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The Girl From Ermita

The Girl From ermita

from The Girl From Ermita & Selected Poems

Nightwood Editions, Canada, 1998



If you ever come to Manila,
come down to red-light Ermita
Where nightly I ply my trade.

They call me Fely,
I was born in Samar,
I’m the girl with the bird in her head.

Yes, a bird in my head!
If you look deep into my eyes
you can see it flying about.

You ask what kind of bird it is?
Why, a white gull of course!
For I was born in Samar by the sea.

And how did it get there;
this white gull in my head?
Well, it flew in when I was fourteen.

But you don’t really want
to hear the same old hard-luck story!
There are no new legends anymore.

Better take me away somewhere,
take me in your sweaty arms,
and your eyes, cold as death,

Can feed on the peach of my skin,
your savage heart
release its black secrets.

You can do what
you like with me,
I know all the positions.

Come, lie with me
and I will be your love.
Don’t you believe me?

Yes, come lie down with me,
it will only cost a hundred pesos,
and it’s good therapy.

I’ll give good value for your money,
I have the techniques
learned through ten thousand nights.

I will embrace you
and the stars outside
will mind their own bloody business.

The wind will not complain,
the trees not grumble,
and all the cops have been bribed.

Or perhaps you think yourself too grand,
too good and holy
to pay to lie with me?

Perhaps you’re afraid
the universe will roar in disgust
if you pay for my body?

Don’t you know by now
life’s a market-place where
you can buy cow meat, goat meat and my meat?

I was born in Samar in Visayas
where the sea ran silver when I was a child
and clouds and trees were my friends.

Of my own father,
I only know
he was a carabao of a man.

And like the carabao,
he was patient and ignorant,
his feet stubborn in the loam.

But his eyes.
I remember his eyes:
they held such innocence!

When I was twelve, he died,
and my mother and I
lived on, any old how.

Come to think of it,
I don’t know how we did it!
Then my mother remarried.

We shifted to an old lean-to
with my step-father.
I had turned fourteen.

For a time I was content enough.
I was only a child then and you know
how children can grow smiles even out of a dungheap!

Then one night my step-father
lay his hands on my green breasts,
and I was too petrified to move.

I endured for many months
my step-father’s hands
till one night I could not suppress my cry.

My mother came to intervene:
it drove my step-father wild
as a mad, rampaging bull.

He punched me in the face,
kicked my mother in the ribs,
left us black and blue.

The next day I drew
a real deep breath
and ran away from home.

The ferry boat crossing the sea
delivered me from my past:
my childhood lay like broken glass.

An hour after
we reached Cebu city,
I got myself picked up

By a dirty old man
who fed me, gave me shelter and clothes,
and treated me like a household pet.

I was suprised how soon
I got used to his caresses,
no longer reacting with nausea and tears.

So five years passed.
Five Christmases and five Easters
I stayed with my dirty old man.

In our second year
I bore him a bastard girl:
a child, when I was myself a child

Of sixteen.
But already the months
began to wall me in.

When I was eighteen
I went with a handsome man
who took me away to Batangas.

For a brief few months
I blossomed like the sampaguita
with this first young man in my life.

A tangerine time it was,
with ice-cream on Sundays,
dances and kisses under the moon.

And then it was over.
His wife came screaming for our blood
and he returned to her like a pup.

Well, life’s like that.
I came to Manila
in search of fame and gold,

But found only dust
in the crowded streets
of the capital.

I became a salesgirl
and had to sleep with my boss.
I became a go-go dancer,

Ground my bum in the faces of fools
who drooled like rotten fruit,
while klieg lights tore at my skin.

Now I’m landed here
where life has got me in its jaws
and I no longer wait for miracles.

I no longer care
to look into the eyes of my johns,
for they hold no more secrets.

Now I simply lie flat on my back,
my face upturned to the sugary sky
which the stars eat like white ants.

Now I fuck for a refrigerator,
or for my daughter’s school fees:
my girl’s just turned eight this May.

Yes, I will turn a trick for a meal,
and men can take me
in any position they wish.

The white scream never flies
out of my black mouth,
the radios will remain silent,

The newspapers advertise soap,
the priests launder
the limp souls of their sinners.

Yes, at night I can be your sweet mango,
but comes the dawn,
I’ll be as sour as a calamansi.

There’s still some acid in me,
you know that?
You, who sit there listening so dumbly!

So I’ve unloaded my story
and my head’s just an empty hole
with nameless echoes in it.

Are you quite sure
you don’t want
to take me to bed?

Come, lie down with me,
I will be your true love,
for only a hundred pesos.

But you only laugh
green and gold and purple
and fly free into the night.

For you are the white gull
who left secret spaces again
inside my head!

But if you ever come back to Manila,
come down to red-light Ermita,
where nightly I ply my trade.

They call me Fely,
I was born in Samar by the sea,
I’m the girl with a hole in her head.

November 1979


How to live now, my dear,
with the moon so full
on this warm Spring night?

You know how it is
when hours are disposable,
traded away for surface, for safety,
something misleading,
which, in the end,
proves unworthwhile,
reached without risks,
without true striving,
when always, always the mountain
can only be climbed by daring,
only by daring.
Have we really forgotten?

So how to live now, my dear,
with the moon so full
on this warm Spring night?

Vancouver, 1987


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