People of Consequence by Ines Taccad Cammayo

Camus and his wife secretly prided themselves in being, of all the residents in their barrio, the only ones who had really known and lived with people of consequence.

When he was a young man, Camus had been the houseboy of a German haciendero. The German who was a bachelor had often told Camus that his punishments were for his own good because he must learn to shed his indolent and clumsy ways if he ever hoped to amount to anything. Unfortunately, before he could learn more from his stern master, his father wrote to say that he must come home right away because his bethrothed was waiting. The German had mouthed unintelligible, guttural curses which Camus listened to with mixed feelings of shame and pleasure because it meant that he was wanted after all, but in the end, the German sent him off with a de hilo cerrada suit, a heavy pair of boots capacious enough to let him wiggle his gnarled toes in, and two months extra pay which came handy fox the wedding celebrations. That was twenty years ago, shortly before the war, and although Camus had all the intentions to see the German off when he left for his country, the expense and the effort turned out to him, at the last minute, discouraging. In the meantime, Camus and his wife were themselves becoming people of consequence.

They now owned the best house in the barrio which, with other lakeside villages, lay at the base of a high chit which the people called Munting Azul because a perpetual haze clung to its summit. To reach the summit, one must climb the step and circuitous steps that many years ago, time men, Camus among them, had hacked out of the thick underbrush that covered the entire face of the cliff, and then cemented in places where the down-rushing water in rainy seasons was wont to wash away.

One could also leave the village by crossing the lake westward. The upward climb was the quicker route but was difficult for the old and the weak. Once the embankment was reached, Munting Azul leveled off into fields, and three kilometers away was the town of Cuenco.

The town was bypass by the National highway but jeepney and a couple of minibuses shuttled to and from the larger towns, including Capitolyo, on the descent. Cuenco was the only large town which Camus really knew although he had been to the Capitolyo occasionally. When he lived with the German, they resided in what was called the White House in the middle of the vast, treeless hacienda rimmed by forests across the lake.

Meding, his wife, had, in her own adolescence, lived in the Capitolyo for almost four years as servant of the Mayor’s family. It was there that she learned the hard-driving manners of townsfolk. It constantly amazed him how she could make idle time yield profit, and even more astonishing, how, having made profit, she held on to it. Camus, a hard worker, was at his fishing long before the dawn, and later in the day, mending his nets on the pier he had built from his hut. It was his father’s life he had learned, and after he came from the German’s household he saw no cause and no way to change.

The first thing that Meding did was to barter over his vehement objections the one male carabao he owned for a puny female. When it began to yield milk, she gathered it to make into a white curd which she molded into banana leaf containers or boiled into sweet candy. Not one frasco found its way to their table. Every Sunday she would climb the steep ascent to sell her white cheese and milk sticks in Cuenco.

She gathered the occasional coconuts and mangoes from the trees behind their house and sold them, together with the harvest of fish Camus hauled in every day. She was so undemanding, she never had to sell at a loss or to mortgage his catch, and the hard – dealing middleman who came with his tempting offers bypassed their house with great aloofness.

Meding even opened a postal saving account and once in a while she showed him figures. As the sum increased he felt he knew her less and less. Long before she began the feverish phase of acquiring possessions, when they sat down to their frugal meal he felt that, perhaps they could afford something more appetizing. A look of Meding’s face bent over her plate, contented in determined self-denial would silence him.

She astounded him most by buying crochet thread and needles. In the mornings, keeping by herself from the village women, she sat at the window of the little hut, thrusting away at her hook and thread, making beautiful patterns of lace that he believed, his heart bursting with pride, no other wife in all the lakeside barrios could make, let alone possess her infinite patience. To his unbelieving ears, she whispered that he wavy laces were so prized that housewives in the town willingly pail for them with sacks of rice.

In time their neighbors ran to them for loans, and although she never charged usurious rate, Meding was as hard as stone when it came to collecting. If the borrower failed to pay or on time she demanded goods in payment. Her laconic and unsmiling manner defeated any jocose attempt at gaining time and even whining plea bought only the unfeeling retort that life was just as hard for her, and that always shamed them into passing for one better than their neighbors knew how Spartan was their life.

The first change in the quiet girl he married came one night: lying, facing each other on the slatted floor of their bedroom in the hut which was now their kitchen, she spoke of her plans, spelled each dream so grimly as to leave no doubt in Camus’ mind that these were already real. Talk of a child had long since been avoided. Now she spoke of bringing in kiln-dried posts from Cuenco, a proposal wildly ostentious and impossible, considering the steep descent from town. She spoke of galvanized roofing, capiz windows and all the accoutrements of town houses, hardware, varnished walls, two big bedrooms, a sala so spacious it could accommodate their old hut, and carved narra furniture. When the house was finally finished – a reality of shining walls and costly gleaming windows – Camus went about apologizing for its size. “We really planned to have it much bigger, but my wife with her usual good sense wanted something more modest.”

The house never wore a coat of paint, growing darker and rain-stained with every passing season. The bedroom was never occupied except when out-of-town officials came. It contained a monstrous, carved and highly varnished bed. Its snaky posts bore aloft a wooden balance that gave it unusual elegance. A three-panel mirrored aparador in the room was used by no one except guests; so, too, a washbowl inlaid with mother-of-pearl which gleamed against the mahogany shadows of the room.

One day, Meding said, “The young men are going up to the Capitolyo next week. It would be a good time for you to go with them.” After a long pause, she added, “they invite you every year but you have gone only once. You could visit with the Superintendent this time.” At an earlier fiesta, when Camus at the inspector’s house, the official was already taken up with his other visitors. The señora did not know him. She must have also been distracted at the never-ending stream of visitors. With an absent-minded wave hand and murmured acknowledgement, she ordered someone to unburden him of his coop of chicken and made him feel at home. “Well, don’t just stand there!” an old crone had cackled at him. “Dress the chickens!” With that she thrust a halo into his hands. Camus was dismayed, but only for a few seconds. He spent the rest of the day cheerfully helping out in the backyard, very much needed and feeling useful as he stirred a huge carajay. He had caught a glimpse of the Inspector but the man was deep in conversation with some important-looking men. In a way, he was glad. He had stripped down to his shorts to save his Americana from stain.

His only regret about that visit, however, was his not having been able to join in talk with the townsmen, When they came to his house, he never felt shy telling his favorite recollections of Señor Lehniann, the German master whom many of them had heard of but never seen, “lie was a man of few words and a great reader. There was this thick book which he always read but would never let me touch. Otherwise he was extremely generous with other things. Advice. His old clothes. Sometimes money.”

As the years passed, his stories of intimacy with the German master grew, and there were times when he ventured saying that he was such the confidant of the aleman that they used to hold long conversations. The aleman had often said that he should aspire to go to Manila to study, and that, he would make good because he would then cultivate further the inclination and the attitude, that he acquired through exposure to better things. Time had a way of making resolutions fade, but the inclination remained, Camus would say, with a complacent shrug.

A few years back, a frequent visitor, the Councilor for their area, offered him a caminero’s job on a section of the municipal road to Cuenco. Camus still remembered the four short weeks of that only employment with an emotion akin to righteousness. He received thirty pesos scrupulously kept their dirt hidden in their backyards. It was the grass and the weeds that continually threatened to overrun the road. Then someone told him that the same Councilor had placed someone else as a checker who had nothing to do but check on the camineros. With polite apologies to Meding and the baffled councilor, he left the job.

In the yard of their neighbors house a group of young men began to gather. Laughter broke out often and once in a while, someone slapped a neighbor on the back. Camus could make out nothing; the whirr of the crickets seemed to drown out all their talk. He sat at the window picking with his nails, a veined and hairy leg drawn up on the bench to support his chin. In the dusk, the group looked conspiratorial.

He looked long at Meding clearing the table. “You are right, I think,” he said half-asking.

Meding shrugged her frail shoulders. She crossed the wobbly bamboo bridge that connected their house to the old hut. Camu followed her without a word, wondering what she would do.

She led the way to the smaller of two rooms. “I have prepared your white suit,” she said.

She knelt before the wooden trunk, took a black key from the ring which always hung at her waist and twisted it into the keyhole. The suit lay on top of all the old clothes, like a silent shock that it had been years since he wore it. The fragrance of its being kept in the trunk was wafted to him, redolent of an opulence he had never really enjoyed again after that morning of his wedding. Camus received it with some shyness. It was almost like a ritual and Camus was glad that the soft light hid his emotions.

All their life, sentiment had had very little meaning perhaps because love had never figured in the courtship. Camus married Meding because his father and her father had agreed on the union. She had submitted impassively, although he had heard she was spirited girl. The vaunted spirit was to be known by him only through the regimen with which he had imposed on their lives.

Sometimes when the barrenness of living engulfed him with a misery he could not understand, he felt that this was as it should be, life is hard, why should he complain, she was an ardent example of what hard work and frugality could bring. In this reveries, he began to believe in the gladsome fullness of his life as the German had said it could be. Camus held the coat before him. “It may no longer fit me,” he said.

He felt that he had grown bigger, taller, more expansive in girth, so that when the coat slid easily over his shoulders and the pants hung loosely around his waist, consternation filled him. He realized that he had really, looked at himself for sometime. He turned and lifted the lantern from the hook and walked slowly into the bigger bedroom where the three-paneled aparador stood.

The man in the mirror was someone he scarcely knew. He was stooped-shouldered, his chest caved in, and his silvery hair that stood erect in a close-cropped aguinaldo cut was sparse and revealed his shiny brown scalp.

The face- taut and mask-like – shook him. He began to think that he would never be able to greet his hosts in the capitol like with that boisterous warmth they themselves greeted him when they mounted his stairs. Even if he had never intended to do so, he had long since he learned that humility pleased his visitors.

So the suit did not really matter. All these years he thought he had really grown stout, lie was still strong at the nets. He could lift sacks of rice with ease. Heavy loads never shortened his breath. When his wife’s face appeared from the shadows in the mirror, he felt even more saddened. He wondered did she ever feel the need to look and live well, to experience heady well-being. Her lips drew back unsmiling, and as an answer to his thought, she spoke, her eyes betraying nothing: “You have not changed much. The years do riot tell on you.”

Camus stared at his image like it were stricken adversary. He slowly unbuttoned the coat dropped the pants and handed them back to Meding.

“Perhaps you had better put this back in the trunk.” He looked at his wife in the mirror and in a voice not his, he told her that he could not go.

She listened to him indifferently; already in her mind, she was counting the chickens which she must catch, tie up and cage in stripped baskets. She knew how in the town every leaf of vegetables had its price and these would be her husband’s levy. She had watched him welcome those people with touching sincerity that somehow made the patronizing tones of his guests sound boorish. And she, too, had a acquiesced, having learned from dealing with merchants that sometimes yielding was only way of getting your due.

The young men are starting early in the morning. We must be up before the first cock crows,” she said flatly, refusing to yield to the pleading in his eyes.

The crowd of women converged on Camus the moment he alighted from the bus, screaming and tugging at his two chicken coops. Then as suddenly as a swarm of flies that have found another victim, they dispersed, he wing him with the empty containers and several smelly bills in his hands.

Camus stared at the money, then quickly pocketed it. He walked towards the church, not minding the crowd, the hawking vendors who thrust bundles of cake at his face. Camus rubbed the back of his hand against his temples. Every step was taking him nearer to the Superintendent’s house and how could he go to him without the chicken’s of his throat was parched, the vendors thrust their wares at him again. Pinipig! Balut! Kropeck! Mais laga! Above the voices, in a tinkling bell now attracted him. He turned around, an ice cream vendor smiled at him: Ice cream, sir! Ice cream! They exchanged a look of understanding.

He watched the vendor pat layers of multi-colored ice cream into the cone, yellow, violet, white. A final, careful pat of chocolate. He waved away the insistent hands and wares of the other peddlers. Slow he drew the money from his pocket, picked the bill most frayed and gave it to the vendor. As he licked the ice cream, savoring the taste, he stretched out his hand for the change. All was quiet in the plaza now, and suddenly he realized that he had almost twenty pesos to spend as he pleased. He squinted craftily about him, seeing for the first time the enticements of the shops, hearing for the first time the loud speakers talking to him alone. Yes, he must tell his wife how pleased the good lady had been, how truly line gentlemen and friend the Superintendent was.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

SSG Anthony Cammayo said...

This is just one of my grandmother's short stories thank you for the compliment.

MisterPolo said...

This makes me miss her even more.

earn online!