Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fiction by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard: TALKING ABOUT THE WOMAN IN CHOLON

Dear Readers,
For your weekend reading, I'm sharing a chapter from my novel, Magdalena -- "Talking About the Woman in Cholon."

Magdalena is my second novel, and when I started writing it, I thought it would unfold as my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept did, that is in a more linear fashion.  When the Rainbow Goddess starts at the beginning of World War II and ends when that war ends.

When I insisted on writing Magdalena in a linear fashion, it got boring; even I got sleepy while working on it!  At some point I gave up and decided I didn't have a novel, and I tried to salvage parts of the manuscript by turning them into short stories.  After I had several of these "short stories" I realized these could be chapters of a novel after all --- and thus did the novel Magdalena come about.

The novel  Magdalena received strong reviews, including a book review by Kathleen Flanagan in World Literature Today, and another by Luisa Igloria for Melus (Vol 29, No. 1)  Magdalena inspired the playwright Jocelyn Deona de Leon to write a stage play, Gabriela's Monologue, which was produced in 2011 by the Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco as part of Stories XII! annual production showcasing original works for the stage by Pilipino/Filipino American Artists.

Magdalena is described as "a powerful novel about the lasting effects war has on people’s lives. Playing with time and point of view, multi-award author, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, explores the loves and secrets of three generations of women in the Philippines from the time of the Philippine American War, World War II, and Vietnam War."

Enjoy this chapter from my novel, Magdalena~~~Cecilia 

Talking About the Woman in Cholon
NATHAN WANTED to see Magdalena before leaving. He drove to the child care center, bringing with him a small package, his birthday gift for her. He found her seated on a rocking chair, holding a baby in her arms.

He watched quietly by the nursery’s doorway. Sunshine was streaming through the open window and a bit of light hit the back of her hair so it shone like ebony. She was playing with the baby. It was a pleasant scene and it evoked happiness in him. More than that it culled up deep feelings of longing to be with her always.

He did not call her; he took in the sight of her whispering nonsensical words to the infant, telling him how sweet he was, sweeter than cane sugar, sweet enough to eat. The baby gurgled and reached up to touch Magdalena’s nose. Magdalena pretended to bite the baby’s fingers; the baby laughed. Magdalena laughed, throwing her head back, and then she saw him. “You’re here,” she said, smiling. “Come in.”

She got up to meet him, the baby still in her arms. She swung the child in front of her; the baby laughed. “He’s just being silly,” Magdalena said. “He’s not hungry any more. He’s just playing.”

She glanced around, and seeing no one around, gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Sit down,” she said. “I’ll be done in just a second.” She put the bottle on a table and placed the baby on his belly on a mat on the floor. She patted the baby’s back to quiet him down. Two other babies were sleeping, one of them snoring softly.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said when the baby settled down.

“I have to leave soon.”

“Oh,” she said, dejected. “Guam?” she continued, in a hopeful tone.

He shook his head. “Nam.”

“And you can’t tell me where in Vietnam you’re going,” she said in a resigned tone. She sat down beside him and glanced out the window at a bougainvillea vine struggling to survive the city’s polluted air.

“Top secret.” Nathan could not say he would be part of a forty-plane strike into North Vietnam, to the Haiphong harbor, where Russian and Chinese ships docked and which was therefore a major military supply source. He could not tell her that after a briefing, he and his squadron would leave, and then in Nam they would be joined by a number of fighter planes. Some of the fighter planes would fly ahead to knock out SAM sites that might affect the B-52s. Early in the morning, the forty planes would launch against heavily defended Haiphong to hit truck parts, SAM sites, AAA emplacements, storage areas, and other military targets.

 “Do you want something cold to drink?” she offered.

He shook his head and glanced at his watch. “I can’t stay long.”

“When will you be back?”

“I’ll try and get back Thursday for your birthday.”

“I hate it when you’re gone,” she said.

“I’ll be back soon.”

“I always imagine the worse. All the news about Vietnam, I can’t help it. But you will be back Thursday — won’t you?”

“I’ll try.” He had been hiding the small package, but now he handed it to her. “This is for you, in case I don’t make it back.”

She turned the small package in her hands. It was wrapped in red shiny paper with a large gold bow that had been squashed.

“Open it.”


“I want to see if you like it.” 
She removed the ribbon and peeled off the wrapping and opened a jewelry box. Inside lay a gold bracelet with little animal charms. She smiled and lifted the bracelet so the charms dangled and swayed. She had the sensation of being a child and looking at a new toy for the first time.

“Try it on,” he said.

“It’s not too young for me?” Her eyes sparkled with delight at the little gold animal charms.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “The charms remind me of you. See the goldfish? It’s jointed. And there’s one of a monkey. Of a turtle too. I thought of you when I saw the bracelet. The children will love it,” he said, looking at the sleeping infants on the mats on the floor.

The goldfish wobbled and caught the sun’s rays. She sucked in her breath. “It’s pretty,” she said. “Where did you find it?” She put it on her left wrist; he helped her with the clasp.

“Near the Cholon district.”

She lifted her left arm in the air and shook the bracelet so the charms scattered little shards of sunlight all around them.

“The last time I was in Saigon, I saw a woman wearing one just like it.”

“Where?” she asked, looking at him from the corner of her eyes.

“At the Cercle de Sportiff Club. We were with some USAID guys, talking shop.”

“I see.”

“Aren’t you going to ask what we talked about?”

“Okay, what did you talk about?”

“We had this heavy discussion about why, except for the Civil War, why the United States fights its wars in other people’s backyards. Important stuff like that.”

“ And the woman, was she part of your group?”

“Oh, no. She was with another woman. They were having lunch. We were all out on the terrace, near the pool.”

“So that’s what you do when you’re away? Having lunch by the pool of a club.”

“No, that’s not what I always do when I’m away.” He laughed, chucking her chin.

She smiled, embarrassed at his gesture of intimacy. “So what happened?”

“To what?”

“The woman . . . the bracelet.”

“Nothing. She and her friend were eating and I noticed her bracelet.”

“You were looking at her.”

“Just her bracelet.”

“Was she pretty?”

“One question at a time. You asked what happened. When they were having their coffee, I went to their table and asked her where she got it.”

“You did not.”

“I introduced myself first.”

“She may have thought you were picking her up. Was she pretty?”

“Slender, with hair down to her waist. She was wearing a red oa dais.”

“A red oa dais — how exotic. Was she pretty?”

He paused, puckered his lips as if in deep thought. “If I answer that question, I could get in trouble.”

“She was pretty then.”

“I was interested only in her bracelet. I went up to her and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you and your friend, but I couldn’t help noticing your bracelet. Do you mind if I ask where you got it? I’d like to get one for my fiancee.’”

“Was she . . . beautiful?”

“I’m not going to answer that question.”

“Did you really say ‘fiancee’?”

“Yes, I did. She spoke French. Her English was not too great, but we managed to communicate. She figured that all I wanted was the name of the store. That same day I went to the Cholon district. Do you like it?”

She lifted her left arm and moved her hands back and forth so the charms clicked together. “It makes me feel sixteen.”


“I’m not sixteen. Do you know that in the Chinese way of counting, I’ll be twenty-seven? How old was the woman in the red oa dais?”

“Older than you.”

“And pretty, she was pretty, wasn’t she? That’s why you won’t tell me.”

“Not pretty at all. She had warts all over her face.”

She made a face and laughed. “What’s Saigon like? Tell me what it’s like.”

“Saigon is . . . Saigon. It’s a city, and it’s crowded. There are motorbikes, jeeps, trucks, taxicabs, and xich-los. You have the Cercle Sportif Club where you can have an elegant chateaubriand meal; and then you have the Thanh-Bich Restaurant where you can eat com be tet, brown fried rice and a small piece of steak with a large egg over the top, mixed vegetables, a bowl of greens, and nuoc-mam fish sauce to pour over everything. It’s just Saigon.”

“Is it safe there?”

“As safe as Ubec.”

“Not that safe then. You have to know where to go and where not to go.”

“It’s safe enough.”

“I’ll wait for you Thursday.”

“Don’t wait for me. I may be late.”

“I will wait for you.”

“Has anyone ever told you how bullheaded you can be?”

“What time, Thursday?”

“I’m not sure. Late, if we leave that day. But I may have to go to Bien-Hoa, so don’t wait for me.”

“Thursday, then, on my birthday. I’ll see you on my birthday.”

“I’ll try. I’ll see you when I get here. I love you. Do you love me?”

“You know I do. Don’t kiss me, someone may see us. But I love you. I’ll wait for you.”

Nathan left, carrying with him the image of Magdalena seated by the window, holding the baby. It was the last image that stayed with him even as the North Vietnamese fighter planes hit his B-52.

~end novel excerpt~

tags: Philippines, Philippine, Filipino, fiction, literature, fiction, novel, book, author, writer, Vietnam War

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