by Mariz Leona (Fiction)
I always saw her holding different books every day, sitting under the mango tree near our house. In my 15 years of living in our neighborhood, I’d never heard any facts or information about her. Her face was always reluctant; it seemed that she wasn’t sure of everything. Standing by my window, I would hide behind my purple curtain and would intently look—or peep, rather—at her. Sometimes she looked my way, and I wondered if she could also see me.
The mango tree bore fruits almost throughout the year, in or out of the season. Children would always gather around to get some of its luscious fruits, and no one stopped anyone because no one owned it. It was a tree for everyone in our neighborhood.
It all started one summer. I was bored in my room, so I tried to paint the mango tree in front of our house. I opened my window and tied the curtain. I sat in front of my easel and took a deep breath because it was my first time after five years to hold a paint brush again. Painting was my way to release frustrations, pain, and disappointments. I heaved a deep sigh again and closed my eyes, readying myself to give all my worries to my hands. As I opened my eyes, I looked at the blossoming mango tree.
I thought I saw someone behind the tree, and before confirming it, I saw a girl stand and stretch. She had changed her position, and now I could see her clearly. She was smiling, perhaps because of what she was reading. She had an earphone plugged in her ears and a book on her right hand. The sun shone on her beautiful face. It was my first time to see her. Maybe she was just having a vacation in our neighborhood.
When she turned my way, I was tensed up. I knew she saw me. Her lips formed a small smile. Was she acknowledging my presence? I didn’t know how to react. Should I smile back, or should I just ignore her? I didn’t know what to do, so I just drew my curtain.
The next day, as I opened my window, I saw the girl again, at the same spot. I couldn’t paint my favorite tree if she was there. She was a distraction. So I called my mother and asked her who the girl was and why she was always there.
“Oh,” she answered. “She’s the daughter of Aling Milagros.”
“Aling Milagros? She has a family?” I asked, because as far as I knew Aling Milagros didn’t have any family. She was just the crazy woman most people in our neighborhood made fun of.
My mother just shrugged her shoulder as a response.
Still wondering, I went back to my room. Hiding behind my curtain, I observed the girl. I still couldn’t believe that her mother was Aling Milagros because, after looking at her facial features for a long time, I realized she was really beautiful. Maybe her father is handsome, I thought. Aling Milagros must be lucky.
Her constant presence had pissed me off as the days passed. I couldn’t start my painting. I asked my mother to scold the girl so that she would leave, but I was the one my mother scolded. I wanted to go near her, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the courage.
I had noticed that each day she read a different book. I thought that maybe she was really intelligent because she could finish a book in one day. How I wished I could do that too. I thought that I needed to get used to her presence, under my favorite tree. I started to paint again, and thank God I was able to mix colors correctly. I still had this talent that I thought had already vanished a long time ago.
One day I was excited to open my window. I didn’t know why. As usual, I saw the girl at her usual place. She was wearing a colorful dress with printed sunflowers and a cute sandal. That was the first time she wore that kind of clothes because she usually wore plain t-shirts and jogging pants. This time she walked around the tree, graciously, elegantly. Her hair was dancing with the melody of the blowing wind; you could never tell that her mother was a crazy woman. I looked away and went in front of my mirror. I was still wearing my pajama and t-shirt. My hair was messy—and really so because I hadn’t combed it since the first day of summer. I had a lot of pimples; my skin was darker than hers. My look was really disappointing. I was saddened a little, but I held my head up high, reassuring myself that my mother was a lawyer and my father was an engineer. “I am still better than her,” I said to myself.
I went back in front of my window and smiled. I hoped she would look at me too.
Hey, look at me. Look at me. And as if I had communicated telepathically with her, she stared back at me. I smiled widely, and in return she smiled sweetly. She looked at her book again. I put my hands right in front of my heart. It was beating fast.
Sometimes I would think that the girl under the mango tree looked like some sort of a fairy or, more aptly, a mango goddess. She was really breathtaking. When I saw her, I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest. I didn’t know why. Was it because she was taking away my favorite tree by looking like a fairy who rightfully owned and deserved it? I really didn’t know.
Naturally, time flew so fast. I only had two weeks left to enjoy summer before the class would start. I had spent the whole summer just by staying in my room and sitting in front of my window. The mango tree had started to bear fruits; its flowers covered the ground around it.
But I saw a different vibe all over the girl’s face today. It was not her usual jolly and happy vibe. Though she was still holding a book, I could feel that she was sad. Then out of the blue she stood and stretched. I checked the clock hanging on the wall. But it is not yet the time for her to leave, I thought. I had already memorized everything she did. It is not yet the time for her to stand up and stretch. As she took her first step, she looked my way. Our eyes met. She smiled, and just like that, she went away. I didn’t know if my eyes were playing tricks on me, but she seemed to fade away.
Later that night in our dining room, my parents had a serious talk. I actually couldn’t pay much attention to what they’re talking about because I was disturbed by my thoughts of the girl, but from time to time I could make something out of their conversation.
“I pity the girl. Her father left them, and now her mother is dead,” my mother said in a sympathetic voice.
“Why did she die?” my father asked.
“Her daughter mistakenly gave her the wrong medicine.”
“What an unfortunate cause of death. How about Milagros’s daughter?”
I dropped my spoon upon hearing the name of Aling Milagros. My heart was pounding, and I felt like crying. “Aling Milagros?” I interjected, wanting to make sure if I had heard it right.
“She’s dead because her daughter gave her the wrong medicine,” my mother said.
“What? Why? I can’t understand.”
“It’s simple,” my mother said. “Because her daughter can’t read.”
“An illiterate,” my father added.
“But it cannot be. She’s good at reading. I always see her reading a book under the mango tree every day.”
My parents looked as puzzled as I was.
The next day, my parents and I went to the wake of Aling Milagros. As we were approaching their house, a small nipa hut, I let my eyes wander around to find her daughter. It didn’t take me a lot of time to find her. She was sitting alone in a corner, holding a book. I went near her for the very first time, but she didn’t notice me. She seemed in deep thoughts. I looked at the book in her hand, and my forehead creased upon realizing that she was holding it upside down.
Before I could talk to her, she stood up. She hugged the book and put it near her mother’s coffin. She had passed by me as if she hadn’t seen me.
It was the only time we went to her mother’s wake. A few days later, her mother was buried.
The morning after Aling Milagros’s burial, I opened my window as usual. I wanted to see the girl, but she was not there, not even a glimpse of her. And I faced the following mornings without her presence. The mango tree was never the same anymore. Something was lacking. Someone was missing. Deep in my heart, however, I hoped that one morning she would there again under the tree, reading a book.
The summer had ended. I woke up extra early because it was the first day of school. I was excited and worried at the same time. Finally, it was my last year in high school. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. My memories of the girl under the mango tree still lingered on me. I thought she would never come back again. I’d never heard anything about her after her mother’s burial, as if she had also left the world together with her mother. But as I noticed my painting beside the window, a smile crept up my lips. She was in it. A beautiful mango tree and its fairy.
As a habit, after I had buttoned my uniform, I opened my window. The sun had not yet fully shone. There were a lot of overripe mangoes on the ground, and they seemed to form a trail leading somewhere. I glanced at the mango tree, particularly at the exact place where the girl used to sit and read a book. Then, unexpectedly, I saw her again—but this time I was stunned. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was shaking; I was crying really hard. My heart was pounding so fast, as if it would come out my chest. I looked at her again to make sure that my eyes were not playing tricks on me. Shouting, I ran out of our house. I didn’t know whom to call. I just shouted until I reached the mango tree.
I stood straight in front of her, still shaking. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do. I held her beautiful feet. I looked up and stared at her closed eyes. I was drowning in my tears as my neighbors gathered around.