Monday, November 3, 2008


The motorcade from Santol mansion set off. The street was chock-a-block with snazzy looking black or dark blue Cadillac limousines and Buicks. All of its occupants were attending Bubi’s funeral rites.

In the Cadillac limousine sat the matriarch, Doña Esperanza, their Gran-Gran; Lucrezia’s mum Camilla; her mum's younger sister Aunt Allegra; Lucrezia and Zita, dressed almost identically held hands and crossed their eyes. The Amahs Ah Wei and Ah Tat who looked after Lucrezia and Zita respectively were sphinx-like in their demeanor. Everyone was clothed in the blackest of black and their mood matched their ensemble. Silence reigned.

"In the past five months, I have assisted at forty - one funerals of friends and relatives. They perished in a holocaust at a brutal ambush among the green hills of Montalban. Machine gun fire pelted them and gunned them down. Then, the barbaric assassins finished them off with bullets fired at point blank range at their necks. Three children: two great-nephews and a great-niece gone just like that. Their bodies resembled sieves for the hundreds of bullets that passed through them. Someone bloodthirsty and evil ordered that all the bodies should be hacked to pieces in a most bizarre manner. Lucrezia was spared deliberately. If that is not sending me a macabre message, I don’t know what is,’’ pondered a still concerned and perplexed Esperanza.

Allegra attempted to attract her mother’s attention by fanning herself furiously while the air conditioning was on high. Dona Esperanza spotted her out of her peripheral vision but decided to ignore her.

I don’t want to interrupt what I define as my grief musings. I’ll get back to her soon. Now Bubi is gone. One fine morning he was swimming at the Polo Club with Heinzie, Zita and Lucrezia. By afternoon he was racked with abdominal pains so severe he was unable to walk. His parents rushed him to Lourdes Clinic, our own clinic.

"It’s Appendicitis, we must operate immediately," pronounced the doctors. To their horror the doctors led by Basilio found that a state of advanced peritonitis had set in.

"How is it possible? There hasn’t been enough time! Septicemia had reached the blood stream and was spreading rapidly. His fever was off the charts!" They exclaimed, anxious and disturbed.

The boy was bombarded with Penicillin. If microbes could laugh, these ones did. The blood poisoning continued its inexorable pace. By five in the morning, twelve hours after he was admitted to Lourdes Clinic, Bubi had initiated his journey towards death. He swam in and out of a state of awareness.

"I love you Mummy and Papi. I’m not afraid.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.’’

‘’Brave Bubi. He fought with all his might but the microbes proved to be powerful and pitiless. Well, so much for the touted miracles of antibiotics. I intend to unload all the considerable shares I own in the pharmaceutical corporations. I think allopathic medicine is not about curing a patient at all. Money will never go into cures. It is not about solutions but palliatives. I must pay a visit to honored Uncle Wak Nam in Chinatown and have a frank talk with him about TCM- Traditional Chinese medicine.’’

Esperanza had made a hard decision. She would not allow anyone to sweet-talk her out of it.
‘’Why is no one making any comments,’’ wondered Lucrezia. She glanced at Zita, put her forefinger and middle finger over her lips and crossed her heart. Zita smiled back and covered her mouth to stifle an involuntary cry.

For days Lucrezia had heard nothing but "What a tragedy! Beautiful Bubi. His parents must be disconsolate. Such a dear little boy. The good truly die young."

Let's not overdo this. I loved him. He was as good and as naughty as the rest of us, certainly not any less naughtier than I, mused Lucrezia. Perhaps even more so. I never tugged at anyone’s hair and caught slimy worms and hairy spiders to throw at their faces. Just because Bubi caught something horrible and died, he has suddenly turned into an angel.

Lucrezia had the impression that angels were powerful and mighty beings deliberately created by God. Human beings do not become angels. I know some of our relatives believe this to be so. Why argue with your elders, even if they're misinformed?

"Are you sure this is the right church?" her mother Camilla asked Aunt Allegra, in a dubious tone of voice.

Everyone in the Keller family uses this and only this church," retorted Aunt Allegra. "Saint Augustine's. Why do you ask?" her Sagittarius temper slowly coming to the fore.

To be precise, the Kellers were assimilated German Jews. Alfred had married Rosario Zoller, the sister of Rudy, Aunt Allegra's husband, the parents of darling Zita and frightful Freckie. Alfred Keller, deeply in love with Rosy, consented to his children being brought up as Catholics.

Camilla replied with some concern. "It's just that I had this peculiar sensation as we pulled by the side of Saint Augustine's. I haven't seen anyone we know.

"Never mind that. Where are our Sikh bodyguards? What about our pygmies? Silvio, have you spotted any of them?" Dona Esperanza asked her faithful and trusted driver.

"No, Mam. They're all strangers out there," dutifully replied Silvio.

"Oh Camilla!" an irritated Allegra declared, "All of Manila with their private armies must be here this morning! This is a High Society event. Every single and superficial individual is coming to Bubi’s funeral to see and be seen."

"That's just the point, Allegra. There should be mobs of them, but it's strangely empty out here."

"They are probably all inside. Perhaps the Kellers decided this. They are very Germanic. This is another funeral we're late to," declared Allegra sighing deeply and rushing to step out of the Cadillac even before Silvio held the car door open for her.

Allegra adjusted her veil. She turned to the matriarch who was being assisted by Silvio.

"Last minute checks everyone. Veils properly placed on the head? Fans at the ready? Prayer books at hand?"

A loud chorus of “yeses” greeted Dona Esperanza!

Allegra walked fast as the Cadillacs in the motorcade stopped to disgorge other black-clad members of the clan.

Camilla took a deep breath, arranged her veil carefully and realized with horror, that she was holding a loud, scarlet and lacey fan. Perfect for a night out to a cabaret.

‘’It’s too late to do anything about it now except bite on a bullet and hope that my falcon-eyed mother will not see it with everything else that is on her mind’’.

"All right, every body. Amahs will follow with the children right after us. If the others haven't arrived, that's too bad. We're not waiting out here in this blazing heat. Let us make our entrance," affirmed Dona Esperanza. She patted both her daughters' shoulders and led the way into the church. Aunt Allegra whispered something to the imperious Esperanza. She nodded in agreement and stepped aside to allow her daughters to enter Saint Augustine's Church before her.

"I was right! We are unfashionably late," hissed Aunt Allegra to all those behind her.

"Unless late, no entrance," Amah Ah Wei replied loudly, looking around the church. "I see..." Dona Esperanza swirled abruptly around and glared at her like a basilisk. She quickly shushed the Amah. Lucrezia and Zita walked down the aisle on tiptoe.

They made an astonishing sight: A straight walking, glamorous dowager with her two distinguished daughters. Two snooty Hakka amahs that stared straight ahead. Two fetching Little Miss Muffets, dressed extravagantly in long, black hand embroidered mourning dresses.

Lucrezia and Zita strained their necks to see over the pigtailed heads of Ah Wei and Ah Tat.

"They are blocking the view."

The strident voice of Ah Wei was heard. "Husbands no here. Nobody here."

"But the church is overflowing with people!" protested Allegra, who was beginning to show signs of irritation because of the heat and the stress.

Dona Esperanza turned, eyes flashing yet again with her long, ring less fingers over her mouth. It was considered rude to wear jewelry to a funeral. Baubles did not become mourning.

High on a dais stood masses of white lilies that surrounded an immense white lacquered coffin. Allegra, with some hesitation, proceeded slowly up the carpeted steps, towards the open coffin, with the saddest look on her face. Allegra possessed the most expressive face set off by her luminous hazel eyes. She leaned over the coffin. Mustering her most sorrowful expression she peered inside. Then, Allegra collapsed in uproarious laughter. Camilla and the matriarch quickened their pace to catch a glimpse of the person inside the coffin. The disapproving look on the matriarch's face gave way to the identical hysterical laughter of Allegra. By this time Camilla had joined them and she too cracked up. They had completely forgotten Lucrezia and Zita. Both amahs desperately tried to hold them back.

"Don’t go up there. You will not be able to control yourselves. You will catch their laughter," they pleaded terror stricken yet embarrassed.

"Don’t try to stop me Ah Wei. I want to see!" insisted Lucrezia. What is happening? Why are our grandmother and our mothers laughing like hyenas gone berserk? Zita, your mother is peeing on the rug! In church? I can’t believe this."

A big puddle had formed around Allegra’s fine, black kid leather pumps. The onlookers/ the faithful watched in stunned and silent horror.

Lucrezia and Zita sprinted up the dais, taking the steps two at a time. They peered inside the coffin while their Grandmother was fanning herself and still howling hilariously. Allegra went down on her knees to dissimulate the urine running down her legs and the noise it made as it splashed on the puddle in the expensive Peking carpet.

Inside the coffin lay the most bloated, biggest and fattest Chinese man they had ever seen.

"I can’t believe any human being would allow himself to turn into a mount of lard. Poor man." exclaimed Lucrezia.

"He must have weighed at least 500 pounds. Pobrecito. Poor man," repeated Zita.

“We are in the wrong funeral!”

The annoyed, mortified and pained voice of the Matriarch thundered throughout the church.

“What’s with you, Allegra? You are supposed to coordinate all our funerals! And you, Camilla?" she fumed, glaring at her red ostrich fan, "what are you doing with that … with that cocotte thing in church?"

“Let’s apologize first and explain to the people here,” urged Allegra, unable to finish without breaking up and peeing some more on the ever-growing puddle of her piss below the fat man’s coffin.

Doña Esperanza, her daughters and granddaughters noticed at that precise moment, that the entire church was a vast sea of Chinese faces.

“O Dios mio! O my God! The only polite, graceful – no! I take that back, dignified? It won’t work either – is to leave immediately,” declared the Matriarch. At her daughter’s hesitation she repeated forcefully. “Let’s leave. Now. Listen to me. These people can go on with their mourning. We’ll make amends later.”

“This is awful. What will they think?” asked a mortified Camilla, her delicate stomach churning and turning her face an unbecoming green.

The matriarch replied, not missing a step as she marched out of the Church of Saint Augustine.

“They will think what they always think of the gwailo-the foreign devils. We are insensitive, uncultured, and barbaric. Camilla! Don't you dare puke, do you hear? We are not leaving any more gwailo bodily fluids in this church.”

“If you let me talk, I could have tell you there were too many slitty, chinky eyes in there to be dead child Bubi funeral,” stated Ah Wei.

“Is that the way to describe yourself and your people?” Camilla demanded to know of Lucrezia’s amah.

Ah Wei shrugged, unaffected by her question. “You round eyes. We slitty eyes,” she replied flatly.

“She’s right. We worked ourselves up into this mourning frenzy. Since the ambush and massacre, which took place in the hills of Montalban, Bubi is the first child to die a natural death. Odd, in this day and age, none of us noticed our surroundings, except Ah Wei,” declared Doña Esperanza.

“We all went inside the church blind as bats and as unobservant as sheep,” agreed Camilla, still in a daze.

Instead of blonde, cherubic Bubi dressed in a royal blue velvet suit decked out in a magnificently carved, ebony coffin, they had all participated in this grotesque scene.

Amidst the hostile stares of the Chinese faithful in the church, the matriarch, her daughters, granddaughters and amahs hurriedly filed down the aisle, looking neither to the left nor to the right.

“There are too many churches. Have you counted the funerals we’ve been to? Who can remember them all?” asked Lucrezia’s mother, Camilla. Allegra could only nod. She was too ashamed at her reaction and at the sight of her urine soaked dress to speak.

“It’s our duty to remember and commemorate personal and public events. That’s why we belong to the so-called privileged classes, because our sense of duty and service always comes before our own self-interests. Privilege comes with inescapable accountability. You seem to have forgotten that,” admonished Dona Esperanza. Her voice cut them all like ice.

They made a quick stop at the priory to enable Allegra to use the telephone. She apologized to the young priest for her intrusion. After her call she deposited a large Manila envelope stuffed with money ‘’for the missions’’ in the appropriate box. Allegra cleared up the confusion as she darted into the limousine.

"Bubi is lying in state at Saint Dominic’s Cathedral."

Yes! It's true the Kellers attended Mass on Sundays and holy days at Saint Augustine's, but Bubi studied in the special Swiss German school at Saint Dominic's. Grandfather Keller might have fled Nazi Germany but he had no intentions of allowing any of his grandchildren to forget Hoch Deutsch, High German.

"I like the new Germany which is being created. When the time is right, I hope my grandchildren will return to Frankfurt and re-create a bigger Keller Bank than the one that my ancestors established."

"Now I can see we're in the right place. There are our Sikh bodyguards, attired and turbaned in white as a sign of respect and mourning. But there is still no sign of our pygmies," murmured Dona Esperanza, who was relieved she had regained control over the situation.

Everyone in the cathedral had been waiting for Dona Esperanza. No one dared proceed with the funeral mass in her absence. She possessed the kind of charisma, which, flowed naturally out of every pore. It was in her genes.

The clan had feared another terrorist ambush. It was a normal kind of paranoia. Time would never heal it. Indeed, the ensuing years and bloody occurrences throughout the world would reinforce this realization. Naturally, the members of the clan moved fearlessly as if they were immortal, but in their heart of hearts they never forgot Montalban. Death could come at any moment from assassins, terrorists, and exalted psychopaths.

Lucrezia and Heinzie hugged wordlessly and tightly. Then Doña Apollonia, Bubi's maternal grandmother, with a black Spanish mantilla held up high in her hair by a diamond-encrusted comb, led them towards the altar where Bubi's coffin had been placed.

"She looks like a statue of the Virgin of Loreto. Poor Apollonia, sorrow has made her look tacky today, covered in hundreds of diamonds," thought Esperanza. Then she instantly felt ashamed of herself. ‘’I'm being nasty and I shouldn’t. Maybe the diamonds comfort her in some way. On certain occasions etiquette should be ignored.’’

Lucrezia stood on tiptoes and stared at the porcelain and waxen face of Bubi. Only a tiny speck of coagulated blood on his right nostril marred the perfection.

"He does not look as if he is only sleeping as the grown ups claim. Bubi looks dead to me but he is still such a dazzling boy. I will never forget you Bubi-boo so long as I live.’’

There was a strange and fragrant scent around her cousin. She sniffed. No, it was not the white roses, gardenias and camellia wreaths surrounding his coffin. Nor was it the smell of decay, Not yet, she did not think so. All his blood has been drained from his body. The embalmers then injected him with chemicals to delay the rot. That is what they had been told. This was the third day since Bubi's death. Manila was in the sway of an unrelenting heat wave. She continued sniffing.

‘’It's a resin of some sort. The kamagong ebony coffin had been covered in camphor! What a lovely way to lie in state. Bubi would have been pleased. He is probably watching us invisibly, no doubt from somewhere near the altar."

The coffin was open. Lucrezia longed to give Bubi a parting kiss. She asked her father, Edmond, to carry her. The dead are rarely kissed or touched once they have been placed on coffins for public display. Lucrezia was not squeamish.

‘’I am not afraid of the dead. It is the living that I must fear. Bubi died from complications following a burst appendix, probably blood poisoning. Whatever it was, I am sure that I will not be infected."

Her father lifted her to enable her to plant a kiss on each of Bubi's cheeks. Now she realized painfully that he was already rotting. She felt wood instead of skin. Auf wiedersehn, she told him in silence.

Dona Esperanza observed her granddaughter's gesture and it touched her deeply. She bent down to kiss Bubi and recited a brief prayer, her lips hardly moving.

Monsignor Alberti, the Papal Nuncio, who held the rank of Ambassador Plenipotentiary on behalf of the Holy See, would not be officiating at this funeral Mass. He was visiting vocational schools in Laguna province. Duty came first and foremost to Monsignor Alberti. As much as he loved Dona Esperanza and doted on the children of the Ortigas-Nieto clan, he was beholden only to God and Pope John the XXIII.

This is going to be a tragedy for us, reflected Dona Esperanza. The Monsignor loathed the heat so he made shortcuts in the Latin Mass. He allowed water and fruit juices to be consumed because he was aware of the plight of the faithful who were stressed beyond belief with grief. Thus, he kept his homilies and funeral orations eloquent but brief.

‘’Mama, five people, including Rosy have already fainted twice in this airless and suffocating cathedral,’’ whispered Allegra.

"Are you sure? I feared the number would have been higher, but give the priest time to wreak havoc,’’ countered Dona Esperanza in a loud whisper. She said to herself, ‘‘the intense heat, the grief and the stress will surely raise the casualties, God help us.’’

In Manila, the funerals for the rich and the powerful were solemn spectacles. The rituals for a child in particular contained pathos and compassion. There was the empathy felt on the part of the mourners because practically everyone had children.

Seven years ago, those very same people had lost children, nieces, nephews, parents, friends and family to the unrelenting bombing of Manila by the combined US naval and air forces and the non-stop shelling by the entrenched Japanese forces. They wept unashamedly in remembering those events.

Children collectively were precious to all, rich and poor. A slice of your future died when a child died. Life would never make restitution. You would have to cope somehow and find your own solution but that was, the way of Life and Death.

The Spanish, Italian and the Oriental attitudes regarding Death made you a co-participant in the mourning. They did not turn away from death and hide the grief as well as the dead with the useful excuse of ‘’Privacy’’. This had become the Anglo-American way of death. Denial was key. No one really died. They sort of passed on or away.

In Manila, grief and mourning was as essential as eating, singing, dancing and coupling. It cleansed you and it also prepared you for the next funeral, which might well be one of your own loved ones or even of you yourself. There was a kind of grandeur in the acceptance of Death and the certainty that one’s adored one would be in a glorious place. The place might be called heaven, sky, paradise or cosmic sanctuary. Whichever way you looked at it, it was not of this world.

Dona Esperanza braced herself for what was to come. ‘’When it becomes intolerable, I shall perforce step in and attempt to place things in their proper perspective,’’ she decided in spite of the controversy it would engender.

The parish priest was a Dominican. They belonged to the Order of Preachers and they tended to be wordy! There was almost a genetic suspicion of any thing, which pertained to the Dominican Order. Fifty years ago, the Tycoon Don Cesar Ortigas- Nieto had sued the Dominicans and the Catholic Church and he had won!

Bubi was incensed with the finest myrrh from Afghanistan and camellia oil from Burma. Lucrezia took in the fragrance deep within her whole being.

"Ah Wei, you must breathe this divinity, ‘’ she murmured.

Incense brought memories she longed to forget. The bordello she had been sold to as a child in Shanghai, always used it to mask the odor of sperm soaked mattresses.

Then, the priest turned to the mourners and incensed them for at least three minutes. The humidity and the heat caused some to gag and cough.

‘’Mishap number one, the priest means well but he is not street smart. Less than a minute would have sufficed in this weather,’’ observed Dona Esperanza quietly.

Rosy and Alfred had chosen an exquisite prayer which Bubi recited every night before going to sleep. Heinzie, Zita, Jaime and Lucrezia ascended the steep spiral steps in Carrara marble that led to the high pulpit to repeat them to the congregation. Uncle Matt’s sound engineers had installed state of the art microphones.

‘’Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,’’ said Heinzie.

‘’The bed be blessed that I lie on,’’ declared Zita.

‘’Four angels to my bed,” stated Jaime, his voice cracking.

‘’Four angels round my head,’’ repeated Heinzie.

‘’One to watch and one to pray, and two to bear my soul away,’’ murmured Lucrezia with such clarity and sentiment in one so young that the mourners applauded loudly and spontaneously. Lucrezia bowed her head, because tears blinded her for the moment. Ah Wei had her hankies stuffed in her Hakka pockets. So she blinked her large blue eyes several times to enable the tears to flow down her cheeks.

As soon as they children returned to their pews with their parents, Father Aguinaga began reciting the Psalms that, by tradition, were the most in accordance with the rituals of the dead. He began with the 26th Psalm and he took his time so that all could understand his Latin since he had his back to the mourners and he had a thick Basque accent.

‘’Dominus illuminatio mea, et salus mea, quem timebo?’’
The Lord is the source of my light and my safety, so whom shall I fear?’’

Jaime slumped over in a dead faint. His distraught parents and his amah fanned him furiously.

"Ay Por Dios!’’ exclaimed Dona Esperanza. The priest did not turn around.

"He must be deaf too,’’ said Camilla, Lucrezia’s mother. Lucrezia jostled Ah Wei with her elbow but there was no reaction.

Father Aguinaga continued. He was now declaiming the 50th Psalm, which was exquisite in its solemnity.

‘’Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et supernivem dealbabor.’’

You will sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean; you will wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow.

The strain was too much for Rosy, who was pregnant with her fifth child. She began sobbing. Her husband Alfred cradled her in his arms and cried with her. Their three year old daughter Sylvia, who sat beside her father called out ‘’Bubi! Bubi! Come here. Why are you sleeping in that box?’’

Not a dry eye was to be found in the entire cathedral, which sat one thousand three hundred people.

One hour had dragged by. Instead of an early morning sun shining down on a massive stone dome with no ventilation other than two doors to the side of the cathedral and the wide entrance, the mourners now had to deal with a harsh noonday sun in the middle of a heat wave on a windless day.

The cobblestones surrounding the Church of Saint Dominic's only served to increase the intensity of the temperature. Everyone was clothed in the finest black linen and veiled in the most exquisitely hand made black lace veils from Valencia. Even the soldiers and bodyguards had wound black armbands over their army fatigues now soiled from their heavy sweat.

The loud flapping sounds of thousands of Spanish and Chinese fans in all sizes and colors, which went back and forth in rhythmic regularity, seemed almost hypnotic to the children, but nothing alleviated the torrid and tortuous heat. The children slowly begun fainting one by one; then the elderly keeled over after them and finally the women.

‘’De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine exaudi vocem meam
Up from the depths I have cried to Thee, Lord; Lord, hear my voice."

Rosy’s face had turned a bilious green She stood firm in her resolution that she would see the entire ritual Mass for Bubi come what may. Memories, which never left her, struck her today in full force.

"We took refuge in these very same cathedral (of Santo Domingo) after our villa was destroyed by fire that was deliberately set by the Japanese. Ernst was five and Bubi was two. A piece of shrapnel pierced his lung leaving a hole large enough to place a man’s fist inside the wound. Alfred and I listened to our Ernst’s laments for one hour. Each time he breathed, blood gurgled and spurted out of his back. His laments became weaker and weaker. Not even a sigh in the end, only the steady ooze of his blood each time he tried to take in air. We took turns holding him in our arms and singing to him. Finally, I felt only a trickle of blood run down my arm. Ernst had slowly drowned in his own blood. I carried his stiff corpse for two days inside Santo Domingo, until the American soldiers managed to liberate the church and its environs. He was torn from us and taken to a mortuary inside a makeshift base. Ernst was buried along side hundreds of children who had perished inside Santo Domingo. That is why Bubi has to have the most splendid funeral money can buy. Ernst never had one. I will not be separated from Bubi until we place his coffin inside our mausoleum.’’

Rosy felt faint despite her will to see things through to its sad end. Yet, her resolve was not enough to keep her from passing out a third time. Dona Esperanza had the eyes of a lynx. People begun dropping like flies. Still, the stubborn parish priest kept to his tortoise pace of the funeral mass, oblivious to what was taking place behind him.

If priests and pastors faced their flock, they would see what in blazes was happening to the faithful, reasoned Doña Esperanza. She was now infuriated. This is beginning to look like a war zone.

She shook her skirt, which had stuck to her skin from the sweat. She motioned silently to her Sikh bodyguards. Giants all, they were accustomed to the mountainous areas of the Punjab where the snowstorms could kill you at forty degrees below zero. Temperatures in the desert could climb up to 50ºC. but these men possessed much sterner balls and they were hard to die.
"Kabir! Samir! Amir! Please take the children to the weapons carriers and drop them off with their amahs at the Manila Hotel. Check two amahs and two children to a room. Please look for Silvio and a couple of other drivers. Ask them to come to my pew. Some of the elderly must not remain in church a minute longer. Carry them kicking and screaming if you must.’’

‘’Chances are they won't protest; they are too enervated, Dona Esperanza. We shall follow the same procedure – three to a room so that they can be looked after by their household staff,’’ said Samir.

Kabir murmured something into Dona Esperanza’s ear that irritated her.

‘’What are you saying, Kabir? You mean some may not want to spend the money? It's better than dying!!! Pay no attention. I can't stand it when the rich are miserly. Notify the concierge that I am assuming the expenses. Let’s see these Scrooges say no when I ask for a reimbursement. I am going to be very angry if somebody else dies today. I refuse to countenance a needless death. Basta! The three of you can come back to the Cathedral after you are done with these lifesaving tasks.’’

‘’Why aren't our pygmies here,’’ she asked Kabir and Samir. ‘’I know they’re claustrophobic about churches, especially on a torrid day like this. Aborigines are always the smartest ones and stay away from places overflowing with humanity. Yet I know Gunga enjoyed playing sipa and patintero with Bubi and his quartet of friends.’’

“Doña, who can ever tell with them? This has been a record season for funerals. Perhaps their numbers carry strange omens. I am sure they will honor Bubi with their own rituals which must remain a secret from us,’’ replied Kabir with the wisdom of the holy Sikhs.

‘’I understand and respect the pygmies’ customs and traditions. They are such good trackers and detectors of those who would do us harm. Your people and the pygmies comfort me and make me feel less vulnerable,’’ Dona Esperanza informed him.

Kabir, Samir and Amir were the grandchildren of The Samir, who had been the Chief of the tycoon Don Cesar's security detail at the bank, the numerous warehouses near Manila Bay and all the cruise and cargo ships owned by the clan. To Dona Esperanza, they meant family. The three Sikh brothers vetted all the bodyguards and employees of the Nieto-Ortigas clan.

Fifty years ago, Uncle Wak Nam had strongly recommended Samir the First to Great Uncle Cesar, the tycoon.

"This Mass is outrageous," Doña Esperanza whispered loudly into Kabir's ear, as he was the eldest.

"Hopefully by the time you and your brothers are back, this thick skulled of a Spanish priest would have finished this never-ending Mass. We'll all go down to the cemetery and get this over with ASAP without any more casualties. Ah! One more thing, most of the people in the cathedral have not had breakfast. It is lunchtime now. Here's some money. Buy as many mandarin oranges, mangoes ... never mind the mangoes. How will they eat it? Sweet tamarind seeds … what am I saying? They’ll all get diarrhea in this heat. Bananas are the best, as are pomelos from Laguna. Please buy cases of water and Coca Cola. I hate the stuff but this is an emergency. Anything else you might think of, go ahead. Shukriya," a thankful and grateful Doña Esperanza pronounced.

A slightly frazzled Lucrezia told her grandmother, "I haven't fainted yet but I might soon. Could Zita and Ah Tat share the room with Ah Wei and I? What about Heinzie?"

He was now flat out. His mother Rosy had been revived with strong smelling salts and cold water splashed on her face and neck; she discovered to her consternation that they did not have any effect on Heinzie. She begun to slap his cheeks hard. She was beside herself and was bordering on this side of hysteria.

"Amorcito, I am going to kill myself if something dreadful happens to you."

O Por Dios y la Virgen, my heart goes out to Rosy. Everything has overwhelmed her. That’s to be expected. Bubi’s untimely demise, the funeral, our late arrival, this horror of a Mass, her pregnancy, the heat, humidity and now Heinzie’s heat stroke.’’

‘’Certainly my princess,’’ Dona Esperanza turned towards Lucrezia, her favorite grandchild, ‘’Heinzie and Ah Chung can share the room with you and Zita. That's to be the only exception. You have my permission to pass this on to Kabir."

Esperanza glanced nervously at her grandson, scary Freckie who was eleven years old. He was sweating heavily but seemed unperturbed. Killing hot weather would not affect the likes of Freckie.

"Freckie and his nanny Librada are to have a room all to themselves. He's old enough now," Doña Esperanza said emphatically. That would also keep him out of trouble and protect the other children.

Wonderful news, thought Lucrezia, as a small wave of dizziness came over her. "I'll tell Kabir and the others," she murmured, instinctively lowering her head to let the blood flow to her head. She suddenly had an inspiration. If she fainted in front of that narrow-focused, uncaring priest, right at the altar, he would have to stop the mass and end it quickly.

It’s worth a try. If I do not really and truly faint, I can always pretend. Bubi taught me how to fall and play dead just like in the movies.

She had to move quickly! Edmond, her father, was going to sweep her into his strong arms and carry her outside into the weapons carrier. She slipped out of his reach. "Papi, just a minute."

He looked puzzled. “ What is that child up to? She is too smart for most of us.’’

"The priest and his acolytes are only just beginning the Consecration of the Host. That’s halfway through the Mass. Papi I have to do something! People will faint while on their way to receive Communion. Jesus won’t mind; Bubi would agree and the people in the church will be saved."

Lucrezia sprinted up the steps, past Bubi's opulent coffin. The silver and gold altar floated past her. She could not have timed it any better. The priest turned to the people to say, "Dominus Vobiscum. May Peace be with you. Lucrezia imagined an Indio Guarani arrow dipped in curare had just pierced her heart. She gasped loudly, trembled, took two tiny steps, and dropped like a sack of potatoes before the horrified eyes of Father Aguinaga. She took the utmost care to fall in a dead faint with her head and torso towards the faithful, just in case the priest was clumsy and stepped on her hands.

How can I play the piano, do my homework, star in a school play and write in my diary with smashed and squashed fingers?

Edmond and Doña Esperanza grasped the mise en scene immediately. He ran towards his daughter, followed by Lucrezia's mother Camilla, his brothers-in-law, old man Keller, Bubi's father, Dona Esperanza and Bubi's grandmother, Dona Appolonia. More people come up to the altar.

"Stand back! Let her breathe! I'll take her outside. Ah Wei? Follow me."

Edmond slung her across his back. Camilla was distraught. She was unaware of what had really taken place.

"Lucrezia, amorino. My small love. Will somebody please sprinkle water on her face to revive her?’’

"She'll be fine as soon as she gets a breath of fresh air," Edmond reassured his wife.

"What are you talking about Edmond? What fresh air are you referring to? There is no breeze. The courtyard burns more intensely than inside the church."

Dona Esperanza seized the moment as Horace wrote two thousand years ago. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. She announced in a loud voice.

"I have taken the liberty of gathering all the children, the women and the elderly and we are taking them to the Manila Hotel. They can unwind and rest in air conditioned rooms until this...ahem...the longest of funeral masses is over,"

The priest Aguinaga, better late than never, got the point at last. He looked uneasy, "And well he should," pondered Esperanza.

Alfred Keller, Bubi's and Heinzie's father pronounced it an excellent idea.

Dona Esperanza approached the priest imperiously, though her language and her tone were gentle.

"Please, Reverend Father. Ay que desastre. What a disaster. I cannot remember his name. I feel that my brains are boiling. Well! Never mind, the time had come for action,’’ she decided.

"Could we have more facta quickly and dispense with the verba? (It was Latin for deeds not words). People are very sick and fainting from the heat. Por el amor de Dios, they could die here!"

That last statement alarmed the parish priest. Still, he hesitated to make a definite move. A vexed Doña Esperanza concluded with considerable irritation.

“He must be a Libra. They can never make up their torturous minds.” Then a bold idea came to her.

"The papal nuncio, Monsignor Alberti, would give a dispensation in a case like this," maintained Esperanza with all the authority she could muster, which was considerable.

"Furthermore," added Alfred Keller, "it's imprudent to leave for the cemetery at this time. It's unbearably hot. Why don't we all take turns staying with Bubi until 4:00 in the afternoon? Then we can proceed to our family mausoleum at Las Lomas Cemetery"

"Our Sikh guards are bringing fruits, cases of water and Coca Cola to tide us over," Doña Esperanza informed the distinguished elderly Keller.

"We are grateful you thought of these details," whispered Alfred Keller. "We are so stricken and devastated..."

"I feel partly responsible for having gone to the wrong church - San Agustin - unwittingly yet inevitably causing these delays,’’ she apologized. Esperanza took her role in these unfolding events seriously.

And so it was decided. Most of the mourners, after drinking the liquids and munching on some fruits, should return to their comfortable, air-conditioned mansions. The children, the elderly and the young who were pregnant or had recently birthed, opted wisely to stay at the Manila Hotel until it was sufficiently cool to take a breath without searing their lungs.

As for Lucrezia: the moment the fiery heat from the air outside slammed into her she keeled over like a penguin.

"Oh God! Now she's really passed out!" Edmond exclaimed in great agitation.

"She'll come to, Edmond and Camilla." Esperanza calmly assured them.

"What do you mean, Edmond? Now she's really fainted. I don't understand." Said Camilla.

"We'll discuss it later, darling."

Kabir was standing by the weapons carrier, holding a lukewarm bottle of spring water from Laguna.

"We're done with the first batch of kids and the elderly." He declared. He then poured part of the water over Lucrezia's head while Camilla fanned her daughter’s face. Ah Wei pressed a meridian point on her ear lobe. She came to almost immediately.

"Drink the rest of the water slowly now," her father urged. She took it all in one hungry slurp. Color begun to return to her pallid cheeks. Heinzie was right behind her, lying limply in his father Alfred’s arms.

Ah Wei and Ah Chung were carried inside the weapons carrier. It had a metal chassis and it was covered in thick army green canvas.

"We all be dead, roasted alive, when we get to Manila Hotel," protested Ah Wei.

Kabir explained that the canvas actually kept the interior cool. It was a five-minute drive from Saint Augustine’s Church to the posh Manila Hotel. The flaps of the canvas would act as a fan. Contrary to its appearance, they would all be comfortable.

"Lucrezia and Heinzie, put your heads on your amahs laps. All right?" He instructed them before climbing into the driver’s seat.

Sámi and Amir brought cases of soft drinks inside the church. Allegra was conspicuous by her absence. Kabir had taken her with the first group of mourners to Manila Hotel. She had always been more physically fragile than Dona Esperanza’s other two daughters, Camilla and Dahlia and her son Matt.

"I'll go with them to coordinate between the young and the old."

Matt had no children of his own since his wife and three children had died bayoneted before his eyes by Japanese soldiers before the arrival of the Americans in 1946. But he did not allow his grief, which he would bear all his life to interfere with his love for all his nephews and nieces.

"Thank you, hijo." She squeezed his hand and hugged him tightly.

Camilla was concerned about Lucrezia. "She's fine hija mia. Ah Wei will take good care of her. I need you here with your organizational talents," said her mother.

Dahlia, Doña Esperanza’s middle daughter, looked as strong as a bamboo; they bend but never break. Lolita, her 5-year old daughter by Rudy, had gone with the first group accompanied by her Filipina yaya (nanny) Inday.

“She too had been sick in church but improved once the car took off and the air-conditioning system started working," reported Dahlia.

Kabir, in the driver's seat turned on the sirens. That meant he could drive faster because the other vehicles would prudently stay out of his way.

"Hold on, children and amahs, here we go!"

Dona Esperanza concentrated on Rosy Keller, mother of the dead Bubi. She was prostrate from her loss, haggard from lack of any sleep, stress, heat, lack of food and liquids. Her husband, who was one of the most besotted men who ever had a wife, was dipping a little water onto her head and gently giving her water to drink. Then he lovingly urged her to eat a few bananas and some oranges.

"Beloved. Please eat for the baby in your womb. For your Heinzie and Sylvia and for your husband who adores you."

"How's Mama and our Keller Mama and Papa?’’ she asked weakly. That would be her mother Apollonia, her mother –in law Rebecca and her father-in-law Max.

"They're doing well. Camilla and Edmond are looking after them."

St. Dominic’s was almost empty. It was easier to breathe. Fewer bodies gave off less heat, Father Aguinaga, extenuated by the heat and his own slowness, dragged his feet to the altar and called out in a quivering voice.

"Dearly beloved faithful, the funeral service and mass for the young child and beautiful creature of God, Alfred Keller Junior, are now concluded. Dominus et pacem. Lux perpetua. Lux er dies. Requiescat in pacem Alfred.

Esperanza quickly made the sign of the cross and turned her back to the altar. That clod should not be a priest. What is wrong with people? These are supposed to be the elite and the leaders. Why did no one protest? Who ordered that the faithful should fall ill, and bite the dust so that a priest could finish the solemn Funeral Mass. This is an act of tyranny not love. Why do people obey Authority so blindly?

At the Manila Hotel, Lucrezia, Zita and Heinzie rested on the fresh mahogany floors with the air conditioning turned up to "coldest". Bathed and scrubbed in cool water by their amahs, they went over the events of the day.

"That was potent stuff, Luki, dramatically folding into a heap of rags on the altar. Zowie! Bubi must have been laughing his head off, wherever he is," marveled Heinzie.

"He taught all of us how to drop dead but you are the best. Gosh! Luki, you saved this day from turning into a holocaust," said an admiring Zita.

While they sipped calamansi juice with acacia honey and water, the children suddenly realized that hunger had taken a hold of them.

"How about a grilled hamburger?" suggested Heinzie.

"Jeepers Creepers. That is the most unoriginal request to make at a luxury hotel. It’s your choice Heinzie. I much prefer blue marlin. Our amahs will too," said Lucrezia.

"Isn't it expensive?" Zita ventured to ask.

"Of course! What are we rich for? The last time we all had a good meal was the night before last night, wasn't it? And none of us ate much because we were all thinking of Bubi. Gran-Gran will be glad we did it. You'll see," Lucrezia stated with some bravado.

"Who's going to order?" they asked a little tremulously.

"We'll ask Kabir, Samir or Amir Singh. They'll come soon," replied Lucrezia.

"You know what we should do until Singh brothers come? We take little siesta. Too much excitement for one day needs calm. We also commit big offense in wrong church. Must show proper respect," Ah Wei told them.

Heinzie looked a little lost. "What is Ah Wei saying?"

Zita and Lucrezia exchanged understanding glances. Lucrezia stifled a yawn. Zita followed. "We'll give you all the grisly details after our siesta or after one of the Singh brothers rings our door, whichever comes first"

"Where did you learn that word grisly and what does it mean?" a sleepy Heinzie quizzed Lucrezia.

"I learnt it from reading the detective novels of Mickey Spillane. It means frightful," explained Lucrezia.

Heinzie snored softly and Zita drifted into a deep sleep. The amahs Ah Tat and Ah Chung, who resembled midgets, stretched out on the rattan sofa with room to spare. Ah Wei took the rattan chaise lounge and fell asleep in seconds. Lucrezia joined Zita on the double bed.

Heinzie slept alone on the bed across from them. He looked forlorn without Bubi. You could see the dark circles under his eyes.

“I will miss him and remember him with love all my life if I live long enough to have a son, I hope he will be as handsome as Bubi. His noble heart, smiling grey eyes and the three cow licks on his light brown curls will be engraved in my memory,’’ ruminated Lucrezia.

Her thoughts wandered to Saint Augustine’s Church and the sight of the monstrously fat man who lay in the widest coffin she had ever seen. They must have all been in shock over Bubi’s death not to see the difference between the size of a coffin one meter and fifty odd inches long and the endless coffin at the church.

I wonder what sort of amends Ah Wei was referring to regarding the incident with the dead Chinese gentleman at the Church of San Agustin. I suppose we all behaved outrageously. Gran-Gran is familiar with Chinese customs. I am sure she will know how to make the proper amends.

By now, most of us children understand why Uncle Matt chooses to work out of a long, marble refectory table in the ornate and massive mausoleum of our Ortigas-Nieto clan. The dead are less troublesome than the living. There is also a certain sense of powerful dignity in a cemetery. It is comfortinge to be close to your dead ancestors especially if they had lived extraordinary lives like Don Valerio, the Founder of our clan, Don Cesar, the Tycoon and Don Alcibiades the banker.

I shall doubtless be scolded but not grounded for the performance I pulled at Saint Dominic’s Cathedral today. Anyway, first things first. I must pray for all my dead cousins. And then I’ll compose a special one for Bubi since he was one of my favorite cousins and playmates and because he has just died. After that I shall sleep a little. I am suddenly very tired. When the time comes, I’ll face the consequences of my actions. I hope to be brave about it.

Lucrezia begun to recite the "Our Father" slowly, for all her little playmates, friends and cousins who had gone to some other world before her. But she was in slumber before she was able to say "Thy kingdom come.”

1 comment:

  1. Isabella,

    This scene is magnificent. Seldom, if ever, have I read a more colorful chapter.

    One question: the mention of Guarani. I know of them from Paraguay only; how do they fit in in the Philippines?



Isabel Van Fechtmann

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