Fiction / March 2015 (Issue 27)

Royal Purple

by Fatima Lim-Wilson

Mother Rosing was to blame, and she knew it. After all, even if she was fully aware that what she obsessed over would course through her veins and pump into her unborn son, she still chose to eat an endless supply of eggplants. Boiled, mashed, grilled, curried, pickled, stir fried—you name it—she ate heaping, steaming bowls of the purple plant all through the nine months she carried her eldest. Old wives' tale? No, Tomas was living proof that lihi was all too real. He emerged into the world, a howling elongated, plump produce of a boy, with a colour so deep, the stunned midwife almost dropped the slippery aubergine baby.

Oh, but how Rosing loved Tomas. Did she pay heed to the street truants who called after her son, "Tomas, Tomas—how long is your talong?" Did she skitter with shame when the church ladies tsk-tsked so loudly? They sounded like a chorus of cranky crickets, as she walked past them, her head held high, holding aloft her infant whom she bedecked in the laciest homemade baptismal gown, its pure white satin stark against his royal purple hue. No, she hugged him so tightly with love that if he could have, he would have turned even purpler.

Tomas' father, bless him, did not seem to notice the infant's odd, dismal features. Mang Pedring was the barangay captain and took his leadership role over their barely-there barrio far too seriously. After working all day on a postage stamp-sized plot of land, he would rush home. Right after stepping over the threshold, he would peck Rosing on the cheek, wolf down his dinner of dried fish and fried bananas in one gulp and scoop Tomas up, wrapping him in burlap. Then off they went, father and son, with Mang Pedring's trusty, rusty balisong rattling in its worn scabbard. A wooden cross, a Boy Scout whistle and his official medallion, big as a saucer and burnished in tinfoil, all fought for space upon his heaving chest. He marched with military precision, Tomas' little head bobbing next to his. Their neighbours slept serenely since no drunken ruffians, bomb-festooned terrorists, flying vampires or rabid dogs would dare traverse the provincial kingdom's perimeters, not with Mang Pedring and his purple knight errant doing their rounds.

By day, the pebbles and twigs hurled Tomas' way bounced off him, yet they still seemed to penetrate his skin, turning his silent, seething rage into hard, rock brawn and coolly calculating brain cells. On weekends, his father taught Tomas the secrets of stick fighting, which soon put a stop to the bullies' chicanery. Too many of them heard the whistling warning of a branch before it landed right smack on their crew-cut heads. 

Father Daniel O'Dowd, the Irish parish priest, woke up from his decades long stupor when in a sweltering classroom crowded with children of all ages, Tomas' voice rose above the rabble, reciting the preamble to the Magna Carta: "Edward by the grace of God King of England, lord of Ireland and duke of Aquitaine sends greetings to all ...." Since the poor priest's grand plans of building a cathedral made entirely of coconuts had fallen through, he had been drowning his sorrows with lukewarm servings of the local palm brew. Tomas, in the meantime, had ravenously been reading the sun-warped pages of all of the books strewn about Father Daniel's dank quarters.

At last, the friar found a reason for living once again, for Tomas was his next project. Thanks to his largesse, this purple protégé would rise to magnificent proportions. He wrote to his superior in the city, extolling Tomas' saintly and savant skills. Father General had many a friend in the galaxy of elite urban dwellers who were only too eager to please His Excellency. They firmly believed that the Most Holy One could send their petitions directly to heaven through His Holiness' very own hotline.

As the city-bound bus snorted noxious fumes into the air, Tomas' father stood stoically, a ramrod soldier, while his mother sobbed, giant tears plopping upon Tomas' shirt. He hugged them tightly, the two who loved him the most. Finally, he took a deep breath and broke free, but not before they forced into his hands the much-folded bills of a few pesos and his father's wooden cross. They were still waving goodbye to their one-and-only son long after the last black belch from the bus disappeared among the swaying coconut fronds. 

In keeping up with Western standards, the students at Tomas' sleek and air-conditioned school followed the unspoken rules of political correctness. They dared not tease the provincial scholar—not only because of the institution's stated mission of "equality for all" but also because they had seen Tomas "the Talong" practising his arnis skills on the school grounds during recess. Tomas, shirtless, his thin wisp of a stick whipping about like a wrathful snake, moved gracefully in spite of his intimidating bulk, an immense cross dancing upon his chest. However, equality existed merely in the calligraphy engraved upon the school's filigreed fence.

As he blazed through each class with flying colours, Tomas remained alone except for the weekly ritual of Sunday lunch spent with the Archbishop who had grown immensely fond of the brooding boy. His Eminence never tired of listening to Tomas recite the litany of saints and the names of all the Popes since Peter. As for his peers, they never invited Tomas to their barb-wired mansions or to their faux rustic cabanas by the sea. He did not seem to mind, as he was powered by his ferocious hunger for knowledge. Miss Mallari trusted him well enough to let Tomas lock the library doors late at night. She tiptoed past him on her way out, marvelling at how the serious boy raced through piles and piles of books, a paper fortress towering around him.

He graduated with honours. Instead of trying to crawl his way up the bamboo ladder of civil service, Tomas took the very same bus back home. His parents met their now grown-up son, a vision in purple emerging from the smoke spewing out of the bus that had broken down thrice on the twisty roads leading to Barrio Santo Domingo. This time, however, it was Tomas who stood stock-still. Mang Pedring and Rosing were beaming at him. Between them, holding onto their hands like an earthbound cherub, stood Tomas' little brother, Johnny.

Actually, he wasn't that little. And it was not as if Tomas had not known about his sibling. Tomas had faithfully called his parents once a month, but distracted as he was with his studies and frustrated by the unceasing static that pierced his eardrums, he could barely make out what his excited mother and mumbling father were saying over the phone. Something about Fr. O'Dowd finally building a new church, this time from seashells and smashed beer bottles, and pygmy bats by the thousands settling in the cave near the cemetery. And yes, Johnny being born.

Later on, as his mother plied him with rice, fried banana blossoms and garlicky fingerlings, Tomas stared openly at his brother who likewise gazed upon him, unblinking.

During her second pregnancy, Rosing craved for milk. Sweet, cold carabao milk. Mang Pedring gave up some of his nightly vigils in order to work as as a security guard at the neighbouring town's cockfighting arena. He would scour the barrio for milk, begging fellow farmers to share their water buffaloes' precious liquid with him, at any price. On one of those forays, a white cattle egret followed Mang Pedring home, winging its way from tree branch to tree branch, until it finally settled upon the towering mango tree shading Mang Pedring's thatched-roof home. Rosing drank glass after glass of carabao milk, as if hypnotised by the warbling of the egret, which flashed its white wings in some secret semaphore.

Here, sitting before him, was the proof of his mother's craving. Johnny, pale, paler than Fr. O'Dowd humming softly, and ever so sweetly. There were fifteen years between them. Not a single feature did the siblings share, yet Tomas felt his heart expand at the sound of his brother's crystal clear voice. Now, there were three souls bound to him, his lifelong loves.

Tomas, as the first college graduate of Barrio Santo Domingo, awed his neighbours, even those who once tormented him. He ran for mayor, easily unseating the scion of a political dynasty. The members of this blue-blooded clan had long been living in the city, visiting the barrio only fleetingly during each campaign season. When Tomas' landslide victory was announced, the patricians fled in minivans still flying election banners, chased by village children taunting the now ex-mayor, who sat trembling in the back seat, his ghostly face still visible through the tinted windows.

Mayor Tomas wasted no time, turning his utopian dreams to reality. Fr. O'Dowd, re-energised by the success of his tilted but now quite famous church, eagerly offered to help his wonder kid. The Father Superior had recently passed away, leaving a not insignificant inheritance to his much loved purple scholar. With the help of the tireless priest, Tomas banned those blasted buses and under-the-table bribery. He demanded that the municipal government fix the potholed roads, bring in electrical wiring and set up septic tanks. 

Tomas marketed the barrio's bananas as organic and free trade. Perhaps it was the bats' droppings or Rosing's wildly imaginative recipes, but it did not take long for Barrio Santo Domingo's banana chips, banana cakes and banana granola to become all the rage, not only in the city but overseas as well. The backpackers, health nuts and New Age adventurers came in trickles, then in droves. They meditated in Fr. O'Dowd's crooked church and waited, at dusk, like quest-driven disciples, by the mouth of the cave. They gasped, trembling with fear and delight, as the bats, thousands upon thousands of them, blotted out the copper cymbal of the setting sun. 

The story should have ended here, no? Country boy makes good, defies the odds, makes his parents proud, turns his nowhere-on-the-map town into a Lonely Planet destination. Purple wins! What Rosing did not tell her husband or her son was that during her first pregnancy, she'd had another obsession. While her husband was toiling away at their little farm, Rosing listened to her battery-powered radio hour after hour. As she darned Mang Pedring's socks, swept away dust from the plaster saints and braided her waist-long hair, Rosing listened on and on, enthralled with serial radio narratives featuring swooning maidens, love-addled Romeos and always, the fatal end of these tragic sweethearts. Swallowing another spoonful of steamed eggplant, Rosing salted every meal with her own tears.

Johnny could have followed his brother's path. He would have been more warmly welcomed at the progressive school with his newfound wealth and movie star looks. However, Johnny had no interest in books at all. He meandered about the banana plantation, singing to himself, hushing the chattering harvesters and twittering rice sparrows. Truly, each time he opened his mouth, it was as if archangels had descended amongst them.

Sweeping the country was the craze for reality shows. Now that Barrio Santo Domingo was locked into the national electric grid, it seemed that the roof of every house in the area, including the most ramshackle shanty, bristled with the impressive Modernist metallic sculptures of television antennas. No one was more enraptured by the cast of wannabe singers featured on Pinoy Idol than Johnny. He did not mimic them; he took their trills and tremolos and cast his voice to the wind, many times more magnified and magnificent than any of the contestants. Not wanting to let their baby go off to the city and disappear for years like his elder brother, Mang Pedring and Rosing were unmoved by the neighbours' supplications that Johnny represent their town in this nationwide phenomenon. 

Finally, Johnny begged his brother to plead his cause. The mayor had avoided his brother, knowing what he was about to ask of him. He had gone to the next town for a mayoral meeting. He slept outdoors at the banana plantation to oversee the harvest. He even hiked up to the cave claiming to be investigating the purported drop in the bat population. However, Tomas could no longer delay the inevitable since his brother knew him only too well. Though he always looking thunderously dark and ferocious, Tomas had a soft spot in his heart for his gentle sibling.

After many tears and mock indignation, the parents relented and there was another goodbye scene. This time, Nardo, the family driver and trusted servant drove Johnny to the city in a small but brand new car. Tomas, sounding more gruff than usual, reminded Johnny to call home as he gently placed over his brother's head the necklace from which hung the wooden cross. Johnny waved to his family dwindling into a trio of dots in the distance.

Staying at the Archbishop's residence, Johnny did not get to explore the city much. He did not mind since he enjoyed strolling around the manicured gardens and joining the seminarians for their matins and vespers. Nardo was his sole supporter in the studio the night Johnny performed, but back in Barrio Santo Domingo, the entire village watched the television audience leap to its feet to give Johnny a thunderous ovation. The judges babbled in exclamation points, raining flatteries over Johnny who seemed to shimmer under the spotlight. He did not sing in singsong English but in the native tongue. He did not choose a pop tune. Instead, he intoned the sweetly sorrowful notes of his mother's lullaby. Rosing's one-note wails prevented the villagers from hearing the judges announce that her son was the national champion.

During his Idol reign, Johnny gallantly sang at baptismal parties, debutantes' balls, noodle shop inaugurations and church ceremonies. He appeared on television shows singing his heart out, keeping in tune during duets with wrestlers, dwarves, transvestites and toothless vagrants.

Rosing's radio tragedy began in real life on a cooking show. Johnny was supposed to serenade a newly crowned beauty queen as she prepared a native rice cake. Johnny upon setting his eyes on Lisabel, forgot, for the first time, the lyrics of a favourite song. The lovely lass likewise fumbled with her ingredients, spilling flour and turning Johnny even whiter. The audience lapped it all up, clapping loudly and drowning out the warning beat of a radio's faint drum.

They were inseparable. Nardo and the seminarians locked all the doors of the fortress-like church. Yet, Johnny managed to slip away. Lisabel, guarded by a battalion of bodyguards and personal maids somehow escaped as well. They rowed in a rickety boat in an abandoned park. They slurped porridge surreptitiously, under the canvas roof of a wet market. They sang, holding hands and microphones, eyes closed, in a seedy karaoke bar. That she was the sister of the deposed mayor of Barrio Santo Domingo was no obstacle to our modern day Romeo and Juliet. The whole country was rooting for this real-life pair.

Alas, it did not matter that Johnny was a national singing king; that his brother was named by CNN as the country's most incorruptible mayor; that Trip Advisor ranked Barrio Santo Domingo as a top 10 destination. To Lisabel's family, Johnny and his kin were and would always be of peasant stock. Johhny's purple brother had deposed a blue blood. So, one stormy evening, in a muddy alley, a blind beggar stumbled across Johnny's crumpled body almost buried under a mound of rotting bananas.

Lisabel's brother, the ex-mayor, and her father, an incumbent Senator, went on with their daily lives, puffing and strutting about like bantam roosters. They did not foresee the wrath of the entire populace. Bevies of salesladies, convent girls and middle-aged housewives screeched at the pair, dragging their long nails across their arms and faces. Not even the President of the 7,000 plus island nation could save his confidant and his favoured godson. Before they could board a private jet bound for Switzerland, father and son were captured and thrown into a communal cell. A day later, their weeping widows were not allowed to see their spouses, whose features had been mashed in beyond recognition. The raging prisoners, too, it seemed had watched Johnny on a smuggled TV become their Idol.

Tomas would have done the job more quickly and even more mercilessly with his swashbuckling stick had his father and mother not held him back for dear life. Should they lose their only living son, too? Johnny's body was brought back to Barrio Santo Domingo by motorcade. The funeral procession was miles long, led by a cavalcade of movie stars, taxi drivers, congressmen, waitresses, sweepstakes sellers and bell ringers. Nardo walked all the way holding an umbrella over the wan and weary Lisabel.

As Fr. O'Dowd trembled at the altar, overcome with arthritis and sorrow, Tomas fumed, his hand itching to grab his stick. How he longed to lash that tearful maiden slowly walking behind his brother's flower-bedecked coffin. Their eyes met and Tomas knew in an instant that she was with child. As the fragile church tottered, overwhelmed by the mass of mourners, the mayor finally wept himself, once again surrendering his will to his deceased brother's unspoken final wish.

The tourists continue to flock to Barrio Santo Domingo with an even more pressing agenda: where was dear Johnny Boy buried? To help her forget her sorrow, Rosing opened a restaurant: Mama's Bananarama. Mang Pedring goes on his nightly vigil, accompanied by Narding. They have only one destination. Reverently, both sweep and weep over Johnny's gravesite. At dusk, the bats alight upon the mango tree overlooking the many-roomed house where Mang Pedring's humble hut once stood. Lisabel looks out of a window, pale as her beloved. She craves only darkness. And silence. 

She is aware of her brother-in-law's shadow, hulking in its vigilance. Tomas wordlessly watches over her, fingering the worn but still sharp edges of a wooden cross. As the bats swing like hanging fruit from the gnarled branches, Lisabel's hands caress her belly. Beneath her fingers, a flutter. The prodding tip. The beginning of wings.

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