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Boston Review’s 12th Annual Short-Story Contest winner.
August, 1944. My father sent me to a boys’ school in Manila; he was no longer willing, he said, to let the war interrupt my education. Since large sections of the train tracks leading in and out of Manila had been destroyed, he arranged for me to ride in the back of a delivery truck already headed for the city.
The morning I left was dark and rainy. When I came down to the kitchen, my mother, always up early, was listening to music (piano, a waltz) and looking out the window—at the fine white drizzle; at the yard, drenched with rain; at the small patch of weeds and mud that used to be a garden. In the empty lot beside our house where she raised her pigs, the enormous Poland China named Bea and the huge boar and the piglets—pink and explicit as raw flesh—all stood, dead still, in the steady white drizzle of rain.
Most mornings, I accompanied my father (the only doctor within miles) on his rounds in the wooded foothills of Mount Banahaw, where many people from our town and neighboring towns hid in the one-room huts they’d built overnight. My father and I would leave in the early morning dark. He’d walk; I’d ride my small horse beside him. On the morning I left for Manila, my mother assured me he’d be home from his early morning rounds in time to say goodbye. But when the truck chugged down the street and pulled up outside our front door, he wasn’t home, and when my mother asked the driver if he’d please wait a little, just until my father returned, and he’d be back soon, she could assure him, the driver refused. She offered him money, and he accepted, but only for a short while, a few minutes, and then he’d be off, he muttered, and glanced at me dressed up in the suit, still too big, that each of my three older brothers had worn before me. “With or without your precious cargo.”
My mother pulled me in under her umbrella. “He’ll come,” she said. “You’ll see.” But after a while, a very short while, the driver started his engine, rolled down his window in the rain, and stared me down. “You coming, or not?”
Crates of live chickens were stacked on top of each other in the back of the truck. Wet feathers that had blown off during the ride lay like snow all around the crates. I climbed up the back, sat in damp feathers, and waved. My mother stood in the dark outside our house as we passed the church, the bell tower, the statue of the winged devil crouched beside the much larger statue of our town’s patron saint.
Even though it was late morning, it seemed as though the sun had already set, forever. Somehow the world had lost its color, as if too much rain had finally worn it all away, and what was left were faded houses and towns and woods receding into themselves. As the muddy road wound through woods, I imagined them haunted, not so much by creatures anymore, but by people. Riding my horse in the woods the year before, I had passed a few people who had been buried alive with their heads sticking out of the ground. If they weren’t spotted in time by relatives lucky enough to realize they were missing and brave enough to search for them, they starved to death or died of thirst. All the ones I saw were already dead. But I imagined what it would be like to find one still living: the head in the mud would speak to you.
As we descended the foothills, the temperature rose, the air thickened. Each stretch of woods was interrupted by a town. Even though many of the towns had been bombed, what was left—half a statue, the outer walls of a market, the remains of a train station—revealed the same thing to me: another version of my own town, minus whatever had been blown away.
Inside Intramuros, Manila’s walled city, the streets turned to cobblestone, and the truck and the crates and the driver and I shook violently. For the first time since we’d left my house the driver spoke. “Damn,” he said, and the chickens cackled and fluttered their wings and banged their wet heads furiously against the crates. The truck halted in front of a huge cathedral. “You’ll have to get out here.”
Although it was only midday, the street lamps were already lit. From inside the cathedral there was suddenly music, and as people came out—vivid umbrellas sprouting up in the rain—the bells in the tower above them tolled. By the time the bells stood still, all of Manila, full of churches, was filled with the sound of bells.
Among the first few people out was a woman who, leaning against the door and holding it for the people behind her as she struggled to open her umbrella, noticed me standing in the street. I must have looked like I didn’t know where I was, where I’d landed, because she came right up to me, her umbrella pulled down so low it seemed to rest on her head like a huge blue hat, and stood so close all I saw was her face, tinted strangely by the bright blue of her umbrella.
“You look lost.” Rain rapped softly above her. “And wet.” She looked around. “Umbrellaless.” She laughed.
“I’m looking for Mrs. Figueroa’s boarding house on Calle Real.”
“I believe I know of someone by that name. A nice woman, I hear.” She watched me. She twirled the umbrella by rolling it in the palms of her hands. When she was done, we both stood beneath it.
“I guess,” I said. “My brother lived there.” All I knew about Mrs. Figueroa was that she was a widow and rarely seen.
When the woman turned and walked away, she gestured for me to follow. Her heels tapped the cobbled sidewalk. Every now and then one of her heels caught in a crack between the stones, and her umbrella swayed as she regained her balance. I probably should have offered my arm to steady her, but instead, each time she teetered, I slowed a little. At one point I was about a half a block behind. She turned a corner, then reappeared beneath a big red sign, Nick’s Corner Store.
“I’ve been talking to you for the past few minutes, but you didn’t hear a thing I said,” she said. “Did you? I hate it when I lose people. You know I used to teach,” she said, “you know?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes,” she said. “I taught. That was years ago. I’m older than I look. Anyway, what I hated most was when I’d lose my students. I’d be talking, and I’d see a student’s eyes grow dreamy.”
I must have seemed far away. I was staring into the cluttered dark of the corner store. “TOBACCO CANDY PASTRIES” was painted on the glass storefront. “I’ve lost you,” she said, and shook her head. “I’ve only just met you, and I’ve already lost you.” I smiled ather, and she laughed.
As we turned the corner, she stopped in front of the building next to the store, placed her hand in the large bag at her side and rummaged through it. “Everything,” she said, pulling out wads of tissue, a change purse, a pair of narrow eyeglasses, “everything but the thing you’re looking for.” She placed the glasses on the tip of her nose and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, some sort of list. In the blue light of her umbrella, she read it to herself, its ink letters blurred as if it had been rained on, then tossed it back. She shook the purse, which rang with keys, then peered into its depths. “I suppose you have all the time in the world,” she said, her hand stirring. “At least I hope so, if you’re waiting on me.” She slid the largest key I’d ever seen into the keyhole, and pushed open the huge arc-shaped wooden door that led to a stone courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The courtyard was silent except for the sound of falling water, the fountain and the rain.
“This is it,” she said. Through open glass doors above I could see a dining hall lit by a chandelier.
“Your home?” I asked.
“And yours,” she said. “For now.”
I didn’t enter. I turned as if to leave, and she laughed again.
“Don’t,” she said. I stopped, looked at her. “Leave, I mean. I mean don’t leave.”
She led me upstairs and showed me a narrow room with a long line of narrow cots. “That one’s yours.” She pointed to the bed closest to the door.
I was so tired I lay on the cot assigned to me and slept until dusk when the whole house, full of life—the clang of the cook’s bell calling everyone in for dinner, voices, rapid footsteps on the stairs, in the rain-pattered courtyard—woke me, and I walked along the balcony toward the dining room hall.
* * *
My new school was a brick building on a once-busy street of banks and offices about a mile outside Intramuros. Like everything else, the school was overseen by the Japanese. We wore uniforms: khaki shorts, white shirts, white sneakers. Each morning we lined up in the schoolyard, a small fenced-in square of concrete, and while exercise instructions blared from speakers propped in an open window above us, we followed: first bowing to the east, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, next stretching, then running and jumping in place. Once the program ended, a robed teacher appeared in the doorway. Behind thick glasses, he looked like an owl with dark folded wings. Expressionless except for his puffed cheeks, he blew his whistle twice, signaling us to fall in line behind the school’s back door. He blew it once, and we marched single-file into the school, then scrambled down the unlit halls to reach our homerooms before the bell.
Many of us had entered since the war; we were there only temporarily, we told ourselves, until our real schools reopened, and our parents finally sent for us to come home.
* * *
Nick and his wife and baby lived in rooms above their corner store. Almost every day on my way to or from school, I stopped in for pastries and the Japanese cigarettes, Akibonos, advertised on the far wall. If Nick wasn’t already behind the counter when I entered, he would walk slowly down the stairs as the door chimes faded and ask, “What do you want today?”
I always said, “The same.”
The store smelled like tobacco and sugar and mold. Nick smelled like his store. A single bulb that hung directly above the counter cast a glow against Nick’s bald head as he stooped, slid open the glass case full of pastries and candy jars and boxes of cigarettes, and handed me two rice cakes and a few loose cigarettes.
Later I went in for the banned copies of Life Nick rented out for two days at a time in order to read about and look at America. My father had gone to medical school there. In one of his photographs he stands deep in snow in a dark winter coat with his hands extended on either side of him, his palms turned toward the sky. On the back of the photo he’d written, “Milwaukee, 1920, my first snow.” In the shots of my father and his American friends, all the men wear fedoras, smoke cigars, and pose. The women lift their skirts just above their knees, and grin.
In the rented copies of Life, I read about the war and movie stars. On the days the magazines were due I returned them on my way to school; after school, I stopped in again and took out more. Once I’d exhausted all the new issues and was waiting for the next, I traced backwards, checking out the older issues Nick kept stacked in a closet above the shop. Since anything American was forbidden by the Japanese, I had to hide the magazines under my shirt whenever I walked between the boarding house and Nick’s Corner Store.
I was by far the youngest boarder, only 12 and in the seventh grade, while all the others were in medical school (my father thought they’d be a good influence). But evenings in the boarding-house reading room, as they crammed for exams in gross anatomy and organic chemistry, I lounged in the big chair by the window and flipped through old issues of Life. Sometimes, peering through the shutters, I’d see men and women entering or leaving the hospital across the street, their faces under the flickering gaslight vivid and shadowy, sketches of themselves.
* * *
When the fire trees bloomed, each blossom was a flame burning in the sun. A long line of these trees shaded one of the streets I took to school. When I walked beneath the trees and looked up, the sky blazed.
Behind me, Japanese soldiers were marching. Instead of stepping aside to let them pass, I walked straight on. From behind, one of them shoved me forward, then knocked me off the walk onto the street. My leg was skinned and bleeding, studded with pieces of gravel from the road. The soldier looked back, smiled, then cursed me.
* * *
In my new school, history changed. The heroes and the enemies traded places, and instead of reading about the United States of America, we learned about the glorious Land of the Rising Sun—its military victories, its holy and invincible emperor, Hirohito. During the eternal last hour of every day, we studied Japanese. The instructor began class by silently scratching his immaculate characters onto the board, stepping away to inspect his work, scratching some more. In an odd sort of jig, he would swing unpredictably around at the class, then back at the board, as if we or the characters—though drawn with such labor they seemed to be carved permanently into the board’s surface—were simply waiting until he turned his back to fall out of line, or disappear altogether.
The room was always too warm and still and dim, the sun in the tiny windows at the back of the room, two cubes of orange. Wasps floated in, bumped against the ceiling fan that was never on. We copied each character into our notebooks 20 times while the instructor paced the aisles, stopping every now and then to peer over a shoulder, to grab a hand and guide it through a stroke, until the bell finally rang and set us free for the day.
One late November morning I snuck a copy of Life to school. The magazine, dated December 22, 1941, listed names of men who had been killed in Pearl Harbor. Paging through it the night before, I had searched the faces for my father’s best friend in medical school, the first American I knew. He wasn’t there (though years later my father would learn that his friend, Edward Ebert, had died at the end of the war). Tucked inside my shirt and shorts, the old copy of Life was to be my secret; I didn’t plan to share it with anyone, and as I walked through the halls I imagined what would happen if I got caught. I would be sent back home. I would be blindfolded and executed in the schoolyard. I imagined my parents receiving word that their youngest son had been beheaded for bringing an issue of Life to school.
Copying Japanese characters row after row into my notebook during the final hour, I kept seeing Mr. Ebert’s face as it looked on the day I met him. He was a doctor in the navy; once, while his ship was docked in Manila Bay, he came to visit my father and meet his family.
Early on the bright morning he was to arrive, my brothers and sister and I watched for him. After hours of waiting, a shiny white convertible, the biggest car I’d ever seen, appeared out of the dust and stopped in front of our house. The man in it wore a white hat and a white uniform, and when he saw me and my brothers and sister at the screen door and in the windows, he waved like a politician or an American movie star, as if not only my family but the entire town were watching. My father rushed out the door to greet him. Mr. Ebert took off his hat to meet my mother, and each of us, and I was surprised to see that even his hair—sticking straight up—was white.
That evening my father gave him a tour of our province. My brothers, sister and I, all five of us, went along for the ride in the ship-like car—its top down, the cool night air ripping by. The twisting road followed the river, the Talahabing, through the wooded foothills of Mount Banahaw. During the sudden dips when the car seemed to lift, briefly, as if about to fly, we screamed and giggled and held our bellies. Looking up I watched the giant moon slide past leaves.
By the time we’d returned to our town we were singing the songs Mr. Ebert had taught us. “Don’t sit under the apple tree,” we shouted, “with anyone else but me, anyone else but me, anyone else but me. Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, till I come marching home.”
The following day, he left—tipping his hat, waving, then drifting through the late afternoon light and rising dust from the road in his big white ocean liner car. We chased him down the road. As he crossed the bridge at the edge of town, he disappeared.
During the last hour of school, the magazine’s sweaty cover stuck awkwardly to my chest and stomach. The classroom, as always, was muggy, and the heat and the monotony made my head heavy with sleep. Quietly I hummed the tune, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me . . .” When the final bell rang, the instructor glided down the aisle and stopped beside my desk. Without saying a word, he placed his trembling hand down my shirt and tugged at the magazine. I knocked his hand away, untucked my shirt, pulled out the magazine and gave it to him. (My classmates crowded in the doorway and watched.) The instructor tore up the magazine, tossing page by page onto the floor, then slapped me across the face.
On my way home I told Nick what had happened. He thought it was funny. It must sting, he said as he touched my cheek; the handprint, he said, was still there. As long as I hadn’t told them where I’d gotten the magazine, things would be okay.
He didn’t charge me for it. Instead, he told me to go on up to the closet piled with Life and pick out another one. But I didn’t. I didn’t want one.
* * *
During the few months I lived in Intramuros, Mrs. Figueroa had several parties. Although no one my age was ever invited, she made sure I knew that I was. For hours I would wander among the guests, and smoke, and speak whenever someone spoke to me first.
Several nights before her annual holiday party, I met Mrs. Figueroa at the front door. She was on her way in, carrying a bag of groceries. I was on my way out.
“My party,” she said. “You’ll be there.” She held the door open.
“I think so.”
But she insisted. According to her, I was a “beautiful young man.” She pushed my bangs out of my eyes. This time I was to be her date, her escort, her guest of honor. If I didn’t show, she’d be without me. She laughed, then entered, the thick door closing behind her.
* * *
The party was everywhere. Paper lanterns lit the courtyard. From the balcony, music blared out into the open air and drifted through the house.
It was a hot night with a warm breeze. Women walked around with fans fluttering like giant wings. Occasionally they would sit beside the fountain, dip their hands in the pool. The blue-gray smoke of cigars thickened the already thick air.
Since things were “getting bad” for the Japanese, since they were beginning to lose, they had become stricter. Recently they had imposed a new curfew on the walled city, closing and locking the gates at a certain hour each night, but since everyone at the party lived within the walls, no one seemed to care. This was one of the topics I overheard repeatedly, from room to room, cluster to cluster.
“A curfew,” a woman said in response to something a man had said to her. “The day I need a curfew . . .” As I moved on, her sentence trailed off, then she burst into laughter.
Everyone in the house could hear waltzes and mazurkas. I stood on the balcony and watched the couples dancing below. It seemed as if everyone was either dancing or watching from the balcony, from the bedroom windows, all propped wide open, from the edges of the courtyard itself. The lanterns that surrounded the courtyard, lighting it up, were round and white—full moons pulled down from the sky.
Toward the end of the evening I held a glass of brandy on ice and smoked a Japanese cigarette in an inner room above the courtyard where people had started singing. A man, peering down out me and clearly amused, asked me over the jubilant caroling my name and what I did.
“I’m a student,” I told him and sipped my brandy and asked him what it was he did, when a woman’s damp hand rested on my shoulder.
“He’s a dentist.” Mrs. Figueroa smiled at him, as if to show him her teeth.
Drunk, at least a foot taller than I, she didn’t ask me to dance; she simply pulled me toward her and guided me down the steep back staircase that led into the courtyard.
Her dress was silk, the color of jade. Like dresses I had seen my mother wear on special occasions, it was elaborately embroidered. As she moved, the blue-green rippled.
My head was dizzy. We danced a waltz. She led; I held on. The dresses, the moons, the blue-gray haze of smoke swirled as I swirled.
We stood still. The music had stopped. The world kept spinning. A hot cheek pressed against mine. Then a kiss on my lips. And with her face close to mine, she whispered warm brandy breath, “You’re a gentleman.”
* * *
My father picked me up the next day in a truck he had borrowed from a friend. I was coming home for the holidays. But between the beginning and the end of December, the Japanese were losing so badly we had to go back into hiding, to the one-room hut we had built in the woods outside our town.
* * *
Intramuros. December, 1944. Hundreds of people caught on the streets one hot afternoon were herded into a church, and gunned down. Among them were Mrs. Figueroa, Nick, a number of people I’d met at the parties, including the dentist. I know their faces, but not their names. Mrs. Figueroa was hurrying back to the boarding house from the market, where she had just bought groceries for the next few meals. The dentist was walking home after a short day at his clinic. Nick had just stepped out for a smoke and some air and some daylight, and as he flicked his ashes onto the street then turned to go back inside his store, some soldier came around the corner and dragged him off to the herd inside the church.
* * *
Some mornings I wake remembering them. I am an old man, and the dream, by now, is a familiar one, yet I always wake saddened and a little closer to the dead. I am in the woods I knew very well as a boy, but it is dark and I am lost. The faces of people I knew who died during the war and since appear at my feet. They have all been buried alive. They are so relieved to see me, they say. I tell them I am lost. They’ve been waiting a long time for someone to walk through the woods, yet they ask me to dig them out with remarkable composure. But each time I kneel beside someone, a patch of earth opens up; over and over, instead of touching the ground or their heads, my hands dip into darkness. This lasts, it seems, forever. As I wake, it is always the same: the forest has dropped waybelow me. From above I see the woods are fathomless, filled with pleas that multiply daily and that will echo to the end of the earth.
About Boston Review’s 12th Annual Short-Story Contest
This was a banner year for our contest; we had a strong crop of submissions, and many of the stories (including our winner’s) focused on the travails of childhood and on love affairs gone disastrously, disastrously wrong. Our judge, Edwidge Danticat, was moved to elect our winner because of her “vivid and powerful prose” and because there was no other entry that offered so “wonderful a meditation on childhood.” We on the editorial staff join Ms. Danticat in congratulating Lisa Chipongian. —Junot Díaz
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