Apr 7, 2013

The Riddle by F. Sionil Jose

F. Sionil Jose

                It was past five in the afternoon when we reached the port. The sea was calm and the sun hung portside, no longer warm but still. Billows of heat whirled up from the hold and wafted to the bridge and upper deck the odor of ammonia and dried fish. The anchor detail was already at its post and the town lay near, no more than a village it appeared, with a narrow jetty sticking out into the water, some boats near the shore, their sails limp and without wind and, of course, coconut trees.
                The radio operator who always wanted to know what people did and where they were going sidled up to me at the rail. He was off duty, there being no message to relay, and he watched the stevedores ready a tractor on the front hold for disembarking. The tractor was our only reason for stopping at the port, for there were no passengers who were going down. The town was not a regular port of call; it was not big and it did not have anything – at least from the distance – that could draw people and business except copra and maybe, a little lumber.
                “You’ll not find the town difficult,” he said. “And as for this classmate of yours, what did you say her name was again?”
                “Ella Rivera. Mrs. Jacinto now,” I said feeling bored. It was the tenth time he asked me why I wanted to spend a few moments in the town. I was going to Cotabato farther south, and I was very pleased to learn when we were already at sea that we would stop here to ease the tractor down. I would see Ella again, Ella who forsook the lights of the city because there was an hacienda here, a country house, exuberance, security, and a man named Jaime Jacinto.
                “I know some of the people here,” the radio operator volunteered again. “But a Jacinto – I don’t know anyone by that name. In this town – and it’s small – everyone knows everyone.”
                “How long do you think we will stay here?”
                He peered briefly into the navigator’s cabin where the captain was giving orders as the boat, its engines now idling, hedged close to the pier.
                “In an hour or so, just as soon as I unload the tractor,” the captain said, thrusting a chin to the yellow-painted machine that was being readied by the crew below. The man threw the lines and a pier hand hooked and coiled the ropes to the piles near the pier. The boat was small, an FS type like most inter-island vessels. In a while it was snug and still.
                “Don’t worry,” the skipper assured me; “we won’t leave you.”
                I did not wait for the gangplank to be lowered. From the rail, I clambered down to the piles that protected the pier, then jumped to the pier itself. I had been on the boat for the past three days, and now the stability of the earth and the absence of pitching and rolling seemed to put a spring to my gait and a slight imbalance to my sense of equilibrium.
                The pier was not crowded but for some idlers. It didn’t have the frenzied activity of other southern ports, and knowing how Ella loved motion, lights, the whirl of dancers, I wondered how she was able to adapt herself to this seemingly lifeless town.
                She had been a classmate in college, all through four years of it; she was not beautiful really, but charming and wonderful company; she gave a man confidence in himself, in his talents, and she had all the boys wanting to date her. She aroused in them the male protective instinct and yet she wasn’t completely helpless-looking, just fragile. And, of course, she had a way with words.
                There was no jeep or calesa at the pier – unlike in the other ports where the arrival of a boat usually accompanied with noise, the hysterical snort of jeepneys, horses – maybe because the town was limbo or world’s end. I asked one of the pier-hands where I could possibly get a ride to the town and he pointed to a sorry-looking calesa way down the road at the end of the pier. The walk was unnecessary, but it seemed no calesas were permitted up to the narrow jetty.
                I needed the walk, if only to reassure myself the necessity of using my legs; a walk is needed at times as one would need a smoke in solitude. A walk, said Ella once, if for your health, your pocketbook, and your mind. You get the exercise, save the farce and, most of all, you think a lot of things that won’t occur to you in a more easeful circumstance.
                We did go together for a walk on a clear, rain washed afternoon because she wanted to feel the slosh of rain water on her bare feet. We skipped a class in European literature and then we were in the boulevard by the sea. She thrust away her pumps, and we walked and talked of Moliere and the wisdom of man, of the many shades of meaning that was in the word “fecund” – it was her favorite word, precocious word, and a poem was fecund, the land was fecund, a woman’s breast was fecund… It was her favorite, that and many other things I could understand. But never how she became interested in Jimmy, loud-mouthed, vulgar.
                Before she met Jimmy, we went together, we were young people talking big, owning the sky and, for me, a hole in my shoe. Ella, eager, her fair skin always scrubbed and smelling of sopa and woman’s scent, went to parties too, with me. Once, at a dinner-dance commemorating the anniversary of the college paper where we all wrote, a half bottle of scotch got into the punch bowl and soon, there was more freedom in the talk, more closeness in the dancing, and a certain brashness in the way the girls moved around. But Ella didn’t need alcohol to pep her up.
                Jimmy was parked by the piano, thin ascetic-looking fellow with a faraway look, a crew cut, a pinched face, and an insinuation that his piano-playing was the party. Someone was looking for guaracha records and then Ella, her face bright with punch, went to the piano and leaning on its side, asked Jimmy to accompany her.
                She sang coolly at first, with hardly anyone paying attention, but soon she had us all listening, and as she sang, her voice – its richness and mellowness, told the faith that only women knew:
                                I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar
                                That this heart of mine embraces
                                All day through…
her mouth a-quiver, the veins on her throat throbbing with life, her hands clasped but not in the dramatic, athletic stance of prima donnas, her eyes fixed on no one in particular but on the abstraction that was beyond the wide terrace, the forgotten stars blooming in the sky.
                It was February then and we were seniors. Jimmy was a senior too, but Ella and he didn’t graduate, for after that party, we heard – and this was confirmed by their absence from school – that they had eloped. It was difficult for me to get over the news, not because of sheer jealousy but of the fact that Jimmy was a slob, a braggart and a loudmouth, perennially describing his house in the country – a “monstrosity with twelve bedrooms,” his hacienda, and his flock of “lazy, lying tenants,” and his “honeymoon around the world” when the time came.
                The rig driver was quite talkative and, as most rig drivers go, knew almost everyone in town.
                “Ella Jacinto? The wife of Jaime Jacinto? Yes, I know her.”
                “Is their hacienda far from the town?”
                “Hacienda?” He fixed me with a quizzical stare.
                “Yes,” I said, a little bothered. “They have an hacienda, don’t they?”
                A brittle laugh escaped him, and then, as a sign of respect to me perhaps, he suppressed his laughter, and looked away, his peasant face stolid and emotionless as he continued: “I wouldn’t call it an hacienda. Maybe, in other places where there isn’t too much land… “ he turned to me again. “Are you sure, sir, that you are looking for Jaime Jacinto?”
                I nodded. “He was a classmate in college,” I said crisply.
                He brightened. “That’s right, Jaime had been to college. Yes, I’ll take you to him.”
                I boarded his beat-up rig, and as I settled on the seat, he snapped the reins on the back of his bony mare and we cantered off.
                The drive was not delightful; in time, after skirting the shore, we entered the heart of the town which, like most centers in the Philippine towns, was drably familiar with the omnipresent Rizal monument, the church, the schoolhouse, a few houses with tin roofs attesting to the locality’s intimation with civilization, and those inevitable Chinese stores. I had hoped the rig driver would stop at any moment before one of the bigger houses but he drove on, clucking his tongue, until the road dropped off into what seemed like a wallowing hole that had dried up – a street or what appeared to be a street flanked both sides by less respectable-looking homes.
                “Are you sure you know where we are going?” I asked with apprehension.
                “If it’s Jaime Jacinto you are looking for…”
                “Yes. Is his wife named Ella?”
                He nodded, snapped the reins on the horse’s back again and we went down the road, skirting the dried edges of the huge puddle, and then stopped before an old, battered house which must have seen better times two decades earlier. It was not big, but it was not small either; it had a nipa roof, wooden sliding and shell windows. But in spite of its age and apparent sliding into obscurity, it stood out above all the other houses that were in the vicinity; for one, its yard was flooded with flowering plants, bougainvillea, rows of San Francisco that have missed a trimming for years, and vines of bridal bouquet that smothered one side of the house, they practically caused the balcony over which they clambered, to sag. There were countless other plants in the yard, in the pots on the window sill; it seemed as if some wanton gardener had selected this one forgotten spot and then, with a bucketful of seeds and with a green thumb, transformed it into a wonderland.
                “This is the house,” the rig driver said with a measure of solemnity.
                “Are you sure?”
                He looked at me. “I’m sure,” he said simply. “This is where Ella Jacinto lives. She is the only one who cares for flowers here.”
                I got down, not quite ready to accept the fact or enter the decrepit gate. Beyond the rich hedge of gumamela, three children appeared – all of them barefoot, in tatters, smudged with dirt but apparently healthy. I had encountered the same innocence, the same robustness in the Mangyan children in Mindoro but not the shyness, for seeing me approach, they did not run or cower; they came forward with frank openness, waiting to be asked the question that they expected. I asked what seemed the oldest of the three, a handsome boy of about six or seven, if this was the house where Jimmy Jacinto lived, and the boy, with a wide grin spreading across his face, wheeled and ran to the tottering stairway, rushed up shouting, “Mama, Mama, there’s a visitor to see you.”
                It was then that I saw them: the Ocampo painting that Ella was so attached to because it was given to her by the painter himself, a modernistic rendering of harvest, a “fecund” picture she called it, actually blobs of yellow that merged with smaller patches of green, vivid colors so characteristic of all Ocampo frames, and the atrocious mobile which was but starting as a household fad when we were in college – some tiny strips, sleek and silver once, but now rusty with the elements, dangling in the middle of the balcony, above the stairway, before the picture – a strange assortment of birds, fishes or lightning as interpreted by an unnamed sculptor in the university who must have admired Ella, too, and presented the mobile to her.
                I took them both with calmness, with the resignation I had developed on coming upon artifacts that surprised because they confirmed what I couldn’t believe in, just as I couldn’t believe at all that Ella could live in this place, this town, considering that Jimmy had promised her not this but some reality upon which her poetic hankering fed on.
                And looking at that impossible mobile, at that Ocampo painting, I stood motionless, until a woman appeared at the top of the flight, and looking at the familiar face, I knew this was Ella and I went up, the calmness gone out of me, my heart pounding like thunder, and I shook her hand, oh how rough it had become! And she took it away, looked once at me and then at her own self, her shabby clothes and, “Pepe, Pepe,” she breathed, and with extreme embarrassment, she fled behind the door of the living room.
                “Sit down, sit down,” she called from behind one of the doors beyond, and from it, I could hear the flurry, the opening of drawers and the words gasped out: “Pepe, you fool, you should have told me you were coming. Imagine you, of all people, dropping in on me like a bolt from the clear, blue sky. How is life? Are you already married? Do I know her?”
                “No,” I said, eyeing the interior of the house, its poor deportment, its battered furniture, the cracks on the wooden floor that were stripes of bamboo and pine planks from packing cases. “No, I am not yet married,” rather emphatically.
                “And what are you doing with yourself and your money? Do not waste time, Pepe. Look, did you see those retazos downstairs? They are all mine.”
                “I’m too busy to indulge in domestic adventure.” I said, affecting the flippant manner with which we used to discuss marriage when we were in college.
                “Well, you’ve got to change someday. You’ve to have a wife and children. Look at me. Three children in eight years. That’s not a bad record, is it?”
                “No,” I said. I looked out into the yard where the children played. They were a healthy trio even with the mud of the street on their faces.
                In a while, she came out but though her face was powdered and she had lipstick on, she didn’t seem quite real or quite as handsome as she used to be and her dress seemed old and frowzy. Only her eyes were alive and there was a slack in her mouth. Only her eyes were alive and there was a slack in her mouth. Only her eyes – and they were all that mattered because they sparkled still.
                “You look fine,” I said thinking of her eyes. “Just as fine as when we were in college.”
                “Don’t talk about college,” she said smiling; she led me into the living room and offered me one of the sorry looking rattan chairs that was propped near the window. “Tell me about yourself. How come you are here?”
                “I’m going to Mindanao and there’s a tractor that they are going to drop here.”
                “Mindanao,” she gushed; “I’m sure you have a big farm there now.”
                “Nothing of the sort,” I said laughing. “I never made anything out of poetry and writing. Do you remember how we often talked about the study of man?”
                “Yes, yes,” she said happily. “We talked a lot, didn’t we?”
                “I’m going to Mindanao to study the Bilaans.”
                “Anthropology!” she exclaimed, catching up with the drift of the conversation. “Yes, Jimmy told me once, you had a fellowship or something to study the Mangyans of Mindoro too.”
                I nodded.
                “You must know a lot about primitive society now, its evolution and all that sort of thing.”
                “I try to be observant,” I said.
                “You have always been observant, “ she said. “I imagine you know all the answers about people, why they have some customs which appear crazy to us but perfectly all right with them. I understand Moros can get two dozen wives.”
                “Only four is allowed by the Koran,” I said.
                “Some arrangement,” she said, blithely. She had taken the chair opposite mine and she folded her hands as she spoke. They were big hands now, roughened with work, not slim or soft as she had them when she was young.
                “I wouldn’t mind such an arrangement,” she said. “But if the man loves them all, wouldn’t that be problem for him?”
                The question  had never occurred to me and I marveled at her perception that did not dull or die away.
                “You’ll be a very learned man,” she said. “You’ll know everything. And here I am, not knowing anything. I don’t even know what happened to our classmates. I stumble across their names once in a while when Jimmy comes home with a paper.”
                “How is he?” I asked.
                “So,so. He’s in town now. He should be back any moment.”
                “Are you happy?” I had wanted to ask the question but it didn’t come off easy and I asked it with a feeling of guilt, of regret.
                “Yes,” she said, nodding. “Yes, I’m quite happy. I don’t get all the things I want but I try to be happy without them.”
                “That’s the way it should be,” I said. “That’s elemental. You can’t get everything you want.”
                It was safe now for me to speak, it was safe now for me to open up because the years had created the courage with which I could, in all frankness, declare: I wanted you, which I really did, so I spoke out loud, “There was a time,” I said, looking at her, “I wanted you. I almost asked you to marry me, after we finished college, of course. But you eloped and I got a career studying man.”
                Her eyes were wide. With fright? With wonder? I couldn’t say. She quickly turned away, saying quickly: “Pepe, you never told me.”
                “How could i?” I said with a conscious attempt at levity. “You were too concerned with Jimmy.”
                “Was I?”
                “You were,” I said. I could have added, you were too concerned with getting somewhere, and I couldn’t get a ticket to Europe, a coconut plantation, and a country home… But, “How is he?” I asked again instead.
                Her eyes, when they slid up to me again, were misty. “He is all right. It didn’t turn out to be as I expected. Time teaches a lot of things. Jot that down. It’s for your book. Have you already written it?”
                I leaned over and patted her hand. “I couldn’t write it as I planned it when we were in college,” I said lamely. She leaned over, her eyes saying a hundred things, her breath quiet and slow, and we did not speak.
                It was then that one of the children playing in the yard started wailing and I heard a gruff voice raised; whack, and the voice again: “I told you, you son of a whore, not to go around with all that dirt in your face. Have your forgotten that you are the son of Don Jaime Jacinto?” Garrulous laughter, the wailing dying away into stifled sobs, and someone stolidly stepping up the stairway.
                Ella stood up and went to the door. “Jimmy,” she said softly, soothingly, “Jimmy darling, we have a visitor. You know him…”
                I stood up and followed her. At the door, I meet Jimmy who, like Ella, I hadn’t seen in eight long years, and the Jimmy that I saw was bald and stout like a pampered boar, and his eyes were red and glassy. Is very movements, by the redness of his face, it was not difficult to see that he was drunk.
                “Oh, it’s you,” he said, “Well, if it isn’t Pepe, the smart boy! Now, what could bring you to this hell of a place? Don’t tell me it’s the scenery.”
                “Jimmy!” Ella said, ghastly at his manners.
                “I was passing by,” I said extending a hand which he didn’t take.
                “My hands are dirty with honest toil,” he said smirking. “I couldn’t shake your hand. Passing by? Now, who would believe that!” He staggered to one of the chairs in the balcony and heaved his fat bulk into it. He wore a pair of old rubber shoes and his denim pants were faded at the knees. “I know it, you are still aflame. Ha – I beat you all, didn’t I? I got Ella away from you and now you have come to try and take her back! Ha!”
                Ella stood between me and her husband. “Please, Jimmy,” she said, facing him, “can’t you be polite? Just this once. He had been a good friend. You know that.”
                Good to you but not to me. Ah, whore that you are,” he shouted drunkenly, “all right, be good to him.”
                I moved to the door knowing that it was best for me to leave. The day was getting dark and the boat had only an hour or even less to stay. Besides, I didn’t want to hear another word. But Ella, seeing me move to the top of the flight, rushed to me and held my hand and gushed apologies which I didn’t care to hear: “Pepe, please forgive him and me, too. Please, it’s not always that he is drunk. You understand that, don’t you?”
                I couldn’t speak. I could only hold her trembling hand and the best way I could, tried to explain that I understood. “Of course,” I said. “Jimmy is drunk. When a man is drunk, he usually doesn’t give much thought to what he does or says.”
                “I do,” Jimmy roared, rising, his face distorted by an ugly meaningful threat. In another instant, he had lunged at his wife, struck her and in falling, Ella tried to clutch at the sill for support but she missed it and an edge of the chair banged across her chest and now, her lips bled too, where Jimmy had hit her.
                I couldn’t stand the sight of her sprawled on the floor, her hurt and although I’m not given to impulse anymore, I swung at the brute. My fist dug into his soft belly and as he crouched in pain, I swung again at him, hammered his jaw. There was brief, amazed look in his face then he slumped down. I stood before him, ready to smash at him again but he did not rise. He lay there, cussing quietly, drunkenly. I knelt down to help Ella but recovering from the blow that fell on her, she crawled over to him, fondled his head crying: “Jimmy, jimmy, oh, Jimmy – “ moaning like a wounded animal, oblivious of her own bleeding lip, oblivious of her hurt and aware only of her slob of a husband prostrate on the floor, not dead but drunk. She caressed him, laid his head on her lap and then, she turned to me and her eyes were glaring and angry. I never saw her like this before and I was frightened and afraid.
                But only for an instant. “Get out of my house!” she screamed. “You’ve hurt him. My husband! What did he do to you? He didn’t even touch you!”
                I was too surprised to speak.
                “Pepe, go away,” she said, crying. “Pepe, leave us alone. Can’t you see I don’t need you or your sympathy? He is my husband, the father of my children. Leave us alone!”
                I walked down to the trio at the bottom of the stairs who faced me as if I was now their enemy, too, and into the growing dark that smelled of musk and decay, I walked, heard the horn of the boat hurrying me to other destinations. And in my mind, I saw Ella again as she was then, walking on the rain-washed grass with bare feet, talking about Moliere and the wisdom of man, and thinking of these and her singing and her laughing, I didn’t know why it turned out this way for Ella and me. I’ve learned a lot about man, about the forces that create heroes, towns, cities and nations. I know about the buried beads and broken jars in excavations, the ritual of primitives; I know all about these but I don’t know why I’m here in this neck of the woods, I don’t know why a girl like Ella could stay here with that louse for a husband. God, I don’t know.

Originally published in the book Philippine Prose & Poetry

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