Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fiction by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard - The Turkish Seamstress in Ubec

 Dear Readers,
I'm sharing a story that's part of the newly released anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 8, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar. It's available in's Kindle and in hard copy in the Philippines. This is a bit dark, but Halloween is coming up, so enjoy!  Cecilia

The Turkish Seamstress in Ubec

I’ve never experienced pain like this in my thirty-five years of life. I’m talking about this slash on my neck; I’m talking about the contact of the knife against my skin. It’s agony that doesn’t just smolder where the flesh and bones have separated; it courses through every part of my body from my toes all the way to the very tips of my long hair. The millisecond the serrated metal touched my neck, I heard my skin rip like satin and what followed were the worst sounds I’ve ever heard: neck bones crunching and snapping reminding me of the awful sounds made by a butcher hacking away at a dead cow. And now the knife lies next to me, cold and slippery from my own blood.

I smell something foul. Where does that stench come from? Am I near the wet market where heads of pigs hang on hooks, their fetid intestines displayed on wooden tables? A breeze shakes the nipa palms overhead and the sun slants through, hitting my face, making me feel its warmth. I remember now: I’m out in the field near the creek. It must be morning. What am I doing here? I should be in my shop, with a hot cup of chocolate sending tendrils of steam while I arrange the clothes on the mannequins, and oil the sewing machines, get ready for another day.
The smell of my own blood disgusts me — how could I have such foul-smelling blood? Isn’t this the same blood that turns my skin a faint coral when a man stares at me? Doesn’t this blood race through my veins when a man makes love to me? Love, love, love that makes me want to get up in the morning. Yes, love more important than stitchery.  The look of a man, his touch sends me far away, makes me forget the deaths of my parents and brothers, the hunger and lack with Achmed in that hovel in Constantinople, the humiliation Pierre inflicted on me in Paris. How did I survive those cruel men? How did that skinny frightened girl grow plump and voluptuous, someone envied by women, desired by men? What a long journey it’s been from the Sultanahmet to St-Germain to Colon Street. Constant movement, like the salmon that swims upstream, except I’m running away from where I was spawned.
If I had learned my lessons, I would have been fine. I would have many more years of sewing and stitching, and sipping hot chocolates and aperitifs with my wealthy clients, but I could not. The men that catch my eye know how to weave nets with their soft words, piercing looks, trembling touches, fruitless promises; and always I find myself entangled, caught — in love again – spending sleepless nights, waiting for their visits, weeping buckets of tears, watching the clock on Sundays and holidays because no matter what their promises were, no matter how good at lovemaking they were, they always spent Sundays and holidays with their families. One lonely Christmas day in Paris, I understood what a mistress was all about.
            The worst one was the cruel man in Manila with the heavenly touch and golden words who made me suffocate, took my breath away. I had to pack, leave. If I wanted to survive, I had to flee.
That was how I ended up in Ubec. A backwater, some people call it, but I chose to be here, arriving with a bag and a handful of coins. I hid my shame behind my toothy smile and good figure, and in a year’s time I had my own dress shop on Colon Street. Here the women clamor for me to design their dresses. To have a dress made by me, Nurten, is something to brag about. The people here allow me to live the way I want to; that’s more than one can ask. This life is more than the ones I had in Constantinople and Paris. I’m not longer the underdog here; here I’m somebody. 
I can sew; I can design clothes. Tuck folds here and there to slim down the fat ones, lengthen the short ones, make buxom those without breasts, turn frumpy women irresistible. I am a magician with cloth and pattern, needle and thread. I think of my dress, this dress that has turned red from my blood. I remember sitting by the window of my shop, embroidering this same dress, weaving in silk thread in fine and regular stitches, creating what looked like blue green peacock feathers. The embroidery was perfect, it was reversible — a difficult task. How happy I was creating this dress, dreaming of romance with still another young man.
I should have confined my life to stitching dresses. I tried to do that. When I moved to Ubec, I did my best. But the cruel man sought and found me. And the dance began all over again: last night I walked to the International Hotel, talked with some clients who glowed in their silks and satins. Look at me, several said, you have made me beautiful. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. At 10 o’clock I slipped away and walked to the park where he waited in the shadows of the acacia tree near the grandstand. When some people walked by, we parted and hid our faces. When they were gone, he led me down Mabini Street toward the creek, which reflected a full moon. I looked at the sky and at the water, at the two moons, and I felt hope building inside me again. That is all I remember.
I feel my head wobble and I realize that my head is not completely severed.  Maybe I’ll survive. I’ll pick myself up from this riverbed and make my way through the dimly lit streets to my dress shop. After climbing the stairs to my apartment, I’ll scrub all this blood from myself and sleep off this nightmare. In the morning, the sun will burst through the milky glass panes and I’ll get ready and throw open my doors for my clients with their parcels of cloth and dress designs. Everything will be as it was.
But I’m dreaming, because here I am, body sprawled on the riverbank, head dangling by silky thread-like matter. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at my predicament. There’s no picking myself up from this muck I’m in. My body is riddled with slash wounds and drenched in blood. It looks like a bloody sack of something foul and ugly.  My dress with the exquisite embroidery might as well be a butcher’s rag.
In the midst of this reverie, I hear scratching near the clump of palm trees and I wonder if it’s a tree rat and if it’ll start chewing on me. Frightened, I try to remember prayers my mother taught me, but the words are not there. I can’t ask God for help, for consolation, for hope. The only thing I’m grateful for is that I’ll stop running now.

tags: Philippines, Philippine, Filipino, fiction, short story, speculative fiction, literature

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