April 21, 2010
The summer when I was five, Lola decided that I still need a yaya. Manang Mila was about sixteen when she was persuaded to leave Barrio Nagsabong to work in my grandparent’s household. Her cousin, Violeta, came with her. Violeta was younger, maybe fourteen, but old enough to be a yaya-in-training.
Mila and Violeta were a study in contrasts. Mila was light-skinned with straight long black hair while Violeta was dark complexioned with a mass of wavy curls. The differences ended there: they were both cheerful and good-natured and always enjoyed a game of piko or sungka.
To keep me in line, they told me stories about the aswang, the tikbalang and the nuno-sa-punso. To keep them in line, I told them about Pedro, my grandfather’s kapre. I told them that Pedro saw everything and anything that happened in the household. He was one to be handled gently. After all, kapres were known to be quirky, but his wisdom knew no bounds since he had gotten this from a long line of grandfather’s ancestors.
Pedro was credited with saving my Lolo’s family during the start of the American War. A storm almost capsized the boat of my Lolo’s family during their journey back from Kawit, Cavite to Navotas in Manila Bay. Except for the supernatural intervention of Pedro, the family would have drowned.
Nobody questions this. It has become part of the family’s oral tradition. This, I impressed on both Mila and Violeta. Although I believed Pedro’s escapades of long ago, I was skeptical about his current extraordinary powers -- until that summer.
First, it was Valentina’s baby. He was an unusual baby. His limbs were disproportionately long, and his ears were pointy. Initially, he just slept all day, but in a few weeks, when his eyes recognized more than light and colors, his oddness deepened.
Mila refused to be alone with the baby. She’d volunteer for yard work rather than be left inside the house with the infant.
“Look at his eyes...his eyes follow me anywhere I go,” she complained.
His eyes did get one’s hair to stand up. He had strange eyes; they felt like a grown-up’s but in a baby’s head.
I said this once when Valentina was around, and she laughed, which sounded more like a witch’s cackle to me.
One day when the household slowed down for the early afternoon siesta, Valentina played around with the baby, tossing it in the air as his long legs jabbed the warm air. He was a skinny baby, dark skinned with a nose that clung flat like an anthill on his face.
“If his legs grow any more faster than the rest of him, he could pass for a little kapre,” Lola remarked, half nodding from her nap.
By evening time, it was the talk of the town: Lola’s cook had given birth to the son of a kapre.
This hastened Valentina’s departure. If she had stayed on, none would have stayed around as household help, nor showed up for any harvesting -- much less eat the food cooked by the mother of a kapre!
Mila now listened to me closely when I talked about Pedro.
“Of course, Pedro is real,” I insisted.
Didn’t Valentina’s little room face the santol tree? Wasn’t it why she insisted on sleeping alone in that little room at the foot of the stairs, when the balcony -- where Mila and Violeta slept -- was more airy?
The santol tree where Pedro lived was Lolo’s prized possession. Its fruit was the sweetest in the whole town. The neighbors say that the santol tree was always there, even before my grandparents moved into town, but nobody remembered whether the tree had any fruit, much less whether its fruit was sweet.
“The fruit is sweet because Pedro lives there,” Lolo explained. “If and when he leaves, then the fruit will be sour again.”
The fruit was so sweet, we ate the santol for merienda. After the siesta hour, Lola would send one of the male helpers to climb up the tree and fill a bamboo basket with fruit. It was a routine that I looked forward to each day.
But after Valentina left, Mila refused to eat santol, or even peel the fruit for me. She regarded the santol tree with suspicion. Call it women’s intuition.
One overcast day, after gathering newly laundered clothes from the line, Mila had to pass the overhanging branches of the santol tree. She was deluged with cascading santol fruit. She came pale and shaking to where Lola and I were darning pillowcases.
“You must tell that kapre to stop pestering me!” she cried.
“What are you talking about?” Lola asked. She looked at Mila’s agitated face, then at the laundry in her arms, with streaks of the brown santol juice still dripping on it.
Violeta came panting right behind her. “I saw it. The santol just started to drop from the tree when she passed by.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You both have been reading too many comics.” Lola said as she went about sorting out the stained clothes from those spared from the santol juice. “It was just a gust of wind,” Lola insisted.
As if on cue, a gust of wind rattled the capiz windows. Outside, the bamboo trees creaked as they bent to the wind, and a series of thudding could be heard as more santol fruit hit the ground.
I can tell Lola was irritated, or afraid or both. Her reactions were the same. Her voice escalated in volume, and she assumed that “I am in charge here” posture. Mila was too terrified to notice.
“You must tell that kapre to stop pestering me,” she repeated
“Now this one,” Lola said matter-of-factly, as she held up Lolo’s santol stained underwear, “must be left out in the sun for two days to bleach. Soak the clothes briefly in soap and then lay them down flat on the G.I. sheets like this.” And she proceeded to demonstrate, with all the brown splotches strategically facing upwards.
Silently, the two girls gathered the laundry and retreated to the kitchen where the incident under the santol tree continued to be whispered about for days afterwards.
late afternoon, several weeks later as Mila, Violeta and I were
playing patintero, a spirited game that required a lot of running
around, Mila broke her rubber slippers. With some safety pins and
ingenuity, she was able to repair the broken pair.
wish I had more pairs of these,” she sighed, looking at the
repaired slipper. “Or maybe a new pair of step-ins.” She
brightened at the thought. The Sunday before, she had asked to come
to Mass with us, and was embarrassed that she had come in rubber
slippers, and not the brightly colored sandals that most the young
women were wearing.
“We can buy tomorrow,” Violeta said. “It is market day.” The break energized all of us, and before long we were wrapped up in our little game.
next day, pandemonium ensued at daybreak. A gaggle of townspeople
were at the gate very early in the morning, all wanting to get in. The
front yard was littered with all sizes and colors of footwear. It was
as if somebody had gone about collecting the footwear in front
of each front door and deposited them in my grandparents’ front
yard. In the midst of the pile, “Mila”was scrawled on the dirt.
Lolo was unperturbed. His breakfast went on as scheduled: sunny side eggs, pan de sal and salty Chinese ham with sweet hot chocolate. He sat quietly sipping his chocolate and surveyed the scene in his front yard. Irate neighbors in their bare feet were frantically trying to match pairs. Rubber slipper, wooden shoes, rubber shoes, leather footwear and sandals were tossed helter-skelter all over the yard. Lola was more than angry. She was livid. In this condition she reverted to Ilocano, her first language. Although Lolo, who was from the Tagalog region understood some of it, I think he chose not to hear. Lola’s tirade was mostly directed at his hapless ancestors. From Lola’s point of view, they were remiss in raising Pedro properly. There was not doubt in her mind that the culprit was Lolo’s kapre, Pedro.
Clearly, Pedro was infatuated, but the object of his infatuation was not amused. That afternoon, we all went to church for the daily Novena. Mila liberally doused herself with the holy water upon entering and exiting the church.
That night, Lolo talked to Pedro. He rocked back and forth in his rocking chair. “Pdero” he intoned, “Listen to me. I don’t want you collecting slippers and wooden shoes from people’s front doors.” Although he tried to muster as much seriousness in his voice, I could detect a chuckle. “Pedro, if you want to impress the ladies, you don’t give them used footwear! Try flowers, or candies, or….”
“Don’t give him anymore ideas,” Lola interrupted. “We don’t need a lovesick kapre in our midst.” For emphasis she pulled out the lighted cigarette from her mouth and waved it in the direction of the santol tree.
For the next few days, nothing unusual happened. All the footwear were eventually matched and properly retrieved by the owners. Some sort of normalcy returned to the household and in our immediate neighborhood.
Then Pedro struck again, this time with flowers, more romantic than footwear, but more costly for my grandparents. By sunrise, our next door neighbor, who raised orchids, was banging at the gate—with his trusted bolo. All his orchids were shorn of their flowers and deposited at our doorstep, again with one word scrawled in the dirt, “Mila.”
Lolo calmed the neighbor down after promising some kind of restitution. There was no way he could deny that whoever did the dastardly act was part of his household—whether human or otherwise.
After the neighbor was sufficiently calmed down and returned to his yard, Lolo stood under the santol tree in broad daylight and berated Pedro soundly.
We never knew whether Lolo’s scolding cured Pedro of his infatuation. The next day, which was market day, Mila’s family came to town to sell their farm’s produce. By the end of the day Mila was back with them in the safety of Barrio Nagsabong, far away from Pedro and the santol tree.
April 16, 2010
Some years ago, I would regale my nephews and nieces about the old days when my siblings and I spent our summers in Zambales. They enjoyed the stories. When my daughter was old enough to appreciate storytelling, I drew from those experiences to describe my childhood. It occurred to me that remembrance of those days would be forever lost. My mom’s generation is now almost gone, and before long, it is our turn. Before I can no longer remember, I decided to write these down for the next generation -- but I think it is mostly for myself. Some memories are hazy fragments so I embellished a lot -- call it literary license -- to make these vignettes more interesting.
Other families have heirlooms to pass on to each generation. My grandfather’s family had Pedro, my grandfather’s kapre. I knew that Pedro existed. I never saw him, but I believed in his presence in as much as I believed that after a dry spell, rain would come.
That year when I turned five, the santol tree that was Pedro’s home was in its full glory. It had completely obscured our neighbors next door. And at night, from my grandparent’s bedroom window, I could see the tip of Pedro’s cigar moving in the shadows of the santol tree.
The night still held terrors for me: I could not be persuaded to sleep by myself. My preference was to share my grandmother’s Simmons bed, one of her wise purchases using wartime Japanese money.
The Simmons bed was large, a king-sized one. It was an odd piece of furnishing in Lola’s frugal and straightforward household. But then again, since it was bought with Japanese Mickey Mouse money, it was a wise purchase. Lola only slept on the left end of the bed, next to the door. The right side adjoined Lolo’s more prosaic bed -- really stiff -- not good for using as a trampoline.
Lolo and Lola’s household was strictly a “his and hers” affair, long before that became fashionable. Lola’s bathroom was downstairs, between the two dining rooms. It was actually shared by everyone during the day, when one was too lazy to go upstairs.
Lola’s bathroom was a miserable affair. It was raised about 18 inches from the dining room floor so that its plumbing fixtures could be higher than the sewer line. It was a major exertion to get up there, but surprisingly, even when Lola was pushing 80, it was still her bathroom of choice.
It was odd to do one’s thing in Lola’s bathroom. We called it--”nasa trono.” It was literally sitting on a throne. When the door -- which swung outward -- opened accidentally, one had a panoramic view of the dining room, the driveway and the street beyond. And anybody who happened to be around also had a panoramic view of the bathroom’s occupant. When done, you pulled this device, and the water tank above thundered with satisfaction as water flushed down.
Lola eschewed showers. It was strictly “tabo” system in her bathroom. And the pail that we used to collect water had to be filled -- or half filled, every time--in case the toilet didn’t flush and needed extra assistance. I personally preferred Lolo’s bathroom. I graduated to using that when I could bathe myself without a yaya in attendance.
Lolo’s bathroom was upstairs, next to the bedrooms. It was a two-room affair: the smaller room contained the toilet and the bidet. The bigger one was a white tiled wonder, complete with shower and lavatory. No pails were allowed in Lolo’s bathroom. In those days when most of the town had to fetch water from a well, Lolo had hot water piped into his bathroom. The hot water pipes were built into the rice-hull stoves in the kitchen. Whenever meals were cooked, Lolo had hot water.
For as long as I can remember, Lola stuck to her bathroom, Lolo to his. Part of Lola’s daily bed time routine was to remind one of her housemaids to bring up her orinola, or chamber pot, and to dispose of its contents in the morning -- and not in Lolo’s toilet. It had to be in hers.
During the nights I stayed in my Lola’s huge bed, within the haze created by the mosquito net, I can still see my grandparents seated in their favorite rocking chairs. Unlike the bathrooms, these were identical -- straightforward pieces of fine carpentry, devoid of curlicues and floral swirls that were popular then. In this instance, they had identical tastes.
The tip of Lolo’s cigar was a distinct beacon in the darkness. Occasionally, I would see the lighted tip of Lola’s cigarette. When she talked, she pulled it out of her mouth, but most of the time, the hot burning tip was safely secured inside her mouth.
This is not an unusual thing. Lola’s women friends who smoked routinely had the lighted end inside their mouths. For the longest time, I had always assumed that women were supposed to smoke this way.
Lola loved her black cigarettes, but Lolo’s cigar smoking, I think, was for show. Perhaps to give Pedro some company. When I tried hard enough, I could see the tip of Pedro’s cigar amid the shadows of the santol tree.
One night before the start of summer vacation, as I dozed on the right side of Lola’s bed, the rhythm of their voices lulled me to sleep. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the Victory Liner as it passed the town. An insect droned somewhere, and their identical rocking chairs creaked in unison.
The night’s peace was shattered. A baby’s cry cut the black silence, and it was coming directly below my grandparents’ bedroom window. The cry was persistent, then muffled as if someone had cupped the baby’s mouth.
In no time, Lolo was unlocking the upstairs doors, flashlight in one hand. By bedtime, the electric generator was turned-off, and the whole house was in darkness, except for the gas lamp in front of the Sto. Nino.
“Valentina! Valentina! Are you all right?” Lolo called out. Valentina, the cook, used the small room below my grandparents’ bedroom. I trailed my grandparents as they went down the stairs to the room below.
A soft light framed the upper walls of the room at the foot of the stairs. The walls’ decorative cutwork cast eerie shadows on the ceiling. The door was open. A candle flickered on a ledge of the open window. Dark red streaks covered the mat, and in the midst of the chaos of clothes and stained sheets was a small baby.
Lola pulled me out of the room. “Tell Violeta and Mila to get up and come down here,” she ordered. Violeta and Mila were the two junior housemaids who slept upstairs at the enclosed porch. With that she had taken control.
Amazingly, Valentina was up and about the next day doing her chores. Seemingly, the baby did not alter the routine of the household. As the cook, Valentina, went to market every day, prepared breakfast, lunch, afternoon merienda and supper for the entire household. During harvest and planting time, her workload included cooking for the work crew that went to the fields. She was an indispensable part of the household.
“How did she find the time,” Lolo observed. “She’s only been here nine months.”
“It was not done here!” Lola insisted.
“Done what?” I asked.
One evening, after dinner, weeks after the baby was born, Lolo sat in his favorite chair, scanning the latest issue of Free Press. He was the town’s sole distributor of this venerable magazine -- the distributor to the town’s eight subscribers, including himself.
“Done what?” I repeated. They ignored me. Lolo did not even look up from the Free Press. Lola handed me her keys instead.
“Hija, please get my little black scissors in my aparador. It’s in the middle drawer. I need to cut my nails.”
“But Lola, I thought we’re not supposed to cut our nails at night, or we’ll get hangnails.” I frowned. That meant going upstairs and bravely facing the stare of the Sto. Nino that guarded her aparador.
She sensed my hesitation. “You can also bring the beaded white purse I showed you yesterday. You may keep it until Sunday Mass,” she added.
Earlier in the day, I had begged to play with the purse. I pushed aside the domino tiles I was playing with and went upstairs.
“She could not possibly do it here. Impossible!” Lola declared emphatically, softly this time.
“Maybe she was already pregnant when she came.”
“So what do we do? We can’t send her off just like that, until the employment agency sends somebody for her.”
“The palay needs harvesting soon. It will take time to train another cook...”
Their voices tapered as I reached the landing, the Sto. Nino following my every move.