HE was christened Narciso and his mother called him Sising. But when be took a fancy to his mother’s old rag dolls which she preserved with moth balls for the little girls she had expected to have, his father decided to call him Boy. His father was excessively masculine, from the low broad forehead and the thick bushy brows to the wide cleft chest and the ridged abdomen beneath it; and the impotence of his left leg which rheumatic attacks had rendered almost useless only goaded him to assert his maleness by an extravagant display of superiority.
“We’ll call him Boy. He is my son. A male. The offspring of a male.” Don Endong told his wife in a tone as crowy as a rooster’s after pecking a hen. “A man is fashioned by heredity and environment. I’ve given him enough red for his blood, but a lot of good it will do him with the kind of environment you are giving him. That doll you gave him—”
“I didn’t give him that doll,” Doña Enchay explained hastily. “He happened upon it in my aparador when I was clearing it. He took pity on it and drew it out. He said it looked very unhappy because it was naked and lonely. He asked me to make a dress for it—”
“And you made one. You encouraged him to play with it,” he accused her.
Doña Enchay looked at her husband embarrassedly. “I had many cuttings, and I thought I’d make use of them,” she said brushing an imaginary wisp of hair from her forehead. It was still a smooth forehead, clean swept and unlined. It did not match the tired look of her eyes, nor the droop of her heavy mouth.
Don Endong saw the forehead and the gesture, took in the quiver of the delicate nostrils and the single dimple on her cheek. “You are such a child yourself, Enchay,” he told her. “You still want to play with dolls. That is why, I suppose, you refuse to have your son’s hair cut short. You’ll make a sissy out of him!” His eyes hardened, and a pulse ticked under his right ear. “No, I will not allow it,” he said struggling to his feet with his cane and shouting, “Boy! Boy! Boy!”
His wife leapt forward to assist him, but as he steadied himself on his cane she couldn’t touch him. Even in his infirmity she could not give him support. His eyes held her back, melted her strength away, reminded her she was only a woman—the weaker, the inferior, the dependent. She felt like a flame in the wind that had frantically reached out for something to burn and having found nothing to feed itself on, settled back upon its wick to burn itself out. She watched him struggle to the window.
When he had reached it and laid his cane on the sill, she moved close to him and passed an arm around his waist. “The curls will not harm him, Marido,” she said. “They are so pretty. They make him look like the little boys in the story books. Remember the page boys at the feet of queen? His hair does not make him a girl. He looks too much like you. That wide thin-lipped mouth and that stubborn chin, and that manly chest—why you yourself say he has a pecho de paloma.”
Don Endong’s mouth twitched at one corner, looking down at her, he passed an arm across her back and under an arm. His hand spread out on her body like a crab and taking a handful of her soft flesh kneaded it gently. “All right, mujer,” he said, “but not the doll!” And he raised his voice again. “Boy! Boy! Boy!”
The boy was getting the doll ready for bed in the wigwam of coconut fronds he had built in the yard below. The doll was long, slender, rag-bodied with a glossy head of porcelain. He had pulled off its frilly, ribbon trimmed dress, and was thrusting its head into a white cotton slip of a garment that his mother had made and was a little too tight. His father’s stentorian voice drew his brows together. At whom was his father shouting now? His father was always shouting and fuming. He filled the house with his presence, invalid though he was. How could his mother stand him?
“Boy! Boy! Boy!” came his father’s voice again.
Ripping the cotton piece from the head of the doll where the head was caught, he flung the little garment away, and picking up the doll walked hastily towards the house.
His father and mother met him at the head of the stairs. He looked at his father’s angry face and said without flinching: “Were you calling me, Father? My name is not Boy!”
“It is Boy from now on,” his father told him. “That will help you to remember that you are a boy. A boy, understand?”
His father looked ugly when he was mad, but he was not afraid of him. He never beat him. He only cursed and cursed. “I don’t understand, why?” he asked.
“Because little boys don’t play with dolls,” Don Endong thundered at him, “that’s why!” And snatching the doll from the boy, Don Endong flung it viciously to the floor.
Boy was not prepared for his father’s precipitate move. He was not prepared to save his doll. One moment it was cradled snugly in the crook of his arm. The next it was sprawled on the floor, naked, and broken, an arm twisted limp beneath it, another flung across its face. as if to hide the shame of its disaster. Suddenly it was as if he were the doll. There was a broken feeling within him. The blood crept up his face and pinched his ears. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move. He could only stare and stare until his mother taking him in her arms cradled his head between her breasts.
ONE day in May his mother came home from a meeting of the “Marias” at the parish rectory in a flurry of excitement. Our Lady of Fatima was coming to town. The image from Portugal was making a tour of the Catholic world and was due in town the following week. Doña Enchay had been unanimously elected chairman of the reception committee. ‘‘What shall I do? What shall I do?” she kept saying.
“To be sure, mujer, I don’t know,” Don Endong told her. “Ask the Lady herself. She’ll tell you. maybe.
“Endong! you mustn’t speak that way of Our Lady of Fatima.” she told him in as severe a tone as she dared. “She’s milagrosa. haven’t you heard how she appeared on the limb of a tree before three little children—”
“Oh, yes! Also the countless novenas you have said in my behalf.”
“Ah,. Endong, it is your lack of faith, I’m sure. If you would only believe! If you would at least keep your peace and allow Our Lady to help you in her own quiet way, maybe—” She sighed.
He couldn’t argue with her when she was suppliant. There was something about feminine weakness which he couldn’t fight. He kept his peace.
But not the boy.
It was like the circus coming to town and he had to know all about the strange Lady. He and his mother kept up an incessant jabber about miracles and angels and saints the whole week through. Boy easily caught his mother’s enthusiasm about the great welcome as he tagged along with her on her rounds every day requesting people living along the route the procession was to take from the air port to the cathedral to decorate their houses with some flags, or candles. or paper lanterns… She fondly suggested paper buntings strung on a line across the street. “Arcos” she called them.
“Don’t deceive yourself,” Don Endong told her. “You know they’re more like clothes-lines than anything else. Does the Lady launder?”
“Que Dos te perdone, Endong!” Doña Enchay exclaimed, crossing herself and looking like she was ready to cry.
Boy wondered why his father loved to taunt his mother about her religious enthusiasm. Sometimes he himself could not help but snicker over the jokes his father made. Like when Mr. Wilson’s ice plant siren blew the hour of twelve and the family was having lunch. His mother would bless herself and intone aloud: “Bendita sea la Hora en que Nuestra Señora del Pilar vino en carne mortal a Zaragoza,” and begin a Dios te Salve. His father would ostentatiously bend over the platter of steaming white rice in the center of the table and watch it intently until someone inquired, “What is it?” Then he would reply, “I want to see by how many grains the rice has increased in the platter.” If Boy had not seen his father’s picture as a little boy dressed in white with a large silk ribbon on one arm and a candle twined with tiny white flowers in one hand, he would think maybe, he was a protestante—like that woman his mother and he happened upon one day on their rounds.
The woman had met them on the stairs of her house and said to his mother: “The Lady of Fatima did you say, Ñora? You mean some woman like you and me, or your little girl here,” pointing at him, “with such pretty hair, who can talk, and walk. and laugh. and cry?” His mother retreated fanning herself frantically and flapping the cola of her black saya. “To be sure she can’t, but she stands as the symbol of one who can!” she explained with difficulty as though a fish bone was caught in her throat. He hated the woman for making his mother feel that way, and on the last rung of the steps vindictively spat her error at her: “I am not a girl. I’m a boy! A boy! You don’t know anything!”
When they arrived home he told his mother he wanted his hair cut short. “1 don’t want the Lady of Fatima to mistake me for a girl like the Protestant woman,” he told his mother.
“But Our Lady knows you are a boy. Her Son tells her. Her Son is all knowing.” But Boy threw himself on the floor and started to kick. “I want my hair cut! I want my hair cut!” he screamed and screamed.
THE Lady came on a day that threatened rain. The brows of the hills beyond the rice fields were furious with clouds. The sun cowered out of sight and the Venerable Peter dragged his cart across the heavens continuously drowning all kinds of human utterances—religious, profane, ribald, humorous, sarcastic-from the milling crowd gathered at the air port to see the Lady of Miracles arrive. There were the colegialas in their jumpers and cotton stockings, the Ateneo band and cadets in khaki and white mittens, the Caballeros de Colon with their paunches and their bald heads, the Hijas de Maria with their medals, the Apostolados with their scapulars, the Liga de Mujeres with their beads… there was no panguingue, nor landay, nor poker sessions anywhere in town; nor chapu, nor talang, nor tachi in the coconut groves, for even the bootblacks and the newsboys and the factory boys were there to see the great spectacle. Even Babu Sawang, the Moro woman who fried bananas for the school children. was there, for was not Our Lady of Fatima a Mora like herself, since Fatima was a Moro name?
But when the heavens broke open and rain came tearing down, the people scampered for shelter like chickens on the approach of a hawk. All but a few old women and the priests and the bishop and Doña Enchay and Boy hung on to the Lady on her flowered float intoning hymns and repeating aves.
The bishop laid a hand on Boy’s head and Boy immediately shot up into manhood. His chest filled out, his arms grew thick, and his strides stretched as long as the giant’s of the seven-league boots. He felt a thousand eyes leveled at him, and he gathered those eyes and wore them on his breast as a hero wears his medals in a parade. “You are a brave little boy,” the bishop told him. “Our Lady must be well pleased with you.
Boy took a look at the Lady. She was smiling brightly through tears of happiness. Her eyes spilled water of love, her lips dropped freshets of sweetness. And her checks—they were dew-filled calyxes of kindly care. Suddenly, he was seized with a great thirst. His lips felt cracked and his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. An urgent longing to drink possessed him. He felt he should drink, drink. drink-of the Lady’s eyes, of the Lady’s lips, of the Lady’s cheeks…
AS he grew older his thirst intensified. He felt he should drink also from the cup of her breast, from the hollow of her hands, from the hem of her trailing white gown, from the ends of each strand of her long brown tresses. But when he approached his Lady at various shrines in the town chapel, whether she had a serpent at her feet, a child in her arms, or beads in her hands, his cracking lips climbed no higher than her pink and white toes and his thirst was quenched.
When he was nineteen and graduated from high school, he told his mother he wanted to take Our Lady for a bride. “Que dicha!” his mother said. “To wed the Mother of God. To be a priest and sing her glorias forever. Que dicha!”
But his father said: “A priest? Is that all you will amount to—a sissy, a maricon, a half-man? I’d rather you died. I’d rather I died!”
It was night, and late, when the household was making ready to turn in. The feeble light of a single electric bulb lit the veranda where Boy stood facing his father in his wicker chair; but the yellow light was flat on the boy’s face and Don Endong saw that it was a dead mask except for the eyes which held a pointed brilliance. The boy’s voice was as taut as the string of an instrument that is about to snap. “The priesthood is the noblest profession on earth. Father,” he said. “It is the most manly, too. One who is master of himself, who can leash the lust of his loins to the eye of the spirit. is indeed the man! A man is not measured by the length of his limbs and the breadth of his chest or the depth of his voice, but by the strength of his mind, the depth of his courage, the firmness of his will!”
“God gave you the body of a male to do the functions of a male—not to hide under a skirt!” Don Endong goaded him.
Boy gripped the back of a chair until the knuckles turned white. Sweat broke out on his forehead and a trembling seized his frame.
“Strike! Strike your father! Raise your hand against the man who was man enough to give you the figure of a man!”
“Boy! Boy!” His mother’s voice pierced through his clouding mind, unnerving him, leaving him strengthless. Suddenly, he couldn’t look his father in the face. His mother’s wail followed him as he fled into the night.
ON the little deserted and unlighted dock where the wind was carefree and all was still except for the muffled cry of a hadji in the distant Moro village and the mournful beat of an agong, Boy faced the night and the sea He flung his eyes to the stars above and gave his body up to the wind to soothe…
Fingers touched him lightly on the shoulder, a little nervously, like birds about to take flight at the least sign of danger. Fingers dipped into his sensitive flesh, and melted into the still pounding rivers of his blood. A strong. sweetly pungent scent invaded his nostrils, and his heart picked tip the beat of the distant agong.
“What do you want with me?” he asked the woman without turning around. He had not sensed her coming. She could have sprung like Venus from the foam of the sea—but there she was, and her perfume betrayed her calling.
Her hand dropped from his shoulder to the bulge of his biceps. “You are a large man. You are very strong. And you are lonely,” she said.
Her voice was cool as water from a jar and soft as cotton. And it had a sad tingle. He checked a rough rebuke. Who was he to condemn her for what she was? Had not Christ said to the men outside the city walls who were about to stone the adulterous woman, ‘‘Let him among you that is without sin cast the first stone”?’
He looked up into her face. Stars were beating in her eyes. And on her wet lips were slumbering many more. Her arms were long and white and slender like fragrant azucenas unfolding in the night…
“Yes, I am strong, and I’m lonely,” he said. “And I’m a man. A big man,” he added almost angrily, “am I not?”
“Oh, but of course,” she said. “I can see that. and I can feel that!”
And fragrant azucenas folded about him in the night.
HE opened his eyes in total darkness. He couldn’t see his hand before him, but the air was thick around him, and he had a feeling he was trapped in a narrow place. He flung an arm out and the body of a woman slithered under his arm. She turned toward him and her breath pushed into his face. He raised himself on his elbow for air. The woman stretched herself awake, and slowly a long clammy coil like the sinuous body of the serpent at the feet of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in her shrine in the town church began to close around his neck. His flesh crawled. With a quick movement he caught the coil in a strong grip, twisting it.
The hoarse cry of a woman lashed out and cracked the stillness of the night. A mouth found his shoulder and sharp vicious teeth sank into his flesh. The stinging pain sent a shiver through the length of his long frame. but he hung on to the squirming limb, squeezing and twisting it… until the clamor of angry voices, and a splintering crash, and a sudden flood of light burst upon him…
Lying at his feet before him was a woman, naked and broken. But a short while before, under the sheet of night, she was cradled in his arms, receiving the reverence of his kisses. Now, under the eye of light, she was but a limp mass of woman flesh, sprawled grotesquely on the floor, an upper limb twisted behind her another flung across her face as if to hide the shame of her disaster.
Two men grabbed him and dragged him out into the street. Angry cries and curses followed him. But as he felt the clean air of morning sweep against his face, his chest filled out, his arms grew thick, and his sturdy legs stretched long like the giant’s of the seven-league boots. Ω
Another great story from the past that is under-appreciated today.