Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Excerpt from My Novel-in-Progress, "Christmas Eve"

I'm sinking back into my novel, folks. It's like Time Travel. I have to go far away in time and place.

Here's an excerpt of a chapter from my novel-in-progress that was accepted for publication by the journal, Tomas 3 (University of Santo Tomas, 2014). The journal should be out soon.

Thanks Ralph Semino Galan for accepting my work.

From "Christmas Eve: A Novel Excerpt"
by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Copyright 2014 by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

TIME HAD taken on a rubber quality, stretching here and there, never fixed despite the insistent tick-tocking of the Grandfather clock in their living room. Jose had lost all notion of what day or time it was, and he slept and awoke at strange hours. It was Fernanda who declared that they should “join the world.” Earlier that day she had taken out her pearl jewelry and gold hair comb and she had put on a long skirt and a crisp hand-embroidered blouse of gossamer pineapple fabric. He was surprised by this, her fixing of herself, her declaration that she was ready to relinquish her mourning. For over four months, they had shared a cocoon of darkness and dread, confining themselves to their house, avoiding people, even his parents, sending out their servant, their sole umbilical cord to the world. During that time, they said very little to each other, but they shared a bond that was to some degree like a balm.

Before they left their house on Colon Street, Fernanda threw a shawl over her shoulders. She was in black, stark as a fruit bat, and the blackness of her clothing made her skin appear chalk-white. He had always found her fair skin attractive, but this December night, it was unearthly; she could have been a fearsome enchanted being from the forest. 

When they entered the church doors, the sacristans were scurrying about, lighting the candles in the tall silver candelabra on the altar. They were early but the church was almost full. The pews and benches were occupied by women and children. The mothers, grandmothers, and spinster aunts waved at friends and neighbors, kissed relatives on the cheeks, talked about food they had abandoned back home, the half-done chicken and fish rellenos, the pastel de lengua, the piquant goat stew, and Chinese hams, which they had entrusted to their servants to finish and serve on silver platters —they worried about their Noche Buena meal after the midnight Mass. They admired the altar with its seventeenth century silver retablo that glowed silvery-gray. The children, whose skin looked raw from having been scrubbed clean, wore shiny taffetas, fine cotton, and lace. The girls looked like miniatures of their mothers, with long skirts and loose blouses, and they too wore heirloom filigree jewelry; they even had tortoise combs with gold and pearls anchored on top of their heads, like coronets. The older ones searched for their friends, arms flapping upward when they caught sight of them, and thrusting their chests out, hoped their new clothes would be noticed and admired. The young ones wriggled about near their mothers, some of them gumming homemade sweets, their attention focused on the nativity set on the right side of the altar. They stared at the manger and figurines of Mary, Joseph, the angel, the three kings with their camels, some shepherds with their sheep. It was the empty crib they studied most of all, with a hankering since they had been waiting for weeks for the Child Jesus to be placed in it. A girl with a shrill voice talked about her dream of Mary appearing with the Baby in her arms, and how Mary had handed the Baby for her to hold. There was laughter, then sudden silence.

The chattering ceased when they entered the pew; he didn't have to lift his head to know that all eyes were riveted on them. Staring at the tiled floor beneath him, he told Fernanda he would join the men outside, and without waiting for her answer he slipped away.  Before leaving the church, he turned and caught sight of Fernanda talking to the girl with the shrill voice. He furrowed his brow and wondered how she could carry on as if nothing were wrong.

The men huddled under the centenarian acacia tree, smoking their cigars to ward off the night chill. They did not share the giddiness of the women and children. They had carried the brunt of the expenses for the new clothes, shoes, decorations, food, and holiday riff-raff, and they dreaded the financial consequences in mid-January. The same thing happened when Jose joined them: the men grew quiet; they paused, shifted their weight, and some coughed as if clearing their throats. Finally someone mentioned the new electric lights being put up by the Americans, what a nuisance, he said, all the poles and lines scattered on the streets, what a mess. It was all small talk. Another brought up the ongoing legal battle between the Americans and the religious orders over the Friar Lands. It wasn’t right for the priests to own all that land, the man said, the Americans are trying to get the land back for the people. Imagine, they paid the Vatican seven million dollars for the Friar lands. Someone else mentioned the shenanigans going on with the Friar lands, how, if you knew the right people, you could buy huge chunks of land for cheap.

Jose knew the embarrassment was all about him. They were saying: We don’t know what to say to you; we’re sorry you lost your only son, sorry that you didn’t have to spend on clothes and toys for him; we have no idea what it feels to have a son drown and we are very sorry for you.  To make them feel at ease, Jose joined their chitchat and threw in some remark about Father Zobel still fighting in court for the Augustinians’ huge tracks of city land.
~end of chapter excerpt; Tomas Journal has published the entire chapter~

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