Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Escrayola Sculptor’s Daughter (fiction)

Minyong Tengco carefully laid down the box containing the materials he used for making escrayola figurines. It was the start of another day and like innumerable days past he would take out the coarse and uncolored figurines on the shelf and line them up on his work table to apply color on them as finishing touches. Escrayola is made up of plaster of paris and other chalky substances hardened to form figures as in statues and other sculpted pieces. The surface of escrayola can be smoothened and made to look like porcelain but duller in sheen.

The box contained a small sack of calcite powder, a brown paper bag of gypsum, another one with plaster of paris and some binding materials. Despite the bleakness of his little studio, Minyong, kept it neat. He sorted his tools and had his materials in shallow rectangular boxes neatly stacked in a corner of the little room that was half roofed and half exposed to the elements. He needed open air as a place to dry his works and also to dissipate the slightly acrid odor of the unhardened escrayola and the invasive smell of paint thinner. Other boxes contained the paints he used in the figurines’ finish; metal chisels, files and sand paper for smoothening the rough edges and the small bulges created by the loose seams of molds.

On one side of his studio were rows of shelves, the upper tiers of which, sat odd assortments of escrayola creations; cute and chubby piglets, wide eyed bunny rabbits, kitschy floral arrangements and ginger bread houses all of which had small slits either on top or on the side to serve as slots for coins. No matter how artistic and well done his creations were they will always have the slit, for without it, the value of the merchandise would have been reduced to nothing but ersatz adornments. The exception, of course, would be the few religious icons that were spared from this demeaning stigma.

He was doing business with a few “Feria” operators who bought his wares as prizes for the various games played in the booths that were the permanent fixtures of all “ferias”. The fair grounds teem with shooting galleries with the leaden pigeon targets, the ring toss on bobbing heads of geese, the “carrera ng daga”, a wheel of fortune type of game where a hamster goes around several small numbered houses and enters one to indicate the winner, and other games played which offered an assortment of small items to be won. The demand for his merchandise was a seasonal one. “Ferias” are mobile gypsy-like communities that move from town to town coinciding with the town’s fiesta celebrations during the summer months then grinds to a halt to pick up again in November in time for the Christmas season.

On the rough cement floor and on the lower shelves were the replicas of saints and busts of the Sacred Heart of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. He had a deference for the religious figurines and saw to it that they were carefully stored and kept away from where they could be accidentally nudged. The religious works where either on the ground or in the lower shelves protected by a thin wooden slat to act as a railing to prevent their falling on the floor. He had an awesome fear that any damage on the sacred pieces would bring immediate retribution from the forces of heaven. He distinctly recalls the time when a statue of Saint Peter which was commissioned by an elderly lady in the neighborhood had its nosed nicked by a wayward pole that his daughter accidentally swung when she shooed away a cat who had climbed on top their food table attracted by the fried tuyo that they were going to have for lunch. He felt that St. Peter had been slighted by such a spiteful act and was the reason for the early typhoon season that shortened the fiesta celebrations of that year. It meant a long stretch of reduced demand for his wares that had to wait until the coming of the Christmas upswing.

He couldn’t bring himself to blaming his daughter, Clara. He harbored a feeling of resentment against St. Peter, for being so harsh and so vengeful even to the spiteless actions of a mindless girl, but, carefully resisting intoning it lest he be heard by the saint’s cohorts all stern and dour as they stared from the shelves looking like rancorous judges seated en banc.

Clara was a slightly retarded thirteen year old who was left with him after separating with his wife eight years ago. Her retardation was caused by malnutrition which they did not detect early enough for the lack of medical attention which he could ill afford. In a moment of despair over her husband’s inability to earn enough to provide even the bare essentials for the family, as well as the dullness of their existence in the company of somber looking religious icons and comic creatures with adumbrated smiles, she left him for a “carrera ng daga” barker. She met this exciting roguish fellow who was ten years her junior when accompanying Minyong to deliver the escrayola items to game booth owners. The gayety of the “Feria” must have beckoned irresistibly to one emerging from the ash gray and joyless world of an escrayola sculptor.

Because of their poverty, Minyong had never given Clara anything of value or anything that has been bought from a department store. She wore thread-worn dresses and other hand-me-downs given by her cousins at Christmas time when she went to her aunt’s house. Her aunt was also her godmother and it was the custom for the godchildren to visit and pay respects to their godparents on Christmas day. She didn’t seem to mind the absence of the nice things that a girl her age would wish for. What gives her a bit of excitement is food. Her dull eyes would show a glint of sparkle at the mention of pancit or siopao which Minyong occasionally takes home from a party given by a friend or of a relative. One time, at the blessing of his brother’s house, Clara was overwhelmed by the sight of a generously endowed buffet table and almost went into a swoon. Minyong filled a plateful of food which she ate avidly after recovering her comportment. It was this simplemindedness of Clara that was the bane of his being. But it also seemed fortunate that she was this way because it shielded her from the cruelty and harshness of a destitute life.

If it were not for the blankness of expression, the lack of animation of her eyes and the pallor of her complexion she would have been a pretty girl. Clara had Minyong’s aquiline nose which he got from his mother who was a mestiza of Basque origin. His father was half Chinese and this is where Clara’s almond shaped eyes could be traced. As if in a conscience stricken mood or as a making up for the deprivation that his destitution imposed on her, Minyong started to sculpt a bust of Clara. He was tempted to use the mold of the Sacred Heart of the Virgin Mary by producing a rough base from it and work from there. Despite the beauty of the idealized reproduction which was done in the best classical tradition, he could not be convinced of the similitude. He felt that his daughter had a more natural prettiness, a virginal quality that could only be hers. He must have done the Virgin Mother’s Sacred Heart bust hundreds of times and he knew that he will not get it right if he used the mold as base. Clara’s likeness emerged little by little. He took his time hand molding the bust finding time for it only after having done his chores; his quota of piggy banks and bunny banks

One evening, nearing completion of his handiwork, he stepped back and contemplated his work at different angles. Perhaps it was the careful and loving handcrafting of this piece that he succeeded in creating an amazing likeness of Clara. It was such a faithful reproduction that captured her in all physical aspects and it was her, alright, down to the inertness and the lack of vitality; the inanimate and non-life quality. Though looking stark, the whiteness and dullness of the surface of the bust was the one that gave it a distinctness that was Clara’s. He pondered on it for along time. He visualized her with cheerful crimson lips and with delicate pink cheeks but was unhappy with what he imagined. In his mind, all the ideal conventional enhancements seemed an aberration, a polluting of the pristine aura that was possessed by this art piece. The essence of innocence that was the hallmark of Clara’s person was diminished with every imagined daub of sanguine vitality. It was the first time that he had created something of value, something far beyond slitted bunny rabbits and piglets, something even greater than all the saints and Virgin Marys that sum up all his creations.

The start of the sixties were exciting times. All sorts of new fangled inventions were being made, “man on the moon” dream of the Americans were nearing realization, international trade had opened up and unlocked the flood gates for Japanese products, Philippine sugar products and coconut oil exports were enjoying unprecedented success in the international markets.

Minyong was not aware of all these important events. All he knew was his business was on the wane and he could not understand why. With the influx of Japanese gadgets and novelty items, the demand for Minyong’s escrayola figurines as prizes in the Ferias went dramatically down. He could not compete with the cheap tin toys, the plastic lighters, stuffed toys and other attractive but cheap little doodads that flooded the market.

There were still a few booth owners who ordered from him but he had to sacrifice his margins to be able to compete with the alternatives that the game booths offer as prizes. This, plus the steady but sluggish trade that he had for religious icons, provided him with income, albeit, a much reduced one. Food in the larder, which he never had a surfeit of, was becoming scarcer by the day. There were days that he had to forgo his share of dinner so that Clara would have a full one.

One of his clients, Dolores de la Cruz, was the head of the CWL (Catholic Women’s League) in their parish. She had been very helpful as a referrer whenever she was asked by her friends where to get Sacred Heart icons as gifts for house blessings and other appropriate occasions. There were special favors he asked of Minyong before to do small figurines and she knew that he was capable of doing artistic pieces but did not because of the expediency of earning a living.

Dolores de la Cruz had an urgent need for a bust of the Virgin Mary. She had to have it in a day’s time to give as a gift to the visiting bishop of Bacarra in north Luzon who was a well known Marian devotee and who was very influential to Cardinal Santos, the archbishop of Manila. She felt obliged to give this dignitary a fitting gift. It had to be special so she thought of commissioning Minyong to do a bust of the Virgin Mary not the usual molded bust that he had done hundreds of times before. It must be an originally composed one. Price was of no issue. She was willing to pay five hundred pesos for such a creation. Five hundred pesos at that time was a minor fortune. It would have been the kind of income an ordinary wage earner would work for over four to five months.

Because of the urgency of her need she herself went to Minyong’s studio for her to tell him what exactly needs to be done. After the usual apology for the humbleness of his place he asked the lady what it was she wanted. She explained that she wanted a bust of the Virgin Mary to be given as a gift to the bishop of Bacarra who was visiting their parish the day after. Minyong said that he had in store several busts of the Virgin Mary, some as Sacred Hearts, others in different poses. She emphatically said that not any of what he had on the shelves will do. It has to be something different, a one of a kind, an original composition not formed from a mold. She said that she knows that it was a tall order but she was willing to pay five hundred pesos for it.

It was her habit to move around while talking, even less inhibited now, because of the excitement as well as the anxiety she felt for her purpose. Not finding words enough to describe her specifications her gesticulations were becoming frantic, almost hysterical. Minyong was becoming more confused than informed but he had to suffer Dolores’ frenzied dance because of the prospect of earning five hundred pesos. All of a sudden she stopped. “There! There!” as if witnessing first hand the Ascension, she pointed excitedly at the dimly lit corner, partly hidden by used clothing draped shoddily at the end of the wall, on an ancient looking table, was Clara’s bust.

He found it difficult to explain to Dolores that the bust was not for sale and that it was not yet finished. No matter, she said, Dolores could not be dissuaded. She was paying five hundred pesos and all he had to do was finish the bust by applying colors to the pallor of the escrayola surface of Clara’s bust, a thing that made him squirm in disgust just at the thought of it.

Minyong did not have a strong character nor did have a will resolute enough to go against the wishes of the formidable Dolores de la Cruz. He was just a poor escrayola sculptor who had very pressing needs. Clara would probably not miss her figurine and would be happy at having something more edible than the usual vegetable and fish sauce on rice, a meager fare that was becoming even less regular on their food table.

Minyong Tengco promised to deliver the bust early next morning. Dolores de la Cruz paid in advance and immediately after she left his studio he went to the Chinese restaurant at the corner of their street and bought pancit canton, lumpiang shanghai, and a small order of hototay soup. For the first time in years he saw a happy glimmer on Clara’s face as they enjoyed the steaming hot hototay soup. It was a face he didn’t recognize, a face that was alien to the one he created for her. It was enough to assuage the pain that he had to undergo when he applied the hated crimson on Clara’s purity to transform it into a bust of the Virgin Mary.

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