Short Story

The Old Woman in White Helmet

One Tuesday afternoon an old woman in white helmet arrived at MRT3 North EDSA station. Her face was hidden in an egg-like head gear but it was easy to see that she was delicate: she had stooped back, sagging neck, tiny skeletal hands, and, showing under the helmet, feathery white hair. And so, in deference to her age (and to her strangeness), her fellow commuters give way to her.

A quick X-ray scan of the old woman’s belongings didn’t satisfy the authorities. The security staff muttered over their walkie-talkies. She was taken aside by a female guard. The old woman unclutched her brown shoulder bag and a whiff of sun-dried lavender escaped from it. The guard, like a dentist before an open mouth, prodded the inside of the bag using a stick. When asked to remove her helmet, the old woman shook her head. She leaned on her interrogator and whispered something to her. After that the guard let her proceed to the ticket booth.

A tap of card, a bleep, shifting of tripod. She passed through the turnstile and walked towards the center of the platform area, her light brown dress fluttering around her. Given the dull regularity of the day, attraction to novelty was understandable. The sun rose as expected, the fare was exactly as what it was yesterday. Nobody woke up in the morning and said, “Today, an old woman in white helmet will appear at the train station”. And so, at the sight of the old woman, a number of hands dove inside pouches and bags and re-emerged with smartphones. Thumbs started to glide left and right, up and down, right and left. Click!—the target was locked in. The people of the internet immediately christened the old woman in white helmet as the “Stormtrooper Grandma”, a name derived from an American science-fiction show.

The object of awe approached an unsuspecting person among the crowd.

“I’m thirsty.”

“Huh? What?” The lad, looking to be in his early 20s, looked up from his phone.

“I’m thirsty.” The old woman repeated.

Without any preamble she hooked her right arm to his arm and dragged the youth until his legs started to match the cadence of her steps. People’s eyes followed as the pair made their way out of the train station. They stopped at the sidewalk where street vendors were arched over wooden racks containing assorted merchandise—candies, stockings, eye brow pencils, charm bracelets, cigarettes, ballpens, hair accessories, cellphone trinkets, biscuits, children’s ABC cards.

The young man released himself from the old woman’s grip.

“I have to go now. I have work and—”

“Where do you work?”

“In Makati.”

The old woman nodded.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Eli.”

“Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”

The strange words were spoken with melancholic tenderness. He didn’t know what to say. Is that Latin? Is she a witch? He turned from her before she recite another spell and turn him into swine.

Overhead the train rumbled pass, reminding him of his bondage to schedule. He checked the time on his phone. Panic struck him. He remembered the biometric time clock at their office; the uncompromising device, with its uncanny ability to recognize and store the pattern of his thumbprint, was the only acceptable registration of his existence. There was no other way for him to live. His hands went cold. A gap in the timesheet could cost him his job. He walked away from the old woman in quick steps so he wouldn’t have time to linger on his terror. With feet heavy with indecision, he stopped at the foot of an overpass. Did he really want to see his coworkers today? Yesterday he found a folded fifty-peso bill taped on his computer screen with a note saying “Buy your own food, you glutton”. He knew he was the subject of every group chat inside the office after what happened the other day.

The strange words were spoken with melancholic tenderness. He didn’t know what to say. Is that Latin? Is she a witch? He turned from her before she recite another spell and turn him into swine.

Eli had consumed a slice of Hawaiian pizza that didn’t belong to him. He stole the food from the refrigerator at the pantry. Every break time, when nobody was around, he would throw open the door of the cooling equipment just to have a look inside it. He just wanted to read the sticky notes slapped on food packages. The shelves were jungles of smelly foils and half-torn boxes of food stacked carelessly on top of one another.

The pizza that destroyed him had the label “Rick”. He hid Rick’s food inside his shirt and ate it inside the men’s CR without guilt. Rick meant nothing to him. For Eli his coworkers were nothing but numbers. Therefore Rick was a disembodied entity—Employee 003475467, 76.1% sales performance, 82.76% client service, 97.25% attendance, 18, 000 monthly salary. Rick was unreal.

It wasn’t a perfect crime. A strip of pineapple on his hair had betrayed him.

Eli turned back. The old woman, who was still on the spot where he left her, was now circled by five people who were taking turns to have pictures taken with her. Eli must have looked like a raging bull because when the strangers saw him coming, they scampered away like rats. Choked with pity, he looked at the old woman without saying anything. He gently took her by her elbow. They went back together to the train station.

The collective weariness for the late train fanned the craze around the old woman in white helmet.

“The Stormtrooper Grandma!” Someone shouted in the platform. People craned their necks to see the curiosity. Eli barricaded the old woman from their gazes by standing close behind her.

Alas, the train arrived and opened its doors to take them in. He put an arm around his odd companion as they find their way to a seat.

He pondered about the billboards. A happy boy holding a can of corned beef. A happy man leaning on a plastic drawer. He had corned beef for breakfast, there were three plastic drawers at home, but he couldn’t remember smiling widely like the models. Next, an image of a statuesque lady in midnight blue gown as the foreground of a condominium, she was speckled with gold glitters for everyone to see—drivers, commuters, street sweepers, beggars. When the train stopped to load and unload passengers at Cubao station, a giant face of a young actress appeared outside the window. Her gigantic eyes were looking in from the outside, as if she was viewing a set of tiny human toys inside a miniature locomotive display. The text beside her image read: GlutaSheer Soap! Let the world see you! She was always up there, rain or shine, smiling invitingly to no one in particular. The product endorser evoked an ambiguous sense of proximity: Eli felt he could almost touch her face—porcelain-like, soft—but in actuality, he had to use a crane in order to reach her. She had the characteristic of a god; omnipresent and, at the same time, inaccessible.

Public space made it easier for him to imagine himself as floating outer space debris, a space junk swimming in expansive loneliness. He had to make himself an invisible helmet, an accessible retreat where he could be both present and absent in the world. Now, his usual astronautic daydream had lost its rocket fuel. Now, he crashed into the surface of a blue-green planet. He dove inside a mass transit somewhere in a sunny continent. Like a visiting extraterrestrial, he had to examine that portion of society for the very first time. In his own planet, people and trees were translucent and two-dimensional. In the new planet, it seemed possible to hate a person by having a close sight of black dots on his or her nose, or skin flakes accumulating on the sides of his or her mouth. Creases, lines, blotches of dark pigments. The substances oozing out from foreheads were repulsive like moisture created by bacterial action on spoiled food. The human epidermis was insulting; its bare state was a violation not only to the person being looked at but to the onlooker. His stomach began to churn a little. Every single day—inside jeepneys, trains and elevators—Eli could have body contact that was not body contact at all. His elbow would pierce the bulging waist of a person standing next to him. His prickly leg hair would tickle the bare leg of another person. The curve of his bottom would make indentation on a stranger’s abdomen. Physical closeness meant nothing. But now he was now incredibly aware of other people around him; probably because they were aware of him too. And it was because of the old woman in white helmet.

A new batch of commuters began to fill the aisle.

“That’s the Stormtrooper Grandma.” Someone whispered among the newcomers.

Like a group of coordinated snipers, a number of people stealthily focused the lenses of their camera devices on the old woman.

“I wonder what her face really looked like!”

It was spoken in brash loudness as a poorly disguised demand for an answer. A boulder of silence fell into the crowd; obviously, the weight was intended to put pressure on Eli, the only person who could calm the mental tics caused by the sensational sight inside the train. For some reasons other than his proximity to her, people were inclined to assume that he was a relative to the old woman. They all turned to him.

Eli scratched his cheeks when eyes started to crawl all over his face like tiny spiders. The eyes were so expectant of his response that even a twitch of his nostrils could bring pleasurable suspense to them. There was something inviolable in the eagerness of the eyes, with a gleam of importance, with a threat of tantrum. All over the world, sleek conference tables were stacked with proposals on how to slave the eyes. Eli understood that the attention around him was a form of currency. To shine in a one-man show, he needed to follow the unwritten script requiring him to remove the white helmet off the old woman’s head. The viewers wanted him to relieve them of the burden of wonder. They wanted him to destroy a mystery. They wanted to see, in high-definition quality, a centipede-like suture on a thin scalp; or, in close-up scale, watery blisters and red patches on a tiny wrinkled face. In other words, the spectacle in request was a horror show of aging and disease. The reality was a quick stab of needle on his heart: the mob, with their brains fattened with tabloid clippings of mass entertainment, was accustomed to the widespread prostitution of human experience.

For some reasons other than his proximity to her, people were inclined to assume that he was a relative to the old woman. They all turned to him.

Eli closed his eyes. The people around him disappeared. His restless eyeballs rolled under veiny eyelids. He was now a formless specter in an unknown cavern where there was only boredom. His boredom with billboards. His boredom with his work. His boredom with the people inside the train.

I want to kill myself.

The old woman put a hand on Eli’s head; her priestly gesture appeared to be an expression of telepathic understanding. The suicidal young man melted under her palm. His eyelids became heavy. Inside his bag, his phone started to vibrate frantically—it meant the supervisor was now aware that there was one dead computer screen among the hectic flashes of LED panels. One swivel chair with no clothed body in it. Eli didn’t open his eyes. His consciousness was a candle fire licking itself into dissolution.

When he opened his eyes he found himself inside the control area of a ship. He played a little with the switches and buttons of a panel board. There was a spectacular view of the blue sea through a porthole at the center of the wall. An island was taking shape in the horizon. Below him, the sway of the sea was gentle like the heaving chest of a sleeping infant. He left the compartment and marched along a hallway of empty box-like cells. He went into the deck of the ship where he received a refreshing spray of brine. The sky was abundant with clouds. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bird landed on his right shoulder and pecked his right cheek.

“Stormtrooper Grandma! Stormtrooper Grandma!” The animal squeaked.

The head of the speaking bird morphed into a tiny human face. The bird-human had bulging eyes and its tiny mouth looked like a neat cut of blade. In sinister elfin voice, the chimera started to laugh maniacally. Eli grabbed its neck with his hands, his fingernails digging deeper and deeper into its throat until one of its eyes popped out from its socket. Next he pounded the animal repeatedly—Blag! Blag! Blag! He threw the kill at a metal post and watched it slither down like a tear.

It is finished, Eli said.

“Wake up! This is the last train station!”

“Sir? This is the last train station.” A persistent voice finally registered in Eli’s consciousness. He thought there was an earthquake for he was moving back and forth in his seat. The security staff stopped shaking him when he raised his two hands. He was the only passenger left inside the train. The old woman in white helmet was gone. He stepped out of the train and looked hungrily around him. Neon lights, lampposts, cars, and human eyes were all lit up. The only trace of the sun in the sky was a receding red-orange pool. The concrete world had cooled off during his sleep, and he longed to remove his shoes to feel the damp coldness against his feet. But first he had to check if his feet were really flat on the ground for he felt like he was levitating.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com

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