We find her by the river, clad in nothing but her blood-dark cloak.
One of our husbands, a hunter. He carries her through stones and trees. He walks to the
end of the village, watched from behind bamboo windows.
The mother does not weep when she meets his eyes. She does not even speak. This is a
fear we all know. This is one of many fates.
We whisper amongst ourselves. We wonder if she is alive, if she wants to be. We know
what happened. None of us dare name it.
It is Sunday, the Lord’s day, when she first returns, dressed in her blood-red cloak. She
gazes upon us with moon-bright eyes, winnowing basket in hand. One of us thinks back to when
she was young, when her eldest sister looked at her in that way, too. I’m still here.
Some of us go home and teach our girls how to twist and rip and mend again, the cotton
cloth slick against our hands. Some of us climb small trees in search of fruit, ignoring the cuts.
At the river, we soak dresses and talk about all the ways a woman can fail. “This is what
happens when you don’t guard your daughters.” We wring them dry, scrub them almost angrily.
A new day, the same sun, another question—repetitive, like a prayer.
“What do you think,” someone says, “drove him to such an act?” We scratch our fingers
against the dirt, purse our lips as the water runs across our wounds. One of us washes slippers. If
it were my daughter, she thinks--
She would have been safe.
On a rather rainy noon, we trade details in the pig pens with women who are also
mothers, and they are happy to divulge their knowledge. “She went to the chief,” they say, “and
told him what happened. At least, what she could remember.”
“What she could remember?”
“She says she was on her way to visit her grandmother,” they say. “She was walking
through the forest, but she went off the path to—” This is when they beam, as if it were a riddle
“To what?” we say.
“To meet a boy.” Their voices, low, in disbelief. “It was dark, and she was alone in the
forest, and she went to see a boy.” They shake their heads. One of them, lithe and young, looks
almost gleeful. “No wonder she ended up by the river.”
Slowly, we nod. She should not have strayed from the path.
“But,” we ask, “who did she meet?” The women shrug.
Come nighttime, we lay in bed with our husbands. We rest our heads on their shoulders,
seeking refuge from all that is cold and dark.
The story grows, a thing that breathes in the heart of our village. The boy she met on the
path was Lobo. They drank rum from glass bottles on the edge of the rest, and they laughed, like
friends. Before her vision clouded, she remembers--
“It was him. I know it was.”
We convene with the women once again. “I don’t believe it was him,” one of us says.
“Lobo is a good kid.”
“Lobo!” another interjects, and we know what she’s thinking. Lobo—the boy who tended
to our chickens and helped us shake coconuts from trees. The boy who helped our husbands
build shacks for the storms. The boy our sons always tell us about with awe. A good one.
“Should’ve known better,” someone says, “than to go with him alone. Men” —she sets a
pot of soup on the table where we all sit— “will always be men.”
The weeks pass. The chief sends a man to announce his verdict in the market, where it is
thick with heat and bodies. The boy is safe, the man says. It was simply a misunderstanding.
The girl is there as he speaks. We watch as she clutches onto her thighs, falling slowly, as
if it pains her to do so. Her lips tremble, her chest rises and falls. We can’t help but think of how
she looks so much younger than fourteen.
The girl packs whatever little she has and leaves her mother under the cover of night. For
as long as she’s alive, her daughter will never return.
Lobo stays. He is a boy, then a man. We pass him most times, working in the fields.
When he sees us, he tips his straw and waves. We wave back. A few summers after her
departure, he marries.
One of us—we are not sure who—is happy for him. She sews a thick hammock, small
enough to fit a child. “To the life you have ahead of you,” she says, handing him the gift.
Our daughters grow. They take jobs, they find men. They have a child, and then another.
We rock their young againstour breast. We feed them. We sing them old lullabies, and they grow.
And when our granddaughters are old enough, we sit them by the fire, staring solemnly. They are
hopeful, these girls. They have never known the danger of men. “Do you know,” we ask, “what
happens to girls who stray from the path?”
They shake their heads. We can still warn them.
We clear our throats. “Very well then.”
We lean against the chair. The fire burns, warm, welcoming, and we close our eyes,
picturing her: young enough to be a victim, but old enough to know better. We keep our girls
close to our chest as we begin our tale.
There was once a girl who was never without her blood-dark cloak...
Bella Majam is a student at the Philippine High School for the Arts. She serves as a non-fiction editor for Diamond Gazette and a prose editor for HaluHalo Journal, where she has previously been published. You can follow her @beelaurr on Instagram.