“Donya Zaragoza” by Soleil Davíd

02 October 2020 on Fiction   Tags:

Donya Zaragoza, née Castillo, allowed herself to be whisked away from her beloved Batangas family home to the southern province of Bicol because she knew that marrying a Zaragoza meant that she could restore her family’s fortune. The Castillos had fallen on hard times, brought on by her father’s enthrallment to drink and sabong, and although the family name still got her and her mother places, allowed them into Batangas’ high society, its corridors of power, it was getting harder and harder for her parents to maintain the illusion of money. She remembered driving her mother to a city four hours away so she could pawn an heirloom sapphire necklace in anonymity.

“What’s the point?” she admonished her mother. “Papa doesn’t care who sees him at the sabungan.”

Her debut was a beautiful affair, but by that point the whole of Batangas knew of the Castillos’ reduced circumstances. The boys she grew up with all danced with her that night, but she knew that after this rite of passage, after the cotillon dance was over, none of them would ask her parents for her hand in marriage. She swayed, graceful in the arms of a boy who would never give her his family name, much less his estate, her hands wrapped in long silk gloves, her pale blue dress a shimmery satin, vowing to always live up to whatever her new family name would be.

She met Don Zaragoza at another such debut, when a far relative turned eighteen. He was a good man. A man so kind she couldn’t understand how he came to love her. He understood when the Donya didn’t invite her father to their wedding, and afterwards he took her to the United States on a year-long honeymoon, introduced her to friends of his in New York, Boston and San Francisco. In parlor after parlor, she regaled her new acquaintances with her singing and piano playing. He put up with her complaints of saddle-weariness, and still had the energy to laugh when, at Santa Monica Pier, she took one look at the dull blue of the ocean and turned to him, saying, “You brought me to this ugly beach? We’re from the Philippines.”

When they got home from the honeymoon, a baby grand piano waited for her in the living room. In the afternoons when he wasn’t tending to the family business, she would play the instrument for him, revel in his look of awe. She thought that he loved her best when she was singing, thought that if not for her musical abilities he would have chosen another woman to marry, perhaps someone with money to back her family name.

They went all over the world together, always flying first class. When they had their daughter Elena, they brought her in tow, dressing her in small kimonos in Kyoto, letting her go on all the rides at Disneyland. Donya Zaragoza especially liked visiting Rome and The Vatican, where she would purchase wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano that her daughter would take hunks off with her bare fingers.

“You’re spoiling her,” the Don said once, watching Elena cram pannetone into her mouth.

The Donya wiped the girl’s mouth. “She’ll expect nothing but the best.”

*

The Zaragozas built their fortune on agriculture. They owned a cacao and abaca plantation in Tabaco, which Don Zaragoza frequently visited. The Donya would sometimes go with him, but only reluctantly. She didn’t like having to greet the sweaty workers, to nod in feigned interest when they told her about their invariably huge families. They were always asking for more money. Did they think that her husband plucks his money from the trees in the Legazpi property, the way they plucked the cacao fruit from theirs?

They had land closer to Legazpi, too, in the nearby town of Daraga. It was empty, but with tillable soil. When the Donya heard of its existence, she determined that it was the perfect wedding gift for Elena when the time came for her to marry into a good family. When her husband invited her to survey the property, she readily acquiesced, thinking that it might be a good idea to draw up house plans for it. She offered to drive, which surprised the Don, but she missed the feel of a steering wheel beneath her hands. Her car was the one thing that the Donya did not allow her mother to sell. In fact, it was still parked in the Batangas garage. She wanted it as a reminder of her single days, when the car was her only ticket to get away from her parents, the crumbling lives they suffered in silence.

They pulled into the quiet lot. It was late afternoon but the sun still beat down hard on the uneven ground. Her husband took out a small bag from the trunk, from which he produced a spade. A few days ago, they had received a gift of pili fruits from one of the farmers who worked on their land, and the Donya had had the fruits boiled in salt water. She remembered that her husband had saved a few dozen seeds and put them in water. The seeds had sprouted small shoots, and it was these shoots that he placed upright on the ground beside him. He knelt on the ground and started digging.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the Donya was scandalized. “You’re acting like a common farmer.”

The Don ignored her, placing seedlings into the holes he had dug, covered the seedlings with loving pats. He looked up at her with a smile, and she couldn’t stay angry.

“Pili takes generations to grow,” she said, knowing that he knew. He was a smart man.

“It will be for our great-grandchildren.” His smile took on a faraway look, as if already envisioning the rows of pili trees that would grow on the land, the buttery nuts they would produce.

“We’ll need more than a few seedlings if we want a farm.”

And that’s when her husband took her to a different part of the lot, where a row of small green plants stood in the sun. It was easy to miss them in the brush. Only someone who knew exactly where to look would find the young pili trees, little more than shoots, swaying in the soft wind.

*

Elena was an odd one. Kind, like her father, with a precocity the Donya was sure she didn’t get from her side of the family. She would play with the househelp’s children, run around the neighborhood with them until she was called in for supper. She would let them play with her toys, and didn’t seem to mind when they would break some of her things, as kids often did. She would often invite them to sit at the table with her, take their lunch at the same time. When this happened, the Donya would ask for her lunch to be taken to her room.

“How can you allow this?” she complained to her husband. “They can’t just eat with us like that.”

Don Zaragoza looked up from his reading, a book by someone named James Baldwin. “Why not?”

“Why not?” she repeated, incensed. “Well, pretty soon they’ll think they’re just like us.”

“Mahal,” he responded, chuckling. “They are just like us.”

*

Donya Zaragoza’s daughter attended the local Catholic school, the one where the children of the elites went to get educated, went to get fined when they spoke Tagalog, a higher fine if they dared to speak Bikol. Donya Zaragoza learned to speak Bikol herself, but only to the help. Her daughter she spoke English to. She could hear Elena eliding her vowels, softening her r’s, until her English resembled the lilts and tones of the people she met in America.

She was more than a little proud of this result, but it wasn’t all good news. The Donya had thought that, like her own education in an all-girls Catholic school, her daughter would learn how to be a proper member of society—well-dressed, well-mannered, demure. But the Catholic school in Bicol seemed to be quite different. It was co-educational, for one. Donya Zaragoza didn’t mind this as much as the fact that the school seemed to teach girls the same things it taught boys. They all not only learned cooking and table setting, they also shared their classes in woodworking and history.

“Papa?” The girl came up to them one day, her face drawn, lower lip trembling.

The Don and Donya looked up from their evening port.

“Were we collaborators?” her voice broke asking the question.

“Collaborators?” the Donya asked.

“Japanese collaborators,” the girl answered. “I read it in my book, for class. Jesus and Amparo Zaragoza. Betrayed Filipinos to the Kenpeitai.”

Jesus and Amparo Zaragoza were the patriarch and matriarch of the family, the ones who started the cacao and abaca farms. Their portraits hung above the grand piano, next to a painting of Saint Cecilia.

“Come here, darling.” Her husband motioned to their daughter for an embrace.

She made no move towards them. “Well? Were they?”

Her husband stood up, went to the motionless girl. He steered her to the couch, sat beside her. She didn’t resist, but she avoided both her parents’ eyes.

“They never did talk about it,” he began, “and I was still pretty young when they died.”

“What does it matter?” The Donya couldn’t keep the annoyance out of her voice. “It was a long time ago.”

Don Zaragoza fixed her with a look that she’d never seen before, which made her stop talking.

“But is it true?” The exact same look was in her daughter’s face, although her question was directed at the Don.

“It most probably is,” he responded. “We got our land during the Japanese occupation.”

*

Elena gave all her toys away, one by one, keeping only two dolls and a LEGO set. She refused the new sets of uniform and black leather shoes Donya Zaragoza bought for her every start of the new school year. Once she saw her giving half of her allowance to the help’s son, who scurried away when he saw the Donya approaching, the bills clutched tight in his hand.

“It’s not like we deserve it,” Elena said.

She started high school and over dinner she would talk to them about agricultural reform, how farmers could finally own the land they tilled, instead of having to rent it from the greedy landowners who got all the profit.

“Careful,” the Donya admonished. “That greedy landowner you’re talking about is your father.”

“Papa agrees with me,” she replied, unperturbed.

The Don shrugged at the Donya, as if to say, what can you do?

“What was that about?” she asked him that night as she tugged at her hair with a brush, with a lot more force than necessary. “Land redistribution? Agrarian reform? I did not give that girl everything just so she could become a dirty communist.”

In response, her husband sighed, buried his face deeper into his book. José Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere, in the original Spanish.

“And you agree with her?” She stopped brushing her hair to make sure that he was getting the full effect of her glare.

“She’s young,” was his response. “And honestly, we don’t need all this money to—”

“I need this money,” she cut him off. “I’ve suffered through poverty before, and by God, I will be damned if I have to suffer it again. Why are you laughing?”

*

In the meantime, Elena was attracting the attention of the young men of the city. A parade of eligible young men came through the Zaragoza house—the sons and grandsons and nephews of the mayor, the governor, the head of the city hospital, the chief of police. Elena was civil to all of them, but she ignored their advances.

It was after the supreme court judge and his eldest grandson were turned away from their house that the Donya felt that she had had enough.

“Elena. You have to give one of these boys a chance. They’re nice boys. From good families.”

“I’m only fifteen,” she responded. “What are they doing, trying to court me? This isn’t colonial times, you don’t have to marry me off so early.”

Donya Zaragoza sighed. “I’m just trying to secure your future. We’re not marrying you off, but it would be nice for you to get to know one of these boys now.”

“Please, Mama. What could those spoiled brats offer me? A honeymoon in America? First class flights around the world? Only stupid women want that.”

She knew how to hurt the Donya. “Ingrata. Do not forget that you, too, have been spoiled beyond all redemption.”

Elena flinched as if struck. “Yes. And I think about that all the time.”

*

Of course she wanted to go the University of the Philippines when the time came for her to go to college. The Donya had hoped that she’d stay near, attend the University of Nueva Caceres, or Aquinas University, but no, she wanted to live in a big city.

“Very well,” her father said. “As long as it’s Ateneo or University of Santo Tomas.”

“Good Catholic schools,” Donya Zaragoza agreed, nodding.

But she wanted to go to a public school, wanted it so much she had snuck out to take the entrance exam to UP. She showed her parents her acceptance letter. It said that she was coming in as a Journalism major.

“You’ve made your point, anak,” the Don said, reading the letter. “And we’re very proud of you. But isn’t it time you put aside these tirades and learn to be part of society? We know people in Ateneo, they’ll take care of you.”

Elena did not leave her room for two days straight. When Donya Zaragoza passed by her locked door, she would hear soft crying. It wasn’t until the supreme court judge, by then a good friend of the family’s, called her husband to say that there was nothing wrong with going to UP, that he, in fact, went there for law school himself, and that he met influential people there, too, that the Donya finally relented.

She regretted it later when in her third year at the university, Elena met a young man whose family name was unknown to any of her circles. Regretted it when the Don took to this young man, started inviting him to their family gatherings. She regretted being forced to give Elena away in marriage, at a wedding that was far too modest for their stature. She resented having to trade pleasantries with the man’s family, resented having to act as if they were equals.

There was one silver lining: Maria Isabella, the newborn baby who bore her mother’s eyes and Donya Zaragoza’s own full lips. She found herself taken with the infant, despite her nose resembling that of her father’s. She doted on the baby so much, wanted to protect her from any sort of discomfort, that the Donya refused to go with the family on their annual road trip to what was by then their summer home in Batangas, the Donya’s own family home.

“She’s too young for those awful, awful roads,” she told her husband, her eyes trained on the gurgling baby. “We’ll join you next year.”

Which was why Donya Zaragoza and Maria Isabella were not in the car with the rest of the family when an eight-wheeler truck, attempting to pass them on a blind curve, had to swerve to avoid a head-on collision with another truck climbing up the mountain pass in the opposite direction, nudging the family off the road and into a long fall off a cliff.

*

At the funeral, several doctors the Donya knew assured her that the kind of fall the car sustained would have knocked all the passengers unconscious before they ever hit the ground, so whatever the passengers were thinking or doing, if her husband, her daughter and her accursed son-in-law were holding on to each other, saying prayers on their way down, the abyss of unknowing would have taken them before the impact did. They were most probably unhurt, she was told. She suspected the doctors were only trying to make her feel better. She knew that road, knew the treacherous way the large, sharp rocks lined the cliffside. She couldn’t imagine an impact they wouldn’t have felt.

The baby Maria Isabella cried all through the multiple wakes. Mercy, the baby’s wet nurse, came up to the Donya, looking scared.

“Donya, please,” she said, rocking the crying baby in her arms. “We have to make her stop crying. We’ve been hearing the tiktik bird for the past three nights. The aswang is nearby.”

Donya Zaragoza just looked at Mercy, her face dry.

No sightings of the aswang were reported. In the dead of night, as Donya Zaragoza sat in the middle of the living room surrounded by flower wreaths, the tall candles burning bright, the caskets of the people she loved the most still and solid, she dared the aswang to come down, push its monstrous, long tongue into the bodies of her loved ones. She kept her vigil, responded to the tiktik bird’s preternatural ticking with cries of her own. When her dead family was interred in ceremonies that lasted four days, it was still their serene faces that Donya Zaragoza glimpsed underneath the coffin glass. She willed their bodies to turn into abaca trunks at the last moment, to have really been abducted by the aswang, for their deaths to have meant something to someone, even if that someone was a monster from the old myths. Better a feast for the cursed being than inside the boxes she had been forced to pick out for all of them.

*

Maria Isabella grew up in Donya Zaragoza’s care. The lavish gifts that her mother refused, Maria Isabella gamely accepted. Swarovski crystals adorned her wrists, small diamonds decorated her ears. The Donya had a talk with the Catholic school principal about their history curriculum, so that her granddaughter wouldn’t have to learn about the family history that drove her mother mad. The Zaragoza house would finally have a proper young lady.

But the thing about raising a proper young lady was that it cost money, the Donya was finding out quickly. For a time, the farm profits were enough to sustain the Donya, Maria Isabella, and the reduced house staff she kept after the death of her family.

Mercy was one of the helpers the Donya kept around. The loyal wet nurse, now also cook and housekeeper, walked Maria Isabella to and from school until she was ten. The Donya would often find Mercy and Maria Isabella talking in whispers in the outdoor kitchen, Mercy shelling fresh tamarind for sinigang, Maria Isabella learning how to winnow rice. Of course the Donya didn’t approve, but now knew better than to express her disdain so openly.

When Maria Isabella turned thirteen, Donya Zaragoza had to sell the cacao plantation to pay for her high school tuition. There were also the textbooks, the school trips abroad, the plays her granddaughter liked watching and acting in, the designer purses she had taken a liking to. Halfway into Maria Isabella’s junior year, the abaca crop failed, and kept failing until the Donya had to let all the farmers go.

“What do you mean it’s not enough? I’ve budgeted everything to the centavos,” the Donya scolded Mercy, who came home one day having bought only half of the groceries.

Mercy attempted to explain. “All the prices have gone up. The strike last week—”

“What strike?”

“Produce couldn’t get into town, so prices went up.”

“Is everything alright? Lola? Até Mercy?” The Donya didn’t realize that Maria Isabella had walked into the kitchen during their discussion.

“Nothing’s wrong, hija. Go do your homework.”

She noticed Mercy and her granddaughter exchange a look. Without a word, Mercy exited the kitchen. Maria Isabella went up to the Donya, took both hands in hers.

“Do we not have enough money?”

There was a hysterical tinge to the Donya’s responding laugh. “Of course not. This is just temporary. There was a strike last week—”

“If I knew it was this bad, I wouldn’t have asked for so many gifts last Christmas.”

The Donya had no response.

“Lola, we should sell the lot in Daraga.”

“What are you talking about?” Donya Zaragoza finally spat out. “That will be yours when you turn eighteen.”

“How about the house in Batangas, then? We never go.”

It was true she never made any attempt to visit Batangas after the accident.

“But I want to show it to you one day. You’ll like it. It’s near the beach, you’ll love the Capiz shell windows—”

“Até Mercy said you’ve been having trouble paying her.”

A flare of anger, unbidden, leapt into the Donya’s chest. “Oh, is that right? Poor Até Mercy has been running to little Maria Isabella, crying about how Donya Zaragoza has been so unfair to her.”

Unaffected by her sarcasm, Maria Isabella continued, “Christopher told me the same thing.”

Christopher was their gardener who came to tend to the Donya’s orchids twice a month. As far as the Donya knew, he didn’t speak Tagalog nor English.

“When did you learn to speak Bikol?”

Maria Isabella shrugged, avoiding her eyes.

“Maria Isabella.”

“Até Mercy taught me. A long time ago. That’s how we speak to each other. And we live in Bikol. How can I not pick it up,” the girl spoke the last bits in perfect Bikol.

If the Donya could have had a fit of fainting, she would’ve done so. Instead, she said, “I didn’t send you to that expensive Catholic school to speak the language of thieves and washerwomen. Even your mother had more sense than that.”

*

Grandmother and granddaughter weren’t speaking, but they still went to mass together that Sunday. They entered St. Gregory’s Cathedral, one after the other, keeping their distance, but couldn’t avoid having to sit next to each other. It was during homily that the Donya had the idea to become a piano teacher. After all, didn’t her playing and singing delight all their American friends in San Francisco, and their Italian friends in Rome? She still played sometimes, and certainly not as often as when the Don was alive. She had taught Maria Isabella, and the girl was a competent player and an even better singer. She was so excited for her plan that she drew looks from her granddaughter during the homily.

“Lola,” Maria Isabella whispered, “stop fidgeting. Are you possessed?”

There was no need for an exorcism. When they got home from mass, Donya Isabella had their baby grand piano moved to her husband’s old study, clearing out his narra desk and chair, only keeping his books and leather couch.

“Is this alright?” she kept asking her granddaughter, their big fight forgotten.

Her first student was a young boy, about seven years old. His feet dangled over the piano bench, unable to reach the pedals. Trembling, the Donya took the boy’s hands, placed them on the baby grand’s ivory keys.

She motioned to where she had placed his right thumb. “This is Middle C.”

The boy’s mother sat on the couch across from the piano, looking up from her reading from time to time. When the lesson was over, she stood up, went up to the Donya, offered her hand.

“That was great, Madame,” she said. “We’ll see you next week.”

Madame. She wanted to correct the woman, tell her she was a Donya. She took the woman’s hand, shook it, smiled.

*

The money that the Donya earned was enough for her and Maria Isabella to get through the child’s high school years. She even had enough money saved to throw her granddaughter a graduation party befitting the Zaragoza name. No expense was spared, as evinced by the whole lechon laid out in the center of their dining table, the live band setting up in the living room, the fresh flowers on every table. Mercy had cleaned every nook of the house until everything glowed softly in the golden hour.

The city’s elite were invited, and Donya Zaragoza thought it would be a good time to start introducing Maria Isabella to some fine young men. She especially had her eyes on the younger Gonzales boy, the mayor’s son and by all accounts a smart man who planned to go to Ateneo Law. Maria Isabella, radiant in a white dress, didn’t seem to mind the obvious matchmaking, and laughed with the Gonzales boy near the band. For the first time since her husband’s death, Donya Zaragoza felt that everything would be alright.

“Donya Zaragoza.” It was their family friend, the supreme court judge.

“Judge. So glad that you could come,” she greeted him, her smile warm.

“Thank you for inviting me. I wanted to ask if you’d care to entertain us on the piano.”

The Donya felt like she was back in Rome, being asked for her songs. “Of course. Certainly.”

It was while playing the second scherzo that the Donya heard the commotion outside. Maria Isabella was shouting. The Donya rushed outside to see Mercy was on the floor, a bright red mark on her cheek. Maria Isabella had her hands balled into fists, glaring at the Gonzales boy, who stood almost looking bored.

“What’s the matter?” the Donya asked, going to her granddaughter’s side.

“He hit Até Mercy,” the girl responded, and it was declaring this that made her start to cry.

“She bumped into me,” the Gonzales boy said in an even tone, as if what he was saying was perfectly reasonable.

Maria Isabella was indignant. “So you hit her? What kind of scum—”

“Enough,” the Donya cut her off in a loud whisper, embarrassed to see her so upset. “You will not make a scene.”

The mayor had arrived. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh, nothing, Mayor,” Donya Zaragoza said, motioning to the band to continue playing. “Just a misunderstanding.”

Maria Isabella turned her glare to the Donya. She took Mercy’s hands, helped her up. Maria Isabella embraced the house help, but Mercy, seeing the Donya looking at them, disentangled herself from the girl’s arms. The Gonzales boy stepped past them, tapping Maria Isabella’s shoulder as he passed. The girl shuddered away from his touch.

“Hija,” was all the Donya could say. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s talk.”

Maria Isabella looked at Mercy, who nodded, as if giving the girl permission.

“Mercy.” The Donya’s tone turned commanding, harsh. “The judge is to entertain the guests. I need to show my granddaughter something.”

She took Maria Isabella by the shoulder, leading the girl away.

*

By the time they got to the lot in Daraga it was almost sunset. The Donya drove them in silence. Every now and then she glanced at her granddaughter, who sat with her arms wrapped around herself. As they stepped out of the car, the Donya motioned to the lot with a flourish.

“This is all yours now. I know you’re not eighteen yet, but who cares?”

Maria Isabella said nothing, but allowed herself to be led by the Donya as she skirted around wildflowers to get to the pili trees that her grandfather had planted. They were up to the Donya’s waist now, older, but there was something anemic about the way they stood.

“Still nowhere near harvest,” the Donya said. “If you’re not ready to build a house, we should get Christopher to come take care of these, make them grow and bear fruit.”

“You let them do that to Até Mercy. You let them push her around like she’s nothing.” There was nothing accusatory about the way Maria Isabella said the words. She seemed only to state facts, and not even to the Donya, but to herself.

“Listen to me, Maria Isabella,” the Donya sighed, impatient. “Sometimes, things happen that we don’t like. Like your parents, your Lolo.”

“What does that have to do with this? With that asshole? With you?”

“He’s a Gonzales.”

“And Até Mercy is a nobody, right?” She started pacing around the pili nut tree, grabbed at leaves which pulled off easily from their stems. “She’s been with us my whole life but she’s still nobody to you. But she’s a mother to me.”

“I am a mother to you,” the Donya said with barely a rise in volume. “I raised you. Gave you everything. I worked for you.”

The look Maria Isabella gave the Donya was withering. When she spoke, it was in Bikol. “I don’t want anything from you. Not this land, not your precious name. Nothing.”

A few minutes after Maria Isabella walked off, presumably to her Até Mercy, the Donya recovered enough from shock to notice how slowly the pili shoots had grown through the years. Their leaves were yellowed, diseased. Slowly, methodically, she broke small branches off the trees. When she was done with that, she pulled them by the roots, not surprised at how easily they tore from the ground. She looked at her hands, the soil seeping into the lines of her palms, her hands that never knew manual labor. She threw dust in her hair, a concession to mourning. Then she got in the car, turned on her headlights in the gathering dark, listening to the slowly crescendoing sounds of the crickets busy at their little sonatas.

*

Soleil Davíd’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arkansas International, MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Cream City Review and The Margins, among others. Davíd was born and raised in the Philippines and received her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. A VONA/Voices alumna, she has received fellowships from PEN America, Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, and from Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is currently an MFA candidate in poetry. She is the current Poetry Editor of Indiana Review.

The above painting is an oil on canvas by Adeline Goldminc-Tronzo, from the “THEIERES series” (2020). Goldminc-Tronzo was born and educated in Paris, France. In the mid seventies she moved to New York City where she studied at the Art Students League. She holds a BFA in Art and Philosophy. Over the past 40 years, she has frequently exhibited her work across the US and Europe. Her work is held in numerous private collections. She currently lives and works in Eliot, Maine with her husband the painter Michael Tronzo. Adeline teaches as adjunct  Painting and Drawing @ Maine College of art in Portland and also conducts workshops in New England as well as in Paris and Provence, France. Find more of her work on her website.

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