Friday, April 18, 2014

ZITA by Arturo B. Rotor

TURONG brought him from Pauambang in his small sailboat, for the coastwise steamer did not stop at any little island of broken cliffs and coconut palms. It was almost midday; they had been standing in that white glare where the tiniest pebble and fluted conch had become points of light, piercing-bright--the municipal president, the parish priest, Don Eliodoro who owned almost all the coconuts, the herb doctor, the village character. Their mild surprise over when he spoke in their native dialect, they looked at him more closely and his easy manner did not deceive them. His head was uncovered and he had a way of bringing the back of his hand to his brow or mouth; they read behind that too, it was not a gesture of protection. "An exile has come to Anayat… and he is so young, so young." So young and lonely and sufficient unto himself. There was no mistaking the stamp of a strong decision on that brow, the brow of those who have to be cold and haughty, those shoulders stooped slightly, less from the burden that they bore than from a carefully cultivated air of unconcern; no common school-teacher could dress so carelessly and not appear shoddy.

They had prepared a room for him in Don Eliodoro's house so that he would not have to walk far to school every morning, but he gave nothing more than a glance at the big stone building with its Spanish azotea, its arched doorways, its flagged courtyard. He chose instead Turong's home, a shaky hut near the sea. Was the sea rough and dangerous at times? He did not mind it. Was the place far from the church and the schoolhouse? The walk would do him good. Would he not feel lonely with nobody but an illiterate fisherman for a companion? He was used to living alone. And they let him do as he wanted, for the old men knew that it was not so much the nearness of the sea that he desired as its silence so that he might tell it secrets he could not tell anyone else.

They thought of nobody but him; they talked about him in the barber shop, in the cockpit, in the sari-sari store, the way he walked, the way he looked at you, his unruly hair. They dressed him in purple and linen, in myth and mystery, put him astride a black stallion, at the wheel of a blue automobile. Mr. Reteche? Mr. Reteche! The name suggested the fantasy and the glitter of a place and people they never would see; he was the scion of a powerful family, a poet and artist, a prince.

That night, Don Eliodoro had the story from his daughter of his first day in the classroom; she perched wide-eyed, low-voiced, short of breath on the arm of his chair.

"He strode into the room, very tall and serious and polite, stood in front of us and looked at us all over and yet did not seem to see us.

" 'Good morning, teacher,' we said timidly.

"He bowed as if we were his equals. He asked for the fist of our names and as he read off each one we looked at him long. When he came to my name, Father, the most surprising thing happened. He started pronouncing it and then he stopped as if he had forgotten something and just stared and stared at the paper in his hand. I heard my name repeated three times through his half-closed lips, 'Zita. Zita. Zita.'

" 'Yes sir, I am Zita.'

"He looked at me uncomprehendingly, inarticulate, and it seemed to me, Father, it actually seemed that he was begging me to tell him that that was not my name, that I was deceiving him. He looked so miserable and sick I felt like sinking down or running away.

" 'Zita is not your name; it is just a pet name, no?'

" 'My father has always called me that, sir.'

" 'It can't be; maybe it is Pacita or Luisa or--'

"His voice was scarcely above a whisper, Father, and all the while he looked at me begging, begging. I shook my head determinedly. My answer must have angered him. He must have thought I was very hard-headed, for he said, 'A thousand miles, Mother of Mercy… it is not possible.' He kept on looking at me; he was hurt perhaps that he should have such a stubborn pupil. But I am not really so, Father?"

"Yes, you are, my dear. But you must try to please him, he is a gentleman; he comes from the city. I was thinking… Private lessons, perhaps, if he won't ask too much." Don Eliodoro had his dreams and she was his only daughter.

Turong had his own story to tell in the barber shop that night, a story as vividly etched as the lone coconut palm in front of the shop that shot up straight into the darkness of the night, as vaguely disturbing as the secrets that the sea whispered into the night.

"He did not sleep a wink, I am sure of it. When I came from the market the stars were already out and I saw that he had not touched the food I had prepared. I asked him to eat and he said he was not hungry. He sat by the window that faces the sea and just looked out hour after hour. I woke up three times during the night and saw that he had not so much as changed his position. I thought once that he was asleep and came near, but he motioned me away. When I awoke at dawn to prepare the nets, he was still there."

"Maybe he wants to go home already." They looked up with concern.

"He is sick. You remember Father Fernando? He had a way of looking like that, into space, seeing nobody, just before he died."

Every month there was a letter that came for him, sometimes two or three; large, blue envelopes with a gold design in the upper left hand comer, and addressed in broad, angular, sweeping handwriting. One time Turong brought one of them to him in the classroom. The students were busy writing a composition on a subject that he had given them, "The Things That I Love Most." Carelessly he had opened the letter, carelessly read it, and carelessly tossed it aside. Zita was all aflutter when the students handed in their work for he had promised that he would read aloud the best. He went over the pile two times, and once again, absently, a deep frown on his brow, as if he were displeased with their work. Then he stopped and picked up one. Her heart sank when she saw that it was not hers, she hardly heard him reading:

"I did not know any better. Moths are not supposed to know; they only come to the light. And the light looked so inviting, there was no resisting it. Moths are not supposed to know, one does not even know one is a moth until one's wings are burned."

It was incomprehensible, no beginning, no end. It did not have unity, coherence, emphasis. Why did he choose that one? What did he see in it? And she had worked so hard, she had wanted to please, she had written about the flowers that she loved most. Who could have written what he had read aloud? She did not know that any of her classmates could write so, use such words, sentences, use a blue paper to write her lessons on.

But then there was little in Mr. Reteche that the young people there could understand. Even his words were so difficult, just like those dark and dismaying things that they came across in their readers, which took them hour after hour in the dictionary. She had learned like a good student to pick out the words she did not recognize, writing them down as she heard them, but it was a thankless task. She had a whole notebook filled now, two columns to each page:
esurient                greedy. 
Amaranth                a flower that never fades. 
peacock                 a large bird with lovely gold and green feathers. 

The last word was not in the dictionary.

And what did such things as original sin, selfishness, insatiable, actress of a thousand faces mean, and who were Sirse, Lorelay, other names she could not find anywhere? She meant to ask him someday, someday when his eyes were kinder.

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