Memoirs of a Student in Manila

Chapter 8: My First Reminiscence

 

 

When I had not yet seen other rivers except the river of my town, crystalline and gay in its winding course, shaded by murmuring bamboo groves; when my world was only circumscribed by the bluish mountains of my province and the white surface of the lake that I discerned from after through some ruins, sparkling like a mirror and filled with graceful sails, I like stories very much and I believed with all my heart everything the books contained, convinced that what was printed must perforce be the truth.  And why not, since my parents, who punished me for the smallest lie, emphatically enjoyed me to attend to my books, to read them diligently and understand them.

 

My first remembrance concerning letters goes back to my earliest age.  I must be very small yet because when they polished the floor of our house with banana leaves, I would still fall slipping on the shiny surface as did the little skilled skaters on ice.  It was still difficult for me to climb up a chair, I went down the stairs step by step, holding on to every baluster, and in our house as in the whole town, petroleum was unknown, or had I seen until that time any quinque, (34) nor had any carriage ever passed through the streets of my town that I believed to be the summum (35) of joy and animation.

 

One night, when everybody at home was already asleep, when all the lights in the globes (36) had already  been put out by blowing them off by means of a curved tin tube which seemed to me the most exquisite and wonderful toy in the world, I donít know why my mother and I had remained watching beside the only light that in all Philippine houses burned all night long, and that went out precisely at dawn waking the people with its cheerful hissing.  

 

My mother then was still young.  After a bath her hair which she let down to dry, dragged half a handbreadth on the floor, by which reason she knotted its end.  She taught me to read in Amigo de los NiŮos, a very rare book, an old edition, which had lost its cover and which a very industrious sister of mine had covered again by pasting on its back a thick blue paper, the remnant of the wrapper of a bolt of cloth.  My mother undoubtedly annoyed at hearing me read pitifully, for, as I didnít understand Spanish, I could not give meaning to the phrases, took away the book from me.  After scolding me for the drawings I had made on its pages, with legs and arms extended like a cross, she began to read asking me to follow her example.  My mother, when she cold still see, read very well, recited, and knew how to make verses.  How many times during Christmas vacation afterwards, she corrected my poems, making very apt observations.  I listened to her full of childish admiration.  Marveling at the ease with which she made them and at the sonorous phrases that she cold get from some pages that cost me so much effort to read and that I deciphered haltingly.  Perhaps my ears soon got tired of hearing sounds that to me meant nothing.  Perhaps due to my natural distraction, I gave little attention to the reading and watched more closely the cheerful flame around which some small moths fluttered with playful and uneven flight, perhaps I yawned, be it what it might, the case was that my mother, realizing the little interest that I showed, stopped her reading and said to me: ďIím going to read to you a very pretty story; be attentive.Ē  

 

Upon hearing the word story I opened my eyes expecting a new and wonderful one.  I looked at my mother who leafed through the book as if looking for it, and I got ready to listen with impatience and wonder.  I didnít suspect that in that old book that I read without understanding, there could be stories and pretty stories.  My mother began to read to me the fable of the young and the old moths, translating it to me piece by piece into Tagalog.  At the first verses my attention redoubled in such a way that I looked towards the light and fixed my attention on the moths that fluttered around it.  The story could not have been more opportune.  My mother emphasized and commented a great deal on the warnings of the old moth and directed them to me as if to tell me that these applied to me.  I listened to her and what a rare phenomenon the light seemed to me more beautiful each time, the flame brighter, and I even envied instinctively the fate of those insects that played so cheerfully in its magical exhalation.  Those that had succumbed were drowned in the oil; they didnít frighten me.  My mother continued her reading, I listened anxiously, and the fate of the two insects interested me intensely.  The light agitated its golden tongue on one side, a singed moth in one of these movements fell into the oil, clapped its wings for sometime and died.  That assumed for me that the flame and the moths were moving far away, very far, and that my motherís voice acquired a strange, sepulchral timbre.  

 

My mother finished the fable.  I was not listening; all my attention, all my mind and all my thoughts were concentrated on the fate of that moth, young, dead, full of illusions.  

 

ďYou see?Ē my mother said to me taking me to bed.  ďDonít imitate the young moth and donít be disobedient; youíll get burned like it.Ē

 

 

I donít know if I replied, promised something, or cried.  The only thing I remember is that it took me a long time before I could sleep.  That story had revealed to m e tings unknown to me until then.  To me moths ceased to be insignificant insects; moths talked and knew how to warn and advise as well as my mother did.  The light seemed to be more beautiful, dazzling, attractive.  I understand why moths fluttered around lights.  Advices and warnings resounded feebly in my ears.  What preoccupied me most was the death of the imprudent, but at the bottom of my heart, I didnít blame it.  My motherís solicitude didnít have all the success that she hoped it would.  

 

No; many years have elapsed; the child has become a man; has plowed [sailed -- Zaide] the most famous foreign rivers and meditated besides their copious streams.  The steamship has taken him across the seas and all the oceans; he has climbed the region of perpetual snow on mountains very much higher than the Makiling of his province.  From experience he has received bitter lessons, oh, infinitely more than the sweet lesson that his mother gave him, and nevertheless the man preserves the heart of a child and he believes that light is the most beautiful thing there is in creation and that it is worthy for a man to sacrifice his life for it.

______________

(34)   This word is derived from the name of the first maker of that lamp, Quinquet, a Frenchman.  Quinque refers to a petroleum lamp.

(35)   The utmost.

(36)   Globes were appliances made of crystal in which were placed the vessels containing oil for lighting.  They are hung from the ceiling with iron chains.

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