Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Christmas Eve, 1908", Fiction by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard #literature #Philippines

Christmas Eve, 1908
Excerpt from The Newspaper Widow, novel by
The Newspaper Widow is published by University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2017
Available from Amazon

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 announced 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 black satin skirt and blouse of gossamer fabric. He was surprised by this, her vanity, her declaration that she was ready to relinquish her mourning. For over four months, Jose and Fernanda 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, Fernanda threw a shawl over her shoulders. She was as stark as a fruit bat, and the darkness 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. 
In church, the sacristans scurried about, lighting the candles in the tall silver candelabras. Jose and Fernanda were early but the pews and benches were filled with women and children. The mothers, grandmothers, and spinster aunts waved at friends and neighbors, kissed relatives on the cheeks, talked about their Christmas meal which they had entrusted to their servants. 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 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. They studied the empty crib most of all, with a hankering since they had been waiting for weeks for the Child Jesus to be placed in it.
The chattering ceased when Jose and Fernanda squeezed into a pew. Jose 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.

The men huddled under the centenarian acacia tree, smoking their cigars to ward off the night chill. They lacked 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. 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. Another brought up the ongoing legal battle between the Americans and the religious orders over the Friar Lands. The Americans are trying to get the land back for the people, he said, imagine, they paid the Vatican seven million dollars for the Friar lands. Someone else mentioned that if you knew the right people, you could buy huge chunks of Friar Land for cheap. It was all small talk to hide their embarrassment.
Jose knew it 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 Zafra fighting the Americans over a huge track of land near the church.
He was their parish priest, this Father Zafra. Jose had gotten the information about him from Fernanda who was the bookkeeper at the rectory. Fernanda started working there a year ago, shortly after Danilo could extend his right arm over his head and touch his left ear, proving he was six years old and qualifying him for kindergarten. After school, Danilo walked to the rectory and waited for his mother to finish work. It was a perfect arrangement; idyllic in fact, until the body of Danilo was found on the seashore. Fernanda pulled her hair when she saw the boy’s body, and Jose fainted when he found out what had happened. The story that finally emerged was that Fernanda had been working in the rectory office, and Danilo had been with her, but growing bored, he left to play outside. He must have been chasing a dog or cat along the seawall when he lost his balance, fell and drowned. It was a simple story, straight to the point. People hated talking about such tragedies because they had their own sons and grandsons and the idea of losing a seven-year-old son exceeded their imagination. A one-year-old or two-year-old could succumb to dengue or typhus and die just like that, and mothers had learned to protect their hearts by not falling too much in love with the little ones, but a seven-year-old was marked to survive. Him you could love. So beyond the official story of how Danilo died, nothing more was said.

            When the church bells sounded the beginning of the High Mass, Jose returned to the side altar where Fernanda knelt. A long black lace veil covered her short hair. After the discovery of the dead child and Fernanda’s hair-pulling incident, a neighbor had cut her hair to make the ends even. Her hair was very short, like the French Jeanne d’Arc haircut, new in fashion but still alien to most Filipinos.
The church had become more crowded still, but they were close to the main altar and he could see the three priests and altar boys clearly. Fernanda kept her eyes closed most of the time, and now and then, she would heave a deep sigh and, pretending she was arranging the veil on her head, wipe away her tears. He wished she would stop; he wished they had stayed home in the first place.
The people were praying, giving thanks perhaps for the good fortune that had come their way that year 1908 — how fortunate for them — asking God for this and that for the coming year, communicating with God in any case, something he could not do, not now.  Father Zafra was one of the three priests, all of them imposing, with elaborate vestments embroidered with silver thread. Father Zafra, with his aquiline nose and Hapsburg jaw, reminded him of the Spanish conquistadores sailing on galleons from Spain to all parts of the world.
The scent of candles and incense, the rising-kneeling-sitting in church, the crush of people in that damp stone church made his nostrils constrict, made it impossible to breathe. The four months since his son died was the Calvary of his life. He tried to think of the Mass, of his surroundings, but the sensation of suffocating was foremost in his mind. When Fernanda stood up to go to the communion rail, he whispered, “I’ll see you back home.” And he waded through the crowd and left the church. He could not receive Holy Communion. He was never particularly religious, but like other Ubecans he went to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. That night he did not want to be in that church; he did not want to be near a God who could take away a child just like that.
            The cool wind on his face was a blessing, and he took a deep breath, grateful to be rid of the cloying scent of incense and melted wax. Some candle vendors rushed to him, holding out their candles, promising to dance a prayer for him. He shook his head.  He walked past an old woman with a cart selling roasted chestnuts. Two men held clusters of balloons, waiting patiently for the children to be released from the church. He hurried on, toward his house, away from the giddy happiness. But when he approached the two-story building, which was cloaked in purgatorial darkness—not a single lantern hung on the windows—his palms became damp and his breath quickened.

Last year, he and Danilo had sat at the kitchen table to make star lanterns. He guided the boy’s hands to teach him to how to hold the sticks together. He bound the sticks, formed the frame for the star, and he cut and glued the fine Japanese paper over the frame. Together they clipped the fringes for the bottom ends of the star. How amused he had been at the serious child who pressed his tongue thoughtfully against his upper lip as he carefully used the scissors to snip four-inch strips. When the star lanterns were hanging above the windows, the boy got candles from his mother, and he and Jose placed them inside the lanterns. Jose lit them, and they turned off all the other house lights, and they basked in pride at the wondrous stars hanging above every window of their house. They waved at the passersby who looked up and smiled and knew that a happy family lived in this house.
Three sharp sounds of a bugle startled him, and he quickly glanced at the Plaza Independencia, wondering what the Americans were up to. The American military occupied the old Spanish fort which stood at the far end of the plaza. The gas lamps were lit there and colorful star lanterns and garlands decorated the grandstand. It would be better there. He walked toward the plaza. Last May, when the school children were on holiday, the American military band played in the evenings, rousing military songs, a bit of jazz. This memory made him feel hopeful, but when a gust of wind blew, bringing with it the tangy smell of the sea, he remembered once more that his son had drowned in this sea.

It was impossible. He could not think of anything else. By the time he got to the seashore, Fernanda and countless people surrounded the boy who lay on the ground looking like he was asleep, except for the God-awful gash on his head. A little boy, seven years old. He struggled not to think.
He found a bench near the fort where it was thankfully quiet. Here perhaps at least for a while, he could rest. He looked up at the stars and tried to find peace. The hooting of an owl startled him; owls were rare in the city. The owl continued with its mournful sounds and he felt his eyes well with tears. This surprised him because he had not cried for his son, for his loss, and now finally, he found himself weeping with abandon.
            He was still sobbing when the wild ringing of the bells announced the end of the midnight Mass. His little bit of peace had ended. He imagined people rushing out of the church, eager to go home for their family celebration — the Noche Buena, where they would serve fish and chicken rellenos, pastel de lengua, piquant goat stew, Chinese hams, and of course roasted suckling pigs, and children would quarrel over who would get the ears and tails. Last year, Danilo had gotten the pig’s tail and he had happily paraded it around.
            “Papa,” the child had said last year, “I want a bird. A black one, the kind that talks.” They had seen a man selling a hill mynah, with lustrous black feathers and someone had trained it to say a few words. Jose had told him he’d get him one when he was older, but now he was gone.
Jose shook his head, but the bells continued ringing. He recalled the mournful tolling of these same bells at his son’s funeral — how small his casket had been. The horror engulfed him once more and he felt ugly and powerless. He tried to compose himself, afraid to lose himself, afraid he’d become useless once again. He had little memory of what had happened. Someone, he could not recall who, had found him in the city hall to tell him that the child’s body had been discovered. Jose was in a fog after that. People said he passed out; people talked about the wake, the funeral, the burial, the forty-days of prayers. What he remembered most was the silence when he and Fernanda were in their dark house
He also remembered Danilo’s room, which they left exactly as it had been when the child was alive. Neither of them had the courage to remove a single item from the room that had assumed an aura of sacredness. It was as if leaving the room untouched kept Danilo alive; it was as if he would still come bounding in for the wooden spinning top or the mechanical monkey that played the drums which had amused him greatly.
Hands shaking, he pulled out his handkerchief from his pocket, wiped away his tears and blew his nose.  When finally the church bells stopped, the sudden silence grew and tugged at his mind: there was something about his son’s death that he couldn’t grasp. Danilo knew never to go to the sea wall by himself. Even though he was only seven, he was like a little grownup with a lot of common sense. He was not a risk taker, and often when father and son played, Jose had to coax the child: “Come, come try out your new bicycle, you’ll be fine,” or: “Come swim with me; I will hold you, you will be safe.” But in the end the boy died of drowning. Or perhaps it was from hitting his head on the rocks. Nothing was clear. The vagueness stretched out like the long and implacable night.
Jose took a deep breath and rose from the bench. He never asked why the boy was playing alone at the seawall. He never asked why shortly after Fernanda started working at the rectory, the boy became very quiet, almost like a mute. He never asked about his wife’s silence too, her evasiveness.  He never asked why, when they had been happy before — their only concern had been financial since Jose was starting his law practice — why, a strange feeling entered their house like a fungus growing in the silence and quiet and dark. It was time to get answers.
He felt as he were choking. He felt as if a void was created inside him and he had to go to Augustinian complex, to explore where his son had played, to walk on the seawall from which the boy had fallen. He found himself walking toward the Augustinian complex. But when a mangy dog crossed his path, Jose stopped, and the thought flitted through his mind: It’s not time.
He turned back and headed home.

 ~End of Excerpt~

FOREWORD Review of The Newspaper Widow: 
While at first glance The Newspaper Widow seems like a standard historical mystery, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's novel is full and complex, overflowing with textured, fully realized characters who drive the story on every page. 

Ines Maceda, the "newspaper widow," aims to clear her son's name. He has been accused of murdering a priest. In addition, Ines grieves for her deceased husband and combats the lingering trauma of earlier miscarriages. Her development is one of the shining elements of the novel-she feels tangible, rooted in the story and the setting. 

The Newspaper Widow offers a nuanced glance into Filipino society circa 1908. It is a world rich with history, myth, and ritual; descriptions pulse with life, providing crucial insights into aspects of Filipino culture and world colonial history, such as encounters with the "Island of the Living Dead," sectioned off to contain those inflicted with leprosy, and once the world's largest leper colony. 

While on the surface the book is a crime story, the plot is actually layered and unique. One of the novel's greatest strengths is how it raises interesting, complicated questions about morality and justice while Ines searches for the priest's true killer: Is death ever an apt punishment for a crime? Is revenge moral, or even necessary? Refreshingly, nothing is black and white. 

For all of The Newspaper Widow's greatness, sometimes there are too many layers to the plot, and the ending falls a bit flat in comparison to the rest of the narrative. But flaws are minor; overall, this is a solid, satisfying work of literature. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard displays masterful storytelling skill in The Newspaper Widow, a unique, memorable mystery. ~ Review by MYA ALEXICE

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