By John Mark G. Parlingayan
The customer cracked the balut with her fork and peeled the top of it. She was then welcomed by the broth. The sun had set, and Maharlika Street was filled with the songs of cicadas in the trees and darkness. A few motorcycles sharply passed the dirt road that was slippery when wet and sandy and baked hard when dry. The houses and the irrigation that the street was known for lay close to the narrow road. Neighbors bumped into one another. People crossed a few steps when buying from the sari-sari store opposite their house or when eating under the colorful umbrellas of the waiting balut vendors with their just-cooked delicacy. One of the vendors was Tiyo Tatang, my grandparents’ closest friend.
In our compound, where concrete fences separated the houses, yellow lights flashed from the gates. A lot of people visited our house, comforting themselves with caffeine and board games. Relatives from far places also arrived to share their condolences and join the cortege during the wake. It was already the third night. Lolo Etot and Lola Emily were each placed in a casket, with bright gold tapestry on the background and fresh flowers beside the bier. In silence, in front of our small wooden bridge to cross the irrigation, I saw Tiyo Tatang’s weather-beaten figure. He had a chiseled, grubby face and fine complexion. He was in his seventies, beaten by time as it continued to pass by like transportations taking the rough street in front of his balut place. Tiyo continued to work even at this time.
Names of their loved ones were written on purple ribbons, reminding the family of Lolo Etot and Lola Emily’s favorite ube halaya, which was sweet, unlike the bitter situation of losing someone. I could still remember the first time I’d seen Lolo’s and Lola’s bodies in the morgue. I was engrossed with the sad portrait of two lovers facing death together. Tears fell from my eyes. The sound of grief from my family struck me. It was like the cry of gypsies, the sad melody that was always playing on my head.
Much of what surprised me was the extreme weeping of Tiyo Tatang beside the body of Lola Emily. He was like that probably because of the pain of losing a friend, especially a friend who was considered a part of the family. I stared a bit longer at Tiyo before being approached by the mortician.
Balut is also considered an aphrodisiac, yet ironically, Tiyo Tatang never had a child. When I was seven, out of curiosity, I asked my mom how Tiyo Tatang is related to our family. My mom told me that Tiyo had been a third wheel to Lolo Etot and Lola Emily back when they were in high school in South Cotabato. Later on, the couple decided to settle in Kabacan in North Cotabato, just across Tiyo Tatang’s house, where he had been living alone since his mother passed away. Lola Emily, if still alive, would probably able to remember the soul of Tiyo drowning in felicity when he found out that his best of friends would be his neighbors. From that day on, Tiyo Tatang had been a part of the Catalina family. He was able to witness the ups and downs of raising a family, children playing back and forth like there was no tomorrow until time made them grow. He was there when the once little kids asking him for free food became adults and built their own family.
Lolo Etot would tell Tiyo to start building his own family, but he would just hear it like a hum in the wind. Tiyo Tatang did have past relationships. He had girlfriends, but he shared with Lolo Etot that all those women were not on a par with the woman whom he regarded as his one true love. But Lolo Etot, even until his death, wasn’t able to know who the woman was or what happened between Tiyo Tatang and her. If Lolo Etot were still living, he would probably state the same advice, and Tiyo Tatang would still probably ignore it, left to exist as though not existing.
The mortician told me that he had removed the moisture and sealed the caskets. He then went out as he had finished his work. Everyone would definitely not stay when they had finished their work and mission in life, like Lolo Etot and Lola Emily.
* * *
My sister Tentay arrived at 8:45 in the evening. She came from a writing workshop in Davao. At first, she did not want to attend the workshop because it meant leaving our grandparents’ wake, but I convinced her to go, telling her that Lolo and Lola would also want her to make something out of her passion in creative writing. Tentay loved our grandparents so much because they raised us for almost two years when our father had to stay in Davao to be treated for brain tumor. Our mother, the third child of Lolo and Lola, joined our father in taking the somber days of their lives, making them sturdy for what more the life had to give. They did feel the pungent side of life, but they were guided by Lolo Etot and Lola Emily and were definitely prayed for by Tiyo Tatang.
I remembered when Tentay got bitten by a dog while eating balut. Lolo Etot had given her a treat. She ate three baluts and even got another one to take home. As she was crossing the road past the gate, while enchanted with the moon in the night sky, sipping on the balut, she was unaware of the sprawled canine on the ground and stepped on it. Our parents spent a big amount of money for her vaccination. She wasn’t able to play outside for some time. My childish anger toward Lolo Etot and Tiyo Tatang lasted for about the same time. I blamed them for giving Tentay the balut that caused the accident. The two old men blamed themselves as well, mugged by their conscience, but people reminded them that the whole thing was an accident. In time the feelings disappeared, and in time they reached their destination, at least for Lolo Etot and Lola Emily. Tiyo remained on the alley.
On the day of my grandparents’ burial, I reminded Tiyo that it would start at one in the afternoon. Tiyo Tatang stood still with his lanky physique, replying with a dull nod. He stammered. Then his sobs thudded, like heavy objects falling to the ground, as heavy as his feeling at the moment, as heavy as the two caskets that the staff of the funeral home carried out of the house. The cemetery was five kilometers away from Maharlika Street.
The vehicles lined up as they ushered two good souls to heaven. Playing on a stereo was the song “Awit ng Anak sa Magulang.” As the car moved, the view outside started to blur. Amid the heat of sunlight and the warm breeze of July, everything started to move fast until it became almost invisible to the naked eye. The clinks and clanks of the engine, the weary heads of toy dogs on the dashboard, the croon of people close to heart as they sobbed—together they made harmonious the procession for Lola Emily and Lolo Etot, who had both suffered from illnesses, the former from pneumonia and the latter from complications of his kidney disease.
We arrived at the open white-painted gate of the cemetery. The landscape was designed with artistry, with healthy green grass planted on a hectare of land. Some families had built mausoleums. At the edge of the plain where the sun would likely set, a tent of white and purple colors was standing, and under was a hole surrounded by plastic chairs. Four metal bars were placed on the sides of the rectangular hole as part of the machinery that the staff would use to lower the caskets in a fluid manner.
We lined up to have our final glance. First were the families, and the other relatives were next. Tiyo Tatang had his final look just as the grandchildren bid their final goodbyes. Sadness was painted on his face. His relationship with Lolo and Lola had been broken, like a bird’s egg. The shell had cracked, and there was nothing to protect the embryo inside. As the the caskets were lowered, I noticed Tiyo Tatang walking away, his steps long and decisive in an unspecified direction. He disappeared just as his friends were being buried, just as the sun set, beautiful and calming.
* * *
“Tiyo, penge pong suka!”
I asked Tiyo Tatang for a vinegar the night after the burial. I then added a little salt and drained it to the soup before proceeding. I peeled off most of the shell and ate the balut in two to three bites to avoid seeing the embryo. I was afraid of the feeling of chewing on a duckling, but I couldn’t stop eating balut, for it was my favorite snack. And the balut vendor already lost two good friends. Like me, he was just afraid—fearful and uncertain of living a life without Lolo Etot and Lola Emily, of continuing his life alone as though enclosed in a shell.