I woke up about 2:00 a.m., the way one abruptly wakes up in an unfamiliar place. Yet this is home, and I was in my room, in the house where I grew up.
The night was eerily silent, no curtain dancing in the air. Stumbling through darkness, I opened the window and leaned out to smell the air. It smelled of drying copra, the sweet fog of coconut meat in the kiln of a family “bodega” a few meters off my window. It took me a few moments to realize what I was seeing. Tonight was a half-moon night, not quite any dreamlike night, but I could see the outline of a road going out to town. It’s not so much of a road, as it is a path to a peace of mind, and it is taking me into some immobile past I have long struggled to escape from. The road is pitted, intolerably abused by human and animal feet, and is desperately in need of a macadam.
I got back in bed and waited to fall asleep, drifting through the silence, looking for an old peace. It is the persistence of memories. They are heart murmurs, barely audible, at times even unnoticed, but always there — ghosts, ugly ghosts. It might have been a couple of hours before I finally dropped off. I woke up at the rooster’s crow uttering its initial sunrise screams, welcoming a new day.
I went into the kitchen and saw Aunt Cora fixing breakfast. The coffee pot had started to gurgle and emit a heady “barako” aroma. I sat on one of the stackable plastic chairs as Aunt Cora handed me a cup of coffee.
“No cream, right?” she asked me.
“No cream, Aunt Cora, just the usual teaspoon of brown sugar.”
Watching Aunt Cora stir the sugar into the scalding coffee, old feelings and reveries rushed in. Poetic feelings. Gentle reveries. A bird perched on the siniguelas tree and greeted the morning with a haunting song that may be heard for nearly some yards. I sipped my coffee and found it quite hot. It made me come alive. I asked Aunt Cora where Father was. She twitched her face into something between a smile and a grimace. She pursed her lips and directed them to a room nearby. Of course, he was still in bed, snoring the morning away. Some habits never die. Such is the entirety of his existence.
I stood by the gate of the front yard. Midmorning neared. Three women, probably in their thirties, passed by. I smiled at them and they smiled back, shyly, and I saw some gaps in their teeth. They carried cut firewood on their backs and some fresh vegetables with their free hands. They would sell the goods in the public market one kilometer away.
Mulanay is an agricultural town. Most of the land is owned by a few rich families. The rest of the population is dirt poor. It’s a small town, nondescript, along a main road that goes to the next town, San Ignacio, also poor, but not as hopelessly poor as Mulanay, because it has a small hospital, something that Mulanay never had. When people in Mulanay got sick, they turn to herbal cures. When the cures did not make them well, people resort to asking for miracles from their wooden santos. It never occurred to them that God was not born in Mulanay but someplace else.
During the summer months Mulanay gets exceedingly dusty but on rainy seasons the town looked soaped and washed up and it is at its panoramic best as rice stalks progress into colors of deep green. The town has all the elements of life’s predictability: sun rises in the morning, sun goes down at dusk. People engage in common activities: waking up, sleeping, eating root crops — kamote for breakfast, cassava for lunch, and gabi for dinner, gossiping, fighting fights buoyed by lambanog, and women operating as subservient Catholic baby-making machines. It’s not a place for richness, no. Which is why I left Mulanay after weighing alternatives. It was the town’s reality, so face-to-face, so easy to see, to touch, and feel. Some fifteen years later I am back, older, skeptical, and probably wiser, after a struggle to keep my life’s worth, whatever Mulanay might have thought. To where I escaped there was a lot of aloneness and attacks of dwarfed self-esteem. It was easy to get lost in a new and strange place, in a big city. But Mulanay, despite itself, and in an odd way, can get under one’s skin. An itchy power. An irreversible curse. Mulanay is a knife puncturing people’s passivity and complacency. Contradictory, but how else can we explain madness?
After a twenty-minute walk from the house I came to the public cemetery. I wandered off the unpaved main road, almost got myself lost in a maze of little footpaths sculptured like veins through the dust-filled lunar landscape, and finally found Mother’s grave. All Saints Day was still a few months away and it did not surprise me to find Mother’s and all the rest of the graves weed-choked, which further provided an additional layer of melancholy to the quiet scenery. All things considered, this spot is probably the right place where Mother could be resting. It is peaceful here; she is in complete isolation, the absolute place to forget that the rest of the world still hangs on.
Their marriage started right. I was born one year later. Father worked as a security guard at the rural bank in San Ignacio. Mother got money during harvest times from the two-hectare farm she inherited from her parents. Things changed when the rural bank closed. As any couple knows, marriages sour and human character can be entangled and ambiguous. While Father slept away the morning, all ginned up from a previous night’s drinking bout, Mother would be up at sunbreak. She said it was comfortable to tend to her plot of vegetables in the cool hours of dawn than to be out in the fields in the scorching daytime. It made sense, but not to Father; he wanted her at bedside, ready to serve coffee as he woke up. Mother grew asparagus, string beans, okra, squash, and gourd which we used at home and shared with the neighbors. Sometimes she traded them with rice from a friend’s rice stall in the public market. Coconut was the only cash crop. The local oil millers would come at harvest and the day Mother got paid for the crop was the only time in a year that we had money. It would have been sufficient to last until another coconut harvest hadn’t Father routinely dipped his fingers into Mother’s purse for his lambanog and cigarettes. She was awash in despair, went to bed each night with a dread of Father’s jealousy fits, fearing for the next morning’s dark joylessness. She became spiritless, nurturing her own resentments as her self-dignity suffered. Her fear became my fear; it was scary, at my young age, than any other feeling I had known. The jangled nerves, the dulled emotions, her inner demon I could not bring myself to guess. Mother died at forty-six of breast cancer, a sickness she had quietly endured for two years. How strange that the death of a loved one can be unsettling — and at certain times can be truly liberating. But when one’s life had forced one, as Mother’s, into a corner and there was not evident way of escape, death becomes freedom. Mother was also four months pregnant when she died. How swiftly death spirited away a child in the beginning of its flowering. But wounded animals, like horses, are far better shot right away. It was, perhaps, another act of kindness, the fetus’s death, otherwise, it would have been one more ill-fed, under-schooled, and mentally kicked twig in the family tree.
It was past noon when I went back home. His face was carved into deep creases, undone by time, his speech slurred by lambanog. Father coughed incessantly from years of nicotine abuse, the black hair that rode his head in tangled curls have already turned gray. He looked more than an old man did. Justified or not, I could not dig up any sense of concern for him; I had difficulty of forgiveness. Seeing him physically mutilated, I knew I should judge him with a little bit of kindness rather than let this image of him remain in my conscience. The truth is, I occasionally imagined his death; that Mother could quit the martyr role forever.
He coughed just as he swallowed his final mouthful of lunch and disgorged most of the food upon his plate. I winced at the sight.
“Damn!” I said in a moment of ire. I was just so pissed off.
Anger, with a trace of embarrassment at being barked at by his own child, cut across his face. He stared icily at me but said nothing. Shoulders hunched, he stood up, and, to my extreme dismay, left the kitchen without a mention of the mess he did. Well, I must say, I felt proud of. It was years of emotional bile less one. As people get older and wiser, small things are let go and see the bigger picture in a new perspective. At any rate, there are still a lot of things I want to be better at, like winning. This was my round, my win. That night, sleep came easily to me.
It rained hard a little past midnight — something quite unusual at this time of the year. I remember watching the rain as a child and catching the cold drops with my tongue. I remember the house and the rain trickling from the roof, pails and plastic basins all over the floor, awaiting the fast drips. Without electricity, the house would be dark except for the flickering glow from a kerosene lamp Mother constantly laid by. She would comfort me with that soft, sweet voice of hers into the night, her face suffused with the warm reddish flame. I thought of Ram and all the memories we spent together cuddled under the bed sheets as rains splashed on the roof of my apartment, the wind harsh against the glass window panes. Those images hold out in my mind, cotton-candy sugary and inerasable. Which is a pity. As it stands, the memories of Ram are gin-clear only to me, like some unvarying past-present wound that refuses to close.
Last night’s final dark tint disappeared and a fresh morning filtered through the glass jalousies in my room. This is the magic hour in Mulanay, the calm after an agitation of a storm when the sky goes iridescent gold, signaling another charged day. A rainbow showed up, intense against the sky. It’s been a long while since I last saw one as beautiful as this. I got up and grabbed my camera. Stepping out of the house I found the soil exceedingly slushy, its usual dark red color has turned to a clayey black slick. I decided to take my truck. The town’s slow, non-rigid atmosphere was everywhere. Pigs wallowed in the mud, ducks free-ranged, dogs darted by, and peacocks strutted by, displaying their plumage as if they owned the roadside, hibiscus blooms waved in the soft breeze, fallen bougainvillea petals littered in the front yards, and avocado fruit borne down by the downpour caught on the ground. I used to gather avocado fruit from our own tree and sold them from a stand. Business was slow because most of the other houses had avocado trees in their yards, too.
The road receded to a narrow path. I had to get off the truck and headed out on foot, at times drawn off the trail by side glances of purple — orchids with dewdrops, flashing for attention underneath the shadows of green foliage. Perspiration falling down my neck, I continued to walk, occasionally losing my balance, and on an impulse turned right onto a footpath until I came to a gurgling spring. That this place still remains, that the spring still ripples clear water as it did was nothing short of exceptional. This spot was my asylum, my own grassy retreat where I screamed out my desperation and let pent-up anger subside because I could not stomp my little feet in front of Father. A nanny goat grazed by with her two kids. I aimed my camera at them. There was something that sounded like a huge jackfruit dropping from a tree limb a couple of meters where I stood. I was a sidewinder, almost four feet long, with skin glowing in the sun. I stood still with my camera close to my chest. I could hear my heart thumping. This was not my first encounter with a snake, and in those nerve-jangling confrontations, I played it safe. Very safe. The eye contact with the sidewinder was abruptly interrupted by a piece of deadwood, about the size of a baseball bat, thrown at the snake and it scampered away. I stared open-eyed and open-mouthed at him. The young man let out a fit of chuckle then hid the laughter by pressing his palms to his face.
“Whew, thank you,” I said to him.
He continued to laugh and then said, “Thank you,” with a shy Julia Roberts smile which extended across an upper lip with a noticeable young moustache. My brow arched. He looked odd but not in a grotesque way. is head was normal-sized but his torso and limbs just crescendo into an unprecedented bulk much like the immenseness of a five-foot tall bodybuilder who did not know when to wean himself from his muscle-building dosage.
“What is your name?” I asked him.
“My name? My name is Nonoy.” Again the shy smile showed on his face.
“And how old are you, Nonoy?”
He thrust his arms and counted six on his fingers. I noticed the overgrown nails and the filth underneath them.
“I am Nonoy. I am six years old.”
“Where do you live?”
“I am Nonoy. I am six years old. I live in Mulanay.”
If anyone can glance off from specific harsh realities — the mother and child beggars, the strangulating traffic mess, the squatters refusing to be bulldozed away, and the people who walk the streets talking aloud, conversing with themselves — then probably it is easy to disregard this man-child and the shallowness of his intellect.
“Has he made a pest of himself yet?”
The voice was soft but it bristled with contained fury. Nonoy and I looked at each other. There was an absolute fear in his eyes.
“No, he hasn’t. As a matter of fact, he was a great help. He saved me from a likely snake bite,” I said.
“Well, Ma’am Stella, that’s good news. That fellow has been a pest since day one of his life,” he said.
“Who are you? And why do you know my name?”
“My name is Pedring. I am a sharecropper at your father’s farm,” he said.
My father’s farm? My foot. I’ll bet he can’t even distinguish a young coconut from a mature one. But that’s Father, all right. Strutting other people’s stuff as his own, always taking center stage, forever trying to make his mark, which, ironically, he knew fully well he didn’t have — all the self-seeking themes of his life.
“Your father said you’re a writer. He also said you’re a famous photographer. He’s really proud of your accomplishments in the big city. You know, Mulanay never had a native who made it really big except you,” Pedring said.
A smirk played on my lips.Yeah, right. Has Father ever thought why I had to leave Mulanay? Again, ancient resentments surfaced. Being proud of me was something he never mentioned while I was growing up. I walked on eggshells, tiptoed around him, and hopelessly craved approval for my efforts that always seemed inadequate to him.
Pedring turned to Nonoy, crooking his forefinger in a come-here sign, and kicking his voice level up some notches, said
“What have you been up to this time, you …”
He raised his arm to whack Nonoy who could only stare ahead with eyes from which all senses had faded except the all-familiar terror. In that instance, I saw myself in Nonoy. This is exactly what it felt like in front of Father, holding my breath, anticipating the sting of a slap. I know that feeling. It is indelible. Nonoy glanced at me. His eyes cried out for help, for friendship. I knew if I got involved, I could be overreaching myself, that it was easier to skirt the responsibility of becoming Nonoy’s emotional brace. Nobody stood by me, yet I survived. Clearly nobody stands by Nonoy now, he who is likewise directly wronged.
“Please stop,” I pleaded with Pedring. I might as well be pleading with Father.
A silence followed, almost frightening in its intactness. Finally, Pedring softened up, his anger dissipating.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling my confidence grow. “I might need some kind of company around this place. Can Nonoy do that?”
Pedring nodded, then he turned to Nonoy with a raised admonitory finger and said,
“You will behave or two thumps on your senseless head would not be enough if I heard a word from Ma’am Stella.”
Nonoy nodded again and again. I grabbed his arm and we both sprinted down the footpath to my waiting truck.
Nonoy kept bobbing his head to the radio beat, sometimes unintelligibly singing a tune he must have composed himself. He was deliriously happy, feeling the excitement of a newly- discovered freedom, sort of, caused by the steady stream of wind on his face and the undulations of the truck.
“I’m hungry,” Nonoy said.
“What is it? What did you say?”
We stopped at a fast food chain in San Ignacio. The high current of conversations throughout the restaurant stopped as if by command. All eyes were on us, at Nonoy (and his uncustomary figure) who was oblivious to the sudden whispers and side glances thrown our way. He was clearly thrilled to be in such a bright and cheerful place and did not hide his delight at sniffing his plate of fries and hamburger. I thought: Damn, the tics of people’s ways.There won’t be a day that Nonoy wouldn’t be reminded of his imbecility and its twin prejudice.
Interestingly enough, Nonoy did not talk much on our way back to Mulanay. For about a couple of miles, he dozed off. We got back home as the sun was ready to streak the summer sky. It turned out that the house where Nonoy resides was next to ours. There were lights in their house and people huddled inside. Nonoy jumped out of the truck, bubbly and anxious to boast of the day’s adventures.
Pedring died that morning of snake bite; he didn’t make it to the hospital in San Ignacio. I decided to pay my respects the next day.
On the seventh day, Pedring was buried at the public cemetery. When the crowd dispersed, Nonoy laughed — a positively triumphant laugh that hiked up into a guffaw before it subsided to a smug smile. In the absence of clear lines separating madness and sanity, truth does not seem pretty.
About the best thing that I could do during the days following Pedring’s burial was to take my camera and capture what passed as Mulanay’s daily circumstances — people who were too glad to be photographed, objects reshot on a different light, and Father when he wasn’t looking. Nonoy had attached himself to me like a leech, a wobbling creature, decidedly grownup, with eyes infinitely curious for a hardly enriched mind. What else can kill him? Nothing, because fate had screwed him for life.
After lunch I was all set to leave Mulanay. Father’s coughing was less frequent now as he had tried to suppress the urge to smoke. In an odd way, I have gradually come to a feeling that life — mine, Nonoy’s, and everybody else’s — will always be conflictive and contradictory, that letting it flow, letting it be, might actually ease up life’s ordinary functions. That to overdramatize wounds over the loss of a loved one, of a childhood, grief, and nuances of failure when they could simply remain marginalized, can further life’s dip.
I was revving the engine when Father came up to me. He said, “Take care of yourself. I hope you can visit again.”
I looked at him. His eyes had lapsed into a sort of dazed stare, an escape, maybe, a way to unfocus his fear and his own vulnerability. For a moment I considered the prudent response. The answer came in the form of a hug. That was an erasure that needed no scrutiny.
Nonoy stood by the road, holding the small dog I bought for him yesterday. I stopped the truck and patted the puppy.
“Goodbye, Nonoy,” I said.
Nonoy was quietly stroking his new pet, the sadness of goodbye palpable on his face. I got back to my truck and sped away, leaving Nonoy — a huge figure in the haze of the summer dust.