Again, another old story of mine. This one's special to me. It's based on two things: the first one is a Philippine legend or alamat, explaining the origin of the malay rose apple or macopa. (One version of the legend can be found at www. philippinesinsider myths-folklore-superstition/ the-myth-about-the-macopa-fruit/.) The other is my father's own story of how the Japanese Army swept through his home town in a northern province in the Philippines when he was a boy, back during World War II. I added some historical details (but not enough, honestly, don't expect any scholarly dissertations on the Philippine experience during World War II here, or even any kind of reliable accuracy), and took great liberties with both my dad's story and the legend.
And YES, I am still working on "Half and Half". You can read the author's notes on my other story, "The View from Santa Rita Street" for reference. Please don't kill me.
Again, thank you so much to everyone who read and reviewed. You guys are wonderful.
Some Cultural Notes:
Eskuwelahan -(pronounced "es-KWE-la-han") - school
Ilocano - the dominant language/dialect spoken in northern Philippines
Nanang/Tatang - mom and dad in Ilocano
Manang/Manong - older sister and older brother in Ilocano
indio - back during the centuries under Spanish colonial rule, the Spanish rulers called native Filipinos indios, as in something like Indians.
singkits - a derogatory term for almond-eyed people
bayong - (pronounced "bah-YONG") - a big bag made of woven reeds (I think)
banig - (pronounced "bah-NEEG") - a mat made of woven reeds or grass (or something)
High noon, and the little town of Catalina lay panting beneath the nearly cloudless sky. Heat surged in and out of houses despite attempts to ward it off with curtains and anahaw fans, digging trenches in the empty streets, rising above the rooftops and fields and sinking back into the earth in slow, relentless waves. Trees and grasses drooped listlessly; dogs and cats curled up in shady spots and pretended to be dead. The inhabitants of the town lay unmoving in the coolest sections of their houses and waited for evening with eyes glazed and lips moving soundlessly. Nothing stirred more than it had to. The town lay petrified in the summer heat.
Even the dust didn't want to move. Aurelio kicked halfheartedly at the dust coating the street, and produced halfhearted puffs that settled down almost immediately. The skin on his shoulders and the back of his neck stung from the heat. Sweat trickled down his back and soaked his too-big shirt and the waistband of his too-small khaki short pants. He moved mechanically down the street, head bent and eyes glazed from the heat, his lips moving soundlessly as he counted his steps.
He was the only one walking through the streets of Catalina that day. He passed the school building and found it sitting empty and forlorn. A sign above the doorway called out its name listlessly—"Eskuwelahan Tsukishima" in halting Ilocano, beneath the high red hiragana lettering. The letters rippled and danced in the heat. A piece of paper had fallen on the path and lay on the ground as unmoving as a rock. Without its students, Tsukishima was a lifeless shell. Tsukishima, which was once St. Jerome's Academy not so long ago.
Aurelio turned left, walked past the marketplace, where empty stalls and overturned tables lay in straggling, dispirited rows. He walked past a store that had been closed for the day, past houses with doors and windows shut against the heat, past houses already abandoned by its owners, who had thought to escape the coming destruction when the Americans attacked. The town hid itself from the lash of summer, and waited. It waited for Yamashita's Army to arrive, for the Americans to arrive, for the heat to retreat into the night—for a chance to escape or a chance to die, the town didn't know.
A part of him wondered what he was doing walking through the streets of a town that was practically deserted. With this kind of weather, nobody would blame him if he took a detour toward the creek and spent the day soaking in the water like a carabao. He wondered why he had argued so insistently to be allowed out of the house, and when his parents had been adamant, had resorted to buying his little sister's complicity with a sweet and stealing out a window. Nanang and Tatang were getting ready to evacuate the family to the mountain before the morning arrived, and anxiety was stretching their nerves to breaking point. They would not be pleased when they discovered his absence. Still, Aurelio had promised old Padre Mateo that he would sweep the church floors and wipe down the pews before noontime Mass began. And the bells had to be rung. No matter what happened, the church bells always rang in time for Mass. It was Aurelio's job to ring the bells. It was his duty to ring the bells.
The memory of Tatang's stern admonitions rose in his mind, and he quickly squelched it. He wouldn't take long, a little over an hour at most. Besides, sweeping church floors and ringing bells were better than having to stay at home and listen to his mother's endlessly muttered prayers, or watch his father turn into a surly, grim-faced stranger with each passing hour.
Aurelio noticed footsteps behind him. He turned and waited for the skinny girl to catch up with him, the skirts of her faded dress flying and her braid lashing behind her. She bent double to catch her breath, and he didn't try to hide his exasperated sigh.
"Where're you going, Eliong?" she managed between gasps.
"None of your business. What are you doing here, Narcisa?"
"I saw you sneak out of your house. I thought you might be going to the mountain to contact the guerillas again, and I wanted to see."
Aurelio blinked, then remembered. Lately, Narcisa had developed the habit of following him around, and once in a fit of annoyance he had told her that he was going to the mountain to contact the guerillas and that it was too dangerous for her to come along. She'd stared wide-eyed at him and nodded solemnly, and he'd thought that that was that. How was he to know she'd swallow the story so easily? It certainly hadn't stopped her from following him around.
Aurelio scowled and resumed walking. She matched his stride, even when he quickened his pace. "Go home, Narcisa. Your Nanang might be looking for you. Besides, it's not safe out here."
"Because the Japanese Army might come?" she said in a low voice.
Narcisa looked troubled. "I heard stories…Manang Maria said Yamashita's Army was marching toward the north, and that they were going to pass through our town. She also said that the guerillas ambushed them in Cabagan to rescue the president, but the Army was too strong. Do you think it's true? Is the Army really coming to Catalina?"
"I don't know," he replied in all honesty. "Tatang said our town was blessed because the Japs practically ignored us when they came here. We're too small and too out of the way, not like Manila. That's why we had it so easy. Maybe we'll be lucky and the Japs will go on ignoring us."
She kicked thoughtfully at the dust. "Your brothers are in Manila, aren't they? Have you heard from them?"
Aurelio thought of his older brothers, who had gone to Manila to study and to find work. There had been no word from Manong Luisito and Ponciano for over a year now. It was a source of anguish for the rest of them who were left at home, although Aurelio's anguish stemmed more from having to listen to the drone of his mother's rosaries and novenas day in and day out. Narcisa glanced up at his continued silence, and he shook his head as if to clear it. She took it as his answer and sighed. Her sympathy only added to his annoyance, and his words came out sharper than he intended. "Go away, Narcisa. Go home. It's not safe out here. The Army could arrive any minute. You don't want to be caught in a battle, do you?"
"It's safe enough for you to disobey your father and go to church," she pointed out.
To his credit, he didn't wince. "If you knew where I was going, why'd you ask?"
"I wanted to know if you knew where you were going," she said so calmly he was sure she was laughing at him. "I thought maybe you believed your own silly tale about meeting the guerillas, and I wanted to make sure you're not in some sort of trouble. Anyway, what in the world would the guerillas want with you?"
His fingers itched to smack the smug look off her face, but the church was already in front of them and he didn't dare risk Padre Mateo's ire by wringing his niece's neck within sight of the house of God. He pulled the heavy wooden doors open and let himself in. The small, Spanish-style church was a cool, dark oasis after the heat outside, with the scent of candles and incense lingering in the air. Saints and angels smiled benevolently at him from their perches upon the walls. He bowed respectfully to the large gold crucifix above the altar then slipped out the small door to the left, leading to the parish priest's house beside the church. He carefully picked his way through the exquisite garden in the front yard, not stopping to admire the beautifully tended roses growing in one corner, and trying to ignore Narcisa, who was trailing behind him in a good imitation of his own shadow.
He raised his hand to the door but before he could knock, Narcisa called out: "Padre Mateo! We're here! Hoy, Tio Mateo, are you there?"
He turned on her to tell her to shut up just as the door creaked open, revealing a thin, frail old man in a priest's white cassock. Gray hair stuck out in tufts on either side of his head, leaving the top completely bald. Veins shown blue through his papery skin, but his eyes were bright and his face was kind. Aurelio couldn't imagine how Padre Mateo could stand the heat in that long robe-like cassock, but Padre Mateo seemed as indifferent to the weather as the weather was indifferent to the rest of the town. Padre Mateo beamed at them, but before he could speak Narcisa bounded forward and hugged the priest so tightly Aurelio feared for his life.
"Narcisa, it's you!" Padre Mateo said unnecessarily as soon as she released him. "How is your mother, dear girl? And Aurelio. I'm glad you could come, although I didn't really expect you."
Aurelio sheepishly reached up to rub the back of his head. "Actually, my parents don't know I'm here. But I did say I'd sweep the church and ring the bells for Mass, so here I am."
"He'd rather disobey his father than disobey you, Tio Mateo." Narcisa grinned toothily at Aurelio. "Besides, he takes his responsibilities very seriously. Not even the Japanese Army can stop him from doing his duty, like a good little soldier. Right, Eliong?"
Aurelio ground his teeth. Narcisa was making him look like a pompous stick-in-the-mud in front of Padre Mateo. Worse, she was doing so only by voicing out his thoughts of a few minutes ago. He didn't understand how this scrawny, annoying baby could read him so clearly. It was the height of injustice, as far as he was concerned.
"And don't you think he's brave, Tio?" Narcisa went on, ignoring Aurelio's rising temper and the slight glaze in the priest's eyes. "Nobody else would go wandering around town while there's a war going on. But not even war could scare Eliong away from his duty, oh no. Not even guerillas—"
"Shut up, Narcisa," Aurelio bit out.
She looked at him challengingly. "Why? It's the truth, isn't it?"
"For such a skinny brat you have such a big mouth—" he began heatedly but Padre Mateo interrupted him.
"That's enough, both of you. Naring, it's not polite to embarrass people, even if you are extolling his virtues." He gave her a knowing look, and she blushed and looked down at her feet. Padre Mateo then glanced at Aurelio, who stiffened as if expecting ridicule. But the priest simply sighed. "You're growing up so quickly. I'm starting to think you've gotten too old to be a sacristan, Eliong. You're getting too old for even those clothes you're wearing."
Aurelio glanced down at the too-small short pants and the shirt that belonged to Luisito and blushed. But instead of laughing at him, Padre Mateo regarded him with a mixture of sadness and something else he couldn't identify.
"I'll help him sweep the church, Padre," Narcisa announced during the lull. "I'll help him ring the bells, too. That way, he can go home sooner and won't have to catch hell from his parents."
"Mind your language, Naring," the priest said mildly. He looked beyond them, and the sadness in his face became more pronounced. Aurelio followed his gaze toward the low brick building visible from where they stood. A pair of flagpoles guarded the entryway, from which the Philippine flag and the flag of the Rising Sun hung limply in the non-existent breeze. A trio of Japanese soldiers stood guard in front of the building, looking uncomfortable but resolute in their tight khaki uniforms. One of them turned to his companion and pointed at the flags. The other soldier shook his head and they both laughed. These Japs, Aurelio thought dispassionately, who knew what went on in their heads? Then he noticed that the old priest had begun to look grim. "The Americans are here," Padre Mateo muttered. "They've begun the retaking of Manila. The Japanese Army will be on the move soon."
Aurelio looked at him in surprise. "How do you know, Padre? Has someone told you? You—" his voice dropped lower, "—you don't have a radio, do you?"
Padre Mateo shook his head. "No. But I can hear it in the wind."
"Padre, you're leaving tonight, aren't you?"
The priest's eyes shone with so much sadness and love it sent a pang through his own heart. "No, Eliong. I have to stay and serve God's children as best as I could. Like you, I take my responsibilities very seriously. But enough of this. An old man's ramblings are not worth listening to. Now go on, you two. I will join you shortly to begin the Mass, although I doubt many will be heeding the call of the bells this time."