Friday, August 28, 2020

The Eye of the Needle, short story by Gilda Cordero-Fernando


Gilda Cordero-Fernando b 1930-d 2020

Gilda Cordero-Fernando passed away on August 27, 2020. To honor her, I am reprinting her story, The Eye of the Needle, which is part of the collection Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults (ed Cecilia Brainard, published by PALH, 2003).  Reprinted by permission of PALH.

Please read "Literary Luminary and Cultural Icon Gild Cordero-Fernando Dies at 90".

Following is the excerpt with her story from the anthology.

Gilda Cordero-Fernando was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. She received her B.A. and B.S. in Education from St. Theresa’s College; and her M.A. from the Ateneo Graduate School. She wrote short fiction in her "early housewife" years, from 1952-1970, then put it behind her to go into non-fiction and publishing. Her most recent collection is entitled Story Collection (Anvil 1994). As publisher, Gilda trailblazed with big and beautiful illustrated Filipiniana volumes such as Turn of the Century, Culinary Culture of the Philippines, and History of the Burgis. She was the Patnubay ng Sining awardee for literature in the 1993 Araw ng Maynila, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Gawad awarded for literature and publishing in 1994. She has also produced children's books; she has painted; she has organized fashion shows ― Gilda's ways for artistic expression have been boundless.

Soon after the Philippine American War (1898-1901), the American government established schools in the Philippines. In 1901, the U.S.S. Thomas brought 1,000 American teachers to the Philippines; the name “Thomasite” became generic for all American teachers in the Philippines at the time. The first Normal School was opened in Manila in 1901. In 1902 the Americans established a system of public high schools concentrated in cities and principal towns. In 1909 the first school of art and trades opened a school of arts and trades. More schools were opened subsequently.

Aside from these public schools, private Catholic schools proliferated. The schools were generally inherited from the Spanish period, such as the Ateneo and Letran; although some were established during the American period, such as St. Scholastica and San Beda. The children of the affluent generally attend private schools.

Gilda Cordero-Fernando

When I was a little girl and in school, we all had a very strong sense of sin. If you so much as borrowed a crayola without permission, you could feel God the Father’s eye in its triangle above the blackboard following your every move till you put it back. We avoided “occasions of sin” like standing before the mirror too long, and going to movies with kissing scenes, and we practiced all the virtues — humility, fortitude, temperance and chastity. We were always very careful not to lie and not to steal, not to commit adultery and not to kill. I didn’t know exactly what chastity meant but it had something to do with having your skirt two inches below the knees and minding the way you sat — legs uncrossed, knees together, and not a wisp of underwear showing, because such carelessness, we had painfully been made to understand, was a grievous sin. We were Grade Four and whatever the nuns said was law — you obeyed or went to hell, it was as simple as that. 

At one minute to seven, Madame Ludmilla stood in the gray light of the drafty Assembly Hall, and we were expecting to fall in line, throw away our bubble gums, stop fidgeting and sweating. Madame Ludmilla was a cold Teutonic nun with a face as cheerless as a chopping board. No morsel of love ever fell from the tight zipper of her mouth. She would swoop down from her perch on the teacher’s platform and shake the living daylights out of you. She could leave you crucified against the blackboard with a dictionary on either palm. With the end of her long pointer, she had a way of flicking an offensive bow off a pigtail or a flower off a collar. She was bleak and righteous and pure and germless.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Madame Ludmilla was fond of intoning, for they shall possess the kingdom of heaven. And our eyes automatically strayed to where Socorro sat in her mended uniform, scratching a scab off her ankle. We, the children of the privileged, who rode flashy cars to school, who had money to waste on candy that rots the teeth and forgot to turn off the tap in the lavatory, we had as much chance of entering that kingdom as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And as we bowed our heads in sorrow and shame, Madame Ludmilla walked swiftly down the aisle to collect our recess money for the father of Socorro who was dying of TB in the charity ward.

I rode to school with Father who had no sense of time and consequently was always late in the mornings. He took an eternity to shave and to choose his tie while I waited in the car and honked and honked. It was all right for Father. He only went to the courthouse. He wouldn’t have to feel the pointer at his back propelling him to a corner, or to have to tell in front of the class (stuttering and crying while everyone tittered) why he was late again: “Because my father, Madame.” I was “Miss Because-My-Father,” the world’s champion late-comer, and Madame Ludmilla sucked in her breath and began the moral about the man who was too late to meet St. Peter.Sometimes if Madame Ludmilla was busy at the blackboard (she liked to write and to draw maps) I could sneak in late without being noticed. That is, unless Socorro, who sat behind me, was in a holy mood and told. Socorro was a large simpering girl with chopped bangs and a cough in her voice, and she was Madame Ludmilla’s spy. She was forever hiding behind doors to see who talked or read comic books or wore colored socks. Upon my back, she heaped endless indignities — flicking my braids like horse reins or dipping the ends of them in her horrid sea-green ink. I can still see the plump red meat of her tongue lolling wetly between the white fence of her teeth. I hated and feared her almost as much as I did our teacher, but we were doomed to each other’s company, bound alphabetically together by our surnames (which both began with C) and I endured my appointed desk before this bully, who remorselessly controlled me by the docile ends of my braids.

We used to wait for our cars at five p.m. on an open porch in front of Home Economics. No one ever fetched Socorro but she always sort of stood around hoping someone would give her a lift home. Sometimes we played jackstones. You could stand at the top of the stairs and look down to the Maypole, over to the drinking fountains and the cluster of glider swings where the collegiates sat gossiping, and clear down to the curve of mossy convent wall which enclosed the nuns’ vegetable garden.

I remember it was a particularly windy day and I stood at the top of the stairs holding on to my school bag. Suddenly a big wind came swooshing over the playground, lifting my skirt up like an inverted parachute, ballooning it up and over my red-hot ears. Desperately, I struggled to keep my skirt down, but for what seemed like an eternity I was exposed to merciless view ― my knobby knees, my thighs, my cotton panties. The moment I had control of the situation, I looked quickly around to see if anyone had witnessed my humiliation and met Socorro’s eyes twinkling mischievously over the rim of a melting popsicle.

“I saw!” Socorro chanted, making all sorts of horrid faces, covering her eyes with her stubby-nailed fingers and peeking through them. “I saw, I saw and I’m going to tell!”

“It wasn’t my fault!” I cried. “You know it wasn’t my fault!”

“What a mortal sin!” laughed Socorro. “What a great enormous, seditious mortal sin!”

“You’re not going to tell are you?” I asked anxiously, “Madame would think I was careless on purpose.”

Socorro nodded her head with enthusiasm. “Boy, if there’s anything Madame hates it’s immodesty.”

“Please, Socorro,” I begged. “She already hates me. If you tell her — “

“Boy, I bet you get locked up in the broom closet. You heard about that girl Madame locked up there last year and forgot? Boy, they had to bring her out on a stretcher! She was black and blue. She was green and white. Oh boy, what if they expel you?”

“Who cares?” I made a face and looked away.

“You said that! Remember you said that, too. Who cares! Oh boy!”

Just then the car came sweeping down the driveway and I had to go home. Perhaps if there had been no Madame Ludmilla, or if she were more like the kinder teachers of the succeeding grades, Socorro would not have been such an ominous figure in my memory. A trifle rougher, a bit bossier than the others maybe, but someone you dismiss in adulthood with a sigh and even a little pity. Perhaps you’d bump into her twenty years later, carrying a market basket, with a brat squalling at her skirt and she’d have lost her menacing qualities — she’d be just an old schoolmate you couldn’t immediately place, but were quickly glad to note hadn’t got on in life any better than you. But there was Madame Ludmilla, spewing righteousness and brimstone, they complemented each other like hook and eye — and the nun’s bigotry brought to the surface Socorro’s subtler qualities.

The next day I tried to talk to Socorro but she refused to answer and turned her back on me. But I could sense from the square of her shoulders and the giggle convulsed in her cheek that she was still going to tell. I didn’t say a word when she knotted my braids and stuck a paper flap into them. I didn’t flinch when she dipped the ends of them in her sea-green ink. During Geography I caught a glimpse of Socorro drawing something on her pad. I saw her write my name at the bottom of it and then it dawned on me that she had drawn the figure of a girl with her skirt flying up. The paper made its way down the second row and the girls held on to their bellies in silent mirth. By recess time the drawing had made its way back to Socorro and I tried to grab it but she was too quick; she danced away, waving it above my head.

I wanted to walk away, to join the others at handball, but I didn’t dare lose sight of Socorro. I sat on a stone bench and unwrapped my sandwich. At my back I could feel Socorro watching me unravel the paper napkin with interest. “What have you got in it?” she asked, throwing the crumpled drawing into the gutter among the dead leaves. “Want to swap with mine?”

Dumbly, I handed my neatly-trimmed ham sandwich over to the enemy. Socorro always had one of those hard buns you get from the Chinese store at two a centavo and it always had margarine and brown sugar in it. Bitterly, I sank my teeth into the hard brown bread.

“Go buy me a soft drink to go with it,” said Socorro, licking her fingers greedily. I ran to the canteen.

Socorro didn’t tell Madame Ludmilla after recess either and at five o’clock I gave her a lift home.

“You’re really confusing me,” said Socorro the next day as we stood in the Assembly Hall waiting for Madame Ludmilla to collect our library books. “You know it’s my duty to tell. After all you were immodest beyond words.”

“But you mustn’t,” I begged. “I don’t know what she’d do.”

“I shudder to think about it,” Socorro said, riffling in her grimy basket of books. “Boy, I’m all out of pad paper. Lend me ten centavos, will you?”

In the middle of the week Socorro borrowed my fountain pen, a nice new Waterman I had gotten for my birthday, and never returned it. I don’t know whether she did it on purpose or merely forgot that it was mine because she used it in class constantly. Each day she also borrowed ten centavos on some pretext or another, and she was still going to tell Madame Ludmilla. I was beginning to learn that there are two kinds of people in the world: the pushers and the pushed, and it wasn’t very hard to see where I belonged. I suffered my scratchy old pen, hating myself but never daring to say a word.

If Socorro wandered away for ten minutes I broke out in a nervous sweat and bit my thumbnail to ribbons. Once I had to go to the canteen for a notebook and when I got back I saw her talking to Madame Ludmilla. Afterwards I asked Socorro what they had talked about and she shrugged her shoulders and walked away. I followed her. She had gotten a gold star for Arithmetic that morning and I told her she was the best darned mathematician in the Philippines. Socorro picked up a ball from under the swing and started to bounce it against a wall. When it bounced out of her grasp, I ran to retrieve it. “When I grow up,” Socorro said, “I’ll be a business woman and own a big dry goods store. Like my uncle. He’s got a refrigerator and a radio and everything. They have pancakes everyday.” The ball rolled away. I scurried after it. “And you know what you’ll be?” she looked down at me contemptuously. “You’re going to live in a barong barong and be very poor.”

After a while she threw the ball across the playground and sat down on a bench and I sat down too. She pinched the pus off a sore on her knee and winced. “Say, have you got that red thing you put on wounds?”

So when the car came I took her home with me to put mercurochrome on her wound. “Did you tell Madame Ludmilla?” I asked at last.

“Quit pestering me, will you?” she said. We went to my room and sat on the bed and then she lay down for a while because she said she liked the feel of the quilted cover.

Then we played monkey-monkey but it was no fun at all because Socorro was always cheating. I showed her my Shirley Temple album. She messed around with my box of hairbands and tried on some of them. She was particularly impressed by the pair of pearl earrings I used for special occasions which my uncle had sent me from Japan.

Once I failed to give Socorro my daily allowance and she threatened to go straight to Madame Ludmilla till I promised to give her thirty centavos the following day. “Maybe I don’t even have to tell Madame Ludmilla about your mortal sin,” she said. “Maybe she already knows.”

“Then how come she hasn’t called me or anything yet?”

“She’s like Dick Tracy — you know — suspense and all that.” She laughed and dug me with her elbow because Madame Ludmilla was walking by just then with an armload of confiscated comics.

“You must realize what a big favor I’m doing you,” said Socorro. “Because I commit mortal sin too by delaying, and what thanks do I get? You don’t care for me at all, so why should I worry about you?”

“You must never tell, Socorro,” I said anxiously. “Haven’t I always done what you told me?”

“Pooh,” said Socorro, “you even miss out on a measly ten centavos.”

“I promise to give you thirty tomorrow.”

“Besides, I’m getting tired of your ham sandwich.”

“I can tell them to put cheese —”

“You don’t give a hoot. You bother with me only because you’re scared.”

“But I do. you’re my best friend now, you know that.”



“And you’d give me anything in the world I ask?”


“Oh, skip it. You couldn’t give me what I really want.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re a ‘fraidy cat, that’s why. You’re scared of your mother.”

“No, I’m not.”

Socorro’s voice dropped to a low wheedle. “Then give me your pearl earrings,” she said. “And I’ll never tell.”

I stared at her in horror. “Not my earrings! Mother would —”

“I thought so,” said Socorro, kicking the crossbar of the seesaw angrily. “I should have known. So from tomorrow on, no more skeletons in my closet.” She flounced away.

“Wait—” I called faintly, but Socorro had already crossed the street.

I don’t know why I never told my parents about Socorro, but I think I was afraid they’d made a big fuss and I’d be in an even worse fix. Mother liked scenes. I remember what a big fuss she created in Grade II when I was made a mushroom in the school play when everyone else was a fairy or at least an elf. Mama stormed into the classroom and asked Madame Alice why wasn’t I a fairy or an elf. “A mushroom!” she snorted at the little nun’s face. “Imagine — a mushroom!” I could just see Mother barging into Grade IV and shaking Socorro until her teeth rattled. I could just see her giving Madame Ludmilla a piece of her mind. Only Madame Ludmilla wasn’t the sort you gave a piece of your mind to. Vengeance would fall like the walls of Babylon upon my head. I would be the butt of the pointer, the target for her barbed jokes. Why, she would surely pin my skirts up to my blouse and make me walk around the playground with a placard.

The following day Socorro pocketed my thirty centavos and walked away without saying a word. She was also getting meaner. During volleyball she tripped me and I pitched forward against the net. She told the girls I had a crazy uncle in Japan. She rolled my Waterman over her desk and kicked it under my chair. In the corridor, at dismissal, I overheard her tell Madame Ludmilla she wanted to talk to her about a shameful matter concerning one of the girls. I stood outside the door, cold with fright, and heard Madame answer that she’d see Socorro first thing next morning.

So at recess time I told Socorro I had decided to give her my earrings. “Then see that you bring them tomorrow without fail,” she said, “because I’m sick to death of you and I’ll never give you a chance again.”

What would I tell Mother? That I wanted to wear my earrings to school and then that I had lost them? That they were sucked down the drain of the bathtub? That a bad man took them from me at the school gate?

Carefully, I tiptoed into the bedroom where Mama was taking a nap on the double bed. I knew exactly where the earrings were, tucked in a blue velvet box in the top drawer of her dresser. Softly, I turned the tiny key hanging from its lock.

“What on earth are you looking for?” Mother’s annoyed voice called from the tumbled pillows.

“I - I was hunting for - for a pencil.”

“Well that’s not the place for pencils. Go ask Clara. Or Daddy. Anybody. Shoo!” I ran out of the room.

The next morning, as soon as I had alighted from the car, Socorro beckoned me to the lavatory. She bolted the door and leaned against it.

“Well,” she said eagerly. “Give them to me.”

“I wasn’t able to get them,” I said, “but I’m sure to give them to you tomorrow.”

“Why you double-crosser!” Socorro’s face shaped itself into an ugly scowl.

“I almost had them but my mother —“

“I should have known. Honestly, I don’t know what to do with you any more! Now I’ll be forced to keep that appointment with Madame Ludmilla.”

“Don’t be mad, Socorro,” I said. “It’s only until tomorrow. Here —” I fumbled in my pocket, “I’ve got St. Christopher medal — it’s new — you can have it if you want it.” Socorro snatched the medal from my hand, threw it contemptuously into the toilet bowl and flushed it down. The sound of the rushing water echoed in my ears. Her eyes were suspiciously rimmed with red. “I’m so sick of you I could retch!”

The bell rang. “Please, Socorro,” I begged, clutching her sleeve in fright. “Tomorrow morning . . . If you don’t have it by then you can go to Madame and I won’t even try to stop you. I’ll surely have it by then.”

Socorro pushed me roughly against the washbasin. “All right,” she said wearily. “Tomorrow at eight a.m. But if you double-cross me again you’ll really get it from Madame Ludmilla and me.” She walked out of the lavatory, banging the door after her.

Mother was playing a valse on the piano when I arrived home. I brushed a kiss on her cheek and went swiftly past her to the bedroom. Slowly, I pulled opened the top drawer of the dresser. Mother’s fancy combs and brooches, her fans and her veils were there, but the little blue box wasn’t! Feverishly, I rummaged through the other drawers but the earrings weren’t in any of them either.

I walked to the sala and sat on the edge of the rattan armchair. Mother looked up from the piano. “Aren’t you dressed yet?” she called over her shoulder. “We’re having an early supper because Papa promised to take you to the circus, remember?”

The circus! It had come to town the week before and most of the girls had already gone to see it and in school no one talked about anything else. Mother didn’t usually approve of circuses (“It’s dusty and all the children who go have colds and what if the tent collapses?”) but there it was right on my lap — elephants and lions and clowns and all, and I couldn’t even be happy about it.

Over our early supper I asked casually, “Where are my pearl earrings, Mama? I want to wear them.”

“What for? It’s only a circus.”

“It’s a big occasion for me,” I grinned, trying to swallow a big mouthful of mashed potato.

“You can wear them some other time,” said Mother. “I’ve sent them to the jeweler for cleaning. They’ll be back in a week or two.”

There is something very sad even about elephants. When you sit in the gallery all you see is the glorious spectacle — the pachyderms with their bells and bright saddles going through the ritual of their slow dance with confetti of light spraying over them. But when you are in the privileged seats, close to ringside, you don’t miss a thing. The trainer’s sticks are tipped with steel hooks and as they goad the lumbering beasts you notice that their rumps, especially those of the younger ones, are full of healing hook marks. I hugged the folding seat and cried for the baby elephants. “Silly!” Mother scolded, and father laughed out loud.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I wanted to crawl under the covers and die. There was a mass murder of elephants under my bed and Socorro’s laughter hung like a steel hook from the ceiling. I went to the bathroom and leaned over the tub and tickled my throat, hoping I’d get sick or something. At five o’clock the sun rose, shining fiercely over the fence of brilliant bougainvillea.

The bell had already rung when I got to school, but on Fridays Father Charlie took over the religion class and he couldn’t keep track of who was late because he had one glass eye. Quickly, I looked through the door and saw that Socorro had not yet arrived.

After a while a pair of girls sneaked in through a side door and I crossed my fingers hard. Surely, surely, one of them would be Socorro but neither was.

Father Charlie, the chaplain, was talking about the fires of hell. He drew three pancakes on the blackboard. The first he surrounded with shining rays because it was the Soul in the State of Sanctifying grace. The second he covered with spots because it was the soul in mortal sin. The period was almost over. I glanced over my shoulder and still Socorro’s seat behind me was empty. She had never been that late before. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she was even going to be absent!

Then the period was over. Father Charlie shuffled out of the room and everyone started talking all at once until Madame Ludmilla’s shadow darkened the threshold.

Madame came into the room and laid her books carefully on the edge of the table. At the back of the room a couple of girls were whispering together, but she did not scold them as she always did. Her face was drawn and pale as if she had been crying or something.

“Children,” she said gravely, “I have an announcement to make. There has been a tragedy amongst us. Yesterday afternoon, while crossing the street in front of our school, Socorro was run over by a speeding automobile.” The girls began to babble all together. I dropped limply to my seat in relief and exhaustion, as if I had been walking a long, long distance.

School was dismissed in the afternoon to give us a chance to view the body which was placed in state in the incense-filled chapel. Class by class, we filed silently through the paneled doors, head bowed, silver rosaries twinkling. Between the branched candlesticks, amid the covey of weeping angels, at the end of the aisle lay Socorro in a satin-quilted bier. As we each paused a minute before the open coffin, I looked into the familiar face, so sphinx-like, so solemn, and shed a tear for a dear departed friend.

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