The Quotable

A Writer’s Masterpiece

…. Even I,
how am I to speak
for them, to open my hands
and say here,
here are lives.

–Maria Luisa Aguilar Cariño, “To American Friends”

Everyone was poor that year. Everyone wore shabby, patched-up clothes. Everyone was sad and bitter and had a bad temper.

All the boys that were growing up to manhood that year were thin and pale and melancholy. They went around with hunched-up shoulders as if a chill wind were forever blowing.

“Why don’t you go look for work?” was the eternal refrain that greeted the poor young men. But there was no work; there were no jobs. The young men would gulp down the breakfast coffee and hurry out the house, followed by the bitter voices of fathers and mothers. The young men would flee from the house to stand idle at the street corners, or to sit on the rocks by the bay, or to lie on the grass of Luneta, under the shifting shade of a tree.

That was the year Ernesto Ortega turned seventeen.

Every morning, when he woke up, he had to make an effort to remember where he was. Everyday, on opening his eyes, he would wonder: “Why does the room look so strange?” And then, slowly, he would recognize the discolored ceiling, the ugly walls and the cockroaches crawling up those walls.

“It’s only a dream, a bad dream,” he would tell himself, shutting his eyes tight, trying to get back to that older house he occupied every night in his dreams — the lost house of memory, the house where he had been born and had grown up. He would see the old-fashioned garden and call out to his mother in a white dress strolling among the flowers. She peered up from under the parasol and smiled and waved at him. He was a little boy in a sailor’s suit — a cute little boy with long curls and a toy gun. His mother picked a flower and looked up again and showed him the flower. She was as clean and bright and beautiful as the sunny day gleaming in the garden.

Then a big old-fashioned automobile appeared at the garden gate and his father stepped out with a cane, wearing a coat buttoned right up to his neck. His mother ran to meet him and they stood there talking and laughing at the gate. His mother turned around to point to Ernesto at the window and his father laughed and turned around to look at him, too.

Ernesto was a curly-haired little boy at the window of a big, beautiful house that was clean and fragrant. There it was: the house. And even as he looked at it, it dissolved into a discolored ceiling and ugly wall crawling with cockroaches.

Outside, in the foul alley, he could hear the slum women quarreling and the noise of cats and dogs fighting over the garbage heaps. From the public shed, two doors away, came the vile stench of this day, this year, this life.

He rose and went to the window and saw his mother. She stood there in a faded dress bargaining with the old man who bought old bottles. Tears rose to his eyes. Ah, she was not young or beautiful anymore. She was thin and haggard and needed money so she could go to the market. His father had died long ago. The big, beautiful house of his childhood was gone. And the garden, the automobile, his sailor suit and his toy gun as well.

He was seventeen — a sad young man going downstairs to wash his face in a stinking tin sink. As he groped for a towel, his mother came in.

“Ernesto, are you going anywhere today?”

The street corner, rock by the bay, Luneta park… “No, Mother.”

“Ernesto, you’re wasting your life. You’re young and …”

“Please, Mother, must we start so early in the morning?”

“All your other brothers are working.”

“I can’t do anything.”

“I want you to go to your godfather.”

“That crazy old man? What could he do for me?”

“He might be able to help you. You’re young and you’re wasting your life.”

“Please, Mother, if you want me to go to him, all right, I’ll go but let’s not quarrel.”

She began to cry. “Oh, Ernesto, Ernesto — I’m so worried! How are we going to live? I’m not used to living this way! I shall die! I shall die!”

The wet towel in his hand, Ernesto stood grimly silent by the foul sink, his young face turned away from the anguish of poverty.



Don Salvador Garcia still lived in a big, old-fashioned house on Carriedo. The other big houses on that street had become bazaars or Japanese refreshment stores. But Don Salvador kept his house and the ancient bookstore on the first floor though it was dim and no one came to buy anything anymore. All the books were old — Spanish classics or books by the revolutionary patriots or books of devotion. On the walls hung faded paintings of the heroes and the saints thick with cobwebs. Poverty, too, lay heavy here — but it was poverty with an air of magnificence to it.

“Hola, Ernesto,” Don Salvador Garcia said, wiping the ink off his fingers with a perfumed linen handkerchief. “How is my godson?”

“Okay. Godfather.”

“And what can I do for you, young man? Ah, you don’t have to tell me, you young rascal! You need a little money for a dance, a girl, eh?”

Ernesto shuddered. Don Salvador was just as poor as everyone now, but he spoke like a millionaire.

“No, Godfather, I don’t need anything. I just came to visit you.”

“Well, sit down, sit down, son! And how is your mother? How is the widow of my good friend? A beautiful and elegant woman.”

Ernesto shuddered again, remembering his mother among the slum women, the old-bottles man, the fighting cats and dogs in the refuse heap, the public shed…

“She is fine, Don Salvador — thank you. And how is the history?”

“Oh, I shall finish it soon, soon! It shall make me famous! I am writing the greatest history ever written. Manila shall be known all over the world when my book is finished! Here, let me read to you the opening lines …”

Ernesto turned his face away. How many times Don Salvador had read him those opening lines! The old man fumbled through his manuscripts, spread one and began to read:

“As Palmyra to Arabia, as Alexandria to decaying Hellenism, as Rome to the classic world and Carthage to old Africa, as Byzantium to the Eastern Empire, and as Venice to the Europe of the Renaissance, so was this noble and ever loyal City of Manila to the Orient ….”

From somewhere in the house, Ernesto heard a scream. But the old man never gave heed. He continued to read — slowly, sonorously, with emotion and with majesty.

There was a clatter of slippers and three women swept into the study full of cold wrath. They were the old man’s daughters and they had his beauty and his majesty, but they were aging. Poverty had marked them, embittered them.

“But we could be rich!” they said. “People are offering to buy this house, to turn it into a department store. But Papa will not sell! Oh, he is a hard man! And you know his reasons? Because he wants to finish a ridiculous history that no one will ever read, that no one will ever buy, that no one in the world is interested in! And for that he is killing us! Oh, if only we were free! Oh, if only he were dead, dead! We would sell this house at once and go far, far away!”

They stood in a row before the desk, but Don Salvador never lifted his head. He went on intoning the majestic Spanish words. The women looked at him with bitter disdain, casting not a glance at Ernesto who sat rocking in his chair. From outside came the sound of a passing street car.

The old man paused and looked up.

Suddenly the three daughters screamed in unison. “Oh, you hard man! You cruel man! You old devil!”

The old man turned his face towards them and smiled. “Is the merienda ready?” he asked.



Many years later, Ernesto returned to his old house in Carriedo. It was not there anymore. Only a great heap of rubble and twisted steel. It was August, 1945, and Ernesto was a grown man now, dressed in olive-drab clothes. The war had just come to an end and he had arrived from the provinces to see the city for the first time in a long, long time.

Ernesto walked down the piteous horror that was Carriedo. A street of desolation, a street of death. He stopped before what had once been the fine and mighty house of Don Salvador Garcia. It was late afternoon. The rumble of passing army trucks echoed through the streets.

Ernesto stood there looking at the ruined house and suddenly, his heart gave a leap. Lights had sprung up within the ruins. There were people inside.

He had not been to that house since that day long, long ago. He knew that Don Salvador had long been dead. Of Don Salvador’s daughters he had heard nothing. He had left the city when he was seventeen and had not come back till today, to see what war had done to it.

The lights within the ruins grew brighter as evening gathered and Ernesto heard a murmur of voices. His heart beating fast, he walked into the ruined house.

In the very heart of the ruins, a space had been cleared of rubble and a roof of galvanized iron had been set up. Under that barong-barong stood a few old chairs, a table, and some book cases. At the table the three old women sat.

Ernesto stepped nearer and coughed.

The three women looked around and their faces brightened. “Why, it’s Ernesto!”

Ernesto went forward. They had all risen with glad cries and were dancing around him like young girls.

“Sit down, Ernesto,” said the women, pointing him toward the table set with three dainty cups. “We were just having merienda. Won’t you have some chocolate?”

“No, thanks.”

“You must excuse us Ernesto, we’re not dressed to receive visitors.” The three women laughed.

“I didn’t know you were still here.”

“Oh, but we have always been here. And we will never go away. This is our home. This is our father’s house.”

“You never sold it?”

They looked at him with shocked faces. “Why should we sell it?”

“But when your father died… you were free to sell the house.”

“Never, never did we ever think of doing so!” they cried together.

“But I thought … you had always wanted to sell it …”

“This is our father’s house and we have kept it exactly as it had always been.”

“And you have been living here since he died?”

“All the years since he died, here we have been. Oh, there were people who wanted to buy this house but we would not sell it. Our father was a great man. This is his house but we would not sell it and we have kept it as a shrine to his memory. He was a great man.”

Ernesto stared in horror at the three women.

“Oh, he was a great man!” they chanted in unison. “And he wrote a great book, a history of Manila. Would you like to see it?”

They ran to one of the bookcases and lugged out a bundle of paper. Ernesto stared at the bundle. The sheets were yellow with age. The fire of war, the tears of the rain had touched that treasured bundle of paper that those three crazy old women had rescued from the wreckage of the house.

Ernesto stared at the yellowed pages of the manuscript. Every single word had been blurred. The ink had washed away. The labors of Don Salvador had been lost, had been in vain. No one would ever read what he had written. Not one word remained legible.

But the three women were hovering over the pages, their eyes full of love. “It is a magnificent history, Ernesto. Would you like us to read you the opening lines?”

Ernesto began to tremble.

“Light another lamp,” said the eldest sister. She put on her glasses, and bent over the page where not one word remained.

Ernesto gazed with growing horror as the old woman began to read, her fingers moving over the yellow page, tracing the words that were not there. Her voice rose clear and sure: “As Palmyra to Arabia, as Alexandria to decaying Hellenism, as Rome to the classic world and Carthage to old Africa, as Byzantium to the Eastern Empire, and as Venice to the Europe of the Renaissance, so was this noble and ever loyal City of Manila to the Orient ….”

Outside in the street, a truck rumbled past as the dark devoured the ruins.


Alexander N. Tan Jr.,M.D. graduated from the University of the City of Manila (Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila) with a Doctor of Medicine Degree. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy degree from Our Lady of Fatima University. He was a fellow at the 36th Dumaguete National Summer Writers’ Workshop (1997). His short stories and poems have been published in several literary journals throughout the Philippines and the United States. He is a member of MENSA Philippines. A practicing physician and physical therapist, he writes and lives in Mandaluyong City, Philippines.

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Issue 4 - Beginnings and Endings