Paz Marquez Benitez's "Dead Stars" [3/3]

I actually had this all typed up when I posted the second part. I don't know why I waited so long before I posted it. Laziness, I suppose.

Read about the author of this story, Paz Marquez Benitez, here and the book "Fourteen Love Stories" here.

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As Alfredo Salazar leaned against the boat rail to watch the evening settling over the lake, he wondered if Esperanza would attribute any significance to this trip of his. He was supposed to be in Santa Cruz whither the case of the People of the Philippine Islands vs. Belina et al. had kept him, and there he would have been if Brigida Samuy had not been so important to the defense. He had to find that elusive old woman. That the search was leading him to that particular lake town which was Julia Salas’ home should not disturb him unduly. Yet, he was disturbed to a degree utterly out of proportion to the prosaicalness of his errand. That inner tumult was no surprise to him; in the last eight years he had become used to such occasional storms. HE had long realized that he could not forget Julia Salas. Still, he had tried to be content and not to remember too much. The climber of mountains who has known the backbreak, the lonesomeness, and the chill, finds a certain restfulness in level paths made easy to his feet. He looks up sometimes from the valley where settles the dusk of evening, but he knows he must not heed the radiant beckoning. Maybe, in time, he would cease even to look up.

He was not unhappy in his marriage. He felt no rebellion; only the calm of capitulation to what he recognized as irresistible forces of circumstances and of character. His life had simply ordered itself, no more struggles, no more stirring up of emotions that got a man nowhere. From his capacity of complete detachment he derived a strange solace. The essential himself, the himself that had its being in the core of his thought, would he, insistently, as sometimes they did, he retreated into the inner fastness, and from that vantage he saw strange things and people around him as remote and alien as incidents that did not matter. At such times did Esperanza feel baffled and helpless; he was gentle, even tender, but immeasurably far away, beyond her reach.

Lights were springing into life on the shore. That was the town, a little uptilted town nestling in the dark greenness of the groves. A snub-crested belfry stood beside the ancient church. On the outskirts, the evening smudges glowed red through the sinuous mists of smoke that rose and lost themselves in the purple shadows of the hills. There was a young moon which grew slowly luminous as the coral tints in the sky yielded to the darker blues of evening.

The vessel approached the landing quietly, trailing a wake of long golden ripples on the dark water. Peculiar hill inflections came to his ears form the crowd assembled to meet the boat—slow, singing cadences, characteristic of the Laguna lakeshore speech. From where he stood, he could not distinguish faces, so he had no way of knowing whether the presidente was there to meet him or not. Just then, a voice shouted.

“Is the abogado there? Abogado!

“What abogado?” someone irately asked.

“Salazar.”

That must be the presidente, he thought and went down to the landing.

It was a policeman, a tall pockmarked individual. The presidente had left with Brigida Samuy—Tandang “Binday”—that noon for Santa Cruz. SeƱor Salazar’s second letter had arrived late, but the wife had read it and said, “Go and meet the abogado and invite him to our house.”

Alfredo Salazar courteously declined the invitation. He would sleep on board since the boat would leave at four the next morning, anyway. So the presidente had received his first letter? Alfredo did not know because that official had not sent an answer. “Yes,” the policeman replied, “but he could not write because we heard that Tandang Binday was in San Antonio, so we went there to find her.”

San Antonio was up in the hills! Good man, the presidente! He, Alfredo, must do something for him. It was not every day that one met with such willingness to help.

Eight o’clock, lugubriously tolled from the bell tower, found the boat settled into a somnolent quiet. A cot had been brought out and spread for him, but it was too bare to be inviting at that hour. It was too early to sleep: he would walk around the town. His heart beat faster as he picked his way to shore over the rafts made fast to sundry piles driven into the water.

How peaceful the town was! Here and there, a little tienda was still open, its dim light issuing forlornly through the single window which served as counter. AN occasional couple sauntered by, the woman’s chinelas making scraping sounds. From a distance came the shrill voices of children playing games on the street—tubigan perhaps, or hawk-and-chicken. The thought of Julia Salas in that quiet place filled him with pitying sadness.

How would life seem now if he had married Julia Salas? Had he meant anything to her? That unforgettable red-and-gold afternoon in early April haunted him with a sense of incompleteness as restlessness as other unlaid ghosts. She had not married—why? Faithfulness, he reflected, was not a conscious effort at regretful memory. It was something unvolitional, maybe a recurrent awareness of irreplaceability. Irrelevant trifles—a cool wind on his forehead, faraway sounds as of voices in a dream—at times moved him to an oddly irresistible impulse to listen as to an insistent, unfinished prayer.

A few inquiries led him to a certain little tree-ceilinged street where the young moon wove indistinct filigrees of light and shadow. In the gardens, the cotton tree threw its angular shadow athwart the low stone wall; and in the cool, stilly midnight the cock’s first call rose in tall, soaring jets of sound. Calle Luz.

Somehow or other, he had known that he would find her house because she would surely be sitting at the window. Where else, before bedtime on a moonlit night? The house was low and the light in the sala behind her threw her head into unmistakable relief. He sensed rather than saw her start of vivid surprise.

“Good evening,” he said, raising his hat.

“Good evening. Oh! Are you in town?”

“On some little business,” he answered with a feeling of painful constraint.

“Won’t you come up?”

He considered. His vague l=plans had not included this. But Julia Salas had left the window, calling to her mother as she did so. After a while, someone came downstairs with a lighted candle to open the door. At last—he was shaking her hand.

She had not changed much—a little less slender, not so eagerly alive, yet something had gone. He missed it, sitting opposite her, looking thoughtful into her fine dark eyes. She asked him about the hometown, about this and that, in a sober, somewhat meditative tone. He conversed with increasing ease, though with a growing wonder that he should be there at all. He could not take his eyes from her face. What had she lost? Or was the loss his? He felt an impersonal curiosity creeping into his gaze. The girl must have noticed, for her cheek darkened into a blush.

Gently—was it experimentally?—he pressed her hand at parting; but his own felt undisturbed and emotionless. Did she still care? The answer to the question hardly interested him.

He young moon had set, and from the uninviting cot he could see one half of a star-studded sky.

So that was all over.

Why, why had he obstinately clung to that dream from the weariness of actuality? And now, more actuality had robbed him of the dream.

So all these years—since when?—he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed place in the heavens.

An immense sadness as of loss invaded his spirit; a vast homesickness for some immutable refuge of the heart far away where faded gardens bloom again, and where live on in unchanging freshness, the dear, dead loves of vanished youth.

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