By Lily C. Fen
It was a doorway to another world. It rose up from the roots of an old tree in the schoolyard, its bell-curved frame jutting out of the dry bark.
The girls thought a dwarf lived there, the tree growing in the sprawling Dasmariñas Village property Ms Ocampo had converted into a private school. Maribel's nanny, Inday, had taught the two of them that the duwende was known to live in dark corners of courtyards. He hated intruders who stumbled upon his property and cast spells on those who did.
"Tabi tabi po." Iya and Maribel were quick to whisper the special words Inday had taught them. It was an old way of saying, "Please excuse us." The girls trusted that Inday knew what she was talking about.
The two spoke in hushed tones as dried leaves on the lowest branches rustled in the breeze. A withered blade snapped off a bough and fluttered past them. The duwende was there, standing at the doorway. He looked like a miniature old man, only half as tall as Iya. He munched on a piece of bayabas as his eyes twinkled with amusement. Iya gulped down what felt like the last remnants of her hotdog sandwich.
She unwrapped a cherry lollipop that was stashed in her pocket. It was supposed to be for after their show of The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse. But meeting a dwarf for the first time was a special occasion.
She knelt next to the duwende. "Would you like some of my lollipop?" she asked.
He looked at her quizzically, sniffed the giant candy that was nearly as big as his head, and said, "Why, thank you, little girl." He threw away the half-eaten bayabas in the bushes.
He stepped aside and the children gasped. The door behind him had opened. Something inside shimmered and twinkled of blue.
"How on earth are we gonna fit inside that doorway, anyway?" Iya asked, pointing out the obvious. The passage was the same size as the little old man.
"That's easy," the duwende told them, gesturing for Iya to bend down and show him her forehead. He licked his thumb and slapped a wad of saliva onto her temple.
"Now you can go," he said, waving at the open door.
Iya hesitated for a moment.
She looked at her best friend, Maribel.
"Are you coming?" she said, hoping Maribel would.
Iya held out her hand. They were best friends after all. Maribel paused. But she took her best friend's hand all the same and let the dwarf slap saliva onto her forehead too.
Iya put one hand into the glittering light inside the tree's doorway, while Maribel looked back to check that none of the teachers had seen them. She didn't want to get in trouble with the principal, much less her parents.
Then it was like turning into a spool of thread and being pulled out the other side of the eye of a needle. They whooshed through the tiny opening and reappeared in an elaborate and rustic home.
The sparkle they saw from the outside was a piece of sky trapped in the duwende's house. It shone with stars and pulsed with lightning as mini-clouds swirled restlessly above them. Their eyes fell on an oil portrait of the dwarf hanging on the wall.
"Berting," it said at the bottom, in a flourish of curls with a fancy "g" bringing up the end. Berting was still licking his lollipop. The candy was shrinking, becoming proportionate to his size. In fact, now all three of them seemed to be the same height.
Berting gave them a tour of the house. It seemed so tiny from the outside when they were studying the tree. But inside was a labyrinth of vast rooms. The girls stared in awe at the grand staircase draped in red, with a special chair on the banister that Berting could sit on. With a wave of his finger, the chair glided up the banister. Berting let each of them give it a try. They were on the upper landing of his tree mansion.
The longer Iya and Maribel stayed there, the more the world beyond faded from their minds, even their anticipation of their performance in the school play.
They visited a pink bedroom, where the cushions were so plush that the girls giggled madly as they jumped up and down on it. In the world outside, grown-ups did not approve of mattress jumping. It ruins the springs, Iya's parents said.
But here, she and Maribel could have fun.
Berting took them to the kitchen and showed them a petite cotton-candy machine in his possession. It was the size of a large bowl, or Maribel's Trapper Keeper. Berting took a jar of sugar from the shelves and sprinkled a giant heap of it in the center of the pot, and turned on the machine.
It started whirring loudly, spinning threads of sugar outward. Berting took a paper stick and spun it around the spools of sweet string, until a fluffy ball of sugar appeared. He gave this to Maribel, and he started preparing another one for Iya. The three of them licked at their spun candy at the top of the red stairs. Utter contentment filled Iya's heart.
That was when the dwarf's house shook, and they could hear a loud bellowing from outside the tree, "Arf! Warf! Arffhggh! Grrroowwwfffhhhgh!" It was Blake, the Dalmatian belonging to the school. He was outside and barking at the tree. Dusk had fallen as parents arrived to watch their kids' performance. Blake knew he needed to get the children to curtain time.
Inside, Maribel and Iya licked off the last of their cotton candy. "Thank you, Berting," they both said.
Maribel and Iya did not want to end their afternoon with Berting. The tree labyrinth had more rooms to explore. "It's all right," Berting said, reading their minds. "You can visit me another time."
With that, Iya and Maribel popped out on the other side, again feeling like they were a piece of string being pulled through a tiny hole. Then they were themselves again, back to full nine-year old size.
Ms Ocampo was interrogating Anton, one of their classmates. "Where did you see them go?" A cold sweat had developed on her temples and upper lip. Her voice quivered.
The lights were beginning to dim, and Ms Ocampo breathed a sigh of relief as she caught sight of Iya and Maribel. She figured that the children had just been hiding behind the bushes.
"Girls!" Ms Ocampo grabbed them and dabbed a tissue on each girl's nose and forehead. "Look at you! I was looking everywhere. You're both a mess and there is no time to fix you up, so here goes," she said and the patting finished off as she shoved them towards the steps that went up the stage. "It's time," Ms Ocampo said, urging them forward.
Iya and Maribel took their places on Stage Left and Right, respectively, for their entrances as the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.
It was two weeks before school was back in session, and Iya had nearly forgotten Berting. School was so busy right after semester break and their first week was peppered by spelling tests and math exercises. Things were more lax on Friday afternoons. Her favorite past time during their free two hours was leafing through a book on australopithecines. She would walk into the library with its eight shelves of books and sit on the cold floor for what felt like hours, immersed in the pages of her treasured selection. She also liked a heavy picture book on gnomes.
The library was not too far from where the duwende's doorway stood. She had to go to the bathroom that afternoon, which was out in the courtyard. As she stepped onto the grass, a breeze blew her way that made her shiver. Yellow leaves scattered around her shoes, and the whiff of cotton candy floated into her nostrils.
She looked about her and remembered her encounter with Berting during the night of their play. Iya walked across the grass and stepped into the shadows of the acacia tree. The doorway they had noticed remained standing there.
Where was the duwende? Iya crouched down and whispered into the tree, "Berting, are you there?" Three times she said it before she heard a soft munching at her side.
Berting was snacking on a piece of bayabas again, the juice sliding down the corners of his mouth. That was how Iya ended up visiting Berting every Friday.
November gave way to December and soon Christmas break arrived. Iya did not know how to feel about her three-week separation from Berting when school would be out. Sometimes she brought the book on australopithecines with her to his doorway, in which everything shrank, including her and the book, and she would read in his sunny foyer, munching on cotton candy. She and her book always came right back out in full size when she had to go home.
Maribel didn't wonder where Iya was on Fridays, which was lucky. Their friendship stayed the same, except on occasions when Iya disappeared during lunch break into the magical tree. That irritated Maribel. Best friends were supposed to have lunch together. Iya shrugged that off. She was happy having the magical dwelling place and the company of the duwende to herself.
Some days, Iya and Berting would get up on the branches of the tree. Berting would make them both the size of the bayabas fruits that grew next to the acacia and they played tricks on her classmates.
She supposed he had become her best friend, so that the time and loyalties she had for both Berting and Maribel had become stretched and thin, like a worn out rubber band that was ripping in the middle from being pulled too much.
Maribel was in a huff one Thursday when Iya was scheduled to sleepover. School was to let out early with no classes on Friday, since it was EDSA Day, or People Power Anniversary, as Ms Ocampo liked to say. Iya was sad to miss another Friday with Berting. No one seemed to notice that she was missing from the library or the school grounds during those afternoons.
Iya stole away for the last 20 minutes of school to visit Berting that Thursday. School was to end at four, and Maribel's driver and nanny were pretty prompt for pick-up time.
"Tabi tabi po," she said at Berting's doorway. In a flash, she was as small as Berting and could fit right into the cavernous space that filled up the acacia tree's inside.
"I'm sad I won't get to see you tomorrow," she said, as she prepared to say goodbye to Berting. That day, they had whiled away the time on enchanted swings, swaying from the great acacia tree. She gave him a hug.
He made her feel safe and special. In his tree house, there was no Victoria Martinez to torment her during lunchtime, no sulking Maribel who always wanted to spend every waking moment with her, no teachers breathing down her neck, no mathematics equations, no chores like having to sweep the classroom during recess. She did not even have to choke down rice and pork adobo on the car ride home if she did not feel like it (her mother always forced too much food on her, which she hated). All they did when they were together was swing on invisible strings, magically untie boys' shoelaces, throw pimples on Victoria Martinez, and every now and then, cause Ms Ocampo to trip in the lawn. It caused her so much satisfaction and laughter when this happened.
Berting didn't mind when all she wanted to do was read and re-read her favorite picture book about australopithecines. Sometimes they sat down and went over the sketches of homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei, discussing them avidly together. He would whip up drawing paper and coloring pencils from out of thin air, and they would copy out the figures from her book.
She meant it that she was sorry she would miss him on Friday. Berting gave Iya a fatherly kiss on the forehead and patted her hair reassuringly. "Here, take this," Berting said, draping a silver garland of sparkling blossoms about her. "It will be like I am with you this weekend," he added, giving her a smile.
Iya had stayed too long. She could hear the bell ringing at school, and an announcement calling for Maribel Hernandez. Her friend's car had arrived at the driveway. Iya flew out of the tiny doorway as if she were a rabbit that had grown in size in a matter of seconds and made a beeline for the entrance.
"You're late," Maribel frowned as they slid into the sleek black sedan.
That night, when Maribel had forgiven Iya for being inattentive, they played a fashion show game. The girls paraded around and took out all sorts of funny outfits from Maribel's walk-in dresser. Red sparkly shorts, fluffy pink tutus, and torn-up denim jeans were part of it. Iya was never crazy for the game. She was much taller and larger than Maribel. But this time she fit right into Maribel's jeans. That was weird. Maribel still shopped in the kid's section, and Iya was big enough to shop at pre-teens. But she did not think much of it and flashed around the silver garland Berting had given her, admiring it in the mirror.
Iya and Maribel played with the house cat, Oscar. He seemed to have a deep dislike, though, of Iya's silver garland, and hissed at it several times. His ears went back in attack mode at the sight of the sparkly thing.
Iya came home on a Sunday night, and on Monday morning, when she was dressing for school, she was surprised that her favorite acid-washed mini skirt was too loose. So was the white top that she had bought especially for the school play a few months ago. It hung loosely around her shoulders and fell on her hips. Maybe she was finally becoming as slim as Maribel.
She found a tiny pair of blue floral pants she'd outgrown last year and put them on instead. They fit just right.
Iya kept shrinking throughout the week. Only in miniscule amounts. She gasped when she got to the duwende's doorway the next Friday afternoon. She was nearly its height.
When Berting greeted her, he did not need to wave her in through the portal. She just had to crouch into the opening.
She was almost Berting's size.
When it was time for pick-up at the end of that school day, she and Berting heard the megaphone echoing through the school grounds. "Iya Cheung, Iya Cheung," the security guard of the school droned on over the megaphone. It shook the living room of Berting so much that Iya finally stood up and prepared to leave.
But when she got to the foyer of the school to reach for her things on the top shelf, she could no longer reach it.
"Hey, Ms Ocampo, could you please help me?" Iya asked. She turned to her teacher who was bidding the children farewell as each car drove in through the driveway. Ms Ocampos was chatting with Iya's driver through the open car window and did not pay any mind to Iya.
"Heeyy, Ms Ocampo!" Iya jumped up and down but Ms Ocampo ignored her. After a few exchanges, Ms Ocampo frowned at her watch, while another car drove up behind Iya's car. Iya tried to get her driver's attention, but she had grown so small that she could not even reach up to the window of the car. She climbed up the steps of the porch again and waved at him, "Manong Eddie! It's me!" but he did not see her. He drove straight ahead, as cars were supposed to do when other cars were coming up behind them in the school driveway.
Now Berting's size, and with the garland of silver flowers still around her neck, no one could see her. Not Ms Ocampo and not Manong Eddie, her driver. He went around the driveway several times, waiting for her until dusk settled.
The school staff searched for her on the school grounds, and Iya's parents arrived as darkness fell over the school. Manong was interrogated heavily by a tired Ms Ocampo and an agitated Mr and Mrs Cheung.
"Has Iya been kidnapped?" Mrs Cheung shrieked into the air. The police arrived. Lights came on around the neighbourhood as people arrived for supper in the sprawling houses that surrounded the school. Iya kept jumping up and down the school grounds trying to get their attention. But she had become too small to see.
She ran to Berting for help, but this time his door would not budge open. He was leaning on the tree, with a silver flower in his hand.
She touched the garland of flowers around her neck. She hadn't taken it off, except to shower and to play with Maribel's cat. But all the other times, she had gone to school and to sleep with it.
Iya recalled the book about gnomes she sometimes read and how these creatures gave away favours to people they wanted to bewitch or possess. Sometimes it was in the form of a red rose or a small paper animal. They often appeared with gifts, seeming inviting. And then their target would fall prey to their spell and be theirs for as long as the gnome wanted.
Iya looked down at the garland Berting had given her, the one that had hung around her neck all this time. She took it off and threw it on the dusty ground by the acacia tree. It was the only place in the yard where the grass did not grow. Then she ran, pell-mell, back to the driveway and into her mother's embrace.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018