by Francezca C. Kwe
College swept me up in a fire completely different from that of the women in my family. In my first year I joined a student protest over tuition fee increases, then my involvement spread to other causes–the miserable plight of tenant farmers, the devil incarnated in the current President, the immeasurable greed of capitalists, the murders of student activists. In time I became absorbed in managing the organ of the student party I belonged to, and got detained for hurling a bottle of mineral water at a procession of congressmen outside the Congress building. The bottle, half-full, bounced off the brow of the House Speaker.
In the city jail, I was kept in a small cell next to a gang of snatchers who were periodically let out, one by one, to give the cops massages. The cell contained only a rickety wooden bed, without linen, and a dirty toilet bowl. On the wall between the two cells was a hole the size of a fist, which exposed all my activities to pairs of ogling eyes. My requests for any material to stuff the hole with were pointedly ignored, and even the cops on duty would linger in front of my cell as I did my business on the toilet, smirking as the crooks on the other side howled with enjoyment.
No one from the party came to visit, and even close friends stayed far. I was being kept for observation, though no charges had been pressed. One of the senior cops told me I could go, with a “minimal” fee to cover my board and lodging. Completely broke, frightened and too impatient to await a lawyer friend’s vague promise to help, I called my mother. She hurried over on the soonest flight, her fare having been raised by the church with the purpose of setting my paths right.
We weren’t a few steps out of the jail when my mother started imploring me to give some thought to the life of my soul when it departed my body. I hadn’t seen her for two years; she looked older but had an air of lightness around her. She attributed this to her steadily growing faith. “I feel more serene than I ever have in my life,” she said, adding that her only agony was that I had turned out to be an utter prodigal after my promising beginnings, and I laughed at this flash of the old her.
After the jail incident I had no more interest in anything other than lying in bed unwashed for weeks, to my mother’s exasperation. I had long since abandoned my classes at the university in favor of street teach-ins, and began to slip into a dark contemplation, turning questions over and over in my head until the words jumbled into nonsense. My mother stayed and hovered around with her placid monk’s face, laying her hand on my head twice a day and praying aloud invoking the blood of Christ in a singsong.
One day I went out of my room to find her outside in the sun, hanging my clothes on my landlady’s clothesline. “Madre de Dios,” she blurted, the first mention of the forgotten god in years, look at you. “You look worse than a ghost.”
Over the first real meal I had taken in days, she persuaded me to come back to Jaro with her, and give my strange activities a break. Come to church was what she was really saying, but I felt that I had seen too much to go back to the blind faith that I had associated with childhood, and told her so in a world-weary voice. “But at least show your face to those generous people who gave money so you wouldn’t rot in jail,” my mother countered, the old sly mother I knew, using the guilt card, knowing without even turning from the stove that I would return with her on the next flight out.
My coming home coincided with the last few days of the old house–that year was deemed by the owners as the ripe time to plant a high office building on its sacred grounds. Slacking at home and watching TV, I trampled down the buds of curiosity that broke to the surface, wanting to avoid seeing the house altogether. Nothing in the town was the same anymore, the grand old Spanish houses which had been so beautiful now looked pitifully worn down and out-of-place. The carefully landscaped garden in the plaza had been dug out to accommodate giant plastic playground sets that easily accumulated dirt, looking like cheap abandoned playthings in a short while. On Lopez-Jaena, a row of banks had replaced the sweetshops of my childhood. All my former playmates were inviting me to get wasted at watering holes near the airport that featured live bands playing reggae music and wearing cheap, silk-screened Che Guevara shirts.
Only Lola Concha hadn’t changed, as I discovered one afternoon when I stopped by the church to see Pastor Gerry, at my mother’s insistence. The church seemed empty; all mellow shadow and warm from the afternoon sun. I sighed and sat down in a pew, staring up at the purple-robed cross.
“You just go ahead and pray there, love,” said a soft voice by my ear. I turned around; Lola Concha sat in the pew behind me, hands folded on her lap, a heap of crochet beside her like a crumpled web. She was dressed in her usual matching blouse and pants, this time patterned with red hibiscus flowers. Her face held more lines than ever, deepened by her smile–she had, as always, a pleasant air about her. I was young, but felt old and tired.
We were silent for a while. The heady scent of vintage perfume lifted off Lola Concha, filling my nose. An eruption of giggles from the street–some children were passing by. I stole a sidelong glance at her; sitting next to me, her eyes were closed, and her breathing so quiet, as if she were asleep.
Her eyes flew open, and the light in her milky eyes told me that she had been thinking all along, inspired by what I feared to be the divine spirit. Why was it that my formerly smooth skin was now ravaged by acne, she wondered, peering closely at my face. And why hadn’t I come to church sooner?
In her presence, the afternoon took on a soft sepia shade. In spite of myself, I asked about the house. How did she feel about losing it? The catch in the voice, the lump in the throat, all mine.
“That house has been a burden to me ever since I set foot in there, all those years ago.” Lola Concha sighed. “I’m glad to let it go.”
“Who built that house,” I asked.
“Nando’s father did,” said Lola Concha. “Built it for his older brother, who never was to inherit it, because he died of influenza during Peacetime, in that very house. Nando’s parents also died there, shortly before we got married. Nando himself too.”
“Must be why all these spooks are there, because of all these dead people,” I said, forcing a laugh, which earned a serious look from her.
“No, these are not the spirits of the dead, but demons trying to trick us,” Lola Concha responded solemnly. “We think that they are earthbound souls, but the Bible teaches that there is no such thing, and it’s all the devil’s handiwork.”
“But I won’t deny that many strange things happened in that house,” she added.
“I hear they’re still happening,” I said slowly. When she said nothing, I turned to her, looking her full in the face.
“Just who is that ghostly woman?’
Lola Concha nodded slowly. Having loosened a string, she seemed determined to unravel the entire garment.
“They said it’s the ghost of one of the mistresses Nando’s father kept. The old man liked women, and shortly after I came to live there a story went around about a maid who had committed suicide in one of the rooms because the family hadn’t recognized her claims to carrying the old man’s bastard in her womb.”
“They said she was the reason why I had such a difficult time conceiving, with one miscarriage after another when I was in the pink of health, why I had a difficult labor with Norman, and why I lost him soon after. They said it was the woman’s way of taking revenge.” There was a faint shudder in her voice.
“But we were still happy, you know, even if we had lost all those tiny angels. Nando, there isn’t another man in the world like him. He wanted to be a judge in the high courts and run a hacienda, too. Talk about ambition. I used to lose so much sleep because he’d be detailing his plans for our future nonstop until dawn. I didn’t mind so much because I loved him. He took me to the city, away from the town in the foothills where I grew up and brought me to the city. There I was, a mountain girl, married to a promising attorney. I never thought it would happen, not even in my wildest dreams.”
“And how good he was. He hadn’t a vice, would rather stay home with me than drink and gamble. I am certain to this day that he never touched any woman other than me. He wanted a stable of sons, ten if possible. When I had troubles with my pregnancies, he would drop his work and never leave my side for up to a week.”
“Even in that house, we were in paradise. He wanted to sell it and move into a house of his own design, because he knew that the strange goings-on frightened and bothered me. He was always telling me to bear it a little longer, because pretty soon we’d have a new place of our own.”
“With Norman’s coming, I thought the dark days were finally over. But I was wrong.” Here Lola Concha paused.
“It’s the ghost, isn’t it,” I bit out. “It wouldn’t let you be.”
She gave me a small smile. At the corners, her lips trembled. “No, hija, not even a demon can be as powerful as a war.”
“Nando had been a cadet corps officer in his younger days and when the war came, we couldn’t avoid the draft. How I cried the day he went off to duty in the USAFFE. Norman was so young and I was afraid to leave him, so I couldn’t even see Nando off at the pier.”
“For two years I had no word of Nando, nothing at all. It was so hard to get by–I had to sell most of the furniture, the antiques and my mother-in-law’s jewelry just to be able to get a little powdered milk for the baby. If it weren’t the Japs come to demand all the meager food we had managed to scrimp, it was guerillas who carted off the few chickens I had. You couldn’t stop worrying and being afraid. The servants all left and I was alone in that big house, with an infant.”
“You were alone?” I repeated. “Were you able to protect yourself against the ghosts?”
This time Lola Concha let out a chuckle. “Those war years were probably the most quiet I’ve had in that house. Not a peep, not a single movement all that time. Suddenly it was like there no longer was anyone or anything watching you all the time, lurking in the shadows. The house was totally, undeniably empty, like my world. My fear changed from being otherworldly to a real terror at the thought that my baby and I would not survive.”
“One day, a truck full of Japanese soldiers drove up and pushed Norman and I out into the streets with nothing except the clothes on our backs, not even giving me time to collect a single baby bottle. Some friends took pity on me and for a while we shuffled from home to home. Things got so bad I had to collect wild yams from the fields, walking miles everyday with a baby in my arms, to try to sell them at the market. Our house had been used as an officers’ quarters and every time I passed by how I used to wish the ghosts would return and drive those scoundrels clear mad–the only time I ever wanted their presence, and so badly at that.”
Lola Concha cleared her throat and went on. “The hardship and the suffering seemed to go on forever. My baby, who had been sickly even before the war, was a heartbreaking sight–so thin and covered with sores from malnutrition.”
Lola Concha’s voice wavered. “I lost him halfway through the war. I wasn’t able to save him; one morning I woke up and beside me he was cold as ice, his tiny perfect body curled up against mine. Oh, my Lord.” She took a deep breath, and on reflex, I reached out to stroke her back.
A long moment passed, the shadows on the floor grew longer and more sounds tinkled in–dogs barking, vendors rattling their carts past on the way home.
“Lola,” I started. It was now or never. “They say that…”
“That I killed my husband,” Lola Concha finished in a faint voice. She looked up at the altar. “I think I did, hija.”
I couldn’t speak. I felt her hand on mine, it was dry and light as paper.
“Things were never the same after the war. I did see Nando again, after liberation. The Japanese had fled from the city and I ventured inside the house again, spent a whole week scrubbing it of their reek. Then Nando showed up, almost unrecognizable, the skin so tight on his head he looked like a skull. He had shrunk so much that I was able to dress him up in a pair of my pants. He was so infested with lice that his skin was pitted and almost black.”
“When I saw him I started wailing about Norman, but he pushed past me without a word and lay immobile on the dining room floor. I couldn’t even get him to talk about what he had gone through. Eventually, he said that he had gone up the mountains after the surrender, and joined a guerilla unit.”
Lola Concha gripped my hand. “I hated him so much, child, she said, shaking her head and shutting her eyes tightly. “I couldn’t understand how he could fight for his country and not for his family. I flung all the blame to him–I believed that had he returned our son would still be alive.”
“I resented his long silences, sitting in a chair all day long and staring into space, when I couldn’t even indulge in my own suffering because still, there was a house to be kept, chores to be done, as if hell hadn’t come and scorched us all raw. All I thought about was that my son was dead,” Lola Concha rasped. “He had died without a father.”
“He couldn’t go back to work so I struggled to live on the small pension they sent to soldiers after the war. What was unbearable to me was that he never mentioned our son, never asked about how he died and where I had buried him.”
“It’s true what they say, she whispered, that I neglected him. Eventually I couldn’t look at him in the face without wanting to spit at him, and I moved to the other wing and left him in the maid’s care. It was as if time stopped in that house. I wasn’t even aware of how many years had gone by until the morning that we found him dead in his bathroom. And even then I didn’t want to know.”
But after the funeral, some men came to the house. Strangers from Luzon; they told me of what had really happened. They had been with Nando in the Death March. I had heard about the march but wasn’t prepared for what they told me–the long, torturous trek, the churning in the gut, the desperation of hunger and thirst, the comrades dying in their arms. Many times, madam, they said, grown, grizzled men with tears streaming down their faces, many times you had wanted to grab a Jap sentry’s rifle and shoot yourself in the mouth, to have all of it end.”
“Nando had lied. He didn’t serve in the guerilla. With the other prisoners he was sent to the concentration camp in Capas, and what he experienced there, I couldn’t even imagine. We were familiar with hunger during the war, but in Capas, the prisoners were treated like dogs, starved and made to live like animals. One of the visitors had been with Nando on the burial detail, he said they buried corpses from dawn to dusk, even those who were still breathing but had little chance to live.”
“Ma’am, one of them said, he spoke of you all the time. You have to understand, that having a loved one out there was a greater comfort to us in there than heaven itself. “
I felt a searing in my throat. A shrill sound was coming out of Lola Concha’s lips; I put my arm around her as she keened. “My poor, lost Nando. A ghost before his time. I realized too late how much we had both suffered. Instead of helping him heal, and letting myself be healed, I pushed him away.”
“So yes, I did kill him”, Lola Concha whispered. “In that house, surrounded by so much darkness, to take away my own pain, I punished him.”
“When hija,” she cried, “we had survived, unlike so many unfortunate others. But instead of moving on, I buried my heart, and wished him dead, until one morning, he was.”
Night had fallen without our noticing and we sat still in the darkness, aware that something fragile had broken open, its fragments irretrievable.