turn toward herself again. Hold her for
the horror that came when she realized what she had done. Hold her for her father and mother, who died not knowing she would come to this, to this moment in this room, with a stranger who knows she has had to kill to stay alive.
When the wailing stops, I release her, get up and move to the table. I gather up the books and papers, cross over to the other side of the
room and pick up the metal trashcan and bring them to the corner where
she still crouched. I set the trashcan down between us, show her the
books and reach out to take her chin in my hand. "Look at me. Look at
me. Mr. Arias has copies of these, right?"
I put the ruined books and scores in the trash, fish out the lighter
from my pocket and apply the flame to one corner of a piece of paper.
The paper catches fire, blackens, and the flame moves to the other
sheets. I pick up the trash can, open a window, set the can out on the
outer edge of the window sill and slide the window closed again. I
stand watching the black smoke billow from the trashcan for what seems
like a very long time.
Saenz drops by a couple of days after Laya is released to the custody of a paternal aunt. He sits across me at the desk, hands folded over
his chest, and waits for me to start talking about it, the way priests
do. For a long time I say nothing; we stare at each other in a silence
filled with understanding.
"Well, sheíll be okay now."
He nods. "I know."
I sigh. "I didnít have a case."
"Didnít you?" He smiles, and for a moment I wonder if he knows
anything. Impossible. Before I can answer he stands and gets ready to
leave then pats his pockets for something. He finds it in the square
pocket of his shirt; itís small and flat, in a blue Shoemart plastic
bag. He puts it on the desk and slides it toward me.
"What is it?"
"A quick education. For when she starts performing professionally."
With a chuckle, heís gone.
I take the package out of the blue plastic bag. Itís a cassette tape. The Instruments of Classical Music: The Guitar and The Lute. Vivaldi. Bach. Rodrigo. Sor. Falla. Dowland. Strange, unfamiliar names. I turn
it over. With a red felt-tip pen, Saenz has encircled one of the
selections: no. 4, Bachís Allemande from the Suite in E Minor. I tear
the plastic wrapping off, pop the tape into the cassette player, put my
feet up on the desk and listen.
worked in the Philippine intelligence community and was trained to be a
classical guitarist. She started writing seriously in 1996 and has been
published in Philippine magazines and the 1998 literary anthology of the
University of the Philippines. Her work has won Palanca awards (her
country's equivalent of the Pulitzer/Booker prize) for her fiction; and
writes mainly mystery and detective fiction.