Author’s Note: I have written (but not yet published) a five book Saga on my clan’s adventures, exploits and tragedies in the Philippines, Indonesia and China called The Saga of Fray Paco.”
This chapter was taken from the fifth book, The Indomitable Contessina Lucrezia, which forms part of "The Saga of Fray Paco."
Fray Paco is a rare, white cockatoo captured by headhunters on the island of Nias, a part of the island chain of Sumatra. He was a smart-ass polyglot brighter than chimpanzees. These cockatoo are almost extinct today. I grew up with Fray Paco.
Manila, known as the Pearl of the Orient, had been crushed to dust under the brutal Japanese occupation and the relentless bombing and shelling by the Americans in order to liberate the city in 1946.
Military historians could not agree: Which city in World War II was destroyed the most - Dresden or Manila? The jury is still out even as I write this.
Filipino ingenuity, hard work and massive aid from the United States, their former colonial masters, came into play immediately after the war. Heavy investments from American, Canadian and Swiss multinationals helped as well. By 1957, Manila was once again a city bustling with panache and elegance.
Except for Intramuros, the superbly walled city fronting gorgeous Manila Bay that was built by the Spanish in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. Intramuros was no more. A chunk of every Manileño's heart was ripped out forevermore. The wounds of Intramuros ran so deep; no one could bear to enter it, not for curiosity and not to clear up the rubble. Everyone felt like violators. Sixty thousand souls had died there before they even had time to realize they were dead. No living thing wandered through. Not even rats and cockroaches.
In Holy Week of 1957, the Philippine peso was even money to the U.S. dollar. The country had the fastest growing economy in South East Asia. In the continent, it ran second only to Japan as the most prosperous. The rate of literacy was higher than Southern Europe's and its infant mortality, lower. Except for the world travelers such as Giovanni Agnelli, David Rockefeller and the Rothschilds, few upper class Europeans and Americans could afford to flit about willy-nilly around Europe and the United States the way rich Filipinos did.
Religious devotion among all classes of society was observed with passion. Nowhere was this lived with more ardor than during Holy Week.
I've adapted the story somewhat for my blog readers, and I look forward to your feedback – as this is the first story I've published from my Fray Paco Series; This chapter begins:
1957. Manila. Santol Mansion. Dusk. Holy Thursday.
Lucrezia grimaced. "It's so sad. Why can't we go to our chalet in the mountains or our houses by the sea?" asked Lucrezia twisting a long, blonde curl.
"The Montebellos and the Madrigals are spending Holy Week in their seaside villas in Batangas," pouted cousin Zita.
"I mean, what are we rich for?" insisted a soon-to-be-eleven Lucrezia. "I never get to celebrate my birthday because it falls on Holy Thursday, Good Friday or Easter Sunday."
"Child! Doña Esperanza and your parents always give you bang! bang! Birthday party after Holy Week," stated a shocked Ah Wei, Lucrezia's Chinese Hakka amah (nanny) and a convert to Catholicism.
The cousins - indomitable Lucrezia, fiery Zita, sweet Jaime, darling Heinzie, frightful Freckie and pesky Dolly - were sitting in the vast veranda which encircled Santol Mansion, drinking fresh Alfonso mango juice with their respective nannies. Santol Mansion was a 40-room, "Gone With The Wind" house belonging to the rich and powerful Doña Esperanza, matriarch of the Nieto Ortigas clan. She was also their grandmother.
"It's useless to complain," sighed Lucrezia.
"Right. No one will pay attention to us," agreed Heinzie.
"Maybe Jesus would," suggested Jaime.
"You're a dunderhead, do you know that?" replied Freckie angrily. "Jesus can't even help himself," he added for good measure.
“Freckie’s mean and twisted,” thought Lucrezia who detested her twelve-year-old cousin. Today on Holy Thursday she felt guilty about her feelings and tried to dispel them from her heart.
“Nonna locuta, causa finita,” Rome has spoken and that is the end of it, declared Dona Esperanza paraphrasing the Pope’s statement regarding mass murder, abortion, divorce and other crimes against humanity and against the Church. – “Roma locuta, causa finita”
Her high heels clicked –clicked on the rare mahogany floor, her big black baroque pearls swayed with the soft cadence of her hips. Her Pacific blue eyes swiftly swept past her six grandchildren and their tiny Hakka amahs. Freckie was so unruly the Hakka amahs refused to deal with him. Only Librada, a well-muscled Filipina yaya with the patience of a saint, could cope with him.
The children and nannies hold up their hands to enable Dona Esperanza to see them.
The nannies pried them out of their long pockets.
“Bladders empty? I’ll not have any child urinating in the courtyards or squares of the churches!”
The children nodded without saying a word.
“Our Sikh bodyguards have pure Manila water and cases of Coca Cola in our weapons carriers. I know this is the height of our hot season. I won’t tolerate any fainting due to lack of water or electrolytes. Is that clear?”
The silence was unnerving. Lucrezia (secretly her grandmother’s favorite) cleared her throat. “I think we understand everything, Gran Gran.”
Doña Esperanza swiveled slowly, and then she changed her mind.
“One last thing. Before you all go to bed tonight, I’d like to explain what “The Passion” of Jesus really means and why, despite our wealth, we are staying put in Manila, in this horrifying heat, observing the Passion. Let’s go, everybody.” With that, Doña Esperanza swirled and left the veranda, leaving behind a trail of lightly scented ylang-ylang perfume.
At the porte cochere of Santol Mansion, their parents were entering their respective Buicks and Cadillacs. Edmund, Lucrezia’s father, was the only one behind the wheel, her mother, Camilla, beside him. Everyone else had uniformed drivers. In the Nieto Ortigas clan, almost all its members followed the example set by their great-uncle, Don Alcibiades the banker. He pilled up success after banking success in the Roaring Twenties. He also set many precedents. One of them was to sit next to one’s driver. The clan considered it demeaning and insensitive to be in the back of the car.
Bashir and Ranjit, their giant turbaned Sikh bodyguards, lifted all of the children as if they were rag dolls. “Intjou go,” they said. By now, all the Hakka nannies were a few centimeters shorter than “their children” who seemed to grow by the day. Because many of them had been sold into slavery and prostitution as children, they recoiled from any human touch other than that from “their charges”. Without a word, Ranjit set up a ladder next to the weapons carrier where they and the children were to ride, to enable the nannies to climb inside.
The Sikhs, not being Christian, were not required to follow the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross) with Doña Esperanza, her children and grandchildren. They kept alert in the churches to any changes in the mood of the churchgoers or unusual occurrences. Like duelists they studied every movement of the elements. They were resplendent in their pristine white Kamezz and Kurta and towered over most of the faithful.
The Catholic domestics of Doña Esperanza were active participants in the Via Crucis. All donned their blackest clothes and their expressive faces betrayed their anguish. They had all lost a relative or a beloved friend during the Japanese Occupation and the ensuing American bombing.
The Amahs always wore their traditional black silk trousers with white ramie shirts. The black sheen of the silk was unmatched by anything the West could reproduce. The Hakkas stubbornly refused to divulge the secret of the shiny black silk.
The children looked somber in plain white frocks, white leather shoes with matching white linen socks. As postwar children they had not actually heard the Mitsubishi zeros screeching eerily down toward their targets They had never heard the screams of the victims but their elders never stopped reminding them how Uncles, Cousin, Aunts, and Great-Uncles had perished in a holocaust of fire.
Dona Esperanza and the Nieto Ortigas clan dressed in black cotton or linen. This practice was followed by all the illustrious families in Manila (be they of Chinese, American or European origin).
Aunt Allegra, mother of Zita and Freckie, was always the coordinator of funerals, baptisms, christenings and the rituals of Holy Week.
Their first stop: Saint Augustine’s Cathedral. Thousands upon thousands of mutilated corpses had lain grotesquely in the aisles, altars and basements of Saint Augustine after the ferocious bombing and shelling in 1946. Pieces of shrapnel, fragments of marble and slivers of wood, which tore through heads and vital organs at a speed and force never witnessed before, killed them.
“There wasn’t a family, rich or poor, white, brown or yellow, who had not lost relatives, loved ones or friends,” Doña Esperanza would say often and sadly.
Thus, the Passion - the final hours of Jesus on earth - was something Filipinos of every color, race or creed could identify with even more than most people.
Miraculously, Saint Augustine, on the outskirts of the walled city - Intramuros, now the Ghost City, was still standing after the smoke of endless bombs had cleared. There was heavy damage to its lateral naves.
“Let’s not wait for American or Philippine bureaucracy. We will all dip into our deep pockets and do what has to be done,” said the rich.
Each family and clan competed in generosity. In less than six months, San Agustin was almost restored. The Father Superior, an outspoken critic, anti-war activist and a pious Basque from Guernica, Padre Pedro Rocha, purposely left a gaping hole about a meter in circumference. During the rainy season, the faithful were pelted with water. Superstitious Filipinos (after all, what more could happen to them?) refused to use umbrellas in church. In the summer, the sun fried their heads but no one dared open a parasol. So why did they persist in standing underneath? An act of penance? A sense of guilt? Horror at the consequences of war? Who was right? Who was wrong? It didn’t matter anymore.
The Stations of the Cross were always recited in impeccable Latin by Uncle Matt (for Mattias), Doña Esperanza’s eldest son. (She had wed at fifteen; her Latin was faulty compared to her son’s. Esperanza was self-taught, cultured and street smart, not erudite.) Everyone knelt on the uneven marble floor. The children followed the way of the cross from their prayer books, which were in Latin. Lucrezia stared at the bronze bas-reliefs realistically sculpted by an unknown Filipino master in the late 16th century and tried to think about the suffering of Jesus. Each station of the cross took about five minutes. Then they would all walk as quietly as possible, looking straight ahead until the next station: fifteen in all. This ritual would be repeated three times as the family would troop out of San Agustin and re-enter to begin once more the ritual of the Way of the Cross.
Camilla, Dona Esperanza's eldest daughter, would take over from Matt. Aunt Dahlia, daughter number two, was unable to master Latin in school so her husband Uncle Rudolf filled in the third time around and saved her “face”.
Seven churches in all were visited, creating the number twenty-one which was a mystical number for the Judaic and early Christian observers of Holy Thursday. Other than black pearls and black diamonds, no one wore jewelry. Everything was a sea of black. The courtyards, squares, the aisles inside the churches, the areas for prayer and reflection by the Stations of the Cross, wherever one gazed. Even the statues were all shrouded in black or dark purple.
Dusk came early in the tropics. In keeping with the profound religious mood, the lights emanating from the vast chandeliers were dimmed low. The sounds and whispers of thousands of faithful appeared deafening to Lucrezia’s ears. Many wept silently yet no one reacted. The faithful all concentrated on their own prayers despite their tears.
Rich and poor worshipped at the same churches. In close proximity to the Churches and Cathedrals parked trucks filled with Manila water, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola kept a silent vigil. The Haves in silent Christian charity had quietly paid to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke in the Have-nots.
It was a time honored custom for the rich to leave 500 to 1,000 Pesos/Dollars anonymously in black or grey envelopes delivered personally by one of the young children of the family, into the hands of the parish priest. This was done in accordance with Jesus' admonitions regarding the Pharisees who praised themselves loudly for their generosity. Those who behaved and spoke in an ostentatious manner about their donations were sharply rebuked and quickly brought into line.
Back at Santol Mansion, part of the household staff had volunteered to stay. Most of the Sikh bodyguards and the pygmies also kept a watchful vigil. Robberies and heists took place more often than not during the observance of Lent than at any other time.
Only one-meter tall bees wax candles were lit inside the house. The gardens and the grounds looked like daylight. The Sikhs patrolled them relentlessly with the German Shepherds Rex and Fritz.
Every painting, objet d'art, statue sacred and profane, was covered in black cloth. The absence of freshly cut flowers, which adorned every room of Santol Mansion most of the year, was like a stab in Lucrezia's heart. Only Fray Paco was allowed to enjoy the sight of yellow orchids in his Jungle Room. In keeping with the Passion's spirit of reflection, no radios or televisions were turned on during Holy Thursday or Good Friday.
"Yet this is a family which can't function without music, so we shall have the most sublime sounds man ever created for God," said Uncle Matt. The Dies Irae of Mozart, Beethoven's Missa Profundis, and Bach’s Saint Matthew were played softly as background music on the hi-fi system.
The healthy adults observed the Lenten fast, particularly on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That meant no alcoholic beverages - a heavy sacrifice for the Nieto Ortigas clan who savored fine wines and Malt Whiskies. The menu was simple, similar to what the majority of poor Filipinos ate. Small, tasty fish called tuyo, tiny freshwater shrimp fried in fresh garlic and eaten with plain white long-grained rice. Tahong, sweet water clams from the tributaries of the Pasig River was always served. A fish sauce, bagoong, made from a variety of fish eggs, abhorred by foreigners, was ever present. Like the ancient Roman fish sauce, garum, one had to acquire a taste for it, Doña Esperanza used to tell her foreign friends to no avail.
The clan's views regarding fruits grown in the temperate zone were well known.
"Poor Europeans! Having to make do with apples, peaches and oranges."
"Paradise must have been a poor place. Imagine getting into trouble for an apple."
"The serpent wasn't a gourmet either."
"No wonder God threw them out."
"They were tasteless nincompoops."
"The Philippine carabao mango is so delicious, one should eat a peach only in desperation."
"They are supposed to come from the same genus."
“So are we and the apes but look at the difference.”
“Don’t remind us of Darwin during Lent.”
“Once you tasted calamansi juice with honey, why would you ever drink lemonade again?”
Calamansi was a tiny, sweet lime which grew only in the Philippines and in Indonesia.
“Freshly squeezed calamansi juice with pure acacia honey is bliss,” thought Lucrezia, draining her glass quickly.
The majestic acacia trees which towered a hundred meters in the gardens of Santol Mansion provided the best honey. Lucrezia went into one of her reveries as she gazed at the acacias.
“Hola chicas! Hola chicas!” Fray Paco had made his entrance on a pole entwined with hemp so that his talons could hold on. His two attendants, heavily muscled twin dwarves (retired acrobats), Eneas and Achilles, proudly bore the bamboo pole on their shoulders. Fray Paco quickly flew and alighted on Doña Esperanza’s shoulder, nuzzling her neck and cooing “Espe! Espe!” into her ear lobe from which dangled a single black baroque pearl.
A chorus greeted the rare, white cockatoo with affection.
“Fray Paco came to our clan by an act of God,” said Doña Esperanza.
During the Christmas and Lenten seasons, the story of Fray Paco was repeated.
“He was found chained to a branch of an ylang-ylang tree by Great Uncle Alcibiade,” Lucrezia began.
“In the middle of a destructive typhoon in 1907,” said cousin Zita.
“It was New Year’s eve,” stated Jaime with conviction.
“The tycoon, Don Cesar, our great great uncle, had vowed to ruin the De La Rama family,” said Dolly.
“That was because they had tried to kill him several times,” clarified Lucrezia.
“Instead of going to parties or celebrating, Don Cesar, his two brothers Torquato and Mamerto, and an assortment of sons and nephews spent New Year’s Eve at the warehouses of the De La Rama clan by the port of Manila,” Aunt Camilla, Lucrezia’s mother explained.
“Ruined by vices and inept management, the vast empire of the De La Ramas, especially their international shipping lines to Mexico and California, now belonged to Don Cesar and the family’s bank,” Uncle Matt stated patiently.
“The Night of the Long Winds of 1907 was the most destructive typhoon to hit Manila,” Doña Esperanza said, patting Fray Paco who preened, a born showman.
“Trapped in the warehouses, Don Cesar and his family carried on like troopers, doing the inventory of the De La Rama properties and possessions,” Aunt Allegra said, smoothing her wrinkled black dress.
“Precisely! Then as the winds died down, they heard someone crying ‘Help! Help!’” Dramatically declared Uncle Rudy who had always wanted to be an actor and ended up running one of the clan’s international shipping lines.
“Don Alcibiade ran out to investigate. He couldn’t see anyone although the cries for help continued,” Uncle Edmund said, twirling his fingers nervously.
He was a chain smoker of cigarettes. Doña Esperanza loved her cigarillos and the others smoked cigars. Nicotine was a no-no during the observance of The Passion. The tycoon Don Cesar, addicted to cigars, accustomed to giving orders, had begun this tradition in the clan: total abstinence from alcohol, nicotine and sex in observance of the Passion.
Freckie excitedly cried out, “Then Fray Paco yelled, ‘Down here, coño!’” (Cono means vulva in vernacular Castilian)
“Trust Freckie to use dirty words whenever he can,” mused Lucrezia.
“So Don Alcibiade looked down and around and there he was, our hero, our amor, Fray Paco, standing upright but chained to a broken branch of an ylang-ylang,” exclaimed Uncle Arthur, who had the gift of gab and became a gambler.
“The entire Nieto Ortigas clan had been spared; all their plantations, houses and commercial properties intact. Don Cesar interpreted the arrival of the foundling Fray Paco as a message from God,” said Dona Esperanza.
By this time, Fray Paco had perched on Lucrezia’s shoulder, kissing her on the lips with his beak which could tear apart walnuts as if they were jelly.
“Don Cesar offered Fray Paco his freedom. ‘Fly away,’ he ordered on that New Year’s Day,” Lucrezia told them. “Fray Paco turned his raptor’s gaze on Don Cesar. They looked into each other’s eyes. Raptor to raptor. Then he understood. Fray Paco wanted a home and a family. He yearned for love and yet… and yet… he wanted to be free.”
“I promise you, no more cages. You’ll have your own jungle room. You can wander into any part of my villa. You can even fly but not too far, else the hawks will get you,” Heinzie quoted Don Cesar verbatim.
“Time for our prayers.” Doña Esperanza stretched out her black clad arms. “Come, Fray Paco.”
Lucrezia rose from her chair with Fray Paco holding on to her as she walked towards her grandmother. Once he was settled cozily on a small silk pillow on Doña Esperanza’s lap, she called out, “Let’s kneel”.
Almost in unison, everyone in the clan, the domestic staff, the dwarves Eneas and Achilles, followed without a word. Doña Esperanza placed Fray Paco, whose talons had dug into the silk pillow, on the floor in front of her. “As the oldest member of our clan, Fray Paco, please lead us in the Pater Noster.”
The white cockatoo puffed up his plumes and barked hoarsely, “Pater Noster, quis in coelis, sactificeturrrr nomen tum…”
Fifty voices joined Fray Paco in his mangled Latin. Although they pronounced the words properly, did that act alone bring them closer to the creator?
After the Pater Noster, the domestic staff, led by Macario, the majordomo, rose, walked to the far end of the veranda and brought back twenty-five porcelain bowls filled halfway to the brim with water. The ritual washing of the feet just as Jesus had done so lovingly to his apostles and disciples in the gardens of Gethsemane nearly two thousand years ago was re-enacted year after year in Santol Mansion.
The tycoon Don Cesar and Don Torquato and Don Mamerto, his brothers, had begun the practice after the terrifying typhoon of 1907. Indeed, Don Cesar had renounced his religion after winning the notorious lawsuit against the Catholic Church and the Dominican friars of Santo Tomas University in Manila. His hostile takeover of all the De La Rama holdings and wealth with the assistance of the American Marines had not endeared him to many of his fellow oligarchs – even if it had been a perfectly legal act.
The typhoon, which came soon after, their survival unscathed and the discovery of the foundling white and talkative cockatoo touched his heart and soul. He returned to the folds of the Church, preferring always to deal with the Jesuits with whom he remained on affectionate terms until his untimely death.
The clan drew lots, as did the domestic staff. Often one of the clan would be washing the feet of his driver or her maid. The children were instructed by Doña Esperanza whose feet to wash.
“Rats!” reacted Lucrezia silently. “Why did Gran Gran assign me the task of washing odious Freckie’s feet? He must have come out of the womb of a thug!” “Were all of Jesus’ apostles good and just men?” an inner voice (her guardian angel perhaps?) asked. “No,” answered Lucrezia. Then the image of Judas flashed by quickly as she watched Freckie, his soft, brown eyes, curly hair and disarming dimpled smile. “Jesus knew Judas would turn him in, yet He washed his feet. Who am I to complain?”
Freckie gave Lucrezia a self-satisfied smirk. She ignored it and began washing him. A wiggle here, a splash there… In no time at all, her face was soaked. She looked up and smiled like an angel. She could tell her cousin was seething but pretended not to notice. “Judas! Judas! Judas!” she kept telling herself. By the time Lucrezia was wiping Freckie’s feet with the small, white, linen towel, the mantra had become “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” Poor Freckie. Why was he so lost?”
Fray Paco squealed. Only Doña Esperanza could bathe him and not face the fury of his beak and talons. He had a small, inflatable pool of rainwater changed twice daily, much as his life long ago in the rain forest.
Now that the basins of water were removed, Doña Esperanza immediately began her explanation.
“I know it’s hot, sticky and difficult to breathe in this oppressive heat. Why then, with all our money, do we not escape to somewhere pleasant? We own dozens of ships. An inter-island cruise on one of them would be lovely. Many Filipino families go on these cruises. Vilas on the beach and chalets in the mountains beckon. We have chapels and diocesan priests who recite Lenten services. We choose to stay here in Manila as our way of participating, in a small way, in the Passion of our Lord. None of us present tonight will ever leave this world alive. Jesus himself died a most excruciating death on the cross.
Four years ago, forty of our friends, supporters and relatives were ambushed and massacred at Montalban by Victor Vencer and his band of Marxist guerrillas. One individual the Mayor of Montalban, our beloved Ben Flores, whose family has been linked to our clan for two generations - and our own precious Lucrezia - survived. None of us know the reason why the terrorist Victor Vencer spared them. (She knew but she would never reveal this to the members of her family and clan) The horrors of the war in the Pacific still haunt us. Otherwise, why are we all in denial about Intramuros?”
No one moved. No one spoke. Doña Esperanza went on.
“As long as God wills it, I will continue our observation of the Passion. Except for the children, you are all here of your own free will. I would not ever think of retaliating if any of your family or staff did not participate. It’s a personal choice. I hope my grandchildren will continue to commemorate the Passion and pass it on to their children when the time comes. Thank you for listening with such patience.”
Uncle Matthias (Matt for short) intoned.” The agony of Jesus really began in the gardens of Gethsemane – Holy Thursday. He was aware of the fate that awaited him. He pleaded with God; he feared he could not go through with the horrors.
“Let this cup be lifted from me.”
Jesus sweated blood from every pore. In medical terms it is called Hematidrosis. It occurred when the tiny capillaries overflowed with blood in the sweat glands and then burst. This caused blood to ooze throughout his scalp, face, neck, arms, back, legs and feet.
“And being in agony, He was praying very fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” From the Gospel of Saint Luke, the physician.
Dona Esperanza crossed herself on her forehead, neck and across her chest. Everyone followed her example in silence.
“Then she said,” Let us then retire to our rooms to rest, pray and meditate. Tomorrow is Good Friday. Laudate te Deum.” We give praise to Thee O Lord.”