Roxas is not new in serving the cabinet, as he was a trade secretary under presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. In addition, some credit him for helping thePhilippinesto become a top destination for outsourcing services and call centers. He was the former running mate of President Benigno Aquino who ran for vice president but unfortunately lost.
After the one-year ban on appointing losing candidates to government post; now, he is back and will face the PPP projects under DOTC that is plan to roll out this year. Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) is the coordinating agency for the 7 of the 11 Public Private Partnership (PPP). The biggest PPP contract is the P70-billion extension of LRT-1 to Bacoor,Cavite. The contracts also include the extending LRT-2 to Antipolo, new airports inBoholand Albay, and the expansion of the airport in Puerto Princesa. The department has also vowed to make Terminal 3 of Manila’sNinoyAquinoInternationalAirportto be fully operational next year, after ages of delay.
The former Senator has now P106 billion of PPP contracts to bid out and a P30 billion budget to spend, less than education, defense and public works but about the same as social welfare, health and agriculture which is undoubtedly more than the vice president’s P185 million.
It was beginning to get light when I awoke. Feeling the bamboo slats of the floor hard against my back through the mat, I looked up to where the bamboo rafters made light lines against the darker shade of the nipa roofing. Outside, a square of brightening sky was framed by the open window. Afraid Clay would be waiting, I got up, rolled the mat and walked to the kitchen to wash my face. Coming out into the open kitchen, I felt the wind: cold, sharp when I breathed too deeply. A light mist made the other houses gray and indistinct. The split bamboos that made up the kitchen floor were moist and the water in the earthen jar that stood near the stairs was like ice. The water was numbing to the hands and made the skin of my face tighten. I brushed my arms across my face and walked to the stove. The pot held rice left over from supper; although the barracks were only a few minutes’ run, I did not stop to eat. I went down the steps, the rungs wet and cold under my bare feet, and ran out through the still-dark street towards the barracks. The army camp was on the east side of the main street, a few houses away from the river. Clay would probably be sitting on the rail bamboo rungs nailed parallel on upright wooden posts that fenced the camp, his long legs swinging, the tips of his boots almost touching the ground, one big hand holding on to the rail and the other waving, his voice ringing: “Hey Kid!” as I came near.
As I ran on past the dark houses of the town, past veiled women going to early mass, I hoped that he would not be too impatient from waiting.
Clay was not at the fence. The big acacia tree near the road, a few steps away from the fence, threw a shadow across the gate to the camp. The gate was of steel matting; a big chain held it fastened to a log post. The yard was littered with colored paper, wine bottles, and cigarette butts from last night’s dance. The gray, two-story building of concrete and galvanized iron that was the army barracks was silent. The window near where Clay’s cot stood was closed. I walked to the foot of the acacia tree and sat down to wait. Leaning my head on the cool, rough trunk, I could see the light in the tower of the church near the western end of the town sparkle in the dark. Then, the bells tolled for mass. In the distance, shadowy figures were walking towards the church door from which light now streamed into the darkness. The rest of the town had not awakened.
Sitting under the tree, I looked at the road that was Candaba’s main street. It was short and even, barely a kilometer long from where it started at the river bank to where it faded into the clump of trees that hid the cemetery. The Americans had built a bridge and gouged out a new road on the left bank of the river. This hard asphalt road ran up to the far-off Arayat mountain where the fighting was. Now in the early morning, with the mist slowly lifting as the sun rose, the blue head of the mountain lay buried in the clouds. The new road was empty. The steel bridge, silent after the movements of’ the night, was dull brown in the early daylight.
Still Clay had not opened his window to laugh and shout: Hey Kid! I moved from the tree and sat on the fence near the gate. The bamboo rails, wet with the mist, were rapidly drying in the rising sun. The grass growing thick along the fence smelled fresh and clean. In the forest, the trees would be green; the flowers of the bankal trees would fill the air with their fragrance and the water would be very cool. We would have good swimming today, I thought. The pool would be very clear. I wished Clay would come.
Clay was one of the army mechanics. He was my best friend. Sometimes I could not understand him: he talked too fast that I could not always get what he meant. Then I would say: I beg your. pardon? the way Miss Rosete said one should. Clay would laugh and shout: For gosh sakes! You people are sure polite! And he would laugh and laugh. He would curse too, but with Miss Rosete the day I introduced him, his language was all right.
Miss Rosete was my teacher at the high school. She was from the city and she stayed in a boarding house near the school building. She and I had found the pool in the forest together. That was the day our class was going to hold a program, and she and I went into the woods to gather flowers for the stage. She was singing and smiling all the way and she looked very beautiful. There was a light wind that morning and it blew her curls and carried the smell of her perfume to me as I walked before her to clear the path of thorns and creepers. After we had gathered flowers, she sat down under a tree to wipe away the fine beads of sweat that crowned her brow. I stood looking at her while she passed her white handkerchief across her face. Then she stood up and we walked through thick bushes deeper into the forest. Carrying the flowers cradled in her arm, she followed me up a winding path scarcely visible among the thick leaves of the bushes. She stopped and said: Look! My eyes followed where her hand pointed, through a column of trees on the right side of the path. There was the pool: jewelling the forest with its whiteness. We left the path and walked slowly towards it. She sat down on a rock at the water’s edge and made me sit near her. She said: It’s beautiful; very softly. We looked into the pool. You could see the bottom, it was so clear: with white pebbles on its bed. She took off her shoes and dipped her feet in the water. She said: I wish we could go swimming, the water looks so beautiful! She was gently swinging her feet, her legs running like silver in the water. Then she dipped the flowers we had gathered in the pool and gave them to me to carry back to town.
After that, I went to the pool in the forest often. I would sit at the foot of the rock where she had sat and listen to the little forest noises: the water trickling among the stones where the pool was shallow, and above, the trees with their crickets and birds singing. No other noises. The quiet would make me feel I was in church, all the people gone away and I alone, praying: not really praying, but just listening for the sounds of God—not minding the ache of the knees from the kneeling—listening to the birds in the eaves and the children playing in the convent-yard. I would take off my clothes, enter the water and swim quietly, sometimes diving deep, deep into the pool’s heart. I would pretend that she was there, sitting on the rock, smiling at me, her feet silver in the water.
There at the pool I met Clay. I was diving for the white stones at the bottom of the pool and did not see him until he came through the last line of flowering bushes that hid the pool. I looked up as he came near. The early sun struck his face and made his blonde hair glisten. He stood there and smiled at me. Then he laughed. Hey Kid! he said. Nice place you got here. He walked nearer, sat down at the foot of the rock where Miss Rosete had sat, and leaned his head on the stone. He. said: Good swimming huh? I was embarrassed and remembered her teaching. I smiled: Won’t you join me, sir? He laughed and said: Well, what d’ya know? He’s educated! I felt proud. He took off his clothes, put them near the rock and dived in. He said his name was Clayton but everybody called him Clay. He offered to shake hands but I was so shy I merely smiled and told him my name. Let’s come back here again, Clay said.
We went to the pool almost everyday after that. One morning I went to the motor pool to fetch him. He was working on a truck and he asked me to wait. I sat on the fender of the car and watched him work. His face was greasy and flecked with dust; sweat dripped from his face and fell on his arms as he strained, tightening the bolts, running his dirty hands over the engine.
He washed up and changed his clothes. I’m too tired to go to the pool, Clay said. There must be some nice girls in this town; let’s go meet them. He said, teasing me, I ought to let him meet my girl and did I think old Clay was going to take her away from me? I said I had no girl but I took him to see Miss Rosete at the high school. Classes had not begun and she was in the room preparing the next day’s lesson. The door was open and we stood there for a moment, watching her. She saw us and she smiled at me, then, not smiling, turned to look at Clay. I walked in and stood in front of her desk. Clay came into the room, his heavy boots loud against the cement floor. I said: Miss Rosete, this is Clay; and Clay put out his hand, smiled and said: How are you? Now she smiled. She extended her hand. Her hand looked small in his big hairy hand. She quickly drew her hand away and she said she was sorry, she had lots of things to do, but she smiled at me and then smiled at Clay and said she was glad to have met him. We tiptoed out of the room and all the way to the street, Clay was striking his fist against my shoulder and saying: Jesuschrist!! Jesuschrist!
The sun was growing hotter. Somebody struggled with the nearest window and then it was open and Clay was there, blinking as the light struck his face. Hey Kid! He waved his hand. He was trying to put on his shirt. You are damned early, he said and disappeared into the darkness of the building. After a few minutes, the gray door of the barracks opened and Clay walked to where I sat, waiting.
We started down the road towards the river. The clay path was hot under my feet and the grass, now that the sun had dried the dew, was turning brown with dust. Clay said: Damn hot, ain’t it? He took off his khaki shirt. We walked on, he in his gray undershirt, his shirt dangling from his right hand. Where the undershirt left off, his skin was red and blotched with freckles. Already, drops of sweat were beginning to form on his forehead from the walking.
Just before the bridge, we turned left and climbed up the mound behind which lay the woods. The path winding up to the top of the hillock rose steeply; we clutched at the bushes along it for support. At the top of the mound, we stopped to rest. Below, we could see the road and the ugly bridge, now alive with trucks and people crossing. The noise of their passing came to us low and indistinct. The river flowed brown, foaming along some logs that were tied near the bridge. Looking away from the road to the woods, we could see knee-high cogon growing where the hillock sloped and the first low trees began. Clay and I ran down the slope and into the forest. Clay’s heavy boots crushed fallen leaves and rustled against dead branches from the trees above. The sun came through the leafy sky in bright patches that flashed as the trees stirred in the wind.
Clay said: Let’s sit down a while. He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket. His face was pale red. There were little dark lines under his eyes. He wiped away the drops of sweat that glistened on his nose and gathered in furrows on his forehead. He put his handkerchief back in his pocket and sat down heavily on the ground. Sit down, he said. He rubbed his eyes. Boy, but am I tired! Raking leaves together, he bundled his shirt over the pile they made and there pillowed his head. He closed his eyes. Nice dance last night, Clay said. He grinned. He sat up suddenly, put out a big hand and rumpled my hair. Say, did I ever thank you for introducin’ me to that dame who teaches you or something? His hand balled into a fist and softly struck my shoulder. Clay chuckled and rolled his eyes, making strange noises with his tongue. Boy, he laughed. But is she good! Boy, did old Clay have a good time! His hand, rough and moist. rubbed on the back of my neck. Seeing the look on my face, he laughed. Say, how old are you anyway? he asked. I said nearly sixteen. Aw, you are too young, junior! Clay said. You wouldn’t get what I mean! His harsh laughter tore the silence of the forest.
Still laughing, he got up and we walked on towards the pool. The wind had risen a bit. and under the tree where the sun could not get through, it was chilly. Clay put his arm around my shoulders. His arm was big and hairy, little drops of sweat clinging to it. Boy oh boy, Clay said. But did I have a helluva time last night! He laughed, showing his teeth, his face close to mine smelling of pomade and perspiration. Jesuschrist, Clay said. Jesuschrist!
Clay suddenly let go of my shoulder and leaped up to grab at the branch of a guava tree that grew along the path. He clung to the branch. swaying his body, sending flowers from the tree falling to the ground in flurries of whiteness. Yippeeee! Clay shouted. Yippeeee! Birds flew up and, chirping, fluttered above the trees. Clay dropped to the ground beside me. He was breathing heavily.
Here Kid, he said. Have a guava. You look hungry. He laughed, bowed elaborately and opened his palm where a guava lay small arid white, its flesh exposed where bats had dug at its core, the marks of their teeth leaving red gashes on its skin. I broke the guava open. It smelled sweet and over-ripe. Little worms stirred in its core. I threw the guava away. Clay laughed. Get ya ’nother one. I said never mind, I was not hungry. Well, come on then, he said. Let’s not keep the old pool waiting. He ran ahead of me, his big body swaying from side to side, his boots tramping the bushes along the path.
Now the path narrowed and was lost among the thick undergrowth. The bushes that hid it were here and there stained with mud stray carabaos had left behind them. Brown grass grew in tangles, their blades sharp, drawing white scratches on the skin. The ground, where the sun never shone, was muddy. But where the pool began, the grass thinned, the trees were taller than in any other part of the forest: straight, white-limbed columns with singing life in their branches, below them the water breaking into a million separate diamonds.
Clay was taking off his undershirt as he ran. Reaching the water’s edge, he flung his clothes on a bush and, stamping his muddy boots on the rock, fumbled with their laces. After he had pulled the shoes off, he scraped them against the side of the rock to clean them of the mud they had gathered from the walking. Hurry up, Kid, he shouted. The water looks good! He sat down at the edge of the stone and dangled his legs in the water. The water swirled darkly where his feet touched bottom. Clay lit a cigarette and started to chant softly something about a blonde who couldn’t say no. His voice rose and fell in a grating monotone.
The sun lay hidden behind the trees and I was a long time taking off my clothes. The water’s going to be cold, I thought. What the heck’s taking you such a long time? Clay shouted. He flipped his cigarette butt into the middle of the pool and dived noisily after it. Then he was splashing water, making a lot of noise, shouting: Yippeeee! Yippeeee! Hey come on! Hey come on! I went into the water slowly, first wetting my feet and chest. The water was cold. Come where it is deeper, Clay said. He arched and dived into the pool’s writhing heart. His feet thrashed the water wildly. Then his body broke the water. Look, he said. Black sand filled his open hand. Water dripped from his face. A thin trickle of mucus ran down the corner of his nose. Clay laughed; I touched bottom! He spat and laughed. Let’s see you do it, Kid. Let’s see you do it. I said I couldn’t. Clay threw the sand at me. You gotta learn, he laughed. You gotta learn. He laughed again and began swimming towards me, his arms and feet flailing the water.
Birds in the trees flew away as something heavy came stumbling up the path. Then a young bull carabao lumbered past the bushes and walked towards us, its feet leaving muddy tracks on the grass. Standing at the edge of the water, the carabao gazed at us with red, heavy-lidded eyes. Flies hovered over its head and settled on the black mud that encrusted its back. The carabao looked mean. I climbed up the bank, picked up one of the stones gleaming there and threw it at the beast. The stone hit the carabao between the horns, bounced, and fell back at my feet. Flecks of foam and saliva dripped down the carabao’s mouth as it snorted at me and bellowed angrily. I dipped my hands in the pool and threw water at it. Still bellowing, the carabao turned and silently went away, crashing down the undergrowth.
It would have made the water dirty, I told Clay. Probably strayed from its herd down the hill.
Come on Kid, Clay said. He splashed water at me and ran into the pond, his feet sending clouds of mud swirling up the water’s surface. A dull-brown circle rose and spread from around his body.
When we had dressed and gone back down the path, carefully avoiding the mud flecks the carabao had left on the bushes, Clay said: We are gonna have ’nother party tonight. He grinned, showing his white teeth. I’m bringing Imacool-ada again. He had trouble pronouncing Miss Rosete’s first name. Come to the barracks, Kid, Clay said. We are gonna have real ice-cream. He put his hand around my shoulder. I’ll get ya some. Clay smiled at me and winked his eyes. I’ll get you some cake too.
After lunch, I dressed for school. The sun was hot and the street was empty. I kept to the side of the road where the fences of the houses offered shade against the sun. Near the school building, a squat one-story building near the town square, there were a few figures walking. Students, boys and girls, were gathered on the stairway, talking and laughing. They turned to look at me as I brushed past them and walked up the low concrete stairs. The sudden darkness of the corridor, after the brilliance of noon, brought flashes of light to my eyes as I walked toward the classroom in the western end of the building. The stone slabs of the floor echoed my footsteps. The door creaked as I pushed it open. The room was dark and empty. Big chalk markings on the blackboard spelled: No Classes.
I went in and sat down in the front row near the table. Sitting in the half-dark, I could smell the odor of old dust heavy in the air.
I got up and pushed the dusty window open. Even with the sunlight coming in, the room was still empty. A shaft of light struck the empty chair where Miss Rosete should be, smiling and talking to me. The flowers in the vase at her table had not been replaced with fresh ones. I wished I had remembered to pick flowers at the pool. As I sat silently in the empty room, the patch of light rose higher and was caught among the dusty cobwebs that laced the eastern corner.
The church bells tolled three o’clock. The last silver sound of their ringing was still in the air when the old janitor came in. He walked so silently I did not see him until he was at the door. Peering into the room where I sat, he said: Miss Rosete is not coming.
I rose and walked out of the room. The old man closed the window and the door behind him and melted into the shadows of the corridor. In the light of the afternoon sun, my shadow crept along the stone floor ahead or me as I went out into the street. In the classroom nearest the stairway, they were having a program and somebody was singing.
I walked to the town square and sat down on a bench. I wanted to go to the pool but I was afraid it might rain.
Later, going homeward, I passed the house where Miss Rosete stayed. The iron gate at the head of the walk gaped open. The door of the house was closed. The windows of her room returned my look with a stolid, unseeing stare.
I lay in bed until it was dark. Then I dressed and walked to the army barracks.
The camp was ablaze with lights. The acacia tree, slumped in the darkness facing the road end, seemed to shrink from the sound of the soldiers’ merry-making. Through the dark barracks door, music blared out into the night. I crept through the open gate into the yard and peered through one of the windows on the ground floor. The glass on the window was dusty and I could not see into the room clearly. A thick haze of smoke whirled and made weird patterns over the heads of the soldiers and the women gathered there. The girls of most of the soldiers were there but I could not see Miss Rosete in the room. In a corner, a woman was sitting on a soldier’s lap. The soldier was nuzzling her nape with his mouth. She was giggling shrilly.
In the yard near the door, several men were sitting in the dark, talking and smoking. As I neared them. they laughed loudly. Somebody slapped his thigh and shouted: Looks like old Clay’s been stood up. Our pretty boy’s been stood up! Everybody guffawed. Then I heard Clay’s voice. It sounded hoarse and thick. He laughed. Aw, he said. She don’t worry me none. But I sure convinced her last night, he said. I sure convinced her. Once ya get one of those babes convinced, they’re just like the girls here.
His cigarette glowed in a red arc as he waved a hand in derision. The little babe’s just playin’ hard to get, that’s all. She can’t stay away from me. After I get through with them, they can’t stay away. Everybody laughed.
Clay, somebody said through gusts of laughter. Clay, you sure are a fast one. Clay threw his cigarette butt through the fence to where the moonlight made the road a pale ribbon against the dark. You guys known old Clay, he said. Old Clay always convinces them. She didn’t even know how to kiss. Boy, I sure learned her!
I turned back toward the gate. Clay rose and walked towards me. Hey Kid, he shouted. I didn’t see ya. Com’ here. I got somethin’ for ya. I ran to the road. Hey Kid. Com’ here. What’s the matter wi’ ya. His big body lurched against the gate as he clung to it for support. The soldiers laughed. Clay was clinging to the gate, the chain rattling as he swayed. Hey Kid! Here’s your ice-cream!
I ran and ran. The voices and the drunken laughter grew faint in my ears. I ran swaying from side to side, not knowing where I was going. Then I was stumbling up to the hillock. The mist had settled and the bushes were cold and rough against my hands clutching for support. Below me, the lights on the bridge made reddish circles against the mist rising thick from the river. Music from the camp came faint and strange to my ears. I ran down the slope, the cogon grass lashing at my legs. Brambles along the trail clutched at my body and an owl hooted in a tree as I ran past its lair. The darkness of the forest swallowed me.
When I stopped, there was the pool, white in the moonlight. Breathing heavily, smelling the sickly sweetness of the flowering bankal trees, I stood at the water’s edge. Something dark stirred and rose out of the water. It was the carabao. Raising its dark head, it snorted at me. Its eyes glowed fiery red in the darkness. Dark water trickled down its nostrils and mingled with the slaver from its mouth as it glared at me. I threw stones at the carabao again and again, but it only moaned and refused to go away.
When I saw my sister, Delia, beating my dog with a stick, I felt hate heave like a caged, angry beast in my chest. Out in the sun, the hair of my sister glinted like metal and, in her brown dress, she looked like a sheathed dagger. Biryuk hugged the earth and screamed but I could not bound forward nor cry out to my sister. She had a weak heart and she must not be surprised. So I held myself, my throat swelled, and I felt hate rear and plunge in its cage of ribs.
I was thirteen when my father first took me hunting. All through the summer of that year, I had tramped alone and unarmed the fields and forest around our farm. Then one afternoon in late July my father told me I could use his shotgun.
Beyond the ipil grove, in a grass field we spotted a covey of brown pigeons. In the open, they kept springing to the air and gliding away every time we were within range. But finally they dropped to the ground inside a wedge of guava trees. My father pressed my shoulder and I stopped. Then slowly, in a half-crouch, we advanced. The breeze rose lightly; the grass scuffed against my bare legs. My father stopped again. He knelt down and held my hand.
“Wait for the birds to rise and then fire,” he whispered.
I pushed the safety lever of the rifle off and sighted along the barrel. The saddle of the stock felt greasy on my cheek. The gun was heavy and my arm muscles twitched. My mouth was dry; I felt vaguely sick. I wanted to sit down.
“You forgot to spit,” my father said.
Father had told me that hunters always spat for luck before firing. I spat and I saw the breeze bend the ragged, glassy threads of spittle toward the birds.
“That’s good,” Father said.
“Can’t we throw a stone,” I whispered fiercely. “It’s taking them a long time.”
“No, you’ve to wait.”
Suddenly, a small dog yelping shrilly came tearing across the brooding plain of grass and small trees. It raced across the plain in long slewy swoops, on outraged shanks that disappeared and flashed alternately in the light of the cloud-banked sun. One of the birds whistled and the covey dispersed like seeds thrown in the wind. I fired and my body shook with the fierce momentary life of the rifle. I saw three pigeons flutter in a last convulsive effort to stay afloat, then fall to the ground. The shot did not scare the dog. He came to us, sniffing cautiously. He circled around us until I snapped my fingers and then he came me.
“Not bad,” my father said grinning. “Three birds with one tube.” I went to the brush to get the birds. The dog ambled after me. He found the birds for me. The breast of one of the birds was torn. The bird had fallen on a spot where the earth was worn bare, and its blood was spread like a tiny, red rag. The dog scraped the blood with his tongue. I picked up the birds and its warm, mangled flesh clung to the palm of my hand.
“You’re keen,” I said to the dog. “Here. Come here.” I offered him my bloody palm. He came to me and licked my palm clean.
I gave the birds to my father. “May I keep him, Father?” I said pointing to the dog. He put the birds in a leather bag which he carried strapped around his waist.
Father looked at me a minute and then said: “Well, I’m not sure. That dog belongs to somebody.”
“May I keep him until his owner comes for him?” I pursued.
“He’d make a good pointer,” Father remarked. “But I would not like my son to be accused of dog-stealing.”
“Oh, no!” I said quickly. “I shall return him when the owner comes to claim him.”
“All right,” he said, “I hope that dog makes a hunter out of you.”
Biryuk and I became fast friends. Every afternoon after school we went to the field to chase quails or to the bank of the river which was fenced by tall, blade-sharp reeds to flush snipes. Father was away most of the time but when he was home he hunted with us.
Biryuk scampered off and my sister flung the stick at him. Then she turned about and she saw me.
“Eddie, come here,” she commanded. I approached with apprehension. Slowly, almost carefully, she reached over and twisted my ear.
“I don’t want to see that dog again in the house,” she said coldly. “That dog destroyed my slippers again. I’ll tell Berto to kill that dog if I see it around again.” She clutched one side of my face with her hot, moist hand and shoved me, roughly. I tumbled to the ground. But I did not cry or protest. I had passed that phase. Now, every word and gesture she hurled at me I caught and fed to my growing and restless hate.
My sister was the meanest creature I knew. She was eight when I was born, the day my mother died. Although we continued to live in the same house, she had gone, it seemed, to another country from where she looked at me with increasing annoyance and contempt.
One of my first solid memories was of standing before a grass hut. Its dirt floor was covered with white banana stalks, and there was a small box filled with crushed and dismembered flowers in one corner. A doll was cradled in the box. It was my sister’s playhouse and I remembered she told me to keep out of it. She was not around so I went in. The fresh banana hides were cold under my feet. The interior of the hut was rife with the sour smell of damp dead grass. Against the flowers, the doll looked incredibly heavy. I picked it up. It was slight but it had hard, unflexing limbs. I tried to bend one of the legs and it snapped. I stared with horror at the hollow tube that was the leg of the doll. Then I saw my sister coming. I hid the leg under one of the banana pelts. She was running and I knew she was furious. The walls of the hut suddenly constricted me. I felt sick with a nameless pain. My sister snatched the doll from me and when she saw the torn leg she gasped. She pushed me hard and I crashed against the wall of the hut. The flimsy wall collapsed over me. I heard my sister screaming; she denounced me in a high, wild voice and my body ached with fear. She seized one of the saplings that held up the hut and hit me again and again until the flesh of my back and thighs sang with pain. Then suddenly my sister moaned; she stiffened, the sapling fell from her hand and quietly, as though a sling were lowering her, she sank to the ground. Her eyes were wild as scud and on the edges of her lips,. drawn tight over her teeth, quivered a wide lace of froth. I ran to the house yelling for Father.
She came back from the hospital in the city, pale and quiet and mean, drained, it seemed, of all emotions, she moved and acted with the keen, perversity and deceptive dullness of a sheathed knife, concealing in her body that awful power for inspiring fear and pain and hate, not always with its drawn blade but only with its fearful shape, defined by the sheath as her meanness was defined by her body.
Nothing I did ever pleased her. She destroyed willfully anything I liked. At first, I took it as a process of adaptation, a step of adjustment; I snatched and crushed every seed of anger she planted in me, but later on I realized that it had become a habit with her. I did not say anything when she told Berto to kill my monkey because it snickered at her one morning, while she was brushing her teeth. I did not say anything when she told Father that she did not like my pigeon house because it stank and I had to give away my pigeons and Berto had to chop the house into kindling wood. I learned how to hold myself because I knew we had to put up with her whims to keep her calm and quiet. But when she dumped my butterflies into a waste can and burned them in the backyard, I realized that she was spiting me.
My butterflies never snickered at her and they did not smell. I kept them in an unused cabinet in the living room and unless she opened the drawers, they were out of her sight. And she knew too that my butterfly collection had grown with me. But when I arrived home, one afternoon, from school, I found my butterflies in a can, burned in their cotton beds like deckle. I wept and Father had to call my sister for an explanation. She stood straight and calm before Father but my tear-logged eyes saw only her harsh and arrogant silhouette. She looked at me curiously but she did not say anything and Father began gently to question her. She listened politely and when Father had stopped talking, she said without rush, heat or concern: “They were attracting ants.”
I ran after Biryuk. He had fled to the brambles. I ran after him, bugling his name. I found him under a low, shriveled bush. I called him and he only whimpered. Then I saw that one of his eyes was bleeding. I sat on the ground and looked closer. The eye had been pierced. The stick of my sister had stabbed the eye of my dog. I was stunned. ,For a long time I sat motionless, staring at Biryuk. Then I felt hate crouch; its paws dug hard into the floor of its cage; it bunched muscles tensed; it held itself for a minute and then it sprang and the door of the cage crashed open and hate clawed wildly my brain. I screamed. Biryuk, frightened, yelped and fled, rattling the dead bush that sheltered him. I did not run after him.
A large hawk wheeled gracefully above a group of birds. It flew in a tightening spiral above the birds.
On my way back to the house, I passed the woodshed. I saw Berto in the shade of a tree, splitting wood. He was splitting the wood he had stacked last year. A mound of bone-white slats was piled near his chopping block When he saw me, he stopped and called me.
His head was drenched with sweat. He brushed away the sweat and hair from his eyes and said to me: “I’ve got something for you.”
He dropped his ax and walked into the woodshed. I followed him. Berto went to a corner of the shed. I saw a jute sack spread on the ground. Berto stopped and picked up the sack.
“Look,” he said.
I approached. Pinned to the ground by a piece of wood, was a big centipede. Its malignantly red body twitched back and forth.
“It’s large,” I said.
“I found him under the stack I chopped.” Berto smiled happily; he looked at me with his muddy eyes.
“You know,” he said. “That son of a devil nearly frightened me to death”
I stiffened. “Did it, really?” I said trying to control my rising voice. Berto was still grinning and I felt hot all over.
“I didn’t expect to find any centipede here,” he said. “It nearly bit me. Who wouldn’t get shocked?” He bent and picked up a piece of wood.
“This wood was here,” he said and put down the block. “Then I picked it up, like this. And this centipede was coiled here. Right here. I nearly touched it with my hand. What do you think you would feel?”
I did not answer. I squatted to look at the reptile. Its antennae quivered searching the tense afternoon air. I picked up a sliver of wood and prodded the centipede. It uncoiled viciously. Its pinchers slashed at the tiny spear.
“I could carry it dead,” I said half-aloud.
“Yes,” Berto said. “I did not kill him because I knew you would like it.”
“Yes, you’re right.”
“That’s bigger than the one you found last year, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s very much bigger.”
I stuck the sliver into the carapace of the centipede. It went through the flesh under the red armor; a whitish liquid oozed out. Then I made sure it was dead by brushing its antennae. The centipede did not move. I wrapped it in a handkerchief.
My sister was enthroned in a large chair in the porch of the house. Her back was turned away from the door; she sat facing the window She was embroidering a strip of white cloth. I went near, I stood behind her chair. She was not aware of my presence. I unwrapped the centipede. I threw it on her lap.
My sister shrieked and the strip of white sheet flew off like an unhanded hawk. She shot up from her chair, turned around and she saw me but she collapsed again to her chair clutching her breast, doubled up with pain The centipede had fallen to the floor.
“You did it,” she gasped. “You tried to kill me. You’ve health… life… you tried…” Her voice dragged off into a pain-stricken moan.
I was engulfed by a sudden feeling of pity and guilt.
“But it’s dead!” I cried kneeling before her. “It’s dead! Look! Look!” I snatched up the centipede and crushed its head between my fingers. “It’s dead!”
My sister did not move. I held the centipede before her like a hunter displaying the tail of a deer, save that the centipede felt thorny in my hand.
BY the time I got to Bora Bora I wasn’t shy anymore about asking strangers for favors. I always offered something in return and almost everyone seemed to appreciate that although I knew they mostly didn’t need what I had to offer.
Like yesterday. I spent a wonderful day on Motu Moute as the guest of a couple who tended a small watermelon patch on that barrier island, one of the many motus that surround Bora Bora. When I heard they were going to work on their farm, I offered to help for free. They thought I was nuts—the dry season was over, they said, and there’d be mosquitoes and gnats on the island. They laughed but finally said okay, undoubtedly to humor a fool as much as they needed help.
They weren’t kidding. There were lots of gnats and the mosquitoes were only waiting to take over at night. There wasn’t much work—there wasn’t enough weeds for three people to pull out and the plants were doing well. It was quite an enjoyable day for the island was beautiful and pristine—very few people go there to mess it up. For lunch we ate fish caught on the way over, broiled over charcoal from the coconut leaves I collected. I even managed to do some swimming in the calm lagoon waters.
I was on my third day in Vaitape, the main town in Bora Bora. It had a pier which wasn’t very busy—only little boats and small cruise ships docked there. For the third day in a row, I saw the brown dog that seemed to have made the pier his home. He would meet every ship that came in and look at the faces of everyone who disembarked, as if looking for a long-lost master who had sailed away one day and never came back. I wondered if his master had left his island home for the same reasons I left mine when I was twenty-one. I felt sorry for the dog because I had already learned what “you can never come home again” meant.
I worried about what I was going to do the rest of the day when I saw a le truck that looked like it might be a tour bus. I went to the driver and asked. Her name was Teróo and yes, she was waiting to take tourists from a cruise ship on a circle island tour.
“Can I help? I speak English.”
“What do I need you for, I speak English myself. Everyone in the tour industry does.”
“I don’t want any money—I just want to help you round your passengers up after each stop. Surely, you don’t want to lose any of them.”
She laughed loud in such an infectious manner I thought perhaps I had told a good joke. “I haven’t lost anyone yet. This is a very small island. How can anyone get lost?”
“Oh, come on. I’m sure you can find something for me to do to make your life easier. Besides, how can I get to see this island if you don’t let me help?”
“Where are you from, Chile or Castille?”
“Non, je suis philippin.” I wanted to impress her with my French.
“Well, well—I’ve never met a Filipino before,” she said with that beautiful laughter she had. “You can come with me but promise to tell me about your country.”
A LAUNCH from Wind Song, the high-tech French luxury sailing ship anchored in the bay, arrived at the pier to let passengers off for the tour. There was a dozen of them, mostly old Americans. As soon as they got aboard, we started on our way. There were already people from Club Med in the bus and we stopped at Bloody Mary’s to pick up another couple. Teróo was driving a regular le truck painted light blue and red, with wooden benches and open windows. I sat in the front with her.
We went in a clockwise direction along the road that circled the island. Our first stop was on a relatively high point just a few miles out of Vaitape. To the left we had a good view of the small bay, to the right were concrete bunkers and fortifications. Teróo explained the area used to be a submarine base in World War II. None of the old buildings existed anymore—they had either been torn down or reclaimed by the jungle.
I figured this was where James Michener was stationed during the war—the place where he wrote many of the stories in Tales of the South Pacific as he waited for the enemy that never came. I looked at Teróo, who appropriately looked like a cross between Bloody Mary and Liat in the movie, and pondered the likes of Lt. Joe Cable who saw beauty in Liat but at the same time found her unqualified to be a wife because of her color. By the time Michener’s book became a musical, Lt. Cable had been rehabilitated into one who protested “you have to be taught” to consider other races inferior. White America wasn’t ready then to look in the mirror and see its real self.
None of the passengers got down. I doubt if they knew or cared who James Michener was. Big band music and scenes of sailors and Marines in khaki uniforms scanning the horizon for enemy ships faded from my mind as the bus started moving again and jolted me back to reality.
The circle island tour doesn’t cover many historically important places for there is virtually none in Bora Bora. We stopped at scenic vistas—there was a lot of them—where the tourists got out to take pictures they can show back home. Farther along, Teróo stopped the bus at a secluded place where there were lots of trees and announced that those who wanted to relieve themselves can do so. “Women to the left of the road, men on the right,” she yelled. I told Teróo we did the same thing in the Philippines and drew a laugh from her. However, nobody wanted to go, probably too embarrassed to do even such a natural act outdoors because they had been doing it indoors all their lives.
Somewhere past the halfway point, we stopped at a wooden shack that sold souvenirs, snacks, and soft drinks. Teróo told everyone they were free to browse around for half an hour. As soon as they had gone, Teróo and I went to the back of the bus to chat.
“So how is it you’re here? I have never seen a Filipino here before, honest.”
“Oh, I was let go from my job in Los Angeles because sales was down. I wanted to go on a vacation before I start on a new job.”
“You born in the Philippines?”
“Yes, I went to America because life was hard for me in my country.”
“Isn’t the Philippines like this island?”
“Right, except there’s too many people. Even crowded Papéete seems wide open compared to the Philippines. I don’t know, but everything here seems familiar—not just the climate but the way the language sounds, the words, the way people go about their business. But we’re different, too. Perhaps we’ve changed so much that what we now have isn’t real anymore.”
“We’re changing, too,” she mused, “not always good. I don’t know how we were able to keep much of our customs. Look what happened to the Hawaiians…” She turned pensive for a while. “Anyway, how long are you going to stay here?”
“In French Polynesia? As long as my money holds out—I want to see as much of this area as I can. I’m beginning to think I can get a feel of what the Philippines might have been had things been different.”
“I know I’ll never have another chance like this again. I don’t want to end up like these tourists who wait until it’s almost too late to enjoy travel.”
“I would like to travel myself but I can’t afford to go anywhere.”
“You’re lucky, this is paradise as far as I’m concerned.”
“But it still would be nice to see different places.”
Teróo didn’t want a soda so I got just one for myself at the snack bar. It was expensive as hell—three bucks—but that’s what they charged everybody everywhere, not just tourists at this tourist stand. Everything was expensive in paradise.
When I returned, I asked Teróo, “So how often does anything exciting come to stir everybody from their romantic attitudes here?”
“Not very often. You know I was in a Hollywood movie once? Mutiny on the Bounty. Those were exciting times.”
“The one with Marlon Brando?”
She laughed hard. “You’re a bad boy. I’m not that old—the one with Mel Gibson.”
“At least I didn’t ask if it was the Charles Laughton movie,” I teased back. “Yeah, I saw the Mel Gibson movie—lots of nude women, beautiful bodies, sexy…”
“I was one of them.” She gave me a big smile.
I didn’t say anything and smiled back. She looked pretty enough but she had gotten a bit heavy just like most Polynesian women tend to do when they reach a certain age.
She sensed my incredulity and laughed again. “I was only eighteen… you wouldn’t believe how beautiful and sexy I looked then.”
“I’m sure you were.”
“No, you don’t—you don’t believe me,” she said, shaking her head.
Our passengers were still milling about the store—a few had gone across the road to check out what was there. I smiled at the idea some of them may finally be relieving themselves after passing on the first scheduled pee stop.
“What islands have you seen?”
“Tahiti and Raiatea before this.”
“Then you should visit Huahine. That’s my island. I have a daughter who lives there in our old house. She looks exactly like I did when I was eighteen. You can stay there for free.”
“You’re very kind but I don’t want to impose on strangers.”
“You don’t know us Polynesians. I like you and you are my friend, and I want you to meet my daughter. You will see how I looked twenty years ago. She will be happy to meet you. School is over and she’s there with her grandfather, my father. My husband works in Papéete, you know.”
TWO days later I was at Farepiti Quay, the pier commercial ships use in Bora Bora, waiting to get on the ferry for the overnight trip to Huahine. Teróo’s daughter, Simone, was going to meet me in Fare when we get there in the morning. She had just finished high school in Tahiti and was on vacation before going off to college.
We slept on the deck of the ferry which also serves as a freighter. Many people had straw mats to lie on—I had none but used my jacket for warmth and my backpack for a pillow. It was getting light when a loud crunch woke me up. I heard voices and I understood enough to know we had hit something.
I was surprised nobody seemed too disturbed. People were calmly looking out over the side. One of them explained we were in one of the channels through the barrier reefs around Huahine. We had hit a sandbar—the captain had misjudged its depth because of the complicated tidal pattern. Happens all the time, he said. The biggest inconvenience was that we’ll be six hours late. We’ll have to wait until the tide gets high enough again for us to clear the sand bar.
I worried Simone might go back home when the ship didn’t arrive on time. I can call her on the phone but my Huahine trip felt like it was starting on the wrong foot—I had already caused her inconvenience.
We eventually got to the Fare pier by mid-afternoon. As our ship was coming in I saw the rickety stores and hotels across the tree-shaded street. Next to the pier was a snack bar. Off to the right was a bridge that two white kids—teenagers—on bicycles were crossing from wherever they may have gone to. They had white shirts and black pants, and the safety helmets required in America. I knew right away they were eighteen-year-old Mormon missionaries. They looked exactly like the ones we had in L.A. At their age, they probably didn’t realize how lucky they were to be able to spend a year of their lives among people of a different culture.
One young woman stood out from the rest of the people waiting at the pier. She was in a yellow and tangerine pareu, that one-piece wonder women all over French Polynesia used for clothing. She was sitting on that metal thing—I don’t know what it’s called—ships tie up to. She appeared to be scanning the ship for someone she was supposed to meet. When we made eye contact, I knew right away she was Simone. I went straight to her as soon as I got ashore.
“Bonjour, êtes vous Mademoiselle Simone?”
“Oui, vous devez être Antonio, n’est-ce pas?”
“Wow! Vous êtes jolie… Veuillez m’excuser, je ne parle pas bien le français.”
She laughed heartily—she had the same infectious laugh her mother had. “Maybe not, just good enough to flirt, I see.”
“You have to understand I only know a few phrases in French. Luckily, the ones I knew fit the occasion. I really meant what I said.”
“I’m glad to meet you. My mother said to take good care of you.”
“She’s a wonderful woman—as warm and friendly as anybody I’ve ever known.”
“She’s a good mom, too. That’s why I always try to do what she asks of me.”
“Where did you learn to speak excellent English?”
“In school. I chose to study English because I had been aiming for a scholarship in an American university since I started high school. I was lucky enough to get one at U.C. Santa Barbara.”
“That’s only an hour’s drive from where I live.”
“Good. Maybe you can visit me when I get there.”
She was beautiful—full-bodied and full-hipped—attributes which may later work against her but were assets at eighteen. Gentle face, large brown eyes, and long, shiny, dark hair. I saw Teróo in her face and in her genuine warmth and charm.
She had borrowed an Italian scooter from her cousin and asked me to get in the back. She told me to hold on to her so I can lean whichever way she did in a coordinated manner.
I couldn’t believe I had my arms around the warm body of a beautiful woman. I was awkward around women and would normally scheme and plan just to get so far. A friend once said I was too timid with girls I liked, afraid of getting turned down. He was right but my carefully crafted defenses had saved me from much heartache over the years.
I fell for Simone right away but warned myself she was a different kind of girl. She was the daughter of a woman who had befriended me. I had to be very, very careful not to do anything that would break that trust. The thought gave me comfort—I had no pressure to get anywhere with her and had a ready-made excuse should I fail.
She lived in Faie, on the other side of Huahine Nui, or Big Huahine. There was another island called Huahine Iti, or Little Huahine, and the two were connected by a short bridge. She warned me not to get Fare and Faie mixed up since they almost sounded the same.
The roads were good and the terrain was relatively flat—Huahine didn’t have the tall mountain peaks in the middle like most of the other islands of French Polynesia. Houses were well made, many built with concrete blocks and corrugated iron although some were made of wood and raised from the ground. They weren’t clustered together and had lots of space around them.
After a little over half an hour on the road, Simone pulled into a dirt driveway that led to a large wooden house. Trees—jackfruit and mango—shaded the house. Bird chirps punctuated the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
We walked to the porch where Simone introduced me to her relatives who lived nearby. They were preparing food—peeling, cutting, and chopping vegetables and meat.
We next went to the kitchen where I met her grandfather. He was well-built and looked strong, not old at all. He greeted me in French and I mumbled back an appropriate response. They spoke to each other in Tahitian. Her grandfather laughed, then she came to me and put an arm around my waist and smiled. She laughed, too.
“What’s going on here? Are they having a party tonight?”
“No—well, yes—my extended family has come to welcome you. We’re all eating together tonight.”
“Oh, Simone, this is embarrassing—they’re going to all this trouble for someone they don’t know.”
“Don’t be silly. They all want to eat and have a few drinks, too. It’s a good excuse to get together. Besides, they know you’re my mom’s friend.”
She took my backpack and stored it in one of the rooms. When she returned, one of her cousins handed her a plastic pail and said something in Tahitian.
“We have more than an hour before food is served—they thought it might be a good time for me to show you something. When we come back, we’ll have time to take a quick shower and change before we eat.”
We went out to the highway, turned right, and walked about half a kilometer towards the bridge we had passed earlier. Next to the bridge was a house with dozens of vandas in various colors all around the yard. She exchanged greetings with a boy who was sitting on the front steps. The boy who was perhaps sixteen came running out to join us.
We went down the embankment and walked along the banks of the small river to where it almost met the ocean. Simone and the boy got on their knees at the water’s edge and started slapping on it with their hands. I saw one of the strangest sights I have ever seen. Large eels started wriggling out from their holes along the banks and came to where the splashing was.
When there was a couple of dozen eels around, they gave them food from the plastic pail—bread, rice, vegetables, pieces of raw meat. “They eat anything,” Simone explained.
“Do they bite?”
“They probably do, but not if you don’t do anything stupid. They know we’re here to give them food.” Simone explained that the eels were treated by the local kids as pets, feeding them regularly. “What do you think?”
I laughed. “All I can say is if this was in the Philippines they would all have been eaten long ago.”
WE were ready for dinner. We had showered and changed. Simone was in a new green and purple pareu. She had it tied in another one of the endless number of variations, like a strapless gown this time. A pareu is nothing more than a brightly colored piece of rectangular cloth and I always wondered how they made them stay in place.
Her relatives had set a buffet table and I saw barbecued pork and fish along with poison cru, their version of kilawen, broiled breadfruit, green salad, and steamed rice. Off to the side was a barrel full of Hinano beer on ice. On another small table were several bottles of French wine.
There must have been twenty or thirty people, all nice to me. The food was good, and the beer and wine made conversing in a strange language less stressful for everyone. Simone’s relatives spoke to me in French and bad English. I replied in English and terrible French. Simone hovered close to me all the time, ever ready to rescue or translate for me, whichever seemed to be needed at that moment. It was hard not to get attracted to her—she was extraordinarily kind. However, not only was she the daughter of a friend, she was also embarrassingly ten years younger than I was. It didn’t make it any easier that she was more mature than many of the other women I knew—I was afraid she’d consider me ancient.
After everyone was full, two guys came in with log drums. They started beating out a steady rhythm that got everyone dancing. To me, much of Tahitian dance is erotic and some moves are outright simulations of fornication. They taught me those moves, difficult and tiring for a novice, and made me dance. We had been dancing for over an hour when one of the drummers apparently gave an order because everybody started leaving the dance floor one by one until only Simone and I were left.
The drums beat out more complex patterns while Simone danced around me, brushing me with her arms and legs, and bumping me with her hips and her body. Everyone was yelling, encouraging her on. Simone got closer to me and started swaying her hips faster in a frenzy that was exciting. The drums rose to a final crescendo then everything stopped. The party was over.
Each of the guests offered me another welcome to their island before leaving for the night. Simone’s grandfather had long retired to his room.
Simone was sweating profusely from her dance. She got a couple of Hinanos from the barrel and gave me one. We turned the lights off and went to the front steps where we sat close to each other. There was a solid breeze—it helped make the heat bearable, even nice. The moon was high and lit the landscape with a cold light that turned the bright colors of the trees and the flowers to a dull gray.
We didn’t feel the need to talk. The cold beer tasted great in the sultry night—its bitter aftertaste reminded me of tears and sweat. I wanted to thank Simone with a hug but didn’t want to spoil anything.
After our second beer Simone said, “We better turn in now. We have a lot of places to see tomorrow.”
She led me to the room where she had put my backpack—the same room where I changed after I took a shower. “You’re sleeping in my room,” she said. She unrolled a palm leaf mat on the floor and placed blankets and pillows on it.
“What about you? Where will you sleep?”
“What do you mean? This is my room, too.” She sounded like she was surprised to hear such nonsense from me. She casually pulled out the corner of her pareu that held it in place and let it fall on the floor—she only had a pair of bikini panties underneath. She put on a large Miami Dolphins T-shirt and laid down on one side of the mat. I changed my wet T-shirt into a dry one and took the other half of the mat.
“This really isn’t my room anymore—it was mine until I left to go to high school in Papéete. We students board there during the school year. I get to use this room on my vacations. Two of my cousins who help take care of Grandfather use it when I’m not around.”
She snuggled close to me and I felt her soft breasts touch my arms. She smelled of tiare, the smell reminded me of the gentle fragrance of the sampaguitas of my youth. I turned around and kissed her impulsively—it just felt like the thing to do. Our tongues touched and she was delicious. I groped for her breasts through her T-shirt, then decided I could do better if I put my hand directly under her shirt. Her young breasts were firm but supple—her nipples were small, typical for one who hadn’t nursed a child yet.
I would have stopped right there, content with little victories had she not reached down and touched my cock. We both knew what was coming next and took our clothes off. I wasn’t clumsy anymore but confidently moved like I had been doing it with her for a long time. It felt good when I got inside her. We kept it up for a while, not speaking, and she held me back whenever she felt I was getting frantic. When she finally let me come, she was ready—her body stiffened and shuddered several times before she went limp.
I WOKE up just as the sun had come up. Simone was still sleeping. When I walked out of the room, I saw that her grandfather was already awake and having a cup of coffee. I was embarrassed when he saw me come out.
“Ia orana,” I greeted him warily.
“Bonjour! Comment allez vous? Voullez-vous du café?”
“Oui, si’l vous plait. Noir—sans sucre, sans lait.”
He came back from the kitchen and handed me a cup of coffee. It was strong and it was good. Another legacy from the French I said to myself. We seemed to be the only two people awake in all of Huahine.
We sipped our coffee in silence. I was apprehensive about starting a conversation.
“Simone est séduisante nest-ce pas? Is nice, yes?” he said at long last but didn’t show any indication of what he was really trying to get to.
“Oui, she’s very pretty.” Did I give myself away? I wondered.
“Êtes-vous de Californie?”
“Simone go school Californie.”
Just then Simone came out from her room to join us. She was wearing the same T-shirt but had put on a pair of tan cargo shorts. Her hair was disheveled but she still looked lovely. Her large brown eyes smiled before her lips did. She put her arms around my shoulders in a gesture as unaffected as it would have been had she been greeting her grandfather. I realized then I had been brought up in an environment very different from hers—mine had been inhibited, hers open. Her touch made me uneasy no more.
Simone went to the kitchen to get herself a cup of coffee. She brought the pot over to refill our cups. She let her grandfather know about our activities for the day. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but they laughed a lot.
LATER that morning, we were back on the road. Simone had me put extra clothes in my backpack in case it got cold or we didn’t get back home before dark. She also made sure we had bathing suits because there would be places where we might be tempted to swim.
It didn’t take long to get to our first stop, Marae Rauhuru. I had been to a few other maraes before but they’re all different—this one was smaller but had larger stones. Like the others, this marae was on a raised rectangular platform built up with rocks, stones, and dirt. Flat, upright slabs of coral stood along its periphery. More slabs were in what seemed to be random places in the middle of the platform.
“These are sacred places our ancient people used for religious ceremonies—exactly what, we’re not sure. They could have been animal or even human sacrifices.”
“Those standing stones—any astronomical features to them?”
“Again, we don’t know although nobody has yet found a connection. There’s a lot of things we still don’t know about our old culture. That’s one reason I want to go to school in the U.S. After my degree, I’d like to go for a doctorate at University of Hawaii and do research on our past.”
“That’s very commendable… I wish you luck.” I knew Simone was kind and responsible but this was the first indication I got that she really had great plans about what she wanted to do with her life.
“I hope you don’t mind, but let’s stay around this marae for a while. Feel the energy from this place. Too many tourists rush from one place to another and never get to know anything real.”
We walked around the marae. Some of the coral slabs were green with lichen, others were smooth and plain.
“How old is this marae?”
“Probably twelve hundred years… Of course, it must have been destroyed by cyclones and rebuilt a few times. Sometimes those waves can get strong even though we’re surrounded by barrier reefs. Inter-island wars could also have destroyed it once or twice.”
“How do you know all these?”
“I’ve been reading a lot. It’s a subject that really inspires me.”
We sat on the edge of the marae, soaking the sun in and gazing at the ocean. After a few minutes, Simone pulled me up and pointed towards a nearby thatch-roofed, oblong-shaped structure built over-water on stilts. It had no windows. It was a replica of a building where the ancient rulers met, she explained.
She asked me to take my shoes off before entering as a sign of respect. I was surprised to see how bright and airy it was inside considering there were no windows. Light came through the gap between the wall and the pitched roof—the gap wasn’t noticeable from the outside. We squatted on a large palm leaf mat that covered the floor. The place was quiet and peaceful.
Presently, about half a dozen people came in. The men were in Hawaiian shirts and the women in colorful muumuus. They walked around and were apparently baffled there was nothing to see inside. I noticed Simone got a bit agitated because they hadn’t removed their shoes. One of them came over and asked what the building was for and Simone told him. The man said it would be a good idea to fill the room with exhibits because there was nothing there for tourists to see. I was astonished at the self-control my young friend showed.
We set out again in the direction of Fare. A couple of kilometers away, Simone stopped on the side of the road and pointed to the ancient rock fish traps in the inner lagoon. Nobody knew how old they were but they had been in constant use for centuries.
“I’ve seen bamboo fish traps in the Philippines with the same pattern.”
“Our ancestors brought with them many cultural traits and traditions from the Philippines and Indonesia. You’ll find a lot here that may have been lost there long ago. I once read an article about your sexual customs in ancient Philippines the friars found sinful. They said the women were too promiscuous. Funny but they didn’t say anything about the men. Doesn’t it take two?” She laughed.
“Is that true… the promiscuity, I mean? You wouldn’t know it the way girls behave there today—it takes a lot of work just to get one to let you hold her hand.”
“That’s the influence of the Church. When the white men first came to our islands they said the same thing about our women. Guess what, I don’t think they know the difference between promiscuity and not hiding your true feelings. In this regard, we probably haven’t changed as much as you Filipinos.”
“Anything we still do you don’t do anymore?”
“Our ancestors brought dogs with them—as pets and as a source of protein. We don’t eat them anymore.”
She turned red and looked anxious. She looked relieved when I laughed.
“Some day I’ll read the original friar manuscripts and write a paper investigating how Christianity changed the culture in the Philippines and how Islam did the same in Indonesia.”
I thought about my high school days when I wanted to be a writer, or maybe a photographer. I gave up those plans because I reckoned the best way to get respect was to have a good-paying, practical job. So I became an engineer, instead. I envied Simone who was going on to do the things she loved.
IT was noon and very hot when we got to Fare. Simone parked the scooter under a wide-spreading monkeypod tree across from the pier. I followed her to a small hotel that had mostly cash-starved surfers as guests. Inside was a restaurant, a typical South Seas restaurant the way I remember from the movies. It’s walls were bare except for an airline calendar. Two slow-rotating fans dominated the ceiling.
The restaurant served Chinese food. We had noodles, cheap but very good, followed by fresh, ripe mangoes for dessert. We talked about our lives, how different California was from Huahine, and promised to see each other in Santa Barbara. We talked about what we were going to do next.
Simone wanted to show me Bali Hai, the four-hundred-dollar-a-night resort hotel just outside of town where they had found ancient artifacts during its construction. “It’s a beautiful place but I had this strange feeling when it was being built we shouldn’t have been putting anything up there.”
She had worked at the archaeological site as a volunteer digger the last two summers. One of the archaeologists from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu was evidently impressed with her enthusiasm and attitude and helped her get a scholarship at U.C. Santa Barbara.
When we left the restaurant, there were three men were waiting for us outside. Simone looked annoyed when she saw them. She spoke with one and led him away from the others. They talked in Tahitian but I could sense the anger between them. He was jabbing at her with his finger and she was gesticulating wildly with her arms.
Unexpectedly, I felt a sharp pain that made me fall to my knees. One of the other guys had sucker punched me on my side. It would have been worse but my backpack had blunted the blow somewhat. The other followed with a fist to my face. More blows followed and I lost my sense of what was up and down. I heard a loud shriek from Simone then felt her arms around me. She shielded me from further blows with her own body.
Other people came, pulled the guys away, and made them leave. The waiter from the restaurant came out and gave me a glass of ice water. I slowly regained my breath as Simone cradled me in her arms. When I was able to stand up, Simone made me walk up and down the sidewalk to make sure I had my balance back. When she was convinced I could hold on to her on the scooter, we drove off.
She drove slowly, often driving with one hand as she used the other to make sure I was holding on tightly to her. She drove to Bali Hai which was close by and made me wait by the scooter while she went to the office.
After ten minutes, she came back with an armful of towels and a bucket of ice. A man who came out with her helped me walk to wherever we were going. He must have been appraised by Simone of what happened for he was apologetic. “I’m sorry this happened. We Tahitians aren’t brutes…”
“Oh, no, don’t worry. I’ve met many nice Tahitians and I’m not going to let some people spoil my visit or change what I think of your people.”
We walked to the lagoon where circular cottages were built on stilts above the clear, turquoise waters. A quiet breeze blew onshore making the humidity less intolerable. We took a raised walkway over the water to one of the cottages.
“My name is Sylvain, I’m the manager of this hotel. Simone asked if you could lie down for an hour in one of the rooms until you get your wind back. I knew she was going to drive you back to Faie so I told her you can stay as long as you need to—overnight, I insist. Don’t worry about the charges—we’re never booked full so it’s no big loss.”
He saw my reluctance and continued, “I owe a lot to Simone—she helped us coordinate with the archaeologists the last few years.”
He gave me a bottle of Côte du Rhone when we got in the room. “I hope you will enjoy this.” He shook my hand again before leaving.
The room was terrific. Over-water. Breezy. Three hundred sixty degrees of view. In the middle of the floor was a large round hole covered with thick glass through which you could see colorful fishes in the water below. Another over-water walkway led to a platform farther out in the lagoon from where you could swim or simply relax. Lots of space separated one cottage from another to ensure privacy.
Simone made me lie on the bed and removed my shirt. She put ice wrapped in towel on my side that hurt. She placed another on my cheek and told me to hold them in place.
She sat next to me and started crying. She had managed to hold everything in until she felt it was okay to let herself go. Between sobs she said one of the guys in town was an old boyfriend who couldn’t accept the fact it was over between them. “He is so jealous and possessive—he thinks he owns me. He’s going to hear from my cousins.”
After she put everything away, we drank the bottle of wine until I felt sleepy enough for a nap.
SIMONE was watching over me when I woke up. I looked at my watch and noted I had slept for a good hour.
“Did you sleep at all?”
“Oh, yes. Fifteen minutes.” She wiped her tears away and smiled.
“Don’t make yourself sad for what happened. Everything’s okay.”
She wanted to say something more but I pulled her down to make her lie beside me. When I tried to hug her to reassure her, I felt a sharp pain at my side that made me flinch. Simone noticed and started crying again.
She nestled close to me—the smell of our sweat mixed with the tiare scent in the coconut oil she used on her hair. She was warm and her touch felt good. She must have noticed my tension for soon she had a mischievous smile on her face. Her smile made me feel better.
“You want to?” I thought she was being a tease.
“Yes, but I can’t.”
“Keep still, I’ll find a way.”
She undressed, then took my pants off. She straddled my hips, made me hard, and took me in, very careful not to put her weight on my body. The limited movement we dared do was a great turn-on—it was like an endless foreplay. She was very gentle, holding back the moves I knew she wanted to do.
After I came, she huddled close to me, uncomplaining, although I knew she was unsatisfied.
I forced myself to get up knowing if I didn’t, my muscles would get sore and stiff. We decided to go for a swim. We went through the walkway to the swimming platform. It had a few plastic chairs and a ladder that went down into the water.
The water was cold and the salt stung my cuts but it felt good where it hurt most. I couldn’t stay long, however, because I couldn’t move about well enough to get warmed up. I got out of the water and wrapped myself in a towel, content to watch Simone from my chair. She looked like a mermaid frolicking among the waves—she was in her perfect environment. I was relieved she wasn’t moping anymore or blaming herself for what happened.
When she came out of the water, I gave her a towel and asked, “Why are you so nice to me?”
“Mother said you were a good man. She’s always right.”
THAT evening, a waiter came to deliver dinner. He raised the tray cover to show us the entrée—filet mignon with tarragon sauce, he said. Sylvain also came by and inquired if I was feeling better. He uncorked a bottle of wine for us—it was a St.-Éstephe.
I knew then he really meant what he had said earlier. He could have brought over a less expensive bottle and saved the good Médoc for a more important paying guest. “Thank you, Sylvain. I’ve never had a good Médoc in my whole life. I only know cheap Bordeaux from that region.”
He smiled. I had a feeling he was happy with the thought his good bottle wasn’t going to waste. He left me wondering if this was all a dream.
Later that evening, a woman came to treat my bruises. She massaged my muscles with an oily mixture that smelled of ginger. It felt warm and soothing. She told me to keep myself warm for the night. Simone put another T-shirt over the one I had on. I slept well that night.
THE next day was my last in Huahine. We were back in Simone’s home in Faie. Everybody knew what had happened—she had told them on the phone the day before. Everybody fussed with me as if I were an invalid, causing me great embarrassment. I said I was sore but was feeling a lot better. I asked Simone’s cousin who promised revenge for the shame to his family not to do anything but he didn’t want to listen.
Simone and I said our long goodbyes that morning on a hill which in the past had been a lookout for enemies coming in from the sea. We didn’t say much, we hardly touched each other. We stared at the ocean, looking for imagined enemies who were coming to get us.
She gave me a necklace made of seashells. “I know other girls must have given you presents like this in the other islands. It is our custom, so I am not jealous. I made this necklace myself. All the shells and coral in it are from my home island of Huahine. The ones you buy in the market use shells from your country—almost all the shells sold here come from the Philippines.”
What she said was true—I had seen hundreds of plastic bags full of seashells marked “Harvested in the Philippines” in the markets of Papéete. I couldn’t tell her why my people harvest and sell all the seashells they can lay their hands on while her people leave them in the ocean and take only what they need. I couldn’t tell her why my people will never have eels in the river as pets, that they will be eaten as food.
But I felt good—Simone loved me and it seemed I had been touched by the ancient Filipino spirit that apparently lives on, though so very far from home. I was king of the hill for a while—then the time came for me to go down and catch the boat that would take me away.
TERÓO was waiting for me at Farepiti Quay when I returned to Bora Bora. She started crying when she saw my bruises that were now purple. “Oh, you poor boy. You look terrible. Simone wasn’t exaggerating.” She wrapped her huge arms around me.
“You should have seen the other guy,” I lied as I hugged her back, feeling safe in her warm and loving embrace.
“Are you okay?”
“I am, I feel fine,” I assured her.
She looked at me again. Then her face lit up and she broke into a big smile. “How was my daughter? I told you she’s great. She was, wasn’t she?”
THE DINNER PARTY
THE evening before he killed himself, Virgilio Serrano gave a dinner party. He invited five guests—friends and classmates in university— myself included. Since we lived on campus in barracks built by the U.S. Army, he sent his Packard to fetch us.
Virgilio lived alone in a pre-war chalet that belonged to his family. Four servants and a driver waited on him hand and foot. The chalet, partly damaged, was one of the few buildings in Ermita that survived the bombardment and street fighting to liberate Manila.
It had been skillfully restored; the broken lattices, fretwork, shell windows and wrought iron fence had been repaired or replaced at considerable expense. A hedge of bandera española had been planted and the scorched frangipani and hibiscus shrubs had been pruned carefully. Thus, Virgilio’s house was an ironic presence in the violated neighborhood.
He was on the porch when the car came to a crunching halt on the graveled driveway. He shook our hands solemnly, then ushered us into the living room. In the half-light, everything in the room glowed, shimmered or shone. The old ferruginous narra floor glowed. The pier glass coruscated. The bentwood furniture from the house in Jaen looked as if they had been burnished. In a corner, surrounded by bookcases, a black Steinway piano sparkled like glass.
Virgilio was immaculate in white de hilo pants and cotton shirt. I felt ill at ease in my surplus khakis and combat boots.
We were all in our second year. Soon we will be on different academic paths—Victor in philosophy; Zacarias in physics and chemistry; Enrique in electrical engineering; and Apolonio, law. Virgilio and I have both decided to make a career in English literature. Virgilio was also enrolled in the Conservatory and in courses in the philosophy of science.
We were all in awe of Virgilio. He seemed to know everything. He also did everything without any effort. He had not been seen studying or cramming for an exam in any subject, be it history, anthropology or calculus. Yet the grades that he won were only a shade off perfection.
HE and I were from the same province where our families owned rice farms except that ours was tiny, a hundred hectares, compared to the Serrano’s, a well-watered hacienda that covered 2,000 hectares of land as flat as a table.
The hacienda had been parceled out to eleven inquilinos who together controlled about a thousand tenants. The Serranos had a large stone house with a tile roof that dated back to the 17th century that they used during the summer months. The inquilinos dealt with Don Pepe’s spinster sister, the formidable Clara, who knew their share of the harvest to the last chupa. She was furthermore in residence all days of the year.
Virgilio was the only child. His mother was killed in a motor accident when he was nine. Don Pepe never remarried. He became more and more dependent on Clara as he devoted himself to books, music and conversation. His house in Cabildo was a salon during the years of the Commonwealth. At night, spirited debates on art, religion language, politics and world affairs would last until the first light of dawn. The guests who lived in the suburbs were served breakfasts before they drove off in their runabouts to Sta. Cruz, Ermita or San Miguel. The others stumbled on cobblestones on their way back to their own mansions within the cincture of Intramuros.
In October, Quezon himself came for merienda. He had just appointed General MacArthur field marshal of the Philippine Army because of disturbing news from Nanking and Chosun. Quezon cursed the Americans for not taking him in their confidence. But like most gifted politicians, he had a preternatural sense of danger.
“The Japanese will go to war against the Americans before this year is out, Pepe,” Quezon rasped, looking him straight in the eye.
This was the reason the Serranos prepared to move out of Manila. As discreetly as possible, Don Pepe had all his personal things packed and sent by train to Jaen. He stopped inviting his friends. But when the Steinway was crated and loaded on a large truck that blocked the street completely, the neighbors became curious. Don Pepe dissembled, saying that he had decided to live in the province for reasons of health, “at least until after Christmas.”
Two weeks later, he suffered a massive stroke and died. The whole town went into mourning. His remains were interred, along with his forebears, in the south wall of the parish church. A month later, before the period of mourning had ended, Japanese planes bombed and strafed Clark Field.
Except for about three months in their hunting lodge in the forests of Bongabong (to escape the rumored rapine that was expected to be visited on the country by the yellow horde. Virgilio and Clara spent the war years in peace and comfort in their ancestral house in Jaen.
Clara hired the best teachers for Virgilio. When food became scare in the big towns and cities, Clara put up their families in the granaries and bodegas of the hacienda so that they would go on tutoring Virgilio in science, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy and English. After his lessons, he read and practiced on the piano. He even learned to box and to fence although he was always nauseated by the ammoniac smell of the gloves and mask. Despite Clara’s best effort, she could not find new boxing gloves and fencing equipment. Until she met Honesto Garcia.
Honesto Garcia was a petty trader in rice who had mastered the intricate mechanics of the black market. He dealt in anything that could be moved but he became rich by buying and selling commodities such as soap, matches, cloth and quinine pills.
Garcia maintained a network of informers to help him align supply and demand—and at the same time collect intelligence for both the Japanese Army and the Hukbalahap.
One of his informers told him about Clara Serrano’s need for a pair of new boxing gloves and protective gear for escrima. He found these items. He personally drove in his amazing old car to Jaen to present them to Clara, throwing in a French epée that was still in its original case for good measure. He refused payment but asked to be allowed to visit.
Honesto Garcia was the son of a kasama of the Villavicencios of Cabanatuan. By hard work and numerous acts of fealty, his father became an inquilino. Honesto, the second of six children, however made up his mind very early that he would break loose from farming. He reached the seventh grade and although his father at that time had enough money to send him to high school, he decided to apprentice himself to a Chinese rice trader in Gapan. His wage was a few centavos a day, hardly enough for his meals, but after two years, he knew enough about the business to ask his father for a loan of P60 to set himself up as a rice dealer. And then the war broke out.
Honesto was handsome in a rough-hewn way. He tended to fat but because he was tall he was an imposing figure. He was unschooled in the social graces; he preferred to eat, squatting before a dulang, with his fingers. Despite these deficiencies, he exuded an aura of arrogance and self-confidence.
It was this trait that attracted Clara to him. Clara had never known strong-willed men, having grown up with effete persons like Don Pepe and compliant men like the inquilinos who were always silent in her presence.
When Clara told Virgilio that Honesto had proposed and that she was inclined to accept, Virgilio was not surprised. He also had grown to like Honesto who always came with unusual gifts. Once, Honesto gave him a mynah that Virgilio was able to teach within a few days to say “Good morning. How are you today?”
The wedding took place in June of the second year of the war. It was a grand affair. The church and the house were decked in flowers. The inquilinos fell over each other to, supply the wedding feast. Carts and sleds laden with squealing pigs, earthen water jars filled with squirming river fish, pullets bound at the shank like posies, fragrant rice that had been husked in wooden mortars with pestles, the freshest eggs and demijohns of carabao milk for leche flan and slews of vegetables and fruit that had been picked at exactly the right time descended on the big house. The wives and daughters of the tenants cooked the food in huge vats while their menfolk roasted the suckling pigs on spluttering coals. The quests were served on bamboo tables spread with banana leaves. The war was forgotten, a rondalla played the whole day, the children fought each other for the bladders of the pigs which they blew up into balloons and for the ears and tails of the lechon as they were lifted on their spits from the fire.
The bride wore the traje de boda of Virgilio’s mother, a masterpiece confected in Madrid of Belgian lace and seed pearls. The prettiest daughters of the inquilinos, dressed in organza and ribbons, held the long, embroidered train of the wedding gown.
Honesto’s family were awe-struck by this display of wealth and power. They cringed and cowered in the sala of the big house and all of them were too frightened to go to the comedor for the wedding lunch.
Not very long after the wedding, Honesto was running the hacienda. The inquilinos found him more congenial and understanding. At this time, the Huks were already making demands on them for food and other necessities. The fall in the Serrano share would have been impossible to explain to Clara. In fact, the Huks had established themselves on Carlos Valdefuerza’s parcel because his male children had joined the guerilla group.
Honesto learned for the first time that the Huks were primarily a political and not a resistance organization. They were spreading a foreign idea called scientific socialism that predicted the takeover of all lands by the workers. Ricardo Valdefuerza, who had taken instruction from Luis Taruc, was holding classes for the children of the other tenants.
Honesto was alarmed enough to take it up with Clara who merely shrugged him off. “How can illiterate farmers understand a complex idea like scientific socialism?” she asked.
“But they seem to understand it,” Honesto expostulated “because it promises to give them the land that they farm.”
“How is that possible? Quezon and the Americans will not allow it. They don’t have the Torrens Title,” Clara said with finality.
“Carding Valdefuerza has been saying that all value comes from work. What we get as our share is surplus that we do not deserve because we did nothing to it. It rightly belongs to the workers, according to him. I myself don’t understand this idea too clearly but that is how it is being explained to the tenants.”
“They are idle now. After the war, all this talk will vanish,” Clara said.
When American troops landed in Leyte, Clara was four months with child.
THE table had been cleared. Little glasses of a pale sweetish wine were passed around. Victor pushed back his chair to slouch.
“The war has given us the opportunity to change this country. The feudal order is being challenged all over the world. Mao Tse Tung has triumphed in China. Soon the revolution will be here. We have to help prepare the people for it.” Victor declared.
“Why change?” Virgilio asked. “The pre-war order had brought prosperity and democracy. What you call feudalism is necessary to rebuild the country. Who will lead? The Huks? The young turks of the Liberal Party? All they have are ideas; they have no capital, no power.”
The university was alive with talk of imminent revolutionary change. Young men and women, most of them from the upper classes, spoke earnestly of redistributing wealth.
“Nothing will come of it” Virgilio said, sipping his wine.
“Of all of us, you have the most to lose in a revolution,” Apolonio said. “What we should aim for is orderly lawful change. You might lose your hacienda but you must be paid for it. So in the end, you will still have the capital to live on in style.”
“You don’t understand,” Virgilio said. “It is not only a question of capital or compensation. I am talking of a way of life, of emotional bonds, of relationships that are immutable. In any case, we can do nothing one way or the other so let us change the subject.”
“Don’t be too sure,” I said. “We can influence these events one way or another.”
“You talk as it you have joined the Communist Party,” Virgilio said. “Have you?”
But before I could answer, he was off on another tack.
“You know I have just been reading about black holes,” Virgilio said addressing himself to Zacarias. “Oppenheimer and Snyder solved Einstein’s equations on what happens when a sun or star had used up its supply of nuclear energy. The star collapses gravitationally, disappears from view and remains in a state of permanent free fall, collapsing endlessly inward into a gravitational pit without end.
“What a marvelous idea! Such ideas are art in the highest sense but at the same time, the decisive proof of relativity,” Virgilio enthused.
“Do you know that Einstein is embarrassed by these black holes? He considers them a diversion from his search for a unified theory,” Zacarias said.
“Ah! The impulse towards simplicity, towards reduction. The need to explain all knowledge with a few, elegant equations. Don’t you think that his reductionism is the ultimate arrogance? Even if it is Einstein’s. In any case, he is not succeeding,” Virgilio said.
“But isn’t reductionism the human tendency? This is what Communism is all about, the reduction of human relationships to a set of unproven economic theorems,” I interjected.
“But the reductionist approach can also lead to astounding results. Take the Schröedinger and Dirac equations that reduced previous mysterious atomic physics to elegant order,” Enrique said.
“What is missing in all this is the effect on men of reductionism. It can very well lead to totalitarian control in the name of progress and social order,” Apolonio ventured.
“Let me resolve our debate by playing for you a piece that builds intuitively on three seemingly separate movements. This is Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 27, No. 2.” Virgilio rose and walked gravely to the piano while we distributed ourselves on the bentwood furniture in the living room.
He played the opening Adagio with sensitive authority, escalating note to note until it resolved into the fragile D-flat major which in turn disappeared in the powerful rush of the concluding Presto, the movement that crystallized the disparate emotional resonances of the first two movements into an assured and balanced relationship.
When the last note had faded, we broke into cheers. But at that moment, I felt a deep sadness for Virgilio. As the Presto flooded the Allegretto, I knew that he was not of this world.
Outside, through the shell windows, moonlight softened the jagged ruins of battle.
ON July 14, 1950, in the evening, Virgilio killed himself in his bedroom by slitting his wrists with a straight razor and thrusting them into a pail of warm water.
His body was not found until the next morning.
He did not appear for breakfast at eight. At eight-thirty, Josefa, the housemaid, knocked on the door of Virgilio’s bedroom. Getting no response, she asked Arturo, the driver, to climb up the window to look inside.
The three maids panicked. Arturo drove off at once in the Packard to get me. After leaving a note for the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, we stopped at the police station near General Luna to report the suicide.
Two police officers were immediately assigned to investigate. They came with us in the car to the house in Ermita.
They started interrogating me in the car.
“Who are you?” Police Officer No. 1 asked.
“Why are you involved?”, Police Officer No. 2 demanded.
I was somewhat nervous but as calmly as I could be, I answered.
“My name is Nestor Gallego. I am a second-year student at University of the Philippines. Virgilio Serrano, the deceased, and I come from the same town, Jaen, in Nueva Ecija. I have known Virgilio since 1942 and I think he considers me his closest friend in university. That is the reason the driver came to me.”
The policemen brought together the household staff. “Did you touch, move or remove anything in the bedroom? Did any of you go out of the house after the driver left for the university?”
To both questions, the maids answered, No, whereupon they were told to stay within the premises for separate interviews later in the morning.
Police Officer No. 1 went out to the yard presumably to look for clues. Police Officer No. 2 made a sketch of the scene and then searched the bedroom systematically. He opened the drawers of the tallboy carefully, he felt around the linen and underwear. The wardrobe and the aparador were also examined. But it was on the contents of the rolltop desk that No. 1 concentrated. The notebooks, a diary, and address book were all neatly arranged around a Remington typewriter.
He was looking for a letter, a note even, to give him a clue or lead to the motive for the suicide.
On the first page of one of the notebooks were the “Down There” and then “To my friend and confidant, Nestor Gallego, with affection.” Although unsigned, it was in Virgilio’s spidery hand.
“You know anything about this?” No. 1 said in a low, threatening voice. He handed it to me.
I leafed through the pages. It looked like a long poem that had been broken down into thirteen cantos.
“No,” I said. “I have not seen this before.”
“But it is for you. What does it say?”
“I don’t know, I have to read it first,” cuttingly.
My sarcasm rolled off him like water on a duck. “Well then—read,” he ordered, motioning me to the wooden swivel chair.
A frisson ran up my spine. My hands trembled as I opened the notebook and scanned the poem. There were recognizable names, places and events. There were references to his professors in university and his tutors in Jaen. The names of some of his inquilinos appeared again and again. But the longest sections were about Honesto and Clara Garcia and Ricardo Valdefuerza.
From the tone and the words, it was a satire patterned closely after Dante’s Inferno. Virgilio, like Dante, had assigned or consigned people to different circles down there.” It ended with a line from Valery, “A l’extrême de toute pensée est un soupir.”
“I cannot say truthfully that I understand it. I know some of the people and places referred to but not why they appear in this poem.”
“I will have to bring this back for analysis,” No. 1 said, giving it to No. 2 who put it carelessly in a plastic carryall.
“When you are done with it, can I have it back? I have a right to it since it was dedicated to me.” I wanted desperately to read it because I felt that it concealed the reason for Virgilio’s suicide.
They spent another hour talking to the household help and scribbling in grimy notebooks.
Before they left past one o’clock, No. 1 said: “It is clearly a suicide. There was no struggle. In fact, it was a very neat suicide.” He made it sound as if it was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship. I hated him.
I went with Arturo to the post office to send a telegram to Jaen. “Virgilio dead stop please come at once.”
The undertaker took charge thereafter, informing us that by six o’clock, the remains would be ready for viewing. He asked me to select the clothes for the dead. I chose the white de hilo pants and the white cotton shirt that Virgilio wore the other day.
“It is wrinkled,” the undertaker said. “Don’t you want to choose something else.”
“No,” I shouted at him. “Put him in these.”
FATHER Sean O’Donovan, S.J., refused to say Mass or to bless the corpse. “Those who die by their own hand are beyond the pale of the Church,” he said firmly.
“Let us take him home,” Clara said. She asked me to make all the arrangements and not to mind the cost.
The rent for the hearse was clearly exorbitant. I bargained feebly and then agreed. Victor, Zacarias, Enrique, Apolonio and myself were to travel in the Packard. Honesto and Clara had driven to Manila in a new Buick.
The hearse moved at a stately 30 kilometers per hour while a scratchy dirge poured out of it at full volume. The Garcias followed in their Buick and we brought up the rear.
The rains of July had transformed the brown, dusty fields of Bulacan and Nueva Ecija into muddy fields. We passed small, nut-brown men, following a beast and a stick that scored the wet earth; dithering birds swooped down to pluck the crickets and worms that were turned up by the plow.
The beat of sprung pebbles against the fender of the car marked our passage.
The yard of the big house was already full of people. In the sala, a bier had been prepared. The wives of inquilinos were all in black. Large yellow tapers gave off a warm, oily smell that commingled with the attar of the flowers, producing an odor that the barrio folk called the smell of death.
Then the local worthies arrived, led by the congressman of the district, the governor of the province, the mayor of Jaen, the commander of the Scout Rangers who was leading a campaign against the Huks, with their wives and retainers. They were all on intimate teams with Honesto and Clara. Except for the colonel who was in full combat uniform, they were dressed in sharkskin and two-toned shoes. They wore their hair tightly sculpted with pomade against their skulls and on their wrists and fingers gold watches and jeweled rings glistened.
They all knew that Honesto had political ambition. It was not clear yet which position he had his sights on.
With the death of Virgilio, the immense wealth of the Serranos devolved on Clara and on Honesto and on their 5-year old son, Jose Jr. Both the Nacionalista and Liberal Parties have been dangling all manner of bait before Honesto. Now, there will be a scramble.
Honesto shook hands with everyone, murmuring acknowledgments of their expressions of grief but secretly assessing their separate motives. Clara was surrounded by the simpering wives of the politicians; like birds they postured to show their jewels to best advantage.
They only fell silent when Father Francisco Santander, the parish priest, came to say the prayer for the dead and to lead the procession to the Church where Virgilio’s mortal remains would be displayed on a catafalque before the altar before interment in the south wall side by side with Don Pepe’s.
I left the sala to join the crowd in the yard. My parents were there with the Serranos’ and our tenants.
There was a palpable tension in the air. A number of the kasamas had been seized by the Scout Rangers, detained and tortured, so that they may reveal the whereabouts of Carding. They were frightened. From what I heard from my parents, most of the tenants distrusted Honesto who they felt was using the campaign against the Huks to remove those he did not like. The inquilinos were helpless because Clara was now completely under the sway of Honesto.
I walked home. When I got there, Restituto, our caretaker, very agitated, took me aside and whispered. “Carding is in the house. He has been waiting for you since early morning. I kept him from view in your bedroom.” He looked at me, uncertain and obviously frightened. “What shall we do?
“Leave it to me. But do not tell anyone—not even my parents. He shall be gone by the time they return.” I put my arm around Restituto’s shoulder to reassure him.
Carding wheeled when I walked in, pistol at the ready. He was dressed in army fatigues and combat boots. A pair of Ray-Ban glasses dangled on his shirt. He put the pistol back in its holster.
“You shouldn’t be here. There are soldiers all around.”
“They will not come here. They are too busy in the hacienda,” Carding said.
The shy, spindly boy that I knew during the war had grown into a broad muscular man. His eyes were hooded and cunning.
“I have to talk to you. Did Virgilio leave a last will and testament?”
“Not that I know of. He left a notebook of poems.”
“What is that?” Carding demanded, startled.
“A notebook of verses with the title ‘Down There.’ You are mentioned in the poem. But the police has it,” I answered.
“Did it say anything about the disposition of the hacienda in case of his death?”
“I did not have a chance to read it closely but I doubt it. Aren’t such things always done up in legal language? There certainly is nothing like that in the notebook. What are you leading up to?”
Carding sighed. “In 1943; Virgilio came to see me. He had heard from Honesto that I have been talking to the tenants about their rights. Virgilio wanted to know himself the bases of my claims. We had a long talk. I told him about the inevitability of the triumph of the peasant class. Despite his wide reading, he had not heard of Marx, Lenin, or Mao Tse Tung. He was visibly shaken. But when I told him of the coming calamity that will bring down his class, he asked ‘What can I do?’ and I said: ‘Give up. Give up your land, your privilege and your power. That is the only way to avoid the coming calamity’.
“He apparently did not have any grasp of social forces. He kept talking of individual persons—tenants that he had known since he was a child, inquilinos who had been faithful to his father until their old age, and all that nonsense. ‘The individual does not matter,’ I yelled at him. ‘Only the class called the proletariat.’
“But even without understanding, he said that he will leave the hacienda to the tenants because it was probably the right thing to do. But Clara should not be completely deprived of her means of support. It was exasperating, talking to him, but he did promise that in his will the tenants would get all.
“Obviously, he changed his mind.” Carding said in a low voice. “That is too bad because now we have to take his land by force.”
I was speechless. In university, talk of revolution was all the rage but this was my first encounter with a man who could or would try to make it happen.
“When I get back the notebook, I will study it to see if there is any statement that will legally transfer the Serrano hacienda to you and the other tenants,” I said weakly.
“I will be in touch,” Carding said. He walked out the door.
The day of the funeral was clear and hot. Dust devils rose from the road. In the shadow of the acacia trees in the churchyard, hundreds of people of all ages crowded to get away from the sun. Inside the church, even the aisles were packed.
“Introibo ad altare Dei” Father Santander intoned.
“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” I answered.
The mass for the dead began.
My heart was racing because I knew the reason for Virgilio’s suicide. But nobody would care, save me.
One evening in August 1941, I came out of a late movie to a silent, cold night. I shivered a little as I stood for a moment in the narrow street, looking up at the distant sky, alive with stars. I stood there, letting the night wind seep through me, and listening. The street was empty, the houses on the street dim—with the kind of ghostly dimness that seems to embrace sleeping houses. I had always liked empty streets in the night; I had always stopped for a while in these streets listening for something I did not quite know what. Perhaps for low, soft cries that empty streets and sleeping houses seem to share in the night.
I lived in an old, nearly crumbling apartment house just across the street from the moviehouse. From the street, I could see into the open courtyard, around which rooms for the tenants, mostly a whole family to a single room, were ranged. My room, like all the other rooms on the groundfloor, opened on this court. Three other boys, my cousins, shared the room with me. As I turned into the courtyard from the street, I noticed that the light over our study-table, which stood on the corridor outside our room, was still burning. Earlier in the evening after supper, I had taken out my books to study, but I went to a movie instead. I must have forgotten to turn off the light; apparently, the boys had forgotten, too.
I went around the low screen that partitioned off our “study” and there was a girl reading at the table. We looked at each other, startled. I had never seen her before. She was about eleven years old, and she wore a faded blue dress. She had long, straight hair falling to her shoulders. She was reading my copy of Greek Myths.
The eyes she had turned to me were wide, darkened a little by apprehension. For a long time neither of us said anything. She was a delicately pretty girl with a fine, smooth. pale olive skin that shone richly in the yellow light. Her nose was straight, small and finely molded. Her lips, full and red, were fixed and tense. And there was something else about her. Something lonely? something lost?
“I know,” I said, “I like stories, too. I read anything good I find lying around. Have you been reading long?”
“Yes,” she said. not looking at me now. She got up slowly, closing the book. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t you want to read anymore? I asked her, trying to smile, trying to make her feel that everything was all right.
“No.” she said, “thank you.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, picking up the book. “It’s late. You ought to be in bed. But, you can take this along.”
She hesitated, hanging back, then shyly she took the book, brought it to her side. She looked down at her feet uncertain as to where to turn.
“You live here?” I asked her.
She turned her face and nodded towards the far corner, across the courtyard, to a little room near the communal kitchen. It was the room occupied by the janitor: a small square room with no windows except for a transom above the door.
“You live with Mang Lucio?”
“He’s my uncle.”
“How long have you been here? I haven’t seen you before, have I?”
“I’ve always been here. I’ve seen you.”
“Oh. Well, good night—your name?”
“Good night, Maria.”
She turned quickly, ran across the courtyard, straight to her room, and closed the door without looking back.
I undressed, turned off the light and lay in bed dreaming of far-away things. I was twenty-one and had a job for the first time. The salary was not much and I lived in a house that was slowly coming apart, but life seemed good. And in the evening when the noise of living had died down and you lay safe in bed, you could dream of better times, look back and ahead, and find that life could be gentle—even with the hardness. And afterwards, when the night had grown colder, and suddenly you felt alone in the world, adrift, caught in a current of mystery that came in the hour between sleep and waking, the vaguely frightening loneliness only brought you closer to everything, to the walls and the shadows on the walls, to the other sleeping people in the room, to everything within and beyond this house, this street, this city, everywhere.
I met Maria again one early evening, a week later, as I was coming home from the office. I saw her walking ahead of me, slowly, as if she could not be too careful, and with a kind of grownup poise that was somehow touching. But I did not know it was Maria until she stopped and I overtook her.
She was wearing a white dress that had been old many months ago. She wore a pair of brown sneakers that had been white once. She had stopped to look at the posters of pictures advertised as “Coming” to our neighborhood theater.
“Hello,” I said, trying to sound casual.
She smiled at me and looked away quickly. She did not say anything nor did she step away. I felt her shyness, but there was no self-consciousness, none of the tenseness and restraint of the night we first met. I stood beside her, looked at the pictures tacked to a tilted board, and tried whistling a tune.
She turned to go, hesitated, and looked at me full in the eyes. There was again that wide-eyed—and sad? —stare. I smiled, feeling a remote desire to comfort her, as if it would do any good, as if it was comfort she needed.
“I’ll return your book now,” she said.
“You’ve finished it?”
We walked down the shadowed street. Magallanes Street in Intramuros, like all the other streets there, was not wide enough, hemmed in by old, mostly unpainted houses, clumsy and unlovely, even in the darkening light of the fading day.
We went into the apartment house and I followed her across the court. I stood outside the door which she closed carefully after her. She came out almost immediately and put in my hands the book of Greek myths. She did not look at me as she stood straight and remote.
“My name is Felix,” I said.
She smiled suddenly. It was a little smile, almost an unfinished smile. But, somehow, it felt special, something given from way deep inside in sincere friendship.
I walked away whistling. At the door of my room, I stopped and looked back. Maria was not in sight. Her door was firmly closed.
August, 1941, was a warm month. The hangover of summer still permeated the air, specially in Intramuros. But, like some of the days of late summer, there were afternoons when the weather was soft and clear, the sky a watery green, with a shell-like quality to it that almost made you see through and beyond, so that, watching it made you lightheaded.
I walked out of the office one day into just such an afternoon. The day had been full of grinding work—like all the other days past. I was tired. I walked slowly, towards the far side of the old city, where traffic was not heavy. On the street there were old trees, as old as the walls that enclosed the city. Half-way towards school, I changed my mind and headed for the gate that led out to Bonifacio Drive. I needed stiffer winds, wider skies. I needed all of the afternoon to myself.
Maria was sitting on the first bench, as you went up the sloping drive that curved away from the western gate. She saw me before I saw her. When I looked her way, she was already smiling that half-smile of hers, which even so told you all the truth she knew, without your asking.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s a small world.”
“I said it’s nice running into you. Do you always come here?”
“As often as I can. I go to many places.”
“Doesn’t your uncle disapprove?”
“No. He’s never around. Besides, he doesn’t mind anything.”
“Where do you go?”
“Oh, up on the walls. In the gardens up there, near Victoria gate. D’you know?”
“I think so. What do you do up there?”
“Sit down and—”
“Nothing. Just sit down.”
She fell silent. Something seemed to come between us. She was suddenly far-away. It was like the first night again. I decided to change the subject.
“Look,” I said, carefully, “where are your folks?”
“You mean, my mother and father?”
“Yes. And your brothers and sisters, if any.”
“My mother and father are dead. My elder sister is married. She’s in the province. There isn’t anybody else.”
“Did you grow up with your uncle?”
“I think so.”
We were silent again. Maria had answered my questions without embarrassment. almost without emotion, in a cool light voice that had no tone.
“Are you in school, Maria?”
“How d’you like it?”
“Oh, I like it.”
“I know you like reading.”
She had no comment. The afternoon had waned. The breeze from the sea had died down. The last lingering warmth of the sun was now edged with cold. The trees and buildings in the distance seemed to flounder in a red-gold mist. It was a time of day that never failed to carry an enchantment for me. Maria and I sat still together, caught in some spell that made the silence between us right, that made our being together on a bench in the boulevard, man and girl, stranger and stranger, a thing not to be wondered at, as natural and inevitable as the lengthening shadows before the setting sun.
Other days came, and soon it was the season of the rain. The city grew dim and gray at the first onslaught of the monsoon. There were no more walks in the sun. I caught a cold.
Maria and I had become friends now, though we saw each other infrequently. I became engrossed in my studies. You could not do anything else in a city caught in the rains. September came and went.
In November, the sun broke through the now ever present clouds, and for three or four days we had bright clear weather. Then, my mind once again began flitting from my desk, to the walls outside the office, to the gardens on the walls and the benches under the trees in the boulevards. Once, while working on a particularly bad copy on the news desk, my mind scattered, the way it sometimes does and, coming together again, went back to that first meeting with Maria. And the remembrance came clear, coming into sharper focus—the electric light, the shadows around us, the stillness. And Maria, with her wide-eyed stare, the lost look in her eyes…
IN December, I had a little fever. On sick leave, I went home to the province. I stayed three days. I felt restless, as if I had strayed and lost contact with myself. I suppose you got that way from being sick,
A pouring rain followed our train all the way back to Manila. Outside my window, the landscape was a series of dissolved hills and fields. What is it in the click of the wheels of a train that makes you feel gray inside? What is it in being sick, in lying abed that makes you feel you are awake in a dream, and that you are just an occurrence in the crying grief of streets and houses and people?
In December, we had our first air-raid practice.
I came home one night through darkened streets, peopled by shadows. There was a ragged look to everything, as if no one and nothing cared any more for appearances.
I reached my room just as the siren shrilled. I undressed and got into my old clothes. It was dark, darker than the moment after moon-set. I went out on the corridor and sat in a chair. All around me were movements and voices. anonymous and hushed, even when they laughed.
I sat still, afraid and cold.
“Is that you. Felix?”
She was standing beside my chair, close to the wall. Her voice was small and disembodied in the darkness. A chill went through me, She said nothing more for a long time.
“I don’t like the darkness,” she said.
“Oh, come now. When you sleep, you turn the lights off, don’t you?”
“It’s not like this darkness,” she said, softly. “It’s all over the world.”
We did not speak again until the lights went on. Then she was gone.
The war happened not long after.
At first, everything was unreal. It was like living on a motion picture screen, with yourself as actor and audience. But the sounds of bombs exploding were real enough, thudding dully against the unready ear.
In Intramuros, the people left their homes the first night of the war. Many of them slept in the niches of the old walls the first time they heard the sirens scream in earnest. That evening, I returned home to find the apartment house empty. The janitor was there. My cousin who worked in the army was there. But the rest of the tenants were gone.
I asked Mang Lucio, “Maria?”
“She’s gone with your aunt to the walls.” he told me. “They will sleep there tonight.”
My cousin told me that in the morning we would transfer to Singalong. There was a house available. The only reason he was staying, he said, was because they were unable to move our things. Tomorrow that would be taken care of immediately.
“And you, Mang Lucio?”
“I don’t know where I could go.”
We ate canned pork and beans and bread. We slept on the floor, with the lights swathed in black cloth. The house creaked in the night and sent off hollow echoes. We slept uneasily.
I woke up early. It was disquieting to wake up to stillness in that house which rang with children’s voices and laughter the whole day everyday. In the kitchen, there were sounds and smells of cooking.
“Hello,” I said.
It was Maria, frying rice. She turned from the stove and looked at me for a long time. Then, without a word, she turned back to her cooking.
“Are you and your uncle going away?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did he not tell you?”
“We’re moving to Singalong.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, anyway, I’ll come back tonight. Maybe this afternoon. We’ll not have to say goodbye till then.”
She did not say anything. I finished washing and went back to my room. I dressed and went out.
At noon, I went to Singalong to eat. All our things were there already, and the folks were busy putting the house in order. As soon as I finished lunch, I went back to the office. There were few vehicles about. Air-raid alerts were frequent. The brightness of the day seemed glaring. The faces of people were all pale and drawn.
In the evening, I went back down the familiar street. I was stopped many times by air-raid volunteers. The house was dark. I walked back to the street. I stood for a long time before the house. Something did not want me to go away just yet. A light burst in my face. It was a volunteer.
“Do you live here?”
“I used to. Up to yesterday. I’m looking for the janitor.”
“Why, did you leave something behind?”
“Yes, I did. But I think I’ve lost it now.”
“Well, you better get along, son. This place, the whole area. has been ordered evacuated. Nobody lives here anymore.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Nobody.”