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ZITA
by Arturo B. Rotor

Zita

TURONG brought him from Pauambang in his small sailboat, for the coastwise steamer did not stop at any little island of broken cliffs and coconut palms. It was almost midday; they had been standing in that white glare where the tiniest pebble and fluted conch had become points of light, piercing-bright--the municipal president, the parish priest, Don Eliodoro who owned almost all the coconuts, the herb doctor, the village character. Their mild surprise over when he spoke in their native dialect, they looked at him more closely and his easy manner did not deceive them. His head was uncovered and he had a way of bringing the back of his hand to his brow or mouth; they read behind that too, it was not a gesture of protection. "An exile has come to Anayat… and he is so young, so young." So young and lonely and sufficient unto himself. There was no mistaking the stamp of a strong decision on that brow, the brow of those who have to be cold and haughty, those shoulders stooped slightly, less from the burden that they bore than from a carefully cultivated air of unconcern; no common school-teacher could dress so carelessly and not appear shoddy.

They had prepared a room for him in Don Eliodoro's house so that he would not have to walk far to school every morning, but he gave nothing more than a glance at the big stone building with its Spanish azotea, its arched doorways, its flagged courtyard. He chose instead Turong's home, a shaky hut near the sea. Was the sea rough and dangerous at times? He did not mind it. Was the place far from the church and the schoolhouse? The walk would do him good. Would he not feel lonely with nobody but an illiterate fisherman for a companion? He was used to living alone. And they let him do as he wanted, for the old men knew that it was not so much the nearness of the sea that he desired as its silence so that he might tell it secrets he could not tell anyone else.

They thought of nobody but him; they talked about him in the barber shop, in the cockpit, in the sari-sari store, the way he walked, the way he looked at you, his unruly hair. They dressed him in purple and linen, in myth and mystery, put him astride a black stallion, at the wheel of a blue automobile. Mr. Reteche? Mr. Reteche! The name suggested the fantasy and the glitter of a place and people they never would see; he was the scion of a powerful family, a poet and artist, a prince.

That night, Don Eliodoro had the story from his daughter of his first day in the classroom; she perched wide-eyed, low-voiced, short of breath on the arm of his chair.

"He strode into the room, very tall and serious and polite, stood in front of us and looked at us all over and yet did not seem to see us.

" 'Good morning, teacher,' we said timidly.

"He bowed as if we were his equals. He asked for the fist of our names and as he read off each one we looked at him long. When he came to my name, Father, the most surprising thing happened. He started pronouncing it and then he stopped as if he had forgotten something and just stared and stared at the paper in his hand. I heard my name repeated three times through his half-closed lips, 'Zita. Zita. Zita.'

" 'Yes sir, I am Zita.'

"He looked at me uncomprehendingly, inarticulate, and it seemed to me, Father, it actually seemed that he was begging me to tell him that that was not my name, that I was deceiving him. He looked so miserable and sick I felt like sinking down or running away.

" 'Zita is not your name; it is just a pet name, no?'

" 'My father has always called me that, sir.'

" 'It can't be; maybe it is Pacita or Luisa or--'

"His voice was scarcely above a whisper, Father, and all the while he looked at me begging, begging. I shook my head determinedly. My answer must have angered him. He must have thought I was very hard-headed, for he said, 'A thousand miles, Mother of Mercy… it is not possible.' He kept on looking at me; he was hurt perhaps that he should have such a stubborn pupil. But I am not really so, Father?"

"Yes, you are, my dear. But you must try to please him, he is a gentleman; he comes from the city. I was thinking… Private lessons, perhaps, if he won't ask too much." Don Eliodoro had his dreams and she was his only daughter.

Turong had his own story to tell in the barber shop that night, a story as vividly etched as the lone coconut palm in front of the shop that shot up straight into the darkness of the night, as vaguely disturbing as the secrets that the sea whispered into the night.

"He did not sleep a wink, I am sure of it. When I came from the market the stars were already out and I saw that he had not touched the food I had prepared. I asked him to eat and he said he was not hungry. He sat by the window that faces the sea and just looked out hour after hour. I woke up three times during the night and saw that he had not so much as changed his position. I thought once that he was asleep and came near, but he motioned me away. When I awoke at dawn to prepare the nets, he was still there."

"Maybe he wants to go home already." They looked up with concern.

"He is sick. You remember Father Fernando? He had a way of looking like that, into space, seeing nobody, just before he died."

Every month there was a letter that came for him, sometimes two or three; large, blue envelopes with a gold design in the upper left hand comer, and addressed in broad, angular, sweeping handwriting. One time Turong brought one of them to him in the classroom. The students were busy writing a composition on a subject that he had given them, "The Things That I Love Most." Carelessly he had opened the letter, carelessly read it, and carelessly tossed it aside. Zita was all aflutter when the students handed in their work for he had promised that he would read aloud the best. He went over the pile two times, and once again, absently, a deep frown on his brow, as if he were displeased with their work. Then he stopped and picked up one. Her heart sank when she saw that it was not hers, she hardly heard him reading:

"I did not know any better. Moths are not supposed to know; they only come to the light. And the light looked so inviting, there was no resisting it. Moths are not supposed to know, one does not even know one is a moth until one's wings are burned."

It was incomprehensible, no beginning, no end. It did not have unity, coherence, emphasis. Why did he choose that one? What did he see in it? And she had worked so hard, she had wanted to please, she had written about the flowers that she loved most. Who could have written what he had read aloud? She did not know that any of her classmates could write so, use such words, sentences, use a blue paper to write her lessons on.

But then there was little in Mr. Reteche that the young people there could understand. Even his words were so difficult, just like those dark and dismaying things that they came across in their readers, which took them hour after hour in the dictionary. She had learned like a good student to pick out the words she did not recognize, writing them down as she heard them, but it was a thankless task. She had a whole notebook filled now, two columns to each page:

esurient          greedy.
Amaranth          a flower that never fades.
peacock           a large bird with lovely gold and 
                  green feathers.
Mirash	

The last word was not in the dictionary.

And what did such things as original sin, selfishness, insatiable, actress of a thousand faces mean, and who were Sirse, Lorelay, other names she could not find anywhere? She meant to ask him someday, someday when his eyes were kinder.

He never went to church, but then, that always went with learning and education, did it not? One night Bue saw him coming out of the dim doorway. He watched again and the following night he saw him again. They would not believe it, they must see it with their own eyes and so they came. He did not go in every night, but he could be seen at the most unusual hours, sometimes at dusk, sometimes at dawn, once when it was storming and the lightning etched ragged paths from heaven to earth. Sometimes he stayed for a few minutes, sometimes he came twice or thrice in one evening. They reported it to Father Cesareo but it seemed that he already knew. "Let a peaceful man alone in his prayers." The answer had surprised them.

The sky hangs over Anayat, in the middle of the Anayat Sea, like an inverted wineglass, a glass whose wine had been spilled, a purple wine of which Anayat was the last precious drop. For that is Anayat in the crepuscule, purple and mellow, sparkling and warm and effulgent when there is a moon, cool and heady and sensuous when there is no moon.

One may drink of it and forget what lies beyond a thousand miles, beyond a thousand years; one may sip it at the top of a jagged cliff, nearer peace, nearer God, where one can see the ocean dashing against the rocks in eternal frustration, more moving, more terrible than man's; or touch it to his lips in the lush shadows of the dama de noche, its blossoms iridescent like a thousand fireflies, its bouquet the fragrance of flowers that know no fading.

Zita sat by her open window, half asleep, half dreaming. Francisco B. Reteche; what a name! What could his nickname be. Paking, Frank, Pa… The night lay silent and expectant, a fairy princess waiting for the whispered words of a lover. She was not a bit sleepy; already she had counted three stars that had fallen to earth, one almost directly into that bush of dama de noche at their garden gate, where it had lighted the lamps of a thousand fireflies. He was not so forbidding now, he spoke less frequently to himself, more frequently to her; his eyes were still unseeing, but now they rested on her. She loved to remember those moments she had caught him looking when he thought she did not know. The knowledge came keenly, bitingly, like the sea breeze at dawn, like the prick of the rose's thorn, or--yes, like the purple liquid that her father gave the visitors during pintakasi which made them red and noisy. She had stolen a few drops one day, because she wanted to know, to taste, and that little sip had made her head whirl.

Suddenly she stiffened; a shadow had emerged from the shrubs and had been lost in the other shadows. Her pulses raced, she strained forward. Was she dreaming? Who was it? A lost soul, an unvoiced thought, the shadow of a shadow, the prince from his tryst with the fairy princess? What were the words that he whispered to her?

They who have been young once say that only youth can make youth forget itself; that life is a river bed; the water passes over it, sometimes it encounters obstacles and cannot go on, sometimes it flows unencumbered with a song in every bubble and ripple, but always it goes forward. When its way is obstructed it burrows deeply or swerves aside and leaves its impression, and whether the impress will be shallow and transient, or deep and searing, only God determines. The people remembered the day when he went up Don Eliodoro's house, the light of a great decision in his eyes, and finally accepted the father's request that he teach his daughter "to be a lady."

"We are going to the city soon, after the next harvest perhaps; I want her not to feel like a 'provinciana' when we get there."

They remembered the time when his walks by the seashore became less solitary, for now of afternoons, he would draw the whole crowd of village boys from their game of leapfrog or patintero and bring them with him. And they would go home hours after sunset with the wonderful things that Mr. Reteche had told them, why the sea is green, the sky blue, what one who is strong and fearless might find at that exact place where the sky meets the sea. They would be flushed and happy and bright-eyed, for he could stand on his head longer than any of them, catch more crabs, send a pebble skimming over the breast of Anayat Bay farthest.

Turong still remembered those ominous, terrifying nights when he had got up cold and trembling to listen to the aching groan of the bamboo floor, as somebody in the other room restlessly paced to and fro. And his pupils still remember those mornings he received their flowers, the camia which had fainted away at her own fragrance, the kampupot, with the night dew still trembling in its heart; receive them with a smile and forget the lessons of the day and tell them all about those princesses and fairies who dwelt in flowers; why the dama de noche must have the darkness of the night to bring out its fragrance; how the petals of the ylang-ylang, crushed and soaked in some liquid, would one day touch the lips of some wondrous creature in some faraway land whose eyes were blue and hair golden.

ilang-ilang

Those were days of surprises for Zita. Box after box came in Turong's sailboat and each time they contained things that took the words from her lips. Silk as sheer and perishable as gossamer, or heavy and shiny and tinted like the sunset sky; slippers with bright stones which twinkled with the least movement of her feet; a necklace of green, flat, polished stone, whose feel against her throat sent a curious choking sensation there; perfume that she must touch her lips with. If only there would always be such things in Turong's sailboat, and none of those horrid blue envelopes that he always brought. And yet--the Virgin have pity on her selfish soul--suppose one day Turong brought not only those letters but the writer as well? She shuddered, not because she feared it but because she knew it would be.

"Why are these dresses so tight fitting?" Her father wanted to know.

"In society, women use clothes to reveal, not to hide." Was that a sneer or a smile in his eyes? The gown showed her arms and shoulders and she had never known how round and fair they were, how they could express so many things.

"Why do these dresses have such bright colors?"

"Because the peacock has bright feathers."

"They paint their lips…"

"So that they can smile when they do not want to."

"And their eyelashes are long."

"To hide deception."

He was not pleased like her father; she saw it, he had turned his face toward the window. And as she came nearer, swaying like a lily atop its stalk she heard the harsh, muttered words:

"One would think she'd feel shy or uncomfortable, but no… oh no… not a bit… all alike… comes naturally."

There were books to read; pictures, names to learn; lessons in everything; how to polish the nails, how to use a fan, even how to walk. How did these days come, how did they go? What does one do when one is so happy, so breathless? Sometimes they were a memory, sometimes a dream.

"Look, Zita, a society girl does not smile so openly; her eyes don't seek one's so--that reveals your true feelings."

"But if I am glad and happy and I want to show it?"

"Don't. If you must show it by smiling, let your eyes be mocking; if you would invite with your eyes, repulse with your lips."

That was a memory.

She was in a great drawing room whose floor was so polished it reflected the myriad red and green and blue fights above, the arches of flowers and ribbons and streamers. All the great names of the capital were there, stately ladies in wonderful gowns who walked so, waved their fans so, who said one thing with their eyes and another with their lips. And she was among them and every young and good-looking man wanted to dance with her. They were all so clever and charming but she answered: "Please, I am tired." For beyond them she had seen him alone, he whose eyes were dark and brooding and disapproving and she was waiting for him to take her.

That was a dream. Sometimes though, she could not tell so easily which was the dream and which the memory.

If only those letters would not bother him now, he might be happy and at peace. True he never answered them, but every time Turong brought him one, he would still become thoughtful and distracted. Like that time he was teaching her a dance, a Spanish dance, he said, and had told her to dress accordingly. Her heavy hair hung in a big, carelessly tied knot that always threatened to come loose but never did; its dark, deep shadows showing off in startling vividness how red a rose can be, how like velvet its petals. Her earrings--two circlets of precious stones, red like the pigeon's blood--almost touched her shoulders. The heavy Spanish shawl gave her the most trouble--she had nothing to help her but some pictures and magazines--she could not put it on just as she wanted. Like this, it revealed her shoulder too much; that way, it hampered the free movement of the legs. But she had done her best; for hours she had stood before her mirror and for hours it had told her that she was beautiful, that red lips and tragic eyes were becoming to her.

She'd never forget that look on his face when she came out. It was not surprise, joy, admiration. It was as if he saw somebody there whom he was expecting, for whom he had waited, prayed.

"Zita!" It was a cry of recognition.

She blushed even under her rouge when he took her in his arms and taught her to step this way, glide so, turn about; she looked half questioningly at her father for disapproval, but she saw that there was nothing there but admiration too. Mr. Reteche seemed so serious and so intent that she should learn quickly; but he did not deceive her, for once she happened to lean close and she felt how wildly his heart was beating. It frightened her and she drew away, but when she saw how unconcerned he seemed, as if he did not even know that she was in his arms, she smiled knowingly and drew close again. Dreamily she closed her eyes and dimly wondered if his were shut too, whether he was thinking the same thoughts, breathing the same prayer.

Turong came up and after his respectful "Good evening" he handed an envelope to the school teacher. It was large and blue and had a gold design in one comer; the handwriting was broad, angular, sweeping.

"Thank you, Turong." His voice was drawling, heavy, the voice of one who has just awakened. With one movement he tore the unopened envelope slowly, unconsciously, it seemed to her, to pieces.

"I thought I had forgotten," he murmured dully.

That changed the whole evening. His eyes lost their sparkle, his gaze wandered from time to time. Something powerful and dark had come between them, something which shut out the light, brought in a chill. The tears came to her eyes for she felt utterly powerless. When her sight cleared she saw that he was sitting down and trying to piece the letter together.

"Why do you tear up a letter if you must put it together again?" rebelliously.

He looked at her kindly. "Someday, Zita, you will do it too, and then you will understand."

One day Turong came from Pauambang and this time he brought a stranger. They knew at once that he came from where the teacher came--his clothes, his features, his politeness--and that he had come for the teacher. This one did not speak their dialect, and as he was led through the dusty, crooked streets, he kept forever wiping his face, gazing at the wobbly, thatched huts and muttering short, vehement phrases to himself. Zita heard his knock before Mr. Reteche did and she knew what he had come for. She must have been as pale as her teacher, as shaken, as rebellious. And yet the stranger was so cordial; there was nothing but gladness in his greeting, gladness at meeting an old friend. How strong he was; even at that moment he did not forget himself, but turned to his class and dismissed them for the day.

The door was thick and she did not dare lean against the jamb too much, so sometimes their voices floated away before they reached her.

"…like children… making yourselves… so unhappy."

"…happiness? Her idea of happiness…"

Mr. Reteche's voice was more low-pitched, hoarse, so that it didn't carry at all. She shuddered as he laughed, it was that way when he first came.

"She's been… did not mean… understand."

"…learning to forget…"

There were periods when they both became excited and talked fast and hard; she heard somebody's restless pacing, somebody sitting down heavily.

"I never realized what she meant to me until I began trying to seek from others what she would not give me."

She knew what was coming now, knew it before the stranger asked the question:

"Tomorrow?"

She fled; she could not wait for the answer.

He did not sleep that night, she knew he did not, she told herself fiercely. And it was not only his preparations that kept him awake, she knew it, she knew it. With the first flicker of light she ran to her mirror. She must not show her feeling, it was not in good form, she must manage somehow. If her lips quivered, her eyes must smile, if in her eyes there were tears… She heard her father go out, but she did not go; although she knew his purpose, she had more important things to do. Little boys came up to the house and she wiped away their tears and told them that he was coming back, coming back, soon, soon.

The minutes flew, she was almost done now; her lips were red and her eyebrows penciled; the crimson shawl thrown over her shoulders just right. Everything must be like that day he had first seen her in a Spanish dress. Still he did not come, he must be bidding farewell now to Father Cesareo; now he was in Doña Ramona's house; now he was shaking the barber's hand. He would soon be through and come to her house. She glanced at the mirror and decided that her lips were not red enough; she put on more color. The rose in her hair had too long a stem; she tried to trim it with her fingers and a thorn dug deeply into her flesh.

Who knows? Perhaps they would soon meet again in the city; she wondered if she could not wheedle her father into going earlier. But she must know now what were the words he had wanted to whisper that night under the dama de noche, what he had wanted to say that day he held her in his arms; other things, questions whose answers she knew. She smiled. How well she knew them!

The big house was silent as death; the little village seemed deserted, everybody had gone to the seashore. Again she looked at the mirror. She was too pale, she must put on more rouge. She tried to keep from counting the minutes, the seconds, from getting up and pacing. But she was getting chilly and she must do it to keep warm.

The steps creaked. She bit her lips to stifle a wild cry there. The door opened.

"Turong!"

"Mr. Reteche bade me give you this. He said you would understand."

In one bound she had reached the open window. But dimly, for the sun was too bright, or was her sight failing?--she saw a blur of white moving out to sea, then disappearing behind a point of land so that she could no longer follow it; and then, clearly against a horizon suddenly drawn out of perspective, "Mr. Reteche," tall, lean, brooding, looking at her with eyes that told her somebody had hurt him. It was like that when he first came, and now he was gone. The tears came freely now. What matter, what matter? There was nobody to see and criticize her breeding. They came down unchecked and when she tried to brush them off with her hand, the color came away too from her cheeks, leaving them bloodless, cold. Sometimes they got into her mouth and they tasted bitter.

Her hands worked convulsively; there was a sound of tearing paper, once, twice. She became suddenly aware of what she had done when she looked at the pieces, wet and brightly stained with uneven streaks of red. Slowly, painfully, she tried to put the pieces together and as she did so a sob escaped deep from her breast--a great understanding had come to her.

This 1930 story is included in everybody's list of best Philippine stories of the 20th century.

 

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