The Fires of the Sun in a Crystalline Sky (after Greg Brilliantes)

by

The ending is something from a banal romantic film. At last she sees him, and for a while her heart stands stock-still in her chest, like a stone lodged in the straining gears of breath. His back is turned to her, but the muscles move quickly, the jerking elbow insists on the importance of the task at hand: the gathering clouds overhead are dark and heavy, and the roof must be patched before he can savor the warmth of a dry house while outside, God’s fury will strip the land bare. Simple knowledge made monumental by time and the passing of generations of farmers and thatched roofs.

Up on the roof, he doesn’t know that behind him is an event of greater urgency, although it has spanned only a few, lost years. To her, this meeting is epic; she stands there, heaving, sweat pouring down her temples. Her longing threatens to burst from her like a torrent that can outrun her strides, and reach him faster than the impending rain.

When they were young, the children often asked her what she would do if she saw him again. Alive and well, that is, not as dust and bone, the image of the father they didn’t remember, according to the official data. I would weep with joy and kiss the earth, bless all the saints, she would always say, and as the years went by they outgrew fantasy and asked her the same question out of their anxiety to prove to themselves that, yes, she was well, her memories intact.

Now she did none of those things she said she would do. She merely stood there, willing him to turn his eyes from the roof and the sky, to the ground where she must seem tiny, like a frightened animal. Look at me, she shouts in her mind, because her mouth and tongue have no courage to do it. She is suddenly gripped with the fear that he will never turn, never see her—even before it is allowed to happen, the final moment of a story that has waited to be closed for ages will be swallowed up by the black of the screen. The crescendo would be cut at this point: she, uselessly rooted to the spot, he with his eyes scanning the sky. Then the story would be over and neither of them would exist.

But he does turn, out of some strange but welcome need. And he sees her, in the center of a landscape at the end of the world. Her name flees from his lips as the first drop falls from the sky. He is young, impossibly so. She is shrunken by old age, but the albularyo was right, here in the land of the enchanted immortals, beneath the roots of the tallest trees in the forest, time and age are irrelevant. “Here, you will finally find him, as he was when you last saw him.”

I’m sorry, but is that too unbelievable? That was my grandmother reciting from her trove of stories, while the rest of my family shifts uneasily around her. Sibling, cousins, nieces and nephews; they never interrupt her when she launches into her tales. The world of her memory is a shadowy one they are afraid to enter. They stand at the mouth of the cave, whispering among themselves, calling to her to come out for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a birthday or an anniversary, the drafting of her will.

Maybe she knows, and doesn’t care. All I know is that she lives to tell this particular tale, in a particular way. “It’s disjointed because I only came to know of it in snippets, whenever I came across someone who knew about the woman in the story,” I remember her saying. “Clara, that was her name.”

“The woman you named me after,” I would say.

“Is that so?” my grandmother would say, nine times out of ten. “Your name is also Clara?”

“Yes, Lola. Clara, your granddaughter.”

A dark moment, and then would smile, dispelling the curse. “Of course it’s you, my dear.”

“But the story really did happen,” she would insist. “Sometimes, years would pass before I came to know the next chapter.”

No, make that the preceding chapter. My mother, in happier days, used to comfort my grandmother’s listeners by saying that there was nothing wrong if stories were told in the reverse, ending first. The traveler who invests in this journey does not move forward and claim new, unfamiliar lands. Instead, she traces her steps back, to the very roots, like a star implodes to know its insides, and a vagabond, tired from a lifetime of wandering, desires with the last strength in the legs to go home to that dim space before the first step was ever taken.

But now, worn to the bone from my father’s myriad indiscretions, my mother is as resigned and woeful as the rest, when my grandmother starts from the end.

“You know,” my grandmother reminds me, one afternoon my mother and I drop by her house, “I am fond of this one story because the heroine—“

“—The woman who ventures into the fairylands to find her lost husband,” I supply helpfully.

“Yes.” My grandmother looks peeved at the interruption. “The heroine is much like me.” My mother sighs and tells the nurse—hovering at the door to lola’s room—to take a break. She slips out, a streak of white at the corner of my eye.

“There is a reason why I tell it this way,” my grandmother continues her speech. “I first heard the story after the war, when all of us were poking in the rubble for something to start on.” “That war,” she says, her finger rising to point accusingly at the space above my head, “gave birth to so many stories. But Clara was someone I knew from my girlhood.”

In my mother’s face I can see that her nerves are tensing to breaking point. I know that at this moment she feels as if she is being pulled closer to the yawning mouth of the cave. It frightens her, because the person in there is someone she truly loves. “Ma,” my mother begins, “the war has been over for sixty years.”

My grandmother laughs, her laughter slow and luxuriant, as if it is a fountain she steps into and bathes in without a care in the world. I envy her, because I cannot savor the tickle that rises up my throat before it is plugged with sympathy for my mother, with her thin face and sad hands.

“Don’t think I don’t know it, Teresa,” she tells my mother. “I have been counting the years!”

Later, going home, we are both silent for a while. But my mother, like a winded toy, starts the subject. “Your lola,” she says, gripping the steering wheel hard. “Your lola is becoming less lucid by the day.”

I don’t answer and she views it as denial.

“She is, Clara,” my mother stresses. The car swerves a little for emphasis. “I want you to accept it, because it will get worse and we are eventually going to lose her.”

I glance out the window at the trees colliding into each other in a blur for the benefit of the car and its occupants. “Mom, she has telling that story since I was little. It’s pretty much the same story as ever.”

The gate to our village looms in front, and I can hear the dread soaking my mother’s voice as it opens to admit us. “She says over and over that it happened to someone she knew but when is it really about someone else,” my mother mutters. We swing into our street and even from a distance I already know what my mother is scanning the space for: my father’s car.

Of course, my mother is referring to the actual story of Lola’s life, which is really one for the books. The country’s war scars are ravines stretching from every point on its consciousness, concealed under the intricate webs from other decades. But we sense that it is there, nevertheless, like a fossil under the shaky ground we walk on, remaining completely mysterious even as we strip the earth in our search for it.

At the end of the war, when the debris was pounded and remixed in concrete, the bodies cleared off the streets, fields and out of bombed-out houses, my mother was a malnourished three-year-old. My grandmother, twenty-five years old and a widow by all appearances, immediately set about pumping up the child’s system with milk and honey from the land of plenty. My mother, like all the children who barely survived the war, gorged on corned beef and Hershey’s that the Americans inundated the market with. But the high soon wore off, because the sudden fat-rich diet shocked her system and made her more sickly that ever.

With only the shirts on their backs, because their house had been blasted apart during Liberation by American artillery, mother and child set about rebuilding their lives. They initially stayed in a hastily-constructed residential building crammed with 3 families in a room; my mother trudged to public school on infusions of ampalaya and malunggay, and my grandmother, who had not lost her brilliant math skills during the war years when there was little else to count except days of having nothing, got work as a bookkeeper. She put herself to school again, graduating from an accountancy course and passing the Board.

But during the war, my grandmother never once imagined it would end someday, beyond which she would become the first CPA in a family of teachers, give her daughter a life of ease and relative comfort, witness the first two decades of a granddaughter she herself would name—impossibly wild fantasies in 1942. She was terrified senseless; it became true for many that fear seeped into the pores until the surface became a numb, rigid layer.

Her daughter was turning a year old and there were too many times when the child burned with fever, barely able to sip the sugar water she prepared. There was nothing else. To ask for medicine from others was akin to asking for cold, hard money. The house they had moved into was falling into disrepair. They were supposed to be renting, but no one came round to collect the rent anymore, because the landlord had been hauled off to Fort Santiago based on the testimony of a man with a bayong on his head.

She was able to find work tending a small eatery in Quiapo. The pay was almost next to nothing but the owners were kind; they allowed her to bring her daughter upstairs to their house while she worked the counter downstairs. The child tasted canned milk after what seemed like an eternity. Sometimes, she was paid in meals, when the canteen closed after hours, she and her daughter could eat as if they were customers.

She wanted, more than anything, to go home to Iloilo, where she would no longer be a stranger. The neighborhood’s recollection of her husband was as good as that of fleeting ghost who had gone like so many others. She had heard that back home people had gone to the hills where it was safer, but in Manila, laid with tripwires, where would one go? She felt she needed to stay where her husband would be able to find her.

There were regulars in the canteen who she came to know by name. They left messages with her, asking her to relay them when certain people came asking. She was careful and cautious, a reluctant link in an intelligence chain she was careful not to know too much of. But she delivered the messages unwaveringly, until one day a truck of Japanese soldiers stopped in front of the canteen not to swipe from the larder but to take the owner, an elderly Chinese mestizo, for questioning. They returned him three weeks later, gaunt as a stick, stamped with wounds and burns. Shortly after he got back, he told my grandmother, in his halting Tagalog, that he knew what she was doing. “No worry,” he said, “it’s okay.”

She was good-looking in her youth, my grandmother, and in a world of men at war, it was a dangerous thing. She would steel herself against the gazes of the Japanese sentries posted at every street. There were too many stories of girls singled out and fancied, and the possibility was never far-fetched, for a single mother who had to venture out to work. Once, having just gotten home she was about to bolt the door when a Japanese soldier stuck his boot in and wrested it open. The soldier had seen her on the street and followed her, and now he pushed his way into the house and pointed his rifle at my grandmother. At the sight of a stranger, my mother started screaming, startling the Jap. He crossed the room in two strides, hand raised to smack the child and found my grandmother in his way, snarling and livid. He must have realized, as he looked into her eyes, that she was prepared to fight to the death. He spat on the ground and left, and that very day my grandmother moved herself and her daughter out of the house she had shared so briefly with her husband. They moved in with her employers, keeping a low profile until they were able to find a place on the other side of the city.

There had been no word for months of her husband, my lolo. However hard she tried, even mustering up the courage to journey to Capas and there languish before the iron chain-link fences in the hope of receiving a scrap of news, she could learn nothing. Like the other women, she secreted notes in the kakanin wrapped in banana leaves, scant provisions they would pass to the details that were occasionally permitted to work near the camp’s perimeter. Nothing came back from her inquiries of whether a USAFFE private named Dominador Sales was alive and interred in the camp. No one had seemed to remember a young man from Iloilo, who had literally stepped fresh off the boat into war.

But for a long time she continued her vigil outside the camp, passing along food, medicine and cigars—hot commodities she paid a fortune in Mickey Mouse pesos for—in the hopes that my grandfather was inside and would somehow benefit from these supplies. My mother vaguely remembers the frequent “Those precious things we worked to hard to send him probably went to those American and British officers who were somehow, always fitter than the rest of the POW’s.” She shakes her head whenever she says this, my mother, who has endured a war with weariness all her life.

Little Teresa was always mentioned in the letters from her father, before they stopped coming altogether from Bataan. The letters exist only in my grandmother’s memory. Also, no photographs of my grandfather exist—among the many things, my mother says, lost in the war. She herself has no solid image of her father tucked in the corners of her mind. All she remembers of him was that he was very tall.

“Not so tall,” my grandmother tells my mother. “He only seemed so because you were barely out of babyhood when you last saw him.” To have an idea of what he looked like, we rely on my grandmother’s descriptions. Average height, medium build, broad shoulders. Dark hair and thin lips, deep-set eyes. A full mustache, small ears. If you do not see him from those words, imagine our predicament, my mother’s and mine. They were all we had.

This faceless man was last seen in January 1942, on army furlough for a day. Up to this point he has a past trailing behind him, but the nearest he ever gets to us, his descendants, is this glimpse of him at the end of his appearance. It can also be that even my grandmother’s testimony is unreliable because the picture she can paint for us is only up to certain moment; he is twenty-two years old, dark-haired and of medium build forevermore.

But on that day, they were like any young family enjoying a picnic at the Luneta—the young mother and father swinging a giggling toddler into the air. The air was fresh, the bottle-green grass revitalized by the dew. The mother had packed a lunch of sandwiches, salad and fruit. The fruit had come in a basket from the neighbors, a sort of welcoming gift for the young couple that had moved next door on their sleepy Ermita street, from a small town in Iloilo.

The move was an intrepid one, but as the young husband told his wife, the war will be over in the blink of an eye, the Americans have everything under control, which is why I’m confident fighting alongside them. Right after this whole fiasco, we will know how wise it was to have already settled in Manila—we can launch right into our lives again and Teresa will have all the opportunities only available in the capital.

Now, in the meantime you can relax, Milagring, he added, you and Teresa lie back and rest easy, continue with normal life. We fighting men can take the brunt of the difficulty. It will be tough on the front but at least we can rest knowing that you’ll be spared whatever brief horrors this war will bring.

That is the last thing he says on our record, this young man, forever young while we grow older and older under the yoke of the years.

In the land of the encantos, one never ages, the albularyo told Clara. The leaves fall and the trees bear fruit, new shoots penetrate the bark and the ground, the day breaks and the night falls, but time cycles around these things, winding back to a never-ending present. The elementals, the goddesses, the spirits never lose their youth and their power.

Your husband is there, the old man said, peering at a basin of dark water that rippled though nothing touched it. Do not believe what mortals say. He found the entrance to their world somehow, and stepped into it. In doing so, he disappeared from our world.

She tried hard to contain her ecstasy at this revelation. She fought back the urge to laugh and cry. She had long believed that he was alive somewhere, was always looking for clues, visiting sanatoriums and hospitals, far-flung provinces where he could be suffering from amnesia—the kind of scenario that happened in films and TV shows that nonetheless made her sit up and take notice.

Their children were growing rapidly, they had long gotten accustomed to not having a father. They were starting to egg her to get married again, for her own happiness, they said. She would smile, her secret knowledge safely cocooned in her heart.

The visit to the albularyo came fifteen years after the arrival of that letter from a stranger in Manila telling her that her husband had escaped from the Death March but had died soon thereafter of gangrene, in the hut of a poor farmer in La Union. It cannot be possible, she reasons. The name of the sender, who claims to have been the farmer’s neighbor, is alien to her. The war had turned the world upside down, tampering with so many identities, weakening what had before seemed the only truths. In its aftermath, it was so easy to be mistaken.

We buried him in the field, the letter ended with this statement. The words threatened to topple her stability. She buried the letter under a pile of receipts and forgotten clippings.

Over and over Lola told me that the woman of the story, Clara, was a girlhood friend she had lost touch with. After the war, amid speculations from persons who were lost and found, lived or died, or never existed at all, my grandmother got wind of the story. It kept her interested because, she said, it was quite like her own.

Lola and this woman Clara had been fast friends in their young social circle, but then life was moving too fast for my grandmother, because she had given her reply to Dominador, the young man with whom she had been going steady for two years.

They were married in Jaro in 1941, on a humid March day. Thirty people attended the reception dinner at her parent’s house. She wore a embroidered white dress with silk sleeves—loose at the waist, the better to hide her stomach. He was in a white sharkskin suit and white and black brogues. She remembers the picture that was taken after the ceremony, the sprig of flowers is wilting in the heat of the church, his mouth is slightly open as if on the verge of saying something, a bit of the altarboy’s lace sleeve is in one corner of the picture, now obliterated.

It was a simple affair, hastily prepared because of the growing, urgent thing that made her sick every morning and gave her awful cramps. The delicate matter was solved by a smooth agreement between her parents and Doming’s, and the delicate diamond on a gold band that Doming presented her with one lazy afternoon after she had woken up from a siesta intermittently interrupted by the insistent need to pee.

It had come forth of urges that left them in pain in each other’s presence, threatening to blast them to bits if ignored? One afternoon in his empty house, the occupants having left to attend some fiesta in Molo. Having stolen away from Tia Andeng, Milagros’s chaperone, they had passed the point of no return how many exhilarating times that one afternoon?

The relationship had progressed from mutual attraction and enjoyment of laidback, teen enjoyments to something more serious that she was only beginning to understand. They were no longer agog about hanging out at the plaza after Mass, going to refreshment parlors with their friends, or driving to watch sunsets at Villa Beach. They were dropping out of the whirl of parties and soirees and the hawk-like gaze of Tia Andeng. Almost overnight, an intoxicatingly sensual curtain had enveloped both of them, thickening whenever they were together, or when a hand touched an arm, an elbow nestled into a side.

Rising on the horizon now, Milagros could see the crown of a gigantic promise that had been heretofore asleep. The rest of my life is only now beginning, she would think, lying in bed and envisioning the future. She felt both apprehensive and thrilled by what she felt was her initiation to a wider landscape, that as a child was hidden from her window. She watched her mother with new interest, and every adult woman fulfilling the role of wife and mother with the thrill that soon she would live out hers.

The friends she had known since she was a girl bored her, and she shied away from their company, thinking that she would take up the thread once more when she was through exploring this marvelous period. They would all be lost to her, after her marriage and after the war, although one account would surface, its revelations coming every now and then, until it grew into her own memory.

Going from end to beginning, a certain juncture will be passed. This is a period of rest from the heavy load we have been strapped to, a pocket in time. I believe that it is so for my mother.

My mother, like so many children of the war, for whom incredible physical hardship was a thing of the past, belonging in the stories of survivors who were plagued with the curse of being able to remember. But the seat vacated by a harsh, wartime existence was taken by an equally ruthless, and invisible aggravator. My mother, with her happy childhood the early reward for the miseries she was to face later.

But like I said, there were happier times for my mother. My father was yet to accumulate so much debt from maintaining three families at once, years away from the casual flings that could never stay hidden and from the first night he slept away supposedly on a business trip.

He was a spectacular womanizer, although he blamed it on an itch he could not ignore, more than anything else. It’s a disease, Teresa, don’t you understand, he would say to my mother, pressing her palms to his cheeks. Help me, he would say, and she would cry out as if he had stabbed her.

To his children, he was generous. I was twelve when my mother and I first ran into a half-sister, who looked enough like me to seem my twin though she was obviously younger. This girl who had my eyes, my nose, was dressed in beautiful clothes. She stood in the middle of the mall sniffling, eyes darting around wildly with the terror of being lost. My mother halted in mid-step and taking my hand tightly, circled around the girl like a wary predator. She caught sight of us, the look of terror replaced by a flash of recognition. In a second, she had fled. My mother let go of my hand and took chase; in a moment, the roles had reversed and I was now the child alone in the crowd. I waited in that spot for close to an hour. My mother finally arrived, trembling, face flushed. Don’t ever tell your father what you saw, she said.

Before all of that, we lived in an idyll.

My grandmother was in her prime, bursting with stories that everyone took as gospel wisdom. In this brilliant light, my mother thrived, doorways opening for her with so much ease and speed, her husband a supportive presence. She had decided, when I was ten years old, to go to graduate school in Sydney, at prestigious business school that had been impressed with her work as one of the brightest financial consultants in a big multinational conglomerate. She could bear leaving my father behind to his job as a junior bank official, but she would not be able to endure being separated from me.

We would spend a year in a foreign country, before she accepted an offer of a higher post in the company, in exchange of moving back to the Philippines before her studies had been completed. I had been in school for five months, a tongue-tied foreigner who only sat through the unintelligible hours at school to get closer to that magical time of the day when my mother, done with her own classes, would pick me up and we would drive the long way home, passing dusky fields dotted with so many cows, the sun on her side of the window, highlighting her smiling face. Somewhere along the way, we would pull into a cozy restaurant and have dinner and rainbow sundaes. Time, if it ever moved, retreated into night leisurely; after hours of talking in bed, we would sleep in each other’s arms.

I remember the day we left the country, Lola and Father seeing us off at the impressive, high-ceilinged airport lobby. We waved goodbye and skipped off to the restaurant for ice cream, a worthy treat for two explorers on the verge of an adventure.

A blip in the rewind, from the past that time has faded into legend, we are thrown into the recent past. I open my eyes and the morning is too quiet. My mother, whose face has been grooved so much by her invisible war, sits at my bed precariously. I inhale carefully, fearful that the slightest movement will cause her to crumble.

She takes my hand and I already know. The tears will come much later when I rewind the last few days myself, and I see my grandmother, visibly weaker, trying to summon the words to her story. The oxygen mask on her face is making talking difficult. She is more vexed than words can say, precisely because she cannot speak as she wishes.

Lola, I implore her, please rest. I already know how the story starts. But here she is, shaking her head vigorously. The nurse gets up to take her pulse, but my grandmother yanks her arm away from the nurse’s grip with a surprising strength. I tell the nurse to let me watch Lola for an hour, before I catch my last class at the university. She says she’ll grab a quick bite, and scarcely has she closed the door than my grandmother pulls down the mask from her face and tells me, There is something else you need to know about the ending.

I don’t know if I should let her give vent to her obsession again, and I tell myself that I will call the nurse the moment she gets overexcited. I try to breathe deeply and project calm. My grandmother sees this and lies back, more relaxed. Now, she is staring into space with a thoughtful look on her face.

In spite of myself, I ask her. What was it that you wanted to tell me, Lola? She smiles and closes her eyes.

The story ends when she finds her husband, I continue. Is there anything after that?

She opens her eyes, her smile grows wilder and she winks at me. How can someone who has gone through so much smile like a child? I can feel the corners of my mouth being tugged upwards, feel my lips parting and my cheeks stiffening with the coming of laughter. In sync, we laugh, my grandmother and I, we splash unabashedly in the fountain of her laughter, bathe in its abundant waters.

You want to know, her smile is telling me. I too don’t need to speak to answer her.

She came back, my grandmother exclaims. Without him! She sighs with contentment, as if surveying something she has built and now likes. I saw her again, she murmurs, sleep creeping into her voice. We ran into each other and she told me she was doing fine in the world. The nurse enters the room and my grandmother only manages to nod before she surrenders to her dreams. I get up from the chair as quietly as I can. At the door, I take one look at my grandmother. She is sleeping soundly, the ghost of her smile lingering on her face.

And that was the end of her life, and the beginning of mine: the last time I saw her, and heard of her nameless heroine, that woman who emerged from the perfect world squirreled away in the creases of this one, leaving in their blissful oblivion the men who had been spirited away, and going on their own to fight the war.

During the war, there was no speak of albularyos, elementals and spirits, as if they were luxuries the starving body could not afford to indulge in, even in thought. The present was too vital, haranguing one from moment to moment. He disappeared in Bataan, and no trace would be found of him until the mailman dropped the letter in her hands years later. Sometimes, scraping things together for the children during those lean years, finding measly-paying work and odd and ends to buy and sell for a cup of rice, she would get to thinking that it was better off that he was not there—anyone who was not so painfully alive during that time was better off. She would think this until the present brought her back and she would check herself. But this thought crossed her mind countless times.

Before the war, during that period they would later call “Peacetime” they had met at a weekend dance. He was dark and of medium build. She was haughty and proud, pulsing with life. They fell in love.

Francezca C. Kwe has published her short stories in various anthologies and publications. She teaches at the University of the Philippines and is married to a poet.