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THE LIGHT AND THE SHADOW OF LEAVES

By
Gregorio C. Brillantes

WHEN I first came to the town (his father said in the darkness) it was May in 1923; your Tio
Emong and I took the train from Manila and the bus from Tarlac, because then the railway had
no line to the western towns but cut on straight to Dagupan. A cold rain fell; it was the first rain
of the season, bursting over the city in the night with sharp cracklings of thunder, and it followed
us into Bulacan and Pampanga in the morning dusk. What kind of fiesta are you having anyway
a river festival? I remarked with what I thought was an ingenious irony. But I shouldn't worry,
your uncle said the townsfolk would go on with the coronation ball, come fire or high water;
it was the social event of the year; everyone would be at the plaza, even if it meant an affair of
raincoats and umbrellas. Admirable people, I said glumly, imagining myself waltzing away in a
knee-deep flood, wearing a brave absurd smile against the endless rain.
You never knew your Tio Emong. He was the eldest son of Lola Isabel, and he died in an
auto crash before you were born. We were classmates at the University, and stayed in the same
boarding-house in Intramuros; I have this vivid memory of him, in a habitual pose his
expression half-smiling and thoughtful beneath the brim of his hat, a hand kneading his chin a
fine young man, and as true and loyal a friend as any one could hope to find in a lifetime. We
were like brothers; I had none; I didn't know it then, in the train in the dim raining day, but his
town would also become my own.
The wet station-sheds, the flat sodden fields cancelled the jubilant spirit in which I had
accepted your uncle's invitation; one didn't travel all these miles just to attend a rain-soaked
fiesta. I tried to console myself: there would be one supremely lovely girl in the crowd, whose
face one will be warmed to remember, whose voice one will never forget. . . Suddenly, past
Angeles, we sped into noon sunlight, we swung from shadow to brightness, the rain dropped
away like some boundary that separated the seasons; it was as though we had moved into another
day. The train seemed to gather more speed, its whistle flying in gay broken pieces over the
windy fields. A man who had been dozing through the sunless morning, his face covered by
a Free Press, jerked awake, lassoed us into conversation; he was incredibly fat, I remember, with
a shock of white hair, and an enormous laugh. He offered us cigars; the pungent tobacco made
me a trifle dizzy, but we had run out of Piedmont cigarettes. He was bound for Pangasinan, he
said, to visit daughter and grandchildren; he had a son, a pensionado, in America; there was a
strained good nature about him, as if he were trying to stifle a loneliness with the weight of his

booming laughter. In Tarlac he shook hands with us rather solemnly, wishing us the best of luck
in the world. You look like my son, tall and young, he said to me; an old man, traveling alone. . .
Emong and I had lunch at the Pantranco station. Our bus left at three, rumbling across the
quiet drowsing provincial capital to the dirt road that began at the other end of town. The
passengers, garrulous and laughing for the first mile or two, were soon stunned to silence by the
hot glare; cogon wilted beside the dusty road; we passed Santa Ignacia, then no more than a
brown cluster of huts, and Santa Ines, more than a decade away from the prosperity of its sugar
mills. Rain had oppressed me in the morning; now a paste of heat coated my skin; the hard
quaking bus would never stop. Patience, we are almost there, said Emong. A river gleamed
between bamboo brakes; children paused in their play by the road and waved us on toward the
town. An arch proclaimed welcome in red block letters, and finally the road sloped down to the
river; the bus shuddered to a halt on the clay bank. The bridge had not been built, only a few
piles stood bare in the green water; rafts and outriggered bancas ferried passengers to the
poblacion. It would be years yet before traffic could flow over the finished span.
Somewhere a band was playing a martial version of La Paloma; the dying sun was in my
eyes, and my first view of the town was a golden blur of trees and houses on the opposite bank.
Rockets swished and banged in the clear sky, and a high wind carried the white smoke-puffs into
the sunset haze. Emong knew our boatman and they had a companionable laugh together, talking
in the melodious dialect that I too would soon learn; I trailed my hand in the water, in the deep
river; I felt the warm pull of the undertow, constant and powerful. A fleet of calesas waited for
us, and the silver tinkle of their bells was a welcome, too, along with the fireworks and an aroma
of rice-cakes and the band playing.
We rode down the main street Calle Simon de Anda: it is called Quezon Avenue now
the horsehooves clattering on the cobblestones; and I looked at the town in the ancient fading
light, the balconied houses with their broad shell-paned windows, the acacias with the evening
already blue and darkening among the leaves, and the plaza four hectares, Emong informed
me with a grand gesture in the center of the town. And there, he said, is the Leonor Rivera
Auditorium, with its glorieta in the'middle, and that is our church, the largest in the province;
while the band played La Golondrina on a platform in a corner of the square and bells clanged
and colored stars drifted down in the early twilight.
I had visited other towns, had gone to other fiestas, like any other young man; but never
before this strange kinship, this sudden happy recognition. Perhaps it was because I had prepared
myself to be disillusioned; the reality was at once a happy surprise, and somehow, a sort of
memory; I felt as though I had lived here before, loved here my deepest love, and I knew the
names of the streets, the history of each house, the blend of light and shadow under the trees. The
destiny that awaited me here must have touched me with its prescient breath; we passed by your
mother's house, and I heard a piano, and Emong said: My cousin Luming, you'll meet her at the
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ball tonight only a name, but soon, after one first glance at her, I would never be the same
again.
Emong's house was a block away from your mother's on Del Pilar Street; a massive house
full of children; they swarmed around us and played their noisy games until your Lola Isabel
shooed them all away.
Through the house ran a festive bustle, doors slamming, people hurrying up and down the
stairs, and I shed off tiredness like a soiled shirt; I was happy I had come. In the warm leafmurmuring night beyond the windows music from the plaza throbbed faintly, calling; voices
laughed and called in the lamplit street; something different and luminous and wonderful, it
seemed, had been promised everyone on this summer night. After dinner, bathed and shaved and
pomaded, we set out for the dance in evening attire. We were young and invincible, your uncle
and I, and we would never grow old and know grief and die; and we walked with eager expectant
leisure to the celebrations in the plaza, through the strange and yet so familiar town.
I remember the faraway night with a precise and living vividness, moment by moment, while
time less distant has lost its outlines, more recent faces have become anonymous as in a faded
photograph .. . The auditorium was an island of light set in the middle of the wide plaza; beyond
its skyward glow hung a spray of stars; the orchestra in the kiosko was fiddling a brisk rigodon.
Emong pointed out your mother's parents going through the paces of the dance your
grandmother wore a Maria Clara costume with a noble graceful air; your grandfather was a gaunt
bemustached man. The rigodon ended; at last we can dance, Emong said; but the president of the
Professionals Club had a little speech to make, and after the polite applause, Emong steered me
toward his cousins where they sat in an evening-gowned group, your mother and your Tia Mely
and a flock of cousins from Vigan.
In all my life I have never seen eyes lovelier than your mother's; they spoke a soft, secret
language; I would lose myself in the depths of their meaning. Emong introduced me. I wanted to
talk to her at once, to possess her entire attention. But she turned back to the girlish chatter of her
group; and I could only watch her profile, her lips forming words; I would make her speak her
truest self to me alone. And the music began; but she had promised the first dance to somebody,
she said; perhaps the next? and she rose and she was tall and even lovelier, and it seemed an
amused question shone for a second in her glance.
She danced with a man from Gerona a suitor, so she would tell me later; she didn't love
him, although she had felt obliged to reward his fidelity with a measure of friendly affection. But
I didn't know that then; and while they danced they conversed with an earnestness I found
impossible not to resent. Who was this man? What was he in her life?
Already I was jealous; I had fallen in love with her.
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I was drawn to your mother as to a vision of a beautiful heart-rending truth that, denied,
could have driven me to despair; it was that way, suddenly, dancing with her in the Maytime
night. I had met other women; I had known the joy and the sadness of their love; but never had
they inspired that irrevocable commitment of one's entire being.
To be happy with her, that was not enough, it seemed; with a little effort, one could be happy
anywhere; I would embrace pain for her sake. We talked about the city, I remember, your mother
and I; about the town, the possibility of rain, about Emong and I turning into dis-reputable
physicians her nose, I noted with delight, crinkled when she laughed, and she had a slightly
husky voice; small talk, on my part an attempt at wit to fill a silence and an awe within the
enclosing music, while the miserable longing beat in my blood.
Shortly before midnight the dancing ceased, a trumpet and a flourish of drums stilled the
crowd, and the entourage of the fiesta queen entered glittering through the gate. Puring Cabrera
was the queen that year and Manoling Santos her tuxedoed consort; Mang Tacio, the town poet,
declaimed fervently on her myriad charms and then Governor Agana placed the crown on her
royal head. And the dancing was resumed with a vengeance, on the violin waves of melodies one
hears only in dreams now, "Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight," "The Song of the Volga Boatman"; and
she would foxtrot with the young man from Gerona, and waltz with me, and tango to the other
side of the pavilion with someone else in love with her. If the night should never end but a
group rose to leave, and another, and another followed. She must go, she said; her cousins were
waiting for her.
We escorted them home, Emong and I, and the suitor from Gerona; in the cool dawn there
were only our voices and the slow shuffle of our walking and the passage of a wind in the
tunneled trees. A life, a time of careless wandering youth was over for me; I walked, through the
town with your mother, into the years of the future. The porch light shone through the lowhanging branches of the acacia in the yard; we said good night in the soft light and darkness; I
managed to touch her hand, I could only touch her hand, briefly, for all the love that burned in
me; and before she was lost in the leafshadows it seemed the gentle inquiry twinkled again in her
eyes. I stood in the empty street, looking up at your mother's house, at an illumined window
veiled by leaves and I could have remained standing in front of the house like a drunken fool
till morning, breathing my love up toward her window, if Emong had not been there to pull me
away. . .
But I would see her again, and I would write her reams of letters from the city, humble and
extravagant, fierce and hopeful and lonely; I would come to the town on weekends, as often as I
could, that year, and the next, to visit her, in the house on Del Pilar Street, in the high-ceilinged
sala with the pedestaled ferns and carved formal furniture; and stiff in a starched collar and the
rather cramped americana of those days, beneath the stern portraits of another generation, I
would sit listening with a careful alertness to your grandfather's discourse on Mr. Leonard Wood
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and Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmena and complete, immediate independence from America,
while he stroked his mustache and glared about him as though to challenge any contrary opinion;
until your mother would come to the room at last and he would give me one final suspicious
scrutiny before leaving the two of us together a marble-topped table separated her from me,
like some uncompromising chaperone guarding her against the rage of my love.
Rain and sun and the train; the unbridged river, the lamp of a calesa swinging down a street,
cicadas in the peaceful trees, and a tracery of light and leaf darkness moving across your
mother's face on an evening late in December when she said she loved me too all of it (his
father said) haunts me still, the tone of that distant time; the day dims softly, suddenly, as though
shadows of clouds were passing at noon over the quiet town.

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