The woman’s body rested on the steps of the fountain in the middle of the plaza. It was Good Friday. The cathedral’s bells rang out: Oh woe, woe! Condemnation from the pulpit.
Her husband, Adriano, had returned unexpectedly from Compostela and discovered her with her lover. Since she had given birth but two months before, she used fatigue as the reason for not accompanying her husband on his pilgrimage. He believed her. The infant’s cradle, Adriano saw, had been dragged close to the bed, the very bed where wrinkled sheets now gave off the musky scent of a lover’s seed!
He began to beat them both. The lover was able to escape, but the beating of the woman continued for some time. Her calls for help were heard all over the neighborhood. No one came to her aid.
After an hour, there followed a long silence that caused the neighbors to stay up all night, listening.
Then, a dragging sound, interrupted by bouts of weeping.
At dawn the next day, as the market vendors were beginning to set up their tables, they saw the woman, sitting half-clothed on the steps of the fountain. People crossed themselves.
A scarlet mouth had been etched over her white throat, a scarlet mouth that wept great gouts of dark blood. Spiteful neighbors sneered at her exposed breasts, still full of milk for the infant she bore just two months earlier.
Eventually, a few brave men approached the broken woman and draped a blanket over her.
Her husband had fled. His three children were taken in by the woman’s family.
The women’s brothers searched for Adriano. Adulteress though their sister may have been, the family had wished for a different way for her to expiate her sin. They declared she would willingly have taken the habit, if such an offer had been made.
Where was Adriano now? No one knew whether he escaped or whether he chose to end his life by jumping into the Segura. If the latter, his body would eventually surface. Unless the current had pulled it out to sea.
Bodies circle in the river and split off from themselves. There was a strange magnetic pull under the water determining the direction of the currents. But, in the case of the murdered woman, whose body was left to wander the square, the perpetrator was never found.
Her brothers grew sick of the sight of her and buried her in that section of the cemetery reserved for the indigent: no headstone was erected over her grave, no one visited, it was as if the murdered woman never existed, never married, never had children, never suffered, never had a lover.
But the next week she was there again, on the steps of the fountain.
I tell everyone, I saw Josefina. No one believes me. It was the day after we arrived in Miami.
What was she doing there, someone will ask. Didn’t she live in San Francisco?
Perhaps the intensity of my memory of her, pushed to the back of my mind all these years—and only after great sacrifice and persistence—had finally manifested itself in a physical shape.
In a few hours, it would be Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s sister, Gia. She is one of those super-competitive people who talk constantly about their kids. Two of her three children are in Ivy League colleges, the third is a gastroenterologist at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale. Why do we do this to ourselves, I wondered.
I had decided to go for a quick run at the beach, just to get rid of the tension I could feel building in my shoulders at the thought of the conversations that lay ahead.
The woman I bumped into was wearing gold hoop earrings. Her skin, I remember thinking, was too pale. She had on a bright red coat with large, brass buttons. Then she smiled. It struck me as a cold smile.
“Dad,” she said.
It was warm for November. Women strolled languorously by, sleek and lovely, skin in all shades from ghostly white to ebony. The sand was powdery and soft. Someone I couldn’t see was smoking a cigar. The smell made me ache for the scent of my father’s Tabacaleras.
Then, the familiar anger bubbled up. I said, “Who are you? Why are you following me?”
She moved slightly, and her outline seemed to blur. See? I thought trying to control my breathing. Not real.
The sky was the color of old brass. Directly ahead of me, the sun hovered, a dull glow.
I resumed jogging. I had built to an even pace, following the line of the beach as it curved almost imperceptibly to the left. A breeze came up. The sky began to roil with fat clouds. A dog yipped, and a woman shrieked, “Wifi, Wifi, no!”
Something stubbed my right foot. There, lying on the sand, was a thick paperback. I bent and picked it up. The title, in big, black letters, was Napoleon et Les Femmes. I was tempted to leaf through the book’s pages. A drop of moisture landed on my cheek. No, I thought. Keep running. I tossed the book back on the sand.
Suddenly, she was there again, blocking my way. This time, when I tried to pass through her, something—a physical force, I didn’t know what—struck my forehead. I staggered backwards.
Her restless eyes, the way her forehead wrinkled when she was trying hard to listen. Her smell: grapefruit or apple or persimmon. Even in high school, when, more often than not, her hair hung oily and unwashed, plastered against her neck, she always smelled of something sweet.
“Josefina,” I said.
“You were right about Carlos, Dad,” she said. “You were right.”
I was helpless; tears threatened.
“I’m better now,” she said. “Maybe.” She rolled her eyes, then shrugged.
“Sweetie,” I said.
“I hate being alone,” she said. “I tried counseling for a while. He wasn’t a bad person. Just moody.”
My daughter had lived on Mission. Her neighborhood was filled with taquerias and bars, and more people spoke Spanish than English. The houses had steep, narrow stairs leading to grilled front porches. Abandoned mattresses and broken pieces of furniture lined the sidewalks. How many times had I watched her walking slowly up her stairs, my heart’s rhythm uncontainable? She always turned to wave when she reached the last step.
“Go in,” I’d mouth. I pulled away only when she opened her door and slipped inside. Which, thinking about it now, made no sense. The greatest dangers were inside.
The woman began to move away.
“Josefina,” I said.
She turned her head to look back at me. She smiled with a gentleness I didn’t recognize. I almost begged her. But I knew then that I didn’t want to know. Let her keep her damn secrets, her childhood games. “What, Dad?”
“I’ve missed you,” I said. “We’ve missed you.”
The last e-mail he received from her said, Do you ever listen to yourself? What do you know? What?
“That night was so quiet,” she said.
My chest became ice.
“Your counselor said you weren’t ready,” I said.
“Not ready?” Josefina said. She looked puzzled now. She frowned.
I had visited her once in the last four years. We had seen an exhibit on Korean art at the Asian Art Museum. Afterwards, she agreed to have coffee in the museum café. Carlos was still in the picture, but Josefina never mentioned him, not once.
On the lacquered red walls of the restaurant were photographs of Clinton shaking hands with a group of grinning Asian men in dark business suits. I saw a book peeking out of her tote bag when she settled it on the floor.
“What book are you reading?” I asked.
“A novel,” she said.
She handed me the book. I read the title: How to Make Friends with Demons. I pushed it back across the table.
“It looks interesting,” I said.
Unexpectedly, she laughed. “I should have known better than to expect you to like anything I read.”
“Well, I have hardly any time for reading,” I said. “I like thrillers, mysteries.”
“Tom Clancy is a bigot,” she said. “I hate his books.”
How long had she been with Carlos? Four, five years? I knew my daughter had ways of making herself unhappy. She could always find fresh ways to wring my heart.
That day at the museum, she talked of the work she did at the research lab, and how close they were to getting a powerful new drug on the market, a drug that would shrink the fatty stuff clogging the arteries of older people. Biogenetics. I asked if she was happy; she said yes. Her eyes said something different. She mentioned that she was planning a trip to Europe in the summer. Italy or Germany, possibly.
“With Carlos?” I asked.
“No,” she said. Her gaze drifted to the side. “Want to come?”
I shook my head. “I couldn’t go without your mother. You know that.”
She looked sad. In fact, she looked like she might cry.
After, I told Tessa. She kept asking, “Are you sure?” We were sitting at one of those restaurants facing the beach. Waiters hovered with gigantic glasses—bowls, actually—of margaritas.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“I’m so tired of this,” Tessa said. Her shoulders slumped. “Four years, two therapists, and here we are.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Did she seem all right?” Tessa asked.
“She seemed all right,” I said.
Tessa blinked away her tears and blew her nose into her napkin. A woman at the next table stared at us.
My throat felt dry, my tongue suddenly too big for my mouth. “Let’s go back to the room,” I said. I needed something. Vodka. Whiskey. Something. Anything.
“No,” Tessa said. “You stay. I’m just going to take a nap.”
“She loved you,” I said.
“She loved both of us,” Tessa said.
I watched her move carefully between the tables. She held her elbows close to her sides, as if afraid of hitting something. I could see where her hair was thinning, near the crown.
This was my fault.
I shouldn’t have told her.
I’m not the type of person who believes in the supernatural. I don’t believe in ghosts or fetches or doppelgangers. My wife, though, is another story. She thinks black cats are the souls of dead people and she never walks under ladders. She won’t look in a mirror after midnight.
She tells me some places have a bad energy. We both grew up in Manila, where ghosts were rampant.
There was one on Balete Drive. Everyone in Manila knows exactly where Balete Drive is and about the woman who suddenly appears in the back seat of passing cars. In fact, the frats at the college I attended would regularly send recruits to spend the night there. A story went around that one of these would-be frat initiates was found the next morning, his hair gone completely white.
Then I went to the States for grad school. To my astonishment, Palo Alto did not have ghosts.
We had not been the best parents. Only the one child, and we couldn’t make her happy.
“I love you,” Josefina said. “Dad-Da. Daddy-O.”
She gave me a wan smile. It occurred to me that my daughter would be thirty-two.
Not, technically speaking, young anymore.
And myself? Someone who has a child that age—yes, I was old. I’d fought and fought against it, though. Rage against the dying of the light.
She was still moving. I raised my hand to detain her. “Come back to us,” I said.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I can’t.”
Tessa and I had tried everything: meditation workshops, support groups, prayer meetings. In the groups, parents sobbed and hugged each other. But we remained dry-eyed. After a couple of sessions, the counselor took me aside and said, “I’m sorry this doesn’t seem to be working for you and your wife. Perhaps another group? We’ve got some fragile people here. Your attitude affects theirs.”
“What are you talking about?” I snarled. “What attitude?”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” the counselor said. “Your anger is scaring the others.”
I should have tried harder to find her. But after Miami, it was too late. Something inside me told me it was too late.
“Want me to paint you a moustache?” It was Halloween. The school let students come in costume. Josefina was nine. She had insisted on dressing up as a pirate. She had an eye patch and bright red balloon pants. She looked devilish. She sliced the air with her plastic cutlass.
Later, she called with tears in her voice. “Dad,” she’d whispered. “Pick me up now?”
Mrs. Hendricks was waiting with her by the entrance to the main building. Josefina wouldn’t look at the older woman.
“Just teasing, that’s all,” Mrs. Hendricks told me. “Josefina is so sensitive. The other children didn’t mean anything by it.” Josefina slipped a cold hand into mine. We walked to the car without speaking.
I helped her move into her freshman dorm at Santa Clara. I forget what Tessa had to do. But they weren’t speaking for some reason. My daughter’s face was grave, but in spite of myself I was convinced she was happy.
“Want me to put the lamp here?” I had asked. “Then you can read in bed.”
“Yes, great,” Josefina said, not meeting my eyes.
Her school was fifty miles from us and she rarely came home. Two weeks a year, tops.
Why did you come here, Josefina? What do you want from us? I’m too old for these games.
She turned her head, ever so slightly. As if she could hear my thoughts. I held my breath.
That old feeling of frustration came rising up. But I was determined to do better this time. I would try. Really try.
Tessa was sleeping. I bent down and kissed her forehead. Her nose wrinkled, but she didn’t wake.
Slowly, I lay down beside her. I wished we could spend the rest of the day like that.
I closed my eyes; immediately I saw the beach. I began to get one of my panic attacks, my breathing rapid. I feel as if something’s sitting on my chest. I forced myself to imagine the beach empty of people—the jogging women, the men watching, all dissolving until there was nothing except white sand, blue water, and sky.
And then I heard someone saying, very softly, in my right ear, Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhhh.
There was this X-Files episode: a doctor in Chicago is murdered by her jealous boyfriend. In another hospital in another city, a new doctor begins her first day of work, but Personnel has trouble processing the new doctor’s social security number because it keeps identifying her as someone else, as someone from Chicago who has died. Mulder and Scully show the staff at the other hospital the picture of the murdered woman. “Is this the new doctor?” Mulder asks, and everyone he asks says the same thing: “Yes, that’s her.”
Mulder concludes the new doctor is a Fetch. Scully says, “You’re saying what these people saw was the victim’s ghost? It’s more likely a case of ego dystonia. Studies have shown that—”
Mulder interrupts her to pull a book off his shelf. The camera zooms in on the title: Death and the Afterlife: A Cultural Encyclopedia, by Richard P. Taylor. Mulder opens to a page and reads, “There is an old Irish belief about a spirit who appears to a subject’s loved ones when the subject is close to death. This spirit is referred to as a Fetch.”
What had Scully said? I don’t remember. She must have scoffed. I’d always meant to look up that episode. It always bothered me that I couldn’t remember.
Since that day in November, on the beach in Miami, I’ve changed. I’ve become a completely different person. Ask my wife.
Sometimes I’ll be driving off the freeway when I see her. It’s usually at an exit ramp.
The one on Woodside Road curves. Beneath the shelter of that curve is a homeless encampment. I’ve seen shopping carts, clothing, all kinds of stuff. Once, even a lampshade. What would a lampshade be doing there? Maybe it’s something from the time when that person used to live in a house. Maybe having a lampshade nearby makes that person feel normal.
Once, she was very, very close to the road. I called her name and then, Watch out! A car nearly climbed up my rear. The driver beeped long and hard. I didn’t dare go straight home, since that car decided to follow me. I circled to Costco and drove aimlessly around the parking lot, as if I were looking for a vacant slot. Eventually, the driver of the other car grew tired of following me and peeled away.
Not funny, Josefina! I yelled in the silence of my car.
I don’t know why she does that, stand on the exit ramp, where there are so many cars that whizz by, never slowing, not even when they merge.
Once I saw a young woman running. I jammed on my brakes in a panic. I lowered my window. “Josefina!” I screamed. The woman turned and stared at me, her mouth open. Then she screamed. Both of us screamed at each other.
That young woman’s eyes were full of fear. It wasn’t Josefina, I realized. But the look of fear in her eyes stayed with me a long time. Years.
“Get away from me!” the young woman screamed. “I’m calling the cops!”
The idea that I…
What could she have thought? What could I possibly want with her, this young woman who was Not Josefina?
My daughter. My daughter.
The name that I gave her was the name my mother lived a good life with. The name a kind of amulet. “What kind of a name is that?” my wife asked. “We should give her an American name, it will be easier for her.”
Sandra, nickname Sandy.
Catherine, nickname Cathy.
Jennifer, nickname Jen.
Any name, I could have picked any name.
But, of course, I didn’t. That’s why I’m here.
Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short-story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books), Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press), and The Lost Language (Anvil Press, Philippines). Ginseng was a finalist for the Philippine National Book Award. Her most recent book, the novella Jenalyn, was a finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award. Her work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, the New Orleans Review, Wigleaf, Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, and Puerto del Sol, among many other journals. Born and raised in the Philippines, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in UCLA Extension’s Writers Program.