Story and art by Paul Raymond Jimenez
Death crept in the cramped space where we hid for days. The air reeked of sadness. I stared at the only access for relief, an aperture cracked open by shrapnel during the last barrage. A gentle pacific wind seeped in, its tail uncovering a majestic masterpiece—the sky’s wispy and thin outlines. It reminded me of the sea.
Then the past slithered by. A memory of Elena smiling back, invoking a poignant heartbeat.
I nudged my friend and pointed to the clouds. “José, do you remember that time in the Aguada? You see those clouds. They remind me of that time.”
Weary eyes stared back at me, then refocused its sight to the sky. I heard a soft sigh.
* * *
José and Elena were my best friends. We were children when we first went to the Aguada.
José and I woke up before the sun was up on that winter solstice. We had to as it entailed trailing a half an hour dusty road, which led to the sea. Elena met us halfway as their house was at the end of the town’s levee.
We strolled the shoreline of the Aguada until we reached the end of the cove. “The sea rests in the morning,” as my grandmother said. Underneath the translucent overcast of the ocean reflected refracted images of the clouds. Wet sand cooled our bare feet before we frolicked in shallow waters.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Elena said about the clouds, laying on clasped hands while her knotted long hair rested on her chest.
Waiting for our soaked clothes to dry, we exchanged snippets of our week. José began with stories of hardships in academics. I kept it going with trifling matters, like why my grandmother preferred fish instead of pork. Elena enticed further jibber-jabber by teasing me about the awkward themes of my poetry.
“Oh Manuel, could you please recite to us one of your poems?”
“That was quite poetic of you, hijo,” Jose had chuckled, joining in.
My mother, a teacher in the barrio’s school, had told Elena’s mother of my flair for rhyming words. An avid art enthusiast, her mother coaxed me into reading some of my poems after dinner at the host’s sala mayor. While the grownups sipped their ginger tea, I proceeded to read my mystical poem. It was about a nymph cast ashore on a forgotten kingdom.
That night was further enlivened by the giggling of my friends, despite the intimidating presence of José’s papa, the town mayor. Elena and José also performed an ode to our patron saint—her singing, him on the piano.
The arrival of fishermen on their bancas filled with produce evocative of the sea ended our morning rendezvous. By then, we had run out of stories.
* * *
When we were sixteen, our parents sent us to the city to study.
Elena took a course that would help her recreate the clouds in a canvas, and José took engineering at the same university. He intended to create a contraption that would harness the wind exhaled by the clouds. His grand scheme’s intent was in electrifying our barrio’s rustic demeanor. I pursued writing, the only craft I knew other than dancing and singing. Still, it helped convey my thoughts about the clouds.
The city was bustling with progress, contrasting the rustic serenity of our barrio. The glimmering shadows of the urban metropolis was a perfect backdrop for the arts. My friends and I, of course, took note. Then there was bodabil, our country’s version of the vaudeville. As we all exhibited skills in art and music, we auditioned as part-time performers in one production. We landed parts of minor concern to the audience, whether tap-dancing, choral singing, and at times, supporting roles.
“Care to dance?” I asked Elena.
Dance intermissions were heaven sent. We might have not been stars of the show, but the supporting roles were an avenue for dancing. Elena was the best dancing partner one can ever have. Oblivious to the Metropolitan Theater’s patrons’ introductory applause, I had always treated the performance as a gift from the Gods.
“Yes, I’d love to, my dear,” she agreed.
The skit then erupted into a tap-dance number while José’s fingers worked the piano in the dark side of the stage. So we danced, the ambrosial colegiala scent lingering until the following morning.
I was in love. Somehow I needed to let her know. Yet my mind’s complacency with destiny hindered the action demanded by my heart.
* * *
“But why?” Elena had asked.
A wraithlike armada of flying pirates beat me to it one December day when they first appeared in a harbor west of Honolulu. It confirmed the forecast of the impending war, which would soon land on our shores. She was the first one to hear about our plans, how José and I volunteered to join the hastily organized defense of the islands as scouts.
The night before we were to report to our contingent in Bataan, Elena, José, and I agreed to meet. We went to the church and prayed for deliverance from this pestilence that would soon overcome our lands.
We craved for sautéed noodles, so we decided to have dinner at our favorite panciteria near the church. The place was closer to the church and was an easy commute to Elena’s dormitory. Not only that, townsfolk believed that consumption of fried noodles meant long life.
Elena told us she would stay in the city to continue her obligations with the bodabil production. Their producer expected that the show would go on after officials declared Manila as an open city. I was hungry that day, so I devoured my share of the noodle dish before my friends consumed theirs.
But our dinner was rudely interrupted by the siren’s wailing—a crude pronouncement that the lords of the skies were passing by. We parted at the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I saw the tears roll down in Elena’s cherubic cheeks. We only managed to wave our hands goodbye. My love, it seemed, was destined to be unrequited.
* * *
When Bataan fell, José and I joined other scattered forces to continue the fight. We became guerillas who retreated beyond the hills and as far as the mountains of Central Luzon. The experience had aged us within those few months after our defeat in Bataan.
But our resolve to see it through and the hope of reconciling with our loved ones remained steadfast. Unlike regular soldiers, we could not send letters except veiled correspondence. Instead, José continued writing in his little notebook. I admired his resiliency for keeping trivial habits of the past. I also envied him since I was the writer between us friends.
But I could not write. I was fighting nightmares, sometimes dreams of a bayonet piercing my chest. Most nights, I kept awake to act as a sentry guard of our camp in the mountains. I was so jumpy at times that one starry night I accidentally pulled my carbine’s trigger. My clumsiness scared not only a spiritless owl but also the dissidents who had domesticated her once forbidden abode.
Taking shelter in the mountain’s green terrain was like wielding a double-edged sword. José contracted malaria. One night, he had an episode of piercing chills. I watched over him through the night. He was having hallucinations. And out of the blue, he cried out a name which surprised me.
I wrapped him with the handwoven fabric given by one of the ethnic mountaineers. My friend’s convulsion was wild, and his flailing arms grazed his native rattan backpack and spilt its contents. As I gathered his things to put them back in their place, a tempting item took hold of me. I picked Jose’s strapped notebook, like mine, a gift to us from Elena last Christmas before the invaders arrived.
Boredom or the desire to finally read something after a very long time caused my misdemeanor, and I leafed through the notebook pages. José’s tales of the hustle-and-bustle of the past filled the first few pages. Its narratives somehow consoled a lonely life in the mountains, and I realized my friend never gave up on hope.
I was halfway through the notebook, when an entry dated on the day we were last together with Elena, stupefied me:
12 December 1941
We bade farewell to my Elena, my love.
I do not know when we will see each other again.
star of the procession,
guide to lost boys,
an emblem of misty dreams,
the true queen of my passion.
I slumped on the moist ground inside our tent. And there I wept.
The following day, we were able to intercept a Japanese transport that fortunately had atabrine. My friend’s fever regressed where immunity can again hold the line against a siege, which badly needed proper care of civilization.
* * *
Days went by, and we lost track of time. Then one beautiful day, good tidings arrived, welcomed by the dulcet chirping of Maya birds while the sun was rising. José told me before he relieved me that he felt a premonition.
By midday, our leader, who once commanded a company in Bataan, huddled us ragtag fighters.
“We will need some volunteers. MacArthur will be liberating Manila soon. We need scouts to observe the enemy’s movements within the city,” announced our commander.
In a heartbeat, José and I volunteered to fill in the empty ranks. The plan was heaven-sent. We were to blend in with the crowd ensuring to avoid fellow countrymen who had become spies for the invaders. Sleuthing in pairs was desirable, and José was satisfied with that. My battle-weary brother-in-arms could only mutter: “This is our chance, Manuel. To see Elena.”
* * *
Arriving at the outskirts of the city, we feared our journey took long as the rising smoke confirmed our worst fear. The liberators had begun their aerial and artillery bombardment. The streets were devoid of the splendor I had kept in my memory through the years in the mountains.
We first came across the theatre where we used to perform. There was no one there.
Amidst the staccato of exploding bombs, gunfire, and anguished screams, we searched for Elena’s dormitory. Like Theseus, we traversed the streets, rummaging one building after another in a maze of destruction laid bare by the minotaur’s wrath. The restaurant was now rubbles and ashes. As if God heard the pleas of its children, the old church stood still, and our spirits soared with the hope that Elena’s dormitory remained unscathed.
For a brief moment, the sun’s rays peeked out of the baggy cloud of smoke, beaming on the facade of a familiar building—Elena’s dormitory. We ran towards it with what was left of our strength. As we barged into the building doors, a familiar sound like New Year’s eve welcomed our arrival. Then everything went black.
* * *
I woke with a start. Then past events came in a flash. Had it all been a dream? But the distant sound of reckoning reminded me it was not. So we waited.
José had been quiet for a while. I propped his back on a piece of wall congruent with the clouds, reached for his hand and clenched its bony and lifeless fingers.
“When this is all over, we’ll swim again in the Aguada,” I promised.
My friend’s gaze, transfixed by the sky, was now far away.
Elena’s silhouette obscured the clouds. ☁️