The frogs sing a symphony at night.

Especially after it rains, when the earth is still wet, the mountains dripping and the foliage and the corn fields are still soaked with rainwater, the frogs sing a symphony. Their obnoxious sounds blend and coat each other until they become one, coherent concerto in the blanket of the dark night.

Papa tells me that they’re singing to thank God for the rain, Mama tells me they’re just singing in glee as they splash in the mud.

The frogs don’t speak for themselves, only the men and women who hear them at night. It’s always been like this. All they do is sing at night and bury themselves in the earth when the sun is up in the morning and the whole land becomes a barren, mirage-drenched desert — a land where the trees perpetually look up at the sky, the plants raise their arms up to the clouds and the river constantly sings the woodland to sleep.

My Mama works as a maid in Don Miguel’s house and my Papa works as a tenant in Don Miguel’s sugarcane hacienda. Today, they both go to work so my brother and I have the house to ourselves. I’m already thirteen, so I know my way around my house. I can manage. 

My ten-year old brother named Lorenzo knows how to fend for himself. He runs amok with the other children in the village. Like other boys his age, he is intent on finding a new spider to sell at the marketplace for five pesos apiece. This is what they do to find money, so they can buy a treat or two.

Lorenzo comes home around lunch time, his minute fists banging against the bamboo door. His dark hair sits glued by sweat to his tanned, sun-scorched forehead. There’s a smudge of mud on his left cheek, and hairs of corn stuck behind his ear. His clothes are frayed and torn, and hand-me-downs from our cousins, because we don’t exactly have the means to have new clothes to call our own.

“Juan and his friends came to the cornfields and helped us look for spiders. He gave me three of his catch,” he says as he wipes his matted hair with the back of his tanned hand.

“Now I have thirty-five pesos,” he grins proudly, his frail hands dipping into his pocket. When he lifts them up to me, his hands are holding six five-peso coins and five one-peso coins.

They glint evilly against my eyes.

Juan is our sixteen-year old cousin, directly from my mother’s side. He’s taller than most boys in the village. He’s really kind, and smart, too. He’s gone to that high school a couple of towns over. He’s heading to college when the summer ends. He knows how to read. He always kisses my Mama’s hands when he comes to visit. He helps Papa in the farm, too.

He, Lorenzo and I are good friends. One time, he helped me make a paper kite and taught me how to fly it. I had imagined how nice it would be to fly ever since then. But I feel bad for him, because he doesn’t know who his father is. No one ever does, not my Mama, not my Papa — not even my Manang Gloria, his mother. I remember walking into Mama and Manay Abet talking in hushed voices in the kitchen, telling each other how my Manang Gloria turned up pregnant without a husband when she came back from the city a few years ago.

I nod at him slightly, feeling the envy clothe all over me and settle into my stomach. “Good,” I say. “What will you buy with it?” I ask as I put our lunch on the table — broiled fish, tomatoes dipped in fish sauce and vinegar, rice, and dried fish from last night’s supper.

Lorenzo’s face contorts. He looks ugly when he does those things: the entitled smirk, the upturn of his snot-filled nostrils. “I’m going to buy Coke,” he declares. In our feeble, frail minds — born out of poverty, cola is a luxury. We couldn’t afford it and we only get a chance to drink it when it’s Christmas — when Don Miguel invites everyone over to his big house and he gives every tenant’s child treats like candies and chocolates, cola included. 

“And pudding, too. Lots and lots of pudding,” he adds with an arrogant hint in his voice. “And bread, the bread with the jam.”

I feel the itch to tell him that the bread is a day old and the jam is just colored sugar. I don’t tell him, though.

“Wash your hands, Insong. We’re going to eat,” I tell him.

Deep down, I feel bitter. Lorenzo could buy stuff for himself because he has money. I can’t buy anything for myself because I don’t. It is unfair. I wanted to buy those paper dolls Manay Soling had reverently put on a pedestal behind the glass case in her shop, but I had been too afraid to ask money from Mama. We’re already struggling, and I don’t want to add more struggle to our meager pocket in exchange for dolls.

After eating, I wash the dishes while Lorenzo goes to the well to fetch more water for our batalan — a washing urn made of hardened clay. Gray and drab, it is sized almost as tall as a scrawny eight-year old and twice as wide. It sits lonesomely outside our house, just beside our door. Everyone who gets inside the house stops by the batalan to wash their feet. It is common courtesy to do so.

Lorenzo makes a few trips until he fills the urn. “I’m going to Pablo’s house. They’re letting spiders fight against each other. I want to bet on one,” he says when he’s done filling up that big, ugly jar by the door. “I’ll bet my five pesos on Juan’s spider because it’s big.”

It’s then that I had conjured up a brilliant idea, in all my childhood glory.

“Lorenzo,” I tell him just as he’s about to step out of the door. “Tell Juan I want to come with you tonight to the cornfields,” I say. Lorenzo’s eyes cloud over with uncertainty, and his hands that are about to grasp the bamboo door still themselves, suspended mid-air.

“Are you going to look for spiders with us?” he asks with a tone I could only describe as disbelief.

I nod at him, and he lets out a bray of laughter as he clutches his stomach. His laughter sounds like a horse’s neigh; he inhales through his nose and lets the air out of his mouth. I glare at him, willing him to stop — but he doesn’t.

“But you’re a girl!” he says after sometime of laughter.

“So what?” I say with all the defiance I could tell him. “Manang Peray chops firewood like a man, she farms her field like a man, and she has a child. That doesn’t make it any different from me looking for spiders,” I tell him.

Lorenzo just rolls his eyes at me, knowing full well when to shut up. He just shakes his head as if I do not make sense. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll tell Juan when I see him. But if you pee in your dress because you’re scared tonight, that’s your fault,” he says as he finally steps out of the door.

Later that day, when the sun is low behind the hills and the sky is a canvas splashed with sunset orange, Juan knocks on our door. He’s wearing his straw hat and a dry palm leaf twisted into a torch hangs over his broad shoulders.

His dark, deep-set eyes that look so much like Manang Gloria’s stare at me. “You said you want to come with us?” he asks gruffly. His voice is deeper and richer now that he’s almost a man. “You should wear a something with sleeves to cover up your arms, or you’d get an itch from the corn,” he says as he stares down at my clothing.

I nod. “Yes,” I tell him. I hurry to my parent’s room and don one of my father’s shirt over my blouse. When I’m done, I walk outside. Juan is still there, sitting on a rock and tossing pebbles into a dent on the dusty ground. He doesn’t get any of the pebbles in.

“Are you ready?” he asks from his sitting position.

“As ready as I am,” I tell him. “But I don’t have a torch,” I nod at the darkening sky. There is no way I can navigate the corn fields without a torch at this time of the day — or night.

Juan smiles a little as he pushes himself up the ground. He dusts his worn pants with his big hands. “We’ll make one along the way, Isabel. You don’t have to worry, there are a lot of palm leaves lying around,” he tells me.

“Where is Lorenzo?” I ask him as we make our way towards Don Miguel’s corn fields.

“He’s with Roman,” he tells me as we start our way towards the corn fields. “Paciano and Andres are here with us, too. We plan to meet on the church gate,” he says.

“So I’m coming with you?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” Juan says. Even in the darkness, I could tell that he’s nodding at me. “We usually go in pairs. Tread lightly, or you’ll scare the spiders away,” he whispers as we crawl into the fence that separates Don Miguel’s lands from the others in the village.

“Won’t the Don kill us if he finds out we’re in his lands?” I ask worriedly. I’ve heard stories about Don Miguel, and these were not nice ones.

“Well, I hear he shoots people who trespass his lands without his consent. I hear he uses a long gun with bullets as big as a crow’s eye,” Juan says, shrugging his shoulders as he did so, but he doesn’t lose the confident gait. “But he hasn’t caught us, so he hasn’t shot us, yet. I wouldn’t know if he’d kill us,” he tells me as we move under the shadows.

The moon rises above us, a cold and golden coin hung in the darkness. It looks upon us in silence. We look for spiders for what seemed like hours. Juan has caught six spiders already. I have three. All I could think is five pesos apiece, three spiders, fifteen pesos. I could buy a bottle of cola with it, and I’ll still have money for pudding or bread — and not the day-old ones but the sweet-smelling ones they sell behind a glass case in the town’ panaderia.

I feel glad and warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

“We should rest,” he says. “I’m tired,” he saunters out of the corn field, towards the direction of the river. I follow him.

We move through the quiet shadows, the silence only indented by the gentle rush of the water. Moonlight seeps through the leaves. Juan seats himself on a rock, and I imitate his actions. He props his foot up a rock, and he takes out a leaf out of his pocket, a black fig’s leaf. He rolls it into a cigarette.

I’ve never seen someone smoke so young, but I keep silent.

“It’s quiet,” he says but he’s not really looking at me. The fig cigarette on his lips glows an angry red. I don’t know if he sees me in the darkness, but I shake my head at him anyway. “It’s cold, Isabel. Don’t you feel cold?”

I shake my head. I feel his hands resting on my knees. 

“It’s alright,” he whispers. His voice is soft, and it is carried by the moonlit breeze.

I am at a loss for words. I fumble over them like the way the moonlight fumbles in the darkness, like the way the river-water fumbles over the rocks.

The moon hangs over us, pale silver light spilling all over the eaves of trees, over the pale, jutting rocks of the river behind us. The river is a snake, winding down to the sea. I feel Juan’s breath behind my neck, careful and warm.

I could feel his hands going up, up, up — past the hem of my skirt, grazing lightly over my thighs. His other hand wanders over my back, on my head, to my waist. I feel his rough hands all over me, pulling and probing and pushing and soiling every place they could get themselves on. I feel his warm tongue underneath the lobe of my left ear, forcing entrance, roaming without permission.

I try to push him away, but he pushes back, a bit forcefully now, but nothing is forced. He seems to know what he is doing, but I don’t – and I am scared.

“It’s alright, Isa. Don’t fight…don’t try and fight because it’s bad,” he whispers. He doesn’t sound like he’s angry, but he’s just reminding me what I shouldn’t do. He starts to leave a trail of open-mouthed kisses over my neck, and I keep my eyes open to the star-dotted sky above me.

The shadows dance against the moonlight. They eat the light, swallow it, drink it like demons.

Juan is right; it feels very cold here, very, very cold. 

My Mama is wrong. My Papa is wrong.

The frogs aren’t singing a symphony at night, when bad things happen, when the demons come out to play with the monsters we’ve made under our bamboo bed frames. 

They’re croaking in anguish – crying, crying.

By Ava Arnejo

Ava Arnejo is an essayist and fictionist from Sogod, Cebu. She is a fellow for fiction in the 61 st Silliman University National Writing Workshop (2023), a fellow for essay in the 2nd Sunday Club Writing Workshop (2022) and a participant in the When Is Now Pebble Poems Workshops (2022). Some of her works appeared as contributions in When Is Now’s digital exhibit and in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s YoungBlood section.

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