Betsy walked onto the lawn, pulling her sweater tight. It was
chillier here than in Quezon City. The air was so cool and pure it
almost hurt her to breathe. At the edge of the lawn, the land fell away
into a tangled ravine. Distant slopes rose above it, covered with the
same color green that made Betsy want to close her eyes, that was
almost too much for her. Mists formed a solid bank like sea foam
beneath the slopes. It was as if the mountains were islands. Betsy
was standing on an island. She felt marooned.
In Quezon City, they lived inside a compound called JUSMAG.
JUSMAG stood for Joint US Military Advisory Group. Betsy's father--all
the fathers she knew--were here to help the Filipino Army and Navy.
What Betsy didn't understand was why, if they were here to help, the
compound was surrounded by barbed wire. There were Filipino guards
at the gates. Although Betsy rode a bus out of the compound to get to
the American School in Manila, the school, too, was surrounded by a
fence. When she got home in the afternoons she watched a show
called "The Uncle Bob Show." Uncle Bob, a man with a blonde crewcut
and dark-framed heavy glasses, always started by talking about
American children who had been kidnapped, in which case he displayed
their pictures; or who had been injured by playing with fireworks, in
which case he displayed pictures of their hands with mangled or
missing fingers. Betsy knew she would never play with fireworks, but
she sometimes wanted to talk to the Filipino men she saw at the
compound gate, men with cars who watched her walk by as if she were
But her father said no, she wasn't to speak to them, they just
wanted what the Americans had--they were hungry.
"Should we bring them some food?"
"No, honey. They're not hungry like that. They're hungry for
what we have." They sat at the dining table. The maids were in the
kitchen. He gestured toward the silverware, the furniture, the
chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
"But they're nice. They always wave at me."
"Don't be stupid," her father said.
"Bill," said Betsy's mother, Alice. "Honestly. Why must you talk
In the car on the way up into the mountains, her father called
her stupid again. She had tried to be good, but when they rounded the
curves she couldn't help sliding into her brother Logan. Logan rested
his knees against the seat in front of him, wedging himself. He wore a
crewcut that made his head look square and had long, skinny arms and
legs like a spider's. But he was stronger than a spider. When Betsy
slid into him, he pushed her back, hard. That made her cry. Finally
her father pulled the car off by a market, turned around in his seat,
and shook his head. "Stupid." Under the thatched roof, toward the
front of the market, hung a row of shrunken heads. He pointed a
finger at them. "You want to wind up like that?"
"Please," Alice had said. "You're scaring Betsy." She opened a
compact and refreshed her lipstick. "Maybe we'll all feel better if we
stretch our legs."
The people in the crowded shop spoke a language Betsy didn't
understand. She'd learned some Tagalog from the maids and some
Spanish at the American School, but all she could do in either
language was count to ten. Betsy's father had a firm hold on her hand.
His palm was big and dry. Today he didn't have on his uniform, but
people stepped aside for him anyway. He was bigger and handsomer
than most. Betsy's mother draped an arm around Logan's shoulders
and glided next to Betsy's father, the same way she did when they had
a cocktail party and she moved from group to group. She wore pale
blue shorts and a white linen embroidered blouse. Betsy straightened
up, trying to walk like her mother, but she was stopped by the
proximity of the shrunken heads, on the wall to her left now, just past
a table of carved wooden bowls. Her father tugged at her hand. "Come
on, babe, they're not real."
Betsy stared. "What are they made of?"
"Wood and horse hair, probably. They're not real," he said again.
After they'd returned to the car and started up the mountain
again, her father said in a disgusted voice, "These people are
How could there be headhunters in a place like this? In movies
they were always in hot jungles, not up in mountains so high they
made you think of God. Betsy's parents didn't go to church, but behind
their house on the compound was a small chapel where Betsy took
piano lessons. The door to the chapel was unlocked all the time, so
she could practice there between lessons. She liked going into the
building alone. She always opened the door slowly, afraid she might
interrupt someone who was praying, but most of the time the chapel
was empty except for a feeling. The feeling waited for her. It was like
being scared and happy at the same time. She got the feeling when
she closed the door behind her and listened to the quiet and looked up
at Jesus on the stained glass window stretching out his hands to the
little children. All the children were beautiful and smiling. No wonder
Jesus loved them so much. When she sat down at the piano to
practice, she prayed that God would forgive her for filling His house
with so many wrong notes. It was a good thing Daddy didn't hear her.
He would probably say she was making his head hurt. They were on
this vacation, Mommy had said, because Daddy needed a rest. His
head hurt a lot. At night sometimes Betsy could hear him yelling at
her mother. Once she'd heard a glass break. The next morning her
mother's face was cut. When Betsy asked what happened, her mother
said she'd had an accident. She'd had another one about a week ago.
Betsy saw a big ugly bruise on her mother's arm. Maybe Mommy
needed a vacation, too.
Logan came up beside her, his skinny legs pale in the deepening
Betsy whispered, "What do you think? Do you think they're
really out there?"
"No," Logan said. But he looked alert, his fists clenched and
slightly raised. A few minutes ago, he'd called her a baby for being
afraid of the headhunters. She'd run into the cottage because she'd
heard something in the woods. It sounded like a bird call, but maybe
that was the noise the headhunters used when they wanted to signal
each other. She imagined them circling her in the dark woods, raising
their spears; so she ran. Inside, her parents had their feet propped on
the windowsill. They were drinking martinis. Betsy buried her face in
her mother's lap.
"What a baby," Logan had said.
"I'm not a baby," Betsy had replied.
"Go outside with your little sister and protect her from the
headhunters," Bill had said. "That'll keep you busy."
So Logan had followed her. For some reason Logan wasn't afraid
of the headhunters. Betsy knew what he was afraid of: the dogs' heads
displayed in the market. When he had seen them, Betsy had heard
him gasp, then watched as he turned away, closing his eyes. They'd
had a dog in the States--Butterscotch, a cocker spaniel. They'd had
her since she was a puppy. Sometimes she slept with Logan. Often,
even though their parents had forbidden it, Betsy saw Logan feed the
dog under the dinner table. The dog went everywhere with him--to the
neighbors' houses, on bike rides. They'd left her with their
grandparents. Betsy and Logan both missed her. Betsy couldn't
imagine eating her.
"I don't think I could cut off somebody's head," Betsy said.
"I could," Logan replied. "I'd sneak up with the other
headhunters and we'd surround the enemy and whoosh." He swiped
the air with his hand. Then he narrowed his eyes and stared into the
forest in the direction Betsy was looking. The shadows had deepened
between the trees.
"You'd be as easy to catch as a gecko," he said to his sister.
Geckos were the lizards that clung stupidly to the walls of their house
on the compound. Logan could catch them by grabbing their tails, but
when he did, the tails detached and the head and body escaped.
Betsy whimpered, a puppyish sound.
"Don't worry," Logan said. "I'll protect you."
By the time their mother called them in for dinner, it was almost
completely dark. The forest was blacker than the open area around the
cottages; it looked like the mouth of a cave. A few stars appeared in
the sky. Betsy had taken Logan's hand and would not let it go as they
walked around the periphery of the empty cottages. By the weekend,
there might be other military families here, but Daddy had taken his
vacation in the middle of the week to avoid the crowd.
"If there were an invasion now," Logan said, "it'd be all up to me
and Dad to protect you and Mom."
"Just like General MacArthur."
In school they had learned that Gen. Douglas MacArthur had
rescued the Filipinos from the Japanese after they invaded during
World War II. Betsy imagined the Japanese flocking to the ocean like
ants, plunging into the sea foam trying to escape while MacArthur
stood like a giant on the headland. When the children played war with
their friends on the compound, the boys flipped coins to see who would
be Gen. MacArthur. After the Americans captured the Japanese, they
put them in prison in Mark Sippowitz's sky fort. Unlike the Japanese,
the Americans were kind to their prisoners. They allowed the girls to
bring the prisoners lunch. But when the Japanese caught the
Americans, they kept them in cardboard boxes Doug Muenster had in
his clubhouse and pretended to push splinters under their nails. The
girls pleaded for the Americans' lives, but the Japanese just laughed at
them, saying, "They ah the enemy. We wrike to tleat them bahd."
When Betsy looked at the pictures in her history book, she
noticed that in addition to actually winning, the Americans also looked
like winners. They were taller and whiter than the Japanese, and their
uniforms, without the red zeros, looked less sinister. Her father, in
his khaki shorts and green golf shirt, blonde hair cut short like
Logan's, was handsome, too. Weekend days, he got out his putter and
showed Logan and Betsy how to hit a golf ball into a cup. Sometimes
they went swimming at the compound pool. Daddy threw her up in the
air, making her squeal, then caught her as she splashed down in the
pool. Lately Logan and Daddy were helping Betsy learn how to ride her
bike, taking turns holding the seat while she wobbled down the street.
Their mother would applaud as Betsy went by, encouraging all of them.
But when Daddy drank martinis, his voice got louder, his face meaner.
He picked on Logan or Betsy or their mother, criticizing the way they
ate or sat or talked, but usually their mother said, "Honestly, Bill.
What do you need?"
Sometimes that made him angry and quiet. He stabbed at his
food with his fork. But once he had put his big hands on the table,
palms down, and stuck his upper teeth out over his bottom lip as if he
were a vampire. "I doon't know, Aleeece. I moost be hoongry."
He had a way of grabbing Betsy's mother when she was least
expecting it, pushing his body into hers from behind. It made Betsy
nervous; she thought her mother seemed frightened. Sometimes she
tugged on her father, saying, "Let Mommy go," but he just laughed and
squeezed her mother tighter and said, "I'm not hurting her, babe. I'm
just reminding her where she belongs."
Once he had grabbed Betsy like that, too. When she screamed,
her mother came into the room, and her father let her go. He put his
hands out to the sides, shrugging his shoulders. "What? I was just
"I hope Marcos can figure out how to get these people organized,"
her father was saying when Betsy and Logan walked in. Betsy knew
Marcos was the new President of the Philippines. Once, her parents
had been invited to the Palace to meet him. They'd shaken his hand.
"See any headhunters?" her father asked.
Betsy shook her head.
"You know," said her father, "they don't take heads anymore,
unless you take one of theirs first, but they used to."
Alice sat up in her chair and touched her husband's arm. "Bill,
He looked at the children, then back at his wife. "It was
especially bad during the Jap occupation." He sighed, shaking his
head. "But even a headhunting expedition takes some organization,
and the Phil Navy ain't got that."
"What did they do during the Jap-oc-cu-pa-tion?"Betsy asked.
Her father started to speak, but her mother said, "Now hush."
When they sat down at the table, everyone was quiet. Betsy's
stomach cramped. Logan glanced at his father.
"What's everybody so glum about? Even the air's better up here."
Alice tossed her hair back, smiling.
Bill took a drink of his martini, then shoveled a fork full of
macaroni into his mouth.
"Are you going to play golf tomorrow?" Logan asked. "Can I ride
on the cart?"
"Maybe," his father said.
"Me too?" Betsy asked.
Her father looked his plate, his jaw working furiously.
"Let Daddy eat," Alice said. "He had a long drive today."
"You know, in some ways the headhunter's ethic makes sense,"
Bill said. He drew his finger across his neck. "A head for a head." He
pointed across the table at Alice. "Not a free ride like the one we're
"'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,'" said Alice.
"Gandhi said that."
"The guy was assassinated. By his own kind yet."
"If we go on the cart tomorrow, can I try hitting some, too?"
Bill put down his fork. "You know, even though the headhunters
aren't taking heads anymore, they do still take children."
"What for?" Logan mumbled, looking down at his hamburger.
"Bill," his wife said. "Honestly."
"These kids aren't scared. Come on. They belong to me." He
raised his hands up like claws and grimaced. "What'd you kids see out
there? Any ooga-boogas?"
Betsy looked down at her plate, tapping her sneakers together.
"Nothing," Logan said.
Alice's lipstick was smeared. She smiled loosely, lifting her
martini from the table. "Bill--"
Logan picked up his hamburger. His father pursed his lips and
drank. Betsy had both hands around her cup of milk. Her father put
his glass down.
"Maybe Betsy doesn't believe me," he said in an accusing voice.
"Maybe she's scared. Maybe she'd rather be home playing with her
"No I wouldn't." Her hands shook as she put her milk down and
picked up her hamburger. She chewed, but her stomach was churning.
It felt like she was still riding in the station wagon on the twisting
road up into the mountains. The meat tasted leathery, like the skin
on the shrunken heads.
"You eat that," her father said in a loud voice. "You eat it now or
you're going to get a spanking."
Betsy gagged with her mouth closed, praying to Jesus, trying not
to spit out the food. She tried to convince herself that the meat was
from a cow. Tried to forget the sensation of movement around the
curves, sliding around in the back seat; tried to put the shrunken
heads out of her mind and tell herself the faces she thought she saw
in the woods were only in her imagination. She looked at her mother,
but her mother had the false smile she got when she wanted
everything to be all right, and she looked at Logan, but he had his eyes
shut tight, and she was afraid to look at her father, so she just looked
into her plate, at the bitten hamburger, at the ketchup oozing from
beneath the bun, and it made her think of the blood dripping from the
hands of Christ in the picture Bible and from beneath his crown of
thorns, and the blood that would spurt from the neck of the victim
when the headhunters lopped off their heads, and the blood from her
scraped knee when she fell off her bike onto the road, and the
hamburger filled her mouth like flesh--it was the flesh of an animal--
and there was nothing she could do about it, the nausea took over, and
though she put her hands to her mouth, the vomit came, overflowing
onto her plate, onto the table.
"Ohhh," Logan moaned, putting his hands to his mouth. He got
out of his chair and backed up from the table.
Tears streamed down Betsy's face. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm
Her father sat without moving. "I told you to eat your dinner," he
said in a low, menacing tone. "I told you to eat your dinner, and you
turned it into that."
Logan looked at his plate.
Alice's face was white. She slid her chair back from the table
and got up and stood behind Betsy, rubbing her back. "She's sick,
that's all. You can't punish her for that."
"She's not sick. She's pretending to be sick so she doesn't have
to eat. I work hard to put this food on the table." He stood up,
unbuckled his belt, and took it off. He ran the leather between his
hands "She's ungrateful, just like the fucking Filipinos. Do something
good for someone and they barf it back in your face." He started toward
"Bill, don't," his wife said. "We're all on vacation. This is
supposed to be a vacation." She wiped Betsy's mouth with a napkin,
lifted her up and pushed her toward the bathroom, then turned to look
at her husband. "Bill--"
He grabbed her by one arm, raising the belt with the other. She
raised her arms as if to fend him off.
"Mommy!" Betsy screamed.
Bill looked at Betsy in the doorway and then at Logan who stood
at the table gripping the back of his chair.
Alice caught her breath. "You're drunk. You're drunk and you
don't know what you're doing. Go outside." She motioned for the door.
"Why don't you just go outside and take a walk. Clear your head."
He looked at his wife again, then at his hand on her arms. He
let it slip down, then clenched and released his fists.
"Logan, open the door for your father," his mother said.
Logan didn't move.
"You can't kick me out," Bill said. "I'll go if I'm not wanted, but
you can't kick me out." He looked like he was going to cry.
"Daddy," Betsy said. She looked at Alice. "Don't make him go
"All I'm saying is you need a little walk," said Betsy's mother.
She was rubbing her arm where her husband had gripped it. "I'll make
"Betsy wants me to stay," Bill said.
"Betsy's a little girl," Alice said. "What do you expect?"
Bill pointed a finger at his wife. "You're a fucking bitch," he said
in a low, menacing voice. "You send me out into that jungle, don't
expect me to come back."
From the lower bunk, Betsy could see the square of window. Her
father was out there somewhere, walking around. Headhunters could
be watching him from the woods. Logan was silent above her, but she
knew he wasn't asleep. Their mother had sent them to bed. For
awhile Betsy had listened to the clink of dishes as her mother cleaned
up the table and washed the plates. She would have had to wipe up
Betsy's vomit with paper towels. Betsy couldn't believe she had thrown
up. It was awful, the awfullest thing she'd ever done. She was bad,
she was evil, she prayed to God to forgive her.
"Betsy?" Logan said.
"Did you hear that?"
"I thought I heard Mom lock the door. If she locks the door,
how's Dad going to get back in?"
Betsy strained her eyes, looking into the dark beyond the window
for her father's shape, or the shapes of headhunters. The sound of
crying came from the other room. The bedsprings creaked above her as
Logan turned over.
"He shouldn't have tried to punish you for throwing up," Logan
said. "He shouldn't have grabbed Mom."
Betsy's mother stood in the doorway. Her eyes were swollen and
red. "You kids try and get some sleep."
"Where's Daddy?" Betsy asked.
"How's he going to get back in?" Logan said. "I heard you lock
His mother said nothing.
"Mommy, what about the headhunters? Aren't the headhunters
going to get him?"
Just then a face appeared at the window, a face so savage and
strange that they all screamed. The face snarled; then hands appeared
beside it, clawing on the window as if it were trying to come in.
"Bill." The sound came from Alice's throat as if she were
He put his hands out to either side, palms up. He said
something, but they couldn't hear him through the window.
He was smiling, and once again he looked familiar, but Betsy
remembered the way he had come toward her with the belt, then
gripped her mother's arm; she thought of the ugly words he had said.
Her father was at her window, big and handsome. In a way, she
wanted to go up to the window and put her hand to the glass, but there
was something about him that still wasn't right--a look in his eyes like
the looks of the Filipino men outside the compound gate--so Betsy
turned over. She lay with Logan above her and her mother in the
doorway. She held her eyelids closed, praying to Jesus that everything
would be all right, and pretended to sleep.