Memories of the moving finger
I don’t know but I am almost running. My feet seem to drag me, unaware of the puddles scattered here and there like rivulets of mocha or chocolate. By the side of the road, I see an old man peddling ripe mangoes in a rattan basket perched on a wooden stool. I gasp for air and fill my lungs with the sweet scent of ripe mangoes. The scent never fails to trigger a memory of my high school days. Sad to say, the smell of mangoes that sweet never lingers in the metropolis. I remember those good old times in the village when I would skip my Math class and would play truant with a classmate just to climb the nearby mango tree and steal some of its sweet, drool-worthy fruits.
I grew up in the village with Baba, my maternal grandfather. I could still remember that during moonlit nights, after supper, he would bring his shaky wooden stool near the wide window and would stare pensively at the brilliant moon. Most of the time, he would inveigle me to sit on his lap and would enthrall me with his stories of Juan Posong, of wakwak, and of sigbin. He would admonish me for being lazy reading books, telling me that I would grow up foolish like Juan Posong. He would warn me not to stay out late at night lest the wakwak would abduct and prey on me, or the sigbin would suck my blood through my shadow.
When it happened to be a cold night, he would gesture me to get a flask of bahalina, and a drinking glass. He would punctuate his storytelling with a swing or slurp of the native liquor. When he was already inebriated, he would start lavishing upon me his words of love, and would carry on telling me how he wooed Nana, and how happy they were when Nana gave birth to my mother. But at an instant, his smiles and lively cadence would transform into grimace and teary eyes while retelling the tragedy that befell upon my mother, her early pregnancy, the abandonment of my father, and her death after giving birth to me. But in no time, he would compose himself as if ashamed by his sentimentality, and would tell me with wet fuzzy eyes, “Listen, Jonas. Men, like women, have the right to cry. Men cry, not because they are weak. Men cry because they are haunted by old memories and inspired by young hopes.” Sad to say, Baba caught pneumonia two decades ago and died on Christmas Day. Since then, I had to live with my uncle, Tio Lucio.
I got a telltale cousin then who also happened to be my classmate, Mario. Whenever we reached home, he would tell on my mischief to his father, Tio Lucio who had a ready buntot-page. Mario would tell about me playing truant, flunking the exams or playing pranks on him or another classmate. Though some were true, most of them were just half-truths. He would sensationalize and catastrophize with his stories of me. But he was also easily dealt with. A sweet mango as a bribe would in no time keep his big mouth mum.
I remember these mischief with smiles and sighs as I trudge on towards my destination. And my face beams more radiantly when I suddenly remember a name so beautiful that by the mere thought of it, I found myself gaping in a dreamy trancelike state. Ma’am Salvé! O, that name is an abracadabra that puts me under a powerful spell! That name is the epitome of all that is beautiful and true and right.
Perhaps you might fancy that my veneration for her is slightly delusional, like a swain’s affectionate devotion to his ladylove. But you could not blame me. Ma’am Salvé has been my salvation, my redemption from mockery, my salve, my balmy remedy for ignorance.
All my teachers except Ma’am Salvé displayed antagonism to me. I could not blame them for their ill feelings because I was a ‘problem child’ as they were wont to call me.
One afternoon, as I passed by the principal’s office, I happened to overhear my name. Curious, I suddenly halted and eavesdropped. Hearing her sonorously calm voice, I know it was Ma’am Salvé. She was talking to Mr. De Guzman, the paunchy principal.
“We barely know about his abnormality. He needs a specialist to get his problem precisely diagnosed and eventually cured if possible.”
“But it would be too hard for him to do that. The nearest school that offers SPED is just too distant. Also, he is already orphaned and lives with Mano Lucio.”
All of I heard was almost gibberish except for the word “SPED.” It reverberated in my ear as I scampered away towards home. Then, I thought it was spelled “speed” and what they talked about was my problematic reading speed. You know, my reading speed was a snail’s pace.
My mind is still adrift to the distant past when my reverie is interrupted by the sight of a balcony. Yes, that balcony. That balcony was my haven, my refuge, my palladium from the demeaning looks which my teachers and my classmates generously hurled at me, my refuge from Tia’s glaring eyes, from Tio’s furrowed forehead and his bloodthirsty buntot-page. On that balcony, my reading speed eventually improved from a snail’s pace to a duck’s wobble, and then, finally to a horse’s gallop. But it was never easy. Ma’am Salvé had to ask permission from Tio and Tia. She told them that I would work with pay during weekends in the little poultry house of Mano Isko, Ma’am Salvé’s husband. But it was just a pure pretext so as to give her ample time to teach me how to read.
We would sit together on the long bench in that balcony. We started with an alphabet primer, to make sure my mastery of ABCs. Next was my writing, especially my scrawly penmanship. She would be apt to correct me whenever I wrote incorrectly the letters of my first name, telling me that “J” looks like a fish hook facing my left. She would reiterate that the “o” is like the shape of full moon; the “n”, like a vertical line attached to a molehill; the “a”, like an egg slightly tilted to the right and readily propped by a vertical line; and the “s”, like a snake in curvaceous outline, with the head facing my right, and the tip of tail on my left. Before each session ended, she would hold my right hand like it was a little fidgety dove, would look at me with her sparkly eyes, and would mutter with sonorously calm voice: “Jonas, close your eyes and feel the strokes of my moving forefinger on your palm. Visualize the shapes of letters inside your head. J – o – n – a – s. Jonas. You have a beautiful name, Jonas. ‘Jonas’ means ‘dove’, the declarer of joy and salvation. If you were a dove, Jonas, you would be a homing pigeon because you would always find your way home.”
I stand still by the bamboo gate staring at the balcony. The bamboo gate is newly built, the slats are neatly nailed side by side, with tapering ends pointing to the pinkish sky. My feet never budge even a tad, like they are planted deep into the very spot and have grown roots.
I call out, “Maupay!” but it sounds like a muffled whisper, like there is a lump in my throat, and I could not summon the airstream out of my lungs. I take a deep sigh, and call out again, but my voice is a shudder, but now, louder.
A bespectacled, slightly bent man steps out of the door, with grizzled hair streaks and receding hairline, revealing his broad furrowed forehead like that of Baba. He halts, takes off his spectacles, and squints as if taking effort to recognize the unanticipated visitor. And then at an instant, as if struck by a lightning bolt, his eyes dilate in recognition. He scurries towards the gate, opens it wide, so wide that the balcony, with all its old memories, is revealed afresh before my eyes. I see a woman and a boy huddled together on a long wooden bench, the woman drawing lines with her forefinger on the boy’s palm.
If you were a dove, Jonas, you would be a homing pigeon because you would always find your way home.
Mano Isko beams, then spreads out his arms wide, so wide like a longing father receiving back his long-lost prodigal son. He leads me inside the house. Twenty years has never changed it even a bit — the sala set made from molave, opposite to it is the glass bookshelf jammed with voluminous books, the two adjacent rooms on the left, and the kitchen on the other side. I sit down the couch, and a new sight catches my fancy. It is a huge laminated frame that hangs on the wall above the shelf. The text on it, I suppose, a Rubáiyát stanza, is written in Gothic letters:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
I read every syllable in it, vocalizing in my mind each phoneme, committing to memory the shapes of the letters, like in the good old days, until my gaze gets rooted to the round, dark ink blot — the period, in its ultimate finality.
I feel a tap on the shoulder. It is Mano Isko. I rise from the couch when he motions me to follow him to a room. By the threshold, I could see the contour of Ma’am Salvé, my teacher — bedridden, looking out of the window, her saggy, pallid face is awash by the pinkish light of the setting sun. She tilts her head to face us.
“Do I know you?” my teacher asks, gazing at my face. Her voice is still sonorously calm. Her eyes still sparkle like the stars in a pitch-black night, but now they flicker a little fainter.
“Do you know him?” she turns her drowsy eyes to Mano Isko. Her husband nods and turns to me, gesturing me to speak up.
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m Jonas.” I utter my name like it is a stranger’s, like the last time I uttered it was two decades ago.
“Jonas. Jonas.” She mutters my name under her breath, closes her eyes gently as if she were remembering. Then, she opens them again, glues her gaze at me for some time and lets out a deep sigh.
“I don’t know any Jonas.”
Her voice is punctuated with poignant estrangement.
I look at her but she just turns her back on me, stares out of the window, gazing at the setting sun again.
I don’t know but my face gets warm. I turn to Mano Isko with inquisitive look. He taps me on my shoulder and gestures me that we should get out of the room.
We sit on the couch only to be appalled by his tidings.
“Alzheimer’s. She has Alzheimer’s.”
His voice is a shudder.
“It has been five years but her dementia just worsens. Medical treatment is not enough to regain her memory.”
We talk at great length — how I fared in the metropolis since I had left the village to live with my father, how hard it was for them, a childless couple when I left, especially for my teacher.
At the end of our talk, Mano tells me that I should try to talk to her again. He pleads me to bring Ma’am Salvé’s medicine and a glass of water in the room.
I leave him in the couch and walk towards the room. I open the door slowly, very slowly, avoiding to get the rusty hinges creaking lest it would rouse her from slumber. From the threshold, I see her eyelids tightly closed; her hair, ruffled and grey; her chest heaving almost heavily like a pile of voluminous books from the glass bookshelf are laid down onto her. I tiptoe towards the bedside table and place her medicine and water. Then I sit on the shaky wooden stool beside it. Inadvertently, I lift her right hand, gnarled and cold; then pry open the half-clenched palm. In no time, a tendril of memory yonder, of that sonorously calm voice reverberates in my ears.