Interlude: The Maiden 02

Maria Clara wanted to cry. Fear and grief and humiliation threatened to burst her heart, yet even so to her great surprise still her eyes refused to dampen. There was a blockage, somewhere within her, and as her emotions continued to surge unexpressed she feared she would die. Her vision misted, but in dizziness. She felt light-headed, and short of breath.

Even as she fell shaking into her Aunt Isabel’s arms, she could not cry, only painfully heave and hiccup. Perhaps if she were more like her friend Sinang, she would be able to weep unashamedly, and soon enough find relief.

The world closed in on Maria Clara. Thump, thump, her heartbeat thundered in her head, and she did not know why, but a part of her wondered; ah, if Crisostomo could see her now, he would find her too weak and pitiful. And that fed only her humiliation even further. Again and again she whispered “I’m sorry.”

Ibarra would have recognized that she was having a panic attack, and that would drive him into a panic, and guilt and make things worse trying to correct it, so it was probably just as well at this time he was off to throw himself into the lake.

Tiya Isabel stroked at the poor girls hair and crooned it would be all right.

That Ibarra was a dog, a scoundrel, and surely he shall be punished for what liberties he had taken. Who did he think he was? Capitan Tiago was more powerful still! Such villainy shall surely be punished, in this world and in the next.

“No, no! It was my fault, it was I that drove him away! Don Crisostomo had ever been a gentleman…” She recalled the glittering eagerness in his eyes, his naked longing, his smile open in boyish delight, and it warmed her. She had fallen in love with her memories of their times together, and the vision she had built up in her mind, but if one could fall in love all over again, then she had done so. She had expected a gentleman – not this ambition, this intensity.

She could burn.

There were two idealized stereotypes for women in those times. The first being prim, delicate flower – easily moved by emotion, possessed of charm and sensibility, but to swoon at horrid sights and uncouth behavior. She is the lady, the little princess, to be protected from the evils of the world.

The other was to possess an inexhaustible strength of a sort, against which not all the world can contend. She suffers in silences, smiles when her loved ones approach, and as long as they are happy, she is happy. She has made a virtue of suffering and seeks not to move from her place in the world – like Sisa, as we have seen. A stone mother, who bears the home on her shoulders.

Crisostomo Ibarra needed neither, she could see that. Maria Clara had spent most of her life hoping and waiting for marriage – ideally to Crisostomo, but more likely to whomever her father had chosen.

Maria Clara was left distraught, apologetic, and now wanted to call him back. But Ibarra had already left, and Capitan Tiago had this to say:

“Don Crisostomo said to me, that the fault is his alone. Causing you any distress is inexcusable. He will wait for at your convenience for however long you wish. He will not move, for you are the guiding light in his life, and all that you ask are his to give.” Capitan Tiago nodded approvingly. “You are my daughter after all. Do not make it too easy for him. Make him work to prove himself – unlike the rabble we are not so easily impressed by money.”

Aunt Isabel frowned at his lack of delicacy but gave no voice of complaint.

“I need… I need to go…” Maria Clara gasped. “I must go pray.”

“Good!” the old woman said. “Say a full rosary. Good child, the Blessed Virgin will guide you!”

-x-​

Maria Clara prayed not just one rosary, but several – but each bead and each Ave Maria gave her no comfort. The world still closed in on her, but at some point it stopped, and left everything in breathless shadows.

-x-​

Maria Clara blinked. The wind was cool and fragrant, sunlight flickered through the shade of tall trees, and birds sang merrily all around her. She was standing in front of an old weather-beaten hut. It stood on irregular bamboo stakes, and lacked a door.

The ground beneath her feet was at an incline, and she realized she was somewhere most of the way up a mountain. She turned around to see, past a small bough of trees, the lake of Laguna de Bay glittering like field of daggers. She could clearly see all three of its prongs, like a dragon clawed out a portion of the earth.

Maria Clara squinted and held up her hands over her eyes, stinging at the shattered reflections of the noonday sun upon the waters. She turned around again. The sounds of the forest had grown muted. She was possessed by a strong urge to enter that dark, open hut in the deserted slopes of Mount Makiling.

Barren.

It was the only word Maria Clara could use to describe what she found inside. Not empty, for through the murky gloom she could discern shapes that might be the comportments of a home – a small chest for one’s meager belongings; there, a standing tube that might be a sleeping mat; some vague roundish things that might be clay jars. There were no tables or tableware, for a peasant’s home rarely had one; they would eat on the floor, often not even with dishes but a mat of banana leaves, and squeezing rice and broiled fish in between their fingers. But Maria Clara could feel no such humility there.

The insides seemed livable, but in some way also lifeless.

Not unused, not abandoned, but barren. Barren in the way of a womb that cannot carry a child. Maria Clara’s hands went over her own. It was only then that fear began to stir. Though dark and in the middle of a cool forest, the insides of the hut felt unreasonably warm.

Then what little light that could enter the room dimmed. Maria Clara turned about, and found that her exit was blocked by the silhouette of a woman.

“Oh oh ohhh oh oh ho! A visitor, a visitor!” she sang out. “How very unexpected, in this day, in these days!”

Her voice had a particularly bright quality, like a mirror glinting straight into your eyeballs under the noonday sun. Or perhaps a school of silvery fish, darting to and fro in unison, whimsical and also full of predatory nature.

“P-pardon my intrusion, please,” Maria Clara said shakily, now for the first time dread touched her being. “I was just… I was just… I have no excuse. I should leave.”

The woman laughed gaily and stepped inside. The shadows pulled away from her feet. “Do not mind it, senorita, for this little dwelling is not mine. My friend had only asked me to mind it now and then, while she is away. Far away, far away, a strange woman in a strange land.”

She reached for some hidden window, and opened it, and with new light the room was cast into placid banality. What had been corners unfanthomably deep became bamboo corner posts. The breeze that entered was devoid the leafy scents of the forest.

The woman’s features were quintessentially that of a native, but in a way Maria Clara could not define. She was pretty, but in a general sort of way, and it hurt Maria Clara’s head to try and remember features should she see that face again later. She brimmed with youth, but somehow in a way that left Maria Clara feeling that this woman was a fair bit older than her. She was just that naturally blithe.

An overwhelming impression of … blue-greeness? That was her strongest sense about the woman. The woman’s clothes were likewise unremarkable. Where she moved, the place seemed a little bit brighter, more open than before.

There was a door now, leading into a small porch at the back of the house.

The woman pointed to the middle of the room. “Sit, sit. I shall make you some tea.”

“I would not wish to intrude,” Maria Clara demurred gently, yet insistently. “I should go.”

“It has been too long since there were guests in this mountain. Please sit, oh please sit. I shall make you some tea.” As she drifted on by her voice trailed off “… it can’t be that hard, surely not, surely not, to make boiled leaf juice…?”

There was no place to sit but on the floor. Gingerly Maria Clara folded her skirt and obeyed. A fire was set outside, and a clay pot set to boil. Water came from a cunningly-assembled little aqueduct of split bamboo taking fresh clean water from a mountain spring.

“Who are you, young miss?” the woman asked from outside. She found a small box of tea leaves and crudely just threw them into the pot.

“My name is Maria Clara, madam.”

“Ahaha, ahaha! I know you, I know you!”

“You do?”

“Of course I do, yes I do! I saw you by the lake, once before. They know you there, down in town. You don’t live here, so you love the lake all the more.”

Maria Clara nodded. San Diego was her family’s summer home. In many ways, she loved this place best; here was her best memories of freedom and childhood.

“Aba baba ba ba ba, I am ang babae sa baba” the woman from below “I don’t belong up in this mountain at all. So you may call me may call me… Baba Ye? Bayi? Yes, that will do. Call me Auntie Bayi.”

“If you’re sure? It is a pleasure to meet you, I think.” Maria Claria tried out the words through her lips. “Tiya Bayi?”

Bayi returned, laid out mats, and then a steaming clay pot of tea. With the lid on, she poured tea into two cut bamboo cups. She then dumped generously into each wild honey from another jar, stirred with a bamboo stick. She then placed one cup before Maria Clara. “Please,” she gestured.

Maria Clara drank, and tried to keep a grimace from her face. The water was still too hot. It was still too bitter, with the cloying aftertaste of honey overwhelming what natural flavors from the steeping. Not good tea at all.

“Good?” Bayi asked eagerly.

Maria Clara could only nod mutely.

“Now tell me about your love problems.”

“Um, what? Pardon?”

“A young lady such as you, in a place as this? How far you’ve come, how far you’ve gone! You are no woodsman off to rest after a hunt, so of course, you are here for advice.” Here Bayi sighed wistfully. “A man who lives so far apart, they call him wise, they call him a hermit. Ermitanyo sa bundok, wag kang mabubulok” Hermit on the mount, don’t so spoiled. “But a woman who knows her lore, who lives her woods, they’d call her a witch instead. Hmm hmm hmm hm hm hm,” she whispered under her breath “does she sink, does she drown?”

“Um… I really don’t recall… I should not be here.” Maria Clara glanced aside. Love advice? No, you go to a witch in the woods for an abortifacent! “I should go.”

“Sit. Sit and sip and sit and breath. Oh oh oh ho ho. Put your burden down.”

Bayi smiled benignly at her. Maria Clara wished for a fan she could use to hide her face, but there was nothing around. Only the bamboo cup, but then putting it close to her face meant she was obliged to drink from it. She sighed in surrender.

And so Maria Clara slowly began to speak of her regrets. Of Crisostomo’s plans for the future, and how deeply she felt ashamed for shying away. How she feared he could find someone better, some woman braver, as his bride. When she thought of their life together, she had only envisioned herself commanding her own little troop of servants, managing a store and the household finances. She would be parsimonious with expenses, so that her husband would always have loose money to spend for his own leisure. In return, she would be given her own jewelry and dresses and children to adore.

“Oh, the things in that boy’s head!” Bayi giggled. “Are you sure you have not simply been turned off by his hubris? Are you sure, are you sure, that that you chose to stand firm before his pressure?

Oh child, oh my child, I’ve seen so many eager young men come and go in the world. I’ve seen them roam, I’ve seen them die! It is very easy to speak big when you are young – if you die, you become a hero. If you live, you grow fat, you grow old, you grow callous, you go cold! Ever has it been in these lands, ever it will be, from mountain to the sea.”

“How… do you know of Don Crisostomo?”

“Oh, Maria Clara, why do you even need to ask? The moment that boy arrived, he has been showing off. A stone dropped into a pond ripples outwards. Silly boy, oh silly boy. Your suitor is like a rock, dense and big-headed, throwing himself face-first into the waters. ” Bayi tilted her head as if listening to something in the distance. “Repeatedly.”

She sipped at her tea. “More than anything, I think, a young man such as that needs, how he begs, how he aches; someone sensible to anchor him to reality.”

Maria Clara looked away. She recalled Crisostomo’s plaintive cry ‘No one will ever need you as much as I do.’

“I am still afraid…” she whispered. “I am afraid he will not be satisfied with me.” She had already resigned herself to the idea that, as long as her husband is discreet, his affairs will not be criticized. Having a querida was in those times even something of a status symbol among the rich men. It spoke well of their virility and ability to support more than one household. “But this is wrong… I am blaming him for sins he has yet to make! The fault is mine, and mine alone…”

“Tch’ah. Oh silly girl, oh silly girl; you are too kind-hearted. You can wrap him around your little finger, but you do not relish what power you do have, yes you have it, you do. Don’t believe he’s Mister Suave.” Bayi put down her cup. “Neither of you dare to be fools in love, fools in love. A marriage of souls, is not a contract, not a family pact! I blame the sisters at the convento for this. You have all reduced womanhood into sacrifice.

You don’t know how to be coquettish, how to be sly; you don’t know how to inspire your man to greater heights! Unlike the one who lived this house, I love ambitious people, Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese, British, I love them all to bits! A mountain of faith sits there and suffers, but a wise woman moves and wins!”

Maria Clara sat there half-kneeling with her hands on her knees. She was the very picture of chaste, beauteous docility. With her head downcast, she did not see Bayi curl her lips up instead at this pitiful sight.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

It seemed as if an eternity, and then soft as a kitten’s mewl, inside that hut was heard “… yes, please.”

She did not see Bayi positively hiss in delight.

-x-​

 

The next day, Capitan Tiago had to turn away many petty visitors. Nothing travels as fast as gossip, and when Maria Clara had sent away Crisostomo Ibarra in the mid-afternoon by evening the whole town knew that she had rejected his suit. Ibarra did not find many allies, much to her own dismay. He was rich, and he was generous, and yet everyone thought the worst of him. Perhaps, because he did seem like such a promising groom, it would take a great fault for Maria Clara to spurn him so.

Sinang (Constancia Del Rosario), Capitan Basilio’s daughter arrived to commiserate with her friend and report to her vital news about town. Apparently, Don Crisostomo has decided to make a nuisance of himself in lieu of trying to appear before her too soon to beg forgiveness.

It was the custom in those times that a courtship may be made through intermediaries, that other family members and friends may visit and speak well of the suitor to his intended. A Spanish insular from Cavite was speaking to Maria Clara about the virtues of his young cousin.

Sinang apologized for interrupting and reported “Don Crisostomo has set fire to another house!”

What? “I… was not aware he even had set fire to a house in the first place,” Maria Clara retorted.

The visitor seemed to have come to a sudden realization and hurriedly excused himself to leave.

Sinang reported:

  • Don Crisostomo had barged into the classroom and seized the teacher.
  • Don Crisostomo had forced his way into the gobernardocillo’s house and seized the old man.
  • Don Crisostomo had invaded the Guardia Civil barracks.

Maria Clara stared at her friend, doubting both her sanity and the veracity of her reporting.

Now Padre Salvi arrived, huffing and highly irate. Don Crisostomo had attempted to seize him on the way to Capitan Tiago’s house. Padre Salvi refused to even open a conversation, so Don Crisostomo pointed at him angrily and shouted “No freebies for you, then!”

Maria Clara had to attend to the priest’s visit, for he was a visitor Capitan Tiago cannot turn away for any reason. Gaunt and exuding an aura of hunger, he pressed her if she had ever heard anything of correspondence between Padre Damaso and her mother. Stiffly, she replied that she had no knowledge of any such things.

In the end, what uncomfortable conversation passed between them was his counsel for her to beware of immoral and arrogant young men who will lead her astray. She was wise to spurn his advances, she should look for a virtous person as a husband. After all, what does it gain a man to have all the world if he would lose his own soul?

Do not be tempted; she was told; sweet words and gifts were nothing compared to an eternity in Hell. The greatest wisdom was being true to the commandments, and to live a modest and sanctified life. Those who reach too greedily will surely find themselves paying the wages of their sin, in time.

Padre Salvi left her feeling more distressed than ever.

Don Crisostomo had not visited nor even sent anyone to plead in his stead. And she wondered, ‘Is this the face of his own rejection?’ He could not stop moving, he had put her aside because she could not keep up, exactly as she had feared. Exactly as she had arranged.

Maria Clara could only sit by the window, still as a statue; on the outside, calm and brave and inside a whirpool of regret and self-loathing. As much as she might want to call out to take it back, she was still Capitan Tiago’s daughter. No, of course not, she could not be so weak as to surrender so easily; it was the man’s job to prove himself equal to the expectations of the bride’s family. A woman must be pursued, she is the prize to be won, never to be the first to express her desires.

Of course she could not be so wanton a woman.

It was better that two ships pass each other by in the night, never to meet again, than to disrespect the boundaries of their station.

-x-​

“He is a rock. More than that, he is a man. They will miss all subtlety,”  was the whisper in the night. “Oh, oh, oh, You do not understand. You have his interest, you have his faith

This romance is so easy is it almost unfair. But it will not be so very easy for you, no, no, no.

The only one who can save these so many many lives is you!”

-x-​

Early the next morning found Maria Clara being visited by two young boys. They stood stiffly before her and saluted. Maria Clara heard a minute ‘crack’ from their worn yet laboriously starched and ironed shirts; the fruit of Sisa’s frantic labor, that they should look presentable.

“I am Basilio,” said the older, in a clear and spirited voice. “I am ten years old.”

“I am Crispin,” said the younger, in a much more wavering tone. “I am seven years old.”

“Pleased to meet you, I am Maria Clara. I suppose I have been expecting to meet you two. Don Crisostomo has spoken to me of you.”

So these were the two boys she was supposed to put under her protection? They did not look anything special. Their faces were round and flat, their skins a muted brown.

What set them apart from any other urchin on the streets were the bright blue vests that they wore. The indigo trade, Maria Clara remembered, that was how the Ibarra family distinguished themselves.

Most of the fields around San Diego that were clad in those pink and violent flowers were owned by Ibarra, and as a child she had found it so amazing that fields could be set to grow only flowers instead of her father’s own vast haciendas of rice. Even at the time few knew (or cared to know) that the brilliant insoluble blue of indigo were actually processed from its leaves, or that as legumes indigo plants were excellent for crop rotation.

What Maria Clara remembered was the focused light in Crisostomo’s eyes, peeling open everything in his sight to expose valuable secrets. These two children, there had to be a deeper reason for Crisostomo to go so far; in declaring his support for them so obvious, he also exposed them to danger from his own enemies.

The children wore rattan slippers while all other peasant children and even most adults went barefoot. They also carried a small pouch bag, and the strap went across their chests.

Maria Clara frowned slightly. “These… these are uniforms,” as she pointed to their garb. It reminded her faintly of the Guardia Civil. “Is Crisostomo putting you to work already?”

They nodded proudly. Maria Clara was left bewildered. What was the point then, in asking for her to protect them, if he was going to place them under his aegis anyway? What did Crisostomo really intend?

In this era, children had little time to enjoy their childhood, they were always ordered about by their parents and elder siblings; happy is the family where the children could contribute to its earnings. Perhaps this was why so many, upon reaching adulthood, gave in to indolence – for only now they could move (or not to move) according to their own will. Even Maria Clara had to compromise; in putting them under her protection, of course they had to be useful to her father’s household.

Basilio brought out a square pieces of paper, about five inches to the side. Crispin tugged at his sleeves apprehensively.

“Brother, do not do the thing.”

“Crispin, I am doing the thing. It would be a waste of the practice we had with Don Crisostomo.”

“Don Anastasio said you do not have to do the thing…” The young boy looked lost on whom to obey more. Old Tasio’s age and wisdom, or Don Crisostomo’s wealth and power? But even young Crispin could recognize this was more of Don Crisostomo’s foolishness.

Basilio shook his head again. “Don Anastasio cannot countermand Don Crisostomo about this. Only Senorita Maria Clara can.”

Maria Clara blinked. “Um. What is this thing…? You do not have to… do the thing? If you do not want to.”

“I want to do the thing,” Basilio firmly replied. Crispin put his face in his palms again. Maria Clara hesitantly bid him to continue.

Basilio carefully evened out his expression. He squinted, and set his lips into a tight, humorless line. He arrogantly jutted out his chin. It was the most serious of serious faces.

Maria Clara suppressed an unladylike snort and put her own palm over her own face. A little giggle escaped her lips. “Oh, Dios mio,” she gasped. That was an eerily accurate Crisostomo Ibarra impression. “Crisostomo, what are you making these children do?”

In his bright normal voice, Basilio said “Don Crisostomo has no face he can show you, Senorita. He does not wish to give you any distress.” Then in a lower tone of voice “Maria Clara! By the hands of the innocent, you will have the truths that you seek!”

Basilio swept his hand up. “Don Crisostomo will not force anything upon you, not even his ideals! He will take away from himself even the ability to preach.”

Basilio held out a piece of paper. “A quip. A droll observation. A spur of the moment response. In these little things, we may have a conversation.”

Basilio pressed the paper to his forehead. “People who communicate this way may be called Quippers.”

Maria Clara blinked. She blinked again. “What.”

-x-

“What.”

-x-

Among Don Crisostomo’s whirlwind of activities yesterday, he had also ordered that a billboard be set up at the town center. Four lock-boxes with a mail-slot were nailed to the board. The boys had identical keys to one of the lock-boxes.

One of them would stay with Don Crisostomo, the other with Maria Clara. In this manner, each only had to walk halfway to pass messages. On the hour, every hour, every day.

Maria Clara rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “Crisostomo… is this not but a telegram?”

She was met with uncomprehending stares. Oh, of course. She was speaking to peasant children. To their pitiful knowledge of the world: What even is a telegram? Crisostomo, why. Why this?

Maria Clara took a deep breath and held it. Wait. Surely… she is expected to respond as well? Every hour, on the hour, she must write back so as not to waste these children’s efforts.

Or, perhaps, she might just go and tell Crisostomo to stuff this nonsense? These children should own their own time. “Should you not be in school instead?” she asked them.

Basilio shook his head. “We are already learning from Don Anastasio. This is easy work for us. For most of an hour, all we have to do is to wait around.”

“Why can’t someone else just carry these messages?” Maria Clara suggested the obvious. “We do not lack for any other servants.”

“This much I understand. Don Crisostomo said: symbolism. We do not know Spanish, not yet, and we do not care for the contents of your messages. We owe too much to Don Crisostomo, anyone who wants to read your exchanges will have to seize it from our fingers.”

“I see.” And thus only someone willing to become an enemy of both Capitan Tiago and Crisostomo Ibarra. No, worse than that – she had already asked Padre Damaso to protect the boys as if her own body. As much as being around Padre Salvi made her uncomfortable, he had released the children from his service – he was not allowed to harm them. Crisostomo had somehow made himself an enemy of the priest, but he was plying the garrison commander with gifts. So not even the Guardia Civil should meddle with the boys.

Crisostomo, how?! Was this your intent all along?

Maria Clara only felt more discouraged. She would like to know more about Crisostomo’s thoughts, but her own life was far less interesting in return. What did she have to say? On the hour, every hour, it would only worry her so.

“Thoughts, feelings, whims, questions, anything,” Basilio suggested. “These are all quips. Would you like to see Don Crisostomo’s first message now?”

Maria Clara sighed and nodded.

Basilio handed over another square piece of paper.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA 

Please do not be too angry at me, @MARIACLARA.

Maria Clara held up the paper to her eyes. “What? What even is this…” @? And IBARRA? Why did he combine her first names?

Basilio continued “Quips may be anything, but they also have rules.”

At being handed a blank square, she hesitated.

She wrote back:

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

I am not angry at you, Crisostomo.

That was it? Then she would have to wait an hour for a reply. That felt very… insufficient.

“You sound like you have something to say,” Basilio said again. “Why not just say it?”

‘Like what?’ she restrained herself from spitting out, ‘What can I say that is worth hearing about? My life is not that exciting, my wishes are small, my hopes are meager. I ask only not to be humiliated.’

Basilio continued staring intently up at her. She looked away, discomfited.

“Don Crisostomo has another message for you,” Crispin offered.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA 

My breakfast was fried rice and one fried egg and dried squid. 
I think I am developing a taste for danggit.

 

Maria Clara squinted at the paper.

She sighed and told the boys “I truly do not want to make you walk for only trifling conversation.”

Basilio shrugged. “Don Crisostomo will make it all silly talk anyway. Why not just ask him what he is doing? I think, that is why he decided on this new… silliness… of his.”

Maria Clara pursed her lips and nodded. She wrote out her ‘quip’ and handed it to Basilio. The boy nodded and left. Maria Clara was left puzzled what to do with Crispin, who remained. The boy fidgeted under her gaze, and then after a while hesitantly took out a workbook from his bag.

“Don Anastasio said every time I sit, I should be learning something.”

Maria Clara asked to look through the workbook, and Crispin handed it over. It consisted of several tests in mathematics and history. She smiled. “Would… you like me to help you with this?”

“… please?” the boy replied in a small fearful voice.

Time passed. Aunt Isabel passed by and frowned disapprovingly at the little boy sitting at the bench, kicking his legs idly in the air as he tried to figure out the math problems. “You must be careful,” she whispered to Maria Clara as she moved theough the sala. “This boy is the son of a thief, he should not be left alone anywhere in the house.”

Maria Clara stared at the boy contemplatively, and at the hourglass by his side.

Soon enough, the sands ran out and he had to go. He refused to ride along in the made-up excuse for the servants to go fetch something from town. It was only a short walk away, he would lose at most fifteen minutes out of every hour.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

We are building a new water tower and digging ditches. 

I AM HYGIENE!

 

Maria Clara held up the note to her eyes. The first part was written in Spanish, the last part was written in English. She did not speak English, but had a strong feeling that was not grammatically correct.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Where are you building? What about sanitation?
Are you trying to have running water like in Manila?

 

Some time later Crispin returned, slightly out of breath. Maria Clara chided him slightly, there was no need to hurry. Next time surely he should just ride with the servants’ horse cart. This was approaching cruelty to children, Crisostomo!

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Indoor plumbing, yes. Water goes in. Waste goes out.
Fortuitously my home is near the river.
I am helping dig the channel to the river
.​

 

 

Maria Clara tried to imagine what that would look like. She replied:

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

An admirable goal, Crisostomo. But are you really
performing manual labor? 

Do you not have anything more important to do?
 
 

She agonized that it might sound too disparaging of his efforts, but if Crisosomo could not handle her raw thoughts, then why should she expect his inner truths in turn?

He replied:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Physical labor is nothing to be ashamed of, hard
work builds muscles and tempers the heart. 

It takes effort to look good for my sweet.

Once more Maria Clara held the note up to her eyes, as if it might suddenly erase and replace itself with something more comprehensible.

That note was snatched out of her hands, because it was at this time nine o’clock and her friend Constancia had come to visit. She tittered. “Ooooooooo! This? This is what you two have been saying to each other? How bold! How amazing, Maria Clara! I did not expect you to be this daring…!”

“I- I… I did not! Ah!” Maria Clara snatched up the paper and made as if to crumple it. She exhaled and then her gaze found Crispin. “Did you know what is this note? Crisostomo… to make children carry such…” she trailed off, unable to say something that might ruin any innocence.

“Do not worry. We do not understand Castila,” the boy replied.

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo! What words are you making children carry!
What are you trying to say? 

 

Sinang pouted at this choice of response. Then, she brightened up. She excused herself, and Maria Clara saw through it instantly. “Do not dare!” she screeched.

An hour later found the de Los Santos sala filled with giggling young women. Aunt Isabel scowled some more, for they might decide to stay for lunch. At least this gave reason for more trips to town, for which Basilio was ordered to hitch a ride.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

I should wear trajes de luces when it is time
to serenade you.

 

“Why would anyone be wearing a bullfighter’s clothes when making harana?”, referring to the serenade, one of the young unmarried women of San Diego asked.

“Is he likening their courtship to the bullring? It is not the man’s place to weave and tempt, it should be the maiden who is the one whose mere gesture with a handkerchief drives men mad.”

“It is simpler than that, I think,” Constancia replied. “Tight. Pants.”

“Ooooh.”

“So tight it would like wearing nothing at all.”

Maria Clara had her face in her palms. She asked not to be humiliated, but this…

Constancia false-echoed “Nothing at all.”

Maria Clara grit her teeth. ‘Why is this my life now?’

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisosostomo, stop.
Lewd! You are being too lewd, Crisostomo!

What sort of woman do you think I am that
you would say this?

 

And the reply:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Madam, I AM trying to seduce you.

 

The house erupted in high-pitched excited squealing. Crispin had to put his palms over his ears.

But there were two posts. Even without understanding the contents he cringed as he handed it over.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

The sort of woman you are
is the woman I wish to be my wife.
I will have no other.

 

So loud were the young women screaming that Aunt Isabel stomped out to scold them all. “What is this about? Be silent! Young women these days, you have no respect! Do not bother Don Santiago with your noise!”

Constancia nodded eagerly, mumbling her apologies. The other young women of San Diego similarly made contrite pleas. The old woman frowned, wondering if she should stay to watch over the behavior of the visitors, but Maria Clara swore to maintain the peace of the household.

After Aunt Isabel left, Constancia went ‘bleh!’ and spat out the message containing the damning words ‘I am trying to seduce you’. The others congratulated her on her quick thinking. Maria Clara was just as relieved, and not a little disgusted.

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, watch your words.
I am not longer reading these in privacy

Ah, how many women must you have known
in Europe, to be so wise in these ways.

And the response:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

You would be surprised.
Not all grandmothers are prudish prunes.
One piece of advice given to me –
Is that all brides deserve an exciting courtship.

‘I should make sure Aunt Isabel does not see this’ was Maria Clara’s immediate thought. “Sinang, open your mouth.” She had not yet forgiven her friend.

“How cruel, Maria Clara!” she exclaimed dramatically. Then she folded the paper and inserted it into her mouth as if accepting the wafer of holy communion. She chewed. Smugly.

Maria Clara took a deep breath. “So be it. Since you are all here anyway… what should I write next?”

The sala rang again with suggestions and arguments, and Maria Clara had to shush them. Crispin waited near the stairs, far enough away from their conversation. Maria Clara chose to write in a scolding fashion:

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, even an exciting courtship
should not be an improper one.

I will not elope
Nor forgive taking any advantage.

 

Crispin left with the message, but barely fifteen minutes had passed before he returned. First, he handed over the response to her message.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

My only desire is to make you
the happiest woman on Earth

 

Maria Clara flushed. It is too soon to propose Crisostomo! while the other young women there could only tut-tut in scandalized glee. Then Crispin handed over another paper square.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

For some mysterious reason
the young men of the town have come
to make a nuisance of themselves in my house.

They have insisted on lending the boys
the use of their carriages.

And one more:

It is nearly noon.
If you will permit, we shall resume
at one in the afternoon,
and every half an hour then?

“Ohhh! Oooohh!” the young women cried, some of them excitedly waving their hands with fingers splayed out in gigglish frenzy. Scandalous indeed! Not just anonymous love letters, but winsome notes that will be read by others. Cupid fires blindly, does the arrow know it strikes true?

-x-

Most of the young women of San Diego left to dine at their own homes, for they did not have the status to be invited to dine with Capitan Tiago’s family. Of course, the offer was raised in the name of hospitality, as was the custom, and even more insistently when they demurred. Only someone so shameless as to cop a free meal would only accept, and it would shame their family slightly to imply they they could not feed their daughters.

Only Constancia remained. She looked properly deferential and did not speak other than to offer thanks. Maria Clara had by this point forgiven her, for it was Sinang’s way to be flighty and easily fascinated in all the ways she herself sought the comforts of courtesy and social rituals.

“How goes your correspondence with Don Crisostomo?” Capitan Tiago asked.

Maria Clara stiffened. Was he angry? Was he giving her the rope to hang herself? A quick glance showed Aunt Isabel looking vaguely displeased, quite possibly still annoyed that a gaggle of young women were flocking about her sala. That he did not seem to mind seemed to prove he expected this to happen.

Maria Clara could only reply “It is going… well, father.” That was vague enough as to be absolutely useless, she figured.

-x-

The ladies returned half an hour after twelve, and Crispin returned a little after one-o-clock. It was a coincidence that they all arrived in time as few in the Philippines owned a timepiece and even fewer that respected it.

A @MATANGLAWIN compared Maya to flowers in summer, and @KABISIG spoke to a certain @PARUPARO about the whispers of longing above the golden fields. The young women preened, and hid their faces as they received more verses.

Don Crisostomo sent Maria Clara a quip about what lunch he had.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, have you no poetry in your soul? ​

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Maria Clara, I have all the poetry


What sweet truths I wish to speak
are best whispered into your ears.

 

Maria Clara blushed. He was still doing that! With his … insinuations! Unforgivable!

But… if she could understand what he implied…? Did that not mean she too had a sinful mind? Maria Clara silently begged the Virgin Mary for forgiveness.

A few more exchanges, and then-

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

I have borrowed four young maidens from the town.​

 

What.

“How shameless!”

“Make him explain himself, Maria Clara! Not in half-an-hour, but immediately!”

“He is taunting you. Punish him.”

Maria Clara shook her head. Don Crisostomo was obviously trying to provoke a reaction. This was likely much more boring than it first appeared. Do not be coy, Crisostomo! That is my job, not yours!

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Also, the marching band. They are here too.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

What are you doing, Crisostomo?

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Ask Crispin to demonstrate. 

 

Maria Clara lowered the paper from her face. The child fidgeted nervously under her carefully bland gaze. “I will have to ask to borrow four of your friends who can sing, miss.”

Constanstia eager raised her hand. “I will do it! Aaand…” she swept her finger across the circle of young ladies, “You. And you. And you!”

Maria Clara sighed and gave them permission to do whatever in secret in the next room over.

After a few minutes, Constancia returned, beaming impishly. They stood side by side in a line. The young women began to jig in place, pointing with their hands in an L-shape from side to side. They chanted happily

“Jambol, jambol –

Kaya mo ba to?

Kaya mo ba to?

Wag maging bato

Para mag patalo!

Jambol, jambol –

Kaya mo ba toooo!” 

And again:

Jumble, jumble

Can you handle this?

Can you handle this?

Don’t be such a rock

That you lose out!

Jumble, jumble

Can you handle thiiiiiiiiiiis!​

 

Cristomoooo what are you uppp tooooo?! 

-x-

That night, Maria Clara went to sleep with a smile on her lips.

Sure, eventually Aunt Isabel managed to talk Capitan Tiago into ceasing their Quipper exchanges, as a frivolous, noisy activity and a moral threat besides. Don Crisostomo did not expect the little diversion to last more than a day, for he was made to admit it was really nothing more than a telegram service for the town and if there was anything more he’d have to charge for it. The two boys were already too tired.

Maria Clara was a figure of envy , but all young ladies in town would have a more exciting courtship now. Don Crisostomo’s latest whim was not so expensive. If they wanted to outdo him, they need only to be more creative. Don Crisostomo lacked all subtlety.

The young lady closed her eyes, relieved that she was still so much desired.

She woke up to the smell of salt, and smoke, and paper, and oil.

After a few moments, she recognized the angular shadows as the insides of an office. It was night, and outside the works of man outshone the stars. The lights of the big city, even past midnight they could afford to keep the streets lit with gas. She moved towards the windows and marveled at the unfamiliar skyline of New York outside.

Though she had been set only last year, the Statue of Liberty was virtually invisible at night; according to newspapers her torch “more a glow-worm than a beacon” until later improvements in the next century.

Maria Clara had never before seen such a metropolis, but in a dream anything was possible. She glanced at the windowsill and her brows shot up in further awe. Beyond was a balustrade clad in a chalky white substance. Snow! She had never seen snow before.

“Is that all it takes to ease your doubts? He acts before you in all caprice like a child, and you only smile? Is that all you expect from life?”

A woman’s voice, flinty and domineering, and Maria Clara whirled about in alarm. She saw silhouetted a tall woman standing there, audaciously arms akimbo in the shadows. Her face could not be discerned, but she had long straight hair flattened against the sides of her head. She had on a pale blue shirtwaist with large puffed sleeves that cut her a mannish air.

She spoke again, and her voice crackled like the wind passing through a copse of bowing bamboo. “Bayi aims to teach you guile, in order to control your fate. But as long as you sit there with the leisure to wait, you are not one to command. You will only ever be granted allowance, a protected one.”

Maria Clara blinked, and then suddenly the woman was upon her.

“I refuse. I refuse timidity. I refuse weakness. I refuse stagnation. I refuse ignorance! If you cannot become the power to balance our exile-”

Darkness claimed Maria Clara’s vision as a hand cold as a the mountain mists slapped over her eyes. She felt fingernails digging at her cheeks, temples and scalp.

And those fingers began to squeeze. “Then why not just – GIVE – ME – YOUR – FACE!”

She felt bones yield, and a soggy feeling entered her brain.

-x-​

Maria Clara woke up screaming.

Her mouth tasted of burnt grass. It was now the day before the fiesta.


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