CECILIA MANGUERRA BRAINARD
Introduction: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s untitled novel-in-progress follows the lives of her characters in her third novel, The Newspaper Widow (University of Santo Tomas, 2017). Cecilia’s fourth novel is set in Ubec, 1910, a year or so after Ines and Melisande had solved the mystery of the dead priest found in the creek. By this time, Melisande has been reunited in Ubec with her French lover, Samir Martine and his son Didier. In this chapter, the doctor-surgeon Samir cooks a squab dinner for all of them. At this dinner, the widow Ines Maceda and the widower Judge David Carey are more or less thrown together.
EATING SQUAB AT THE MARTINE HOME
Chapter from a novel-in-progress
September 24, 1910
When Dr. Samir Martine was in Manila for the Asian Orthopedic Conference, he found out where to order squabs in Ubec. Filipinos didn’t eat pigeon and he had been at a loss as to where to find squabs.
Back in Ubec, he ordered a dozen squabs, and early Saturday morning, the cook with Didier and Didier’s best friend, Thomas, went to the Chinese vendor whose shop was tucked away in a dark corner of the market. The cook cradled the birds and ruffled their feathers to make sure each was plump and clean. She also quizzed the vendor to make sure the birds had not eaten the night before. In the meantime, Didier and Thomas started to play with the pigeons, and they even named two of them — Kim and Teshoo, after the characters in the story by Rudyard Kipling.
Back home, the boys — Didier especially — started to get upset at the idea that the birds would be killed. The cook had to send them to the playroom before she proceeded with the unpleasant business: she secured their legs and wing, and made deep incisions into the neck of each one to sever the carotid arteries and veins. When Didier and Thomas later showed up in the kitchen with the pigeons dead, the cook made up a story that the pigeons had died quickly and painlessly. “Don’t cry,” the cook warned Didier, “I need your help.”
Thomas, who didn’t have Didier’s passion for birds announced that he enjoyed plucking feathers from chickens. “It’s fun,” he said, and Didier perked up. The boys watched the cook dunk the pigeons in an enormous cauldron with hot water, and they happily plucked the feathers. Afterwards, the cook gutted the birds and brined them. In the late afternoon, the birds were turned over to Samir who had shed his doctor’s clothing for a white apron and a towering chef’s hat. With Didier and Thomas perched on chairs watching him, Samir started cooking.
“This was how my mother cooked squab,” he said, as he lined up his ingredients. “She only made it on special occasions. I loved it especially because I could have one whole pigeon to myself.” He widened his eyes and rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated way.
“Like me, Papa, I will have my own pigeon, and Thomas will also have his own,” Didier said.
“You can have two if you want,” Samir said as he melted butter in a copper saucepan. He threw in the chopped-up giblets to brown them.
Thomas wiggled his nose at the wonderful cooking smells, but Didier looked pensive. “When Grandmere cooked squabs, I couldn’t finish mine.” Didier paused before continuing, “I can’t help it, but I feel very sad for the pigeons. When you were a boy, Papa, did you feel sad that the pigeons died?”
Samir used the back of his wrist to rub Didier’s head. “Didier, that is life. Some animals give up their lives so we can live. The best thing we can do to honor their sacrifice is to make the meal magnifique.”
“Sacrifice,” Didier said softly, hanging on to the word, and staring at the birds lined up on a platter.
Like a magician Samir flew here and there, adding green onions, salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon to the giblets. He rubbed the cavities of the birds and stuffed them with herbs and rice. With surgical precision — he was a surgeon after all — Samir pulled the loose skin of each bird to cover the stuffed cavity and secured this with metal picks. He then placed the birds in stovetop casseroles. “For now, we are finished,” Samir declared, and the boys ran off to the garden to play.
Samir continued working. He fixed eggplant stuffed with cheese, beef and lamb sausage, spicy carrot salad, herb and rice, and a semolina and honey cake. He didn’t forget to baste the squabs periodically, admiring their rich brown crispy skin and remembering pleasant meals with his parents back in Paris as he did so.
When he finished making dessert, he carefully selected the wines to go with dinner: a dry white wine with the appetizers, a nice red burgundy with the squab, and a sparkling red wine with dessert. And he made sure the cook had set the dining table correctly, for six, including the two boys.
Ines arrived at the Martine residence at exactly 7 p.m. The rain had stopped, at least for a time, and a weak moon and some stars shone in the sky. The maid ushered her in, and Ines immediately smelled the buttery scent of roasting fowl. So that is squab, Ines thought. When Melisande had invited her to eat Samir’s famous squab, Ines’ curiosity had been piqued. Ines had read about people eating pigeon, but she had never eaten one. She imagined it would taste like chicken.
The maid led her to the living room, and to her surprise, there Melisande and Judge David Carey sat. Melisande had not mentioned that David Carey would be there, and Ines shot Melisande a quick glance as she handed Melisande a basket of mangoes, her house gift. Ines was annoyed that Melisande had sprung this surprise on her.
“Ines!” Melisande said, her voice bubbling with joy. She got up to kiss Ines on the cheeks. “You know, do you not, David Carey?” Melisande looked elegant in a green dress, setting off her red-brown hair.
Ines did. Judge David Carey had been one of Pablo’s American friends and Carey had spent many nights in the smoking room of her house where the men smoked La Corona cigars, sipped Boutrand cognac, and talked until way past midnight. He rose to greet her. Ines remembered him as stockier. He seemed more slender, more gray around the temples.
“Judge Carey,” Ines said.
“David, Ines. Call him David,” Melisande prodded.
Ines had never called Judge Carey by his first name. He was a judge and an American. She had always been formal with Pablo’s friends. Likewise, Pablo’s friends generally called her Mrs. Maceda. It was Pablo with whom they had a back-slapping relationship.
“Mrs. Maceda,” David Carey said, and they shook hands.
“David’s son and Didier are good friends. They’ve been helping Samir with his cooking,” Melisande said, as she excused herself to go to the kitchen.
Ines and David sat down and there was a moment’s pause until David leaned over and whispered, “Squab? Have you tried them?”
Ines shook her head.
“Neither have I, although I’ve had haggis and locusts.”
“Haggis is from sheep, is it not?” Ines said.
“Sheep’s pluck — the heart, liver and lungs. What I ate was like a meatloaf with an undefinable taste,” David said.
“And the locusts?” Ines asked.
“Deep fried and crispy. They weren’t too bad, except for the little legs sticking out.”
Melisande had reappeared with a maid carrying a tray of cheese appetizers and a glass of white wine. “’Little legs’ … horrible, David, but who am I to speak? I come from Lyon, where we eat just about anything,” she said.
Ines took the glass but quickly regretted doing so because she didn’t really drink, and the glass of wine suddenly looked gigantic and useless in her hand. With her other hand, Ines tugged at her brown dress, realizing how simple it was; she was out of mourning clothes, but she still favored dark colors.
After the maid left, they continued the small talk until Samir called them to the dining table. The food was laid out on a side table, including the squabs, nicely brown and glistening with basting juice, and decorated with fried quail’s eggs on the edges of the warmed platter. Samir generously called the cook to present and thank her for her help, and the grownups clapped while the boys whistled, making the cook blush.
It rained during dinner and the sound of raindrops on the roof and the wind blowing reminded them of the recent typhoon. “We missed it all,” Melisande said, “I’m planning a fashion show, though, with a small group to raise money to help the typhoon victims.”
“The hospital could have used my help,” Samir said. “The injuries were bad — fractures, amputations — we continue to deal with them. Now we’re dealing with infections.”
“Thomas and I stayed indoors and were fine,” David said.
“I didn’t have to go to school for days,” Thomas said, grinning happily at Didier.
“I wasn’t in school because I was in Manila where we saw a big aviary,” Didier said, stretching his arms outward to indicate the size of what he had seen.
Didier’s yaya who hovered over the boys, hushed them, telling them it was rude to interrupt grownups. The children had been engaged in their own activities, which consisted of making faces and playfully kicking each other under the table.
“And how were you and your son, Mrs. Maceda?” David asked. “He must be twenty years old now.”
Ines looked up, realizing the last time she had seen David Carey was at Pablo’s funeral, and a year before that, at his wife’s funeral — Ellen Carey had died from cholera. “Andres is in Manila, Judge Carey,” Ines said. “He’s a law student at the Ateneo. I was alone with the help when the typhoon struck. There were some leaks and broken branches, but nothing serious.”
“A law student. Pablo would have liked that. We had many discussions about the need for good lawyers in the Philippines, especially with the new government. America has tried to preserve the Spanish Law as it has in California, but changes can’t be helped,” David said.
Those were almost exactly her husband’s words, and Ines gave him a shy smile. She wondered what other conversations David had had with Pablo. In many ways, her husband had compartmentalized his life: he was devoted to Ines and Andres, certainly; but he had a life apart from them with his students at the university, and his intellectual friends, including writers and politicians — and David Carey. “And what else did you and my husband talk about, Judge Carey?” Ines asked.
“Politics, literature, poetry.” He paused before continuing, “Since I am among friends, I will confess that now and then I write poetry. Or perhaps I should say, ‘I attempt to write poetry.’ I admired your husband’s newspaper with its erudite articles and some poetry as well.”
“I’m afraid I’ve had to temper its seriousness to include popular articles, but my managing editor and I do our best to maintain Pablo’s high standards. We still publish some poetry when there is space. Please consider submitting to us.”
“I am not sure they’re any good at all. After my wife died, I started writing what seems to be poetry.”
“Ellen, of course,” Ines said. And she felt a tug of sadness that David Carey had lost his spouse just as she had. Ines did know the feeling of loss in a profound way. Loss was a feeling of incompleteness, as if a limb or part of the soul had been removed. Tonight, looking at how happy Melisande and Samir were, Ines could not help but feel incomplete.
Melisande interrupted Ines’ thoughts to say, “I was worried about you, Ines. And I am grateful you found tenants my apartment.” Turning to David Carey, Melisande explained, “While I was away, Ines rented the apartment above my dress shop.”
“They showed up the day after the typhoon. They seemed like nice people, the women especially,” Ines said. “They survived the Datu Puti that sank, and one of their companions drowned. They needed a place immediately.”
“They lost clothes, sandals, just about everything, but they did manage to save their pearls. They’re pearl traders. I display some of their pearls in my shop to help them,” Melisande said. “Fuad is all right. He just looks scary. He seems to be a bodyguard for the women. You know, Ines, they are very quiet, and somewhat secretive. They asked to change the locks to the apartment. They asked if I had a safe — for their valuables I assume — but I don’t have one.”
“My office has a safe, Melisande. They can use it and hold the key. Perhaps the war in the South makes them insecure,” Ines said.
“The Moro War,” David Carey said, referring to the ongoing war between the Americans and the Muslims of Southern Philippines. “The government negotiated peace with many Datu leaders, but there are those who resist. The different tribes just can’t agree to peace. They have been in jihad for centuries -- against the Spanish, now Americans, and also against one another.”
“Is it true that the .45 revolver was created to stop the Moros?” Melisande asked David.
“General Pershing himself told me that the Colt .38 was too anemic to stop them. They drug themselves, it seems, and the bullets of the .38 aren’t enough stop them. The heavier Colt .45 does.”
David Carey was referring to John J. Pershing, nicknamed Black Jack Pershing, whose first assignment in the Philippines had been in 1899 in Mindanao and Jolo. Pershing was reassigned there a second time in early 1910 as Governor of the Moro Province.
While the Philippine American War that erupted in 1899 officially ended in 1902, the conflict between America and the Moros continued. Though geographically close to the rest of the Philippines, Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were markedly different. The majority of people were Muslim, with close ties to the Muslims of Indonesia and Borneo. The Sultanate of Sulu in the southern tip of the Philippines included islands of the Sulu Sea and parts of Mindanao, Borneo and Indonesia. The people of the Sultanate felt closer to other Muslims than they did to the Christian Filipinos. For centuries, there had been conflict between the Muslims in the South and the rest of the Philippines. In fact, for centuries — and as part of their jihad — the Muslims would raid the coastal towns of the Philippine islands to capture people whom they enslaved. American rule of the Philippines officially ended slavery in that part of the Philippine Islands.
Thoughts of the Moro War made the grownups quiet. The war between the Filipinos and Americans was fresh in their minds; they still remembered when Admiral George Dewey attacked the Spanish at Manila Bay on April, 1898. The three-year Philippine American War had resulted in over 200,000 Filipino and 4,200 American combatants dead. They knew that wars were not as glorious as they were made out to be, and they grew somber.
The children, by this time, had been brought to the kitchen by the yaya for their dessert and hot milk — ½ cup Carnation evaporated milk, and ½ cup boiled water, with sugar, like baby formula.
Samir bounced up to pour more wine into the glasses, trying to inject life back into the party. “All these rich events are part of the human drama, of history. When I was a student in Paris, I used to agonize over these matters. My mother was Algerian, my father French, and there was a time when I wondered about my identity. I also questioned French politics — why French colonial expansion? Then I questioned world politics, which was an even bigger matter. Finally I gave up and decided all I could do was my little share to make the world better. So, I became a surgeon: it is cut-and-dry: I try to save lives and limbs.” He paused, looked at people’s plates. “So what do you think of my squab?”
“I had two,” David said, pointing at the bird bones on his plate. “Clearly that proves I enjoyed it.”
“Samir, it’s wonderful — moist and tasty, like dark chicken,” Ines said.
Melisande reached up to stroke the arm of her husband. “The meal was wonderful, Samir. And you are such an optimist — I love you very much,” she said.
Samir bent over to kiss her, then said, “An optimist is a human being with hope. I had a patient who had a broken leg — multiple fractures. He could lose the leg; he could be a cripple. But this fellow was happy — Why? — Because his family survived. Hope is important. I always hope, and that hoping has paid off for me.” He was referring to his roller-coaster love affair with Melisande: how at the turn of the century they had fallen in love in Paris; how because of his own misjudgment, he had lost her; and how, Fate or God had led him to Ubec to be with Melisande once again.
Samir decided they should wait before having dessert. “Let me show you the house. Melisande and I have done a lot to modernize it,” he said. Earlier, the guests had sat in the living room and eaten in the dining room with hardwood beams, hanging lamps and Venetian mirrors. Now Samir talked about how the three-story house had belonged to a tile dealer, which was why there was tile-work inside and out: on the floors, walls, ceiling, tiles in every shape and form, coming from Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and some from Vigan in the Philippines. The kitchen, the heart of the house, was dominated by indigo tiles with russet and black accents. A handsome Monarch stove was ensconced in a tiled nook, and built-in cupboards were filled with Samir’s French cooking ware and tools. Hand-hewn wood table and chairs stood near the window with a view of a fountain and an herb garden lush with oregano, basil, parsley, green onions, ginger, and other plants. Samir boasted that his garden provided him with almost all the herbs and spices he needed.
Samir pointed to a huge covered patio which he declared would be where they would have dessert. The maid was, at that moment, lighting candles and setting the wrought iron table. From there, he led them up circular stairs to the second floor, which had four rooms that opened into a common family room. One end of the room served as a library and study. A couch, chairs, and a table with an unfinished jigsaw puzzle stood in the center of the room. Toys, books, magazines, sketch pads, painting easels, were scattered about in friendly disorder. The walls had numerous framed paintings and drawings by Samir and Didier.
Even though Melisande protested that the rooms were in disarray, Samir opened each one: there was Didier’s room with a huge kang opium bed, totally inappropriate for an eight-year old (it had belonged to Melisande before she got married), but there the two boys appeared, happily pillow-fighting on the bed. The bedroom of Samir and Melisande had a huge four-poster bed, armoires, dressing tables, and windows covered with rich lace curtains. The third bedroom was Melisande’s sewing room, and it had a mannequin in an unfinished wedding gown, sewing machine, and a long table with folded pieces of dress material and sewing notions; the fourth room was Samir’s study, with bookcases lining the walls, a writing desk, green leather chairs, a globe of the world, and a forlorn skeleton (Samir assured them this was not real) that stood in a corner.
The third floor had a guest bedroom with bathroom, a spacious sitting room, and a verandah that ran the length of the house. It was here where Didier (— the boys had abandoned their horseplay and had followed the grownups upstairs —) announced to all that he wanted an aviary.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of this aviary,” Samir said.
“Do you mean a bird cage, Didier?” Melisande asked.
“Not a cage,” the boy said emphatically. “Papa, do you remember when we visited the mansion in Manila with an aviary? I told you I’d like one.”
“Out there?” Samir said, sizing up the verandah, which at the moment was wet and cluttered with leaves and broken branches.
“I have a drawing. I’ll show it to you. But I only want special birds,” Didier said.
“Special birds?” Samir asked.
“Yes, just the birds that need help. I don’t want the ones that should be free. I don’t want a prison. I want a hospital, for birds. I want them to get well here and then they can go free.”
“That is an interesting concept, Didier. We can talk some more about it,” his father said, rubbing his head.
“And Papa, one more thing: can Thomas sleep here tonight?”
“You should ask his father. Or better yet, maybe Thomas should ask his father.”
Thomas turned to David. “Father?”
“You have no pajamas. You’re not prepared, Thomas,” David said.
Melisande spoke up. “We have everything he needs. We like Thomas here. The boys get along.”
David looked at his son who was holding his breath, waiting for his father’s verdict. “Well, in that case ….” he said, and the two boys cheered and raced back to Didier’s room.
The grownups had dessert in the patio lit by flickering candles and filled with the sugary scent of Samir’s semolina and honey cake. There were potted plants (orchids, ferns, palms) in lovely hand-painted ceramic pots. It was dark and cool, and just an arm’s length away was the rain falling steadily, the sound conjuring up memories in each of them:
David remembering the crying of robins and crows before freezing Illinois rain fell.
Melisande trudging through pelting rain to school in Lyon.
Samir snuggling in bed with his parents when the first storm fell in Paris one May.
Ines remembering lying with Pablo in their own four-poster bed while a typhoon raged and the fragrance of jasmine seeped into their bedroom.
After they ate, the rain fell harder and the rich smell of earth and grass wafted in. Melisande interrupted their dreams by declaring she wanted to smoke. She stood up, tendrils of her reddish-brown hair trembling as she did so. She fetched the humidor, which she offered to all, including Ines, who was dumbfounded at the notion of smoking a cigar.
Samir selected a Flor de Fonseca, while David picked a La Corona — Pablo’s brand. (Ines loved the scent of La Coronas.) Melisande pulled out a four-inch Petit Corona, and Ines, who had never smoked in her entire life, found herself picking a Petit Corona as well.
Ines did not choke nor cough (thank God for that), and they smoked in companionable silence in the patio that felt a bit like a womb. The rich cigar smell, the sensuous feel of the Petit Corona between her fingers, the sweet chocolate-like taste on her tongue, the heady swirling feeling as she inhaled the smoke made Ines feel warm and safe.
It was way past midnight when the rain slowed to a drizzle, and Ines said she should go home. The old part of Ubec was small and compact with winding roads. Their houses were just a few blocks from one another. David Carey offered to take Ines home, and so the two of them said their thanks to Melisande and Samir and set off into the cool and wet streets of Ubec. David held a huge umbrella over the two of them, and side-by-side, feeling slightly self-conscious, they walked to Ines’ house.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Maceda,” David Carey said, when Valentina opened the front door for Ines.
“Call me Ines. Goodnight, David,” she said, feeling very happy.
~end of chapter~
Copyright 2020 by Cecilia M. Brainard
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the award-winning author and editor of twenty-one books, including the novels: When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, The Newspaper Widow, Magdalena; and short stories collections: Vigan and Other Stories, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, and Woman With Horns and Other Stories. Her work has been translated into Finnish and Turkish, and many of her writings are used in classrooms.
Cecilia has received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, a Special Recognition Award for her work dealing with Asian American youths, as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District. She received the prestigious Filipinas Magazine Arts Award, and the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu, Philippines. She has received several travel grants from the USIS (United States Information Service). She has lectured and performed in worldwide literary arts organizations and universities, including UCLA, USC, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, PEN, Beyond Baroque, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and many others. Her website is https://ceciliabrainard.com