"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...