BY Danton Remoto
(Excerpts from a novel)
The Magic Box
I was four years old, sleeping soundly on my parents’ big bed. One morning, my mother woke me up, brought me to the bathroom where she washed my face, and made me rinse my mouth. When we returned to their room, she said. “This is the day I told you about. The man with the magic black box will arrive.”
And so she proceeded to dress me up. She pulled my new white, short-sleeved polo shirt from its plastic bag, and shook it in the morning air. Against my skin the shirt was crisp and clean. Mama made me wear my new khaki shorts. She buttoned up my shirt, and then knotted a green tie under my stiff collar.
“Now, you look so formal already,” she said. “When the man stands before his magic black box and disappears under the strip of black cloth, you should give him your widest smile.” Still groggy from sleep, I just nodded lazily.
Whiteness, there was whiteness everywhere! The walls and ceilings of our house with its French windows. The bark of the pine trees in the yard painted white, as Brigadier General Bautista, the commander of the base, ordered. And then, when we stepped out of the house, the whitest of sky, whiter than the paper Mama would give me, along with a big box of crayons. From this box, I would take out the crayons one by one, memorizing their colors, their shades and tones. Mauve. Aquamarine. Jade green. Ahhh, rainbows.
The man inside the van had hair stiff as a toothbrush. He was also as big as a cabinet. He asked me to sit down on a wicker chair in the middle of the van. Behind me, a curtain in pale green. Mama was just outside, I kept on telling myself, so there’s nothing to fear. The man then lumbered over to where the magic black box stood.
“Okay, son, ready?” he asked.
I just nodded, noticing the cracks on his pair of brown shoes.
Then his head disappeared under the black cloth. “Smile, son,” he said.
I smiled as he began to count. Ready, one, two, three. But at the count of three, I stopped smiling. I just looked at him straight, behind that magic black box, then tilted my head slightly to the right, as if listening to a voice only I could hear.
Now as I look at that first posed shot (thin hair, oblong head, the most piercing eyes), I still find myself listening to a voice coming as if from afar. But in vain I would wait, it would never arrive, and then there would only be the sudden explosion of light.
A month after they were married, Papa bought Mama a piano. It was an upright piano, its body darker than wine, which Padre Pelagio had put up for sale because he planned to buy a new Yamaha organ for the chapel.
Papa borrowed money from the savings and loan association in the air base, added his savings from a year’s stay in Colorado as a military scholar, then one day brought Mama over to the chapel.
“But we have no choir practice today,” Mama protested loudly.
“I think Father Pelagio wants to tell you something,” Papa answered.
Mama must have smirked (that petulant smirk I also have), put on her Cat woman sunglasses with its frame studded with rhinestones, threw a sheer red bandanna over her permed hair, then sat beside Papa in our jeep.
Dust trailed the jeep. It was summer, and the heat blew right into the very pores of your skin. The leaves fell, the houses snored in their siesta, the sun was an intense eye in the sky. It blinked when Papa’s jeep stopped before the chapel and Padre Pelagio, his belly round like a watermelon, waddled out of the rectory.
“Good afternoon, Father,” Mama said, kissing the hand of the priest.
“O ano, are you here to get it na?” the priest asked.
Papa smiled smugly (the way all those smug Hollywood lead actors must have smiled), then led Mama inside the chapel.
“This,” Papa said, touching ivory keys with the color of moth wings, “is my gift to you.”
Seven years later, I would sit before this piano, required to practice three times a day by my teacher, who also happened to be my mother.
“But it’s summer!” I wanted to protest. The dragonflies were hovering over the stream, their bodies the color of amber and fire. Our homemade kites were waiting to be flown in the clear, blue sky. The fruit trees were waiting in the orchard — mangoes, guavas, aratiles, duhat — the fruits ripened by the sun, waiting for our young and greedy hands.
But I had to stay at home and play the piano. Sometimes, I would just sit in my room and sulk. But my sulking Papa would not let pass, so he would make me sit before the piano. Then, he would install himself on the perezosa, the lazy chair beside the piano, and listen.
He would ask me to play Sarung Banggi, a love song from the Bicol Region where he and my mother were born.
hinuni ning sarong gamgam
Sa luba ko, katurugan,
bako kundi simong boses
Dagos ako hangon
Si sakuyang mata iminuklat.
Kadtong kadikloman ako
Kasu ihiling ko si sakuyang
mata sa itaas,
simong lawog nahiling
Kadtong kadikloman kan
Namundo kong puso talos
Minsan di nahaloy idtong napagmasdan
sagkod noarin pa man dai ko
as I lay in bed
I suddenly heard
The singing of a bird.
I thought it was a dream
But it was your voice
I then rose at once
And opened my eyes wide.
In that darkness I looked around
And when I raised my eyes,
I saw your face very clearly.
In that darkness when I saw you,
My sad heart found happiness
Though I saw your image
I will never forget
But when I looked at my father, he was already asleep. Perhaps it must be the heat. Or my bad playing. Or the song itself, carrying him on its wings, back to a past when he was still young, looking for the images of love on a night washed by the milky light of the moon.
The Man on the Moon
Like somebody with a Ph.D., Papa was explaining to my grandmother and I how the Apollo 11 would fly to the moon.
From blast-off at Cape Canaveral to the rocket’s head splitting from its tail to the actual landing on the moon—he explained all this with verve. First, he slipped his right arm in his brown imitation-leather slippers, tracing a trajectory. Then, slipper and hand separated, like molting skin. Soon, only the slippers were left, standing for the rocket landing on the cold, windless landscape of the moon.
That night we watched in our new colored TV. A blur of images. The Stars and Stripes. Then, the astronauts in their white, bloated uniforms, looking like aliens. The rocket blasting off, hurtling in space like a bright comet, and then many hours later, the moon: full of craters deeper and wider than anything I had ever seen. After the Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, the three astronauts free-floating in space (A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind). Men on the moon, my father said, the greatest country in the world staking its claim on a territory millions of miles away from home.
Years later, my grandmother would bring me to Manila in one of her summer vacations. Nora Aunor — the short, brown actress whose rise to fame defied the colonial notions of beauty in the country, she whose eyes spoke a language of their own — has a new film called Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo (Once a Moth). Complete title: Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo Ang Lumaban sa Lawin (Once A Moth Fought A Hawk).
In the film, Nora plays a nurse, Corazon, whose ambition was to go to the United States and work there. She lived near Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City. But one day, her younger brother was shot by an American soldier on the periphery of the base fence, mistaking the young boy for a “a wild pig.”
Another image: Corazon’s grandfather (played by the magnificent Pedro Faustino) was already alive during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896-98, and later, the Filipino-American War from 1898-1904. As a young boy of 10, he wore calzoncillos, like long johns that reached down to the knees. Inside the sewn edges of his calzoncillos was a piece of paper folded many times over. It would contain, in code, the enemy positions, the number of the men, the tactics of the revolutionaries, whom the Americans called bandidos (bandits). When Corazon’s grandfather saw the Americans landing on the moon, he asked, “Kanila na rin ba ang buwan? (Do they now own even the moon?)”
That night, after a heavy dinner of shrimp sinigang, I went out to the backyard. Everything was silent, as if the night itself was holding its breath. Beyond the acacia leaves, the moon rose clear across the Zambales mountains.
While helping her set the table, our housemaid Ludy had told me that there was already a naked man on the moon even before the men of Apollo 11 came. She said he looked like the man in the five-centavo coin.
So tonight, I took out the coin I had stolen from Papa, and in the light of the moon I looked for the naked man. Curly hair, a face well chiseled, broad shoulders. His buttocks were firm and his legs, long and powerful. He was bending down, his body frozen in an arc. On his right hand he held a hammer, pounding something on the anvil in front of him. He was trying to make an object from ore, a shape from all that rawness. Like a god. Patiently he bent down, waiting to be blasted by something like lightning, or by a flash of revelation.
I squinted at the night sky, as if I had the Superman’s X-ray vision, or the eyes of Lee Majors, the six million-dollar man. But try as I might, beyond the trees and the mountains I saw no man on the moon. There was only a lighted disk suspended in the air many, many miles away, alone, beautiful, and pure.