It began with the word womb, bright red on the page and large, the letters wide and inviting, a baby cradled in the 'O'. Mute and coy, Gin sat looking at the word and refused to speak, choosing instead to mumble the sounds in a disjointed fashion. All around us, towers of books, a playpen of books, all hardbound and childish, all color and loud noises. I set her down between the books featuring horses -- some real, some brown velvet, all with smiling faces and soft noses -- and books printed with small words written in squiggly handwriting.
My three-year old ward had once been a quiet, disinterested baby, fond of crawling under furniture, glass tables, or cabinets. Gin never cried, not a tear. Not once. When she was born, her mother told me she blinked and scratched, but refused to howl. At three years old, she hadn't said a single world. She gurgled and pouted and grunted but she refused to make any acceptable baby noise. She never called her mother, or father, or stuffed bears and her parents left her alone with me every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, in a room full of books, to coax out her words and to coax out place names, dirty language, anything.
She was good at dismantling towers, pulling books from one pile. It seemed she enjoyed the demolition, the tumbling books that crashed on her legs. Gin obviously took pleasure in the way I scooped her from the wreckage, the way I yelped and moaned nako naman itong batang 'to! It must have been the noise that she enjoyed when she was, herself, so stuck in silence. Everyday with her it was the same: I read her stories -- sometimes fairy tales, sometimes crime novels, anything I felt like reading -- anything with interesting sounding words in it. And I gave her a variety of words to listen to: monosyllabic choppy words that slithered out unawares, words long as snakes, words that rhymed with each other, words that didn't, baby words and adult words alike so that she never developed a the bourgeois disgust with everyday words. Even words I didn't know how to pronounce, I said them to emphasize the way vowels and consonants rattle together. Gin didn't seem to pay attention until that word. Womb.
As usual she sat by herself on the crib and I sat beyond the bars, head tilted back, and I read the word and she sort of perked up, looked at me. For a while she just sat and stared, her chubby arms on the bars of her crib. Moments passed when I didn't know what happened or what to do, she had never before given me her full attention. Her little nose twitched, even, and the tower of books in her crib toppled over when she kicked it over in her rush to stand up and lean over, to see the word dressed in red ink. Gin pointed at the painted picture of the baby, her lips twitching, her little chin wobbling. And she said it. The word, just like that: womb. She said it with all the austerity of trying to convey an idea and she looked at me when she said it, her delicate eyebrows knotted together.
At first I thought it was some kind of miracle and I cast around for more picture books with the same sounding words. Wound, woman, warn, would, wood, whorl, whore, whole. I flipped them open to the words and pronounced them loudly, clear, until the walls echoed the sound. The bedroom had been painted powder pink, the door bright but not blinding green. For a while that was all we did and I held little Gin's attention. I saw her lips puckered, holding the air, whistling: who? what? Gin had asked her first questions and she wanted more, just more. She began mimicking the sound and the words, all the W-words I remembered. When I finished and stood blinking, she didn't blink back. Gin stared so much I thought she had fallen asleep but when I tried to pick her up, she squirmed in my arms, still asking the same questions: what? who? what?
Her parents were thrilled and impressed and pressed an extra envelope into my hands for working my magic, for doing what I did, for discovering their daughter's affinity for a particular sound. I was quick to inform them: she doesn't speak yet. She only mimes and nods her head and she creates the same sound that she hears, like an echo, like a parrot. I told them to read more to her that night. From the dictionary, it doesn't matter. She just wants the sound of it, that's all, I said. Just the sound. Read W aloud.
When they called to tell me she wouldn't sleep but demanded why why why why woman work without who who who like an owl, demanded more words and yet more sound, I was in my bed with a little book and the storm outside. It was raining in my city, I said, and I didn't have a car to rush over. Gin's father, voice strained and his wife in the background still reading out words from nowhere, said he could come to get me in half an hour. This is important, he insisted, Gin won't go to sleep. She's barely blinked from all the staring. When I finally agreed, he told his wife who had been whistling nonstop. Tell her, Gin's mother said, tell her Gin hasn't eaten since she fed her this afternoon. Did you tell her? Gin keeps saying who who who, like an owl, did you tell her? Tell her we're running out of words, can you?
Gin's father drove fast despite the rain. I can't slow down, he said, because he might fall asleep. It was very nearly three in the morning. Gin's mother had fallen asleep on the floor of Gin's room and the pink looked grey in the dim light. Gin was silent again, alone in her crib but when I leaned over to check, her eyes were wide and fatigued, unblinking. When she saw me, Gin pursed her lips into a tiny rose and began with a weak question: who? what? On the floor beside the bed, I saw the large book, the illustrated words in large, bold, red letters. Gin took up her owlish hooting, her eyes big and red now, a trickle of salty tears had dried on her cheeks. I tried to feed her with the still-warm milk that her parents prepared on top of their flat, wide drawers but Gin pushed them away, disgusted. Why? Why? The book had been stained with warm milk and the thin pages curdled, the soaked edge stained dirty white, the edges yellow. It was this warm page that she took into her mouth. Gin managed to gnaw off a page of the dirty paper before I realized she had stopped hooting. I fed her half the book before I heard her burp and, her stomach bulging, I set her down to sleep in the arms of her mother, the small family on the floor of her room.
Now, Gin is four. She reads the newspaper everyday but prefers trade paperback, the pocketbooks she buys on sale and in bulk. She still hoots when she's angry and she refuses to blink until her father allows her to taste his reports. She has even admitted to consuming some twenty-peso bills, just to try it out, she said, just to taste it. Why?