Published in Copperfield Review, Summer Edition, August 2002
A Short Story by Cindy Fazzi
In the village of San Jose, less than two miles from the walled section of Manila, the church bell clanged, startling the roosters into crowing and the dogs into barking. It was a torrid day, the sun already beating at seven o’clock in the morning. A steady stream of men, women, and children entered the ornate wooden doors of the imposing Roman Catholic Church at the heart of the town.
Not everyone heeded the church bell right away, however. There were pockets of old men chewing betel nut and middle-aged women exchanging pleasantries outside. The drivers of the horse-drawn calesas parked under the trees waited for their masters outside as was expected of them. The bell resonated once more, a final call to those who idled outside.
Isabella, who was two months shy of 16, and her mother, barely made it on time. The girl pressed her smooth cheek to the rough, but cool, stone wall as soon as she stepped inside the church. Her mother, Señora Corazon Aguilar del Rosario, was flabbergasted. “Dios mio! Stop that immediately!” she said in her mixed Spanish-Tagalog language.
Isabella was not the least embarrassed by her action, merely annoyed with her mother. She put on a flimsy white veil on her head and followed her mother to the front row, right under the nose of the Spanish friar.
Señora Corazon, with her veiled head held high, believed that her family’s status gave her the right to sit in front of everybody. Let the indios crane their necks and strain their ears. The year was 1898 and someone of mixed Spanish-Tagalog lineage like Señora Corazon was three steps above the natives in the local social ladder. It was an unwritten hierarchy perpetuated by Spaniards and Spanish mestizos, people who could boast of a drop of Spanish blood.
The señora was anxious to learn about the fate of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. El Diario de Manila, the leading newspaper in the city, had been uncharacteristically vague. The local population knew that whatever information the newspapers could not supply, the padre would. Hence, the big crowd in church even though it wasn’t Sunday.
Isabella sat impassively. She was absently fiddling the golden medallion hanging from a black velvet choker on her neck. Her face was small, her lips and nose dainty, but her dark eyes were wide and deep-set, like a set of jewels beckoning. Her silky black hair was gathered in a tight bun. Isabella wore a white kimona, a drooping waist garment that was as thin as lace. A spotless chemise was meant to be visible underneath the blouse. Her blue and white plaid skirt was wrapped tightly around her slim waist, but fell loosely to her ankles. She wore open-heeled silk shoes.
Unlike the rest of the assembly, the girl already knew the outcome of the battle in Manila Bay. She knew that Commodore George Dewey and his men had sunk all seven Spanish ships in a humiliating six-hour battle, the most lopsided victory in the history of naval warfare. Almost 400 men under Admiral Patricio Montojo had been killed or wounded. It was a secret Isabella carried like a burden on her back, a bit of information that bore grave consequences, but she did not know what.
The padre finally began the Mass. There were prayers in Latin, which the natives did not understand, and songs in Tagalog, which they sang at the top of their lungs. Isabella neither sang nor prayed, her eyes wandering. She spotted her best friend, Aurora, whose smile was as brilliant as the morning. The singing echoed throughout the church’s domed ceiling. Isabella caught a glimpse of a silver-haired lady wearing a mourning veil and outfit. The girl nodded sheepishly at Doña Lourdes Alejandro, the paternal grandmother of the person she was looking for. Ten months after her husband’s death, Doña Lourdes continued to wear black from head to toe as was the local custom.
Isabella withdrew her glance first. Of course, Joaquin was not there. He told her where he was going to be that morning. He’d spent three hours calling on her last night. The very thought of him suffused her face with color.
Only five years her senior, Joaquin seemed to Isabella altogether wise and worldly beyond his 21 years. All of San Jose knew that there were two things Joaquin Alejandro always wanted: to become a physician and to marry Isabella. He had made known to her his every wish and desire. He had turned to her in times of great joy and in moments of great anguish. She had no doubt whatsoever about his love. And yet a part of her realized that she would never know him completely. She would never understand the force that drove him elsewhere instead of by her side. She felt a pang of jealousy.
The friar went up the short steps to a gilded pulpit, his pale face glowing from sweat, the thinning hair on his head flattened by some kind of ointment. An altar boy stood behind fanning the old man. The padre appeared frail, but his booming voice left no doubt about his authority. He began the sermon by expressing his disappointment that the town fiesta in honor of San Jose was canceled. The archbishop of Manila, he said, had urged everyone to refrain from celebration of any kind while the archipelago faced the threat of the North American aggressor. The archbishop had asked for Mass every day until the Spaniards succeeded in chasing the Americans away.
“This is not a time for merrymaking, but a time for prayer,” the padre said in Tagalog, which he learned only because he did not wish to teach his own language to the natives. Like his compatriots who ruled the islands, he believed that teaching the indios the Spanish language was like picking up a rock and hitting one’s head with it. If the indios learned to speak and read Spanish, they would become too smart for their own good. They would learn to talk back, to fight back. And who wanted that? “My beloved children, the Americanos have come to enslave you. They want to substitute Protestantism for Catholicism!” the padre’s voice echoed. “They provoked this war. But the enemies are suffering heavily. Victory is on our side because God is on our side!”
The audience stirred. Gasps could be heard. Isabella was, however, uncertain if they were gasps of relief or disappointment. There was much ambivalence about the Americans’ foray into the archipelago. Nobody knew whether they were friends, or foes, and why exactly they’d bothered to sail to the ends of the earth to pick a fight with the Spaniards.
Isabella squirmed on her seat. The packed church, steaming in heat and humidity, had that distinct smell of sticky skin. The girl’s mouth was dry; the taste of her breakfast of fried bananas still lingered in her mouth. She was tired of listening to the old friar’s lies. She wished to head for the door and sit on a bench under the cool shade of an acacia tree at the plaza across the church.
Señora Corazon whispered to her: “Thank goodness for men like Admiral Montojo. We are safe, hija mia. We shall attend the ball in Intramuros tomorrow. Everything is fine.”
“If everything is fine, how come we’re not allowed to celebrate the fiesta of San Jose?” Isabella quipped, sorely testing her mother’s patience.
“Because it is too late. The fiesta was three days ago,” answered the señora.
“Then how come the Castilas are fleeing Manila?”
“Not fleeing exactly, and not all Spaniards certainly.” The mother fanned herself nervously.
Isabella’s pretty face turned sour. She happened to know that the most important Spanish families in Manila had already left for the provinces for fear of an all-out American invasion. Joaquin had passed on a lot of information to her in confidence. But even without the privilege of Joaquin’s information, Isabella thought there were plenty of signs that not all was well in Manila.
The fiesta of San Jose had never been canceled before. It was simply unthinkable. Everybody prepared for the feast for months. Fabrics were ordered and dresses were made a year in advance. The local band would spearhead the religious procession that usually snaked through every cobblestone street in San Jose. The bejeweled statues of saints would be standing atop the floats decorated with fresh flowers. A street would be closed off for a cockfight. The churchyard was usually the site of a comedia, a play about European knights and princesses. To cap the celebration, young people would socialize under the protective glances of their chaperones at the town’s biggest dance held at the plaza. Colorful banners would be hanging from the acacia trees and torches would be blazing on poles planted in the ground. The band would play all night long, the older women would gossip till dawn, while the old men would drink themselves into stupor. The feast of San Jose was the best time for the whole town. It was the only occasion when the rich and the poor, the mestizos and the indios, mingled freely. For one day each year, everyone was equal and everybody was a friend. But all of that had been canceled.
The sermon went on. There were more singing and praying in Latin. Then as meek as goats, everyone formed a line for the Holy Communion. When the Mass was over, Isabella somehow convinced the señora to allow her to walk home with Aurora.
Isabella stepped under her friend’s pink parasol as they walked. A light breeze barely rustled the leaves of the trees, not enough to dry the sweat-soaked cotton shirts of the old men walking ahead of the girls.
“Do you think the Castilas will defeat the Americanos?” said Aurora. Her dark brown face was round like a full moon, her braided hair hanging on her shoulder like a fat rope. She wore a blouse similar to Isabella’s, but her long skirt could not hide the flabbiness around her waist.
“No, I think not,” answered Isabella.
“Well, why not? You heard what the padre said. The Spaniards are fighting magnificently.”
Isabella merely shook her head. She was not about to break Joaquin’s confidences.
“I heard the Americanos are fond of stripping. A friend of my father’s saw some of them on the beach in Cavite. They wore nothing but their trousers. The white devils are dying of heat!” Aurora chuckled. Isabella smiled, but she refused to be drawn into any conversation about the Americans. She noticed that Aurora, like the other churchgoers, was nonchalant despite the padre’s warning about the Americans’ plan to enslave them. How resigned most people were, herself included, about the inevitability of changing from one white-skinned conqueror to another. How much worse could it really get under the Americanos?
“Joaquin was not in church,” said Aurora, not as an observation, but as an indirect question.
“No. He’s busy,” said Isabella.
This kind of conversation vexed Isabella, but she merely bit her tongue. She was brought up in the same manner as Aurora, and was taught the same art of beating around the bush for the sake of polite talk.
“Joaquin is busy writing,” said Isabella.
“I didn’t know studying medicine entailed so much writing.”
“You very well know that his writing doesn’t have anything to do with his studies.”
“Oh, you mean those pamphlets that he writes?” Aurora angled the parasol so that the shade was more on her side, forcing her friend to move closer. When Aurora spoke again, she whispered in Isabella’s ear. “I don’t need to tell you how dangerous it is for Joaquin to continue associating with the insurrectos. Are you not going to stop him?”
“Joaquin lives by his principles. He believes that Filipinos must fight for their independence. Nobody is going to give it to us on a silver platter. Not the Spaniards, not the Americans.”
Isabella stopped after catching herself use the term “Filipinos.” Joaquin, his fellow students at the university, and those advocating for the end of Spanish rule in the archipelago, were apt to use the word. It embodied their very cause. To be called Filipinos and not indios, to be treated as the Spaniard’s equal and not his lowly subject. Those were Joaquin’s words only the night before.
“Hmp! Joaquin has principles beyond comprehension. I’m still trying to grapple why he emulates a man who was executed by a firing squad two years ago,” said Aurora. She walked faster as her words became heated. It was no longer a time for beating around the bush. Aurora felt it was her duty to cure her friend’s blindness, the kind that came with falling in love.
Isabella was panting from catching up with Aurora, a drop of sweat sliding from her forehead to her temple. “Will you please slow down?”
Aurora ignored her. “I thought at first that his admiration for Dr. Jose Rizal was harmless,” she said. “But the doctor was executed for sedition. His ideas were clearly dangerous. What I want to know is this: Do you want a dead future husband? Do you want to be a widow even before you become a bride?”
“Joaquin is not an insurrecto. He’s not a rebel. He has the kindest heart. He’s doing what he’s doing for our sake.”
“Surely not for your sake if he turns up inside a coffin,” said Aurora, one eyebrow arched. Isabella kicked a pebble in the dirt. The cloud of dust in her face, the brutal heat, and Aurora’s meddling drained her spirits. Who gave Aurora the right to judge Joaquin? At 18, Aurora had never accepted a suitor in her parlor. What did she know about men?
And yet Isabella could not refute her best friend. She saw in Joaquin the sparks of a calamitous fire, a dissatisfaction that grew by the minute, an anger that could no longer be doused by assurances from her. Isabella felt jealous all over again. It burned deep in the pit of her stomach, rising to her chest, threatening to erupt into tears. She was jealous of the revolutionary movement. It was the mistress that seduced him away from Isabella, the fingers that caressed his impassioned ideals, the bosom that cradled his weary head at night.
Joaquin’s love for their country was far more dangerous than any forbidden romance. Death would be his punishment for succumbing to temptation. And now, with the Americans suddenly in the picture, only God knew what would befall men like Joaquin. Of course, Aurora was right. Isabella’s eyes moistened, but she was determined not to cry. No well-bred lady would cry on the street for everyone to see.
The girls walked in silence until the tile roofs of the houses on their street were in sight. There were lines and lines of white sheets, curtains, and linens hanging behind the houses, billowing helplessly against the unforgiving tropical heat. Servants were busy either beating rugs, or sweeping off dry leaves in the courtyard.
As the girls approached their homes, Aurora apologized for her harsh words. She meant only to be helpful with her simple-minded advice. Her ideas were certainly inferior to the progressive thoughts of an intellectual like Joaquin. Aurora’s self-deprecation touched Isabella. In their circle, to belittle oneself was a sign of sincerity. Isabella likewise apologized. She conceded that there was much wisdom to Aurora’s observations. It was she who had been narrow-minded. Their apologies went back and forth, as ceaseless as the blinding blue sky above them, until a solution to their problem suddenly struck Aurora.
“You must marry Joaquin soon!” Aurora blurted.
“But we are not yet betrothed,” said Isabella.
“When you turn 16, Joaquin will ask for your hand in marriage, and your father will agree.”
“Yes, I expect that we shall be betrothed by then, but our wedding will not take place until I turn 18.”
“You must not wait, Isabella. You must insist on an early wedding!”
“And you think that will save Joaquin from danger?”
Aurora nodded, her eyes shining. “When you become his wife, his responsibility will be toward you and the children that you shall bear him. He will not be as reckless. The revolution will lose its appeal.”
Isabella took that in, pausing briefly before letting out a smile, then a giggle. Yes, Aurora was right again. Isabella always believed that the main purpose of her young life was to become Joaquin’s wife, but somehow she never really imagined herself as a bride until that moment. She glanced back at the church, but only its steeple was visible from such a distance. What she saw in her mind was an image of herself wearing an ivory wedding gown, clutching the hand of her handsome groom.
She felt giddy as only a girl not yet 16 could be. She suppressed a wave of laughter she felt was coming. Her strict upbringing did not allow either laughter or tears to be displayed in public. At last she felt her breathing loosen up, the heat no longer suffocating her.
Isabella’s future was as bright as the day itself. She slipped her hand into the crook of Aurora’s arm. The girls walked merrily, arm in arm, under the swaying pink parasol.
Copyright © 2002 by Cindy Fazzi. All Rights Reserved.