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...