On paper, she was Carmen but for us, she will always be Mameng.
Decades ago, the entire family lived with Mameng in the mansion at Balic-Balic in Manila. It had three levels. The base was made of adobe stone, and served as the garage and granary. The two upper levels were made of kamagong wood later fortified with concrete and steel, and capiz windows later framed with ornate wrought iron. There were twelve rooms, five baths, a kitchen, an out-house in the garden where we kept chickens, a pond where Mameng cultured tilapia, a prayer room and a library. We were a relatively small family of fifteen: Mama, papa, Guia, Carmela, and me; Tita Pura and her only son Narciso; Tito Ramon and Tita Ursula, who remained childless; Tito Luna and his four children: Jennifer, Camilla, Miguel, and Carlos. At the dinner table, Mameng would always do a headcount. It always felt as if someone was missing.
“Are we all here?”
“Yes, mama, we’re all here,” one of her children would answer.
“Why do I keep thinking someone is missing.”
While all this was happening, I stared at my part of the table’s frieze. The dining table was made of narra wood and on its frieze was a Baroque style carving of the Passion of Christ. Veronika—was it Veronika?—wiping the face of Christ with a shroud. The hem of her tunic touched Christ’s big toe, gnarly from all the suffering, and on her face the smallest wooden tear. What attention the carver gave to this huge piece of wood, to carve a small tear! Then, I would stop staring, studying, when I noticed what my family did with each other or to themselves beneath the table as Mameng presided over the prayer. Because I was small, I saw everything they did. I saw their legs, in shorts or pants, like fat, shady roots beneath the table. Tita Ursula’s hands on papa’s knee, mama scratching her crotch, Guia and Narciso rubbing feet. Mameng’s long silk dress covered her shapely legs, which remained still and in the dimness under the table, looked ghostly. Somehow all that fidgeting, itching and rubbing, all the movements, seemed to rise from the table to the ceiling. It met the warm yellow light from the chandelier and transformed into hearty smiles as we ate our food and shared each other’s company.
Mameng’s room had an alcove where she put her altar. Above this altar hung pictures of her past three husbands and a watercolor of the ancestral home. On the table, among figurines of Santa Lucia, the Our Lady of Solitude and Our Lady of Manaoag, were red tapered candles, stones of different colors, her diary, a scattering of pencils and crayons in varying thicknesses and lengths. And at the far corner of the room was a piano. In memory, this room still appears and feels cavernous.
While my cousins and sisters roamed outside on the weekends, I went into Mameng’s room and would ask for a story. Any story. A folk-tale from the Tikew people from the island of Santa Lucia; what medicines she had to take as an old person; scenes from the hospital ward at the Philippine General Hospital that time she fractured her elbow in 1939; the ancestral home; her husbands and how she met them; the birth of each of her children; the things she drew in her diaries; May Day Eve rituals. Anything, I absorbed everything. The story best remembered was that of the ancestors F. Zazuareggui and Sampaga, with embellishments we believed, narrated beyond the confines of her cavernous room.
I see her in my mind. Her soft curly hair, all white, penetrated by the afternoon light. Her cheerful eyes and pink lips, the blue ring around her brown eyes. Even in her old age she seemed to me a girl. A wise girl. In her I felt the wholeness of circle and light. It consumed me. Dark magic ensconced in voluptuous deliciousness and joy. We were in the middle of a lake, and her thick, strong arms moved the boat. There, over water and air, she told me a family story.
BLUE EYES, DARK EYES, A TREMBLING HORIZON
Many people bemoan the coming of the apocalypse. They are laughable. Folks know the apocalypse came much earlier, in the sixteenth century. For other folks in other places, it might have come earlier or later. We know that each passing century is a reenactment of a never-ending fall. The demise came at the moment of our supposed discovery.
Aboard the Isabela in 1632, Francisco Zazuareggui met the archipelago at sunset. This is, however, a little inaccurate. Zazuareggui met the archipelago in a long letter sent to him by the Governor General of the colony. Only a handful of the thousands of islands have been explored and named. Each one was represented by a single paragraph describing its environs and inhabitants. A colonial map had also been provided. From the dock of the ship, Zazuareggui beheld what the paragraphs stood for as a trembling horizon. Red and gold glowed through the blueness of the sea like wounds that can never heal.
He was a scholar and his purpose on these islands were undetermined. The friars and the soldiers did most of the ethnographic work; educating the natives wasn’t considered beneficial for the imperial state. It had seemed to him then, and according to the Governor General’s letter, that he would be helping the Jesuits in translating a set of local poems and folktales. He was given quarters in the Jesuit seminary and had been instructed not to go beyond the walls. In the howling wilderness were the juramentados, natives who resisted colonial rule, the sensible natives, who will cut him up.
From the window of his room, he was afforded a view of the courtyard of some mansion. And in that courtyard, each morning, he saw a fair girl sweeping and watering the plants. Upon further inquiry, he found out that it was owned by elite natives, the Magat family, who had made a fortune dealing with traders from the Americas. In the summer previous, they had taken in a girl named Sampaga as their servant, who had come from south of the island. She was an orphan and her origins remained unclear. It was said that her tribe, who lost their domain to the colonizers through a series of bad deals, had walked to the edge of a cliff and jumped, one by one, into the sea.
How did she survive? Sampaga had been tasked, from a young age, to learn all the stories and epic chants of her tribe. This was her sole purpose. In order for her to do this, they kept her isolated in a small hut at the edge of the village. Somehow, they had forgotten to take her with them, perhaps in grief and fright upon losing the homeland. Or, perhaps, Zazuarregui thought, they left her because she was the keeper of their stories. She was their last bid at survival. He resolved to learn more about Sampaga and to speak to her, somehow and in secret.
A strange warning was given to the scholar Zazuarregui: though Sampaga is a fair girl, she’s still a native from the wildness. Her eyes must glow red at night, they say, and she is a maligno. A maligned person. Do not look into her eyes, if you see your reflection upside down, this is proof of what they say about her. But by then, it will be too late and you will fall into her darkness.
In Sampaga’s eyes, he was blueness. She felt the blueness unfurl inside her. Her language had plenty of expressions for blue, but not one word to contain it. He was blueness and the delicateness of small, morning flowers. She laughed at his shyness and measured sweetness, the mischief that shone through his smiles. He was like a tall child. They spoke in signs and diagrams. In each place—a clearing in the forest, the riversides, courtyards and rooms they visited, they left an imprint of their friendship. Each place was never the same again. She taught him a few lines of poetry. Never the stories for they were sacred, must be kept within her, and can only be passed on to her children. Eventually, enough had made sense for him to transcribe and translate. All work had been done in secret. To reciprocate, Zazuarregui taught Sampaga his language. They were both presided over by their respective cultures’ public poetics at work. Zazuarregui, the transcriber and translator; Sampaga, the keeper of fables and chants. There was an invisible thread between them. When apart, they sought each other madly, and their minds grew cleverer in trying to create reasons to constantly speak to each other.
Two summers had passed. By the river, a civil guard chanced upon the loud and beastly singing of Zazuarregui and Sampaga. Her legs were raised to the sky, their clothes on a tree stump. They rocked back and forth as yellow petals from the flame trees rained upon them.
They were summoned by the authorities for inquiry. The verdict was brief. Sampaga was an ungrateful ward of the Magat’s. She was sentenced to be whipped and dragged around town. Sampaga did not blink or say a word, her face as serene as a wooden idol. This made the matriarch Magat’s blood boil even more. In her eyes, Sampaga was nothing more than property, a glorified slave of the Magat Family to whom she owed her life. That was her lot, not liberation or self-determination. Absolutely not happiness, a love that liberates and edifies.
Of the verdict, this was what Zazuarregui had to say: “Your Sampaga is not my Sampaga.” It took a while before anyone understood what Zazuarregui meant. They saw each other in a secret way. A way they intended only for themselves; a life beyond sight. The scales of judgment dissolved in the presence of their love. Enlisting the help of a friend, he was able to get Sampaga out of prison. They ran beyond the city walls and into the wilderness where they met an elderly woman and her daughter who took them in until such time that they could work their escape. On May Day Eve 1634, Zazuarregui and Sampaga, evading punishment, boarded the ship De Las Casas bound for the island of Santa Lucia in the southern waters of the archipelago.
I write this family story with no vision of the future and a child in my womb, wishing to be born.
She had a name, it was a long thread that bore the narrative of her lineage. But the entire time she spent as an interna, she called herself 28, according to her order in class, ‘Girl no. 28’. Her friends—all the other girls at school, also called themselves by their respective numerical assignments.
The School of Our Lady of Solitude on the island of Santa Lucia was built in 1728, destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt after liberation. The school is a relative of the Ship of Theseus, the metaphysics of its identity intuitively grasped by the administration and its students. Given the school’s acronym, the girls called themselves The Lost SOLS. None of the living nuns laughed; they secretly wondered why they didn’t think of it first.
The girls spent days in study and prayer. Hours were devoted on literary and mathematical exercises. They worked in isolation but they were never alone. Time was made for gatherings, they would cook or sew together, embark together to look for food, whatever there was left to forage or to take in the howling wilderness. They spent time in each other’s rooms trying expired make-up or new hairstyles while listening to the same outdated podcasts or half-watching old movies. Petty fights would break out if, for instance, no. 9 messed up no. 35’s bangs. They would resolve it eventually, and chalk it up as a fad exclusive to the Lost SOLS, or, as no. 19 called it, ‘Audrey Hep-crash-and-burn Bangs’.
Some nights they could not keep to their rooms, so harsh was the cold, opposed to the sweltering days. They huddled together in the common room. In the dark, 28 tried to count the years from when they were sent here by their parents. She couldn’t have been younger than eight. She could no longer remember what they looked like, or if they were to come back. For all she knew, the world alone was the island of Santa Lucia. An orphaned paragraph from a burned book.
A week before the school’s feast day, the champaca flowers began to appear. The girls reacted in a mixture of fear and awe, a mark of their naïvete was the conclusion that only boys could have put those flowers at the gates of the school. They were filled with yearning for the proof of existence of their counterparts, or just anyone for that matter, that soon turned into ravenous greed. There was solace in their solitude, edifying warmth in their company. But at that time of desperation and fear everyone wanted a flower for herself and sought an invisible beloved.
28 wanted to take some of the flowers to cheer her up. A few of the girls were also making their way to the gates and in a bout of anger fueled by severe isolation, they picked a fight. Her mouth was sore, she had wanted nothing more than to press a flower petal to her lips. She told them, “Your chempaka is not my champaca.” Nobody knew what she meant, and nobody could answer back.
An entry from 28’s diary when she was sixteen:
A writing for the future. Wherever it may be.
There is an atmosphere, a feeling from my childhood which might or will never be replicated.
It could rain for days. Some people called it ‘tropical winter’ perhaps because, like northern winter, the weather kept you indoors. I would prefer it had no name. I listened to the steady stream of rain on the canopy of trees outside the bungalow house where I spent my early, small years. The house was on a hill and there was plenty of earth to absorb all that water. I can imagine the roots of the trees and plants around me squirming in the cold ecstasy of nourishment. When the rain stopped the air was so cool and even, it was like there was a satin veil hovering above us. I should like to think the beastly bugs also felt this. That’s why they hovered mid-air, so quiet and still. High enough so that naughty children like myself cannot swat them with wooden poles, but low enough to rest on the invisible satin veil. A writer described this kind of atmosphere in her language as the Hand of God caressing the Earth. I think of it as the world nestled inside flower petals.
I write this knowing I may never get past the age of twenty-seven or my age this year, sixteen. What can another eleven years do for me? This might be among the last seasonal writings produced in the world. A world that knows variations in temperature, color and light is coming to pass. I can hear no. 27, my darling Urduja, coughing and wheezing in the next room. The hot days are longer, dustier, the light more scattered so that each sunset is the glorious color of bloody piss. Because of the heat, they curl at the edges like the petals of old roses. I must add another layer of cover on my window.
Nuestra Señora de Soledad de la Porta Vaga, ora pro nobis.
(Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga, pray for us.)
THE FLOWER THAT COULD SPEAK
I am beneath a tower. There are twenty three tiny holes near the ceiling where the light permeates. From those holes, I also hear the sounds from the street above. They have imprisoned me because I aspired for softness. Dared to love.
I swam in the blueness and it has caused me much happiness and misery.
In the hut where I kept myself, I think I had seen his face in the hearth. Instantly, from my breast rose a new poem. Each song has no beginning or end.
Even before he took me, I felt the children within me aching to be born. This pain I understood to be love.
Where I conceived of love in a fire, so my descendants will be consumed by it.