“Now you’re ready to get married, Inday”, she smiles toothily. Her brown hands inspect the malunggay leaves I had carefully handpicked, searching for stray inedible branches. She had skillfully picked through her bunch, no sooner building a pile of greens on her plate. I plucked through mine one by one.
Handpicking malunggay was a sweaty task. The leaves were as soft as rose petals, as small as a pinkie nail. They clumped on my hand, salt and soil from the palm adding flavor.
But Nang was patient to those whose hands have never known domesticity. Her makeshift hut, where she sold food to tourists, opened to a garden by a cliff. She decides to get a few more ingredients from there. The soup had to be ready for lunch in time to feed customers. But no rush, no rush, she tells me.
When she returns, she hands me water from a gallon-sized bottle. “Fresh from the waterfalls.” she says, and smiles that toothy smile. I drank. I had visited the Falls earlier. Katibawasan, they called it, a combined name of a primeval hunter and his wife. I hadn’t thought of drinking from it then. But she prods so enthusiastically, it felt like she offered more than water.
Nang positions her plump body beside me and leans over to get from the unpicked bunch. There is a technique to handpicking, she demonstrates. A soft assertive tug at the base of the branch, so leaves can easily separate from their stems. I tried. The leaves came down in a messy, wrinkled bundle. I went back to picking them piece by piece.
“My two kids lived on this. So did my husband when we started. Poor man’s soup.” she says, for malunggay grew everywhere, and most of the time, it grew without care. Her soft paunch beneath the spaghetti straps and baggy shorts, I noticed, revealed her motherhood. Her flabby arms start to ready the wood-fired stove. She drops ingredients to the broth: onions, tomatoes, squash, dried fish.
“ Pang-enganyo man pud ni.”, she says in passing. But in Camiguin, it seems, a plant is never just a plant. A vendor passing by tried to sell a shrub that, he said, cured 99 diseases. The malunggay is no exception. The leaves were left for last. So as not to overcook them, Nang advised. Her pile made a mountain. Mine was still a molehill on the plate. But the broth was starting to simmer. So, Nang unceremoniously takes the remaining branches from me and cleaned the leaves off effortlessly.
When her first customer arrived, asking for soup, I watched the fellow clean off the bowl.
“She helped make that, you know?”, Nang says beamingly, pointing to me.
“I see.” the fellow says. “Mao diay daghan kaayong bukog nabilin.”
After he leaves, I asked this wife and mother half-jokingly, “I’m ready to get married, yes?”
She makes a nonchalant gesture in the air.
“Oh, you shouldn’t hurry those things.”
*Appeared originally in SunStar Cebu