The Maiden of Ilog-Pasig
Short story by Percival Campoamor Cruz
(Published in Asian Journal December 10, 2010):
A song will forever live on the subconscious of Manila natives on account of its haunting lyrics and melody and the effervescent romance that goes on between the city folk and the famous river, Ilog-Pasig.
As the moon peers out
of his window in the sky;
As the west wind
caresses to wake up the water;
An image that is white and silky appears,
Hair flowing like the stream;
She's the Maiden of Pasig,
She’s the Maiden of Pasig.
As she springs out of the foam,
There is a song,
There is a poem:
I was the Beloved,
In the kingdom of love,
When love died,
So did the kingdom end;
is in the hearts and bosoms of all;
To make me live forever,
Give my love away.
(MUTYA NG PASIG,
Music by Nicanor Abelardo,
Lyrics by Deogracias del Rosario,
Ilog-Pasig slithered quietly like a silvery blue serpent, “life” created by Bathala; fresh water and tepid as it began its journey in Laguna Lake, it became cold and salty as it blended with the sea water in Manila Bay. As it made its journey down the crevice of antiquity, its magical touch refreshed the thirsty shores of a good number of towns that laid waiting along the way.
The river provided the town folk, likewise the city folk, a way of life. In its shallow tributary, the young women tiptoed on their dainty feet to wade in the water, in the early hours of the morning, and bathed without care as the curtain of night still provided adequate cover to hide their ritual of cleansing. When the sun was up, the elder women came to the river to wash clothes, at the rocky nooks of it, where they squeezed clothes dry against the rocks, with the use of their wooden beaters. To the men, the river was the fastest route going to their work in the farms and the sea.
The river was “playground” to the urchins. From along the banks they skipped and jumped and somersaulted onto the river. In summer, the boys turning into men jumped feet first into the river, the river water to hasten healing, after the medicine man performed on them the ritual to manhood. In May, the pilgrims going to Antipolo plied their boats and barges on the river on their way to pay homage to the miraculous Virgin of Peace and Good Voyage. (The dark-skinned, revered icon came in a galleon from Mexico; and while crossing the Pacific Ocean, the ship encountered a severe storm. The passengers made it safely to the shores of Manila; and the safe voyage was attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary.)
Ilog-Pasig was a trade channel – traders took the waterway to deliver merchandise to different markets around the river, collectively the community was called, Montalban; they were Chinese and Indian merchants who were doing very well in business. They thrived on the patronage of the people and, in gratitude of their good fortune, they had embraced the Land of the Ilog-Pasig as one of their own.
From China they brought porcelain plates, jewelry made of precious stones, and herbal medicines; and from India they sold umbrellas, textile for making women’s clothes and the men’s barong-tagalog, as well as, perfumes.
Don Ramon was one of the locals who the river patronized. He was the man who owned the magnificent stone mansion at the top of a hill, close to the mouth of the river, on the side of Taytay.
Don Ramon was well-known for his business acumen. From Manila he brought home textile and leather. In his town, he managed a large sewing and embroidery shop that made women’s dresses, sashes, kerchiefs, and veils. The shop also made clothes for men and children. There was yet another shop that made shoes and slippers out of the tanned cow or carabao skins. From Taytay, he brought down to Manila ready-made clothes and shoes, fresh fruits from the farm, rice and cassava cakes.
There was no doubt that Don Ramon was a man of means who enjoyed the respect of the people. They acknowledged the passing of his boat on the river and made sure they waved at him every single time.
Don Ramon had a lovely daughter, Clarita. The young Clarita was always riding on the boat with Don Ramon; she was being brought to a Catholic school in Quiapo, regularly. She was seen playing on the boat, as it gently glided on the river, the watchful eyes of Don Ramon and mother, Dona Josefa, always trained on her. She had a nanny, always in a white dress, who also looked after her.
As years went by, Clarita blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Her regular trip on the boat continued on as she pursued college education in Manila. Clarita’s personality was scintillating. The color of her skin was in-between white and black, naturally because Don Ramon had Spanish blood and Dona Josefa had Indian blood and the complexion of dark-skinned parents who came from Cainta. She had slightly curly hair. The bluish eyes and the nicely-shaped nose, as well as the smooth, porcelain-like cheeks came from Don Ramon. The darker skin color, the hair, and the petite, shapely body came from Dona Josefa.
Clarita was an intelligent person, one of the top students in La Concordia. She loved music, she loved singing and possessed a sweet voice similar to that of an angel. Proud and joy of her parents. Happiness of the neighbors and workers in the shops. Desire of the men who caught glimpses of her sitting in her special chair like a princess inside a rich man’s boat. That was Clarita.
The parents were not aware that Clarita was in love with a man her age and who was from Manila. She met him in a school singing event. Ruben, the young man was a good guitarist, he provided accompaniment whenever Clarita sang. The event was followed by a number of other musical programs staged at the school auditorium. A bond developed between the two arising from a mutual love for music. The friendship developed into love nurtured by the frequent meetings in practice sessions.
It was love at first sight for both of them, two souls innocent to the ways of Cupid. They tried to keep the world unaware of their secret relationship; but their excitement and spontaneous demeanor could not be contained, thus, exposing the secret anyway. During practice breaks they sat at one corner of the auditorium and spent time exchanging whispers and giggles, sharing little secrets that only young people in love knew how to enjoy.
La Concordia was an all-girl school while Letran, Ruben’s, was an all-boy school. Girls and boys were not allowed to be together while on the school premises, except in events like the ones that Clarita and Ruben were attending.
To get around the rules, the two young lovers managed to see each other, off school hours and off school premises. They met under the shade of an old mango tree standing behind the school, down a little hill.
Clarita brought native cakes from Binangonan – puto, kalamay na may latik. And Ruben always came with a lunch box full of rice and dishes that his mother prepared at home. They partook of the food while resting under the tree. Then they laid their backs on the grass, side by side with their hands clasped as one, and they watched the big, white clouds as they floated by in the sky.
One time Clarita gave Ruben a sapling of the sampaguita flower transplanted into a small clay pot. “Ruben,” she said, “my favorite
flower . . . Make it grow in your front yard. You will love the fragrance and it will always remind you of me.”
More than love letters, scribbles of sweet nothings that they spent a lot of time reading and rereading, they exchanged gifts. One time, Ruben surprised Clarita with a crucifix necklace. He told her to close her eyes and then he put the necklace around Clarita’s neck. “Clarita, my father sculpted this necklace. He knew it was for you so he put so much attention and energy into its creation. Besides, Father Jose had already blessed it. It should have the power to protect you from danger,” Ruben lovingly explained.
The two, who fell in love for the first time, had never felt so much joy and excitement in their life. Every new day became an event awaited with much expectation; every day that passed on became a piece of jewel carefully stocked away in a secret treasure box of sweet memories.
It became customary that they walked the distance from the school to the docking station close to the church in Quiapo, when the end of the day came and Clarita had to go home. Parting ways was so much pain for them, notwithstanding that they saw each other practically every day. But they were also always expectant and excited over the next meeting.
“I’ll be here waiting for you tomorrow, Clarita. Have a peaceful journey home, have a good sleep; we shall meet in our dreams,” the young man happily bid her farewell. He stood there as still as a stone as he watched the boat carrying his beloved friend move away and disappear.
Other than Ruben there were other young men who vied for the beautiful maiden’s attention. Like Joselito and Mariano. Joselito was a composer and a good pianist. His house stood by the bank of the river in the section near Buwayang-Bato. The boats passing by could be seen by Joselito from the vantage point of a large window. He always watched out for Don Ramon’s boat and the beautiful creature that sat in it. He was a secret admirer of Clarita.
In another section called Pandakan there lived Mariano, a master violinist who was also a botanist. His place was blooming with flowers – roses, gumamelas, sampaguitas, orchids – all bursting in wonderful colors. From a boat on the river, Mariano’s piece of land looked like a paradise of flowers.
The two vied for Clarita’s friendship.
Every time Don Ramon and her lovely daughter passed by, Joselito and Mariano put on their respective spectacular performance. Going by Joselito’s property the boat passengers could hear the sweet sonatas emanating from the duet of the amorous man’s masterful fingers and the keys of his expressive piano.
At the other side, going by Mariano’s garden, they could hear lively allegros coming from the talented man’s violin. He stood by the bank of the river, swaying to the beat of the music, as he played on and on.
One evening as Don Ramon’s boat was gliding by in front of Mariano’s house, twenty trained doves flew up, hovered over the boat and, at the right moment, dropped roses for Clarita to see and catch. Joselito would not be out-performed. When the boat passed by in front of his property, his helpers let go of little tin boats, each carrying a lit candle. The scene looked similar to that of a swarm of glittering fireflies freed on the water to welcome the arrival of a princess.
The two men also competed in sending poems, letters, flowers, fruits, food delicacies, clothes, precious gems, to Don Ramon’s magnificent stone house – all for the delight of Clarita.
“Those men must be crazy!” Don Ramon could not control his temper. “When are they going to stop intruding into our privacy? Did they not know that Clarita had been gone since nine months ago?” he asked his wife. (The natives believed that the soul of a dead person stayed around for nine months, after which it continued on to its timeless journey to the world beyond.)
Clarita dreamt of becoming a music teacher someday. She dreamt of teaching the children of Taytay and Binangonan skills in singing and playing musical instruments. Her father and mother dreamt of passing on to her the charge of the house and the business, and the responsibility of carrying on the upkeep of the workers.
All those dreams vanished like castles in the wind. One night, Clarita was stricken by a strange illness. She had a terribly high fever, and by morning the beloved of all was dead. There were different opinions as to what caused Clarita’s untimely demise. A mosquito bit her and she developed malaria. She drank contaminated water and the spread of the microbes in her body caused a fatal shock. Her back became soaked in sweat and she contracted pneumonia, as a consequence. It did not matter to Don Ramon what malevolence took away his darling daughter’s life. Whatever was responsible for it, she was gone and nothing could be done to bring her back.
The young man who fell in love for the first time waited for his beloved at the boat’s docking place. As Don Ramon’s boat cruised by, Joselito and Mariano scampered to give a special performance. They saw her sitting at a special seat in the boat, wearing a soft, white dress, her long hair being blown by the wind. Was not that she? Clarita was gone from the material world; they were seeing the phantom of the Maiden of Ilog-Pasig.