I grew up in a country of torrid heat, a country that, if I were to try and describe it, might be summed up simply by saying that the smells were not like anything we know here. The smells I remember were pungent smells of raw meat, blood, and rotting garbage, of human sweat. The sun beat down constantly.
In that country, I heard stories. It didn’t matter whether they were true or untrue. The last time I was home, visiting Manila, I asked my mother, “What ever became of your friend, the one who had all her clothes stolen during a hold-up?”
My mother froze. She looked at me. “What are you talking about?” she said. “I never had a friend who had her clothes stolen.”
“Yes,” I told her. “You said she was picked up outside a bank, while she was using the ATM machine. A car of men. They dropped her off on Makati Avenue, without
No, my mother said. No such thing ever happened.
So where did this story come from? I couldn’t have pulled it out of my head. I always had this picture of a middle-aged woman, breasts dangling, being kicked out of a car, right in the heart of the commercial district. At least, I used to think, the men didn’t do anything to her. They wanted to humiliate her, but she wasn’t raped.
In the province of Laguna is a small town called Calauan. It is near the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, where my family used to go to buy the famous Laguna cheese, and milk that tasted as close to American milk as my mother could find in the Philippines. In this place, a decade ago, seven men gang-raped a young beauty queen from the University of Los Baños.
My mother said, “They used her vagina as an ashtray. Did you know that?”
My grandmother said, “Afterwards, there were seven different kinds of semen in
My mother added, “I heard there was a whole pillowcase stuffed down her throat.”
We were having dinner, I recall, at the time of this conversation. The maids were passing around dishes. Perhaps one of my younger brothers was present.
I never knew anyone who came from that place. We’d stop sometimes at a gas station to ask for directions. Sometimes we bought pots for plants from shacks set up by the side of the dusty roads. The people were dark and thin; they were like the people of any small town we passed through on our way to the mountains or the beach. I never even knew anyone who went to the University there. So when I first read about the case in the papers, I couldn’t quite imagine the victim’s face. What I saw in my mind was this: long dark hair; oddly, a tiara; a ball gown. Later, when I saw a picture of her in the newspapers, she didn’t look at all the way I had expected. That is, she wasn’t extraordinarily pretty.
The men were different. The men I could imagine. They had secretive eyes, always. They threw dice and drank beer and had bellies that hung over the cinched belts of their tight khaki pants. They had loud, slurred voices.
The mayor himself, the chief perpetrator, was a caricature. When I saw him for the first time, in the courtroom, I thought he was wearing a rug on his head.
That first day, the courtroom was close and noisy. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, obscuring the face of the woman who presided in her judge’s robes. The light slanting in from the louvered window shades was filled with dust motes.
I was dazzled by the play of light and dark on the people’s faces. I knew no one there. I had come merely as an observer. Because of the stories.
The judge had a very strange name. It sounded Greek, I thought. But when she opened her mouth to speak, she was very Filipino. She spoke that kind of formal English with the long words that I never come across except in college books. The mayor’s family were ranged alongside. On the opposite benches were the family of the victim. The mother bore herself with dignity. She kept her head bowed, but she never wept.
All through the trial, she sat there. Sometimes her husband came with her. He was a sad-looking man. But most of the time, the mother came by herself. Sometimes, during the testimony, she would utter a little gasp. Then someone would stand up and offer her a glass of water. She always took it gratefully.
I myself didn’t know why I wanted to listen to those things: the number of times the girl was raped. The way they tied her down. The shot in the face, at close range. What horrified me was what they did with the body afterwards. The way they drove around in a Tamaraw van, stopped at all the beer halls, showed it off, before dumping it finally by the side of the road, at Kilometer 74.
The girl must have prayed, must have reminded them of their mothers, sisters, daughters. Oh holy God, she must have wept.
She was a gift, a gift to the mayor. Since his 50th birthday, he’d been feeling blue, the driver said. Everyone talked about it.
How do we please the mayor? How will we find something to give him that will make him happy?
He had plenty of money, so it couldn’t be that. It had to be something else, something that would restore the bloom of youth to his pallid cheek. 50! That’s not so old. Jaworski’s still playing basketball, after all.
The chief of police suggested it first.
“Ulol! You are fucked up, you are crazy,” they told him.
But when someone broached the matter to the mayor, he liked the idea.
So did the mayor’s nephew, his sister’s boy. He liked it so much that he volunteered to choose the victim. A classmate of his at the University. She had a boyfriend; the two were always together. No problem, no problem, said the chief of police. We’ll get rid of the boyfriend.
Which they did. Shooting him in the face and tossing his body down a ravine.
The girl was screaming. Her screams went up and down the scale, like a woman practicing for the opera.
Stupid. It was stupid. He’d never expected her to behave that way. They’d dragged her off screaming. Even in the car, they were already starting to rip off her denim shorts.
And then the numbers, the numbers, the numbers.
The numbers, the mayor said. Today had to be the day because the numerology charts said so. It was extremely propitious.
So he sang to her first. Sinatra songs. Strangers in the Night. It Was a Very Good Year. When Somebody Loves You.
But then he grew tired of her constant sniveling. She was crouched in a corner, no shorts now, panties half-ripped.
“Tie her up,” he told his men.
And then the fun began.
It was a birthday to remember. The girl’s cries only increased the mayor’s pleasure. He penetrated her again and again, each time slamming her body deeper into the mattress. When he was finished, blood spattered the sheet between her legs. “Boys,” he said grandly to the men standing around the bed, “Take her. She is now my gift to you.”
The mayor was the lord of jueteng in the town. Jueteng, a poor man’s lotto, a numbers game. Every day, runners took bets from the jeepney drivers, the tiyanggi owners, the cigarette vendors. The people gave the runners their few crumpled pesos and then waited anxiously for the results of the daily raffles. Winners were announced in the late afternoon. There was always someone who won just enough. The rest of the money, the mayor got to keep.
He had three children. The girl was named Ave Maria. The Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a dream and given him the lucky number which was the key to all his wealth. His knees were bruised from the countless times he had made penitence by crawling to the altar from the entrance of the Calauan church. His wife, Fe, swore to all in court that her husband was with her the night the beauty queen was murdered, may she rot in hell if she were not telling the truth. In the past, it is true he may have been a little naughty, perhaps he’d even had a girlfriend on the side, but he had made his confession to a priest who had told him, Pinapatawad ka ng Panginoong Diyos. God forgives you. And since then he had been a paragon of devotion, going to mass with her every day and praying the rosary.
When they came to arrest him, the men were understandably nervous. They were Laguna policemen, not from the town. When they arrived, they had been informed that the Calauan policemen had already secured a suspect, a jilted lover of the young girl. They had investigated all leads but, aside from the one suspect, no other information
The town closed in on itself. The Tamaraw van where the body had been taken was washed clean. Then the woman’s shorts had surfaced. Yes, the mayor himself had turned them over to the astonished policemen, saying that a “concerned citizen” had found them on the side of the road and given them to the mayor “for safekeeping.”
Things unravel, slowly. The shorts led to other discoveries. A torn belt loop on the road leading to the mayor’s farm.
The mayor was having breakfast in his azotea, where he liked to listen to the sounds of birds trilling in the garden. Here it was very peaceful and he could gather his thoughts before undertaking the business of the day.
It was a muggy morning in August. Rain was threatening. The maid had just poured his coffee. He was leaning forward to take a bite out of a hot pan de sal when he saw them, the four policemen in khaki uniforms crossing the sala. The coffee scalded his tongue just then. Putang ina! He hardly had time to put down the cup and wipe his lips.
He heard one of them say, “…for the murder of Mary Eileen Soria.” He tried to remember what his numerology chart said.
He rose from the table. The maid screamed to see the teacup, all the breakfast things crashing to the ground.
“Señora! Señora!” she called.
The mayor’s wife came running from the bedroom, her slippers going slap, slap against the tiled floor. She was still in her house-dress, her hair uncombed. Her eyes bulged. She stopped short when she saw the men.
“Hayop ka! Animals! How dare you—!” she screamed.
No one looked at her. The men’s sweat trickled down the backs of their necks, staining the sleeves of their uniforms.
Their jeep was waiting on the driveway. A mob of angry townsfolk had surrounded it and the driver was gripping the steering wheel nervously, staring straight ahead. When the people saw the mayor in handcuffs, an angry murmur went up. They pelted the policemen with stones. Ang aming ama! They cried. Our father. Don’t take away our father. The mayor was snarling now; he couldn’t help it.
It was the driver who cracked. I remember my mother mentioning this to me as she nonchalantly sprinkled water on the leaves of her orchids. The sun shone behind her head, creating an aureole around her grey hair.
They’d offered the driver a chance at her, but he had refused. He’d been thinking of his two little girls at home. So he only watched while they did it: the nephew, four bodyguards, the gardener, the houseboy…
Inside the airless Pasig courtroom, I watched it played out: the mayor, his bodyguards (beefy and mean-looking, just as in my dreams), his wife, the girl’s mother. I had to see them all, arrayed in the courtroom, figures obscured by smoke and dim light. I had to see them, to convince myself this was real, it had really happened. It wasn’t a nightmare. That this, everything I had been told, was not just some figment of my imagination, but had actually happened, in that town.
Sometimes, because I’d lived apart so long, I couldn’t quite be sure of who I was. There were letters, of course, letters from back home. The letters told me nothing of who I was or who I had been. They were always filled with details of birthday parties, weddings, births, and funerals. None of these occasions affected me personally. I felt like someone looking at fish swimming around in a fishbowl.
When I went to the courtroom, I had this idea: that if I could feel hate, if I could feel that pure emotion burning up my body, then I would know where I belonged.
I didn’t have any reason to be there. I was on vacation. I should have been sunning myself by the pool in my mother’s backyard. Languid, I should have been languid. My arm outstretched for a cool, tall glass of calamansi juice. I would feel the weight in my hand—that coolness. Perhaps I’d press the glass to my hot cheek and let the drops of moisture creep down my chin.
But I couldn’t be that way. There was something tearing up my insides. And every time I thought of the girl, tied down on the mayor’s narra bed with her legs spread-eagled, I couldn’t think. I’d have to stop whatever I was doing—yes, even stop walking, even if I were in the middle of a busy intersection—and take a few deep breaths.
The mayor’s men were holding her arms so tight, so tight. She couldn’t breathe. Turbohin na rin natin ang tinurbo ni Boss, she heard one of them say. She had had seven of them already, and between her legs was a gaping wound where the milky semen leaked and leaked. Yet they were laughing and calling her names now. Cunt. Bitch.
In the morning, before leaving for school, she had handed her mother a gumamela from the garden. Her mother’s smile…
O sige na, her mother had said. Go on; you’ll be late. Her mother hadn’t been feeling well. As soon as her daughter had closed the door to the bedroom, she’d turned toward the sunlight filtering through the window and fallen back asleep.
Paolo was waiting for her in his car. They always rode to school together now. Since the night of the Santacruzan, when she had been Reyna Elena, holding a miniature cross in her arms, he’d always wanted to be by her side. She didn’t mind what the colegialas said, that Paolo liked girls, that he was a flirt. Selos lang sila, she thought. Because he’s with me, not with them.
When they saw the police car at the side of the road, they didn’t think anything of it, but then the policeman walked right out into the middle of the street and Paolo had to stop. Then, suddenly, there were men at either side of the car, yanking open the doors. She was thrown into the back of a jeep, a firm hand covering her mouth, another holding her wrists. She twisted and kicked. From the window of the van she could see the men hitting Paolo, whose head was already bloody. Then they dragged him away somewhere.
Tears sprang to her eyes. She was suddenly helpless and small. She was the little girl hiding behind the santan flowers, the one whom everyone was looking for because she had been throwing stones at the kittens. She was the little girl hiding in the closet because her mother was angry at her for using up the perfume that was in the cut-glass bottle on her mother’s night table. She had been naughty; she shouldn’t have worn shorts that day. She could feel fingers at the edges of her shorts, straining toward her crotch. Hard fingers, with nails that scratched. But she didn’t want to die, so maybe she should just lie very, very still. If she lay still, the fingers might stop pushing so much, and it would hurt less. Would that help? No, it didn’t help. So she continued her writhing.
Paolo was nowhere now and all she wanted to do was to live. She recognized the house where they took her. And she thought: so it’s true, all those stories about the mayor.
He was the one who had put the crown on her head at the Santacruzan procession. He’d been there with his wife, his children. He’d smiled at her. The parish priest, Father Antonio, had clapped him on the shoulder.
After he’d done it, after he was through, she relaxed a little. The mayor had let out a small grunt of contentment and let his body sag onto hers. She rested, in that moment. She thought, now he will let me go. I’ve survived. But she didn’t realize he would hand her over to the others, the others who’d been watching at the sides of the room. His nephew, first. She recognized him from school. She screamed. He was worse than the mayor; she couldn’t bear the tearing pain between her legs.
Even after she’d had seven of them, she still wanted to live. She managed to get up, get on her knees. Supplicating, her hands together as if she’d been praying to the Virgin in the Calauan church. She said, Have mercy. A hand covered her eyes. Oh, God. She screamed this time: Have mercy! But she knew. She didn’t want to open her eyes, even though the hand was gone. The gunblast hit her in the face and spattered her brains over the floor of the jeep.
In the courtroom, I began to notice a veiled figure who appeared every day, always in the same place. She was slender; she wore a light blue dress. Over her face was the lace veil that I remembered wearing to Church before Vatican II did away with the rule about covering one’s head. I never saw this woman’s face, only the merest outline of her profile. The more I saw her, the more I wanted to find out who she was.
She spoke to no one. She always sat demurely, her hands folded on her lap. After many weeks, I began to get the feeling that she was the girl. I thought her hands, with their faint tracery of blue veins, looked very familiar.
When I asked people who she was, they would shrug, because no one had noticed her particularly. There were so many spectators in that courtroom, it was actually difficult to breathe. There were days when the smell of human sweat, and all the tension collected in people’s bodies, was so overpowering that I literally kept a handkerchief to my nose the whole time I sat there.
I didn’t want to be there and yet I was there.
When it was all, all over, when the mayor was being taken away in handcuffs, when his wife was wailing and gnashing her teeth, when the flashbulbs were popping and there was general pandemonium, desks toppling over and people scuffling to be the first to get the story out, I couldn’t move. People shoved me from behind, cursing. They were trying to get to the girl’s mother.
“What do you think about the verdict?” they asked her. “Are you happy?”
That was the first time I saw the woman’s eyes fill with tears. She didn’t answer, only pushed her way wordlessly out of the room.
Much, much later, when I was myself again, I opened a newspaper and there was his picture. I couldn’t mistake that shock of hair that looked like a rug, those pig eyes. He was sitting in a bathtub, and, from what I could see of him, was apparently naked. The caption said that the picture had been taken in jail. But the mayor was smiling. The article said the mayor’s bath water was sprinkled with rose petals provided by his loving wife, Fe, the new mayor of Calauan.
“Mayor of the Roses” appears in Marianne Villanueva’s collection Mayor of the Roses: Stories published in February by Miami University Press. Mel Vera Cruz is an award-winning artist who grew up in the Philippines and lives in San Francisco. Visit him at melveracruz.com.