Filipineses


The Stone House
April 20, 2010, 10:35 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir | Tags: , , ,

On dawns when Ka Pedro woke us up, his cart rattling at our gate to deliver kindling for the earthen stove, and I crawled to the window to watch shadows, the stone building right across our gate would rise, hulking it had seemed toward me in tender greeting. I would peer through the half-light, hoping as I always did, to make out an old man’s figure who the old folks say, built the structure for his heirs to perpetuate his name. He remained a myth to my mind and my cousin Jack’s, wrought in snippets of what sounded like tales among kin.

On sunny days, Jack and I used to break away from our nannies’ tight grip and sprint toward the tiny bridge of that house, leading to the main door facing the street. The bridge spanned a narrow moat, fed by town canals siphoning off river overflow, circling the house, washing off the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard used to be stables. My greatgrandfather, as the tales spunned, bred horses for which he earned the sobriquet, “Don Benito, cab-caballo”, a fractured Spanish title.

From the foot of the bridge, we would single along the brick-covered walls and climb the low-lying ledge of one of the windows. Like dwarfs, we would sit, legs stretched, backs flat against the iron grill, taking in the sun as it bore down on us and the glances of townsfolk shuffling by the camino real of our town, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte.

By mid-morning, the dark wooden doors would open, one on each of the four walls, clanging on iron bars unlatched, screeching on rusty hinges. The windows too, would be flung wide, two on each side where we sat, snapping in great yawns. If our nannies remained distracted by corner street gossip they would have been engaged in, Jack and I would slink off the ledge and creep inside the stone structure.

Merely half-lit, doused at angles by dappled sunshine, the cave-like interior allowed Jack and I to creep and skitter around unnoticed by the workers of the dried Virginia tobacco leaf packing company, which occupied the building then. Crawling behind stacks of bundled tobacco leaf, unmindful and forgetful of the leaded smell we and our nannies would have to suffer scolding for from our mothers, Jack and I would weave and out of our fantasies.

Our favorite fantasy centered on the ghost of a giant chandelier, cloaked in dust and cobweb, hanging from its chains attached to the ceiling, which to us seemed as high as a night sky, and frozen in grace; its dozen curving arms and upturned tips forever unlit. We would imagine as we sat on the ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, how it must have flooded a hall we drew as the unbroken space before us.

Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in across the street must have been set on those yellowing monogrammed linens we once found in my grandmother’s trunk, the scalloped dinner china in which she sometimes served stuffed chicken during the holidays, and the silver in whose handles initials of my grandfather who carried on my great grandfather’s name were engraved, its remaining dessert spoons we used in our playhouse.

Guests must have offered their toast on those gold-rimmed glasses, a pair of which we found in a buffet shelf of Jack’s mom. Wine must have been brought up from a dank and tart-smelling cellar we once slipped into but scampered trembling back up as the mice and house lizards we disturbed screamed and screeched around our toes.

Jack and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over the land on which the structure once rose like a rather stocky giant. We lost our claim.

Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at the lack of mention of the stone house. It couldn’t have escaped notice of the researchers, we thought, what with its solid thick walls, massive wooden doors, and that moat.

During a rare visit to our town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark as we drove through the camino real. Next morning as we retraced our way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had hulked solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.

“Why, didn’t you know?” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake. It was good only for a hundred years.”

“And the moat, what happened to it?” I asked.

“Oh, it had long dried up as the river did.”

I would have to tell Jack about it, I vowed. But on my way back to Manila, I decided against calling him. I had by then realized no matter how massive my great grandfather built a structure to defy impermanence, he failed. It was then when I remembered our childhood fantasies about his monument to which we never did belong  in the end. Like the moving frames on the car window, these folded into thin air as we drove on.

By Alegria Imperial

Published in its edited/shortened version in timelesspirit.com

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