Mill of the Gods by Estrella Alfon
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 by Magnificent Four in

Among us who lived in Espeleta – that street that I love, about whose people I keep telling tales – among us, I say, there was one named Martha, and she was the daughter of Pio and Engracia.

To all of us, life must seem like a road given us to travel, and it is up to Fate, that convenient blunderer, whether, that road be broad and unwinding, or whether it shall be a tortuous lane, its path a hard and twisted mat of dust and stones. And each road, whether lane or avenue, shall have its own landmarks, that only the traveller soul shall recognize and remember, and remembering, continue the journey again. To Martha, the gods gave this for a first memory: a first scar.
She was a girl of twelve, and in every way she was but a child. A rather dull child, who always lagged behind the others of her age, whether in study or in play. Life had been so far a question of staying more years in a grade than the others, of being told she would have to apply herself a little harder if she didn’t want the infants catching up with her. But that was so dismal thing. She had gotten a little bit used to being always behind. To always being the biggest girl in her class. Even in play there was some part of her that never managed to take too great a part – she was so content if they always made her “it” in a game of tag, if only they would let her play. And when she had dolls, she was eager to lend them to other girls, if they would only include her in the fascinating games she could not play alone.
This was she, then. Her hair hung in pigtails each side of her face, and already it irked a little to have her dresses too short. She could not help in her mother’s kitchen, and could be trusted to keep her room clean, but she was not ready for the thing her mother told her one night when she was awakened from sleep.
It was a sleep untroubled by dreams, then all of a sudden there was an uproar in the house, and she could hear her mother’s frenzied sobbing, and it was not sobbing that held as much of sorrow as it did of anger. She lay still for a while, thinking perhaps she was dreaming, until she could hear her father’s grunted answers to the half – understood things her mother was mouthing at him. Then there were sounds that was clearly the sound of two bodies struggling in terrible fury with each other. She stood up, and like a child, cried into the night. Mother?
She wailed the word, in her panic finding a little relief in her own wailing, Mother? And she heard her mother’s voice call her, panting out, saying, Martha, come quickly, come into this room!
Martha got up and stood at the door of the room, hesitating about opening it, until her mother, the part of a terrible grasp, said Martha! So Martha pushed in the door, and found her mother and her father locked in an embrace in which both of them struggled and panted and had almost no breath left for words. Martha stood wide – eyed and frightened, not knowing what to do, just standing there, even though she had seen what it was they struggled for. A kitchen knife, blade held upwards in her mother’s hand. Her arms were pinioned to her sides by her husband, but her wild eyes, the frenzy with which she stamped her feet on his feet, and kicked him in the shins, and tried to bite him with her teeth, these were more terrible than the glint of that shining blade. It was her father who spoke to her saying urgently, Martha, reach for her knife, take it away. Yet Martha stood there and did not comprehend until her mother spoke, saying No, no; Martha, your father deserves to be killed. Then it was Martha who realized what she was to do, and slowly, hesitantly, she went near them, her fear of both of them in this terrible anger they now presented making her almost too afraid to reach up for the knife. But reach up she did, and with her child’s fingers, put her mother’s away from the weapon. And when she had it in her hands she did not know what to do with it, except look at it. It wasn’t a very sharp knife, but its blade was clean, and its hilt firm. And so she looked at it, until her father said. Throw it out of the window, Martha and without thinking, she went to a window, opened a casement and threw it away.
Then her father released her mother, and once her mother had gotten her arms free, she swung back her hand, and wordlessly, slapped him; slapped him once, twice, three times, alternating with her hands, on alternate cheeks, until her father said. That’s enough, Engracia. And saying so, he took her hands in his, led her resisting to the bed, and made her sit down.
And Martha was too young to wonder that her father, who was a big man, should have surrendered to the repeated slapping from her mother who was a very small frail woman.
Her father said, “Aren’t you ashamed now Martha has seen?”
And immediately her mother screamed to him, “Ashamed? Me, ashamed? I’ll tell Martha about you!”
Her father looked at Martha still standing dumbly by the window out of which she had thrown the knife, and said, “No, Aciang, she is just a child.” And to her: “Martha, go back to bed.”
But now her mother jumped up from the bed, and clutched at Martha, and brought her to bed with her. And deliberately without looking at Martha’s father, she said, Martha you are not too young to know. And so, the words falling from her lips with a terrible quiet, she told Martha. The words that were strange to her ears, Martha heard them, and listened to them, and looked from her mother to her father, and without knowing it, wetting her cheeks with her tears that fell. And then her mother stopped talking, and looking at her husband, she spat on him, and Martha saw the saliva spatter on the front of the dark shirt he wore. She watched while her father strode over them, and slowly, also deliberately, slapped her mother on the cheek. Martha watched his open palm as he did it, and felt the blow as though it had been she who had been hit. Then her father strode out of the room, saying nothing, leaving them alone.
When her father had gone, Martha’s mother began to cry, saying brokenly to Martha, “It is that woman, that woman!” And making excuses to Martha for her father, saying it was never completely the man’s fault. And Martha listened bewildered, because this was so different from the venomous words her mother had told her while her father was in the room. And then her mother, still weeping, directed her to look for her father and Martha went out of the room.
Her father was not in the house. The night was very dark as she peered out of the windows to see is she could find him outside, but he was nowhere. So she went back to her mother, and told her she could not find her father. Her mother cried silently, the tears coursing down her cheeks, and her sobs tearing through her throat. Martha cried with her, and caressed her mother’s back with her hands, but she had no words to offer, nothing to say. When her mother at last was able to talk again, she told Martha to go back to bed. But it wasn’t the child that entered who went out of that room.
And yet the terror of that night was not so great because it was only a terror half – understood. It wasn’t until she was eighteen, that the hurt of that night was invested with its full measure. For when she was eighteen, she fell in love. She was a girl of placid appearance, in her eyes the dreaming stolid night of the unawakened. She still was slow to learn, still not prone to brilliance. And when she fell in love she chose the brightest boy of her limited acquaintance to fall in love with. He was slightly older than herself, a little too handsome, a trifle too given to laughter. Espeleta did not like him; he was too different from the other young me n on the street. But Martha loved him. You could see that in the way she looked at him, the way she listened to him.
Martha’s pigtails had lengthened. She now wore her braids coiled on the top of her head like a coronet, and it went well with the placid features, the rather full figure. She was easily one of our prettier maidens. It was well that she was not too brilliant. That she did not have any too modern ideas. The air of shyness, the awkward lack of sparkling conversation suited her Madonna – like face and calm. And her seriousness with love was also part of the calm waiting nature. It did not enter her head that there are such things as play, and a game. And a man’s eagerness for sport. And so when she noticed that his attentions seemed to be wandering, even after he had admitted to a lot of people that they were engaged, she asked him, with the eager desperation of the inexperienced, about their marriage.
He laughed at her. Laughed gently, teasingly, saying they could not get married for a long time yet; he must repay his parents first for all that they had done for him. He must first be sure to be able to afford the things she deserved. Well turned phrases he said his excuses with. Charming little evasions. And if she did not see through them while he spoke them, his frequent absences, where his visits had been as a habit; his excuses to stay away when once no amount of sending him off could make him stay away; these but made her see. And understand.
And then the way neighbours will, they tried to be kind to her. For they could see her heart was breaking and they tried to say sweet things to her, things like her being far too good for him. And then they heard that he had married. Another girl. And they saw her grief, and thought it strange that a girl should grieve over an undeserving lover or so. She lost a little of the plumpness that was one of her charms. And into her eyes crept a hurt look to replace the dreaming. And Espeleta, with all the good people, strove to be even kinder to her. Watched her grief and pitied her. And told her that whatever mistakes she had committed to make her grieve so, to make her suffer so, they understood and forgave. And they did not blame her. But now that she had learned her lesson, she must beware. She knew her own father as much as they knew about him. And it was in the Fates that his sins must be paid for. If not by himself, then by whom but she who was begotten by him? So, didn’t she see? How careful she should be? Because you could, they said it to her gently, kindly, cruelly, because she could if she were careful, turn aside the vengeance of the implacable fates. And she believed them kind although she hated their suspicions. She believed them kind, and so she started, then, to hate her father. And that night long ago came back to her, and she wished she had not thrown that knife away.
Espeleta saw Martha turn religious. More religious than Iya Andia and Iya Nesia, who were old and saw death coming close, and wanted to be assured of the easing of the gates of heaven. Espeleta approved. Because Espeleta did not know what she prayed for. Because they saw only the downcast eyes under the light veil, the coil of shining hair as it bowed over the communion rail.
Yet Martha’s mother and father still lived together. They never had separated. Even after that night, when she was twelve years old and frightened, and she had called for him and looked for him and not found him. The next day he had come back, and between her mother and him there was a silence. They slept in the same bed, and spent the nights in the same room, and yet Martha and Espeleta knew he had another bed, another chamber. Espeleta praised Martha’s mother for being so patient. After Martha had fallen in love, when she began hating her father truly then also she began despising her mother.
You did not know it to look at Martha. For her coil of braided hair was still there, and the shy way of speaking, and the charming awkwardness at conversation. And Martha made up her earlier lack of lustre by shining in her class now. She was eighteen and not through high school yet. But she made up for it by graduating with high honours. Espeleta clapped its hands when she graduated. Gave her flowers. Her mother and father were there, too. And they were proud. And to look at Martha, you would think she was proud too, if a little too shy still.
Martha studied nursing. And started having visitors in her mother’s house again. Doctors this time. Older men, to whom her gravity of manner appealed, and the innate good sense that seemed so patient in her quiet demeanour. Espeleta was now rather proud of Martha. She seemed everything a girl should be, and they cited her as an example of what religion could do. Lift you out of the shadow of your inheritance. For look at Martha. See how different she is from what should be her father’s daughter.
But what they did not know was that all of these doctors Martha had to choose someone slightly older than the rest. And where the girl of eighteen that she had been almost a child unschooled, now she was a woman wise and wary. Where the other nurses knew this doctor only as someone who did not like their dances as much as the younger ones, who did not speak as lightly, as flippantly of love as the younger ones, Martha knew why he didn’t.
Between the two of them there had been, form the very start, a quick lifting of the pulse, an immediate quickening of the breath. From the very start. And where he could have concealed the secrets of life, he chose the very first time they were able to talk to each other, to tell her that he was not free. He had a wife, and whether he loved her or not, whether she was unfaithful to him or not, which she was, there had been the irrevocable ceremony to bind them, to always make his love for any other woman, if he ever fell in love again, something that must be hidden, something that might not see light.
She was a woman now, Martha was. Wise and wary. But there is no wisdom, no weariness against love. Not the kind of deep love she knew she bore him. And as even she him, she found within herself the old deep – abiding secret hate. Against her father. Against the laws of man and church. Against the very fates that seemed rejoiced in making her pay for a sin she had not committed. She now learned of bitterness. Because she could not help thinking of that night, long ago, when her mother had sat on the bed, and in deliberate words told her just what kind of a father she had. It had been as though her mother had shifted on to her unwilling, unready shoulders the burden of the sorrows, the goad of the grief.
Espeleta, that was so quick to censure, and to condemn; even Espeleta had taken the situation in Martha’s house as something that could not be helped. And as long as there was no open strife, Espeleta made excuses for a thing that, they said, had been designed by Fate. Martha’s father came home. Acted, on the surface, the good husband. And since he was married to Martha’s mother, so must Martha’s mother bear it, and welcome him home again. Because she would rather he came home, then went to the other one, wouldn’t she? Espeleta cited heavenly rewards. For Martha’s mother. And Martha went to church regularly, and was a good nurse. And still called her father, Father.
You have heard that one of course, about the mill of the gods, how they “grind exceedingly fine, and grind exceedingly slow.” Espeleta hadn’t heard that one, nor had Martha. But Espeleta of course would have a more winded version of it. Anyhow, one day at the hospital, Martha was attendant nurse at an emergency case. A man had been shot. There were three bullets through his chest, but he was still alive. Martha laughed queerly to herself, saying I must be dreaming, I am imagining that man has my father’s face.
It was the doctor she loved who was in charge. With a queer dreaming feeling, she raised her eyes to meet his, and was shocked to see him drop his gaze, and over his face steal a twist as of pain, as of pity. They were instantly their efficient selves again, cloaking themselves in the impersonal masks of physician and nurse. It was as if he who lay there beneath their instruments and their probing fingers was any man, the way it could be any man. Not her father. But all while, training and discipline unavailing. Martha said to herself, but it is my father.
He died on the table. He never gained consciousness. Martha drew the sheet over his face and form. And watched as they wheeled him out of the room. She still had the instruments to put away and the room to put in order. But this did not take long and when she went out into the corridor, she found her mother weeping beside the shrouded form on the wheeled table. There was a policeman beside her awkwardly trying with gruff words to console the little woman over her loss. Beside the policeman stood also the doctor, who passed an arm around the shoulder of Martha’s mother, saying simply, we tried to save him.
Martha joined them, knowing that she should be in tears, yet finding that she had none to shed. It would ease the tightness within her, would loosen the hard knot in her heart to cry. But you cannot summon tears when you feel no grief, and the pain you feel is not of sorrow but of the cruel justness of things. She could not even put her arms around her weeping mother. When the doctor told her that she would be excused from duty the rest of the day, that he would arrange it for her, she did not thank him. She did not say anything for indeed she no longer had any words, nor any emotions that required speech. Or should be given speech. For one cannot say, how right! How just! When one’s father has just died.
Her mother and she took a taxi together to accompany the hearse that took her father home. There was a crowd awaiting them. Espeleta in tears. Espeleta crying condolence and opprobrium in the same breath. It was from them – their good neighbours, their kind neighbours – that Martha learned how “God’s justice had overtaken the sinner.”
Colon is not as intimate as Espeleta. For it is a long street and broad street. But where the railroad crosses it, the houses group together in intimate warmth and neighbourly closeness and its families live each other’s lives almost as meddlingly as Espeleta does. And is as avid for scandals as Espeleta is. Among the people in Martha’s house were some from Colon. And it was they who supplied the grimmer details, the more lucid picture.
In that other woman’s house – and Martha did not even know the other woman’s name there had existed the stalemate state of affairs that had existed in Martha’s house. Only where in Martha’s house it had been a wife who was patient, in that other woman’s house it had been the husband who had bided his time. And yet the neighbours had thought he had not cared. For indeed he had seemed like a man blind and deaf, and if he raised his voice against his wife, it was not so they could hear it. Yet today, he had come home, after he had said he was going away somewhere. And had come upon Martha’s father in the house, and had, without saying anything, taken out his revolver, and shot at him.
Martha heard all these. And thought you know often life seems like an old – fashioned melodrama, guns and all. And yet the gun had not gone off. It had jammed, and Martha’s father had been able to run. And running, even as he seemed far enough from the house to be safe, the gun in the husband’s hand had come right again. The man had gone out in the street, aimed at the fleeing figure. That explained why the bullets had gone in through his back and out through his chest. They said that the street was spattered with blood and where he fell, there was a pool of gory red. The killer had surrendered himself at once. But everyone knew he would not pay with his life he had taken. For the woman was his wife and he had come upon them in his own home.
Martha stayed with the kind condolers only a while. She left her mother for them to comfort as best as they could. They would have praises like “The good God knows best;” they would have words like, “Your grief is ended, let your other grief commence.” She went to look at her father lying well arranged now in his bier. Already in spite of the manner of his death, there were flowers for him. Death had left no glare in the eyes that the doctor at the hospital had mercifully closed, over the features lingered no evidence of pain. And Martha said, Death was kind to you.
In Martha’s room there hung a crucifix. Upon the crossed wood was the agonized Christ, His eyes soft and deep and tender, even in his agony. But as Martha knelt, and lighted her candles, and prayed, in her eyes was no softness, and on her lips no words appealing for pity for him who had died. There was only the glitter of a justice meted out at last, and the thankfulness for a punishment fulfilled. So she gave thanks, very fervent thanks. For now, she hoped, she would cease to pay.

"Mill of the Gods"  by Alfon, Estrella. Philippine Literature. Web. 121 March 2013. <>

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