Saturday, October 29, 2016

Chapter from Cecilia Brainard's novel The Newspaper Widow

I'm happy to share the chapter "The SS Pacifica"  from my novel, The Newspaper Widow ( University of Santo Tomas Publishing House 2017; PALH 2021).  It is now available in Kindle format:


The SS Pacifica
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

copyright 2017 & 2021 by Cecilia M. Brainard, All rights reserved)

            It was Samir’s mother who had said, “Take Didier and go. I’ll be all right.”
The idea had germinated, taken root, and like a wild plant branched out and filled Samir’s mind. With Melisande’s letter in his hands, Samir had read to his son the part about the two talking mynahs in a huge cage beside the picture window with the mannequins.

            Didier, who had been his biggest concern, lit up when he heard about the birds. “I can’t wait to see them, Papa. Do you think they’ll talk to us?”
The boy had not even turned to say goodbye to France when their steamship, the SS Pacifica, pulled away from the dock of Marseilles; he was busy studying the seagulls, gannets, and other seabirds. Later he drew pictures of the birds in his sketchbook — Didier also had a passion for drawing.

            And so Samir and Didier sailed on the SS Pacifica, which traveled at 20 knots per hour, and slowly they left behind the cold European winter. The ship paused at Port Said for coaling, and father and son watched the glowing torches of the barges carrying the coal. They strained to see the shadowy figures hauling heavy baskets up steep planks to the steamship, the men singing in unison while they worked. It took eight hours to get the job done, and by then, the sun beat down on the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Samir’s chest expanded as he told Didier of the marvelous feat the Frenchman had done — ten arduous years it had taken de Lesseps to unite the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea; ten years Samir had been separated from Melisande.
Slowly, the Pacifica inched through the narrow Suez Canal. At times it seemed the ship would scrape the sides of the canal; and just a stone’s throw away was Egypt, with its people, camels, donkeys, and ancient ruins. He bought from some men on feluccas, a silk jalabiya for Melisande and a fez for Didier, which the boy kept on his head even while they dined with the ship’s captain and surgeon. (They had peacock and camel’s hump for dinner that night.)

Samir sketched the enormous sand dunes that reminded him of his painting of his mother in the Arabian dress, the same image that had upset Melisande, but which drew them close. He often thought of that Sunday, that afternoon of lovemaking — the memory helped sustain his spirit.
 It had been with them, Desire, from the moment Melisande had stood outside his apartment door, through lunch, on to the drawing session on his balcony. He had seen a shadow cross her face when she finally saw his drawing of her. It was not unhappiness, she later explained, but all emotions that welled up, that indeed his work had feeling. He had pulled her close and touched her face, slowly as if he were a blind man committing it to memory — his fingers molding her cheeks, her forehead, her eyebrows, her lips, his fingers sliding down to her neck, to her shoulders. He had caught the scent of citrus from her hair.  He had desired her, knew he could take her, but restrained himself. Later that afternoon, it was the portrait of his mother that drew tears from her eyes — she had mistaken the Arabian woman for his lover. How could he stop himself from saying, “Spend the afternoon with me. I want to give you pleasure.”  There was no protest, no resistance as he bent down to kiss her forehead, her eyes, and then her lips. With his hand around her waist, he had led her to his bedroom, and he had cleared away her things from the brass bed, and lifted her unto it.
That day, after they had made love, he told her that Plato said humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. But fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.
He had told her that they were very fortunate they had found each other, because they were meant to be one. He said, when they part, it will hurt them very much, because the one-ness will be separated once again.
They had been apart for years. They had suffered. It was now time for their two halves to become one.
The Pacifica chugged on to the Bitter Lakes and then to the Red Sea. By this time, they knew their ship by heart: their first class cabin with its side table always stocked with Turkish delight and other delicacies; the smoking room where Samir chatted with the men; the promenade deck where they walked and gazed out at the ever-changeable sea; the women who fawned over Didier, their eyes sparkling at Samir as well.  And there was the library where Didier scoured all the bird books; one afternoon, he appeared wide-eyed in front of his father to report that mynah birds could die from loneliness.

At the southern end of the Red Sea, they stopped at Port Aden where they caught a glimpse of the twin minarets of a mosque, then like a birthing, they passed through its gulf into the Arabian Sea. As he studied the wide expanse of the dark sea, Samir knew with certainty that Europe and the desert sands of Arabia were behind him. His throat had tightened when he considered that Melisande had been in these same waters after she left him — how could he have driven her to this distant place?
Melisande had always been in his thoughts. From the time he and Didier had boarded the train in Paris, he had tried to imagine the voyage she had taken a decade ago. He saw her on the ship’s deck, in the dining saloons, the music hall, in all the port stops they made — there Melisande was, tall with her woman’s figure and long curly red-brown hair.

            Their next stop was Colombo, Ceylon, where they stared in awe at the modern General Post office and grand hotels. During their port stop, he bought a thumb sized sapphire stone, violet-blue in color. That evening, he sketched a ring design for the gemstone, with Melisande in mind.
A few more days at sea and they arrived Penang in Malaysia where he saw an elephant hauling logs near a river. The air was more humid now, and the sun gleamed white, and the sky and sea were brilliant blue, and the palms and birds of paradise startling in their crayola colors.
Then one clear morning, after travelling for 21 days, the SS Pacifica made its way through the strait between Mactan and Ubec islands. The captain had warned them of their early morning arrival, but suddenly, Samir and Didier were unprepared, their things scattered in their cabin, Didier’s books and toys lost in tight corners.
After packing the last of their belongings into their bags, Samir and Didier left their cabin and hurried toward the boat’s railing to stare at the larger island, Ubec, a name they had only read, but which now held their future.
            “Papa, are we here?” the boy asked, his voice quivering with excitement. He had on a white sailor suit, crisp and immaculate; it had been buried in the bottom of his suitcase, kept new for today.
            “Yes, Didier.” Samir held his son’s hand tightly.
Samir’s bravura had deserted him last night. He had peered out at the velvet darkness of the sky and sea and he had felt drained, afraid: He had left his work, his mother, Paris — his past. Had he done the right thing? Did Melisande have the capacity to forgive him? Would she be able to love this boy who was not hers? With Didier snoring softly near him, he had rummaged for her letter and had reread it for the thousandth time — she loved him still.

Didier swayed from left to right, straining to see more of the sea and the sandy shore with coconut trees and nipa huts; and the boy pointed at the lush green mountains that ran down the center of the island like a spine. Later, Didier’s eyes fixed on some boys and girls who were playing in the water. “Papa, look, children.” Didier waved at them. “Can I also swim in the sea, like them?” he asked.
            “You have to learn to swim first,” Samir said.
            “I will, and I will also visit those mountains. I am sure there are many birds there, talking ones, like the mynahs.” Didier became thoughtful before adding, “I wonder if the mynahs will sound like a phonograph.”
            Samir mussed the boy’s hair; a feeling of well-being surged through him; he had not felt such happiness in a long time. “We’ll find out when we’re there,” Samir said, his voice redolent of hope.

The City of Ubec loomed ahead, with its old Spanish fort and plaza, the stone churches, the sparkling white American buildings, and the myriad wood and stone structures that seemed strewn haphazardly. It was early morning in December, and the weather cool for the tropics. Ines closed the door to The Ubec Daily and hurried down Cristobal Colon Street toward Printemps. She knocked and opened the door. Melisande’s assistants were not yet in and the shop was quiet. A long time ago, before Melisande had moved in, Ines had seen this place. It had looked like a warehouse then, rundown and dirty. Melisande had transformed it into a vibrant dress shop that the women of Ubec loved. The hanging dividers and mirrors gave a sense of space and light, which made visitors feel as if they were walking on air. A beveled glass showcase near the door displayed items that Melisande also sold: crystal bottles of perfume, alabaster pots of skin lotions and makeup, bed linens, tablecloth with matching napkins, lace handkerchiefs. There in the back section were two Singer sewing machines, silent this morning. A large bird cage and two mannequins wearing Melisande’s haute couture faced the picture window. Ines hurried up the stairs to find Melisande in her bedroom. She was seated in front of her dresser mirror, studying her image while brushing her thick mass of hair.
“The boat is coming,” Ines said, out of breath with excitement. She had in her hands sprigs of jasmine, whose scent filled the room. The jasmine vine outside her bedroom window, had grown back thicker and healthier, filled with cascading clouds of sweet snow-white flowers.
Melisande moaned. “Oh Ines, I’ve gained two kilos since I last saw him. And my hair is so unruly today … and oh, my skin …” She reached for a pot with rouge which she lightly rubbed into her cheeks, leaving her skin glowing pink. Melisande stared at her image and made a face. “Look at me, Ines. I look terrible.”
“There is no time for that now. Felix said the boat is almost at the dock.”
Melisande gasped. “And I haven’t checked the shop.” She quickly anchored her hair into a bun using combs and pins, and put some powder on her face.
“I’ll make sure everything is in order.” She found a vase, filled it with water, and arranged the spray of jasmine in it.
“But what if he notices that I’ve … grown old?”
“What does that have to do with their arrival?” Ines asked, perplexed.
The mantel clock chimed just then — it was getting late — and Melisande twirled around, threw her hands up in the air and laughed.
“Go, now!” Ines said.
Melisande picked up her purse and umbrella and she and Ines ran down the stairs. Melisande kissed Ines on the cheeks, blew a kiss at her mynahs who were half-asleep in their cage, then taking a deep breath, opened the front door. She stepped outside and hailed a carriage. “To the pier, hurry!” she told the driver. “I have to meet the Pacifica,” she added in a voice breathless with longing.

Author’s bio:
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the award-winning author and editor of nineteen books, including the novels When the Rainbow Goddess Wept and Magdalena. The books she edited include, Fiction by Filipinos in America, and Growing Up Filipino I and II. Cecilia has also written a novel with four other women entitled, Angelica's Daughters, a Dugtungan Novel.
Her work has been translated into Finnish and Turkish; and many of her stories and articles have been widely anthologized.
Cecilia has received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, a Special Recognition Award for her work dealing with Asian American youths, as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District.  She has also been awarded by the Filipino and Filipino American communities she has served.  In 1998, she received the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu, Philippines. She has received several travel grants in the Philippines, from the USIS (United States Information Service). In 2001, she received a Filipinas Magazine Award for Arts. Her books have won the Gourmand Award and the Gintong Aklat Award.
She has lectured and performed in worldwide literary arts organizations and universities, including UCLA, USC, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, PEN, Beyond Baroque, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and many others.  She teaches creative writing at the Writers Program at UCLA-Extension. 
She is married to Lauren R. Brainard, a former Peace Corp Volunteer to Leyte, Philippines; they have three sons.
  She has website at and a blog at
Read Also

No comments: