The Solemn Lantern Maker: A Novelby Merlinda Bobis
It’s six days until Christmas, and on the bustling/i>/b>
From the award-winning author of Banana Heart Summer—“[a] wonderful debut…[that] resembles Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and is destined to be a hit among book club members”*—comes a wondrous tale of hope, secrets, and family devotion.
It’s six days until Christmas, and on the bustling streets of Manila a mute ten-year-old boy sells his version of the stars: exquisite lanterns handmade with colorful paper. But everything changes for young Noland when he witnesses an American tourist injured in a drive-by shooting of a journalist and imagines he’s seen an angel falling from the sky. When Noland whisks her to the safety of the hut he shares with his mother, the magical and the real collide: shimmering lanterns and poverty, Christmas carols and loss, dreams of friendship and the global war on terror. While the story of the missing tourist grips the media, Noland and his mother care for their wounded guest, and a dark memory returns. But light sneaks in—and their lives are transformed by the power of love.
*Library Journal ( starred review, “Editor’s Pick”)
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt
A star has five lights. Noland thinks it so it must be true. Angels live in stars, with fire in their chests. So when they breathe, the sky twinkles. Noland thinks hard what he can't say as he runs from car to car, peddling his own version of stars. Around him, the festive business rises to fever pitch—"Only six days to Christmas, ma'am, sir, so you're getting these cheap. You can't miss out, only six days."
How dare anyone miss out? At this intersection of the highway, star lanterns made of translucent capiz shells outshine each other, desperate to be sold. Red, green, gold, and pearly white blink and whirl with electric lights, like stained glass on speed. The shoppers' faces catch the glow. So does Noland's. It is a solemn face, like those of plaster saints who endure years of silent watching.
"Hoy, you're blocking my customers!" a stall owner scolds the boy, who steadies his wooden cart of lanterns. His are made of Japanese paper, small stars with two frilly tails instead of lights. "Are you serious?" one shopper asks, looking incredulously from the boy's simple wares to the giant creation she bought for six thousand pesos. Heaven should be grand, boy, and bringing it down to earth is costly business. "Hoy, over here!" a man calls out from an old Mitsubishi. Finally, a customer. "How much?" he asks, while peeling a pork bun.
Noland raises five fingers thrice to indicate fifteen pesos.
Intent on his dinner, the man does not see the price. "How much?" he asks again. Noland raises his palm close to the man's face, repeating the gesture.
The man pauses, stares—
Palm as small as a star, star as small as a country.
Now where did that come from? He's becoming a poet.
Steam rises from the bun. Noland imagines the pork stew and the salted egg inside. He hands the man a red star, eyes on the first bite. Is the yolk bigger than the white? The man pays with a fifty-peso bill. Noland shakes his head and shows an empty palm. No change, sorry sir. Perhaps two more stars? He offers a green one this time and another red.
"No, keep the change." He waves the boy away and hangs the star on his window, just above the wheel. Then as an afterthought, "You mute, kid?"
The ten-year-old nods.
The man sighs, taking in the face that is too gaunt, too serious for a child.
My country's children small as hope.
"Of course yours are the real thing, because you make them in the old style," his friend Elvis assures him. "Small stars but specially homemade by the master star maker, so gimme five!" Then the customary palm-slapping before turning his baseball cap at a jaunty angle and running toward the traffic.
Noland wonders about his friend's exceptional gift. He's chatting up a Pajero now. Earlier it was a Mercedes. They met only a month ago but Elvis has quickly made himself indispensable as Noland's "parol assistant," churning out most of the sales. His uncle Bobby Cool, with his Walkman, cell phone, and gold crucifix, has become their "parol godfather."
Parol is the traditional star lantern. Not for Noland, though. You call a star a star, or not at all. But of course, he can't say. Nor can he say that Bobby's donation of five hundred pesos toward his business is too generous. What if he can't sell enough lanterns to pay him back? But uncle and nephew assured him that business would grow if they worked together like family. Noland grew warm inside when he heard it. Like family. Like Christmas gift-wrapped in kind voices. They grew softer when his benefactors realized he couldn't speak. "You don't say because you're busy thinking," Elvis diagnosed his condition. "So gimme five!" Their friendship was sealed.
"Buy ah-one, ah-two, ah-homemade-star, ah-three, ah-four, ah-homemade-star." Elvis waves six lanterns at a time to the passing cars, stabbing the air like a rapper revved up by attitude. "Hey, watch me, dude!"
Business has grown more desperate. It's eight in the evening and traffic has been stalled for half an hour. The flower girl pesters every car on the strip again, hoping to sell another jasmine strand for the Child Jesus on the dashboard or the altar at home, or simply to perfume the growing impatience and boredom. Drivers are forced to light up, courtesy of the cigarette man plying his wares with a Christmas trumpet. The duck-egg and the quail-egg vendors are fighting for territory, and an old man is selling more than his hand-mops. He's mopping the car windows himself as street kids run up and down the traffic, begging and singing "Jingle Bells." One window opens and the kids rush to the car, but the oldest girl with a baby gets there first. The driver scolds her for dragging the baby along, then gives her a ten-peso bill. She whines about her sick sister and holds out the baby's palm for more. The driver curses, and the window is shut.
The boys sell as many stars as the "official" lantern vendors. Parked beside the stalls, the cart is their stall and they can run from car to car with their smaller wares. Noland feels his pockets grow. Elvis's "gimme fives" multiply. He does the hand-slapping ritual with Noland after each sale, for next-time luck. While Bobby stands by, he chats up a Kombi van. The tinted window half rolls down and the driver buys all the lanterns in his hand.
Noland marvels at his friend's ability. Their cart might be empty yet before tonight is over. Bobby Cool doesn't think this marvelous, just normal. He trusts his twelve-year-old protege, who now turns his cap at all angles, reporting on his transactions. Bobby approves and gives the boy a shove—back to work. Then he gets on the phone and slinks away.
Nerves are even more frayed. The traffic just won't move. Is there an accident somewhere? Cell phones ring and get rung. Drivers grow quarrelsome. Lantern bargainers get overwrought and the street kids' "Jingle Bells" sounds more driven, a militant Christmas wish for more grace, more grace from your pockets. Those who protest by turning up the Christmas carols on their stereos are admonished by blaring horns. Hoy, some peace, please, it's bad enough as it is!
"Hey, over here!" It takes a while for the foreign voice to be heard. It's from a taxi, in front of the man with the pork bun.
"Yes, you please, over here," the voice calls out.
It's a woman with golden hair, with a very white face, with a hand stretched out toward him. The most beautiful creature. An angel!
But Elvis gets there first, cap quickly adjusted to a jauntier angle. "Hey, beautiful lady, wanna buy?" He waves at the cart and the stalls of lanterns as if he's the godfather of all the shining stars. "They parol all for lady—"
"_Pa-rol?" She points to the swirl of lights.
"Yes, ma'am, but my parol more bee-yoo-ti-ful like lady," Elvis declaims, offering his own stars, bunches in both hands. He sashays before the stranger so she can inspect the goods.
Noland is stunned by his friend's boldness. Elvis even drapes himself on the taxi door and the angel laughs nervously. "You love New York?" she asks.
Elvis is perplexed. "New York? Me no go there, ma'am."
"Your cap." She points. "It says, 'I love New York.' "
"Oh yes, Elvis love New York," he confirms, preening.
"Your name's Elvis?" The angel laughs a little more heartily, then continues, "So, Elvis, what are they made of?" She is after the lit stars and this peeves the boy, but he's quick to respond. "Shell, capiz shell—but my parol more cute, see?" He waves the paper stars under her nose, but she keeps looking beyond them, thinking shining flowers more than stars. She tests the words in her head, imagines them blooming. Pa-rol. Ca-piz.
"They shine so—so—" She sighs.
Noland hangs onto this exhalation of awe, to the look that goes with it. She glows, she glows. But Elvis is intent on only one thing. He opens the taxi door with a mock bow. "Okay, beautiful lady want big star, Elvis take beautiful lady to big star, no problem—but she buy small star from Elvis, okay?"
Noland peers behind the older boy, holding his breath. She's about to alight. Under the headlights of the pork bun man's car, her hair swirls like a halo!
But she pulls back her feet, changing her mind.
"Is okay, Elvis stop traffic for beautiful lady, is okay," and he bows deeper with a little flourish of his cap.
"It's okay?" the white woman asks her driver who quickly responds, "No problem—traffic not moving, traffic dead." He chuckles, liking his joke.
The angel walks a few paces from her taxi. She's asking something, but Noland can't hear any more. Behind them, a Pizza Hut motorcycle revs close to the pork bun man, then suddenly three shots break the traffic drone and the man slumps over the wheel, making his newly bought star dance and Pizza Hut revs past, hitting the angel who collapses. She's shot too she's shot and Noland is rushing to her rushing with his cart of lanterns picking her up where did he get his strength lifting her into the cart with Elvis pushing her from the screaming the shocked "Jingle Bells" the silenced cars the halted buying and selling and the man bleeding at the wheel wondering why the star is growing smaller dimmer and where does this thought come from?
Palm as small as a star, star as small as a country. How small.
"She's shot, Noland—putang 'na, what're you doing? She's shot, you hear me? Ay, ay, all this blood, look, shit man, you can't take her home. You're crazy, you'll—we'll get into trouble. Shit-shit-shit!"
I'm being cursed, I'm cursed. The American picks up only one English word fading with the stars, no, the shining flowers, but all dark now, all dark. . . .
"What if she dies?"
Noland maneuvers the cart behind a stall from where the vendor has bolted, screaming, "Ay, sniper, sniper!" Here the boy quickly covers the cart with a plastic sheet that he uses for rain. She's hidden now, folded like a doll in a cart being pushed toward the slums along the railway track. Behind them, police sirens wail. He breaks into a sprint, the wail chasing him. It pierces his ears, spills inside his skull.
"Hoy, you crying, Noland—for a stranger?"
Grief follows the sharp contour of a cheek, a faint trembling there, but the overlarge eyes are alert, picking out bumps and dips on the ground. It's a face that's all planes and angles, and so is the body that pushes away from the sirens. What if she dies, what if she dies?
"You're crazy, Noland." Elvis puffs beside him, his cap and the world gone awry. The railway track has stretched longer, mocking their feet, too small, too clumsy for flight. The huts are racing too, blurring beside them like the yelled-out censure from a window, "Hoy, slow down, you crazies!"
Two red shirts are hurtling through, one shabby, the other less so. The squealing cart sets the teeth on edge. It has saved hundreds of bottles, cartons, plastic, everything that a city can shed, but with no heroic ambition. The patchwork of wood and motorcycle wheels knows its place, pushed around by the boy since he was eight to public dumps or the backstreet bins of restaurants. But not at Christmas, when he can sleep without the scent of discarded lives on his skin. In this season, he rises from the dump, deals in stars. Almost of the sky.
But the older boy has no illusions. "Shit, man, you'll get us into shit-shit-shit and we'll both be dead-ball." His mouth is dry, his ranting incoherent.
"Shut up, baby's trying to sleep!" Another censure nearby.
Noland's grip on the cart tightens. It rattles and squeaks louder, protesting over its burden. Anytime it might give, like him. His hands are sticky with blood; so are his clothes. His pace picks up—almost there, almost there.
What if the feet forget their use, lift from the ground and get carried away by a whim or a wish? The cart will just have to put up with it.
"Okay, I'm with you, if that's what you wish in that crazy-crazy head."
Suddenly a firecracker goes off and the cart squeals to a halt.
It's a box, the poorest in the slums. It's scraps of corrugated iron, wood, cardboard, and plastic, and a hole for a door, set apart from the rest of the huts, because here's where all the sewage flows. The creek of fetid water is everyone's toilet, everyone's dump.
Outside children are setting off firecrackers. The oldest one, Mikmik, calls out, "Why so early? Sold all your dwarf stars—_ha-ha-ha!"
"Shuddup!" Elvis growls as Noland pushes the cart to the back of the hut. Here washing lines run to a wire fence separating the slums from the highway, where the chaos from the shooting has quickly spilled over.
"So what do we do?" Elvis whispers through gritted teeth. There's no back door and they can't use the front with all those nosy children around. Noland begins to pull a piece of corrugated iron from the wall to make a door.
Elvis can't believe his eyes. "You're really way out."
The hut looks as if it's about to collapse. Inside a woman calls out, "Who's there? That you, son?"
"Ah, you'll catch it this time," Elvis says.
The corrugated iron won't come off. Noland motions for Elvis to shut up and wait. He runs to the front and enters the hut. Elvis hears the mother scolding, then after a pause she yells at the children outside to go away because she's sick and needs to rest. The children protest and call her a witch but soon amble away, still setting off firecrackers.
Noland rushes back to the cart. They wait for the place to clear and soon haul the white woman into the hut, half wrapped in the plastic.
Nena swallows a scream—so much blood! "Dios ko, my God, what did you do to that—that—?"
"Putang 'na, it wasn't us!"
"Don't you swear at me, Elvis, you good-for-nothing—"
"Sorry-sorry, she was shot, Aling Nena, by Pizza Hut, Aling Nena—is she dead?" Elvis steps back. Nena has never liked him.
"Take that away." Her voice rises. "Ay, ay, you good-for-nothing kids, always picking up trouble, hoy, what trouble did you get my son into? Take that away, I want no police here, no uniforms, take that away!"
The son's hand on his mother's mouth is gentle but firm. His eyes plead, gurgling sounds rise from his throat. Mother and son are locked in a silent argument, gaunt faces mirroring each other. Her chest feels like it will burst as she watches her son organize the "Amerkana" like an efficient somnambulist. First unroll the mat on the floor, lift her onto it with Elvis's help, get a towel, wipe off the blood—Nena stops him and takes the towel from his hands. For the first time, she looks closely at the white woman. Maybe thirties. Very blond hair stained with blood, ugly bruise on the left temple, spreading beyond the hairline perhaps to the back of the head. Looks like a very bad fall, which she probably tried to break with her arms, also bruised and bloodied. But the pink top is not as messy as the white slacks. The blood is mostly around the lower torso, between and down the legs.
Meet the Author
Merlinda Bobis has received numerous awards, prizes and fellowships for her fiction, poetry and plays, among them the Prix Italia for Rita’s Lullaby, the Steel Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories, the Judges’ Choice Award (Bumbershoot Bookfair, Seattle Arts Festival) and the Philippine National Book Award for White Turtle, or The Kissing, and the Philippine Balagtas Award, a lifetime achievement award for her fiction and poetry in English, Pilipino and Bicol. Her plays have been performed in Australia, the Philippines, France, China, Thailand and the Slovak Republic. Banana Heart Summer is her first novel; its Australian edition was short-listed for the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. Her second novel, The Solemn Lantern Maker, will be released in the U.S. in 2009. As a performer for stage and radio, Merlinda works with artists from various genres. She lives in Australia where she teaches creative writing.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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In the slums of Manila crippled Nena and her ten years old mute son Noland struggle to survive. She brings in money doing laundry while he and his friend Elvis sell paper lanterns they make from colorful paper. With less than a week to Christmas a drive by shooting leaves an American dead and his wife badly hurt. Noland and Elvis witnessed the event and guide the woman to the former's hut. As everyone searches for the missing American, Noland's outraged mom rants at him proclaiming his good intentions will be the death of both of them. This is a fascinating thriller that brilliantly looks at life in the Manila slums. The key cast members seem genuine as each reacts differently to Noland's act of mercy. Thus this is a strong but cherished look at Philippine culture especially the gap between the impoverished and affluent. Merlinda Bobis uses the Manila setting on the international stage to tell a local tale of the indigent dreaming of making it western style while also schizoid loathing the west's materialistic superiority; flaunted by aid that never reaches those in need yet enables the affluent to feel they are kind philanthropists. With a mystery re mother, son, and friend to enhance the family drama vs. the international situation, THE SOLEMN LANTERN MAKER is a tense winning novella Harriet Klausner