My Sad Republic, an excerpt
ASUNCION of the One Hundred and Seventeen Names had been living in exile for as long as she could remember and then one day it all came back: she was never going to escape the curse.
It visited her not like a thunderbolt as she had imagined, but like a tender wave, but it still took her a long time to assign a form to it until one afternoon when, overwhelmed by the voice of her grandmother, she decided to light a votive for her in front of the Mother of Perpetual Help, in the ancient church in Iloilo.
“There,” she whispered. “Now leave me alone, and take that awful curse with you, amen.”
The flames sputtered. She looked up. Across the rows of flickering candles, a wraith-like girl with the eyes of the suffering in purgatory was staring at her. She had a round, moon-like face and straight black hair, the kind of weird, indeterminate beauty of people of unknown origins. If not for the threadbare lace mantilla over her head, she would have looked like a boy. Her dress was white, hanging below the knees, like the ones little girls wore on their First Communion. Her shoes were also white but with streaks of red mud that formed a pattern of veins across the toes. She seemed like one of the crudely rendered cherubs in the frescoes peeling from the vaults of the church. But Asuncion was horrified when she noticed the girl’s hands, which the girl hid by clasping a rag doll and several beads of rosaries: they were large as a grown-up’s, wrinkled and purple-veined.
She dismissed this vision but knew it would not be long before she felt the repercussions of the curse. She wanted so hard to believe that everything was trying to tell her something, everything was pregnant with signs, a cloud, a leaf, a stone: there were codes hidden in them that she had to unlock.
She couldn’t talk to Tomas Agustin about it. It was impossible to communicate an affliction so formless and without origin or pathological cause. She wanted to talk. She waited for moments when they could talk. Naufragio: if two people were lost at sea, shouldn’t they at least talk to each other?
All these months Tomas Agustin had been caught up in work organizing the junta. Ever since Spain signed the treaty, American troops had been freely roaming the city, but the fact that Colonel Smith could not throw his support to the junta nor do anything without the possibility of being misconstrued by the rebels in Manila—this for the captain was an eternal source of frustration. He was also frustrated that the junta met and discussed everything and argued until all the sherry was gone, and the only thing they could come up was this: let’s wait and see. During one meeting they elected to promote him to the rank of general. He accepted the promotion stoically and gave them a solemn speech. It was a hollow title. Until he won the island back, it meant nothing to him. He came home later and later each night, claiming to have come from meetings and liaisons, the secret machinations of his aborted career, and each time he brought with him nothing but this humiliated silence.
On the night after she saw the vision at church, he lay next to her in bed, and she wanted him to speak, to tell her anything, but his sadness was impenetrable. She said, “We haven’t touched each other in sixteen years.”
He grunted and mumbled something about love being accomplished in various deeds and other things that Asuncion knew were lies. They were over forty years old now, and love, shy animal, was beginning to take some coaxing to come along.
She unbuttoned his shirt and revealed an expanse of brittle blond hairs and the two islands of his nipples, one of which she sucked gently, like a babe. She had a deep and melancholy longing to be touched. She waited for him to respond, to lift his hands up and touch her. He remained immobile. It was then that she noticed not the familiar scent of the sea on his skin but the scent of candles, and she looked in his eyes with horror and asked a thousand questions without speaking, and without speaking his eyes said yes.
The next day he brought the little girl from the church home. Asuncion recognized her immediately because she was wearing the exact same dress and the same funereal expression. It seemed like the most natural thing to happen, because by then Asuncion had become proficient in the secret of signs. But still, she had a few misgivings. The girl, after all, was only twelve.
Asuncion installed her in Felipe’s room, set aside her son’s rifles and books, and cleared the shelf for the young girl’s collection of rosaries and dolls. She picked up a doll whose body was made of corn husks and whose hair was woven from the golden fronds of corn. It reminded her of the fetishes witch doctors sold in the plaza.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“I make them, when I have the time,” the girl replied.
The new visitor ate only a diet of milk, rice and unrefined sugar, so that after a few days her skin grew increasingly pale and her veins started to show. She stayed in the room all day, singing to her dolls. She sang songs in a language that sounded at once familiar and otherworldly, since the girl was using so many words unknown to Asuncion. She stood by the door listening. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer and asked the girl where she had learned her songs.
“From the soldiers,” she said, and began to sing to the corn-husk doll: “But the riff-raff, Lord, the riff-raff, injun, nigger, beggarman, thief, mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound, and cur of low degree.” She sang it with the matter-of-fact nonchalance of grown-ups, stroking the doll with her large hands, which Asuncion found unnerving.
“Why are your hands so big?” Asuncion couldn’t help asking, because this was a child but she felt she could ask her anything.
“They’ve grown old,” the girl said. “Because of everything they’ve done.”
It was only a matter of time when Asuncion learned that she had been working at the brothel where the American soldiers went for recreation. She had heard about it from Señora Gomez, and she had asked Colonel Smith about it, but the colonel declined to comment, reminding her only that he was Catholic and that he himself didn’t care for that sort of diversion. Still, it was there. Everybody knew about it. It was a finely appointed section of one of the inns in the city, and was also frequented by many male residents whose wives couldn’t satisfy their insatiable urges. The girls were daughters of farmers who were too poor to raise them, or illegitimate ones by Spaniards and mestizos. Clients paid large sums for virgins, adding generous gratuities if they bled profusely. But after that their value diminished steadily and they wound up in the back rooms where they sang songs and played with toys.
Asuncion knew that her husband brought the girl home for less than altruistic reasons. She waited for the time when she could confront both of them. But her days were filled with anguish listening to those insufferable lullabies, and finally she barged into the room where already the girl had lined an entire wall with new dolls, and said, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
The girl nodded and smiled. “When she comes, we can play together.”
Asuncion's first impulse was to rip all the dolls apart and drive the girl away. But looking at the dolls, she realized she was talking only to a little girl, and she remembered all the fantasies she herself concocted in the prison of the mansion in Victorias. She asked her, “How old were you when they took you away?”
“Sixty,” the girl said.
“I was sixty. The woman who bought me counted all the moons.”
Asuncion did the calculations and still couldn’t believe it, but as she noticed the changes in the girl’s body, the listlessness, the abject sickness and the sudden and irrational aversion to knives and broomsticks, she began to feel pity for her, and even stopped referring to her only as “that girl” but called her by her name, Rowena.
“Do you think it’ll be a boy?” Asuncion asked her.
“It’s a girl,” Rowena said. “Because my saliva is bitter.”
Asuncion's pity soon turned to worried caring, and she began making room for the coming visitor. She hauled in a crib bought from the furniture makers in town and several infant clothes in pink and yellow lace, and was dismayed to remember that all her best possessions were in Victorias, now possibly cannibalized by the peasants.
“You can’t stay here, you know,” she told Rowena. “There’s no room.”
The girl nodded.
“You know what you are, don’t you?”
Asuncion listened quietly as Rowena once again began singing her barroom songs. They came out of the girl’s lips with such sweetness and light despite the hatred in their words, hatred which she didn’t know because all she remembered from the brothel were violent kisses and the shock of sex, which the soldiers told her was love.
It bothered Tomas that Asuncion’s energies were now wholly diverted to the visitor, because it was unthinkable for a wife to grow too fond of a mistress. She prepared special meals for Rowena, of honey and coconut milk and even nests made from the saliva of swifts, which she stewed in starch and salt, and she brought more materials to construct her dolls with—gingham, jute, seeds, cork, bones, leather, buttons and feathers.
One night, this new and fragile world collapsed around her when, as they lay in bed, Tomas told her, “Don’t get too attached to the girl. She’s leaving very soon.”
She became even more despondent the following morning when Tomas Agustin took Rowena away for the day. She spent the time arranging the dolls, which in their profusion had filled the entire room. Later that day, when the girl came back, Asuncion’s heart beat wildly as she asked what had happened.
All Rowena said was, “It wasn’t a girl, but a rose.”
For several days the little girl was convinced she had given birth to a flower. She wanted to keep it but it was so young and fragile that it withered to the touch. She dismantled her dolls one by one, unraveling arms of jute, eyes of seeds, hair of feathers and clothes of lace, until finally her room was stacked with the ordinariness of things, in neat piles that reminded Asuncion of the harshness of factories. Having finished that, the little girl went back to the brothel, accompanied by Tomas, who sadly deposited her in the care of older madams who welcomed her and gave her back her old toys.
From My Sad Republic, winner of the Philippine Centennial Prize; University of the Philippines Press, 2000.
Read an excerpt from Empire of Memory here.