Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Old Dry Dock Lane

I knew the place very well but I don't recall if there ever was a street called Anchovy Road anywhere in it.

And so, as the cab pulled over near the iron gate, which loomed larger under the colorful blinking lights that were clearly intended to be there to announce a huge occasion, I was tempted to pull out of my pocket the invitation again and try to check, perhaps for the hundredth time, if somehow I must have been mistaken. But a uniformed guard walked up to me as soon as I stepped out of the cab.

"You must be Mr. Rey Enriquez. Well, Good evening Sir. Mr. Colmenares and his family had been waiting for you at the dock". Then he led me inside while I walked spellbound by the totally unexpected, almost mind-boggling realization. Now I'm sure this is the same old Dockyard Lane, only they changed the name to Anchovy Road.

He stood at the edge of the dock, a man almost my age and very neatly dressed, flanked by an equally impressive woman and two little boys. Now I remember. How could I forget the sparkle in those eyes, the sunburnt face from many summers in the riverside and while his lips may have changed from the operation (there was no more trace of the boy hounded by a misfortune he was born with) he will always remain to be the troubled kid who became such an important person in my life once upon a time.

The lady of the house took my hand and offered her cheek while the boys chorused to a shy almost inaudible greeting before pulling their mother away, leaving the two of us - me and him - alone.

"I thought it was supposed to be a reunion of old friends?, I asked, struggling to keep my voice from cracking up.

"Well, it really is, Rey. Two old friends. Just you and me. That's all it meant. That's all there is to it. You're the only friend I had, in fact, the only one true friend I will ever have. I never got to thank you for what you did for me, my friend. I own this place now, you can say that I had been a very lucky man, and that's all because of you."

He speaks clearly now, it shocked me a little bit to hear him speak this way.

"How's the operation, did it hurt? Now I can speak about his great affliction without fear of hurting his feelings, the way it was before. But that was already in the past. It's a different story now. My friend Enrico Colmenares is now a new and different man. Hugely different indeed, and a very rich man.

"Remember that ship, Rey?", he chuckled, ignoring the question while pointing at the humongous but familiar figure looming in the distance. "I had preserved it especially for this day, especially for you. Come, my friend, let's go to the ship. Our ship."

We ran to the ship like we were kids again.

I was a child of the river. Just like Rico and all the others. It was the provider of nourishment and livelihood for the people of my town. We owned it and it owned us in small ways and in life and death proportions, to the extent of the air that we breathe becoming the product of communion, a partaking of textures and flavors of salt, freshwater, of vegetation and of all the elements, and of all the energies that we obtain from the river one moment and which we give back the next, through our labors or by means of plain biological exertion in consonance with the expediency of life's endless unbreakable cycle. It can be a source of healing and at the same time the progenitor of a million afflictions.

It is here that we discovered the profound joys of friendship. Walking on the riverbanks to catch crustaceans and dragon flies while avoiding the mud holes provided the endless thrills of our boyhood during the long hot summers that were also filled with kite-flying adventures, spider-fights, and unforgettable hunting expeditions with slingshots for guns, and quails, shrikes rock doves and some occasional wild duck for game.

Those were the days indeed. And the high point I must say was our discovery of a hole in the ground that serves as an underground tunnel leading up to the ship yard at old dry dock lane. We found it underneath the thick cogon grass not far from the riverbank one summer afternoon while looking for spiders. Rico crawled on all fours while I fearfully followed and after a few breathtaking moments, we found ourselves in the belly of an old abandoned ship, or what looked more like the wreckage of an old abandoned ship.

From that day on, it was my source of entertainment, and for Rico a means of escape. He was a lonely and fatherless child who had no other friends except me and for the same reason, treated me with unconditional kindness, perhaps grateful for my companionship. He had the kindest soul yet the outcast among the townfolks, largely by his own choice because of a cleft-palate problem that impared his speech and completely distorted what could have been an angelic innocent face.

We would climb up the rooms on the upper decks, where some of the cabins are still in fairly good condition, providing a place to hide, and beds for quick cat naps during lazy afternoons. The view from the hull alone could take your breath away. During the summer under cloudless skies we could spend entire days sight-seeing.

The arrival of new ships for drydocking and repair is always an event to watch. Dozens of men stripped to the waist tug at the thick long ropes with all the strength they could muster and painstakingly try to pull the ship out of the water over a layer of turning logs for what seemed like an inch an hour until it is finally set in place. We've seen men get crushed when ships tilt on the side in a mishap yet always they would bravely soldier on. I wouldn't be a dry dock worker, I used to swear to my soul. I also did swear, like Rico did, to never ever tell anyone about this secret place.

We will stay there for long hours immediately after class and almost the entire day during weekends and summer breaks. In time, we've grown bold enough to explore outside the safety of the shipwreck. We would sneak into newly-docked vessels when no one is looking and search for food among the cabins - meatloaf, pastries, candies and the tastiest biscuits. Once we gatecrashed a fishing boat and discovered in its bottom deck, the huge fishnet bundled to the size of a small hill. We learned that it makes you bounce when you jump on it, and it also cushions your fall. We had a great time performing crazy stunts. outdoing each other.

Every ship that arrives is a mystery. One ship had an artillery of guns and explosives. Another had literally, a skeleton in the closet. The windfall was when we found a ship loaded with all kinds of toys. But we never dared to take anything away from it. We swear to only steal food, and only when we're hungry.

But all good things, just like the bad ones come to an end. Ironically that dreaded moment came with the docking of yet another ship at the port on the other side of town not far from drydock lane. It was a ship that needed no repair, as it was impeccably built, the product of the more advanced ship-building technology of the country where it came from which I suspected was America. It was a ship like no other.

The most enduring memory of that ship was a crimson cross on a white background painted on its hull and a flagmast bearing the same image. It was the first time I saw white people, the passengers of the ship who introduced themselves to the town folks as soon as they arrived, as medical volunteers on a humanitarian mission to perform medical surgery on poor people of the countries they visit who can't afford the treatment.

Since that day, Rico had refused to return home, let alone to come in contact with anyone but me, determined to live it out in the shipwreck at dry dock lane. for as long as the white men are in town There were days I would steal food from home and bring it there, a sense of pride and surprise was my own reward for going great lengths for a friend, which I never thought my whole life, I am capable of doing.

On some nights, when my parents and siblings are asleep I would escape to drydock lane and spend the night on the ship with my friend, waking up very early the next morning for the folks at home to find me in bed, and avoid suspicions over my night time prowling, which surely would infuriate my father, which is the last thing on earth I would like to happen.

On the eve of the departure of the white men and their ship, Rico's mother came to our house begging for me to help her find her missing son. I would not have relented in spite of her tears if not for the intervention of my father, the one person in the world who can easily squeeze the truth out of me. Town officials accompanied the white men to the shipwreck at dry dock lane, an event I would compare in later years to a white man's safari in an African jungle to hunt down a wild animal.

The boy put up a fight before they got him, a violence you wouldn't believe a ten-year old boy is capable of doing. They had to tie him up but in the fleeting moments that our eyes met as he was being whisked away, I knew the bond between us had been irretrievably lost as a consequence of my betrayal. I never heard of him again after that, except for rumors that the white men took him away.

They closed the tunnel to old dry dock lane and since then I never set foot on the ship again except in my dreams which seem to happen all the time. Some dreams I guess, wherein Rico and I were still friends again and having the time of our lives at the shipwreck.

But now at least, as we stood on the hull of the ship in a moment of reminiscences I realized that more than thirty years filled with guilt had joyously ended with the completely unexpected invitation from a long lost friend.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

History and Rey

We came back seven decades into the past and retraced the steps of hundreds of thousands of unknown soldiers to find the boy named Rey. How we found him was a major story in itself. We needed a face for the documentary we were filming and the first choice was a veteran stage actor whose credits as a thespian included a pioneering role in the defunct children's show Batibot. Bur for reasons not entirely unexpected, Kuya Bodjie Pascua turned us down.

The text message in which he relayed to us his decision was a splash of cold water into our already sagging spirits midway into the project. But I respected the decision. As one of the outspoken critics of the present administration, Kuya Bodjie was just being true to himself and for me to begrudge him would be pointless since I knew the risk beforehand, and decided to take chances. If anything, I only felt bad for the time and effort that were wasted when he had instructed us to deliver the draft of the documentary to the coastal town of Isabel, more than 180 kilometers from downtown Tacloban, which took practically one full day off from our itinerary, only to be told at the end of the day, that, for all the troubles we had, the answer is a definitive no. He never texted back after that, and neither did he answer calls from me again.

But since the very definition of this job that we are doing is perseverence, which is what you learn from the plight of the filipino veterans, the incident is just one of many humps on the road that at worst could delay but could never spell doom to a desperate cause and mission. We did not hie-off up north to Bataan for a week of filming elusive subjects and continued the odyssey all the way to the province of Leyte here in the South just to lose heart at the slightest suggestion of failure. Like the old soldiers who persevered and marched forward through firestorm and cannon balls, all three of us, Fred, Nono and myself have answered the call to walk the gauntlet, emboldened by the sheer faith that hell, yes, we can do it.

With our first choice gone, we never stopped believing that the face that will breathe life to the documentary was just out there, waiting to be found. And so we searched for him, or for her, whoever he is or she is for that matter, since we haven't decided yet which gender or age or social class to consider, only we knew the mystery will unravel once we find what we were looking for. We searched long and hard, a search taking us deep into the arts and academe of Tacloban, particularly the theatre guilds of its old famous universities, where who knows, we might just bump into a future celebrity, and be first to enjoy the privilege to work with talent that is one of a kind.

That faith was affirmed when we met Rey.

He has the most soulfoul eyes and talent that, the moment he shows it to you, would let you know right away how it feels to be in the presence of something special. Rey plays the piano like he was born to play it. His English is impeccable, and reading from a makeshift idiot board, you would never know his words are taken off a script but words that spontaneously flow out of a brilliant mind and a heart overflowing with kindness. He was most humble and appreciative of the hard work we put into the four hours of shoot, not once complaining or letting his discomfort show despite the fact that the summer heat was methodically draining our energy, and the repetitious filming of spiels could be painfully boring.

No he was never one to come up short in energy level, even when most of us were already feeling exhausted and edgy, for in between spiels Rey on the other hand would find time to run on the grass, hum a tune, or crack a joke at his parents, who have diligently stayed along at the entire filming in McArthur's famous shrine in Palo. I even felt at some stage, that they were actually the ones who had supplanted the energy and creativity for the filming session, during the brief spells that we were losing strength, physically and in a figurative sense. It's refreshing to find people who could still exuberantly enjoy what for us had become routine work from the sheer length of time that we've been doing it, and I must say that just to be around such people brings in me personally, the creative energy I could only wish I always have at my disposal everytime I need it. I realized that we feed on the energy of those who are seeing the world from our vantage point for the very first time, because their curiosity will always let us know that there is beauty and purpose in the work that we do, except that we seem to take it for granted.

And oh yes, Rey is only 8 years old.

He breezed through the shoot like a pro. And in those few hours of our spontaneous interaction I had unwittingly intruded into their lives, Rey's and his family's, and it was truly a privilege to know them - his doting mom, his father, an engineer at Coke Tacloban, and Rey's aunt, a Physics professor and Fulbright scholar. In short, they are ironically the kind of folks I sometimes dread to meet because of the sense of sadness that inevitably goes creeping in when the time comes to walk away. The moments that I hate.

So by the time we were packing up, Rey had completely won our hearts. And for me, how I wished he was my child, especially after the boy gave me a hug, a parting gesture that summed up the emotional highpoint of the moment, when now we knew, no matter what happens after this, that at some point in our lives, we have shared something truly special, a bond that would last long after this day is through.

I told him he is destined for greater things because that was exactly how I felt deep in my heart. But I couldn't tell exactly what he was meant to be, because that's not for me to say but for him to find out. I knew Rey will find out in time, and he will be up to the task, and I am sure he will prove worthy of the fate he was given.

Rey will never fail me, I am sure of that, when the time comes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

You know what I'd do this weekend...

At the tail end of yet another gruelling week of working to death, I was just glad to have been hit by a rude awakening.

Sitting through four hours of traffic-marred journey from Tagaytay back to Manila, I realized I had practically gone mad over the pursuit of money. The past few weeks I would have been lucky to sleep four hours at any given night. I would leave home at 5:00 in the morning, start chasing buses like a mad man in EDSA soon after, that is, if I'm not already engaged in some shoving matches inside the MRT, skipping meals like the monks in Tibet during hunger strike, and going to ridiculously distant places to meet clients. At day's end the earliest I get home would be around 10 at night, where I still do some additional take-home work and squeeze in some extra time surfing the net in search of part-time job-opportunity before finally dropping from sheer exhaustion by close to midnight - only to wake up at 4 am to repeat the same killer routine the next day.

I guess my frustration at having been twice fired from the same company in a span of three months had driven me into some ritual of self-punishment trying to keep working to the point of exhaustion, it was almost a death wish. I was going through a difficult search for personal redemption to atone for the guilt of successive failures and killing myself in the process. Okay being fired is perhaps way too strong a description because it wasn't really the case. The fact is, I was actually told in the most diplomatic language and in the least painful way possible that I simply couldn't fit into the transcription job that I was desperate to get so perhaps I should look for a more appropriate opportunity down the road.

But what the heck no matter how politely you say it, the result was still the same - it hurt like hell. How my new-found friends who welcomed me with such wide-eyed smile and heartfelt kindness during my application could later muster the cold ruthless courage to tell me to tender my resignation a month later because I simply suck at this job was almost incomprehensible now. After that, my life went into overdrive, fueled by a desperate need to succeed, or to put it bluntly, to make bundles of money, which is just about the only way I know how to radically change the course of my life to the direction I please, take my revenge at society and have the last laugh.

Anyway, as traffic came to a crawl approaching the coastal road bottleneck exiting into the Alabang area at high noon, with the bus interior assumng the ambiance of a cheap sleazy sauna due to the defective airconditioner that had me and the rest of the passengers, sweating like crazy, I just thought that if indeed I was trying to punish myself, I wasn't even doing a good job at it Why because it is the people who meant the most to me who were taking the emotional beating. I realized that the last time I had a cheerful talk with my closest friends had been ages ago, with work, work and nothing but work dominating the conversations. I had become a stranger in my own home, leaving when practically everyone is still asleep and coming back when no one is awake and I remember the last time I was addressing the kids, I was shouting through the roofs to shut them up and give me peace.

I was committing social suicide and unwittingly taking innocent victims along with me in my death plunge.

The hopelessness of my quest dawned on me while I sit there at high noon trying to endure the ridiculous heat and the constant badgering of an aching empty stomach. I watched from behind the windshield bare-footed street kids at play against the backdrop of the coastal road shanties and wandered if anyone among the grownups have similar things going on in their minds, and if they may have accidentally found the answers, and what difference it would make just in case they did.

I remembered my father. For all his faults and flawed humanity, he was a better man at dealing with adversity. I remember when the chips are down, he would come home with gifts to us, small tokens of appreciation, and I cannot forget the day he came home with a roll of sewing thread in his pocket which that night in bed, I overheard him tell my mother that he bought it with the last money that was supposed to pay his fare, choosing to walk ten kilometers on the way home instead. In the morning, he built a kite and gave me the time of my life. I remember the look in his face, the silence that spoke volumes while he sat there watching me tug at the string and I wondered if he knew all along that I was making a great show out of it, I was so desperate to enjoy the moment and for God's sake, to let it show, which is just about the only way I can cheer him up and perhaps obliterate the loneliness in his heart even for a moment. That story was actually the subject of another blog:

So tomorrow, Saturday, I will take the cue from that memory and do the right thing. When the chips are down, fly a kite... (If still it fails, then, it should amount to something more than any of the useless rants like this. I'm sorry, I can't think of a decent enough story to tell tonight)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday the 13th (And Valentine's Day thereafter)

It's the eve of Valentine's Day and yet it's also a Friday, the 13th of February.

Chito chuckled at the irony and wandered what disaster could possibly unfold to spoil the lovely day of love that's coming tomorrow. As far as he's concerned, he assured himself, nothing of that sort could ever happen. He carefully searched for the bracelet he would give to Lily from among the items on display at the jeweller's counter in Trinoma. The saleslady was doing the hard sell but the 30 year old accountant was totally oblivious to that. "That's high-grade silver sir, the current rage, and it had in fact replaced gold as the favorite gift, well not really, but with gas prices and galloping inflation, the price of gold has... well turned gold, hahaha..." The poor girl realized she was laughing at her own joke and looking absolutely silly she finally shut up.

Finally, he broke his silence. "I want that one, the third item on the second row, yes that one with a mermaid pendant. yes. He pulled out his credit card and patiently went through the swipe, and watched intently as the saleslady wrapped the item with such pomp you almost sense any moment she might break into a song or offer free massage service to lend new meaning to customer satisfaction. Well she almost did, announcing to his surprise that they actually have a pre-valentine's promo, giving customers a 20-percent discount on every item. Not bad for a Friday the 13th...

"Hi, Lily how's your day? And what's for dinner?" Chito tried to look normal as soon as he arrived home. Well, normal after ten years together is being predictable and saying the things that he had been saying over and over from day one of their marriage, which also means being insensitive of anniversaries, births, deaths, valentine's, the unpaid bills, the fighting children, the visiting in-laws and if the days are that bad, forget asking 'Hi, how's your day and what's for dinner?' In fact, the more normal you act the better it is sometimes. Chito wandered if this is the day to break from the norm and to not be normal for a change. He reached for his chest pocket where he placed the box containing the gift and it took a mighty effort to not succumb to the temptation of giving it to Lily and watch the unfolding miracle. He longed to see her smile the smile of absolute joy, like she did the first time she laid her eyes on the wedding ring, with Chito on his knees and begging to marry her. It's been quite a while since he witnessed that smile and he realized just how much he wanted it badly now but amazingly, Chito was able to get hold of himself. There'll be plenty of time for that tomorrow, he promised. Today would be anti-climactic.

Meantime, it was amazing how Lily herself had totally forgotten what day it is today and the significance that it holds among the couples, or is she just trying to act normal the way he does? He wondered.

That night, lying in bed together, husband and wife were an absolute contrradiction. She had fallen asleep like a baby the moment her head touched the pillow while he tossed and turned. He was still brooding over the gift. At close to midnight, finally, sleep mercifully came to his rescue.

He jumped out of bed the next morning and ran towards the kitchen where she found Lily preparing breakfast. The sunny side up simmered on the frying pan and he smelled bacon. "I knew it". He blurted outlound. "You're just pretending you don't care but you actually prepared something for Valentine's, hahaha... Well guess what, I got a surprise for you too".

No reaction from Lily. "Happy Valentines Day, Honey". He went straight to the point. Still no response. He gave him a peck on the cheek. Nothing. He felt cold. He felt strange.

Chito remembered the bracelet and realized it may have still been in his shirt pocket. He rushed downstairs and searched for it among the heap of a full week's laundry. Then the shocking discovery. He couldn't even move the pile of clothes. He realized his hands pass through anything, his touch a gust of wind, an apparition in the tangible world. The next moment, he was inside their bedroom looking at himself. The froth from his mouth had spilled into the pillow, the ashen face and the fact that his eyes were wide open suggested a horrible death. He let out a soundless scream.

Lily was shaking him and pinching hard at his arm. "Wake up Honey, you're having a nightmare again. You're scaring me, honey, wake up, wake up". She was on the verge of tears when finally he opened his eyes. Chito held her tight and gave his wife a gentle kiss.

He realized he had just came back from the dead to greet his wife a happy Valentine's...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

That Thing We Do

Today, I break my own rules.

When I started this blog, my intention is to put nothing but short stories to it. But on this particular occasion there will be none of those things that terrify or make me depressed and insecure or make me question my purpose for being, in short the very thoughts that had lead others to say I had been all along afflicted with a kind of chronic negativity, whatever that means. Part of the reason for the change of heart, to tell you the truth is I am running out of stories to tell, and the other part is the audacity of that one great belief that after only a few months of blogging, I have already earned the right to do my own rants, which I used to abhor when people do it unabashedly, especially for purposes of self-promotion. Well, I am doing the same thing now and I would be willing to earn the devil's wrath because well maybe I deserve to.

I was glossing over the discussion forum the other day and a question struck a chord. It wasn't a particularly intelligent or emotional or controversial topic but on the contrary, the question was rather commonplace and I am sure the asker was nowhere near the first to think of the question, which in fact may have already been asked a million times at various interactions happening in every corner of the worldwide web. What makes you think this life is still worth living? In most cynicial times, I would have cringed. Just another subtle shot at pontification. So I must admit I answered it by a spur of the moment's thought, the idea merely to get some attention from those browsing on the same page. I don't even remember now what my answer was and I doubt if I can still find the said thread in the discussion forum, until it appears again in some other form or permutation but for now I only wish I had been more incisive and level-headed in my answer or if not, to at least make sense and deliver a valid point.

As an afterthought, and to perhaps undo what had already been done, I would say that for as long as people do the things that they do out of love, then life would be worth it. Sometimes, I would surprise myself for the great lengths that I would be willing to go, and for the sheer energy of my resolve to do the things that would actually contribute absolutely nothing to my personal happiness but would bring fulfillment to someone else even to a complete stranger. And those are the moments when I feel most proud just to be me. I am sure a lot of folks also know the feeling. Because when you become the recipient of an act of kindness, that means you must have done something truly special in your past that makes you deserving of a return favor. The law of karma had simply rewarded you the opportunity to reap what you planted, in a way you didn't imagine and because of that you will become more inspired to plant the seed of kindness all over again keeping the cycle of sharing perpetually in motion, touching more people's lives.

That we are somehow equipped with a consciousness of the other person's needs and more importantly, the initiative to try to fill that need is such a wonderful thing. It should rank among the greatest miracles on earth. For so long we have hailed the greatest inventions, the most profound achievements, the extraordinary feats yet the small acts of kindness that happen on a daily basis practically go unnoticed precisely because you see them everywhere anytime. But imagine what kind of a world we will all have if people would stop caring?

Maybe we should all remember that we are as much a product of what good deeds people do and have done for us out of responsibility, as those small favors that they did out of love. I would even dare say that the latter kind of favor has far greater and more lasting effect on the life that we choose to live. There is more to parents giving up so much of their own happiness and enduring unbelievable pains than simply because they are parents. There is more to the lowly-paid worker taking the extra mile, and staying at it beyond his watch than simply because it is the work he does and he just had to do it. There is more to the friends, and even the strangers who care to listen to you and willingly give you sympathy in moments when you needed it, than for sheer reason that it is just the kind of gesture expected of every man.

What does it make of you when you succeed in performing all your responsibility to the letter? Well, you just prove to be a truly responsible person and a credit to humanity. But everytime you perform a service that were never meant to be your responsibility to render and in doing so you do it with a sense of joy and purpose, then be proud that you have just set the highest example about love and caring and compassion, and because of that and because of people like you, it is indeed a much better world.

Thank you Ma'am Ria, if you happen to read this...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Back to School

Today, by force of circumstances I was compelled to do what I have always dreaded doing - going back to my old school. But it was an inevitable task. Desperately needing that second job, I would have to obtain an original copy of my school records, one of the requirements of my future employer. The school per se is nothing to sneer at. After all, it has a long and colorful past, one that continues to give justice and purpose to the present. Some of the men and women who walked its corridors at different times in history have gone on to leave a mark in the country's rich heritage by doing great deeds that defined their generation.

The school has produced presidents, millionaires and I would imagine, on the other side of the fence, a couple of delinquents who are either dead or in jail. And of course, the great majority and that includes me, would lead uneventful and anonymous lives, but lives worth-living nonetheless. Coming back was never an enjoyable occasion for me because of the sheer impact of unwanted memories that would be triggered by the experience. Again, it was more of myself, not the place being the reason why.

I had always been told that my views are too cynical and how they wish, my friends would insist, that I lighten up a little. Honestly, I had been trying but with so little success. Events will conspire one way or the other to put gloom into my day and I would be willingly trapped into that mode, like what I feel now, as I write.

It was approaching 5, the hour of calling it a day for the many workers, students, and nearly every busy soul among the multitudes who congregate in the city. The afternoon mass at Quiapo church had began, and just outside along the whole stretch of Quezon Boulevard, traffic came to a crawl from the obstruction of people, vendors, and homebound commuters impatient for a ride. I had to bear with the same familiar sights and sounds, the sheer stench of urban decay that had become a hallmark of the place, and which I couldn't seem to get used to no matter how many times I had experienced them. It was one of those things I hoped I had, the ability to shut off all perceptions of the unpleasant, which one of my friends had mastered and had so adeptly been using to his advantage, as he goes through his business with the complete numbness and insensitivity of one who absolutely refused to be involved, while I on the other hand would be inclined to absorb and imbibe the malady of it all. Today is no exception.

At the foot of the bridge along Echague sat a woman, slumped on the bare pavement and emanating stink and I knew right away something was terribly wrong. She was talking out loud in foul incoherent language, and having an imaginary discourse with perhaps someone she hated, except that that person wasn't there. It would drive her to tears at some point, then suddenly, into a raging screaming verbal assault, before falling into a deep silent spell, staring at the distance, and then afterwards repeating the same cycle of tears and rage and silence. People would walk past, looking the other way and pretending nothing was happening, and it felt awful that I was the only one who seemed to be paying attention, although I was looking from a distance, afraid she would see me and vent her ire at my meddling with her crazed condition. But it wasn't only the woman that bothered me then.

Two kids, about three and two years old were slumped beside her, and you can tell with one look that both were starving. I knew right away they were her children, but the kids are both too young to comprehend the tragic fate that came upon their mother. Yet they refuse dto leave her side, at times clinging to her, and at times touching her hair, perhaps hoping to coax her, make her come out of that horrific condition and give them affection like she always did, I am quite sure she did, before things had miserably changed.

I wish I could just take the kids away from this place, run off with the two of them in my arms and worry about the consequences later. But I wasn't brave enough. I wonder why people could just walk away pretending they have more important things to do than worry about two toddlers left to practically fend for themselves in a cruel and heartless city and how I secretly wished I have the same ability to simply walk away. But I have none of that and much as I tried not to, I ended up hating myself for having nothing more to give to them than pity.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Revelation

The days after Christmas and New Year celebrations are often loaded with anxiety, as we try to recover from what could be termed the 'post-holiday-fatigue syndrome' and move into the brand new year to face the new tasks waiting to be accomplished. At home, it was almost an annual ritual for my mother to divest the house of all the clutter, removing the things she would consider unnecessary. It was almost a symbolic act, and I have learned to understand that maybe, the deeper implication of this behavior is to prepare for the transition to a new stage in her life, at least that was what I thought it meant for my mother.

So the first few days into the new year saw my mother engaging in the same pattern, and I am amazed by the volume of personal effects, old photographs, paperwork, letters, clothes, and all sorts of paraphernalia, that found their way out of the house and into the garage, with some ultimately bound for the trash bin. As I curiously sifted through the piles of discarded pictures, I was surprised to find a decades-old family portrait, with myself on it as a seven year-old boy. And just like that, a crawling chill suddenly dawned upon me as I recognized the woman in the picture who was coddling me in her arms for that photo shoot. That woman is a deep dark chapter in my life, and though I was barely seven years old then, something about the past would stay with me for life. She would forever remain a mystery, a ghost of the past perhaps, and I hated the memory of her because of the power it seems to possess over me, the power to keep coming back, no matter how desperately I would try to shut off all reminders of that part of my past.

My father had an accident and he needed to be brought to a hospital in Manila to undergo surgery, as no hospital in our province could provide the facilities and specialists that are up to the task. My mother and two older sisters went with my father, leaving me at home under the care of Manang Choleng, a spinster who was my father's provincemate, and who came knocking on our door one stormy night to beg for my father to let her work for us as maid and nanny, a proposition my father took a long time to consider not because he completely opposed the idea, but for a fact that the thought of us having a household help at that time seemed preposterous or you could even say ridiculous. I would say so because we were poor by those days' standards and in all honesty, I knew that with my father's meager earnings as a carpenter, we could barely afford the three square meals. Yet, she never asked for anything, poor old Manang Choleng, who had practically begged to work for us for free without once complaining or tiring from the everyday chores in the old cramped house where life is difficult and almost always uncomfortable. My mother would proclaim that Manang Choleng was heaven-sent the day after my father's accident when she had to leave home to be on his side during the operation, and Manang Choleng was the only one she had to take good care of me. Heaven-sent?

She would eat voraciously, like she had been starved for days, and it felt funny that, sitting across this woman at the dining table, I had wished the food will not run out or she might proceed to devour me. I was so scared, Scared of the way she would look at me while she licked her lips, I was so scared that my entire family was away and here I am with this strange woman, I was scared of the way she could lift objects, the table for instance, and the couch, without an effort, when I had known all along she was very old, and it showed in her graying hair and varicose veins in her legs, and in the perpetual redness in her eyes. That woman in the photograph couldn't be younger than sixty. And I was scared the most that I would sleep with her each night on the same bed, with all the lights out, and only the moonlight from the bedroom window providing the slightest illumination. But nothing came close to the kind of scare that crept into my very soul during the last night we were together.

I was awakened to her panting and moaning in the middle of the night. She seemed to be in pain, her breathing difficult, and she was on fire, with a burning fever. When Manang Choleng noticed I was awake, she hoisted me to the top of the large dresser as if she was holding a feather, warning that never ever under any circumstances should I even think of stepping down.

I haven't told a single soul what I witnessed afterwards that night and how I wish there is something I can do to completely erase the memory for my own sake, because what I came to witness was something I would do anything to totally obliterate from the mind. She fell on the floor vomiting, doubling up in pain, gasping from breath. Then she crawled under the bed. A strange creature would emerge seconds later, a creature I couldn't even bring myself to describe, I guess it's because that sort of thing only exists in the imagination, I really hope it does, if only to convince myself that it was all a terrible dream that I had experienced on that night when I was seven. It looked up to me and began to lick its mouth, then, unable to reach up to the top of the dresser, it leaped out of the window and disappeared into the night.

We never saw or even heard of Manang Choleng ever since.