Wednesday, February 07, 2007

4.The Old Stone House

During the war we stayed in my maternal grandparent’s house. The estate was situated near the mouth of a river. It was a three-hectare estate that was planted to a wide variety of fruit bearing trees except for about a fourth of the land where vegetables, corn, sugar cane and other seasonal crops were grown and tended by a sharecropper or a “kasama” named Dolfo.

The house was early Spanish. It had buttressed hewn stone blocks at the base but with wooden sidings that make up the upper wall of the house. It had double windows; one was the traditional Philippine window that was made of small square panes of translucent capiz shells and the overlap outer window was made of strong sliding ebony wood or “kamagong” boards with wooden peg locks, which provided security to the house in the absence of iron grills.

I couldn’t really tell which was the front part of the house. The orientation of the house was somewhat different from what one would normally expect. I suspected that the selling of the original frontage of the house caused this rather quaint bearing. From the gate the entry point to the house lead towards the azotea whose entrance proceeded to the kitchen. Visitors go to the kitchen entrance rather than the front door of the house.

The azotea was made up of large rough stone blocks fitted together. It had red tiles covering the steps and the floor and had ceramic balustrades. At one end it had a narrow strip, an extension that led to the upper part of a well. The well was circular and the wall beside it was recessed, a semi circle which went all the way up to the level of the azotea floor. There was a water bucket at the end of a rope, which was attached to a long fulcrumed bamboo pole with weights at the other end. Beside this primitive water system was an artesian well, an incongruous technological addition.

The part of the house, which seemed mysterious to me, then, was the “silong”, the lower level of the house. This was utilized as storage for old carriages and old furniture. It seemed to attest to stories of the aristocratic lifestyles of my predecessors. The place had a strong musty smell and was veiled in dusty cobwebs and gossamer that evoked feelings of adventure and sometimes dread from imagined specters of long dead ancestors. The door, which led to it, was made of gnarled wood with half eroded iron bolts. I would be able to enter this only when my grandmother opened the creaky door to clean it up every summer before the fiesta. I would gingerly stay close to her side as she went about her cleaning chores. It had a dirt floor with trenches that looked like open graves. During the Japanese occupation my grandfather had trenches dug so that the ground floor would serve as an air raid shelter.

What added to the mysterious aura of the place was the discovery of small artifacts, small tools of trade, which some forebear might have stored and forgotten in a dark corner of the basement. Occasionally, one could chance upon old Spanish copper coins embedded in the caked soil with mossy ground cover. These must have fallen through the gaps of the wooden floor from the living room upstairs. I was hopeful of getting something of bigger value because according to my grandmother my great grandfather had been the provincial treasurer. It just could have happened that when he was going through the provincial coffers a few gold or silver coins could have fallen through the slats of the flooring and were swallowed up by the mess of dirt and stored objects. No such luck. Plain copper coins, neither gold nor silver… just crusted and deformed copper coins. I guess they would be of some value now as artifacts but at that time I was using them as projectiles for my slingshot or “balatik” as the Wawa boys would call it.

Another area of the house that had a disturbing aura was the “silid”. The “silid” was a small room adjacent to the bedroom that was used to store linen and other packed items like old “ternos”, bed covers and other odds and ends. It was a small and narrow room, somewhat like a corridor that ended on a blank wall. It didn’t look forbidding at all but the eerie stillness of the room seemed to waft an icy whisper in the air and the smell of faded perfume on stored lace evoked feelings of sinister secrets making it such a creepy nook. It had a small window that looked out into the end of the extended strip of the azotea…a view of the recessed upper wall of the well. I can recall with a bit of trepidation the feeling that I had when looking out through that window. It was as if the scene from the window was something alien to the rest of surroundings. Was this the threshold, the pre-entry area into the world my Lola was known to have acquaintance with? My young mind imagined too much.

According to my mother my great grandfather was of high social and financial standing in the province so that he felt it right to build an abode that befitted his station in life. But all these were just stories and even if there were vestiges of truth you could discern some embellishments and deliberate emphases on some events to make them more glorious than what they really were. Nevertheless, it was a stately and noble “bahay na bato”.

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