For Death is Dead in December by Leoncio P. DeriadaPosted: September 29, 2012
(The following is a short story by Palanca Hall of Famer Leoncio P. Deriada. It appeared in, among other publications, his collection of short stories Week of the Whales and Other Stories. I encoded it for my undergraduate thesis, and while Facebook group of the Ateneo de Davao’s SALEM has had its copy of it for over a year now, Deriada has allowed me to make it accessible online to the general public for the first time. The story has generally received negative feedback from critics, with Jonathan Chua complaining of its being “stylistically contrived,” ultimately labeling it “the worst story” in Week of the Whales. Deriada himself has not been too kind about his own story. But I would like to believe that there is still value in contrived stylistics, particularly in trying to introduce stylistic devices to beginning readers. The almost unnatural symmetry in the story attracts me, just as much as Poe’s “The Raven” appeals to me. And the fact that the story is set in the Ateneo de Davao of the 50s has a particular fascination for me.)
For Death is Dead in December
by Leoncio P. Deriada
It was December and the wind was cold over the pines in the park.
It was December and Dario said, I want to die.
But his friend Leo said, dream Dario dream. For death is dead in December.
Dead in December.
Leo wrote poetry. Dario wrote love letters and later he wanted to die. It was not because of a poetic impulse but because he felt so alone – so alone in spite of Leo and Rolly and Henry and Miss Cobangbang who taught him T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare and Descartes and Thomas Aquinas. It was not once he had wished to die – to dissolve with the wind and wail over the pines in the park. The wind was always a sadness and Dario fancied that to be one with the wind was to be away from the sadness that it was.
For Dario was 17 and did not know what it was to be young. Philosophy could not make much of youth. Literature only deepened melancholia and made intense the desire to die, to cease within the midnight with no pain, to say, oh death where is thy sting!
For Dario was 17 and Nena said she didn’t love him.
For Dario was 17 and his father was dead. Long ago.
And December was the month of winds. There was a two-week vacation though – away from Miss Cobangbang and the thick books and the blackboards that were not black but green and forever powdered with chalk. Miss Cobangbang did not write much on the board and Henry and Rolly always made use of the space by sketching legs and priests during the class breaks while Leo bent out of the window and reached for the acacia blossoms.
Leo, Rolly and Henry wee the best friends in the world. And he went with them, laughed at them.
Ha ha ha!
Cut classes with them. But he would die alone.
It was December 24 and Dario was in the park. He sat on a bench under a pine tree. Above, the wind strummed the pine needles into a peculiar thin sound that was neither noise nor music but a sadness. He saw people, probably trying to be lost like him. But they talked, they laughed.
They sat on benches and ate ice cream and peanuts. Children ran around with balloons pregnant with helium, on which Santa Claus said in colored greetings: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, Dario thought. But there was no excitement in it; the celebration had been there since December 1 and the anticipation made the Day cheap, ordinary, uninteresting like Christmas trees thick with tinsel leaves and bulbs that winked mischievously, even maliciously. Christmas was nothing but bargain sales and populated parks and winds, sad winds.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. The song was cold like the wind.
The world was people, places, things. It was the wooden white building in Jacinto Street with acacia trees and benches of wood. It was pens and compositions and debates and exams. It was the beach at Kabacan and Talomo and Dumoy – white, free, forever related to sunburn. It was Nena – beautiful, proud, tall and slim like the silhouette of a palm. The simile was Leo’s. One day in the beach:
That old pagatpat is Fr. Malasmas, said Rolly.
That rugged rock is Miss Cobangbang, said Henry.
That palm is Nena. Tall, proud, slim, beautiful, said Leo.
Let’s swim, said Dario.
Yes, the world was quite enjoyable, what with these crazy friends and Miss Cobangbang and her popped eyes and her awful name and epistemology and romantic poetry. Apparently, Dario remembered nothing but Byron’s defective foot and Keat’s nightingale. Henry called him Ram. Rolly called him Dar. The arid instructors (except Miss Cobangbang – she wasn’t dry in spite of her pistol of a name) called him Mr. Ramos. People were funny. Nobody called him by his pet name. At home his mother called him Boy. At home, Mr. Santos, his mother’s husband, called him Boy. The neighbors referred to him as Boy Santos or Santos Boy. Imagine to be called Boy when you were 17 and a campus sensation. Only Leo called him Dario. There was a certain beauty in his name when said by someone, not necessarily Nena. It sounded strange the way Leo said it. It sounded strange, unfamiliar, but real – with a farawayness and a sadness like the wind over the pines. Dario Dario Dario.
All of a sudden, the noise of the park was there. Dario looked up. Leo was in front of him – smiling, tall, in a blue shirt with ink stains on the left pocket.
Hi, he said and moved to the right. Leo sat beside him.
What would they talk about? Nothing. They had had a good share of ideas and always ended up with Leo’s sham scolding: You cynic!
Once on the campus, after Nena.
Dream Dario, dream. For death is dead.
What shall I dream about? He snapped. He was angry, miserable.
I’m not a poet. He stressed poet with obvious malice.
You are a man.
I want to die!
Nonsense! Everybody is a poet. You are a poet. Poets don’t die. They just pretend to die for dramatic effect. Man is empty. He needs something to fill him up. Gloom empties the heart. And dreams heal the inner scars. You are sick, Dario, with a sickness of your own making. Cure yourself, Dario baby. Think of love, not Nena. Love is deep, deeper than the ocean floors, depper than any woman’s face.
You talk too much, he told Leo.
We are good friends, Leo told Dario.
Stop playing big brother! He shouted inside him but he could not say it. for the truth was he had been wishing he had a brother.
We are good friends, Leo said. So Rolly, Henry and I will get you tonight for the midnight Mass. Okay?
They hastily left the park and headed towards the city’s mini-zoo. They passed the cage of monkeys that amused people (or was it the monkeys that were amused?), passed the shop with windows with their gaudy displays, passed some beggars, and finally over crackers and Coke:
You are not happy, Dario.
I remember my father.
They listened to the soft drink running hoarsely through the straw.
You are tired, Dario. Go home and sleep.
I will, Dario said.
They went home.
During supper, Dario surprised Mrs. Felisa Santos.
Mama, tell me about my father.
At the head of the table Mr. Santos looked up but Dario did not wait for his mother to answer. He drank two glasses of water and hurried to his room unaware of the new magic of the Christmas tree in the sala.
He didn’t open his door.
Dario stood in front of the mirror. He smiled at the man there and his eyes laughed. Crew cut, proud nose, a pimple on the forehead. The small mouth opened slightly, rehearsing kisses for all flowers – the rose, the acacia, the gumamela, the azucena, the cogon, the mimosa – everyone, even the lotus… he had been shaving long before ROTC and now a blue shadow rainbowed faintly above his lips – beautiful, asserting manhood that would love all but die alone.
The night before Dario dreamed that he had died.
But he woke up.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. The neighborhood children were singing carols.
Dream Dario dream – for death is dead in December…
Damn Leo and his ideas!
He switched off the light, opened the window wide and sat in the window beside flower pots the Christmas moon was still on the other side of the roof.
Dario Ramos Sr. was a lawyer. He died when Dario Jr. was in the nursery. In the sala was a set of law books and a collegiate dictionary which Dario searched page by page looking for weird words and invisible marks that were his father’s.
Mr. Santos, his step-father, was two hundred pounds, the manager of a bottling company, and a Knight of Columbus.
In college, Dario was president of this and vice president of that: Debating club, Sodality, Credit Union, Club Cervantino, et cetera. He did not make the Art Club, for his grasp of art was as bad as his handwriting which looked like a doctor’s that baffled even the most sophisticated pharmacist. In fact Dario started as a pre-med student but changed to a pre-law after one of his instructors, a balding scholar who never learned the art of public speaking in his Augustinian alma mater, flunked him in organic chemistry.
Above all, Dario was a Consonant – a member of a four-man club named Consonants for reasons even Athene would not think of. Leo wanted to be president. Rolly wanted to be president. Henry wanted to be president. So Dario wanted to be president. They made 36 Valentine cards last February. Miss Cobangbang said thank you very much L.D.R.H. Those were their initials. Dinky gave Henry a shy grin. Nilo, the school’s best actor, tore the card they gave to Inez. Bobby and Letty quarreled: the student pilot thought Rolly still wrote love letters to her. Samira, who received the one with the gold thumb tack, gave Leo a Lebanese grin that reminded him of cedars and Fr. Wieman’s nose. Nena made a book marker out of the red heart and a doodle sheet out of the envelope.
Tonight the Consonants would go to midnight Mass.
I will sleep, Dario said to his pajamas. And so he slept.
He was sitting on the cement base of the stairs, biting his nails. In the house Perry Como was loud with the smell of cooking pans in the kitchen.
Mr. Santos was at the top of the stairs. Dario did not look up.
You are sad. Don’t you like the things I bought you for Christmas? The scooter, the shotgun, the pingpong set, the-
Will you stop spoiling me! He shouted, surprised at the rise of his voice. You are not my father. Why don’t you beat me up? You are so good good good. You make me forget my own father.
Don’t call me Boy! I’m Dario Ramos Jr. Dario Ramos Jr.!
Soon his mother was there – flushed by the tonic of the kitchen, worried, still young, beautiful.
I’ll go away, he said.
For at the gate somebody was waiting for him. He was tall, with the crew cut, with the proud nose, with the laughing eyes. A thin, blue shadow rainbowed above his lips which were half-parted as if poising kisses to all flowers, even the lotus…
Papa Papa Papa!
And his arms were around his father. He kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his chin, and then his forehead again and his cheeks again and his chin again with a passion that was more intense than the thirst of deserts and a thousand fatherless sons.
But the eternity in his embrace ended just there, the cloud of sleep melted and presently disclosed an obese face – prosaic and benign, the face he had been afraid of because it was always kind and good. Under the light, Mr. Santos glistened like a Buddha and Dario, in his trance, saw an oasis.
And again it just ended there. He was now in his senses and the discovery of his arms around this commonplace man was an embarrassment. He pulled his arms away instinctively. Behind he saw his mother and he had a momentary feeling of guilt.
Dario was hoarse and hearing his own voice with relief.
Are you sick, Dario?
He must have talked in his sleep and he felt something odd, something undefinable that was almost a sense of guilt for something that could not be named. His step-father called him Dario and, in an instant, he felt so ashamed of his inadequacy in all these years of morbid introspection and silent rebellion.
I’m going to midnight Mass, he said.
The moon was now on the west side of the roof. The Consonants would be knocking at the door any minute, singing their greetings and their joy. He wondered how they would look tonight. It seemed that they suddenly became remote, as remote as his fear and love for the dark somewhere far away, farther than the silhouette of palms, farther than the source of the wind in the park…
Henry and Rolly would be loquacious forever, but tonight, it would be different. He would not hear them. For Leo would speak to him like a nemesis or a reminder or a conscience or a ghost that haunted him forever. Dario. Dario. Dario.
Tonight God is born. Death is dead. Dream Dario –
Leo would not be different. For he had always been different. He had always seen through people and, worse, he would tell what he had seen there.
Did Leo lose his father? He didn’t ask. Did Leo lose Teresita? He didn’t ask. A tall palm was in Dario’s mind in a moment. He never lost Nena. She had never really belonged to him.
Yet something was lost. It was not his father. He had never belonged to him.
A noisy knock startled Dario. His friends were there and here he still was in his pajamas. Mrs. Santos hurried out of the room to answer the call. Her husband stayed.
Dario jumped from his bed to dress up. Outside, the world was bright and noisy with carolers. It was Christmas. The moon was bright; it was obese, benign, like the face he had been afraid of not long ago…
And Mr. Santos smiled.