By CESAR RUIZ AQUINO
What I am about to set down consists of three stories which I had originally wanted to write separately. How I came to think of weaving them together is not easy to answer. The first two were stories I had heard almost twenty years ago and could not get around to writing for such an unbelievable length of time. One day I understood that I’d never be able to write them and that perhaps this was the story I could write. I remember the occasion on which the idea occurred to me. I was talking to another literary person, in fact a gifted young girl from Manila well on her way to the writing vocation. I found myself telling her the two stories. I don’t remember having done it before, though I am fairly given to talking about stories I contemplated writing to friends. When I had finished I realized that what held my listener’s interest was not just the stories themselves but me telling them together. “Perhaps I should write them together,” I said with the enthusiasm of one who had faintly but unmistakably struck something. When days passed and the terror of the empty, white paper began to grow on me, when I began to suspect that this new story—the story of a writer and the two stories he could not get around to writing for twenty years—was headed for the same fate, the same limbo, I decided to hurl myself into the wilderness. In the confusion I involuntarily recovered two memories—one resplendent and the other shameful. I also tied in the third, which is the longest and of which I do not have to speak at this point.
Back in 1972, when I taught at Silliman for the first time, I formed a companionship with four other young men with whom I had nothing in common but an addiction: chess. The friendship was so close we were soon addicted not only to the game but to being together. For days on end, when there would be a string of holidays, we would eat, sleep, talk, play chess, gallivant, do evil things together. Chess is more often than not the passion of a lonely man. In our case, the loneliness became collective, if such a thing can be conceived—we were a pack of lone wolves. Martial law, imposed by Marcos late that year, abetted it, as did the success of the solipsistic Bobby Fischer.
I’ll heartlessly cut myself short on this part of my life to which belongs some of my fondest memories, since my business is only to relate where and how I got the two stories mentioned above. I heard them from two of my friends, on those nights when not even the fatigue of playing chess all day could relieve the torment of our own sap and we would spend the night talking about all sorts of things until dawn. The first came from Nestor Rimando and happened in Davao where he came from and where he is back. In the almost twenty years since our time in Dumaguete I have seen him again only twice— once in Manila and once when he visited Dumaguete in 1987. The second was told by Odelon Ontal, who lives until now in Dumaguete and who has forgotten his story. Both have married and have children; I have remained a bachelor, grown adept at gentle ways of coping with, in the phrase of Erwin Castillo, the terror of being unloved.
Rimando’s story can be sketched in a paragraph. In Davao in either the late sixties or early seventies (Rimando was not specific) a madwoman slept her nights at the market, where the tables in the meat section provided her with a bed. Let us assign her the age of twenty-eight and long, lice-infested hair. You have seen her, grimy, reposing on the pavement like an obscene bat, her eyes somehow never meeting yours. You never hear her voice either, even when she laughs and you wonder who knocked her teeth down. One day you see her with a swollen belly and although it comes as a shock you don’t find yourself wondering very long who the father is. Not even the coming baby mitigates her status as a nightmare, without substance. In Rimando’s story she gives birth to her child towards daybreak. The market vendors who had come early saw her deflated belly but were baffled that the child could not be found. Suddenly their minds froze, struck by lightning. They had not understood the blood on the table where she had slept and now they looked with horror at the dog sitting not far from where she was.
As in Rimando’s case, Ontal had not actually witnessed the story he told us and which, as I’ve said, he has forgotten. A very young couple—the husband about fifteen and the wife fourteen or thirteen—had come to Dumaguete for the husband who was sick to be confined and treated in a hospital. They came with ample money, but one somehow got the impression that it represented all their possession. They took a common room, which explains how their story came to be known.
On the first day of his confinement, a group of young girls, probably students from Silliman dropping in to visit another patient in the room, find themselves flocking around the boy-husband from the barrio. It is not hard to understand why they instantly take to him. They like his rustic ways; they are astonished, themselves not much older than he, to find one so young—just a little boy really—already married; they feel protective, motherly. Perhaps, too, the boy is dying. Let us call him Kip. It is five in the afternoon and Kip, waiting for his wife Moning to come back, has brightened up only too visibly. One or two of the girls are pretty. And Kip’s happiness, in turn, has set loose even in the shyer ones the floodgates of a hitherto unsuspected sweetness. It is in the midst of this that Moning comes back with a friend she has just acquired, a girl of eight, and the things they bought at the market. There is an awkwardness but Kip’s friends do not feel uncomfortable. They look at her with great interest and find her shyness just as poignant, except that of course she is not the patient and, moreover, they have to go. Moning goes out of the room soon after they do to see her little friend—who keeps throwing looks at Kip—to the gate. She does not return—neither in the evening as Kip keeps hoping she will, nor the next day, nor the day after the next until it is afternoon. Kip runs a whole spectrum of feelings—all shades of grey and black. First alarm, then anger, worry, fear, bewilderment, oppression, fury, pain. To assuage the torment, he imagines himself dead and the thought of Moning crazed with grief strangely revives his appetite to eat. It is an exaggeration to say that he ages in three days, but at certain moments we see a grown-up quality or manner that we failed to notice earlier, even when he’s not doing anything, propped up and stockstill, pensive in his bed. When Moning finally comes back, the joy he feels is outweighed, outwardly, by the need to express his outrage and maintain a touching dignity. He weeps at last and says, in a quiet voice, “Ako pay mamatay, ako pay ingnon mi!” (Roughly, “I’m the one who’s going to die and I’m the one who’s treated this way!”) Moning, eyes downcast, wants to hold and press his hand but his spare reproach totally wilts her.
These were the two stories. When I first pondered Rimando’s story, I conceived of the following idea: The story would be seen through a third-person point of view. This person is gradually revealed to be the father of the baby, and the revelation will be subtle, almost just hinted, but clear towards the end. I’m glad this didn’t materialize. It seems to promise bathos.
My present attitude indicates that I wish to preserve the story’s gruesome quality. Despite the ironclad objection: what for should one write a merely cruel story? There are hundreds of other such incidents, dizzying in their fiendishness, that have happened and can happen on this planet. Even in the realm of fact, the number of such cases may well approach the infinite. Thus the absurdity of a news item with such a subject in which the reporter pretends to be moved by the uncanny. And yet I remain infatuated with Rimando’s story as is—raw, uninvented, fact. Why?
Once in life I woke in the wee hours of the morning and heard from somewhere a baby’s cooing and laughter and knew it to be the most beautiful sound on earth or in heaven. Many years later I took to asking girls I liked what they thought was the loveliest sound they’d ever heard. A bird’s chirping was usually the answer. At other times, the sound of surf. Or early morning rain that made them linger in bed. There were others I’ve forgotten. Only one, if memory is not fooling, got it right—Emy.
How could a baby deserve either such a grisly end or such a loathsome origin as had the one in Rimando’s story? What possible virtue is there in telling of how it was so literally wiped out the moment it was born?
Ontal’s story, too, is disturbingly open-ended. Even if its tenderness tends to counterpoint, to allay the ferocity of the other. Ontal said no one seemed to know what happened afterwards when the young couple had gone back to the barrio where they came from. This open-endedness—Kip’s possible death—hovers over the story with the same menace that the woman’s madness, the unknown father’s lust, and the dog’s appetite in Rimando’s story hold for us. Here too my baby gurgles amid demons. Is this therefore why the two stories had been thrown into my hands—not by accident but because to me had been delivered the task of seeing them as connected? If Kip dies, the two tell the same story—Kip is the baby who is devoured by a dog—and I brood on the evil that unites them; Ontal didn’t have to tell his. If Kip lives, the two stories exclude—worse, annihilate—each other; Kip is the baby whose cooing, gurgling laughter work me up one magic, epiphanous night in my life—but Rimando, as well as Ontal, had to tell his. I must find a third.
Unlike Ontal’s and Rimando’s, it is a story I have seen. In fact, it is a story I alone have seen. For the two people in it—a man and a woman who casually crossed my path quite recently (only late last year) never met, neither one knew the other existed. Moreover, one is mad and the other dead. I believe their fates conjoined, and that it was I who brought this conjunction about—or rather my old, black jacket. It seems like a delirium and perhaps it is. Before getting round to it, I add a few necessary details about myself. I am forty-three, I teach part-time in Silliman. I live with a maid and my two parents. My mother has had a stroke and asthma has wrought on my father an almost equal devastation.
One afternoon I woke from a nap hearing some rock group on the cassette tape recorder and slowly making out the voices that drifted to my room. They were those of my father and a younger man, a man I didn’t know. The conversation was in Chabacano and my father was talking with more animation than usual. My parents have not lived in Dumaguete as long as I, and at their age do not get to meet too many people any more. Whenever someone happens along who comes from Zamboanga, their spirit is buoyed up, as though old times had returned. I tarried in bed for a while more, unable to help from eavesdropping. I gathered that the visitor had come in to fix the tape recorder, that his name was William, that he was an ex-soldier, that he (rather vaguely) was a CAFGU, that he worked as radio technician and operator at the military headquarters in Agan-an. I couldn’t avoid meeting his stare at once when I opened the door, they were sitting right-across from my room and he was facing my way. He was a slight man who looked as boyish as his voice, but the face, with its high cheekbones, had a menacing quality that impressed me greatly. He had the eyes of a man who lived with evil smells, or who was used to the sight of gore. But perhaps the cold, removed stare came from sheer hard times and I had overlooked it. I dwell on it at length because it was the only time I really looked at his face. He was to be seen in the house often after that, gladly fixing—after the tape recorder—the television set and the walkie-talkie which he had dug up while puttering around the storeroom. He always declined to join us whenever he happened to be around at mealtime, settling instead for a cup of coffee. Sometimes he’d doze off on the bench in the kitchen when, apparently exhausted from staying up late at some gambling place, he’d show up early in the morning. At other times, he’d spend the night at our place, sleeping on the bench which had become his bed. We soon realized, though we never asked him, that he was not living in any particular place—that there probably were other houses where he could sleep from time to time. But once a man who knew us asked me if it was true William was living with us. William had given our place as his address, care of my father who was a retired police major. And indeed he did his laundry at our place and kept some clothes in the storeroom. I do not know if those were all the clothes he had.
William told us he was a widower. He said his wife had died of tuberculosis. At the time he said this I thought it sounded like a good forecast of how he himself was going to die soon. He was very thin and always looked overwrought. He did die soon after, but not as I thought.
His wife left him no child. He said his wife’s parents were from Negros and lived in the nearby town of Valencia, and that his own mother, who was in Zamboanga, originally came from Dumaguete. We believed him. He spoke Chabacano and Cebuano very fluently—both with a rural accent, which astonished my father who is a Zamboangueño and my mother who is a Cebuana—oblivious that, though it’s true it was unusual, so did I, though neither with a rural accent. This will do for William. He is a dead man when I take him up again. Vastly different, we did not become friends. The only form of closeness we had was my lending him small sums which he was too shy to borrow from my parents. He never paid and I never expected him to. Just as we never paid him for fixing the television set and the tape recorder and the walkie-talkie and he never, I’m sure, expected us to.
For certain episodes in the past that we carry through life, memories is an inaccurate word; rather they constitute an ever lingering, bright present, separation or estrangement from which we are forced to admit only by the unappealable decline of our physical bodies. And then we feel as if perhaps we already have died. Others are matters of complete indifference. They could be as recent as a year ago but the faces that beam at us on a chance re-encounter are veritable abysses. As are the names.
“She says you were together in some writers conference in Manila.”
“Is she going to be in the program?”
“She’s just passing by. She’s on her way to Manila. She was looking for Marj.”
“If she didn’t know Marj is the Manila, she may have been just checking her out, too, from way back when.”
“Yes, that seems to be it. When I told her Marj is in Manila she appeared very excited and took her address. And then she sounded like she was going to Manila just to see her.”
“I’ll get back to the office. They might be there.”
“Lina was giving her directions to your house. She’s probably there now. That was almost two hours ago.”
“Oh. Okay, I’m going home then.”
“You can see that she’s odd, but she’s all right I think. Most people will get a more extreme impression after talking to her. She’s been through some terrible time. She’ll be telling you.”
“I’d have preferred to talk to her somewhere else though.”
“Lina told her to go back to her if it’s no go at your place. I would have taken her in but you know there’s literally no room for her here.”
“It’s going to be difficult. You don’t know my father. He’s a cop. But I know where we can take her to.”
By ten in the evening Ester Lim was out of my hands. I had ample opportunity, that evening, to know just how mad she was.
She was in her late twenties and I wondered why I absolutely couldn’t recall her from the writers seminar that we attended together. At the least, she must have been a pleasant kid to look at, and even now hell, which it was clear she was wobbling in, hadn’t taken away the sparkle from her eyes. She had a vague expression of physical pain on her face that became oddly pronounced when she smiled, which was often. After speaking, she would bend her forehead slightly forward—and somewhat askew—as if swallowing, her eyes not leaving yours and smiling with the queer pain. Perhaps reading my mind she explained that she had inflamed sinuses. I found out that she had stomach spasms besides. My hair almost stood at the way she consumed the entire loaf of sliced bread when I bought her a snack, ignoring the canned fish and the noodles which she ate after. At nine there are no more cheap eating houses open in Dumaguete and I didn’t have much money. Also, I was hoping Mrs. Tan, in whose house she would be staying, would feed her. (It amused me that she was Miss Lim and her hostess was Mrs. Tan. Mrs. Tan was head of some fundamentalist church organization on the campus.)
Ester Lim was going to Manila to seek help over a nephew whom she claimed her brother, the father, physically tortured. She said her nephew wanted her to take him but there was no way she could fight her brother. He had many connections in their place and was able to convince everybody that she was insane. I asked her what exactly it was she wanted done about her nephew. If she wanted custody, I said, she was certain to lose. She said of course that was the sure way to lose, and went into a detailed explanation of her plan which struck me for its legal shrewdness and clarity. I realized later that this lucidity, which must have impressed people she met for the first time, could be seen in a more sinister light. But at the moment I must have been visibly impressed, for her manner assumed a certain preening and soon she was telling me that her fight wouldn’t end with her nephew. She was going to start her crusade against child abuse.
I cleared my throat and told her surely there was some organization in Manila doing that sort of thing and it shouldn’t be too hard for her to find her bearings there after all. This seemed to please her further, but at the same time I couldn’t help feeling she was holding back some tremendously good thing that I was not even beginning to understand. I wasn’t wrong. And I was not kept waiting. She began to tell me about the evil in her place, La Carlota, and my mind involuntarily flitted back to the half-amused, half-bewildered face of my mother earlier in the house when I had gone home and found her with Ester Lim.
“As long as the Beast is loose, the children of the world will suffer.”
Mrs. Tan’s house was in the outskirts of the town and tricycles would go only up to a certain point. There was no moon (missing emblem of madness) but the light from the electric posts made the green grass in the vacant lots all around us visible. Ester Lim continued: “I can’t lose, it’s in the Scripture: And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars….”
She had turned her face to me and it bore the same expression, only more outrageous: it was as if she was looking at me and smiling though her tears. I heard my voice saying, “Don’t say a word of that to Mrs. Tan’s family. They’re very nice people; realize that they are taking you in, a stranger, out of kindness. You’re lucky, but if you tell them that, it could make things unpleasant.” “Why?” she asked. I saw that I was unnecessarily taking a further step in getting mixed up with a lunatic. “Do you really care for your nephew?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Then don’t say what you’ve just told me to anyone. Keep it to yourself or else, believe me, you are going to fail. You won’t even survive in Manila.”
“Why?” she asked again, and finally I said, “They’ll think you mad. That’s what happened back in your place. With that story you yourself, not your brother, convinced them you’re mad.” I uttered the word mad casually, to make it sound as if I was very far from believing it.
“I see,” she said thoughtfully, slowing down her steps somewhat. “It’s a real problem.” She seemed to brace herself before going on and then she asked me, “Do you believe what I just told you?”
Crazily polite (allow me some madness of my own), I groped. “I don’t know. Yes and no perhaps. You’re entitled to what you believe is your vocation. But you can’t be literal about these things. Anyway it’s out of my range. It’s a thing between you and God.”
This must have satisfied her for she changed the topic. “You’re right about Mrs. Tan and her family. I never knew such people existed. But that little child of hers—there’s something troubling her. Her eyes look disturbed.”
A horrible thought entered my mind, but I quelled it. “You really didn’t have to trouble yourself too much over me. I just wanted to find out how you are after all these years.” She was rambling, somewhat sprightly all of a sudden. But Ester Lim fired her last shot for the evening and I was not prepared for it.
“I feel cold,” she said. “Please hold me.”
Or perhaps I was. Without a moment’s hesitation, I took off my jacket and gave it to her.
All the repulsion that had been gathering inside me now slapped me like a wind. I knew even then that I wouldn’t be wearing the jacket any more. It was an old black jacket and it seemed to me as though its color, which sometimes made me uneasy, had finally fulfilled itself.
I took measures not to run into Ester Lim by any chance, kept in touch with Mrs. Tan like a fugitive, and helped put together enough money for Ester Lim to get a passage to Manila. Ester Lim did not cause a headache during her two days with Mrs. Tan. But Mrs. Tan’s little daughter wouldn’t go near her. “She’s stranger,” she said the first time she saw Ester Lim.
Not very long after this, our maid told me as I ate a late breakfast that William, who had not shown up for some time, had been in the house early and taken the black jacket which I had put away in the storeroom, leaving her word to tell me that he was borrowing it. My father, who dislikes familiarities of this sort, told me to remind William at once about the jacket if he forgot to bring it back the next time he came. I told him the maid had said he was returning it later in the evening. The old man said he doubted it. When after two weeks William had not returned, he said. “I told you. Now you’re the one without a jacket.” I had others. But he was wondering why I didn’t seem to care much.
“Perhaps he’s with his in-laws in Valencia,” my mother said.
The weeks went by and we forgot about William. One morning my father very casually told me, as I prepared to go out, to find out about William who had been stabbed to death, at the Eterna, the funeral parlor whose owner we knew. “When?” I asked, sounding just as subdued. “I don’t know—find out.”
I went to the funeral parlor in the afternoon. Chit, the owner’s wife whom I knew from way back in the early seventies, was there. I went to it at once: “Did you have a stabbing victim recently?” She turned on an expression that became more and more quizzical as I gave details. “The name is William Angeles. He was stabbed at the cockpit. He was from Zamboanga. A soldier….” At this she suddenly remembered. “That was last week!” And then we went into an incoherent exchange.
“Nothing. I happened to know him. Who stabbed him?”
“He may have left the hospital already.”
“What? You mean he’s alive?”
“Yes, his wound was not serious.”
“But I thought he was brought here?”
“No, I mean the man who stabbed your friend.”
William was able to pull out his gun and shoot back. I gathered from another person later—the man who once asked if William was living with us—that William was jumped by his assailant as he entered the cockpit and was reeling from several stabs when he pulled out his gun and fired.
He hadn’t seen the incident. Chit had seen the body when it was brought to the funeral parlor. I asked her, inevitably:
“Was he wearing a black jacket?”
She looked, I thought, startled. “Why, yes!”
William had been buried in Valencia. For us there remained the problem of what to do with his clothes. Mother had said, “They must be made to pay! The poor boy! He was with us!” Her outrage was sudden and brief but it moved me— though I remained indifferent to William’s death. As I burned the clothes I wondered why she spoke of William’s murderer in the plural.
Now I understand better the look in his eyes the first time I saw him. They were the eyes of a man who had seen his own gore.
It was he who had copulated with the madwoman in Rimando’s story. But his murder had made him the baby, made him Kip. William’s killer was as much an instrument as the knife with which William was slaughtered—and redeemed. The force came from Ester Lim who, with equal mystery, had without her knowing it fulfilled her hallucination—that she was the dazzling woman promised in Revelation, who shall crush the Beast by giving birth to her child. Of course, William is dead and Ester Lim repeats, God knows in what foul hole in Manila, the cycle of the madwoman. To me, who haven’t cared, is allotted the notion that the madwoman’s child had been engendered and obliterated so I could be forty-three, so I could use the word “resplendent,” so I could love Emy.
“I’m sorry about the jacket.”
I am almost unable to finish saying this, hearing William saying it too at the same time.
We meant differently. He was apologizing for not being able to return the jacket, or for having taken it without my knowledge, or because it now bore two or three holes. I was sorry I had not been able to warn him that it was fatal. I looked at his face in the dusk and felt relieved that he did not seem to bear the funeral parlor’s grooming and cosmetics. But I also felt his inconsolable sadness. “It was lovelessness. You were spared because you were less loveless than I.” I realized with a chill that William and I had certain resemblances. “Did it ever occur to you that your parents have felt the terror of your life? That you are Kip whose haplessness saddens them more than their infirmities? They’d have wished that you drifted less and fathered a child—a gift that could make them gentler with their slow annihilation. No matter. The memory of the baby’s laughter has served you well. Even Rimando’s story has served you well, for though you wanted to exploit its horrible aspect, you’ve been unable to write it. Love has served you well. It served you well when Emy could not love you. It served you well when you recoiled from Ester Lim, from me. It would not have abandoned you if you had gone and consummated your urge for the laundrywoman, old and ugly, with whom you found yourself alone one night when you were a much younger man, fighting the strange tide that drew you to her as the dog had been drawn to the messy, blood-covered thing in Rimando’s story—if you had been the baby’s father which, in a way, you are. Perhaps it’s not me but you. Or why should you let a dead man—moreover, an unlettered one—speak your final words?”
Cesar Ruiz Aquino was born in Zamboanga City, and has a Ph.D. in Literature from Silliman University. He writes both poetry and prose for which he has won virtually all the national awards in the Philippines and one international – the SEA Write Award from the royal family of Thailand in 2004. His books include the short story collection Chronicles of Suspicion, the poetry collections Word Without End, In Samarkand, Caesuras: 155 New Poems, Like a Shadow That Only Fits a Figure of Which It is Not the Shadow, and Fire If It Were Ice, Ice If It Were Fire, and the personal anthology Checkmeta: The Cesar Ruiz Aquino Reader. He lives in Dumaguete City.
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