It is one of the chapters of Book Five of THE SAGA OF FRAY PACO: THE INDOMITABLE CONTESSINA LUCREZIA. Bubi's demise, which came a few months after the Massacre of Montalban, was a terrible blow to Lucrezia. To this day I wonder how she was able to cope. But cope she did and admirably too.
Agents and publishers who think they know it all should cease calling these genres literary fiction. It is not. It is literary non-fiction. Would they call Boris Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO a piece of literary fiction? Some ignoramuses actually did!
Pasternak defined it autobiographical fantasy because he added dialogue which occurred but which may not have been the exact words used by the characters and personages at the time.
By the way Marcel Proust called his masterpiece REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, which strictly speaking is not the proper translation of the French work, also an atobiographical fantasy, for the very same reason.
I eagerly await your comments.
NOTE: Because of the length of this story ... I will publish it in two parts, starting with part 1 today.
Bubi's Funeral (part 1)
"I can’t stop thinking of Bubi. Let’s pray to the Child Jesus of Prague to make him well. I have a pakirandam (feeling) that Bubi will die and I don’t know why,’’ said Lucrezia sadly fingering the branches of a tall santol tree that towered alongside the verandah of Santol Mansion.
"November is very pretty month in Manila. Cool and fresh. Plenty waling-waling orchids, tall hibiscus shrubs and little heat. Perfect for children and playmates to spend time in garden,’ replied Ah Wei, her Chinese Amah (nanny) as she plaited seven year old Lucrezia’s long blonde tresses and avoided the issue of Bubi.
A loud silence separated them.
Even the weather is behaving in an odd way. It’s too hot to play any of our games in the garden. And then I don’t feel like playing while Bubi lies so close to death.
Ah Wei sensed things seemed askew including the heat and the humidity and quickly suggested, ‘’Maybe more better if we pray first.’’
She gazed at her amah from her favorite carved Tonkinese armchair. Ah Wei ‘s smooth face, was usually an unreadable Oriental mask. This morning her skin was lined and her anguished eyes betrayed her statement about the perfect month of November. More significantly the amah did not contradict Lucrezia.
She feels Bubi is going to leave his parents, brother and his favorite cousin-me. Tears ran down her cheeks.
"Lucrrre do not cry. It makes you ugly," croaked Fray Paco.
Fray Paco, the rare white cockatoo from the island chain of Sumatra, was the oldest member of the Nieto-Ortigas clan. He surely had passed a century and this was calculated simply and easily. He remembered events, upheavals and tragedies, which had occurred in the late eighteenth century. As a polyglot Fray Paco’s expressions in Castilian and Portuguese were arcane. His blasphemies and curses also harkened to the days when cutthroats, villains and pirates of every color and stripe roamed the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca at will.
"I don’t want to play any games in or outside the house. Even the piano does not interest me. I prefer to sit in the veranda with you and listen to Fray Paco, after we have said a prayer to the Child Jesus,’’ replied Lucrezia in a tearful voice.
Only the children with their respective amahs were in Santol Mansion. Gran-Gran, the Matriarch Esperanza accompanied by their parents was at the Lourdes clinic. It was owned and financed by the Nieto-Ortigas clan. General Basilio Valdes, a kinsman who had served in General Macarthur’s headquarters in Manila, as his highest-ranking Filipino officer was its director. Not only was Basilio rich, he was a fine doctor - Summa cum Laude at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
Basilio had balls. The Lourdes Clinic socked it to the rich so that the poor could be looked after for free.
‘’That means all members of the clan without exception should and must pay all the fees of Lourdes Clinic, if any of us are patients. All our friends and acquaintances with the means to pay are not to expect any discounts whatsoever,’’ Dona Esperanza had decreed and that, was that. Not only for the Nieto-Ortigas clan, for all three hundred families and clans, which ran the Philippines by virtue of their enlightened self-interest, wealth, and self-serving wisdom.
Esperanza had balls and frequently spoke her mind plainly. "I have a rat gnawing at my entrails regarding Bubi’s survival. The miracle drug Penicillin he is receiving will not heal him if it is time for him to die," said Esperanza silently.
Her son and daughters looked at each other. "None of us here present dare break the silence. Only Uncle Basilio and Mater are empowered to do that."
They had been summoned at around five in the morning by great-uncle Basilio, who was the director of Lourdes clinic as well as the one personally supervising the care being administered to nine-year-old Bubi.
"The sun has stopped shining Ah Wei. Would you not say this is a bad omen? asked Lucrezia. "Let’s go to my room. Fray Paco, you can follow us if you like." She did not try to hide the fear in her voice.
"Nil desperandum," (Do not despair) replied the cockatoo quoting Horace. He spread his wings, flew towards the high ceiling, glided and then nosed down to land on the wide, teak parquet.
"Child, Dona Esperanza not like talking bird to walk on wood. Bad for wood. Better you put him on your shoulder," admonished Ah Wei in her peculiar form of Castilian.
Fray Paco heard and understood. Quick’s a cockatoo can blink his thick eyelashes, he was on Lucrezia’s shoulders.
The Nieto-Ortigas clan admired Horace, the Roman poet of antiquity. It was almost a genetic requirement to know him well and to love him. As soon as a child celebrated his sixth birthday, he or she was gifted with a small book bound in parchment containing some of his formidable insights. A young Latin scholar, usually a Jesuit priest would hold tutorials in Santol Mansion to introduce the little ones to rudimentary Latin, with Horace as the basis of their budding knowledge of savoir vivre – the art of living and savoir faire- the art of doing.
The tycoon, the late Don Cesar, whom Fray Paco referred to as Master Cesar or sometimes, simply Pater Cesar, had taught him most of the aphorisms of Horace with loving patience. Fray Paco had been a diligent pupil. Don Cesar was amazed at his memory and capacity to store information and recall it swiftly. Even now, forty-five years after the premature death of the young tycoon. Fray Paco cited Horace frequently, even if he did mangle some of his sayings.
It seemed to Lucrezia that someone was always dying in the immense Nieto-Ortigas clan. Children aged seven and above were expected to attend the funerals.
It was useless to complain about attending yet another funeral; no one listened. Now, I wish with all my heart I will not need to go to Bubi’s funeral because he is going to live a long and lovely life, despite my feelings of bad joss.
The only sympathetic person was Uncle Matthias, called Matt by everyone. He ran the family’s radio and television network and conducted a request show called “Sincerely Yours.” He always played the favorite songs of the dead relative and made effusive dedications to him or her over the radio. Even if he was barely acquainted with them, that was not a deterrent to Matt.
“Genes and blood are important," was his frequent comment.
His mother, the formidable matriarch Esperanza, Lucrezia’s grandmother, considered this display too middle class and bourgeois for words. She would tell him, “Matt, this is schmaltzy, but as long as the family of the dear departed like this sort of thing, who am I to object?”
“Cemeteries are the best places in which to relax. It’s so quiet," Uncle Matt would often tell relatives and friends. He liked to go on frequent picnics by himself in the clan’s impressive and opulent mausoleum. While he drank a fine Remy Martin brandy, munched on pan de sal freshly baked by the family chef Manong, with thick white carabao cheese from their plantation in Laguna, he ruminated over the twists and turns of life.
The children of the Nieto-Ortigas clan were expected to behave themselves during the social part of the funeral ceremony when everyone filed past silently by the coffin of rare wood – solid narra brutally cut down by loggers from the splendid Philippine rain forests. Sometimes the grieving living mourned their dead in coffins, which were nothing but showpieces, such as rare rosewood from Brazil with 18 carat gold handles.
"Absolutely too gaudy and tacky for words," the matriarch Esperanza would comment, but only to the members of her immediate family.
Like clockwork, all the children, under the supervision of their respective parents and amahs, always reviewed the following strict instructions; “Try and look solemn. Fidgeting, giggling and sniveling are not allowed. No one is to make funny faces or comic remarks. If the religious service is too long as some priests could be slower than snails, do mental arithmetic, practice multiplication and division tables in your head. Remember. It is considered crass to cry and sob at funerals except for really close relatives, when it is de rigueur to shed a tear or two."
Hysteria contests among the mourners occurred frequently. The Italians, Spanish, Filipino and Chinese had an extraordinary sense of drama. A mixture of all four races and situations in church could easily erupt into explosions of grief.
If a relative was rich and a public figure, he or she lay in state for three days. Then the most senior heads of the various oligarchic families attended so that the “common people” – not common at all but called that as a euphemism for anyone not remotely related to the clan – could participate in the rituals of mourning.
"It is almost impossible not be related through marriage or through blood ties. Couplings in Holy Matrimony or More Uxorio (outside of marriage) did not make a difference. The fertility of our men and women outrun the fertility of the soil. I wonder if it is the heat, but our sexuality is always at a fever pitch in the Philippines. My vulva and clitoris always seemed to be engorged even if I was not engaged in sexual activity," Dona Esperanza had once confided to her daughters. They had been shocked at their mother’s candor.
Just before the funeral rites begun, with the Mass and the inevitable and interminable eulogies, the young ones (those under seven) were herded, collected and taken out of the church by their respective Chinese amahs who, in keeping with the atmosphere, looked properly sepulchral in their black silk Hakka trousers and long shirts. The children and the amahs played quietly in the church or inside the cathedral courtyard. Sometimes the children listened to the most ghoulish stories from the amahs about mummies in China running after mischievous children in funerals. None of them really believed them but they found the stories fascinating just the same.
A series of unending cries reverberated throughout the corridors of Lourdes Clinic.
"No! Por el amor de Dios. No! Te ruego Dios mio! No! No Te vayas hijo. No nos dejes. Bubi mio. Bubi nuestro. Bubi Vida mia. Bubi de mi alma. For the love of God. I beg you, don’t go son. Don’t leave us. Bubi mine. Our Bubi. Bubi of my life. Bubi of my soul".
Dona Esperanza rose and raised her palms up as a means of detaining the rest of her family. The vigil was over. Death had taken Bubi.
In many ways it is not right. I bow to the inevitable will of God, but I don’t have to like it, reflected Esperanza. She forced herself to remain outwardly calm and walk slowly into the death chamber - Bubi’s room.
Rosario, nicknamed Rosy, together with her equally distraught husband Alfred, clasped and cradled their dead son in their arms. Only then did Esperanza discover that Alfred was sobbing uncontrollably and whispering tender words of love and loss in German.
"Meine libschen. Meine schatzie. Meine weldt. Meine alles. Bubi ist todt? Neine! Neine! Meine liebe Gott."
Dr. Basilio Valdes, who had attended Bubi until his last breath now enfolded Alfred’s father into his arms. "I am so sorry ... I feel so helpless."
Esperanza took both of Rebecca’s hands and clasped them hard. Two wet cheeks. Two women, one Catholic and a mélange or races, the other, an assimilated German Jewess, paternal grandmother of Bubi, united by bonds of love, blood ties and grief.
"What can I say Rebecca. After the horrors of the Second World War in which both our families lost so many, after the massacre of Montalban where forty of our dearest relatives, friends and political allies perished, including three of my beloved grand nephews, I had payed in vain for a respite. Lucrezia survived the massacre, which remains a mystery to me … I had hoped that our family would witness another miracle, and that Bubi would recover,
"Do not torment yourself so, Esperanza. God, this time, willed differently. Till the day I die I shall never understand the mysterious ways in which God works," murmured Rebecca.
"Why did the so called wonder drug not work Uncle Basilio?" wailed Rosy. She did not wait for him to reply and went on.
"You said thousands of Allied soldiers in Europe and in Asia were saved by Penicillin during the last phase of the war. Why did our Bubi die of blood poisoning? Because everything in this type of medicine is pure drivel. Maybe it’s just propaganda put out by the drug companies. We should stop buying shares immediately."
"Nothing works against a higher power. Nothing. Do you hear me hija? Science and Medicine will always attempt the impossible. It has ever been thus since the beginning of time. God and nature will never fail to find a way to thwart or bend the rules we doctors thought we had overcome," replied Dr. Basilio Valdes with a leaden heart.
"He’s still warm. Feel him Uncle. Could he be in a deep sleep like … ike Lazarus?" stammered Rosy.
Dr.Basilio Valdes gazed at Esperanza. He was pleading with his eyes.
"Querida. Bubi has been dead for just a few minutes. Remember that his fever was over forty five degrees Celsius," Esperanza told Rosy and Alfred softly.
They do not want to part with Bubi just yet. I can feel it. I understand it. I run this clinic and I also happen to be one of its most important shareholders. My family is hurting. There are exceptions to the rules. So be it ruminated the man who was also the doctor. He came up with a wonderful and affectionate solution.
"Stay here in the room with Bubi as long as you wish. Perhaps the rest of the family who have been keeping a vigil in our waiting room might like to hug and embrace Bubi. How about allowing me to hold the boy? I am his great-uncle after all. I loved him too."
It was Kabir Singh, a Sikh, head of the Nieto-Ortigas clan’s security, acting under the Matriarch’s orders that broke the news of Bubi’s death to Uncle Matt. He was at his desk at the family owned radio station DZRC. He read the announcement over the air. It was hard not to be overcome by emotion. Then he personally called every publisher of every newspaper.
"What? Bubi Keller dead? We didn’t even know the boy was sick. Peritonitis you say? That is such a tragedy. He was a lovely boy. His parents must be in a state of shock."
Uncle Matt also apprised the owners of the television stations.
"This is awful. Is this the Bubi Keller who is the son of Rosy and Alfred Keller? Is not your sister Allegra married to Rosy’s brother Arthur? Our deepest condolences."
This particular funeral was to be an extraordinary one. A dear little boy cousin, Bubi Keller, suddenly died of peritonitis.
Not one of the usually rich old caryatids, opined Uncle Matt.
Bubi's death was a blow to Lucrezia. She cried herself to sleep in her mummy and amah’s arms on the day her grandmother had told them.
"He was one of my favorite playmates, together with his younger brother Heinzie. If Heinzie had died too, that would have been more than I could bear," mused Lucrezia.
Bubi, Heinzie, Zita and she made up a quartet of conspirators, as they called themselves because they loved creating new pranks to play on people. Many of them never came to fruition. None of them enjoyed being grounded. Not going to the polo matches to see their uncles and older cousins play chukkas on opposite teams was too thrilling to miss. Then, they would not see the fast paced soccer games, and go to the symphony concerts, piano recitals, musicals and ballet performances. The worst punishment decreed? No movies and no television for two weeks!
Lucrezia began writing down all their would-be mischief and mayhem in her diaries. In the end, imagination took over and it became more effective than the reality of actually pulling off the pranks.
All the Ortigas clan had extensive wardrobes for funerals, especially the women and the girls. Lucrezia had over a dozen dresses. Plain black, serious black, frivolous black, crisp black and white, silk polka dots, lacey black on dark brown and hazy grey. Wintry white and lily white were worn only when members of the Wak Nam or Chen Yu clans died. The Chinese chose white as a symbol for mourning. It made more sense to Lucrezia.
"White is like light. It is where the soul flies to after death. That’s what Gran-Gran said. It is the sun itself. Festive and joyful. Black is too sad and bleak. It’s too...well, black."
Even Amah Ah Wei was distraught over Bubi's death. "Amah Ah Chung very wretched. She love Bubi boy too much."
"First Carly, Cookie, and Mila died. Now Bubi. Ah Wei, I am losing all my favorite playmates.” Carly, Cookie and Mila had been killed in the ambush and massacre at Montalban nearly five months ago.
"In China many people die all the time, all my family gone in few days. There is still Heinzie, he very good heart and Zita, good head like yours. Must make new friends," Ah Wei replied as she twisted her hair with her fingers into curls. She stepped back. "You look very like Shirley Temple."
"Who is she?" asked Lucrezia.
"She was the most famous child star in Hollywood. During the years of the Depression she kept the spirits of the American people high," Lucrezia's mother Camilla informed her as she entered her bedroom. "Oh, Ah Wei, please dress Lucrezia in the very formal black dress, the long one. This death is such a shock to us. Rambunctious Bubi dead at the age of nine. How did he look at his birthday party last month?"
"All white children look same to me - round eyes, long noses, too pale skins. Too much milk, same, same," murmured Ah Wei, spinning black velvet ribbons on Lucrezia's hair. "Only Lucrezia not look same," she declared.
Camilla smiled at the Amah's comment. She was attired in a simple linen, high-necked, black suit with no jewelry and a black lace veil over her shoulders, accompanied by black low-heeled pumps.
"Ah Wei, please see that she does not forget her prayer book and her veil. I'll meet you both in the driveway."
"No need!" said Doña Esperanza from the hallway. "We'll go together."
Her high heels thudded softly on the Kashmir runner placed over the narra mahogany floor. During the hot season, all the Persian, Indian and Peking rugs were washed with cold rainwater from special storage tanks and hand scrubbed with soft brushes by highly trained muscular coolies from Hang Zhou. Then they dried them in the shade of the mango and santol trees and aired them for a few days. Camphor lined rooms expressly built to hold the carpets and rugs were their final destination from the months of March to September.
Ah Wei quickly grabbed Lucrezia's prayer book bound in chiseled leather and hastily adjusted her round black veil over her blonde curls. Inside the prayer book, Lucrezia had hidden several blank pieces of paper. Ah Wei carried a small pencil in her loose black silk satin trousers.
If anything or anyone strikes my fancy or catches my attention, I can count on Ah Wei for my pencil.
Handkerchiefs? I always bring them. They are useful for wiping sweat off the brow and the neck. Cathedrals are like volcanoes during funerals. When Lucrezia cries I will be ready, reasoned the ever-practical amah.
The matriarch looked the part. An I-own-the-world kind of walk, long, black silk dress, its high neck covered in jet buttons. A single strand of pristine Mikimoto pearls, the size of Bing cherries hang around her long neck. A black silk lace veil was draped over her imperious chignon and gathered below her waist. She held a heavy, silk taffeta fan and reminded everyone to bring along fans because they were in the midst of an unusually torrid season for the month of November.
Even the temperature doesnot seem to favor the Ortigas clan this year.
Fray Paco perched on the shoulders of Doña Esperanza. He cooed and pecked at her earlobe.
"Querido, it's too dangerous to leave you outside the church. You might be kidnapped. Times have changed for the worse in that regard."
Fray Paco was so precious to them, so vital to their lives; Esperanza would pay any amount demanded as ransom. She feared Fray Paco might be harmed. His obscene mouth when incensed and the criminal's temperament would be a lethal combination.
Now if Freckie would be kidnapped instead, it would be foolhardy of the criminals, contemplated Doña Esperanza. She for one would not pay a centavo to ransom her grandson. Why, as in O. Henry’s amusing short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” she might demand a high ransom to bring Freckie back into their fold. Esperanza smirked at her secret ramblings. That would be her first reaction. On more reflection, as much as Freckie was easy to dislike, she could not bear to hurt her daughter Allegra so… in the end, even Freckie the pest would be ransomed.
Fray Paco grunted, "Ay porr Dios! Que lastima He hovered over Lucrezia and pecked her softly on the lips. His attendants, the twin dwarves Eusebio and Euclide scanned the sky. Eagles and hawks, his mortal enemies, could swoop down on Fray Paco when you least expected it. "Bye! Ciao! Adios!" he bellowed as his attendants took him on his perch across the lawn on the way back to his jungle room.