Rummaging in my cabinet to rid it of pile of papers I have hoarded for years, I came across a six-paged coupon bonds folded crosswise. Opening it, I realized why I never let go of it. On the sheets was written a short story that I could no longer remember where I have gotten from. Sitting on the cold floor and reading it again touched my heart in the same magnitude as when I first read it. I find this story too poignant not to be shared.
Elmer Al. Ordonez
We had a house in Paco before in San Rafael, a street cut across marshland and leading to the river. San Rafael was a long narrow street with a bend half-way. It had been a trail to the riverside until some brokers downtown made an enterprise and the government thought of building the street.
The people who bought the lots in San Rafael were average people who could afford a good-sized house and lot from their modest savings. They were families who had lived in tenement houses and flats in the cramped districts of Quiapo and Sta. Cruz. Some had come from the provinces. They started building small but well-designed houses alongside the street. They added richer soil to the coal sand on their yards and grew tiny gardens. Beyond their backyards were the marshes, still, tall with reeds and alive with quails and big lizards all the year round. In summer, parts of the marshes dries up, and the children ventured out to gather camachile from the solitary, twisted trees growing on the marshes. The older boys would go swimming in the river although the water stank and dead animals came floating by them. All day the children could be heard playing: their boisterousness echoed across the river where lay another neighborhood busily growing up from the marshes.
I was about five when we moved to San Rafael from a place I could hardly recall. My elder brother used to tell me about the places in the Visayas where father would be assigned as academic supervisor. But when Junior, an older brother, died in one of the frequent trips we had to make, father resigned from the Bureau of Education and we came to the city.
Father bought the lot in San Rafael with a half-finished house on it. The owner sold it for reasons we did not know. Father had the house remodeled and painted green. Mother, who loved flowers and vinegardens, planted something that clambered colorfully over the front porch in a few months. Our chalet house was not bad to look at, then.
I remember I had a few close friends in San Rafael. Perhaps, it was because I never liked the way the other boys brought me to the marshes and left me alone. I was quite afraid of the marshes, they made sucking noises and other eerie sounds which I dreamed of at night in horrible nightmares. There were some boys who never brought me that way to the marshes, and I felt very close to them. Like Dan.
He was a boy who lived across the street. He was a year older and we went to school together. He was slim, tall for his age, and good-looking with his blown hair that never stayed in place. His father was a tall, handsome officer in the Constabulary; his mother was a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. I often heard her sing, play the piano, but I seldom saw her. She had always closeted herself in her room for reason I never understood. But we all knew her to be kind and understanding – to children, particularly. Dan was the only child but was not spoiled. His father had brought him up like a Spartan boy. He was strong and fast, and the boys respected him.
Dan and I often slept together in his room. I would bring my lessons for the next day, and we did our studying together. He would bring the cookies and the warm milk sent by his mother for us. More often than we studied, we told each other stories. Long after the lights had been turned off, we would talked in hushed voices about many things. Or we would just sit upright on the bed, our knees drawn up to our chins: looking out into the street, at our homes across the way. By then, the house at home would be out, except for a glow in father’s room. I knew father would be reading the evening papers or writing his books. The only lamppost in San Rafael stood by Dan’s house, and we could see all the people passing by at night. Usually, they were the restless young men from down the street near the riverside. They would talk noisily in their wooden clogs, whistling or humming, and slapping their thighs as they laughed loudly at dirty joke. They always went out at night to the China store at the bend. They would do things not pleasant to talk about.
After classes in the afternoon, we played on our back porch where we could see the marshes stretching out. Far beyond, we could see a road, the passing cars and laborers going home, small and distant. Sometimes we did nothing but watch the marshes. And Dan would be very silent; his eyes would have a strange wistfulness. Then he would leave for home, without saying anything. I would not be sore at Dan for that. I knew I felt the same way, just watching the quiet marshes on those late afternoons. The marshes would be drenched with purple, and the cold evening wind would start blowing against our faces. I would go in and turn on the radio, letting it blare loudly.
One day we saw a house being built on the marshes half a mile away. Not long after, there were more houses, tall, small huts with slim post and steep stairs. It was the start of the slum neighborhood. In a few months, there were scores of those shacks, and a small narrow road developed, perpendicular to San Rafael, stooping some one hundred meters from the bend where the store was. Then the people from there built a footbridge over the treacherous gap to the bend so they could buy their things from San Rafael.
The bridge became a link between the relative cleanliness of San Rafael and the squalor of the new neighborhood. And the boys from the other side came to San Rafael to look for trouble. We naturally resented their coming. They were mostly boys who grew up in the streets of Tondo. They would come rushing on us by the bridge, and we had to fight them with slingshots and sticks and fists. They would also come by the riverside where we least expected them, and surprised us at our backs. At times the battle were fought in the marshes, and we would go home all mauled and muddied up. Later we organized ourselves and built barricades at all the approaches to San Rafael. But some of the parents of the boys in San Rafael had called up the police, and that seldom troubled us again. When the rains came and flooded the streets and marshes, we forgot all about them. We fashioned out little boats from old washtubs and rafts from banana trunks, and sailed out on the water. The rainy season was time out from those wars.
There was a real war in Europe when Dan and I entered high school. There was a small war in Mindanao where Dan’s father had been assigned to fight with the Constabulary against Moro outlaws. Dan and his mother were left alone in their house. Dan’s father sent them Moro articles and trinkets. On his birthday, Dan received a kampilan. He glowed with pride showing it to us, testing its razor-sharpness with a cardboard. But then, his mother kept his present, saying it was not safe from him to be carrying the thing around because of his quick temper. We never saw the kampilan again.
After supper, Dan and I would take long walks to the old Paco cemetery near San Rafael. We walked under the giant acacia trees alongside the ancient moss-covered walls. We would find out whether the stories of ghost lurking about the balete trees near the place were true or not. We never saw anything and we were not afraid. We would just talk of wars and algebra and the girls we knew in high school, while we walked, munching roasted peanuts.
It was summertime that morning when we learned about Dan’s father. I had heard Pa and Ma talking in the dining room, something about the Moros in Mindanao. When I sat down at the table, they had stopped talking and looked solemly at me. I knew there was something wrong, but I started to eat anyhow. Then I saw the papers on the table. It was all there in the papers glaring at me. I forgot my breakfast and ran out in haste across the street. There was the brown army car already in front of Dan’s home – the one that used to fetch Dan’s father every morning. I saw Dan and his mother come out of the house and get in the car. His mother looked as if she had been crying. She had lost her youthful charm, but she was beautiful in a way and possessed quiet dignity. Dan saw me standing by our gate. I knew he wanted me to come over but his mother had already motioned to him in the car. He smiled at me slightly; he was very pale.
There was nobody at home at Dan’s for sometime. Across the street, the house stood desolate, the strong winds from the marshes blowing about it and rattling the windows. I was lonely. Father had gone to the south on a tour and my brothers were attending summer camps. I didn’t feel like going with the other boys. I would be alone in the porch those later afternoons, watching the marshes.
Dan had changed when he came home. He had gown slimmer, and much too quiet. He did not leave the house for sometime. I wrote him a letter and sent it through the maid. I received Dan’s reply, after a day, telling me to come over.
“Hello Dan,” I said when the door was opened for me. He was down at his desk, writing something. I said hello, again, and he looked up. He had really changed.
He quietly said what I already knew: his father was killed by a Moro boloman. But he told me other things: the services at the army cemetery, their stay with his father’s relatives. He described the rites in a sensitive way that touched me – the citation, the posthumous awards, the rifle-fire salute, and the taps. I was very silent, listening to Dan. Then he said a family would move to their house. His mother was having it rented. They would occupy just one room for themselves, and would send the maid away. I told him we could sleep together in my room as we had slept in his. He said that would be swell for me, and he smiled weakly, bravely.
In the weeks that followed, we came to know Mita. She was the only child in the family that came to live in Dan’s home. She was about our age and could play the piano and sing songs we liked: “Annie Laurie,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Loch Lomond,” and Irish songs.
Her parents were friendly people who has asked us first to be friends with Mita because they said she was alone and had never gotten to know other children, especially boys. We would watch Mita play, and we would swap stories with her, about our schools and classmates. She had gentle refined ways that made us aware all the time of our uncouth manners. Dan started to use pomade in his blown, unkept hair, and I, too, asked mother to buy me a new suit. Somehow, Mita knew that we had been too conscious of ourselves and she told us outright she liked us better as we were. And we liked her for telling us, for being frank and honest with what she thought. She could make us forget the girls we knew in high school, and we would make her smile and feel glad because her dimples and wrinkling eyes were nice to look at.
Sunday afternoons, we would go together to Luneta to listen to the concert or to watch the sunset. Sometimes we would go to a good show downtown and when February came around, to the carnivals.
Dan became more of himself. He was somehow succeeding in trying to forget his sorrow over the tragedy which Mita knew, but she had never asked Dan about, perhaps because she did not want to remind him. She was careful about others’ feelings.
There were times Dan would not want to see anybody. We knew then he would be in his room, writing verses that he never showed to us. Whenever we asked him what he had been doing, he would say he was reading and would dismiss the talk to other things.
Mita invited us once to her piano recital in the school auditorium. She played a piece by Brahms and another by Rachmaninoff. We brought her home ourselves that night because her parents had some place to go after the recital. In the cab, on the way home, we complimented her: Dan, with his literary allusions, and I, with matter-of-fact words. We added, however, that we still preferred her playing those Scotch and Irish melodies. After supper, Mita played the music we would request: Always Dan asked for Chopin’s “Nocturne” and I for Schumann’s “Traumerle.” After playing our favorites, she would dish out a sprightly Irish tune, and we all sang together. We were very happy then. And it meant all the world to Dan who had by now gotten over his sadness. But our high spirits were short-lived.
It was waking up one night to some wailing which led me to think suddenly of a fire in San Rafael. When I looked out, however, I saw an ambulance in front of Dan’s home, and men in white were pushing in at the back a covered litter. The ambulance left quietly. The siren didn’t wail anymore and there was no hurry. It just rumbled slowly along San Rafael and disappeared at the bend.
I hurried across to Dan’s. I met Mita’s father atop the staircase. He was putting on his coat and hat, preparing to leave. He just shook his head and held me lightly by the shoulder. In the ambulance had been Dan’s mother.
I saw Dan in the sala, quietly looking out the window. The cold night wind from the marshes filtered in and the curtain blew softly against his face. Mita was sitting on one of the chairs, staring blankly at the floor, her thumbs turned into fists. When she saw me, she tried painfully hard to smile. There was nothing she could have said. She was visibly shaken that night.
I approached Dan and whispered his name, but he didn’t answer nor turn around. I touched him gently at the back. I just couldn’t say anything anymore, and a lump was swelling in my throat. After a while he turned halfway to me, not saying a word, his face devoid of expression. “I’m all right, Jim.” It was Dan talking and I couldn’t believe it.
They laid Dan’s mother to rest the next day. The sky was grey and it drizzled a little that afternoon. I could still see Dan, standing in the rain, tall and quiet, without any cap, his raincoat draped carelessly on his body. He looked tired, his hair dripping wet, holding himself from crying. The grave was fresh with wet dug sod. It has a large marble stone with an epitaph – a short affecting verse written by Dan. It was his first poem that I had ever read.
That night was our last together. Dan left early the following morning and took a boat south to live with relatives. I couldn’t see him often. Mita and her parents left in the afternoon. She has promised to write, but her letter never reached me. Several days later, we also left for the province because war had broken out. The headlines were large and glaring that Monday morning: Pacific war is on now!
We spent our last night in the hall. We just watched and heard Mita play the piano. The last piece she played was Rubintein’s “Melodie,” and I wanted her not to play that song. But she kept at it and I stole out to the porch. It was dark and cold out there. The marshes held a strangeness that gripped my heart.