The Bread of Salt by Néstor Vicente Madali González

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Usually I was in bed by ten and up by five and thus was ready for one more day of my fourteenth year. Unless Grandmother had forgotten, the fifteen centavos for the baker down Progreso Street – and how I enjoyed jingling those coins in my pocket! – would be in the empty fruit jar in the cupboard. I would remember then that rolls were what Grandmother wanted because
recently she had lost three molars. For young people like my cousins and myself, she had always said that the kind called pan de sal ought to be quite all right.

The bread of salt! How did it get that name? From where did its flavor come, through what secret action of flour and yeast? At the risk of being jostled from the counter by early buyers, I would push my way into the shop so that I might watch the men who, stripped to the waist, worked their long flat wooden spades in and out of the glowing maw of the oven. Why did the bread come nut-brown and the size of my little fist? And why did it have a pair of lips convulsed into a painful frown? In the half light of the street, and hurrying, the paper bag pressed to my chest, I felt my curiosity a little gratified by the oven-fresh warmth of the bread I was proudly bringing home for breakfast.

Well I knew how Grandmother would not mind if I nibbled away at one piece; perhaps, I might even eat two, to be charged later against my share at the table. But that would be betraying a trust; and so, indeed, I kept my purchase intact. To guard it from harm, I watched my steps and avoided the dark street corners. For my reward, I had only to look in the direction of the sea wall and the fifty yards or so of riverbed beyond it, where an old Spaniard’s house stood. At low tide, when the bed was dry and the rocks glinted with broken bottles, the stone fence of the Spaniard’s compound set off the house as if it were a castle. Sunrise brought a wash of silver upon the roofs of the laundry and garden sheds which had been built low and close to the fence. On dull mornings the light dripped from the bamboo screen which covered the veranda and hung some four or five yards from the ground. Unless it was August, when the damp, northeast monsoon had to be kept away from the rooms, three servants raised the screen promptly at six-thirty until it was completely hidden under the veranda eaves. From the sound of the pulleys, I knew it was time to set out for school.

It was in his service, as a coconut plantation overseer, that Grandfather had spent the last thirty years of his life. Grandmother had been widowed three years now. I often wondered whether I was being depended upon to spend the years ahead in the service of this great house. One day I learned that Aida, a classmate in high school, was the old Spaniard’s niece. All my doubts disappeared. It was as if, before his death, Grandfather had spoken to me about her, concealing the seriousness of the matter by putting it over as a joke. If now I kept true to the virtues, she would step out of her bedroom ostensibly to say Good Morning to her uncle. Her real purpose, I knew, was to reveal thus her assent to my desire.

On quiet mornings I imagined the patter of her shoes upon the wooden veranda floor as a further sign, and I would hurry off to school, taking the route she had fixed for me past the post office, the town plaza and the church, the health center
east of the plaza, and at last the school grounds. I asked myself whether I would try to walk with her and decided it would be the height of rudeness. Enough that in her blue skirt and white middy she would be half a block ahead and, from that
distance, perhaps throw a glance in my direction, to bestow upon my heart a deserved and abundant blessing. I believed it was but right that, in some such way as this, her mission in my life was disguised.

Her name, I was to learn many years later, was a convenient mnemonic for the qualities to which argument might aspire. But in those days it was a living voice. “Oh that you might be worthy of uttering me,” it said. And how I endeavored to build my body so that I might live long to honor her. With every victory at singles at the handball court the game was then the craze at school — I could feel my body glow in the sun as though it had instantly been cast in bronze. I guarded my mind and did not let my wits go astray. In class I would not allow a lesson to pass unmastered. Our English teacher could put no question before us that did not have a ready answer in my head. One day he read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, and we were so enthralled that our breaths trembled. I knew then that somewhere, sometime in the not too improbable future, a benign old man with a lantern in his hand would also detain me in a secret room, and there daybreak would find me thrilled by the sudden certainty that I had won Aida’s hand.

It was perhaps on my violin that her name wrought such a tender spell. Maestro Antonino remarked the dexterity of my stubby fingers. Quickly I raced through Alard-until I had all but committed two thirds of the book to memory. My short, brown arm learned at last to draw the bow with grace. Sometimes, when practising my scales in the early evening, I wondered if the sea wind carrying the straggling notes across the pebbled river did not transform them into Schubert’s
“Serenade.”

At last Mr. Custodio, who was in charge of our school orchestra, became aware of my progress. He moved me from second to first violin. During the Thanksgiving Day program he bade me render a number, complete with pizzicato and harmonics.

“Another Vallejo! Our own Albert Spalding!” I heard from the front row.

Aida, I thought, would be in the audience. I looked around quickly but could not see her. As I retired to my place in the orchestra I heard Pete Saez, the trombone player, call my name.

“You must join my band,” he said. “Look, we’ll have many engagements soon. It’ll be vacation time.”

Pete pressed my arm. He had for some time now been asking me to join the Minviluz Orchestra, his private band. All I had been able to tell him was that I had my schoolwork to mind. He was twenty-two. I was perhaps too young to be going around with him. He earned his school fees and supported his mother hiring out his band at least three or four times a month. He now said:

“Tomorrow we play at the funeral of a Chinese-four to six in the afternoon; in the evening, judge Roldan’s silver wedding anniversary; Sunday, the municipal dance.”

My head began to whirl. On the stage, in front of us, the principal had begun a speech about America. Nothing he could say about the Pilgrim Fathers and the American custom of feasting on turkey seemed interesting. I thought of the money I would earn. For several days now I had but one wish, to buy a box of linen stationery. At night when the house was quiet I would fill the sheets with words that would tell Aida how much I adored her. One of these mornings, perhaps before school closed for the holidays, I would borrow her algebra book and there, upon a good pageful of equations, there I would slip my message, tenderly pressing the leaves of the book. She would perhaps never write back. Neither by post nor by hand would a reply reach me. But no matter; it would be a silence full of voices.

That night I dreamed I had returned from a tour of the world’s music centers; the newspapers of Manila had been generous with praise. I saw my picture on the cover of a magazine. A writer had described how, many years ago, I used to trudge the streets of Buenavista with my violin in a battered black cardboard case. In New York, he reported, a millionaire had offered me a Stradivarius violin, with a card that bore the inscription: “In admiration of a genius your own people must surely be proud of.” I dreamed I spent a weekend at the millionaire’s country house by the Hudson. A young girl in a blue skirt and white middy clapped her lily-white hands and, her voice trembling, cried “Bravo!”

What people now observed at home was the diligence with which I attended to my violin lessons. My aunt, who had come from the farm to join her children for the holidays, brought with her a maidservant, and to the poor girl was given the chore of taking the money to the baker’s for rolls and pan de sal. I realized at once that it would be no longer becoming on my part to make these morning trips to the baker’s. I could not thank my aunt enough.

I began to chafe on being given other errands. Suspecting my violin to be the excuse, my aunt remarked:

“What do you want to be a musician for? At parties, musicians always eat last.” Perhaps, I said to myself, she was thinking of a pack of dogs scrambling for scraps tossed over the fence by some careless kitchen maid. She was the sort you could depend on to say such vulgar things. For that reason, I thought, she ought not to be taken seriously at all.

But the remark hurt me. Although Grandmother had counseled me kindly to mind my work at school, I went again and again to Pete Saez’s house for rehearsals.

She had demanded that I deposit with her my earnings; I had felt too weak to refuse. Secretly, I counted the money and decided not to ask for it until I had enough with which to buy a brooch. Why this time I wanted to give Aida a brooch, I didn’t know. But I had set my heart on it. I searched the downtown shops. The Chinese clerks, seeing me so young, were annoyed when I inquired about prices.

At last the Christmas season began. I had not counted on Aida’s leaving home, and remembering that her parents lived in Badajoz, my torment was almost unbearable. Not once had I tried to tell her of my love. My letters had remained unwritten, and the algebra book unborrowed. There was still the brooch to find, but I could not decide on the sort of brooch I really wanted. And the money, in any case, was in Grandmother’s purse, which smelled of “Tiger Balm.” I grew somewhat feverish as our class Christmas program drew near. Finally it came; it was a warm December afternoon. I decided to leave the room when our English teacher announced that members of the class might exchange gifts. I felt fortunate; Pete was at the door, beckoning to me. We walked out to the porch where, Pete said, he would tell me a secret.

It was about an asalto the next Sunday which the Buenavista Women’s Club wished to give Don Esteban’s daughters, Josefina and Alicia, who were arriving on the morning steamer from Manila. The spinsters were much loved by the ladies. Years ago, when they were younger, these ladies studied solfeggio with Josefina and the piano and harp with Alicia. As Pete told me all this, his lips ash-gray from practising all morning on his trombone, I saw in my mind the sisters in their silk dresses, shuffling off to church for theevening benediction. They were very devout, and the Buenavista ladies admired that. I had almost forgotten that they were twins and, despite their age, often dressed alike. In low-bosomed voile bodices and white summer hats, I remembered, the pair had attended Grandfather’s funeral, at old Don Esteban’s behest. I wondered how successful they had been in Manila during the past three years in the matter of
finding suitable husbands.

“This party will be a complete surprise,” Pete said, looking around the porch as if to swear me to secrecy. “They’ve hired our band.”

I joined my classmates in the room, greeting everyone with a Merry Christmas jollier than that of the others. When I saw Aida in one corner unwrapping something two girls had given her, I found the boldness to greet her also. “Merry Christmas,” I said in English, as a hairbrush and a powder case emerged from the fancy wrapping. It seemed to me rather apt that such gifts went to her. Already several girls were gathered around Aida. Their eyes glowed with envy, it seemed to me, for those fair cheeks and the bobbed dark-brown hair which lineage had denied them.

I was too dumbstruck by my own meanness to hear exactly what Aida said in answer to my greeting. But I recovered shortly and asked:

“Will you be away during the vacation?”

“No, I’ll be staying here,” she said. When she added that her cousins were arriving and that a big party in their honor was being planned, I remarked:

“So you know all about it?” I felt I had to explain that the party was meant to be a surprise, an asalto.

And now it would be nothing of the kind, really. The women’s club matrons would hustle about, disguising their scurrying around for cakes and candies as for some baptismal party or other. In the end, the Rivas sisters would outdo them. Boxes of meringues, bonbons, ladyfingers, and cinnamon buns that only the Swiss bakers in Manila could make were perhaps coming on the boat with them. I imagined a table glimmering with long-stemmed punch glasses; enthroned in that array would be a huge brick-red bowl of gleaming china with golden flowers around the brim. The local matrons, however hard they tried, however sincere their efforts, were bound to fail in their aspiration to rise to the level of Don Esteban’s daughters. Perhaps, I thought, Aida knew all this. And that I should share in a foreknowledge of the matrons’ hopes was a matter beyond love. Aida and I could laugh together with the gods.

At seven, on the appointed evening, our small band gathered quietly at the gate of Don Esteban’s house, and when the ladies arrived in their heavy shawls and trim panuelo, twittering with excitement, we were commanded to play the Poet and Peasant overture. As Pete directed the band, his eyes glowed with pride for his having been part of the big event. The multicolored lights that the old Spaniard’s gardeners had strung along the vine-covered fence were switched on, and the women remarked that Don Esteban’s daughters might have made some preparations after all. Pete hid his face from the glare. If the women felt let down, they did not show it.

The overture shuffled along to its climax while five men in white shirts bore huge boxes of goods into the house. I recognized one of the bakers in spite of the uniform. A chorus of confused greetings, and the women trooped into the house; and before we had settled in the sala to play A Basket of Roses, the heavy damask curtains at the far end of the room were drawn and a long table richly spread was revealed under the chandeliers. I remembered that, in our haste to be on hand for the asalto, Pete and I had discouraged the members of the band from taking their suppers. “You’ve done us a great honor!” Josefina, the more buxom of the twins, greeted the ladies.

“Oh, but you have not allowed us to take you by surprise!” the ladies demurred in a chorus.

There were sighs and further protestations amid a rustle of skirts and the glitter of earrings. I saw Aida in a long, flowing white gown and wearing an arch of sampaguita flowers on her hair. At her command, two servants brought out a gleaming harp from the music room. Only the slightest scraping could be heard because the servants were barefoot. As Aida directed them to place the instrument near the seats we occupied, my heart leaped to my throat. Soon she was lost among the guests, and we played The Dance of the Glowworms. I kept my eyes closed and held for as long as I could her radiant figure before me.

Alicia played on the harp and then, in answer to the deafening applause, she offered an encore. Josefina sang afterward. Her voice, though a little husky, fetched enormous sighs. For her encore, she gave The Last Rose of Summer; and the song brought back snatches of the years gone by. Memories of solfeggio lessons eddied about us, as if there were rustling leaves scattered all over the hall. Don Esteban appeared. Earlier, he had greeted the crowd handsomely, twisting his mustache to hide a natural shyness before talkative women. He stayed long enough to listen to the harp again, whispering in his rapture: “Heavenly. Heavenly . . .”

By midnight, the merrymaking lagged. We played while the party gathered around the great table at the end of the sala. My mind traveled across the seas to the distant cities I had dreamed about. The sisters sailed among the ladies like two great white liners amid a fleet of tugboats in a bay. Someone had thoughtfully remembered-and at last Pete Saez signaled to us to put our instruments away. We walked in single file across the hall, led by one of the barefoot servants.

Behind us a couple of hoarse sopranos sang La Paloma to the accompaniment of the harp, but I did not care to find out who they were. The sight of so much silver and china confused me. There was more food before us than I had ever imagined. I searched in my mind for the names of the dishes; but my ignorance appalled me. I wondered what had happened o the boxes of food that the Buenavista ladies had sent up earlier. In a silver bowl was something, I discovered, that appeared like whole egg yolks that had been dipped in honey and peppermint. The seven of us in the orchestra were all of one mind about the feast; and so, confident that I was with friends, I allowed my covetousness to have its sway and not only stuffed my mouth with this and that confection but also wrapped up a quantity of those egg-yolk things in several sheets of napkin paper. None of my companions had thought of doing the same, and it was with some pride that I slipped the packet under my shirt. There, I knew, it would not bulge.

“Have you eaten?”

I turned around. It was Aida. My bow tie seemed to tighten around my collar. I mumbled something, I did not know what.

“If you wait a little while till they’ve gone, I’ll wrap up a big package for you,” she added.

I brought a handkerchief to my mouth. I might have honored her solicitude adequately and even relieved myself of any embarrassment; I could not quite believe that she had seen me, and yet I was sure that she knew what I had done, and I felt all ardor for her gone from me entirely.

I walked away to the nearest door, praying that the damask curtains might hide me in my shame. The door gave on to the veranda, where once my love had trod on sunbeams. Outside it was dark, and a faint wind was singing in the harbor.

With the napkin balled up in my hand, I flung out my arm to scatter the egg-yolk things in the dark. I waited for the soft sound of their fall on the garden-shed roof. Instead, I heard a spatter in the rising night-tide beyond the stone fence. Farther away glimmered the light from Grandmother’s window, calling me home.

But the party broke up at one or thereabouts. We walked away with our instruments after the matrons were done with their interminable good-byes. Then, to the tune of Joy to the World, we pulled the Progreso Street shopkeepers out of their beds. The Chinese merchants were especially generous. When Pete divided our collection under a street lamp, there was already a little glow of daybreak.

He walked with me part of the way home. We stopped at the baker’s when I told him that I wanted to buy with my own money some bread to eat on the way to Grandmother’s house at the edge of the sea wall. He laughed, thinking it strange that I should be hungry. We found ourselves alone at the counter; and we watched the bakery assistants at work until our bodies grew warm from the oven across the door. It was not quite five, and the bread was not yet ready.

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