It starts with clumps in the shower. Black, trailing globs that snake into the drain and stick to the sides of the bathtub. By then it is too late. By then the soft, white flesh of Robin’s scalp has begun to push out from beneath those dark locks which, at the time, fall almost to his shoulders. He always liked to keep his hair long.
When she first glimpses that pupil-less eye, Mercy is standing over him with brush in hand, and she drops it. It is the first day of school. Just seconds ago she had been teasing the hair away from his face, as though in a trance, her eyelids drooping with each stroke of the brush. But it is only when Robin bends over to tie his shoes that she sees it: the white spot, the size and sheen of a peso coin. She cries out his name but when he turns, she does not know what to say.
Nothing. Go get your things ready for school.
She checks the brush for hair when he leaves. Pulls out tufts of it with her fingernails, trying to decide if there is more on there than usual, trying to remember the last time she cleaned the brush. But as much as she stares, she cannot be sure.
She puts the hair in her pocket. It is early, but already the sun shines like pinpricks into the eyes, drawing tears, drawing sweat. In a moment she will send Robin off to school, and within the hour she will return to the bath tub and see those black globs, thinking mold, thinking spiders. She will find herself reaching into her pocket to feel that ball of matted hair like a marble in her hand.
At the doctor’s office, Mercy holds Robin as they check his temperature and swab his scalp. She rubs his sweaty cheek and sings to him when they take his blood. When the Doctora asks his mother and father to step into her office, Mercy waits with Robin in a room of soft walls and tiny furniture, the chairs so sized to make a child feel tall. She puts two of them together and sits with her knees to her chin. For just a moment, she watches as Robin picks up a toy car and listlessly slides it back and forth along the carpet. Then just as quickly he rolls onto his belly and closes his eyes, tumbling into sleep. The toy car is still in his hand.
The door to Doctora’s office opens, and she invites Mercy to come inside. Not to worry, she says, waving to her receptionist. Maria will take care of him. With a gentle hand, she guides Mercy into the other room, inviting her to take the chair next to the desk, against the window. Please, sit. Mercy looks over her shoulder at the city sprawled before her: the highways and the slums, the blue blanket of Laguna de Bay, the tiny cars on their way to Makati, or Las Piñas, or perhaps even farther. She spots the steeple of the church Robin’s family frequents for Sunday mass, the cushion of homes, all the way up to the walled edges of their barangay. She thinks, This is what it must feel like to fly in an airplane.
The room is focused on her now. Robin’s mother sits with her stomach pressed against the armrest, so she can look Mercy in the eye. His father too stares hard, leaning away, his wife’s head over his shoulder.
Mercy, Doctora says. What can you tell me about Robin’s diet? Has he eaten any new foods? Does he drink too much soda?
Mercy shakes her head.
Have you been using any new soaps or shampoos? New laundry detergent?
No, says Mercy. There is a long silence as Doctora scribbles on a notepad with pursed lips. Mercy has always liked Doctora, has thought of her always as kind and powerful, but now she fears that her answers are a disappointment. She believes that this is the worst Doctora is capable of, that anger and fear do not manifest themselves on her face because they are too vulgar, too commonplace. And now the worst was occurring because of Mercy.
She remembers the only time the family had ever come to Doctora’s office in an emergency. It was an abscess, caused by a single rotten tooth; Robin, too young to speak, had simply cried and clutched at the offending cheek hoping someone would eventually notice.
There is a dentist on the third floor, Doctora had said, after a brief examination. Only seconds of watching him had allowed her to discover the source of the pain. I can take you there now. But you really must make sure that he maintains good dental hygiene. Make sure he brushes his teeth. You’re lucky this is a baby tooth; it would have come out soon anyway.
Robin’s mother had turned to Mercy then. How could you let this happen? In her anger, she snatched the boy from Mercy’s hands, which made him cry even harder. His face reddened, his fists clenched, he kicked out in pain. But Mercy knew it was best to stay quiet when faced with his mother’s expression. It was the same look which often precluded the slam of a door, or the sound of something breaking. Aren’t you his yaya? What do we even pay you for?
The Doctora, however, did not play by these rules. Now, no need for that, she said, stroking Robin’s hair. At her words, Mercy’s stomach clenched, bracing. But Robin’s mother merely sighed, shook her head, and fixed Doctora with a supine gaze.
I’m sorry, she said, gasping. I just hate to see him like this.
The Doctora’s smile was reassuring. Come, let’s take him now to the dentist. He’ll be ok.
Later, inside the elevator down to the dentist’s office, Mercy had cried silently as she stood behind the other women. Not because of what Robin’s mother had said, or how she had said it, but because she was right — she had not done the job she was supposed to do. That she had caused Robin such pain, no matter how unintentional, shook Mercy.
On the drive home, after the dentist had plucked out that cursed tooth, after Robin, with exhaustion and relief, fell into Mercy’s lap and slept until the next morning, Mercy held that boy to her body like he was her own, sure she would be fired, sure that these were the last moments she would ever have with her ward.
But then a day passed, then another, and another. Mercy still lived in the house. She still woke when Robin woke, stayed up watching him when he slept, took special care now to make sure he brushed his teeth, washed his hands, took his vitamins. She began to believe she could stay for good. It was a situation that could not have occurred on its own. It was all, Mercy knew, a result of Doctora’s intervention, her power, her ability to make change.
Please, Mercy, the woman says now. You know Robin best. Hair loss like this, the suddenness of it … Sometimes, in extreme cases of stress, the body can stop hair growth and cause more hair to fall out. Has Robin seemed stressed to you lately?
Mercy does not want to disappoint Doctora again. For the first time, she gazes wide-eyed at Robin’s mother and father, sees their taut mouths, expressions that mirror her own. She waits for them to give her the answer. But they too are silent.
The Doctora heaves another sigh and gives the thing in question a new name: alopecia, though she warns that it is just a fancy way of saying hair loss; which is to say, at this point, there is no reason for it and therefore no cure. Soon, there is nothing left to do but stare out the window.
Mercy’s gaze falls to the street bellow, where traffic blooms like a fungus beneath the wet June heat. Any day now, that heat will break into four straight months of angry winds, torrential rain, hungry floods. It will cleanse the streets not just of filth but of homes, of bodies and their consequences, and in some places that water will stay for weeks to spread disease and bring tragedy anew. Any day. For now, Mercy imagines the Doctora sitting at her desk at the end of a long night, the lines of her face gentle and stern as she makes a decision that might save someone’s life. She imagines her smile. The satisfaction in Doctora’s face as she closes a book and swivels around, towards the window, to gaze at all life’s blessings.
Faced with the failures of medical science, Robin’s family goes to Church.
It has been three weeks since their visit to Doctora’s office. That sickly spot, once small, now gleams in the yellow light of the altar looking like something that consumed, something parasitic. Mercy sits with Robin’s family in the very first pew. When the priest instructs them to kneel, she stays seated, but from this vantage point she can now see clearly that smooth expanse of skin stretching from Robin’s neck almost to the crown of his head. Above his left ear, another spot winks at her, ominous, though it is no larger than a fingernail. Mercy kneels.
This is the week Robin has stopped looking in the mirror. These are the mornings he has begged, tears and snot drenching his white uniform, to stay home from school, even for a day. With these thoughts in her head, Mercy prays for the first time since her discovery. She does not close her eyes, instead lifts her gaze to the ivory-draped Virgin and her forgiving face, her golden, gleaming crown.
Lord have mercy, says the priest.
Christ have mercy, intones the crowd.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. From Robin’s catechism books, Mercy knows that all prayers are delivered to Christ through the Virgin Mary. That without her, prayers were no more than plastic beads, strung on a line and let loose to scatter over the earth.
But with her help, anything could be a prayer: a song, a dream, a thought. So when she prays, Mercy looks to that immaculate visage to make sure she is listening.
Dear Lord, forgive us for our sins. Forgive us for what we have done and what we have failed to do. And please, please heal Robin. Make him happy again.
During communion, she falls in line with the rest of the family but does not take the bread into her mouth. She has never been baptized. It would only be a sin.
It is past noon when the Mass finally ends. Outside, the heat of the asphalt soaks into Mercy’s shoes as she follows Robin’s family through the packed parking lot. Men in sweaty uniforms with yellowed collars snap to attention as the Church empties itself of bodies, breathing hot sighs of relief; these men who have waited for hours in the sun for their families to receive their blessings. She listens to the priest leading his congregation in a final hymn, singing blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, sees the sunlight reflecting in prisms off the Basilica de San José.
The next few moments come to her as though from a dream. Look, she says to Robin. See the rainbow? But when she reaches for him, he is not there. He is standing in the street so far away from her, she thinks, and then there is the smell of rubber, a flash of chrome, and fear, rising within her like a wave. She hears Robin scream. Only then does she realize she has thrown herself between him and the car, like an offering, like a person willing to protect another person with her body.
He is scooped away, out of sight, and this is what jolts her awake. But her body is paralyzed even as her mind cries out, even when knuckles crack hard against her cheek again and again, her skin burning like she has been branded. She looks up to see Robin’s father grasping his wife’s arm tightly.
Enough, he says. His voice is soft even as his grip tightens, causing pain. Not here. Suddenly, Mercy is aware of all the faces pressed against car windows, the divine silence that now surrounds her.
The car’s weight thrums over Mercy’s shoulder, nudging her like an animal, so finally she stands. It passes as she wipes the dirt off her shins and hands, the driver avoiding eye contact, everyone else retreating into their cars and lives as Robin’s family disappears into their own vehicle. As the engine revs, Mercy slips silently into the backseat. She watches the golden dome of the Basilica shrink into the rearview mirror, giving thanks to the Virgin Mary for her immaculate intervention, for using Mercy’s body to save Robin’s life. She continues to pray long after the church disappears from sight.
They drop her off at the grocery store on the way home, after Sunday lunch, to buy honey which Robin’s mother says is good for his scalp. Robin clings to Mercy as she steps out of the car, but she reassures him with a soft pinch on the cheek and then makes sure his seatbelt is cinched tight. His father gives her too much money but tells her she can return it to him when she comes home. Then he hands her an umbrella too, because, he says, it looks like it might rain.
Inside, she searches for a sign that will point her toward the honey without having to ask someone for help. She realizes that this might be the first time she has been alone outside for almost a year, that she no longer knows how to act, what to say to people. She does not need to be reminded that it has been almost as long since she last spoke to her own mother.
With the money she would slip into envelopes each month she used to send long letters home to her province, detailed accounts of her days with Robin, caring for him; and then, when Mercy finally grew accustomed to life in her employer’s household, she began to ask for stories about what had continued on without her. To these letters, her mother at first had responded with news of her growing nieces and nephews, her brother who had recently opened a street side sari-sari store. But when Mercy, in a fit of rage and pain, finally wrote the words that would reveal how her employers had been abusing her, the tone of her mother’s responses had abruptly changed.
Protect yourself, she wrote in her final letter, and leave.
You are not a part of that family.
If it happens again, call the police.
Mercy stopped writing then, though it was not because she disagreed. After all, how could her mother know that she had already thought to leave, tried to leave, only to realize that Robin needed her more?
Still, she kept those words close for a long time. No longer for her sake, but for Robin’s, who with each day seemed to shrink and shrink, his expressions growing too tired and fearful for the face of a child. Some days, when his mother doled out no more than a slap for eating with his hands, or a pinch for not saying please or thank you, Mercy could still get the boy to smile.
But then there were the bad days. Days when Robin’s mother came home with that look on her face, and his father was nowhere in sight, and Mercy would close the door to Robin’s room until the sound of a shower running in the master bathroom told them they were safe, almost. They would build a fort out of pillows and blankets and come out only when Robin’s stomach grumbled for dinner. Other times, despite their precautions, the door would swing open like a gunshot and his mother would step inside. Those times Mercy could only accept that there was nothing more she could do.
Once, at Robin’s school, she wondered out loud to another yaya what might happen if she took Robin and simply … left.
Don’t you think many of us have tried? the woman replied. They have power, we do not. Within hours you would be rotting in jail, and then what? As much as Mercy tried to fight it, she could not deny that this was true. There was only one solution, she realized. To stay. To protect her ward.
She finds the honey in the baking isle, rows and rows of different kinds. She picks the bottle shaped like a bear because she thinks Robin will like it, and then rushes to the register. She has been away for too long already. The woman in front of her wears a white coat and is reaching for her wallet when Mercy realizes it is the Doctora. In the blue light of the grocery store she looks different, somehow smaller, older.
Mercy, she yelps, and then her eyes search the space behind her. How’s Robin? Is he here?
When she sees that he is not, and neither is his family, she takes a small step towards Mercy, just close enough to take her hand. It is a gesture which is surprising and reassuring to both women. I’m sorry I cannot help him, says Doctora. I only wish I knew what was causing it. Then she is silent for a long time.
To risk her job would be easy, Mercy thinks. But risking Robin’s safety was something she could never do.
She withdraws her hands from Doctora’s grasp. She pays for the honey, and walking home, unfurls the umbrella when it starts to rain. She is eager to get back. At the barangay gate, she hands the security guard her ID, but before she can wonder if she has made the right decision he immediately hands it back to her.
He says something that she cannot hear over the sound of the rain. But the locking of the gate as he turns away makes the message clear. When someone else comes to knock on the guardhouse and is able to pass through, she realizes that she has been standing there for a long time, perhaps waiting for someone to realize that a mistake has been made.
Finally, the security guard is forced to shoo her away. Go home, he says, stepping towards her, forcing her back out into the street.
She pulls out the money she has left over from Robin’s father, the bills growing damp beneath her fingers as she counts. It is just enough for a bus ticket home.
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