I never understood what happened to my father that night. Nor did my brothers and I talk about it. We remembered how our aunts, a few months later, would go ballistic whenever we went near the clothesline or that abandoned house where electrical wires played possum. Susmaryosep! You kids get away from there! Then, we’d be reminded of how our Father looked that terrible night.
My father was not really superstitious, but he had a reverence for his faith, a reverence so profound one might even call it superstition. He found it blasphemous to use God’s name when one cursed or made Bible jokes. At best, we’d get a severe reprimand from him; at worst, he’d give us a whip of his belt. My older brother got the latter when he proudly asked us why Jesus, on the cross, asked God the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do. Why? we asked. When he revealed the answer, father overhearing us went livid. Blasphemous child! Busongon gyud ka! He was outraged at the punchline that it was Joseph of Arimathea who, having offered to carry the cross for awhile, ended up getting crucified instead of Christ.
My brother suffered ten blows from Father’s belt. After that, when we exchanged Bible jokes, it was in secret and always filled with fear.
We understood that if we did something sacrilegious, something bad would happen to us. So we took care not to blaspheme—if we could help it—and to revere our faith and everything it stood for as something essentially connected to our lives.
When his kids were not yet in college and life was easier, Father indulged in the luxury of a post graduate course, enrolling at a university in the city. On Saturdays before going to his class, Father would wake us up at five thirty, always frighteningly on the dot, for morning devotion. He would never force us to get up though; he had less conspicuous ways of making us join family devotions. He and Mother would sing church hymns for a full thirty minutes. By then, we would have been woken by their throaty rendition of “Morning Has Broken.”
On some days, I would pretend to sleep, waiting until there was only a few minutes left for the clock to strike six before getting up. “Turn to Jesus, turn to Jesus. He waits …” Most days, however, I would get up as soon as I heard my father’s voice, low and guttural, prodded by my guilt and my childhood fear of being stricken because of my irreverent pretense and for making God wait.
After breakfast, Father would be gone for the entire day, and we would be left to our own devices. TV wasn’t attractive; our own TV, a fourteen-inch Panasonic squat box with two antenna rods, offered only two channels. When the soap opera about a miserable young girl facing frightening adult tribulations got too depressing and the other channel showed only cockfights, we turned to the fields.
We were fascinated with catching dragonflies. My brothers said they looked like helicopters. I disagreed, but my eldest brother said that an eight-year-olds’ knowledge of dragonflies was limited. I was willing to accept this as a fact, especially since when dragonflies were rare, I knew we would play with something more fascinating. We fashioned guns from small bamboo stalks, about one foot in length. The trigger was a small bamboo stick attached to a handle, thin enough to slide through the hole in the stalk. Those days, we’d keep our test papers, so we could wet them, squeeze out the water and pinch a small piece to fit into the bamboo gun. Soon enough, we’d be shooting each other with moist paper bullets.
Sometimes these games threatened our childhood happiness. One Saturday afternoon when Father came home, Mother felt playful. She grabbed one of our bamboo guns and shot at him. I don’t think she had intended to shoot him right in the face, but the paper bullet landed on father’s wide forehead, dirty water trickling down his nose. We saw how his eyes turned a darker shade. Without saying a word, he went to our rooms and snatched all our bamboo guns and headed to the kitchen. On his way, he stopped mid-track and, with sacerdotal sternness, extended his hand to Mother. Meekly, she placed the offending gun in his hand. The following day, we saw it with the others, in pieces, in the garbage.
At night, Father would make us read Psalm 23. Then he would find out who among us had read the fastest. I always won.
“I am reading.”
“No, you’re eating the words. That is good, but you have to chew them before you swallow.” Like others, Father believed that men did not live by bread alone. When we read the Bible or recited verses, the premise was that we were consuming the word of God. But we also had to fully understand it—chew, then swallow.
Later, he would find out who had memorized the most Bible verses. When the prize was enticing—like a promised ten-peso addition to my allowance every day for five days—I’d make sure to memorize two verses every night, albeit very short ones. And at times, when read in isolation, they turned out to be very cryptic, like John 11:35—Jesus wept. Was it John or Matthew? I wouldn’t find out why Jesus wept until I was in college.
Father never explained the verses that we recited in front of him and Mother. He just presumed that we’d find the meaning in our hearts. Nobody had the audacity to confront him about such a presumption, and we never asked for an explanation; we just wanted to go back to watching Ninja Turtles.
I was in grade one when I first understood the concept of God as a shepherd. I hadn’t known what a shepherd was until our Sunday School teacher showed us a picture of David tending sheep and lambs. “David was a shepherd boy who fought the giant Goliath,” said middle-aged, bespectacled Miss Luz who had the sweetest voice and who turned the violent story into something heroically romantic. (I often wondered why she never got married; she could have easily crooned her husband into submitting to everything she wanted.) Shepherd, Miss Luz would point at the picture with a polished fingernail. The closest association I had with a shepherd was a goatherd on a field my brothers and I often frequented in our games. But the goatherds I saw were so unlike the shepherds pictured in our Biblical storybooks. Storybook shepherds looked young yet strangely wise, with their turbans, long white robes and shawl-like coats.
Nonetheless, I knew that a shepherd, like a goatherd, was someone who looked after sheep. By deduction, I likened myself and my family to lambs, knowing that God looked after his lambs, or even goats for that matter. It was in this syntax that I sublimated God and the Bible into my little world. It worked quite well, and like the child that I was, I was content with the knowledge that I’d harnessed. The Lord is my shepherd started to make sense.
Around the time his course was about to end, Father came home one Saturday and told Mother about a joke his professor had told them. It punned on a very familiar phrase in the Bible, “only begotten son,” by syllabicating the second word into two syllables, the first of which was to be pronounced as “big.” Of course, the remaining syllable, “otten,” pronounced with characteristically Cebuano vowel enunciation, punned with the native word for the male organ. My father was smiling, but his eyes weren’t.
“Goodness! Irreverent brute!” Mother looked amused. Then she added, “What did you do?”
“What do you mean? What did you expect me to do?” Father asked, his voice getting louder. I did not understand the rest of what he said, but by the time he was finished, he was furious.
“I mean, how did the class react?” Mother asked calmly.
For a moment, Father was speechless. He looked embarrassed by his outburst and my mother’s placidity.
“They laughed.” Then he added, almost in a whisper, “I laughed with them.”
His face went white when he saw me. For a moment, he looked like he was going to get sick. “Tita wants to trim my hair. Scissors, I’m looking for them.”
“But you just had a trim last week, Lana.” Mother knowingly gave my pixie cut a cursory glance.
“I want another one,” I said, hurriedly thinking of an explanation for my presence and unintended eavesdropping. “Now.”
When I left, I thought of the word Father had said. It was an ugly word, one of those that was forbidden in the house. Grown-ups said it was vulgar and lewd. To use it on God was unimaginably offensive! And Father hadn’t done anything. Instead he’d laughed with the offender thus he’d offended too, making the devil happy. Divine justice was swift and exacting; this I’d gathered from Sunday school. I was scared for my father.
That afternoon, while we were forced to take a nap, Father got electrocuted on a “dead wire” my aunts used as a clothesline for the laundry. Nobody had minded where the wire came from; nobody had bothered to ask if it was live. It had been there when we arrived, and we had just presumed it was “dead” because it came from the abandoned house adjacent our own. But that afternoon, we found out we were wrong. He was adjusting the clothesline, cutting and knotting it, when all of a sudden, we heard his bellow, like cow in a field.
From my window upstairs, I saw how Father shook with intensity. His bare chest and shoulders heaved furiously, as he struggled to free himself. In my eyes, he was no longer formidable; he was as helpless as a child. Mother rushed downstairs calling for him repeatedly, my brothers tagging behind. I wanted to follow, but I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the scene. Father’s eyes dilated and went almost entirely white. His head limped to the side. I tried to call to him, but my lips seemed to be sealed.
Later, I was told that it was my aunt who, pulling my father’s hair at the crown, saved him. The doctor, who happened to be my grandfather’s close friend, said in between sighs that “it’s a good thing you’re robust or else …” He left the rest of the thought unspoken.
“It’s a good thing as well that Lanie and the kids were not at the deep well,” Father added weakly. On Saturday mornings, Mother would help my aunts do the laundry at the deep well a few meters from our house, while we joined in, playing with the suds or simply getting everyone else wet. The clothesline hung only a few feet from where we did the laundry.
We did not have Bible readings and recitations after the accident, at least for quite a while. Psalm 23 was dormant, and I had forgotten some lines from the verses I’d memorized. Out of habit, at night, I would say Psalm 23 while lying in bed looking at the sky. From the bamboo slatted window, the sky looked like a field of little diamonds, sometimes glittering here and there. Often, the sky was dark, and I would forget which came first: leads me beside the still waters or makes me lie down in green pastures. Somehow, I’d always manage to say the first few verses, even if not in sequence, but I’d stop when I got to the fourth. I would feel the hair on my arms standing on end—Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I always felt an awful gloom and anticipation in that line; its cadence strangely hypnotic. Then I would sleep, disturbed. The following day, I’d wake up regretful for not having said the next line: I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
It had been almost a month since the accident, and Father remained unwell. He was unable to spend time with us in the evening, and Mother had to teach during the day and take care of all us, Father included. Our aunts cooked, did the laundry and kept house. They’d prepare us food before we ran off to school, and Father would be left at home. Our neighbors often wondered if he would ever go back to work. But I knew Father was still sick. I would hear him at night groaning and shaking, delirious—but never uttering a word.
One night, I heard Father speak. I don’t know. Maybe. I knew it wasn’t Mother he was talking to for I did not hear her answer. Then I heard him say Papang, the same term he’d used to address my grandfather who had passed away several years earlier. When one is young, it is difficult to make sense of things, because of ignorance or sheer innocence or mere forgetting.
The excitement of summer vacation soon made me forget what I’d heard. My brothers and I laid out our itinerary for the long break. First, we would hunt for good spiders, and then we’d build rooms in matchboxes for their houses. My brothers suggested we look for spiders at night in the fields where the weeds grew tallest. We’d bring flashlights or little torches, knowing spiders from the tall weeds were usually the bravest of the lot.
Then we’d make big colorful kites like the ones we’d seen two summers ago on the school grounds during the competition organized by that milk company with a smiling bear logo. At night, our eldest brother would draw his envisioned kite on a piece of paper, and my younger brother and I would study it in fascination. Then we’d throw in a few ideas about how big it would be or what colors would go well together—both to conceal our excitement and to mark the kite as our own.
It was during one of these nights, when Mother was out, that Father came running to us from the kitchen. He was in a frenzy, talking in a voice higher than the one he used when cross with us. At first, we thought he was angry at one of our aunts. But the terror in his eyes belied what was really happening. I looked in the direction he was looking. Nobody was there. Then he ran back to the kitchen as if to stop somebody from getting to us. His arms were spread wide, then entangled, as if wrestling with an invisible being. He was shouting the whole time. “Panulay! You demon! Be gone!” His face contorted hideously. We could see how saliva swished from his mouth as he bared his teeth. His eyes looked different, like the eyes of a beast we had imagined claiming us when we’d done something evil.
Then he was down on one knee, struggling to get up. It seemed that there was a force bearing down on him, and for a moment, it looked as if he was about to face defeat. My brothers and I squeezed next to each other, terrorized by what we were witnessing. We were scared even to breathe. Father growled, and with all his might, pushed the invisible enemy away until he regained his footing. I remember seeing his lower lip trembling uncontrollably. But I also remember seeing him press his lips together and curl his fists.
“Get away from my children,” Father said quietly but with a firmness that surprised me. He gathered us slowly and hugged all three of us. I felt tremors running through his body and then course through our own. Then he started humming one of the songs he used to sing early in the morning. Sometimes his voice faltered; other times, nothing came out but air. Gently, he swayed with the tune—forwards and backwards—and we swayed, too. When I looked at my father, there was a quietness in his eyes, the same look he had when highlighting Bible passages with our used crayons. He looked peaceful all of a sudden. We stayed like that for awhile—Father hugging us and afraid to let go; my brothers growing squeamish but still dazed by what had just happened; me finding myself wanting to cry but unable to.
Later that night, when Mother came home, we did not talk about what had happened. We were afraid to say anything, and even if we had mustered the courage to say something, we could not have explained what had occurred. We just wanted to forget.
Mother read us to sleep that night. The last time I remembered being read to sleep was when I was in kindergarten. Stories of a little orphan girl becoming a queen or of a feast created from five loaves of bread and two fishes had made me imagine I was an orphan myself and would become powerful and special. Or I would imagine that if I prayed enough, big fried chicken slices and sundaes would suddenly appear. Perhaps we were now a little old for such stories because mother read us Psalm 23 instead. Years of reading to seven-year-old pupils had made her a good storyteller. I liked the way she let the soft round vowels flow. He restores my soul. The rhythm evoked ease, the peace of green fields, and suddenly I felt sleepy though I had pretended to fall asleep much earlier. Mother kissed my forehead.
That night in bed, I cried so hard. I thought of what I had seen and tried to understand what it was. I got nothing but a sense of foreboding and the hairs on my arms standing on end. Then I became angry—that evil clothesline and that ugly word Father had learnt from his teacher! I was angry at the teacher and how he had made Father laugh at his joke and made God angry. I thought of how the electrocution had changed him and how he now looked. He was no longer my father. What if God would summon him to heaven to explain, and he would never return to us? What if it was God’s angel that Father had wrestled but he hadn’t recognized it because he had laughed at that joke!? What if God would find him guilty and give him to the devil?! I started to panic and a felt a terrible despair come over me. I thought that no matter how many Bible verses I recited, Father would never be the same again. But I was also so tired that my mind simply obeyed my body and made me sleep soundly and dream of shepherds looking after their sheep on green fields.
Early the next morning, I heard my father singing for the first time since the accident. It was a peaceful song. I did not open my eyes; I simply floated with the melody. I listened for a little while, then I drifted back to sleep loving the sound of the song on my father’s quivering voice. The clothesline was forgotten, the ugly word buried. I knew then that my father had come back to us. God had forgiven him.
Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, major in English, from Silliman University in 2003. She took up Law studies but left in 2008, and applied into the Graduate Teaching Fellowship program of Silliman, eventually completing her MA in Literary Studies while teaching English and literature classes. She was eventually invited to join the faculty of the Department of English and Literature, and became its Chair in 2016-2018. She recently completed her Ph.D. at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In this excerpt from the Palanca-winning novel Bittersweetland, we witness the homecoming of the protagonist Aaron Guillermo, an exile who has just returned to Bacolod City from New York, readying to attend his father Bill’s mañanica. It is the early 1980s, and the sugar crisis is crippling the island of Negros and the death of Benigno Aquino Jr. has become a political specter, making this particular return home perilous. The novel explores Aaron’s fate as it is tied up to the fate of his country, and tied up as well to the peculiarities of his being a reluctant sugar heir, even as he also grapples with a failed marriage and his fruitless attempt to finish the novel he has been writing for years.
Bill Guillermo would have missed his mañanica had it not been for the roar of the plane taking off less than a kilometer away. He started up at past three and remembered that he was supposed to be in Montecielo. He had slipped out of bed without disturbing Baba and made his way to the Range Rover. I’ve become so damn careless, he scolded as he tip-toed to his bedroom and slipped into his pajamas. Fidela did not stir. He fell asleep the moment he hit the bed. I should get a separate bedroom.
Aaron had caught the first flight in time for the mañanica. He eased back into his seat, trying to remember the songs; he had been singing them, at least before his exile, for most of his life. Bill’s fiftieth was going to be Bacolod’s party of the decade, a day for keeping track of your proper rung in the social ladder. Only his father would be unimpressed by the ostentatious display. It has been so long, Aaron smiled as he dozed off, nodding off to the hum of the jet engine.
Three in the morning, Adrian’s room reeked of San Miguel as, guts boiling, head in a funk, he stumbled off to bed. The report went as planned, Fernandez praising his work, good job, Aaron. Always the mistake with the name. My name is not Aaron Guillermo, he had exploded at the surprised class, who had always seen him as taciturn and unaffected. I am Adrian Guillermo, battering the desk with his hands. And he had to tell that oddball what he could do with himself and his parents besides. Sometimes, if I try hard enough, I could be a prince, he now scolded himself, tilting his lava head, sensing danger as he listened to the clatter of his father’s arrival. It was his father’s birthday and had to get up early for the mañanica. Seriously.
Aaron woke up as the steward was announcing, in a sleepy native lilt native, the plane’s initial descent. How long has it been? Five years of exile, self-inflicted. He had threaded the earth as a belly-gazer, dreamt the world revolving around his pusod. Home, finally, he said aloud as Bacolod’s mist rose up to obscure his sidelong look, his eyes edging toward a blurry space, as if conjuring up a ghost. Outside his line of vision, dawn was a flux of city lights, oscillating in intensity, blossoming into a hazy field as the plane weaved and bobbed into its terse final approach. He glanced at the shoreline bordering the runway, just coming into sight, a myriad of boat-shapes and fish-pen enclosures shuddering upward to greet the plane’s screeching underbelly. Bill would get the surprise of his life, Aaron glowed. Fidela, not so her, had been insistent on the phone.
Thursday morning, he had been puttering around in his robe, recalling who he had lured to the pad the night before and what had become of her, when the jangle of the phone poked through his hang-over, a dull peeling knife.
“Aaron, how are you?” The voice, strangled by distance, rasped.
“Blanche gave me your number.”
“Anything wrong?” He slumped into the rattan chair, his temple throbbing.
“No. Nothing’s wrong.”
“Why did you call?” Aaron gasped in horror as the blanket stirred. Mike’s secretary. He had not even asked her name.
“Aaron, is anything the matter?”
“No, no.” Fucking Buñuel dirty martinis! He filed away a mental note to stop clowning around with the vermouth.
“Aaron, its Bill’s, it’s your father’s fiftieth. Saturday.”
“I know. I sent a card.”
“It would be nice—”
“Mom, I have things to do.”
“It’s his fiftieth birthday.”
“Who’s there with you?” Aaron heard shuffling over the phone. “It’s Blanche, isn’t it? What’s she doing there? It’s only Thursday.”
“It’s some holiday.”
“It’s those rallies, isn’t it?” he asked, shaking his head.
“Do you want to talk to her?”
“I’ll call back in the afternoon.” He ran a hand through his hair. The bed creaked. A leg poked out of the thick blanket. Pretty toes which started all this anyway when he visited Mike’s law office.
“Robertito’s in Bacolod.” His favorite uncle, the Jesuit.
“I had lunch with him the other day.”
“Are you coming home?”
“Yes. And Bill’s not to know about this.”
“Catch the commercial flight.”
“How’s the book?” Fidela asked, relief in her voice. A name came to mind, but he was not sure if Mike said it was Mina or Mira. M something.
“Fine. I’ll be home—“
“Please make it in time for the mañanica.”
He replaced the receiver with a hasty goodbye and glared at the Amorsolo etching of women bathing, realizing this bucolic hallucination had greeted him every morning for almost a year. That long. Shit! He panicked as he picked up the phone. Before she could wake up, he called Mike to ask him his secretary’s name.
Aaron drove the car despite the protestations of Enteng, the gray-looking family driver. Both of them rolled down the windows, allowing the October morning to sweep into the car. The sharpened wind made Aaron shiver. He drove the Mercedes with his feet light on the accelerator, the diesel engine a soft whirr in the quiet near-dark. Traffic was non-existent. From Araneta, he turned left by the City Hall, down San Juan, so he could pass by the reclaimed area. There were no new buildings. A few nipa sprouts and a wooden complex—Enteng said this was the Manokan, famous for its roasted chicken—were scattered along the shoreline. He turned right by the gloomy-looking cathedral into Rizal and then, Lacson. He smiled, seeing how the skyline had remained the same. The tallest structure was the Philnabank Building, half a dozen stories poking the gathering light. The roads were better, small consolation.
Five years was long enough but even before his self-imposed flight, he had only come home during semestral breaks and Christmas vacation. He had not seen Bacolod in nine years. He chuckled and the driver stirred beside him.
“How are they?” he asked the driver.
“’to?” Enteng looked surprised. He mumbled assent, slouching back into his seat. The black Benz continued on through the lightening dawn, trackless, unmindful. He sighed, realizing he would see Montecielo in a minute.
“’nong, don’t you miss us?” He remembered Blanche asking him. It had started, all these questions, after he had arrived from New York and from failure.
“No, I don’t think so. You know how I feel about strong attachments.”
Blanche sighed, her eyes brimming.
“That may not sound right to you, but that’s how I feel,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry, Blanche.”
He had apologized then as he would apologize whenever Blanche changed tack to talk about “family.” She was the only one he saw regularly, always propping her girlfriends against him. She was always around, although he didn’t seem to miss her but for his regular shot-in-the-arm.
Aaron whistled as he steered the car left toward the seafront. The narrow concrete road was bordered on both sides by ipil-ipil. The last time he had visited Montecielo, his father had worried about these trees. Nearby squatters were cutting down the incipient branches for kindling. The trees had survived, he smiled, as he scoured the darkness ahead for the familiar stone wall hugging the contours of the hill. He looked at the car’s digital clock: half past five.
He spotted the low adobe wall before he saw the house, set on a small hill, and the pavilion, set on another. He followed with his eyes the wall climbing up a soft slope, broken by a white wrought-iron gate.
As he turned into the flagstone pathway leading to the house, Aaron nodded to the dozing guard. Fidela, just awake, stood on the veranda. Peering over her left shoulder, Blanche waited on tiptoes. Home! His hands trembling as he killed the engine. Patting the driver on the shoulder, he eased himself out of the car. His mother, hands behind her back, was smiling as she greeted him. Blanche waved vigorously.
Above the doorway, a large, yellow sheet of cartolina caught Aaron’s eyes. Blanche’s practiced schoolgirl scrawl greeted: WELCOME HOME, MANONG AARON. He looked at his younger sister, deciding she would never grow beyond her hair cut short, her pixie-like frame belying a strong, distinctive will, an acquiescence to love, yet acceding to the possibility of harm.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Aaron scolded her sister with a smile. He glanced at his mother, in a light cotton blouse and shorts. Borrowed from Blanche. A forty-five year-old woman couldn’t possibly look better than Fidela Guillermo. No worry lines creased her forehead despite her abjuring of surgery. She would never go under the knife; that would have been too painful. Aaron watched the slim figure flit into the living room, wondering where his mother threw away the dark secrets and lies. Where did these women keep the emotional reserve that allowed them to wear their hair short, fit into their daughters’ dresses, and look like their sons’ sisters?
Aaron followed Blanche and Fidela, his eyes growing accustomed to what was vaguely familiar in his mind. They were suffused with a warm glow, the large mahogany dining table, the light-bay colored sheen of the panels, the off-white rug stirring under his feet, the incandescent reflection of light against the French windows that swung open to the pool area. The years of exile did not erase those scraps of his past still extant in these objects.
A congenial sight, of children rehearsing for the mañanica, made him nod. By the pool area, a cleric in a Yankees baseball cap Aaron remembered as their ex-parish priest was encouraging the children. Blanche waited for Aaron, hanging on to his arms, and led him to the poolside. Bernadette, the elder Guillermo daughter, was sunk into a rattan chair, as dark, and as cross, as she had always been. Her plumpness was masked by the chair’s shadow, under which she bore the proceedings with a frown. Her mouth curved into an unaccustomed smile when she saw Aaron.
Aaron turned to a familiar, restive voice. Adrian, much taller than when Aaron last saw him, and no less angrier, was scolding a boy who insisted on dipping his foot into the water. Adrian saw Aaron and, holding the struggling child with his right hand, extended the other in firm, almost mano-a-mano, greeting. Adrian disported the awkward taste of his age, his untucked and outsized shirtsleeves and his skewed grin a slop of what, to youth, must seem most important. Aaron looked at his brother’s sockless feet and old Top-siders, remembering his own, as his uncle Tito called it, “age of misrule.”
“O, ‘nong. Glad to see you,” Adrian said. The boy broke loose and scrambled into the arms of an old dumpy woman smiling at Aaron.
Aaron smiled back at his old yaya. “Miss!” he called out, waving at the old maid who had served the Guillermo for twenty-five years, now their middle-aged mayordoma. She had been flat and stringy when she arrived and was now with a serious paunch. This had people gossiping that she was pregnant, which would have been a miracle as she had never been married.
“Crispin, that is your Manong Aaron,” she whispered to the boy, the dialect lilting even beyond its usual sonority.
“Crispin?” Aaron asked. Of course, Crispin. Blanche had told him …
“He’s not even supposed to be here,” Adrian muttered.
Aaron stared at the small, curly-haired boy who was his youngest brother, born in his exile. A five-year-old brother he had never seen. Somehow, that made him feel he had been gone forever. He is as old as Billy would have been, Aaron decided, even if there was no point bringing that up now.
The pool area began to fill. A few government officials and Bill’s business associates arrived, some with their wives and children, each one apologizing for their tardiness. The Guillermos streamed in. Mariano Guillermo and his wife Angela, Amanda (her mother’s namesake) and her husband, Junior Lacson. Aaron paid homage and his disinterest did not go unnoticed, Fidela sighing as she flew past him to wake up Bill. His cousins, he greeted with more relish. He exchanged banter with Junie Lacson and his wife Millette, greeted Andy Guillermo and his wife, Lisa, both his saving grace in New York. How things would have turned out if Andy had not hurried home after finishing his MBA. Aaron looked with wonder at his cousins’ children, Andy’s eldest, precocious CJ, named after his great-grandfather, the original Guillermo Guillermo and Junie’s Miguel Jr. and Carlos.
“Pads!” Aaron greeted his uncle Tito, at forty-four, the youngest Guillermo heir and the only one in soutane. His impeccable combed hair still jet-black, Tito looked too much like a banking executive to be mistaken for anything but a Jesuit. Even if they didn’t come closer than sixes and sevens over any subject, Aaron still looked up to his uncle, academician and sociologist, as his doppelganger. Tito shook his hands warmly and introduced him to Monsignor Golez, an old family friend, who always gave the invocation, and who Aaron had not seen since he officiated at his confirmation.
The din heightened as the other Guillermos came in, the older children shouting familiarly, the younger ones scrambling, screaming as harried yayas fussed over them. Aaron looked at his watch, his demeanor unruffled by the noisy going-on. It was already six o’clock.
Turning around, Aaron spotted his father. Both smiled as Fidela pointed out her son. Bill Guillermo, except for the hair peppered with gray, was Aaron older but not by much. He hasn’t changed, Aaron thought, as Bill kissed Fidela on the cheeks. He strode forward and grasped Aaron’s hands as the children wheezed out a sentimental Ilonggo song.
“Happy you’re home, Aaron. Damn glad!” Bill growled. He looks the same, Bill thought, after five years, more gaunt but still too serious. Aaron had his father’s wavy golden-brown hair, the high nose and dull-gray eyes. Bill could see how familiar Aaron’s waddle was, even after all the years. It was his own. They called Aaron “Ducky” in school but the past years had replaced Aaron’s flab with muscles.
Bill did not think Fidela could still surprise him after 25 years of marriage. She’s a good wife, a good woman and I wish I could be home more often, Bill thought as he led his wife and son to a table. They sat down, listening to the children as they swung into a Bill favorite. It was “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Bill smiled and sang along with the children, clapping his hands as they sang Berlin’s “Always.” Aaron peered at his watch again. Not much longer. The last series was sung, the voices soon straining with the impatience. “Hindi Kita Malimot” and then, Bill rasping it out on the microphone, “Moon River.”
Bill gave his salutations, Monsignor Golez led a prayer for peace, the hubbub continued as the strains of “Happy Birthday,” off-beat and loud, accompanied the exodus for the buffet tables. As the birthday song faded, a boy, his hair slicked back with cheap pomade, started singing the theme from Man of La Mancha, his thin breasts thrust forward as he scaled the higher keys (dis is mi kwes, to palo da star, no mater haw hoples), his fervor befitting the peculiar accent with which he sang the moment’s hit.
“Now that I’m fifty, they might take a pot shot at me,” Bill joked. Aaron, hearing rumors about his father’s political ambitions, laughed at the reference, not unusual as the seasonal storms approached and the country was passing through the eye of a political and social typhoon.
Less political talk, more appreciative mumbling around the board. You picked through a monolith of blue, pink, white and green puto stacked on silver plates and served with kesong puti, carabao curd, or you sipped hot chocolate, digging into services of Spanish omelet, wafer-thin slices of Chinese ham, Chorizo Bilbao and Chorizo hamonado, while the children continued singing, watching with wide eyes, waiting for their turn at the overcrowded table.
The chill was disappearing, the sun starting to weave shadows on the grassy knoll beside the pool house. Bill had his arms around Aaron, both waving away each offer of breakfast, Fidela standing behind them, small in their shadow. Aaron thought, how prescient it was that he was standing here in the season of rain, this October month, this too-early Sunday morning, in this perilous hour of homecoming.
Raymundo T. Pandan, Jr., who is known as Rayboy to friends and associates, hails from Bacolod and has practiced law for more than 30 years. He served as Dean of the College of Law at the University of St. La Salle from 1998 to 2010, and continues to teach in the law school. He was the research director of the Supreme Court’s JURIS Project on mediation from 2004 to 2008. He was fellow at the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 1984. His poetry collection Illuminations and Sonorities (2006) and children’s poetry collection The Ocelot and Other Poems (2012) won the Palanca Awards, while his first book of poetry, Days of Grace: Selected Poems and New, 1984-2002, was a finalist for the National Book Awards. He won the Cirilo Bautista Prize for the Novel in 2015.
Sometime in 2008, I had the fortune to be asked to form and moderate LitCritters Dumaguete, a fledgling group of young writers in Dumaguete — all of them students studying at Silliman University at that time — who were keen on learning about creative writing in depth, and were willing to go to great lengths to produce stories fit for national publication. It was a local branch of LitCritters Manila, a group led by Dean Francis Alfar, which was known for following a strict workshop and reading schedule, like so: every weekend, usually on Saturdays, the group would meet and discuss three or four stories by known [and some unknown] authors, and try to see what made them work [or not work]. And then, after three weekends of reading and critiquing stories, each member of the group was required to produce their own short story — to be workshopped by all the rest on the last Saturday of each month. This period, which lasted until 2012, was probably the most productive time I had writing-wise, and many in the Dumaguete group would go on to publish their works in national magazines. Many others [both in Manila and Dumaguete] would also win national awards for our efforts. It remains an unequalled time in terms of personal literary production.
One such story that saw national publication was Justine Megan Yu’s “Sweet Baby.” This story came about because of a writing challenge we posed to the entire group: they had to write fiction whose sensibility was the complete opposite of their own. One member of LitCritters Dumaguete hated domestic realism with passion, so he was asked to write one. [He made a refrigerator fall on his protagonist, just to end the wretched exercise.] Another one was of the religious sort, so he was asked to write a story that was in complete negation of God. I have never been known for my sense of humor, which makes me uncomfortable with writing comic stories — so the group challenged me to write one. [My effort, thankfully, was later published in Philippines Graphic Magazine.] Justine was famously a fervent feminist, and so she was asked to write a story that followed what we called a “male chauvinist pig.” She demurred, but she nonetheless accepted the challenge. The story she produced was phenomenal for its stark rendering of a character we knew she hated, and we encouraged her to submit it for national publication. A few months later, the Philippines Free Press accepted it.
This made me realise that sometimes going outside one’s comfort zone in writing can make for the best literary exercise. That “comfort zone” may be defined by what we believe, or what we know, or what we are used to in terms of style. You may call this your “voice.” Admittedly, many of my own stories are products of what I believe in, and what I know, and what I am used to in terms of narrative style — but I also find that sometimes going against my innate writing instincts, governed by all three, usually give me stories that are surprisingly fulfilling for me, although the effort in crafting them is hardly easy.
What’s on the other side of what we know, what we believe, and what we are comfortable with?
Justine Megan Yu‘s short story “Sweet Baby,” about an unrepentant Romero in Dumaguete forced to deal with an unexpected twist in his love life, is certainly a testament of what can be achieved when one considers the above question fully.
Bacolod writer Nicolas Lacson‘s “The General” also does the same: he confronts a towering family figure he barely knows, and sees that the ghost of the past may still haunt, but they are irrevocably gone. What’s on the other side of legend? Dust.
In Dumaguete writer Francesca Flores‘ “Multiverse,” we get a science fiction twist to a tale of amnesia and “lost” love, and posits this dilemma: what’s on the other side of another life?
And because it is his 98th birth anniversary on September 22, we have decided to include Duamguete screenwriter Cesar Jalandoni Amigo‘s short story, “Rain Without Meaning.” It is reprint from the pages of the 1946 issue of The Sillimanian Magazine. What’s on the other side of devotion and expectation? Hatred and disappointment, Amigo tells us in this story about a daughter, who could never measure up as a pianist to her exacting elderly father.
In our collection of poetry for this issue, we begin with two poems by Cesar Ruiz Aquino. In “Illuminatus,” Aquino derives playful dilemma from an interview with Negros Oriental’s Father Eleuterio Tropa, a former Catholic priest turned founder of an environmental cult he named The Lamplighters. [He died in 1993, and is buried in Zamboanguita.] What’s on the other side of your professed beliefs? Secrets you can never tell the world. And then in “Sun,” Aquino does his occasional exercise in revision of an earlier poem [this one has various iterations in previous publications]. What is the other side of “finished”? A poet always on the side of tinkering.
In “King of Comedy,” Bacolod poet Hezron Pios tackles one magnificent trapo of a politician — the offending person goes unnamed in the poem, but is not difficult to deduce — whose ungodly shenanigans pains the poet, who unleashes a magnificent tirade in this piece. What’s on the other side of bad politics? A lost dream.
In “New Key,” Dumaguete poet Lyde Sison Villanueva takes the metaphor of a key and fills it with rumination on memory, geography, even grief. What’s the other side of a jammed lock? A spare key that does not want to be useful.
For our essays in this issue, we are reprinting from the pages of Silliman Journal, Niccolo Rocamora Vitug‘s impassioned reconsideration of the legacies of Dumaguete writers Edilberto and Edith Tiempo and the legendary workshop they co-founded in 1962 in the light of recent criticism about their work [in English] and the claim that the Sillliman University National Writers Workshop is problematic because of its alleged ties to American imperialism, its supposed adherence to the tenets of formalism, and its insistence on only considering works by Filipino writers in English. The other side of all these is nuance.
Finally, in celebration of Amigo’s 98th birth anniversary, I have written an appreciation of the Dumaguete filmmaker and writer. He was acclaimed and well-awarded in his prime, and produced many great works that have contributed considerably to Philippine cinema and literature — but he is sadly mostly forgotten now. Only last September 2, a restoration of one of the films he scripted, the Gerardo de Leon classic The Moises Padilla Story, was screened by the Film Development Council of the Philippines in Quezon City. This was part of the celebration of the Philippine Film Industry Month this year—and the organizers forgot to invite Amigo’s family to the screening. This second issue of Buglas Writers Journal aims to rectify this cultural amnesia by devoting space in remembrance of Cesar Jalandoni Amigo.
It’s Reggae Wednesday and I’m drunk again on the third Tanduay flat. No chaser. As rhum should be drunk.
Escaño Beach with a full haloed moon. A hot chick passes by. Fair skin, long hair, pink halter top, ample breasts, tiny waist, hips made for large hands. I’d love to fuck her. I wouldn’t want her for a girlfriend though. Girls who look like that will only leave you for someone else. Someone more good-looking, with more money. Or a shinier bike.
Sometime later, I walk to Hayahay to use their toilet. I pass the large foam flip-flop that might fall on me any minute.
The hot chick is suddenly at my side.
She grips my wrist. “Come with me,” she says, and drags me to the toilet. “I need someone to take me home. I’m a little tipsy na.” Giggle, giggle.
We’ve never met before. It’s a lucky night. An easy score.
“But I need to pee first. Wait here,” she commands.
I nod blindly. The gel on my curly hair feels heavy and I lean on the rough blue wall reeking of human and crab piss. I realize I don’t have a condom on me. Great. Wait, I think I know this girl. My friends have done her. Not a prostitute. Just very, very slutty, and desperate as hell. I bolt out of there and hide in the shadows of a friend’s parked car along the sea wall.
The next day at lunch my girlfriend asks me how my night went. She doesn’t go out much because of her curfew and because she doesn’t really drink.
“I went home early because I felt a fever coming on.”
She places a small, warm palm on my forehead. Her neat eyebrows softly furrow.
“A little headache too,” I say.
“Aw. My poor baby.” She kisses me on the nose. “How do you feel now?”
“Better.” I give her the smile that a girl once called the bra-snapper.
She’s a sweet, pretty girl, and I feel awful for lying. But she knows I love her and that’s enough. “You know, someday I’m going to marry you.”
“Because I’m a cheap but effective pain-reliever?”
“Yes. And because you’re good for me.”
And she leaves it at that.
Three nights later all the bands are playing U2 covers at Hayahay. The whole barkada is there—guys I’ve known since first grade.
We wave our lighters in the air when Mickey the Poet performs “Until the End of the World.” We sing along to the last band belting out “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Our anthem.
We’re all stoked from the high that only good rock music can bring and we decide to go for another round of beer.
Along the sea wall, the boy choys pose with their stripped motorcycles; loud college freshmen crowd on a pick-up truck; and guys in same-colored shirts flick The Finger at some passing foreigner in a blue convertible, clearly rented from Happy Fred’s.
A couple of Red Horse Grande bottles lay smashed on the road. Someone is cursing in Binisaya to a hip-hop beat. This scene isn’t for us, so we make our way to Silliman Beach.
A couple of girls have joined us—classmates and girlfriends and friends of friends. One of them has pulled out all the stops. Short skirt, thin shirt, silver glitter on the cleavage.
Everyone gets stupid drunk real quick. One guy tries to light his cigarette on the wrong end of the car lighter.
When the ice runs out, I volunteer to get some. The glitter-cleavage girl comes with me. No one notices we take a ten minutes longer than we should have. This one’s a real Girl Scout, ready with a condom. We do it standing up in the bathroom stall at Barefoot Bistro. She cleans up well, too. There’s not a spot on my jeans or my Vans slip-ons.
On Sundays my girlfriend and I go to church together. Today my head feels only slightly numb after I downed two Tylenols and half a liter of water. I pick her up at her boarding house where I know I’ll find her waiting outside, a bright smile on her face. She never makes me wait.
Today she’s wearing a pastel yellow shirtdress, which brings out a pinkish flush on her cream complexion. My heart stops a little at the sight of her.
“Awww. Guwapa-ha sa akong uyab, uy.” I plant a light kiss on her cheek. She smells like freshly squeezed sugar cane.
“Nyeh. You say that because you’re late.”
She blushes anyway.
Our first anniversary is coming up fast. I let her think I’ve forgotten it. She drops hints, and I play dense. I want to surprise her, if only for the pleasure of seeing her blush. I’ll probably get her some roses and a Marvin the Martian pillow.
“No, really. I’m the luckiest guy in the whole world.” That elicits another blush. We both laugh. She slips her arm through mine as we wait for a ride.
She’s the only girl I’ve ever held hands with in church. I used to think public displays of affection like that would feel awkward, but with her it’s different. It feels natural. When I’m with her I don’t think about other girls and other nights. They don’t really matter, anyway. She doesn’t have to know and she never will. There’s an unspoken rule among male friends. You never talk behind a friend’s back to his girlfriend about their relationship—or anything remotely related to it. You can talk about school, about common friends, even celebrities, the weather. Anything else, but never about the relationship. A similar rule goes for one-night stands. Those girls understand that when you meet in daylight, a nod and a half-smile is enough.
“I’ll miss you when I go home for the Christmas break,” she whispers to me after Communion.
I squeeze her hand. “We’ll talk everyday.”
We take turns calling each other once she is home in Bukidnon. She wakes me up in the morning with a call. We talk before we fall asleep at night.
“Good morning! What are you doing today?”
“Uhm. Playstation. And maybe go to my high school homecoming tonight.”
“As in? Me too. I’ll be at my high school reunion.”
“Don’t have too much fun. And watch out for those ex-crushes.”
She laughs. She went to an all-girl school.
“So how did it go?” she asks when I call her the next day.
“Fun at first. But then it got a little boring.”
Of course I don’t tell her that all my friends and I did was check out which girls filled out, lost fat, or finally learned to show-off a little skin. I don’t tell her we made bets on who’d lost their virginity.
“You? Lingaw ra?”
“Yup. ‘Ey, I’ll talk to you later. I need to help for a party tonight. My parent’s friends are coming over.”
Weird, I later think. She only gave me a one-word answer when usually she took up all of fifteen minutes before Sun Cellular cut off the call.
Finally New Year comes and Dumaguete is alive again. I meet my girlfriend at the pier. Walking behind her on the ramp is glitter-cleavage girl, still underdressed for the occasion. So she’s from Mindanao, too. A nod, a half-smile. Well-played, I’m impressed.
“Hi.” I take the duffel bag off her shoulder.
I grasp her hand and link my fingers through hers.
“I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. Let’s have lunch?”
She lets go of my hand.
This scene replays itself clearly in my mind a month and a half later while she sits crying on her bed with the pink sheets and her Marvin the Martian pillow. Her hands are on her lap holding a flat, white plastic stick the size of a ballpoint pen. On one end is a small, yellow smiley-face.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
I am too stunned to say anything.
“He’s a family friend. We hadn’t seen each other since they left for the States. We were thirteen then. We didn’t think we’d see each other again. Then they came home last Christmas. It just happened. After that party. I didn’t realize what I was doing. It happened only once. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Her sobs and hiccups shake her small frame.
I punch the nearest surface blindly.
I don’t notice my knuckles starting to bleed. I don’t see the specks of blood on the cement wall.
But I keep promises.
That summer I marry her before the bulge in her belly starts to show.
She moves in to our house. She doesn’t know this yet, but as she sleeps next to me each night—a soft, warm presence—but I don’t think I can ever have sex with her again.
Justine Megan Yu hails from Dumaguete, and was a fellow for creative nonfiction at the 2011 Silliman University National Writers Workshop, and also at the Second Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop for Doctors in 2021 by the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center. Currently, she is a medical doctor practicing Neurology, and maintains a clinic at Negros Polymedic Hospital in Sibulan, Negros Oriental.
There were only two days left before the centennial, when the twins, just turned eleven, arrived in Bacolod with their father. They came on the second flight from Manila, although their father had lobbied for leaving on the earliest one, meaning they would have to be at the airport by four-thirty in the morning, at the latest. The twins had their mother to thank: she had argued that if the boys did not get enough sleep, they were liable to be cranky, and it was highly likely that their father, notorious for his short and fiery temper, would find them impossible to deal with. It was for the good of all, she had pointed out, and their father, after a while, sighed, conceded she was right—what mattered after all was that they went. It was surprise enough that the twins had asked, over dinner a few nights ago, when their father announced his plan to go to Bacolod, if they could come. Their father, pleasantly taken aback, lowered his fork.
“Really? You want to come?”
The next day, after getting over the initial shock, their father—instead of his secretary at the office—saw to it himself that the accommodations were arranged: a flight was booked, the lodgings reserved. They would be in Bacolod for five days and four nights, from the tenth of June to the fourteenth, when they would leave on the last flight. While they were away, their mother would remain in Manila and look after the office. All was set by the morning of the tenth, a sunny and humid Thursday, and the twins found themselves on a plane flying away from Manila, destined for their father’s hometown. Nicky, the older of the two by minutes, had brought along his Gameboy and a comic book while Raffy had neatly packed his knapsack with three volumes of The Hardy Boys and the folded extra shirt their mother had advised them to take. When the plane lifted into the air and they felt an invisible hand pull on their tiny, seatbelt-strapped bodies, they secretly rejoiced over the fact that they were certain to miss the first day of classes, which began on the fourteenth. Nicky was seated by the window and his dark eyes shone as he leaned over Raffy, seated beside him, and whispered that perhaps if Mama took pity, they might just even be able to skip the second one. Raffy didn’t answer; he merely adjusted the round pair of glasses perched on his nose—it was the only way they could be told apart—and went back to his detective book, although Nicky noticed, that his twin remained stuck on the same page for a good ten minutes, staring at the print.
When finally they got off the plane, it was late morning, around ten, and the twins felt grateful after having been cooped up for over an hour. Nicky all the while had kept whining about how the window seat was useless since about all it offered was nothing but blue, blue, blue. The dimness of their spirits had only lifted when the pilot announced they would be landing shortly. The plane dipped and banked and shuddered, and the twins, for the moment, were afforded a temporary thrill—tugboats chugging along the glinting strait, a dark column of smoke rising from the green sea of sugarcane, and finally the traffic cluttered on the narrow city streets, which from above reminded them of toy cars.
“Why’s there smoke?” Raffy asked.
“It’s the milling season,” their father replied.
On the tarmac, the sun fell full upon their faces as they walked squinting towards the terminal. Raffy commented there were fireflies in his legs and feet. Above, the sky was naked and cloudless. Nicky, apparently not yet finished, began to complain about the heat, about having to walk under it. At least in Manila, he claimed, you passed through a tube and it was air-conditioned. Raffy quietly assented to this observation. Nicky then began to lag behind, dragging his feet, groaning, and feigning exhaustion. Their father, with a hand over his eyes, his bald head shiny like a cue ball, ordered him to hurry up.
“It’s so hot,” Nicky whined.
“What do you expect?” their father said curtly. “When you go down south, naturally it gets hotter.”
They continued walking, following the other passengers, Nicky wearing a long face, still muttering complaints under his breath.
“Why can’t you behave, like your brother?”
Nicky finally clammed up.
Their father led them to the terminal, where a lone conveyor belt cranked out the luggage slower than an old woman stirring a pot of soup. He was a squat bald man and his teeth were yellow from too much coffee. He wore a maroon Lacoste shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of shiny dark brown moccasins, without socks—a businessman on a holiday. He looked different to the boys, without the heavy-shouldered suit and colorful ties. The twins always heard their mother—who helped their father choose what to wear everyday—say that she was glad their father didn’t dress like a probinsyano anymore, like when he had arrived in Manila. Nicky especially took this to mean that he dressed funny, like a farmer in one of their history textbooks—a straw hat, tsinelas, camisa chino, and pants hitched up to the knee.
Still, their mother always said that he was a brilliant man. Insurance was what he did for a living but his ruling passion was history, the degree he held from his university years. His desk in the office was lined with a calculator, insurance policies held together cleanly with paper clips, and checks awaiting his loopy signature. But at home, in the den, there was another special table, one where only he was allowed to sit at. It was clear save for a fountain pen bought in Italy when he had left the country for the first time at the age of twenty-three, and a thick ream of loose bond paper, the words all scribbled in his cramped illegible hand, comprehensible to no one but himself.
“Papa, what are you doing?” Raffy asked one afternoon, when he was furiously at work on the pages. The twins were playing and had somehow burrowed their way into the den. “I’m trying to write a book,” he answered, still scratching away with his magnificent pen.
“Why don’t you just use a computer?” Nicky asked.
He threw his hands up in the air and sighed. “I don’t really understand those things—they just slow me down.”
Raffy said, “What kind of book? A mystery book?”
“Not really. More a history book.”
“Like the ones in school?” Nicky asked. “Those are so boring.”
“But not all books are boring,” Raffy said.
Their father just said, “It’s a book about our family.”
“About us?” said Nicky, his eyes widening. The twins, who had been crouched over the floor, dropped what they were doing, and sat up.
“Well…more about your lolos and my lolos and so on.”
“Oh,” said Raffy. “I like mysteries better,” he confessed.
“No way! Comics are better!” Nicky said.
Raffy said nothing and after a while, the twins went back to playing.
When finally they were able to wrest their luggage away from the prying sweaty hands of the porters in numbered shirts, who jostled and hollered at the exit, they found a cab. Their father now owned nothing in Bacolod, had sold everything when he had decided to settle down in Manila and marry the twins’ mother. They had to ride in a cab, which sped now along the main road. Their father, without fail, reminded them, beaming with pride, that this very road was named after the General, his grandfather and the twins’ great-grandfather. He peered out the window, wanting to show them the family name emblazoned on a street corner, but he found a street sign only after four blocks because, on the first three corners, dust, soot, and rain had weathered and faded the paint away, leaving only a smudge, a faint outline of letters. There was no need to paint it in anyway, he said to the twins; everyone knew the street; it was the longest one in the city, stretching all the way north—to Silay and past it.
The twins though weren’t paying attention. Every wall and telephone pole had been strung up with flags and ribbons for the upcoming centennial. Raffy remembered that on the TV back home specials on the revolution and its heroes and villains were being aired. Their father constantly encouraged them to watch. “It’s important you know your history,” he had told them.
The car rolled along, past more pennants and banderitas. “Even here,” Raffy observed, admiring the floating sea of white, red, and blue that had been put up in honor of the centennial.
Then their father pointed out quietly that in fact that was what they were here for. The twins for a moment stared at him, bewildered. When they realized they had missed the turn-off to the Memorial Park, which was the first place their father took them to every time they came, Raffy asked why they had not gone to the cemetery. “This time’s different,” their father answered. “We’re here for the General.”
“The General—Lolo Anacleto?”
He nodded. The General—the twins knew of his legendary figure by heart thanks to their father, who had an elephant’s memory for tales and anecdotes about the family. The practically memorized it: Lolo Anacleto, the General, famed Sang-ley mestizo revolutionary of Hacienda Matab-ang (the wealthiest hacienda in Negros), President of the Cantonal Government, member of the Katipunan, an acquaintance of President Aguinaldo, although it was widely known that his sympathies and support lay with Bonifacio, their friendship sealed by a blood compact. There was a scar to prove it, their father would often tell the twins, and he had seen it with his very eyes as a young boy, a wound signifying the liberty that had been fought for.
Their father explained that just recently, he had gotten a call from his cousin Carmen, who was as in love with family history as he was. In the past they had together organized an enormous family reunion for all the General’s descendants. Carmen rang him up in early May: the Bacolod City Museum was planning to put up an exhibit on the General—arguably the city’s greatest hero—in time for the centennial. The centerpiece was to be his coffin, which lay entombed in the parish church of Talisay, his hometown. It was Carmen, in fact, who had suggested this to the committee, of which she too was part, and the other members had all thought it a dazzling idea to have the General laid out in the national colors, for every Negrense—and Filipino—to admire. They further agreed that Carmen should be the one to transport the General’s coffin to the museum (she was the great man’s descendant, after all) and blushing, she said it would be her honor. She had then suddenly remembered their father; thus the call asking if he wanted to help her out, tag along. But their father had replied that he was swamped with work and the whole thing was for the moment put aside.
It was about a week ago when Carmen called again. She explained to him that she hadn’t yet picked up the coffin; other things had needed attending to. But she had already managed to make the arrangements and all that remained was to pick up the coffin from the church and transport it to the museum. She had a pickup; men had already been hired to remove the coffin from its tomb; the angles seemed covered. The only thing missing was a companion and the May offer was reiterated. Did he, her primo favorito, want to come, to serve as Lolo’s escort? “Oh come on,” she cajoled him. It would be their one last adventure before they grew too old to do anything else except fuss over and spoil their grandchildren, she kidded. He had glanced cursorily at his planner, a useless gesture since already he knew his schedule was free. He would be there, he said, he would most definitely be there. “I mean, how long has it been since you were last here?” Carmen said, before putting down the phone, and he—he had told her that he had never left.
This sense of anticipation he tried to incite in the twins as he explained to them in the car the upcoming enterprise. Nicky, curious, asked if they would perhaps be able to look inside the coffin, maybe see a skeleton, a skull, or even just a bone. Raffy, who had only ever read about these things in his mystery books, was equally excited by the prospect. To see a dead man’s bones—that was what seemed to the twins the most interesting thing about the whole venture.
“I don’t think you’ll see any bones,” their father said. “The coffin’s likely to be sealed shut.”
Their faces fell.
After a while, Raffy asked, “Who’s Carmen though?”
“Carmen, my cousin—you met her remember?”
The twins shared puzzled looks.
“In Barcelona, some summers ago.”
“Oh Carmen who doesn‘t want to be called Tita!” Nicky and Raffy exclaimed—although they barely recalled—and broke into giggling. Carmen from Barcelona, who told them not to call her Tita Carmen but just plain old Carmen because it made her feel younger. They had met her on a visit to the Catalan capital, when the family had sought to escape the torrid Manila summer. She was working then for the Hotel des Arts, a posh establishment along the beach in Barceloneta. She had moved back to Bacolod two years ago—a year after they had met her.
When their chortling died down, Raffy confessed, “We have so many Tita Carmens. Sometimes it’s so confusing.”
“I thought it was the one who lived in that big empty house in La Vista,” Nicky said.
“I thought it was the one from Silay, with all the birds in her house,” Raffy admitted.
They fell once more to giggling, trying to think of more Carmens they were related to. Their father laughed along with them, as they passed the plaza and the cathedral and the taxi continued to make its way through the slight traffic. The twins knew he was in a good mood: he sang along loudly to an old Ilonggo love song playing on the radio, the words deeply unfathomable to the twins, who all their lives had lived in Manila.
In a few minutes, the taxi began to slow. The driver signaled left and pulled into the driveway of the hotel. “This is where we’re staying?” Nicky asked incredulously. Raffy could see the gleaming lobby and hoped the answer would be yes. They had both harbored the thought they would be putting up at a relative’s—just like the last time and most of the times before that.
Their father answered yes, adding that it was too bad that he and Raffy got their asthma whenever they all stayed at Tita Teresit’s house, because she was such a gracious host, such a pleasure to talk to. “If only she’d stop smoking,” he sighed.
The twins sighed as well, but out of relief: for once they would not have to endure dusty sheets and hard beds. No creaking floorboards that sounded like ghosts in the hallway, no strange photographs that seemed to return the stare, no the lingering stench of cigarettes. But best of all, no more Tita Teresit and her breath stinking of smoke and alcohol, pounding them with an endless barrage of questions and comments, each one insinuating that Bacolod was much better than Manila. Perhaps that was why their father got along with her; he was a milder version of this blind, one-sided city love.
Tita Teresit, another of their father’s numerous cousins, would often in fact be the cause of their greatest embarrassment, an inexplicable shame that caused them to hang their heads and remain silent. When she had found out that they had never learned to speak Ilonggo, she burst out, “Dios mio, what is this generation coming to!” On each visit she would inadvertently mention this to their father in one of the hushed (but still overheard) conversations in the sala surrounded by saints. “Baw ka nugon,” she would say repeatedly, piously shaking her head and sneaking glances at the twins. “Too bad—they look so much like Lolo too.”
Then she would go on, enumerating the features they had inherited from their famous great-grandfather—his thick, wavy hair, the cleft chin, the bulbous nose that from a distance seemed flared like a horse’s but upon closer inspection contained a geometric sharpness and definition. Then the eyes, the slightly imperceptible Oriental slit at the edges, the color the darkness of pits—wild, Moorish, capable of anything, from treachery to heroism. But that was the irony of it, Tita Teresit claimed: two boys, who were almost exact replicas of the General, the greatest man the line had ever sired, and yet they couldn’t utter a single word in Ilonggo to save their lives.
“But I bet you,” she would always say, finishing up with a languid drawl on her cigarette, “even their penises are the same length as the General’s.”
They checked in, left their bags in the room then they were back out (stopping only for a bathroom break) on the road again, driving through the city. They passed Robinson’s, the only mall in the city, where the movies showed a month late. The twins pointed this out and their father said quite defensively that at least it was half the price of a movie ticket in Manila. The twins rolled their eyes. The traffic on the road lessened as they approached the old Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. The heat grew hazy and and the surroundings blurred into a vista of sugarcane.
“Imagine,” their father said with an encompassing sweep of the hand, a grand gesture, “all this was once the General’s.”
“It‘s all grass,” Nicky said.
“No—it‘s sugarcane,” their father said, quite defensively.
A monstrous truck loaded with bundles of cane clattered by. The cab pushed forward, past cleared land and the real estate being developed on it and, gradually, traces of the city disappeared; they were outside of it. Even from inside the car, they could detect the odor of ashes and burning earth, and from the window discerned the thin gray line of smoke they had seen earlier from above. Their father, sensing their discomfort, reminded them it was milling season.
The twins crinkled their noses. They continued to look repulsed until they finally got used to the persistent odor of burning. Some minutes later, their father instructed the driver to turn right at a dirt road beside a dilapidated billboard that read El Fuego Resort: 40 Km Away! The driver veered sharply, the wheels caught on a large lump sticking out of the dust path, and the car lurched forward. Wary of more rocks, the driver slowed the car down; he didn’t want to damage the suspension. It was a very narrow path, an alley in the outdoors, shaded on all sides by tall stalks of cane. They crawled along at that pace, their father explaining that this road led to Hacienda Matab-ang and that Carmen lived nearby, when the car surged forward violently and sputtered, emitting a loud cough. The driver swore, shook his head, and when the car began to shudder and backfire, he finally brought the car to a complete rest, got out, and popped open the hood. Their father followed. The twins he told to stay in the car. He consulted with the driver and returned to the window Nicky had rolled down.
“Something broke,” he told the boys. Then he added that they were almost at Carmen’s and they could simply walk. The house was just at the end of the road, anyway.
The twins clambered out. The end of the road was still a good distance away; they were only at the beginning, having just turned off the highway. After their father paid the driver, they set forth, trudging through the heat. Raffy, asthmatic, complained about having difficulty breathing; Nicky once more feigned fatigue by walking like a drunkard, and was set to complain about his legs, when the twins heard the beating of hooves.
It was an old brown man, without any teeth or hair, atop a shoddy wooden cart drawn by a stubby horse. They all watched, breathless, as the mare and its shriveled chauffeur approached. When it was within proximity, their father waved and asked the man to stop. “What’s he doing?” Nicky wondered, watching their father approach the man and say something in Ilonggo. They couldn’t hear any of the conversation, but eventually, their father called them both over.
“He’s going to let us ride,” their father said. The boys looked up at the old man. He gave them a gummy grin. Their father hoisted them one at a time—first Nicky, then Raffy—onto the cart. The twins sat on each side of the old man. “What about you, Papa?” Raffy asked, when he saw that there was no space left. Nicky edged a little closer to the old man, as if to make space.
“It’s okay. I’ll walk. Don’t worry about me.”
The old man prodded the horse into motion and it broke into a slow bumpy trot. Their father kept up beside them, his bald head covered with the sheen of sweat, his shirt stained with perspiration. For some time, it was just the regular, rhythmic clacking of hoof beats upon the road. The old man beside them said nothing—just gazed ahead dreamily, his mouth working tirelessly on the thing he chewed. Silence took hold of them all until Nicky shouted, “Look!” and a crumbling two-storey high mansion appeared, imprinted against the pastel blue horizon. Nearer they noticed its closed shutters, the white paint flecking off its walls, a spacious verandah that opened out onto what must have been a spectacular view of green, and adjacent, a gigantic gnarled tree that engulfed the house with its leaves.
“Is that Carmen’s?” asked Raffy.
“No, that’s Hacienda Matab-ang. It’s the General’s. We used to call it the casa grande—the big house.”
“Does anyone live there now?” Raffy asked again.
“Ghosts,” Nicky butted in. “Woooo.”
Their father ignored him. “A caretaker comes once in a while.”
“I bet it’s haunted,” Nicky added. “By the General’s ghost.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Lolo’s ghost,” their father answered.
“So where does Carmen live?” Raffy asked.
“Just across. She helps take care of the house, too. Trying to turn it into a museum.”
“It looks old,” Raffy said.
“And haunted,” Nicky repeated.
Their father said nothing. He turned to the cart driver and asked something in Ilonggo. The old man was first silent then gave a long reply, talking in a slow, hoarse voice, occasionally looking ahead thoughtfully into the horizon, still chewing. Their father and the man continued to converse and then eventually it was just their father talking, groping for words, and the man nodding along, as if to say he understood. The old man said a few words in reply and it was after when he suddenly began to sing. The words were in Ilonggo. The song was slow and sad and the old man’s voice was grave and throaty and the effect was powerful because of the late morning silence.
“Why’s he singing?” Nicky asked their father.
“I asked him if the house was haunted. Some nights, he says, he hears singing. Says it’s the General’s ghost, moving about the rooms in the house, lamenting the death of his wife, singing the song he sang the day she died.”
Nicky listened to the old man. “That’s what he’s singing now? The General’s song?”
“Yes. In fact, my dad would sing it too. A composo—that’s what we call it here.”
“Now that fellow’s father,” he went on, pointing at the old man, “worked for the General and one day took him to meet Lolo. But he tells me he doesn’t remember much about the General now, except for his famously thick moustache and that song—and the fact that the main road’s named after him. So I was telling him about Lolo’s role in the revolution against the Spanish. It’s too bad people forget so easily,” he sighed.
They were nearer to the General’s house now. The old man was still singing. The veins in his neck bulged as he belted out, the twins guessed, the story of the poor General’s broken heart. The words rang out louder and clearer in the hot stillness. Then their father joined in, singing from memory, his voice low and deep and bottomless like a well, and together their voices carried over the fields. Old men, Nicky thought, slapping at a fly hovering by his knee, who could understand them.
“This is Carmen’s,” their father said, ringing the doorbell. The old man continued along down the road, where there was a faint wisp of smoke, a thick gray strand of an old woman’s hair in the sky. The twins and their father stood on the dusty path, facing a black iron gate, their view no longer obscured by cane. On the other side of the road stood the General’s house. The rich dark mahogany of its front door was punched through with holes, the rotting and splintered wood remembered only by the termites. The lawn was tangled with weeds.
Their father shook his head sadly and the twins heard him mutter to himself that he would have to talk to Carmen. If they were to turn the house into a museum, it would need a lot of work. “She must be busy with the centennial exhibit,” he said to himself.
When no one still came out, their father rang the doorbell once more. While they waited, Nicky began to toss dusty pebbles he had picked up from the ground; Raffy noticed that all the windows of the General’s house were shut, barring any sunlight; like the sleuths he idolized he kept his ears pricked, listening for any snatches of song, but the General’s ghost was silent—it must have been the heat, he thought—and soon the gates swung open and a boy let them in.
Up they went—the gates revealed a long driveway and an airy bungalow at the end of it—past a black pickup with mud-caked wheels. A dog was barking and the air was a blend of smoke, fruit, and melted brown sugar. Their father said it was bayabas, the maid cooking it into jelly. The boy showed them into the house and Nicky said he had to pee. Their father asked the boy where the bathroom was. There was one right by the front door, he pointed out. To the left rose a staircase, where by the first step, just before the banister, stood a large porcelain vase about as tall as the twins. Raffy thought Nicky might have liked it because of its design: it looked like the stuff in Nicky’s comic books. In bold relief, armor-clad samurai crossed swords and emerald-scaled dragons slithered around cherry blossoms, their forked tongues twisted like taffy around beautiful chalk-faced, night-haired geishas wearing distressed expressions and elaborate kimonos. The handles at either side of the oversized amphora were hand-carved extensions of the relief—two dragon heads, each with a jade-studded eye. Raffy pointed it out to Nicky when he came out of the bathroom. “Wow,” Nicky said, glancing at the vase. “Cool.”
“It’s the General’s,” their father said. The vase had been imported from Japan and, with its twin, had once stood sentinel at the bottom of the General’s coveted mahogany staircase. This was the only one left though; the other jar had been looted by the Japanese during the war. He was explaining this when Carmen came down the stairs. She was tall, about their father’s height, with pronounced cheekbones and peach-colored skin. Kisses and embraces were exchanged; she led them into the living room where they tumbled thankfully onto the sofa. A maid brought in glasses of Coke, fizzing in ice.
“Please, have something to drink,” Carmen said, offering each one of them a glass. “This weather’s really something. Awful. Biboy, will you please bring in another fan?” Their father began by telling Carmen about the taxi that broke down, their long walk, and soon they were deep in conversation, exchanging stories. The twins sat back, half-listening, relishing their Cokes. What a cluttered living room, Raffy thought, noticing the shelves and tabletops, groaning with books with ripped spines and yellow, flaky pages: Philippine Ancestral Homes by Zialcita, Gaudi: His Architecture and Life, The History of Negros by a fellow with the bizarre hyphenated name of Modesto Sa-onoy; also, black and white photographs of mestizos and mestizas, and a collection of china with the family seal and beneath the seal the inscription Hacienda Matab-ang embossed in sky blue. Nicky’s eyes, on the other hand, were riveted to the floor cluttered with boxes and crates, some of them packed and sealed with masking tape, others with their contents bared: handwritten letters and correspondences in Spanish, portraits of men in uniform, a monocle, a fountain pen, a violin, a medal, a saber, a revolver.
Nicky’s eyes widened, riveted on the gun. He stood up but their father held him by the arm. “Don‘t touch anything.” Nicky grumbled and sat down again.
Carmen faced the twins, her eyes twinkling. “Your dad tells me you had quite an adventure this morning.”
“We had to ride in a cart,“ Nicky said. “It was really hot.”
“And there was this old guy with us, singing. Papa said the song was what the General sang when his wife died,“ added Raffy. “And Papa was singing too.”
“Ah, the General’s composo,” she said to their father, smiling.
“I still remember the words. Thought I’d forgotten it but some things you just don’t forget. My dad used to sing it with the other men during wakes to pass away the time.”
Carmen smiled at the memory. She stood up and said she wanted to show them something in her room. “It’ll be quick—we have to get going soon to pick up the coffin. The museum wants it in by two the latest.”
She led them up the stairs. In her room was a large armoire, a full-length mirror, an air-conditioner, a neatly made four-poster bed, and a side table with a lamp. She told the twins to sit on the bed, which was made of a dark, reddish mahogany. On the headboard was carved the same intricate seal Raffy had seen on the china displayed in the sala. The bed was the same one the General and his wife used to sleep on in the casa grande, she explained. “On this thing,“ she smiled at them, “I sleep like a baby.“
She patted on the bed. “Come, sit, try it out.” The boys got on, testing the mattress, touching the smooth mahogany, running their fingers along the ridges of the carved seal, as if searching for a trace of their dead great-grandfather. But it seemed to be what it was—just a bed. “Maybe a ghost sleeps on this bed, too,” Nicky wondered aloud. “Maybe beds come with ghosts.”
“I wouldn’t mind sleeping with Lolo’s ghost. I probably sleep with it every night,” Carmen laughed. “Look at this.” From the bedside table, she passed a black and white picture in a frame to Raffy. An old woman lay on a bed—the General’s bed—on her back, feet pointed upward, her entire body covered in a white sheet, save for her head. Her eyes were closed.
“You remember the song about the General’s dead wife?” Carmen said. “That’s her, your great-grandmother. Taken on the day she died.”
She looked like she was merely asleep, Raffy thought. It seemed that her eyelids were slightly darker and swollen, like their father’s eyes, when their mother stayed out late and he couldn’t sleep, anxiously awaiting her arrival. But Raffy discounted it; the picture was old; he’d been reading too many detective novels. He gave it to Nicky, who pronounced it, “Creepy,” with a shudder. Nicky wondered how a man as big and influential as his great-grandfather could cry over a woman. Their father looked, too, then returned it to Carmen.
“We’d better get going then,” Carmen said. “Let me just get some things ready.”
Raffy said he had left the book he had brought along in the sala. Before anyone could say anything, he was out the room, bolting down the stairs to get it. Carmen was putting some things in her bag, telling Nicky about her retriever, which Nicky wanted to see before they left, when they all heard a loud crash come from below. They ran out of the room. On the landing, their father buried his face in his hands. “Hijo di puga,” he swore.
“It’s okay,” Carmen kept saying to Raffy in the pickup. She rubbed his back with her hand; he was wedged between her and Nicky. Their father sat in front. Biboy drove. “It’s okay.”
Through tears he had tried to explain that it had been an accident: he had picked up his book lying on the coffee table in the sala and headed for the stairs. He’d taken his glasses off to wipe them clean and then had come the miscalculation: unable to see clearly, he missed the tread of the first step, felt his foot slip downward, and instinctively reached out for the first thing within arm’s reach to steady himself—the vase. It wobbled then came toppling down with him. He’d hurt his elbow. It was still a bit sore but the pain was nothing compared to the scolding he received from his father.
“Be more careful next time,” their father had growled, explaining that due to his carelessness, a priceless memento had been lost. Raffy said nothing as their father babbled on about “historical value” and looked over at Nicky. Nicky felt pity because their father could be harsh; being the one who received the brunt of their father’s temper, he knew what Raffy must have been feeling. Worse, Raffy thought, the most embarrassing thing was being scolded in front of Carmen, who unlike their father had been a darling about the entire incident. She had held his hand after she’d given him some ice to put on the elbow and agua oxinada to clean the scrapes. He’d kept mumbling he was sorry and she in turn reassured him in a soft voice that it was nothing, really—at least he hadn’t been hurt seriously. “It‘s just a jar,” she said, and explained that if Lolo had to pick between his jar and his great-grandson, he would most definitely choose the latter. This made Raffy feel slightly better.
Raffy’s eyes were still swollen as they made their way to Talisay. It was just past eleven thirty. Their father was still a bit grumpy but his mood seemed better now—he was singing along again to the radio. “Feeling better?” Carmen asked Raffy.
He nodded. In Carmen he saw a new friend, an ally, and he wanted to say something to her. He asked why she had moved back to Bacolod from Barcelona. “Didn’t you like it there?”
She began to explain that she had gotten homesick. It was different when you were home. Never mind if what she had left behind was a city as beautiful as Barcelona.
“Well I wouldn’t move from Manila,” Nicky said. “Have you ever been there?”
“Many times,” Carmen nodded, “and—”
“Are you like Papa?” Nicky interrupted again. “Papa told us he wants to be buried here in Bacolod in the Memorial Park too, beside Dada and Wawa.”
“You should come to Manila,” Raffy said. “And we’ll be your tour guides!”
The car rumbled on, and eventually a welcome arch appeared above them. “Wel-come-to-Ta-li-say,” Nicky read aloud. He turned to Carmen. “So we’re here for the General right?” They were, she nodded, in order to pick up his coffin—just as their father had explained it to them earlier.
“Will we see any bones?” Nicky asked. “Or a skull?” He crossed his fingers in hope.
“If you opened it, probably. Most coffins though are closed pretty well,” she said.
“That‘s what I told them,” their father said.
“So we won’t see anything?” Raffy asked.
“Boys, boys, boys,” their father said from up front. “Leave Lolo in peace will you? Turn up that air-conditioner,” he added, turning to the boy. “Ka init gid.”
It was noon when they arrived in the town proper and came into the dusty plaza. The flag at the center lay still. There were banderitas here as well, strung like Christmas lights across telephone poles and the grandstand. In the benches under the shade of tiny trees surrounding the plaza, old men played chess, women picked lice from each other’s hair, and their children played a short distance away, running barefoot and black-soled on the scorching concrete. The pickup slid through the gates of the church. The Angelus tolled; there was a moment of prayer and even the twins sat still.
“He’s buried in one of the side altars,” their father explained when Raffy asked why they were going to the church.
“I already called in advance,” Carmen said, “and told them we were coming. The woman I talked to said to drop by the parish office first.”
Inside the office, they waited on a ragged couch, listening to the whir of a fan. An old woman with shocking white hair and dark-rimmed glasses sat at a desk, punching the keys one finger at a time; with the other hand, she used a spoon to eat from a plate. The woman waved to Carmen and spoke to her.
“They’ve just taken it out,” Carmen said when they left the office. “But the men are eating lunch. They left it inside the church, beside the altar. We can look if we want, but we’ll have to go in through the side—the front doors are locked. On Thursdays, they lock up the church.”
They made their way to the church. The twins, growing weary from the heat, lagged behind Carmen and their father, who had begun to sing the General’s composo once more. “I can’t get it out of my head,” he confessed with a chuckle. When they reached the side entrance, they pushed the wooden slabs open and the hinges sang out, rusty with time. Birds in the naves scattered at the sound, startled by the noise. They entered, a hush falling over them. No breeze, but the air inside was cool and calm, almost like being underwater, like being in a bubble. The sunlight falling inside through the stained glass and the open windows was gentle and the church was lit up and golden. Where the light did not reach, there was a shadowy but inviting darkness. They walked further in and felt assured by the watchful gazes and alabaster smiles of the saints and the Holy Family.
“It’s so nice in here, isn’t it?” Carmen said.
It really was. The twins fell with relief into one of the pews. They spotted the coffin, a large box of dark gilded mahogany illuminated by the rainbow-tinted panel of stained glass above, lying beside a life-size glass-encased replica of Christ carrying the cross. “You boys want to look?” their father asked. They both said they would stay and rest for a while.
“It’s the heat,” Carmen said. “It makes you tired easily.”
The two adults made their way up to the coffin.
“You think we’ll see anything?” Nicky asked.
“Yeah, probably not,” Nicky repeated, with a sigh.
They were hungry and tired and this they admitted to each other. They slumped into the pews and remained still, hearing only their breathing, savoring the break. It had been a long morning. They watched the two adults, who stood before the coffin, silent, their eyes full of admiration for what lay before them. Their father was telling Carmen something. He liked to tell stories and, he told them wonderfully, although mostly they were about the family. Nicky and Raffy strained to listen; they couldn’t really hear what their father was saying, failed to catch which story he might have been telling. There was just the echo of it across the empty church. But they could see that there was something aglow in their father. They both somehow understood, just by watching him, that it was being home and being able to be proud of his ancestors that made their father very happy. They watched now as the two adults inspected the coffin. Their father tested the lid, which came up slightly, with about enough space for a finger to pass through. But he quickly lowered it, and clucked his tongue repeatedly. Carmen put her hands on her hips.
So it wasn’t sealed.
Their father and Carmen walked back to where the twins had remained.
“So that’s Lolo?” Nicky asked.
“The General himself, your great-grandfather.”
“Can we look Papa?” Raffy asked. They might as well; they had gone all this way.
“Go ahead. Carmen and I are just going to look for the men to help us—we need them to nail the thing shut and then help us to carry it to the coffin. I wonder why it wasn’t closed,” he added.
“The men might have accidentally opened it when they were taking it out,” Carmen said. “Better close it—it’s going to burst open in the pickup on the way to the museum unless we do something about it.” Soon the adults left, Carmen saying they had better get moving.
“Want to look?” Raffy finally asked, getting up.
Nicky nodded. They snaked their way through the pews, to where the coffin lay. They saw the gap in the side altar, where the coffin had once been entombed. The General’s name—their family name, how strangely disconcerting—was inscribed on a marble plaque, together with the year of birth and the year of death. They stood before it, not knowing what to say or do.
“Let’s open it,” Nicky said.
“We might get into trouble.” Raffy said, instantly remembering the vase.
“Oh, don’t be a girl,” Nicky said.
“Don’t call me that!” Raffy said. But then again, he second-thought, maybe his twin was right, maybe he was being a girl. They’d come all this way for the General. Why not venture a peep? They would be careful. His favorite sleuths, he knew, would look, impelled by that investigative spirit. “Okay, I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” Raffy suddenly said.
Nicky looked his brother in the eye, surprised by his response.
He hadn’t expected his brother to acquiesce so easily. It was usually Raffy who was the more prudent one, always playing the angel. If something did go wrong, their father’s wrath was not something worth incurring, even if he, Nicky, had incurred it many times before.
“Who’s the girl now? Chicken.”
“Shut up, dork,“ Nicky retorted. “Come on.” He walked over, placed his fingers on the lid, and tried lifting the coffin. It wouldn’t budge.
“It’s heavy,” he grunted, wiping his hands on his shirt. “Help me lift.” Nicky replaced his hands on the lid and Raffy’s fumbled as he hastened to grip the underside. “Together,” Nicky said. Each heard only the throbbing of his heart, unsure whether it was due to excitement or fear.
They put all their might into it. The lid of the unsealed coffin came up easily, inaudibly, with a slight exhalation, a whoosh of ancient air. It was a little past noon, the hottest hour of the day. Raffy had not counted on it being so easy—how had they done it? It always seemed harder in the detective novels he read. Nicky felt a twinge of fear mixed in with his excitement: he had never seen a dead man before, much less one who had been buried for almost a century. They were both momentarily stunned. Here, before their very eyes, was the General—hero of the revolution in Negros, their great-grandfather, whose blood wound and coiled through their veins.
He was indeed nothing but a heap of bones.
The surge of adrenaline was replaced by an immense disappointment.
“That’s all?” Nicky just said.
“We‘d better close it now,” Raffy said. “Before Papa comes back.”
Their small fingers reached for the lid but they were suddenly stopped. Like a prayer answered it came; first like a whisper, the lace over the altar fluttering once, then again, and a soft breeze appeared from nowhere and brushed against their tired, disappointed faces on this hot, end-of-summer June day. But then the breeze touched upon the brittle bones left exposed by the opened coffin, resting its invisible hands upon the skeleton, like a poker stoking the red-hot, quickly wilting embers—and in an instant the bones disintegrated into thin air and the beautiful light inside the church was suddenly alive and twinkling with dust motes, swirling like snow, which the twins had never but always wanted to see.
For a moment they didn’t know what to do. Then, together, straining once more, they finally brought the lid down with a resounding thud. The General was gone, blown away by that fugitive breeze, particles of him swept everywhere and nowhere—under the pews, into the dark cool corners, out the windows. In vain, the twins ran to one of the open ones, watching hopelessly as he floated away, seeing nothing of him—only the little cemetery at the back of the church and its white glinting crosses, and a thin column of smoke, ash and dust that rose and billowed into the sky, like a silver necklace, because it was June and it was the milling season.
“We shouldn’t have opened it,” Raffy said.
“It’s all your fault,” Nicky shot back.
“You were going to open it first.”
“Because you called me a girl.”
“You were first,” Raffy said. Beneath the rims of his glasses, the skin was wet and salty. It didn’t matter—they knew at bottom they had both had a hand in it. They glared at each other.
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Nicky said.
Raffy said nothing first. Then: “Okay.”
“Cross my heart. Shake on it if you want.” He offered his hand.
No one had to know, no one needed to find out. They shook hands; they crossed their hearts again; hoped to die, because the guilt was unbearable.
They were about to head back to the pews when Carmen and their father returned with the men. He saw them by the window. “What you boys looking at?” he asked, walking over.
“Nothing,” they said in unison, their voices shrill.
They couldn’t answer. All they could think of was the General, gone forever, dissipated into dust, drifting over the parched brown earth, and the cloudless sky that was blue, blue, and blue. The men were already hammering nails into the wood, Carmen supervising. Their father smiled and peeked out the window. He was still humming the composo, he couldn’t get it out his head. They stood there not saying anything—there was no breeze coming in anymore, the twins noted. It was only their father singing in a soft low voice, almost a hum, and Raffy remembered the picture of their great-grandmother. “Papa, how’d she die anyway?” he asked meekly, wanting to dispel the terrible silence.
“Lola—the General’s wife.”
Their father looked at them. They twins waited for him to answer. He looked away then told them, staring out the window. It had been Lolo who’d done it: he’d beaten her and she didn’t survive it. Raffy asked, his voice a whisper, “Why Papa?” And when he didn’t answer, he asked again, more softly: “Why?”
And their father said: “Do you remember when Mama and I fought because she had a boyfriend? Lola had a boyfriend, too. One night Lolo caught her with his own brother in his own bed. Carmen’s bed now.”
No one said anything and they could hear the nails being driven further into the wood.
“And his brother?” Nicky asked, softly, almost breathlessly. “What happened to the General’s brother?”
There was no answer; their father was lost deep in thought. Then finally, he spoke.
“He was a great man, boys—perhaps the greatest this city will ever know.”
He said nothing else, and they all looked out the window. There was nothing much to be seen.
Nicolas Lacson graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in the Humanities, magna cum laude. He is the recipient of the Mulry Award for Literary Excellence, the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts, and the Raul Locsin Award for Student Journalism. He is currently the chief operating officer of Lacson & Lacson Insurance Brokers, Inc.
Fourteenth of September, I scribble into a brand new black Moleskine notebook.
I think: Wow, if I hadn’t seen my own hand glide along the page, I would have sworn the writer was about five.
It has been about a month since I woke up from a two-month coma, I write.
At least that’s what I’m told.
I don’t remember anything about how I woke up except weird bulbs of white light and feeling scared of them. I remember nothing about my first conscious month either. But I am told that I was rowdy and often hysterical, that they had to pin my arms down so I wouldn’t hurt myself or anybody else.
Nowadays I have nothing but therapy, all day, every day. A morning session to help me regain my mental abilities and one in the afternoon for all the physical stuff. They insist on calling me Tom.
I don’t feel like a Tom.
By “they” I mean the hospital staff and a woman who claims to be my wife. Sonia, she insists is her name. They are the only people I ever get to see. Anyway, I’ll leave it here for now. Sonia has just arrived.
“How are you, love?” she asks as she kisses my cheek.
She holds a cup of takeaway coffee. From my angle, as I lie on my bed, she looks especially beautiful. The plainness of her office clothes do not diminish her; in fact it accentuates her slender figure. Her dark hair is swept back severely, keeping the focus on her glamorous face.
I can’t believe she’s my wife, I think. For one, she is much too pretty for me.
For another, there is that woman in my dreams.
My thoughts are interrupted by a blinding stream of white light that takes over my room.
“I’ve rolled up your blinds, Tom. It’s way too gloomy in here.”
I don’t realize Sonia has stood up from my bedside.
“Besides, I know how much you love the New York skyline,” she adds.
But I don’t, I think.
So that’s where I am. New York. Though it feels like I could be anywhere in the world right now. I suppose all hospitals look the same wherever you go.
A nurse enters the room.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave soon. Dr. Ellis says your regular visits may actually cause Tom here to regress further into his hallucinations,” she says, speaking as though I am not in the room with them. “You have to trust in the process.”
“Oh, alright,” Sonia says. “I’ll come back after work, dear.” She gives me a kiss good-bye, then traces my eyebrows with her finger before leaving the room.
The nurse checks on my vitals, jotting things down on her notebook, then prancing out of the room wordlessly.
As I watch her leave, my vision gets hazy and I drift into unconsciousness.
The next time I open my eyes, I get quite disoriented. Then I see Dr. Ellis’ familiar face staring down at me.
“Oh good, you’re awake. But you missed lunch, so I’ll let you have some before we start on your therapy.”
The same nurse from a while ago enters the room and starts spoon-feeding me with porridge. I struggle to slurp the soupy mixture. It is only my first week back on solids. Patiently, the nurse wipes the drips from the sides of my mouth with a napkin.
Something in the porridge triggers my memory and I see the red-headed woman from my dreams scooping up porridge from a paper cup while sitting languidly beside a lake. I don’t quite know what it is that makes me recall this, but I am almost certain that this place is called Central Park. In my mind, I watch her throw her head back in laughter, her freckled nose crinkling into a million vertical lines.
As I finish my lunch, the nurse gets up to leave. Before she turns away, she gives me a sly wink, and I grimace in shock. But soon all thought of her is gone, and I only think of the red-headed woman from my dreams.
I’m brought to the physical therapy room and an intern I don’t recognize works on stretching my underused legs. Dr. Ellis watches and supervises, all the while chatting with me.
“Tom, did you have a good lunch? Did you eat a lot? You must, you know. You lost a good deal of weight while you were in the coma, fifty pounds to be exact. Do you remember how it happened?”
“I can’t recall anything from before the coma.”
“I’ll help you out. It was the fourth of July and you were rushing home from your job to get to a party. What do you think happened, Tom?”
“I’m sorry, doctor, but I have no idea.”
“You got into a car accident. You suffered a traumatic brain injury and broke parts of your neck and back. Do you not remember this?”
The doctor gives a massive sigh and continues jotting down notes on his clipboard.
It’s about eight in the evening when Sonia arrives.
“I’m so sorry. I was so caught up with work and we had a business dinner afterward, you know how it is,” she says. She tries to catch her breath.
“But I don’t know how it is, Sonia. What is it that you do again?”
“I’m a lawyer, sweetie, and so are you. We met in Law school?” she says. She’s fighting tears. “Don’t you remember anything about us?”
“I…,” I start to say.
“I’ve had enough of this. First you get into that damned accident and I come running to you. Then I find you in a coma. They tell me you might never wake up. Now you have, but you don’t seem to know me or, or care about me. You’re a different person inside the same body and this is not what I expected marriage to be.”
“It’s not your fault,” she cuts me off, “None of this is your fault.”
After a beat, she adds: “I’m sorry, honey. I think I’m just tired. I should go home. I still have work tomorrow.”
“All right, good night.”
“Goodbye, Tom. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
She smiles sadly. She knows I don’t mean it.
Second of October.
It’s October and the people in the hospital are getting much too excited for Halloween. Eager interns decorate the hallways with streams of paper pumpkins and paper ghosts to please their superiors. I hear a famous superhero actor stopped by the other day to visit the children’s ward, though I didn’t quite catch his name. I’ve made a lot of progress with my rehab program and I can now walk and eat unassisted. Most of my vocabulary has come back as well. And with it some memories.
I have even received an invitation to the annual Mt. Carmel Hospital Halloween Party. As I write this, I can’t help but be swept into all the merriment.
Here comes Sonia now, and trailing her is the nurse.
“Hi, honey, your room is looking great!” Sonia says, gesturing to my new Halloween-themed decorations.
“Yeah, Sonia. It’s a welcome change.”
“What’s that in your hand, hun?”
“Oh, nothing, just the Halloween party invitation for the thirty-first.”
Says the nurse: “Ma’am, may I stress that this party is only for in-house patients and hospital staff.”
“But my sister will be in the city then!” says Sonia. “What a shame. I guess we’ll just drop by before the celebration.”
“Well, you and your sister wouldn’t want to catch anything from the patients at the party, would you? But if you must insist on dropping by…,” the nurse trails off.
“I do,” says my wife.
Now I see how I could have fallen for her.
I drift off to sleep. I do not know when my wife and the nurse left the room.
Here, in this expanse of dream and fantasy, I meet her again. And again. The woman in my dreams. They feel like memories and yet I know somehow that they aren’t. I’ve never met this woman before—but somehow I’ve fallen in love with her.
In this particular vision, it is an itchy hot summer in June. We stroll along with the tourists eating ice cream in the packed High Line. Though drenched in sweat, she seems only to get more beautiful. Perspiration lights the high points of her face, giving her an irresistible glow. I do my best not to reach out and wipe the thin strip of moisture building above her lips.
We are walking with a large bulldog whom we have named Sparkles. On the way home we stop by a pet shop to buy him a tutu and little pink shoes to match. Then the three of us dance to the music of vinyl on a record player in the living room. As I pull her close—close enough to smell her watermelon-scented shampoo—I hear myself say: “Why can’t it be like this every day?”
“Because you can’t dance with a June in June every day, Jay. If you could, it wouldn’t be special.”
Then I wake.
My name is Jay.
Her name is June.
Above me I see a smiling Sonia. What day is it? You never can tell when you’re confined in a hospital.
Sonia’s dark hair cascades in large waves, framing her gorgeous face. Her eyes are full of love, which pains me. What does she see in me anyway? I haven’t even seen myself since the accident.
I turn to face her. “Sonia, do we know a woman named June?”
“No, love, I don’t.”
She pauses and hesitates for a moment.
“But you might,” she continues. “You know, you woke up from your coma screaming for someone named June. I didn’t know what to do. I assumed she was an old high school girlfriend. I read it online that this kind of thing happens quite frequently for people coming out of a coma.”
“Is that so?” I say. “Maybe she was, but I don’t remember anything just now.”
“Enough about ex-girlfriends, I’ve received wonderful news!” she says, beaming.
“Dr. Ellis says that with the progress you’re making, you’ll be out of the hospital in time for your favorite holiday!” she laughs. She whistles the unmistakable melody of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Christmas is not my favorite holiday, but I don’t tell her that.
It is the day of the Halloween party and everyone is dressed up in their costumes. My nurse is still dressed in her hosptial scrubs, though she has spattered blood all over it. For a second, those spots of blood on her look a little too convincing.
I shake the thought off.
Sonia comes early in the morning, before work, to decorate my hospital gown with R2-D2 cut outs. If she’d known me at all she’d know I’d have wanted to dress up as C-3PO.
I join the party and sit on a chair. The decorators really have gone above and beyond. I scan the room and sheepishly realize that most of the guests are children. To think I had gotten so excited for this party.
Anyhow, I am here now so I may as well enjoy it. I watch as the children play games, I watch as the hospital staff give the adults candy so that the children can go around the room trick-or-treating.
When the party nears its end, I see Sonia hurrying towards me.
“I’m so sorry, Tom! Work had me glued to my desk. I’m here now,” she says.
She bends towards me, takes my face, and kisses me.
When she straightens up, her head no longer blocks my view. I see clearly who is behind her.
“I told you I’d bring my sister, didn’t I?” she says, looking over her shoulder. “Come greet Tom, Cindy!”
Behind her is the woman of my dreams.
Red hair flowing wildly behind her, freckles all over her face. Her eyes meet mine. She smiles.
Though nearer to me now, she still seems so far away, like a dream.
My name is Tom.
Her name is Cindy.
Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday. Halloween is.
Francesca Marie V. Flores was born in Pampanga in 1997. At the early age of 2, she was captivated by words and stories. This allowed her to read avidly throughout her formative years spent in Dumaguete. In May 2017, she finished her bachelor's degree in Management with a minor in Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University. Her chapbook, Storm Surging, was published in 2017. She lives in both Dumaguete and Cebu, with her dog Bootie.
The door to the master’s bedroom was wide open, and the doctor, bag in hand, paused unnoticed and leaned against the jamb, listening to Don Ramon play one of Lizst’s familiar pieces on a grand piano, which was parked in the center of the room. It had always seemed, to the doctor, such a ridiculous place to put the grand piano, but Don Ramon de Cabrera cared nothing for propriety nor the opinions of his friends.
“Tell me that I won’t last long with this damned acute diabetes,” he told the doctor once, “and I might believe it. But when I talk of music, my statements are conclusive, and my bedroom is where that piano rightly belongs because I will it so!”
The doctor merely shrugged his shoulders then. Don Ramon and he had been neighbors when they were boys and they had grown up together. As a child, Don Ramon was fiery and rebellious, fearlessly and obstinately devoted to his own ideas and beliefs. He did everything differently from other people, and no amount of persuasion, cajoling, or threat had ever swayed him from what he thought or did…
“That’s enough, Ramon,” the doctor interrupted at length, glancing at his watch. “There’s still tomorrow, you know, and genius has its limits. Besides, it’s almost dinner-time.”
“Miguel!” Don Ramon wheeled about eagerly and laughed. “You incorrigible adolescent—how long have you stood there spying on me? I had almost given up waiting for you, hoping all the time that you and your putrid hypodermic needles would never come at all!”
The doctor entered the room and perched his bag on a small table beside the piano.
“I suppose,” the doctor said, smiling, “you would consider it another exhibition of adolescence if I wished you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. You’ve always scoffed at Christmases and you’ve never been really happy in your life.”
“Bravo!” Don Ramon answered and crossed toward the window. “And there’s a good chance that I shall have died before half of the New Year’s over. You don’t have to avoid my glances, Miguel, because I’m not at all sensitive about dying.”
Don Ramon raised the blinds and drew the dark heavy curtains wide apart. Sunshine burst into the room and fell partly on the piano. The white keys sparkled. He looked at them and then out of the window, at the lazy streets below, while the doctor snapped open his bag and pulled out the blood-pressure apparatus, sterilizer, syringe … Every day, the same routine … Not much change in your blood pressure … Sleep well last night? … But who says you mustn’t eat? … Avoid sugar though … And starchy foods …. And avoid excitement, physical or emotional …
For the last eight years, Miguel had come to this room, had opened his bag and brought forth the blood pressure apparatus, sterilizer, syringe, insulin ampules—the indispensable insulin ampules without which the patient will die, die, die, tortured and ghastly, the whole rotting frame shaking vehemently in its last attempts to live, the eyes bursting out of their sockets, the mouth taut in a futile attempt to scream … and the hands, clutching and tearing at the twisted throat, painfully thirsty for a minute drop of insulin—insulin!—like a dying man in the desert who knows an oasis in the immediate vicinity but is bound and gagged, cannot move towards it and can only see the vultures circling overhead, impatiently waiting, avidly watching…
“Your daughter’s mouth,” the doctor said, “seems to be queerly pink and swollen this morning. Have you struck her again today?”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“Of course,” replied the doctor in mock sympathy, lighting a cigarette. “Always you can’t help it.” He drew a deep lungful of air and coughed it out in a note of detest.
“Stale,” he commented, throwing the cigarette out if the window. “As stale and as deteriorated as your carcass and your mad standards of artistic perfection, which you have so brutally demanded of her to attain, and she hates you for it.”
“Oh, so you’ve noticed that, too.”
The doctor nodded thoughtfully and turned to prop up the scale of the blood pressure apparatus.
“I have never before seen a deeper and a more consuming hate for a father than that which I see it in your daughter’s eyes as she looks at you. I feel sorry for her somehow; I grieve for her in fact, as I watch her cling so desperately to her morbid hate. It is the only weapon which she possesses against you. Hate and nothing else; and for that, I grieve for her.”
“Because it isn’t enough of a weapon?”
“Because it’s madness,” the doctor said. “I tell you, Ramon, it’s madness to compel her to equal you—she just can’t! I don’t know of anyone else in this country who can. In all fairness, instead of raving over her slightest mistakes in technique and manual dexterity, instead of screaming and scowling in her face, you should see it. In all fairness, you should! Or—why don’t you scratch her eyes out and rip her face beyond recognition for a change?”
Don Ramon left the window and sat on the stool, his back against the piano, his hands toying tunelessly with the keys. He stared fixedly at the mounted sterilizer.
“If Farruca were only born a boy…” he said, answering from another stream of thought. “I could make an excellent pianist out of the child yet.”
The doctor shrugged tolerantly and moved closer towards Don Ramon.
“Well, shut your mouth and open your eyes wider,” he said. “That sudden attack which gripped you yesterday might have caused a shock to your liver.”
“Farruca makes a pathetic musician,” Don Ramos continued, as if to himself. “So do all women.”
“There ought to be a yellowish thing in your eyes if it did.” And the doctor stooped forward and forced the eyelids wide with his fingers.
“They make excellent novelist and painters. They even make good poets. But they shouldn’t try to write music. They’re not savage enough.”
“No, I don’t see any yellowish tinge here,” the doctor observed, peering keenly into the patients eyes. “So far, so good.”
“Or perhaps, they’re much too savage,” Don Ramon added, upon second thought. “In which case, the more reasons why they make poor musicians.”
The doctor grinned sheepishly and moved the blood-pressure apparatus to where it suited him. “Although why, in the name of common sense, you expect to make a genius of your daughter, knowing fully well her shortcomings as a woman, is beyond me,” the doctor said. “It is not foolish; it is brutally unreasonable.”
“Damn, a doctor with his head smugly hammered on! Must there always be a reason for everything?” Don Ramon felt his blood beat hotly in his face.
“Please remember what I told you about the danger of exciting yourself, if you intend to live longer.”
“Women to me…,” Don Ramon struggled to explain, “… are nothing but necessities…”
“… Like insulin,” the doctor prompted, “without which you will die, tortured and ghastly.”
“Necessities to stimulate me in the creation of my art and, much more, in its perfection. But with Farruca, it is different. I want to perfect her, not just because she’s my daughter and I love her and am fond of her, but because I have never considered her being a woman as any gap at all between herself and the art of savages. Oh, you don’t believe me, I know; but I do love her. I do! Except when she plays the piano and repeats those horrible mistakes I have continually warned her about. It revolts me to watch her struggle and border on near-perfection, only to weaken and fall short, that the desire to perfect her simply clogs my reason and I suddenly find myself loathing her.” He began rubbing his face in utter confusion. “It shouldn’t be so, I know.”
The doctor gently brought down his hand and silently buckled the airbag of the blood-pressure apparatus around his arm. Squeezing the pump, he carefully watched the mercury rise up the scale.
A maid came in bearing a tray of food. She carefully and timidly set it down beside Don Ramon’s elbow. “Señor,” she began, “your dinner—“
“Take it away!” The master’s voice was low and menacing.
“But, Ramon, por Dios! You’ve got to take something at least.”
“I’m not hungry!”
The maid hastily picked up the tray and started to move out. “Farruca says that dinner will be ready downstairs as soon as the doctor is—,” the words tumbled one after another and she was gone.
The doctor kept his eyes on the ascending mercury. “Eighty-five,” he read slowly, “Eighty-six, eighty-seven … Eighty-seven. Tsk, tsk. Quite a considerable change. Must be due to that attack yesterday.” He unwounded the airbag, released his patient, and started packing up the apparatus.
“Don’t trouble telling me this is bad,” Don Ramon said, “because I know it is.”
The doctor worked silently, efficiently. “Someday,” he said when he was through, “when I deem it profitable to write your biography, I shall devote one chapter wholly on … The Genius, As Seen By His Kitchen Maid. I believe it would sell—but God! This weather is killing me. No trees at all to screen the house.”
“It’s a matter of getting used to it,” Don Ramon said drily, staring distantly out of the window. “Besides, there’ll be rain from the mountains before long. Look—.”
The doctor looked to the west. Dark clouds were racing fast towards the city. “Yes, it’s about time the rainy season sets in. I think I’m very glad.”
Outside it had started to drizzle. Heavy clouds had hidden the sun, and the dining room darkened. Soundlessly, the drops fell and met the smell of the earth as it rose up…
Farruca and the doctor remained seated after dinner. The girl looking absently at her hands which she had spread out in front of her, the doctor glancing aslant now and then at her swollen lips, debating whether to treat it or keep on pretending to have not seen it.
“Thinking of anything special?” he finally asked when the maid who waited upon them had cleared the table. “Is it a big secret?”
The girl drew in a deep breath and smiled fondly at him. She seldom told people much of what she thought, and when she ever did, it was with an effort painful to watch. However, with the doctor—perhaps because he was to her the nearest thing to an uncle, and she had always considered him as one—she affected no front and could afford to say anything without fear of being too self-revealing.
“Oddly enough, I was thinking of my mother and what she might have given me for Christmas, if she were alive. I don’t remember her at all, as people say she died the day I was born, and there isn’t any pictures left of her in the house, so I’ve been trying to imagine how she looked.”
“Your father had all her pictures burned after the funeral,” the doctor said. “There was a life-sized portrait of her, which used to hang on the sala of the old house. That, too, was thrown into the fire.”
“Is it true what people say, that she—looked like the Virgin Mary? Did she really?”
“Come think of it, why yes, she did!” he agreed heartily. “It never occurred to me before but, yes, she did look like her!”
Farruca laughed happily for the first time. “She must have been really beautiful,” she said. “What was it like when she died, Tito? I hear my father locked himself up in his room for three days, refusing to see people.”
The doctor nodded reminiscently. “I couldn’t even see him.”
“He must have been so in love with her,” she said wistfully. “Although I can hardly conceive of him as being in any way capable of loving anyone or anything but his music and his money.”
The doctor waited until she looked up and said: “He loves you, too, my dear, much more than you can possibly dare to imagine.”
She laughed as if what he had just said was a bad joke, and she searched his face for the slightest trace of amusement, but when she did not find any, she laughed just the same, and the doctor moved uneasily in his seat because he sensed that there was something morbid and calloused and disturbing in her laughter now, which only a terrible hate could bring about.
”He doesn’t love me, he loves his music. And he loved my mother for her money. He married into her family because doing so spared him the necessity of having to play for a living in concert halls for a multitude of what he regards as high-browed, dissipated idiots paying their way in and waiting to be impressed!”
“Yes, I know!” She tossed her head defiantly and laughed. “It never occurred to you that I knew, but I do; and I more than hate him for it. I despise him!” And she laughed some more at the doctor’s look of shock and blank surprise at the terrible hate which he saw in her bluntness.
The rain fell harder and pounded on the roof. They could hear the water gurgling down the drain outside, by the window near where they were. The doctor stood up and pulled down the glass panes. The gurgling stifled.
“I’m sorry, Tito Miguel. Are you angry with me?”
“Did I disillusion you?”
He remained silent.
“Please do not be angry with me, Tito. You are the only one I have left in the world.”
“Forget it,” he said. “Now go up and ask your father if he is ready for the injection.”
But she did not move. Instead, she looked up at him and said, “He wouldn’t allow me to have a Christmas tree in the house. He said that Christmas trees were among civilization’s sentimental—and therefore stupid—devices in its attempt to defy destiny, or something like that. Just what did he mean, Tito?” She waited for him to speak but his lips were clamped tight, his eyes narrowed in deep thought. Seeing that there was no indication of any desire on his part to speak more, she arose and went up.
Her father’s door was shut. She stood in front of the knob, poised her first momentarily and rapped against the panel.
The rain drowned her knock.
She tried again, louder. There was no answer. She turned the knob and walked in, just in time to see the windows, wind-driven, fly wildly on their hinges. She saw them crash against the wall.
And then she saw her father.
He lay huddled on the floor. A violent paroxysm had seized his whole body. His shoulders, against the leg of the table, shook furiously and the table along with them, upsetting the mounted sterilizer and a glass of water. His feet jerked outward, became rigidly still, and jerked again. His hands choked at his throat, nails ripping deep into the flesh. His mouth was avid and open, shrieking soundlessly; and his eyes sought her in an agony of helplessness, while the water from the upset glass flowed sluggishly on the tabletop, lingered for a while at the edge, then tripped coldly down his pain-twisted, horror-distorted face.
She rushed wildly out of the room in an impulse to scream for help. At the top of the stairs she suddenly stopped and composed herself. Mustering every effort to pull her wits together, she turned back to the room and, compelling herself, stood on the threshold, and watched the twisted figure that was once her father, die in pain. For a moment, his eyes sought hers; then they rolled and the whiteness was all she could see. His body had become limp and motionless, quivering slightly now and then.
Softly, she shut the door and walked to the end of the hall, into her room. She sat on the edge of her bed, trying hard not to think. Fear had gone out of her but her hands trembled with anticipation. She strode to the mirror and brushed her hair elaborately. By the time she finished, her fingers had ceased shaking, although her face was white and bloodless. She looked at her face for a while in the mirror and felt that she could gaze forever at herself. She examined her every features as if she were seeing herself for the first time, idly running her fingers over her chin and cheeks. After a while, she left the room and walked down the hall without glancing at her father’s door when she passed.
Back at the dining table, the doctor, who had been watching her as she came down, asked anxiously, “Is he ready for the injection?”
She felt too exhausted to speak, and said nothing; but she looked at him distantly and full, as if she were a stranger in the house.
Thunder rolled, then cracked, like a bomb detonating. The glass panes rattled and the house seemed to rock.
“Why don’t you answer me?” exclaimed the doctor. “Is he ready or are you sick yourself, Farruca? What is the matter with you? Farruca!”
Intuitively, he dashed frantically across the room and raced up the stairs, three steps at a time.
“Telephone the hospital for an ambulance!” he called hoarsely. “Oh, Santa Maria, it cannot be! Please let him live! Padre Nuestro!”
The wind whistled and sent the rain crashing relentlessly on to the roofs and the streets.
Alone by herself, Farruca leaned her tired head on the closed window, her nose pressed flat against the glass, and she watched the big drops sputter on the pavement outside. From far away, the landscape had grown nebulous. The puddles overflowed as thunder boomed mercilessly and more and more rain fell—to her, without form.
And without meaning.
Cesar Jalandoni Amigo grew up in Dumaguete, where he graduated with a degree in political science from Silliman University in 1948. Together with Aida Rivera-Ford, he served as the first editor of the Sands & Coral. He is a much-awarded screenwriter, famously for Buhay Alamang (1952), Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig (1958), The Moises Padilla Story (1961), and Igorota (1968). He also directed Sa Atin ang Daigdig (1963), 7 Gabi sa Hong Kong (1966), The Hunted (1970), and Babae ... Sa Likod ng Salamin (1976). He received the 1974 Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Screenwriting and TV/Film Production.
‘Your mission if I may venture to say is to illuminate people,’ I said. ‘What do you mean,’ eyes wide, ‘eliminate people?’ ‘No, enlighten, illuminate people.’ ‘Ah!’ Smile quickly returned as if his whole heart lit up (word play intended the grass roots movement he had invented he named Lamplighters). ‘Do you have a wife, Father Tropa?’ I’d meant to ask. I knew he was celibate but rhetorical questions I felt won’t hurt the interview. Still I thought better of it. On a wall the woman in a strange painting remained as if under a moon that had long waned.
I dreamt the sun no longer rose and set It zigzagged Spiraled Yo-yoed
Played possum When God stirred At midday At the brightness
It played tag with a luna moth And suddenly The colors came No flame
It gazed at pink sky and white moon And morning star As if gazing at itself As if in the night it had seen us
It went sideways below the horizon Creating an endless sunrise and sunset A sun that played hide-and-seek Peekaboo with shadows
It played hooky Drifted away and wandered As if in search of its origin Farther and farther till it twinkled
And I heard your shout Full circle across a world That had gone into hiding That had fled within
I heard the river The grass I heard green Picasso’s
Three Musicians The spheres The mermaids The hand
But the star was coming home In a dawn in which Sun moves towards us Not round
How can the sun do this? Wake as I might The miracle held out. I heard the cock crow, you awash in sleep, Incredible in the light.
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.
Okay, if you’re so, so funny—
why not make a stunt about leaving your office
this instant and never take it back?
You’ll do a great favor to History books and bayarang midya
which won’t even dare to revise.
Headlines will set your name in bold below a photo of you crying for real. To be honest, I am tired of rolling my eyes every time I see your face on the screen, giving bad speeches.
I don’t blame you if you think what I’m saying seems incomprehensible but a vacancy in the seat can be considered
phenomenal at this moment.
For a year or so, you’ve invented gimmicks not even the false hero buried in the Land of Heroes managed to think of. It’s not in the howness of things
if ever you get to be thrown to the nearest dumpster
but the manuscript in which you, and your invisible gun, and your checkered polo
will be devoid of meaning. It’ll be a best-selling book
with everyone buying copies for themselves and their children’s children.
You’ll be known as the man who was nothing less of a living joke, the man who promised breathless Change. I’m waiting
for the punchline to punch you really hard.
Let me punch you really hard.
Hezron Pios received a BA degree in Communication from the University of St. La Salle. His poems have appeared in Glucose, Katitikan, The Spectrum, and Yuwana. He dreams of exploring visual arts and building a pop-up library someday. He lives in Bacolod City.