Saturday, May 17, 2008
Another Restless Night
The Saga of Fray Paco
Book 5: The Indomitable Lucrezia
Chapter 4. Another Restless Night
Many jumbles of thoughts invade my mind in the silence of the night. I feel at ease navigating through these areas of blackness in my room. Like Fray Paco, I can see things better at night. The dark appears to project images as if I am in a movie theater. Dear Fray Paco must be slumbering soundly.
Lucrezia had stubbornly insisted on a pure white candle by her bedside lamp rather than the usual night-light.
The flickering candle comforts me as I lie still with my eyes shut. I can make out and perhaps feel the flashes of light cast by the candle. If I listen hard enough I can perceive the sound of the flame going Tsaw! Tsaw! Tsaw!
Amah Ah Wei snored lightly across her large bedroom. She did not want to disturb Amah.
I must not make a sound; She has slept little since the Ambush. If I startle her awake for any reason and she finds me brooding and awake, Amah will immediately conclude she is to blame for my state of wakefulness.
There is a name to describe one’s inability to sleep at night but I can’t think of the word. Well never mind. I don’t want to think about the word, I like ‘state of wakefulness’ better. Where was I? Ah! Yes. Amah Ah Wei. She would start bawling, babbling and beating her tiny breasts. I hope she has the sense to do this softly. What if she doesn’t? She’ll surely rouse up the whole household with her wailing. The best thing I can do is to pretend I am floating on a pink peony petal, which is drifting in the middle of a warm and sunless green lagoon.
“Quiet stupida,” Lucrezia imagined Fray Paco yelling at the top of his miniscule lungs.
“Golly Gee!” She laughed and instantly opened her eyes to observe Ah Wei.
Thank you, guardian angel. Ah Wei has not stirred. When she snored, nothing woke her, not even the eruption of Mayon Volcano (the world’s most perfect cone). Mayon was beautiful to see. There was this faultless triangle surrounded by emerald green fields.
She gazed into the candle’s fire and tried not to blink.
The eruption of Mayon Volcano must be a thousand times worse than the ambush at Montalban. I must not be distracted by anything not even the most beautiful volcano in the rain forest anywhere in the world. I must go over every moment no matter how much it wounds me.
She willed herself to remember every detail, even those that seemed insignificant. Like a needle stuck on a flawed record, perhaps even cracked, which someone had placed to listen then rushed out because something terrifying had taken place. Yes! Like the eruption of Mayon Volcano or the ambush at Montalban. The record just kept on going and going.
I am going to live through the ambush again and again and force myself to remember all the sequences, which led to the slaughter. I have to do this. I have to. I don’t want to call it an incident as most of my relatives do when I’m around. It was a massacre. The newspapers called it a massacre (I sneaked out of my room during the night to read them all in the library). I agree. I was there.
Not one of the people in the Buick with me had any weapons. Uncle Artie, Auntie Betsy, Uncle Ben (he wasn’t a blood uncle he was Lito’s son, the late majordomo of my beloved Great Uncle Cesar whom I never met), cousins Carly and Sonny and Manong Koko, Uncle Artie’s faithful driver – none of them had any weapons.
In postwar macho Manila, weapons were as plentiful as rice. Senators and Congressmen bragged about their gun collections and packed them cowboy style. It reached a zenith when Congress passed a law by a narrow margin forbidding solons to carry guns inside the halls of Congress and in the debating and voting rotunda itself.
"This is an outrage! Our lawmakers are attending sessions as if they are about to engage in the Battle at the OK Corral. President Charles de Gaulle of France is right. The Philippines is not a serious country. We are an Operetta,” exclaimed the erudite and incorruptible Senator Claro M. Recto who campaigned assiduously against Lawmakers carrying guns and daggers inside the sacred halls of the Congress.
Gran-Gran disapproved of people who wore guns and displayed them openly. “Not only is it tacky, it’s uncivilized and dangerous. If you strap on a gun, sooner or later, you’ll use it.”
Oops! The candle was more then halfway consumed. Wow! Have I been thinking that long? There are so many disjointed events all coming together between sleep and wakefulness. I can’t be sure if I remained alert for a time. Perhaps I did fall asleep a little. But now I’m awake and I want to focus on what really took place in Montalban. I think I should not read the newspapers any more. They are all reporting, ”He said – She said- they said.” They must be inventing things. I am not talking and neither is Uncle Ben.
We were in the Buick. Manong Koko was driving and Uncle Artie was seated in front next to him. Auntie Betsy was behind Manong Koko. I was seated on her lap. Cousins Sonny and Carly settled down beside her. The radio was playing a romantic song (Auntie Betsy said so). I can’t remember what the melody was. I’m so good at these things. Never mind. Move on. The Buick was moving slowly like a turtle because there were people lining both sides of the narrow road. It must have been narrow; the people were stretching out their arms to shake hands with Uncle Artie and touch Sonny and Carly on the right hand side. It was the right, there is no mistake.
She raised her right hand to her eyes. I know this is so. I play the G cleft with my right hand and the A cleft with my left except when I play crossed hands but so far that’s infrequent.
Auntie Betsy must have been on the left. The people were giving me garlands of sampaguita and champak flowers. I thanked them in Tagalog; “Salamat po (a respectful thank you)” as I have been taught to say to everyone regardless of their rank and station in life provided they are older than I. That meant practically everybody.
Ah! Yes. The people all said I was very beautiful. Suddenly, the road turned sharply. Instead of people, the sides of the road were made of solid rocks. The Buick seemed to be climbing a steep ascent.
“Children! don’t look down,” cautioned Auntie Betsy.
Instead of paying attention I looked down and saw a precipice and then another and then another. The void danced before me. I shut my eyes quickly and tightly and leaned back against Auntie Betsy.
The tension was heavy and I had trouble breathing. And then I prayed. Dear Child Jesus of Prague, give me strength. I love you with all my heart and soul. Protect us from harm.
I remember the strange silence. None of us wanted to risk distracting our driver; the radio was inaudible because static was interfering with the music. I had a sensation of Auntie Betsy’s whispered prayers. But where was Uncle Ben (Flores), the Mayor of Montalban? The reason why I was on Auntie’s lap was because Uncle Ben was on the right hand side of the Buick behind Uncle Artie. That is the picture that I must keep in mind. Cousins Carly and Sonny sat between Uncle Ben and Auntie Betsy.
Amah Ah Wei turned and let out a soft fart. So long as she continues to sleep and doesn’t upset me, she can fart all she wants to.
The next part was the hardest one. What happened after that? No one has asked me any questions regarding the ambush and massacre. Did you see anyone? Hear anything? What do you remember? I have made up my mind. I am never going to tell. Never. Never. Any questions related to anything, which deal with Montalban now and forever will be answered with: “I remember nothing, nothing at all. I did not see or hear anything.”
There was Uncle Ben to consider. He was alive. He could give them more details. He was much older and nearly forty. He knew a lot of things. Uncle Ben was a Politico’s Politico; he knew how to reply to questions.
“I’m a child, and a girl at that. I have the certainty that anything I say will be viciously ripped apart! I might even be killed. They, whoever they are, will never leave me in peace again. I think that some things in Life are so unbearable that they must not be revealed.
Lucrezia remembered a great deal. She was endeavoring to bring up every detail as much as possible. It would be her way of honoring all the dead. From that day forward, Lucrezia always prayed for the dead of Montalban. She promised them she would do it as long as she lived. By consciously reliving it, she had begun to feel much better. Each night another picture flashed before her eyes. It was becoming less painful to piece the jigsaw puzzle. She found comfort in the darkness with the twinkling solitary candle.
The cliffs were thankfully behind them. The motorcade was out of danger. The car radio was no longer sputtering.
I think I recognized Uncle Matt’s (Mattias) rich baritone voice reading a letter from a student requesting a love song for his Innamorata. The radio program was called “Sincerely Yours.” Uncle Matt loved radio and television.
The Ortigas Nieto clan owned the radio and television network “Filipinas” which was broadcast throughout the Archipelago. That meant the three main islands, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Uncle Matt ran the network creatively and efficiently.
The radio network and the cinema houses had been the brainchild of the banker Don Alcibiade.
Because of the dangerous cliffs and the narrow roads on the way to Montalban, Uncle Artie had ordered their armed motorcycle escorts and the two weapons carriers with 15 heavily armed Sikhs to go full speed ahead of them. He made the decision to rendezvous in the huge clearing – actually a man made valley blasted by the Japanese during the war in the Pacific when they occupied the entire Philippine Archipelago. This valley lay just before the final ascent into the hills of Montalban.
So what took place? I must continue. As soon as the Buick entered the clearing, all of us heard volleys of shots being fired. I saw hundreds of these beasts. They looked like the Myrmidons in Homer’s Iliad, black uniforms with mountain masks and gloves. I could not see an inch of skin. I still don’t know if the beasts were white skinned, brown and yellow or a mixture of all three races. They surrounded the motorcycle escorts and the two weapons carriers. I can’t go on. It’s too painful.
“You can’t turn back. You must continue for your own sake and for your future,” whispered an unseen child whose voice was familiar to her. It’s me! How can that be? I must be imagining things.
The images flashed on the sheet music in her upright Steinway piano. They are being shown on one of my compositions just before the ambush occurred. “The Strawberry Waltz": in three movements. Strawberries are red, like blood.
I must force myself to look at them. Our Protectors made perfect targets because there was no cover. The Myrmidons fired at will. The men riding the motorcycles flew into the air like mannequins from the force of the bullets. All our valiant Sikhs fought back trapped inside the weapons carriers. But the black beasts outnumbered them. No! No! No! Our Sikhs are being slaughtered like seals.
“Ambush! We’re in an ambush!” yelled Uncle Ben.
“Let’s turn back!” Uncle Artie looked at Manong Koko. “Did you hear me? Manong Koko! Manong Koko!” he shouted, taking the wheel of the Buick and slamming it into reverse. Manong Koko was slumped against his shoulder. He must have known Manong Koko was dead or mortally wounded.
“Get down, children! Down! Stay down! You too Betsy!" screamed Uncle Artie.
“Buisit! Oh Dios ko!” Uncle Ben continued. “We have no weapons. We can’t fight back! Artie! Stop! Can’t you see all the masked men behind us?”
“We’ve been captured!” cried a desperate Uncle Artie.
Lucrezia could not be certain if she heard Uncle Ben and Uncle Artie or if she had read it in the ad nauseam accounts of the newspapers, including the ones in Spanish. How did the reporters learn of these details? If they have appeared in the press they must all be lies and their accounts of what took place are playing with my mind.
She reviewed the scene again. How did we all end up in the clearing or in the forest? When the terrified villagers came running, correct that. The clearing/man made valley was at least 20 minutes away by car from the town of Montalban. That’s what Uncle Ben said and he should know as the Town Mayor. It would have taken the villagers a good 40 minutes, walking briskly, to reach us. The nearest army outpost lay beyond Montalban. The Marxist-Stalinist guerillas had cut the telephone and telegraphic wires to and from Montalban as well as those in the army outpost. Lucrezia could not find any article, which gave an accurate time because all gave different times. But of course they would do that. Only Uncle Ben might know for sure. How about me, will I ever know? I suppose I could calculate the approximate time, when I am not so overcome with grief. When will that be? Maybe never.
The paper she had read last night said the Philippine Liberation Army (PLA), a Marxist-Stalinist group, had claimed responsibility for the carnage. In terse handwritten notes pasted into the heavy narra doors of the “Manila Bulletin” and the “Manila Times”, two newspapers representing the establishment, the PLA declared “We have executed the capitalists and those associated with them in our unceasing class struggle. This is a vindication of the oppressed. Long live the Philippine Liberation Army!”
Commander Victor Vencer, leader of the PLA, had boldly signed it in blood – the blood of the Ortigas Nieto.
“We have examined it Esperanza, this is truly monstrous. Vencer used human blood, most probably the blood of our relatives,” rasped Dr. Basilio Valdes in a tremulous voice. He was Director of the Lourdes Clinic owned by the Ortigas Nieto. Uncle Basilio had also served as General MacArthur’s medical chief of staff before, during and after the war against Japan in the Pacific.
“You used the word probably. Basilio this blood is ours. Never doubt it cousin. Victor Vencer’s hate would not be appeased with anything other than our blood,” hissed Dona Esperanza with equal measures of grief, rage and impotence.
Who is Victor Vencer? Why does he want to kill my family and me? I am not opening my eyes properly and I am not thinking right. Wait! Consider that all of the members of my family whom I was with on that day died. But I did not. Why?
As she pondered these unsettling questions, she fell asleep at long last at three in the morning. Empty and too grief-stricken to weep.
The brilliant sunlight streaming through the verandah of Santol Mansion struck Lucrezia. Now she was wide-awake.
Where’s my candle? Ah Wei had been watching her from a small stool by her bed. She was so tiny that her grandmother had ordered a special stool made for her. Her feet did not touch the floor on their other chairs.
“You sleep good, child. We all happy.” Ah Wei walked quickly towards her in her padded cloth and leather shoes.
Lucrezia smiled enigmatically but said nothing. If you only knew Amah. I was up most of the night.
She turned towards the golden Venetian putti (cherubs) holding up a clock in her bedside table,
Wow! It was nearly 11:00 o’clock in the morning. That’s it. The angels are letting me know that the ambush took place at 11:00 o’clock in the morning. I remember it well. To our relief, the motorcade had just passed the narrow road with the steep precipices when Uncle Ben said, ”We have very good drivers who never lose their calm nature. Thanks to them, especially Manong Kako, it’s 11:00 o’clock. We are right on schedule for our rendezvous point in the Valley.”
Lucrezia placed a pillow above her face and wept a lament and a wail so gruesome that it pierced the hearts of all those who heard it. Fray Paco flew in and laid his beak softly on the pina sleeve of her pink nightdress. Camilla sat on either side of her bed but refrained from touching her or speaking to her. Dona Esperanza stood at the foot of Lucrezi’a’s bed and wept. Ah Wei knelt on the floor beside Fray Paco and covered her mouth because she was trying to stifle her cries. Her loved ones stood around her bed and accompanied her in all her cries and lamentations.
“We may be robbed, tortured, mutilated and slaughtered; but the spirit which made us great and unafraid except of God and some times not even of God, will continue to propel us onwards. We will never be crushed,” affirmed Dona Esperanza through her copious tears.
Lucrezia heard her grandmother's words and the tears slowed slightly, ever so slightly as they sank into her heart and toughened her. I did survive. I will survive.