Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Scent of Apples

Bienvenido Santos

                When I arrived in Kalamazoo, it was October and the war was still on. Gold and silver star hung on pennants asbove silent windows of white and brick-red cottages. In a backyard, an old man burned leaves and twigs while a grey-haired woman sat on the porch, her lap, watching the smoke rising above the elms, both of them thinking of the same thought perhaps about a tall, grinning boy with blue eyes and flying hair, who went to the war, where could he be now this month when leaves were turning into gold and the fragrance of gathered apples was in the wind?
                It was a cold night when I left my room at the hotel for a usual speaking engagement. I walked but a little way. A heavy wind coming up from lake but a little way. A heavy wind coming up from lake Michigan was icy on the face. it felt like winter spraying early in the northern woodland. Under the lampshots, the leaves shone like bronze. And they rolled on the pavements like the ghost feet of a thousands autumns long dead, long before the boys left for faraway lands without great icy winds and promise of winter early in the air, lands without trees, the singing and gold!
               It was the same night I met Celestino Fabia, "just a Filipino farmer" as he called himself; who had a farm about thirty miles east of Kalamazoo.
             " I've seen no Filipino for so many years now," he answered quickly, "so when I saw your name in the papers where it says you come from the island and that you've going to come to talk, I come right away."
              Early that night I had addressed a college crowd, mostly women. It appeared that they wanted me to tell them things about my country: they wanted me to tell them things about my country: they wanted me to tell them things about my country because my country has become a lost country. Everywhere in the land the enemy stalked. Over it a great silence hung: and in some little known island on the pacific, young boys all, hardy men, thinking of harvest moons and smell of forest fires.
            It was not hard talking about our own people.I know them well and I loved them well and I loved them.And they seemed so far away during those terrible years that I must have spoken of them with a little favor , a little nostagia .
            In the open forum that followed, the audience wanted to know whether there is much difference  between our women and the American women. I tried to answer as best as I could, saying among other things ,that I did not know much about American women women except that they looked friendly.but differences or similarities in inner qualities as such naturally belonged to the heart or to the mind. I could only speak about with vagueness.
           While I was trying to explain away the fact that it was not easy to make comparisons, a man rose from the rear of the hall, wanting to say something. In a distance, he looked slight, old and very brown.
           "I'm a Filipino." he began, loud and clear, in a voice that seemed to be used to wide open spaces. "I'm just a Filipinofarmer out in the country." He waves his hand towards the door. "I left the Philippines more than twenty years ago and have been back. Never will perhaps. I want to find out, sir are our Filipino women the same like they were twenty year's ago?"
              As he sat down, the hall filled with voices, hushed and intrigued. I weighed my answer carefully. I did not want to tell a lie yet I did not want to say anything that would seem platitudinous, insincere. But more important than these considerations, it seemed to me that moment as I looked towards my countryman, I must give him an answer that would not make him unhappy. Surely, all these years, he must have held on to certain ideals, certain beliefs, even illusions peculiar to the exile.
            "First," I said as the voices gradually died down, every eye seemed upon me."First, tell me what our women were twenty years ago."
            The man stood to answer. "Yes," he said, "you,re too young... Twenty years ago our women were nice, they were modest, they wore their hair long, and they dress proper and went for no monkey business. They were natural, they went to church regularly, and they were faithful." He had spoken slowly, and now in what seemed like an afterthought, added, "It's the men who ain't."
            Now, I know what I was going to say. "Well," I began, it will interest you to know that our women have changed-definitely! The change, however, has been on the outside only . Inside here." pointing to the heart, "they are the same twenty years ago- God-fearing, faithful, modest and nice."
           The man was visibly moved. "I'm very happy sir," he said in manner of one who, having stakes on the land, had found no cause to regret one's  sentimental investment.
           After this, everything that was said and done in the hall that night seemed like an anti-climax and later, as we walk outside he gave me his name and told me of his farm thirty miles east of the city.
          We had stopped at the main entrance of the hotel lobby. We had not talked very much on the way. As a matter of fact, we were never alone. Kindly American friends talked to us, asked us questions, said good night. So now I asked him whether he cared to step into the lobby with me and talk.
          "No thank you," he said, "you are tired. And I don't want to stay out too late."
          "Yes, you live very far."
          "I got a car," he said , "besides..."
           Now he smiled, he truly smiled. All night I had been watching his face and I wondered when he was going to smile.
          "Will you do me a favor please?" he continued, smiling almost sweetly. "I want you to have dinner with my family out in the country. I'd call for you tomorrow afternoon, then drive you back. Will that be all right?"
           "Of course," I said. "I said. "I'd love to meet your family. I was leaving Kalamazoo for Muncie, Indiana, in two days. There is still plenty of time."
            "You will make my wife very happy," he said.
            "You flatter me."
            "Honest, she 'll be very happy. Ruth is a country girl and hasn't met any Filipinos younger than I, cleaner looking. We're just poor farmer folks, you know, and we don't get to town very often. Roger, that's my boy, he goes to school in town. A bus takes him early in the morning and  he's back in the afternoon. He's a nice boy.
            "Roger, he'd be tall. You'll like him."
             Then, he said goodbye and I waved to him as he disappeared in the darkness.
             The next day he came, at about three in the afternoon. There was a mild, ineffectual sun shining; and it was not cold. He was wearing an old brown tweed jacket and worsted trousers to match. His shoes were polished, and although the green of his tie seemed faded, a colored shirt hardly accentuated it. He looked younger than he appeared the night before now that he was clean-shave and seemed ready to go to a party. He was grinning as we met.
            "Oh, Ruth can''t believe it. She can't believe it," he kept repeating as he led me to his car- a nondescript thing in faded black and had known better days and many hands. "I said to her,' I'm bringing you a first class Filipino. But Roger, that's my boy, he believed me immediately. 'What's he like, Daddy? he asked. 'Oh, you will see, i say he's first class.''Like you daddy?' 'No,no,' I laughed at him, 'you're daddy ain't first class.' Aw, but you are Daddy, he says. So you can see what a nice boy he is, innocent. Then Ruth starts griping about the house, but the house is a mess, she says. True, it's a mess, it's always a mess, but you don't mind, do you? We're poor folks, you know."
             The trip seemed interminable. We passed through narrow lanes and disappeared into the thickest, and came out on barren land overgrown with weeds in places. All around were dead leaves and dry earth. In the distance were apple trees.
             "Aren't those apple trees?" I asked wanting to be sure.
             "Yes, those are apple trees," he replied. "Do you like apples? I got lots of 'em. I got an apple orchard. I'll show you."
              All the beauty in the afternoon seemed in the distance, on the hills, in the dull soft sky.
              "Those trees are beautiful on the hills," I said.
              "Autumn's a lovely season. The trees are getting ready to die, and they show their color, proud like."
              "No such thing in our country," I said.
               That remark seemed unkind, I realized later. It touched him off on a long deserted tangent, but ever there perhaps. How many times did the lonely mind take unpleasant detours away from the familiar winding lanes towards home for fear of this, the remembered hurt, the long lost youth, the grim shadows of the years; how many times indeed, only the exile knows...
               It was a rugged road we were traveling and the car so much noise that I could not hear everything he said, but I understood him. He was telling his story for the first time in many years. He was remembering his own youth. He was thinking of home.In these odd moments there seemed no cause at all, no pain. That would come later. In the night perhaps. Or lonely on the farm under the apple trees.
             "In this old Visayan town, the streets are narrow and dirty and strewn with coral shells. You have been there? You couldn't have missed our house, it was the biggest in the town, one of the oldest, our's was a big family. The house stood right on the edge of the street. A door opened heavily and you enter a dark hall leading to the stairs. There is the smell of the chicken roasting on the low-topped, walls, there is the familiar sound they make and you grope your way up a massive staircase, the banisters smooth upon the trembling hand. Such nights, there are no better than the days, windows are closed against the sun; they closed heavily.
              Mother sits in her corner, sitting very white and sick. This was her world, her domain. In all these years, I cannot remember the sound of her voice. Father was different. He moved about. He shouted, he ranted. He lived in the past and talk of honor as if it were the only thing.
             I was born in that house. I grew up there into a pampered brat. I was mean.
             One day I broke their hearts. I saw mother cry wordlessly as father heaped curse upon me and drove me out of the house, the gate closing heavily after me and multiplied it numberless times in their own hearts. I was no good.
            But sometimes, you know, I miss that house, the roasting chicken on the low-topped walls. I miss my brother and sisters. Mother sitting in her chair, looking like a pale ghost in the corner of the room. I would remember the great live posts, massive tree trunks from the forests. Leafy plants grow in the sides, buds pointing downwards, wilted and die before they become flowers. As they fell on the floor, Father bent to pick them and throw them out in the coral streets...
            Finally, we rounded a deep curve and suddenly came upon a shanty, all but ready to crumble in a head on the ground, its plastered walls were rotting away, the floor was hardly a foot from the ground . I thought of the cottages  of the poor colored folks in the south, the hovels of the poor everywhere in the land. This one stood all by itself as though by common consent all the folks that used to live here had decided to stay away despising it, ashamed of it. Even the lovely season could not color it with beauty.
             A dog barked loudly as we approached. A fat blonde woman stood at the door with a little boy by her side, Roger seemed newly scrubbed. He hardly took his eyes off me.Ruth had a clean apron around her shapeless waist. Now as she shook my hands in sincere delight I noticed shame facedly (that I should noticed) how rough her hands, so course and red with labor, how ugly! She was no longer young and her smile was pathetic.
            As we stepped inside, the door closed behind us, immediately I was aware of the familiar scent of apples. The room was bare except for the few ancient pieces of second-hand furniture. In the middle of the room stood a stove to keep the family warm in the winter. The walls were bare. Over the dining table hung a lamp yet unlighted.
            Ruth got busy with the drinks. She kept coming in and out of a rear room that must have been the kitchen and soon the table was heavy with food, fried chicken legs and rice, and green peas and corn on the rear. Even as we ate, Ruth kept standing, and going to the kitchen for more food. Roger is like a little gentleman.
            "Isn't he nice looking?" the father asked.
            "You are a handsome boy, Roger," I said.
             The boy smile at me, "You look like Daddy," he said.
             Afterwards I noticed an old picture leaning on top of the dresser and stood to pick it up. It was yellow and soiled with many fingerings. The faded figure of a woman in the Philippine dress could yet be distinguised althoughthe face had become a blur.
             "Your..." I began.
             " I don't know who she is," Fabia hastened to say. "I picked that picture many years ago in the room on the La Salle Street in Chicago. I have often wondered who she is."
              "The face wasn't a blur in the beginning?'
                "Oh no. It was a young face and good."
                Ruth came with a plate full of apples.
               "A," I cried, picking out a ripe one.
               "I've been thinking where all the scents of apples came from. The room is full of it."
               "I'll show you," said Fabia.
                He showed me backroom, not very big. It was half full of apples.
               "Everyday," he explained, "I take some of them to town to sell to the groceries. Prices have been low. I've been losing on the trips.
               "These apples will spoil," I said.
               "We'll feed them to the pigs."
               Then he showed me around the farm. It was twilight now and the apple trees stood bare against the glowing western sky. In apple blossom time it must be lovely here, I thought.But what about the winter time.
                One day, according to Fabia, a few years ago, before Roger was born, he had an attack of acute appendicitis. It was deep winter. The snow lay heavy everywhere. Ruth was pregnant and not well herself.At first she did not know what to do. She bundled him a warm clothing and put in a cot near the stove. She shoveled the snow from their front door and practically carried the suffering  man on her shoulders, dragging him through the newly made path towards the road where they waited for the US mail car to pass. Meanwhile snowflakes poured all over them and she kept rubbing the man's arms and legs and she herself nearly froze to death.
                "Go back to the house, Ruth" her husband cried, "you'll freeze to death."
                  But she clung to him wordlessly. Even as she massaged his arms and legs, her tears rolled down her cheeks, "I won't leave you. I won't leave you," she repeated.
                  Finally the US Mail car arrived. The mailman, who knew them well, helped them board the car and without stopping on his usual route, took the sick man and his wife to the nearest hospital.
                  Ruth stayed  in the hosp[ital with Fabia.
                  She slept in a corridor outside the patient's ward and in the daytime helped in scrubbing the floor and washing the dishes and cleaning the men's things. They didn't have enough money and Ruth was willing to work like a slave.
                "Ruth's a nice girl," said Fabia. "Like our own Filipino women."
                 Before nightfall, he took me back to the hotel. Ruth and Roger stood holding hands and smiling at me. From the inside of the room of the shanty, a low light flickered. I had a last glimpse of the apple trees in the orchard under the darkened sky as Fabia backed up the car. And soon we were on our way back to town. The dog started barking. We could hear it anymore, and all was darkness around us, except where the head lamps revealed a stretch of road leading somewhere.
                Fabia did not talk this time, I didn't seem to have anything to say myself. But when finally we came to the hotel and I got down, Fabia said, "Well I guess I won't  be seing you again."
                It was dimly lighted in front of the hotel and I could hardly see Fabia's face. Without getting out of the car, he moved to where I had sat, and I saw him extend his hand, I gripped it.
                "Tell Ruth and Roger," I said, "I love them."
                 He dropped my hand quickly. "They'll be waiting for me now," he said.
                "Look," I said, not knowing why I said it,"one of these days, very soon, I hope, I'll be going home. I could go to your town."
                "No," he said softly, sounding very much defeated but brave."Thanks a lot. But, you see, nobody would remember now."
                Then he started the car, and as it moved away, he waved his hand.
                "Goodbye," I said waving back in the darkness. And suddenly the night was cold like winter arraying early in these northern woodlands.
                 I hurried inside. There was a train next morning that left for Muncie, Indiana, at a quarter after eight.

                                                   *** end***

Task 1
1. Write the flaskbacks you encountered in the story here.

2. What is the importance of the flashback in the reading selection?

Task 3

What was created by Fabia inside Ruth?

Task 4
What is the relation of the scent  of apples to the accounts in the story?