Monday, July 18, 2011

Clarita's House

As has happened so often in my life, I decided a few months ago to move. Of the few places that were available for me to occupy here on my island, I briefly considered the same house I moved out of more than a year ago. I have written about that house in a prior post. It is a big house with plastered walls, a verandah, a small tiled bathroom, and polished cement floors. It stands near the highway about four kilometers from town, surrounded by shacks made of wood and whatever else was available. In this, as in most provincial barangays, big expensive houses stand side by side with plywood shacks or huts made from woven grass. How the house got there is explained by the owner having won the lottery or by a daughter marrying a foreigner.

Since I moved out of the house in April 2010, an old couple had taken up residence there. One of them, the old man, had since died. When I saw the house again, I thought it looked worse than when I first saw it, in July of 2009. At that time, I could see that the house had potential, despite it being incredibly dirty, what with the front door being always open during the day, allowing every neighborhood child, dog, cat, and chicken to traipse in and out as they pleased.

When I made up my mind to move in, I told Clarita, the woman who owned the house, the things that I wanted changed, like a new back door (there was no back door), and that I'd be back at the end of the month. When I returned as promised and walked through the house, it was evident that nothing had been done. I should also mention there was a pretty young girl following me through the house, holding a large dirty teddy bear, whom I never saw again. Later someone told me that she was an apparition - an aswang, but I couldn't be sure if they were kidding.

After moving in, the first thing I noticed was a thick layer of grime that ran along the walls about two to three feet from the floor. It was the cumulative mark of dozens of children's dirty hands. It was especially thick at the corners of the wall or right beside the doors. There was even a shiny purple spot that could only have been grape jam, deposited there who knows when. And I could see over the windows where someone not very tall had cleaned as high on the walls as he could reach and no farther, leaving a noticeable arch over each of the windows.

It took me some time, but I managed to make the house habitable. Every layer of the built-up grime was removed from the walls, which might have saddened the owner, as one by one the family's children grew up and left the house. One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my verandah looking at the large open space around it, filled with laughing children. The old man, in his eighties, stood by the fence by the highway and watched them play. Every one of them was a grand- or great-grandchild of his. Within months of this poignant scene, so fraught with meaning, the old man was dead.

On seeing the house again, after a year's absence, I could see that it was almost exactly as I had found it. The terrace was covered in muddy footprints, the doors wide open to nature, no curtains in the windows, just like, as my mother used to say, a cyclone had struck it. It was like a wild animal I had tamed that had been returned to nature. I thought that it must have something to do with their poverty and its degrading effects on their sensibilities - assuming that they had any. It was occupied now only by the old woman. She was afflicted with a kind of palsy, brought on by a powerful electric shock that, I was told, knocked her fifty feet clear across the highway.

I didn't move back into Clarita's house. I found mettle more attractive, just down the highway back among the copra. To adjust Thomas Wolfe's famous opening line, which has always cried out for adjustment, you can go home again. Just don't expect it to be the same home. Heraclitus beat him to it: you can't step into - or cross over - the same river twice.

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