Saturday, December 27, 2008

Heroes and Saints

Father Andres Soler regarded the crowd with a firm but fatherly gaze, the cold dawn breeze blew and stirred the parishioners, those deeply in prayer and the ones already deep in sleep on their seats like Tomas, gray-haired and chubby now, but whom the priest can still clearly recognize from a fair distance in the middle of the throng. (At least his wife and kids are wide awake). He spoke to the people about the journey of three gift-bearing magi's, and how that journey ended in a shack under the starlight. He spoke of heroes and saints, which according to the advisory from the diocese must be the theme of today's homily.

These are difficult times, he admonished the flock, but the heroes and saints among us make it all worthwhile just to be alive. Afterall, this is not the first time it happened in the history of mankind, but an episode that keeps repeating itself like a bright light in a vicious cycle, heroes and saints providing the saving grace from the time of Christ to the rise and redemption of the everyday man right here, right now while we all live.

Again, he assured them it's going to be alright. Gas prices are starting to mellow after going on a crazed vicious romp. At the Vatican, the Pope had shown once again his very human side by making yet another controversial almost ridiculous quip against the gays, the pan de sal had grown a little bigger because of dropping flour prices, and Manny Pacquiao had beaten Oscar de la Hoya in what could be the greatest triumph of the filipino people to date so what more can we ask for? He chided himself for the near-blasphemy, mentioning the Lord Jesus, the papal paus fax, and Many Pacquiao all in the same message of holiness, but he looked at the faces of Tom and Lyn and their three kids, and with that the priest himself believed what he just said that yes indeed everything will be alright. Then he delivered the punchline.

"We are all heroes and saints at some point in our lives but those of you who are already asleep on their seats right now... I hope that at least in your dreams you will find yourselves as heroes and saints... Let us pray..."

It was the 70s once again and the bell tolled for the Christian faithful on that very cold dawn, while Andy Soler sat on the courtyard's wooden fence, his best friend Tom by his side. They were both fidgeting and perspiring heavily, inspite the biting cold. The previous dawns, the two teenage classmates, both 15, would gorge on bibingka, cochinta and puto bumbong, gulp down huge servings of salabat (ginger juice) from a hot tin mug, and practically feast to death, which is the real purpose of their giving up hours of pleasant sleep for nine straight days just to be at the traditional misa de gallo as an after-thought. But that is not the case today.

"Are you sure she's coming?" Andy inquired nervously.
"Jesus Christ, Andy, you've been asking that question a million times, besides, we're more than an hour ahead, so we just wait now. Stop biting your finger nails, chrissake".
"I can't help it man, remember, you said you'll be sending me part of your allowance each week, don't ever forget that Tomas..."
"I knew it, the allowance again, damn it Andy, how many times do I have to swear?"
"Just so you don't forget, Tom, we're running away with nothing, and if Lyn's parents should catch me, I'll be skinned alive and burned at the stakes, so do as you say you will, Tom. Don't you ever forget that, or I'm dead."
"I will steal from my parents for you Andy, if that will make you feel fine but please, let's have a bite, I'm starving".
"Damn it, Tomas, I told you I need every cent I have, how did I ever come to believe you, my goodness, I knew you're hopeless, so that's it, damn you Tomas, I'm dead meat."

And so he was, or indeed Andy came close to dead meat. A resounding slap on the cheek nearly decapitated the boy, as he toppled from the fence, a ringing in his ears obliterated the choir's chorus of Silent Night emanating from the church, and he saw stars, not the colorful lanterns hanging everywhere or those up in the heavens but stars that deliver a shocking pain. When finally he regained his senses, Andy found himself being dragged by his father to the bus station, to catch the first flight to Manila where an uncle, a new school and a new life came to abruptly accept him, tolerating, and finally repairing his damaged life during the next five years after which, as a gesture of defiance and contrition, he entered priesthood.

But on that very cold lonely dawn, at the churchyard within minutes after Andy and his father had left, Lyn came, yes she did Andy, Tom would later say in his letter to his best friend. That letter spoke from the heart and resonated with pure insufferable guilt, the kind that would haunt and begrudge a man until it became reciprocated with the alms of compassion.

"She had nowhere to go Andy, I just saw you get bludgeoned by your own father at the plaza right before my eyes and I cannot stand the same scene happening again with Lynn on the receiving end. You know how ruthless her father can be when he's enraged. He might even kill her. I took her with me, Andy, I took her. I was ready to claim the baby for my own. Yours and Lyn's baby Andy. I just have to do it. Lyn and her baby deserve better. Pease Andy, I hope you forgive us. We love you Andy and you know that. I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."

It took all of his Christian faith and all of twenty years before Andy could give to Tom the absolute compassion that he craved, which Andy's father unfortunately never lived long enough to receive from his son, one of the greatest regrets Andy knows he will bring to his grave. When at last he was sure his heart was completely cleansed of hatred and indignation, Andy took the first step to reclaiming his life from its silent sins. He returned home to Dumaguete to administer to Tom and Lyn, the holy sacrament of matrimony, and more importantly, to belatedly kneel before his father's tomb to ask for forgiveness and assure the dead man's soul in return that this prodigal son had forgiven him...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Manny Pacquiao

About ten years ago, I would be roused from sleep on a late Wednesday night at the incessant prodding of my father. It was fight night on teevee and he couldn't wait to watch his favorite boxing show. My old man needed company whenever he's up for the late night fights but on that particular occasion, he was more adamant, almost desperate that I watch the show, literally dragging me from bed. The reason for his eagerness was a 16 year old kid who had started to make waves in the sport. I had caught a few of his fights and what I saw was pretty impressive but I wouldn't even in my most generous day, call the kid world class.

He was awkward and freakishly built like a lollipop with the oversized head on a stick for body. The kid was starving and it was pretty obvious. Like most fighters here in the Philippines, They come from poor background, mostly unfed, neglected runaways who stray into some gym and found a way to unload their angst and bitternes at the world. Just my opinion. I have never ever been big on boxing anyway, or at least not the way my father had been all his life. The idea of two men bashing each other's head was not at all entertaining to me.

Fast forward to the present, my father is gone and I am sitting here a nervous wreck on the eve of the country's biggest fight to date. I say the country's biggest fight because when Manny Pacman Pacquiao faces Oscar de la Hoya at almost exactly the same time in Las Vegas tomorrow, it is not one man making a bid for personal glory. I know this has been said many times before but I can't help saying it again. Everytime the Pacman fights, the entire nation of 85-million filipinos prepare to go to war with him, sharing the pain from every punch that catches Manny, his heartaches, and the inevitable blood that would be spilled since Manny's fights are consistently brutal and violent, may as well be the blood and heartaches of his every countryman.

Boxing, and sports for that matter was never a big deal for me. Born unathletic and ungainly, I couldn't even win the simplest street game in the neighborhood as a kid. The other children would consistently kick my butt at play, whether the game involves some running or jumping, and some muscle power needs to be had which I suspect, I don't have. I even suspect I was born without reflexes and balance, a suspicion reinforced by my tripping on the stage at sixth grade while accepting my grade school diploma. Yet on this particular day and at this particular stage of my life, I have become converted to sports, at least as a fanatical observer in the most unlikely game of boxing and all because my heart goes out to Manny Pacquiao. He made me a believer.

Unlike the ordinary sport fan, I wouldn't say my deep affection for Manny is borne out of my understanding and appreciation of the sport of boxing. Without him, boxing wouldn't mean much to me. He was bigger than the sport itself, and larger than life. To me Manny Pacquiao represents the last ray of hope in so bleak a moment in the history of our nation, when all hope it seems is gone. With his rise to stardom, and the success he continues to reap, we realize after a long while that we are capable of fulfilling the dreams we set to accomplish for ourselves. For the first time in years, a filipino competes with the best in the world, and he is not looked down as an underdog but a force to reckon with, an equal of any other man, if not the superior one.

The good thing about it is despite his lack of education, he just finished sixth grade, Manny is a paragon of decency and character. For the first time in years, we see a great boxer who does not thrive on bad publicity, or scandalous behavior, he does not even cuss or badmouth even the most hated, the most hateful opponent, but treats the other man with respect due him. The last time I checked on the web, he had reportedly given Mike Tyson free tickets to his fight, the report insinuating the former heavyweight champion who had fallen in bad times couldn't afford to pay his way to the fight. It was just the natural thing for Manny to do that.

Best of all, he fights for his people. Manny has assumed a very daunting responsibility in dedicating his every effort to the people instead of downplaying the significance of the fight's outcome to a personal matter between him and his opponent. The stakes are already insurmountable the way it is, and Manny took it to an even higher plane by getting the entire nation involved. We share his grief and his victory and even his wealth to some extent The long queue of thousands of poor people lining up outside his house to receive dole outs at his every homecoming will attest to the generosity of the boy who once had nothing to eat and no one to ask for help. I wish my father is alive today to see how far his favorite boxer has come.

So here I am, trying to write something sensible notwithstanding the nervouness clouding my mind, derailing all my faculties for sensible thought. I will cheer hard and pray harder for Manny tomorrow. My heart will be broken if he should lose. It's my fight too.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"I am Legend"

I rushed to the restroom and locked myself up in a cubicle, fighting to keep myself together as the enormity of the decision I just made began to sink in. The door opened and the footsteps of two men echoed on the cramp tiled room.

"I couldn't believe anyone could have done that. The guy was an absolute disgrace, I mean, how could anyone throw it all away".

"I've been with HR for years and this is the first time it happened and hopefully it would also be the last, maybe we should change our recruitment policies to screen out those lunatics".

"Ha-ha-ha... People will be talking about this for a long time."

Their laughter filled the room for a while, and then silence as the footsteps headed for the door, which gave out an audible creaking sound as they went out. I waited a few minutes before stepping out of the cubicle pushing myself into a brisk walk. I couldn't wait to leave.

Two weeks of grueling apprenticeship had ended at this afternoon's citator examination, a hands-on, job-simulated process of analyzing data retrieved from the web through a series of coded entries the apprentices were methodically thought to memorize and put into application during the training period consisting of daily lectures, quizzes and oral recitations.

During the first few days of the apprenticeship, my lack of training in computers and complete unfamiliarity with a class-room environment, it's been years and I couldn't quite recall anymore how it was to sit in class, were a revelation that quickly overwhelmed my initial excitement at having finally landed a second job, rather, the opportunity to land a second job.

There were moments I would completely lapse into an absolute state of ignorance, an alien in a strange planet, while everyone around me were on the same page thinking in the same wavelength, the language they speak a mystery I couldn't quite comprehend. By the end of the week, and following a series of failed quizzes one after another, and equally disastrous oral recitations, I have fallen deep down the bottom rung of the pecking order.

Finally, this afternoon, during the finals, the last straw.

The multi-colored computer screen seemed to mockingly stare at me, while I held the two-page questionnaire, unable to even start. Two weeks of preparation proved to have amounted to nothing as I agonized over each and every question but not finding any sense out of the whole exercise not even the slightest idea what is asked, much less, what is the answer. The computer wouldn't oblige to my command, I couldn't even leave the first page. I went brain dead and it was hopeless.

At some other times, it would be ridiculous, this experience that I am going through except that this all-important opportunity was supposed to make a huge and lasting impact on how I could financially cope with life in the next few years, and how I can feed my family, so it is completely difficult to find the humor on my latest monumental failure.

After one full hour of futility, I've had enough. I handed back the questionnaire to the stunned trainors in the same blank immaculate condition that it was when I received it. "I'm so sorry, I can't go through this".

From the rest room, I went straight to the lobby guards downstairs to claim my ID and sign out. They fell in a hush as soon as I arrived but as I turned my back to leave, one of them whispered to the others "He's the one".

I am legend...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Pleading

He went home to a cold bowl of arrozcaldo.

Leo thought he could put it on the stove to simmer a little bit but his empty stomach just couldn't wait any longer. It's almost midnight now and that's all there is for supper. He found a spoon and quickly dug into the porridge that by now was beginning to get bland and sticky, which is what happens when food meant to be eaten freshly-cooked is left untouched for several hours. The probing spoon found a chicken leg deep into the bowl the hungry father of three immediately cleaned up to the bone. Had he come home in time for dinner, Leo thought he would not have missed the fine meal and cheerful conversation, the arrozcaldo would have been delicious as always, the comfort food that he would always crave during the harsh stormy days like this. But now he had to eat in the dark. Alone.

Outside, flood had already engulfed part of the town with no sign of subsiding, the massive blackout and whiplash howling wind and vicious rainfall on the roofs reveal the making of yet another potential disaster.

The announcement came just before noontime earlier today. Immediately, everyone at the firm rushed to pack his belongings hoping to reach home before the super-typhoon makes landfall directly into the city. There were loud angry complaints at government officials sleeping on the job again when they could have suspended all work and classes in the early morning hours so that the people would have not have risked getting caught in horrible weather like this away from home. Late as the announcement was, Leo welcomed the thought of coming back home early to cuddle up in bed with his wife and children to pass up the storm. He couldn't wait to head back to Aileen and the kids but he was summoned to the office of the boss.

"Leo, this pleading must reach the De la Cruz Law Firm in time. A multi-million peso contract depends on this so we can't afford to blow it. Make sure you deliver this no matter what happens. I don't care how you do it but I want this pleading to get there, you understand? You screw up like the way you did last time and you might as well start looking for another job. Don't say I didn't warn you, Leo. Here, take a cab".

Atty. Joven De Leon handed him a wad of bills before the boss himself rushed for the door, raring to get home while Leo lingered a moment, lamenting his terrible fortune. At least he thought to himself, he can keep the cab money and bring it home to Aileen by taking the jeepney instead, which is exactly what he always does to save up on transportation allowance every time he is sent off to serve a pleading. With two large envelopes pressed in his armpit, he walked through the door with the other scurrying employees eager to leave the high rise Makati building.

One look at the surroundings the moment he stepped out into the streets showed Leo he wouldn't need a cab, or a jeepney for that matter. A massive flashflood brought traffic to a halt, the vehicles stood still bumper to bumper, transforming a long stretch of Ayala Avenue into an extended parking lot. He waded into the flooded street, and made his way to the post office to mail the first of the two envelopes to the court then he rushed to Manila to deliver the other envelope to the Dela Cruz Law Firm.

He had to twice take the elevated train to make it to his next stop. And while flashfloods and traffic jams were never a problem as far as traveling on the train goes, the journey was anything but fast. The crush of humanity that would inevitably gravitate towards the train stations when all other means of transportation become impaired by the weather would always reach unbelievable proportions. This time, Leo was shocked to find something worse than he expected. The queue stretched all the way down to the street, a mob of disgruntled hundreds shoving and pushing for space while trying to inch their way one agonizing step after another through the stairway and then upstairs into the security checkpoint and finally after nearly two hours of supreme punishment, the boarding section where every coach that would open at every stop, already filled to capacity, would have one or two passengers stepping out, and ten others trying to squeeze in. A riot was practically threatening to explode at the mere sight of an approaching train.

When finally Leo managed to step into one of the coaches or rather after he was violently pushed inside by the jostling crowd, he found himself squeezed in the middle of what seemed like a human wall of tired perspiring bodies. Within seconds, he was dripping in perspiration himself, and almost suffocating, the smell of his own sweat adding to the already explosive cocktail of human stench permeating the cramped oven-hot train.

If getting inside was a struggle, getting out in one piece was just as difficult as the crowd waiting at every stop seemed to get bigger and bigger, and panic would hang in the air as soon as the sliding door would open so that when his turn came to disembark, Leo had to walk through the gauntlet like a neophyte in the initiation rite taking a beating from a phalanx of fraternity masters. And when finally it was over he paused to check if his ribs were intact and his vital signs still working. The envelope containing the pleading was moist with sweat and crumpled notwithstanding the heroic effort he put up to protect it.

What had been a drizzle earlier had become by now a vicious rainfall prompting him to seek cover at the canopy of the establishments lining the sidewalk. Leo fought the urge to buy an umbrella from a passing vendor, telling himself the money must be put to better use than a temporary respite from the rain but it turned out he never had a choice even if he changed his mind because when he reached for his wallet, all he found was a slit the pickpocket had skillfully cut to take his money.

He hugged the envelope close to his chest and contemplated the long cold road ahead while watching the rain.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Revenge

He used to watch them from a distance atop the hill where he and his friends love to play but now they are closing in. The land developers have arrived at the village with their tractors and heavy equipment, clearing the savanna, and mowing down his father's farm. The machines roared like battle tanks on full-assault. Armed soldiers escorting the operation kept the villagers at bay so all they could do was to watch their lives being destroyed. The boy Edward wept, remembering what his grandfather used to say about eagles and men. He was 12.

Ironically, the summer started on a high note for Edward and his family. School has just ended with Edward getting the highest honors at their elementary school graduation. His father threw a feast, butchering the fattened calf along with the ten pigs and dozens of chickens that met the same untimely death at the hands of the butcher, but their sacrifice was worth it, leaving an entire village satisfied and bursting in the belly, what with the feast lasting three straight days. The palay stalks bent to near breaking point from the sheer weight of the grains they held symbolizing the abundance of a forthcoming harvest. And best of all, Tisay had whelped, giving birth to a healthy litter of eight, from which Edward picked the biggest pup, a boisterous male he named Habagat.

His first encounter with the Haribon came one late afternoon during a kite-flying adventure on the hill. The sun was slowly approaching the final stage of descent casting streaks of crimson into the clouds when Edward noticed that the kite he was flying did not have the whole of the sky to itself. A tiny speck had materialized from nowhere in the infinite vastness inconspicuously at first and then slowly it started taking shape. "Another kite", the boy thought to himself except that it never stayed in place, making a circular flight, unaided by the wind, and at times going against it, slowly, slowly revealing itself while losing altitude in what seemed like a graceful aerial dance no kite could ever imitate. By the time he realized what it was, the eagle had taken a tailspin, disappearing in a flash and hurling itself into the direction of Edward's house at the foot of the hill which is still fairly visible from his vantage point. It re-emerged in the blink of an eye clutching a chicken on its grip, the poor prey wriggling and shaking but not so much in trying to extricate itself than simply demonstrating the primeval urge to cling to life down to the last agonizing breath.

"That bastard raided my fighters again. That dead rooster was a three-time winner. I'm gonna get me a shotgun and blow up that monster to smithereens", his father Mang Bitoy fumed, while holding a gray rooster, and looking at the distance where the eagle had escaped.

"Jovito, why don't you just keep your chickens locked up inside the coop or you yourself watch them closely when you put them out to the sun instead of blaming the eagle? Retorted Edward's grandfather, Lolo Bentong. "Besides, I don't feel good about you betting on those stupid cocks anyway. So perhaps the eagle may have saved you from losing your shirt at the cockpit. You should be thankful instead."

Edward felt bad for his father. He had lost a prized cock, and now, he couldn't even win an argument.

But deep in his heart the boy was completely enchanted by the swiftness of the kill and even more so with the way his grandfather put things in perspective. He may be old, nearly a hundred years, but there is no questioning his wisdom and his way with words. It may be the first time that Edward saw the great bird do its thing, but already the boy's imagination has long been captivated by fantastic stories from Lolo Bentong himself about the plight of the majestic bird. How as a young boy, he watched a pair of these eagles do their courship rituals in the clouds during a thunderstorm And when he was sure that Mang Bitoy could no longer hear them, Lolo Bentong narrated in almost graphic details the way the Haribon made the act of killing the three-time winner look like swatting a fly.

The eagle in the words of the old man, would transform from just a creature of nature into a spiritual crusader that embodies the soul of the earth from which man and beast and all the elemental beings have evolved and on whose survival, the continuity of the cycle of life depends. It's the only one of its kind, the last of a dying breed, that's why the bird is revered and treasured by people like Lolo Bentong who remain firmly attached to the past. To them, it will always be Haribon, the King of Birds. And the wrath of the Gods should befall whoever had meant to harm it.

To the old man, everything the eagle did was beautiful. He finds no cruelty in the way the Haribon plucks its prey in one swoop to deliver a swift and sudden death because such is the way of nature, the way it was created, the story of its life, and how it was meant to be. "The Haribon takes only what it needs, and it does not inflict pain to its own kind unlike man who lusts for everything and who would not hesitate to take the life of another man to satisfy his greed," Lolo Bentong would always say. Then he would ask, "now who's the evil one?"

From that day on Edward would find himself staring aimlessly at the skies wishing to catch a glimpse of what had become the mythical bird of his imaginary world and when he does find it, he would never cease admiring the grace with which it dives and glides to the rhythm of the wind and as soon as the eagle disappears from his sight, the boy would be left wondering why a creature so beautiful would be condemned to live the cursed and lonely life. Every sighting of the Haribon is a profound moment for Edward until one day.

Habagat had broken off his leash and the runaway pup exuberantly dashed to its freedom faster than his nimble legs could normally carry him to explore the world and its pleasurable scents chasing locusts in the ricefields and searching for bird's nests and edible worms in the hollows of fallen trees. Edward who had so nervously searched for Habagat across the village was already closing in when he heard a loud yelp and the flapping of wings. The Haribon took off meters away, making huge strokes with its powerful wings to slowly pull itself up from the ground with the heavy carcass of the puppy hanging limply from the powerful talons of the great king of birds.

He could almost hear his grandfather ask "now, who's the evil one?" as Edward watched the clearing operation along with the angry villagers. He wondered what would happen to them now that they have been completely stripped of their land, their source of livelihood taken away just like that, and so with their dignity. This must be how it felt to the Haribon, throughout its painful struggle to survive in the rapidly changing world. A struggle that finally came to a tragic end one day when the King was caught in the trap father and son had built to take revenge on the adversary. Edward recalled how the King who ruled the earth and sky with such boundless courage and energy appeared to have lost the will to fight once it realized it was grounded and how the eagle stood motionless, calmly resigned to its fate it seemed, as his father struck with a butcher's knife, delivering the death blow.

This must be what Lolo Bentong had meant to say when he spoke of the wrath of the Gods...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Merchants in the Dark

I ate lunch in a hurry. After gulping down a third glass of ice cold water I rushed upstairs to the Transcription Jobs Department to find the lights out as the hum of the airconditioner competed with the funny snoring sounds by office mates taking advantage of what remains of the one-hour lunch-break to steal a catnap. My luminous watch says there will still be a full 40-minutes of precious sleep.

I adjusted to the darkness and frantically searched for chairs, I needed at least four of them to align into a makeshift bed. Thank Goodness, there were not just four but five free chairs for me. My lucky day! The cold and the dark work in magical ways caressing me to sleep in no time. As soon as my back touched the cushion I was drifting off, my own snoring and grunting blending in perfect harmony with the ridiculous musical chorus of tired office workers.

Alas, they came! They walk in pretending to try to stifle the noise they make but you know they can't because their footsteps and their familiar voices intrude into your sleep especially if you happen to be a light sleeper which I am. They huddled around the huge front desk of the supervisor where all sorts of merchandise were hurriedly laid down. We call them, "Mga Negosyante ng Kadiliman" or the Merchants in the Dark. Smart enterprising officemates who use spare time to make spare cash.

"How much for this bra? Is this 36-C, Grace?"

"Five hundred, two gives (meaning, two installments), 450 if you pay cash."

"Well, it doesn't feel right, cup's too small".

"Here, put this on."

"Still don't fit? Are those things boobs or water melons? Okay Beth, remind me later to order the next size so that you can have it tomorrow".

'This phone charger China?"

"It is, Evelyn but I have sold dozens of that and not one's been rejected so far, it works, I assure you."

"These t-backs are gorgeous, I'm wearing one right now, you've got to try this Nimfa, I'm sure the boyfriend's gonna love it."


"Just kidding, well, just because you're born again Christian doesn't mean you can't wear thongs right? Who's gonna find out anyway? Does Brother Mike check you down there before every prayer meeting?"

"You crazy b----"

"Hey, watch your language, you're born again Christian, remember?"

The snorings have stopped and were immediately replaced by a lot of giggling and teasing as those awakened by the noise and who have already been eavesdropping on the sales talk could no longer suppress themselves. There goes our siesta... Now, back to work.

That afternoon, I went home with a burning fever. The lady who sat next to me in the cramped Toyota Revo looked every inch under the weather with reddish tearful eyes, and running nose that she tried to cover with a handkerchief throughout the trip. She was the culprit.

The minute I reached the dorm, I kicked off my shoes and threw myself to bed then dozed off. After a while, I felt the door gently opened. I heard the familiar voices of women, making small talk interrupted occasionally by bursts of laughter. The merchants again, I said to myself. I must have been already awake or perhaps I was dreaming but I realized I just came home from work so they couldn't be here. I backtracked to the day's events from the time I stepped into the dark room, the conversations that I had been eavesdropping on in the dark, and up to the time I took the trip home seated next to a sick girl... Maybe it was the fever. I must be hallucinating but the more I try to make sense out of what's happening, the more I get disoriented and the confusion slowly was growing into a cold fright. I listened closely to the women in the room and what I heard sent my hair standing on end.

Grrr... Grabagra... Grumpbhgragraphraga.... Grugh..
Rubrgrhara... grabraghagarapbharagh......

Rugrubrugapghraga.... Grabraghabraghah....

Vraghbraghadda... Dhagrabhagahhh...

Strange. I couldn't move. I couldn't get up. I couldn't even open my eyes to look at them. I wanted to scream. They must have noticed my agitation, I really felt so, because the laughter grew louder. Someone sat on the bed close to my belly, I could feel it as the cushion unsettled, rising a little from the pressure. Then I felt a tremendous weight on my groin, like someone had mounted on horseback. The long slimy hair cascaded down my face, making me feel itchy all over. They were laughing out loud now, celebrating, cheering their hearts out. A hand reached for my neck, gently touching it at first before taking a firm grip.

And still I couldn't move...

(Strange voices coming from my room caught my landlord's attention. He thought I left the TV on full volume but when he came in, he was shocked to find me alone in the dark and gasping for breath having a seizure. Eyes wide shut. I was rushed to the hospital...)

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Love Triangle

The uphill trek seemed to take an eternity but from where he stood he knew it's still a long way from the summit. Hunger, weariness and the lack of sleep made every single step he takes excruciatingly heavy, and only that deep longing for what lies at the end of this journey drove him to move forward. He tried to amuse himself with reminiscences of the childhood that he spent in their ancestral home at the foot of the Bulusan volcano where he would walk this uphill trail with Anna, who even as a boy he had always fantasized to become the love of his life someday, a belief he shared with his family and the entire town of Irosin for that matter.

In this town which seems to have been a willing hostage to the past, it is quite ironic that the future is still possible to foresee in life and relationships primarily because tradition still wields the power to impose in a way that most mortals can hardly refuse, which, however was the reason he decided to launch a personal rebellion by leaving the town to find his fortune in another country. He wanted to fly, to soar higher and farther than anyone from his town ever had, to swim against the raging tide, and to simply do what he had been made to believe he can't, and the first step to achieve that dream is to follow the voice from within and set the spirit free.

Yet, the luster of his achievements that began from the time he took flight, had already started to wane for Carlitos. Sure, he had turned his life full circle into a fairy tale of rags to riches by becoming a doctor in America, his ticket to a life lavished with all the luxuries of power and wealth. He had defied the odds in an almost miraculous way, to emerge no less than a folk hero to the eyes of his town-mates with the sheer magnitude of his conquest. But there are times he would still struggle with self-doubt. In moments of painfully honest soul-searching he would feel empty and while he alone knows about it, those were the worst of times, when the blind faith of those who chose to stay, those who willed themselves to suffer and endure seemed to eclipse the triumph of the brave ones like himself whose life flourished by moving on.

"This is where I belong, I love it here and I will never leave this place no matter what". Those were the exact words that summed up the parting message of Anna when he told him of his plans during their college graduation. He used to call her the lava lover, and he truly suspects she has an obsession, perhaps even a love affair with the volcano. When she was a little girl, she was convinced that Bulusan is God, and everything there is - from people to forest to dragon fly and lifeless rock - everything owe their existence to the compassion of the volcano.

And so in her mind they should willingly surrender to the judgment of fate when the time comes the spring of compassion finally runs dry and Bulusan breaks into a mighty outburst of deep-seated fury. It was an obsession that he desperately hoped Anna would outgrow eventually but she never did. Instead as Carlitos proceeded to the path of material enrichment, she on the other hand left everything behind and headed for the opposite direction propelled by a consuming passion to dedicate her whole life to science. She would immerse herself deep into the lonely task of discovering the secrets of the volcano, and after college, Anna would retreat to Irosin instead of marching forward to a brighter day, accepting full-time duties at the observatory which stood dangerously close to the fire-spewing crater of her beloved Bulusan.

The worst fight that they ever had was when he casually mentioned that Mayon, thirty miles away, was the one landmark and certainly not Bulusan that came to famously symbolize the Philippines in the world map and that Mayon already laid claim to far more pages in history books for having the perfect cone to which the world had become eternally infatuated, an image that had inspired generations of artists to create masterpieces and spurred tourist arrivals into the islands. Just like that Anna flew into a rage, the kind of which he had never seen in even the worst of volcanic eruptions. She was ready to lay down her life in defense of Bulusan, and Mayon from that day on was never ever mentioned in any of their conversations again.

Earlier today, and indeed as he drove past Mayon at the break of dawn, the memory of the fight made Carlitos wince at the magnificence of the volcano's perfect symmetry looming larger than life against the eerie stillness of the ruins of Cagsawa, where what remains of the church's bell-tower protruding from its stony grave eloquently spoke of the once deadly rage that rose from deep beneath the stillness of it all, creating in the aftermath, this thing of beauty which is a statement more powerful than the actual eruption itself, loudly and effectively contradicting Anna's spirited, if futile, stand.

It was totally different from the feeling that he had three hours later at the sight of Bulusan looming over the rustic landscape of his hometown of Irosin, which had noticeably experienced little changes since the day he left. He saw it as a monster eager to devour him and immediately he realized that among the things that remained untouched by change were the grudges that he still holds deep down in his heart. It hurt him to realize that the feeling of contempt consuming him because of all the misfortunes and for all the things that he had lost in this place still seethed within him after all these years, refusing to wilt with the passing of time.

It hurt even more that on this day he had broken a promise to never ever return but Carlitos quickly consoled himself with the thought of Anna, that if only he could take her away, it would be payback time and hands down the ultimate revenge.

A horn-bill flew overhead and settled on a branch, grooming itself momentarily and almost immediately the bird proceeded to feast on the fruits of the pili tree. Carlitos heard the wild bantam crow from a distance, seducing the female with the same ancient sound of procreation, that may have reverberated in this volcanic jungle since the beginning of time. Some things never change.

And then he heard the footsteps. The gun-wielding men emerged from nowhere and Carlitos found himself surrounded. They grabbed him. Twisted his arm. They frisked and blind-folded him. They took his watch and yanked at his wallet when it got stuck in his backpocket. A punch on the gut drove him to his knees and while on that position pleading for his life, they told him to say a prayer for the last time. In that fleeting moment of a chilling riveting silence, Carlitos remembered his father, how he laid dying in his arms following a crushing fall while they were on a happy trek to the summit of Bulusan to celebrate his 13th birthday. This place indeed may have been the curse of his life, with the manner it took his father away, and how it stole the heart of the only woman in the world he had truly ever loved, and now, it's about to take the ultimate price, his own life.

Anna began her descent from the summit, her backpack stuffed with instruments and soil samples which she would store at the observatory for the ongoing research on the presence of mineral deposit in Bulusan, and the potential usefulness of volcanic heat to the generation of alternative fuel energy. Her complexion already a deep bronze from the everyday burning by the sun, she proudly wears the hallmark of the life she had chosen, a lonely and difficult life that many including her own family and even her closest friends have given up trying to comprehend, but which they have come to accept as the life reserved only for Anna and her kind.

She reached for the letter from her files as soon as she returned to the observatory. She must have already read it a thousand times but the words that he wrote filled her heart with joy, and it was beautiful to realize how Carlitos could vividly remember the past in spite of the time and distance that stood between them. He had asked in ending what would it take to make her listen to her heart and for once leave her desolate life to give herself the chance to discover what true love is before it's too late. And after giving it a serious thought now she knew exactly what the answer is going to be. She began to write him a letter to let him know. She didn't hold back and the words flowed like the spring in a calm summer day, the emotions of the moment so real she could almost feel his presence.

The crack of a solitary gunshot echoed through the woods and startled Ana at the observatory, which made her pause from her writing, her heart struck with sadness at the sudden thought of yet another bird or buck felled by what she imagined was the ruthless hunter's gun but in no time, Bulusan had reclaimed its serenity.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Finding Miss Nelia

(This Brazen Teacher, one of my blogging idols recently wrote a post about the phenomenon of the favorite teacher. I was inspired to write on the same topic and this is the result. Thanks to the Brazen Teacher...)

My search has ended and my heart is broken.

The old man at the rusty iron gate who gave me direction was right on the spot with his instructions. Walk straight up to the end, then turn right, and you will find the apartment section, it's somewhere on the fifth row from the bottom of the block. Look closely and carefully read the inscriptions, because the paint is most likely beginning to peel off. Now here I am, misty-eyed and feeling stupid for doubting the soundness of his memory.

Before this, my search took me back to the town where I grew up, to the last known address where I used to visit Miss Nelia - my science teacher in fifth grade - back in those days when I was eleven and aching for affirmation, and desperately looking to make something meaningful out of my life back then. On the same exact place where the teacher's house stood during my youth, a fish sauce (patis) factory had risen in its stead, obliterating the last remaining vestiges of remembrance that I still keep of that house. The security guard, who was about my age, told me he had no idea what this place used to be and what significance it held if there was anything like it somewhere in time; like who were the folks who lived here before and what they did, and if they are alive, where they are now. No, he just can't have none of that. The past that this place held secretly in its deepest darkest corners and still had me enthralled after all these years holds no special meaning or significance to him if you want his honest opinion, and that past will remain a secret to this man forever, not that he cares to know anything about it at all even if I should insist that he listen to my story. So on that sad note I left with a heavy heart.

From there, my feet took me to the site of the old primary school which at least still stands to this day and which I see now as monument to my lost years, a symbolism that defies time to preserve the memory of the growth of my personal universe. I was subconsciously hoping the fire trees were still there but maybe it was too much to wish for.

I have a confession to make.

Under the unforgettably expansive shade of the fire trees that once stood proud at the school yard which from a distance assumed the collective appearance of a fallen crimson cloud, I once went on a killing spree, murdering innocent birds with my slingshot. The fire trees among other things made the school such a special place to me if only for the memories of the happy summer days that they are capable of bringing back to life, memories that are meant to defy the power of time to blunt the magic of my childhood nostalgia no matter how long it had been since the memorable event actually happened.

School was the extension and expansion of my life back then, as I was beginning to discover to my eternal amusement that the world is bigger and much bigger indeed than the four corners of the apartment where my family used to stay, that there is such a thing as a place dedicated to the attainment of the profound objectives of education, where you get to be transformed from a son or a brother or a neighbor to become at first a complete stranger, before fitting into the mold of a classmate, a student, and in my case, a surrogate son. And whatever lesson I learned from here it allowed me to ease into my next bigger roles in the higher scheme of things, as for instance a member of the church, of my community, of society, and ultimately of the flawed and eternally suffering human race.

And then there she was, Miss Nelia, she was as usual, in a mad rush to beat the 7 o'clock buzzer that would announce to all the start of the flag-raising ceremony, which the school considers as a sacred tradition never to be missed, and certainly not to be taken for granted or doom befalls the uncaring soul. And there I was, following her footsteps, on my shoulder hung my old school bag barely held together by stitches my mother had patiently sewn with nylon thread the night before, and which she gave to me with a heart-wrenching promise that "we will buy a new one son, as soon as we have some spare cash". I held in my arms, or rather I had embraced so tightly and so close to my heart the thick heavy pile of folders and lesson plans that to my mind were a special privilege to carry for her, because she is a person I truly admire and respect, even though I was too young to know what it meant at that time.

She would demand that I stay after class and we shall review - those were actually military drills on memorization and word-association techniques - to coerce my brain into memorizing the names of the great scientists and the great things that they invented that were to become their claim to fame and immortality, the distinction between force, gravity, and inertia and a million other scientific definitions, the table of the chemical elements, and the amazing explanation of science why food, travelling the circuitous route of the digestive system, would end up into despicable matter when expelled through the most despicable body part of all.

Saturdays, the mental military drills assume an almost sadistic degree of difficulty. There will be sanctions imposed if my mistakes would reach unacceptable numbers - a vicious tongue lashing that would often leave me in tears, a total emotional wreck. But I always look forward to the end of those sessions - Miss Nelia and I would have a late afternoon snack, usually porridge and ice cold drink from a roadside eatery just across the street from school. I was only half thankful that she pays for our food with her own hard-earned money because the school, and the government itself is too poor to spend for our ambitions- the other half of me tells me I actually earned it, considering the agony that I needed to endure for a measly reward of a bowl of porridge and a little refreshment.

All of these because we were preparing for war.

Back in those days, the Science Quiz Bee was fought with the ruthless intensity of some of history's most vicious wars, the kind of struggle in which honor is at stake and the saving grace is a team spirit bordering on a willingness to live and die together. We were a team to the bitter end, that was our mantra, that was also our promise and our threat to the whole world. On the day of the competition I remember wearing an ill-fitting Barong Tagalog, and a pair of trousers my father had worn the first time he came to Manila as a teenage boy. My battle gear was crude but the size of my heart immeasurable. I breezed through the easy and average rounds but qualified into the succeeding difficult round by the proverbial skin of my teeth. It was in the clincher round that the cookie finally crumbled.

"Why do we see lightning first before hearing the thunder?" It was the million dollar question that I picked from the crystal bowl. I searched my mind, reached into the very depths of my soul and my being but couldn't quite find the stroke of wisdom equal to the task at hand. I searched for her face in the crowd looking for salvation as the seconds ticked away, and found Miss Nelia head vowed and face buried in the palm of her hands. I honestly couldn't remember anymore how I struggled to answer the question in the most honorable way I can and how desperately I tried to make my last ditch stand against the inevitable like the proud warrior preparing to go out on his shield. Perhaps my forgetfulness towards that episode was the mind's way of blocking off memories of many humbling moments in our lifetime which could otherwise leave a person permanently damaged for life.

She met me at the backstage and we cried. We cried the entire trip back home.

Today, twenty years later and after a long and painful search, I found her at last, but not in the joyous manner I had so desperately tried to envision whenever I dream of this reunion. There will not be another long conversation like the ones that we used to have before and which I had honestly been looking forward to having with her once again. There will not even be a short talk or some pleasantries for that matter and yes, there will be no explaining where I failed and where I succeeded in the dreams that we have built, which was the part I feared the most about this meeting - to be telling my teacher face to face that the disaster at the Science Quiz Bee was not the first nor the last but just the beginning of a series of many countless heartaches that came to be the story of my life. The life of her favorite student, the boy he predicted to become a brilliant lawyer someday had fumbled and failed in a big way. I did find work at a law firm alright but not as an attorney. I am a just a lowly messenger.

The long and painful search did not exactly prepare me for the bigger tragedy of its conclusion. How I wish this is just another one of my bad dreams. How I wish I were completely mistaken to be in a place like this. How I wish that I could change the irony of my fate. Yet the inscription on the stone brought a heartbreaking finality to my search. Indeed, the paint was beginning to peel but still it clearly read: Cornelia Dimaculangan, RIP...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Maid

The new maid Inday had been terribly ill, too ill that it kept her completely unable to do anything but lie down the whole day she couldn't even pull herself out of bed. She was throwing up all over the place, spilling out the contents of her guts, her eyes at times bloodshot and at times glassy, her body seemingly threatening to burst into flames because of a horrendous incomprehensible fever. But the thing that disturbed Mabel the most was her vital signs. From years of experience as a former nursing attendant, she has yet to encounter anything like this, that's why it's difficult to explain the events she observed during the last couple of hours.

She would take her pulse and find great trouble detecting anything. And then at last when she did feel the very faint beating, it was like electricity would flow through her, sapping away her energy. And afterwards, a few minutes of not feeling anything would transpire before yet again, a strange sensation comes creeping in. It was weird. Simply weird. Mabel would have liked to continue checking the maid's pulse at regular intervals and then perhaps clean up the mess but she started feeling dizzy herself, her strength beginning to ebb. It was physically draining.

To make matters worse, the phone had just went dead. There was no one to call for help in this bad weather and terrible situation, considering the distance between their new town house where they have just transferred last week, and the nearest occupied unit five blocks away. She didn't like the way the ailing maid looked at this stage, like the blood had been systematically drained from her frail body but at least she had already fallen asleep although she was still breathing heavily and with apparent difficulty. The medicine she administered was hopefully beginning to take effect. Mabel wondered to herself when would Paolo be coming back?

She left the maid's bedside and walked into their bedroom to catch her breath and wait for her husband there. But she fell asleep. A slight drizzle had started again, the wet pavement glistening under the moonlight. The grass on their lawn gathered dew as the hours passed while a stray dog howled at the moon from faraway.

Paolo honked twice the moment he approached the house, and almost immediately, the heavy iron gate parted in the middle revealing against the glare of the headlight, a woman in flimsy sleeping dress, her flowing black hair accentuating the round radiant face that seemed to reflect the glow of the moonlight. Inday greeted him with a wide smile and watched while Paolo backed the car up into the garage.

"Where's your Ate Mabel?", he inquired.

"She fell asleep waiting for you Sir". The maid answered still smiling broadly, as she walked on bouncy legs, humming enthusiastically while heading back to her room upstairs, the exuberant strides almost a bizarre dance. Paolo wanted to ask why she is up this late and how come not a single light was on inside or outside the house but the maid was gone in an instant and he was just too tired to ask.

Mabel couldn't believe her eyes the moment she awakened late in the morning in which she almost instinctively rushed downstairs without bothering to fix herself. The bathroom had already been scrubbed clean, while the clothesline in the backyard strained under the weight of the still dripping laundry, the smell of freshly-cooked breakfast permeated the morning air from the kitchen, while Paolo sat beside the dining table, his attention torn between a late breakfast and the newspaper in his hands. He noticed her presence and gave Mabel a look of concern and a half-smile.

"You overslept, honey, come on now and let's have brunch."

But with a million questions racing through her mind, food was the last thing that mattered for the perplexed young housewife. "How is Inday? She was sick to death last night, what happened to her? And where is she now? Her words came in rapid succession, desperately craving for answers.

"What do you mean sick? That woman's a machine, Belle, working non-stop. I'm exhausted just watching her go at it. I just had to beg her to please stop, to take it easy, my God. She's upstairs now, resting I hope... Looks like we lucked out on this one, Belle... she's worth every single cent we're paying."

Mabel was incredulous. She had been with many sick people at the hospital, she had personally witnessed how some of them would sink so dangerously close to death only to come back from the brink, but never in the miraculous manner her husband was trying to suggest in the case of the maid. The stench of vomit seemed to return as she recalled how it was last night and so with the feeling of dread that swept her in anticipation of a terrible tragedy and almost instantly Mabel felt nauseous. It all seemed surreal now in retrospect, and maybe it is. She must have been dreaming all along last night. Yes, it could not have been anything but a dream, a very bad dream indeed.

That night as they laid together in bed, she felt Paolo put his arms around her and teasingly nipped at her ear, before gently whispering "So, when are you making the big announcement? I've been waiting for you to say it the whole day, the waiting is killing me, Honey".

"What announcement?" she asked, trying to stay awake.

"Oh don't you play innocent with me, you little liar, Inday told me about it at dinner tonight".

"Told you what?", she was visibly agitated now and this time Mabel made no effort to conceal it.

"Hey, wait a minute, Belle, didn't you tell her you were pregnant?"

"What?" she fought the urge to curse. "The hell with that... I don't even know it myself. Me, pregnant? How dare her say that?"

"You mean?"

"Hell, no. And if this is a joke, it isn't funny. She's making up stories, that miserable bitch. She'll have some explaining tomorrow. We'll see about that."

For several hours, and long after her husband had began snoring the night away, Mabel was still seething. It was impossible to sleep with that kind of temper. Finally she decided she can't wait for morning to come. She rose and instinctively reached for the switch only to find to her shock that the light wouldn't turn on, no matter how many times and in which direction she pressed. Slowly, she found her way to the maid's room, the door unexpectedly unlocked. The stench of vomit assaulted her the moment she walked inside, and because of moonlight coming in from the open window, she could see that the bed where Inday had been lying in horrible condition the night before has remained in disarray reeking of vomit. But the maid was nowhere to be found.

Mabel looked outside the window, into the moonlit night and across the street until she noticed the familiar outline of their roof cast against the vacant lot below. On its slope right above the exact spot where she was standing loomed a shadow that was almost unrecognizable, almost imperceptible at first until slowly it rose, revealing the unmistakable figure of a woman, her long hair drifting in the direction of the wind, Mabel could tell that she was stark naked when the shadow stood still, and then the silhouette started moving, leaping and crawling on all fours, then pacing about and walking on seemingly bouncy legs, the exuberant strides almost a bizarre dance. A stray dog howled at the moon from faraway...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Kite

"He's been badgering me the whole day, Fred, asking when are you coming back until he fell asleep, waiting for you to arrive."

"Oh yes, I remember he asked me last night to make him a kite. I think he wants to show-off to the other kids in the neighborhood."

"Well, next time you should think twice before making promises to that kid. He just wouldn't stop asking. Have you eaten yet?"

There was nothing on the table and one glance at the empty kettle lying on the sink let him know that telling the truth to Martha will not make any difference.

"Don't worry Martha, I'm not hungry." Fred lied through gnashing teeth while ignoring the tearing pain in his gut. Then he lovingly carried the boy Ben in his arms, kissed him on the cheeks before putting him down gently into the wooden bed, which fills more than half the entire spread of their one-room abode.

Fred remembered something and reached down his pocket where he had kept the sewing thread. He paid for it with money from his fare, so he had to walk almost ten kilometers to make his way back home. He also remembered that they have just about cleaned up the last of their savings from his previous trip, when he was hired as an oiler on a gigantic cargo vessel bound for the Marianas. Now the family is practically living on dole-outs from relatives and friends, and even their generosity is just as quickly running thin.

His entire body ached from weariness and hunger, but that wouldn't compare to the pain of his crushing failures. For almost a year now, he had been joining the daily queue from sunup to sundown alongside hundreds of other seafarers like himself at the Baywalk in Manila; those starving, desperate men praying for a miracle to happen, which actually meant being called aboard should someone had been foolish enough to miss the boat.

He turned off the light and joined them in bed and as he slowly drifts into sleep, Fred made sure the last images on his mind were the faces of his wife and son, his last chance at happiness, so he's taking them along wherever his dreams would bring him.

He figured, if perhaps by doing this, he could do what he couldn't accomplish in this hard luck life, if this way he could take Martha and Ben elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere, except here, just some place the pain and sufferings could not reach, then maybe there is purpose to waking up to yet another day even if it's meant to be spent in the pursuit of a futile and lonely quest.

It was a little bit gloomy in the morning, and a mild drizzle at dawn left patches of mud on the lahar-covered vacant lot between the highway and the slums where Fred and his family had lived for as long as they can remember. Ben recognized some of his friends with their colorful expensive kites but he pretended to ignore them and kept his eye on the contraption he was holding, the kite that his father made out of old newspaper and broomstick, held together by morsels of cooked rice instead of glue. Fred on the other hand walked self-consciously behind his son.

"Okay, I'll throw. You've got to pull hard at the string the moment I released the kite", Fred instructed Ben while backing up to the direction of the wind, a mild breeze with occasional gusts strong enough to send lahar sand flying in a swirl, recreating the surreal image from old western movies, in those scenes when hero and villain face off in a final mortal gunfight.

The first attempt by Ben at flying a kite was just exactly what Fred had expected. The kite pulled up at the sudden burst of head wind and then quickly took a sharp dive like it was loaded with brick, barely missing Fred's head. Fred plucked it from a mud patch, tossed it to the wind and the kite took off again. Ben yanked hard at the thread, then dashed spiritedly against the direction of the wind to propel the ascending kite. But the boy tripped on a rock and fell hard on his face. Fred rushed to his son's aid while the other children couldn't help but laugh so hard at what they had seen.

They exchanged places. Ben tossed the kite and Fred, remembering all the important kite-flying lessons of his boyhood days and using them to the hilt had successfully launched the kite soaring above the houses and past the tallest trees, above the power lines in the distance, and way past all the rest of the other children's kites, the thread unravelling at lightning speed as the flying devil on the other end of the line bravely held up to the power of the whirlwind and couldn't seem to have enough of the joyous and purest ecstasy of flight.

Ben ran to his father and hugged him.

For the next few hours, the boy Ben held on to his kite while his father watched his son live out his childhood dream, that beautiful dream of soaring above the clouds with an exhilaration reserved only to the birds the first time they spread their wings to fly, the dream of conquering one's fears and reinforcing the faith, the dream of turning into a monumental triumph what others who don't have the faith to believe, would simply equate to an impossible dream.

"Father, how come you fly kite so well, where did you learn that?", Ben asked without looking at his father, his eyes fixed on the kite which is now reduced to the size of a black dot in the sky with the thread stretched out to nearly the entire length.

"Well, your grandfather used to go kite-flying with me when I was a boy your age here, at exactly this same place. We spent countless summer days like this just flying kites until the sun goes down. I still remember what my father used to say about kites. "If you really want this thing to fly, you've got to let the wind take it away. You just have to learn to let go."

"You mean grandfather did not leave the house most of the time like you do? How come you always go away, Father? I wish we could spend more time like this together, flying kites and just having fun..."

Every word the boy said tugged at the heart but Fred fought his guilt.

"But I can't afford to be always with you like this Ben, the times are different now and you have to understand that. When I was your age, this place was a rice field, and all that you see is green, there were fruit-bearing trees all around and lots of fish in the lake which is so totally different from the way it is today. The Mt. Pinatubo eruption took away everything that I have, including my father. Before the volcanic eruption, we were better off and my father can afford back in those days to feed us, send us to school, put clothes on our backs, and provide a decent life to us with what he earns from the farm. I can't do that now, certainly not in a situation like this. I just have to leave and find a job Ben, or we all die."

Martha arrived, hoisting a piece of paper in her hand, a telegram... her smile visible even from a distance. "Fred, oh god, Fred, the good lord finally heard our prayers. The shipping company in Subic sent you this!"

Then she and Fred embraced, Ben squeezed in between, wandering what magic spell came over his parents. Whatever it is, he wouldn't want it to end. In fact he wanted this moment, this happiness that he had not seen on the faces of his parents for a long time, to last forever.

That night, as they packed his father's clothes, the boy couldn't believe how anyone could feel like wanting to celebrate and wanting to cry at the same time, but that is the situation that would exactly describe how he felt, and at least in his young mind, he thought to himself, it's better this way than not feeling anything at all after the bitter-sweet moments during the day. He felt his father's lips touched his cheeks perhaps for the last time to say goodbye while he put him to sleep. In the morning, there was only himself and his mother, and Ben was overwhelmed with a terrible longing although he expected this.

He took the kite out to a windswept day under gray-painted skies. A splattering of red and purple hues gave hints it would be some struggle before the sun breaks free from the clutches of the seemingly impregnable clouds. The kite sprung to life against the wind, and tugged hard at the thread like a wild vicious animal on a leash. It hurled itself into the sky as soon as the boy set the thread reeling off, guiding it skillfully with his hands. His father would have been so proud to watch him in this effortless mastery of the secrets of flight, if only he were here.

The weather-beaten landscape suddenly turned from gray to a glowing green, rice fields emerged to reclaim a wide expanse of the poignant lahar-ravaged plains, and the boy Ben became the child that his father was when the earth was still beautiful and life had far more frequent moments of joy. He thought about his father and the ship that took him away. He remembered what he told him about letting go.

Go find my father and tell him about how it was today, the boy Ben whispered to his kite while he cut the thread and set it free...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Of Flies and Lions

(Payatas is a huge mountain of garbage that is home to thousands of urban poor filipinos struggling to eke out a living as scavengers. It's the latest infamous landmark after Smokey Mountain. This short story is a satire on the urban tragedy.)

Loud, obnoxious, and drunk as hell, the three men strode unsteadily along the narrow street bordered on both sides by rows of shanties. The great beast appeared a few yards away, the enormous head brushing against the shanty walls. They froze and waited for hopefully a swift and painless death but as the three men collapsed in terror the creature in one mighty leap catapulted itself above them, landing several meters away before disappearing into the night.

Lt. Pocholo Tango was about to lapse into another asthma attack at the sight of the unexpected guest, a bearded, hairy caucasian in ridiculous skin-tight pink leotards who spoke like some alien from outer space, a Santa Claus stricken with anorexia. The lieutenant called out his trusted right hand man.

"Cabo!" SPO1 Alex Marino rose from his sleep the way that Lazarus came slowly ack from the grave. Half-awake and half-asleep, he tried to salute but his hand wouldn't oblige, instinctively reaching for his mouth instead to wipe off dripping saliva. The lieutenant brought him to his senses with a resounding slap on the face using a folded newspaper.

"You crazy bastard you're sleeping on the job again. Talk to this Martian invader and see what he's up to!"

And so began the tactical interrogation by the police officer of the Man from Planet Mars. But nothing he would manage to say could make any sense. The two police officers could only scratch their heads in desperation.

"Aha!" SPO1 Marino's eyes lit up at the sudden rush of a brilliant idea. "I think I'll get me an interpreter".

"An interpreter, at 2 in the morning, are you nuts? The lieutenant was at the end of his fuse.

"Just leave it to me, Sir", and Cabo disappeared.

Lt. Tango couldn't believe his eyes when PO1 Marino returned less than an hour later hand in hand with a long-legged blue eyed blonde with a plunging neckline. Immediately, the blonde bombshell and Mr. Pink-leotards-from-Planet-Mars started conversing in what sounded like an alien extra-terrestial twilight zone type of language. Recovering his senses, the lieutenant pulled Cabo aside - by the ear. "What in hell's name are you doing? And where did you get that interpreter?"

"Well, Sir, ah, ehr... I got her from ... er... the Pegasus strip club", the dimwit assistant responded sheepishly.

"What? You crazy bastard, what do you think of this office, a red-light district? Take those two nuttheads out of here or I'll blow your brains out".

"But... but Sir, you yourself say we can't get an interpreter at this darn hour, Sir. So, I got this lady here, by the way isn't she hot? The name is Anna... Anna Kournikova, well, I know it's just an alias, but she's one of those imported hookers from Belarus, who now works at Pegasus. See how it rhymed? From Belarus to Pegasus... she sure came a long way, Sir. And look, she and the Planet Man seemed to understand each other. See?

Anna turned to the lieutenant. "Welld Mizterd offizered, diz handzombed young man iz Brutuz, and by the wayd, hazd yourd azziztandt tolded you my named izz Ana?

"Damn right, Anna, and since you told me he's Brutus so maybe you might as well call me Popeye the sailor man. Hey miss, do me a favor, will you? Quit calling this damn thing a man or I'll have you booked for, let me see, grave insult to humanity. Or wait, you must be on dope to say those shitless things you say. You wouldn't want to do time in jail do you? I only see creatures like this on science fiction movies so don't go tellin' me he's a man. Take him back to his space ship and tell him to go back home to Planet Mars where he came from. Then maybe we can forget about this whole damn fiazco".

"Okayd. But juzt a zeconded Zir, wouldn't you liked to maked a quick milliond buckz? Anywayd, were leavingd nowd. Goodered luckt to you, Zir!"

The lieutenant's eyes widened, dollar zigns flashing out of them. Anna had a funny way of saying it, but the sound of a quick milliond buckz, was too loud and clear to escape the lieutenant's curious ears. "Hey, wait a second!" the police officer said, smiling. "It's quite hot in here, why don't we go inside my office? You and this handsome young man here can have coffee and chips while we talk business. A million bucks, you say?

Slowly, it all began to unravel. Brutus, the famous lion trainer from Russia had an accident. He fell asleep on the wheels while driving, so the van toppled, and the lion escaped. The beast, the undisputed star of the famous Russian circus is easily worth a million dollars. He's in fact considered a national treasure in Russia. "Help me and name your price" Brutus dared the lieutenant. But how can you go looking for a lion in the city without the people calling you sick in the head?

A loud banging outside startled Lt. Tango. Dashing out of the office, he found his assistant banging the phone.

"You crazy bastard, take it esy, what are you up to now?

"Well Sir, it's been a bad day for the two of us. First, we had this visitor from outer space, and now, you wouldn't believe it. I just received a prank call from some crack-head saying he's seen a lion, Damn right, sir, a lion. Can you believe this? A godamn lion in a goddamn city. Those goddamn idiots.

"Where you say did the calls come from?"

"Bastard says he's calling from Barangay Payatas. A lion in Payatas, by God!

Lt. Tango grabbed his assistant who was already bracing for the customary slap but the lieutenant planted a kiss on the startled assistant's face instead.

If they had arrived a minute late, it would have been all over for the big cat. Angry Payatas residents armed with lead pipes, rusty bolos, home-made guns, slingshots, and even kitchen utensils were all poised to attack. The runaway lion was cornered inside a hole the size of a small cave dug on one side of the garbage mound.

As expected, the Payatas folks would not be denied a share of the bounty the moment they heard the story. They bargained with the police officer on a sectoral basis the way they do it in any democratic republic, as their leaders would say. The youth wanted a dance party with master-rapper Andrew E. providing live hip-hop music. The jobless bums demanded a new basketball court be put up. The women wanted immunity from arrest when they play cards and bingo games in the afternoons. The neighborhood drunks, who took credit for being the first to find out about the lion, requested a week's supply of gin bilog. The born-again Christians asked for a prayer hall, with the latest sound system.

In return, everyone agreed to take turns guarding the lion day and night to prevent its escape and in addition, they will all help in laying down the trap to catch the beast. Cash advances were made from the richest businessman in the neighborhood, the owner of the lone grocery store in Payatas, for food and refreshment to be paid for when the money arrives. For several days, the Payatas folks held vigil but the lion would not come out. Brutus wouldn't dare get close to his runaway pet, aware of the big cat's temper - hungry and all - in a situation like this.

They came to encounter many startling discoveries. One is that, at high noon, when the sun is up and the heat in the rotten mountain of trash becomes unbearable, the lion roars like crazy, and it could be heard from miles away. To camouflage the mighty jungle call, the solution is to hold a daily noise barrage at the same exact hour. On the first day of the vigil, they launched a noise barrage against the greedy oil companies because of their oppresive oil price hikes. The second day, the Payatas folks went up in arms against prostitution, sex-trafficking and the exploitation of women in media and in this, our male-dominated society. The third day was their turn to launch a noise barrage against graft and corruption in government. Slowly the entire barangay was transforming into a society of political activists. But after the fourth day, as soon as the noise barrage for world peace ended, and with the angry residents having already lost their voice and their patience, a trap is laid and they made up their mind to get the lion by hook or by crook.

"We'll get him out!" boasted Asyong Lasenggo, the tubercular thug and self-styled drunken master of Barangay Payatas who volunteered to be the live bait. He will walk into the lion's den and let the beast come after him. For his sacrifice, he asked to be paid the kingly sum of ten thousand pesos to be divided equally among his four common-law-wives if something happens to him, a condition explicitly written in his last will and testament hastily-prepared by Payatas' resident lawyer, yes, a lawyer in Payatas. He used to be the celebrity of the neighborhood before this lion came to take the title. Then, the resident doctor of Payatas, yes again, there is a doctor in Payatas, took Asyong's blood pressure and vital signs, just to make sure he will not drop dead or die of fright at the sight of the lion.

And then finally, in what was to be hailed the high point of Payatas folklore, Asyong bravely baited the beast to emerge from his cave, but the suspense was short-lived. To everyone's shock, the monster that had terrorized their imagination day and night had been reduced to a walking model of canine skeletal system, its body covered with cankerous boils and pus, in which colonies of flies are having a feast. Life in Payatas was just too much for even the king of beast. After walking a few feet, the poor animal lapsed into what seemed like an epileptic seizure and then died with its tongue hanging out.

Just like that, everyone stood speechless. Their rags to riches ambitions came crashing down, without even taking off from the rags stage. Lt. Tango and PO1 Marino were lucky to escape being lynched by an angry mob, but the lieutenant was struck by a serious asthma attack from the chase. Anna and Brutus eloped during the meelee, never to be seen again.

But the Payatas folks, forever adapting to the foul moods of fate, were swift to find a way to turn disaster into jubilation. Gin bottles were quickly passed around and the dead lion was skinned, boiled and tenderized into a mouth-watering pulutan. The entire barangay partied day and night for two straight days until food ran out and then they lived unhappily ever after.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My Rain Dancing Days

Watching the rain is one of my life's simple joys. I don't know if this is an addiction or if science already had invented a term for it but I think I personally would make a good case study. This fascination with rain started from the very time I learned to become aware of my environment. I suspect it meant right from the time my mother had me in her womb. She used to say that I was born in the month of September of a fateful year that had far more than the usual share of tropical storms. Perhaps I was a rain dancer in my previous life.

My mother would recall that days before I was born, a powerful typhoon came and wrecked havoc to the coastal town where my parents and older siblings used to live during the '70's. The town was submerged in flood that reached waist-deep in our neighborhood, and up to the roof-tops in some areas. During the height of the storm, the balcony of our house including the stairs leading up to the second floor was detached and swept away by the current. My father had to dive into the raging floodwater with a long rope to tie to the floating balcony and prevent if from drifting away.

To his amazement, my father recalled that a runaway pig had swam side by side with him while he was doing the one-man (plus one-pig) salvage operation. He decided that between the pig and the drifting balcony, the animal is more worth saving since it could drown while the balcony may be retrieved later so my father went after the pig. The bigger surprise was when he found out how good a swimmer the pig was. When my father was beginning to weaken from fighting off the current, he discovered that by holding on to the pig's tail, he can easily keep himself afloat and when the pig finally pulled him to safety, my father really felt he was the one saved instead of the other way around. Then, with a heavy heart he left the animal on its own. The thought of catching the pig for the family's consumption never crossed his mind. It would be so ungrateful, my father felt, to even think of doing such horrible thing to someone who had saved your life. To this day, it is a favorite topic whenever a typhoon comes around, my father swimming side by side with that prodigal pig.

When I was a growing child in that coastal town, my fondest memories of rain include those stormy evenings when I would be tucked in bed with my parents, listening while trying to cover my head with a pillow as wind and rain lashed angrily at our ancestral wooden house. No, I was never afraid. That's one of the lessons that you learn when you are a child, and it's the best thing about having your parents beside you during every storm. I always felt that as long as my parents are with me, nothing bad will ever happen. It's a testament to the kind of caring and loving that my parents showered me with.

I guess having a father who is willing to dive into rampaging floodwaters just to save one part of the house from drifting away gives me that unshakable faith in the absolute dedication of my parents to do the right thing for his family, no matter the dire consequences. That's why, I will always treasure the memories of days past when we would just stay in the house taking comfort in each other's presence while the wrath of a vicious storm is unleashed full force outside.

On the other hand, we would be worried and restless when any member of the family is not yet home during a storm. One of the most enduring memories of my childhood was when in yet another storm battered night, we huddled around a candle light waiting for my father to come home from work, and when finaly he arrived, I was teary-eyed to watch my mother welcome my father with a tight embrace the moment he appeared at the door, and then they kissed. It was a mushy moment alright but I would gladly give up anything if only I could make that moment happen again, and I wouldn't get tired of watching it.

We are taught about love by the examples of our parents, and I can say that that incident was one of the most powerful demonstrations of affection which I had ever seen and which I keep in my heart up to now. In fact I would even say that my propensity to seek love, to value that love, and to give it back in generous amounts would trace it beginnings on such experiences as the one I witnessed at the door on that stormy night.

There is something about the rain that makes you see the true value of the things that you have, and the importance of the people that you have in your life. I guess it's because the rain symbolizes the universal and indomitable force of nature that could take away the things that we value the most in the blink of an eye.

So every time that we walk through the vortex of the latest storm to come into our lives, we are reminded of our vulnerability, we realize that we are far from immune to pain and grief. Yet the silver lining to every rain is when our ability to cope with this indomitable force unmistakably rises to the occasion. We become more steadfast in our faith, we become more earnest in expressing to our loved ones that we love them. We embrace with much more heartfelt emotion, and the more deeply we appreciate the sheer joy of being together, riding out the tempest, and taking strength from each other's company.

I also enjoy the morning after.

We would wake up to a joyous announcement that classes are suspended while outside, it appears as if the entire community has embarked on a fluvial parade, walking on the flood that by then had receded to up to the knees-deep. You would think that these people who endured a night of relentless pounding from the storm and whose houses remain flooded would be a miserable lot but it is wonderful surprise to find too many smiling faces. This is a remarkable characteristic that can be found not only in our poor little town but practically in every part of the country. Truly, the ability to smile in the face of misfortune is one of the most endearing traits of our people You would see crowds wading happily on the flood, and some in fact would actually take a dip, perhaps pretending to be swimming in a pool at some exclusive resorts.

The best part is catching freshwater fish on the flooded streets. When I was a child, the river separating our town from the nearest neighboring town was not yet polluted. Fish and other small animals like crustaceans and a few snakes thrive in that river, and when the river overflows, you will find fish everywhere, jumping out of the drainage, swimming under your feet, getting stuck in the mud, and just appearing where you least expected them, as if by some divine providence, the fish seemed to be offering themselves to be caught and end up on the dinner table. And with some of the fish reaching up to a kilo a piece, it becomes irresistible for many people to take to the water and experience the thrill of catching fish with their bare hands.

We have since left the town and I know the river of my youth is now a dead river, the victim of pollution due to the indiscriminate dumping of waste into the river by the town residents themselves. It is quite sad really but at least I still have memories of a joyous past to look back to and enjoy when I need to be reminded of how life had been good to all of us, then and now, and perhaps long after my rain dancing days are over.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Scarlet Moon

He was just a shadow in the dark but the familiar sound of his voice gave him away. Mark was holding something in his left hand, the other hand hidden behind his back. The pounding on my chest grew stronger the closer he got to me.

"So you came, my dear best friend... So you came... What a surprise... Good evening Jim... Take this, my present to you". His laughter reverberated with pure evil, and as I stood there stunned, he tossed to me the thing he was holding, it was round and black, and oozing slime.

As I caught the thing in my hands, the dim light under the scarlet moon allowing me to barely recognize it, I was mortified to be holding the severed head of Trixie.

Mark advanced, the hidden hand now exposed, he held it over his head and the butcher's knife glimmered in the dark, lusting for my blood. I reached for the magnum tucked in my waist. The last thing I remember was pulling the trigger then hearing an audible snap as the butcher's knife tore through my collarbone. Then I passed out.

We slept in the same room, dodged bullets and endured all kinds of humiliation from the drill sergeant at boot camp. My destiny was to become a cop and I resigned myself to fate with neither regret nor reservation. But Mark thought he was meant for bigger things. The top graduate of Batch '74, he went straight to law school while serving the command, and in five years he blossomed into a hotshot lawyer. The whole time, I was barely making ends meet catching criminals. Finally, I decided to take his lead, and followed my best friend to the legal profession but by then it was already twelve years after he had topped the bar examination. My mid-life decision to change careers was fueled not only by economic necessity but even more so by a nagging envy, which I wouldn't admit. I was nearing fifty when I finally passed the bar, at my fifth try. And then came the fateful night, the frantic call from Marian, the screaming in the background followed by a dead silence, the bloodbath, the night that I almost died.

The first thing I asked for as soon as I regained consciousness, three weeks after the incident was the forensic investigation report. I couldn't stand the post-mortem on Marianne and Little Mark, my godson, whose bodies were discovered in the bathroom. The report included the dog without a head, Trixie, a mild-mannered Rottweiler, the puppy I gave the boy on his eighth birthday and has since grown to become his playmate and friend. There was a graphic description of two dying men at the porch of the Balderrama Mansion, one had a slug inches from his heart, the other had a butcher's knife still stuck at the base of his neck, spewing blood. Yet miraculously, both men survived. Immediately after my release from hospital, I surrendered my badge and left the police force, which felt like losing your true love, but I have a new life now and I shall dedicate this second life to the defense of my best friend, not as a lawman but as a full-pledged lawyer. Nothing else matters.

With a plot full of twist made for the movies, the Balderrama massacre fueled a national hysteria. The family of Marianne was deluged with offers from big law firms hungry for the publicity to gain if they could send the accused to prison, some are simply looking for revenge, his own colleagues who couldn't get over the humiliation Mark inflicted in past courtroom encounters. On the other hand, I painstakingly went bank to my law books, searched the depths of my learning and memory and labored for long hours trying to muster every ounce of useful knowledge from my training in criminal law and police investigation. When a tabloid flashed my mug shot on the side bar of the running story of the massacre with the intriguing caption describing me as a former police major with limited litigation experience having only recently passed the bar, and hinting that the reporter knew of my four previous failures in the bar examination, I wanted to quit. I went from one sleazy bar to the next and stayed drunk for weeks until I was convinced it's still worth a try.

Sparks don't fly when lawyers make their arguments in court. It may seem that way in the movies but in real life, the courtroom is not a theatrical stage of intellectuals who speak in metaphors and pull rabbits out of a hat to win cases. I believe that litigation is hard work and he who put in the grater effort should enjoy a better chance at success; my blue collar approach to what people used to call a white collar job. My faith in my theory never wavered from the day I accepted the case, which no lawyer would dare touch, until the closing arguments.

"Your Honor, my client is insane and he is entitled to the exempting circumstance of insanity".

"We object to that, your Honor. There was no evidence of insanity before, during and after the commission of the act. If anything, the accused is not only mentally sound, but he is actually very intelligent, brilliant if I must say so, being a high-profiled lawyer and a bar topnotcher".


"Your Honor, what motive can you have to commit something like this?

"Objection your Honor, motive is immaterial when the identity of the accused and his participation in the criminal act are clearly established. And we have sufficiently established that, your Honor".


I knew I was losing it. But I would rather die than accept my fate. I ripped my clothes, off exposing the ten-inch scar dealt by the butcher knife that ruptured my collarbone. The women covered their eyes and the men cursed. I had thrown the gauntlet at the judge to cite me for contempt but he was too shock to react. I was a man possessed, shouting and cursing while security men struggled to drag me out of the courtroom.

Look here, all you motherfuckers. Mr. Balderrama did this to me. If he had struck sideways, he would have cut my head off and I won't be here speaking to you now. But guess what? I don't hold grudges and I could live with what he did but what I couldn't take is to allow you and your fucking laws to condemn to death this innocent man. The accused is crazy goddammit but you can't see that because you are all crazy blood-thirsty motherfuckers yourselves. Goddamn crazy motherfuckers.

few months later, the entire nation was in a state of shock. Even the President, stunned, could only quip "no comment" when pressed in an ambush interview. She just couldn't say it was a travesty without incurring the wrath of the justices. It's even worse to call it "the triumph of justice" although that would make for a dramatic soundbite except that it would alienate the voters and seal his coffin in the next elections. Sometimes, it sucks to be a President.

I was literally dragged into a press conference the minute the verdict was announced. There I was chided, ridiculed, and then lionized by a press gone wild over the balding David, as one newspaper put it, who slew not one but a whole battalion of Goliaths in what was dubbed as the trial of the century. The David monicker sits well with me, but I hated the balding part. Can't they learn to give the compliment minus the insult? I was asked the usual questions and I gave the usual answers: how I feel, my message to the family of Marian, my opinion on capital punishment, I was bored from it all. My cellphone rang in the middle of the press conference. The secretary of one of the high-profile law firms was on the line requesting if I can meet her bosses asap, they would be pleased to know if I would consider joining the firm. We'll see.That was all I could say. Then someone from the press asked who would I choose to play myself if this case is made into a movie? The King, no less. But he's dead, they protested. Well, don't they say Long live, the King? The women thought I was cute, and how come you didn't marry, asked one of the women on the front row. It's none of your business, I answered smiling. Then a gay movie reporter apparently eavesdropping during my phone call earlier would like to know if I don't feel embarrassed being seen in public using the cheapest Nokia. I wanted to throw my 5210 at his face but decided against it so I walked out.

Tonight, all the television channels devoted entire newscasts to the verdict. It's amazing how easily these crusading journalists can turn full circle when not so long ago they have all but tried, convicted and crucified my client. Now they all concur that he was just a victim of circumstances and I am the savior. The news ended with snapshots from the reading of the decision, as the closing credits rolled down there was Marian's family grieving, screaming out loud, cursing but unable to comprehend this most hideous of pain, this crushing setback, this madness, this day in hell; and I know that from this moment until the day they die, they will hate me more than they had ever hated Mark, and they will condemn my soul to hell no matter if the whole world loves me now.

I turned off the teevee set and went downstairs to find the gate open. I instinctively reached for my waist, where my gun used to be, and realized just how much I missed my gun and my life as an officer. I looked around but found nothing unusual. Who would dare break into the house of a former police officer? And what's there to rob anyway? The night is cold and the moon is full, so full that it looks so near and almost scarlet in its fullness. I locked the gate, returned upstairs and walked into my bedroom. When I turned on the light, Mark stood in the corner, smiling a wide smile, and with fire in his eyes. He was holding a butcher's knife.