By Danton Remoto
It was the first day of class, and the traffic was terrible. Wanda left the house at 6:00 a.m., her skin still tingling from her shower, cool in her loose, white shirt and black jeans. After an hour on a jeepney, she reached the university. She reeked of gas fumes, her shirt showing creases and folds.
But her classmates! As usual, they paraded themselves in the lobby of the Admin Building in their crisp clothes, talking about Miss Saigon which they saw in London, or about the Black beggars in the N.Y. subways. Wanda just walked past them, remembering her summer in Bataan—the sea unrolling itself before her, like a blue carpet; the air a distilled pureness—then began arranging her class cards by schedule, to be handed with a nervous smile to a new set of teachers.
If going out of the house was hard, coming home was hell. Just as she was flagging down a jeepney, the weak sunlight gave way to the rains of June, which fell like a thick, gray sheet, changing everything. The dust on the streets became mud; the potholes, puddles. With its plastic flaps down on its sides, the jeepney she took began to burn like a furnace. Smell of trapped air, stink of afternoon sweat. Then the man from across her began to smoke. She feigned a cough. No effect. Two. Nothing. So she just stared at him, hard. Nada, nyet, non, wala talaga! The man had the hide of a rhinoceros. And so, smelling of other people’s sweat and cigarette smoke, she got off at the corner before the jeepney rounded the bend leading to Hillside. Their house sat on a street fronting the elementary school, with its tall trees like scepters against the sky. They were still lucky—the air that filled their lungs day in and day out was not as polluted as what other people had to endure in the First Lady’s City of Man.
She pushed the white button on the brown gate, and knew the housemaid, Ludy, was coming merely from the sound of the slippers on the driveway. Ludy smiled (perhaps, her mother didn’t scold the maid today). Then Wanda saw her.
Sitting on Wanda’s favorite rocking chair, swaying to and fro beside her mother’s greenhouse of blooming pink orchids was an old woman. Her profile stood sharply against the granite walls of the house. Wanda’s sure her father’s parents were long gone, and her mother’s parents were in chaotic Los Angeles, with their green cards. Must she be another relative from Bataan? As if to answer Wanda’s unspoken question, Ludy tapped gently the old woman’s shoulders: “Lola, this is Wanda, the eldest daughter of Sir and Ma’am.’’
Hair, white like abaca fibers, framed her lined face. High, even noble, were her cheekbones. Her eyes were swimming in rheum. “Good afternoon, Wanda. I accompanied my grandson, Billy, to school today. I was waiting for him in front of the variety store in the street corner when it began to rain. Your father’s car was passing by, and he asked me to wait here in your house,” she said, in her soft diphthongs.
Wanda smiled. Another gesture of kindness to strangers, from my crazy father, she thought. “Why don’t you wait inside, Lola? It’s warmer there.”
Ludy made irritating gestures, putting her left hand before her eyes, then moving it from left to right. Afterward, she shook her head. Of course, I know she’s blind, Wanda wanted to snap at Ludy; I’m not stupid, no. But the old woman had begun swinging the rocking chair again, slowly, silently…
Like the leaves of memory falling from the trees in the black wind, she remembers them. She remembers her father, his skin brown as the rich volcanic loam in Albay. He had a square face, like a sheet of paper, on which were written the marks of the years: How he joined the Revolution against Spain at 15, so small the Guardia Civil let him pass through their sentries, the messages from one zone to another hidden in the sewn edges of his calzoncillos, and when the Revolution was won, how the new conquerors, the Americans, arrived. She still remembers her father railing against the new conquerors, how they “bought” the Philippines for 20 million dollars from Spain that had already been defeated—and humiliated—by the indios. “What a bargain,” her father said with a bitter smile, chewing on his betel nut and spitting its red juice on the ground. “With a population of 10 million, we were worth only two dollars per head!” and so with the help of the mayor, the bastard son of a Spanish friar, and the local tart, the Americans their eyes blue as the sky, hair golden in the tropical sun occupied the town of Oas the way they occupied the other towns in the whole archipelago, save the proud Muslim South. And the Cavalry men hid their Krags and Mausers still smoking from the bullets that killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, changed into civilian clothes, put on the air of all-American boys who were tall and muscle-bound from all that fresh cow’s milk and hot apple pie, and began recruiting young Filipinos for school so they could learn the new language. It was like Ali Baba’s secret word, they claimed, this new language that would open the caves of darkness, revealing pearls and diamonds, silver and gold, brilliance spilling over from the treasure chests.
She remembers her mother, who helped her father toil in the rice fields after the Revolution when she was not fixing breakfast, lunch or dinner, or not giving birth to any of her nine children. Her mother made the richest, most fragrant chocolate from the trees that grew profusely in their backyard. When the rains would fall on their thatched nipa hut during the early mornings, leaving a chill that would settle over them like a cold breath, her mother would light a wick floating in a jar of coconut oil, walk over to the kitchen (her bare feet soundless on the bamboo floor), pour water from the earthen jar to the kettle, drop the tablea into the kettle and bring the water to a boil, then later, hand each of them the tin cups of steaming chocolate, which the children would pour on their plates of glutinous rice that they always ate with their mother’s special chocolate, then eat the dried fish, which her mother had fried to a crisp. Her father did not want her to go to school. “Guillerma, what will you learn from those Yanquis?” but her mother insisted. So the ten of them went to school in morning and afternoon shifts, so there would be somebody left to fetch water from the well, or to help transplant the rice saplings from their beds to the fields. Every day, they walked three kilometers to school, and three kilometers back home. School was a clump of three thatched nipa huts, all slightly bigger than their house. Their teacher was just twenty years old: Private Thomas O’Donnell. He spoke the new language in a strangely musical way, reminding her of the way they spoke their Bikol in Albay, their diphthongs rising and falling gently, like the slopes of Mayon. Private O’Donnell, or “Tom” as he like to be called, read from a thick, hardbound book, whose crisp, fragrant pages spoke of John and Judy and their dog, Spot, children with white skin and blond hair, like their teacher.
In the days and months that followed, she learned the alphabet: “A as in apple, B as in basketball, C as in cherry pie.” They read from the handbills and posters plastered on the walls of the municipal hall that the Filipino generals still fighting in the hills were not really generals but “bandidos and ladrones,” as proven by their scandalously long hair and their inability to grasp the idea of what the posters called “benevolent assimilation.” Her teacher spoke of a big man garbed in red called Santa Claus who leaves his house in the North Pole, travels all over the world on a sled pulled by a herd of reindeer, then slides down the chimney every Christmas Eve to deliver gifts to the obedient children. One day, she wondered, as she was walking home on the streets of Oas ripening with mats of yellow rice grains left to dry under the sun, how a blast of snow felt against the skin, how it felt to look outside the misted glass of the window pane and see nothing, nothing else but a landscape of bone-cracking whiteness.
Her teacher also taught them some songs, one of which she will never forget:
My bonnie lies over the ocean
My bonnie lies over the sea
My bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my bonnie to me.
After teaching them this song, their teacher’s blue-green eyes brimmed over with tears. She was embarrassed for him her father had said that only woman cry, so what did that make of Private O’Donnell? He apologized, saying he learned that song from his parents when he was growing up, and in the air floated words like “potato famine” and “green grass of home” and “Ireland.” She did well in the school. Her father wanted only her brothers to go on to high school. But that meant studying in the next town. “Expensive,” her father said, clucking his tongue, chewing on his betel nut and spitting the red juice on the earth. “Less labor in the fields.” But her mother insisted that Guillerma being the eldest in the family and being the Class Valedictorian of the Oas Elementary School, Class of 1925 should go on to high school in Ligao.
She did go on to the high school, learning to parse the English language from the Thomasites, the tall woman wearing wide, ankle-length dresses and lovely hats, the men sweating in their blue-gray suits, all of them fired by a sense of mission. She loved Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” rolling its rhythms on her tongue (the primeval forest and the murmuring streams), reciting it to herself as she walked home from school to the house of Tia Esmeralda, her aunt who lived three blocks away.
The Albay Normal School was offering scholarships for Education majors, said the announcement on the bulletin board in front of the Administration Building. She squinted to make out the letters, because she had just come from the street outside, the sunlight blazing on her back, onto the cool shadows of the school building. With the blessings of her parents and teachers, she took the train bound for Legazpi City to vie for the scholarship. And there, on the sprawling college campus, she met Alberto. “Excuse me, but you’re also in the normal school?” asked the man beside her. She looked at him a dark, young man who was almost good-looking, trying to be witty on the first day of class.
She gave him a tight smile. Then: “So are you.”
But he just smiled back, widely, with a chuckle, then said his name. She told him hers. He said, “So you’re Guillerma Regala? Your surname begins with the letter R, you must be from Oas then.
“Yes,” she said, but their conversation was cut short when their teacher, Mr. Dale, who had a particularly bad case of freckles on his arms and face, asked for their class cards. Despite herself (she only wanted to do well in school, become a teacher, and then send her brothers and sisters to school), despite her Tia Esmeralda (who said men are tentacion, the rotten apple of temptation woman must avoid), she began seeing Alberto after classes. He came from Tabaco, scion of a prominent family with investments in the abaca trade. Every fortnight, ships sailed out of Tabaco’s fine harbor, carrying hemp which would thereafter be known throughout the world as “Manila Hemp,” to the chagrin of the Bicolanos.
But Alberto had turned his back on the family business. “Everybody in the family has dipped his finger in the pie. I want to be different. And teaching,” he would say, between mouthfuls of maja blanca, the white glutinous rice cake, and sips from his bottle of cola, “teaching is for me: it is the most noble profession.” And Guillerma would agree with him about the nobility of their profession, hammered into their heads by his Education professor, Dr. Christian Dale. (to be continued)