Señora van Bumberchen’s School for Girls
Angge lost her parents to Spanish fire. She remembered the little volcanoes erupting on her mother’s body, the smoke wafting from the craters, the spirit fleeing. Her father had moved quickly. She remembered the thrust of the kalis against her left flank. She was told that her father had intended to deliver the fatal plunge, and that if her twelfth rib had not gotten in the way she would have bled to death. And then the Spanish lieutenant had rushed in, took aim, and with one shot blew her father’s head to bits.
“Here, God’s truth,” she said, anxious to provide evidence of her tragedy. From the folds of her skirt she fished out a piece of her father’s skull. The shard of bone had yellowed over the years. It gave her greater comfort than the scapular that the nuns placed around her neck.
“I believe you,” said Señora Van Bumberchen. “But I cannot take you in.”
The señora sought out destitute orphan girls and put them up in a large house on Calle del Beaterio. As she passed by Señora Van Bumberchen’s house Angge would press her ear to the wall and murmur softly along with the chorus rehearsing the sounds of the Castilian alphabet. At the Chinese market where Angge sold needlework, the señora often came to collect itinerant market girls. Not once did the señora approach Angge. Unable to contain her impatience any longer, she had gone to the big house on Calle del Beaterio and asked to see Señora Van Bumberchen.
“The needlework, Angge. Only the nuns of Santa Clara could produce such elegant needlework. My school is open to all but I cannot admit you as a ward. You belong to Santa Clara.”
Señora Van Bumberchen’s meaning was clear. She had petitioned Madrid for royal recognition for her fledgling school and the route from Manila to Her Majesty’s ears was long and tortuous. She was not about to make enemies especially one as influential as the Abbess of Santa Clara.
“I simply wish to learn my letters,” said Angge. “For fourteen years I’ve served faithfully at the convent and I don’t see why the Abbess would deny my humble request. Doña Sonsoles left a provision in her will for my education. She also promised that I would be free to leave the convent after her death.”
Señora Van Bumberchen studied the fragment of bone that rested on Angge’s palm. “Bring me the will and I shall see what I can do.”
Santa Clara was flanked by unlikely neighbors: the military hospital to the left and to the right the foundry where the Spaniards forge their cannons. Perched along the banks of the Pasig River, the convent was surrounded by a high wall to block out the impudent gaze of the outside world. If it weren’t for the lugubrious notes of the Sunday choir wafting from the walls or the servants trudging in and out of the gates, one would think that the stone edifice was but a massive tomb.
“What took you so long?” grumbled Trinidad as she eyed the unsold needlework in Angge’s basket.
“And a good evening to you, Sister,” Angge replied. Trinidad’s frown deepened. As the daughter of old Indio nobility, it irked Trinidad that her blood was not considered pure enough for holy calling. She had sought admission to Santa Clara but instead of becoming a bride of Christ she was appointed governess to several young girls, mestizas born to Spanish friars and Indio women, who were left in the convent’s care. At that moment there were a dozen such girls at Santa Clara: the youngest was abandoned at the convent shortly after being weaned from the breast, and the oldest was approaching her sixteenth year.
“They are not to be seen by anyone from the outside. And if they try to leave,” the Abbess had instructed, handing Angge and Trinidad a whip, “you are to bring them back.”
Angge kept her whip in her cell, untouched.
“The sun is almost gone. Come on now.” Trinidad thrust her lips in the direction of the squat wooden house that served as the kitchen. For supper there will be broiled sardines and tomatoes and fern in vinegar. Service must be prompt. After vespers the nuns must be served and everyone else ate in the kitchen after the refectory was cleared. The older mestizas rallied around Angge, eager to be useful and hoping for bits of gossip from the outside. Angge tasked the girls with gutting the fish while she swept the ashes from the stove and got the fire going. The girls worked quickly, feeling their way through the entrails as they watched Angge with rapt attention. Despite their exuberance Angge could not help but imagine Trinidad’s husk of a face on them. It hurt to think of it. They will inhale the smoke of the kitchen fire all their lives, their hands rank with fish blood, and they will grow old and die within the convent walls.
One said, “Is it true, Angge, that the fashionable señoritas have given up wearing the tapis over their skirts?”
And another: “I heard that no one wears stockings anymore. Is that the fashion now? Why must we take pains to cover up when no one can see us here?”
“Ay, stockings in this infernal heat,” muttered another, a frail girl called Dolor. Angge noted a faint flush on the girl’s cheeks and the beginnings of a clawing in her voice. She reminded herself to take a glass of vinegar water to Dolor before supper.
From her corner perch Trinidad let out a sharp hiss that cut through the chatter quick and clean. “You fools care for nothing but frippery,” she cried. “I should sprinkle salt upon your knees as you say your prayers tonight.”
After compline the chapel was dark and empty, illumined only by a half coin of moon peeking through the high glass windows. Angge set her candle down and lowered herself on the marble floor. She stretched out her sore legs and pulled her skirts up to her thighs, grateful for the cold tile on bare flesh. By the time she had washed and dried the china, tidied the kitchen, and extinguished the lamps in the hallways, her clothes had stuck to her like a second skin. Without the murmuring nuns – who seemed perpetually feverish underneath their habits – the chapel was cool and tranquil. If she breathed deeply enough she could detect the vegetal musk of the Pasig.
She leaned against the wall and felt the names of the dead press against her back. The eastern wall of the chapel housed the remains of Santa Clara’s women and there they remained secluded in death as they were in life. Angge turned to the gravestone on her right and gently traced the carved letters with her finger. S glides with ease; O merely goes around; N is three rapid slashes. She had committed the patterns to memory. After her mistress died Angge kept her company every night.
“The time has come, don’t you think?” whispered Angge as she rubbed away a streak of dust on the gravestone. “I’ve waited long enough.”
Something in the pews moved. Mice, perhaps, or a footfall? Angge did not expect any of the nuns to be about. It was a little past nine and there were five more hours to go until matins. She pushed down her skirts and lifted the candle above her head. It formed an islet of oily light around her. First there were pale feet in felt slippers, then a small, wary face with eyes that shone dark amber in the glow. It was a young girl of about ten.
“I’m lost,” she said.
“You must be one of the newcomers,” said Angge, trying to remember if Trinidad alerted her about any new arrivals. They were used to receiving entrants at odd hours. Some were dispatched to the convent within hours of their birth. Others were stolen from their mothers by trackers who were handsomely paid by the friars. The Abbess herself preferred to admit her new charges after sundown when there were fewer prying eyes.
The girl went on, “Sometimes I walk in my sleep and I wake up in strange places. I get confused.”
“The little ones do that a lot,” Angge assured her. “It takes time to get used to this place. Let me take you back to your cell. You must rest.”
The girl stepped closer and lowered herself on the ground next to Angge. “I cannot sleep. Can I stay here with you?”
“Yes, but not for long. We should not be up and about at this time of the night.”
“Then why are you here?”
Angge patted Sonsoles’s gravestone. “She hates to be alone. And it would be rude not to bid her good evening before I retire to bed.”
The child turned to look expectantly at her, eager to hear more, but Angge grew quiet, lost in the fog of memory.
Upon his return from the Moro war the Spanish lieutenant had presented his aunt Sonsoles with a half-broken child. He had dug out the howling girl from the mess of bodies and sailed with her to Manila. The ship surgeon sewed pieces back into place and predicted that the stab wound on the child’s left torso would never completely heal. “The wound of Christ,” declared Sonsoles, who was apt to see miracles where they did not exist. Yet the wound closed in on itself. Angge’s father, a Moro chieftain, had maneuvered the kalis in order to mimic the appearance of a lethal injury. He knew that the Spanish troops took young survivors to be raised in Christian households. But underneath the pile of smoldering flesh his daughter refused to play dead. In Manila, the old faith was rinsed off in baptismal water and the child was named Angustias. A suitable name, thought Sonsoles, for one destined to suffer from lifelong agonies.
The widowed Sonsoles had been in the grip of a withering when Angge was brought to her. She suffered from unexplained hemorrhages, a mortifying affliction for one so devout, and when she withdrew to the convent of Santa Clara she took her young servant with her. Angge remembered Sonsoles enveloped in a swirl of white, stretched out on the ground in the shape of a cross, her cheek against the dirt. Angge, a small, slight child, had helped her corpulent mistress back to her feet while the nuns looked on.
Sighing, Angge shook herself out of her reverie, rose to her feet and stretched out a hand to the girl. The child’s warm, soft hand felt like velvet against Angge’s calloused palm. It won’t be long, she thought, until Santa Clara will make quick work of its prey.
In her office, the Abbess thrust a sheaf of papers at Angge. “I cannot find it. Show me the clause providing for your education and your liberty.”
As she received the papers from the Abbess Angge met her gaze. They glared at each other, and the murmurs that Angge often heard in the cloisters began to amplify inside her head with a menacing persistence.
The eyes lie still, and yet —
“Show me the clause, Angustias,” repeated the Abbess, abandoning the Tagalog that she used with the servants and speaking now in her Castilian tongue. “Or do you not understand what clause means?”
Angge caught sight of the familiar S and O and N but the rest of the letters meant nothing to her. She stared hard at the pages as though the force of her will would, through some magic, unravel the meaning hidden beneath the ink. Rage set her insides alight.
“I swear on the doña’s soul. She made a pledge.”
“Bless her, but the will says otherwise. She drew up the will in 1849 right after she entered Santa Clara. It says here that you are to be bequeathed to the convent upon her death. That is all.”
Fury now gave way to a cold, sodden weight. “It cannot be. There has to be another will. She must have drawn up a new one before she passed away last year.”
“I have no power to change what is written here, Angustias. If you wish, you can pursue the matter with the courts. But for now, you belong here.” The Abbess held out her hand, and as Angge knelt to kiss her ring she imagined the Abbess’s severed finger between her teeth. The Abbess’s blood would be as bilious as her person. She would not spit out the bone — she would grind until her jaws break.
On her way home from the Chinese market Angge rushed to Señora Van Bumberchen’s house. “If you cannot accept me as a ward, I beg you, admit me as a paying student,” she said as soon as the señora appeared at the door. She felt a brief flash of terror when her words tumbled out, for she had never owned a single coin in her life and the city’s jails overflowed with debtors. Payment was not going to be a small matter. In exchange for her services the convent provided lodging, nothing more. She would have to find a way. The Pasig teemed with merchandise: fish free for the taking, and, she thought with a shudder, boatmen willing to part with a coin for a brief interlude. If it had to come to that, best be a learned whore than an unlettered muchacha.
“And the will?”
“Please,” cried Angge. “Let us speak no more about the will. You have my word that I will not cause you any trouble with the Abbess and I will not leave Santa Clara, not until after I prove my truth. If I have to, I will take the Abbess to court.”
Señora Van Bumberchen could not help but feel a begrudging respect for Angge. If Angge fled from the convent, the dreaded guardia would hunt her down and there would be no mercy for an Indio, especially one who incurred the wrath of the Abbess of Santa Clara. The girl was clearly not intending to escape; instead, she was preparing herself for what would likely be an interminable fight. The señora considered the uproar that would ensue if her efforts to aid a lowly Indio servant, at the expense of her compatriot the Abbess, would ever come to light. But the death of hope would weigh heavily on her conscience, and it was a far greater burden she would have to carry for her remaining years.
Like people, letters had names, and each letter had its own recognizable sound, and that was the key to understanding them. For Angge they were like people she had long wished to befriend. The letters came together to form words, and words became phrases, and phrases grew into sentences.
In lieu of quills Angge collected stumps of charcoal from the stove and practiced her letters on the chapel’s marble floor, wiping them away with a damp rag when she was done. Paper was scarce and costly — she saved the precious sheets that Señora Van Bumberchen handed out and she hid them underneath her cot. On marble, the clean lines showed an increasingly confident hand.
“With the jota you breathe slowly and gently,” instructed Angge, “as though you are blowing at a wound to ease its sting.” Crouched next to her on the ground, the girl watched the squiggles of charcoal take shape on the gray marble surface.
“J-U-A-N-I-T-A,” Angge read softly.
The girl squealed with delight. “May I give it a try?”
“Dios mío, lower your voice. Now. Your grasp must be firm. Let it flow from the wrist.”
The girl eagerly grabbed a piece of charcoal from Angge and copied each letter with a careful hand.
Angge nodded her approval and poised her charcoal over the marble. “Excellent. Now, what follows after Juanita?”
“What is that thing that must follow my name?”
“Your father’s name must go after yours.”
“I don’t know who my father is. And if I don’t have one, why must I carry his name?”
Before she became Angustias she was known by another name and the names of her father and her father’s father followed hers. She belonged to them, but she could no longer remember. One day, if the memory returns, she will write down the names.
“You can choose how to be called. After admission the nuns give up the names by which they were known to the outside world.” Angge shone her candle at one of the gravestones and slowly read aloud. “Sor Benedicta del Santísimo Sacramento. I remember her. Poor thing did not last long in this place. Here’s another. Sor Pilar del Espíritu Santo. Ah, the sister was from a different time. She died in 1738.”
The girl cast nervous glances around her. “We mustn’t call out their names. If they hear you they might come back.”
Angge snorted. “Come back here for what? It’s nicer where they are.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Don’t be silly. I talk to Doña Sonsoles all the time but she doesn’t show up.”
The girl shook her head and inched closer to Angge.
“Very well. Come now, we must get going. Can you hear the roosters? Soon the sisters will be up.” Angge gathered her stubs of charcoal and rose to her feet. The ache in her limbs came creeping back but it no longer mattered to her. In her letters she forgot about the day’s labors. For the last few months she had been spending her afternoons at Señora Van Bumberchen’s school. In the evenings she sat with the girl in the chapel, swearing her to secrecy, as she went over her lessons.
Each letter and each word brought Angge closer to her purpose. She must see Doña Sonsoles’s will with her own eyes. Angge believed with all her heart that her mistress did not intend for her to rot away at the convent. Sonsoles had bequeathed her substantial fortune to Santa Clara and the loss of one servant would be of little consequence to the convent’s coffers. Angge was determined not to let the Abbess push her deeper into the dank recesses of Santa Clara.
Angge woke up to the sound of the nuns’ fading footsteps as they processioned back to their cells after matins. She lay in her cot unable to sink back to sleep. The cool of the early dawn began to creep into her bones and she wrapped her thin blanket tightly around her. She waited until the last shuffle faded into silence, then she got up, lit her candle, and went to check on Dolor. The sickly girl had been confined to bed with yet another fever. She paused at the door of Dolor’s cell and took in the fetid air in the small, windowless room. In the candle glow Dolor’s hue took on an alarming yellow gleam. Angge laid her hand on the girl’s forehead. The heat nearly seared her skin.
Angge rushed to alert Trinidad, whose cell was a few doors from Dolor’s, and she sped along the narrow, dark corridor that led to the Abbess’s room. Her candle flickered as though the dark was licking the flame with a wet tongue. The thing that came to the door bore a halo of untamed hair, and it was utterly devoid of blood, almost fluorescent in its pallor. Angge caught a flash of what seemed like a feral green eye. She stepped back as though retreating from an animal that she had interrupted in the midst of a feed.
“What is it?”
“It’s Dolor,” stammered Angge, straining her eyes for a better glimpse. Perhaps her sight was failing her. Perhaps the miasma emanating from Dolor’s illness was clouding her faculties. She slowly lifted her candle but stopped herself, uncertain of what the light might reveal. She had never seen the Abbess without her black habit. For the first time in her long years at Santa Clara she felt something like fear grab hold of her, and it was a cold, bony claw that massaged her innards with malicious glee. She thought about the uneasy whispers that lingered in the cloisters and the hush that would descend upon the nuns when the Abbess swept past. When the Abbess finally emerged from the room in full regalia, Angge trailed behind her and held the candle aloft lest the Abbess melt into the shadows.
Inside Dolor’s cell the Abbess pushed aside Trinidad, who was kneeling by the girl’s bedside, and she pressed her thumb against Dolor’s neck. She turned to Angge and Trinidad.
“I must go and seek the Provincial’s counsel. Keep an eye on the girl.”
It was understood that the Abbess cannot call for a surgeon without prior approval from the order. Any outsider brought into the convent must be trusted to keep his silence.
Trinidad flung herself at Dolor. “God have mercy on your soul, poor child.”
“You will kill her soon enough with that talk,” muttered Angge. She arranged Dolor’s blanket around her to trap the fever beneath the bedclothes. With luck, it will find its way out of Dolor through her exhalations; otherwise, the surgeon must slice open a vein and let the fever trickle out of the body. She set about preparing the room for the surgeon.
Trinidad sobbed and hiccupped loudly.
“For the love of God, Sister, don’t go choking on your own tongue now!” Angge yelled. “Make yourself useful. Here, wipe her forehead while I boil some water.”
On her way to the kitchen Angge passed by the Abbess’s office, which was at the end of the hall that housed the dormitories. She stopped in her tracks, the air seething through her ears, as she realized her opportunity. She listened for the sound of stray footsteps and the walls echoed back only silence. Blood pounded against her skull. If she must do it now, she must do so with haste. She approached the Abbess’s office and slowly pushed the door. It opened with just the slightest protest. She lifted her candle and quickly scanned the room. The shelves were stocked with leather-bound folios and on the desk lay an orderly pile of papers. Where did the Abbess keep the will? She reached for the papers on the desk and read as fast as her abecedarian eyes could manage. She felt her heart about to burst not only from the illicit thrill of breaking into the Abbess’s office but also from the intoxicating pleasure of comprehension.
The desk papers were simple lists of needlework made and sold. She turned her attention to the folios on the shelves. She grabbed one and leafed through the pages. It was a list of dates and names, some of which she recognized:
Gertrudes, b. 1847, entered 1847
Asuncion, b. 1848, entered 1849, d. 1857
Gregoria, year of birth unknown, entered 1852
Dolor, b. 1848, entered 1852
Lucia, b. 1856, entered 1862
Intrigued, Angge flipped back to the first pages and ran a finger through the list of names. She knew that the nuns of Santa Clara had been keeping the friars’ children for years, long before she and Sonsoles came to the convent. Her finger stopped at a familiar name.
Juanita, b. 1820, entered 1830, d. 1831
Angge put the book down. She wanted to believe that her eyes were betraying her, just as they had at the Abbess’s room. Perhaps there was a madness creeping within the convent walls, some sort of delirium brought about by the presence of illness. She read the name again, read it a few more times, and whispered it out loud to be certain.
She did not turn around. She recognized the presence behind her before it even spoke. She thought of the nuns that slept the sleep of centuries within the convent walls. Even beasts spit out bones. Santa Clara, a famished witch, carried them within her until they crumbled to dust.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the course of his research on the history of the four-hundred-year-old Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Manila, Filipino historian Luciano P. R. Santiago discovered archival records pertaining to young girls who were reared in the convent. Only their names, dates of birth and dates of entrance at the monastery were recorded, without mention of their origins. Long presumed to be the illegitimate daughters of Franciscan friars and Filipino women, these girls grew up and died in the cloister without ever venturing out of Santa Clara.
Clara Kiat’s fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly. She has recently completed a collection of short stories, The Country Belongs to the Indios, set in Manila during the final century of Spanish colonial rule. She is at work on a novel. Born and raised in the Philippines, Clara currently lives in Madrid, Spain.
Image: Flickr / Nina G