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7

Acquainting

Lydia stroked Florencia’s hair while she slept. “It’s a miracle that
she came to me alone.” She was overwhelmed as she envisioned the girl
walking on the main road from Balatunang to Santa Cruz. Florencia
would have traveled nearly fifty miles along that route. The girl’s quite
young, she marveled it’s only by God’s hand that she ended up here
instead of somewhere far to the north or to the east.

She kissed one small hand and studied each delicate finger. When
the sun completely set, Lydia slipped from the room. She strode to the
open front door and whistled once.

The dog immediately charged up the steps to her side.


“Come with me, Mr. English.”

He padded with tail wagging down the hall behind his master.
When Lydia stopped at Florencia’s room, she snapped her fingers
and pointed.

Mr. English obeyed by lying on the mahogany floor in the open


doorway.

“It’s your job to watch over Florencia,” she instructed.


The dog looked to where she signaled to the sleeping child.

“That’s right, she’ll be staying with us now.”

Mr. English crossed his paws and perked his ears straight up.
“That’s a good dog.” She touched his nose and left him guarding
the child.

Outdoors, Lydia returned to the cooking house to gather a kerosene


lamp and carried it down the sloping hill past her lengthy flower garden.
She felt content while making her way to the plantation’s weaving
house.

Clear skies and a slight cool breeze made for a pleasant evening in
February for the villagers to enjoy before the coming rainy season. Yet,
Lydia was simply happy to work after the set of the hot tropical sun.
After the short walk from the main house, Lydia entered the nearby
weaving house. Fresh woven sheeting drew her attention to the back of
her loom, so she cut two yards of the natural gauze and stenciled on it a
dress pattern of her design. The dress would be simply cut with a plain
hem that would reach to the girl’s ankles. All the while, she formulated
a proposition for Gorio. I’ll have to visit him soon. She rubbed her
forehead. It wasn’t a task she relished but was grateful for the
opportunity.

It grew quite late before Lydia finished sewing a small dress for
Florencia. She examined the article and decided to embellish it with
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knotted pink rosettes about the neckline. “I hope `Encia likes this,” she
said aloud while holding it up to the light.

The next morning, Lydia woke heavy-eyed but excited. She dressed
and peeked in on her young guest before rushing to the spring to draw
enough water to carry back to the cooking house. Once she prepared the
morning fire, she fried rice, eggs, and pork strips for breakfast. Her best
friend, Gloria, was the first to arrive as she gathered the foods on a
bamboo tray.

Gloria snickered. “We’re awful hungry this morning, eh?”

Lydia grinned. “This isn’t all for me. Listen, I have something to
share with you, but you must keep it to yourself for a while. All right?”

Gloria nodded.

“Do you remember my telling you once about Florencio's baby girl?”

“Sure.” Gloria scooped several cups of black-eyed peas from a


basket.

“She’s here--little `Encia is here now.”

“What do you mean she’s here?”


Lydia nodded and poured the last quart of water into a bowl.

Gloria took the empty jug from her. “Tell me what you mean?”

“She simply walked up to the house yesterday. I asked her where


she was from and learned that she’d run away from her uncle’s home.
She and Mr. English didn’t know what to make of each other, I suppose-
-you know he’s becoming quite obedient with each new command I
teach him.”

Gloria shook her head as she washed vegetables. “How can a child
that young appear out of nowhere? Didn’t the family look for her?”

Lydia shrugged as she continued arranging the child’s food on the


tray. “I don’t know the whole story, but I’m planning to go to
Balatunang in a few days to find out.”

“Promise me you won’t go there alone.” Gloria immediately began


chopping vegetables. Enough food had to be prepared for the midday
meal to feed the eight village families’ working the plantation. She
assured Lydia that one of the other women would be able to help her.
“You go on and tend to that little girl of yours.”

Lydia smiled. “If only she really were mine.” She picked up the
loaded tray. “We’ll talk more later.”

She arrived back inside the house, laid the food on the kitchen table,
and headed straight for Florencia’s room. “I didn’t forget you, Mr.
English, but there are no boiled eggs for you today either.” She patted
his head and tossed him a fried pork chop. “Go outside now. Maybe
you can catch us a deer from the woods for dinner.”

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The child woke to the sound of dog nails tapping quickly down the
hail and out of the house.

“Good morning, sweetheart.” Lydia lifted the girl from her bed.
“Did you have a good sleep last night?”

“Uh-huh.” Florencia rubbed her eyes and pulled at her hair’s string.

The woman unfastened it as she carried her to the kitchen. “We’ll


bathe for breakfast and then spend time outside together.”

Without replying Florencia peered about. The room was bright and
airy with white flowers resting in a bowl on the table. She studied the
pretty yellow cloth strips outlining each window while Lydia undressed
her. Maybe the other families living in this hut had already come and
gone while she slept. She listened for others possibly stirring while the
woman rinsed her with water.
Lydia dried Florencia and slipped the newly made white dress over
her head.

The young girl touched its soft pleats and smiled.

“It suits you fine.” Lydia poured the bath water out one window and
set her in a chair at the table. “Let’s eat, and I’ll show you around the
plantation.”

Florencia nodded and bit into a pork strip. “It’s good.”

"Tell me more about your journey. Where did you sleep at night?”
Lydia prompted the child, and after their meal began rinsing their plates
in a bucket on her worktable.

“Where they liked me.” Then, Florencia came up behind her. “Can
I help, too?”

Lydia’s eyes brightened, and she immediately stood the girl on a


chair in front of the washtub. “I would love for you to help me.” She
placed a bar of soap and a dish scrubber made of a coconut husk in
Florencia’s hands and showed her how to scrub the dishes clean.
When their job was complete, they stepped from the house together
and crossed the small bridge arching the stream that irrigated Lydia’s
garden.

Florencia murmured something in a low tone as she glanced back.


“What are you saying, ‘Encia?”

Florencia repeated her question. “Where is your family?”

Lydia took her hand. “I live alone, sweetheart. My mother and


father are no longer alive. They were ill and died. Do you understand?”

She frowned. “I think my mamma and papa were sick and died,
too.”

Florencia’s black hair shone in the sunlight while Lydia stroked it.
“We’ll be all right. There are many good people here on the plantation
who work with us and will keep us company.

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They crossed a tobacco field to reach the spring that each family
drew from daily. Water gushed from the ground and ran in rivulets out
across the land to naturally water its crops.

“I’ll have one of the men take fresh water up to the house so we
won’t have to do that today,” said Lydia.

They both sipped some from their hands before moving on to the
flower garden.
“This is my patch of roses.” Lydia stepped to one bed and spent a
few moments cutting wilted red and pink flowers from several bushes.
“The white ones over here are my gardenias.” After trimming one shrub
of its browned blossoms, she cut dead limbs from a vermilion plant.
The child smiled as Lydia tucked a yellow rosebud in her hair.
The two then walked the mile back to the spacious, shaded area
beneath the main house.

Florencia peered at hand-spun pottery pieces and clumped clay


lining a lengthy shelf.

“I’ll show you how to make a small vase,” whispered Lydia, and she
began by demonstrating her craft at a small round table. She sat down
at the table and pointed to the foot treadle underneath. “I turn the table
by working this treadle with my foot, like a sewing machine.”

Florencia’s eyes widened when Lydia’s feet moved quickly to spin


the table. Lydia explained, “We bring special clay from the mountains.
Then we dry it, pound it, and screen it fine. Then we mix it with water
till it is just right to shape into bowls and things that we can use or sell
at the market.” When the woman drew her feet back, the table still
turned while her fingers formed the moistened clay into the shape of a
delicate, flower-bud vase about the height of Lydia’s hand, narrow in the
middle and larger at its base. “We’ll let it dry before we bake it, and
then you can keep it, ‘Encia.”

The next stop was across the yard at a hollowed-out tree trunk. This
was where Lydia and other women pounded threshed rice once a week.
Then they went on to the weaving house where clothing and linens were
sewn. It also contained an area within for cottons to be cleaned, beaten,
and bundled for threads.

“This is where I came last night to make your dress.” Lydia showed
her a pile of cotton scraps.

Florencia was amazed when the woman took a wad of cotton to a


machine with a large wheel and spun it into a long, thin string before
her eyes.

After some time, they moved on to the framed chicken-house with its
birds nesting or scratching all about the ground within.

The youngster remained close to Lydia when one came pecking near
her.

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Lydia reached into one nest to withdraw a large egg and placed it in
the girl’s hands. “You can hold this one, but remember that if you drop
it, it will crack and be sticky.”

Florencia nodded and carried that egg to the barn to see hay and
grain that were stored out of rain’s way.
They both stepped beyond a heavy door at one end of the building
that led to some pigpens.

Piglets were scurrying about, and the child giggled while they
chased after their mother. “They’re pretty,” she whispered.

Lydia grinned and tucked Florencia’s egg in her own skirt pocket.
“I’ll show you our pineapples, bananas, papayas, mangoes, all the fruit
trees and things like that. There are grapefruits, oranges, sugarcane,
vegetables--you name it.”

Papayas that grew to the size of watermelons fascinated Florencia.


She rolled one over that lay on the ground but was unable to lift it.
Two carabao were nearby and harnessed to walk circles about the
plantation’s sugarcane machine. It was their powerful strength that
turned the wooden press to squeeze the sugary sticks of their juices.
Lydia chuckled when Florencia asked if the animals might become
dizzy.

Several workers were now boiling the sweet liquid that dripped from
the spout into a massive wok. It bubbled to a syrup, and a portion was
poured into split coconut molds. Cooled half-shell panutza would later
be wrapped in banana leaves and stored in baskets. These brown sugar
forms would be one of many products sold at the market at Callang.
Lydia explained to Florencia that the remaining liquid would be
preserved in barrels to ferment. The wine would be removed at a later
date, and the remaining thick residue at the barrels’ bottoms would be
cooked to a whiskey. Some of the beverages would be stored here on the
farm for consumption, and the rest would be taken to Market.
Lydia ended the morning tour on top of one hill where the two easily
surveyed her many herds of Hereford cows from there. “See them
grazing in the valley?”

Florencia looked to the specks beyond.

“They’re all mine, ‘Encia.” She stretched out one sun-darkened arm
and pointed. “I received it all after my father passed away. You see, he
was Spanish and my mother was Portuguese. They arrived here to the
Philippine Islands before I was even born. I imagine they met and
married in Spain.” She shrugged. “That’s something I never thought to
ask about.

Anyway, Father was rewarded his choice of land after fighting in the
Spanish-American War. His people considered him a traitor for

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fighting alongside Americans, but he supported his own firm beliefs. He


was even awarded a Medal of Honor for carrying many soldiers to safety
in the thick of battle.”

Florencia reached for the woman’s hand.


Lydia smiled and held tight. “I can only imagine the great honor he
must have felt.” She picked the child up and set her on the weathered
fence. “To me, my father was strong and stem but diligent. He and my
mother worked this plantation from the ground up. They taught me
much since I was your age.”

Let me tell you, the ground is fertile enough for the cattle to eat even
during the dry season. Beyond these pastures you can see my tobacco,
cotton, and cornfields. I love looking to the mountains. Aren’t they
beautiful?”

Florencia nodded.

“You might not understand all I’ve said, but I’d be privileged to
teach you everything I know about this place.” She squatted before the
girl and looked deep into her eyes. “I’ve decided to speak with your
uncle, ‘Encia.”

Florencia tensed.

Lydia held her close. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix everything.” She kissed
the girl’s cheek then led their way back to the house.

Together, they bathed their dust away and shared lunch in the main
house. Then, Florencia was laid down for a nap.

Lydia was impressed to see Mr. English immediately appear at his


post to stand guard. This spare time allowed her to sew another simpler
dress and a nightgown for the child.

That afternoon, the woman spun more pottery at the potter’s wheel
while Florencia sat forming balls of clay into different shapes. “Usually
we eat breakfast in the house,” Lydia told her. “Our lunch and supper is
at the cooking house with most of the others, or we take meals to those
working in the fields. Of course, once in a while guests come from other
villages, so we share a formal meal in my dining room.”

She handed the child several miniature pots to carry to the shelf to
dry. In time you’ll come to know the families that live here, too.
There’s Antonio and my close friend, Gloria. They have two children.
There’s also Thomas and Cecilia with three children; Tuto and Carmen
who pray to have children of their own.

Marcos and Mary with four youngsters; Quinto and Anita with one
baby; Tulito and Margarite with five little ones. None of theirs are old
enough to attend the school. Antonio and Sarah have six, and Thomas
and Angeline have three of their own. I’m also close to a special couple
in the next village. That’s Maria and Pablo Ramirez. They have three
daughters you’d enjoy and one youngest son.”

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At dusk, Florencia was fed and tucked back into bed. Lydia read the
child a story of a young girl that went to pick mangoes from a tree.
“It’s time to turn in, sweetheart,” she concluded. She also pointed to
remind her of the portable potty in the hallway.

Florencia snuggled close and shut her eyes. There must be


something good about that bucket. Maybe there’s sugarcane syrup
inside if we get hungry at night.

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