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Maria's Lullabye

Maria could sing. When she first came to live with the family next door to me in the Petaling Jaya suburb of Kuala Lumpur, I'd hear her singing to the new baby in the family as she rocked him and walked him back and forth on the big screened-in porch in the back of the house.  Sometimes the grandmother would hold the baby while Maria hung the clothes up outside.  If the baby started crying, the grandmother would call, "Maria, Maria," and Maria would sing to the baby, as she hung the clothes, until the baby was peaceful again.

Every time Maria saw me outside trying to beat the rain or taking down the wet clothes and wringing them out, she would smile and talk to me.

We often met in the back, over the fence. We both hung clothes out on the line, and because it rained so often, I sometimes had to rewash my clothes and hang them out again to get the smell of mildew out of them. Every time Maria saw me outside trying to beat the rain or taking down the wet clothes and wringing them out, she would smile and talk to me. Well, we tried to talk, but she didn't speak English or Malay and the family she was living with expected her to respond to Cantonese. I think that's what I heard them yelling at her, anyway.

The first time Maria and I talked, I told her my mother was from Baguio and I said some of the words I could remember; I didn't know if they were Tagalog or Ilocano, but she understood that I wanted to get to know her and so she would say things to me in what, I later learned, was Visayan. It didn't matter that we couldn't speak to each other. A few words in English, a few in Mandarin, a few in dialect, told us a lot.

I managed to get it across to her, after a couple of weeks or so of talking over the fence in the back that I would take her on the bus so that she could find her way into the city of Kuala Lumpur. I figured she'd want to meet other Filipinas; she'd want to have someone to really talk to and not just smile at and gesture to over the back fence. She was happy about that, and we planned to go on Sunday, the one day all the Filpina contract workers had off.

Maria was young and dark and beautiful. She had a round face and a full figure, like a Gauguin painting. Her hair was thick and black and she had wondrously straight white teeth. Her smile could knock you out.

Her smile on Sunday morning was uncertain. She said that her family didn't want her to go on the bus...

Her smile on Sunday morning was uncertain. She said that her family didn't want her to go on the bus; she did not have the day off either. We would try again next Sunday. Next Sunday, of course, never came. She did not have a day off, and she was not allowed to leave the house.

The next time I saw her hanging clothes in the back, she didn't look at me directly. I sensed someone was watching her and looked to the screened-in porch; standing there was the grandmother holding the baby, but something was different I sensed, and when she saw I saw her, she shrank back as if I'd caught her doing something wrong. I called to Maria, but she pretended not to hear me. The grandma went back into the house, and when she did, Maria turned, quickly crossed over to the fence and handed me a piece of paper with a name and telephone number on it. I was surprised by the circles under her eyes, and I noticed she had lost weight. I looked down at the paper and said, "Embassy? Philippine Embassy?" She shook her head but she seemed to want to hear more. I told her: "Embassy. Pilipine government. Pilipine President. Corazon Aquino. Emelda Marcos." Maria stood there somehow seeming to understand what I was saying.

"Taxi. Taxi to Pilipine Embassy. Kuala Lumpur."

...she was gone when I returned. However, the grandmother was there, standing outside rocking the baby.  She stopped for a moment and gave me a cold stare.

Maria brought out another piece of paper and a pen and indicated I should write down what I said. I wrote: "American Embassy, Kuala Lumpur." Then I tried to get her to wait for me while I got some money and a proper address and telephone number for the Embassy so that she could take a taxi, but either she didn't understand me or she was afraid to wait; she was gone when I returned. However, the grandmother was there, standing outside rocking the baby.  She stopped for a moment and gave me a cold stare.  Afraid to put Maria in further jeopardy, I did not respond in any way but pretended not to notice.

As soon as I got back into my house, I dialed the number Maria had given me. It was the contract officer, the man who had placed Maria with the family next door.

"Hello, Mr. Tan?"

"Yes."

"I'm calling about Maria, the Filipina working next door to me. She gave me your name and telephone number."

"I cannot talk to you. You talk to her family."

"Something is wrong over there, Mr. Tan. Do you know that?"

"Nothing wrong."

"I will call the Embassy, then."

"Why you call Embassy?"

"Because something is wrong over there. Maria has not had a day off since she came here. It has been over two months. They won't let me take her on the bus and they won't give her Sunday off."

I sensed Mr. Tan was not writing down my number when I gave it to him, but I went ahead anyway and asked him to call me back within three days. He didn't.

"I will talk to them."

"Will you call me back?"

"Yes. Goodbye."

"Wait. You don't have my telephone number." I sensed Mr. Tan was not writing down my number when I gave it to him, but I went ahead anyway and asked him to call me back within three days. He didn't.

After this, I did not see Maria for at least two weeks. I didn't even hear her singing. I thought maybe she had somehow actually talked to Mr. Tan and somehow gotten herself removed from the family, but it felt more like a hope than a belief.  It was only the grandmother I saw with the baby in the screened-in back porch, and now it was she who sang to the baby when he cried.   The grandmother now attempted to sound like Maria.  It was eerie.  Sometimes it seemed to work; or maybe it was just time for the baby to stop crying.  I had the urge to run past the grandmother and up the stairs and find Maria.  Even if I did manage to find her, then what? I called Mr. Tan again. He said there was no problem. Maria didn't want to have a day off on Sunday. She wanted the money instead.  Did he believe that?

About a week after that conversation, I managed to catch a glimpse of Maria. She was out in front of her house when I came home. As I made my way up the stairs and was about to speak to her, the father of the family called her in. His voice was frightening to me. The circles under Maria's eyes were now puffy, too. Her bright eyes had disappeared into a burden of sadness and the thinness of her face and her arms was even more pronounced. She looked at me, a desperate look on her face. The father of the family came out onto the front porch and glared at me. Then he stomped his foot, and the look of desperation etched itself more deeply on Maria's face. She turned and went inside. The father stayed on the porch and gave me a grim smile.

I went straight inside and called Mr. Tan again. "Maria is thin. They are not letting her eat or she is sick or something. Please, you must do something. If you do not, I will call the Philippine Embassy or the American Embassy or both and report your company."

"I have your telephone number."

"What is it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I want to hear my telephone number. Do you know what it is?"

He told me my number. I was surprised. Maybe he had called and the family had told him that Maria didn't want a day off. But how could he believe that?

"I will call you. I will call you tomorrow or the next day."

"Please do not fail. I am afraid for her."

Just as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I could probably buy Maria's contract. All I'd have to do is pay more than the family next door paid.

Just as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I could probably buy Maria's contract. All I'd have to do is pay more than the family next door paid. Mr. Tan would go for that; concern for Maria he wouldn't have, fear of the embassies, maybe, but money—money would, without a doubt, get his attention, his cooperation. It was my plan when he called—and I trusted somehow that he would this time—to offer him half as much or double what the family had paid for her. I'd buy Maria and set her free. Why hadn't I thought of it before!

"This is Mr. Tan." He called two days later.

"Yes? What's happened?"

"Maria stealing all the time. All the time stealing oranges. They found the orange peels. She tried to flush them down the toilet, but they came back up. They showed her the orange peels and she went to bed. In the morning, she was gone."

"Gone? She's gone?"

"Yes. I talk to Philippine Embassy. I told them she is stealing food and that the Embassy must pay for a new contract worker. These girls are not cheap, you know?"

I was so relieved, so happy, that Maria had got away that I hardly heard what Mr. Tan was saying, but then all the anger I had held back in the hope that I could negotiate with this man now came rushing in just after my relief and I knew what I could do to hurt him, and I did it. I said, "Mr. Tan I am very sad to hear that Maria is gone. I was going to pay you double for her contract.

I heard the breath go out of him. Ha! I laughed to myself with as much evil glee as I have ever felt in my life. Ha!

"You pay double?"

"Yes. Double."

Inspite of himself, he said, "Aiyo! Aiyo!. I get you new girl. Hard worker. No steal food."

"Mr. Tan. I do not want a new girl. I want Maria."

"Already gone. Gone to Manila already. Aiyo."

"That's a pity, Mr. Tan," I smiled.

I was too happy about Maria's escape to feel any sadness about what had happened, but then, two or three days later, when I was hanging my wash on the line to dry, I heard the baby next door crying. Then I saw the grandmother was rocking the baby in her arms, walking back and forth in the screened-in porch. It took a while—maybe because the grandmother knew I could hear and perhaps she did feel at least a little shame—but finally she went ahead when the baby wouldn't stop crying:  She started singing to him, and this time she sounded almost exactly like Maria.  Not knowing the language Maria used, though, the grandmother hit upon a word that was bound to reassure and calm the baby.  "Maria," she sang and made it the only word of her tune.  "Maria,  Maria,  Maria,"  she sang.  "Maria, Maria, Maria," and the baby soon was quiet.

© Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier

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