THE FEATHER

Victorino Briones

The morning Delfin was to leave for Ermita, Monina cried as she put each sugared biscocho into the brown paper bag for his eight-hour trip. She made certain they were soaked with her tears so that he would later taste the salt of her longing for him while he was away.

The week before, Delfin had received a letter from his brother informing him that their mother's ghost had been seen in Ermita, in the family's old house, and asking him to come over and help investigate. Despite his misgivings, he could not say no.

"You said you were going with me to see Doctor Cenizal next week," she said.

"I know," he said, "but this is important. You can go alone. I will be back before the end of the month." Stroking her naked shoulder, he left her with a kiss and closed the door softly so as not to wake their three-week-old son.

Monina did not like Doctor Carlito Cenizal and had always preferred Doctor Artemio Duarte, the town's doctor for cows, chickens, dogs and cats. She still remembered how he had once saved her two lovebirds from a mysterious and debilitating depression by feeding them sesame seed cakes flavored with honey, and she was confident that he would have a solution for her problem.

Monina arrived at the clinic adjoining Doctor Duarte's house just as he was leaving to meet with Don Esguerra about his prized black horse, which was suffering from fever and rashes. She apologized for not having made an appointment, and said she could come back later that day if it would be more convenient.

"The horse can wait for awhile, híja," he answered, opening the door to the clinic. He pointed to a chair where she could sit and relax, away from the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun, and asked her what was troubling her.

Monina took off her blouse in front of Doctor Duarte and pointed to her shy nipples buried deep in the fleshy mounds of her breasts. She told him that it was difficult to nurse her infant because her husband had gone away to Ermita for a month. Doctor Duarte was confused. He could not connect Monina's retracted nipples with her husband's absence, and he asked her to explain further.

"I need my husband to lick them with his tongue, and afterwards they come out so that I can breast-feed my baby," she answered.

Doctor Duarte rubbed his chin, shook his head slowly from side to side, and then went out to the back of his clinic. Suddenly, Monina heard the frenzied cackling of chickens and roosters, and in a few moments the doctor returned, covered with chicken droppings and perspiration and holding a bright white feather between his thumb and forefinger. Slowly unbuttoning his shirt to demonstrate, he began to instruct her how to use the feather to entice her nipples out of hiding.

"Start from the armpit of your choice, at the spot where it tickles the most," he said softly, "and then continue in a circular motion around the areola until the nipple ventures out to see who is calling her." He added that, if she wanted him to, he could practice on her right then.

"I don't think that will be necessary," she replied.

Taking the feather from his hand, she paid him two pesos for his advice and departed.

Monina was only five days old when her mother first discovered the inverted nipples and immediately concluded they were caused by the sour orange she had eaten just a week before delivery. The midwife who had assisted at the birth assured her that it was merely a temporary deformity. When Monina reached the age of ten, she was again examined by several doctors, who simply advised that the little girl be married young and become pregnant so that her ripening breasts would spit out her tits. Other than that, Monina received prescriptions of a bottle of purgatives for the parasites in her belly and a special soap to remove lice from her hair. Padre Alcantara also had nothing comforting to say. He gave Monina penance of one Ave Maria every day and instructed her to stroke the breasts of the statue of the Virgin Mother in the east corner of the church to invoke her mercy.

Although Monina was married and pregnant by the time she was sixteen years old, her nipples remained inverted even after she had delivered her baby and her swollen breasts were filled to bursting with milk. She had noticed, however, that her nipples became erect whenever she made love to her husband, and she suggested to him the practical technique of arousing her breasts with his tongue before she offered them to feed their son. This method worked very well, and she was content to call on her husband every time she had to suckle her baby.

That night, after returning home from the clinic, when her son cried in his crib, Monina went to cuddle and calm him by humming a long, soothing song that her mother had sung to her when she was a little girl. She refrained at first from using the feather to stimulate her breasts because she felt that doing so would be somehow unfaithful to her husband; however, as her son continued crying, she took the feather from the kitchen table and decided to follow Doctor Duarte's directions step by step. Cupping her left breast, she started at the outside and slowly moved the tip of the feather around and around until she was right over the buried nipple. In no time at all, she watched in amazement at the way it pushed out, ready for the baby's pursed lips. After her son was finished and finally asleep again in the crib, Monina felt a tinge of guilt over the pleasure induced by the strange technique, and she promised herself she would say confession to Padre Miguel Contreras the following morning.

Padre Contreras gave her no penance, however, only a piece of advice. "Give in to the pleasure, híja," he said. Whispering more to himself than to Monina, he added, "God knows how mortals are already desperate for some small delight. At least yours is not prohibited by the Santo Papa."

To ease her guilt, Padre Contreras said that she must pray the rosary twice each morning and three times before going to bed. He granted her absolution, then cleared his throat and added, "But tell me, híja, tell me again how the feather made you feel."

He asked her to describe the precise color and shape of her breasts and said he was curious how the nipple actually emerged from the mound. "How many times did you use the feather? Did you stroke clockwise or counter-clockwise? Which breast gave you more pleasure, híja, the left or the right?" Then, after pausing for a moment, he began again, "Now tell me once more how you enjoyed the whole thing."

Through the small holes of the screen that separated her from Padre Contreras in the confessional, Monina saw the priest's glittering eyes and flushed cheeks. She watched as he wetted his lips with his tongue and she heard his breath quicken as if there were not enough air in the box. Monina feared the wall separating them would catch fire, and she rushed outside to safety.

Having received the approval of the church, Monina increased the frequency of her breast-feeding schedule without shame from five times to eight times each day. After a week she was feeding her baby fifteen times a day, even when he did not cry in his crib to signal his hunger. She began to feel impatient for the child's cries during the night so that she could have another opportunity to arouse her nipples from their sleep. Sometimes she offered her breast and erect nipple when he was not calling, and sometimes the baby's crying would turn into giggling, as if he were drunk from his mother's milk.

By the second week she was calling her feather Ruel. She was reserving a special place for him on the kitchen table, laying him gently on a saucer and weighing him down with an orange so the wind would not blow him away. She soaped and washed Ruel every day and sang lullabies to him while ironing her son's diapers. She adored Ruel; he always knew when she was in need of caressing. Monina remembered how Delfin would tickle her during the night when she was asleep to signal that he wanted to make love, but she was tired and not interested. Then one time she tapped him on the shoulder so that he would lick her breast but he merely mumbled a complaint and resumed snoring in bed. She was glad that with Ruel she could always have her way.

For several days she tied him to a string and hung him around her neck together with a pendant showing the miraculous Black Virgin of Quiapo. She enjoyed feeling Ruel brushing against her breasts, but eventually she had to remove him from her necklace when she realized he was causing her to become absent-minded. Once she forgot about the fish she was frying in the kitchen, and another time she left the bread in the oven until the house filled with black smoke.

After more than two weeks of use, Ruel began to wear out. One evening Monina tried the usual circular movements over her breast but did not feel the tingling she had felt before. She noticed that the feather appeared tired and uninterested; again she tried the maneuver with no result. She felt frustrated and threatened to throw him into the fire and steal another feather, much firmer than he, from Doctor Duarte's poultry house. She would name him Rolito, or perhaps Rodrigo. Then she imagined having all three at the same time and was stricken with guilt over the perversion of her thoughts. She laughed at herself and at her foolish imaginings. Finally, Monina sighed and decided she would wait and consult Doctor Duarte the following morning. To pass the time, she took out her nail cutter and polish and shaped and painted her fingernails late into the evening. She went to bed unhappy.

The next morning she showed Doctor Duarte the feather. "I can replace this with another one, if you like," he said.

"You mean just throw him away?" she gasped, appalled by his ruthless suggestion. Though she remembered having thought of the same thing herself the night before, she had been far from serious.

"Of course."

"No!" she exclaimed and bit her lower lip. She grabbed the feather from his hand and replied, "I won't need a new one."

"Are you sure, Monina?"

She looked at the feather in her hand and twirled it between her fingers. "But look, Doctor," said Monina as she swept the feather over his bare arm, slowly at first, then in quick strokes. When Doctor Duarte did not reply, she proceeded to brush him on the right cheek and then on the left. "You see what I mean, Doctor?"

Doctor Duarte seemed lost in his thoughts at that moment. His ears burned red and his eyelids twitched.

"How can it tickle when it is so limp?"

Monina's face was so close to his that he could see her long, curled eyelashes. When she spoke he felt her soft breath over his warm forehead. He glanced down at her and followed the curve where her neck extended from her smooth shoulders. As she leaned over, her dress opened and revealed a pink bosom sprinkled with talcum powder. Beads of perspiration glistened on her skin.

Monina complained about the heat and wished for rain. She took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the sweat off her face and neck. "Are you all right, Doctor? I see you are also covered with sweat. You may borrow my hanky if you like."

He took the lace handkerchief and smelled the rose perfume mixed with the scent of baby powder and Monina's perspiration; his eyes rolled in pleasure.

"I did not realize you smelled so wonderful, híja."

"Delfin gave me a new bottle," she replied. "But are you sure you're all right, Doctor?" She noticed how he was trembling in his chair, and she rested her hand on Doctor Duarte's knee in order to comfort him. "The heat is awful in here," she said, shaking her skirt to give herself and the Doctor some air. "Now let me help you with that." She took the handkerchief back from his hands and wiped the sweat forming on his neck.

Doctor Duarte held Monina's hand and rested it over his, observing as he did so her red nail polish and neatly shaped fingernails. "I did not realize you had such lovely fingers," he said.

"Yes, I trimmed my nails and painted them last night," she answered. She pondered for a moment further and said, "Do you think I can do the same thing with the feather?"

"The feather?" repeated Doctor Duarte, confused.

She pulled her hand back, opened her purse and handed him five pesos.

"Please, híja, I have known you since you were a little girl. My advice is free." Then, with a smile, he added, "For now."

She thanked him and prepared to leave.

As she was about to open the door she heard him say, "But may I have a kiss instead?" With his forefinger, he pointed, "On the cheek?"

"Oh, you have turned silly on me today, Doctor," she replied, amused. "I am too old for cheeks." She stepped toward him, anchored her hands on his shoulders and reached for his lips with a kiss. "There," she said, "now I am all paid up."

She left before Doctor Duarte had a chance to tell her to come back as soon as possible if she needed to consult him again.

That night, she painted Ruel's quill with the red nail polish and trimmed his soft cottony barbs with a pair of tiny scissors. Soon he was as good as new.

Feeling a need for discretion, she tried to find a way to bring him wherever she went without drawing suspicion from her friends and neighbors. After reflecting briefly, she decided to hide him in the pages of the family Bible, in the section describing life in Sodom and Gomorrah so that she would not forget where he was.

Together with her baby, she began to carry her Bible everywhere--into the bathroom when she took a bath, during her afternoon mah jong sessions with her friends, and even in the market place, where it was difficult enough to think because of the commotion and the haggling, let alone to spare a moment to read. Once Seńor Benitez, who sold fish heads, octopuses and squids, saw the Bible in her basket and asked her why she was carrying the Good Book all the time.

"My husband is far away in Ermita," she replied, "and it is the only thing that keeps me company these days." She smiled at him.

While walking back home she saw Madre Maria Gracia, one of her old teachers from school. She did not like Madre Maria Gracia very much and had often crossed the street to avoid meeting her. Monina remembered the punishments she had received when she was a little girl with dirty fingernails--Madre Gracia had slapped the back of her hands with a wooden ruler. She had hated her for that and had once cried out in pain for her mother. Madre Gracia only frowned with displeasure and sent Monina to the principal's office for further reprimands.

Monina walked faster along the sidewalk, planning simply to address her with a curt "Good morning" and then head straight home. Madre Maria Gracia, however, was looking at her very strangely. She wore an expression of surprise Monina had seen only once before, when the portrait of the Virgin Mother was displayed for the first time on the church altar.

"You look different this morning, Monina," said Madre Gracia, greeting her. She commented that there was a special glow on the girl's face.

"I am just happy, madre," Monina confirmed.

"I see you are reading the Bible," said the nun. She took the book from Monina's basket and observed that it was the same Bible from her school days. "Of course. It is the Good Book then that makes you so content?"

Monina held her breath as she noticed the tip of the feather peeking out from between the pages. Madre Gracia was about to read from the Book of Psalms and to engage her in further conversation when Monina cut her short, saying, "Yes, I open the book no less than fifteen times a day." Then she reached out for her Bible and clutched it protectively to her chest.

"You are so devout, Monina," the sister said proudly. "It feels good to know that one of my pupils learned something from me. Remember always to remain faithful, híja."

"Yes," Monina answered, "I will remember, madre."

She said good-bye and hurried home, explaining that she had to breast-feed her son.

The following Sunday, during mass, Monina sat in the back row of the church with her Bible and her baby. She had no intention of listening to Padre Contreras's sermon, knowing that it would be all about the end of the world again and how everyone should repent before the second coming of Christ. In the middle of the sermon, however, departing from his usual lectures about hell, Padre Contreras raised his long finger into the air and announced that he wished to point out a special member of the congregation.

"There is one among us who is an example of an excellent Catholic," he intoned. "Everyone must try to follow her ways. I would not even be surprised if one day she becomes a saint."

There was muttering inside the church and everyone wondered whom the priest was referring to.

"I offer the first communion bread to her," he continued. He took the silver chalice from the altar and approached Monina at the back of the room.

Monina felt uneasy as she watched the priest march toward her and offer the wafer. She stood up, opened her mouth and received the Eucharist. Then Padre Contreras faced the congregation again and said that as a personal sacrifice he would be willing to come over to Monina's house every morning and late afternoon to serve the holy bread and wine to her. He kissed her on both cheeks and then embraced her. Finally, he added, "It is the least that I can do for our dear future Santa Monina."

After mass, on her way out of the church, a beggar grabbed her skirt and began kissing her feet. Astonished at first, she was nonetheless amused. A little girl wanted to hold her hand and a mother pleaded that she bless her with a prayer from her Bible. A necklace of fragrant white sampaguitas was offered by a grandfather who asked Monina to include his name in her devotions.

As she held her sleeping infant on her left arm and her Bible in her right, she heard someone exclaim, "She looks like the image of the Virgin Maria!" Everyone crossed themselves and many knelt on the ground.

Feeling delighted with herself, she raised her Bible as a gesture and said that she would not forget them and their requests. She wanted to quote a passage from the Bible but could not think of any particular verse. The crowed stared at her and began lamenting their sins. They chanted "Por favor, bless us, Santa Monina!"

She left them to their prayers and reminded herself to breast-feed her son again before noon.

That very afternoon a letter arrived from Delfin informing her that he would have to stay away for another month. He wrote that the news of his mother's ghost had been one of his brother's tricks to borrow money from him and that he was making arrangements to sell the family house instead. Trying to find a buyer and finishing all the paperwork would require more time. He said that he would be back as soon as possible.

In reply, she wrote that she understood the reasons for the delay. She recounted her consultation with Doctor Duarte--though omitting the advice about the feather--and defended having chosen him instead of Doctor Cenizal. She told Delfin how much their son had grown, and at the end she wrote, "I make sure to give him plenty of love."

She went to bed early that night. After reciting three rosaries and breast-feeding her baby, she checked her Bible to be certain the feather was safely inside. She wondered whether praying that Delfin be delayed again for another month or two was a sin or not. She would need to consult with Padre Contreras tomorrow. Feeling excited, Monina could not sleep. She decided that she would memorize a passage from the Bible so that she could properly bless her followers the next day. The Good Book gave her so much pleasure these days.


© 2001 Victorino Briones

Victorino Briones is a physician from the Philippines presently living in Arlington, Virginia. He arrived in America in 1998 and took the exams for medical certification during that year. In 1999, He was accepted in Boston University's Creative Writing Program under Leslie Epstein. The course also gave him the opportunity to attend Saul Bellow's class, to meet the American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Dereck Walcott, and Susanna Kaysen. "The Feather" is part of the short story collection he is trying to finish this year.

victorinobriones@hotmail.com

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