By his account NVM Gonzalez’s parents moved to Mindoro when he was four, left behind to live with his grandparents in Romblon. Much has been written about NVM’s Mindoro but hardly about his Romblon—the setting of his iconic story “The Bread of Salt” and a ghost story in “Confessions of a Dawn Person” included in his collection A Grammar of Dreams (1997).
My father was principal of Romblon High School in the late 20s. As a violinist and cellist in a small town Papa must have nurtured young Nestor in the art of violin playing; he would see Nestor again as principal of Mindoro High School in Calapan where Nestor was to finish his secondary education in the early 30s. I remember a picture in the family album showing Papa with several youngsters with violins. Papa identified one of them as NVM, then editor of This Week magazine. Papa could have been portrayed albeit in passing as Mr. Antonino who remarked on the dexterity of Nestor’s fingers or as Mr. Custodio in charge of the school orchestra.
In “The Bread of Salt” the young character plays with a band at the party of a rich girl named Aida for whom he carried the chalice as it were (as in Joyce’s “Araby”). The young teenager worships her and is thrilled to play with the band, enabling him to glimpse her at the Christmas party of the Spaniard in the big house near the shore. At midnight as the band members leave in single file they pass the dessert table. The young violinist and worshipper of Aida would pick up a sweet or two on the way out, like the others. However, unlike the others the young violinist stuffs his mouth with “yema” and wraps a few of these sweets in a layer of paper napkins. Behind him he hears the voice of Aida “Have you eaten?” He is embarrassed no end and realizes that she saw what he just did. To add to his humiliation, she says, when the party is over she can pack a box of sweets for him. It is the moment of truth, and thoroughly shamed, he feels all ardor for her leaving him “entirely.”
Outside the house, the young character flings the napkin wrapped sweets, balled in his hand, beyond the fence into the gathering tide. He perhaps realizes that his fate lies in the lowly pan de sal, that he waits for at dawn at the bakery after the band caroling in town, to take home to his waiting grandmother.
Like most stories that NVM taught in his short story class—“Araby” by James Joyce and
“The Killers” by Hemingway—“The Bread of Salt” is ideal in rendering the themes of discovery and epiphany. It may well be autobiographical, given the setting and the young violinist character. The story is also my favorite for its poignancy.
I also remember a story by Wallace Stegner (with whom NVM studied the craft of fiction at Stanford during a writing fellowship) where self-knowledge is realized by an adult, a traveller who has to seek the help of a mechanic to look at his stalled car in a wintry road. The mechanic turns out to be a boy who manages to fix the car. The traveller is impressed by the resourcefulness of the boy mechanic in reviving the car’s engine. It was a simple tale but Stegner (like NVM himself) manages to show how ordinary situations in the telling of a story can be significant enough. NVM’s only criticism was the last line in the story where Stegner makes explicit the theme of identification. NVM would have struck the line out as unnecessary for it is already implied.
NVM describes his fictional method as “defamiliarization” manifested in his choice of characters and situations. Nothing extraordinary but NVM (or the careful reader) manages to extract significant meanings in his plain quiet tales that are invariably devoid of dramatic tension. Hence, NVM avoids “freaky” characters or unusual situations in his fiction.
Now what has all this to do with what I call his ghost tale. Again we don’t expect from NVM scary stories that the young impressionable ones do. Indeed I was not expecting anything until I read the last paragraph of “Confessions of a Dawn Person.”
“Confessions” is not a work of fiction but a personal essay about NVM’s sentimental trip to the island of Romblon where incidentally my family (l was not yet born) lived and intersected with NVM’s boyhood. NVM’s story “The Wireless Tower” triggering recollections of what my mother told me about a “lighthouse” in some promontory where they used to have picnics with friends.
In “Confessions.” NVM was disappointed to see the wireless tower in disrepair and neglect—one touchstone of his youth gone. He does relish the view of the sea between the islands of Romblon and Tablas where the ships ply enroute to other islands in the Visayas and back to Luzon. The lights of seacraft at night were “worthy of engkanto tales,” he wrote.
This engkanto allusion seems to foreshadow the rest of “Confessions.” The author must have suffered a mild cultural shock to see the beach at the place where they stay—that of the Mingua sisters—taken over by noisy beer drinkers of the clan.
Thankfully there is a respite to that sleepless night for at very early dawn, when the carousers are asleep in their tents at the edge of the water, they (NVM and Narita), sitting in the porch enjoying the silence, espy in the moonlight “a familiar-looking figure of a woman between 60 and 65, from her stoop and gait possibly the eldest of the Mingua sisters. We followed her every stop closely; she made it easily across the yard. To reach the clan members camp required going around a pandan bush richly girded by shadow. There the figure precipitously lingered and then was wrenched away by the night. “
But “neither of the Mingua sisters nor anyone had been up and about at that hour. I was able to ascertain that much by next morning. I had asked and asked indeed as we waited for the pumpboat for the return to Tugdan (airport).”
Finally, “Oh, but that could only be Mama! Of course, that was Mama!” said Mina (one of the sisters). “Every so often she comes to see us. Your visit has pleased her very much.”
It is a low-key ghost tale that takes up only the last four paragraphs. Are there other gothic elements in NVM’s work?
The first story of NVM I read in 1950 was “The Blue Skull and the Dark Palms” which intrigued and haunted me—a story about a young teacher who sensed that her guerrilla fiancé must have been killed in the vicinity of the schoolhouse that was used by the Japanese military as a garrison. While the students are on a garden detail, clearing the school ground they find a skull bluish from exposure to the elements. The skull is brought to the Malabanans whose guerrilla son disappeared. They nevertheless give it a decent burial without really knowing whose it was. Miss Inocencio joins the rosary for a while, and as he leaves the Malabanan house she sees the school inspector on the porch on a rocking chair and smoking. Despite the entreaties of the school inspector who has developed a liking for her to have her transferred to a bigger school in the provincial capital, she could not leave a loved one as when she says, “I must stay.”
“There—her tongue has uttered them! And having said them, she let Mr. Vidal hold her hand when he reached out for it again, but only one minute longer. The dark palms were staring at her.”
It was a story that we the students of NVM enjoyed for the “objective correlatives” or the “symbolism” that he allowed us to discover for ourselves.
“A Warm Hand” may also have intrigued the reader as well as other stories.
There may be other stories about Romblon, an island memorable to NVM as well as to my family especially my mother because she had her third son, a one-month old who died of uncontrollable bleeding in his navel. He was buried there, presumably in the old cemetery where NVM wished to be buried. But in his last visit he failed to find it—the cemetery surrounded by five feet wall.
“Where was this wall now? Where did the graves go? I had to know. Grandfather was buried there . . . In an access of fancy I had once said to myself to be buried there someday, upon an ancient shelving of stone. There had been nothing morbid in the thought, only a deep sense of belonging, but what now, had been that feeling for?”
NVM quoted Rizal himself who noted in his diary in a stopover at Romblon of the boat carrying him to Manila from Dapitan exile: “Este Puerto, eshermoso, perotriste y solitario.”
(This essay on NVM’s Romblon is an extension to the tribute “A Very Special Evening with NVM” that I had written before he passed away—first published in the Manila Journal in March 1999 by way of acknowledging his visit a month before to the Manila Doctors Hospital where I was recovering from a myocardial infarction or heart attack. My wife and I were deeply moved by his visit despite his frail health. Months later, at century’s end, NVM was gone. “A Very Special Evening with NVM” was reprinted in Diliman: Homage to the Fifties (2003) featuring on the cover the photo of the 1951 writers workshop with NVM presiding, and also in Remembering NVM (2004) edited by Jose Dalisay Jr.)