A Feast in Bataan
Quilt of Seas
Electric Pathways of the Heart
All My Nocturnal Days
Ho0w She Makes Dragon Skin
Cookies for Breakfast
An Astronaut’s Perfect Day
The Left-Hand World
Sample from A Feast in Bataan
It is a bad day, picking shrapnel out of wounds, cleaning pools of foul diarrhea, slipping on the blood of the operating room floor. I squeeze Connie’s hand. We are both famished, having just finished our shifts at the hospital. I could barely find the energy to wash and set my hair; this jungle heat tugs my auburn curls and straightens them. Connie’s blond hair is always neatly combed, pulled in tight rolls. Most of the time I keep mine hidden under a scarf. It’s time to leave for the dinner.
The shelling of the battalions dug in near Abucay barrio are muted in this mountain villa. On the lanai, a sumptuous meal is spread before the guests. A pig, roasted slow in hot coals, the meat glistening and juicy. Deep fried crispy rolls, stuffed with bean sprouts and fish meal. Thick drinks of coconut and coffee.
Tonight because of the dinner I have tried to look like a woman again. We sit in the place of honor at the head of the long table set with gleaming china and flatware. The air laves us with a hint of sea. We are high in the hills above the fighting.
Filipino servants pour water and wine. I worry for Connie; the last two days she has been shivering with dengue fever, but still has worked beside me in the wards. She will not ask to go on sick leave. A shell slams into the mountain to the north of us, sending tiny waves through the wine. No one at the table seems to notice.
Our host is a dark-skinned Filipino. When he smiles his teeth show a white light of their own. The sun has set behind the mountain and tosses light the color of the tuna on my plate into the sky above Manila across the bay, where the Japanese now are. In the encircling dusk, the host bows to me, and waves his hand across the table. It’s time to eat.
Connie got us the invitations to this weekly dinner. She nursed the son of our host, Mr. Hermosa, who was wounded when a shell punched a hole in the jungle where he was hiding. The family, having fled to their mountain hideaway when the Japanese took Manila, brought him to military hospital Number 1.
The rice is rich with curry. My stomach has been unsettled lately; dysentery is a daily burden. I have recovered from a bout with malaria, and my appetite is only just returning. I can’t help thinking of the jungle hospital, cots and beds spread out under the trees; we walk on palm fronds between the patients. Their blood and stool soak into the forest floor. I think of the last boy whose hand I held as he died. He was younger than me.
The conversation is of the outlook of the coffee harvest, not the war. Two doctors have come with us, and they speak of the Chicago Cubs. Connie barely touches her food. She leans her chin on her hand, and her feverish eyes take in the guests as she listens.
Warplanes buzz the mountains, circling like the hungry flies who eye our dinner. The shelling stops just as the sun goes down. A great weariness covers my skin, but its ache changes to warmth as I sip the sweet after-dinner muscatel. I know the names of the wines, the foods, but Connie doesn’t. She doesn’t even drink. She is a fragile girl, even though she came from farming country. I am stronger somehow. Our roles are reversed. I come from privileged, wealthy stock, and should be the weak one.
We met in nursing school and decided to join the army together. I was angrier then, prickly, an edge to Connie’s soft compassion. We begged to be sent to the Philippines together. I try to remember life before the invasion. I taught Connie to golf. One night we swam naked off the beach.
The daily barrage is over. But we hear gunfire from the north as the Japanese try to move down the Bataan peninsula. It sounds like popcorn. It is very close. This time the guests cannot ignore it. A silence falls over the table.