The Long Road to Asik-Asik

By Erwin Cabucos

Dodong watches his saliva disappear in the wind as the bus flies along Marcos Highway. He snorts and thinks he would spat on his brother’s ashes if they weren’t sealed in a jar inside his bag. He could easily do it now if he really wanted to: undo the tape, pull the lid and spit on his brother’s remains—and nobody in the world would know except him and his brother. “Puta ka, Basti,” he mutters. “Unta na-realize nimo ang imong gibuhat bag-o ka namatay.” His lips purse. He smooths out his jeans as he sits up and allows the air to sweep his face and hair.

Dodong sighs and places the backpack on the seat, worried it may fall. So what if it falls and breaks, and the ash flies all over in the bus? He imagines people inhaling the dust, like it’s coming from the road. He hadn’t bothered with the air-conditioned route from the city. What the heck! This is Mindanao. This is the Philippines. I’m used to this. And I don’t care about him, let alone his fucking ash. A warm bus won’t matter to a dead person. He blows another globule of fluid from his mouth out the window. This time it expands in the wind like a spiderweb before disappearing behind the bus. Dodong looks to the front and sighs again.

Maybe not . . . for now. He decides to keep the peace with his brother as he has discretely done for years. Silence can sometimes heal wounds. His thoughts are still with Miranda who had lived unhappily with her new partner until she passed away quietly, buried in front of her daughter—the innocent fruit of Basti’s vile deed—and away from Dodong, who would have given heaven and earth for her. It would’ve been a happy world. Miranda and I, Miranda and I and our family—but cut short by the bastard. Gago ka, Basti! And why am I given the task of scattering your ashes, livestreamed on Facebook after a difficult trek to a remote place? Half my luck!

He pulls the strap of the bag tight and winds it around the arm of his seat, and decides to eat the candied peanuts saved in his jeans’ pocket. He hears his teeth crunch the nuts, and the sugar relieves his aching stomach. But what can relieve a wound to the heart?

The bus stops in Pigcawayan town, and vendors crowd the aisle, forcing women, children, and men to squeeze up against one another as they go up and down. Should he buy more peanuts? What about eggs? Is he really hungry? Should he have bibingka or SkyFlakes? What would be best to take on the walk to the falls?

He doesn’t have to do this, but because everyone wants him to, he feels he has no choice. The blisters and the chafing, the exhaustion and the sunburn, are not something to look forward to—all for one who cunningly projected himself a hero, sending money from Dubai to his poor relatives in the Philippines. He was good at that, but if he didn’t go overseas, I would’ve ended up smashing his head on the rocks. Today I wanted to indulge myself in a lazy weekend after a stressful week at work—but that’s been taken from me. Even dead, the bastard’s claws reach out to me from the ground.

He moves the bag to make room for a boy who innocuously slumps his backside on the seat next to him. The bus is full, and it inches its way through an intersection before revving onto the highway. Cool wind soothes the skin on Dodong’s face, smiling at the thought that the surge of oxygen should revitalize his pores, defying his mid-forties looks. Ah, most importantly, let me breathe air untainted by my dungeon of unhappiness.

The lady from a church that preaches on buses starts to prattle at the front: “Turn away from your sin or you will rot in hell. Accept him now as your personal lord and savior. Amen!”

Dodong is thankful she isn’t near him or he would have become infuriated by her noise and unsolicited ideas. Last time he encountered her on his way to Davao, the crowd was shocked when he screamed at her to shut up—and she retaliated by praying over him, exorcising his devils and praying that Satan would leave the “stupid man” on the bus. I could have punched the bitch, but I kept still for peace.

Now all he hears is the lady’s faint voice persisting against the howls of the wind. Dodong moves his attention to the rice fields that stretch to the horizon. Brown huts hide among coconut palms, and farmers on the backs of carabaos give depth to the canvas etched under the broad, blue sky. The bus slices through the busy highway of jeepneys, tricycles, and motorcycles. Dodong places the backpack on his lap. The bus movement lulls him to sleep.

While trekking to the falls, Dodong starts Facebook live on his phone and raises his selfie stick to pan across the hills. His screen rains with thumbs up and hearts. He sees, among others, likes from his parents in Cotabato City, his sister Andrea in Tacloban, his other sister Luz in Hong Kong, his uncle in Baguio, and his nephew Andrew in Western Samar. His cousins and other relatives in General Santos and Cebu are online too. His brother’s friends in Dubai and Manila are present. Dodong’s live funeral event is watched by about three hundred viewers from across the archipelago and the world. He grins at the thought that it wouldn’t be possible if it were done in real life. A throng of three hundred at Asik-Asik Falls gathered to pour someone’s ashes in the water would horrify the locals and the visitors alike.

He is breathing hard as he climbs down the steep concrete steps. His legs ache and his back throbs with pain, a sharp reminder of last year’s slipped disc. The rocking jar in his backpack punches his back with each stride, not helping the agony. The sun sears his head, and the heat burns his skin. His hand is about to surrender from holding the selfie stick up. He wants to scream to the hills how much he hates his brother and how the absence of remorse from Basti has made it even more painful. Couldn’t you at least say sorry? He pouts and grimaces, making sure the camera doesn’t capture his facial contortions.

He’s about to stop and close his eyes in exhaustion, but the waterfalls below that he’s approaching are like treasures that glitter in the sun. He reaches the Falls where white sprays of glistening water burst like crystals through the green wall on a mountain and splash as they hit the stream below. Lots of waterfalls. He closes his eyes to allow the breathtaking view to imprint on his mind and then opens them again to marvel at the spectacular sight, his ears blasted by the gushing of water. So much water. Generous. Abundant. Refreshing.

He understands now why his brother chose this place for his ashes to be scattered. It’s fucking beautiful. There’s a surge of energy around here. He forces the back end of the selfie stick into the ground and places some rocks around the stick for support. He positions the urn in front of the camera, and he is unfazed by the small number of visitors captured in the frame. His livestream continues, and his screen is flooded with smiles, grins, thumbs-up, and everything positive. The impact of his brother’s life on his family is wide, but to Dodong, it is yet to be reckoned. One thing is for sure, his tiredness seems to have gone away.

If you had not taken advantage of Miranda, she wouldn’t have left me. We would have wedded and lived like a family. Dodong remembers the night his fiancé left him, crying on the phone that she loved him but was no longer worthy to be his wife—a disgrace to his family, their family, especially because of the baby conceived from the act. She was so sorry.

Dodong’s heart broke on the day she died from cancer many years later, while her new partner was off gallivanting with other women. Kawawa. I should have been there for you, Miranda.

He wipes his face. I know. Dodong realizes something he should do in this moment, the final moment. Duplaan tika. Gago ka! Suddenly the sound of water pierces his ears, and the strengthening wind chills him, diverting his attention to the falls. The water makes him feel better and lighter. A vision of the ash flowing with the current gives him comfort.

Slowly, he opens the jar. He is surprised to find an envelope, with his name on it, sitting on the ash. He can’t stop the trembling of his hands as his fingers tear it open to reveal the card inside. His eyes well with tears, and his lips purse while reading the words: Pasayloa ko, Dong. Pasayloa ko sa tanan-tanan. He tears the card into pieces and lets them fall from his hands and fly like confetti, landing on the water, softening the stubborn hurt in his heart. I have to let go. Everyone asks what was on the card, but Dodong ignores them. All that matters now is that the tightness in his heart is starting to fade away.

Carefully, he tips the contents of the jar into the water. The ashes kiss the current, some escaping to the air. Dodong shakes the jar to make sure all the ashes are emptied. After rinsing the jar, he whispers, “Goodbye.” He breathes in, and his body shudders as he breathes out.

The whole screen is flooded with sad faces and cries. He spins slowly and relishes the white of the waterfalls, the green of the mountain, and the blue of the sky, healing his wounds. A hornbill song reverberates across the mountain, and munia birds fly in a tight flock. He doesn’t bother moving the camera. The stillness in the shot should bring peace to this funeral. “Basti,” he softly says.

The cool spray of Asik-Asik Falls dampening his skin lingers in his mind as he treks back to the top of the hill.

He learns later that Basti has bequeathed him a windfall, but this has less impact on him than Basti’s words.


June 2018 (Issue 22)

Introduction by Paul Randy P. Gumanao

I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Erwin Cabucos
Manika by Mubarak Tahir

Layers by Christine Joy G. Aban
To recreate that which I had seen in a dream 
by Almira Caryl Jane A. Calvo
Astral Demise 
by Florence Dianne D. Samson
Antler Series 
by Julius Marc Taborete
Makeup Kit 
by Mubarak Tahir

Liar Goes to Hell by Allan Ace Dignadice

Editors and Contributors

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

By Erwin Cabucos

This short story first appeared in Bayanihan News and was included in the author’s out-of-print book The Beach Spirit and Other Stories.

“Renato,” Rebecca whispered, tapping me on my shoulder.

“Yeah.” Half asleep, I opened my eyes slowly, squinting. “What?”

“Look.” She was pointing out the window of our taxi.

“Look what?” My brows knitted together. I shook my head a little, trying to figure out where we were. We were on our way to the hotel we had booked for a night before travelling on to my parents’ place in the province. I looked around at the queues of cabs, buses, and jeepneys waiting for the traffic to move. The clock in the taxi said six o’clock.

“There’s a child outside, singing. He’s been there for a while. He seems to be waiting for something. He’s following us. I thought you heard him.”

“No, I was half asleep.”

“What are those things clipped to the tip of his thumbs and fingers? Castanets, that’s it! He’s hitting them as he sings.” Rebecca turned to the boy. “Look at him. I don’t think he’s going to stop.”

“He wants some money for his Christmas carols.”

She dug into her jeans’ pocket. “I have a peso here. This’ll do, won’t it?”

“One peso?” I snorted. “You have to give him more than that. Don’t you feel sorry for him?”

“How much, then?”

“Give him a hundred-peso note.”

“What!” Her eyes popped. “That’s too much!”

“Why is it too much? It’s what you’d pay for a junior burger in McDonalds in Sydney.”

“But compared to the cost of living here, it’s a lot, isn’t it? You told me a meal here might only cost fifteen pesos.”

“It’s all right.” I bent my head towards her and smiled.

She took out the hundred-peso bill from her wallet, wound the window down, and handed the note over to the boy. The child ran to the woman selling cigarettes and candies further along the street and passed the note to her. She waved at us, smiled, and caressed the little boy’s head.

The taxi slowly crawled along with the other vehicles. The traffic cleared gradually and we crept towards the open wide road. We heard the car accelerate and saw the child leaning on the lady, who was sitting on a stool beside the road. As we drove further, their image blurred and was slowly replaced by the blinking lights of billboard ads. The car stereo was on, tuned in to Cebu Mellow Station playing Jose Marie Chan’s “Christmas in our Hearts.”

I broke the silence. “I used to do that when I was young.”

“Really.” She faced me. “Did you get lots of money?”


We had agreed to meet at the front of Mrs. Villegas’ general store. We thought it was the perfect rendezvous because the light there was bright thanks to the fluorescent tube that hung on the top of the post. The light was a public display of Mr. Villegas’ ingenuity. He had climbed the post the previous week, spliced the live electrical wire that ran through our whole street, attached the thin wire of the fluorescent tube, and his store’s front yard became what looked like the center of our little community. He was a hero to us for bringing us light after the town’s only power company rejected our request.

The fluorescent light attracted a lot of mosquitoes, and several kinds of moths were hovering around it. The light lifted the energy of young men in our street in the afternoon, as they played basketball into the iron ring attached to the trunk of the dying santol tree. The crowd, composed of younger women, mothers with their toddlers, and grandparents minding their young grandchildren, settled around the playing teams, cheering.

Mrs. Villegas was inside her little shop, picking off tiny horseradish leaves for her fish soup dinner while keeping abreast with the competing scores of both teams. Her eyes moved between the leaves on the plate, the sweaty basketball players a few meters away, and me, her customer, muttering that I would like a pack of Marie biscuits. It cost me twenty-five centavos. I liked the nutty taste of the Marie biscuits. They would tide me over at night if we did not have anything for dinner, or if we only had rice, water, and salt.

I was waiting for Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin to arrive. They knew they had to come early so that we could cover a lot of houses that night.

The santol tree trunk was just about to collapse but no one seemed to worry about it. As long as it could still support the thuds of the ball, why worry? Poor tree. I used to climb it when it was still full of fruit. It was a nice variety of santol—a Bangkok one, they said. The fruit had had thicker flesh, thinner seeds, and was more flavorsome. Although we were told not to swallow the seeds, I did anyhow. It was the last school vacation, after we finished third grade. We climbed the trees in the school orchard. The seeds had slipped smoothly down my throat.

“What, you swallowed the seeds of Bangkok santol?” Gideon’s eyes had nearly popped.

“Yes. Why?”

“Renato, you can’t do that. They could grow inside you and you would die, you know,” he said warily.

“That sounds like Jack and the Beanstalk.” I simply lifted my eyebrows. “I’m still alive, though.”

“I’m serious,” he said.

The guys were still not here. They might still be having their dinner. I went back to Mrs. Villegas and spent another twenty-five centavos on some cold water. I tore the plastic with my front teeth and sucked the icy cold water from it. I could be luckier tonight if we came home with lots of coins. Then I could buy boiled eggs from the sidewalk vendors and munch them with rice on my way home. I wished my father earned lots of money again and was able to buy us nice food every night. I wished I had some toys like those of the kids in the movies. I wished that the santol tree would bear fruit again. I wished we also had a glittering and singing Christmas tree. I wished the airport would change its decision to remove all the porters from inside the building.

My four brothers, three sisters, and I used to know that my father had had a good day if he came home with boiled eggs or barbecued chicken. Usually, it was because lots of Filipino overseas contract workers had arrived in the airport that day. In ten years of lifting suitcases for these highly paid domestic helpers, seamen, and bar entertainers from abroad, my father, to attract tips, had mastered eye to eye contact, suitable gestures, and well-chosen words.

He had been doing it for so many years that it was a big shock when, one afternoon, he was told that he was no longer allowed to work inside the airport building. Only selected porters, the ones who knew someone in management, were allowed to work inside. My father did not know anyone in the office so he was stationed outside the gate, asking passengers if they needed cabs to go around Manila. He was disappointed, because the money was not as good. Everyone thought he was a con man. I did not know how to help my father. I wished I could. I now wore some of his porter work shirts, as he did not need them anymore. My two younger brothers wore them to school, too.

“Where is everyone?” Gideon asked as he came out of his mom’s shop, holding his ukulele in his right hand and a flashlight in his left.

“I’m the only one here,” I said.

He handed the flashlight over to me as he tried a few strums. I envied his ability to play an expensive instrument like that. I placed the flashlight under my arm and shook a piece of wood with flattened Coca Cola caps nailed in it as I tried to do a little jam with him. We saw Ricky coming with two spoons. Darwin was coming in the opposite direction with a triangle and a money tin.

We did not waste a moment. Our first house was the Santos’, who we knew had lots of money because they ran the only newspaper shop in town. We positioned ourselves on the leaning trunk of a jackfruit tree from where we could see Mr. and Mrs. Santos’ silhouettes behind their windowpanes, as he read and she knitted. The jackfruit tree was actually bearing fruit underground. We could see one fruit breaking the ground and smelling like heaven.

Before we started, we looked around to make sure that their dogs were not off the leash. It looked like everything was safe.

“Gregorio,” said the wife, “I think there are people outside. Can you check who it is?”

“It could just be kids from our block, caroling.”

“Just give them some money now so they can leave early. After all, that’s the only thing they want.”

“No, let them sing.”

“As if you really want to listen to them.”

“Let them sing, anyway.”

“But they’re just going to make a noise.”

“OK, give me the coin and I’ll give it to them later.”

We were happy when we heard the word “coin,” a guarantee that we would be getting something in the end. Gideon strummed the ukulele, Ricky banged the back of the spoons together, I shook the Coca Cola caps, we looked at each other, and together we sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” We looked at Darwin and his triangle and wondered why he was not hitting the instrument. He smiled, because he had forgotten the rod which he used to hit the triangle. We continued singing while he bent down, looking for a stone to use instead. Towards the middle of the song, we heard his triangle and we sang louder.

Suddenly, we were surprised to see two Dobermans racing towards us. The dogs must have broken loose from their leashes. The other three ran as quick as a flash. I was behind them, catching up. I had only one slipper on. For a moment, I thought I might leave it behind so that I could run as fast as possible, but I remembered it was the only one I would have until my mother could buy me another pair in a few days’ time. I was limping, when I saw the two vicious dogs right behind me. I still tried my best to push myself forward and I could feel my heart pounding hard. The dogs howled behind me. I closed my eyes and ran as fast as I could.

We reached the bright front yard of Villegas’ store, puffing. Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin were laughing at my pants nearly dropping, the elastic busted. My Coca Cola caps were no longer in my hands and my slipper had also disappeared from my foot. Oh well, at least I was safe.

We rested for a while until we were ready to go on to the next house.

We got to the Tolentinos’ front yard; it was covered with young guava trees. They were the new variety of guavas called guapple, a blend of the guava’s citric taste and the apple’s succulence. We knew the Tolentinos had lots of money, because he was a high school teacher and she was a midwife. We always saw their daughters at school eating delicious sandwiches at recess. Most of the time I had nothing. To pretend I wasn’t hungry, I used to play marbles and holes while my friends were munching banana cue and cheese snacks. When I got home, I used to get angry at my mother. Why did she not give me any money to buy food?

The Tolentinos’ living room was brightly lit. It had a nice maroon couch which blended with their exquisite hardwood furniture. In the corner stood a tall, fully decorated Christmas tree with statues of Jesus in the stable and Mary and Joseph and the Kings and the shepherds. The Tolentinos were having dinner. The strong aroma of chicken, soy sauce, and coconut vinegar made me hungrier.

Gideon started to play his ukulele. We all went, “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Because I no longer had my Coca Cola caps, I picked up two small rocks from the ground and hit them together in time with the melody. We finished the song energetically and then we started another one. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child.” We sang and sang until we were tired but no one came out to give us anything.

Suddenly, Mrs. Tolentino’s head poked out of their screen door: “Hoy, here’s a peso. Now go home and stop disturbing us. You were here last night, weren’t you?”

“No, that was a different group,” Darwin answered, stepping closer to her.

“Anyway, here’s your money,” she said quickly.

“It’s not enough, Mrs. Tolentino,” Darwin protested.

“You should be grateful that I’ve given you something.”

“OK, then,” Darwin conceded, scraping the two fifty-centavo coins off her palm.

She quickly turned her back and slammed the door.

We then sang the Merry Christmas tune with revised lyrics: “Thank you, thank you, tight-ass people are you, are you? Thank you, thank you, thrifty clan in hell will land.”

Darwin dropped the coins into our money tin; I heard them hitting the bottom. It would have been nicer to hear some jingling of pennies inside. We left that hideous family and continued walking towards the next house. We heard dogs barking—the Santos’ two Dobermans were still wandering free in our street. We screamed and ran back to the lit electrical post again, yelling, “Mr. Santos, your vicious dogs are out in our street. Mr. Santos!”


I stared at the decorated pine trees in the middle of the road and my mind returned to the face of that little boy, how his lips stretched and his cheeks lifted when he felt the paper money in his palm. I wished I had experienced the same feeling twenty years ago. I wished I could gather Gideon and the guys again to go caroling. We would sing enthusiastically once more but, this time, I would not be asking for people’s money.

“So, did you get lots of money?” She leaned her head over my shoulder.


“How cute.”  She spoke softly. “We don’t have that in Sydney.”

“No, we don’t,” I sighed.

Editors and Contributors


Paul Randy P. Gumanao hails from Kidapawan City and teaches Chemistry at Philippine Science High School-SOCCSKSARGEN Region Campus. He was a fellow for poetry at the 2009 Davao Writers Workshop and the 2010 IYAS National Creative Writing Workshop. He is a former editor in chief of Atenews, the official student publication of Ateneo de Davao University, and is currently finishing his MS in Chemistry from the same university.


Jude Ortega is a short story writer from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat Province. He has been a fellow in two regional and four national writers workshop. In 2015, he received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards. His short story collection Seekers of Spirits is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press.


Christine Joy G. Aban was born and raised in Cotabato City. In 2000, she went to Iligan to study in MSU-IIT. She is now married to an Iliganon and has two kids. She is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in UP Diliman, Quezon City. Her poem “Layers” won third place at the 2018 BalakBayi Poetry Writing Contest.

Erwin Cabucos, born and raised in Kabacan, Cotabato Province, is a teacher of English and religious education at Trinity College in Queensland, Australia. He received High Commendation literary awards from Roly Sussex Short Story Prize and Queensland Independent Education Union Literary Competition in 2016. His short stories have been published in Australia, Philippines, Singapore, and USA, including VerandahFourWPhilippines Graphic, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. He completed his master in English education from the University of New England.

Almira Caryl Jane A. Calvo is an AB English student of Mindanao State University-General Santos City. She is also a member of the book readers club Valoræx and a feature writer trainee in the university paper. Her poem “To recreate that which I had seen in a dream” won first place at the 2018 BalakBayi Poetry Writing Contest.

Allan Ace Dignadice is a nineteen-year-old playwright and poet from Koronadal, South Cotabato.

Florence Diane D. Samson is a third year AB English student at Mindanao State University-General Santos City. She grew up in the municipality of Datu Abdullah Sangki in Maguindano but is now residing in Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat, with her family.

Julius Marc Taborete is an AB English graduate of Mindanao State University-General Santos with latin honors. He was the editor in chief of the MSU College Social Sciences and Humanities’ student publication Pingkian and folio Ningas. He currently teaches Literature at Dole Philippines School, Kalsangi, Polomolok, South Cotabato.

Mubarak M. Tahir was born in the village of Kitango in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Filipino Language (cum laude) at Mindanao State University in Marawi City. He lived in General Santos City when he taught in the campus there of his alma mater. His essay “Aden Bon Besen Uyag-uyag” won the third prize for Sanaysay at the 2017 Palanca Awards. Currently, he is teaching at the Davao campus of Philippine Science High School.

Lights of Different Colors

By Erwin Cabucos

This piece first appeared on FourW28 Anthology.

Christy dabs her eyes to dry her tears with the flannelette sheet as she pulls it up to her neck, tucking herself in tightly against the creeping chill of Hong Kong’s winter. From her space under the laundry bench, between the washing machine and the refrigerator, she can see the kaleidoscopic glow reflected on Kowloon Bay, especially if she tilts her head up from her pillow. She inhales the peace of the moment, disturbed only by the intermittent whirring of the refrigerator motor, but she has learned to love the noise as a symbol of where she is and what she is doing for her family.

When she started work five years ago as a maid for the Chen family, on the twenty-ninth floor of a building in Admiralty, the refrigerator noise used to rob her of sleep. But it’s become a symbol of the importance of her job, of her ability to feed her family back in the Philippines, to send her daughter to study nursing at the Davao Doctors College and to save money so she can send her son to a university soon. She has learned to accept the things she used to hate.

She yawns and rubs her feet together for warmth as she does every night before she falls asleep. Then she makes the sign of the cross—something she’s done all her life—as she thinks of the people she loves and prays for their safety.

Finally, she looks at the picture of her family on her phone. It is the last image she wants imprinted on her mind as she closes her eyes. As she outlines the faces of her loved ones with a finger, the latest FaceTime messages from her daughter Melody pop up: I love you, Mang. Indi lang magkabalaka sa amon diri kay okay lang kami. Don’t worry about us, for we are fine here. Mag-capping na ako sa sunod bulan. We’ll our capping ceremony next month. Love you man daw siling ni Papang kag ni Jun-Jun. Didto ko kaina sa Carmen. Papang and Jun-Jun also send their love. I was at home with them earlier today.

“I love you too, Melody,” Christy whispers. She feels her eyes start to water again. But before the flood of tears can come, she stands to get some cold water from the fridge and gulps the liquid down, staring at the shimmering lights that filter between the buildings and the bay. The colors that pierce the darkness give her a sense of triumph, knowing that, despite their poverty and her having to work as a domestic helper far from home, she is able to pay the expensive tuition fees and textbooks needed for her daughter’s education, which only the well-to-do can afford in her hometown. Holding the glass, Christy leans on the washing machine and stares at the city, hoping that one day her hard work will pay off and Melody will be the one to send her brother to college. Then, at last, she and her husband will be able to retire with a little help from their two children.

She sighs at the thought that beyond the array of buildings, a two-hour flight from this island-city, her family is also going to sleep. She wishes she were there now to advise Jun-Jun, her sixteen-year-old son, to stay away from bad influences, especially drugs.

The knock on the door jolts her. Christy puts on her slippers and slides her jumper over her shoulders as she walks through the kitchen and lounge room to get to the front door. She thinks it must be Kwok Wei, Chen’s only child, who always ignores his parents’ instruction to study hard and to come home on time. He’s always been a concern for Mr. and Mrs. Chen and was even suspected of having been involved in illegal drugs last year, at the age of only fifteen.

The teenager’s body rolls on the floor as Christy swings the door open. “Kwok Wei, are you okay?”

His eyes are half-open. He struggles to stand, and then he braces himself with one hand as he sits on the floor.

Before Christy finishes her sentence, a pinkish goo escapes from his mouth, spilling on his shirt and onto the carpet. Christy’s eyes go wide. “Ay, yudiputa nga bata ni a, pakuskusun pa gid ko sang carpet,” she curses at the prospect of de-staining and deodorizing the carpet, one of many things she hates about this job.

“Sorry, Auntie Christy.” He grabs the side of the door to pull himself upright and wobbles towards his bedroom.

Mrs. Chen appears, trembling in anger. “Could you be any more stupid? Drinking at fifteen is not only illegal but extremely dangerous. You could have died!” Her high-pitched voice pierces Christy’s ears. Mrs. Chen’s hand flies onto her son’s head; his face twists from the impact. “Clean yourself. You are grounded! No more internet. No more games. No more pocket money . . .”

Christy starts to sweep up the slime, trying not to gag from the smell.

“M-ma, it was only because of my friend’s request. I couldn’t reject him. He only turns eighteen once,” the teen mumbles. He slips to the floor, leaning on the side of his bed.

Mr. Chen comes out in his boxer shorts. “All right, listen,” he says, pointing at his son. “This should be the last time I see you drunk. None of this stupid thing from now on, do you understand?”

Kwok Wei nods while looking down.

Mr. Chen shakes his head. “It’s probably bad influences from those friends of yours. Stop hanging out with them kids. They don’t do you any good.”

“It’s not about his friends, lóuhgùng. I know their families.” Mrs. Chen scuttles towards the teenager, avoiding the spot Christy is trying to clean. She stabs his head with her forefinger. “It’s his stupid head!” She crosses her arms and breathes rapidly. “Christy, can you also help him clean himself? She asks in a way that makes it an order. “He’s a mess!” Mrs. Chen hurries back to their bedroom, muttering and cursing at why, despite the other things she has to worry about, what with the budgeting and forecasting she has to submit to her company tomorrow, the heavens also saw fit to give her a child that brings hell into her life.

“Get your act together, son!” Mr. Chen says as he follows his wife to their bedroom.

After drying the floor, Christy now sprays the spot with a carpet deodorizer. She hurries to the bathroom and turns on the water before going to the teenager’s bedroom to undress him. She pinches the hem of his shirt, pulls it up, and throws it in the washing basket. Kwok Wei stands up, holding on to the side of his bedroom door, and pushes his jeans and underpants down. She hasn’t helped him undress or change for years, but tonight is different, confirming the fact that parenting teenagers do bring unpleasant surprises at times. She cannot help but notice his uncircumcised penis on the patch of black pubic hair he has grown since she last saw him naked, and she hands him a towel to cover himself. When he was young, she would wrap him in the towel, but now the teenager snatches it from her fingers, realizing the awkwardness of exposing himself to her. As she follows him to the bath, Christy recalls her son and the time she has lost in not being there to care for him, and perhaps to get angry with him when she needs to, like most parents do when their children misbehave. Why, she asks herself, does she have to lease her love to others to show its genuineness?

Kwok Wei hands the towel to her and dunks himself in the bath. He stretches his legs while resting his head on the tiles, letting out a groan as the warm water soothes him. He closes his eyes and cups some water in his hands to pour on himself. Steam bellows to the ceiling. Christy lets some air in, conscious not to open the window widely. She squirts liquid soap onto a sponge and hands it to the boy. He simply dangles it, dripping soap over the edge of the bath. She takes it and rubs it on his chest, neck, and face. He closes his eyes and moves his chin as she scrubs his skin.

“Thank you, Auntie Christy.” Kwok Wei’s voice is still slurred. He lifts his hands and wraps them around Christy’s shoulders, wetting her blouse as he pulls her close. “Thank you very much. You’re always here for me, more so than my mother.”

Christy sees the redness and the brimming with tears in his half-closed eyes. She is touched by the words of her employers’ son who she feels could easily be her own over the years she has spent helping bring him up. “Don’t cry, Kwok Wei. That’s what I’m here for. Your parents pay me to do this. Wipe your tears.” She stands up to get his toothbrush and squirts some toothpaste on it before handing it to him. C’mon, brush your teeth before going to bed.”

“You may just be doing your job here for money, but what you do goes far beyond what Ma’s and Pa’s money could buy.” He pours some more water on his chest. “You’re more than that. A-and, thanks for being here.”

“That’s okay, Kwok Wei. I guess your parents are right. Don’t drink. You’re too young for that.”

“You know my friends didn’t really force me to drink. You have no idea how much I hate my stupid life! I don’t think there is any purpose to it.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I left the party and walked and walked, feeling sorry for myself and thinking about ending everything. You know . . .”

“Oh, Kwok Wei.”

“I called my friends, but they were busy.” He splashes some water on his face and sweeps it down with his palm. “I didn’t realize I was walking along the busway at Harcourt Road. I was beeped at. I thought I was going to get run over.”


“I was pulled over by the police near Admiralty. Luckily, they didn’t arrest me. Then I paid someone to buy me some beer, and I sculled a few more bottles of San Miguel on my way home.”

“You know my son is roughly the same age as you. He wants to be a police officer after hearing that our new president will increase the salaries of the police.” She wipes the boy’s feet but looks at his face. “If you want, you can come with me to the Philippines during my next holiday. But it’s very hot there.”

“I like being in warm places.”

“Not only that, we are also poor. Our house is very poor. You know—no flush toilets, no hot water. We only have hard beds made of bamboo.”

“My teacher said it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. What matters is you’re happy. Are you happy, Auntie Christy?”

“Yes, Kwok Wei, I’m generally happy. I feel sad too, but more happy than sad. I’m happy because I can support my family in the Philippines out of poverty. At least they have something to eat.”

“That’s really good. I’m sure your kids are really proud of you, and your husband, too.”


“And you shouldn’t worry about being poor then. You know what you ought to do in your life. You make others happy. Really, you are doing things that make you happy.”

“I guess so. I guess that’s life.” Christy smiles and breathes in deeply.

“I don’t know what I want, Auntie Christy. What do you think I should do? I am pretty good at math.”

“You have plenty of opportunities, Kwok Wei. Your parents have money, your country is rich, and you have access to good education. Use these things to your advantage, to make good future. Stop thinking of negative, nonsense things.”

Christy mentions about possible courses he should consider, and she makes him agree to see his school counselor the following day. Eventually, she tucks him into bed and turns the lights off before walking back to her narrow mattress.

She hears the tell-tale moans of pleasure from Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s room at the far end of the apartment and thinks about her husband, and how she wishes she could be with him right now. She wraps herself once more with the flannelette sheet before spreading the quilt on top of her and ducks her head under the covers before checking the photograph of her family one last time on her phone. It’s 1:50 AM. In four hours she has to get up again to make her employers breakfast before they go to work. She thinks about what she will wear to take Kwok Wei to the school counselor. Perhaps she shouldn’t go for a motherly look, just jeans and a white top—the one with undefeated printed on it that Melody sent her last Christmas. Kwok Wei’s words to her tonight are like a balm that massages her aching back and feet, giving her warmth and strength in the isolation from those she loves.

Unexpectedly her phone vibrates softly and a text comes up. It is her husband, Lando: I miss you, Chris. I love you, palangga.

She presses the auto response button that returns her usual message to him—her love. She hugs the phone to her chest and closes her eyes.

She is already asleep as the image of her family fades from the screen. Streaks of Kowloon light reflect on her face from the side of the fridge as its motor runs once more, unnoticed in the night.

Editors and Contributors


Eric Gerard H. Nebran is an educator and illustrator from General Santos City. He is currently a PhD Comparative Literature student at the University of the Philippines–Diliman. His research interests include orality, history, and literary productions of his hometown.


Jude Ortega is a short story writer from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat Province. He has been a fellow in two regional and four national writers workshops. In 2015, he received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards. His short story collection Seekers of Spirits is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press.


Mikhael M. Labrador is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and has been residing in Cebu for the past eleven years, working primarily in the business process outsourcing industry. He is an avid travel hobbyist and a former editor of Omniana, the official student publication of Notre Dame of Marbel University.

Noel Pingoy is a graduate of Notre Dame of Marbel University and of Davao Medical School Foundation. He finished residency in internal medicine and fellowships in hematology and in medical oncology at the University of the Philippines–Philippine General Hospital. He divides his time between General Santos City and Koronadal City.

Mubarak M. Tahir was born in the village of Kitango in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Filipino Language (cum laude) at Mindanao State University in Marawi City. He lived in General Santos City when he taught in the campus there of his alma mater. His essay “Aden Bon Besen Uyag-uyag” won the third prize for Sanaysay at the 2017 Palanca Awards. Currently, he is teaching at the Davao campus of Philippine Science High School.

Lance Isidore Catedral is completing his residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of the Philippines–Philippine General Hospital. He also has a degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from UP Diliman. He was born and raised in Koronadal City. Since 2004, he has been blogging at His interests include Christianity, literature, and medicine.

Saquina Karla C. Guiam has been published in the Rising Phoenix ReviewScrittura MagazineSuffragette CityDulcet QuarterlyThe Fem Lit Mag, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. She graduated from Mindanao State University in General Santos City with a bachelor’s degree in English and is currently studying for her master’s degree in Ateneo de Davao University. She is the Roots nonfiction editor at Rambutan Literary, an online journal showcasing literature and art from Southeast Asians all over the world, and the social media manager of Umbel & Panicle, a new literary journal inspired by plants and all things botanical.

Benj Marlowe Cordero from General Santos City is currently working in Dubai as a Sales Coordinator and has yet to graduate from Holy Trinity College of GSC. He spends his days off playing Overwatch, constructing a fictional language for his novel, and completing his poetry collection, under the rose. He likes shawarma, singing in the shower, and Rick Riordan.

Marc Jeff Lañada hails from General Santos City and currently resides in Davao for his undergraduate studies in the University of the Philippines–Mindanao. He was a fellow during the Davao Writers Workshop 2017, and some of his works were published in the Dagmay literary journal. His poems talk about landscapes, especially the overlooked or underappreciated places in General Santos and Davao.

Claire Monreal is a student at Central Mindanao Colleges in Kidapawan City, Cotabato Province. Her poem “Survived a Bullet” is a finalist in the 2017 Cotabato Province Poetry Contest.

Joan Victoria Cañete is a registered medical technologist from Kidapawan City, Cotabato Province. “Superficial Swim,” her poem for this issue, is a finalist in the 2017 Cotabato Province Poetry Contest.

Patrick Jayson L. Ralla is a graduate of Mindanao State University–General Santos City with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He is currently working as a private school teacher in Polomolok, South Cotabato, and is taking up a Master of Arts degree in Literature at the University of Southeastern Philippines, Davao City.

Paul Randy P. Gumanao hails from Kidapawan City, and teaches Chemistry at Philippine Science High School–SOCCSKSARGEN Region Campus. He was a fellow for poetry at the 2009 Davao Writers Workshop, and 2010 IYAS National Creative Writing Workshop. He is a former editor in chief of Atenews, the official student publication of Ateneo de Davao University, and is currently finishing his MS in Chemistry from the same university.

Mariz Leona is an AB English student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. She is from Lambayong, Sultan Kudarat.

Boon Kristoffer Lauw, a chemical engineer–turned–entrepreneur from General Santos City, is currently based in Quezon City. During his practice of profession at a beer-manufacturing plant last 2013, he began to pass graveyard shifts with random musings that eventually took form in writing—and, inevitably, stories.

Erwin Cabucos, born and raised in Kabacan, Cotabato Province, is a teacher of English and religious education at Trinity College in Queensland, Australia. He received High Commendation literary awards from Roly Sussex Short Story Prize and Queensland Independent Education Union Literary Competition in 2016. His short stories have been published in Australia, Philippines, Singapore, and USA, including Verandah, FourW, Philippines Graphic, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. He completed his master in English education from the University of New England.

The Crying Walls of San Lorenzo

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.’

He sighs.

‘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.’

‘The nightclub?’

He nods. ‘You know, with one of those outreach tests?’

‘The HIV testing?’


‘You’re positive?’

He nods.

‘Will you let me bandage your wound?’ I ask.

He nods.

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
have HIV.’

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.

The Bleached Hills of Cotabato

By Erwin Cabucos (Fiction)

(This story first appeared, in slightly different form, in Philippines Graphic.)

“Alexander, come back, now!” Mother’s voice echoed throughout the rice field, waking up nearly every cricket and frog that morning. I didn’t care; I kept on walking along the pathway between the paddies. I didn’t want Kitty to marry that gray-haired, big-bellied Australian man in the photo. Kitty was eighteen. He’s fifty-four and retired from work. Now they’re going to meet him and he’d be welcome in our house. They’re getting ready to pick him up from the airport. I felt as though I had lost a friend. What a waste.

They could pick him up at the airport. They could have that white man, his dollars, and his suitcases and his chocolates. That meant my sister and that man would sleep together tonight doing what adults do in the bedroom that my sister and I had shared for many years since we were born. That’d be yuk. Disgusting!

Mother was still yelling at me to come back. I didn’t want to turn around. My footsteps were getting heavier, sometimes breaking the soil. Father would be angry for sure; he’d have me patch the walkway as soon as he saw the damage.

The morning sun followed me toward the thick profiles of bamboo trees on the hills. Cario, our carabao, rubbed his snout on the side of the water hole, whipped his back with his own tail, and mooed.

“Hi, Cario, good morning,” I murmured. He blew out some air through his nose, sounding like a revving jeepney in first gear. I sighed and sat on the grassy patch, holding some regrowths. Dew wet my backside.

Mother’s cousin Aunt Elisa, who now lived in Brisbane, had married an Australian she had met through Facebook. She left him after a few years because they fought a lot about her sending money to her family in the Philippines. Aunt Elisa was now working as a cleaner in food courts. She convinced mother that she had a good life in Australia and recommended that her newly retired friend Gregory Smith marry my sister.

Mother was persistent. Her voice was piercing in the ear. “Alex, don’t make me drag you back to the house. I’ll smack you. Do you want me to get your father?” The yellow-green rice was not tall enough yet to block Mother’s voice.

Would she really smack me? Would she really send my father to belt me? I was in second year high school, and I had not had a smack since I was in grade two. Father used to leave rectangle marks on my skin especially if I had not collected young leaves for Cario’s dinner.

From the distance I saw Father approaching with his leather belt. My heart beat faster. What could he really do? He wouldn’t kill me, would he? I uprooted some of the grass and whisked them in the air. I stared at the bare wiry root hairs in my hands.

“Alexander!” Father’s voice was loud. “If you don’t come here by the time I count ten, you will regret it!”

My hands shook. I stood up and ran towards him. I knew how he could tear my skin, marking me like branded cattle on a farm. “I’m coming, Pang,” I said. “I’m coming.”

“What the hell are you doing?” he said. “Everyone’s ready to go and you’re here?”

“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I want to stay here.”

“It’s a family thing. We want Gregory to feel welcome. Now quick, wash up and hop on the jeepney.”

The wind dampened my face as our family jeepney raced along Marcos National Highway at one hundred kilometers per hour. My ears felt like ice from the gusty morning air. The silver unicorns galloping through the set of springs on the bonnet of our jeepney were somehow energizing me, as if telling me: “Look at us, bro, we run and gallop when we are told and we have no problems, ha-ha-ha.”

Yeah, I wished I were a horse with wings. I wished I didn’t care about my sister.

At the front seat, Mother brushed Kitty’s hair with her fingers. Mother used lipstick to turn Kitty’s lips red, making her look like she had just sucked someone’s neck for fresh blood.

Mother’s eyes widened, staring at Kitty. “Make sure you kiss Gregory. Australians kiss when they meet.” Her right forefinger was nearly buried on Kitty’s chin. “On the lips, okay?”

“Mang, I hardly know him!” Kitty’s brows drew closer.

“What do you mean you hardly know him? You have been talking to him on the phone for nearly two years now. His bills must be as tall as Mt. Apo from calling you nearly every day, and you say you don’t know him?”

“Well, I haven’t really seen him yet. You want me to kiss him on the lips, no way!”

“Oh, Kitty, you’ll fall in love with him. He’s white, unlike us—dark. His color is pleasant. His nose is not like ours—pug. His lips are thin, oh, so kissable.” She giggled, sliding her shoulders to Kitty’s.

Father at the driver’s seat didn’t say anything, which might mean that he didn’t completely disagree with what Mother had said. This was odd.

Goosebumps ran along my spine in disgust after hearing mother. “Mang, he is as old as General Emilio Aguinaldo! And his tummy, a perfect cone like Mount Mayon.”

“Ah, shut up, Alex. I was only trying to welcome your sister’s future husband.” She straightened her cardigan. She looked at her face in the mirror, rubbing her lips together and making sure no lipstick stained her teeth. She clasped her small maroon bag as she wriggled her backside to sit firmly next to Kitty.

My sister’s lips protruded. Her nose was buried in her beautiful face as she pouted. It was the same look that she would have when we were young whenever her kite strings broke. The makeup and lipstick were too strong for her light features. She looked like she was going to participate in a streetdancing competition.

“God, help my sister,” I whispered. I felt like puking, but my stomach had nothing to throw up. I sighed.

It would still be a couple of hours before we got to Awang Airport in Cotabato City. The rusty ceiling of our jeepney did not hide the recent soldering of its patchy roof. We used it to transport tomatoes, bitter melon, live native chickens, eggs, firewood, and other farm products into town. It crossed creeks, got over bogs, and survived a recent terrorist bombing near Pikit Bus Terminal. Kitty argued that it was a lot safer for us to have our own transport than be at risk on public buses.

Behind the mounds of rice hay on the side of the road were fields reaching out to the horizon. The smoky air from the burning mounds filled my lungs. In the middle of the mounds was the pinkish ash we used to dig and sell at the market. People bought them for cleaning pots and pans.

On the other side of the road stood a cream-colored Iglesia ni Kristo church with its towering spires. Outside its fence, a man was grounding, his harrows pulled by a carabao. Then I was deafened by a loud cry over a speaker sitting on a mosque’s roof: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest, God is the greatest. Father’s speed reduced the voice into nearly a whisper: “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.” In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate.

Houses and people became frequent.

“Midsayap town!” Father announced.

Mother looked at her wristwatch, scanned the view, and said, “Perhaps we should stop for coffee, some ibos, and mangoes.” Ibos was a kind of sweet rice cake in rolled banana leaves.

Good, I was starving.

Mother’s heels burrowed into the muddy ground as she got out of the jeepney. Her slacks clung on her skin. She tugged at her pants that got caught between her buttocks. Kitty, in her short skirt, looked as if she was going to a nightclub.

I quickly ate my ibos and my mangoes and drank my coffee. Father and mother were leisurely peeling their ibos and sipping their coffee when I suggested to Kitty that we go for a walk to a shady Talisay tree.

“Ate, shouldn’t you be standing near red lights?” I blurted.

“Huh.” She tried to pull down her skirt. “And Mamang put some makeup on me. It feels weird.”

“She thought your face was a canvas.”

She laughed.

“Birds-of-paradise, chrysanthemum, and vanda abound in that painting.”

She laughed louder. “Don’t be silly. It’s not that bad, is it?”

“Well, the colors are strong.”

She took out a round maroon compact, opened it, and powdered her cheeks in a circular motion. “How do I look now?”

“You don’t look pretty with makeup on.”

“Shut up, Alex. Is it better or not?”

“Better.” I sighed. “Ate, I’d still look at you even if you had no makeup.”

“Well, I’m meeting my boyfriend.”

“Ugh.” I acted as if I’m puking. “That’s so disgusting. An old man, three times your age, big-bellied. He can’t even speak our language!”

“Alex, he’s a nice man. Don’t say things like that.”

I don’t know how to convince my sister not to meet this man. I shook my head. “Ate, you shouldn’t meet him.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I felt like banging her head on the wall so she would wake up to the reality that in a few years’ time, she could be widowed. Either that or she would have to live with a man who could be impotent, incompetent, or worse, incontinent.

“Alex . . .” She sighed, her eyes narrowed. “You’re getting boringly repetitive. It’ll be okay. He’s not the ideal, but he will do.”

“It sounds like you’re only going to use him. Besides, how do you know he’ll just ‘do’? You don’t know him that well.”

“Well, we’ve been talking almost every day on the phone for two years now. So I kind of know him.”

“Does he really know you? Have you told him everything about our family and our culture, that you eat and suck fish eyes, that you go to church on Sundays, that you give money to our parents, that you can be bossy in the house? Have you told him those?”

She dropped her compact on her lap and gave me a weird look. “Alex!”

“Ate, you’re only eighteen, and he’s fifty-four!”

“I know, and that’s enough, okay?” She was almost yelling. “Gee, Alex.” She shook her head and gasped. She then looked at herself in the mirror, lifting her chin, looking sideways and up. “Now, is my face better?”

“Yeah, Julie Anne San Jose.”

“Please, not a Filipino.”

“What’s wrong with Filipinos? We are Filipinos.”

“Just a preference, thanks.”

“Why?” I said, frowning, shaking my head.

Mother was waving her hand at us. Father was revving the jeepney on the side of the road.

The sign welcome to cotabato city nearly hit the front of our vehicle when we passed it in the curb.

The ground was patched with white rocks and pebbles, like we were driving on land dried up from an ancient seabed. As we went through the bridge into the city, my eyes rested on the floating water lilies on the surface of Rio Grande de Mindanao. Houses on stilts ridged the side of the river. In a house, a lady in malong was tipping a pail onto the bamboo floor, and the water in it flowed straight into the brown river. At a distance were boats, anchoring. Some of them were disgorging iron container vans, getting picked up by a giant forklift from the air.

A rhythm of gong and a high-pitched female singing voice dominated the surroundings. Father pressed the radio dial to DXOL-FM, and a popular song competed with the traditional Maguindanawon sound I would have preferred. I poked my head out, trying to hear some more of the gong and the lady’s voice, but Mother told me to duck my head back in if I didn’t want to come home headless. Men with Islamic turbans and amamahs walked about in the sun. Women with hijabs and malongs sat near pails of boiled corn on cobs and peanuts they were selling on the side of the road. A young guy in jeans and tight white shirt came out of the Mercury Drug Store, fixing his sunglasses and his amamah.

“He’s good-looking,” I commented. “Ate, why don’t you go for Filipino guys? Aren’t they good enough for you?”

“Alex,” Mother said, “if you want your sister to live in dire poverty, then yeah, find her one.”

“So, Mang, is it all about money?” I retorted.

“What else is it about then?” Mother said. “Gregory is Australian. He must have money.”

“He told Ate Kitty one day that he is retired. That means he’s not working anymore.”

“That means he has money accumulated in his bank account.” Mamang shifted her look to the vendors on the side of the road, pretending that she was not interested in my arguments.

“But, Mang, that’s his money. As if he’d give it all to Ate when they get married. He’s not stupid. He’ll just use her.”

“Shush, Alex. Shut up!” Mother looked at me again with wide eyes.

I felt so disappointed. I sighed again for the powerlessness that trapped me. I wanted to do something but the force was way too hard to dispel, let alone to get into. “What is this, Pride and Prejudice? Incidentally, Ate Kitty, your name is in the novel. I now have something to talk about in our English class on Monday. And what about our practice of sending money home? As if Gregory would allow that!”

“You never know, Alex,” Mother said. “I will explain that to him when he gets to our house.”

Everyone seemed to be quiet for a while. Jeepneys never stopped honking. Wavy flags of yellow, purple, red, and green lined the streets, simulating the colors of the malongs women were wearing. Tricycles and bicycles crowded the road with jeepneys. The tropical sun burnt my skin.

Mother spoke: “He’s white, so their children should have long noses, thin lips, and fair skin. They will be beautiful.”

Heat ran through my spine at the repulsiveness of what Mother had just said. “So, children with pug nose, thick lips and brown skin are ugly?” I yell.

“Well, white kids are more pleasant to look at. They look clean.”

“Mang, are we ugly and dirty, then, because we have pug noses, thick lips, and brown skin?”

“No, Alex. I didn’t say that. I was only saying that if you look at children of people with fair skin, thin lips, and long noses, they look nicer. Nothing was wrong with what I said, was there?”

“Yes, there was, Mang. That was vile. You made me feel ashamed!” I shook my head. “You made me feel so small.”

“Calm down, Alex. You just misunderstood me. You’re making me sound like I’m evil.”

I looked the other way. The view of the towering sea rocks on the side of the road surprised me but not as much as what my mother had just said. It really bothered me. I wanted to say more. “That’s bullshit, Mang! What you said is completely unacceptable. You said we are ugly and dirty compared to the whites! And because I won’t marry a white person, I’ll have unpleasant-to-look-at kids! This jeepney might as well be blown away by a bomb. You guys don’t think!” I threw a punch in the air. “You are all a bunch of stupid idiots!”

The tires screeched. Father had pressed the brakes. “Get out!” he roared at me. “Get out!”.His lips pursed, he got out of the vehicle and walked toward me. “You insolent little prick, wishing death for us! Come here now!”

I slowly stepped out of the jeepney.

Mother looked worried. She got out quickly and held Father’s arm. “Rolando, calm down. It’s all right.” Mother cried. She knew how angry Father could get. He would not budge on anything.

“Pang, we’re running late. Leave it, Pang.” Kitty was nearly crying. She had clenched her fist.

Father did not heed Mother and Kitty. He undid his leather belt and lashed me, leaving a burning sensation on my arm and back. My body skewed away from the direction of the belt as he kept on whipping me. I bawled, and my hands went berserk in the air in my efforts to block belt.

Father stopped and breathed rapidly while looking the other way.

The pain pierced through my flesh, gritting, like a raw knife cutting me. My eyes narrowed as I breathed in. I was broken, knowing that my opinion didn’t count in this family, my own family.

“Don’t answer back,” Father said. “Don’t curse your parents no matter what. Don’t disrespect them. Do you understand?”

“Y-y-yes,” I managed to utter.

My tears blurred my vision of the Notre Dame of Cotabato for Boys school across the road. Luckily it was the weekend and classes weren’t on. I wondered what they’d think of me, a boy, crying, if they’d seen me. I also wondered what they’d make out of us, Father beating his howling son.

Father went back to the driver’s seat.

What the heck. I bolted across the road, careening in the middle of the traffic, zigzagging in between houses. My cheeks were shaking from the thudding of my feet on the rocky grounds of Cotabato City. Wind fanned me, cooling my skin. I didn’t know where I was going, but I somehow felt good running. I felt sick but quite energized by the escape from my violent father, racist mother, and dumb sister.

I saw a shadow in front of me—the bell tower of the Mary Immaculate Cathedral. I jumped over the fence and sat next to the candle stand; the heat of the candles exacerbated the pain of my lacerated skin. I entered the church, dipped my forefinger into the bowl of holy water, and made the sign of the cross.

I flicked my eyes to get a clearer view of the altar. The crucified Jesus was white, looking down at me with his long nose and thin lips. On the other side of the sacristy was the image of Mary Immaculate with white, tall nose, blue eyes, and blond hair.

“Are you okay?” A man in the white robe appeared at my side, a Filipino priest.

“Yes, I’m okay, Father.”

“Are you sure? You look distraught.”

“I’m fine.” I tried to hide my welts. I wiped my face with my shirt and cleared my nose. “Those statues . . .”

“What about them?”

“They don’t look Filipino.”

“Your point is?”

“They look so foreign, so unlike us.”

He nodded, slipped his hands into his pocket, and stood languidly next to me. “They are white. You’re right.”

“Why, Father? Did you want God to look more beautiful?”

“Why did you think so?”

I shrugged my shoulder. “Don’t know. It seems that people like white statues as they look more appealing than the brown ones.” I cleared my nose once more. “Is God really white? Have you tried putting Filipino-looking Jesus and Mary?”

“Do you think people would like that?”

“I think so.” I nodded. “I, for one, would love it.”

“By the way, why were you crying?”

I sighed. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

I lifted my shirt. I showed him my back and arms.

“Jesus!” He looked shocked. “Let’s go to the parish office and treat those. Who did that to you?”

I walked with him, hearing the hem of his robe rubbing his ankles. His leather sandals brushed the concrete. My stomach grumbled. I looked around. Would my family ever find me?

He waved at the two male teenagers carrying a miniature Philippine nipa palm thatched hut. “I’m actually changing the tabernacle of this cathedral into a traditional Philippine house design, and I hope people will appreciate it.”

“I think they will,” I said.

As he dabbed some cotton with Betadine solution on my wound, I told him what happened in my family. He listened intently. I felt a little bit better that someone cared, that someone was thinking my opinion had sense.

“Thanks for treating my wound, Father.”

“That’s okay, son. They should heal soon. Forgive your father, that’ll help.” He smiled.

“I’ll try, Father,” I said.

I decided to go back to the highway to find my family.