Tuesday, March 03, 2015

No shortage of language


... There was always a gap between the family and the world immediately beyond our home. The Christmas I was seven, I was declared old enough to hand out candy to the children who came to carol. Once I counted out eight pieces, one for each caroler, as they watched, their eyes huge in their starved and dirty faces. I handed the candy, reveling in Christian charity, to the smallest boy, and in a flash he was off, grinning, leaving the other seven children to stare at me, closing zombie-like as I stood paralyzed, their palms out, that pleading, demanding singsong that beggars make rising from their throats. The selfishness of it, the opportunism of that stunted, crafty child, swamped me. I dashed back into the house, wailing for my mother.

I was terrified of the children for another different reason. I would situate myself in the front porch and jeer at them as they passed, daring them to pelt the house with a stone or a green mango. This they never did. They would hang their sun-bleached heads and shuffle guiltily past, towards the beach, sometimes swiping a hibiscus blossom just to spite me. I had power over them, as long as I remained in the safety of the house, and of my half-language, a collection of Binisaya insults that I had picked up at school. If they had turned around and shouted back at me, I would have had no words to reply. If I had called to them in English they would have mocked me and barraged the house with stones. That was what worried me, each time I peered out from the potted asparagus ferns to taunt them – that my toughness was fake, and that sooner or later I would be found out.

But there was no shortage of language within the confines of home. We discovered my father’s books early on: it seemed that, after his studies abroad, he had diligently shipped back every last book he had ever read or touched. Penguin classics, Life magazines, National Geographics, expurgated bestsellers from the Readers’ Digest, and the anthologies of literature that he relied on for his teaching. Where had all these books come from? How could he have afforded them? He never explained. They simply sat there, like three dimensional wallpaper. I had awakened from the sleep of infancy to find them already gathering dust. The family shelves were filled by the time I was in pre-school, a few years after he came home with his PhD. That was the year my mother and father began to enshrine and gild the memories of his foreign studies. Perhaps the books had come from secondhand sellers in the various countries he had traveled in. I could not tell which ones he had read and which ones he had always meant to read, and which ones were there to make his friends envious.  I could look at anything I wanted, but was forbidden to lend anything out. The collection was sacred. It had to be saved.

From "The artifice of recollection" by Lakambini Sitoy, an essay that appeared in The Dumaguete We Know, Merlie M. Alunan, ed. Anvil Publishing, Manila, 2012.

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