Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fiction "Vigan" by Cecilia Brainard

I'm sharing a short story that's part of two books: my third short collection, Vigan and Other Stories, and the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults

by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

When I was ten, a year after my father died, my mother decided to return to Vigan, back to her grandmother who had raised her after her parents died. We left Manila for the sleepy town with crumbling stone houses, cobbled streets, watchtowers, and other vestiges of colonial days. Vigan boasted of having been founded in the sixteenth century by Juan Salcedo, the Spanish conquistador who conquered Manila. In its heyday, it was the port of entry of the Spanish galleons coming from China and headed for the Walled City of Intramuros. The ships sailed up the river and moored at the edge of Old Town, near the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace. The merchants’ houses and warehouses clustered near the river. Here, traders exchanged items such as indigo, cotton, silk, pearls, tobacco, porcelain, hemp, for silver and gold.

Our family house sat in the middle of a row of ancient merchant houses, crumbling relics of limestone blocks and wood. Our house had massive wooden double doors fronting the street, which my great-grandmother said allowed carriages in and out of the family compound during Spanish times. The lower portion of our house had a shed with two pigs, four chickens, and one mean-spirited goat. A section in the back served as the servants’ quarters, but since my great-grandmother had only one servant who slept upstairs, this section was unoccupied and was in total disarray. An elaborate staircase led to the second floor, which had the kitchen, dining room, living room or sala, the music room, library, a verandah, and bedrooms. There were four bedrooms, but huge, with high-ceilings that allowed the air to circulate thus cutting the oppressive tropical heat. Except for the room occupied by my great-grandmother, the other bedrooms had several four-poster beds, lined up dormitory-style, and covered by yellowing crocheted bedspreads.

I’d only heard about this house from my mother. We had never visited it when Papa was alive. So even though I was unhappy about our move, I was impressed by the surprises the house offered. The walls of the rooms, for instance, had hand-painted murals: musical instruments were painted all around the music room, the dining room had a border of grapes on a vine with a hunting scene on the wall nearest the dining table, and the bedroom my mother and I shared had a picture of Cupid sitting on a cloud and shooting his arrow at a young woman in a forest. Although the paintings were flaking and faded, my great-grandmother, whom my mother and I called Lola, was very proud of them.

What interested me most was the coffin at the foot of the stairs. An old sheet covered it and on top were all sorts of junk: newspapers, empty glass jars, and a huge vase with dusty fake flowers. I had mistaken the coffin for a table until Lola removed the sheet to reveal a bronze casket with gold decorations. She struck the metal with her fingernail and declared it was our family coffin. Apparently old families in the area kept family coffins, which were used only for the wake. For the actual burial, the corpse was wrapped in an Ilocano woven blanket and buried directly in the family vault. The coffin was cleaned, then stored, in this case at the foot of the stairs, ready for its next temporary occupant.

The idea sent me into hysterics, considering my own father was buried in his own bronze casket — cost had been no object as far as his parents were concerned. He had been their only child.

I asked my great-grandmother what happened when two family members died, like my mother’s parents for instance. She said they lay side by side.

“But what if more than two die?” I persisted.

“It’s never happened,” she said. By that time, she was clearly annoyed with me, and so I kept quiet. Lola had not liked my father and his family, and I suspected that dislike extended to me. People said I looked a lot like my father. He was tall and thin and had a lot of Chinese blood in him, unlike my mother’s family, which had a lot of Spanish blood.

Even though Lola spoke enthusiastically of the house (this remnant of our family’s glorious past), I found it depressing. There were cobwebs everywhere, and at night, I dreaded going to the bathroom because I usually ran into the sticky strands. There was dust all over the old furniture. Ceiling plaster was peeling, the wooden floors creaked, and there was one section near the kitchen with wood rot. I could peer through the holes and look down at the animals. Sometimes I would spit on the goat that had butted me once.

Before we came, Lola’s solitary companion was another old woman named Manang Gloria. I was never sure who took care of whom because half the time, my grandmother was the one in the kitchen cooking bitter ampalaya to strengthen Manang Gloria’s blood. There were men workers who came during the day to take care of the animals and yard, but by late afternoon, they were gone.

By six in the evening, the only sounds you heard were the two old women rattling around in the kitchen, some lonely crickets outside, and my mother sighing by the window. Times like that, I would ache for my father and my old life.


My mother had never worked in her entire life. After college, she’d married Papa and moved into his house. In Vigan, she spent many nights crying, cursing my father for dying, and wondering how she could support the two of us. We had left Manila in the first place because she and my father’s parents did not get along. They disliked her from the start, accusing her of being pretentious. It was true that my mother carried with her an arrogance that old families from Vigan had, even if their ceilings had caved in and their floors rotted. My mother, likewise, scorned my father’s family, calling them “new rich” and accusing them of having no culture. While my father was alive, he kept the two warring parties apart, but after he died, nothing stood between his parents and my mother. Like cats and dogs they went after each other; of course my mother was always on the losing end. After a year of strained silences, sharp words, doors slamming, and countless tears, my mother grew weary of the quarreling, took whatever she could, and we left.

It was Lola who suggested that she open an antique shop downstairs. “Manang Gloria knows some carpenters who can make replicas,” Lola said. “Have them copy our antique furniture. Price them low. City people will buy them.” She was right. Antique dealers traveled far to buy Mama’s bentwood chairs and love seats, drop-leaf tables, armoires, chairs, and wooden statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the cross. The most popular item was the plantation chair, an enormous lounging chair made of mahogany and rattan, that harked back to days of sitting around the verandah, a leg resting on one arm of the chair and a drink in one’s hand.


I hated school. I did not fit. I was used to the stimulating environment of my school in Manila. The school in Vigan was dull and provincial. I spent most of my time in Mama’s antique shop, doing my homework on the table, reading old books from the library, rearranging the display in the showroom, or bothering the workers who were carving the reproductions in the back. “Look at that,” I would say, “antiques made-to-order.”

I was there the afternoon Ramon arrived. He was an antique dealer from Manila. I overheard him ordering a lot of furniture and so I was not surprised when Mama invited him for dinner. Mama’s clients usually lived in one of the four hotels in town, none of which served decent food. When Mama invited clients to dinner, Manang Gloria would come to life and prepare local recipes, crispy mouth-watering bagnets, steamed prawns, fried fish, and that bitter vegetable stew that local folk loved so much.

Ramon praised Manang Gloria’s food, and she giggled like an idiot. She was really quite fresh, behaving more like a peer than our servant. When I tried to put her in her place, Lola always defended her, saying she was the fourth generation to work in our house.

Lola ate and left the dining table early. When she was gone, the conversation between Mama and Ramon livened up. It seemed they had mutual friends in Manila, and they discussed them one by one, Mama gushing over the good fortune of some of them, and clucking at misfortune of others. Later (they must have forgotten I was there) Ramon talked about his wife. He had married his college sweetheart, a journalist who had gotten involved in the anti-Marcos movement. She had written many daring exposes of the oppressive dictatorship. She even wrote articles about the “disappeareds” until one night she herself disappeared. Ramon spent years looking for her until his family convinced him she had been “salvaged” so not a single trace of her body could be found. Ramon had gone into seclusion until Cory Aquino came into power. He said that after the EDSA Revolution, he discovered he was still alive after all. “I found out,” he said, “that I could laugh again.”

My mother grew teary at Ramon’s story, then told Ramon about Papa. She described how Papa started dropping things, that we thought he’d had a stroke, but that it turned out he had brain cancer. The doctors had said he had six months to live, and that they had been right almost to the date. She did not tell Ramon of her quarrel with my paternal grandparents. When he pressed her about why we left Manila, she said Lola needed her.

It was a conversation, nothing more, but I was disturbed by it. I hated how she shared a piece of our lives with him. I hated being reminded of Papa and our old life, and I hated how happy Mama seemed with Ramon.


Ramon would come around every two weeks. He would talk to Mama at great length—“business” they called it. He would dine with us; and sometimes he and Mama would ride off someplace. I would interrogate Mama as to where exactly they went, and reluctantly she would confess they visited the old church and rectory in Santa Maria, or the beach of Vigan, or the Luna Museum in Ilocos Sur, or the open market to buy Ilocano blankets. She said this blithely, as if I should not care. But when I thought of the two of them in these places, I would feel a heaviness in my chest, a sorrow that lingered for days.

Ramon tried to befriend me, bringing me books, which he recognized as my weakness, but even though I hankered to read them, I would deliberately abandon them in the shop, on the same table he had set them on, so he could see, so he could understand that he could never bribe me.

Once he told me, “You are very different from your mother.”

I glared at him. “I am my father’s daughter,” I said, thinking I sounded very smart.

My mother blushed when she heard me, and later that night she scolded me for being rude. I told her I wanted to go home.

“There is no other home,” she replied softly. “This is it. Those people don’t want us. They have cheated us of your father’s inheritance.”

She was crying now. “They are the people who killed Ramon’s wife. They were cronies of Marcos; that was how they made their money. They killed her; and I suppose, we are guilty too.”

Her hair was disheveled; her makeup smeared. I saw how much older she had become since Papa died. I saw how vulnerable she was, how spineless, and I told myself I would never be as weak as she was.


In the middle of that summer when the heat left you breathless, my great-grandmother decided she was going to die soon. She called Manang Gloria and instructed her to have new satin lining made for the family coffin. After inspecting the shiny pink lining and checking the hinges of the coffin, she went back to bed and refused to get up. In a few days her legs started cramping, and it became my job to massage her with Sloan’s Liniment. I would pour the liniment into my palms, vigorously rub my hands together, and massage her spindly legs. That was when I learned about my mother’s bad luck.

Lola said, “There are some people who attract bad luck, and your mother is that way. When your mother was four, her parents died in a car crash on the zig-zag road to Baguio. Then of course your father died. It’s just bad luck, that’s all. There is no other explanation.”

I felt kinder to my mother after that—until I caught her and Ramon kissing. It was afternoon, and Lola had told me to call them to the verandah for merienda. I ran down, paused by the family coffin, and lifted the sheet so I could feel the coolness of the bronze. Then I went to the door of the antique shop. I caught them locked together in a tight embrace—my own mother with this man. Ramon saw me, pushed her away, and cleared his throat. Calmly I told them Lola had hot chocolate and pastries waiting for them.

Mama closed the front door of the shop and headed for the stairs. “Are you coming, Rosario?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I have to finish something. I’ll be there.”

I waited awhile then I opened his briefcase and went through his things, looking for something, I was not sure what for exactly. Just when I was putting his papers back into the briefcase, a picture fluttered out. It was Ramon and Mama standing happily in front of the town plaza. I took it and stuffed it into my pocket.


I had heard Manang Gloria talk of Sylvia, a mangkukulam who lived on the edge of town. When Manang Gloria was twenty, Sylvia had read her cards. The witch had predicted that a man would fall in love with her, but that they would be separated. A young man did come along, and for a long time, Manang Gloria tortured herself by wondering when the man would drop her for another woman. The man, however, was steadfast and asked her to marry him. They picked a date, made preparations; Manang Gloria had her white gown made. The night before their wedding day, the man walked by a sari-sari store where two men were fighting. He tried to stop the fight, but in the scuffle, ended up dead.

Aside from reading cards, Sylvia made potions. The most popular were love potions and potions to exact revenge. She could also cured sick people by catching their illness and transferring it into a rooster whose head she would chop off. If convinced it was right to do so, she could harm people. She could even turn into a ferocious black dog at night, which was why people avoided walking around after dusk.

One Saturday in June, I went to Sylvia’s house. I was afraid; I did not know what to expect. I found her planting seedlings in front of her hut. At first glance, she appeared ordinary-looking, with a simple native dress and her gray hair tied in a knot. When she looked up, I noticed her sad, sad eyes. I told her I knew Manang Gloria. She stared at me, with those sorrowful eyes, until I too felt like crying. I was about to leave when she invited me in.

She led me in front of an altar with numerous statues of saints and burning candles. She took my hand, turned it over so she could see my palm. “One day,” she said, “a man will fall in love with you, but you will be separated.”

This sounded like Manang Gloria’s fortune; I felt disappointed.

“I’m here,” I said, “for my mother.”

She said nothing.

“I have to save her.”

“Ah, does your mother need saving?”

I nodded.

“And whom are you saving her from?”
“From a man. A wicked man. “I have a picture of him. Do you want to see?”

She glanced at the picture. Her eyes became darker and sadder still. “A handsome man. Once, I knew a handsome man…” She trailed off, but then recovered, “Handsome men…well, what can I say? Yes, they can be dangerous. Tell me more.”

“He is hurting her. He is hurting us. I want him to go away. I want him to stop seeing her.”

She sighed. “Your father is dead,” she said. “You miss him.”

This pronouncement impressed me, and I wondered how she divined this truth.

“Everyone talks in this town. You and your mother live in the Pamintuan Mansion, with Doña Epang.”

Again I felt disappointment.

She stared into my eyes until my eyes burned and I felt like blinking.

“I can give you something that will attract good. You can give this to your mother, so only good will go near her. If this man is bad, he will stay away.”

“Mama’s a bad-luck woman. Lola says so. Nothing you can give her will attract good. I need something so he will never come back. He is evil. He has hurt her; he has hurt me.”

She turned her sorrowful eyes to her altar. “All right,” she finally said, “just because of Manang Gloria I will help you.” She went to a corner and returned with a bottle of Coke, only it didn’t have Coca Cola in it, but some amber-colored liquid with herbs and flower petals. “The morning after the full moon, rinse with this. Then go to Mass and pray that he will no longer return. Pray hard, especially when the bells ring at the Consecration.”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“That is all. Leave your money in the pot near the door.”


Back home, I hid the bottle in my closet and left it untouched until the first storm fell. Mama was in bed staring at the Cupid painted on the wall. She whispered, “It is so cold to be alone in bed.”

I found a calendar and figured when the full moon was. I bathed with Sylvia’s water, went to Mass, and prayed as she had taught me. When the bells tinkled at Consecration, I stared hard at the white host and repeated: “God, keep Ramon away from Mama, keep him away from us, drive him far away, separate them, God, please, God, please. You’ve taken my father away, I’m asking you now, God, to keep him away from us. You owe it to me, God, because Papa’s gone and not only have you taken him, you’ve taken me away from my house and planted me in this miserable place, the last place on earth I’d like to live in God. I have no friends, no one, except my Mother. Please God, don’t let her leave me too because when she’s with Ramon, that’s how it feels God, like she’s left me too.”

On and on I rambled, venting my sorrows and miseries, and pinning them all on Ramon, blaming him for them, and wishing for him to disappear from our lives. When I left the Cathedral, my hands were shaking and I felt flushed. My mother and Lola asked me if I was all right. I kept quiet. Something had shifted in me and I knew that things would be different.


It did not happen right away. From the time I saw Sylvia in June until December, Ramon continued to visit Mama every two weeks. When I saw his happy face, my chest would tighten. He would smile, white teeth flashing; and he’d give Lola a box of American chocolates or bag of hot chestnuts, and he would kiss her on both cheeks. And Mama, standing by Lola’s bed, would beam proudly at Ramon as if he were some genius-child who had done his homework right. He would greet me too and give me a book or puzzle. With a stony face I would thank him, then put his gift down and run off to wash my hands, scrubbing them hard until my skin hurt.

When he was around and I felt desperate, I would beg Manang Gloria to tell me the story of her dead lover once again. Other times, I would go to the family coffin, remove the things on top, open it and run my hands on the pink satin lining, feeling its coolness, imagining the dead people that had occupied this coffin, and thinking that one day it would hold Lola, Mama, and even me. Once I climbed into it and lay down as if I were dead, with my eyes closed and my palms together as if in prayer. I was drifting off to sleep when Manang Gloria happened to see me and screamed so loud, Lola ran down the stairs. “You are a strange, strange child,” she said. “You must take after your father’s family.”


And so time passed in Vigan, until finally it happened, in December. Ramon arrived with Christmas gifts. By this time, I had almost forgotten my visit to Sylvia, and I must admit, I’d gotten used to his visits. Lola’s house was so dark and full of decay, and Ramon’s visits added some sparkle to our lives. Manang Gloria would cook; Lola used her Sevres China and Baccarat crystal; and Mama would dress up and look happy and young.

He insisted that we open our gifts immediately: an expensive bottle of French perfume for Lola, a sweater for Manang Gloria, a pearl necklace for Mama, and an antique music box for me. We were like children, fingering our gifts, and I saw him beaming happily that he had found the right gifts for us. Lola and Mama kissed him on the cheek. Manang Gloria kissed his hand, as if he were a “patron” of colonial days. And since everyone was looking my way, I went to him and planted a kiss on his cheek. He looked surprised and stood there for a long time holding his cheek where I had kissed him.

We were happy that night. Lola walked with us to the cathedral for Midnight Mass. Later we had the noche buena meal at home. Numerous carolers stopped by our house, singing about Christ, love, and joy. It was a clear and beautiful night. From the verandah I looked up at the stars, and I could feel my soul expanding. Since Papa died, I had not felt happiness like that.

It was almost dawn when he said he had to drive back to Manila to have Christmas dinner with his parents. After a lengthy farewell to the women, he said goodbye to me. I felt a flutter at the pit of my stomach. “Ramon...” I started, then lost my words. “Merry Christmas,” I finally said.

In bed, I thought of Papa in the hospital and how he struggled to speak but could not. I thought of our big house in Manila. I thought of the malls that my friends and I used to frequent. I remembered my third grade nun who lectured once about charity being the most important virtue of all. I knew that I had done something terribly wrong. I wept silently in bed; even my mother did not hear me.


Years later, my mother blamed herself for Ramon’s death, saying she was bad luck. His car had turned turtle on the highway, heading back to Manila. I did not tell her that in this matter, she was wrong.

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