I continue my blogging about my memories with sketches … and also old photos. Copyright 2021 by Cecilia BrainardTALISAYCecilia Brainard
My father had been an engineering professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila. He and my mother lived in a big house on Georgia Street, in the Malate District. There they had their first two two children — my oldest sister and brother. When World War II broke out, my father entrusted the Manila house to his nephew Nanding. He brought his family by boat to Mindanao, and there he worked for the guerrilla movement — I have fictionalized some of their war stories into my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (aka Song of Yvonne).There they stayed for four years. My other sister was born “behind some bushes” while a Japanese patrol walked by. My mother lost a baby boy there, a miscarriage. My father would disappear for days without my mother knowing where he went, only to discover later on that he had traveled with the Americans to Australia or some other place.
When the war ended, my parents had to decide where to rebuild their lives. My father’s house in Manila was completely destroyed. Between the Japanese Kamikaze pilots crash-bombing and the Americans bombing Manila during Liberation, postwar Manila was in ruins. The decomposed body of a St. Paul’s nun was even found on my father’s property. They buried her right there in the yard, and her ghost was reportedly seen flitting about, now and then. I never saw her, but I heard stories about her apparitions from my brother and the servants. Whenever Mama heard that her ghost had appeared, she would hurry off to Malate Church to have a Mass said for the unfortunate nun.
Back when World War Two ended, it must have been a dilemma for my father to consider transporting his wife and three young children from Mindanao to war-torn Manila. My mother’s Cebuano family however had resources and a strong network to help them get started in Cebu. My mother’s father, Mariano Jesus Cuenco, was a senator; her brother Manuel was the governor of Cebu. This uncle had a beach house that my family could live in temporarily. My father found work as a district engineer. And so they stayed in Cebu, in Talisay, near the sea. Their temporary house was a two-story wooden structure with thatched roof. My brother and two sisters attended the local public school.
I was born two and a half years after Liberation. In 1947 newly born, and newly recovered from my beri-beri, I was brought home to Talisay. There I breathed in salty sea air. The first sounds I heard were of waves and vendors calling out their wares: caramelized bananas fanned out, skewered grilled fish, and “hearts” of rice nestled in woven coconut leaves. There were walks along the seashore, sightings of fishermen in their boats, brilliant red sunsets, children swimming, fishing, digging up clams — perhaps I sat on the beach and helped my siblings dig up clams. At night the crickets made their sawing racket and someone strummed the guitar or told a story about war days, or about witches and enchanted beings. The storytelling could have gone like this: It is evening; the cook is preparing supper, and the servants are gathered around a roughhewn table. Strong smells of garlic, vinegar, and bay leaves waft about. A man pulls out a guitar and strums some notes. He hums. While the cook is busy stirring cauldrons and pots, the servants sit back, listen to the music, and then someone begins, “I heard the witch walked by the neighbor’s coconut grove.”
Someone gasps. “No, not the witch The señora there is pregnant.”
As she walked under the coconut trees, the coconuts started falling to the ground, even the young nuts.”
“No! What about the señora? Did the witch get her?
“No, fortunately she was at her mother’s house.”
Stories of witches were popular: witches had long tongues that they used to suck out unborn babies; witches could turn into dogs or horses; dying witches could pass on their witch-condition by holding another person’s hand. Every community had a local witch, who was probably just an ordinary woman but somehow ended up the target of the nighttime gossip — so and so ran into a strange black dog, and he hacked it with the machete; the next day this particular woman had a huge cut on her arm.
There were also stories of manananggals, creatures that at nightfall detached their heads and entrails and floated about, sometimes getting tangled in trees. One could put beetles in their body cavities so the manananggals could not reattach to their bodies. There were enchanted giants who lived in old trees and who could cause sickness even death on people who displeased them. The naughty duendes (goblins) made things disappear and reappear; they were also famous for wrapping clothes around house posts. Other types of forest encantados could kidnap people who displeased them. Ghosts and spirits could appear in the form of butterflies or birds; they could also communicate via dreams. Devils could possess people, especially during Lent. There were santelmos, little tongues of light that would mysteriously appear in creepy places at night.
I grew up politely saying “Excuse me,” to unseen creatures at night in the garden or on the road, so as not to offend them because I knew that if I accidentally hit them or their belongings, something bad could happen to me. My siblings and I spent evenings observing trees, hoping to see the agta, a gigantic being who lived in old trees.
There was even a story of how a big black dog climbed our stairs, entered the bedroom and headed straight for me the infant. It was understood that this was not an ordinary dog, but something malevolent that would harm an infant. Fortunately someone saved me from the dog.
I have a faded black and white photo of me with my three siblings in Talisay. My oldest sister is carrying me in her arms. She is twelve years old. My eight-year old brother has a brownie camera in his hand. My other sister, four years older than me is holding her doll. I am smiling. We four are on a hammock, looking healthy and happy. In the background, my father’s Buick sits, covered by tarp, a prized possession after the war. This is the only surviving picture of me as an infant.
During this time, my father was constructing our family home in the city, behind the Capitolio. There my father created his dream house, two-story Spanish-style with balconies and verandahs, marble floors, crystal chandeliers, hardwood floors and cabinets made from narra and other fine wood.
Then the Great Flood happened.
My brother told me that while we still lived in Talisay, there was a very strong typhoon. The clouds were thick in the sky, and the wind blew so hard it snapped off branches, knocked down trees. When the rain fell, the principal at school decided to send the children home so they would be safer. But by the time my brother left his classroom, the heavy rain had flooded the roads and the water had risen so high, he had to swim home. He was eight or nine years old then.
It may have been coincidence, but sometime after the Great Flood in Talisay, my parents completed our house in the city and we said goodbye to our Talisay home.
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