(This short story is my most successful work so far. All rights reserved to myself and to where it was first published: Eastlit, a journal and website focused on creative writing, English literature and art specifically from or connected to East and South East Asia.)
Someone from our neighborhood told us that Miss Dela Rosa had passed away. The cause of her death was yet unknown to us. Hearing the news, almost all our neighborhoods were happy for her death as they murmured “Really? That old short-tempered woman has finally died? Well, that’s suits her!”
Everyone’s been happy of the news except me: I stood still and bent my head down. I froze as the colors of memory were swirling into my vast spectrum of thoughts shifting from gray to the colors of yesterday.
I was new to the school and it was hard for me to fit in as I get easily scared. It was a new place where there were no people from my past. I am a bit of an introvert having no friends to be with. I didn’t even know the names of my classmates.
That day, I had reached my English class. Upon entering the classroom, I saw an equal percentage of both boys and girls talking with each other. I took a seat at the last row of the classroom and waited for our teacher to arrive. While waiting, I turned my head slowly at the window which was near to me and glanced what was outside it. It was a fine day with the girls sitting in the corner to share their latest gossips and the boys huddling themselves together to fight and make fun with each other like a bunch of dogs. The bell rang but our English teacher hadn’t arrived yet. My classmates kept on talking to our fellow classmates. But little did anyone know that a huge problem was about to befall us.
Fifteen minutes later, an elderly plump woman wearing a tight rimless eyeglasses suddenly came to our room and stood up in front of the class. She was neither tall nor short. She appeared scary, stern, and serious-looking on our first sight. As I looked upon her, her silver pixie curly hair looked like that of a typical hair of spinsters. Her brown wrinkled skin looked like a discarded paper bag left to itself. Her eyes had grown dull over the years as though she had been too much suffering. Still, there was strength and wisdom in her brown vibrant eyes.
As she stood, she noticed two students who were still talking to each other. She was frustrated that she couldn’t help herself but to yell at them right away. “Get out of this classroom both of you, now!” When the two of our classmates was about to leave, they even said and commented in a soft voice: “Damn old witch!” The giggle of one made the teacher looked at him while the other one was smiling back but nonetheless staring on the book. Miss Dela Rosa could barely hear what they’d just said and so she suspended the two guys from coming to her class with her nasty face. The two tried to apologize but she wouldn’t hear none. Seeing her expression, both abruptly turned away and left with their mouth shut. There was an eerie silence in the classroom for a second after that. We all stood up to utter our daily prayers and we started our class afterwards. At the end of our class, I and my classmates found the day awful. “What a terrible teacher she was!” we’d thought.
It had been a month and I had finally started to feel that I belonged in my new school. I became open and acquainted to others unlike before. I did make new friends because of some common interests like that of playing basketball and computer games. We got to know all our teachers in every subject and all of them were fine except Miss Dela Rosa who was rude to us.
One day, I and my group mates had our reporting. We delivered our report as best as we could but unfortunately, the flow of our reporting turned out to be wasted when one of our members didn’t prepare her part. Miss Dela Rosa was too disappointed. She said to our member: “You foolish and irresponsible girl! What have you done yesterday? Sleeping? A student like you should never be in this school!” She gave our group a low grade for it and our day was ruined. “What a horrible day!” exclaimed by our group leader.
It was already past seven in the evening when I and my group mates had finished our group project at school. We bade each other goodbye and got outside the room to go home. Everything seemed quiet at night. The streets were empty as I walked towards our home a few blocks away from the school. Suddenly, I saw Miss Dela Rosa alone sitting on the bamboo chair outside the wooden house. It was really strange seeing her near our house. I decided to sneak for a while and to peek at her before the house. She took a nap comfortably while sitting just to refresh herself. I stood quietly for a few minutes and after it, I walked away.
I gained more information about Miss Dela Rosa little by little. When I was on my way to school the next day, I saw two neighbors having their chit chats. I heard that they were talking about our neighbor, Miss Dela Rosa. For them, she was an old maid living contentedly with herself on the old wooden house I saw yesterday. She often gets mad that she yells when someone tries to mess with her or when someone tries to block on her way. She hated things which annoy her especially at night. She never smiles. She’s a witch as what everyone called her.
In her class that day, she called me unexpectedly to answer her questions from our readings. I stood right away. She was staring at me with her eyes wide open. I was able to answer her questions but unfortunately, I was wrong and my classmates laughed at me. “You’re zero. Sit down now, boy.” She told me with ease. She marked me zero onto her class record with her mighty pen for not studying well. I accepted it. “Curse her!” I said to myself.
As our school days passed by, almost every one of us failed her subject. She gave difficult exams and quizzes we had never encountered before. She often yelled at our mistakes and discouraged us whenever we had reports and recitations. Every student in the class including me hated her. We wished for her death but that didn’t happen until we finished the school year. Pieces of notes about Miss Dela Rosa were scattered around the classroom. Miss Dela Rosa is a monster. Damn her!
I stopped at Miss Dela Rosa’s home to check what she’s doing every night. As always, she took a nap on her wooden chair. Until one evening, I decided to stay longer since it was still early for me to go home. When she woke up, she tenderly sang a song from her golden years. I didn’t know what sort of a song that was but she used to sing that every evening. Holding already the frame containing the photo of a strange single man I didn’t know in black and white, she wept over it. Then suddenly, she embraced it with a heavy heart. She sobbed.
I was about to leave when I accidentally hit a trash can upon turning back. She heard that someone suspicious was curiously peeking at her. “Who’s there?” she said in a voice which makes me run away. “I know there’s someone there. Show yourself!” she continued.
I didn’t have a choice but to show myself. I suddenly appeared right before her eyes like a flash of light. I didn’t know what to do. My body itself began to shiver. I’m dead! I should have run when I had the chance but there’s no turning back now. There was an inescapable awkwardness between us at that point.
However, I walked towards her as if nothing scares me anymore. She stared at me bewilderingly as I drew closer to her. I made the first move just by sitting next to her on the bamboo chair for a few minutes. There was a short silence between us. I waited for whatever words that would burst from her mouth.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me.
“Huh?” I said. I was confused for a moment, thinking for my response.
“Why are you here?”
“I was on my way to our home when suddenly I saw you sitting here, Ma’am.” I said so as not to be busted.
“Where’s your home anyway?”
“My home is over there.” I raised my right finger and pointed out our home for her to know.
“So we’re neighbors after all.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I said.
I made another move with a compliment on Miss Dela Rosa’s house. “So, you lived here, Ma’am? What a nice and cozy home you got here!”
“Thank you.” she said.
“By the way, who is that man on the picture you’re holding?” I suddenly asked.
“He’s my husband.”
“I see.” I was wrong. She wasn’t a spinster after all.
“By the way, where’s your husband? I continued.
She responded no more. Then she suddenly said “What’s the point of telling you about my husband? It’s none of your business. Go home now if I were you!” I was surprised with her response. Then she stood up right away. But as she stood, the frame containing her husband’s photo fell from her lap. She was about to get the frame when suddenly, a bunch of troublesome children from our neighborhood who were also sneaking at her all along came upon her and stole the frame from the ground as quick as the wind. These troublesome children laughed in front of her. She became furious that she chased them for punishment but they ran faster than her. The stolen picture turned out to be the only source of Miss Dela Rosa’s happiness. It was the only picture left in the memory of her husband and it was precious. So she ran after it but in vain because of her condition.
Seeing her distress, I ran as fast as I could in order to get the frame back from those little brats. Eventually, I caught them and demanded to hand the frame to me in a frightening way. They were scared and they threw the frame on a grassy plain. I got the frame already broken. And upon returning, I saw that Miss Dela Rosa was crying on her seat. I went to her and gave the broken frame. I apologized if I got the frame already broken. Her tears went away and she smiled at me. She told me that it’s fine for her if I handed off the frame broken as long as the photo of her husband remained unscratched. She then thanked me for doing such a heroic deed.
The incident changed everything. “Are you in a hurry, Dear?” she asked me after the frame was given to her.
“Not really.” I said.
“Well then, please take a seat.”
We returned back to our seats. She changed her mind that she continued telling me about her husband. “You asked where my husband is, right?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I said.
“He’s not here.”
“What do you mean he’s not here?”
“My husband was dead several years ago. Perhaps forty years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“My husband was a kind, jolly, and hardworking man that everyone in this neighborhood admired him for being devoted to his family and his work. Not long after our marriage, I was on my way to school when one of his colleagues told me that my husband was found lifeless at the edge of the street. I didn’t believe at first. But when I saw him with my own eyes in the hospital, my heart filled with grief. I didn’t know what sort of problem has got into the minds of those murderers but I solemnly vowed to pray for their misfortunes in life.” She added.
“How about your children? Where are they?”
“Our only son died when I gave birth.”
“I’m sorry to hear that too. I see. I heard that you are happy living with yourself. Is that true, Ma’am?”
“That doesn’t seem a problem to me. In fact, I feel contented with what I am now.”
“That’s good of you then.” I said.
There was a short silence between us after that conversation. For a while, I slowly turned my face on the moon that hung well above the horizon. Then I saw a myriad of stars glistening in shades of blue and black. Subsequently, she lifted her hand and pointed to me the stars in the sky with her right finger and asked me on a point beyond: “See those stars? Beautiful isn’t it?”
“Indeed.” I said.
“The sky is bright even at night. It is beautiful as it is deadly. It is as your greatest dreams which can set you free. You can dive on it but it can trap you inside the invisible barriers that confine and leave you with heavy desperation. Unseen clouds which will soon reappear can represent simplest strands of hope or the slimmest chance of survival. But the sky is home.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I responded though I couldn’t understand what she really meant.
My phone rang. It was my mother who called me. I bade Miss Dela Rosa goodbye and she smiled at me again in return.
Upon staring the sky while walking across the silent street, I realized that Ms. Dela Rosa wasn’t that bad at all. It was a strange meeting.
The school year has come to an end little by little. I noticed that there’s a bit change of Miss Dela Rosa’s attitude towards our class. Some might not wondered the change and took no heed of it but I was certain that she changed. Our reporting and recitation lasted but I found no discouragement from her. She became understanding for whatever valid reasons had given to her by my classmates. Her look still retained: serious and scary but there’s a sense of kindness and compassion within her. Perhaps, she just only did her part as a teacher after we met or someone has finally changed her.
It happened to be our Teacher’s Day. We didn’t have our class by that time. Only a prestigious program dedicated to all the teachers from the school was held. We had given all our teachers our tokens for them. But no one had given anything to Miss Dela Rosa. Not even a single flower.
She didn’t join the celebration. She was there only in the faculty lounge busied herself checking the test papers as I walked by. While the program was still going on, I waited for my chance to approach her to give the white dainty rose that I was holding.
She then carried her things and went out of the place to go home. I had never let go of the chance and so I had given her my simple gift. She received it and held it onto her hand carrying it. Then she smiled at me in return expressing her gratitude.
That was our last meeting together.
I shook myself out of nostalgia. I’d never been so lonely before. I was left alone by the neighbors. I felt that I was the only one who understood Miss Dela Rosa. I was already on my college as freshman when she died. Time flies so fast. Who’d never thought that a woman like her, both a teacher and a mother would eventually die like that. No one understood her though I had already told the truth to everyone.
One night, I visited her empty house but I saw that somebody have already occupied and lived in it. I stood and leaned silently against the back of the wooden house where I used to peek at her. I glanced at the empty sky above me for a short period of time. Deep within it contained the whole of existence past, present, and future.