A Coffin for Chichi Aņonuevo
First Madam Beatrice traced the lines in Chichi's palm. Afterwards she dealt the cards onto the cloth covering her old table and stared at the glass ball. Suddenly she exclaimed, "I see you lying in a white coffin."
"Ay susmaryosep! What is that supposed to mean?" said Chichi, startled.
Madam Beatrice took a deep breath and then exhaled quickly with her eyes closed as if she was coming out of a trance. "The image is gone now. But I saw you inside a coffin, and your eyes were wide open," she said.
"Don't joke, Beatrice. Look again," she pleaded.
Madam Beatrice gathered her cards and dealt them once more on the table. The image of a prince holding a broken sword appeared, followed by a melancholic woman in a black dress staring at a glass of water. The last card was a white bird flying over a blue ocean. The wooden bracelets around the fortune-teller's wrists rattled as she waved her hands in the air.
"Santa Maria, there it is again," Beatrice cried out and pointed at the cards lined up in front of her.
"What do you see?"
"The same coffin. And you."
After a moment, hesitating to speak, Chichi finally asked, "Am I going to die soon?"
"It might be before your next birthday, Chichi," said Beatrice.
"But I'm not yet ready," said Chichi.
Beatrice sighed and replied mysteriously, "Híja, death knocks at the back door in the most unexpected moments."
"But what if it were true?" she imagined.
Chichi sadly remembered how her father had died from a heart attack while working on Don Melchor's lanzón farm. He was buried in a cheap coffin made of soft palochina wood tacked together with old rusty nails. While the outside of the coffin was nicely finished with varnish the inside was tunneled with nests of termites, which had already eaten into the wood. Chichi's mother was a poor laundry woman who could not even afford a new pair of shoes let alone a burial dress and a coffin. When she died the following year, her body was placed inside an old wooden cabinet and buried in the corner of the cemetery that flooded during the rainy months of April.
Chichi was an attractive woman with smooth, dark complexion and pink fingernails. She had small hands and a soft voice. She kept her hair pulled behind her head into a bun. She did not have a husband or children, however; there was no one to take care of her funeral after she died. She had not prepared a burial dress, a plot of land in the cemetery or even a coffin. If she were to die that night, the church would surely bury her in a pauper's grave, steal her money in the bank and confiscate her house and belongings.
Ten years ago, Chichi won the annual grand sweepstakes lottery. She had bought a new house, new furniture and new clothes. She donated five hundred pesos to the church, deposited the rest of her money into the bank and transferred her parents' remains in a respectable place in the cemetery reserved for local heroes and the rich families in the city.
"But what good is my money now?" she moaned in the dark. Padre Alcantara always warned everyone that you can not bring your riches with you after you die. Finally she said, "Then there's only one thing that matters in this life, and that's to have a decent funeral."
He was a foot shorter than her, skinny, with bulging eyes and a chest shaped like a pigeon's. The first time Chichi consulted Seņor Zuņiga, she wanted him to use the hardest narra wood available and to seal the dovetail joints with good hide glue. The week after that she proposed carving flower designs on the wood and attaching sturdy iron braces to reinforce the corners. The third week, she suggested increasing the dimensions of the box so that she could be buried with her porcelain saint statue of the Virgin Mary.
Seņor Zuņiga looked at her for a moment in disbelief before he cried, "You are crazy, seņora!"
"Well, I simply want to make sure I am buried properly," she repeated to him.
"I can understand that, Seņora Chichi. But all these changes are impossible. Three weeks ago you wanted the color of the coffin to be red, now you want it to be blue. Last week you wanted me to install small mirrors and candle stands. Now you want it to be bigger. This is too much, seņora." Seņor Zuņiga crossed his arms and glared at her in silence.
"I will pay, of course," she said proudly.
"You will pay?" he mocked. "You can't pay for the headaches and sleepless nights I've been suffering ever since I accepted this stupid project."
"What are you saying, Seņor Zuņiga?"
"I beg of you, seņora, just choose a coffin from my shop."
She looked around her and observed the dust-covered caskets piled on top of each other against the wall of the shop. Rusty nails stained the edges of the boxes, and the bruised and scratched paint exposed the rotting wood underneath.
"Dios mio! I will not be buried in your ugly shoe boxes!"
"Shoe boxes! So that's what you think of my caskets. I don't think you have any more business here, seņora. Please get out of my shop and have a good afternoon."
He showed her out of the house and into the street, slamming the door behind her before she had a chance to tell him that she wanted the initials of her name engraved on the lid.
"You can't do this to me, Seņor Zuņiga!"
"Go home, Seņora Chichi," he shouted from inside the house.
"Well, there are other carpenters in Ibarra," she threatened.
"Go ahead, Seņora Chichi," he said, and she heard him laughing. "Go get yourself a boatmaker."
As she watched him, Chichi recognized the green handkerchief around his neck. The man was Seņor Mamerto Bernabe, the cabinet and coffin maker who lived two blocks away from the cemetery. Every Sunday after mass, he would line up to kiss the feet of the statue of Santo Domingo and then wipe the saint's cheeks with his green handkerchief. She had seen him before talking with the beggars in the plaza or offering a necklace of white sampaguita flowers to the statue of the Virgin. He kept very much to himself and never came into the post office to send letters to anyone. He was tall and thin, he had bony hands and big elbows. He always wore a clean white shirt and neatly ironed gray pants. She had considered asking him for help in building her casket before but his quiet, mysterious manner slightly frightened her, and that was the reason she had not approached him.
At that moment, she was touched by the image of this strange man and the birds that surrounded him. That was when Chichi decided to meet with Seņor Bernabe the following morning to ask for his advice about building a coffin for her.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, "but I think I made a mistake."
Seņor Bernabe spat the nails in his left hand and said, "How may I help you, Seņora Aņonuevo?"
"How do you know my name?" she replied, surprised.
"Ibarra is a small city, seņora," he explained simply.
Smiling, Seņor Bernabe invited her to come inside the house, which was adjacent to his workshop. He apologized for the way he looked. He hung the hammer in his leather belt, brushed away the wood dust in his hair and wiped off the sweat on his face with a white towel. After offering Chichi a chair, Seņor Bernabe again inquired as to how he might be able to assist her.
Feeling more assured, Chichi began by saying that she needed a coffin.
"For whom, seņora?" interrupted Seņor Bernabe, slightly alarmed that he was ignorant of a recent death in the city.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I must explain," she said, "the coffin is for me to be buried in."
She quickly added that she would pay twice his usual fee, considering the extra trouble he would have in constructing a coffin for someone who was still alive. "The dead are hard enough, I imagine," she said. "The living must be two times more difficult."
"Your request is not at all that unusual, seņora," he said. He explained that just three weeks ago he had built a coffin for a man's amputated leg. "The man attended the funeral and he was quite happy with my work."
Seņor Bernabe served her a plate of pastillas sweets and a glass of coconut juice to cool herself from the oppressive heat. Afterwards, he excused himself and went into the bedroom, returning with a white bedsheet that he spread over the kitchen table.
"Now please lie down here, seņora," he directed.
When Chichi asked him why it was necessary for her to lie down on the table, Mamerto gave her a most obvious answer. "There is no such thing as a standing corpse, seņora."
"Of course," she answered, amused.
After she had settled herself on the table, Mamerto took out his measuring tape and noted her length, width and thickness. While he was doing so, he explained to Chichi how the human body changes shape when lying flat. The flesh falls and sags, the spinal column straightens and can increase in length by an inch or more. He inquired whether she intended to have her hands at her sides or crossed over her chest. He patiently took down her suggestions about color, wood and various decorative trimmings. After he was finished, he asked her when she needed to have the coffin.
"I'm not sure yet," she answered. "But I must have it done before my next birthday. I hope to be buried in January. It's so much cooler then."
Before she left, Seņor Bernabe informed her that he would need to see her again the following week to take new measurements while she wore her burial dress. "The shoes themselves could add another two inches onto the body's length, and the dimensions might have to change significantly," he explained. "I would not want to have a tight fit for you in the box."
"Of course," answered Chichi. She was so delighted that unlike Seņor Zuņiga, Seņor Bernabe was very much concerned and appreciative of her suggestions.
She did not know what to make of Pacholo. But eventually she learned to trust him, and later on she even permitted him to take care of the cats, to which she had become quite attached. After Pacholo had cleaned himself up, combed his hair, wore laundered clothes and brand new slippers, Chichi thought him to be quite handsome. He had curly hair and muscular arms. Chichi could still remember the time he first showed her his salamander tattoo. The tattoo was on his forearm where the pulse is located and she thought that it was a real lizard with a small beating heart. She admired his eyes the most. She thought he had the expression of a melancholic saint.
Chichi, on the other hand, enjoyed the mailroom where all the collected letters were sorted out. She liked to handle the numerous envelopes and packages that came in every morning, and left every Friday towards their destination. There were letters from fathers to their sons studying in Manila, sisters corresponding from different islands, and friends sending birthday cards. She particular enjoyed searching for love letters, which always possessed a distinctively sweet, perfumed smell.
For a long time, Chichi harbored a romantic notion of a love letter destined for her. It would be from her future husband, and he would come and propose to her, and they would live happily ever after. But when she turned forty, she eventually abandoned her dream and accepted her fate to remain a spinster.
At one point, she thought of possibly marrying Pacholo. But Chichi could not appreciate his lofty thoughts, which she considered impractical. He read many of Padre Alcantara's books in science and philosophy. He constantly lectured Chichi on the life cycles of beetles and butterflies, and argued with her about the origins of life. One time, he wanted her to help him finance the building of a ship that would fly to the moon. He said he would guarantee her a position as ambassador to the moonmen once he made contact. Then there was another time when he constructed a metal suit attached to an air hose so that he could dive to the bottom of the ocean and search for the sunken Spanish galleons that had carried not only gold and silver to the country but also ancient books and secrets from other continents. Both endeavors ended in failure, but instead of feeling discouraged Pacholo soon found another dream to pursue and a new project to imagine.
As Pacholo came into the office, Chichi noticed him holding a jar of orange liquid. He proclaimed that it was a special love potion he had duplicated from a recipe he read in one of Padre Alcantara's old books.
"A love potion? Loco!" she exclaimed. "There is no such thing."
"Then drink it and see how you'll jump in my lap like a puppy," he said and smiled at her.
She hesitated at first and smelled the liquid. She took a sip and waited while the taste lingered in her mouth. It was not bad, and she rather enjoyed the warm oily mixture that coated the back of her throat.
"What is it made of?"
He explained that it was mostly made of guava fruit, some honey, and crushed gumamela petals. Yes, she said, she could very well discern the taste of guava and honey, even the slight bitterness of the petals, but there was something in it that indeed made her heart tingle, and she wondered what it was.
"So the special ingredient is working?" he said, astonished at his own invention.
"Tell me first what it is and I'll confess my secrets to you," she bargained.
"I added six tablespoons of monkey urine," answered Pacholo.
Chichi quickly spat at her side and gathered the end of her skirt to wipe her mouth.
Pacholo turned to her and inquired, "Are you feeling more excited now?"
"Ay, Pacholo. I don't know whether to club you in the head or laugh at you."
Realizing that the potion was not performing its work on Chichi, Pacholo took back the bottle, examined his concoction and argued that perhaps he had not added enough urine.
"No, Pacholo," sighed Chichi in regret. "It did not work because I am too old for love. Love is for women at most forty years or below. These days I am more concerned with death," she said. "But why do you do all these ridiculous things?"
She recounted his other projects: the paper kite scribbled with messages that he had released into the sky to beckon the mythological cloud-men, the letter in a bottle that he had sent off into the sea to be read by the mysterious mermaids who lived in underwater caves, and then there was the huge heart cut out of old newspaper painted red that he had unrolled in the public plaza so that people from other worlds could see that he was signaling to them.
At last Pacholo declared his mission, "I'm searching for love, Chichi." He said that he had long ago accepted the fact that love did not exist in man's world. Why else, he asked, would his mother give him up to the orphanage when he was an infant. Where was his father when he was born?
"You still have me, Pacholo," she reasoned.
"Yes, and you're also going away."
"But this is not my fault. Fate is calling me and I must follow."
"What will I do after you're gone?"
"Well," she thought, "find this love you're looking for. Search hard. Don't give up."
Reflecting for a moment, he replied, "Maybe I should just become a priest."
Chichi laughed, and cried out, "God have mercy on us all!"
Chichi wore her black burial dress and black shoes while she lay on the kitchen table and Seņor Bernabe took new measurements. Afterwards, she got up from the table and observed him as he recorded the numbers in a small brown notebook.
"Your penmanship is excellent, Seņor Bernabe," she commented.
She thought she noticed him blush, but she was not sure. "I just try to be extra careful, seņora," he replied.
Seņor Bernabe spread out the initial plans he had drawn based on her suggestions the previous week. He pointed out some of the decorations he had added. Chichi was impressed.
"I promise you, seņora, it will be beautiful," he confirmed.
"I can't wait," she said.
Mamerto nodded his head and began to collect his pencils and rulers, arranging them carefully in his vest pocket. He rolled the plans neatly and tucked them under his arm.
"I will see you next week then, seņora?" he asked.
"Are you sure this all right with you, Seņor Bernabe?" asked Chichi. She remembered her encounter with Seņor Zuņiga and how her continued demand for changes in the coffin had provoked him to throw her out of his house. "I can't ask you to go to all this trouble," she said.
"But I must insist," replied Seņor Bernabe, and Chichi was slightly surprised by his persistence.
He explained that, comparing his earlier measurements the previous week with the ones he had just taken, it seemed that she had gained weight. If that were so, then he would have to make regular visits every week to make certain that the measurements were up to date.
Chichi blushed with embarrassment. Indeed, she had indulged in lechon de leche and several kinds of desserts when she attended the wedding engagement of Carmen and Arturo. The food was too delicious to pass up.
"Then I would be glad to have you come over. How about if we meet every Friday, the same time?"
"I will arrive promptly, seņora," he said.
"I want you to marry me, Pacholo," said Chichi abruptly.
Pacholo looked at her cautiously as if he expected a cruel joke was about to follow.
"Why do you torment me so, Chichi? Haven't I already apologized for the love potion?" he replied.
"This has nothing to do with that," she began. "I have little time in this world. And I have been preparing my funeral for weeks now." Finally she said, "Don't you think it would be perfect if I were a wife before I died?"
"But I thought you wanted to marry only for love?" asked Pacholo.
Regretfully she replied, "This is not about love anymore, Pacholo. This is about my burial."
After a moment, Pacholo nodded his head and smiled to her.
"Thank you, Pacholo," she said and embraced him. She looked at his saintly eyes again and thought how perfect they were. "I have one last favor to ask."
"Promise me that you'll cry during my funeral."
Seņor Bernabe accepted and quickly added, "But please, seņora, call me Mamerto."
"Then you must call me Chichi," she replied.
Mamerto went on to explain that his goal in the future was to specialize in made-to-order coffins. He would create coffins fastened with special leather belts so that the ghost would not be able to escape and haunt the relatives, coffins with a small desk and pen stand for studious lawyers, coffins with bookshelves for the lonely dead, and coffins with music boxes that would play upon a signal from the deceased.
"But my ultimate dream, Chichi, is to go to Rome and build a coffin for the Santo Papa."
"I'm curious, Mamerto," she said, "how did you start building coffins?"
He explained that he found his calling during the cholera epidemic fifteen years ago when more than sixty children died in the city. "For seven days and seven nights," he said, "I worked in my shop building coffins for the dead infants."
Mamerto's eyes became watery, and Chichi handed him her white handkerchief.
"I'm sorry, Chichi," he said.
"There's nothing to be sorry about, Mamerto."
The Angelus tolled and they both stood up and went back into the house to pray in front of the statue of the Virgin in Chichi's living room. Afterwards, as Mamerto prepared to leave, Chichi extended her hand as always to give him a handshake. Instead Mamerto bent down and kissed the back of her hand.
An odd and awkward silence fell over the room. Chichi pretended to be staring with interest at the drawings spread out on the table while Mamerto remained staring at her.
"Well, I should be going now, Chichi," he said.
"Yes," she replied. "I have to get ready to go out too. I have to meet with Padre Alcantara concerning some details of the funeral service."
"Until next Friday then, Chichi."
"Until next Friday," she replied.
After Mamerto had left, Chichi softly rubbed the back of her hand where Mamerto had pressed his lips. Although Chichi was surprised by the unexpected kiss, she read nothing into Mamerto's gesture other than an expression of politeness acquired from good breeding. She thought how truly rare and gentle he was.
She promised to bring flowers to her parents' grave the following morning. Then she reminded herself to offer flowers to the victims of the cholera epidemic as well.
"Why are you all dressed up, Mamerto? Are you attending a funeral tonight?"
Mamerto waited until the men had left and the two of them were alone. He stepped into the living room and pulled the cloth covering the coffin. There were two carved angels in thoughtful poses at both ends, and an inlay of round fruits, vines and thorns covered the lid. Around the sides of the box were gold leafed sculptures of smiling cherubs. The wood had been sanded and painted numerous times until it gleamed like the surface of a white pearl.
"Dios mío, I can't be buried in that!" she cried out.
"But I consider it my best work, Chichi," he said, confused.
"That's not what I mean, Mamerto," she replied staring at the coffin. Indeed, she wanted a nice casket just as she had explained to him before, but this one far exceeded her expectations.
"It is a testament of my love," he proclaimed.
He knelt on the ground on one knee, opened a tiny black box that contained a diamond ring, and proposed to her.
"Don't joke, Mamerto. It's not funny."
"But I'm serious, Chichi. I have loved you since that afternoon you first came into my workshop."
"You're insane, Mamerto!"
"Insane, in love--what's the difference?"
"The difference is that I'm preparing for my funeral and you're thinking about weddings," she replied. Any thought of her impending marriage to Pacholo had flown out of her mind.
"It's almost the same thing. There's a priest, there is food and there are guests," he reasoned carefully.
She stood stunned in front of him. She did not know what to say. She told him that she was not even sure if she would still be alive by her next birthday.
"If there are only three days or three months or three years left for us, then so be it. But I wish you to be my wife," he said.
He told her that he had just received a special, hand-delivered letter from the President ordering him to build a coffin for his grandson, who had died during delivery.
"Que horor! Poor híjo," she said. "But when will you be back, Mamerto?"
"I'm not sure," he answered. "The President said that if he is satisfied with my work, he would send me to Rome and give me a letter of introduction to the Santo Papa."
"To the Vatican! But that's at the other side of the world."
"Come with me, Chichi. The boat leaves in an hour."
"I can't," she replied.
The last time she had traveled to Manila was to witness the miraculous statue of the black Virgin in Quiapo, which cried tears of blood. At that time, she was ten years old and holding on to her mother's skirt so she would not get lost. Never again had she dreamed of leaving her island, and she was intent on living the rest of her remaining life there.
"I can't, Mamerto," she repeated. Recalling Madam Beatrice's prediction, she added, "I'm getting ready to be buried. I can't start thinking about living now."
He did not say anything. He replaced the ring in its box, smiled resignedly to her and muttered a faint good-bye.
She looked at the clock on the wall and knew that in fifteen minutes the boat would depart for Manila. Mamerto would be in that boat and she might never see him again. She had never owned a suitcase; hastily she found a pillowcase and stuffed her burial dress and black shoes inside.
Just as she was rushing out towards the street, she saw Pacholo arrive in his calesa. Dios! They were supposed to get married at city hall that afternoon. Instead she ordered him to take her to the port.
"Why, Chichi?" he asked.
"I'm going to Manila. I'll write to you as soon as I get there," answered Chichi catching her breath.
"What are you talking about? What about our wedding?"
"I'm sorry, Pacholo, but I'm not going to die after all," she explained. She knew that she did not have much time. "I beg of you, if I don't catch the boat with Mamerto, I know I'll regret it for the rest of my life!"
Pacholo detected a strange passion in her voice. Chichi was trembling, she was breathing fast and heavy. Her eyes looked far away into the direction of the sea. "Santa Maria Madre de Dios!" he shouted, realizing that he was witnessing in Chichi what he had been searching for all his life.
"No need to explain further," he said. He wrapped his legs around the base of the stool he was sitting on in the carriage and exclaimed, "Hold on tight, Chichi. For true love, I will make my calesa fly!"