IGNACIO SAENZ stood on the deck of the SS Princess Alice, shading his eyes from the sun with one hand while hanging onto the wooden railing with the other. It would be ironic if he fell overboard now after surviving weeks of being tossed about on the open sea. He’d finally come to the end of his long voyage from Bilbao, Spain, and although disembarkation was still several hours away, he could, at the very least, set his sights on something solid instead of endless vistas of stomach-lurching water. He might have come from a long line of sailors, but Nacho, as he was known to family and friends, was immune to Neptune’s call. Everything about the ocean was abhorrent to him, starting with the smell. The pungent odors associated with fishing were so much a part of his upbringing that he doubted he’d ever be able to sit down and enjoy a fillet of cod without being hurled back in time to his family home in the small fishing village in northern Spain where he was born and spent his first twenty-one years.
He raised his face to the sun and closed his eyes, soaking up the warm rays after what seemed like weeks of damp and cold. Soon the woolen suit he’d worn for the journey would have to be replaced with something more suitable for the tropical climate, but that would have to wait until he had a steady source of income. His parents had come up with the money for his transoceanic passage, but the rest would be up to him. Reflexively, he reached for his billfold, which was folded away in the inside pocket of his jacket. Tucked alongside his traveling papers, he had enough to survive a month if he was frugal.
The Saenz family wasn’t rich, not by any means, but they owned their own home, and his father and brothers had worked hard to acquire three fishing boats that plied the Bay of Biscay in their daily pursuit of the ocean’s bounty. Nacho detested the writhing, jumping piles of fish disgorged from the nets each evening, but the slimy mess eventually put food on the table and clothes on his back. Yet despite their continued good fortune, Nacho’s family lived a simple life. His mother was a saver, always putting aside money for a catastrophic weather-related event, a common occurrence in the fishing industry. Coins were hoarded and handed out sparingly. Nacho would have no problem living within his means; thrift was a skill set that had been drummed into his head.
His request to leave everything familiar behind had come as a shock to everyone but his teachers. Nacho’s parents were aware of his distaste for the family business, but they had hoped he’d stick around and find something landlocked and suitable in the area to keep him close to hearth and home. Nacho had always dreamed of escaping, though, and had asked endless questions in school. He’d studied all the foreign countries Spain had colonized for centuries, and the Philippines had invariably come up in their discussion.
It was described as an exotic land, where money grew on trees and women were delicately beautiful. One could live like a king with a bit of luck and a modicum of hard work—a worthy goal when compared to the backbreaking undertaking his father and siblings endured from dawn to dusk at the hands of the fickle sea. Nacho wasn’t lazy, but he wasn’t going to kill himself for such meager results. He dreamed of a bigger, better life in a place where the sun shone most days and one could enjoy daily living without the constant fear of being consumed by the very waters that supplied the daily bread.
More importantly, the Philippines had a large Spanish community, so he wouldn’t feel like a stranger in an alien setting. Nacho was assured that most of the natives spoke Castilian, or some semblance of the language, and communication wouldn’t be a problem. That tipped the scales in favor of the island archipelago. And unlike Magellan, Nacho was reasonably certain he wouldn’t be killed the minute he stepped foot on Philippine shores. The hard work had already been done by the explorer and the men who’d followed. For centuries they’d paved the way so that Nacho could reap the benefits. It stood to reason that embarking on a new life where the inhabitants already spoke his language and understood the Spanish way of life was a logical choice.
There was really nothing tying him to the land of his forefathers other than his immediate family, and if he succeeded in making the fortune he dreamed of, he would send money home so they could come and visit. Perhaps they’d consider staying and becoming a part of the dynasty Nacho envisioned. If he could be accused of anything, it was dreaming big.
Back in the present, he was jostled by other passengers who’d awoken to the realization that they were at their journey’s end. His choice spot on the portside was in jeopardy if he didn’t stand his ground, and he pushed back when a more aggressive man tried to shoulder his way onto the railing. Using long dormant muscles, he heaved the intruder out of his way, muttering curses in Euskara, the Basque language rarely understood outside the region.
By the time the ship dropped anchor in Manila Bay, they were close enough to the stone pilings to hear the noise of the crowd that had gathered to welcome the newcomers. Nacho instinctively pulled a snowy white linen handkerchief from his pocket and covered his nose. Already the inevitable flotsam, a part of any port, was visible and accompanied by the usual stink. He couldn’t wait to put as much distance as possible between himself and the odors seeping through the cologne-soaked kerchief, making him gag. This olfactory sensitivity was an integral part of Nacho’s makeup.
Right then, all he wanted was to get off the ship, hire one of the horse-drawn carriages standing by, and find the boarding house he would call home for the next month. After enduring an interminable wait to walk off the gangplank, he found himself surrounded by street vendors peddling God knows what from baskets swinging off long bamboo poles slung across their shoulders. Brown-skinned children in tatters buzzed around him, vying for his attention with hands outstretched for a coin. Nacho ignored them and walked toward an area where fruit and other savories he didn’t recognize were spread out on tables. Hordes of fat green bottle flies hovered over the food but were brushed aside by the rhythmic swinging of palm fronds the vendors held in one hand.
He scanned the display with interest, hoping something would catch his eye as breakfast and lunch had long since passed and none of the ship personnel had bothered to feed the passengers while they waited in long lines to disembark. Upon closer inspection, he saw a few maggots wiggling around on a pale yellow fruit that had obviously been out in the sun for too long, and he stepped back in revulsion, forcing himself to walk away before he threw up. After several deep breaths, he watched one of his fellow passengers pointing at a big round thing that looked like a coconut, but since Nacho had only seen them in pictures, he wasn’t sure. The vendor hacked off the top portion easily and cut off the fibrous undercasing until the dark brown shell nestled inside appeared. He poked a hole in it with the tip of his knife and handed it over. Nacho watched in fascination as the gentleman drank with gusto. Clear liquid overflowed his mouth and streamed down his neck, but the man seemed unconcerned.
It looked so good Nacho couldn’t resist, and he pulled a coin out of his pocket and handed it over. “¿Vale?” he queried in Spanish, hoping the man would understand he was asking if it was enough.
The vendor broke into a wide smile and pocketed the coin. He duplicated his moves with a fresh coconut and watched in satisfaction when Nacho raised it to his mouth and took a tentative sip. The liquid was surprisingly cool, considering temperatures had risen steadily since his feet had touched land, and the taste was a weird combination of sweet and bland he couldn’t describe. It quenched his thirst, though, and knowing it was one of the few things out in the open that hadn’t been infested by bugs of any sort made it more appealing. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, picked up his small suitcase, and headed toward a horse-drawn buggy.
“¿Se alquila?” he asked, again in Spanish. He’d done all right with the street vendor, so he was reasonably certain the hack driver would understand his simple question of whether he was for hire or not.
The man nodded and pointed for Nacho to get in back. He was sorry he hadn’t picked one of the carriages with a soft cloth covering to keep out the rays of the sun, which now burned like a steady flame roasting everything in sight. Nacho was sure he would die of heatstroke if he didn’t get out of his clothes soon. Mopping up the sweat dotting his forehead, he glanced around and noticed the flimsy shirts most of the men were wearing. Even the Europeans had on white suits that flapped in the gentle breeze and large straw Panama hats to keep the sun from scorching their tender white skin. First order of business, Nacho thought miserably, would be a change of wardrobe regardless of the cost. He stood out like a two-headed cobra.
He handed the driver the piece of paper with the name and address of the expatriate referred to him by one of his teachers. She had a cousin recently returned from the Far East who’d supposedly met another Basque from the town of Bermeo. He had converted his home into a small hostel and was more than happy to provide room and shelter to anyone who could pay, as well as give advice to young travelers who’d made the grueling journey from Spain. In retrospect, Nacho wished he’d been more thorough about this stop, rather than relying on word of mouth. For all he knew, the house was located in a bad part of town or had been swept away by the last typhoon. He’d heard they were quite formidable and caused extreme damage. Thankfully, he’d just missed the rainy season, and it would be months before he experienced his first tropical storm.
Fortunately the information he’d been given was correct and the man and his place existed. Jaime Palacio welcomed Nacho effusively, and after he showed Nacho the bedroom he would be calling home for the next several weeks, Jaime invited him to partake of a meal on the lower veranda.
“Do you have anything lighter to wear?” he asked kindly, running his eyes over Nacho’s clothes. “You must be dying of the heat.”
When Nacho admitted he didn’t have much by way of clothing, Palacio left the room for several minutes and returned with a pair of linen pants and one of the gauzy shirts Nacho had seen everyone wearing.
“These should fit,” he said, handing over the garments. “You and I are about the same size, only you’re younger and better-looking. The ladies in town will be buzzing with excitement. You are single, are you not?”
“I’m not married.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.”
“I’m not here to find a wife,” Nacho said immediately. “Eventually, yes, I suppose I’ll marry, but first I have to find something to do so I can support her. No one will entertain a suit from a penniless man, regardless of the circumstances. The women and their parents can’t be that desperate.”
“You’d be surprised,” Jaime said. “There are far more women than eligible men around here and you’re white. That’s already an advantage. They’ll take one look at your green eyes and drag you down the aisle of Manila Cathedral before the wedding banns are even dry.”
“Why is that so important?”
“Bloodlines, hombre. Nobody wants to tarnish the family tree with an interracial marriage.”
“I find it hard to believe that any man would push away a beautiful woman because her skin color is a little darker.”
“Oh, they don’t,” Jaime assured him. “We’ve been commingling with the natives for hundreds of years, but you bed them—you don’t wed them. Marriage is an entirely different matter.”
“I see,” Nacho said slowly. Clearly, this was some unspoken law he neither understood nor cared about. Since he wasn’t in the market for a wife yet, there was no need to speculate on the significance of this boundary. Nacho didn’t have much experience with women. He’d shied away from the ones in his village because he knew they would reject a life in another country. They were happy with their mediocre existence, and he couldn’t risk losing his heart to someone who was too timid to follow him across the globe. Love and romance would have to wait until he was good and ready.
“What did you do back home?” Palacio asked.
“I’ve been studying and helping out with the business end of fishing during my free time.”
“Your parents must be heartbroken,” Jaime observed. “We’ll have to work on finding you a spectacular opportunity so that the next time you write, there will be good news to report.”
“That would be ideal, but I have no connections.”
“Not to worry,” Jaime said with certainty. “I know everyone in this town. Tomorrow we’ll visit my tailor and see if we can’t equip you with some suitable clothes. A well-dressed man will command more respect than one who looks as out of place as you do right now.”
Nacho mopped his damp forehead and voiced his concerns. “I have a little money set aside, but I hadn’t planned to waste it on clothes.”
“This is not a waste, Nacho. It’s an investment.”
“Si pues,” Nacho reluctantly agreed. “It’ll be important to look successful even if I don’t have anything to back it up.”
“Now you’re catching on.” Jaime lifted his glass, grinning. “Let’s drink to that, shall we?”
Later that night, while Nacho lay in bed under a billowy white mosquito net, he closed his eyes and tried not to think of the bugs that would alight on the protective sheeting while he slept. He sighed with satisfaction, proud that he’d made it this far without being lost at sea or falling into the hands of unscrupulous hustlers preying on innocent voyagers before they got to their destination. His new acquaintance, Jaime, appeared genuinely interested in helping him assimilate, and for the first time in months, Nacho stopped worrying, closed his eyes, and dropped off to a dreamless sleep.
Jaime hadn’t exaggerated when he bragged about his social connections. Amidst the blur of activities required to outfit Nacho properly, they were routinely stopped by people on the street greeting Jaime effusively, and extending an open invitation to Nacho. Any new addition to the tight-knit community was a potential husband, friend, or business partner. Being endorsed by an established member of society like Jaime was a big advantage.
They had lunch at the Casino EspaÃ±ol, an exclusive clubhouse established in 1893 by the Spaniards who used it to entertain and play card games, tennis, and pelota. It was the chosen venue for most big occasions like weddings and anniversaries and always a meeting place where Manila’s finest gathered to gossip and show off.
Having come from a poor fishing village, Nacho was unfamiliar with the machinations of high society, but he was a quick study. It was apparent that he’d not only landed in a foreign country rife with opportunity, but he’d also been elevated in social status by dint of genetics. Being a full-blooded Spaniard opened doors that would have been slammed shut if he’d stayed in Spain. Here he could hobnob with the elite, the upper crust of society who, from all appearances, ran the country. It didn’t matter that Spain had given up the Philippines in the Treaty of Paris and the uncouth Americas had taken over. The real people in charge were gathered on the tiled terrace of the club enjoying their afternoon tea.
It was all about connections, Jaime whispered, discreetly pointing at a group of men enjoying a friendly game of faro. “Do you see those men over there?”
Nacho turned to look at the group. They seemed like ordinary men, but Jaime was regarding them like deities. “Who are they?” Nacho asked, just as discreetly.
“Don Fernando Zobel de Ayala and his brother Enrique are the two with the long cigars.”
“What do you mean, so what? Haven’t you ever heard of the Zobels and the Ayalas?”
Nacho shook his head. “Who are they?”
Jaime looked at him in astonishment. “They own half of the country, and the other half is owned by their cousins, the Roxas. They’re Basques like you and me.”
“Only richer,” Nacho pointed out.
“Yes, but what I’m trying to tell you is they came from similar backgrounds, and look how far they’ve come. It’s not impossible to imagine us sitting in this same spot thirty years from now, smoking Havanas and tossing away thousands without blinking.”
Nacho turned away from Jaime and studied the group more intently. They didn’t look any different from him, but he guessed the small pile of coins in the center of the table was a small fortune. Throwing money away on a card game went against his very nature. If he were to ever have the wherewithal to gamble, it would be on a business venture, not a game of chance.
Looking at Jaime sidelong, he asked. “Who runs their business while they sit around playing cards?”
“They own vast acres of land producing rice, sugar, and copra. At the end of the day, it’s the farmers who do all the work and the plantation owners who reap the benefits.”
“How do I go about procuring land when I barely have enough coin to survive another month?”
“It depends on what you’re willing to sacrifice,” Jaime said.
“I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“We’ll find you a good patron who’ll be willing to teach you the ropes. A few years down the road, you’ll have enough saved up to buy your first farm. They’re not that expensive if you go out to the provinces,” Jaime said encouragingly. “Or you can do it the easy way and marry into a fortune.”
Nacho scoffed. “You make marriage sound as simple as plucking fruit off a vine. Any self-respecting family would want a candidate with better prospects than me.”
“You would think so, but desperate fathers have been known to accept less because of the convenience of having an eligible male within reach,” Jaime said. “Not that you’re less of a man because you’re penniless. I didn’t mean that,” Jaime added apologetically.
“Why haven’t you gone that route?”
Jaime smiled. “I’ve been lucky with my small hostel, and furthermore, I don’t have your ambition. I’m quite content with my lot.”
“What about a family?” Nacho asked curiously.
“I have everything I need,” Jaime said. “Maria keeps me warm at night and cares for my creature comforts during the day.”
“Didn’t you say the indios were off-limits?”
“What I said was we bed them, not wed them.”
JOHN JERKED awake, startled by the deafening blast of the horn and the sickening tilt of the jeep when Jones swerved to avoid another rut in the road of the bombed-out wreck that was postwar Manila.
“Keep your eyes on the fucking road,” he snapped, involuntarily assuming command.
“Sorry, Lieutenant,” the private mumbled. He sounded apologetic, but John could tell by the quirk of his mouth that he was taking perverse pleasure in his former CO’s misery.
“Stuff it, Jones.”
“Are you feeling a little puny, sir?”
“Like shit, if you must know.”
Jones continued, unfazed by John’s snide remarks. “I heard the beer was flowing last night and the girls were willing. A guy couldn’t ask for a better send-off.”
John snorted rudely. He had a monumental hangover and privately cursed himself for overindulging, but the keg of beer Barton had donated and the excitement of impending freedom had been the perfect combination. Men kept pouring into the bar to slap him on the back and wish him good luck in his new role as a civilian, a title that hadn’t quite sunk in yet. He’d only been discharged two days ago, and he was still in uniform and riding around in an Army vehicle. They had lent him the jeep to catch his last military flight, and he was about to miss the damn thing because Jabbering Jones couldn’t keep his mind on the job. Not for the first time, John wondered how in the hell his men would manage without him, but he put the thought aside as quickly as it appeared. They were no longer his problem.
“Why are you flying down south instead of stateside?” Jones asked,
“I have a hot date,” John mumbled. He knew Jones was hoping to gather more information so he’d have something to share with the guys, but he was shit outta luck. John’s private life had always been, and would continue to remain, his own business.
“In another province?” Jones exclaimed, looking at him suspiciously. “Come on.”
John’s obsessive need for privacy had kept him away from the bars springing up around the Army bases like mushrooms. Imagining John in courting mode was probably making Jones giddy. Predictably, when Jones took his eyes off the road for a minute, the left front tire fell into a pothole. John’s forehead hit the dash with a loud thunk, adding one more element to his already excruciating headache.
“Keep this up and I’ll rip your tongue out,” John threatened. He was tempted to drive himself even if he was half-blind with pain. The Ray-Bans were doing an admirable job of keeping the incandescent rays of the tropical sun at bay, but the sweltering heat was already turning his starched shirt into a limp rag. Sweat rolled down his back, and he reeked of stale beer, cigarettes, and unwashed armpits. He’d give anything for a cold shower and a soft bed, but he knew it would be hours before that could happen. Miserable, he wished he had another day to recover, but Nielson Field loomed ahead, and the sound of airplanes taking off and landing meant he’d run out of time. This was it, and he’d better pull himself together on the short flight so he could appear somewhat presentable for his potential new employer. The Spaniard didn’t seem like the kind of man who’d put up with excuses, no matter how good they were. He’d certainly grilled him under the pretext of civility when they’d met at the Army and Navy Club several months ago. It was the first time John had actually thought about sticking around instead of hurrying back to Chicago to get on with his life.
Jones stomped on the brakes abruptly, screeching to a halt in front of a C-47 already warming up on the runway. John braced himself against another head-banging and glared at his idiotic driver, who was probably doing this on purpose. Knowing there would be no repercussions made it much easier to make John’s last ride a harrowing experience.
Grabbing his duffel bag, he nodded at Jones and then stepped onto the tarmac. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
“Yes, sir,” Jones said, giving him a sloppy final salute. “Enjoy your new life.”
BY THE time the plane touched down at Legaspi Airport, Lt. John Buchanan, formerly of the US Fourth Marines, had recovered some of his usual aplomb. Despite the small knot on his forehead, he exuded confidence, feeling infinitely better for having taken a refreshing catnap.
Ignacio Saenz inspected him critically and John mentioned last night’s party in passing, hoping to reassure the Spaniard in case he could smell traces of beer and debauchery. Fortunately, Ignacio was in a festive mood and explained that they were celebrating tonight. Recognizing twenty-four years of wedded bliss was reason enough, he’d said, but surviving a war without losing any of their immediate family was far more significant and deserved a night of excess.
After promising a full tour of his properties over the next few days, Ignacio handed over the native shirt he’d purchased for John as a hospitable gesture. “I hope this fits,” he said a little dubiously. “My tailor was sure I was exaggerating when I described your broad shoulders and narrow waist.”
John held the shirt up against his torso and looked at his host. “What do you think?”
“It’s perfect,” Ignacio replied, nodding with satisfaction.
“Amazing,” John said. “I rarely find clothes that fit without alteration. You have a good eye, sir.”
“I’m very observant,” Ignacio replied seriously. The statement felt like a warning as well as an acknowledgment. “I hope you’ll feel better in a few hours. My family is looking forward to meeting you.”
John knew he wasn’t qualified to run the many coconut plantations the rich landowner—Don Ignacio, the locals called him—amassed the way other men collected trophies. Apparently, what had generated the surprising offer was his value as a potential husband. Many of his fellow Marines were being courted by desperate fathers eager to marry off their daughters since the pool of eligible young men had been decimated by the war. Ignacio was no different from the rest. John had heard that he had six daughters, and that evening would be the perfect opportunity to put them on display.
Standing close to an open window with a cigarette in his hand, John fixed his gaze on his primary motivation for remaining in the Philippines—Mount Mayon, the most symmetrically perfect stratovolcano in the world, which dominated the landscape and interested him far more than the thought of a wife and children. The opportunity to actually live in the shadow of an active volcano was the only reason he’d considered Ignacio’s offer. He knew nothing about copra or managing a plantation, but he was an intelligent man, after all, and a quick study. How hard could it be? Certainly easier than trying to predict an approaching volcanic eruption, an obsession he’d harbored since he discovered George P. L. Walker, the British geologist.
John’s studies had been cut short by the war. Like many of his friends, riding on a crest of nationalism, he’d enlisted right after high school. He’d never had the opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a geologist specializing in the study of volcanoes. What little knowledge he had was gained from reading, but no matter what he found in print, one could never discount the merits of actually being a few kilometers away from the subject. The volcano was as tantalizing to him as Betty Grable had been to his entire platoon.
He stubbed out his cigarette on the conch shell he’d been using as an ashtray and stared out at the horizon. The mountain looked harmless enough right then, but the smoke billowing out of the peak was a symptom of the thermogenesis occurring within the crater, and it could turn into an explosive lava fountain with little or no warning. John knew of the dangers involved in researching so close at hand. Countless lives had been lost through carelessness or Mother Nature herself, but he was confident he wouldn’t end up a statistic. The one thing he’d learned as a Marine was to always be prepared, and he would make it a point to learn as much as possible before attempting a climb. However, when it came right down to it, Mayon was worth the risk. He forced himself to look away and get ready for the party. There would be time enough to indulge his need to explore every facet of the consummate mass.