The Burnt Harmonica: A Short Story by Felisa Daskeo
Liza held the harmonica excitedly. It was her first time to own such a beautiful toy. For a poor girl like her, toys were a luxury that she could not afford.
The nine-year-old however earned money by selling candies and junk food to her classmates. With the money she saved, she was able to buy a harmonica that she had longed for so long. She loved music and without a radio and a television set at home the only thing that provided the music she loved was her small harmonica.
She caressed the instrument lovingly and stared at it for a long time. Perhaps others would think she has gone mad, but the feeling of having this wonderful instrument was a dream come true for her.
The voice from inside cut short Liza’s moment of joy however. She hid the harmonica in a small box intended for it, then slowly showed herself to Roda, her elder sister.
“What is it, ate?” Liza asked annoyed at the sudden interruption.
“Come on, Liza. Let’s get going. What took you so long to come out?” Roda asked suspiciously.
“Nothing, ate, nothing.” Liza answered as she picked up her wide-brimmed hat and followed her sister carrying a big basket on her head.
Liza and Roda are the closest of the siblings. In fact, those who do not know them thought they are twins because they look the same in so many ways. They are so close and have the same level of intelligence that the three years gap in their age made no difference when they talked about anything under the sun. They could spend many hours talking without getting tired because they both know what to talk about and they agree about a lot of things. The two rarely quarrel. And even if they don’t agree about everything and there were times when they have grudges, the hard-feelings only last for a day. The following day will be another happy day for them. They always managed to patch up things whatever that might be. In their young mind, they both knew what they are doing which make them a perfect duo.
Liza and Roda reached the rice field after an hour trek from the mountains. The sun was now hurting their tender skin. The rice was so full that they bowed low, almost reaching the ground. Both girls took their cutters and started harvesting the rice.
“Ate.” Liza spoke, “are you going to enroll in high school? I heard mother and father talking about you going to high school this year.”
Roda cleared her throat first. “I don’t know. I’m not sure. Father said I should enroll at the Holy Rosary High School but mother said it would be expensive. We are not rich Liza. We can’t afford to go to a private school.”
“But we can always borrow money from our relatives then pay them later.” Liza answered without thinking. “You know ate, I want to go to a good school so that I will have a nice job when I finish school and life would be better.”
Roda made a face and stared at liza who was playing with the rice straw. He had cut the straw at least three inches long and was blowing it. It made a very nice sound that attracted Roda’s attention. She too made one and blew it, the sound from her straw blended with the sound from Liza’s straw. They created music so sweet that flew into the air and blended with the murmurs of nature around.
“When I grow up, I want to become a great musician,” Liza declared in her innocent voice after a while.
Surprised, Roda looked at her younger sister like it was her first time to see her.
“You are such an ambitious girl. Liza. Stop dreaming. It’s still too early for you to be thinking of those things. Just keep picking the grains so that we can go home with our baskets full.”
But Liza wanted to talk more about the future and continued. “You know Ate, I may sound very ambitious but according to the book that I read, it is good to aim high and plan well for the future while you are young.”
Roda shook her head, amazed that her younger sister could be so visionary at her age. She herself didn’t even think of such things. She is contented just enjoying the simple things around her and just listening to the daily mantra of her parents about life being happy if you content yourself with what you have. Why, for as long as you are eating three square meals a day and you live in a sturdy house with clothes on, that is what life is all about, her father would say. And Roda agreed because they never went hungry even if they were not eating the foods that she only saw in the colored magazine that she often scanned in the school library.
The sun had gone down when Roda finally made the go signal for them to go home. It was always the elder sister who decided when to stop work and go home. They both arranged the rice bundles in their baskets making sure that they could carry the load on their head and trekked up the mountains. Going home was always the harder part because aside from the loads they carried on their heads, there was also the steep mountains that they travelled on foot. It was about two and a half kilometers trek home and it would be dusk when they arrive. But the task they did every day was fun for both. They are used to working hard and it is their way of life.
Halfway up the mountain, they stopped to rest. Both sat down on a big boulder overlooking the Sierra Madre Mountains. The mountains looked so solemn, sitting there and from far afar and crowned with clouds they looked like abandoned houses in a desert. There was no life and they resembled big boulders lying there.
“Ate, our teacher said that Gregorio del Pilar died in that mountain defending us. I think that is why that mountain looks so lonely,” Liza said pointing a finger.
“Your teacher is right. There are many of them who sacrificed their life to make our lives better. They fought for freedom and died fighting. They are our lost heroes.”
“Can one become a hero without fighting and dying?”
Roda smiled and held Liza’s hand. “Not all heroes die fighting. You could be a hero doing great things for your country and the people around you. You could be a hero to your family by doing good things and making them happy.” She stopped and peered into her younger sister’s face. “Like you,” she continued, “You can become a musician when you grow up. That way, you can become a hero by obtaining awards for your family and our country.”
Liza’s innocent eyes dilated in amazement. “Really Ate? I will become a hero then in music.”
Liza could hardly sleep that night. She thought of all the things that she and Roda had talked about. She imagined how it would feel to become a hero one day. Could she become a great musician? In her young mind she thought of the harmonica that she kept in the box and answered her own question. It was easy then to become a hero she said to herself and then she finally slept with dreams full of greatness in her little world.
She woke up late and found Roda already washing the clothes. That was why she loved her sister very much because she didn’t pressure her with the household chores.
“Hurry up, Liza. Get your breakfast and help me with this load of laundry,” Roda called out.
Everyday, Liza’s mind was occupied with her dream to become a great musician. And every day with the harmonica in her lips, the determination became more intense. She forgot her obligation and duties at home. Often times, her sister would scold her for not helping her.
“Put down your harmonica Liza and help me wash the dishes,” Roda said sternly. She had gotten tired listening to the sound of repetitious notes from Liza’s instrument and worse because Liza didn’t help her anymore with the chores they were tasked to do.
“If you don’t stop playing that thing, I will throw that away.” Roda warned Liza. She was tired of talking to her in a nice way. She hated being left alone to do all the housework.
Liza didn’t say a word. She helped her sister without complaint But she was saddened by the change of events. Gone were the days when they could talk and laugh all day. Gone were the days when Roda would let her help a little with the chores then she could play for a while. Roda would call her if she needed her again. Roda seemed to have changed suddenly from that caring and thoughtful sister to a moody, unresponsive sister. And that was all because of the harmonica.
Liza thought she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was just trying to perfect her notes. It would be a big help for the upcoming big event in their town. There was a once a year musical event in town. They call it “Costume Ball”. It was celebrated before New Year. It was a night when many young people joined the contest in the music category and best in costume. As for Liza, she has religiously practiced her piece and she was excited.
She forgot about their differences and ran to her sister to announce the news. “Ate Roda, there is a contest in harmonica playing and I want to join the contest,” she said excitedly.
But Roda was not moved. She just looked at Liza without saying a word.
“Aren’t you happy that at last I’ll be playing the harmonica for the people to hear?”
“Well, good luck!” Roda blurted out and turned her back.
Liza couldn’t understand why her sister acted like she was annoyed of the news she brought her. In the past, she was her supporter because she used to join the singing contest.
Liza followed her sister. “I tell you ate, this is the start of my dream. I’m going to win that contest. I will, ate.” She emphasized.
Roda just shrugged off her shoulders and left Liza alone with her dreams.
Liza became even more determined. She spent all her time with the harmonica in her lips. His parents and other siblings didn’t object. In fact they even encouraged her to practice more because they knew that she loves music. Last year, she won first prize in the solo singing contest in the children’s category and Roda was there supporting her. But now Roda was the only family member who wasn’t happy about the harmonica contest that she is joining. The reason was that she was left to do all the household chores while Liza sat down and practiced.
Liza’s most awaited day finally arrived. It was her last day to practice. The next day was the big day when she will finally present to the public what she considered her masterpiece that she had rehearsed minute after minute until she thought it was perfect and nobody could beat her. Every member of the family, except Roda said she will beat everybody in the contest. Roda smirked and said, “I wouldn’t think that way.” Liza couldn’t understand what Roda meant by that but she still wished her sister will have at least trust in what she was doing.
Liza was excited when she came home from school that day. She threw her bag in the corner and then rushed to the small box to get her treasure and have her last practice. She had been practicing all alone but she planned to let her family listen to her performance and listen to their opinion regarding her performance.. Closing her eyes like someone who was playing a guessing game she opened the box and groped for the instrument but her hand held nothing in the box. She opened her eyes and to her utter dismay found nothing in the box. She shrieked like someone being hurt badly yet cannot shout.
His father heard her and rushed to see her. Liza was holding the empty box. She was sobbing.
Everybody looked at Roda when they learned that the instrument was gone. But Roda argued that she will never get that instrument that she hated. Except for Roda, everybody went searching for the instrument.
Later in the afternoon, Liza found herself being comforted by her father. “Stop moping, Liza,” her father said. “We’ll find your harmonica. Maybe it was only misplaced. Our house is very small we can always look in every corner and find it. Now, go and try looking again while I iron your dress. I want my daughter to look her best during the contest.”
Liza looked at her father lovingly. He always manages to make her smile even in a distressful situation. Her father is a very caring and loving father, always making sure no one in the family is feeling bad. That is why Liza is very proud of him.
Liza watched as his father carried the charcoal flat iron. As her father descended the wooden stairs she set off again in search of her precious instrument. If she cannot find it then every dream she has will vanish in an instant and perhaps she will never hold a harmonica again.
Father busied himself filling the charcoal flat iron with the charcoal that he has carefully broken to smaller pieces in order for them to fit in nicely in the flat iron. He poured kerosene in the charcoal then watched as they were heated and they slowly became embers. He closed the flat iron ready to press Liza’s dress. Suddenly smoke emitted from inside the flat iron. He laid the hot flat iron on the big flat stone that served as a platform in the cooking area. He picked an iron rod and stirred the embers.
Roda was humming as she entered the house. She saw Liza busy rummaging under the junks stored beside the wash area. She sighed loudly for Liza to hear it then said, “Where’s father? I want to ask him something.”
Liza did not answer her. She was mad as hell because she cannot find her instrument and she was convinced that Roda hid it somewhere.
Roda went to the kitchen and saw his father trying to retrieve something inside the flat iron. She rushed and grabbed the flat iron, turned it upside down and saw the burning harmonica. Roda was staring at the instrument nervously. She didn’t mean to ruin the instrument and the reason she was asking for her father was she wanted to give the harmonica to him so that he will be the one to give it to Liza. She wanted to ask a favor from his kind father to cover up things for her so that Liza will stop hating her.
It was too late now to do that for there on the big flat stone lay the already black harmonica. It was impossible to repair it. Roda cannot say anything.
Her father said, “What have you done to your sister’s harmonica?”
When Roda looked around and saw Liza watching in alarm at her instrument she could not utter a word. How could she say sorry? How in the world can she make up for the damage she had done? She only wanted to teach Liza a lesson. She wanted her to learn that life is not only about her music and her love for it. She wanted her to see the responsibilities she needed to do.
Liza pointed a finger to Roda. “You ruined everything. You did it on purpose so that I will not join the contest. I will never forgive you for what you’ve done. I hate you, ate?” Liza cried and ran inside the house.
Liza was inconsolable while Roda showed great remorse for what she has done.
Roda picked the instrument and tried to figure out how to restore it. She reached for the rag hanging on the wire near the hearth and rubbed off the burnt part and as she did her heart lurched. She discovered that only the paint was burned but it was still fully intact. She didn’t tell anybody about it because nobody wanted to talk to her. Even her mother became indifferent to her. Her mother said nothing but she knew that her mother was annoyed too.
Carefully wrapping the instrument in a newspaper she went to see her friend who is a handyman. Roda’s friend listened as she related what happened. He was glad that the harmonica wasn’t damaged or he cannot do anything about it. He inspected the harmonica very well and finding no damage painted it with Liza’s favorite color which is red. It turned out great and what’s good is that the paint is quick dry so in just a few minutes, the harmonica was good as new. Anyone who will see it will think the instrument is new. Liza will be very happy, thought Roda. She thanked her friend and promised him that she will bring some snacks the next day. Of course it was only a joke because her friend will not accept any payment in cash or in kind.
She went straight to the room where Liza kept the box and put the new harmonica there. When she went out of the room and bumped on her younger brother, he scowled at her and remarked that she is a heartless sister. She was at fault and there was no need to retaliate. Instead she went to look for Liza. She found Liza under the shade, in a hammock humming the piece she had been playing for weeks in her harmonica. How lonely she looked and Roda almost cried looking at her in that very sad state. She slowly walked to her. But when Liza turned around and saw her, Liza’s face turned red with anger and stood to leave.
Roda caught her by her arm. “I know I was wrong but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was only trying to let you realize that there are responsibilities you needed to do. I never intended it to be that bad.”
Liza tried to free her arm but Roda was holding it tightly. “I know you hate me now and you don’t want to talk to me but you should listen now. I have your harmonica with me, all restored and ready to be played again. I am very sorry, Liza. I really am.”
Roda handed her the small box. Liza hesitated but she finally opened the box and her eyes dilated. She could not believe what she saw lying beautifully in the box. She said aloud, “Ate, you bought me a new harmonica?”
Roda shook her head. “No, I let my friend repaint the burned harmonica. It wasn’t damaged, only the paint was ruined. I let him paint the harmonica with your favorite color.” She said then she turned her back but Liza rushed to block her way.
She opened her arms and hugged her tightly. “You are always the responsible and caring sister I knew.”
Sisters are Always Sisters
The hall was already packed with people when Roda and Liza arrived in the building where the event will be held. Roda gave Liza thumbs up when she was called to present her masterpiece.
It was indeed a masterpiece as everyone in the audience stood and gave her a standing ovation. Liza won first prize. When they were home after the event Liza gave Roda an envelope.
Roda refused to accept the money. She knew that she didn’t deserve it because she almost ruined everything. But Liza said, “Ate, the prize is for you. I want you to enroll at the Holy Rosary High School. You deserve to go to a good school.”
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© 2018 Felisa Daskeo