Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rain Before Christmas

It takes just one moment under the rain to merge the past with the present

Claire was caught in the downpour, an aberration of weather that seemed to suspiciously time its arrival to bring her the most inconvenience. She was dressed in her white nursing uniform and had left the dorm without an umbrella. The hours before saw a frantic search for relief from the scorching heat. She remembered running for cover into this waiting shed to escape the noontime heat just hours ago on her way to school. Now, she is trapped in the same corner where she stood earlier at the Espana and Morayta intersection only this time the place is cold and damp as the weather has taken a full shift to the extreme opposite.

All things considered, she figured she would rather be running from the sun. But the rain is a more complicated, a more formidable adversary to deal with, and to her personally, it held the deepest darkest secrets which the rain uses to its advantage unlike the sunny days that conjure predictable images of sunset in the beach, those nonsense juvenile movies, and the summer break that meant plenty of time to frolic and to simply relish being young. Rainy day on the other hand agitates and almost disdainfully replenishes the old grudges, and it can be downright ruthless in reminding us of where we sinned, the pains that we have inflicted, the pleasures we crave along with our indiscretions and the manner that we justified and almost celebrated while doing them. It can be the most cruel of judges of human actions, in that it is as instantaneous in denying any form of deliverance from misfortune, as it is unfailing in amplifying the enormity of our guilt.

Michael Jackson belted a familiar Christmas carol from a passing jeepney which seemed to animate the impatient throng, including Claire herself, who suddenly realized space is quickly running out as more people came rushing in moments into the rain to find temporary shelter here.

It’s already the 25th of September and the countdown to Christmas had started for a gullible nation, a nation that refused to get real and grow up, as her father used to say, teasingly to her mother, whenever the conversation strays into the topic mostly during the cold night as they waited for dinner when Claire is at home in the province to spend Christmas with the family, and which opinion she now understands and accepts to a certain degree. Indeed, Christmas is a universal incurable obsession to many of us, borne from years of deprivation, and a constant craving for the fulfillment of our aching needs. They don’t necessarily go away at Christmas time but at least we find reason to forget them, her mother would argue vehemently.

She finds irony in the knowledge that the king of pop is dead yet people continue to find solace and comfort and hope from the song that he sings, songs that preach about hope as a wonderful healer and love being the ultimate gift despite the fact that the life that he lived was a miserable narrative of big and small disasters from being burned at the scalp to domestic abuse, to the horrific results of cosmetic surgery gone haywire, to the persistent rumors about his sexuality which may have all conspired to bring the ultimate tragedy of dying young. She wondered if in Michael’s death bed, when flashbacks of unforgettable memories of your life were supposed to reel off like highlight films in reverse mode in the minds of the dying… she wondered if during the last glimmer of life images of gifts and Christmas trees emerged in passing somewhere deep in the subconscious of the late great singer just in time before the dimming of the light.

She wondered if Charice Pempengco would be just as famous.

Claire actually dreads the coming of Christmas, and it will come soon, sooner than soon enough which meant as soon as classes pause for the three-week holiday break. And it meant returning to her innocent life, to her hometown, to the ancestral house and its old familiar haunts, the places that carry an awful lot of memories, places where she would always return to reclaim her innocence and purity, the places that await her in Pinili up north, the tiny sleepy town where she grew up chasing butterflies mornings in the meadows, and putting out tobacco leaves to dry under the sun during the summer, the textures and colors and unforgettable scent of the plant becoming ingrained to the core of her consciousness, and those of the other countless dreamy youths the plant and their parents’ sweat have sent to the big city to chase their education to fulfill a promise they never really made but rather their progenitors actually left for them.

Yes, she will return to listen to lectures on frugality from her father, a trait deeply rooted in the people up north. And she expects to be lavished with praise for every peso she had managed to keep longer in her pocket by remembering the northern way of living within your means, a trait that she would take to heart by choosing to walk the half-kilometer stretch from the dorm to school and vice versa even when it rains instead of taking public transport, which incidentally is an excellent form of exercise, her father would approvingly say. And that is also the reason her father speaks grudgingly about Christmas especially the tradition of living the one day millionaire’s dream which he cannot, or he would rather not, comprehend.

Today, exactly three months to go before Christmas, things will never be the same again and the rain made sure that Claire would remember that. It was actually on another rainy day like this about a year ago that she met Rey when they were caught in the middle of a heavy downpour and he asked to share her umbrella. She still remembers the sound of his voice, the perfume he wears, the way that his black hair glimmered at the touch of the raindrops, and how it felt when their arms would rub gently accidentally. She remembered the many succeeding walks under the rain after that, and especially the long walk one stormy night that led to a dirty rented bedroom where she lost her innocence while the tempest sweetly dies to a drizzle outside.

The forbidden fruit of that tryst she now carries, and soon enough her parents will find out.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Voices in the Bus

The next passenger to sit by her side was an old man with rags for clothes and dead mice for breath and Lydia swore to herself to ignore the stranger.

“So where are you going now?” he asked. I guess you finally took my advice to bring that child to your parents in the province. It’s about time…”

He was referring to Becky, 4 years old, the little girl sleeping in Lydia’s lap. She had expended all her energy crying the whole day. She asked for food, begged for water. Pulled Lydia’s hair and even peed on her lap but her mother wouldn’t say a thing. Even now, while already reeking of urine, her eyes were transfixed into the distance and while occasionally she would smile, Lydia’s eyes wouldn’t stray from whatever it is she was looking at, which seemed far and away and unreachable.

But the old man was persistent. “That child has not seen her grandparents, in fact, not a single one of your relatives. You wouldn’t like her to grow up a stranger to her own family don’t you? Lovely child. I bet she tastes good.”

He licked his chops at the mention of the last words and Lydia fought the terror creeping into her with pretended outrage. “Back off, you ugly beast!” she screamed, startling the other passengers as well as the driver himself who accidentally sent the bus into a throttle. But immediately they pretended not to hear a thing. They all knew the woman sitting at the farthest seat in the back had a serious problem. It's just that there's nothing they can do about it.

Lydia on the other hand, knew the people in that bus are aware of her condition, but they just pretend not to care. She had actually seen the old man before. In the bedroom at the stroke of midnight while she slept with Medel. At the hospital while she was giving birth to Becky and the whole time during her confinement at the ward. Lydia struggled to get hold of herself screaming anew. “You are not real. You are just a figment of the imagination. Stay away from me”. She was shocked at the suddenness of her recollection of the entry in the doctors’ notes, which she only read once and in great hurry one time while she was lucid during the time the doctor inadvertently left his papers at Lydia’s bedside at the ward in Mandaluyong. She regretted why she escaped. Medel would be mad at this that’s for sure.

A headless woman walked through the aisle, her bloody skirt brushing Lydia lightly in the knees jolting her and the old man let out an eerie laugh, forked tongue wagging in the air. He was drooling. Craving for the sleeping child. The passengers looked and seemed normal except for the horns that suddenly appeared on their heads. As soon as they reached the next bus stop, Lydia jumped out and scampered into the night.

It was not until ten months later that Medel finally found his wife wandering aimlessly along the highway in Lucena. A walking naked skeleton of a human being covered with filth and grease. She was totally incoherent and violent and in permanent conversation with her ghosts about how the devil ate her child.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Toy Soldiers

(Thanks to James, who shared me this story and inspired me to write... albeit with a heavy heart...)

Some things take us back to the past. Others make the past a constant companion in the present, never to leave.

Sometimes, my kids would catch me going surreptitiously to the toy room, which I had personally requested to be built near the family library, when my wife and I having just settled down were putting this up, the house of our dreams, that was long before the kids came into our lives.

My wife on the other hand has long ceased to be amazed by my habit, and though she was shocked that a toy room would be on top of my plans when the thought of building the house was conceived now she perfectly understands what it meant for me and I love her all the more for it. In this room the treasures of my boyhood dreams are neatly kept, and a special place is reserved for the 24-piece toy soldier collection which I bought from e-bay. Unlike the others which are remnants of the past, they are a recent acquisition, the product of a long search in the internet and although I am not exactly eager to discuss with anyone how much it cost me to have them, to me they are well worth every cent.

It was summer time during the tumultuous 80's. My father was sent back home without finishing the two year tour of duty to war-torn Mindanao in the south following a close brush with death. He came home with his back pack on a Wednesday night, without any word before hand that he was coming, and unlike in previous times, he came home without the customary gifts, only the joyous confirmation that he is alive, and it was all that mattered to me, in fact, that day was the happiest day of my boyhood, my dad coming home with a dirty back pack and a hole in his stomach where the bullet had passed which means, he is staying with us at least for the year- long recuperation period. If you ever knew how it feels to see your father just once or twice every three years, his bullet wound was indeed a blessing, a morbid thing to say but I was a kid and I have the right to say it and under the circumstances, it was indeed, it really was a great big blessing.

He would take me for long walks... in the afternoons during a clear day, just when dusk was setting in, that by the time the sun was slowly disappearing in the horizon, we would be on top of the hill watching the world down below us change colors under the cascading hues and slowly and slowly the crimson light gradually fades into blue and then black. We watched in silence, my father has never been a man indulgent with words, which I guess is the way they all are in the marines. The war and its unspeakable horrors would leave a man to suffer in silence for life. He never shared his stories with me, perhaps thinking I was too young for them, too pure and innocent then, and in hindsight, I somewhat feel grateful that he didn't.

On the first month of his vacation, he asked me to go with him to the barracks to claim his paycheck. My father was exuberant on that day, the vacation has done wonders to lift his spirit and hasten his recuperation. He was glowing and beginning to regain his health, unlike when he came home one day wounded and starving.

They actually waited for payday to come; he had told my mother he would get his disability pay, in addition to the regular salary, and maybe a special commendation from the headquarters in Manila. On the way to the barracks, we passed by a flea market and as my steps slowed at the sight of the toy soldiers being peddled at a makeshift stall on the sidewalk, my father could almost read my mind. "We will get back here and I shall buy you those toys son, right after we get the money". I pressed his hand and his words put a spring in my steps and he knew what it meant.

Thirty years later, I would be scouring the internet looking for the same toy soldiers that my father had promised to give me the last time we were together. We never made it to the barracks. I have no recollection of what exactly happened then except for the few things I hear growing up during the hushed conversations every time that my mother and relatives would speak about the ambush.

I just knew it was the last day that I saw my father alive...

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Witch

The ancestral clock strikes 12, and in the pitch darkness Joey tries to adjust his eyes, it was difficult to see anything.

He turned to the other side of the bed, away from his mother and faced the window where the full moon illuminates behind the capiz shell window panels, creating odd shapes, black random shapes cast against the window by the intricately penetrating light of the full August moon. The boy was desperate to go back to sleep except that he couldn’t force himself to do so. The striking of the midnight bell from the humongous clock reverberated into his sleep awakening the child.

“Think happy thoughts Joey and cuddle up close to your mother”.

“I will have that tree cut down, son, if that’s what causing you all this trouble.”

He remembered his conversations with his father about the sleep disorder and how he can manage it. For months now, Joey has been deluged with nightmares, odd terrifying dreams and his parents are worried. With his father away on a provincial assignment, the boy's paranoia is even more chillingly felt on this particular night.

“That one looks like a dove:… the boy whispered to himself as he singled out a particularly odd shadow on the extreme left side of the window. A bundle of leaves hanging from the branch of the tree extending up to their bedroom window blocking the moonlight created the bird-shaped figure along with the strange mosaic of shadows cast against the window’s entire length

“There’s a plane… a dog?” Joey decided to pass the time and amuse his imagination with the shapes he can make out of the shadows. Until something caught his eyes.

It was difficult at first to make sense out of that single image but as he soon as became fixated and adjusted to the dark, slowly it unraveled… the huge crooked beak-like nose, big bulging eyes, the long flowing hair, and finally the unmistakable profile of the old woman seemed to gradually configure into a familiar unmistakable vision.

He felt the blood rush to his head, his hair rising instantly as he watched the profile move. Looking into his direction, as if she knew he was there. And then the bony claw-like hands reached into the window panel, trying to open it. At last, Joey let out a huge scream and Linda nearly jumped out of bed.

“Oh God Joey, my poor son, you’re feverish again, hush up now… I’m here… calm down, and stop crying son, don’t be afraid.”

She massaged his head and sang her gently back to sleep.
Then Linda walked up to the window wondering how she could have left it partly open. She looked outside and under the moonlit night, she saw what remains of the stump of the tree that Ronald felled on the Sunday before he left.

And how they thought the nightmare’s over.