HE first saw her in his brother’s eyes. The palay stalks were taking on gold in the late afternoon sun, were losing their trampled, wind-swept look and stirring into little, almost inaudible whispers.
The rhythm of Fabian’s strokes was smooth and unbroken. So many palay stalks had to be harvested before sundown and there was no time to be lost in idle dallying. But when he stopped to heap up the fallen palay stalks he glanced at his brother as if to fathom the other’s state of mind in that one, side-long glance.
The swing of Vidal’s figure was as graceful as the downward curve of the crescent-shaped scythe. How stubborn, this younger brother of his, how hard-headed, fumed Fabian as he felled stalk after stalk. It is because he knows how very good-looking he is, how he is so much run-after by all the women in town. The obstinate, young fool! With his queer dreams, his strange adorations, his wistfulness for a life not of these fields, not of their quiet, colorless women and the dullness of long nights of unbroken silence and sleep. But he would bend… he must bend… one of these days.
Vidal stopped in his work to wipe off the heavy sweat from his brow. He wondered how his brother could work that fast all day without pausing to rest, without slowing in the rapidity of his strokes. But that was the reason the master would not let him go; he could harvest a field in a morning that would require three men to finish in a day. He had always been afraid of this older brother of his; there was something terrible in the way he determined things, how he always brought them to pass, how he disregarded the soft and the beautiful in his life and sometimes how he crushed, trampled people, things he wanted destroyed. There were flowers, insects, birds of boyhood memories, what Fabian had done to them. There was Tinay… she did not truly like him, but her widowed mother had some lands… he won and married Tinay.
I wonder what can touch him. Vidal thought of miracles, perhaps a vision, a woman… But no… he would overpower them…he was so strong with those arms of steel, those huge arms of his that could throttle a spirited horse into obedience.
“Harvest time is almost ended, Vidal.” (I must be strong also, the other prayed). “Soon the planting season will be on us and we shall have need of many carabaos. Milia’s father has five. You have but to ask her and Milia will accept you any time. Why do you delay…”
He stopped in surprise for his brother had sprung up so suddenly and from the look on his face it was as if a shining glory was smiling shyly, tremulously in that adoring way of his that called forth all the boyishness of his nature—There was the slow crunch, crunch of footsteps on dried soil and Fabian sensed the presence of people behind him. Vidal had taken off his wide, buri hat and was twisting and untwisting it nervously.
“Ah, it is my model! How are you, Vidal?” It was a voice too deep and throaty for a woman but beneath it one could detect a gentle, smooth nuance, soft as silk. It affected Fabian very queerly, he could feel his muscles tensing as he waited for her to speak again. But he did not stop in work nor turn to look at her.
She was talking to Vidal about things he had no idea of. He could not understand why the sound of her voice filled him with this resentment that was increasing with every passing minute. She was so near him that when she gestured, perhaps as she spoke, the silken folds of her dress brushed against him slightly, and her perfume, a very subtle fragrance, was cool and scented in the air about him.
“From now on he must work for me every morning, possibly all day.”
“Very well. Everything as you please.” So it was the master who was with her.
“He is your brother, you say, Vidal? Oh, your elder brother.” The curiosity in her voice must be in her eyes. “He has very splendid arms.”
Then Fabian turned to look at her.
He had never seen anyone like her. She was tall, with a regal unconscious assurance in her figure that she carried so well, and pale as though she had just recovered from a recent illness. She was not exactly very young nor very beautiful. But there was something disquieting and haunting in the unsymmetry of her features, in the queer reflection of the dark blue-blackness of her hair, in her eyes, in that mole just above her nether lips, that tinged her whole face with a strange loveliness. For, yes, she was indeed beautiful. One discovered it after a second, careful glance. Then the whole plan of the brow and lip and eye was revealed; one realized that her pallor was the ivory-white of rice grain just husked, that the sinuous folds of silken lines were but the undertones of the grace that flowed from her as she walked away from you.
The blood rushed hot to his very eyes and ears as he met her grave, searching look that swept him from head to foot. She approached him and examined his hot, moist arms critically.
“How splendid! How splendid!” she kept on murmuring.
Then “Thank you,” and taking and leaning on the arm of the master she walked slowly away.
The two brothers returned to their work but to the very end of the day did not exchange a word. Once Vidal attempted to whistle but gave it up after a few bars. When sundown came they stopped harvesting and started on their way home. They walked with difficulty on the dried rice paddies till they reached the end of the rice fields.
The stiffness, the peace of the twilit landscape was maddening to Fabian. It augmented the spell of that woman that was still over him. It was queer how he kept on thinking about her, on remembering the scent of her perfume, the brush of her dress against him and the look of her eyes on his arms. If he had been in bed he would be tossing painfully, feverishly. Why was her face always before him as though it were always focused somewhere in the distance and he was forever walking up to it?
A large moth with mottled, highly colored wings fluttered blindly against the bough, its long, feathery antennae quivering sensitively in the air. Vidal paused to pick it up, but before he could do so his brother had hit it with the bundle of palay stalks he carried. The moth fell to the ground, a mass of broken wings, of fluttering wing-dust.
After they had walked a distance, Vidal asked, “Why are you that way?”
“What is my way?”
“That—that way of destroying things that are beautiful like moths… like…”
“If the dust from the wings of a moth should get into your eyes, you would be blind.”
“That is not the reason.”
“Things that are beautiful have a way of hurting. I destroy it when I feel a hurt.”
To avoid the painful silence that would surely ensue Vidal talked on whatever subject entered his mind. But gradually, slowly the topics converged into one. He found himself talking about the woman who came to them this afternoon in the fields. She was a relative of the master. A cousin, I think. They call her Miss Francia. But I know she has a lovely, hidden name… like her beauty. She is convalescing from a very serious illness she has had and to pass the time she makes men out of clay, of stone. Sometimes she uses her fingers, sometimes a chisel.
One day Vidal came into the house with a message for the master. She saw him. He was just the model for a figure she was working on; she had asked him to pose for her.
“Brother, her loveliness is one I cannot understand. When one talks to her forever so long in the patio, many dreams, many desires come to me. I am lost… I am glad to be lost.”
It was merciful the darkness was up on the fields. Fabian could not see his brother’s face. But it was cruel that the darkness was heavy and without end except where it reached the little, faint star. For in the deep darkness, he saw her face clearly and understood his brother.
On the batalan of his home, two tall clay jars were full of water. He emptied one on his feet, he cooled his warm face and bathed his arms in the other. The light from the kerosene lamp within came in wisps into the batalan. In the meager light he looked at his arms to discover where their splendor lay. He rubbed them with a large, smooth pebble till they glowed warm and rich brown. Gently he felt his own muscles, the strength, the power beneath. His wife was crooning to the baby inside. He started guiltily and entered the house.
Supper was already set on the table. Tinay would not eat; she could not leave the baby, she said. She was a small, nervous woman still with the lingering prettiness of her youth. She was rocking a baby in a swing made of a blanket tied at both ends to ropes hanging from the ceiling. Trining, his other child, a girl of four, was in a corner playing siklot solemnly all by herself.
Everything seemed a dream, a large spreading dream. This little room with all the people inside, faces, faces in a dream. That woman in the fields, this afternoon, a colored, past dream by now. But the unrest, the fever she had left behind… was still on him. He turned almost savagely on his brother and spoke to break these two grotesque, dream bubbles of his life. “When I was your age, Vidal, I was already married. It is high time you should be settling down. There is Milia.”
“I have no desire to marry her nor anybody else. Just—just—for five carabaos.” There! He had spoken out at last. What a relief it was. But he did not like the way his brother pursed his lips tightly That boded not defeat. Vidal rose, stretching himself luxuriously. On the door of the silid where he slept he paused to watch his little niece. As she threw a pebble into the air he caught it and would not give it up. She pinched, bit, shook his pants furiously while he laughed in great amusement.
“What a very pretty woman Trining is going to be. Look at her skin; white as rice grains just husked; and her nose, what a high bridge. Ah, she is going to be a proud lady… and what deep, dark eyes. Let me see, let me see. Why, you have a little mole on your lips. That means you are very talkative.”
“You will wake up the baby. Vidal! Vidal!” Tinay rocked the child almost despairingly. But the young man would not have stopped his teasing if Fabian had not called Trining to his side.
“Why does she not braid her hair?” he asked his wife.
“Oh, but she is so pretty with her curls free that way about her head.”
“We shall have to trim her head. I will do it before going out to work tomorrow.”
Vidal bit his lips in anger. Sometimes… well, it was not his child anyway. He retired to his room and fell in a deep sleep unbroken till after dawn when the sobs of a child awakened him. Peering between the bamboo slats of the floor he could see dark curls falling from a child’s head to the ground.
He avoided his brother from that morning. For one thing he did not want repetitions of the carabao question with Milia to boot. For another there was the glorious world and new life opened to him by his work in the master’s house. The glamour, the enchantment of hour after hour spent on the shadow-flecked ylang-ylang scented patio where she molded, shaped, reshaped many kinds of men, who all had his face from the clay she worked on.
In the evening after supper he stood by the window and told the tale of that day to a very quiet group. And he brought that look, that was more than a gleam of a voice made weak by strong, deep emotions.
His brother saw and understood. Fury was a high flame in his heart… If that look, that quiver of voice had been a moth, a curl on the dark head of his daughter… Now more than ever he was determined to have Milia in his home as his brother’s wife… that would come to pass. Someday, that look, that quiver would become a moth in his hands, a frail, helpless moth.
When Vidal, one night, broke out the news Fabian knew he had to act at once. Miss Francia would leave within two days; she wanted Vidal to go to the city with her, where she would finish the figures she was working on.
“She will pay me more than I can earn here, and help me get a position there. And shall always be near her. Oh, I am going! I am going!”
“And live the life of a—a servant?”
“What of that? I shall be near her always.”
“Why do you wish to be near her?”
“Why? Why? Oh, my God! Why?”
That sentence rang and resounded and vibrated in Fabian’s ears during the days that followed. He had seen her closely only once and only glimpses thereafter. But the song of loveliness had haunted his life thereafter. If by a magic transfusing he, Fabian, could be Vidal and… and… how one’s thoughts can make one forget of the world. There she was at work on a figure that represented a reaper who had paused to wipe off the heavy sweat from his brow. It was Vidal in stone.
Again—as it ever would be—the disquieting nature of her loveliness was on him so that all his body tensed and flexed as he gathered in at a glance all the marvel of her beauty.
She smiled graciously at him while he made known himself; he did not expect she would remember him.
“Ah, the man with the splendid arms.”
“I am the brother of Vidal.” He had not forgotten to roll up his sleeves.
He did not know how he worded his thoughts, but he succeeded in making her understand that Vidal could not possibly go with her, that he had to stay behind in the fields.
There was an amusement rippling beneath her tones. “To marry the girl whose father has five carabaos. You see, Vidal told me about it.”
He flushed again a painful brick-red; even to his eyes he felt the hot blood flow.
“That is the only reason to cover up something that would not be known. My brother has wronged this girl. There will be a child.”
She said nothing, but the look in her face protested against what she had heard. It said, it was not so.
But she merely answered, “I understand. He shall not go with me.” She called a servant, gave him a twenty-peso bill and some instruction. “Vidal, is he at your house?” The brother on the patio nodded.
Now they were alone again. After this afternoon he would never see her, she would never know. But what had she to know? A pang without a voice, a dream without a plan… how could they be understood in words.
“Your brother should never know you have told me the real reason why he should not go with me. It would hurt him, I know.
“I have to finish this statue before I leave. The arms are still incomplete—would it be too much to ask you to pose for just a little while?”
While she smoothed the clay, patted it and molded the vein, muscle, arm, stole the firmness, the strength, of his arms to give to this lifeless statue, it seemed as if life left him, left his arms that were being copied. She was lost in her work and noticed neither the twilight stealing into the patio nor the silence brooding over them.
Wrapped in that silver-grey dusk of early night and silence she appeared in her true light to the man who watched her every movement. She was one he had glimpsed and crushed all his life, the shining glory in moth and flower and eyes he had never understood because it hurt with its unearthly radiance.
If he could have the whole of her in the cup of his hands, drink of her strange loveliness, forgetful of this unrest he called life, if… but his arms had already found their duplicate in the white clay beyond…
When Fabian returned Vidal was at the batalan brooding over a crumpled twenty-peso bill in his hands. The haggard tired look in his young eyes was as grey as the skies above.
He was speaking to Tinay jokingly. “Soon all your sampaguitas and camias will be gone, my dear sister-in-law because I shall be seeing Milia every night… and her father.” He watched Fabian cleansing his face and arms and later wondered why it took his brother that long to wash his arms, why he was rubbing them as hard as that… Ω
This 1930 story is a perrenial favorite among anthologists.