By ERNESTO SUPERAL-YEE
how stained glass
has to be broken
first, for light to fill
and hold, hold up
the cathedral, that is
~ Rowena T. Torrevillas
Myles never had never yet driven the long steep road to Camp Lookout. But he didn’t need tell them that. When Dad said, Come, son, they are waiting (the words spoken sotto voce), he reluctantly slid into the driver’s seat. In utter helplessness, Myles pleaded, Mom, please sit beside me. Dad answered, Of course! If Dad only knew why he wanted her to be by his side, he’d laugh. And right now, he needed Dad’s baritone guffaw to diminish the fear tingling in his fingertips. Dad sat next to Mom.
Glare and heat blasted the windshield. It was a relief that today, the Workshop would be at Valencia’s cool piney camp. The drive wouldn’t be exactly cool, though. His gut twisted. Damn! He had forgotten his sunglasses. His heart, on the harsh edge of panic, thumped hard. Fear mustn’t rise up throat to his eyes—Mom was very good at reading people’s unspoken fears through their eyes. Thank goodness she wasn’t looking. He turned the ignition key. The machine hummed to life.
Except for some discourteous drivers and the black stinking exhaust of diesel fumes, the flat city roads offered little problem. Myles, nonetheless, cringed as he anticipated the drive ahead.
Camp Lookout, Valencia. Over fifteen kilometers up Mt. Talinis. In the 1920s, Silliman University’s faculty members built cottages there to retreat from the deliberating heat, or simply to take relief from life’s daily grind. Up there, the green mountain air restored tired limbs and spirits as one looked down on Dumaguete and neighboring towns and slumbering islands to the east. At night, serenity wrapped the senses like a blanket as the familiar lights from the pulsating city below or those that strangely flickered on dark trees kindled a waking dream. Farther up the mountain to the west was the Palinpinon geothermal field. From there, high voltage overhead transmission lines gifted Negros Occidental and Panay Island with the same electric energy the people of Negros Oriental enjoyed. The place they were heading for, Myles mused, was the island’s fountainhead of power.
Myles glanced at Dad. Every writer and budding artist called him Dad, but Myles’ feeling of sonship carried a special claim. Intensity of attention held those obsidian eyes as they pondered the manuscript they were to discuss that afternoon. Myles first spotted him at Cirilo Origines’ pianos recital. When Myles, who was one of the ushers, handed him a programme, he responded with a warm smile. Myles did not know who he was, as Dad took his seat, manifesting his proprietary manner of sitting, of crossing his legs. A nod, a shake of his dark head acknowledged Myles’ piano teacher nearby and the familiar faces around him. Silence as the recitalist took the piano beach. Above the hush, Myles heard Cirilo breathe deeply, the pianist ready to wrestle with black beast impending in the piano keys. As the Allegro movement of the Beethoven Sonata propelled them to its hammered coda, he noticed that his Dad’s gaze went past the music maker. He wasn’t seeing the pianist but rather the music. Dad closed his eyes as the Larghetto melody was delicately plucked. Myles found this sensitive reaction endearing. He usually did the same thing. This, his friend Julia found amusing. For Myles, the music of the Masters would lure him to the threshold of sleep where his senses were most awake.
The car, to his relief, kept staunchly going.
Now, as they neared the poblacion, Myles saw that his Dad’s lids were shut. What was he seeing? Myles wondered. A lurking mythical beast from a remembered lore, or a siren mesmerized by her own singing, her song damp as the cool breeze (or was he just taking in his beloved’s perfume wafting in the air)? Dad’s face, which greatly resembled Gregory Peck’s (complete with enduring hairstyle in perpetual sheen, wave of hair falling on his forehead to soften his rather sharp nose and stern lips), the relaxed features held an expression of content, of inner peace. He thought he could hear Dad playing in his head Debussy’s Les sons et le parfum tournent dan l’air du soir.
Valencia, finally! Pots of dazzling colors on window sills, flower pots hanging on doorsteps, or simply dotting the green earth. With its altitude and deep in the shelter of Cuernos de Negros, Valencia harbored uncommon varieties of flower and assorted ornamental plants. The coolness mellowed residents and their guests to live the day in the happiest disposition. Myles reflected how Valencia people’s durable family ties, whether of consanguinity or affinity, rivaled the tensile strength of their abaca and twine products.
Myles drove by the church of the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparos, Our Lady of the Abandoned, where, during the great Pacific War, residents as well as those from some towns below, sought refuge and found their spirits restored inside the inviolable sanctuary, quickly gifted with peace and solace and renewed fate which overrode their fear of pain, of hovering death. The church building, designed of massive stone and mortar by the friars, overlooked a sunken plaza dominated by a fountain of waters drawing from the mountain, a mechanism made possible by a friar’s hydraulic invention of long ago. The aged stone and mortar trapped light create gemlike sprays of different hues. It mesmerized the eye, evoking the baroque sensibility of the Spanish era.
About the church, Myles heard Mom say, Monument to memory. He would have added, Man’s collective memory; man’s memory of good created this legendary edifice—but the words got stuck in his throat. Before him loomed the rough beginnings to Camp Lookout. He had never driven this way before, and his tension mounted, his adrenaline rushed. Now, he must be extra careful, on the lookout for the wild tricky bends that could lead to a plunging precipice. He prayed that his hands and legs wouldn’t turn to rubber, to gelatin. His Dad said, I heard someone choke. Mom’s immediate answer was, Just the mountain air, son. You’ll get used to it. Myles nodded, his eyes riveted on an abrupt rocky twist. It looked perilous. And the going will get worse! His mind tumbled helter-skeltering with his racing pulse. Sweat started oozing from his back. It wouldn’t be long before his nape glistened with moisture and his soaked collar betrayed his suppressed apprehension. As his thoughts jumbled, he heard Dad say, It’s good your Toyota pick-up is new, the tires really cling to this treacherous road. Dad’s voice miraculously straightened his disarrayed thoughts and reminded him he was to bring them all to the top of Valencia, at all cost to his craven anxieties. A new sense of determination dredged up the advice of his driver. Automatically, Myles shifted to first gear. The machine roared. Pebbles, stone, gravel, and earth scrunched underneath. He gave his Mom a brave look. She sensed his tension and her dark gypsy eyes glowed with concern anticipating the rough spots still ahead.
Myles had a frank look at those eyes when, by sheer fortuitous event, his writer friend Butch Macansatos found between the pages of Chopin Etudes, a poem Myles had written in his determined efforts to tame his own black beast. Butch, with his penchant for the dramatic, read it aloud:
Mama’s Two Places It seems like fiesta in your place On a November afternoon like this The people with such solemn smiles Amuse me for a while— The statued saints bow their heads Blessing the weeds Which have become a part of you The candles are half-melted It’s getting dark Ma I have to leave. You don’t have to worry about me Nor I about you. I know you are in a place More safe and warm Just like the tales You told me fourteen years ago.
Silence. Then Butch insisted he’d show it to his teacher. And you come with me, he had added, and Myles had seen this teacher, she who was called Mom by her students, for the first time…
He remembered the open gate, the sweet smell of ripe mangoes. The spicy aroma of food cooked slow and sure trickles from the kitchen. He has a foretaste of the mango and the other mouthwatering provisions even before she appears to welcome them. Her warmth of speech, her gestures with head and hands remind him of his own mother. Her housedress has wild, rambling flowers. Worn by someone else, it would have looked gaudy. On her, it somehow startled with unexpected majesty. She is easy and light with her steps, but he sees her toes clutch firm the marble floor. That tells him, this is her dominion. Though it is late afternoon, his skin tingles with anticipation, of what, he has no idea. But his sense of being home grows strong. He checks himself, but soon after, when she calls him son, the word Mom glides from him, exultantly.
She takes her time reading the poem. He is restless and nervous as he waits for her reaction. The onslaught of nerves usually plunges him into incoherence or dumb silence, words get glued between his muddled brain and thickening tongue.
What if she does not like it, a dismissive hand would be enough to crush him. To dispel ill thoughts, he focuses on her dark bead, the hair done in the bouffant style current at that time. The head is gravely bowed in concentration. After a long silence, he sees her lift the light. Not the light that glows from the side lamp or the dwindling, settling one reflected on the windowpanes. But the light she has seen in his poem. She speaks, and her words make him understand the power of what he has written. The realization suddenly reveals to him the fat that his music isn’t enough. He needs to write. The cadence empowering her own words affirms his decision.
The side doors opens. The man who enters is above average height, swarthy in complexion, stocky, with well-chiseled cheekbones, strong shoulder blades; his thick eyebrows arch to the eyes shining in cheery welcome. He walks with purpose, holds himself erect as one who knows he has much to be proud of. This is the same man he had seen at Cirilo’s recital. Mom introduces him to Myles as her “best-half,” and Myles extends his hand. Dad’s handshake is as hard as a boxer’s (in the future, this grip would become a warm, hard hug). Myles greets him, Good afternoon, Dad. He smiles. It is one of acceptance.
They take their seats, and the three of them start sharing knowledge which at that time sounds new and alien to Myles. Like a special and privileged sponge, he soaks in their conversation, and while his tongue loosens in eager response he makes mental notes of the books he ought to read. In the middle of these, Butch says, Myles plays the piano. Myles shakes his head as if to say No, but then remembers Julia’s favorite phrase: FH of the LC, which means False Humility of the Lower Class! He holds back his chuckle. Dad says, Go on, son, play. He cannot refuse. Dad has given the nod.
On the Baldwin upright (which, he would learn later, the family lovingly brought with them as they traveled across Iowa’s sweeping rolling fields and the great ocean, to finally settle on the tiny islands of Negros), Myles chooses to play Debussy’s La Cathedral Engloutie. From one shimmering harmonic phrase to another, modulating to masses of lapping chords that hoist the watery cathedral to its heavenly height, finally to the tinkling high notes imitating the chimes which signal the cathedral’s slow sinking back to its translucent world, Myles articulates with his inner eye what he sees and feels of the music. Bound by the spell he has cast on himself, he doesn’t hear Butch’s deep sigh. He wants to hold longer the last lingering chord, but he knows he doesn’t need to. In another time and place, he can evoke the legend, make it rise again from its watery origin. He stands up, notices the closed eyes of his Dad. He knows the true meaning of a fermata, the hallowed adumbrating silence after, Myles tells himself. Moved, he blinks, his vision momentarily blurry. Butch breaks the silence by silence by saying, Debussy is poetry.
Now, as Myles steered them thorugh the bends and twists, the car bouncing and bobbing, he tried hard to summon from memory a poem he could recite, or a tune he could whistle, hopefully to put himself at ease. But all he could hear echoing in his head was Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Its cacophonic delirious harmony suited the rugged terrain, the lush greens, the long, bent reaching-out growths lashing the windshield, whipping and slapping the window and the sides of the car. Twigs snapped. Branches broke. His head began to ache. Dad must have seen him grimace, for he said, It is the altitude, son. Myles nodded. What could he say? His heart throbbed at an alarming rate as his insides seemed to thrash around. He was giddy, but he kept his eyes alert. He didn’t want to look beyond the tall shrubs, the dangling creepers. For sure, behind the dense vegetation would be a ravine, a cliff. But he would not allow this thought to rob him of the tidbit of courage left in his puny heart. He decided not to glance to the perilous left, and, breathing deep, he focused on his driving. Nervous energy clung to his hands. For release he diverted himself with smiles—this anxiety, he told himself, was nothing to what one felt when his magnum opus was discussed by the Workshop’s panelists. It was the same tense energy cramping up the writer’s gut, that hung ominously in the air like a dark heavy cloud, as fellow-writers-would-be awaited the voice that boomed damnation or spelled salvation!
Last year Myles was a fellow for poetry. He had become used to Mom’s tactful way of delivering criticism and was once totally unprepared for one panelist’s blunt announcement of his deep dislike for a story. As he and the rest of the fellows waited for this particular panelist to speak, the man just stood up, wrung the manuscript lengthwise, silently walked toward the trashbox, dumped the mangled papers, took his seat and calmly announced (with his dirty finger pointing at the trash), That is not a story. Dumb silence. From nowhere, a sharp gasp followed by a wail too shrill it could awaken the hideous dead from their sleep. Then, a mad rush of ruffles and tres marias skirts as the author vaulted toward the door leaving everyone’s mouth agape. Myles squirmed. His poems were next. He felt the contractions of his bladder. He wanted to go to the toilet, but didn’t dare, lest he called attention to himself. With the rest of the fellows and auditors they sat immobile: glass figurines ready to shatter, to break. Myles, mute with fear, shrank in his seat. As his Mom spoke, the fellows who had overflowed with agitated energy started to relax. They listened. Mesmerized, all ears were now cocked to her every word, turn of phrase, the nuances uttered. When Mom was through, Dad said, Any additional comment? No one attempted to speak, they were still clinging to the last strand of her speech. On with the other story, Dad urged. He started with the discussion with his critical comments, so extensive it silenced the other panelists. Myles saw his Mom smile as Dad threw him a quick glance. Bond of complicity, Myles noted, so that the other panelist wouldn’t have a chance to repeat his performance.
As the Workshop progressed, there were times when Dad was very harsh with his criticisms, caustic enough to deflate any flatulent illusion a writer had about his work. His sharpness penetrated gauzy ambiguity commonly and grossly employed by callow writers unsure of their craft. Often enough egos were smashed. One had to wear the skin of a rhinoceros when Dad was in his severest mood. This, Myles understood. He had known him as honest, extremely outspoken but always just. Specially with respect to his art. In fact, between them the couple had helped him discard the ignorance that shrouded his writing. Any abrasive language Dad used when discussing a story was better than dumping a manuscript in the trashbox. Myles felt blessed. He had them as his well-meaning tutors. As one writer aptly put it, You and the writers from Dumaguete are lucky. You have living legends as your teachers. True! They were there when Myles searched for the deeper meaning in his life. And of course Dad was always equipped with his counsels: No such thing as inspired writing. You have to work at it. Hone it to perfection! You have to drive yourself to write. Mom, on the other side, urged Myles to read critically: Know the faults so you won’t repeat them in your writing. Memorize by heart Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps at Mudtime” and know the major difference between the ordinary and extraordinary mortal. And so he started producing poems which now had structure. For as his Mom advised, Every work is a close awareness of rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Poems must use poetic diction. Each work demands a precise length as in paintings. See, watercolors are effective in small sizes but not those in acrylic. The canvas is larger. The vibrant colors and bold delineations sweep and overwhelm the eye. With respect to vers libre, unconditional, it is a lie. And, like all lies, it dies a natural death. Only when you write with total awareness of the inherent rules governing poetry, would the verses become a song. Under her tutelage, Myles matured as a poet. Now it was time to write fiction. His first attempt (which was actually a mutant of the genre), was mildly criticized by Dad as lazy writing. After the session, Dad told him, Myles, if you can write a poem, then you shouldn’t find it hard to write fiction. Give the writing of stories the same amount of drive, energy, and love as you do for your poems. If you can do that, show me your work. And while doing it, keep in mind the artisans at work. He who holds a blowtorch endures heat and glare while melding two edges of steel to form a design; and he who has conquered his fear of heights may measure space’s precise length and width from which his structure shall rise. His Dad was right. The work he submitted was haphazardly done. After supper, Myles, bearing seriously the words of his Dad, tackled the dizzying and crafty art of fiction. The revised work entitled “Anniversary,” although there was a minor obscurity that Dad wanted cleared (nothing Freudian about it), got Dad’s warmest smile and hug of congratulation.
Driving the car, Myles now craved for that reassuring hug. Dad’s embrace had magical powers. It drove Myles to write more, to believe in what he was capable of doing. But right now, Dad was seated on the far right. If he reached out to him, Mom would be surprised, might cause a little commotion and distract him from his driving. So his only consolation for the moment was the thought—if they safely reached the top, he’d ask from Dad one enormous relieving hug. Stop being a little boy, Myles, he chided himself. But with Mom and Dad, he found it easy and comfortable to be the child he once was. This was his well-guarded secret, the special claim of his sonship. He had a feeling his Mom understood this. For like Dad, she too hovered above his head every time he sat down to write. Like guardian angels! It was uncanny, for at that very instance, Mom lightly and reassuringly touched his leg, where the muscles were as taut as piano strings. His cramped lifted shoulders, she gave a gentle pat. We trust you, son, she said.
Myles puffed out one big breath as he saw another bend. He slowly swerved the car to the right, shifted from second to first gear, just to be sure the tires clutched tight the earth underneath. The crunchings were like complaints. Nothing was ever friendly about this road. As in his writing! Especially when it was a new poem or story, where he was unsure which direction to take. No maps, no charts or familiar territory to guide except that deep self-nagging, the path had to be explored and relentlessly pursued. It occurred to him, like a conclusive statement: this road is such a good reminder of everything I have done and am still doing.
Despite the coolness and the achingly sweet smell of grass, he sweated profusely as if he carried the sun on his back. You are a very good driver, son, was Dad’s crisp remark. He wanted to say he wasn’t, really, but only a dry Oh limped out of his throat. His head ached and buzzed. Bursts of impatience filled his lungs. How far or near they were to their destination, he didn’t know. Dare I scream the four-letter word to exorcise the tension wracking in my gut—but his Mom said, Son, we are almost there. Relief flooded him. One triumphant sigh escaped his throat, and he knew that at that moment he was in command.
If you put your heart and mind to it, Dad once said, nothing was impossible to write. He gazed at his Mom, at his Dad who made him to see that courage that existed and lived in him. All he needed was the right occasion to find out he could do it.
Oh, for a prayer of praise, thanks for his beloved writer-parents! Their trust kept him going when he himself was on the precarious verge of losing it. He wouldn’t give up the battle with the road, for as always, they were his constant reminder of his strength, his fountainhead of colors, of vision, of light. His Valencia! And what occurred today, his test by driving, including his glorious feeling of achievement, he deeply knew that he could, at any time, recall in gratitude and joy. He would evoke love’s sensation of being, the strength that nudged, pushed, and drove him to the joys and perils of writing, and the pursuit of what is good and memorable. And each time he sat down to write, Dad’s love would always remind him, Son, you are not alone.
Exultant, Myles finally saw the tops of the brown cottages, the pine needles dancing their delicate paean in the wind.
He must not forget to ask Dad for that hug.
Ernesto Superal Yee was born in Tanjay, Negros Oriental in 1953. He finished his BBA degree, major in management, and later on his LLB at Silliman University. He passed the Bar in 1983. He was Clerk of Court V at the Regional Trial Court Branch 32 in Dumaguete City, and was also a part-time instructor at the College of Law in Silliman. He was a fellow at the 1977 Silliman University National Writers Workshop, and his poems and fiction have been published by the Philippines Free Press, Philippines Graphic, Chimera, Manila Review, Mr. and Ms., Caracoa, Ani, Panorama, Focus Magazine, and Sands & Coral, and anthologised in A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, 1960s to the 1990’s. His books include About My Garden , Ember Days and Other Tales & Stories , Covenants & Other Poems , and the novel Out of Doors . He died in 2009.