Friday, November 29, 2013

Fiction by Guest Blogger, LINDA TY-CASPER, "In Place of Trees"

Dear Readers,
For a change of pace, I have a Guest Blogger, the highly-acclaimed Filipina author, Linda Ty-CasperHer numerous books are generally historical fiction, including The PeninsularsThe Three-Cornered Sun, Ten Thousand SeedsDread Empire, Hazards of Distance, Fortress in the Plaza, Awaiting Trespass, Wings of Stone, A Small Party in a Garden, and DreamEden. Linda shares with us "In Place of Trees," a short story set in the Philippines, immediately after World War II.  
~ Cecilia

Linda Ty-Casper
Copyright 2013 by Linda Ty-Casper, all rights reserved

He came out of the sun, onto the porch, with the shadows white on his dark face. "Where's your father, Boy," he asked, without telling me who he was, not making way for the woman who stood behind him on the lower step, a large man's watch on her right arm.
            "He's not here," I answered, staring at him, challenging him to know my name.
            "Your mother?"

            I ignored his question. I was the only one home and I was wondering if I could grapple him to the floor if he forced his way. The war had just ended and houses left standing in Manila were being broken into during the day. Before the war, we never locked our doors.
            Looking at my knee pants (I was not yet fourteen) the man took a step forward, allowing the woman to stand beside him on the porch. His face was long, too lean for his short body. It was easy to see that he would get fat again; that his dull skin would become shiny like that of wine proprietors.
            "May I sit down?" the woman asked, after placing herself deep in the green wicker chair. She was wearing mauve canvas shoes, the kind being distributed by American relief agencies. Too big for her and obviously similarly acquired, her dress was a heavy black cloth beaded in front and at the pockets. My mother at least had the pride to make over the dresses she got from UNRRA.
            After she sat down, how could I ask them to leave? They might have seen my mother leave ― every Friday she and my sisters walked to Quiapo to visit the Black Nazarene and kiss its hand ― knew I was alone, and had come to steal. They were now too far apart for me to watch their faces at the same time. I concentrated on him, searching for a distinguishing mark I could describe to the police. Acne pitted his neck with scars that looked like beach sand drying. The sleeves of his khaki jacket ― surplus American Army uniforms were being peddled on sidewalks ― reached halfway down his stubby fingers. I wondered where to hit him to repel his attack.
            "There used to be a kamachile tree in that corner." The man turned to the front yard where months before antiaircraft and machine gun shells lay scattered like strange seeds. Several neighbors were hit.  In places our roof was pierced. The sound of the corrugated iron tearing was the magnified screech of dog-fights in the sky.
            "Yes, I remember," the woman said. "You're right." Then she turned to face the other corner. "Was there not a mabolo there? No. It was a paradise tree with sweet pulpy fruit."
            How could they have known? Firewood was scarce during the Japanese occupation and, branch by branch, our trees were being hacked. We would wake up to find fresh sap dripping from wounded trunks and more sky visible from the windows, so that my mother decided to cut down the trees to sell at the gate in small bundles. Kindling was saved for our stove . . .  How could they know these? Nothing remained of the trees, for we even dug the roots.
            "And there was a guava tree in back, with small white fruits and pink seeds," the man said walking to the end of the porch to look around.
            I felt displaced when they began talking about my brothers, wondering when they came back from Bataan, comparing them to their own sons and remembering how they all played together as children and how they fought.  I could not recall the things they remembered about us. They could have been making it up, I thought, part of their game to make me trust.
            But I knew my brothers went to war. Late in December of forty-one we waited outside Intramuros until the red and black buses took them to the battle lines just before the Japanese entered Manila which had been declared an open city. I no longer recalled their names easily. It seemed so long ago since I called them Ben and Floro. The first time they went off to training camp they brought back stories about eating unwashed rice and burnt meat that floated in the sauce like beetles. Each time, they had returned blacked by the sun and hungry; but they learned to shoot, to clean and unlock real guns. At ROTC they had only wooden replicas to drill with.
            While the sun shaped the man's ears, outlining them against the sky, I recalled that my brothers sat humped in the back of the bus that was taking them to war; that they smiled but did not wave; that I wished I were going with them.  Everyone being left behind was crying. Their raised hands, intending to wave, clawed the air. When I raised my hand as my brothers' bus found its place in the long line, I found I was still holding on to the chicken adobo that was to be their baon in the war. We walked back slowly across the river. My mother appeared dazed walking on the Colgante that swung over the waterlilies flowing towards Manila Bay. The sun seemed to float on the round leaves.
            Distracted by my memories I had failed to see the visitors move to the chairs set against the house. Could their accomplice have entered through the back porch? Without asking me to confirm their stories, the two mentioned the green sofa and the curtains my mother sewed, the Philco above which hung my parents' wedding pictures, almost life-size in their pose, their teeth hidden behind their smiles.
            The man suddenly stood to walk to the top of the steps. Only then did I see my mother and my sisters at the gate.
            My mother who no longer entered through the front porch hesitated. Her veil covered her narrow shoulders. The holes enlarged by sunlight made her look as if her hair had fallen off in those spots.
            "Miguel. I'm Miguel! Don't you recognize me?" The man spread his arms out: but her stare stopped him from going down to where she stood. Dropping both arms to his sides, he looked back at the woman in the porch.
            My sisters stood behind my mother, holding on to their prayer books covered with Manila paper to save the binding. Eleven and twelve, they stood almost as tall as my mother. Thick braids hung alongside their necks like heavy strings of beads.
            Not wishing to be impolite, still trying to place the man's claim, my mother went up the steps of the porch halting as if she were the visitor. I could tell she could not recognize them as relatives for she did not ask us to kiss their hands; but eyes startled, she said, "I'm sorry I have nothing to offer you to eat?'
            "I understand," the woman said, smoothing the dark dress over her knees. "It's too soon to expect things to be good again." Then poised to reach, her hand finally pulled back and she held it on her lap.  I, too, had a devotion to the Black Nazarene," she smiled at my sisters who had followed up the steps. "It was He who saved Miguel from the war.  Every Friday, I walked on my knees to the altar, not stopping to rest even once. But now my legs are weak." She stretched out her right leg, bent down to press it at the ankle. Her finger left a reddish indentation there. "Could I have a glass of water?"
            Before my mother could reply, Alicia, the younger one named after my grandmother from Porac, went inside the house and soon returned with a glass neither sparkling nor cold. The icebox was the first thing sold during the war. In it we had cooled sarsaparilla for unexpected guests. On warm nights we shared a bottle while we sat on that porch, inhaling the champaca whose petals were still tightly curled after falling to the ground. I missed the odor of sawdust on which the block of ice rested, catching the drippings. I missed many things.
            The woman drank half the glass, which she then gave to the man who drank the rest promptly. "Water is so scarce, it's a shame to waste a drop. Where we rent now there is no water in the pipes. Where do you get water?" She sounded simple and artless.
            "Fermin fetches four cans in the morning. From the artesian well. Again in the evening." My mother looked up at me. I could not tell whether she took this opportunity to blame me for the visit, or to commend my efforts. Bullies were beginning to charge for the right to line up at the well, and there were no policemen.
            "I came to see Antonio," the man cut through the small talk. He now sat on the edge of his chair. Like dark flowers, the leaves of the vine that bore neither fruit nor flowers dropped their shadow between his feet.
            "Our house in Paco was burned. We are now renting a room at Callejon de la Fe." The woman pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket.
            The man sat farther forward. "I want to rent a room."
            "Not for us," the woman added. "But to use as his office. Miguel was a guerrilla, you know. He was called 'Colonel' by his men and they asked him to work for their recognition by the American army." She lifted her body proudly up, sitting taller than he. "Here, he can prepare their claims. I'm happy your house survived the war."
            "The sooner we are recognized, the better. Fake guerrillas who never left Manila, who even bought and sold war materials, have put in their claims. As I see it, America knows exactly how many helped defeat the Japanese. If the fake ones get ahead, those who really served will lose out." At this he hung his head and waited for my mother's reply.
            It did not come. Though she had been listening carefully, she could not decide without my father, who was in Porac to save the coconut trees his parents left him when they died in the war. My mother, who expressed an opinion on very few things refused to sell the house and return with all of us to Porac. "Wait at least until the children have finished their education. It was a sly refusal to leave for it would take Alicia fifteen years to become a doctor. Anita who liked to read was to become a teacher. I was to be an engineer.
            The man and the woman waited silently for the answer. They avoided each other's eyes, as if they wanted to save each other from my mother's decision.
            Finally, my mother found the words she wanted to say: "Antonio is not here. He will return in two months." Then she looked down on the floor, which had dried and splintered by being long unpainted.
            The woman dropped her shoulders and the beaded dress sagged with her body. The man reduced his plea for room. "Just this porch. The men will not enter the house. You can keep that door locked. Only this porch and I will pay thirty pesos a month."
            The offer made my mother lift her head. Everyone turned.
            She had always wanted me to study at the Mapua Institute of Technology, but until the coconut crop there was no money for tuition. "Only until Antonio returns," she said without smiling, a sigh escaping from her as if the decision was a rope being pulled out of her.
            I did not question her decision, although it was not mine. Her character had always been enough to support our conscience.
            "Is he in Porac?" the woman asked. "His mother, Mana Agusta, used to have us for vacations in her farm. I remember . . . "
            Looking away from the woman and the man, my mother began to cry large solid tears that made her eyes bulge. "Stella," she called out.
            The two held on to each other in the porch. Their dark clothes joined them as tightly as sap glued fighting beetles together back to back while children bet on which one would get itself upright and carry the other on its back. Mother broke away to ask, "Did you kiss your aunt's and uncle's hands?"
            "He already has," the man said, sparing me the act of humbling myself before I was ready for it.
            Instead of being grateful, I was angry that he would speak for me, and lie.

            "If it were Stella who had said she was your cousin, I would have recognized them," my mother was telling my father as they sat in the green wicker chairs in the front porch. "But it was he who said he is your cousin. Besides, you would not have recognized either one of them yourself."
            My father rarely claimed relatives. When the Americans were liberating Manila from Lingayen and fighting was expected in our neighborhood, he still refused to evacuate to Taft Avenue where his own brother lived. Luckily for us, he stalled: for that was one of the places where Japanese soldiers burned people out of their homes, using flame-throwers on those who ran out. My uncle's family died that way.
            Though his eyes were almost asleep, my father sat with us on the porch. It had taken him three days on an open boat ― mostly standing by day, at night squeezed between the cargo ― to come home from Porac. As if storing up our company for the next months when he would be away, he listened to us telling him what happened while he was away. I kept myself awake by listening to my sisters dropping cowrie shells on the chongca board, laughing whenever the other's last shell landed into an empty hole.
            Without trees, the moon looked abandoned in the sky. On such nights before the war, we played in the streets, kicking an empty can of milk, or playing tag or piko. But during the war, Japanese soldiers stood guard at street-corners. Their heavy boots kept us awake at night.
            During the day, the sentries forced people to bow low from the waist, even the old and women; as many times as would make them collapse. One day, searching for those who had escaped from Bataan and had become guerrillas, the Japanese brought the men in our street to the schoolhouse. My twin brother and I saw bodies hanging from the acacia tree where, before the war, flag ceremonies were held on Mondays. When I close my eyes, sometimes I still see the drops of blood below the men's feet.
            Now the street was very quiet. People had no time to talk and visit neighbors. Everyone was trying to accumulate again what they had lost. I walked down to the yard, which was kept clear of grass. To keep the men from walking on that part of the yard, my mother had planted a garden of rosals and sampaguita, azucena and pitimini. Nothing ornamental, but flowers with sweet odors.
            My mother walked down to where I stood. My father followed and both of them stood beside me, as if we all there were in the world.
            The light was falling softly, falling like rain where the earth was gently mounded.
            "They will not step on the flowers, will they?" she asked my father. Then she began to cry, speaking my brothers' names. "I don't even know where they lie buried …"
            Moved by what was happening, I offered to go to Porac with my father. “I don't have to go to school."
            "No."  My mother stopped crying. "No. Your father and I have had our lives and we must prepare for yours. I could also go to Porac but that will be the end of our dreams. The war took so much already …"
            "Time will pass quickly," my father said. "I will come home every three months. We will not be long separated. If only the war did not come.  If only the Japanese …" Like my mother, he spoke of the war that had just ended as if it was the source of everything that touched our lives.
            I remained in the yard after they left to go inside, hand in hand with my sisters. Trying to fix a purpose in my life, to deserve my parents' sacrifices, all I could sense were shadows although the moon, having climbed as high as it could, was very bright. All their hopes in their sons had to be fulfilled in me, and I did not know if my character was strong enough for the burden.
            At first it was only the Colonel and two men, and on the first day they brought an old desk as large as a bed with two drawers missing. They dragged it as if pulling a bull carabao by the horn. After it was carried up the porch steps, they could not decide where to place it. Finally, they centered it against the front door and there, in a swivel chair that did not match, the Colonel sat down to wait.
            We referred to him as the Colonel, because he gave himself so much importance; and to deny the arrangement any hint of kinship or support. My brothers died in the war, yet we did not intend to make any claim for them. "My sons died for their country," my father said to those who suggested he accept payment for their lives. "I will not ask America for money."
            While the arrangement had its novelty, my sisters walked slowly to and from the gate to watch the two men dusting the desk. They made a ritual of opening the drawers each morning, taking out pen and ink holder to center on the desk. By the time the Colonel arrived, the two had moved the swivel chair several times. The two also struggled over the right to open the gate for the Colonel, to take his briefcase, a battered one containing the Colonel's lunch which he shared with the two.
            Other men started coming. My sisters saw them signing papers, taking oaths right there on our front porch. They lounged on the steps, stood about whispering or smoking American cigarettes. Some looked ill. One fainted in the yard and my mother brewed him ginger tea and lent him a blanket, because he shook from the chills in midday. He said he was in the Death March to Capas.
            We soon enough got used to hearing strangers talking in our front porch, and stopped paying them any attention. But the man who fell ill often came around to the back porch. From him we learned what was happening. Noting the slow progress of mother's garden in the front yard, he offered some tufts of Bermuda grass and, himself, planted these in the ground that was so hard it could hardly absorb the rain. Only later did he tell us he had taken the grass from the Chinese cemetery.
            Intrigued by the scar on his chin, I finally asked him how he got it. A Japanese officer, he said, shot him in the face when he fell while being marched to concentration camp after the fall of Corregidor, then Bataan.
            Before we knew it, the Colonel had a jeep and a driver. Taller and younger men who spoke only English in the clipped accents of radio announcers flanked him constantly. They arrived and left with him. More men were coming. We could not close the windows to their laughter. My mother thought of erecting a fence along the front walk so they would not step on her garden. I was to strip bamboo for the fence.
            One afternoon while I was stripping a length of bamboo with an army knife, the Colonel came to the back porch surrounded by his aides. His face was shiny. His cap was freshly braided and there were insignias on his shoulder straps. Proudly he offered my mother the use of his jeep and driver. "Don't hesitate." He urged her. "Anytime I'm not using it."
            Overwhelmed by this generosity, my mother started to brew coffee; but the Colonel said they were going out to Dewey Boulevard ― across from the American Embassy ― for coffee and sandwiches. "Stella is looking for a house to buy," he said.
            Hearing this, my mother's face darkened. The rent was sending me to school, but she managed to ask, "How is Stella?" Then not knowing what else to say to someone so important that he always looked displeased, she offered coffee once more.
            "Not too bad," the Colonel shrugged off my mother's concern. "Some days are better than others." A lot of things could be inferred from the remark, but the Colonel did not specify. He went on to list the day's schedule. "Today, back to Malacanang to see the President; then to Camp Crame, after that to JUSMAG…" his voice trailed off into a yawn. Then he saw me, “How's the Boy?"
            "He's doing well, my mother answered." I let her speak for me, in case she wanted an opportunity to ask about the rent. She did.  "When you buy a house, you will be moving away …?"
            The Colonel touched the end of his cigar to the heel of one shoe. A flake at a time, the ash fell; forming a small heap on the back porch. "Not at all. This place is good luck for me. We'll soon be recognized as a unit. A mere matter of days. Even hours. In fact I may know today. Tell Antonio to file his papers with me. I'll vouch for him.It's only fair for what you lost in the war."
            "You are very kind," my mother said, without appearing to be grateful.
            "One thing more, Cousin," the Colonel turned from walking away. "Perhaps you will let me stretch a piece of canvas from the front porch to the fence so the men can wait in the shade. I will have your flowers moved to the side of the house. My men will be careful."
            My mother remained where she was standing, but to me it seemed as if she had run. Her eyes were bright and wet. Not able to speak, she turned around and pulled me to where she stood, strengthening herself with my body.
            The Colonel took off his cap, trying to absolve himself for making her cry. "But it's only a garden. Tell the men where you wish to move it." Looking at his aides, he smiled as if he had humored someone who was being unreasonable.
            "My brother is buried there." I spoke head one, without bothering to consider if it was right to share my mother's secret. She had placed no cross on the mounded earth so the authorities, unaware of the grave, would not order my brother to be moved from our yard. I realized then, that it was not I, nor my sisters who kept my mother in that house.
            "I didn't know." The Colonel put on his cap and, stepping on the ashes he had been dropping on the floor, left quickly with a trail of aides.
            My mother did not turn to see them leave. She remained against me, holding me; but I knew it was my brother she was trying to hold as she had held him where he fell, struck by shrapnel in the front yard. I remember the way she had looked up at the uncovered sky, saying in a voice that asked for judgment, "If I had not cut down the trees…"
            She called me to get a priest, but my father would not let me go. His arms were strong about me when I struggled. She held my brother until his wound no longer bled, while shrapnel and empty shells continued falling; until my father took Justo from her, and with my help, buried him in place of the trees.
            Though he was not able to get his shade, the Colonel added five pesos to the rent. His unit was not recognized that day, but it was as imminent as daybreak. More men came, willing to sign away part of their impending backpay. To ensure recognition important officials were being taken to nightclubs and bars, showered with imposing gifts ― all paid for by the men's contributions.
            While the Colonel's success was assured, we were begrudged our slight hopes. The first crop failed. My father had worked too long in Manila, teaching history in Mapa High, to know how to run his parent's farm. I began dreaming of giant beetles that blighted tree after tree after tree. Also, the army camp where I worked, from which we got fresh bread and butter in green cans, was being closed since the American soldiers were returning home or moving on to occupy Japan. I decided to ask the Colonel for help.  With all the officials he knew, he could recommend me for a job. It was time to humble myself.
            Then, no sooner did a thought occur to me than I acted upon it. With no clear idea of how to make the request or where to stand, I sought the Colonel in the front porch.
            I was surprised to see the Colonel at the desk because his jeep was not parked by the gate. Only a handful of men were in the porch.
            "Boy, how did you find out?" The Colonel's eyes were smudged with dust when he looked at me.
            I turned to the men for clues, but they all looked away.
            "I paid as much as the other units, threw as many parties. My aides, you saw them yourself, looked as smart as the best. Why then did we not get recognition? I love my country even more than the next man. If the Japanese had ordered me to haul down the flag, I would have refused quicker than Claudio, preferring to be shot." He turned in his swivel chair, keeping the arc of his movement tight. "The ones who knew me are dead. I helped blow the bridge at Santarem just as the Japanese were marching across, but the lieutenant who led us got killed there. How can I prove it, Boy?"
            He said more things, cursing the men who abandoned him for other units. Words tumbled out of his mouth with such bitterness that he had to belch.
            I stayed, out of respect, half listening and thinking of the opportunity I had lost by not thinking of asking for the favor while it was still in his power to grant.
            The next day I expected the Colonel not to come anymore. But he did. So did the man who fell ill in the yard. For some time, every day, the Colonel continued to come, wearing his insignias and shoulder straps. The two spent those days in the front porch, their faces worn and silent, whispering some conspiratorial dreams; and I, passing, walked by as quietly as I could, trying not to disturb their hopes.

Bio: Linda Ty-Casper is a highly-acclaimed Filipino writer. She was born as Belinda Ty in Manila, Philippines in 1931. Her father worked in the Philippine National Railways; her mother was a school teacher and textbook writer. It was her grandmother who told her stories about the Philippine struggle for independence, a topic she picked up in her novels. She has law degrees from the University of the Philippines and Harvard. However, erroneous and biased statements in books at Widener Library converted her into an advocate, through faithfully researched historical fiction, of Filipino's right to self-definition/determination.

Her numerous books are generally historical fiction. The Peninsulars centers on eighteenth-century Manila; The Three-Cornered Sun written on a Radcliffe Institute grant, deals with the 1896 Revolution; and Ten Thousand Seeds, the start of the Philippine American War. Contemporary events, including martial law years, appear in Dread Empire, Hazards of Distance, Fortress in the Plaza, Awaiting Trespass, Wings of Stone, A Small Party in a Garden, and DreamEden.

Her stories, collected in Transparent Sun, The Secret Runner, and Common Continent, originally appeared in magazines such as Antioch Review, The Asia Magazine, Windsor Review, Hawaii Review, and Triquarterly. One short story was cited in The Best American Short Stories of 1977 Honor Roll. Another won a UNESCO and P.E.N. prizes.

She has held grants from the Djerassi Foundation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Wheatland Foundation. She and her husband, (literary critic and professor emeritus of Boston College) Leonard Casper, reside in Massachusetts. They have two daughters.

Linda Ty-Casper's three novels set in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship (Wings of Stone, A Small Party in a Garden, Awaiting Trespass) --are available in Kindle ( and Nook (Barnes and Noble): 

1943: Tiya Octavia 

All for now,

tags: Philippines, Philippine, literature, fiction, historical fiction, short story, author, writer, Linda Ty Casper

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