Fish Hair Woman

This extract is taken from Merlinda Bobis’ novel Fish-Hair Woman, the 2013 winner of Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. Read S.A. Jones’ recap of the awards ceremony here

‘Sing is the word, not scream! So take it not from the throat, children, but from lower down. And don’t eat while you sing,’ Pay Inyo scolded us when we failed to catch his conjured winged note while munching some vinegar-dipped chicharon, its porky crackle punctuating our song like a greasy percussion. But the louder percussion of his breaking heart soon drowned our futile serenade. Mamay Dulce said ‘no’ to his sixth proposal of marriage.

There was a full moon that night and the closed window was a bluish white. The earnest man was also as ghostly, dappled with the shadows of the fart-fart leaves. Poised in his fiesta clothes, with an arm extended and a hand on his heart, the lover craned his neck to catch every flapping note as he sang the only English song he knew — ‘Oh, my love, my darling’ … and the three of us gathered behind him in the same entreating pose, trying to echo his plaintive outpouring of ‘Unchained Melody’. But we never caught the elusive birds that flew too high for us, for Pay Inyo was a tenor. Ay, we breathed from deep down indeed and found ourselves managing only the desperate refrain about needing ‘your love’, but on a different key.

The house remained silent for too long, so Pilar went back inside and opened the window. She sang not a love song, which should have been Mamay’s response, but a teasing ditty. And at the top of her voice, which of course brought our mother out of the bedroom —

‘Mapula-pula pisngi ni Dulsora

Tugtog mambo-jambo

Kabit ni Pay inyo!’

Very red, the cheeks of Dulsora

The music is mambo-jambo

She’s dancing with Pay Inyo!

Then Pilar rushed back to our chorus line as Pay Inyo, seeing the beloved apparition at the window, began a more ardent rendition of his special English song. How we sang and implored our Mamay to accept Iraya’s all-around man. I heard myself sing with the most desperation, fearing for the life of our friend who had wooed us as much as this woman leaning out of the window, her smiling face bluish white and as round as the moon.

The serenade went on for too long and too desperately. We nearly outgrew the old man’s stratagems in the art of village courtship. Turutalinga, dilimon, labyu, tira-tira, balikucha and all delights available in his glass jars were the palate-sweeteners for us children. Flowered housedress, tortoise- shell comb, rosy lipstick or sequined velvet sandals from the city were the heart-implorers for dear Mamay Dulce. These were the gifts that he brought on his regular courting hour, three to four on a Saturday afternoon. He never visited without presents. Mamay Dulce protested against his spoiling us and, more strongly, against ‘the tarty trivia’ laid before her feet! ‘You want me to become your red woman?’ But once the scolding settled down, she fed him boiled sweet potatoes and freshly grated coconut, and the perennial rice-coffee laced with condensed milk, the latter reserved only for special guests. I saw this as proof that Mamay cared for Iraya’s all-around man, even as she turned him away and patiently explained, time and again, that she will marry no one. ‘Because of the kids, Pay Inyo, they’re my only beloved and they’re irreplaceable.’ He argued, of course, but she hushed him with her stubborn logic. ‘I’m afraid the heart has very little room.’

How much can the heart accommodate? Death and love, an enemy and a sweetheart, war and an impassioned serenade, and more. Only four chambers, but with infinite space like memory, where there is room even for those whom we do not love. Even sight is as expansive. So dear reader, when your eyes pass over these stories, consider your capacity to gather all of them, even the gaps in between, those that I dare not tell or do not know of yet or perhaps would never even imagine, but which might be utterly clear to you. Why my memories weave in and out of death and love or why I wept over the enemy as my hair grew, its red and black strands shooting from all ventricles up to the scalp, to declare that the heartspace is not just the size of a fist, because each encounter threads a million others. The capillaries of love and war flow into each other, into a handspan of hair.

‘For me?’

‘Who’s that?’ I touched the lips of the dead soldier, but they were still and cold. I looked around for the others but nothing was visible. The night jealously guarded its facelessness.

‘The Fish-Hair Woman weeps for me … ’ the voice sighed.

‘Ramon?’ I backed off, but a hand grabbed my ankle.

The sergeant tightened his grip and pulled me down. ‘For me … ’

‘You’re alive?’

‘The white man didn’t come for you.’


‘He left … away, away…’

‘You mean — Tony? He’s not in that river then — he’s not dead?’

‘Lemon grass and fireflies … ’ A chuckle sank an octave deeper, burrowing among the roots of coffee shrubs. ‘The heroine loves … the white man … ’

‘Where is he?’

‘Yet she weeps … for me … ’ The chest heaved and was still, then it heaved again, straining for the next breath. I drew closer and heard none but a distant serenade, measure after measure of dying.

‘For me … ’

It was an incantation, full of sad amazement.

Merlinda Carullo Bobis is a contemporary Philippine Australian writer and academic. She was born in Legazpi City in the Philippines province of Albay. She teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong, and her novel Fish-Hair Woman will be adapted into a play by the Harlequin Theatre Company (Manila).