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illustration © Melissa Nolledo Christoffels

We were children of the sunrise; a race discovered only in the seven streaks of the sea; wild flowers raised from the guitar. When we lived, there was no other life, and it was so sung by the elements that made us tall as the rapture of our island.

When we died—crushed and killed by the time under the veranda—a mood, a manner and a mountain died.

* * * *

Each year I return to Rosario, as a wounded animal returns to its cave. I bring with me the pain of my passion and the scar of my wound. I have left a city where my name was never spoken and where I have been dying for many years.

Now I wander from house to house, strumming a guitar. Sometimes a wrinkled face will recognize me, and a fever of memory glows like a firefly.

Yes, it is he, they mumble and remember. He bas come back. I am nothing now to look at: bones that seem shy of skin; silver where there is still hair, and the tail of a smile that says: Goodbye. A red scarf defends my head from the neck, no doubt, some people believe, to hold me together as a ribbon holds a fragile box. These fingers are gnarled to the pitch of panic, but they still contain the futility of music.

Not much remains of the youth I once wore like a fountain, but in the summer of this town, you will see that I am part of its nature— leaf to its tree; footstep on its earth. The day and night of Rosario do not go on without me.

When I stand under the azotea, on an evening, guitar slung like a wooden cross on my back, I ask them: What do you wish? I will sing you a harana, a serenade of the wind that glides from the west to become an easterly wind in the pulse of the monsoon. I will sing of the mushrooms preserved l1ke cataracts of dew emptying into the lagoon. I will sing of my island that bears the shape of a sea anemone where there are no roads, only trails; where there are no breakers, only reefs; where there is no electricity, only the sun and the moon and the kerosene lamp in between.

To this, they turn away and murmur: "I thought he was dead." Or: "I did not know he was blind." But always someone remembers and there is coin for my palm. I make a little bow and go.

"He is like the sea turtle," the village chief confides to visitors, "come annually to lay its eggs under the arches. He is a creature of ritual and Rosario is his altar. He plants a song in every house and goes away and comes back, only to find that nothing has grown. There is no harvest."

They ask: Where does he come from?"

And there, I cry with all the invalids in the world. We make the same noise, for I never squeeze alms out of the guitar. I tap on a drum; blow on a harmonica.

"The city: he goes there to die. There, he is blind eleven months in a year. He only comes back to see again, for here, he knows every feature of the land. One day, because of time, he will learn that both places are the same, and he will be blind in both of them."

They ask: "He will die?" As I sing to another house, the village chief sighs: "The pilgrimage will be over."

It is true, eleven months in a year I am blind in the city. For that is what Manila means to me, one long night of entering the back doors of Chinese cafes and coming out of garbage cans.

If I earn a piece of bread, a boy with a razor will steal it, if the butcher throws me some meat, a dog will take it away; if I lie down on the pavement, they will summon the funeral parlor. There are no days in Manila, only darkness that never gives mornings. There are no streets; only alleys. And there, I cry with all the invalids in the world. We make the same noise, for I never squeeze alms out of the guitar. I tap on a drum; blow on a harmonica. I beg for coffee at daybreak and squat on the steps of the church of San Sebastian. I hear the rustle of priests circle the courtyard and follow the beads of old women.

Then one day, at the crowing of roosters, I put drum and harmonica away. I take out the guitar and tune it. I beg passage on a ship going south. For on the twelfth month, I can smell my hometown in the evening mass. I hold a shell to my ear and listen to the hum of a quiet sea. Rosario, my Rosario!

* * * *

When I was nine years old my mother died. I was left alone with my father who was a fisherman.

He was a swarthy man, my father. His voice had a rough edge to it that was not always kind to a song. But it was honest. It had a wistfulness to it that I loved when it boasted how the east could be reached by sailing west. My own voice in those days was only a quaver that had to be guided back to shore.

Father also introduced me to the three-stringed instruments revered by the islanders and we spent long hours together wooing five strings to my fingers.

I learned that the barbers of Guiauan, which was 25 nautical miles away from our town, killed stray cats and used their hides on one side of a sandpapered wood box; and adding four coarse strings to it created a banjo. The banjo produced a harsh and more solid sound and was regarded to be in the tenor range. Since there was no organ in the church lit was used to accompany hymns. The banduria, on the other hand, with its shorter handle and many chords, was reliable for its strength and it sustained an intricate tempo for the baile, the lively dance. But ultimately it was the guitar with its ringing and more liquid tones that caught the fancy.

Father endured the miserable way I sang and played and drove me farther into my lessons. Being mortally alone, we were doomed to songs and stories. From his boat and the market, father went home directly. I would cook our supper and we would eat. After putting away the tin plates, we gathered on the step: to sing again. Because I was not blind then, he would declare very solemnly: "If we have a good season next year you too can go to school, my Immanuel." At dusk, he pushed coins into a slit of the bamboo pillar that supported the pleated bamboo wall. He juggled it constantly, listening to my future. It was as though every fish in the ocean was in that pole.

On our trips to town, father still pointed out things to me, though I was 17 and a man. But then father said I knew only names and addresses; he was teaching me their ancestry; their antiquity. For every name I took for granted, father insinuated a meaning, a suffering. For every place I discarded, he recalled avocations, associations, affiliations: the Old Guard sentiments of a people forever bound to one another by virtue of communication. With every telling, it seemed he was bequeathing Rosario personally to me. Soon—and because father also taught me how to read and write—I was beginning to write poems about Rosario that I blew like kisses under a girl's window.

And one night, at the village dance, I met Orianna.

* * * *

And because he carried no instrument, he adopted me as his own. I followed him to whoever, wherever, two scales lower, two paces behind.

She must have been in her fifteenth year when I saw her. The daughter of a hacendero, she lived in a big Spanish house near the mayor's. Six times a week some boys and I sang to her; they, in their importance; and I, in my humiliation since I was too poor to go near her. There were those who simply desired her company, and this she gave freely. She was inviolate and none of us presumed to change her. Until the banker's son arrived from Manila.

He was called Leon and his voice in serenade brought down the stars in a shower of promises: to hang around Orianna' s neck. This voice teased me and before it I was no more than a flick of ashes, it sang, and she was possessed, standing there on the verandah. And because he carried no instrument, he adopted me as his own. I followed him to whoever, wherever, two scales lower, two paces behind. My hands formed a trail; my fingers pulled out weeds that he might lie her a tenderness. When that voice could no longer brag, though in me the spirit still crawled for attention, he stopped it. He had sung to no accord. Yet the guitar and I had been faithful. Though we were hailed up the stairway, Leon would not see me with him. Like a pair of wooden shoes with dirt on its heels, he left me downstairs. The dirt and the mud were in my poverty.

However, when the banker's son was in Manila, I went alone. I sang to hurt her. For in my hoarseness I wanted to touch her. I played, being careful to bend under her stare, I opened the smarting wound.

I told her about the moon-tides of the China Sea that washed the evening against the beach, where, if you waited long enough, the trawling fleets would come. It seems history itself has always waited for the homecoming of the fishermen, to feed this world of islands. I told her about the devil fish my father caught that weighed like a whale; how I myself had once hurled the harpoon and lost my childhood. How then it seemed The Eyes of The One Above shone upon my joy for all the older oarsmen to see. I told her about the currents of July, the legend of the patios, the glimmer of lanzones yellow, the tawny green of the Azores, the clamor of mandarins in the valleys. Then I told her about The Loneliness.

But she never heard me, never saw me. When Leon returned in another week, we retraced the pattern once more. Besides this cruelty in the evening, Leon liked to taunt me about my clothes in the daytime. He giggled at my awkwardness. He would ask me if I picked lice from my hair with the other old women of the villaqe. While I added callouses to my palms, Leon put more money in the bank. Still I went with him, awkward and calloused, to the hacendero's house because it was the only way I could see Orianna. One day, I hacked the bamboo pole in our hut, spilled the coins, put them all in my pockets and ran to the plaza where I bought myself a bundle of new clothes. When I came home again, the hut was leaning on its side. Father was on the step. On his face, I saw our life die together, for I had killed every fish in his body and cut every vein in his heart.

Leon had been drinking heavily those days and I encouraged him. Father had not spoken—perhaps would never speak again—and this drove me to Leon. Leon laughed and drank and said Orianna was his. We were standing under the hacendero's acacia that evening in August when the voice, my master, turned hoarse. Now it fell at my feet. I pulled away.

I struck the guitar and put the god of me in there. I let it sing. I let it scream. I tore into it. I crushed my life upon it: my birth, my face, my darkness. I peeled it to the skin and scolded it to a softness the woman-born had never heard before.

"Immanuel! Immanuel! " the banker's son cried, as though he were drowning. Fiercely, I wrenched myself loose and rose on my legs. He pulled me back. I planted my limbs like roots on the ground and nothing he did could bend me again. Even the wind could not blow me down.

* * * *

I struck the guitar and put the god of me in there. I let it sing. I let it scream. I tore into it. I crushed my life upon it: my birth, my face, my darkness. I peeled it to the skin and scolded it to a softness the woman-born had never heard before. I put the cross upon it. I attacked it with the thorns of the rose. I put a tongue to all the wounds. I dragged the dead out of their graves. I prayed a mountain in my smallness. "Immanuel:" cried the banker's son.

Still I howled. I howled on my hands and held her. I crept on my pulse and reached her. I wrung my soul into a moan and threw it to her—like a flower. Pain bled on my face and I made her look and feel guilty. While I fought my earth, while I clawed at the distance, Leon struck my face and body and begged me to stop. He kicked at my bones till I almost collapsed but I would not lose. In a terrible rage, he scooped up rocks and stoned me. The poor man did not know he was only helping me. For with every thrust upon me, with every blow upon my face, he was only revealing the wound that had been in me since it all began.

I do not remember how they drove him away. He was swearing, cursing me with all of his strength. Orianna, seeing me in blood, ran to me and tore out a piece of her dress. She wiped my pain and held my hands that were bleeding from the guitar. She cried while I ached and crying, she spoke my name.

Leon left Rosario. That was what I heard. And now Orianna often asked for me. When her father went on trips to his family ranch she bade me walk with her, which I did gladly. We would stroll quietly on the beach; I, not quite abreast of her, for I dared not even suggest my shadow upon her. Yet we were everywhere together. Holding her hand meant more than having her; and when she leaned on me, I seemed to own the land. For once, there was peace; on my hands was calmness. Having heard my story, she would not have me scream again. It hurt her most, she said, to see me sad.

So my hands loved her. Not in the way of man, but in the sweat of them; in what they did to the soil around her. I planted the fields. I tended the gardens. I pounded the pestle. I chopped wood for fuel, brought in water from the well. All these made more brown the skin, but they fulfilled not only the customs of our people, they also revealed our fate. It was a feeling that bent the knees.

Father still had not spoken. Each afternoon, I waited in the hut. Father came home. We greeted each other. We ate together. I asked him about his trip. He nodded. I asked him about the tides. He nodded. Then he went to the top rung of the stairs He did not sing.

For I had claimed his guitar and each night, I went to Orianna. I spoke of father. I spoke of the loneliness that was killing us. I spoke of the city where the streetcar was and where I could find a living.

She only touched me to silence. She said Rosario was my home. My roots were in this town where we would continue to die until the east wind blew us all into God's Own Grace. Rosario was where I knew the temper of the weather, where I could always be a member of some gentle secrecy because I played the guitar.

And then, in the same tone, she said that she would marry.

"My father is coming back tomorrow," she whispered.

* * * *

That morning, he did return. The priest was with him. I ran all the way from our hut to their house. But I was met by Leon. "'There he is," he sneered indicating me with a stick and addressing Orianna's father, a heavy man with mustaches who carried a whip.

Before anyone could object, they had tied me to the tree in front of the townspeople. They whipped me for almost an hour. When they cut me down, I crawled back to the sea. I hurt all over. But the lash that cut deeply was the sight of Orianna. She was trembling when I saw them lead her away.

I was not well for two months. I could not move without opening a rip in my back. Father sat stolidly on his step, not speaking, rocking himself and not speaking. I would come home from fishing and find him smiling in the hut—ironing my new clothes.

"Stop this!" I shouted in despair one afternoon.

The day of the village
is over. Our hut is gone, my town is dead. Only
a city remains and on its streets I sometimes think I meet my father —a relic of a rock
as durable as the sea.

Then on the day of her wedding, Orianna ran away. They looked everywhere for her. I went alone to all the places where Orianna and I had gone to. Still, there was no trace of her. Finally, a child found her near a reef. We went back to town carrying her body over our heads. When he saw her, Orianna's father screeched. "Why did she do it? She had everything!" he sobbed.

Leaning towards him, I struck his face with my fist.

* * * *

In the city, in a cave deep in Intramuros (where I first began to die) I used to hear the town cackling for me. I heard the murmur of men cruising our gulf, and in the scent of the mist, I felt the climate cold against me. I heard the bells of the chapel herding all the lost boys to mass, and the moon calling all the believers to the porch.

Now I am told the mayor of Rosario has an orchid on his lapel; a hospital in his savings and a holster on his hip. The council drinks gin and everything has been fiscalized, even the grass. Only the birds seem to know the difference. They fly at a certain altitude, never daring to come closer than they can afford to. Now the fruit is on the tree again; the season is in the sky; the smile is on the women; the woman is on the verandah. But where are the lovers of May? Where did the sampaguitas, the fragrant jasmine, go? The day of the village is over. Our hut is gone, my town is dead. Only a city remains and on its streets I sometimes think I meet my father—a relic of a rock as durable as the sea. It is easier for me than it is for him because I cannot see the metal cup in his hand. He stammers his way through the years; I strum them away. On Sundays, they give him fruits for food and tell him they are sorry.

An asphalt road has encroached upon the meadow. In the plaza, a stage—it is really a platform to support the bulk of politicians—has been raised, not to hold up the mind of man, but the promises of men. Every block is sustained in the possibility of earning a living, not a life. Go even now to my hometown. Speak my name, and they will come to tell you that you are not calling a man, but a horse.

So from house to house, I will go, blind from a city. I carry the song in me, as a reminder, as a belief, and finally, as a tear. Something of a tradition has died to strengthen us. The music of the harana is in the hills; on the lips of all the young men who never left their homes to fall under a window; upon all of us who have grown old.

And when you see an old man strumming a guitar under your window, please say that you remember me. And all over the land the voice of the turtle will sing again…

This story appears in the anthology CADENA DE AMOR & OTHER SHORT STORIES by Wilfrido D. Nolledo, posthumously published by UST Publishing House, 2004.

© Wilfrido D. Nolledo

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