The Prisoners



Sister, do you know I have your jade bracelet, the one you swore was lucky, that you said saved you that time you almost drowned? How long did it take you to realize it was missing? And when you realized, did you know I stole it?

I took it the day the Japanese came. The day they threw me in a truck with five other girls, knees tight to their chests. I could hear nanay’s wails rising over the motor as the truck picked up speed.

I took your bracelet right off your dresser and put it in my pocket, where you wouldn’t see it, but it would still be mine. I held it for hours, the whole time I rode in the truck with the other girls. It will protect me; it is my secret.

Dust blew in our faces, but I forced my eyes open, watched as we passed through our barrio and the road grew unfamiliar.

“Where are we going?” the girl beside me asked. She had the smallest frame of all of us. Her face was small too, and pale, with delicate features except for her eyelashes, which were like sleeping spiders.

“Why us?” another asked. Her voice was low, her face contemplative. My eyes passed from girl to girl and I wondered what united us, as if this knowledge would foretell the future.

We all had the same questions, but most of us said nothing.

I strained to make out any landmarks in the dark but could not place my surroundings. The gravel road ahead remained unmarked and unchanging in the headlights. The other girls were huddled together, faces hidden in each other’s shoulders, crying themselves to sleep. It was still pitch black when the soldiers tore us from the truck, but I could see we’d arrived at a military barracks. A high metal chain-link fence surrounded it.

“Where are we?” the girl with the spider eyes asked.

No one responded. We did not know the answer.

An officer dragged me into the room that would become mine, closed the door behind me and left me there alone. It was a small room with a tiny, high window, furnished only with a bed and a single flower on a nightstand.

I sat on the thin mattress, my limbs numb and weak. I had no belongings but your bracelet and the cotton shirt and skirt I was wearing. Though they were dust-covered and sweaty, I kept them on, and underneath the sheet I clung to my shirt with a balled fist. Beyond the walls, the muffled shuffling of the girls in the adjacent rooms was like a mother’s whisper. Hush, hush, it said, and I slept.


I awoke to the sound of banging on my door and a man’s voice shouting in Japanese. My head ached.

I opened the door and followed a stream of women down the hall. They lined us up in the kitchen and divided into groups: You, wash the men’s uniforms. You, do the dishes. You, scrub the floor.

Spider Eyes was standing next to me. There was something strange about her, the way her presence seemed to singe the air she touched. I felt my muscles tighten when she was nearby. Of all of us, she was the fiery one. But it was a secret fire, one whose sparks were visible only in her stare. Sometimes I felt that if she looked at me hard enough, my mind would bend to her will without realizing it. I wondered if others felt the same way, if they feared their own powerlessness when entering her line of vision.

Spider Eyes and I were given the task of chopping vegetables for pancit canton. She had a startling way of holding the knife. Pushing the sharp blade through the crisp vegetables, the menacing bang on the cutting board. It was anger transformed into force, unlike the timidity or fear that typified the rest of our movements.

I turned my attention to cooking, grateful for the work. The sizzling carrots, green beans, and onions calmed me. I kept my gaze focused only on the colors I tossed into the pan: the orange, white, green. I sautéed the vegetables exactly as nanay taught me.

If I tried hard enough, sister, I could imagine I was at home in our kitchen, preparing dinner for our family. I drowned out the gruff voices, angry and loud or sometimes joking and laughing, but in a language I did not understand. The voices kept me on edge. Instead I pretended that the men were tatay and Rodrigo de Guzman in the rice shed, plotting to rise up against the Japanese.

We are told not to speak to each other, but sometimes we steal bits of conversation when there is no one standing guard. Spider Eyes whispered in my ear that she is only ten years old. When I looked at her in surprise, her whole demeanor changed. She was less intimidating then. She said her home is not far from ours, Liwayway. We must have passed her on the street or at the market without realizing it. She attended school in the next barrio.

There is a girl here, Luisa, who is pregnant. She is younger than me. She had not even begun to menstruate. Reina, who is older, says Luisa must have become pregnant the first month she ovulated. I do not know about all that. I just think of the Virgin Mary, how sometimes God makes things happen that can’t be explained.

Reina’s name means “queen,” and she is like a queen—or as much like one as any of us could be in a place like this. She is tall, and her light skin glows despite malnourishment. Her hair is full, and she piles it on her head like a black crown. Her bruises do not show. Or maybe—because she is regal, because she still stands tall in this place despite the heavy air that pushes the rest of us down—they don’t beat her the way they do us. Maybe her beauty is a shield.

Even if it is, I do not wish for beauty. I wish for its opposite. To make men recoil at the sight of my face. That is the power I desire for myself.

We can’t see through the thin walls, sister, but we hear everything—and when those noises fade into darkness—sometimes quiet sobbing. The images we draw with our imaginations make us as visible to each other as we are invisible to the men.

I hear the men’s voices in the mess hall across the courtyard. Their booms and shouts, their angry laughter. My blood tears through my veins. That they should speak freely while we are forbidden conversation. It takes all of my power not to hear their words. I focus on my breathing in an attempt to erase their existence from my world.

When they finish eating, we clean the mess. We wipe plates clean with our fingers, feeding ourselves the scraps. I wish I could ignore my hunger, that I might starve myself to death. But my stomach is at war with my brain, and I eat, never reaching my fill.


Luisa wants to keep her baby. She wants it so badly it seems to me a kind of madness. I wonder how she could bear it, to look into her child’s face and see the eyes of a monster.

She makes excuses to miss her doctor’s visits. Still, even if she can keep her child safe long enough for it to be born, I am sure they will take it away from her. But I do not say this. Nor do the others. We let her believe that she can be a mother, even in this place.

I am not like Luisa. I do not want a child. I want to return to childhood.

I think about it often, Liwayway. I miss it so much. The only way for me to survive in this place is to remain stuck in the past, replaying moments in my mind as if they happened yesterday. If I were to think about my days as they truly are here, I swear I could not go on. So I dwell on our old life as if I can will it into being.

Liwayway, tonight a melody floated in through the window and swirled around my room. It echoed against the cement walls, growing louder until it felt as if the musician were here with me. I looked out the window but no one was there, only the moon. It illuminated the thin, white wisps of clouds, so far up.

Was it tatay? Has he learned to play music like he always said he would? Are all things possible where he is?

Sometimes I want to go where he has gone. I want him to carry me on his shoulders the way he used to. I miss working with him in the fields, even though we worked in silence. I miss being close to him, even when he smelled and I pushed him away when he tried to hug me.


We do not notice Spider Eyes is missing right away. It is not until after we have scrubbed the floors and gathered in the kitchen that we notice her absence. We peel and slice vegetables, but there is no forceful striking of metal on wood. The weight of the air still looms, but it is the heaviness of resignation, not the potential energy of rage.

“Where is she?” I ask, realizing I had forgotten to mention her by name. But the women know who I am talking about. Spider Eyes is the only one unaccounted for.

Luisa looks at me. “She escaped,” she whispers. “She must have squeezed through the gap in the fence.”

“Maybe she dug her way out,” Perl says.

“I think she put a spell on the guard,” Reina says. “I bet she did it with her eyes.”

I wonder if such a thing is possible. If it is, I do not have that power. I feel such shame I can hardly look at the other girls. And they hardly look at me.


The night we find out Spider Eyes has disappeared, I go to her room after the lights are out. I sneak down the dark hall, careful to take slow steps so the guard will not hear. I hold my breath the ten paces to her room, push the door open and tiptoe inside. Moonlight falls through the window. I walk the circumference of her room, running my fingertips across the cement wall. There is nothing resembling a hole or loose block. The walls and floor are solid.

I crawl under the bed and lie beneath it, the cold cement hard against my back. I wish I could fall asleep in that enclosed space forever, that the daylight would never come, that the guards would never find me. I take a breath and open my eyes, feel along the underside of the bed. Searching for what, I do not know. Then there I find it—a tear in the cloth, a hole in the mattress, and something rock solid. It isn’t metal, it isn’t a mattress spring. It moves when I curl my fingers around it. I pull it through the hole. It’s a bracelet—my bracelet. Or yours, Liwayway—the one I took from you. I didn’t even know it was missing. I slip my hand through the jade and slide out from beneath the bed.

I sit on the mattress and let out a long breath, then climb onto the nightstand and look out the window. The calamansi tree in the courtyard glitters in the starlight. Behind it is the hole in the fence. I will study it in the daylight, gauge its width and height, determine whether I will fit.

I hear the guard’s footsteps and scramble off the nightstand and squeeze under the bed. The guard walks to the end of the hall and back. I wait until he returns to his post, then I slip out of Spider Eyes’ empty room.

In my own, I put the bracelet safely back into its hiding place. I will stitch it into my bra as soon as I have a chance. I will sneak a needle and thread from the laundry room, add extra cloth to hide my treasure in the padding. I will wear it always, carry it near my heart.

I clutch the jade between my hands.


Days later, I am washing clothes with Luisa at the well when she stands up and in broad daylight makes a break for the hole in the fence.

She gives no indication she is going to run—she doesn’t say anything or even look at me at all. One moment, she is scratching with her fingernails at a stain on a shirt. The next she is halfway across the courtyard, her thin legs in wide strides.

I hear the shot before I see her fall. One shot that cuts through the cloudless air and catches me by surprise. I let out a scream—increasing in intensity and pitch when I see the red spot on Luisa’s back. Then her knees buckle and she crumples to the ground.

I run toward her, calling her name, but the guard, yelling, points his gun at me. I know that if I move any closer, I will die there next to Luisa. I turn toward him and catch his gaze. His eyes are vacant, unseeing.


Less than two hours later, after they have peeled Luisa’s lifeless body off the ground, the guards fix the hole in the fence. It was so small, only a few links missing. But now it is patched up, reinforced with barbed wire.

We cannot have a memorial for Luisa, but we honor her with silence. We wipe our tears as our breath catches in our throats. But the guards do not notice—or if they do, they say nothing. We mourn the loss of our friend the way we mourn the loss of ourselves, inwardly, with quiet rage.

Sister, I must tell you something. I saw you watching me when they came to take me. I am not mad, sister. I know you will come for me. You wouldn’t just let me steal your jade bracelet, after all. I will never take it off. I will wear it and it will keep me safe until you find me.

Liwayway, I fear that I am losing my mind. I feel that some of the women already have. I hear voices in the night, doors creaking, footsteps when there is no one.

Last night I heard the back door slam shut, but there were no footsteps. I don’t know why, but I got out of bed and walked down the empty hall. A shaft of moonlight fell through the small window of the back door, casting a blue diamond on the floor. I stood in that patch of light and looked out at the moon, noticing after a moment that the guard had fallen asleep. He sat before the gate with his legs spread out before him. His chin drooped, his eyes were closed. His rifle stood still upright, propped on the ground, the barrel leaning against his shoulder.

For an instant I considered sneaking out. Could I make it through the gate? Would I be able to unlock it? Or could I climb over the fence without making a noise?

I don’t know how long I stood there contemplating, daydreaming, imaging my body performing its escape. But I could not move. It was like a force was weighing me down, fixing my feet to that spot.

And then came footsteps from the end of the hall. I knew I had to run, so I rushed back to my room, back to my bed, and pulled up the sheet close around my neck. I lay there expecting someone to barge in, but no one did.

What is happening to me, Liwayway? Why did I not go? What was that sound I heard, that drew me to the door? Was it a ghost showing me the way, and I—foolish girl—declined the offer of help? Maybe if I had gone immediately to Reina’s room, we would have had the courage to leave together. But now it is too late.

I do not know if I can survive anymore, out there. Here, I know they will keep me alive as long as they need me, as long as I am of service.

Sister, please talk to me. Tell me that I am strong. Tell me that I am okay. Tell me about all the fun we used to have. Tell me, because I am forgetting.

The day before Luisa died, I was delivering fresh sheets to each of our rooms when I noticed the calamansi tree in the center of the courtyard had borne fruit. There, surrounded by the gray walls that house all of us living dead, amidst our sadness and despite our sorrow, the green citrus burst from the branches. It thrilled me to see the fruit ready to be picked. I hadn’t noticed it until that moment.

I made sure no one was watching, then reached for a calamansi dangling above my head. I inhaled the fresh citrus, plucked the tiny sphere and put it in my pocket.

I reached for another and another, rushing to clean the tree of all its ripened treasures. But I dared grab only a handful, enough to make a glass of fresh-squeezed juice. Then I went on about my work with pockets full.

After making my rounds with the linen, I found Luisa in the kitchen boiling noodles.

“Psst!” I whispered, and when she did not look up from the boiling pot, I nudged her with my elbow. She rolled her eyes, but they grew wide when I emptied my pockets onto the table. Two of the littlest fruit rolled onto the floor. She bent down with a questioning look, but I took the knife from her hand and cut a calamansi in half. I squeezed the juice into a glass. I sliced another and she picked up the halved fruit and squeezed it. When we had juiced enough fruit to make one full glass, we added water and sugar and stirred.

The calamansi juice was delicious and sweet. It tasted of sunshine and home, and drinking replenished us. Looking at Luisa’s wide smile, for a moment I felt weightless, swept away like a cloud. I was overcome with joy. It was a striking, unfamiliar feeling.


 

Liz Iversen was born in the Philippines and grew up in South Dakota. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Passages North, Room, and Cosmopolitan. She is currently at work on a novel set in World War II Philippines, from which this story is excerpted.