By ROWENA TIEMPO-TORREVILLAS
“Look to him, and be radiant
O taste and see…”
~ From Psalm 34
Blue pools of shadow on the road were quivering in the noon light as Aquiles swung the wheel of the pick-up angrily, raising dust clouds under the old tires. All the way down the noonday emptiness of Medina’s main street he drove without lifting his boot from the accelerator, through the avenue of old agujo trees that leaned like soldiers stunned by the heat, whipping past the high ivied walls of the Spanish enclave, where the houses of the planters sprawled under their red tile roofs. He turned the corner near the coconut mill with a squeal of misaligned tires, but this was one time when the shrill pained sound did not make him wince.
Nearing the edge of town a small boy darted out of the skinny shadows in the bamboo groves and sped bare-bottomed and feckless across the road.
The man’s hands, wet on the wheel, slipped, and the truck swerved just as the child’s dusty heels cleared the white highway line. Aquiles caught a glimpse of the look the boy flung over his shoulder at him, large eyes blank with a panic that did not have time enough to shape itself on his features.
The formless heat that had been swarming around his collar and forehead seemed to gather inside his eyes. Brother, thought Aquiles, Brother, if that were only you….
The shadows on the road blurred again, and he pulled off to a stop on the dusty shoulder of the highway. His hand shook as he lifted it to his face.
His eyes were stinging. It’s only sweat, he told himself. He sat looking at the drop of wetness that had fallen on his forearm. A sharp ray of sun picked out the drop, it seemed to him, because it shone so, with a hard blistering brightness that hurt the eye. Another drop joined the one on his arm and Aquiles shook his head back impatiently.
After a while the tightness in his throat eased, and his eyesight cleared enough for him to look back up at the road again. He blew his nose before letting in the clutch, casting a quick glance around the verges of the highway, where the bamboos pricked their anemic shade listlessly onto the road.
The pick-up started at first try, and Aquiles gave a tight grim smile as he wondered what he would have done if it had stalled in front of his brother’s office.
It would have ruined my exit, he thought, I would have had to ask Leo to come out and give me a push…. That seems to be all I’m good at, exits. Funny thing is, I never get anywhere. Just exits, pick up and run….
But the heaviness in his chest lightened as the crotchety old gears engaged and the truck pulled away. “Now,” he muttered, “now maybe my luck will change.”
A strange thing, luck, and how the little rhythms that ran that small flash of prescience—or what one liked to think of as one’s well-being could come to be so pitifully dependent upon prescience when one worked alone in the fields. It was what the tenants called signals, and he had laughed at first: the flickering midnight-black flash of a butterfly wing, caught from the corner of one’s eye—and how one searched for some tiny spot of brightness or lucky brown on that remembered wing, just to save one from disaster!—Or the gecko’s hoary burble in the night, or a green snake slipping past your foot into the canefields….
There had been a snake, a little green stem of one, that squirmed across his path the day his father brought him to Nasig-id. There was a brown moth that night, too, that landed on his jacket as he sat in the light of the kerosene lamp at the farmhouse, but it was the snake he remembered.
They had stood together, he and his father, among the dusty canes that leaned, ready to be harvested, high in the foothills. The one o’clock air was thick with the hot rasp of cicadas.
Migrant workers sat in the shade of the last two trucks, the ones the bank hadn’t yet caught up with; from where Aquiles and his father stood, the sakadas and the trucks were a shapeless huddle that had faded to the color of dirt.
His father’s finger pointed here and there, across one segment of field and then another, swatches cut out of the hills; in some places the lines of cane clung precariously along the steep sides. That afternoon the cane spread out in blinding green, tucked against mountains that seemed only a fingertip away in the flattening heat of noon, but made remote by their cool blueness.
Aquiles had stopped listening to his father. His eyelids felt heavy with squinting in the heat. They had left Medina early in the morning, before daybreak. As they skirted the coast and turned off toward Pamplona the sun slipped out of the sea, a deep copper coin pushed up through a slit in the water—”Like a piggybank in reverse,” Ambrosio Vergantinos had chuckled, and Aquiles had stolen a look at his father, still surprised whenever the old man produced a whimsical thought. It also amused Aquiles that his father had chosen the mercenary metaphor, it was true to type.
That morning as the Land Rover rounded the bend into Nasig-id and he saw the fields against the far blue of sea and mountain, he felt the hair on his arms and nape rising in the chill air, as it always did at that sight. But the elation did not last: the sagging floor of the farmhouse and the tractors squatting disemboweled in the shed took care of that.
Now, in the noon sun, he became vaguely aware that the metallic ring of his father’s voice had been replaced by something else, an uncomfortable hesitating tone Aquiles rarely heard. It was his father’s “bank voice,” the color his normally brisk speech took on, a tone he had heard only a few times: it alternated between a carefully schooled reasonableness and strident anger, as Aquiles and his father sat side by side in front of impassive loans officers at the National Bank.
“You know, son,” Ambrosio Vergantinos was saying, “I would have wanted to hand this farm over to you boys as, you know, a finished thing, like I gave the house to your mother, before you boys were born. You know she never even saw it until it was finished. This isn’t even a big farm, what I’m leaving you. Now the sugar boom’s over and I’m just a small farmer, and we’re the ones hardest hit, you know….”
His father kept saying You know, turning the old Titus watch around on his wrist, and looking out over the fields. Aquiles did know, and he wished his father would stop talking: no one in Medina could talk of anything else these days, how the sugar market had taken a nosedive, hit rock bottom, and wiped out so many people that now nobody was even saying any more that there was nowhere to go but up.
So Aquiles stood patiently in the sun, saying nothing while his father’s roundabout explanation droned gently along with the cicadas. There had been no urgency in that little discourse, only a terrible tiredness that had made the son think in amazement, Why, my father’s old!
What it had amounted to hadn’t seemed extravagant at the time: the old man had only asked him for six months, to put off leaving town for his job with the advertising agency, just until the price of sugar had stabilized and the last of the amortization liquidated.
“What about Leo?” he asked when his father was through. “He’s going to be the accountant, not me.”
“I’d like him to get through the accountancy licensing exams next year without anything extra on his mind.” His father gave him a small apologetic smile, and a drop of sweat splashed down onto his cheek from under the battered old Stetson of Aquiles’ grandfather.
Ambrosio Vergantinos added quickly, “I know it’s not suited to your disposition, Aquiles, you were trained…not to be a farmer—”
The slightly awkward phrasing held no bitterness or blame, only the faintest of traces from a fond, lingering regret, and Aquiles thought, It was I whom you wanted to be the accountant, Papa. And I studied for something so useless instead.
He put out his hand to his father, and just then the little green snake slid past their feet and disappeared into the canebrakes with a tiny, oily whisper.
His father looked down, startled, and gave a sharp exclamation as the snake scuttled off. He caught Aquiles’ eye and then he laughed, loud and delighted.
It was his father’s laugh that rang through the field— like a boy’s, almost, in the ringing glare of noon.
But the six months had attenuated themselves into something closer to six years. In the beginning there had still been enough money left and enough optimism with it, for him to be able to scavenge out a few large-scale schemes: the new tractor for the south field, a whole new irrigation plan.
It had felt good, sitting with his father under the guttering flame of the kerosene lamp, their fingers damp with sweat, tracing together the pipelines on the blueprint—those arteries of water that led up from the river valley far below. They had both felt light-headed at the thought of so much money being spent for so little water, but it was recklessness shared.
None of it worked. Aquiles remembered the day he drove the seventy kilometers from Nasig-id to Medina and then back, to bring his father to the farm.
There had been a one-hundred-twenty-day drought and the earth cracked like blistering skin under their feet. There were dirty rings under his eyes and his hands shook with fatigue and sleeplessness as Aquiles bent to start the diesel engine that powered the irrigation pumps.
The pipes shook as the engine rumbled to life. Aquiles could not bring himself to look at his father.
After a long, long pause, the four rotating sprinklers started scattering their fine parasols of spray across the drooping cane in a hundred-fifty-thousand-borrowed-pesos worth of droplets.
Barely a minute later they heard the rumble across the hills. He looked in alarm at the engine but it was chugging along—breathlessly, it seemed to him. He was wondering cynically just how long the motors would hold out when he felt the first heavy pelts of rain.
The first rainfall in four months swept down from the metal-shiny sky with remorseless thoroughness. Aquiles and his father stood beside their rotating sprinklers, drenched in the downpour.
And Aquiles laughed, he roared as the water poured down his cheeks.
It would have been better if he had left then, Aquiles thought as the pick-up jounced onto the feeder road that led down to the river. The best time, he said to himself, would have been even before that, when they were all riding high on sugar. But then his Papa used all the profits to buy the trucks, and the last of the coconut land went to the payloader.
The pick-up rattled past the primary schoolhouse, where children were sweeping the bare packed dirt of the schoolyard. He saw the gay, cheap improvised streamers of crepe paper hung across the makeshift stage for the schoolyear’s closing exercises.
A small girl called out to him from along the roadside. “Aquiles,” she cried, her little eyes bright in the dust cloud he was raising. He waved back.
I should have left when I could, he thought with a sudden grinding of truck gears. I would have been out of here by now, this place where little kids know me by name. Maybe even out of the country.
Then the thing he had been pushing away, the recent memory about his brother shoved deep into his stomach, now gave a small bump when his mind returned to what his brother had told him barely a half-hour before.
Earlier in the morning he had gone to see Leo at his office. The brothers hardly saw each other since Aquiles had moved out to take temporary lodgings near the river.
His brother’s eight-month-old, two-door bantam was parked in front of the accountancy house offices, its red paint glinting smugly in the ten o’clock sun when Aquiles pulled in beside it. He was always a little surprised at the color: he wouldn’t have suspected that Leo was capable of choosing so wicked a shade.
He parked the old Ford quite close to it, with a wry malice that was more than half intended. He walked into Leo’s office carrying the paper sack with the present inside which he was bringing to Leo.
Leo was closeted with one of the senior partners down from the central office, and Aquiles, knowing his brother, expected that that would be one interview Leo would be in no hurry to terminate. So he sat in the tiny anteroom beside a gaudy jarful of balsam flowers and dried weeds painted an unlikely ochre to match the leatherette upholstery.
He leafed through a three-month-old copy of Fortune, which had been left with a painfully disguised carelessness on the wide table among the newspapers.
He ran his eyes over the stock-market quotations, making believe he had shares in Bethlehem Steel, saving the glossy advertisements for last. The ads were beautifully composed, it seemed to him, the colors glowing rich and somber: Cointreau, Audemars Piguet, Chemical Bank, How would you like to own a piece of island in the Bahamas, Pan American. All the low-voiced persuasion of money that was old but did not smell fishy from handling, bills that were sprung out by fingers that did not fumble—a world away and none of it vulgar; for all that it was a finely modulated hymn to ready cash.
He looked wistfully at the sleek, supple interplay of color and text, running his fingertip down one last shiny page, and then he gently closed the magazine and put it away.
There was a spiritless semi-representational rendition of a fishing scene on the wall opposite him, but it hurt his eyes. Its stylizations seemed to him to be more the result of haste than of any creative energy; even with his amateur eye he could dismiss it as a glib Mabini Street ready-made. Hanging at an exact right angle to this painting and on the adjacent wall was another landscape, some innocuous Robert Hall reproduction of trees in autumn foliage. It also matched the furniture.
Leo certainly has terrible taste, he thought with a twinge of savage satisfaction.
Then he remembered the charcoal greys and rosy leathers of the ads in the magazine, beside him here, in Leo’s over-decorated little anteroom, and the cool hard voice of reason added, But give Leo a little time; one day you’ll walk in here and find the walls austere and the brand-new leather looking respectably shabby, like a scaled-down copy of the study of some Oxford don.
Aquiles was reflecting upon this imminent possibility when Leo himself stood at the door holding it open for him.
There was something ageless about Leo, neither young nor old, or perhaps a bit of both, rather like an aggrieved sprite. The clothes he wore did not help much to dissipate the impression he gave of bony agility: everything was just a little too sharp or pointed: the twin arrows of his pants’ creases, the cardboard collars, his chin that poked like a third collar above his discreetly striped necktie.
Even the denims Leo wore on Saturdays were always a shade too clean.
His younger brother always made Aquiles feel unkempt and rowdy. Every time he saw Leo these days it made him feel like one of nature’s inexplicable reverses.
The brothers sat looking at each other across the deskpen set with the chrome pen that was not meant for writing.
“What do you want, Les?” Leo asked him. Just like that, Aquiles thought without resentment. The question was not rude, merely neat and economical.
Aquiles caught in his breath and then he said, quite mildly, “Aren’t you going to ask how I am? Or how the farm’s doing?”
Leo’s eyes flickered away from him, the direction of the framed certificate of merit he had gotten from the Asian Institute of Management. “I was there last Sunday. You weren’t around. Nothing’s happening there.”
It was remarkable, Aquiles reflected, how his brother could manage to turn a careless comment into an accusation. “That’s just the point,” he told Leo.
The wide-set, thick-lashed eyes of his brother turned back to him. They were his one beauty, and now they were regarding Aquiles with dispassionate tranquillity. “You know how I feel about it.”
“I still won’t agree to selling it,” Aquiles said flatly.
Leo sighed and settled his fingertips together, a mannerism he had recently acquired, and Aquiles had the urge to reach over and reip that neat, spatulate steeple apart.
“Why not, Aquiles? You’ve done your bit toward saving it.”
Aquiles carefully ignored the tiny damning note of faint praise, and said instead: “You wouldn’t want to sell, either, if you’d been through what I have with the farm.” He added after the slightest pause, “What Papa and I have been through.”
Leo did not react as he had hoped. He laughed instead, shaking his head. “What do you want, Les?” he said again. “What am I supposed to do about that? Why are you here?” Aquiles did not reply. He sat squinting out the one glassed-in window, his heavy shoulders hunched and his fine jaw clenched.
After a few moments Leo said in the same elaborately friendly tone, “How’s your road-building coming along? I was talking to Joe Killip at Rotary the other day and he tells me National Irrigation’s giving you another contract as soon as you finish this one up.”
Aquiles eyed his brother. He managed a tight smile. “If I finish this one up,” he said.
There was another long pause, and then Leo said curiously, “Why have you gone into that anyway, Les? I would have thought that wasn’t your thing. You used to talk about leaving town, going abroad, making ads, or something….”
Aquiles shrugged. “One way of making a living’s as good as another.”
“I don’t believe you mean that. Not you.”
“Having to make do for so long sort of knocks the fancy feathers off anyone. And since you don’t seem too inclined yourself toward getting your hands dirty….”
“I don’t feel like brawling over that again.” Leo spoke sharply, and a frown marred his handsome brows. “You can’t make me feel guilty about that any more. Nothing you say can make me feel guilty.”
“I admire your honesty,” said his bother, now becoming quite angry. “Some people aren’t so lucky. They aren’t able to sit back and say, 1 can’t feel guilty.”’ He waved away Leo’s protesting hand, and it occurred to him that they looked as though they were swatting away flies. “You’re right, Leo, road building isn’t ‘my thing.’ Neither was farming, come to think of it. In the beginning I chose to stay. I got in sufficiently deep to want to at least get it going and come away feeling decent. I’m building roads to raise what money I can for the farm. It’s not just sugar now, you saw it. We’ve planted other things while waiting out the slump. And those other crops take time to grow.”
“Yes, I saw them when I was there,” Leo said, the high, boy’s voice now pitched low and eager to placate. “Root crops, weren’t they, mongos and peanuts, and there was something else, on the far end adjacent to the Lazaros, but the overseer headed me off—”
“Yes, yes, I’ll tell you about it in a bit.” Aquiles interrupted him, and Leo flashed him a gnomish, suspicious look. “You haven’t been there in a while,” Aquiles said hastily.
Leo could not resist preening. “The central office keeps me busy out of town.” He added kindly, “You’re supplying the government with—raw material, is it? That was a good idea, getting them to make use of our payloader now that it’s off-season for sugar.”
Aquiles ignored the “our,” and said, “That’s what I’ve come to see you about. The compression rings on the loader finally gave, and I need a new set. I’m on manual loading now, and it’s eaten into my budget.” He was speaking rapidly, and took a small, quick breath. “I need a loan, Leo.” There was again the agile disappearing act of his brother’s hand, flicking the air. “No, no, not from you. I’m making a loan downtown and I need you to guarantee it for me. The bank manager, Gonzalvez, he’s your friend. Then it’ll be a sure thing.” He added awkwardly, “I didn’t want to have to come to you.”
There was a long silence and a ray of light from the window stirred a bit, glancing off the trophy on the bookcase behind Leo. It was one which Leo had won in some tennis tournament for professional men, and as the silence drew out, Aquiles found himself remembering how his father had once told them, “Why do you waste your time playing basketball? Tennis. Now, that’s the gentleman’s game.”
Aquiles stirred impatiently. “The money’s not for me.”
His brother’s eyes did not waver. “I know. That’s the whole point, isn’t it, it’s for the farm.”
“What I meant was, there’ll be a lot of men going home hungry tonight.” He held out the old argument feeling as he did so that it was some soiled rag.
Leo fetched up a heavy sigh. “I feel you’ve already incurred too many debts between you, you and Papa, over a lost venture. How many of the loans were paid on time, Les? How many? I can’t risk it.”
“You’re not the one paying,” snapped Aquiles. “Besides, the check from National Irrigation will be in within a week. This is just to tide the men over.”
“You said that the last time, with the truck rentals. Did Mendiola ever pay you? That was two years ago. And guess who coughed up.”
The hands of Aquiles were spread out on his knees and he had been staring down at them. He stood up abruptly, saying, “In that case, I’ll be going.”
Leo stood up too and put out a detaining hand. “No, sit down, Les. I would have loaned you the money myself, but I can’t. I’m saving it for something else. I might as well tell you now.”
Leo waited until his older brother sat heavily down again.
Aquiles looked at him, at the head that had once seemed so touchingly large for its dun neck. He saw the wide brow carefully camouflaged behind the thick tufts of hair now disciplined to neatness, and the pointed chin, and he remembered how when they were children he had sometimes thought that Leo looked like a strawberry. Now he looked at his brother’s head jutting forward on the long neck, he looked at the clever, diamond-shaped head, poised as if to strike, and it reminded him of something else, deadlier than a strawberry could ever be.
“What is it?” he said ungraciously, embarrassed. “I have men waiting.”
The upward glance his brother gave him was watchful. “I didn’t want to tell you this yet. I knew you’d feel bad. I’m going abroad, Les. Hijos de Luzurriaga is opening a branch in Singapore and they’re sending me out of the country for training.”
A sickening lurch jostled Aquiles’ stomach—out from somewhere it came, and it felt as though the blood were spreading in slow heavy beats outward, to his arms and neck and fingertips, a hot, alien pulse. The syllable was all he could manage.
“To Europe.” Even Leo’s voice could not quite fix itself around the casualness he was trying at. “They’re sending me on a tour of duty for six months, Zurich, Dusseldorf, Milan, Florence, where the banks are.”
Aquiles looked up numbly. It’s unfair, he thought. Florence. The old stones….
“Why you?” he said, his throat clenched around the words.
“I’ve worked hard enough,” said Leo, injured. “And my licensure boards were not bad. My record’s good; Valenzuela likes me.”
Leo had placed a respectable sixteenth nationwide in the accountancy exams. Their father in his time had been number one. “Not bad,” their father had said, the soft glow in his eyes, “but you still can’t beat your old man.” “Not bad at all,” echoed Leo, across the dinner-table. “Sixteenth out of two thousand eight hundred ninety three is pretty good, hub, Pop. More than you ever did.” The old man roared genially, cuffing Leo on the side of the head. They both laughed, and Aquiles, watching them from the far end of the table, where he was working on the irrigation blueprints, looked from one face to another, and they suddenly felt very far away.
“That’s not what I meant,” Aquiles muttered.
Leo darted him a puzzled glance.
Aquiles cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose you’ll be seeing Mama and Papa on your way…wherever. Coming or going.”
“I’m stopping by Vancouver on my way to Geneva. I suppose Hector has room in his apartment for one more.”
Hector was their oldest brother, a dermatologist practicing in British Columbia.
“Is there anything you want to send them?” Leo asked, “I’m leaving in about a month. They’re still working on my papers.”
Aquiles hoped he did not look as pale as he felt. He tried a joke. “What name will you carry?” He could just see it scribbled across Leo’s passport picture, the despised name. Meneleo Vergantifios. It had a certain trochaic ring. He couldn’t see why Leo found it sissy.
Leo smiled. He was in a good mood. “Maybe some day I’ll find that funny. I’m thinking of dropping the first half of the name altogether. Have it legalized.”
“Oh. You mean lionized,” said Aquiles.
It took a few seconds for his brother to get the joke, “That, too,” he grinned, when it dawned on him. “That, too.”
Aquiles’ arm felt heavy as he reached across to pat his younger brother on the shoulder. “Well. Good for you. Now I have to go….”
Leo had risen too. “Les, I meant it, what I asked you a while ago. Why are you in all of this at all? You haven’t got the training for it. And besides, I would have thought that a history major would have taken, well, the long view—”
“Let’s forget it, okay?” said Aquiles brusquely.
They were now both standing at the door. “What do you really want?” Leo persisted. “Mama will want to know what your plans are.”
“I haven’t got the money to join them,” Aquiles said, hoping he did not sound bitter.
Leo looked him in the eye. He had to tip back his head to do that. The words came out carefully tins time. “You know, I always wondered why you never asked me for help managing the farm, when I was through with school. You always knew you could have come to me.”He sounded hopelessly sincere, and the despairing anger rose in Aquiles again.
“Maybe I just didn’t want to share the heroics,” he said.
As he turned away, his brother called after him. “Wait. You forgot your paper bag.”
Leo held out the little sack that Aquiles had brought in with him. “It’s heavy,” said Leo.
Aquiles looked down at the bag, and at his brother, and then after a few measuring moments he took it back.
“It is heavy,” he said, and he walked out into the sunlight.
All along the riverbank the low growl of machinery rose with the tooth-grating sound of rocks scraping and rattling against metal. Aquiles left the pick-up in the scraggly shade of a stand of tired coconuts and strode toward the workmen.
There were about eighteen to twenty men and boys along the banks of the river, which was now summer-shallow and glittering hard in the early afternoon. The pebbles lay smooth in the water, scattered wilfully by the currents that washed them down from high in the hills.
A few of the men stopped and waved. Aquiles waved back, hoping that from a distance at least he managed to convey the appearance of well-financed jauntiness.
One of the newer workers, a boy of about nineteen, straightened up over the kerosene can of gravel which he had heaved from the stockpile. He beamed at Aquiles, his moon face split across the middle like dough that was just starting to bake, and Aquiles pretended not to see the young eyes which followed him, bright and intent with an admiration that hadn’t gone through enough, long enough for it to wear away.
It was just his luck, thought Aquiles gloomily, to gather around himself men with the same suicidal zeal as he had: he couldn’t understand why, but after a time most of these men ended up willing to labor into the night without overtime pay, as long as he was there working beside them. In the end Aquiles hated it, Ilis fatal gift of attracting loyalty—it was worse than blackmail, because it was as though he were piling up debts he could never pay off.
Like this boy, Rudy. He just showed up with one of the trucks and asked to work for him. A good boy, resourceful, could be sent on errands. Called him “sir.” A good boy.
The rock crusher he was renting at thirty bucks an hour sat on a log platform, high on an embankment. From below the platform a line of dump trucks idled in turn, loading the broken stones that spouted down from above. From there, each truck drove off to the irrigation site about two kilometers down-river. Aquiles was particularly proud of the whole contraption; it was improvised but it looked solid.
He realized now that there was a sound missing below the chomping clatter of the rock crusher, and he saw two mechanics clambering over the disabled TD-15. The payloader sat with its jaws gaping open and a tiny trickle of oil ran down its side, as though it were sweating black blood under its hot little tent of torn tarpaulin.
The thing looked idiotic, he thought angrily.
He lifted his arm, calling one of the mechanics toward him. “Julian! How many trips did the trucks of Chua Tee make this morning?”
The mechanic loped toward him, the whites of his eyes showing startlingly clean against the oil-grimed face. “Only three, boss.” The man grinned apologetically, and his nicotinestained teeth came on full show.
“Milk of the devil. How about the truck of Mrs. Delfino?” Mrs. Delfino was an old lady, a widow, who was renting out her one truck; she had been caught in the sugar-cane crash herself.
“Crankshaft broke.” Aquiles and the mechanic looked at each other with weary surmise, and then they both chortled mirthlessly.
“And the rear tires of the pick-up are misaligned again. Fix them for me, will you, Lian. I have to go some way upriver this afternoon.” He patted the man on the shoulder, where the torn sleeve hung open. That shirt of his had still been fairly new when he gave it to Julian.
He stood watching the workers. For all of its massive physical motion, the process looked very orderly, it even had a certain ungainly solemnity. A dozen or so men hauled the smaller rocks from the river, heaving kerosene containers filled with stones onto shoulders that were always wet and looked almost well-oiled.
Then two by two, the men filed up the ladder to the platform, where the monster drone of the crusher issued its precise mechanical command, a working rhythm as measured as a galley-master’s drums.
It seemed to Aquiles, watching them, that the unbroken stream of men were bearing and leaving their rocks as at some arcane, insatiable altar, and he turned away, suddenly repelled.
What have I done to them? he thought, groping his way in the blinding heat toward the shelter of a camachile tree. What have I done to myself?
A young boy, Julian’s oldest son, limped past him carrying a medium-sized can of stones. His hair, cropped short, bristled upward in wet spikes, giving him the look of a startled porcupine. Through his sudden weariness Aquiles watched him; the boy’s features were already marked, its mass and crudely-hewn planes reminding him of an early Picasso, the pre-Cubist protrait of Gertrude Stein.
He settled his back against the trunk of the tree. The water chuckled past his feet, like a mindless, happy spirit, but it gave him no joy. What do you want, said Leo.
Ginevra had asked him that too. The water spread beyond him, golden arms opening in the afternoon. Somewhere a thrush was singing. Ginevra.
He was lying face up in the short grass, and the heavy blue of the April sky pressed down on his eyelids. Inside his closed eyes her afterimage, sharp against the sky, slowly changed color, blue against yellow, deep purple, and just at that moment the Siberian thrush nesting in the orange grove began releasing those winged liquid notes from its throat. He heard her hold her breath where she lay beside him.
Aquiles pursed his lips and whistled, note for note, wild and sharp and sweet, and then the cello and the french horns and the woodwinds hidden in the birdsong clamored to be sung, and so, eyes shut against the sky, his whistle rang, bar after improvised bar, across the grove of oranges ripening in the summer.
She had asked it then, breaking into the growing storm of imaginary symphonic sounds: What do you really want to be?
He opened one eye and looked at her. She wasn’t smiling. He drew in his breath to whistle again and she said, Aquiles, answer me.
A musician! he shouted, still exuberant. But I can’t read a note.
I can see that. Her voice had a permanent smile. Be serious, she said. I am.
He rolled over on one arm and looked at her. He grinned crookedly. Ginevra’s short black curls caught fire, they turned reddish-gold against the light. You really want to know? he asked.
Tell it to me again, she suggested. He frowned a little. It’s so stupid, he said.
No, it isn’t. The smile in her voice deepened. I want to see what it is this time.
That made him laugh.
I know, he said. Always changing my mind.
He sat up. Someday, he told her, someday I’ll do it. All I want is to get to Europe. Stand in Chartres cathedral, and ogle at that blue light-of-paradise from the stained glass, breathe the air of Balzac along the Montpamasse, or even Mussolini in Italy. And all those galleries. That’s what I want. He rolled over on his stomach and looked into her face.
She said nothing, and he added, Don’t worry, even art historians manage to make do; I’ll come back here and teach at the university, or I’ll learn to be an art restorer, and stay over there. The two of us.
The amusement in her eyes had not yet darkened to disbelief, but he turned away. Think of it, Ginny. Just being there will be enough.
But what will you do.
I told you. Look, sometimes, when I see all those glossy pictures in National Geographic or in those art books of Dr. Altman’s that he lends me, my fingers go into a cold sweat. I’d like to learn how to take pictures, Ginny, I’d photograph artwork for galleries or magazines, and then we’d travel….
But it never sounded real when he said it. He closed his eyes again. The light hurt. Think of it, Ginny, he said, more to himself than to her. To stand in the streets of Florence, among the old stones.
He felt her fingers close around his hand.
He turned to her, grateful for the touch. She looked away from him, and he said, Ginevra.
I told you not to call me that, she said, her mouth curving upward in spite of herself. It makes me sound like a drunkard. My father was the drinker, not me….
So he hadn’t been too surprised at her for not waiting. No one else knew what he had told her that day, but then the hours had a way of slipping by so fast, the day never long enough for all that had to be done for Nasig-id. Even now, it hardly seemed a year since he took her down to see the feeder road for which he had supplied the materials.
The road was far off the highway, hidden among the ricefields where the stalks bent golden green, overwhelmed with their own ripe color.
He borrowed a motorcycle for the afternoon, and as he took her down the road he built, she nodded and smiled and made the appropriate sounds of admiration.
He showed her the portion of the river where his gravel concession was.
This is it, he said proudly.
She was quiet as she watched the river, its pebbles showing a clear mottled brown in the late afternoon, like sweat flowing down the back of some hoary old god.
He started up the motorbike again and they rode through the shallows, slicing a clean line through the water. An arc of spray suddenly sluiced up under the wheels.
He ducked, but it splashed Ginevra in the face and eyes. She looked startled, and she shook her head back, scattering little gems in the umber fading light. Suddenly she laughed, that loud round sound of Ginevra finding something funny.
He stopped the bike and pointed down the river, where the late sun was painting deceptive depths.
He turned to her, surprising the expression in the cool, curious eyes, and he saw a flash of something, not even pity, as she watched him, a look bright and sad, and a little amused.
And then she said it, her eyes looking straight at him, without wavering. I am going away, she said.
One sticky finger touched Aquiles tentatively on the arm.
“Boss,” said Julian’s voice, sounding sticky too with cigarette smoke. “The pick-up’s okay now.”
“I doubt it,” Aquiles said without opening his eyes. “But I’ll take your word for it.”
The mechanic sniggered good-naturedly. “Where were you thinking of taking it?”
Aquiles sat up, rubbing his eyes. “There’s a new concession site, up near the source of the river. I’d like to take a look at it.” He kept his tone casual. It was as good a reason as any to keep away from the men, now that he couldn’t pay them.
“That’s a hard road. Ever been there?”
Aquiles shook his head. “I hear that farther into the interior there’s a lake, a deep one.”
“People say it’s never been plumbed,” remarked Julian. “I haven’t been there myself. You want me to come along?” “No, I’ll be all right.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s the pick-up.” Julian’s somewhat cheeky reply came with the easiness of hard companionship, and Aquiles punched the mechanic lightly on the arm.
“No,” he said again. “I’ll go alone this time.”
They were now standing beside the truck and from where they slouched in its meager shade they heard a woman’s voice raised in momentary though tired anger. It came out the peeling window of a house that humped tall above the waterline. The house was about a hundred meters from the shack Aquiles was renting.
“If you don’t come with me you’ll be all alone in here,” the woman’s voice was saying, now pitched taut with laborious patience.
“I don’t care.” Even from where the men stood the child’s voice emerged muffled in stubbornness.
“But why don’t you want to come?”
“Because.” The voice of the little girl broke on the unassailable solitude of her reason, and she began crying. “Because. Because. Because.”
Aquiles had heard crying from this house before, one or the other of the four children in there was always whining, and their caterwauling was usually good enough to last the whole afternoon without running down. He sometimes wished it could power his machines.
He had never heard this child cry before, though, and there was something in the weeping, a kind of high, inconsolable grief, that made the two men slide a look at each other.
The mechanic shook his head. “They’re at it again. It must be hell for her.”
“For the kid, or for Sabel?”
“Both,” said Julian.
The woman was saying, “Then I don’t know what to do with you,” and they heard the quick shuffle of feet over bamboo flooring.
She came down the stairs, hurrying in their direction but not toward them, a bony, tight-jointed woman with high, inexplicably heavy breasts.
On her way down the path through the coconuts she saw the two men, and she paused fractionally, slipping them a hesitant sidelong glance. She was all dressed up to go out; the polyester flower-print on her dress showed fiercely in the sun and it seemed as if the inky whiff of Japanese musk oil trumpeted from the flowers and not from her.
“Everything all right, Sabel?” Aquiles called.
“Can you do me a favor?” The tight worried lines sprang early from the corners of her nostrils. “Can you keep an eye on Kiya for me? She’s having a tantrum and I’m late.”
He grinned lazily down at her. There was a shine of moisture starting on her too-clean face, free of make-up until night, little beads lined up above the upper lip and under shallow almond eyes. “Sure,” he said. “Where are you off to?”
The woman Isabel sighed, and a wry smirk, half-sly and half-pleased, softened her features into prettiness. “It’s closing day at school,” she said with a heave of those improbable breasts. “My fourth-grader’s finishing primary. He got third honors, and I’m going to pin on the ribbon.”
“Congratulations,” he said dryly, and she pulled nervously at the strap of her brassiere, turning to go.
“She’s not a bad sort,” said Julian, as the woman disappeared beyond the coconuts, the rather worn heels of her espadrilles slipping only once under their intent regard.
“No, she’s not. Not bad at all.” Aquiles meant it. He had been to bed with her himself a couple of times; the second time he hadn’t liked it much: he had been drunk and heavy and rather slow and she had pretended to enjoy it. When he tried to pay her a little extra that time she refused it.
Isabel had four children, and around the river she was quite matter-of-fact in admitting that they were sired by three different men. The one called Kiya was the oldest child.
On a sudden impulse Aquiles stood under the window and called out to her. There was an obstinate silence and he called again.
The child’s plain pale face appeared at the window. Aquiles figured that all twelve-year-olds were rather ugly, but this one was especially unattractive. The girl’s head was pointed in his direction. It was just as well she couldn’t see herself just then, he thought. Her nose was mottled red with crying.
The thin, dirty fingers crept over the windowsill. “Kiya,” he said, “come down. I have a treat for you.”
Julian turned to him. “Don’t bother with her, boss. You go on to Kidisin.”
“It’s okay, Lian. Go back to the loader. I’ll take care of her.” Aquiles hesitated, then he added quietly, “I think I’d really like to take her with me.”
Julian gave him a brief, uncertain glance and then he shuffled off to the payloader. “Be careful. I hear she bites,” he called over his shoulder.
Thanks for warning me,” Aquiles muttered.
The child stood at the top of the stair. She moved down the bamboo steps slowly, the fingers still creeping ahead of her, like tentative, restless feet on the banisters.
She was blind. Although the sightless eyes were turned to him empty of expression, he felt the girl’s suspicion as clearly as if it were written on her face. The immobility of her features had always unsettled him, and now the habit of her distrust bristled between them like a silent growl.
“I’m going for a ride,” he told her, trying to sound careless about it. “I need company, it’s a long way. Will you come?”
She recognized his voice. “Who says I have to come?”
He shrugged, and then he realized that she couldn’t see him. “Your mother asked me to look after you for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Why should I go with you?”
He let loose a short uncomfortable sigh. “Because I have already done a number of unproductive things today, and that might as well be one of them.” Exasperation was getting the better of his tone and he added, “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to. But it’s not much fun hanging around the river when you can go for a ride. I bet you’ve never seen Kidisin.”
The child was quick, and he soon saw his error. “You bet I’ve never seen it.” The inscrutable child’s face and the thin, spiteful bitterness in her voice made him recoil.
He looked down at the closed, old, unlined face, and he said, “Neither have I. We’ll see it together.”
She was quiet at that, and he led her firmly by one skinny shoulder toward the open door of the Ford. “Up you go.” He hoisted her up the running board and got in.
For the first few kilometers the child remained silent, and the man did not try to push her into conversation. She sat stiff and resentful, the wide, empty eyes turned toward the window. After a while he saw the tight little claw, clenched on the sill, beginning to relax its hold.
“What’s your real name, anyway?” he asked her.
“Heraklia,” she said.
Sabel was given to saying that the girl’s father had been a Greek sailor. If it were at all true, maybe she had gotten the names wrong in a bewildered muddle and called the child after a place dimly-retrieved from some smoky recess of memory, a name left carelessly behind along with the unborn child.
“I know your real name, it’s Aquiles,” the child piped in her colorless little voice.
“How’d you know?”
“I hear things,” she said simply. After a while she asked, “Do I call you ‘Boss’ too?”
“Sure. You can call me anything. My mother had a weakness for heroic names.”
“I don’t remember my father,” she said, and there was a small expectant pause, as though she was waiting for him to make some comment.
Aquiles thought of Sabel, brushing back a strand of oily hair, a hoarse chuckle unwillingly released from her throat, saying, “Her father was a drunkard,” and someone, an old woman whose face was lost in the circle of firelighted figures beside the river, cackling, “That doesn’t narrow it down much!” and Sabel finding it all quite funny just then, extricating her hand with diffident proficiency from a greasy grasp, to rub away a spot of coconut wine flecked at the hem of her skirt.
Something about her words reminded him at the time, in an odd sort of way, of Ginevra. The only times he was ever to see her shy, Ginevra, offering her name with that slightly awkward, defiant sidelong look: My father was a drinker….
His throat tightened, the large hard stone of pain gathering there again. The long shadows of the afternoon streamed past them, blue and yellow, and the trees flowed down the cliffs alongside, their torn curtain of green withering in the slow summer heat.
Far ahead of them, beyond the brown patches where the canefields had been cut out of the foothills, purple shadows deepened into the mountainsides. On the other side of that range somewhere was Nasig-id nestling quietly in its empty little cup of hill and sea and sky.
The last of the cane in Nasig-id was already all milled, and the root crops were also safe, life tucked away in the dark, secret folds of the earth. It was the vines he thought of now, which he had planted for his father, two and a half hectares concealed by the slope at the far end of the fields, beside the abandoned farm of the Lazaros.
He had examined the vines just the day before: some of them needed spraying, and a few of the leaves were starting to curl in papery brown at the tips: he held them up in his hands, those veined leaves smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, heart-shaped.
He turned to the child now, and with one hand on the steering wheel he pushed toward her the thing that was lying on the seat between them. It was the paper bag which he had brought that morning, intending it as a gift for his brother. “I told you I had a treat for you,” he said to her.
The pallid face tilted upward and the unseeing eyes caught a bit of the blue coming in through the windshield. Aegean blue, he thought.
“What is it?”
His fingers fumbled with the bag and he held it up to her face with his right hand. “Grapes,” he told her.
“Where did they come from?” asked the blind child.
“I planted them. On my farm. On my father’s farm. We used to plant sugar, but before my father left for America I decided to try and plant grapes.”
He sat quiet, watching the flickering green that sped by in the wind as they passed. There it was again, the unanswerable question, but he realized that it would probably be easier to answer this child than his brother. Papa, he thought, I did it for you.
Aquiles drove along in silence a little farther, until the road bent, and he turned onto a byway that was hardly more than a grass-grown track. The pick-up eased into the upward grade with a homely crash of gears.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he told the girl.
“When I was a very small boy, younger than you, my dad got into a deal with this business friend of his. The guy leased him sixty hectares of land—fishponds, but mostly cacao and fruit trees. Papa invited my godfather, who was a retired schoolteacher, to invest in the land too. So they went into it together. It was good. We had all the fish we wanted, and the cacao trees had to be propped up because the branches were so heavy with fruit.” Aquiles glanced down at the child, expecting that the unreadable little face would be more closed than ever, in boredom, but she sat still, listening.
“Well, anyway, one day he took me along with him. The dikes in the fishpond broke during a storm and the fingerlings were gone. It was the first time he took any of us there. I remember a wide stretch of beach, out beyond town, where no one ever went anymore. It seemed very far to me. There was a pile of rocks, and beyond the rocks, the white sand, and a family of very old coconuts. They were so old that they didn’t bear fruit any more, and all they lived for was the wind from the sea.
“Papa sent me off to play on the sand. He left me alone, and when I got tired I came back to him. He was very quiet as we walked back to the Jeep. And now I know that all the while he was answering my questions: in that gentle, almost absent-minded silence was the quietness of a man who knows he’s up against defeat. As we drove away, he pointed to an empty patch of land to our right, and he said: Aquiles, one day, I’ll plant grapes there. How would you like that, grapes.’ Of course he never did. We gave up the land.”
“Are the grapes good?” the child asked. He didn’t know at first which ones she meant.
“We’ll taste them when we get to where we’re going,” he promised.
“When did you plant them?”
“Nearly two years ago.”
“Did your father get to taste them?”
“No. But he was there when I planted them.” But his father hadn’t said much the day Aquiles showed him the portion of field where he was planning to put the vineyards. Ambrosio Vergantinos had stood some distance from him on the slope of the south field. The men were felling a lightly wooded section of pines to make way for the vineyard and some of them were digging small holes in the ground for the posts and pipes which were eventually going to support the climbing tendrils. Cans of seedlings lay in the empty tractor sheds, waiting to be transplanted. Some of the pipes for the trellis were the leftovers from the farm irrigation.
Aquiles looked over his shoulder at his father. The old man was standing in the sunlight beside the trunk of a fallen pine. There were chips of wood scattered around his feet, near the neat bloodless gash on the tree trunk. The air was heavy with the warm scent of resin.
Aquiles saw his father bend over to pick up one of the chips, and the old man held it up to his nose, breathing in its secret, ephemeral fragrance, already fading in his hand.
Deep into the afternoon he and the blind child rode, into the hidden heart of the hillside, looking for where the river began.
“We’re going up now,” he said; “can you feel it? It’s getting a bit cooler too.”
The light brown hair fanned around her cheeks. They passed a miniature waterfall, little more than a lacy trickle from the ridge above, and as they went by, some of the spume wafted across her cheek and she laughed out loud for the first time, in real delight. “What was that? It’s gone now.” “A baby waterfall. It falls over the cliff from high up.” “Are there trees there?”
“Lots of them. There’s a clump of bamboo up there, straight ahead, on the crown of that cliff, and it looks like the tuft on the head of an angry rooster. All the shapes of the hills are like in a Chinese painting, all those lines going up and up.”
He knew the child could not understand much of what he was saying, but she settled contentedly back on the battered seat of the pick-up.
After a while the cicadas came out, waves of high sad sound sweeping down from one grove of rainforest trees to another, thin green sounds, catching fire.
He imitated them for her, their wistful minor key, and he whistled “The High and The Mighty,” which he hadn’t thought of since college, and then a few bars of Borodin, but he forgot what came next, so he taught her “Old MacDonald,” and then he hummed some late songs of Paul McCartney, lonely exuberant nonsense in a voice that came perilously close to cracking. Becoming breathless, he drew upon the only snatch of Lorca he could call to mind, “Green, green…the ship upon the sea and the horse on the mountain.”
“Go on,” she said.
“That’s all I know,” he said. “But there’s another one about color. Color and sounds, by Rimbaud. Each vowel sounds a different color. My French teacher taught it to us, and when she came to the ‘U’ sound—’U, Vert,’ ew, vehrr—I loved her lips, and I fell in love with her for one whole week.” He broke off, laughing. “But I can’t remember that one, either. Only the sounds and her lips.”
“Like learning to talk,” the child said suddenly.
He looked at her in surprise. “That’s true.”
What is it like, he wanted to ask her, never to have seen before?
But then she began telling him about a sea trip her mother had taken her on when she was five, the strange smell of the salt and the warm wind. “She took me to see a doctor about my eyes,” Heraklia told him.
But Aquiles didn’t want to hear about that part of it. He was sure he knew how the sea trip ended. The large and heavy fluttering of wings that began in his stomach that morning, with Leo’s news, had moved up his chest and now he felt the wings beating tears at his throat and eyes. He didn’t want to look at her, and then he remembered she couldn’t see him.
“I think we’re almost there,” he said, clearing his throat.
“At the end of the road.” His words sounded a shade ominous even to himself, and he found his lips turning upward grimly.
The road ended in a grassy knoll completely backed by white cliffs. The hills here were clothed with short tough-looking trees and dusty tenacious creepers.
He took Heraklia’s hand and led her about a hundred fifty yards uphill. She held the bag of grapes. Through the trees he caught the blue flash of the lake below.
High overhead cirrus clouds brought the sky closer: they scudded toward sunset, salmon orange and shell-pink, the lovely blown colors of a Gentileschi.
“It will be dark when we get home,” he said.
She reached for his hand. “It doesn’t matter,” she said gently.
Of course it did not; it would always be night for her, he thought, and then he told himself, But how can she not feel bitter over what she has never seen?
“Would you like to go down to the lake?” he asked her.
“Maybe another time,” he said, “I think I’ve gone far enough for one day.”
A narrow path led downward through the trees toward the water. There was a large rock in a little clearing not far below them. He steered her toward it, their feet crackling in the forest silence and when they got there, he picked her up and set her on the stone.
It was not a very large lake, only about seven hectares around, but from where they were sitting the waters looked dark.
It was the hour of day that seemed to lend all it touched an antique heraldic stature, as though the things that moved within the slow, formal light were about to stand poised for a portrait.
“Is it beautiful?” she asked him.
He didn’t say anything for a while. He was having trouble with his voice again.
“What color is the sky now?” she said. “Blue.”
The child smiled, an old, wise lifting of the comers of her lips, willingly revealing to him the helplessness larger than his own. When he saw it on her face he did not feel sorry for her any more.
“Delia Robbia blue,” he said. “That’s what Tennessee Williams calls it. I like to think of it as Andrea del Sarto blue, the blue of the madonna.”
In spite of the precarious exhilaration he was now feeling, the thrust of anger quickened through his belly as he thought, And when Leo stands inside the Uffizi, will he know that del Sarto wept because he knew he could never paint like Raphael, his master?
aAquiles bent over the girl. “I’ll tell you what this blue is like,” he said, opening the bag of grapes. “Delia Robbia blue, del Sarto blue, the blue of the Aegean of your father, the blue of Heraklia,” he said, pulling off one frosty, purple globe, and lifting it to her mouth. “Taste.”
The tentative fingers reached up and took it.
“The Concords ripened early,” he said.
He looked away as she put the fruit into her mouth. “Aren’t you going to have any?” she asked him.
“Later,” he said, watching over the tops of the trees as the sun began to go, “There’s a lot of time.”
The sun hung over the edge of the westernmost ridge, and then it slipped away, his father’s “piggybank in reverse”— God taking back the coin He gave the world each day to spend.
Aquiles stood very still as he waited to see how the wind came down through the trees, each leaf passing on its message of cool air, and it ruffled the waters of the lake below for the briefest moment. He looked down at the wide still soundless water, the chill wind sliding along his arms, and he thought, Ginevra. Where you are it’s springtime.
The memory came then, how she had stood with him that last day in the ricefields, looking at the road he had built where the stalks hung heavy with ripening grain that waited to be harvested. Ginevra said, Sometimes I think that this is the real reason that keeps you here. And that’s why you’ll never leave, Aquiles. It’s enough for you, just what you can see….
He heard Heraklia stir beside him.
Her face was puckered around the fruit, but she said nothing, and he knew she was trying to please him.
“It’s there,” he said, “you’ll taste it. Blue. Like wine. Somewhere under the skin. You have to wait for it, then it’s there.”
The girl reached out and felt for the grapes. She held one over to him and she put another into her mouth.
He looked into her clear and sightless eyes as once again she tried the fruit, and in the fading light it seemed to the man that they were all caught and held in there, the hills, the dark quiet lake and himself, reflected faintly as in wide water, soundless and still.
“I don’t know,” said the child. “I can’t tell.”
“It’s all right,” said Aquiles, the bright heavy tears rising high in his chest, to his eyes, sharp and mingled with the blue scent of the fruit from his vines, “it’s all right. I can.”
Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas was born in Dumaguete City in 1951, the daughter of writers Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo. She received a BA in 1971, and an MA 1978, both in creative writing, from Silliman University, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in English Literature, also from Silliman. She worked for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa as associate program coordinator, and for the university's English department as adjunct faculty. member. She has won several Palanca Awards for her fiction and poetry, and was the recipient of the Distinguished Author Award from the Writers Union of the Philippines, as well as the National Book Award. Her books include Upon the Willows and Other Stories , The World Comes to Iowa: Iowa International Anthology [1987, co-edited with Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle], Mountain Sacraments , Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views , and The Sea Gypsies Stay . She was former director-in-residence of the Silliman University National Writer's Workshop.