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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Magnificence (Estrella D. Alfon)

There was nothing to fear, for the man was always so gentle, so
kind. At night when the little girl and her brother were bathed in the light
of the big shaded bulb that hung over the big study table in the
downstairs hall, the man would knock gently on the door, and come in. he
would stand for a while just beyond the pool of light, his feet in the circle
of illumination, the rest of him in shadow. The little girl and her brother
would look up at him where they sat at the big table, their eyes bright in
the bright light, and watch him come fully into the light, but his voice soft,
his manner slow. He would smell very faintly of sweat and pomade, but
the children didn’t mind although they did notice, for they waited for him
every evening as they sat at their lessons like this. He’d throw his visored
cap on the table, and it would fall down with a soft plop, then he’d nod his
head to say one was right, or shake it to say one was wrong.

It was not always that he came. They could remember perhaps
two weeks when he remarked to their mother that he had never seen two
children looking so smart. The praise had made their mother look over
them as they stood around listening to the goings-on at the meeting of the
neighborhood association, of which their mother was president. Two
children, one a girl of seven, and a boy of eight. They were both very tall
for their age, and their legs were the long gangly legs of fine spirited colts.
Their mother saw them with eyes that held pride, and then to partly gloss
over the maternal gloating she exhibited, she said to the man, in answer
to his praise, But their homework. They’re so lazy with them. And the
man said, I have nothing to do in the evenings, let me help them. Mother
nodded her head and said, if you want to bother yourself. And the thing
rested there, and the man came in the evenings therefore, and he helped
solve fractions for the boy, and write correct phrases in language for the
little girl.

In those days, the rage was for pencils. School children always
have rages going at one time or another. Sometimes for paper butterflies
that are held on sticks, and whirr in the wind. The Japanese bazaars
promoted a rage for those. Sometimes it is for little lead toys found in the
folded waffles that Japanese confection-makers had such light hands
with. At this particular time, it was for pencils. Pencils big but light in
circumference not smaller than a man’s thumb. They were unwieldy in a
child’s hands, but in all schools then, where Japanese bazaars clustered there were all colors of these pencils selling for very low, but unattainable
to a child budgeted at a baon of a centavo a day. They were all of five
centavos each, and one pencil was not at all what one had ambitions for.
In rages, one kept a collection. Four or five pencils, of different colors, to
tie with strings near the eraser end, to dangle from one’s book-basket, to
arouse the envy of the other children who probably possessed less.

Add to the man’s gentleness and his kindness in knowing a child’s
desires, his promise that he would give each of them not one pencil but
two. And for the little girl who he said was very bright and deserved more,
ho would get the biggest pencil he could find.

One evening he did bring them. The evenings of waiting had
made them look forward to this final giving, and when they got the
pencils they whooped with joy. The little boy had tow pencils, one green,
one blue. And the little girl had three pencils, two of the same
circumference as the little boy’s but colored red and yellow. And the third
pencil, a jumbo size pencil really, was white, and had been sharpened,
and the little girl jumped up and down, and shouted with glee. Until their
mother called from down the stairs. What are you shouting about? And
they told her, shouting gladly, Vicente, for that was his name. Vicente had
brought the pencils he had promised them.

Thank him, their mother called. The little boy smiled and said,
Thank you. And the little girl smiled, and said, Thank you, too. But the
man said, Are you not going to kiss me for those pencils? They both came
forward, the little girl and the little boy, and they both made to kiss him
but Vicente slapped the boy smartly on his lean hips, and said, Boys do
not kiss boys. And the little boy laughed and scampered away, and then
ran back and kissed him anyway.

The little girl went up to the man shyly, put her arms about his
neck as he crouched to receive her embrace, and kissed him on the
cheeks.

The man’s arms tightened suddenly about the little girl until the
little girl squirmed out of his arms, and laughed a little breathlessly,
disturbed but innocent, looking at the man with a smiling little question
of puzzlement.

The next evening, he came around again. All through that day,
they had been very proud in school showing off their brand new pencils.
All the little girls and boys had been envying them. And their mother had
finally to tell them to stop talking about the pencils, pencils, for now that they had, the boy two, and the girl three, they were asking their mother to
buy more, so they could each have five, and three at least in the jumbo
size that the little girl’s third pencil was. Their mother said, Oh stop it,
what will you do with so many pencils, you can only write with one at a
time.

And the little girl muttered under her breath, I’ll ask Vicente for some more. Their mother replied, He’s only a bus conductor, don’t ask him for
too many things. It’s a pity. And this observation their mother said to
their father, who was eating his evening meal between paragraphs of the
book on masonry rites that he was reading. It is a pity, said their mother,
People like those, they make friends with people like us, and they feel it is
nice to give us gifts, or the children toys and things. You’d think they
wouldn’t be able to afford it.

The father grunted, and said, the man probably needed a new job,
and was softening his way through to him by going at the children like
that. And the mother said, No, I don’t think so, he’s a rather queer young
man, I think he doesn’t have many friends, but I have watched him with
the children, and he seems to dote on them.

The father grunted again, and did not pay any further attention.

Vicente was earlier than usual that evening. The children
immediately put their lessons down, telling him of the envy of their
schoolmates, and would he buy them more please?

Vicente said to the little boy, Go and ask if you can let me have a glass of water. And the little boy ran away to comply, saying behind him, But buy us some more pencils, huh, buy us more pencils, and then went up to stairs to their mother.

Vicente held the little girl by the arm, and said gently, Of course I will buy you more pencils, as many as you want.

And the little girl giggled and said, Oh, then I will tell my friends, and they will envy me, for they don’t have as many or as pretty.

Vicente took the girl up lightly in his arms, holding her under the armpits, and held her to sit down on his lap and he said, still gently, What are your lessons for tomorrow? And the little girl turned to the paper on the table where she had been writing with the jumbo pencil, and she told him that that was her lesson but it was easy.

Then go ahead and write, and I will watch you.

Don’t hold me on your lap, said the little girl, I am very heavy, you
will get very tired.

The man shook his head, and said nothing, but held her on his lap just the same. The little girl kept squirming, for somehow she felt uncomfortable
to be held thus, her mother and father always treated her like a big girl,
she was always told never to act like a baby. She looked around at
Vicente, interrupting her careful writing to twist around.
His face was all in sweat, and his eyes looked very strange, and he
indicated to her that she must turn around, attend to the homework she
was writing.

But the little girl felt very queer, she didn’t know why, all of a sudden she was immensely frightened, and she jumped up away from Vicente’s lap. She stood looking at him, feeling that queer frightened feeling,
not knowing what to do.

By and by, in a very short while her mother came
down the stairs, holding in her hand a glass of sarsaparilla, Vicente.

But Vicente had jumped up too soon as the little girl had jumped
from his lap. He snatched at the papers that lay on the table and held
them to his stomach, turning away from the mother’s coming.
The mother looked at him, stopped in her tracks, and advanced
into the light. She had been in the shadow. Her voice had been like a bell
of safety to the little girl. But now she advanced into glare of the light that
held like a tableau the figures of Vicente holding the little girl’s papers to
him, and the little girl looking up at him frightenedly, in her eyes dark
pools of wonder and fear and question.

The little girl looked at her mother, and saw the beloved face
transfigured by some sort of glow. The mother kept coming into the light,
and when Vicente made as if to move away into the shadow, she said, very
low, but very heavily, Do not move.

She put the glass of soft drink down on the table, where in the
light one could watch the little bubbles go up and down in the dark liquid.
The mother said to the boy, Oscar, finish your lessons. And turning to the
little girl, she said, Come here. The little girl went to her, and the mother
knelt down, for she was a tall woman and she said, Turn around.
Obediently the little girl turned around, and her mother passed her hands
over the little girl’s back.

Go upstairs, she said.

The mother’s voice was of such a heavy quality and of such awful
timbre that the girl could only nod her head, and without looking at
Vicente again, she raced up the stairs. The mother went to the cowering
man, and marched him with a glance out of the circle of light that held
the little boy. Once in the shadow, she extended her hand, and without
any opposition took away the papers that Vicente was holding to himself.
She stood there saying nothing as the man fumbled with his hands and
with his fingers, and she waited until he had finished. She was going to
open her mouth but she glanced at the boy and closed it, and with a look
and an inclination of the head, she bade Vicente go up the stairs.

The man said nothing, for she said nothing either. Up the stairs went the man, and the mother followed behind. When they had reached the upper landing, the woman called down to her son, Son, come up and go to your room. The little boy did as he was told, asking no questions, for indeed he was feeling sleepy already.

As soon as the boy was gone, the mother turned on Vicente. There was a pause.

Finally, the woman raised her hand and slapped him full hard in
the face. Her retreated down one tread of the stairs with the force of the
blow, but the mother followed him. With her other hand she slapped him
on the other side of the face again. And so down the stairs they went, the
man backwards, his face continually open to the force of the woman’s
slapping. Alternately she lifted her right hand and made him retreat
before her until they reached the bottom landing.

He made no resistance, offered no defense. Before the silence and
the grimness of her attack he cowered, retreating, until out of his mouth
issued something like a whimper.

The mother thus shut his mouth, and with those hard forceful
slaps she escorted him right to the other door. As soon as the cool air of
the free night touched him, he recovered enough to turn away and run,
into the shadows that ate him up. The woman looked after him, and
closed the door. She turned off the blazing light over the study table, and
went slowly up the stairs and out into the dark night.

When her mother reached her, the woman, held her hand out to
the child. Always also, with the terrible indelibility that one associated
with terror, the girl was to remember the touch of that hand on her
shoulder, heavy, kneading at her flesh, the woman herself stricken almost
dumb, but her eyes eloquent with that angered fire. She knelt, She felt the
little girl’s dress and took it off with haste that was almost frantic, tearing
at the buttons and imparting a terror to the little girl that almost made
her sob. Hush, the mother said. Take a bath quickly.

Her mother presided over the bath the little girl took, scrubbed
her, and soaped her, and then wiped her gently all over and changed her
into new clothes that smelt of the clean fresh smell of clothes that had
hung in the light of the sun. The clothes that she had taken off the little
girl, she bundled into a tight wrenched bunch, which she threw into the
kitchen range.

Take also the pencils, said the mother to the watching newly
bathed, newly changed child. Take them and throw them into the fire. But
when the girl turned to comply, the mother said, No, tomorrow will do.
And taking the little girl by the hand, she led her to her little girl’s bed,
made her lie down and tucked the covers gently about her as the girl
dropped off into quick slumber.

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