In summer back home, birds from the northern hemisphere fly thousands of miles south to escape the cold. They nest in flame trees and banyans, roost on the beaches of our island. I used to take my little brother Gumabay to watch them. When I clapped my hands, he looked in wonder as what seemed like white flowers on the trees flew from the branches and formed feathered clouds in the sky.
My name is Bagaoisan, which means “to sprout wings.” It has been six months since I arrived here. Harry does not want me to walk through the neighbors’ lawns, but I love the feel of grass on my bare feet. With my white bathrobe wrapped around me and shivering in the fog, the neighbors must think I’m crazy. A grey cat with black stripes follows me. I know from his shiny coat and full body that someone takes good care of him. Sometimes I think he is making fun of me, his pace imitating mine. I play a game, stop suddenly and turn around quickly. He sits on his hind legs and stares up at me. When I pick up my pace I feel him padding behind, his footprints trailing my own. That’s why I have named him Mocking-Bird.
Harry eats a lot. The first time he brought me to a supermarket, I did not believe what I saw, so much food packaged in so many colorful ways. There were no vendors shouting over one another from stands or women haggling over prices, no mewling, crowing, bawling animals, no smells of any kind.
“Where are the chickens and the pigs?” I asked. Harry led me to a long, cold coffin at the back of Crystal Farms. Bloodless meat lay in packages wrapped with clear plastic. I laughed seeing this.
My husband scolded me. “This is the way things are done here. You must get used to it.” He picked up packages of cow and chicken and tossed them into the cart.
I come from a large family. We raise and grow almost everything we eat. I imagined the Crystal Farms family must be much larger than my own, and work very hard to offer so much food. Now of course I know that it is a corporation with thousands of workers who are not related to each other at all.
My father, my tatay, is a gambler. He bets every week at the market jueteng stall and is always in debt. I often asked my ina why she put up with it. She shrugged. “It is my cross to bear.” I wondered how many crosses she needed to bear.
I attended school longer than my older brothers and sisters, but we were all put to work at an early age. I helped my ina mend the fishing lines and sell produce from our garden at the market. We secretly hid a little money where we hoped my father couldn’t find it.
The day Tatay told me about the bargain he made with the rich American, I threatened to throw myself into the sea. It was only a threat, because I had decided to never let my father lead me to despair. “And ruin your chance for a better life?” he shouted. I thought he might beat me, but instead, he looked anxious. I didn’t know if this was because he thought I might really kill myself or because if I did, he would have to return the money.
I told my ina, “I will run away and he will really be sorry.”
She gazed at me sadly. “Don’t be foolish. Where would you go? Your brothers and sisters would never go against your father and take you in.”
My husband has only his mother, and his friends are people he knows from work. This has meant a lonely life for me. At first Harry only allowed me to take a walk in the morning while he read the newspaper, drank his coffee and ate the toast and eggs I prepared for him.
We live in a settlement of new houses in a town called El Sobrante, which means “the leftovers” in Spanish. It also means “the end of the world and good only for cattle.” Horses graze on the hillsides, but I see no cows here. People keep to themselves. They park their cars in garages and disappear inside their homes. Most of them are white like my husband. Darker men care for the yards and the park. They cut the grass and blow it along with the leaves and the dust from one place to another. Their voices are loud and they laugh a lot, welcome music to me. I try to talk with them, since I know some words of Spanish from home. But they always get very busy when I approach them.
When I left the island everyone came to wish me goodbye. I knew I was loved. My ina sobbed and hugged me tightly. Tatay warned me to behave and obey the husband I had yet to meet. He wore a new shirt and new shoes. He was enjoying the money he had received.
Gumabay, who followed me everywhere, wrapped his thin arms around my legs. “Don’t go!” he cried. I peered down at the dark top of his head, ruffling his unruly hair. I tried to hide my tears.
“Don’t worry. I will see you again. You’ll be a big boy then.”
“I don’t want to be a big boy when I see you next time.” He held me tighter.
I kissed him on the forehead and slipped away, knowing I might never see him again.
A fishing boat carried me from our island to another one, where I boarded a ferry. It was like a floating house carrying strangers. This was my first meeting with Americans, except for the evangelicals who sometimes visited our village. They were happy, on vacation. I wanted to ask them questions but my English wasn’t very good.
An old man sitting nearby told me they were hunters, returning to Manila from shooting migratory birds on some lesser islands.
“They do it only for sport.” He seemed to say this with admiration, that men could enjoy such a luxury. I couldn’t look at them after that.
When we arrived, the passengers hurried off the ferry like birds fleeing a predator. A man wearing a thin white shirt and black pants greeted me. He said my husband hired him to bring me safely to the airport. He showed me papers and pushed me into a taxi.
Manila was confusing with its noisy traffic and crowds of people. I gazed at girls and women hanging laundry on porches in the air. We passed beggars on the streets. I saw a man strike a woman across her face, and prayed that I would not be treated badly in America. The taxi moved slowly through the packed streets. It was my chance to escape, to run away and lose myself in the crowds. But I would be leaving with nothing and with nowhere to go.
At the airport, we waited in long lines. Around us lighted signs showed planes arriving and leaving. The man pointed to my destination—San Francisco. He handed me a sheet of answers for Customs: “I’m a citizen of the Philippines.” “I have nothing to declare.” “I have come to the United States to meet my fiancé.”
“No!” he corrected, “You must say, ‘I’m meeting my fiancé to get married.” He wished me a safe trip and left. We had spoken very little, but I felt my last connection with home vanishing. At security, I had to take off my shoes and raise my arms. I wondered if I refused, maybe they would send me back home.
On the plane, a woman smiled and let me into my seat next to a window.
“What is your name?” the woman asked.
“Hello, kamusta. I’m Tala Torres.” She asked if this was my first time in the United States, and I nodded. “Are you visiting family?”
I explained that I was going to marry an American. I didn’t want to tell her more.
"I understand," she said. "I meet many women like you on flights like these."
It is wonderful to see clouds billowing below you, to soar higher than a Palm-Swift bird, but terrible to leave home and fly to a place completely empty of yourself and everyone you love.
When the pilot announced that we were thirty minutes from landing, I opened my eyes and had no idea where I was and began crying. The woman in the seat next to me gently patted my shoulder. She handed me a tissue and told me that everything would be all right. I was not so sure.
Just before landing, she confessed that she was afraid and asked if she could hold my hand. I knew she was doing this for me. Maybe I would not be so alone here as I imagined. The lights of the city below looked magical. Fog spread across much of it like white waves.
The woman pointed to a bridge. “Golden Gate.” I repeated this to myself.
“It was good to meet you.” She reached into her purse. “Here's my card.” Women Defense Network was printed at the top. She pointed to her name and a phone number. “If you ever need someone to talk to, please call me.” She embraced me warmly.
On the ground, people rushed from their seats to wait in line again, but I was in no hurry. I was nervous that I had forgotten the correct answers for Customs. I didn’t understand the first agent. He looked angry and pointed me to a room where another agent confused me even more. But a young Filipino woman who spoke Tagalog came in and I was finally released.
I used the bathroom to wash my face and change my clothes, and continued down long hallways. At the end was a man holding a sign with my name misspelled: Welcome Bagosian
The man’s glasses shone against his pale face. Thin and bald, he was the tallest person I had ever seen. He looked sad and no one seemed to be waiting with him. Where were his friends, his family? I put a smile on my face.
“Harry?” I pronounced his name carefully.
He glanced at me with surprise, as if he had been waiting for someone else.
“Bag—osian?” He placed a bouquet of white flowers in my hands and put his arms around me, bending over so we didn’t crush the flowers. He folded the sign and put it in the trash. At home, we believe names are sacred and are always to be treated with respect. I was relieved he misspelled my name and so did not throw away my real one.
“How was your flight?” he asked.
“It was good. I met a nice woman.” I didn’t show him the card.
We rode in his car, which he called a “hybrid,” on a busy highway. I had never seen such hills. My island is flat, some of it below the sea. We crossed a beautiful white bridge glowing with lights like a Christmas tree.
He shook his head. “It’s the Bay Bridge.”
It was still dark when we came to Harry’s house. He led me through the front door into a room filled with soft, comfortable furniture. The kitchen counter shone sparkling white and was filled with many mysterious electrical appliances. My realm! I wondered how I would ever rule it.
Harry proudly showed me a room he called his “den.” Mounted on the wall was a huge television screen and next to it, he explained, framed honors from his work. Upstairs, he took me into a bedroom with a bed he called ‘California king.’ I smiled, imagining this thin pale, plain-looking man as the king of California.
He told me to take off my shoes. I sat down and he kissed me and felt my breasts. I was surprised by his strength. His eyes grew brighter as he began to slowly take off my clothes. I watched him undress out of the side of my eyes. He seemed like a ghost, a phantom who wanted to inhabit me. When he pushed me down, I pretended I was a heron on a beach. Waves washed over me and carried me like grains of sand back into the deepest part of the ocean. It was over quickly and he soon fell asleep. I ran into the bathroom and stood shaking under the water as it washed away the blood. I did not sleep.
In the morning, Harry pulled back the covers to admire me, but he did not touch. He put on his shorts and closed the bathroom door behind him. When the water began running, I gathered the bloody sheets and went downstairs to hide them until I could wash them in the shower. Only later did I learn about the washing machine.
I waited in the kitchen. Harry was dressed as he had been the night before—in dark pants and blue shirt, but with a tie. He showed me how to use the coffeemaker and pulled out a cereal box from the cupboard. He filled two bowls and handed me a spoon. It felt strange being served by a man, but I knew that I would soon be cooking for him. I stared into the bowl at the sugary grains, rainbow-colored pieces that looked like little sponges. It tasted awful.
The telephone rang, and Harry motioned to me to answer it.
“Is Harry there?” It was the voice of an older woman.
“Who is calling?”
“Tell him it’s his mother.”
“Oh, hello. This is Bagaoisan. I hope to see you soon.”
I thought my English sounded very good.
“Please get him for me.”
When I told Harry it was his mother, he seemed upset. “Tell her I left for work.”
“Tell her I’m gone!” he hissed.
I did what I was told. The mother said nothing and hung up. I returned to the kitchen table but could not look Harry in the eyes. Already I was lying for him, like my ina for tatay.
Before leaving, he ordered me not to leave the house, and handed me a piece of paper with a note written in Tagalog: I will visit you today and teach you about your new home.
Maricel. Harry explained that Maricel would help me “get used to things.” I wondered how many people he had paid to get and keep me here. I stared at my coffee cup and the bright orange box of terrible-tasting cereal. Lucky Charms.
The telephone rang again. I hoped it was not the mother.
“Hello, Bagaoisan? This is Maricel.”
“Yes, I read your note.”
“I’ll be there in one hour.”
I made up the bed with clean sheets, brushed my teeth and waited for Maricel in the den. Through the tall windows I saw a deep blue sky without a single cloud. In the distance were rolling hills covered with golden grass and dark green trees. I felt like a migrant bird that had flown to the very edge of the world.
There was loud banging at the door and I rushed to open it. A middle-aged woman with beautiful brown eyes stood outside.
I stepped aside as she entered carrying two paper bags into the kitchen.
“I brought some of Harry’s favorites.” She placed the bags on the counter and took out boxes, cans and bottles, and meat wrapped in plastic. “I also brought you some things from the Filipino store.”
There were delicacies I thought I might never taste again: coconut milk, bayabas, labuyo chilis. I grabbed the kalabasa squash and stroked the dark green skin that covered its golden flesh.
“Thank you! I’ll make Gintaang Kalabasa or cook shrimp with chilies and coconut milk for Harry.”
Maricel gave me a sharp look. “These are for you only. Harry has an American stomach and does not like spicy things. I will tell you what to prepare for him. I‘ll keep it simple. First, the microwave. If you’re reheating, you press this button. This one for cook time—”
I must have looked confused.
“You’ll get used to it just like I did,” she assured me. “Then you’ll wonder how you lived without it.”
Maricel took me through the house and showed me everything. When we reached the den, she demonstrated the remote. “This is The Filipino Channel, but don’t watch it all the time,” she warned. “You’ll improve your English by watching the channels Harry watches.”
I wanted to sit down and talk with her—ask where her family came from, how long she had been here, how she liked it. But she had houses to clean and needed to leave.
“Oh, I almost forgot. This is for you.” She handed me one more package. Bibingka! The odor of coconut wafted from the fresh cake and tears came to my eyes.
“Stop that!” she insisted. You’re in America now.”
I followed her outside.
She promised to return the next day. “Please tell Harry the doorbell is broken,” she shouted as she drove away.
I turned to go back inside. The door was closed behind me. I tried to open it but it was locked. I ran waving down the street, but Maricel was gone. I glanced around and saw no one, only a cat staring at me from the sidewalk, dark grey with black stripes and white paws. A small patch of white dotted his nose. He rubbed his sides against me and when I reached down to pet him, he rose up on his back legs and purred.
I knew I could not return inside and so I decided to take a walk. The cat trailed behind. We passed dozens of houses just like Harry’s, all painted the same brown color. A small park stood at one end. The cat followed and sat with me in the shade under a tree. He meowed and gazed up at me. I told him about the island where I was born, about my family and little Gumabay. I described the journey here, told him about Harry and his mother and how strange everything was to me. The cat sat at my feet demanding that I pet him every so often, his price for listening.
Much later, white clouds tumbled over the hills. It became windy and cold and I returned to the house. I tried to shoo the cat away, afraid his owners might think I was stealing him. I pushed against the front door, but my prayers had not been answered. The cat rubbed against me one last time and quickly darted across the grass to disappear under a neighbor’s fence.
I sat on the steps and waited. I hoped Harry would not be too angry. I had made a simple mistake.
But instead he stared at me through the window of his car. He stepped out and grabbed my arm, yelling loudly as he unlocked the door. He pulled me inside and pushed me upstairs to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. The woman I saw resembled a crazy person with wild hair and haunted eyes. Harry turned on the shower and handed me a towel. The water soothed me. My skin glowed from the heat and I stepped naked into the bedroom. Harry was also naked, lying on the bed.
Afterward, we ate tasteless food in plastic packages that Harry heated in the microwave. As I put our glasses and forks in the dishwasher, I thought about the women who carried buckets of water from the village well every day. I missed their company, their pleasant chatter and easy laughter.
Harry disappeared into the den and did not ask me to join him, so I stayed in the kitchen, opening cabinets and drawers memorizing their contents. A brochure in one drawer pictured Filipino women in makeup and sexy poses: Lusty Asian Ladies. Was that what Harry expected me to be? Is that what my tatay promised him? My mind raced through all the events of the last months and I grew angry.
Later, Harry called me and patted the seat of the couch next to him. I was tempted to ask him about the brochure, but his attention was on the television. I was surprised by all the commercials for pills that promised to make people happier. Why were people not happy in a place of so much abundance?
When he turned off the television, the house was completely quiet, only the dishwashing machine making a low shushing sound like distant waves. We took off our clothes in the bedroom and he kissed me on the forehead. I was relieved when he turned away and fell asleep.
The next day Maricel brought more bags of food and gave me magazines from home. “Just don’t read them when Harry is here.”
I didn’t tell her about the accident yesterday, about the cat that followed me around like Gumabay.
“Can we walk to the market?” I knew walking someplace would make me feel more at home.
Maricel shook her head. “You will have to depend on Harry and me to take you.” She explained that an automobile was necessary to go anywhere here. “You should not expect to see Harry much except late at night and on weekends. He’s married to his work.”
“Does that mean he cannot marry me?” I wondered if Harry had deceived my father.
“No. It’s just an expression. You’ll learn.”
The wedding was not held in a church, but at a private club next to a lake. Vases of white and pink flowers were set everywhere. Maricel helped me choose a dress the color of a Golden Trumpet flower. She told me I looked beautiful.
Only a few people came—Maricel and her husband Jorge, Harry’s friends from work, and of course his mother, who frowned the whole time. I knew she thought that her son had made a mistake. But I was determined to prove her wrong and find some happiness in this marriage to her Harry. She would have to make the best of things. The next Sunday Harry took me to a picnic at his work and introduced me to everyone as his wife. They were very nice and made me feel at home, reminding me of Sundays in the village with the family gathered for a big meal after Mass.
Now that I manage the house on my own, Maricel sometimes comes just to visit. We sit in the den and share our favorite foods and watch The Filipino Channel.
Two weeks ago, I recognized the woman who was a guest on the morning show. "That's Tala Torres, a woman I met on the plane," I said.
Maricel was not surprised that her card had come into my hands. "She's always making trouble for women like us," she said.
Tala Torres spoke about human trafficking, and described how cartels lure or kidnap women, taking them abroad and selling them as servants and sex slaves. She described her work with the Women’s Defense Network, about how they helped women who were trafficked. As she spoke, I remembered how warm her hands felt in my own.
Maricel changed the channel. “You don’t want to watch this.”
“Yes, I do!” I grabbed the remote and told her to keep quiet. When the program was over, I threw the remote against the wall.
Maricel looked surprised. “You are not that, not what they describe. Harry is good to you. He is not a criminal.”
“My tatay sold me to pay off his debts. He did not even know Harry.”
“Harry treats you well. You’re lucky.”
“It is not lucky to have no choice and be sent away from your family.”
"You’re married now.”
“To a stranger who I barely speak with. To a man who is a boy, who eats Lucky Charms.”
Maricel took a deep breath. “Listen to me, Bagaoisan. I came here the same way you did. The only difference is that it was a Filipino man who brought me here. I miss my home but I’ve made a life here. You can too.”
I did not tell her that I often had horrible thoughts about Harry. He was the pig that we fed scraps and then slaughtered to feed the family back home. Harry may be a “good man” as Maricel claims, but he is like a landlord who collects the rent.
There has been a hurricane in my country. The Filipino Channel has covered the terrible damage all week. The storm washed over many of the islands and thousands of people have drowned. Houses and trees are scattered on the ground like firewood.
I called Maricel until I finally reached her. She told me her family in Manila was fine but no one has heard from her parents in the countryside. She has promised to find out any news about my family.
Last night I had a nightmare. Gumabay stood frightened and shaking on our beach. A huge dark claw reached out from the water and grabbed him, carrying him out to sea. I woke up breathless with the image of my brother under the water’s surface staring up at me with blank eyes.
I must have been screaming. Harry turned on the light, observing me as if I were a stranger.
I am out walking now. Mocking-Bird follows me. I tell him about the earthquake, how afraid I am for my family. But he isn’t listening to me. He hears the chirpings of tiny sparrows from a nest in the high branches of a tree and freezes into an attack pose, his teeth chattering.
I picture the birds on my island, homeless from the storm, their nests and roosting grounds destroyed. They fly madly in circles over the bodies of their chicks floating in the warm, dark sea.
I imagine my family alive and safe. I have sprouted wings and am flying back to them. Gumabay greets me at the dock, smiling. I clap my hands and white flowers fly magically from the trees.