by Cinelle Barnes
an excerpt from Monsoon Mansion
The mansion was dark. Always dark. Always ready to devour me. Always sad. Always filled with men and their women, drinking, smelling of whiskey and San Miguel beer and sticky, quick, heavy-groaning, unfaithful sex. Always filled with fighting chickens—aggressive, unlike my dead Tweetie. Chickens roamed everywhere, pooped everywhere, pecked on everything: the ottoman, the rattan peacock chair, the breakfast table, the record player and turntables, the imperial silk curtains, the Oriental rugs. They laid waste the relics of my parents’ empire.
We hadn’t had power in the mansion since after my pet chicken was butchered and broiled. I’d learned to line my room with leftover crescents of mosquito coil—ones I’d collected from other rooms after they’d been used as a brothel—to ward off bugs and the obscurity of night. The perimeter of the room flickered like a landing strip awaiting a rescue plane.
Save our souls! Save my pets! Save me!
My prayers to God. My tear-drenched, heart-wrenched prayers to the God of the nuns at the convent next door, the God of Elma’s family’s charismatic church, the God Paolo and I petitioned to when we were lonely and hungry, the God we sang to at the all-girls school, the God that Papa said blessed the crippled, the meek, and the lowly, the God my country had called out to for hundreds of years. Help for them must mean help for me, I believed. And every night I cried that that God would in turn believe I was in need. SOS. SOS. SOS. Please, please, please.
Good night, coils.
Good night, books.
Good night, bed.
Good night, pets.
Good night, moon.
Good night, Mama and Papa. Good night, Paolo.
Good night, baby buried in the garden.
Good night, mansion.
Good night, darkness.
Daytime felt less scary than night. Day meant school, and school meant being elsewhere. Day promised friends my age, teachers who gave lessons and enforced routine, a stocked cafeteria, a gymnasium, and a soccer field set for play.
Mama and Norman dropped me off at school before heading out for the day’s shenanigans. In the car, they discussed names of politicians and businessmen and land-owning priests, how each one could be made interested in their hypothetical products or projects. They argued about the most important person in their lives—the sheriff.
“Pay again? We just gave that asshole three thousand pesos, that son of a bitch,” Norman said, slamming his hand against the car door.
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry. It’s not my fault,” Mama said, half-sultry and half-nervous. “We have to pay or he’ll padlock the mansion.”
“Right.” Then he’d reach for Mama’s thighs, then between them, then grab.
It made me squirm in my seat.
Mama pulled a rolled-up stack of paper from her purse. “Which one should we sell today?" she said.
Norman took the documents from her hands, shuffled through them, and said, “This one.” Sitting in the cargo space, I leaned in and spied from the corner of my eye. The paper read,
“TITLE DEED: This is to certify that Estrella Alarcon is registered as the absolute proprietor of the land and edifice at Palos Verdes.”
I remembered the name: Palos Verdes, the pool club where I fell from a slide and hit my head. I knew that we did not own the property. I broke into a sweat and swallowed my spit.
Mama and Norman laughed. She pulled her hair to one side, took her wad of false deeds, and gave it a kiss. He slapped his knees in excitement, wheezed for breath as he laughed, and said, “Mga uto-uto!” Gullible. Ignoramus.
What a relief it was to stop at the school driveway, open the hatchback door, and hop out to my day away from them. What a relief to not have to watch them flatter each other: incubus and succubus rolling around and lurching, tripping over their miseries.
“Hey, do well at school. It’s all we have going for you,” Mama said, filing her nails in the passenger seat. “See you after aerobics class.”
Mama hadn’t had a gym membership since the Gulf War. “Sure. See you.” “Don’t fuck up school. You lose your spot there and I’ll really go nuts.”
I smirked. “Right.”
* * *
School mornings started with a chat in the bathroom or by the lockers. All lies. I told my friends, even the humble and genuine ones who could’ve given me grace or mercy or money, that all was well and that my pet dog was going to the groomer’s and my mama was getting me a pair of Guess jeans and my brother helped me with my homework and I watched last night’s episode of Thank God It’s Sabado. Then once they found me likable and amusing enough, I’d offer to draw them a portrait for ten pesos apiece.
“I can color it with glitter gel and mount it on cardboard,” I said. “You can put it up on your desk or give it to your boyfriend or post it on your locker.”
What an easy sell. Elma and I spent many years drawing people, practicing our craft, the craft I inherited from Papa: design paired with entrepreneurship. With a pack of glitter gel pens, I sketched on cardboard I’d picked from the recycling bin, faces and dresses—all inspired by the many fashion magazines I’d read with Mama—and laminated them with clear packaging tape. Those private school girls belonging to elite families never questioned my rate. If anything, they called it a bargain. I called it lunch.
I did what Mama and Norman were doing: made deals with those who had money and power. But I felt that what I was doing was honest—no cons, with a real tangible product, no forgery, no envelopes passed under the table, no dead birds, and no false deeds.
“Next summer we’ll make it up to Abra, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fuckin’, fucked by the Spaniards and Americans, Filipino history,” I heard Norman say once. “We snag the gubernatorial seat, and damn, that politics money’s gonna taste so good.”
Unlike him, I wasn’t sucking my classmates dry of their money, binding their hands—or mine—with imaginary handcuffs: my mother’s make-believe sales, plus Norman’s wiles and political ruses. I was surviving and, as I remembered Paolo had instructed me to do, being good.
The school bell rang at seven thirty and rang again at noon. My morning sales ensured my afternoon meal. And that meal afforded me a place at a cafeteria table, an in on a conversation about crushes and schoolwork and R-rated movies and shaving legs, a place where every preteen girl should be: away from hunger, isolation, and insecurity. Lunch was my place to be a normal kid again.
After lunch were three more hours of class. English and history were the only subjects I hadn’t nearly failed. With the distractions at home and the lack of light at night, I could never do my homework. With an empty prelunch stomach, I couldn’t concentrate during morning periods. I fared well with my English and history work because they came natural to me: stories. Papa used to tell us stories and made it seem like English was stories about people in other people’s heads, and history was stories about people on earth, dead or alive. One was crafted to tell truth, and the other to tell facts. I understood—no studying at home required.
I admired my English and history teachers. In forty-minute blocks, they warped us out of the mansion, out of the classroom, out of Manila, and out of the Pacific. The English teacher, Ms. Ria, read Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Poe, and Plath to us. The history teacher, Mr. Santiago, introduced us to José Rizal, a writer and our national hero.
Mr. Santiago sat on the teacher’s desk, his legs dangling and swinging over the front side. He picked up a pen and twirled it with his fingers, and said, “What is this?”
The class said together, “A pen.”
“This is more than just a pen,” he said, smoothing his finger across to the felt tip. “This is a revolution.”
While the rest of the class furrowed their brows, pursed their lips, and scoffed at him, I fixated on the pen. Mr. Santiago’s way of storytelling reminded me of Papa’s. They both turned everyday items—coins, maps, pens—into motifs for fables and epics.
“José Rizal freed our country from Spanish oppressors by writing about the nation’s ills,” he said, picking up and brandishing a book entitled Noli Me Tángere. Touch Me Not. Rizal, born an Ilustrado and educated in Europe like my lolo, wrote books to expose friars and unjust treatment of Filipinos.
“Have you ever heard that phrase ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’? It’s true.”
I uncrossed my arms, leaned forward, and mirrored his facial expression.
He ended the class by saying, “And I think some of you here will one day wield a pen for a good cause, a purpose.”
At dismissal, I packed my bag, pushed my chair under the table, and sighed out the anxiety over what to do for the next several hours. Mama forgot to pick me up, always showed up at the school gate as late as 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. Five or six hours to kill, five or six hours to wander on campus, lying to my classmates and teachers as to why my mother had not picked me up. “Late business meeting.” Or “The new office is under construction and they probably just ran into some issues. Don’t worry, she should be on her way. I’ll be fine. I’ve sent her a message on her pager.”
And there the hunt began.
After school, I searched for soda bottles and returned them for the two-peso deposit. A snack cost ten to fifteen Coke, Sprite, or Fanta bottles, and dinner about twenty to thirty a plate, depending on the viand. The best place to find the bottles was at the foot of the steps, where girls late for the next period left half-consumed beverages as they hurried to class. Glass bottles also marked the perimeter of the soccer field and basketball gym. Before me they gleamed and beckoned: one rich girl’s trash is a poor girl’s dinner.
Of course, I had to be sly about it. I couldn’t just barrel through school corridors like a homeless person with a shopping cart of junk. Finesse, my mother taught me, was a secret scrounger’s armor. I walked behind the lower- and upper-school buildings, instead of down the main hallways. I took the emergency exits instead of the main doors. I spied for bottles from the bleachers, pretending to watch the cheerleaders and volleyball players practice.
My yellow-checkered skirt had pockets deep enough to hold a bottle, and my backpack—lined with crumpled paper to soundproof against the clinking of glass—held up to ten. Each trip to the cafeteria’s back window was twelve bottles: twenty-four pesos, or half a meal. Two hours of work bought me supper and killed nearly half of my lonely waiting time.
At home, glass crystals from the chandelier had been my treasure. At school, glass bottles were my loot.
After my work was done, I had three to four more hours to spend at school. By then, the janitors had cleaned classrooms and were weeding the field or disinfecting bathrooms. The Philippine sun had begun to set, painting the sky purple, then pink, then orange, and then swiftly, as though night longed to take over, blacked-out black. It was then that I hid in the library.
The library promised not only shelves of books but a kind of giant public living room that allowed me to be around people and have privacy—the balance I needed for my double life. It provided air-conditioned space with a sofa, armchairs, desk chairs, and beanbags. I didn’t feel lonely, but I could also keep to myself. I picked a neglected aisle, the geophysics section, and cried a little and let myself be weak for a minute or two. Then I took a cleansing breath, smiled, made a turn into the magazine section, and la-di-da all over again. A new face.
On clammy late afternoons and shadowy evenings, the library housed an assembly of girls- school outcasts. Kyra Kleptomania, who stole ring pops and cookies from the snack cart. Jaqui the Beanstalk, who towered over the short Southeast Asian student body at five foot eight and moved as though her limbs were made of wet sand. Zandra, whose celebrity mother appeared on TV so frequently and, like Mama, often forgot to pick up her daughter from school. Marissa, who had a mustache and considered pathological lying a sport. I assimilated into peer groups just fine, as long as nobody knew of the shortage at home and of Norman’s creatively abusive ways.
A library was the missing part of the mansion: the one room the architect forgot to sketch on the blueprint. Of all the sections of the house—ten bedrooms, three maids’ quarters, one gym, one lanai, one breakfast room, one ballroom, one disco, and one bar—not one was considered for keeping books. Odd, because Mama prized education—the one inheritance from her Ilustrado upbringing that poverty could not take away. Had they created a space with built-ins and studies, I would’ve had a refuge apart from my bedroom at home. But, had there been such a sanctuary, Norman surely would’ve converted it into something filthy—a chamber for drinking or housing chickens. He would’ve torn apart the books, pulled out pages, and turned them into a cot for whoring. Or he would’ve knocked down desks, sawed them in half, and fashioned them into a pen for his fighting cocks.
The library was better off at school.
I spent hours getting acquainted with works by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Scott O’Dell. They spoke to me in the language of my heart: fiction for the young.
The day I flipped open A Little Princess, I felt as if I weren’t alone. In the story, a bookish girl named Sara Crewe lost her father and befriended a servant named Becky. Sara had once lived in an opulent mansion, but her father’s disappearance and the First World War had forced her to live in an old attic and give up her toys and clothes.
When I read Island of the Blue Dolphins, I thought I was Karana, the girl left stranded and alone on an island. She, too, had a brother whose curiosity led to trouble. He died after being brutally killed by a pack of feral dogs. Karana hunted, made weapons, and built a home out of whalebones to survive. She loved the water, domesticated animals she encountered, and developed a kinship to them. She had a friend, Tutok, a domestic helper on a ship that docked on the island. Reading Island, I imagined Paolo as the curious and lost brother, and Elma as Tutok. I pictured Milo as the otter and Lucky as the red fox. I reincarnated Tweetie as Lurai, the tame bird. I imagined the mansion as a deserted isle, moored to the seafloor, marooned, inaccessible, isolated, and wild.
Sara believed that she would one day be reunited with her father. Karana boarded a ship and sailed for California. They showed me that it was possible: to leave a once upon a time and enter an ever after.
I checked out a book from the library and brought it home, optimistic after being hesitant for so long. Why take a book home if there was no power and you had no light to make words visible on a page? I had started reading a book by J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye. In it a boy kept think-talking about all these “phonies.” His name was Holden and he talked, walked, and wore his hunting hat all angry, all pissed with the way adults lived and treated him. He went to an exclusive private school and felt as if he had to get away. Just like me.
I signed my name on the borrowing card, slid the card back in the pocket on the back of the book, and took Holden home.
That night, as I entered through the mansion doors, I patted around for leftover mosquito coils, folded the hem of my shirt into a pouch, and collected in it bits of pyrethrum repellent. Then I walked up to my bedroom, escorted by Milo and welcomed by the cats, and knelt down by the window. I emptied the contents of my shirt onto the floor and picked up the coils piece by piece, laid each one around me, instead of along the perimeter of the room, and lit them. I unzipped my backpack, took my notebook out, opened it to a blank page, and wrote, in bullet points, names of people—real and imagined—that reminded me of who I was or wanted to become: Mr. Santiago, Rizal, Karana, and Holden. I also made a list of goals, mantras passed down by my brother, father, teachers, and friends.
Be good. The pen is mightier than the sword. Do not trust all grown-ups—they are phonies. Fight the Common Enemy. Do all it takes to survive. You are Prinsesa ng mga Tala. You are made of light.
I tore off the pages and taped them to my mirror, then stepped back into my ring of coils, my halo of half helixes.
A votive circle. A vigil for inner peace.
The coils arranged close together brought an illumination that was small but bright enough to let me read. I pulled Catcher in the Rye out of my backpack and recited lines from the page. The book and I enshrined in the center, aglow, like a nun in a chapel holding the Book of Common Prayer.
God was now speaking to me, telling me to keep the faith and promising me an escape. He spoke not through scripture nor through the retelling of parables by a priest, but through angsty, tormented Holden Caulfield, and all the other voices in the books I had read. At the turn of every page I breathed in, felt my heart tighten and release, and said, as the nuns next door repeatedly sang, “Amen.”
Cinelle Barnes is a creative non-fiction writer and educator from Manila, Philippines. She writes memoirs and personal essays on trauma, growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America. In 2014, she was nominated for the AWP Journal Intro Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and in 2015 received an MFA from Converse College. She was part of the inaugural Kundiman Creative Non-Fiction Intensive in New York City and is an alum of the VONA/Voices workshop for political content writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, South85, Skirt!, West Of, Your Life Is A Trip, the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Series, Itinerant Literate's StorySlam, and Hub City Press's online anthology, Multicultural Spartanburg. More at: www.cinellebarnes.com.