The Flowers of May by Francisco Arcellana
In 1951, Francisco Arcellana won first prize in Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for his short story, The Flowers of May.
In summary, this is about a family who are mourning for the death of their daughter, Victoria. In the end, they will realize the value of life even if the one you dear will be taken away from you. Read the full story below and see for yourself.
It is May again. It is still generally sultry but it has begun to rain in the afternoons and the evenings are clear, the skies are of the utmost blue; new grass is breaking from the earth everywhere.
It is specially pleasant in the afternoons after the rain. The air is clear and fragrant, the sky has a new washed look, and everything looks clean and newborn.
Maytime makes me think of rain and flowers. It makes me think of my father and my mother, my brothers and my sisters, the living and the dead. It makes me think of churches and how it is inside churches on May afternoons.
Maytime is running in the rain and gathering sampaguita buds. It is Father standing by the window, watching the rain, his grief for the dead Victoria deep and unspoken; and it is Mother too standing beside Father, trying to share and understand that grief. It is Manuela and Juaning and the dead Victoria and Peping and Narciso and Clara and Ting and Lourdes and Paz and Gloria and Monserrat and Toni and even the dead Josefina and the dead Concepcion whom I did not know. It is the church in Tondo and the chapel in Gagalangin and the churches in the Walled City and the churches in Ermita and Malate and San Andres and Baguio and all the places that I have ever been.
This is how it is inside churches in the afternoons in May: there are girls all dressed in white. They wear blue girdles. They stand or sit in chairs arranged in two rows beneath the church dome in front of the altar. The smallest are in front and the tallest bring up the rear. They have reed trays filled with flowers: sampaguitas, camias, lilies, plenty of lilies; all the flowers of May. They pray and sing. A woman in white wearing a blue girdle claps her hands and the girls sit down. She claps her hands and the girls rise. The girls sing and then they dip their hands into their flower trays and pick up fistfuls of flowers which they throw into the middle of the aisle between them until the path is well strewn with petals. The path is meant for the Blessed Virgin Mother to tread upon, the flowers are meant to receive the imprint of her small white feet. The girls march up the altar and disappear into the refectory. Long after they they gone you still hear their voices. The air is heavy with the scent of crushed petals.
I do not know why on May afternoons I should seek the inside of churches. Unless it is because I like watching the flower festival; or because I like looking at girls all dressed in white or because I like the pure chaste look of blue girdles; or because I like the sound of young girl voices; or because I like to listen to singing, young girls singing; or because
I like the sight of an altar all decked with flowers, the flowers of May; or cause I like the cool clean smell of flowers (a May afternoon inside a church is like a May morning anywhere) or because of all these things together.
It is usually a different church each time. Before the war it was mostly the Lourdes church in Intramuros. Now it is mostly the Pro – Cathedral in San Miguel. It is other churches too. The young girls are the same, the voices are just as young, sweet, and innocent, and the fragrance that of the same May morning.
It is surely not anything like what it is to my brother, Narciso, who has become a Catholic priest. And it can not be like what it is to my sisters, every single one of the seven of them, the living and the dead Victoria. It is certainly not anything like what it was to the dead Victoria.
It is not anything like what my brothers know: I can’t imagine Juaning doing it; I can’t think of Peping doing it either; Ting who is going to medical school would—but it would not be at all the same thing; and Toni? Toni who is going to intermediate school? Perhaps Toni.
And I don’ t know that it is anything like what father might have known when he was living; and Mother only does Father’s wish. Father might have known it; if he did, it was surely before Victoria died —not after, hardly after.
Maytime is an afternoon in May. The year is 1934. It is the year of Victoria’s death. It is an afternoon in May and Victoria has been dead two months.
Mother returns with the tea and the tea things (the green china) which she places on the sideboard. She joins Father at the round table and admires the flowers.
“Lovely, aren’t they?” Mother asks.
Father does not answer.
When the girls appear they are dressed for church, their reed trays hanging empty from their hands. They go to the sideboard, Mother pours the tea, they set their flower trays down on the floor beside them and with a lot of sound and encouragement, from Mother —”Don’t gulp itdown: tea is to sip and not to gulp”—take their tea.
The girls pick up their trays and walk to the round table where the flowers are. Mother picks up the tea things and carries them out to the kitchen. She returns; hover about the girls who are gathered about the flowers. Mother does not look much taller than the girls or much older – she may well be one of them. Fussing a great deal, the girls arrange the flowers in their trays.
“What beautiful blossoms! What fresh and fragrant flowers! What lovely lilies!” Mother enthuses.
The girls look up at Mother with bright pleased happy faces.
“Take some of the lilies, Mother,” they offer. “Take some of the lilies for our own chapel.”
“Well, now,” Mother says. “That is a sweet idea. Don’t you think it is sweet of the girls to offer me some of their lilies, Pepeng?” Mother turns to Father brightly.
Father does not say anything.
“I do not think I’ll take some,” Mother says. “I’ll take three lilies, just three, only three and no more—one from each of your trays. I shall take the least among your lilies.”
MOTHER PICKS UP one lily and then another and then still another. She holds the lilies in her arms as if they are a bride’s bouquet. She carries the lilies to the family chapel built in the cubicle that par tially roofs the stairwell where an oil lamp burns all night and day before a Holy Family- Mother stands before the graven group, the three lilies lying in her arms like a bride’s bouquet.
Father and the girls watch Mother’s little play with what she calls the least among the lilies.
Mother picks up one lily and places it to the right of the Holy family. She picks up the second lily and sets it to the left. But when she picks up the third lily she hesitates: she does not quite know what to do with the third lily.
The girls laugh at Mother’s little impasse with the third lily. Father watches quietly.
Mother is a long time about the third lily. She falls into an agony over it. She holds it like a candle in her hand—the long stem secure against her palm, the green stalk caught between her thumb and fingers, the lily leaning forward like a candleflame—and does not know what to do about it.
The girls finish their trays; they turn now to attend to Mother’s contest with the lily. Father stands silent watching Mother at her play.
It does not look like Mother will ever be able to resolve her little drama with the odd lily; no climax is in sight.
The girls pick up their trays, ready to go.
Mother is silent and still, in an agony over the last lily. The girls walk toward the stairs.
The sound of the rain on the roof has unaccountably stopped. “Enough of this!”
Someone has suddenly spoken.
It is father speaking. There is a stridency, strange and urgent, in voice.
The girls stop where they are, halfway between the center of the sala and the stairhead, midway between Father standing by the round table and Mother in the family chapel.
“Enough, enough of this,” Father says.
Mother hears but does not turn, she does not dare to turn. She is very still but not the lily in her hand. She is very still but the lily is agitated in her hand.
‘I have had enough,” Father says.
Mother twirls the green stalk a long time before she realizes what she is doing. Then she stills the lily, wills it to stillness, stills herself, wills herself to stillness that is very much like death.
She turns and confronts Father.
“Enough of what, Pepeng?” Mother asks brightly. “What have you enough of?”
“I won’t have any more of it,” Father says. The girls are still and silent, in a shock of listening. “What would you have no more of?” Mother asks. “Do you think it is easy to watch your child die before your eyes?” Father demands in a voice loud and unnatural.
“Do you think it is so simple to let your child die?” Father demands again.
“0 Pepeng,” Mother cries, her mouth a little parted as if she is in pain, her hand that holds the lily rigid as if it is hurting her. Father proclaims: “Victoria did not want to die!” His grief had found utterance at last.
“Victoria did not want to die,” Father reiterates. “I saw that she did not want to die.”
Mother cries, “0 Pepeng, stop,” but Father will not stop. Father will not be consoled.
“The flowers are gone. The flowers of May are gone. I saw that Victoria did not want to die. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing one could do,”
Father says helplessly. His grief is terrible and deep.
It is as terrible as the naked terror stark in Mother’s eyes and deep as the new knowledge and first and final and only wisdom that we have just now begun to share. So this is death. So this is what it means to die. And for the first time since she died and we buried her, we learn to accept the fact of Victoria’s death finally, we know at last that Victoria is dead—really and truly dead.
Sunday Times Magazine
May 20, 1951
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