In which the journey and the destination count.
When I first read "How My Brother Leon Brought Home A Wife," I was in fourth grade. And just like any fourth grader, it didn't mean anything to me. Or perhaps it did, albeit in a very shallow, childish way. I remember thinking that Maria is a clever and sweet girl when she called Leon Noel. See, it's Leon spelled backwards! Oh, the simple satisfaction of a child's discovery.
Reading it again several years after, proved to be more than an eye-opener. The short story is not just a recollection of an afternoon adventure with a brother's fiancé. It's a plan made with good intentions, but was executed with apparent cruelty.
The short story opened with a simple but direct (and quite pictorial) description of Maria.
She stepped down from the carretela of Ca Celin with a quick, delicate grace. She was lovely. She was tall. She looked up to my brother with a smile, and her forehead was on a level with his mouth.
… Her nails were long, but they were not painted. She was fragrant like a morning when papayas are in bloom. And a small dimple appeared momently high on her right cheek.
From here, all the other descriptions sprang from Maria. Baldo, Leon's younger brother, see things only as Maria's periphery. The narrative flow becomes based on whatever Maria looks at, touches, or whoever comes near Maria. She seems to be a beautiful light source, and any object only becomes relevant when touched by her radiance.
Baldo was the one tasked to bring Leon and Maria to their house. But instead of following camino real (which I believe was the main road), Baldo guided Labang (the carabao) the other way -- back to where Ca Celin dropped them off and into the fields.
This is where things get mysterious … and awkward.
When I sent Labang down the deep cut that would take us to the dry bed of the Waig which could be used as a path to our place during the dry season, my brother Leon laid a hand on my shoulder and said sternly:
"Who told you to drive through the fields tonight?"
His hand was heavy on my shoulder, but I did not look at him or utter a word until we were on the rocky bottom of the Waig.
"Baldo, you fool, answer me before I lay the rope of Labang on you. Why do you follow the Waig instead of the camino real?"
His fingers bit into my shoulder.
"Father, he told me to follow the Waig tonight, Manong."
Swiftly, his hand fell away from my shoulder and he reached for the rope of Labang. Then my brother Leon laughed, and he sat back, and laughing still, he said:
"And I suppose Father also told you to hitch Labang to the cart and meet us with him instead of with Castano and the calesa."
What's admirable in Leon's personality is his calmness. He might have already sensed that something is awry, yet, just like most Filipinos, he chose to dwell on positive things.
Without waiting for me to answer, he turned to her and said, "Maria, why do you think Father should do that, now?" He laughed and added, "Have you ever seen so many stars before?"
And so they looked at the stars, and sang. They still sang even after the cart's wheels hit a big rock. And Baldo noticed that Leon and Maria's world is no doubt full of happiness.
After realizing that they are getting nearer Leon's home, Maria expressed her fear that his father may not like her.
Upon reaching their house, Leon immediately looked for his father. But it was Baldo for whom the old man called.
"Did you meet anybody on the way?" he asked.
"No, Father," I said. "Nobody passes through the Waig at night."
He reached for his roll of tobacco and hitched himself up in the chair.
"She is very beautiful, Father."
"Was she afraid of Labang?" My father had not raised his voice, but the room seemed to resound with it.
And again I saw her eyes on the long curving horns and the arm of my brother Leon around her shoulders.
"No, Father, she was not afraid."
"On the way---"
"She looked at the stars, Father. And Manong Leon sang."
"What did he sing?"
"---Sky Sown with Stars... She sang with him."
He was silent again.
When Leon and Maria entered the old man's room, Baldo was told to water Labang. And on his way out, he can’t help but notice Maria again.
I looked at Maria and she was lovely. She was tall. Beside my brother Leon, she was tall and very still. Then I went out, and in the darkened hall the fragrance of her was like a morning when papayas are in bloom.
The story started and ended in the description of the same person. It is easy to think that the story isn't about Leon. It is about Maria.
In fact, the road Leon's father told Baldo to take is also for Maria. If one considers how Baldo and Leon had difficulty in tying Labang to the cart, and even guiding him to the part where the camino real curves (because Labang wanted to go straight on), it is very apparent that even the animal isn't used to taking that road.
Why the old man decided that the visitor ride on the hay in a cart (in her high heels) and pass by the field instead of a more comfortable calesa in a shorter road isn't answered. The interrogation of Baldo (which doesn't provide straight answers, too) seemed to be inevitable, but nonetheless significant.
The epiphany in the story is very subtle. The falling action quite abrupt. What could remain in the readers' minds is the question of how Maria would keep her composure in front of the old man considering the journey they have just taken. She doesn't appear to have enough time to gather her thoughts and feeling, any more than she has time to rest.
And in the end. That's what the old man wants -- to see her for what she really is.
In his novel The Winner Stands Alone, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Life has many ways of testing a person's will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen all at once.” He implies that life is full of surprises. And a person's character is reflected by his or her reactions for both scenarios.
In Maria's case, everything seemed to happen all at once: her desire to look the best she could, only to be part of an uncomfortable journey, and then face a man whom everybody seemed to be scared of.
Instead of complaining, she spoke calmly, remained full of gaiety and laughter and finesse, and admired the beauty of nature that Ermita is forever bereft. She may not have gone through the tests of Psyche and Savitri, but in her own difficult journey, she stood out for what she really is -- a beautiful woman inside and out.