Tuesday, July 9, 2013

F. Sionil Jose and my Fiction- The Old Mansion Near the Plaza, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Just got back from a lovely 2 1/2 hour lunch with Philippine National Artist, F. Sionil Jose, (click here for more information about him). We barely sat down in the Kashmir Restaurant, which is near the Jose's famous Solidaridad Bookshop, when Frankie informed me that the July issue of the Philippine Graphic includes a work of mine.  Oh, I said, I emailed a novel excerpt but never heard back from them.  Well, apparently they accepted it and published it. Thank you Editor-in-chief, Joel Pablo Salud!

So for a change of pace, I'm sharing my work of fiction with my readers.  This comes from my third novel which is still in progress. Read it when you have a chunk of time, and when you want to travel back in time to 1909 to a Spanish Colonial place, called Ubec, in the Philippines. (Click here for more information re Ubec.)

The Old Mansion Near the Plaza: A Novel Excerpt
Copyright 2013  by Cecilia M. Brainard

Ubec, 1909
            Juan dela Cruz lived in a mansion that once belonged to two spinsters who allowed children to pick fruit from their orchard. When Ines was a child, she and the other children used to pick the succulent pink tambis fruit from a prolific tree that grew right next to the second-story verandah. She had fond memories of the place. One May day when Ines was around eight, she and five other girls had stopped by the house. They came from the cathedral where they had practiced for the Flores de Mayo procession, a religious devotional celebrating the finding of the Holy Cross by Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. Ines and the other girls were the angels who escorted the biblical characters, two dozen of them, including the Queen of Sheba, Queen Judith, Queen Esther, Cleopatra, St. Veronica, the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Virgin Mary, Mary mother of James), and so on, culminating with the most important character, Queen Helena, a role that the matrons of Ubec vied for. It was quite a production, this Flores de Mayo, with women angling for the title, and spending a lot of money for their gowns. They even brought out their heirloom diamonds for the occasion. For weeks before the Flores de Mayo, the girls attended the afternoon rehearsals in church, after which they amused themselves until suppertime.
It had been a particularly hot day and there Ines and the girls stood in front of the mansion’s gate, sweaty and thirsty. The youngest among them held out a bunch of magnolias, recently picked from someone else’s garden. Somehow generations of children knew that they were always welcome in this household; and indeed, the spinsters invited the girls in, accepted the magnolias, and handed the children tall glasses of cold tamarind juice, which the girls gulped down shamelessly. After, the girls turned the glasses in their hands to study the animal they got that day; each glass was hand-painted with the picture of an animal. Ines got the tiger, and oh, she still remembered running her finger around the outline of that beautiful striped tiger! After collecting the beloved glasses, the sisters handed out woven baskets and sent the girls up to the verandah with instructions not to fall off the railing. It was a bit of paradise up there, with tenacious succulents in Chinese blue and white pots, a moss-covered fountain, three plantation chairs, and most important, the tambis tree that hung over the back portion of the verandah. They didn’t even have to climb; all they had to was reach out and pluck all the fruit they wanted. They ate while they gathered fruit and Ines remembered the pleasant feel of the waxy cover and the delight of sweet juice when her teeth sank into the spongy pulp. When their stomachs felt like bursting, they rolled out rainbow-colored woven mats, which the sisters also kept upstairs, and the girls lay on the floor to watch the clouds floating by. Look, they cried, there’s an elephant; look, a giraffe; and over there, a zebra; and oh look, there’s an angel!
These memories were in the mind of Ines as she and Melisande approached the mansion. Ines wondered if, three decades later, the tambis tree was still alive. She felt some apprehension, not knowing what to expect. Her memories were so precious, and the house and plants in the property had been neglected for decades. Surely there would be nothing left to verify her dear memories. When the last sister died, the house was boarded up for years while distant relatives bickered over ownership. But at the turn of the century, the matter was sorted out, and news spread that a composer and dancer bought the place. People assumed the couple would be husband and wife, and there was a collective hush when two young men moved in, one Filipino and the other a Catalan from Spain. But times were difficult then, with the Spaniards going and the Americans coming, and with more pressing things to worry about, Ubecans shrugged and decided the two were business partners. There the matter ended.
The decaying house had been gray-white in color, but now it was bright terracotta with blue trim, the complementary colors giving the house a startling look.  When Ines and Melisande entered the gate, a free-standing wall with elaborate carving blocked their way, and they had to go around the structure to reach the front doors. “That’s new,” Melisande said, pointing out the unusually placed wall.
Ines was surprised at the changes. In the olden days, the sisters had maintained classically-designed gardens throughout the huge property: flower beds in one section, bushes in another, fruit orchard in the back, vegetable garden near the kitchen. Walkways had been clearly defined, and clusters of chairs and tables nestled strategically under shade trees. Now, flowering hibiscus, frangipani, bird of paradise, and countless other plants grew in a haphazard way, that was, to the surprise of Ines, pleasing. She felt she had walked into a forest, with colorful song birds flitting about, lured no doubt by the flowing fountains and watermelon seeds on hand-painted trays.
A young woman dressed in a flowing white dress opened the front door. Barefoot, she quietly led them to a room that looked like a greenhouse filled with potted orchids. Ines and Melisande stood there, gazing at the impressive orchid collection, when Juan dela Cruz entered the room, waving copies of The Ubec Daily and The Light. With theatrical flair, he said, “Dust off the Judas cradle and iron maiden! Bring out the rack, the chair of torture, the breast ripper, and the head crusher—the Grand Inquisitor, the Dominican, Tomas de Torquemada, lives!”
            He kissed Melisande on the cheek and he also gave Ines a peck on the cheek. Juan was in his early thirties; he wore red silk pants and a homespun white top that tied in front. His hair was long, and he wore six rings. “I am not angry at you Mrs. Maceda. You only reported what the Fernandez brothers said. By the way, Mrs. Maceda, your paper’s article with the picture of Father Zobel was better than the other one. Did Inquisitor Borja pay The Light to write about him?”
And before the young woman disappeared down the hall, he instructed her to bring something to eat and drink.
Addressing Ines and Melisande, he said, “Sit down, sit down.”
The rattan chairs had cushions covered with zebra print.
            Juan continued talking, “When I read the newspapers, I knew the Inquisition would start all over again. Don’t you agree with me, Melisande? I told Esteban, we’ll soon be back to lacerating flesh and crushing bones so the marrow gushes out. Beat, suffocate, strangle, burn, mutilate—”
            “Stop it, Juan!” Melisande said, laughing. She was very animated and at ease with the banter. Ines, who was used to more formal behavior, was not sure how to behave, and so she sat quietly, with her hands by her side.
            “It’s amazing how much creativity and money actually went into torture tools. Consider the iron maiden. In Spain it was shaped like the Virgin Mary. Imagine that, involving our Mother Mary with torture! Double doors opened in front so the victim could be placed inside. Eight spikes protruded from one door; thirteen from the other door. Once the victim was inside, the doors were closed so the spikes could pierce the victim. Note that the spikes were not long, so the victim did not die quickly but bled to death slowly.”
            “That is gruesome, Juan, stop, or else Ines and I will leave.” Melisande had folded her arms in front of her and she was pouting.
Juan was strutting around the greenhouse as she continued, “And there’s the garrote, an all-time Spanish favorite, used for capital punishment in Spain. Even the American military government availed of the garrote for executions. The principle behind garroting is simple: crush the larynx while applying pressure to the victim’s back. All you need is a chair with a back rest and a neck clamp which can be tightened by crank, wheel, or hand, thereby strangling the victim.
            “It’s an art not to kill someone too fast.” He paused for effect, before sitting down with them.
            Melisande crinkled her nose in disgust. Changing the topic, she asked, “What is that wall for, in front of the gate?”
            “That is what the Balinese do to prevent evil from entering their homes. Evil is blocked off at the entrance. We put it up after evil entered out house and took away the priest last January.”
“Stop scaring Ines. I brought her here so we can talk about her son and the advertisement. You haven’t changed your mind, have you? I will be very angry with you, if you have.”
            Mi amor, of course I’m buying the advertisement. Mrs. Maceda, count me in. And as for your handsome son, we need him just for coronation night? One night, that is all. That is, if Inquisitor Antonio Borja doesn’t throw me in jail.”
            Turning to Ines, Melisande explained, “Last January, after the priest disappeared, the police interrogated Juan.”
 Mi amor, you fail to mention that the interrogation was by Inquisitor Borja no less. Our chief of police was rough, and not the way I like rough to be.” Juan rolled his eyes up, and Melisande laughed again.
“The Inquisitor would have used water torture on me—the all-time favorite of the Americans—if my father were not Rum King. Borja had two men ready to pin me down. Usually I like men near me, but when they have buckets of water with them, I was terrified! I told them, ‘Gentlemen, my father is the owner of Sandoval Rum! If you inflict even a little scratch on me, you will pay dearly!’” Juan crossed his legs, picked up a fan from a chair and proceeded to fan himself.
“You are too dramatic, Juan. I’m going off to see Esteban. Where is he?” And turning to Ines, she said, “Talk to him. I’ll be back.”
Ines cleared her throat and began, “You’ll have to ask my son about being an escort. And about the advertisement, we’ll give you a discount of course…”
“Mrs. Maceda, don’t worry. I’m buying space from now until the end of the carnival. I’ll stop by your office to pay and I’ll talk to your editor about the copy. Right now, I’m terrified that people will start accusing me for the priest’s murder. After reading the articles, I said, ‘Excuse me, are we going to do this again?’”
“We meant only to publish the truth,” Ines said. She was alarmed at the idea that a man could be unjustly accused because of something The Ubec Daily printed. How could something go wrong when truth is revealed?  Didn’t Pablo say, “Some people think God is Truth, Truth God.” How could anything go wrong, if God is involved?
The young woman in white had reappeared and she set a tray in front of them with glasses of lemoncito drink and a bowl full of tambis fruit, the sight of which made Ines’ mouth water. “Is this from your tree?” Ines asked.
Juan nodded. He put the fan down, picked up a fruit, and handed this to Ines.
“When I was a girl, the other children and I used to visit the sisters who lived here. There was a tambis tree in the back. Is it still alive? It would be over thirty years old now.” Ines bit into her fruit. It was crisp and juicy and sweeter than she remembered the fruit to be.
“The tree is thriving. It’s grown tall under our care. We can take a look after you’ve had your drink,” Juan said. “But as I was saying, I am weary of the dirty looks and accusations. People are cruel, Mrs. Maceda. When they think a person’s down, they don’t extend a hand to help the person up; they flex their leg and throw a kick, hoping to finish off that person.”
Her own experience showed her how generous and kind people had been to her. Generally she thought it was rude to disagree with people, but now she spoke up, “People like Melisande have been kind to me, Mr. Cruz.”
“Melisande and a few other people here and there, do not make up the majority. Most people are afraid of something different, and as you can see, I am different.” He swept his hands down his side to make his point.
“I have paid a steep price for being myself, Mrs. Maceda. I had to leave Manila because Manileños can throw deadly kicks very well. The hypocrisy, the back-stabbing, it’s beyond imagination! If you’re finished with your drink, Mrs. Maceda, we can go up to the verandah and I’ll continue my story.”
They left the greenhouse and went up wide stairs to a huge living room. In the past, the spinster sisters had European-style tables and chairs arranged in formal groupings in this room. There were heavy drapes and the overall atmosphere was somber. Near the window they had a long mahogany table where they spent many hours making rosaries. The sisters gave the rosaries away as part of their charity work.
Now, the heavy drapes were gone and windows were opened wide, allowing a sweet breeze to flow in and out the huge room. The European-style furniture had also been replaced with local wood furniture with elaborate carvings. As if reading her thoughts, Juan said, “I find European furniture and décor vulgar. Work by our own craftsmen is practical and beautiful. Look at this intricate carving. This will cost a lot of reales in Spain.”
Ines noted that the mahogany work table of the sisters was gone and in its place stood a handsome Kimball grand piano with a walnut finish. A table nearby had song sheets scattered on top. Juan paused near the piano and said, “This is where I work.” He ran his fingers over the ivory keys and played a few lively notes, filling the room with lightness and joy.
Later, as he led Ines to the adjoining verandah, he said, “I have been very productive here in Ubec. Were the former owners also productive here?”
Ines was not sure how productive the sisters had been because they had led a quiet life that ebbed and flowed with the rainy season and the dry, meaning, they went to church, and they helped their neighbors, and they were kind to the children, and they followed the seasonal rituals of the community. They lived their lives and then they died. Ines said, “They were not composers like you, but I believe their lives were full.”
Ines was happy to see that the fountain was still there. The potted plants and wrought iron chairs were different, but the place still looked like the verandah of her childhood. Juan led Ines to the back where broad branches of the tambis tree provided shade. As they approached, some birds flew away from their reach. The branches were studded with the pink bell-shaped fruit, and Ines noted that indeed the tree had grown taller and bigger. They sat on two chairs under the tambis tree and when they looked down over the railing, they saw Melisande and a lithe, muscular man doing the fandango.  He was humming a tune and now and then he called out, “Step, step, twirl the hand, turn. One, two, three, twirl the hand, turn.”
“That is Esteban,” Juan said, proudly. He waved at Esteban and Melisande before settling into his chair. “Before I tell you about him, we have to go back in time to when I lived in Manila. My father wanted me to go to business school so I would take over his rum business. He also wanted me to marry the daughter of his business associate.  It was Juan this, Juan that. Juan follow your father’s footsteps.  The problem was: I was not my father.
“I am curious, Mrs. Maceda. You have this beautiful son. Would you like him to follow his father’s footsteps?”
Ines considered the question and as much as she loved Pablo, she didn’t necessarily want Andres to become a Literature Professor. “I would want him to be himself. I want him happy,” Ines said.
“Well said, Mrs. Maceda. Mama shared the same thoughts. She sold some jewelry to pay for my passage to Spain and she sent money regularly so I could attend the Reial Academia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi, where I studied fine arts and music. Not business school, thank God.”
He had gotten up and he plucked two ripe fruit from an overhead branch. “Barcelona saved my life,” he said, handing one fruit to Ines, and he bit into the other. While they ate their fruit, Ines was transported to the summer days of her childhood. Life had been very simple then. “As a child, I spent many pleasant hours here,” Ines said.
“It is a lovely spot. We have given the tree and all the plants here a lot of love,” Juan said, opening up his arms. “Esteban and I have a lot of love to share.”
“You and Esteban met in Barcelona,” Ines said, prodding him to continue his story. She was surprised at how forward she was becoming to get information.
“Is he not a beautiful man, Mrs. Maceda? Look at him, down there. Tall and strong and agile. He could have joined the St. Petersburg Company, but he chose to be with me.”
The two dancers were now doing a lively jota, which had a faster rhythm than the fandango; beads of perspiration shone on their faces. Out in the yard, two gardeners had dug a hole and were planting a jackfruit tree.
Juan closed his eyes. “I met Esteban one autumn afternoon at the Plaza de Catalunya, on my way to my boarding house. For some reason, a flock of pigeons suddenly rose up to the sky, and I stopped dead in my tracks to watch them flutter up, turning the sky gray. When they were gone, there in front of me was Esteban, like an apparition.  He was staring back at me.”
He stopped, allowing her to take in the image. He opened his eyes and straightened his spine against the chair.  “I will not bore you with the details of our romance, Mrs. Maceda, because I can see from your widow’s clothing that you are conservative and I don’t want to test your limits.
“And by the way, Mrs. Maceda, if you wore some color and did a little something with your hair, a few wisps here and there to soften the face, you’d look fantastic, like our beautiful Melisande down there.” He flicked his fingers here and there to indicate where the wisps of hair ought to be.
Ines felt her face flush.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you, but it’s a waste when a handsome woman chooses to be drab.” He went right on, “If I could have lived in Barcelona with Esteban forever, I would have. I could walk down La Rambla without people doing a double take; I could be with other musicians and artists, without the gossiping that followed.”
“But your family, did you not miss them?” Ines said. She didn’t think she could survive if she were separated from her family. Ines’ mother, who lived in Carcar, was a train-ride away.
“Yes, and no, Mrs. Maceda. It was a very complicated situation. If I could have fulfilled their wishes, I would have done so, except they were asking me to be someone I was not. At some point, Mama wrote and said she could no longer send me money. But she reminded me that I am the only son of my father, and it didn’t matter whether he approved about my lifestyle or not, I am still his heir. And so Esteban and I abandoned Barcelona, but not for Manila, for Ubec.”
Ines smiled. “Ubec is not Barcelona.”
Juan laughed. “I will remember to tell Esteban that ‘Ubec is not Barcelona.’ He will find that amusing.”
Ines had to admit to herself that Juan, red silk pants and all, was a charming man. She had heard that he was very talented and could have made a name for himself anywhere in the world.
In a more serious tone, Juan said, “My parents were relieved we chose to live here. They didn’t have to listen to what Manileños had to say about us daily. It is better this way, Mrs. Maceda. In fact, my relationship with my parents has improved.  My mother quietly visits me now and then; and I do the same, secretly seeing her in Manila perhaps once a year.”
“And your father?” asked Ines. When Ines’ father died years ago before the revolution, and even though she was already married to Pablo at the time, Ines missed him terribly.
Juan became somber. “We do not see each other, but he is generous with his money.”
He was thoughtful for a long time as he finished eating his fruit.
“I am sure he loves you,” Ines offered. She was certain that he did, but that pride or some other nonsense kept him from displaying his affection to his son.
He nodded, then said, “Going back to Father Zobel, I am seriously afraid that I will be blamed for his murder. Unfortunately, I was one of the last who saw him alive.”
Ines listened carefully. This was a continuation of the murder case that she and Felix were keeping track of.
“Let me tell you right now, Mrs. Maceda—I did not kill that priest! I may have wanted to, but I did not kill him. I have always believed that when one does good, one generates good. It works the same way for evil. If one commits evil acts, one promulgates evil. That priest was evil, Mrs. Maceda.”
Just then a gust of wind blew, knocking some fruit to the verandah floor. Esteban and Melisande continued laughing downstairs, but her conversation with Juan had taken on a serious turn.
“Father Zobel wanted Esteban and me to participate in an illegal land deal. He asked us to lend our names as buyers of the friar land near the church. His plan was that the land would continue to be run by his religious order; in a few years, the names on the titles would be switched back from ours to the religious order.”
Ines said, “Did you agree to the land deal? This would be off-the record.”
“Of course not!” Juan hit the table for emphasis. “I knew Father Zobel’s proposal was wrong. I told him so. I told him Esteban and I were honest people, but he insisted, saying everyone was doing this.
“Then he started screaming, and this is what he told Esteban and me, ‘You call yourselves honest people? And you dare talk of fraud. You are fraud. You and your Spanish friend here are frauds, masquerading as friends when everyone knows what abomination is going on.’ He hurled ugly words at me and Esteban.”
Juan was pacing back and forth.  “His words stung. You see, Esteban and I had always welcomed him to our Sunday dinners. We treated him like a family member. My anger percolated until it boiled over and I threw him out of my house. I told him he was no longer welcome here. I didn’t care that he was a priest; he could have been the pope himself, I didn’t want him in our house. I said things that I shouldn’t have but I was very angry and I wasn’t thinking properly.”
He had gotten hold of a long stick with a forked end, which was used to poke fruit off the tree.  In his anger, Juan broke it in half. “The truth is this: Esteban and I heard terrible things about him, but I’m not going to repeat them to you, that’s for you to look into if you really believe in truth and justice as your newspaper motto states, ‘Veritas Aequitas.’
“Imagine, Mrs. Maceda, we scolded people for talking ill about him: that is just gossip; you must not spread those lies. He is a priest. He sacrificed his life by leaving Spain to serve the people here. And so on, ad nauseum, we protected that demon. I would not be surprised if the murderer was one of those he had wronged.”
He was breathing heavily and it took a while before he composed himself. In a calmer demeanor, he said, “Be sure and bring tambis home with you. Come help me pick fruit, Mrs. Maceda, your childhood fruit.” They stood on chairs to pluck the fruit and they quickly filled two woven baskets, one for Ines and one for Melisande.
Soon, Esteban and Melisande appeared, perspiring but happy from their dancing. Esteban strode to Ines, gallantly bent over, and kissed her hand. He had yellow hair and his skin was as translucent as pure beeswax. Unlike Juan, he was soft-spoken and reserved. Esteban pressed the women to stay for lunch, but Melisande and Ines excused themselves saying they had work to do. He told them he made callos and paella the way his Catalan grandmother did, and that they should come over one Sunday night for dinner. They did not have to worry, he assured them, because Juan and he had already put up the wall in front of the gate, to deflect evil from their house. 
-end of novel excerpt-
Copyright 2013 by Cecilia Brainard, all rights reserved

tags: fiction, Philippine literature, The Philippine Graphic, story, novel, Cecilia Brainard, Ubec, Cebu


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