ONE evening in August 1941, I came out of a late movie to a silent, cold night. I shivered a little as I stood for a moment in the narrow street, looking up at the distant sky, alive with stars. I stood there, letting the night wind seep through me, and listening. The street was empty, the houses on the street dim—with the kind of ghostly dimness that seems to embrace sleeping houses. I had always liked empty streets in the night; I had always stopped for a while in these streets listening for something I did not quite know what. Perhaps for low, soft cries that empty streets and sleeping houses seem to share in the night.
I lived in an old, nearly crumbling apartment house just across the street from the moviehouse. From the street, I could see into the open courtyard, around which rooms for the tenants, mostly a whole family to a single room, were ranged. My room, like all the other rooms on the groundfloor, opened on this court. Three other boys, my cousins, shared the room with me. As I turned into the courtyard from the street, I noticed that the light over our study-table, which stood on the corridor outside our room, was still burning. Earlier in the evening after supper, I had taken out my books to study, but I went to a movie instead. I must have forgotten to turn off the light; apparently, the boys had forgotten, too.
I went around the low screen that partitioned off our “study” and there was a girl reading at the table. We looked at each other, startled. I had never seen her before. She was about eleven years old, and she wore a faded blue dress. She had long, straight hair falling to her shoulders. She was reading my copy of Greek Myths.
The eyes she had turned to me were wide, darkened a little by apprehension. For a long time neither of us said anything. She was a delicately pretty girl with a fine, smooth. pale olive skin that shone richly in the yellow light. Her nose was straight, small and finely molded. Her lips, full and red, were fixed and tense. And there was something else about her. Something lonely? something lost?
“I know,” I said, “I like stories, too. I read anything good I find lying around. Have you been reading long?”
“Yes,” she said. not looking at me now. She got up slowly, closing the book. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t you want to read anymore? I asked her, trying to smile, trying to make her feel that everything was all right.
“No.” she said, “thank you.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, picking up the book. “It’s late. You ought to be in bed. But, you can take this along.”
She hesitated, hanging back, then shyly she took the book, brought it to her side. She looked down at her feet uncertain as to where to turn.
“You live here?” I asked her.
She turned her face and nodded towards the far corner, across the courtyard, to a little room near the communal kitchen. It was the room occupied by the janitor: a small square room with no windows except for a transom above the door.
“You live with Mang Lucio?”
“He’s my uncle.”
“How long have you been here? I haven’t seen you before, have I?”
“I’ve always been here. I’ve seen you.”
“Oh. Well, good night—your name?”
“Good night, Maria.”
She turned quickly, ran across the courtyard, straight to her room, and closed the door without looking back.
I undressed, turned off the light and lay in bed dreaming of far-away things. I was twenty-one and had a job for the first time. The salary was not much and I lived in a house that was slowly coming apart, but life seemed good. And in the evening when the noise of living had died down and you lay safe in bed, you could dream of better times, look back and ahead, and find that life could be gentle—even with the hardness. And afterwards, when the night had grown colder, and suddenly you felt alone in the world, adrift, caught in a current of mystery that came in the hour between sleep and waking, the vaguely frightening loneliness only brought you closer to everything, to the walls and the shadows on the walls, to the other sleeping people in the room, to everything within and beyond this house, this street, this city, everywhere.
I met Maria again one early evening, a week later, as I was coming home from the office. I saw her walking ahead of me, slowly, as if she could not be too careful, and with a kind of grownup poise that was somehow touching. But I did not know it was Maria until she stopped and I overtook her.
She was wearing a white dress that had been old many months ago. She wore a pair of brown sneakers that had been white once. She had stopped to look at the posters of pictures advertised as “Coming” to our neighborhood theater.
“Hello,” I said, trying to sound casual.
She smiled at me and looked away quickly. She did not say anything nor did she step away. I felt her shyness, but there was no self-consciousness, none of the tenseness and restraint of the night we first met. I stood beside her, looked at the pictures tacked to a tilted board, and tried whistling a tune.
She turned to go, hesitated, and looked at me full in the eyes. There was again that wide-eyed—and sad? —stare. I smiled, feeling a remote desire to comfort her, as if it would do any good, as if it was comfort she needed.
“I’ll return your book now,” she said.
“You’ve finished it?”
We walked down the shadowed street. Magallanes Street in Intramuros, like all the other streets there, was not wide enough, hemmed in by old, mostly unpainted houses, clumsy and unlovely, even in the darkening light of the fading day.
We went into the apartment house and I followed her across the court. I stood outside the door which she closed carefully after her. She came out almost immediately and put in my hands the book of Greek myths. She did not look at me as she stood straight and remote.
“My name is Felix,” I said.
She smiled suddenly. It was a little smile, almost an unfinished smile. But, somehow, it felt special, something given from way deep inside in sincere friendship.
I walked away whistling. At the door of my room, I stopped and looked back. Maria was not in sight. Her door was firmly closed.
August, 1941, was a warm month. The hangover of summer still permeated the air, specially in Intramuros. But, like some of the days of late summer, there were afternoons when the weather was soft and clear, the sky a watery green, with a shell-like quality to it that almost made you see through and beyond, so that, watching it made you lightheaded.
I walked out of the office one day into just such an afternoon. The day had been full of grinding work—like all the other days past. I was tired. I walked slowly, towards the far side of the old city, where traffic was not heavy. On the street there were old trees, as old as the walls that enclosed the city. Half-way towards school, I changed my mind and headed for the gate that led out to Bonifacio Drive. I needed stiffer winds, wider skies. I needed all of the afternoon to myself.
Maria was sitting on the first bench, as you went up the sloping drive that curved away from the western gate. She saw me before I saw her. When I looked her way, she was already smiling that half-smile of hers, which even so told you all the truth she knew, without your asking.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s a small world.”
“I said it’s nice running into you. Do you always come here?”
“As often as I can. I go to many places.”
“Doesn’t your uncle disapprove?”
“No. He’s never around. Besides, he doesn’t mind anything.”
“Where do you go?”
“Oh, up on the walls. In the gardens up there, near Victoria gate. D’you know?”
“I think so. What do you do up there?”
“Sit down and—”
“Nothing. Just sit down.”
She fell silent. Something seemed to come between us. She was suddenly far-away. It was like the first night again. I decided to change the subject.
“Look,” I said, carefully, “where are your folks?”
“You mean, my mother and father?”
“Yes. And your brothers and sisters, if any.”
“My mother and father are dead. My elder sister is married. She’s in the province. There isn’t anybody else.”
“Did you grow up with your uncle?”
“I think so.”
We were silent again. Maria had answered my questions without embarrassment. almost without emotion, in a cool light voice that had no tone.
“Are you in school, Maria?”
“How d’you like it?”
“Oh, I like it.”
“I know you like reading.”
She had no comment. The afternoon had waned. The breeze from the sea had died down. The last lingering warmth of the sun was now edged with cold. The trees and buildings in the distance seemed to flounder in a red-gold mist. It was a time of day that never failed to carry an enchantment for me. Maria and I sat still together, caught in some spell that made the silence between us right, that made our being together on a bench in the boulevard, man and girl, stranger and stranger, a thing not to be wondered at, as natural and inevitable as the lengthening shadows before the setting sun.
Other days came, and soon it was the season of the rain. The city grew dim and gray at the first onslaught of the monsoon. There were no more walks in the sun. I caught a cold.
Maria and I had become friends now, though we saw each other infrequently. I became engrossed in my studies. You could not do anything else in a city caught in the rains. September came and went.
In November, the sun broke through the now ever present clouds, and for three or four days we had bright clear weather. Then, my mind once again began flitting from my desk, to the walls outside the office, to the gardens on the walls and the benches under the trees in the boulevards. Once, while working on a particularly bad copy on the news desk, my mind scattered, the way it sometimes does and, coming together again, went back to that first meeting with Maria. And the remembrance came clear, coming into sharper focus—the electric light, the shadows around us, the stillness. And Maria, with her wide-eyed stare, the lost look in her eyes…
IN December, I had a little fever. On sick leave, I went home to the province. I stayed three days. I felt restless, as if I had strayed and lost contact with myself. I suppose you got that way from being sick,
A pouring rain followed our train all the way back to Manila. Outside my window, the landscape was a series of dissolved hills and fields. What is it in the click of the wheels of a train that makes you feel gray inside? What is it in being sick, in lying abed that makes you feel you are awake in a dream, and that you are just an occurrence in the crying grief of streets and houses and people?
In December, we had our first air-raid practice.
I came home one night through darkened streets, peopled by shadows. There was a ragged look to everything, as if no one and nothing cared any more for appearances.
I reached my room just as the siren shrilled. I undressed and got into my old clothes. It was dark, darker than the moment after moon-set. I went out on the corridor and sat in a chair. All around me were movements and voices. anonymous and hushed, even when they laughed.
I sat still, afraid and cold.
“Is that you. Felix?”
She was standing beside my chair, close to the wall. Her voice was small and disembodied in the darkness. A chill went through me, She said nothing more for a long time.
“I don’t like the darkness,” she said.
“Oh, come now. When you sleep, you turn the lights off, don’t you?”
“It’s not like this darkness,” she said, softly. “It’s all over the world.”
We did not speak again until the lights went on. Then she was gone.
The war happened not long after.
At first, everything was unreal. It was like living on a motion picture screen, with yourself as actor and audience. But the sounds of bombs exploding were real enough, thudding dully against the unready ear.
In Intramuros, the people left their homes the first night of the war. Many of them slept in the niches of the old walls the first time they heard the sirens scream in earnest. That evening, I returned home to find the apartment house empty. The janitor was there. My cousin who worked in the army was there. But the rest of the tenants were gone.
I asked Mang Lucio, “Maria?”
“She’s gone with your aunt to the walls.” he told me. “They will sleep there tonight.”
My cousin told me that in the morning we would transfer to Singalong. There was a house available. The only reason he was staying, he said, was because they were unable to move our things. Tomorrow that would be taken care of immediately.
“And you, Mang Lucio?”
“I don’t know where I could go.”
We ate canned pork and beans and bread. We slept on the floor, with the lights swathed in black cloth. The house creaked in the night and sent off hollow echoes. We slept uneasily.
I woke up early. It was disquieting to wake up to stillness in that house which rang with children’s voices and laughter the whole day everyday. In the kitchen, there were sounds and smells of cooking.
“Hello,” I said.
It was Maria, frying rice. She turned from the stove and looked at me for a long time. Then, without a word, she turned back to her cooking.
“Are you and your uncle going away?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did he not tell you?”
“We’re moving to Singalong.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, anyway, I’ll come back tonight. Maybe this afternoon. We’ll not have to say goodbye till then.”
She did not say anything. I finished washing and went back to my room. I dressed and went out.
At noon, I went to Singalong to eat. All our things were there already, and the folks were busy putting the house in order. As soon as I finished lunch, I went back to the office. There were few vehicles about. Air-raid alerts were frequent. The brightness of the day seemed glaring. The faces of people were all pale and drawn.
In the evening, I went back down the familiar street. I was stopped many times by air-raid volunteers. The house was dark. I walked back to the street. I stood for a long time before the house. Something did not want me to go away just yet. A light burst in my face. It was a volunteer.
“Do you live here?”
“I used to. Up to yesterday. I’m looking for the janitor.”
“Why, did you leave something behind?”
“Yes, I did. But I think I’ve lost it now.”
“Well, you better get along, son. This place, the whole area. has been ordered evacuated. Nobody lives here anymore.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Nobody.” Ω
This is yet another great story from an early writer that deserves to be read again.