Marianne Villanueva: Hollow



One cold February night, Gabe’s wife began to howl.

He thought of a movie he’d seen a long time ago, a movie about a boy who turned into a wolf. The boy-animal became furtive, but fierce. In his wife’s eyes, now, were an animal intensity.

Gabe said, “What’s wrong now?”

She howled and howled and couldn’t stop.

He called 911. Four paramedics came. Two stayed with him in the living room and the others went into the bedroom. He could hear them walking, circling the bed where his wife lay.

“Just a moment,” Gabe said, and got up.

“They’ll be done in a minute,” one of the men said. “Stay here.”

One came back to the living room and whispered something in a low voice to the other two. Gabe raised his right hand, fingers spread, as if in entreaty. “What’s wrong?” “What’s her name?” one of the men asked.


He decided not to tell them about the dead child, a year ago she was still laughing and begging for ice cream.

“We’ll have to take her to Seton for observation.”

“But – “ Gabe said. He stopped. It wasn’t a question of insurance.

“It’s all right, it’s all right, sir,” a man said, almost soothingly. “They’ll only keep her, at most, two days. Has she ever been diagnosed bi-polar?”

Gabe shook his head. He entered the bedroom. His wife was sitting up in bed. When she saw him, she knelt on the carpet. He sank down, took her face in both his hands and said, “They will take you away if you don’t stop. Do you want to be taken away?” Here eyes were still, but he saw depth in her irises. She was swimming somewhere, far away from him. She whispered, “Saan? Where?”

For one whole year, his wife had been going through the motions: preparing his breakfast, packing him lunches, setting the table for dinner. She always thought she counted wrong, she always felt she was forgetting something. And then he realized, she was still waiting. Waiting for a touch — something, anything warm.

The first time they’d taken their daughter home to visit his parents, how wide the child’s eyes had grown at the sight of the roasted baby pig, displayed in the very center of the long table. It lay, eyes half open, an apple between its jaws, on a huge tray lined with banana leaves. Their daughter pointed and giggled and said “Yucch!” The cousins stared. They hadn’t realized how American she was, until that moment.

The admitting nurse took down his wife’s vital information (Filipina, recent immigrant, late 20s). They put her in the room closest to the nurse’s station. The staff were used to dealing with all kinds of things: with 60-year-old wives presenting symptoms of pregnancy, with young girls who liked to cut themselves with razor blades. Everything, everything could be attributed to stress. They couldn’t speak good English, America was not as advertised, and usually their husbands were angry men who drank. Some, like this woman, had no other relatives in the area.

She began babbling when the moon appeared. “Danish, Danish,” she said. The night nurse, who was not unkind, though rather tired, said, “Be quiet. You are disturbing the others.”

“Danish, Danish,” Esperanza continued saying.

The night nurse kept on with her tasks and ignored her.

Patay! Dead! A daughter,” said Esperanza. “My daughter.” The night nurse walked right up to her. “Be quiet,” she said.

Esperanza looked at the night nurse with round, frightened eyes. She fell silent.

Esperanza used to work for a Danish diplomat’s family in Manila. She was the yaya for the eldest, Olivia. Olivia was so pretty, her hair the bright red of a gumamela. At 11, Olivia came down with a fever. The doctor said it was dengue. She was taken to Makati Medical. A week later, she died. The Danish diplomat packed up his family and left. The yaya stood crying on the sidewalk and waving. She had helped pack everything the family owned. The memory of her secret hope — that the family would take them with her when the time came to leave the Philippines, that she would get to see Denmark — was clouded with bitterness.

She met Gabe, the man she was eventually to marry, when he was visiting his parents in Manila. One afternoon, Gabe looked out his aunt’s front door and saw a sad woman pacing back and forth along the street, oblivious to the dust, the traffic, the blazing heat. Something about her preoccupation moved him terribly.

That night, Gabe’s dead grandmother appeared to him in a dream. She had died almost 10 years earlier. She lived in a small town in Pangasinan, and by then he had been in California, working, and had not been able to attend the grandmother’s funeral. When his grandmother appeared in his dream, she was wearing a blue dress and her long grey hair was neatly combed. She was surrounded by a bright light. Her lips moved, as if she were reciting her rosary. Gabe was not superstitious but since he had never dreamt of the grandmother until the day he saw the woman walking under a blazing sun, he took it as a good omen.

Now Gabe wished he had never seen her, or had the dream. Now, he thought, his grandmother might have been trying to warn him.

Gabe and Esperanza found a small house in Daly City, a short walk from Serramonte Mall. The food court had fried rice and lumpia, all the good food they remembered from back home, though Esperanza at first could not stop computing the cost of a meal in pesos. When their daughter was born, they named her “Erich” because her name, and that of all Esperanza’s siblings, began with an “E.” And naturally they both hoped she would be “rich.”

The day his little girl had died, Gabe looked up and saw, beyond the plate glass window of his office, a little girl with black braids and a red dress with white dots, skipping rope on the sidewalk. Something about the little girl made him feel uneasy, and he called home. The phone rang and rang and he wondered where his wife and daughter were.

When he told a co-worker about it later, the man said the little girl in the red dress might have been nagpapakita. Gabe had heard of the term: it was a kind of spirit who appeared to a person’s relatives when that person was near death. The dying person was said to show himself or herself to a close friend or relative.

The co-worker said he’d seen it featured on an “X-Files” episode. Mulder tells Scully it was an old Irish belief. The Irish called it a fetch.

Gabe became anxious. He himself had been born with a heart murmur; the doctor said he might die young, or he might live to a reasonable age. Who could tell? The doctor told Gabe’s mother, “You might as well flip a coin.”

From the moment the doctor told her, Gabe’s mother had nursed him with suffocating care. She tried to keep him from running, or from other excessive physical activity. She hung a rosary around his neck and insisted he wear it every day.

Sometimes, in the long nights when he gasped for breath, when he waited for his mother to appear at his side, he would hear his father’s tired voice: Let him go, let him go. Don’t you see, he wants to go? His mother would answer sharply, Stop that talk! God punish such foolishness!

Now, February. The pictures of their daughter that his wife had placed on top of the piano were gone. He simply could not bear the drama: the death followed by wailing, right there in the hospital. More wailing at the funeral (such a tiny coffin! It broke people’s heart to see), and now the one-year anniversary, his wife’s unceasing howling. “It’s a stage,” the counselor at the hospital told him. “Grief is chaos.”

Gabe’s life was chaos. His wife no longer cared about keeping the house clean. At the end of a long day in the office, he still had to cook dinner for both of them. He thought about sending her back home, where her relatives could deal with her.

At work, he confided in his secretary. I am so tired, he said. She smiled sympathetically and sweetened his coffee with cream and two teaspoons of sugar, just as he liked it. She had been working for him for two years and knew all about the daughter, the death, the grief, the frustration of the marriage. You work so hard, she told him. You deserve a little peace and quiet when you get home.

His wife looked everywhere for signs, for traces, for something of her daughter’s left behind. Perhaps her daughter’s existence had been too light. But his wife convinced herself she could still see, in the indentations of the mattress in her daughter’s room, the outlines of her body. Or, in a depression on the top step of the stairs leading to the second story, the outline of their daughter’s right foot. His wife caressed the imperfections of these surfaces. She would have protected them with shields of glass, if she could.

Gabe watched for signs of a different sort. “Let it end, Dear God,” he prayed. “Let it end.” He begged Father Adriano for advice. Father Adriano was one of several Filipino priests attached to the church where the couple regularly attended mass.

Father Adriano advised patience. Patience and hope. The priest remembered similar cases in the Philippines, in fact in his own family. “Do not interfere,” Father Adriano said. “The grief must be allowed to express itself. Otherwise, the pressure builds internally, and there will be the real possibility of madness. Pray to Our Mama Mary to guide you.”

He stumbled home from work, his briefcase heavy with reports he needed to finish. He found his wife was sitting in the living room, in the darkness[.

“Why didn’t you turn on the lights,” he asked. “Esperanza, are you listening?”

He stumbled as he walked up to her, overwhelmed by dread or terror, but determined, to face this thing.

His wife sat very still. Then she whispered, “I saw her. She came back, Gabe. She is here.”

Without replying, Gabe went to the kitchen and began cooking his own dinner.

The next day, when Gabe came home from work, his wife was nowhere — not in the living room, not in the dining room, not in the bedroom. His gut tightened. He found her, finally, in the backyard, under the orange tree. He became frantic and said, “Get up, get up!” Very slowly, her eyes opened and fixed on him.

He had seen a snake in the garden, when he was growing up. He had uncovered its hiding place, beneath a large grey rock. The snake had brown scales and lay in three small coils in a hollow in the earth. Its black, round eyes stared up at him.

Esperanza sat up slowly. He saw, in a hollow in the ground, a pair of black shoes that had once belonged to his daughter. He helped his wife to her feet; her face was blank. Suddenly, she flung her arms around him. He could feel her ribs through her dress.

“It’s OK,” he whispered. “It’s OK.”

She trembled in his arms. He felt the hole in his heart open. Open to receive his wife’s voice.

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