After This, Our Exile

By ELSA MARTINEZ COSCOLLUELA

Papa serious accident please come, Cristy’s wire said. Milly’s first impulse was to telephone her husband at the office, but on second thought she decided to wait until George got home that evening. She hadn’t gone to work that day; she was two months on and had been sick that morning. Besides, she knew George wouldn’t let her go like that. They would have to sit down and talk about it. They always talked about things, and a few nights back what had started as a quiet discussion had brought them to the edge of estrangement, so that later, in bed, when she watched his fine dark face which she had always believed she could read, she felt a certain sadness, for his face had assumed a terrifying remoteness, and lying there just a shoulder-length away, she could not bring herself to touch him. She had just broached to him the possibility of leaving Manila and settling down in Negros. George had stared at her in astonishment. “But why, Mil?” he had asked. “The agency’s doing great. Our entire future’s in it. You can’t just ask me to leave my work—it’s all for you, and the baby.” George and a couple of his college friends had formed their own advertising agency a few months back, emboldened by their youth and the training they had had in various large firms. “But I’m not asking you to leave the agency, George. We can put up a branch in Bacolod.” “We can’t divert any of our funds to put up a branch anywhere at the moment.” “Oh George,” she said, her voice bordering on annoyance, “you don’t understand. I don’t like it here. I don’t want our child to grow up here.” “What’s wrong with here?” he asked, and she noted a defensive tinge in his voice. “Oh, everything. Back home things are—well, a bit more quiet. It’s a perfect place for bringing up children. Here it’s so crowded, so unsafe. It’s a corrupt, twisted place for a child to grow up in.” After a silence, George said, “Well, I grew up here, and I didn’t turn out to be a monster. Of course, all the things you say are true. But it isn’t so much the place, Mil. It’s what we are, the values and home life we provide for our children.” “It’s still ugly outside, but you don’t see,” she said. “You don’t care about pushers handing kids drugged candies, or whores preying on young boys on some side street, or goons breaking into homes in broad daylight.” “Milly,” he said, “you’re getting theatrical again.” They looked at each other for a moment, then she looked away, thinking, he thinks I am a silly neurotic. “I’m sorry, George. Am I hysterical?” “A bit,” he said. He must think I watch too much TV, or believe all the sensational news items in the papers, she thought dismally as she allowed herself to be led to bed. But that night she could not sleep. Though she had not pressed him then, she knew she would not let the matter pass. She would give their child a lovely childhood in the beautiful country of her roots, a vast garden to chase birds and fireflies in, handsome ponies to taunt the winds with, a place to grow in. And lying there in the dark, even when tiredness had crept into her body, she still couldn’t sleep.

She spent the slow afternoon choosing which clothes to take along and decided on blues and browns, remembering how the old man disdained bright colors. “Nice girls don’t flaunt themselves in such plumage,” he had once reprimanded Cristy when she had chosen a flaming red gown for the high school prom, and though Cristy was the old man’s favorite, not even her tears could make him relent, and she had to wear something she had already worn before.

Strange, Milly thought, how I always think of him as “the old man.” Of course, she had learned to call him Papa, though it had taken her a long time to pin an accent on the last syllable, something on which he insisted. “Now that you are practically one of us,” he had once said, “you must learn how to blend, blend, blend.” Her own father had been a clerk in the sugar mill and Cristy’s father, Miguel Aragon, was the biggest stockholder, the man who called the shots. Milly remembered little of her own father, she knew only that he used to work all day at the mill and that after office hours he took a dilapidated bus for over an hour’s ride to Bacolod City, for his evening law classes. This was something the old man had always pounded into her. “A poor man with enough initiative can improve his lot.” From clerk to supervisor to legal adviser—all in just a little over a decade. They had just moved into a new house with a big garden and a swimming pool when her parents died in a plane crash. She was only nine then and Miguel Aragon came to take her into his house. He had arranged to have her parents’ house rented out and the income deposited in a trust account. It was he who saw to the shipping of her parents’ charred remains, he who took care of the wake and the Masses and the funeral.

All that, she later realized, was the old man’s way of compensating her for her parents’ death: they had been on a business trip in his behalf when they died. Even before she came to live with the Aragons, she and the Cristy had been classmates in the town’s only Catholic school run by old nuns, and what had been a beautiful friendship gradually grew into something akin to sisterhood.

There were many little things Milly had to learn to accept, thing like being given a dress identical to Cristy’s, and Cristy putting up such a tantrum as to prompt the old man to snarl at his wife. “Buy Camilla clothes, Marta,” he would say. “But see to it they don’t have the same things. You know Pannga hates that.” This happened just a few weeks after they had taken her in, and Cristy’s tantrum had frightened her, and she had run to the bathroom and locked herself in and cried. They had given her everything she needed, even most of the things she had wanted, and the girls in the school kept telling her how lucky she was to be living with Cristy in her father’s mansion. Yet the little things were there, always there to prick at some unhealing wound; things like Cristy saying, with an insouciant toss of the head, “Milly, can you carry my books for me?” or “Buy me a sandwich, Milly, will you?” and later, in college, “Milly, I can’t manage these rollers, will you set my hair for me?” Trivial tasks, really, but always Milly felt as though she were no more than Cristy’s lady-in-waiting. Yet, she grew fond of Cristy, and when she was a little older she kept telling herself that after all, Cristy was the family’s little girl, her father’s little angel, and though they were brought up together, Cristy was always “Pangga” to the old man, while in the few instances that he actually spoke to her, she was always Camilla.

The rest of the family called her Milly, and aside from Cristy, it was her brother Guelin, who was about four years older than they, who gave her a sense of belonging. Both Cristy and Guelin had handsome ponies in the stables which they rode every weekend. She had only been with the family a few months when, one Sunday, Cristy came riding in, accompanied by their loyal servant Diego. Milly had watched her coming in, her long hair streaming in the wind, followed by Guelin on his black pony. “Niño is so swift—so swift!” she gushed. “He rides like the wind!” Cristy laughed. Milly gently touched the pony’s glistening mane. Finally, she said, “Can I ride him, Cristy, please?” Cristy quickly answered, “No—I don’t want anyone else to ride Niño. He’s mine.” Diego said, “Just let Inday Milly ride him, Inday Cris. Just for a short while.” Cristy glared at him, her voice rising, “No! If you let anyone ride Niño, I’ll tell Papa.” With that she stomped angrily away. Guelin, his face flushed, took Milly by the hand, saying, “Come, Milly, I will let you ride Fuego. He is more beautiful and faster than Niño.” But the tears were already there. “No, Manong Guelin, I really don’t want to ride. I don’t know how to ride a horse, anyway.” “Then,” Guelin said. “Diego and I will teach you.” Since then there had grown a bond between them which become stronger through the years.

In her own kind way, the mother, Marta, had also shown her she was wanted. “You are one of my daughters now, Milly, so call me Mama,” she had said when Milly first came. It was she who saw to Milly’s needs, knowing perhaps she would be shy about asking for things or making her needs known, things like new shoes, underthings, and when she had awakened one morning with that terrible pain and blood on her linen, she had gone to Marta, crying, “Mama, there’s blood on my bed!” Marta had said, in her usual quiet manner, “Don’t cry, Milly. There’s nothing wrong. Come to my room . . .” Milly knew Marta cared for her although they never spoke much, for Marta was a reticent woman, going about the house in her silent, dignified manner, a queenly presence, and even when she had clashes with her husband, she always impressed Milly with her ability to retain her composure.

Always it was Guelin who gave them cause for argument.

Miguel Aragon had always wanted a son, and when his first two girls were born three years apart, he had been greatly disappointed. He had waited a long time for a son, and the waiting had soured his relationship with Marta, who, he used to tell his friends, “did not know how to produce sons.” When finally, after several miscarriages, Guelin was born, Maris was a grown girl of seventeen and Tere fourteen. At first, Miguel Aragon adored his baby boy, though he was irritated when the infant turned out to be sickly. All these years of waiting had made him eager to make the boy a man and he pushed the boy too far, and faster than he should. Miguel Aragon was himself pure macho, an imposing masculine figure, and he despised anything effeminate. Their servant Diego had suffered countless kicks and whiplashes for his failure to conceal his effeminate mannerisms in the presence of the old man. “I don’t give a damn if you are agi,” he often thundered, “just don’t act like one in my presence. Buisit!”

Milly had always thought he looked formidable, with his whiplash, the pistol which he tucked under his belt, the huge leather boots. She recalled how one morning they had all been drawn to the window by his thundering voice. Down below he was kicking a man to the ground, and even when the man had fallen to his knees, Miguel Aragon continued to beat his back raw. Afterwards Cristy asked, “Why did you beat up the encargado, Papa?” The old man snorted. “These people, Pangga, are like all animals. You have to treat them as such, keep them in their place, or they will stampede all over you.” Such occasions were not rare, and later Milly found that not even his own son was to be spared his brutality. Once, when she had gone out with Guelin to gather fireflies in tiny bottles, Guelin had told her that once when he was about eight years old, his father had thrown him into the river, expecting him to kick himself afloat. He almost drowned. Another time, his father left him in the woods, expecting him to find his way out of the dark trees. Late that night a party of searchers with bamboo torches found him lying unconscious in the forest.

It was then that Milly began to understand why Guelin was a sulky, nervous, resentful boy who sought the comfort of his mother each time his father’s swift hand struck him. Once, when he was fifteen, Milly actually saw the old man whip Guelin. Guelin’s cries brought Marta out of her room. “Stop that, Miguel,” she said, shielding the boy with her own frail body. “Get out of the way!” the old man shouted. Still Marta did not move. She met his eyes evenly. Suddenly the whiplash coiled around her and the boy, but it was Marta who took most of the blows. When he had exhausted his fury, the old man strode out of the house. For a long while, Marta stood there, holding in her arms the trembling, whimpering Guelin, holding and stroking and rocking him gently.

That evening Marta locked herself in her room. Miguel Aragon sat silently at the dinner table, and Marris and Tere were their usual quiet and inscrutable selves. Guelin ate little, picking at his food, his eyes red and puffy, the red long welts on his arms turning into a dark purplish color. Cristy and Milly were watchful. After dinner, when the old man stood to retire to the library, Cristy ran after him, saying, “Papa, I will take off your boots for you,” and the old man turned and smiled. Milly followed Guelin down to the garden. She found him sitting on the rocks at the lotus pool. “Manong Guelin,” she asked timidly, “why did Papa whip you?” After some silence Guelin said, “He always whips me. But how did you know?” Milly looked away. “I watched between the drapes. I was so afraid. And Mama, how can he beat Mama like that?” “It’s not the first time,” Guelin said. “When Mama interferes, he beats her up, too.” He was on the verge of tears. “But why was he mad at you?” Guelin shrugged. “Because I threw stones at his querida’s house.” “His querida!” Milly gasped. Then: “Manong, does Mama know he has a querida?” “Why,” Guelin said, surprised, “even the maids know.” “But, Manong,” Milly said, “how did Papa know it was you who stoned the house?” “He saw me,” Guelin said. “He was there.”

Since that time Miguel Aragon and Marta hardly spoke to each other, and it seemed that he spent more and more time away from his home. He started to lose heavily in monte and cockfights, diversions which became a way of life, a passion. Marta said nothing about his mounting losses, nothing about the fortune he squandered on his women. It was said that he lavishly gifted his women with houses, cars, gems, and that he even sent some of them on shopping sprees to Hong Kong. They were invariably secretaries and receptionists at the sugar mill, young girls from modest families who were dazzled by gifts and money and the attention of so important a man as Miguel Aragon. The first few instances of infidelity must have hurt Marta deeply, Milly thought, though it seemed that in later years she had learned to live with this particular sorrow. Even when she smiled, Milly noted, Marta’s eyes were always sad.

One night Milly and Cristy heard them fighting. They pressed their ears to the wall to listen. “A son—that was all I ever asked from you. You made me wait eighteen years, and look at the monster you’ve borne me! A resentful, effeminate fool!” “He is not effeminate,” Marta said evenly. “What do you know about it?” the old man said. “Seventeen years old—and he acts like a simpering ninny! You don’t know anything—nothing about the nights he spends in town!” “He’s a grown boy now,” Marta said. “He’s entitled to go out with his friends.” “You stupid fool—if he went drinking and gambling and whoring I’d give him my blessings. But that useless son of yours cavorts with effeminate perverts,” he ranted. “Stop that,” Marta said “I will not listen to those lies.” “That’s what you always wanted him to be, isn’t it? A homo! My only son, and you made him into everything I despise—out of defiance. For spite!” “And now it hurts,” Marta said coldly. “It hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” “Shut up!” he said. “No,” she said, “here’s something for you to live down. After Cristy I had a hysterectomy. God, I never wanted to bear you any children, and I did not want to bear you any more sons.” “Damn you, bitch,” he snarled. They heard what sounded like slaps, and then his heavy footfalls leaving her room, and in the sudden quiet they could hear her sobbing. After a while Milly said, “Do you think Manong Guelin is queer, Cristy?” “Of course, he is,” Cristy said indifferently. “I don’t believe it,” Milly said. “Do you want to find out for yourself?” Cristy asked. “Go to the stables in the afternoons at dusk.” “Cristy, I think you’re mean,” Milly said. “I might be mean, but I don’t lie.”

Milly’s new awareness made her watch Guelin closely, and now she thought he did seem effeminate, but even when she started hearing whispers in the kitchen about his escapades, she remained fond of him. All that year, she saw less and less of the old man. It seemed that twice or thrice he went abroad, or that he was in Manila, or in their house in Bacolod, coming to the farm only once in a great while. Violent quarrels erupted when he was around, more now between him and Guelin, for Marta had become a complete recluse. She left her room only to go to early Mass, returning from church just in time for the car to take Guelin and the two girls to town for school. She saw Maris and Tere only at meal times, and more than ever Milly found them extremely strange, leading such dull, quiet lives. The old man made them virtual prisoners in the huge house after they graduated from college. It seemed there was a time when the two girls had wanted to pursue some career or other, but the old man promptly told them there was no need for it.” Besides, the city is a filthy place, a spawning place for temptation and corruption. I will not expose my daughters to such dangers, and to fortune hunters as well. The place is teeming with them,” he told Marta when she pleaded with him, in behalf of the two girls, to allow them to take jobs in Manila. And so it was that Maris and Tere stayed on, withdrawing more and more into the inscrutable world they had, out of necessity, created. Maris was already thirty when Milly came to live with them, and Tere was twenty-seven. They spent the entire mornings in their rooms; Maris was constantly crocheting something until she went into cross-stitching and papier-mâché, and Tere had her records. Sometimes her music would float out of her room like ghostly strains, mostly flutes and strings, Telemann and Scarlatti. They never went out, except to Mass on Sundays and days of obligation, or, when the old man was not around, to a friend’s house for a rare afternoon of mahjong. The only social functions they were allowed to attend without question were weddings and funerals.

And then it happened, when Milly and Cristy were thirteen, that Miguel Aragon disowned Tere for running away with a soft drinks salesman. Milly remembered the year distinctly, for it was the last time she found out that Guelin was indeed, as Cristy called him, a “fairy.” Cristy and Milly heard of the elopement from the kitchen people early one morning, just before breakfast. Miguel Aragon had his fetish about having everyone down for meals, a command which Marta alone defied by having her meals brought up to her room. That morning the old man sent a maid up to call Tere. The maid came running back, muttering that Tere wasn’t in her room, nor in the bathroom. The old man, now screaming at everyone, sent the whole household out to search for Tere. She wasn’t anywhere in the house, nor in the vast garden, nor in the tractor shed, nor in the stables. Discreet questions were asked in town, a few of her friends were called, but no one knew anything. All they knew was that Tere was gone. Where to, who with, why—these became the subject of speculation until a letter came a week later, postmarked Manila. Cristy and Milly read the letter one morning when the old man went to the fields to check on the planting of new cane points.

They went to the old man’s study, took the letter out of one of the lower drawers. From the letter they gathered that once Tere had asked their father’s permission to receive a visitor, and the old man had lost his temper, accusing her of being unchaste. He had whipped her, a grown woman of thirty-one. She had decided to elope, she explained, to marry the man she loved, to have a home of her own where she could become, she said, “a real human being, for you have so restricted us, Papa, that we are stifled, stunted creatures, enduring a meaningless existence from day to day…” She begged for his forgiveness, for “a little misunderstanding,” but Cristy and Milly were later to find that he would give her neither. He set her up as the prime example of an unchaste woman, and in a torrent of curses disowned her. Marta reacted with stony silence; it was though she had accepted the fact that whatever befell her husband’s house had long been decreed by a foulness in the blood, that one’s duty was to wait and endure. “You left her no choice,” she said the night the letter came. “Puta!” the old man snapped. “She chose carnal pleasure with some brute we know nothing about; she chose that over the family.” “Coming from your lips, the word love seems obscene,” Marta said. He turned savagely to her. “Love? What does she know about love?” he said. “You may be right at that,” she said “None of our children would know love from us.” “You knew what that slut was up to,” he said. “You knew, didn’t you?” Marta looked at him unwaveringly, but gave no answer. “You knew, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Answer me!” “Yes!” she cried fiercely. “I knew—and I told her, yes! Escape while you can!” He struck her hard across the face. She did not cry out. She stood there like some statue, her cold hard eyes staring fixedly at him, a small strange smile on her bleeding mouth.

Later that evening he had all of Tere’s things burned and decreed that from then on her name was never to be mentioned again. Not until two years later, when Marta died. Milly used to visit her briefly in her room at dusk to light the candles on her altar, where row upon row of saints’ images stood, cold and emotionless. Once, in the cold month of November, the room had seemed too dark and ghostly, even after she had lighted the candles. “Isn’t it too dark for you, Mama?” she asked. For a long while Marta did not answer, a frail frigid figure still uncannily elegant in her fine laces and pearls and sacred beads, sitting still in her rocking chair. Then, “No, I am used to the dark.” Not long after that evening Guelin came to the dining room one morning, tears streaming down his face. “What is it?” Maris asked. “Mama is dead,” Guelin pronounced simply, his voice small and strange. The old man stopped eating but said nothing. Milly wept quietly, following Cristy and Maris who had rushed weeping to their mother’s room.

Marta lay on her huge bed, her thin lips parted. Her hands and lips had assumed a bluish hue. They were all crying at her bedside when the old man came in. “I want to be alone with your mother,” he said, addressing himself to no one in particular, his voice flat and emotionless. “What for?” Guelin cried. “She’s dead now! You don’t speak to dead people!” “Shut up!” the old man snapped. “You killed her!” Guelin continued. “You should have shot her long ago, that would have been kinder!” “You sissy fool, I said shut up!” the old man screamed and it seemed the whole room shook with his voice. “Murderer!” Guelin cried hoarsely, and his strange grieving voice echoed and reechoed in Milly’s ears as she ran out of Marta’s room, out of the house and into the searing sunlight crying, “Oh God, oh God, help us all!”

Everyone seemed calmer that afternoon when relatives, friends, and officers of the mill and various planters’ associations came streaming in. “TB,” the relatives whispered, and Marta had, indeed, suffered from tuberculosis for the past few years. The kitchen people whispered among themselves, “Consumisyon.” When the body was laid out in the bronze coffin late that night, and those who had come to condole had partaken of the evening meal and had retired to the various gaming tables (for there was mahjong for the matrons, pangigue for the elderly women, poker and monte for the men, and blackjack for the younger set), Guelin took Milly aside. “We’ve got to let Manang Tere know,” he said.

They decided to place an obituary in all the papers, and on the second day Tere’s wire came, stating that she would be arriving early that afternoon. Guelin showed the old man the wire at lunch. The old man read it, his face blank. “The whole family is here,” he said tonelessly. “I do not know who that woman is, and I do not want her around.” Guelin flared up. “Papa, can’t you forgive Manang—for Mama’s sake! Manang’s coming for Mama’s funeral!” “I do not know who that woman is,” the old man said firmly. “I’m going to Bacolod to meet her at the airport,” Guelin said defiantly, ”and I’m going to bring her here.” The old man said nothing, but later when Guelin went to the garage he found that his father had taken all the keys of the cars, the pickup, the jeep. He ran back to the house, fuming. “Cristy,” he said, “will you get the keys from Papa?” “We must not defy Papa,” Cristy said. Guelin was in tears. “I don’t know what kind of people you all are!” Guelin cried. The old man came out and ordered all the gates locked, including the back gates where the tractor shed was. Then he posted himself on the porch, smoking his cigar. Men were ordered to guard the front gate, letting in only the cars of family friends. Guelin stayed in the living room, watching the gate. Maris and Cristy retired to their rooms. Milly stayed in the living rooms. Milly stayed in the kitchen, watching through the shutters.

At about three o’clock a taxi stopped at the gate and Tere, in mourning clothes, alighted from it. She stood uncertainly before the gate for a long while before she pressed the buzzer. The men at the gate, who had seen her alright from the taxi, made no move to let her in. She stood there for a long time, and then the old man went to the gate. Guelin and Milly watched tensely from the window. There was an exchange of words which at first they could not clearly hear, except for the old man’s cursing. Then Tere was on her knees, weeping her thin fingers clutching at the iron bars, and the old man was furiously kicking at her hands until her knuckles bled. “Puta! Puta!” He was screaming. Guelin sprung to the gate and struggled to drag the old man away. The old man struck him in the face and lumbered back to the house. Guelin watched Tere draw the thin black veil over her face, her hands bleeding. For a moment they looked at each other, then Tere slowly moved away. Milly watched Guelin leaning against the locked gate, his hands covering his face.

During the last rites at the family plot, Milly caught a glimpse of Tere weeping in the shadow of an angel with a broken wing. And beyond, where the sun was slowly sinking into the sea, leaving a splash of red and orange hues streaking the sky, Milly thought: Why, why does the sun scream, so beautifully, while dying?

Four months later they buried Maris beside their mother. While the family never discussed the actual cause of her death, it was believed that she died from an overdose of sleeping pills. This time, Tere did not come; they would later hear that she and her husband had left the country.

The following month Cristy and Milly went to Manila for college, enrolling in an exclusive school for girls. Milly took up Mass Communications while Cristy decided on Fine Arts. Guelin, who had stopped schooling after he had finished high school to help manage the farms, followed them to Manila. They did not know what course he enrolled in at the state university. They hardly saw him there, though they had heard that he was going around with a group of student activists that he joined sit-ins and demonstrations. That summer he did not come home, and it was rumored that he had gone with a group of students and journalists to Peking. The following schoolyear he reappeared, and when Milly saw him again, she noted that he had changed a great deal, not so much in the way he looked but in the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, the way he thought. He seemed so knowledgeable, so wise, so morose. The papers then ran frequent reports of alleged abuses committed by sugar planters against their workers, particularly the sacadas. The sugar industry was under scrutiny; government and private surveys were conducted on many large haciendas. Milly thought that the press tended to give too much credibility to the testimonies of sacadas who had run off from their contractual jobs before the milling was over, but not before they had to accumulated debts in the form of rice and cash advances. It was generally concluded that these workers ran off because they could not stand the working conditions. While it was true that there were indeed abusers in the industry, Milly felt that the cases cited in the papers were the exceptions rather than the rule. Thus, she could not understand why Guelin had risen up in arms against his own people, his roots. In a matter of months, he had become one of the most vocal figures in the activist ranks who led rallies and demonstrations assailing the industry. “How ironic, how telling,” one newspaper columnist wrote, “that the son of a big sugar baron and owner of a sugar mill should now stand at the opposite ends with the sugar industry.” “Courageous is the young heir,” another wrote, “who denounces the abuses of his own class, who bravely agitates for badly needed reforms and indicts his own father as guilty of abusing, exploiting, bleeding the hapless sacada to death.”

“A snake has sprung from my own house,” the old man said. “A damned Communist.”

Again, that summer, Guelin did not come home. “I don’t know what’s come over him, crying his fairy voice out,” Cristy said. “Manong’s not that way anymore,” Milly said. “Oh, what would you know,” Cristy shrugged. Milly decided not to argue though she was certain that when Guelin left Bacolod, he had left a lot of himself behind, and she felt that he was not ever coming back to retrieve whatever that was. Once, she had bumped into him in an Ermita bookshop and hardly recognized him. He seemed like someone else, except for the sad brooding eyes. He took her to a coffee shop. “Why haven’t you been coming home, Manong?” Milly asked. “No special reason why I should,” he said. “What have you been doing?” she asked. “This and that,” he replied vaguely. “That’s too trivial for Papa not to approve of, isn’t it?” she said. “Oh,” he said, “what does Our Father in heaven say?” “Well,” Milly said tentatively, “I’m not sure. He hasn’t said anything much. But when you made that speech in Plaza Miranda he blew his top—called you a Communist.” Guelin said nothing, a distant look in his eyes. Then she said, “You haven’t been home in two years, Manong. Aren’t you coming home for Christmas?” After a long while he said, “You know, Milly, once when I was very young, I actually believed in Christmas.” “And now?” she said, saddened because he was trying not to be flippant. “Now—well, times change. And so do people.” “And you have, Manong,” she said. “We hardly know you now.” “But I know myself now,” he said. “I have found something meaningful here, in what I’m doing now. I don’t know how to define it, Milly. Conscience, perhaps. Milly, there was something wrong and destructive in our way of life back home. Something in the family, perhaps, in each of us, I really don’t know. Something which slowly eats you up, some kind of rich man’s disease which makes you totally selfish, callous, indifferent to the plight of others. Before you know it, you wake up one morning to find yourself all eaten away inside.” Milly did not fully understand what he meant, but she nodded just the same. “Corruption,” he said, “is a creeping sickness. You don’t feel it consume your bones back home where vices are flaunted as graces, accomplishments, even. There they remain remote and undefined, for they are not given their true names. But here,” he gestured, “here you see it everywhere—and the sight of it appalls you, chafes you into awareness. You become aware of it enough to be on your guard, enough to define it, enough to fight it.” She did not know what to say. Then, after a silence, “What are you going to do now, Manong?” she asked. He did not answer for a long while, as though the decision, the answer hinged on that one moment’s thought. Then he said, “I’m not sure. But I know I’m not ever going back, Milly. This is where I belong. There are things that I must do here, things I am committed to.” “Yes,” she said weakly, “I suppose there are things you must do.” Guelin had that remote look in his eyes which vaguely frightened her. “Yes,” he said, “Many things.”

The following January, Guelin was shot dead, along with several other student demonstrators on Mendiola. With Cristy, Milly went to the morgue, to identify the body. She gazed at Guelin’s peaceful, pallid face, willing herself not to cry. Then she said, “Yes, I am positive. His name is Miguel Aragon Jr. He is our brother.” And tears came.

She and Cristy brought the body back to Bacolod, and when they arrived, the old man, who had refused to collect his dead, was speechless, and it seemed to Milly that he had aged. They buried Guelin in simple rites the following day, and the two women flew back to Manila that afternoon.

That summer Cristy married someone she had been going out with in Manila. When she mentioned the subject to the old man a few days after they had arrived for their summer vacation, the old man raged. “You are too young—only nineteen, Pangga. Besides, we don’t know anything about this man!” Cristy was insistent. “I love him, Papa.” “Think it over, for my sake,” the old man said. “Listen, we’ll go to Europe this summer. You will see, you’ll feel differently when we return—and you’ll have to thank me for it.” Cristy, fidgeting with her napkin, finally said, “You don’t understand, Papa. I’m going to have a baby.” The old man turned pale, then he said, his voice hoarse as in a whisper, “Carrajo, how could you do such a thing?” Before he could go further, Cristy said, “Don’t make it sound obscene. I love him.” “How, how,” he murmured. “Oh Papa, nobody pays heed to virginity anymore,” she said. “How could you let something like that happen?” His voice trembled, and it seemed to Milly that he would cry. “I don’t know,” Cristy said. “Things happen. Things just happen.” The old man rose from the dining table. He looked out of the window, staring at the vast darkness outside. Then he said, “You do not have to get married just because of that, Pangga. No need to let one mistake ruin the rest of your life. You don’t have to have the baby.” Cristy was crying now, her voice rising to a hysterical pitch. “You want me to abort this child?” He did not look at her. “Is that your answer? You want me to murder my own child?” “It’s not yet alive,” he said, still staring out into the dark. “God!” Cristy moaned in a low anguished dragged-out sound, “It’s alive—alive! I can feel it throb, here, inside me!” He turned swiftly to her. “Since when—” “Four months,” Cristy said. Once more he turned to the window. “Alright, then. If you don’t want abortion…We’ll go to Europe and you can have the baby there. There are orphanages that would take the child.” Cristy stared at him wildly. “I am not a bitch. I won’t give my young away. I’ll have this child. And I will keep this child. And I will marry its father if only to give the child a name.”

Arrangements for the wedding were completed in just three weeks. Cristy’s fiancée, Eric Reyes, was rather good-looking, though he struck Milly as a bit cocky. The old man hardly spoke to him, and Eric Reyes did not appear perturbed. He went about the house familiarly, as though he were not just a guest but an old occupant. They were married in a simple garden wedding, after which they left for a six-week honeymoon abroad. When they came back, they took an expensive suite at a Makati condominium. The old man did not want them to stay in Negros. He did not want Cristy’s condition to occasion a scandal, or perhaps he simply did not want to have an insolent son-in-law around. Two months later, Cristy gave birth to a stillborn son. When Milly came to see her at the hospital, Cristy was pale and haggard. “I’m sorry,” Milly said, clasping Cristy’s hand. “He was a beautiful baby, Mil,” Cristy said. “Yes, yes,” Milly murmured. “The bastard killed him,” Cristy said bitterly. Milly looked at her, uncomprehending. “Yes, he did,” Cristy said. “He used to beat me up, you know. The lazy bastard. He’d spend all my money at the casino—and when I wouldn’t give him more he’d beat me—yes! Even when I was already carrying the baby.” Milly did not know what to say. “What are you going to do, Cristy?” she finally asked. “I don’t know,” Cristy said, “I can’t believe it,” Milly said. “I thought he loved you.” Cristy looked away saying “Yes, so did I.”

For months Milly did not see Cristy again. She heard only that Cristy had finally left Eric and had gone back to Bacolod. She heard also that Eric had, several times, sought a reconciliation, but that the old man succeeded in prevailing upon Cristy not to take him back, telling her that the lazy leecher was only after her money. The next time Milly saw Cristy was in March of the following year when Cristy came to Manila for Milly’s graduation. Cristy was looking much better than she did when she was living with her husband, though it seemed to Milly that she had acquired a cold, hard look. “Papa would have come, I’m sure,” she said, “but at the moment he is abroad.” When she caught Milly looking at her a bit too long, she said half-laughingly, “Go on—I know I’ve changed a lot. Tell me.” Milly shook her head. “It’s that you seem—well, a bit remote.” Cristy took a long drag from her cigarette. “Some things take a lot out of you, I guess,” she said. Then, “What are your plans, Milly?” “I think I’ll stay here for awhile—you know, get a job or something.” Cristy sighed. “Yes, Milly, that would be exciting. Have you any idea where?” “It’s still tentative, but I’ll probably be taken in as a copywriter for Mini Counselors.” “I envy you,” Cristy said, “a career girl.” “Why don’t you finish schooling, Cristy?” Milly said. “It’s just a year more. I’m getting an apartment with Nena and Anne. You can stay with us.” “I wish I could,” Cristy said. “But things are not going too well back home, you know. We’ve had a couple of drawn-out strikes on two farms, and in the middle of the milling season yet. We must have lost close two hundred hectares of cane, including the fields that were set on fire by the sacadas. Things are so bad you couldn’t hire scabs. It seems Papa’s no longer interested in farms.” “He’s not ill, is he?” Milly asked. “No,” Cristy said, “just different.”

Milly did not go home that summer, for she had to hunt for an apartment and once settled, she had to report to her new job. Seven months later, she married her college boyfriend in simple rites, an evening wedding at her alma mater’s chapel with only George’s immediate family and their closest friends in attendance. Milly had written the old man a month before the wedding, but it was Cristy who wrote back, telling her that she was abroad again, and may not be back for the wedding. Cristy added that while the old man was in Rome, he had succeeded in securing an annulment of her marriage to Eric.

“Why so sudden—the decision, I mean?” Cristy asked when she came for the wedding. “Actually we had planned on getting married right after I graduated,” Milly said, “but then I thought I’d work for a while—the thrill of being a single working girl, you know.” “Or perhaps you weren’t sure,” Cristy said. “Perhaps,” Milly said.

Perhaps is perhaps the most uncertain word, she thought now as she waited for George to come home. And perhaps, too, Cristy had been right. A woman did not bind herself to a man and expect their life together to run smoothly just because there was love, and indeed she and George had just started discovering the world, discovering themselves, beginning a life that would perhaps last a lifetime. There was love, she told herself with certitude, but there too were tomorrow’s nameless uncertainties. There was the house and lot to be paid for, the mortgage on the car, the furnishings she had dreamed of. “Let’s get the things we need one at a time, George. Only the things we really want. It may take us some time, but I don’t mind,” she told him the night they moved into their new house, sleeping in their bedroom which was bare except for the bed, and she thought then how lovely the moonlight was, streaming through the shutters. “I’ll give you everything, Mil. In time I’ll give you everything,” he said. He did not want them to touch the money she had in the bank, the accrued rental from her parent’s house which had been in trust for the past thirteen years. “We’ll use the money only when we really have to,” he said, and she was moved.

George arrived an hour later than usual. He was in a jubilant mood. “Guess what, Mil,” he said, “we got the contract. The clients liked Pete’s layout, and your copy was terrific. We signed the contract today.”

All through dinner he talked of his meeting with the new clients, and it was only halfway through dessert when he finally noticed that Milly looked distracted. “What is it?” he asked, “It’s Papa,” she said, showing him Cristy’s wire. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Do you feel up to it? Making the trip, I mean.” “I think I’ll have to go anyhow, George, I owe it to the old man, and to Cristy. You know, they’re all the family I have,” she said. “How long will you be away?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’ll call if I have to stay a while.”

They were already in bed when another telegram came. It was from Cristy, telling her that the old man died late that afternoon. For a long while Milly held the telegram in her hand, and strangely, she felt only a vague sadness, and when George came from behind and held her tightly by the shoulders, saying. “Don’t cry, Mil. It’s alright, don’t cry,” she shut her eyes tight for she was not crying, and she did not know how to explain to him why she could not cry.

She woke up early the following morning, and on her way to their airport she stopped at a boutique and bought a couple of mourning clothes from off the rack. She reached Bacolod at noon and took a taxi all the way to the farm, which took a little over an hour. Bacolod had not changed much in two years, she thought. The taxi deposited her in front of the iron gate and she looked at the huge house and somehow it looked different now. It seemed no longer as imposing, as elegant as it once was. As she came in, she noted that the stained glass windows looked dull and dark at the edges. Even the gardens looked neglected, the grass and hedges untrimmed.

Cristy met her at the door. “Oh, Milly,” Cristy said, kissing her affectionately. “It’s been terrible.” “What happened?” Milly asked. “A car accident,” Cristy said. “Was he driving?” Milly asked. “Yes,” Cristy said, “and they tell me he had been drinking heavily. He crashed into a tractor parked alongside the road. He never regained consciousness.” She led Milly into the living room where people were gathered in small whispering groups. “The body’s already in church. The funeral’s at four. I thought there was no need to wait, since there’s just the two of us. Do you want to rest a while?” “No, it’s all right.” Milly said, and joined some familiar faces in the room.

“Milly!” a small birdlike voice called. When Milly turned, she saw someone whose name she could not immediately recall; she knew only that the elderly lady was a distant relative. She joined the elderly lady’s group. “How have you been?” the lady asked. “It must be simply ghastly!” she continued. “We’ve been talking about that holdup man who broke into a businessman’s house, and held his eight-month-old baby hostage, and in broad daylight yet! Milly, how can you stand it there?” “Oh, those things are likely to happen in any big city,” Milly said. “I wouldn’t live there,” the lady said, “So what I did was put my two-bedroom condominium unit for sale. And I had not even moved into it! A pity, really, but I would not live there and be terrorized each single minute!” “Do you know I’m pulling my son out of there?” someone said. She glanced at Milly and continued, “My son’s in college there, you see, a strict Catholic school supposedly, but I am told that ninety-six percent of the students there take this thing called pot, and tablets or something. Speed, I think it is called. Why, they say the stuff is being peddled everywhere.” “You mean your son is a drug addict?” an aghast voice asked. “Well, I wouldn’t say he’s addicted, God forbid, but boys get curious, you know. So I have a good mind to take him out of there, for his own good. Manila is just teeming with pushers and junkies nowadays, you know, so the farther he is from those bad influences the better.” “I guess those things don’t happen here at all,” Milly said, slightly offended, though she could not understand why. “If at all,” someone said authoritatively, “it could never be as bad. When your children are right under your nose, you don’t have to worry. It’s different here.”

Milly asked to be excused and settled herself in a corner. From where she sat she caught glimpses of farm people, laborers, peering from the kitchen door, and a strange thought gripped her. Had these people, who had been shouted at, whipped and beaten, had they come to pay their respects to the old man? What was hidden in their watchful eyes? She could not tell if it was a sense of loss, or curiosity, or well-controlled glee. She could not really tell, and then she knew; no, she told herself, they are not animals as the old man had always believed; they would not be whipped like dogs and not remember with hate and rancor. She tried to stay the cold shiver that ran up her spine, but the sinister thought persisted and forced its way from the dark recesses of her mind: Christ, she thought, they’ve come for the pleasure of seeing him finally dead.

She pushed the thought out of her mind and allowed her eyes to wander around the house. How this house has changed, she thought, like a person who has grown old, shorn of all light and grace. The drapes hung heavily to the floor, the oil portraits of the Aragon ancestors that lined the wall leading to the chandeliers had lost their elegant glow. I’ve been away only two years, she thought, and it seems like ages.

They buried the old man beside Marta, Maris, and Guelin under an afternoon sky which threatened rain. At the graveside, Cristy nudged Milly and whimpered, “Do you see that woman over there in black?” Milly saw an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, standing apart from the crowd. “Who is she?” Milly asked. There was bitterness in Cristy’s voice. “His mistress of four years’ standing. She had been traveling with him, of late. She’s got a lot nerve showing up here, the bitch.”

After the burial they had dinner, after which a hurried novena was murmured. It seemed to Milly that those who had come to condole could hardly wait for the gambling to start. After the prayers Milly retired to her room, and soon after Cristy came up, the dark rings under her eyes showing under her makeup. “I am so exhausted. I feel as though I have suddenly grown old,” Cristy said, and looking at her from a certain angle, Milly thought that indeed she had. “I was just talking to Attorney Vera,” Cristy continued. “Milly, Papa left almost nothing.” Milly stared at her in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe it either, at first,” Cristy said wearily. “After everything had been threshed out, all we had left was the farm, the smallest of the lot, and this house.” “What about the sugar mill?” Milly asked. “If we sell his shares we would net just about enough to cover his debts in three banks,” Cristy said. “But what about the other farms?” Milly said. “Florencia was sold a few months back, to pay off Papa’s gambling debts, I think. I did not worry about that then. I thought we still had Isabela and Cristina. Well, Cristina was sold two years ago, and Isabela went last year. Milly, this is terrible, but do you know where Isabela went? To that witch mistress of his, and for a mere pittance too!” Milly was incredulous. “You’d better believe it, because there are papers showing there was a sale. Imagine, two hundred thirty-nine hectares of prime sugar land, sold for the ridiculous sum of fifty thousand pesos! And I’m sure that only on paper. I thought all he gave was a house, a car, jewelry—but no. Milly, do you remember Mama’s solitaire, the heart-shaped one?” Milly nodded. “Well,” Cristy said, “the bitch had it on her this afternoon” “I still can’t still believe it,” Milly said. Cristy was on the verge tears. “I don’t understand anything anymore, Milly. I used to think Papa worked so hard just to give the family the best of everything. I used to think Mama misunderstood him so badly, that she did not know how to appreciate him, what he was doing. And Manong, too. But Milly, Mama and Manong must have known something of him which I just did not see, or understand. The gambling, the women, the wasteful dissolute life,” Cristy broke off and sighed tiredly. “What do you plan, Cristy?” Milly asked. “I’ll have to stay until everything’s straightened out. I think this house will have to go. I can’t hang on to it till it falls apart. I don’t know—perhaps sell the farm, too.” Milly said, “I’m flying back to Manila tomorrow, Cristy. If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” “Well, I suppose I might just as well let you know, Milly. I might get married again. After the year’s over, of course.” “Oh,” Milly said, “to whom?” “Someone from here. Oh, I know I should be wary, after Eric and all that. But he’s different. He’s much older than I, and rather plain-looking but he’s very dependable and so kind.” “Do you love him, Cristy?” “I don’t know,” Cristy said, “but after a while kindness seems enough. Do you suppose that’s more important than love?”

Milly took the afternoon jet to Manila, and just before the plane took off, she gazed at the crowd below and saw Cristy wave once, twice, and watching her hold up her hand like that, Milly felt a sudden sorrow assail her heart: once they were children and Cristy was so pretty in her exquisite dresses, so vibrant astride her handsome pony, and she had always thought how beautiful she was. All through the trip, thoughts of the family, the house, its tragedies came surging into her mind, until finally there was Guelin once again, in the bookstore, in the coffee shop, probing her with his brooding eyes. “You don’t see truth in the seeming ease of life back home,” he had said, and indeed it seemed to her now that in the slow procession of years one hardly became aware of the slow and insidious weakening of the will, of the blood. Whatever the primal cause of the weakening no longer mattered: one was still shocked at the fatal discovery, the loss it exacted. She realized that Guelin had, in his own fashion, found whatever truth he sought, and which had evaded him (as indeed it seemed to evade them all) in his early youth. He had found it in another city, somewhere in its streets, somewhere among its people, she thought as she looked at Manila, hazy through the plane window. She was glad to see the familiar landmarks, for in a way Guelin had been right: this city, despite its dirt, its dangers, its corruption, was that lesser evil, for here dangers were real and visible; one recognized them everywhere, their naked forms tagged and labeled. She realized now that truly the more terrifying threat was in not seeing or knowing or recognizing what was corrupt because these lay hidden, though ever potent, in the byways of a way of life. Guelin had found his truth here, and he had called it conscience. George grew up with it here, and he called it values.

As the plane touched down, Milly felt a strange throb in her womb. Dear God, she thought, the responsibility of bringing life into this world . . . Suddenly she was a little frightened of the stirring of the new life within her, and awed at the difficult and uncertain tasks this life, any life, would entail. She pushed the small curtain to one side and through the plexiglass of the round window she saw George standing in a crowd of unfamiliar and waiting faces.

When she felt George’s arm around her shoulder, the tears came though she willed herself not to cry. “I hope it wasn’t so bad back home,” he said when they were in the car. She knew that he meant the funeral, the reunion with Cristy, the sense of loss; but in her mind home meant not only all the years of violence and bitterness, of disease and death. No, she realized now, that huge house had never been a home . . . She had been on a visit to a past and decayed region, and coming back from that necessary visit was coming home. “It wasn’t so bad, was it, Mil?”

“No,” she said.

“In a few days you’ll forget all about it. It’s over and done now.”

“Yes,” she said quietly, though in her heart she wondered if it was really over, if anything was really over, if remembrances of old wounds, old pains ever ended.

Yet, sitting there now in the car, grateful for George’s reassuring closeness, Milly thought that perhaps, perhaps after all, it was not enough to merrily watch life and never grasp and embrace it; one must probe long and hard and painfully into its very soul, and risk being wounded along its dark byways, for truly it seemed to her now that one had to hurt himself to knowledge, to beauty, to wisdom.

As they drove down the boulevard she asked George to stop the car. He followed her gaze to the far edge of the bay, where the sun was sinking into the sea, leaving a splash of red and orange hues streaking the graying sky. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” George said.

She nodded, and inwardly she told herself, as she knew she would always be telling herself, that the sun must scream, so beautiful, while dying.

Elsa Victoria Martinez Coscolluela was born in Dumaguete City, where she earned her AB and MA for Creative Writing at Silliman University. (She was also Miss Silliman 1964.) Later, she was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of St. La Salle, and retired in 2010 after thirty-two years of service. Upon retirement, she was conferred the rank of Professor Emeritus and was designated Special Assistant to the President for Special Projects, a post that she continues to hold. During her term as VPA, she founded the Negros Summer Workshops with film Director Peque Gallaga in 1990, and the IYAS Creative Writing Workshop in 2000, in collaboration with Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Dr. Marjorie Evasco and the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of De La Salle University, Manila. She writes poetry, fiction, drama, and filmscripts in English. She has published a book of poetry, Katipunera and Other Poems. Several of her works have been anthologized. As a writer, she is best known for her full-length play about Dumaguete during World War II, In My Father's House, which has been produced in Dumaguete, and in Japan, Singapore, San Francisco, and New York. She was inducted to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1999 and is the recipient of several awards from the CCP, Philippines Free Press, and the Philippine Centennial Literary Competition. She continues to work at the University of St. La Salle where she manages several special projects and directs projects for the Eduardo Cojuangco Foundation.

Cuernos de Negros

By ELSA MARTINEZ COSCOLLUELA

The gentle rustle of mountain spirits
Unspools memory as the lamplight leaps
Into a sudden dance: once a child
He had watched his father clearing grass
Grown wild; he had sought and staked
His kinship with the sower’s stance
And drove the plough with his bare hands.

Up in the sky he had scanned the slopes
Of his father’s mountains: gently winding
Down, the river ran from the bubbling spring
And split and multiplied across the heaving
Fields so richly pied with fruits
And ferns and flowers; now scourged by dry
Winds whipped by the sun’s thieving eye.

Midnight under the cold white moon
And dim, dying stars; he returns and wonders
Still at the curious call of dark birds,
The plop of frogs on a quiet pond, cicadas
Crying about the trees, the swish of scythes
At harvest time, and the boy that ran
Singing down the winding mountain slopes.

At dawn, through the clearing fog, steel
Structures rise close to the sky, dig
Deep between the mountain’s horns, suck
From its stones its majestic core of power.
In time, the trees that will remain
Will fall, the springs will die, and all
Will genuflect before the powerful spires.

In time they will not remember, but perhaps
When they grow old, they will see visions
Of Cuernos de Negros in their dreams.

Elsa Victoria Martinez Coscolluela was born in Dumaguete City, where she earned her AB and MA for Creative Writing at Silliman University. (She was also Miss Silliman 1964.) Later, she was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of St. La Salle, and retired in 2010 after thirty-two years of service. Upon retirement, she was conferred the rank of Professor Emeritus and was designated Special Assistant to the President for Special Projects, a post that she continues to hold. During her term as VPA, she founded the Negros Summer Workshops with film Director Peque Gallaga in 1990, and the IYAS Creative Writing Workshop in 2000, in collaboration with Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Dr. Marjorie Evasco and the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of De La Salle University, Manila. She writes poetry, fiction, drama, and filmscripts in English. She has published a book of poetry, Katipunera and Other Poems. Several of her works have been anthologized. As a writer, she is best known for her full-length play about Dumaguete during World War II, In My Father's House, which has been produced in Dumaguete, and in Japan, Singapore, San Francisco, and New York. She was inducted to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1999 and is the recipient of several awards from the CCP, Philippines Free Press, and the Philippine Centennial Literary Competition. She continues to work at the University of St. La Salle where she manages several special projects and directs projects for the Eduardo Cojuangco Foundation.