“Ahhh.” The palm reader sighed heavily. Such was his power that we all exhaled lightly with him, and then leaned forward to hear what would come next.
He held one of my sister’s slender hands between his thick beefy ones. Midge was 16 and pretty, newly conscious of a budding female power. She was the most joyful of my sisters, and this lightness of spirit made male heads turn her way. It didn’t hurt that she was pretty in the way of all the girls in my family – abundant hair, round face and a petite figure that was neither slight nor plump. I could see her fingertips peeking out from the palm reader’s grasp, her nails neatly trimmed and naturally pink.
I watched jealously. I was too young to have my palm read. Unlined, unmarked, a future still unwritten.
My sisters, though, were another story. There were four of them. Five brothers too – ten of us in all – an obedient Catholic family.
A word about this here. We weren’t just Catholic. We were Spanish Catholic living in the Philippines. That’s a whole different level of religion and obedience. God spoke through the Holy Father in Rome; if he said fill the world with more Catholics, my parents would do their part. My mother stayed pregnant or breast-feeding until after her 11th child – giving birth every other year for more than 20 years. When baby Maria died, my mother took it as a sign from God that 10 was enough. I guess God agreed, since no more children came along.
My oldest brother was already married and had a baby of his own. He was the only one of my siblings not on the porch that day. The other nine of us came running when we heard the palm reader’s heavy steps thundering onto the veranda. His great weight rattled the house and alerted us of his presence. The four boys immediately slouched against the veranda railing, acting as though it was all great fun and superstition. They would stand back and listen, glancing at each other and smirking, but careful to not let a derisive sound pass their lips. This might have been because they half-feared the palm reader or wholly feared our mother, whose range of beliefs encompassed everything the Philippines offered.
My mother was the best kind of superstitious Catholic. She wore a cross and attended Mass faithfully, but at times was known to consult with the local curandero – or witch doctor – for certain illnesses. In the Philippines, it was understood that local beliefs would merge with the upstart Catholicism, which had only been on the islands for four hundred years. To Filipinos, Catholics had made a great mistake in other countries by chasing out rival religions. Indeed, by tolerating and co-existing with native beliefs, the Catholics had won over the islands, becoming the first Christian nation in Asia. Thus it was that my mother went to Mass faithfully and also held the palm reader in high esteem, seeing him as a conduit to the same unseen and unknowable world.
My four older sisters didn’t view the palm reader as a spiritual leader. They just wanted to have their fortunes told. They crept close that day, hoping to be next in line, anxious to hear what loomed in their future. My sisters ranged in age from eighteen down to twelve. I was the youngest, seven, and as I said, too young to have my palm read. I sulked against the doorframe. My mother was there too, along with our cook and my ever-watchful amah. The gardener was hovering nearby too, leaning against the side of the house just out of sight. A visit from the palm reader was an event we’d talk about for the coming year.
The Luzon palm reader was a true mystic. His predictions were unfailing. He was famous throughout the island, not only for his otherworldly powers, but also for his story.
He’d been a well-known boxer in his younger days, traveling the islands and knocking down rivals like a series of dominoes. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome and drew the ladies like butterflies to an overheated tropical flower. He was the rock star of the boxing circuit in our part of the world.
Boxers don’t last forever, and few retire at the top. Athletes tend to retire on their way down, after they’ve tasted the bitterness of losing one too many times. So, the champ eventually lost his titles. He was knocked out a few times. His nose was broken, more than once, and the beauty of his face faded. The ladies flitted on to new champions. Yet, he didn’t give up. The glory of his younger years called too strongly. His promoter struggled to find fights for the former champ but there was always someone that wanted a stab at the old guy.
In the end, he took a full-on punch to the head and hit the canvas like a sack of wet cement. When he woke up, he was blind. And that was that.
Except, God had other plans for him. The boxer was given the gift of another sight. He would touch someone and see their future. He made a modest living from reading palms, taking whatever someone wished to pay. He carried a large satchel with his daily earnings; it would carry everything from a live chicken to a jingle of pesos. Some days, he worked only for his meals. The powerful body softened and his muscles liquefied into corpulence. For a few centavos, a young Filipino boy would lead him by hand through the neighborhoods.
He was always welcomed, this former rock star of the boxing world, this man whose inner eye had been opened by God. People would marvel at his ruined face, his fleshy body, and those huge misshapen hands that had caused so much damage to other human beings. They would open their pocketbooks and lay their hands in his. He never disappointed.
“Ahhh,” he sighed over my sixteen-year-old sister’s hand that last time I saw him. His eyes stared unseeingly ahead and his jowls drooped heavily into his neck. He turned her hand over, palm down, and held it there for a moment. “Not today.”
We looked around at each other in confusion and dismay. There was always something. At least a general prediction of an unexpected visitor or a fine husband in one’s future.
He heaved his large frame out of the rattan chair, making it crack sharply. The small Filipino boy reached out for his hand. Together, they made their way out our front gate and down the lane.
It was only later that we wondered if, by turning her hand over, he’d hoped the fortune he saw for her would drain away.
This was in the fall of 1941, just two months before the Japanese bombed our island and then invaded. The skies filled with black smoke and our garden aroma of gardenia and sampaguita was overcome by the stench of burning fuel. In coming days, we learned of Pearl Harbor and then, belatedly it seemed, that we were at war.
First, the Japanese took my father away because he was American. My brothers went next because they were male and sons of an American. Japanese soldiers came to our house and, as the rest of us watched, tagged our furniture as property of their Emperor. We fled.
My mother took us to live with my aunt in the old Spanish quarter of Manila – the Intramuros – and we passed briefly as Spanish citizens. But then, signs went up around Manila ordering enemy allies to report to camps or risk being shot in the street. I heard my mother whispering her fears to my aunt – would they really shoot us, women and children? My mother prayed like never before, her prayers joining many thousands of others suffering from this great puzzling war.
Never say that God doesn’t send an answer. This one came in the form of an earthquake, making us fall to the ground in trembling and fear. The quake split open the ground, swallowing livestock. It shook my aunt’s home until the floor collapsed. The island shook until it felt as though we would all shake to pieces. When it was over, we gathered around the hole where the refrigerator had once stood. My mother had her answer.
We packed our few remaining things and surrendered.
My mother tried to save me by handing me over to the Catholic sisters. They ran a school for children near the prison camp and the Japanese didn’t mind this arrangement. There were thousands of Allied civilians in the Philippines and the Santo Tomas camp in Manila quickly became overcrowded. Living quarters were stifling and food was scarce. I was young and malleable so, while I missed my family, this new situation living with the nuns soon became ordinary enough to bear.
I was an entire year older when I saw my family again. The Japanese had decided the nuns, along with other religious clergy, were a nuisance. The religious school was closed and children and nuns alike were taken to Santo Tomas. I was reunited there with my family – and learned, along with the other children in the camp, how to beg for scraps at the kitchen door.
1943 wasn’t a good year in Santo Tomas. 1944 was even worse. The Japanese were on the run in the Pacific and it seemed their anger was taken out on us. My family starved and suffered, but we stayed alive even as bodies were carted out of the camp every week. We ate weevil-ridden rice and chewed the leather on our shoes. My father slipped to ninety pounds, his clavicle jutting out sharply below his neck. Death breathed on all of us.
Then, bombs fell on Manila again. This time they were American bombs. Their tanks broke down the gates of the Santo Tomas prison camp and we rejoiced. Except, freedom was only a state of mind at this point. The Americans chased out the Japanese from our camp but the Manila Massacre had just begun. The battle was far from over as Japanese troops dug more deeply into our city. We now couldn’t leave the safety of our walled prison and we still feared for our lives – from the bombs the Japanese lobbed our way and the constant gunfire around us.
The mortar shell ripped through one of our buildings in early February. My sister, then nineteen, was one of those hit. There was no hospital, few medical supplies and exhausted medics. Midge died quickly.
The rest of our story is in the history books. Manila was destroyed and, like other American civilians, we were shipped off to the United States to start a new life. Part of my family was put on one ship; some of us on another. It was a confusing and frightening and joyous time. It was only later, when we were reunited in California that I realized that one of us had been left behind.
That was seventy one years ago. Over the years, I’ve learned to never look back. That is where bitterness lies in wait to poison our hearts. There is little point in asking why this person and why not that person. Instead, when my heart grows sad that Midge’s grave is so far from the rest of us, I pray a little and think of an old Filipino myth that I loved as a child.
In this legend, set when the world was young, there were three powerful brother gods, each with their own realm. Uilang Kaluluwa was a snake-like god who ruled the sky, but that wasn’t enough for him. One day, he battled his brother god, Bathala, for possession of the earth too. Bathala won, killing his brother and, in anger, buried his body deep into the ground. When the day came that the kind and wandering god, Galang Kaluluwa, also approached death, he asked Bathala to bury him in the same grave with their brother. From that grave a majestic tree rose. Its body, long, hard and snakelike, reached for its former domain in the sky. Its head was full of wavy wings that flapped and swayed in the breeze as though it missed its traveling days. Bathala called it a coconut tree, and it stands tall to remind us that we can live together, good and evil.
This legend reminds me that there is a way to reconcile the pain of war in our hearts. It’s not that good comes of evil, but that good and evil are a packaged lot and we can do nothing more than to make the best of it. In the Philippines, the hard wood of the coconut tree is used in buildings and the sweet meat of its fruit delights the palate. My family survived because we went into that prison camp. Midge died because she went into that prison camp. Those are two truths that are equally painful. But I put those two truths together and somehow I can bear it.
I like to think we misinterpreted the palm readers’ actions that day when he turned my sister’s hand upside down. In my mind I hear the words he didn’t say:
You will be here forever alone, but a reminder to your family to not remember the Philippines with bitterness. You will be the sweetness of their memory.
This is what I choose to believe.
Banner Image: By Sudeshnapal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons