AT WAR’S END: AN ELEGY
by Rony V. Diaz
©2002 by Copper Sturgeon
1. THE DINNER PARTY
THE evening before he killed himself, Virgilio Serrano gave a dinner party. He invited five guests—friends and classmates in university— myself included. Since we lived on campus in barracks built by the U.S. Army, he sent his Packard to fetch us. Virgilio lived alone in a pre-war chalet that belonged to his family. Four servants and a driver waited on him hand and foot. The chalet, partly damaged, was one of the few buildings in Ermita that survived the bombardment and street fighting to liberate Manila. It had been skillfully restored; the broken lattices, fretwork, shell windows and wrought iron fence had been repaired or replaced at considerable expense. A hedge of bandera española had been planted and the scorched frangipani and hibiscus shrubs had been pruned carefully. Thus, Virgilio’s house was an ironic presence in the violated neighborhood. He was on the porch when the car came to a crunching halt on the graveled driveway. He shook our hands solemnly, then ushered us into the living room. In the half-light, everything in the room glowed, shimmered or shone. The old ferruginous narra floor glowed. The pier glass coruscated. The bentwood furniture from the house in Jaen looked as if they had been burnished. In a corner, surrounded by bookcases, a black Steinway piano sparkled like glass. Virgilio was immaculate in white de hilo pants and cotton shirt. I felt ill at ease in my surplus khakis and combat boots. We were all in our second year. Soon we will be on different academic paths—Victor in philosophy; Zacarias in physics and chemistry; Enrique in electrical engineering; and Apolonio, law. Virgilio and I have both decided to make a career in English literature. Virgilio was also enrolled in the Conservatory and in courses in the philosophy of science. We were all in awe of Virgilio. He seemed to know everything. He also did everything without any effort. He had not been seen studying or cramming for an exam in any subject, be it history, anthropology or calculus. Yet the grades that he won were only a shade off perfection.
HE and I were from the same province where our families owned rice farms except that ours was tiny, a hundred hectares, compared to the Serrano’s, a well-watered hacienda that covered 2,000 hectares of land as flat as a table. The hacienda had been parceled out to eleven inquilinos who together controlled about a thousand tenants. The Serranos had a large stone house with a tile roof that dated back to the 17th century that they used during the summer months. The inquilinos dealt with Don Pepe’s spinster sister, the formidable Clara, who knew their share of the harvest to the last chupa. She was furthermore in residence all days of the year. Virgilio was the only child. His mother was killed in a motor accident when he was nine. Don Pepe never remarried. He became more and more dependent on Clara as he devoted himself to books, music and conversation. His house in Cabildo was a salon during the years of the Commonwealth. At night, spirited debates on art, religion language, politics and world affairs would last until the first light of dawn. The guests who lived in the suburbs were served breakfasts before they drove off in their runabouts to Sta. Cruz, Ermita or San Miguel. The others stumbled on cobblestones on their way back to their own mansions within the cincture of Intramuros. In October, Quezon himself came for merienda. He had just appointed General MacArthur field marshal of the Philippine Army because of disturbing news from Nanking and Chosun. Quezon cursed the Americans for not taking him in their confidence. But like most gifted politicians, he had a preternatural sense of danger. “The Japanese will go to war against the Americans before this year is out, Pepe,” Quezon rasped, looking him straight in the eye. This was the reason the Serranos prepared to move out of Manila. As...
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