OUR cameragirl follows Sienna around in the kitchen. But into the space of flashback memories, in the twelve paragraphs below where I shall henceforth narrate a bit about Sienna’s history in this house, the camera cannot follow—only the cameras of memory, and a film editor’s splicing inserts of sepia tones into this memory space, can enter there.
Sienna used to be an exceedingly thin girl of thirteen. She grew up in Soria, the daughter of a fisherman and a fish vendor woman, and worked in Tacloban for a while as a waitress after two years in high school, thereafter becoming at age fifteen—due to an environment-acquired interest in and dedication to seafoods—the assistant cook in that restaurant she worked for. Labor department people ate at the restaurant and knew about the fifteen-year-old cook but what did they care: the girl cooked well, and if they threw her back in school, would she even stay in school? She’d certainly stray back into some work, in order to help her parents and eight-year-old sister, and there’d be that endless cycle till she reached her eighteenth year. So they left her alone, left the restaurant alone, left a hundred other establishments employing teens and even children. Then, at age sixteen, she found work for Mr. Sagana, the teacher, as his live-in cook, and quite comfortably in her own hometown of Soria. With Mr. Sagana, she didn’t have to ask permission three days in advance to visit her parents in the little, quiet Samar town.
Mr. Sagana was not a rich man. He was a mere public school teacher, the poor heir to his uncle’s old house in Soria. He could not expect his cousins to help him in the maintenance of the house. His uncle, in his deathbed, told him—and all his other cousins who got their own house inheritances—to better give their houses to a second or third cousin if they couldn’t maintain the house and keep them from decaying. They signed the condition, and though the lawyer said it was not necessarily binding it would be their word of honor to the dying, with each of them a witness for each other’s word of agreement. (Mr. Sagana’s was only one of twelve houses all over Samar that Mr. Sagana’s uncle, the old local passenger-shipping don, invested in. Mr. Sagana’s uncle, in all his daily journeys to different ports of call within the island and across the strait to the city of Tacloban, had accumulated houses, including small ones in payment for unpaid dues by copra dealers when suddenly copra’s price fell in the 1970s and the don almost went bankrupt himself. The small houses went to second cousins.)
The houses Mr. Sagana’s uncle was most interested in were the old ones, especially the ones with both the Spanish and American influences in their design. He had improved the houses according to the original time’s architecture, for consistency, a melding of old Spanish embellishments on wood and iron and American simplicity of lines and color that was reflected in the roofing structure. The result was a combination of Spanish openness due to the Spaniards’ long exposure to both the tropical archipelago’s equatorial hot sun and the Pacific cold breeze, side by side American adaptations involving quickness, due to a desire to transfer American New England climates into Filipino architecture. The ultimate resultant was a house with natural ventilation, reflected in the wide doors and windows, inconsistent with the hot ceilings that did not involve insulation but mere galvanized iron roofing sheets not even a foot apart from the wooden ceiling. Everybody knew that Mr. Sagana’s uncle’s interest in architecture started from his high school days in the island seminary, when he was assigned by the rector to help in the library of the high school dean, a certain Fr. Dumas, who dabbled in architectural research. Mr. Sagana’s uncle’s interest in the subject, embracing both virtues and flaws, was continued in the redesign of his first boat, acquired from his father, which became the most popular launch with a canteen serving beer and a roof deck with tables fixed to the floor. In a year, Mr. Sagana’s uncle, now a sort of local don sponsoring town councilors’ elections, bought a second and third boat.
Soria was not the don’s headquarters, but in this house in Soria—which was his vacation house with a desired view of the San Juanico strait—the don used to employ five helpers. Mr. Sagana, however, couldn’t afford five helpers, not even a weekend laundrywoman. A live-in cook and housemaid would be nice, but that too was out of the question. Mr. Sagana was an only child whose widower father had just died. His cousin, Albert, was another sole child of the don who immigrated to Europe, promising as an alienated homosexual not to come back to all these boats and palm trees. Mr. Sagana thus became one of twelve nephews and nieces in whose hands his uncle had no choice but to leave the houses, sadly and out of spite, formalizing the papers in front of a lawyer and the inheritors as he awaited his death by cancer creeping in his colon. Nobody knew how father and son first drifted apart, but many say it was obviously due to the son’s homosexuality.
Mr. Sagana, however, a mere teacher—as we said—from Guiuan, another town in Samar at the southeastern tip of the island, not only was not a fan of such houses (if only he had the resources to build his own according to his own liking!), he also had not the wherewithal to maintain the house’s painting and wood upkeep with re-varnishings or repainting. Add to that, his teaching salary in the new school was smaller than what he used to get in Guiuan.
Luckily, Mr. Sagana had a daughter whose handsome American mestiza mother (estranged from Mr. Sagana due to a love affair with her doctor) trained her so hard not only to be finicky about housework but also with her studies. In no time, the daughter’s mother would join her and Mr. Sagana in this house after the lover died, if only to help the daughter finish her nursing studies attained through a scholarship care of the then-mayor’s program. It did not matter that the mayor sponsoring the scholarship hated the don who used to own Mr. Sagana’s house; Mr. Sagana’s daughter’s industrious studies deserved the award. The new objective of the Sagana family, therefore, became that of pushing the daughter to finish her course, away from potential boyfriends and other political or social temptations, for her to take the exams, and finally to work somewhere abroad, anywhere abroad.
Maria Lourdes finished her nursing degree and instantly found work in Hawaii. Soon, Mr. Sagana hired a cook for him and his wife, two cooks in fact, but only because their first cook had to work at a roadside canteen in the evening, and Mr. Sagana didn’t want to get rid of her because of pity. In fact, rumor had it, the cook actually worked as a prostitute at night. Others say she merely had to get away from the house to avoid Mr. Sagana’s nighttime advances. The second cook hired was Sienna. The first cook later died of dengue fever in the city of Catarman up north, while on holiday with a northerner boyfriend. Mr. Sagana became a depressed man after that, so depressed in fact that he lost his wife again, to another third party, a man in a wheelchair Mrs. Sagana met in the town plaza. Rumors had it that Mr. Sagana actually had an affair with the maid, an affair which Mrs. Sagana knew about, but since the marriage was not that healthy from the beginning, it didn’t really matter; each had a “diversion,” it seemed. And behind all this, the house revived its old glory with the new American money Mr. Sagana received from her daughter in Hawaii.
But Mr. Sagana’s depression left an emotional vacuum in the house. Sienna, affected by all that was happening in the family, cooked, cleaned the house, ate while working, ate when tired, gardened while eating, accompanied Mr. Sagana to the bank to get his checks from Maria Lourdes, and to the noodle shop right after the bank. And that was about it, her routine. Sienna never understood why she had to accompany Mr. Sagana to the bank and the noodle shop. Was it to fan the rumors, just to spite it? She never knew the answer.
After becoming aware of the situation in Samar island, a decision was made: Maria Lourdes, angry at her mother, decided to bring Mr. Sagana to Hawaii, promising never to come back, and so had the newly-refurbished house up for sale, to be taken advantage of by anyone at the lowest offered price an antique house of the old intricate architecture could fetch. Sienna, grown quite fat now from all the boredom and acquired depression and consequent eating in the couple of years she spent in the quiet Sagana house, went back to her cook’s job at a restaurant in the city of Tacloban in Leyte island.
It was Sienna’s birthday when Fidel and Joanna came into the restaurant. The restaurant had become famous in the city for its local cuisine, and the artist couple were the only patrons, that being Sunday noon when almost everybody was away at the beach resorts of the city and the nearby beach towns. After Fidel asked her a question, boisterous Sienna sat down at the table opposite the couple’s and told them her story, about this day being her birthday, the new recipes she has learned in this restaurant, and even told them the most wonderful stories to tell about her days in Mr. Sagana’s antique intricate old house that was a bit hard for her to clean, she said. She went on and on about the two years she worked there, feeling familiar with Joanna and Fidel who struck her as approachable, likable. Fidel and Joanne, married now with a two-year-old kid and on vacation from Manila, had their interest piqued by Sienna’s stories, and that was the beginning of that. The couple checked out the house, fell in love with it and the clean little town above the harbor overlooking the strait, and Sienna resigned from her new old cook’s job at the restaurant to become the new rich couple’s cook in their new provincial headquarters.
Joanna and Fidel only intended the house to be their provincial vacation house, a hideaway from Tacloban whenever they came visiting their province to be near relatives. Soria was, after all, one of the cleanest towns in the whole region, despite a few dogs roaming the streets. Surprise, surprise: Fidel and Joanna felt that Fidel could paint better here, and a month later all their things were moved in from Manila by a big delivery van that trekked the length of the Bicol peninsula, crossed the ferry to Samar island, and traveled the length of the island to its southern highway fronting the San Juanico strait and on to the little quaint town of Soria. The couple’s new SUV car was driven by Fidel himself. The rest of their furniture for the new house Fidel took from their house in Tacloban. Fidel, after getting emailed approval from his brother the architect, rented out the Tacloban house to a coffeeshop, and luckily the coffeeshop made a wonderful job of propping up the place with new structural additions. Joanna’s father’s house, on the other hand, had been shut down for a long time now, with furniture covered by cellophane sheets, although every now and then cleaned up by the caretaker couple occupying the small house in the large garden with their seven-year-old son.
A year later, Sienna, at age nineteen, had gotten rid of almost half of her accumulated fat, happier now with her work and gardening and new concrete little room in the backyard with a TV set, it seemed to her eating was a waste of time, interfering with her play. She had improved her cooking, but inadvertently diminished her eating. Only one thing was wrong: she was puzzled by Fidel, unsure if he was ever happy with her cooking.
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“Wow, ang ganda ng view dito sa likod,” said Joanne.
From the little terrace in the room in back of the house, she saw what could be her backyard garden. An avocado tree and other tall bushes foregrounded a view of the San Juanico strait below and far Leyte island across it.
“Hindi tayo nagkamali sa paglipat ng studio ko rito,” Fidel said. “Of course magbabago ang art ko nito, mas magiging makatotohanan. Dahil dito merong mga totoong mangingisda. Hindi nalang mangingisda ng isip ko o di kaya galing sa mga pictures sa magazines, o sa mga naaabutan nating iilang mangingisda everytime nasa Batangas tayo, sa mga pangmayamang beach na ang tanging mangingisda lang ay ang supplier sa restaurant doon. Dito, makukunan ko sila anytime.”
“At puwede mo rin silang gawing models sa ilang works mo,” said Joanne, excitedly, “para ‘pag nag-exhibit ka sa Maynila puwede mo silang dalhin sa opening at i-introduce mo sa mga guests, di ba?”
“Aba,” said Fidel, smiling, “magandang idea yan.”
They drank wine and ate cheese in the terrace overlooking the weeds in the backyard and roofs on the slope that fell into the part of the town fronting the strait and its few boats.
They sat there a long time, talking. Of course they spoke mostly Waray here, the language of the region, since they were from here and all their neighbors were Warays. In Manila they would speak Tagalog, if only because they got used to speaking Tagalog outdoors that it didn’t make sense to shift into Waray since they were both quite adept at the Manila and Tagalog capital region’s language as well as the English of UP students and the learned and the Tagalog-English slangs of so many social niches. But Fidel and Joanna’s Waray is different from the older folks’. As a young couple theirs had a lot of English and even Tagalog mixed into the flow. But certainly I quote them here in Tagalog and English only, and that’s all because I’m writing this story for you, my reader-comrades in all the regions, and we all know the only language we can all understand in all our country’s linguistic regions is Tagalog and English. Right? So.
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Of course you’d also want to know why I’m narrating my story in English. It’s simple: this is a novel, and most of you who read novels read English ones. You’re quite used to the language when reading the novel, even those of you who prefer to speak Tagalog when conversing. We converse in Tagalog, but our broadsheet newspapers are all in English! Right? So.
And why write the dialogue in Tagalog? Because I’m a screenwriter and cinema director, and much like the dramatist I know how stupid it is to quote Tagalog speakers in a story written in English, translating their lines into English, when they’ve said their lines in Tagalog or bilingual Tagalog-English. Why ruin a good thing unnecessarily?
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All right, so where were we? Oh, well, I—Vicente—am here, shooting Fidel with my cameragirl’s camera, spying on Fidel, so to speak, and invisibly too. Vicente (I) is (am) already up even before the town is up, and that’s because my time is different from the country’s time.
Vicente, that’s me, there stood outside the gate waiting for Fidel. Soon the painter would be up this early in the morning of March 6, not to jog or drive somewhere, but to walk around the now-familiar territory. Vicente waited. He’d wait. Vicente and I would wait.