The houses in which I have lived

by filipinastoryteller

By Filipina Storyteller Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo

In high school, my friends and I used to make a game of describing the houses in which we wanted to live. These changed according to our moods, the books we were reading, the latest movies we had watched. The only rule of the game was that one had to describe this dream house in minute detail, down to the color of the tiles in the bathroom and the types of shrubs growing in the backyard.

It was a harmless game—allowing our fancies to construct Spanish villas and Swiss chalets, penthouse flats and cozy little farmhouses, cottages perched on hilltops and split-level bungalows by the sea.

As I grew older, MY dream house tended to exhibit recurring features. It had a tiled roof, tall rooms, French doors opening into a garden shaded by old trees, an attic to serve as refuge when I needed it, a basement to store junk. Most important, it had a great many windows to let in the sunlight and the breeze, and a view of both the mountains and the sea.

I imagined entering this house as a bride, raising my children who would flourish like the plants in my garden, and sitting on my rocking chair beside my husband in his, to watch our grandchildren toddling about when they came to visit on weekends.

Needless to say, reality has not even come close to the dream. For my husband and I have lived the life of gypsies. Not counting the numerous hotels in which we have camped, we have moved a total of twelve times in 25 years.

Our first home was a tiny apartment on Malakas Street behind the SSS Building. It was brand new and rented for only P130 a month. But when we learned we were to have a baby, we had to look for a larger place. We found this two-and-a-half-story house in Teacher’s Village, which looked somehow like it belonged in a farm than in the city. And it was partly this, perhaps, which inspired my young husband to indulge a favorite hobby, and set up a small fighting cock farm in our backyard.

After a year, our landlady decided she wanted her house back. We borrowed some money from the UST Faculty Club (I was an instructor in UST then), and bought ourselves a cottage with a pocket-sized garden. We had to put up with some inconvenience, not the least of which was that it was located right in the border of Quezon City, Marikina and Pasig. So we had to pay our electric bill in Quezon City, our water bill in Marikina, and our telephone bill (when RETELCO finally gave us a connection, seven years after we had applied for it) in Pasig. We paid our real estate taxes in Marikina, but had no idea which police department and fire department had jurisdiction over us. Nonetheless we were happy in that little place, and there we stayed, until Tony joined UNICEF, and we became vagabonds.

In Bangkok, our house on Sukhumvit Soi 23 was set well away from the road, and had a long driveway shaded by mango trees. It was a large, airy house, with a front porch, and French windows opening into a garden which, though fairly small, was lush with Chinese bamboos, a couple of tamarind trees, a frangipani, a hibiscus hedge, climbing bougainvillea, and fragrant with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle. For a while we had a pair of lovebirds in a cage suspended from the ceiling of our porch, a gift from Tatti Licuanan; and a brown dog called Tippy, who enjoyed chasing butterflies. The only real problem was the green snake, which liked to slither up to the children’s bedroom window and coil itself on the sill, where it was invariably mistaken for the rope attached to the bamboo shades.

In Beirut, we lived for a while in a tiny furnished flat on Rue John Kennedy, with a balcony overlooking the incomparable Mediterranean. When our furniture arrived, we moved to a flat on the 5th floor of an apartment building on Rue du Caire. This one was much bigger, was in fact luxurious. But its balconies looked out into the street, down which ambulances came hurtling with great regularity, accompanied by shrill sirens and gunfire, on their way to the American University Hospital. Beirut itself is an incredibly lovely city built on hills, facing the sea. But when one is often without lights or water, and dodging stray bullets becomes part of one’s daily routine, the contour of the land ceases to be of much consequence.

Our first home in Seoul was a small flat in a housing complex on the slopes of Mount Namsan. From our bedroom windows, we could watch the trees changing color with the changing seasons; and from the living room, we could look down on the sprawling city, stretching to the banks of the gleaming Han River, and beyond it, to the mountains in the distance.

But, besides being excessively cramped, we were not comfortable living on the 9th floor of a building with no proper fire escape. (In case of fire, we were supposed to open a little iron box in our balcony, extract the portable ladder in it, and attach it to the balcony of the apartment below ours. Even assuming the unlikely possibility that every occupant of every apartment would be home when the building caught fire; and that after everyone had succeeded in prying open the rusty locks in their iron boxes, and would manage to connect their ladders; the prospect of clambering down this makeshift contraption was distinctly unappealing.) We decided to sacrifice the spectacular view, and move to a roomy-walk up on Hillside Village and become part of the view from Namsan.

While looking for a suitable house in Rangoon (now Yangon), we stayed in a small furnished cottage on Yarde Road. It was a shabby affair, with faded rattan furniture, musty rugs, no bedroom closets, an enormous mosquito population, and a colony of rats which, according to the youngest daughter, used to emerge from their holes in the walls at night, climb onto the living furniture, and examine her curiously. But she liked the yard with its pomelo trees, and the dog named Mickey who was part of the house.

The most tempting places in the city were the elegant white villas set among ancient acacias and coconut palms, relics from the British colonial period. Needless to say one risked leaks and mice and mold, termites and ants and primitive plumbing. We therefore opted for a modern bungalow which seemed transplanted from one of our own Makati villages, and strikingly out of place in rustic Rangoon. Then we proceeded to disguise its modern lines by filling it with old furniture, old urns and jugs and jars and gas lamps, of which there was an abundance in the city’s junk shops.

It was in Rangoon that I discovered the gardener in me. Our house had come with a thick front lawn, and, I think, a couple of coconut trees. But our landlord had not planted anything else. Mama had always had a passion for plants. And I had vivid memories of her bent over her flowers in our house in a street named Castilla, in New Manila, right after she had put away the breakfast things and just before she went in to cook dinner. Her flowers grew on narrow terraces and ledges in our front garden — zinnias, chrysanthemums, dahlias, periwinkles and daisies in all colors. Cadena de amor and clusters of scarlet bougainvillea were draped over our wall, in the shade of the kalachuchi and champaca trees. There were yellow bells beside our front gate, a clambering morning glory outside Mama’s kitchen windows. And our backyard was crowded with fruit trees, which we childeren were encouraged to climb, and around which we liked to chase each other on lazy afternoons.

But, save for some potted violets that I had tended in Seoul, I had never tried to grow anything before.

When Mama came to visit, I asked her to teach me the basics—which trees would grow quickly and serve as a good screen if planted against the fence, which plants thrived in the sunshine and which preferred the shade, which flowers would bloom without much care.

In a few months, I had a fragrant screen made of kakawati trees, flamboyant San Francisco bushes and a santan hedge, birds of paradise, a profusion of ferns, slender white lilies and rosy begonias in ornamental pots.

Our house in Pelham was the prettiest of all. Pelham is a hilly little town in Westchester County, just outside New York City, dating back to 1654. Ours was a brick house built in the early part of the century, and it was almost exactly like the house of my dreams. It had a tiled roof, a fireplace, arched doorways, French windows, a sunroof outside the master bedroom, a back porch, and a basement. The garden was a grove of maples, oaks, beech trees and pine trees. In the spring, there were azaleas, petunias and rhododendrons; in the summer, daisies and tall, pale lilies, and irises; in the autumn, a carpet of gold and flame; in the winter, Christmas-card snow; and the whole year, two squirrels playing hide-and-seek with King our Japanese Spitz, and Rocky our Pomeranian.

It was not entirely a surprise to me that this loveliness lasted just a little over a year. For is that not the way of such things?

When we moved back to the Philippines, we acquired an old two-story house in an town in Bulacan with a garden big enough to get lost in. Our friends were astonished, for it was quite dilapidated, and neither Tony nor I are Bulakeños. But the house had a romantic past, and (we were told) a ghost or two, and the town itself had a proud history.

Tony decided that the back of the house would be his. At last he could set up the fighting cock farm of his dreams. They would flourish in the sunlight and the shade of the tall tall trees. The front garden would be mine.

Our children firmly declared that they were not leaving the Ortigas Avenue townhouse in which they were by then comfortably established. But I had found my dream house at last. It was not by the sea, but from its dining room windows and the azotea, one had a clear view of the coconut grove, the rice fields, and the mountain behind them. We were determined to restore it lovingly and sink roots deep in its soil. And, I swore, our wandering days were done.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

All the old things we had accumulated over 15 years fit perfectly into our beautiful house with its high ceilings and its polished wooden floors, its sweeping staircase and elaborate wall carvings, its old-world airs and graces.

The gamecock farm thrived. Tony wrote a series of books on cockfighting which he translated into Filipino himself, and both the English and the Filipino versions became best-sellers. He joined the local Rotary Club and attended its meetings when he happened to be in town. He contributed to the reconstruction of the little Catholic chapel when a small delegation came to call on him.

I spent some of the happiest hours in my life in my garden, and wrote two of my books in the azotea, my mind made sharper, my senses keener, by the amihan blowing in from the mountain, across the rice fields, and the music of the wind chimes, and the jasmine fragrance. At the end of each semester, I would bring my graduate students for the weekend. And we would discuss their papers or their stories, sitting cross-legged on the living room rug, or gathered around the long dining room table. And as the sun was setting, we would move to the azotea for ice cold beers and chicharon bulaklak.

And, yes, there was a resident ghost. Some of our guests—but only the men—who stayed overnight and slept in the room at the back of the house, near the door that led to the azotea, would rise the next morning bemused. And over breakfast, they would tell us about what they thought might have been a dream… or maybe not… of being awakened by a presence — a femine presence, they were certain — sitting beside them on the bed, contemplating them serenely, or maybe just a bit curiously. They didn’t actually see the woman; they just sensed her there. It was not a frightening experience, they said. Just a strange one.

This did not bother us. It was part of the poetry of the house.

But when Tony rejoined the government, he sold the brood fowl and every single chick, and closed down his gamecock farm. Our daughters had never understood the charm it had for us. They would only come one weekend a month to oblige us, their backpacks loaded with music and video tapes and books they needed to finish reading or reports they needed to finish writing by Monday. And they would retreat to their separate rooms, emerging only for meals. Road repairs made the trip longer and more aggravating. Eventually, it became too much trouble and too great an expense to maintain. They the house. It seemed to me that whenever Tony and I came for the weekend, Delia our housekeeper, and I would spend all our time scrubbing and sweeping and dusting. Eventually, we decided to shut the house down and offer it up for sale.

From the start, I had felt that the house had a destiny of its own, and that we were just a small part of it. We were transients, not its true owners.

But it seemed that no one else wanted it. San Miguel had never been developed as a tourist destination, despite its lovely old houses and the Biak-na-Bato cave.

A house that isn’t lived in quickly deteriorates. It attracts spiders and termites and bats. We brought back the things that could be squeezed into our town house. Friends offered to buy the larger pieces and came to cart them away in hired vans. It was a painful dismembering. Never again would I allow any house to become so much a part of me.

When only a few pieces were left—the largest pieces that could not be accommodated in any of our friends’ houses, four-poster beds, large china cabinets, and the like—someone telephoned to say that he had a buyer.

Tony drove out to meet the man, and was glad to learn that he was a hometown boy who had struck it rich in Japan. He was simply dressed — in a collarless t-shirt, shorts, rubber slippers. But he had acquired a bit of a swagger, which was amusing rather than offensive. He was buying property all over town—a school, a hospital, the land adjacent to ours–and paying for everything in cash. He was even interested in the remaining pieces of furniture in our house. In fact, he asked Tony if he would leave his golf trophies as well. He meant to live in the house, he said. And he wanted to turn the backyard and the adjacent lot into a resort.

It was all over in a couple of hours.

I took comfort in the thought that the house would not be torn down. Without actually speaking of it to each other, Tony and I never suggested revisiting our adopted hometown to teach other.

Now and then, we would run into someone from San Miguel who would give us a bit of news.The new owner had replaced the grilled iron fence, that Tony had taken so much trouble to restore, with a high cement wall. He had turned the whole property into a resort, with a swimming pool with a water slide. Someone had convinced him that the Japanese had buried gold in the garden during the war, and he had started digging for it. We shook our heads over that one. Had we sold our precious house to a fool?

One day—some years after we had sold it—our friend Rio Almario, whose hometown actually is San Miguel, said to me: “Do you know what happened to your old house? I think it isn’t there anymore.” Its roof used to be visible over the wall, he said, but the last time he had passed the place, he couldn’t see anything.

I was certain Rio was mistaken. Perhaps he had been looking in the wrong street. But the thought disturbed us. It dismayed us. Finally, we decided to see for ourselves.

We didn’t head straight for the house. We chose the longer route, driving through the little town center, postponing the discovery. It seemed to have changed little. The old post office had not been demolished to make room for a new mall. Save for an internet café or two, the town looked the same.

And then we entered our street, and slowed down as we passed the chapel, to which we had donated perhaps one pew or perhaps the small holy water basin where the devout dipped their fingers before crossing themselves… and came to a stop by the little store in front of our house…

But the house wasn’t there! We scrambled out of the car, and stared at the blank cement wall. Rio had spoken the truth—nothing was visible over that wall. Even the coconut trees had vanished. How was this possible?

“He must have torn it down,” Tony said. “But why?”

“Maybe he sold it to one of those people who buy old houses and rebuild them somewhere else,” I said, but somehow I knew that wasn’t it.

And then this elderly lady, the storekeeper, a neighbor, came up to us. Did we remember her? she asked. We assured her that we did.

“What happened to the house?” Tony asked her.

She was eager to tell us — it spilled out of her in one strong gush. “Oh, it’s terrible what happened,” she said. “He built that wall to hide what was going on. They were digging… digging all the time. He believed those people who claimed there was gold there. Some of the workers told us… he dug all over the place, including in the foundations of the house. And then, one night, we woke up because of this awful sound. Like an explosion. We got up, frightened. We thought something had exploded in there… But when looked, we could see… nothing. The house was gone. It had collapsed. Gumuho! Walang natira! Nothing was left.”

She went on talking for a while. She and her husband and the neighbors had their own theories about what had happened. Perhaps those people had indeed found gold. But it may have been cursed. Perhaps it didn’t want to be found. The people who had buried it were dead after all. Perhaps when the house collapsed, it buried someone alive. Perhaps there was a curse… No one knew for sure. No one would talk after that. The workers were sent away. The owner never came back. People say he went away. He owed a lot of money. His businesses were all failures. The gold was his last chance…

But we had stopped listening.

We thanked the lady and got into our car. “Ingat kayo,” she called out after us. We drove away in silence.

I had always felt the house had its own fate. But I had never imagined it to be this—to be swalloped up by the earth, to vanish without a trace.

It was only much, much later that I remembered the elderly gentleman who had come to call one afternoon shortly after we had moved in. Some of the restoration work was still going on. We had not finished unpacking. There were cardboard boxes piled high in all the rooms, and the floor was covered with dust.

He came into the room where I was sitting, perched on one of the boxes, sorting out the contents of another box. He looked very neat, even dapper, in a long-sleeved polo shirt and slacks. And he carried an old-fashioned wooden cane.

He apologized for bursting in on me without an appointment, and gave me his name. He was a neighbor, he said, so he hoped I didn’t mind the intrusion. His manner was very courteous, almost courtly. I couldn’t offer him my hand, which was grimy. Nor could I offer him a seat, since there weren’t any. So I gestured awkwardly toward a large cardboard box. He accepted as graciously as if it had been a throne, made himself comfortable and proceeded to explain the purpose of his visit.

He had heard I was a writer, he said, and he had come to tell me a story which he thought I would find interesting, since we were going to be citizens of the town. He was himself a writer, he said, adding that he used to write a column and naming the Manila newspaper where it used to appear. But now he was retired, he said, and no longer wrote.

And then he told me his story. He had a strong, pleasant voice, and spoke in a Tagalog as elegant as it was precise.

This was the first time he was stepping into the second floor of this house, he said. He and all his relatives had not been welcome here. One of those family feuds the beginnings of which no one remembers, but which everyone continues to cling to.

There was a young lady — it was said she was quite beautiful — an ancestress of the old owners of the house we had bought, who had been in love with a bright and rather dashing young man who had been his ancestor. Both families naturally disapproved of the match. The young man’s family sent him to the States to become a dentist. And the young woman’s family intercepted all his letters to her and all her letters to him, and told her that he had married another woman. At first she could not believe he would do this to her, after all his promises of fidelity. But when the months passed without her hearing from him, she was convinced. She grew listless and pale, which alarmed her parents. When they suggested that she marry someone else that they had chosen for her, they expected her to refuse. To their surprise, and relief, she consented without an argument.

After his graduation, the young man returned with his diploma. His parents had set up a brand new clinic for him. But he was not interested in it. He asked only after the woman he loved. When they told him that she had married someone else, he went a little crazy, and hit out blindly, wrecking the clinic and all its shiny new instruments. Why had she done this? he demanded. Why had she betrayed him?

His parents were forced to admit that the girl had been deceived, and that in her despair had not cared what happened to her. The young man was determined to see her again. He decided that the only way was to go to her husband, and humbly beg to be allowed to do so, one last time, just to say good bye. The husband, having a good heart, felt pity, and gave his consent. So the thwarted lovers saw each other one last time.

Not long after that, the young woman died.

I stared at my guest. “She died?” I repeated.

Yes, my guest replied, sometimes people do die of a broken heart.

After a few moments during which I groped around for an appropriate response, he asked me what I thought of his little story. It’s a bit like Wuthering Heights, isn’t it? he said. But it’s a true story, I assure you. After she died, a great composer and musician, her lover’s best friend, wrote a song for her. It is a famous song—I’m sure you know it.

He mentioned the song’s title, and indeed, I recognized it.

As I said, I am retired, and no longer write, he said. But perhaps someday, you will find some use for the story I have told you.

He had risen, and after giving me a small bow, he moved toward the door, walking a bit stiffly, leaning on his old-fashioned cane.

I walked him to the top of the stairs, apologizing for not being able to offer him any refreshments. He waved the apology away, and told me there was no need to come down with him. I must go back to what I was doing; he had interrupted me. He had just come to tell me the story, he said. It needed to be told. Their families had done the lovers wrong. Since this house would be ours now, he thought we should know the story.

It took a few more months for Tony to complete the restorations on the house which we were already calling Casa Hidalgo, and for me to unpack all our things and find the right places for them. Then Tony built the cages for his fighting cocks and bought the brood stock, and I began to work on the garden. By then, it was June.

Mama had told me that if I wanted to retain the authenticity of the place, I should not have the garden landscaped. The house was built in 1930. In those days, she said, housewives were more concerned with practicality than with aesthetics, she said. They grew trees and plants for the fruits they could provide, or the shade they would offer; or for other useful purposes, such as leaves or fruits with medicinal qualities (like the ecucalyptus and the guava and the chico); or seeds that could be used to color food (the atchuete); or flowers whose fragrance made them suitable to adorn the hair of the daughters of the house, or to string into garlands to be draped on the family altar (like the champaka).

When they did think of beauty, it was balance and harmony they took into consideration. An aratiles tree growing to the left of the front steps was balanced by another tree on the right. The sampaguita bush beside one gatepost needed a partner beside the other one.

“But you don’t have to follow all of that strictly,” Mama said to me. “It’s your house, so you should put yourself into it. It should reflect your tastes.”

I pointed out a kalachuchi tree that had grown dry and scrawny. “Is it dying?” I asked her.

Mama shook her head. “It’s just sick. You might plant a flowering bush under it—a gumamela, and maybe some small pretty mayanas. Trees like company.”

I did as she suggested, and soon, my ailing tree had sprouted, not just new branches and bright green leaves, but pale pink blossoms.

Then came that rainy weekend. It wasn’t a downpour, just steady rain through the night, and into the morning. We didn’t pay much attention. It was monsoon season.

Tony had an errand in another part of town, and drove off with one of his farmhands. I was in the breakfast room, folding some tablecloths and napkins. King and Rocky, were chasing each other around the table’s legs. Earlier, I had absently noticed that our garden seemed a bit flooded. And there were bits of debris floating about. I wasn’t alarmed. We had been through other rainy days, and the rainwater had always drained off quickly.

Suddenly I heard a loud sound. Like a clap of thunder, only stronger. Like an explosion. I rushed to the windows, and to my horror, saw a wall of water rushing toward the house. Somewhere at the back of my mind I had guessed that the sound I had heard had been the back wall crashing under the weight of that monstrous wave. Behind it, where the rice fields had been, was a brown sea.

The boys had heard it too, and had seen the terrifying wave heaving toward us. They were racing frantically toward the house. I screamed at them to hurry. I was rooted to the spot. Delia, our housekeeper, had come running up from the kitchen and was beside me, wringing her hands and muttering over and over, “Diyos ko, Diyos ko!”

The thought crossed my mind that if the water were to come all the way up to the second floor we had nowhere else to go. Instinctively, I had picked up Rocky, thinking perhaps that, being tiny, he was most at risk.

And then the water had breached the distance between the back wall and the house. It had swept over the boys’ quarters, and the cocks’ cages, and was now inside the house, beneath us. I had felt the force of it—like an earthquake—as it assaulted our walls. It had burst in through the open doors and windows. I waited, hardly breathing, wondering if it had come for us.

King and Rocky were barking fiercely, and Rocky was trying to wriggle free of my arms. But I held him fast.

When I could move again, Delia and I walked to the top of the staircase and saw that the water had covered the entire first floor, and reached the staircase’s first landing. Our entire garden, like our neighbors’ gardens, had been transformed into a sea with a strong current, pushing toward the lower part of town. In it floated planks of wood, a chair or two, a tin basin, an old rice pot, several pans, a blue pail, clothes hangers, bits and pieces of everyday life…

Had our front gate been closed, it would have been torn off at the hinges. Had Tony left the car in our driveway, it would have been carried away, dashed against the fence, perhaps plunged into the street which was now a rushing river.

The boys had managed to swim to the azotea steps and, though stunned, were unharmed.

Tony and the boy who had gone with him reached the house, wading chest deep in the swirling waters. After he had ascertained that we were all unhurt, Tony rushed to the azotea to look at his farm. The yard sloped down slightly toward where the back wall had been, so it was obvious that all the chickens in their cages had been drowned. But he figured he might still save the brood fowl, who were in tall cages closer to the house, and had flown up to their roosting perches. The water was still rising, so they were still in danger of drowning.

Guessing Tony’s intention, a watching neighbor called out that he shouldn’t jump into that water. It was too risky, the man said, the current was too strong. But Tony couldn’t bear to have the cocks drown before his eyes. He dove in, and the faithful King jumped in after him.

He did manage to pry the doors of their cages open–with King paddling frantically beside him, trying to help–to reach in and grab the frightened birds, and toss them up to the safety of their cages’s roofs. Hours later, we were to find the carcasses of the rest of his farm.

The house itself survived the flood without damage. The appliances in the kitchen had to be repaired. Some dishes and drinking glasses were broken and had to be thrown away along with a waterlogged mattress. But the old furniture which we had bought from our friend Pete Daroy, was unscratched; and our winter clothes, stored in travelling bags and suitcases which we found floating about in the flooded sala downstairs, were dry and safe.

Back in Manila the next day, and in the days that followed, we were to learn of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, and of the storm which had chosen that very day to blow in; and how the ash ejected by the volcano had combined with the water vapor in the air transforming the rain into a deadly mixture; and of how the gates of the dam up in the mountain had been opened to prevent its bursting and causing even more damage.

We were to learn of the devastating effects of that eruption (the second largest in the 20th century), of the more than 800 lives lost, the hundreds of thousands left homeless, the livelihoods permanently ruined…

Perhaps we should have taken that flood as a first sign, a warning that Casa Hidalgo had been a mistake, that we did not belong in San Miguel. But having grown up in the city, and gone to live for many years in other cities in strange lands, we had forgotten how to read such signs. Or perhaps we had never learned to.

We recovered from the shock, and decided that, of course, we would carry on. After all, what had happened to us was nothing compared to what others had been through.

So Delia and the boys and I set to scrubbing and brushing and mopping. And soon our house’s first floor was spic and span once more. Tony repaired the collapsed wall, built more cages and bought more chickens. And soon his gamecock farm was running again.

Today we live in a townhouse in New Manila. We bought it in the late 80s, so we would have a place to stay in during our annual home leaves. At the time, it seemed a bit small for a family of five. But now that two of our daughters live abroad, it is more than adequate. King and Rocky are gone, but now we have Joey (a Siberian Huskie) and Yoko (a lovable askal, a rescued dog).

I miss having a garden, but I do have a pocket-sized stretch of grass and a flower box in front of the house, a lanai beside the living room, and double row of potted plants in our share of the common garden behind the house.

And now that my job is no longer as time-consuming and stressful as my last, and allows me some moments of stillness, tending to this “garden” is a great source of joy. I have a lot to learn, but I care a great deal about my plants, and I think they sense it, and reward me by growing fat and looking happy.

In one corner of the lanai is a jasmine bush which has grown into a little tree—a gift from a dear friend, who gave it to me when her late mother-in-law’s old house was torn down to make way for a row of townhouses. I have spent many quiet hours beside it, breathing in the scent of its delicate little white flowers, drinking my cup of herbal tea, and listening to Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Loreena McKennit, or Billie Holiday, or some song played on a solo saxophone.

Sometimes a light breeze will blow in through our slatted brown gate which i usually leave ajar, and I will look up from the book I am reading or the papers I am marking, surprised by the memory of the jasmine bushes in that other house, the house that we lost…

And my mind will trace the links… links we did not recognize until many years after… between the elderly gentleman with the cane, and the tragic young woman of his story… the silent woman who haunted the dreams of the men who fell asleep in the room that had been hers… and the great flood, and the strange man who made a fortune in a foreign land, and came back to claim the big house that might have been a part of HIS dreams when he was a poor boy growing up in the town’s outskirts…

And I will wonder if it was she who had chosen him, she who had led him to our wrought iron gate, she who had whispered in his ear, and roused his blood, and fevered his brain… so that in the end, he would do as she willed. And the house that she had hated with a fierceness that outlasted her life, would be no more.

Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo is an award-winning Filipina fictionist, critic and pioneering writer of creative nonfiction. She is currently Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman and Director of the University of Santo Tomas Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies. This memoir was first published in Stella and Other Friendly Ghosts (UST, 2012).

Advertisements