Long before Darkness, Or, The Night Ileana Fell in Love

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She had lived in the shadows all her life. Literally this meant the shadows of the mountains in the rural town where she was born and where she spent the earliest years of her childhood. Then came the shadows of the skyscrapers that dotted the horizon of the city she eventually lived in. But what became unbearable for her as she was growing up in the shadows of the women in her family, her mother, her sisters, her aunts, and her cousins. As a young woman, she desperately longed for her birthright, for the choices and decisions that she could make without them having a say. But her very own shadows, her fears and self-doubts failed her. Years later, she would remember sneering at her mountainous childhood home, only to embrace the sacred mountain at the foothills of which her husband had brought her to live; how she cursed the demands of the city, only to bring the same demands to her new world; and how she scoffed at the words of the women in her family, only to listen to the dark whispers of the women of the sacred mountain. 

    In the beginning, young and flushed with love, she thought that it was because she had obeyed the only man she ever loved that she chose to live with him at the foothills of the sacred mountain. As that love waned with his half truths and his philandering, she realized that she chose to stay on because she loved the sacred mountain’s hillocks, its sacramental sites, and most especially, its dark side.

    The dark side…it begged her to stay long after Viktor had left her. “For a cause bigger than himself,” he had said. “Bigger than your ego?” She wanted to ask, but clipped her tongue, afraid of his temper. It was a cause definitely bigger than his love for her. If he truly left for a great cause, or for someone else, she no longer cared by then. She had become used to his absence. He would be gone for days on end before that, leaving her alone in the house. That was how she started to take aimless walks. At first she stayed within the confines of the foothills of the sacred mountain and within the limits of the sacramental sites, but as if in a trance, she discovered unknown trails, began to push to the edges, to venture into the periphery of the other side of the mountain. That was when she first heard the whispers, the voices of women calling her forth…

    Viktor left her the title of the house and the land, part of his inheritance that nobody could take away from her. Neither of them knew that she was pregnant. And the dark side, only the dark side, saved her. She did not mean to witness it – the ancient ritual of summoning back the dead at midnight in the middle of the forest. It kept her awake for nights afterwards. She stopped her walks and promised herself not to cross over to the other side again. But the whispers beckoned, soft voices that led her back there, this time to dig roots shaped like human eyes, fingers, and teeth, which she kept lying in their room, not knowing what to do with them. When Viktor saw them, he knowingly looked at her, but did not comment at all. The dark side seduced her to stay. It awakened her body and soul to something primeval coursing through her blood, pulsating in her very own veins. And she learned to love the sacred mountain with the same intensity and passion she had once loved Viktor.

    Viktor came to her life when she was young, naive, and uncertain about what she wanted to be. It was the early ’90s in Makati. She had finally found the courage to move away from home and had found a room of her own. It was all that she could afford then. She was working in the communications department of a leading bank, an ideal place to be in those times. She knew that it was a good starting point to more lucrative careers. She was young, she was confident, and she felt independent. She had all things going for her. But then she met Viktor.    

    Viktor’s family owned the apartment compound where she had rented a room. There was no need for them to deal with each other, as she paid her room rent to the actual tenant, her landlady, who paid him for the entire apartment.  In the beginning, she saw him only towards the end of each month, looking over the place, discussing matters with her landlady. But soon he became a regular presence. He was almost always nearby – at the balcony, the receiving area, the mini garden or the driveway – whenever she would leave for or come home from office. He initially seemed to be just hanging around, but later it turned out that he was inspecting the premises. Much work indeed had to be done, plumbing and electrical concerns, long-standing repair needs for each apartment unit, what have you. But it seemed that the mini garden took much of his interest. It was always there that she came upon him almost every day.

    “What flowers do you like most, Ileana?” Her landlady asked her one day.

    “Roses,” she readily replied. 

    “Roses,” her landlady said aloud, as if she meant someone else to hear it. 

    Their conversation ended there, only for the landlady to knock on her door a few minutes later, to ask what color of roses she liked in particular. 

    “Oh, all colors,” Ileana answered. She remembered the rose kiosks that sold roses outside the gates of the university where she cross-enrolled and spent a semester of college. “Pink, peach, blue, yellow, white, green, and of course, blood red,” she giggled.  She felt like a ladylove being asked what she wanted by her suitor. She always bought a rose back then, imagining as she brought it home with her that some sweet lover had given it to her.

    Little did she know that her girlish fantasy was about to be fulfilled. When she came home from office that dusk, she found the garden planted with roses, some of them in the colors that she had mentioned. Outside her room, a small table with a bunch of blood-red roses atop it had been placed. There was no card, no note, nothing. Later that night, she asked her landlady if the roses were hers. Yes, they were sent via the florist early that afternoon. There was no card.

    Any schoolgirl would guess who had sent the roses. But Ileana didn’t want to be presumptuous. She placed the roses, all thirteen of them, in an empty bottle of sweets she had fortunately kept among her things. She couldn’t sleep that night. A mixture of foreboding and excitement filled her heart. 

    Early the next day, she peeped at the garden, expecting Viktor to be there. He was not. And neither did he show up as she was leaving, nor when she arrived from work that day. And that was how it was for the rest of the week, even as the garden, now with a hired gardener tending it, bloomed with roses of all colors and shades. 

    The blood-red roses had long dried up when Viktor showed up. Ileana had forgotten the lines she had rehearsed in case he would ask about them. She stood before him, her bank uniform creased from her bus ride, and trembled uncontrollably. 

    “Did you get the roses?” Viktor asked.

    She nodded, again and again, unable to say a word. She excused herself by extending her right hand towards the recently paved pathway that led to the apartment she stayed in. He gave way, but said, “You cannot always run away from me, Ileana.”  She looked back at him, but turned her back again, and that was all that she could do. 

    The roses kept coming. They waited by her doorway each night. Ileana thanked Viktor each morning. He would either wave or smile at her, busy in the garden or in some other area of the compound, inspecting what the workers had finished the previous day. But he made it a point to be within sight when she was on her way to work. She slowly felt used to his presence, comfortable with his attention. She began to look for him whenever he was not around. She began to daydream about him. She was in that state when he knocked on their apartment one night and asked permission to see her. 

    Their conversation was short and clipped, almost like an interview. He basically wanted to know her schedule, her interests, and her status. Normally secretive and reserved, she couldn’t understand why she gushed about her little world to him – regular visits to her parents who lived in another part of the metropolis during weekends, work-apartment-work, no boyfriend, no suitors, no dates.  Little did she know then that he was about to put that whole safe world in shambles.

Ss2 Longbeforedarkness1

    He came every Thursday night from then on. He did not stay long, but always seemed satisfied with the bits of stories she shared with him. He shared his own, too, and that was how they realized that they had things in common. They both lived in Sta. Ana in Manila when they were young.  She in the single-room extension at the back of the main house of her grandparents, where they temporarily moved as her parents tried to make ends meet when they decided to move to Manila; he, in the ancestral home built back in the 19th century by his great-grandparents, the Ponce de Leons. His aunts and nieces had gone to the same exclusive school where she studied, located in the village where their family moved when her parents’ business took off. Their closest link was that he studied in the university where she cross-enrolled during her last semester in college. She was excited about these coincidences. She wanted to talk about the little details of their past. But he seemed disinclined.

    “You’ve lived a cloistered life,” he said. He asked her if he had seen the world beyond Sta. Ana, Makati, and the university belt. She shook her head, fazed by the question.  She suddenly felt inadequate. “It’s not too late,” he said. “They’re just waiting for you.”

    When Ileana was a young girl, she thought that falling in love was about roses, fancy gifts, grand gestures, everything dazzling. That’s what she saw on television and in the movies. That’s what her fairytales taught her as a child, and what the romance books she indulged in as a teen-ager reinforced. 

    Viktor Ponce de Leon brought her to a Chinese eatery in Quiapo on their first date. They went up a flight of rickety wooden stairs to have a little more privacy, he said, on the second floor. True enough, only two other tables were occupied up there. The lights also had a dreamier, more romantic feel. She let him choose what they would eat, and he chose what he said to be his favorite, and which he wanted her to taste, good old pancit canton. Generously garnished with quail’s eggs and chicken liver, it was the best pancit canton she tasted ever.

    “This is the oldest panciteria in Quiapo,” he said, “my great-grandfather regularly brought me here as a child.”

Ss2 Long Before Darkness

    They walked to the Basilica de Nazareno after the meal. It was past 7:00 in the evening. Mass was ongoing, but like many other church visitors, they entered the church, knelt for a few minutes on a pew, genuflected before the grand altar, and slowly moved towards the exit, but not without first touching the feet of the image of the dead Christ near the church door.

    Quiapo in the early evening spelled magic. Tables brimming with leaves, herbs, and vines with healing qualities complimented spreads full of moonstones, agates, hag stones, rose quartz, and many other pretty trinkets. The mini statues of the Black Nazarene, the Blessed Virgin, the Christ Child, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, St. Jude Thaddeus, and many other saints hugged spaces alongside ancient-looking bronze amulets – “Infinito Dios, Uph Madac, Dignum Crucis, Siete Arkangheles, Jehovah Saday,” the seller spilled out their names and the powers they held. On basins and pails alongside them, roses, chrysanthemums, vermilions, baby’s breath, daisies, and other flowers awaited buyers.

    Viktor steered her to the votive candle sellers and picked two pink ones, “love candles,” he called them, and told her to make a wish. As she whispered her wish to the candles, her eyes half-closed, he whispered his on her ear, “That you may love me, as I love you, Ileana.” He then lit the candle from the set of multi-colored candles standing on the seller’s improvised candleholder. He held her hand, and she held his. Thus did they walk to the underpass near the church. 

    A child, thin and dirty, lay on one of the steps of the stairs leading down. He seemed ready to fall asleep, and yet, eager for coins if someone would be kind enough to drop some in a huge fast-food plastic glass beside him. Viktor fished for all the coins in his pocket and dropped them in the glass. The child opened his eyes wide, unable to say anything when he saw how the coins filled half his glass. They walked on only to realize that more half-asleep beggars lie along their way. And there were no more coins to give.

    “Have you ever come across scenes like this?”  Viktor asked.

    Ileana shook her head. She had come upon beggars. They had trailed people in the market and in the other places she had been to, but she had never seen them lying on the cold cement floor that way. 

    This was in 1994. Metro Manila’s streets were not yet littered with beggars or with the homeless. Scenes such as what they saw were confined to certain areas, like Quiapo, and only at certain hours of the day.

    “Time for you to see what I’m going to show you on the other side then. That’s where the Golden Mosque is. That’s what people call the Muslim area. Have you ever heard of that?”

    Ileana nodded this time. She had a Muslim friend in the university where she cross-enrolled. Their family had a hijab and malong store in the area and her friend brought her there once so she could see the mosque even if only from outside.

    “We can visit the area of the mosque some other time,” Viktor said. “I’m going to show you something else tonight.” From the underpass, they passed through dark alleys and seemingly abandoned buildings, then came upon shanties, some of them straddling the banks of the putrid Pasig River. The moon seemed to be following them. “Look, Ileana,” Viktor led her towards the river.

    Some of the shanties had electricity. Television sets glared at them. But Ileana, used to her personal comforts, could only imagine the life the people in those makeshift homes lived.    

    “Can you imagine living there?” Viktor had read her thoughts. “Would you survive?”

    “I can live there,” her voice seemed to have come from elsewhere. “But I would struggle to work my way out to leave, to go someplace else.”

    “Do you think they have a choice? Do you think they have the opportunities open to you? These are migrants. They were forced to leave their lands, ancestral lands even, just to survive, to save their lives. They have come from everywhere in the country.”

     “But why…?” Ileana’s voice trailed.

     “Because of wars and massacres you have not heard about, Ileana, against so-called rebels, terrorists, enemies of the state; because of famine in haciendas where sacadas had to endure Tiempo Muerto after Tiempo Muerto; because of land-grabbers, big businesses taking over lands, forging land titles…”

     “I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky…” All-4-One’s hit song suddenly blared from one of the shanties. “I see the questions in your eyes…” The lines perfectly fit the moment, until someone off key suddenly burst into song, “I know what’s weighing on your mind…”

     Ileana looked up at Viktor. His eyes locked with hers. They both laughed, but with tears in their eyes. Above them, the moon and the stars sang their own song. Ileana’s heartbeats romped and raged, and she failed to see the shadows that loomed above them as the moon hid, and as the stars, both long dead and dying, crept beneath the darkness.

     They walked towards the underpass to go back to the other side, once more holding each other’s hand. At that very moment, Ileana fell in love.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rosa May M. Bayuga
Rosa May M. Bayuga
Rosa M. May Bayuga writes for a living and for the love of writing. She has won the Palanca awards and the National Commission on the Arts and Culture Writer’s Prize for her fiction. She explores the “dark side,” whenever she can.She cares for cats and roses, talks to long dead and dying stars, and writes when her spirit compels her to do so.

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