Manila, August 1941
‘Be strong Celia,’ Papa said, as she watched him pack his things. ‘Take care of your mother while I’m gone.’ He folded each shirt methodically, laying them on top of well-creased pants. Papa was short and wiry. He was very handsome, with a wide brow and well-defined lips.
‘Yes, Papa,’ she said. Celia was only fourteen, and the thought of Mama leaning on her was frightening. But she would do her best. She wanted to say so many things to him, like ‘How can you leave us?’ and ‘Don’t go!’ Instead, she clamped her teeth on her lip, biting until she winced at the sudden pain. She carefully smoothed the wrinkles from Papa’s shirts. He didn’t pack much—only what he could fit into a single case.
‘You know why I’m going, anak?’ Papa said. ‘I have to do my part.’ Celia nodded. He was whistling. He seemed excited, as if he was going off on an adventure. She felt a sudden rush of anger. Why was he so happy to be leaving? She wanted to punch him, or at the very least, kick and scream. But she did nothing.
She looked at the bedspread, at the white abel blankets folded on the bed, at the baul at the foot of it, at anything but Papa. If she looked at him, she would start to cry, and she would break the promise that she had made just minutes ago. The walls of the room seemed to squeeze in on her. She found it hard to breathe.
Papa hugged each of them in turn—Celia, Luis, and Berting. He saved Mama for last. She clutched at him, and he whispered something in her ear. When she stepped back, she was smiling, although her lips were trembling.
Papa hoisted the case and looked at them. ‘Well, I’m off then.’ They followed him as he walked out of the house. They stood just outside the door, and watched him grow smaller and smaller as he walked down the street. Berting tried to run after him, but Mama held his hand firmly in hers. She wouldn’t let him go, no matter how hard he tugged. Papa turned the corner and walked out of their sight.
Once he was gone, the house seemed smaller, quieter. Celia had never realized how reassuring the sight of Papa reading the newspaper in the morning was. He would drink his coffee and carefully turn the pages, nodding as he perused the day’s news. She sat in his chair and looked down the table. Five empty chairs looked back at her.
‘Taya!’ Luis and Berting were running down the stairs. Luis was pretending that Berting could outrun him, even though his longer legs could easily catch up with his brother. At thirteen, Luis was way too old to be playing with Berting, who was eight years younger. But he had humored him ever since Papa had left. Celia suspected that Papa had told him to look after Berting, and for this, she was very grateful.
An hour later, bodies heaving with sweat, the boys flopped onto their stomachs in the garden to play marbles. One side of the yard was now pockmarked with holes. Luis was good at this game. With a flick of his finger, he could send a marble straight into its designated hole. His favorite marble was made of white glass, which surrounded a cloud of green. He had won this marble from Patrick Santos, their next-door neighbor, after a long, pitched battle.
Mama never seemed to mind their antics. She didn’t even scold them for trampling her beloved ferns while they were looking for beetles. In Papa’s absence, she had turned to her garden. Every morning, she checked her ferns, carefully snipping the brown, withered leaves. She talked to them sometimes, although Celia could never understand what she said. Whatever it was, the ferns must have liked it, because they grew strong and healthy.
Mama tended orchids as well. Celia’s favorite were the Cattleyas—their petals were a delicate white, with a smatter of yellow inside their frilled center. They were so soft that she hardly dared to touch them. Sometimes, she would stretch a finger out to lightly stroke a petal, while looking around to check that Mama wasn’t there to see her. If Mama had an especially good one, she would take the flowerpot inside and carefully center it on their dining table. It made Celia happy every time she looked at it.
While Papa was away, they were left to fend for themselves as best they could.
‘The Japanese are coming!’ Celia, Luis and Berting ran outside. First, they heard the ominous thud of numerous hob-nailed boots marching in cadence. Then they saw them. The foot soldiers were dressed in full battle gear, with bayonets attached to their rifles and nets from which leafy twigs sprouted. Celia thought that they looked like funny little trees.
After them came mounted officers clad in white shirts and olive caps, jackets, and pants. The lines of soldiers seemed to go on and on. It was as if a tidal wave was slowly but inexorably engulfing the city.
‘Those are the high-ranking ones,’ a woman next to Celia whispered. As she scanned the long row of men, her eyes settled on a face that looked vaguely familiar. The soldier was middle-aged, yet the way he held himself, stiff and straight, belied his years.
Berting suddenly tugged at her hand.
‘That’s Mr. Ona!’ he said. Celia felt a jolt of recognition. Mr. Ona looked strange without his apron. What was he doing with those soldiers?
‘Spies, all of them.’ The woman next to her hissed. Celia started. She hadn’t realized that she’d spoken out loud. The woman kept on talking. ‘The furniture vendor who sold me a narra table two years ago just rode by.’
Berting waved as Mr. Ona passed by, but the soldier pretended not to see him. They had stopped by Mr. Ona’s ice cream shop every Sunday on their way home from church. Mr. Ona, who sometimes gave them an extra scoop of ice cream for free, was now the enemy. How could this be?
Celia glanced at Luis. ‘Look at those guns!’ he said. Then he looked around and remembered himself. He tried for a careless shrug. ‘They’ll be beaten in six weeks.’
She opened her mouth to contradict him, then decided that it was better not to say anything. She felt a frisson of fear. This army had driven the Americans out of the country. It didn’t look as if they were going to be beaten easily.
Most of them were short, and smelled funny, of sweat and something rancid. They wore brown uniforms with baggy pants. The first time that Celia walked past one, he stopped her and said ‘Kura-kura!’ in a strange, high-pitched voice. She looked at him, uncomprehending. He tapped the top of her head, indicating that she should bow to him. She did. He pushed her head down, until she was bowing from the waist.
One week after the soldiers arrived, Celia and Luis were on their way home. As they were about to turn the corner to their street, they heard a shrill ‘Kura-kura!’ followed by the sharp crack of palm against flesh. A man had walked blindly past a Japanese soldier. Most men took the slap, eyes cast down, but this one was defiant. He drew his fist back. The sun shone on the soldier’s bayonet as he drove it rapidly through the man’s body. It was as if he was simply spearing a pig. Celia stood still, watching the man crumple to the ground. The soldier gave the body a contemptuous kick. She knew that she should get away before he turned to them, but her body refused to move. Slap. Fist. Bayonet. Body. Her mind was whirling.
‘What are you doing, Ate? Let’s go!’ Luis grabbed her hand and began to run. She ran along with him, still replaying the drawn-back fist in her head, followed by the sudden flash of the bayonet.
After they saw the man’s murder, they kept to the eskinitas, where they travelled as often as possible in order to evade the solders walking around the main streets.
Three weeks later, Luis came home empty-handed. ‘The bakery’s closed. Mang Tonio said that there’s no more wheat. People were standing outside the bakery with empty bayongs. Some of them had been there for almost an hour, but they didn’t want to go home in case by some miracle, pandesal magically appeared. They looked like fools.’
Celia was dismayed. She loved to eat pandesal with American cheese or Australian Cow butter for breakfast, along with a cup of steaming tsokolate. She enjoyed spreading the rich butter onto the warm bread, feeling it melt into the soft dough with each stroke of her knife. When she had put enough butter on, she would bite into the warm crust, then sink her teeth into the bread’s pillowy center, and relish the sweetness of butter and pandesal.
She had already set out the butter and cheese, but now she put them away. She took out the tsokolate canister, opened it, and peered inside. There was only a little bit of tsokolate left. She decided to have one final cup.
After she finished it, she sat forlorn at the empty table, trying to ignore the insistent rumble in her stomach. She sighed and went to the shelf of cookbooks. She picked one and opened it. Its pages were filled with recipes that had been rendered useless. They called for milk, eggs, beef, ingredients that had disappeared from the market.
This cookbook was now her favorite book. She read it whenever she felt hungry. She turned its pages slowly, running her hands over the colored illustrations. The cookbook’s leaves were faded and wrinkled, but that didn’t matter. She said the words to prepare lechon out loud, as if it were an incantation. Clean the pig. Rub it all over with salt and pepper, soy sauce, and condensed milk. Roast it. It conjured up memories of her last birthday party before the war. She had quickly bitten into the succulent, crackling skin, relishing the salty tang of flesh and fat. She had eaten so much lechon that it had made her sick. She hadn’t eaten a bite of pork since the occupation began. She groaned. If only her stomach could be sated by words and pictures. She looked around the living room. The wood gleamed golden in the morning sun. But the table was bare. There were no longer any orchids to console her. Mama had replaced her flowers with a vegetable garden.
At first, Celia had protested when she saw Mama taking the ferns out of their pots.
‘But Mama, they’re so beautiful.’
‘Beauty won’t keep us fed,’ Mama replied. There was nothing more that Celia could say. She helped Mama uproot the ferns and tear the orchids from their driftwood perches. She felt as if she was desecrating a shrine. Mama was silent as she ripped the ferns from their pots. Her hands worked briskly, efficient in their cruelty. Celia thought of the many hours that Mama had tended those plants, how carefully she had snipped off their dead leaves, and prodded the soil to see whether it was moist enough for them. She had even talked to her plants, as if they were her children. Celia swallowed. She willed herself not to cry.