The Ice Cream Scoop

John G. Sarmiento

USA

The frightened moon and stars were hiding. The typhoon howled and dredged the Philippine Sea in search of living things. In a stolen outrigger with a broken motor, Ligaya gripped her jeans, shut one eye, and breathed the pelting rain. Every time the baby in her arms shook, the young mother tightened the blanket which wrapped them both. Lightning clawed the veil of rain, and Ligaya glanced over her shoulder, yelling at Saul. “Right! Left! Right!”

The young father was trying to steer the boat with a short paddle. Amid bursts of lightning, Saul aimed the boat at the silhouette of a distant island. Between the boat and the island, waves devoured each other. The outrigger fell from troughs, leapt from crests, turned and spun, and shuddered like a soaked moth. To keep his family from drowning, Saul ignored the pulsing pain in his back and shoulders.

The island in the lightning slowly grew from darkness into mist, into trees, into waves smashing against rocks and cliffs. Ligaya and Saul gasped and held their breath. The typhoon lifted the outrigger and threw it against the island. This was Saul’s idea. He thought they had better chances with the rocks and trees ahead. This way was north. This way was forward. Back there, they had left fishermen yelling behind lanterns and machetes. Saul awoke and found himself slung on a tree branch, stretched and dripping like a shirt on a wire. Below him, the storm dragged the capsized boat along the shore. “Ligaya,” Saul groaned, screamed. He jumped down on chicken wire, crawled, limped, ran across the beach, and tried to lift the outrigger. He mustered grains of strength from his past. He remembered days between meals, between strips of fish and handfuls of rice. He recalled months spent in fields, where he levelled and rolled dirt, tended stalks and harvested a few more days of life. He invoked moments that demanded one more push or pull, one more grunt between the hunger pains, and he flipped the boat. But his family was not underneath.

Ligaya held their baby above water and waded ashore. Her husband screamed and so did she: “That way,” she pointed. “Through the jungle.”

***

They slapped branches and squeezed between barks until the jungle opened into a street. A growing pond lapped the steps of a church and folded against a clinic’s door. Ligaya repeatedly kicked this door until Saul rammed it open. The couple barged in like mudflow. Nine villagers gasped. A nurse yelled. Ligaya and Saul scurried towards the first doctor they saw.

“Help! We need help!”

“Our baby!”

Ligaya sighed. “Our daughter has had a fever for six nights. It might be the epidemic, sir.”

“Epidemic? That island is supposed to be quarantined. Don’t you kids understand the severity of this? How did you even get here?” He snapped and pointed his fingers down a corridor. “Follow me.”

Saul looked at the doctor’s white shoes, at his own muddy feet. “Give her medicine first. Ask us to describe the pain.”

“If it is the epidemic —”

Saul punched the doctor’s throat, and he collapsed against the wall.

Ligaya and Saul unsheathed the bolos on their hips.

“Find the medicine,” Saul told Ligaya.

Another nurse dropped a bed pan, spilling urine. Huddled patients shuffled away from Ligaya, who kicked the pan and pointed her chin at the people. Behind a counter, she scanned medicine labels and grabbed two boxes. “Let’s go!”

Once outside, Ligaya and Saul ran along a line of banana trees. The storm rattled the island, and two houses collapsed; their tin roofs peeled, spiralling against the clinic and church. Young trees were uprooted then hurled into silt or sea.

“You shouldn’t have hit him.” Ligaya stepped on plywood. A nail pierced her heel. “They’re good people. Volunteers.”

“He wasn’t listening.”

“You shouldn’t have hit him.”

“You’re certain about going to his house?”

“Grandfather will take us in.” She extended her arms and gave the baby to Saul. “Protect her head. With your shoulder.” She squeezed her heel. “This way.”

Ligaya led her family inland, deeper in the jungle, up a hill, into a garden of massive trees. Ligaya and Saul ran until they stood in front of an old, concrete house. Her grandfather Pidyo had built this house. The left side of the house was the newer side. The newest part was the front door. Here stood a door that could withstand a storm: Pidyo’s latest build. Ligaya pounded on the front door until the old man opened it. Pidyo waved a lantern at his granddaughter and limped aside. Long ago, a carabao had fallen on his leg. The storm blustered through, spraying the main room.

“What happened?”

“Our baby is sick. Last week, the village buried six more children.”

“Let me see her.”

“We have medicine.”

“How did you buy —”

“Good evening,” Saul said and gently took the old man’s hand. Saul placed his forehead on Pidyo’s knuckles.

“— medicine?” Pidyo nodded at Saul. “I’ll get her a blanket. Treat her.” Pidyo limped towards the other room. In the darkness, he muttered, “Another epidemic. They cut down jungles and sell everyone nails and hammers.” He snorted. “They build grocery stores over fields and orchards.” Pidyo returned with a blanket. “Sewer systems worm into wells and fishing areas.”

“They’ll be looking for us,” Saul told his wife.

“They won’t catch us.”

***

While the baby slept, Pidyo sat on the floor, on limestone tiles once coral, that had become bedrock and the bones of nearby mountains. Few homes on the island were built from parts of the place anymore. Most were built from the parts of others. The cold floor Pidyo had tiled now held family. “Come sit,” Pidyo said. He shared a cup of coffee with Ligaya and Saul. Pidyo pulled a purple wad of money out of his pocket and tried to hand the money to Ligaya.

“No, Lolo.” Ligaya raised her hands and kept her head low.

Saul gulped the bitter coffee to help him swallow the sand in his throat.

Pidyo’s hands shook like the concrete walls. Outside, the storm clawed the house, sniffing for holes and cracks to push through.

“She’s like you were, Ligaya. Weak immune system. Some puppies are like that. You don’t remember, but you were often sick too. Once, when you were a baby, there was talk of another epidemic. Nine kids died.” Pidyo sipped the coffee and scratched his head. “You were vomiting for a week. Your grandmother demanded I summon the albularyo. What luck! I borrowed the laziest carabao. It only wanted to eat grass and sleep in the mud. Those days we didn’t have mopeds.”

The three of them laughed quietly.

“I didn’t believe in the albularyo, but your lola did. She believed in magic, miracles. We argued a lot about that. She said, “I don’t care if you don’t believe. Keep your crazy thoughts to yourself. Your doctors couldn’t save those nine kids. Believe that!” But even the old healer couldn’t find the sickness in you. She just knelt and mumbled to a candle for three hours.

“Then she licked a piece of paper and rubbed it on your body, writing invisible words. She brushed your head, your arms, your chest, and then she brushed your stomach and stopped. The paper was stuck to your stomach! “Here,” she said. “Feel this.” I couldn’t pull that paper off your stomach. That’s when I remembered: a week prior, you fell from a tree and landed on a stump. The albularyo said you had pinched or twisted your stomach. That’s why you refused even champorado. Lucky guess.”

Pidyo patted Ligaya’s shoulder. “You survived, but there’s always another sickness. Listen, you’re both very strong. Strong but young. Accept this,” he extended his arm and leaned forward, “for my great-granddaughter. You can’t keep her here. Malaria, Dengue, pneumonia, hepatitis. Pick one. She might die in a small clinic with rats in the walls.” He pointed at his temple. “How many children still die from diarrhoea? Starvation? Buy a cheap cell phone. Your mother works in Guam. Tell her about your daughter. Your sisters live in California. Tell them about their niece.”

“I did.”

“It’s not desperate to call on family. You know, the albularyo couldn’t diagnose your grandmother’s diabetes. In the end, a beautician’s scissors nicked the back of her neck. My wife came home with an ulcer that wouldn’t stop growing. They blamed spirits, demons. They blamed old sins and curses. Stop being young.”

Ligaya leaned forward and accepted the money. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. She’ll be fine. Now, I must rest too. In the kitchen there’s dried fish wrapped in newspaper.”

“Sleep well.” Saul wiped his eyes. Pidyo had bought them a few more days. Enough to start something with. Start what? What did he want for his family? What could he provide? Blurred by tears, Saul roamed ahead, beyond those few days: the edge of the known universe, as far as it went. Beyond it might exist a predictable climate, long skinny roads, wild gardens, a quiet neighbourhood, plumbing, lights at night, nobody dying outside, stores, hospitals, schools nearby, safe, a living he could become great at. The coffee was strong. Saul’s thoughts leaked out of his eyes, caught and smeared by the ridges of calloused hands.

In the darkness, Ligaya reached for her husband and pulled him into her. Outside, the world was drowning.

When the sun rose, Ligaya and Saul kissed Pidyo’s hands. “Are you two getting married, or are you just going to keep making babies?” Ligaya and Saul turned to each other and sighed. “As far as we are concerned, we are already married,” she said and embraced Pidyo. They said goodbyes and snuck back to the beach where they had left the outrigger.

***

On the beach, the outrigger was pushed and pulled by the ocean. The boat was on its side, but it was still in one piece. No cracks. It could be tilted over. Plastic bags and tarps, sheets of tin and plywood, and trees like expended lightning littered the beach. Saul managed to find a long bamboo stalk. He leveraged the boat off its side. He pushed when the ocean pulled. Nearby, Ligaya roamed and found a paddle in the sand. They climbed into the boat.

“She’s awake. Look! She moves like she’s swimming.” Ligaya laughed and cradled their baby. “Feeling better?”

“I wonder if she knows we’re leaving.”

“She senses.”

“Do you think she’ll miss this place?”

“She was born here. A million typhoons couldn’t drown this place.”

“What if the worst happens?”

“We already had this conversation.” She raised the baby above her head. “You’re going to be tough, indestructible.”

“She’ll own things like electric toothbrushes, ice cube trays. She’ll own something called an ice cream scoop.”

“Small things she’ll take for granted.”

Saul stopped paddling. “Are we enough for her?”

“We’ll teach her to expect days as long and heavy as anchor rope, but also to take her shoes off and dance with dirty feet, with kapwa. We’ll be the family she runs to. We’re that much.”

“To Manila then.”

Ligaya stared at the grey clouds. She imagined the people of her island. When she was a child, the eyes of storms began with church bells. The church always had food and water and a large yard. Children ran around their parents. Families gathered around the oldest. The elders were always standing, looking out at the ocean and the boats limping home. “Don’t think it’s over,” they often said. The storms grew stronger every year. Every year more and more formed. More and more crops of coconut and rice died. More and more people too.

The baby rubbed her face on Ligaya’s shoulder. She pulled Ligaya’s shirt. “Aray! It doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask.” Ligaya laughed, and the baby cried. “Hungry? You stopped the typhoon to eat? Here. We’ll make it,” she told Saul. “She’ll save the world.”

Saul smiled too. “I think it’s time we named her.”

Ligaya felt the milk pulse out of her breast. She tried to ignore the blood escaping her bandaged heel, flowing away from her in a jagged line. “We will.”

 

John G. Sarmiento is a Guest Writer for Panorama.