(Courtesy of Psyche Roxas Mendoza)
Towards mid-morning of that particular sunshiny day in April sudden rain fell. It came like the thunder of hooves of a thousand horses stampeding on rooftops. A cloud of dust rose from the played front yard and vanished in the torrential downpour. Crystals of rainwater bounced on the pavement, so solid you could almost pick them up and crush them between your fingertips. In the sky, the brightness remained as blue as forever.
It is too early for rain, Col. Dimalanta thought. Would it be good rain? As rain in May? People say rain in May is good rain.
He stood by the door. Mrs. Dimalanta suddenly was beside him, peering at the rain. He put an arm around her.
He saw himself in the rain on another May so many years ago in an island town faraway.
The island is still there. The naked boy in the rain is still here. Preserved in time of innocence. Beyond touch of change. Beyond touch of today. He is laughing and shouting and running in the rain. Rain washing away brown dust, channeling it into ditches hidden by greening weeds. Rain purpling and banishing to nowhere the peaks of distant mountains. “Joven. Joven. You will catch cold,” the Mrs. Dimalanta of that time calls out. And her voice dies in the rain.
He pressed his wife closer as their small children rushed out, laughing and screaming and flinging their arms to the sky and raising their faces to the rain.
Victor is a head taller than Psyche. He will always be this tall in any other time, and the arm of the years will not stretch any taller this Victor of this time –– this boy rushing into the sudden rain of this particular sunshiny day in April. He looks frail, he is really strong. Eggs and play have done that. Although his mother worries over him time and again. He will be all right. Even in his schoolwork, of which Miriam who is a head shorter than Psyche makes fun. He will come up to it. Study hard and show them he is all right. Already, Stephanie is as tall as Miriam. It has always been that way with the older children. Tall and stringy. And milk and eggs do not make them any heavier. But for Victor. All are good in school.
It begins with the first cry, the quest for something, consciously or not, deliberate or headlong, the kicking and scratching for a measure of the good earth to own, a bowl of rice, and to bring children into the world strong and tall he thought.
“We are all set, Papa,” Lorna, the eldest, announced to him over the cheese, adobo, and guinatan; quite a young woman now, unusually pretty, with a master’s from the State U, but still good at making sandwiches and delicacies.
Daphne, second eldest, was packing loaves of bread, sandwiches, and plastic boxes into big picnic baskets; another young woman in bloom, so easy with words, quite deep and often witty, coming up with her own master’s from the university, so involved and so committed, of a fair loveliness that was a contrast to the long black tresses and deep dark eyes of Lorna.
The older boys, Ferdinand, Marcel, and Emmanuel, had gone out for the jeep.
They planned a full day at the park. Eleven of them, together this day after a long, long while. Fresh wind, shade under trees, a whiff of sea, small talk, and possibly a book to read. And the cool evening. Towards midnight they can call it a day, a day truer than usual.
He called out to the young ones. They gathered about him. They were in colorful summer get-up. Give that credit to Daphne and the doting, working older children.
The young ones were talking excitedly of the park by the bay.
“Can I go to the sea, Papa?” Stephanie asked,
“You cannot,” said Victor. “You do not know how to swim.”
“I know how,” Psyche, who was at comprehensive High, said. “We swim at school.”
“Psyche will teach me how to swim,” Stephanie said hopefully.
“If you go to the sea, I will call the police,” Victor threatened.
Stephanie glared at Victor.
The boys arrived with a big jeep. Tasyo was at the wheel. He has been a good friend, seeing to it that early every morning of every class day the children had seats riding to school.
“It’s Tasyo, Papa,” Marcel said as he disappeared into the dining room. It was difficult to tell about Marcel in the beginning. But he had always been good with colors. He apprenticed at the art department of Guerzon, Guerzon & Associates, an advertising and public relations agency. In three more years he would finish his commercial art course at the state university.
“Tasyo will take us to the Luneta and fetch us back for thirty pesos,” Ferdinand said. “That’s all taken care of, Papa.”
“Thank you,” the colonel said. “Tell your Mama we’re leaving.”
Mrs. Dimalanta joined him, her face flushed and rosy. He felt big and tall seeing her joy. It had been so long since she had looked that way. He held her hand and they walked to the jeep.
Traffic was heavy on España. The late morning street scene was a riot of colors and a medley of car horns. It was as though it had not rained earlier. The jostling for right of way, and the serious business of getting ahead of other cars was deadly, comic and unnecessary.
Traffic was not any less crowded on Taft. But then Luneta was now only a stone’s throw away. Already, the children were all worked up about the park. Its grounds were now within view.
“Fetch us between nine and ten, Tasyo,” he said. That would be just enough time before the curfew, he figured. And the children would have had enough of fun, tired and ready to go to bed. He tightened his hand on the shoulder of his wife. She reached for his other hand and patted it.
There were many people, scattered on this mosaic of grass and concrete. Almost all the big trees had under them a couple or a family. They paraded by, the eleven of them, with their picnic baskets and bags. It was as though they had come to make camp. People stared at them.
“That’s what you get for having so big a family,” his wife whispered, edging close to him, and smiling mischievously. “Perhaps, people now can’t just believe a family of our own size. What with family planning and contraceptives.”
“We were innocents in our days and beloved of the Lord,” he whispered back, chuckling.
There was another time, when they were only all of five, at the beach. Lorna, Daphne, and Ferdinand were little children. “The tree over there,” said Mrs. Dimalanta, then a young and fetching matron, long black hair flowing down her back, like night cascading down a mountain, verdant eyebrows over dark and lucid eyes, legs long , lithe and shapely. It was a young coconut tree, only so tall, its fronds almost brushing the ground. Before they could reach it, a teenage couple who could not let go of each other’s hands tumbled down under it. “No tree for us now,” said she. “We’ll just have to put up with the open beach,” he said.
It was a time all its own, with its own joys, its own voices and hues. He thought: Where have they all gone? All the people on the beach of that time?
He spotted a big and heavily crowned tree on the side of Roxas Boulevard and P. Burgos.
“Run for it, children. It’s in the center. Green and cool. Run for it.”
And the children sprinted, Ferdinand threading through people in his way. It was as if he were acting out of the spur of memory, and today he would not lose the race, as he did at the beach. It would be their tree for sure.
The children folded up under the tree, breathing heavily but grinning triumphantly. He ran, too, his wife running with him. They too were children again, fighting for a piece of earth and happiness. He surged with life and exultation.
“We saw it first, Daddy,” a small boy, Victor’s age, was saying. They were a couple of steps away from the boy. The boy looked to his father for support. The father smiled. “It is not our tree,” he said. They veered away, in search of another tree. They took complete possession of the area under the tree. Almost immediately, the young ones went romping off, pausing at the fishpond, exclaiming over the colored fishes, staring at the breathlessly motionless navy sentries at the foot of the Rizal monument, gawking at the towering statue of the Bagumbayan martyr, then they were off again, skipping and running and shouting.
The faces of the city, the colonel thought, sprawled at the foot of the tree: Brown, white, yellow, and splotches of black –– they will always be here, of this time, of this land. There will be others. Faces perhaps, in a city of another time. But the essence will always be here, of this particular time, this particular smell, sound and tint will be ageless, for it is the essence of people. For a moment here, the essence comes through, laid aside are the claims of making a living, the planning and scheming and cheating, the brawling and the suspicions. Here they step into the most private of worlds, the world of the inner self, with anger thrust deep down, hate and violence kept at bay. Here they may see beauty –– a tree in the sun, a falling leaf, the grace of a hand, a face angled to rapture, the larking and laughter of children, beauty even in a sere blade of grass.
He drifted back to another time. The talahib then grew tall leftward of Taft, to the north, green in the rain and yellow in the sun. The trees near the National Library sheltered couples in the long streaks of light from San Luis feebly touching up the shadows. They are still here, he felt, all of the life of that time.
He leaned heavily against the trunk of the tree, spent with memory, although a sun-brightness dazzled his eyes. The sky was cool and blue, the sun almost overhead.
“Look at Stephanie,” Mrs. Dimalanta who was seated beside him said, her hand on his lap.
Stephanie was coming toward them, glancing back now and again, and shouting out to Psyche and Miriam to run fast.
“Isn’t she a joy?” Mrs. Dimalanta chuckled, pride cracking her voice a bit. So strong and so confident was the girl, it shook her.
“So are the others, Mama,” the colonel remarked. “Look at them. How beautiful is Psyche: how lovely is Miriam.”
He grinned good-naturedly at her.
“Time to get the children to the seaside,” he said. “For a spray of salt and breath of clean air. That should be good. Purgative and cleanser for the unholy in spirit, huh, Mama?”
To be continued. . .