Excerpt from Sweet Haven


Sweet Haven is set in the little city of Donostia, where bad news travels fast. So when 16-year-old Naia is found in an illicit pornography video, the tight-knit community is outraged. They want answers. The finger of blame soon points to Narita, Naia’s absentee mother, for putting career ahead of duty.  Now Narita is back from Manila and must face her past and the memories of a life she fled. In search of the answers to her daughter’s scandal, she follows a trail of evidence to reveal a web of family secrets, corruption, prejudice and the barriers of social class. Sweet Haven is a story of a family buffeted by an ailing and intransigent nation, of the simple and bitter ways by which a family falls apart, and the brave leaps they can take to put themselves back together.* 

The day that followed was designated for one of the ordeals of her life with Daniel: the Sunday service at the university church. Luth opened her eyes to gray dawn light. She turned over in the hope of getting more sleep and discovered her husband lying by her side. In discomfort she squirmed away. It was rare, nowadays, that they awakened in the same bed together. But last night he had crept in almost as soon as she had lain down. Perturbed from the meeting with the lawyer, she had immediately sought to lay a barrier between the two of them by means of a formal talk.

“How can you be serious?” she said in her normal voice now, picking up the conversation that had trailed off into nothingness the night before, when he had turned from her and lapsed into unconsciousness. “Why do you keep encouraging that man? Do you think I’m an imbecile, that I don’t know we’re being used?”

His eyes were wide open, too.

“You say you want to take her to the police station and then to court. Do you realize what that will do to all of us? The shame?”

She could not abide being next to him, the sweat-damp covers binding their limbs. Was he dead? she wondered suddenly. Had he had an attack of some sort, or was he asleep, like a frog, with eyes open? But she was afraid to drag herself up, lean over and verify, lest he, in this inappropriate moment, reach for her.

Her husband moved, stretched his than limbs. He seemed to have gained ten years in the night. Luth escaped to the kitchen. In the sink was a used plate. An empty can of tuna fish sat on the counter, besieged by ants. Naia had crept out of her room some hours before to eat, and left the clean-up to her.

Luth breakfasted furtively, chewing and swallowing long after the hunger had been sated. Daniel busied himself in the garage. He revved the car engine a couple of times, humming in an annoying, joyless way. Luth knew he was casting around for something to do so he wouldn’t have to talk to her. Why didn’t he just turn his computer on? In the last year or so he, a sixty-one-year-old PhD, had discovered video games. Atrocious military fantasies were his favorite.

The door to Naia’s room was closed, as always these days. Luth tried the knob anyway. The door opened without resistance this time. The girl was asleep, on her stomach, her breathing almost inaudible. The air-conditioner had shut down automatically hours before, but the atmosphere was chilly nonetheless. The drawn curtains kept out the harsh morning light.

She paused by the bed. Who was this creature? What was this horrible thing they had accused her of? When I was her age I was a good girl, thought Luth. Never went with boys, never read dirty books, never touched myself. There were bailes at the town plaza that the “ladies” could enter free of charge, but I never went to any of them. At fifteen I was a good girl—no, not a girl, a woman already. I had four siblings to take care of, and twice a month my father’s two bastards came to the back door to beg. We had no maid; I ran the house.

Naia had kicked the sheets to the foot of the bed; her legs were long and smooth, without the damaging insect bite scars that so many lesser creatures bore, those pale round flaws, edged in black, that in Luth’s childhood were called diet, after the ten-centavo coins. This perfect body, warm and breathing, submerged in the early morning light, had been host to God knows how many men, Luth grieved. The entire community had had her granddaughter. Lashed her and branded her with jets of hot seed. The Naia who lay there sleeping was irredeemably wealthy with experience.

Luth opened a drawer at random. It held the usual clutter a child cannot throw away: elementary school IDs, notebooks filled with messages from classmates, a grubby old Nokia phone. There was one photograph, of a baby. Luth squinted. Which one? It would have to be Naia, she thought; the photo was in color. The hand that supported the infant around the waist wore a white lace glove. Luth peered closer. It was not a glove. It was a bandage. The hand was Antonia’s, then. The old injury. She shook her head to dispel sad memories—the appalling violence, the damage in its wake. Where are you? she mouthed to her younger daughter, always her favorite. Why did you leave? Weren’t you happy here? Antonia had been gone two years. If she had stayed to guide the child, none of this would have happened.

A movement caught Luth’s eye. It was the computer, still running, a screensaver—a woman with wild red hair—silently flipping through the same four images. Impatient with such modernity, she pulled the plug on the machine, banishing the hungry, knowing face.

Naia rolled over on her back, exhaled. She was no longer beautiful, thought Luth. She was used. What a waste, those long eyelashes, that lovely, tragic mouth with the droopy upper lip. A waste, a waste.

The lashes fluttered: the girl was awake.


Her voice was thin, as though from disuse. She sat up, smoothing down her T-shirt to cover her navel, the simple movements pained. “Lola, what are you doing? Those are my things.” Her head snapped around, checking the room to see what else had been disturbed. “I was downloading music!”

“Waste of electricity,” Luth managed, her heart thudding in her chest. She could not meet the girl’s gaze. The dark brows, the crescent eyes that were no longer perfect, that were, damaged, diseased.

“Lola, this is my room!”

“You don’t own anything in this house. Get dressed. You should have talked to that man yesterday. He promised to save you from shame. But of course you’re the one who knows best. All the time. Now we go to church. This is a Sunday like any other.”

“Luth?” Daniel called from the next room. “Leave the child alone. Let her do as she wants.”

Now it was eight and the sky was cloudless, the heat unrelieved. Luth took a shower to cover her weeping. There was a great void within her. The warm water sluiced over the hull that was her flesh. Mercifully her husband left her alone as she dressed in the bedroom. Occasionally he liked to surprise her by easing himself through the door, watching her movements with the diffident smile she had once loved. She hated their mutual nakedness, hated the casualness with which, nowadays, she could shed her clothes and converse with him, impervious to the nut -brown shriveled organ nodding placidly at his groin. This was all it came to—the lust, the dreams, the dance.

The maid opened the gate for them, her gaze downcast, her movements self-conscious. Afraid of getting yelled at again. Daniel had washed the car. Wiped the windows with a squeegee, scraped off the layers of dirt flung up by the wheels. She knew he would be pleased with himself, and expect a few noises of approval from her. Luth could muster nothing. She got into the passenger’s seat. The backseat looked as always, a hodgepodge of books and student papers and, today, a crumpled supermarket bag. She gritted her teeth.

They chugged through the neighborhood, an enclave of fading wooden cottages sheltered by acacia trees. The Pastors had lived in a house rented from the university for nearly forty years, as did their neighbors, administrative staff and teachers like her and her husband. Luth had loved these unpaved lanes, their American names—Mercer, Dereham, Westbrook—the gardens bursting with bougainvillea and orchids and hibiscus, a riot of color all year round. Over time she had observed with chagrin the gradual decay of the houses. The university left maintenance to its tenants, but no one cared enough to spruce up their homes, not even with a fresh coat of paint now and then. It wasn’t part of the culture. But it was standard practice to gripe about how Sweethaven U worked its employees like slaves. On paper, their salaries had increased in proportion to their seniority, but those wages had failed to account for inflation or the devaluation of the peso that began in the 1980s.

Luth saw no one, but fancied eyes peering through the grimy screens at the windows of each cottage, the inhabitants gleefully tracking their progress. At last they reached Urbino Road, city territory, a route that connected their neighborhood of faculty homes to the university campus. Here they were just one vehicle among several traveling the two-lane stretch. The houses and store fronts had kept pace with the times—they passed a restaurant opened not two years before, a privately-run kindergarten in a residential bungalow, and a handful of Internet stations, their glass doors papered with video game posters. Money from a generation working overseas. Luth and Daniel entered the university through one of the side gates, the guard on duty peering at their faces beyond the access sticker on the windshield. Small brown discs of acacia leaves, shed for the summer, spun up from their wheels as they drove down the avenue to the church. Luth cast a helpless glance at the edifice as they parked. Its concrete walls gleamed with a fresh coat of white paint, as in those early years, when she was a newly minted Protestant matron. The chimes sounded about their ears, calling to all of Sweethaven. Pretending to be searching in the glove compartment of the car, they waited until most of the worshippers had come up the walk and through the portals and been seated. Students mostly, dormers by alumni from the neighboring islands: boys and girls in shockingly casual jeans and flimsy Made-in-China cotton dresses. The old guard of Sweethaven would have arrived long ago and found their usual pews.

“Showtime!” Daniel said in that cheery performance voice of his, and together they marched up the steps and through the iron-bound winglike wooden doors and found an empty space in the center of the nave, just as the recorded chimes, broadcast from a speaker on the roof, came to an echoing end.

Luth sweated in her size-forty-eight silk dress, a gift that Antonia had sent her from Europe. The fabric that sheathed her was all wrong for this climate. Electric fans that stood in the side aisles brought the smells of fresh-soaped skin and a hundred different perfumes to her nose, but did nothing to dispel the heat. Last year she had sworn to keep her pain to herself—the humiliations of her marriage, the shock of her husband’s betrayal—and show up at church by Daniel’s side. Staking her claim. That had been in August. She had kept her dignity, put on clothes too fine for the lives they led, styled her hair. Above all, she had kept her face frozen and turned to the front. No one would ever catch her scanning the crowd for some foolish young graduate student face. The worst period of her life, and it was not yet over.

The scripture reading ended, and the minister claimed the pulpit. Daniel grunted approvingly by her side. He was always attentive to what was going on, or managed to put up a passable show. Wretchedly she pumped her palm frond fan.

Today the sermon was about listening. The minister used the patronizing, engulfing “we.” Were we attuned to the voices of our children, could we discern God’s word in the jumble of our mundane concerns? One could be an intellectual giant and yet remain a spiritual pygmy. Reverend Manguerra gripped the Pulpit, glared at his congregation, looked directly at Luth and Daniel’s pew. Smug from a scholarship at—what was that American school now? Wesleyan. A scholarship to Wesleyan. What kind of school was that? Had he been there on a minority Program? In his day her husband had competed with the best of them, the best of those whites. In his day.

Now people were reaching for their wallets, and the soft strains of a guitar penetrated Luth’s thoughts. In the center aisle, a man stood before a microphone, one foot up on a stool to support the instrument. He smiled as he sang the offertory melody, inviting the congregation to share in a moment of folksy intimacy, and at the sight and sound of him, Luth’s heart thudded violently once more and she thought she might throw up right on her pointed leather shoe tips. It was Rinky Holland. In his mid-fifties but with a voice as sweet and seductive as a youth’s. He wore a sports shirt and khakis, as though to mock the perfumes and embroidered barongs of the old guard. Two girls in the pew in front of her plucked at each other in delight.

Then Reverend Manguerra was praying for wisdom and courage, that dads and moms and, yes, grandparents, too, might gently guide the beloved among them who had strayed. Only God could condemn, and only God could forgive. Heads swiveled in their direction: the dean of women and her chemistry teacher husband, the head nurse at the pediatric ward, the grade school principal. There they sat, poor things, Daniel Pastor and his wife, Luzviminda, such a comedown, but oh, how they deserved it. How wonderful the Lord’s justice was, in the end. Rejoice! How he managed after years of seeming indifference to I take the proud among them down.

A collective mumble and clatter and the peal of the organ in the choir loft marked the end of the service. Luth would have bolted, first out the door, but her husband was in the way. They stood trapped in the pew, while the congregation inched through the aisle before them, men beaming at one another, reaching out to clasp hands, women calling greetings to friends. Nobody addressed the Pastors, but their every breath was marked.

Rinky Holland made his way up the aisle, smiling to himself. His wife, Emily, followed. She was the high school principal; her signature was first on the letter that had informed them of Naia’s crime and punishment. They moved toward the rear of the church with a cat-clean confidence, the woman a beauty as she had been for as long as Luth had known her: pale, unlined skin; tiny, perfect figure; and dark, soulful Spanish-heiress eyes.

Emily stopped at their pew. “Dan, how are you? These must be terrible times.”

“How are you, Emily, and congratulations to Rinky. What a wonderful solo that was.”

Mrs. Holland frowned, took in his insane smile, then forged on.

“I know your present troubles are difficult to talk about. Our family has always been friends with yours. I would like to step in now and help you myself. Unfortunately it is not proper for a man to receive counseling from a woman. But your wife, Daniel, with all my heart I reach out to your wife.”

Luth’s eyes flickered warily from the upturned face. Emily had spoken as though she were not present. Her gaze fell on the young man who waited beyond his mother. His name was Brent; he was Naia’s age and was some kind of cadet officer at their high school. The almond eyes that met hers were unpleasant, watchful. Sweat trickled from Luth’s temples, down to her jawline and her throat. Her bosom heaved beneath the orchid-purple silk. She understood that he was laughing at her, laughing with his mouth in a perfect serious line, this dark, slender boy in trendy khaki trousers, fondling a late-model mobile phone, looking as if he came from a family of millionaire generals. Looking at her and laughing.

“Snake!” Luth spat.

The look of piety vanished from Emily’s face. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Snake.’ You’re vampires. Snakes. You feed off People’s misery.”

Emily’s eyes narrowed. “People are in misery, Mrs. Pastor, because they bring it on themselves, in their solitude and pride.”

Brent Holland nodded to a friend, smirked, and, pocketing his mobile, sauntered off toward a wing exit. Luth lunged after him, determined to grab him and shake the arrogance out of him as she might have done had he been a fourth-grader in her charge, but Daniel checked her, clamping a hand on her arm.

She surrendered to panic, turning this way and that to seek support from the other parishioners and seeing nothing but malicious glee in their faces. They could have been peasants gawking at a knife fight. Daniel was quietly leading her down the aisle. She tried to snap off the press of his fingers at her elbow.

Emily had quite recovered herself and pursued them a few token steps. “Luth, I know you are under duress,” she said. “I cannot even imagine what pain you must be going through. You really, really must open up now.”

“Tell that woman to shut up,” she panted.

Daniel steered her out onto the lawn and in the direction of the science complex parking lot. A woman behind them gasped, “What happened? Who was it?” Another declared, “Scandalosa.” She could still hear Emily Holland’s parting shot: “You are more than welcome to come to our home for a cup of tea.”

They walked rapidly away, heads down, two fugitives.

* The summary of the novel is slightly modified from the text in the Rocking Chair Books website.
Lakambini Sitoy is the author of two collections of short stories, Mens Rea and Jungle Planet. She received the David T.K. Wong fellowship from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom in 2003 and has an M.A. from Roskilde University, Denmark, in the fields of English Studies and Cultural Encounters, both under the Department of Culture and Identity. She has also received numerous prizes in the annual Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards in the Philippines, was a recipient of the Philippines Graphic Literary Awards and Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, and was a columnist and editor at the Manila Times. She lives in Denmark. Sweet Haven is her first novel.


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