by Erwin Cabucos
(This piece first appeared in Veranda 32: Literary and Art Journal.)
Sleeping butterflies perch on the dancing frangipani leaves in the early morning as I begin my sacristan career. A slight breeze sweeps the bougainvillea petals on the Bermuda grass of the grounds of the San Lorenzo Church; this may be the last breath of the storm that lashed houses and rice farms along the coast the previous night. The clacking heels of street girls will soon join the revving and honking of jeepneys in the streets, and the drunken patrons, dizzy and slurring their speech have replaced the blasting sound systems of nightclubs. It’s not long now until sunrise will streak through the towering buildings of Manila. The regulars of the early weekday mass will start to fill the pews. I have a few things to organise before Father Augustine comes down from the presbytery to begin the celebration. I pace up towards the sacristy door before a rush of dislodged leaves and flowers hit me.
The door is unlocked. Considering Father Augustine had made sure it was secured last night, the thought that we were broken into frightens me. Being new to the job, having to confront an intruder is the last thing I want.
As soon as I ignite the candle’s wick and move around the sacristy to check every area, profiles of broken, crooked and unused statues dance on the wall like a scene from a horror movie. If someone were to hide behind this, it would be hard to tell. I stop moving and listen intently. If someone lurks beneath the cloak of the Lady of Dolours, I should be able to hear their breathing.
A male voice echoes from the pews, and saying that I have shivers up my spine sounds cliché, but it is happening. Are people are having sex in the church? Possibly. I suppose it is fulfilling God’s will, it’s procreating, and it reverberates through the acoustic design of this nineteenth-century church. But it doesn’t sound like it. It’s sounds like someone is in pain. The compilation of all these: the total black out, an unusual storm in the summer month of April, the sombre-looking butterflies unperturbed in the swaying leaves, the sacristy door left unlocked, dead eyes of lifeless statues staring at me, a moaning man in the pews—all too much for a seventeen year old’s first day as a sacristan.
Will I run to get Father Augustine’s help? He might just dismiss me and say, ‘Rex, you’re dreaming—get back out there!’ The painting of Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help above the candle stand seems to speak to me. I make the sign of the cross. Holding the thick white candle firmly, I walk towards the altar. I remember reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth in our English class—the day King Duncan was murdered, a series of unusual events took place: horses ate each other, birds went berserk and the earth shook. I also read from my father’s old Carlo J Caparas’ comic books that the church can be a repository of unhappy and troubled souls, stuck in the premises, unable to proceed, so they end up hassling the living to ask for prayers, to aid their entrance into heaven.
In front of the statue of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, a thin male teenager grips his bleeding arm. Crimson smears stain his white, body-fit, short-sleeved shirt and his legs, in tight denim, are stretched out near a knife. I don’t know what to do; I’m torn between running to the presbytery to tell Father Augustine and running to the teenager to offer help. I look around but no one else is in the church. His eyes lock on mine.
‘Are you okay? What happened?’
His drooping eyes seem unfazed with the dripping blood when he lifts his arm to reach for me. I step back, deterred by the crimson fluid. The concrete feels cold when I return to kneel by him.
‘What could be so bad? C’mon …’
‘Just help me die, just help me end all this.’ He breaks into sobs. ‘There’s no point in living.’
‘No! I’ll get someone to help you.’ As much as I want to get Father Augustine now, I am pushed towards helping the teenager. I point at his wound. ‘Can I bandage you?’
‘No,’ he persists. ‘Don’t bother.’ He reaches for the knife.
‘No!’ I kick the knife away from him. ‘I’ll get the priest.’
‘Don’t!’ he cries. His voice has a tone of vulnerability and misery. What could have happened to him?
‘What’s your name?’ I ask. He doesn’t respond.
‘What’s your name?’ I insist, resting my hand on his shoulder.
‘It’s Seb. Sebastian.’
‘Sebastian, I have to get you some help.’ Leaving the candle glued by its wax next to him, I sprint up the aisle and the footpath to the presbytery and up to Father Augustine’s door on the second floor. The absence of response from my vigorous pounding and the image of the weakened teenager left in the church have sent me into overdrive. I twist the doorknob, not caring about intruding on our parish priest’s privacy. ‘Father, where are you?’
Ruffled sheets lie on his bed. A framed photo of his twenty-something-year-old, half-naked, buffed body hangs below the crucifix on his wall. He hasn’t aged much compared to my father who works hard on the street, and they were born in the same year. Where is he? My heart continues to drum, like it’s booming from the walls of Intramuros to the streets of Luneta. ‘Where are you, Father?’
There isn’t time to waste looking. I rush down the stairs and return to the teen. His chest heaves as if he is short of breath. I’ll call the ambulance! I hurry to the phone in the sacristy. Shining red fingers land on my hand that is about to punch the dial. How did he get in here so quickly? The smell of blood fills my lungs and I turn my head to the side in shock. I remember mother cooking Dinuguan, a soup made of pig blood jelly mixed with vinegar and green chilli. I don’t think I will want to eat that dish again. ‘Why don’t you want me to call the ambulance? They will help you.’
He slumps on the floor like a flimsy rag doll. Blood smears on the concrete.
‘You don’t understand,’ he cries.
Seeing blood continue to ooze from his arm makes me feel like I am going to pass out, but I shouldn’t let his situation overcome my strength. If I keep talking to him, perhaps I can get him some help. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘I don’t want you to die, Seb. What has made you so upset?’
He breathes hard, and I can see in his eyes an urge to speak. If he tells me something criminal or illegal, I shouldn’t really get involved. But I want to know. ‘Have you killed someone? Are the police after you? Have you been assaulted? What is it?’
He breathes hard. ‘I’m not a criminal, okay? I’m not in trouble with the police. I hate my fucking life. I’ve just started college and had all these plans for myself, but that’s all gone now. Now I am sick,’ his voice trembles. ‘I just had a test done at Midshift.’
He nods. ‘You know, with one of those outreach tests?’
‘The HIV testing?’
‘Will you let me bandage your wound?’ I ask.
The purificator, which is spread across the altar for the Eucharistic sacrament, makes a soft bandage for his arm. I pull the ends tightly to finish off the bandage.
He raises his voice. ‘This disease is going to kill me.’ Tears flow from his eyes.
‘The World Health has been doing a good job at supporting positive people in the Philippines and I know you’re not the only one with HIV. There’s lots of information and support, we’ll get you some help’
‘I know. The nurses told me the same thing earlier on. They gave me handouts. I threw them away.’
I sigh, sitting next to him. ‘You have to tell your friends or family, someone who will help you.’
‘Are you nuts? No way!’
‘They will support you.’
‘No. They don’t even know I’m gay.’
I don’t know what to say next.
‘They will disown me when they know I
Silence goes past us like an angel and the quietness seems to have clothed us with fortitude. ‘I’m going to call the ambulance now,’ I tell him. I walk back to the sacristy and dial the number. He lurches towards the door, reducing himself to a pitiful figure at the foot of the frangipani tree, like a gnome waiting to be noticed amongst the plants in the garden. White petals settle on his limbs, one sits on his shoulder.
I watch as Father Augustine appears from nowhere, his Alb hem touches the edge of his sandals. I hang up the phone, when I know help is on the way, and walk outside as Father Augustine asks what has happened.
‘This is Sebastian, Father. He’s wounded. He needs help. I’ve rung the ambulance, they’re on their way.’
‘How? Are you okay, son?’ Father Augustine bends, his eyes fixed on the teenager.
He hugs Sebastian, places his hands under his neck and knees, and carries him to the presbytery. He looks back at me and says, ‘Rex, prepare the church for mass. I’ll be with you, soon.’
My one-day training from Father Augustine the other day turned out to be a highly efficient induction because I manage to prepare the vessels and the vestments in the sanctuary as I wait for the ambulance. I light up the candles and refill the hosts, wine and water. I bring out the pall, purificator, corporal, chalice and the ciborium to the altar server’s table. I mop the blood and spray some antiseptic liquid on the surfaces.
Almost on tip-toes, I walk up to the presbytery through the back door. I hide behind the door, keeping an eye out for the paramedics arrival.
‘You have HIV, you don’t have AIDS.’
The young man coughs.
‘God loves you for who you are, Sebastian.’
‘That’s not true, Father. The Bible says I will go to hell.’
‘There are many interpretations of the Bible.’
‘It doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense.’ Sebastian grabs a knife from the sink.
‘No!’ Father Augustine pulls Sebastian’s hand away. ‘Listen to me. If you only knew my story.’
‘What?’ The young man sits on the floor, looking down.
‘I’m positive, too.’
Sebastian is taken aback, just as I am.
‘The medications are very good these days; you can lead a normal life. There are people who will help you. I will help you.’
It is as if another angel has gone past in the moment of silence between the three of us, under the auspices of San Lorenzo Ruiz Presbytery.
‘Really?’ Sebastian’s voice carries a tone of realisation.
‘Yes. Excuse me for a minute, I just need to speak to Rex.’
I scuttle away from the kitchen door and walk away quietly.
‘Yes, Father.’ I look towards the presbytery door where he ducks his head out, and waves at the people who smile at him from behind me.
‘Put up a note that the mass is cancelled. I can’t leave this boy. Is the ambulance here yet?’
‘Sure, Father. Not yet.’
As I am sticking the notice on the bulletin board at the back of the church, a couple arrive with rosaries in their hands. After reading the notice, they turn toward me.
‘Are you sure, no Mass this morning?’
‘Yes,’ I nod.
‘Why?’ asks the lady.
‘Due to an urgent situation.’
They let out a sigh, groan and walk away. ‘How important can it be that he has to cancel the Mass?’ they chatter.
‘Sorry …’ I sigh to the wind, I know that some things don’t need to be elaborated. I just breathe the wind’s encompassing presence.
Everyone makes their way to the car park and to the gates of the church and catches tricycles to go home. I hear sirens approaching, and see lights in the distance.
I remove the notice but retain the posters next to it. One is of a Jesuit priest’s mission showing work amongst the poor and the marginalised of Manila. ‘If you are interested in volunteering, please contact our facilitator, Rev Father Augustine Faustino, San Lorenzo Parish Church on 0918 2467676 and do something meaningful in your life.’
As I step back, the paramedics rush through the gates and I direct them to Sebastian, who is sitting next to Father Augustine. They smile at him in greeting, and tend to his wounds.
Father Augustine and I walk back to the church. Butterflies flutter away from the frangipani tree. The sun sheds light to every dark corner of the church and the garden.