In 2011, we published an excerpt from Criselda Yabes’s novel about two best friends—Nahla, a Muslim Tau-sug, and Rosy France, a half-American from Zamboanga—which was longlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize. Chapter 14 describes the aftermath of the Moro rebellion that broke out in Sulu in the 1970s, with Nahla escaping Jolo to be with her lover, a military officer
By Criselda Yabes | Art by Yvonne Quisimbing
First published in the February 2011 issue of Rogue
The Captain kept Nahla at the Lantaka Hotel By The Sea.
Nahla had a room on the second floor with a balcony overlooking, beyond the breakwater, the white sand beach of Santa Cruz Island. After having fled an uprising, she was amused to be seeing some foreign tourists getting on a boat for an insignificant island, and returning to the hotel later in the day red in the noses and itching with burns, for which they applied white creamy lotions.
Room 212 was registered at the front desk under the Captain’s name. So naturally, everyone assumed she was “Mrs. Luis Rodolfo.”
But Captain Rodolfo rarely spent his evenings there. He stayed at the Southern Command military headquarters in Upper Calarian, where, naturally, Mrs. Rodolfo would find too inconvenient for her taste.
In Room 212, she had a soft bamboo-frame bed with freshly laundered sheets that the chambermaid changed regularly. Furniture of the finest woven rattan. A Bible in the drawer of her bedside table on the left, by the Captain’s sleeping side. Above the bed was an oil painting of farmers planting rice in the paddies. The headboard beats against the wall in a tap-tapping rhythm when the Captain makes love to her, the lampshade’s coconut fiber casting a lattice sheen on their erotic contours.
She was a voyeur watching their two entangled bodies on the mirror of the dressing table, on which she had arranged, in bowling-pin order, her new purchases of creams, lotions, powders, lipsticks.
She had no idea how much this surmounted the limits. She wanted more and more, whenever he came to knock on Room 212.
In the morning she bathed herself with a pink Lifebuoy soap in the tub of hot water— the Captain would be gone by then— wondering if she has been the same girl.
After she had taken residence at the Lantaka Hotel By The Sea, the hotel staff came to know “Mrs. Rodolfo” as their regular houseguest. They knew of her undiminished cravings for the sans rival cake, which she would eat for merienda in the coffeeshop lobby. She asked the manager if he could allow the chef to give her the recipe.
“It’s for my café,” she volunteered.
“You have a café?” the manager extended his curiosity, more than he would have allowed her to believe.
“Well.” She hesitated for a split second, but words rapidly tumbled out of her lips, “I will, eventually. As soon as my husband and I are settled. As soon as this Jolo problem is behind us.”
“Horrible! I heard that you were there, you saw everything.”
“Yes I was,” she answered. “But to tell you the truth, Mr. Vargas, I’m so tired of talking about it. It’s the end and there’s nothing more to be done.”
Silently, she thanked Rosy France for teaching her a few words of Chabacano, which she peppered into her Tagalog phrases, denying people the chance of guessing that she was a Tau-sug. A Moro girl.
Gradually she came to imbue the smell of the Zamboanga, which, frankly, she thought, was not a world apart from Jolo. Only their minds were. The Muslim village, the Rio Hondo, was just behind the Fort Pilar, a few walking steps from the hotel. She could go for a walk, to see the water village of her own people in stilted houses, but she would not.
If I would have to start anew, I would have to erase the path behind me.
As far as she believed her parents were safe in Sabah. Her father had prepared a second plan, an escape route to the coast of Parang, from where a kumpit was to take them to the northern coast. Since she had avoided her fellow Muslims no one had told her the news that her father had been in the Constabulary jail in the city outskirts.
Nahla had left a good-bye letter written on a blue stationery which her mother had read just after the soldiers arrested her husband and took him to Zamboanga, handcuffed like a criminal.
Hadji Amil was in jail for twenty-one days. He was forbidden visitors. He had no news of his wife or of his daughter. Day after day he didn’t know either what happened to the first, second, third, fourth prisoner who had been called by the guard and never returned. He presumed they were killed or tortured.
Then he was called next.
The guard brought him to a safe room. They were alone. The guard talked to him a little, gauging his responses. When it seemed he was at ease, the guard whispered to Hadji Amil that he was actually a Muslim of the Maranao tribe.
He felt hope.
“Tell me something,” the guard said. “I can help you if you help me.”
“What is it?” Hadji Amil was ready to take any chances.
The guard lowered his head and put out his cigarette with his boots. In that short split of a second, Hadji Amil’s life depended on him.
“Tell me . . .” the guard hesitated.
Hadji Amil felt the weight of time was in his hands.
“Tell me,” the guard continued. “Tell me how to cure my gonorrhea.”
Hadji Amil dared not laugh, although he was dying to. The guard had mistaken him for a doctor. Luckily he remembered a junior colleague at work who had the same problem. So he told the guard what to do.
They became friends. And after his twenty-first day in jail, he was freed.
Just like that.
Hadji Amil went back to Jolo.
As for her best friend Rosy France, she delayed getting in touch with her. She waited only for a shadow to appear at the hotel, as she might, since Señora Wright came by every so often. Her elegant mother in a Jackie Kennedy hairstyle. Clothes of matching blouse and skirts and shoes and jewelry (green to green, yellow to yellow, red to red, blue to blue).
When Señora Wright walked into the hotel, she expected a sweep of people to stoop down in her presence, as if they simply must. The manager, Mr. Vargas, would drop his duty, cut a conversation, trip on his toes, at the mere sight of this woman entering the hotel.
Then she would find her table among her amigas who twitched with jealousy.
These are what Rosy France gave up? All these for the Professor?
Nahla asked Linda, the receptionist who has taken to frequent small talks with her, where the Señora gets her hair done.
“Where else? But Vangie’s Beauty Salon.”
And her clothes?
“Where else? But Lily’s High Couture.”
Nahla went about the city looking for Vangie’s Beauty Salon and Lily’s High Couture in an expedition that wrapped her determination with robust excitement. This was the mark of a new chapter. This is it.
She had cajoled the Captain, who immediately noticed how this pattern was followed by the opening of his wallet.
She rode a tricycle cab to Lily’s High Couture by the public market, where the scent of copra oil assaulted her nose. The driver must have made a mistake, but no, it was certain, the sign was there. She looked around before she could make up her mind. In her survey of the area, she saw the Hermosa Bank two buildings down. She was in the right place.
The Chinese seamstress showed her catalogues of Harper’s, Seventeen, McCall’s. How could she decide which dress to choose?
Lily made up her mind for her, a pink satin bustier with a beige French lace over her shoulders.
It will be ready in two weeks.
In two week’s time, the Captain will have news for her.
Today she might get a haircut too. The beauty parlor was a respite from the humidity outside. This has to be a classy parlor for the air-conditioning alone, circulating lemon-scented deodorizer to overpower the chemical odor of hair dyes.
There were wall posters of Hollywood stars, two of Elizabeth Taylor’s from her Cleopatra movie.
Nahla happened to be the first customer to walk in that early afternoon reserved for siesta. But Vangie wouldn’t cut her hair. “It’s so nice and soft and so black. It would be such a pity,” the hairdresser lamented to her new client, who casually dropped hints that she was the wife of a Marine officer.
“What can you do?”
Vangie gave it a thought as she examined her customer’s head in the mirror. “Has anyone told you,” she said out of the blue, “that you look like that girl in Love Story?”
When she strode back into the Lantaka Hotel By The Sea, she waved “Buenas” to everybody.
Buenas to Linda at the reception.
Buenas to the waiters walking past.
Buenas to Mr. Vargas.
And to the American tourists whom she obliged by taking their picture by the brass canon, the lantaka, for which the hotel was named after. A replica her Moro people had used to defend their cotta camps against the Milikans.
The Captain was sitting at the bar.
He never wore his uniform when he came to see her here.
“Buenas Ma’am,” the barman said.
She asked for a glass of Coke.
If she cared to look beyond the bow-tied barman she would see the Badjau boats over the split coconut lumber fence, paddling towards the break wall, where on cool nights like this one, covered by a canopy of gray-orange clouds, dinner guests sat at candle-lit tables (as she had done to the Lawa Café) or danced to the organ beat of the cha-cha.
On Friday nights a singer draped in black velvet dress and too heavily made up to disguise her age crooned melodies of love.
This was when Señora Wright used to be seen dabbing the corners of her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief, for it was nights like this one when Mr. Wright danced the cheek-to-cheek with her to the tune of “Besame.”
Besame mucho como si fuera esta la noche la ultima vez . . .
Beeesaaa meee, besame muchooo que tengo miedo a perderte . . .
perderte despues . . .
But Nahla would rather hold her breath as the sun, now an orange fireball, sank into to the sea.
“Your hair looks different,” the Captain said.
“It’s the hair spray, that's all. Vangie refused to cut my hair.”
“The hairdresser. The best hairdresser in town,” she added.
He took a second gulp of his beer, which he has been drinking more than the usual, as the tight shifting clouds of Zamboanga choked him dry, while she bubbled like the sparkling porcelains set on the dinner tables.
Tonight, if she would happen to see Señora Wright, she would ask about Rosy France. She really would. She ought to try. She has not brought herself to come around to it.
“Are you staying for the night?” She whispered to the Captain.
He shrugged. Always avoiding this question.
He called for the bow-tied barman to find him a cigar.
Nahla would like to stop him. “Look at your lips, your gums, they’re as dark as the Moros’. Why do you have to smoke that filthy smelly thing, makes you an old man.”
“What’s the matter? Why do you give me that face?” the Captain said, “You used to say I was sexy when I smoke a cigar.”
She feigned demureness to switch the subject, going back to her wonderful afternoon at the salon and dress shop and just how excited she was about the City of Flowers, imagining how much more thrilling it would be in the bigger city.
The Captain too went back to his beer, thankful that her question had melted into air.
But she hadn’t forgotten.
“So when,” she sighed, finally, “are we ever going to go to Manila?”
The bow-tied barman, returning with a cigar for the Captain, caught the threads of her voice, the gravity of her question, and waited for the answer—which came hesitantly from the Captain.
“One day,” he said. “You’ll see. I’ll make it happen.”
That’s all he could promise for now. For tonight.
Afterwards they went upstairs to make love, tossing themselves in the salty malodorous air that came from the corals the Badjaus had set on the fence to sell to the tourists, as the cha-cha drummed into their breaths.
Unable to sleep in the thick of the night the Captain stood by the balcony, waiting for the flames of the bamboo torches to die.
What Nahla envisioned about being his real wife was leaving Zamboanga altogether. For, one day indeed, here in the City of Flowers, her Moro past will catch up on her. It was too near for comfort. It’s a blow wind away from Sulu. The waves will roll on her back and jump on her. The eyes of her people will pierce through her and cut away her soul.
They will have to go up north, to the bigger city of Manila, where she could take up her proper role of a military wife. And she could have her very own café.
They will have to go, before the Badjaus on the boats come any closer. They’re coming closer and closer by the day. They watch her from the break wall under the grilled Spanish lamps, on their flapping outriggers.
Even here at the Lantaka Hotel By The Sea, she could be discovered, neither by film directors nor movie agents. The Badjaus would know. They dive down to the bed of the sea to catch the coins the white tourists throw for fun. Like a circus game.
If the Badjaus could see in the water, they would be able to see the truth in her eyes.
The Sama gypsy woman knows. She sits there by the hotel entrance door selling her jewelry of pearls, showing them to wide-eyed tourists in exchange for money in her pocket. But she knows. She smells the sweat of the Tau-sug girl who walks past her, pretending not to see her, echoing Buenas from her Moro mouth. Sooner or later. One day.